Taking a cue from the silent ‘city symphony’ films of the 1920s, Alex Barrett’s document of modern London applies a rather old-fashioned style to the 21st century sights, despite being shot with digital cameras. It is filmed in black and white and is made up of four thematic ‘movements’, though these can be broken down into smaller groupings of related images or subjects, all of which is tastefully scored by James McWilliam. A large amount of footage has been carefully edited into a work that only just stretches beyond an hour, and the cinematography is fine, particularly with regard to the photography of buildings. It is evenly-paced, by which I mean the shots and the movements tend to be of roughly equal length; other viewers may feel that this is a good thing but I have a feeling I’d have enjoyed this even more had there been sudden Koyaanisqatsi-like bursts of speed and life and light and energy. Anyway, it’s certainly worth seeing if you like or live in London, or if you’d enjoy seeing a view of the city that eschews the more obvious views for sights that are likely to be missed by most eyes (including those of Londoners themselves). (**½)
Sci-fi noir with a plodding, stultifying plot and an obvious visual debt to Blade Runner (so at least Mute looks good, with its teeming city streets drenched in neon, flying cars, etc). In all honesty there’s not much else worthy of note, except to say that old Merry Brandybuck has a stab at playing a Berlin-based robot-shagging South African future-geisha, so there’s that. It’s not really going too well for Duncan Jones at the moment, unfortunately. (*½)
Another enjoyably low-key slice of Japanese family life from Hirokazu Koreeda, whose consistency and regularity of output means that he makes this kind of thing look easy (and also made me think that he is in danger of being taken for granted as a filmmaker until his recent Palme d’Or win at Cannes). The story here largely revolves around novelist-turned-private detective Ryota and the various relationships he has with his mother, sister, ex-wife and son, though arguably the key relationship hanging over the whole film is the one that existed between Ryota and his recently-deceased father. It mostly plays out within and around the old family home, occasionally venturing outside to unspectacular, everyday locations – though these are still somewhat intriguing to my foreign eyes – and any Koreeda watcher will know how adept he is at making films within such spaces, mostly focusing on his characters as they converse, sometimes while they carry out quotidian household tasks. There are good performances from Kore-eda regulars Hiroshi Abe, Yōko Maki and Kirin Kiki, though for some reason this didn’t grab me in the same way as the other Koreeda films I’ve seen (Still Walking, Our Little Sister, Like Father, Like Son). (***½)
I’m glad that the cast and crew of Pitch Perfect got to make a follow-up; the first film was a feel-good treat, with Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson in particular managing to showcase their comic talents and deserving the chance to reprise their roles as the stars of college a capella singing group The Barden Bellas. However, there’s definitely a sense of second-film-syndrome hanging around this sophomore effort, which is a real shame. Jokes are repeated, there’s a half-arsed attempt to expand on the original by setting the plot within a world champtonship (as opposed to a national one) and the characters seem no different by the end of the film to the way they did at the start, as if they’ve become mere carriers of recognised catchphrases and little else. That said, those well-choreographed routines are still a lot of fun, and I like the way the naffness of a capella singing is still never challenged or acknowledged. (**)
Another droll, biting satire from Armando Iannucci, a man who has been at the forefront of British comedy for the best part of thirty years. The title suggests that this film is about the notorious Russian leader’s demise – and it is, to a certain extent – but the focus is very much on the rush to seize power after Joseph Stalin suffers a fatal brain haemorrhage, Iannucci using all the panic and opportunity created by a temporarily headless state as a means of highlighting some truly despicable behaviour. The jockeying and scheming is carried out with aplomb by the ensemble cast: Steve Buscemi as de-Staliniser Nikita Krushchev; Simon Russell Beale as NKVD chief Lavrentiy Beria; Geoffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov, the man destined to become the next Soviet leader; Jason Isaacs as barking military hound dog Georgy Zhukov; Andrea Riseborough as Svetlana and Rupert Friend as Vasily, Joseph’s children. A great many more actors – including Paddy Considine, Michael Palin, Paul Whitehouse and Adrian McLoughlin as the fearsome leader himself– also make strong impressions, even if they only appear for two or three scenes.
Iannucci’s direction is sound: he’s working with a really good bunch of actors, so it’s no surprise that all of the best lines hit the mark, and he manages to make time for all of the characters to make their mark. Perhaps most surprising to me – as someone who knows very little about 20th century Russian politics other than the most obvious facts and the most obvious names – was the clarity of the piece: it’s surprisingly easy to follow. The Death of Stalin is a great companion to Iannucci’s more recent TV work and his deliciously witty feature film debut In The Loop, sharing a gleeful immersion in the backstabbing, chaos and incompetence of the corridors of power. An excellent screenplay, co-written with David Schneider, Ian Martin and Peter Fellows. (****)
Here is a classic archetype of a stoic, silent hero… and a stubborn and stupid one to boot (he should have listened to Grace Kelly’s character in the first five minutes, but then there’d be no movie). There are things I really don’t like about this showdown western – the soundtrack is good but used so bloody relentlessly, and despite the Oscar win I’m not a fan of Gary Cooper’s acting (he’s just a bit…grey). However, there’s a lot that I do like as High Noon metronomically chugs through it’s 85 minutes; the final act includes a really great, purposeful crane shot, for example, and the last scene is a brilliant, silent ‘fuck you’ to the townspeople that also serves as a terrific full stop. For all Cooper’s embodiment of masculinity it’s worth noting that he’s saved by a woman before he gets to return the favour. As I say, he should have just listened in the first place. (****)
Of the three films I’ve seen by Asghar Farhadi, this is definitely the best – a kind of modern day morality play in which the ‘separation’ is between an Iranian woman and her husband (she wants to move abroad, he wants to stay to look after his elderly father, who has Alzheimer’s), or the potential distance that will exist between their teenage daughter and one of the parents when she eventually picks who she will go to live with, or indeed the ‘separation’ that occurs when the man’s cleaning lady – who also looks after his father – suffers a miscarriage. These unfortunate events link the characters together, and it’s the death of the baby that moves the plot forward most obviously, resulting in a long and protracted legal claim to establish fault, a conflict being driven by one man in particular. Throughout the characters’ opinions of each other begin to shift, and this makes for an enthralling drama that kept me on the edge of my seat for long periods – something I guess is more usually experienced while watching thrillers or action films. The acting is excellent. (****½)