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The Zero Theorem – 15/04/2014 @ The Cube, Bristol.

   Terry Gillam returns to the dystopia settings in which he has done so well in the past’. In this rather scattershot, messy, but still indeed watchable sci fi, we have Christopher Waltz who is a bored and unsatisfied number cruncher named Qohen (pronounced Cohen, but is often mispronounced by his supervisor) who works in his computer cubicle all day and is having an existential crisis. He enthusiastically answers his phone every time it rings, believing that there will one day be a voice that will tell him his life’s purpose. Meanwhile, he has therapy sessions with his online therapist application Dr Shrink-Rom (Tilda Swinton), he starts an interesting relationship with future style prostitute Bainsley (Melanie Thierry) who can take Qohen to places in her imagination when he wears a body suit plugged into the computer. A ma referred to as ‘management’ (Matt Damon) sets Qohen a task to calculate the zero theorem, a calculation which can possibly prove beyond reasonable doubt that all matter came from and will eventually dissolve into nothing. While having trouble working this impossible task, management sends his genius teenage son Bob (Lucas Hedges) to assist him.

   The best thing about this film is the setting. It is set in an unspecified part of the future where advertising has become more aggressive as they appear everywhere and also follow you as you walk. There is still evidence of a sizeable division in terms of wealth with the ample number of homeless on the streets. Everyone is distracted as they are sitting on a computer or staring into their phone devices with the perpetual wearing of earphones. The setting itself is very colourful and cluttered, a very characteristic trait of Terry Gilliam films. Everyone is so busy or distracted that no one ponders life, except Qohen. The fact he lives in an old dilapidated church is an interesting setting. It shows that we are in a time when traditional religions have disappeared or somehow become obsolete to make way for new churches you constantly see advertised in the background (the church of Batman ad is truly inspired). The characters become more interesting as the film moves on. Christopher Waltz gives a good comedic, over-the-top performance suited to the tone Gilliam is going for. Bainsley’s character has more depth to her as I first thought her role as a prostitute was an excuse to have an attractive, semi-clad female to titillate the audience. The methods of prostitution as an interactive mind experience is a good idea and forms the heart of the film as Qohen starts to discover the wonders of love and happiness beyond the drab, repetitive existence he has lived. The problem with the film is the concepts explored in this film I felt were too philosophical for what I thought was a mainstream audience it was aiming for. It may have some characteristics that many would find interesting and/or funny, but there did not seem to be enough of what I found so fun about Terry Gilliam films in the 80′s/90′s. I think it got carried away with lofty philosophical concepts that it took some of the enjoyment away. The good thing is, it leaves you with a lot to think about, which is we spend too much time with trivialities that we forget to actually live life and connect with people. Furthermore, we spend too much time obsessively pondering over what the ultimate purpose of life is that we become depressed, apathetic and ultimately not accomplishing much of anything. There is the materialism/metaphysical debate thrown in but not explored as much as I’d like it to be. I’m sure there is more to it than that with it’s rather apocalyptic but strangely sombre ending. I think it requires more than one viewing and I would like to watch it again, so in a way, the film did work.

The Past (Le Passe) – 05/04/2014 @ The Watershed, Bristol.

     After the Oscar success of ‘A Separation’, Iranian Director Asghar Farhadi was left with the difficult task of following up such a well received Film. To make things more difficult, he decided to make the film in France. Although I have never seen ‘A Separation’, I am happy to say that on it’s own merits, ‘The Past’ is an excellent film for many reasons.

   Asghar Farhadi manages to weave together a complex family drama dealing with a myriad of feelings and reactions to a tragedy without being difficult to follow or without the self aware ambiguity which is now becoming a cliché. The story focuses on Marie (Berenice Bejo) who is divorcing her Iranian husband Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) as she has entered a new relationship with Samir (Tahar Rahim). Samir is a conflicted man whose wife is in a coma after an attempted suicide which may or may not be the result of his affair with Marie. The possible reasons for her suicide are slowly revealed in the many beautifully scripted scenes. Marie’s daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet) is heavily involved in the whole debacle as she reveals initially to her adoptive father Ahmed that she exposed the affair to Samir’s wife. Blame is shifted to a number of people involved as these revelations come to light and the issue of all this past trauma is making it difficult for all the characters to move on with their lives. In Marie and Ahmed’s case, there is still a little something in their relationship, even though they are getting divorced, and in Samir’s case, he may be still in love with his unconscious and possibly dying wife. The film ends with a lasting image that is subtly heart breaking, but with a hint of hope for a few characters who have resolved their issues and have moved on.

   Each character is well formed and very believable with excellent performances by everyone to match. You feel for every character in the film, including the young children who are played brilliantly by the evidently talented young actors. The film is very dialogue driven and reveals itself at a leisurely pace giving way to some emotionally hard going scenes without resorting to many obvious cliché’s. It is a well balanced film which shows how tragic events of the past can effect peoples lives in the present. It is certainly one of the surprise gems so far this year and will hopefully get the praise it deserves because it is outstanding.

Starred Up – 03/04/2014 @ Showcase Cinema, Bristol.

    If there is one thing which British film makers do very well, that would be creating realistic and shocking drama with an emotional heart at the centre of it. Director David MacKenzie effectively ticks the right boxes here by delivering a film that is powerful, brutal and emotionally engaging. It is based on writer Jonathan Asser’s real life experiences as a volunteer prison psychotherapist which adds a level of plausibility to what can sometimes be a contrived dramatic narrative.

   The first 10 minutes are effectively dialogue free as we see Eric (Jack O’Connel) enter the adult prison and endure the rigorous and humiliating security checks before entering his cell. Eric is starred up, which is a slang term describing someone who has transferred to an adult prison prematurely. He walks with a confident swagger and comes across as a young man who has had much experience with incarceration at such a young age. When he gets into his cell, he wastes no time in fashioning a weapon made out of a razor blade and a burnt toothbrush in preparation for any potential violence. In Eric’s mind set, prison is a place were you have to make a name for yourself and radiate fear in order to survive. During his first day, a man walks in his cell and disturbs his sleep. When Eric wakes up, his instinctive reaction is this man has violent intent and therefore attacks him and knocks him unconscious. He carries the unconscious man to the warders to get him looked at, but the when he gets chased back to his cell, they send in the riot police who eventually restrain him with much difficulty. Eric proves too much for the people handling him, provoking Oliver (Rupert Friend) to help Eric with some gentle persuasion.  Oliver is the prison psychotherapist who runs an anger management group. He has his own personal demons and has to contend with the prison authorities who don’t like his methods and don’t really want him there. He makes a deal with the corrupt Governor Hayes to start therapy with Eric before writing him off as a lost cause.

    While Eric starts to make a name for himself for his unpredictable and explosive rage, he starts to make enemies too. He also has his Father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn)  to deal with. Neville is also explosively violent, but feels he has a duty to look out for his son. He persuades the initially reluctant Eric to join the anger management group as he does not want Eric to end up like him. Things get more complicated as Neville becomes jealous when he sees that Eric has formed his own network through the group without Neville’s help.

   Starred up really keeps up a decent level of tension within the limiting confines of prison. We don’t know if Jack O’Connell is just simply going to walk and collect his food, or if he is going to severely beat someone up with only the slightest bit of provocation. Not only Jack O’Connell, but pretty much everyone. Most of the characters have major issues with anger and rage and there are many scenes when there is major confrontation sometimes ending in violence or sometimes ending with a handshake or fist bump. These situations are difficult to diffuse and seem so realistic. When the relationship between Eric and Neville increasingly develops, so does the story contrivances leading to the son’s bitterness and the fathers bad attempts at trying to do the right thing. These attempts at conforming to the dramatic narrative formula does not seem to matter too much as the film is tremendously held together by the strong performances delivered by the entire cast, especially Jack O’Connell. He may be typecast as the hard man ever since his role as ‘Cook’ from Skins, but he does it so well. This may be his best role yet as his character may be violent, foul mouthed and a person you would routinely avoid on the street, but you still care for his character and feel really sorry for him as his past trauma is subtly revealed. Neville, an even more unlikable character even manages to gain some sympathy. They are both victims of bad circumstances, and in the present, victims of a corrupt, hostile and brutal environment where people are supposed to be rehabilitated, but will come out the other side more violent and messed up than they were.

   Another good thing about the film was, there is no eureka moment where the psychotherapy is working on Eric. He makes a bit of progress, but after an incident involving Neville, Oliver becomes so disgusted with the prison system and their harsh treatment of Eric that he hands in his keys. The film ends with a smidgeon of hope for Eric, but in the grand scheme of things, you’re left with the feeling that anything bad may happen to him within these corrupt confines of prison.

    A very fine piece of work from one of Britain’s under rated Directors. It owes a heavy debt to the film ‘Scum’ but has more of a heart in all this brutality. A tough watch, but very emotional and well worth your time.

Salvo – 22/03/2014 @ The Watershed, Bristol.

   Italian gangsters have been portrayed frequently over the many years of cinema, but thankfully this film explores the genre a little differently. In my opinion, it does not entirely work, but is interesting none the less.

    The film is centred around a hit-man named Salvo. We see mainly the close up of his eyes as he drives a car. He seems attentive, observant, alert and focused on his job at hand. After a failed attempt on his bosses life, Salvo tracks down the man responsible and manages to extract the name of the man who organized the hit before he executes him. This name is Renato. When Salvo goes to Renato’s house for what is supposed to be a routine assassination, he encounters Renato’s sister Rita, a blind woman he takes pity on. In an extended thrilling scene, Salvo follows Rita around the house as she starts to sense his presence. We see a close up of Rita’s face as she tries to disguise her fear by singing. Salvo performs the murder of Renato off screen while we see Rita’s reaction. Salvo considers executing Rita too, but instead places his fingers over her eyes and due to some sort of unexplained phenomena, cures her sight. She starts to see forms and shapes, but as the film goes on, her sight improves.

   As Salvo buries Renato, Salvo keeps Rita in a disused factory out of town to keep her safe. Meanwhile, the film takes a similar direction to the film ‘Leon’ and observes his changing behaviour from lone professional to a man who wants more human connection. He starts to change his habits, mainly when it comes to meal times as he tries to eat with his lodgers rather than eat alone in his room. The film does crawl at a very slow pace and is relatively dialogue free, but it does make it up with atmosphere. The relationship with him and Rita evolves as the film goes on and becomes rather compelling. The final confrontation is rather thrilling and play’s out like a Spaghetti Western rather than the standard gangster genre with the dusty and windy setting.

   There is a definitely a mythical religious allegory played out here with the unexplained divine intervention in relation to Rita’s sight being restored. For she was blind now she can see. This is true in Salvo’s case as he starts to question his existence. It is rather compelling viewing, with some tense scenes and good performances. Saleh Bakri is very subtle as the title character in an existential crisis and Sara Serraiocco is fantastic as Rita. She manages to steal the show here, and I was looking forward to whenever she was on screen again. Admittedly, it is rather long and boring in parts, but certainly an interesting take on what is becoming a rather repetitive and stagnant genre.


Under the Skin – 15/03/2014 @ The Watershed, Bristol

   An alien seductress prowling the streets of Scotland ensnaring and killing men! Weird visuals! Creepy score! Atmospheric! Sounds like the ingredients to my idea of a perfect movie to me. However, this film unravels itself in a way which I never expected. Sometimes in a good way, and unfortunately, sometimes in what I thought was to it’s detriment. 

    Scarlett Johansson plays an alien who is disguised as a seductive woman whose job it is to seduce and kill various men, much like the fly fishing analogy in the film ‘Nymphomaniac’ (see review). She drives around the suburbs of Glasgow in a white van looking for men who are walking around by themselves and innocently asks for directions and flirts with them. She then takes them back to an apartment, where we enter a black shiny world. The male victim seems to be under a spell and blindly following the undressing Scarlett Johansson. They start to sink in a strange black substance which the alien manages to walk over, where they are kept prisoner for an unspecified purpose.

    The scenes of the alien driving around and talking to men were done with hidden camera’s . What we essentially see are real responses from real people. At the time, I did not know this and just assumed it was down to good acting. A lot of the film is the alien observing the world around her. She walks through shopping centre’s and walks the streets of Glasgow. The footage is about as real as it gets as it is footage of what is actually going on. We see lonely men walking blank faced in the street, Celtic fans walking on the road before a football match and drunken antics of the night scene. Urban realism has never been portrayed quite like this before, which makes the dreamlike seduction scenes all the more bizarre. The images with the endless black background combined with the atmosphere amplified by the creepy industrial score is inspired and iconic. This stark contrast is a brave move which to makes Director Jonathan Glazer a man of bold and ambitious ideas. I think there is a lot of societal messages which could be gained from this film, namely male misogyny. With women becoming more equal in society, there is still the underlying fact that men are seduced by a customary image of women rather than what lies under the skin. She may seem like a woman who has power over men, but her overseers who ride motorcycles are all male. She appears fearful in their presence, giving her character a more vulnerable side.

   It is not all about urban realism as some of the story takes place in the country side. The alien drives to the beach where we see beautiful shots of the Scottish coast. When in the process of seducing a surfer, she observes a human tragedy unfold in front of her. The image of a 3 year old child screaming and left to drown in a rising tide is an unsettling image which stays with you, but what you have to remember is that the alien has no understanding of the situation, which is why she leaves the child. It is soon after this happens were she starts to develop empathy after seducing a disfigured man. She runs further into the countryside to escape her overseers, but finds that humans are just as dangerous. Male misogyny is not the only thing covered, but the dark and dangerous side of human nature is covered in what is a dramatic, disturbing but oddly beautiful finale.

    While there are any good points to the film, I did find it to be a strangely frustrating experience. There are a number of scenes where Scarlett Johansson is driving around the city or randomly wondering around the countryside. It becomes a bit repetitive and drawn out, making some of the scenes dull. There is very little to no exposition or purpose as to why all these things were happening. I felt I was kept in the dark for a long time and not knowing the purpose of why she was seducing these men did prove a little frustrating. Not that I wanted everything clearly explained, but a little bit of explanation would not have killed the rather self aware, overly subdued tone it went for. There have been many opinions expressing praise or hatred for this film. I find myself feeling neither of the extremes. It was more of a film I admired rather than enjoyed. It was a film with bold and original ideas, but ultimately flawed. I don’t think Jonathan Glazer has lived up to the ‘heir to Kubrick’ tag as of yet, but does he have the potential? The answer might be a resounding yes.

The Grand Budapest Hotel – 08/03/2014 @ The Watershed, Bristol.

    Wes Anderson seems to be one of those Directors to look forward to as he has gained a reputation for his quirky eccentricity and stylish flair over the years. In his new film, ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ he tightly weaves together a crime caper that is sharp, witty and slick, but sadly lacks interesting characters.

   I won’t go too far in explaining the plot because a lot happens in the 1 hour and 40 minute running time. The narrative is rather complex as it is handed down from Tom Wilkinson who plays the author who hands the story to his younger self played by Jude Law, who then speaks to Mr Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) who then tells Jude Law his times of when he got a job as a Lobby Boy at the Grand Budapest Hotel, working for the eccentric perfectionist M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). We then move from the run down Hotel of that time to the 1930′s when the hotel was booming. We see the hotel in a wedding cake style aesthetic, where anyone who is anyone in the aristocratic world comes to stay, and alt of the time, sleep with Gustave. This includes elderly aristocrat Madame D (An unrecognisable Tilda Swinton). When Madame D dies, she leaves Gustave a priceless painting ‘Boy with Apple’, to the disgust of Madame D’s greedy family, especially her conniving son Dimitri (Adrien Brody). This starts off a chain events which involve lawyers and hit men, an elaborate prison break, a secret society, a woman who hides things in her detailed cakes, and unspecified war and much more.

     The film looks amazing. It adopts the aesthetic which has become the signature of Wes Anderson films. The perfect framing, the elaborate set design, the costumes matching the sets and all the quirkiness and eccentric deadpan humour to boot. Ralph Fiennes proves to be a fantastic comic lead. His sense of timing and delivery is perfect. Also, his character I very interesting as he initially comes across as a self serving eccentric, but as the film goes on, you realise he has a lot of good in him. Unfortunately, I felt he was the only interesting character in it. Many of the touted cameos which include Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Lea Seydoux, Harvey Keitel, Jeff Goldblum and Willem Dafoe play a small part in the plot, but a lot of them are underused. The talented Saoirse Ronan I felt was particularly underused. The intricate and complicated plot felt tiresome towards the end as so much takes place and the dialogue is so quick and sharp, that if you miss a line, you will miss a big part of the plot. It started to feel too cluttered as there were too many people in it and too much happening. It is still consistently funny and dazzling, but lacked emotional involvement that it felt slightly empty. I think personally, I still pine for Wes Anderson’s more melancholic tones of ‘The Royal Tenembaums’ and ‘Rushmore’. In those films, I cared more for the characters and enjoyed the visual and quirky style. I feel his films are drifting towards a more silly and farcical tone, which is fine, but in my opinion I don’t feel it is for the better.

Only Lovers Left Alive – 01/03/2014 @ The Watershed, Bristol.

    Vampire’s have been an age old tale of seduction, sexual discovery and eternal youth/life. With the recent surge of popularity towards these alluring figures, more and more film makers have been thinking of more interesting ways to depict them. Director Jim Jarmusch considers here the possibility of eternal love over centuries and the interesting perceptions gained through experiencing and living through so much history.

   Tom Hiddleston plays Adam, a vampire who lives in seclusion on the outskirts of Detroit. He comes across as a man who has seen and experienced the damage which human’s have inflicted on the world. He refers to human’s as zombies largely because of their continued ignorance and is coming to the point were he is seriously considering to end it all. After a video conversation with his wife Eve (Tilda Swinton) who lives in Tangiers, you get the feeling he has considered suicide many times before. Eve makes plans to fly over to Detroit (only on flights leaving and arriving at night of course) to see Adam. She arrives at the slightly dilapidated building he lives in which is filled with analogue recording equipment, old, dusty books and vinyl’s. He is a former famous rock star and as we get further into the film, we learn he was involved in many of the creative scenes in history. He was a composer, a poet, a writer, philosopher and general visionary. He writes what he calls funeral music, which can basically be described as dark, feedback laden, post rock instrumentals which soundtracks the majority of the film.

    Much of the cynical observations Adam makes about humanity is interesting. Religion and superstition are much to blame in his eyes as he says how the zombies all live in fear of their own imaginations and how they are all still bitching about Darwin. He also mentions the beautiful possibilities of Nikolai Tesla and how he was ignored and ridiculed in favour of the power grid which he considers uninspired and impractical. Eve has a more positive view as she points out that worse has happened even before their time.

    Both Adam and Eve have found a way to blend in with the ‘zombies’. They make arrangements to bribe Doctors for clean, high quality blood (Type O negative is their preferred ‘type’) which they drink out of a glass. They have found a more civilised way of feeding themselves rather than killing people. They keep themselves busy by reading old literature, listening to vinyl’s and exploring what is now an urban wasteland that is Detroit. It was once a place that was booming with industry, but now it seems to be full of abandoned warehouses with faded graffiti. They go to what was once an iconic concert hall which has turned into a car park. Again, expressing frustration at the senselessness of human planning. While they try to blend in, but at the same time, keep themselves to themselves, Eve’s sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) turns up. She is from LA and seems like a bit of a party girl who cannot be trusted. She likes to play Adams music without permission and wants to know where the blood supplies are kept as she cannot seem to get enough of it. When all three of them go to an underground venue to watch a band, Ava takes a liking to Adam’s trusted PA Ian (Adam Yelchin) a guy who may or may not be leaking Adam’s secret music. When Ian comes back to Adams place and is left in the company of Ava, Ava kills him by drinking his blood. Disgusted at this, Adam and Eve throw her out in the streets.

     It may be a film where there is not much of a story, and many people hold the opinion that nothing much happens. As usual, if you read between the lines, there is much to gain from this film. Philosophy, literature, music, society, resources and many other things are discussed in relation as to where humanity is heading. The blood supplies can be viewed in two ways. Both as an allegory to drug dependency and symbolism of dried up resources, specifically oil. In various parts of the film, it is mentioned that blood is contaminated. This symbolises sexually transmitted disease or through drugs. Ava seems to be the embodiment of excess and care free partying to the point that I think she was already poisoned even before she arrives on screen. The film really takes it’s time throughout. This may infuriate some people, but I liked the cinematography and the accompanying soundtrack. I thought the film had a style and atmosphere, and the place where Adam lived looked like paradise to me with all the vinyl’s, books and guitars in abundance. The chemistry between Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton really worked. I was convinced that they have been in love for centuries. It could have been a partnership that easily could have not worked as there is considerable age difference (Tilda Swinton being much older), but I think they both looked good on screen and Tom Hiddleston although still quite young displays the wisdom needed for his character. Also it is always good to see John Hurt in a film. He plays celebrated 16th century author Christopher Marlowe who faked his own death and was ‘turned’ in his latter years. He is a close friend of Eves and represents the last of the older vampires as by the end of the film, they seem to be a dying breed due to the lack of clean blood left.

    The film is a celebration of old values and some traditional values. Although Tom and Eve denounce ‘zombie’ superstitions, they still practice some of the vampire superstitions, like inviting a guest in the house which they perform ritualistically. After all, they are from another time and old habbits die hard and all that. It is a well observed film which I think is one of Jarmusch’s best as I have not enjoyed some of the more subdued efforts like ‘Broken Flowers’ and especially ‘The Limits of Control’. An achievement of style with thoughtful symbolic possibilities.


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