Thursday, 27 November 2014

Life Itself (Steve James, 2014)

Writing for the first time in 2008, I remember the initial advice I was given: read Roger Ebert. Of course, I knew of Roger Ebert. Unlike our friends across the Atlantic, watching Siskel and Ebert wasn’t easy and my knowledge of him was primarily through special features on DVD’s I’d seen. Nevertheless, the more I read, the more I realised how important his voice was. His writing was personal, yet profound. He managed to weave into his work talk of literature and drama seamlessly into film discourse. That’s not to say that his writing required an informed audience - film was accessible and fun, and so was his words. Cinema didn’t have to be high-brow or elitist, but it said something about humanity. Life Itself, a sensitive and pertinent documentary about his life and final years, battling cancer, captures his humanity. By the end of its succinct two-hours run-time you feel like you are closer to Roger, and only wish you could sit with him longer.

It was February 2010 when I first heard of his illness. His first surgery for thyroid cancer was in 2002 and he had undergone relentless surgery since then – to the point that both Roger and his wife Chaz had lost count. My knowledge was through the arresting, brightly-lit portrait Esquire magazine proudly included within a revealing article. This was not the rotund, bolshie person I saw on those bonus-interviews many years before – and I couldn’t believe that this was the same person I was reading so often. Roger had undergone a major operation to remove his jaw completely. Life Itself goes one step further than the formal face in Esquire magazine. We witness ‘suction’, as tubes deliver his food straight into his neck. His mouth, a permanent warm smile, hangs gently where his chin was before. It is shocking, but as we listen to his choice of music and his type-activated voice, we pick up and feel how strong he truly is.

As the documentary uses his autobiography of the same name as a starting point, director Steve James wisely chooses to focus on key moments in his life. His upbringing. His fractitious relationship with Gene Siskel. Siskel’s death due to a brain tumour, and its impact on Roger. It includes details about Roger’s marriage to Chaz at the age of 50, and his own battle with alcoholism as a young journalist. Indeed, Ebert was no saint. As a young man, he was argumentative and pushy in the offices of The Daily Illini. We are told he could back up his demands with a genius-wit and an intelligent-insight, unlike others in the press. It doesn’t surprise us when we are told he won a Pulitzer prize. We are told his opening lines to an article regarding the death of six children in Birmingham, Alabama. Even then, he knew what to say and how to say it (I won’t reveal it hear, it’s worth waiting for). One day, the day after JFK was shot, a paper was in production. When Ebert noticed an advert across the page showing a gun directly pointing at Kennedy himself, he immediately ensured the papers didn’t hit the stands.

These were brash and defiant moves, but Ebert had the confidence and clout to make things happen. His friends, discussing his fight with alcohol explain his slow slide into addiction as he held court at the bar, with a strong drink in hand. Life Itself touches upon the controversy surrounding the simplicity of the thumbs-up/down grading system, but it is clear that through it all, this was a man whose use of language and words could only be admired – and the thumbs-up was merely a way to engage others. He could write a fully-formed film-review within thirty minutes. He could be friends with filmmaker such as Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog, but honestly criticise their art in the most brutal fashion (Check out his take-down of Scorsese’s The Color of Money). He even made a soft-core porn film in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls with Russ Meyer (of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!) - To which Scorsese uses his own cinematic-knowledge to reveal his own opinion.

As a writer who aspires to analyse film throughout the years ahead, he remains an inspiration to me. I will dissect and vainly try and understand his process of writing through visiting his blog, that remains active today as a literary monument to the man himself. Roger was a man who exclusively wrote his thoughts in his final years – and his loss is still felt as it is clear that no-one, even now, can match his talent. Six years since I began writing, I can only offer one piece of advice myself after seeing the film: watch Life Itself and read Roger Ebert.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956)


In this current era of comic-book obsessed filmmaking, the archaic trait whereby a villain is bit by/hit by/falls into radioactive elements, we automatically relate it to our current heroes. Of course, these heroes were created in the atomic age, whereby fear was rife regarding the power of nuclear energy. The atomic age not only inspired comic book heroes and villains but also impacted on cinema, providing the path for films including Forbidden Planet, Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. All of which are either due to be shown, or have been shown, at the BFI in their outstanding Sci-Fi season: Days of Fear and Wonder.

Bookended by a Cabinet-of-Dr-Caligari, mad-man narration, we’re introduced to Dr. Miles Bennett (Kevin McCarthy) in Invasion of the Body Snatcehrs. He is dishevelled and panicked. He is calmed by an investigator and he tells us his story. After he is called back home to the fictional town of Santa Mira, he begins to realise that everything isn’t what it seems. Patients were desperate to meet him, and now they are flippant about the request and claim it “was nothing”. A young boy who runs from his family argues they’ve changed – while a close friend claims the same about her own Aunt and Uncle. Dr. Bennett turns to his young love Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) and the two discuss the strange happenings. One night, they find a body that appears to be slowly becoming more human – without finger prints and appearing to be dead, Miles and Becky are confused. But it all comes to light as strange seed-like pods are found in the garden shed and, bursting open, they slowly witness the birth of these body snatchers. Miles and Becky have to escape as it is clear that Santa Mira has been overrun by these alien creatures.

It’s a story that, upon its release in 1956, clearly alluded to the political landscape. There is a palpable fear, not only of the atom, but of the communist persuasions of others. Indeed, the loss of identity and lack of humanity is considered the true evil. The horror-trait of an alien domination of the planet only serves to support the idea of a Cold War plot arguing non-American principles as a threat to society. Ironically, characters biggest fears in the film are about what they lose: “I don’t want a world without love or grief or beauty” Becky days. You could argue that in the modern world (in a capitalist, consumerist economy) these traits are eroded away for the sake of financial success.

This is what makes science-fiction so endlessly fascinating. It allegorises issues and threats to the world. Replace a social-threat with an “alien” or “monster” and you can speak honestly and bluntly about the actions and consequences of such an “invasion”. This is why so many people across the world saw 9/11 as “straight from a Hollywood movie”, as it seemed too similar to Sci-Fi films including Independence Day and Armageddon. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, at its time, represents the responses to the post-war era in the USA, and continues to be relevant to this day.

Of course, Don Siegel’s film didn’t end in the 1950’s. Its influence continues today. Whether it is in the eggs within Gremlins, or the goo seen bubbling within Cronenberg’s The Fly, Invasion of the Body Snatchers continues to act as an inspiration for low-budget, but incredibly effective, science-fiction. In fact, you can go further – the sleepy, small town with a dark past bleeds into David Lynch’s nightmarish visions of the USA; the slow but terrifying spread of a people-controlling force in Night of the Living Dead shortly over a decade later; the distrust of psychiatry or fear of what it may not be able to explain within Shock Corridor. Invasion of the Body Snatchers pre-dated them all. The plot alone continued to become relevant with remakes in the 1970’s and 1990’s (are we due another this decade?). It is core to the history of cinema, let alone science-fiction, and with so many themes embedded within its simple, but poignant, narrative, it is an endlessly, re-watchable cult-classic.   

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

150W: Scoop

Short reviews for clear and concise verdicts on a broad range of films...

Scoop (Dir. Woody Allen/2006)

Magic, death and murder are often found in Woody Allen films. Scoop is no different, as Joe Stromble (McShane), from beyond the grave, appears to reporter Sondra (Johannson) in the middle of a magician’s (Allen) show. He gives her the ‘scoop’ of a lifetime, revealing the tarot-card killer as upper-class businessman Peter Lyman (Jackman). Pretending to play Father and daughter in many scenes, Scarlett Johansson is channelling her inner Woody Allen while acting with him. This means Scoop includes two neurotic, awkward Allen-esque characters, for the price of one. Considering the previous year saw the incredibly successful Match Point mark a high-point for Allen, similarly Scoop touches on wealth and power – and how it can corrupt. Including prat-falls and deft one-liners, Allen seems to be in comfortable territory. Far from perfect, Scoop includes playful comedy and, truthfully, it’s nice to see classic Woody back to his old tricks on screen.

Rating: 5/10

Friday, 17 October 2014

35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis, 2008)

At the end of 2009, I noticed somewhat of an anomaly in Sight and Sound. Ranking the best films of the year, the magazine highlighted two films by director Claire Denis within the top ten: White Material and 35 Shots of Rum (on the festival circuit in 2008, 35 Shots was released in 2009 in the UK). In fact, 35 Shots of Rum earned joint second position alongside The Hurt Locker (The Prophet trumped both at No.1). Therefore, in a recent ‘Jim Jarmusch and Friends’ season, the BFI took the opportunity to screen the film again to celebrate her influences. And Jim Jarmusch was more than an influence too as she worked as Assistant Director on Down by Law only two years before her own directorial debut.

In the case of 35 Shots of Rum, though it focuses on relationships akin to Jarmusch, it holds a central story that evokes the quiet tenderness of Yasujirō Ozu. Living within a small, tight-knit community is Lionel (Alex Descas) and his daughter Josephine (Mati Diop). We see an evening routine as the two return home from a long day. Lionel, a widower, works on the metro while Josephine studies. Their relationship is very close and it is clear that they depend on each other. We are introduced also to a neighbour, Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue). She has feelings for Lionel, and has had these for a long time. The young man in an apartment below, Noe (Gregoire Colin), is detached and unsettled. He doesn’t know whether he is coming or going, but we know Josephine means more to him than he lets on. These four characters depend on each other and we glide through their lives and await a change – or as Roger Ebert put it in his review, a “shift”.

What makes 35 Shots of Rum so engaging is the calmness of the story. The opening moments, as Jo and Lionel busy themselves in the cramped apartment, is almost without words. In fact, the only reason we realise they are Father and daughter is the passing, flippant “Merci, Papa”, noted by many as a shock when revealed. While this personal story can be considered poetic on its own small-scale, Claire Denis hints at larger themes that have always interested her. The use of transport alludes to a different social standing between the characters. Noe drives his own car; something that Lionel seems unimpressed to hear. Lionel himself is an experienced train engineer while Gabrielle operates her own taxi. Their clear connection to public services show roots of socialism that no doubt pulls the two together. Lionel’s passing remark, “we have everything here” as Noe leaves their flat assures us that he is aware of young men and their reliance on material possessions – opposed to strong, loving relationships and the importance of playing a vital role in society. Noe’s treatment of his cat, for example, seems somewhat shocking.

But Denis doesn’t force the issue. These are nuanced characteristics that float in the back of our minds. In a city whereby hot drinks steam in the windy weather and shabby interiors are almost claustrophobic, 35 Shots of Rum feels true. A contrast between the open plains of a beach coast against the urban city mirrors Ozu’s influence further, but 35 Shots of Rum stands on its own and deserves the praise it receives. Subtle and personal, 35 Shots of Rum is a film that tells of the inevitable changes to come and its effect on a family – and the unexpected future they will have to accept.

This post was originally written for Flickering Myth

Monday, 13 October 2014

The Maze Runner (Wes Ball, 2014)

It’s true that The Maze Runner owes a debt to The Hunger Games. While it lacks the political context and Battle-Royale-survival plot, it does have a sense of fun and playful adventure that bogged down the Katniss-led series. As the first of a franchise (the sequel has been greenlit) with a trilogy of books, a prequel novel and a further novel in the works, The Maze Runner has a lot to live up to.

Using the same trope as many horror films, The Maze Runner begins with a shock. A teenager (Dylan O’Brien) is trapped in a lift. It is rising higher and higher in the dark. Loose chains rattle and mechanical noises litter the air. He looks around and coughs until he reaches the top. Opening onto a vast field, he has entered ‘The Glade’. A community led by Alby (Aml Ameen) and his second-in-command Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), this is a group of young men trapped between four towering walls. They are in the centre of ‘The Maze’.  Runners race through the labyrinth each day to map out the area but it constantly changes. Our nameless protagonist befriends a tubby-teen (Blake Cooper) and makes an enemy in “angry-face” Gally (Will Poulter), but still believes there is hope for the group to escape the dangers of the maze.

Limited primarily to a large field, grey corridors and small ramshackle tents mean that locations can be tiring and repetitive. They run down vine-covered hallways, turn a corner to reveal… another hallway. Surely a little more creativity in the context of a man-made maze wouldn’t have been a bad move? The Hunger Games hint at a world outside, while The Maze Runner locks you in. The threats within the world, named “Greavers”, are Cronenbergian creatures. Fleshy centres held up by mechanical spider-like legs mean they sprint across, above and around the walls. They’re more akin to the raptors in Jurassic Park than Shelob in Lord of the Rings. The directorial-debut from Wes Ball, this is a filmmaker who clearly looks to Spielberg and the Wachowski’s for inspiration. Many moments often hint at themes and stylistic flourishes that echo The Matrix. In both films our protagonist is trapped in a world he is desperate to escape, and there is a conflict whereby Gally has acclimatised to ‘The Glade’ in the same manner Cypher preferred the matrix.

But these comparisons are not meant as negative criticism. Clunky lines and predictable dialogue aside (“What if he doesn’t come back?”/”He’ll come back”/”But what if he doesn’t?”/”He’ll be back.”) it remains thoroughly entertaining. The characters are likeable and the story nonsensical (When Kaya Scodelario turns up she seems to only create more confusion - barely any of these "haven't-seen-a-woman-in-years" teenage boys fancy her?) , but the childish enjoyment of getting lost in a vast space of interlocking walls and rooms proves itself once again. On some level, there is game of logic at play – and this life-size puzzle is what keeps you sat in your seat, in the same way as SawCube and the final part of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire did.

The Maze Runner is flawed, as many teenage book-adaptations are (Twilight, The Hunger Games, etc), but it’s influenced by the better blockbusters (from before the comic-book take-over). The small-scale of the story is the centre-piece and it wisely hints at the larger picture in the final act only. When we meet the cliché suited woman-in-white, you know you’ve met her before but it’s all part of the fun (was she in the background of Elysium?) A diverse cast, fast-pace and boardgame-like story manages to keep you thoroughly interested. It’s like a rollercoaster – fun and fast-paced, but everything sometimes looks the same.