The Drop – There’s enough to play with

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The Drop (US/2014)

UK Release by 20th Century Fox – 14th November 2014

Directed by Michaël R. Roskam

Brief Synopsis: Everyone in the neighbourhood works together to make a living. The past can be haunting and the future must be sourced at any cost, law abiding or not. Bob Saginowski finds himself entangled right at the centre after a string of unfortunate events. 

There is an assuring sense of dread, morbid humour and a fine American setting for a simmering thriller: the deep of Brooklyn. This weighted tale from Dennis Lehane (we know the work must be formidable coming from the guy who wrote Mystic River and Gone, Baby Gone) is deliberately paced with a natural development of cause-effect. However, it can feel all too similar at times, and the plot can certainly dwindle depending on your viewpoint. I think the key to this film is that it is character driven, the dialogue is intriguing through its disparate layers of meaning, and that it has Tom Hardy approaching the material with absolute sensitivity and an extraordinarily convincing Brooklyn accent, especially for a born Londoner.

Although, it is not quite the memorable James Gandolfini performance I was hoping for, perhaps Hardy is too impressive; it is certainly exciting to see Hardy rise to similar heights as Gandolfini and even beyond. Whilst great actors pass, new generations continue to bring their organic insight to the field; there are more great stars in the making today (and certainly more actors lingering for the near future) than, I believe, there ever have been.

Directed by Michaël R. Roskam, in what is only his second feature, it is great to see more European sensibility come to the screen. The mood is tinged with uncooked sadness, but there is a contentment to be found in the Brooklyn low-life. Roskam directs with hope, he captures even the smallest acts and moments that give purpose to Hardy’s life. These moments creep up on us and draw to a riveting conclusion, but a conclusion that still has plenty of room left for reflection and doesn’t defy the depth of mystery under the veil of Hardy’s character, Bob.

3.5/5 stars

Mr. Turner – Impressive, but not quite worth it

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Mr. Turner (UK/2014)

UK Release by Focus Features – 31st October 2014

Directed by Mike Leigh

Brief Synopsis: A portrait of J.M.W Turner’s life that chronicles various exploits and artistic endeavours. 

Scene by scene Mr. Turner is exquisite in portrait and admirable in context. However, this does not make it compelling, rather the steady pacing and acts are underwhelming in their progression and execution. The drama is not as thirsty as one feels it should be; the cog driving the machine seems to be missing. To be even more disparaging, it could come under the category of a bit messy and predictable. Whilst many elements of the filmmaking process (design, costume etc.) are flawless and no doubt award winning, the character of Mr. Turner does not express the emotional range, which I’d hoped for from an artist, to carry this great spectacle. The performance by Timothy Spall is clearly engrossing of certain behaviours but only adequate in whole.

This is not a critique of Turner’s works of art, which are glorious and formidable, it is a critique of the non-apparent flexibility and miscellany of occurrence that should be prevalent in a mans life. It is not an easy film to pull apart, for it is most likely very accurate indeed and Mike Leigh, of course, has the masters’ touch. Yet, at two and a half hours long, the virtuosity and steady pacing run to the end of the line. I struggle to find another way to express my dissatisfaction, it is perhaps just one of those films you expect to be wholly great, but turns out just to be good.

Timothy Spall as Mr. Turner is grumpy, methodical and plain rude. This is not surprising of an artist, who must have their ups and downs, yet it ends here; there is no further insight into the man, he doesn’t let us in and perhaps that is more powerful for this picture. But, what about the touching spirit that brings out those raw brush strokes? Where is the life of this man who finds such inspiration? This critique may be more suited to Turner himself than Leigh’s film; I obviously cannot know this fact. What I do know, is that film is fortunate enough to be accepted and advantageously allowed to explicitly dramatise into fiction, and therefore I want to see an altogether noteworthy and enthusing character up there on the screen.

Turner’s fellow artists (Haydon, Constable, Eastlake, Soane et al.) bring together the most prosperous and exciting scenes with great wit and thought on display. Mark Stanley as Clarkson Stanfield is particularly amusing in his perceptive mode of sheer aristocratic persuasion. The vibrant lifestyle of the artists is eminent, yet once we are back with Turner it is only desolate, solemn and sexually frustrated. The housemaid is the primary asset of Turner’s desires; she is submissive and disarmingly played by Sandy Foster. The rest of the supporting cast rightly deserves a nod and Lesley Manville is noticeably in full swing to continue her extensive work with Leigh.

The cinematography by Dick Pope can be breathtaking and masterful; in particular the shots of Turner walking the hills at dawn with his little sketchbook. If only there were more of these intimate sequences with nature, which so dearly express where Turner’s vision lies and which showcase the beauty of the United Kingdom. Admittedly, they must have been very time-consuming shots, the weather being as unpredictable as it often is in the UK! The framing and composition is indeed flawless, but it is not always as powerful as one should hope. There just isn’t the reticence of cinematic language I feel could have been reached. It is another impressive work by Leigh, but I am sure he could have sharpened his brushwork.

3/5 stars

Modris – It isn’t easy growing up, especially not in Latvia

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Modris (Latvia/2014)

UK Release: 13th November at Leeds International Film Festival (UK Theatrical TBC)

Directed by Juris Kursietis

Brief Synopsis: Modris is a normal 17 year-old teenager looking for reason and adventure; he has a girlfriend and goes out with a few friends. However, things are not well in the home and Modris soon allows certain habits to take demanding effect. This is when he comes head to head with the Latvian justice system and things take a sudden turn for the worse.

Modris is a character that many teenagers will be able to relate to; he feels as if the world is out to get him, and therefore, he may as well be passive and miserable, for acting miserable is at least still a conscious barrier to the unjust society that awaits. Kristers Piksa is gripping in his career debut depiction of Modris as the misguided youth searching for freedom.

The films principle concern is that of the Latvian justice system. It is no surprise then, and no spoiler, to say that the film explores the tragic effects of this voracious law and order on Modris and many of his peers. The emotional response to this film is a broad numbing followed by spouts of gasping. Juris Kursietis directs his first feature with wonderful manipulation; he puts Modris in reckless shots followed by tender spots; the audience is never quite sure which way Modris is swinging. Our variable hearts are suddenly given stakes as the justice system takes effect mid-way and there lies the power of the films construction: the fine balancing of our moral compass.

The supporting cast is also strong and essential to the aesthetic of banality and suffering of the human condition on display in this worn-out city, which looks more like a derelict compound from a game level in Call of Duty. It is this conviction of time and place that allows the honesty and unadulterated representation to leap off the screen and reel us back in with it. The stock is captured without any fancy camera angles or rigging devices, without compulsive cutting or over-worked set pieces; it is, as they say, cinema that lives and breathes (or cinematic realism). I can only recommend that one explore more independent cinema, the talent is insurmountable and Eastern European cinema is a live place to begin.

4/5 stars

No One’s Child – Hello to the Magnitude and Absurdity of the Human Species

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No One’s Child (Yugoslavia/2014)

UK Release: 11th November 2014 at Leeds International Film Festival (UK Theatrical TBC)

Directed by Vuk Rsumovic

Brief Synopsis: A boy is found in the wild mountains of Bosnia and Herzegovina. He has no family and is put in a foster school to bear the brunts and wonders of human life. 

Whilst No One’s Child may initially reflect on the struggles of a, quite literally, wild boy (soon after named Haris) to conform with society after a childhood with various unbeknownst wolf packs, it is precisely in this vast space between the two inhabitants where the chaos and disorder of human nature can be unconcealed. It is a clear distinction of animal instinct and being one with nature (the wolves) versus keeping a safe distance from the danger of nature and hiding beneath constructions of society (the human being).

As human beings we are manipulators; we use the earths resources for financial gain, or at least with a linear and progressive outlook. Haris must learn this and discover the truth; there is no alternative for he is a human being not a wolf. He must adapt to the strict rules that govern the unspoken righteousness of human behaviours and the refined communicative forms. No One’s Child awakens what a raw progression into becoming a real being means and the highly nurtured performance of Denis Muric depicts this raw spirit with reinforced sparking lights and sharp fuses. Put another way, the audience is never meant to feel comfortable. Muric gives a mind-bending performance.

Haris soon has first hand experience of the complexity of human emotions and the merciless power of human illusions (though recognised in society as dependable paradigms) such as the justice system, the state and the unforgiving terrain of war. I call these illusions, as this is not the reality of nature’s freedom that Haris has previously known. The film can therefore be viewed as a message for us to rethink our preconceived regulations of communication and order in society – not an easy concept to imagine with clarity for it would require a revolution. It is not hard for us to imagine the struggles that this boy must go through to conform to such.

The film completes its cycle of human life, of which it also exposes the harsh conditions for lost youths in Yugoslavia, and takes the improbable turn (SPOILER) of returning back to the wild where it (and Haris) once began; a land of poesis and authentic Being (in Heideggerian terms).

4/5 stars

The Imitation Game – It is Benedict Cumberbatch’s Game

The_Imitation_Game_CumberbatchThe Imitation Game (UK/2014)

UK Release by Studio Canal – 14th November 2014

Directed by Morten Tyldum 

Brief Synopsis: It is as simple as Alan Turing cracking the enigma code during the second world war. Although, the price of being a genius doesn’t come without its setbacks. 

When reflecting upon this film, it is the striking performance of Benedict Cumberbatch that remains lodged in the mind, refusing to shift from memory. Cumberbatch gives a timeless portrayal of Alan Turing, the mathematical genius from Cambridge who tackled the enigma code during WWII, that is dynamic in range and wholly embodying of a fragile, mystical and unique mind that is Turing’s. How does an actor tackle such a challenging identity? To become a genius themself? Dare I say, perhaps this is what Cumberbatch has become. He has the magical power that an actor need behold – a frighteningly good performance indeed.

Alex Lawther is also breathtaking as the young Turing. There is a particular long take on Lawther that attempts to study the face of raw emotion, of which is so remarkably expressed upon the reaction of debauched news. The shot may only last 10 seconds, but it holds the power of a lifetime. Mark Strong (who is ironically ever so stern when he acts), Matthew Goode and James Dance form part of a very firm supporting cast who are always assured to keep the drama on its toes.

Keira Knightley is Joan Clarke, a fine British woman who becomes the unwanted object of desire for Turing and the secondary brains holding his project (and most likely, mind) in one piece. Joan’s character is symbolic of the normal life that could be led and is a drama clenching counter-balance to the times and lives of the code-breakers. Knightley is perfect for the role, but this makes her performance more difficult to admire. She is great at the character she does, but frankly, I struggle to connect with her often brash, trifling and aristocratic demeanor, a manner that manages to seep through each casting choice she lands upon.

What a breathe of fresh and icy cold air it is to see the Norwegian director Morten Tyldum (Headhunters, Fallen Angels) direct a major motion picture with the range and thrilling espionage storylines of the Scandinavian cinema. It is also an exciting prospect to see the wealth and collaboration of a highly talented and principally European crew come together to produce a global picture.

Not only are the thrills consistently rewarding for the audience, but the emotions are also tipping over the iceberg. With archive footage of WWII air raids and such added to the mix, the real heart of Turing’s cause and war effort shines like the Northern Lights. A dear old lady behind me let out a wail and was even sobbing away through the credits. It made me wonder about the ethics of cinema; is this level of emotion the reaction we want film to resurface in people? Is it fair to leave the cinema in complete tears, something that you paid hard-earned money for? Absolutely! The latter captures the essence of cinema, or any art-from perhaps, and it is positively our heritage to be emotional beings!

4.5/5 stars

The Canal – Just a horror film

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The Canal (US/Ireland/2014)

UK Release: 14th November at Leeds International Film Festival (UK Theatrical TBC) 

Directed by Ivan Kavanagh

Brief Synopsis: David, a film archivist, begins to become unsettled as he receives a piece of film footage showcasing his house as the setting to a brutal murder and when, to make matters worse, he suspects his wife is being unfaithful. 

A mildly interesting film with nods to filmmakers as distinct in method as David Cronenberg and Michael Powell. Ivan Kavanagh has clearly made a big effort to tap into what is arguably one of the most thrilling categorisations of film genre: the psychological horror film. However, the film is a pure synthesis of the genre; there is nothing unique or exciting to take away from it, it is a mash-up or rather an unwritten homage.

Initially, one has nothing to sink his or her teeth into; every action or technical consideration is entirely run-of-the-mill. Although, it is in the final act where The Canal comes more durable, reaching for its own culmination, but eventually (and predictably) climaxing into a pit of cliché. The film does manage be wholly intelligible in the portrayal of a man who is innocent to his conscience and downright guilty to his actions. However, this very psychological reasoning is what should be innately ambiguous for a more chilling effect. In fairness, it ultimately comes down to personal preference and ones taste for the psychiatric criminal. One could even argue that all contemporary films showcasing a criminal are aiming for the psychiatrically impaired individual; after all, the medium of film does lend itself nicely to psychological underpinnings.

The performances are good. The young boy Billy (Calum Heath) adds a great dimension to the film in his especially provincial and tender release to lighter moments, of which are delightful and give weight to Rupert Evans’s mediocre recital. Whilst Evans, as David, is steady in his progressive decline into what is likely to be insanity, there is no real load to the ins and outs of his character, no real study of his space for the audience to become attached. The supporting cast is minimal, but each brings their own Irish flavour to the screen. The detective, played by Steve Oram, is matchless in his openly laid-back and high school approach to what should be very demanding proceedings on his behalf.

A final note of appraisal: the essence of celluloid film and the power of its being is toyed with (David is a film archivist who might just be possessed by film), and as we have seen before, celluloid film lends itself quite nicely to the uncanny.

2.5/5 stars