My week in film: Irrational Man, Take One Action Film Festival, Dear White People and more…

An enforced film journal hiatus due to broadband limitation meant that the previous two weeks viewing has been mainly the re-watching of DVDs (the excellent Spaced) and one cinema trip, to see the intimate and frustrating The Closer We Get, left undocumented here. Since Internet connectivity has now been restored, a fuller reflection on the week’s screenings is possible, and happily, there’s a lot of viewing to reflect on.

The Price We Pay
The Price We Pay

Take One Action Film Festival, which challenges its audiences to, ‘’See the change you wish to be in the world’’ opened on Wednesday 16 September with The Price We Pay, a documentary from Harold Crooks, the writer/director of Surviving Progress and a writer on The Corporation. Crooks’ new film focuses on the global financial system, with particular critique of The City of London’s financiers and off shore tax havens. Bringing together a wide spectrum of experts in tax law, sociology, politics and finance, The Price We Pay takes the form of a mostly talking heads structure, that was notable for the predominance of white, middle-aged men providing expert opinions. Though a fascinating insight to the loop holes of corporate finance and tax avoidance, and certainly demonstrating an appropriate outrage as the opener of T.O.A, there was nevertheless something dry and un-cinematic about Crooks’ approach, which lessened its power somewhat. At T.O.A it’s the issues that matter however, and a post-screening discussion moderated by Artistic Director Simon Bateson, with Alvin Mosioma, the Director of Tax Justice Network – Africa, Chris Hegarty of Christian Aid and the head of Oxfam Scotland, Jamie Livingstone, ignited and informed a passionate audience seeking just the kind of answers and insight that the festival encourages.

Dear White People
Dear White People

Justin Simien’s Dear White People, about the experience of four black students at an Ivy League college in the US, was pertinent and witty, tackling issues of blatant, hidden and institutionalised racism. Tessa Thompson leads the cast as Sam White, the daughter of a mixed-race couple who hosts the titular radio show, exposing the hypocrisy of the school’s inclusive policies and segregated housing, whilst also coming to terms with her own repressed intolerance. Writer/Director Simien has created a dense, necessary but very funny examination of the US college system, and the epilogue documenting actual instances of blatant racism within it, is the shock that demonstrates how necessary Dear White People is.

Irrational Man

Elsewhere, the latest Woody Allen film, Irrational Man, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone as professor and student of philosophy respectively, striking up ‘friendship’ and more whilst grappling with the morality of murder (a nod to Hitchcock’s Rope) was laboured yet somehow engaging. Both performances were excellent, as was Parker Posey as Phoenix’s colleague and lover, and watching such enthusiasm on screen provided a lot of the film’s enjoyment, but too many of the scenes were repetitive and the score just as much. Despite this, I got caught up in the drama of how Phoenix’s morally compromised professor would resolve his plight.

Finally, perhaps the most rewarding film viewed this week was Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, the second feature from director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, whose previous work has included directing second unit for Nora Ephron and Martin Scorsese and episodes of Glee. Here Gomez-Rejon works from a screenplay written by Jesse Andrews adapting from his own best-selling novel of the same name. The film also won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at Sundance 2015, but perhaps to its benefit, none of this was known to this writer prior to viewing the film. The Me of the title is Gregg (Thomas Mann), child of liberal, social anthropologist, film enthusiasts played by Nick Offerman and Connie Britton whose unconventional and loving parental guidance has nonetheless left Gregg with a crippling sense of his own awkwardness, as he attempts not to associate with any one high school clique. His best friend Earl (RJ Cyler), whom he refers to as a co-worker due to their prolific output as directors of pastiche tributes to classic cinema (Aguirre, Wrath of God, Midnight Cowboy and A Clockwork Orange among others), tolerates his awkwardness due to their mutual desire not to partake in the high school cafeteria’s jungle-like hierarchies. When Gregg is persuaded by his mother to visit Rachel (Olivia Cooke) because she’s been diagnosed with leukaemia, he’s forced to become an actual friend to someone, an act that ‘ruins his life.’

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

So far, so high school, but I couldn’t help but be caught up in the turmoil and fun of this trio’s antics, probably because everything in the film is so damn charming and sympathetic. Gregg’s arc is to go from self-involved wannabe loner to authentic friend and though this at times is signposted too heavily by music cues and adorable stop-motion animation, there’s enough real poignancy from cast across the board to create genuine feeling. Offerman and Britton might be a bit slight in their characterisation, but Molly Shannon as Rachel’s mother brings an engaging desperation to her performance that is pitched just between funny and tragic. I can imagine my teenage self being deeply moved by Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, but that’s not to say my adult self didn’t shed a tear at the film’s inevitably heartrending end.

Also watched:

The Angels’ Share, Dir Ken Loach.
Girlhood. Dir. Céline Sciamma, Horse Money by Pedro Costa – watch this space for reviews/future on articles on both.

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My week in film: Blue Ruin, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Amazing Spiderman 2 and more…

THORInspired by the effervescent Avengers Assemble, I sought out Thor (2011) for another watch to compare the tone of Branagh’s earlier effort with Whedon’s spot-on get-the-gang-together adventure. As with Avenger’s Assemble, one of the main pleasures of Thor is Tom Hiddleston’s demi-God Loki, brother to our titular hero. Hiddleston is deft at combining the pathos of Loki’s identity crisis, with the camp of a truly despicable villain, and in Thor his origin story is well worth revisiting, even if the more spectacular action set pieces are confined to realms other than earth, leaving Thor and his comrades battle with Loki’s metal man henchman seem a little underwhelming.

David Cronenberg is a director I’ve shied away from mainly due to my irritation with eXistenZ (1999), which seemed to belabor its point somewhat, however having finally seen The Fly (1986) and caught up with come more recent work, A History of Violence (2005), and Eastern Promises (2007), my irritation has lifted and I’m certainly trying to see more. With that in mind I watched A Dangerous Method (2011), which looks at the relationship between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), aA-Dangerous-Method-9nd the battle for morality and ethics in the birth of psychoanalysis, as represented by Jung’s torment at this relationship with a patient, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightly).

The key Cronenberg concerns are all present – sex, the death drive, the mind/body divide, an emphasis on the corporeal – making this perhaps the perfect subject for the director, and none more perfectly expressed than in Knightley’s committed performance, her body contorting in a pure expression of mental ruin

In Blue Ruin, a man seeks vengeance for the murder of his parents on the day their killer is released from prison, leading to a bloody series of retaliations, a form of justice kept ‘in house’ and away from the police. The immediate aftermath of Dwight’s (Macon Blair) somewhat calamitous yet shocking first kill sees him come face to face with the innocent quotient of his enemy’s clan, in a moment of pathos-filled humour, in which Dwight is required to release a passenger from his unplanned escape vehicle, and is given the first hint that his side of this story is not the only great tragedy at stake. Director/writer/cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier establishes a suitably sticky atmosphere, as the heat of the Virginia forests seems to emanate from the image of each blood-soaked character. Blue Ruin won the FIPRESCI International Critics prize in Cannes 2013 and it’s easy to see why – Saulnier here achieves a pure clarity of character, plot and form that draws strength from being both terrifyingly simple and artfully realized.

With Jane Campion’s Golden Globe winning Top of the Lake (2013), murder or the threat thereof is also the driving force of a plot that has Elizabeth Moss’s Detective Robin Griffin return to her home town, ostensibly to visit her dying mother, yet pulled into a rape investigation when a pregnant 12 year old attempts suicide in the titular Lake Top. Issues of gendered power plays are at the heart of this stellar mini series, as Robin’s status as a lone female sees her subject to forms of male protection both welcome and unwelcome, an inappropriate marriage proposal, threatening displays of violence, psychological manipulation and name calling, whilst other women seem to have varied experiences of the same enforced passivity at the hands of local land-owning alpha male, Matt (Peter Mullan).img_topofthelake1

Whilst Robin searches for Matt’s runaway daughter Tui (Jacqueline Joe), a camp sets up at Paradise, the lakeside land sold from under him by business partner Bob Platt, and a group of women move into storage containers, under the guidance of GJ (Holly Hunter). Although GJ professes not to teach or impart wisdom – only the ‘the body knows what to do’ all the characters of Top of the Lake are drawn to her at some point, whether seeking help, shelter or a chance to offload anger and fear – represented by one male onlooker that directly questions the specificity of her gender.

Showcasing the New Zealand landscape as a site of astonishing beauty and acute danger, Campion creates an atmosphere that never allows the viewer to assume the worst is over, as Robin’s investigation reveals inextricable links between her own past and present self.

captain-america-the-winter-soldier-teaser-trailer-black-widow1Finally, my viewing this week ended on lighter notes, with a double bill of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Anthony & Joe Russo, 2014) and The Amazing Spiderman 2 (Mark Webb, 2014). I thought Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, 2011) a terrible bore of a film – due mainly to the unimaginative direction (but then what was I expecting from the director of Jurassic Park 3?) so helpfully my expectations were low, and this new, post Avengers, Phase 2‘ iteration of the Steve Rogers story proved engaging, delightfully silly and earnest only when it mattered most. Action scenes involving Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow maintained the excellent standard of choreography for this character that began with Iron Man 2 (John Favreau, 2010) with the kind of fighting style that believably demonstrates how a woman of Romanoff’s strength and size can immobilize swathes of henchmen.

amazoing spiderman 2Emma Stone was also given ample space to show strength and characteristic intelligence as Gwen Stacy – saving Spidey’s (and the rest of New York’s) life in The Amazing Spiderman 2, which puts the romance between Peter and Gwen at the centre of the film. Though Andrew Garfield as Peter was once again the perfect, sinewy, athletic Spidey, I was left with a sense that his world is less tangible than that of the Avenger’s and its respective solo ventures in the series – despite also being a Marvel title. Perhaps it’s due to every villain so far having originated in that comic book cliché of accidental merge with toxic animal/goo/experiment gone wrong in the Osborn lab, or maybe Amazing Spiderman 2 failed to exploit the potential of any one of its villains, instead settling for broadly painted caricatures doing little justice to the caliber of the actors playing them. Nevertheless, Stone and Garfield are a sheer joy to watch, being that rare example of sizzling on-screen chemistry.

Coming next on My week in film… In cinemas I’ll review Frank, and at home – an as yet unknown plethora of film from around the world.