Boyhood – 2014

Boyhood_2Richard Linklater’s twelve year production was always going to be a very different viewing experience to the run of the mill coming of age story. Personally I experienced an additional level of strangeness while watching since I realised about halfway through that I am the exact same age as the protagonist. The music and culture is contemporaneous and roots Boyhood into a generation. The generation who stayed up for midnight Harry Potter releases and listened to Cobra Starship during a “rebellious” phase. I guess this made the story hit me even harder since it ends with Mason (Ellar Coltrane) going off to college, a milestone I’m just about to pass. But enough about me, onto the film.

The film really has four characters, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), his sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), their mother (Patricia Arquette) and their father (Ethan Hawke). With the parents divorced Ethan Hawke and two other men make regular appearances as lovers and/or father figures. The neatly avoided trap is not to delineate the years too clearly. Instead the years slip by as if they were part of your own memories, sometimes you’re not too sure if the characters have grown, other times you see a shocking leap in style, voice and maturity. It’s odd to see the marked contrasts in the children every year while the adults seem to remain completely constant. It’s only when you see pictures of the actors at the beginning and end that the aging process becomes apparent in the older half of the cast.

There’s an interesting progression in the directing as the film continues as well. The earlier sections are less slick, a little more out of focus and less subtle than the later parts. It’s hard to tell whether the enjoyment increases due to the improvement in style and acting or due to how hugely emotionally invested you become in the characters by that point. Either way, you can feel the heartbreak deeply when Mason’s relationship, which can’t last more than twenty minutes on screen, breaks apart after two years. By the end of three hours these people seem more like old family friends rather than characters in a film. Bizarrely the exception to this is Lorelei Linklater who seems to give Samantha a more and more distant and cold air every time you see her. This characterisation works in context, since it keeps the spotlight firmly on Mason and his emotions, rather than an ensemble family drama.

Boyhood makes a bold statement about the nature of film, a respect to time and continuity that is gathering momentum and breeding a new generation of filmmakers. Linklater is a master at catching the natural, unguarded and deeply important moments of childhood.

  • Entertainment: 4/5
  • Artistic:             5/5
  • Intellectual:      4/5

X-men: Days of Future Past – 2014

xmen-days-of-future-past-hd-trailer-stills101After the wildly successful X-men First Class in 2011 Bryan Singer takes up the mantle as director of the second-largest group of Marvel heroes. The general concept of this film is that the timeline needs to be fixed in order to change the future. If anyone remembers the 2011 Star Trek you’ll know that from now on X-men has a carte blanche to rewrite the entire canon in a parallel timeline. In their defence, X-men do this a lot better than Star Trek, retaining the philosophical and moral issues at their core. However, all of that preparation you did of reading the comics and even watching the previous films is now totally useless. Also if you were a fan of the previous Wolverine films good luck to you, very good luck.

Given that there is time travelling we now have two Charles Xaviers and two Magnetos. The older pair played by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, the younger by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, reprising their previous roles. Obviously these roles couldn’t have been changed from their established actors but it somehow never becomes believable that James McAvoy grows up into Patrick Stewart and that gets rather distracting at several points. The script continues to linger on the ambiguous bond shared by Xavier, Magneto and Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) creating an emotional thrust for the film far more captivating than the need to save the world. While their older and wiser counterparts are trying to put an end to a massacre, the only weapons they have are their younger selves, filled with angst, love and sexual tension. As such most of the film serves as an experiment in just how much cathartic rage and pain can we watch in two hours? The answer: an awful lot.

Hugh Jackman has the burden of carrying the film here by connecting both timelines. The exposition nearly exclusively comes from him yet he keeps his devil-may-care characterisation, which is a difficult and delicate balance to strike, and one Jackman pulls off with surprising skill throughout. Truthfully the majority of the other characters seem like cameos in Days of Future Past making this film feel very different to the ensemble camaraderie of First Class. The cinematography is a little clumsier here than the previous film and falls back on unnecessary gimmicks and clichés a little too often especially in the big action sequences. By contrast the CGI is handled very well, almost never breaking the suspension of disbelief.

In conclusion Days of Future Past offers exactly what you’d want from an X-men film, the emotions of every character being played out on a global, political and highly destructive stage. And of course some wise warnings against social Darwinism, eugenics and vengeance for it’s own sake.

  • Entertainment: 5/5
  • Artistic:             3/5
  • Intellectual:      3/5

Un Homme et Une Femme – 1966

aQpd2orQ9biBLTCQUbNtrFOLof8When Un Homme et Une Femme was released in 1966 Claude Lelouch was a failing, critically reviled director with only five films under his belt. After winning the palme d’or for Un Homme et Une Femme  he became one of the auteurs of a generation. A startling transformation, facilitated by a startling film.

Un Homme et Une Femme  tells the story of a widow and widower (Anouk Aimée and Jean-Louis Trintignant respectively) who meet by chance and end up falling in love. It’s a saccharine premise but this is undercut with Lelouch’s refusal to leave out the uncomfortable, truthful parts of dealing with love and death. The film isn’t melodramatic about these deaths, rather letting them fade into the background of the action and story. This new love takes over from the mourning period and they react to this process wildly differently. Anne is stuck in limbo between loving Jean-Louis and accepting the loss of her husband. Jean-Louis meanwhile has moved on and joyfully accepts a new love into his life. This tension seems to be played out in the colour scheme of the film. The unfulfilled, empty time between two loves is often in desaturated tones of sepia. However this seems to be applied inconsistently, as if there was once an intelligent idea that got lost in the pursuit of aesthetic.

The result of all this is a beautiful, light film, which distracts from the deeper thoughts of love and death with a jangly soundtrack and some ethereal close-ups. The aesthetic is flawless throughout, romanticised and reminiscent of the old Hollywood ideals that probably never existed. Despite her character being riddled with emotional turmoil, Aimée’s role as actress is limited to a few key lines and generally being pretty. If it weren’t for a few killer monologues Trintignant’s part would be the same. The actors just exist in this beautiful world, communicating through a few stolen glances. It’s an effective technique, but it’s easy to see how this film could have been another Lelouch flop had he not been gifted with these two actors who can bring a silent, mellow love story to life. It almost feels as if the whole film just happened by accident as Lelouch was filming things that he found pleasing to the eye.

You can’t help but enjoy Un Homme et Une Femme  but it’s very hard to tell whether this greatly enjoyable ride was a work of genius or a lucky break dressed up in the clothes of an art-house success.

  • Entertainment: 4/5
  • Artistic:             5/5
  • Intellectual:      3/5

Amélie – 2001

Amelie

I think that if I had to make a list of films that will be mentioned in nearly any cinema conversation I wouldn’t get too far past The Godfather and Pulp Fiction before someone brings up French cinema and, consequently Amélie. Often in these conversations people are surprised to find that I am not a fan of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s homage to the concept of whimsy.

For those who haven’t seen the film, Amélie is the story of a lonely young woman (Amélie) who lives in Paris and works as a waitress. The film opens with a long voiceover detailing random events that coincide with Amélie’s conception. This voiceover appears throughout the film to introduce new characters, who are invariably boiled down to a few quirks by means of introduction. We are shown people who enjoy cleaning their handbags, cracking crème brulées and even a hypochondriac. Jeunet seems to want to show us the unique beauty in each and every person, but somehow misses and ends up painting two-dimensional characters that enjoy the same banal things as everyone else. Seriously speaking, has anyone ever not enjoyed sticking their hand in a bag of grain? Since these characters are never actually explored in any more depth they end up as cardboard cutouts with opinions like “strawberries are nice” worn as badges of honour. They are, like the colour scheme of green and orange, stunted and incomplete.

This would all be forgivable, given the fairytale-like setup and mood of the film, if it were not for Amélie herself. Often described as “naïve with her own sense of judgement”, she is shockingly unsympathetic. Her charming actions include: refusing to return a prized possession, breaking and entering, defacing her mother’s grave and generally interfering with people who never asked for her help. At best she’s presumptuous, at worst she’s rude, invasive and selfish. Her behaviour is perfect characterisation for a teenager with a black and white world-view but this woman is 24 and is still throwing tantrums when others don’t follow her childish schemes like she wants. This would not be acceptable behaviour if we saw it in a friend or an acquaintance and simply capturing it in shallow depth of field with romantic music doesn’t make it good behaviour, just more palatable to observe.

If this was truly a fairytale there would be some moral to the story, a lesson to be learnt and Amélie would grow as a character. That’s the point of fairytales, to demonstrate the morals and ideals of the author. However Jeunet lets her get away with her behaviour, no one ever calls her out on being rude or manipulative and in the end she gets exactly what she wants with minimal effort. The emotional highpoint of her character arc is opening a door to find the guy she likes just standing there. The moral of the story seems to be that you can do whatever you want so you long as you believe you’re justified and life will always go your way. A dubious, if not dangerous, message to be sending.

In the end, Amélie is pretty and whimsical but there’s nothing at the centre. It’s like the difference between an out of proportion drawing and a Picasso. The Picasso speaks to us because there is knowledge and thought behind the aesthetic. The quirky kooky aesthetic here is not even a disguise, it is the entire substance of the film and a film cannot thrive on that alone.

 

  • Entertainment: 1/5
  • Artistic: 1/5
  • Intellectual: 0/5

 

Obvious Child – 2014

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Five years ago Gillian Robespierre made the short film of Obvious Child and had such success that she spent the following five years expanding it into a feature. It’s always suspicious when a successful short is adapted since it requires a very different narrative style and skill to make a short versus a feature, however Robespierre doesn’t seem to have had a problem with this transition. The characters are fully fleshed out, the plot is simple but not slow. In fact, watching Obvious Child now it seems impossible to imagine what could be left out of this coherent whole to make it a short.

Obvious Child has a pretty simple premise. Just before Valentine’s day in the life of Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) she’s dumped, fired and gets pregnant. The film progresses as a story of hope despite circumstances where Donna needs to tackle a burgeoning romance at the same time as her upcoming abortion. It’s refreshing to see a story that deals with an abortion as a normal, healthy part of a woman’s life. However, the very idea seems to throw the film into an arena of debate that it doesn’t deserve. At its heart Obvious Child is a sweet yet cutting romcom. It shows a very normal person living a normal life. Unfortunately, the inclusion of an abortion, which is a common point for many women turns the film into a dramatic discussion. Really, I feel that this film is best enjoyed with a tub of ice cream and a glass of wine. It’s not a piece of feminist propaganda or a debate feature. It’s the most simple form of representation, just accepting and showing real life with no holds barred, and even making it into a comedy.

The comedy in the film is mainly provided by Jenny Slate; a stand up comedian playing a stand up comedian. Oddly her comedy routines are some of the least funny or accomplished parts of her performance. Two of the three routines are meant to be painfully awkward and we laugh at her in these moments because she’s doing an excellent job of portraying the over-sharing comedienne. The third, however seems to centre around scatological and appearance-based humour. Neither of which bring out the more sophisticated side of the performance. It’s a shame, but this seems to be the fault of the script more than the performance since Slate is raucously funny throughout all the little moments in the film. Despite the melodramatic premise Obvious Child doesn’t become irritating or self-absorbed and that is entirely due to Slate’s light-hearted and charming performance. Her comedy succeeds in undercutting the emotional moments without undermining them.

That being said, Slate is surrounded by an outstanding supporting cast. Jake Lacy is incredibly natural in his role as the one-night-stand gone wrong and Polly Draper, despite not appearing often, provides one of the best scenes of the film as Donna’s mother. It’s generally a faultless production and a highly enjoyable film, amazing for a first feature and I can’t wait to see what Robespierre produces next.

  • Entertainment: 4/5
  • Artistic:             4/5
  • Intellectual:      2/5

They Came Together – 2014

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David Wain has teamed back up with Paul Rudd and Amy Poelher for this giant send up of rom-coms. Wains script swings from slapstick to smugly self-aware and back again every other minute. This really rather confuses the mood of the piece since beneath all the neurotic sarcasm there is a genuine love story being told.

Set in Manhattan like many rom-coms before it They Came Together features New York as “almost another character” in the story, a joke that is repeated over and over but is never substantiated in the plot. Every scene is a new set of gags and a new group of films to be mocked but it never seems to quite get past being irritating. Parts of it will be hysterically funny but then you cut back to the cheesy framing device full of done to death meta jokes. Perhaps if this secondary narrative level was actually serious it would make more sense. This dinner scene is set up as “the real world” where the story is being told but it’s just as smug and stupid as what is being mocked in the romanticised story.

The humour pulls from Woody Allen’s self-depreciating irony in many places but the problem is that beyond the jokes there is nothing. While you’re watching it is funny, it carries you along but it’s a kind of brainless, instinctive laughter – more like being tickled for the duration of a film rather than genuinely laughing. There’s no social comment or even cinematic comment, it doesn’t criticise anything about the tropes it exaggerates and it almost seems redundant to be telling us “films don’t represent real relationships” in this day and age. This concept becomes clear about 45 minutes into the film and then you’re just watching it carry on, wondering if it will ever go there and laughing at the same old absurdist humour as you were shown in the first five minutes.

  • Entertainment: 4/5
  • Artistic:              2/5
  • Intellectual:       1/5

Axiom – 2014

Capture d’écran 2013-11-15 à 12.43.20Recently, when Archive found that they had five tracks that did not fit on their most recent album they decided that the best thing to do was to make these five tracks, forty minutes in total into a short film with the help of Spanish film collective NYSU and director Jesus Hernandez.

I’ve liked Archive’s music for a very long time and so I was intrigued and excited about this new project. Axiom is the portrait of a city, a dystopian island commune to be precise. It feels a little like a cross between Brave New World and Jonestown in concept. The citizens are locked away in cells to avoid the sound of the bell that keeps the city alive. Despite being essentially an extended music video Axiom does have dialogue and a plot, although the latter is very convoluted. It’s very atmospheric, although I don’t recommend it for the squeamish – some sequences can only be described as gratuitous and deeply disturbing.

I’m not sure the endeavour is a great success. The film is presented in Black and White, but both ends of the spectrum are absent, as if someone equalised it out to the blandest greyscale you can imagine. It’s an odd tension because the plot seems to distract from the visuals and vice-versa but neither are that great. Generally speaking Axiom takes a lot of mediocre filmic ideas and combines them into something that is more odd than profound. It does stay in the mind, if only for the themes of oppression and control that are expressed so vividly.

Structurally the film follows the song progression and divides itself into chapters, this works to an extent. Chapter one is more of a prologue than anything else but that can be forgiven. Chapter three however, seems to be entirely devoid of any link to the rest of the film. The visual ideas don’t link back to any other point in the film and it has no clear context in the world that has been created. It does serve to be very, very creepy, but the tyranny of a madman that was established in chapter two had already done that. It’s hard to say whether the problem lies in the track being too far removed from the others or with the director for not properly integrating the concept, either way it serves as a microcosm for the film. Powerful, creepy and odd but clumsily realised and by no means an artistic revolution.

  • Entertainment: 3/5
  • Artistic:              3/5
  • Intellectual:       2/5