Category Archives: Review

Seven Reasons Why I’m Not Watching Game of Thrones

Putting aside the well-rehearsed arguments about racial stereotypes and the fact that the latest season has been massively overhyped (thanks Sky), which is always apt to make be balk at something, there are at least seven reasons why I’m not watching Game of Thrones. They are, in no particular order, as follows:

  1. The evil, scheming queen who only cares about her children will continue to:
    • be evil;
    • be scheming;
    • only care about her children.
  1. The difficult-to-read, scheming man with a weird quasi-Irish accent will continue to:
  1. The dark, driven, ruthless wannabe-king will continue to:
  1. The righteous queen with a court full of admirers, and who’s struggling with what it means to rule, will continue to:
    • be righteous;
    • have a court full of admirers;
    • struggle with what it means to rule.
  1. The quick-witted, revenge-driven tomboy will continue to:
    • be quick-witted;
    • be revenge-driven;
    • be a tomboy.
  1. The clever, world-weary drunkard will continue to:
    • be clever;
    • be world-weary;
    • be frequently drunk.
  1. The noble female knight driven by honour will continue to:
    • be noble;
    • be female (how novel);
    • be driven by honour.

Are you bored by the format of what I’ve written so far? If so, good. Now you have some inkling of how bored I am of Game of Thrones, which is populated not by characters but by caricatures. I don’t know whether this is the fault of George R. R. Martin (I haven’t read the books and I don’t intend to waste my time doing so (especially since they will apparently never end)) or of those who adapted it for screen. What I do know is that whoever’s responsible sure can string out the same old repetitive cycle of schemes, intrigue, and violence forever. And forever. And forever. Or until it stops making money. Whichever is sooner. Oh yes, and, of course, there’ll be the requisite thing-you-didn’t-see-coming. Holy shit! A thing I didn’t see coming! That makes all the hours I poured into watching these empty, unrealistic caricatures stabbing, shagging, and double-crossing each other worthwhile. For the love of the crows, give me proper well-rounded characters! Please. Is that too much to ask? Right, rant over. I’m off to watch something else. Something from the universe of entertainment that isn’t over-long, over-hyped, and full of caricatures.

 


[1] And if all my predictions here turn out to be wrong? Well, then, bully for those who make Game of Thrones.

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Long Overdue Review: Two Days, One Night

So, it’s been a while, but I thought I’d restart posting film reviews by considering one that I saw when it came out (last August) and is too good not to write about. This will mark the beginning of a series of tardy reviews but eventually, hopefully, I’ll get up-to-date and start posting more contemporary fare.

What superlative to use when describing this film from Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne? Magnificent? No, it’s too understated for that. Wonderful? Well, not really, there’s a bit too much in the way of sadness to apply that label without qualification, though there is wonder too. Perfect? A bit of an overstatement but now we’re getting somewhere. Two Days, One Night grabbed me from the outset and didn’t let me go. It’s like an adrenalin filled action film without, well, the action (meaning explosions, at least of the conventional kind).

Marion Cotillard must be the first point of commendation; her performance is almost flawless, deftly covering the full gamut of human emotions that her character, Sandra, goes through as the story unfolds. From the moment that she is told that she can save her job, but only by convincing more than half of her colleagues to forego their bonuses, we are with her every step of the way, and Cotillard doesn’t stumble in her portrayal of the highs and lows. This unflinchingly human portrayal, combined with the ever-present and approaching titular deadline is what makes it impossible to turn away from the film. The Dardenne brothers ladled pressure on a performer who can handle it and the result is captivating.

The audience feel that pressure too and though, at times, it can seem like an overly-convenient narrative tool but it generally gives the film, and Sandra, an abiding sense of purpose. This is not, however, an overly fast-paced film; it fits a lot in but gives enough space for important moments to be explored and to unfold in ways that feel unhurried and natural. This plays out, in part, in the portrayal of the emotional journey that Sandra goes both alone and in her intimate relationships with her husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), and children. This is all handled well but I think the portrayal of the tension between Manu’s desire to support Sandra, and her desire not to be controlled by him, and to make her own decisions (even when they run against what he sees (and, perhaps, we see) as her best interests) is a particular strength. This is one of the real complexities of adult relationships, and it is convincingly conveyed. The only element of her personal story that feels less-well-handled is the matter of her mental health condition, which felt like an unnecessary and misjudged addition to the storyline. This is not because the impact of such circumstances wouldn’t have a particular effect on someone with such a condition, but because it’s remarkably difficult to convey the complexity of such conditions (hence why I remain unconvinced by Blue Jasmine). Amongst everything else that the film is trying to portray, this element felt crammed in, and thus hurried and unsubtle. Further, and in relation to the political intent that I turn to below, I don’t think that purpose would have been lost without this element; the situation that Sandra finds herself in would be stressful for anyone, whether they have mental health issues or not.

By contrast to the above criticism we don’t just get to see the intense impact of the story on Sandra but also, to a greater or lesser extent, on the whole series of characters whom she must talk to. Their performances are universally excellent (though I always wonder how accurately I can judge this when I’m reading subtitles rather than listening to a language that I understand, and thus can interpret in terms of emotional indicators) and the characters encompass the full range of reactions that we might expect to being asked to sacrifice some of their hard-earned money to save a colleague’s job. Like the ever-present deadline, this roll-call of characters could have felt like another constructed narrative device but, to the Dardenne’s credit, it never does. Instead, it feels real. I’ve never been in a situation like the one portrayed here but I suspect the responses would be this complex and diverse. That much would also be true, again, without the presence of mental health issues, though admittedly their presence in the story serves as an important reminder that people who take time off work for such reasons represent an additionally marginalised group in society. The film shows that others can fail to give such people the credit of the doubt, explaining their absence from the job with reference to negative attributes rather than by understanding that, at times and for good reason, they struggle with life.

So, as a portrayal of a intense and moving human story, Two Days One Night doesn’t just stand up, it excels. But it’s much more than that too. It’s also a potent critique of the power relationship between employer and employee(s). Whilst some of Sandra’s colleagues have horrible responses to her request I always sensed, at least to some small extent, that there were reasons for their aggression or dismissal. They were not demonised but humanised. The only characters who come close to being aloof and inhuman are her boss and foreman, the former of whom is the originator of the deadline that drives the story. In this way in particular, though with the film in general too, I think the Dardenne’s tip their political hand. The film might have been strengthened with more consideration of human characteristics and motivations of the antagonists but it doesn’t feel like a major omission. This is because the film focuses on the consequences of their decisions rather than the reasons for them, and the former is a big enough topic in itself (perhaps a companion piece would be fitting; I’d watch it). And those consequences are stark, not only in terms of the exhausting two-day race against the clock that Sandra must undertake, but also in the choices that are imposed on her colleagues. Many of them need their bonuses and some of them want their bonuses but none of them can afford to give up the money lightly. Crucially, and ultimately, they are being asked to choose between altruism and egotism, between solidarity and individualism. It seems clear where the Dardenne’s sympathies lie but it never feels like they’re hammering the message home. Just choosing to tell this particular story in a well-rounded and balanced way was enough to make the point.

Two Days, One Night, then, is an excellent portrayal of Sandra’s personal emotional journey and her interactions with a rich cast of characters who have human responses to her situation. On top of that it is a well-observed analysis of the capacity of jobs, and those who control them, to be exploitative and divisive. Sandra’s response to the circumstances are liberating for her, for some of her colleagues and, ultimately, for the audience too.

Review: Joe

The similarities between this film and Mud are great enough to be worth noting. Both are films about teenage boys finding new, and enigmatic, father figures whilst facing problems (admittedly of a different magnitude) at home. Both are also set in poor communities in the southern United States and feature titular characters with a history of being in trouble with the law. This, however, is where the similarities end as Joe departs along a decidedly more depressing track that, despite being arguably more realistic in some respects, does not lead to it being a better film.

From the outset of the film when we meet Gary (played by Tye Sheridan, who also played the teenage lead in Mud and is superb in both) it is apparent that he has a difficult relationship with his dad. This is understandable given that the latter is an alcoholic with a violent streak who will let nothing come in the way of his next drink. This point, in case we missed it, is later underlined by the most graphically violent scene in the film. Gary’s dad, Wade, is brought to life by Gary Poulter (who was living on the streets of Austin, Texas when he was cast for the role and, sadly, has subsequently died) in a performance that is gripping and repulsive; this is a character with few redeeming characteristics.

By contrast, Joe (played in his usual cool style by Nicolas Cage) is a man with his heart in the right place despite his history of, and tendency towards, violence. We are introduced to him as he carries out a day’s work with his crew (poisoning trees so that the can be cleared and the land can be replanted with more valuable timber; a metaphor for the need to destroy in order to create something better?). The paths of the two main characters cross when Gary’s family roll into town and he comes to Joe looking for work. From there their friendship grows and as Gary learns what makes Joe tick so Joe learns about Gary’s family’s problems.

This part of the film is handled reasonably well and the dilemma facing Joe – whether he should intervene to protect Gary (and the rest of his family) from Wade when the risks to all involved are high – is an interesting one. As it turns out though, Joe ends up having little choice in the matter because, as is the case in Mud, the climax of the film centres on events that require action on his part. This narrative demand for some sort of issue to be resolved may be a flaw in both films but there is something that makes it additionally problematic in the case of Joe. Here we have a final act that, horrifying as it is, feels as if it’s just the last manifestation of how horrendous Wade is. It’s almost as if the whole film is saying ‘look, look how horrible this man is; not convinced yet? How about if he does this, do you hate him yet?’

Mud arguably has a finale that is too action packed but the film as a whole renders a well-rounded and interesting image of lives that have pain and problems but also love and tenderness. It’s not trying to set good against evil, it’s just telling a story of how a couple of teenagers deal with the imperfections in their lives as they grow up, and how this process relates to the entry of a new figure into those lives. By contrast, Joe relies on creating a character, in the form of Wade (not to mention the people he comes to associate with) that borders on pure evil. There’s little or no effort to show another side to that character or to explain why he has reached the point that he has; he simply serves as a terrible reality that must be escaped. Since I don’t believe in pure, unexplained, evil I find such a character difficult to be convinced by (and not, as noted above, because of any shortcoming in Poulter’s performance).

I’m not naive enough to believe that there aren’t people who do things as terrible as Wade does, or that life in poor communities in the southern United States isn’t tough. However, I often find films that seem to emphasise how horrible things are disengaging. This is why, generally, I prefer the work of Shane Meadows to that of Ken Loach. The latter hammers home his messages in a way that makes some of his films feel like lectures, whereas the former tells a story and trusts the audience to take the message away. This is England (one of my favourite films), like Mud, paints a rich picture of a community with good and bad and, in the form of Combo, has a deeply unpleasant character who we also understand and even, to an extent, sympathise with. Where Joe and Ken Loach show us poor people who are either sad and oppressed or angry and fighting, Mud and Shane Meadows show us humans who are sad, angry and violent, but also loving, funny and silly, as well as many other things. As such, they are no different from other humans. I find this more appealing and, ultimately, more convincing.

Joe is a deeply depressing film but it tells an interesting story and presents characters, in the form of Gary and Joe, who we can root for. Unfortunately, the world they inhabit feels too one-sided and, as such, they feel like observations in a social commentary rather than humans.

 

Review: The Wind Rises

I used to have a foolish (if unrecognised) prejudice against animated films but, fortunately, that was done for by the release of Waltz with Bashir (which remains one of my favourite films). Since my change of heart I’ve been slow to catch up on the Studio Ghibli output and, prior to this film, had only seen My Neighbour Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies. Both of those films are magnificent (for very different reasons) and fortunately, despite some flaws, The Wind Rises continues in that vein. It’s an enchanting experience from beginning to end.

The film centres on Jirô Horikoshi, a famed Japanese aeronautical engineer and designer of the country’s World War II Zero fighter. When we first meet him in late childhood he’s already imagining, through an enthralling dream sequence (of which there are a number), one of the beautiful flying machines that he will design. In that sequence he is told (by his hero, Count Caproni) that engineers turn dreams into reality, and what follows is the story of Jirô’s life dedicated to doing that. His dreams are realised, though, in the context of the run up to the World War II, and of Japan’s national quest to catch up with the Western powers not just in terms of technology but also economic and military power (embodied in the words of Jirô’s friend Honjô). It is the juxtaposition between (relatively) innocent dreams and the harsh reality of the context that provides the central tension of the film.

The tension, though, seems to be felt more by the audience than by Jirô, who remains almost entirely committed to building aeroplanes regardless of what they end up being used for (and it is clear that they will be used for war and conquest). The only thing that can tear him away from his designs is the moving but perhaps clichéd emerging relationship with Nahoko, the woman who he falls in love with. That relationship does, it’s fair to say, hinge on some convenient coincidences but it is beautifully portrayed and subtly reminds us that the choice facing the central character is not just between his two loves but, arguably, also between peace and war. He is not able to have both his designs and Nahoko, and she wanes as he nears completion of the former. If their meeting and courting is too laden with coincidence then their parting is as it should be; deeply poignant.

Quibbles with the early romantic storyline aside it is Jirô’s inability, or perhaps unwillingness, to choose between his two loves that represents the major flaw of the film. He never seems to really decide that designing his aeroplane is the right thing to do. The issue is tackled, and the character flirts with it, but there is no resolution. Instead it is just accepted that following his dream may contribute to a questionable outcome. His choice is implicit and uncexplained whilst, from a moral perspective, being quite questionable. This perspective is informed by my own pacifism; it seems that his decision to continue designing the aeroplane despite knowing that it will be used for war, and in the process neglecting Nahoko, is wrong. Of course the point here is that perhaps those who create (be they engineers, artists, musicians, or an array of others) should not be judged by the uses that their creations are put to by others. However, I don’t think the issue is that clear-cut. It may be unfair to judge someone whose creation is subsequently co-opted for questionable purposes, but this is less true of someone who knows full well what their creation will be used for.

The above may be a little unfair because the film is not to taking a moral stand on the issue but telling the story of a character, and portraying the creative impulse and the power that it can have over a person. And it does that admirably well so it’s difficult to disdain Jirô for his decision, though I also found it difficult to sympathise or identify with him because I ultimately disagreed with his actions. Fortunately the films strengths are more than enough to make up for this. First amongst them, as you might expect, is the stunning animation. This is not just seen in the masterful landscapes but also the perfectly judged moments when our gaze is focussed on some beautiful element of the scene’s detail, either as it exists in the shot or (as with the tiny moths and fireflies swarming around the gatepost light as Nahoko’s father bids Jirô goodbye) or by cutting away from it (as with the delicate flower surviving amongst the falling debris from an earthquake). The stunning animation is complemented by wonderful storytelling, which is perfectly paced and includes enough flourishes (such as the monstrous overtones of the earthquake) to keep the audience engaged throughout.

Overall then, The Wind Rises is a gripping viewing experience telling a perfectly paced story that portrays the power of the human desire to create. The key decision of the central character may be morally questionable (and maybe you can’t blame the film for that, since it’s biographical), which makes it difficult to identify with him, but the overall quality of the film is hard to fault. Crucially, even the arguable flaw of the film is a thought-provoking one.

Review: Calvary

Before Calvary began someone in the (unfortunately small) audience remarked that this is ‘the perfect film to see on Easter Monday.’ It’s a nice way to think about it but this would be an excellent film to see at any time. This is the second directorial outing by John Michael McDonagh (after 2011’s brilliant The Guard) and if he maintains this quality then he’ll rapidly become one of my favourite filmmakers. Calvary is a story that contemplates issues of blame, punishment, revenge, reconciliation and, of course, faith, and packages them all in a bloody good story.

Much of the contemplating is done by Brendan Gleeson, playing Father James Lavelle, who easily marshals enough gravitas and nuance to deal with the issues in a believable manner. Further, he continues to be an eminently watchable actor (as he was in The Guard and In Bruges), and the frequent poignant close-ups of his face never fail to emote. McDonaugh clearly trusts Gleeson to convey much of the emotional content of the film with a raise of his eyebrow, pensive stroke of his beard, or stare into the middle-distance. And rightly so, because you’d be wrong to think that this is an overwrought or unsubtle piece; the emotion and contemplation is beautifully judged, only adding to the engaging story.

Father Lavelle is an experienced priest in rural County Sligo, living in a community that is clearly losing (or, to a large extent, has lost) its faith. At the outset he receives a death threat motivated by the childhood abuse of the would-be murderer, which is horrendously recounted in a quasi-confession. He is given a week to put his affairs in order, after which he will be subjected to the revenge due to the institution that he represents. What unfolds after this gripping opening is a week in his life that is, in many respects, unextraordinary. He puts his affairs in order but does so, largely, by going about his usual routine and remaining calm in the face of the increasing hostility that his parishioners directs towards him. Thus it is that we watch an innocent and decent man being attacked for crimes that he did not commit. It’s a moving portrayal but it’s also not that simple, in the sense that he is a flawed man, and that the community have their reasons for seeking a scapegoat.

More than a complex portrayal of a man preparing for his death, this is also a film filled with warmth, love and, very often, humour. It’s funny in the same low key but occasionally outlandish fashion as The Guard. Much of the humour relies on the characters in the local community who are, without exception, played superbly by the supporting cast (only Kelly Reilly, otherwise excellent as Father Lavelle’s daughter, is landed with an occasional line that’s too clunky to pull off convincingly). Special mention, I think, is earned by Dylan Moran, who’s grating performance as a modern-day local notable (filthy rich off the back of the unsustainable banking boom) is almost unbearable. Initially I thought it was over-the-top but it turns out to be just right; we’re supposed to hate this man so that, when the time comes, our final understanding of him has more meaning. He also acts as an important reflection of Gleeson’s character, reminding the audience how easy it is to hate people for the things they represent without taking that extra step to understand them as individuals.

Crucially, there’s no attempt to apologise for the wrongs that have been done, be they by the Church or the banks, or even to present Father Lavelle as flawless or without blame. What he is to be blamed for, however, is a wrong that I suspect most of us commit; being moved to a greater extent by nearby events than by more horrific events that aren’t immediately visible. So, even whilst he remains a potent metaphor for Jesus, bearing the punishment for others’ sins, he is also flawed and ultimately human. Don’t worry though, despite the religious context and theme, the issues at stake are accessibly rendered. They are issues of human existence and, even as a sceptical agnostic, I found them deeply moving.

Calvary made me both laugh and cry, which I take as a sign of a fine film. Gleeson is excellent, as is the supporting cast, the story is simple but engaging, and the issues are contemplated with intelligence and a healthy dash of humour. This is a thoroughly entertaining and highly recommended film.

 

Review: The Double

The impression that a film makes is, of course, in large part to do with the state of mind, previous experiences, and interpretations of the viewer. I suspect, however, that this is more the case with films that attempt to deal explicitly with issues of identity and the meaning of existence. This certainly appears to be part of the purpose of Richard Ayoade’s The Double but, unfortunately, the heavy-handed approach makes it a somewhat unsatisfying experience. As with Ayoade’s debut, Submarine, this film centres on a quiet young man with complicated family relationships and an infatuation with a bright woman who adds some excitement to his life.

Here we have the story of a competent and decent but chronically under-confident fellow by the name of Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg). He meanders through a dystopian life of journeys on almost-empty metro trains, numerous hours of number crunching in his tiny office booth, and occasional visits to the care home where his unloving mother resides. His world is heavily redolent of those conjured by Terry Gilliam in Brazil and David Lynch in Eraserhead. The mist-filled streets, flickering light bulbs, and corridors in hues of brown, grey, and green have the desired effect; we know this isn’t a happy place to live. The only ray of light in this otherwise dingy existence is Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), who Simon fabricates reasons to visit in the photocopying room where she works and, slightly creepily, spies on with a telescope from the box-room that he calls home. Alas, our Simon is such a non-entity that, like everyone else, Hannah can’t even remember his name. So far so glum.

Fortunately the arrival on the scene of Simon’s doppelganger, in the form of James Simon (also Eisenberg), livens proceedings. Here’s a man who knows what he wants and has the chutzpah to bloody well get it. Not only will he lie, cheat, and trample on anyone (including his hapless double) to achieve his goals but he seems to relish making this his modus operandi. Thus emerges the central conflict of the film, between the reliable but unimpressive Simon and the brash, bullshitting, but ultimately unsubstantial James. Of course, it’s difficult to miss THE POINT here; this isn’t just a story about two people in opposition but about two sides of the same person struggling to define them. Simon the nobody can’t continue his empty existence without ever having the confidence to pursue his desires; he must confront and ultimately tame the aggressive go-getting side of himself that is embodied in James. So intense is this struggle that, at its darkest moments, it points towards madness.

The problem is that the intensity of the struggle and its containment within a 93 minutes running time make it difficult for THE POINT not to hit the audience in the face. Moderating desire, and balancing pursuit of dreams with consideration of others is difficult. One can go too far in either direction and doing so will ultimately harm yourself, people around you, or both. It’s certainly a topic worth of consideration, but does it have to be so in-your-face? Perhaps the source material, in the form of Fyodor Dostoyevski’s novella (which, hands up, I’ll admit I haven’t read), is to blame but I suspect that this sort of issue is more easy to handle with nuance in a book. A reader has the time and space to piece together the message of a book in a way that suits them whereas a viewer, on this evidence, has it laid out in front of them on a big silver platter. With neon lights around it. And a trumpet fanfare on loop.

Perhaps this is a bit unfair; the fundamentals of the film are all in order. The depressing dystopia is well-rendered, Eisenberg and Wazikowska both put in balanced and moving performances, the rest of the cast are great, and there’s a host of highly entertaining cameos (from Tim Key, Sally Hawkins, Chris Morris, and Chris O’Dowd) that lighten the mood. The problem is that all of this is overshadowed by THE POINT. And this is where it comes back to the individual experience of the viewer. The person who I saw the film with said that they felt it was more like a series of vignettes, some of which worked very well and others less so. To an extent I agree; there were certainly some great scenes, ranging from hilarious to poignant. However I tend to appreciate films that tell stories and let me take some thoughts away from them. The Double, by contrast, felt like it was making its point so strongly that the story was only there to serve its purpose.