Monday, 20 February 2017

Free in Deed

Free in Deed is certainly a tough film to watch. Exploring themes such as religion and special needs, writer, director and co-editor Jake Mahaffy does not shy away from controversy. In a raw foreword, recorded on skype for Glasgow Film Festival, he simply encourages viewers to disconnect from personal opinion and to embrace the ideal that the film does not reflect his own personal views. An opening statement that felt like he was making excuses for creating the film which I felt was unnecessary considering the film itself is unapologetic. Starring David Harewood, this film depicted the loss of hope, faith and life in way that has me distracted even hours later. 
The film documents the life of a young woman and her two children, one of whom has Autism. Based on actual events, she turns to her local church and it's resident healer for help with her son. The film explores the unfortunate trend within some religious communities of using exorcism and spiritual healing to cure individuals with special needs. The 'storefront church' trend that is sweeping American small towns promoting local bishops and 'healers' and the depiction of the dangerous and in the case of Free in Deed deadly consequences of using these practices on young and disabled children is central to the film. The continuing rise of disenfranchised masses who have turned to religion to both heal and revitalise their lives is worrying from an admittedly privileged point of view. But understanding that millions of people do believe that God is the answer to their problems and that devoted worship will result in physical manifestations of God's love in return is key to understanding some of the wider social issues that are taking hold of America today. In a world that is currently so lost, is it bizarre to look for a higher power to right our wrongs? This film is a brutal display of a popular belief system in central bible belt America and other countries.

A film without a glimpse of hope in any of it's characters lives, Free in Deed strikes a particularly heart breaking tone in it's depiction of Melva's young daughter. Not only does she witness the cruel exorcism sessions but she mimics them with her doll and sits angeliclly, unaware of the implications of what she sees. From a film making perspective the deliberate and unashamed guiding from the cinematography was especially interesting. It has some of the most obvious displays of forced attention I've seen on screen in a long time and was cleverly utilised to show focus on the power of belief. This was particular choice resulted in what felt like slow paced film that had been weighed down by its heavy subject matter. The use of quick cuts and slow motion to emphasise the slow passage of time and draw in audience attention only heightened the tense atmosphere created by the plot. 

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Berlin Syndrome

Admittedly my favourite film from this year's Glasgow Film Festival, Berlin Syndrome is frightening, stressful and intriguing. It's the sort of film that Taken wishes it could be and that Room tried to portray the aftermath of. Director Cate Shortland has really outdone herself in creating a film and characters that oozes tension and discomfort. The plot follows Claire, an Australian tourist, as she finds herself being held captive by her one night stand, Andi. Teresa Palmer leads a cast of practically two. Her sunken eyes and greasy complexion is a far cry from her recent role in Hacksaw Ridge. I'd like to think the transition from love interest to lost hope was a conscious decision. She stars opposite Max Riemelt who is the epitome of disturbed and confused evil. This is the first film I've seen Riemelt in but he has appeared in an array of, mostly German, TV movies and films. 

Full of unanswered questions the film alludes to the mysteries behind kidnappings and abductions. The audience questions throughout about Andi and who he kept before. We are never told what triggered the escalation in behaviour or even what role does the lack of a mother play in Andi's condition. The film does not shy away from it's title's similarity to Stockholm Syndrome. Particularly topical these days with the reboot of Beauty and the Beast next month. After his father dies, Andi leaves Claire in the apartment alone with no power for multiple days, with the exact time scale not determinable. When he finally returns the two have a moment of mutual dependence on each other with Claire seemingly willing to be intimate for the first time since she discovered she was trapped. This scene is the moment of transition for Claire from fighting to flee to fighting to survive and unfortunately, surviving the scenario involves accepting the role she plays in his life.

The time scale, as hinted at above, is an underlying theme in the film. With most of the film playing out during an unknown time scale, with the exception of the clear Christmas and New Years Eve scenes seen later in the film. This is an interesting approach that was perhaps used to be a commentary on the time spans that abductees are kept and how they can often be unaware that months and even years have passed. With any good abduction story, the most compelling scenes are the attempted escapes and moments of possible rescue. Each scene gets within arms length of freedom before the story is pulled backwards as Claire is literally pulled back into the apartment by Andi. As a self confessed fan of all things horror, tension building and fear inducing, I'm embarrassed to admit that I've never felt physically sick from the tension in a film before. Berlin Syndrome did just that. I left Screen One of Glasgow's Film Theatre and was happy to walk home in the fresh air in the hopes my stomach would stop doing summersaults... and yes, that was a subtle reference to Cate Shortland's other fantastic drama Somersault from 2004. 

Sunday, 29 January 2017

La La Land

Like many others, I’m sure; this review begins with a clarification. No, more a resigned confession: I’ve never been one for movie musicals. There have been some exceptions every now and then, including but not limited to Moulin Rouge, Dream Girls and Chicago. Despite the varying quality of those examples, nothing has ever been able to shake my innate prejudice. I spent the opening logos of La La Land braced to cringe, waiting for the spasm in my gut and the embarrassed shiver to cross my cheeks.

For those of you who’ve been living under a rock since the film’s first appearance at the Venice film festival, Damien Chazelle directs Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as Sebastian and Mia, two California dreamers who begin to fall in love after a chance encounter on a busy highway. Seb aspires to open his own Jazz club (in order to save what he sees as a dying genre), and Mia, a wannabe actor, is desperate to escape her life of serving coffee to the inhabitants of the Warner Bros. backlot.

Yeah, I’ve never found myself attached to the glorification of  the grand heritage La La Land is so clearly besotted with, but the two sequences paying homage to Rebel Without a Cause caught my attention. In relation to Gosling, I suppose I should put another of my long-held prejudices to rest. While his woozy eyes have understandably wowed many, to me his expression has always appeared vacant, almost detached. In Shane Black’s The Nice Guys, this worked wonders, and here, too, his hazy gaze speaks to something authentic: the far-reaching mind of a dreamer.

In contrast to the stark colours, the morality of the story - of Seb and Mia’s victories and sacrifices - is far from black and white. I’m pressed to label it ‘earnest to a fault’…Chazelle knows we’re too cynical to buy a total lovesick ode to Tinseltown right now, so peppers the sweet with spice. I could understand why the film makes certain moves towards the flip-side of fairy tales but found that the nostalgic undertone of the film as a whole reeked of insincerity.

An ear-worm of a soundtrack, astounding visuals, 'loveable' stars and a surprisingly textured narrative - it's no wonder why Hollywood is praising this film. It's everything the industry loves - itself! Personally, I think I would enjoy the film more on a second viewing but can't seem to find the time to suffer through it all again.

Sunday, 8 January 2017


Morten Tyldum’s new film offers neither acid-bleeding monsters nor iron-fisted galactic empires, but the simple passage of time. Chris Pratt stars as engineer Jim Preston, one of five-thousand passengers of the starship Avalon, your bog-standard ark-in-space vessel designed somewhere between a wind turbine and the Endurance ship from Interstellar, with constant malfunctions. One of these glitches raises Jim too early from a hypersleep to which he cannot return, leaving him with 90 years alone, and long dead before the Avalon reaches its destination. After a year spent luxuriating in the more premium areas of the ship and pondering his plight with Michael Sheen’s legless robo-barman, Jim forcibly awakens fellow passenger Aurora, played by Jennifer Lawrence, for company, knowing full well that he is denying her a future. The question soon becomes a matter of what will shatter the couple’s serene sham of a relationship first: Jim’s secret or the multitude of problems plaguing the ship?

That all sounds very complex, but, essentially, it’s two very attractive people on a very attractive spaceship living a very attractive lifestyle surrounded by very attractive production design, backed by a very attractive score. Any intriguing or challenging ideas raised by the undeniably creepy premise are soon buried beneath its super-shiny surface. It’s a shame, because Tyldum’s dealt with somewhat subversive material before and come out on top.

Now, I'm as happy as anybody to watch Pratt and Lawrence swanning around ludicrously pretty sets, going on space walks and going on dates to see Michael Sheen, but, let’s be honest, both of them could have done this in their sleep: he’s very good at looking a bit smug and cuddly, she’s very good at crying in despair. By the film's very nature as multiplex fodder, there's no need for either to do much besides 'be themselves, but in space'.

And yet, I still feel a little let down by both, Pratt in particular. I’d really love to see what he could do with something outside his recently acquired comfort zone, but once again I’ve been left wanting. The first third of the movie is Jim by himself and just when things are looking suitably grim, Passengers wimps out and Jim’s obsession with Aurora is played for an ‘aww’, not an ‘eww’. Just when you think a discussion on male entitlement or the definition of murder is rearing up, it cowers instead. 

So, if it’s no good as a moral treatise, does it work as a cheerful holiday sci-fi? Well, the special effect set pieces are nice and the climax survives with minimal eye-rolling sentimentality, but a top-notch Thomas Newman score aside, there’s nothing that original going on, with many sequences feeling like half-hearted impressions of better movies. In a serious error of judgement, Tyldum attempts to evoke both Interstellar (time as the enemy, the psychological effects of being alone in space for years on end) and Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (the transit of a spaceship across the sun, only here it’s less reflective pause, more date night). It’s a collection of sci-fi bits n’ bobs slotted together into a uniformly attractive whole that trades darkness and debate for smiles and CGI.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Star Wars: Rogue One

Rogue One follows the events leading up to A New Hope, in which a desperate Rebel Alliance attempts to steal the plans for the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star. Felicity Jones stars as Jyn Erso, a galactic delinquent with a familial tie to the Empire and a habit for disregarding orders. As the film progresses, she reluctantly amasses a band of heroes including disillusioned Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook, Alliance Captain Cassian Andor and his sardonic droid partner, K-2SO, plus monk/warrior duo Chirrut and Baze. Ben Mendelsohn plays the increasingly infuriated Director Krennic, whose connection to the Erso family provides the starting point for the story. Forest Whitaker also appears as frazzled extremist Saw Gerrera.
It's character relationships helps Rogue One forge its own identity within the larger series and sell the apparent futility and hopelessness of an ailing resistance. While there is solid content beneath, it felt rather difficult to get to: a somewhat thrown together first half meant that initial character interplay was rushed, which makes seeing them as anything more than another set of archetypal action figures a little difficult. Of the bunch, Jones, Ahmed, Yen and Luna provide the most rounded personalities. Those with the least to prove (Ahmed and Jones, arguably) still give everything. 

There were rumours of re-shoots intended to lighten the tone or bring the spirit of the film back in line with the other episodes. The Force Awakens may be a more structurally coherent film, but this is a very different beast; a war movie more than a fantasy. The spectacle of Stormtroopers getting thrown about in huge explosions is followed by a grimace and a burst of dirt and shrapnel rather than a punchline. Humour is present of course, thanks mostly to K-2SO’s delivery, but it’s less a continuing gag and more a reprieve. The grit and the grime is tangible. Rogue One is most definitely a Star Wars prequel not only in the chronological sense, but also with regards to its risk-taking, its attempt to re-invent the series, and an insistence on blurring the line between physical and digital filmmaking.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Independence Day: Resurgence

“That is definitely bigger than the last one” states Jeff Goldblum glumly, as a ginormous alien craft sweeps over the lunar surface, wiping out a large human moon base. In one line, the purpose of Independence Day: Resurgence is revealed: less a joyful return to a fondly remembered sci-fi than it is Roland Emmerich’s attempt to score another blockbuster, after his sorely misjudged gay rights drama, Stonewall, burnt up on re-entry.

Twenty years after humanity banded together to avoid annihilation in 1996, the flying saucers are back. Only this time, David Levinson (Goldblum) and co. have advanced alien tech on their side. Ex-President Whitmore, played by Bill Pullman, is plagued with visions of the returning aliens. Whitmore’s daughter, Maika Monroe replacing Mae Whitman, has resigned flying duties, but her fiancĂ©e, Jake played by Liam Hemsworth, remains in space operating moon tugs alongside wise-cracking co-pilot Charlie, Travis Tope.

Before long, the aliens (responding to a distress call from a long-dormant craft on Earth) show up again with a ship large enough to cover the entire Atlantic, crushing our reconstructed landmarks in a sequence that reprises the ‘WOAH!’ factor of the original incredibly well. People can say what they want about modern day CGI, but when it’s picking up the entire city of Dubai and dropping it on London, it’s hard not to be swept up in the spectacle.

The problems, however, arise soon after. In the first film, mass calamity was a wake-up call to humanity that we needed to put aside our differences and fight as one, inspiring the next generation as we went. There’s little of that here: the destruction is over as quickly as it’s begun, and barely a tear is shed. When the heads of state are wiped out and a new President played by William Fichtner is ushered into presidency, his speech to mankind is a hollow shell of Bill Pullman’s original ear-scorcher, whilst a small group of kids who survived the initial attack are too busy being shepherded about on a school bus to be inspired.

There’s no other way of putting it: there are way too many characters in this film. Asides from the members of the original cast that stuck around, we’ve got Charlotte Gainsbourg (looking like she got thoroughly lost on the way to another set but was too polite to leave) as a clipboard-saddled scientist, Jessie T. Usher as Dylan Hiller (son of Will Smith’s character, who passed between films) and Deobia Oparei as a Central African warlord who delivers what turns out to be the be-all, end-all of alien invasion countermeasures. The film spends so long introducing and arranging this overflowing bucket of action figures that the middle act and finale pass by in a flash.

Of course, this wouldn’t be a proper 21st century franchise nostalgia trip without a sledgehammering of call-backs and references to the original, but even they feel half-hearted at best and misjudged at worst. This is not to say Independence Day: Resurgence is completely devoid of new ideas: there’s a bonkers revelation that makes the prospect of a third installment intriguing rather than off-putting, but it’s too little, too late. 

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them

This new yarn from J.K. Rowling is akin to retreating from 2016’s horrid winter into an old blanket. It’s warm and cosy with familiarity, but the loose threads are becoming more obvious, and the cold still seeps in through little holes. Eddie Redmayne stars as magizoologist Newt Scamander with a case full of, you guessed it, fantastic beasts. The contents of the case are let loose on 1920s New York, where Scamander is befriended by wide-eyed ‘nomaj’ Jacob Kowalski, played by Dan Fogler, and hounded by plucky ex-Auror Tina Goldstein, played by Katherine Waterstone. As the trio scurry around in an attempt to return the creatures safely to the suitcase, another kind of sorcery stalks the streets. A dark force is causing calamity, and the Magical Congress of the United States sends the mysterious Percival Graves, the frightening looking Colin Farrell, to investigate. A second Salem movement is also on the rise, and, within its ranks, a reclusive teenager, played by Perks of Being a Wallflower breakout Ezra Miller, secretly rebels against his oppressive mother.

The film eases you into the flow with a good helping of earnest adventure before the underlying plot strands begin to convalesce. Much like the later Potter films, Beasts strikes a good balance between child-like immersion in the sparkling spectacle of a magical world, whilst still drawing out the darkness inherent in that universe. The production design alternates between gloomy, effervescent and gothic, and it’s very hard not to be won over by the overall aesthetic of the film.

When any franchise enters a new era, there’s always a great deal made of ‘bridging the gap’. With Newton Howard providing the musical connection, the character who guides us through is not Redmayne, but Miller, playing the sunken-faced and scary-haired Credence Barebone. Carrying more than a little Draco Malfoy in his glare and posture, he works wonders with a subplot that is occasionally misjudged in its intensity. The Potter universe is no stranger to darker themes (each film after Prisoner of Azkaban thrived increasingly on this), but the shadows here exist outside the wizarding world, in a place that feels all too real. The entire arc of Farrell’s character is revealed the instant we see his haircut, but he’s clearly having good fun. He certainly draws a far more rounded character than his nemesis, Newt; a Tumblr fanfic creation brought to life. Any investment we have in our heroes is channelled through Dan Fogler. His performance carries nuance, genuine emotion, and charm that doesn’t require a single wand wave.