Sunday, August 19, 2012

Review - Brave

When it was first announced (under the title The Bear and the Bow), Brave was widely considered a bold and necessary step forward for Pixar. Despite all of their innovations and success, the studio has often been criticised as something of a boys' club, with no female filmmakers or leading female protagonists being able to make a mark in their films. Brave was the film that was going to rectify that, and while it has lost its female director – Brenda Chapman having left the project during its bumpy production – the film's central character Merida is one for the ages. Tough, adventurous, beautiful and skilfully voiced by Kelly Macdonald, Merida is a heroine who manages to feel contemporary in a traditional story. She's an instantly engaging character, but she really deserves to be in a better movie.

Set Once Upon a Time in some fairytale vision of the Scottish Highlands, Brave is the story of a young woman being moulded for one role and choosing to follow a different path. Merida's mother Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) is embarrassed by her daughter's tomboyish behaviour and yearns for her to behave like a real princess. Her father King Fergus (Billy Connolly) doesn't share his wife's worries over Merida's desire to pursue archery over marriage, in fact he encourages it, delighting Merida and her three young siblings with his anecdotes about the great bear that took his leg many years ago. As in How to Train Your Dragon, the male Scots are depicted in a broad manner as a bellicose bunch primarily interested in drinking and fighting; but the focus of this film – and where it is at its best – is the strained relationship between a mother and daughter.

This relationship is skilfully drawn in the film's opening half-hour. The inability of both Elinor and Merida to make the other party see things from their point of view is convincingly played, and it leads to the film's single best sequence. When suitors from neighbouring clans are invited to partake in a series of challenges to win Merida's hand, the teenager embarrasses both them and her own mother by displaying superior archery skills. The fight between mother and daughter that follows has a tangible emotional depth to it, with a cruel act committed in anger by Merida particularly stinging Elinor. To see a family film focusing on real family conflict is interesting, but this proves to be the movie's dramatic highpoint, as Merida's subsequent rash decision to have a witch cast a spell on her mother sees Brave's narrative taking a turn for the worse.

There are some lovely touches in Brave's second half – particularly the animation of Elinor after the witch's spell has taken hold – but the film seems to run out of inspiration halfway through. After so much time is expended on Merida and Elinor sneaking out of the castle, my heart sank when a similar sequence took place later with the pair trying to sneak back in to the castle. It looks suspiciously like padding in a film that already feels slight, and the jumbled introduction of a backstory to explain the presence of a ferocious, marauding bear doesn't really work. Brave does possess all of the visual beauty that we expect from a Pixar movie, with its atmospheric rendering of Scottish woodlands being particularly pleasing, but this awkward marriage of Pixar storytelling with a more Disney-ish milieu has resulted in one of their most underwhelming and frustrating pictures. Disney managed to deliver a revitalised fairytale story with last year's Tangled – a film with wit and energy to spare – and Brave feels a little half-cooked in comparison. There's no point making forward strides with a female central character if the film that surrounds her feels like a backward step.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Blu-Ray Review - This Must Be the Place

The Film

This Must Be the Place is Paolo Sorrentino's typically distinctive take on the American road movie, but the Italian director's first English-language feature is all over the map. It's hard to identify how and why the director has failed so comprehensively here, because simply describing the premise instantly makes it sound like some degree of entertainment is guaranteed. A Goth ex-rocker, now living in Dublin, hears that his father has passed away in the United States and resolves to hunt down the Nazi who made his father's life a misery in the concentration camp he languished in. It's an unusual plot and it deserves a most unusual protagonist, with Sean Penn giving the loopiest turn of his career as the timid, fey Cheyenne.

Penn's committed performance as Cheyenne lends the character a surprising amount of depth, with a lingering sadness being evident in his portrayal of a man who hasn't performed since two fans killed themselves some years earlier, apparently inspired by his lyrics. The makeup-clad Cheyenne now exists in a state of inertia, occasionally enlivened by games of handball with his wife (Frances McDormand) in the couple's empty swimming pool or by visits to his young friend Mary (Eve Hewson), whose mother is similarly lost, gazing out of the window for the son who left home and never returned. This sense of yearning, of wishing to accomplish something or to put things back the way they were, permeates through This Must Be the Place in a number of ways.

The opening section of the film in Ireland may have little to do with where This Must Be the Place ultimately ends up, but it's the best part of the picture, where Sorrentino successfully introduces this intriguing character and scores with his eccentric comic tone. A scene in which Cheyenne awkwardly but endearingly attempts to set up Mary with a date is amusingly played, and McDormand brings a vital spark to her performance, suggesting the good humour and affection that has kept this marriage going for thirty years. Sorrentino's three previous features have centred on inscrutable and frequently unlikable characters; but while Cheyenne is initially a hard figure to read – with his childlike voice posing non-sequitous questions such as "Why is Lady Gaga?" –he's at least a character whose company we enjoy, and someone we're keen to know more about.

We never really do get to know Cheyenne, beyond what we can gleam from Penn's curious and consistently fascinating performance. When he makes the trip to America (sadly leaving McDormand behind), the film becomes more about the strange journey he undergoes and the collection of interesting/eccentric/threatening characters he meets on the road. Judd Hirsch brings a pleasing down-to-earth frankness to his performance as Nazi Hunter Mordecai Midler, but too many of Cheyenne's encounters leave us wondering what the purpose of them was. The film is episodic and facile, and while some individual sequences have entertainment value (It's hard to not chuckle as Cheyenne is trapped in the corner of a kitchen by a troublesome goose) they don't accumulate any weight. I'm not sure what Sorrentino has to say about America as seen through an outsider's eye, and I'm not sure that he does either. A single-scene cameo from Harry Dean Stanton only reminds us that other filmmakers such as Wim Wenders have taken us down this road many times before.

Of course, the film is directed with panache and wit, as we have come to expect from Sorrentino. The centrepiece of the film is a performance of David Byrne's This Must Be the Place, which is superbly staged, and in isolated moments such as this, Sorrentino's film briefly possesses a mesmerising quality. But too often that spell is broken by the director dropping the ball in a clumsy fashion (in this instance, it's a stilted and unnecessary acting cameo from Byrne), and the film continues to proceed on its uneven, unfocused way to a climax that feels horribly misjudged. When Sorrentino tries to draw pathos from the reappearance of the mother pining for her son, it didn't work for me because I had completely forgotten she existed, so wayward and inconsequential the intervening hour had been. I was also baffled by Penn's altered appearance in this coda, and unable to draw a line between the two incarnations of Cheyenne that we see. The star's central performance feels like the one ingredient of This Must Be the Place that's sure of itself, that feels consistent and thought-through, but even this aspect of the film, in the movie's closing moments, is finally cut adrift.

The Extras

Sean Penn is conspicuous by his absence from the interviews included on this disc, but those who do share their views on the film - from Sorrentino and David Byrne to a couple of cast members - are fairly interesting to listen to. Each interview runs for 5-10 minutes. A number of deleted scenes are included and are worth checking out, but it's often hard to see how they would have fit into an already troublesome narrative. Both the UK theatrical cut and the Cannes versions of the film are available to view on the blu-ray, and it's possible to watch the film with footnotes explaining how and where the various cuts were made.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Review - The Forgiveness of Blood

The path cuts across a sparse field, its entrance blocked by stones. It doesn't look like much, but this site is the catalyst for a feud that tears a family apart in The Forgiveness of Blood. When Mark (Refet Abazi) finds his usual route blocked, he takes issue with his neighbour Sokol, who now owns the land that once belonged to Mark's family. The feud escalates between the two families, and within a couple of days Sokol is dead, while Mark has disappeared and his brother Zef has been arrested for murder. I should mention at this point that The Forgiveness of Blood takes place in a remote village in northern Albania, and it is a place where people take justice into their own hands.

Blood feuds may seem like an archaic tradition to many of us, but in this region they still thrive, and it has been estimated that more than 10,000 such conflicts have claimed lives of men in Albania over the past twenty years. The tradition at the centre of this film's plot is "The Kanun", which stipulates that Sokol's family has the right to kill Mark's male offspring in the patriarch's absence, so his 17 year-old son Nik (Tristan Halilaj) immediately becomes the target. With his life in the balance, Nik essentially becomes a prisoner in his own home, unable to leave the boundaries of his home until a truce has been reached. The Forgiveness of Blood explores this situation through the eyes of Nik and his sister Rudina (Sindi Lacej), both of whom feel the full weight of familial responsibility bearing down on their young shoulders.

The Forgiveness of Blood is the second film from American director Joshua Marston, who made his debut in 2004 with the Mexico-set drugs drama Maria Full of Grace. The film focused on the experiences of a teenage drug mule, and this picture also deals with youngsters forced to deal with situations that they have been thrust into by their elders. Much of the tension in The Forgiveness of Blood is drawn from the contrast between the attitudes of its young characters and the old-world society they live in. Nik is like any other teenager, he just wants to play computer games, text his friends and meet girls, but he finds himself trapped by a dispute he never wanted any part of. Similarly, his sister needs to put her life on hold to go out and become the family's breadwinner, taking on her father's bread run and facing the glares of an intimidating mans' world.

Marston's screenplay, put together with the help of Albanian filmmaker Andamion Murataj, takes a measured, low-key approach to this violent tradition. All bloodshed and confrontations occur offscreen, with Marston instead emphasising the everyday sense of threat that hangs over this family. The film is claustrophobic and compelling, with Marston crafting a film that works as both a character study and an exploration of a wider culture. At its core, The Forgiveness of Blood may follow the traditional framework of a coming-of-age tale, but the curious spirit and compassion that Marston has shown in taking us to such unfamiliar and intriguing territory makes it feel disarmingly fresh. We can only hope it won't be another seven years before this talented filmmaker returns from his travels with more stories to tell.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Review - Undefeated

This is the kind of story that one could easily imagine Hollywood turning into an inspiring movie. Undefeated is the study of a no-hope football team, full of young players beset by emotional, cultural and academic obstacles, and led by a coach driven by nothing more than his bottomless passion for the game. Over the course of one season, the Manassas Tigers are transformed from the state's whipping boys to a team fighting for the championship, and their resilience in coming back from behind on so many occasions is testament to the self-belief that coach Bill Courtney instils in them. Undefeated follows this team across a perfect narrative arc – it even has a climactic match that finishes in a nailbiting fashion.

But this is a documentary, not a fiction, and the young men who take to the field to represent their school are real people facing uncertain futures. "For most coaches, that would be a career's worth of crap to deal with," Courtney says, as he recalls having to deal with players fighting and getting shot or arrested, "I think that sums up the last two weeks for me." Courtney is a volunteer coach who has been taking charge of the Tigers for the past six years, devoting an extraordinary amount of time to the students in his care, often at the expense of his own four children. He also runs a lumber business but he would give it all up tomorrow to coach full-time if he could. He's a good man who really wants to make a difference, and he's more than a coach to the Manassas Tigers players; he's a mentor, a confidant, a friend and a father figure, even as dealing with these teens often drives him to exasperation. "This isn't part of the job description" he complains as he drives out to a player's home, before admitting that he doesn't really know what the job description is anymore.

Undefeated focuses on three members of the team, each of whom have a story to tell. Chavis is a young man with an explosive temper whose inability to control his emotions has landed him in jail; Montrail – nicknamed "Money" – has lost his father and faces injury problems; star player OC wants a football college scholarship but his grades aren't up to scratch. Through their experiences, the film's co-directors Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin attempt to paint a portrait of a whole generation of young men, whose prospects look bleak in a town decimated by the closure of its main tyre plant. For most of these boys, football is the only route out, but not everyone can make the grade and we are left wondering what happens to those who are left behind. Undefeated's narrow focus is perhaps necessary, but a young man being offered a college scholarship out of the blue is the exception, not the rule, and there are so many questions lingering in the background of this story.

I don't know if Undefeated could have addressed the full complexity of such issues, as the first half of the film does already feel a little sluggish and unfocused. It improves immeasurably in the second half, however, as the team drives towards its playoff game and the directors succeed in drawing us into the drama. A knowledge of American football is not a prerequisite for being affected by Undefeated, as the raw, heightened emotion of the last half-hour is likely to breach the sturdiest audience defence, and the film captures a couple of moments in particular that knocked the wind out of me. In these moving sequences we can see boys becoming men, drawing strength from both their successes and their failures, and repaying Coach Courtney's faith in them. "You think football builds character. It does not," he tells his players, "It reveals character." Whether they will have the character, strength, discipline and good fortune to survive what lies beyond the events documented in Undefeated is another matter entirely.