Friday, 28 February 2014

Old People

The road trip. Ram a load of young college kids into a VW van and you have a film. The destination does not matter. The sex and drinking do. Now what if you remove young college kids and replace them with old people. Keep the sex talk and the drinking. What do you get? This is Nebraska.

An ageing alcoholic by the name of Woody (Bruce Dern) gets a letter saying he has won $1million. Naturally, he wants to set straight out to claim his winnings so he begins to walk to Nebraska. From Montana. That's pretty far for a 77 year old. His sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk), and his wife Kate (June Squibb) try to convince him that is all a scam, but Woody is stubborn and eventually David agrees to take him. After hitting some troubles on route, they stay with some family in Hawthorne, Nebraska where Woody grew up, and Woody begins to explore his old town. When he reveals that he has won some money, he becomes a local celebrity and everyone wants to be his friend, or get some money out of him. Cue a lot of bar scenes and a lot of swearing from an old lady, this is the road trip of the future featuring heroes from the past.

Bruce Dern, at 77 years of age, is getting the leading man acclaim that he well and truly deserves. Woody is an incredibly realised performance who is entirely loveable and at the same time it is impossible to not fully identify with Forte's David and his annoyance at his father. Speaking of Forte, a man known for his comedy work, puts in a fantastic turn here. Further proof that comedy actors should not be limited as such. Whilst the film is absolutely hilarious, it is the reality of the relationship primarily between David and Woody that makes the film so honestly touching. There is a true sense of family between all the leads and a clear, real love for Woody from Squibb's Kate. At first she comes across as a cynical, grumpy old lady, but as the narrative progresses, we see what she has to deal with on a daily basis with Woody and suddenly you realise how much she truly loves him. It is the most honest representation of ageing love since Amour

She's just a little old lady... oh.
With an absolutely exceptional script by Bob Nelson, Nebraska rattles along in black and white doing something extremely risky in mainstream cinema. It shows people as they are. It does not cast these gloriously attractive actors to play us normal people. And by shooting the film in black and white, an overwhelming sense of melancholy settles over the film, despite it being so funny. Alexander Payne's direction has a clear sense of purpose, filling the film with long shots of a colourless Nebraska farmland with small silhouettes of his characters looking out over the land. Time is precious, detail is important, but most of all, keeping good relationships will get you far in this world.

A truly spectacular achievement in cinema. Absolutely beautiful to watch and gloriously meaningful. Plus, ridiculously funny and also extremely touching. Payne's newest masterpiece has it all and it is one you could watch again and again.

Best Bit? Perhaps it fits quite well with the dampened happiness of the film but the family take a trip to the cemetery to see where Woody's family are buried. Kate, who clearly did not get on with them all too well, discusses each grave in turn that would have the deceased rolling under her feet. 

Everyone Has AIDS

This awards season has brought a lot of intimate, personal stories, and many of them from history. Today we dive back only a few decades to a story that speaks of something extremely important. But how well does it do it? This is Dallas Buyers Club.

Ron (Matthew McConaughey) is just your average rodeo bull riding electrician. The kind of guy that hires hookers to bang him behind the gates of the bull ring after he has done his dealings as a bookie, but before he goes to drink and snort cocaine with his friends. The normal. One day, however, that all changes when he is diagnosed as HIV positive - the disease of 'faggots' - saying he only has thirty days to live, and so naturally his homophobic friends abandon him. The doctors cannot give him AZT, the medicine he really wants as it is only in the trial stages, so he finds a way around the system after meeting a Mexican doctor, Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne). Teaming up with transsexual Rayon (Jared Leto), Ron begins to smuggle in drugs to help himself, but eventually realises he is not the only one who needs help. He sets up a system for other AIDS suffers, despite arguments from Dr. Sevard (David O'Hare) and Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), and calls it the Dallas Buyers Club.

The title 'Hugs and Drugs' did not test well with audiences.

McConaughey, an actor whose name, when attached to a movie, meant you should probably avoid whatever the project was. Here he is now with an Academy Award nomination. (He's also in the nominated The Wolf of Wall Street.) Why? Because he is fantastic. As Ron, McConaughey shows that there is a lot of power in his performance. Unlike some recent performances that leave subtlety in the past and prefer the explicit, McConaughey understands Ron and all he is feeling, from the desperation for suitable medicine, to the need to help others, to the fear of death, McConaughey gets it right. But the real stand out is Leto. As transsexual Rayon, Leto is completely unrecognisable. He is completely absorbed in his role and sucks the audience in too. A loving, and loveable character, with the social skills that Ron fails to possess in the gay community, Leto's Reyon is easily one of the finest performances of the year. He is very similar to the famous Angel, from the musical Rent. The two leads hold the film, their supporting cast to little to add much. Fortunately, the pair at the front need little help.

That security man is missing the point.

A cleverly constructed tale of the good and bad sides of humanity. The darkness that is how much can be achieved when desperation is the driving force, but also the hope that comes with that. One man finds a solution for his problem and unlike the money-centric companies that control the medicine, he tries to make a difference. With some of the best editing of the year, the film never feels like the two hour runtime that it is and along with such an engaging script and fantastic direction from Jean-Marc Vallée, Dallas Buyers Club is an important story of struggling with the American healthcare system. It is, as some other critics have stated, possibly being told too late to pack the punch it could have 20 years ago, but it is still an inspirational tale. 

A story that has a lot of everything. Some happy bits, some sad bits, some bits that will make you angry. It is a tale that shows the dangers of greed and hate and the benefits of caring for others. 

Best Bit? Ron dons a priest outfit as he smuggles drugs across the border from Mexico to the USA. He's stopped. Perhaps it is our sympathetic relationship with Ron, but c'mon. Who stops a priest?

(Note: I've seen claims that the only reason McConaughey is getting attention is because he lost a lot of weight. I've not spoken about his weight loss because, whilst it advances his character, he is truly talented too.)

Wednesday, 26 February 2014


Sci-fi. Aliens, robots, space. All that cool stuff, right? Well what about love in a not too distance future? Companies that write love letters? Cyber sex? This is Her.

In the not-too-distant future, there is Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) , a lonely love letter writer, avoiding signing his divorce papers. He goes home at night, plays video games, and has, very strange, phone sex. His friend Amy (Amy Adams) tries to get him out, to set him up with her friends, and force him out of his slump. But nothing works until Theodore installs a new operating system on his computer, an artificial intelligence that adapts and evolves as it learns. The OS calls herself Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) and she form a bond with Theodore. Together they organise his life, write his letters, and begin to date. Weird right? Can it work out or will it crash and burn?

'I love Lamp'

Much in the same way Moon was a one man show, Her is held entirely by Phoenix.While Johansson's voice work is delightful, with her soft and subtle tones, picking up on every minor nuance of emotion, it is Phoenix who makes the film special. There is a real loneliness in his performance, the sense of true sadness until Samantha comes into his life. But the change from sadness to happiness is not a quick one. Covering a whole spectrum from cynicism to joy to carelessness, Theodore is undoubtedly a fully developed character from start to finish. Adams' Amy is her best role of the past year (yes, better than American Hustle) as she accompanies Theodore on his journey into love and develops something similar with her own Operating System. She plays an important role in the development of Samantha and Theodore's relationship, be it encouraging it, or being questioned by Samantha.

Secretly, who hasn't wanted to tuck their partner in their pocket?

There is something wonderfully unique and - possibly brutally - truthful about Her. In the world we live in today, technology is being programmed to be almost human. Of course, it is not the first time that artificial intelligence, and relationships with technology, have been the focus of the big screen, but it is the first time it has seemed so believable. Spike Jonze has created something that, with the invention of things like Siri, has a high possibility of happening. However, whilst the first two thirds of Her are something highly unique, the final chapter seems a bit too familiar. The focus in the final third, it has been speculated, should be heavily on Theodore's ending in the tale, which it looks like Jonze intended, but something is missing; something new to finish off the well known story that Her becomes towards the end.

All in all, a romantic sci-fi with hints of drama and comedy, on paper, sounds like the strangest thing to happen to cinema in a long while. And it is, in some respects, but it says something powerful about mankind's dependency on technology, and that message should be listened to.

Best Bit? As we see the bond between Samantha and Theodore develop they play a game where he closes his eyes and she gives him instructions. His childlike happiness is so contagious that you will not be able to stop yourself smiling along.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Django In Chains

History is a wonderful beginning step for film making. There is undoubtedly something truly exciting about experiencing the past in a visual medium, happy or sad. The latter emotion is definitely more prominent in many historical films, like today's film. This is 12 Years a Slave.

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man, a talented violin player, and a loving father and husband. He lives a simple life until, one day, he is kidnapped after two men offer him a job playing violin. From his kidnapping, he is sold into slavery (by a horrible Paul Giamatti) to the gentle and respectable Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). But things go from bad to worse when sadistic rancher Tibeats (Paul Dano) starts to have it out for Northup, now called Platt, leaving Ford no choice but to sell him on again, despite the bond they have formed. This time Solomon ends up with brutal Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) and befriends Patsy (Lupita Nyong'o), a young slave girl hated by Epps' wife (Sarah Paulson) and sexually abused by Epps. Based on Northup's own memoirs, 12 Years a Slave is an unrelenting and horribly realistic portrayal of slavery.

Swag: noun - The above photo.

Ejiofor, who reportedly originally turned the role down, is on top form in 12 Years a Slave. His portrayal of a man who has his life destroyed so completely and so quickly is devastating and yet always hopeful. From his first signs of resistance - I don't want to survive. I want to live - all the way through his torturous ordeal in slavery, the viewer is forced to remain as strong as Solomon. Northup only breaks occasionally, normally trying to make the best of his surroundings, but when the emotions rise, Ejiofor's ability truly shines through. A master of both subtlety and the explicit. Matching him is the glorious Nyong'o. As Patsy, she shows she capable of an incredible range of performance, especially for her feature film debut. Unlike the bigger, more explicit characters like Fassbender's Epps, Dano's Tibeats, or even Ejiofor's Northup, Patsy is introduced as a quiet reserved girl around the greatest horrors in the world - rape, violence, even being disallowed to clean. Nyong's subtle pain, inner sorrow, and plain emptiness is heart wrenching, to say the least. Also of note is Fassbender's Epps. A truly horrific man that forces his slaves to dance for him and he takes what he wants, primarily Patsy. He holds nothing back, giving a true punch with his performance, sometimes literally.

Epps just loved to show off his guns...

Steve McQueen, of Shame and Hunger fame, is not known for his easy viewing. His films say something, and it is not nice. Sexual addiction, starvation, and now, slavery. Teaming up with John Ridley, McQueen brings something painfully real to the big screen. Northup's ordeal was a historical event and, even if details have been changed, that realism is constantly reminded you that this actually happened. McQueen brings it to life brutally, emphasising moments that are designed to make us, the viewer, uncomfortable. A horribly extended hanging scene whilst the normal ranch life continues in the background, a whipping scene where the camera does not cut for around four minutes, a stunned silence after a vase is thrown directly into a slave's face. These moments are engineered by McQueen and his team to highlight the horrible nature of human kind. It is not trying to guilt trip white Americans, it is not placing blame, it is simply demonstrating monsters as they are. It is story telling in its purest form: powerful and completely unforgiving.

A moving piece of cinema that tells the tale of hope and humanity. The way Steve McQueen shows the true horror of the slave trade is forceful but unbiased. It is simply truthful story telling. One of 2013's finest achievements in film.

Best Bit? Certainly the most memorable moments are those that force discomfort in the viewer. The whipping, the hanging. Such power and next to no dialogue needed.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Hair And Hustling.

Everyone loves a story that keeps you on your toes. Everyone loves a loveable anti-hero. Everyone loves a tale FBI agents and conmen. So will a film that has all of these aspects deliver? This is American Hustle.

Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a hustler, a conman. He makes people pay him $5000 in investments which they will never see again. When he meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), they start a booming partnership with her alter ego, Lady Edith, drawing in the marks. That is, until FBI agent Richard DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) gets in the way of the operation and, rather than simply bust the hustlers, he offers them a deal. Help him drag down the big dogs and the corrupt political parties particularly Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). Irving is left with the choice between jail or balancing Sydney, DiMaso, and his wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) as he attempts to bring down those after his own heart.

Irving has a strong sense of smell.
It is pretty handy.

It is amazing that the man behind Irving's hair, glasses, and belly is the same man that was Dicky in The Fighter, Trevor in The Machinist, and Batman. Bale has been known to starve himself for the above roles, but here we see a whole new side to him. Fat, furious, and forced into a job he does not want to do, Bale's Irving is somehow made vulnerable and accessible to the viewer, unlike the egotistical DiMaso, the lying Prosser, or the corrupt politicians. Really, despite being a crook that scams innocent people, Irving is a likeable guy but mostly through the lack of likeability for the rest of the ensemble - except Louis C.K.'s brilliantly funny Stoddard Thorsen. Adams forces you to constantly question Prosser and her motives, Cooper is enough of a jerk to Thorsen that you cannot help but be annoyed by his arrogance, Lawrence's Rosalyn is so irresponsible that sympathy for her becomes nigh impossible. Sure, Irving is a lying bastard, but he is smart, responsible, and level-headed. The other redeemable character is in terms of likeability is Renner's Polito, but he is a corrupt politician and we all want to see them crash and burn to some extent.

That's it. That's the film.

Everything about the the film screams big and glamorous. From the loud, jazzy soundtrack, to Irving's hair-do. The latter, too, leads into an example of the brilliant writing and directing team that is Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell. The opening of the film is Irving setting up his elaborate hair with heaps of care and attention, only for DiMaso to come in and ruin it. Within minutes, Russell and Singer have shown us a strong dynamic between the leading characters, an extremely difficult achievement. However, there is a lack of weight to the story. Viewers familiar with the British show 'Hustle' will understand how important it is to balance the set up and release to create a decent pay off around the actual hustle. American Hustle feels a bit more like someone accidentally revealed the punchline to their joke but thought no one noticed so carried on telling it. The simple fact of the matter is there is no surprise to these tricksters. It leaves the audience going '...and? There has to be more to it, surely?' But alas, there is not.

A terrific piece of ensemble work. All the performers are at their best, particularly Bale. A barrel of fun, occasionally hilarious, and a decent ride, it just lacks the pay off that one would expect through out the film. But this only dampens it; it fails to destroy it.

Best Bit? There is a wonderful scene with a cameo from Robert De Niro that is tense throughout. THAT scene gets the pay off it needs.