Friday, 28 February 2014

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

Long Hot Summer

Sometimes a film needs to make a bold political statement, no matter how brash or unsubtle. In 1967, amidst America’s most troubled period of racial hatred, one movie stood out for exactly that reason. In the Heat of the Night is about a black detective overcoming a town’s endemic prejudice to solve a controversial murder case. Just six days before the film collected its five Academy Award wins, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot dead in Memphis, Tennessee. If ever there was a moment to deliver a stubborn, indignant and sincere polemic against racial discrimination, this was the occasion.
None other than the first black Oscar winner and Hollywood superstar, Sidney Poitier, played the lead role.
Detective Virgil Tibbs (Poitier) is a reluctant hero drawn into the stifling intrigues of the Jim Crowe deep-South. He’s only visiting a relative but segregated Mississippi does not welcome passing faces too kindly. When a murdered corpse is discovered, suspicion immediately falls on the out-of-town stranger with plenty of cash in his wallet. Once some local ruffians drag the Philadelphia cop into the police station the scene is set for an almighty showdown between a provincial sheriff (Rod Steiger) and his northern counterpart: 
Sheriff GillespieWell you’re pretty sure of yourself, ain’t yer Virgil? Virgil... that’s a funny name for a n***** boy that comes from Philadelphia. What do they call yer up there?
Virgil TibbsThey call me MISTER Tibbs!
Eventually, the sheriff comes to realise his mistake and teams up with Tibbs to catch the real killer. Despite their initially frosty encounter, the two lawmen earn each other’s respect over the course of their investigation. By the end of the film Gillespie comes to defend his new colleague against the bigotry of his fellow townspeople.
From the viewer’s perspective, the whodunit element is a mere sideshow to the real issue of racial segregation. Through the passage of time, I have forgotten the identity of the killer. But what survives in my memory is the integrity of two fascinating central characters, who took the buddy-cop genre to a new domain.
For its time, the script took a controversial and uncompromising look at modern America. In one of the most famous scenes Tibbs is slapped by a white suspect, at which point Tibbs returns the blow. “You saw it...well, what are you gonna do about it?” the bemused interviewee says to Gillespie. Towards Tibbs he adds, “There was a time when I could have had you shot.”
Quincy Jones’ classy soundtrack adds the perfectly sweet icing to the cake. For the title track Ray Charles blows the roof off with a soulful bluesy number (see video below). How could you possibly ignore the civil rights cause when Charles sings its merits so melodiously?
Mark it on the Hollywood timeline, 1967 is the year the movie industry embraced equality.


The Monuments Men

Every Oscar season there is at least one film that critics and audiences get sniffy about, commenting on how it failed expectations and how the cast and crew really should have known better. This year’s main entrant into this disreputable company is The Monuments Men, the tale of a rag tag team of art scholars trying desperately to save artistic treasures from Nazi inferno. Directed and starring George Clooney, alongside Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Bill Murray and others, one has to wonder what possibly could have gone wrong – or, perhaps, right.

Most notable is that, despite all expectations, the film seems to have been considered a potential awards contender almost accidently rather than on purpose, as it certainly does not fit the bill. Never once does it fall into that pretentious Second World War Oscar stupor that begrudging returns year upon year, heaping yet more ‘worthiness’ upon a subject cinema has frankly done to death. Instead, Clooney has chosen to do something that ironically appears as a breath of fresh air, harking back to the glory days of men on mission WWII pictures, as the team faces seemingly impossible odds on their quest to defeat dastardly Hun. The resulting film for the most part is, therefore, actually quite jolly, lively and fun, remembering the old joy of those films and heaping on nostalgia in droves. The fond memories evoked of afternoons spent watching The Cockleshell Heroes or the glorious The Guns of Navarone directly influence your enjoyment of the film, though, to tell the truth, the sentiment is occasionally nauseating. One problem is that the picture occasionally drifts and almost seems at odds with this nostalgic tone.  
For all its lumps and bumps, the quality of the acting speaks for itself with Clooney and the gang watchable as ever. Their characters are nothing new and performances hardly revelatory but these are all people who know how to behave in front of celluloid. You cannot help but root for, care for and wish them well. And the film does indeed have moments of beauty and brilliance, be it a recorded message from home or a doomed act of redemption. These moments do genuinely tug deeply at the heartstrings and are simply joyous to behold.

The Monuments Men's tone is occasionally jarring and problematic, and is never entirely sure what it wants to do with itself. Certainly, it does not seem like a deep worthy piece of Oscar fodder. But does this really matter? The film is genuinely very funny and at times deeply moving, as well as being chock-full of performers whose presence is guaranteed to make you smile. Yes, it is nostalgic and sentimental but there is real joy, and at the end of the day if you can’t be sentimental about art, what can you be sentimental about? 

James Absolon 

Saturday, 22 February 2014

The Lego Movie

Everything is Awesome 

By all rights this should have been awful. Films based on toys usually are (Transformers, G.I. Joe, Battleship), but still make a packet at the box office as kids drag their unfortunate parents off to see two hours of loud, lazy, inane product placement. And their commercial potential reaches far beyond cinema revenue, as merchandise and toys will soon have parents begrudgingly reaching for their wallets once more. 

But instead of cynically exploiting the easy potential of its young target audience in this tried and tested manner, The Lego Movie instead satirises this very mindset, through which this film supposedly came into creation. The villain in the story is called Lord Business (Will Ferrell), the evil president who rules over the Lego-world through the distracting spectacle of mindless TV shows (called ‘Where are my Pants?’), infectiously catchy and similarly mindless pop songs (‘Everything Is Awesome’, guaranteed to resound in your head for weeks) and overpriced coffee (‘that’s $37, please’). A talented group of ‘Master Builders’ – including female lead Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) and Batman (Will Arnett) - resist his tyranny, and are united when they find Emmet (Chris Pratt), an ordinary construction worker who they believe to be the prophesised ‘special’ one. 

Parents forced along will be delightfully caught off guard at the flurry of irreverent and hilarious gags. For all its satirical underpinning, what really makes The Lego Movie such an enjoyable experience is the frenetic gag-per-minute (sometimes even per-second) ratio, hardly any of which, despite relying on relentless free association to fire as many as possible, fall flat. The jerky nature of the animation (which brings to mind the stop motion style of A Town Called Panic and the Cravendale milk adverts) compliments the rhythm of the humour, and achieves the remarkable feat of maintaining the appealing, DIY look of stop motion while simultaneously exploiting the huge scale potential of digital animation. At a time when animated features all look so monotonously samey, it is wonderfully refreshing to see something that looks so unique and lovingly conceived. 

Everything about The Lego Movie feels heartfelt and thought up by creative minds rather than boardroom think tanks, from its multitude of pop culture references, to its knowingly lame Lego puns (the ‘piece of resistance’), to its voice actors who all sound they’re having great fun. Arrested Development’s Will Arnett does a brilliant Batman and gets the film’s best lines (and songs), Mad Men’s Alison Brie is hilarious as the hysterically positive Princess Uni-Kitty (half unicorn, half kitten, all repressed rage), and Chris Pratt delivers his lines perfectly as the endearingly dopey hero.  

The final third does not quite deliver as many belly laughs, but a clever and playful twist that moves proceedings into more personal and sentimental territory gives the film added heart and grounds it in a sweet, child-friendly overarching message. 

With a sequel on the horizon, there is a fear that the film’s huge market potential could spark a series of films diminishing in quality that fail to find a similarly fresh new angle on this film’s premise, but, considered on its own terms, The Lego Movie has all the humour and joy of the 2011 Muppets reboot. Sure, by making a film lampooning big corporations that will sell loads of Lego merchandise the film does have its cake and eat it, but, as a character said recently on True Detective: what good is cake if you can’t eat it? 


Friday, 21 February 2014

Without Eternity trailer (Terrence Malick spoof)

I couldn't wait for Terrence Malick's latest film trailer so I decided to make it myself. Josh Pomorski (unwittingly) provided me with the perfect shots of the field behind York University campus. Whether you love or hate Malick I hope you enjoy my mild lampooning of his aesthetic style.

Malick's films are undeniably beautiful but I am never convinced by his storytelling skills.

ST - To see more films check out my Youtube channel.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Inside No. 9

Tremendous Terror

Do you remember Psychoville? I certainly can. It has taken me two years to crawl out from behind the sofa, just in time (you might say) for its new sister series. Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith once again attempt to plunder the comedic value of British horror in the name of our macabre impulses. Being an avid admirer of their work (especially The League of Gentlemen), I had to give this latest series a watch.

Each episode is a unique standalone story. In this opening tale, titled Sardines, Katherine Parkinson of IT Crowd fame plays Rebecca, a seemingly unloved woman celebrating her recent engagement. Seemingly every cast member is a familiar face with the likes of Tim Key, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Marc Wootton filling out the ensemble. Of course, the superb Pemberton and Shearsmith also appear in their script as a pair of bickering gay lovers.

As the title suggests, this all-star billing is confined to a small space, namely a giant wardrobe, where each character has ample room to indulge in an awkward comedy of manners – or lack of them. As the screw is turned on these fools and villains, M.R. James would be proud of the way the tension insidiously builds towards the big reveal.

Based on this evidence, Inside No. 9 is going to be a very entertaining series. For one thing, the humour is much broader than previous outings for the writers and features less sadism than Psychoville.

Sardines is a finely engineered short narrative which combines the best features of telly and theatre. That is, a slick hybrid that masters the basics as efficiently as a German car engine. Television could not possibly be this slick and yet here is the proof.

Most importantly, aside from a couple of obvious caricatures, everything is original. Comedy-horror may be a well worn path, with Garth Marenghi and Steve Coogan’s Dr Terrible carving themselves an obscure cult following, but Inside No. 9 is a totally different animal from its predecessors. Why? Because it is actually rather dark; a sinister pleasure lurks deep within its frames, willing to leech off our disgust when its opportunity strikes.

We must savour Sardines, for genius such as this arrives in such paucity that I daresay we will not see it’s like again – at least, not until next week’s episode.


Saturday, 1 February 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis (SP)

In an interview with Sight and Sound magazine, Ethan Coen described the titular protagonist of their latest film Inside Llewyn Davis as being on ‘a hamster wheel’, ever moving but always ending up in the same place. A hamster in a cage is also an apt metaphor for the way Ethan and his brother Joel – known of course as the collective filmmaking force the Coen Brothers – treat characters in their films. They’re like the cruel schoolchild who gleefully teases and torches his pet, subjecting it to ever increasing pains before leaving exhausted and bemused.

Llewyn’s (Oscar Isaac) travails involve the many setbacks that greet him in his futile attempts to become a recognised folk musician. Having quit his job in the merchant navy, Llewyn is without a home in New York’s Greenwhich village, alternately sleeping on the couches of the few friends he has and those willing to put up with him. The little money he makes is earned performing songs from his unsuccessful album ‘Inside Lleywn Davis’ at the Gaslight Cafe, and his woes mount up over the week that the film takes place in.

The brothers have conceived the pre-Bob Dylan world of the Greenwhich village folk scene in an understated, melancholic mood, with colour having been drained from the frame and black, white and greys populating the image. Such simplicity is reflected in the songs themselves, composed as they are from the bare elements of a singer and his guitar.  

These performances - sometimes on stage, sometimes to pass the time, sometimes unwillingly – are what structures the film, and have been weaved into the plot in a manner akin to the genre of the musical. And, like most musicals, the plot itself is uneventful, with the most sustained tension evoked in Llewyn’s attempts to bring home safely the cat of one the friend’s he sleeps round. We later discover that this cat is called ‘Ulysees’, an allusion which - along with several other references to journeying – invites us to consider the odyssey Llewyn is himself enduring. That Llewyn must decide to what extent to continue to look after the cat is also given extra weight upon the discovery of a particular revelation learned.

As the title suggests, we’re with Llewyn in pretty much every frame of the film, and Oscar Isaac and the Coens do a good job of making us route for him despite the less appealing attributes he sometimes exhibits. He is, for all his flaws, a loveable screw-up; or as his ‘friend’ Jean (played by the typically excellent Carey Mulligan) dubs him, ‘King Midas’ idiot brother’, turning everything he touches into shit. Isaac’s singing is especially affective, impressive enough to make us believe in Llewyn’s talent, and passionate enough to give voice to the character’s frustrated interior that is otherwise only inconspicuously evoked. And, perhaps most importantly of all, beautiful to listen to.

All the traits we’ve come to expect from a Coen Brothers film are present: grotesque characters, black humour, excellent script, artful direction, and John Goodman playing another variation of John Goodman (this time a repulsive, self-satisfied jazz musician). Goodman’s performance is somewhat jarring and the film takes a turn for the strange at this point, but does add another layer to a film that is difficult to pin down.

Though aside from the various oblique thematic hints, more than anything else Inside Llewyn Davis is about the difficulty of making it as an artist. In fact, the very notion of ‘making it’ is itself questioned; is an artist one who makes beautiful music from the depths of their sole, or one who is able to make a living from it? Whichever way you look at it, the Coen brothers themselves – however cruelly they may treat their artist-protagonists - have over the years established themselves as greatly accomplished artists, and their latest effort is yet another excellent addition to their ever growing canon. 


Rashomon (1950)

The Unusual Suspects

Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon has been heralded as the first universal piece of Japanese cinema, the one which wowed and enticed Western audiences and inaugurated a general interest in films from the Far East.

Set in Rashomon, a small deserted temple, three men discuss the plenitude of contradictory testimonies that accompany the death of one man. The three comprise of a woeful and stunned woodcutter, a devout and god-serving priest, and an erratic and antipathetic lone wanderer interested in the bemoaning whimpers from the two witnesses.

As the farmer begins to divulge the secrets of his earlier ordeal, we soon find that his is but one of five differing cases that were heard in relation to the murder. The priest himself soon offers his perspective on the matter at hand meanwhile the impetuous comments of the intrusive stranger provoke and question each member, in turn forcing them to submit to his impatient demands and in doing so expose an extra piece of the puzzle.

Along with the woodcutter and the priest are the testimonies of an animalistic and boisterous captive, the deceased’s weeping and solemn widow and the bizarre inclusion of the dead man’s voice himself, told through the frenetic spectacle of a medium.

With each new character comes a completely different interpretation, further convoluting the narrative and as such complicating our understanding of the events. The constant relay to former events further develops an over-arching cynicism as we begin to question both the motives and the plausibility of each character. As we become induced in the spectacle the concept of truth soon dissipates and we are left like the antipathetic wanderer, shamelessly clueless but enticed.

Perhaps the only disappointment of the film lies in the subsequent recycled nature of its ingenious structure. The chances are you would have seen many, many films that begin with a similar premise and unravel in an identical way, the best examples being Christopher Nolan’s Memento and Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects. Though it seems almost insolent to criticise a film for being so influential such is the case with Rashomon.

However, if you permit yourself to invest in the story, there is still much to enjoy. For a start the three main characters create an interesting display of alternating dynamics. Although the roamer seems ill-mannered, he provides witty and worldly insights not only into the existence within a society but on profound matters of truth and reality, subject matters that could easily become drummed down and superficial but appear genuine and appropriate. Similarly, the Priest’s diminishing optimism procures an odd mix of tragedy and human pathos that gives the film that little bit extra.

The constant harking back to re-lived events questions the reliability of memory and looks ultimately at how certain dramatic events affect our perception. Each motive is coupled with a convincing performance on behalf of the witness; though the prevailing tragedy of the murdered man sits at the forefront of their stories and this piece as a whole, it is the individual exoneration that each character pleads for that leaves you feeling somewhat dismayed.

Death occurs in many forms but the nature of this one is un-paralleled, this luring opening statement drives our intrigue as you begin to question how exactly this incident is different, it’s an open-ended question that reverberates throughout the film and lingers long after its conclusion.   

Josh Pomorski