Thursday, October 22, 2015

STEVE JOBS - BFI London Film Festival 2015 - Closing Night Gala

You can listen to a podcast review of this film here, or subscribe to Bina007 Movie Reviews in iTunes.

Danny Boyle (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE) is a great director with a kinetic visual style and a great use of dance music. He creates fast-paced films and all his best traits are evident in this new biopic of the iconic Apple founder, Steve Jobs.  But this is not so much a Danny Boyle film as an Aaron Sorkin creation. The screenwriter famous for The West Wing and THE SOCIAL NETWORK has an instantly recognisable style - heavy dialogue - often combative - delivered at fast pace while the characters are on the move.  On top of that style, Sorkin has also chosen a highly theatrical conceit for structuring this movie. Rather than a conventional biopic, he splits the film into three acts, each forty minutes long, and each taking place behind the scenes of one of Apple's iconic shareholder meeting. And in each segment, Steve Jobs, as played by Michael Fassbender (12 YEARS A SLAVE) confronts the same people.  

First up are the techies. We've got Seth Rogen (THE INTERVIEW) in an utterly straight role as Steve Wozniak, Apple co-founder and genuine computer engineer.  He confronts Jobs about his desire to have everything frustratingly closed system and his unwillingness to credit the unsexy but cash-generative Apple II and its team.  We've also got the marvellous Michael Stuhlbarg as Andy Herzfeld, the engineer who we see as being serially bullied by Jobs.  

Next up, we've got Jeff Daniels (The Newsroom) as John Sculley, the Apple CEO who was a true believer in Jobs until he kept on sinking money into beautiful machines that was so expensive as to be uncommercial, and eventually sacked him from his own company.  There's also, per Sorkin, a weird father-son vibe going on that I'll come back to later on in this review.

And finally we have the three women in Jobs' life.  His colleague Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet - INSURGENT) exists in a state of unquestioning loyalty but wants Jobs to mend his relationship with the daughter whose paternity he denies and her hippie mother (Katherine Waterston). 

So far so good. The camera moves fast, the acting is basically good, apart from Kate Winslet acquiring a central european accent half way through the flick. But what really grates is Sorkin's reductionist psychology that has Jobs forever scarred by his being put up for adoption, and seems obsessed with giving us a happy ending.  I found myself wondering why it was that this had to happen. After all, in THE SOCIAL NETWORK, Sorkin shows all the rough edges of Mark Zuckerberg and doesn't given him a satisfying emotional close, even though the real life Facebook founder was in fact in a stable relationship. What is it about our tactile obsessive relationship with i-devices that makes the film-makers think we need to feel good about Jobs?  I found the final half hour of this film consequently inauthentic, forced, schmaltzy and undermining of all the good work done in its first two segments.

STEVE JOBS opened last week in the USA, Australia, Israel and Canada. It opens on October 30th in Turkey, November 12th in Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Portugal and the UK; on December 3rd in the Netherlands; December 5th in Lithuania; January 1st in Spain; January 6th in Belgium; January 14th in Hungary; January 21st in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Italy, Mexico, Russia, Singapore, Norway, Sweden and Vietnam.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

TRUTH - BFI London Film Festival 2015 - Day Eleven

In 2004 legendary news anchor Dan Rather aired a report on his 60 Minutes news programme that accused President Bush of pulling strings to get a cushy domestic air force job during the Vietnam War and then not even bothering to fulfil that duty properly. This was at the time when his electoral opponent John Kerry was being accused of falsifying his Vietnam war record. The report, airing just before a Presidential election, was incendiary, and all the more so when the two documents upon which it was based were accused of being forgeries. In the end, the misreporting of the story cost Rather his job, and also that of Mary Mapes, the producer who put the story together.

Now I’d never heard of Mapes, or of this story, and only of Rather in some vague way, and certainly not the particulars of his resignation. Accordingly, all I know of this case is what writer-director James Vanderbilt has chosen to present me with. I think he wants to tell a tale in the manner of George Clooney’s GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK, or of Aaron Sorkin’s THE NEWSROOM, about crusading journalists out to expose the truth no matter what the discomfort to the powers that be. So, in that vein, he has many characters tells us again and again - at award dinners and in touching scenes of personal inspiration - how Dan Rather embodies all that that is right and good in integrity and the public trust. He does this is speeches that are very Sorkin-esque. Vanderbilt also paints Mary Mapes as a heroine - a woman beaten by her abusive father for daring to ask questions - and so per Vanderbilt, her psychology reduced to a father-daughter relationship with Rather. As the final music swells over the end credits, Vanderbilt tells us that Mapes’ work on exposing Abu Ghraib won a Peabody Award and that she hasn’t worked in TV since 2004. The space then hangs for us to fill in - what a tragedy - what an injustice!

Now I have no doubt that Rather and Mapes are motivated by the best of intentions and that their report was in good faith as presented here. But even here, presented as the heroes, as it was being constructed it all looked a bit slapdash to the untrained eye. I mean, when your document expert is being cut off and cut down for daring to ask about the sourcing of the document or raising queries about type face by your supposed heroine that does look bad. And although Mapes and Rather keep saying over and over that it isn’t about the document but about the abuse of power, well yes, but the document goes to prove that. You can’t just assert stuff, you have to prove it. That’s what journalism is, isn’t it?

I feel bad for all involved, but is Vanderbilt really doing Mapes any favours here? In a the big rousing speech she gives to her mean, nasty interrogators - the independent panel set up to investigate the claims but clearly loaded with right wing corporate interests - she is hoist by her own petard. She says the story is that so many of Texas’ spoiled rich kids got off going to Vietnam by going into the air guard. The guy asks her if any of them might just have gotten in on their merit. And she says no. People in the cinema ware clapping, but if you don’t even admit of a chance that just one of these guys got in of their own merit - not knowing them or their cases - isn’t that just prejudice?

Like I said, I don’t know anything about this case. I do think Bush probably got an easy ride because of who he was, and that is a story that should’ve been exposed, no matter what Viacom’s business with Congress. But per the evidence in this film, the investigative work done by Mapes didn’t prove that, and shouldn’t have been aired. Yes the questions should’ve been asked, but the answers had not bean adequately demonstrated.  Even worse, the fake documents became the story. Incompetence prevented the exposure of truth.

So what we have here is a very very weird film indeed that seeks to portray a woman as a heroine for creating a news report that was substantively right and sticking by it, except that the movie does not, to my mind, show that it was substantively proven. And that just undermines the whole exercise. Worst of all, it undermines the very concept that it is trying to defend - rigorous, unprejudiced, investigative journalism no matter how powerful the target. So with that major flaw of choice of subject matter, or just how it was shaped and presented, writer James Vanderbilt makes Cate Blanchett’s typically fine performance redundant.

TRUTH has a running time of 121 minutes and is rated R.  It played Toronto 2015 and is currently on release in the USA. It opens in Sweden on November 16th, in France on February 10th 2016, in the UK on March 4th and in Germany on March 17th.

MY SCIENTOLOGY MOVIE - BFI London Film Festival 2015 - Day Eleven

The past decade has seen the lid blown of the cult that is the so-called Church of Scientology thanks to the testimony of ex-members and many of the Church's ultra top secret documents, that you'd usually pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to learn, being posted online. In addition, in the past couple of years we have seen some important cinematic treatments of the Church, including Paul Thomas Anderson's powerful lightly fictionalised drama, THE MASTER, and Alex Gibney's HBO-funded doc, GOING CLEAR: SCIENTOLOGY AND THE PRISON OF BELIEF.  Both films exposed basic beliefs and psychological training drills as well as exploring the way in which ordinary people can get sucked into a prison of the mind, if not worse. No-one can now say that they weren't warned. 

Writer-presenter Louis Theroux is the latest high profile journalist to investigate Scientology and in some ways his approach is the best calculated to expose its simultaneously sinister and absurd response to what it perceives are threats. Theroux has made countless documentaries in which his trademark deadpan humour, thick skin and ability to keep going until he provokes a response have combined to elicit insight or humour, and oftentimes both.  So when faced with a cult that has its members stalk him, prevent him from filming, bar him from public roads, Theroux's phlegmatic, superficially friendly and yet persistent response is absolutely the right approach.  As a result, some of the funniest and most powerful moments of this film are when the production team are filming the Scientologists who are filming them in return - both sides claiming they are unconcerned with being monitored by the other.

Where the documentary is darker, and arguably more insightful, is in showing Louis get close to ex scientologist Marty Rathbun, well known for his criticism of the Church's boss, David Miscavige.  Louis uses casting sessions and cinematic re-enactments of key moments of alleged abuse in the Church to show us, the audience, what he thinks it's all about, but also to start to investigate Rathbun's own complicity in its practices. Notably, Rathbun is reluctant to allow the discussion to go in that direction and it's a shame he wasn't pressed more, at least on screen.

Which brings me to my real criticism of the documentary, which is its soft-pedalling.  At one point, an ex-scientologists says of Marty Rathbun that he's not been totally open, and has been tip-toing around some of the stuff that went on in the 1990s.  "He knows where the bodies are buried."  And when Marty himself gets riled up when some harassers refer to his child, he makes statements to the effect that he's being playing fair so far, but now he's really going to bring Scientology down.  

Well I'd argue that, at least on screen, Louis Theroux does exactly the same - he tiptoes around certain subjects that anyone who's followed this subject online will know about and want answers to. One wonders if that's because of legal issues, because Alex Gibney didn't go there either. But I would simply ask why Shelley Miscavige wasn't mentioned in either documentary?

The resulting film is, then, very funny, often insightful, but doesn't tell anyone who's watched the Alex Gibney film anything they don't already know. 

MY SCIENTOLOGY MOVIE has a running time of 99 minutes. 

OFFICE aka DESIGN FOR LIVING - BFI London Film Festival 2015 - Day Eleven

Here at the blog previously known as MOVIE REVIEWS FOR GREEDY CAPITALIST BASTARDS we greet every new film about our profession with bated breath and are usually disappointed.  MARGIN CALL is the only film that has truly depicted the reality of finance on the eve of the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008.  Sadly, Johnnie To's new 3D musical about Hong Kong high finance joins the long list of movies which, like that hack mess WALL STREET 2, have pretensions above their station.

This film has been adapted by legendary Hong Kong actress and writer Sylvia Chang from her stage play Design For Living.  But in bringing it to the screen this very much becomes a Johnnie To production. Which isn't to say it's full of bullets and action but that it is played on a scale and with a precision that is really impressive. To begin with, he's constructed a massive set that depicts the head quarters of the trading company at the heart of the film, but also the local bar where the office workers hang out, the apartments of the key players, and even the metro car that they come to work in.  There are no walls but lots of impressive neon structures and staircases complete with a giant clock in the centre.  Everyone can see everything and gossips about everyone, and yet there are secrets deep and dark.

Sadly, Johnnie To's stylish design and fluid camera can't detract from the  twin problems at the heart of this film. First of all, the musical numbers suck. The music is some kind of light rock-n-roll pastiche that you might hear in a hotel elevator and the singing not much better. There are no great melodies and no memorable lyrics, although I'm willing to concede that this might be down to an indifferent translator.  The lyrics merely describe the rather obvious and superficial emotions and plot rather than hinting at something more complex and profound.  And I have to say that this is true of the plot in general.

The basic idea is that Mr Ho (Chow Yun-Fat) owns a trading company that's run by CEO Madame Chang (Sylvia Chang).  She's sleeping with him but also flirting with CFO David, who's cooking the books with some stock market bets using the company balance sheet. Like all gamblers, he thinks he'll be able to sell out in time, but then the Global Financial Crisis happens and he can only sell at a loss. Meanwhile his deputy Sophie is wondering where the 2007 accounts are.  The second major plot is that Madame Chang has discovered that Mr Ho is going to stiff her out of her ownership rights when the company goes public and therefore its trying to broker a secret deal for a US cosmetics brand, despite its declining sales. And caught up in all this at the bottom rung is naive assistant Lee Xiang and the owner's daughter, masquerading as entry-level graduate, Kat. 

All of this plot machination is played entirely on the surface and with zero subtlety.  Mrs Chang and Mr Ho are big fat evil capitalist bastards, CFO David is a simple-minded stock trader, and every relationship is either a sleazy affair or a naive coup de foudre.  The corporate politics is lifted out of Dynasty or Dallas in the 1980s. There's no real interest in the character motivations. Everyone is caught up in consumer fetishism but why not investigate the insecurity that binds everyone to that? 

The resulting film looks great but sounds awful and quickly lost my interest despite its great pedigree. One to avoid.

OFFICE aka DESIGN FOR LIVING has a running time of 117 minutes.  The movie was released in China, Hong Kong and Singapore in September.

Friday, October 16, 2015

DHEEPAN - BFI London Film Festival 2015 - Day Ten

Jacques Audiard has announced himself as the most reliable creator of tough, visually beautiful, emotionally nuanced films set in a gritty and socially deprived contemporary France. And DHEEPAN is his best movie to date. It tells the story of Deepen - a Tamil tiger who flees Sri Lanka under the guise of being a family man, with a wife and daughter - in reality utterly unknown to him and each other - in tow. When they reach Paris he becomes one of those annoying street pedlars, and then thanks to a helpful translator at the immigration interview, the “family” gets moved to low-rise apartment complex on the edge of town. Dheepan becomes the janitor, his “wife” Yalini cares for an elderly disabled man, and their “daughter” tries to integrate into a local school. For the first hour the film plays almost as a slow burn romantic drama as we see this family start to forge an actual relationship against a backdrop of petty drug dealing in the projects. Dheepan turns out to be almost more gentle than Yalini, despite his violent background and is clearly smart to boot. But as we move into the second hour of the film we realise that leaving behind the traumas of the Sri Lankan civil war is easier said than done. As gang violence breaks out the position of the family becomes dangerous, cracks begin to form and old gut reactions take over.

The resulting film is simply stunning. The two lead performances from Antonythasan Jesuthasan as Dheepan and Kalieaswari Srinivasan as Yalini are scarily convincing and sympathetic. Director Jacques Audiard (RUST AND BONE) has a visual style that is just stunning. From near the opening when Dheepan and his fellow street pedlars emerge from the darkness wearing lit headbands, to the delicately elegant scene in which a naked Yalini blends into the darkness, to the way in which he handles the action scenes through smoke and dust...You just know you're in the hands of someone who understands how to use the camera to convey pregnant meaning as much as plot and character.

For me this is the film of the festival and arguably of the year, alongside CAROL, which is quite different in nature.  But I suppose both, in a way, are concerned with the hidden lives of people that we normally wouldn't give a second glance - a shopgirl and a street pedlar.  Both are deeply relevant to the social crises of today - from the gay rights movement to migrant issues.  And both combine both deeply complex characters with a unique visual style. Both deserved the Palme D'Or but I can see why DHEEPAN just edged it. It's because there's a surprising discovery and unfamiliarity about this story and these actors that deserves to be showcased.

DHEEPAN has a running time of 110 minutes. It played Cannes 2015 where it won the Palme D'Or, and also played Toronto. It opened in France in August, in Iceland and Sweden in September and opens in Italy on October 22nd, in Greece on November 19th and in Germany on December 10th.

COWBOYS - BFI London Film Festival 2015 - Day Ten

LES COWBOYS is a strange dark drama, quite unlike anything the rather whimsical title had let me to expect, but entirely in keeping with the superb dramas written by first-time feature director Thomas Bidegain. In movies like RUST AND BONE and THE PROPHET, directed by Jacques Audiard, Bidegain had helped to create worlds that documented a gritty reality of contemporary France. He also seemed to focus on characters at just the key moments of life-changing reversal. They come to us with no history, and we observe them tackling great obstacles.

In this case we are in provincial France in the mid 1990s. A family is attending some kind of American country music festival, complete with father (Francois Damiens) in cowboy hat singing the Tennessee Waltz. But at that very event, their teenage daughter Kelly disappears, and it is soon revealed that she has a muslim boyfriend, is studying Arabic and was potentially being swayed by Islamist propaganda. Spurned by the police and viewed with suspicion by the Ministry of the Interior, the father takes it upon himself to follow every lead to try and find Kelly. This takes many years, and takes him to many countries so that eventually he too learns to speak Arabic. And eventually, their son, Kid (Finnegan Oldfield) becomes embroiled in the quest, travelling as far as Pakistan after 9/11 and coming across John C Reilly’s mercenary.