Tag Archives: review

Get On Up | review

Get On Up

by Ashley Clark

[Editor’s note: an edited version of this review first appeared in the October issue of Sight & Sound Magazine, which hit shelves in early September. The film’s UK release was put back a couple of months after the mag went to print, so the review was unfortunately published way ahead of schedule.]

With his debut The Help (2011) — a whimsical, formally conservative Driving Miss Daisy for the ‘post-racial’ generation — director Tate Taylor offered little indication that he’d be the most appropriate choice to bring the life of the electrifying, pioneering funk musician James Brown to screen. Yet within moments, any notion that Taylor has played it similarly safe are up in smoke; PCP smoke, to be precise.

Get On Up begins in Atlanta in 1988, where an evidently high Brown (Chadwick Boseman, giving an energetic and charismatic performance), clad in a green velour tracksuit, marches into his offices, and reacts furiously upon discovering that an interloper has had the nerve to use his toilet: a transgression he can discern by the lingering smell (“Which one of you gentle folks hung a number two in my commode?”) Brown fires his shotgun into the ceiling, reprimands the culprit, then stares straight down the camera in a baroquely Brechtian flourish, beckoning us to join him on his journey of memory. Repurposing this bizarre incident — which allegedly really happened — constitutes a boldly disarming way to kick off a major Hollywood biopic, and is curiously microcosmic of what follows: a portrait that’s irreverent, loose and often fun; but also deeply strange, chronically indisciplined and never quite serious enough about its subject.

Beginning with Brown at his lowest point might imply that a traditional rags-to-riches-to-rags arc is to come, but Taylor and British screenwriters Jez and John Henry Butterworth (who wrote the recent, chronologically playful blockbuster Edge of Tomorrow) fashion an elastic narrative which, initially at least, places proceedings closer to experimental cinema than any traditional biopic template. Key influences seem to be Shirley Clarke’s Ornette: Made in America (1985), an elliptical documentary about the saxophonist Ornette Coleman, which uses an actor to portray its subject as a small child in flashbacks; and Francois Girard’s Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993), in which discrete stories clatter together to conjure an impressionistic vision of its enigmatic pianist subject. In its first 20-or-so minutes, the equally impressionistic Get On Up hops from Vietnam in 1968 (where a boisterous Brown arrives to play music, and harangue the U.S. Army), to dreamlike passages of a troubled childhood in 1939 Alabama, where alcoholism, abuse, and nebulously-rendered racism lurk in the shadows. We then jump from a 1964 support gig by Brown’s first band for The Rolling Stones, to a press conference at an airport (a scenario which is frequently returned to, and acts as the closest thing the film has to a framing device.) The filmmakers’ desire to do something different with the form is laudable, but the bizarre editing and wild tonal oscillations prove exhausting rather than exhilarating.

The film’s bells, whistles, smoke and mirrors ultimately render Brown an enigma, but Boseman’s nuanced performance at least hints at his character’s transformation from cocky, gauche extrovert into a shark-like businessman who’s as much of a performer offstage as on it. It’s telling (perhaps also of the filmmakers’ priorities) that the sudden death of Brown’s manager, Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd) is depicted as the single life event that hits Brown the hardest. The death of Brown’s son Teddy in 1973, by contrast, is skirted over in quite literally a matter of seconds, while the portrayal of his relationship with wife Deirdre (Jill Scott) is comically undercooked. If it is Brown who’s supposed to be telling this story, as the inconsistently-applied fourth-wall breakage implies, it never feels like he has much control over it. Sometimes, the use of the straight-to-camera gambit is downright bewildering, such as the late scene where Brown punches his wife in the face, then wanders up to the camera and stares at the viewer with a gormless expression.

Get On Up‘s biggest flaw — other than the rather pedestrian nature of its musical sequences, and a tendency to suggest Brown’s signature talent was somehow magical rather than the result of militaristically rigorous practice — is its failure to engage directly with why Brown meant so much to African-American audiences in the politically tumultuous 1960s and 70s. Brown was a complex, contradictory figure — he considered arch-segregationist and South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond a mentor figure — but his commitment to black self-actualisation was unambiguous and influential. One snippet of ‘Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud’, and a couple of shots of Brown sporting a dashiki hardly suffice. The filmmakers (a white director and two white screenwriters) have the time to include cosily apologetic jokes about the white appropriation, and misunderstanding of, black culture, but they’d have been better served tackling what made Brown’s black audiences tick.

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Blackfish | Review

At least the whale knew what he was doing.

At least the whale knew what he was doing.

By Ed Wall

Is Blackfish a film with a message but no meaning, or a film with a meaning but no message?

Although it’s not immediately obvious which of these dubious honours it might have garnered, the result is certainly not particularly impressive. Bursting with information, it singularly fails to cohere – a weak sum of potentially strong, individually compelling parts. You suspect that, had there been anyone on board with the same amount of passion for the subject as the makers of, say, 2009’s The Cove [Louie Psihoyos’ angry interrogation of Japan’s dolphin hunting culture], the result might have been a very different kettle of whale.

The purported subject of this mixed bag is Tilikum, resident of SeaWorld in Orlando Florida, the largest Orca in captivity and to this date responsible (depending on one’s definition of responsibility) for the deaths of at least three people. Through a combination of historical footage, interviews and data, director Gabriela Cowperthwaite attempts to profile Tilikum both as individual and in the wider context of ‘the industry’ of whale-based amusement parts, from shady, frontier-like beginnings in the 1970s to the current SeaWorld-dominated landscape.

As a spin on the typical documentary format, Tilikum’s story is covertly presented as a kind of murder mystery/court case. It’s an unnecessary piece of directorial artifice, and the noose by which the film hangs itself. Cowperthwaite is a weak prosecutor, unable (or unwilling) to take a position beyond some bland notion of ‘objectivity’. In this context, the form is pointless; a purely superficial touch.

Cowperthwaite is a veteran of a particular breed of televisual documentaries, having worked for some of the big names (National Geographic, Animal Planet, ESPN, The Discovery Channel) in the past. There’s something in her style that’s vaguely, uneasily, reminiscent of the parades of cable TV documentaries you might flick through at hotel stopovers. There’s an indistinct impression of disinterest in the way she approaches the subject matter; some mercenary element that’s more focused on presentation and graphics than content. This commitment to superficiality imbues some weak information with too much significance, and sucks the life out of the stronger material.

While the film is happy to (rightly) suggest SeaWorld is to blame for a lack of compassion and common sense in relation to the treatment of its water-bound behemoths, the question of motivations is never explored. In an identikit series of inane interviews with wide-eyed former trainers, Cowperwaithe steadfastly refuses to pin any of them down on where exactly they think they might fit into the tragic picture as a whole.

Bar one square-headed nutter who, employing a logic that’s so perverse it’s almost laudable, tries to claim that whales performing like trained dogs for crowds of baying humans constitutes man honouring nature, one after another of these former SeaWorld devotees spit near-identical repentant/outraged tidbits. As though the goons in a fallen dictatorship had been given the platform on which to absolve themselves, Cowperwaithe presents this parade of disembodied characters spilling words and tears, tears and words – as though there was no inherent value in making sure any of it was honest.

Of all the individuals interviewed, the one who emerges from the film with the most credit is the rather brilliantly named Dave Duffus, an expert witness for OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) in the case brought by the US government against SeaWorld’s working conditions after the last of Tilikum’s ‘accidents’. Duffus’ clear respect for Orca whales and his palpable anger at the whole sorry business transcends Cowperthwaithe’s lame ‘neutrality’. Oddly, it also means that, amid the confusion, he stands out in the film to a degree that makes him feel more central than Tilikum.

As a piece of documentary filmmaking I’m pretty sure it is, if not a total failure, then at least a weak specimen of the genre. On the other hand, the agenda it has little or no interest in using its scattergun stack of information to fully support is one that a lot of the people who will end up seeing it already subscribe to: that keeping animals in a state of captivity is inhumane. As one of these viewers it’s a challenge to know how to react. Your instinct is to agree, but something makes you hesitate. It’s like watching Bono preaching about the plight of children in Africa, but with the nagging suspicion he bought an extra first class seat on the plane for his hat.

It’s confusing, painful to watch, when someone with no clear view of which field they’d rather be in positively hurls themselves onto the fence in the apparent name of objectivity, writhing around for an hour and a half before ascending to that beige heaven reserved solely for those who were pure enough to desire purgatory. SeaWorld representatives, naturally, declined to be interviewed for the film. Given the all-forgiving tolerance of the interviews here, they might now be feeling that they missed a trick.

Frances Ha | Review

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By Ed Wall

Looking back as the credits roll on this touching and open-hearted NYC-set comedy/drama, it’s startling to think that the opening scenes could ever have felt so dubious. Something about the eponymous protagonist’s self-aware manner in those first few minutes really seems designed to rub the viewer up the wrong way. At this point, the near future looks bleak – an uphill slog through a bandwagon-jumping Brooklynite yarn. Will this be utterly, unbearably pretentious? Is Frances the epitome of annoying? You’re prepared to hate it. And then it surprises you.

Given director Noah Baumbach’s history, his documented perfectionism and meticulous use of openings to misdirect the viewer’s expectations in his prior films, you’d imagine this has been an intentionally cheeky manipulation. As important as first impressions usually are, Frances excels at not making – and then transcending not making – a good one. You fall for her, and for the film, rather despite yourself.

Although the film is set in the apparent hub of hipster culture right now, Gerwig’s Frances doesn’t easily fit any conceivable definition of cool. A reactive rather than proactive person, she’s a little lost, but not particularly concerned about it. She’s lazy, and spends time (as do a lot of us) talking about what she should be doing. Most of her flaws constitute what make her loveable: she’s a bit of a goofball, often quite annoying (but in a sweet way, unlike the character of Poppy in Mike Leigh’s irritating Happy-Go-Lucky, for example), has no self-censorship and no awareness of when she’s crossing the line with other people. As a character she feels intensely real, and Gerwig (co-writer of the film) plays her beautifully, with just the right amount of confusion and vulnerability hidden under the apparent spacey lack of awareness.

Fran’s friendship with Sophie (an impressive Mickey Sumner) constitutes Frances Ha‘s central relationship. As Frances refuses to meet her impending thirties head-on, the pair start to drift apart – a plot thread which accounts for much of the film’s emotional impact and dramatic tension. It’s also a blessed relief to see a contemporary comedy focused almost exclusively on a single female lead that isn’t ultimately concerned with the male love interest; the brilliantly casual way in which Frances casts off her first boyfriend is a good indication of the film’s lack of interest in her sex life.

In a number of ways, Frances and the film mirror each other. Frances is often casual to the point of being non-present, and while Frances Ha is ostensibly a comedy, its humour is often so low-key as to seem almost unintentional. This is a definite strength, in that it never seems to be actively looking for laughs. Baumbach’s choice to shoot in black and white doesn’t feel like an act of pretension so much as a Frances-like avoidance of having to choose colour schemes (although the film is visually rich, in a nicely understated way). It’s also brilliantly edited. Frances’ daily activities, often used as bridges between scenes, are briskly summated in montage-style vignettes which cut in and out of random exchanges and personal moments. In keeping with the film’s winning combination of frothiness and mild spikiness, these sequences at once lightly mock and highlight the bizarreness of peoples’ routines and behaviours. By making these observations awkward by robbing them of their immediate context, the film portrays life as a series of random, beautiful but ultimately meaningless instances. Yet, of course, the meaninglessness is what makes it all interesting.

I must admit I found the film emotionally affecting in a way I rarely find. Frances’ willingness, in the end, to open herself up to ridicule perhaps won my sympathies. If Lena Dunham’s fantastic Tiny Furniture (2011) was a film that encapsulated the knowingness of being in your early twenties, Frances Ha is definitely older, more world-weary, but conversely also more openly optimistic. It’s something like a pep talk to dreamers. The possibility of failure manifests throughout the film, daunting, concrete. And yet Frances’ steadfast refusal to allow that reality to exist (despite it so obviously existing) means the chance of a lucky break never seems beyond her. We create our own luck, it says, through an insane, bloody-minded refusal to believe there is no such thing as failure.

Frances Ha is in cinemas from Friday courtesy of Metrodome Pictures. Contributor Ed Wall can be followed on Twitter @edward1wall.

This Is The End | review

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Reviewed by Ed Wall

Loosely based on their 2007 short Jay and Seth vs. the Apocalypse, comedy-writing team Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have reimagined the End of Days from the perspective of a group of friends trapped in James Franco’s Hollywood home. As the Apocalypse rages outside, the group (Rogen, Franco, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson, Jonah Hill and Danny McBride) must come to terms with themselves, their friendships and the total, unequivocal destruction of everything ever. Cue the dick jokes.

The cast is essentially a reunion of stars from earlier Rogen/Goldberg films, all friends in real life, and fully prepared to take the piss out of themselves by playing up to the common (negative) public opinion of A-list celebrities. They clearly had a lot of fun making this, which translates best in extended scenes of dialogue rather than the later CGI horror/action sequences. The film’s strengths naturally lie in the sharpness with which the character relationships are portrayed. Male friendship and bonding rituals have always been a big focus in the pair’s writing, and they’re particularly astute at revealing the nuances in male egos that make their characters feel solidly human. In the wrong hands This Is The End might have slipped into lowest common denominator gross-out territory, but Rogen and Goldberg provide customary vital touches of warmth and sadness. Like their other efforts it’s also genuinely funny, their expert way with a cutting put-down shining especially brightly here.

Where the film falls down slightly is in the concept, which is initially interesting, but ultimately tiring. There’s the gnawing impression that Rogen and Goldberg weren’t wholly clear where to take the idea, and that the clearly sizeable budget allowed for too much. The first disaster sequences are actually pretty tense, the shocks real. But herein lies the problem; if you’re going to start a film with tension it becomes obvious when the tension is lost. Much of the plot outside of the house in the later stages is half-baked – as though everything around the original scenario has been more or less tacked on. Rogen and Goldberg don’t seem interested in developing the setup in unexpected ways and thus come to rely heavily on star cameos to carry through the lulls. Besides that, the film slips into self-indulgence fairly easily. What you end up with is a movie that looks at first like a blockbuster, feels for a good while like a joke between friends, and then sputters around in the final third like a balloon that’s not been tied at the end, finishing (probably like the earth itself will) with a whimper, not a bang.

At the end of the days though (honk!) this is an enjoyable and very funny addition to the Superbad/Pineapple Express collection of US comedies with a bit more bite; perfect fodder, in our globally warmed times, for the excruciating and pathetic death-whimper of the British summer.

This Is The End is in cinemas from Friday. Contributor Ed Wall can be followed on Twitter @edward1wall

The Spirit of ’45 | review

the_spirit_of_45_dogwoof_copyright_bfi“The terrain is strewn with ideological rubble, and it’s there to be fought over.” – Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism

When the sweet, feel-good The Angel’s Share was released in 2012, critics all asked – where has Britain’s foremost firebrand and social realist gone, at a time when we most need him? Well, he’s returned. Well and truly.

Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ’45 is a wonderful, unremitting archival documentary that steadfastly refuses to sit on the fence. What are we doing?, it asks. What next? Bold, political and polemical, it dares to make an explicit case for change, reminding us of a time in the not-too-distant past when a set of ideals helped build a welfare state which many of us now take for granted as it is insidiously dismantled while we look the other way, distracted by one-eyed dancing mascots and an old woman in the rain.

The Spirit of ’45 grabs our attention. It raids the riches of the British archives and reconstructs a narrative, which – if selective – is nonetheless compelling: The post-war election, the rise of the labour party, Churchill’s decline and Attlee’s exciting rise to power, the nationalisation of utilities and major industry, the beginnings of a truly socialist Labour party manifesto. It goes on. Figures clouded in public memory are re-animated, the most moving being Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevan, the health minister who championed the working classes in the post-war years. Cut with interviews with retired doctors, economists, Tony Benn (a category of his own), miners, dockers, steel workers – all of whom witnessed the seemingly tectonic social changes of the ‘40s– Loach mines the archives of a British social conscience now obscured by neoliberal rhetoric.

It is, of course, a re-dreaming of post-war British public space, but in its nostalgia the film prompts us to discover what shared future we’ve lost. As an old steel-worker describes the council housing he was given after the war, and quotes from the Labour party manifesto appear onscreen, declaring that public space for culture and education should be integrated into the new estates, Loach prompts us to ask; if this was possible in the ruins of the great war, what fallacies have led us into this age of austerity? What ideology dressed up as pragmatism have we believed (or been too inert protest against) that has led us to see police battering students over education, deep cuts to welfare, and public spaces and institutions being treated like businesses, when any cretin can see that the logic of business and capital is a broken, vicious ill to society.

Some critics will call the film propagandist (for example), which it undoubtedly is. But it couldn’t be anything other, for as Mark Fisher writes in Capitalist Realism, “it is impossible to conceive or fascism of Stalinism without propaganda – but capitalism can proceed perfectly well, in some ways better, without anyone making a case for it”. The Spirit of ’45 – a socialist, collectivist spirit – can only be presented now in these terms, because capitalism is the all-pervasive norm. Despite an astronomic crash in 2008, and as countries in the EU fall, one by one, our policymakers and politicians blindly lead us further into the mire. Loach’s film dares to expose this as pure ideology, not simply the sorry necessity of the status quo, and for this the film should be celebrated, and beamed to every home in the country.

Contributor Basia Lewandowska Cummings can be followed on Twitter @mishearance. The Spirit of ’45 is released in cinemas 15 March by Dogwoof

For Ellen | review

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Writer-director So Young Kim’s slow-paced indie film For Ellen centres around a struggling rock musician, Joby Taylor (Paul Dano), and his relationship (or more accurately, his lack thereof) with his daughter Ellen. The film’s title is a bit misleading in that way – actually, Joby hardly knows his daughter Ellen, and knows even less about what he’d do for her.

We first encounter him fecklessly driving through the snow to a remote town, taking a break from his rock career to finalise legal issues with his ex. The lawyers expect him to sign a settlement without much fuss; everyone except him seems to know the score. He’s been absent and his ex wants it all finished – she’ll only speak to him through her lawyer. Joby expected half of everything – the house and joint custody – but the settlement is for half the house and no rights to his daughter. We watch him caught out as he drags his feet, trying to understand what he’s signing away.

Joby’s visage, tightly framed, dominates the screen throughout the film, but Dano’s baby face is associated with very different characters from the one he plays here. His roles playing thoughtful, sometimes broken men in Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood and Meek’s Cutoff perfectly suited his serious intensity and otherworldly look. In contrast, Joby is a mere shell of a man, a quietly passive, stammering and undemonstrative figure, meant to be a kind of deadbeat-dad-everyman.

Though Dano’s not a natural-looking gritty rocker – he’s got emo stamped all over him – he deserves credit for a committed performance out of his comfort zone. His unfocused moping, awkward sullenness, chipped nail polish, penchant for checking his hair all create a recognisable character – just not a terribly entertaining or relatable one that evokes much pathos. The best scenes show Joby struggling to connect with his young daughter, which are realistic and charming, but all too brief.

In order to be gripped by the story, we’d have to care about Joby on his own, and that’s not made easy. Kim’s script provides few details about Joby’s backstory and his relationship with his ex – no flashbacks, just a few broad references – which doesn’t help Dano. It’s clear that Joby is limited and not particularly deep by design, but unfortunately, the film feels just as confined and shallow as its main character.

In addition to featuring muted characters and sparse dialogue, even the film’s locations are barren and character-less. There’s no local colour to enliven the scenes – in fact, there’s no clear sense of time or place. The Coen Brothers utilised the snowy wasteland setting brilliantly in Fargo, imbuing the landscape with significance and even humour. But in For Ellen, the snow just seems to signify blankness. Again, perhaps this is meant to bolster Joby’s own emptiness, or make his story more universal, to represent all deadbeat dads – but the result is monotony. If the film had a stronger style, either in the rhythms of the dialogue or visually, that could have filled in some of the blanks; but Joby’s story is mostly shot like a fly-on-the-wall documentary, with little scope for narrative expansion.

A relative bright spot is Joby’s lawyer, played by Jon Heder of Napoleon Dynamite fame, also against type; though he’s a deadpan character, he still has more vibrancy than anyone else in the film, save for Ellen herself (Shaylena Mandingo) during her more carefree moments. Those two provide the only injections of energy and purpose in an otherwise painfully quiet, sluggish film. For Ellen presents a minimalist, mundane sketch of Joby rather than a finished, evocative portrait – it leaves you feeling like you were owed more for your time.

For Ellen is released in cinemas on Friday 15 February.

Ballroom Dancer | review

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You may have never seen ballroom dancing in person, but you’ve probably seen Strictly Come Dancing (or Dancing with the Stars, if you’re in the US) and noticed that it’s actually really difficult. In addition to remembering all the steps, you’ve got to be fit, you’ve got to make it look meaningful, and you’ve got to trust your dancing partner. Ballroom Dancer is a documentary about a professional duo, Slavik Kryklyvyy (go on, say it) and Anna Melnikova, struggling with all the aforementioned things, under enormous pressure – they’ve just gotten romantically involved with each other, and this is Slavik’s last chance at a comeback after ten years out of contention.

Slavik reminds me of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Swedish footballer – yes, they’re both of Eastern European descent and happen to wear their long dark hair slicked back into a knot, but they both have an intense, virtuosic charisma about them, possibly informed by their martial arts training. Slavik lives and breathes dance, an exacting perfectionist about his craft; but at 34, he’s intent on proving that he’s not past his prime. Anna is younger and certainly in her prime, as the current amateur Latin champion; she’s formidable yet vulnerable, and struggles to cope with Slavik’s anxieties and dominance of their relationship.

Their romantic and professional partnership is the centre of the film, slanted towards the perspective of Slavik. We often see the two in their hotel room hanging out in addition to seeing them during rehearsals and competitions, so we can observe their chemistry and communication candidly, on and off the dance floor. We come to know their individual personalities through observing their separate physical and mental preparations for competitions; Slavik pushes himself to breaking point, while Anna seems to be more circumspect. Their egos clash constantly, and we see them striving to negotiate between their individual needs and the needs of their partnership. Anna exasperatingly comments during one argument that if you don’t want to deal with partners or emotion, ballet rather than Latin would be a better fit.

The film is an intimate portrait of the couple, going far beyond the usual fly-on-the-wall perspective of documentaries to construct a character-driven narrative. We’ve got Big Brother-like access to their lives, augmented by the candid reflections shared with their coaches and trainers (so there’s no need for anyone to speak directly to camera). The Danish directors, Andreas Koefoed and Christian Bonke, say the film was ‘shot as cinema verite but [was] edited like fiction’ and indeed, while watching Ballroom Dancer, it’s almost surreal to think that there was no script, that these are real people and this actually happened between them. It doesn’t hurt that they’re both attractive and emotive, like hired actors, but it’s the authenticity of their story that’s so compelling – this isn’t light, Dirty Dancing-like fare. Ballroom Dancer’s brutally honest depiction of a couple’s struggles is refreshing to see onscreen, whether you like ballroom dancing or not.

Ballroom Dancer is out in selected cinemas now. Contributor Cathy Landicho can be followed on Twitter @ConfusedAmateur.