Sunday, 12 November 2017

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)



New York is famously home to some wacky characters and cinema has often sought to capture that 'New York spirit' in the stories it tells. Film makers build personalities around the New York ethos - the stories of the quirky, rushed, community driven but isolated individuals that inhabit the famous city.

Noah Baumbach's Meyerowitz Stories is one such story.  It's the tale of a family headed by semi-successful sculptor Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman) that comes together and falls apart on repeat for its near two-hour runtime. After a medical incident, Harold's two sons, Danny (Adam Sandler) and Matthew (Ben Stiller), and daughter Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), rally together to support each other and their father despite their estrangement from one another. But honouring your father isn't always as easy as it appears to be, especially when they're as neurotic as Harold. 


The Meyerowitz Stories is a fascinating exploration into the minds of the all the major players in a dysfunctional family jammed with exceptional performances. The film is broken into sections - handily titled or surmised with a title plaque like those you may see in a gallery - to give us greater insight into one character or situation at a time. We start with recently separated Danny as he desperately tries to park his car in busy Manhattan with his daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten) in a comical sequence where the viewer is rammed into the car with the pair, the camera squeezed in between them, not just seeing their relationship but feeling it. Later we join Matthew, Harold's favourite son, who has escaped to LA and returned for lunch with his father, but no restaurant lives up to Harold's standards. We then have several shorter episodes, a group episode, a short Jean episode, and so on. 


Around the place, the film is being heralded as an Adam Sandler film, and whilst this is his best performance in years, this is not strictly true. This is a true ensemble piece and each performer brings something powerful and meaningful to the story. Dustin Hoffman's Harold is a genius creation; a grumpy, mumbling, artist who never quite peaked in his career and is almost allergic to other's success, at one point physically running from a former contemporary's show. He is the glue that holds the narrative together by pushing the family apart but there's something oddly endearing about him. Sandler and Stiller, alongside each other for the first time since Happy Gilmore, are brilliant as the half-brothers Danny and Matthew respectively. Their drastically different relationships with their father bringing much of the film's entertainment and conflict and their on-screen chemistry amplifying and exaggerating the comedy in their pain. Emma Thompson is also present as Maureen, an alcoholic Professor Trelawney type and Harold's fourth wife (who lovingly refers to him as The Dad).


The genius of Mereyowitz is in its weighty screenplay. This is a puff pastry of a family narrative - it's layered. The dialogue flows but no one is listening to one another. It's almost like the audience are absorbing two conversations at once which is an extremely efficient way to build characters. We hear their life stories in a way that's completely self absorbed and yet somehow desperate for attention or affection, depending on who is speaking. It's that tension, those hidden desires, that bring the heart to the film. It's also a testament to what happens when you make funny people do something serious; you get something seriously funny. 

Whilst its final third loses its pacing somewhat, the editing of the sections becoming somewhat jarring, it more than makes up for it with its brilliant performances, witty writing, and touching dramedy. 

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

OJ: Made in America



Documentaries are some of the most under appreciated works of film out there. It’s not easy to take non-fiction subject matter, cram archival footage in, and jump between talking heads and make it is an engaging as any good thriller out there, but the best ones do just that. I’m not talking here about the ones with a charismatic guide to take us through what’s happening (like Super Size Me, Catfish or Fahrenheit 9/11), I’m specifically talking about those that let interviews and the events tell their own story (see Blackfish for one example). Today’s film is not only a record breaking, Oscar winning endeavour, it also tells the story of one of the biggest rise and falls in American history. This is OJ: Made in America.

We’ve all heard the name OJ Simpson, but do we all know who he is and what happened to him? OJ: Made in America details the the incredible rise and the even more spectacular fall of one of the most astonishing Americans to ever walk the planet. Following OJ from the ghettos of California, to the heights of the National Football League, to a prison jumpsuit in Nevada, the documentary clocks in at just under 8 hours but was sensibly separated into five meticulously structured parts. Focusing on his football career, his fame and fortune, his darker violent side, the trial of the century, and OJ’s life post trial respectively, the documentary breaks down the narrative of OJ’s life beyond the court room. Whilst other big players in popular culture are also focussing on the judicial phenomenon that was the trial (see American Crime Story: The People v OJ Simpson), OJ: Made in America paints a riveting bigger picture of racial injustice in the USA, of a harsh and violent LAPD, of the American justice system, and of our cultural obsession with celebrity status. It is more than a biopic, it is an analysis of a broken and divided society. 


Where OJ: Made in America really achieves is in the way it builds information to culminate in the biggest impact. Talking heads of friends, family, locals, jurors, and police officers amongst others are introduced with little to no context. Mark Fuhrman in interview, for example, offers comments on the Rodney King riots and Nicole Brown’s abuse calls before the documentary reveals his involvement in the case as a racially abusive liar, but it also gives him the opportunity to defend himself. Information is revealed when it is important to the story that director Ezra Edelman is trying to tell, like he is presenting the case in court himself. He allows all sides to have their say on the case and on OJ and the racial divide in America in general. It creates constant drama, suspense, and intrigue and even eight hours in you will want to keep going and hear more. 


Its more important for Edelman to tell the story of America than it is of OJ, thus the tagline for the feature: ‘Made in America’; that’s the real heart of the documentary. Whilst other documentaries on OJ have tried to critique the evidence or find alternative theories, Edelman explains how we ended up in that court room and how the country was so divided on the verdict. It’s painful to watch at times, refusing to shy away from the gruesome. It is the mark of a director who has something important to say. Whilst 13th made similar comments on the state of racial divide in America, OJ: Made in America isolates a specific example that the world is already aware of and bleeds every ounce of contextualising information it can out of it to drive home its point and focusing on such a renowned and particularly charming and popular figure in American culture adds to its appeal over the it’s more evangelical contemporaries. 

OJ: Made in America taps into the true-crime zeitgeist of Making a Murder and Serial but it is shocking in a different way. This documentary isn’t just exploring a potential wrong verdict. It’s very real; the issues it presents are those that our world knows and experiences still. It is not an isolated incident. One part sport movie, one part rising star story, one part race documentary, and one part crime thriller, OJ: Made in America is a rollercoaster and it may be uncomfortable at points but you won’t want to get off.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Sandler Wexler


Today's review is brought to you in anticipation of an exciting development of my life in film analysis. I will soon be releasing a video essay on the filmography of Adam Sandler and to celebrate and prepare you for this event, let's take a look at his most recent release. This is Sandy Wexler.

The titular Sandy (Adam Sandler) is a talent manager; not a talent agent though, he's quick to point out that the former means family. He has a small body of odd-job clients on the lowest rung of entertainment which he lies to constantly and a party of other celebrities inform us through faux-interviews about Sandy's other annoying habits. Despite having the appeal of a toad, Sandler manages to sign Courtney Clarke (Jennifer Hudson), a young singer who has that something special. As her talent is recognised and Sandy's affections for her grow, she begins to be drawn to the bigger agencies and the disappointment begins to affect Sandy's work and relationships.


Sandy Wexler is one of Sandler's completely unjustified now eight film deal. However, it is also the most complete. Don't misunderstand this, the film is heavily flawed, but after his last two dismal efforts (that is, The Ridiculous 6 and The Do-Over), Sandy Wexler almost seems good. It's by no means Sandler's best performance or even close, but it is consistent and oddly likeable. Despite all of Sandy's habits, he is strangely charming with Sandler fitting the role well. It gave purpose to his annoying voices, though at times they can grate. Oscar winner Hudson doesn't feel out of place here either and seems to draw out Sandler's better performance, similar to the way Jack Nicholson did in Anger Management. This being said, Sandy seems older than Sandler and Courtney feels younger than Hudson, creating a jarring and uncomfortable tension between the romantic leads. It never quite feels natural or professional - he is her manager after all.


Where Sandy Wexler falls down is primarily in every other aspect. It's length is completely unnecessary; there is not enough narrative to fill its two hour runtime, which leaves director Steven Brill cutting away to too many celebrity talking heads, and spending too much time with pointless side characters (do Nick Swanson's daredevil or Jackie Sandler's struggling actress add anything to the story arch at all?). Despite that extra length, the conclusion is entirely unsatisfactory and unrealistic. Throughout the second half of the movie, Sandy's career starts to plummet but after one nonsensical scene where he is literally a puppet for ventriloquist Ted Rafferty (Kevin James), everything suddenly turns around but without rhyme or reason. It's a little bit too neat and a huge let down. However, there are some redeeming factors. There are some excellent lighting choices and, perhaps an even rarer experience in a Sandler movie, some genuinely funny moments.

The stakes in Sandy Wexler are never quite high enough to make us care. Is the love story, Courtney's success, or the rest of Wexler Artist's careers the main focus on the story? What's Sandy's objective? It's clunky and messy, but endearing and charming. The support cast are predictably terrible, Rob Schneider is again playing the token foreigner, but Sandy has a heart it's not some lazy half-assed attempt at story-telling like Sadler's recent outings. It's the first time in years that Sandler is producing a story he seems to care about and while it is not a great success, it is a step in the right direction.


Monday, 27 February 2017

Oscar Reviews: Part III

If Best Pictures are not enough to wet your appetite for this weekend's Academy Awards, here are some other nominated films that I have reviewed just for you:

Nocturnal Animals (Best Supporting Actor)



Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal, two of Hollywood's biggest and most talented stars, star in this meta-thriller. It's dark and uncomfortable but features some of the best performances of its cast's careers. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is nigh on unrecognisable, whilst Michael Shannon has received an oscar nod for his performance. Tom Ford's screenplay (based on Austin Wright's novel) is electric, jumping back and forth between reality and the novel 'Nocturnal Animals' within which the main action takes place. 


The screenplay is incredibly clever, taking what is in essence a home invasion narrative, and reversing it. Instead of being trapped in a house, Gyllenhaal's Tony and his family are trapped out in the open by a group of psychopaths. The tension could be cut with a knife throughout this entire side of the film which takes place inside a novel being read by Amy Adam's character, Susan, whilst she struggles with her relationship and career in reality. Gyllenhall really gets a chance to shine in his dark narrative but he also plays real life ex-partner of Susan, providing him the opportunity to express real range. 



Life, Animated (Best Documentary)

A heart warming documentary Life, Animated follows Owen Suskind, a boy with autism who, struggling to convey how he was feeling, turned to Disney movies where scenes were more applicable. 


Owen's joy and passion for animated movies is contagious; he is excitable and likeable, running an extra-curriculum high school club to analyse Disney movies in which he and his classmates can look at what the movies can teach them and how they might be able to apply these lessons to their own life. It's a lovely and joyful film, but it is outshone by the documentaries that are trying to enlighten end engage in social discourse. Alongside the likes of 13th and Fire at SeaLife, Animated lacks any real depth. It's educational and insightful, but ultimately forgettable. 



A Man Calle Ove (Best Foreign Language Film, Best Hair and Make Up)


It's not often that a film opening with a man attempting suicide on multiple occasions turns out to be hilarious, but A Man Called Ove is a joy. It's a moving drama where life keeps getting in the way of Ove's death, and it is full of comedy and heart. 


At first, it's unclear who Ove is or why he is (or appears to be) as grumpy as he is, but as the film goes along and more information is revealed, more and more meaning and revelation is found. In the end, there's a sense of community overcoming the pain of the past despite the slightly underwhelming and depressing conclusion. A Man Called Ove is arguably the best thing to come out of Sweden since Abba. 



Sully (Best Sound Editing)


For most of us,  the miracle on the Hudson was little more than an incredible news story, one pilot's heroic actions saving all of his passenger's lives. But we don't know the investigations that happened behind the scenes; we don't know about the nightmares and the marital stress. Sully is here to pick up what the news left out. 

A remarkably good film for what it really is - a few depositions and a court case, interspersed with memories from the crash landing. But Todd Komarnicki's screenplay is so well handled by Clint Eastwood, that there is constant suspense. We build up one interrogation by the corporate bosses to boiling point before jumping back in time and providing some answers. Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart have amazing on screen chemistry too, making all the easier to root for the pilots even when everything seems against them. The film is flawed in some respects, for example, the corporate bosses who are intent on pinning the crash on Sully's (Hanks) poor judgement, are archetypal bad guys - they don't seem to want answers, they appear to have a malicious and targeted set of motives. 



The Red Turtle (Best Animation)


Sometimes, words are not needed to tell a great story. Take The Red Turtle as a good example. Not a single word is spoken, though there is a little yelping at points, and despite this, the film is a huge success. The characters, simply designed though they are, are emotive and their expressions and body language do the story telling in the absence of words. 


Once you can get over the slightly bizarre concept of turtles becoming human, The Red Turtle is a bold yet understated film. It is not flashy or showy, its simple 2D animation done to an excellent standard. It's short, simple, and sweet. Think Castaway but more gentle; you still won't want to be stranded on a desert island though...



Deepwater Horizon (Best Visual Effect, Best Sound Editing)


For a film nominated only in technical categories, Deepwater Horizon has been deeply under represented. This is a film that uses every element of the medium to create a living nightmare, the camera ducks and dives to cause disorientation, the sound is at full volume to immerse the viewer in the panic onboard the Deepwater Horizon. 



This is a disaster movie by every sense of the word and the horrible thing is it is real. BP really were negligent in their actions and Peter Berg does not sugarcoat the situation. It succeeds where Sully failed by providing the bosses with a motivation for their interference: money. This is an unpleasant film but an important one. 

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Banks


The West may may have calmed down since the days of old, but that doesn't mean its stopped being wild. The desert planes are still unforgiving and crime is still being fought by good officers of the law. This is Hell or High Water. 

The Howard brothers, ex-con Tanner (Ben Foster) and divorced father Toby (Chris Pine), need a quick pay day in order to save the old family ranch and what is quicker than holding up several banks at gun point. The inexperienced brothers begin a spree, hitting banks from several towns, but veteran cop Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) are not far behind them. As well as the police, the gun friendly state inhabitants of the Texas do not take too kindly to thieves in their home town giving the brothers another challenge to face.


Hell or High Water's first and most powerful achievement is creating a level of sympathy for both the robbers and the law. The screen time is split relatively evenly between the two of them, making it difficult to form a bias towards one pair or the other and the brothers are not positioned as cruel or malicious, at least not from the outset; they want to protect their family and their home. This builds an interesting tension that shifts back and forth throughout the film, forcing the audience to switch their alliances time and again. It's engaging and exciting, creating a moral conflict that we, the audience, have to make our own minds up on.


David Mackenzie's neo-western is brilliant addition, and in many ways, extension to the genre. It's a classic cat and mouse chase with Jeff Bridges putting in a fantastic performance as Hamilton, always one step behind the brothers. But like any good chase, its full with twists and surprises with only a few moments that drag. The screenplay plays a heavy hand in this - it is full of wit and intelligence, building phenomenal characters but also creating tension and suspense for a showdown of a final act. That wit also comes out in moments of hilarity and slapstick, but that doesn't mean this isn't a serious film. Hell or High Water takes its craft very seriously, staying true to Western motifs without feeling dated. Like the Coen's No County for Old Men, Hell or High Water has brought a fresh feeling to the southern states.

Fresh, fun, and thrilling. David Mackenzie takes on Taylor Sheridan's screenplay and breathes magic into it. Its a wonderful film and crafted magnificently. This is a commitment of love to film and it shows.

Home


We all wanted to run away from home one time or another, but few of us attempted it. Even fewer of us did it accidentally. But what would happen if you got lost, ending up thousands of miles from your home and family? This is Lion.

Over 80,000 children are lost in India each year. A terrifying and shocking statistic but Lion just looks at one example. After young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) is separated from his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) at a train station and ends up on a train travelling away from home, he becomes lost and alone. He remains calm and rides the waves of chance that take him from one temporary home to another before being flown out to Australia to be adopted by Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham). Jump forward 20 years where Saroo (now Dev Patel) has made a home and a family for himself, but whilst he has gained a family, back home his mother has lost one.


Lion takes on two adventures: one away from India, and one back. Despite an incredible performance from Patel - who is easily the best thing about the second act - the journey to find Saroo’s family is flawed. The pace drops completely, which is understandable considering most of Saroo’s searching is through scrolling on Google Earth, but there’s also awkward and under-explained tension between Saroo and his adoptive brother Mantosh (Divian Ladwa). However, the first act is a moving, beautifully shot journey into the unknown. Sunny Pawar is an exceptional young talent and displaying a huge range of emotion and skill despite his age.


At this point, one needs to return to Dev Patel's performance as a 20-something year old Saroo. From humble beginnings on Skins, Patel has come a long way. Despite the clunky execution of the second act, Patel does an incredible job with what director Garth Davis gives him to work with. This is easily his best work; it is captivating and powerful, overcoming the issues of an awkward transition into the present day. The other success of Lion is its cinematography. Throughout, this moving story is captured beautifully by the camera - the landscapes of India and Australia, both rural and urban, have hardly looked better. It captures the intention of each scene, causing disorientation for the audience when Saroo is panicked, or creating calm when things are more serene. 

Lion is an emotional film, but one that lacks a satisfying climax. For such a large build up, the resolution is underwhelming; a bit more time spend on the conclusion and a bit more time spend on developing relationships in the second act would have benefited the movie massively. But altogether, a warm and touching tale of one boy’s journey home.

Black


Drugs, race, homophobia. These are all powerful topics to approach in a film separately, let alone together. Is it ambition and bravery, of stupidity and foolishness? Let’s look to Moonlight to see.

One man’s life contains many stories; far too many to easily include in a two hour screenplay. That being said, Moonlight provides the cliff notes for its protagonist's journey from childhood to adult hood, with a pit-stop at the teenage years for good measure. Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert) is a young boy, bullied and excluded by the bigger boys at school. His mother (Naomi Harris) has fallen victim to a drug habit leaving Chiron to often fend for himself. However a drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle MonĂ¡e) take him in when his home is not friendly, and treat him right. As Chiron (now Ashton Sanders) grows up, the bullying gets more severe, his sexuality and friendships become more confusing, and his life seems to spiral out of control. Eventually, we get to see where all of this gets him in the third act of the film.


Structured into three acts - Little, Chiron, and Black - Moonlight cleverly manages to essentially sew three shorts together to create a modern masterpiece. It doesn't have to show immediate relationship between actions and consequences, instead allowing them to play out over a lifetime giving the film a punchy pace, with nothing feeling unexplained or out of place. It also allows the film to build to multiple climaxes, one within each act, the most striking of which is in the middle episode - everything before builds to this point, everything after is a result of it. Director Barry Jenkins bombards the audience with visual information and it is glorious; it makes the film beautiful to watch as well providing extra detail about what is happening.


With stunning performances throughout, Moonlight allows a varied cast the opportunity to shine, with its lead played by three different actors - youngster Ashton Sanders playing the teenage Chiron is the standout of the three - but the best performances are in the supporting cast. Naomi Harris is at her very best in a hugely emotive role. It’s a role full of pain, and Harris doesn’t hold back. Mahershala Ali too, as Juan, is phenomenal. Though he is only present for the first act, his performance is easily the most memorable of the two hour runtime and his impact is lasting. Here, he solidifies his name as one of the go to actors in Hollywood.

Moonlight is a brilliantly and beautifully told story. It is proof that a film’s topic doesn’t have to be big and grand or based on some incredible story; a simple story told well is more powerful than powerful story executed poorly.