Month: October 2017

Review: Blade Runner 2049

Throughout his directing career, Denis Villeneuve has proved that regardless of budget or genre, he can create a great piece of cinema. Blade Runner 2049 is Villeneuve’s second foray into existential science fiction, a sequel to Ridley Scott’s timeless 1982 classic, and it is truly staggering in scale.

There is a distinct step away from the original in terms of style but he continues to build upon both the world and themes that Scott developed. Similarities can be seen between the two, for instance both involve an unfathomably powerful corporation who manufacture replicants; androids who are superior to humans in almost every way, except for their lack of empathetic abilities.

In 2049, the original corporation has been bought out by another, helmed by an extraordinary looking but ironically blind Jared Leto. In preparation for the role he partially blinded himself and because of that he won’t be disappointed at how few scenes in which he appears. His intentions are sinister however most of the work beyond brooding is done by his assistant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks).

The plot centres around Ryan Gosling’s K, a replicant Blade Runner tasked, like Harrison Ford before him, to hunt down other replicants living illegally. After each ‘retiring’ of a replicant, K must endure the Voight-Kampff test, a bizarre psychological assessment to determine if his human to android balance is still correct after a traumatic experience. The sterile, emotionless nature of his employment is a product of the bleak, dystopian world he lives in. At home he is greeted by his girlfriend Joi, played by Ana De Armas, who is sumptuously attractive, albeit holographically.

A sad product of technological advancement, the waifu of today’s culture has long since been replaced by an A.I girlfriend so complex that it makes that of Spike Jonze’s Her look cheap and tacky. The main downside to a holographic significant other is the impossibility of physical intimacy. To overcome this, Joi arranges for a prostitute to come to the minuscule flat they both live and, in perhaps the strangest thing I have ever seen, have sex with K whilst she layers her holographic body over that of the prostitute, their two separate bodies flickering over one another. Even in love he can’t find a human touch.

This idea of humanity is explored throughout the film, most poignantly so towards the end. K pauses outside a building and extends his arm, snowflakes gently land upon it before quickly melting. Inside that building is a female character (Carla Juri), whose compromised immune system traps her in a large, sterile bubble where she is forced to invent her own reality. We watch as she too extends her arm, holographic snowflakes gently landing upon it before glitching out of existence. Both feel empty in their inability to experience life in its purest form.

Roger Deakins, regarded by many as the pre-eminent cinematographer of our time, nominee of thirteen Academy Awards, winner of none, will undoubtedly receive his fourteenth for his incredible work here. Few would deny his work should have earned him at least one golden statuette and this I feel, although I hesitate to make such bold predictions, should be his year. The 2049 version of Los Angeles was horrifically miserable, truly deserving of the dystopian name and when K travels to Las Vegas, he encounters a world so different yet somehow still dystopian.

That wretched, angular world which Deakins created is complemented beautifully by Hans Zimmer’s score, although beautiful is not an attribute you would easily assign. It’s harsh, disjointed and unmelodic, and unless you sat through to the end credits there would be no indication that it was indeed composed by Zimmer.

Next on the agenda for Villeneuve is Frank Herbert’s science fiction epic Dune. There have been several attempts of a big screen adaptation and all have failed. David Lynch’s version was deemed sacrilege to fans, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s version, had it received funding, would have certainly changed cinema forever, with Pink Floyd, Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, Mick Jagger and many more attached.

The seed of that film, denied the water to sprout, was so significant as simply a seed that it influenced fantasy films of the future like Ridley Scott’s Alien. Interestingly, Ridley Scott was attached to Dune for seven months before the death of his brother Frank made it too tough to continue. Now, just as he took over the reigns on Blade Runner, Villeneuve will take over the reigns on Dune, and I for one am sure we are in very capable hands.

In Conversation with Kevin Everson

Kevin Jerome Everson, fresh from a mid-career retrospective at London’s TATE Modern, travelled up to HOME to screen a selection of his short films with producer Madeleine Molyneaux. Viewers were treated to multiple UK premieres as well as a Q&A, hosted by HOME’s Artistic Director Sarah Perks.

Born in Ohio and based at the University of Virginia, Everson is an award-winning artist and filmmaker and is regarded as one of the most important and creative filmmakers currently working in the USA. Despite this though he remains humble, ‘I’m just from a small town, I just make things and I’m fascinated by people who want to see what I do.’

Art as an opportunity only caught his attention at college. There he studied photography, printmaking and sculptures, before that he was ‘just a big dumb jock’. Since then his films have screened at festivals such as Sundance and Toronto International Film Festival and are praised for their unique style, combining scripted and documentary elements with an obvious formalistic approach. The focus is almost entirely on the African-American experience within the working class whilst abstaining from any generic socio-politcal commentaries.

The 1996 Guggenheim Fellowship winner exhibits a strong sense of labour in his work, ‘I’m very privileged to be an artist, so I try to find artistry in the everyday lives of workers.’ One film in particular, Company Line (2009), centres around a group of city employees battling the snowy conditions to grit the streets.

‘I make films for the subject matter not the viewer, so I’m conscious about how they look and what they say. I find the people who are the best at what they do, and capture them doing it.’ A large section of Company Line is riding along with a particular snowplough driver, watching him at work. There are deeper remarks about 20th century African-American migration to the northern US present here too, depicting a class seldom mentioned let alone seen on film.

The town shown, Mansfield, Ohio, is Everson’s home town and the film was used as part of a trilogy about the first three black neighbourhoods in America. In the early 1970’s the land they lived on was purchased and all the residents in that neighbourhood were scattered all around.

There are more unusual films in his catalogue too. For example Rough and Unequal is a 16mm project where he used a telescope to capture the moon and stars. Commissioned specifically for an exhibition at the Franklin Museum of Art, it was designed to have an effect on the art space as a whole, changing the audiences perceptions of all the pieces on display throughout its runtime.

More recently his 2017 work Brown and Clear that was shown at TIFF divided audiences. It takes place in a bar and shows a man filling up empty bottles with alcohol for the whole 7 minutes and 40 second runtime. Naturally this would immediately turn off a subset of viewers but the variety of techniques utilised make this an intriguing watch.

The story behind the film is similarly intriguing. Everson was visiting a relative and came to the pub he ran. Instantly he was looking at his surroundings for potential subjects. He noted that ‘it was all of questionable legality’. After going back home he decided to drive the eight hours back to film the relative at work.

Medium to close shots are intentional to mask the location and identity to avoid any police trouble. There are numerous interpretations to the underlying meaning of Brown and Clear, one member of the audience suggested that it ‘was a comment on alcoholism’. Everson himself agreed with this adding ‘where I’m from you didn’t get all the fancy alcohol choices you guys have, it was either brown, like bourbon or brandy, or white, like vodka or moonshine.’

Working with a colleague at the University of Virginia, he also makes period films about the history of African-Americans. ‘When we show them in front of the school where there are people of European descent they get upset but they’re not in it. Whether it’s positive or negative they want to be at the centre of it’

Although his art is focussed on the African-American experience, it is unavoidable that it would be primarily shown to white audiences, whether that be at a film festival or a gallery. The main objective though is to spark discussion about the social, political and economic condition present. ‘I never know what people will think when they watch my films but I just try to be consistent. If not then fuck it, i’ll just film more tomorrow.’

Review: The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

Noah Baumbach’s latest picture, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), differentiates itself from most of the past year’s films, in the best way possible. Each of the Meyerowitz kids are introduced by vignettes, giving us the feeling of an assemblage of short stories that are connected, especially with the bracketed “New and Selected”.  It is the story of a dysfunctional Jewish family in New York, portrayed by a refreshingly talented cast including the likes of Dustin Hoffman, Ben Stiller, Emma Thompson and Elizabeth Marvel to name a few. The script is full of quickfire Jewish New-Yorker wit reminiscent of Woody Allen classics such as Annie Hall or Crimes & Misdemeanours, as are the apartments we see, full of books and art.

The Stories emanate from the “only artist in the family”, Harold Meyerowitz, as he puts it himself. His three children, Danny, Jean and Matt, all have very different relationships with each other and especially their father. Constantly working on his sculpture and aspiring for appropriate recognition led to displacement of time and care that should have been spent on his kids. As a result, they all share a bizarre mixture of respect and hatred towards him, but equally have become extremely self-critical of themselves.

Danny (Adam Sandler) is the eldest, and it’s by focussing on his sense of failure in the Meyerowitz clan that we begin. We’re introduced to him and his daughter as he tries to find a parking space in the East village, a notoriously stressful experience. Through a lot of commotion and a song on the radio, the pair radiate a comfortable, sarcastically-fuelled relationship.

Upon arrival we meet the others, and get a taste of what’s to come. It is a relief to discover Dustin Hoffman’s performance is not embarrassing or forgettable like “Meet the Fockers” (2004). Something that built Harold’s character in the film was his repeating of the same anecdote to each of his children, each time differently, each time searching for a specific reaction, and each time failing to get the reaction he wanted. He has expectations of how people should treat him and when those expectations are not met, Hoffman knows how to conjure up just the right amount of self-entitlement and passive-aggressiveness.

One of the best scenes of the movie occurs at the MoMA, where Harold’s friend L.J. has a new art collection on display. Arriving with Danny, apparently the only two in tuxedos, they are declined entry to the private showing as they are “not on the list” – Harold’s embarrassment starts here. Thankfully L.J. happens to walk by, greats them with a warm embrace and begins introducing him to New York’s social elite. It is clear that Harold can’t help but wonder why his friend and equal has his art exposed in prestigious galleries, but his own art has only gained a small degree of success, most of it still in the garage at home. The night goes on, Harold keeps getting ignored or cut off and soon he must leave.

The script is fluid in its reflection of authentic human behaviour. An example of this is the day Matt (a brilliant performance by Ben Stiller) and his father go to lunch. Dialogue goes back and forth without stopping for breath which the camera mirrors with a singular tracking shot. Matt wants to sell his father’s house and art, his life’s work. Both get increasingly flustered and amidst all the distractions never actually order any food.

Elizabeth Marvel (Jean) gives one of the most vibrant and unusual performances of the film, playing her awkward, deadpan but sensitive character to perfection. Her talent and role left me wanting a longer segment devoted to her, but the way it is is fitting to her part, as Jean is more of a wallflower, content with being on the side-lines.

The Meyerowitz Stories take you on a drawn-out emotional ride that is quite tiring, and it works. Baumbach hits the perfect balance of comedy and tragedy, proving his directorial and screenwriting talents. This is a film about the family you are given and the long-lasting effects of the quality of the relationships one has within that family. It’s about your life’s work, and ultimately how much we let that define our self-worth.

Review: Tawai

Former marine Bruce Parry has won several BAFTA’s for his work on tribesman-centred BBC documentaries such as Tribe and Amazon. After a six year break he is back this time on his own, to revisit the nomadic Penam tribe when news of their forced settling reached him. Various unnecessary detours, interference by Parry and a bumper runtime detract from an at times touching portrayal of the first hand effects of deforestation.

Ten years ago, Parry first met the Penam people of Borneo in his tv show Tribe, where he went on hunting trips and slept in a make shift village until it was time to move on. All that has changed now and the Malaysian government built ‘long houses’ for them to live in, on the edge of their ancestral homeland.

In order to protect this land the government ask for proof of their presence in the area, but as a nomadic people their presence is so light they could not do so, and thus their land became fair game for loggers. Heartbreaking though this situation is, Parry is not content to let the audience reach their own conclusions and hijacks the narrative to champion his cause that modern society is suicidal and we must revert to the way man used to be before consumerism took hold.

No matter where his journey took him, from Indian Guru’s to a Scottish neuroscientist, Parry insists on getting between the camera and its focus, blocking our eyes from discerning our own truths. Where Tawai excelled most was in the scenes where he took a step back and just observed, allowing the tribesmen to go about their lives.

The transition they undergo such as planting fruit trees to ensure food for future generations is starkly different to their original beliefs, to live and feel the moment. Once again the message is distorted to suggest that relinquishing all possessions is the only way to be truly happy, an unnecessary extreme in the search for self-fulfilment.

This heavy handed approach spoils the inherent profundity present in the documentary. As we follow the Penam people the luxuries of the western worlds seem to have seeped into their way of being, wearing traditional clothes, smoking cigarettes and even watching television.

Particularly poignant were the watches they wore on their wrists. A people who knew when the fruit on the trees were ripe by the call of the birds who just feasted upon it now relied on time for everyday life. Pure scenes like these, where the imagery inspired critical though sadly composed a minority of the total length.

Tawai is undoubtably stunning in its visuals, a clarity of picture usually only seen in the Planet Earth series. I’m sure that within the 600 hours of recorded footage there is the makings of another documentary, with sincerity and lightness of touch. Life is about appreciation, not possession, but taking that to such an extreme alienate almost all those who watch.

Review: Missing (1982)

Costa-Gavra’s 1982 Palme d’or winning political thriller Missing had a recent reshowing at HOME Manchester. Those who attended were fortunate to watch an original 35mm print of the film. The colour was a touch worn but that did little to affect a criticism of the United States government so damning it was banned from being released until 2006.

The director makes the brave decision to drop us, the viewer, into the heart of what appears to be a war zone without any explanation. Scraps of information informs us that a military coup has taken place in this unknown South American country, and that our lead couple, Beth and Charles (played by John Shea and Sissy Spacek) are caught in the middle of it, having travelled there to live and write. The pair’s situation is a precarious one. As gunshots ring all around and bodies litter the streets, their American nationality is the only thing that keeps them safe. That is, until the husband gets arrested.

At this point his father Ed (played by Jack Lemmon) enters the fray after becoming frustrated with his apparent lack of action by the government in New York. Lemmon’s character embodies the viewer’s confusion and lack of understanding, both in the microcosm of Charles’ disappearance and the macrocosm of the wider turmoil enveloping the country. He is driven by the belief of his son’s safety and of justice coming to those culpable. It is therefore with great contempt that he should be forced to spend time with his daughter-in-law Beth.

Ed arrives with this rigid political conviction of America and of the American dream. That his son and those who he associates himself with (including Beth) are left-wing radicals, who live off the fat of the land with their anti-establishment beliefs that are an illness to his great country. Slowly, as the details surrounding his son’s disappearance become clearer and the US involvement in the coup confirmed, he faces the prospect of America, his America, being a country of murder in the name of self-preservation.

Jack Lemmon perfectly captures the internal strife of Ed as his world comes tumbling down; his son presumed dead and aware now that all he held true is false. He, a religious scientist, who holds truth to be at the heart of faith. Missing truly excels in the scenes where Ed and Beth investigate the disappearance and try to work out what really happened.

You can visibly see Ed transitioning through the five stages of grief for both his country and his son, the two things he loved most. They begin as polar opposites but by the end of the film see eye to eye. All the views of hers he despised on America became his too, such as a condemnatory questioning of the system and disbelief of the men in suits who stand there so brazen and lie through gritted teeth. Ignorance is bliss and his world has been covered in a shroud of darkness.

The most poignant moment comes when Ed confronts the US Ambassador and Army Captain with news of his son’s execution. The Ambassador admits their involvement in the coup saying how he is ‘concerned with the preservation of a way of life. And a damn good one too’. Those words used to justify the death of his son along with thousands more are the same words he uttered to Beth just days before, angered by her lack of patriotism.

Costa-Gavra certainly holds a very strong view on the events that took place in Chile, 1973. So I found it disingenuous that he never states the name of the country all the while mentioning cities such as Santiago. To go to such great lengths to creates this urgent and necessary expose but hold back one of the most pivotal details seems baffling, and it detracts from the overall splash the film makes. The decision to also set the film before the disappearance rather than opening with Ed’s arrival seems strange, as the intent is blatantly to spark outrage and the first act does little to build momentum or anger.

In the climax, we are told that Charles’ body was returned after many months, rather than the matter of days the US Ambassador promised. Years later, with advancements in DNA technology, it was determined that the body shipped back to the United States was not that of Charles Horman. The US State Department denies any involvement in the murder.