Wednesday, 8 February 2017

January Film Roundup - Part 1

     Having left it a bit too late for reviews or discussions of each individual film, instead I thought I would collect all of my January big screen visits into one article.
     So behold! The January Film Roundup!

(Upon writing this however, things got quite long so I ended up splitting it into two parts.)

      Martin Scorsese returns to our screens with his reputedly ‘decades in the making’ passion project, an adaptation of Endo Shusaku’s novel of the same name - largely concerning the persecution of Christians in 17th century ‘Sakoku’ (isolated) Japan.
      Or to put it in simpler terms: Spider-man and Kylo Ren are dispatched on a mission to find the whereabouts of missing Qui-Gon Jinn after rumours that he had abandoned the way of the Force.

      In all seriousness though, not only is the material handled well, the film is also beautiful to look at. The rural vistas of Japan especially look gorgeous - from the wild sea to the foggy mountains and muddy villages. Visually it’s a feast. Good performances all round too, despite the weird ‘Portuguese’ accented English that is occasionally a bit off-putting (after a while it feels like they just give up trying), but that's only a minor gripe.

      The numerous torture scenes, long running time and occasionally overly ponderous tone may be a turn-off for some – but it’s an interesting and thought provoking watch. Not a Scorsese ‘masterpiece’ in my book, but a passion project that features some great performances – especially from the Japanese actors, in particular Tadanobu Asano (The Interpreter) and Issei Ogata (The Inquisitor).

The Big Question: Is this a pro-Catholic faith message movie?
     Not nesse-celery. Although the film starts out with the ‘Kirishtans’ being portrayed as an unjustly persecuted minority, there is plenty of ambiguity throughout on the subject of faith and interesting questions are continually brought up as the story goes on.

      For example: is the deafening silence of God in the face of all this suffering, proof that he is not a merciful and loving God? Is it right that these priests refuse to renounce their faith, despite their actions directly leading to the continued suffering of many others? Have these missionaries misled these poor villagers and given them a skewed message of hope in a context of salvation that they don't really understand? Is the culture ‘swamp’ of Japan such that a monotheistic religion with all its included beliefs are fundamentally incompatible and simply cannot take root - and to relentlessly pursue these missions would be a futile affair? Are these missionaries in fact more like invaders to a foreign land, blinded by their pride and self righteousness?

      It’s not all as cut and dry as it first seems – which makes it all the more fascinating to watch.

      A faithful adaptation of the Patrick Ness novel of the same name, A Monster Calls is about a young boy who is experiencing loss and is struggling to process all these overwhelming feelings – all the while being visited by a giant tree beast whose intentions are initially unclear.
     The film features great performances from the human cast (the young lead Lewis MacDougal is terrific), as well as Liam Neeson lending his booming timbre for the voice of the monster. Sigourney Weaver’s British accent is decent (though distractingly clipped at times), but her performance is good enough that you forget about it as the film goes on.
     I can’t say too much without spoilers - but this film belies its superficial fantasy elements to be about something much more human and real, and as a result it is heart-breaking and uplifting in equal measure. 

The Big Question: Why did hardly anyone see this?

      Well I think, in part, it’s because it was a hard film to market properly. Is it a fantasy adventure? A horror targeted at a younger audience? A teen angst drama? A British coming of age heartwarmer that just so happens to feature Groot’s bigger badder brother? It’s kind of all these things – and whilst that’s not such a big problem for a YA book, films often need to be summed up in a single tagline or image to be sold to an audience - and this is such a wonderful amalgam of different elements it’s hard to do this effectively.

      I know that this is in absolutely no way an answer to this particular problem, but my tag line would have been: ‘It will destroy you.’ (with an image of the monster standing over the boy). Get it? Because the monster is initially regarded as something ominous, but then the film actually turns out to be really sad… No? Okay never mind then
     Seriously, if the ending of this film doesn't bring a tear to your eye then I put it to you Sir/Madam that you have a heart of stone.

      Actually a December 2016 release – but I thought I would catch it before it went. It’s a great story premise: a guy wakes up from hypersleep in the middle of an interstellar journey (meaning he’ll be spending the rest of his life alone and be dead by the time they get to the intended destination).

      Performances are good on the whole – Chris Pratt is great at playing the everyman and is always relatable, although Jennifer Lawrence seems less and less interesting in her performances the more films she seems to be in. Michael Sheen is great as always as a robot barkeep (though I would argue his design here is a bit too human – something that kind of undermines the effectiveness of one of the themes of the film: the crushing loneliness that comes with being the only person on board the vast spaceship).

      It's a shame the end result of the film is a bit predictable and pedestrian. It had great potential, but it just feels too bogged down in the rather forced romance aspects and the all too obvious ‘running about to save the ship’ in the final act, when really it would have been better as a more quiet and thoughtful meditation on the themes of loneliness, desperation, deceit and guilt. Instead it feels like the film was dumbed-down and actioned-up to appeal to a wider audience. ‘Cos guess which one is easier to sell, right?

The Big Question: Okay then mister smarty-pants – how would you have done it better? (WARNING: STORY SPOILERS!)

      Well, like I said, the set-up of Passengers is great. However I feel that the order the story plays out is where they missed out on some great dramatic opportunities. In very simple terms, the plot plays out like this: Chris wakes up, realises he is the only one (and therefore going to die alone), eventually succumbs to his loneliness and so decides to wakes up Jennifer. At first he pretends that it was also a malfunction that woke her up (and not by his hand) and after she is consigned to her fate and they spend time together they fall in love.
     Eventually (of course) she finds out, falls out with him, but then as other things start to go wrong on the ship they must work together to fix things in order to stop the ship from exploding. And yes – it’s all played out in chronological order.

      Now I would have presented the story in a different order. Have the film start with Jennifer waking up, have Chris there to explain the situation to her, then we can go ahead and do all the romance stuff. Then when his secret is exposed – boom! - it will be just as shocking to us as it is to her. Get it? Because we (as the audience) are experiencing the same revelations through Jennifer’s character – she is our cipher. Then we can go back (through an extended flashback sequence) to see what really went down from Chris’ point of view, so that what was initially considered an outright monstrous action is now an arguably more sympathetic one as we now get to witness all the despair and crushing loneliness he had to go through before finally succumbing to the temptation of deciding to wake Jennifer up.
     This simple change in the order in which we learn of these events, helps us to inhabit the emotional headspace of the characters more (for both characters), and lends more drama to the story (allowing for more tension, surprises, second guessing, foreshadowing etc…). Instead, because the story is played out chronologically and we know the situation between the two characters so explicitly, much of the film seems to feel plodding, like we are just biding our time, waiting for the inevitable plot beats to come around.

      Oh, and we can get the rid of the running around to save the ship malarkey too – we can still have the same resolution to the film without having to go through all that stuff.

      Although the hype is about 90% real – I wish I had just been able to go into this cold – after Chazelle’s incredible Whiplash, I was bound to watch it anyway. Put simply, La La Land is a really joyous experience. From the opening dance number on the LA freeway, right up to the choke-you-up finale, this is the real deal. Not necessarily in that it's a perfect movie – there are still flaws – but I haven’t seen a film in a long time that has just resonated with me so much and kept me grinning like an idiot throughout.

      Anyway, I’m not going to go on about it much further before asking…

The Big Question: Is it really worthy of all the awards attention it is getting?
     So as you probably know, this film has been doing very well in terms of awards. At the time of writing, it swept up at the Golden Globes (winning in every single category it was nominated in) and has the most Oscar nominations ever in history (an honour shared only with Titanic and All About Eve), plus a whole slew of other accolades from basically everywhere else. So is all the hype actually real?

      Well, in a word: Yes. But probably not for the reasons you think. You see, the thing about La La Land is that it isn’t your typical ‘Oscar-bait’ film. It never feels like any part of it was made to win awards. It’s just something unique and fresh – a fun film that Chazelle wanted to make that just so happens to have great heart – and subsequently captivated audiences everywhere.

      Let’s talk expectations versus reality. It’s a love story with comedic elements (but doesn't feel like your typical by-the-numbers crowd-pleasing rom-com). It’s a musical with some fantastic numbers that emulates aspects of old MGM musicals (a much touted feature) but arguably never pretends to actually be one. Things are scaled way back in this regard. There are only really two big song and dance numbers (and both happen within the first 15 minutes of the movie). The rest tend to be intimate and emotional: either with just Gosling and Stone together or sometimes even just one of them alone. Not really into musicals? That’s not such a barrier either – it seems as the film goes on, more time is spent with the drama between the characters (to the point where we almost forget it’s a musical that we are watching for the latter half of the film). It’s a fresh combination of things that feels familiar yet new – accessible to everyone, yet unlike any film you've seen before.

      On a technical level too, this film is astounding: shooting during magic hour, often on location, the long single takes, inventive cinematography – the imagination and confidence it displays is incredible – especially considering that the budget wasn't that huge either (estimated 30mil).

      But perhaps the most telling is the sheer amount of heart the film has. Gosling and Stone are both incredible in this –elevating their roles to incredible likeability through use of sheer charm, comedic timing and bravely giving it their all with single take sequences of singing and dancing. So what if they aren’t the best singers/dancers? Doesn't matter – you can see they are enjoying it and completely selling the shit out of it. Their chemistry together is astounding (it doesn't hurt that they have been paired in a few films together before), and you root for them both to achieve their dreams despite their flaws and foibles.

      At the end of it all, it feels like this is the exact kind of movie that Chazelle wanted to make – pandering to neither convention or with awards season in mind. It just so happens that it has captured the heart of so many with its inventiveness, whimsy and joyous celebration of those fools who chase their dreams, despite the inevitable sacrifices that may come with that.
     Not a flawless film by any means, but a very special one that absolutely deserves all the love that it’s getting.

Join me soon for a few more films in Part 2 of the January Round-up!

7th Feb 2017

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