Thursday, 30 January 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis Review

I love folk music and I love the Coen brothers. I am completely smitten. I have long admired Joel Coen and Ethan Coen and what they have offered the realm of cinema. I am in love with Fargo still until this day, and they've provided solid efforts on nearly every outing since. Their newest endeavour that focuses on the folk scene in 1961 is an absolute dream. Everything from the impeccable Oscar Isaac to the music that enriches the deepest trenches of the soul, Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the best pictures of the year, plain and simple. It's the Coen Brothers finest film since Fargo.

In some ways, this is a perfect fit for the Coen’s. They’ve showed their love for music in O Brother, Where Art Thou’s outstanding soundtrack, they’ve shown they can write an interesting, if flawed character that we still want to root for in every Coen film ever and they’ve shown they can write a film in which nothing happens but everything is interesting. Everything is slow, but very, very rewarding.

Inside Llewyn Davis is all of these things. All of this is encapsulated by Oscar Isaac’s Llewyn Davis. Put simply, without him there is no film. He is the brain of the piece. His character is not a likeable character, it is heavily flawed. He makes bad decisions, he uses people and he doesn’t particularly like humans. This is, in part, is down to the Coen’s excellent writing, but Oscar Isaac plays this exquisitely. He moulds such an interesting character (he really takes it by the horns) that we’re invested straight from the first scene where he’s playing at the famous Gaslight.

Llewyn is nothing if not complex. The movie does a terrific job of avoiding the usual clich├ęs, such as a down-on-his-luck musician catching a lucky break, or a bitter man having a quick change of heart. It's not that Llewyn is constantly sneering at everyone, holding his poverty up as both a shield and a trophy, it's that he is so multilayered that when he does a kind act or offers some praise or thanks, we don't feel that his doing so is in any way out of character. Llewyn is a self-tortured soul, but unlike caricatures of wandering folkies, he is at his center a realist, albeit a prideful one.
The Coens do an excellent job of utilizing the cold harsh winter to emphasize Davis's wearying struggle as well as portray the times by lining the sidewalks and some expansive shots with massive eight cylinder behemoths covered in winter grime. Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography is so cold and grey, yet so beautiful at the same time. It’s beauty on the eyes.
The music is key. It’s what makes it so easy to be interested and invested into these characters. The soundtrack is one of the best out there. If Oscar Isaac is the brain then T Bone Burnett is the heart and soul. He’s crafted such a beautiful soundtrack and it’s performed so incredibly by Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan and the rest of the cast. If you’re going to make a film about the folk scene you HAVE to nail the music. Thankfully, they did.

In its running time of 105 minutes, few definite conclusions are drawn in regard to Llewyn's career and with the film ending in the same place as it started, it seems unlikely that he will break free from his cycle of obscurity. But then, the film really isn't about Llewyn's 'career' or his friends, because this is a film about Llewyn. The beginnings of the film highlight a raw, unabashed view on rejection and obscurity accompanied by this nagging expectation that Llewyn's life might blossom into a success story. But ultimately, that's not what the film is about and it's goal is not to satisfy filmic convention. Inside Llewyn Davis is very simply, a soulful and beautifully drawn portrait of a man and his music.

This film is fucking excellent, but there’s a reason the Coen’s aren’t getting recognition from the Academy. You can't judge this movie the same way you would judge every other film this year. It's almost as if the Coen Brothers have their own language that they are speaking, that the audience does not fully understand. They make films for themselves. They don’t make them for an audience. This film is slow-paced and melancholic, but it’s also completely mesmerising.

The Coen’s have done it again. I loved Inside Llewyn Davis. It encapsulates everything about the Coens: witty, great characters, fantastic looking and excellent music.

Oh, and John Goodman is an arsehole. Good job.


Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street Review

In the mid-1990s, Jordan Belfort and the rest of his associates from brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont became the very definition of excess and debauchery, their offices a boiler room fueled by cocaine and greed. High pressure sales tactic and less-than-legal behind-the-scenes manipulation bred plenty of twenty-something millionaires, and Belfort built himself an empire at the top of the heap. His rise and fall is chronicled in The Wolf of Wall Street, based on the memoir of the same name.

It reminded me of The Great Gatsby and no, not because it has Leo in it. This is a modern day telling of the corruption of the American Dream. How can a scumbag like this be allowed to cheat his way to the top? It’s a clever film if you think about it like that, but are people thinking about it like that? Did Scorsese and DiCaprio look at it like that? I’m not so sure.

If they did and this is a satirical comedy about douchebags stock brokers then this is a fantastic film. It hits all the right notes, it’s funny, it’s outrageous and every character is a downright arsehole. However, if it’s not I’m very worried indeed. Many have likened this film to Scorsese’s Goodfellas because it makes the audience like a horrible character. Does it? Does it really? If anyone left the cinema liking this character I’m very worried for society and humanity. If the audience are laughing with the characters rather than at their stupidity then I want to leave this Earth. And if they can find relevance in Belfort they need to leave. 

As a fan of Scorsese and a fan of DiCaprio I decided to give them the benefit of the doubt. This film is terrifically funny, outrageously good and wonderfully acted.

A lot of the credit of the film's overall success has to be awarded to Leonardo DiCaprio. I've never seen him truly "go for it" in a way that he exhibits as Jordan Belfort. In his breaking of the fourth wall, to his long but completely engaging monologues about life, money, and greed, it's the most assured and compelling work by the actor to date. When DiCaprio unleashed his talents in the mid-90's in What's Eating Gilbert Grape? and later stole the hearts of tween girls everywhere in Titanic and Romeo & Juliet, who knew this is the role he'd been gearing up to play? This is the role of his career and something that the Academy Awards should look to for his long overdue recognition. It’s a shame that Chiwetel Ejiofor tour-de-force performance in 12 Years a Slave is in the running along with him.

It's a charming and adventurous turn that presents a conundrum to the audience as we find ourselves both enamored and loathing the pure essence of Jordan. He's a disgusting human being, but his charisma keeps us watching. (DON'T get that confused with liking the character.)  A sequence of DiCaprio crawling on the floor will probably be the scene of the year. This is DiCaprio's crowning achievement.

As the magnetic and cheesy-minded right-hand man, Jonah Hill's performance as Donnie Azoff is another great turn for the 30-year-old actor. He's allowed to explore some of his comedic ticks and beats that he may not have ever had the opportunity to explore in films like Superbad or 21 Jump Street. In Wolf, he relies on his own instincts, and his chemistry with DiCaprio, which has helped him before for his Oscar-nominated work in Moneyball opposite Brad Pitt. He reminds me of a mix between Chris Penn in Reservoir Dogs or Joe Pesci in any Scorsese film. Super sleazy, super hateable.

Matthew McConaughey, is one scene shy of winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. While his work in Dallas Buyers Club will bring him the acclaim and recognition that he deserves, The Wolf of Wall Street is a prime example of what he should be doing when he's not working or seeking out the strong, independent features that are geared for awards recognition. Stealing every frame and focus from DiCaprio in his ten minute screen time, McConaughey utilizes all his charm and spunk as Mark Hanna, the mentor to young Jordan as he started out. It's so disappointing that he doesn't turn up again. I was longing to see him. He was fantastic. 

However, it’s way too long. I’d say about a third of the film is Leo and Co taking drugs, sleeping with prostitutes or partying (usually all three). Come on, man, we don’t need to see an hour of this. We know this dude is a dirtbag after the first couple of scenes. There’s no need to reinforce that. It’s already been told. It’s heavily superfluous.

It’s an odd film. To many it’ll be the new Leonardo DiCaprio film. An occasion that the mainstream celebrate. Men love his charisma and charm, women love to look at him. That’s a problem. People should be studying this in the same way they study The Great Gatsby and that’s as much credit as it can get. It’s an interesting film, but it’s an awful film for the mainstream to be celebrating.


Thursday, 23 January 2014

The Railway Man Review

The Railway Man is a Sunday afternoon film. It is pleasant enough sandwiched between a large meal and a brisk fifteen-mile walk to burn off those unnecessary calories. But it shouldn't be pleasant. It should be harsh, raw, eye-opening. But instead of a film that tears open a horrific episode in world history, makes us pledge never to let it happen again and then inspires us with a better way of dealing with soul-crushing cruelty, we are lumbered with a scrappy, stuttering montage that is all a bit too nice, a bit too stiff upper lip.

Eric Lomax is a railway enthusiast (he is at pains to reject the label of 'train spotter'), who meets Patti on a train. In their own stilted ways it is attraction at first sight, albeit reluctantly on Eric's behalf. All seems well with their marriage until Eric's behavior disturbs Patti and he shuts her out emotionally. Desperate to help the man she loves, Patti approaches Finlay, Eric's friend and fellow POW, for information and help. He grudgingly tells her about the abuse they suffered at the hands of the Japanese in WWII as they worked on the infamous Thai/Burma railway, and the impact one Japanese translator, Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada), had on Eric. Circumstances force Eric to face his past, literally and figuratively and he must decide whether to confront Nagase and his own demons.

Bouncing back and forth between the Second World War and the 1980s, The Railway Man presents us with the young Eric's (Irving) physical torture while the older Eric plays out his deeply rooted, emotional torture. Or rather, that is the intention. This is the first problem. The way the story is told doesn't work. It gives the film an odd pace and removes all of the tension that should be there. They should have told the story from A to B. 

We spend so much time in grey, dull Britain at a painfully slow pace that any tension that is built up in the flashbacks falls flat. The momentum of the action is wasted. It's boring and most of the scenes in Britain are superfluous. It left me bored and irritated that they sidetracked an inspirational story for a classic Colin Firth story. 

It's poorly written by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson. It's a 80 minute story told in 116 minutes. There's way too much fat. If they just told us the story straight from start to finish it might have been emotional, but instead they meander around the subject and it becomes tiring to watch.

Director Jonathan Teplitzky manages to pull every single punch. He seems afraid to commit, like a child stuttering but always quitting before the word finally falls out of its mouth. Consequently it is nigh on impossible to feel any meaningful connection with story or characters and I spent almost the entire film detached from it. Only in the final five minutes is there any genuine emotion that allows us a sense of involvement.

Certainly it isn't necessary to see everything in detail. While the astounding 12 Years a Slave refuses to shy away from difficult subjects, Frank Darabont took a different approach with the equally stunning The Shawshank Redemption. Darabont pans his camera away to save us the agony of watching Andy Dufresne's rape but we are left in no doubt whatsoever as to what is happening out of sight. Teplitzky, however, stumbles along so desperate not to offend his audience that The Railway Man becomes a war film with as much impact as a Mills & Boon romance and a love story with as much sentiment as Rambo.

Lastly, I don't believe Firth or Kidman were right for the part. Neither of them seemed like they were hurting at all. Firth has this iconography of romance and his image doesn't suit what's being told on screen. His persona is not angry enough. He doesn't seem like a person who would seek retribution. However, I thought Jeremy Irvine was very good. He nailed Firth's mannerisms and voice and it was heavily believable that he was a young Colin Firth. As for Firth, he should stick to his rom-com's. 

The Railway Man is not an awful film at all; it is just a forgettable film about a remarkable story of horror, and the love that enabled redemption and forgiveness. It's an inspirational story told badly.


Tuesday, 21 January 2014

The World's End Review

Both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz are near-perfect films. They're films made for and by film fans. The reference are brilliant, they're hilarious, they're typically British, they're technically impressive and they have great British casts. How's that for pressure for The World's End then?

So, does The World's End hold up compared to the two? To put it bluntly, no it doesn't. Is it a good film? Yes - just about. 

The story has a promising concept. I quite liked the idea of a pub crawl with old friends. Especially when the friends are Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan and Martin Freeman. However, the pub crawl idea simply doesn't work when meshed with the sci-fi invasion.  After the 'robots' are revealed there becomes no reason for them to continue drinking. You can throw up a flimsy explanation that they continue so as not to arouse suspicion, but it doesn't wash. Put simply: once there are robots around, you do not care if they get to The World's End. It's just a bit wooly and weak. It's a shame. 

The first half of the film injects the most one liners and comedy output with the old gang rejoining and their return to the town, while the second is more action orientated when they go head to head with the invaders. The beings glowing eyes are reminiscent of Demons while the set up feels like Invasion of the Body Snatcher only with a twist and the closing confrontation plays out like an episode of Star Trek/Doctor Who followed by an outlandish flash-forward. It's all a bit uneven and messy. Also,  my problem is that the homages are way too niche. Everyone knows Romero. Everyone knows Point Break, Bad Boys and 80's action films - but in The World's End it seems a little too out there. 

However, Edgar Wright once again shows that he's at the top of his game, the action scenes are wonderfully executed and the effects are superb. The soundtrack oozes nostalgia and accompanying music score is fitting. The indie 90's playlist is awesome and it gives us an insight into Pegg, Frost and Wright's interests. 

I think the cast are excellent. Pegg as washed up excitable alcoholic/drug intoxicated Gary King plays against the usual nice guy, here he's a man you love to hate, you really want him to succeed. It's refreshing to see both of them do something different. The supporting cast are excellent including Rosamund Pike, Martin Freeman. Piers Brosnan, Bill Nighy, Paddy Considine and Eddie Marsan. It makes me proud to be British that we have this much talent on offer in one film. 

The World's End is the strongest film, thematically, in the Cornetto Trilogy. It's about adulthood vs adolescence, regret, friendship and above all the state of modern society. It does not nod nearly as much towards or satirise genre like Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz. No, instead the nods and satire are mostly out and the themes are in.

This is half-welcome, half-disappointing for the final film of the trilogy. On one hand, since the other two satirise film genres it is odd the this doesn't and honestly, a bit disappointing. This is much more of it's own beast but, for a Pegg, Wright and Frost film, it does feel far too much of an unexplored area. On the other hand, the concerns of the central plot and the thematic content give the film the strength to round off the trilogy in a fitting and appropriate way.

Furthermore, The World's End contains many of the little recurring elements from Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz which show such loving attention to detail and continuity: the Cornettos, the Wright short-shot montages, the fantastic soundtrack, the amazing use of the word 'C**t', the noise of the pub fruit machine, and many other little details that have made appearances in the previous two films are here.

Not only are these recurring details present but so too are some of Wright, Pegg and Frost's collaborators with their own fantastic cameos. I won't give any away specifically but there are actors from previous films in the trilogy and beyond (stretching back to Spaced, here) making appearances and it's actually rather heart-warming. Evidently, roots have not been forgotten.

If this didn't follow Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz is would have been better, but ultimately, the pressure and the expectation have let this down. 


12 Years a Slave Review

I've watched hundreds of films throughout my short 17-year history and I've seen some difficult cinema. Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List can make anyone quiver in shame as it shows the despicable reality of the Holocaust. Paul Greengrass' United 93, which is almost an emotional biopic of America's darkest hour, makes me want to crawl up into a ball and cry. And finally, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, one of the highest grossing films of all-time, shows the labour of our sins fleshed out into the beaten skin of an honest man. And still, no one threw these hyperbolic terms out saying, "it's too hard watch." 

But, 12 Years a Slave is very, very hard to watch. 

Is it because this is an American tragedy, done by Americans? Is it the guilt of someone's ancestors manifesting it in your tear ducts? I can't answer that. Only the person who says it can. The structure of this country is built on the backs and blood of slaves. But slavery didn't just exist in America, it was everywhere. It occurred for over 200 years and believe it or not, it still exists in some parts of the world today.

If you've seen McQueen's other works then you'll more or less know what kind of movie to expect (if you haven't then please stop reading and watch Hunger and Shame). 12 Years a Slave is dark and raw, it exposes everything, without sugarcoating it. It is definitely hard to watch; but in my opinion, it is not only worth watching but necessary. Films exploring themes of slavery are few and far in between and never has one been quite as exhaustive and effective as this one. 

McQueen is a fearless filmmaker, continuing his streak of unfiltered brutality within human depths. He frames his actors' faces in extreme close-up, the eyes staring into despair, the nostrils fuming in aggression. Naked flesh are shown not because of erotic content, but rather because of desperation and futility. Long takes and wide shots are not uncommon in his films, and here they showcase a plethora of fantastic scenes and performances that work to discomfort the viewer as much as possible. McQueen doesn't just allow the audience to tackle slavery, he guts the audience and leaves them for the consequences. This is an extremely uncomfortable film to watch. Beautifully shot locations are placeholders for unsettling sequences before and after, contemplated by Hans Zimmer's poignant and at times horrifying score. This all works to create a nightmarish time and place where hell walks on Earth. Steve McQueen has created another masterpiece.

The film is based on the real story of Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living in New York, who is abducted and sold into slavery in Louisiana. As the film begins, we are exposed to his talent as a musician (he plays the violin) and get a glimpse of the life he leads with his wife and two children. All is well until he meets two men who seem taken by his music and want to bring him along with them so he can play at various events. When Solomon wakes up in chains, his dark journey starts and the film never lets you take a break.

Central to all of this is the performance of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon. Ejiofor showcases that he is a natural force to be reckoned with in this film, after a decade of mostly supporting characters. He spaces out in despair as the camera lingers onto him for solid minutes, not a word spoken. Another sequence shows him mourning the death of a fellow worker, in which the singing of the surrounding group compels him and shakes him down to tears. These scenes follow earlier ones where he is a classy, free man in the upper states, mingling happily with the crowd and partaking in fanciful music sessions. It is a tour-de-force performance.

A fine ensemble of established and up-and-coming actors surround Ejiofor in his limelight - Paul Dano, Paul Giammati, Alfre Woodard, Sarah Paulson, even Brad Pitt and Benedict Cumberbatch, but none so ferociously as McQueen regular Michael Fassbender as the despicable, sadistic plantation owner Edwin Epps. So excellent and terrifying is Fassbender's portrayal of such a merciless and barbaric person, that the mere sight of him will either cause audience members unfamiliar to him to flinch.

There is a resounding honesty that McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley inhabit. There are no tricks or gimmicks, no cheap takes on a side story or character that is put there for time filling or a life-lesson for Solomon to learn. Everything is genuine. Is the film heartbreaking? Oh my God yes. Did I cry for several minutes after the screening? Embarrassingly so. Have the images stayed with me ever since? Depressingly so. I was enamored the entire time, head to toe, moment to moment.


Thursday, 9 January 2014

Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom Review

This magisterial biopic is likely to become the definitive film treatment of the life of Nelson Mandela. It is beautifully filmed and as grand as the beauty of South Africa itself. It is an epic inspiring account of the life of Nelson Mandela spanning his entire adult life from the 1940s to his assumption of the Presidency of South Africa in 1994. The film presents Mandela as both a larger than life heroic figure and at the same time as a human being struggling with an almost unimaginable burden as the human exemplar of his nation's struggle. The film is impressive and will bring Mandela's story to millions around the world. 

The film has problems, though. First and foremost, it's far too long. And yes, I know it's his LONG Walk To Freedom, but at times it was just a bit too long. The Robben Island sequence dragged a lot and the all round pacing of the film was a bit off.

At times, it's very messily told. It seemed to be as the film makers couldn't decided what story to tell. Did they want to tell a story about Nelson Mandela's life, his youth, his hobbies, his relationships or a story about Nelson Mandela fighting for his country against the Apartheid. This was a real problem for me because telling them together didn't really work, it was stodgy. 

The cynic in me is disappointed. I mean, how can you mess up a film about a man as inspirational and wonderful as Nelson Mandela? 

And, in truth, you can't because I would be lying if I said that I didn't like this film. In fact, I really enjoyed it. The storytelling is powerful. The portrait of Mandela by Idris Elba is impressive as he presents his journey from young adult to grandfather of new multi-racial nation. He develops from an immature young man to man for whom suffering has created great wisdom, heroism and leadership. While he is presented as a hero, the film still manages to capture his human flaws through the difficulties with both his first and second wives. His dedication to his peoples' struggle comes at deep personal cost. The film is entrancing and deeply moving. The struggle of his wife Winnie Mandela – portrayed by Naomie Harris - is also deeply moving. She dedicates herself to her husband's struggle, but in some way her struggle is more difficult than his. The pain that strengthens him seems to embitter her and drive the two of them apart. Their love for each other and their courage is both inspiring and tragic. The portrayal of their marriage is heartbreaking. Their marriage becomes yet another casualty of the struggle against Apartheid. 

But, like I said, you can't really mess up a film about Nelson Mandela's fight for equality - it's always going to be hard hitting, emotional and it's always going to make me cry buckets (and boy did it). So, I feel a bit indifferent. Is anything I saw a criticism or a compliment? 

It's excellent storytelling, but it's not a classic. And it SHOULD be a classic. It's about the most inspirational man of the 20th Century. It's messy, it doesn't know what story it wants to tell, but I really, really enjoyed it and my heart broke in all the right places because I loved the man. And I guess that's enough. 


Monday, 6 January 2014

The Kings of Summer Review

"Why live when you can rule?"

Movies like Into the Wild , 127 Hours and The Motorcycle Diaries are based on living your life with full freedom. When you are caged in a house or walking down in somebody's shoes, an aggression will come over you and a force will drive you to explore a place to find peace. And who hasn't wanted to do that? Who hasn't wanted to leave everything behind? No obligations, nothing to worry about. Who doesn't want to live like that? And for me, this is why The Kings of Summer works, it's relatable.

It's a cliche, I know, but The Kings of Summer does owe a great deal to Stand By Me, Rob Reiner's sensitive adaptation of Stephen King's beautiful, coming of age novella. In common with the latter, The Kings of Summer has a small group of boys on their own journey of discovery through love, friendship and family angst. But there is so much more to it, and that isn't to criticize Stand By Me in any way. But if Reiner's film holds a place in your heart, take the plunge.

Joe Troy (Nick Robinson) is closing in on adolescence and struggling with life under the glare of his cold, overbearing father, Frank (Nick Offerman), who himself is battling his own problems and struggles to show affection. Joe finds a secluded clearing in the woods and persuades his best friend, Patrick (Gabriel Basso), to join him in his escape from their constrictive world, and there, joined by oddball Biaggio (Moises Arias) they build a 'house' and declare themselves masters of their own destinies.

And that's it.

The Kings of Summer isn't a film of epic discoveries, great mystery and explosions; the discoveries are about themselves, the mystery is life itself and the explosions are the fireworks of their own emotions. But you know what? The Kings of Summer is real, it is natural, it's beautiful and it's a near perfect film.

Dealing with the triumphs and failures of teen love, total independence and friendship, The Kings of Summer delivers a point with a mixture of wit and drama that not only conveys its ideas well to the audience, but also brings impact to the narrative so those audiences can take away something from the film.

The central trinity is a flawless blend of characteristics to which we can all identify. It could easily be just one body inhabited by three souls who meld or clash according to the situation. Like Stand By Me, the three principals give the impression of being life-long friends rather than actors cast for our entertainment. Theirs is a relationship that echoes with those of our own childhoods (and hopefully adult life, if we're fortunate) and it works so beautifully upon the screen because it feels natural and effortless. Often critics talk of 'chemistry' in terms of romantic leads but in The Kings of Summer it is a flawless harmony, even when they are sparring with one another.

The Kings of Summer goes on for a briskly-paced and memorable ninety-four minutes, showing the highs and lows of the teenage life, along with the extreme anxiety that plagues kids of that age, as well. Numerous films come out each year focusing on the American teenager and few hit the nail on the head or even succeed as competent entertainment. This film articulates the hunger for self-reliance and independence in adolescent souls as well as their need for thrill better and more maturely than I have seen in the past. 

In a summer packed with robots smashing into each other and comic book heroes coming off the page and onto the screen, The Kings of Summer truly is the king of 2013's summer movies. It's refreshing viewing and I absolutely loved it.