Thursday, 28 November 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (another persepctive)

Whetting our appetites 

When the first Hunger Games film was released last year, it came as a breath of fresh air. Not only for its teenage girl target audience, who had been served a stale diet of Twilight films by Hollywood in preceding years, but also through its dependence on character and plot over special effects, three dimensional female lead, and the sincerity and intelligence of its political satire. 

With this in mind, the series’ second installment The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is welcomed with open arms. And right from the off we’re in familiar territory, watching Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) hunting in the woods with her trademark bow and arrow. But, when the animal she fires at transforms into a child in her imagination, it becomes clear that life for PTSD-suffering Katniss is far from
what it once was following her victory at the hunger games.

This sets a pattern for much of the film; scenes and scenarios from the first film are revisited, only this time are tinged with added tension and apprehension. When Katniss and fellow winner Peeta (Josh Hutchinson) are presented in front of the district crowds, this time as champions rather than candidates, they witness a reaction of sombre resistance against the repressive state, which, much to their horror, is ruthlessly punished.  

Early on, the plot centres round Katniss struggling to come to terms with her new found status as figure of hope for an increasingly rebellious populous. On her obligatory victory tour visiting all twelve districts, she sparks, albeit unwittingly, a rebellious fervour that threatens to reach boiling point. These tremors of revolutionary activity are the most compelling aspect of the films, and feel like the natural direction for the sequel to take following the climax of the previous film. 

However, the film’s title retains ‘The Hunger Games’ for a reason, as the president (Donald Sutherland) decides to stage a special edition of the annual event featuring all the previous winners, ostensibly to celebrate the games’ 75th anniversary, but in reality to kill Katniss and crush the hope of the increasingly restless masses. 

This move may make sense as a political strategy from the president, but for the purposes of the film it’s a little disappointing. Rather than diving into the inevitable revolution, we’re instead treated to another round of the hunger games, only this time without the originality and freshness that made them so intriguing first time round. The build up to the games - featuring once more Woody Harrelson’s drunken mentor Haymitch, Lenny Kravitz’s noble stylist Cinna and Elizabeth Banks’ shallow but good-hearted Effie - may be charged with a sense of impending doom, but at times it does feel as if we’re going through the motions. 

One thing that most of the cinema’s best sequels have in common is the introduction of new elements to expand upon the ideas presented in the preceding film. In The Empire Strikes Back, for instance, events take place in the distinctly novel setting of the snowy planet Hoth, while later the iconic character Yoda makes his first (and best) appearance. The Two Towers, meanwhile, shifted the focus away from the relatively small scale of The Fellowship of the Ring and revolved around the grand set piece of the battle of Helms Deep, as well as introducing a fascinating new character in Gollum. 

By contrast, the final act of Catching Fire pits its characters in an almost identical forest to once more compete in the hunger games. Nothing substantial has been added to the ideas of the first instalment, with the games playing out in much the same fashion they did first time round, and the most significant new character, an ambiguous political figure played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, is given very few lines. 

All this said, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is still a very enjoyable film, and deserves credit for its moral and political complexity, as well as Jennifer Lawrence’s brilliant imagining of her character. As blockbusters go it’s one of the most intelligent, even consciously undermining the very things you’d expect such a film to contain; Katniss’ romances are presented either as distractions that must be sacrificed for the greater good, or as an invention constructed by the media, while the handsome love interest takes his shirt off not for the audience to swoon, but to receive a flogging at the hands of the police.  

But all in all this feels like a transitional film getting us to the next point in the story’s arc. The last fifteen minutes are spectacular and leave us hungry for the next film; but this instalment would have benefited from getting there quicker.


Saturday, 23 November 2013

Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Burning Bright

Is Jennifer Lawrence the best actress of her generation? Yes, yes, YES!  The Academy Award winner can play beautiful, ugly, smart, stupid, tough, vulnerable... Hollywood’s reluctant starlet is at the top of her game and cinema audiences are loving it. The sequel to last year’s smash hit is yet another glittering presentation of Lawrence’s flawless talent.

The survival of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) at the end of the previous film is an act of defiance that tyrannical President Snow (Donald Sutherland) will not tolerate. Unrest is stirring in the twelve districts against the rule of the Capitol. With a victory tour and Quarter Quell around the corner, even outside the arena Katniss and her family aren’t safe.

There was a time when the Hunger Games dominated my life. I tore through Suzanne Collins’ trilogy in a manic daze of adrenaline and paranoia. One night I even dreamed, much to my mixed excitement and horror, that I too had joined Katniss in the arena. So if you were looking for an impartial critique you clearly came to the wrong place.

Sequels are a notoriously tricky business but Catching Fire triumphs in much the same way as its predecessor. The services of the same excellent cast are retained, increasingly vivid landscapes are generated and the tension is as high as ever. Therefore a trip to the box office for this offering is sure to prove money well spent. As you emerge from the cinema, into the merciless pinch of winter air, you won’t believe how quickly the last 146 minutes passed by.

My criticisms are the same as the last time too. Katniss is the only character who is not left harshly treated by the script. People only fully come to life when they are provided with a collection of their own juicy details and secrets. Unfortunately, most here either have no idiosyncrasies or they are too well concealed to be noticed.

Moreover, experiencing the same sense of jeopardy which is found in the books requires a lot more gore than is being shown. Of course, I understand the commercial reasons behind the director’s decision to tone down the action but I still can’t help feeling disappointed. Ultimately, its absence costs the film the cutting edge which would have put me on the edge of my seat.

Catering to a 12A certificate will always leave the violent elements a little timid but otherwise Catching Fire is a solid adaptation of hallowed source material. Nobody can claim greater credit for the success than Lawrence. The Silver Linings Playbook star has made the tough heroine her own in a way which will surely leave actress and creation forever entwined.


Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Don Jon

Joseph Gordon-Levitt has appeared in a remarkable number of successful films in recent years, but, if his directional debut Don Jon is anything to go by, (500) Days of Summer appears to be the feature that has left the biggest impression on him. Both films bring a kinetic and inventive feel to the often conservative genre of the romantic comedy, and take the perspective of their male leads seeking to win the girl of their dreams.

But the eponymous character Gordon-Levitt creates and plays in Don Jon is a very different proposition from the hopeless romantic in (500) Days. The ‘Don’ in his nickname refers to his success at pulling in nightclubs, and he boasts of never having picked up a woman ‘who was less than an 8/10’. But the sex he has with these girls fails to give him the same gratification he experiences from porn, which he watches routinely and comprises his self-confessed favourite moments of the day. 

Such a lead character certainly injects the film with a lot more sleaze than the sweet 500 Days, but there’s still a lightness of tone and regularity of gags that makes the film far more akin to Marc Webb’s 2009 rom-com than the harrowing, unflinching depiction of sex addiction in Steve McQueen’s Shame. This film’s interest lies in witnessing its main character learn a lesson about sex and love, and of the ultimately vacuous experience of watching his pornography. 

Almost as soon as we’re shown Jon’s regular weekly routine, he becomes dissatisfied with it. The film is structured in a sort of circular shape, with the same settings – the club where he pulls, the church where he casually confesses, the gym where he atones, in his car where he rages, at his family’s place where his Dad rages at football, and at his own apartment where he indulges in his favourite hobby   - all being used consecutively. He seeks a way out of this monotonous existence through an alluring girl (Scarlett Johansson) he meets during one night at the club, and who he imagines could be the one he finally settles down with. 

It is to Don Jon’s credit that events don’t play out quite as obviously as they could have done. Given the leery way the film, through Jon’s eyes, perceives all of the women on screen, the disinterested manner in which Julianne Moore’s character appears deep into the film sees her enter almost unnoticed, but, as the third character on the poster, it’s clear she’ll have a big part to play. In fact, typically for any character played by Julianne Moore, she is probably the most interesting person present, and it is a shame she isn’t introduced earlier and given more time to be fleshed out. 

But this is Gordon-Levitt’s film, and his interest is reserved for the title character played by him. It isn’t a character study with the aspirations of ­Shame, but could nonetheless be remembered as an entertaining and stylish film with a satisfying morale, that marked the beginning of a successful directional career of Joseph Gordon-Levitt. 


The Elephant Man (1980)

Stomping Success

The tragic tale of Joseph (AKA John) Merrick is enough to bring tears to the eyes of the most stoic individual. In the hands of David Lynch his story testifies to both terrible cruelty and extraordinary compassion. The emotive script is all the more powerful because it is true.

Doctor Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) is the man that rescues the severely disfigured Merrick (John Hurt) from his life as a circus freak. While providing Merrick with shelter at his London hospital, the kindly medic begins to strike a lasting friendship with his patient. Alas, cruelty lurks in even the safest of havens. Therefore Merrick's tormentors are able to return and exact their wicked fun.

Lynch’s most enduring masterpiece evokes a twinned sense of appalling melancholy and optimistic confirmation of the indefatigable human spirit. Yes, there is hope that true happiness can be felt no matter how dire the circumstances.

The Elephant Man is most affecting when challenging the viewer to question the characters’, and our own, fascination with the unfortunate Merrick. Is Treves ultimately exploitative of his friend? Is this movie simply a variation of the archaic freak shows it deplores? I would answer both in the negative but that certainly doesn’t mean they are not valid questions. The fact the film willingly poses these questions is a powerful testimony to the sincerity of its approach.

As a pair of thespian heavyweights, few come bigger than Hopkins and Hurt. The former gives one of his finest performances as the charitable doctor. However, the ever-reliable Welshman is overshadowed by Hurt’s heartbreaking turn, conveyed from beneath countless layers of make-up effects. The final five minutes alone provide Hurt with an ample platform from which to stake his claim to the Academy Award which so unjustly eluded him.

Although the British film industry is repeatedly written off by critics and punters alike, The Elephant Man showcases what cinematic treats this small isle is capable of. For once the focus isn’t on an aristocratic estate or the humble kitchen sink. Indeed, Britannia can tell tales of extraordinary people living incredible lives, suffused with tender pathos and surprise. Watch it, celebrate it, cherish it.


Friday, 15 November 2013

Wings of Desire (1987)

A German Gem

Wim Wenders’ spiritual odyssey into the joys and heartaches of everyday existence exemplifies the best of European cinema. With monochrome cinematography, a trilingual script, and the metropolitan locations of Cold War Berlin, Wings of Desire has the ingredients of a unique piece of art. Film has never again come so close to painting the world in life-affirming wonder.

A wandering angel (Bruno Ganz) falls in love with a beautiful trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin).
Without choosing to become mortal and relinquishing his divinity, the two lonesome hearts can never truly meet.

There is no denying that Wenders has crafted a very strange movie. It depicts a world in which angels are omnipresent, silently watching over their mortal flock and eavesdropping into our thoughts. A serene existence, but one tinged with the curse of eternity. Unable to interfere in worldly events, these holy figures are doomed to witness humanity’s endless tragedies as well as triumphs.

While the script occasionally slips into a Terrence Malick-styled pseudo-philosophical soup, the overall impact of its meditative poetry is one of sublime brilliance, stirring passion and complete awe. The opening act skips between the internal monologues of various strangers, absorbing a comforting sensation of mundane contentment in their lives. A little boy bemoans the lack of decent programming on his television, a tired father despairs of his rebellious son and Peter Falk pensively considers his new role.

Countless scenes scream of an unrivalled aesthetic beauty. In one instance a public library is seen to simultaneously exist as a silent, almost dour environment (our world) alongside that of a bustling hub of scrambled thought-noise (angel world). Angels are scattered across the building, leaning over studious readers, shepherding their spirits in the hope of protecting their souls. No dialogue is spoken: none is needed. We can see everything we need in a gentle acknowledging nod or a soft caressing palm of the attentive guardians.

Germany’s capital is the perfect location for such elegant cinematography. Its vibrancy and visual allure is in harsh contrast to the haunting flashes of devastation inflicted in 1945. A car becomes a time machine as its surroundings plunge into the horror of death and dictatorship which characterised the war-torn city.

Furthermore, the wall between east and west - which is visible in numerous scenes – provides a fitting symbolic backdrop to the story of two divided worlds. It would be another two years after the film's release before David Hasslehoff had the chance to sing on top of the border's ruins.

An ineffable grandeur lies at the heart of Wenders’ visual masterpiece. Very easily it might have been tediously slow and pretentious. On the contrary, Wings of Desire presents a goosebump inducing, moving and intelligent appraisal of our species. There are not enough synonyms of 'beauty' in the English language to do it justice.


Vertigo (1958)

Hitchcock’s greatest work provides a dizzying spectacle of cinematic perfection.

Alfred Hitchcock is one of those directors whose name seems to dominate each and every film. Like Spielberg and Scorsese, Hitchcock is an instantly recognisable name and physique. As such, it is impossible to think or discuss any one of his films without picturing the large frame of the man himself (even if for some that frame now accompanies the head of Anthony Hopkins in Oscar winning prosthetics).

Watching Vertigo now seems somewhat too trendy. Hitchcock over the past few years has consistently gathered ‘sub-culture’ thumbs-up from the continual appraisal of various magazines, institutions and cinemas that applaud and proliferate the great directors work to the point where watching a Hitchcock no longer feels indie or retro. Instead Hitchcock has posthumously weaved his way in with the ‘in’ crowds and sits on the mantle with other globally recognised directors of yesteryear. So to rent and watch Vertigo now seems a display of quotidian conformity, and as Vertigo’s reputation more than proceeds itself - often cropping up in his or her top 10 whatevers - it’s difficult to be overwhelmed by the Hitchcock spectacle.

Yet in this sense it may well be argued that Vertigo achieves its greatest triumph: to live up to unprecedented expectations. Rarely does hype ever truly become realised yet Vertigo’s phenomena is such that no expectation can be too great, too outrageously inconceivable, too impossibly unattainable. Vertigo will triumph over all.

James Stewart plays John Ferguson, a retired policeman who after witnessing the death of a fellow officer - partly due to Stewart’s acrophobia (fear of heights) - takes responsibility and subsequently retires. Ferguson’s retirement is interrupted by the phone call of old friend Gavin Elster, an affluent shipping tycoon who proceeds to explain the unique disposition of his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak). Madeleine’s condition is such that Gavin hires the surveillance skills of Ferguson in an endeavour to prevent any real peril from consuming Madeleine. After half-hearted attempts of incredulity at the thought of resurrecting Ferguson’s old career, he inevitable submits and begins pursuing the elusive Madeleine.

Like most of Hitchcock’s films each frame is constructed with the meticulous precision of a brush-wielding Renaissance master. Each scene in turn offers more than its instantaneous image, it revels in endless enigma and self-perpetuating obscurity as Hitchcock symbiotically hints and nudges the audience as to later events with an un-paralleled subtlety. Un-like some of Hitchcock’s other great movies (Psycho, Rear Window) there is a tangible romance between the two leading characters, personified through the riveting score courtesy of Bernard Herrman. This relationship, like the affliction of vertigo, offers the audience a dizzying complexity that encourages you to engage with it time and time again.

It is the truly indescrible moments of tragic despondency between Stewart and Novak’s uncompromising positions that generates some of the most brilliant sequences in any of Hitchcock’s films. These moments are often transient and ethereal, offering only brief moments of visual splendour but are completely unforgettable. In these moments we feel the wonderful orchestration of Hitchcock as visual motifs, emotional semblances and note-perfect concerto’s resonate in a visual cacophony of cinematic perfection that truly leaves you wanting more. The ending, so abrupt and so final, is a last affirmation of Hitchcock’s ability to enrapt an audience and confirm that his appraisal since is rightly deserved.   

By Josh Pomorski 

Saturday, 9 November 2013


2013: A space odyssey 

Amid suggestions that film is being superseded by television as the superior visual form of art and entertainment, Gravity (directed by Alfonso Cuaron) is what cinema needed. Sure, the likes of Breaking ­Bad and The Wire offer deep character development and scope that the big screen simply doesn’t have the time to, but a film like this reminds us of the unique pleasures only the movie theatre can offer. Gravity is not a work that can be appreciated on a laptop screen, or a HD television, or even a poor quality cinema; it is a grand statement, a film that justifies the existence of cinema, and, above all, an utterly thrilling ride.  

Gravity’s most prominent cousin is 2001: A Space Odyssey, but whereas Kubrick’s timeless masterpiece is often described as operatic, Cuaron’s film is more of a ballet. Where the former film is as grandiose in its themes as it is in its length, Gravity is lighter on its feet and graceful, with a vastly simpler plot and shorter running time. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a medical engineer and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) an astronaut both on a space shuttle mission, before trouble arrives in the form of lose space debris that is hurtling towards them from afar. From here on in, proceedings essentially become a fight for survival as the pair is put through no end of terrifying ordeals that the deadly environment of space has to offer.

These ordeals are presented as beautifully as they are frightening. Like many of the best films, Gravity creates a unique universe that viewers immerse themselves in, and the universe here is stunning, particularly the view of earth that looms always in the background. Like the objects in the mise-en-scene, the camera floats and drifts around, sometimes adopting the point of view of one of the characters and rotating round and round. It may sound disorientating, but the effect is rather weightless and enthralling, and is quite unlike anything experienced before in the cinema. 

Anyone who saw Cuaron’s preceding film Children of Men will remember the thrilling way its best scenes were shot in single, super-long takes, and Gravity features a similar sparsity of cuts. On one level the technical ingenuity can be marvelled at, but, crucially, these special effects are not frivolous but instead intrinsically linked to the content of the film. By constantly moving in continuous takes, it is rendered perfectly clear that in space, there is no right way up, or up or down. The same goes for the 3D effects in the film; given the very three-dimensional environment the film is set in the form feels appropriate, while objects that fly just before your face are not gimmicks but backed up by poignancy and real beauty, like the tears that escape Ryan’s face into zero-gravity. 

Much has been written pointing out the occasional scientific flaw in the film’s action, but these details are relatively minor and don’t take away from the fact that Gravity is more believable thriller than fantastical sci-fi. In fact, another thing it shares with 2001 is a commitment to realism is space, with objects obeying the laws of zero gravity and making no noise when floating in the vacuum of space. The sounds we do hear, meanwhile, are brilliantly effective to, with eerie crescendos of sounds juxtaposed with deathly silence. 

Another apparent similarity with 2001 is a theme of birth. Images of Ryan coiled in a foetal position and that of wires that attach to the characters like umbilical cords, as well as the film’s finale, remind us of the space child that appears in the final shots of Kubrick’s film. But whereas the space child rounds off a film full of ideas that purports to be deeply philosophical, Gravity’s ideas are conceived only as subtexts, secondary in importance to its sensual thrills. Among these more weighty themes  appear to be religion and faith, of which some references are included  to be taken or left, while the choice to focus on Sandra Bullock’s character – something of an everywoman rather than an everyman – instead of George Clooney’s could be admirably read as a feminist statement, given the rarity of female leads. 

In short, Gravity fully merits the enormous hype it has received, and with universal adoration from the critics and fantastic performance at the box office, 2013’s best film is surely Gravity


Wednesday, 6 November 2013

All About Eve (1950)

Eve-n the greatest fall

As pertinent today as ever, with its formidable and intellectual female characters, prescient engagements with the inevitable demise of an aged actress’ career, and wittily descriptive observations of the creation of a theatrical product, both play and person, All About Eve is a must watch.

The film opens with a shot of the Sarah Siddons award for distinguished achievement. It’s an honour that’s awarded to the best actor/actress of the theatre that year. It’s a prize that’s heaped in prestige, history and theatre. From the off the omniscient voice of the mellifluous narrator is quick to contextualise the real importance of the distinction. To him this is an accolade that has been spared the ‘sensational and commercial publicity” that enshrouds other more recognisable achievements (hint hint the Oscars).  We are then introduced to the main character one by one as the narrator guides us in the all-you-need-to-knows of each one ending with a shot of the instantly recognisable Betty Davis, cigarette in hand, mouth pursed, and with the confident glare that encapsulates her character’s confrontational demeanour. Here sits a woman whose stoutly presence emanates the determined force of a “natural star” which permeates throughout the film.

The story is simple; a stage actress at the top of her game invites the innocent affectations of a charming fan to work and soirée with her and the cultural elite. Said adoring fan, through a process of mimicry and surreptitiousness, eventually usurps Davis leaving Betty all bitter.

Margo Fanning (Davis) is a star at the top of her game, a natural born star, a star that can and never will be anything else. Fanning epitomises the melodramatic temperaments that are inextricable with the theatres’ persona, her brash, abrasive character fills scene after scene with quick witticisms that often cut to the core of theatrical insecurities. Her frequent vicissitudes provide us with a plethora of emotive moments that charge the film with a vibrant distillation of pathos. It is through her character that Joseph L. Mankiewicz postulates as to the love hate relationship that both he and his characters have towards the ‘theatre’.

Mankiewicz, who both wrote and directed All About Eve, clearly knew the inner-workings of a successful Broadway play. Yet his position to it remains ambiguous, though Davis’ acting as primadonna is very much at one with the emotionally susceptible nature that are expected of a top star, the character of Eve provides an interesting counterpart. Eve (Anne Baxter) is young, good-looking, ambitious and obsequious. Her devotion to Fanning is tangible, waiting on her every word and emulating her every move, Eve remains acquiescent to her idol. Yet Eve’s real devotion is to the theatre or more ‘to the rapturous applause’. Her fixation then is predicated on an obsessive endeavour to be loved no matter how fleetingly and in whatever form, the adulation of the audiences audible content is what she desires most of all.

Alongside Eve’s inimical character we have a writer, a director currently involved in both Hollywood and the theatre, Eve’s best friend (coincidently married to the writer) and the infamous critique. In these characters we see the key ingredients involved in the success or failure of theatre. They become the actors on stage and Mankiewicz uses each one to expose their own personal motives. Although it is called All About Eve, it’s really ‘All About Theatre’ and perhaps more generally ‘All About Show Business’.
By guest contributor Josh Pomorski