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Ida – 28/09/2014 @ The Watershed, Bristol.

For a film with such a simple plot, this is certainly one of the most complex films this year. There is so much emotion, dark history and motives which are conveyed subtly with a look or a still, haunting and beautifully composed shot. Polish Director Pawel Pawlikowski returns to his home country and successfully analysing the dark historical issues and how the brutal Nazi occupation still had an affect on people at a time of transitional change to a countercultural movement in the mid sixties and would continue to affect people today.

We are introduced to Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) a woman who has been brought up in a convent. We see her in this quiet, disciplined and orderly environment attending to her daily tasks and eating in silence. Before she is to take her vows, she is told by the mother superior that only one living relative remains in her life and that she should visit her. Anna leaves her convent and meets up with her Aunty Wanda, a woman who is polar opposite to Anna. She is a communist, a judge and a generally unsatisfied and lonely person. Wanda reveals to Anna that she is in fact Jewish and her real name is Ida. As they both go on a journey together to look for her buried family who died during the Nazi occupation, Anna/Ida learns the shocking truth behind her family and what happened to their property. In between the search for Ida’s roots, Ida and Wanda hang out in a local bar where a travelling jazz player performs. He has an eye for Ida and they both become close. His music provides much of the films soundtrack which indicates the growing counterculture of the sixties.

Pawel Pawloski has created something memorable here. What really struck me about the film was how the framing and composition, as beautifully photographed as it was, was very unconventional. The characters are never really centred within the frame, they are instead pushed to the side, or their head is very low down the screen so much of the background is in the frame. I think this gives the audience the sense that there is a bigger picture which goes way beyond the actual story at hand, mainly the war and the tragic event which happened to Ida’s family which will influence both Wanda and Ida in different ways. Agata Trzebuchowska gives a very good performance as Anna/Ida, a woman of purity and innocence having to confront her past and open herself up to new possibilities. It is also a very quiet performance as her face has a lot to say with her powerful lingering looks. also gives a wonderful as the tragic Wanda, a woman who has lived with the burden of the past most of her life. Her beliefs and her successful career cannot compensate for the dark truth and her lonliness. It is sad to watch as she drinks and looks for male attention.

I found the ending to be subtly ambiguous as I was not sure of Ida’s intentions at the end. My interpretation was after trying to be like her Aunty as a release for what she has learned of her family, she does not want to become like her and therefore chooses the safe option of going back to the convent and live with the fact she has sinned. In conclusion, it is a complex and poetic piece of cinema which explores distressing aspects of humanity with subtlety and sophistication.

Maps to the Stars – 28/09/2014 @ The Watershed, Bristol.

I was more than happy to learn that Director David Cronnenberg was returning to the trademark weird and atmospheric tone he was once most well known for in films like Videodrome. Here he takes a satirical look at Hollywood, a place which seems to be an easy target for identifying shallow, over privilege and screwed up stereotypes by people like Bret Easton-Ellis, but with an added injection of Cronnenberesque weirdness making it something closer to David Lynch’s Mullholland Drive (Although not that weird).

Maps to the Stars contains many characters who seem divided into separate story lines, but as the film progresses, you learn they are all connected thematically and narratively. Dr Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) is a successful ‘pseudo’ therapist who has embraced Eastern new age mysticism and has made a fortune through his massage technique where he claims the whole body stores memories, as well as his self help books and lectures. His son Benjie (Evan Bird) is a child star who experienced too much at a young age and went to rehab at the age of 9. After coming clean, he is re-cast in the show ‘Bad Babysitter’ the show which made him famous, only to find he is outshined by a younger boy. One of Stafford’s clients, Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) is a famous actress who lives in the shadow of her mother, Clarice Taggart (Sarah Gadon) an iconic actress who died tragically in a fire while she was still young and beautiful. Havana has had life long difficulties in dealing with past sexual abuse by her mother, but at the same time, wants to be her by chasing a role of a remake originally starring Clarice Taggart. Also, Havana is frequently haunted by visions of Clarice, taunting her and telling her she will never be as successful. A mysterious girl named Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) turns up, wanting to be part of the Hollywood scene. She quickly gets a job working as Havana’s PA and dating a limo driver and fellow aspiring actor Jerome (Robert Pattinson). We learn she is in fact the estranged daughter of Dr Stafford Weiss and has darker intentions after being released from a sanatorium.

The main theme prevalent throughout is the concept of age and the fear of growing old. This is achieved using abstract symbolism with an added supernatural element. Benjie and his friends have amusing but disturbing conversations about people they know in their early twenties which to them is ‘old’. Havana is middle aged but has undergone surgery and still tries to act young so she can continue getting work and also to fulfil her motherly issues. Maps to the Stars also pokes fun at pseudo spiritual fads which is embodied in the John Cusack’s character, even though he is an irresponsible parent who has clearly failed his children. Although his son Benjie has attained everything many children dream of, he still craves parental attention and is plagued by feelings of guilt as he, as well as Havana, is haunted by a girl he visited in hospital who died. Both these characters have past demons embodied in these visions which make them act out in a way that is harmful to themselves and others.

Julianne Moore, as usual, gives a remarkable performance as Havana Segrand, a character who is the mixture of a stereotypical, self interested and shallow actress, a manipulative careerist and a desperate emotional wreck. Mia Wasikowska possibly steals the show as the quietly psychotic and elusive Agatha, a character who romanticises the concept of death and sees it as the only way out of the hell that is superficial social order of Hollywood. For most of the film, you never quite know what her intentions are or what she is capable of. All the main characters are repugnant people to watch, but that is the point. I have never had a problem watching films full of generally unlikable characters because usually, I find them entertaining, and that is certainly the case in this movie. Each character has their personal demons and are self centred and very superficial as a direct result of the industry they are affiliated with. In an age where Hollywood movies and the media have an obsession with eternal youth, customary image and egotistical goals, this is exactly the environment that can prove damaging. The film is also bout the sins of the parents passed through generations which is mostly illustrated through the Weiss family. The disconnection within the family and the pushy parenting creates damaged offspring who are plunged into an over-stimulated world.

The film plays out like a modern Greek tragedy where there is a sense that everyone will meet a tragic end. We are in a darkly satirical world where there is no way out but death, which is seen as a means of ultimate peace. It may sound morbid, but the film is often very funny with it’s weird and observant humour and is largely entertaining to watch. Some people may find it a hard watch, but I think it is one of the films this year not to be missed. I feel it is a film I will watch and enjoy again and a film where David Cronnenberg is Back on form after a few lacklustre efforts.

20,000 Days on Earth – 25/09/2014 @ The Watershed, Bristol.

Documentary profiles of famous musicians are ubiquitous and they are mostly rather repetitive, but this is a breath of fresh air. This unique and challenging gem goes for a different approach about the much celebrated Australian musician and writer, Nick Cave, who in this film is marking his 20,000th day on Earth. One of the unique things about this documentary is that in many ways, it is not a documentary as some of it is fictional and scripted. It is generally difficult to tell if it is fictional or if it is genuine Nick Cave. I cannot imagine this kind of approach suiting any other musician other than Nick Cave as he is a rather odd character who probably sees a world where fiction and reality blur.

On the 20,000th day, we see Nick Cave playing a version of himself going about his day in a nicely shot and artful account of what is routine. He drives around Brighton first going to an interview, then visiting his friend and band mate, Warren Ellis, in his idyllic seaside home for a seafood lunch. He has what seems like imagined conversations with random celebrities who appear in his passenger seat as he drives and he goes to his archive studio where he examines photos and bits of writing he did in the past. Interspersed between these scenes are a mixture of studio performances and live concert footage of Nick Cave performing mainly new material from his last album ‘Push the Sky Away’ with the Bad Seeds.

The documentary starts off with a surreally beautiful timeline of Cave’s life filled with quick appearances of personal stock footage and various pop culture since 1955 all edited at a rapid fire pace. As it progresses, we see Nick Cave ponder many things like existence, the creative process, inspiration, memories and other philosophical and poetic musings. This coming out of the mouth of a less experienced musician would sound like a pretentious fart, but since Cave is notorious for his dark eccentricity, it is pretty much expected from him. The interview near the start shows this very well as it is a revelatory and candid conversation as he talks about very personal memories which make him who he is today. Nick Cave does have a darkly poetic perspective, and the imagery supporting his powerful voice make this experiment something of a cinematic experience. One chief example in particular is a spoken word piece which he wrote many years ago. I remember reading it when it was on display at the Nick Cave Exhibition in Perth, Australia and thinking it was a particularly well worded expression of love at first sight which stuck in my head. It is about how he first met his wife and the feelings experienced at that moment completely exceeded any other experience of women through real life and pop culture (Cave worded it far better). It was interesting to see this written text come to life with the rapid edit of stock footage with Cave’s voice reading it.

The scenes in Cave’s car are surreal, especially when notorious British actor, Ray Winston appears in his passenger seat to discuss performing art. Cave discusses his form of expression from a musicians perspective while Ray Winston makes comparisons to his acting experience and complaining about the weather! Also, Kylie Minogue, a one time collaborator with Nick Cave, appears in Cave’s rear view mirror much like the character Betsy in the closing scene of ‘Taxi Driver’. Her and Cave discuss audience connection.

It may be a partially fictional documentary but somehow it seems less self-aggrandizing with this approach as Cave seems to be playing a version of himself where he could only be perceived as weird and interesting, playing up to an image which already exists. In my opinion, I think it helps to appreciate his music in order to enjoy the film as there are extended performances of what is an acquired taste. I generally find his music interesting, but that was not the most interesting thing about it. I felt it was not just a film about Nick Cave, but about existence in this convoluted, manic and complex world and how one fits into and draws inspiration from it. It can be seen as unique and original, albeit a little pretentious in parts, but I have never seen any profile of a musician done this way.

Obvious Child – 22/09/2014 @ The Cube, Bristol.

Indie comedies are inherently formulaic, and this film is no different. It contains the usual clich├ęs of an only child who has kooky parents who have split up, is rather loveable, but a bit irresponsible and reckless. However, this does not take away the fact that this film is still enjoyable, funny and taking on a rather serious issue at the same time.

Obvious Child depicts a twenty something woman named Jenny Slate (Donna Stern) who is a stand up comedian by night and an assistant in the amusingly titled book store ‘Unoppressive, non-imperialist books’. She is Unapologetically candid and vulgar on stage and seems to be a fun person to be around. Although she generally evades responsibility and a bit of a procrastinator, she seems quite happy and surrounded by supportive friends. After her boyfriend dumps her because of her openly talking about their sex lives on stage, she starts to get drunk a lot, and inevitably ends up having un-protective sex with a man named Max (Jake Lacy) and getting pregnant. She decides to have an abortion and starts to think about where her life is going now that the bookshop is closing down. Max keeps turning up and they start to date and grow closer.

Although it is essentially a predictable comedy, I think the strong performance by Donna Stern carry’s a lot of weight. Her character is likeable, relatable and frequently funny. Her character is too central sometimes, making most of the other characters less interesting, but her parents get a few good laughs and incites. Also, her abortion issue is treated as not much of a big deal. It does take a very pro abortion stance as her abortion is depicted as a very quick procedure which many people go through. It may anger some people with anti abortion views, but this is the reality of some people’s experiences which must be shown regardless of where one stands on the never ending abortion debate. Also, the stand up comedy is genuinely funny in parts and it shows how her life experiences become her material. It shows how this kind of self indulgence is a good and bad thing. Good, because she can take a bad or embarrassing situation and look at it humorously. Bad, because people involved in her life would have a problem with her frank honesty on display in front of a room full of people. It does end how you would expect it to end, but I did laugh quite a lot and I enjoyed the character. I think Donna Stern has a bright future in indie comedy.

Pride – 14/09/2014 @ Showcase Cinema, Bristol.

For some reason, I had low expectations when going to see this. I think it was because I had little knowledge as to what is was about and by the look of the clips I saw, it looked like typically predictable British humour. It turns out I was very wrong as it was about a very important alliance which happened and I had no knowledge about.

What the film depicts is the alliance between Gay Rights activists and the National Union of Mineworkers against the Thatcher Government who sees both groups as ‘the enemy within’. We are introduced to one of the only fictional characters of the film Joe (George Mackay) who is a young gay man coming from a privileged family who do not understand him. He turns up to a Gay Pride march where he meets Mike (Joseph Gigun) and Mark (Ben Schnetzer) who both start a fundraising group called ‘Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners’ (LGSM). Mark is the leader as he is very passionate about not only supporting Gay rights, but the rights of everyone. Since Miners have similar struggles, they sympathise with the miners and therefore try and raise money for them. Some of the gay community are reluctant to get involved as many of them have had bad experiences with miners. Also, Miners unions are initially reluctant to accept donations as they are worried about the possible PR complications which may arise from being associated with a ‘perverted’ group. LGSM start to have direct dialogue with a Union leader from a small Welsh mining town named Dai Donavan, a charismatic speaker who along with local housewife and gay rights supporter Sian (Jessica Gunning) convince the town that there is no shame in uniting with a gay rights group. LGSM start to visit the town to deliver their donations personally which directly fund the families and pay for a bus so they can be transported to the picket line each morning. They are mainly welcomed by the local towns folk, but there is a minority of opposition who try to report this story to a tabloid newspaper. When the headline ‘Pits and Perverts’ reports negatively on the alliance, Mark has the idea to use the headline as the title for a fundraising gig headlined by Bronski Beat. It turns out to be a very successful fundraiser.

When making a film which contains many characters, many films cannot handle multitude of character and the many story threads which come with this. What Director Matthew Warchus and Writer Stephen Beresford manage to achieve here is giving each and every character enough screen time to make them believable and lovable characters which we all care about. There are fine performances across the board, especially by Ben Schnetzer who gives a passionate performance as the indefatigable Mark Ashton and rising British star George Mackay as the initially timid Joe whose character grows in confidence through his experience with LGSM. Also, Bill Nighy gives a more softly spoken performance as Cliff, one of the local miners who has been hiding who he truly is for his whole life and Dominic West who plays Jonathan Blake, one of the first men who became HIV positive.

The film does very well to be both serious and funny. It is very serious about the unlikely alliance of Gay rights and miners unions and the struggles of both groups against the political class. Also, there is an underlying theme of the beginnings of the AIDS virus and the propaganda and prejudice surrounding it. There is a lot of humour and feel good moments which make you want to punch the air and marvel at what humanity can sometimes achieve in times when solidarity is very much needed. It may be romanticized in a way, but not too laboured as it is anchored by the decent writing and coherent direction making this one of the most entertaining and educational films of the year so far. Very well done!

Night Moves – 04/09/2014 @ The Watershed, Bristol.

After viewing the trailer, I thought the film seemed largely uneventful. Sometimes certain films are difficult to make a good trailer out of, but in the case of this film, it is because this film actually is boring. The place where the film is set is interesting as the main characters work in a co-operative, self sustaining community and the subject matter involving eco terrorists blowing up a dam sounds quite thrilling, but for most of the film, there was not much happening.

The film starts off with Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) and Dena (Dakota Fanning) who are friends and both share radical environmental beliefs. They are meeting up with the shady Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) who possesses the know how to blow up a dam. The scene when they blow up the dam is quite tense without the use of music or dramatic affect. It is a well executed set piece which serves as the highlight of the film. The rest of the film is the characters dealing with the aftermath as they find out that a camper died from the result of the flooding caused by their terrorist act. Josh is trying to keep himself calm, but Dena is feeling guilty and is considering turning herself in. Unfortunately, Harmon, the most intriguing character of the film, does not come back in the film. The story takes a wrong turn which involves Josh killing Dena in what is a poorly executed scene as I felt it served as more for dramatic contrivance than what would actually happen between these two characters. It then ends with one of those annoying non endings which made me feel that I wished I never sat through the whole movie just for that pretentious piece of anticlimactic balderdash.

This film seems to be rather respected by critics, but I just can’t share their enthusiasm. It does posses this self awareness and that overly subdued tone which involves people walking into rooms and not communicating effectively. It may serve as a comment on mans meddling with nature and what dangerous acts people with radical environmental views are willing to do which will only serve as counterproductive to their whole world view. All this is interesting, I just wished these themes were explored in a better film.

Two Days, One Night (Deux Jours, Une Nuit) – 31/08/2014 @ The Watershed.

Marion Cotillard gives an excellent central performance as the desperate Sandra in this one long cinema-verite style set piece involving the said character trying to convince her work colleagues not to opt for her dismissal so they can all continue receiving an annual bonus. The reason why Sandra is dismissed in the first place is because she has taken time off work as she suffers from depression. Now that the company she works for cannot afford to both keep her on and pay their employers their annual bonus, the boss convinces all the work colleagues to let go of Sandra. After some convincing, the company agree to a secret ballot, so Sandra has a weekend to convince everyone to basically save her job.

The structure of the film is Sandra approaching or phoning her work colleagues one by one and having a conversation with them. Each character has a slightly different response. some are relying on the bonus to afford to get by, some have fear for the boss, some have a more altruistic outlook and some are just selfish, or in one case, aggressive. Interspersed between these scenes, Sandra is finding it difficult and struggles with the possible notion she is forcing people to take pity on her. She explains this all to Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), her supportive husband who helps with Sandra’s dilemma every step of the way. Also, her depression is not helping, sometimes her mood will be up after convincing someone, but sometimes the situation looks hopeless and she will be in a pit of despair. Manu helps her stay positive and some of the scenes are sweet and subtly emotional.

The responses from each of her work colleagues are interesting as some are genuinely struggling to raise a family or have come out of a relationship and starting again. Some have similar problems to Sandra too. When people agree against the bonus and for Sandra to keep her job, a couple refer to how she helped them out in difficult work situations, which shows how her goodness can go a long way. Sandra takes each answer well and mostly understands why people take the bonus. We see always her close up from either the back or the front, so we the audience are always either following her through this difficult time or watching her closely, making us very involved in her dilemma. There is no music to punctuate any moments where we are supposed to feel emotion, we get some music played on the radio usually to keep Sandra’s spirits up. This makes the drama more real, obviously characteristic to social realist dramas, but the realistic performances and the rather repetitious scenes of Sandra repeating her situation to each person adds to the realism too.

This is definitely a film of todays times where many businesses are very cautious with money in the age of economic instability. It shows perspectives and situations from a wide range of people and how these management decisions can directly affect working class people. I did not feel it was a savage indictment against the ruling class, but simply an observation of the fierce competitive companies and the repercussions it has on the people at the bottom to the point where they act out of desperation and necessity which can sometimes result in selfish or altruistic behaviour. It is quite unassumingly an observant and human drama.

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