Loving

 

lovingJeff Nichols is a restless director and certainly not one to bed-down in any single genre. He has plumbed the depths of the psychological thriller in Take Shelter, wrangled the stars in the coming-of-age drama of Mud, and more recently pushed the envelope with the sci-fi road-film, Midnight Special. He is certainly one of the more versatile directors working today, and in his latest outing, Loving, the enigmatic auteur tackles racial injustice.

Based on a true story about an unlawful interracial marriage, Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga bring performances that are both powerful and understated. In 1958, before America’s civil rights revolution, Richard Loving (Edgerton) married Mildred Jeter (Negga) in Washington DC, where interracial marriages were legal.  However, on their return home to Virginia where interracial marriages were not permitted, they were met with legal road-blocks as the state saw to throw them out under threat of imprisonment. Years of legal and social tumult saw their case taken all the way to the Supreme Court, where the couple’s relationship finally prompted the overturning of those laws nationwide.

Loving is a film that is surprisingly non-belligerent in tone, despite the outrageous injustice of its subject matter – America’s historical treatment of race. Instead it calmly states its case and proceeds to leave the histrionics to the viewer. It is a slow burn that is satisfyingly sure of itself. What is remarkable is the bold move to not only explore the boundaries of racial segregation but also comment on gender politics.  Typically the husband is seen as the enduring pillar of strength, fighting the good fight, while the wife plays a passively supportive role. Here, it is increasingly apparent that the real hero of Loving is Mildred as she begins to take control of their situation herself. Nichols masterfully presents this visually, as Mildred becomes more and more centred in the film’s frame (observe at the image above) and Edgerton is gently ushered to the margins. The diminutive Negga returns the favour by giving a wonderfully authentic performance that no doubt draws from her own experience as a child of mixed race (being of Ethiopian and Irish descent).

Nichols’ muse, Michael Shannon (who I could listen to read the phonebook), pops in for a cameo as a photographer for Life magazine. His big screen presence is perhaps the film’s only distraction in a story that, despite its subdued telling, is an enlightening glimpse into America’s checkered past and is well worth the watch.

Rating: 4 constitutional laws out of 5.

A Street Cat Named Bob

 

ascnbThere seem to be plenty of films that anthropomorphise their animal subjects to a level where they might as well be a human. Obviously, some rules of nature must be bent for animal/human relationships to be expressed in cinema, not forgetting that such films also play well to the purchasing power of younger audiences.  But, when you’re dealing with the weighty topics of drug addiction and parental neglect, as in A Street Cat Named Bob, a fine line needs be traversed to make the story accessible to a wide audience.  Certainly a tricky proposal for the film’s marketing execs. Thankfully director Roger Spottiswoode (Turner & Hooch) has dipped his toes into such waters before and comes oh so close to getting the balance right.

Imagine mixing the social realism of Ken Loach (I, Daniel Blake), the musical sensibilities of John Carney (Once), and then tampering it down with the family friendly nonsense of David Frankel (Marley and Me), and you’ll arrive somewhere near A Street Cat Named Bob. Based on James Bowen’s true story and best-selling book of the same name, A Street Cat Named Bob is a simple story that avoids getting bogged down by complexities or subtexts.  James (Luke Treadaway), street busker and recovering Heroin addict, is living on the streets of London and is given one last chance by the welfare system to clean up his life. Hindered further by poverty, he is befriended by Bob, a ginger stray cat. James’s relationship with Bob provides the perfect talisman for his recovery efforts and also provides the story a fresh take on human/feline relationships.

Luke Treadaway, looking every inch the member of a prog-rock band circa 1975, does a very commendable job of portraying the recovering addict. It’s a schtick that we’ve all seen before on the big screen, but its a solid performance nonetheless.  Unfortunately, the supporting cast do not offer the same level of gravitas, succumbing to some fairly cliched moments that suggest a “made for TV” feel. However, there is genuine affection for animals and humanity alike in a film that opted to exclusively wrangle real cats (seven in all, including Bob himself) with its human counterparts rather than going down the path of digital effects — the result is a charming film that makes an admirable attempt at keeping true to its source material.

Rating: 3 miaows out of 5.

Alone in Berlin

aib

It never ceases to amaze me the seemingly boundless supply of obscure stories from our past that bubble to the surface.  Unfortunately, many are true tales that tell of tragic circumstances, but through their telling they act as a warning beacon for humanity.  Alone in Berlin is one of those beacons.

Set during the Second World War, Alone in Berlin recounts the true story of German couple Anna and Otto Quangel (Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson).  After hearing the news that their only son has lost his life on Hitler’s battlefield, the couple’s despair drives them to resist the Nazi regime from within.  In a form of passive propaganda they begin to write anti-Nazi slogans on cards and randomly place them throughout Berlin city — a method similar to Arthur Stace’s “Eternity” chalkings, although with stakes a lot higher. It’s not long before their form of resistance is seen as a threat and a game of cat and mouse ensues. Criminal detective Escherich (Daniel Brühl) is deployed to track them down as the film becomes a procedural that effortlessly mixes the styles of serial crime thriller and war-time period drama.

My first concern was to put any dubious German accents to bed in order to set my suspension of disbelief at ease. Would Thompson’s clipped English accent prevail? Gleeson’s Irish brogue bubble to the surface? Or, heaven forbid, Brühl’s learned American english twang get the better of the German native?  Well, I can gladly report in this instance … all quiet on the western front. In fact, I find it odd to report that the film’s production values are remarkable for their invisibility. Really, this is a good thing for a film where Anna and Otto’s story should not be derailed by clever filmic hullabaloo.

Not without its faults, Alone in Berlin is perhaps a little trite in parts; but to its credit it gets on with telling the story in an efficient manner with very little else to bounce me out of its narrative arc. This is a credit to the tight script by Achim von Borries and fledgling director Vincent Perez (who tends to err on the melodramatic side). Daniel Brühl superbly negotiates a delicate balance between sympathy and duty, and Thompson and Gleeson produce warm and believable performances, allowing me to be carried along with their plight — the necessity of free speech to keep the wolves at bay.

Rating: 4 sneakily written notes out of 5.

You can see the published review here.

Notes on Blindness

 

nobpic“As one goes deeper into blindness, one begins to live by other interests, other values. One begins to take up residence in another world.” This haunting comment by John Hull gives a snapshot of his achingly poignant true story. In 1983, just days before the birth of his first son, the academic and theologian lost his sight, and in order to make sense of his condition, he began keeping a diary on audiocassette.  Directors Pete Middleton and James Spinney (in only their first feature length film), have done a commendable job of adapting John Hull’s tapes to the big screen.

Easily comparable to Julian Schnabel’s masterpiece The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, (which tells the true story of of Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby’s experience with Locked In Syndrome), Notes on Blindness cleverly employs the artifice of cinema to encourage the viewer to experience the symptoms of its protagonist. This is phenomenological cinema of the highest regard, eliciting a mindful viewing experience. Hull’s own taped voice comes to life through lip-synched recreations and are cleverly spliced with voiced narration. It is perhaps no surprise that a film about blindness has a heavy emphasis on sound, and here it is woven into a sensitive sound design by accomplished sound editor Joakim Sundström (who also worked on Nick Cave’s superb biopic 20,000 Days on Earth). Although, his unique use of diegetic and non-diegetic sound does bring a level of disorientation that takes some adjustment.

Likewise, the strikingly beautiful and yet claustrophobic cinematography (by Gerry Floyd) brings equal measures of beauty and frustration as the camera struggles for light and focus, never allowing us to simply sit and look. The paradox of a visual medium giving us a pseudo experience of blindness is palpable — a form of mimicry to which Hull voices his own frustrations as “a desperate need to break through this curtain, this veil that surrounded me. To come out into the world of light out there.”

The film presents as insightfully ponderous and occasionally meandering, but its core concern always remains Hull’s conflict between fact and faith, which ultimately collide with interesting results. Notes on Blindness requires a level of effort on the viewer to garner a full appreciation, but it is worth it.

Rating: 4 mindful moments out of 5

You can see the published review here.

Silence

 

silenceI am always wary when a film of notable scope and pedigree such as Silence is largely ignored during awards season. Either I’m reading too much into its lack of critical chatter, or the film is a dud. I was hoping the former.  After all, master director Martin Scorsese has had this film in the oven on slow-cook since the nineties, so my hopes were high.

Silence is based on Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 historical novel about the persecution of Christians in 17th-century Japan. Two Portuguese Jesuit priests, Rodrigues and Garupe (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver), leave for Japan in search of one of their own (Ferreira, played by Liam Neeson) who’s believed to have renounced his faith and “gone native”. In doing so, both have their faith tested as they encounter extreme torment in a land that is “like a swamp” and incapable of adopting the Christian faith. Shūsaku Endō’s story is remarkably similar to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness which also received cinematic treatment with Apocalypse Now.  But where Apocalypse Now was a personal film for Ford Coppola due to hardships he encountered while filming, Silence is a personal film to Scorsese because the source material clearly resonates with his own faith.  However, this might’ve clouded his filmic judgement, because like its protagonists, Silence tests your patience.

I really wanted to like this film, but like an unrequited love, I found myself losing interest and giving up the chase. Large chunks were unengaging, slow, and dare I say it … boring.  Putting in extra effort to peel back layers of dubious Portuguese accents and gratuitous melodrama does reward the viewer with glimpses of Scorsese genius; his intentional use of the camera, his interesting treatment of sound — basically, Silence looks and sounds great.  But, that’s slim pickings for a film that promised so much more.

I have never felt this way about a Scorsese film before. So, like the Jesuit priests, I started to doubt my faith in the great director.  Must I apostatise like the film’s Christian subjects? Maybe I was lacking the piety of a true film critic. Or perhaps this was a test and so I should wait for enlightenment. Like any great cinematic journey, the destination only begins to fully reveal itself long after you’ve left the theatre.  So, wait I did … nothing. Waited further … silence.  Sorry Martin.

Rating: 2.5 blessings out of 5

You can see the published review here.

Fences

fencesAdapting a celebrated Broadway play to the screen without it being considered “stagey” can’t be easy. The award winning play Fences opened for its third run in 2010, and here, the play’s five main actors have reprised their role for its big screen treatment.

The play was written by Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson. His adaptation for the big screen has been posthumously helmed by Denzel Washington. Wilson, who died in 2005, insisted that the film version of his play be directed by an African-American, a decision which has certainly cemented the story’s concern with race. Oddly though, Fences benefits very little from Washington’s hundred-plus stage performances as its protagonist, Troy, bringing to the screen a performance that feels over rehearsed.  The same can’t be said for Viola Davis, whose role as his wife is reprised with genuine authenticity.

Troy is a disgruntled father carrying the baggage of his neglected upbringing, and bitterness over missing a shot at big-time baseball due to the racist selection policy of the fifties. In denying his son (Jovan Adepo) the same opportunity, his flaws are laid bare and serve to fuel the film’s central theme of “legacy” — how we either rebel against what we view as wrong with our parents, or we become their faults and pass it on to the next generation.  The titular fence that Troy builds throughout the film serves as a metaphor to expound upon this theme — “You gotta take the crooked with the straights” is a comment on accepting our flawed nature as human beings as much as it is about the fence itself.

The value added by its adaptation from stage to screen is a subtle one.  Relying heavily on language and performance, it appears to unapologetically eschew the medium it is presented on, employing a very bland filmic style.  What makes this perplexing is that it was shot by Danish cinematographer, Charlotte Bruus Christensen, who is known for some very striking and vivid screen work (The Hunt, The Girl on the Train).

Ultimately it is the script rather than the look that gives the film its “stagey” feel, which is perhaps due to Wilson’s lack of experience with film.  And while a cinematic version of Fences has widened its audience reach, the same can’t be said for widening its appeal. It does have some wonderful and touching moments, but as a whole, Fences is a couple of palings short.

Rating: 3 palings out of 5

You can see the published review here.

Manchester by the Sea

 

mbtsIt’s Oscar season and the nominated films are being released thick and fast.  One of the contenders, Manchester by the Sea, is the third feature film by director and writer Kenneth Lonergan (Margaret), who was originally best known for his work as a playwright.  Here, Lonergan has brought to the big screen a heartbreaking tale of social tragedy.

Lee (Casey Affleck) is a janitor working in Boston. He is extremely withdrawn and clearly carries unexplained baggage from his past that periodically bubbles to the surface with outbursts of anger.  When his brother dies he is reluctantly dragged back into his dark past, both emotionally and physically, to the town where he grew up, Manchester (yep, it’s by the sea).  He is forced to face his demons and become intimately connected to the people he had previously withdrawn from.

Structurally the film presents two timelines; the present day Lee who is quiet, withdrawn, and unsure of himself as he deals with the weighty issues surrounding the custody of his nephew (Lucas Hedges) and relationship with his ex-wife (Michelle Williams).  In contrast, this is intertwined with flashbacks of his confident and outgoing past self. As the film progresses, both personas gravitate towards one another on a collision course that generates a burning curiosity regarding the reason for his regression, but it also comes with a foreboding sense of dread.

Some of its most harrowing moments are contrasted against the comically absurd and mundane details of everyday life. The crucial and distressing scene that explains Lee’s torment is comically offset by ambulance officers struggling with a jammed stretcher. Such moments allow for humorous relief but also serve to flesh out the gravity of Lee’s personal struggles.

One of the film’s great strengths are the performances.  Michelle Williams makes wonderful use of her limited screen time, and Casey Affleck’s nuanced portrayal of isolation and withdrawal is a tour de force of onscreen acting.  His ability to show a maelstrom of rage and despair bubbling just beneath a thin veneer of control is riveting to watch — and all within a frame that eschews closeups. It’s no surprise he landed the Golden Globe and I’d be surprised if he doesn’t get the Oscar nod too.

Despite a couple of minor false steps (Michelle William’s character had too little screen time, and I had some reservations over the musical score), Manchester by the Sea is a wonderfully haunting portrayal of grief and regret — worth seeing if none-other than for Affleck’s performance alone.

Rating: 4 suppressed feelings out of 5

You can see the published review here.

The Country Doctor

tcdDoctor turned Director Thomas Lilti can at least claim to know his material.  Topically similar to his last directorial outing (Hippocrates: Diary of a French Doctor), The Country Doctor is a gently observational piece that takes a slice of rural French life and lets a discordant zephyr blow through its fields. As they say, Doctors never make the best patients, but in this instance they do make quite good Directors.

Dustin Hoffman lookalike Francois Cluzet, plays Jean-Pierre, a doctor practicing in rural Normandy. When Jean-Pierre falls ill he reluctantly enlists help in the form of a female student doctor called Nathalie (Marianne Denicourt).  There is immediate conflict between them as Jean-Pierre, whose ironically misanthropic nature towards his peers puts him at odds with the inexperienced Nathalie.  Cluzet has a wonderful way of conveying emotion through subtle expression, allowing for appropriate moods of light and shade. Thankfully, Cluzet’s skills are not lost on Director Lilti, who elevates this further by letting the camera sit with his performance for long periods. Lilti’s restraint only serves to enhance this character driven film — it is a restraint that is concerned more with development of character than driving the plot.  The lack of a substantial plot might understandably concern some, but when it is offset by such a rich array of characters, all is forgiven.

The collision of vastly different backgrounds in Jean-Pierre as an experienced rural doctor, and Nathalie as an inexperienced city doctor, provides fertile ground for the film to explore its thematic concerns of vocation and location.  Furthermore, their relationship allows the film to bristle with humour throughout, and with such a focus on its two protagonists, it is a relief that the chemistry between Cluzet and Denicourt is one that successfully elevates the film rather than drags it down.

The Country Doctor presents nothing groundbreaking; it is what I would coin a delightfully forgettable film — one that won’t stick in the memory for long but is a delight to watch at the time.  Nonetheless, it is all the better for its reserve and operates amicably within its bounds at a pace that matches its rural setting. Despite some cliches and melodramatic interludes, The Country Doctor is a warm and inviting film that avoids being side tracked by any weighty concerns.

Rating: 3.5 appointments out of 5

You can see the published review here.

Moonlight

 

20151023_moonlight_d08_c1_k1_0121-credit-photo-by-david-bornfriend

Photo by David Bornfriend

“Who is you, man?” — a question posed to the protagonist of Barry Jenkins’ latest feature film, Moonlight.  Issues of “identity” are often explored in film, but few offer such a fresh and unique take on the topic as Moonlight.  Jenkins both directed and adapted the screenplay from Tarell McCraney’s original story “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue”.  It’s a shame they changed the title because it succinctly sums up the central metaphor to this film — that is, how you are perceived through the critical lens of others. More-so, how others will always try to define you.

The film is presented in three acts spanning the formative years of Chiron, an African-American, from childhood through adolescence to adulthood. Growing up in a rough neighbourhood, his journey of self-discovery deals with universal themes of identity, sexuality, family, and most of all, masculinity. He discovers from an early age that certain feelings have no place in the hostile environment he lives in, and finds himself constantly on the outer. Chiron struggles to come to terms with his sexuality and his place in the world, all the while managing his drug addled mother (played by Naomie Harris).

Although such environments and topics often lend themselves to gritty social realism, Jenkins has instead opted to tell Chiron’s story with a vivid impressionistic style. The result is more akin to Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild and presents a very visual film that is striking but also utilises quiet moments and an economy of dialogue. Cinematographer James Laxton has done a wonderful job of getting his camera to tell Chiron’s story.  Skin tones are exquisitely lit and the beats of camera movement match the incredible musical score by Nicholas Britell (Whiplash, 12 Years a Slave).  The result is a sensory experience that had me spellbound.

Magical qualities are consistently present in all three performances of Chiron’s character, despite being played by three actors of different age and body shape. Director Jenkins explains that during the process of auditions he focussed on expression through the eyes; “find the eyes and you’ll see the soul, and if the soul is the same, then the audience will follow the character”. In actors Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes he found the same soul through three sets of eyes.  And indeed, I did follow their journey as one.

Moonlight is one of those rare movies that just doesn’t take a wrong step. It is an astounding piece of cinema that compassionately taps into a facet of American life that is not often explored.

Rating: 5 perfect eyes

You can see the published review here

Lion

Grab Cut Insert Cut F:PHOTOMediaFactory ActionsRequests DropBox46593#weinsteinlion_markrogers-3472_(1)_lg.jpgLion is directed by a relative newcomer to the feature film set, Garth Davis, who has taken the reins of bringing the seemly impossible true story of Saroo Brierley to the big screen. Adapted from the book A Long Way Home (written by Saroo himself), Davis has brought about a film that is harrowing, tragic, beautiful, and thought provoking.

It begins by introducing Saroo (who is superbly played by young Sunny Pawar) in his home village, beautifully sketching out village life from the perspective of a five-year-old. From the loving relationship with his brother and mother to the playful nature of his walk home, his world is wonderfully captured through the lens of master cinematographer Greig Fraser (Bright StarKilling Them Softly). Tragically, while waiting at a train station for his brother to return, Saroo inadvertently wanders onto a train bound for Calcutta hundreds of miles away. Search hard enough and many of us can remember brief times as a child of accidental separation from our parents and the fleeting but undiluted feeling horror that ensued. This feeling is conveyed in gut-wrenching scenes that capture impoverished India in all its Slumdog-esque filth, colour, and chaos. The tragedy of an innocent five-year-old lost among it all, while being beset upon by the denizens of unscrupulous intent, is difficult to watch.

Fortunately pockets of humanity lift little Saroo out of his desperate situation to where he is eventually adopted by an Australian couple, Sue and John Brierley (played by Nicole Kidman and David Denham).

Twenty-five years on and Saroo (Dev Patel with an unwavering Aussie accent), who is now firmly ensconced in the Australian way of life, begins to recall flashes of his early life. This triggers what becomes the obsessive task of piecing together his own origins based on the unreliable memories of his five-year-old self. The obsession puts a strain on the relationship with his girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara), and his adopted family. There is a scene where Saroo remonstrates his mum over her selflessness and unswerving commitment and love for her adopted children. It is a short but powerful scene where Sue Brierley’s anguish is caught in one wonderfully acted moment by Nicole Kidman, demonstrating in her limited screen time what a class actor she is.

If I had one quibble, it concerns the chemistry between Patel and Mara. Both are good actors in their own right and yet their on-screen combination felt a little forced and over drawn. Despite this, Lion is a beautiful and moving film made all the more compelling because it is a true story … make sure to bring your tissues.

Rating: 4 jalebis out of 5.

You can see the published review here