Film Journal

THE FILM JOURNAL | April 2014

I look back at the films I watched in the previous month, whether they were brand new in the cinema or simply new to me. Dates are by UK release. Here are my thoughts.

filmjournalapril2014_1

Forty films.
Thanks to attending as press for the Sundance London festival, we’ve arrived at a record-breaking Film Journal. This biggest-ever edition hosts a ton of unique indies and eye-opening documentaries, while the biggest blockbuster of the month came from a bonafide auteur. It was a bold month for cinema-going, in terms of the sheer number I saw and the amount of topics covered by them. And while a few classics turned out to be not quite as good as their reputation led me to believe, there are still three ‘Recommended’ titles, and zero ‘Avoid’ titles – which can’t be too bad. Read on, discover, and enjoy.

• Unmissable
Those pieces of work that prove cinema is one of humanity’s better endeavours.
Example: Apocalypse Now

• Recommended
Extraordinary films that are must-sees, but perhaps not considered masterpieces.
Example: Kick-Ass

• Avoid
Movies that exhibit technical ineptitude, cause severe ideological malaise, or both.
Example: Grown Ups

~ ~ ~



bluesbrothers1The Blues Brothers
[1980]
A curiously inert fable for blues music, John Landis’ direction can’t match up to Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi as brothers on the run from the authorities – in the name of rock n’ roll – whose sunglass-toting silhouettes have made pop culture tremble at the knees for the last few decades. Still, the tunes are just as large as ever, and the movie continues to see a lot of cult love even today.

For —

Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 [2014]nymphomaniacvol1_1
Nymphomaniac is, surprisingly, Lars von Trier’s funniest film – or at least, the first instalment is. His sexual odyssey (or tantrum, if you consider this a toys-outof-the-pram reaction to his unfavourable reception at Cannes), places the grotesque on the shelf below the ironic, and uses its calculating framing device – in which Jo recounts her erotic exploits to Stellan Skarsgård – to the most postmodern ends imaginable.



nymphomaniacvol2_1Nymphomaniac Vol. 2 [2014]
More of the same, but just nastier. Perhaps divided into two separate releases to save audiences the onslaught of a four-hour cut of von Trier’s emotion-porn marathon, Vol. 2 includes a few questionable plot deviances and shoehorned-in contrivances, but it’s saved by its depressingly funny blackout ending. 

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Mystery Road [2014]mysteryroad1
A gaunt thriller peppered with sneaky characters whose motives aren’t always clear, Mystery Road is at its best when it’s being a small-scale Western, and at its worst when it tries to do familial drama; thankfully, it never goes down that road fully, and instead opts to explore a half-aboriginal man encountering murder, racism and other dark depths of the human psyche in the Australian desert.



noah1Noah
[2014]
Challenging and sweeping, Darren Aronofsky makes his claim here as a genuine visionary; Noah, a biblical epic imagined from the Genesis two-by-two fable, follows the titular bearded dude as he embarks on his god-given task; build an ark, save the world. Aronofsky’s smartest move is remembering that this tale is a strenuous (and admittedly unconventional) family drama – but perhaps leaves it a tad too late in the film’s arc (or ark), handing the first half of this colossal picture over to the forces of nature. Like The Fountain before it, he’s crafted a complex, scary and morally blurry ode to humankind and its place in the world. We can only wait until the next time such a unique, talented director is given a studio budget as big as their dreams.

A Story of Children and Film [2014]astoryofchildrenandfilm1
Essay films with a decidedly subjective slant, like A Personal Journey Through American Cinema with Martin Scorcese, can be tremendous ruminations on the way the artform affects an individual and then, through the prism of shared human experience, becomes a universal constant. Sight & Sound‘s own Mark Cousins here reveals a personal moment – observing his niece and nephew playing – and quickly captures it on video. He uses this as a starting point to springboard into the topic of kids on film; how their innocence is captured, their rage bottled, and how movies seem perfect in representing these from The 400 Blows, through E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and right up to Moonrise Kingdom. It’s a rather slight affair, but works within its own boundaries by dictating its thoughts not chronologically, but by feeling.



thedouble1The Double
[2014]

• Recommended
Richard Ayoade had been quiet since his directorial debut Submarine; turns out he was just biding his time, waiting for the chance to get his hyperstylised Gilliam-meets-Resnais The Double off the ground. Jesse Eisenberg’s best performance yet sees him shine as Simon and James, in a world that’s as claustrophobic as it is disquietingly jocular. Perfectly-pitched writing, directing and acting combine near-flawlessly to make The Double essential viewing for fans of Ayoade’s skewed vision of the world.

Tom at the Farm [2014]tomatthefarm1
At twenty-five, Xavier Dolan already has five films under his belt (including the upcoming Cannes favourite Mommy), but his latest is the paranoia-centric Tom at the Farm where secret relationships simmer under the surface. It’s an astute effort, but comes across as try-hard in its most vulnerable moments.
dI c-



divergent1Divergent
[2014]
The franchise-crazy studios have begun to lose their grip on what makes films great by themselves without having them be part of a ‘bigger picture’ format. There are, of course, exceptions, those being the first to roll the dice on multi-picture diplomacy; Marvel Studios and their army of Avengers, and the more comparable The Hunger Games and its believable dystopian world of adolescent angst. Divergent, very much in diminishing-return form, suffers most from a screenplay that sets a universe up painfully slowly, with little payoff and not much in the way of interest for anyone who hasn’t read the best-selling books. Thankfully, we have a welcome new star in the form of Shailene Woodley after her incredible turn in The Descendants, bringing a tough female character to our screens who’s just as capable – if not more so – than her super-macho male counterparts.

Rio 2 [2014]rio2_1
The first rule of sequels: Go bigger. Alien? Let’s add more Aliens. Toy Story? More toys, more characters, more everything. However, Rio 2 can’t make the same template work; even the vibrant animation on show, bringing a jungle landscape to life, can’t hold up a story that simply doesn’t go anywhere.




willowandwind1Willow and Wind (Beed-o baad)
[2000]
Mohammad-Ali Talebi, a master of child-centric films, paints an incredibly focused and bittersweet portrait of a child who must restore the broken window of his school before the next day, or else face a zero-prospect future. Willow and Wind is so precise, so pure, that it could work just as well if it were a silent feature, thanks not only to Talebi but the child star Hadi Alipour, whose puppy-dog eyes could melt butter.


The Raid 2 [2014]theraid2_1
The non-stop barrage of action that was The Raid is here served up with a helping of sweeping crime saga for its sequel. Impeccably choreographed and entertaining action sequences – the most impressive being a fight-cum-chase scene – are sullied by unconvincing dramatic sequences which leave you nonplussed. Just like the first one, then.




alongwaydown1A Long Way Down
[2014]
An immediately interesting premise – four people form a pact to survive together following botched attempts at suicide – is hampered by badly-written scenes and character work that is so over the place, it’s almost insulting. This is a near ‘Avoid’, but you may be able to salvage some meaning from Toni Collette’s Maureen, whose narrative sees her tenderly care for her disabled son.

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Calvary [2014]calvary1
• Recommended
There’s a sequence near the end of John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary which calls to mind the closing montage of Donnie Darko, in which we revisit the characters of the piece, no matter how big their part, and witness their reaction to the events that have come to pass. The one in Calvary is enough to bring you to tears; theological fear and love have rarely been portrayed this articulately in recent years, by way of Brendan Gleeson’s immaculately designed priest James, whose struggle with a town full of naysayers is one we can all find some relevance in – whether you’re a believer or not.

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thelunchbox1The Lunchbox (Dabba)
[2014]
Situational dramas can either become conventional and trite early on (The Break-Up), or they can transcend their apparent plot boundaries by way of what the screenwriters always intended; for those limitations to merely act as the framework of something far greater (The Apartment). The Lunchbox is one of those pieces, where Ritesh Batra (screenwriter and director) teases out the most moving moments from an interesting conceit.

Transcendence [2014]transcendence1
Transcendence fails to build the relationships between its key characters successfully,  but its ambition is nothing if not commendable; with a story that probes big ideas bravely, Wally Pfister’s directorial debut is marred by an absence of lyricism. Also, some of the cinematography on show isn’t up to Pfister’s usual standard, regardless of cinematographer Jess Hall’s involvement; no movie by someone responsible for the way The Dark Knight and Inception looks should be this amateur.

 

amazingspider-man2_1The Amazing Spider-Man 2 [2014]
The central ethos of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 can be summed up by comparing its score to that of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2; whenever Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker is faced with choices no kid his age should have to face, a rousing, beautiful four-note motif plays. Whenever Jamie Foxx’s Electro in TASM2 grins stupidly while splurging CGI-lightning at the screen; dubstep.

They Came Together [N/A]theycametogether1
Given the comedic talent on display, They Came Together could easily have become a grapple of power; instead, it works seamlessly for the greater good in delivering a gag-a-minute powerhouse of funny. Slapstick meets satire in this parody of romcoms, with career-defining bests from Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler.

 




hits-noposter-1Hits [N/A]
David Cross tries his hand at directing – but the result is a drab mess, combining potentially bountiful storylines (a single father unwittingly becomes an internet sensation) with ones that are as pointless and vacuous as their characters (hipsters try to get on the hype). Smug, well-trod territory.
[No poster]


Memphis [N/A]memphis-noposter-1
There is nothing to write about this movie, for there is nothing to this movie. Nothing. Before the Big Bang, there may have been this movie. Because this movie is nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
[No poster]

oneilove-noposter-1The One I Love [N/A]
To talk even a small amount about this movie would be to give too much away. The One I Love is incredibly smart, not just in terms of writing but in terms of its character’s emotions; every reaction to the unbelievable (and there’s a lot of that here) is perfectly realised, while the movie moves towards an unpredictable but inevitable conclusion. Mark Duplass scores his second hit in the form of American-indie science-fiction, the first being the wonderful Safety Not Guaranteed.
[No poster]

Drunktown’s Finest [N/A]drunktownsfinest2
There’s a lot of ambition in Drunktown’s Finest‘s portrayal of a trio of struggling individuals, all trying to figure out how they fit in the world; some parts ring painfully true (a transexual is humiliated at a calendar shoot) while others play blandly to stereotype (if you’ve got a goatee, then you must have lots of guns and drugs), but this is a worthwhile foray into family issues.
[Review of Drunktown’s Finest]


wrinkles1Wrinkles (Arrugas) [2014]
This is animation at its best; intensely moving without conforming to typical dramatic tropes, Wrinkles plays its alzheimer’s card very close to the heart. The point of characters in narrative is that they change; the extent to which they transform here is surprising, but always tender and tasteful.

Little Accidents [N/A]littleaccidents1
There was a taste for ensemble pieces about townsfolk at this year’s Sundance London, and Little Accidents may just have been the best. A mining disaster, in which only one man survives, sets large events in motion, and we bear witness to a community that tries to tear itself apart in a flux of politics and perfectly realised drama. Winning performances from Elizabeth Banks and Jacob Lofland – further showing his prowess as a child performer after Mud – help to tie this well-written, intimate epic together.

fruitvalestation1Fruitvale Station [2014]
• Recommended
Within the first thirty seconds of Fruitvale Station, it’s incredibly difficult to not gasp for breath, or utter a hushed expletive, at the miscarriage of justice that’s presented to us. For the real video footage, captured by a passer-by in the first hours of 2009, shows a potentially abrupt end to Oscar Grant III at the hands of the police; but the movie rewinds time, and features Michael B. Jordan on incendinary form as Grant as he lives out the last 24 hours of his life trying to do right. Moments range from the quietly transcendental (Grant tries to help a dog that’s just been hit by a car) to wordlessly tender (playing with his young daughter), and all adds up to a truly incredible work of American independent cinema (finally getting its UK release after premiering at Sundance last year). An absolute must-see from writer / director Ryan Coogler.

The Voices [N/A]thevoices1
Many tones clash and jar in The Voices, which stars Ryan Reynolds as a murderous – but rather nice – factory worker, who talks to his pets perhaps a little too much. The clash may be seen as a fault, but it’s entirely the point; we’re dealing with a man in (almost literally) two minds, the push and pull of which tugs at the fabric of Reynold’s reality – so it’s a perfect device to make the viewer feel uncomfortable. It also stars some fantastic supporting turns from Gemma Arterton and Anna Kendrick.
[Review of The Voices]


frank1Frank [2014]
One of the funniest films of the year is, awkwardly, also an articulate study of mental illness. It also uncovers, rather beautifully, the truth about the difference between a wannabe (Domhnall Gleeson, sporting a massive ginger beard) and legend (Michael Fassbender, massive fake head). Their journey toward artistic accomplishment and commercial success is one that rings true, despite the film’s more surreal flourishes – most courtesy of Fassbender’s Frank. With a brilliant screenplay by Jon Ronson and put on screen efficiently by Lenny Abrahamson, this is possibly the best British film of the year so far. In fact, it is.

Under the Electric Sky [N/A ]undertheelectricsky1
A ninety-minute advert for a pretentious electronic music festival. At least it wears its commercial nature on its sleeve; while the interviewees are mostly annoying, there are select parts that make you want to rave all night long. Or whatever it is the kids say these days.



wearethebest1We Are The
Best! (Vi är bäst!) [2014]
Lukas Moodysson returns to his anarchic best with We Are The Best!. A trio of school girls want to make a punk rock band, despite touts from their simple-minded classmates that ‘punk is dead’, and – by and large – do so. This isn’t about the music; the relationship between the girls is what matters here, and parents, boys and the world at large can’t stop them. This is uplifting filmmaking, on form with Moodysson’s 2000 classic Together (Tillsammans), and if you want to have a chuckle as much as a cry, you could do a lot worse.

Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter [N/A]kumikothetreasurehunter1
‘I go Fargo’. Bless Kumiko; she’s a woman who doesn’t want to subscribe to the life of other Japanese women her age (get married, earn respect). She’d much rather sink further into her dream world after discovering a VHS of the Coen Brothers’ classic Fargo and, believing it to be real, and set out to the snowy American north to find the suitcase of millions Steve Buscemi left there for anyone to pick up. It’s a superb premise, but let down by predictable turns in the story.



findingfela2Finding Fela! [2014]
Documentary director extraordinaire Alex Gibney returns once more to celebrate the life of Fela Kuti, afrobeat’s pioneer and spokesperson for the continent’s common man. It’s approach is prosaic, and focuses a bit too much on the stage musical (assumedly, a large source of funding for the film), but as historical document, it’s tough to beat Gibney’s knack for finding a personal throughline amid the mud of societal malaise.
[Review of Finding Fela!]

The Love Punch [2014]lovepunch1
Emma Thompson is great. Pierce Brosnan is great – in his own way. Together, they could be kind of great. The Love Punch isn’t great; this comedy heist caper with saucy middle-aged romance and exotic locales fails to fire up any stylistic innovation. But what would you expect from the director of Last Chance Harvey?

dinosaur13Dinosaur 13 [2014]
• Recommended
Prepare to cry about a dinosaur skeleton. Sundance London’s unexpected hit follows the unearthing of the largest complete T-Rex skeleton to date, and the soul-consuming legal battle – nay, political war – that followed. At its core is a love story; how the scientists came to love not just what they had found in the South Dakota dirt, but what it meant for humankind’s understanding of the world around it. This is brilliantly poised, thrilling stuff, and at its end, a deeply moving snapshot of unrequited dinosaur love.

Obvious Child [2014]obviouschild1
Sundance’s breakout hit this year, Obvious Child has been heralded as an ‘abortion comedy’. Such labels put it in the same camp as Juno, which is completely unfair as Gillian Robespierre’s movie does everything that movie does badly, brilliantly. Jenny Slate, a figure of refreshing female independence, could have easily played this soley for laughs (which would’ve been fine, as she is hysterically funny); but instead, she portrays a flawed young woman whose world seems to be falling apart, despite the positive aspects that are staring her right in the face. Confident, touching, and most importantly, genuine.

caseagainst8_1The Case Against 8 [N/A]
The human stories that serve as The Case Against 8‘s veins and arteries may be some of the most profound and, as a result, moving instances of insurmountable struggle followed by cathartic redemption committed to film. Proposition 8, a giant step back in the fight for gay liberation, understanding and acceptance, made many blows to the homosexual community a few years ago. The fight that put Prop 8 to an end is documented here in detail – but as rich as the stories are, the film itself lacks a panache of its own to stand as a great work of documentary making. But when we witness two people who love each other finally wed, such niggles melt away in the face of such a triumph of the human will.
[Review of The Case Against 8]

Blue Ruin [2014]blueruin1
Much love has been given to Blue Ruin, the debut feature by writer / director Jeremy Saulnier. And it’s totally justified; his thriller is taut, tonally astute, and features a career-kickstarting performance from star Macon Blair as the shrivelled, shrew-like protoagonist who, despite looking like he might keel over at the smallest scare, always tries to do the right thing. However, Blue Ruin simply isn’t the independent triumph it’s been lauded as – but it does succeed in all its ambitions.

rebelwithoutacause1Rebel Without a Cause [1955]
A classic, or a misjudged piece of pop culture? Neither; Rebel Without a Cause focuses too much on being loopy to be a serious contender for regular ‘classic’ status, and delves too deep into the psychology of its character to be a camp misfire. Instead, it’s a rock-solid showcase for James Dean, whose cool drips from the screen for every second he’s on it. Bomber jackets, cars, planetariums – adolescence sure is a crazy place.

tracks1Tracks [2014]
Mia Wasikowska looks damn fed up for most of Tracks, despite all its beautiful cinematography and lovely landscapes. But that’s only because her character, the real-life Robyn Davidson, has decided to trek across the Australian desert to the tune of 1,700 miles, all because she doesn’t like people. Well, that’s not entirely true; while she prefers the company of camels, the witless photographer Rick Smolan (Adam Driver) is a distraction from the hardship she only has herself to blame for. Tracks represents extremely simple filmmaking, and is incredibly beautiful and meaningful for it.

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stripes1Stripes [1981]
The eighties saw a lot of great comedy (most of them starring Bill Murray), but Stripes falls into the camp of ‘generally liked’, but not ‘loved’. It’s enough of a deviation to what we’ll see more of for the rest of that decade (romantic comedies), and Murray and the late Harold Ramis’ comedy chops are enough to let this throwaway army-based coast along pleasantly enough.

The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (L’étrange couleur des larmes de ton corps)strangecolourofyourbodystears1
[2014]
Otherwise known as What on Earth is happening in this film, Hélène Cattet’s and Bruno Forzani’s foray into one man’s fractured psyche – or is it many different people’s? – when his wife goes missing is as divisive as it is engaging. Möbius-strip loops in plot occur frequently, while some admittedly excellently edited sequences land somewhere between the surreal and the erotic. It’s a film centred on making sensation, not sense; let The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears wash over you, and be either elated or horrified. Or both.

Follow the Editor on Twitter: @GaryGreenScreen

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About GaryGreenScreen

Freelance film critic.

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Gary Green: Freelance film critic.

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