Category Archives: ☆☆☆☆☆ Review

LFF: Loveless

It isn’t often that a review should explain what a film is not about, but Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless is a spellbinding examination of absence. Absence of connection, of love, and of independence, each represented by its literal incarnation: the absence of a neglected child.

This child belongs to a vile couple going through divorce. We are able to watch and understand their point of view (a shift in perspective during the first act gives a tangibility to the disappearance of their son), but never to the brink of empathy. Miserable and lonely, they have the emotional underpinning of a Roy Andersson character. In fact, every person in Loveless is a pessimist, figures stuffed inside their homes. The windows that they are framed against (literally against) is a way of maintaining the silence. Its themes may not be as enamoured with politics as Zvyagintsev’s last, Leviathan, but this remains an astute indictment of the Russian government.

Loveless begins with its setting. This is Russia, a stark, empty abyss. Where are all the people? Kids pool out from inside a school building, and the camera follows the child, Alexey, until it doesn’t. The imagery here is telling, an invitation of the film’s themes before they’re revealed. The emptiness of the wintery wasteland is only filled up during the latter half of the film, where citizens choose to forgo authorities and muster up a search party of their own. Interpreting it this way, Loveless is slyly optimistic, staging a battle between an alienating country and its discontented populus. In many other ways, however, Loveless is not.

Take the mother, for instance, who’s both neglectful of her child and expectant of his good behaviour. It is made clear that she doesn’t want anything to do with Alexey, and her inability to notice his disappearance until two days later is proof enough. She’s Mother Russia represented as a figure who has given up on who or what she’s supposed to love, and this characterisation is (sledge)hammered home in one of Loveless’ closing scenes. The film isn’t interested in delivering its message discreetly – why should it be? Zvyagintsev wants his intentions to be heard loud and clear. Televisions blare out war and chaos, a blah blah of negativity that wears off on the characters. It’s over the top, even comically so, but that’s the point. Loveless is a poetically written letter of desperation that urges its citizens to do something, anything, about their country’s political climate.

Once the focus on thematic layering makes way for an investigative drama, Loveless’ narrative becomes more procedural and just as intense. This film can pull off this argument in tones simply due to the fact that it is in itself an argument. The first half stakes the claim that everything is hopeless in Russia, and that it’s citizens are unable to do anything about it. Its second half contradicts this, depicting people banding together in search. It is the results of the search that dictate which side of the dispute this film lies, leaving the viewer as empty as everything this film is not about.

-Gus Edgar

 

FilmSnap: Toni Erdmann

FILMSNAP: A film review that is 300 words or less.

Toni Erdmann is an experience like no other. A 3-hour German epic consisting of boardroom mundanity, cheap practical jokes and a sexual shenanigan involving a petit four, all riffing off a beautifully touching and complex paternal relationship.

The father is Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a divorcee adopting the goofball persona of Toni Erdmann in order to become closer to his daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), both figuratively and literally. Ines herself is entrenched in the workload demanded of a business consultant, and so the antics of her father distract rather than entertain – her straight-faced demeanour at odds with Winfried’s spirited take on life. Accompanied by farce and several cringeworthy situations, we watch as their relationship evolves.

It’s a triumph of sharp scriptwriting and superb performances, an emotional odyssey with the perfect conclusion. There’s no pretension here, no melodramatic speeches or the excessive swells of a saccharine score. It’s grounded and quietly devastating, director Maren Ade aware of her actors’ ability and the strength of the dialogue, ridding the film of its background noise and thus of its superficiality. With a single embrace, Toni Erdmann profoundly communicates the complications and tribulations of a father-daughter relationship far better than any sickly sob-story could manage.

And it’s funny, too. As unorthodox a comedy as it may be, Winfried’s actions and Ines’ reactions earn plenty of laughs, and several set-pieces are teeming with awkward energy. It’s not a film that consistently provokes belly-laughs, focusing moreso on the ‘drama’ aspect of ‘comedy drama’, but Simonischek and Hüller are totally committed to their roles, and so the humour is both intensely embarrassing and remarkably believable.  

Toni Erdmann’s 3-hour runtime may seem daunting, but it allows its ingeniously realised central relationship to flourish. By the end, you won’t know whether to laugh or cry. So you do both.

-Gus Edgar

Arrival

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There seems to have been something of a sci-fi Renaissance recently, with each year supplying a groundbreaking hallmark of the genre. 2013 was Gravity, a film with unrivalled effects, visually astounding and constantly breathtaking. 2014 was Interstellar, offering intense cinematic and emotional spectacle. And 2015 was The Martian, giving us an inspiring appraisal of the good of humanity. 2016, then, can only belong to Arrival, a film that serves as a cry for intelligent, thought-provoking sci-fi, not needing to rely on bucketloads of CGI or showy futuristic lingo.

Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist with the weight of the world thrust upon her when twelve egg-shaped UFOs carrying aliens appear, dotted seemingly at random across the planet: she must translate their dialect in order to discover the purpose of their arrival before the threat of military retaliation is fulfilled. Assisting her is Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist who’s devoted to Banks as much as he is to his job. Her unorthodox approach to the task at hand is garnering results, but growing distrust and paranoia spread across the research camp and various governing bodies altogether threaten to derail the mission entirely.

The film functions as both a metaphor for the growing separation and antagonism between the world as a whole, and a philosophical insight towards many ideas that if I were to reveal them to you, would spoil the movie’s emotional impact. It is not necessarily, however, an alien flick. The aliens in Arrival serve as a vehicle for the film’s integral themes. That’s not to say that their presence isn’t worthwhile, but that venturing into this film in want of a gun-ho alien quasi-horror wouldn’t fulfill expectations.

Denis Villeneuve’s take is much more intellectual – but this is to be expected from a director with such a mature filmography. His influence on Arrival isn’t as tangible as usual – he instead allows the film’s superb script, written by Eric Heisserer, and based on Ted Chiang’s short story, The Story of Your Life, to prosper. It’s a wonderful script, made poignant and dramatic through the overbearing tension and uncertainty it creates, emphasised by the twisting narrative. Villeneuve’s role is to maintain these emotions, and he handles this incredibly effectively. Memories of Bank’s daughter, whom she lost to cancer, are intertwined in the story seamlessly, and he sustains the uncertainty behind both the unknown purpose of the aliens’ arrival, and their odd, potentially threatening behaviour.

Despite the less significant (though still just as important) role Villeneuve has to Arrival’s success, there’s still room for his directorial flourishes: he employs a visual trick, that was also used in one of his previous films, Enemy, to establish how entrenched Banks is in the alien language she’s trying to decipher. His record of creating visually interesting films doesn’t go amiss either; Roger Deakins may not be at the helm this time, but Bradford Young displays a keen eye for stunning visuals – a long take of clouds scrolling past the alien vessel during our first proper look at it is as beautiful as it is calculated. Slow pans of the ship’s surface during Banks’ introduction to its interior are particularly effective in conveying the alienness of the whole ordeal, and its power to overwhelm – which it indeed does, as we hear the diegetic sound of Banks’ heavy, stumbling breathing, amid Jóhann Jóhannsson’s droning, otherworldly score. The film as a whole manages to overwhelm, and astound, not necessarily with spectacle as in Gravity and Interstellar, but simply with a sharp, powerful script.

Amy Adams herself is remarkable as Banks, conveying her utter confusion and determination beautifully; although each other actor delivers serviceable performances, this is a film that belongs to her, her character saturated with complex philosophical ideas about humanity and its intent. The film often hinges on Banks’ reaction to revelations, and Adams certainly delivers.

Jeremy Renner’s character’s bum-note of a final line aside, Arrival is a cerebral, imaginative, emotionally satisfying sci-fi that bears potent metaphysical concepts and a tour-de-force performance from Amy Adams. It’s a brilliant, brilliant addition to an ever-evolving genre. I can’t wait for 2017’s sci-fi showpiece, whatever it is…

Nocturnal Animals

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Susan Morrow’s (Amy Adams) thoughts towards Nocturnal Animals hits it right on the nose: “It’s violent and it’s sad”. ‘Nocturnal Animals’ in this context is a typescript of Morrow’s ex-husband’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) first effort at a novel, and bears more than a few similarities to the way in which the couple broke up to be merely coincidental…

Morrow herself is an art gallery owner, specialising in an oddball raunch that dominates the screen during the film’s opening credits. She’s stranded in a loveless marriage to a hunky husband (Armie Hammer) who’s more occupied with work (and other women) than anything regarding his wife. Cue the ex-husband’s typescript, sent to Morrow at a time when she’s in desperate want of connection. A way to contact her ex again – just what she needs, right? Not quite.

The novel within a film plunges headfirst into a highway scene with a ferocious intensity that rivals Sicario’s border crossing scene last year. It’s a jagged, welcome tonal shift, tinged with uncertainty over what’s going to happen. In fact, the whole narrative of Nocturnal Animals – both the film itself and its titular typescript – is unpredictable, and we can’t help but sympathise with the main character’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) hapless plight in this thrilling revenge story.

Back in the real world – shot with fusty gusto – Morrow is mulling over the story and recollecting haunted memories of her prior life with her ex-husband. There’s a sense of disconnect, of lack of relevance, but suddenly parallels between their romance and the typescript’s narrative become apparent, building to a devastating final scene that’s as electrifying as it is inevitable. The film is endlessly evolving, bludgeoning past brutal plot points and descending into irresistible, dirty delirium, heightened by Abel Korzeniowski’s sublimely tempestuous score. Yet director Tom Ford and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey give control to the chaos, with an assuredness applied to the kinetic camerawork, the brooding pans of musty citylife and desolate deserts. The danger and immorality on display really is tangible.

One source of danger comes in the form of Aaron Taylor Johnson’s terrifying and unhinged Ray Marcus, who torments Gyllenhaal and his fictional family. This is Johnson’ best performance of his career, committing to his character’s sleaziness and repugnancy, and preventing Ray from becoming caricaturish. Another brilliantly absurd character is the cop looking for him, played by Michael Shannon with straight-faced hilarity. He’s a character inflicted with lung cancer, who continues to smoke (“Well, yep, that’s how it works”), and nearly steals the show with his deadpan delivery and questionable morals. Other recognisable, or renowned actors, are relegated to the sidelines, however: Michael Sheen and Jena Malone each feature in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos, but at least their fleeting moments are highlights.

I’ve seen this film twice now, which I suppose is testament to how the film grips – and then sinks its claws into you. It’s menacing, and bold, and each scene is displayed with enough unwavering confidence and dedication by Ford (save for one Gyllenhaal outburst) that it all holds together. That this is only his sophomoric effort, after his acclaimed ‘A Single Man’, is truly astonishing. He may not just be a fashion designer, but he uses his considerable expertise in that field to capture beautiful imagery and symbolic costume design, and boy, it works.

Ford has birthed a film that’s dripping with grime but presented with gloss, creating an almost ugly beauty that’s visually fascinating. It’s a savage study of an intricate relationship, furnished with the bravado of a director that knows how to handle a script that’s jet-black in both themes and humour, and bolstered by a blistering score and vivid camerawork.

Beasts of No Nation – LFF 2015

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Netflix’s first foray into feature films looks to be a wise, wise choice; there’s been talk of Beasts of No Nation becoming a major Oscar contender by the end of the year, and it’s not hard to see why. The film follows Agu, a West-African child that, after being separated in vicious circumstances from his endearing family, is forcibly enlisted and raised by a ruthless yet engaging ‘Commandant’, to become a child soldier. It’s harrowing, relevant subject matter, and the film doesn’t shy away from the tragedies and awful consequences that arise with the recruitment of youngsters to fight in a savage, territorial war.

The film starts off harmlessly enough, with a smiling Agu (played terrifically by first-timer Abraham Attah) cheekily attempting to sell an ‘imagination-TV’ with his friends. The comedy and joy is quickly diminished, and the descent into ferocious, troubling war is cleverly contrasted by its jubilant epilogue. Director Cary Fukunaga, of True Detective fame, excels in crafting sequences of intense, tragic warzones; encapsulating Beast of No Nation as a whole, they’re brave, visually mesmerising and unafraid to detail the immense bloodshed. These scenes are shot by Fukunaga himself, where the camerawork is used wonderfully – particularly in an overwhelmingly powerful tracking shot – to capture both the sorrow and the survivalist instinct of the men shown on screen. It’s kinetic and stylistically superb, but doesn’t burden the terrifyingly realistic action.

Abraham Attah is a revelation as Agu – emotionally astounding and maturely performed. It’s testament to Attah that he matches – and often goes beyond – the more showy, brutal performance by Idris Elba as Agu’s commandant. Elba adds complexity to a character that wisely avoids becoming melodramatic, completely transforming into his taxing role.

Due to its subject matter, the film is unavoidably emotional and upsetting to watch, with many scenes difficult to sit through without covering your eyes at the horror of it all. Aided by Dan Romer’s unusual, effective synthetic score, there are many tearjerking moments that beautifully evoke anguish of Agu’s situation, yet it never feels like the film is manipulative or overly preachy. One scene, around halfway into the film, shows white tourists indifferently snapping photos of the war-stricken battalion as they pass by; Beasts of No Nation’s message is clear. Something needs to change.

– Gus Edgar

 

 

Inherent Vice

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Incoherent Vice would be a much more suitable title.

Incohesive, long, and dialogue-heavy, Inherent Vice has all the potential to flounder. Yet under the steady (or rather, wild) hands of director Paul Thomas Anderson, the film becomes a psychedelic, incredibly enjoyable ride brimming with wit and melancholy. The film follows Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (played in routinely magnificent fashion by the now ever-reliable Joaquin Phoenix), and his exploits to help his ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fey (Katherine Waterston, also exquisite) investigate a kidnapping of notorious real-estate billionaire Mickey Wolfmann. From there, the plot descends (or ascends, depending on your perspective of the film) into sumptuous lunacy; a mystery involving the coveted and secretive ‘Golden Fang’, a fascinating encounter with a figure named Adrian Prussia, and a charming, nostalgic tale involving a Ouija board all intertwined into the flick’s increasingly crazed plot.

It’s a stoner noir that gives the audience the impression of being stoned themselves – a startling achievement by both P.A Anderson and Thomas Pynchon, the writer of the book that this flick is adapted from. It’s not about the end result, but about the journey; plot threads aimlessly disappear and reappear, often left unresolved amid the concoction of brewing story lines; told from the perspective of Doc’s weed-frazzled mind. Yet despite the apparent attempt to confuse and toy with the audience, the flick is never not-fascinating. As the opening credits appear, you’ll find a big grin spreading across your face – barely disappearing during Inherent Vice’s 148-minute run time.

Part of this is due to the film’s soundtrack – just like its plot, it’s a daring and muddled mix in equal measures, an amalgamation of Jonny Greenwood’s terrifically periodic score, and the various offerings of artists, each with a booming, bombastic track to deftly support what’s on screen; Vitamin C, Here Come the Ho-Dads, Simba, and Les Fleur all stand-out as proudly and brilliantly as Doc’s sideburns. They also help contribute to Inherent Vice’s wonderful, tonal atmosphere – the turn of the 1970’s portrayed on screen with expert precision.

The atmosphere created is also helped enormously by the director’s use of large format film, fabricating a musty, saturated quality that wouldn’t be possible to produce otherwise. Inherent Vice also features the best cinematography of any film released in 2014 – which is saying a lot when considering Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel were both released last year. Each shot is filmed with typical P.A Anderson-ian perfection, outmuscling his previous effort, The Master, for beauty alone.

And all this praise without truly referring to the acting – yes, the acting is something special too. Joaquin Phoenix brings his deranged, frustratedly lackadaisical persona to the forefront, and it works wonders. Doc is equal measures of composure and insanity, a brewing mix of hippie goodness that is juxtaposed expertly by the straight-faced ‘Bigfoot’ (Josh Brolin), a hippie-hatin’ detective that surprisingly features as the figure that prises the most laughs from the audience. Less surprisingly, he’s portrayed excellently by Brolin, shrouding himself in a subtly affectionate sentimentality; his character depth, where sexuality and sentiments towards Doc remain ambiguous throughout, elevates the film to a whole other stratosphere. He’s a character with a comical facade and an aura of sadness.

Katherine Waterston, who plays the main female lead as Doc’s ex-girlfriend, must be mentioned too. A relatively unknown face, she brings fragility and vulnerability to the storyline, where her chemistry with Joaquin Phoenix forms much of the crux of the film. She stands out expertly in one particular scene – a sensual, sorrowful discussion with Doc that culminates in silently affectionate sex; leaving the audience in a similarly hushed state. The scene is a showcase of Waterston’s acting range and capabilities, and she handles the challenging task with aplomb.

The same can be said for all of Inherent Vice’s bloated jumble of characters, each adroitly played; Martin Short helming a terrific cameo, and only Owen Wilson debatedly miscast. Their encounters with Doc contribute as the overall chassis of the plot, and if you can withstand the initial tedium, it plays out beautifully. Inherent Vice works on so many levels; an accurate portrayal of life in 1970, an intriguing mystery and crime drama, a fantastic character-study, and a poignant tale of love and paranoia. Inherent Vice may not be for everyone, but if it works, it works wonders – a gem of a film with a myriad of vibrant characters and a plot as smart as it is unhinged.

– Gus Edgar

Boyhood

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When it comes to reviewing films, the phrase ‘There’s nothing like this’ or ‘It’s completely unique’ is often overused and misused. In Boyhood’s situation, that same phrase is perfectly applicable – there really is nothing quite like Boyhood and it’s concept.

Taking place from 2002 to the present day, the whole cast grow up – literally – before your very own eyes. While the theme of nostalgia is apparent, that’s not the film’s primary focus. Instead, the prominent theme is simply life as a boy growing up (you don’t say…). Its plot is made up of strands – moments in life that can appear mundane and ordinary but when placed together, hold vast amounts of importance. It’s simply amazing and nothing short of a masterpiece in how director Linklater goes about achieving such a moving film – a film that has the power to evoke emotion from the audience just from the concept alone.

The casting choices are superb. There is an obvious amount of risk in choosing a cast that will grow up together over 12 years. Yet every single member is fantastic in the role they play – subtle acts that increase the realism of the film tenfold. Patricia Arquette is incredible as Mason’s mother. Her understated performance where she balances looking after her children with her relationship issues is both contained and touching. The same goes for all of the actors, really – actions that could come across as annoying or illogical are completely natural and can cause certain members of the audience to reminisce with a tear in their eye.

If there are any criticisms that could be made of Boyhood, it’s that a few scenes feel superficial; crammed in to deliver an important message to the audience about life. A scene in a darkroom where Mason’s photography teacher graces him with lessons on life has a facade of importance – but really is all fluff. And while it is touching to watch the smaller moments of the boy’s life, some do come across as a little too mundane and insignificant to serve any fulfilling purpose in the film.

Yet despite its (very few) problems, Boyhood manages to become one of the best films of the year – a powerful character study that focuses not on a particular young boy, but the concept of a boy and his life in general.

– Gus Edgar

The Grand Budapest Hotel

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So, The Grand Budapest Hotel is certainly my favourite film of 2014 so far, and is perhaps Anderson’s finest film to date. Which is saying quite a lot; every Anderson film I have seen thus far (Moonrise Kingdom, The Fantastic Mr.Fox, The Darjeeling Limited, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Royal Tenenbaums) have all been individually outstanding and hard to top. Yet Wes Anderson delivers the goods once again with a crazy plot, an impressive Ralph Fiennes performance, eye-globbering visuals and his classic traits shining through the film.

The story, told in the present day in the past in the past… in the past, follows M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) as a camp concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel, and his faithful lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori), for the majority of its running time. It’s essentially a game of cat and mouse as the story circles around a valuable painting known as “Boy With Apple”. That isn’t the half of it, of course, but to explain the plot any further would take up too much space.

As does the vast amount of actors swamping the film, although they never seem out of place (aside from a brief cameo from Anderson regular, Owen Wilson). Oft-criticised before its release that it was Anderson’s ensemble film, with a plot that would potentially be burdened by its cast, I couldn’t disagree more. The film flows eloquently and is extremely fast-paced, but it still allows for character development, the main recipient being M.Gustave. Fiennes is excellent with a role that Anderson stated, and I would have to agree with him on this, was “made for him”. He plays camp surprisingly well, and his moments of foul-mouthed temper are perfectly played out. Revolori is also great, acting in a more observant than active role, only playing second fiddle to Fiennes. He plays the emotion weaved throughout his character in a brilliantly understated way. Out of its mammoth supporting cast, Jeff Goldblum stands out, a particular museum scene with an abrupt ending being a highlight of both Goldblum’s performance and the film as a whole. Dafoe an Ronan both do a decent job with the roles they are given, although Brody can’t escape from his stereotypical “bad guy” outfit.

The outstanding visuals are accompanied with a seemingly-neverending soundtrack that isn’t like anything I’ve ever heard before. The soundtrack sums up the movie: simply wonderful, original, and from the heart.

– Gus Edgar

The Act of Killing

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Seems like I have a love for documentaries. The few I have seen (I for India, The Imposter, Exit Through the Gift Shop) have all been excellent, and this is certainly no exception. Yet despite how enthralling this film is, it’s a horrible watch. The Act of Killing documents Indonesian gangsters (responsible for the murder of thousands of “communists” in the 1960s), and specifically a gangster by the name of Anwar Congo, as he attempts to make his own film going into detail about how the gangsters exterminated those that he deemed evil. Instead, as this film and his film drive on, he comes to terms with the horrors of what he has done. Yet that’s not to state that Congo is a decent man. No, he’s despicable, his complete lack of remorse incredibly surreal. One particular poignant scene involves a man talking about how his step-father was dragged away and found dead in an oil rig, laughing sadly as he tells the story. Raw scenes like these feature heavily in this film, and it’s all the better for it.  If you do watch this, don’t think that you’re not going to come out a broken man.

– Gus Edgar