Friday, August 18, 2017

THE ODYSSEY


THE ODYSSEY is a beautifully constructed melancholy tale about a man who sacrifices his family for fame, and then tries to redeem himself late in life. That man is the French naval officer turned submariner and film-maker Jacques Cousteau - a figure handed down to us almost as parody as STEVE ZISSOU. One forgets - and it's delicious to be reminded - that he was once a truly respected and international star. That his oceanographic films earned the Palme D'or and huge global TV audiences.  That he was something of a rock star. And yet for all this fame, he was never financially secure.  His wife sold her jewels and fur to finance the refurbishment of his first ship and was steadfast on board despite his philandering.  His banks could barely keep up with the ever more outlandish plans for films.  And he would foolishly mis-sell movies to TV studios at a fraction of their cost. And yet, somehow he prevailed, bringing images of exotic animals and Antartica to his fans. 

The emotional arc of this film creates a two act drama. In the first act we have the relentlessly driven Cousteau neglecting one of his sons in favour of the one who is also a diver. And you have Cousteau having affairs and abandoning his wife.  In a more subversive narrative, we also have Cousteau financing his film with petrodollars, effectively researching the best place to dig for oil in the Arabian Sea. In the second act of the film, inspired by his beloved ecologist son, Cousteau becomes an evangelist for the environmental cause and founds the Cousteau Society. It brings precious little reconciliation with the neglected son and wife, and he becomes even more famous, even though that fame is now tinged with deep personal loss. 

Jerome Salle's film is not afraid to show both sides of Cousteau - his charisma and energy as well as his callous disregard for people and financial facts. He manages to capture the wonder of underwater ocean-cinematography and the majesty of Antartica in a way that - as Cousteau did - inspires us with the romance of ocean exploration.  But he always manages to undercut this with the darkness of family life chez Cousteau.  In particular, I liked the lead performance from Lambert Wilson - capturing all of Cousteau's ambiguity - and some of the touching set pieces - particularly that between Vincent Heneine's Bebert and Audrey Tautou's Simone. 

THE ODYSSEY has a running time of 122 minutes. It opened last year in France, Belgium, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Russia and Switzerland. It opened earlier this year in Netherlands, Romania, Canada, Bulgaria, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Portugal and Norway. It opens today in the UK.




Sunday, July 30, 2017

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES


WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES is an emotionally affecting, visually impressive, intelligent conclusion to the new trilogy of films that began with RISE and more recently DAWN.  As the film opens we find our sensitive ape hero, Caesar (Andy Serkis) holed up in a forest, fighting off incursions from the Colonel's soldiers.  The apes position is unsustainable, so Caesar entrusts his best friend Maurice to lead the tribe to a promised land across the mountains (very deliberate biblical parallels here). Meanwhile Caesar and a handful of followers goes on a revenge mission.  Along the way he encounters a young mute girl, who we will learn will become the future Nova (for those familiar with the Charlton Heston movie) and a tragicomically traumatised monkey called Bad Ape (Steve Zahn).  The bulk of the movie is, then, set in the ape prison camp run by Woody Harrelson's Colonel. We see infiltration, capture, and escape plans hatched and dramatic action sequences.

The resulting film is brilliantly nuanced and resonant.  Caesar is our hero, but he's guilt-ridden for killing his militant ape enemy Koba in the previous film.  We also have to consider the conflict between the needs of his tribe for a leader and his need for personal vengeance.  The Colonel is similarly nuanced despite an exaggerated performance, deliberately echoing Brando as Colonel Kurtz.  As the movie progresses we learn that he too is under threat for taking harsh and perhaps justified decisions that parallel Caesar's decision to kill Koba. And, in observing the Colonel's fate, one can't help but suspect that maybe he was right. 

There are certain aspects of this film that I suspect everyone will like.  The cinematography is spectacular.  The mist rising from the forest - the green gun lights shining through a waterfall and into a darkened cave - apes on horses riding across a beach in the morning sunlight reflected in the ripples of sand. And it's hard not to get drawn into the trials of Caesar - a character we have come to know and love over three movies, and to be affected at the mutual admiration between Caesar and Maurice. 

As for the rest, it will very much depend on your tolerance for the broad strokes of "big" cinema.  I have also mentioned Woody Harrelson's literally cigar-chomping performance as the messianic cult leader Colonel. And little Nova is very much an angelic martyr to the genetic mutations that are now sweeping mankind after the Simian flu epidemic.  But it's Caesar where the metaphors work hardest and loudest.  He is cast as a kind of Christ, crucified on the prison frame, and then as a kind of Moses, leading his apes to the Promised Land. And then, along the way, we have echoes of prison films from KWAI to THE GREAT ESCAPE to UNBROKEN and Caesar as the beaten up hero of them all. I personally loved this recasting of the prison film genre with a sensitive and intelligent ape as the lead. But for some, this could become ham-fisted. 

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 140 minutes.  The film is on global release. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

DUNKIRK


Christopher Nolan is a director of superlative technical skill, and his new film of the evacuation of DUNKIRK lives up to that billing.  However, in his choice to strip it of all historical context, and to keep a close-up on three sets of anonymous character tropes, he has created a film that has no epic sweep; that fails to convey the magnitude of Dunkirk; and that fails to move.  Where it works, it works because of fleeting nuanced moments of acting brilliance.  But this is no LAWRENCE and he is no Lean: he has failed to combine the epic with the personal.

So, some context, because the film gives you none. (I wonder if this will affect non-British audiences' ability to engage with the film?) We are in the early months of World War Two. Ignoring captured intelligence to German plans, French, Canadian and British and other allied troops have been lured into Belgium by a German feint and have now been encircled and driven back to the French coast. Roughly 340,000 men - the principal strength of the British army - crowded the beach at Dunkirk - a port protected by a mole, or sea wall, from which they could board the large vessels sent to ferry them back across the English channel.   In doing so, they were hugely aided by the French forces tangling up the German troops sent to cut them off at the Siege of Lille. They were also hugely aided by Hitler's inexplicable decision to order the Luftwaffe not to pursue the troops.  

The evacuation took days, and combined large ships taking people off the Mole with small requisitioned commercial vessels collecting soldiers from the shallows. All the time, the troops subject to aerial assault on the beach and in the water, and the risk of being torpedoes once aboard. The scale of the battle was thus immense - with the RAF flying 3,500 sorties and engaging the Luftwaffe in dogfights away from the beach (hence many soldiers wondering where the fuck they were) - 36 Royal Navy destroyers ferrying men home as well as the Small Ships flotilla - and c340,000 soldiers ultimately evacuated.  It was both a great military failure and a success - because as humiliating as the lost Battle of France was, it enabled Britain to survive to fight on with its men and materiel largely intact. 

Christopher Nolan makes the decision to avoid all of this explanation, and to give us a Dunkirk that focuses on the personal experiences of the war by land, sea and air.  These theatres are inter-cut but take place along different time-scales.  The land evacuation takes place over the week, although frankly days merge into each other and I couldn't keep track.  The sea rescue takes place over a day and the RAF dogfight takes place over an hour, roughly corresponding to a Spitfire's fuel limit.  I rather liked the concept of intercutting the three, and although we do get a cute crossover with the same character appearing in two of the theatres, Nolan doesn't make it too intrusive or incredible. 

Where I think his claustrophobic personal approach works best is in the air battles.  Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden play RAF Spitfire engaging in dogfights some distance from the beach. With IMAX cameras mounted on modified Yaks, Nolan takes us into the air for some quite spectacular aerial photography.  Nonetheless, the downside of this approach is that one gets the impression that the men on the ground are right to ask where the RAF are - that the scale of the aerial assault is minute when it wasn't.  I also find it absolutely incredible that a RAF pilot, knowing how desperate the British were for materiel, would risk his plane in the way that Hardy's character does.  This utterly took me out of the film. 

The sea battle is also done very well from a technical perspective.  We get a sense of the claustrophobia of being aboard ship, the shell-shock and the terror of a watery death, especially when combined with lit gasoline.  I thought the acting was by far the best in this segment.  I very much liked Mark Rylance's quiet earnestness as a civilian sailor sailing to Dunkirk with his son - the quiet communication between the two of them with glances - the profound sympathy toward Cillian Murphy's traumatised rescued RAF pilot.  And the scene of soldiers drowning under a fiery sea is one of the most memorable and rightly horrific in the film.  But I also had deep concerns with Nolan's portrayal of the naval evacuation.  He has Kenneth Branagh's Colonel declare that the Navy is only risking one Destroyer. This is just untrue. There were 36 in use! In general, his character summarises the worst of the writing on the film. He's not a character so much as a Patriotic Reaction Machine. When he gets teary at the sight of the Small Ships as Elgar floats up through the score (superbly done by Hans Zimmer), Nolan is telling us to shed a tear.  When he looks concerned at the Luftwaffe flying overhead, this is a cue for us to get concerned.  And when at the end he remains in peril to help the French, we are meant to think, ah well, this has been EXCLUSIVELY from the perspective of white male Brits, but never mind, we sorted out the French too.  Appallingly crass stuff. Still, this being Nolan, Branagh will probably get an Oscar nom for this nonsense.

Nonetheless, it is on the beach itself that this film ultimately fails.  We have small nuanced scenes of brilliance - a soldier decided to commit suicide by walking into the water - or the quietly proud smile of a Royal Engineer who has built a makeshift pier out of trucks - but there is no sense of scale or chaos. According to Nolan, the beach at Dunkirk was filled with about 3 columns of about 200 soldiers neatly waiting to be evacuated, and ducking and turning on cue to the director's megaphone. There's no fear, panic, chaos, disorder at all.  There's also no sense that we are dealing with hundreds of thousands of men.  Ultimately, then, Nolan has made a gross error.  He has given us a film that tries to convey intimacy - without ever naming a character or making a character more than a trope - and he has chosen NOT to convey the epic sweep of battle. Worst of all he has made gross historical simplifications and some outright errors that massively impact our understanding of what is happening.  And his refusal to name the enemy as the German army is simply perverse. 

DUNKIRK is rated PG-13. The film goes on global release the weekend of July 19th.

Monday, July 10, 2017

THE BEGUILED


Sofia Coppola's remake of the 1971 Don Siegel film, THE BEGUILED, is shorn of much of its historicity and hysteria, and teeters dangerously close to absurdity.  That is survives to become an enjoyable viewing experience is down to the evocative, romantic cinematography of Philippe le Sourd, a delicate score from Phoenix, and its perfect casting.

The story is based on a pulpy Southern gothic novel by Thomas Cullinan, and is set in Civil War Virginia.  A brutally injured Union soldier called McBurney (Colin Farrell) has deserted the battlefield and is rescued by a young schoolgirl at a pretentious plantation seminary run by two teachers and five girls who have no safe homes to go too.  McBurney may be crippled, but his charm is in tact, and he lays it on thick to ensure that the ladies don't turn him in to the Southern army or force him to find his own regiment. And the ladies are no less collusive in the decision to keep him on, justifying their own decisions in the echo chamber that is the claustrophobic schoolroom.  Each of them is beguiled - the younger girls claim special friendships - the teenager Miss Alicia (Elle Fanning) flirts with him outrageously - the younger teacher Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) harbours dreams of marriage but secretly wants sexual fulfilment - and the headmistress, Miss Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), seems to delight in the sheer companionship of an adult, but also comes close to a kiss. 

Sunday, July 09, 2017

BABY DRIVER


With BABY DRIVER, writer-director Shaun Wright moves from British pastiche comedies to a stylish, beautifully choreographed American action movie. It's exhilarating, funny, moving and (weirdly) unique.  

The conceit of the film is that it's young protagonist "Baby" was involved in an horrific car accident as a child that left him scars and tinnitus;  a love of old-fashioned ipods stocked with great music; and a gift for both boosting and driving cars.  This leads him into debt with a local gangster who exploits his unique talents as a getaway driver, for a different crew every heist.

Naturally, this leads us into the territory of derivative genre-tropes.  Kevin Spacey's "Doc" is a cool calm business like crime boss straight out of a Tarantino movie, and the kooky collection of colourfully nick-named thieves are similarly Tarantino-esque.  Ansel Eglort's Baby is the classic good guy in a bad situation, doing that One Last Job before his debt is cleared, but like Al Pacino in Godfather 3, pulled back into a life of crime that wears him down.  And Lily James' diner waitress Debora is nothing more than a pretty vacuous heart of gold character upon which Baby can fashion his dreams of escape.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

THE BIG SICK


THE BIG SICK is a culture-clash romantic comedy based on the true story of how stand up comedian Kumail Nanjiani (SILICON VALLEY) met his wife Emily Gordon (Zoe Kazan - RUBY SPARKS).  He grew up in Pakistan and though settled in Chicago his mum and dad (Anupam Kher) still expect him to be an observant Muslim and to marry a Pakistani wife, a parade of whom happen to drop by for family dinners so that he can choose one.  Even when Kumail meets psychology student Emily, and even when they both fall in love with her, he can't envisage a future with her if it means giving up his family who would ostracise him.  And so she breaks up with him and that should be that.  However, as in real life, Emily gets sick, goes into a medically induced coma, and Kumail realises how much he loves her. He also starts to bond with her parents - played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter - nuanced characters who both resent his treatment of their daughter, but realise he loves her, and are battling with their own relationship issues.  The sickness also gives Kumail the courage to tell his parents how he feels, and to tentatively navigate a new relationship with them based on truth, chipping away at their froideur. 

WONDER WOMAN


Beating an admittedly low bar, WONDER WOMAN is unquestionably the best movie in the DC franchise. It has some of the darkness of BATMAN VS SUPERMAN but never feels pretentious or portentous; and in the place of SUICIDE SQUADS' maddeningly shifting tone and offensive objectification of Harley Quinn we have a movie with a straightforward compelling story and a courageous and often subtle take on modern sexual and racial politics.  The result is a film that's both highly enjoyable and yet deeply meaningful  - a long overdue strong heroine in a universe full of macho posturers. 

The movie opens in contemporary France with Batman reaching out to Diana/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), but it's essentially a long flashback and origins story, told in live action and with beautifully designed animation and the most seamless use of CGI.  We see the young child growing up on an island of Amazonian woman - fierce warriors created by Zeus to protect humanity from the corrupting influence of his son Aries, the god of war.  Diana herself is moulded from clay by her mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen - GLADIATOR), and made live by Zeus himself. Accordingly, she is herself a god, sister to Aries, although this fact seems to escape her logical notice.  The Amazons have been holed up on a magical island while World War One is raging around them, until US spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine - STAR TREK reboot) crash lands in their midst.  A brave Diana then returns with him to wartime Europe, supposedly to bring an end to war by killing Aries, whom she believes is German General Ludendorff (Danny Huston.)

Saturday, June 03, 2017

CROWN HEIGHTS


CROWN HEIGHTS is an earnest, plodding and ultimately redundant film adaptation of the true story of a miscarriage of justice.  In 1980, West Indian American immigrant  called Colin Warner was wrongfully arrested and convicted for murdering a man in Brooklyn, New York.   The evidence was scant, and his conviction apparently rested on the testimony of a young teenager who contradicted himself on the stand.  Although sentenced to 15 years to life, Colin served over 20 years because every time he went up for parole, he refused to admit that he'd committed a crime.  He showed no remorse, and was therefore refused parole. Luckily for him, his friend Carl King campaigned for his release, raising money for lawyers and gathering much of the testimony himself, at the expense of his marriage and job.  This resulted in Colin finally being released and receiving a justifiably handsome payout.  This story was the focus of a WBEZ podcast as part of the This American Life series (you can listen here) and benefits from the voices of the protagonists - their personalities, and the tension of how the story unfolds.   Within its hour running time we can a real sense of their character, relationship and the sheer effort it took to get Colin released.  It was listening to this podcast that inspired writer director Mark Ruskin (BOOSTER) to create this fictional treatment of the same story.

WILSON


To quote the back of Daniel Clowes' darkly brilliant graphic novel, "Wilson is a big-hearted slob, a lonesome bachelor, a devoted father and husband, an idiot, a sociopath, a delusional blowhard, a delicate flower, 100% Wilsonesque!"  In this new movie from director Craig Johnson (THE SKELETON TWINS), Clowes adapts his own work faithfully to give us a film that is funny, melancholy and sometimes plain crazy.  Woody Harrelson plays the protagonist as a shambolic man with no sense of proper behaviour.  Spurred by the death of his father he tracks down his ex-wife Pippi (Laura Dern - CERTAIN WOMEN), who's now a recovering addict. She tells him she had the child he thought she aborted, and put her up for adoption.   Much of the rest of the film concerns this deeply dislikable and yet somehow charming man trying to forge a relationship with the girl (Isabella Amara - SPIDERMAN THE HOMECOMING) and navigate the wild twists that life throws at him.  To say more would be to spoil the surprise. 

Friday, June 02, 2017

PATTI CAKE$


Geremy Jasper's debut feature film PATTI CAKE$ is an exuberant feelgood underdog movie that isn't afraid to show the scuzzier, nastier sides of life in America's rustbelt. Set in contemporary New Jersey, a stone's throw from a Manhattan that feels impossible to reach, it stars Australian actress Danielle Macdonald (EVERY SECRET THING) as the self-style rap star wannabe.  Plain old Patricia Dumbowski in real life, Patti is teased as Dumbo for her girth, but re-creates herself as an empowered, sexy rapper.  All this in the face of living with a selfish weary alcoholic mother (cabaret star Bridget Everett - TRAINWRECK) and a chronically ill foul-mouthed nana (Cathy Moriarty - RAGING BULL).  It's evident that though still a teen, Patti is the glue that holds the family together, keeping food (such as it is) on the table by bar tending at the local dive and waiting tables for caterer.  The love she has for her mother and nana despite the hassle they put her through is evident.  The things that get Patti through the day are her love of rap music, and her best friend and fellow rapper, Hasheem (Siddharth Dhananjay) and the creepy weird black kid (Mamadou Athie - THE CIRCLE) who plays heavy metal who calls himself Antichrist (that they meet at a amateur talent show.  Just as there's real warmth and chemistry in the relationship between the three women, there's real warmth, fun and camaraderie in the relationship between the three friends and soon band-mates.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

BEATRIZ AT DINNER


Directer Miguel Arteta and writer Mike White follow their collaboration on THE GOOD GIRL with this hamfisted painfully earnest take on the class divide in contemporary America.  Salma Hayek plays Beatriz, a massage therapist and earnest do-gooder who treats both suffering cancer patients and rich capitalist bastards.  As the film opens, there's a chance it might be a comedy.  Beatriz is quirky!  She keeps goats in her house and has a habit of saying socially inappropriate things and invading people's space.  But that isn't what this film is.  When Beatriz' car breaks down at a client's (Connie Britton - NASHVILLE) house in Newport Beach, that client invites her to stay for dinner - a small celebration of future profits on a real estate development.  The rich guests (Chloe Sevigny, Jay Duplass) proceed to ignore Beatriz, then assume she's the help, then ignore her disquiet at their development.  But when the richest and most evil of the men (John Lithgow) reveals he also hunts rhinos, Beatriz really loses it.

The problem I have with this film is that it isn't a biting political satire or a nuanced portrait of class or race relations. Rather it's a pantomime filled with caricatures.  The bad guys here are truly bad.  The airhead dippy wives are just that.  And Beatriz is ultimately a Christlike martyr of zero flaws and faults. This makes for dull, dumb, simplistic storytelling.  The audience deserves far more.

AT DINNER has a running time of 83 minutes and is rated R. The movie played Sundance 2017 and opens in the USA on June 9th.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

HOUSE OF CARDS S5 E13 CHAPTER 65 - Plot summary and comments



PLOT SUMMARY: In the pre-credits sequence, President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) blackmails Congressman Romero to drop the congressional investigation.

In private, Vice President Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) is angry with Frank for not sharing his gameplan.  He tells her that his resignation was not a last minute decision but part of a long-run plan since Elysian Fields. He has realised that the real power is not in the White House but in the powerful forces who control it. Therefore the most powerful combination is for Frank to control the private sector influence on the WH and for Claire to be running it. She resents him telling her that he made her the President and tells her she has to pardon him for all his crimes once she's President.  She says she could be impeached for it.  Frank also reveals that he was the leak all along via his Chief of Staff Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly). She tells him to shut down the surveillance and that she killed her ex-lover Tom Yates.  He tells her he'll do that as soon as she pardons him and that she'll have to pardon Doug too at a later date.

Claire then tells Special Adviser Mark Usher (Campbell Scott) about the death of Tom Yates in his house.  

HOUSE OF CARDS S5 E12 CHAPTER 64 - Plot summary and comments


PLOT SUMMARY: In the pre-credits sequence, President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) pushes Secretary of State Cathy Durant into a serious fall to prevent her testifying against him.  The Underwoods' Special Adviser Mark Usher (Campbell Scott) learns that the House is preparing to impeach Frank.

Vice President Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) receives a note from her ex-lover Tom Yates (Paul Sparks).  Jane Davies (Patricia Clarkson) gives her a herbal remedy for her migraine but says Claire needs to be careful with the dosing.

Ex campaign manager Leann Harvey (Neve Campbell) tells Frank about Aidan McAllan and is rewarded with a job.  Frank reveals to his Chief of Staff Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) that he doesn't fully trust Leann. Later Jane Davies asks her to hand over the evidence Aidan gave her but she refuses. 

HOUSE OF CARDS S5 E11 CHAPTER 63 - Plot summary and comments


PLOT SUMMARY: In the pre-credits sequence, journalist Tom Hammserschmidt (Boris McGiver) and press secretary Seth Grayson (Derek Cecil) debate the impact of ex President Walker's testimony to Congress. Hammerschmidt claims that President and Vice President Underwood (Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright) are close to impeachment.  After the credits we see Secretary of State Cathy Durant discussing immunity with her lawyer over lunch before being joined by Jane Davies (Patricia Clarkson).  Jane makes overtures and asks Cathy if Claire could survive and become President.  

Meanwhile the Underwoods decide to attack Walker's credibility.  But the stress causes Frank to lash out at Claire who has more chance of survival.  Radically, she then breaks the fourth wall for the first time in the series and explains that she knew the audience was there the whole time but feels ambivalent about it.  The Underwoods then tell Usher that Frank is willing to accept Censure. Claire also tells Usher that she won't stay out of it, but will support Frank.

Claire asks her lover Tom Yates (Paul Sparks) to leave the White House.  Frank's creepy ex-personal trainer Eric declares his love for Frank.

Alex Romero tells the Underwoods special adviser Mark Usher (Campbell Scott) that he has become an Independent and is now sitting on the Congressional Committee investigating Frank.

Meanwhile, ex campaign manager Leann Harvey (Neve Campbell) enquires as to whether Aidan McAllan (Damian Young)'s death was suicide or murder. 

Chief of Staff Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) discovers that it's Seth Grayson who's leaking against Frank and that Cathy Durant is loyal. He also discovers that McAllan left something for Harvey.  Stamper reveals to Claire that Frank had him follow Tom. In response she warns him off seeing Laura Moretti, the woman he has been sleeping with.  Stamper then tells Moretti he's the reason her husband was killed. But Moretti is sanguine about the news.  Stamper then goes to Leann Harvey's house to tell her he's been watching her.  She seduces him.  We realise that Frank is watching through Leann's laptop cam.

We, and Hammerschmidt, learn that although seemingly loyal, Cathy Durant will testify against the Underwoods. Moreover, he is sent an anonymous thumb drive - perhaps from McAllan?

Finally, Stamper and Frank share their concerns about Claire's loyalty. 

COMMENTS: The shifting power is indicated by Claire breaking the fourth wall. I'm still ambivalent about this. I also feel that the odds are so stacked against the Underwoods that it would be incredible for them to survive. 

HOUSE OF CARDS S5 E10 CHAPTER 62 - Plot summary and comments


PLOT SUMMARY: President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) discusses Congressman Romero's Declaration of War Committee with Special Adviser  Mark Usher (Campbell Scott) and Chief of Staff Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly).  Usher uses a press leak to get Jackie Sharp not plead the fifth. 

Jane Davies (Patricia Clarkson) tells the Underwoods that IT specialist Aidan McAllan (Damian Young) is being interrogated in Jordan but has not given up any information.  Jane then meets former Underwood campaign manager Leann Harvey (Neve Campbell) and tells her that he's alive but being held for information.  Leann then goes straight to Claire and tells her what Jane said in order to curry favour.  Claire confronts Jane who retains her cool. Jane also tips the President to an attack on Homs, suggests he draw a "line in the sand" before it, to justify a massive troop invasion afterward. This would also distract the Declaration of War Committee.

The Underwoods ask both Usher and Davies for their opinions on each other and both are negative. It emerges that Usher was also backing Romero as a future GOP Presidential candidate and the Underwoods demand he declare his loyalty to them.  Frank then meets with ex President Walker against Claire's advice and Walker straight up accuses Frank of stealing the Presidency.  He then throws Frank under the bus in the Congressional committee.


Doug tracks down the junkie that journalist Tom Hammserschmidt (Boris McGiver) was speaking to and sends a message to Rachel to come home.

Claire confesses to her lover Tom Yates (Paul Sparks) that Frank killed Zoe Barnes.

Aidan McAllan (Damian Young) meets Leann Harvey (Neve Campbell) in a parking garage and once more asks her to leave with him. She refuses but gives him a gun. Later she gets an email indicating that he's dead with a link to some files.  He has been shot in the eye. 

COMMENTS: It's hard to see how Frank gets out of Walker's testimony but they always do. It's also hard to believe that Claire has really fallen for Tom to the extent that she confesses to him. This is the jump the shark moment for me.

HOUSE OF CARDS S5 E9 CHAPTER 61 - Plot summary and comments


PLOT SUMMARY: The election is finally over.  President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) won Ohio and thus the election against Republican candidate Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman).  Conway's old campaign manager Mark Usher (Campbell Scott) is appointed Special Advisor to the President replacing the Underwoods' former campaign manager Leann Harvey (Neve Campbell). The Vice President Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) sacks speechwriter Tom Yates (Paul Sparks) but still wants to see him.  The Underwoods are using Jane Davis (Patricia Clarkson) to assassinate IT specialist Aidan McAllan (Damian Young) and know this will put them in her debt.  Journalist Kate Baldwin (Kim Dickens) goes to Russia to interview Aidan and tells him that Leann has been forced out of power.  He calls her and tries to persuade her to come to Russia but she refuses and tells her people are coming to assassinate him.  However, Jane and the Underwoods are actually taking him to Jordan to be interrogated. 

As they are about to attend the White House Inaugural Ball, Frank's creepy personal trainer Eric makes a move on him and Frank quasi-threatens him in return.  Chief of Staff Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) escorts him from the ball. Separately, a scorned congressman says he's going to attempt to resurrect the Republican's investigations into the Underwoods.  Frank warns Tom Yates not to cheat on his wife. 

White House Press Secretary Seth Grayson (Derek Cecil) tries to contact Tom Hammerschmidt (Boris McGiver) but fails. Tom now has the video tape of the moment Frank killed Zoe Barnes in a metro station but the evidence is inconclusive. Tom calls Zoe's father but he doesn't want to get involved before turning up at Tom's office. 


COMMENTS: A holding episode at best. It's hard to ignore the suspicion that it exists merely so that series creator and episode writer Beau Willimon could give Frank a breaking the fourth wall speech chiding the American voters for electing Trump. Otherwise, from a narrative pacing point of view one would've picked up a few months into the new administration.

HOUSE OF CARDS S5 E8 CHAPTER 60 - Plot summary and comments


PLOT SUMMARY: Former  President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) attends a cultish private gentleman's club called Elysian Fields to influence the vote in Ohio.  It turns out that Republican presidential candidate Will Conway's (Joel Kinnaman) campaign manager Mark Usher (Campbell Scott) is present but not Conway.  Usher clearly states that Veep hopeful General Brockaw is the better politician than Conway. Frank impresses the Elysian members and humbles Brockaw with his rhetoric.  

A Russian boat looking for oil in Antartica is in trouble. The US is in a position to help and Claire tries to do this in exchange for IT specialist Aidan McAllan (Damian Young).  The Chinese tell Jane Davis (Patricia Clarkson) that there's an American on board the boat.  Davis tries to broker a deal to save the boat, but Claire refuses to acquiesce to the Chinese demands. The Chinese eventually save the boat. Jane reveals that both the Russians and Chinese wanted the American who was on the boat. 

Frank gets out of the Elysian retreat and he and Claire listen to the audio of Conway threatening the pilot. They reach out to Mark Usher to lure him away from Conway. 

Meanwhile, speechwriter Tom Yates (Paul Sparks) tells Claire he loves her and she says he might love him back.  Doug and Frank plan Conway's downfall. 

COMMENTS: "I work with everybody." So Jane Davies remains fascinating. But ask yourself - if Tom Yates were written out of this season would it make any difference? And how on earth can Claire like him at all. This has to be an act!

HOUSE OF CARDS S5 E7 CHAPTER 59 - Plot summary and comments


PLOT SUMMARY: In private, Acting President Claire Underwood and former  President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) argue about the best strategy to defeat Conway. In front of the Joint Chiefs, they once again argue about taking out a suspected terrorist. 

Republican presidential candidate Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman) looks fragile. His campaign manager Mark Usher (Campbell Scott) is protecting him from appearances.  Conway's wife suspects that Usher really favours the VP candidate Brockaw.

Leann Harvey (Neve Campbell) speaks with Secretary of State Catherine Durant  about Aidan McAllan (Damian Young) and Cathy suspects that Aidan has dirt on the Underwoods. Cathy then introduces Leann to Jane Davies (Patricia Clarkson) the deputy secretary for commerce. Almost immediately, the President and Acting President, Cathy and Jane are put under lockdown because of a missing truck carrying nuclear waste i.e. a dirty bomb.  As a result, the two state election is postponed without the press being informed why.  Jane offers to ask her contacts about the bomb.  Claire is suspicious as to her level of security clearance. Jane then makes a phone call in private in Arabic and appears to offer Claire the terrorist.   Frank gets out of the bunker and confronts one of the Generals who chose to stay above ground. He accuses her of being involved in a coup and faking the terror threat.  Immediately, Claire gets a call saying the truck has been found and it was simply an accident.  Later, Frank is given photographs of speechwriter Tom Yates (Paul Sparks) having sex with the White House tour guide in the press room.

Meanwhile Tom Hammerschmidt's sidekick starts interviewing the woman Chief of Staff Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) is sleeping with, while Tom (Boris McGiver) follows up other leads. Doug realises the investigation has resumed. 

Finally the Underwoods meet with Mark Usher.  Realising his part in the attempted coup given his ties to Vice Presidential candidate Brockaw, they play him a recording of Brockaw apparently saying he would not obey an order from President Underwood to put soldiers on the ground.

COMMENTS: Well it appears that Patricia Clarkson is the hinge upon which this series turns.  At last, a potentially interesting, powerful and slippery antagonist for the Underwoods.  Also we get a great Underwood victory in the final scene.  Bravo!

HOUSE OF CARDS S5 E6 CHAPTER 58 - Plot summary and comments


PLOT SUMMARY: First Lady and Vice Presidential candidate Claire Underwood is sworn in as Acting President while the House continues to vote on whether  President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) or Republican Presidential candidate Governor Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman) should be President.  Claire hesitates over giving Frank security clearance. She frankly asks her campaign manager Leann Harvey (Neve Campbell) about Frank's chances in a revote in all 50 states vs in the House. She replies that a revote in just Tennessee and Ohio is his best shot but it wouldn't be what was best for Claire. Nonetheless, Claire proposes the two state vote but is clearly concerned.

An apparently Russian force has occupied a US base in Antartica.  The Russians deny the troops belong to them.  Secretary of State Catherine Durant lobbies Congress to pass sanctions on oligarchs stating that a vote for the measure is not a vote for the Underwoods who may not be around in a week.  The Russian President then reveals that he has custody of IT specialist Aidan McAllan (Damian Young).

We discover that Frank's new personal trainer is his creepy fanboy Eric. 

Meanwhile, Conway's campaign manager Mark Usher (Campbell Scott) is trying to woo the Congressional Black Caucus. If they can win their support, Conway will be President.  However, he comes across as arrogant and out of touch.  A frustrated Conway tries to bully the pilot of his private jet to allow him to fly the plane.  When he fails he loses his temper. Mark is able to talk him down. Mark then brokers a deal for a new Supreme Court justice and also agrees to the new two state election so long as its for both President and Veep. In other words, Claire needs to formally step down.  Frank is livid. 

Elsewhere, journalist Tom Hammerschmidt (Boris McGiver) continues to block the investigation of the woman who claims she can pin Rachel Posner's murder on Doug Stamper.  However, his sidekick follows up the lead and Hammerschmidt reopens his investigation.

The bored and frustrated speechwriter Tom Yates (Paul Sparks) has sex with a White House tour guide in the press briefing room.

The episode ends of Will Conway's wife looking at him clearly disturbed by playing the virtual reality first person shooter game and Frank on the floor stretching out his back. Claire bluntly tells Frank that he would have lost the House vote. He insults Claire as merely an Acting President. 

COMMENTS:  Another basically dull episode showing Claire in the ascendant. The only hope is that the writers really push the fragility of Conway for some dramatic excitement. Words cannot describe how bored I am by the Rachel murder investigation though.

HOUSE OF CARDS S5 E5 CHAPTER 57 - Plot summary and comments


PLOT SUMMARY: Nine weeks later, and President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) breaks the fourth wall to tell us that two states refused to certify and so there has been no result. The Supreme Court is down a member and in deadlock and government is crippled. As in the last season of Veep, the vote therefore transfers to the House per the twelfth amendment by simple majority.  Meanwhile protestors barrack the White House.  

Inside the White House Frank meets the strange man called Eric who is an actor, personal trainer and military history recruiter. He is clearly a mentally unstable and obsessed with Frank.  Vice Presidential candidate and First Lady Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) meets with Underwoods campaign manager Leann Harvey (Neve Campbell).  Leann tells Claire that Frank's approval rating is just 19pc whereas Claire's is 30pc; that there's resistance to a simultaneous vote for President and Vice President and that Claire should consider what happens in the event of a split ticket. This view is  later echoed by Republican supporters and Claire seems open to a split ticket. Even the current Vice President tries to flatter Claire into breaking away from Frank. 

Meanwhile, Leann has tracked IT specialist Aidan McAllan to Jakarta. He then phones her and asks her to join him. He also threatens to leak information on the Underwoods unless she calls off the FBI search. She confides in Chief of Staff Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) but he appears reluctant to act. 

Republican candidate Governor Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman) is playing a military first person shooter and is clearly emotionally disturbed by it.

A woman comes forward to journalist Tom Hammerschmidt (Boris McGiver) with a story about Chief of Staff Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) but he doubts her. Later, Doug hooks up with the woman who left him earlier for not being present.   Doug then tells Frank that he's having trouble threatening people into giving him the requisite 26 votes. Frank lashes out at a clearly shocked Doug but then apologises.

COMMENTS: "Meet your new daddy". Well this was a dull episode - again - which can be compressed into two things - Claire is now the popular force, and Aidan is a problem.  It feels to me like their is no menace in this season. The murders in prior seasons are distant lurking threats but one doesn't feel as if Frank could literally kill someone now.  Even Tom Hammerschmidt seems bored by those early plot lines.  There are no worthy antagonists - Conway is a psychological wreck - and no fascinating psychological dramas. Even Doug Stamper's sexual liaisons seem tame compared to previous seasons. Five episodes in, one wonders if this really is the impact of Beau Willamon leaving?  

HOUSE OF CARDS S5 E4 CHAPTER 56 - Plot summary and comments


PLOT SUMMARY: The day of the Presidential election arrives and turnout is surprisingly low. Republican candidate Governor Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman) and his campaign manager Mark Usher (Campbell Scott) are quietly confident and Will's wife proceeds to "fuck the president".

President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) gets what appears to be a genuine terrorist attack tip on a voting centre and warns the relevant Governor. The attack occurs and Claire addresses the nation telling the electorate that it is their duty to get out and vote, hoping to reverse the low voter turnout.  Usher calls the Governor of Tennessee offering extra security but the terrorist attack occurs nonetheless. Chief of Staff Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) bullies the Ohio Governor into closing voting booths with manufactured intel from IT specialist Aidan McAllan (Damian Young) in order to counter gains for Conway in the South, previously Underwoods base.  That said, Frank calls Conway to concede but refuses to do so in public just yet. 

In the early hours of the next morning we learn that there are lawsuits alleging electoral malpractice in almost every state holding up the result. Aidan McAllan texts Leann to say he can no longer work for the Underwoods.

COMMENTS: "The American people don't know what's best for them.  I do.  I  know exactly what they need. They are like little children, Claire.  The children we never had. We have to hold their sticky fingers and wipe their filthy mouths. Teach them right from wrong. Tell them what to think and what to feel and what to want. They even need help writing their wildest dreams and crafting their worst fears. Lucky for them, they have me. They have you. Underwoods. Underwoods 2016, 2020, 2024, 2028, 2032, 2036. One nation Underwood."  And finally -  finally we get the diabolical Frank we always wanted!  A man willing to violate term limits in order to forestall the inevitable election loss.  And yet apart from the last five minutes of the episode this was still fairly dull.  

HOUSE OF CARDS S5 EP 3 CHAPTER 55 - Plot summary and comments


PLOT SUMMARY: It's the day before the Presidential election.  We open on a campaign ad for Republican Presidential candidate Governor Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman). It outlines the heroic act of valour that won him military honours.  Will then accuses President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) of failing to keep the country safe in a live stream.  A public questioner asks why the terrorist Josh Masterson wanted to talk to Will and why he only managed to negotiate the release of Mrs Miller and the daughter rather than the husband who was then beheaded.  A survivor of the attack calls in but can't get Conway to admit that he lied about the event in Afghanistan. We realise that the Underwoods campaign manager Leann Harvey (Neve Campbell) is behind it, but with little apparent success. Conway also brings a new manager on board - Mark Usher (Campbell Scott.)

First lady and Vice Presidential candidate Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) addresses a campaign rally. She then joins Frank for another one. He's losing his voice but refuses her help in a patronising manner. Back on Air Force One, Claire receives information from the Secret Service that the sleeping Frank asked for on a suspicious looking man in the crowd.   Once landed, Secretary of State Cathy Durant (Jayne Atkinson) gives Frank four options of people to arrest that could be the ICO terrorist.  He is reluctant to arrest the wrong person on election day. Doug then brings him information on Conway's "heroic" act.  Much later, Claire wakes up to see Frank awake and fully dressed.  He phones Conway to say he shouldn't feel ashamed about whatever happened in Afghanistan. 

Meanwhile Chief of Staff Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) chides the ex-Vice President and now Governor in a swing state for failing to implement voter centres.  Stamper accuses him of making excuses and lying and he agrees to comply.  Later Doug has a casual hook up but she leaves because he's not present in the room.

The morning of the elections, campaign manager Leann Harvey (Neve Campbell) gets the early numbers and they're not good for the Underwoods. Nonetheless they are defiant.

COMMENTS: Given that this was the pre-election episode I found it frustrating and dull. The Underwoods didn't really have anything on Conway who is bland as a antagonist.  They are basically united.  The pullback to Claire's lover in her bed is no longer shocking as we are used to their open marriage.  The testimony of the press secretary came to nothing. And there are no consequences to the IT attack yet.  A complete non episode with the exception of a rather nice and creepy tracking shot round the corner of Doug's bedroom. The theme of frustration continues - both in terms of Doug's hookup's sexual frustration and Claire's political frustration at not being Veep yet, and one suspects, not being President yet. 

HOUSE OF CARDS S5 E2 CHAPTER 54 - Plot summary and comments


PLOT SUMMARY: Press Secretary Seth Grayson (Derek Cecil) takes part in a conversation with that confirms that Remy Danton is hiring lawyers to give testimony against Frank but that former Vice President Garrett Walker will not so as not to damage the party.  Grayson later offers to testify privately to the committee in exchange for immunity.

Vice Presidential candidate Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) attends a public event announcing that all MTA workers will be given gas masks, continuing to elevate the climate of fear. She is cornered by Ken Caswell who complains that the President won't return his calls, and who tells her that one of Frank's ex homosexual lovers, Tim, has gone missing in suspicious circumstances. She threatens him but later criticises Frank for leaving loose ends undone. She expresses sympathy for Frank's loss but he tells her she's the only person he's truly loved before calling to sympathise with Tim's wife and burning all the evidence of their relationship.

President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) addresses a room full of Governors. He breaks the fourth wall and tells us he's swelling their National Guard in order to create "safe voting spaces".  He's particularly flattering to the five Governors of key swing states. Later, the Underwood's Chief of Staff Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) rounds up Governors where they've apparently received terrorist threats, that just happen to be in his opponents strongholds. Effectively the Underwoods are engineering voter suppression.  

Campaign manager Leann Harvey (Neve Campbell) and speechwriter Tom Yates (Paul Sparks) watch the current Vice President and Secretary of State Cathy Durant (Jayne Atkinson) try to explain the new border restrictions to a congressional committee. Alone, Cathy suggests resigning in protest but the VP refuses. 

Meanwhile, at the NSA, the IT specialist who secretly helped the Underwoods, Aidan McAllan (Damian Young), realises that some investigators have arrived and could be on his trail.  He tells Frank that he needs to hack a NSA system that covers a lot of Washington traffic to cover his tracks.  The apparent cyber attack convinces the wavering governors to take Frank's funds. Frank stalls on letting McAllan send the fix so McAllan secretly gives the NSA the fix anyway.  Frank goes on air and tells people that Congress must now approve his declaration of war given the ongoing terrorist attacks. 

Finally Republican Presidential candidate Governor Will Conroy (Joel Kinnaman) warns a supporter not to bring up the details of his military record in the press.

COMMENTS: Still laying the pipework for the season - the literal sexual frustration of Tom Yates felt clumsy but I very much liked the fake cyber attack storyline.  In addition, perhaps the most stylish episode ending thus far is the camera's slow pull back to halloween pumpkins carved with the faces of Frank and Claire. It's also ironic that where in the real world it's typically the GOP accused of voter suppression, here's it's a Democratic President doing so.

HOUSE OF CARDS S5 E1 CHAPTER 53 - Plot summary and comments


PLOT SUMMARY:  Series 5 opens with President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) fighting an election against Will Conroy (Joel Kinnaman). He's also fighting to avoid congressional inquiries and to battle the accusations regarding the Zoe Barnes murder in an article written by Tom Hammerschmidt (Boris McGiver).  He has however successfully suppressed the publication of Thomas Yates (Paul Sparks) tell all book by having Claire sleep with him.  

At the end of last season a terrorist called Josh Masterson (Jefferson White) beheaded a man called Miller before going on the run. At the start of this season, Miller's daughter publicly blames the President for his death at the funeral. She also hopes Frank dies and this wife, Vice Presidential candidate and current First Lady Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) will become President instead.  In response to the terrorist attack, Frank declared war on terrorism, whips up a climate of hate, fear and eavesdropping on family and colleagues, and has severely restricted immigration.  Secretary of State Catherine Durant (Jayne Atkinson) speaks to the chaos this is causing. 

Conroy decides not to oppose the declaration of war but wants to focus on the article's accusations against Frank.  However he is aghast when his wife Hannah (Dominique McElligot) expresses public sympathy with the terrorist and asks for understanding. In response, Claire Underwood speaks to the terrorist's mother, tries to make her take the blame and to show her the video of the beheading. In response Mrs Mastersen publicly asks her son to turn himself in.

Meanwhile Claire's campaign manager Leann Harvey (Neve Campbell) needs Aidan McAllan (Damian Young) to break into the NSA and erase the traces of his previous work designed to track which words and ideas voters responded to by illegally tracking their social media and phone conversations. 

In the final scene, Frank breaks the fourth wall and reveals that he had Joshua Masterson in custody the entire time. 

COMMENTS:  This is the first season of HOC without the original creator, Beau Willamon, as show runner. It's too early to tell how his replacements, playwrights Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese will change the tone but so far it's very similar. The only difference I detected was perhaps even darker cinematography for Frank and Claire from DP David M Dunlap - perhaps reflecting their descent into chaos and fear to distract from their political troubles.  Of course, this series will suffer from real life overtaking fiction.  I found the scene between Cathy and Frank rather too on the nose in criticising Trump's immigration policy. However, it's hard to know how far the show can avoid the overlaps given it's set up of terrorism as a major theme last season.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

SCORE: A FILM MUSIC DOCUMENTARY


One of the most wonderful experiences of attending the San Francisco film festival was watching this fascinating film about film music in one of the theatres at the Dolby Laboratories - experiencing a visual and audio quality rarely seen in a commercial cinema. To be sure, this documentary didn't really warrant a screen that would've done a big budget action movie justice, but the sound quality was much desired.  Over 90 minutes, the film-makers give us an amazing insight into the history and current state of composing for film, including a quite dazzling access to composers including the pre-eminent Hans Zimmer.

The impression one gets is that movie composition has changed from writing and conducting a traditional orchestral score to something more akin to a polymath enterprise - creative originality; running a vast team of people; and enough IT knowledge to produce the music.  It's the middle part of that that really surprised me - these composers are essentially front-men for a team that includes people who will supplement their creative work, produce scores, and sometimes conduct so that they can be in the mixing booth ensuring the overall mix of the work produced.  And now they are supplemented by a new breed of conventional rock star turned composer bringing a new feel to the scores they create.

THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES


THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES is a wonderfully funny, socially aware comedy starring The Daily Show's Jessica Williams as a smart, funny playwright struggling to find professional success and love in contemporary New York. Written and directed by Jim Strouse (GRACE IS GONE), the movie has wit, courage and infectious optimism.  

Williams plays Jones as a confident, opinionated but never obnoxious young woman of talent and flair.  As the movie opens she's teaching kids theatre and helping them work out the issues in their lives while papering her wall with rejection letters for a play that she's writing.  She's also trying to get over her ex boyfriend (LaKeith Stanfield) while starting to date Chris O'Dowd's loveable but slightly banal app developer.  By the end of the film she's found fulfilment on both fronts, even though the ending places female friendship ahead of relationship success.

The bare bones of the plot sound quite simplistic - and indeed the stuff of many romantic comedies. And poor Chris Dowd effectively plays the loveable schlub that he always plays. But as with LANDLINE, the focus here is on the female friendships and in exploring familiar movie plotlines with greater authenticity, audacity and sexual honesty.  In all that, it's Jessica Williams who carries the day.  The result is a film that is hugely funny and heart-warming but that isn't a memorable classic. 

THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES has a running time of 85 minutes and is not yet rated.  It played Sundance and the San Francisco film festivals and does not yet have a release date. 

CASTING JONBENET


Christmas 1996 - A young beautiful girl called JonBenet Ramsay is found strangled and beaten in the basement of her parents home in Boulder, Colorado. The murder captivated the public imagination thanks to its salacious elements - a fabulously rich father; an ex-pageant queen younger mother who had pushed her daughter into that world that so puzzles outside viewers with its questionable practice of sexualising little girls;  tales of a kidnapping gone wrong or a sexual predator breaking in; and then the attention focusing on the family themselves. Twenty years on, the murder remains unsolved although a slew of anniversary TV specials have thrown up a number of theories.  The reality is that the scene of the crime was so massively compromised by incompetent policing that we'll never know. However, the consensus of opinion seems to be that the kidnapping note was implausible, as was the likelihood of an outside intruder. One particular TV special suggests that the son may have accidentally hit the daughter, and the parents were more or less involved in a cover up. 

CASTING JONBENET comes at the case from a strange angle, and one that may not satisfy true crime fans who are fascinated by the case.  Australian director Kitty Green goes back to Boulder and sets up a casting process to recreate scenes from the murder and investigation. In doing so, she interviews people from the local area and has them do line readings of the same scene.  She also captures their own relationships to the case - whether knowing individuals related to it, or experiencing some of the same facets of the case in their own lives. The result is a compelling film that tells us something about how people remember a major public event and insinuate themselves into it.  And in its final scene that has the actors simultaneously act out various interpretations of the night's events, the film powerfully conveys the impossibility of knowing.

Saturday, April 08, 2017

THE CAGE FIGHTER


THE CAGE FIGHTER is a deeply engaging but frustratingly problematic film from director Jeff Unay. As I watched it I thought it was a compelling lo-fi drama along the lines of THE WRESTLER. Joe Carman is a charismatic gentle giant with a loving family who want him to give up fighting Mixed Martial Arts because of its clear toll on his health and the fact that it takes him away from his sick wife.  But he seems to be motivated by the need to prove himself against a younger upcoming fighter, up until the point that he meets him in real life and realises that he's just mortal.  As I was watching it I admired the depiction of a good but conflicted family man, and the movie's willingness to subvert the classic underdog sports story ending.

But when the lights came up and the director came on stage it became clear that he viewed this film as a documentary and that the film we had seen on screen was an actual family. This was something of a shock because to my eye, it felt like a lot of the scenes had been staged. For interest, one in which the director follows the fighter's daughters to a car lot and they express their concern about their father's fighting. So in retrospect, what seems to be happening here is that we're watching some kind of documentary where key scenes have been re-staged. The Q&A also raised questions about objectivity. It was clear that the director and star are close friends and that their families have spent a lot of time with each other.

I guess my concerns don't invalidate the good time I had watching the film - they just left a bad taste in my mouth. They raised provocative questions about how we classify a documentary and what burdens are or should be placed on the film-maker to speak to just where the reality/fiction line has been drawn.  From my perspective, as good as this film is, I would hate to see it enveloped in the kind of controversy that affected CATFISH and I would hope that the marketing campaign addresses these concerns directly to avoid that. 

THE CAGE FIGHTER has a running time of 83 minutes and is not yet rated and does not yet have a commercial released date.