Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Review: It Was You Charlie (2013)

The poster for It Was You Charlie (2013) (above) bares a striking resemblance to the promotional materials that accompanied the release of Hal Ashby’s Being There (1979), which shows an elegant figure of a man floating above a stately home. Here, Abner (Michael D. Cohen), Charlie’s protagonist floats above a boardwalk, but on closer inspection it appears he is suspended by a noose, one of the most memorable props from another of Ashby’s classics, Harold and Maude (1971). The poster is not the only similarity between Emannuel Shirinian’s remarkable film and Ashby’s cult classics.

It Was You Charlie tells the story of a once a successful sculptor and art lecturer who has since become a solitary and suicidal night-shift doorman. Abner was left broken hearted after his better-looking and altitudinous brother, Tom (Aaron Abrams) hooked up with a woman that he was head over heels in love with. On top of this, he is suffering the traumatic effects of a car accident that left the driver of the other vehicle dead. Abner's is almost consumed by the fog of post-traumatic stress and suicidal thoughts until the day he meets Zoe (Emma Fleury), a young and beautiful taxi driver who encourages him to see the light. As friendship blossoms between the pair, Abner begins to shine some perspective on his affairs, but as the fog subsides not everything is as clear as one would expect. 

The tone of Shirinan’s film immediately suggests that Abner’s problems run deeper than sibling rivalry and they do, yet the audience is invited to laugh at the misdemeanours of our hopeless protagonist, performed perceptively by Michael D Cohen. As mentioned Abner is an amalgam of Chance and Harold from Ashby’s films. You are able to both laugh at him and feel for him in equal measures. A creature of routine, poor Abner’s cycle is broken when he breaks off contact with his brother. Suddenly their annual trip to the cinema to see On the Waterfront comes to an abrupt end when his brother begins a relationship with Madeline, an object of admiration for our reluctant hero. Much like Abner’s mindset the chronology of the film is disjointed with scenes from his past running parallel with his present, creating mystery and intrigue within the narrative. A great deal of thought has been invested in the arrangement of events. Many scenes mirror others, whether visually or verbally. During a conversation with the object of his affection, Madeline (Anna Hopkins), Abner speaks of “moments of big collisions.” There is much significance in the dialogue here and that is tragically realised as the film proceeds.

A film focused on a depressed lead has the potential to be dreary and overbearing, yet the composition and the injection of amusing, light-hearted characters, such as the Tennesee Williamseque widow next-door, prevent this from happening. Director, Shirinian has great taste and shares his influences with pride. Using crepuscular cinematography and the dark imagery of the fairytales: big juicy red apples, distorted reflections and minuscule characters against giant decor, the aesthetic is reminiscent of Jim Jarmusch’s catalogue in its sobriety. Zoe, the taxi driver could be clipped from the cells of Night On Earth (1991). Style aside, this is a film with a warm and ethical centre. Here we are presented with an amusing, hopeless character, the butt of a joke but slowly the layers are peeled back to humanise the laughing stock and create a heartwarming figure with a heartbreaking story and it’s done beautifully. A beguiling and thoroughly surprising film and once Shirinian has you where he wants you, he pulls the ornate rug sharply from under your feet, leaving you in a state of shock and admiration.  It was you Charlie, like its lead is short in length, but big in charm and bursting with heart and soul. But, who’s Charlie? 

Available now on iTunes 

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Review: Frank (2014)

Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank (2014) is an altogether different incarnation of the character that a British audience may already be familiar with. Gone is the helium voice and wacky comedic persona of his late night TV show and instead presented here is a sombre, intense artist who just happens to be called Frank and have a large spheroidal head on his shoulders, identical to that of his Sidebottomed brethren. Domhnall Gleeson stars as Jon, a young and hopeless wannabe musician who stumbles into an avant-garde pop band after witnessing their keyboard player attempt to drown himself in the sea. With no practice nor idea of the set-list, Jon joins the band onstage. It is there that he is introduced to Frank (Michael Fassbender) for the first time, albeit briefly before things go awry and he returns to the humdrum 9 to 5 existence he has grown begrudgingly accustomed to.

Jon is unexpectedly invited to join the band once more and unknowingly finds himself at the heart of a forest retreat where his incongruous bandmates intend to record their experimental album amidst personality clashes, sexual encounters and a surprise suicide. Bandmates come accompanied with complexities. Don (Scoot McNairy) has a bizarre debilitating fetish and Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) has an unmanageable and aggressive temper problem, yet all of the band members are united in their adoration of their talented and mesmerising front-man. After building up a following via social media and YouTube videos, Jon manages to get the band a prolific booking at an American music festival but is the band ready to perform their unique sound publicly and will Frank’s already unfeasibly large head be able to cope with a growing ego?

Based on the memoir by Jon Ronson (The Men Who Stare At Goats) who collaborates here with screenwriter Peter Straughen (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), the film is a fictional story that’s loosely inspired by the persona of musician and cult comedian Chris Sievey, who died age 54 in 2010 and the creative process of alternative musicians such as Daniel Johnston and Captain Beefheart. The film explores the line between art, creative freedom and a hunger for popularity. It’s all comically told from the perspective of Jon whose internal monologue narrates events as they unfold to hilarious effect. Intelligently, the writers brought forward Frank’s story in order to combine it with the digital age, so as the film progresses so does Jon’s steady online popularity, via Twitter feed and Tumblr updates as they appear on screen. The inclusion of social media ties in well with Frank’s absence of facial expression, his dissociative emotions are expressed via verbal emoticons, brief explanations of what his face is up to under the mask. Basically, Frank is LOL personified, played masterfully by Michael Fassbender, in a performance which manages to emanate beyond the mask, exuding the perfect measure of vulnerability and charisma through body language.

Fassbender is joined by a Rock 'n Roll ensemble cast. Both McNairy and Maggie Gyllenhaal, (who, after her performance in The Honourable Woman, has become a firm favourite) have plenty of meat on their supporting roles and come armed with baggage that makes them dually hilarious and somewhat terrifying. Gleeson, who bares a striking resemblance to Flight Of The Conchords’ Rhys Darby, both in appearance and comic performance, acts as the ambitious protagonist, a new age man, armed with social-media knowhow and grouped with a gang of avant-garde, punk traditionalists. It’s easy to empathise with his ambitious drive as he attempts to coax the uncompromising musicians towards an audience. In all, the film is a wholeheartedly entertaining fragment of madness, that will leave you with “smiley face” and is accompanied by a beautifully cacophonous soundtrack that sounds like a My Bloody Valentine and Joy Division mash-up. Although largely unrelated to what you think you know of Frank Sidebottom, this is a wonderful exploration of artistry and creativity and the scene in which the titular character is unmasked is a quietly heartbreaking tribute to the death of an enigma.

Frank is released on Blu Ray and DVD on September 15th

Sunday, 24 August 2014

The Boy From Space (1971)

When I was only 8 years old my parents sold our house and told me that I would be moving schools. Devastated was I, not because I was leaving behind some wonderful friends and not because I’d have to take down my Wham posters and pack up my Look In magazines. I was devastated because our class had just begun watching Look and Read on the four-wheel-drive television on Monday afternoons and I would be leaving school half way through the series and half way through the most disturbing thing I had ever seen in my 8 years on earth, The Boy From Space, a dramatic Sci-Fi series integrated within the educational context of the programme. Each episode saw some children excuse themselves from the room, some with letters from their parents, some who just endured and spent the rest of the term in a terrified sleepless daze. What I saw of the series sparked in me some wild adrenal hunger that could only be quenched with a decent scare. As a last day treat, my form teacher allowed me to read through the accompanying textbook so that I could find out the fate of Peep Peep. But it wasn't the same as seeing it with my own eyes. Luckily for me and the vast cult-following that was formed during the Look and Read years, the BFI have put the lot on DVD, in both its original serial format and in a specially cut feature version. And, I’m pleased to say, it has lost none of its ghastly appeal.

The Boy From Space is an adventure story told from the perspective of our reliable narrator, Helen (Sylvestra Le Touzel) who along with her brother Dan (Stephen Garlick) makes a frightening discovery after witnessing what they believe to be a falling meteorite. With the help of a compass, the pair set out the following morning to investigate further. As they descend deeper into the woods Helen becomes aware of a shift in the atmosphere as she realises that all of the birds have stopped singing and when Dan checks his compass, he is startled to find it spinning out of control. When the pair reach a giant secluded sand pit, they are struck by a strange sound and in the distance an even stranger sight. The Thin Man (John Woodnutt) adorned in a mac and hat, creeps wide eyed and curious towards them, he begins to chase them first on foot and then in a car before making his exit and leaving the two children shaken but not scared. As the siblings prepare to leave they encounter another, less threatening figure, a young boy who speaks in a series of beeps, squeaks and pips. His name is Peep Peep, he’s the boy from space and he is in danger.

Richard Carpenter’s serial is a masterclass in suspense, particularly when enjoyed as part of the Look and Read series, as each five minute segment leaves you quivering on the edge of your seat, sometimes terrified and literally screaming for more. As Helen recounts her erstwhile adventure, her sombre and unaffected tone comes at you with the serious properness of a Public Information film, immediately recalling the nostalgic horror of Lonely Water or Front Seat Child. Her sincerity is appeasing, yet it lulls you into a false sense of security because you believe her every, chilling word. Any child that enjoyed the foot stomp of a Saturday matinee in the 70s or 80s will relate to this story as it’s filmed with a similar aesthetic; cheap, fearful and startlingly real. Carpenter plays with the idea of childhood curiosity, isolating the children somewhat and throwing adventure their way without the constraints of a cautious, head shaking parent. Every child’s dream soon turns into a nightmare as the sibling protagonists overstep the boundaries of all that we are warned against when we’re younger; don’t go into the woods alone, don’t put yourself in imminent danger and don’t talk to strangers. It all adds up to one of the most terrifying and unforgettable introductions to a character ever, The Thin Man, a frighteningly descriptive yet simplistic title that’s accompanied by an even scarier performance from John Woodnut.

As The Thin Man roams around the desolate pit, his movements and his wide eyed, silent stoicism are the pure epitome of alien and as he  fast approaches the children, everything your parents ever warned you about stranger-danger can be seen reflected in the glaring close-up of his demented gaze. His make-up is a minimal silver sheen and his Warhol-esque haircut is hidden beneath the terrifying normality of an incongruous bowler hat. The mac that covers his somewhat dated space regalia is something else your mother warned you about. As the series progresses, the character loses his edge somewhat but you never forget that introductory moment in the pit, in a way that anyone who ever saw Bob crawl over the back of the sofa in Twin Peaks, is still haunted to this day. There are other familiar fears too such as the inability to communicate and moments of entrapment and menace which run, crying from the playground of pre-teen dreams. Perhaps Nicolas Roeg caught the series prior to directing The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) as there are several obvious similarities minus Bowie, boobs and a big budget.

Having watched the feature length presentation with my own children, I can tell you that they were as bewitched and as terror-stricken as I. The wooden acting, the cardboard sets, the terrible effects and costumes aside, The Boy From Space for all of its weaknesses has the power to entertain a contemporary audience as well as fuel the jittery nostalgia of the aged viewers who grew up afraid of David Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes video and hid behind the sofa every time Kate Bush came on the telly. The strength of the programme is in its proficient timing, gruellingly suspenseful moments and the constant pot boiling thrill of mild-threat. The series is up there with vintage Doctor Who, Chocky and other low budget Sci-Fi series that may not have the CGI effects or the big bucks behind them, but have the artful substance to trigger the imagination of a cult following and leave them trembling, merrily in their boots. It’s been thirty years since my badly-timed, mid-term departure left me hanging on a gripping sixth episode of The Boy From Space and finally thanks to the extensive BFI release, the wait is over and I can lay the perilous adventures of Peep Peep, Helen and Dan to rest. However, I’m not sure I will ever be able to say goodbye to The Thin Man but it helps to know that I am not alone or should that be “ɘnolɒ ƚon mɒ I” ?

Monday, 28 July 2014

Review: Rapture (1965)

An international co-production made on location along the gloriously photogenic Brittany coastline, Rapture (1965) is one of the most sadly neglected studio movies of the 1960s, which is perhaps down to its peculiar plot and its inability to be pigeon holed in any particular genre. Atmospheric, haunting and given a strikingly beautiful aesthetic by cinematographer Marcel Grignon, Rapture tells the unusual story of 15 year old teenager, Agnes, played with wondrous perfection by Patricia Gozzi.

Raised on an isolated farm by her strict and overbearing father (Melvyn Douglas), Agnes is as short on friends as she is maturity. Finding comfort in her dolls and with her ever flourishing childhood imagination, as she develops physically, her mental development struggles to keep up. After building a scarecrow on the farmland, with whom she shares her secrets, Agnes is delighted, when one evening, the scarecrow disappears, but a real-life gentleman appears in his place, wearing his clothes. Unbeknown to her, the seductive stranger, played by Dean Stockwell is a wanted criminal on the run from the law and seeking shelter. Agnes’s imagination goes into overdrive as she believes the fugitive is the living incarnation of the scarecrow. Instantly besotted, Agnes’s feelings spiral out of control as her burgeoning sexuality draws her closer towards the criminal.

Stunningly captured in black and white, the film plays heavily on the themes of childhood innocence and vulnerability, making this a perfect companion piece for Bryan Forbes’s equally compelling Whistle Down the Wind (1961). Rapture brings the melodrama in abundance but the beguiling performances and stunning visuals make it impossible to tear your eyes away. Gozzi puts in a powerful performance in the difficult role of Agnes. Whilst we never get a clear understanding of her developmental skills as inexplicable as they may be, a lot is pointed towards isolation and social or perhaps anti-social conditioning? Highly emotive, Gozzi’s nuanced and energetic performance is unlike anything you’ve ever seen, which makes one wonder why this treasure has remained buried for so long.

Modernist in its approach, director John Guillermin, occasionally heightens events by filming them from the frenzied and heightened perspective of the teenage protagonist before bringing us back to the disbelief of her fellow characters. The film is romantic in its approach to imagery, making you fall deeply in love with contours of Brittany’s coastlines via sumptuous and ambitious crane shots but Guillermin wants his audience to know who this film belongs to as he frames the whole shebang with a bout of crazed panic on London’s city streets as the teenager finally gets a glimpse of the world beyond the farm gates. Love interest Dean Stockwell oozes charisma as the scarecrow come-to-life, bringing matinee idol looks and compassion to an otherwise awkwardly complex and predatory character.

Beguiling and glorious, this dark fairy tale captures both the joy and danger of childhood imagination. Packed with powerful performances, outstanding imagery and a perfectly complimentary score by Georges Delerue. Rapture is a unique treasure from the vaults of forgotten cinema, that certainly makes you wonder what else they’ve forgotten about.

Rapture is presented for the first time on home video in the UK in a new high-definition restoration, released in a stunning blu-ray presentation as part of a Dual Format (Blu-ray & DVD) edition on 28 July 2014.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Review: Prisoners of War (Hatufim) Season 2

Written and directed by Gideon Raff, Prisoners of War, after much campaigning and an online #BringBackHatufim campaign, finally returns to the UK for a hotly anticipated second season. Prior to shooting the outstanding first series the script was acquired by the writers of 24, Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa who worked alongside Raff on the US adaptation, Homeland. The original series, set in 2008, depicts the lives of three Israeli Defence Force reservists, who were captured seventeen years ago during service on a secret mission with their unit in Lebanon.

To society and their families they are heralded as heroes and endless campaigns are set up, highlighting a demand for their return. The series begins when Uri Zach and Nimrod Klein finally return home to their families, whilst the third captive Amiel Ben-Horin comes home in a coffin adding to the distress of sibling, Yael played perceptively by Adi Ezroni. Uri (Shai Golan) bears the physical scars of his captivity and his girlfriend Nurit Halevi-Zach (Mili Avital) has moved on during his absence and married his brother Yaki (Mickey Leon). The couple also have a teenage son, Asaf and the family are initially forced to keep these major changes under wraps by an IDF psychologist until further notice. Nurit is wracked with guilt and when the truth is revealed, it leads to major complications.

Fellow captive, Nimrod Klein (Yoram Toledano) struggles in relating to his wife Talia (Yael Abecassis) who has devoted her life to fighting for her husband’s release. She, like her husband now struggles with a sense of purpose. Further complications arise when he is reunited with rebellious teenage daughter Dana (Yael Eitan) and teenage son Hatzav (Guy Selnik) who was born during his captivity. The dead soldier’s sister, Yael (Adi Ezroni) struggles to cope with her loss. The soldiers’ experience of captivity is gradually revealed through a series of disturbing flashbacks. As well as being the subject of public scrutiny the former captives now have to contend with the national hero status being thrust upon them via Israeli media. Their release raises the suspicions of Haim Cohen (Gal Zaid), an IDF psychologist convinced that there is more to the characters than meets the eye. He leads an investigation into Nimrod and Uri and enlists the help of IDF employee Iris (Sandy Bar) who develops a relationship with Uri in order to establish exactly what the former captives are hiding.

Season 2, begins only days after the first season’s finale and proceeds to unravel the shocking twist that it left us with. It’s imperative the nature of these twists is revealed or any indication of where the series is heading is given as the beauty of the series is in the gentle unwrapping of its tightly packed surprises. The season begins with the introduction of some new characters. Jonathan Uziel plays Yinon Meiri (pictured above), a man on a mission, whose father was murdered by terrorists when they burst into his school in Metula when he was a child. Also introduced are a small yet powerful Syrian community that shed some light on the flip side of the POW’s captivity.

This series, like the first is a slow-burner, less of a high-octane thriller and more of a cerebral, psychological drama. Devoid of the explosion count policy employed by its US progeny. POW works as a modern circumstantial drama, with the emphasis being on reintegration and relationships, all set beautifully against a backdrop of tumultuous politics and a contemporary Israeli landscape. For an international audience this makes for an intriguing glimpse of Israeli culture, humanising a society that the media largely portray as unfortunate statistics.

Such is the preciseness of Raff’s writing, the plot gradually becomes clear through the gentle dissipation of the dense cloud of paranoia that was formed throughout the first series. Prisoners of War’s success is down to it’s gentle pacing, the sensitive handling of the subject matter and the phenomenal cast. There is a constant battle between past and present for all of the characters involved. The former captives bring great intensity and anxiety to their roles. It’s hard to think of any other series that brings with it such intense and involving realism. Homeland most definitely doesn’t.

Secrets are long kept from the viewer which adds to a forceful impact upon their reveal. Unspoiled by commercialism and studio demands, the series is a mass of unrestricted creativity and remarkable talent and that shows in the series’ intricately sensitive composition. Prisoners of War is an absolute triumph made of tension and suspense. It’s a compassionate study of what happens to people over seventeen years, not just those held in captivity and it offers a rarely seen and incredibly interesting glimpse of contemporary Israel.

Packed with fine performances from all involved. It’s interesting to see the captives and their partners develop their roles and relationships together but most intriguing of all is further development of Yael, the bereaved sister of third captive Amiel, who is given the most emotive challenge of the series. The complexities of her character are handled beautifully by the ever watchable Adi Ezroni, who has the capacity to be the series’ biggest breakout star. Thankfully, the show’s creator has confirmed his intentions to write a third season, which cannot come quickly enough. Prisoners of War is drama in its purest and most creative form and is, in the figurative sense, much more explosive than its US counterpart.

UK DVD of Season 2 is released on July 28th 2014 Also available is the boxset of season 1&2

Friday, 25 July 2014

Noah (2014)

While perhaps not his greatest film to date, Noah (2014) still showcases the infinite talents of acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky and has plenty to offer with breathtaking visuals, fine performances and, following in the tradition of the Aronofsky's scores, a remarkable soundtrack from Clint Mansell. A great film for families and fans of epic, lengthy and gloriously ambitious adventure tales. Best enjoyed on surround sound with the volume cranked to full blast, so that when the rain finally comes you will already feel wet with anticipation.

Noah is out on VOD on 28th July from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. 

Monday, 14 July 2014

Review: Under The Skin (2013)

Under the Skin (2013)

Ten years since his sophomore feature Birth (2004) was released to a lacklustre reception, director Jonathan Glazer, who showed great promise with Sexy Beast (2000), is back with an altogether delicious monster of a movie. Scarlett Johansson plays against all conceivable type as a nameless creature who travels around Glasgow in a white van, scoping out men with her predatory and objective gaze and, after picking them up, she takes them back to a run down property and has her wicked way with them. As simple as the premise may sound, Under the Skin (2013) an adaptation of the marvellous novel by Michel Faber, is anything but simple as the narrative is simply non existent thanks to the director’s unique and experimental vision.

Initially the audience is cast under the glare of a blazing spotlight and what follows continues to be an utterly hypnotic amalgam of breathtaking sound and vision. The extraordinary score by Mica Levis enters the ear canal with the voracity of a swarm of curious insects. A hint of Johansson’s husky tones hits the ear canal as the spotlights morph before your eyes into a giant retina. A transformative role for lead actress, Johansson who, as alluring as her protagonist may be, operates stoically, emanating the curiosity of an unfeeling vessel, not too dissimilar from David Bowie’s performance in The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976). Her performance is captivating. Her femininity provides some warmth, in the wake of the deadly chill she so dastardly creates. The film as a whole is one beautifully paced mystery, from start to finish the questions of intention and motive are removed from the picture, leaving viewers to create their own interpretation of what the hell is going on even if they’ve read the book. If you like a film to answer its own questions, look away, this is not for you. There is no resolution here.

Filmed from the perspective of the mysterious protagonist, Glazer captures the true essence of an unsuspecting public through use of hidden cameras, thankfully Johansson remained largely unrecognisable in both her British accent and her dark fright wig so the reactions from the public were real and perfectly unfiltered. Extras were not cast, they were just regular people who had no idea that they were being filmed. The juxtaposition of an alien look at human life and the raw reality of an unsuspecting public creates a bizarre sci-fi sub-level from which you are asked to watch the film. In creating this unique perspective the audience become somewhat disassociated from their own race, forcibly joining the lead in her alien observations.

Under the Skin will no doubt divide audience opinion but nobody can deny the true originality on offer here. Glazer’s mash up of the hyper-real and oblique extra terrestrial creates an altogether unique and bewitchingly stylistic sci-fi experience. Whilst the initial introduction recalls Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey (1968), yet with a gentle bat of an eyelid, there is a significant shift towards the unfamiliar and darkly uncomfortable. Like a beautiful nightmare from which you cannot wake, Glazer’s vision is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, but once you have seen it, it will follow you around forever.