BARBET SCHROEDER SPECIAL!!!

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GENERAL IDI AMIN DADA: A SELF PORTRAIT (1974)

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In 1974, French filmmaker Barbet Schroeder travelled to Uganda to make a film about the nation’s charismatic yet ruthless President, Idi Amin, during the height of his bloody reign, and the result proved to be one of the most fascinating insights into the life of a dictator.

Three years into his regime that would be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Ugandans, Amin prepared an elaborate greeting for the filmmakers, staging rallies, military maneuvers, and cheery displays of national pride, and envisioning the film as an official portrait to adorn his cult of personality.

Schroeder, however, had other ideas, emerging with a disquieting, caustically funny brief against Amin, in which the dictator’s own endless stream of testimony – sometimes charming, other times menacing and, occasionally, nonsensical – serves as the most damning evidence.

An engrossing and revelatory tug-of-war between the formidable subject and the filmmaker, General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait served well as a reference point  for any history buffs out there, and is a landmark in the art of documentary and an appalling study of egotism in power.

FINAL JUDGEMENT: 8/10 Jeff Goldblums

KOKO: A TALKING GORILLA (1978)

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**In memory of Koko (1971-2018)**

In the late seventies, acclaimed director Barbet Schroeder and cinematographer Nestor Almendros gave us one of the most captivating documentaries in Koko: A Talking Gorilla.

The film introduced the world to its most famous primate, Koko, soon after she was brought from the San Francisco Zoo to Stanford University by Dr. Penny Patterson for a controversial experiment – she would be taught the basics of human communication through American Sign Language.

I myself have never been a passionate animal lover, but nonetheless it would be disingenuous of me to say that Koko: A Talking Gorilla isn’t worth your time. It’s an engaging, occasionally troubling, and still relevant piece of documentary filmmaking, shedding light on the ongoing ethical and philosophical debates over the individual rights of animals whilst also bringing us face-to-face with an amazing specimen caught in the middle.

FINAL JUDGEMENT: 8.5/10 Jeff Goldblums

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PADDINGTON 2 (2017)

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Released three years after everybody’s favourite furry friend from Peru flooded the Browns’ house and stole all our hearts, Paddington 2 proves to be a formidable sequel full of joy, laughter and heart. Sadly, the creator of the polite but clumsy bear, Michael Bond, did not live to see it on the big screen. However, there’s little doubt in one’s mind that this British-made blockbuster is a fitting tribute that would have surely made him very proud.

Paddington is now living happily as a member of the Brown Family and is a pillar of his community. With the 100th birthday of his beloved Aunt Lucy approaching, he decides to get her something special: a one-of-a-kind pop-up book. Unfortunately, egotistical and faded actor Phoenix Buchanan also desires the valuable book, promptly steals it, and frames Paddington in the process. With no evidence and jail looking inevitable, the plucky bear must clear his name. What follows is a lovable adventure involving prison, chases and lots of marmalade sandwiches.

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Far too often, a franchise has almost been taken by surprise at its success and produced a follow-up that feels rushed and completely devoid of soul. Needless to say, this film happily avoids such a trap, but it goes above and beyond the call of duty by being one of the best movies of 2017, regardless of genre or age-range.

Much like the Aardman animated films, Paddington 2 possesses boatloads of intelligence and innocence wrapped up in a chain of feel-good moments that provide plenty of belly laughs throughout. The script peppers the dialogue with quick wit and amusing misunderstandings. It’s all irresistible fun, primarily because the eponymous character is just so adorable. With his small stature, unassuming demeanour, big brown eyes and Ben Whishaw’s soft, unassuming tones, Paddington is a hero you fully invest in. He makes even the grimmest of situations shine with his optimism, such as winning over a group of hardened criminals by improving the prison canteen menu. Such a positive outlook is a rare thing to find in a world of dark TV shows and gritty movies.

The world around him is also firmly established, with the Browns involved in some fun subplots, such as Mr. Brown going through a mid-life crisis and the irrepressible Mrs. Bird venting her mistrust of actors, whilst the cantankerous neighbour Mr. Curry is his usual self. Everyone has their moment, and the experienced stars make each one memorable.

The casting of Brendan Gleeson as the curmudgeonly cook Knuckles, who becomes Paddington’s unlikely ally, also makes a strong impression. Proving as adept at family-friendly comedy as he is at searing drama, Gleeson is a welcome addition and a pleasant surprise.

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The biggest highlight of the film, however, is the ever-charismatic Hugh Grant, who is nothing short of exceptional as the film’s villain. As the sneaky, snooty Phoenix Buchanan, Grant delivers an award worthy performance as he unleashes his inner Terry Thomas and nails the tone and the comic timing. He’s the ideal foil to our heroic bear.

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The first Paddington film charmed us with a sincerity that’s not often found in family movies, which tend to opt for laughs over heart these days. Conceived with kindness and boundless imagination, Paddington 2 takes that appeal and builds on it, telling a brand new story but never forgetting what made us love him in the first place, giving us a near-perfect slice of family entertainment. In a year chock-full of big-budget disappointments, this sequel is an hour and forty minutes of absolute joy. It’s a delightful, crowd-pleasing piece of British cinema that will charm audiences of all ages and demographics and is, easily, one of the best family movies not made by Disney in the past twenty years.

FINAL JUDGMENT: 9/10 Jeff Goldblums

PADDINGTON (2014)

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Following a catastrophic earthquake which destroys his home in the Peruvian rainforest, a young bear makes his way to England in search of a new home. The bear, dubbed “Paddington” after the london train station in which he was found, gets shelter with the family of Henry and Mary Brown. Although Paddington’s amazement at urban living soon endears him to the Browns, someone else has her eye on him: Taxidermist Millicent Clyde has designs on the rare bear and his hide.

The narrative of the film is, admittedly, disjointed for the most part, feeling more like a collection of sketches, set-pieces and gags without any particular formula to keep it in a nice fluid flow. That’s not to say the film is poorly directed or constructed, far from it. Visually, the film is splendid, perfectly capturing that storybook look and feel of the source material, whilst the seamless blend of computer animation with live action is the most striking point in the film. The jaunty score also keeps things moving along nicely.

Ben Whishaw shines as the eponymous bear, whilst Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville are wonderful as Mr and Mrs Brown. Nicole Kidman also puts in a game performance as the film’s pantomime villain.

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Brimming with gloriously silly jokes, pitch-perfect performances and incidental detail, Paddington is a warm, witty and wonderfully engaging film version of the beloved book by Michael Bond.

FINAL JUDGEMENT: 8/10 Jeff Goldblums

MUSICAL MONDAY!!!

LA LA LAND (2016)

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Damien Chazelle rightfully gained international acclaim and recognition from his masterful drama Whiplash (2014), what were the chances that he could catch lightening in a bottle twice? Well, if La La Land is anything to go by, then I’d say he did just that. With just three highly successful films and a well deserved Oscar (at a ripe age of 32!) under his belt as of now, Chazelle is rapidly becoming the industry’s next big thing. His passion for movies and musicals shines throughout as he seamlessly references and pulls influence from the likes Singin’ in the Rain (1952), The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and even Rebel Without a Cause (1955), perfectly capturing the CinemaScope magic of classic Hollywood.

The chemistry between the leads, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, is one of the most pleasant depicted on the big screen in recent years. After two previous collaborations, their already-strong bond helped them become one of the finest couples of the modern-day silver screen. The music is bouncy, melodic yet never simplistic and appropriately catchy. The cinematography is flawless with a lavish and lurid use of colours and impressive long takes, and the locations perfectly capture that mythical Oz like aura Hollywood has and the passion the characters hold for the city of angels itself, Los Angeles.

La La Land is by far and away one of the best feel-good cinema experiences in recent memory, and easily the best mainstream musical since Chicago (2002), and a lot of the credit falls on Chazelle’s shoulders.

FINAL JUDGMENT: 9/10 Jeff Goldblums

THE SUBSTITUTE (1961)

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Directed by Yugoslavian cartoonist Dušan Vukotić, The Substitute – or Surogat, as it is referred to in its native tongue – was always one of those obscure animated movies that I had heard of ever since I read about it in one of Robert Osborne’s books but, sadly, had never got the chance to see… Until now. This Oscar winning short – no small feat considering it was released at a time when Walt Disney and Chuck Jones were pretty much running the show every year – is a surreal, satirical yet simple story about a man who goes to the beach and uses inflatables to create anything he desires (and I do mean ANYTHING).

The animation, whilst somewhat crude, is lively, amusing and certainly gets an A for effort in trying to stretch the envelope and shows clear evidence of American influence, specifically the UPA studios (as was the case with most Eastern Europeans animators). UPA’s animators developed an eclectic range of styles; taking cues from modern art and graphic design. Figures were rendered iconically; what they stood for was more important than their exact resemblance to what they depicted. UPA used this style to tell fables for a presumed adult audience, avoiding slapstick and the cute factor that most Western audiences have grown accustomed to ever since Disney’s Silly Symphonies. This too is an adult fable as well, but Vukotić and writer Rudolf Sremec clearly didn’t feel bound by UPA’s anti-slapstick rule. Otherwise, this film could easily pass as a UPA product. The figures themselves consist of simple geometric shapes, and most of their movements are either parallel to one of their edges or else curvilinear in the manner of the old ‘rubber-hose’ animations of the 1920s and 30s. At a swift glance, it merely looks like a horde of triangles and abstract shapes jumping around the screen, but despite this minimalism, the characters are identifiable and within the boundaries of the story, it works just fine.

The story is admittedly predictable, including the ending, but as a satire on civilization’s proneness to superficiality and consumerism and humanity’s preference for convenience at every turn, it’s effective. Subjecting society’s problems and shortcomings to ridicule is a mainstay of animation, look no further than Spitting Image (1984 – 1997).

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Aside from its irksome music score – a sort of advanced semi-jazzy big-band/orchestral piece that wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of a Hanna-Barbera’s cartoon – The Substitute is a solid piece of animation, and its influence endures to this very day, showing up in Cartoon Network staple shows like Dexter’s Laboratory, The Powerpuff Girls and Samurai Jack. The former Yugoslavia produced some impressive pieces of cinema – as have its breakaway countries – and this is one of it better outputs.

FINAL JUDGEMENT: 7.5/10 Jeff Goldblums

SPORTS SUNDAY!!!

THE WRESTLER (2008)

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Directed by Darren Aaronofsky, this bittersweet tale is one of the most absorbing dramas I’ve had the pleasure of seeing in my short time on this Earth.

A contemporary Shakespearean tragedy, we follow Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a former headlining attraction in the pro wrestling business whose popularity has faded to the point where, instead of performing before a sold-out MSG, he’s now showing up at the local high school gym to do a match in front of a cramped attendance of about a hundred spectators. However, following a near-fatal heart attack following a gruelling hardcore match, he is forced to retire, but finds his quest for a new life outside the squared circle a dispiriting struggle.

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The highlight and the biggest talking point of this film is, of course, Mickey Rourke who puts in a show-stealing, career-defining performance as the grizzled grappler, in what is easily the best comeback performance seen on the big screen since John Travolta in Pulp Fiction (1994). Rourke’s own personal life and tumultuous past parallel that of Robinson’s so eerily, that it becomes clear that no one else could have  played this role. Aronofsky’s fourth feature is not only his most intimate but also his most accomplished to date. He offers us a most simplistic film both visually and narratively and ends up creating a film that has more depth and layers to it than any seen in his previous films.

Everything about Randy’s life is in a state of decay. He walks around in a body that is on the verge of destruction , he hasn’t seen his only daughter in years, financially he is exhausted, and the only thing that brings him solace in life is the same thing that threatens to end it. The most effective aspect of Randy’s character is that no matter what mistakes he might have made in the past his sense of regret is so overwhelming and genuine that it is impossible not to sympathise with him. As beaten down and alone as Randy might be, he never looses his fighting spirit or sense of hope, no matter how little it may be. Regardless what hardship Randy is confronted with he never retreats and is admirably courageous even if it might not be the wisest settlement.

For the general public who view professional wrestling as little more than a carnival sideshow and are quick to judge it as “fake”, will no doubt find a formidable adversary in Aronofsky. The Wrestler shows that while outcomes of matches may be fixed in the same way a movie is scripted or a ballet is choreographed, the physical tolls these men take on their body are often more extreme and long lasting than most other “respectable” sports. The fact that Randy gives so much of himself and is ridiculed from everywhere to the trailer park he lives in to the part-time job he keeps while not in the ring, makes us even more empathetic to the struggle Randy goes through to try and make it back on top. 

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Shot in a minamilistic and occasionally cinéma vérité style and mildly nihilistic in its narrative, The Wrestler is one of the most compelling character studies of the 21st century. It’s a brutal, romantic, earnest and touching portrait about a man willing to sacrifice his personal wellbeing for something he loves as well as the struggles with his passion, his demons, the nostalgically rose-tinted past and the reality of letting that all get in the way of his family life.

FINAL JUDGEMENT: 9.5/10 Jeff Goldblums

AUTISM & MOI

Recently I was diagnosed with Autism, more specifically High-Function Autism (that’s more of a colloquial phrase rather than a diagnosis, admittedly), and the aftermath of this discovery has been… Interesting, to say the least.

Frustration, bemusement, sadness and shame are all apt adjectives to describe how one feels with regards to the situation at hand. It’s still taking time to adjust with this revelation – and I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a teeny-weeny bit of denial within me – but, nonetheless, one can’t help but be fascinated by this intriguing, eclectic and occasionally eye-opening disorder, for lack of a more sensitive term.

Living with Autism on a day-to-day basis could best be described like this: everyday scenarios – big or small – feel like something akin to an exam, the only problem being that the exam is in a foreign language beyond your comprehension, it’s taking place in the middle of the Arctic and, to make matters even more dire, your pen’s broken and you can’t find a new one. Naturally, such tasks require copious and meticulous amounts of thought and preparation. Sometimes it goes according to plan, other times not so much, but it’s always the latter that sticks out in your memories, and it’s often difficult for them to erode away. Thankfully, my sensory abilities and sensitivities have shown no signs to suggest there’s a problem there. Loud noises, bright lights and certain food tastes have never really bothered me, although mass crowds can be somewhat daunting and paranoia inducing, but that’s probably because whenever I find myself in a crowd of people, my mind instantly recalls Mufasa’s tragic death scene in The Lion King (1995).

The biggest hurdle, of course, is communication. There’s very few people in this world that I can truly say I love, whether they be dear friends or family, but I can never find the appropriate ways to articulate how deep my affection for them is. This, for me, is the single most distressing aspect of being on the spectrum.