You Must Remember This

You Must Remember This

Sunday, 30 June 2013



"Why would anyone care about our family?"

In the case of a family other than filmmaker Sarah Polley’s that might well be a valid concern. Polley’s relatives, however, are such an engaging, lively, immensely likeable bunch that it’s a pleasure spending time in their company. 

A series of interviews with them about Polley’s late mother forms the basis into not only an investigation of the director’s parents’ marriage and her origins, but also an exploration of the ways in which we talk about our lives. Cut together with mocked-up Super 8 footage – there seems, at first, to be an embarrassment of home movies –, Polley’s documentary is intimate and insightful. There are tears and revelations (without ever seeming exploitative), but, most importantly, a sense of purpose. 

If the differing viewpoints are often contradictory and if we are denied a complete understanding of Diane Polley as person, her hopes and dreams, well, that’s sort of the point.

Verdict: ‘Stories We Tell’ is a reflective and deeply personal narrative that also manages to address our flawed and precious understanding of each other’s lives. Not just touching but often funny, too, Sarah Polley turns what could well have been an exercise in omphaloskepsis into a minor miracle of filmmaking. The best documentary of the year so far. 9/10.

Friday, 28 June 2013



Has there ever been a better-timed tagline than the one above?

With the NSA scandal over warrantless surveillance still playing out in the US, a lot of people are pretty pissed with the government intelligence agency and the corporations that aided them. As a film with a definite anti-corporate slant to it, The East certainly plays into this resentment, though never without pointing out the dangers of social justice.

Brit Marling (who co-wrote the script with director Zal Batmanglij) stars as Sarah Moss, a young former FBI agent now operating in the private sector. Sanctimonious but not necessary unlikeable, she firmly believes in her work for private security firm Hiller Brood. As such, when they send her to infiltrate anarchist collective The East, Sarah has no qualms about doing so. What her interaction with the group reveals is just how morally compromised she is, and, by extension, we are, too.

Before long, Sarah gains entrance to the group, who are wary of this eager stranger in their midst. At first you are never quite sure whether The East is a free love commune, a sinister cult, or a real force for good in the world: Alexander Skarsgard's group leader Benji has a touch of Charles Manson and his vengeful lieutenant Izzy (Ellen Page) definitely feels like a Squeaky Fromme in the making. One of The East's greatest strengths is this sense of ambiguity.

With HQ an ivy-covered house deep in woods, Sarah's experiences have an otherworldly quality to them, and, indeed, by night the group's inner circle don masks and indulge in bonfire-side rituals. By day, however, they plan their "jams", going after the rich and amoral. Though initially repelled by their self-righteousness, Sarah quickly finds her allegiances torn.

Though Sarah's journey is fascinating, given the nature of the film it has a certain inevitability to it. What fascinates is The East's ability to hold us, the audience, in check. We agree with Izzy's sentiment, "They say two wrongs don't make a right. That makes me think whoever said it has never been wronged before", but we, like Sarah, understand that it can only end in tragedy. Apparently Batmanglij and Marling considered making the film about the perpetrators of the current financial crisis - the antipathy the average person bears them, however, might overwhelm the objectivity.

Marling plays Sarah as an in-control professional - down-the-line, unemotive -, but with a certain vulnerability that prevents her from seeming wooden. Her romantic entanglement with starey-man Benji, however, is only really sold by Skasgard's charisma. Page, meanwhile, displays a more mature version of the furious indignation that brought her to the world's attention in Hard Candy.

The tragedy when it arrives has been strongly foreshadowed and yet remains shocking. There's a shocking battlefield-style surgery that apes 127 Hours amputation (similarly nothing seen, but more tension and a less overbearing score) and a clever motif of horses running: each time Sarah sees them what they mean - nature, flight, proximity to home - changes. The film itself is similar, multi-faceted, but the film ultimately fails to commit.

The message that business is complicated and revenge is messy is a worthy one, but The East's attempts to navigate this fractured path leave it's finale a little directionless. We sympathise with the anarchists, but understand their tactics are unsanctionable; nevertheless, Sarah cannot return to the life she once knew. The film slyly opts for compromise, the middle path, which, while intellectually the right choice, never quite resonates dramatically.

Sarah somehow finds a way to take action while keeping her hands clean. If only the reality were quite that simple...

Verdict: For most of its runtime a terrifically taut thriller, The East's climax is hamstrung by its commitment to "fairness". Also deserving of a mention are Tony Kebbell's puppyish, brain-damaged Doc and Patricia Clarkson's dry, matronly security head. Given its anti-corporate underpinnings, it's perhaps a tad ironic that The East's distributor is none other than Fox Searchlight. If less than revolutionary, the film deserves praise for challenging conceit on both sides of the aisle. That combined with Batmanglij's sensitive, probing direction means The East earns its 7.5/10. 

Thursday, 27 June 2013


Not only am I trying out a new IMDb style rating system (my star ratings tend to get pretty specific), but since this is a comedy and they say brevity is the soul of wit, here's:


The most expensive comedy of all time, Evan Almighty, also happens to be an enormous flop. When it comes to making people laugh throwing money at the screen rarely seems to have the desired effect. Airplane and Doctor Strangelove were each made for under $15,000,000 (inflation adjusted) and remain two of the most beloved comedies of all time. It’s a lesson that This Is The End, the newest collaboration by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, half gets right.

The set up is sufficiently epic: an LA house party is interrupted by the End of Days, the celebrity survivors take refuge together. Among the survivors are everyman Jay Baruchel, his best friend Rogen, “pretentious asshole” James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson and one uninvited guest. Each of the main characters plays largely on their public persona (which, as an obnoxious civilian points out, most of them have made their careers out of doing). Most of the yuks come from their interaction, their idiocy, egos and entitlement, though none of the above ever cross the line into becoming truly unlikeable

When the film falls apart is when it feels the need to splash the budget on the screen. Each of the actors, friends in real-life apparently, agreed to work to scale and $36,000,000 still buys a lot of post-apocalyptic CG. The Hollywood Hills on fire is an impressive visual, but, apart from an early sequence when the ground opens up and begins swallowing famous people, it rarely contributes towards the laughs.

Verdict: While never quite hilarious, This Is The End is at it’s best when it just lets funny people be funny. Michael Cera as a coked-up, lecherous version of himself and references to original Franco/Rogen starrer Freaks & Geeks mostly make up for a misjudged third act that undermines the rest of the fim’s mockery of celeb culture by ultimately elevating it. Refuge in audacity can be funny, but not when it’s quite this crass. A possessed Jonah Hill responding sarcastically to Jay Baruchel’s belated “The power of Christ compels you” = funny. Giant swinging Satanic cock, not so much. This Is The End gets a 6.5/10.

Monday, 24 June 2013


It's the end of the world as we know it. At least for the film industry.

Steven Spielberg and George Lucas recently gave a talk at the USC School of Cinematic Arts where they discussed what they think's in store for the future of the medium. They suggest the recent spate of hundred million dollar flops - more John Carters, more Battleships - will force distributers to drive up the price of tickets, making visiting the cinema more akin to attending a Broadway or West End show. Less than ideal for those who, like me, are unemployed and have a blog to keep updated.

Given that Spielberg and Lucas together basically invented the blockbuster (Jaws followed by the original Star Wars trilogy), they're certainly something of an authority on the matter, though they may have failed to account for the impact of the online market.

Even so, World War Z initially bore all the hallmarks of a giant disaster in the making. Half a decade's pre-development? Check. Huge budget overshoot? Check. Last-minute rewrites? Delayed release? Fan-based controversy? Check. Check. Check. 

In the case of the latter concern, setting the film during the zombie crisis as opposed to after it, as in the case of Max Brooks' original novel, made a lot of people wonder, myself include, as to the point of adapting World War Z at all. The novel takes place ten years after the pandemic and detail how society has responded in the wake of near-extinction, e.g. the alteration of US troop tactics following the failure of their traditional "shock and awe". Without trying capture this aspect of the novel, described as an alternate history in the mode of Studs Terkel, the question became why bother? Anything else would be just another zombie film. 

While Marc Forster's World War Z is in many aspects "just another zombie film", it succeeds in capturing something no previous entry in the canon has: what a zombie infestation would mean on a global scale. It's this world building that sets Forster's adaptation apart from the rest of the brain-ravening pack.

The set up, that of former UN investigator Gerry Lane who is forced back into the field to uncover the source of the devastating virus, is mostly an excuse for an exercise in jet-setting, as Gerry rushes from one toppling culture to another in search of answers, as well as giving forty-nine year-old star Brad Pitt what could be his last chance at his own action franchise. Gerry is an everyman trying to do right by his family. Pitt doesn't so much occupy the role as ride along in it, but he's a more-than capable actor and Gerry makes for a likeable, sympathetic protagonist.

With him we witness chaos on the streets of Philadelphia as commuters are chased down and brutally infected by the leonine undead, the plight of American soldiers on an isolated army base in South Korea, the siege of Jerusalem, and, perhaps somewhat anticlimactically, the search for a cure in rural Wales. All of this is accompanied by a vast number of civilian deaths with Gerry and his companions of the moment fleeing through foreign streets. Stylistically, it's very much a thinking man's Roland Emmerich.

While Gerry's wife Karin, played by Mireille Enos of AMC's The Killing, is quickly reduced to motivation for Gerry, the voice at the end of the phone, other actors are better served by more marginal roles. David Morse is memorable in essentially a cameo as a toothless, demented CIA operative while a haunted Daniella Kertesz and gung-ho James Badge Dale (last seen as a top-ranking henchman in Iron Man 3) play two soldiers from very different backgrounds. Peter Capaldi and Ruth Negga, however, are sadly wasted as a nameless scientists.

The film's "realistic" treatment of zombies is intriguing with the virus that creates them at one point being compared to Spanish flu. Reduced to animalistic plague carriers, these zombies swarm en masse in their thousands, tumbling over each other, scaling walls as mountains of flesh. Their behaviour is reminiscent of ants, hive-like. It's an interesting take on the monster du jour (that or sexy vampires), one that helps you appreciate the pace with which they've laid civilisation to ruin.

World War Z endeavours to be genuine, to be gritty, dwelling on the physical reality of what it must be like to live through the zombie apocalypse. A desperate trip to the pharmacy for the Lane family places them amongst fellow looters and rapists with a nearby police officer too busy filling his own basket to help. It might not possess the all-encompassing detail of Brook's novel, but it's more a portrait than the snapshot offered even by The Walking Dead.

I'm gonna take a little time to talk about the final act given it was this section of the film that held up its release. When Damon Lindelof (of Prometheus fame/notoriety) was bought in to carry out rewrites, I lost a lot of faith in the likelihood of World War Z managing to tell a comprehensive story. Then Lindelof went and Drew "Cloverfield" Goddard entered the picture, making me at least a little more hopeful. So, how did it end up? 

Given that this is a mostly spoiler-free review, I'll leave it at "mostly satisfyingly". After some fairly epic sequences of cities falling that the stakes should be brought down to such a human level, making it once more about Gerry, his survival, his sacrifice, is strangely refreshing. The solution, while strongly telegraphed, is clever and worthy of Brooks' novel.

Despite some substantial reservations, I really enjoyed World War Z - it kept me if not on the edge of my seat then far enough forward that my legs were sort of dangle-y -, enough so that I hope it gets a sequel. It's even made me rejudge my praise of Man of Steel.

Verdict: World War Z is a dynamic if less-than-faithful adaptation, ambitious but generally conventional. Diehard fans of Brooks' novel may be irked by the loss of detail, but the film is nevertheless a persuasive bit of world-building. While it's not the absolute classic it might have been, it steers well clear of I Am Legend territory. For making me interested in zombie cinema again, against expectations, I award World War Z ****. Who knows, maybe there's life in the old corpse yet.

Thursday, 20 June 2013


As I commented in my recent review of Stuck In Love, I'm not what you would call a fan of romantic movies. Regardless of the suffix (romcom, romdram, rom sci-fi), the tropes of filmic love - eyes meeting across a crowded room, the initial dislike, the banter, repartee, the eventual kiss, - do nothing for me. The sad truth is that the plight of two characters in love has never enthralled me as much as, say, two characters planning a murder.

As such, I was surprised to discover that Before Midnight, the latest instalment in Richard Linklater's Before... series, was not only the best film of my two-day critic's session, but one of purest cinematic experiences I've had in a long time.

The film picks up nine years after the events of 2004’s After Sunset as our lovers, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), enjoy a holiday on the Greek Peloponnese. One of series' conceits is that it takes place in real time, checking in on them periodically. This has the effect of making Jesse and Celine feel like real people, one of the many way in which their relationship seems authentic.

Of the previous two films, I had only seen the original, Before Sunrise, and that long enough ago that I came into the film without feeling any prior connection to the characters. Even as a first meeting with the pair, Before Sunset is stunning.

Both Hawke and Delpy give incredibly nuanced, Oscar-worthy performances; the only reason for which, I believe, it’ll never happen is humility. Both actor’s share the film's 109 minutes screen-time down to the wire. Hawke’s Jesse is an intelligent but slightly callow, perennially charming forty-something; Celine’s Delpy, less tolerant of bullshit than her long-time partner, less inclined to play the martyr, is more of a realist.

It is a relationship of equals and, as such, when they find themselves mounted on opposing sides of an issue, their forces are evenly matched. Before Sunset shows no preference to either side of the argument when it arrives; where you fall will depend largely to whom you most relate.

My sympathies lay mainly with Jesse who, on the verge of being estranged from his now teenage son, is angling towards moving out to Chicago in order to be in his life. Celine, however, is considering taking a high-profile job that will keep them in France and is unwilling to sacrifice her career for a few years of custody squabbles. Jesse’s career as a writer is very much a moveable feast and never becomes a point of contention.

Critics have said that Before Midnight is appropriately darker than the first two films, Sunrise and Sunset. If Sunrise was about the birth of a relationship and Sunset about picking up where you left off, then it seems Midnight is about the struggle for endurance.

This is a true battle of the sexes, no clich├ęs or easy laughs (which is not to say Midnight isn’t funny, but its humour feels grounded, in-the-woof.) Jesse and Celine have two kids together, beautiful blond twins, but, though they remain very much peripheral characters, they rarely feature in their arguments. 

This is not about “doing it for the kids”: this is about two flawed, passionate individuals working through the reasons to stay together/split up, throwing invective and navigating old hurts (or occasionally the reverse).

With its long, continuous takes (a discussion in the car between Jesse and Celine lasts almost 20 minutes) and character-driven, dialogue-heavy, plot-light style, Before Midnight manages to truly say something amidst the arthouse trappings.

If the message here is that living together can be difficult and that love is compromise, it also says that that it can be a difficult compromise worth fighting for. With luck, we'll be checking in on Jesse and Celine in 2022. 

Verdict: Often seeming more like theater than cinema, less Mama Mia than something by Eric Rohmer, Before Midnight is a wonderful, naturalistic piece of cinema-making. Essentially a series of duologues or conversations, it manages to shed new light on a complex, twenty-seven yearlong relationship. Never pretentious, always fresh, the film is beautifully if simply shot and utterly without ego. Mature and honest, witty and insightful, too – superlatives abound – suffice to say it’s rehabilitated a genre for me. While I can’t promise to run out and hire The Notebook, I have no hesitation in awarding Before Midnight *****