Sunday, October 18, 2015

Quick Critique: The Martian (2015)

Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is left stranded on Mars after he is presumed dead due to an accident while an emergency evacuation was occurring. Left with little food, the equipment on the base and his own ingenuity, Mark has to find a way to survive on Mars until a return mission not due for another three years, while NASA and his crew scramble to rescue him.

What elevates ‘The Martian’ from any other movie in its ‘survivalist’ subgenre is the incredibly dynamic and carefully planned script. The methods Watney takes to save himself feel very plausible, even if some events or ideas make your eyes nearly go out of your skull in wonderment of how the hell he survived them. Thankfully most of this is solid, and perfectly balanced by the fact that there’s a sense of levity layered throughout. The movie is very, very funny, allowing it to feel more human than if it was utterly grim and dispirited, and helping us connect to our lead.

Balancing this script is a constant switching between Earth, Mars and the ship with Watney’s crew. This also allows every actor to get their moment to shine, and the cast in this is so good, not a single member falters. They’re all insanely well written and performed. Particular props goes to Chiwetel Ejiofor, as this movie further proves the man needs to be in more films.

The shining light is Matt Damon, who creates a character not only endearing in his wit, but also admirable in his survival skills and resourcefulness. Despite the humour, there are moments that allow the weight of what is going on to bare down, and Damon absolutely excels in them. It’s too early to tell, but the high brows of the Academy are hopefully going higher.

The film isn’t without its flaws. The opening goes by so fast, it’s hard to feel any connection Watney and his crew may have. While that doesn’t kill the believability in any way, it would have helped to cement the importance of the crew’s bond, especially as they spend a good chunk of the start not onscreen. There are also some moments that feel convenient and written in to solve plotting issues. An example is Donald Glover’s character, and while he does a great job at being a bit-too-realistic lab geek, he has the grand total of two short scenes before he barges into the movie and gives us our denouement plan, and then leaves until one brief moment until the end. He’s the nerd MacGuffin. A NerdGuffin, if you will.

‘The Martian’ truly is an impressive feat in cinema. Beautifully shot, making Mars look tranquil and wondrous as well as terrifying, it’s also held up with an excellent script, a whip smart sense of humour, one of the best ensemble casts of the year, a cleverly imbued soundtrack and an accessibility that makes this a crowd pleaser and a sci-fi fan pleaser. One not to miss.


Monday, October 12, 2015

IndieCork: The Wanted 18 (2014)

In the 80s, a boycott on Israeli goods and taxes was implemented in Palestinian territories. In order to sustain themselves under this boycott, the small town of Beit Sahour purchases 18 cows off Israeli farmers. After learning how to farm cows and produce milk, it was a rounding success and becomes known as ‘Intifada Milk’. However, the cows are declared a threat by the Israeli state, and efforts are made to remove them.

‘The Wanted 18’ tells a story of a rather unique rebellion in a pretty unique way. The movie is comprised of live action interviews, shots on Beit Sahour in present day, archived footage, comic-style drawings, and what stands out the most is the claymation sequences focused on four personified cows. It allows the plot to be told with several different angles, and gives it a sense of levity and drama probably not reached otherwise.

What makes the movie works is not only do these styles blend together, they never feel too cumbersome or flat. The fact that they can find humour in such a horrible crisis allows it to hit home a lot better. Not that there isn’t drama or tragic moments, and each point of reference helps build everything up to its rather dour conclusion.

Not that the movie is defeatist, however. While most of the interviewees talk about how it was all for nothing, that rebellious fire and defiance to unfair authority is very potent and lights a pretty hopeful picture. Helping to capture that mood are the drawings that reference or parody famous comic book panels, including a rather wonderful homage to Action Comics no.1, the first appearance of Superman.

Everything is shot in a way to get across this comic-style, and it truly works to the film’s betterment. Even the recreated scenes are shot in a way to get that feel. It makes the story feel more mythic and epic, and allows for the more unnatural elements like the talking cows feel more relevant and impactful. The best example of this is the ending which, without giving it away, blends reality and myth and shows why a marriage of both can be so important during times of hardship or despair.
If the movie has any flaws, it’s not as tightly paced as it could be. While all the elements work really well together, they could have been chopped down a bit to help the film run more smoothly. Plus, some of the recreations feel too unnatural. It’s hard to pinpoint why, but they never feel authentic enough and can take you out of the experience.

‘The Wanted 18’ is a fair and heartfelt portrayal of a rebelling country and how stories can inspire us. Everybody works together (including an Israeli military leader) to give it the weight and context it needs, and it is helped along with humour and pathos. It is a tale definitely worth the telling.


Sunday, October 11, 2015

IndieCork: Theeb (2014)

Theeb is a young boy named after his father in the Ottoman province of Hijaz during World War One. Together with his brother Hussein, they help an English soldier and his guide reunite with his unit, and ultimately set the course of a harsh and unforgiving adventure that will change Theeb’s life forever.

Probably one of the best things about ‘Theeb’ is its unpredictability. Every turn and twist the story took you don’t see coming, and it really helps rank up the suspense. Because of this, the movie is hard to discuss for fear of spoilers, but it may also turn people off because to keep up this structure the narrative is flimsy and very lacking. While the Jordan deserts are beautifully shot and striking in their harshness, the cinematography is not atmospheric or varied enough to keep your attention throughout.

This is a shame, because everything else about ‘Theeb’ works extremely well. The characters are fleshed out and defined enough that you feel a sense of urgency and connection when they are put in perilous situations. There’s not a single bad performance in the main cast, which helps sell the authenticity of the setting. Special mention goes to Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat who plays our eponymous hero. He carries a lot of the weight of the film on his shoulders and does it admirably, especially for an actor of his age.

The movie chooses to be more minimal and briefly worded, particularly due to its lacking plot. Because of this, there are a lot of subtleties and small touches that really add to the world building. The struggle with the Ottoman Empire and how this small province has fallen into anarchy over the rail line is present, but mostly kept for a few brief conversations and images. This adds to a lot of symbolic moments and gets across that Theeb’s coming-of-age is also the same for this region coming into modernity, being scarred and dragged along in certain respects.

It’s the unforgiving nature that truly defines this movie, going back to its unpredictability. The gun fights are given quasi-realistic status (outside of the fact that it does take a while for them to need to reload) because people will get killed and stuff will go wrong. Rather than being a trite and predictable story about blending old traditions with advances in living, it shows that these ways will be crushed and pushed aside as the new makes its way through. This is both in practical application of living and the values and beliefs that people live by.

If there was more narrative meat or if the cinematography gave us more of a visual striking motif, ‘Theeb’ could be a masterpiece. As it currently stands, it’s a very strong movie that values subtlety and a sense of reality over flashier storytelling. The characters are memorable, the setting is dense and you’ll be wondering where the movie goes right up to the credits.


Saturday, October 10, 2015

IndieCork: Coming Home (2014)

‘Coming Home’ deals with the aftermath of the release of Angel Cordero. 13 years prior, Angel was wrongfully accused of attempted murder and sent to jail. He served the full sentence, even after the real culprit confessed to the crime years after. Now with prison behind him, and under parole, this documentary follows him in his first few days as a free man, settling down with a woman he married whilst behind bars, confronting the man whose crime he served time for, and trying to connect to his distant and conflicted daughter, who was only 3 when he went away.

Beautifully shot with excellent and vibrant camera work, ‘Coming Home’ doesn’t feel like a documentary so much as a feature. This helps audiences feel more engaged in the story, as it’s being told to you rather than explained. This method not only keeps the momentum up, but it allows you to connect with the people a lot easier.

Angel Cordero is a very magnetic personality. You truly feel for his lost time, yet he doesn’t let it defeat him or strip him of his humanity. Despite his daughter’s reservations to fully allow him in her life, his determination to get through to her is incredibly endearing. He never truly acts like a victim of circumstance, and his candour and positive attitude just makes him a delight to watch.

Probably the greatest strength of the film is that it chooses not to judge or become bitter, just like Angel. Some of the most powerful material is the confrontation with Dario Rodriguez, the real culprit of the stabbing. Forthright and laid bare, there is no venom or bitterness shown as the two men discuss what happened and why Rodriguez didn’t turn himself in sooner. Nothing about the interactions between the people involved feels artificial or forced; it’s purely authentic. A stellar example of this is a conversation between Angel and his wife Michelle whilst the former contemplates a move that could jeopardise his parole.

The heart of the story, however, is Angel’s fractured relationship with his daughter, Sarah. Again, there’s no judgement or misgivings about how Sarah rejects her father; she has some legitimate issues with him. Most of the film’s narrative revolves around his attempts to connect with her, and it is as sweet as it is heart-breaking. Without going into it too much, the resolution of it is bittersweet, as you truly grow to care for these people and want the best to happen to them.

‘Coming Home’ may lack focus in places, but its strength in filmmaking and character pulls it through. Angel Cordero is as great a protagonist as you can ask for, and the situation is given an honest reflection without bias seeping into the proceedings. It’s a heartfelt and sobering documentary about the struggles of life after prison.

Oh, and the soundtrack is awesome.


Friday, October 9, 2015

IndieCork: The Last Show (2015)

(as an aside, I saw this at it's world premiere! Kind of exciting to review a film most people have not seen yet)

Celebrated theatre director Damien Dowd (Brian Fortune) brings the cast of his upcoming play to a country house to rehearse separated from the world. However, egos and hidden dramas threaten to undermine this production as the anxiety-laden director finds himself unable to control the situation or his own fragile mental state.

The concept of this ensemble house drama is quite intriguing: take a theatre troupe with their own unique personalities and hang-ups and see how they implode within the setting. What really helps with this is that each character is given their own voice and personality. While there are a few characters more prevalent than others, the script is smart and precise enough to give every person there their own story and background. Each one feels distinctive.

The setting is very well utilised as well. While the entire movie takes place in a country home, it uses its surroundings smartly, and each location inside and out breathes fresh life into the story and stops it from getting stale. Helped with this is some excellent camera work, with a nice variety of shots and compositions to keep the eye engaged. This was a deliberate choice from writer/producer/director/actor Rita-Marie Lawlor, and it very much pays off.

If there are any problems with the movie technically, they’re very minor. There were a few glitches in the sound mixing that catch you off guard in certain moments, but they’re not frequent enough to be too bothersome. Similarly, there are a few awkwardly framed scenes that didn’t seem timed well, including one moment where a character tries to attack another. Again, these are infrequent, and it’s a credit to the skill of the production team that there are very few hiccups like this.

What makes this story work is that it doesn’t divulge into melodrama or convoluted storytelling at the start. It’s all cleverly built up, and really prepares the audience for the ending. Little moments or lines of dialogue actually do pay off with later revelations, and the cast is so good that it never feels too weighty or forced.

Unfortunately, the problem with the final act has more to do with the tone. It goes to such a dark place that it feels way too jarring with the rest of the story. To make it more consistent would sacrifice how much fun and relatable the first two thirds are, but it may have been needed for the finale to hit home.

‘The Last Show’ is a movie about how ego and selfishness can blow up something great and tear people down just too far. Its darker undercurrent is excellently offset by an enjoyable screenplay and a really dynamic and fun set of character. Despite the dramatics played throughout, it never gets too heavy until the final third. If it had made that final gutpunch hit more naturally, it would be an incredibly solid movie, but for what it is, it’s very entertaining and playfully dark with an excellent cast of fine Irish talent.


Thursday, October 8, 2015

IndieCork: A Kind of Sisterhood (2015)

‘A Kind of Sisterhood’ is distinctive from a lot of documentaries about the Troubles in Ireland as it focuses on female political prisoners. Going through two and a half decades of events leading up the 90s, it tells the tales of women locked up in Armagh and Maghaberry gaols, a focus which was largely ignored by the media.

Presented as a ‘work-in-progress’ by its directors, it’s hard to say what works and what doesn’t with the film due to it not being the version they want to leave as the finished product. What it lacks in technical prowess due to its next to nothing budget, it makes up for in powerful interviews with the women who were political prisoners during these difficult times and people associated with them.

Probably the smartest narrative decision was interweaving well-known events linked to the Troubles. Examples of these include the loss of political prisoner status, the no-wash protest and the hunger strike; one of the three women who took part in the latter was interviewed. Along with the women discussing their sentences, it blends archive footage and newspaper clippings to give a full scope of the story they were a part of while also highlighting what minimal focus they were given.

Rather than getting too bogged down in the politics of the matter, it uses the women’s own testimonials that allows for a more human focus. While these are from largely republican prisoners, there is a loyalist also interviewed with a portion looking at her own struggles. The film’s intent isn’t so much to get you to pick a side, rather it wishes to tell these accounts that were overlooked at the time.

Unfortunately, the lack of budget can hurt the presentation. A lot of the audio is echoing and hard to hear, and the camera work can be inconsistent in parts. These technical issues may be fixed with the planned reedit of the piece, but unfortunately it can be hard to hear people or keep focus on the proceedings.

Also, the ‘sisterhood’ doesn’t feel that well defined. While elements of it are naturally there, and the women’s individual stories are compelling enough to not need it, it doesn’t capture that scope of comradery and togetherness that the filmmakers may have wanted.

‘A Kind of Sisterhood’ is well worth seeing to get an unsung voice heard on a terrible part of Irish history. It keeps your attention with some fascinating accounts, which never pull away from the horrific or the disheartening. It’s a human story of struggle and mistreatment, and while it may not have the focus it desires, it’s worth watching for anyone interested in recent Irish history or a woman’s place in a predominantly male-focused event.