September 19, 2014

REVIEW: 20,000 Days on Earth (dir. Iain Forsyth, Jane Pollard)


Cast: Nick Cave, Warren Ellis, Ray Winstone, Kylie Minogue, Blixa Bargeld

“You’ve dreamed yourself to the outside, and nothing can bring you back in.” Nick Cave

Sometime during your mid-fifties you will wake up on your 20,000th day on Earth. For most of us, it will pass without celebration or ignominy; one of so many days that skip gaily past as we stare on blankly, our backs turned against the future. But Nick Cave is not like most of us. In fact it’s hard to believe he has allowed a single day of his life to escape so casually unappreciated. In a career spanning four decades he has poked and prodded himself to breaking point, and shaped his discoveries into an endless torrent of melodious grumbling. That he took the occasion of his 20,000th day on Earth to open himself up to his own life and art is a great blessing. That he invited Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard to document the event is a great relief.

’20,000 Days on Earth’ follows Cave during the recording of his latest LP, ‘Push the Sky Away’. Footage of his band recording in the French countryside is interspersed with scenes from his daily life on the south coast of England: lunch with long-term collaborator and friend Warren Ellis, a few hours helping his archivists sort through the myriad scrapbooks and photo albums of his life, and so on. Devoid of any particular moment - an announcement of retirement perhaps, or a world tour - the film provides a snapshot of Cave that feels all the more intimate and truthful for its arbitrariness. It feels more like the stitched together outtakes of a ‘Nick Cave’ documentary: all the moments between the clapper’s snaps, the quiet reflective meanderings, the anecdotes and naughty stories. It is unabashed and unreserved. It has a sort of sentimental, playful similarity to his friend Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Broken Flowers’: a man wakes up one day, and for no particular reason decides to come to terms with his past.

Clearly, Forsyth and Pollard have discovered that the only way to really understand Nick Cave is on his own terms and in his own time. An early section of the film sees Cave sitting with a man who we may assume to be a therapist; surely an excellent opportunity to get beneath the skin of one of modern music’s most provocative practitioners? No. Watching somebody of Nick Cave’s intelligence and creativity undergo psychoanalysis is almost laughable, he is so utterly in touch with his memories and feelings and the effect that various moments have had on his life. When asked to recall the first time he ever saw the nude female form, he describes “a girl with a white face” who was his first kiss, and who had a “profound effect” on his childhood, leading him to occasionally dress in women’s clothing to feel closer to her. When asked to describe his father, he recalls the moment, “my father took me aside and read the first chapter of Lolita to me.” All these memories are too fortunate, too complete, too perfectly ‘pre-artisic’.

But then we cut to footage of Cave recording the piano and vocals for ‘Give Us a Kiss’, and we are reminded that everything we will ever know about this man comes from his music. His art is his memories. This stunning, quiet, solitary piano piece performed in a studio, alone, tells us more about Cave than any number of hours searching through his archives. “Give us a kiss. One little sip sip sip, before you slip, slip, slip.”

Aside from the aural bliss of the studio footage, it’s in the moments when Cave is having fun with his memories that the film really comes to life. Listening to Cave and Ellis discuss the Meltdown festival that he curated, and invited Nina Simone to headline, is fascinating, intimate, and often hysterical. At an early point in the film he recalls how Simone wandered on stage, hunched and menacing, and left her gum on the piano. He brings the memory up with Ellis later at lunch, and Ellis casually mentions that he kept that gum, and still has it somewhere in the house. It is a rare treat to hear these two impassioned veterans discussing the music that has affected them. It’s a rumination on what music has been, leaving open the question of what it is now, and could become.

And then there are the ghostly apparitions that appear beside Cave in his car as he roams the outskirts of a grey and dreary Brighton. Ray Winstone, Kylie Minogue, and Blixa Bargeld all join Cave at various junctures (or junctions?) to help him relive past successes and failures. These are moments divorced from any real time or place: more musical and dream-like than factual. They are eerie, hazy, half recollections; all the more powerful for their lack of veracity. They fit comfortably into our growing, elliptical understanding of Nick Cave. To quote the man himself during one of these car journeys, “Who knows their own story? It only becomes a story when we tell it.”

With Minogue he discusses what a live show should be; insisting on the artist’s need to elicit a mixture of terror and awe, because on stage you can’t have one without the other. This final conversation gives way to a truly ecstatic finale: a beautifully shot, climactic live performance of ‘Push the Sky Away’ that Forsyth and Pollard match cut with old archive footage from throughout Cave’s career. It is a deeply affecting technique: all of these Nick Caves crashing into one another, none of them old or wrong, none of them honed or perfect. It is an astonishing, breathtaking execution of a filmed live performance. All these various machinations and appearances of a fascinating, unknowable man.

August 15, 2014

REVIEW: Obvious Child (dir. Gillian Robespierre)

Cast: Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffmann,  Gabe Liedman, David Cross

Donna Stern’s life seems to be falling apart around her. On the same day her Brooklyn bookstore ‘UNOPPRESSIVE, NON-IMPERIALIST  BARGAIN BOOKS’ is forced to close down, she discovers that her boyfriend has been cheating on her with her best friend. But while most twentysomethings in her position would “literally die” because they “actually can’t right now”, Donna is driven forward by a meek but powerful urge: to collect all her trauma and project it into the one thing that gives her life meaning… her comedy. After a disastrous stint at her local comedy club, she wakes up from a one night stand to discover that she is pregnant, and the earliest date she can have an abortion is two weeks hence - on Valentine’s Day. Her “three bad things” now dispensed with, Donna’s struggle to overcome and understand this new angle on life makes for a charming story of young adulthood in Brooklyn - the borough of obvious children.

Gillian Robespierre’s debut feature feels, unsurprisingly, a lot like a film made by comedians. It is filled with flittering moments of observational comedy - quick one-liners and self-fulfilling gags. But beneath the clinical, sarcastic wit, there is a depth to her treatment of the story that builds gradually into a poignant, mature understanding of her central characters and the world they inhabit. Between and beneath the frenetic bursts of comedy, there is a very real, charming warmth to this film.

Jenny Slate is the perfect muse for Robespierre: brash and confident without, detached almost; but her wit cannot cover the vulnerable, yearning young woman within. She has an almost avian quality: strong but light, an angular face with deep brown eyes. Her every sentence seems to push you away but really she’s begging you to stay. She's frankly anything but an obvious child.

In the end Donna’s trials are not so insurmountable. She has perhaps the two most caring besties in the world in Nellie and Joey (her gay comedian roomie who needs to play Verdi in the bathroom because of his “shy bowels”). And Max - the one night stand - turns out to be a winner. He’s “so Christian, he’s a Christmas tree. He, like, knows Santa”. Schooled in a barn in Vermont, he’s the sort of guy who brings flowers to an abortion clinic (because... it’s still Valentines Day!) He’s a welcome interlude in a life filled with unfulfilled plans, unfinished chores, pushy, successful mothers, and lecherous comedy club owners. Untainted by the ruthless frisson of Brooklyn life, he knows only honesty and kindness. In the end, even Donna’s pushy matriarch proves to be a loving and understanding mother.

But the film, as with it’s titular character, is not trying to make a big deal of its issues. It’s trying to be open and honest about them. In the days following Robin Williams’ sad passing, it’s consoling to be reminded of the transformative power of comedy, not just for the viewers, but for those who enact it because it is the only way for them to make sense of their lives. The way Patch Adams wished to treat mortality, this film manages to treat everyday life, “with a certain amount of humanity and dignity, and decency, and God forbid, maybe even humour.”

May 20, 2014

REVIEW: Catch Me Daddy (dir. Daniel & Matthew Wolfe)


Cast: Sameena Jabeen Ahmed, Conor McCarron, Gary Lewis, Wasim Zakir, Anwar Hussain, Barry Nunney, Shoby Kaman, Adnan Hussain, Ali Ahmad, Kate Dickie, Nichola Burley

“The crystal in men's heads
Blackened and fell to pieces.
The valleys went out.
The moorland broke loose.”
Ted Hughes, Heptonstall Old Church

Laila (Ahmed), a British-Pakistani girl, and her white boyfriend Aaron (McCarron), live a life of solitude on a caravan park in the Yorkshire moors. It is a life of forced isolation, overshadowed by the fear of being discovered by Laila’s family, who would stop at nothing to recover their wayward daughter. The money Laila earns sweeping hair at a local salon is spent carefully on vitals and codeine. It is a melancholy, peaceful existence, slipping past in opioid numbness, scored by old Patti Smith records. And it is about to be torn apart…

Barry (Nunney) and Tony (Lewis) are ex-bouncers turned hired goons - a role the aggressive Barry relishes more than his introspective elder, whose role is to drive and not ask too many questions. Junaid (Hussain) and his gang of Asian teen thugs - including Laila’s brother Zaheer (Ahmad) - are friends of the family who will stop at nothing to return Laila to her father (Zakir). The gangs converge on a roadside service station and head off in two cars, arriving in Laila’s town under cover of darkness.

Little more need be said of the plot for Daniel Wolfe’s blistering, brutal debut, Catch Me Daddy. It is a disarmingly simple story – existing at some rugged intersection between Bruno Dumont’s sullen existential meanderings, and Sam Peckinpah’s unwavering genre classics of the 1970s. Wolfe – exhibiting a patience rarely seen in debut features – is in no rush to tell his story, allowing characters and landscapes to establish themselves individually before they collapse in on themselves later in the film.

It is an isolating and intriguing approach that gives the story space to breathe. Award-winning cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s camera is left to float unhindered across the craggy, undulating, timeless moors; through dustbowl towns of angular, fired-brick estates and stuccoed terraces draped in St George's flags; and amongst the glum, time-worn faces of these people, left alone in the moors, waiting to be swallowed whole by history.

Wolfe then wraps this loose-knit tapestry around a hard-boiled, simple chase narrative. The result is an intensely absorbing, painful, and truly unique portrayal of love on the run.

This approach also establishes an important sense of boredom: the rhythmic, plodding monotony of the gang’s task feels all the more brutal when freed from the easy excitement of a ‘chase movie’. With nothing but time on their hands, the various gang members become an unwitting source of gallows humour: telling each other of their dreams, play fighting in car parks, performing impressions and caricatures, and showing off pictures of pet parrots.

There is a flowing, observant humanism to the way Wolfe portrays these murderous criminals. These are not career gangsters - they are often clumsy and inept in their task - they are simply men who have become hardened and infected by the harsh world they inhabit. One match cut takes us from inside Barry and Tony’s car - where they are listening to old Tim Buckley records and discussing acupuncture - to the inside of Junaid’s car where they’re smoking weed and blasting Trap music. It’s this odd charm that makes their sudden bursts of horrific brutality all the more real, unavoidable, and unsettling.

There is a natural flow and rhetoric to the imagery of the film. Our victims - Laila and Aaron - are always indoors, always in the light, always encased by windows and nestled together like chicks. Their adversaries exist almost exclusively outdoors - in their cars, yearning, searching, like wolves sniffing in the darkness. This dichotomy holds more or less true up until the climactic moment when Barry lies in wait in the shadows outside a brightly lit convenience store, waiting for Aaron to leave. From this moment on, our victims are quite literally dragged out of their nest and forced to run for their lives.

From here, the film becomes a truly nightmarish vision. The disorientating darkness of the moors seems to play with the very foundations of time and space. Distances contract - one moment the pursuers are whole towns away, and then suddenly they’re right on our tails again. In such darkness, sound becomes our primary guide: the rustle of gorse whipping past and the sound of gurgling streams feels primal and strangled when combined with the unearthly din of Matthew Wolfe and Daniel Thomas Freeman’s primordial score. This overpowering chaos is interrupted only by flashes of torchlight and the screams of names and obscenities in the night. It is an intense and impressive section of the film that perhaps plays into Wolfe’s technical acuity as a renowned music promo director.

People looking for a film held together by action-packed, ‘tent pole’ moments may be disappointed, but they’d do well to consider how expertly the film fulfils the needs of a genre film without relying on the tropes of a genre film. Wolfe and his brother are clearly studious film enthusiasts, and the story leads us expertly through the beats of a chase narrative; but when we arrive at those important moments, they are given no extra attention. In this film murders, bar brawls, and car crashes are no more important than the long rides that connected them. It is a harsh and alienating vision, and one that Ellroy might be proud of.

The performances blend perfectly into Wolfe’s vision – in part due to his decision to cast non-actors from the region in which the film is set. With the exception of Gary Lewis, every member of the gang is a non-actor relying on Wolfe’s direction to bring his character to life. The whole is more important than any individual performance here. The characters are part of the landscape; the landscape is one of the characters.

Sameena Jabeen Ahmed’s first performance on camera is one that many more experienced actresses will weep over this festival season. Guided by two superb professional performances from Conor McCarron and Wasim Zakir, she has created an absorbing, surly, reluctant child in Laila. Wolfe’s singular vision of hopeless destruction finds its muse in this charming and powerful young actress. Her performance in the film’s final moments will exhaust the most reluctant of viewers. Her strength will pull out what is left of your breath like a vacuum, and leave you stumbling for the exits in need of respite.

April 28, 2014

REVIEW: The Two Faces of January (dir. Hossein Amini)


Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Oscar Isaac, Kirtsen Dunst,

Athens, 1962. Chester MacFarland (Mortensen) and his wife Colette (Dunst) are taking a tour of the Parthenon. You’d be forgiven for thinking they are on their honeymoon, such is the giddiness of their ardour. But beneath his glamorous and hearty exterior, Chester is clearly a man who can’t let his guard down. And so it is that he becomes distracted by a young man who has been watching them intently throughout their visit to the site. The young man is Rydal (Isaac). a New Jersey ex-pat who looks every bit the Mediterranean Lothario, he earns his keep leading impressionable female college students around the ruins of the Parthenon. Rydal is intrigued by this handsome gentleman who reminds him, uncomfortably, of his recently deceased father; and he quickly becomes besotted by Colette.

And so, when he arrives at the MacFarland’s hotel room to return a lost bracelet, and finds Chester dragging the lifeless corpse of an American gangster into a hotel room, he makes the life-threatening mistake of offering to help the couple to escape. This being the Sixties, and their being in Greece, nothing happens as quickly as the trio might have hoped. Thus the stage is set for a slow, tense, emotionally embroiled escape from the authorities, and exile on the island of Crete.

Hossein Amini’s first feature is loyal and unswerving crime fiction from start to finish. At times it is a masterclass in the genre: a densely layered, patient exploration of three lives fraying as they struggle against one another, and against their own urges and longings. But at other times it becomes the victim of its own loyalty: safely played, predictable, too calm when it should be shocking, too melodramatic when it should be muted. Moments that, played quietly, might have had more strength, get lost in flatulent camerawork and a score that pays more heed to Carol Reed than it does to its own characters needs.

The setting plays to its own strengths (making modern day Athens and Crete look like 1960’s Athens and Crete requires almost no work) but the costumes are impeccable, and without a change of clothes between our three protagonists, they become a bedraggled and threadbare reflection of the characters’ internal struggles.

The performances are virtually faultless. Kirtsen Dunst is the charmed American girl, startled by riches, done up like Ingrid Bergman but faltering under the disguise. Viggo Mortensen is the grey-eyed, watery criminal whose life could have turned out so differently if it weren’t for the cowardly greed that grips him. He’s a white-collar criminal, way out of his depth, and he’s made the fool’s mistake of actually falling in love with his wife on the lam.

But the star of this film is without doubt Oscar Isaac as the brooding Rydal: a young man who is no less on the run than the MacFarlands. On the run from his family, from his dead father, from the vast chasm of his own empty future. His is perhaps the most convincing character trajectory of the film: from a sullen man child living off sorority girl handouts, to a towering, ferocious presence hellbent on revenge. The film is worth watching just to see his performance grow through the final third: as misery, grief, and hate fuse together in a tumultuous, hopeless climax.

November 07, 2012

NewYorkCityPhilia

On arriving at Heathrow airport to a rattling board of cancelled flights, the reasonable man would retreat and carefully plot a new course to New York City. The unreasonable man would book a seat on the next thing smoking to the Eastern seaboard, then finding his connecting flight to a deluged La Guardia cancelled, he would not see the night out in a Toronto airport hotel but would race for the last plane to Philadelphia. There, bolstered by the firm American turf beneath his feet, he would rent the last car on the airport lot and drive for three hours through a pitch black, hurricane-blitzed Garden State, with only an outdated SatNav for company. Were that SatNav to send him hurtling towards a flooded Holland Tunnel, he would not turn back, but would instead rely entirely on guesswork to creep his way along the toll roads and turnpikes of a half-submerged Staten Island to finally reach Brooklyn - that bolshy, sighing, stylish older brother to the flashy kid, Manhattan.

I did not take the path of the reasonable man.

No other city on earth could so stir my blood and send me hurtling recklessly into a storm to visit her. Not even my own. My infatuation with New York is verging on some '-pathy' or '-philia'. I have loved her since childhood and while my reasons have upended and overrun one another, the passion has never ebbed. I will never deny or seek to contain the giddiness that overwhelms me when I emerge from Penn Station to a blast of cold Hudson air and that dazzling canyon of glittering midtown lights; but it's not Christmas and Time Square and yellow cabs that get my heart racing anymore.

It's the cracked and cobbled streets of the LES. The Sartorialist will-be's on every West Village corner. The 'shhhhh' bars and the speakeasies. The droll Billyburg baristas. The plaid-frocked, moustached taco stand owners of Rockaway Beach. The Victorian-era tattoo parlours and wincing scotch enthusiasts. The local microbrews and the esoteric jukebox selections. These are the flavours that my ever-evolving palette longs for now.

Aside from all of this, there are also those constant and abstract values that will never shift from this city. The resilience. The stubbornness. The gruff, beguiling charm. The openness. New Yorkers are New Yorkers not because of where they were born, but because of how invested they are in the narrative of their city. They are wholly caught up in it. They take pride in it.

This was broadcast to the world this week in the form of a muted and careful response to days of flooding, fires, and black outs. When a boardwalk in the Rockaways washed away people lamented it all the way from Queens to the Upper East Side, because it's their city. It chills my blood to picture that hurricane hitting almost any European city right now. It would be chaos and anarchy. There is real hate and nihilism spreading quietly like dry rot across so many of our cities. How much must a metropolis of this size be doing right to bear this sort of catastrophe with such powerful humility? The fraternity of New York - a city of immigrants, lest we forget - is an astonishing and valuable thing. It is addictive, and I am in deep.

And finally there's just the sight of the place, which to this day makes me draw breath. By day the brick and concrete buildings and thick hulking girders stand proud beneath a clear, powder blue sky. It is industrial magnificence writ large in brown and grey across an island as slender and strong as any of her buildings. No other city feels so BIG. The Coliseum, St Marks Cathedral, La Sagrada Familia - all are undone by the minute details that distort the beauty of their sheer size. In New York, such fussiness would be sniggered at. Here, the only interruption to sleek concrete and iron are the nuts and bolts that join them. The closest thing to "decoration" is the Empire State Building with its glaring steel eagle gargoyles - and without a giant ape or a caped crusader hanging from them, they look out of place.

By night the whole city is transformed. Driving along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway Wednesday night and staring across the East River at the gigantic skyscrapers in darkness was the closest I will ever come to a slumbering Leviathan snoring in the shallows. This was the city that wowed Fitzgerald with its, "flashing, dynamic good looks, its tall man's quick-step." From the astounding billboards of Times Square to the dingy neon of Greenwich village. From the mirrored apex of the Chrysler building to the pulsating grid lights of the Marcy Projects. When the sun retreats the whole city sparkles like a pinstriped emerald. A crystal city standing proud where the unfathomable tide dissolves the shore.

September 12, 2012

Butterflies and Bruises: Alma Har'el's Fjögur píanó


N.B. Click on the image above or scroll down to the bottom to watch the film.

How would you tell the story of love? Split it up into acts and set pieces? A sleek dialectic of heady triumphs and devastation? Give it a beginning without an end? Impossible. Love is a hazy netherworld. A performance of repetition. A choreographed dream.

And what colour would you paint it? Rich, dark, Renaissance crimson? You’d be wrong to. Love has a pale colour palette of flesh and curtain lace. Ruptured by smeared charcoal and finger-scraped scars. Gentle plum bruises. Butterflies and shawls that warn more than they delight.

Alma Har’el’s beautifully conceived film for Sigur Ros’ Fjögur piano is an astounding exploration of love: bleak and indicting, yet strangely hopeful. Cautious, honest, and deeply moving.

Shia LeBouf and Denna Thompson tumble majestically through a staggering and intimate performance. Painfully rehearsed honesty boxed in by a bedroom window frame.

Diving into trashy, colourful, hedonistic video guilt. Glaring aquamarine. MTV and ketamine. Generation something.

Slipping silently into a room filled with butterfly memories. Carefully preserved. Muted mauve melancholy. Calm. A delicate and cherished place they intrude upon with the people they've become – crashing in at dawn, trailing the mire of late nights and unblinking eyes.

Pushing each other into sudden frenzied anger. Volatile. Locked in to one another. Free falling.

Then suddenly absent. Panicked and lonely. Fragile.

Then clashing again. Tearing and grasping at each other. Frenzied hand marks tracked in tar. Laying in a nest of hair and tear stream smears. Frozen mid fight in a petrified, breathless sleep.

Waking to a new day. A new tussle of love…

Love. The most impossible dilemma and the simplest truth. A shifting, ungraspable boundary we yearn for like a desert horizon - longing for that crisp canyon cut while we're swallowed whole by the endless earth.

The sweet Harpy song that tears you away from the things you knew and throws you headlong into a gathering storm. All life's lessons unlearned in an instant.

Love is endless splendour. Bewildering and dangerous. Blamed and cherished. The suture for our deepest wounds. Never. Ever. Forgotten.
The Halcyon bird.
The Phoenix that survives the flames.

September 04, 2012

REVIEW: Anna Karenina (dir. Joe Wright)



Cast: Keira Knightley, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Jude Law, Matthew Macfadyen, Kelly Macdonald, Olivia Williams, Domhnall Gleeson

Anna Karenina (Knightley) has settled quite happily into the safety and luxury of marriage to a respected St Petersburg aristocrat by the name of Alexei Karenin (Law) – a steely, stoic man with watery eyes and thinning hair. But on a visit to Moscow to save her brother's marriage, she meets the youthful and charming Count Vronsky (Taylor-Johnson). Their first meeting is marred by the tragic death of a railway worker, but there is no mistaking what has passed between them… they are in love. Forced into exile by a society that cannot accept their forbidden tryst, Anna and Vronsky find themselves alone, shackled together and tumbling headlong towards tragedy. There can be no peace for them, only misery and greatest happiness.

Joe Wright’s adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece is a wonderfully theatrical affair. Scene transitions involve magical, clunking, mechanical sets and hordes of sooty stagehands in period garments. Many scenes that should take place in streets or restaurants actually take place in the atriums, hallways, and rafters of a gigantic Russian theatre. Sometimes a scene appears to be on location, but suddenly a wall pulls away and we find ourselves back beneath the hulking proscenium arch.

Wright’s stylish vision successfully evokes the theatrical nature of late 19th Century Russian aristocracy in a new and exciting way. But the story relies too heavily on this visual treat for pace and energy. The flashy modern aesthetic – part Fosse, part Gondry, part Brecht – cannot be relied upon to update the tattered subject matter. What relevance does Tolstoy's story of forbidden love have at a time when our heir apparent has married his (alleged) mistress without so much as a raised eyebrow? How much more important are films like Shame that deal with the consumptive, addictive power of lust in a modern society where every need is catered for, and nothing is out of bounds?

That aside, there are also the usual pitfalls of reducing a 900 page tome into a modern feature film. Tolstoy’s novel is timeless because of the minutiae; Wright’s film is over a century out of date because it is forced to deal in generalisations. Characters are half-etched, dialogue over simplified, entire story strands overlooked. The cast can hardly be blamed for failing to mark their characters with anything approaching real emotion (with the exception of Domhnall Gleeson whose performance as Levin is breathtaking).

We are left with an entertaining but hollow story filled with entertaining but hollow characters. By the end, you’ll feel as though you’ve just left one of St Petersburg’s many large social gatherings: so many people you desperately wanted to meet, but as the carriages arrive you’re left with nothing but a procession of strangers and ghosts, known by name but nothing else.