Review: Sky Ladder

Sky Ladder explores the creative process and difficulties of a true great in contemporary art

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The art of Cai Guo-qiang is like a moment in time. A drop of creativity in the pool of conventionalism. Kevin MacDonald’s Sky Ladder explores the artistic process behind his work, the origins of his illustrious career, and the shackles of patriotic ‘collaboration’.

From humble beginnings in Zhangou, the historic origin of fireworks, Guo-qiang’s father, Cai Ruiqin, was a highly respected calligrapher. A craft allowing for little personal expression, he found solace in books, regularly spending entire weekly salaries acquiring them to the detriment of his family. ‘It’s my fortune’ he told his son, ‘and one day that will be yours, too’.

Sadly, that wasn’t to be, as a drastic new ideology was sweeping through China. Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution cleansed society of so-called bourgeois elements bleaching huge periods in history, paralysing the country politically and economically. A dangerous time for classical artists and musicians, Ruiqin was forced to burn his extensive collection of books and in turn watched his son’s future reduced to ash.

And it is from those very ashes that a phoenix rises, one symbolising the flourishing of art and culture through the 1980s, the true Cultural Revolution. A time for experimentation, to push the limits of what is possible. For Guo-qiang, this was gunpowder. To essentially destroy a classical portrait through controlled detonation and call it art, to call that moment art, was simply unheard of, yet his work established a niche in the contemporary art community launching him on a trajectory to international fame.

Little by little, a shift towards a capitalistic government is becoming evident. One that takes art in it’s purist form, strips away the passion and replaces it with fanfare and melodrama. There is no greater example in Guo-qiang’s life than his 2001 APEC Conference firework show. It was conceived as a cacophony of sight and sound, coupled with suggestive themes, his trademark. With potentially the most symbolic scene following, a meeting with government officials, we watch as an increasingly desperate Guo-qiang clings to his ideas with every aspect deemed against agenda. ‘The government is here to help you’ he’s told, ‘you just have to figure out something creative with all these chains on you’. Prevented from abandoning the project from latent patriotism, the resulting soulless display is a tragedy, both for himself and, through MacDonald’s candid filmmaking, the viewer.

When an artists achieves high popularity, the likes of Damien Hirst for example, they become a brand, a large cog in the capitalist machine – often losing sight of their original cause. This issue is presented matter-of-factly, illustrating MacDonald’s disdain for the current art environment. To avoid this fate, Guo-qiang works with the unknown. Those who create for passion and self-fulfilment, the foundations of greatness. His long-awaited dream, to connected Earth to the Universe through a ‘Sky Ladder’, has wrestled with the requirement of investment. A costly venture that has suffered multiple cancellations over two decades (due to issues with weather, and an unfortunate increase in security following 9/11 terror attacks), he plans one final attempt. This time not for the eyes of the world however, but for family and friends, especially dedicated to his almost 100 year old grandmother. The affair is a poignant reminder of the struggles faced by Chinese virtuosi, with work completed in secret to avoid interference from the government. After more delays due to bad weather, Guo-qiang seizes his opportunity and what follows is simply joyous, a euphoric spectacle as dream becomes reality. His masterpiece, realised.

Sky Ladder is akin to peering through the keyhole. A brief glimpse into an ordinary man with truly extraordinary ambitions. Driven not by money, but by an incessant need to provoke discussion, instil a sense of wonder and most of all, to make his family proud. An event almost lost to the ages, MacDonald’s documentary is an astonishing extension of Guo-qiang’s art, a profound experience and an honour to watch.

Review: Snowden

Snowden successfully brings forward the issue of personal sacrifice for a greater good

Oliver Stone may go down as the greatest historical documenter in cinema history. Most noted for his trilogies about the Vietnam War (Platoon, Born on the 4th of July, Heaven and Earth) and American Presidencies (JFK, Nixon, W.) respectively, Stone once again sets his sights on political controversy with his depiction of Edward Snowden’s incredible journey from soldier to whistleblower. A vital telling of a story that should be more widely recognised and understood, for the issues it tackles impact the very way we live our lives. Before viewing, one can predict Stone’s bias. A vocal defender of Julian Assange and Wikileaks, going so far as to visit him in the Ecuadorian embassy. Nevertheless, this is a thoroughly gripping film which flourishes with a fantastic performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the lead role.

Snowden begins where it ends, with a meeting between a couple of highly regarded journalists and a very nervous looking Edward Snowden, in a small hotel room in Hong Kong. There the optimal method to making the public aware of the NSA’s actions is debated, until a filmed interview is seen as the most desired option, alongside multiple online and printed articles. From here the story splits into three very different but equally engaging arcs.

The first of these details Snowden’s discovery and later use of multiple highly invasive government programs. This causes him to take increasingly drastic steps to protect his privacy such as taping his webcam in order to stop anyone unwanted from viewing. The second story arc centres around his turbulent relationship with girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) that suffers greatly the deeper the involvement with the NSA becomes. Lastly, the aftermath of the documents being passed onto the journalists, the affect it has on Snowden personally and the world as a whole.

Despite the deeply complex issues being dealt with, Stone assumes absolutely no knowledge allowing the most unenlightened to follow. Even people familiar with Snowden’s story will be horrified at the sheer extend the US government could access your data as demonstrated in this movie. Your text messages and emails, your family photos on your personal hard-drive, even your turned off laptop’s webcam. Nothing is safe from the prying eyes of those with seemingly limitless power. The age-old argument of ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ is often raised by those unopposed to government surveillance, with Snowden himself arguing that it ‘is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say’.

Coming 2 years after the release of the exemplary documentary Citizenfour, this movie could never match the immense tension or edge of seat drama of its predecessor. It does however, provide an unfaltering glimpse into the personal sacrifices made for the perceived greater good. With a spattering of recognisable faces in minor roles such as Scott Eastwood and Nicholas Cage, Snowden demands to be seen, if only to form an opinion of one of the most influential men of the 21st century, for better or worse.

Review: Bleed For This

A thrilling boxing biopic enhanced through Miles Teller’s fantastic performance

A measure of an exceptional actor is not only their ability to embrace the character mentally, but also physically. Sports movies especially demand an immense level of commitment to achieve the body to match the words. Miles Teller (Whiplash, The Spectacular Now) brings yet another stellar performance in the incredible true story of Vinny Pazienza’s rise to the top.

From the offset, this Italian-American Junior Welterweight boxer’s arrogance is evident, opting to spend his time gambling away money instead of completing vital pre-fight preparation. This carelessness forces him to desperate lengths in order to make weight and the dehydration he suffers ultimately becomes his downfall in the ring. After a series of embarrassing defeats, his father (Ciaran Hinds) hires the famed trainer of Mike Tyson, Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart), in an attempt to revitalise his career. In a move considered suicidal by the rest of Pazienza’s team, Rooney recommends a shift in division, up to the Junior Welterweight. Here Vinny thrives, no longer cutting corners to make weight and ultimately winning the title bout.

In typical Pazienza fashion, Vinny heads to a casino in order to celebrate his comeback victory, however a devastating head-on collision on the journey there cuts the festivities short. His spine may have been broken but his spirit most certainly isn’t as he immediately expresses the desire to get back into the ring as soon as possible. This lust to continue boxing is not shared by his team nor his family, who collectively become resigned to the seemingly obvious truth that the Pazmanian Devil’s career is over.

Upon leaving the hospital, Vinny’s head resembles scaffolding after receiving multiple screws to the skull. Although the device, named a Halo, has the potential for clear religious parallels, cinematographer Larkin Seiple purposely strays away from provoking such themes. Instead, his mother Louise (Katey Sagal) is the beacon of religion choosing to listen to her son’s fights in a nearby room filled with holy tokens rather than watch him get hurt.

Quickly becoming frustrated with his newfound immobility and reliance on others, Vinny begins to secretly train in the basement of their family home and soon after Rooney is persuaded against his better judgement to assist. Initially the training is strenuous with the bar being the extent of what Vinny can manage. One Rocky-esque training montage later though and his return to the ring seems more realistic. This does not go unnoticed, with his father Angelo quick to condemn their actions and refusing to become involved, not wishing to see his son further injured.

What follows is by no means groundbreaking, nor does it push the boundaries of the boxing genre forward, but is entirely captivating nevertheless. Director Ben Younger conveys the dogged determination and resilience of Pazienza’s journey brilliantly with highly commendable performances from Eckhart and Teller. The lack of emotional depth however is an ever-present one which, aside from making this picture a simple watch, hinders it from entering the domain of the boxing classic.

Review: Awaken, My Love

Childish Gambino confidently trades rap for funk with his latest release

Donald Glover has flourished in 2016 with his casting as Lando Calrissian in the upcoming Han Solo Star Wars spinoff alongside his critically acclaimed show Atlanta. Now Glover, aka Childish Gambino, is back with a brand new album. Straying away from the almost juvenile rap of his previous projects, this latest effort is heading in a new direction.

Although hinted at in his Stn Mtn mixtape, Awaken, My Love is straight vintage funk. Gambino carefully creates a unique and easily distinguishable barrier between himself and others reviving seventies funk of old such as Chance the Rapper. There is clear inspiration drawn from the likes of Eddie Hazel and Bootsie Collins, the latter of which he samples in the track Redbone. Perhaps the worst aspect of the album is that it might make up the subtotal of his escapades in the genre.

Even though Gambino is toying with an older sound, he approaches it with new production using electronic elements such as autotune which is applied very tastefully. The instrumental talent is notable using clean percussion beside funky bass riffs as well as some exceedingly well executed solos. Overall the music production is spotless but also very diverse with the sensual Redbone among darker songs such as Zombies and ballads like Baby Boy

. The flow of this album is worthy of praise with a distinct separation in tone between the first and second halves. The first of which with its energetic and punchy songs contrast beautifully with the deeper and more emotional tracks on the second. Gambino seems to be heading towards more developed sound than his previous material, however the two are not entirely comparable due to the change in genre. The lyricism especially has seen a large shift in maturity, from references to issues for black men in today’s America on the track Boogieman, to talk of the crumbling relationship with his child’s mother on the track Baby Boy.

Nevertheless, there are some flaws with the album, primarily the track California. The vocals are strained and overly autotuned leading to an irritating moaning sound which is disappointing due to the potential in the funky keyboard and bass riffs. Furthermore, Gambino sometimes overwhelms the accompaniment in songs such as Boogieman in a manner which is reminiscent of his previous work and the track Riot seems underwritten and ends suddenly which throws away the initial promise it creates.

Awaken, My Love demonstrates the versatility of Gambino in entering a new genre. Whilst not being perfect, there is ground to believe that this project is able to hold its own against more established funk and soul artists such as Anderson .Paak. There is a solid basis for expansion in future work and it would be a crying shame if we see this genre abandoned in his return to rap.

Review: Allied

Allied is the epitome of Hollywood classic cinema

With his latest cinematic effort, director Robert Zemeckis is finally returning to reality after a brief and disappointing stint with animated works such as Beowulf. Reminiscent of the golden-age, Allied is a visually stunning and nostalgic take on how life used to be. With a straightforward yet complex narrative, accompanied with a beautiful score by Alan Silvestri (Forrest Gump, Cast Away), you will be left longing for a time you’ve never known.

We open to fabulous shot of Max Vatan (Brad Pitt), Air Force Commander, slowly descending by parachute into the Moroccan desert. After travelling to Casablanca he meets French Resistance fighter Marianne Beauséjour (Marion Cotillard) and the two must engage in a faux marriage in order to carry out an assassination on a high ranking Nazi Ambassador. In a nod to the iconic 1941 film of the same name, the faux love of Casablanca soon becomes true love and the upon completing the mission and escaping the country they settle down in London and have a child, Anna.

Aside from the nightly bombings, life is simpler in London with organising house parties appearing to be the largest cause of stress. The family lives an idyllic life in an idyllic world, thanks to the incredible cinematography. This is cut short however when Vatan is informed of new intelligence suggesting her wife is in fact a German spy. It’s laughable at first yet the claims are founded with damning evidence and what follows is the tragic collapse of his trust as he awaits the results of the investigation. Later that night as Vatan washes his face an earlier scene from Casablanca is replayed, where Beauséjour explains how creating real emotion when undercover has kept her alive so long. With Vatan slowly losing his mind as he tries to work out whether his life is all a lie, he decides to take matters into his own hands ultimately heading for France for answers.

Perhaps overly romanticised at times, including a raunchy scene during a sandstorm, the spectacle of it all seems to just work. Zemeckis’s passion for integrating the latest technological advances helps create a highly exaggerated world, one which the films it imitates dream to be. Cotillard and Pitt’s embodiment of vintage hollywood match this wonderfully.

In a seemingly hopeless world ravaged by war, life is lived to the fullest and love is true. Zemeckis shows us the beauty in the detail and although this movie isn’t perfect, it implants a renewed sense of admiration for the sacrifices made by those before us.

Review: The Kind Words

Shemi Zarhin’s sixth feature is an unfortunately generic one

With his sixth feature-length film, director Shemi Zarhin doesn’t break new cinematic ground, although there is a certain charm to his storytelling. The Kind Words follows the journey of 3 siblings trying to uncover their mother’s hidden past, and the shocking revelations that come with it.

After it is discovered that Yona (Levana Finkelstein) has a tumour, her whole family comes to the hospital to comfort her. Here her adult children Dorona (Rotem Wissman-Cohen), Netanel (Roy Assaf) and Shai (Assaf Ben-Shimon) make contact with their estranged father whose remarriage to a much younger actress is met with contempt. Whilst Yona undergoes an operation to remove the tumour we see their father unsuccessfully attempt to reach out to the children multiple times, however even through the feelings of disdain the siblings show their inherent kindness with the offering of food as they all wait nervously for the results of the operation. It is not until after the tragic death of her mother does Dorona begrudgingly agree to hear him out and what she learns will change her and her brother’s lives forever.

Initially when her father reveals his infertility Dorona scoffs but seconds later the reality of what has been said begins to slowly sinks in. If he is infertile she can’t be his daughter, nor can Netanel and Shai be his sons. Here starts a voyage of discovery which will take the siblings away from their home, Jerusalem, to Paris and then Marseille in hopes of learning the truth. There are pacing issues though which sometimes cause the intended sense of urgency on their quest for the truth to come off as nothing more than comedic hijinks.

The serious heart of the film is balanced with light-hearted humour to bring the family closer during times of grieving often in the form of bickering and sarcasm. This adds another layer to the characters as we learn more about their lives such as Netanel’s exaggerated religious beliefs to please his wife and the views they share on their homeland. In the latter stages of the film the humour endangers the harsh nature of the plot undoing the complexity preceding it nevertheless the film hits the mark for the most part.

Fertility is a major issue tackled throughout the film by Shemi Zarhin, who also wrote the script, with Dorona becoming isolated from the rest of her family. After a series of miscarriages she has seemingly given up hopes of raising children opting to also stop the adoption process. All around her are reminders of what could be, Natanel with triplets, Shai even has a child before an awakening in sexuality and their mother Yona joked about looking pregnant whilst denying the existence of the tumour. Her only equal is her ‘father’, whose inability to have children offers her slight comfort as she tries to uncover her mother’s secret life.

The climax to The Kind Words is messy yet generic, leaving the audience with more questions than answers. Whether or not the film will strike enough of a cord to make you ponder those questions remains to be seen. Zarhin is a distinguished director deep into his career but you can’t help feeling disappointed by the somewhat bland and worn formula he uses.

Review: Arrival

Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is a uniquely gentle Sci-Fi experience

One moment is all it takes to change our lives, to define a species. Director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Enemy, Prisoners) presents this moment with a profound silence uncharacteristic of science fiction. No great battle, no chaos or destruction, just the arrival. Sometimes the most terrifying action is nothing at all.

The film opens to Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a distinguished linguist traveling to work as a lecturer at the University of Montana. All around her people scramble to see screens displaying news although Banks continues to her lecture hall unaware. Almost immediately after beginning the lecture a phone goes off, then another. The world has just changed, the scale of the change however, is hidden for a few more seconds.

After tentively switching a news channel on, they learn of a mysterious object in rural Montana, massive in size and visible for miles around floating just metres from the ground. Speculation suggests an experimental military ship until more objects are found across the world, 12 in total. Villeneuve plants the audience into his world, desperate for any sliver of information but before any possible understanding can form an alarm rings around the lecture hall. The whole state is on lockdown while governments across the world scramble to figure out what is going on. As Banks enters the parking lot we see people rushing to get back to family and jets flying overhead, in a deafening array of sound.

The next day by contrast is eerily quiet, Banks travels to work as usual although it soon becomes apparent that she’s the only one. Here she is approached by Colonel Weber (Forrest Whitaker) to join a military task force at the landing site. Working alongside a theoretical physicist, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), they must not only establish the methods of communication with the unknown visitors, but decipher it and be able to communicate back. Some nations faced with a landing do not have peace as the primary objective on their agenda. China and Russia mobilise their respective armies to defend the populous from an expected invasion and it becomes a race against time to avert war with potentially peaceful extraterrestrials. Chaos is a persistent threat illustrated through widespread rioting and looting by people under the impression that the end of times is upon them.

Every few hours Banks and Donnelly travel to the bottom of the spaceship from a makeshift base nearby. Cinematographer Bradford Young (Selma, A Most Violent Year) achieves an almost tangible level of anticipation as the sheer scale of the pebble shaped ship is slowly revealed to us. This feeling is very shortly dwarfed in the sequence following as the team make their way inside. For all the advanced technology of both alien and human design depicted, there was a certain irony in using a scissor lift to bridge the gap between the 2 civilisations. When the aliens are eventually revealed, dubbed heptopods for their 7 legs, Banks is unable to make sense of their whale like cries. With the relations of world nations seeming to crumble around them, failure is not an option and upon seeing words and sentences in a visual form and not noise, a deeply complex and beautiful written language is revealed. The further she plunges into this language, the more her reality begins to shift and in doing so changes the fate of her world.

The climax of Arrival is both staggering and satisfying as several confusing elements from early on suddenly become crystal clear. With fabulous cinematography accompanied by a soul-stirring score by Jóhann Jóhannsson, this is truly a first contact film like no other. Villeneuve delivers a poignant message underlining the utter necessity of communication that transcends the screen and resonates beyond.