Phil on Film Index

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Review - The Hunger Games

"May the odds be ever in your favour." That's what citizens of the futuristic city Panem say to the unfortunate souls who are about to partake in The Hunger Games, a gruelling contest that crosses the bloody entertainments of ancient Rome with today's hyperbole-driven reality TV culture. Of course, the joke is that the odds are heavily against each participant's survival, with only one of the 24 youths selected as 'Tribute' being allowed to walk away as victor, but the odds are certainly stacked in favour of The Hunger Games, the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins' Young Adult novel. A large fanbase has already been established by the series' success in print form, a fan base desperate to see a faithful adaptation of the story they love, and that's what has been delivered, with Collins herself having a hand in the screenplay. It seems certain that The Hunger Games will satisfy those who love the books and will score highly enough at the box office to justify further instalments in the franchise.

Whether or not the film is actually any good, however, is another question entirely. To these eyes, coming to the story afresh, it looked like a world half-realised, populated by thin characters and built upon a narrative driven by arbitrary twists and motivations. Little about Panem makes sense, despite vague talk of a rebellion that resulted in the central Capitol (where the wealthy and powerful live) ruling over 12 oppressed districts, and our lack of engagement with this universe is partly down to director Gary Ross. He gives us the odd CGI-enabled establishing shot but then quickly cuts away to tight, handheld shots that rarely stray far beyond the face of lead actress Jennifer Lawrence (to the detriment of her fellow contestants, who never really register). His direction is messy but he does establish a lively sense of momentum that carries us through much of the exposition-heavy opening hour without giving us time to pick holes in the logic.

It's also fun to watch these actors at work, and Ross has an eye for a good performance, having already shown as much in Pleasantville and Seabiscuit. The Hunger Games does occasionally suffer from the sense that everyone involved appears to be acting in a different movie – a cartoonish Elizabeth Banks is much less effective than a marvellously oleaginous Stanley Tucci – but this opening half of the film does feature the film's most neatly handled scenes. Lenny Kravitz and Woody Harrelson both impress as the two mentor figures who take Lawrence's Katniss under their wing and teach her both how to survive and how to manipulate the publicity aspect of the games to her advantage. These actors have precious little to work with, but their professionalism and charisma goes a long way to giving their characters an extra dimension.

The problem is that Katniss' survival is never in doubt, which saps a great deal of tension from the movie. Instead, the film tries to draw emotional weight from her relationship with the other characters, such as Josh Hutcherson's lovelorn Peeta and Amandla Stenberg's Rue, but it's nowhere near enough, and by the time the games actually begin the film has failed to gives us any reason to care about the outcome. The second half of the picture is a disaster, hampered immediately by the horrendous shaky-cam approach that renders the close combat scenes incomprehensible (perhaps a tactic to obtain a more kid-friendly rating) and by the increasingly nonsensical twists that turn the story into a series of incidents rather than an involving, flowing narrative. A contestant laughably disguises himself as a tree; the gamesmasters throw in some fireballs and (cheap-looking) CGI dogs to attack the kids; the rules are changed twice in the last few minutes of play. It all seems so flimsy and meaningless.

Of course, many will argue that all of my gripes are answered in the books, but if you have to refer to the source material to defend a film then I'd suggest it's a sign of a failed adaptation. For comparative purposes, I'm tempted to look not at the novel but at another film, Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale, which similarly set a group of schoolkids against each other in a fight to the death. The Hunger Games could have been as witty, thrilling and shocking as that picture, but it lacks any sense of courage or imagination. The one thing this strangely muted and flat picture has in its favour is the star power of Jennifer Lawrence, who gives a commanding and empathetic display in the lead role and effortlessly sells Katniss' key moments – but what's the point of having an actress who can sell the small moments if the film can't sell any of the big ones? The Hunger Games lacks a single shot that resonates, a single moment that evokes some sense of danger or exhilaration. This franchise may be a license to print money, but it's a film starved of inspiration.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Review - Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Bir zamanlar Anadolu'da)

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia reaches its zenith in an extraordinary sequence that occurs roughly halfway through the film. A group of men – policemen, a doctor, a prosecutor, a murderer and various other interested parties – have spent the night driving around the mountainous terrain of the Anatolian steppes, searching for the body of the man that Kenan (Firat Tanis) has confessed to killing. Kenan's memory of where exactly this body is hidden is rather hazy, though – the murder having been committed after a drunken brawl – and the search thus far has been fruitless despite the many hours spent driving to one barren location after another. The group rests at the home of a provincial mayor, eating and drinking and hearing the mayor's complaints over the problems faced by his village, and then the mayor calls his daughter to serve the weary travellers some tea.

She appears as if she has just dropped in from another world, or the heavens above, with the single lamp that illuminates her giving the young woman an angelic appearance. The men are transfixed, mirroring the audience's entrancement as they watch her in silence, and her presence seems to stir something deep within their souls, encouraging one of them to unburden himself of a deep secret he has held close to his heart.

The title of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia suggests that the film is some kind of fairytale, and scenes such as the one described above feel akin to that description. Primarily, I guess you'd describe the movie as a police procedural, but it is unlike any you've ever seen, with the director Nuri Bilge Ceylan imposing a languid pace and rhythm on the film that makes it unfold like a dream, and without the usual sense of urgency that such investigative films possess. We get a tangible sense of time passing as the men drive through the darkness scanning the horizon for the indentifying marks Kenan recalls (he knows the body was buried near "a round tree"), but Ceylan seems in no hurry to resolve the mystery that drives the characters' actions. He is far more interested in exploring the nature of the men themselves.

This is Ceylan's sixth film and each film has expanded upon the picture that went before it. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is his most ambitious film and his most challenging in some ways; it asks that the audience re-adjust their expectations of narrative storytelling and be attentive, engaged viewers in order to reap the rewards that are buried within. The rewards are there, no doubt about that, but for much of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, the pleasure I received from it was an aesthetic one. With his background in photography, there's little surprise that Ceylan's films are always visually resplendent, but Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is ravishing. The opening hour is mostly lit by the headlights of cars, guiding the men through the all-encompassing darkness, and every single shot is gorgeously composed by the director. His long, measured takes allow us to examine the frame and drink in the mesmerising images. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia may sound like a long, slow slog in which pretty pictures are paramount, but Ceylan's screenplay is full of telling observations and character details, and an appealingly droll sense of humour.

The opening half of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia gets just about everything right. Sadly, this is a film of two halves, and after the body has finally been recovered (an odd, funny scene) and returned to town for the autopsy, the film undeniably loses something in the shift from night to day. The characters, like the film, seem haunted by the events that have transpired the night before. The film focuses on the character of the doctor (Muhammet Uzuner) as he oversees the autopsy and considers perpetrating a lie for the sake of a man whom he has by now come to know something about. The second half of the film is immaculately directed by Ceylan but it's hard to avoid a sense of deflation at the end of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, as a picture that has neared perfection for much of its opening half eventually just settles for being an extremely good film rather than a great one. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a masterclass in filmmaking, but that in itself isn't quite enough to make it a masterpiece.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

DVD Review - Weekend

The Film

The structure of Weekend couldn't be more tried-and-tested. Two people meet, they make an instant connection, they begin to get to know each other but they only have a limited amount of time to spend in each other's company before one has to depart. If you're now thinking of Brief Encounter, or perhaps Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, then you've got a rough idea of Weekend's tone, but it's the nature of the content that sets it apart. Those aforementioned movies were all about heterosexual relationships whereas Weekend is about two men who meet in a bar, enjoy a one-night stand, and then quickly realise that their relationship has taken on a weight and dimension that neither of them anticipated.

It begins on an ordinary Friday night in Nottingham, as Russell (Tom Cullen), a softly spoken lifeguard, leaves a family party and heads for a gay nightclub. After a few drinks and some tentative flirting, he takes Glen (Chris New) back to his flat and we pick the story up the next morning, as a typical post-coital awkwardness hangs in the air. Glen pulls out a tape recorder and asks Russell to recount the events of the night before, something that he does after every sexual encounter for an art project he is working on, and this acts as an icebreaker while also reveal something of the two characters. Glen is sharp-witted, brash and open about his sexuality and Russell is a little more circumspect; he's out of the closet, but only to his closest friends, and he is wary of public displays of homosexual affection.

Watching how these two characters interact, becoming more open and intimate and sharing more of themselves with each other, is the joy of Weekend. Writer/director Andrew Haigh creates an atmosphere and builds a rhythm that allows the actors to relax completely into their roles, and it's the contrast between them that makes the relationship so intriguing. As Saturday morning progresses into Saturday afternoon and then Saturday night, the pair have sex again, but for the most part Weekend is a film built on conversation. Russell and Glen talk about themselves, about their lives, about their plans for the future and about the perception of gay culture in modern Britain. Even when these exchanges grow more politically charged, it never feels forced, as if Haigh is imposing an agenda on the film. The dialogue, fuelled by drink and some recreational drugs, maintains the natural flow of a couple who feel increasingly at ease in each other's company.

At one point in Weekend, Glen discusses his art project and says, "Gays will only come because they’re hoping to see some cock, and they’ll be disappointed. Straights won’t come because it’s about gay sex." As he watched this scene play out, I wonder if Haigh intended it as a commentary on the commercial prospects for his film? Weekend is gay film, very much concerned with the details of gay relationships and society, but it deserves to have an impact beyond that niche audience. It's a film that is so honest about relationships, about the ability of one person to communicate their true feelings to another, and about the importance of making the right decision at the right time, that surely viewers of any persuasion will recognise some truth in it. For many audiences, its chief pleasure will be a simple one – as we watch the film end on a perfect note, we are reminded how rare it is to see a contemporary cinematic romance that feels honest, intelligent and real.

The Extras

The extras primarily consist of interviews with Weekend's engaging director and two stars, along with some behind-the-scenes footage. A commentary track would have surely been fun to listen to, but is sadly absent.

Weekend is released on DVD and Blu-ray on March 19th

Buy Weekend here

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Michael Powell on Martin Scorsese

"I felt life returning to me. I felt the blood coursing through my veins. I felt every cliché in the world happening simultaneously, to my body and brain. Here was the movies, and here was a real king of the movies; he knew what he was doing, and why he was doing it. Here was the art, and here was the artist that had been lost for so long after the war. We haven't got over it yet. We need a dozen Scorseses. They're waiting in the wings.

I ran Mean Streets that night in a little projection room in Wardour Street. There was just me and a couple of young technicians and the projectionist. I was stunned. Here was great film-making, the kind that only happened in Europe before the war, except for an occasional Howard Hawks production. Here was no Hollywood complacency, although the film had been shot in Hollywood. Here was life, naked and raw, here was art in the hands of a master artist.

When you saw it you never knew what, or who, was coming next: De Niro, from being an obscure young actor, suddenly dominated the screen, Harvey Keitel was like an avenging angel, but they were all puppies in the hands of this extraordinary genius. When the film was over, the projectionist came out of the booth, and we all looked at each other, silent. Nobody said anything until I said, "Let's go over to the pub and have a drink.""

From Million-Dollar Movie, the second volume of Michael Powell's autobiography.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

DVD Review - Dreams of a Life

The Film

Many people die alone, but the death of Joyce Carol Vincent occured in a state of loneliness that few of us can fathom. She passed in her London bedsit at some point before Christmas 2003, but her body lay undisturbed on her couch for three years before it was discovered by bailiffs carrying a repossession order. In front of a TV that had been continuously broadcasting to nobody for the past three years and surrounded by half-wrapped Christmas presents, Joyce's body had decomposed to the point where she could only be identified by her dental records. Such a startling discovery prompts so many questions – how did Joyce's decaying corpse go unnoticed as people walked past the room containing it every day? Why did none of her friends or family notice her absence?

These are the questions that encouraged Carol Morley to make Dreams of a Life. Putting out a call for anyone who knew Joyce Vincent, the filmmaker eventually managed to get in touch with former friends, work colleagues and lovers, all of whom were stunned to discover the manner of Joyce's death. The woman they recall was no isolated shut-in, but a beautiful, talented and vivacious character who picked up a posse of friends and admirers wherever she went. But basing her entire depiction of Joyce's character on the recollections of others inevitably makes for a somewhat hazy portrait. Memory is subjective and the interviewees who contribute to Dreams of a Life prove to be unreliable narrators, offering conflicting and speculative testimonies that often seem clouded by their own relationships with her. Nevertheless, watching Morley attempt to piece together this girl's life from the scraps of evidence she has been presented with is a fascinating process.

To avoid turning her film into a bland compilation of talking heads, Morley also intercuts between staged recreations of Joyce's final days, with young actress Zawe Ashton taking on this difficult role. These scenes are occasionally powerful – with Ashton bringing an aching sense of loneliness to her performance – but they often feel a little flat and poorly paced, with a couple of extended sequences in particular sapping all energy from the picture. Still, it was a bold gambit on Morley's past to try and depict the sadness of Joyce's life in her bedsit, gazing into the mirror as she remembers her younger days and slowly miming to songs that she once recorded in her attempt to embark on a singing career. Certainly, the juxtaposition between images of Ashton as Joyce in her element at a party or in the recording studio hammers home the devastating and inexplicable nature of her isolated demise.

The most affecting figure in Dreams of a Life is Martin, an instantly likeable character who dated Joyce for a number of years and remained her closest friend thereafter. Nobody in the film was closer to her than he was, but even he remained in the dark about the problems she was having, and he is heartbroken by the fact that she didn't reach out to him in her hour of need. It's so difficult for us to comprehend how a person can cut their ties with society so comprehensively to the point where they aren't missed after their death, and when that person is as popular and well liked as Joyce clearly was it becomes even more of a head-scratcher. But Joyce seemed to keep people at a certain distance throughout her life; she had friends, sure, but she didn't let anyone get closer than that, and while all of those interviewed in the film claim to have know her, they only knew as much as she allowed them to know. Perhaps this is why Dreams of a Life can only tells us so much about the woman whose tragic death defined her. Morley's film is a compelling, impressive and moving piece of investigative filmmaking, but the real Joyce Carol Vincent ultimately remains tantalisingly out of reach.

The Extras

A solid extras package consisting of various interviews with Carol Morley, Zawe Ashton and the film's many contributors, as well as some behind-the-scenes footage. Morley's interesting 1994 short film I'm Not Here is also included.

Dreams of a Life is released on DVD in March 12th

Buy Dreams of a Life here

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Review - Michael

Who knows what is going on behind the doors we walk past every day? The house that Michael (Michael Fuith) lives in is a nondescript one, indistinguishable from all others on this suburban street, somewhere in Austria. The same descriptions could be used for its inhabitant, as Michael is hardly a man who stands out in a crowd. To his fellow office workers, he's a pleasant character, but timid and cripplingly shy, barely able to sustain a conversation with them and clandestine about his activities outside the office. After his working day, Michael quietly slips away and returns to the house in which he lives alone. Well, he doesn't exactly live alone.

Michael has a prisoner in his basement, a young boy called Wolfgang (David Rauchenberger). We don't know how long he has held this boy captive, but certain clues suggests that it has been some years; "Why don't you get the decorations this time" he says as they prepare for Christmas, and when Wolfgang writes a letter to his parents, Michael stores it away with the rest. A routine has been established with Wolfgang joining Michael for evening meals, but the boy spends most of his time in a custom-built, soundproofed, windowless room under the house, locked behind a huge iron door six inches thick. Occasionally, Michael will go downstairs and sodomise the boy, but director Markus Schleinzer thankfully gives us no glimpse of the act itself. All we see is Michael standing at a sink after the fact, nonchalantly washing his genitals.

For his debut film, Schleinzer has picked the most troubling and emotive subject matter imaginable, and has chosen to deal with it in the most dispassionate manner possible. His stripping away of sensationalism for much of the movie depicts Michael's actions as just another part his banal existence, re-emphasising at every turn how ordinary the character is. There's something childlike and pathetic in Fuith's impressive lead performance; he seems out of his depth with people his own age and much more comfortable conversing with youngsters whom he meets as he loiters at a go-kart track. On that occasion, he almost succeeds in enticing a boy back to his lair before he is rumbled by the child's father and beats a hasty retreat. Life in the outside world appears to be one of constant torment and frustration for Michael, who can only exert some semblance of control over the youngster he keeps at home, although even he is capable of being petulant and resistant to Michael's advances too.

Any film about paedophilia that emerges from Austria comes loaded with our knowledge of the country's dark recent history, with the Fritzl case and the story of Natascha Kampusch, whose imprisonment and abuse partly inspired Michael. Schleinzer probably intends his film to be more universal than that, but what, if anything, does Michael really have to say about its subject beyond exposing us all to the banality of evil? The director learned his trade working alongside Michael Haneke on a number of films and he shares a number of stylistic traits with that great filmmaker (as well as fellow countryman Ulrich Seidl), but Haneke always at his most potent when driving home the thematic point of his material, which is something that seems reluctant or unable to do. One wonders what exactly is the audience's reward or payoff for sitting uncomfortably through this queasily unsettling picture?

Instead of offering any such compensation, Schleinzer seems content to manipulate our emotions by placing Wolfgang's welfare in jeopardy at a number of points. When we watch Michael clumsily attempt to join in with work colleagues on a skiing trip, we mentally consider the consequences for the boy if he were to suffer a terrible accident. Later, in a couple of shocking scenes, Michael is indisposed for a length of time that proves agonising to watch, with nobody but him aware of Wolfgang's presence beneath his home. It's brilliantly staged by the director and undeniably effective, but the teasing final shot that strives for a sense of horrible ambiguity simply comes across as the punchline to a sick joke. Schleinzer knows how to put a film together and hold audience emotions in his grip; perhaps next time he'll put those talents to use on a deeper exploration of his subject.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Review - Carancho

On average, 22 people are killed in traffic accidents every day in Argentina. That's over 8000 deaths a year, with an estimated 12000 suffering injuries through incidents on the road. These statistics open Pablo Trapero's Carancho, along with some grisly black-and-white photographs of wrecked cars and lives, but the most telling line is yet to come: "The compensation market is booming." Where there is tragedy, you'll find people ready to pounce and profit from the misery of others. Carancho translates as "The Vulture," and its central character lives up to that description. He's an ambulance-chasing lawyer who spends his evenings listening in on the police radio so he can be first at the scene. Sosa (Ricardo Darín) immediately goes after the victims with the aim of getting them to sign their power of attorney over to people he works for, ensuring a hefty slice of the insurance money they should be receiving will instead go to his employers.

On one level, Trapero's film is a critique of Argentinean society's dark underbelly and a study of the conflicted souls who traverse it, but it's also a love story between two complex characters who meet under unusual circumstances, and their relationship is vital for giving this uneven movie a gripping emotional thrust. Luján (Martina Gusman) is a young doctor burning the candle at both ends in one of the city's many hectic emergency rooms. For the extra money, she works an additional ambulance shift, but these long hours are taking their toll; Luján has developed a serious drug problem and the beautiful Gusman appears gaunt and ghostlike in her appearance. Both of these troubled characters see an opportunity for positive change in the other, but they approach with caution. Can she fall in love with a man whose profession repels her? Can he risk dragging her into the murky, dangerous world he exists in? Can they both escape their fates and find a better life together?

Ricardo Darín will be a familiar face to many filmgoers having appeared in two of Argentina's major crossover films in the past decade, Nine Queens and the Oscar-winning The Secret in Their Eyes. He's a great leading man, possessing a soulful quality that underpins his authorative but unshowy performances. Perfectly cast as a decent character deeply conflicted over the path he has chosen, he gives a superb display that quickly captivates the audience and earns its empathy. Martina Gusman may be less well known than her co-star, but she is no less talented. She gave an outstanding performance in 2008's Lion's Den – also directed by Trapero (her husband) – and she fully invests herself in a character who is barely holding it all together. The director makes great use of Gusman's big, tired-looking eyes, and the central couple have a wonderful, fragile chemistry.

Of course, Trapero puts them through the mill during Carancho's bruising 107 minutes. He's a tough, confrontational filmmaker who delights in setting the audience on edge and plunging us into the midst of the often-violent action. He does this with consummate skill and confidence too, orchestrating some impressive sequences with inventive camerawork and sharp editing. Julián Apezteguia's cinematography creates an evocative, noir-ish atmosphere, and it all adds up into a pretty formidable package, but something about Carancho just doesn't hang together. Trapero sometime struggles to segue elegantly between the slightly over-plotted thriller aspect of his movie and the quieter, more intimate scenes between Darín and Gusman, and the film sometimes fails to flow as smoothly as I hoped it would, but it's always stimulating and always engrossing, right up to its extraordinarily ambitious climax. Regardless of how involved you are with the movie to that point, Carancho's ending will leave you reeling.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Review - Project X

In 2007, producer Judd Apatow and director Greg Mottola were responsible for one of the surprise hits of the year with their teen comedy Superbad. The film was about three high school outsiders determined to lose their virginity at an upcoming party, who embarked upon a night that quickly spiralled out of control in unexpected ways. The central characters comprised of a sensitive, upstanding lead harbouring a long-term crush; his rambunctious best friend, who is responsible for most of the trio's boneheaded decisions; and a character who takes awkward geekdom to new heights, despite his misguided stabs at suavity. Superbad's popularity was built largely on its outrageous, raunchy humour, but there was much more to the film than that. It had likeable characters, a neatly developed narrative and – most crucially of all – a sense of heart that gave a surprising emotional shade to the climactic scenes.

In 2012, we have Project X, a vision of what Superbad may have been if it had been made by people without an ounce of talent or empathy (or Todd Phillips – a colder, more cynical Apatow), and a depressing vision of what is deemed acceptable fare for mainstream audiences these days. You want characterisation, plot and wit? Forget about it. Project X is all about anarchy and noise. The central characters are drawn from the same template as Superbad's three leads, but they have been stripped of the real, human qualities that made those characters so relatable, leaving us with three of the most obnoxious and instantly loathsome creations I've ever had to spend 90 minutes with. Thomas (Thomas Mann) is the sensible one led astray, whose birthday party is the catalyst for the disaster that ensues, while JB (Jonathan Daniel Brown) is the fat nerd, but the chief offender here is Costa (Oliver Cooper). He's an unrepentant loudmouth with big ideas who refers to women as "bitches," men as "faggots," and fails to offer a single line worth remembering despite his constant flow of self-aggrandising chatter.

Actually, there's a fourth character worth mentioning. His name is Dax and as he has been hired by Costa to record the party planned for Thomas's 17th birthday, so we see most of the action through his eyes. Yes, Project X is a "found footage" film; a phrase guaranteed to strike fear into my heart in the same way that "3D" or "directed by Michael Bay" does for many filmgoers. The idea of basing your whole movie on footage inadvertently shot and later recovered remains a ridiculous one, especially when it is handled as incompetently as it is here. What is material shot on Dax's camera and myriad phones supposed to add to the film experience? All it offers is an extra layer of contrivance, as we sit through scenes wondering who exactly is shooting them and why (watch for the final conversation between Thomas and his father), and a constant distraction, although given the repugnance of what's taking place on screen, a few distractions may actually be welcome.

The height of Project X's comic invention occurs when a midget is stuffed into an oven and then proceeds to punch a number of people in the balls. That's the level we're working at here, but for the most part director Nima Nourizadeh focuses on the film's strengths: destruction, misogyny and chaos. Endless cacophonous montages shows us anonymous teens getting wasted, smashing up property and generally behaving in an irresponsible yet consequence-free manner. Fine, you might say, what's the problem with that? It's a teenage fantasy writ large – the party every nobody has dreamed of having in order to turn himself into a somebody. But there is no progression here, there is no sense of character development, there is no moral compass. Shouldn't a movie consist of something more than barely coherent depictions of mayhem? Shouldn't the protagonists develop in some way, learn something from their experiences or at least be affected by their actions? Am I simply getting too old for this shit?

Of course, the charge levelled at most critics who write damning reviews of Project X will be that the film isn't made for us anyway, and that it is aimed at teens who just want to have a good time and don't care about irrelevant details like "characters" or "narrative." But if that's the case, then why is Project X rated as an 18-certificate film in the UK? Do the filmmakers honestly believe there is an adult audience that will want to endure this toxic garbage? Maybe they're right, but I hope to God they're wrong. The idea that the British public could embrace a film as overwhelmingly odious as this is too depressing for words.