Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Keanu Reeves Interview: Neo himself talks about documentary project 'Side By Side'

Quick post to say an interview I did with Keanu Reeves and director Christopher Kenneally is now online, on the website of Brighton's Cinecity Film Festival. The star-studded documentary, based around the current debate about whether or not filmmaking should go digital or stay rooted in photo-chemical processes, sees Reeves interview top people including directors (too many to mention, but dozens of BIG names), cinematographers, actors, producers and beyond. It's so good that I saw it twice in Berlin earlier this year, which is where I caught up with Mr. Reeves.

Anyway, if you live in or around Brighton you can see 'Side By Side' for yourself this weekend as part of Cinecity. It's playing at 15.30 (3.30pm) at the Duke of York's Picturehouse and you can book tickets here.

My review of the film is up here.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

'The Master' review:

Aside from general tardiness, the reason I have taken so long to review 'The Master' - in spite of the fact I made sure I saw it first thing on the day of release - is because I haven't been entirely sure what to make of it. I make no secret of the fact that director Paul Thomas Anderson's 'Punch-Drunk Love' is my favourite film, which means watching the filmmaker's first feature since the almost equally brilliant 'There Will Be Blood' comes with a certain weight of expectation and a desire on my part to avoid a reactionary response which I might regret later! Mostly because I suspected (and continue to suspect) that his latest is a film which will gain a lot from repeated viewings.

'The Master' is not, at least to my mind, an immediately gratifying film. There are immediately gratifying elements, to be sure - the cinematography and Anderson's use of camera is one of the most obvious, as are the two central performances - but this story-light script is much more of a character study and exploration of various themes (such as religion as institutionalism and whether it is truly possible to be your own master). There's nothing wrong with that at all, and in fact the most interesting films are usually about characters rather than a narrative sequence of events, but 'The Master' takes this to an extreme, with very little happening outside of its broader exploration of themes.

The story boils down to: a mentally troubled man (the chameleon-like Jaoquin Phoenix) leaves the Navy after WWII and finds it difficult to maintain a job or relationship upon his return home. Circumstances lead to a chance encounter with a charismatic cult leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose sheer force of personality and assumed place of authority subdue Phoenix and make him feel as though he belongs, becoming the cult's least questioning acolyte, intolerant of the slightest criticism of Hoffman and given to violence against perceived enemies of The Cause (a clear analogue of Scientology). Things happen, of course, but they aren't presented as a series of cause and effect events. Rather, various encounters between Phoenix and Hoffman, and all the incidents in between, serve as vehicles to explore the film's themes. Making it a difficult but potentially rewarding watch.

Hoffman's every mannerism and intonation is inspired, with the master already one of his best characters, whilst his customary ability to switch from gentility to rage is exploited here to its very best, and it's his scenes opposite the quiet, unhinged menace of Phoenix that are the film's clear highlight. In fact an interrogation scene between the two and their final scene together at the end - in which Hoffman delivers a truly brilliant monologue - are among the best individual scenes Anderson has ever filmed. Meanwhile Jonny Greenwood again provides the score, which whilst not as visceral and consistently unsettling as his work on 'There Will Be Blood' (or Jon Brion's mesmeric score for 'Punch-Drunk Love') is still one of the year's best.

I'll return to this film in the near future and will probably come back to talk about it some more when it's clearer in my own mind. In the meantime, it goes without saying that it's worth seeing and a masterpiece in so many ways, even if I'm not yet certain how great it is overall.

'The Master' is rated '15' by the BBFC and is on general release now in the UK.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

'Skyfall', 'Argo' and 'Rust and Bone': review round-up

'Skyfall' - Dir. Sam Mendes (12A)
By far the glossiest looking Bond film to date, this 50th anniversary edition of the spy series arguably brings top tier talent behind the camera for the first time - with an Academy Award winning director in Sam Mendes and the legendary Roger Deakins serving as DP. The result is something very pretty indeed and a film in which London - so often centre of attention in this Olympic year - is made to look especially cool. This seems to be the chief aim of 'Skyfall': to celebrate Bond as a British icon, and by extension celebrate Blighty. It's the first of the current Daniel Craig led series to be made in the coalition era and, perhaps not incidentally, it's a very conservative movie - which frequently invites us to look backwards.

In some ways this is harmless, as we're expected to coo at the screen return of a vintage car or an old character (inventor Q returns to the series, played by Ben Whishaw). Yet in other ways this is more insidious as the series to some extent jettisons the sensitive and fully-featured Bond of the past two instalments - the one who lost the love of his life in 'Casino Royale' and then went on a revenge mission in the derided 'Quantum of Solace' - in favour of a return to a Bond who makes glib jokes as a women he's recently bedded is killed. Yes, in the traditional style, once Bond beds the bad guy's woman she no longer has anything to offer the narrative and her only recourse is to serve as an example of how ruthless the big baddie is. Whishaw's Q - who seems to be channelling Moss from 'The I.T Crowd' - makes a self-aware joke at one point that the series has grown-up beyond exploding pens and other extreme gadgets. What a pity the sexual politics of old was not thought equally out of date.

In any case, that's Bond for you I guess. If it seems churlish to complain that a Bond movie falls in-line with long-established Bond conventions, I only do it because the series did seem to be taking a conscious step in another direction before this reversal. In fact, by the end of 'Skyfall' the series traditional status quo - and with it oak panelled patriarchy - is fully restored. One bright spot though is the appearance of Javier Bardem as the villain of the piece. Bardem is magnetic in every scene and brings out the best in the material. His mode of speech and every subtle mannerism is interesting and makes the film worth watching even for self-confessed non-fans like me.

'Argo' - Dir. Ben Affleck (15)
Following on from the enjoyably meat and potatoes, Michael Mann-lite crime movie 'The Town' and his Clint Eastwood-like directorial debut 'Gone Baby Gone', Ben Affleck has now turned in an entirely effective political thriller in the mode of the late Sidney Lumet. The actor-turned-director still hasn't really displayed any particular style of his own behind the camera, but it doesn't really matter in this instance because everything about 'Argo' is at least solid, often going some way beyond that. In fact, for the last hour, it's incredibly tense and terrifically well-paced, leading to the sort of air-punching, applause baiting finale usually reserved for fight movies.

Based on a true and recently declassified story, 'Argo' is about a marverick, young CIA operative (Affleck sporting a nice beard) who creates an elaborate cover in order to sneak into Tehran and rescue six American embassy staffers as they wait in hiding during the hostage crisis of 1979-81. The six had escaped the embassy during the takeover and are hidden in the residence of the Canadian ambassador, however it is only a matter of time before the authorities discover that they are missing and begin to search for them. With the clock ticking, Affleck comes up with "the best bad idea we have" - deciding to try and sneak the six out of the country posing as a Canadian feature film crew scouting for a location for a science fiction epic called Argo.

In order to make the cover realistic however, Affleck has to journey to Hollywood and gather interest in the film - getting a script and storyboards done, as well as attaching a special effects guy (John Goodman) and a big-shot producer (Alan Arkin). This makes for some neat, affectionate satire of the film industry and some pretty decent comic relief which helps to relieve the sometimes unbearable tension of the action taking place in Iran. Roundly superb performances (Bryan Cranston is in it, fagodsakes) and a humanistic attitude to the whole crisis, with attention paid to the complex history of the rift between Iran and the US, 'Argo' is the sort of smart and gripping thriller you didn't think they made anymore.

'Rust and Bone' - Dir. Jacques Audiard (15)
Following on from the over-praised prison drama 'Un Prophete', French director Jacques Audiard takes a change of direction to tell this rather more compelling and left-field story about the redemptive power of love. Here Marion Cotillard's double amputee regains her lust for life after embarking a complex relationship with Matthias Schoenaerts' uncouth, selfish part-time doorman and wannabe prize fighter - an errant father and petty criminal. It's the story of two lost souls finding their way in the world together and complimenting each other perfectly, seemingly against the odds. The most appealing thing about 'Rust and Bone' is that Audiard doesn't judge his characters, in spite of their doing some pretty horrible things from time to time. They are wounded and troubled people, but not caricatures and this makes their finding solace in each other all the more powerful.

In fact there is something bitter-sweet about their relationship as it seems born, to some extent, of compromise and circumstances. They have fallen into this partnership together because neither's life has gone as planned and that's sort of sad, albeit in an extremely mundane way. That is until the ending, which seems to artificially rectify the situation with a change of fate that doesn't feel foreshadowed or particularly warranted. Perhaps the film's final moments are an ultimate tribute to the transformational and life-affirming nature of having love in your heart - and that's a very nice sentiment - but it still rings false as a piece of storytelling.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

'On the Road' review:

When Walter Salles' coming of age road movie 'The Motorcycle Diaries' came out nearly a decade ago I would have still been a teenager. Full of idealism and youthful enthusiasm - eager to help change the world and still certain that anything was possible. I only had to want it. That's probably why I loved that movie at the time. I haven't seen it since, but it's frozen in my memory not only as something hopeful, optimistic and humanistic, but also as a very fine piece of filmmaking. I'd hesitate to watch it again though, in my current state as a bitterly disappointed old man, as Salles' similarly themed 'On the Road' - in spite of some similar ingredients and equally luscious cinematography - left me bored and irritated.

Likewise inspired by a revolutionary autobiographical novel and set during a time of youth-powered social change, 'On the Road' is, of course, based on Jack Kerouac's generation defining book of the same name, with Sam Riley playing author surrogate Sal. 'Tron: Legacy' star Garrett Hedlund plays his wild and charismatic friend Dean (one of cinema's all-time assholes), whilst an impressive supporting cast, that includes Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen, Terrence Howard, Elizabeth Moss, Steve Buscemi, Alice Braga, Amy Adams and Kristen Stewart, portray the various drifters and oddballs they encounter on their various trips across the breadth of the US - from California to New York.

This isn't a movie about one uneventful road trip of empty hedonism in the company of unconscionable douchebags, but a movie containing a half-dozen such interminable cross-country jaunts. It's the tale of a non-entity following around a horrible jerk, laughing at his jokes and trying to so hard be his best friend. If it weren't for some of the supporting players, the whole thing would be as unwatchable as it is overlong. There is only so much time you can spend willingly in the company of self-important hipsters as they drink and drive and screw. The characters are having a far better time than the audience, that's for sure. Towards the end of the film Sal begins to write down the events of the past several hours on his typewriter, frantically getting down every detail of Dean and his wild exploits. "Thank heavens he wrote all this down!" I thought to myself. It'd have been such a shame if the world never knew that all this happened.

Am I simply too old and jaded for this story of young people being all-young-and-stuff? Would I feel the same about that earlier film if I saw it today as a 27 year-old? Or is Salles' latest simply the hollow and vain thing it seems to be? I would like to think the latter, but there is no way of knowing until I revisit 'The Motorcycle Diaries'. Something 'On the Road' has ensured I am loath to do any time soon.