Friday, 31 March 2017

Dir: Todd Solondz
I've found myself somewhat predisposed to Todd Solondz's films, or at least I thought so until 2016's Wiener-Dog came along. Without wanting to sound like I liked it before it was cool, I have had many heated discussions defending his 1998 film Happiness and explaining why I thought 2004's Palindromes was a positive alternative to mainstream movies at that time. Both are now regarded as classics but they really weren't at the time believe me. In many respects, I thought Solondz had made his case and moved on with regards to the themes of rape, molestation and general abuse in Middle America, I didn't think he was done exploring the dark underbelly of American suburbia but I thought he'd started looking at it from another angle, like he did in 2012's Dark Horse. Dark Horse was well received, made a profit but was largely forgotten and wasn't really discussed. I can't help but think the lack of controversy that Solondz was so used to has had something of an effect on him. He remarked at the time about how the Creative Artists Agency appreciated his script (the first time for any of his films) and later realized it was because "there's no rape, there's no child molestation, there's no masturbation, and I thought, omg, why didn't I think of this years ago?".
I felt no progression with Wiener-Dog, he was clearly repeating himself and covering old ground. One of the sequences was even a continuation of one of his previous films (Storytelling), which would have been a lot nicer for fans, had the original actors returned to play their older selves. The film is really a collection of short stories, all joined by one little dog, the Wiener-Dog (a dachshund, also known as a Sausage dog) of the title, who befriends different owners after either being given away, running away, kidnapped or re-homed. It is like the darkest episode of The Littlest Hobo, the one that never made it to TV, written on the day the scriptwriters lost their jobs or something. None of the stories really go anywhere, there really isn't much to them. The long pauses that I used to love in Solondz's film just don't seem to work here, it is as if everyone is consciously trying to be as 'Solondz' as they possibly can, making much of the film seem forced in a way. As much as I appreciate his on-going contempt of contemporary 'art house' films, I feel he is guilty of a lot of which he clearly detests. I'm not sure what this film is for and more importantly, who this film is for. The last sequence is fantastically droll in the way it lifts the film, to then drop it further down the subdued and banal hole it has been lurking in the whole time. At least cinematographer Ed Lachman got to stretch his creative legs for few seconds but I'm not sure why you'd hire such a genius and then give him nothing to do. I hated the ending, even though it is the sort of ending I should have loved. There are only so many of the same magic shows you can watch before you want to see a new trick and I wanted to saw myself in half after watching it. The cast is great; Ellen Burstyn, Kieran Culkin, Julie Delpy, Danny DeVito, Greta Gerwig, Tracy Letts and Zosia Mamet are all fine with what they are given, with maybe Delpy, Burstyn and Mamet doing a better job than everyone else. It's fine if you want more of the same, and I do sort of, but there has to be something new, otherwise Solondz is going to start parodying himself and in Wiener-Dog he becomes dangerously close.
We Are the Best!
Dir: Lukas Moodysson
Lukas Moodysson had great success in the late 90s, early 00s with a string of hit films. Show Me Love, Together and Lilya-4-Ever were three very different film but each was a masterpiece. 2004's A Hole in My Heart was powerful, it pushed down boundaries and came close to crossing them but as brilliant and as important as it was, it was very hard to watch and even harder to enjoy. 2006's Container remains a bit of a mystery and his 2009 film Mammoth split audiences right down the middle. With We Are the Best!, a film adapted from the graphic novel Never Goodnight written by his wife Coco Moodysson, the Swedish director has once again found the secret of success and has created another brilliant film. There is nothing I didn't adore about We Are the Best!, the story of two young teenagers living in 1983 called Bobo and Klara who are ostracized by their peers because of their love and devotion to punk. After seeing a school rock band perform, the girls immediately think they can do better and set about learning how to play, until they realize they need help. They spot a quiet and subdued girl at school who also seems ostracized due to her Christian beliefs and her shyness. Once they see her perform an amazing classical guitar solo at the school talent show, they set about recruiting her for their band and transform her, slowly, into a follow punk. What I really love about the film, apart from the brilliant three lead actors, is the fact that it understands punk. Punk isn't all safety-pins and coloured mohicans, it's a way of thinking and not at all about the anarchy that your parents were scared of. In this respect it feels very authentic, even though the girls are young, had just missed the punk hay-day and just liked the music, they are the embodiment of what the movement was really like and essentially what it was about, and that includes that fact that they didn't come from particularly hard up families. Without wanting to sound condescending, Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin and Liv LeMoyne are adorably sweet in their performances and they make me want a punk daughter. Their journey from punk fans into a punk band is funny, tender and totally believable, I suspect the girls - apart from LeMoyne, learned while filming but the song they come up with is actually quite good. It is my favourite punk film by a long way and one of the best alternative feel-good films in modern cinema. There is a difference between loving something and adoring it, with We Are the Best! I adore everything about it and want to see what happens next with the girls. Moodysson should definitely leave it here but a big part of me would love to see the characters go through the late 80s, 90s and 00s together. One of the top films of 2013.
Defending Your Life
Dir: Albert Brooks
There must be hundreds of versions and visions of both heaven and hell in the world of TV and cinema, heaven being mostly seen as a mostly white utopia and hell as being a fiery pit of red, but there aren't that many visual examples of purgatory or what it would actually be like. Albert Brooks, who wrote and stars as the film's main character, has come up with a probable scenario in what is a brilliantly droll and satirical comedy. Brooks plays young advertising executive Daniel, who seems to have it sussed on the surface, enjoying the things most people could only dream of. When he gets hit by a bus and killed due to reckless driving, he finds himself arriving in a place called Judgement City. He is given a very brief welcome and it is explained to him that everything is all inclusive, the buffet is all you can eat and he won't put on any weight. He has full use of all the facilities during his stay including bowling alleys and comedy clubs and is told to relax and take everything in his stride and is promptly sent to a sub-standard hotel to sleep of his initial 'jet-lag'. His next day, he is bused to visit his life lawyer who will make the case on his behave that he continues to heaven, rather than go back to earth, reincarnated as someone else and essentially, start all over again - seen as something of a failure in Judgement City. Daniel learns that he's actually been through Judgement City an alarming amount of times and it is imperative that he gets to heaven soon. Rip Torn plays his lawyer, a little unsympathetic and very much a lawyer's lawyer. Purgatory is essentially an administration resort, a functioning land a little like the hotel complexes you get near airports - no one really wants to stay there, it's comfortable enough but you stay on your way to somewhere else. When Daniel meets Julia (played by Meryl Streep), they become immediately attracted to one another and one it becomes clear she is almost certain to get to heaven, Daniel does everything he can to try and work out why he isn't progressing. Julia's hotel is much fancier than Daniel's and the restaurant near to her serves much nicer food, this is a very slight but clever way of suggesting that things are often what you make of them, although it is never clear whether that is in fact the case or not. There are wonderful scene and ideas going on, the court scenes whereby Daniel's past life is inspected in full detail are great and there are some wonderful scenes in Judgement City's comedy club (where all the jokes are about dying) and in the gallery of reincarnation, where you sit in your own booth and come face to face with all of your past lives. Daniel's lawyer tells him that on earth you only use three percent of your brain and that he has to use more to go further, uttering that you wouldn't want to live on earth when you learn to use five percent. It's a uniquely funny idea that is explored brilliantly and it does raise many questions, without really having to answer them. It's a strange romantic film too, the stranger the better in my opinion and both Brooks and Streep are wonderful together. It's such an odd film, clever but never boastfully so, balancing personal questions and beliefs with thick satire and perceptive whimsy. I love it, there is no other film quite like it and everything is next to perfect. 
In Fear
Dir: Jeremy Lovering
I know many young aspiring actors start out making horror films but by 2013 I would have thought Iain De Caestecker and Alice Englert (or at least their agents) would have realized that a film like In Fear was below them. Easy work I guess but it is a blight on their portfolios. To be fair, De Caestecker had only been in Up There and Shell in his adult career, he was impressive in both but only had bit parts, In Fear was his first leading role. Alice Englert had made the impressive Ginger & Rosa but it was only released three months before, but still, I felt for the two brilliant young actors putting themselves through this ordeal. It was advertised as a 'psychological horror' which essentially means that one or more of the characters is irrational, paranoid and a scaredy cat basically. Fine if there was something to be scared of but being lost, near some woods, in the countryside is not scary. It's a tired old scenario, City folk go to the country and fear the locals want to kill them because people who don't live in cities are mainly bloodthirsty serial killers who would sooner rape and eat you than say hello (and they us City folk are rude!). In Fear doesn't give explanations, which is fine, most good horrors don't, they don't need to, but in In Fear's case it's because it probably wouldn't make any sense if they tried. 2013's Locke proved that with a great script, a good idea and a brilliant performance you could make a film that takes place entirely in a car, 2013's In Fear shows you shouldn't try unless you have talent. There is nothing scary about a man just standing still, Jeremy Lovering has delivered a horror/thriller devoid of any suspense, thrill, dread or feeling of terror. The only thing he got right (apart from casting the two lead actors) was the music but even then, you could simply listen to the soundtrack without watching the film and it would have the same effect. It's slow on the uptake, drags from the very beginning and has an alarmingly unsatisfactory climax. It fails in its simplicity when really it should have basked in it.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Dir: Daniel Espinosa
Life isn't particularly original in its concept and you can compare it to pretty much every other 'Alien' in space film that has ever been made, however, it improves on the formula, adds its own flare and is deliciously dark in all the right places. I'm a sucker for a sci-fi space horror, and while Life is no Alien, it does have some tricks up its sleeve that make it a stand out addition to the sub-genre. It begins with a stunning (and I mean stunning) opening shot of the International Space Station in-front of the earth's horizon. From then on the film is beautifully shot, with some very clever techniques amalgamating ideas first seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey and in the more recent Gravity. The influences from other sci-fi horror films are very obvious and I don't think it ever pretends it doesn't stand on the shoulders of giants in some respect, but what I would say is that the acting is far superior than that of other films like it and I thought that while it's not altogether original, it is somewhat unpredictable. The characters weren't stereotypes, the acting is very convincing and I thought it was cast really well. However, as much as I like him and as good as he was in this, I thought the casting of Hiroyuki Sanada was a bit confusing, given that he played a very similar character in Danny Boyle's Sunshine, but I got over it fairly quickly. Jake Gyllenhaal played an interesting alternative lead and Rebecca Ferguson was faultless. No one will ever be nominated for a best actor award in a space horror but seriously, her performance is more compelling and real as any seen in your typical Oscar winning drama. Ryan Reynolds is also impressive in what is quite an unexpected role for him and Ariyon Bakare and Olga Dihovichnaya cope brilliantly in performances that no acting school can ever prepare you for. The performances are all perfect. The script is fairly punchy too, it's not overly technical but it is believable, these are level-headed experts but with human emotions who act exactly like you'd expect people such as them to act if put in their situation. Fantasy horror is good, I consider myself a fan, but when doing sci-fi, particularly space sci-fi, then realism is key, and Life certainly ticks all the right boxes. The action isn't overdone but if that's what you want then you won't be disappointed, some of the CGI is questionable and the creature design goes from 'great' to 'I've seen greater' but overall it is all good fun. The music was a tad forced and was trying a little too hard to be the next 2001: A Space Odyssey and also sounds like a poor man's John Carpenter in places. I don't feel the film was ever treading water, every minute was used and nothing was wasted. The story could have gone down many paths but I was relieved when it took the one it did. I loved the ending. Seriously, without the ending it would have been a three star film, I was going to say guilty pleasure but that would be unfair, I have no guilt or shame for really enjoying Life but the conclusion made what was an entertaining but average horror to a superior horror, with a magnificent crescendo of terror to finish. I can live with a substandard alien and a familiar story, it is the script, the performances and the awesome conclusion that make Life a film to take notice of. It may not be what most people are expecting, which I personally see as a good thing, but it shouldn't be overlooked simply because other films have explored similar themes. In comparison, it actually does things much better than most, and more importantly, I believe it, it could theoretically happen. The alien is called Calvin for goodness sake, sit back, munch on your popcorn and enjoy, it's the most fun I've had at the pictures for quite some time. 
What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?
Dir: Ian Mune
1994's Once Were Warriors was an outstanding film that received critical acclaim around the world. The ending was absolutely perfect in its poignancy and mood. Like all great films though, it is easy to want and not want a sequel at the same time. While the story was left in such a good way, you still want to know what exactly happened to the characters next. Two years after the release of the first film, author Alan Duff wrote the follow up and three years after that What Becomes of the Broken Hearted? was made into a film. Expectations were high, several characters were missing and original director Lee Tamahori had been replaced by Ian Mune and it was a good film, but it was nowhere near as great as the original. How could it be though, the impact of the first cannot be replicated in the same manner and certain characters had moved on. The story is strong considering but the film is let down by substandard direction and some weak performances. The main story is about the eldest son of Beth and Jake and his involvement in local gangs. Beth (once again played by Rena Owen) has a small part to play in the film and the lead is taken by her son who seeks vengeance for the death of his brother. This story-line is patchy, with strong and rather weak scenes. The strength of the film are the scene involving Jake "the Muss" Heke (played once again by the superb Temuera Morrison who steps back into the role perfectly). This time round and several years after the events of the first film, we see Jake a little calmer but full of regret. We watch him slowly attempt redemption although times are getting repeated tougher for him. I think a better story would be simply focused on Jake's rehabilitation, the gang stuff isn't as believable as the first film and it does nothing for the story. The film had a lot to live up to and it is an entertaining film and I'm glad it was made, but the cynic in me thinks that it was really more of a cash in on the first film, rather than a passionate adaptation. Many have attributed the drop in quality due to the involvement of PolyGram Filmed Entertainment who decided to replace the cultural themes with a more generic theme of gangland violence. The film was still the second most successful New Zealand film of the 90s (behind Once Were Warriors) but the fact that the third book in Alan Duff's series (Jake's Long Shadow, written in 2002) hasn't even been attempted to be made into a film probably tells you all you need to know about how the film was critically received. Worth watching for Temuera Morrison strong performances but unlike the first film, I'm fine with where it was left, I no longer feel the need to know what happened next to the characters.

Once Were Warriors
Dir: Lee Tamahori
Based on the bestselling 1990 debut novel by Alan Duff, Lee Tamahori's Once Were Warriors has been voted best New Zealand film of all time and was famous for outselling Jurassic Park there in the early 90s. It's a devastatingly bleak look at what has become of many of the Māori families in modern society following development and economic progression. The land no longer belongs to the Māori people and many feel left behind. While this isn't an attack on the Māori people or New Zealanders in general, it just shows a very real struggle that many indigenous people have around the world. The story centres on one family, led by Jake "the Muss" Heke, a volatile and violent man with unpredictable mood swings. Along with his wife the couple have five children and live in the same dishevelled state house they've lived in for eighteen years. The children, two who are reaching adulthood, have become accustomed to their father's outbursts and late night parties their parents have. After one particularly rowdy evening, where Jake beats his wife Beth to the point she is completely unrecognizable. Due to her disfigured face, she is unable to attend a court appearance her second eldest son has for petty crime and she realizes that life like this can't continue. When her eldest son joins a gang and has his face completely tattooed in the Māori tā moko style and her other son is taken into a young offenders institute and starts learning the ways of old Beth realizes that her family are in the middle of an identity crisis and that she needs to go back to her roots and leave Jake. Jake, who is widely feared, doesn't take it lightly and the families struggle to leave him becomes a living nightmare that has cataclysmic conclusions. It is a brutally real and graphic depiction of domestic violence that shows the truth that many families face. It's also an in-depth look at the distortion of tradition and culture, of poverty and alcoholism. Temuera Morrison is terrifying as Jake "the Muss" Heke in one of the most villainous roles in cinema's history. Rene Owen is also brilliant as his long suffering wife Beth and while the performances from the supporting cast can be a bit amateurish at times, the two leads share some of cinema's most powerful scenes together, making Once Were Warriors an unforgettable experience. The subject matter is handled brilliantly, the crux of the message is grabbed with both hands and the film is only subtle when it has to be. I love it and it remains director Lee Tamahori's best film without a shadow of a doubt and I would suggest that it one of the most influential and important films of the 90s. If in years to come people look back at films that capture a decade, then Once Were Warriors should be towards the top of the list.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Dir: Paweł Pawlikowski
I have to admit, I had almost forgotten what a brilliant director Paweł Pawlikowski was. Watching Ida was like watching an amalgamation of Robert Bresson, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Andrei Tarkovsky and Ingmar Bergman, with a hint of Béla Tarr thrown in for good measure. I don't want to take anything away from Pawlikowski, and I understand he took a long time away from the world of film-making to look after his family when his wife became very ill in the mid-00s, but this is in a different league to Last resort (2000) and My Summer of Love (2004) (as much as I love both films) and a far cry from his last film, 2011's The Woman in the Fifth. It is perfect in terms of visuals and in content. Every single shot, and how it is framed is thought out methodically and 'to a t'. Back in art school I learnt the importance of composition, the use of angles, negative space and how invisible lines can draw the viewer’s eyes to the desired destination. In this respect, Ida is a work of pure renaissance, a work by Titian but with a Nouvelle Vague twist. The visuals match the tone and era of early 1960s Poland perfectly, it feels like an epic but is compact and modest. The fact it was nominated for Best Cinematography as well as Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards gives weight to the idea that the Best Foreign Language Film category should be dropped from all film award ceremonies, it is sublime, iconic and speaks volumes. It suits the story perfectly, as there are just as many complex issues explored and expressed there too. Like the beautiful black and white imagery, the story is a contrast of religion, politics, history, pain, peace and life in general. A nun is paired with a hard living communist judge, a Christian is revealed to have been born a Jew, a saviour spawns a murderer and a country becomes the beast it fights against. Ida is history, Ida is life. It's not all bleak though, Jazz and an alternative is introduced as a ray of light on proceedings and it is enough to lead the story down a positive path. It caused a bit of controversy in central Europe regarding how Christians were depicted during the war, it is a bit ridiculous really, as it is never suggested as representative and never feels like it is. It actually feels very authentic, the silent sadness of people rebuilding their lives, not speaking of past horrors and hardship. I understand the call for contextual captions in films that deal with history and politics but to be honest, it just doesn't suit many films, this isn't really a history lesson and if something interests you (or confuses you) you should research it yourself. An accusation of guilt is met with some form of redemption anyway, redemption being one of the main themes of the story. The weight of shear sadness is important, it is an important reminder but it also highlights the shimmers of hope when they make themselves known, there aren't many to be fair but one candle lit in a dark room can make a striking impact. Everything is intentional and even the slightest detail makes a bold statement. Casting a non-actor in the central role was a good move, Agata Trzebuchowska was perfect as Ida and won many awards without any training or even an interest in pursuing an acting career. Agata Kulesza on the other hand is an actor at the very peak of her game, she is exceptional in her complex role and is both captivating and breathtakingly believable. A contemporary classic, the heir to the throne and next in a long line of iconic European masterpieces.
Youth Without Youth
Dir: Francis Ford Coppola
There are many aspects of Francis Ford Coppola's Youth Without Youth that I loved but more that I didn't understand, however I think the harsh reception that the film received on release was more to do with the director than it was the film. It's Francis Ford Coppola after all, his last film was ten years previous with The Rainmaker, a very average film considering his past masterpieces that include Apocalypse Now, The Conversation and the Godfather Trilogy. The truth is his last truly great film was made in 1979 (Apocalypse Now) and after the infamous issues that film endured through its overlong shoot etc, you have to wonder if he's really that great a director after all. I believe he is but these days he would have been put on a blacklist due to poor timekeeping. Youth Without Youth probably doesn't deserve its run time of just over two hours, the story does, the end result doesn't. It begins in 1938 just before the outbreak of war. Dominic Matei (played by the brilliant Tim Roth) is a 70 year old professor of linguistics who is starting to realize his lifelong ambition to find and write a book on the origin of human language has condemned him to lonely and somewhat wasted life. As he feels himself slip into dementia, he decides to visit Bucharest, the place he met the lost love of his youth, for one last time before ending his own life there. However, upon his first few steps out of the train station, Dominic is struck by lightning and felled. He then spends several months in bandage in a local hospital, his healed body revealing a man half his age. Somehow the lightening has given him the gift of youth and he soon finds himself hiding from the Nazis who want to learn his secret. This all sounds a little more hokey than it actually is, once the war is over Dominic has few more minor adventures before he meets Veronica (played by Alexandra Maria Lara) while hiking in the Alps in the late 50s. Dominic, who can now see and interact with his own consciousness as if it were another person, believes that she is the reincarnation of his lost love Laura who died when they were both young. When a storm passes the place they met minutes later, Dominic races back to see if she is safe but finds that she has been struck by lightning. She then identifies herself as being Rupini, one of the original disciples of Buddha. Again, this all sounds silly on paper but the film is strangely captivating. Veronica relapses back in time through all of her past lives, she and Dominic begin a romantic relationship and he confides to her his secret. He learns ancient languages from her as she speaks in her sleep and finally he feels he can complete his life's work, until he discovers that their love is making her age at an accelerated rate, leaving him with a very difficult realization. In all honesty, it's no more ridiculous than either The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window andDisappeared and I would argue that it is far more beautiful. I would say that some of it is up for interpretation but I would also suggest that it doesn't really matter if not all of it makes sense. There are a few early scenes that do look amateurish, shockingly so considering Coppola's talent, but there is also something very unique about the film and something extremely compelling. I didn't feel the conclusion was an anti-climax either, in fact I thought the very last scene was both thrilling and beautiful, even if I’m not 100% sure of what it means. Tom Roth is amazing, the conversations he has with himself are just the sort of theatrics he excels at and I can't think of anyone better suited for the role. It's an odd film, full of faults but it still ticks all the right boxes. Other directors could have made more of the idea I'm sure but I personally revealed in seeing something completely original.
The Devil at 4 O'Clock
Dir: Mervyn LeRoy
In 1961, director Mervyn LeRoy made a film that would become the blueprint for the modern day disaster film and it still stands as one of the best of the genre. The origins of the title come from the proverb "It is hard for a man to be brave when he knows he is going to meet the devil at four o'clock". In the film, a small group find themselves trapped on a volcanic island during a ferocious eruption, at around four in the afternoon. Spencer Tracy stars alongside Frank Sinatra (but takes top billing as stated in his contract) and both are joined by supporting actors Bernie Hamilton, Kerwin Mathews, Jean-Pierre Aumont, BarBara Luna and a scene stealing Grégoire Aslan. Sinatra, Hamilton and Aslan play convicts on their way to a Tahiti prison. The transport plane they are on makes an overnight stop at the small fictional Island of Talua, somewhere in French Polynesia and the three prisoners, a priest (Mathews) they are travelling with and the two pilots stop of to stay the night. Meanwhile, the Island's alcoholic priest (Tracy), who is to be replaced by the new arrival, sets the three prisoners to work and gets them to build a hospital for the Island's leper colony. Everything comes to a head when the Island's volcano suddenly erupts after the locals believed it to be dormant. It is a tale of survival and redemption but has a wonderful undertone of moral ambiguity. There is a subtle look at what makes a hero and how one can be seen as heroic but ultimately it is just a great disaster flick. The character development is brilliant and really adds to the story. It's got two huge Hollywood stars but neither man rests on his name and both pull fantastic performances. Grégoire Aslan is the film's narrator in many respects, he is the life and soul but also the one who states the obvious when it needs to be stated and tells it very much as it is. The redemption message is clear by the end but is also ambiguous in that not every sacrifice is selfless. It leaves the film in a strange place just before the big surprise conclusion, giving this particular disaster film far more depth than the ones it would eventually spawn. Filming was troubled but you wouldn't know it when watching. Apparently, Sinatra would only film during the afternoon and due to his frailty, Tracy could only film in the morning before becoming overcome with tiredness. Sinatra would fly out to neighbouring islands asking startled villagers to vote for JFK while Tracy would film all of his scenes opposite a broom. Most of their scenes were edited to make it look like they were together when 90% of the time they weren't. The film was an amazing feat as it was, the two leading actors made it even more so, it's amazing that it was finished at all.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Dir: Roger Ross Williams
When Owen Suskind suddenly became withdrawn and silent at three years old after being a sociable and talkative child, his parents Ron and Cornelia sought medical help and after many test he was diagnosed with autism. Our understanding of autism is much better now than it was back then in the early nineties, the Suskinds weren't given a lot to go on with respects to how Owen could develop, if it was possible and what he understood. They describe the experience as feeling like their child had been kidnapped and hearing them speak of it in this documentary is heart-breaking at times. However, Roger Ross Williams's brilliant LifeAnimated is not designed to pull on the heartstrings or to be emotionally manipulative. This is the story of how Owen has essentially proven there is more to those with autism and how their minds can work. Owen was thought to be speaking gibberish, until he started to repeat dialogue from Disney films. This was shrugged off by doctors as just being echopraxia, a condition associated with autism where people with the condition repeat what they hear without necessarily understanding it. When what Owen repeated was clearly in context to a situation he was in, the Suskind knew that their little boy was in there, understood things but was somewhat trapped in his own mind. Ron Suskind, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist writing for The Wall Street Journal, documented Owen's progress over the years and released the biography Life, Animated: A Story of sidekicks, Heroes and Autism, the book this film is based on. As he developed, Owen became more and more obsessed with Disney as it was his only means of making sense of the world. When he was secretly bullied at school he wrote short stories about himself and how he was 'Protector of the sidekicks'. He saw the Disney sidekicks as being the ones that help the heroes to achieve their goals, whether it is getting the girl or saving the day. It was a complex alternative viewpoint but made perfect sense and helped his parents and therapists understand his thoughts and how he felt about himself. Watching Disney films, or just a few scenes, became a daily occurrence that Owen would enjoy with his family. It slowly helped him develop, communicate and understand the world. The film uses a few old home videos and inserts snippets from famous Disney films as well as fresh animation that features Owen himself with the Disney sidekicks. The documentary joins Owen as he is about to leave home and move into his own apartment and explores his and his family's apprehension. Nothing is forced, Owen is never asked difficult questions and Roger Ross Williams' approach is to just let things happen naturally. Owen is asked to make a speech at an Autism convention in Paris and we see him chair Disney club meetings for his friends but there is never any forced drama, no unnecessary intensity or false sense of suspense. Owen's father Ron is clearly behind much of what goes on but he never comes across as a pushy parent, just a proud one that clearly loves his son. In the wrong hands this could have been just awful, such is the state of documentaries these days. I'm glad Owen's story was handled the way it was and given the feature length treatment it deserved, rather than a made for TV hatchet job. Probably the most uplifting and educational documentary of 2016.
While We're Young
Dir: Noah Baumbach
I love a bit of Noah Baumbach but I have to admit, I wasn't exactly thrilled at the thought of watching a Ben Stiller lead film about a couple in their early forties coming to terms with the fact that they're not that young anymore. However, just ten minutes into 2014's While We're Young my wife and I were agreeing that this was us, this was our life was like right now. I expected clichés upon cliché about what it is like to be in your early forties in 2014 and what the youth of today are actually like but I think Baumbach actually hits the nail on the head. The characteristics in both Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts's childless characters, their friends Marina and Fletcher (Maria Dizzia and Adam 'Ad-Rock' Horovitz), who have just had their first child and in new, much younger friends Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) are just like people I know who fit in the same category. The details are authentic and I to, as a childless adult, find my friends with kids as they are in the film and also find myself intrigued by the younger generation who do seem to have life sussed. While the film is uncomfortably real sometimes it is also nice to know that others are out there who feel the same. The performances are spot on and the characters are very well written, I wouldn't be surprised if they weren't based on real people. If the overall mood of the film wasn't enough of a pleasant surprise, the surprise appearance of the great Charles Grodin, whose brilliant timing, acting ability and overall presence, is still as strong as it ever was. There were so many moments in the film where I thought 'I do that', 'That's what I've always thought' and 'That's exactly what I do or would have done in that situation'. I liked that it was the adults who were always on the phone, because it is, and I loved it that the Sheman of the ayahuasca ceremony that Stiller, Watts, Driver and Seyfried go to, puts on Vangelis's Blade Runner soundtrack to soften the mood, as I would have totally done the same. I also like the subject explored with regards to the character's professions. There is interesting debate regarding acceptable levels concerning authenticity and craftsmanship and the overall worth of an idea. It's also fascinating how the youth of the story are in agreement with the older generation and vice-versa. It does sometimes feel that my generation have lived under the rules of the previous generation and that they are now congratulating the next generation for breaking them. Old people and young people, I bloody hate them and this film goes some way in voicing my own frustrations, and any film that achieves that is okay by me.
DrPhibes Rises Again!
Dir: Robert Fuest
Robert Fuest's 1971 horror opus The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a cult classic, his follow up released the following year doesn't have quite the same impact or notoriety. Dr. Phibes pretty much did what he set out to achieve in the first film, his story was essentially over. This new adventure, that sees Dr. Phibes return to seek eternal life from the fountain of youth, which just so happens to be located in Egypt, in keeping with his interests and murder theme of choice. Now the first film made no sense and it really didn't matter, it was in keeping with the hokey humour, the camp horror and the altogether quirky quirkiness but, for some reason, the story kind of did matter here and the fact it made no sense was somewhat bothersome. In the first film Dr. Phibes killed the doctors he blamed for the death of his wife. Now we are told that these were the best doctors practicing in the world at the time, so when we learn that his wife is essentially in a state of status, you can help but wonder why he didn't force them to try and resurrect her, seeing as that is the mission in the sequel. What is even more confusing is that a few of the said murdered doctors come back in the second film, or at least the actors that portrayed them do. I find it hard to criticize any film that features the work of the great Terry-Thomas and Hugh Griffith but they both clearly died in the first film, quite horribly too. Both actors’ performances in the first were considered highlights but to include them again in the follow up is a bit lazy and doesn't have half the impact. The producers brought in new writers who didn't get on well with director and co-writer Fuest and this is obvious throughout the film's script. It's messy, not as well polished and just plain awful in places. Not one element of the sequel is as good as the first film, although I quite liked the conclusion. Too much was going on and too much was in preparation for a third film, when really they should have concentrated on making a decent follow up with a strong story. Vincent Price is on top form once more but his script isn't as strong, the set isn't as lavish and the horror, comedy and overall stylishness of the first is missing. It's almost too self-aware and the humour is too self-knowing. In this respect it feels like it is constantly self-congratulating itself, as if it has already become a great series of films, even though they had only made one film thus far. It all got ahead of itself too quickly and was made in a rush. There are moments of pure brilliance though, and these moments make it just about worth watching (as do Price, T-T, Griffith and the returning Peter Jeffery and Ronert Quarry as the alchemist Dr. Biederbeck) but it's not particularly easy watching.
The Abominable DrPhibes
Dir: Robert Fuest
Robert Fuest's cult classic The Abominable DrPhibes is a darkly humorous, Egyptian-themed, operatic, art-deco, horror masterpiece. The tag line used for the movie; "Love is never having to say you're ugly" is clearly spoofing Ryan O'Neal's Love Story that came out the year before, which ended with the immortal line "Love is never having to say you're sorry" but it is rather misleading, as this isn't a spoof or even obviously a comedy. However, it gives the audience a little idea of just how strange and out of sorts it really is. It is over the top and as camp as you like but even more so than the typical Hammer Horror or crime thriller of the day. DrPhibes, an expert in theology and music, is believed to have died in a terrible car accident, shortly after his wife dies in hospital. After rebuilding his own face and teaching himself how to talk again, Dr. Phibes goes about killing the doctors he believes failed his wife during treatment for an unknown illness and thus blames for her death. Simply shooting, stabbing or poisoning would be too dull, so the abominable doctor decides to kill them in the style of the Ten Plagues of Egypt, as seen in the Old Testament. Each murder is as flamboyant as the next, each being dastardly, horrific and also just a little bit funny. Phibes is like a satanic Bond villain, obsessed with revenge, money no object, a thing for masks and a dab hand at the old organ. The sets are about as elaborate as it gets, the stunning set pieces and back-drops make it look like a huge operatic production, and then you are met with Vincent Price in a child-like mask in the foreground, it's never clear when the film is being intentionally or unintentionally funny. I think quirky is the best word I can think of but it is a unique and very special kind of quirk. No one else could have played Dr. Phibes other than Vincent Price and it is one of the best characters of his career. The cast is impressive but it is the short but sweet performances from Terry-Thomas and Hugh Griffith that are the most enjoyable and most memorable. Peter Jeffrey is great however as Inspector Harry Trout, again, I now can't see anyone else playing the part as well. The story is flawed in many respects but it just doesn't matter, in fact, if it made any sense it wouldn't be half as compelling. It's one of the best examples of camp and hokey film making that the 1970s did so well, it's knowingly overblown but also quite subtle in its execution in many respects, like if Orson Welles had directed Carry On Screaming.