Archive for June, 2014

Spring in a Small Town

China 1948

Director: Mu Fei

Writer: Tianji Li

Runtime: 93 mins

A dreamy beautiful tale of secret love

Set in the Yangtze Delta in the wake of the Sino-Japanese war, Spring in a Small Town is a beautifully mesmeric drama that transcends its basic love triangle plot. I was reminded of David Lean’s Brief Encounter, only here the encounter is not so brief as the conflict between desire and duty extends over several days.

The film opens with a shot of the central female character, Zhou Yuwen (Wei Wei), walking by the ruins of the city walls, which give a view across miles of countryside. In hypnotic tones, she narrates the story, providing us with a context for what follows. Zhou lives with her husband Dai Liyan (Shi Yu) in the war-ravaged ruins of Liyan’s grand family home, together with Lyan’s teenage sister Dai Xiu (Zhang Hongmei) and their servant Lao Huang (Cui Chaoming). Liyan claims to be suffering from tuberculosis, though Zhou believes he is neurotic – clearly, he is depressed about the loss of his family’s wealth which, as he puts it, happened “on my watch”. Zhou and Liyan occupy separate rooms, barely speak to each other, and the latter spends most of his days sitting unhappily in the garden. Zhou comments that she “does not have the courage to die” whereas Liyan “does not have the courage to live”. Xiu is the only real life in the household. Approaching her sixteenth birthday, she has less connection to the family’s past and so views the future with optimism.

This stasis is exploded with the arrival of Liyan’s old friend Zhang Zhichen (Li Wei). The two have not seen each other for ten years, during which time Zhichen has become a doctor, working in “the interior”. Liyan is ennervated by his friend’s arrival but, crucially, it is clear to the viewer that Yuwen and Zhichen were formerly lovers. More than this, their passion for each other has not dimmed. When the entire family go on walks along the city walls, or down the river by boat, Yuwen and Zhichen exchange glances and momentarily touch hands. On the occasions when they manage to be alone together they agonise over their plight but, Hamlet-like, neither can commit to decisive action.

The film never comes close to melodrama. Rather, the whole thing has a dream-like quality to it, perhaps reflecting the delirious state of people in the grip of romantic love. Zhou’s narration is one contributory factor to this atmosphere, her tones becoming particularly hushed and breathy when she is describing what is happening now as opposed to in the past. Another factor is director Mu Fei’s use of dissolves within darkened interior scenes.

**SPOILER ALERT**

The psychological tension is ramped up when Liyan decides that Zhichen would be a good husband for Xiu. The latter takes walks with Liyan along the city walls. At one point Liyan asks her why the family always choose to walk there. She tells him “When you look so far into the distance that you can’t see anything at all, you start to realise that the world isn’t so small after all”, adding that it would be very easy to suffocate within the confines of the family home.

The drama reaches its height when Liyan falls ill. This episode raised several questions in my mind, which are still puzzling me. Having realised that his wife and friend are in love, Liyan pays a solitary visit to Yuwen’s bedroom. He sits on the side of her bed, reaches across and touches her pillow, but this action seems to make him cough, whereupon he takes a seat by the side of her bed with a look of concern on his face. What is the significance of this scene?  It is as though Yuwen is allergic to his wife. Is that coughing attack a coded reference to Liyan being either gay or impotent?

Liyan returns to his own bedroom where we seem him drinking more than one cup of tea. There are also medicinal-looking bottles by the tea urn. He goes to bed, whereupon he slips into unconciousness and is discovered in this state by the servant. But what causes him to become unconscious? Is it purely psychological? Has he overdosed on some medicine? Or has he aggravated his heart by drinking excessive quantities of tea. It is not entirely clear. When Yuwen is brought to see him I thought I noticed a fleeting smile cross her face, but this is quickly replaced by a look of concern and a return to duty.

According to Noah Cowan’s article about Spring in a Small Town in the July issue of Sight & Sound, Fei Mu saw himself as a promoter of Confucian values. To the extent that these are reflected in this film, it is perhaps that everybody tries to do their duty. This leaves us with a curious ending in which Xiu and the family servant see off Zhichen as he returns to the interior. By now, Xiu nows that Zhichen is in love with her sister-in-law, but she asks him when he will return. He tells her he will be back in the spring, whereupon she suggests he return in the summer. We then see Yuwen standing on the ruined city walls staring out into the distance. Liyan approaches her and she points out something in the distance to him, bringing to mind Xiu’s earlier words that this view reminds us that the world isn’t so small after all (perhaps recalling Humphrey Bogart’s words in Casablanca, that “the problems of three people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”).

Rating 10/10

Spring in a Small Town is currently being shown in an extended run at the British Film Institute at London’s South Bank, and is also available on the BFI Player.

Hi everyone,

I love writing this blog and I hope you enjoy reading it. Most of the reviews here don’t tend to be for big budget features, and some are not on general release at the time of my review, but I just follow my own interests and if they are shared by others then that’s a bonus.

My output has slowed over the last few weeks and there’s a reason for that: I have been working as a stills photographer for London’s East End Film Festival and now I am working as Director of Photography for a web series called Suspicion.   It’s all hectic but thoroughly enjoyable work. Some of my stills from the East End Film Festival can be seen here.

I’m hoping my output will pick up again in another week or so (unless any other film/photography-related jobs come my way). At some point I intend to revamp the look for this page. In the meantime, feel free to add comments on the reviews – the comment box isn’t in the usual place; you need to click the little speech bubble icon to the top right of posts.

See you soon,

David

 

TipTop (1)

Countries: Luxembourg, France, Belgium 2013

Director: Serge Bozon

Writers: Odie Barski / Serge Bozon / Axelle Ropert

Runtime: 106 mins

 

A police procedural-as-farce that entertains but doesn’t fire on all cylinders

At one point in Tip Top a detective reports to a senior officer on the sexual peccadilloes of two female Internal Affairs officers. “One likes to hit”, he says, “The other one peeps”. “What do you think the police are doing, then?” is the reply. Emphasising the point, we see a policeman staring in through the window, whereupon a passing copper slaps the back of his head. It is a funny moment in a film that gently amuses, but needs more such moments to really succeed.

The story revolves around the murder of Farid Benamar, a former Algerian policeman-come-refugee, who was the president of a French-Algerian friendship association – possibly engaged in shady activities – and an informant for the French police. To investigate whether the local force could have handled matters better two Internal Affairs officers are sent in. They are Esther Lafarge (Isabelle Huppert) and Sally Marinelli (Sandrine Kiberlain). The latter has been demoted because of “private behaviour incompatible with police ethics” which, we discover, refers to her compulsive Peeping Tom behaviour. Esther Lafarge, on the other hand, gets her kicks from hitting, and being hit by, her violinist boyfriend Gérald (Samy Naceri).

In one early scene we see the two women in their adjoining hotel rooms. Marinelli is gently pleasuring herself as she stares at a half-naked man in an apartment across the way. Lafarge is doing likewise as she stares at images of handcuffs, hammers, and other implements of violence, sent to her mobile phone by Gérald. Meanwhile, local detective Robert Mendès (François Damiens) is trying to peek through their keyholes in order to get some information on these women who are investigating his department. This scene sums up the basic conceit of the film: everybody is watching everyone else. When a seedy reporter starts poking around Mendès accuses him of being a Peeping Tom. But when the story breaks in the media, we realise that the general public are also hanging on every salacious detail of the case.

Such sexual territory is nothing new for Isabelle Huppert, whose character in The Piano Teacher spied on lovers in parked cars. Here, though, the subject matter is played for laughs and Huppert deadpans beautifully in her role, especially as her own character’s behaviour starts to teeter out of control. Kiberlain also effortlessly conveys the gawky awkwardness of Sally Marinelli, and François Damiens amuses as a detective whose faltering attempts to speak Arabic recall Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau.

Unfortunately, the film’s comic potential is undermined by a weak internal logic and poor pacing. In the case of Marinelli’s character, it is not clear why anyone’s private behaviour would be worthy of police attention, let alone demotion within the force. We are also told early on that Lafarge is a highly respected officer, yet later on her own position comes into question because of her own sexual activities, which leads us to wonder how she has got so far without anyone noticing her proclivities before. Tip Top also commits the cinematic sin of placing the best scene at the very start of the film (in which a man – who is actually a police officer – storms into a bar frequented by Algerians and starts shouting racist insults). After this promising opening the rhythm of the film barely changes, apart from one scene where we see Lafarge and Gerald getting their sadomasochistic kicks.

Bearing in mind these shortcomings, I probably enjoyed this film more than it deserved, in large part because of the good performances and, especially, the magnetic screen presence of Isabelle Huppert.

Rating: 6/10

Tip Top was shown at the 2014 East End Film Festival www.eastendfilmfestival.com

The Dance of Reality poster (1)

Chile / France 2013

Director: Alejandro Jorodowsky

Writer: Alejandro Jorodowsky

Runtime: 130 minutes

A dazzling magical-realist portral of a childhood in 1950s Chile

What a wonderfully original work of imagination is The Dance of Reality! This is the kind of film that makes you realise how rarely the possibilities of cinema are fully grasped. In a recent review of Boyhood I wrote how Richard Linklater was one of America’s most adventurous directors. That is true, but Alejandro Jorodowsky’s magical-realist re-telling of his own childhood, and especially his father’s role in it, makes Boyhood seem positively conservative. In The Dance of Reality Jorodowsky has cast his own (adult) son Brontis as his father Jaime, which must have made for an interesting experience in those scenes where Jaime is urinated upon and undergoes genital torture. The context to the story is that the Jorodowskys are Jews that have settled in Chile sometime after WW2, having fled anti-semitism in their native Ukraine. However, under elected president Colonel Ibanez (who had previously held power following a coup in the 1920s) the country is in economic turmoil, and paterfamilias Jaime plots with his fellow communists to assassinate the president.

Whilst the communists rail against oppression of minorities such as homosexuals, in his private life Jaime cannot bear the thought that his son (Jeremiah Herskovits) – all flowing golden hair and cossetted by his mother – might be viewed as a “faggot”. He tells the boy that he can win his father’s admiration if he is willing to endure pain. This is a prelude to a series of increasingly hard slaps around the face, resulting in a broken tooth. In the subsequent trip to the dentist, at his father’s encouragement, the boy has his treatment without any anaesthetic.

Whereas Jaime is all tough, confrontational, political logic, Alejandro’s mother Sara (Pamela Flores) is the emotional heart of the family, and as if to emphasise this all her lines are delivered in an operatic singing voice. When Alejandro is bullied by drunken sailors at a bar, she tells him that Jews like themselves must learn to become invisible and, to demonstrate this, she removes all her clothes and walks naked, untouched, among the sailors.

When Jaime becomes involved in the plot to assassinate the president, he becomes the central focus of the story, leaving the village and ending up working as a groom for the president’s horse. The plot does not go as planned, and it is from about this point onwards that the film charts the change in Jaime’s character, leading to a resolution in which Sara explains to him his true nature.

Some of the magical elements in The Dance of Reality are clearly politically symbolic, whereas others may have a more personal meaning for Jorodowsky. But even when I was not entirely sure what a particular image meant I was happy just to embrace the cinematic spectacle before me. On paper, the brutality of Jaime in the early scenes, as described above, might sound rather harrowing and, undoubtedly, his behaviour isn’t pleasant. However, for every serious moment there is a comic element lurking just around the corner. Jaime the angry communist is initially portrayed as an absurd figure, getting turned on, for example, by stockinged display legs in his shop and then demanding sex from his wife. In a scene reminiscent of Todd Browning’s Freaks, he gets into an argument with a group of people in the street who are all missing various limbs (victims of mining accidents). However, it is clear that there is goodness lurking within. Despite castigating his son for unnecessary generosity to others, he himself brings water to the sick and destitute. Later, he gives away all his money to pay for a friend’s funeral.

Ultimately, the film conveys a message of understanding and love from son to father. Jorodowsky has spoken of “the dance of reality” as reflecting the particular image that we each have of the world around us, and the realisation that we are all basically the same. As if to emphasise that this account of his childhood and his father is filtered through his own imagination, the director appears as himself in various scenes where he folds his arms protectively around the younger Alejandro.

This is a quite extraordinary film and one which I would thoroughly recommend. The performance by  Brontis Jorodowsky is something to behold and one of the best I have seen this year.

Rating: 10/10

Viewed at the Barbican Cinema as part of the 2014 East End Film Festival #EEFF2014 www.eastendfilmfestival.com

Boyhood_film

USA 2014

Director: Richard Linklater

Writer: Richard Linklater

Runtime: 166 mins

 A unique and absorbing picture of American boyhood (if your parents are nice, white, liberal minded folk)

Richard Linklater is certainly one of America’s most adventurous directors. He is the first director to use digital rotoscoping for entire movies, as he did with both Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, films that explored the nature of reality and consciousness. Before Sunrise, one of the great romantic movies, involved little more than Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy walking and talking for the entire 101 minutes, an approach that was reprised in Before Sunset and Before Midnight (a little less walking in this one). This trilogy (and who knows if it will remain a trilogy?) spans an eighteen-year period, so the changes in the characters are paralleled by the physical changes in the actors themselves.

Linklater’s latest film, Boyhood, was – remarkably – filmed over a twelve year period, so we see the principal characters themselves age twelve years within the course of 165 minutes. The boy in the title is Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane), who we first encounter at the age of six. Mason is a rather introspective dreamer who lives with his mom Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and younger sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). Olivia is separated from Mason’s Dad (Mason Sr, played by Ethan Hawke) who, at the start of the film, makes his first visit for sometime, having been away trying to “find himself”. I imagine that Ethan Hawke’s character in Boyhood is basically how his character in the Before films would have been if he had never gone travelling abroad. He’s a chatty, likeable, spontaneous, liberal-minded kind of guy. Despite being in his thirties he hasn’t quite settled down into a regular job, lives in a messy apartment with a musician friend, and drives a muscle car.

The most dramatic occurrence in the film is Olivia’s marriage to a man who turns into an abusive drunk. There are other relationships, too, that never quite seem to work out and Mason Sr. remains the one constant, proving to be a good father to his son. Mostly, the events in the film are just regular growing up stuff – relationships with parents/step-parents, squabbling with your sibling, changing schools, learning how to talk to the opposite sex – but lest this seem rather dull, I can only say that I was thoroughly absorbed by it all. Largely the reason that such routine stuff is so gripping is because we really are watching a boy grow up over a twelve-year period. For the non-American viewer, some of the events are less typical. One very funny moment occurs when Mason’s 15th birthday is spent visiting his father’s parents in rural Texas. Mason unwraps a present from Grandma which turns out to be a Bible in which everything Jesus said is printed in coloured ink. Just a few seconds later Grandpa appears with the present of a rifle. I wonder if that will get such a big laugh in Texan cinemas as it did in the audience at the British Film Institute in London. Perhaps American boyhood would have been a better title.

If I have any qualm at all about Boyhood it is that maybe Olivia and Mason Sr. are just a bit too much the nice, white liberal-minded parents. At one point Mason Jr. comes home after being with friends. Olivia asks if he’s been drinking, which he admits he has. She follows this up with a question – miming a puff on a spliff – if he’s done any more, which he also admits to. Olivia lets out an amused “Ah”, nodding her head, and that’s it – no concerned anger, no warning to just be careful, nothing at all.

Perhaps inevitably, some events don’t develop the way you might expect. An instance of bullying at school doesn’t get followed up, even though bullies tend to repeatedly pick on their victims. One of Olivia’s partners just disappears off the scene, as we shift foward in time, without us knowing exactly what happened. American politics is touched on in only the lightest way, so that you would never guess how vituperative the Democrat-Republican divide has become. Yet whilst Linklater’s own liberalism seems fairly nailed to the mast, he is also not beyond promoting the “American Dream”, as when Olivia tells a plumber how he would do well at a community college only for the man to turn up years later in a managerial position and thanking her for her advice.

You might be wondering how such a movie can possibly end. Let me just say that it probably isn’t too much of a spoiler to say that the way is open for a sequel; or, to put it another way, Mason Jr. doesn’t die in a gruesome accident or from some undiagnosed brain tumour. The ending, in fact, is fairly undramatic, just a rather poignant moment that manages to be both comic and profound.

Although Boyhood ultimately tends a little bit towards the feelgood end of the movie spectrum, it is nonetheless a genuinely impressive achievement, a real one-off, and a pleasure to watch.

Rating: 8/10

 

When_I_Saw_You_(film)

Palestine / Jordan / Greece 2012

Director: Annemarie Jacir

Writer: Annemarie Jacir

Runtime: 98 mins

A thoughtful meditation on a displaced people, but lacking in drama

When I Saw You is the latest directorial offering from Annemarie Jacir, the first female Palestinian director. The story explores the response of the Palestinians to Israel’s victory in the six-day war of 1967, after which refugees flooded over the borders into Jordan. However, this is not an exploration of Middle Eastern politics, but rather a more personal examination of people’s lives.

Young Tarek (Mahmoud Asfa) occupies a makeshift shack with his mother Ghaydaa (Ruba Blal) in a Jordanian refugee camp. Neither of them know the whereabouts of Tarek’s father, and it is slightly ambiguous as to whether his absence is connected to the war or to conflict at home. Tarek hates life in the camp and wants to go home, not understanding why they cannot just do so. His naive desire to return back where they have come from, shorn of all political understanding, effectively symbolizes the need of all people to live in the place they call home. However, despite the unpleasantness of  life in the camp, Ghaydaa believes this is the safest place for them to be. We see her trying to educate Tarek about science, though Tarek himself cannot read and is thrown out of school because he is disruptive to the other children.

When Tarek runs away to try and find his home, he is discovered by a “fedayeen”, a freedom fighter, who takes Tarek to his training camp where the boy is welcomed as one of their own. Shortly afterwards Ghaydaa tracks Tarek down. She plans to take him back to the camp, of course, but abandons this plan when she hears that napalm bombs have been dropped on the camps, as these are considered to be “recruiting grounds” for fedayeen. To his mother’s dismay, Tarek increasingly identifies with the fedayeen (which include women as well as men) and wants to be part of their fight. We never actually see any fighting, though, only training exercises led by Abu Akram (Ali Elayan), a commander who preaches class consciousness rather than religion, and who emphasizes the virtues of patience.

The film itself has an atmosphere of stillness about it. The people in the refugee camps are waiting, as are the fedayeen, all waiting – they know not how long – for the day they will reclaim their homeland. Whereas many contemporary films are filled with shaky camera action, almost all the scenes in When I Saw You are shot with a steady camera, which serves to emphasise the feeling of stillness and patience. Ultimately, though – despite a somewhat unexpected ending – the film’s meditative emphasis on a people waiting does result in a story rather lacking in drama.

Rating: 6/10

Skateboard legend Tas Pappas, during the Q&A session for “All This Mayhem”, at the British Film Institute, London.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Australia / UK 2014

Director: Eddie Martin

Runtime: 96 mins

It’s “wheels on fire” in this fabulous skateboarding documentary

If there is any justice in the world All This Mayhem will do for skateboarding what Senna did for F1 motor racing, by which I mean it deserves to find an audience of people who are not already followers of skateboarding. The film tracks the extraordinary rise and fall of Australian boarders Tas and Ben Pappas who, in the 1990s, successfully challenged the dominance of American star Tony Hawk only to have their worlds come crashing down around them in the most dramatic fashion. There are several parallels with Senna and, in fact, producer James Gay-Rees and editor Chris King both worked on that movie.

Like Senna, All This Mayhem is a combination of talking heads and recorded footage obtained from various sources. As a non-boarder I was duly impressed by the skills of this sport’s stars, though for me the boarding footage didn’t quite have the dramatic impact of, for example, Ayrton Senna’s incredible drive at Monaco in the rain or his on-track entanglements with Alain “The Professor” Prost. Where director Eddie Martin’s film really hits paydirt, however, is in the off-ramp footage of the wild Pappas brothers and, surprisingly, the interviews – especially those featuring Tas Pappas himself. Watching the scenes of the very young Pappas brothers and their friends made me nostalgic for a youth that I myself didn’t experience – wild and carefree – and in the interviews recorded for the film Tas Pappas is passionate, funny and rueful.

Tas describes himself and brother Ben as “bogans”, the Australian equivalent of the American term “white trash”. Domestic violence was part of the background to their upbringing, with their mother apparently giving their father at least as good as she got. After a spell learning “death blows” in martial arts training, Tas, and brother Ben, gravitated towards the vertical ramp skateboarding scene in Melbourne’s suburbs, a sport that clearly enabled them to express their individuality. The two of them were devoted to developing their skills, though had somewhat different approaches. Ben would work on his “lines”, repetitively working on a move until he had nailed it, whereas Tas was more inclined to “barnes” it – to decide upon some tricky move and just go for it. Once they had dominated the local scene, they somehow managed to scrape together the cash to head to America, with the explicit intention of dethroning American star Tony Hawk.

Tas Pappas (centre) with friends, following the UK premiere of All This Mayhem, at the British Film Institute.

Right from their early days, drug use – cocaine, speed, marijuana, magic mushrooms – was a part of the scene and performances on the ramp were routinely done under the influence of one or other substance. Clearly some of the boarders felt that drug use enhanced their creative skills on the ramp. Whether or not this was true, the Pappas brothers were soon vying with Tony Hawk for the top spot at boarding events. Their talent helped to revive vertical ramp boarding, which had been in something of a decline. However, the brothers were somewhat disdainful of Hawk’s performances, believing that the American  organisers often gave him undue credit for good but unadventurous moves (again, there are parallels with the disputes with the sporting authorities in Senna – and indeed in Rush, too). In 1996, at the Hard Rock Cafe World Championships, Ben Pappas was unable to perform to his best due to a back injury. This left Tas and Tony Hawk to fight it out. Hawk, again, played it steady but Tas decided to barnes it. He scored highly but broke his ribs in a fall. Hawk and Tas Pappas were now tied. Ben Pappas raged at the judges, because he couldn’t understand why Tas hadn’t won. In the event, there was a playoff and, for a second time, Tas barnesed it. He won.

In Senna, some motor racing fans felt that Alain Prost had been somewhat unfairly depicted. However, that is nothing compared to the pantomime villain that Tony Hawk is made out to be in All This Mayhem. Apparently Hawk told Ben Pappas that he felt he should have been judged the winner at the Hard Rock Cafe event. Ben then verbally laid into Hawk. Torn between playing the magnanimous victor or supporting his brother, Tas opted for the latter, telling Hawk to “Fuck off Hawk, ya fucking wanker!” I don’t know how fair the portrayal of Hawk is, but this last line led to a huge burst of laughter and applause in the audience around me, many of whom were obviously boarders or fans of the sport. Hawk is also the recipient of Tas’s disdain for willingly allowing the sport to be turned into a branch of showbiz, doing any number of inane stunts for money, whereas Tas is committed to the rebellious individualism of boarding’s street roots.

Following Tas’s victory at the Hard Rock Cafe World Championships, he and Ben fell into a pattern of wild partying, a period that became even more extended after Tas was diagnosed with a back injury. Eventually, Ben decided to head back to Australia but got arrested at Sydney airport after cocaine was found in one of his skate shoes. Of course, he was told that he would not be allowed back into America, which meant he could no longer compete on the international stage. Depression gave way to heroin abuse. A relationship with a fellow junky resulted in her death at Ben’s hands, and his suicide shortly afterwards.

Tas managed to get himself straightened out for a while, motivated by Ben’s death and his own fatherhood. However, after taking speed at an event as a way to deal with pain, he slipped back into old habits and eventually got arrested for the same crime as his brother – attempting to enter Australia in possession of cocaine. Tas was imprisoned in 2008 and released in 2012.

All This Mayhem is really a story of a loss of innocence, of young lads who mistakenly thought they could remain wild young rebels forever. Tas and Ben Pappas could just as well have been early tragic rock stars as skateboarders, pioneers without a route map to guide them through the dangerous realm of success. By the same token, when Tas champions the purity of devil-may-care individualism, with no thought of monetary gain, against the ESPN-sponsored showbiz events, it is hard not to cheer him on.

Rating: 10/10

Correction, 15th June 2014 – I originally inadvertently referred to the Pappas brothers getting involved in the “Sydney” boarding scene, when of course I should have said “Melbourne”

 

Fruitvale_Station_poster

USA 2013

Director: Ryan Coogler

Writer: Ryan Coogler

Runtime: 85 mins

A compelling tale of a life cut tragically short

Fruitvale Station is a remarkable first feature from director Ryan Coogler that recounts the story behind a modern injustice. Before the opening credits roll we are shown real-life cameraphone footage of the moment, in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009, that a white transport cop fatally shot Oscar Grant III, an African-American, at Fruitvale Station in Oakland, California. Most of what follows is a dramatisation in flashback of Grant’s last day.

Oscar Grant is beautifully played by Michael B. Jordan (best known from The Wire), whose expressive face deftly conveys a range of emotions. What we learn about Grant is that he has a chequered past. He has already done at least one spell in prison, has a temper, has lost his job because of unpunctuality, and he has cheated on his wife Sophina (a fine performance from Melonie Diaz). However, Grant is also depicted as basically a good man. We see him reconciling with Sophina, being a good father, helping a stranger at the supermarket where he had previously worked, and scattering a bag of weed into the ocean (representing his determination not to go back to prison). On this last day of his life we see Grant making preparations for his mother’s birthday celebration that evening.

Ryan Coogler has stated that Grant’s last day was reconstructed from trial records and court transcripts, though a scene in which Grant tries to help a pitbull that is injured in a hit-and-run was created for dramatic purposes. Apparently some critics have either questioned the authenticity of the story portrayed, or the picture that is painted of Grant himself. This strikes me as unnecessary carping, and even holding Fruitvale Station to a different standard from other dramatisations of real-life events. As it is, there is never any suggestion that Grant really has managed to turn his life around. We see him trying to do the right thing, but clearly it is still early days. In one sense, this is what gives the film its poignancy. We will never know whether Grant would have managed to rebuild his life because his life was so cruelly taken away from him.

Following his mother’s birthday party, Oscar, Sophina, and their friends head out towards San Fricisco for the New Year’s celebrations. So noone has to drive under the influence, they take the Bay Area Rapid Transport (BART) system. Without going into all the details, Grant finds himself the victim in an altercation with a white man on the train, as a result of which the BART police only round up various black men at the station. Grant is subsequently shot by one of the cops.

Although Fruitvale Station is a dramatisation, it is shot in a fly-on-the-wall documentary style that really draws the viewer in. The final outcome is of course known to us in advance, but this does not detract from the story  at all. The film is not an in-depth investigation of how the BART police came to shoot an unarmed man; rather, it is a study of a life cut tragically short. It thoroughly deserves the many nominations and awards that it has received around the world.

Rating: 8/10

Edge_of_Tomorrow_Poster

US/UK 2014

Director: Doug Liman

Writers: Christopher McQuarrie. Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, & Hiroshi Sakurazaka (novel)

Runtime: 113 mins

It’s déjà vu again in this cracking sci-fi action blockbuster

You have to hand it to Tom Cruise. At the age of 52 (I had to look that up) – my own age – he passes for about 10 years younger and still makes a more-than-credible action hero (apparently there is also another Mission Impossible on the way). His latest action role is that of Major William Cage in Edge of Tomorrow, a sci-fi blockbuster based on the novel All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka (in the novel Cage is just 20). Planet Earth has been invaded by alien creatures, known as “mimics” because of their ability to copy and respond to the human race’s military strategies. However, the development of a new high-tech military combat jacket has enabled Earth’s soldiers to put up a fight against the invaders.

Despite his rank, Cage is not a combat soldier – he does marketing and recruitment. He therefore protests when ordered to take a camera crew to the front line, gets knocked unconscious, and duly finds himself being kicked awake in the rank of Private. He is fitted with a combat jacket that he barely knows how to operate, dropped into the heat of battle (brilliantly depicted in all its terrifying confusion), and shortly afterwards gets killed by a mimic only to find himself being kicked awake again earlier that day. Cage repeatedly relives this day, his accumulation of experiences enabling him to live a little longer each time until eventually he has a battlefield encounter with Rita Vratasky (Emily Blunt). She is literally the poster-girl for the military, those posters reading “Full Metal Bitch”, following her major victory over the aliens at Verdun. Vratasky knows why Cage is continually reliving his day, because she used to have the same time-travelling ability. Together, they must exploit Cage’s ability in order to find and destroy the alien “brain”, a collective supermind that controls each individual alien.

It is not too hard to spot that Edge of Tomorrow is a melange of movie influences, namely Groundhog Day, Source Code, and Starship Troopers. But whilst these influences are obvious, Edge of Tomorrow works in its own right and is actually great fun. The film does not take itself too seriously and the script is very witty in places, especially in charting Cage’s progress from bumbling PR man to seasoned soldier. When Vratasky explains the cause behind Cage’s time-travelling ability (or perhaps “affliction” might be a better word), she also explains that he must die every day until the alien brain has been destroyed. Accordingly, she occasionally has to despatch Cage herself once his fighting skills have enabled him to survive the aliens unscathed.

Although action flicks of this sort aren’t too much of a challenge for the acting skills of A-listers like Cruise and Blunt, they throw themselves into their roles and have a good onscreen chemistry. The only slight irritation I had was some slightly shaky camera work in one of the action-free interior scenes. Camera movement in this context was obtrusive and rather pointless, but fortunately it did not last long. More importantly, the 3D version worked well, as it so often does for films with lots of crashes and explosions. Filming took place in England, and for many British viewers there will be a certain piquancy to scenes of futuristic battle craft passing over the iconic chalk cliffs on England’s south coast, reminiscent as this is of the journey made by many aircraft during World War 2.

In terms of story, Edge of Tomorrow isn’t quite in the same league as Cruise’s earlier sci-fi outing Minority Report, but this is one of the best action blockbusters you are likely to see this year.

Rating: 8/10