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Instantly, you’ll be hit by how ‘The Butler’ is like the ‘Forrest Gump’ of the civil rights movement. It flies through the past 70 years of American race relations and politics from the view of a character that has been left out of history books, but who was right at the forefront of it. Forest Whitaker plays a modest, uneducated man telling his story without fully realising how close he was to defining moments.

The film loosely follows the story of Eugene Allen, a man who served as a White House butler for 34 years. His story was reported in the Washington Post just after Obama was elected president in 2008. This is an “inspired by” rather than “based on” true events film, a phrase which seems to imply a request for more creative freedom. Allen is fictionalised as Cecil Gaines who experiences a Hollywood traumatising childhood and is motivated to put his emotion into serving. Fortunate enough to encounter people willing to mentor him he learns respect not just for his work, but for himself in his societal position, being scolded when he describes himself using the “white man’s word.”

The back-story montage quickly shows his career progression, eventually leading to an offer to serve right in the centre of the American Government. From this, the narration launches right into the thick of the film: a collision of family and political drama.

Forest Whitaker is a strong and dignified lead, which not only is consistent in his stoicism and reserve as Cecil ages but also in his charm. The scene where Cecil is invited to The White House might be used for workshops on how to give a superb job interview.

Oprah Winfrey, as Gloria Gaines, brings a glowing presence although she has little opportunity to shine: she seems to be a vessel for her husband. The most she gets to do is occasionally feel neglected by her workaholic spouse or praise and defend his career.  However, they both provide needed warmth that does not always come through the script.

The film is also packed with rubbery impressions of presidents and important figures.  If you look at ‘The Butler’s poster, you can use its star-list to play some cameo spotting. Tick them off as they roll along the narrative conveyer belt. Their brief appearances are a bit distracting; partly to keep us watching but possibly not for the best reasons.

Not intending to sound facetious, but it’s also possible to play history bingo too. The film works its hardest to honour every important event and figure of civil rights into its condensed and watchable two hours. It achieves its referential mission but weighs the film down; compromising on a stronger and more personal exploration of segregated society through a mixed family and political drama.

The narrative is sometimes a bit confusing and clumsily packed; meaning the emotional pay off is never explosive enough. Gaines is pressured by his son’s political involvement in civil rights campaigning and his own proximity to power. He must appear invisible in the arena of politics. Yet, as he is stuck in a moral situation, wondering whether to break the butlers’ code of silence and hoping his son’s political activity goes under the White House radar, we don’t feel the jeopardy. Apparently there was a possibility he could lose his job. Cecil’s fears, disguising of emotion, and the voyeuristic spying tension all had a lot of potential to have been increased.

Lee Daniels’ direction also restrains on a ferocious depiction of segregation and protesting. Harsh language and racial slurs are used appropriately. Real photos are shown to inject some authentic and chilling realism but these are also a little jarring.

I think that a lot has been held back and toned down so as not to incite trauma for younger viewers and for anyone who has been on the receiving end of horrific prejudice. As an educational film it also packs in the moral aphorisms, sometimes too many to remember. Occasionally it has an unnecessary didactic style. One scene essentially lays out what Cecil Gaines represents, like a patronising film student leaning over and giving you a mini lecture. It spoils the enjoyment of a character whose actions and story spoke for him.

As a tribute to steps taken for, and a celebration of, a more respectful society this film could have been an oxygen stealing triumph. It is somewhat let down by clunkiness and a struggle to capture the expanse of its subject, which could have been achieved in a more epic 3 hours. Though the ending is not quite a full-on tearjerker, it might stroke you with a reflective and temporary optimism for humanity. It also wets the appetite for next year’s Mandela film where we will continue to mourn, honour and maybe physically cry for a real life hero.

Reviewed by Lewis King.

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After winning over the Cannes jury, chaired by Steven Speilberg, and being awarded the Palme d’Or in may, Abdellatif Kechiche’s tenuous adaptation of Julie Maroh’s graphic novel Le Bleu est un coleur chaude was beset with controversy. Both Adèle Exarchopolous (Adèle) and Léa Seydoux (Emma) spoke out against Kechiche and his almost Svengali-like methods of directing, abusing his power to force them into the graphic sex scenes. Seydoux claimed she felt ‘like a prostitute’ afterwards and that she ‘would never work with him again.’ Kechiche defended himself in an editorial, claiming that the controversy ‘spoiled’ the success, however, the scandal has also fuelled much publicity and excitement from critics and peers, begging the question did the film earn the Palme d’Or for its inherent value or for its controversial portrayal of a lesbian relationship.

Using a graphic novel as inspiration, Kechiche weaves an intimate character study that is both graphic and novelistic. In fact, Kechiche implicitly reveals his modus operandi in the first act through dialogue when Adèle explains her love for Marivaux’s La Vie de Marianne. ‘He spends 600 pages, and yes he spends a lot of time on description but the result is he really gets under the skin of a woman’ and this is a perfect (albeit a simplistic teenage) way of describing the project. Which is why the original title ‘La vie d’Adèle- chapitres 1 & 2′ is a more accurate and honest title.

Time is Kechiche’s central device as his goal is to capture the essence of Adèle (Emma quotes Sartre’s essence before existence theory) over a long period of time. The film opens as Adèle is going about a regular day; getting the bus to school, enthralled in a literature class, talking to friends about boys, eating dinner in front of the TV with her family and then asleep in her bed. It is clear that Kechiche wants the viewer to take in the details from the way she eats, to the way she wears her hair so that perhaps the viewer will fall in and out of love with her as well. The film is shot with realist restraint, the only visual flair is the constant glow of warm, natural light that intensifies when the two are together. Kechiche is not shy with close ups either, forcing the viewer to gaze at and memorise the faces of the couple.

The film shifts gears once Adèle meets Emma as she is ostracised from her school friends for exploring the gay scene in Lille. But ‘Blue is the warmest colour’ never truly feels like a political film, at least LGBT issues are not at the forefront. Rather, Kechiche is interested in the meeting point of the personal and the political and how people who adopt alternative lifestyles function in society. Adèle goes to rallies and pride parades but she seems to go to support Emma more than an actual personal desire for radical change.

The seven minute graphic sex scene acts as the center piece as the built up tension and frustration of Adèle is finally quenched. There has been a lot of debate of the necessity of the scene and whether or not it is realistic or not, not to mention the thought of Kechiche forcing them to do take after take, pushing the actresses further and further into unbridled passion. The scene is perfectly coherent with the rest of the film and captures the intensity of a powerful sexual awakening brilliantly, displaying a poetic realism that Anthony Lane describes as ‘on the brink of romantic agony.’ As for questioning the necessity of it, I wonder how a director can make a film about sexuality without depicting sex itself and we are currently witnessing a trend of directors who are unashamed of delving into real sex scenes. With the likes of Steve McQueen ‘Shame’ and Lars Von Trier’s upcoming ‘Nymphomaniac’ the debate over ‘pornography’ in film will become more important as cinemagoers become more desensitised.

The passion between the two is tragically extinguished as the film’s pacing speeds up and suddenly Adèle is older and the differences between the two are more apparent. Kechiche takes his time in the first act but covers a lot more ground in the second and third, documenting about four years of Adèle’s life. An important theme, that has been overshadowed by the controversy and the debates over LGBT issues, is that of class. Although, it does not seem obvious at first, Adèle and Emma come from to very different backgrounds and this distance is excellently and humorously presented during the ‘meet the parents’ sequence.

As the film reaches a conclusion, Adèle and Emma find stability in their separate lives but it is clear that they will never be able to forget their experience together. Controversy and scandal aside, this is not just a film about sex or sexuality but rather how a young woman’s life is defined by the two. Exarchopolous, who was relatively undiscovered beforehand, delivers one of the best performances of the year.

Reviewed by Sean Gallen.

captain-phillips-international-posterAs it was only a few years ago, it’s likely that you’ll remember the events that ‘Captain Phillips’ is based on. In 2009 the cargo ship of Captain Rich Phillips and his crew was boarded by four young Somali pirates. Events escalated, leading to Phillips being captured by the Somalis and enduring a hostage situation on the escaping lifeboat.

At the time, the news reportage of these real hijackings and the simultaneous portrayal of pirates as fun adventurers in Western cinema couldn’t have felt more at odds with each other. It is pure conjecture, but I wonder whether there is something about the word ‘pirate,’ and our cultural associations with it, that stops us from truly understanding the severity of the issue. Perhaps, by wrapping it up in an entertaining Hollywood production, ‘Captain Philips’ will raise some awareness about real piracy and the global economic issues that surround it.

At its core the film is a survival thriller, and director Paul Greengrass grips us by pumping out heart thumping tension. The pacing is consistent, even in the quite lengthy third act. In comparison to ‘Argo,’ another recent film based on a real international hostage incident, ‘Captain Phillips’ plays with the audience’s sense of hope and fear with more intensity. There is, however, the feeling that there has been a small bit of miss-marketing and some action fans may be expecting a modern ‘Under Siege,’ but this is not an action film. There are plenty of exciting sequences, but the title protagonist is not a one man army. It’s a portrayal of a real man’s attempts at escape and painful endurance. Despite his situation, there is plenty of humanity and sympathy from Phillips which, unsurprisingly, Tom Hanks expresses excellently, bringing a heart breaking performance as the film progresses.

Greengrass’ experience of handling true tales such as this one shines through, as the wider picture is also explored without any deviation or affect on pacing. The piracy issue is handled in the best possible way: without unnecessary blame and with plenty of room for interpretation and discussion.

Early on, the film pictures a poverty stricken fishing village in Somalia and the conditions of recruiting pirates.
There’s no demonisation of the Somalis as a ’threat’ to the Western economy or suffocating portrayal of them as forced victims. There are subtle references to an organised crime figurehead and a hierarchy of power, but they’re explored in appropriate doses; enough to spark interest but without providing overly simplistic answers.

There are moments between Philips and his lead captor, Muse, that explore the relationship between Africa and America. In one scene Muse tells Phillips about his ambition to go to America, imagining the country as that iconic land of opportunity. Unfortunately, no economy is stable and even work in the Western world is not guaranteed. This is subtly acknowledged by the captain himself at the start of the film, in conversation with his wife. This insight into Muse’s aspirations makes him an interesting character as he is brutal and dislikable but also desperate and sympathetic.

There has been some controversy surrounding the portrayal of the title man himself, with Phillips’ real life crew describing actions he took as reckless and even blaming him for the hijacking. Authenticity is always a point of contention when it comes to films based on true stories and, in this particular case, most of it probably stems from the use of Phillips’ own memoirs as the main source for the plot. That said, I didn’t feel that he was overly portrayed as an American hero.

Despite acknowledging his quick wittedness and bravery in the face of adversity, and despite being called ‘Captain Phillips’, the film is not just about Captain Phillips. It is an intelligent thriller that will rock your emotions whilst subtly engaging you in the wider context of the piracy issue.

Released in the UK on October 16th 2013.

 

Let me begin with this…If you’re reading this review to find out whether Samsara is worth seeing, it is. Read no further, go and watch it and then come back, because the less you know about it upon entering the cinema, the better. Samsara labels itself a ’guided meditation.’ There are no words, just music and a series of breathtaking visuals. There is no obvious agenda, and each audience member will take away from it something different.

The name Samsara comes from the Sanskrit word meaning “the ever turning wheel of life,” and no other name could be more appropriate. It opens your eyes to many things, bringing to mind some age old questions but also some very topical ones. It’s a thought-provoking experience, and let me emphasise, it is definitely an ’experience.’ The contrasting images show a world so diverse and vast, that even the most travelled individual can find something they’ve never seen before.

Samsara took 5 years to create and is captured entirely on 70mm film, transferred through the highest resolution scanning process to 4K digital projection. The results are strikingly bold colours, pin sharp detail and shots that can only be marvelled at. It’s not the first of such films by Ron Fricke (director) and Mark Magison (producer.) It follows Baraka, which was released in 1992, and Chronos, in 1985.

Twitter: @SamsaraFilm

www.barakasamsara.com

Written by Francesca Bassenger, images courtesy of barakasamsara.com.

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Do you agree with capital punishment? It’s a question that rears its head every so often, generally after some tragic event too horrible for us to truly comprehend. Phrases like ’how could someone do something like that’ and words like ’animal’ and ’monster’ tend to follow. But the message that struck me hardest in Werner Herzog’s latest documentary ’Into The Abyss’ is that the perpetrators of these horrendous crimes are no less human than you or I.

We use these words to separate ourselves from them, a result of our fear that had our lives been different… different town, different upbringing, different life experiences… we too could have arrived at where they are now. As much as we would like to believe it, nobody is born bad and we all have the potential to become so.

Throughout the film, Herzog interviews a number of people surrounding a 2001 triple homicide including, the convicted, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett. Although his own voice is occasionally heard, that of the interviewees comes across as free and organic, un-enhanced or over emphasised by the powers of post-production.

Perhaps for this same reason, the film comes across as quite low budget, lacking the seamlessness or gloss that more mainstream documentaries have these days. Yet somehow this rawness is appropriate to the nature of the themes… murder, blame, death, and most importantly the rawness of life.

As Herzog says himself, the film is about life just as much as it about death, and his respect for both is evident. There is a distinct lack of shock-factor scenes that you almost expect to see from a film about death row. It would be so easy to insert gasp-inducing dramatic moments and yet Werner chooses to preserve the dignity of all involved. That said, the sense of tragedy and loss is ever-present.

Herzog avoids getting too far in to the nitty-gritty of Perry and Burkett’s individual level of involvement in the crimes, each blaming the other. In doing this the audience is encouraged to look at the bigger picture, the ‘characters’ could represent any victim, any killer, any case. It’s the principal of ending a life under any circumstance that is questioned, not whether it is acceptable, excusable or deserved in regards to this specific case.

’Into The Abyss’ has a stillness about it. No long pause is ever broken, nor is inserted for dramatic effect. There is a strong sense of unadulterated, bare faced ‘truth’ and consequently you leave feeling that you’ve made up your own mind in response to that initial question, or even perhaps not. What you don’t feel however, is that Werner made up his, and then spent the past 107 minutes trying to convince you of it.

‘Into The Abyss’ is released in the UK on the 30th March 2012.

 Reviewed by Francesca Bassenger.