Adieu au langage (Goodbye to Language, 2014)

In writing about the most recent film I’d seen of director Jean-Luc Godard’s (Film socialisme, 2010), I tried to convey a sense that assigning a star-rating to it was largely futile. Godard’s practice by this point is increasingly experimental and beyond the bounds of conventional film narrative, moreso even than in his 60s heyday. So those who’ve seen anything he’s done in the last ten years won’t be surprised by Adieu au langage, just as it’s likely that those who only know him from his 60s pop-cultural pomp will recoil in horror. There’s still some of the same playfulness at work, such as when the film’s title pops up periodically as “AH DIEUX / OH LANGAGE”, or the repeated footage of a cheerful dog (Roxy, the real star of the film), or the title card with the word “2D” in the background and “3D” looming out front. For indeed, this film is in 3D, but pushed to its limits as grainy handheld video footage butts up against recycled film clips and more studied compositions. What narrative there is features a couple who fight and bicker, both of them often in a state of partial undress, but it’s very much just telegraphed hints towards Godard’s themes at this point. There’s a two-part structure, “nature” and “metaphor”, and the mood (as the most recent Godard films have been) is strongly elegiac — a goodbye not just to words but to a filmic language too, perhaps. You may love it, you may hate it, but you will probably still feel provoked and more than a little confused.

Goodbye to Language film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard; Cinematographer Fabrice Aragno; Starring Héloise Godet; Length 70 minutes.
Seen at BFI Imax [3D], London, Monday 13 October 2014.

Frozen (2013)

I think by now most people are familiar with the standard-issue Disney animated schtick, which involves a hunky hero, a blushing princess, a comedy sidekick, a whole bunch of sappiness, and some songs. In that respect, I don’t think Frozen is going to particularly surprise anyone. What makes a nice change is that the heroine is the star of the film, she doesn’t really need the bloke, and her story is not resolved by his kiss. That aside, both female leads can belt out a pretty big vocal (despite being stick thin), there’s a whole bunch of sappiness, and there’s a chirpily naive comedy sidekick. So, a success all told. Oh, and it’s very very white.

It’s based — pretty loosely — on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, hence it’s set in a sort of faux Scandinavian northern land where the people are called Olaf and Hans, and where you’d think they’d be a bit more used to bitterly cold winters. However, when Princess (and later Queen) Elsa’s magical powers to make things very very cold go awry and she flees like Superman to a solitary ice castle, the people must face up to a perpetual Winter. Unless! Unless her frozen heart can be thawed by love! (Or something like that.) Heading up this quest to get through to Elsa is her sister Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell), whom Elsa has shunned since childhood (because dangerous magical superpowers). Anna is sent on this quest by Prince Hans, with whom she is in love and who has abrogated to himself power over the kingdom in the sisters’ absence (hmmm). And on the way, Elsa somehow brings to life a jolly and impish little snowman called Olaf (Josh Gad) and together they meet a kindly ice farmer (you heard) called Kristoff (Jonathan Groff). So that’s the setup.

Clearly, a sense of slavish accuracy to historical detail — or maybe because of a strongly-articulated aesthetic focused on snow — means that this world is almost entirely populated by white people. The film is a lot stronger when it comes to female agency, given that the two leads are women, and it’s their story which is the most important one. There is still, of course, a tangled romantic sub-plot, but it never becomes the film’s focus, especially given that the presence of Olaf pretty much steals any scenes in which Anna and Kristoff are together. Olaf certainly follows in a strong tradition of comedy musical sidekicks, but thankfully has been written as entirely double-entendre free, with a lack of self-awareness and a charming naïveté which is actually quite refreshing in the context.

There’s still plenty of sappiness on show though, and the soundtrack as sung by the voice cast has the required balance of moving ballads and big belting power solos (on which territory, Princess Elsa voiced by Idina Menzel, dominates). One of the strongest, because most interesting, numbers is the one that opens the film, as we see Kristoff and his tribe (I guess) doing their ice farming — which is to say, cutting up frozen lakes into chunks and transporting it — all while singing their ‘traditional’ work song.

Obviously, as you may already have intuited, I am not the target audience for any Disney animated musical, but I feel like I’ve seen a fair few over the course of my life. Disney pretty much created this genre with The Little Mermaid (1989) and thus more or less owned it during the 1990s (with the occasional challenge), but the form has been in something of a decline since then. That makes Frozen something of a retro throwback, but without the tiresome self-consciousness that marks most ‘retro’ enterprises. Therefore, I think the highest praise I can give it is that it would have fit seamlessly into the height of Disney’s mid-1990s animated film roster, and if that’s what you’re looking for, then Frozen might be for you.

Frozen film posterCREDITS
Directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee; Writer Lee (based on the fairy tale Snedronningen by Hans Christian Andersen); Starring Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue [3D], London, Thursday 12 December 2013.

Gravity (2013)

I can’t help but wonder if I’m maybe going through a bit of a fallow period with my film writing. There’s only so many reviews you can bang out in a week (and I’ve been posting every weekday for the last few months, pretty much) without it all feeling a bit same-y. Perhaps I’m unenthused by what’s on offer at the cinemas right now, or maybe it’s just an autumnal thing of feeling like getting out and doing more exercise. In any case, when I think about Gravity — and more specifically, when I think about all the hype around it, about all the reviews of it that I’ve read over the last couple of months (for it was on release around the rest of the world before it came to the UK) — I don’t really feel I have a whole lot new to add. Which isn’t to say I didn’t like it: that might actually be a new angle on it. No, it was great in several respects. You’ve probably seen it, and you may well agree. If you haven’t, it’s a disaster movie set in space and it focuses on two astronauts, Ryan (Sandra Bullock) and Matt (George Clooney).

Of course, there’s already a backlash but that’s to be expected. A lot of the criticism seems to focus on the science, and not being a scientist I cannot contribute to such arguments, save that if you’re obsessing about these things and then writing off the film as a result, you probably don’t understand much about art. The film certainly works as an immersive experience. It’s the first film I’ve seen in the IMAX format, and it impressed me. Even the 3D impressed me, and that’s a gimmick I tend not to have much time for. I suspect it may have been the fact that Gravity builds far more deliberately and quietly than most 3D films, with slower, more fluid camera movements reducing the ocular strain that usually accompanies the format (given that big budget movies tend more towards speedy, fast-cutting action). As a film, it has more confidence in its script and its images to create tension than in artificially engineering such feelings through throwing things at you, and I welcome that.

More persuasive are criticisms regarding the screenplay and characterisations. Not so much about the way it builds from a quiet opening through to the first act disaster that threatens the crew of a space mission working on the Hubble telescope — that much is done superbly well — as the actual dialogue which at times shades towards the mawkish. Then again, by the time we get to the worst of it (when Ryan encounters Matt in the space station’s landing craft), it feels like this has been somewhat earned by the film: Bullock’s character has, to say the least, had to deal with a lot of stress by this point. It also points to the way the film is a generation away from those films of the 1950s and 60s that expressed a wonder at the vastness of creation; the key take-home feeling of this film, via Bullock’s character, is relief at being spared the terror of this final frontier.

Then there are the characters. Clooney’s in particular seems a bit thin — he’s basically playing his usual ‘type’, bantering on with an easy charm and totally unflappable — though in a sense his calmness is like a decoy to the terror that hangs over the mission from the outset (there are more astronauts initially involved than just Ryan and Matt, but they don’t get any screen time). After all, from the pre-credits title informing us that nothing can live in space, to the precarious work they’re doing and the news of approaching debris from a satellite accident, the film frontloads the suspense. Added to this is the sound of Ed Harris’s recognisable voice from mission control, which for the movie-savvy amongst us is rarely a portent of good news.

The next paragraph may be classified as containing spoilers, although I’ve tried to be as oblique as possible. Skip to the final paragraph if you’re concerned.

Sandra Bullock’s character, Dr Ryan Stone, is possibly more problematic, as she’s loaded down with a sentimental backstory of the type that doesn’t trouble Matt’s experienced (male) astronaut. She too is basically a ‘type’, a mother-figure (after a fashion), tethered to the Earth by her experiences and her innate nature. If there’s some mythological heft to it, then it’s a mythology that trades on age-old tropes of woman-as-life-giver-and-nurturer. That said, the film problematises these links a little bit. If there’s a feeling at times that being in space is like being a defenceless baby in a womb (and maybe part of that is just my own flashbacks to the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey, another formative space-set event film), space is instead clearly presented here as deadly and hostile, and Ryan is frequently untethered and terrifyingly afloat. And in recounting her backstory, her own status as mother has, it turns out, been undercut by gravity, the very force which is denying her safety in space. Her survival then is never assured, and the ambiguity even extends to the film’s final sequence, which seems to rehearse the ‘ascent of man’ and suggests a rebirth, or perhaps a new set of challenges to her survival.

Whatever the deeper meaning that one takes from it, the film is nevertheless assured at the visual level. The special effects and the cinematography is transporting and rather demands the immersion of the cinema; whether it will work in quite the same way at home on smaller screens remains to be seen. In that sense, this is a return to proper ‘event cinema’ status. It may eschew a lot of the extraneous noise of your standard big-budget big-screen spectacular, but it still trades on many of these ideas, aided by canny marketing and hype. However, it boasts an excellent performance by Bullock (far stronger than her recent work in The Heat to my mind), a clipped running time (all blockbuster films should be this concise) and those incredible space-set special effects sequences. The possibility of space travel may seem further than ever from our current generation, but if this film has any effect then it’s to make us rather more comfortable with that reality; the only terrors that await us are in the darkened auditorium of a cinema. I’m not sure whether that’s depressing, or a great thing. But for 90 minutes it tends a bit more towards the latter.

Gravity film posterCREDITS
Director Alfonso Cuarón; Writers Alfonso Cuarón and Jonás Cuarón; Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki; Starring Sandra Bullock, George Clooney; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Enfield [IMAX 3D], London, Monday 18 November 2013.

One Direction: This Is Us (2013)

I feel like I’m starting half my reviews this way, but I’ll do it again: once again I have watched a film whose subject I am entirely unfamiliar with. One Direction is not a band I own any music by, and their fame has largely bypassed my attention what with my being in the ‘wrong’ demographic, though the few tracks of theirs I’d heard have been jolly in an uptempo way. As a boyband, their sound strikes me as the heir to that of McFly and Busted, the great British pop boybands of the 2000s. Which is to say, you are unlikely to get much out of this new documentary if you take a strong dislike to this brand of pop music; I think it’s great fun.

As a documentary, it hardly springs any surprises. There’s a potted history of the band’s formation on the British TV talent show X Factor in 2010, presided over by svengali Simon Cowell, who makes an obligatory appearance to assure us of how he spotted their talent right away. We see the small provincial towns, mostly in the north of England (Niall is from Ireland), from which the five members hail, and we see them with their families. Their families pop up throughout the film, indeed — mostly filmed without their famous offspring — and we learn how the life of an international touring pop star puts strains on home life (one parent dolefully relates how her son has only been home five times since 2010). But mostly we see the band goofing around backstage, waving to their fans in various locations around the world, and, of course, playing gigs in enormous venues. There are maybe seven or eight entire songs shown live in concert, which is where most of the (unremarkable) 3D effects are put.

I’d call this a hagiography, but there’s not really much sense that any of the five harbour any dark secrets that are being hidden, or that there are other points of view to put across. Some music critics are interviewed to try and convince us they have a spiky, rebellious edge (I remain unconvinced), and their image could easily be labelled bland, but that would be unfair. If the film gets across anything, it’s that they have had an unexceptional upbringing, which is something you see rarely enough in documentaries that it’s almost refreshing.

That’s not to say the very normality of their lives makes them boring as subjects, as there are aspects of their upbringing which reflect on society as a whole. For a start, the parents of most of the five have separated or divorced (Louis in fact took his stepfather’s surname). We also get hints of the limitations of their small town lives: Niall’s dad talks of how his son now has more life experiences than he’ll ever have, having grown up his whole life in a rural community, while Liam’s dad speaks of pubs and snooker clubs as the limits of his patrimony. A few of them meanwhile are shown revisiting their earlier work experience — Harry having his bum pinched (affectionately) by the matronly staff at his local bakers, and Louis casting aspersions on his uniform at a Toys ‘R’ Us. It’s also fascinating — though not discussed in the documentary, perhaps because it’s become entirely normalised — that one of the members, Zayn, is a practising Muslim. The documentary’s title, This Is Us, is thus as much about our society as these specific five people.

The bulk of the documentary, though, is made up of the live performances, and of the band members themselves having fun with one another. They have no illusions about the transitoriness of fame and hardly expect to be doing the same thing in ten years time, but at the point of filming they are just entering their 20s, looking fresh-faced and largely free of cynicism. Their company is hardly unpleasant and I’d find it difficult to believe anyone could really hate them (though never underestimate the power of anonymity on the Internet), but the film’s primary purpose is to thank their fans, and at that it does a good job. It might even make a few new ones. Now, where do people buy music these days?

Director Morgan Spurlock; Cinematographer Neil Harvey; Starring One Direction; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue [3D], London, Thursday 29 August 2013.

World War Z (2013)

It’s fair to say I went into this without high hopes. I was aware of some of the fraught production history, though primarily from having read a few reviews beforehand. Yet I like Brad Pitt as an actor, and in the end really enjoyed this tense and gripping thriller about a zombie apocalypse.

It has limitations obviously. For a start, it’s probably best to think of it as a film about a catastrophic viral outbreak, with the zombies being a sort of convenient writers’ short-hand for something Very Bad that is nevertheless Obviously Fictional. I don’t think these zombies share much in common with other cinematic and fictional zombies: they’re in essence just monsters (quick, lethal, dangerous). As an outbreak that needs to be contained, the hopes of (yes) all humanity are basically on the shoulders of Brad Pitt’s former UN investigator Gerry, whose singular ability to spot the zombies’ weaknesses is surely only explicable because the numbers of intelligent people have been so depleted — mostly it’s just military types remaining, with the odd civilian like Gerry who’s been whisked to the safety of a convoy of ships in the Atlantic.

What the film is good at — what I enjoyed about it — is that it manages to sustain for most of its running time a claustrophobic tension, from the initial scenes set in Philadelphia as Gerry and his wife Karin (Mireille Enos) take their kids to school, to Gerry’s attempts to track down the cause of the virus first in South Korea, then in Israel and finally at a WHO laboratory in Wales. The film has a very sure control over the mood it creates, and there’s a feeling of constant peril around all the (human) characters.

That said, it does indulge in some rather reductive and spurious analogies, foremost amongst them the claim that North Korea and Israel have resisted the zombie invasion thus far thanks to their paranoid border security. David Morse is even wheeled on as a toothless defector to the North Koreans, his scenes set in the barely-filtered half light of a dingy cell, a Cassandra figure by way of Hannibal Lecter. The Israeli scenes are no more subtle — and when that country’s borders do succumb it’s ironically due to the amplified singing of peace song “Od yavo shalom aleinu” — though Gerry does at least pick up a companion in his fight against the zombies in the form of a laconic soldier played by Daniella Kertesz, which somewhat balances Enos’s rather thankless ‘worried wife back home’ role (though she does that very well).

Of course, the focus of the film is at all times on Pitt’s investigator, and he does well in this thinly-veiled saviour role. At the very least, the film doesn’t greatly outstay its welcome, restrainedly clocking in at under two hours. If the ending is a bit vague — suggesting the (surely remote) possibility of a sequel — it is at least suitably bittersweet, given the ravages of the previous two hours. World War Z doesn’t deserve all of the ire it’s received, and winds up as a more than competent thriller.

Director Marc Forster; Writers Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof and J. Michael Straczynski (based on the novel by Max Brooks); Cinematographer Ben Seresin; Starring Brad Pitt, Daniella Kertesz, Mireille Enos; Length 116 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue [3D], London, Wednesday 3 July 2013.

Talking Point: 3D

When I was a kid back in the 1980s, 3D was considered a ridiculous novelty idea that would every so often resurface when some TV channel or cinema would put one on for a one-off showing, usually requiring a tie-in promotion to distribute cheap cardboard glasses so that people could enjoy the show.

For some reason, and despite my best efforts to resist it in the initial stages, it seems to be a properly big commercial thing now. Every effects-laden tentpole blockbuster or animated release is put out in a 3D version, whether or not it was intended to be shown that way when made.

What I don’t understand is quite why it has taken hold to the extent it has. Every film I’ve seen in 3D makes me feel like I’m watching cut-outs being waved about in front of background scenery. Even when the parallax layering is done well, there’s still a sense that everything is slightly miniaturised somehow, as if you are even further removed from the action on screen (which, as someone who generally prefers to sit closer to the screen in the auditorium, is not a feeling I find particularly enjoyable). And then of course there’s the brightness of the image, the way that everything seen through 3D glasses is darker and murkier.

I’d like to be clear that I’m not saying people are wrong to like 3D, I just don’t understand the appeal. I think my favourite so far has been the animated film Wreck-It Ralph (2012), though I’d still have preferred it in 2D. However, I concede I’ve only seen four 3D films at the cinema in recent years.

So why do 3D films appeal? And what are some examples of really good use of 3D in cinema?