Tag Archives: awesome

Super Human Condition; ‘Hannah Arendt’ (2013).

13 Oct

Hannah Arendt posterAlthough philosophy is undoubtedly one of the fundamental cornerstones of academia (read: human existence), and has been since our ancestors first became self-aware, movies about philosophers rarely get made. As this writer is both a film critic and a philosophy student, he finds this phenomenon somewhat irksome. Thankfully, along struts Hannah Arendt, chain-smoking and dressed in a grey-brown dress, shattering all expectations by delivering perhaps the most engrossing, thought-provoking film about a thinker to date.

Directed by Margarethe von Trotta (Rosenstrasse, The Last Honour of Katharina Blum), Hannah Arendt stars Barbara Sukowa as the eponymous philosopher, who fled a fledgling Nazi Germany in the ’30s in order to pursue an academic career. She ended up in the USA, where she decided to cover the infamous 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, an ex-Nazi, for the legendary New Yorker magazine. Her resulting article expresses her shock at how ‘normal’ Eichmann appears, while also making controversial statements about the role of Jewish leaders in the Holocaust. The movie examines this, along with the resulting plethora of vitriol she receives.

Biopics about philosophers rarely emerge because while they may have made extraordinary claims, their literature is often so dense and ideas so complex that it’s difficult to strike gold on-screen. Thankfully, Hannah Arendt decides to focus almost entirely on the Eichmann trial and its consequential fallout. I say “thankfully”, because a film centred around her actual philosophy would be a tough sit. However, von Trotta does apply the gist of Arendt’s high-concept thoughts on totalitarianism and evil to what would otherwise be a fairly standard drama; this other-worldly, almost ethereal element gives the film a real artistic heft that’s rarely seen at the cinema these days.

Barbara Sukowa dominates the screen, proving herself to be an impressive, wonderfully convincing character actor. If this movie has an Achilles’ Heel, it lies in the supporting cast. While they are, for the most part, charming – Axel Milberg stands out as Arendt’s philosopher husband Heinrich Blücher, and Ulrich Noethen as Hans Jonas is likewise endearing as Arendt’s philosopher friend – both Arendt’s wisecracking novelist friend Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer) and the New Yorker’s staff occasionally feel stiff and clunky. Their attempts to inject some comedy into the mix are flawed, unnecessary, and ultimately undermine the serious ideas the film explores.

Minor complaints aside, Hannah Arendt remains a touching and surprisingly moving picture that blends themes of misunderstanding and communication breakdown with the emergence of a fascinating political philosophy. It’s a worthy telling of a little-known story about one of the few thinkers to truly grasp the banality of evil. A must-see for philosophy students, and a should-see for everybody else.

Simon says: the best philosopher movie yet.


Pint-Sized Culture; ‘The Irish Pub’ (2013).

4 Oct

The word ‘alcohol’ is virtually synonymous with ‘Ireland’, and such stereotyping acts as a double-edged sword in some respects. On the one hand, the assumption that the Emerald Isle is a nation of drunks, alcoholics and general tipplers is not a particularly wholesome international image to peddle. On the other, it does wonders for the tourism industry, and without this international cultural perception, cinematic gems like The Irish Pub would be viewed by next to nobody.

A documentary concerned with, would you believe, the Irish pub, The Irish Pub focuses specifically on the the smaller, three generations of family-run types you’d usually find in old rural towns. The film features public houses from Mayo to Cork, Dublin to Donegal and everywhere in between, and cuts between interviews with the bar staff and their customers. The cast features a whole host of publicans, their aged clientèle, and whoever’s holding the camera. It’s directed by solicitor-turned-filmmaker Alex Fegan, who deserves congratulations for whatever epiphany he had to leave behind that particular profession.

Yes, as a documentary this is an informative movie. Various little tidbits of information are thrown around, from the astounding ages of the pubs as well as a plethora of amusing anecdotes. Did you know, for example, that a young Winston Churchill would roll marbles along the clay floors of Blackhorse Avenue’s ‘Hole in the Wall’? Fascinating factoids abound in this film, but they merely scaffold the conflicting yet effectively blended cocktail of melancholy and ever-so-slightly hopeful pessimism that runs throughout.

Publicans acknowledge that their trade is in decline, due to a combination of a downward-spiralling economy and a greater number of people choosing to drink at home instead. In addition to both their (generally) elder years and those of their similarly matured clientèle, they present a tangibly bleak outlook for their craft. That said, many describe the 80’s as a far worse period of decline, and the whole bunch collectively overcame that decade-long hurdle. A resurgence in cultural tradition nudges the negative clouds away somewhat, and according to them, the future is bright.

This counterbalance of wonder with woe is supplemented by some fabulous displays of wit. In delivering, the assorted staff prove that years of babbling from behind the bar honed their skills as storytellers; much like the film itself, the actual interviewees range in tone from articulate shoe-gazing  to light-hearted wisecracking ; one particular barman from Cavan incites roars of laughter from the engaged audience.

A beautiful clarinet score underpins the whole movie, which at a mere 76 minutes long won’t eat up much of your time. The Irish Pub is one of those films that says a lot with relatively few words. Knowing full-well that its cast and their surroundings carry the film with ease, Fegan made an excellent decision to stand back let them do the talking. Go see it, and definitely head out for jars afterwards.

Simon says: this movie made me really happy. That never happens.

Black and Blue; ‘Blue Jasmine’ (2013).

27 Sep

Blue Jasmine posterIt’s that time of year again! Christmas has come early for Woody Allen connoisseurs, as his annual motion picture hits cinemas. Arriving amidst a flurry of eager anticipation and wrapped in Allen’s trademark studio polish, the real treat is that Blue Jasmine not only betters 2012’s middling To Rome with Love, but also presents a career highlight for the veteran director.

After a three-year European holiday, Allen returns to the United States (sun-soaked San Francisco to be exact), where the singularly uptight Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) comes to stay with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Reeling from the imprisonment of her husband (Alec Baldwin) and corresponding collapse of her affluent social life, the movie follows her downfall from riches to rags and how she deals with the resulting emotional trauma.

Allen’s filmic endeavours can usually be neatly divided into either the ‘comedy’ or ‘drama’ brackets; Blue Jasmine is a rare example in that neither shoe really fits. The peppy trailer and neurotic female star are both comedic Woody Allen hallmarks, and undoubtedly funny moments are sprinkled throughout the film’s 98 minutes.

But only a masochist could label this a comedy. Blue Jasmine is tragic in the classical sense of the word in that it examines a powerful figure’s fall from grace. Jasmine is a mess, boasting a litany of mental issues while simultaneously combating apparent alcoholism (she’s hooked on Stolichnaya, no less). Her downward spiral is difficult to watch at times, and as various secrets are revealed, her collapse becomes increasingly upsetting.

Although she’s the protagonist here, Jasmine presents next to no redeeming qualities whatsoever. A condescending, elitist snob who avoids her impoverished sister like the plague, until of course she needs a favour, that we sympathise with her at all is not only a testament to Blanchett’s acting prowess, but also a reinforcement of the scriptwriting and directing talent of Woody Allen.

Blue Jasmine also features a spectacular supporting cast. Sally Hawkins is marvellously convincing as the ditsy Ginger, Michael Stuhlbarg has a handful of wonderful scenes as a pervy dentist (the hilariously-titled ‘Dr. Flicker’, who refuses “to beat about the bush”); and who knew Louis C.K. could act? This veritable cornucopia of stellar performances should linger in the minds of Oscar nominators in the coming months.

Eyebrows are raised at the inclusion of an older man running off with a teenage girl, though Allen movies usually bear some semblance of autobiography. More sociologically-minded folk may also find Allen’s miscomprehension of the working class slightly nauseating – Ginger’s “hovel” of a flat is charming and spacious, while the less wealthy characters sport embarrassingly awful haircuts that only the blind could appreciate.

That said, Blue Jasmine is Allen’s most emotionally complex movie in a long time, featuring perhaps Cate Blanchett’s greatest performance yet. It’s a tough but rewarding Woody classic.

Simon says: Allen’s best work in years.

[Written for GCN]

Irresistibly poignant: ‘Any Day Now’ (2012).

21 Sep

Any Day Now posterTackling the ongoing “issue” of gay adoption (and, by virtue of association, LGBT rights in general) is a difficult feat for any director to achieve in an artistically credible way. An emotionally charged topic by definition, Travis Fine’s latest picture could easily have descended into a preachy political lesson or some morality sermon. Thankfully Any Day Now manages to compassionately woo its audience while also avoiding any sort of cloying sentimentality.

Alan Cumming plays the enjoyably audacious Rudy Donatello,  an aspiring singer by day and drag queen by night with a New Yawk drawl so thick you’d lose a shoe in it. It’s the 1970’s, so poor Rudy is forced to put up with his awful drug-snorting and T.Rex-blaring neighbour (Jamie Anne Allman). One day he discovers her intellectually disabled son Marco (Isaac Leyva) frightened and alone; we learn that his mother has been thrown in jail, so Rudy and his recently-acquired lawyer boyfriend Paul (Garret Dillahunt) undertake to raise Marco as one of their own. Amidst a culture of internalised fear and loathing of homosexuality, can a same-sex couple hope to raise a disabled kid in peace?

Irrespective of one’s viewpoint on the idea of gay adoption (for which none should exist; it’s a non-issue), Any Day Now exudes so much charm and such wonderful acting that to fault it on a technical or performance level would betray all reason and logic. Ridiculous wig or not, we’ve never seen better out of Alan Cumming as the punchy drag performer who, as this movie showcases, has a truly remarkable singing voice. This is likewise a career-best for Dillahunt, while newcomer Levya steals the show and, in doing so, breaks some exciting new ground in championing screen presence of actors with Down’s syndrome.

But the movie’s focus on the child, Marco, is what makes Any Day Now such a profoundly moving and potent experience. The singularly nefarious antagonists (right-wing lawyers, conservative judges, horrible bosses etc.) aside, the film repeatedly chants the mantra of “this is about the child”; Rudy and Paul’s (believably) idyllic household boasts an immeasurably higher quality of life for Marco than anything his empathy-devoid mother could possibly provide, especially while behind bars. Fine could easily have centred events around the two adult leads, but in advocating the kid’s welfare as top priority he utterly eradicates any and all remnants of a debate.

Regardless of whether custody rights are granted or not, the ending could only ever have been a tear-jerker. But the route taken is so harrowing, so heartbreaking that leaving the cinema with a pair of completely dry eyes is a virtual impossibility. Bring tissues, but make no mistake; this is a stunningly beautiful movie with a powerful message that’s unfortunately as relevant today as it was four decades ago.

Simon says: a message movie that hits home like a wrecking ball.

Die House Hard? No, ‘White House Down’ (2013).

14 Sep

White House DownI propose a constitutional amendment: each release of a new Roland Emmerich movie initiates a public holiday. Work would be cancelled, phones held and cocktails served in the lobby, for his movies act as badly-needed injections of unbridled fun into our (understandably) cynical, miserable society. His latest venture, White House Down, is a traditionally ‘Emmerich’ movie in that everything, everywhere explodes.

Jamie Foxx refers to himself as merely “the leader of the Free World”, but this is code: he plays President Obama. All his Democrat talk of world peace and militaristic disarmament clearly rubbed an assorted bunch of fundies the wrong way, for the White House is attacked by terrorists. Architecture is levelled, hostages are taken and flag poles are knocked over but have no fear! A body guard and wannabe special forces agent played by Channing Tatum is here to save the day! Unfortunately, he is forced to juggle his duties as an American citizen to save the president with those of a dad, for his kid gets caught up in the chaos too. Cue two hours of brainless entertainment.

Mincing words helps nobody, so lets cut to the chase: this is a pants-on-head stoopid movie. The spectacular levelling of the White House is complimented by frequent shootouts, rocket launchers, double-crossings and car chases on the famously green lawn. But Emmerich expertly follows his own tradition of depicting what would realistically be horrifying events in the most light-heartedly infectious of ways; the carnage occasionally takes five while the bouncy interplay between the two leads fills the spotlight.

You may recall an earlier 2013 action film by the name of Olympus Has Fallen. Both are Die Hard deviants, but the difference between Emmerich’s latest and its Antoine Fuqua(Fuck You Ah!)-directed counterpart lies in the tonal department. That movie is super self-serious and overwhelmingly patriotic, which ultimately clashes with the ridiculous mayhem unfolding on screen. White House Down, on the other hand, is self-aware; it knows it’s a big, dumb action movie and absolutely revels in the fact. It’s like watching a particularly happy-go-lucky pig roll around in its own filth – it’s an entertaining sight to behold, and Porky himself is clearly having the time of his life.

Roland Emmerich, bless him, is perhaps the hackiest of all the hacks working at Hollywood today. He’s not an artist, but just like Liam Neeson in Taken, he has a very specific set of skills. And boy howdy does he know how to use them.

Simon says: In Emmerich We Trust.

Awkward adolescent angst: ‘The Way, Way Back’ (2013).

31 Aug

There’s something to be said for films that adhere to the standard tropes and archetypes of a choice genre, that disregard any and all notions of innovation, but also manage to churn out something memorable. The Way Way Back is a total ‘formula’ movie in this regard, yet what it does with the established recipe is so marvellous that it’s impossible to criticise its lack of originality.

The directorial début of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (two intelligent and very funny Groundlings whose repertoire includes Community and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story), The Way, Way Back stars Liam James as Duncan, a quiet and unassuming teenager who keeps to himself. At the behest of his unhelpful mother (Toni Collette) and awful stepdad Trent (Steve Carrell), Duncan is forced to spend the summer at a beach house. He escapes the unfolding drama at home by landing a job at the local waterpark, and making an unlikely new friend in the form of Owen (Sam Rockwell), the park’s manager.

What sounds like a clichéd and potentially dull film is bolstered by actors who really play to their strengths. Liam James personifies awkward, and now that he finally has a great movie under his belt I’m curious as to where he’ll go next. Steve Carrell plays his second douchebag of the year (following Burt Wonderstone), espousing the acting range he clearly has. Maya Rudolph is as charming as ever, but it’s a draw between Sam Rockwell and Allison Janney (Duncan’s soul-brother and the waterpark and his awful neighbour, respectively) for the comedic highlight; virtually every line from each conjured a giggle.

Probably my favourite aspect of this film is that Faxon and Rash realise and empathise with the plight of the introvert. Duncan’s parents, their friends and the insufferably low-functioning beach girls all endeavour to coax him out of his metaphorical shell in many different ways: forced socialising, teasing and general prodding only serve to make things worse. The directors know that the problem isn’t his shyness; it’s the seemingly endless amount of unsympathetic people Duncan’s surrounded by, which is exemplified upon his discovering the waterpark.

In flogging the tired tropes and clichés of “that one summer than changed everything” movies, Faxon and Rash have hit a homerun with The Way, Way Back. Sprinkled with just the right amounts of sweetness and melodrama and garnished with sterling performances and deft writing, this is one of the better movies you’ll see all year.

Simon says: Adventureland for the new generation.

‘The Conjuring’ (2013)… Scared the hell out of me.

9 Aug

The Conjuring poster 1When was the last time that you were genuinely frightened at the cinema? Ignore the torture porn of Saw and peekaboo jump-scares of Paranormal Activity for a moment; has there been a film, of late, that truly sent shivers down your spine? Such movies are few and far between these days, but The Conjuring does a fantastic job of reminding us just how effective horror films can be.

Paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, respectively) aren’t your typical couple – he’s a demonoligist capable of performing exorcisms, while she’s a powerful clairvoyant. When they’re not giving lectures to apparently open-minded university students, they frequent various hauntings around the country, solving supernatural quandaries and collecting creepy memorabilia along the way. This movie centres around a particular case in 1971 at the rural Perron family farmhouse, headed by Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor, where ghostly happenings are becoming increasingly malevolent.

What separates The Conjuring from the vast majority of recent horror flicks is in its approach to scaring its audience. This movie takes a leaf from Hitchcock’s book by making us more afraid of what’s not seen; a door will slam shut here, someone will feel a chill there, framed pictures will crash and many more small, seemingly insignificant events will occur. This gradual process of applying layer after layer of tension forces the audience into a state of frenzied paranoia, so that when something truly grim does happen the results are absolutely terrifying. This is the sort of movie where you dread the sound of handclaps, let alone dark forays into the dusty basement.

"So... Who brought the Scooby Snacks?"

“So… Who brought the Scooby Snacks?”

This is also a rare example of a scary film that looks great. The old farmhouse, where most of the events unfold, is spectacularly and quite nefariously spooky. It’s the exact mental image one would associate with a ‘haunted house’; it’s got a squeaky floorboards, a cobweb-covered basement and all of the doors creak, all the time. The acting is superb too – Wilson and Farmiga nail their ethereal otherworldly personae while remaining grounded here on Earth, the five kids are all convincing and Ron Livingston, one of my favourite actors, remains godly. Lili Taylor officially atones for her appearance in that god-awful Haunting remake, and I’m glad to welcome her back from the dark side.

The Conjuring is an anomaly among modern horror films. It’s the fruits of wonderful acting mixed with some truly great writing, and with beautiful locations and décor it truly is deliciously 70’s flavoured. Not since REC have I been so frightened in the cinema.

Simon says: a real fist-chewer.

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