Whiplash – 2014


Damien Chavelle’s film boils down to one primary question: what does it take to achieve greatness? Doubtless there’s a price, as even the title suggests. Anyone moving too fast risks injury. We’ve seen a good number of these masochistic high achiever narratives in recent years but unlike Black Swan and The Social Network, for example, Whiplash steers away from the question of whether greatness is worth the price. This is more taken as evident by the two main characters and so imbues the film with a very different energy.

Whiplash is a character study of 19 year old drummer Andrew Reiman (Miles Teller). In his time at the (fictional) Schaffer Conservatory he becomes the protégé of the despotic conductor Fletcher played by J.K. Simmons. Much has been made of Simmons’ performance, which is by all counts extraordinary, his ability to switch between nurturing and terrifying while remaining a coherent and relatable human is astounding. Yet I don’t want to repeat what has been already thoroughly and more aptly lauded. Sadly much of the praise for Simmons seems to downplay Teller’s performance as Reiman, accusing him of being flat, or worse, a “blank slate”. Quite on the contrary, Teller’s performance is subtle and reels in the viewer. In the same way as the opening shot shows us Reiman from afar and the closing shot zooms in on his face we totally enter this character’s universe through the film. It’s reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman’s performance in The Graduate, making someone shy, difficult and clearly flawed into the hero we all stand behind.

In many ways Whiplash is a purification of the determined genius theme. The small side-plot where Reiman throws away a chance at a relationship is just that, a side-plot: whereas this served as Zuckerberg’s sole character motivation in Fincher’s Social Network. The only obstacle Reiman faces is his own limits and resolve. His power resides in being as self-sacrificing as possible, even seeking comfort in the arms of his father is seen as a lack of motivation and hence a weakness. His bleeding fingers from too much practice are treated as necessary battle scars and a kind of symbolic ascension to the mythical higher plane of “greatness”. Perhaps it’s a sign of residual unacceptance that these same actions, the frantic pursuit of perfection in art through self-destruction, are seen as a tragedy and framed as a slow descent into madness in Black Swan when it’s performed by a woman. Either way Fletcher’s role in the narrative falls in harmony with his role as conductor, in the long run both invisible and instrumental in teasing the potential out of this drummer. Fletcher becomes the despotic father figure finally pulling Reiman out of the nest to fly.

The script is what really shines here; it could almost be a play. It would probably be a very good play. This is not to say that it lacks cinematic elements, more that it goes a little overboard on occasion. Sitting in a cinema with eighty percent of the screen blurred in a soft-focus close up is never a rewarding experience and many scenes are filled with this kind of close-up, quick-cutting that starts to feel like time-filler after a while. The jazz scenes vary between genius and irritating. A choppy cut on every new instrument is not a new or edgy way to film music and it gets to seem a little like a cheap music video from time to time. However the film is so engaging and well structured that you can forgive. The final scene is triumphant, finishing on a drum solo it seems to perfect sum up the film, its main character and its proposed philosophy all at once. It’s not perfect, it may even be self-indulgent, but it’s daring and engaging and demands your attention and forgiveness for its faults because it may just be the closest thing to genius you get to see.

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

The Lego Movie – 2014


It’s hard not to feel encroached upon by the endless parade of branding and merchandise surrounding animated films. With Shrek turning out to be the multi-sequelled hydra it set out to mock and the announcement of a Frozen 2 and a Toy Story 4, a film whose name itself is a product would seem to be another manifestation of the problem. But this, thankfully, is not yet the fate of The Lego Movie even nearly a year after its release. But then again this is coming from Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who brought us Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and its sequel of equal quality so there was little to fear.

There’s something about Lego that has been begging to be made into a film for years. I personally have never come across someone with even the vaguest passing interest in cinema that never made a Lego stop motion. Not all of them matched up to the masterful creations that blow up youtube, but then most of them were made with cameraphones. The Lego Movie didn’t opt for stop motion, although technically speaking it could have been done, if you had more Lego than is possibly imaginable and several lifetimes to go with it. Instead this Lego is CGI, but still for the most part obeying the laws of movement within the Lego universe – ie: the bricks don’t change size. Ever. Everything is built entirely to scale in the computers out of Lego pieces that genuinely exist in the physical world. This makes the whole film seem more tactile, in places the Lego even has fingerprints and scuff-marks as if you’d brought your own plastic bricks to life. When the film does slip in a few moments of stop motion and even live action sequences they are so well matched to the CGI Lego world that it doesn’t even feel like a break. What’s even better is that the real world is slowly woven into the story and the fabric of the animation throughout the film so that when Emmett (our adorable everyman voiced by Chris Pratt) finally makes it into Live-Action-Land it doesn’t feel like a gimmick tacked onto the end of the movie just to show some cool Lego structures that actually got built.

Yet while you’re watching this film you don’t really take notice of the painstaking attention to detail and the incredible technological feat and scale of imagination that went into this film. You are most likely too busy laughing. The jokes come thick and fast and are so dead-pan that many of them can be missed on the first viewing. It’s an ebullient, joyful humour that’s never laughing too much at anyone in particular. There’s a genuine heart to the film that doesn’t fall into cynicism, not even towards Lego Batman, the most reproachable minifigure you’ll ever see. The characters fall somewhere between stereotype and archetype as well as mixing in some well-known faces from popular culture so the experience is more like hanging out with an old group of friends than watching a brand new set of characters. It’s comforting and relaxing without being predictable.

What’s more is that this film belongs to the perpetually diminishing number of films that can genuinely be called “family films” in that every member of a family can enjoy them. It’s a kids’ film, yes. But some of those jokes will be flying over their heads and I doubt they’ll be appreciating the ironic deconstruction of mass-produced uniformity that lingers over the film as an ever-present fate worse than death. At its core it wants to say something about being creative and allowing your imagination to run free. This is, as the film aptly shows, most often something adults need to be told more than kids. The child, every child is the hero here and it appeals to nostalgia and hope for the future at the same time. It’s hard not to be uplifted by this film, even if in a few places the plot almost meanders off and the message feels a little as if it’s being delivered with a hammer it’s well-meaning, it’s fun and it captures some childish joy that everyone wants to hold on to.

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

Birdman – 2014

2015-01-11-birdman_movie_stillAfter my total loss of faith in the Academy before during and after the 86th Academy Awards I decided to re-engage with the Oscars for this year’s 87th awards. While I didn’t manage to see all the nominated films and didn’t grace anyone with my terribly inaccurate predictions I was much happier this year to see some of the films I had genuinely loved (Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel) being nominated and was excited for the ceremony. While obviously I didn’t agree with every decision announced on Oscar night it was refreshing and the awards seemed globally well-deserved. Unfortunately due to a blip in my timetable I hadn’t seen Birdman before the ceremony but was quickly determined to rectify that.

Birdman certainly doesn’t disappoint. It’s a two hour non-stop rollercoaster film. Thankfully the vogue of 3.5 hour long Oscar-nominated pictures seems to have died down. The visual onslaught of Birdman being any longer would totally ruin the film. As it is the cinematic choreography makes the ride all the more exciting, althought you can’t help but wonder why Iñárritu’s preferred central point for following a character is about a foot and a half below their head at all times. Birdman does occasionally feel like a day in the life of someone shockingly short who never looks up.

Thanks to this one-take effect the film has a frenetic, relentless pace that almost feels as if it’s all happening in real-time as it scans through the dark corridors of the theatre. It’s not just Michael Keaton playing a parody of himself. Every character in the film is either an actor or acting all the same. Particular credit needs to be given to the performances of Emma Stone and Edward Norton, both of whom light up the screen when they appear. The boundaries between life and performance have never been more blurred as Norton’s Mike Shiner talks about the importance of truth while manipulating his way into a love affair with lines straight out of some cheesy script. At times characters look coyly back into the camera as we follow them through the theatre, leading us through the hall of mirrors as if we’d stepped into Baz Lurman’s Moulin Rouge. Emma Stone’s ex-rehab daughter character serves as an emblem for a generation who learnt to have online personas before they even had their own personalities, perhaps a bigger con than any that the thespians are trying to pull.

Birdman brings no judgement on its characters, despite them all being broken and borderline insane. Yet Birdman is life put up to be judged by us. It’s like an expression of how these mildly self-obsessed actors would describe their lives if they had the chance, complete with every odd circumstance and exaggeration. The irony of their lives is so beautifully rendered by Iñárritu that in watching you almost feel like you could step back and watch your own life like this. See the beauty and irony in your lowest moments like the joyous fairy lights illuminating the depressed Riggan (Keaton) as he brown-bags some spirit and listens to a drunk recite Macbeth. Clearly this absurdity in life is not a new theme, Shakespeare’s words render it admirably, Raymond Carver’s words heard through the adaptation Riggan writes tell us of it, but Iñárritu brings it into our milieu and shows us a whole range of people just trying to make some sense out of it. It’s telling that the camera only stops at the point when Riggan ultimately sees through these illusions and glamours of the stage and screen in perhaps the only action that has no mise en scene, no pretence behind it. In the end Riggan puts an end to the endless series of images that follow on and on ad nauseam and we’re only left with his daughter’s reaction, one of comprehension and admiration that the curtain can one day fall.

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

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.


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