Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Prisoners

Lowdown: When two girls disappear, both a diligent father and an analytical policeman conduct their own investigation.
Review:
If you ever asked yourself the question “what can a good director achieve with the help of a good script and good actors nowadays”, then Prisoners (2013) is the answer you’ve been looking for. Superficially speaking, it’s a film we’ve seen many times before – a mystery/crime thriller – but oh how so well made this one is! All without the need to resort to modern pyrotechnics along the lines of CGI.
Stepping into the role of the good director is Denis Villeneuve, about whom I have never heard before but now I know to be the guy slated to direct Blade Runner’s sequel. For the actors part of the equation, Prisoners supplies Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal; clearly, this is as fine as one can get.
The script? It’s a tale of the sudden disappearance of two girls on Thanks Giving night. One girl comes from the paternal family headed by the Bible thumping Keller (Jackman), the other from their black neighbours’ friends. The police doesn’t mess about, sending its big gun along right off the start – detective Loki (Gyllenhaal), whose record sports no unsolved cases. Their only lead is the recollection the girls did express an interest in the campervan parked outside their home.
Thus commences a process where both detective and parent search for the girls their own way. Keller goes about the biblical way, if you will, apprehending his suspect without concrete proof and applying Guantanamo style torture. Loki, on the other hand, is very analytical; he has his own way of achieving progress, and won’t lift a finger without evidence. Prisoners uses the contradiction between the two approaches to raise before us this dilemma which our societies have been facing for a while now: do we follow our instinct or do we follow our brain? And when we do follow whatever we choose to follow, how far down the ethical abyss can we allow ourselves to plummet even in the name of the most sacred of causes – in Prisoners’ case, the rescuing of two young girls? Well, we know what path the USA chose.
Not that it really matters, but Prisoners seems to say you need a little bit of both approaches in order to “get there”. I disagree, but that does not detract from the fact the discussion is oh-so-well presented.
One of the beauties of Prisoners is the way it keeps us in the dark. As I have already mentioned, we’ve seen Prisoners before plenty of times; yet Prisoners has an edge in the fact it keeps us knowing only what the two leads know. We are in the dark just as they are, stumbling on dead ends and backtracking to find a new lead as we strive towards a solution. Yet, eventually, it turns out Prisoners is a clear case of Chekhov's gun. I will shut up now for fear of bloopers, but my point is – what a clever script!
Best scene: The injured Loki drives himself to the hospital under very hostile weather conditions. On paper it's a trivial scene, but it's so well directed and edited that it becomes a thriller ride of its own.
Overall: Prisoners is as good an offering as modern day commercial cinema can offer. 4.5 out of 5 crabs.

Monday, 7 September 2015

Chinatown

Lowdown: A private detective specialising in taking photos of cheating couples stumbles upon a plot to control Los Angeles’ water supplies.
Review:
Chinatown has quite a lot going for it. This 1974 movie features director Roman Polanski at his prime (and still in the USA). It’s got a slew of talented actors, from Jack Nicholson through Faye Dunaway to John Huston. Most importantly, a lot of the reviewers I grew up on regard Chinatown as the manifestation of perfect cinema, the best movie ever.
Me, this was not my first time with Chinatown, but it is worth mentioning Netflix’ HD copy does a huge favour to a film I previously associated with low fi (particularly in the key darker scenes). My question, though, is whether 41 years later Chinatown still is the state of the art?
Nicholson plays private detective Gittes, an ex Los Angeles policeman that nowadays runs a shop for proving to suspecting husbands or wives that their partners are cheating on them through candid photography. But Gittes is conned, and one such job ends up having him inform the newspapers of a high water industry roller cheating when, in fact, it was his wife (Dunaway) that Gittes saw him with. Naturally, it is hard for our Gittes to accept such humiliation; he perseveres with his investigation, almost drowning and almost losing his nose to a thug (Polanski, none the less) in the process. A process that has him slowly, perhaps too slowly for the 21st century viewer, uncover a plot to take over prime time real estate – huge areas – through a water supply con job.
So, does Chinatown still cut it? Well, no. Don’t get me wrong, it’s particular brand of film noir, the characters that always fail even when they try to do good, the characters that turn out to be pulling the strings being the manifestation of pure evil, these are all great. But it’s just that humanity proved it can do better than that by now. Prisoners, a film I had watched on the same day as Chinatown, proves the point. The comparison clearly indicates that it’s not that Chinatown is bad, it just that psychological dramas/thrillers can be far more thrilling, that is all. And they do not even have to rely on the use of modern day digital effects.
Or rather: give it a bit of time, a good director, a good script, and some fine actors and even the best of movies can be eclipsed.
Overall: Chinatown is worth studying as a classic but is no longer the one and only. 3.5 out of 5 crabs.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Lowdown: A day in Anatolian life viewed through the mirror of a murder investigation.
Review:
One of the many achievements of that wonderful movie called The Water Diviner was it putting me on a quest to experience what Turkish cinema has to offer. If I need to pinpoint, it was mostly the performance of Yılmaz Erdoğan that gripped me. So I went and had a look, and it looked like Once Upon a Time in Anatolia offered me to have the cake and eat it too: an accomplished Turkish film that stars, amongst others, my dear friend Erdoğan. I will tell you this, though: Once Upon A Time in Anatolia did not give me an easy time.
The first half or so of this slow two and a half hour affair takes place over night. A police convoy is driving a couple of murder suspects around rural areas during the night in search of the body they hid. They are escorted by the local prosecutor and a doctor. Between events – or the frustrating lack of events and the way this gets to the characters – we see into their inner souls and the world they reside in. We see a world stuck in the past, a world more busy with the dead than with the living. A rather tragic world. Dare I say, our world as seen from the prism of Anatolia.
Three main characters stick out for us to focus on, and each carries his own personal tragedy about. The doctor (Muhammet Uzuner) coming in from the big city, with his learned self, is deeply affected by his recent divorce. The police chief (Erdoğan) focuses on his work because life at home with his autistic son is much harder than gruesome murder investigations. And the prosecutor (Taner Birsel), he goes about telling fatalistic tales about a woman that decided to die at a certain date and miraculously achieved just that.
Following the night we return back to the town, a picture perfect derelict small town, to witness the day after that night. The trends continue; there is no start or finish to Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, it’s just a glimpse into a foreign world. I guess this therefore qualifies the film as rather eccentric, and it certainly is; I suspect many will find it boring. But if you’re willing to give the less ordinary a chance you will be rewarded with an experience that the run of the mill flicks can never deliver. This is art, and good art at that.
Today’s news shows us photos of a Turkish policeman standing near the drowned body of a Syrian refugee boy. It’s a picture that tears your heart apart. And image wise, it felt like it came directly out of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.
Overall: Not the easiest movie to watch, but well worth the effort. 3.5 out of 5 Turkish coffee sipping crabs.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Going Clear

Lowdown: The recent history of the Scientology movement.
Review:
Before we start tackling a documentary about Scientology, let us dispense with the pleasantries: people critical of the Scientology movement have been known to personally suffer for it. So I will say this: I am equally against Scientology as I am against all other cults and religions. As far as I am concerned, Scientology is generally no different to Christianity, a religion that got its claim to fame when the Roman Empire sought out a way to control the people. The key difference is that with Scientology, the various myths were created right under our noses with proof to match.
I will add, though, that on the other hand I do have a Scientologist friend who’s perfectly normal (other than the tendency to focus on rather bizarre discussion items). Then again, most people are religious and most people are good people.
With that in mind, let us discuss Going Clear, an HBO documentary whose claim to fame is to do with it getting aired despite of all the litigation threats that go with airing material critical of Scientology. Structure wise, the documentary covers the history of L. Ron Hubbard, inventor and founder of the movement. Then – mainly through interviews with ex Scientologists – Going Clear tracks the movement’s history and handling of itself and the world around it up to our present day. Let’s just say the picture coming through is not a rosy one: it’s a picture of corruption, the usual case of a cult that’s there for power and money, a cult that will tread on people to achieve that. Special focus is dedicated to the cult’s handling of its most famous members, John Travolta and Tom Cruise.
As to answering the magic question of “how did it come down to that”, Going Clear provides two answers. First, it claims Scientology mirrors the mind of its creator, and that creator was not the healthiest mind around. And second, Scientology was dealt an ace from the American government when the IRS, the ultimate decision maker in matters of theology, declared it to be a religion and thus tax exempt. That last point, it is argued, is all it takes to explain the existence of this financial juggernaut in today's landscape.
There can be no doubt as to the side Going Clear takes in this far from impartial documentary. That position can be defended by Scientology's refusal to participate in affairs, but let us not be around the bush here; commons sense prevails. Thus I will argue Going Clear does feel rather slow and tedious. Still, we do need Going Clear to fill in the details.
Overall: If you seek to understand the roots and evolution of Scientology, Going Clear is the way to go. 3 out of 5 crabs.