Au Hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson, 1966) [Film Journal 2017 #2]

A film about an abused donkey in small town France, leading a saintly life that parallels that of it’s young owner Marie. An intriguing plot synopsis, one so specific that it could probably only be attempted by a master filmmaker. Bresson’ is a master indeed, expanding upon Eisenstein-esque montage theories to produce a uniquely film language, implying plot events with poetic edit choices and manipulating his untrained actors to be the conveyor of emotions for audiences to place themselves within, rather than forcing emotional performances onto audiences. His is an incredibly refined and deliberate style, one that screams to be studied by students and critics, and it’s probably unsurprising that he’s a favourite of film school courses worldwide. Also being one of the key influences on French New Wave filmmakers and subsequent followers such as Martin Scorsese or Terrance Malick, Bresson’s films deserve to be discovered by a wider audience – outside of just the elitist art house clique.

This is the 3rd Bresson film I’ve seen, and I’ve been lucky enough to have seen each of his on the big screen. The first being the prison break film A Man Escaped (1956), screened in Film Studies 101 in my first year of a Film and Media Studies degree as an example of a filmmaker using diegetic sound and uncommon camera framing devices to tell a narrative. Bresson spent over a year in a prison camp in WWII which gave him an experts knowledge to tell such a story. A Man Escaped is the most accessible and straight-forwardly entertaining I’ve seen of his and would be a good entry point. Diary Of A Country Priest (1951) was screened during a spirituality in film paper as an example of transcendent cinema. Transcendence being something above a normal earthly or physical level. The country priest of the title, known just as the Priest of Ambricourt, is a sickly man who struggles with his parish duties and become increasingly unwell throughout the film. His faith being tested, he receives no respite, and experiences a journey comparable to that of Christ. In his suffering Bresson insinuates he experiences transcendence of a sort.

I don’t know if the experience of watching a film can truly be said to be a transcendent experience – but this is something frequently stated about Bresson’s best films and their effect on the audience, and many critics state Au Hasard Balthazar as his best. Andrew Sarris exaggeratedly said of the film in 1970 – “No film I have ever seen has come so close to convulsing my entire being … It stands by itself as one of the loftiest pinnacles of artistically realized emotional experience.” Perhaps praising a film to that extent help to justify film as a serious art-form at a time when it’s reputation was still being solidified. But for a reknown critic and academic to be that passionate is perhaps a hint as to it’s place in the canon of classic cinema.

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Marie rejecting the affections of the earnest (or perhaps boring) Jacques

All of Bresson’s stylistic signatures are present in this film and perhaps mastered, but does that make the film groundbreaking or entertaining for a modern audience? In some ways yes, although research into the tools Bresson is using and his place in film history significantly increases an appreciation of the film, beyond a surface level. The use of untrained actors and the way in which Bresson directs he cast, filming take after take until the performance is diluted to it’s subconscious essence is in theory genius – rather than treating actors like stars, he uses them like a substance is diluted in homeopathy. During my initial viewing of Balthazar I could enjoy the performances as very naturalistic, documentary-like (neorealist perhaps) and understated. A character might say something dramatic, such as Marie refusing the love of her returning childhood sweetheart Jacques – but the lead actor Anne Wiazemsky talks as if she was hypnotized. As fascinating as this is, I would not have known the craft behind the performances without the research after watching the film.

As mentioned, the core narrative of the film concerns the saintly life of the donkey Balthazar, who suffers a life of servitude at the hands of it’s human masters, sometimes receiving kindness and sometimes abuse. Marie takes a shining to Balthazar and their lives are compared to each other, with the donkey’s life of abuse and mistreatment being paralleled by the somewhat tragic fate of Marie. The key sections of their lives are presented in separate segments almost like an anthology film. Within these segments, montage is used to imply meaning – to provide an example, a town drunk Arnold at one point takes owner ship of Balthazar. In one shot he says how he is going to quit drinking. The next shot is a close up on his hand holding a glass at a bar, the glass being filled with spirits. Such a cut caused laughter to erupt around the theater, showing that Bresson had a deft comic touch that is rarely noted.

Town drunk Arnold with Balthazar

 

Recovery not an option for Arnold is spite of his declarations

Recovery not an option for Arnold is spite of his declarations

Marie lives on a farm with her father and mother, known not by name, but they don’t own the farm. The farm-owners daughter dies in the opening sequence of the film, leading the family of the owner to leave the farm, which ends the brief childhood romance of Marie and Jacques (Jacques who is the son of the farms owner). Marie’s Dad is given responsibility over the farm and entitlement to the profits, yet the town bank enforces taking payments from the father which leaves the family in a state of destitution. A trouble-making gang of youths, led by Gerard (Francois Lafarge) soon enter Marie’s life, torturing Balthazar by tying fireworks to his tale, of which Marie does nothing to deter. Gerard seduces Marie, which is implied through his point of view gaze on her skirt, and a montage cut to blowing on a small horn in triumph, implying a successful conquest. Marie’s life becomes increasingly entangled with Gerard, which her family disapproves of yet is unable to dissuade. Gerard uses Balthazar for sometime, taking him from the family just as Gerard takes Marie.

Many crimes are caused by Gerard, and his at one point accused of a murder, yet this plot thread remains inconclusive. Arnold, the town drunk is also tormented by Gerard, yet later in the film Arnold surprisingly comes upon a fortune due to the death of an uncle. Gerard takes this opportunity to cause destruction to a bar, smashing mirrors and the entire collection of glass bottles, knowing Arnold will use his inheritance to pay for the bill. The scene of Gerard destroying the bar is one of the oddest of the film. The destruction is quite complete, and takes place around dancing townspeople. None of the extras dancing react at all to Gerard’s needless destruction. They have been directed not to show any awareness of it. Touches like this contribute to the dream or fantasy mood that Bresson conjures. Dramatic scenes occur, yet they do not occur as in real life, they take on more of a metaphorical role and therefore are more powerful, yet at the same time from a modern audiences perspective, are somewhat difficult to initially understand.

Balthazar at one point is sold to a local circus. He has a brief and seemingly successful career as an entertainer, and encounters other persecuted and subjegated circus animals – the eyes of an Elephant, Tiger and Chimpanzee staring mournfully back at Balthazar. Bresson apparently cared about the rights and lives of animals, sensibilities which fellow master director Ingmar Bergman apparently didn’t share. He famously said of Balthazar; “this Balthazar, I didn’t understand a word of it, it was so completely boring… A donkey, to me, is completely uninteresting, but a human being is always interesting.”

Brutal words, which serve to split Bresson and Bergman fans. Bresson ends the film with the saintly death of Balthazar, who expires surrounded by sheep, having been stolen by Gerard to steal goods – Balthazar’s demise occuring after being exploited one last time by the human’s who care not for his well-being. Marie’s narrative is left open, she at the very least escapes the village, but we are not if this is due to death or her own choice. The cruel characters of the film, notably Gerard never receive punishment for their deeds.

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Is it a film that will still be regarded as a classic in 50 years time? That remains to be seen. It’s certainly an intriguing and well-executed premise featuring Bresson’s master touches in terms of cinematography, acting, editing and sound design. But it is very much a melodrama and the moments of comedy are overshadowed the main tragic plot of girl and donkey. It is perhaps most entertaining as a snapshot of life in mid-20th century small town France, with traditional village life ontrasted with growing modernity (such as Gerard carrying around his portable radio, playing Rock n Roll in an imitation of an american bad-boy like James Dean). It may be dated, but if you’re willing to invest in the film some time, you’ll find a more rewarding watch than just about everything else currently being produced for celluloid.

9/10

 

Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008) [Film Journal 2017 #1]

After completing, and being fascinated with Shame (McQueen’s 2nd film from 2011) last night, I decided to not stop there and continued straight on to the first collaboration between director Steve McQueen, actor Michael Fassbender and cinematographer Sean Bobbit – all three would later work together on 12 Years A Slave.

I think it’s safe to say that I hold McQueen very high in my list of currently working directors. These are three of the most demanding and provoking films I know of in recent memory, it’s hard to pick my favourite of the three – but I think it’s Shame, for it resonated the most with me. Addiction, especially to that of pornography and other instant gratification-giving mediums is so common and not discussed enough in cinema. The relationship between Fassbender’s successful-on-a-surface-level corporate character, and his equally broken sister is tragic and I’m still running it through in my head a day later.

But onto Hunger, which I was intending to write about. McQueen is a master of the long-take, just like Kubrick or Welles. He lets the camera linger on fictional moments long enough that they start to feel real. He documents realities that we can’t visit in a way arguably more penetrating than a documentary filmmaker could.

Hunger tackled issues of Northern Ireland, not something I’ve been that exposed too. Bobby Sands’ tale of self-sacrifice for his nation, bethren and beliefs is evidently an influential one, a modern day myth. I find it hard to believe how a country could be so split down the middle by religious divide, and reading more into Sands’ life after watching Fassbender’s harrowing portrayal of him, I understand the kind of torment the man must have faced to lead him to make such an extreme decision for his own fate.

If a film like Hunger exists to educate the historically and politically naive such as myself, then it is serving a higher purpose than just to entertain, and that therefore makes it not just great cinema, but great art.

Film Review: The Green Inferno (Eli Roth, 2015) – [i watched it so you won’t have to]

I wish I wasn’t reviewing this movie. There are so many better films out there I could be talking about. Why haven’t  I seen The Revenant yet? Or Spotlight? Even The Hateful Eight? None of these I’ve yet had the opportunity to view. I could even make an attempt to be relevant and discuss Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn Of Justice, the most famous big terrible film out there at the present time. But instead, I’m going to talk about Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno.

Why, you might ask, do I choose to review this film, when I rarely do film reviews? It probably has something to do with my old obsession with horror films (which occurred around the same time as my teenage metal phase, which I wrote about in my last blog). I had been watched horror since the age of 11, and as my tastes expanded to ever more gory and shocking entries, it was only a matter of time before I discovered the cannibal film. A particularly un-politically correct sub-genre kicked off by Italian exploitation directors in the mid-70s, cannibal films are usually set in the jungle, often feature real animal murders, extreme gore (at the hands of westerners and depicted indigenous people) and content influenced by Italian shock-documentaries (mondo films) and neo-realism techniques. I would eventually write by Film Studies honours dissertation on the pinnacle of the genre (and a high/low point of extreme horror), Cannibal Holocaust. Needless to say, with a topic like that, my dissertation was doomed from the very start.

Perhaps mainstream American filmmakers like Eli Roth should start pointing their cameras towards the horrors taking place within their own country, of which there are plenty – rather than regressively projecting xenophobic fears onto invented demons in faraway places

 

You can understand then, my interest when I heard that Eli Roth was re-imagining the cannibal genre for modern audiences with The Green Inferno. The title itself is a reference to a scene within Cannibal Holocaust, so I knew this would be a film I would eventually, if reluctantly have to see. It took me a while but last night I finally gave this modern cannibal retelling a spin. Eli Roth isn’t known for subtlety, the Hostel series being the crown of his filmography so far (or arguably Cabin Fever), and staying true to form, you’ll find nothing subtle here. The start of the film is not completely terrible, framing itself as an American college comedy with a bit of an ecological thriller edge. A college ‘freshmen’, Justine (Lorenza Izzo), daughter of a United Nations attorney becomes interested in a social activism group, who led by a shady but charismatic student named Alejandro (Ariel Levy) take a trip to the amazon rain-forest to film logging operations which are obliterating local tribes. This ecological thriller plot I felt could have actually been an interesting. There are a few good characters here, such as a kindly ecological protester Jonah (Aaron Burns), who has a wee crush on Justine. He is also the first to be dismembered when the cannibals arrive (each limb chopped off one by one, and his head removed – such savage indigenous folk they are). Sky Ferreira is the best known actor in the film, although she stays behind in New York, and thus lives, having been a major character for the first 30 minutes, only to decide the mission to the amazon is a ‘lame idea’. Or perhaps her management had second thoughts on the films content.

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Alejandro, turns out to be selfish and evil, happy to let Justine nearly be shot by the tree loggers, after the group of activists chain themselves to the fowled trees 30 minutes in. They survive however, having succeeded in filming on their smartphones the event of the loggers holding them at gunpoint. Their plane sadly crashes back into the jungle, and this is when the film moves from teen comedy/drama hybrid with some ecological themes, into a straight up classic cannibal gore-fest.

I was wondering how the film would tackle indigenous subject matter, and whether it would be respectful to real cultural practices. After all, cannibal films were ethically dodgy enough in the 1970s, let alone nowadays. It turns out not, and Roth’s depiction of the savage natives is as cartoon-ish as could possibly be. This is very much a case of foreign people being envisioned as the terrifying other, proving that racial terror is deep enough an American interest to be mined for cash decades after one would assume it was too offensive to do so.  At least Cannibal Holocaust gave a understandable reason for the indigenous Amazon tribes-people to be cannibalizing the westerners – that the western documentary-makers had been inflicting horrors upon them. So it was revenge cannibalism. I guess the habitat destroying of the tree loggers in The Green Inferno could be one possible reason for the indigenous people’s  violence against their captive Americans – and the American teens are shown to be shallow in their desire to gain shares and views for their smartphone slacktivism, but these are themes that are only weakly address. Instead, the tribes people are like demons, brutally murdering our western protagonists in a variety of gory but not particularly interesting ways. There is some commentary on ancient female circumcision practices, but mostly it’s all schlock violence. Towards the end of the film the loggers even appear, hacking down the tribes people in a torrent of bullet fire, thus saving our final girl Jan. Therefore everyone in this film is bad. The loggers, the arrogant westerners, the cannibalistic prehistoric indigenous people of the Amazon – all evil, all corrupt. It all adds up to one boring, meaningless, stylized mess.

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If this was a smarter film, the indigenous people of the amazon would still be allowed to scare you – perhaps through ancient ritualistic sacrifice practices against our western protagonists, yet they wouldn’t be so completely demonized as they are in Eli Roth’s depiction. Painting them red, overdoing the make-up on the tribal leaders, and giving no reason for their savagery. At one stage, our protagonist’s force a bag of marijuana down the throat of their friends’ corpse. The natives then cook and eat this corpse, and in doing so become high. Queue a joke about the indigenous people having the munchies, which involves them suddenly becoming zombies and eating one of our westerners alive. In some sense, I guess this is an inventive way to combine between a teen-stoner comedy gag and a cannibal horror scene. Mostly, it’s mind-numbingly stupid, and undermines any attempts the filmmakers had made earlier to give any insight and backstory into real amazonian tribal practices. I hate to be a stickler for details, this is a schlocky teen horror after all – but the level of crassness in Roth’s scriptwriting made me miss the golden age of 1970s b-movies of which this film is indebted to even more. At least back then, the influential wave of Italian filmmakers such as Ruggero Deodato and Umberto Lenzi put some effort into realistically depicting the indigenous people in their notorious horror creations.

On the positives, the practical effects are good and the acting was pretty reasonable. Production values were slick, and it was nice to see the jungle back on screen. Roth obviously knows his horror, and the references to Cannibal Holocaust and Ferox were appreciated. I guess I’m just disappointed.  I know that a contemporary cannibal film could be better – more realistic in it’s depiction of indigenous people, more detailed in it’s handling of current ecological issues of the amazon, less campy and less-reliant on American teen movie tropes. Perhaps what I wanted was a Werner Herzog cannibal film, and even though Roth used Herzog’s Aguirre Wrath Of God as a reference, he didn’t make it anywhere near that films daring guerrilla audacity. Perhaps mainstream American filmmakers like Eli Roth should start pointing their cameras towards the horrors taking place within their own country, of which there are plenty – rather than regressively projecting xenophobic fears onto invented demons in faraway places – all for the sake of another cheap, sex and death, teen trash money-maker.

 

 

 

Film Review: Love And Mercy (Bill Pohlad, 2015)

Brian Wilson’s story is unusual by Pop history standards. A musical prodigy, who created his most notable and successful work before the age of 25, he soon succumbed to regular drug use as his mental health declined. His fears and neuroses plaguing him, creative output declined and by the early 80s he was bed-ridden and weighed over 300 pound. He at one point would have seemed a sure bet for the next name in rock’s tragic casualty list, along with Keith Moon, Elvis and Syd Barrett. But proving himself a rare survivor, in spite of his on-going near-schizophrenic illnesses and is still performing and recording music to this day – most of which is pretty good and nearly holds up to his early groundbreaking works. These are SMilE and Pet Sounds, and if you haven’t delved into Wilson, I greatly suggest giving all versions of SMilE listen to understand why this guy is so revered. Now he has his own biopic, which is greatly entertaining in spite of it’s flaws and has it’s own unique style and insight’s into this most unique of musical lives.

Veteran producer and recent director Bill Pohlad led the production, using inventive narrative devices to capture the essence of Wilson’s art as well as his strained genius. The narrative jumps between two key periods in Wilson’s life. Paul Dano plays a young Wilson, mental health declining while he reaches his creative peak. In the second narrative, John Cusack plays an older, increasingly troubled Wilson under the grip of psychotherapist Dr. Eugene Landy. This style is comparable to Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan cross-section, I’m Not There (screenwriter Oren Moverman worked on both). While that film took liberties with the life of Bob Dylan, drawing inspiration from his music and various stages of his persona, Love And Mercy sticks to the facts. Mythic moments of Wilson’s career such as the piano in the sandbox, the animals in the studio, the 1964 airborne panic attack – are all present. Much documented quotes and conversations are included, but they’re also condensed, which is probably necessary to not drag out exposition, but it does feel forced at times.

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Minor script accuracy gripes aside, most of the early Wilson period is electrifyingly re-enacted, Paul Dano’s performance of Wilson being particularly accurate. Wilson himself is quoted as saying in regards to this performance, “I was really blown away by how close he [Dano] got to my personality. It’s amazing.” The scenes of recording Pet Sounds and Smile are a thrill, and seem to be very accurately depicted. Music geeks will get off on the attention to detail – the actor’s playing the session musicians are all really playing their instruments, the studios and locations look authentic, and even mythic scenes such as Wilson directing an entire orchestra to wear children’s fireman helmets are included. The early scenes steal the movie for me, and make the film worth watching for this alone. John Cusack does his best as the older Wilson and although Dano is a more realistic in appearance, Cusack’s performance effectively conveys the heartbreaking desperation of Wilson’s middle aged situation. Later scenes are dominated by exchanges between Wilson’s second wife, Melinda Ledbetter (played by Elizabeth Banks) and the controlling psychotherapist and main antagonist, Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). A trim to these scenes wouldn’t have hurt, though they get their intended emotional effect across. Landy is portrayed completely as the enemy, and Ledbetter as Wilson’s savior, although many sources state that the real life Landy saved Wilson’s life (if the Daily Mail is to believed). No doubt their relationship was unhealthy towards the end, but perhaps in portraying Landy as an utter evil presence is some what a distortion of the truth.

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Jumping between the two time-periods is sometimes erratic, with both having their own distinctive styles. Cinematography choices reflects this, with the early period seeming to be 35mm, while the later a digital aesthetic. The episodic structure of the film keeps things entertaining, as the script rarely falls on usual biography film cliches. These choices could be said to be experimental in the way that Wilson’s songwriting is – with edit choices comparable to the cut and paste techniques used in the recording of Good Vibrations for example. The sound design is also stand-out, with Atticus Ross drawing from Wilson’s studio archive to create something reflective of the auditory hallucinations Wilson experiences. The compositions sit side by side with the Beach Boys classics, tying the two narrative sections together, and amplifying the drug fueled paranoia of the 60s scenes immensely.

Technically impressive and emotionally powerful, this is an unconventional but polished dramatization of one of the most important musicians of our time. Wilson’s life is not greatly known outside of the realm of Beach Boys fanatics, so I feel this is an important story to push to the mainstream. Parts of the narrative might be slightly biased to certain party’s – the argument has been put out there that this is revisionist history praising Wilson’s current wife and demonizing Eugene Landy – but the story told within is a fascinating one, if simplified for mainstream audiences. I would argue more good than harm is done with the telling of this story, as it brings light on how debilitating mental health issues can be, even to some one seemingly blessed with talent and opportunity. Most importantly, this is a really entertaining and intelligently made film. Somewhat like the intentional musical errors found within some of Wilson’s best compositions, there are rough edges, but they only make the film more interesting.

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The Theory Of Everything – Hawking on film

I’ve been out of touch with films for some time, so I thought I’d better catch up, seeing as it’s the Academy Awards later this week. I’m pretty jaded these days and I know longer care who wins the big awards, and I’m fairly jaded with the experience of going to the cinema as well, but never-the-less I gave this Stephen Hawking bio-pic a go.

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It’s a good film, and though predictable in usual Oscar bait fashion, Eddie Redmayne as Hawking is pretty remarkable, as is Felicity Jones as his wife, Jane Wilde. It cannot have been easy for Redmayne to pull off the various stages of Hawking’s life, both the eccentricity of his early life and his rapid physical decline due to motor neurone disease. The filmmakers never get manipulative with the emotional content of the story, instead presenting it as it was, investigating the complex nature of Hawking and Wilde’s relationship as they move from being loves, to husband and wife, and encounter many of the same issues that face all couples.

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The direction is clever, with certain elements chosen to reflect Hawking’s theories (particularly those about time). The science is simplified, but not skipped over, so the film is some sense representative of Hawking’s career.

Perhaps what I like most about the film, is it has gotten me interested again in Hawking. I’ve always meant to read his Brief History Of Time and I imagine soon I will. The film has so far inspired me to watch the Errol Morris documentary based on that book and I recommend that film to anyone interested in Hawking’s life and his ideas. It goes well beyond the scope of a bio-pic, so in my opinion it’s still the more necessary of Hawking on film. The whole thing is on youtube, so check it out if you haven’t yet. Produced in the late-80s, Hawking narrates the film from his wheel chair, via characteristic robotic speech. Exploring both his theories and his life, with re-enactments, archival footage, interviews with his family and colleagues and fantastic sci-fi-esque sequences that portray Hawking as a mysterious traveler of space and time – the film is a masterpiece of mixed media documentary form. Surely one of Morris’ best, if not one of the greatest documentary’s ever.

After I’ve read Brief History of Time and perhaps some more recent of Hawking’s writings (and anything else relevant), I hope to be able to discuss his theories more in depth and will hopefully do so on this blog. He has lived a very inspirational life, as the recent bio-pic and classic documentary reveal. Not everyone would lose all their motor functions, their ability to speak and continue to do work and live a relatively normal life –  it helps I guess that Hawking had the money and esteem for nurses and technology and people to help him through his struggles, but never-the-less, as particularly the documentary points out – not everyone could live and create a life’s work predominantly inside their head (without being able to greatly make contact with the outside work in a traditional way) .

Towards the end of Brief History Of Time, things get really deep, discussing the curved nature of the universe, the fact that it may not have a beginning or an end – and that how many calculations seem to indicate that the future effects the past. All awesome and mid boggling theories. Hawking ends by discussing how, if scientists, philosophers and the general public are able to one day discover the meaning of our existence on earth – then we will know the mind of God. Massive ideas there, and very inspiring – part of why Hawking’s influence has traveled so far, from books, to documentaries, to Oscar contending bio-pics.

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[Review] Life Itself (Steve James, 2014)

 

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The life of Roger Ebert, flaws and all is celebrated in this particularly moving documentary on the late, great cinematic figure. I initially wasn’t going to review this film, but Ebert is an inspirational kind of person, if an unlikely one, and his love of film makes film criticism seem like something honorable. His was an arguably right-place, right-time kind of success story, and film criticism does not have any kind of the weight now that it had in Ebert’s prime, thanks to sprawling destructive beast that is the internet. But any art-form has it’s golden era, and film criticism is no different. Ebert is one of the lucky few to have been able to do what he loved for a job, perfected it and been recognized for his talents. A colossal presence in the world of film criticism, Ebert’s love of film as presented in this film is infectious.

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The real reason why Ebert has such a moving and successful documentary made about him when so many other deceased writers, Hollywood figures and film reviewers have not, is that we can learn a lot from how he responded to the challenges thrown at him in the last several years of his life. Having lost his jaw to thyroid cancer, he chose not to give up and throw in the towel, but instead to carry on reviewing films, carry on hosting lectures and write even more through his blog. He was helped with the love of his very loyal wife, so not only do we get an insight into personal struggle and hope that can found within but also an insight into the lives of those who will continue to care for us even in ailment. Ebert’s relationship with his wife is a particularly moving thread throughout the film, an unlikely relationship in some ways as his wife even admits.

The documentary is well pieced together, jumping between narrated sections taken from Ebert’s book also titled Life Itself, cutting to his youth and early career and to struggles in between. Ebert’s life is presented warts and all and the documentary makers don’t shy from talking about his troubles, such as alcoholism in his youth. His relationship with Gene Siskel is equally shown in an unbiased light, showing the tension between the two, both rival reviewers of different Chicago papers, and how strained their relationship behind the set of At The Movies often was. Siskel is shown as being creatively more dominant in decisions regarding At The Movies, yet Ebert was crucial to the success of the TV show. Ebert held the cards with each ongoing season of At The Movies, with Siskel said to have been in fear that his partner would eventually go solo. The developing dynamics between the two are explored as we see them becoming a tighter unit, and eventually friends.

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The life of a film critic might not seem the most gripping subject for a documentary but this film ends up being about so much more, showing a life fully lived –  with all aspects of Ebert’s inspiring and very human journey explored. Ebert truly loved life – and film just as much. If he was alive to watch this biographical documentary on himself, he most certainly would have given t a very favorable rating. Probably even two thumbs up.

Final thoughts on film and music for 2014 (Babadook, Under The Skin, The Interview)

The year has pretty much ended, only one Wednesday left to go. This is the time of year for reflection, so without getting too deep into rumination I will attempt one last discussion of the years cultural moments that resonated with me. There’s quite few albums and films I haven’t discussed throughout the year, so for the sake of conclusiveness I’ll write them up here.

Films

In the previous post I discussed favourite films from 2014, but there were a few I missed. I’ve recently been catching up on missed films, which I probably should have included in that list. One of which is The Babadook, an Australian horror directed by actor and first time director, Jennifer Kent. This is a thinking persons psychological horror, heart felt as well as horrible and dealing with relatable themes. Critics loved this and it’s worth checking out, some very creepy moments and clever twists and turns. Comparable to classic horror/dramas like The Exorcist or Asian horror – it’s hard to discuss the narrative without giving away too much, so I’ll leave it vague. The acting of six-year old Noah Wiseman is notable as well, and credit to director Kent for getting such a performance from a child.

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Another I enjoyed is the much raved about Under The Skin, from Jonathon Glazer, an unusual science fiction thriller starring Scarlett Johansson as an alien seducing and preying on men in Scotland. The aesthetic is a mix of realism and fantasy, with hidden cameras employed in the driving scenes – some conversations unscripted with non-actors. This is juxtaposed with stylized scenes – once Johansson’s unnamed creature succeeds in seducing a victim back to a desolate flat in the middle of some Scottish city, we enter a surreal black environment where men are sucked into this infinite dark swamp. These unusual images contrast with the gritty bleakness of the Scottish normality, although there is also something I found quite appealing about the northern landscape. In many ways the film is Johansson’s, she dominates the screen, her sensuality subverted into something sinister. But this is certainly not a horror film, more of an observation on modern life and the search for human connection in our distant contemporary communities – through the eyes of a creature far from human. The narrative becomes more complex throughout the running time and the themes are subverted further. Probably a surprise it’s so successful given the strange combination of styles, but deserving of the critical response and a film that will outlast many other 2014 releases.

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Upstream Color, the second from Primer director Shane Carruth was equally unusual and contained within it a wealth of themes ready to be unpacked by an undergrad film class. It’s entertainment value is arguable, and it is challenging, but the sound design is amazing, and credit to the skilled way the narrative is chopped up and gradually presented to the audience throughout the film. Worth a mention, but not my favourite of the years offerings.

Lastly, The Interview, which I have to mention as it’s last minute Christmas VOD release makes at least the last most talked about film of 2014. I enjoyed the film, not as much as Franco and Rogan’s previous This Is The End, but it’s not as bad as the pre-release reviews would have had me believe. There are lot of funny moments, it’s all immature as hell, but the script misses opportunities to properly critique American foreign policy, the media and the great dictatorship of our time. What we’ve got is a pretty good mainstream Hollywood comedy, which is better than the bulk of Hollywood comedies (but that’s not saying much). Rogan is likeable and there are some good performances from Randall Park as Kim Jong-un (giving a very Americanized performance) and Diana Bang as a North Korean minister and romantic interest Sook. I laughed a lot – at the repeated gags, slapstick scenarios and buddy-comedy situations, but the irresponsible elements of the narrative remained distasteful after the credits rolled. Although I initially enjoyed the gory shoot-out towards the end as a bit of comic fun, I can’t get with the killing of Kim Jong-un on screen – even if it is for the sake of a mildly funny Katie Perry joke (this context was not apparent when the footage was first released). The moral the filmmakers leave us with is that violence solves everything, an all too American approach, and one only has to take a look at the result of violence within the US to know this is false. It’s a film yes, and not something to be taken serious – it’s good the film was released, censorship is bullshit – but killing Kim Jong-un was not actually necessary to the plot of the film and there were many other less-arrogant ways the filmmakers could have ended things. There were more subtle options the filmmakers could have taken – a fictional dictatorship for example – from a capitalist perspective at least (one of making a profit that is), they’ve probably made the right choice.

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Music

I was going to end by talking about some of my most enjoyed music picks from 2014, but I feel I’ve talked enough now – so true to the title of this blog, I’m going to shut up. Instead I’ll let the tracks speak for themselves. I haven’t blogged a heck of a lot about music so this is perhaps something I’ll try to do more of next year. For now, here are some of the albums worthy of a bash from 2014.

Run The Jewels 2

The best rap album this year. El-P brings his best beats, and along with Killer Mike trade some great, angry, revolutionary and witty rhymes. No filler, all killer.

Ariel Pink – Pom Pom

A time warp to a musical age in between the 80s and 90s that never existed. Yet one that is really catchy, full of odd and interesting characters and much diversity.

Azealia Banks – Broke With Expensive Taste

Not necessarily a great album, but there’s a lot of diversity in the tracks and some inventive flows. She tries a bit hard at times, but this track bangs.

Jack White – Lazaretto

The best Led Zeppelin and Rage Against The Machine song released this year. Fat as hell guitar tone from Mr. White. Good ideas all throughout the album as well.

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How will 2015 stack up against ’14? I predict it to be better music wise (new Kendrick Lamar and new Kanye will shake things up rap wise no doubt), but perhaps it’ll be a bit harder to match twenty fourteens film effort. Of course there’ll be a bunch more important things happening world wide in current events as well. Hopefully the world doesn’t end, and hopefully things in our personal lives go well also. I’m sure they will. On that note of positivity, see you next year!