FILM REVIEW: Moonlight

Very, very occasionally, a movie like Moonlight will come along, a movie which renders the practice of film criticism pretty much moot. How do you put into words the experience of watching something so sensory, an experience which almost seems to transcend language?

It’s a movie that is not overt in its brilliance, so after first viewing it’s natural to wonder why, exactly, it is so good. Why is it so affecting? There seems to be something going on beneath the surface, some method of delivery director Barry Jenkins is employing to elicit such a strong emotive response in his audience.

moonlight2Moonlight is the story of Chiron, a young black man growing up in a rough neighbourhood of Miami whilst coming to terms with who he is, and who society expects him to be. The story is told in three parts, chronicling three stages of Chiron’s identity; as a…

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FILM REVIEW: It’s only the End of the World

It’s Only the End of the World is one of those polarizing films; critically, it seems to have been panned and lauded in equal measures following its release, with reviews ranging from “deeply unsatisfying” all the way up to “brilliant”. It was reportedly booed at Cannes, yet went on to win the prestigious Grand Prix award at that very same festival. What on Earth is it about this film that fosters such a deep divide in audience opinion?

It’s a tricky one to review because, to be honest, I can’t even decide if I enjoyed it or not. I was impressed, engrossed even, for approximately the first 45 minutes, then somewhere in the middle of the runtime my reaction seemingly 180’d. By the time the credits rolled I felt as though a ‘boo’ or two could definitely have been justified. The experience of watching It’s Only the End of the…

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FILM REVIEW: Free Fire

Ben Wheatley is UK cinema’s nerdy and offbeat cousin, and kind of a tricky filmmaker to pin down; it’s impossible to predict what he’ll cook up next, or how you’re likely to feel when you leave the cinema after watching his latest release. When it comes to genre he’s a mad scientist, inventing his own potent combinations and seemingly making up his own rules when it comes to writing the screenplay with his wife and writing partner, Amy Jump. The conventional three-act structure is nowhere to be found in his hodgepodge oeuvre.

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This is refreshing. He’s the sort of filmmaker that the UK needs. Wheatley marches to his own beat and follows his passions wherever they may lead him. You get the sense that every single frame, every line of dialogue belongs to him and Jump, unequivocally. And with Free Fire it feels like he is really, finally, blossoming as…

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REVIEW: American Honey

Star (Sasha Lane), a teenage girl with nothing to lose, joins a travelling magazine sales crew, and gets caught up in a whirlwind of hard partying, law bending and young love as she criss-crosses the Midwest with a band of misfits (synopsis taken from IMDb)

I’ll be the first to admit it: I’m not a fan of overly long films. It’s rare that when I watch a film that crosses anywhere over the two hour mark, I sit back in my chair as the credits roll and opine: “well, every minute of that was completely necessary!”

It’s not because I’m a lazy film watcher. I just think stories benefit from being told at a certain pace, that having a restriction of, say, 90 minutes of screen time is a useful limitation for directors (see: Ingmar Bergman) who want to convey their message cleanly and subtly but still keep the audience engrossed from start to finish.

In many cases, the ‘coming of age’ movie gets away with having a lengthier run time, requiring the extra minutes in order to accurately convey the kind of complex changes happening within the protagonist during their long struggle into adulthood. In the case of American Honey, I barely noticed how long the film was (it clocks in at 2hrs 43mins) until it was nearly over, and this is surely a testament to how artfully director Andrea Arnold tells the story of its teenage misfit, Star.

Arnold manages to take a subject which (in my opinion) has been somewhat overdone by the movies – teenagers partying and having sex and breaking various laws – and make it utterly captivating, carving texture and meaning into every frame and pulling us into Star’s journey across the American Midwest with effortless ingenuity.

Part of Arnold’s technique is to find beauty in the smallest of moments; from a bug crawling up a wall (a symbol of Star’s own inability to ‘fly’) to a gummy bear stuck on a car window. Aesthetically, the camera is set to ‘handheld Polaroid-chic’ and makes use of naturalistic light wherever possible, making it feel wistfully nostalgic despite its present-day setting. This combined with the cast of relatively unknown actors, much of the time improvising their lines, gives the film its own special kind of sublime realism.

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It wouldn’t be a teen drama without a ‘first love’, a narrative element that’s already rich with emotion and the potentiality for disaster, but is especially alluring thanks to the eruptive chemistry between Sasha Lane and Shia LeBouf’s Jake. The scenes between the two of them positively melt off the screen, and their magnetic performances are the film’s core. Lane was unknown before starring in this, and her inexperience works in her favour; her facial expressions are natural, and her combined grit and vulnerability has an authenticity that makes her ultra-watchable.

The other main theme which runs through the film (and is present in all of Arnold’s work) is class divide; the sales crew travels through the wealthiest and most poverty-stricken neighbourhoods, seizing on any opportunity to make money regardless of the moral implications in their methods. Although the film is underscored by marked social and economic inequality which is present in every scene, it’s not overwhelmed by it, this being a story that is focused more on Star’s inner journey and eventual blossoming.

The film’s final moments are some of the most quietly beautiful and sensual of the movie, and the story is left open, with Star emerging from the water triumphantly, having matured through the trials of pain and love and everything in between.

The Universal Appeal of ‘Gilmore Girls’

Everyone’s talking about the return of Gilmore Girls. The show has amassed what could easily be described as a cult following, enjoying fan resurgence recently thanks to Netflix streaming all seven seasons and facilitating many hours of binge watching. I’ve come across Gilmore Girls fans of all genders, ages, shapes and sizes, and feel as though it’s worth considering the ‘formula’ that seems to make the show so relatable to so many differing types of people. How can a show still be as addictive, timeless and engaging, as it was when it was first broadcast sixteen years ago?

First, it’s worth considering how the show came into existence and the woman behind its conception…

A STROKE OF HUMUNGUS LUCK, AND MINIMAL STUDIO INTERFERENCE

It’s a sad fact: TV studio executives think that we are all stupid. They think that all audiences want to see when they switch on their idiot box at the end of a hard day’s work is dumbed-down, easy to digest, predictable and unimaginative trash, preferably shows that feature stupid or deplorable people that will make them feel slightly better about their own miserable lives. We don’t want to be challenged. We don’t want to see anything new or interesting or cleverly written. We just want to be able to switch our brains to ‘standby’ mode as we bathe on our sofas in the hallowed glow of the TV screen, kill a few hours before we crawl into bed and weep ourselves to sleep in the dark.

Okay, so this may be slightly less applicable to televisual output in the last decade or so, during which more intelligent writing has found its way our screens (largely thanks to services such as Netflix and Amazon-funded original series). But things were different when Amy Sherman-Palladino pitched Gilmore Girls to The WB in the late 90s, and by her own admission, she got lucky. During the meeting with the studio’s executives, after several of her other carefully-prepared pitches had failed to capture their attention, she threw out one last, half-formed idea: a show about a mother and daughter’s friendship. To her amazement, they snapped it up. She hadn’t yet conceived any of the characters, had no setting and had not written a single word of the pilot’s script. After enlisting the help of her husband, Daniel Palladino, to write the scripts, and getting inspiration for the show’s locale from a holiday in Connecticut, everything ‘fell into place’. And, perhaps most lucky of all, the studio’s interference with the writing process was minimal; they trusted Palladino to produce something that viewers would love, and relate to. And she did; the show ended up being one of the network’s biggest successes.

Palladino’s dialogue and style of writing is uniquely her. It’s hard to imagine something like Gilmore Girls, something so unlike anything else, making it to air now, or even making it past the pitching stage. The fortuitous circumstances of the show’s production allowed Palladino’s voice and vision to remain un-tampered with; her mega-scripts (which were twice the length of a normal TV episode script) packed with surplus dialogue actually making it to screen uncut. The climate of fear in the TV (and movie) studio board room, fear that audiences might not ‘get it’ or that the show’s witty repartee might alienate ‘the precious 18-24 demographic’, would be enough to stop it in its tracks today.

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GENDER EQUALITY

You would think that a show called ‘Gilmore Girls’, with its female-focused relationships and overtly feminine DVD covers, would neglect to explore its male characters as acutely as it does its leading ladies. Indeed, I think it’s what turns a lot of men off the show, as it is easy to assume that Gilmore Girls should be classified alongside Sex and the City or Desperate Housewives (shudder) as just another ‘chick-show’ pandering to stereotypes and painting men as lesser beings. But as any man or woman who has watched it will attest, Gilmore Girls is more about ‘people’ than it is about ‘girls’. Its lead males are as strong, quirky, intelligent, oddball, career-focused, relationship-focused, romantic, unromantic, troubled, immature, baggage-laden, financially prosperous, broke, and generally as well-rounded as its females. The show’s characters have been devised by someone who knows and writes people, not someone who set out to make some grand feminist statement or regurgitate lazy stereotypes when forging character bios (as countless TV comedy writers so often fall into the trap of doing). By making, say, the town mechanic a female, or having a male character (who is heterosexual) be more fashion-obsessed and body-conscious than the women he is working alongside, Palladino not only subverts our expectations but also creates an environment where a character’s action cannot be easily predicted, at least not based solely on their gender.

DIALOGUE, DIALOGUE, AND MORE DIALOGUE

I’ll be the first to admit it: roughly half of the pop culture references in Gilmore Girls are lost on me. When I picture the inside of Amy Sherman-Palladino’s mind, I picture a vast and unending encyclopaedia of movies, books, TV shows, and random factoids. However, rather than just being written as a vehicle for Palladino to vent the clutter of clever jokes and information that must form her psyche, each character has been lovingly crafted to have a unique voice of their own (although it’s probably fair to say that Lorelai is Palladino’s closest match, in dialogue and in style). Characters are not just defined by one trait, and are as flawed and multi-faceted as you or me, so their dialogue is believable despite the fact that it is full of complexities and references to obscure movies. Each line spoken by a Gilmore Girls character is non-transferrable and is never there just to serve an expository function, or move along the plot. As mentioned by Palladino and cast members in interviews, the plot is not the focus of the show. In fact, if you go back and watch the pilot episode (as admitted by Palladino and Graham), ‘nothing happens for the first 25 minutes!’ The small moments are what define Gilmore Girls, and the dialogue is a huge part of building up the larger picture, giving the show its identity.

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THE CHERRY-PICKED CAST

For a show like Gilmore Girls to work, the right casting is an imperative factor, part of the glue that holds everything together. This is most true of Lorelai Gilmore, who probably has the most screen time, as well as double the dialogue of every other character (and is required to deliver it at twice the speed). And it really feels as though Lauren Graham is Lorelai; in her performance we get to witness that rare and wonderful thing, where an actor and character blur into one in such a way that we forget we are watching an actor playing a role. Lorelai is the purest manifestation of Palladino’s voice, and it is impossible to imagine any other actress bringing the same level of spirit and commitment to the role or identifying with Lorelai so discernibly.

Alexis Bledel’s performance as Rory Gilmore is given space to flourish as the actress, and character, comes of age and finds her path in the world. Bledel was a model when hired for the role (Gilmore Girls was her first acting job), and this lack of experience is something that really helps to shape the character of Rory from the pilot episode. While directing her carefully-picked cast, Palladino had the sense to allow Bledel’s vulnerability to shine through and make Rory an enigmatic on-screen presence, juxtaposed perfectly with Lorelai’s sass and worldliness. Rory is an introvert, she likes to read and study and is not there to steal the limelight, and this set-up for her character fits in perfectly against the backdrop of Stars Hollow and its many resident extroverts and oddballs.

The Stars Hollow inhabitants all bring something unique to the show, something that couldn’t be found elsewhere. Kelly Bishop and Edward Herrmann, who play Lorelai’s disapproving upper-class parents, are a force to be reckoned with. And it’s also worth mentioning the many men who play the Gilmore Girls’ various love interests, characters that are all written to match whatever stage of life or state of mind Rory and Lorelai are in. They are men that resonate with realism; the too-perfect first boyfriend; the guy you go out with just to piss of your parents; the troubled bad-boy in a leather jacket; the one you can always rely on in the end. Palladino has said that she often cast actors she ‘fell for’ to be featured in Gilmore Girls before she had even written characters for them, and this really shows by how naturally every actor seems to fit into their role, and into the universe of the show. Each performance is suffused with love and care and deeper understanding, which is one of the main reasons the show is so compulsively watchable. It’s fun to watch people who are clearly having a lot of fun acting their parts.

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AND FINALLY…A SIMPLE PREMISE

I think a large part of the show’s success, and people’s relatability to it, is its core premise and Palladino’s dedication to her original vision. There is nothing else like it on TV – and although it can’t easily be classified, it appeals to almost anyone thanks to its explorations of universally ‘human’ themes: family; relationships; career; friendship; academia; food; coffee, coffee, and coffee! Its plot and writing is never formulaic, and Palladino has obviously put a large part of herself and her own life experience into its creation (as all great writers do, whether they are writing TV shows or books or blog entries). And everyone has their own personal reasons for connecting to it; I used to watch the show every day with my mum, and so when I watch it now, I’m reminded of the closeness of our mother-daughter bond, tied in so deeply with Lorelai and Rory’s. Within the wealth of themes and sub-plots and character experiences that the show explores, viewers can recognize their own life experiences; and this universality is what is central to the success of Gilmore Girls, and the love expressed by its legions of fans.

 


 

Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life will be premiering on Netflix on 25th November!

MILLENNIALS

 

It was the fourth selfie they had taken in thirty minutes. They were sat in one of the shiny red leather booths in the corner, sharing a large pepperoni pizza, and in order to fully utilize the lighting from the sunset which was taking place outside the window and whose optimally tan-orange glow fell mostly upon his side of the table, she had scooted over so that she was sitting next to him and could take the photo, the photo, the one that might just be good enough to attain the highest and most coveted rank: Ellie Gray’s profile picture.

Obviously Ellie did not like to appear vain. The ratio of candid shots to selfies that she used as her profile picture was a steady 3:1. It always helped if she had someone in the selfie with her, she figured, as the reason behind taking it would be rooted less in vanity and more in ‘capturing the moment’, as well as proving the existence of good times being had. And she had been dating Tim for more than a month now, so using a selfie of the two of them as her new profile picture would not only seem less vain than uploading a solo selfie, but would also send a crystal-clear message to any of Tim’s prospective love interests that they should keep their dirty and poorly-manicured hands well and truly off. Two birds with one stone.

After using her phone to stage, take and adjust the selfie (using the requisite image filters), she slid back out from his side of the booth and returned to her side. He picked up another slice, folded it in two and stuffed it in its entirety into his mouth all at once, before retrieving his own phone and resuming the typing of a WhatsApp message in which he was discussing the best isometric exercises for building upper-body strength.

Due to a brief disruption of the pizza restaurant’s internet service, meaning that a wireless connection was temporarily unavailable to patrons, Ellie Gray was not immediately able to upload the new profile picture, and this resulted in her throwing her plastic tumbler of Diet Coke at the head of a waitress who happened to be passing by the booth at that moment. Ice chips scattered across the restaurant’s linoleum floor, the waitress slipped, and Ellie continued to nibble at the same slice of pizza that she had been nursing since they’d started eating. She was inspecting the phone’s screen closely.

“Y’know what, my nose looks too big in this one. Let’s do it again,” she said, sliding back out of the booth and over to his side, as the waitress lay motionless on the floor.

 


 

Top 10 of 2015

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Carol

Carol is a movie that breathes. Within each richly textured shot, meaningful glance, swell of music and elegant delivery of dialogue, director Todd Haynes has us by the heart strings and doesn’t let go until the final, exultant scene. It is not difficult to become fully immersed in the journey of these lovers, in particular Therese (Rooney Mara), as her self-discovery unfolds in a very organic and effortless way. The characters are nuanced, the story well-refined, and the style and direction striking. I loved, in particular, the director’s frequent use of characters shot through glass, a simple technique which perfectly allegorizes the flourishing transparency of Carol and Therese’s relationship, at a time when this openness would be regarded as greatly taboo.

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It Follows

We are in the upsurge of a horror renaissance, after so many years of disappointing and formulaic output within this tricky genre. It Follows is a lovingly crafted piece of filmmaking, clearly influenced by the master John Carpenter in its score, style, originality and overall suffocating sense of dread and paranoia, which grows slowly throughout. Director David Robert Mitchell employs a myriad of skillful and often genuinely surprising techniques to scare, and a fairly straightforward but well-executed premise. Like a Carpenter movie it is rife with subtexts, aching to be unpicked, whilst still being a thrilling and unpredictably fun ride. And like 2014’s The Babadook, its strong performances from a cast of understated actors catapult us far away from the one-dimensional torture-fodder of horror movies past, and into daring new realms. It’s an exciting time to be a horror fan.

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The Lobster

A bold and comically jet-black exercise in the most cutting-edge of satire, The Lobster is a wonderfully surreal exploration of modern romantic relationships and the lengths people will go to in order to formulate (or avoid) them. Although the film is set in a dystopian future, it is strangely and stiffly old-fashioned thanks to its Hotel setting and general ‘Britishness’, and its solid cast of mostly British actors sink with ease into their deadpan performances and the plot’s enveloping cynicism. Its somber integration of classical music is as unflinchingly jarring as its editing, juxtaposing shock and placidity in all the right places. It is warmer and more accomplished than director Yorgos Lanthimos’ previous works, thanks to its self-aware sense of humour and energetic pacing. Easily one of the year’s most avant-garde pieces of cinema.

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Tangerine

Tangerine is a movie with genuine heart. On the surface it appears a totally mad, John-Waters-esque dramedy about transgender prostitutes seeking revenge on a cheating lover/pimp in Hollywood, however beneath all its frank lewdness and crazed characters is an honest story about friendship, and staying true to yourself. Shot entirely on iPhones, the film winds dizzyingly in and out of donut shops, brothels, motels, bathrooms, laundromats and the back seat of a taxi, to give us a completely mesmerizing and immersive experience. Real-life trans actors Kitana Rodriguez and Mya Taylor plummet themselves headfirst into the spectacle and although their performances are completely in-your-face, both manage to bring heart and warmth to the film in its subtler moments. It’s a wild and expectation-shattering ride, but once you’re accustomed to the film’s slightly deranged flow, you’ll be laughing all the way through.

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Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is a poignant, beautifully melancholic insight into one woman’s solitary existence, extending down a path of obsession and quiet madness. Kumiko escapes the bustling alienation of Tokyo life and plunges herself into a snowy adventure across seas; the story is strange and often very sad, but also punctuated with moments of childlike hope and humour. We see the world through Kumiko’s innocent eyes and introverted temperament as she interacts with those that try and help her along her quest. David Zellner’s direction and the film’s cinematography is stunning, with each frame composed in layers of dreamy minimalism and densely still atmosphere. The sound design and daring use of silence adds a deeper shade, and an atmospheric score encapsulates Kumiko’s personality, and loneliness. It’s a film that will no doubt stay with you.

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Whiplash

Unbridled intensity permeates Whiplash from start to finish. Like a drum solo, every moment counts, every beat adding a layer, every aspect of each performance a part of the film’s boundless energy. J.K. Simmons’ award-winning portrayal of a militant music teacher has already been showered in praise by critics and audiences, and it’s difficult to picture any other actor bringing the same level of strength and ferocity to the role. The screenplay, pacing and editing all add to the film’s dynamism, as does the sound mixing, which balances all the intensity and drama in the film’s louder moments deftly with the more subdued intervals. All of this makes for an incredibly visceral and unique experience, utilizing all of the elements of great filmmaking.

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Girlhood/Bande de filles

The bonds between teenage girls are some of the strongest and most life-altering, and director Céline Sciamma encapsulates this strength in its entirety with Girlhood, placing us right at the heart of a gang of no-hopes residing in a rough neighbourhood of suburban Paris. Our protagonist, Marieme, has to prove herself in order to place within an often vicious heirarchy, gaining in the process confidence, friends and battle scars. Her transition from innocent youth to swift adulthood is symbolized beautifully in the film’s lavish use of colour, with blues and turquoises through to reds and purples drenching every scene. The characters are fully realised, with performances that are grounded in effortless realism (the French, in my opinion, really do accomplish this best). Laughter and tears are likely upon viewing, as universal themes of love, maturity and friendship are stunningly depicted.

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Mad Max: Fury Road

Here is a film which subverts expectations, proving that big-budget action blockbusters can be creative, unconventional and intelligent. Mad Max: Fury Road is just that: mad and furious. Veteran director George Miller takes great care in constructing every frame and crafting mind-popping chase sequences, using practical effects and rapid editing to take us on a breathtaking journey. Aesthetically, the film has a pleasingly grimy look, insane costume and prop design and a rich colour palette, making it stylistically exhilirating. Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron both bring their A-game, completely shunning action-movie archetypes and gender portrayals. Everything that’s great about the film propels it to a level of originality and unpredictability that has been missing from the genre for a long, long time.

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Sicario

The story of Sicario is one that has been explored in many different forms already, in film and TV: the war against drugs, told from the POV of an idealistic FBI agent as her task force takes on the Mexican drug cartel. The reason Sicario feels fresh, though, is its decision to make this a very human story; every character is given a face, the violence and death in the film is used sparingly and conscientiously, and ‘bad’ and ‘good’ is never clear-cut. Everyone is corrupt in some way. Everyone has an alterior motive. The tension throughout the film is built slowly, in layers like its characters, and the pacing and sound feels like that of a Western. The cinematography, too, implements a great sense of depth in its delineation of the richly sandy-toned landscapes and watercolour sunsets of the setting. The film is extremely slick, all of the actors involved playing it cool, and it is never immediately apparent what is around the next corner.

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The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Multi-faceted characters, hallucinogenic animation and a sharply written script make for a joyous dive into the realms of girlhood and growing up in 1970s San Francisco. The Diary of a Teenage Girl is open, frank in its revelations about the teenage girl’s troublesome mind, and is likely to make some viewers a little uncomfortable due to its unabridged honesty. It is, however, a fun and endearing trip, and thanks to its strong cast (Kristen Wiig, in particular is excellent as Minnie’s mother) we are gleefully along for the ride. The film has a refreshingly feminine tone but its gender portrayals are grounded in equality and each character is well-rounded. There is genuine passion at its core, love in every scene, and director Marielle Heller expertly casts insight into Minnie’s haywire life and sometimes cringe-inducing difficulties with complete ease.