GRAVITY (2013) – Film Review by Paul Laight

A nice little review with a well-spotted callback to The Wages of Fear.

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GRAVITY - FILM REVIEW

GRAVITY (2013) – Film Review by Paul Laight

If there is a better film to see at the cinema than GRAVITY this year then I can’t wait to see it because Alfonso Cuaron’s space opera is a masterful cinematic vision which combines beautiful vistas with knuckle-biting tension.  Indeed, director Cuaron has carved out an impressive sci-fi story: economical, tense, thrilling, touching etc. which will deserve all the awards coming to it.

Sandra Bullock’s novice Space Doctor and George Clooney’s charming veteran Astronaut are on a mission to service the Hubble Telescope via the Space Shuttle Explorer but before they can complete the job catastrophe strikes. What then follows is a white-knuckle ride of tension and excitement with action unfolding with breathless pace. The writing is so lean and precise that there is little in the way of backstory before we’re propelled into the astounding action. I hate spoilers in reviews so won’t go divulge anymore but it is pure cinema…

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Film review – Caesar Must Die

At first, I wasn’t sure if this was a true documentary or a fictionalised account of Italian prisoners putting on a production of Julius Caesar as part of a jail theatre programme. In fact, it has real prisoners “acting” as themselves in a kind of double artifice. There is something wonderfully staged about the film, which works to blur the theatrical world of Shakespeare almost seamlessly with the world of the prison. Filmed largely in black and white, the routines of prison life are ignored as the cast members rehearse in their own time in the prison grounds.

Watching it feels like one is in a waking dream – as if the fabric of the play has bled into real life. There is a surreal moment in which the whole prison becomes part of the play as the actor playing Mark Anthony addresses a wall of baying prisoners climbing to their cell windows to view the players. The prison guards watch rehearsals from gangways, but they too seem to be part of the illusion, a Shakespearean supporting cast passing casual observations.

One player remarks of the dialogue, “It’s as if Shakespeare knew the streets of my childhood” and the similarities of a play about complicity, betrayal and murder are all too obvious to these men of the Camorra.

Previewed at the ICA in late January, it goes on general release 1 March, and I urge you to see it.

Film review – Django Unchained

In Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino has created a new take on the epic hero myth and couched it in a western, set in the civil war-era US of plantation owners and Ku Klux Klansmen.

Django (Jamie Foxx), is a man enslaved during an inhuman time, exhausted by brutality, then reformed in the image of a German, but, universal myth; that of Siegfried, who walks through hellfire and breaks into a fortress to rescue his lover, Brynhild from imprisonment. The latter is also the namesake of Django’s wife, the malapropped, Broomhilda, played in a heart-rending performance by Kerry Washington.

We find Django exhausted and fearful, stumbling through a purgatory, rocky terrain as part of a chain gang, marshalled by two mounted slave traders. In a Grimm, dark woodland they run into a genial, well-dressed gentlemen with horse and cart, who is not all he seems. He is a “travelling dentist” who speaks with a German accent in a manner of flourishes – intellectual fencing that hides an unexpected and deadly skill. This is Dr King Schultz (Christophe Waltz), the man who will become Django’s guide on his quest to rescue Broomhilda from the possession of the cruel plantation owner, Calvin Candie (played with exuberance by LeonardoDiCaprio) and his menacing, power-corrupted, social-climbing butler, Stephen (the ever-fantastic Samuel L Jackson).

I like that Tarantino plays the film straight with only a few of his trademark flashbacks, and that Django has his own resolve from the start. It does not need to be given to him, he only needs someone to mould and refine what is already there. So the man who was once a slave is always his own man, just one in a voluntary submission to a “master” of knowledge, instead of forced submission to a master of slaves. Schultz frees Django physically, but in choosing his own way, Django frees himself psychologically.

The film is violent, but stylistically so with comic fountains of red, corn syrup blood in the shoot-outs. The violence that has the greatest psychological effect – that of the whippings – Tarantino respectfully leaves free of gore, letting sound and the actor’s facial expressions work at our emotions for a more sobering effect. For these and similar scenes, much of the audience had their hands held to their face in a rictus of disbelief. It’s a skilled director who can make an audience laugh as well as veil them in a stony silence within concurrent scenes. However, there are also a few comic moments as Django fumbles towards his new identity. Indeed, Austin Powers may wonder if one of his suits is missing.

The near three-hour running time wasn’t an issue for me. The film is completely arresting as the story urges Django onward on his quest, the mythological structure means the audience can empathise with his struggle – the shared experience of suffering, love and a lust for retribution. When the payback comes, I defy anyone not to urge Django on and breathe the liberation of his controlled rage and self-determination, his reconstructed self exemplified by a proud show of horsemanship showing skill and discipline (from Foxx, who grew up on a ranch Texas).

This is a man who, having become his own master, will now answer to none.

Film review – McCullin

The high-contrast black and white photos of war photographer, Don McCullin, are familiar to many who read The Observer and The Sunday Times of the 70s and 80s. Stark, high-contrast black and white images of conflict from across the world, always imbued with his sense of questioning humanity.
McCullin appears throughout the film in excerpts from an interview by film makers David and Jacqui – mostly in voiceover, narrating his infamous reportage, sometimes seen in his cottage, or roaming the snow-covered hills of the Somerset countryside. It’s a glimpse of a reclusive soul who admits to a guilty addiction of war.
There are magazine interviews which cover his experiences in much greater detail, but this is a good film to introduce those unfamiliar with his work – and I’ll never tire of hearing from his understatement and modesty. I just wish the interior footage of him rifling through his favourite prints was shot more professionally – weaving handhold medium-shots with focus rocking back and forward are just a little sloppy. Stick it on a tripod.

Film review – The Impossible

It hardly seems possible that it is eight years since the tsunami on Boxing Day of 2004 that ravaged the coastline of South-East Asia.

This film is based on the account of one family caught in the disaster when on holiday. Director Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage) plays a soft line in suspense and, if it is seen in the cinema, a sonorous assault on the eardrums with some fine sound mixing.

The images are well-known to any who watched the news at the time; a swollen, muddy torrent of beach-front flotsam and jetsam swirling around first-floor balconies, trees and streetlamps. In wide shots the scene is convincingly recreated to make the unbelievable scale of the disaster believable once more. 

Bayona establishes a scattering of character traits in the opening scene as the family fly into Thailand. The father, Henry (Ewan McGregor), is a worrier 
plagued by the thought that he has not set the burglar alarm before leaving. His wife, Maria (Naomi Watts) is pragmatic in the face of his anxiety, but is terrified of the minor rumbles of turbulence as they come into land. The eldest son, Lucas (Tom Holland) in his early teens, is unsympathetic to this and the neediness of one of his much younger brothers.

It’s expected that what follows will challenge these aspects of their characters, but really, any character arc is dropped in a film in which we vicariously experience a purgatory state of raw emotion as the characters stagger through the wreckage in an attempt to find other family members and a source of help. As an exercise in “What would you have done?” a good job is made of what must be beyond true comprehension.

The younger actors should not go unnoticed. Samuel Joslin holds his brief scenes well as the middle brother Thomas, in charge of the youngest Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) when on their own, and evokes that sense of a child calmly imitating the mantle of an adult in the most unusual of times.

Holland guides the audience for a good deal of the film, though he is more action than revealing emotion. The many shots of him running errands through hospital corridors reminded me of another disaster film, of sorts, that featured a boy lost in the tumult of a Far-Eastern setting: Christian Bale in The Empire of the Sun. Holland didn’t get as much time as Bale to show his acting chops, but I’m curious to see what he does next.

The sound effects of muffled rushing water and muted underwater collisions is a great aid to the tension in the action sequences, but tinkling piano notes grate slightly in scenes where silence would have emoted well enough; given the circumstances and the naturalistic performances given by McGregor and Watts. As in The Orphanage, Bayona builds tension gradually then breaks it with such unexpected empathy that, at one point, I sat in silence as a tear rolled down my cheek. This is not a film of great character analyses, but is certainly one that gives thought for being alive.

Film review – The Artist

Silent movie actor, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin of OSS:117 fame) is at the top of his game, but in a dull marriage to a fellow Hollywoodland silent movie star. At the premiere of his latest film, he literally bumps into the unknown actress, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) in the admiring crowd. A few playful poses in front of the press later and she’s on the front page of the papers under the headline “Who’s That Girl?”. This chance publicity ensures she is later retained on George’s picture as a dancer, and we see a chaste attraction form between the two. But it’s time for a montage sequence, and Peppy attends auditions and works her way up the ladder. But while her star ascends, George Valentin’s is falling, a fading silent star in a new world of talking pictures.

The advent of movies with sound means George’s career is in danger of being silent forever. Cast off by his long-time producer (John Goodman – who else?) he has a nightmare of not being able to speak in a world of sound, one in which chorus girls laugh at his sudden emasculation. The threat to this once immortal star of the silver screen is hinted at in an ornament from his house, a cast of the three-monkey motif of the Buddhist Tendai sect – representing the wisdom commonly interpreted in the West as “See no evil. Hear no evil. Speak no evil” ??? but a more relevant interpretation here is from the old Japanese “Mizaru. Kikazaru. Iwazaru” which means (are you still with me at the back?) “Not see. Not hear. Not speak.” But, what’s that? Could there be redemption for George in the form of unconditional love? Well, whaddya know!

Writer and director Michel Hazanavicius has made a swell movie, right down to the period-style opening titles. It’s a tribute to the kind of old-school Hollywood romantic melodrama and dance numbers that used to play out with bombastic big-band soundtracks, and it’s all done with a nod, a wink and a good dose of jazz hands and sparkling teeth.

The jazz-classical soundtrack by Ludovic Bource underscores the film perfectly, telling us when to feel sad, tense, happy or just plain drunk. Guillaume Schiffman‘s black and white cinematography is luxuriant, with one scene using a mirrored table and a Dutch camera angle that is just incredible – a tip of the top hat towards German surrealist film-making of the period.

In another beautiful early scene, Peppy finds herself in George’s dressing room, his top hat and tails hanging on a stand. She slips her right arm through the same of the jacket, placing her hand as if it is his, lovingly on her own hip as she closes her eyes and daydreams of his embrace. It’s a shot I saw in the trailer but thought was a visual effects trick. No, it’s a just beautifully simple illusion, kinda like love. Ahh alright, alright, I’ll quit with the lovey dovey stuff. Look, there’s a dog in it, it’s amusing. Go see it for the dog, at least.

This is the best romantic comedy I’ve seen in a long time, and I’m glad I finally got around to it. So what if it’s predictable. Who needs modern toilet humour, when ya got class like this?

Cut. Print. That’s a wrap.


Thank you to the staff of Sushi Say, Willesden Green, for help with the Japanese translation, and not least to
Whogivesamonkeys, whose latest blog post put those Buddhist monkeys in my mind before the movie

Film review – The Woman in Black – A descent into the underworld

The British Library is currently showing an exhibition on Charles Dickens’ use of the supernatural in his novels, written at a time in Victorian-era Britain when seances were a parlour trick which later became a pseudo-science; that of trying to make contact with a spirit world. Decades after his death, in a time of great loss of life following the first world war, there was an intense will to believe in more than an afterlife – a belief that there was intersection between the worlds of the living and the dead where lost loved-ones could be found once more.

The Woman in Black is adapted from the novel written by Susan Hill in 1983, set in the post-Victorian Edwardian era. It is a source that has previously been adapted for stage and screen, with the latest directed by James Watkins (writer/director of Eden Lake) and starring Daniel Radcliffe.

Kepp (Radcliffe) is a lawyer widowed when his wife died in childbirth, leaving him with a now four-year-old son. Beset by debts, he is instructed by a senior member of the firm to prove his commitment to further employment by taking on a probate case  – that of Mrs Alice Drablow, the deceased owner of the now deserted Eel Marsh House.

The house is located on an island accessible only by a causeway submerged under each sea tide. Kipps must sort through the many papers within the house to close the case and return to his infant son within the week as planned. But there is a malevolent presence there – the apparition of a woman dressed in black, the sighting of which coincides with terrible events in the nearby village.

Eel Marsh House represents Kipp’s personal hell, a projection of his psyche, mangled and distorted through grief. Like the Greek hero Orpheus who made a descent into the underworld to rescue his wife Eurydice from the grip of Hades, Kipps ignores the warning signs and is compelled to visit the house again and again in a quest to subconsciously reconcile the loss of his beloved wife, seen in his imagination as a spectral figure dressed in white. I need not point out the symbolism of this.

Watkins directs an enjoyable horror film worthy of the resurrected Hammer brand. There is an increasing assault of jumpy moments made good by sound design and editing, but that’s all that is on offer. There is nothing to really chill you to the rattling bones of your subconscious. Radcliffe is still to green to be playing a role of this sort, and he lacks conviction when delivering the speech of a widower. The end of the story has been altered from the novel in such a way that I think makes for a decidedly less jarring ending. But perhaps you’ll feel different.

I’ll leave you with this thought. In the film, The Empire Strikes Back, the young Luke Skywalker is being trained to face his own dark side, and must leave the safety of his teacher, Master Yoda, to descend into a dark cave that he is told is “strong with the dark side of The Force”.

“What’s in there?” he asks.

“Only what you take with you,” is the reply.

Kipp’s cave is Eel Marsh House. Yours is the darkness of the cinema. Don’t have nightmares, now.