Monday, 6 February 2017

The Unknown Girl

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The Dardennes brothers (The Kid With a Bike, L'Enfant) are back with their new film The Unknown Girl out on DVD from Curzon Artificial Eye on Monday 6th February.

The film tells the story about a young female doctor, Jenny Davin (Adele Haenel) in small town Liege, Belgium; who after a long day refuses to open the door to her clinic when already an hour after closing. The next morning policemen tell her that the young woman - a black African immigrant working as a prostitute.

This starts a moral guilt in our young female protagonist, a conflicting individual who is almost bullying to her young trainee doctor. The trainee is a male and she admits she did not open the door to the girl to instill a means of superiority.

She begins an investigation to find out the identity of the young girl who has been buried without a name so here family can be informed.

The Dardennes are famous for small town stories with universal themes, here are tropes of privacy, guilt and belonging. Jenny is unusual in the sense that we do not know her history, where has she come from; we are aware of her future more with the impending clinic she may well take control of. The story makes her reassess her decisions and she does alter from lacking bedside manner to becoming a better local GP by using her local knowledge to her advantage.

Shot with gripping hand held flourish in the same vein as classic neo-realism and the better Ken Loach films, bringing a sense of documentary realism to a fictional story.

It also has a political message on immigration within EU borders in today's current political climate providing a compelling platform for this intelligent film with a brave central performance from Haenel.

The Unknown Girl is out on DVD from Monday 6th February from Curzon Artificial Eye

Thursday, 2 February 2017

La La Land

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Occasionally you get nervous of seeing a film, you get apprehensive that a film that has been universally lauded and hailed will not meet the expectations you place upon it. You also fear you might miss the boat and not appreciate it when seeing it some weeks after release.  These fears amount in this day and age when flavours and trends alter quicker over time. Long gone are the days when films can take residence in a cinema and grow through word of mouth and maintain a solid box office run such as what was achieved by My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a hit that ran for three months due to word of mouth.

La La Land has been praised since it premiered at Venice last autumn. The follow up film to his Oscar winning Whiplash, Damien Chazelle returns with the film he wrote before that jazz school, drill sergeant movie.
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This film is special from the outset when we witness gridlocked Los Angeles traffic being forgotten about when travellers start singing and dancing ending in a huge choreographed number on car bonnets to the tune 'Another Day of Sun' fitting for the setting of L.A. and the general disposition this film wants to shine forth.

We then meet our intrepid duo, Mia (Emma Stone) a young actress who dreams of making the big times but is struggling whilst locked in a barista job and insipid auditions. After her, we bump into Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist who dreams of owning his own jazz club one day. Their paths collide one night when Mia hears Sebastian play at a restaurant over Christmas, he acts badly and then they bump into each other again at a pool party.  

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That night comes probably the best dance number of the film 'A Lovely Night' which recalls the sophistication of Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers films of the 1930s and the cheeky inventiveness of Gene Kelly with their scrapping shoe steps on tarmac. It also helps that it is probably the best song of the film to, a number that solidifies the partnership and also keenly makes the audience aware they are watching a musical, and the pair are in a musical.

Some critics have been critical of the singing voices by the lead pair, which is somewhat unnecessary and perhaps people just wanting to find fault, yes their voices are not the strongest but perhaps that helps in the emotional connection with the audience. These two are so in love that they feel like singing and dancing, its a cliche perhaps but this does happen to people when in love, they feel like singing at the top of their lungs or dancing on rooftops.

The film is a good musical yet I feel Chazelle has done a better job in celebrating the classic Golden Age of Hollywood movie-making from mid 1930s to the late 1950s when the Studio system was at its height with the names of MGM, Fox, Universal everywhere; he harks back to the chemistry between leading actors when the spark is there from the start. 

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Chazelle cleverly does this need of appreciation a by-gone age by having Sebastian be so enamoured with the glory days of jazz music.  His passion for jazz is something is used as a device in a film to make you remember to love classic movies calling upon romance, love and music.  Chazelle name drops Notorious, Casablanca and Rebel Without a Cause and it is the Humphrey Bogart/Ingrid Bergman film that this film closely resonates with.

Casablanca was about two people who knew each other in happier times and by the film's end they are not together, even though their love is so strong, for reasons they cannot be.  In this film by the end, Mia has taken an acting job in Paris and they wait to see what happens, this leads to a five-year skip when she is now the renowned movie actress, happily married and with a two year old daughter, whilst Sebastian has his jazz club with full houses listening to new modern jazz with a younger audience.

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Mia and her husband, drop by on a whim to a club, she sees the sign that she drew for Sebastian adorning the entrance and you feel the anticipation building up in her with the prospect of seeing him again.  Sebastian takes the stage, he sees Mia in the crowd (calling back to a previous song and shots in the movie) and he starts playing 'Epilogue' a composition to rival long narrative pieces from Singin' In The Rain ('Broadway Melody') or An American in Paris and whilst he plays, Mia is shot back to when she first saw Sebastian playing and their first contact is altered when he kisses her instead of brushing past her abruptly. 

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The abrupt kiss leads to a dream sequence as the couple walk through an alternative five year span with mistakes avoided or rectified, yet they are together.  However, like Casablanca, they remain apart only sharing a look across a crowded room, Sebastian knowing that his persistence for Mia to succeed and attend that vital audition led to him losing her, but loving her forever.

La La Land is the Best Film of the Oscar contenders and if you have not seen it yet, you have to before it is too late, specifically on the silver screen when the vibrancy of colour and the thrill of music pours off the screen.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Life, Animated

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Released from Dogwoof Entertainment on DVD this Monday 30th January, the Oscar-nominated Life, Animated tells the story of a young man, now aged 23, who is graduating after overcoming the debilitating condition of autism from the age of 3 years old; and how the watching of classic Disney movies helped him overcome his affliction and interact with the world especially his parents and family who feared they had lost him 'to the prison of autism'.

Directed by Roger Ross Williams, the film follows Owen Suskind who from the age of 3 was diagnosed with autism and how his parents Ron/Cordelia learnt that Owen through watching Disney films - Peter Pan, Aladdin, The Lion King - understood emotions of empathy, love and friendship; whilst his motor skills were slower he could process through the oeuvre of Disney pictures a place in society and how Owen fits into this real world.

The film is cautious to show Owen with his therapists and how wary they are about how his worldview may be clouded by the Disneyfication, how perhaps there may not always be a happy ending. This notion is put sharply into context when Owen and his girlfriend, Emily after a three-year relationship full of hugs and cutesy emotion is ended (somewhat abruptly) by Emily. This prompts Owen to ask, 'Why is the world full of pain and tragedy?' to his Mum on the phone, but this is part of Owen's learning that the world is not like the fantasy of Disney and can be cruel and big.

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The film uses original animation sequences to show the formative years of Owen and his growing up in hand drawn storyboards. These sequences are endearing coupled with the story Owen wrote as a young boy called 'The Land of the Lost Sidekicks' incorporating the fact that following a brief episode of bullying at a special needs school, Owen felt less of a hero and more of a secondary character in his own narrative like a Baloo, Rafiki, Iago.

As a documentary film, this is the perfect format for such a delicate matter where certain viewers may still be ignorant of autism and its affects on behaviour, yet the film credibly attempts to show you the effects on the rest of the family including a poignant moment for Owen's brother Walt on the occasion of his 26th birthday, when he reflects on a time when his parents may not be around and he will have to protect Owen himself. The genuine warmth and affection between the family radiates off the screen throughout and is a real joy to witness.

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The drawbacks on the film although minor is how does Owen interact with other films (although Casper is on his shelf) even alternative animation fare or is it just Disney films he watches regularly; no mention is made of the Pixar catalogue when a film like Toy Story about growing up and becoming responsible would ring true to Owen.

Delicately handled and beautifully edited Life, Animated is a vital portrait of a condition that the majority still are reluctant and ignorant to address.

Life, Animated is released on DVD on 30th January

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Trailer Trash: My Cousin Rachel

In a segment I have not done for some time, I am looking at a newly released trailer and wondering what can we expect.

My Cousin Rachel is based on the classic novel by Daphne Du Maurier, whose work - The Birds, Rebecca - has been subjected to cinematic adaptations by the master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock previously. This second cinematic adaptation (previously made in 1952 starring Richard Burton and Olivia de Havilland) is directed by Roger Michell and stars Rachel Weisz and Sam Claflin (Me Before You).

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The trailer begins with word that 'she is here' meaning Rachel has landed in Plymouth to visit her cousin Philip. The novel is about an estate that Philip is heir to, but Rachel feels she has a right to as being married to the owner of the estate Ambrose, whilst being eloped in Italy.

Ambrose has passed away and Rachel has come to gain what is hers, Philip is the heir and she bends to his whim, but a connection grows between the two; a kinship that is not as illicit as the title nor trailer makes out as they are not blood relatives and merely related by law.

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The film is shot from Philip's point of view and sees Claflin struggling with his emotions towards a woman who only has her own interests at heart.

Whilst Weisz has been able to play this sort of spinster evil woman before her role is one painted by the eyes of Claflin who seemingly goes through the ringer from independent man to fool in love.  Weisz is reunited with the director of Enduring Love and Michell has always been able to generate good chemistry between leads (Notting Hill), ensemble (the under-rated Morning Glory) and odd partnerships (Venus/The Mother). Whilst it has his familiar tropes of love unrequited with a certain streak of National Trust promotional material the trailer shows a tip of the hat to the Gothic tradition of British film-making from the 1950s/60s.

My Cousin Rachel is out on 9th June this summer from Fox Searchlight

Monday, 16 January 2017

A Monster Calls

Having viewed this film in the spacious and lovely surroundings of a new screen at Everyman Chelmsford, where me and my girlfriend sat comfortably on a plush sofa, A Monster Calls is a wonderfully realised adaptation of a children's novel that sets itself apart from other children fantasy stories.

Based upon the book by Patrick Ness and adapted for the screen by the same writer, J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage) directs with aplomb in bringing the fictional tale of a young boy Conor (Lewis MacDougall) having to come to terms with the impending death of his young mum (Felicity Jones) from cancer whilst dealing with the fleeting visits of his estranged father (Toby Kebbell) and the conflicting relationship with his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver).

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To take solace from the grief and anger Conor is feeling, he has the fantasy life of bringing an old Yew tree he can see from his bedroom window to life.  Every night at 12.07am, the tree comes to Conor's window with a morality tale for Conor to listen to, from these the tree hopes that Conor will learn some life lessons for his day-to-day life.

The tree is voiced by Liam Neeson and his booming deep voice adds gravitas to the tree as this all conquering being, that has seen many things over the years bringing his authority to the voiceover work.

The tree in CGI is very convincing and Bayona does well with the scenes either shot in daylight or nighttime; but the real jewel in the film are the animated sequences that tell the three tales the tree tells Conor.  The tales are told with such panache featuring faceless people, therefore, rendering them universal in their themes.

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One tale makes Conor state that he/she is a monster, but the tree says not everyone is a monster because you merely label them as such; notice I refer to the tree as a tree and not the Monster the title suggests. Perhaps the Monster calling is not not a physical being and more of metaphorical unstoppable beast such as the cancer that makes Conor's Mum succumb.

The acting in the film throughout is superb but young MacDougall outdoes his older peers by carrying the film in a way rarely seen in mainstream films, but the other star is Bayona who directs with such a vision and confidence - count the number of match-to-match shots throughout - shooting it like a graphic novel with a deliberate mise-en-scene and composition; lighting it adroitly and getting the right balance of performance and action. There is a nice seamlessness to the film from the understated score to the editing and production design.

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A minor flaw would be the lack of conviction in the father-son dynamic, merely stating they were young and he had to leave, was not enough for this viewer; yet Felicity Jones brings real emotion to her performance as a dying young woman who wants to make sure her son remains creative and happy once she is gone.

A Monster Calls is a film that by the end of 2017 should rightly remain lauded and praised, and shown to as many young children/adults as possible. In our screen were families who came to see the film, a good sign that they came for the story and perhaps not the CGI.

A Monster Calls is out now in all cinemas