Ben-Hur – 1959

To celebrate two years of reviewing as many films as I possibly can and sharing them with you, the internet, I will today be reviewing a film worthy of such an honour and many more: Ben-Hur.

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The most expensive film ever made at the time of release, (as the 1925 silent film Ben-Hur was at its time), William Wyler’s 1959 Ben-Hur is a timeless biblical epic. Yet I would postulate that the great success of Ben-Hur lies rather in its secularity, despite being one of the few films blessed by the Vatican. The story of Ben-Hur is not taken from the Bible and so cannot cross into misinterpretation or blasphemy. Jesus himself, despite having a palpable presence and importance in terms of plot is barely seen. He is, as he is for a modern audience, a silent symbol of peace and hope supported by word-of-mouth.

The comparison between the life of Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston giving a virtuoso performance) and that of Jesus Christ is implicit in the narrative despite the sparse presence of Jesus. The audience is meant to draw the links themselves. Judah’s passionate desire for the liberation of the Jewish people certainly places him in the same league as Moses and Jesus in terms of motivation. His persecution at the hands of Romans who believe themselves to be superior to the Jewish inhabitants certainly strikes a few more ancient and modern notes. The difference between the story of Judah and that of Jesus is that Judah is not divine. He, naturally, is drawn to revenge and hatred after his ordeals, even losing his faith in God. He is human, like us and no one, not even Jesus and those following Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness blame him. Errare humanum est. Biblically speaking, Judah is a sinner who has turned away from love in his quest for revenge, even if the revenge was fuelled by love, and he is waiting to be saved by Jesus, who suffers without turning to hatred. As such the protagonist is not a Christian figure, nor is he a role model. He is an everyman, dealing with his own issues and seeking repose in faith as the audience might.

The production of this film is so legendary that it’s almost surprising while you watch the film how intimate it feels. The conflicts are not the conflicts of nations, rather they are the arguments between old friends, slaves and masters and even lovers played out by chance on a grand scale. What elevates this film is that every action set piece has higher, non-related motivations. A James Bond car chase has the motivation of escape or capture and maybe life and death, but these are the inherent motivations of a chase, the objectives could not be reached in any other way. Whereas the Ben-Hur chariot race would still be a beautiful set piece and an exciting spectacle, regardless of the character’s motivations, yet the script is woven in such a way that this race is the dramatic climax of Judah Ben-Hur’s life. Yet given that he is playing not for the title but for dignity and revenge it could be just as easily envisaged as a fencing match or a game of chess. His motivations are those of classical tragic conflict. He’s an Odysseus-figure returning to his family and lost love. Jesus is just the deus ex machina leading to his happy ending in the face of despair.

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

Exit Through the Gift Shop – 2010

I love when a film that I always intended to watch gets bumped up my list by a particularly interesting conversation. It’s even better when the film turns out to be totally worth the watch.

2010 Exit through the gift shop (Banksy art) 07Most people I’d heard talk about this film made it seem like some kind of documentary-thriller where Banksy magically turns the tables on a filmmaker and comes out as even cooler than anyone thought he was when he went in. I guess that’s the cult of Banksy speaking, because this film really seems to, if anything make Banksy out as a bit of a fool.

There has of course, given the anonymity of Banksy and the strangeness of the story, been a lot of debate as to whether the whole film is another elaborate hoax. Whether the protagonist is actually Banksy all along or whether any of this actually happened. The arguments for none of it ever happening seem meagre, after all someone was genuinely filming street artists for over ten years. I’m not sure it entirely matters who was filming and I intend to review the film as it presents itself, as truth.

The film follows Thierry Guetta, an enigmatic French second hand clothes seller turned videographer. I don’t say filmmaker because his filming is a habit, a compulsion to record, more than any instinct to create. This man happens to be the cousin of Space Invader, the Parisian street artist and so in his obsessive quest to record and document his own life he winds up filming street art, meeting new street artists and still filming. Eventually he becomes their accomplice and is recording reactions to pieces that the artist themselves would never see. Here the film, being directed by Banksy, takes a turn for the hero-worshipping. The voiceover and editing seem very keen to insist that Guetta was on a hunt for Banksy in order to film him too. Guetta himself is without a doubt interested but seems so wrapped up in his own quest for validation and a continued permission to keep filming that he could have continued for years non-plussed had Banksy not just walked into his life and lens.

Guetta is, as Banksy states, far more interesting as a subject than any plain documentary on street art. He spent years lying to numerous high-profile street artists about a non-existent documentary he was making just to continue filming. The shots of tapes in his house show the terrifying consequences of his obsession. Boxes and boxes of tape, most of it unlabelled, containing years of his life and key moments in the history of an art movement potentially never to be found again. When Banksy takes over these archives he patronisingly tells Guetta to try some art himself. So here are our two protagonists, the hooded man who is our director and the cameraman turned subject.

Guetta takes Banksy’s advice as an order and sets off to become a street artist in his own right. His approach is to take everything he had seen his friends do but to do it bigger and better. His work is at best derivative but through manipulation and clever marketing his Warhol meets Banksy ripoffs become a huge success. Many criticise him for not making the works himself, for having the idea and handing it over to his team of employees, yet earlier we saw Banksy’s crew deconstructing a phone box and no one is throwing the same criticisms at him. Indeed, this system only serves as an argument for the place of Mister Brainwash (Guetta’s adopted street art name) within the art world. After all, Rubens didn’t paint everything himself. He sketched a structure then retouched and signed the painting his apprentices made. Was he any less of an artist?

The film Banksy produces, the film we are watching is undoubtedly the street art documentary Banksy always dreamed of. Of course, he is as a result the star and most interesting street artist that has ever lived: things must always be taken with a small pinch of salt. Strangely, many of the criticisms levelled at Mister Brainwash can equally be levelled at Banksy. He complains that MBW (Mister Brainwash) never had to find his feet as an artist, never had the years of hard graft, but where is his hard graft as a filmmaker? He’s taken ten years of someone else’s footage, slapped his own very marketable name on it and sold it to the masses. Besides, does it matter how long it takes to “find a voice”, or is that just Banksy the snob speaking, hoping that no one realises that he’s as big a scam as MBW? In the end if this buffoon of a man can become a world famous street artist overnight how can Banksy rebuff the “anyone can do that” criticisms?

This isn’t just a documentary about street art. It’s about all art, the right to create, the boundaries placed on creativity by “intellectual property”. It’s a film about artists, how we’ll never really know if they were really inspired or mad or who was ever pulling the strings. That’s for them to know or not know in their thefts and manipulations, all we can do is consume what they give us and exit through the gift shop.

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

The Wind Rises – 2014

TheWindRises_UKTrailerThe Wind Rises was blown in from Japan with cries of the sad end of an era, this being Hayao Miyazaki’s last film. I myself was not a fan of the Studio Ghibli films and while this may seem both unlikely and shockingly close to heresy for someone who loves animation as a genre I stand by my opinion. In fact what interested me most about this film was the disappointment I heard from long-time Ghibli fans about the lack of whimsy and magic – precisely something that had always bothered me about Ghibli.

It’s true, The Wind Rises is an historical drama and not at all the cutesy fairytale fare the studio has been peddling recently. It’s as if Miyazaki finally had the freedom to make a true, serious film after a life confined to the kids’ table. Elements of this fantasy style remain in dream sequences but the pastel-coloured madness is confined and contrasted to a much bleaker story of Japan in crisis. There’s a subtlety in this film that has seemed absent from some of the more recent Ghibli films like Ponyo and Arrietty. Even the skill of the animation to portray shortsightedness onscreen is laudable.

Miyazaki does well to distance himself from the politics of the situation, after all this could be seen as a war film, with the majority of the action taking place around the design of the Japanese fighter planes. Furthermore he places his protagonists in the Great Kanto Earthquake and the tuberculosis epidemic. It’s hard to imagine how a film can remain neutral and universally acceptable with these reference points. However Miyazaki’s angle is far more from the aesthetic and technical perspective. Better yet he stays in an individual and human experience, a human who has a higher purpose than to involve himself in such issues too deeply. Through Jiro Miyazaki explores the difficulty of genius, the art of mathematics and the eternal obsession that ambition creates. After all, if, as the film proclaims, you only have ten years of creativity, what is the sense in spending it doing anything but creating? There are moments where the film gets bogged down in a little too much technical detail for those of us who are unfamiliar and indifferent to riveting techniques but these are few and far between. The rest of the film leaves no room for boredom with its swells of music and elegant animation.

The title is taken from a poem by Paul Valery, a call to arms to live, to create in the face of death. The film also delivers just that with great aplomb. It’s a love story, but in the end the love of earthly things, even his wife is not enough for Jiro, an aeronautical engineer. His calling is creation and the immortality that comes with creating beauty. He neglects his sister throughout his whole life and, despite being a kind and generous man, never ceases to spend more time with his aeroplanes than with his dying wife. For Jiro everything in life fades, the cities can be destroyed, peace and war circle on and those you love die. The only constant is the dream that he tries to live, since the only time when the dreams can fade away is when the dreamer is no longer around to dream them.

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

The Hobbit: Battle of Five Armies – 2014

the-hobbit-the-battle-of-the-five-armiesIt’s now been a phenomenally long time since the first Hobbit film was released. So long ago in fact that I did not have a blog at that time. However, to hear my thoughts on The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, please go here since I don’t want to repeat myself too much here.

I stand by the point that everyone has been agreed on for three years, these films should not exist, at least not in their nine-hour three film format. Nevertheless they do. I have no idea what it would be like to watch all three films in a row, since one thing both the second and third have done well is catch you up to the plot in the first ten minutes. This is the most concise the films ever get so enjoy those ten minutes. Battle of Five Armies starts pretty badly, as the great three year threat of Smaug is killed off in near enough the blink of an eye and you’re left wondering where this film could possibly go with the three chapters that remain.

I don’t know how much has been added to this film, apart from Legolas and Tauriel. I’m not a Tolkien fanatic and it’s been many years since I read the Hobbit, since I read this children’s book when I was in fact a child. What the film shows us is one very extended battle, with strategy from all sides and every skirmish played out in full. This gives Orlando Bloom an opportunity to leap on falling rocks in a way no one has done since early 2000’s video games. There’s an overall impression of glitz and falseness that hangs over the CGI nightmare as ever. Yet Jackson does know how to pull an audience along with him. Despite a year of not so much as thinking about the Hobbit characters I found myself deeply invested, even in the invented love triangle that has got so much hate.

It almost feels as if Peter Jackson was fighting with himself through these films. Part of him decided to make three three-hour films and then he spent the rest of the time trying to make up for this horrible decision. Some of the things that get stuffed in don’t fit, a psychedelic set piece showing Thorin melting in a river of gold is unwanted at best and a cutaway to Legolas and Tauriel discussing war bats is laughable.

The Hobbit is like comfort food for those who love Middle Earth. There are no surprises, no great shocks. The characters develop a little and in predictable and comfortable ways. Hints are thrown in to push this towards the Lord of the Rings trilogy and it seems like a nice, safe and consumable piece of Middle Earth history. This is partly because of the lack of reality caused by the style. Wen you can sense that none of this exists just by looking at it the deaths lose their brutality, the battle stakes go down and it’s just an aesthetic experience. The interplay of shapes and colours and cinematography never falters throughout Battle of Five Armies and it’s a really enjoyable, immersive experience, if not a very substantial one.

  • Entertainment: 4/5
  • Artistic:             1/5
  • Intellectual:       0/5

Toys – 1992

alcpvOt (1)Christmas time has come round again and following on from last year’s review of Love Actually I would like to once again review one of my personal christmas favourites, even if it may not be well-loved by many.

Having already directed Rain Man and Good Morning Vietnam Barry Levinson set off to direct the markedly less successful Toys. Toys is a film that demands a suspension of disbelief more heightened than one is ever accustomed to. Set in the forcibly whimsical world of Zevo’s toy factory and the equally whimsical pop-up mansion the protagonists inhabit, the film loiters in a timeless void, a story that could be just as easily set in the 50’s as the modern day. The story unfolds like a modern-day fairytale, dynastic struggles, good Vs evil and innocence in the face of war. Many people have considered this an anti-war film, which, given that the film finishes in a final battle stand-off opens an easy route to crying hypocrisy. While the film has a lot to say about war, it’s not that it shouldn’t exist. More than anything it admits the presence of war, but demands that we protect children from it, and that we do not fight without just motivation. Of course, what constitutes just isn’t really the place of a Barry Levinson film to decide but it can set the ball rolling in terms of thinking about it.

There are confused elements within the film. While clearly the new security guards and tight factory regulations introduced by the General (Michael Gambon, in a splendidly funny turn) are meant to be the forces of evil (they subtly bear a ZZ symbol on their collars) the status quo we are introduced to seems equally post-apocalyptic. In enforced pastel colours groups of workers perform repetitive tasks day after day while convinced that they have “the perfect job”. I don’t know what the happy medium between this marxist pastel nightmare and the police state enforced by the general is but there has to be one. In the end it does seem like they might be on their way, with a few concessions being made to the general in the closing montage but the idea of the factory returning to how it was is not entirely comforting for anyone apart from the anthropomorphised toys themselves.

The performances in this film tend towards pantomime, since the script doesn’t allow much three-dimensional character development, notably true for Alsatia, whose character is so entirely two-dimensional that she dresses herself as a paper doll. This does get justified in perhaps the strangest and least explained plot twist (apart from the strange capacity of Michael Gambon to spawn a black son) but I guess Joan Cusack does acquit herself quite well given the bizarre demands of the script. LL Cool J, who I know of exclusively from this film and was somewhat surprised to find is a rap artist, plays his part very well but serves almost exclusively as comic relief. The two who manage to get out of stereotypes in their performance are Robin Williams and Robin Wright who act as the romantic sideplot with Wright as a perfect foil to William’s humour. They’re great performances and really sell the heart of this odd, sweet little film.

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

Hoping that everyone had a Merry Christmas and wishing you a Happy New Year from We Can’t Hear the Mime.

West – 2013

gallery_image (1)Often in life we find ourselves met with tangible goals, milestones that we try to pass in the belief that they will change or benefit our lives in some way. Classic Hollywood cinema was a sucker for these ‘happy endings’, the point where everything cannot help but inevitably get better. However in our post-modern world these stories ring false and we want to see beyond. This is where Christian Schowchow takes us in West, the story of Nelly, a single mother trying to start a new life with her son, Alexei in West Berlin.

Before the title card flashes up Schwochow has already treated us to three distinct and powerful vignettes. These show us the story up until the point where the story would classically end. The first, an idyllic snow scene: mother, son and father as the perfect family unit. Next, the breakdown of this unit, the loss of a father figure and the arduous crossing to West Berlin. Lastly, the pop music stirs up in the background and the bright lights shine. Alexei, a veritable child of Marx and Coca-Cola picks up an empty Coke can and treasures it. It’s a short segment but already we sense the imposing falseness, the bright lights and misplaced hope that will accompany this crossing.

The good/bad dichotomy between East and West Germany is totally deconstructed in this film. Schwochow treats the golden myth of social mobility and capitalism with the same cynical eye as the degenerate films of New York: Gatsby, Taxi Driver. The atmosphere is claustrophobic, full of close ups and hemmed in by the concrete walls of the Refugee Centre. Ongoing interrogations into Nelly’s past and motives bar the way to citizenship, leaving them to rot in the paranoid, hopeless ghetto they find themselves in.

Jördis Triebel won Best Actress at the German Film Awards for this role and it’s not hard to see why. The film is always either with Nelly or Alexei which gives her a huge amount of screen time. It would be so easy to slip into a portrayal of an erratic, on the edge woman with no real depth but Nelly’s anger, paranoia and hatred always seem justified. The extreme nature of her actions just serve to highlight the cruel and difficult circumstances she has to deal with. Tristan Göbel also gives a fantastic performance, however he stays a little more within the archetype of a kind child in a difficult situation. Nevertheless his deep distress is palpable as he tries to reach out and make his, and his mother’s life better without ever breathing a word of complaint.

There’s a near-documentary harshness in the cinematography. So much is handheld and Schowchow allows some things to fall out the edges of frames, as if by accident. There’s no sentimental symbolism here, just a cold hard examination of the facts. Many of the plotlines don’t finish, or at least finish unsatisfactorily, leaving us in the lurch. Yet in the end that’s the point of it all, to be able to leave behind the past and the paranoia, be it caused by East or West.

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

I have not been so blown away by a film in a long time.

Gone Girl – 2014

This review contains spoilers, read at own discretion. gone-girl-movie-still-4

As I start this review I am shocked to find that I have never before reviewed a Fincher film. Given that I consider Fincher one of the most talented contemporary directors and rank The Social Network as one of my all-time favourite films I feel that it’s high time to rectify this with a look at Fincher’s newest film, Gone Girl. After the horrific flop that was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Fincher had a lot of ground to make up in Gone Girl. Fortunately he delivers a film with

effortless style and punch.

There’s a kind of formulaic Fincher style that has emerged at this point, twisted scenarios, knife-sharp dialogue and a thumping, buzzing Reznor & Ross soundtrack. Gone Girl is all of these things, with the script adapted from the book by Gillian Flynn herself. Personally, I had not read the book before settling into my cinema seat. A fact which means that, like Fight Club before it, the film revealed itself to me in a totally different way to those already in the know. The film is like a dissertation on the unreliable narrator and, more specifically, the role of the narrator or creator within their own work. Through the whole film we only see as much of the truth as serves the story, there’s no real conclusion, no big reveal and resolution. In the murder investigation covered on rolling news what emerges is a different story, shrouded in a totally different set of half-truths and omissions. Any true knowledge lies inside the head of the eponymous Girl (Rosamund Pike, walking the line between enigmatic and crazed) as Ben Affleck states in the opening and closing voiceover of the film. Gone Girl has this longing futility running through it, the attempts of human beings to understand each other within some natural order. Attempts that cannot help but fail, so long as people are self-contained individuals.

Affleck is equally impenetrable as the accused-murderer cum victim of a psychotic fraud yet you’re never quite sure if this is what he’s going for or not. I’ve found that Ben Affleck’s recent roles seemed to call for a certain kind of strong, silent awkwardness that Affleck is fantastic at but I can’t help but feel that his range may not stretch to encompass many other things. Rosamund Pike however gives a virtuoso performance as Amy, imbuing the film with an uneasy atmosphere despite only really appearing in the second half. Her absence is palpable and unsettling as we catch glimpses of her through memories and the stories she’s told about herself. She casts herself as the infinitely mouldable “cool girl”, a personality that exists only as a foil to their man, the fictional and perfect girl the man always imagined. The supporting cast is solid but the breakout performance comes from Carrie Coon as Affleck’s twin sister Margo. As the voice of sanity caught up in the web of a cheating husband and twisted wife she acts as the viewer’s way in, torn between sympathy and fear, never quite knowing who’s right or wrong and wanting to piece it together.

Despite the slick thriller-esque pace and style of Gone Girl Fincher never quite lets go of the opportunity to make this film about love. It’s a depressing, cynical look on the traditional “loving despite faults”. By the end of Gone Girl Amy proves herself as the ultimate “cool girl”, she’s played her part so well that even as she frames her husband for murder, even as she tortures him and makes his life hell she’s still fascinating. He’s still in love with her, despite everything saying he ought not to be.

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