Film review – They Shall Not Grow Old (Peter Jackson, 2018)

Peter Jackson’s World War One documentary ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ does a great job in telling the story of some of the front-line soldiers, from the outbreak, through training and joining the war effort and finally returning home. This is achieved partly through archive audio from the BBC, which is interesting in its own light, but not really what this film will be remembered for.

The really mesmerizing and memorable part of this film is the visual footage, which Jackson has sourced from the Imperial War Museum as part of their 14-18 Now initiative. The team working on this film have taken whatever was available and worked wonders. It now looks vibrant and sharp and immediate, with no signs of what was probably very grainy footage used as the source material. The claim that it would look like it was filmed last week rather than 100 years ago is perhaps a little too far-fetched, but it isn’t far off.

In most places, the footage is accompanied by audio dubbing from actors, reading lines as determined by expert lip readers and matched to the visuals. It is, literally, The Great War as you’ve never seen it before.

It only falls short near the end where it feels like they were running out of source material and needed to re-use some video footage – one shot appears four or five times in a short period. It doesn’t spoil anything; indeed it serves in part to underline how precious what little footage that remains is to the project and how lucky we are to see anything so beautifully restored. Whether that effect could have been achieved with fifteen minutes cut out of it is another question.

It’s not the best documentary I’ve seen recently, but it is technically one of the best restoration jobs I’ve ever seen. There will undoubtedly be a debate about whether he went too far – detractors will say he could have simply restored the footage rather than also enhancing it – but the detail and beauty it has revealed is more than worth the risk.

You can do much worse than allowing yourself to be absorbed into this masterpiece of restoration.

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Recommended podcast alert!

I love FilmFour. For those outside the United Kingdom, FilmFour is a channel available to all television license holders via Freeview channel 15, and supplies a thoroughly deep and diverse set of programming for everyone to immerse themselves in.

I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the FilmFour season on Studio Ghibli. Today they are screening Howl’s Moving Castle. Yes I have them all on DVD or Bluray and yes they have adverts in the middle, but I am currently in the middle of a house move so this is excellent timing.

Accompanying the scheduling is a brilliant podcast titled Ghibliotheque, which is run by Jake Cunningham (C4 Random Acts, Curzon Cinemas podcast) and Michael Leader (Sight and Sound, Little White Lies). Aside from the astonishingly simple name, which will make podcasters and bloggers around the world think “Why didn’t I think of that!?”, it is an excellent bite-sized podcast that serves as an introduction to each film.

Princess Mononoke is this week’s episode, ahead of its screening next Tuesday afternoon.

Check it out here.

 

Haiku Oscar Week!

This week I’m going to make up for my lack of posts in recent weeks with a quick haiku for all the big Oscar nominees, ahead of the ceremony on Sunday night.

Check back at 9 for a slightly spoilery haiku for the brilliant film The Shape Of Water.

Film review – Нелюбовь / Loveless (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2018)

The announcement that ‘Loveless’ was nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category at this year’s Academy Awards may well have brought welcome attention to both the film and the director, Andrey Zvyagintsev, who underwent a turbulent time last time this happened. The Russian film industry and government championed their new protege, embracing the excitement felt across the world following his pictures The Return, The Banishment and Elena, all of which were nominated for awards at either the Cannes Film Festival or the Venice Film Festival. However, when the state-funded ‘Leviathan’ was released, the government all but disowned the director, owing to the view of Russia he was showing to the world. His is a broken Russia, and it’s something that apparently shouldn’t be celebrated.

‘Loveless’ was recently screened in a special preview at Broadway Cinema in Nottingham, with the audience joined by director Andrey Zvyagintsev and co-writer Oleg Negin. Zvyagintsev looked tired when answering question on his involvement with the Russian government. He has spoken frequently and honestly about his opinion on the matter, and there must be a slight frustration for him having to retread old ground when he is trying to promote his latest project. Quite justifiably too; there is plenty to celebrate from the film alone without concentrating on his dealings with a country that no longer supports him.

‘Loveless’ is a harrowing tale that hangs around two young divorcees who are in the process of separation. Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) is a younger woman obsessed with the material side of life, spending her time in beauty salons and ensuring every key moment of her shallow days are captured on social media. She has entered into a relationship with a rich older man named Anton (Andris Keyshs). Her former husband, career man Boris (Aleksey Rosin), is now involved with a much younger woman named Masha (Marina Vasileva).

Both Zhenya and Boris are desperate to start their respective new lives with their new lovers. Unfortunately, their pre-teen child, Alyosha (Matvey Kovikov), is the one sticking point. He has an anger in him that is typical of a teenager with parents going through an untimely divorce. One night he overhears his parents in a heated debate about his fate, and in the morning skips school to run away. It is this action that forces his parents to work together to try to find him, however tough it may be for them both.

Zvyagintsev has created a film that is really tough to watch, partly because it shows a reasonable account of each of the three central characters. It is sympathetic to each of them to a certain degree, however unreasonable their actions are. The parents married too young and now hate each other and are paying for their mistakes. Alyosha is a young boy who needs the support and stability at home but gets nothing.

The long period between him running away from home and his parents realising is an indictment of both a country that does little to find missing people and a planet growingly obsessed with self-betterment and social media. The former is underlined by the formation of Liza Alert, a not-for-profit organisation that organises volunteers to look for missing people, which is featured prominently in the final third of the film. It’s horrifying to watch both parents living out their day, spend passionate time with their respective lovers, sleep, wake up, go off to work for a second day and only later realise he isn’t there. Alyosha is a real after-thought now in their lives, which in some ways justifies his decision to run away.

It’s beautifully shot by director Zvyagintsev and cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, even if the Russian authorities don’t like what is being shown. It was shot entirely in Moscow, a city that Zvyagintsev is proud of and wanted to show in all its beauty, albeit drenched in more realism than is expected.

It is also a film filled with symbolism, which is left dangling for even the least aware viewers to see. It’s hard to miss the statement being made as self-obsessed Zhenya runs outside on a treadmill, ignoring the beautiful backdrops and juxtaposing political unrest on the television, instead focusing solely on her own agenda of shallow betterment. In case the hint wasn’t too obvious, she wears a full tracksuit with the words “Russia” emblazoned in bold letters across the front.

‘Loveless’ is unique and worthy of its Academy Award nomination. With a meaty storyline and a trio of brilliant performances in the leading roles, it is a worthwhile way to have your mind challenged and your conscience displaced.

Film review – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh, 2018)

A film about a family in mourning following the murder of one of the children really shouldn’t have as many laughs in it as Three Billboards. That’s not to say it’s a hilarious comedy romp, but Martin McDonagh’s smart script contains so much humour that its fictional setting is brought to a more realistic place.

Frances McDormand is Mildred, a mother determined to seek justice following the rape and murder of her daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton). Seven months have passed and the local police have still failed to unearth the killer, which means her mourning has changed to anger. The focal point of her frustration is the leader of the local police, Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), a sympathetic but headstrong man suffering from pancreatic cancer.

She decides to take out the rent of three disused but prominent billboards on the outside of town. The rent is to last for one year and contains a targeted message towards the police force: “RAPED WHILE DYING”, “AND STILL NO ARRESTS?”, “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?”

Her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) wants to return to normality, whilst racist policeman Dixon (Sam Rockwell) takes every opportunity to prove right the townspeople’s suspicions that he’s incompetent.

As a whole the film is extremely powerful, not least because of Frances McDormand’s tour de force in the leading role. It’s a dream of a role for an actress like McDormand, who is given free reign to be as offensive and hostile as she likes. It’s easy to get immersively lost in her delivery. She does comedy extremely well so when she needs to turn it on the black comedy is as uplifting as the shocking reality is devastating. For those used to her playing softer roles, be prepared for a pleasantly shocking surprise.

There are a number of outstandingly powerful scenes in Martin McDonagh’s Oscar-worthy drama that stuck with me weeks after I viewed it. The one-shot of Rockwell that follows him from the police station, across the road, up to the billboard rental film’s offices and back again is a bold statement in filmmaking and is executed perfectly. A confrontational scene between Willougby and Mildred turns to intimacy in an instance when he coughs up some blood. The scene when Mildred finds the billboards on fire is devastating.

These are punctuated with moments of pure comedy gold. Right after Mildred drills a hole in a dentist’s thumb after he speaks out of line to her, she returns to her job with a face full of anaesthetic. Few scenes in cinema this year have been as funny has her flatly denying she was at the dentists despite being unable to speak.

Three Billboards has come under some backlash following its initial rave reviews and unanimous praise. As the dust has settled, a second wave of opinion has spread that aims criticism at the film for being overly sympathetic to the character Dixon. Some have noted that Dixon gets redemption by the end of the film, despite his character. In an article on Entertainment Weekly, McDonagh addressed the criticism. “I don’t think his character is redeemed at all – he starts off as a racist jerk,” he reasoned. “He’s the same pretty much at the end, but, by the end, he’s seen that he has to change. There is room for it, and he has, to a degree, seen the error of his ways, but in no way is he supposed to become some sort of redeemed hero of the piece.”

The current climate of filmmaking seems at times to work as a response to the social collective conscious that is so quickly opined online. If a film isn’t intended as such, then it is judged that way nonetheless. There has been a shift in the landscape for the better in recent times, with lead roles going more frequently to women, people of colour and  homosexuals. We are not at the end game for this – whilst one of the Power Rangers in 2017 was portrayed as a lesbian, a move to make Tessa Thompson’s Ragnarok character Valkyrie bisexual was quashed when the critical reveal scene was cut from the movie.

That said, not every film can tackle every angle of criticism every time. In the case of Three Billboards, we have a film centred around a woman seeking justice for the rape and murder of her daughter. She’s standing up for her rights and opinions and forcing a male-dominated police force to try harder. It features McDormand as the lead with every other character serving as a supporting device to her own progression.

In this instance, the focus is on the sexual assault of young women by men and the subsequent covering up by authorities, often with men at the top. It is about men hoping that a woman standing up for her beliefs will just go away quietly and forget about something that’s easier to sweep away than it is to pursue a solution to. It is a deliberately provocative film. That Sam Rockwell’s Dixon is a racist, in this instance, is relevant only to his character (a supporting character), but it is not centrally relevant to the plot itself. Dixon is an imbecile and being a racist bigot serves to support and enforce this in him.

As McDonagh concluded in his statement to EW, “It’s supposed to be a deliberately messy and difficult film. Because it’s a messy and difficult world.” Social commentary aside, he’s created his first real masterpiece and it’s a wonder to see it unfold for the first time. It is every bit deserving of the praise and accolades it has received and should not miss out on a fair run at the Oscars as a result of the backlash.