AN EMPIRE OF WORDS


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Sheffield DocFest 2017: The Work (2017)

On Tuesday evening DocFest hosted it’s award ceremony and announced that the winner of the audience award was The Work. This same film actually picked up the Grand Jury prize for documentaries at South by Southwest film festival, which is really unsurprising considering The Work is potentially one of the most emotionally raw and profound documentaries I have seen in a good while.

Twice a year Folsom State Prison allows members of the public to join with inmates of the prison in an intensive group therapy session for four days. Their aim is to discover lost emotions, or gain closure on sensitive subjects they may not get the chance to do before. The key to this working is that no man is forced to vent or divulge information, but if they offer something the group come together, inmate and civilian alike, to help them move past the all too familiar suppression.

The result of this group therapy? An absolute pressure cabin of four emotionally raw days.

The Work follows three members of the public, Charles, Brian and Chris as they engage in this intensive group therapy session whilst seeking help from the inmates, primarily Vegas and Dark Cloud. But rather than having it centralised through these characters, the inmates alliances are left at the door as they begin to support each other in the group.

This allows for some incredibly footage as Vegas helps Kiki break down his proudly built masculine armour as he pleads that he just wants to cry. The group immediately swarm the former Asian gang member and coach him to tap into his emotions. This becomes a common occurrence throughout as the inmates and civilians alike tread this similar path, each with difference stories to tell.

The group engage in emotional and physical exercises as they help one another, but also themselves to harness the emotions they have been suppressing. The Work becomes incredibly moving, but an interesting look into masculinity as it explores different stories from Dark Cloud’s horrid past, to the intense embrace that captures the rapid heartbeat that matches the audiences after the intense scene.

Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous have managed to effectively capture an emotionally raw film, but filmed it in such a way that the audience almost feel they are sat in on the circle, as you hear the screams and anger from the other groups in the sessions. The fly-on-the-wall filming really works, and The Work is incredibly engaging with the beginning and end results of all those involves in the sessions.

There is an emotional intensity that is so high, it begins to envelope you as you share the emotions with the group, from Kiki’s breakdown to Dark Cloud’s intense internal battle and Chris’ profound breakthrough. Rehabilitation of inmates at prison has always been a testy subject, but Jairus and Gethin proudly finish The Work with anyone that has been through this programme, has never returned to prison, which speaks volumes about the program. After the ninety minutes of viewing, it’s clear to see why as you genuinely feel and see people change through the four days of the intensive group therapy.


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Sheffield Doc/Fest: Ulysses in the Subway (2017)

Ulysses in the Subway was a three dimensional experience film, and that was probably the most exciting thing about the film. This experimental documentary introduces the audience to the sounds of the New York City Subway for sixty minutes as it traverses through its routes.

But here’s the kicker, there isn’t any narrative to it, nor actual visuals to accompany, but rather an abundance of soundwaves capturing the audio track we experience. Ulysses in the Subway reminded me of those tracks you can put on to help you relax, like a thunderstorm or the background noise to a coffee shop. But as Ulysses in the Subway drew to it’s close, I realised it was not something I would actively sit down and watch, or listen to.

As I mentioned, there isn’t really a narrative drive held within the film, but there could have been something more interesting to do. There is a sequence where we hear a busker playing steel drums and thanking the people who are donating money, this could have been a starting point and tour around the different buskers on the New York Subway. Not this audio experience of just listening to a train journey clunking its way around New York.

The 3D experience did not really work for me, and the visual representation of the sound began to hurt my eyes after a short while. It was interesting to watch the graphs bounce around to the audio, but it becomes quite monotonous after a short while. To try and keep it fresh, there was images of the old New York Subway spliced into it, but these were few and fair between and did not bring anything other than a change of pace to the visual.

Truthfully, I went into Ulysses in the Subway expecting little and my expectations were still shocked at what unfolded. When compared to the likes of The Bomb and DRIB in terms of experimental documentaries Ulysses is eating their dust. Unless I am missing something about this experience, but it just felt as though it was designed for someone who was missing the sounds of the New York City Subway and needed their comforts, something that I did not require.


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Sheffield Doc/Fest: Drib (2017)

There was an unusual draw to Drib, and I still cannot pinpoint what it was. Maybe it was the narrative that is so wrapped up in legal issues, that the director Kristoffer Borgli had to create a fictional energy drink brand just for the film.

At the centre of Drib is Borgli’s friend Amir Asghernejad, a comic from Oslo that went viral by getting people to beat him up. As a result of this and aggressive marketing, Amir was approached by an unnamed famous energy drink brand.

With the marketing world always wanting to be ahead of the curve and in the loop, they contacted Amir to become the star of the new ad campaign centred around his violent videos. However, due to the legality of retelling this story, Borgli created the fictional brand of Drib to retell Amir’s story. And he definitely had fun with it, even going as far as creating an awesome clothing brand (drib.us)

For the next 90 or so minutes, you are wrapped in the ridiculous five days that Amir spent with the marketing team. Borgli chose to fill these minutes with the unbelievably bizarre narrative, the perfect mix of comedy driven through Amir and it is all crafted with a purpose. Borgli’s craft and film knowledge is perfect, as Drib becomes a cinematic adventure with Amir in Los Angeles.

For me, the choice to have the narrative driven through a one-on-one interview with Amir and then recreating his story with Drib in place of this unnamed drinks brand was perfect. It allowed Borgli to exercise his knowledge of film language, but also allowed Amir to do what he does best, and be funny.

Due to the actual narrative and the direction Borgli takes us in, a question raised of whether this is actually the truth, or just a superbly played out ploy by Borgli. But that doesn’t take anything away from how enjoyable Drib actually is, as Borgli recounts Amir’s story with the unnamed energy drink company with the help of actors playing different roles, aside from Adam Pearson who plays himself.

The importance of Drib lies in the impact that marketing has, and the vice-grip that it can hold over someone through NDA’s (Non-disclosure Agreements) or the ridiculous extent some companies may go to just to achieve a ‘good’ marketing campaign. Drib will not go down in history as one of the great documentaries, but it will go down as one of the most interesting due to content but also the impressive use of film language.

It’s worth mentioning that Drib seemed to be an experimental film to some degree, with it blurring the lines of non-fiction and fiction, due to Borgli’s form of narrative telling. This is not helped by the questioning of whether this story it true or not, but after the ninety minutes are up, it doesn’t matter due to the enjoyment of Drib and Amir’s pretty implausible story.


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Berlin Syndrome (2017)

A common theme from the promotional footage of Berlin Syndrome is that it seems to escalate quickly. Like, really quickly. What seems to begin as a rather innocent story, suddenly progresses into a nightmare-inducing scenario.

The director Cate Shortland showed an unbelievably ability to perfectly play out the tensest of scenes in Berlin Syndrome, as she navigates the spaces between Clare (Teresa Palmer) and the antagonist Andi. (Max Riemelt)

There are no prizes to guessing where the film is set, and that is where we find Clare, clad in the classic tourist attire of bags and a flashy camera. Not a great deal is revealed about our heroin Clare, other than that she is Australian. Through her camera lens she sets to discover Berlin on her own accord, until she meets the lovable and charming Andi who shows her the backstreets of Berlin and his fathers strawberry patch.

Shortland had Clare pick up a wolf’s mask during this scene and remark she is a wolf at Andi, unbeknownst to her, Andi was the wolf but in sheep’s clothing. The charming ability Andi possesses soon wears off, as he brings Clare back to his place and spends the night with her. He whispers ‘nobody will hear you’ as they engage in a sexual manner, only to replicate that with sinister undertones later in the film.

Andi casually resumes his daily life, going to work and seeing his father, whilst Clare panics and becomes a wreck as she is trapped in Andi’s apartment. And this is where the tension arises, as the film picks up its pace over the just shy of two hours runtime. It doesn’t feel as though the film lasts for two hours as you become swept up in the ensuing madness that evolves between Andi and Clare.

As well as showing a terrific use of tension throughout the film, Cate Shortland also manages to use the claustrophobia of Andi’s apartment to show Clare almost as a caged animal for Andi’s pleasure. The relationship really gets under your skin, as you see Clare’s deflation as the story leads into Christmas and New Year.

This comes down to the characters that Shortland has managed to create, but also the brilliance of Teresa Palmer’s and Max Riemelt’s performance as the leads. They give thoroughly convincing performances so much so, it begins to make you think twice about who you meet when you travel to another city.

What I really enjoyed about Berlin Syndrome is that the film doesn’t allow itself to fall into any horror tropes that this genre could easily slip into. It remains in the thriller category as it continues to show the differing stories between Clare and Andi. Unfortunately the film does fall into the run of the mill for this genre, as Clare continually tries to escape.

Although the film does fall into this trope, it is still played out fantastically as the tension continually rises during the latter hour. Berlin Syndrome also transpires the narrative, as Andi does evolve into a sympathetic character, but the overarching casualness when it comes to the imprisonment of Clare remains, lurking in the background, which just emotes anger.

Berlin Syndrome becomes an enjoyable film, especially as it doesn’t fall into the expected tropes that previous films usual do. The performances are near-perfect from Teresa Palmer and Max Riemelt and unbelievably convincing as especially Andi gets under the skin as he is incredibly casual about the situation at hand. Cate Shortland manages to paint Berlin in a beautiful light, and yet sticks this horrifying situation in the centre as everyone around Berlin celebrates the New Year.


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Wonder Woman (2017)

As DC tries to combat the ever-expanding Marvel Universe, they have begun by building towards the Justice League film. In the meantime, we are treated to their standalone backstories. Wonder Woman is the latest film to get the treatment with Gal Gadot returning as the legendary Amazonian.

What I have recently disliked about the comic book movies is that they all seem to be using the same framework. (mainly the Marvel Cinematic Universe) But what is more enjoyable about the DC Cinematic Universe is the darker and grittier undertones they have taken, which was present in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman even though the latter wasn’t as enjoyable.

Wonder Woman is continuing this trend, but referencing the picture that was seen in Batman vs Superman with Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) herself stood with four men during World War One. Before Wonder Woman leaps into how Diana found herself there, they divulge in the backstory and the mysterious land of Themyscira, home of the Amazons.

What was great about Patty Jenkins’ interpretation of this story was that there was enough in the narrative to allow for the audience to interpret things themselves, something that has been missing in my recent cinema outings. And there was some gorgeous graphics in the opening sequence as Queen Hippolyta (Connie Neilsen) reveals the origin of the Amazon race and of the battle between Zeus and Ares.

Zeus cast out Ares, and hid the Amazons from the world until Ares rises again. The rest of the Amazons and Diana train on the beautifully landscaped island of Themyscira away from the worlds view. That is all until Steve Travers (Chris Pine) crash lands on their private island.

And this is where the film really picks up the pace as Gal Gadot and Chris Pine come into their own as characters. Gal Gadot becomes the focal point of her scenes as Diana believes that the atrocities of war are at the hand of Ares, the God of war. Although he has found a new form in the body of General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) as his sidekick Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya) concocts a poisonous gas capable of killing everyone. Diana forces Travers hand in taking her to front line to help the war effort and she just looks fantastic whilst doing it.

It has to be said though that she isn’t objectified in anyway, she rather manifests Wonder Woman as a character in such a way that she is incredibly strong and rather independent, especially as she continually defies her mother and Steve. With Batman v Superman the film felt long, Wonder Woman on the other hand doesn’t. This could down to the enjoyment of the characters and the narrative actually being enjoyable instead of the usual cut and paste method Marvel and DC films are currently using.

As I mentioned, the DC Universe films like to be grittier and Wonder Woman has majority of the film centred around World War One. Patty Jenkins effectively manages to instil the atrocities of war and it really works from the dirt of the Belgian trenches to the empty celebrations of a victory for one evening.

My only grief is the overbearing music that is used. The musical cues aren’t established very well, as it clearly tries to evoke emotions at the correct times and at times this took me out of the picture and made the enjoyment considerably less-so.

Gal Gadot is truly a wonder as the titular character as the film progresses into it’s climax. The final third of the film looks as though it is going to enter the realms of similarity as with previous comic book films, it still tiptoes on those, but doesn’t dive head first into it. The chemistry between Chris Pine and Gal Gadot is electric, especially as Jenkins’ captures Steve Travers occasionally glancing at Diana with astonishment at her beauty, but not in that objectifying way that I mentioned earlier.

Just as I thought I was losing patience with comic book adaptations, Wonder Woman comes along and manages to give some life into a merciless machine. I realised after coming out of the cinema that Wonder Woman tried something new, it left the comedy (that has become a staple point for comic book films now) to a minimum and perfectly integrated it into the film. This worked and garnered appropriate laughs when needed, but on a whole, Wonder Woman was an enjoyable and terrific watch and this has to be down to the enjoyable narrative and brilliant characters that can be connected with.


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Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge

Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge drew no attention from me, and offered very little to try and ‘woo’ me into watching it. Majority of my interest of this franchise was soon lost after the second instalment of Dead Man’s Chest. I find the Pirate of the Caribbean franchise entering realms of similarity with Fast and the Furious with the rinse and repeat formula.

Salazar’s Revenge is taking this rinse and repeat formula and caking it on by the pounds. I’ve become disenchanted with the figure of Captain Jack Sparrow, as Johnny Depp seems to be offering new to the character, but rather a further drunken stupor.

In the presence of rinse and repeat formula, Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg have decided to take the Elizabeth Swann and Will Turner roles and replace them with Kaya Scodelario and Brenton Thwaites. However, Ronning and Sandberg had a role reversal, with Scodelario’s Carina Smyth as a smart young woman, who shows a deft hand at keeping out of trouble. Whereas Brenton Thwaites’ Henry Turner just offers the run-of-the-mill love story, replicated from the first instalment.

Majority of the performances throughout the 130(ish) runtime, are very mundane and uninteresting. Aside from Scodelario’s performance as Carina, I found myself bored with the characters as they fall into very two-dimensional characters and offer nothing new.

I imagine this is potentially down to the world building not being that immersive either. If anything Salazar’s Revenge offered a truly ridiculous world where pirates once ruled the seas. The film had lost me at the point where Salazar (Javier Bardem) releases undead sharks. I mean, come on.

Seriously.

Salazar in his own right was an intriguing character, but there was nothing built around him as Ronning and Sandberg layered the film with exposition and the cast pointing out the plot to one another over and over and over. His revenge of Captain Jack Sparrow could have been played out brilliantly, rather than becoming the lacklustre affair it is.

As for Salazar’s curse, there wasn’t that much to be invested in as majority of the screen time is faced with Jack Sparrow and his quest for the Trident of Poseidon to break his run of bad luck. And it seems as though the curse isn’t that original either with the undead wreaking havoc once more.

I think therein lies my issue with Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge as it becomes very lacklustre. I often found myself bored throughout the plus 2-hour runtime and very bored with the over-egged performance of Jack Sparrow. The plot doesn’t do a great deal of justice to the massive runtime, and doesn’t offer anything that hasn’t already been witnessed in the previous instalments.

I tried to go into Salazar’s Revenge with an open mind, but left still disappointed as I mentioned it did little to peak my interest in the first place. Aside from Scodelario’s performance, there was little else to enjoy about this film. I find the investment in this film just was not there for me. Everything that could’ve potentially immersed me, did not, from the characters to the CGI. It’s fair to say Salazar’s Revenge just did not do it for me.


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The Levelling (2017)

I never knew that a film that entirely took place on a farm could be so gripping. The Levelling is Hope Dickson Leach’s first feature and it’s quite a remarkable piece. There is a certain realisation of talent she possesses with her first feature.

Aside from a few dog walks, the film take places entirely on the grounds of the farm where Clover (Ellie Kendrick) grew up whilst not at boarding school. But what Hope Dickson Leach managed to do was create a realistic feeling that you were there on the farm with her and her father, but using the natural sounds around the farm.

Clover comes back to the farm for her brother’s funeral, after it transpired that he shot himself during a party. Clover cannot get the story straight and there is a clear resentment towards her father, whom she refers to as Aubrey (David Troughton), rather than the usual pleasantries. Instead of having the film adhere to that one narrative, Hope Dickson Leach decided to interplay the story surrounding the out of favour farm and her brother’s death as well.

The night in question was supposed to be a celebration, as Clover’s brother Harry (Joe Blakemore) was taking over the farm, but it ended in tragedy. Clover tries to address the issue surrounding his death whilst Aubrey and James (Jack Holden) try to downplay and dance around the issue.

This is where the narrative is head and shoulders above majority of films today, as the tragedy of Harry is pointed to and displayed right out in front of our eyes, but rather in the reactions from James, Aubrey and Clover. Their conversations are disjointed, but the nuanced movements between the characters really accentuate the story that is behind this.

Hope Dickson Leach’s The Levelling is incredibly moving and doesn’t rely on any strong visual effects, but rather the powerful story and characters throughout the 83-minute runtime. It’s shorter than I anticipated, but this is irrelevant due to the fact that you become wrapped up in Clover’s story.

That’s not to say that Hope Dickson Leach manages to create some beautiful shots of the English countryside, especially as the birds dance against the greying overcast skies. This adds to the reality that Hope Dickson Leach is trying to convey with the setting being in the countryside.

And this reality is conveyed through Aubrey and Clover as well, with their British mentality. Although the farm is drastically failing, they continue to work throughout the day and milk the cows. Clover falls into this routine, whilst trying to tie up loose ends surrounding the events that brought her home.

But these are real characters that are unfolding on the screen and it becomes incredibly moving as they try to negotiate a way to talk to each other and not be at each others throats night and day. The small knit cast works, as their conversations, or lack of, are the key to this film as Clover finds herself in a place she doesn’t want to be anymore.

It’s a strange film to try and review, because of the calibre of The Levelling. It is best to let Hope Dickson Leach’s directorial debut do the talking, because it can certainly walk the walk. Ellie Kendrick is the centrepiece of this and she is just fantastic in this as she tries to come to terms with her brothers death and also reconcile with her estranged father. The Levelling is a film of true brilliance and really emotes empathy in a strong way. A gem truly worth seeking out.