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Film Review: PatersonFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in Film, Recommended, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 21 Nov 2016

Paterson is one of those films that, when describing it to somebody, you have to work a little to avoid making it sound dull. Man gets up, goes to work, comes home, has a beer, goes to bed – rinse and repeat. Show the rest of this post…

But while it may not be to everybody’s tastes – it’s a considered, slow-moving film – Paterson, for me, succeeds in creating a tone that is very much its own, and by practising exceptional levels of dramatic restraint, delivers a ponderous, thoughtful experience, much like the ones in its protagonist’s head.

Jim Jarmusch’s new film stars Adam Driver as Paterson, a mild-mannered, likeable everyman living in the city that shares his name in New Jersey. We follow a week of his life, as each morning he wakes up with his artistic wife, Laura (Goldshifteh Farahani), and heads off to do his work driving a bus around the local streets. After finishing work, Paterson has dinner with his wife and then goes out to take their dog for a walk and have a solitary beer at a local bar. From time to time, as he goes through his day, we hear Paterson reciting lines of his poetry to us, often delivered in the form of unfinished thoughts or revisited lines.

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That’s the setup, but also pretty much the plot. This is not a film with a superfluity of narrative to get through – just a simple idea portrayed in a convincing way. What makes it work is Jarmusch’s handling of tone, both in his direction and in his writing, and Adam Driver’s very subtle but subtly effective performance. There is no great emoting in here, no moments of hysterical drama – what we see is an excerpt from the life of an ordinary, and quietly interesting, man.

What I enjoyed about the film’s tone was how it floated through Paterson’s life by way of repetitive but slightly reworked shots, overheard conversations on buses and in bars, and the appearances of supporting cast members in the bar Paterson visits, which give the film a sense of community. Everything is wrapped up in an atmosphere of wistfulness – though not one that dwells on sadness; just a simple acceptance of moving through life – which is complemented by the delicate score.

It’s the overall tone of the piece that strikes as you watch, and that tone softens potentially negative elements such as the lack of character arcs or real development; indeed, it may be precisely the point that such things can be ignored without doing damage to the piece. The film depicts a quiet life, adopts a quiet  manner in which to tell it, and is subtly affecting in doing so. It won’t be for everybody, and could perhaps have been edited down a little, but as a tonal piece it really works.

4/5

Film Review: Nocturnal AnimalsFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in Film, Recommended, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 3 Nov 2016

It’s been the best part of seven years since fashion designer turned writer/director Tom Ford impressed cinemagoers with A Single Man, his adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s novel of the same name about a bereaved professor who has recently lost his partner. Ford’s second film, Nocturnal Animals, is also an adaptation of a novel: this time Tony and Susan by Austin Wright. Show the rest of this post…

The film tells the story of well-to-do artist Susan (Amy Adams) who receives a manuscript in the post from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), from whom she split many years prior to the film’s opening. As Susan reads the manuscript, which details a fictional crime involving a thinly disguised version of her and her family, we see that fiction dramatised. There are also flashbacks to Susan and Edward’s early relationship, so Ford – as writer/director – and his editor Joan Sobel, have a challenging task to make all the strands not only work individually, but to come together as a cinematic whole. This is something they have achieved with great success, and is one of the film’s key strengths.

While A Single Man was a relatively stripped down piece of work, Nocturnal Animals is much more ambitious in terms of its scope. The cast is much larger, and the film’s interweaving of narratives is something that could’ve backfired, but Ford has shown he is capable of dealing with both, and that he is very much a director to be taken seriously.

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Both lead actors are required to tackle their central roles in two separate arcs, and Gyllenhaal has the tough task of carrying the weight of the dramatised manuscript sequences which, in the hands of a lesser actor or director, could’ve overwhelmed the film. The fact that they don’t, and that all strands of the film are engaging and affecting, is a triumph that both director and performers can take great credit for. Adams and Gyllenhaal are actors at the top of their game at the moment, and can generally be relied upon to deliver strong performances, and that is very much the case here. Adams conveys the fragility of somebody who is professionally lost and trapped on an emotional plateau between two time periods (not easy when a lot of your screen time is spent reading a book) while Gyllenhaal carries the tension and weight of the novel interludes.

The film’s structure really works in portraying Susan and Edward as each other’s emotional counterweights, even though the two actors spend little actual screen time together. The story’s central arc – of a relationship that ended and the baggage both protagonists are saddled with – worked for me right up until the very well-pitched ending.

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As we expect from Ford, the film has a strong visual style which comes through via Seamus McGarvey’s excellent cinematography; in particular during the many scenes set at night, which are enveloping and atmospheric. The real achievement, though, is that the film juxtaposes the bright, gritty Texan landscapes with the cold, dark cityscapes so flawlessly. The strands are held together too by Abel Korzeniowski’s score, which is dreamlike and menacing in equal measure.

The film’s one significant misstep is the opening credits sequence, which is deliberately provocative but for me felt misjudged. You could also argue the novel sequences are a tad overlong, but to cut them would’ve meant losing some of Michael Shannon’s delicious supporting performance as a Texas lawman. A mention, too, for Aaron Taylor Johnson, who shows us his terrifying side as a sadistic citizen of West Texas, and Laura Linney, who, despite having just one short scene in the entire film, ensures it hits with the required weight.

There’s a lot to like about Nocturnal Animals, which pleasingly is a very different film to A Single Man, though equally confident an d compelling. With a cast on great form, a tricky narrative told in a confident way, and excellent technical qualities, there’s a whole lot to enjoy in Tom Ford’s second feature.

4/5

Blu-ray Review: Green RoomFan The Fire Recommends

By Martin Roberts on 16 Sep 2016

Director Jeremy Saulnier’s first feature was a little-seen horror called Murder Party, but the film that established him as a director to watch was Blue Ruin, a taut, stripped-down thriller with a stream of jet-black humour running through it. Show the rest of this post…

And that description more or less suits his follow-up, Green Room, in which a punk band become trapped in a neo-Nazi stronghold after stumbling upon a crime following a gig.

Like Blue Ruin, Green Room’s premise is simple. There isn’t a superfluity of narrative here, just a situation played out to its resolution. The members of the band – played by Anton Yelchin, Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole and Callum Turner – are variously wounded and picked off by Nazi thugs as their attempts to escape become more and more desperate. The owner of the titular green room, Darcy (played with understated menace by Patrick Stewart), dispatches his henchmen calmly and collectedly while his underling Gabe (Macon Blair, who was so good in Blue Ruin) tries his best to clean up the mess.

Saulnier orchestrates the outbursts of violence with aplomb, proving once again he has a knack for tense situations exploding into disarray. While Green Room’s narrative is perhaps a tad repetitive and the ending a little anticlimactic, it establishes its idea wholeheartedly and runs with it until there’s nowhere left to go. There isn’t a massive amount of depth in its characters , but the performances are strong and the actors inject the film with charm and tension. Green Room is a memorable thriller, and I can’t wait to see what Saulnier does next.

4/5

Film Review: Hunt for the WilderpeopleFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in Film, Recommended, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 15 Sep 2016

New Zealand director Taika Waititi’s (Boy, What We Do in the Shadows) latest film, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, is a thoroughly likeable coming-of-age comedy drama, set in the wilds of the director’s home country, and starring Julian Dennison as Ricky Baker, a troubled kid who ends up in a new foster home with adoptive guardians Aunt Bella and Uncle Hec (Rima ti Wiata and Sam Neill). Show the rest of this post…

It hasn’t been easy to find Ricky a home, as social worker Paula (Rachel House) is all too happy to remind Aunt Bella, but Ricky and his new aunt quickly form a restrained but very touching bond. That is, until a surprise incident throws Ricky and Uncle Hec together in the wilderness, where the two must learn to get along if they are to survive.

Ricky’s infectious enthusiasm and surprising good nature come out the more we see of him, brought to life by Dennison’s charming and very funny performance. Opposite him, Sam Neill does a good job playing the familiar ‘grumpy but softhearted’ role. In many ways Waititi’s film is reminiscent of countless other entries in the coming-of-age genre, though it stands out because of its wonderful sense of place, its fantastic sense of humour, and its witty script, which Waititi wrote himself. The director divides his film into chapters and plays with montage, giving the film a freewheeling sense of fun that is maintained even when the film flirts with more serious issues.

There are perhaps a few too many montages set to music, which threaten to saddle the film’s carefree nature with a sense of treading water, and one or two instances of contrived comedy, but in general I enjoyed the film’s consistent tone and revelled in its dry, and very funny, sense of humour. Just as the film is beginning to feel a tad overstretched, the excellent Rhys Darby turns up in a cameo role to thrust the film into its joyous and lovely final movement.

The film’s musical score and lush visuals complement the performances of the leads, lending the film a unique feel in a pretty busy genre. Ricky Baker is a memorable hero and the supporting cast bring laughs where we might not expect them. Waititi himself shows up in a brief cameo as a priest in a bizarre but entertaining scene.

It’s hard to imagine anybody not being won over by this charming adventure, which I’m alre ady looking forward to watching again. Waititi’s next film will be 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok, and I’m very curious to see what he can bring to Marvel’s franchise universe.

4/5

DVD Review: Only YesterdayFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in DVDs, Film, Recommended, Reviews
By Sam Bathe on 18 Aug 2016

Re-released in theatres in celebration of its 25th anniversary, Studio Ghibli’s classic, Only Yesterday, is a beautiful film about reflection of the past, and embracing the people we become. Show the rest of this post…

Unfulfilled by life in the city, Taeko (Ridley) heads home to the country for a much-needed vacation. Looking back on childhood memories, stepping back into her old way of life, and reconnecting with her old self, Taeko wonders if she has been true to the dreams she made so long ago. With stunning hand-drawn animation that hasn’t aged a day since the film’s original 1991 release, Daisy Ridley and Dev Patel’s first ever English dub has been mastered perfectly to the original visuals. Switching between the present and the past, we follow Taeko on a journey of rediscovery; this is a slower, human Ghibli film, rather than their f antastical features like Spirited Away or Totoro. With Studio Ghibli in an indefinite haitus, we must cherish their beloved films, and this is one of the very best.

4/5

Film Review: The Hard StopFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in Film, Recommended, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 13 Jul 2016

British readers will certainly remember the case of young Tottenham resident Mark Duggan, who was shot and killed by police in a ‘hard stop’ manoeuvre in 2011 – a hugely controversial incident that sparked anger in local communities about the treatment of black citizens, and is seen as one of the sparks that may have ignited the London riots. Show the rest of this post…

George Amponsah’s thoughtful documentary retells this story through the eyes of two of Mark’s peers, Marcus Knox Hook and Kurtis Henville.

Amponsah keeps the documentary at ground level, in the communities, mostly shirking news footage, and in this way the film becomes not just the story of Mark Duggan, but a portrayal of the deprived neighbourhoods of London (and indeed the UK) and the racial tensions therein. Hook is facing jail time for his role in, allegedly, catalysing the riots, while we see Henville looking for work and trying to provide for his family.

The film remains honest throughout. Our two protagonists come across as likeable, well-meaning guys whose previous lives of crime have been thrown into sharp relief by what they believe to be the unlawful killing of a close friend. Their hatred of police is palpable, and the film helps provide some context for that. The success of the film’s interactions with these two is that they provide an insight not just into Duggan himself, but the tribulations of communities who are getting a raw deal.

Shot mainly around the streets of Tottenham, the film has a genuine sense of place and mood, backed up by the use of music. There are interesting details in here about the shooting of Mark Duggan, which most viewers will remember, but also poignant moments of family, friendship and community. It doesn’t look directly at any aspect of the riots beyond the racial one, but in portraying the lives of struggling, everyday people, Amponsah’s film does more than it initially suggests. It’ s a film that reminds us about the inequality that persists in our country; about the racial tensions that shamefully still hold sway; and how community can provide hope and comfort.

4/5

Film Review: Maggie’s PlanFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in Film, Recommended, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 7 Jul 2016

In Maggie’s Plan, the new film written and directed by Rebecca Miller, Greta Gerwig stars as Maggie, a smart young woman who decides that she is ready to have a baby. Show the rest of this post…

The only problem is that she doesn’t have a boyfriend, so she attempts to artificially inseminate herself using a donation from an old acquaintance, Guy (Travis Fimmel).

Things are complicated by a chance meeting with John, a “ficto-critical anthropologist” (Ethan Hawke), whose marriage to Georgette (Julianne Moore) is creaking at the seams. Maggie and John quickly begin to enjoy each others’ company, to the point that Maggie’s plan starts to change. We then jump forward a couple of years to see how all the characters are getting on.

The triumph of Miller’s film comes from the meeting of a great cast with a sensitive, clever script that treats them all with remarkable even-handedness. There are no heroes or villains here; Miller is happy to let her characters fumble through their lives without singling any of them out for special treatment. So Maggie is smart and determined, but also controlling and afraid of imbalance; John is a borderline genius but has issues with self-absorption, and so on. Even Georgette, who initially appears to be the comic relief, is formulated by Moore into a rounded and likeable character. There’s also some lovely support from Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph as a bickering but loving couple who Maggie frequently turns to for advice.

In the first act, the film comes across as a little too quirky too quickly, but settles into itself. There are plenty of laughs along the way courtesy of the witty script, and by the end I found myself thoroughly enjoying the company of this cast – at times, its gentle warmth reminded me of a Woody Allen film. Gerwig, in particular, is on great form as Maggie, an d carries the film through its occasionally bitty narrative. The very last shot of the film is perhaps a tad too fairytale, but it’s not much of a bum note and still draws a smile.

4/5

Film Review: The Neon DemonFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in Film, Recommended, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 4 Jul 2016

What a spellbinding director Nicholas Winding Refn is. From his early work through to his biggest hit, Drive, viewers have tended to appreciate his artistry on a visual level, even if the films themselves tend to be divisive. Show the rest of this post…

His films, even when they don’t work, tend to at least look gorgeous. Refn’s latest, The Neon Demon, takes his languid, super-stylised approach – which reached ennui-inducing levels in Only God Forgives – and distills it into a more focused, taut narrative, and is ultimately a much more successful film as a result.

The story follows an aspiring model, Jesse (Elle Fanning), who moves to the city to kick-start her career, and swiftly turns heads in the fashion industry with her youth and natural good looks. She very quickly falls in with makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone) and her friends Gigi and Sarah (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee), the latter of whom are immediately jealous of Jesse’s quick success. Jesse is innocent (and told to lie about her age) and overwhelmed, but her attitude becomes twisted by success and a conviction that she has no real talent beyond her looks.

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In Only God Forgives, I felt Refn’s style overpowered what little narrative and character there was, leaving us with a film that, despite its surface beauty, was hollow and, frankly, boring. I was pleased, therefore, to find myself thoroughly enjoying The Neon Demon. Refn’s languorous style is perfectly suited to the poised, precise world of fashion, to the point that the themes of vanity and the monetisation of beauty crystallise into the very fabric of the film. Like Drive, this is a film whose powerful visual style and hypnotic soundtrack help build the narrative up to a point which it might not otherwise have reached. Refn and his collaborators give the film a very poised sense of tone and mood, which elevate and enhance the thin, genre movie plot. The whole thing is drenched in Cliff Martinez’s throbbing, undulating score – a fusion of electronica and pulsating noir tones. In places, the sound is as important as the visuals – Refn and Martinez clearly work as a cinematic pairing.

The film’s primarily female cast are all on deceptively good form, and while the script (by Refn, Mary Laws and Polly Stenham) doesn’t require huge range from all of its performers, the mannered style and delivery all work towards the film’s overarching sense of tone. The supporting cast are also on great form, from Karl Glusman as Jesse’s friend to Keanu Reeves’ sinister turn as the owner of the motel Jesse moves into. A word, too, for Alessandro Nivola as an unnamed fashion designer, who is just terrific, stealing every scene he’s in and providing one of the best outlets for the film’s sense of jet-black humour.

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It’s important to note the prevalence of women who worked on this film, from producers to writers to Natasha Braier’s terrific cinematography, because although for the majority of The Neon Demon, Refn shoots his cast with delicacy, there are one or two scenes towards the end which verge on the problematic, in particular a brief dream sequence which feels unnecessarily exploitative, and a crass nude shower scene which feels leery and out of place.

Some of the riffs Refn draws on with the visuals and violence hark back to the work of other directors, but only in a loving way; I felt the film had a mood and style all of its own, and that it subsumed its world so fully that it even came to resemble it, in a sort of formalised satire. Yes, Refn is certainly not the first filmmaker to comment on the beauty industry, but he’s the first to do it quite like this. The Neon Demon is positive step in Refn’s career after the dis appointment of Only God Forgives, which promised so much but delivered so little. I found much to enjoy in its stylised world of bitchy models and disturbing, noirish imagery.

4/5

Blu-ray Review: CreedFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in Film, Recommended, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 19 May 2016

Ryan Cooler’s Creed is both a sequel to and a reboot of the Rocky franchise. Michael B Jordan plays Adonis, the son of the original series’ Apollo Creed, and is struggling to find happiness in a high-flying office-based career in LA. He decides to move to Philadelphia, seek out Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) and convince him to train him to be a boxer like his father. Show the rest of this post…

The film succeeds on many levels and it very much feels like a Rocky film, even though Rocky himself if now a supporting character. The tone is right; the environment feels right; and the underdog story, though familiar, establishes a hero to root for. Michael B Jordan brings the required physicality to the role of Adonis, but also gives the character depth and heart. The relationship that develops between him and Rocky, whom he affectionately calls “Unc” is a pleasure to watch, and Stallone is sensible enough to downplay and not try to take Jordan’s film away from him.

It’s tough to make boxing films feel fresh, especially as this is technically the seventh film in the series, but Coogler (who also co-wrote the film with Aaron Covington) manages to retread old ground in a new way, delivering drama and depth. The boxing sequences, which feature roving cameras and long takes, are fantastic, full of real weight  and tension. Most importantly, Coogler has remembered that the original Rocky was a drama before it was an action film, and Creed satisfactorily fits into that legacy.

4/5

Film Review: Sing StreetFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in Film, Recommended, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 10 May 2016

I liked Sing Street pretty much from the word go and only went on to like it more from that point onwards. As this musical comedy/drama eased into its period 1980s Ireland setting, I totally fell for its romantic, almost old-fashioned view of the world: John Carney’s film believes that creativity has a purpose no matter how tough circumstances might be, and that expressing oneself can lead to great things – not necessarily in terms of financial success or wish fulfilment, but in self-discovery. Show the rest of this post…

With a cast of mostly little-known actors, Carney’s film tells the story of Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), who is forced to move from his expensive private school to a gritty state school in order for his parents to save money. Things get off to a pretty bad start, but when Conor finds the mysterious and beautiful Raphina (Lucy Boynton) standing on the steps outside school, he manages to charm her the way his older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) tells him will be successful – by telling her he’s in a band. From there, Conor has to gather together a disparate group of kids – most of whom are poor but talented – to form a rock band. Raphina, who stars in the band’s videos, becomes Conor’s muse, and the songs he writes reflect their burgeoning relationship.

What a good-natured, uplifting film this is; and not in the cheesy sense, either. I found Sing Street to be a joyous experience, successfully combining a fairly traditional coming-of-age story with the quirks of a musical. As Conor, Walsh-Peelo is fantastic, effortlessly conveying the feeling of first love and the joy of discovering expression through music. Lucy Boynton is just as good opposite him, and the two share an increasingly irresistible chemistry that becomes the heart of the film. In fact all of the young cast do a great job, from the members of Conor’s makeshift band to the local bully, bringing spark and laughs to Carney’s witty script. The setting feels real: Carney establishes that these are mostly poor families, and that these kids have a lot to deal with, but watching them get by in each other’s company is rewarding.

Then we have the musical side of things, which I felt complemented the story beautifully. This is not your traditional song-and-dance musical – though Carney does briefly indulge in a well-staged (and sensibly hallucinatory) number – but instead weaves the songs into its narrative. Not all of the original numbers in here are masterpieces, but they are strong enough that they help carry the narrative along. They work because the characters making them are believable and likeable.

Carney wisely allows the adults in the film to take a back seat to his impressive young cast, and through them the film blossoms. Sing Street works as a coming- of-age drama, a romance, a musical, and more, all of which feeds into its pleasingly upbeat, inspirational message. When I got out of the cinema I immediately wanted to see it again.

5/5

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