Sunday, 26 April 2015

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck Review – Come As You Are

There was a moment in Brett Morgen’s Kurt Cobain documentary, Montage of Heck, when it dawned on me that I wasn’t entirely sure the Nirvana frontman would’ve wanted the film to be made.

The moment in question sees Cobain leaving his band mates to do all the talking during an interview, and you just see his head slowly slump into his hands. Another clip sees him verbalise his feelings; screw interviews, let the music do the talking.

Which lead me to really question Morgen’s film. Whilst it is in no way anti-Cobain – in fact, it proves beyond doubt that the man was a genius, albeit a deeply troubled one – it does seem to sit at odds with his ‘let the music do the talking’ mentality.

Because, we see passed the music; we see the man. And, in that regard, Montage of Heck works as a fascinating character study. Morgen brings Cobain’s personal diary entries to life, animating his crudely drawn doodles brilliantly, highlighting words and sending Cobain’s skittish (yet somehow poised) web of thoughts shimmering across the screen.

It’s the writing of a broken man, overwhelmed by the world that deified him. One silent diary entry sequence about his newly-born daughter, Frances, almost moved me to tears . . .

And Morgen weaponises the silence just as effectively as he channels the deafening noise. The animation is taken to the next level for a couple of beautifully visualised sequences that bring Cobain’s personal voice recordings to life. Covering some unassuming, but clearly defining, moments from his childhood, it powers home that fact that Cobain was a flesh and blood mortal (at least, at that stage). In these sequences, he almost plays as a Stephen King hero, with his narration threaded with intricately detailed teenage observations.

The super 8 footage is more of a mixed bag, and it’s during these segments that the 132-minute running time starts to take its toll. If anything, these sections suffer from a lack of clear direction (with Morgen having to rely on the edit). However, this is not a problem that extends to the talking head interviews with Cobain’s friends and family. These clips are used sparingly, but effectively, and they have a greater sense of purpose than the home videos. Morgen’s insightful, and intelligent, camera transforms subtle gestures into aching emotional outbursts. Seeing Cobain’s father squeezing the arm of a sofa becomes truly heartbreaking.

Jeff Danna and John Fee also deliver some really strong work re-arranging Nirvana’s tracks to fit with the action on screen. All the classics are there, but more interesting than those are the haunting choral reimagining of Cobain’s greatest hits.

Montage of Heck may not be the documentary Cobain would’ve wanted (if he would’ve even wanted one at all), but it’s the documentary he deserves. And, I came to realise, it was never for him; it was for us, and it provides us with the first real glimpse we’ve had into Cobain’s troubled soul since his passing.

You know what, Kurt, you waited so long for the world to catch up with you that you (rightly) gave up trying. But, eleven years later, and I think we might finally be within sight . . .

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is now available for streaming via Netflix UK.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Frequencies – Faux-Science, Faux-Feelings

It’s a real shame to see grand ideas caged by a limited budget, but that’s exactly what’s happened with this British sci-fi romance.

Frequencies is set in an alternative universe where everyone’s luck is measured by  ‘frequency’. People with a high frequency are lucky, prosperous and a whole host of other positive things; whereas, people with lower frequencies are less lucky, more clumsy and a whole host of other negative things. It’s an interesting concept, I suppose, especially when viewed as a reflection of class. But, it often just comes across as a method of illustrating the differences between our two star-crossed lovers; Zak and Marie.

Marie is a ridiculously high frequency and Zak is hopelessly low (negative, in fact). As a result, the two of them can’t be near each other for more than a minute before something terrible happens (falling objects, and the like); and that’s the overwhelming obstacle the two of them must overcome if they are to be with each other.

However, rather than just setting up the challenge and just letting it fly, Darren Paul Fisher (writer-director) feels the need to start explaining it all and the entire movie ultimately shifts it’s focus onto the hard sci-fi concept at the centre of this story. But, as with so much cinematic faux-science, the more they try to explain it, the more flimsy it becomes. And, when the characters start scribbling down equations, it all just falls to pieces, quite frankly. By this stage, I didn’t believe a word of their ‘scientific’ ramblings, which meant I’d lost interest by the time the big final act reveal hit.

The movie is also brought down by a forced set of performances from the child actors. We first meet Zak and Marie during their early teens. We then jump to their mid-teens, before sticking with them as young adults; and those first four actors are obvious weak links. In fact, very few of the performances ring true in those early scenes. Marie comes across as overly cold, on both occasions; supposedly as a result of her frequency, but that seems to be the only depth Fisher asked of his young performers.

Things do improve, however, when we reach Daniel Fraser and Eleanor Wyld as older versions of the characters. Their performances are more dramatically engaging and naturalistic, and Fisher does some interesting work providing the audience with both sides of the story. He also crafts some touching, and well observed, reflections on the class-divide and changing ‘luck’, but a couple of flashback sections do disrupt the flow somewhat.

On their own, minimalistic production values aren’t a major problem. But, tie that in to an increasingly muddled narrative drive and (sometimes purposefully) wooden performances, and we’re left unengaged by a wasted concept. I wanted to like Frequencies, I really did, but it left me severely underwhelmed.

This review was originally written for Close-Up Film and the film is out now on DVD and VOD, in the UK.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Greenberg – Childish

Greenberg sees Ben Stiller’s mentally unstable, and (much to his dismay) middle-ageing, Roger Greenberg house-sitting for his brother in Los Angeles.

It was sold as Stiller’s coming-of-age role back in 2010, which is somewhat ironic seeing as though the titular ‘hero’ is quite possibly the most childish character he’s ever played. And not in a good way . . .

Stiller’s whiny man-child is somehow more frustrating than the simpleton man-child Hollywood comedy so often throws our way. But, I guess that’s because this isn’t a ‘traditional Hollywood comedy’ . . . and boy does the film know that. In fact, Noah Baumbach (director and co-writer) takes every possible opportunity to remind us that. This. Is. An. Indie. Movie.

As a result, the dialogue verges on the naturalistic wanderings of the mumblecore movement and the film sidelines substantial plotting for character, which wouldn’t be a problem . . . if the characters were in any way likeable.

And that’s the over-riding problem here: Greenberg is a pretty unpleasant human being. The script beats us over the head with Greenberg’s intensely apathetic mantra (‘I’m just trying to do nothing’), and then does nothing to get us on his side. He’s cynical, lazy, and mean to the handful of half-decent secondary characters (the mostly effective Greta Gerwig and Rhys Ifans, to name just a couple).

Which makes the eventual ‘love story’ a pretty hard sell. Greenberg and Gerwig’s Florence never really seem to fall for each other, so we’re never really on their side. And then, when they fall out, we care even less.

There are some nice musical choices and things do improve slightly when Greenberg sits in on a twenty-something’s party, but that does little to justify the 90-minute slog to get to that point. This is one case where a bit of Hollywood tradition (namely, a likeable protagonist) could have come in handy.

This review was originally written for Close-Up Film and the film is out now on DVD and VOD, in the UK.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Furious 7 – Wackadoo!

Business is booming for the little street racing franchise that could, but is the huge commercial success justified? Well, yes and no . . .

Furious 7 is without doubt the biggest/loudest/crashiest/smashiest/explosioniest instalment so far, and while that offers killer adrenaline shot after killer adrenaline shot, by the end, you may just want a quiet sit down with a cup of cocoa and a biscuit.

This is particularly problematic when the best action sequence falls midway through the film. The plane drop mountain chase is expertly crafted. It delivers breathtaking derring-do, while never skimping on the character work that elevates the greatest action scenes. It’s a brilliantly visceral piece of cinema, made all the more gripping by the knowledge that a huge chunk of the driving is done by real flesh-and-blood stunt men. But, it also means the city-crumbling finale pales in comparison. It’s longer, louder, less focused and lacks the finesse of the mountain sequence.

Elsewhere, James Wan’s (director) acrobatic camera has a tendency to leer at nameless (and virtually faceless) young women. While it fits with the whole fast cars, faster women thing, it feels pretty damn creepy. But, it’s a problem the franchise has always had, quite frankly.

What these movies also have, however, is a tremendous amount of goodwill towards these characters. The character work is key throughout 7 and, while many of the intricacies were lost on me (I remember Fast 5 fondly, but never caught Fast & Furious 6), the sense of family is terrifically rousing.

Which brings us to Paul Walker: a noble hero lost far too early. As I’ve said, I drifted off (no pun intended) towards the end of the final set-piece, but I was pulled right back on board by the film’s disarmingly sincere, and surprisingly touching, send-off to Walker’s Brian.

While this film falls short of Fast 5 in terms of consistent thrills, it delivers the wildest action scenes yet and a truly moving tribute to Paul Walker.


Furious 7 is out now on DVD!

Friday, 3 April 2015

The Ides of March – A Classy Affair

George Clooney yet again cements his place at the peak of American cinema with his fourth directorial feature, the immensely watchable ‘The Ides of March’.

Ryan Gosling leads this all-star cast as Stephen Meyers, wunderkind media officer for Mike Morris’ (Clooney) presidential campaign. But one rookie slip-up and Gosling is left in danger of tumbling out of the political machine.

The drama, while unrevolutionary, is totally gripping, thanks primarily to the four key players. Clooney has Gosling, Paul Giamatti and the late, great Phillip Seymour Hoffman firing on all cylinders. Take any two of these actors and put them in a room together and they’ll deliver gold. Hoffman, in particular, is effortlessly enigmatic despite his character’s clinical worldview.

The pacing slips off the pulse slightly towards the end, and the key dramatic beat seems to hit prematurely. But they’re minor criticisms for a movie that gifts us with a set of superlative performances from some of this generation’s greatest actors.