Saturday, 27 August 2011

Film Reviews | Catfish (2010); Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010); I'm Still Here (2010)

Catfish, Exit Through The Gift Shop and I'm Still Here all have quite a lot in common. Not only are they documentary films, but they are also all documentaries that have had similar criticisms levelled at them at various points through their creation and release. The criticism focuses upon whether or not each film was genuine in what it purported to document. Whilst each hasproponents for both sides of the argument, two conclusions that seem to be arrived at by critics fairly regularly are:

i) that a documentary film not being "true" links in some way to the quality and aesthetic worth of what has been made;

ii) that the makers of a documentary not being entirely transparent about the levels of factual and fictional content in their film again impact on its quality and aesthetic worth.

* * * * *

Looking first at Catfish, reviewing the film's content is tricky as a fair amount of the impact that the film will have on its audience rests on finding things out as the film progresses. The film focuses on photographer Yaniv "Nev" Schulman who strikes up a friendship on Facebook with a young girl called Abby after she sends him paintings of some of his photographs. This online friendship soon spreads to Abby's extended family, including her mother Angela and her half-sister Megan, and the film continues documenting the unexpected directions these relationships take.

Since its release, the truth behind the events of the film has been questioned from a number of directions, including opinions from others in the film industry ranging from the relevant (Morgan Spurlock, most famous for making Super Size Me) to the not-so-relevant (Zach Galifianakis, most famous for playing an idiot in The Hangover). Some seem merely unable to believe that the events of the film could be anything other than fictional; others have analysed the way in which the film's events are related and the timescale over which they are purported to have happened, and concluded that the film can't be relating real life events. Nev and the makers of the film, his brother Ariel and their friend Henry Joost, have continually insisted that the film's story is completely true, although they have admitted to recreating a handful of elements after the event for the benefit of the film's narrative. For many, this is enough to call shenanigans on the whole film.

However, opinion on whether the film's events are "real" often takes over the entire view of the film. From armchair critics to professional journalists, the focus regularly returns to how truthful the filmmakers are being about how much (if any) of their film is fiction. This is undoubtedly a great shame, as Catfish has a huge amount going for it in terms of style and craftsmanship. The way in which modern technology is seamlessly integrated into the way the story is told is fantastic; using Google Earth to illustrate long distance travel and Google Streetview to produce establishing shots, for example, are simple yet inspired touches. The style of cinematography is matched perfectly to the tonal shift of the film as it progresses, beginning with a personal handheld style, moving to a more sinister quasi-horror style as events take a more unsettling tone, and then a cleaner, relatively more polished feel for the film's closing act. Schulman and Joost know their stuff when it comes to documentary style, that much is certain. The narrative is engaging and kept me hooked until the very end. Nev is presented as such an amiable character that you feel an immediate attachment to him and his life. And none of this hangs on whether or not what we are watching is true. Moreover, does it actually matter when the film is as enjoyable and masterful as it is?

I'm Still Here is, in almost every way, the counterpoint to all the things that make Catfish a great documentary. The film chronicles a year in the life of Joaquin Phoenix as he unceremoniously retires from acting in order to pursue a career as a rapper. And that's pretty much it. Phoenix's reasons for leaving acting are never entirely clear, other than boredom on the actor's part, with him essentially coming across as a conceited Hollywood brat. His rapping is awful, although his intention to become a serious rapper seems entirely genuine most of the time. Phoenix's meetings with P Diddy to get advice and try to jumpstart his new career move provide some of the film's most compelling scenes. The uncomfortable edge they have is comparable to that seen in Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm or Ricky Gervais' Extras, although never to such an entertaining degree.

Other than that, the film is filled with Phoenix and his entourage ordering hookers, getting drunk, taking copious amounts of drugs and generally behaving appallingly towards each other. Many of these scenes quickly become tedious and regularly unpleasantly uncomfortable. Phoenix himself comes across as highly unlikable and obnoxious to be around for most of the film. The way he treats those around him is abhorrent. By the end of the film, not only is it hard to care about Phoenix's struggle to break into the music business, but also that he left a promising career in film to do so. I just wanted him to go away.

Having insisted all along that Phoenix's tumultuous attempt at a career change was entirely genuine, soon after the film's release (and in what many have seen as an attempt to boost unimpressive box office returns after mixed reviews) director Casey Affleck admitted that everything seen in the film is entirely set up. Phoenix was playing a fictional version of himself the whole time, remaining "in character" during public and promotional appearances whilst the film was being made. Phoenix and Affleck have explained their desire to comment on people's willingness to believe everything they see as true when it is labelled as "reality". But this desire never comes across through the film, nor does coming clean about the manufactured nature of the film's events make it any more obvious. There is never a clear message behind the film, despite bookending the events seen with references to Phoenix's childhood and relationship with his father (also set up: the home video footage is fabricated and the man seen in the film is actually Affleck's father, not Phoenix's) possibly to imply Phoenix straying from his roots. This lack of clarity is not due to subtlety, but simply poor filmmaking.

Whilst there are moments that are made slightly more impressive by knowing they were set up (the scenes with P Diddy, for example, and an uncomfortable altercation between Phoenix and Ben Stiller), for the most part the revelation just serves to make Phoenix come across as even more self-indulgent. He has moved from a self-important actor failing to make it as a musician, to a self-important actor who apparently thinks watching him fail to make it as a musician will be entertaining for others. A film of this type needs to be shot through with either genuine humour or satire, and it is sorely devoid of both. Affleck too does not come off well. The revelation of the documentary's fictitious nature doesn't matter; either way, his directorial style throughout the film is uninspired, lacking in panache or storytelling know-how. Compared to the effortlessly stylish Catfish, in terms of craft this is pedestrian at best, downright amateurish at its worst. Affleck may be a highly promising acting talent, but based upon I'm Not There, I'm not looking forward to his next outing as a director.

Banksy's Exit Through The Gift Shop treads the ground somewhere between Catfish and I'm Still Here. The film begins by introducing Thierry Guetta, the man behind the camera and an obsessive camcorder user who stumbles into the world of street art almost entirely by accident, becoming the unofficial biographer of the underground movement. Guetta becomes obsessed with tracking down Banksy, apparently considered the most elusive of all street artists, and eventually their paths cross. However, events take a twist for the bizarre once Banksy sees Guetta's documentary and decides to take control of the film himself.

The main problem with ETTGS is that, very simply, a lot of what it shows you isn't actually that interesting to watch. After Guetta himself is introduced, a lot of the first act of the film is comprised of footage of street artists doing their thing. It's just that, whilst street art as a cultural phenomenon is interesting, watching people creating the street art just isn't as compelling as looking at the finished product. For around ten minutes or so, I found myself genuinely interested in watching Guetta's footage of the intricate painting and stencil work that goes into creating street art; but there are only so many times you can see shady figures spraying walls or putting up giant images of André The Giant or being questioned by the police before it all begins to merge together.

Things perk up a bit once Guetta has teamed up with Banksy. The sequence chronicling Banksy leaving a "murdered" red telephone box on the streets of central London is a particular highlight, as is footage of Banksy's infamous Disneyland Guantanamo Bay prisoner stunt, which becomes as tense as a scene in any thriller worth its salt. There is quite a bit of street art creation footage in between these however, which still failed to truly ignite my interest in the film. In many ways the film's running time of under ninety minutes is a blessing: had it been much longer, the less enthralling segments may have ended up as my lasting impression of the film.

Thankfully, the film's final third vastly improves upon what has preceded it, with the camera turned on cameraman (and by far the most fascinating personality on show here) Thierry Guetta and his own attempt to break into the street art scene. The result is a truly excruciating finale - a car crash of epic proportions waiting to happen that you can't bear to watch but at the same time can't possibly look away from, with a conclusion truly unforgettable.

It is largely the film's final act which drew skepticism from many, which is essentially the same criticism that Catfish received. Many refused to believe that the events of the film could be anything but fictitious, the greatest elaborate prank from the street artist who is almost as famous for his elaborate pranks as he is for his pop-culture-bending stencils. The makers of the film - or at least those involved who are happy to reveal their identities - have always stated that the story the film tells, and all the people depicted, are genuine. Out of all three films here, ETTGS probably has the most evidence outside the film to prove that at the very least a significant portion of the film's events actually happened. At the same time, however, it probably has the biggest reason for people to be wary of its claimed credentials. After all, you can't ignore that above the title on the film's poster appears the phrase "A Banksy film".

Essentially, these three documentaries together show that it doesn't really matter how candid the makers of the film are about the truth (or lack thereof) in the film when it comes to the quality of the film as a whole. I'm Still Here is the only film discussed here where those involved have unequivocally stated that the film's content is staged, and it is by far the poorest of the three. In fact, these three films are more revealing about the people passing judgement on them. Catfish and Exit Through The Gift Shop in many ways prove the well-known adage that "truth is stranger than fiction", but also that many people today would rather dismiss something remarkable as fabricated than stretch their belief to accept an unlikely truth.

Whilst I'm not saying that everything should be accepted at face value, there's being inquisitive and then there's trying to reveal the man behind the curtain for no reason other than spite. When I'm Not There was first revealed as a "mockumentary" rather than a depiction of real life, there were even those who poured scorn upon that admission, seeing it as an attempt by Casey Affleck to save face for Joaquin Phoenix. Essentially, the skepticism was reversed: critics claimed that Phoenix's actions were all completely real, and the claim of it all being a set-up was the hoax. To be that cynical must make life a constant struggle against disappointment. In the end, it is of course an entirely subjective decision as to how much of what you see in these films you actually believe. Just make sure this decision has no bearing on your aesthetic enjoyment of the film.

* * * * *


I'm Still Here

Exit Through The Gift Shop

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Film Review | Super 8 (2011)

Super 8 is resplendent in its Spielberg credentials. Honestly, why shouldn't it be? When you've got one of the most successful men in the film industry executive producing your film, you'd be a fool not to make the most of it. Except Super 8 doesn't just make the most of it, instead going beyond paying homage to Spielberg's earlier work (think pre-Schindler's List and you're about there) to jam-packing the film so full of stylistic and thematic references to other films that writer and director J.J. Abrams too often seems to forget to put in any of his own film.

The story is straightforward enough. A group of school friends growing up in small-town USA in 1979 set about making their own movie. Sneaking out to film at a ramshackle train platform one night, the group witness a catastrophic train derailment bizarrely involving one of their schoolteachers driving onto the tracks. It soon becomes apparent that that's not the only unusual thing about the crash as the U.S. Air Force soon make their presence felt as well, as strange occurrences become more and more frequent in the town.

The film does have a lot going for it, not least the performances of the young actors. Child actors can often make or break a film for me, either proving such a fresh and pleasing talent that they alone become reason enough to see it, or grating so badly they detract from the film's overall success. Thankfully the group of young'uns heading up Super 8 firmly avoid falling into the latter bracket. In fact, their collective performance is what makes the first half of the film so enjoyable. Standing out slightly more than any others are Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning (younger sister of Dakota) who play Joe Lamb and Alice Dainard respectively. The companionship that grows between these two throughout the film is wonderful to watch, and whilst Courtney's portrayal of a pre-teen boy who has recently lost his mother is at times a little too understated to feel genuine, the chemistry between him and Fanning in bringing Joe and Alice's relationship to life is palpable and impressive in such young performers. Fanning throughout shows immense potential to become a future star.

Despite his intent to make a film paying tribute to Spielberg, it is often when Abrams is being most true to his own style that the film shines. The derailment of the train and subsequent crash sequence is spectacular, done without the grandiose nature of Emmerich or the mindless busy mess of which Michael Bay can't get enough. Abrams makes it authentic yet fantastical and always captivating, reminiscent of the brilliant plane crash scenes seen in another of his creations - the television series Lost. His handling too of the scenes in which the extra-terrestrial attacks is also very tight, providing genuine jumps; Abrams expertly controls the precise moments at which the alien lets rip, as well as how much of the attack we actually see.

Super 8 is also beset with flaws, however. After crafting a heartfelt opening act and, for the most part, a well-crafted sci-fi mystery with touches of horror for the second, the film unfortunately wanders into less inspired territory for its final act. Things seem to shift almost entirely from inhabiting an ordinary world where extraordinary things are happening to a highly cinematic world of sudden character shifts and drop-of-a-hat action sequences. Perhaps Abrams was hoping to kick things up another gear or two for a stunning climax, but it just makes the final thirty minutes or so of the film sit uncomfortably at odds with what's come before it, denying the audience the type of payoff they were undoubtedly hoping for.

As stated previously, however, the greatest problem with Super 8 is also the element that at times provides some of its greatest strengths, namely its referential nature to not only Spielberg's work and style, but also other movies outside his canon of work. You will notch up nods to The Goonies, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, as well as Stand By Me, Alien and even Cloverfield, a film to which Abrams himself is linked through production duties. Whilst Abrams at times invokes these spirits of the past with panache, giving his film an air of quality and heritage, more often they return to haunt his picture highlighting just how it often has very little of its own to say. The alien presence is a prime example. Those who've seen Cloverfield may find themselves experiencing more than a little déjà vu, to the point of anticlimax. Abrams also invites us to empathise with the creature in the way Spielberg did nearly thirty years ago with E.T., but this is easier to do before actually meeting Super 8's extra-terrestrial. Somehow I just didn't feel too inclined to emotionally attach myself with an alien after seeing it feed on human beings, apparently without discretion.

Ultimately, Super 8 does a lot of things right, but these in the end are regularly competing with errors too large to ignore. Whilst there is a great rite of passage story for at least one of the young protagonists in there, it becomes clouded by an unnecessary shift to a clichéd action style and Abrams obsession with alluding to other cinematic works. Ironically, if he hadn't tried so hard to emulate his executive producer, Abrams may have got closer to what Spielberg at his best does to perfection: great storytelling his own way, where the action is never placed above the heart within the story.


Saturday, 20 August 2011

Film Review | Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Your enjoyment of Captain America: The First Avenger will most likely depend on what you are expecting before you go in and how you view it as both an individual film and part of the creation of a larger Marvel Comics universe. Because whilst CA:TFA is clearly cast firmly from the superhero movie mould in terms of it's foundations, in spirit it doesn't quite follow the patterns you'd expect. Unfortunate considering I'd sold seeing the film to my fiancée with a sentence something along the lines of "you enjoyed Iron Man, so you're bound to enjoy this", only for her to claim ownership of the next viewing choice at the cinema in recompense for her lack of enjoyment as we walked out of the screen.

In many ways we have your standard superhero origins story: frustrated by his continual rejections from the U.S. Army due to medical health problems and general scrawny stature, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is selected for a top secret "super soldier" programme due to his personality and willingness to fight. After undergoing the experimental procedure, Rogers is transformed into a "perfect" man, with abilities at the peak of human potential, and of course transformed from his puny frame into a towering musclebound adonis.

The development of Rogers' character in the opening act of the film is pleasing and handled well; it reminded me of the way in which Peter Parker is introduced in the first Spider-Man film. Whilst it means that the start of the film doesn't move particularly quickly, I was happy to accept it as a necessary element of the origins tale. However, it's in the film's second act where things begin to stray from what you might have prepared yourself for. Where Peter Parker began climbing walls and swinging through New York City, and where Tony Stark began honing his metallic suit and breaking the sound barrier, Rogers does very little in the way of superheroic activity. We get one action sequence following Rogers' transformation, and then that's it for a while. And whilst this turn of events is explained within the film's plot, it does take some of the momentum away from the film before things have even properly got started.

When the action does finally get going, again it's not quite what many will undoubtedly expect from a superhero film. The action is much more closely related to CA:TFA's war film roots than its comic book roots. The film is less a superhero film set during World War II, more a World War II film that happens to focus on a superhero. It actually feels quite different to most superhero films of recent years, and whilst this is not necessarily a bad thing, it does leave the film at times feeling a little awkwardly placed between two genres that don't often marry.

For all its "not quites", CA:TFA nevertheless has an awful lot going for it. Evans is great as the hero, giving a performance that fits with both who the character is and the time period in which the film takes place. The supporting cast are also consistently solid: Tommy Lee Jones is reliably excellent in his role as Colonel Phillips, required to run the gamut of feelings towards Rogers and his eventual alter-ego; Hugo Weaving somehow manages to toe the line between authentic and comic book maniacal villain with a strong performance; and Dominic Cooper impressed me as Howard Stark, bringing both arrogance and likability to the character. Only Hayley Atwell provides something of a weak link: whilst her performance is fine in many parts, I never found there to be nearly enough chemistry between her and Evans to make their romantic relationship anything more than hinted towards.

Ultimately, Captain America: The First Avenger works as both a standalone film and as a quasi-prequel to The Avengers film which is set to arrive next year (without giving too much away, the closing scene here could almost be the opening to that very film). It's a film that is likely to split opinion, as what some may see as bold, if not entirely successful, attempts to do something fresh and different with the superhero and war genres, others may see as unnecessary meddling to a tried, tested and desired formula. Taking a step back from (over) analysing the film, this is essentially a summer blockbuster made to entertain. And whilst it certainly could have entertained me more, it managed to do so sufficiently far more often than not.


Saturday, 13 August 2011

Film Review | Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011)

The Potter film franchise is one that has divided many throughout it's decade-long tenure as one of the most successful film franchises in the history of popular cinema. Those who have wanted faithful interpretations of the books have essentially never had this, with characters and subplots deemed non-essential to the overarching story of Harry versus Voldemort unceremoniously chopped as if they had never existed. My own feelings towards the series have fluctuated throughout, with my main gripe being those films within the franchise that fundamentally become incoherent having had so much excised from the original source material. Alfonso Cuarón's Prizoner Of Azkaban, for example, has so much left out that some parts that are included are simply left hanging as nonsensical half-finished strands.

This was therefore my main concern heading into the final Potter film: would David Yates mangle things by leaving important parts of the final book out? His previous track record made me somewhat optimistic: Order Of The Phoenix, whilst having some elements removed, managed to tell the story of the fifth book faithfully by and large; Half-Blood Prince was less successful in this regard, however, and left me feeling unsatisfied; Deathly Hallows Part 1 posed a new problem - whilst splitting the final novel in two meant that much less is skimmed over or chopped, the film very much felt like half a story, again leaving an unsatisfying feeling. Deathly Hallows Part 2 therefore had a lot to prove - as a continuation and conclusion of the Potter franchise, as an adaptation of the final novel continuing from where Part 1 left off, and as a worthwhile film in its own right.

Thankfully, the film is much more success than failure. Yates wastes no time in getting straight back into the story - there's no preamble, no recap of the events of Part 1, and no information dump of exposition (something which I had prepared myself for, and was glad not to have to endure). This is a relatively bold move, considering the notoriously gentle and comedic openings of many of the previous films. But it works a treat, and we are soon back into what the Potter films generally do best: fantasy action sequences. Within the first half an hour we've had magical larceny, wand-based battles and a dragon. It's almost as if Yates is making up for the sluggish pace and decidedly unspectacular feel of Part 1. But it works, and gives the film a welcome adrenaline-charged start.

The battle sequences in particular are a strength of the film all the way to the end. The scenes are lucid and, for the most part, have a genuine sense of menace to them. One-on-one tests of wandsmanship are at times given short shrift (no doubt many fans will be left wishing Mrs. Weasley's showdown with Bellatrix Lestrange had been given slightly more screen time), but seeing as these are snapshots from within a greater, more epic war, Yates on the whole makes the right decisions.

The whole film, in fact, has a pleasingly epic feel to it that Yates has never managed to nail in his previous efforts. Images such as the Hogwarts Quidditch pitch razed to the ground, along with a stylish touch of a damaged goal hoop later being used as a giant's weapon, and Professor McGonagall summoning the statues that adorn the castle to protect the school will no doubt endure in the minds of the audience long after the credits have rolled.

The script is pretty standard Potter film stuff: key quotes and passages from Rowling's text make it through, but there's nothing too impressive with things regularly becoming fairly functional. It is the performances of the cast as a whole that equates to a large part of the film's success. Daniel Radcliffe as the eponymous boy wizard again failed to truly impress me - there's nothing particularly wrong with his performance here, but then there's nothing particularly right about it either. The main thing Radcliffe has going for him at this stage is that there's nobody else who could possibly play Harry Potter for the millions who have spent a decade growing up with his performances.

Rupert Grint and Emma Watson provide no further surprises; the former puts in the strongest performance of the three indicating the most post-Potter promise, whilst the latter's is charming but patchy, although stronger than she has been in previous films in the franchise. In fact, when surveying the performances of the young stars in this film, it is two others who genuinely catch the eye as talents of the future - namely, Matthew Lewis and Tom Felton, who play Neville Longbottom and Draco Malfoy respectively. Both young men put in strong, mature performances of emotion and depth. Felton has been a dark horse of the series for several films, but Lewis truly raises his game for this final film making Neville an authentic and sympathetic character.

It is the supporting cast who really make the difference, as the talent and star power on offer is simply overwhelming providing a "who's who" of the previous seven films. Big names such as Jim Broadbent and Robbie Coltrane give it their all in roles that have literally minutes of screen time, and it is the willingness of these former key players in the franchise to lend their weight to the film that really gives Yates' film a credence and sense of high quality. Ralph Fiennes' turn as big baddie Voldemort feels as though he has been holding back since his first turn in the role four films previous, and has now let loose in a genuinely maniacal, menacing and downright creepy performance. Praise must also be given to Alan Rickman as Snape, one of the most reliable talents throughout the whole film series, who gives this pivotal and complex character the swansong he deserves with one of the strongest and most moving performances seen in any of the films.

Essentially, In Part 2, Yates finally strikes the right balance of action, drama, emotion, menace and humour on his fourth and final opportunity, creating the strongest of all the Potter films at precisely the right time. The film is a great improvement on the sluggish and unsatisfying Part 1, feeling like its own entity rather than just the second half of a story. In my opinion it shouldn't go down as a truly great film, just a very good one, as the film is by no means perfect. But the spectacular battles and action sequences coupled with the brilliant star power on show makes this a thoroughly enjoyable and satisfying conclusion to a film franchise that has gripped popular cinema for a decade.