Archive for May, 2014

Concussion_Movie_Poster_2013

USA 2013

Director: Stacie Passon

Writer: Stacie Passon

Runtime: 96 mins

A lesbian drama that lacks drama

This directorial debut for Stacie Passon has already received recognition at several festivals around the world, including being awarded the Teddy Jury Prize in Berlin and a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Festival. Perhaps I expected too much given this pedigree, but Concussion was something of a let-down. It would be easy to make a cheap joke about how Concussion gave me a headache, but in truth this movie is far too anodyne to achieve such a result and that is its basic flaw.

Abby (Robin Weigert) is in a sexless lesbian relationship with Kate (Julie Fain Lawrence), who is also the mother of young Jake (Micah Shapero). Abby begins paying for sex with lesbian prostitutes, but after she gives an orgasm to one of the women she has hired Abby sets up in business herself. She insists on meeting first-time clients for coffee before going to bed with them, and we discover a wide range of reasons for women paying for sex with another woman. Abby only wants to meet women from outside her own town, but this changes when a new client turns out to be in her circle of acquaintances (and married to a master of the universe at Goldman Sachs).

It is no great surprise that many people have secrets in their lives, but to see a range of these secret lives depicted on screen was quite illuminating, especially because Abby’s clients cannot be easily categorised – they come from a range of backgrounds and display different motivations and desires. Another strength of the film is the way that it treats lesbian relationships and lesbian parenthood as an unexceptional part of life. Where the film fails is in delivering any kind of drama, conflict, or amusement. In the first ten minutes or so, there are some witty moments, but having created an expectation that this might be quite a humorous film there is nothing much that subsequently amuses. Abby is living a double life, but we never get any sense that there is anything much at stake. There are no real character conflicts and so there is never any real dramatic tension. Will Kate discover what Abby has been doing? Yes? No? Who cares?

Maybe I missed something obvious, but I didn’t really grasp the meaning of the title. Superficially, the title is straightforward: the story begins with Abby being rushed to hospital after being struck on the head by a baseball thrown by Jake. Are we supposed to believe that Abby’s decision to find sex outside her relationship is the result of some increase in desire caused by her concussion? Having read a précis of the film before seeing it, I thought maybe this was going to be the case. But once it was revealed that Kate had lost her interest in sex, then Abby’s behaviour seemed less in need of “explanation”. Or is the term “concussion” supposed to carry some metaphoric meaning? If so, I have to confess that the meaning has escaped me.

Not even the sex scenes manage to liven things up. These manage to be quite intimate, but restrained, with relatively little flesh exposed (especially compared to something like Blue is the Warmest Colour), and these scenes are only on screen briefly. That probably ought to be a good thing, and if the rest of the film had offered more then these scenes would not even need commenting on. But rather like the person with an urge to shout “fuck” during afternoon tea at the vicarage, I just longed for something a bit un-PC to stir things up a bit. Ultimately, the one word to describe Concussion is “worthy”, and what could be more damning?

Rating: 5/10

The Wind Rises (1)

Japan 2013

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Writer: Hayao Miyazaki

Runtime: 126 mins

 A beautiful, epic, melancholy animation

The latest, and apparently the last, animation from Studio Ghibli’s great Hayao Miyazaki, The Wind Rises takes its title from a couplet in Paul Valéry’s poem The Graveyard by the Sea: “The wind is rising / We must try to live!”.  These lines appear at the end of the opening credits and what follows is, to some extent, an examination of the challenge of living a life in dark times. The Wind Rises is in fact a fictionalised account of the early life of Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of two great Japanese WW2 fighter planes – the Mitsubishi A5M and the Mitsubishi A6M Zero – but a man who also opposed Japan’s involvement in the war.

The tone of the film is set right at the start. A young Jiro (Hideaki Anno) dreams of taking to the air in a plane that sits atop his house. As he soars above the ground, this scene appears a classic example of flight as a metaphor for personal freedom and liberation. However, the mood of the dream changes as, from behind a cloud, a huge airship appears, with bombs and sinister dark figures hanging below it. Jiro’s airplane is struck and crashes to the ground, at which point he wakes from his dream. Later, at school one of Jiro’s teachers lends him an English aircraft magazine. It contains a photograph of Count Caproni, the famous Italian aircraft designer. Jiro subsequently dreams of meeting Caproni. Jiro’s poor eyesight precludes him from being a pilot, but Caproni tells him that it is better to design planes than to fly them. He tells Jiro that airplanes are “beautiful dreams”.

Jiro’s dreams and daydreams recur throughout the movie. As a young man he goes to work for the Mitsubishi corporation, who are busy trying to build warplanes for the Japanese navy. In a dream, Caproni tells him that airplanes are “cursed dreams, waiting for the sky to swallow them up”. However, both agree that a world with airplanes is better than one without or, as Caproni puts it: “Do you prefer a world with pyramids or no pyramids?”. We see that Japan’s technology is lagging behind that of Europe, the most potent illustration of this being the way that oxen are used to pull new airplanes out to the airfield. With Japan committed to a war that Jiro doesn’t want, he nonetheless strives to build better aircraft for his country, eventually producing machines that far exceed the navy’s specifications.

Throughout all this there is the romance between Jiro and Nahoko (Miori Takimoto). The two first meet in 1923 when, during a train journey, she catches his hat after it is blown off by the (rising) wind. Shortly afterwards, the Great Kanto earthquake strikes and Jiro carries Nahoko’s maid to safety after she breaks her leg. He leaves without introducing himself but, a few years later, they meet again when Jiro catches her parasol which has been blown away by the wind. Their romance is not straightforward, to say the least, and there is a certain ambiguity about Jiro’s character as he leaves his sick wife alone whilst he devotes himself to his work. Could he have behaved differently or was he effectively compelled to work for Japan’s war machine? (at one point, for reasons he does not understand, Jiro finds himself wanted by the “thought crime boys”).

One of the most beautiful scenes in the film occurs when Jiro entertains Nahoko by launching a simple paper plane into the air, and the two then take turns sending the little white creation between them. This moment, more than any other, captures the purity and beauty of the dream of flight. When we later see a white Mitsubishi Zero take to the air, it is possible to forget – if just briefly – that this is a deadly machine, as it takes us back to the flight of the paper plane.

In Japan, The Wind Rises has caused political controversy. Nationalists are unhappy about references to the “futility” of war, whereas left-wingers wonder why a positive picture should be presented of someone so closely associated with the war machine. From a British perspective it is worth reflecting that the inventor of the bouncing bomb, Sir Barnes Wallis, is widely regarded as a heroic figure, and The Dambusters is a much-loved film – despite the fact that this raid killed thousands of people (including allied POWs), and would nowadays be classed as a war crime. But another war film that came to mind as I watched The Wind Rises was Empire of the Sun. That film’s protagonist, the boy Jim, is imprisoned in a Japanese internment camp. However, he – like Jiro – is obsessed with flight and airplanes, and sees both Japanese and American pilots as heroic figures. In one scene, Jim is walking near the perimeter fence when a model airplane thrown by a Japanese boy on the other side lands nearby. Jim throws it back and is thanked by the other boy. It is another great cinematic illustration of the beauty of flight and the way that it captures the human imagination regardless of nationality.

As with all the films from Studio Ghibli, the artistry of The Wind Rises is gorgeous. The story is a more adult one than is normally the case, but certainly none the less powerful for that. Indeed, as someone who rarely watches animated films I was absolutely caught up in the lives of the characters, and was moved emotionally. It is a film that stirs us and makes us appreciate the beauty of flight, although ultimately it is a very melancholy tale too. This is one of my favourite films of the year so far and one of the greatest animated movies I have ever seen.

Rating: 10/10

 

Frank

UK / Ireland 2014

Director: Lenny Abrahamson

Writers: Jon Ronson & Peter Straughan

Runtime: 95 minutes

 

For anyone seeking an alternative to (or respite from) the relentless onslaught of summer blockbusters (so far: Pompeii, Spiderman 2, Godzilla), there can be few better recommendations than the decidedly oddball Frank. As a story this is almost impossible to categorise, but ultimately it is a kind of paen to outsider art. The idea was developed by journalist/writer Jon Ronson (The Men Who Stare at Goats) and draws upon his experiences as sometime keyboard player for the real life Frank Sidebottom, a fictional stage character created by  Chris Sievey.

As Sidebottom Sievey would take to the stage wearing an outsized round mask with big wide eyes (literally an “odd ball”) and adopt a relentlessly cheerful, optimistic persona, whilst he and his band delivered the audience an unpredictable show that might include some ramshackle music, stand-up comedy, and even lectures. But whereas many of the artists in Sievey’s orbit would go on to achieve great fame and success, he not only seemed disinterested in reaching for such a goal but appeared to actively sabotage opportunities that might have led in that direction. As described by Jon Ronson, Chris Sievey was undeniably eccentric but essentially normal. The movie Frank does not pretend to be a biopic of Sievey/Sidebottom, but instead imagines a fictional Frank who never removes his mask, and explores the relationship between Frank, his bandmates, and the tensions between artistic originality and commercialism.

The story begins with Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), a young man wandering along a seafront and struggling to compose lyrics based on the things he sees around him. He witnesses the police and an ambulance crew trying to prevent a man from drowning himself in the sea. This would-be suicide turns out to be the keyboard player in a band with the unpronounceable name Soronprfbs. As the wretched keyboardist is taken away to have the seawater pumped from his stomach, Jon strikes up a conversation with Don (Scoot McNairy), who is the band’s manager. When Jon mentions that he plays keyboards, Don disappears back to the band’s van and then returns to say that Frank (Michael Fassbender) has invited Jon to play at that evening’s gig. On stage, Jon is momentarily discombobulated by the sight of Frank’s enormous fake head, but soon finds himself enjoyably settling into their eccentric musical groove.

Soon afterwards Don tells Jon that Frank has invited him to play with the band in Ireland. Thinking that this is just an overnight gig, Jon – who has a regular day job – is startled to discover, once in Ireland, that they are there to record a new album (“I’ve only packed one pair of underpants!” he complains). Worse, with the exception of Don and Frank, the various band members take an inexplicable dislike to Jon and his presence among their group,  especially the theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who seems to ooze contempt from every pore. The tension is not improved by Jon’s attempts to nudge Frank in a slightly more commercial direction.

Frank is one of the few modern films to fully recognise the ubiquitous presence of social media in our everyday lives. The narrative is regularly peppered with Jon’s Twitter updates to a slowly increasing audience of followers, and unbeknownst to the rest of the band he circulates YouTube clips of their rehearsals. When they eventually become aware of this there is outrage among everybody but Frank, who is naively thrilled to discover that twenty-seven thousand people are apparently following the band.  On the strength of this he agrees to the suggestion that the band should play at an American music festival that has a slot to promote interesting new groups. However, once in America all the tensions within the band, and between artistic integrity and commercial realism, come to a head.

If the film can be said to falter at all, it is towards the end where it feels the need to explain the character of Frank. This is not badly done, but it is perhaps just a little too pat. Maybe it would have been just as satisfactory for Frank’s character to remain a mystery. Nonetheless, in its tribute to those who wish to plough the lonely furrow of their own unique artistic vision, come what may, I thought the finale was emotionally satisfying. There are fine performances all round, especially from Gyllenhaal and Fassbender.

Rating: 8/10

Locke_poster

In a series of phone calls whilst on a motorway journey a man’s life falls apart

USA/UK 2013

Director: Steven Knight

Writer: Steven Knight

Runtime: 85 minutes

There must be something in the air. These last few months have given us several films (Gravity, All is Lost, Tracks) in which  a lone or nearly-alone protagonist has to negotiate a difficult situation. For the filmmaker, too, such movies – lacking the usual levels of human interaction – also create a difficult situation, namely the challenge of creating the tension that drives the story along. In Locke, Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises) delivers us another lone protagonist in the figure of Welshman Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy), a building site manager who we first meet clocking off and heading down the motorway towards London. For the rest of the film we stay with Locke on his journey through the night, during the course of which a series of hands-free mobile phone calls chart the unravelling of his life. The only other human figures we ever see are a few other men leaving the site at the start of the film and some motorway maintenance workers.

A night-time drive along a motorway may not sound like a promising idea for a movie, but the conversations that transpire during Ivan Locke’s journey are a masterclass in the creation of dramatic tension. Initially, Locke seems like a man in control, deftly scrolling between the contacts on his phone list and making arrangements. But it quickly becomes apparent that something is not right. Locke tells Donal (Andrew Scott), a deputy at the building site, that he will not be turning up for work tomorrow, a crucially important day when huge quantities of concrete are being delivered to lay the foundations for a new tall building. The reason for Locke’s absence is an unenviable personal drama, and Locke finds himself juggling phone calls with colleagues and family, every one of whom is having a drama of their own as the result of Locke’s behaviour.

Through all the turmoil Locke is a man trying to do the right thing by everybody, although sometimes you feel that he is possibly slightly delusional about his ability to put everything right. Locke is trying to be a responsible person, unlike the dead father whom – when not on the phone – he curses and berates. Whenever Locke launches into one of these tirades he stares into the rear view mirror, a symbolic representation of the past where perhaps he expects to see his father’s shade. Outside Locke’s vehicle, headlights and neon lights flash by. Occasionally, police cars, sirens wailing, remind us that there are other dramas going on beyond the one happening before us.

Tom Hardy’s performance as Ivan Locke is quite dazzling. The gentle lilting Welsh accent with which he speaks perfectly suits the outward display of calm with which he meets the various challenges facing him, but it also makes it seem all the more disturbing when emotions burst through to the surface. One suspects that Locke could work as a radio play, as ultimately it is a triumph of writing and performance.

Rating: 10/10

OXV

Is your life determined by your frequency?

UK 2013

Director: Darren Paul Fisher

Writer: Darren Paul Fisher

Runtime: 105 mins

Retitled as Frequencies in the USA.

 

**Mild spoilers included**

Since time immemorial young people have had to negotiate obstacles to their relationships. Typically, these come in the form of parents, love rivals, class barriers, or just lack of interest from the object of one’s desire. Now, in possibly the most cerebral boy-meets-girl movie you are ever likely to see, writer/director Darren Paul Fisher has found a new way to keep young couples apart. He has imagined a world very much like our own, except for one thing. In this world scientists have discovered that people differ in the types of “frequencies” they possess. Not only are high frequencies associated with higher levels of intelligence, but with higher levels of luck too. For it turns out that people’s frequencies are also linked to the physical environment, and good things just happen to fall into place for the lucky ones possessing high frequency. Moreover, a low frequency and a high frequency person are not allowed to spend more than one minute per year in each other’s company, because to do so would be to disrupt the natural order of the physical world, whereupon bizarre events occur.

Crew and cast members at the Sci-Fi-London Film Festival

Parents, of course, want their children to be high frequency but there is one drawback: the higher the frequency, the lower the empathy possessed by the person. Young schoolgirl Marie (Lilly Laight) is high frequency and possesses an astonishingly high IQ, but lacks empathy and so cannot have feelings for others. However, she has learned to display facial expressions that convincingly mimic the expression of actual emotion. Zak (Charlie Rixon) thinks Marie is lovely, but although his IQ is (merely) above average he is low frequency. In an arresting opening scene, we see the school’s children lined up in a corridor, all wearing school uniform, and all clutching shiny green apples. As Marie stands at the front of the line on the left, an apple rolls up beside her foot. It is Zak’s apple, and as she hands him it back she flashes a beautiful smile that quickly vanishes as she faces forwards again.

We later learn that the rolled apple was no accident, but a deliberate action engineered by Zak’s friend Theo (Ethan Turton). As time passes Theo and Zak work together to figure out a way for Zak to be with Marie. In turn, Marie is willing to meet Zak for brief periods as part of her own experimentation with the effects of frequencies. During one such meeting as teenagers, Zak (Dylan Llewellyn) and Marie (Georgina Minter-Brown) extend their meeting – in the school field – past the course of a minute. As they do so, a bunch of suitcases from a passing airplane crash surreally into the grass, illustrating just what can happen when there is a clash of frequencies. But whilst Marie lacks empathy, and so cannot feel anything for Zak, she wishes that she did have feelings. This spurs Zak on in his attempts to find a way to be with Marie.

Director Darren Paul Fisher answers questions at Sci-Fi-London 2014

Later, Zak – now a young adult, played by Daniel Fraser – turns up at Marie’s house (Eleanor Wyld plays adult Marie) and announces that he has found a way for them to be together. He only partially explains to her how this works, but it transpires that certain two-syllable non-words can affect the physical surroundings, preventing the usual disastrous effects of two mismatching frequencies meeting. Zak’s and Marie’s frequencies move closer to each other and she falls in love with him. However, because – unknown to Marie – her feelings are the result of his manipulation, can her love be real? On the other hand, she wanted to be able to have feelings, so isn’t it just an expression of Zak’s own love that he gave her what she wanted? Where does free will enter into all of this? Is there such a thing? Philosophical questions about the manipulation of frequencies become especially pressing when Theo publishes “The Manual”, a book that enables people to engineer events in ways that suit themselves.

The dangers of creating a complex set of intellectual problems in a movie are that the eventual solutions aren’t entirely convincing. OXV: The Manual is no exception, and the way matters are resolved is possibly a touch clichéd. However, by this point I had enjoyed the story, and the very impressive performances by the entire cast, so much that my goodwill towards the film allowed me to not mind the slightly obvious nature of the ending. Speaking of the cast, there were two particularly notable things about the performances. Firstly, the actors who played the characters as children were superb. Their performances were very natural and assured, which is quite a feat when so much depended on facial expressions. Secondly, with different actors portraying the characters at different ages it was remarkable just how consistently those characters behaved in their different incarnations.

Rating: 9/10

LFO_official_poster

 In this very funny sci-fi farce a bereaved misfit discovers that he can use low frequency sound waves to control people 

Sweden / Denmark 2013

Director: Antonio Tublén

Writer: Antonio Tublén

Runtime: 94 minutes

 

Awarded Best Feature at the Sci-Fi-London Film Festival, LFO is the second film by Swedish director Antonio Tublén. It is a deliciously funny and sinister story about one man’s malign use of technology, as though the spirit of domestic farce has collided with J.G. Ballard, with a touch of gothic thrown in for good measure.

Patrik Karlson plays a lonely and depressed widower, Robert Ford, whose wife and son were killed in a suspicious car accident that is currently under investigation by the insurance company and police. When he is not busy cooking and eating eggs – whether this is meant to be indicative of Ford’s dullness or whether it has some deeper symbolic meaning is anyone’s guess – Ford spends most of his time in the basement among a tangle of wires and gadgets, where he conducts research into sound waves together with Sinus-San (Erik Börén), who he speaks with via radio. He means to find a treatment for a mysterious self-diagnosed “sound allergy”.

One day Ford discovers that a combination of low frequency oscillations (the LFO of the title) appear to have an hypnotic effect. When a young and attractive couple move in next door, Ford uses them as experimental guinea pigs for his discovery. During coffee with neighbours Simon (Per Löfberg) and Clara (Ahnna Rasch) he slips out of the room, puts on a pair of headphones, then switches on the sound oscillations. Returning, he instructs Simon to come round and wash his windows, and tells Clara that she has started to find him rather attractive. It works, and after further successes Ford breaks into his neighbours’ home and installs sound equipment so that he can direct their lives from his own house. Before long Ford is regularly having sex with Clara, whilst Simon is alternately relegated to the roles of obedient child and butler.

However, despite the success of the experiment things do not go smoothly for Ford. Sinus San turns up to accuse Ford of cutting him out of the work they had been developing together, and threatening to derail his project.  The police show up looking for the neighbours, who have been reported missing. A representative of the insurance company also calls by as part of their ongoing investigation into the car crash that killed Ford’s wife and son. Ford deals with these unwelcome visitors (Or are they figments of Ford’s imagination? A reference to Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pipe early on may be a clue**) the same way – by hypnotising them. But there is one visitor that Ford cannot dismiss so readily. At regular intervals the apparition of Ford’s dead wife appears to him, possibly as a ghost but more likely a manifestation of his own unconscious mind and conscience. She reminds him to take his medications, accuses him of causing her fatal car crash, and castigates him about the unethical nature of his sound experiment.

At one level, LFO is a warning about the way that technology can be exploited to satisfy our baser natures. At another level this is simply a very funny science fiction farce. Patrik Karlson’s doleful depiction of Robert Ford beautifully captures this misfit’s depression, but also makes the comic moments all the funnier. The subjects of Ford’s hypnotic suggestion, and especially Per Löfberg and Ahnna Rasch, are terrific at switching between their non-hypnotised and hypnotised selves with just a slight change of facial expression. The fact that the entire movie takes place within interior environments, and with no whizz-bang special effects, is a perfect demonstration, if demonstration is needed, that it is imagination and writing that are at the heart of all good filmmaking.

I don’t want to give a spoiler here, but the end of the film is a startling and hilarious delight.

Rating: 10/10

** I tweeted Antonio Tublén about the pipe image; he said in fact it wasn’t a deliberate reference to Magritte’s painting, though he was playing throughout the film with what’s real or not.

Hungerford (1)

UK / Canada 2014

Director: Drew Casson

Writers: Drew Casson & Jess Cleverly

Runtime: 79 mins

When Hungerford was introduced to the audience at Sci-Fi-London, the festival organiser Louis Savy joked that there was a lot of love in the room for this film but a lot of hate outside; the reason being that other directors would be sick at the attention being garnered for a first time feature by a 19 year old director who has not been to film school.

Hungerford is a low budget feature, produced by start-up film funders Wildseed Studios, but by any standards it is a hugely enjoyable and accomplished film. It pulls off the neat trick of being considerably more than the sum of its parts. Firstly, it is a found footage movie, which is a technique you might have thought had run out of steam. Secondly, whether consciously or unconsciously the writers would appear to have been heavily influenced by Shaun of the Dead (with maybe a pinch of Hot Fuzz and 28 Days Later added for good measure). Third, this is more or less a zombie film, which is itself a genre that has rather been done to, er, death, in recent years.

Plotwise, the story is straight out of Shaun of the Dead: A young man without much direction in his life has to rally his only semi-responsible friends when the people in their town become zombies (actually possessed by alien entities). This includes making a trip to rescue the girl with whom he has a rather on-off relationship and who takes a rather dim view of his own friends. What makes this so much more than a merely derivative film, however, is the sheer verve with which the story is told, the convincing performances of the actors and especially the excellent chemistry between them.

The film begins with young Cowen speaking to camera, having just woken up with a hangover, and explaining how this is the first day of the video diary he is making for his BTEC media course. He stumbles around the house introducing us to his friends – eager-to-please Philippa (Georgia Bradley), nerdy Kipper (Sam Carter), and the slightly dodgy Adam (Tom Scarlett). Adam is the kind of blokey bloke who might be fun to have around until the point where he fails to spot the borderline between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. Adam is on probation, for what reason we don’t know, and when Cowen wakes him from his slumber he rolls over to reveal a black eye.

As Cowen is filming his diary the town is rocked by an almighty explosion. Comical copper Terry (Nigel Morgan) arrives on the scene to explain that a factory on the outskirts has been struck by lightning. However, following this dramatic event the townfolk start to behave strangely, and in due course we have a full-on zombie onslaught – although they are not zombies in the strictest sense; rather, people are being possessed by alien creatures that resemble giant cockroaches.

Hungerford is exciting and funny in all the right places, but whereas Shaun of the Dead finished on a joke that tied up its bromance theme director Drew Casson leaves us with a rather more serious ending that provides the scope for a possible sequel. I just hope that Cowen passed his BTEC.

Rating: 9/10