FILM REVIEW: Where To Invade Next

The release of a new Michael Moore film more often than not guarantees two things:
Firstly, a whole tranche of new information for the ill-informed or overly-sheltered to suddenly become shocked and angered about.
Secondly, an excuse for those ‘clued up’ with regard to the minutiae of both domestic and international politics to rubbish Moore’s ideas as being overly simplistic, inaccurate and most of all, idealistic.
Michael Moore’s latest tub-thumping documentary is indeed idealistic.
The world needs more idealists; people that have an idea and stick by it; people that will only begin to consider flexing a little once they’ve debated their side of things to the point of being blue in the face, lying flat out on the floor with exhaustion.
Saying that, Moore’s getting on a bit these days and could probably do with giving any exasperated rants a wide berth for his own health’s sake.
But you get the point.
Where To Invade Next is probably Michael Moore’s most upbeat and fun film to date. A whirlwind tour around Europe (mostly) examining how ‘those continentals’ do things and just how jarringly different their approach is to the seemingly prehistoric notions and ideas of his own country of birth, the U.S.A.
No doubt it will be pulled apart and seen as an opportunity for self congratulation by the political point scorers, and exposed for how it simply isn’t realistic to expect The U.S to implement such measures.
T’was ever thus.
The unavoidable fact remains: You don’t start the process of changing the world from a point of compromise. Let’s start with an ideal, and let’s just see how close we all end up to that once we’ve fed, in this instance, Moore’s misty-eyed, simplistic optimism through life’s soul-sapping red tape and bureaucracy machine.
Moore’s European journey of discovery introduces him to any number of eye-opening revelations about the way that other countries live and operate, and it’s all in such stark contrast to the sorry state of affairs that seems to have become the norm in the land of opportunity. The land of the free.
It’s a good job that the film chooses to take a rather light-hearted tack, for there is much to be disgruntled about if you’re a U.S citizen – or indeed, to a lesser extent, a citizen of the increasingly Americanised United Kingdom, for that matter.
With each far more progressive ethos that Moore unveils along his merry way, hopping from country to country, it’s clear to see – if indeed we needed reminding – that the United States of America has badly lost its way over the years.
The Finnish demonstrate that shorter study hours can lead to far happier and better educated children.
The Norwegians reveal that a softly, softly approach to prisoner incarceration can avoid the cycle of repeat offending.
Tunisia and Iceland prove the value of greater female representation in positions of power.
Germany demonstrates that it is possible to have wealth and well-being at every so called class level within a well balanced society.
The Italians would not prioritise anything over a good quality of life for all, and the French are almost religious about food, nutrition and a more relaxed and relevant approach to sex education for their young.
Essentially, if you’re a U.S citizen, it’s a right old misery list. A series of embarrassing divulgements to have to accept for a proud nation of flag wavers and patriots.
But the most genuinely surprising revelation of all is saved until last. Each and every one of these philosophies and ideas that’s now championed by apparently more enlightened, progressive societies across Europe and beyond, have their origins back in the original United States Constitution.
So what the hell happened?
That’s strictly rhetorical. We don’t have the time.
Perhaps with a structure in place that puts a little less emphasis on ‘Me’ and more on ‘We’, and as Moore suggests, a good old trawl through America’s  lost and found of good ideas, just maybe something resembling the original blueprint upon which the U.S.A was founded, might just be salvageable?
 But I shan’t hold my breath. It all sounds far too idealistic to me…

FILM REVIEW: Maggie’s Plan

Greta Gerwig is surely destined to become the focus of Woody Allen’s attentions sooner or later; the amount of time she spends flitting about New York City in something of a whimsical daydream.
In all fairness, it’s less whimsy and more frumpy idealism that characterises Gerwig’s role in this, Rebecca Miller’s relationship comedy, Maggie’s Plan.
Greta plays the film’s title role, Maggie, a straight-laced, well-intentioned but slightly controlling individual, hell-bent on having a baby of her own. Her plan (her first plan that is), is to artificially inseminate herself using the sperm of pickled gherkin business founder and ‘retired maths genius’ Guy (Travis Fimmel) – himself a little ‘out there’. It’s a solid plan but one which is curtailed at the eleventh hour when a chance encounter with fellow University employee and married man John (the excellent Ethan Hawke), suddenly develops into substantially more, and nature takes its course.
Fast forward a few years and the couple have a young daughter and their own bohemian apartment in the big city.
But as the old Shakespearian adage goes: The course of true love never did run smooth, and Maggie finds herself at a stage in her life, having fallen out of love with John, wondering just exactly what she ever saw in him in the first place. More importantly, she suspects that John and his former wife, Georgette (Julianne Moore) – an independent, strong-willed woman if ever there was one – are in fact perfect for each other after all, despite their turbulent history and their frequent clashes.
But what to do about it?
Maggie’s second plan, that’s what…
Rebecca Miller’s film is certainly innovative in that it puts an interesting twist on the classic Hollywood relationship and reconciliation tale. Defying convention, the film’s lead not only experiences the break up of her relationship, but positively encourages it, having no intention whatsoever of rectifying the situation. This in itself makes for interesting viewing.
There are plenty of amusing moments and some good dialogue and character interactions in this story of mismatched relationships and misunderstandings. Maggie and John seem to have different ideas about their roles within family life, whereas John and Georgette are strong personalities that simply stopped listening to each other properly. Predictably, friction would always ensue.
There’s a fair sense of inevitability about the course that the film eventually takes, and it’s possibly only the strong performances from Hawke and Moore in particular that breathe life into what would otherwise have to be considered a rather patchy affair.
Greta Gerwig plays the role of Maggie well – credit where it’s due – but there was a nagging sense while watching Maggie’s Plan that we’d been here before.
Gerwig already boasts a film biography containing similar roles in similar slice-of-life tales from The Big Apple, with Mistress America, and better still, Frances Ha, immediately springing to mind.
Maggie’s Plan proceeds very much in this vein, and is another perfectly watchable slice-of-life tale from The Big Apple; but it’s certainly no Frances Ha.



There’s nothing the general public like more than a flawed hero. Actually no, change that. There’s nothing that the general public like more than taking the moral high ground and turning en masse on a hero, once said hero’s flaws have been suitably exposed; and boy how they turn, in their sheep-like droves.

In the case of Anthony Weiner, it was his misguided ‘sexting’ – if you’ll excuse the fashionable parlance – and the accompanying pictures of his bulging manhood, that was to cause such an affront, rendering vast swathes of the terminally morally-outraged U.S public irreversibly aghast at it all.

Never mind that this was a man whose New York City Mayoral campaign manifesto seemed personal, passionate and heartfelt, and was one rich in progressive and sensible ideas and policies designed to genuinely make a difference to the lives of the working and middle classes of New York City; and never mind that Weiner’s ‘virtual’ misdemeanours had already been forgiven if not forgotten, by his loyal, patient and politically savvy wife, Huma. No, the bottom line here was that Anthony Weiner – he of the comedy surname and heart-on-sleeve / regrettably rather injudicious, approach to life – was now perceived as nothing more than a social leper, a misogynistic arsehole, and all-round easy target number one for the mortally offended public and media alike, to lampoon and discredit at will.

I’m sure that a number of those that turned on Anthony Weiner felt they had good reason to do so and were indeed genuinely offended on both gender and moral grounds by his actions – fair enough I suppose, but the film gives off a definite sense that they are the idealistic minority and that a grateful media seized upon the unexpected Anthony Weiner windfall and milked the resulting heaven-sent circus for all it was worth. Predictably, the general public followed along obediently.

It is true that Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s documentary is not a flattering depiction of the New York political candidate; in fact, it seriously exposes (if you’ll excuse the pun) Weiner, warts and all. It’s also undeniably true that Anthony Weiner brought a lot of it on himself with his recurring habit of shooting himself in the foot when it would seem infinitely harder to miss – think David Brent meets Alan Partridge – and I’d be lying if I denied that the whole shebang makes for superficial, yet excellent, if at times rather painful, car-crash entertainment.

Weiner though, is a film that inadvertently serves to reveal the pack mentality and sheep-like nature of people and the at times suffocating effect that this has on humanity at large, when what the world is crying out for, surely, is a little more independence of thought?

It also says a lot about the bullying nature of the laughably conservative and deeply rotten media, both in the U.S and the world at large. Such a culture of flavour-of-the-month reporting, the taking of cheap shots and the encouraging of ‘safety in numbers’ public conformity, is far more damaging to society and meaningful political policies than anything Anthony Weiner could have dreamed up, let alone actually whipped out and revealed to the U.S public.

But personal prejudices aside for just a moment, in case this review is perceived as some kind of slant at the film, it isn’t. Weiner is actually a well-balanced, highly entertaining and brilliantly put together documentary, which allows events and circumstances to unfold in as fair a fashion as is possible.

Of course, any piece that turns a full-beam spotlight on an at times hapless anti-hero, and then steps back and allows nature and fate to take its course, had better be braced for a turbulent ride. It says a lot though that any turbulence experienced through the transgressions of Anthony Weiner, is rather upstaged by the repugnant sense of public and media self-righteousness that comes across from their collective, symbiotic, bile-filled attacks on the ill-fated man himself.

For me at least, as excellent as this film undoubtedly is, it’s an aspect that can’t help but leave an unavoidably sour taste in the mouth.


FILM REVIEW: Notes On Blindness

When asked as an infant that most ludicrous, yet absolutely mandatory childhood question: “which would you rather be, blind or deaf – if you absolutely had to be?” I would always be quick to respond: “Deaf.”

To this day, nothing’s changed, and I doubt it ever would.

This may come as something of a surprise to those that have known how big a part music, for instance, has played in my life, but there’s just something so apparently debilitating, primal and frightening about losing one’s sight that I’m sure I’m not alone in choosing this ‘option’.

Such a question aimed at John Hull, (played here by Dan Renton Skinner), as a child would have been cruel, not to mention wholly inappropriate considering he was himself without sight for a brief period of time during his own formative years; the beginning, sadly, of a succession of vision-related ailments that would plague him for many years to come, ultimately robbing him of his sight altogether, permanently.

It’s at a point in the early 1980s with John, a successful, established university lecturer, and entering into the early years of fatherhood, that a rapid degeneration of his vision leaves him barely able to distinguish between light and shade.

Fearful of the impact of this visual impairment upon his work, John throws himself whole-heartedly into finding a way to continue within his field of academia, employing a large number of volunteers to record a vast number of important educational books and information onto audio cassette, for his own personal future reference. It seems that the visually impaired were somewhat overlooked during the early years of the 1980s, and John, at least on a personal level, set about rectifying that situation.

Such is the compulsive abandon with which he pursues this mission, not only does he sufficiently distract himself from the bleak inevitability of his situation, but he actually professes to having enjoyed this period of his life.

It’s only once he’s done all that he can to ‘insure’ his professional future; once the i’s have been dotted and t’s crossed, and indeed once the last semblance of his perception of light and shade has been fully extinguished and he’s left surrounded by nothing but darkness, that John is forced to properly confront his life ahead, as a blind man.

Notes on Blindness is written and rather artistically directed by Pete Middleton and James Spinney, recounting John Hull’s remarkable story through extensive access to his audio diaries, in a suitably sympathetic and frequently touching manner.

Clever splicing of original cassette audio with the lip-synching of actors is an inventive and effective means with which to give John’s recordings new life and impact.

The negative effects of John’s blindness are well documented here, be that his sense of isolation, his deteriorating mental well-being, his wife’s concerns of being somehow locked out of his ever insular existence, or John’s increasing feelings of uselessness in crisis situations.

All such factors as they slowly drive John into a very dark place in his own mind, lead him to make a life-changing decision; to chronicle on audio cassette his thoughts and emotional responses to blindness, as a sort of personal therapy, and over a period of many years this would be John’s own attempt to come to terms with and fully understand his rather lamentable predicament.

Notes on Blindness is a film that offers a fascinating insight into the locked-in thoughts, feelings and ruminations of a blind man, some of which are as unexpected as they are thought-provoking: be that the comfort of standing in the rain, each drop landing on a surface forming a sort of sonic landscape by which a blind person is able to navigate by gaining an appreciation of distance, height and to some extent texture, or the conscious decision to ‘give up smiling’ – for if there is no reciprocation from the other party, then the whole gesture seems somewhat futile, so what’s the point?

Ultimately it’s Hull’s appreciation that he must fully embrace and understand blindness in order that it will not get the better of him, that is his saving grace. His decision to refuse to live in hope of his sight being restored again one day, whilst on the surface appearing to be the decision of a man that’s given up hope, is in fact the decision of a man that is – as far as is possible – at peace with who he now is and what the future holds for him.




FILM REVIEW: The Neon Demon

Running an advertisement for a series of films that heavily influenced Nicolas Winding Refn’s directorial style immediately prior to the screening of The Neon Demon could be seen as either an enlightening glimpse into the mind of the film’s director, or a sort of ill-advised, potential plot spoiler.
In truth, whilst very evidently shaping his thought processes for this latest venture, more than anything it provides an opportunity for appreciation; to nod knowingly at clear but well realised influences within Refn’s own stylistic approach. The Neon Demon, it must be said, holds up well under its own merits.
This sinister tale is Winding Refn’s twist on a familiar theme; that of a young innocent heading to the big smoke to seek her fame and fortune. The young innocent in this case is she with the God-given beauty, Jesse (Elle Fanning), a girl of subdued yet focused ambition to be a top model.
Her seductive natural beauty induces dollar signs in the eyes of some, but green-eyed envy in those of others.
Within the truly vacuous fashion industry, beauty, we are told, is everything.
“Is that your real nose? God, life is so unfair…” pipes up one picture perfect model; a girl whose personal plastic surgeon has dubbed her ‘the bionic woman’ for obvious reasons. She’s certainly pleasing on the eye, but that can’t curb her and her colleagues’ underhand bitchy sniping at the new girl in town, something that has the potential to escalate out of all control.
As each day unfolds and as Jesse is quickly drawn into, and begins to embrace, a world shorn of its moral boundaries and whose inhabitants fawn relentlessly over her ‘talents,’ her appreciation of her own self-worth and her awareness of others’ jealousy steadily grows. This is a girl under whose cute exterior there lies an ingrained belief that she is in possession of a gift. It’s a gift that she’s been informed is dangerous. But is it dangerous for her or dangerous for others?
Elle Fanning is excellent as Jesse, Keanu Reeves puts in a convincing if limited turn as the soulless owner of the sort of motel that Anthony Perkins might think twice about staying at, whilst Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee (Gigi and Sarah, respectively), are a pair of sharp and conniving fashion models whose places at the top table seem to have been somewhat usurped by this new imposter and flavour of the month.
It’s perhaps however Jena Malone, playing make-up artist, Ruby, who convinces most though, with an edgy role exploring the macabre and truly ‘forbidden’ sides of humanity. Her self-appointed role as friend, guide, and general lookout for Jesse’s well being is admirable on the surface, but in the morally bankrupt, artificial construct that is the fashion industry, good intentions are probably not always what they may seem.
Visually stunning, minimal in its direction, underpinned by dark sexual tension, and awash throughout with influence from some of the very best of cult horror, science-fiction and suspenseful film-making, Nicolas Winding Refn has outdone himself with this one.
Cliff Martinez’ throbbing, power-packed analog synth-heavy soundtrack provides a sonic backdrop that truly drives home Winding Refn’s vision, right through to the film’s lurid and somewhat unexpected conclusion.
As Picturehouse Cinemas’ upcoming short season of films suggests: Think Carrie, think Mulholland Drive, think Videodrome, think Under The Skin, amongst others…
The Neon Demon may well owe a lot to its predecessors, yet it still manages to sit assuredly amongst such revered company.

FILM REVIEW: The Secret Life Of Pets

A film ‘brand’ used to relentlessly endorse Murdoch’s murky world of Sky TV propaganda is hardly the sort of thing that’s going to get the old juices flowing here at Wayward Wolf Towers. Add to that the fact that The Secret Life of Pets (TSLOP) is a Pixar animation – two words designed to activate either a ‘deep coma’ or ‘run for the hills’ mode within me – and let’s face it, the signs aren’t good.

I had the opportunity to swerve it and I didn’t. This viewing was my choice, due to an undeniable fact that TSLOP is the one and only modern, mainstream animation whose trailer actually made me laugh – and on this occasion, more than once.

Don’t get carried away now; it’s a film that ploughs through great swathes of beige averageness in order to get to the humour and the genuinely funny stuff could probably quite comfortably fit into a ten minute Youtube compilation video, but much in the same way that adult animated comedies like The Simpsons or Family Guy do, TSLOP unleashes its content in quick-fire fashion. After all, throw enough content out there and some of it’s bound to stick, and an audience will probably sit through most things so long as they don’t needlessly drag or show signs of terminal self-indulgence – or suck eggs, of course.

TSLOP is mercifully pretty much a drag-free zone and jollies along nicely for 90 minutes of your time, with a whole plethora of cute, animated pets from all walks of the animal kingdom, combining together in a sequence of scenarios that range from mildly amusing to laugh-out-loud funny on occasion, and as someone that almost never gets a taste of the Pixar treatment, the animation itself, it must be said, is massively impressive.

Of course, on one level TSLOP is not so much a film, more a cynical piece of mass-marketing aimed to sell, sell, sell. Kids naturally will love it and there will of course be an inferior sequel. That’s how these things are meant to work, and I see no reason why that won’t be the case here too.

Against all odds, and as much as I hate to admit it, TSLOP gets a sort of tepid thumbs up from this here animation cynic.