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Friday, 29 April 2011

Unsung Masterpieces: Entry 2

Okay, perhaps not quite a masterpiece, but certainly a film I cannot recommend enough, is "Tsotsi", the first feature from Gavin Hood.  I had not seen it before yesterday, to my shame, but seriously, if you have not seen it, do! 

Having seen Hood's "Rendition", which I very much enjoyed, I was not surprised to find his debut "Tsotsi" (African slang for a thug or gang member) is fully deserving of the international acclaim it has been given. An up-to-date rendering of a book written in the 1970's, it tells the story of a young African man, David, who survives rather than lives, understanding only violence and crime; a man who has no family, and clutches to bitterness as a way of getting on in a place riddled with disease and poverty. A crime he commits against a rich family brings with it an unexpected dilemma, and an unexpected obligation; the film is the exploration of the moral struggle he encounters and the discovery of his humanity. Ultimately it proposes that no matter how awful a person, no matter what our preconceptions, nothing is black and white, there is always an explanation (which is very different to an excuse) for behaviour, everybody is a human being, and as such, redemption should always be possible.

Hood has a real eye for photography, as he went on to prove again with "Rendition"; with "Tsotsi" he doesn't just display understanding of how to shoot something, but also the significance of a shot, of a composition, of a colour scheme; visuals regularly support similes and metaphors of the script and genuinely draw your eye, grab your attention, and make you understand things very clearly. He captures the landscape perfectly; there is both a beauty and a disgrace about this contemporary, disease-ridden Johannesburg; rich and poor are wonderfully illustrated, and there comes a point in the film where failure to understand the position and mentality of David and his gang is near impossible. Hood takes time to lay back-story gradually, building David's character through the film, so that by the final act we are completely with him. An intelligently used soundtrack emphasises this all the more.

The heart of the film is actually the central performance by Presley Chweneyagae, who is completely engaged, totally in the skin of David, and with every expression and slight gesture, portrays perfectly his emotional and mental state. By the end of the film you can see memory, longing and confusion in his eyes and movements, and etched clearly into his face by the tears he cries. The whole final act is masterful, so emotional, beautifully played, and with a very final shot that is haunting and iconic; a similar feeling is experienced to that which is felt at the end of "Full Metal Jacket", although perhaps a little more oddly positive.

"Tsotsi" does not have the surprise element Hood's next film would have, and in a way you can say it is quite a predictable story, but it is otherwise so sincere, so heartfelt, and so moving, that this complaint holds little sway. Any film that can setup a character one should not like and move the audience to the point of honestly caring about them, and understanding them better, is doing something right. 

I also have to reiterate that "Rendition", the film that followed soon after, featuring Jake Gyllenhaal and which did not get much attention, is also well worth your time, especially if a political story that leaves you something to think about sounds up your alley.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Limited IQ at "Limitless"

It has been some time since I have experienced annoying, moronic behaviour at the cinema, but when you're going to enjoy movies at the Empire in Basildon your luck only lasts so long, and tonight mine ran out.  You would think, with it being a week evening we might be free of the kids but no, there they were, a group of the little darlings, with the bodies to get in to a certificate 15 but certainly not the minds, in our seats when we arrived.  A fairly empty screen, so we weren't too bothered about just sitting the other end of the row and avoiding what would only be inevitable hassle, but it was a precursor for what was lying ahead; belching and snide comments through the trailers, and as the film begins, more chit-chat.  You wouldn't mind so much if it was a buzz of excitement which they struggled to keep contained, but it wasn't even that; it was simply an inability to recognise and adhere to a social courtesy that dicatates, when the lights go down and the BBFC certificate is displayed, it is your cue to shut the fuck up.  Perhaps it is the relatively empty screen that makes them feel they can treat the place like their living room.

In any case, the film starts and the boy hasn't put his phone away, nor does he for the entire movie; not entirely sure why you pay for a ticket to sit in a cinema screen and text people the whole time....any thoughts?  As for the farting sounds, the rasberry blowing, the rocking of seats and the banging of your feet against the premium seat barricade, where the hell do you think you are?  More to the point, why are you here?  You've paid to watch a film, so please do so; if you don't like what you're seeing, leave, but stop ruining the experience for other people.  Then we have the shouting out and telling other people in the theatre, "that isn't funny"; who are you to tell anyone else their reaction to a film, and what's more, in case I didn't mention it before....shut up!!  What stops us complaining?  Well the lack of frequency these things happen and being too engaged with what is going on up there, on the screen, the thing they seem to be ignoring.  That said, once is too much and it wouldn't have taken a great deal more for somebody to have said or done something about it.

Rant over.  What did we see?  Answer's in the entry title.  A generally very arresting film with a surprising turn from Bradley Cooper, who shows he can carry a film quite nicely.  It has some thought behind it, and despite a couple of little holes I found myself picking at, and despite it feeling a tad overlong and dragging a bit in the middle, it was a great cinema experience.  And it has to be a cinema experience...see this film once at the cinema; it uses on a few occasions a technique that harkens back to Hitchcock, who I believe was the first filmmaker to use it at all.  I can sincerely say that I have not seen it used to such great effect before; in fact, speaking of Hitch, if you suffer vertigo, approach with caution.......See what I did there? ;)  The film's opening credits bring to mind "Fight Club", the film starts similarly to "Fight Club", it has the same sort of pacing as "Fight Club", a similar use of soundtrack as "Fight Club", and the narration style is akin to "Fight Club".......fair to say it reminded me of "Fight Club".

There has been a little talk about it having competition in "Source Code", the other hip thriller and second film from Duncan Jones ("Moon"), which I talked about in my last entry.  So, how do they compare?  Well, not that I am one for comparing different films, because I believe a film stands alone, and standing alone both movies are very good, but see my breakdown below:

Both films are far fetched; "Source Code" is a sci-fi with the same fundamental flaw as "Terminator", but if you accept it as it's presented, much like "Inception", the science is well laid  out.  "Limitless" falls a little flat and after providing you the basic idea, doesn't bother explaining any science.  You could argue it doesn't need to, but it does do that "we only use so much of our brain" thing, which is a little gripe of mine.

Cooper proves himself, but Gyllenhaal remains the better lead man in general

"Limitless" is the better-looking film, playing with the saturation of the photography and putting some creative trick shots to very good use.

"Limitless" wins, hands down.

"Source Code" is more precise in its writing, and has an almost perfect pace; "Limitless" is more broad, fun, less consequential, and could have done with a little trimming.      

My Lasting Impression: 
I enjoyed both films, but where "Limitless" was fun, exciting, and certainly more cinematic, "Source Code" left me with more to think about as I walked out, and was ultimately the slightly more intellectually satisfying movie.

Limitless: 8/10                                     

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Source Code: A Welcome Distraction

I was so close to not getting out last night, as only one person was really about and up for anything; I almost suggested leaving it and just staying in, but there was something about seeing just a tiny bit of "So You Think You Can Dance" on television that  pushed me out the door.  Aren't we just so excited about yet another cheap reality talent show, posing as great Saturday night entertainment, isn't this just what we're after?  Apparently so.  After all the controversy of rigged public votes, after all the years of boring repetition, after the inevitable sob stories and the oh so obvious scripted reactions, people are still into this shit?

"Why do they let them go on?" my mother asks, watching some idiot after her fifteen minutes of fame but who we all know is absolutely useless, as she struts her stuff like she's pissed at some wedding.  The answer is always the same, and surely at some point people will start waking up to it: It's good TV!  We love laughing at people, we love the cruelty; people have openly admitted the reason they watch the beginning of "The X Factor" is for all the hilariously crap auditions.  People don''t yet realise it's all a setup, a ploy?  We still don't recognise that the show's organisers, the people who pocked the revenue, could very easily prevent any pathetic wannabe getting on if they actually wanted to?  Of course they won't do that; we love watching it too much; we love watching people get so close, and then lose because, in reality, they were awful.  They gave us a month's entertainment though....ok, at the expense of people with genuine talent having to leave, but hey-ho, that's the way it works and if you're still going to put yourself forward for this sort of thing, seriously., you know what to expect, so stop moaning.  It is all a sham and I look forward to the day where we wake up and smell the coffee, demaning some good weekend entertainment on the box again, but until that day....I'm staying well away. 

As I said at the beginning, a friend and I spent time at the cinema, watching something that somebody actually took seriously while making, something far more worth my time.  Duncan Jones is treading a slightly different path to his father, but is proving to have inherited the gene for creativity; I adored his debut "Moon" (see previously on the blog), and though perhaps not quite as good, his follow-up feature "Source Code", is a very enjoyable movie.  To say it is not as good as "Moon" is actually not saying much, considering that it would have taken another materpiece to have stood up to such an unexpectedly brilliant debut (with which pretty much everyone agrees).  "Source Code" is not written by Jones, only directed, and is far more a balls-out thriller, but interestingly it still explores some similar themes and questions as "Moon".  The slightly higher budget has been put to good effect, although Jones is one to prove that big explosions and incredible CGI effects are nothing without a brain, and that good filmmaking is more fundamental than those things; even in today's hi-tech, fast-moving world, a film still needs to do more than look pretty.  Just as with its predecessor, "Source Code" sets you up with ideas you have seen explored elsewhere; where you could find the roots of "Moon" in "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Solaris", "Source Code" has closer kin in the likes of "Speed" and "Inception".  In the case of both movies, though, what marks them out as great is what they then do with those ideas and how much heart they have.  Granted, "Source Code" was not quite as surprising as "Moon", but it still proved to be an intelligent, challenging piece.  Another thing I like about his films is the science of them; they do not skip over explanations, and he works hard to lay what some might consider complex ground work for his audience, ala Nolan.

Despite some small quibbles with the movie, such as the fact Clint Mansell would have scored it better (I mention this  because I know it was only timing and circumstance that prevented Jones working with him again), and the film actually having room for a bit more development in the central location (it is rare for me to say I feel a movie would have benefit from being longer), I still very much enjoyed myself and recommend it as a cinema trip!  Jake Gyllenhaal continues to prove himself to be a terrific lead actor who can carry a film, and if Duncan Jones just keeps doing what he is doing, staying ambitious and not becoming lazy, I see good things ahead for him, and I see myself being a big fan!

"Source Code" - 8/10