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Wednesday, 8 March 2017

MOONLIGHT. FILM.

Moonlight will now always be famous as the film that won the Oscar for Best Picture, at the second attempt. The calamity of the Oscars is now well-known; La La Land was mistakenly announced as the winner, the error was noticed while the wrong producers were giving their speeches, and the cast and crew of Moonlight came to the stage to accept their prize.


In fact, it is interesting to note that the disastrous Oscar mix-up contained far more narrative tension, plot and surprise than the whole of the winning film – Moonlight – itself!

It is a story set in an African-American community in Florida, and is divided into three parts, covering events in the childhood, adolescence and adulthood of the main character, Chiron. Chiron is a skinny, quiet kid, and an equally skinny, withdrawn teenager. He is bullied in school, and has a drug addict for a mother.

Things change when we see him in his twenties; Chiron now looks like Fifty Cent, and is selling drugs to make ends meet. He reconnects with a childhood friend of his, who he had his first gay experience with as a teenager.

And that is basically the plot. The film is not designed to have a lot of twists and turns, or to provide plot points and surprises. It is a character study, an examination of a gay man in an environment that does not accept this identity.

Yet, if a film lacks plot, it has to have something else to make up for it. And Moonlight does not have that something. The scenes of bullying have been done many times in a thousand high-school movies and TV series. The drug addict mother has been seen many times before too, and done much better in shows like Friday Night Lights.

It is intensely slow, but it seems to mistake slowness for profundity. It is also intensely miserable, unremittingly so in the first two sections, and begins to feel a little manipulative. Look, the film is saying, look how terrible it was for him, how awful. Feel bad, feel bad! At times the story seems to revel in all of the misery, bullying, sadness.

It is the kind of independent film that you might see in a Film Club or in the Irish Film Institute; slow, low-budget, no explosions or car chases or crimes of passion. And there is a place for this type of film, and they can often work. But this one does not. It seems to believe that it is giving a powerful, unique message to the word, when in fact it is full of clichés and stuff we have seen before. It mistakes misery for meaning, slowness for intensity. It is, in fact, quite tedious to watch.


It is no surprise that the Best Picture Oscar would go to a mediocre film; there have been plenty of dud winners in the past. The reviews for this movie have been almost universally positive, so my opinion is something of an outlier, but in this case, I think, the emperor definitely has no clothes. Give me La La Land any day.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

OSCAR FILMS 1 - THE REVENANT and ROOM


THE REVENANT

In this film Leo di Caprio plays Hugh Glass, the man who will not die.

The film is set in the American West, in the 1820s. Glass is a guide in the wilderness, charged with leading a group of trackers around the brutal landscape of Montana.

He is attacked by a bear, gravely injured, and eventually left for dead by the people charged with taking care of him. He spends the rest of the film simply staying alive, kept that way by thoughts of revenge.

In fact, pretty much all Glass does throughout the film is not die. There is no real substantive story, apart from that. He finds many ways to avoid dying, has adventures and meets people along the way, but in essence this is a story of bare survival.

The landscape is another character in the tale, the brutal, snow-battered country in the mountains of the American West is the backdrop for Glass’s feats of staying alive. It was apparently filmed in all natural light, and does look impressive, at times breathtaking.

And yet, the film is a tale of a superhuman feat of survival, a story of an ordeal. And at times watching the film itself is a bit of an ordeal, it is intense, bloody and violent, and after a while a little tedious. The unremitting misery and danger that Di Caprio’s character goes through is impressive at first, but soon becomes repetitive. One near-death experience runs into the next, until it all seems a little samey.

Makes an impression, but all the snow and ice and not dying gets old quickly.

ROOM

Room, on the other hand, is remarkable. It is a gruesome story too, a tale of horror and fear and survival. But it is so much more than that.

A young woman is kidnapped by a man when she is seventeen, and imprisoned in the shed in his garden. He has a security system set up so that only he can get in and out.

After two years she is impregnated by her captor (who she calls Old Nick), and has a son. And this son, Jack, grows into a little boy, whose whole world is Room.

The first half of the film is set in Room, and is as claustrophobic and anxiety-producing as you would imagine. Ma (Brie Larson) and Jack’s whole world is in that five metre by five metre space, they have no contact with the outside world. The sense of threat and imminent violence builds with each visit by Old Nick to their room, and Ma is on the verge of cracking.

And then, through small acts of heroism by both of Ma and Jack, things change. And when they change they change utterly. The captured girl who Jack knows as Ma now has her identity returned to her, and is called Joy again by parents and friends. And this is where the movie expands and grows, just as Joy and Jack’s world expands

The whole experience of watching this film is extremely powerful, just as the experiences portrayed are so profound and effecting. It is impossible to be unengaged watching these two people dealing with massive trauma and then the world opening up.

The story itself is extraordinary, but the treatment of it, by Irish director Lenny Abrahamson, is careful and subtle and, in the end, massively powerful. An engrossing, overwhelming film.

The Revanant will win Best Picture at the Oscars, there is nothing more predictable than the Academy recognising something as grandiose as Iñarritu’s film. But Room is the movie of the year, streets ahead of Di Caprio and his stubborn insistence on staying alive.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

THE HATEFUL EIGHT. FILM.

Ross O’Carroll-Kelly, comic creation of journalist Paul Howard, has a son who has been involved in various nefarious dealings. The son, Ronan, has a friend from the Dublin underworld known only as “Buckets o’ Blood”.

“Buckets o’ Blood” could easily be Quentin Tarantino’s nom-de-plume. Inevitably towards the end of his latest film, The Hateful Eight, the set and all the characters are bathed in spurts, floods, puddles, marshes and swathes of the stuff.

It is a pity that he seems to think that now has to stick to some kind of formula. Lots of talk, shady characters with dark pasts, more talk, some action, more talk, insults, conflict, action, then gunfire, stabbings, poisonings, blood, gore, blood and more blood, and then some more blood.


It was shocking and thrilling twenty years ago with Reservoir Dogs, now it’s just predictable and tedious. And it is a pity, because Tarantino is a masterful filmmaker in so many ways, and The Hateful Eight is intriguing and compelling and impossible to ignore until the scarlet denouement.

It is a number of years after the American Civil War and bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russel) is taking his prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh, fantastic in this, just nominated for an Oscar) back to Red Rock to collect his bounty. On the way he picks up a couple of strays, including Tarantino regular, Samuel L. Jackson, as Major Warren, also a bounty hunter.

They all end up lodging in Minnie’s haberdashery, an inn in the Wyoming wildlands. A blizzard starts up and they are shut in to the inn, along with another four suspect characters, including one who claims to be the hangman of Red Rock, the one charged with the execution of the bounty hunter’s prisoner.

And this is where the film really gets going, as Samuel L. Jackson’s former Yankee Major confronts a Confederate General who was responsible for the massacre of a battalion of black troops during the war. We soon see that pretty much all of the characters, as the film’s title suggests, are violent and suspect in their own way, all with their own brand of dark secrets.

The action develops, and picks up speed as a poisoner gets to work. From then on it is death and mayhem, double-crossing and quick-drawing, until there is almost no-one untouched by the bloodletting.

What Tarantino writes well above all are these long scenes full of tension and suspense, dialogues that go on and on and on, well past where most other directors would cut. He is not afraid to let a scene develop, to build the intrigue and then let the tension rise, subside, and then finally reach a crescendo. Much of the film is masterful, fascinating, impossible to look away from.

But inevitably, he gives in to his instincts, and turns the massacre dial up to 11. The subtleties of the previous two hours are mostly forgotten in the barrage of gunfire and gore.

It is worth imagining what kind of movie Tarantino could make if his budget for fake blood was slashed, and he was forced to work out his plots without resorting to killing practically all of his characters. It could be something really special, like Pulp Fiction was. But right now, there doesn’t seem to be anyone willing to tell him that less is more when it comes to spraying the set with crimson. It is a pity.


Yet despite this, The Hateful Eight is worth seeing, like everything Tarantino does is worth seeing. No-one else makes films like him, his is a particular kind of bloody genius. 

Monday, 9 February 2015

WINTER FILMS.. WHIPLASH, BIRDMAN, INHERENT VICE, EX-MACHINA.

Whiplash is a fairly simple story. A young man, Andrew Neiman, goes to a New York music academy as a jazz drummer, with dreams of becoming the best. There, he is confronted with Terrance Fletcher (J.K. Simmons, who has won a string of awards for his role here), a ruthless, sometimes abusive teacher who claims he is simply demanding excellence, despite his bullying, excessive approach.

The key to Whiplash is that Fletcher and the central character, Andrew, are driven by the same motivations, both willing to do what it takes to be the best, or to bring the best out in others, even if this results in personal loss or the destruction of those people not strong enough to live up to expectations. They are two sides of the same coin, we gradually come to realize.


The final scene is key to the story, a powerful, thrilling piece of the action based around a concert that both central characters play a role in. The film itself is slight enough, but intense for all that, though this final scene does, strangely, seem to suggest that Fletcher's tactics are in some way justified. A curious ending to a fine, compelling story.

Birdman is a curious mix. Michael Keaton plays Riggan, (ironically) a washed up actor who is known only for playing a superhero in a series of blockbuster movies. Once the franchise runs its course, he decides to get his career back on track by writing, directing and starring in a theatre adaptation of Raymond Carver's short stories.

The film is centred on the production, in the lead up to the play's first night. This is the strongest part of the movie, Keaton's interaction with the other actors, and with his daughter who acts as his personal assistant, are funny and touching and at times calamitous. This is especially true of Edward Norton's character, Mike Shiner, who is method personified, a difficult yet inspiring actor whose professional star is on the rise and yet whose personal life is falling apart. Norton takes over the film for the all too brief time he is on screen.

Riggan's struggles with the cast, with the script and the production of his play are what works in this film. Unfortunately it constantly descends into flights of fancy, where Keaton's character imagines the fictional Birdman talking to him, and giving him the powers of a superhero. The film doesn't need all of this fantasy element, it is an extra, unwieldy layer on something that was working just fine, and distracts from something that could have been a fine film.

In the end it just feels like a missed opportunity. Edward Norton is way underused, and in fact all of the ancillary characters quickly become sidelined as Riggan's alter-ego takes over. Just as it is getting interesting, the film drifts off into fantasy land, and loses its way.

Inherent Vice is a Paul Thomas Anderson film of a Thomas Pynchon novel. That in itself is enough to suggest something quirky, strange and unique, and that's what this film is.

Joaquin Phoenix does his best Dude (from The Big Lebowski) impression as the central charater, Doc Sportello, a Private investigator and dopehead in 1970s LA.

Doc gets mixed up in the shady dealings of the Golden Fang cartel, and in between getting stoned he gets sucked into a world of drug-dealing and drug-rehab. Josh Brolin's unstable police detective, Bigfoot Bjornsen, is both ally and enemy, and Luke Wilson also turns up as a snitch and ex-druggie who just wants to go home.

It is really not worth trying to follow the convoluted, twisting plot too closely. People go missing, turn up, change their names, get stoned, betray each other, and somehow the tangles unravel and we reach some sort of conclusion.

The pleasure in the film is in the attention to detail of the setting of early seventies, California, in the fine cast, that also includes Benicio Del Toro and Reese Witherspoon, and in Joaquin Phoenix's performance as the dopey, resourceful, humane, idealistic hippie Doc.

There is a dreamy quality to the narrative, and a voiceover that adds to this dreaminess, by musician Joanna Newsom, and all the weirdness draws you in if you are prepared to abandon a demand for a rational, logical plot. At its best Inherent Vice has a hypnotic quality to it, like a gentle trip on a sunny, strange, crowded beach.

Ex-Machina stars Domnhaill Gleason as an employee in an IT company, sometime in the near future, who wins a lottery to go and visit his boss's secret hideaway, somewhere in the American wilderness.

There, Gleason's character, Caleb, discovers that his boss, Nathan, has brought him there to perform a test on his creation. Caleb is to interact with a humanoid robot that Nathan has designed and created, to see if the robot has true artificial intelligence.

The film is curious and intensely suspenseful. Naturally, Nathan is soon revealed as not being everything that he seems, but what exactly is going on and what his intentions and motivations are we are kept in the dark about for most of the movie. Ava, too, Nathan's artificial human creation, is quickly shown to be much more than she first appears.

There is a debate in the background here about what is consciousness, awareness, personhood, about how a true AI should be treated by us if such a thing were to be created. Coupled with the tension and the uncertainty built up by the narrative, this adds a nice layer of complexity to an already fascinating film.


Friday, 19 December 2014

ST. VINCENT. FILM.

If you want to know what Bill Murray's character - Vin - is like in this film, think Jack Nicholson in As Good as it Gets, or Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino. Or in fact any one of a whole host of irascible, curmudgeonly, alcoholic, bad-tempered old-guys that turn out to be big softies in the end, in scores of films in the past forty years.

There is really nothing new in this movie. Just as Vincent is a variation on the pattern of lovable codger, so we have a varied but predictable cast of odd-balls. There is the obligatory scrawny but smart little kid living next door who Vincent teaches to defend himself, his vulnerable, stressed mother who entrusts her son, Oliver, to Vincent's care after school, and Daga, a pregnant Russian prostitute, again the obligatory hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold.

Even Chris O'Dowd turns up here as a Catholic brother who teaches the children in the local school about saints. Of course O'Dowd is as far from the stern Christian brother of Angela's Ashes as you could get, his is Catholicism lite, he curses and is inclusive of all faiths and none, and his vision of sainthood is a little wider than the Vatican's.

The movie follows a predictable pattern, and almost never surprises. Even the ending, which is obviously supposed to be some kind of climax to which the previous hour and a half has been building, can be seen from an hour away, and is played for every piece of sentimentality that can be wrung out of it.


At its best St Vincent is pleasant and mildly entertaining, though there are few actual laughs in a movie that is purporting to be a comedy. At its worst it is too sugar-sweet and corny and cliched to take seriously, a missed opportunity with a cast that could have done so much more. 

Saturday, 8 November 2014

INTERSTELLAR. FILM.

Interstellar is, I think the technical term is, bonkers.

That doesn't mean that it isn't curious and fascinating and thought-provoking in parts, but the story completely collapses under the enormous weight of the grand ideas and speculative science-fiction that it attempts to incorporate.

Matthew McConaghey is Cooper, an ex-NASA pilot who lives with his family on a future Earth that is slowly dying. Crops are failing, the environment is slowly turning against human beings.

He and his daughter, Murphy (yes, that is her first name, after Murphy's Law) come across the remnants of the old NASA, run by Professor Brand, (Michael Caine).

The Professor has a plan to save mankind, and enlists Cooper to pilot a mission to the stars. Brand's daughter, played by Anne Hathaway, and two other scientists, go with him.

There is a subplot about Murphy being contacted by ghosts, or extra-terrestrials, and messages left for her in the movement of books in her bedroom. This is returned to later on, though never at any stage becomes anything that makes sense, and in fact only adds to the nonsensical feeling of the whole.

Matt Damon turns up for a while, in a pointless cameo, just to add to the intrigue. There is a wormhole, and a black hole, and talk of event horizons and gravity and time travel.

The film soon becomes a bizarre melange of adventure story, disaster epic and family drama, with a large dose of sci-fi (heavy on the "fiction", light on the "science") mixed in.

Things get progressively more preposterous as the film goes on. The ending is open for debate, as it isn't completely clear exactly what happens. The film skimps on detail, and tends to skip over any of the inconvenient elements that are simply too complex or ill-thought-out to explain.

But the Black Hole scenes towards the end are mostly ludicrous, and the half-hearted attempt at explaining what and how it happens is just that, half-hearted, there is little real sense in the way things wrap up, and almost no attempt at being consistent or meaningful. The part played by a watch in the denouement is particularly silly.

There is also a cringe-worthy theme running through the film, that Love is the only thing that can defeat time, gravity and whatever else gets in its way. It is hard not to laugh out loud at parts of this ridiculous script.


Still, it does have cool robots. They are probably the only successful innovation in the movie, the only thing that hasn't been seen before that actually impresses. At first glance they just look like giant metal Kit-Kats, unwieldy and clumsy, but are in fact flexible and smart, heroic and even tell jokes, and are possibly the only light relief in a movie that takes itself, and its ludicrous plot, a little too seriously.