Archive for the ‘English language’ Category

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Directors: Ben Blaine and Chris Blaine

Writers: Ben Blaine and Chris Blaine

Country: UK

Runtime: 98 mins

Cast: Fiona O’Shaughnessy (Nina), Abigail Hardingham (Holly), Cian Barry (Rob), Elizabeth Elvin (Sally), David Troughton (Dan)

This blood-soaked modern-day Blithe Spirit is a real treat

Nina Forever is a perfectly-realised first full cinema feature by the Blaine brothers, Ben and Chris, in which a young couple, Holly and Rob, find theselves haunted by Rob’s deceased former girlfriend, Nina. A rather moving comedy-horror, Nina Forever is like a modern-day rendering of Blithe Spirit. Here, though, Noel Coward’s posh drawing rooms are replaced by a cramped flat on a fog-bound housing estate, the stock room of a supermarket, and a graveyard over which an electricity pylon looms ominously. Oh, and there is lots of blood and sex.

Holly is a trainee paramedic with slightly morbid leanings, who works in the supermarket during the day. There she meets Rob, who is trying to get over the death of his girlfriend Nina, the victim of a car crash. Unfortunately, whenever the two of them try to get it on between the sheets a scarred and bloody Nina appears and makes it clear to “silly little girl” Holly that death is not going to stop her staking a claim to Rob.

It is a credit to the Blaine brothers’ script and Abigail Hardingham’s performance that we are able to engage in a pretty big suspension of disbelief by accepting Holly’s return to Rob after the first alarming bedroom encounter with Nina. Credit must also go to Cian Berry who gets laughs as the bereaved Rob, by playing it completely straight. Fiona O’Shaughnessy revels in the role of Nina, coming on as a wide-eyed (blood-soaked) innocent whilst delivering the bitchiest of comments.

There are some recognisable and delightful everyday observations that add to the comedy, such as when a long-awaited text message turns out to be a special offer from a local pizza parlour, and when a luckless chap on a bus finds himself stuck between a quarrelling Rob and Holly. But beneath the comedy there is a very real recognition of the pain of grief and the difficulty of moving on with life after a loved one dies.

Nina Forever brings a refreshing originality to the comedy-horror genre.

Rating: 4/5

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Hard_to_Be_a_God_(2013_film)_POSTER

Director: Aleksei German

Screenplay: Aleksei German and Svetlana Karmalita

Country : Russia

Runtime: 177 mins

Cast: Leonid Yarmolnik (Don Rumata), Evgenyi Gerchakov (Budakh), Alexandr Chutko (Don Reba), Yuri Tsurilo (Don Pampa), Natalya Moteva (Ari)

A mad, unique cinematic masterpiece

Hard to be a God is a mad, epic masterpiece unlike any other film I have ever seen. Ostensibly a science fiction film it is a mud-spattered vision of the Middle Ages, channelling the rain-drenched monochrome of Winstanley, with the sensibility of Tarkovsky, as imagined by Terry Gilliam without any studio interference.

Based on a 1964 novel of the same name by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, the story is set on an earthlike alien planet where the technology is on a par with ours about 800 years ago. A group of earth scientists have been sent to monitor the planet and help it progress, but without interfering in their politics. One of these, Anton, has taken on the guise of a nobleman, Don Rumata, who lives in a castle in the Kingdom of Arkanar. There, he has taken a young local woman, Ari, for a bride. The village around the castle is populated by a poverty-stricken parade of grotesques, clad in rags and stumbling around from one dirty puddle to another. The plot concerns a quest of sorts: Don Rumata sets out from his Castle to track down Budakh, a doctor who has been kidnapped by the tyrannical Prime Minister, Don Reba, and his militia, known as the “greys”.

However, the story really takes second place to the film’s extraordinary visual inventiveness. The costumes and sets are convincingly real and the wonderful cinematography seems to violate the rules to great effect. Many scenes contain tracking shots that last several minutes. Primary and secondary characters often break the “fourth wall”, gazing into the camera as they amble about, rather as working-class people used to do when early film-makers set up their cameras in the street (check out some of the old footage of Petticoat Lane on YouTube). People wander into shot from the side, only to shuffle off again. In almost every scene there is some sort of business going on (at one point, for no apparent reason, someone off-camera is waggling what looks like a chicken’s legs in front of the lens).

It is probably only fair that I should mention that not everyone in the cinema appeared to share my enthusiasm. There were a few walk-outs mid-way through the screening. In terms of length and pacing this is more akin to Stalker than to Shaun of the Dead, and the plot does get a bit hard to follow at times. It is a film that might not satisfy the less patient kind of viewer. However, once I realised that this was not going to be a fast-moving story I simply relaxed, sat back, and allowed myself to become immersed in this marvellous and unique cinematic experience.

Rating: 5/5

And the award goes to…

Posted: February 23, 2015 in English language
Tags: ,

Just prior to the 2015 Oscars the International Business Times ran an article about how the Academy Awards voters are dominated by white men (with an average age of 63). A number of voters quoted (from an interview with Hollywood Reporter) defended this year’s nominations on the grounds that these just were the best films. If we take that at face value, then the shortlist that the voters were faced with for Best Picture was as follows:

(a) A story about a brilliant white theoretical physicist who is struck by a terrible illness;

(b) A story about a young white man’s attempt to become a great jazz drummer;

(c) A story about a white middle-aged male concierge at a fictional European hotel;

(d) A story about a white boy growing up;

(e) A story about a white male mathematician who helped win the second world war;

(f) A story about a white male soldier who killed lots of dark-skinned people in Iraq;

(g) A story about a black man’s campaign for equal rights for black Americans;

(h) A story about a white male Hollywood actor, played by a white male Hollywood actor whose age in real life is the same as the average age of the Academy’s voters (63).

Events have conspired to keep me away from this blog over the last week or so, but after a year of blogging about film I feel it would be remiss of me – with just a few hours to go – not to make a few comments about nominees for this year’s Academy Awards. Needless to say, there are films that I would have liked to see shortlisted for Best Picture but which weren’t. Under the Skin would be the film I’d have given an Oscar to; this, Foxcatcher, and Nightcrawler were, in my view, all vastly superior to American Sniper and The Imitation Game. However, the Academy Awards, like the recent BAFTAs, seem to exhibition a certain degree of conservatism.

The main points of controversy have been the lack of recognition for black performers and film-makers, as well as the degree of dramatic license taken in many of the films depicting historical events. I have seen, though not reviewed, all of the films nominated for Best Picture and in some cases my view of a picture has changed since I first saw it. So, without further ado, here are my brief thoughts on the nominations.

American Sniper  I didn’t for one minute think that this was a pro-war film, but in retrospect I agree with many of the film’s detractors that it was problematical to view all events from the perspective of Chris Kyle. In particular, Kyle appears to swallow the falsity that Iraq was involved in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, but director Clint Eastwood does nothing to disabuse the audience of this myth. We also know from Kyle’s own book that the opening scene of the movie is inaccurate, albeit in a way that invites the audience to share his view of Iraqis as “savages”: the woman we see carrying the grenade did not, in reality, pass the weapon to a child to carry. Nonetheless, to my eyes – if not to some other viewers – American Sniper clearly showed the American invasion of Iraq to be a futile venture. But does this film deserve its Best Picture nomination? Not in my view. By a long way, this is not even Eastwood’s best film.

Birdman (or the unexpected virtue of ignorance)Interweaving fantasy and reality, this is one of the more obviously dazzling nominees, with several terrific performances, a stirring soundtrack, and most of the film apparently shot in a single take. Michael Keaton excels in his role as Riggan Thomson, an actor who once starred as a movie superhero called Birdman, and who is now attempting to put on a Broadway theatrical production. There is obviously a degree of self-referentiality here, in that Keaton of course played Batman in two movies. Self-referentiality also appears when Riggan engages in fisticuffs with the volatile Mike, played by Ed Norton – who of course starred in Fight Club. Funny and inventive, Birdman is like Fellini’s remade by Terry Gilliam. I rather felt that the female characters played second fiddle to the men, but perhaps that simply reflects the way that Hollywood actually is.

Boyhood Richard Linklater is one of the most creative directors in the business, with films like the Before… trillogy, A Scanner Darkly, Waking Life, and School of Rock to his name. Filmed over a 12 year period, Boyhood is undoubtedly one of the most adventurous projects undertaken by any movie director. Some might question whether the slender storyline merits an Oscar, but on the other hand it is the very depiction of the development of ordinary lives that fascinates the viewer. As the winner of the Best Picture at the BAFTAs, this may have some momentum behind it.

The Grand Budapest Hotel  Wes Anderson’s latest has all his trademark visual style, as well as a range of weird and wonderful characters played by many of the most notable actors in the business. Ralph Fiennes gives a brilliant comic turn as Monsieur Gustave H., the concierge for the hotel of the title as well as a self-confessed lothario towards the female visitors. In my view Fiennes should have been nominated for Best Actor. However, like most of Anderson’s films this one amused me but failed to be as funny as I thought it would be.

The Imitation Game  I was initially very enthusiastic about this film. It is funny, thrilling, and despite its intellectual subject matter moves along at quite a pace. I wasn’t sure at the time just how historically authentic this was, but assumed that a few liberties had been taken in order to enhance the drama. That’s fine – up to a point. However, from what I have subsequently learned I feel that this is a film that has stepped over a line. Benedict Cumberbatch is terrific as Alan Turing, but the simple fact is that Turing was not the socially awkward Aspergers-like character shown in the film. He had a sense of humour and worked well with his colleagues. Perhaps even more importantly, among the film’s fictitious constructions is the suggestion that Turing failed to disclose to the authorities that one of his colleagues was a Soviet spy (for fear that his homosexuality would be revealed). In effect, this depicts Turing engaged in an act that would have been considered treasonous, had it ever actually happened. On a more positive note, Keira Knightley is fantastic as Joan Clarke.

Selma  In many ways this is a brilliant and moving film. It follows Martin Luther King Jr, in the wake of the Civil Rights Act and his award of the Nobel Peace Prize. Despite the passing of the Civil Rights Act, which gave black Americans the right to vote, many southern states contrived various illegal devices to prevent black people voting. King attempts, unsuccessfully, to persuade President Lyndon B. Johnson to tackle the problem of the southern states, but the President is resistant, wishing to focus on the wider problem of poverty. King travels to the town of Selma, where he organises a series of increasingly large demonstrations. The violent response to these is widely televised, leading the President to finally take action. It is surely a major oversight of the Academy that David Oyelowo was not nominated for his excellent portrayal of King. However, this film also is not beyond criticism. It seems to have been generally accepted that President Johnson was actually far more sympathetic to King’s cause than is shown here. It is interesting to note that three significant Americans (King, Johnson, and Governor Wallace) are all played by British actors (respectively: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, and Tim Roth).

The Theory of Everything  The story of Stephen and Jane Hawking, this could perhaps be a safe choice for the Academy’s voters. The cinematography is beautiful, the story moving, and the characters sympathetic. Jane and Stephen Hawking are said to have been very pleased with the film. Nonetheless, the film’s overarching romanticism surely airbrushes events that must have been far more difficult than is depicted here. Eddie Redmayne is brilliant as Stephen, as is Felicity Jones as Jane, and both are fully deserving of their Best Actor nominations.

Whiplash  In terms of pure entertainment, this is hard to beat. It’s the story of an aspiring jazz drummer who comes up against a teacher whose drive to create a new “great” tips over into outright bullying. As a story, it doesn’t have the same significance as something like Selma or The Theory of Everything, but the narrative construction is as tight as one of its own drumskins, and the final scene is more perfect than any of the other nominations.

My verdict:  Of the films nominated, I would give the Best Picture award to Boyhood, a film that is captivating and unique and deserves to be formally recognised as such. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Academy goes for one of the more obvious crowd-pleasers.

For Best Director, I would have to pick Richard Linklater for the above-mentioned Boyhood. To put together such an extraordinary film over a 12 year period, whilst also making some other great movies, is a monumental achievement.

I was sorry that Jake Gyllenhaal didn’t get nominated for Best Actor (male), for his role in Nightcrawler. I thought he was easily more deserving than Bradley Cooper (good though he might have been). This is a pretty tough category to choose from this year, though, with some stunning performances delivered. I rather suspect that Michael Keaton or Eddie Redmayne will pick up the award, but if it were left to me I would choose Steve Carell for his portrayal of troubled millionaire John du Pont in Foxcatcher. Some have said that this is more of a Supporting Role, but for me Carell absolutely dominates the picture.

As I haven’t seen all the films in the remaining acting categories I shall refrain from commenting on those. Possibly the most egregious omission from the Oscars, in my opinion, is Mica Levi’s soundtrack for Under The Skin. I thought this was a country mile ahead of anything else in the year just gone.

For Best Original Screenplay I would choose Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, and for the Best Adapted Screenplay I would choose Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash.

I have seen just two of the films nominated for Best Documentary, but frankly – in terms of sheer contemporary importance – I find it hard to imagine how there could be a more deserving winner that Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour. This documentary about whistleblower Edward Snowden reveals just how badly we have been lied to by our governments about the scale of intrusive surveillance upon ordinary people. And more than anything, it shows just how brave Ed Snowden is.

As my first year in film review blogging draws to a close, it’s time for me to  list my Top Ten of the year. I’ve restricted myself to films that went on general release in the UK in 2014, which means I can’t list one of my favourite films – Nothing Bad Can Happen (see April 5th review), directed by Katrin Gebbe and shown as part of the Bird’s Eye Film Festival. As a non-professional blogger I also can’t claim to have seen all the good (or bad) films released this year. Some of the films that have popped up in lists such as the Sight & Sound Top 20 or the Guardian Top Ten, but which I haven’t seen, are The Lego Movie, Ida, and Leviathan.

But with no further ado and in reverse order, here are my ten favourites of the year.

10. The Wind Rises.

9. Inside Llewyn Davis.

8. Pride.

7. 12 Years a Slave.

6. Kajaki.

5. Citizenfour.

4. Tom at the Farm.

3. Nightcrawler.

2. Boyhood.

1. Under the Skin.


10. The Wind Rises.

The Studio Ghibli animation genius, Hayao Miyazaki, has said this will be his last film. But I will not be alone in hoping that he has a change of heart. In my review (May 24th) I said that this was “one of my favourite films of the year so far and one of the greatest animated movies I have ever seen”. Pursuing a more adult theme than most of Studio Ghibli’s output, The Wind Rises tells a fictionalised version of the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the airplane designer who opposed Japan’s involvement in World War 2 but was also responsible for two of that nation’s greatest fighter planes used in the conflict. Miyazaki masterfully conveys how a child’s wonder at the marvels and mystery of flight never leaves Horikoshi as an adult, “although ultimately it is a very melancholy tale too”.

9. Inside Llewyn Davis.

Like The Wind Rises, Inside Llewyn Davis also has a rather melancholic feel, albeit balanced by the dry wit and colourful characters typical of Cohen brothers’ scripts. It tells the tale of a struggling sixties folk musician giving one last attempt at breaking into the big time. Some found the character of Llewyn Davis too unsympathetic to identify with, but I disagree. I found his increasing resentment all too easy to understand. A merchant seaman by trade, Davis finds himself watching inferior musicians dressed in chunky sweaters, singing songs about life at sea, and receiving warm applause from their audiences. The ending is rather splendid.

8. Pride.

The closure of industries during the Thatcher era of government, and especially the miners’ strike of 1985-6, has formed the backdrop for several British feelgood movies, including Billy Elliott and The Full Monty. In Pride, however, the politics of the time is much more to the fore. This is essentially a culture-clash story in which two very different beleaguered groups find they have a common cause. Based on real events, when the London-based group Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners make contact with a South Wales colliery, they find that acceptance doesn’t happen straight away. Eventually, though, strong bonds are formed, culminating in a group of miners leading the Gay Pride march in London. Pride features one of the year’s best supporting performances, from Bill Nighy as a closeted former miner who quietly comes out.

7. 12 Years a Slave.

Deservedly picking up the 2014 Best Picture Oscar, 12 Years a Slave is based on Solomon Northup’s harrowing account of his own abduction into slavery. It’s power lies not only in the terrible sense of injustice that is conveyed, but in the graphic depictions of cruelty that have a visceral impact on the viewer. Lupita Nyong’o collected the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, but powerful performances are also given by Chiwetel Ejiofor (Solomon Northup) and Michael Fassbender (as the brutal slaveowner, Edwin Epps).

6. Kajaki.

Despite the fact that British forces have been engaged in conflict somewhere every year for the past 100 years, it is hard to recall any British war films in recent times. As it happens, Yann Demange’s ’71, released in October, was a very exciting story set in Northern Ireland’s “troubles” in the early seventies. But the film that makes this list is surely one of the best British war films ever made. Kajaki is a crowdfunded movie, written by Tom Williams and directed by Paul Katis. It is the true story of a group of elite soldiers (3rd Battalion, Parachute Regiment) who get caught in a Soviet-era minefield whilst serving in Afghanistan. Realism is the watchword here, from the boredom of guarding the dam (which may have motivated what was actually an unauthorised mission to engage a Taliban roadblock) to the depiction of bloody wounds and the earthy squaddie humour. Rather unflattering depictions of equipment failure and of the RAF sending the wrong type of helicopter for the rescue mission may have been the reason for the Ministry of Defence withdrawing their support. Political questions are deliberately not overtly addressed in Kajaki, but viewers might nonetheless be prompted to wonder whether we should really have been in Afghanistan. Not for the squeamish.

5. Citizenfour.

In January 2013 the journalist and film-maker Laura Poitras was contacted via encrypted email by someone using the name “Citizen Four”. This was the codename adopted by the whistleblower, Ed Snowden. Poitras makes documentaries around political themes and, at the time of Snowden’s approach, was making a film about surveillance in the wake of 9/11 (actually the third part of a trilogy, the first two being My Country My Country and The Oath). She went to visit Snowden during the period when he was holed up in a hotel bedroom in Hong Kong, and filmed Snowden’s conversations with the journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill. These conversations, during which Snowden reveals the scale of illegal surveillance undertaken by the National Security Agency and others, form the basis of Citizenfour, but are intercut with various courtroom scenes and interviews with other key figures, such as whistleblower William Binney and computer security expert Jacob Applebaum.

The film is a riveting piece of history. More than anything, the thing that sticks with me from Citizenfour is the bravery of Ed Snowden, who was fully aware of the trouble that he was bringing upon himself.

4. Tom at the Farm.

At age 25, Tom at the Farm (Tom à la Ferme) was the fifth feature film to be directed by French-Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan. It is a Hitchcockian psychodrama about a young man, Tom (played by Xavier Dolan), who travels to the rural home of his dead gay lover’s family, in preparation for the funeral. The mother turns out to be unaware of her deceased son’s sexual orientation, and Tom is bullied into silence by psychotic Francis, the brother of the dead man. The two men then become involved in a dark and complicated fashion. With its strong imagery, complex characters and bold storyline, this is a film that has really stuck in my mind.

3. Nightcrawler.

There is a long Hollywood tradition of depicting the dark side of the American Dream in its movies. The protagonist grafts hard to work his way up the ladder, but also transgresses the law by taking dodgy shortcuts (e.g. Nightmare Alley, Wall Street, The Wolf of Wall Street). Typically this figure will eventually be brought low and there may or may not be some element of remorse and redemption. Written and directed by Dan Gilroy, Nightcrawler is possibly the most uncompromising film in this tradition. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom progresses from filming car crashes on his camcorder to rearranging crimes scenes in such a way that they will obtain a higher price from the news networks he is selling to. Bloom is not brought low. There is no remorse or redemption. On the contrary, Bloom corrupts those that he comes in to contact with. Human transactions become purely economic transactions. This is Ayn Rand’s philosophy writ large and all the more terrifying for it. Gyllenhaal is one of the best actors in Hollywood right now, and his performance in Nightcrawler ought to propel him towards an Oscar nomination.

2. Boyhood.

The top of many people’s end-of-year lists, Richard Linklater’s growing-up drama Boyhood is – as the trailer states – unique in the history of cinema. The film was made over a 12 year period and traces the childhood of Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) over this space of time, so we see him genuinely age twelve years (as well as his movie parents, played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette). Mason Jr’s parents are separated, and much of the drama comes from growing up with a mom who keeps meeting unsuitable men. It is the ordinariness of the events that matter here which, because they are covered in such detail, enable viewers to identify with and be moved by them. In retrospect, my review (June 16th) was a little ungenerous in its rating: this is ten out of ten.

1. Under the Skin.

In compiling this Top Ten I changed my mind about the rankings on several occasions, and it is quite likely that I will change my mind again once this is posted. The one film I’ve had no trouble placing, though, is Jonathan Glazer’s phenomenal Under The Skin. This is not just my film of the year, but also of this century so far. Light on dialogue and heavy on incredible imagery, it is the story of an alien (Scarlett Johansson), constructed in the guise of a female human, who is sent by mysterious handlers (men on motorbikes) to find and kill people who won’t be missed, presumably as luxury food for beings on another planet. However, certain events lead the alien to develop empathic feelings for the people she is preying on. In one of the most extraordinary scenes in any film, the alien, whilst driving around nighttime Glasgow in search of victims, engages a severely disfigured man in conversation. The encounter is variously funny, uncomfortable, and touching. Eventually, the alien gives her handlers the slip and disappears into the Scottish countryside, where she faces new challenges.

Comparisons with Kubrick are entirely justified and the title is open to various interpretations. Johansson’s performance is terrific, switching between warm seductress and dead-eyed killer, and in my opinion should make her an Oscar contender. The scenes of her driving a van around Glasgow and talking to Scottish men, some of who were genuine passersby, are terrific and not easily forgotten.

Exodus2014Poster

Director: Ridley Scott

Writers: Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine, and Steven Zaillian

Country: UK / USA / Spain

Runtime: 150 mins

Cast: Christian Bale (Moses), Joel Edgerton (Ramses), John Turturro (Seti), Aaron Paul (Joshua), Ben Mendelsohn (Viceroy Hegep), Maria Valverde (Zipparah), Sigourney Weaver (Tuya), Ben Kingsley (Nun).

Not so much an epic, as an epic failure

If 2014 is anything to go by, filmmakers just can’t do historical epics like they used to. William Wyler (Ben Hur) and Stanley Kubrick (Spartacus) would appear to have nothing to worry about in the competition stakes. I thought Noah was pretty bad (reviewed here on 5th April), but in retrospect it did at least have a fairly bonkers quality that made it watchable. Ray Winstone fighting Russell Crowe, together with those living stone creatures, had some entertainment value. By contrast, the deadly earnestness of Exodus: Gods and Kings, together with the lack of any dramatic tension, makes for an excruciatingly dull 150 minutes.

The story begins in Egypt, 1300 BCE, where a bunch of white guys have somehow bucked the regional tendency towards dark skin and rule the roost, keeping a large number of Hebrews as slaves. Ramses (Joel Edgerton) and Moses (Christian Bale) are brothers, though Ramses appears to have senior military ranking despite having less understanding of military tactics. On a trip into town Moses is appalled at the terrible way the Hebrew population are treated, but then it turns out that he himself is actually a Hebrew and not Ramses’ brother at all, a fact that is revealed by a local elder called Nun (Ben Kingsley).

When Ramses discovers the truth he banishes Moses to the wilderness. Sunburnt and thirsty, Moses finds water and rest at a tiny outpost in the middle of nowhere. At the watering hole some local blokes are trying to muscle in before a group of thirsty girls, but Moses flashes his imperial sword (not a euphemism) and the men back off. One of these girls has maintained a good moisturising regime and has brightened herself up with some eyeliner and lipstick; guess which girl Moses falls in love with? So Moses marries Zipporah (Maria Valverde), who bears him a son, Gershom (Hal Hewetson).

When Gershom is nine, he tells Moses that climbing the nearby mountain is forbidden by God, because mum says so. So of course Moses tries to climb it. In the Old Testament such disobedience would normally be punished with a little mild genocide, but on this occasion Moses only suffers a falling rock to the head and thereafter receives visitations from God in the form of a young boy, Malak (Isaac Andrews). Malak tells Moses that he should journey back to Egypt to witness how bad the social conditions have become. Zipporah isn’t too keen on Moses disappearing on this quest, thinking – not unreasonably – that the whole visitation from God thing was just a delusion brought on by the blow to Moses’s noggin.

But back in Egypt, Moses discovers that Malak was right. The Hebrew slaves are suffering badly. Moses gets a group of followers together and trains them up as a fighting force. However, they can’t take on the army directly because they are so badly outnumbered. Therefore, Moses’ plan is to destroy provisions that are en route for the civilian population, thereby making them angry at the rulers and so fomenting instability. This is basically terrorism, of course, but maybe that’s OK when God’s on your side (because, obviously, God takes sides). As it happens, God (Malak) turns up and tells Moses that his methods will take far too long. “Watch this”, says God, “I’ll show you what real terrorism looks like”, and launches a series of attacks on the civilian population, not to mention the local animals. First of all, he wipes out all the fish in the sea. This is followed by plagues of frogs, lice, and flies. Moses visits Ramses and tells him that worse is to come unless he relents and frees the slaves. Ramses says that this is not economically viable, so then God starts to wipe out the livestock and visits plagues of boils and locusts upon the people, as well as hail, thunder, and darkness.

Even Moses starts to think that God is going a bit far when he reveals his plan to kill all newborn children, but God tells him that no punishment is harsh enough for those who have enslaved his chosen people for over 400 years. Nonetheless, Moses is able to mitigate the effects of the almighty’s genocidal rampage by advising the local Hebrews to smear lambs’ blood over their front doors as a protective agent. But God’s war crime works: when Ramses discovers that his young child is dead, he relents in the face of Biblical firepower and frees the slaves. Moses then entreats the Hebrews to follow him to the promised land and so they head off into the wilderness with him. By now, Ramses has got his act together again and sets off with his army in pursuit of Moses.

Moses gets a bit lost in the mountains and calls upon God for assistance. But guess what? Despite all the help that Moses gave God, God’s nowhere to be seen when Moses needs a bit of help with the old map-reading business. Maybe God tired himself out with all that genocide stuff and was having a rest. Still, somehow Moses gets his people to the Red Sea which – as we all know – conveniently parts in order that they can cross to the Holy land. Moses is reunited with his son and his wife who, when he rocks up at their home, is still wearing full make-up. No sooner has Moses returned when God gets him busy chiselling the ten commandments into lumps of stone. “I quite like that you don’t always agree with me” God tells Moses, thus revealing a bit of a soft spot that the Old Testament God doesn’t normally extend to dissenters.

And that’s about it story-wise. I’m not qualified to say how closely Exodus follows the Old Testament story of Moses. However, the tale presented here is seriously lacking in dramatic tension. Moreover, I found it difficult to care about Moses and his battle with Ramses. Christian Bale does a perfectly fine job as Moses, though the story doesn’t really allow him to shine. In fact, all of the actors are somewhat overwhelmed by the combination of CGI and 3D (perhaps the 2D version works better). It is as if Ridley Scott was so concerned about conveying visual epic-ness that the basics of storytelling got left behind. In some films 3D works really well. Gravity is probably the best example. But in Exodus the screen just seems too busy, which is a distraction.

Rating: 3/10

Interstellar_film_poster

Director: Christopher Nolan

Writers: Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan

Country: USA / UK

Runtime: 169 mins

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, MacKenzie Foy, Michael Caine, Anne Hathaway, John Lithgow, David Gyasi, Wes Bentley, Bill Irwin, Josh Stewart.

An entertaining and ambitious sci-fi epic

Christopher Nolan’s latest blockbuster, Interstellar, is an entertainingly ambitious, if flawed, sci-fi epic. It begins in a near-future where food supplies are dwindling, as a result of blighted crops. Presumably this is the result of global climate change, although this is not spelled out and, in fact, we never go beyond rural America to find out what is happening elsewhere in the world. The opening scenes are given a documentary feel thanks to the inclusion of some talking head segments from senior citizens reminiscing about the ‘dust bowl’ that they had lived through (these are actually clips of people describing 1930s Dust Bowl America).

Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, a widowed former engineer and NASA pilot who now reluctantly farms corn. His daughter, Murphy (MacKenzie Foy), is a chip off the old block but her brainiac tendencies don’t go down well at school, where the kids are taught that the Apollo moon landings were a hoax designed to prompt the Soviet Union into wasting money on rockets and other “useless machines”. Cooper is told that his children would be better off “learning about this planet, rather than reading fantasies about leaving it”. But when “Murph” becomes convinced that there is a ghost in her bedroom, Cooper’s investigations uncover a gravitational anomaly that is causing strange dust patterns on Murph’s bedroom floor. This discovery leads them ultimately to a top secret NASA base.

Because the American public no longer have any appetite for exploring space, the agency is now operating in a clandestine fashion. Their Lazarus Project, headed by Professor Brand (Michael Caine), has been sending missions to planets beyond a wormhole in space. Cooper is recruited to lead another mission beyond the wormhole, together with Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), physicist Romilly (David Gyasi), geographer Doyle (Wes Bentley), and robots TARS and CASE (voiced, respectively, by Bill Irwin and Josh Stewart). The wormhole appears to have been constructed by some alien intelligence, so Plan A is to return with the technology to save the Earth, but if this fails then Plan B is to recolonise a planet with the stored fertilised seeds from a variety of humans. However, Cooper is desperate to return from the mission because he wants to save his family. In addition, thanks to Einsteinian relativity Cooper’s children will age faster than him in his absence, therefore it is imperative for him that the mission goes as smoothly as possible (needless to say, it doesn’t).

For much of the first half of Interstellar, I couldn’t help ponder with some amusement as to whether the film would enrage some of the more anti-science US Republicans. You know, the ones who deny the reality of man-made climate change, who think it is arrogant to believe that people could disrupt God’s work, and who think that the end-of-the-world will involve the faithful being transported to heaven in the “rapture”. Whatever its faults, Interstellar comes across as a resolutely pro-science film, asking us to think beyond our immediate concerns and to work for the good of our species. A scene where we learn that school textbooks have been revised to show that the moon landings were faked brings to mind those American school districts that have tried to remove or water down material on evolution. Whilst some of what passes for scientific explanation in Interstellar is Dr Who-style hokum, nonetheless in a wider sense it treats its audience as intelligent adults, particularly in the aspect of the storyline that relates to relativity.

The second half, or perhaps final third, of the film is somewhat weaker as the ideas are gradually submerged beneath a swathe of frenetic action, except close to the schmaltzy ending where we get an outlandish explanation for certain events that occurred earlier on. The acting is serviceable, rather than outstanding, though this probably isn’t the kind of film that is likely to produce Oscar-worthy performances. However, even though a fair bit of suspension of disbelief is necessary, Interstellar is never less than entertaining.

Rating: 8/10

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Director: Edmund Goulding

Writer: Jules Furthman

Country: USA

Runtime: 110 mins

Cast: Tyrone Power, Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray, Helen Walker, Taylor Holmes, Mike Mazurki, Ian Keith

One of the darkest of all film noirs

Nightmare Alley was the second film made by Tyrone Power, one of Hollywood’s greatest stars, following his return from wartime service in the Pacific theatre. Based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham, it was a film that Power fought to make in the face of opposition from studio boss Darryl Zanuck, who feared that the dark role of the protagonist might damage Power’s image. Although that didn’t happen, the film was not a success at the box office. Power was praised by critics for his performance, however, and Nightmare Alley has subsequently come to be regarded as a film noir classic.

Power plays Stanton “Stan” Carlisle, a relatively junior carnival barker who is still learning the trade. Stan is an assistant for Mademoiselle Zeena (Joan Blondell), the carney’s fortune teller who is trying to keep her alcoholic husband, Pete (Ian Keith), on the straight and narrow. Eager to make the big time, Stan begins to see dollar signs when he learns that Zeena and Pete once had their own highly successful psychic act outside the carney, in which Pete used a linguistic code to communicate the punters’ secrets to Zeena. Stan also learns a valuable lesson when Pete fools him with a psychic reading, in which Pete apparently sees Stan as a boy running through fields with his pet dog. Pete breaks the news that this was a stock reading: “Fits everybody! What’s youth? Happy one minute, heartbroken the next. Every boy has a dog!” Learning from this, Stan finds he is able to exercise the gift of the gab to the extent that he can prevent a hostile policeman from closing down the carnival.

Following Pete’s death Zeena teaches Stan the code. She is helped in this task by Molly (Coleen Gray), the strongman’s girlfriend. But Stan has been dallying with both women and finds himself forced into a shotgun marriage with Molly. Seeing this as a golden opportunity, they set up a highly successful act in the big city. But events take a darker turn after Stan links up with a corrupt psychoanalyst (Helen Walker), using her client information to trick wealthy society folk out of their money.

Unlike many of the most famous film noirs, such as The Maltese Falcon, there is no humour in Nightmare Alley’s characters. It is surely one of the darkest film noirs ever made, a rise-and-fall story that presents us with a kaleidoscope of human desperation, degradation, duplicity, gullibility, and alcoholism. Many of the scenes take place in darkness, but with the characters’ faces brightly lit, exposing – by turn – their hope and hopelessness. The opening scene presents us with the carney geek, the most degraded and abused figure in American carnivals, a man – typically an alcoholic or drug addict – who would bite the heads off chickens in front of a delightedly horrified audience. But everybody is looking for something, even the wealthy, which leaves them vulnerable to exploitation. Accordingly, one of the most pitiable figures is the society man Ezra Grindle (Taylor Holmes), whose skepticism about the “Great Stanton” crumbles when Stan, furnished with information provided by Lilith, divines that Grindle is still in love with a woman who died thirty-five years ago. He then tries to manipulate Grindle for his own gain.

Whether Stanton Carlisle is a borderline psychopath or simply the product of his own desperate background is perhaps a matter for debate. I am inclined to the latter view, as Stan appears genuinely horrified by the sight of the geek, and also seems concerned for Pete’s suffering when deprived of alcohol. Stan also displays his own gullibility at times, a trait that eventually leads to his own downfall.

Given the bleakness of its vision, it is perhaps unsurprising that Nightmare Alley was a failure at the box office. Indeed, its “scandalous” content led to a number of protests. But the story is beautifully structured and absolutely compelling. Tyrone Power is riveting to watch, but also wonderfully supported by a superb cast. Joan Blondell (another Hollywood great) excels as Zeena, displaying a mixture of strength, sadness, and vulnerability – including vulnerability to temptation. Zeena describes herself to Stan as having “a heart as big as an artichoke and a leaf for everyone”. As her alcoholic husband Pete, Ian Keith switches between uncomprehending drunkeness and a kind of sad wisdom, whilst Taylor Holmes’s performance as Ezra Grindle brilliantly demonstrates the cruelty perpetrated when the innocent are hoodwinked by the cynical.

Rating: 10/10

Nightmare Alley is available on DVD from Twentieth Century Fox’s ‘The Studio Collection’ .

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Director: Dan Gilroy

Writer: Dan Gilroy

Country: USA

Runtime: 117 mins

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Joe Paxton

Jake Gyllenhaal excels as a psychopathic news cameraman working his way up the ladder of power

Dan Gilroy’s superb first directorial effort, Nightcrawler, is the gripping story of a ruthless nobody-turned-freelance-cameraman who works his way up the ladder by taking risks and transgressing moral boundaries. But really, Nightcrawler is more than this. It is a dark satire on the kind of Randian objectivist philosophy, which champions the pursuit of individual self-interest within a system of laissez-faire capitalism. Gilroy shows how this kind of world corrupts everybody who comes into contact with it.

The film begins with a gaunt, straggly-haired, Louis “Lou” Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), trying to scrape a living by stealing copper wire and other metallic items in order to sell to a scrap yard. But Bloom is not just an ordinary guy ducking-and-diving to make his way through hard times. He is a psychopath. In the opening scene, whilst Bloom is trespassing in order to cut a section of wire fence, he is challenged by a security guard. Bloom attacks the guard and steals the chunky watch he is wearing. As later events transpire Bloom’s character never changes. The only sense in which he learns is by digesting information from the internet that he then uses to his advantage in his interactions with others. It is the people around Gyllenhaal who change, becoming more compromised and corrupted as he manipulates them (although the news environment itself is already the ideal environment for such manipulation to occur).

Bloom discovers a way to escape from his world of petty crime when, whilst driving down the Los Angeles freeway, he encounters a news crew filming a bloody crash scene. Buttonholing one of the cameramen, Joe (Joe Paxton), he learns that they are a freelance outfit selling to whichever station pays the most.  Bloom steals a bicycle and takes it to a used goods store, where he swaps it for a camcorder and a police band radio. From this point onwards he starts muscling in at accident and crime scenes, racing to beat other crews to get the first pictures.

After selling some footage to Nina (Rene Russo), the head of a local newsroom, she gives him advice about the kind of footage they are seeking, which is predominantly white victims in the suburbs being hurt at the hands of the poor or ethnic minorities. She sums up the spirit of what they air as “a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut”.

Bloom recruits a homeless Asian guy, Rick (Riz Ahmed), as a low-paid intern, whose job is “to listen to the emergency radio, learn the police codes, help navigate and watch the car”. Like a ghoulish version of his namesake in Ulysses, Bloom stalks the city streets with Rick seeking death and injury. With an eye as to what makes a good shot, he begins to rearrange crime and accident scenes for his own benefit, and to intrude on private property. His relationships with others are entirely economic transactions. One moment Bloom is threatening Rick with the sack for spilling petrol on the paintwork of his car, but the next moment he is dishing out praise and the prospect of promotion in order to overcome Rick’s moral qualms about their actions. Bloom starts a relationship with Nina, but this is entirely premised on the value of the footage he is able to collect and the possibility he might take it to another station.

It is a tribute to the screen presence and acting skills of Gyllenhaal, as well as to Gilroy’s excellent screenplay, that the audience (this viewer, at least) is able to maintain interest in a character as unsympathetic as Bloom. One of the characteristics of psychopaths, of course, is that they are often charming. Gyllenhaal captures this in the exchanges where, with a half-smile on his face and burning intensity in his eyes, he lavishes praise and flattery on others. I would not be surprised to see Gyllenhaal in the shortlist for the Oscars. Rene Russo (married to writer/director Dan Gilroy) also turns in a good performance as Nina, who by turns seems repelled and attracted by Bloom’s usurping of her power in both their personal and professional relationships. Riz Ahmed does a splendid job of portraying the plight of Rick, who has been taken off the streets by Bloom, but who could end up back there at any moment. He knows that what they are doing is wrong, but is desperate not to be homeless again. Rick is more dependent on Bloom than anyone else, but he is also the only person to show any moral qualms. Despite the various bullshit motivational speeches that Bloom makes, Rick’s liquid eyes constantly alternate between hope and fear. I wouldn’t mind betting that Ahmed could find himself in the Oscar stakes for best supporting actor.

In one sense, Dan Gilroy is treading similar ground to films like Wall Street and The Wolf of Wall Street. However, whereas those films placed considerable emphasis on the lifestyle excess that accompanies professional success, Nightcrawler is a much more ascetic affair. Bloom is a loner, who continues to live in a modest apartment even as his success spirals. His sole motivation is to be good at what he does and to climb the ladders of power. Other people are there to be used in whatever way will help achieve his goals. Unlike, say, the character of Bud Fox in Wall Street, there is absolutely no capacity for empathy or redemption. The consequences of this behaviour are shown to chilling effect.

I was also impressed by the musical soundtrack to the film. This is very unobtrusive, but all the more effective for it in a less-is-more kind of way. There are many sequences where there is no background music, but then when it appears it comes in fairly quietly and then builds, so that an atmosphere is created almost without you noticing the music.

Rating: 10/10

Correction: In an earlier version I wrote “aesthetic”, when I meant to say “ascetic”.

Director: Abel Ferrara

Writer: Maurizio Braucci

Country: France / Belgium / Italy

Runtime: 86 mins

A disappointing and confusing portrait of the late director

Pasolini begins with the controversial director viewing a scene from his as-yet-unreleased film The 120 Days of Sodom, in which some youths are subjected to sexual and mental torture by the fascist gang that has kidnapped them. It ends with Pasolini being murdered by a gang on a beach where he has taken a male prostitute. This symmetrical topping and tailing of the film with sex and violence is about the only structure to be found in this disappointing attempt to paint a picture of Pasolini through a kaleidoscopic view of the last day of his life.

Willem Dafoe is a compelling presence as Pasolini, demonstrating again that he deserves to be given more lead roles. However, the film never really gets to grips with the character of Pasolini or what he achieved, and is likely to be especially bewildering to a viewer who knows little or nothing about the man. During the course of his final day Pasolini meets friends, family, colleagues, an interviewer. There are also some fantasy scenes depicting parts of the story he is currently working on. However, none of this really amounts to very much. I lost track of who some of the people were (or possibly it was never made clear in the first place), and it didn’t help that some long passages of dialogue in Italian were not subtitled.

For some reason most of the characters are dimly lit in the interior scenes. When daylight is streaming through windows no attempt appears to have been made to light the faces of inward-facing characters. The same is true when the only light is the lamps in the room. Together with a somewhat desaturated colour this contributes to a slightly sombre atmosphere, and perhaps that is the point, but I’m not sure this really worked for me. Also, in the scene where Pasolini is interviewed, I found the camera movements quite distracting. They didn’t seem to serve any purpose. At one point, as Pasolini is speaking, the camera slowly pulls back from his face until he seems to be several feet away, but then we suddenly cut to an extreme close-up. Why?

I was really hoping to like this film, but I’m afraid I came away feeling quite dissatisfied.

Rating: 5/10

Pasolini was shown at the London Film Festival