Capernaum (2018)

‘I want adults to listen to me’ this is said by Zain, a 12 year old boy, as he stands in court, he has committed a crime and is serving his sentence but has decided to sue his parents for bringing him into this world.

Nadine Labaki’s film is a harrowing and powerful depiction of a childhood lost. It is set in Lebanon and follows Zain and his day to day life as a errand boy for a local shop owner. He works all day taking whatever food is given to him at the end of the day to his family to eat. There is a scene where he looks on in desperation at the school bus and the children getting off it.

For a few hours he gets to hangout with his siblings in particular sister Sahar. Zain is protective of her, and they spend time playing drums and selling fruit juices to people. However as Sahar grows older her parents make a decision that turns Zain’s world into chaos.

Zain runs away and ends up at a fairground, there he meets Rahil an Ethiopian migrant who helps him with some food, but Rahil has a problems of her own and lives in fear of being found out that her work permit has expired and is hiding her baby from her employer. Zain ends up staying with her and ends up being a babysitter to Yonas (Rahils baby).

The relationship between Zain and Yonas is touching and beautiful. To note these are real people who are acting for the first time, so it is remarkable the performances on display here.

Zain accepts his role but things take another turn as Rahil does not come from work one day. This sets Zain on another course of action as he is now solely responsible for Yonas and has to feed, change and look after him. He tries his best but eventually he has to make a tough decision.

This is a good film, there is documentary style to it, but it is done very well that you feel immersed in everything that is happening on the screen, I was glued from start to finish. Comparisons to City of God and The Florida Project come to mind, but this stands on its own (for a start this has a better ending than The Florida Project), the film does not force a message to the viewer, the less that is said onscreen the more I got from it.

Are people not human and don’t matter because they do not have a ID card or number, does a piece of paper define our outcomes and opportunities? Are some people destined to be stuck in a social cycle inherited from their parents? Hmmm, to be discussed.

The central performance from Zain Al Rafeea is superb, he is completely mesmerising, you want to know what happens to him. The supporting cast is equally superb, the music is well done and adds weight to the film.

I would thoroughly recommend watching this, it rightly secured the Jury Prize at Cannes, should have won the Oscar, but, it’s not always about the awards for filmmakers (for most, I think) its about telling a story, and this story is definitely worth telling.

Rating 4/5

Joker (2019)

Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?
Arthur Fleck

That definitely feels true. Joker is set in the early 80s and is loosely based on the origin of the Joker (DC Comic character and arch rival of Batman). This version is written and directed by Todd Phillips (the director of The Hangover films…yep) and stars Joaquin Phoenix in the title role.

Almost everyone has their opinion of the film and how they feel about it, so take what you can from them, but, this is what I thought of it.

The Joker is a gritty hard hitting study of a man’s decline into madness. Arthur Fleck is a lonely troubled man, who between caring for his ill mother and performing for kids as a clown, dreams of being a stand up comedian – his only problem, he isn’t very funny.

This sounds familiar and fans of Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese will recall King of Comedy (1982) and the painful Rupert Pupkin having the same dilemma (incidentally De Niro plays the chat show host Murray Franklin whom Arthur adores). Unfortunately Arthur or ‘happy’ as his mother calls him is living in a world that just doesn’t understand him, again sound familiar? Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver (1976). Clearly these two films have influenced Phillips and he borrows seamlessly from them, but this is not in the same calibre as these, it stands alone.

The central performance from Joaquin Phoenix delivers the punchlines (sorry). His lean skeleton holds the meat of the film (sorry again). He is mesmerising, he portrays sadness, depression, anger, loneliness and happiness brilliantly. It’s a masterclass on acting, he lives and breathes the character.

The supporting cast is good, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz and Frances Conroy to name, watch out for Glenn Fleshler (Remus from Boardwalk Empire) and Brian Tyree Henry (Paper Boi from Atlanta).

The music is standout, Icelandic Hildur Gudnadottir sets the right tone and style to the film (to be noted she did the music for this and Chernobyl at around the same time). There has been some subject of debate for one music choice and I don’t why that particular piece of music was used when others could have been selected, perhaps Phillips was wanting the reaction? (jerk). The cinematography is good and adds grittiness to the screen, the makeup is good too, I like how Phoenix has adopted a different clown paint – slightly reminiscent of Doink the Clown from WWE though).

The film is rated R so be prepared to see violence, however there are probably less deaths in here than in most of the Marvel films, yep, and when it happens you can feel the magnitude of it.

I would still recommend seeing this (unless you have coulrophobia) and making your own mind up on how you feel about it, one thing is for certain you will be talking about it for some time, which is what Phillips probably wanted – ‘send in the clowns…they are already here’.

Rating 3.5/5

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was published in 1968 Ridley Scott made ground breaking Blade Runner (1982) (one of my favourite films) from it which went on to inspire a host of filmmakers and created a cult following. But the film was an interpretation of the book and having read it I found the experience rewarding.

The book focuses on Rick Deckard a bounty hunter, who has the task of retiring andys (androids) because they are considered dangerous to society. The androids the Nexus-6 a more advanced android have the ability to assimilate themselves into society. Deckard accepts the job and the money associated with it as he dreams of owning an animal that he can show off to his neighbours, he has a sheep but it is electric, a fact he has failed to inform his neighbours of, due to the embarrassment. Deckard is obsessed with owing a real animal as real animals are hard to come by since World War Terminus.

In order to tell androids apart from humans, Deckard administers the Voigt-Kampff test, a test that focuses on empathy, the conclusion of which is that androids lack empathy. The test is usually effective, but an android Rachel Rosen nearly beats it. This leads Deckard to question his actions and whether what he is doing is right.

I would recommend both the book and film, but each as individual standalone works, as Scott’s Blade Runner does reimagine the book in its own way – though the heart is still there. The heart being what does it mean to be human? What does it mean to have an identity? How do we all interact with each other?

These are interesting questions particularly in current times, are we humans becoming less empathetic? If so why? Is it because of circumstances or inherited design? The scapegoating of a group sounds familiar.

Is our identity defined by who we are or is it by what we do? Does it matter to have an identity? Do we need to make something great again when it didn’t stop being great?
The androids believe in their implanted memories more than humans in their real memories, this might be because we remember things differently each time.

Has the growth of social media led us to function more like robots and less like humans? Are we being programmed or controlled by machines rather than the other way round? Deckard gradually falls for Rachel, but is she trustable as she is an android?

What does it actually mean to be human?
The character of Mercer tells Deckard;
‘You will be required to do wrong no matter where you go. It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity. At some time, every creature which lives must do so. It is the ultimate shadow, the defeat of creation; this is the curse at work, the curse that feeds on all life. Everywhere in the universe’

But Deckard is a bounty hunter, so perhaps we shouldn’t listen to Mercer wholeheartedly, however, it raises an interesting point, what if it the ends justify the means? Hmmm, think I’d rather stick with being empathetic so I can sleep better at night.

Rating 5/5 for book and film

Rumble Fish (1983)

Dennis Hopper (Father): ‘No, your mother…is not crazy. And neither, contrary to popular belief, is your brother crazy. He’s merely miscast in a play. He was born in the wrong era, on the wrong side of the river… With the ability to do anything that he wants to do and… finding nothing that he wants to do. I mean nothing’.

The above quote from Rusty James (Matt Dillion) father about his brother The Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke).

Motorcycle Boy: ‘Even the most primitive society has an innate respect for the insane’

Rumble Fish is Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of S.E Hinton’s novel about two brothers and their desire to break out of their environment. Rusty James is a young and simple boy who yearns for the past of gang wars and of times when his brother The Motorcycle Boy ran things, he has no real direction in his life and his brothers shadow hangs over him. The problem for him is his brother has left town and there has been a treaty of no gang fights.

He plans to shake up things and picks a fight with Biff, however things don’t according to plan and he gets hurt, but, his brother turns up to save him. The arrival of his brother attracts the attention of the local police force who start to monitor the Motorcycle Boy. Rusty is happy to see his brother and starts thinking things are going to be the same again and he can take over from his brother, but his brother is not the same as he was, he is more withdrawn and distance than ever before.

They spend the next few days getting back time lost and Rusty learns more about his brothers trip to California, Rusty asks him what it was like he replies:

The Motorcycle Boy: ‘California is like a beautiful, wild… beautiful, wild girl on heroin… who’s high as a kite, thinking she’s on the top of the world, not knowing she’s dying even if you show her the marks’

It is lines like this that make the Motorcycle Boy so intriguing and fascinating to watch, Mickey Rourke is brilliant at delivering them, you can’t help wonder if he hadn’t entered boxing he could have had a much more meatier roles.

The brothers are reunited with their father, an alcoholic lawyer who doesn’t have a job and spends most his time in bars wasting away his welfare cheques, the loss of his wife being a massive factor in this behaviour. Rusty learns his mother is alive and living in California, he feels let down that his brother and father did not tell him this. The restlessness in both brothers leads to events that sets them on a course that they will never forget.

Stewart Copeland drummer of the Police provides the music and the song ‘Don’t box me in’ is a favourite of mine. The film is shot in black and white and the cinematography is standout, there is one scene which will stay with you, it involves the rumble fish which appear in colour which the Motorcycle Boy finds fascinating as he is colour blind. The time lapse shots are a amazing to see and are perfectly balanced with the chimes and of course the drumming provided by Copeland. The cast is also easy on the eye – even Tom Waits.

I first saw Rumble Fish about 15 years ago (yep showing my age here) and wondered what was that? Why am I being recommended this film? What is this telling me? (coincidentally this was the same time my father banned me from riding his motorcycle and any motorcycle period) But the more times I have revisited this the more I have understood it to be a simple story told in a stylistic and overreaching way. My summary is essentially we are all lost in our youth and yearning for something to happen or save us or guide us, normally that the guidance comes from a peer we respect or idolise such as a parent or an older sibling. But what happens when they too are lost? Well I think the only way to combat this is through self discovery which can take some time to achieve, while some get there, others never do, so the search is the ultimate point of life.

I thoroughly enjoyed the film and would recommend, don’t expect it to be just an art film for teenagers, there is depth if you look for it.

Rating 4/5

Cold War (2018)

After a five year break Pawel Pawlikowski returns with Cold War (2018) it follows Ida (2013) (see my earlier review of this) and it continues to showcase Pawlikowski as a filmmaker to watch for. It is easy to say this is Romeo and Juliet, but, it sort of is.

Set after the Second World War, Poland is under communist rule and trying to rebuild itself. The Polish authorities see folk music as a way of keeping their tradition alive and ask a team including music director Wiktor to find singers and dancers. Interestingly when the team search for tradition music styles one of them remarks that a certain song is in Lemko language which is a shame – this is a country divided in its own identity and still coming to terms to with what it is and what it wants to be.

There is a X Factor style audition where Wiktor spots Zula. He is immediately captivated by her (and she with him), and he chooses her to be his singer. She is then trained and developed. Wiktor and Zula grow closer together and eventually they fall for each other.

But there is more to Zula, she has a criminal record for attempted murder of her father and has been released on probation to take part in the singing. There is a exquisite scene near the river where Zula admits that she has been asked to spy on Wiktor. What follows is a something out of a dream. Pawlikowski does not does explain what has been said between the two, all we see is the aftermath.

The group are then sent to tour the music to other countries, it is in Berlin when Wiktor decides they need to leave for Paris and asks Zula to meet him at an outpost, it is there they both make a decision that leaves a lasting mark.

The story then switches to several years later when the two meet in Paris, where Wiktor is still performing and Zula meets him in a cafe. The love reignites between them but they are in relationships with other people, Wiktor persuades Zula to stay over for a while and they begin their affair, but it doesn’t last and she eventually leaves.

The pairs paths cross again over the years, until one meeting Wiktor learns Zula has married. She says she has done it for them, as she can now escape and travel freely. They continue to see each other, but, after a late night party and a fit of jealousy Zula leaves. Wiktor is completely lost and tries to find her, he eventually does the unthinkable, he hands himself into the authorities so he can go back to Poland to see her, he ends up in prison. But Zula finds him and they reconcile, she plans to help him escape.

The cinematography is amazing and Pawlikowski again has shot this in black and white which works. The music is great too. I am not surprised it was nominated for a number of awards, but, there is a but, I did feel like I have sort of seen this story before. Nevertheless Pavel has reinvented the love story and it is still worth catching, just for the river scenes.

Rating 3.5/5

BlacKkKlansman (2018)

Spike Lee is a bit like marmite you either enjoy his films or you don’t, I am sort of on the fence with him. I liked Do The Right Thing (1989), Malcolm X (1992), Summer of Sam (1999) and Bamboozled (2000) the latter is definitely sleeper film that needs viewing (though some would say argue with me on that, oh well), but then Lee has also remade Oldboy (2013) I would say that was criminal! And the bizarre Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014) (featuring Rami Malek) it can be argued he is hit and miss, more misses recently, so I had strong apprehensions before I started to watch BlacKkKlansman, I am pleased to say they were dispelled.

BlacKkKlansman is about a young African American man, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington – yes the son of Denzel), who wants to be a police officer, he manages to pass the comical interview and takes up a role in the records room in Colorado Springs Police Department. But he feels destained to be more than a records man, so asks to be moved to another department, initially he is denied but then an opportunity arises, there is a speech being delivered by a Black Civil Rights Activist Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) which the Chief believes Ron should go to, undercover. Ron does well and meets Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier) who is he instantly drawn to, but does not fully embrace her stance on cops being called pigs. Back at the station he comes up with an idea of calling the Ku Klux Klan membership line, surprisingly he gets through and is invited to meet the local leader Walter (Ryan Eggold), shocked but eager to get more on the case he enlists Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to go in his place, even more surprisingly Walter does not notice the differences in the voices, and Flip gets further and further inside the Klan.
Ron continues to have telephone conversations with Walter, he even gets through to David Duke (Topher Grace) who is the Grand Wizard.

What is shocking is this is based on a true story, and it was initially bought to Spike Lee by (Get Out Writer/Director) Jordan Peele, Lee liked it but suggested a few changes and he has definitely put his stamp on it. This is a Spike Lee joint. He has used the film as a strong social commentary on the current problems and issues within the United States of America. There is a strong use of conflicting messages and hijacking of events and propaganda – for me Lee is back on form and he is best when he addressing these issues. The powerful scene of the speech being delivered by Kwame with faces fading in and out is great, as is the juxtaposed scenes of Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte) remembering his friend being murdered against the speech by David Duke and the Klan watching The Birth of a Nation, this is a harrowing scene.

There are also comedic scenes which are light but, you are on a roller coaster of thoughts and emotions throughout the film that you are not sure when things are being serious and when not, which, is where it does fall. The editing and music is also chaotic, perhaps on purpose to disjoint you or not. I was impressed by all the actors here and this is the film where the ensemble cast is worth praising, and perhaps this makes it less about Ron, which I think may have been a misstep. I wanted to know more about him and what he was going through and also what he got out of it, instead Lee has used him as a canvas to tell a more elaborate and far reaching story on the issues of race and hate. I will give him credit for doing this, as it creates dialogue and highlights the issues, but it is difficult to condense it into a film which if not handled appropriately can completely miss the mark.

I would recommend the film, the ending is very moving and there is a payoff (notably it has been nominated for several awards, rightly so), but, I would not class it as Lee’s best but definitely his best in the last few years, but then again I do not know what is his best, which is frustrating.

Rating 4/5

Ida (2013)

Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida went on to win a number of accolades and prizes, including inspiring Paul Schrader for First Reformed (2017) (see my earlier review). On that basis I was hoping for a masterpiece, perhaps I was too expectant.

Ida is set in 1962 Poland and is about a young woman (Anna) who grew up in an orphanage and is about to take her vows before fully committing to becoming a nun, before she can, her Mother Superior informs her to go see her estranged aunt Wanda, Anna agrees and goes to meet her.

Anna’s aunt used to be state prosecutor but now is an alcoholic and heavy smoker, when Anna first meets Wanda a man is seen dressing and leaving the place. Wanda reveals a shocking truth, Anna’s real name is Ida and she is Jewish. This shocking revelation spurns Ida to learn about her past, Wanda agrees to help her and the two go in search of what happened to her parents.

The journey is a mixed bag, people in Poland are still recovering from the past physically and psychologically and the aftermath of the holocaust so it is difficult for the two to get people to open up. They eventually do trace down the farm where the family stayed, but there is more tragedy, and the impact that has on the two is far more then they could have imagined.

The film has exquisite cinematography and is shot in black and white which adds to the film, the way Pawlikowski uses the camera set just off the action is brilliant. The quiet and sombre setting of the nunnery is amazing to look at. Agata Trzebuchowska is good as Ida, but Agata Kulesza as Wanda steals each scene, she is fierce. The ending reminded of Truffaut’s Les quatre cents coup (The 400 Blows), definitely worth checking that out.

Now what stopped me from giving it a higher rating was that I perhaps expected more from it, I wanted to learn more about Ida’s family and history and Ida’s upbringing but maybe that was me. I would still recommend seeing it, watch out for the actor Joanna Kulig as the jazz singer as she pops up in Pawlikowski’s latest offering Cold War (2018) which seems to be gaining rave reviews.

Rating 4/5