13 Minutes

13 Minutes picOliver Hirschbiegel has returned/retreated to his Nazi comfort zone after the so bad it’s incredibly bad biopic of Princess Diana in Diana (2013). After mining the historic territory of Nazi Germany to its very best affect in Downfall (2004) Hirschbiegel serves a more straightforward thriller here in the form of a biopic of Georg Elser: the man who attempted to assassinate Hitler in 1939, before Clause von Stauffenberg – depicted in Valkryie (2008)- , and even before Britain joined the war. Elser’s story is told through scenes of interrogation after his bombing attempt and flashbacks to the rise of the Nazi presence in his home town.

This could be seen as the final part of Hirschbiegel’s trilogy on the banality of evil preceded by The Experiment (2001), and Downfall (2004). The unquestioning following of orders is at the centre of Hirschbiegl’s focus. In 13 Minutes the most diabolical acts take part in Elser’s interrogation, where the interrogators are caught up in the machinations of a callous bureaucracy. The chain of command follows orders from the very top of the pile, through middle management, and lower to extract a false confession from Elser that he was part of a wider conspiracy.

Unlike Valkyrie, where the intentions of the Nazi conspirators are gleamed to the point that a Hollywood star could get involved without tarnishing their image, there is little whitewashing of the intentions behind Elser’s attempt. What makes this story so exceptional is that Elser really did appear to be acting on his own, with only a passing affiliation with any political faction. He never joined the Nazi Party at a time when it was social suicide to be ‘absent’ from the Fuhrer’s Third Reich. He acted because he believed Hitler was bad news for Germany. I personally was not aware of Elser’s story before seeing the film, and if the film is a bid to increase the awareness of him then good.

But in terms of a thriller it is a straightforward if a bit dull kind of affair. I think that the main problem is that by choosing Elser as the subject of the film we are given a hero that history has completely vindicated beyond the point of reproach. Nazi interrogators are largely represented as bad ‘uns – some are creep nearer pantomime – and collaborators are snivelling jobsworths or cruel drunks. The higher up the chain of command, the less problematic the depictions become and equally less sympathetic (if that is the right word). Hirschbiegel has forgone his focus on the true horror of the Nazi regime in Downfall: namely that they were human at all.

If a greater awareness of Georg Elser is all that this film achieves, then that is a good thing. But in the light of Hirschiegel’s other work it looks like a very cautious step backwards into a fairly tame thriller.

Love and Mercy

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With a life like Brian Wilson’s how is it possible to depict such a thing on screen? If you want to do a good job of it you do it like this. Love and Mercy (2014) depicts two parts of Wilson’s life – namely the recording of Pet Sounds leading to his breakdown, and his introduction to Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) in the 1980s who finds him under the oppressive watch of unhinged psychologist Eugene Levy (Paul Giamatti). Two Brian Wilson’s for the price of one!

By focusing on two periods of Wilson’s life, Director Bill Pohlad has his cake and eats it. The tired (if satisfying) tropes in the biographies of musicians may still be in evidence (piecing together a masterpiece in the recording studio, breakdown, rise), but the non-holistic approach of the narrative allows for plenty of space for the real life Wilson to exist between the scenes. The twin narratives are almost completely different in terms of tone, but it works so well, as if Pohlad is acknowledging the pitfalls of cutting a person’s life into the form of a music biography.

One jarring element in the film is the discrepancy between the two depictions of Wilson from Dano and Cusack. Dano physically embodies the role, with a stiff neck, soft voice, and a weight gain that is extraordinary in its attention to detail. Cusack wears short sleeve shirts and has a slurred hesitation to his dialogue, but after that it’s very much a Cusack performance, tics and all. This is not a bad thing, but the huge differences in performance, whilst both good in their own way, had me distracted. I had to convince myself about half way through the film that no comment was being made: Cusack embodying a washed out 80s, the decade that brought him – Cusack – to fame? Meta Wilson/Cusack? No, apparently not.

Paul Giamatti’s performance as the terrifying Eugene Levy may raise eyebrows but according to Pohlad, who was speaking to Wilson throughout the making of the film, they had to dial back from 11 to 9 for Levy to work as a believable character.

There is a risk that the film could be overreaching itself: two films for the price of one. But Pohlad does a good job of tying these stories together, even if the lead performances don’t quite provide a consistent anchor to the overall narrative. There is more than enough to fill out two films with the material that is being worked with here, which partly explains why the script for this film has been in development for several years. But Pohlad keeps it tight and loose to allow for a coherent narrative without crowbarring Wilson into a story, and doesn’t the film to be drowned in exposition. Good music too.

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Hyena : Bad Decision Making Amongst Hard Men

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Sometimes it can take days for an opinion to form after watching a film. Sometimes scenes play over and over in your head to reveal there was greatness hiding beneath the surface. Other times a film can whirl around in your mind only to for all of the colour to wash out to reveal that there was little there in the first place. Just a damp pile of smelly clothes. Hyena (2014) most definitely held my attention, but left me with an urgent trip to the dry cleaners (!!!!!!).

Michael leads a small specialised unit of police, who specialise in being on the take. The film follows him piecing together the tatters of his criminal operation in the wake of a business deal coming to a bloody end. All the while he snorts and drinks his way in and out of sticky situations involving Albanian gangsters, internal affairs, and old feuds which threaten to close in on him.

This film starts off bluddy well: a small nut-cracking team of specialist police brutally storm a nightclub in a beautiful and violent steady shot, bathed in neon light, which is heightened by the equally brutal and swelling soundtrack (composed by the impossible to google Matt Johnson act, “The The”). Immediate comparison with Clockwork Orange comes to mind: violence and music combine with transcendent and stunning effect. It’s disappointing then as the film commences to shift between gears of 80s neon-powerhouse chic to gritty realism and back and forth.

Nuance does not appear to be the word of the day in the making of this film. Nothing wrong with that, but some of the scenes sit uncomfortably amongst the thumping visual aesthetic. The worst example of this is when a woman who is trafficked by Albanian gangsters is drugged and raped as a punishment for perceived associations with the police. The coked out filter is momentarily raised for a moment to achieve a startlingly realistic depiction of sexual violence. Realism may have been what Director Graham Johnson was looking for (he has spoken in interviews about his disdain for cartoon violence in films), but this scene smacks of gratuitousness. It does not serve to raise awareness or even fit in the tone or narrative of the film. Like the use of sound and lighting in Hyena, rape is rolled out purely for effect.

Director Graham Johnson has poo pooed any notion that Hyena is inspired by Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011), which is silly, because, uh, it is and he knows it. The only difference is that Drive transcends the shallow visual aesthetic to achieve moments of great impact. Hyena never excels beyond its machismo spin on Refn’s look, and only uses its visual flair as a means to glue together a very ropey and disappointing genre flic.

People only seem to talk in this film to remind us that they are bloody hard men. If I was to be kind I would say that this is a study of the destructive power of masculinities run rampant, but an hour in the presence of this film proved otherwise. The self-destruction that permeates the film is aiming for the great narrative heights of tragedy, but it fails to hit the mark, because the multiple falls – whilst triggered by hubris and pride – are overwhelmingly the result of bad decisions and stupidity. Not so much a tragedy, more a STUPAGEDY (… stragupy… tragup-… strupadry?..)! There is absolutely no way that the characters in this film could organise a penis measuring contest, let alone head a vast criminal network of corruption. Even Michael, who is set up to be a peg higher than his mates, moves from one bad decision to another purely for the purpose of setting up some nice atmospheric shots: watching a car burn in an empty field under the watch of distant city lights, or charging through more neon light locations.

The cast is an excellent gathering of some of the UK’s best film actors: Stephen Graham, Neil Maskell, Richard Dormer, and the excellent Peter Ferdinando, whose performance as a frantic but clinical man of corrupt enterprise is the most consistent element in the film. There is a real star like quality to him that is somehow likable despite his heinous behavior. Like a good genre film should, Ferdinando presents a man that we can route for. But like the hieghtened visuals of Hyena, the character of Michael is maxed out long before the films end. The third act sees Michael stumble from one impossible situation to another brimming with show downs and breakdowns. The film’s ending is symptomatic Hyena’s attempt to rally against cliche: an anticlimatic compromise which denies genre expectation for its own sake. And by the end of this film the audience definitely deserves a pay-off.

600 Miles

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Director Gabriel Ripstein was inspired to make this film in the wake of the ATF’s ‘Operation fast and Furious’, where the ATF allowed guns to be trafficked across the border into Mexico to observe their movements. Unsurprisingly it was a diplomatic disaster: some 1000 guns were misplaced and lots of people were shot. The operation was only brought to light after American Border Patrol agent was killed by a trafficked gun.

The film follows Arnulfo (Kristyan Ferrer), a young man out of place trying desperately to find validation in his family’s criminal operation. In a chain of events that lay bare his ineptitude at being a gangster he is paired up with ATF agent Hank Harris whose bungled attempt to arrest Arnulfo sees him kidnapped and taken on the road trip of the film’s title to be served as a prize to Arnulfo’s uncle, the head of the gun running family.

This is not Burt Reynold’s A Cop and a Half (1993): the relationship is not a narrative device in which Harris gets to experience the tough Mexican streets that he was blind to, and see the error of his stuck up ATF ways. Despite being kidnapped into criminally dangerous situations, Hank Harris never appears to be contaminated by his predicament. Even though he can be staring down the barrel of a gun, Roth manages to portray Harris as a man sterilised from his surroundings. Ripstein laughs at the notion of a Hollywood ending were Harris could adopt Arnulfo. Instead the relationship centres on a subdued power struggle between the two that is never clearly outlined. Harris clearly wants to get out of the situation, but are all of his actions defined by a bid for survival?  Is there a sense of responsibility that lies behind his protection of Arnulfo?

Ripstein never preaches in this film, and the gun running context is not highlighted in any way to raise awareness of the recklessness of ATF policies. Instead it is the lackadaisical relationship between the U.S. and Mexico borders and its effects that fall under focus. Guns cross one way, and drugs the other, and money passes in both directions, but the shitty end of the wedge most definitely goes south of the border. And the tip of that wedge rests squarely on Arnulfo’s head: a young man uncertain of his place in his Uncle’s criminal operation, his standing amongst his friends, and even of his sexuality. Without these certainties he cannot capitalise on the broken border relationship that his family has built a criminal enterprise on. And if he doesn’t fit in he’s going to get sifted out from the bottom.

Moments of violence arise with great effect from moments of mundanity to create a dull sense of hopelessness. An oddly anticlimactic ending serves a gentle slap to any audience expecting anything different.

Big Hero 6: The Day Disney Ate Marvel

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Now that the Marvel Studio’s superhero-powerhouse-blockbuster-machine is fully up and running- since Disney’s 2009 acquisition – Disney has rummaged through the Marvel box to find a vehicle to Disneyfy. In doing so Disney leans into shot and essentially photobombs its own production.

Set in an excellently imagined hybrid of San Fransisco and Tokyo (San Fransokyo), Hiro – boy genius and robot inventor – must defeat a terrorist who killed his brother, with the aid of his brother’s last invention, Baymax.

Baymax provides the gooey inflatable Disney centre to the film. Along with Gerty in Moon (2009), Robot in Robot & Frank (2012), TARS and CASE in Interstellar (2014), Baymax is part of the kindly but cold anti-HALs who populate recent sci-fi pictures. As a medical robot his primary function is to heal Hiro of all wounds physical and emotional. Scott Adsit’s voice performance for the robot injects a soft, heart-breaking humour to the film. The relationship between Baymax and Hiro pure Disney, and the film is at its very best when it focuses on this. The animation is excellent (what else should we expect from Disney?), and is especially good at pulling a great physical performance out of the inflatable vinyl Baymax.

It’s a shame then that the film splinters against the strain of crow-barring a Marvel franchise into a Disney template. Disney’s take on the Marvel creation throws up some good ideas. The most positive element of the film is Hiro’s group of friends: a group of like-minded inventors who band together against the mysterious terrorist villain. They’re a good mix of creeds, genders, temperaments, and a solid tick for aspirational viewing for children. However, when things get a bit tougher, especially in later fight scenes, the blend of Marvel and Disney rattles uncomfortably like a piece of ice in a smoothie blender (I got a smoothie blender for Christmas. It looks at me from the shelf. Gathering dust. Gathering shame. Fassbender shame).

There’s an excellent Disney film in here somewhere, and elsewhere a serviceable young adult sci-fi. But together the film doesn’t do much other than provide a good spectacle. And this film houses the least pleasing Stan Lee cameo out of the lot. Booooo.

Whiplash: JAZZ. IS. STRESSFUL.

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As a precocious young teen I was fond of listening to the irregular time signatures of Dave Brubeck’s Quartet. A friend of mine once told me his parents couldn’t stand to listen Brubeck’s music because it was too hectic. “Those squares!” I scoffed into my ‘spresso. “Jazz ain’t hurtin’ no-one”. Oh how wrong I was.

Soon to be Reed Richards in the upcoming Fantastic 4 reboot, Martin Teller plays a promising young drummer prodigy – Andrew- who is rung through his bandleader’s regime of grueling practice and putdowns. The bandleader, Fletcher, is played by a ballshrinkingly intimidating J.K. Simmons.

Andrew needs to be the very best at what he does, but can only find appreciation in the most unforgiving environments of rigorous training. His achievements are dismissed at a family dinner party, even though he is in within reach of being the world’s best drummer. Even less impressed is Fletcher, who is witheringly dismissive of a “good job”, and physically abusive when faced with imperceptible inconsistencies of rhythm.

Like this year’s Foxcatcher the film plays a twisted version of the Rocky narrative. Our hero rises, stumbles at a crucial moment, but ultimately rises against the odds toward transcendent success. It even sees the impact it has on those who love Andrew: a lovely turn from Paul Reiser as his sweet natured father, and Glee’s Melissa Benoist as his ruthlessly dismissed girlfriend. But instead of high fives all round, the climactic scene of triumph is a troubling watch, as a strategically broken Andrew finally matches Fletcher’s expectations. Fletcher is proven right, but only in the light of Andrew giving himself to his regime. Andrew is complicit in his success, a complicit victim in an abusive relationship that skews any attempts to label him as a victim.

No film about a in a jazz film would be complete without a soundtrack. Unlike many films about people trying to break into the music scene, the music itself is already fully formed. It’s powerful, hard, bright music that starts when Fletcher says so, and more importantly stops at Fletcher’s word too, who fills the silence inbetween with barking demands.

Director Damien Chazelle who also wrote the film, claims that the story is based on personal experiences as a percussionist in a jazz band. His musical sensibilities certainly comes through his editing, which drives a heightened tension through stabby staccato cuts without drowning the film in stylism and takes the film home in  under 2 hours. Which is about as long as my heart could hold out. If you can stand it I strongly recommend.

Birdman: Everything’s great. Except for the film. Which is fine.

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The film is technically brilliant. Things are happening on screen that are worthy of genuine pause where you ask “How did they do that?”, which is something that doesn’t come to mind very often in this age of the CGI spectacular. Now we are so swamped with impossible images it is easy just to dismiss visual spectacle as ‘computers wot dunit’. Whilst this is incredibly ignorant of the hard work a special effects teams put in (something that the film industry as a whole seems guilty of too) it is sometimes difficult to get immersed in the wonder of what is being seen and instead much easier to accept it at face value.

Director of Photography, Emmanuel Lubezki, continues to amaze off the back of long take behemoth Gravity. Although the image never seems to cut, we still see transition in time over a few days, and impossible journeys from the bowels of the St James Theatre through the skies above Times Square and extended New York.

The cast is given a rare opportunity to show off their chops in takes that defy the expectations of what a film crew can maintain. In a way this seems to be the reason why Director Alejandro González Iñárritu chose to shoot in extended takes. We are supposed to see the process of acting happen in real time, both within the characters and the actors playing the characters. It’s all very meta, especially with the casting of Michael Keaton who has protested against claims that his has been actor is a reflection of himself, even though both the character and he are most famous for roles as superheros in films that were released in the same era (in a passing comment by an interviewer in the film it is revealed that the last Birdman film was released in 1992, the same year as Keaton’s last outing as Batman in Batman Returns).

It’s a bit of a disappointment that the overall effect isn’t particularly revealing. The meta is only there for meta’s sake. And Actor’s can be eccentric or even difficult/needy? As an observation it’s hardly ground breaking. And if that’s the message of the film I think Cronenburg takes the prize home for smashing, burning, strangling and poisoning the point home in this year’s Maps to the Stars (2014).

The psychological element of the film is more fitting to an out and out genre film rather than the genre defying drama the film actually is. Keaton’s character is either hallucinating or genuinely has some superhero powers that he shares with the fictional Birdman. When he is alone, Riggan has powers of telekinesis and flight. If this was part of a genre film this could be interesting, but within the context of this comedy drama, whether or not he actually has these powers is almost irrelevant, and more of an excuse to show off what can be done within a long take.

It is an incredibly impressive film, and all of the separate elements are exceptional, but as a combined whole they don’t stand on each other’s shoulders. Cynically speaking it stands a strong chance (and deservedly so) in many categories in the upcoming awards season, but certainly not best film. Not exactly a harsh criticism to say this isn’t the best film of 2014/15 is it? But certainly reflective of a kind of disappointment in this reviewer.