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30 January 2015

Film Review - Inherent Vice (2015)



Genre:
Comedy, Crime, Drama
Distributor:
Warner Bros. Pictures
Release Date:
30th January 2015(UK)
Rating: 15
Director:
Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast:
Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Katherine Waterston, Owen Wilson

Inherent Vice is the latest film by American auteur Paul Thomas Anderson. It’s also the first on screen adaptation of the work of reclusive post-modernist author Thomas Pynchon. I high doubt any other filmmaker will never adapt his work to screen again or simply have the balls to attempt to adapt one of Pynchon’s sprawling narratives.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Doc Sportello, a detective who is introduced in a haze of marijuana smoke. His ex Shasta (Katherine Waterstone) askes him to investigate the possible abduction plot of her lover Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) who is in the real estate business. However not just Mickey goes missing but Shasta does too. Doc gets involved with a cast of crazy characters and everyone is connected somehow, there are cults, drugs, politics and a dentist. At the heart of the madness there is the mysterious “The Golden Fang”. The film’s plot is deliberate incomprehensible in the way the classic Howard Hawks film The Big Sleep, it’s a film which you experience and are entertained by than necessarily following how everything and everyone is connected.

The era depicted in the film is very specifically set in the early part of the 1970; it’s a post-Altamont, Manson time and perfectly captures that Nixon era paranoia. Pynchon and his work are obsessed with the possibilities of 1960s but also that dark paranoid of the 70s culminates in the Watergate scandal in 1972. The film starts with “Vitamin C” by the Krautrock band Can and even though the song is an anachronism (it came out in 1972) it perfectly starts out this drug haze paranoid the film inhabits.

Anderson somehow pulls this all off surprisingly well, his films have always had humour but in many ways this is probably his closest attempt to doing a “comedy”. He has cited the slapstick of Zucker Brothers as key inspiration during his development of the vision for the project and the film is funnier than most comedies The cinematography by frequent collaborator Robert Elswit perfectly captures that sun drenched pot haze look of early American films of the 70s like Altman’s The Long Goodbye.

The film boosts a ensemble cast reminiscent of PTA's earlier Altmanesque films like Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Joaquin Phoenix leads the way with his mumbling stoner detective perfectly. Josh Brolin plays the flamboyant cop "Bigfoot" Bjornsen and is a total scene-stealer, their is a scene with a ice cream that is comedy gold. Owen Wilson gives quite possibly his finest performance as Coy a saxophone player with political connections and who is presumed dead. Jena Malone plays his Coy’s wife Hope and it’s a real shame she doesn’t get more interesting roles like in this. Benecio Del Toro plays Doc’s attorney and Reese Witherspoon plays a DA who Doc is having an affair with. However Martin Short in less than 10 minutes completely steals the film with his cocaine snorting womanizing dentist Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd. Singer-songwriter Joanna Newson as Doc’s imaginary friend Sortilège finally bizarrely narrates the film's proceedings.

Inherent Vice works it’s hallucinatory magic over it’s lengthy 2 and half hours. It’s too long for own good and indulgent but this can’t really be helped to the nature of the source material by Pynchon. Johnny Greenwood's score perfectly melds in-between the songs that heighten the story. The Soundtrack expertly uses songs by Neil Young ( again anachronistic) to give a feel of longing of the past that slipped away under their feet. Neil Young’s look at the time is also a massive influence on the look of Doc.

In closing Inherent Vice is absurdist stoner noir that expertly puts you in the paranoia of 1970 but also has enough humour to work as a comedy. Many viewers will not being willing to buy the ticket, take the ride as Hunter S. Thompson once wrote or will just get too annoyed by the deliberate incomprehensible narrative. However it’s one of the most daring films to come out in long time and should be applauded for that. It’s not PTA’s best film by a long mile or even possibly one of his 5 best but it’s such a rich film in style and scope it will be a film cineastes will be debating and discussing for years to come.

★★★★1/2
Ian Schultz


30 January 2015

Sundance 2015 Review - Mississippi Grind (2015)



Genre:
Drama
Venue:
Sundance 2015
Rating: 15
Director:
Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Cast:
Ben Mendelshon, Sienna Miller, Analeigh Tipton, Ryan Reynolds

Mississippi Grind, directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, tells the story of Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn), a talented but debt ridden poker player. Enter Curtis(Ryan Reynolds), a charming, charismatic traveller who plays for fun and strikes up an unlikely friendship with Gerry after discovering he might be the troubled gamblers lucky charm.

Reynolds and Mendelsohn fit together beautifully on screen, flowing around each other to share the limelight. Yet, hands down the best thing about Boden and Fleck’s fourth film is an inspired turn from rising star Ben Mendelsohn who carries the weight of the feature almost single handed. Now, that’s not to say Reynolds isn’t great, because he is, and his sense of humour is put to better use here than in most of his body of work, arguably because this is the most tender I’ve seen him in ages. Fleck and Boden have however articulated a perfect embodiment of addiction and redemption in Gerry.

Thankfully, Mississippi Grind doesn’t try to be something it’s not. It doesn’t go Ocean’s 11 and never once strides boldly into thriller territory, which it could have easily done and popped its own bubble. Instead it embraces its platform as an intimate character study, thus impressing with the pacing and visual open-minded ness of a travel film. Like its characters, it floats along, learning as it unfolds. Unfortunately there’s just not enough going on to pull the film to the next level in terms of interest. Gerry’s involvement with Alfre Woodard’s kindly but intimidating gangster/landlord (it’s never explicitly said) is one of the most intriguing drives early on, but winds up going nowhere. There would have been a way to involve her without risking the film’s laid back vibe, if only to see Mendelsohn sweat some more.

A solid and enjoyable feature with a terrific turn from a growing, and entirely deserving, star. Ben Mendelsohn cements his as a path destined for great and awards-strewn endeavours.

★★★
Scott Clark

30 January 2015

Sundance 2015 Review - Western (2015)

western

Genre:
Documentary 
Venue:
Sundance 2015 
Release:
tbc 
Directors: 
Bill Ross, Turner Ross

Brother documentarians Bill and Turner Ross turn their attentions to the Texas/ Mexico border for Western an astoundingly evocative examination of US border politics. Martin Wall, a fifth-generation cattleman, lives an idyllic existence in Eagle Pass, raising his young daughter with his friends and trading with the people of Piedras Negras. Chad Foster is a well-loved mayor and local who passionately battles the ignorance of the surrounding areas to endorse a culture-hybridity.

Western is more of a docu-drama thanks to the fly-on-the-wall style. Keeping narration and the filmmaking process out-of-the-way lets this particular, and frankly immersive, portrait play out. Like its namesake, the Ross brother’s feature plays with all the narrative clichés of a traditional western, drawing comparisons here and there to highlight how different the Piedras Negras/Eagle Pass relation is compared to seemingly every other town on the border. Not just that, but it’s an ode to a civilisation that has long stood the test of cartel influence, charging its social relations with pride, honour and a genuine sense of community.

Sadly, Western documents the shifting point in this relation: the eventual invasion of a violent front, fear mongering, scapegoating, and what effect these have on the people who call this place home. Interestingly the film slowly turns into a kind of new western, a contemporary case study in violence and racism where the old ideals of the west are disgracefully drudged up by small-minded people. Considering his town an example of what could be achieved if people stopped blaming the Mexicans for America’s problems, Foster is a fascinating and admirable figure, trying desperately to stop the engines of change. As he says, drugs come from Mexico, but where does the demand come from? By the end of the film, you, like Martin Wall, Foster, and the Ross brothers themselves, will hold the US government in contempt for allowing sheer ignorance to crush one of the few successful cross-cultural communities on the border.

A stirring piece of work, powerful and ingenuously shot with pitch-perfect editing and perfectly framed images which tell 90% of the story. By the end a dark shadow of cartel violence, along with a 49 billion dollar fence, block out the sunlight of this once beautiful community. Stellar work from the Ross brothers.

★★★★★
Scott Clark

30 January 2015

Sundance 2015 Review - Larry Kramer in Love and Anger (2015)

larry kramer

Genre:
 Documentary, Biography
Venue:
Sundance 2015 
Release:
US TV June 2015 (HBO) 
Director:
Jean Carlomusto

If you don’t know who Larry Kramer is, it’s about time you did. The outspoken (read: insanely enraged) activist was a bubbling catalyst for, not simply the gay rights movement but stemming the horrific tidal wave of death that came with the AIDS epidemic. Larry Kramer in Love and Anger is in in-depth account of Kramer’s life and the insurgence of AIDS in the 80’s and 90’s.

The most upsetting thing about Jean Carlomusto’s intimate exploration is how alone Kramer was. At the height of the gay communities’ sexual revolution, Kramer’s fiery condemnation of promiscuous behaviour (check his controversial book ‘Faggots’) was seen as an act of self-loathing, not an attempt to hold the phone whilst AIDS was better understood. Carlomusto calls upon Kramer’s life-long co-workers and fellow community members to toot the horn and celebrate a man who saw homosexuality as condemned by overt sexualisation. It’s fair point: why are gay men consistently considered more promiscuous than heterosexuals? Why does the status quo accept a lifestyle encapsulated by, as Kramer spits, ‘asses and dicks’?

If anything Carlomusto’s biopic isn't just about cementing Kramer in the public mind, but readdressing the original issues and looking back over the past 20 years of sexuality politics. In Love and Anger is about checking up on where we are, and reminding people how disgracefully a community was treated at the height of a plague (Kramer refuses to dilute the virus with the term epidemic) that killed hundreds of thousands.

It’s a stirring piece of work that lauds the life of an incredible man still currently battling his own HIV related problems, but if there’s one gripe it's that we don’t get enough time with Kramer now. His exit from hospital at the documentary’s finale seems rushed and shoehorned into an otherwise well-considered examination that will be premiered on HBO in June.

Endearingly woven together through photographic essays, clips of fierce public appearances, and interviews with then-combatants-turned-allies, Carlomusto might just introduce you to one of the most important figures of American socio-politics in the past 50 years.

★★★★
Scott Clark

30 January 2015

Sundance 2015 Review - Reversal (2015)



Genre:
Horror, Thriller
Venue:
Sundance 2015
Rating: 18
Director:
José Manuel Cravioto
Cast:
Richard Tyson, Amy Okuda, Tina Ivlev

Eve (Tina Ivlev) has been chained in a dismal basement for some time, the victim of an obsessive sexual predator, Phil (Richard Tyson), who treats her like his pet. Against the grain of the average horror feature, Jose Manuel Cravioto’s Reversal sees its punchy heroine brutally escape in the opening minutes and -you guessed it-reverse the situation. Breaking a deal with her abusive captor, Eve sets out on a night of horror to save her fellow victims from dens across town.

Say what you like about the film’s execution and dodgy subject matter, but the opening is a joyous feat, the kind of cathartic event that you rarely get in a film this heavy. Ivlev shines as cunning horror heroine Eve. Usually you break your voice screaming at the screen, but Eve is made of tougher stuff, never turning her back on her piggish captor, keeping a gun aimed at open doorways whilst she’s in the shower, rigging a leash for Phil, going to great lengths to ensure her safety. Its sharp and it’s a pleasure to watch.

But where the hell did she learn all this survival knowledge? Why is she so driven? We don’t get an answer to the first, and the reply to the second is a lacklustre attempt at deeper engagement. There were better ways to round off the story and cement Eve as a complex but entertaining horror figure.

Cravioto keeps the energy high and the camera moving, but not so quick we don’t get to take in all the awful details. Cinematographer Byron Werner maintains a perfectly grimy aesthetic that puts the Saw films to shame, whilst Simon Boswell's industrial/classic horror film scoring proves vastly uncomfortable on the way down the rabbit hole. There’s some interesting visual flare, least in the erratic editing and searing flashbacks, more so in Adriana Serano’s production design. Eve moves through sickly decrepit urban environments, houses like prisons lit in hues of green and burnt orange, but after a stint in a neon sex dungeon the film seems to stop worrying about how its locales look.

An odd appearance at Sundance 2015, Reversal is a cathartic, transfixing, and gruelling horror venture, with a terrific turn from lead Tina Ivlev and a despicable one from Richard Tyson. Cravioto’s debut English feature shows great visual/narrative potential and for the most part delivers, but some people will be dismayed by the film’s bold yet slightly dumb final scenes and its basic repetitive structure.

★★★1/2
Scott Clark

30 January 2015

Sundance 2015 Review - Knock Knock (2015)


Genre:
Horror, Thriller
Distributor:
Lionsgate (tbc)
Rating: 18
Release Date:
2015
Director:
 Eli Roth  
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Ana de Armas, Lorenza Izzo,Collen Clump, Aaron Burns

Oh boy, where to start.

First off, Knock Knock is Eli Roth’s fifth and arguably most accomplished feature to date, redeeming his CV after hollow hark-back cannibal flick, The Green Inferno.

Roth seems to be firing on all cylinders, assaulting the viewer with a cocktail of bad taste super cringe-cum-deviously dark comic thriller. Funny Games plays inspiration as Evan, a loving well-to-do family man is left home alone by his adorable family for the weekend. During a rainstorm two stupidly attractive girls turn up at his door and from there it all goes very very wrong.

I think a film like this will really surprise people with how far it’s willing to go to get our goat, pushing the envelope further and further until you’re a bit of a wreck. There’s cringe, then there’s Knock Knock. Roth orchestrates a weekend of chaos, encapsulating so many contemporary fears in the bodies of two sirens so brutally whimsical they feel like updated Greek archetypes.

The target is the male audience, actualizing their worst nightmares. The message is shaky at points: working class underage girls with daddy issues terrorize a one-percenter with male rape, domestic abuse, torture, and blackmail. It’s all part and parcel of Roth’s ever-so-slightly sexist vibe, but at least this time round his characters refrain from dealing out ignorant homophobic sentiments.

Keanu Reeves arguably delivers the performance of his career pushing his particular brand of crazy further than he did in his directorial debut Man of Thai Chi and proving a more relatable character than his turn in the preposterously good John Wick. Lorenza Izzo shines here as charismatically insane Genesis, taking full advantage of an actual character, something she was cheated out of back in The Green Inferno.

Roth is also at his most technically viable, keeping visual and narrative in perfect synchronicity here ensures that for the first time in years the tension is palpable and the stakes are overwhelmingly high. The soundtrack is original and pretty cool, but disappoints by using Fight Club-famed Pixies’ song Where is My Mind? in its final gruelling, hilarious, and heart-breaking scenes.

A thrilling, overly upsetting venture that hits all the right notes and sports a titanic Reeves performance, Roth is back on top form with this tightly wound psychological horror/home invasion narrative. When you leave Knock Knock, you’ll be praying that this kind of shit never happens to you.

★★★★
Scott Clark


30 January 2015

Blu-ray Review - Thief (1981)



Genre:
Crime drama
Distributor:
Arrow
Rating:18
Director:
Michael Mann
Cast:
James Caan, Robert Prosky, Tuesday Weld
Buy: Blu-ray - Thief (1981)

Michael Mann is a director I have a love/hate problem with. Sometimes he makes solid crime thrillers like Heat and Manhunter, and the occasional interesting drama like The Insider. However, he also made one of the worst cinematic experiences of my life - the Miami Vice film. Also, Public Enemies aesthetic choice in using digital instead of film ruined it for me. He did however made one and out masterpieces, including his debut feature film Thief starring James Caan.

Thief is an existential heist film that is a kind of gap between the downer films of the 70s, and the more slick neon films of the 1980s (it came out in 1981). James Caan plays the experienced jewel thief Frank and at the beginning, takes down a massive diamond score. The problem however, is that the potential jewel buyer is thrown out of a window, dies, and his murderers take his money. Frank meets the people responsible and after some negotiation he agrees to do one job for the Godfather-type character of the operation, Leo (Robert Prosky). Frank is also desperate to leave a life of crime and loneliness to settle down with Jessie (Tuesday Weld) but as usual with these types of films, nothing is that simple.

James Caan has never been this good since, and Caan himself has cited the film as one of his very favourites in the interview included on the blu-ray. He perfectly captures the loneliness of the character, and also the undaunted nihilism Frank contains. Caan also has true cinematic chemistry with Tuesday Weld, but when he has to sacrifice himself for his new family’s safety he goes full on nihilist anti-hero. It also includes some strong supporting roles from James Belushi as his partner in crime, and Willie Nelson as his father like figure.

Michael Mann’s style is fully formed with this film. He used real thieves as technical advisors on the film and it shows, as there is a meticulous eye for detail. The photography by Donald E. Thorin is the most impressive of any of Mann’s work, it’s use of neons, short tracking shots, and light and shadow gives it a heightened reality that is reminiscent of later films like Drive. However, this also may be down to the restoration that has had some serious colour correction work done. I sometimes struggle with the acclaim for Mann as some master of mise-en-scène, but in this case I'm a believer. It also features a pulsating synthesizer score by Tangerine Dream and besides the earlier Sorcerer, never has their music suited a film so well.

Arrow Video may have done the impossible and actually outdone Criterion’s earlier release. It includes a fantastic newly filmed interview with James Caan. It also includes a vintage French documentary on James Caan, filmed around the release of Thief, and a massively impressive hour long examination of Thief by critic F.X Feeney. The Directors episode on Michael Mann is also included; I personally find this series not very insightful on a director’s work, but we can expect more of them as they will be included on some of Arrow’s upcoming releases. It also includes the theatrical cut where the colour scheme of the film is vastly different, and the old laserdisc commentary with Michael Mann and James Caan.

In closing, Arrow has compiled a fantastic package for Michael Mann’s finest film, some may like Heat more but Thief is the darker, less glossy, and more pessimistic film, and is definitely better for it. The comparisons of Arrow to the American label The Criterion Collection are justified with releases like this.

★★★★★
Ian Schultz


29 January 2015

Blu-ray Review - Maps to the Stars (2014)



Genre:
Drama, Dark Humour
Distributor:
Entertainment One Uk
Rating:18
Director:
David Cronenberg
Cast:
Mia Wasikowska, Julianne Moore, John Cusack, Evan Bird
Buy:Maps To The Stars [Blu-ray] [2014]


Maps to the Stars is the latest film by Canadian maestro David Cronenberg and it happens to be one of the finest films of his long and illustrious career. It is a much more accessible film after the brilliant, but deliberately alienating and experimental Cosmopolis. It’s also the latest in a line of great statements on the Hollywood experience made by outsiders, and happens to be the first film he has made partly shot in the US.

Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) arrives in LA by bus and hires wannabe actor-turned-limo-driver Jerome, (Robert Pattinson) and together they go to the old house of child star Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird). Benjie’s father is the TV faith  healer Stafford (John Cusack) who is treating the ageing screen actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore). Havana is the daughter of an old film starlet who died under mysterious circumstances, and she wants to star in a remake of one of her mother’s old films. Everyone is connected and incest is involved in more ways than one.

Bruce Wagner, who is best known for his absolutely savage depictions of Hollywood (and this is no exception) has written the script. There are more great lines in the film’s 111 minute running time than a number of films that came out in 2014 combined. It has an air of pure savagery - that is so rare in not only Hollywood cinema, but also the independent realm - which is very refreshing, and just perfectly stabs a much deserved dagger right into the heart of Hollywood. It’s no wonder Wagner also wrote the savage, romantic satire on Scientology, mini-series Wild Palms, again set in LA.

The stand out performance everyone is talking about is Julianne Moore’s as Havana Segrand and deservingly so. She has rarely been better, and certainly not this wild and twisted. She perfectly captures the vanity of Hollywood, but also she has this pain, and nobody can quite get to the levels of screaming that she does in this. Despite all the screen chewing (in a good way), she grounds it with just enough humanity to make her character sympathetic at times. She got a well-deserved Golden Globe nomination, but shamefully got snubbed at the Oscars, however she did win the Best Actress at Cannes, so it just goes to show that the Oscars aren't the be all and end all. Her victory lap singing Bananarama’s “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” has to be seen to believed.

Despite Julianne Moore’s towering performance, much should be said for the other performances from the main cast. John Cusack hasn't been this good in a long time, and hopefully with this and the upcoming Brian Wilson biopic, we might have a Cusackaissance after lots of work in direct to DVD films. Mia Wasikowska has a slightly skewed quality that perfectly fits her role. She has a had an impressive year with this, The Double, and the much celebrated Tracks, and again proves she is one of the most impressive young actresses around. Robert Pattinson proves again, like in Cosmopolis, that he is much more than just the guy from Twilight. Olivia Williams plays Cusack’s wife Cristina, and is just as wicked and twisted as everyone else. Carrie Fisher also shows up as herself.

Cronenberg, despite being old enough to be my grandfather, is one of the most exciting and unexpected directors on the planet. He has never made a film as long as 2 hours (despite coming close many times), and is in a career in it’s 6th decade. He may have moved on from the body horror of his early films, but the horror has now become internal. The cinematography by frequent collaborator Peter Suschitzky is as gorgeous and graceful as expected from him.

Maps to the Stars is practically a flawless satire on the Hollywood Dream and the death of it. The only flaw comes at the end with some dodgy CGI fire, but everything else is done so perfectly executed an excuse can’t be made in this case. Not since David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive has there been a film that nails Hollywood so perfectly. If you don’t trust my opinion, John Waters named it as his film of 2014.


★★★★★
Ian Schultz





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