FILM REVIEW: Son of Saul

From Roberto Benigni’s La vita è bella to Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, the Holocaust of the Second World War, is well-trodden territory on the big screen. It’s subject matter that will never fail to sicken anyone with a modicum of empathy and humanity about them, and it’s subject matter whose grim content will be familiar to even the most sheltered of lives.

It’s enormously impressive therefore for first-time feature film director, László Nemes, to not only produce a piece of work that pays great respect to the plight of those countless, predominantly  Jewish lives lost in Auschwitz, but to in fact almost completely re-invent the holocaust film genre in doing so, with a superbly innovative and deeply harrowing piece of film making.

The story follows Saul Ausländer, (the excellent Géza Röhrig), through his thankless daily toil within a Nazi concentration camp. Saul, along with a number of others, is part of the Sonderkommando, a group of prisoners tasked with ushering other prisoners into the death chambers and clearing away their corpses afterwards. The group undertake their daily activities in the knowledge that they themselves have only a limited lifespan within the camp. The need to remain fit, active and productive within their roles is paramount in order to delay the inevitable. Eventually their numbers will be up too.

Regardless, detaching their emotions from their work as best they can, they endure the same sickening ritual day in and out.

On discovering that the dead body of his son (or at least this is what is implied) – another victim of the chambers – is to be subjected to an autopsy, Saul suddenly finds a reason to believe in his futile existence within the camp, and sets about not only rescuing the body from the mortuary slab, but then hiding it, and embarking upon the seemingly impossible task of burying it within the camp’s grounds. To do this right, and according to his religion, he will also need to enlist the help of a rabbi; and so begins his relentless search.

But from where? And at what cost?

Son of Saul is almost like some sort of advanced computer game in its directorial style. László Nemes’ use of narrow, almost portrait footage is claustrophobic to say the least; very much a mirror to Saul’s tunnel-visioned ambitions and perspective. Frequently I found myself craning my neck in a vain attempt to gain a more lateral view of the gruesome scenes that were unfolding, like some kind of rubber-necking passer by surveying the wreckage of a twisted car crash.

But gratuitous it is not. In restricting what we see, Nemes reveals little of the graphic horror, keeping us intrigued and more importantly, leaving our minds working overtime. The duping, the looting and subsequent unseen dispatch of wave after wave of prisoners; their final cries of anguish and distress from behind closed iron doors, and the indescribable scenes of murder that are largely only suggested, around the pits of fire.

There’s no way to sugar-coat it, Son of Saul is pretty hard-going and desperately bleak, but it’s evocative and brilliantly engaging.

In many ways though it’s a peculiar film. Although evoking predictable emotions of anger, repulsion and vengeance, to name but a few, the over-riding emotion is one of massive frustration – not so much with the SS guards, but with Saul himself – as time and again, he places not only himself, but many others in grave peril through his own selfish compulsion to blindly follow through with his plan, come what may. It’s a plan as non-sensical to those around him as it is of utter importance to Saul himself.

Beside himself with frustration and annoyance, one of Saul’s compadres quips: “Saul, you forgot the living for the dead!”

One can only presume that such non-sensical actions are the actions of a man who has finally reached the tipping point where there really is no longer anything to lose; an apparent need to show a commitment to a boy in death that he was unable to provide for him when he was alive? It’s a point however that remains unclear.

What is clear though is that director László Nemes has put together an extraordinarily powerful and brilliantly innovative film that deserves to be spoken of in the same breath as the most revered films within the genre, and that is high praise indeed.

Not to be missed.

 

 

 

 

 

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FILM REVIEW: Everybody Wants Some!!

Everybody Wants Some!! is the latest offering from director, Richard Linklater.

As ever with Linklater, it’s a film of subtlety and layers; an observational character study. In this case the focus is upon the high-jinx and shenanigans of an American college baseball team at the start of the 1980s.

It has to be said that the initial twenty minutes or so of incessant high-fiving, much whoopin’ and a hollerin’ and the team’s excessive posturing all over the show like a muster of under-sexed peacocks, threatens to grate, but this is a Richard Linklater film and experience tells us that it’s always worth sticking with it.

And so it proves.

What initially seemed to be a film veering toward Animal House and Porky’s territory – nothing wrong with that in itself – is soon revealed to be a far more subtle, nuanced piece, laced with humour, sweetness and poignancy, exploring the highs and lows of those college years in which we wrestle with the dichotomy of trying to branch out for ourselves whilst still seeking the acceptance of our peers. A right old balancing act.

Be it nice guy newcomer, Jake (Blake Jenner), soul man, Dale (J.Quinton Johnson), older head and team captain, McReynolds (Tyler Hoechlin), or raging oddball and crazed lunatic, Jay (Juston street), or indeed any of the others for that matter, Linklater has assembled a diverse assortment of loveable goons, unified only by circumstance and by a collective enthusiasm and lust for life; each team member an individual, striving for a sense of individuality; an ambition that’s ultimately doomed in the ball-busting, prank-ridden domain of a college baseball team.

But it all makes for excellent entertainment, particularly when girls get involved, and seeing as that’s the continual focus of our college boys’ minds and trousers alike, it’s fair to say that Everybody Wants Some!! manages to sustain high enjoyment levels throughout.

With its retro 1980 staging and soundtrack of the era to match, Everybody Wants Some!!, when all is said and done, is a joyful celebration of life and diversity during those wonderful college years. The best years of our lives.

No matter who you are, how you approach life or how you dress it up, it’s true: everybody does wants some. And whether you choose to interpret that as being a gang of hormone-driven, lusting ‘jocks’ on the prowl for carnal pleasures; the stomach butterflies of that mutual attraction and spark of true love, or as something completely different altogether, Linklater cleverly leaves the ‘some’ in this particular instance, as ambiguous and open to individual interpretation as you personally choose to make it.

It’s not over-stating things to suggest that no-one does thoughtful, slice-of-life, character movies that leave you feeling good about life, better than Richard Linklater; he’s just got that magic something about him, and that’s right…

Everybody wants some!

Wonderful.

 

FILM REVIEW: Florence Foster Jenkins

 

Ain’t it always the way? You wait your whole life for a film about a sweet yet deluded, ageing diva living out her dreams in front of a packed concert hall, then two come along at once!

Hot-ish on the heels of Xavier Giannoli‘s Marguerite comes Florence Foster Jenkins, the bitter-sweet, true tale of a wealthy well-heeled socialite whose passion for music tragically knows no bounds.

Whereas Marguerite was a similar tale based loosely upon the story of Florence Foster Jenkins, Stephen Frears’ film is a depiction of the actual Florence Foster Jenkins, played with predictable grace, flair and excellent comic timing, by Meryl Streep.
Streep is ably assisted by her young piano-playing accompanist, Cosme McMoon (Stephen Helberg), and St Clair Bayfield, Florence’s well-to-do husband, played by Hugh Grant.
I must say, whilst not a total departure from the sort of role that’s so severely typecast Grant over the years, his role here is a more layered, emotionally involving one than anything in recent memory.
He juggles a marriage and an affair with a younger woman, whilst seeking to localise and dampen down Florence’s occasional flights of fancy, lest she get ahead of herself and shatter her one, all-defining delusion; that she is a singer of some note.
For Florence Foster Jenkins is indeed a singer, but more often than not one of many a wrong note!
It’s one thing giving intimate recitals to the small number of fawning members within her private music appreciation society, but quite another for Florence to take her ‘talent’ outside of this well-isolated circle, and risk the ridicule of the masses.
St Clair Bayfield, with much to lose on many a level, will do just about anything to maintain the existing status quo, but increasingly he has his work cut out.
 Whereas Marguerite was perhaps a little more Shakespearean in its tragic element, Florence Foster Jenkins, although not shying away from that side of things, chooses to place greater emphasis on the comic element and the film frequently slips into moments of high farce, in which Streep, Grant and Helberg excel.
 It’s a light-hearted approach totally befitting the story, but not at the expense of moments of genuine emotion and poignancy. Despite many wrong-doings and ill-conceived actions by certain characters, Stephen Frears’ direction is such that one still can’t help but feel a great deal of empathy for each of them, no matter their misdemeanours.
 Ultimately, Florence Foster Jenkins is a very likeable and highly entertaining film which should appeal to a wide cross section of people. A tale of misguided dreams, but of great courage in attempting to realise them.
We could all learn a thing or two from Florence Foster Jenkins.

FILM REVIEW: Money Monster

The despicable practices and repercussions of the global banking system’s actions have been well documented in recent times, be that through documentary efforts from the likes of Russell Brand and Michael Moore, or through clever feature films such as this year’s superb, The Big Short, and 2015’s wonderful, yet under-rated, 99 Homes.

So to 2016, and director Jodie Foster’s own take on things, marrying banking malpractice with more general social commentary, in Money Monster.

George Clooney plays larger-than-life personality, Lee Gates, the presenter-come Game Show host of ‘Money Monster,’ a TV programme that whips its viewers into a financial frenzy by analysing the market and encouraging them to make ‘sure thing’ investments.

One such ‘sure thing’ however backfires spectacularly thanks to what is explained away by the financial institution involved as a computer glitch; costing a large number of small time investors an awful lot of money that they can ill afford to be without.

One such prospector, blue-collar worker Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), has lost a small fortune having taken Lee Gates’s advice on this particular ‘certainty’ and has been left with nothing. Understandably, in full knee-jerk mode, Kyle wants someone to be held accountable.

Somehow managing to evade security, heslips into the TV studios and manages to sabotage the filming of the latest edition of the show, holding Gates at gunpoint, and forcing him to wear a vest jam-packed with explosives.

Finger poised upon the detonation button, Kyle Budwell is determined to have his demands met.

Money Monster is very much a film of the times. With more and more of the general public increasingly determined that the money men should be held accountable for their misdemeanours and acts of greed, it’s a film that should resonate with plenty, particularly considering its heavy release promotion and a heavyweight cast and directorial team.

Director Jodie Foster has cast well.  Clooney adds the necessary blend of charm and sleaze, whilst Julia Roberts is his long-suffering producer, Patty Fenn, and it’s a good thing too as Money Monster, relevant and tense in places though it may well be, would be in serious danger of slipping into TV movie or U.S TV drama territory without their collective, assured presence.

Jack O’Connell makes a good fist of what is essentially a pretty limited part and a special mention for his girlfriend Molly (Emily Meade) and her hilariously unsupportive, foul-mouthed rant at her boyfriend who she has clearly ‘had it’ with – just to pile on the misery for the poor fella.

As well put together and as perfectly watchable as Money Monster is, it lacks originality and comes across as nothing more than a fairly routine Hollywood run-out.

I suppose the main positive that one can take away from Money Monster is that it’s another piece with its heart in the right place that at least aims to have a dig at, and raise awareness of the continued negligent practices of the banking sector, and the more of these that are thrown out there into the mainstream, the better.

 

 

FILM REVIEW:The Nice Guys

The Nice Guys is a kind of comedy crime caper set in 1970s La La Land, written and directed by Shane Black.
Russell Crowe plays Jackson Healy, a bruiser for hire, whereas Ryan Gosling plays Holland March, a hapless, poor excuse for a private detective whose limited success is more attributable to the input of his ‘won’t take no for an answer’ sassy young daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice), than anything he does himself.
The two, through a twist of fate, will be thrown together and form an unlikely ‘crime fighting partnership’ as they seek to get to the bottom of a number of mysterious deaths surrounding the creation of a politically motivated ‘artistic’ pornographic film, starring the excellently named, Misty Mountains.
We have of course seen this type of rather contrived scenario all too many times in the past.
Good cop / bad cop. One playing by the rules, the other not. One getting the job done, the other landing them both in all manner of scrapes. This set up however is more Alan Partridge’s ‘Swallow’ or The Fast Show’s ‘Cat & Dog’ than Dirty Harry.
With such a worn-out old concept in play, it goes without saying that the very least that The Nice Guys needs to do is bring something fresh and original to the table.
But does it?
In truth, yes, and then again no. Essentially I’m still a little undecided.
Whilst there’s no doubt that there’s good on screen chemistry between Crowe and Gosling and that the pair put as much into their roles as anyone could possibly ask of them, the underlying issue remains; some slapstick farce and occasional amusing oddball cameos aside – the kid on the Chopper bike and the old bat with the bottle-bottomed specs being  good examples – The Nice Guys lacks sustained periods of genuine laughter, frequently resorting to lazy, elongated punch up and shoot-em-up scenes or high octane car chases to compensate.
But that’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable. It is. In fact it’s highly enjoyable in parts. A truly hedonistic, raucous romp around a brilliantly reproduced Seventies L.A, with a great disco soundtrack to boot. In some ways, for those of us of a certain age, the film’s retro element and wistful trip down memory lane is almost enough to give the film a pass.
What it can’t do however is disguise the fact that The Nice Guys, whilst being a crowd pleaser and nailed on certainty to spawn a dismal sequel, is by definition a comedy, and judged by such criteria, simply isn’t funny enough.

FILM REVIEW: Alice Through The Looking Glass

Amidst an absolutely dizzying deluge of special effects there resides James Bobin’s film, Alice Through The Looking Glass (ATTLG).

It’s a curious affair and if ever we were in need of an example of style winning over substance, this is it.

It’s very loosely based upon Lewis Carroll’s novel in so much as many of the characters are the same and one or two of the story lines are touched upon, but essentially this film adaptation, ATTLG, is a simple tale in which Alice, (Mia Wasikowska), attempts to help her old friend, Hatter Tarrant Hightopp (Johnny Depp), who is seemingly not long for this world – such is his grief at the disappearance of his family, all presumed dead at the hands of the wicked Red Queen.

Alice must go back in time to ascertain once and for all exactly what happened to them, and to try, if at all possible, to save them at some point in time prior to that when their fate was apparently sealed!

And so we are whisked hither and thither through time by way of the remarkable Chronosphere – a time travel device and the property of clock-like character, ‘Time,’ himself (Sacha Baron Cohen) – on all sorts of weird and wonderful adventures.

In spite of a decidedly wafer thin plot, there’s actually a fair amount to like about ATTLG.

An all-star cast of comedians and actors who can put in a good comic turn is essentially the film’s saving grace. A plethora of these bizarre characters either help or hinder Alice along her merry way. Particular mention should go to the ever comic facial expressions of Matt lucas’ Tweedle Dum and Dee, and Helena Bonham Carter (Iracebeth – The Red Queen) who is excellent, together with her enormous head!

The pace is frenetic throughout, with barely a pause for breath or a moment to mull over the slightly more outlandish ideas that the film attempts to embrace. In all honesty, this is a wise tactic. No matter how whacky or convoluted some of the concepts touched upon may be, ATTLG unsurprisingly probably doesn’t stand up too well to any sort of in-depth critical analysis or scrutiny.

But that’s OK.

There’s enough here to boggle a young mind or two, to tickle the funny bone of any adult viewers, and the absolute tidal wave of impressive magical effects should whip up energy and enthusiasm in even the most hard-to-please of grumps.

 

 

 

 

 

 

FILM REVIEW: A hologram for the King

Tom Tykwer’s tale of a struggling sales rep tasked with sealing the deal of his life in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is on the surface a story of a clash of cultures, and in the world of films, it’s under such predicaments that alarm bells immediately start ringing in my head. You know the drill: folk from two disparate cultures collide, initially struggle to understand one another, but with the passing of time come to understand and more importantly respect each other and each other’s ‘ways’ – each learning important life lessons about themselves in the process.

Yes, there is a bit of that. I don’t think it’s possible to take two so apparently differing cultural approaches and expect any sort of film narrative to develop without at least addressing such a backdrop, particularly when one considers the rather extreme peculiarities of such a repressive regime as exists in Saudi Arabia.

It’s refreshing therefore that A Hologram For The King (AHFTK) is not purely a vehicle for smoothing U.S / KSA diplomatic relations, but contains a simple, rather poignant story within it too.

Tom Hanks is as ever well cast as the man charged with leading the film’s charm offensive, portraying Alan, a man whose current life experience is one of dissatisfaction, bordering on desperation at times; hence, here he is, a stranger in a strange land attempting to nail the big deal; not for some huge personal financial gain it should be added, but to kick-start payments once again for his daughter’s temporarily stalled college education.

It’s a situation that she seems perfectly comfortable and understanding about, but it is nonetheless a pressured scenario in Alan’s mind, exacerbated by the ever-looming shadow of his ex-wife, who, it’s fair to say, possesses little faith in Alan’s ability to come up with the goods.

Right now, a long way from the comforts of home, he could do without any such anti-cheerleading in his ear.

Entering into the unknown, Alan and his I.T team need to prove their worthiness to be the prospective high-tech holographic presentation kit suppliers to the King of Saudi Arabia himself.

In theory it’s a quick in and out job and with a little luck, should put a smile on everyone’s face, be that the King, Alan, his wife or his micro-managing boss; only, this is Saudi Arabia, and with the King’s daily whereabouts unpredictable at best, Alan must wait things out, powerless, despite his protestations to anyone that will listen, to do anything about it.

It’s in these periods of waiting that AHFTK flourishes as a piece, for ultimately, this is not really a film about achieving goals or proving yourself to be the best, it’s a personal journey for Alan as he attempts to stay on top of things. Through a sequence of interactions with an assortment of colourful characters, inadvertently he is able once again to re-discover himself.

Alexander Black plays Yusef, a man dicing with death due to a clandestine fling he is having with a married woman. He’s inadvertently become Alan’s personal driver, a job that wouldn’t even exist were Alan able to peel himself out of bed each morning and not miss his scheduled shuttle bus.

Sarita Choudhury plays Zahra, initially Alan’s doctor, but whose charms steadily work their magic upon Alan’s impressionable self.

There are shades of Lost In Translation about AHFTK, and if one can get over the portrayal of a country with massively dubious, oppressive human rights issues as sanitised and ‘a bit quirky,’ and take it for what it’s probably intended to be, a re-assuring story of life-affirmation in the most unexpected of places, then it’s a perfectly decent piece of work, anchored ably as ever by the excellent Tom Hanks.