Paterson (Jarmusch. 2016)

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A humble, gentle, quietly brilliant film, Jim Jarmusch’s crowd-pleaser at Cannes is an ambling, whimsical ode to blue collar America, poetry and the unassuming beauty of everyday life. A warming story of a salt of the earth bus driver who is also a poet, it’s a film that requires you to slow down and reflect.

At the centre of the story is bus driver and hobbyist poet, Paterson (Adam Driver). As low-key an artist as they get, Paterson operates the 23 bus in his home town of Paterson, New Jersey. Every day he gets up in the early hours, kisses his partner, munches down a bowl of cheerios, walks to work, does his route, comes back, walks his dog and goes to a local bar before turning in. All the while he views the world like a poem yet to be written.

It’s a film where (heaven forbid) not much really happens. Paterson’s life is not inherently intriguing, nor is his life that of a struggling artist, but the exquisiteness is found in the dissection of his 9-5. As he drives his bus, he eavesdrops on wonderful soundbites of human interaction. Teenagers discuss anarchy and two dishevelled men contemplate why they haven’t had sex with gorgeous women. Paterson observes respectfully and silently. There’s also a charming relationship Paterson shares with his girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), an eclectic, creative type with boundless amounts of energy. She bakes cupcakes, paints black and white patterns on everything and comes up with a new life-long ambition each day.

At first glance the tweeness of it all is a bit much. Paterson is good natured, his partner is good natured, even his dog is sort of good natured. However, the film side steps any over-indulgent sentimentality. A lesser film might capitalize on the adorable romance between Paterson and Laura, but Jarmusch has bigger fish to fry. Indeed, everything in this creation is about the nature of creativity in day to day lives that aren’t extraordinary. Laura and Paterson’s juxtaposing creative personalities play in to this theme then. Far from being boring and bijou, their paring is symbolic of something altogether more interesting.

A slow, sometimes even catatonic tale, Paterson is about that most intriguing subject – the artistic soul. But far from far from being absorbed by the gravity the concept might suggest, it unfolds unpretentiously and with tremendous poise.

Café Society (Allen. 2016)

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Few people have amassed a creative portfolio the size of Woody Allen’s.  Now 80 years old, he has kept up a relentless pace, hammering out screenplays like a man who has a gun against his head. Laced with dry humour and romanticism, his films are easily recognisable as ambling tales of masculinity, love and the magic of city life. However, a director that churns out films one after another is bound to make a few stinkers. His new ode to the razzamatazz of 1930’s Hollywood and New York is relaxed, romantic and witty, but it’s not terribly memorable.

On a basic level, it’s a sort of screwball comedy harking back to films like Philadelphia with Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. A light and fluffy ride, Café Society’s narrative centres on a young Jewish man (Jesse Eisenberg) who moves to Hollywood to find a job with his big-shot uncle (Steve Carell). Falling for a young secretary played by Kristen Stewart, Eisenberg’s cynical Allen-esque character finds himself thrust into a romance full of twists and turns.

But while there are twists and turns aplenty, the film is about as deep and meaningful as the movement and people the title references. A term for the group of wealthy, glamorous socialites that descended upon the metropolitan nightclubs and music halls of the 20th century, it is referencing vanity and indulgence. And that’s Allen’s problem here. He’s made a film about shallowness and superficiality that is, in itself, shallow and superficial. Full of pretty people talking romantically to each other in a detestably fake way, the result is a bland mesh of events with no particular sense of consequence at all. You have no real understanding about the motives of Eisenberg’s character, you have no idea of his faults and not much of what he does seems to make sense. The relationships don’t seem true and the characters are boring and unimaginative.

But the truly criminal aspect of this film is the way in which it treats its female characters. This is a film about men’s relationships with women, not relationships between men and women. What Allen seems to have done is take a boring, grey-like paintbrush to every one of his female romantic interests. For all the depth that Kristen Stewart can deliver, she’s simply made into a cardboard cut-out that Eisenberg bounces off soppy, selfish declarations of love. For a character that men keep falling in love with, she’s not very interesting. She’s kicked around emotionally as well, but isn’t given the faintest glimmer of a backbone.

Bland, easy to consume and all too lacking in intrigue, Café society is an unengaging exercise in mushy Hollywood nostalgia.

What Do We Find Funny About War?

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Funny Bones: The Black Comedy of the War. Now on at the BFI

As part of  ‘The View from the Ground’ season, the BFI (in partnership with the Imperial War Museum) is now screening a selection of the most memorable comedies about the Great War. On show are silent films and early talkies that bring laughter to the squalor of the trenches. It’s squaddie humour about the hopeless private, the dumb generals and the illogicality of war. It’s also morale boosting comedy about men dodging the draft, soldiers dressing up as women for talent shows, and the ridiculousness of life in a muddy, wet trench. But beyond the silly First World War slapstick of Charlie Chaplin and others, there is something deeper to the fascination with humour and battle. British cinema audiences have an enduring love for finding laughter in the arena of combat, but why are we laughing and what are we laughing at?

Understanding what we find funny about war does not necessarily come from looking at just comedy, it also comes from what we find most dramatic and engaging. Recent dramas about modern conflict are probably the most useful signposts. With films like Lone Survivor and American Sniper being churned out, Hollywood seems perfectly happy to consume stories of glamorised heroism and rigid structures of good and bad. However, on the other side of the Atlantic, recent dramas like 2014’s Kajaki suggest distaste to the idea of painting the modern battlefield with any sense of thrill, instead making the subject of its story the problems and faults within the army’s make up. The story of soldiers caught on an old minefield, Kajaki humanises soldiers instead of deifying them, and suggests a lack of any greater cause. It understands that war is hell, but doesn’t label it as some great battle against a faceless evil.

Herein lies what British audiences feel about war. Currently, the central emotion is skepticism. It is abundantly clear that the British public dislikes the concept of war, and is mistrustful of anyone suggesting it. This is reflected in the number of films being made about recent conflict. We don’t feel comfortable with linking heroism and the act of killing, and we don’t believe the army’s decision is always the right one. Thus, it is more comfortable to make fun of the stupidity of war than to accept it as something that we should take pride in and therefore encourage.

So, with skepticism in mind, the humour of British war comedies is found in who the audience associates with, who it doesn’t, and how we feel about what they’re fighting for. For WWI comedies, we laugh at the hopelessness of the private’s situations in Old Bill and Charlie Chaplin’s Shoulder Arms, stories of men trudging through mud in a war that seems completely illogical. On the opposite end, we laugh at ridiculed figures of authority – those not on the front line with the ordinary man.

The actuality of war is harsh. Men and women risk their lives for a cause they believe in. Whatever the battlefield, people die and many are injured. A situation so awful needs comedy for so many reasons. It’s needed to understand and sympathise with the ordinary soldier as a human being. While films of WWI may create caricatures of the private, they almost always express some deeper problem about the situation of the men doing the fighting. In retrospect, dark humour about the horror of war is there for us to make fun of it while it’s happening and stop it from ever happening again. More often than not, we are laughing because we are scared of what humanity is capable of.

The Party’s Over (Hamilton. 1965)

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Most notably remembered for helming four classic James Bond films and jumping ship before Moonraker happened, Guy Hamilton was responsible for some iconic British cinema. The Party’s Over, a heady, moody story of nihilistic London Bohemians, shows a darker side to his filmic output. A story of boozing artists and poets living on close to nothing in the Capital, it’s a morality tale about excessiveness and waste. While it was cut and censored for various reasons in 1965, the original 1963 version is an intriguing slice of British cinema.

Studying a group of young sixties revellers who smoke and drink themselves ragged, the main narrative follows the fate of a young American girl called Melina (Louise Sorel). Running from rich fiancé Carson (Clifford David), but even more trapped by the crowd of Chelsea ‘beatniks’ she falls in with, Melina finds herself in a downward spiral. When she goes missing, Carson has to do all he can to find her, navigating numerous lies from her so-called friends.

A surprisingly pessimistic and grim drama, The Party’s Over is steeped in sadness, looking at wasted youth and reassessing what the swinging sixties meant. While some might like to white wash the historic period as a time of freedom and bliss, writer Marc Behm and direct Hamilton seek to find emptiness and depression in int. The revellers drink until they pass out, have ephemeral relationships and argue with each other constantly. However, it’s not just a disparaging comment on decedent London.  Carson’s life is no better. The wealthy, straight-laced, but lonely young man has had his life set out before him by bosses and parents. His life is steady and controlled, yet leaves him bereft of any passion. Less of a condemnation of European hedonism or capitalist America, the story is more about the universal problem of finding personal value in one’s life.

The fact it is grim and pessimistic does not imply it is a slow and miserable film. In fact, it fizzes with energy and anger. Fast, unpredictable jazz music punches through the silence and the characters are aggressive, vicious people. The self-centered nihilist Moise (played by the outstanding Oliver Reed), captures the emotion of the piece. Wild eyed and vehement, he simmers with rage.

Risqué, pessimistic and downright angry, The Party’s Over is an intelligent, compact story that deserves a watch.

Deep End (Skolimowski. 1970)

 

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It is odd that a film shot in Germany by a Polish director should be considered a piece of cult British Cinema. Yet, this bizarre, dreamy and stylish creation is something of a national gem.

A darkly comic,  visceral tale, the story follows fifteen year old bathhouse worker Mike (John Moulder Brown), and the obsession he develops for his older colleague, Susan (Jane Asher). A figure of modernity and sexual freedom, Susan becomes an object of desire for the young boy. As he tries to take on responsibility with his job, his fixation with Susan inevitably takes over.

Only  recently restored by the BFI, the 1970 coming of age drama is something of a delicious oddity. Somewhere between kitchen sink drama and French New wave, it’s stylish and abstract. And the fact that it is so hard to place is its charm. A German/US co-production shot largely in Munich and written by a man with minimal English language skills, it is a film of no discernible national identity. the outcome then, is genuinely strange. Although it may be set in London, it doesn’t feel like London. It’s also immensely funny, but not in a traditional British way. There’s no such thing as a punchline. The humour comes from bold, outlandish moments that are punctuated by heavy sadness. Diana Dors’ cameo as a sexually frustrated customer is hilarious until her depression and loneliness is made clear. Skolimowski seems unwilling to label any particular moment as funny or sad. The unpredictability and strangeness of it all is tremendously fascinating.

Deep End‘s visual nature is also something to be marveled at. For a film about a crumbling swimming pool in London, the sense of colour and vibrancy is stunning. Susan, with her flowing yellow jacket bursts through the grey, and the vivid blue of the swimming pool really breathes life into the story. Although this is a film about bland, normal, working class Britain, the colour and sheer elegance of the piece suggests otherwise.

An odd film at heart, Deep End is a curious but enjoyable drama about adulthood, first love and sexuality. Full of flair, it’s a strange, rock and roll piece of European cinema.

Memories of Murder (Bong Joon-ho. 2003)

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Cinema has always been fascinated by the procedural drama. The format has been done over and over again. There’s a mysterious case and one man is here to solve it – often with questionable morals. And since this was established by the noir detective stories of the mid 1940s and 1950s, audiences are still captivated by the same themes and stories. As much as we like to think our tastes have changed, they have not.  We will always love stories of mortality, murder and the evil that humankind is capable of.

In recent times, we’ve been bombarded by stories of detectives with cases to solve. Most noticeably, television has become awash with broken male figures who struggle over a series of episodes to get to the bottom of a crime. Much in the same way as classic noir works, a crime is explained, and then a morally ambiguous character works it out and reveals the answer at the end. It makes for gritty drama but is often served up with an instant, dulling sense of closure and gratification.

Bong Joon-ho’s brilliant film, Memories of murder, breaks the restrictive format we’ve now become entranced by. The 2003 film is based on Korea’s first serial murderer case in history, the Hwaseong murders of 1986 to 1991. A city outside of Seoul, Hwaseong saw the death and rape of ten women. With a gravely underprepared police force, the case was never solved.

While it may not be a complete departure from the themes of the detective drama, Memories of Murder is certainly unique. Much like David Fincher’s Zodiac, it is a film less about a crime being solved and more about the struggles of people solving it. For the hopeless trio of detectives at the centre of it, the story becomes about self-doubt, paranoia and anger. Indeed, the detectives become more and more world weary as time goes by, the murders becoming consuming aspects of their lives. In the end they are on the case as much for themselves as they are for the victims.

A case without a solution is a frustrating one for an audience. Loose ends confuse and bad leads anger the part of us that cries for swift justice. Also, without the clear banner of antagonist and protagonist that we are so used to, Memories of Murder is a film where good and bad are unidentifiable.  Those in charge of the investigation even blur the lines themselves, violently trying to prise out confessions from anyone in a hope to give themselves some closure. Khang Ho Song puts in a stellar performance as someone who will do anything to get an answer – however true it is.

It is a confusing film; but one that fights against the stale parameters of crime drama. In a world where we so often see the good guy arrest the bad guy, Bong Joon-ho reminds us that sometimes life doesn’t work that way.

 

 

The Finest Hours ( Craig Gillespie. 2016)

 

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There’s a sense of boxes being ticked off as you watch The Finest Hours. The maritime melodrama is a by the books tale that covers young love, heroes against the odds and small town pride. It’s a churned out production for rousing audience’s hearts. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t derive a certain pleasure from watching it.

Based on a true story, the Craig Gillespie helmed production documents the greatest small boat rescue in Coast Guard history. When a terrible storm hits wintry coastal Massachusetts, an oil tanker is split in two, spilling oil and injuring sailors. As the ship’s engineer (Casey Affleck) tries to keep them alive long enough for rescue, a coast guard team led by Bernie (Chris Pine) is sent out in to the storm to help.

Admittedly, it is a film up to its eyeballs in schlocky, wet melodrama. For example, the central relationship between just-engaged Bernie and his fiancée Miriam (Holliday Grainger) is really beaten home with some emotional force. Reminiscent of a classical Hollywood subplot, it’s full of single tears running down cheeks and longing looks in to the distance.

Yet there are some good performances beyond this weepy surface. Casey Affleck gives a solid performance as the disliked engineman who’s married to his beloved ship rather than any human. He’s weary but confident and holds the screen surprisingly well. Pine is also a sturdy leading man, troubled by a previous rescue attempt and afraid of his own capacity to fail. While they may be characters that have been ripped from a book on how to write vintage drama, they are brought to life with just enough spark as to make them watchable.

The most pleasing moments of The Finest Hours come in the scenes at sea. Although there’s not very much visual experimentation being done, the CGI effects offer a suitably thrilling depiction of events. Indeed, the fateful moment the tanker splits on a wave is an enormous spectacle. The waves crash against the ship with a ferocious sense of weight and the way the ship is flung around offers heart-in-mouth stuff.

The Finest Hours isn’t especially inventive, nor is its narrative anything to win awards. It’s a slightly hammy piece of 1950s throwback cinema with a rousing soundtrack, conservative American family values and stock characters. It can’t be denied that it thrills though.