#146 Benda Bilili!

Benda Bilili! (2010)

Dir: Renaud Barret & Florent de La Tullaye

This is one of the most engaging documentaries I have seen in a long time, and the music is quite something else!

Staff Benda Bilili (roughly translated as ‘look beyond appearances’ in Lingala) are a group of (at the time) amateur musicians in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, most of whom are left disabled from polio and use superb tricycle wheelchairs to get everywhere. This film watches as the group led by ‘Papa Ricky’ are helped to record their first album, and then rise to fame with performances around the world.

One of the first things that stands out in this film, which is after all a musical documentary, is the songs, that all have real messages in their lyrics. Some are written to inform and educate, others just to convey a story and explain what life is like for the musicians. The instruments that the group plays are also distinctive in often being made from junk, and thus producing a distinctive sound.

Though it initially follows Papa Ricky, founder of the group, the filmmakers also met a young boy called Roger, and the story turns to follow his inclusion into the group playing his simple monochord instrument made from what is primarily a tin can and some wire. We see how he grows up, now with the support of the group, and the huge pressure put on him by his family. What made me smile was how Roger goes ‘Hendrix’ at their first proper gig, really playing to the crowd who seem to love it. In fact, all of them seem to instinctively know how to entertain, and their performances towards the end of the film are amazing, it may just be a matter of time before a concert film is produced.

These men have a fantastic work ethic, they practice almost every day and are determined to make things work out so they can provide more for their families. At one point in the film, not to spoil it too much, there is a disaster that affects them, and while it’s something that would stop most people from doing whatever they were and completely change their life, the musician just says that there’s not much that can be done and that things happen.

The filmmakers are very good in holding back, they stay out of the lens, not interviewing, not reporting, just observing how things unfold. It’s a decision that really works brilliantly with the group who at first are a little unsure how to handle cameras following them. It’s this style that made me warm to them very quickly, and enforces how extraordinary this men are as people and musicians.

benda-main-cb1314720330Click on the poster to see the trailer on YouTube.

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#145 Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)

Dir: Leonard Nimoy

This continues on the three-film story arc from ‘Wrath of Khan’, but things get a little weirder!

After the events of the previous film, the crew of the Enterprise have left Spock’s body on the Genesis test planet, returned to Earth and discovered that their batter ship is to be decomissioned, and that they’re all forbidden from mentioning the Genesis experiment as it has become a difficult political issue, meanwhile Kirk’s son David and Lietenant Saavik have gone to the surface to look at strange life readings. When Dr. McCoy now back on Earth starts acting very strangely, Kirk realises that, before his death, Spock managed to do a very Vulcan thing and put his consciousness into McCoy, which really needs to be returned with his body for a tradional burial on Vulcan. However, Spock’s body has other plans, as does Klingon Commander Kruge (Christopher Lloyd).

It doesn’t say ‘starring Leonard Nimoy’ in the opening credits, as he is meant to be dead and gone, nicely avoiding spoiling the reveal. Nimoy being off-screen for the majority of the film allowed him to focus on a new challenge, that of directing. He did a pretty good job, and though this isn’t quite as thrilling as ‘Khan’, it does follow that film well, leading Nimoy to direct the next (and my fathers very favourite which is why I have already seen it) ‘Star Trek: The Voyage Home’.

Though the plot gets a little strange with the elements of Spock’s mind being in McCoy, what helps make that work in my opinion is that the tone of Bones’ voice is nicely similar to that of Spock, which works well for the brief bits where he is channelling Spock’s consciousness that he doesn’t realise is in his head.

The role that stands out most in this film is that of the villain. Christopher Lloyd really does make a great Klingon! It was his skills as a villain in other things that led him to be cast in the role, and though none of his other Klingon crew stand out much in their slightly comical performances, his really does.

I now just have to wonder which parts of this might (much like half the plot of ‘Khan’) get incorporated in to the next J. J. Abrams produced film? Though he himself is unlikely to return to direct, as Mr Abrams is setting a course for another space-set franchise by directing Star Wars Episode 7!

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#144 Made in Dagenham

Made in Dagenham (2010)

Dir: Nigel Cole

This is another example of films teaching me something about events in history that I really knew nothing of, but are very interesting to learn about.

Using a fictional character of Rita (Sally Hawkins), this film shows the sewing machinist’s strike in the Ford car factory in Dagenham in the 1960’s, and how the all female workers of that department were put on the lowest pay grade and categorized as ‘unskilled’, leading them to walk out. Their actions then have bigger implications on the Ford corporation, and women working around the country.

The ladies being categorized as unskilled is nuts, the work they are doing is very clearly skilled. You can see how they were very justified in asking for an increase in their pay grade. The issue at hand is far bigger than they at first realise though, and becomes a gender pay dispute rather than just being limited to their own department or company, with their strike becoming just the start of a wider wave of action.

There’s lots of great humour, especially with moments such as the ladies all working in their bras due to the heat and then all the commotion when a man walks in, like the clucking of excited hens. It’s all really good-natured fun between them, and much of this is with the scenes of Bob Hoskins as their union representative.

Good use of archive footage, cut in to show the production lines realistically and accurately. At some points it especially focuses on the cars. Also footage of men saying that women shouldn’t be paid as much, would be ludicrous to say that nowadays.

Generally the cast is very good. Sally Hawkins surprised me in what quickly becomes the main role, as Rita becomes the representative for the female workforce in the factory. Rosamund Pike is always great and really suits her role, though there’s sadly not enough of her, her character’s situation seems to be equally interesting as an Oxbridge graduate whose husband doesn’t give her anywhere near the respect she deserves and is stuck feeling demeaned in a life that’s confined to housewife tasks. Some other roles stand out too, including Richard Schiff (without a beard), and the rest of the machinist ladies as an ensemble, including Andrea Riseborough and Jaime ‘Daughter of Ray’ Winstone. Miranda Richardson is particularly superb, though it’s hard to shake the image of her as ‘Queenie’ in ‘Blackadder’, but she’s brilliantly assertive here and is always great when she’s like that. She was the one member of the cast to be particularly praised for her role, and gained a BAFTA nomination for best supporting actress for it.

When the film was released there was a little discussion of whether the certification in the UK was too high simply because of the inclusion of some strong language, with the makers of the film suggesting that the factory setting needed some expletives as it was natural, and that it was akin to ‘The King’s Speech’. Having now seen the film I disagree. I didn’t notice much of the language being confined to the factory floor, I think more was outside that setting, as really much of the film takes place outside the factory as they’re on a very prolonged strike.

There’s a little footage of the real women involved at the end, and that’s nice to see, especially as they look as bubbly and lively as the characters in the film that are meant to represent them.

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#143 Rope

Rope (1948)

Dir: Alfred Hitchcock

I’ve already watched a few Hitchcock films this year, including ‘Psycho’ and ‘The Birds’, but this was one that I was particularly interested in seeing.

‘Rope’ sees two men (John Dall and Farley Granger) kill their childhood friend David, then discussing it with each other in the after math, explaining that it was done merely as an intellectual act. They then put his body in a trunk, and proceed to host a dinner party atop the trunk with a guest list of David’s father, aunt, girlfriend, best friend, their housekeeper, and a very clever publisher Rupert (James Stewart) who was the boys housemaster at school.

Apparently the storyline took inspiration from the ‘Leopold and Loeb’ case in the 1920’s where two men murdered a 14 year-old boy in the aim of committing the ‘perfect crime’. The murder is right at the start, no build up to it or any of their planning, no wondering if they will do it, it’s already done. The reasoning as to why they have done this all come after, and as the opening shot shows this seemingly senseless act, their discussion of it shows that while their reasoning is in high levels of intellectual thought and philosophy, actually demonstrates that it’s even more lacking in reason.

The major tension comes from how everyone is there wondering why David isn’t, and the two men are reacting differently to the thing they have done, with a real chance of one of them giving too much away. James Stewart’s character Rupert is very much on the ball, he is the person whose philosophical musics and discussions with the murderers when they were younger inspired them to do this.

On that point, as part of their unusual dinner conversation they discuss the concept of weaker members of society being killed by stronger ones, and interestingly a ‘strangulation day’ which immediately made me think of concept of the 2013 film ‘The Purge’. It’s not something I’ve seen, but I heard about the plot, and it uses a lot of the same lines of reasoning, that there should be freedom for killing as a form of social refinement.

Hitchcock’s experimental lingering shots just hold their position at times and watch everything unfold. To allow for the needed cuts without looking like they have done so, it often closes in on characters backs so that the shot goes to black and other clever techniques like this to put in an unnoticeable cut, partly required because of the way that film reels at the time could only shoot 10 minutes of footage. In total the entire film is made up of just 10 shots. This was seen as a bold experiment for such a major director as Hitchcock to attempt, and he himself said it didn’t really work out, but still I think it does help to draw the audience into the tension and intrigue of the situation, unable to really cut away from the immediacy of the odd situation that the two murderers have constructed for themselves.

The ending is really perfectly done. Things are resolved as required, but then the film ends at the right point, rather than waiting for the implied next things that are going to happen it simply goes to the end credits, it doesn’t stay any longer than needed.

So many other films now could learn a lot from this.

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#142 Ruby Sparks

Ruby Sparks (2012)

Dir: Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris

“It’s like that movie ‘Harvey’, except she’s not a giant rabbit!”

To me it was more like ‘Stranger than Fiction’ and a little bit like ‘Weird Science’!

Calvin (Paul Dano), a young author who made a big name for himself with his first novel, is struggling to get anywhere with another, until his therapist (Elliott Gould) sets him the task of writing just for therapeutic reasons, and he writes about a girl who he dreams of, Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan). This really excites Calvin who gets engrossed in his new character, so much so that he somehow wills her into existence, and he wakes up to find her physically in his kitchen making breakfast! Eventually accepting she is not just in his head, Calvin introduces her to his family including his brother (Chris Messina), mother (Annette Bening) and step-father (Antonio Banderas), as Calvin starts having a real but complex romantic relationship with this seemingly ideal woman who is the product of his dreams, and whatever he chooses to write about her.

The film was actually written by star Zoe Kazan, which I suppose helps to deflect any of the obvious criticisms of misogyny or suchlike. Has a small similarity with something like ‘Ted’ in that such a magical thing occurs, and although people marvel at it for a while, they don’t over-analyze matters so as to stipulate exactly how it happens. There’s nothing wrong with that, to explain it too explicitly would spoil some of the fun of the premise, and the audience is at times reminded of the fact that Ruby exists from Calvin’s imagination enough to keep that as a consideration.

One of the biggest strengths of the film is the great supporting cast, with Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas in small but fun roles as Calvin’s family. There’s also Steve Coogan in a small role as a sleazy publisher, and I personally find Coogan best in those little parts he often takes in films, small doses are fine.

The stand-out supporting performance however is from Calvin’s brother Harry, Chris Messina steals all the scenes he’s in. One particularly fun scene with him sees Calvin trying to tell him about his first dream of Ruby where Harry asks what happened in the dream expecting something saucy, yet when Calvin says “She Talked to me!”, he replies “That’s depressing”. Small moments like this articulate their dynamic easily.

It is also Harry who points out the main twist to the idea, that Calvin can change Ruby in real-time just by typing something more about her on his typewriter. There’s a very clever use of the typewriter ping being reminiscent of a microwave oven, when is sounds it’s a signal that things are ready, and Ruby has instantly changed.

It’s this element of the story that gets surprisingly dark for a bit. At times his changes to her are just things like making her speak French, but soon turn into modifying her behaviour, at times to the extreme so she is completely dependent on him and won’t leave his side, indeed cannot do so. When all this comes to a climax the scene is shockingly intense and I was really taken aback, as his cruelly toying with her shows that it’s not her who needs to change, but him.

Given that things become so intense with that, it’s difficult to see how to end the film well, but I personally thought that the ending is really very satisfying.

So… If the woman you write about turns up in your house, then my next review should really be about Jennifer Lawrence!

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#141 Arrietty

The Secret World of Arrietty (2010)

Dir: Hiromasa Yonebayshi

I grew up watching the BBC version of ‘The Borrowers’ in the 1990’s and I can still remember little bits of it quite vividly, but doing it in Ghibli animation… It’s inspired!

When Sho is sent to convalesce in his mothers childhood home with his great-aunt, he learns the tales of the little people who have been believed to live in the house, and then has the great privilege of meeting one, a young ‘Borrower’ girl called Arrietty. SHe lives with her parents under the floorboards and within the walls of the house, at times ‘borrowing’ and making use of discarded or unneeded items that the giant humans are done with. However, Sho meeting Arrietty breaks their rules and way of life prompting her parents to panic and look to move, plus to make matters worse the housekeeper Haru is determined to find the mythical little people and get rid of them herself.

This story suits the medium of animation very well, and the inherent charm of the Ghibli style is a perfect fit for it. As we get to see Arrietty early on she’s not held as much of a mystery, and so we are treated to a lovely view of their world. Ghibli always has the skill of finding the charm in small things seen differently, often from a childs viewpoint, and here that skill is put to full use, showing objects that are used in one common way by humans, and then in a totally different way by the Borrowers.

I watched the English-language dubbed version, not the ‘American’ one, which features such actors as Amy Poheler and Will Arnett, but the U.K. one with Saoirse Ronan (The Host) as Arrietty and Tom Holland (The Impossible) as Sho. I thought it was a bit of a shame that Saoirse Ronan used much more of a neutral ‘British’ accent rather than her own very pleasant Irish one, but generally the voices were all very good, and though I’m not usually a fan of dubs, in animations such as this they’re really not an issue.

Along with the good voice cast, there’s a great use of sound. To really emphasise the logical thought that little people would notice little things, even the very smallest usually insignificant sounds are clearly heard, giving an idea of what it might be like to be Arrietty.

Studio Ghibli films often include some moral or message woven into the story, usually in a very subtle way. In this instance Ghibli wonderfully makes Mary Norton’s ‘The Borrowers’ into a story about endangered species, not forcing the point, but suggesting that their population is dwindling.

This really is one of the best Ghibli films I have watched so far. I know I have quite a few more to get through before I will have seen them all, but I hope I find myself enjoying more of them as much as I did this, it is a perfect combination of a charming story with this beautiful animation style that works incredibly well.

arrietty-posterClick on the poster to watch the trailer on YouTube.

#140 Pitch Black

Pitch Black (2000)

Dir: David Twohy

In the land of the blind, the infra-red eyed man is King!

When a spacecraft crash lands on an abandoned desert planet, dangerous convict Richard B. Riddick (Vin Diesel) manages to escape. However he’s not the biggest danger on the planet, and the other surviving passengers reluctantly join with him and make use of his unusual abilities to attempt to escape the onslaught of the planet’s nocturnal monsters, just as the planet enters a rare long eclipse.

Rather than being some chivalrous leader, Riddick is a clear anti-hero. Not much is said about his past crimes, though we do learn that he was destined to be incarcerated where he wouldn’t see the light of day again, and so had eye surgery to give him night vision, an adaptation that proves very useful when the planet is engulfed in darkness. Despite his shady past he does have moments in which he acts in the interests of others, and there’s a sense by the end that this may be some form of redemption for him, and that he want’s to leave his previous ways behind.

Darkness provides one of the few different styles achieved in the film’s scenes. It switches between settings of the interior ship, then the desert landscape of the planet, and then the dark night-like scenes sometimes with night-vision sequences from Riddick’s point of view. I especially enjoyed this variety of settings within the first part of the film as the contrasts provided interesting changes between certain scenes.

Another benefit of the extreme darkness is that it’s cleverly used to minimise the showing of monsters. This probably helped with the budget which was relatively small at $23 million, so not having to use too much on extensively computer-generating the creatures would have been a great help with finances. It’s also a very good ploy when aiming to make any monsters more intimidating when they remain largely unknown. Really the plot here does rely a lot on the idea that the humans (or humanoids) are likely surrounded, but they just can’t always see the full extent of their peril.

‘Pitch Black’ became the start of a series, with the title being subsequently modified to ‘The Chronicles of Riddick: Pitch Black’, and despite not causing any incredible storm when it opened at the box office, it proved a hit with many sci-fi fans, and so spawned two more feature films, and some animated fillers too. The third film simply titled ‘Riddick’ is due out September 2013.

Riddick seems to be a character and franchise that Vin Diesel is very passionate about personally, and though it’s taken a while to get the third film into production it has finally been achieved. I suppose I’ll have to try watching the second film ‘The Chronicles of Riddick’ at some point, and see if I warm to it some more, as this didn’t blow me away much that I could enthuse about it much, but I am slightly interested in seeing how things are developed.

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#139 Goldfinger

Goldfinger (1964)

Dir: Guy Hamilton

This is considered to be one of the very best Bonds, for many it is indeed the absolute best!

‘Goldfinger’ sees 007 (Sean Connery) sent to investigate what the eponymous villain is up to. As a wealthy bullion dealer with a love of the precious metal, Auric Goldfinger has been illegally smuggling gold in clever ways, and Bond comes to the conclusion that his bigger master plan is to rob Fort Knox, however Goldfinger has far more devious ideas than that.

The third film of the franchise, it’s really starting to find its stride, and I enjoyed this more than ‘From Russia With Love‘. The director Guy Hamilton went on to direct 3 more Bond films, and was nicely chosen for the job with his experience from assisting Carol Reed on such classics as ‘The Third Man’.

The next Bond has Sam Mendes returning to the directors chair. This was clearly one of his strongest influences when making ‘Skyfall’, with so many elements from ‘Goldfinger’ either subtly or quite blatantly used. Bond’s Aston Martin DB5 for example makes a reappearance in ‘Skyfall’, and the gadgets he is given in that are just a gun and a small homing beacon, which is in many ways the same as the one he’s given here.

I wonder if Mendez will go on to match Hamilton’s record of directing 3 Bonds? I for one certainly wouldn’t mind if he did!

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#138 Shooter

Shooter (2007)

Dir: Antoine Fuqua

The director seems to like making action films with a military theme, and featuring tough guys.

Bob Lee Swagger (Mark Wahlberg) was a U.S. Marine sniper, one of the very best in the world, but after being abandoned in the field, he turned his back on the military and cut himself off, choosing to live isolated in the mountains, and spending much of his time giving credence to conspiracy theories. When a Colonel (Danny Glover) turns up at his home and asks him to help foil an assassination attempt on the President, Swagger reluctantly agrees out of patriotism. However, the assassination has been staged to frame him, and his employers turn on him, immediately sending Swagger on the run, where he looks for help from his Marine buddy’s widow (Kate Mara) and an FBI agent (Michael Peña) who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Director Antoine Fuqua’s latest is ‘Olympus has Fallen’, about a North Korean assault on the White House, and how a lone Secret Service agent (Gerard Butler) single-handedly stops them from getting the President. Fuqua has previously made films such as ‘King Arthur’ and ‘Training Day’, all these are of a certain ilk, and clearly within his preferred genre. He is a fitting collaborator for the producer, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, who is the same producer as ‘Man on A Ledge’. Looking at his filmography shows that he mainly produces action films with often large financial returns but low critical praise. Good examples would be both the ‘G.I. Joe’ and ‘Transformers’ franchises, packed with action, turning huge profits, but have little more to them than a lot of spectacle.

This film thankfully does have a little more, I would attribute much of that to the fact it was adapted from a 1993 novel by Stephen Hunter, which means that there is a decent story behind it. The casting of Wahlberg is also key to how this works, as he looks physically suited for the role, pretty believable as a military man.

Beyond that it’s nothing that hasn’t been seen before. The action is fine, the story works well enough, and the actors are all perfectly good. However this kind of film has to compete against the likes of the ‘Bourne’ series which it has a number of similarities to, but that’s a tall order, and with a producer who doesn’t really aspire to much more than explosions and profits, it comes nowhere near that level.

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#137 The Host

The Host (2013)

Dir: Andrew Niccol

“Quick, Twilight is ending, let’s get this made to follow on straight from the success of that!”…

That’s how I can imagine this got pushed through production in the state that it has ended up, as a really mediocre and undercooked teen movie that made no impact at all.

In the not too distant future, planet Earth has been invaded by an alien race, who rather than simply wiping out the human population, merge with them by inserting an extraterrestrial consciousness known as a ‘Soul’, making use of the humans body and memories, but in effect killing their mind. Melanie (Saoirse Ronan), a teenage girl who is part of the dwindling human rebellion, is captured, and a soul called Wanderer is inserted into her, however Melanie fights against it, retaining some of her awareness, eventually taking her body and Wanderer home to the rebel hideout, where her boyfriend Jared (Max Irons) and friends (including William Hurt) are, but Wanderer has other thoughts. All the while, they are pursued by a ‘seeker’ (Diane Kruger) who is determined to crush the rebels.

A friend asked me if I knew the answers to many questions about it, such as “how do the souls work exactly?” and “where did they come from?” I don’t have a clue. There is so much that goes unexplained, and though I don’t expect or even encourage all questions being answered in films, sometimes a few of the major ones should be addressed. The problem with leaving gaping holes like that is the audience are most likely sat watching and distracted by their own minds pondering on things, either wondering when they will be explained, or working out their own hypotheses to explain it.

The use of Melanie’s internal voice is really odd, and though I’m sure it is okay in the book, and may even be an element that is necessary to be kept for the film, it ultimately doesn’t work. There were so many times through this that I wished she would just shut up. On top of that, what made it worse is that Melanie’s lines of dialogue were shockingly poor, they felt like a first attempt at scripting them, coming across as really juvenile at times, which clashed with the idea that this girl had been forced to mature and was pivotally important for the survival of the whole human race.

In contrast to how bad the internal voice works on film, the use of a change in a persons eyes when they are inhabited by a ‘soul’ works quite well indeed. It’s used as a clear indication in the storyline for people to identify who is alien and who is still human, and it does clearly show distinctively.

The director Andrew Niccol last made ‘In Time‘ which I watched at the start of the year. I really enjoyed that, sadly I didn’t really enjoy this. ‘In Time’ was packed with good action in places quite thrilling and exciting, but this is essentially dull throughout.

It’s no surprise that producers would want to make full use of Stephanie Meyer’s work when the ‘Twilight’ franchise proved to be so popular, but the only thing this really has in common with those stories is Meyer’s love of odd love triangles featuring at least one non-human entity! There’s one particular scene that’s I found really stupid, where Melanie/Wanderer has to kiss two different guys one after the other. It’s just an excuse for what teenage girls might mistakenly think is a steamy bit of romance.

Saoirse Ronan is good, but so much better than what she’s been given to work with here. I watched a Jonathon Ross (UK chat show host) interview with her three weeks after the UK release, when this was currently out in the cinemas, yet the interview made NO mention of it at all, just her next film ‘Byzantium’ which was still 5 weeks away from release.

A film making only $8 million profit is not usually seen as a terrible disaster, but being only 6 months after ‘Breaking Dawn – Part 2’ made over £800 million at the box office, it became a flop worth downplaying.

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