Film review – Insyriated (Philippe van Leeuw, 2017)

Philippe Van Leeuw May have taken a cheap shot with the title of this film, but the shallowness starts and ends there. It’s an imperfect but nonetheless powerful film that takes a gripping story and frames it within the resonatingly-threatening streets of the modern-day war-torn Syrian capital Damascus.

Inspired by a real anecdotal stories of people living in Damascus, the action takes place entirely within the confines of a small flat over a 24-hour period. Inside the flat lives the matriarchal Oum Yazan (Hiyam Abbass), a mother trying to keep her family together, alive and safe through the ongoing battles. Lodger Halima (Diamand Bou Abboud) is planning to escape from Damascus with her husband Samir (Moustapha Al Kar)) and newborn baby.

The story starts in earnest when housemaid Delhani (Juliette Navis) witnesses a sniper shooting Samir, who collapses in plain sight of one of the windows. Confiding in Oum Yazan, the pair decide to keep the shooting a secret to help maintain the peace inside the besieged flat.

It’s a powerful story no doubt, but its strengths are heightened by some excellent performances by the three central female characters. It is essentially a cross-analysis of how far people go to maintain their own lives and the lives of those they love.

Of the three central roles, none are better delivered than the performance given by the relatively unknown Diamand Bou Abboud. It is certainly the most substantial of the roles: they are relatively outcasts in the group, she has a newborn baby and wants to protect it, but is new to motherhood. It is one late scene when there are two intruders in the house that serves as one of the most memorable and horrific of the year, proving that what we don’t see on screen can be far more powerful that what we do see. It is a heartbreaking and sickening moment in the woman’s life and challenges the viewer to decide what they’d do in her shoes or in those of her cohabiters. Abboud really proves her acting mettle here.

There is little in the way of musical accompaniment in the film, and the cinematography is tough to view critically due to the filming style and confined location. These facts don’t detract from the overall impact, which is more about telling a powerful story than wowing the audience with an elaborate production. As Van Leeuw states in his production notes for the film, “there are no tricks, no special effects, it is just a plain look at the drama of the situation.” [1]

Historically, Arabic-language films have limited appeal at the global box office. True, there have been a number of success stories in recent years (notably Naji Abu Nowar’s 2014 drama ‘Theeb’, which took $774,556 globally [2][3]), but it doesn’t appear as though Insyriated has bucked the trend. Its inevitably sluggish performance at the UK box office (£10,706 from 19 arthouse theatres [4]) means that the film will have to perform well on home streaming platforms in order to recoup the money. Fortunately it is available now through Curzon On Demand and iTunes for the same price as a cheap cinema ticket, along with the standard DVD releases.

It’s not an outstandingly brilliant film, but it is in turns moving, horrific, heartbreaking, shocking and thought-provoking. A solid achievement by the Belgian director and the strong cast. It deserves an audience and will hopefully get that over the coming months.

Notes:

[1] https://curzonblob.blob.core.windows.net/media/6010/insyriated-production-notes.pdf

[2] http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?page=intl&id=theeb.htm

[3] http://www.the-numbers.com/movie/Theeb/United-Kingdom#tab=summary

[4] http://www.the-numbers.com/movie/Insyriated-(Lebanon)#tab=summary

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Film review – Baby Driver (Edgar Wright, 2017)

There aren’t many moments in cinema where you start to watch the opening scene and an uncontrollable giddy smile engulfs your face, such is the joy of what is unfolding on the screen. It needs to be a brilliant idea, executed to perfection and in a language that speaks to you.

Baby Driver, Edgar Wright’s latest cinematic masterpiece, achieves just that. But the moment I knew it was a truly great film was when I realised the credits were rolling and my smile hadn’t left.

Oh, Baby!

The titular Baby is played by the young Ansel Elgort, who many will recognise as Caleb Prior from the Divergent film series. Baby is a young man who suffers with tinnitus, a whistling hum in the ear, which he got from an initially mysterious childhood incident. He works as a getaway driver for a heist masterminder named Doc (Kevin Spacey), who counts amongst his rotating team of goons a highly-strung Bats (Jamie Foxx), passionate love birds Buddy (John Hamm) and Darling (Eiza González), Griff (Jon Bernthal) and Eddy No-Nose (Flea). Lily James also stars as a waitress named Deborah.

To drown out the noise, Baby has a series of iPods to suit his moods. These are essentially soundtracking his life with a mixture of classic tunes that also serve as the soundtrack to the film, from Beck to Sam and Dave, The Commodores to The Damned.

It is these playlists that also serve as the film’s soundtrack, with sounds and visuals perfectly in sync with one another. For fans of music, and in particular soundtracks, Baby Driver is an absolute dream. The music is the backbone, catalyst and cherry on the icing, all at the same time. It’s a remarkable achievement.

If the opening sequence seems familiar, Wright used the same scenario in 2003 for the music video he directed for the track ‘Blue Song’ by Mint Royale. This hit the music airwaves mere months prior to his directorial breakthrough Shaun of the Dead, but watching it now you can see he probably had the idea for Baby Driver in his head as a starting point.

One of the best examples of how perfectly it works comes during the opening credits, when the first job has been completed and Baby goes to pick up some coffee from a shop near to their hideout. As Bob and Earl’s ‘Harlem Shuffle’ is played through his earbuds and the backdrop becomes subtly flourished with graffiti, shop names and visual signposts, it was clear that something special was unfolding before my eyes. That this was done as a one-shot makes it all the more beautiful.

The film goes far and beyond being just a glorified music video. The car chases are breathtaking from the get-go, and there’s no let up as the story progresses. They’re believable and easy to follow, with no cheap cuts to hide poor editing and hide continuity – something of an epidemic in cinema in the 21st century.

Many of the actors are a little out of their familiarity zones with their characters, but it’s obvious that the likes of John Hamm and Jamie Foxx are taking great pleasure in being allowed to indulge their acting abilities. Kevin Spacey may be on more familiar ground, but it doesn’t make for poor viewing in the slightest.

I think her name is Debra! Or Deborah…

There’s a great use of the song ‘Debra’ by Beck in a scene that cements Baby’s relationship with Lily James’s waitress. They’re both stuck in a rut and in need of a route out, so their inevitable desire to be together is an expected story arc. Only Edgar Wright would, at this point, think it was a good time to drop in a song about a man wanting to have a threesome with two sisters. It’s a hilariously sweet moment that comes just at the right time in the film, softening up the audience before the rollercoaster second half of the story.

The fact that Elgart spends the opening thirty minutes dressed in an outfit that is very reminiscent of Han Solo shouldn’t be overlooked either. Elgart came close to being cast in Disney’s upcoming problematic Han Solo standalone film, before being overlooked in favour of Alden Ehrenreich. It’s clear that the coolness of Harrison Ford’s character is something Wright was trying to remind the audience of. However, Wright recently denied the connection in a Twitter Q&A, saying that the similarity was purely coincidental.

Similar to Han Solo? Wright is denying any links.

I just can’t be effusive of the film enough. It’s something I could watch time and time again and I’m certain I’ll be getting enjoyment out of it for years to come.

Baby Driver could well be the greatest film of Wright’s illustrious career. If you’ve not been taking notice yet, now’s the time.

Film review – Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed / The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Lotte Reiniger, 1926)

The uniquely-animated ‘Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed’, Lotte Reiniger’s 1926 film, is a hugely important film. Work started on it in 1923, and it is the earliest-surviving animated feature film – it clocks in at 65 minutes.

The animation technique used involved cutting out cardboard silhouettes of the characters and manipulating them frame by frame. Some 93,000 frames were created for the film.

Reiniger’s attention to detail was matched by that of the restoration team at the Deutsches Filmmuseum, who in 1999 returned it to its former glory and allowed new generations to enjoy it.

Today’s screening, which was at the Tilda Swindon-curated Pilton Palais at Glastonbury Festival, was accompanied by a unique re-score by the Guildhall Electronic Music Studio.

It’s easy to create a modern score for a classic piece that simply doesn’t fit – Air’s ‘The Journey to the Moon’ is certainly guilty of that – but the mix of classical piano and basic sound effects works perfectly. Mike Oliver oversaw the project and acted as a mentor to those involved. The piano accompaniment from Barbara De Biasi is reminiscent of the Joe Hisaishi scores for Ghibli Studio. As a fan of Hisaishi’s work this was very much welcome. This was augmented by Eric Fabrizi with paper-based sound effects and live narration from Mike Oliver and his daughter Molly.

It all came together wonderfully and felt respectful of the original work whilst breathing a new life into it for a new, younger audience.

It was well attended by an early-afternoon festival crowd. Anyone appearing early for the Frozen sing-a-long would have been entirely confused. For everyone else, the film was a triumph. Congratulations to all involved.

Film review – The Founder (John Lee Hancock, 2017)

John Lee Hancock is busily carving out a name for himself as the creator of sanitised versions of the most successful business men in the history of humanity, treading perhaps where no director would dare through a labyrinth of red tape.

In 2013 it was Saving Mr Banks, Hancock’s portrayal of an important segment of Walt Disney’s life as he helped convince P.L. Travers to release the rights to Mary Poppins and shaped the now-classic motion picture. This time around he’s tackling the origins of one of the biggest global brands of the modern world: McDonald’s.

McDonald’s hasn’t had a successful time thus far being portrayed on screen. Outside the overbearing product placement that everybody hates (even though they often pay for significant portions of films), if you ask anyone whether or not they’ve seen a film about McDonald’s, they will more than likely start talking about one of two films: McLibel or Super Size Me. Both are excellent as films and even better in showing the company in an extremely negative light.

Or you may remember this film…

 

The Founder isn’t quite as negative towards the iconic brand as the recent memorable efforts, going a long way to provide a balanced view of the origins of the story. It may be sanitised but it is at least reasonably based on facts (to our best knowledge).

Michael Keaton plays Ray Croc, a driven but unsuccessful salesman who happens upon the first McDonald’s restaurant whilst trying to sell milkshake making machines. This restaurant is owned by Richard and Maurice McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) and they soon go into partnership to franchise the company and start growing it across the rest of USA.

The biopic serves two purposes for the company. Firstly, it portrays the McDonald brothers’ story as being as wholesome and family-friendly as any of the McDonald’s adverts that are create today. This was a family company that didn’t want to be taken over by the global powers, resisting all the way and almost unbelievably against making any profit. Looking at it cynically, it serves as an advert that champions the company’s family values.

Secondly, it portrays the man who turned it into a global power as self-driven, full of business acumen but at his most basic a self-centred, cold and heartless money grabber. We aren’t supposed to like him, though I can’t help but think that the characterisation will be a template for those wishing to succeed in business. I hope not – it would be a poorly-chosen idol.

The overall result is that we don’t feel encouraged to like our central character and it feels like the side of a story that aligns with the global branding message rather than one we can truly enjoy. 

The problem is that Keaton is far too charismatic to not be liked and the Lynch/Offerman duo are sabotaging the success of the company at every turn. This makes the emotional journey slightly skewed as we try to take sides and don’t really know where to land.

Some will champion its subtlety but I don’t see it like that. I see it as a great actor shining through an advertising campaign disguised as a film.

Given the state of the political landscape right now, I don’t think it’s the film the world needs.