Human Capital

The telling of stories from multiple perspectives is not new to cinema and such an approach is most effective when each ‘version’ of events not only tells/shows us something new about the person from whose perspective we are watching things play out, but also offers insight into the people around them and the broader world they inhabit. An adaptation of an American novel in which the events have been transplanted to Italy, Human Capital is told via a series of chapters, each of which focuses on a particular character in the lead-up to, and aftermath of, an incident that leaves a cyclist fighting for life in hospital. Directed by Paolo Verzi, who also wrote the screenplay drawn from Stephen Amidon’s novel of the same name, Human Capital is a story that revolves around the interactions between the various members of two Italian families; characters who alternate between what they are and what they want to be. A brief opening segment sets things up when a cyclist is hit by a car late at night and left for dead on the side of the road. Each time we see the events play out from a different point of view, we become privy to little nuggets of information that offer clues to what really happened, however it isn’t until the final chapter that we discover what transpired and who was responsible.

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Each episode begins a few months prior to the fateful accident and the first revolves around the hapless Dino (Fabrizio Bentivoglio), a real-estate agent who, desperate to improve his lot in life, borrows a substantial amount to join an investment scheme run by the filthy rich Giovanni (Fabrizio Gifuni), the father of his daughter’s boyfriend. Played by Bentivoglio as a buffoon, it goes without saying that Dino finds himself in a right pickle when things don’t pan out as expected. This guy is such a goose that you really find yourself hoping that it all goes horribly wrong for him and you simply cannot fathom how he has nabbed himself an attractive, intelligent new wife (Valeria Golino). It is very much reminiscent of Woody Allen so often casting himself alongside his various muses-of-the-moment; couplings that always seemed a bit creepy.

Giovanni, an arrogant, detestable man who refers to his parents as morons and his son as a loser, is married to Carla (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), a former actress who, having forsaken her career for a life of meaningless extravagance, is desperate for something – or somebody – to occupy her time. Carla is a victim of the life she has chosen for herself and, although her husband pays her no mind, her tale of woe amidst exorbitant wealth is a little hard to cop. Furthermore, her story – which revolves around an attempt to renovate a derelict theatre and a dalliance with a drama teacher – is somewhat laboured and a little bit ludicrous to boot.

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The second half of the movie is much more interesting and engaging, perhaps in part to a strong performance from Matilde Gioli as Serena, Dino’s teenage daughter. Throughout the first half of the film, Serena flits in and out for only the briefest of moments and it is only when we follow her for an extended period that things get really interesting. Serena finds herself caught in a lie with regard to her relationship with Massimiliano – the son of Giovanni and Carla – and then when she meets troubled artist Luca (Giovanni Anzaldo), her life is complicated further.

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The Italy presented here is a cold, heartless world in which the rich get richer with little regard for anybody who might get hurt along the way. One reviewer quite rightly described Human Capital as “the most revolting selection of male characters in a film I have seen this year”. However, redemption comes via the performances of Golino – whose Roberta is by far the most likeable of the group – and newcomer Gioli. Given that this story could be transplanted to almost anywhere in the world, it is not hard to imagine an American version emerging sometime in the future and I can’t help but feel that this is one occasion where a remake in the right hands (David Fincher?) could really make this material soar.

Selma

It is hard to fathom that the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jnr have not previously made their way on to the big screen. Given the rich vein of material that King’s story offers, the lack of attention to his significant role in African-American history by filmmakers is perhaps more indicative of the attitude in Hollywood towards black stories more than anything else. Now, courtesy of director Ava DuVernay, Selma gives us access to this most revered figure and his role in the human rights struggles of the 1960’s. Wisely, DuVernay has made no effort to try and construct a biopic that covers the entirety of King’s life, or even the full gamut of his social and political influence. With Selma, DuVernay concentrates on a very specific moment in history that ultimately served to provide African-Americans in the southern Unites States with access to fundamental freedoms enjoyed by the rest of the population.

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It’s 1965 and black Americans are still being denied the vote in Alabama and other states, despite having every legal right to enrol. As frustrations mount, a group of activists, led by King, gather in the city of Selma to protest the obstructions – both bureaucratic and physical – of state and local authorities. Played by British actor David Oyelowo (The Paperboy, The Butler), King is at the forefront of actions – culminating with a march from Selma to the state capital Montgomery – designed to force President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to enact legislation that would eliminate such obstacles from the path of African-Americans desperate to participate in the political process.

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While King is obviously the hero of the piece, DuVernay has made every effort to present a rounded representation of his personality and, in so doing, has constructed an image that extends beyond his most recognisable representation as an inspirational orator who ‘had a dream’. Make no mistake, King was an utterly engaging public speaker who could engender fervent support through his impassioned, yet eloquent, demands for justice and equality, however the film also delves into the various manoeuvrings behind the scenes, from King’s negotiations with Johnson to the squabbling amongst activists over King’s insistence on non-violent protest, which is presented here as a tactical, rather than philosophical, approach. Oyelowo does a great job in capturing both King’s self-assured public persona and his more subdued private self. King is certainly not presented as a saint and his shortcomings as a father and husband form part of this balanced character study.

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Whilst those with even the most rudimentary knowledge of American history will know exactly how proceedings pan out, it is still quite confronting to see the 600 protestors beaten back by state troopers in their first attempt to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge soon after leaving Selma. With State Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) refusing to guarantee safe passage for the protestors, pressure mounts on Johnson to take action in the face of public and private rebukes from King.

Whilst there are familiar faces aplenty amongst the supporting cast, including the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding Jnr, Alessandro Nivola, Giovanni Ribisi, Dylan Baker, Stephen Root, Martin Sheen and Keith Stansfield (who was so good in Short Term 12), it is Oweyelo, fellow Brit Carmen Ejogo (as King’s wife Coretta) and TV regular Lorraine Toussaint who are the standouts in a film that resonates without ever resorting to histrionics or grandstanding. With her third narrative feature, DuVernay has constructed a film that is more even-handed that it might have been in the hands of another film maker. The social and political context of this period in history seems authentic enough and the soundtrack brings together music of the era from the likes of Otis Redding with a new collaboration between John Legend and Common, who also features in the film as activist James Bevell. As with any fictionalised version of real people and events, there will always be quibbles over the accuracy, or otherwise, of the characters and their actions, but ultimately the film is an engaging and enlightening look at a pivotal moment in American history. It is interesting that, whilst Selma has been nominated for Best Picture at the upcoming Academy Awards, the various individuals involved have been overlooked. Then again, as an African-American woman, could DuVernay ever have expected to be given any kind of consideration?

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Celluloid vampires have been around almost as long as film itself, dating as far back as 1896 with Georges Melies (Le Manoir Du Diable). Of course, F.W. Murnau’s 1913 telling of Nosferatu remains a landmark production and vampires have remained a staple of international movie production ever since. Interpretations of the vampire legend have been many and varied in both style and quality across more than 300 films, from the good (The Hunger, Let the Right One In) to the ludicrous (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) to the bleeding awful (Twilight). As the latest addition to the vampire oeuvre, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a terrifically original and beautifully executed piece of filmmaking. The first feature for Iranian-American writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night generated plenty of buzz at the Sundance Film Festival and it is easy to understand why. With a style that channels the best spaghetti westerns, a beautiful black and white aesthetic reminiscent of Frank Miller’s Sin City, a fabulous soundtrack and some great performances, this is a movie that engages you from the get-go and maintains your interest despite the fact that our protagonist says nothing for the first 40 minutes or so and very little subsequently.

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Words are not needed though as the ethereal presence of the titular character, a creepy, sexy, chador-clad avenger played to perfection by Sheila Vand (Argo), is more than enough to keep you spellbound. Our unnamed girl lives in a funky basement space in the appropriately named Bad City and roams the streets at night, seemingly destined for nowhere in particular but always on the lookout for bad guys on whom she can quench her bloodlust. Having said that, anybody looking for excessive gore and geysers of blood will be disappointed. The tension is palpable throughout, but the scares here are much more subtle – one scene in which the girl accosts a young boy on the street is extremely tense as the girl makes it quite clear what will happen to him if he is not a ‘good boy’- and there are only a few particularly violent moments. In the course of her travels, she crosses paths with Arash (Arash Marandi), an ostensibly decent young man anchored to Bad City by debts owed to a grotesque misogynistic pimp by his drug addicted father. The handsome Arash – whose physicality is a cross between James Dean and Benicio Del Toro – longs for the rich girl whose gardens he tends, only to find himself drawn into the orbit of our unconventional heroine.

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This is a bleak world that makes Miller’s Basin City seem like paradise – there are dead bodies piled up in the dry creek that bisects the town and the oil derricks that pump perpetually seem to be the only signs that anything happens at all – yet it is strangely beautiful in the light of the street lamps which illuminate the desolate neighbourhoods of this seemingly lawless town. Set in Iran (but shot in California) and presented in Persian language, Amirpour has found a way to make a distinctly middle-eastern film without fear of the retribution incurred by other Iranian filmmakers such as Jafar Panahi. It is the still-of-the-desert-night atmosphere – a soundscape that often comprises nothing more than the girl’s footsteps as she prowls the streets and back alleys – that is so effective in capturing the physical and moral emptiness of the town; her feeding mostly comes at the expense of the miscreants and ne’er-do-wells who are most deserving.

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Familiar faces amongst the small cast (there are only eight characters) include TV regulars Mozhan Marnò (The Blacklist, House of Cards) as prostitute Atti and Marshall Manesh (How I Met Your Mother) as Arash’s junkie father. Lyle Vincent’s luscious monochrome cinematography is divine and the soundtrack, like the film itself, is a mash-up of styles, from Iranian rock to ‘80’s dance music to techno, none of which seems out of place within the context of their use. With a nod to the likes of Sergio Leone and Jim Jarmusch and a surrealist bent akin to the works of David Lynch, this is, as far as I am aware, the first ever Iranian feminist neo-noir horror romance to hit cinema screens and the film never suffers from the surfeit of styles and influences. With A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Ana Lily Amirpour has created a fabulous film that is fresh, exciting and frightfully different.

What We Did on Our Holiday

A film that is far different from what you might expect given the title and the marketing material, What We Did on Our Holiday is not so much a National Lampoon-style crazy vacation comedy as it is an amusing examination of the burdens of family responsibility and how we allow our lives to get in the way of what, and who, is most important. Don’t get me wrong, amid the musings on death, divorce and parenting there are a lot of laughs to be had, but there are myriad moments of poignancy and pathos amidst the mirth that ultimately lift the film beyond more conventional fare. Furthermore, the implication that David Tennant (Dr Who), Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) and, to a lesser extent, Billy Connolly are the stars of the film is somewhat misleading as it is a trio of young performers in Bobby Smalldridge, Emilia Jones and Harriet Turnbull who are the standouts here. Jones is exceptional as the oldest of three siblings caught in the middle of all manner of feuding and dysfunction when a family gathers to celebrate what will be the final birthday for family patriarch Gordie (Connolly).

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It is the honesty of youth that provides so much of the humour, with the kids often saying exactly what they are thinking and exposing the ridiculousness of the adults around them along the way. Tennant and Pike are Abi and Doug McLeod, a no-longer- happily-married couple whose intentions are to simply survive the celebrations being held at the luxury estate of Doug’s brother Gavin (Ben Miller) in the Scottish highlands without anybody becoming aware of their impending divorce. Needless to say, when it comes to keeping such a secret, the kids are their biggest liability. Whilst the early moments are quite fun as the confined space of the car leads to all manner of irritations and arguments, the film initially seems to be on a predictable narrative trajectory. However, once they arrive in Scotland, the story takes on a much more serious tone with some unexpected twists that combine humour and heartache to great effect.

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With visions fit for a tourism campaign, the cinematography captures the landscape in all its glory and there is the smattering of eccentric characters so typical of British comedies, such as the lesbian Ostrich farmer and the leader of the band hired to play at the party. Tennant and Pike are fine enough, bringing a sense of chaotic chemistry to their characters. Connolly is uncharacteristically subdued as the grandfather who has, much more so than those around him, come to terms with his mortality. It is the kids who shine though and there is a large portion of the film in which the adults are nowhere to be seen as Lottie, Mickey and Jess are forced to deal with a circumstance they could not possibly have foreseen. Jones does a remarkable job as Lottie, a young girl wise beyond her years takes charge when an outing at the beach takes a most unexpected turn.

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Unfortunately, there are some bum notes along the way, such as the sheer ridiculousness (and not in a funny way) of Gavin, a character so rude, self-absorbed and ignorant that his last minute transformation into something other than a vile caricature is very hard to accept. Other characters meanwhile, such as Gavin’s wife Margaret (Amelia Bullmore) and teenage son Kenneth (Lewis Davie), are underdeveloped to the point of being somewhat irrelevant other than as a mechanism for Gavin to demonstrate his repugnant personality, while Celia Imrie’s officious welfare officer is nothing more than a distraction from the main action. A romantic sub-plot involving Kenneth and a violinist from the wedding band provides some laughs, but writer/directors Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin – who have worked together on the television series Outnumbered – don’t capitalise on this potential. For the most part though, the pair have been successful in balancing some genuinely funny moments with the more serious contemplations on life, death, love and family. A film in which the children are the adults and the adults act like children, What We Did on Our Holiday is a fresh, honest and ultimately uplifting British comedy that manages to subvert expectations whist still upholding many of the traditions of the genre.

The Theory of Everything

Biographical films, even those about characters long deceased, seem to always find themselves under intense scrutiny; the veracity of the events and actions being depicted seemingly always subject to challenge and contradiction from all manner of parties. As such, The Theory of Everything is faced with the additional burden of depicting the life and times of a real life identity who is still very much alive, namely acclaimed theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. What obligation filmmakers have for accuracy in such circumstances is cause for much conjecture and audiences should always expect that some licence has been taken for the purpose of narrative logic and brevity. In my experience, such films are best enjoyed by allowing yourself to forego any preconceived ideas you have about the characters. These are fiction films after all and should be experienced, evaluated and enjoyed (or not) on their merits as a piece of cinematic art. Yes, The Theory of Everything offers some insight into both Hawking’s experience living with Motor Neurone Disease, his ground-breaking theories on the creation of the universe and his relationships with family and friends, but more important than the accuracy of this version of events is the fact that it works as an engaging, well-made film anchored by a stellar lead performance from Eddie Redmayne.

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Directed by James Marsh (Man on Wire, Project Nim), The Theory of Everything is based on the book Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen by Hawking’s first wife Jane and, whilst the trailer and promotional material pitch the story as a great romance, any expectations of such will only lead to disappointment. I mean, yes, much of the film tracks the courtship and subsequent marriage between Stephen and Jane amidst the onset of the symptoms of his illness and his rise to prominence as one of the great minds of the science community, but it certainly doesn’t follow the ‘happily ever after’ trajectory that some will no doubt be expecting. Whilst there is a genuine love between these characters, the demands of Hawking’s illness, his growing celebrity and their conflicting views on religion create tensions between the pair.

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When we first meet Hawking, he is a young, cocky and not-particularly-dedicated student for whom the work presents few challenges. When he meets Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones) at a party, romance ensues and it is Jane who lures Hawking out of the mire of depression that engulfs him following his MND diagnosis. There is a dichotomy between Hawking’s growing stature amongst his peers and his shrinking physicality as he becomes confined to a wheelchair and ultimately unable to communicate without the aid of a device that translates written text into speech; the version of Hawking with which most people are familiar. There is nothing showy in Redmayne’s performance as he undergoes a remarkable physical transformation to capture the progressively worsening symptoms of this most debilitating affliction; all the while making Hawking an engaging, if not entirely likeable, character. Jones is also very good as Jane who, more than anybody or anything else, serves as the motivation for Hawking to defy medical assessments that predict a life expectancy of just two years. Surprisingly perhaps given that the film is based on her memoir, Jane is also presented as a flawed individual who finds herself struggling with the compromises she needs to make as a result of her marriage to a man who requires so much assistance with the things we tend to take for granted.

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Making the switch from documentary to narrative drama, Marsh does a great job to shoehorn a story with so many elements into a very respectable running time without it ever feeling rushed or fragmented. Necessarily, the film offers some insight into Hawking’s theories in quantum physics and the acclaim that followed, but the story focusses more on the relationship between Stephen and Jane, which is understandable given the complexities of his postulations. The film trundles along at a rapid clip, but never at the expense of exposition. Whilst the various period settings seem faithful enough as the years whiz by, if there is one nod to inauthenticity it lies with the fact that Jane never really seems to age throughout the course of their 30-year marriage. With the likes of Emily Watson, David Thewlis and Simon McBurney confined to supporting roles, this is a two-hander for the most part with Redmayne and Jones carrying the burdens of their respective characters with considerable poise and presence.