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James White (2015)
8/10
Powerhouse performances.
26 November 2015
Christopher Abbott and Cynthia Nixon have found fine homes on HBO screens. Abbott is perhaps mostly known for his role on Girls while Nixon will forever be a Sex in the City girl. Here in James White, they deliver perhaps their finest performances of their careers thus far. The film thrives off the compassion in their relationship and the way it tests James' love for his mother Gail, but unfortunately to the expense of what lies on the sidelines. There's an endearing affection between James and his best friend Nick, but it offers little backstory or arc, simply the type of wishful thinking support considering the situations. The film also lends an entire chapter to James growing close with a girl who becomes his girlfriend, but as soon as the film retreats back home to tend to Gail she's completely tossed aside as another periphery character.

That is part of the point though, taking care of her is all consuming and it contrasts the conditions of romantic love with the unconditional family love. Despite little dips into history, the film grew on me as it went on with Abbott impressing at every turn, subverting the brutish James to an empathetic son. Nixon does feel like she's trying too hard at first, but once the film submits to her and she succumbs to the worst of her cancer, she's as good as Abbott. Shot by the same cinematography as Son of Saul, New York is no less of a compelling setting than Auschwitz, focusing on intimacy with the characters, but again it's heart by choppy editing. The jump cuts give it a difficult rhythm to crack. It's limited and intense, and I certainly would've like a little more bittersweet hints at a future to really send the film home, but as an acting showcase James White is a powerhouse.

8/10
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Youth (I) (2015)
7/10
Lazy compared to The Great Beauty, but there are some merits.
20 November 2015
Paolo Sorrentino impressed in 2013 with his Fellini soaked The Great Beauty, I didn't think it would win the Oscar, but it did deservedly. That opened doors for Sorrentino to, apparently, make something in the a similar vein but with A-list English language actors. That may not have been the best of choices given potential career paths. While The Great Beauty is a gorgeous sprawling character study with vibrant ambition, Youth stops short of that standard. We have a similar protagonist with Michael Caine, and there's no-one better to sprout off a life's worth of wisdom like Michael Caine, but the spark is lost. The ego is still here but it's coming with a self-satisfied smirk with smug ironies.

For starters, it absolutely should have done away with the cameos and musicians and actors playing versions of themselves. It's a big mish-mash of short stories that dip in and out, and while their individual arcs are solid and easy, it's a short step where film can otherwise leap. It's not always misguided, but it's often lazy. That's not to rob the aspects the film does right. The musings on memory are interesting, especially coming from Caine and Harvey Keitel, though the metaphors are quite heavy-handed. It's relatable in its its glistening cynicism and that's potent where it could have been swinging for universalities. They are however, hollow revelations due to its lack of character work, but no less valid.

Caine is a reliable lead, though he doesn't have much to do until the final act. However, Keitel is a welcome highlight doing what Keitel does best when he doesn't have a gun in his hand. Rachel Weisz however, is very mishandled and it was very difficult to connect to her character when she's dialled at a volume the film doesn't tune into. Jane Fonda has a solid part as a diva, but it's far too on-the-nose, while Paul Dano blends into the background, besides when he puts on a Hitler costume. Visually it is underwhelming compared to The Great Beauty though some of the smooth tracking shots remain. The soundtrack is ultimately the factor that needed the most work. Youth has its hits and misses but it's generally easy-going enough to get by, if not nearly as profound as it thinks it is.

7/10
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Mr. Holmes (2015)
7/10
A pleasant and poignant stroll with Mr. McKellan.
20 November 2015
Since Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch donned the deerstalker hat in very separate and modern adaptations, there's been a resurgence of interest in Sherlock Holmes this decade. Mr. Holmes may be hitting what feels like a trend, but it subverts it enough to be interesting. Now we have a retired Holmes in his last years as he criticises the fictional depictions of himself. It manages to bypass something I find tricky about the Holmes concept - which is how arbitrary each case can be - by focusing on only the most important one. However, it has such a slight and friendly approach to this that it can't be as potent as it could be. Instead, it's better in its ideas than its execution. With Bill Condon's affable direction, Holmes' penchant for detail doesn't have enough weight.

Nevertheless, it was wise for Condon to drop his workman chores, such as helming the Twilight franchise a couple years ago, and go back to the elegance working with Ian McKellen offers him. The trio of performances in Mr. Holmes is its greatest delight. McKellen himself brings a sensitivity and wit to Holmes that's thoroughly welcome, while Laura Linney makes the best use of her character who could have otherwise simply blended into the background. Meanwhile, this is the year of great kid actor performances along with Abraham Attah and Jacob Tremblay as Milo Parker deserves a similar level of acclaim. He doesn't have to reach their heights, but he serves the film with wise skill. Paired with a great production, including Carter Burwell's score, Mr. Holmes may fall short of the peaks it could have traversed, but it's still a pleasant stroll.

7/10
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Victoria (II) (2015)
9/10
Pushing the limits in all aspects.
20 November 2015
In one single shot and one single take, Victoria covers a lot of ground – often literally – as it takes us on a tour of Berlin, its criminal underbelly, and the moral ambiguities of people in desperate situations. The production of the film is a story in itself, though one that many find detrimental to the fiction. Striving to have the film take place in real-time and choosing the early hours of the morning, Victoria does lend itself to little vivid backstory and few moments of breathing room when the narrative takes baby steps, awaiting the larger strides.

But as the stakes rise for the characters, it also rises for the actors and the crew to not make unsalvageable mistakes. Director Sebastian Schipper only shot Victoria three times, and it was that last attempt that had the dynamics that made the film come alive. While each actor and the cinematographer are clearly confident with their choreography, both in movement and in content, in the final film they blend vivacious spirit with careful efficiency.

On a routine night one, Victoria, a Spaniard living in Germany, bonds with a group of four friends, but is eventually recruited by them as an emergency getaway driver for a bank robbery. They then have to work together to deal with the swift justice of their sloppy escape. While its central robbery is just two minutes of its 140, Victoria does not waste any time thematically. Above all, it's a film about pushing limits. Of course, Schipper is pushing an extreme limit in ambitious film production, one that's only been available this past decade with digital possibilities. Meanwhile, Victoria is constantly pushing small limits herself.

While Victoria simply goes with the flow for the most of the film, drawn to the boys due to a lonely void she wants to fill as well as a desire to be accepted, it's one morally reprehensible act of taking charge of the situation in order to survive where the film comes to a thematic head. Do her actions make her morally corrupted? With the use of the media and witnesses, it studies Victoria from an inside and outside perspective. While the first hour or so of the film can strike impatience as it reveals little hints of the promised plot, the second half of the film is a panic- attack-inducing heart-stopper that more than makes up for the relative idling.

However, that sells short the magic of the first hour. Every performance is commendable the same way a participant in a long distance marathon has earned their medal. Laia Costa keeps her Victoria mostly reserved, playing off what the boys offer her, besides the film's emotional roller-coaster of a third act that's entirely piled on her. She does thoroughly impress in a stunning piano performance half-way into the film which I can only assume was on-camera and a result of Costa's own hidden talent as that would be hard to fake. The sound mixing of the film is its secret hero, as it also was for the clarity of Birdman.

Frederick Lau, Victoria's love interest Sonne, perhaps steals the show. He's one of those characters that at first you take an immediate dislike to due to his obnoxious personality, but as he peels back these human layers of Sonne, revealing a more sincere charm, we come to trust his attachment to Victoria as beyond obvious lust. The film feels out and unroots its emotional core between their romantic pursuit, along with ideas of Victoria's alternate life had she had a more fortunate past. Franz Rogowski as Boxer is the highlight of the supporting cast as he drives the story with unexpected sensitivity without overriding it from Costa and Lau.

Victoria will certainly draw comparisons to one-shot masterpieces Russian Ark and last year's Best Picture winner Birdman, but it that would be wholly unfair to pit them side by side. Birdman, like its content, is like a dynamic play; meticulously rehearsed, detailed, and gorgeously visualised in every frame and transition by Emmanuel Lubezki. Russian Ark is wide, expansive, and ambitious in different ways. Victoria is intimate and rugged, teetering on documentary-esque. The vibrancy of the performances and the meat of the story keep it from feeling amateurish, though they have to submit to the graininess of darker scenes.

However, cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grovlen, aptly credited first and foremost after the cut to black, always manages to find a well composed frame after any adjustment. The film offers something no other film can which is a sense of in the moment real consequences. The actors have to self-edit and let moments of comedy, drama, reaction and revelation flow into the next. In doing so, we get into the character's heads and mindsets, even if they're out of frame, more than if we had the fact that the actors are going home after this scene in the back of our minds. Instead, they have to deal with every moment they give and are given.

Victoria is one of the most pleasantly surprising marriages of style and substance, of which are both endearingly unpolished instead of overworked, that I've seen in a long time. It could be argued that it's simply a gimmick, though to its credit, it was conceived and shot before Birdman was released, but it's a film worth looking deeper at what it does in each of its moments. Despite having its collection of images within a single shot, it's an unforgettable experience where the intricate character details carved by the actors and Schipper are the moments that shine brightest. Exhilarating and tender in equal measures, Victoria is close to a masterwork and an experiment well worth uncovering.

9/10
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Sicario (2015)
8/10
Fighting fire with much more fire.
20 November 2015
While I was underwhelmed with Denis Villeneuve's Prisoners, I found his followup Enemy to be a much stronger and focused piece of work. Sicario may be the best of the trio, though it doesn't have the same intricate character work, opting to deliberately keep us in the dark. Instead, it's a fascinating morality study on how the U.S. fights fire with too much fire in the war against Mexican drug lords and criminals. It's more effective and thoughtful than the sloppy Zero Dark Thirty with the way it follows these ethical lines between the U.S. being just as bad as what they're fighting against. I'm not sure if its ultimate revelation works as well for me, and it can be a bit on the nose at times which breaks its expert subtlety, but it's no less thematically valid.

Unlike moments in Prisoners and Enemy, it demonstrates a great level of restraint that keeps a consistent level of tension aided by Johann Johannsson's ominous score and Roger Deakins reliable and crisp cinematography. That unease is often disarmed by Josh Brolin's breezy performance, who tackles this interesting balance between the lines of necessity and cruelty. Emily Blunt is the highlight of the film however, even if the film isn't interested in extensive character development, and gives a committed sense of vulnerability that drives the stakes. It's not all gloom fortunately, as writer Taylor Sheridan gives the ensemble plenty of wit without overdoing it. This is controlled and impressive work from Villeneuve, though it doesn't necessarily soar when it can.

8/10
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The Gift (VI) (2015)
7/10
Engaging and understated psychological thriller.
20 November 2015
Joel Edgerton seemed to have come out of nowhere when he made my brother cry with Warrior. He's having a better decade than most, even if the film's themselves aren't up to scratch, though he has been around for nearly 20 years including a forgettable role in the forgettable Star Wars prequels. In his first chance at the helm both writing and directing a film, The Gift is a promising statement for a focused creator while The Rover left a couple hints that this would be the case. Naturally, Edgerton himself is the best part of The Gift, with his role as the maligned Gordo haunting the film with his unassuming yet disarming presence. Throughout the film we feel like a voyeur peering into Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall's lives through his eyes.

As a domestic horror, or rather, a psychological thriller, Edgerton makes wise choices in giving The Gift a very understated approach. It's much more straightforward than I expected, while the music occasionally indulges in boiling our senses, it's otherwise held back and effective in its detail and slow unveiling of backstory. While it suffers to overcome solutions it doesn't consider, it instead chooses a much smaller scale to inflict its damage. It does a good job of showing a past coming back to bite the present as well as the influence of a rumour, or in its vengeance's case, persuasion. Bateman delivers one of the best dramatic performances he's given yet but Hall steals the moments in her nuanced unease. This is solid engaging work that leaves its paranoia stinging but a couple questions unanswered.

7/10
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Carol (2015)
8/10
Achingly tender romance about how love is a part of the human condition.
31 October 2015
It's an inevitability that Carol will face categorisation as an LGBT film, but that's not the limits of how it should be considered. It's simply a heartfelt and deeply human love story where the principle couple confronts insurmountable odds. In Carol's case, these obstacles are the prejudices of the time and culture they live in. The film frames this discrimination in a tangible and legal way, as the titular Carol is accused of a morally indecent lifestyle by her ex-husband in order to win custody of their daughter. The film isn't interested in being a courtroom drama though, instead focusing on the blossoming relationship between Rooney Mara's Therese and Cate Blanchett's Carol.

Todd Haynes is known for his heightened style that evokes the melodrama of Douglas Sirk, for instance. His 2002 film Far From Heaven feels plucked from the cinema of the 1950s. However, Carol is a film that feels plucked from the New York streets of the 1950s as the aesthetic here is surprisingly naturalistic. It doesn't quite breach a documentary-esque style with Edward Lachman's understated and pleasantly grainy cinematography, but it all comes organically and authentically with the elegant fashion of production and costume design and the atmosphere that its cold Christmas setting provides. It's a very restrained film – as there are only two particularly intimate scenes – but the film carries an air of sexual and romantic tension throughout.

As Carol, Cate Blanchett challenges her polar opposite and equally excellent work with Haynes as a Bob Dylan incarnation in I'm Not There here. By nature of the film's structure, the first half is in the perspective of Therese and the second focuses on the perspective of Carol. There's an interesting inaccessibility about Blanchett in the first half that draws you into Therese's infatuation. Mara, one of the most promising actresses of this decade since her small memorable part in The Social Network, uses her own reserved detachness – something she's been frequently criticised for – to her own advantage. To watch someone like Therese open up after being so repressed is thoroughly cathartic.

However, Blanchett whips the film from under her feet in the second half. She litters the first half of the film with nuanced hints and clues to her past desires, also communicating so much with very little. She's elusive, but Mara is a key source of intrigue at that point due to the honesty in her performance and unexpected dry wit. Once Carol is struggling to deal with her own internal conflicts, Blanchett is on fire and burns the house down with her ultimate rebuttal of the accusations against her. Kyle Chandler, her suffering husband soon to be ex-husband, shows such painful anguish in his brief outbursts. It's a measured performance that anchors the film and the stakes of the relationships. Every performance of the ensemble – from extras to bit parts – are delivering among their finest work.

It's an all-rounder in terms of Oscar-contention, with Haynes perhaps being a more likely bet for Best Director than the film is for Best Picture. Blanchett has won too recently but if Weinstein works his magic, Mara would be a strong contender in either leading or supporting. Phyllis Nagy will certainly duel with Aaron Sorkin in Best Adapted Screenplay, even if her work is more patient, while the production and costume design ought to destroy competition. A sure bet should be Carter Burwell for his beautiful score that sunk my chest with its few powerful notes. It's an achingly tender film that will be timeless, even if it doesn't resonate with everyone with such specificity. Carol shouldn't just be a statement for our time and a condemnation for past mistakes, it's a demonstration that love is a part of the human condition regardless of sexuality.

8/10
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Sunset Song (2015)
6/10
Suffers under Davies' jumbled approach, but Deyn's performance redeems it.
31 October 2015
Lewis Grassic Gibbon's 1932 novel Sunset Song is considered a classic of Scottish literature, and English director Terence Davies has spent 15 years bringing it to the screen. It's with a heavy heart that perhaps the sprawling and archaic epic may not translate to contemporary cinema. It's the story of Chris Guthrie in the early 20th century, a teenage girl (here played by Agyness Deyn) who suffers the changing rota of her family as they pass on or exit, ultimately leaving the farm to her tending. At first, it seems it's operating on a compelling contradiction that's rarely explored. While not only is a young woman's perspective in this time hardly considered on film, but it puts her in command, independent of a man's world while they were drafted to war. Unfortunately, it doesn't sing from that hymn sheet.

The biggest problem is that it seems to lack thematic consistency, or at least develop them with interesting contrasts. Its strongest idea is initially the passage of womanhood, but instead it's interested in vicious cycles. The first third of Sunset Song is a series of examples of pure misery as Chris suffers with little relief. Peter Mullan stars as her abusive father, clearly channelling Pete Postlewaite in Distant Voices, but without the dimensions. Mullan is perfectly capable of dominating the film like he's offered here, but Davies needed to give him more layers. As sources of misery are picked off, the second third is, delightfully, pure joy. Despite some obstacles, Chris thrives on the farm and begins a seemingly happy marriage with her brother's gentle friend Ewan. However, it's void of irony of what came before and what's to come.

The war comes. It whisks Ewan away despite his initial reluctance then his branding as a coward. With little prior hints, the film turns into a bleak anti-war film in how it destroys the fabric of families in spite of earlier strengths. Chris' brilliant triumphs as an independent woman do not overcome. A compassionate film would have left veins of bittersweetness within its rays of hope and despair, but instead it's simply flat, void of the expressionistic nostalgia that Davies has utilised before. Distant Voices, Still Lives – one of the finest British films I've ever seen – and The Long Day Closes, which I was less impressed with, both have exquisite photography, creating an ethereal atmosphere. The photography here is misjudged, being far too wide for an intimate film while its modern crispness makes it feel like actors playing dress- up in theatre. At least the locations lend themselves to the beauty when the camera is outside.

Not to rob the film of its brightest shining attribute though. Agyness Deyn as Chris Guthrie is absolutely incredible, carrying the film squarely on her shoulders. She's raw, committed and deeply expressive. While her character certainly needed more work, she's never dragged down by the film's shortcomings and elevates the film where it falls. The supporting cast doesn't quite have the same potency, but that's mostly due to Davies' overly simple handling of the material. Kevin Guthrie as Ewan has two interesting sides to his character to explore, as he starts kind but transforms into a man like Chris' father, but they're put beside each other. Those facets are finally blended, but by that point it was too late to redeem. Perhaps it was more powerful when the book was written in the 30s at the dawn of another war. In Davies' direction, the film is often either conventional in its domestic dramas or its a meagre attempt at those conventions.

Sunset Song does occasionally have ambitions beyond the grand struggles of the Scottish people in the early century. With Deyn's narration, it occasionally dips into profound ideas of her insignificance in the grand scheme of time. If delivered quicker, it could have made more of an impact. It also dips into the ideas of the relationship between people and the land as the land stays resilient while war takes people away. It contrasts Chris' own battered endurance with the land's bruises. As the film plays one note at a time, it's difficult to take anything pure away from it, but at least attempts are made and lifts it up from mediocrity. Perhaps this just wasn't the right source material for a film just over 2 hours long as it even suffers from its slow pacing. Davies has always focused on the past rather than the present, but perhaps his perspective is too ancient for cinema now.

6/10
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Room (I) (2015)
8/10
Moving drama that earns its sentiment. Larson gives one of the best performances of the year.
27 October 2015
Room couldn't be further from Lenny Abrahamson's last film Frank, a bizarre music-orientated comedy. Gone are the idiosyncrasies that made Frank wild and, for many including myself, compelling, instead we have a moving drama that earns its sentiment. The different approach is felt immediately as Abrahamson traps us with his two principle characters, Ma and Jack, in tight and sometimes oddly framed closeups. It's a somewhat clumsy execution to show the claustrophobia and intimacy Abrahamson wants to achieve as he uses Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay's faces as blank canvases, but the effect is thoroughly felt, and the film's following 30 minutes remain its best. The photography decides to take a step back, but it continues to catch that raw emotion.

The concept of a mother having raised her son in confinement then finally breaking free has many avenues to explore. Having not read Emma Donoghue's book, of whom also wrote the screenplay, I mostly expected a small scale -getting out of the eponymous room then reuniting and resolving itself there. Instead, the film goes further than I expected, getting Ma – also known as Joy, which is becoming a familiar character's name this year – and Jack back to her teenage home with her own mother. Then, in a way, it doesn't go far enough. But it's interesting to watch it play in its happy medium. It does rely on some key contrivances to get there, such as the kidnapper's wonky perception and ultimately not fighting hard enough when he could have, but that doesn't take away from the gripping escape sequence as the orchestra swells and squeezes tears from you whether you like it or not.

Room becomes a rehabilitation story as well as a discovery story, as Joy struggles to re-adapt to home life and Jack is seeing the world he only suspected but never imagined. The detail and convincing touches in Tremblay's performance are what make it special, such as the fact that Jack has never had to deal with stairs. The film is told mostly through his perspective, but it's not held as a consistent theme though that helps it be less on the nose. The first time Jack sees outside is not the first time we see outside. But it's still cathartic as we watch him finally see real trees and real telephone poles. While many can assume that actors as young as Tremblay, who was 8 when he shot Room, are coached through their roles then we can also assume he had expert teachers. He may not carry the gravity of the film throughout, but he nails the moments that count.

Brie Larson had not only shown potential but delivered the goods with 2013's Short Term 12. It's a similar environment here with devoted maternal instincts but this time it's pushed to the brink of her skills as an actress. She's drenched in this exasperation that speaks to years of exhaustion. In the tone of her primal performance, she paints a full rich portrait of Joy's whole life from her carefree teen years to her brutal capture by Old Nick when she was 17, to every little story and lesson she's told Jack. Joy's constantly revising the way she raises Jack and while there's bumps in the road, it's a complete picture of motherhood. She balances resilience and vulnerability, hope and dejection with a fine tooth comb. Most times she commands the screen and offers one of the year's best performances. It's a film about the harsh realities of growing up, operating for both of the main characters, and it's a very sensitive and emotionally potent portrayal.

Joan Allen, as Joy's mother, is heartfelt and shows unconditional love in a wonderfully nuanced way, whereas William H. Macy, Joy's father, is regretfully underused but doing the 'in over his head' thing Macy does best. From one domestic space to another, it's easy to wish it would spread its wings instead of remaining so confined. It's clear that recovery is difficult but there was a lot more ground Room could have covered. It loses a lot of steam after the escape, but at the very least it never loses my investment in the characters. It's not working on a defined timeline, or with hardly a goal in mind, so it leaves itself a little elusive. I was either ready to jump 10 years to see how they're doing or I accepted that it would simply end at a good enough point. Story problems aside, it's focusing on emotion, and while it may step into melodrama, it's always potent. It's hard to pinpoint Abrahamson's voice as a filmmaker exactly, and he might be a little overzealous with how he adapts his style so far, but he's certainly got the right edge.

8/10
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8/10
Heartfelt experiment.
27 October 2015
Right Now, Wrong Then is a film of two distinct halves. In 2 days of the life of a filmmaker, Ham Cheon-soo, in town a day early for a screening of his latest work at a local film festival. He meets a younger woman, Yoon Hee-Jeong, and immediately falls for her. She's an artist, and he views and comments on her work, then they go out to dinner where they drunkenly bear their souls. It results in an invitation to a friend's small party where a revelation embarrasses Ham to the point where they part ways on a sour note. He attends his film to a small crowd, conducts a hungover Q&A, and retires, walking away from the town for good. Roll title card "Right Now" rather than "Right Then." The film literally repeats from the beginning, erasing the first half. Like Groundhog Day but only a once-over, we get every scene again but from a slightly different wishful approach.

This second time the couple are honest, unlike the first time where Ham tries too hard to impress and Yoon retreats. Again, they fall in love, but given Ham admits to already being married, their feelings are mutual and emotional without being sexual. He may embarrass himself once more at the aforementioned dinner, but it does not result in a cruel parting, instead drawing them closer. It's a quaint experiment given the relaxed tone. The first half on its own is not a movie, and neither is the second. They're co-dependent to give the narrative meaning, but it's far from cinematic in tone. It's a filmmaker's revisionism of what could have been a perfect evening had the characters acted suitably. It's honest, rather than romantic – though the chemistry still bubbles in the air – and it's utterly bittersweet, in a similar vein to Before Sunrise, but strictly not Before Sunset.

It's my first film from Korean director Hong Sang-soo and ostensibly from his fans and critics, Right Now Wrong Then is firmly his style – including the Woody Allen-esque romance between an older creative similar to the director himself, and a pretty younger woman. The atmosphere is very modest with simple photography, though Sang-soo does punctuate some scenes with careful zooms. It's very easy-going filmmaking, and its concept makes the second half easier to watch because you know exactly where it's heading as it retraces steps while you have a sharp eye out for the subtle changes that make all the differences, but it doesn't beg you to keep an eye on every detail. Those differences aren't grandstanding though the narrative is clearly motivated by them. Sometimes a scene will repeat its approach entirely despite the previous scene being radically revised. It's trying to be very nuanced rather than having a 'sliding doors/butterfly effect' where causality makes the universe shift places.

Instead, the outcome isn't much different but the overall feeling is utterly converted. It's all down to the performances of its two leads, Jeong Jae-Yeong and Kim Min-Hee, to create that tone with their chemistry, who were most likely shooting both halves back to back, location by location. In both halves, Ham is still a jerk with a kind of irritating laugh, but all the characters are deeply human even if Sang-soo doesn't peel back their layers every time. There's a big heart buried in its very slight execution. However, Right Now Wrong Then is not necessarily about how honesty is a better policy – though Ham's harsh analysis of Hee-Jeong's art in the second half remains a sting that takes a long time to settle – but it's about how it's possible to love again. In this case, love doesn't have to be a complete turbulous affair, but it can still be a fulfilling and life-affirming night if approached accordingly.

8/10
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Green Room (2015)
7/10
Thrives on a sense of dread rather than subversive tension like Blue Ruin.
27 October 2015
Besides the notable cast, Jeremy Saulnier's Green Room is most likely closer to his 2007 horror comedy Murder Party than his sleeper 2014 thriller Blue Ruin. One of the most pleasant surprises of last year, it was very nice to see that Saulnier managed to gather up a follow-up in a relatively quick time – the gap from festival run to general release date notwithstanding. Green Room continues the vein of comically inept people in violent situations, but it's too crowded and lacks the subversiveness that made Blue Ruin so riveting. More characters means more bloodshed, but it uses that a crutch to get easy thrills rather than spending time getting us invested. Nevertheless, on concept alone it's destined for cult status, but lets hope Saulnier has a better idea up his sleeve next.

Set in a day or two on the frugal tour of a punk band – they appear to be entirely fueled on stealing gas from other cars – including Anton Yelchin, Alia Shawkat, Callum Turner and Joe Coe, they're very young, semi-talented, with a modest following but very little prospects. They're just in it for the thrill of the moment onstage. From a tip of a journalist after a gig is cancelled, they play a show at a neo-nazi venue just to get by. They tease the crowd with anti- white-supremacist lyrics, but they're in no real danger until one of the band members accidentally stumbles upon a murder in the bar's green room. They're held hostage, helped by a friend of the deceased played by Imogen Poots, until it becomes clear that the supremacist's only option – lead by Patrick Stewart – is to leave no witnesses and frame the band for everything. Cue a relentless bloodbath and a grudging cleanup.

While the first gore scene is certainly stomach churning, the film regrettably relies on a palpable sense of dread over taunt tension. Its ultimate payoffs just have shock value rather than anything more gratifying, thereby drowning out its small comic elements. This is a very familiar brand of storytelling, and Saulnier definitely raises it from feeling pedestrian but it doesn't go much further than that. For one, I really wish he had shot it himself. While Blue Ruin has much more patience, Saulnier's own photography in his hands boasted more cinematic shots than the most expensive and lavish blockbusters. It was vivid and atmospheric. Instead of atmosphere, we get noise in Green Room. He trades the camera to Sean Porter, who did an otherwise great job with this year's Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, but it lacks the contrasts and focus to make it as effective despite the abundance of opportunities.

The film makes a wise choice to give every character a hint of humanity, including the supremacists, as this could have otherwise been a very unsympathetic batch of characters to follow. However, muddy motivations make it difficult to latch onto anybody when a few odd decisions are made. Their mutual efforts to outwit aren't too witty. The dialogue needed a lot of work, since it wasn't interested in getting deep under the character's skin, or mostly shredded to give the actors more breathing room. It's still an engaging film at least. Blue Ruin's lead Macon Blair is an understated highlight, while Patrick Stewart clearly channels Heisenberg without forcing it. Anton Yelchin and Alia Shawkat are the least likely punk rockers, but the latter makes it work by being the entrepreneurial boss while Yelchin's vulnerability makes him a natural underdog. Imogen Poots is usually irritating, but is only mildly irritating here. Unfortunately, Green Room runs thin the further it goes along, and severely lacks the potency that made Blue Ruin a treat. It's an average thriller, but an above average horror film.

7/10
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8/10
Past and present flowing as one.
27 October 2015
Apichatpong Weerasethakul had been on my radar after the elusive critical praise for his earlier work that seem fit only for lists like They Shoot Pictures. He doesn't seem to satisfy general audiences in the same way, despite winning at Cannes for Uncle Boonmee. Ostensibly his most personal film, Cemetery of Splendour seemed like a good start. It was certainly an introduction to his ambiguity which Splendour indulges in at every opportunity. It's very rich with its themes, though you have to go with the flow on its spirituality, belief in past lives and superstition, but those themes don't necessarily feel like they string together. More knowledge on Thai politics, history and culture would certainly help to arrive at a concise interpretation, but it does have enough universalities.

There is, however, a fascinating way it contrasts past and present simultaneously. That's its best ambiguous angle. Each shot can be its own individual thought rather than giving myself headaches trying to piece it together. Weerasethakul at least has a wonderful sense of poetic composition and juxtaposition, his choice of a rainbow light aiding him in many senses. But besides the calm and often profound nature of the film, what makes it strike a nerve is the deeply resonating performance from his lead Jenjira Pongpas. She balances humour with empathetic emotion with nuanced ease and anchors the film in her relateability despite her unique situation with her tumurous leg. Cemetery certainly gives a lot to chew on.

8/10
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The Program (II) (2015)
7/10
Falls short of its potential but still mostly entertaining.
24 October 2015
On paper, the life of Lance Armstrong lends itself to a cinematic interpretation quite nicely, but The Program, Stephen Frears' restless, showy Armstrong biopic, feels undercooked and premature. Though Ben Foster's Armstrong jokes about Hollywood's plan for a movie about his life (complete with smirky mispronunciations of Jake Gyllenhaal), his against-the-odds underdog tale was never going to be the more compelling film compared to the true story. It's a small mystery as to why Frears decides to play the first half hour of The Program in such a headspace, urging us to cheer for an idealized version of the famed cyclist despite the inevitable mess that awaits us just around the corner. Such an unnecessary sprawl as we turn through a run-of-the-mill rise-through-the-ranks before the downfall is unkind to detail; instead, it feels like a compromise to make the whole thing go down easier for those unaware of the controversy, and thus the film is probably not quite as invested in the scandals in the first place.

Though The Program is clumsy in its execution and handling of loaded material, it nails its depiction of key moral dilemmas surrounding not just Armstrong's doping scandal that eventually stripped him of his professional accolades–including his seven Tour de France titles– but also effectively ended his athletic career with a worldwide ban from most competitive sports. If Chris O'Dowd's journalist, David Walsh, takes down Lance Armstrong, which he spends the majority of the film trying to do, he's taking down not only massive and respectable cancer charities associated with Armstrong, but also the integrity of the sport itself. The film acknowledges that most cyclists were doping at the time, but it tries to shave down its theme to that point while ignoring juicier social commentary regarding our misguided hero worship culture and how we react to the controversies. There's a lot of meat to chew on that remains untouched on the plate, but perhaps Frears already felt his hands full up with a narrative that's far more focused on the interplay between Armstrong and the man determined to expose his skeletons.

As Armstrong, Foster has the drive, the resemblance, and he can balance light and dark in a way that fits the conflicted tone of the man in reality and the fictionalized version of him. It's a shame, for the most part, that Foster tries too hard for too little payoff, almost desperately searching for Oscar clips, but it's John Hodge's screenplay that ultimately lets him down hard, indulging in trite lines that stick out. In a sense, it fits the Armstrong mantra to be over- rehearsed and only approaching an aura of naturalness, though it doesn't work for Foster. His performance here is similar to Anne Hathaway's in Les Miserables, but he's rarely offered the emotional potency to justify his tone. It's still good work, he's just operating on a different gear to everyone else when he should be leading the pack. While the tone of the film feels like easy resort, at the very least it does a good job of showing the gravity of Armstrong's actions and the gravity of Walsh's accusations.

While Foster may falter, The Program boasts a strong ensemble overall, which also includes Dustin Hoffman, Lee Pace, and Jesse Plemons. O'Dowd made his name in the tongue-in-cheek TV riot The IT Crowd, but he's hard to take seriously in dramas or comedies in both America or Britain. He consistently feels like a novelty more than a talent. Here, he's toe-to-toe with Foster and showing his dramatic potential. While he has one note to play (determined exasperation), he plays it well and pleasantly engages us. Plemons has another underused snitch role to play (to reference his brief turn in Black Mass this year) and brings that same quiet menace that made his Todd on Breaking Bad so magnetic. It's also nice to see Denis Menochet, most memorable in the opening of Inglourious Basterds, to have a meatier role spread across an entire film here as Armstrong's trainer.

Despite its shortcomings, The Program is still largely entertaining, if not enthralling, which it earnestly tries to be. The whiplash editing of its various race sequences would have worked had the film itself been gunning for a darker subtext, but they're left to hang on the screen and thrill in the moment. The film's lowest point, however, is its on-the-nose rota of soundtrack choices. It feels too needy, whereas the rest of the film can get away with what it's doing. Unfortunately, the film's narrative ends far too early. Anyone who has seen Alex Gibney's excellent The Armstrong Lie knows that there's an extra side to the story, and a compelling third act that The Program isn't interested in digging through. In fairness, it's not trying to be "that movie," but what it does dramatize is mostly good enough.

7/10

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High-Rise (2015)
8/10
Ben Wheatley's visionary potential blossoms with High-Rise.
21 October 2015
After director Ben Wheatley showed what he could do on a minimal budget with A Field In England, Sightseers and Kill List, it's a relief to find that not only has he not compromised his style but he's completely blossomed. Trading the inherent conditions of fields for the pristine and organised production design a bucketload more of money and studio time it grants him, we have a director completely in their element, not only proving their potential but showing room for more growth. Granted, with Wheatley's version of his vision it's unlikely he'll break into the mainstream, but the in-built cult audience will go a long way. Along with its satiric Gilliam-esque atmosphere, High-Rise is incredibly British, but despite my lamentations of what a recent conventional British film tends to be, this is the type of film we deserve.

The source material was written in 40 years ago by J. G. Ballard, and adapted here by Wheatley's wife Amy Jump, this film makes no updates to its period, contrasting the retro mid-70s vibe with their modernistic ideas for the time. The concept of a microcosm of society to demonstrate social unrest between classes is a well-worn idea – High-Rise may find a very close cousin in last year's Snowpiercer – but this is one of the more direct and slickly executed interpretations of the theme, only treading on the brink of science-fiction. It does run the risk of being far too on-the-nose, contrived and repetitious, but Wheatley's spark for surprises never leaves his grasp, justifying it with the heightened tone. It's blood-soaked, alcohol-fueled and nicotine- injected mayhem that doesn't hold back. With an array of characters, some compelling and some not, it still gets you invested in them and their impending doom in spite of how much they gleefully indulge in their primal survival instincts.

Of course, the building is also a character here. We rarely step outside its view besides occasional glances at Tom Hiddleston's Dr. Robert Laing's commute and office. When we do see outside, the desolate horizon makes the building feel like a haven. The tower block is ideally a self-sustaining society. It has its own shopping market, its own gym and own swimming pool for instance, ostensibly open to anyone, but a privilege that can be taken away without warning. It's a new building, settling into its foundations, but it's seen as a way of life for many, working and living within its walls. While the doors are always open despite the eventual chaos, it's clear that the characters are systematically trapped in the tower block and wholly dependent on it. Not only trapped inside, but to their individual floors, as their stifled economic situations won't allow them to ascend.

As the lower class lives in near the bottom and higher class lives near the top, a poor distribution of power cutting the bottom half off is a catalyst to upset the peace. However, given the contrasts between their two lifestyles – both of which we're given a peek through with Hiddleston's neutral audience surrogate – this clash is treated as an inevitability waiting to happen. The narrative is loose as it follows its vast ensemble, but the primary conflict emerges between the brute Richard Wilder, played by Luke Evans, a volatile spokesman for the lower class determined to expose the violence through a documentary, and the creator of the building, Royal, played by Jeremy Irons. While Hiddleston's Laing finds balance in the middle – despite taking some desperate means – his skills and seeming peace are seen as the solution to many, most importantly to those on the sinister higher levels.

While Wheatley had to deal with what he had use for his previous films, a near limitless pool of resources colours High-Rise with slick cinematography and production design. It's a surreal atmosphere, quite Burton-esque without taking it to those various extremes, with its idyllic arrangements but still with undercurrents of dread. It's a boxed in world without sunlight and while everything is laid out for the characters, there's a sadness in that trap, even in the early blissed out stages of the film. The tight editing is complemented by Clint Mansell's captivating swirling score, though it does tend to get lost in its own montages. We often get disconnected from the characters and there's one dramatic leap in the narrative told through clips that may have been better sought through a finer focus. It's adamant to show us everything rather than hint. The film also relies on a lot more special effects than expected, and while they're not exactly perfect, they fit the old-school mood.

Tom Hiddleston gives one of his best performances I've seen so far. He's not stealing scenes like Loki, but instead showing this relatable hollowness with his half-hearted conformity. He's well measured in how much to express, most often breaking down in isolation, but is mostly an introspective slate. However, the real scene-stealer in High-Rise is Luke Evans, an abusive misogynistic character you love to hate at first but his determination for a more respectable quest slowly grows on you. He's got the most developed and complex contradictions of the ensemble – a fighter and an artist, and a violator and a lover. His force is similar to Robert Carlyle in Trainspotting. Sienna Miller and Elisabeth Moss are tender highlights of the supporting cast while Jeremy Irons brings his reliable theatrics when necessary. Some may feel battered over the head by High-Rise, many will find it enthralling and profound. While it's thematically hardly new, the incisive execution is the ideal package and an example for the best of contemporary British cinema.

8/10

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8/10
Virgin Mountain warms, melts and crushes your heart.
21 October 2015
Dagur Kári is one of the most talented Icelandic directors of the century. His gorgeous and tragic 2003 debut feature Noi the Albino is one of my favourite films, not just of its year or the last decade but all-time. He followed it up two years later with the very good but not quite as memorable Dark Horse, shot mostly in stark black and white. His first English-language film featured a L.I.E. reunion pairing Paul Dano and Brian Cox in The Good Heart in 2009, but unfortunately to tepid reviews. Back behind the lens and in Iceland, he returns to the roots of Noi, another titular film (the original title is Fúsi) about an outcast maturing onto the next step of his life. Trading a rebellious troubled teen for a 43 year old overweight man yet to move out of his mother's house, Virgin Mountain mostly conjures the same magic as it brings back a similar style of filmmaking. Coming home one day to find his mother having sex on the counter just adds insult to Fúsi's injury of his arrested development. In his forties and still a virgin, he's nestled deep in his routines, rarely drinking anything stronger than milk and still buying toys. At first the film feels like a cautionary tale on the other end of the scale of Noi, where that film is about someone too defiant, and this is about someone too closed off from the world. Virgin Mountain isn't interested in stopping there, however, pushing Fúsi further. He's an airport luggage handler who's never stepped foot out of Iceland nor taken a day off and faces bullying from his co- workers everyday, even when it appears that they're trying to help. He's not friendless however, as he has a friend who plays model WW2 scenarios with him, as well as a young neighbourhood girl who bonds with Fúsi out of their mutual loneliness. In order to remove him from his comfort zone, his mother's boyfriend gifts him line dancing lessons as a present, initially as a joke. He almost attends but chooses to sit it out in the car park. Upon hitting a blizzard, the film introduces an irresistible meet-cute where he gives a lift to another loner, Sjöfn, who in turn gives him a chance like nobody else does. It sparks an invaluable friendship which both opens Fúsi's heart and willingness to grow. However, the more he learns about her, the more it begins to test their hope. As it's revealed she suffers from depression, and ostensibly bipolar disorder from her ups and downs, he offers wonderful acts of kindness as he cares for her even though she pushes away and he perhaps oversteps his bounds. His understanding of her mental condition is the soul of Virgin Mountain, and it's a contagious sentiment. While an established archetype, we rarely often get overweight introverts leading films, and Gunnar Jónsson as Fúsi delivers it with such endearing sensitivity. Fúsi's few mistakes that get him into trouble are heartbreaking to endure as he's otherwise such an empathetic character. Kári's exquisitely written script has a keen sense of repetition to keep the film thriving on its limitations. As we revisit restaurants, Fúsi's car, the line dancing class, and Sjöfn's driveway, Kári creates a delicate shorthand to give emotional punches right away with subtle changes. Even when it hits story goals, it does it in an understated way that gives way to bigger character ambitions. I wish it didn't resort to certain clichés at times – most specifically the bullying – but it knows how to handle them with sincerity. Like Noi, it's photographed with a set of beautifully vibrant yet muted colours, though its composition isn't quite as controlled as the 2003 film, allowed to be a lot looser. The same goes for the somber soundtrack provided by Kári's band Slowblow, who also did the work for Noi. This might not be the most flattering love story, but it's human, and the hope extends beyond instant gratification. Virgin Mountain is lightweight, but deeply bittersweet and personal in every corner. This is the type of film America doesn't allow itself anymore. 8/10
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Son of Saul (2015)
9/10
László Nemes' modern masterwork dwarfs every other film on offer.
21 October 2015
You cannot take the Holocaust lightly in film. Some have tried, but it fails. László Nemes' Son of Saul takes the Holocaust very seriously. Instead of recounting it in a sombre documentary-esque way such as Schindler's List or even the gut-wrenching approach Alain Resnais takes to Night and Fog, we are utterly present in its unpredictable and relentless horror. While most Holocaust films struggle between their representation of order and chaos, often deciding to switch between the two when necessary, Son of Saul finds the ideal balance, showing these small shards of order within the chaos. The most fascinating idea of its premise is to show the prisoners appointed with the tasks of guiding victims into the gas chambers, organising their belongings and then cleaning up after them. It's a well oiled and melancholic cog, while we know every hard effort to scrub and pull is in vain as their eventual death is only postponed and not evaded.

Saul, played by first-timer and established poet Géza Röhrig, is one of those Sonderkommando prisoners forced to work towards the Final Solution. Our narrative follows him for only two days, but that's all we need to know to get a gruelling snapshot of his minute-to-minute struggles. When a boy nearly survives the gas but is pronounced dead shortly after, Saul recognises him – at least on some level, as it's never clear if the boy is his kin or not, but it is apparent he never took care of his own when he had the chance – and takes him as his son. To himself, he insists on giving his son a clandestine burial which must be officiated by a rabbi. Salvaging the body, locating a rabbi and performing even a small burial is near impossible despite them being in essentially a mass graveyard. Meanwhile, his peers are plotting an escape along with destroying the crematorium and will require Saul's help. However, he cannot assist both futile missions simultaneously.

The film has an incredibly unique approach to the concentration camps. Shot on a tightly framed 35mm hand-held camera, the photography is almost always focused on Saul, leaving the atrocities offscreen or out of focus, but often vividly audible. If there is any complaint, it's that the editing suffers from its long-take construction, but the sound design is an absolute masterclass. Saul's face remains stoic but Röhrig soaks it all in, leaving his mournful expression to interpretation. While he's apparently numb, he's always fully invested in the moment. No scene is quite as hard-hitting as when we watch Saul listen to the screams of people dying in the chambers while he waits outside their doors. It's his one break from being forced to work, and he'll immediately have to remove bodies when it's finished. The way the film builds these routines are very intimate and exhausting and despite being a fictionalised story, it feels very real. Those rituals of removals and cleaning are contrasted with the Jewish rituals that guide their faith, and especially Saul's burial plan.

But beyond the intense yet ambiguous horrors that show the cruellest side of humanity there's ever been in the modern world – despite us never getting close to a Nazi beside brief encounters – the film finds its emotional core in small gestures of compassion. Nobody is required to help Saul, especially in knowing the dangers involved, but there's an unspoken bond between every prisoner to help one another regardless. When he finds the rabbi who agrees to perform the service, it's not powerful because they've been stripped down and Nazis are murdering new arrivals around them – nothing compares to the experience of this scene – it's powerful because the rabbi says yes in spite of that. If they can redeem one shred of morality, it is a small victory and triumph of faith. Saul never lets go of that idea, even when he risks sabotaging the escape mission inadvertently. His mission to bury his son becomes increasingly arbitrary, but never without redemptive merit on a grand scale.

This is an astounding debut film for László Nemes on every level. Even a seasoned visionary director would struggle in such a precise execution. Having worked for the excellent Hungarian director Béla Tarr, his influence is clearly felt here. Tarr also uses long shots and utilises impassive protagonists but Nemes' work is much more dense, engaging, and arguably accessible in its own way but mostly for the immediate empathy the situation earns. While it matches Tarr's poetry, it's a lot more theatrically dramatic. Every one of the supporting cast is on a razor's edge though they never outshine the constantly pushed, pulled, and shoved Röhrig. He need not step in front of the camera again after this soon to be iconic accomplishment. The film's power is immobilising and thoroughly unforgiving, but with good reason. Son of Saul, with its immaculate production, attention to detail, and own noble mission, is not only one of the best of the year but one of the best of the decade. Despite its small scope, it dwarfs every other film on offer this year.

9/10

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8/10
Dense, absurd and profound. The first part of Arabian Nights is its highlight.
17 October 2015
The pressures of the social obligations from the recent Portuguese economic crisis in how to approach this loose adaptation of "One Thousand And One Nights" cut deep into director Miguel Gomes. He satisfied his anxiety by including his own personal struggle with a humorous twist in the first thirty minutes of his sprawling 6-hour Arabian Nights. Spliced between dual documentaries about a shipyard closure and wasp exterminators, Gomes – appearing on screen – literally evades his camera crew while they take chase. His nerves reflect the angst of the Portuguese people, but his eventual resolve in ultimately completing the film is a promising hint of hope, at least in a way to defy the government.

The opening of each volume of Arabian Nights – entitled "The Restless One", "The Desolate One" and "The Enchanted One" respectively – begin with a direct message from Gomes to establish what to expect, as well as to provide a pseudo-mission statement. It declares how this is not a direct adaptation despite drawing on the structure and the vignettes are based on events that happened between 2013 and 2014 where Portugal was 'held hostage' by its negligent government. The film always appears to have one step out of its fiction, but it's justified by its documentary prologue. The framing for the format, something that should be somewhat familiar to most, shows a Queen called Scheherazade who has to tell her King compelling stories and cut them off at night to ensure he wants to hear the rest of the story the next day to evade him killing her, and thus future Queens.

In adapting the spirit of the classic set of tales, it gives Gomes the freedom to explore different types of styles going from fantasy, to documentary, to fiction, to docu-fiction, and sometimes blending them together. As each story isn't firmly attached to a single protagonist, the film frequently has irreverent tangents with subplots briefly taking the foreground. While people may be on screen without an arc, it's a clear goal of the film to show how each individual has a rich full life with their own dramas that affect others too. It turns these modern day struggles into myths – and also shows how those myths are worthy enough to engage a hypothetical King. In employing non-actors, it continues to blur that line between fiction and nonfiction and makes Arabian Nights a film for the people while the subdued emotion of them soaks through.

Despite initially intended to be a single 6-hour feature, each of the three volumes are quite different in style and quality. The first volume is dense and absurd, both the most inaccessible and accessible part depending on how you feel about Gomes' approach. It's rewarding for those willing to traverse it. After introducing the values of the film with the opening documentary and the concept for its format in showing Scheherazade and her people coming up with the stories, the first vignette is the most bizarre and perhaps immature given the weight of the film. It travels with a group of impotent capitalists who are cursed with permanent erections and how that affects their attitudes to how they influence Portugal's financial. It's hilarious and thoughtful, showing just how on-the-nose but equally on-point Arabian Nights is willing to get. Volume 1's energy and unabashed direction earned a grin on my face whenever it wasn't documenting distress.

The following vignettes include one about a talking cockerel who's a controversial point in a town as he crows loudly in the early morning, though his intentions are to warn about wildfires, and another where a man disgruntled by the economy and arranges other unemployed people to join in a New Year's Day swim in the ocean as an act of defiance against the government. Each person tells their story – or their story is told by Scheherazade – and their hardships of their money going to waste are easy to empathise with, especially if you've experienced dejection such as they're facing. Like his masterful previous film Tabu – a diptych of sorts while Arabian Nights is a triptych within a triptych – this film also has an old-fashioned style. It has the rawness and vibrancy of the films of the 70s, though that aesthetic may not be as deliberate as Tabu's 1930s style.

See the other volumes for the rest of my review for Arabian Nights.

8/10

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Black Mass (2015)
7/10
Great material delegated to an engaging but generic execution.
17 October 2015
Announced as Johnny Depp's comeback venture en route to Oscar glory, it's a such a shame how underwhelming Depp is in Black Mass. In the past decade since his last best turn in Sweeney Todd, he's often overcooked roles catering to his arsenal of tics. Here he's more restrained, but while the material offers a clear and enticing character arc, Scott Cooper's approach regrettably blunts that down. Black Mass is simply aiming to be a boilerplate Boston crime drama, as carved by Scorsese's The Departed. It's solidly made, but it's more or less a series of neat murders. Makes it hard to really invest in any character. It's otherwise engaging just to watch it unfold despite clichés, though it's littered with missed opportunities for how taunt it could have wound things. Depp's Whitey Bulger is often sitting with the enemy, yet it treats it as any other scene.

Perhaps that's just part of the point, as the film operates on the macho code of loyalty, and how fragile that truly can be when crossed. It should just be like any other scene. While that theme comes through, the characters don't. At least it has an interesting structure with how it's framed through men informing on Bulger while the main narrative is Bulger informing for the FBI. Meanwhile, the supporting players far outshine both Depp and Joel Edgerton, who unfortunately overplays his hand while Depp stays relatively reserved. Peter Sarsgaard, Rory Cochrane, Juno Temple and the underused Jesse Plemons all make larger marks, leaving Benedict Cumberbatch and Kevin Bacon wishing they tried something else. The production is solid, though the wigs and makeup can be distracting at times, especially when it comes to Depp. Engaging enough, but I'm definitely not visiting Boston anytime soon.

7/10
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The Martian (2015)
8/10
A contender for Ridley Scott's best since Blade Runner.
17 October 2015
In 1979, Ridley Scott made the quintessential space film with Alien, and he hasn't topped it since, though he ventured back into space earlier this decade with the intriguing prequel Prometheus. It didn't scratch that itch. Just 3 short years later, that itch is now thoroughly scratched with The Martian. Uninterested in indulging in mysteries, The Martian is focused on a series of compelling obstacles and just as fascinating solutions. It's much more of a procedural picture than conventional sci-fi, more in line with Apollo 13 than Gravity. Despite its length, the pacing never dulls. It's not too far from the derided The Counselor in tone, but this benefits from a more lightweight approach.

Sometimes we'll leave a set of characters for a long time, the film just trusts that we can imagine what they're thinking and feeling and it results in a much fuller picture. This is clean and refreshing filmmaking. It utilises some very American themes of redemption and the idea that everyone can be saved and it's wonderfully cathartic. It's rock and roll science with sharp wit and and sharper brains. Matt Damon gives one of the best performances of his career bringing effortless gravitas where it may have otherwise been neglected along with an easy- going sense of humour. The quality of the production itself is stellar, thriving on having few locations to deal with. The Martian is far better than I expected, and maybe Scott's best since Blade Runner.

8/10
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7/10
Admirable ambition, occasionally misguided.
17 October 2015
Mountains May Depart starts on perhaps my favourite opening shot of the year. Kicking it off with the Pet Shop Boys' vibrant song "Go West," we're straight in the middle of a dance routine with a room full of people clumsily bopping in sync. It's infectious and filled with unbridled hope and joy. Unfortunately, it's downhill from here, though the film is never aiming for the same type of exuberance. I'm not familiar with Jia Zhangke or his following – Walter Salles apparently has a hotly anticipated documentary about the director at this festival – but Mountains May Depart seems like an endearing and accessible introduction. Telling three stories in three separate time periods, I do enjoy the way it explores causality in how these small relationships and dramas at one time can feed into a dilemma 25 years later.

The first story, set during the turn of the century in 1999 when Chinese capitalism was healthy, follows a love triangle between Tao, an aerobics instructor, Zhang, an egotistic entrepreneur, and Liangzi, a man who works for Zhang. The three hang out as friends but Zhang can't bear the idea of Tao getting close to Liangzi and despite emotional logic, it's social economical pressures that make decisions. Cut to 2014, Tao and her beau have divorced and she's now estranged from her son. Upon the death of her father, her son is forced to visit and she must make the decision of how connected she should be to him throughout his life. Then off to an imagined Australia in 2025, her son doesn't remember her and currently struggles with his relationship with his father where they now have a language barrier. With the help of a teacher he grows attached to, he goes in search for Tao.

Each section of the film is approached in a different way, reminiscent of the way last year's The Grand Budapest Hotel and Mommy played with ratios. The first section is a tight 4:3, the second is a full frame, and the third is widescreen. However, these feel like they represent the period and the environment moreso than the character's emotions, with exception to the mid- section, which ideally captures Tao's regret and longing. It's a mixed bag depending on the talent, with some tender moments landing strong and some clumsily misguided, the latter most prominent in the last section. That first section has a bait and switch for the decades long heartache that the seemingly innocent love triangle causes. The theme of how people drift apart no matter how close they are resonates but it's unbearably melancholic without Zhangke offering much of a satisfying a silver lining.

It's a shame that despite the film's strengths it has too many loose ends and unnecessary moments that don't appear to add to the character arcs or the themes. With a 25 year story like this where no single character carries us through the whole film, every moment has to count to something. There's little justification as to why the third section is in glorious widescreen and set in Australia, but perhaps this just speaks to how disconnected it is from the rest of the film. While mostly drenched in Chinese culture, I wish Zhangke didn't resort to certain American clichés such as sad montages of characters having deep thoughts set to music. However, with those time gaps, Zhangke does harness a powerful nostalgic through just a few song motifs carried through all three sections that are well executed. Both disarmingly simple and complex, his ambition is admirable, but it doesn't quite reach the potential that this expanse allows it to travel.

7/10

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7/10
Stellar performance from Robin Weigert.
17 October 2015
Before Hollywood gets a chance to remake Thomas Vinterberg's The Hunt word-for-word, independent American cinema can enjoy Matt Sobel's deep south take on how false accusations tear people apart, and ultimately reveal psychosexual secrets. Trading a teacher for gay teenager Ryder, played by The Stanford Prison Experiment's Logan Miller, and a student for a younger female cousin Molly, played by Louie's Ursula Parker. It focuses its story across a pair of days instead of several months. Take Me To The River has an interesting angle as Californian Ryder has been suppressed by his parents to keep his secret in the closet for his conservative Nebraskan family – an otherwise easy answer to explain how he would not have abused Molly, but one with its own dangers as they ostensibly would not accept him.

Perhaps Sobel winds his film too tightly as this dilemma unravels before 15 minutes are up and we've had a chance to get under its skin. He demonstrates strong direction and I would've welcomed more patience. Such efficient economy in storytelling leads it to feeling quite contrived and stilted to reach the necessary dramatic assumptions. Although Robin Weigert's performance as Ryder's mother Cindy thrives under the weight of the situation, the bigoted uncle Keith, played by Josh Hamilton, the primary source of aggression here, suffers the most to meet Weigert's calibre. Nevertheless, it's still a compelling sequence to behold, and the film conjures that same boiling frustration of a false accusation that The Hunt achieved through much of its narrative that makes you want to wrestle the ignorant people.

It's a shame that the film struggles to establish a single confident tone but could've easily be improved by dipping onto one side. It unfortunately doesn't equate to complex contradictions, but instead indecision. Deeply unsettling or somewhat farcical, richly composed or raw and naturalistic – it drifts somewhere between those tones and results in a film much more lightweight than it could have been, and much less organic than it could have felt. This is especially to its detriment with a shorthand that could have come with more maturity. The supposed flamboyance of Ryder creeps through via his bright red shorts, but outside of the film's hints that doesn't necessarily mean he's gay unless they had prior suspicions, of which don't appear to be shown. Missed opportunities aside, it's a tense film that bubbles with dread right up to its disturbing revelation. It's got very interesting tools to diffuse and raise its tensions.

Deadwood's Robin Weigert shines as the frequent voice of reason, filled with nuance and anxiety as she tries to protect her son in both productive and unproductive ways. The West Wing's Richard Schiff, playing Ryder's Dad, doesn't get enough to do and essentially shrugs his way through his performance, but amicably. Miller doesn't quite have the convictions to stand out among his supporting cast and also appears on the fence about the realism and hyperrealism as Sobel does, but he sees his way through the film. It's Ursula Parker who continues to boast her talents she's shown on Louis C.K.'s show, giving an utterly effortless performance. She has a bright, bright future. While not as fully formed as it could be, Take Me To The River is a solid and promising debut that will certainly connect with a passionate niche.

7/10

Read more @ The Awards Circuit (http://www.awardscircuit.com/)
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7/10
Nothing you didn't already know but works as a good highlight reel.
17 October 2015
As someone who doesn't live in the USA, I've never actually watched a full episode of Saturday Night Live, with exception to my curiosity for the 40th Anniversary Special. I'm very aware of it of course, and I support the concept, it's a blank canvas where comedians, both actors and scribes, can throw anything on the wall - no holds barred - and see what sticks. Many of SNL's prized cast are among my favourite comics and I've certainly watched a couple sketches along with their influences. At 80 minutes, it's a shame that Live From New York couldn't decide what it wanted to be. Is it a making of document? A chronicle of its rises and falls? An essay on the controversies? A reflection on 40 years of pop culture and politics? A big pat on the back? Well, it's a little bit of all five, just the flavour and not much of the meat.

Nevertheless, it's still an entertaining package and it breezes by pleasantly. It doesn't quite have the gull to pry apart the issues as it comes from the mouth's of its relative A-list subjects. Pretty much everybody, including me who never watched it, had a hunch on all the points it has to make anyway. After a fifteen minute nostalgic dip into its creation it heads straight into the problems in diversity, both sexism and racism. It acknowledges how this is an issue with the entertainment industry in general, then we're right into how SNL shaped America's opinions on politicians. It's a superficial take on important problems and quite jumbled, but it's best for a highlight reel of their most iconic moments. Unlike other venues, it feels like watching them for the first time.

But in the face of all the issues and concerns, the main question is always 'is it funny?' and Live From New York shows the endurance of their sharpest timing. You'd think they might have a bit more to show, but it does skip a lot of eras. Not a frame of Adam Sandler for instance, among others I can't recall off the top of my head. It's brevity, which almost feels like it's trying to fit for time in a TV slot, does make you question why it's showing what it's showing as opposed to anything else from the wealth of material. A daunting task I'm sure, so Bao Nguyen at least did a decent job of pulling something together. At its most striking suggestion, it considers how SNL reflects past, present and the future in pop culture, with its cast full of potential. Despite the ego-stroking, you can't say it's wrong, nor was putting SNL together easy.

7/10
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7/10
Underwhelming compared to Volume 1.
17 October 2015
While I was enthralled with Arabian Nights' Volume 1, unfortunately the spark is lost for Volume 2, which is Portugal's submission for the Oscar in Best Foreign Language Film, but despite the trilogy's acclaim, it feels like a long shot if they're truly vying with this one. Anyone watching it as a standalone feature will struggle to go with its flow, and anyone who didn't like Volume 1 will be hard pressed to have their minds change. Its biggest problem is that the first two vignettes are tedious, void of the potency of Volume 1. One we follow an old man off-the-grid evading police, and another is a surreal courtroom sequence where we vaguely learn the hypocrisies of the system how everyone is guilty of some kind of criminal act. Considering the concept of the film is that we have a string of stories that are supposed to hook you in so much that you want to hear how they end, these two do not live up to those expectations.

Inspiration seemed to be drained at the halfway mark. It's redeemed enough by the final tale, though it's still one of the weaker vignettes across the three films. It justifies the quiet restraint of Volume 2, which is perhaps why Portugal felt it would be more digestible to the Academy, though this one is still a little too loose. At the very least, it connects it back to the hardships of the everyday people as a lovely stray dog is passed around a tower block until each owner can no longer afford to look after it. Gomes employs more flourish that he had on full throttle for the first volume, with a Wes Anderson-esque tour of the block and its residents, finally bringing this volume back to life. Perhaps Gomes had a realisation about the repetition of the structure of Volumes 1 and 2, despite those early surprises, as Volume 3 takes things in a different direction.

See the other volumes for the rest of my review for Arabian Nights.

7/10

Read more @ The Awards Circuit (http://www.awardscircuit.com/)
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8/10
Brings the spark back after Arabian Nights lulls at Volume 2.
17 October 2015
I loved Arabian Nights' first volume and found its second underwhelming in comparison. Fortunately, that spark comes back. On a profound note, the story doubles back on itself as the first vignette focuses on Scheherazade for the first time since the first hour. Like with director Miguel Gomes' earlier appearance, it studies the struggle of having to constantly tell these stories and the limitations that gives her life. However, the film continues on with a story, one which carries the bulk of Vol. 3, as we look into the hobbies and competitions of Portuguese goldfinch keepers, a group of macho men devoted to pushing the envelope with the bird's ability to sing complex songs. While a fine art, it suggests a forced evolution as the finch is noted as the starting point to Darwin's Origin of the Species theories.

This portion is the most reliant on text rather than voice-over as it elaborates each man's life story while showing their diligent focus on raising the birds. They're not working for money here so it's a refreshing break for showing a bigger purpose than employment. Meanwhile, the story takes place for over a week for Scheherazade and it expresses her increasing exasperation silently, mirroring an exasperation with the economic crisis. This volume is perhaps the better made version, with a stronger soundtrack too, though my preference is to Volume 1's unbridled wildness and creativity. This would've been a finer choice for the Oscar submission if Volume 1 wasn't an option. Overall, Arabian Nights is mostly entertaining and always thoughtful, and a much breezier trilogy than one might expect, despite the problems with the mid-section. Many may find it self-indulgent on Gomes' behalf, but for what he's achieved, it's thoroughly warranted.

See the other Volumes for the rest of my review for Arabian Nights.

8/10

Read more @ The Awards Circuit (http://www.awardscircuit.com/)
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7/10
While the film is hit-and-miss, Ralph Fiennes is a total riot.
17 October 2015
While she rests her voice after throat surgery, a David Bowie-esque rock legend, Marianne (Tilda Swinton), and her documentary-filmmaker boyfriend of 6 years, Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), relax in the remote Italian paradise of Pantelleria. Her record producer, mutual friend of both and former flame of Marianne, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), brings his estranged daughter, Penelope (Dakota Johnson), to spend time with the couple and, mostly, interrupt the vacation. Tensions flare as Harry's ulterior motives to steal Marianne back after having 'given her' to Paul, while Penelope's relationships with her father and Paul come into question. Jacques Deray adapted this story once before in his 1969 film La Piscine, but Luca Guadagnino's 2015 iteration relies on its sharp sense for revelations of secrets and lies to draw us into its narrative and wrap us up in the impression of its characters. It works for the most part, but largely due to the efforts of the talented, committed cast.

It's films like A Bigger Splash that make us appreciate the largely underserved Ralph Fiennes. He showed comic potential as another Harry in In Bruges, and just last year his dry wit anchored the ensemble cast of The Grand Budapest Hotel, but he's a riot in A Bigger Splash. Having not seen any of Guadagnino's previous films, I wasn't expecting this to be so playfully comedic at first as it initially focuses on the awkwardness of the situation. Fortunately, as most of this is sourced from Fiennes's boorish behavior, he absolutely radiates off the screen, singing, dancing, and frequently stripping bare naked to swim. While this wouldn't have gotten Oscar attention even if it were still scheduled to release in 2015 with a more forgiving release strategy, a consecutive Best Actor in a Comedy Golden Globe nomination wouldn't have been out of the question, as Fiennes is hitting a new stride this decade which, somewhere down the line, should equate to the awards momentum he rode back in the 90s.

Tilda Swinton, an equally reliable talent, nearly measures up to Fiennes, but her character calls for a dialed-down approach that she's cut her teeth in already. As her character recovers from throat surgery, she's a near silent participant in most scenes, except when it's absolutely necessary to whisper or in its few and admittedly unnecessary flashbacks, which just paint what we already suspected rather than tell us anything new. Even silently, the nuances on her face are expertly controlled and she is the key to the balance of the heightened tone and raw emotion of the film. Matthias Schoenaerts and Dakota Johnson, this decade's new kids in town, are certainly out of their depth compared to Swinton and Fiennes. While Schoenaerts appears convincingly irritated, he doesn't have the conviction to hit the high notes his character requires later. Johnson is firmly on the sidelines for the most part, but given a better film than Fifty Shades of Grey, she's guilty of chewing on every juicy line she gets to the point of indulgence. Both are mostly good, but notably outshined by their experienced counterparts.

However solid its cast may be, the film does struggle with a choppy edit. It's littered with distracting continuity errors, unnecessary jump cuts and unmotivated closeups and push-ins– the latter being mostly on delectable food and, of course, pools of water, though this may just be flourishes of Guadagnino's typical style. It captures the therapeutic atmosphere of its environment, and with the frequent nudity by its main foursome, the sensuality far outweighs the darkness that unfurrows in its latter passages. It takes a big leap of faith in its third act but it mostly suffers from a lack of conclusiveness than its thrills and tonal shift. While the entangled web of these characters' pasts is intriguing and engaging, it doesn't appear to have a consistent point to make outside of the nature of temptation and recovery, two well travelled paths. A Bigger Splash is ultimately a mixed bag of hits and misses, but it'll find a passionate niche that will embrace it for its more tantalizing sequences.

7/10

Read more @ Serving Cinema (http://www.servingcinema.com/)
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