Revisited: Aeon Flux

“It looks like nature found a way.” This line of dialogue, spoken late in the film is one of two perhaps unintentional Spielberg references in Aeon Flux, puts the film nicely in the sphere of the biological-minded science fiction. The novel cyberpunk aspect, biotech gone wild, is rather nicely ported over from the Peter Chung’s anarchic animated TV series. Scissor-like flesh-seeking blades of grass and fruit-on-the-vine capable of firing poison loaded darts at both a high rate and velocity offer interesting visual thrills and botanical challenge for Aeon as she tries to infultrate the sprawling lair of her arch-nemesis Trevor Goodchild. Accompanied by fellow state-terrorist (a welcome Sophie Okonedo) who was forward thinking to have her feet surgically replaced with hands for an acrobatic edge, they dance and dive their way through the most unique corporate greenscape ever committed to celluloid.

In the 10 episode TV series, there was never an attempt at narrative continuity either within a show or across the series. Each episode more or less had Aeon attempting to thwart one scheme or another of Bregnan scientist-dictator Trevor Goodchild, but at the same time dealing with her lust for him. The film does have the feel of an extended episode with the concession to mainstream multiplexes being a story is structured in a far more straightforward manner, somewhat amplified in stakes.

Elaborate, vaguely Asian architecture and costume design give you a very interesting world to look at. It was a smart move to set the film away from the Orwellian model of dark and dreary dystopia, even if the visual palette occasionally treads into Star Trek: The Next Generation territory. Aeon and her fellow feminine rebels-against-the-man, lead by fiery-haired and ghostly Frances MacDormand, do not need to meet in clandestine back alleys or bunkers, but rather take a pill and meet their leader in some sort of pharmacological state of being. Phones are implanted directly into the ear, video-email can be sent by spores in a glass of water. Production design reigns supreme.

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Carlos’ Review Round-Up

Here’s a quick sampling of my week’s watches. You can find more of my reviews at Always Watch Good Movies.

 

Timbuktu (2014)

Directed by: Abderrahmane Sissako
Country: Mauritania / France

African cinema has a fearless new voice that deserves huge accolade. Mauritanian filmmaker, Abderrahmane Sissako, directed and co-wrote (with Kessen Tall) “Timbuktu”, one of the most relevant dramas I’ve seen in a while. The film follows the misadventures of Kidane, a pacific cattle herder who does everything to protect his wife, daughter and assets, from a group of fanatic Jihadists that control Mali’s city of Timbuktu. Mr. Sissako, beyond taking aim on the invaders through a deft sneer, also shows the joyless life of the tormented inhabitants. The magnificent well-composed shots, amazed me when capturing the arid African landscapes, but also disturbed me when showed the Jihadists’ demands: women had to wear socks and gloves (poor fishwife who realizes her job is compromised), it was strictly forbidden to play soccer (a game played by youngsters, with the particularity of having no ball, has the simultaneous effect of being ludicrous and cruel), music was not allowed (one woman was condemned to 40 lashes after fill our souls with her voice), and adultery was considered the worst crime (the punishment was death by stoning). Despite of the law, forged in the name of Allah, there were those who enjoyed special immunity: Zabou, a deranged woman who was seen as a kind of sorcerer, could wander without covering her head; a religious fundamentalist was caught smoking and coveting Kidane’s wife; a teen girl was forced to get married against her will… Every senseless fanatic should watch “Timbuktu” whose objectivity and vision become essential these days. You can call it whatever you want: urgent criticism, breathtaking adventure or daring mockery… for me it’s simply an unsubmissive masterpiece, which I wouldn’t change a single thing.


Miss Julie (2014)

Directed by: Liv Ullmann
Country: UK / Ireland

Liv Ullmann, former muse of Ingmar Bergman during years in masterpieces such as “Persona”, “Autumn Sonata” or “Cries and Whispers”, directs her fourth feature film, “Miss Julie”, which was adapted from August Strindberg’s play of the same title. For this theatrical drama, Ullmann picked a trio of actors that guarantee credibility: Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell and Samantha Morton. They performed with conviction and it was not because of them that “Miss Julie” didn’t have the desired influence on me. Beyond being excessively wordy, the film occasionally plays with an emotional hysteria, becoming excessively dramatic, stuffy and for several times unnatural. Set during the midsummer night of 1890, the drama follows Julie (Chastain), the spoiled daughter of the wealthy Anglo-Irish Count of Fermanagh. Bored with her daily life, she insists to seduce John (Farrell), her father’s valet, in a disrespectful way in regard to her servant, Kathleen (Morton), who was committed to him. Julie reveals an overbearing and cruel side, but ultimately her emotional fragility and solitude is uncovered. She starts playing a defiant game that is sexy and contemptuous, pushing John to the limits of his sanity, since he is unable to control his impulses but also gets mad when treated as an inferior. All these postures torment the tired and devastated Kathleen, condemned to be on her own. Among confessions, accusations and lots of changings in attitude, “Miss Julie” can never be called a romantic film. Fear, disquiet and prejudice take control of this battle of love and hate that had its funniest moment when Julie states about Kathleen: ‘a servant is a servant’, to what John promptly retaliated: ‘and a whore is a whore’. The truth hurts! Immediately, she fell in tears.


Escobar: Paradise Lost (2014)

Directed by: Andrea Di Stefano
Country: Spain / France

Italian actor Andrea di Stefano makes his directorial debut with “Escobar: Paradise Lost”, a thriller, set in 1991 Medellin, whose title mislead us to assume we are before a biopic about the unmerciful popular Colombian drug trafficker, Pablo Escobar. Instead, the film tells about a Canadian young man, Nick (John Hutchinson), who was having trouble with local thugs when trying to set up a business by the beach, in the company of his older brother, Dylan (Brady Corbet). Everything will become easier when he falls in love with the gracious Maria (Claudia Traisac), Escobar’s niece. Accepted by Escobar (Benicio del Toro) to be part of his clan, he will see the coast clear when those who demanded a payment for his business, were burned alive. A day before giving himself to the authorities in a pact with the Government, Escobar’s first concern is to protect the future of his family by concealing the fortune accumulated with years of narcotrafficking. He reserved one last special operation for the innocent Nick who was assigned to meet and kill a ‘campesino’. However, surprises come up and Nick, in panic, will have to fight for his life. As the story unfolds, it becomes too chewed in aspects it should have been more expeditious. Some good hints of tension not always usurp an annoying cheesiness felt in scenes involving Nick, unveiling superficiality and exaggeration in a story that deserved to be better handled. Di Stefano takes the wrong turn when he had everything to do it right – decent script and respected actors. The formula: ‘make it simple and raw’ would have given him better chances, together with a more astute exploration of the characters. Paradise lost… and a missed opportunity.

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DVD Review: Life Itself

Director: Steve James
Starring: Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Gene Siskel, Werner Herzog, Martin Scorsese, Errol Morris
Producers: Garrett Basch, Steve James, Zak Piper
Country: USA
Running Time: 118 min
Year: 2014
BBFC Certificate: E


When Roger Ebert died back in 2013, the movie blogosphere was awash with tributes to one of the world’s most known and loved film critics. You may have noticed I didn’t join in, but I must admit I’m not as familiar with his work as most. I knew who he was and occasionally checked reviews on his site when linked through from the IMDB, but I wasn’t a regular reader of his blog and his famous TV show with Gene Siskel didn’t air in the UK. I tended to find his reviews reliable though and all the love sent out after his death compelled me to find out more about the man, so I was very keen to watch Life Itself, Steve James’ documentary on Roger Ebert released last year. Luckily Dogwoof have given the film a DVD release in the UK and I was sent a screener to review.

A good chunk of Life Itself is made up of the typical biography/tribute style of documentary, looking into Ebert’s past and the progression of his career. We are told about his early days as the editor of his university newspaper where he wasn’t afraid to make his views known and how he didn’t actually seek out the job of film critic at the Chicago Sun Times, it was just kind of lumped on him. Ebert spent the last 11 years of his life fighting cancer so of course this is explored in the film. A lot is said about his work and relationship with Siskel too. This side of the documentary is refreshingly frank, showing how they had more than their share of ‘creative differences’. Some wonderfully acidic outtakes are shown of the two trying to record adverts for the show and throwing vicious barbs at each other. A later clip shows some more friendly banter though, so the film eventually suggests a mutual admiration between the two critics, both of whom were taken by battles against cancer.

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DVD Review: Spring in a Small Town

Director: Fei Mu
Writer: Li Tianji
Starring: Wei Wei, Shi Yu, Li Wei, Cui Chaoming, Zhang Hongmei
Producers: Bi Jianping
Country: China
Running Time: 94 min
Year: 1948
BBFC Certificate: U


I‘ve taken a break from reviewing documentaries (over at Blueprint: Review – sorry couldn’t resist a plug) to celebrate Valentine’s Day by watching a film which takes a poignant look at honouring a dying marriage and controlling adulterous desires.

Spring in a Small Town is a highly regarded Chinese film from director Fei Mu made back in 1948, a year before the founding of the People’s Republic of China when it promptly got pushed out of the public’s eye. Luckily it got restored in the 80’s and by 2005 it was voted the greatest Chinese motion picture of all time at the 24th Hong Kong Film Awards. It’s never had a UK DVD release though until now, when the BFI have followed up a cinema run with this home entertainment version.

The film is set in the aftermath of the Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) and tells the story of the Dai family who are living in the ruins of their once wealthy home in a small town in rural China. Liyan (Shi Yu) is the husband, stricken with an illness which may be psychological, spending his days mourning for the past. Yuwen (Wei Wei) is his wife who has lost interest in the relationship and merely plays the part. The two are stuck deep in a rut until Zhang (Li Wei), an old friend of Liyan, arrives at the house after a decade away. It’s quickly apparent that Zhang and Yuwen have a history together too and thus begins a doomed love triangle, not helped by Liyan’s young sister who lives with them and also takes a shine to Zhang.

It sounds like classic, well trodden melodrama, but this is masterfully crafted cinema that transcends its narrative cliches. Also, before I get into the craft in more detail, the post-war setting adds depth and an air of melancholy and hopelessness to proceedings. In questioning the role of women, particularly wives, in catering for their husband’s needs, toeing the line whether they want to or not, it feels ahead of its time too.

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Review: Kingsman: The Secret Service

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Director: Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake, Stardust, Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class)
Writer: Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn
Producers: Adam Bohling, David Reid, Matthew Vaughn
Starring: Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Jack Davenport, Mark Hamill, Taron Egerton, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Caine, Sofia Boutella
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 129 min.


Spy movies have a tendency to feel constricting and demure. Even with all the action and gadgets of Bond, he always feels so serious and like there’s so little joy in his life. I guess that’s part of the appeal of the new Bond – he’s dark and secretive and the movies are gritty. Enter Matthew Vaughn. He seems to have looked at the genre, decided that it’s too boring and stuffy, gave it the finger and set out to deliver an epically rambunctious spy movie that flies in the face of convention, all the while maintaining most of the irreverence offered up by the source material from bad boy comics creator Mark Millar.

This isn’t the first time Vaughn and writing partner Jane Goldman (worth noting a woman has a hand in adapting a successful comic book property – not the first either) have taken on Millar. We all saw how Kick-Ass turned out; Vaughn and Goldman have proven they can aptly adapt Millar’s storytelling style to the big screen and the results in Kingsman: The Secret Service are a clear indication that Goldman and Vaughn should keep adapting Millar properties because the results tend to be spectacular.

Colin Firth goes action star as Harry Hart, the member of a super secret spy organization known as the Kingsmen. A series of events leads the group on a search of a new member and the current members have to provide a candidate. Hart finds his in his past, a young man who goes by Eggsy, newcomer star-in-the-making Taron Egerton, whose father once saved Hart’s life. What follows is a series of training montages as the recruits vie for the single spot on the spy team while Hart and his agency cronies including Mark Strong as Merlin and Michael Cane as Arthur (see the hilarious theme here?) lead the charge against Valentine, Samuel L. Jackson sporting a lisp (in what seems like one of the longest leads to a joke in a movie in some time), a mad genius who is trying to solve the world’s climate problem.

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Review: The Duke of Burgundy

 
Starting off with what is undoubtedly the opening credit sequence of the year, Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy never ceases to surprise and delight over its 100 minutes, offering a dry but meticulous humour and rhythm. Those credits, offering the promise of ‘perfume by’ and ‘lingerie’ by,’ evoke a specific period of Euro-sleaze cinema from the early 1970s that was drenched in velvet, silk and hosiery (and undoubtedly all kinds of musk). Harpsichords and cellos abound.

In Strickland’s previous film, Berberian Sound Studio, he took the mood and repeated patterns of the Italian Giallo to deliver a witty and uncomfortable workplace comedy. It was a film where a British man is driven mad simply by the culture shock of alien ungraspable protocols. It was terrifying, confusing and above all, funny as hell. Here he does a two-hander in an over sized, lushly designed manor house in the country exploring the sexual politics of two women immersed in the protocols of their own passions. Their only break between shared intimacy is in the meticulous study of moths and butterflies, creatures who are nearly infinite in variation, aid in pollination, and whose rapidly pulsing wings sound more than a little like a vibrator.

Young Evelyn arrives to work as the housemaid for the matron of the house, who haughtily finds fault in every task; a master who is clearly power tripping. Everything is heightened as Evelyn brushes the carpets on her knees, hangs damp underwear up to drip-dry, or slowly polishes the barrel of the microscope in the entomology laboratory, where hundreds of glass cases of moths and butterflies pinned to velvet pillows. If you can take your eyes off the production design here, your sympathies might slide towards poor Evelyn, but things quickly get complicated as it becomes obvious that she is seriously getting off on the ritual. Body language and pregnant glances are the key to unlocking this picture, so keep at attention.

Like nearly every scene in the film, there is a punchline. It is amusing to watch this film with a large festival audience (I hope everyone gets a chance) as certain visual cues become apparent at different times for different people, giving an atmosphere of someone on the verge of laughter at any given moment, while others are intent on something entirely different. I won’t give anything away, but suffice it to say, that as the film progresses, it gets murky, then clear, then murky again, in who is the slave and who is the master. The rhythms and cycles of The Duke of Burgundy echo the give and take between lovers. How far can things go before the proclivities of a partner begin to feel like a chore? When do the sexy outfits begin to be more constrictive than empowering? When does the purchase a human-toilet device start to feel like a compromise?

Wait, what?

Strickland is fond of saying that he does not deal in metaphor, but comedy is association, and the image a moth pinned by its wings and displayed glass is ripe. As is a room full of handsomely attired women lecturing one another on the minutiae of cricket sounds and colour markings. No matter, there is mood to spare – the film is nothing if not fully immersive. But it also traffics in playfully obscuring its own sight gags. Be sure to pay attention to the slightly out of focused middle ground during the films several moth seminars with out loosing focus of all the passive-aggressive judgement throughout.

Observation and understanding create entertainment and pleasure, that works just fine even whether or not you are familiar with the genre Strickland is archly riffing on and re-configuring. And boy, oh, boy those opening titles. For that matter, stay for the closing credits for further gems such as ‘human toilet consultant’ which are scattered throughout the text.

There is not a single man in The Duke of Burgundy, but the film doesn’t need any to show us some universal truths about the species and its mating rituals. I can still smell the perfume.

Review: Black Sea

Director: Kevin Macdonald (Touching the Void, State of Play, Life in a Day, The Eagle)
Writer: Dennis Kelly
Producers: Charles Steel, Kevin Macdonald
Starring: Jude Law, Jodie Whittaker, Scoot McNairy, Tobias Menzies, Ben Mendelsohn, Grigoriy Dobrygin
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 114 min.

 

 

My original posting of this review can be found HERE

 


I was just thinking the other day that I haven’t seen a good submarine movie in a while, when all of the sudden I find myself on the edge of my theater seat with Kevin McDonald delivering one of the most suspenseful undersea films I’ve seen in recent memory. Black Sea mashes up the standard conventions of a heist film with the standard conventions of an underwater thriller and yet still manages to feel fresh and invigorating through its strong cast and white-knuckle sequences of peril.

The film begins with Jude Law, sporting a thick Aberdeen accent, getting let go from his underwater salvage job and meeting up with a group of his peers at a local watering hole. One of them informs him of a possible job involving the recovery of more than 4 tons of gold laying in a sunken Nazi U-Boat in the middle of the Black Sea.

After receiving funding by a wealthy investor, Law’s character (Capt. Robinson) recruits a rag-tag group of seamen to pilot an old, rusted-out Russian sub to go find the gold and bring back a hefty payday. Of course, if everything went according to plan, the film wouldn’t be nearly as exciting, so things quickly take a turn when tensions between the half-Russian, half-English crew reach a tipping point.
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Review: Love and Terror On The Howling Plains of Nowhere

 

[It’s out on iTunes today. Give this one a whirl. The film was on Kurt’s Top 10 films of the year.]

 

In a sparse corner of Nebraska, as far as possible from the state’s cities of Lincoln and Omaha sits the high-elevation prairie town of Chadron, population 5600. The town, described as ‘politely hanging on’ after peaking somewhere in the 19th century is host to the State College and was the hometown of NFL wide receiver Don Beebe, but is now quite remarkable for its motley collection of characters unearthed and endeared by author Poe Ballantine (himself one of those characters) in his memoir-slash-true-crime novel, “Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere: A Memoir.”

It has been adapted, wrangled, and condensed into documentary form by Dave Jannetta in the same tattered, rascally spirit as the book – equal parts pragmatism and poetry. Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere is morbid, hilarious and whipsmart film-making that belies strained budget and open-ended narrative. It will never look as good as The Imposter or offer the closure of The Thin Blue Line, but its humour is mighty. The Chadron Record’s ‘Police Beat’ newspaper column which features heavily here (more on that in a minute) alone is a treasure of treasures.

In deep, dark winter of 2006, the college’s resident PhD theoretical mathematics professor, Steven Haataja, withdrew $100 from the local cash machine and bought a large bag of charcoal from the Safeway before trundling off onto the wilderness in sub-zero (Fahrenheit) temperatures. The townsfolk and the local police are baffled that the introverted professor, who appeared to be settling into the community just fine, left just before the end of the semester without offering any closure to his occupation, family, or colleagues. Chadron has always been a town of transience, a way-station for drifters (or footballers) to Denver or Omaha or any other American city, so someone up and leaving for greener pastures was a common enough event and an eccentric exit from a nebbish math professor was chalked up as just that. Already a source of gossip and amateur sleuthing, when Haataja’s corpse was found in the spring by a rancher on his property a few miles from campus, in copse of trees bound with electrical cords and burned right down to the bones, it becomes the towns biggest mystery.

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