Paragraph Pictures – 11.05.17

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THE END OF THE TOUR (2015)

An insufferably pompous exploration of David Foster Wallace, The End of the Tour is the perfect example of placing the wrong actors with the wrong script. Conversations about art and the afflictions of modern society, Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg deliver each line with a sanctimonious tone which never elevates beyond sounding smug and incredibly obnoxious. Fans of Foster Wallace might even be repulsed by their own appreciation as Segel lacks the range to be convincingly anyone beyond himself in a dodgy wig. Primarily though, there’s just something instantly unappealing about two egocentric men dueling to see who can create the more abstract hypotheses about the essence of art in contemporary society.

 

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FRANTZ (2016)

A touching romance about a young German woman and a young French man brought together in the aftermath of World War I by the death of the titular dead loved one, François Ozon’s 16th feature film is uniquely quiet and sensitive in its tone. With a simplistic use of monochrome cinematography which captures shadows and light to excellent effect, this pacifist film is made all the more compelling by its young leads, Pierre Niney and Paula Beer. While it does start strong, its second act following a crucial reveal flounders and loses its direction, resorting to some of the worst narrative devices to try carry the film to a solid conclusion. Nodding homage to La Grande Illusion, Ozon fails to live up to the excellence of Jean Renoir but nevertheless creates one of the best romance stories 2017 has to offer so far.

 

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UNLOCKED (2017)

It’s amazing to watch these jingoist films do numbers in an effort to not come off as completely racist. Every year sees Britain release an action thriller set initially in London, with some reference to Paris or another European city that people remember having a terrorist attack, and then setting off antagonizing Muslims until they have to pull a twist or turn that exonerates them of all the previous hostility. Not as bad as London Has Fallen, although equally dull, the highlight here is seeing Noomi Rapace (Prometheus) hold her own as an action star with a level of intelligence and strength that is refreshing to see in these genre flicks. John Malkovich looks bored in almost every scene, bringing out the eccentricities sadly for only one scene. The most unusual casting is Orlando Bloom, working off-type, and weirdly mimicking Jack Sparrow of all characters. Why Toni Collette or Michael Douglas are here is anyone’s guess, but they got a paycheck at least. No prizes for guessing the reveal on who the mastermind behind the plot was all along. It truly is a by-the-numbers film that will find some business eventually on streaming services later this year.

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Paragraph Pictures – 09.05.17

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I AM BIG BIRD: THE CARROLL SPINNEY STORY (2014)

A short documentary about the man behind Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street, I Am Big Bird offers an emotionally satisfying and charming account of Carroll Spinney from childhood to present day. At times saccharine and overlooking some of the darker times in Spinney’s lifetime, it nevertheless captures a humble, reclusive man who brings joy to many children around the world. Definitely worth watching as a counterpoint to Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey from 2011, and a far more compelling and intriguing subject to explore as well.

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THE ROAD TO MOTHER (2016)

Coming from Kazakhstan and unabashedly proud of being so, The Road to Mother is an independent epic about the first 50 years of Kazakh history in the 20th century. Essentially trying to create The Best of Youth (2003) but in the brief constraints of two hours, a lot of the sociopolitical exposition bogs the film’s simplistic plot of a boy trying to return home into an incomprehensible mess. Plot and story simply do not mesh, as the protagonist is continually foiled in his attempts to return to his mother and childhood sweetheart for the sole purpose of carrying through to the next decade of Kazakh history. While it certainly has enjoyable moments and gorgeous cinematography, its best qualities are spread far too thinly across a redundant plot.

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TABLE 19 (2017)

Wasn’t Little Miss Sunshine great? Can we stop making those kind of films? Please? These Woody Allen-inspired dramedies are increasingly losing their intrigue and their sense of purpose. The pseudo-’80s tone is weakly utilized with no inventiveness for subversion or homage, and all the performers are drifting through each scene. Highlights include Craig Robinson getting an opportunity to perform dramatically but other than that, utterly forgettable.

Paragraph Pictures – 27.04.17

THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE (2017)

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Beautiful animals, beautiful sunlight, beautiful gardens, The Zookeeper’s Wife begins like a promising, feel-good film about zoophiliacs and then… “Warsaw. Poland. 1939.” You know what kind of film this is going to be. Predictable and working with familiar tropes of films based on Jewish persecution, Jessica Chastain uses the opportunity to break from her usual roles by playing a introverted, gentle, and nurturing wife and mother. While her performance, alongside the rest of the cast, help to elevate the quality of the well-told story, a cliche-ridden script drags the film down into just another film about how awful the nazis were with some tricky unexpected additions in the second act involving a young girl which the film is too light to fully explore or do justice to in any tasteful way.

 

THE HAPPIEST DAY IN THE LIFE OF OLLI MÄKI (2016)

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Winner of the award for Une Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival, this Finnish boxing film about a young man who has a chance at the belt is a charming, muted, and sentimental film that surprisingly subverts the hypermasculine narratives that often plague these sports movies – a fact emphasized by the primary dilemma being whether or not Olli will effectively lose weight in time for the match. Essentially Raging Bull on antidepressants, the exploration of the relationship between Olli and his girlfriend Raija under the constraints of daily training and publicity managed by former boxing champion, Elis, is an emotionally satisfying treat to watch. There’s something both sweet and unusually charming about a boxer training by running through a forest with a kite.

 

THEIR FINEST (2017)

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A perfectly serviceable and enjoyable British film that relies a bit too much on a meta-celebration of the craft of screenwriting, but equally celebrates what is, for many, a watershed moment in the history of women entering the workforce. Definitely enjoyable, especially Gemma Arterton, who has continually proven to be a charismatic actress in recent years, and Bill Nighy, who gets the opportunity to show how promising a dramatic role might be for the actor.

Fred Ott’s Sneeze (1894) – Review.

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There it is. 45 frames. 7 seconds in length. The first film ever made in the United States.

…Sort of. While some may argue that the first ever film in history should be credited to Louis Le Prince for Roundhay Garden Scene (1888), the first copyrighted film happens to be from Thomas Edison for this short of Fred Ott having a sneeze. Ott, an employee for Edison, was renowned for his gags and his distinctive sneeze, which was apparently enough impetus to allow the first recorded image be of him joking around.

It’s certainly not fascinating by itself. Not much is achievable in seven seconds. If someone were to apotheosize film as high art, they’d posit that the film contains the foundations of American cinematic storytelling in a single shot – the setup (the man puts snuff to his nose); the dilemma (the man is overwhelmed by the physical need to sneeze); the resolve (the man feels relieved). However, this really is a coincidence beyond anything else.

Fred Ott’s Sneeze was the groundwork for the development of what we’d come to know as the camera. Never intended for public viewing, the sneeze that started it all began as a commission for Harper’s Weekly to demonstrate the abilities of their new Kinetoscope. Even being credited as the first copyrighted film is spurious itself. In 1894,the Library of Congress held no regulations for copyrighting films  so the 45 frames sent to Harper’s Weekly were copyrighted individually as a series of photographs.

There is some curiosity to be had about what this springboard can tell us about filmmaking itself. Cinema has always been a spectacle. The selling point of Fred Ott’s Sneeze relies entirely on the novelty of moving image (something now capable of being condensed into a .gif) and so, to us, there is nothing significant without its historical context. The most joy to be had from the film now is the derisive comments section on YouTube. Spectacle draws in the public, but its effect and appeal is ephemeral at best.

More importantly, film began as an amusement. The charm of Fred Ott’s Sneeze is its frivolity. One of the followups was The Kiss (1896), one of the earliest publicly shown recordings, and a similarity emerges almost instantly:

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No, not just Fred Ott himself. The subjects play up to the camera, amused at the act of recording, self-conscious that what they do will be permanently recorded. They become silly and that silliness makes them so amusing to watch. What occurs in those seven seconds of Fred Ott sneezing his way to fame is no different from the numerous Cinnamon, Ice Bucket, or Bean Boozled Challenges which occupy the internet on a daily basis. If anything, it’s a comedy; certainly an in-joke for the staff at Edison Manufacturing Company (including its sequels, Fred Ott Holding a Bird (1894) and the aforementioned The Kiss).

If anything can be learned from Fred Ott’s Sneeze, it’s that filmmaking never began as art, or storytelling, high/low brow entertainment, nor even with a bang. It started with a sneeze.