Review: Short Term 12

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               DIR. Destin Cretton. Starring: Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Remi Malek

Hands down one of my favourite films of the year so far.

ImageShort Term 12 sees Brie Larson (21 Jump Street, Spectacular Now) give a raw and thoughtful performance as care-worker Grace, struggling with her own suppressed parental issues. Likened to Jennifer Lawrence’s breakout turn in Winter’s Bone, Larson too gives bare-fared-bravery-conquers-all a go, and she too shades it with vulnerability, courage and moments of understated perfection. The smiling through the cake scene is perhaps the exact moment when she won me over.

The audience are inducted into the chaotic and colourful world of the foster care institution alongside newbie Nate (Rami Malek – 24The Pacific). He’s wide-eyed, naïve and full of good intentions – ripe for mal-adjusted teenagers to rip apart. His learning curve becomes ours, as we get to know the characters in the facility and see them as more than ‘underprivileged’ kids with problems. Cleverly, the narrative divides most of its time to exploring the stories of two kids in the facility. One whom has just arrived – surly teenager Jayden, and one whom is just about to leave – budding rapper Marcus. It’s through their eyes and on their journeys to what we hope is recovery that we learn about the ups and downs of the care system.

ImageHowever, the film doesn’t just stop there. It’s allows many of the peripheral characters moments of narrative intrusion and quiet potency, giving us a rounded interpretation of the foster community. It also acknowledges the system possesses flaws – where the therapists don’t always make the best judgments, where the hierarchy can let vulnerable people fall through the cracks and where emotion or personal experience can overwhelm those who should know better.

 The theme of cyclicality is foregrounded throughout. Deployed in the comings and goings of residents, and emphasised during a symmetrical ‘frame’ scene that also gives way to the most uplifting finale I’ve seen in a while.

Moreover, it tries to explore the wider impact and offshoots of the system. Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), Grace’s boyfriend and colleague, for instance is part of an extended and loving foster care family, depicting the positive effects of human generosity in the face of adversity. Gallagher Jr. also manages to traverse the fine line between understanding boyfriend and pushover, taking all of Grace’s doubts and hesitancies in his stride. Theirs is a relationship you root for – just two people trying to overcome the obstacles life throws their way.

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Problematically, Short Term 12 does suggest there are cures for everyone’s problems and that the current care system will eventually reach out to all and encourage them to speak about their issues. And equally indulges in a few character clichés – black kid Marcus with aggressive tendencies, expresses himself through rap (though the close-up camera work and amazing lyrics during one performance are indelibly poignant and heartfelt) and smart-ass Jayden, who is rebelling against the world with kohl-rimmed eyes and sinister diary drawings. The cynic in me could call them clichés. But the performances given bring another dimension to these characters, and they become people rather than stereotypes.

Director Destin Cretton turns in an impressive debut film, handling the content and his actors sensitively, and circumventing the mawkish or melodramatic elements of the material. What he lacks in originality, he makes up for with charm and good intention. Overall it’s a wonderfully positive film, where the light conquers the darkness. Indeed, the ending is almost too good to be true, and comes very close to saccharine where the rest of the film has managed restrain. However, I think the film suggests the story told can be fictional and true at the same time – as long as we believe in the potential for it to be true, then the film has done it’s job.

Verdict: Nuanced, powerful and mesmerising. See it for Brie alone. It’s one that will stay with you for the long term

Review: 12 Years a Slave

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DIR. Steve McQueen. STARRING. Chwietel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson

 

Steve McQueen is a filmmaker who, in a short space of time, has cemented himself as possessing deft, controversial and thought-provoking talent. With films varying from the IRA, sex addiction and now the slave trade, there seems to be little limit to his cinematic eye. And with 12 Years a Slave he once again proves why he is one to watch.  Not that you imagine he chose such a film to prove anything at all.

There are some images throughout the history of cinema that upon witnessing stay with you forever. The girl in the red dress in Schindler’s List, the outstretched arms epitomising an unlikely friendship in E.T. and now that of a young African-American girl on a slave plantation being stripped and then severely and repeatedly whipped until her skin is in shreds. 12 Years a Slave does not promise to give you a representation of American history that will be easily digestible, or in fact especially watchable. McQueen’s camera is relentlessly unflinching. But for a subject matter that should never be ignored, it seems that is exactly the point.

12 Years is also intelligent in navigating some of the more ignorant and blasé generalisations that accompany this dark recess of a bygone era. Solomon Northrup is not a man born into slavery, nor shipped over from an indigenous land fit for the purpose of hard labour; he was unscrupulously duped, drugged and yanked from a life of decency, honour and family, awaking to find himself in chains and his existence forever altered. In telling the story of this particular man, 12 Years debunks the ridiculous notion that the slaves were there for a reason (illuminated in his first experience of cotton-picking, which he simply cannot get the hang of) and further drives home the basic truth that no man or woman ought to have been subjected to such delusions of racial superiority, especially not one that had hitherto shared the right of freedom and equality. The injustice is immediately, and heart-breakingly palpable.

The visceral brutality that endures throughout the film is hard-to-watch, but when matched with moments of ephemerality or brief respite (a letter disintegrated to embers, the rotating motion of a boat udder, a gifted violin, and silhouetted trees against the backdrop of a sunset), it creates a world punctuated by cruelty, but perpetuated by hope. Such is the strength of the human spirit.

Arguments have been put forward for the utilisation of shameless shock tactics, or a sensationalised portrayal. But far from being overblown, 12 Years a Slave infuses moments of sadness, of resignation, of helplessness with quiet power. McQueen succeeds in depicting both the degrading physical effects of slavery and its cruel, dehumanising, psychological impact (referring to Solomon as Platt, telling handmaid Eliza it won’t be long before her children are forgotten, slapping the naked bodies of slaves as if meat in a factory), whilst Solomon’s leaving Patsy behind despite her desperate pleading or his acquiescence to being a slave whilst singing ‘Roll Jordan Roll’ are further examples of this muted approach.

Solomon’s near-hanging is exacerbated by the restrain the camera shows. He is depicted in the distance, whilst the other slaves continue with their day-to-day tasks, all the while the diegetic sound emphasising his gagging sounds. McQueen does not strive for close-ups nor extract emotion forcibly, or unnecessarily, the material is enough by itself. Instead, he immerses himself in the landscape, the repetition of punishment and almost how easily it occurs. Solomon’s hanging is treated by the other slaves as if it is the most normal thing in the world, and most poignantly, you expect for them it really was.

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The film also manages to depict the varying scale of those involved in slavery; from power-hungry plantation sidekicks seeking thrills from kicking those whilst they’re down, (a sadistic Paul Dano – another string to his bow of creepy characters), full-throttle abolitionists (Brad Pitt to the rescue),  reluctant plantation owners – affording tempered kindness but not real help (Benedict Cumberbatch), to the down-right vicious, paranoid and quite frankly insane (Michael Fassbender, on formidable and snarling form). Sarah Paulson (who, after Django Unchained, may have have found her niche as a plantation mistress) is also chilling as Fassbender’s wife, competing for his affections and no less profligate with her issuances of punishment. But without ever seeming to broad-brush or stereotype those involved in this painful history.

ImageBut the two actors who most poignantly inhabit their roles are Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o as Solomon and Patsey. Ejiofor projects a quiet resilience and determination, consistently resisting his newfound position as a lower echelon of society and attempting to hold onto his right to be called a man, rather than a slave. It is a committed and exquisite performance, shaded by both tenderness and rage and Solomon becomes a character you give yourself over to rooting for. So much so that watching the film can become an exhaustive process. Equally affecting and truly unbelievable for a big-screen debut is the talent of Nyong’o who pours everything she has, physically and emotionally into this difficult role. She never over-sentimentalises the performance, and Patsey becomes a character whom measures the diverse abuse slaves underwent, but who endures it with a strength and dignity.

For those that are shocked and find it uncomfortable, I would imagine Steve McQueen is resolutely triumphant in being able to elicit this emotion. Surely that is exactly the point of this film: to make us squirm and flinch and want to turn away, but ultimately confront a time when humanity was allowed to commit such atrocities and crimes against justice.  This is not horrible, or disgusting, but a harrowing and sobering experience – one should not be repelled but compelled.

 The final scene is perhaps the most emotive and tragic, when the accumulated years of Solomon’s suffering manifest themselves tangibly – in the maturation of his two children. Suddenly, when presented with two adults we are made painfully aware of just how long he has undergone these crimes against humanity and what he’s lost. His asking for forgiveness makes it all the worse.

This is not simply a regurgitation of stories already told, but a necessary reappraisal of a history and a cultural memory we must never forget. 12 Years a Slave brings these experiences to the fore with illuminating and affecting visceral power. For me, 12 Years was an immersive and indelible cinematic experience and one that I urge everyone to see.

 

 

Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel

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DIR. Wes Anderson. STARRING: Pretty much everyone, ever. Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, F Murray Abraham, Jude Law, Tilda Swinton, Saoirse Ronan, Tom Wilkinson, Adrien Brody, Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe, Lea Seydoux, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Mathieu Amalric, other people.

Wes Anderson films are an acquired taste – frequently kitsch, long and frustratingly quirky – you are either a devoted fan, or perpetually bemused.

The Grand Budapest Hotel situates itself very comfortably amongst Anderson’s oeuvre and will no doubt be equally divisive. But for those of you whom are fans of the indulgent director’s sense of spectacle and folly are in for a TREAT.

In the prelude to the prelude, a young girl pays respects to the statue of a renowned author, whom we are then introduced to in living form as Tom Wilkinson, and then again in his younger self as Jude Law. The ever-complex structure that is Anderson’s storytelling is in full swing here, and the story within a story (within a story?) allows for nostalgia and hyperbole to manifest in seductive form. Jude Law meets Zero Moustafa (F Murray Abraham and Tony Revolori) once the hotel is well past its peak and resembles The Shining in its eerie sparseness of guests and gaudy decor. It is through the eyes of Moustafa as told by the Author that we meet the indomitable and utterly fantastic Gustave H; a man as absurd as he is debonair.

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Rewind to the 1930s and to the hotel’s golden era with its luxuriously pastel exterior and opulent interiors reflective of the Belle Epoque. And master of it all is Ralph Fiennes whom looks like he’s having the time of his life as cavorting concierge Gustave. Moustachioed, meticulous and occasionally potty-mouthed, he careens about the hotel with authority, swagger and purpose. He is the life and soul of the hotel, servicing his guests in more ways than one – with particular interest in the elder, richer clientele (“when you’re young it’s all fillet steak, and then you have to move on to cheaper cuts”, Gustave says of his taste for vintage women, in brilliantly cutting style). He adopts Moustafa, a teenage lobby boy orphaned by war as his protégé and proceeds to instruct him on being the perfect concierge – anticipating needs, being at once invisible and ever available and able to fulfill any task at the drop of a hat.

The real plot begins with a freakishly aged Tilda Swinton as Madame D (“dynamite in the sack”), who turns out to be Gustave’s lover and upon her death bestows him with ‘Boy with Apple’ a prized painting among her eccentric money-grabbing family, at the centre of whom is her sinister son Dmitri (Adrien Brody). After being accused of her murder, Gustave, employing the help of Moustafa, sets out to clear his name. So begins the action/heist element of Grand Budapest, replete with art theft, a prison escape, cable-car rides, a sledge-chase, a farcical shoot-out and a flying cat.

It is a buddy-caper film and period drama rolled into one, though genre is almost pointless to label a Wes Anderson film.

His directorial style is arguably a genre all by itself. Anderson after all is an unbridled, and unrepentant aesthete who revels in that which is sumptuous and styled to perfection.

One just has to look at the flawless intricacy of the pastries Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) bakes, replete with individual wrapping and a bow; or the vividly purple suits worn by Gustave, precisely tailored and as straight as the lines in which Anderson’s camera moves. Every frame is tinged with his unique perspective and eye for detail.

Reminiscent of Georges Melies in its technical wizardry and elaborate set constructions, Anderson never shies away from artifice and the scenery often looks more picture-postcard than real. A choice no doubt intentional. A critique often leveled at the director is that his aesthetic is too calculated, fussy and pristine. Everything is exacting and no room is left for spontaneity. But I would argue that this in fact channels the operation of a hotel immeasurably. Hotels are strange liminal spaces, where one often goes to escape reality and to exchange the quotidian with grandeur and excess. There are people to cater to every need, beds flawlessly made and endless, uncluttered corridors. It is a calculated, seamless and mechanical operation. Both the hotel and Anderson’s direction.

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And the richness of dialogue, scenery and detail seems testament to Anderson’s love for, and mourning, of the decadent fin-de-siecle period. This is after all a film lamenting the decline of civilisation; for all its wit and joviality, it is laced with startling violence – and sadness. There are equal parts magic and melancholy.

Every facet of this film is one drenched in resplendence. The musical score composed by Alexandre Desplat is quaint, ethereal and charming with plinking piano notes and playful strumming. There are clear folk music influences – said to be Russian – but with an air of percussive exoticism. It feels other-worldly, opulent and slightly melancholic for a bygone era where Viennese waltzing was something everyone knew how to do; the score thus complements the elegiac and idiosyncratic atmosphere of the film perfectly.

The costuming is also impeccable, from the aforementioned violet concierge suits to the expertly groomed moustaches. Lea Seydoux’s French maid’s outfit, Willem Dafoe’s floor-length leather trench and Tilda Swinton’s fur-lined, red velveteen coat are particular highlights among a plethora of well-dressed characters.

And finally the performances are a treasure trove of parody, absurdity and perfect comic-timing. Newcomer Tony Revolori holds his own magnificently against Ralph Fiennes, with whom he shares most of his screen time. It would be easy to disappear into the background when matched with Fiennes’ hysterical, career curve-balling performance, but the young Moustafa is likeable, sympathetic and very watchable, especially when chastising Gustave for flirting with his fiancée Agatha.

ImageImageThere are more cameos than you can shake a stick at, with Anderson’s cohort of returning actors growing larger. You could argue that such small roles given to such big talent is a waste, and perhaps a distraction (see Brad Pitt in 12 Years a Slave for how NOT to cast a star in a film), however Anderson is very wise in his casting and if anything the variety of cameos add to magic and chaos of the film. Particularly notable are Edward Norton as a bumbling police officer channelling Inspector Clouseau, Harvey Keitel as the tattooed convict and fellow prison escapee and a quite frankly terrifying Willem Dafoe as Dmitri’s hitman of sort. That is of course, not to take away from the several other exquisitely attuned performances throughout the film, with every actor immersing themselves in the characters and the world it’s easy to forget whom they are. Yes Tilda, I’m looking at you.

Of course, the star of the show is the surprisingly uproarious Mr. Fiennes. It’s rare to see him in a comic role, with his CV rather generous with its uber-villains, tortured lovers and po-faced parts. Of course, In Bruges and Skyfall, if not just his immense talent, proved he could handle deadpan humour. But I wonder if anyone knew he could do it so well. He is a sheer delight to watch in action, and delivers each with line with eloquence, panache and conviction, even when – or especially when – peppered with ‘darlings’. Every gesture, curled lip or disgruntled expression is a wonder to behold and quite frankly watching Ralph Fiennes do high-camp will never fail to be entertaining.

Some have labelled The Grand Budapest Hotel a masterpiece, and I would be inclined to agree. This is a film as elaborate, delicious and multi-layered as the cakes Agatha slaves over at Mendl’s and as exhilarating as the ridiculous sledge-chase that initiates a fabulous confrontation between Fiennes and Dafoe. The immaculate facade that is Zubrowska, or the hotel itself may create a fictional world, but it is not an inaccessible one. For all the callousness and greed, there is kindness and tenderness and perhaps most of all beauty.

Check in, stay awhile and indulge in unadulterated chaotic splendour.

Review: All is Lost

One man encounters a wave of obstacles.

Robert Redford in All Is Lost
DIR. J.C. Chandor. Starring: Robert Redford.

This appears to be a film where Robert Redford is hell-bent on getting, and staying, wet. Opening titles inform us he is a man estranged from his family, exploring the Indian Ocean on a sailboat and 17,000 nautical miles from the Sumatran straits. And then disaster hits. More than once.

It’s certainly not a film for the easily exasperated. Or with a short attention span. Redford awakes in his boat to a foot of water threatening the rest of his peaceful journey. A cast off piece of cargo leaking shoes has severely dented ‘Virginia Jean’ and left him gluing his boat back together and pumping out the water. Such scenes were of a particularly upsetting nature to me having recently experienced great amounts of flooding in Surrey.

Mere moments away from regaining his sailing stride, a brutal storm hits and poor Redford is rained upon and then thrown briefly overboard. At the ripe old age of 76, one can’t help but think this was a particularly taxing shoot for the veteran actor. He is the sole focus of the film; dominating the entire screen time and requiring sparse dialogue – action is the name of the game.

After the storm wreaks irreparable damage to his boat, Redford is forced into a dingy. At approximately half-way through the film, a repetitive element to the narrative makes itself apparent. The lifeboat springs a leak and another storm causes life-threatening damage. I was close to shouting ‘come on already’ aloud in the cinema. And whilst this could be mistaken for laziness, rather it seems to evoke the inimitable, unforgiving and unfathomable dangers of the ocean. The sea just doesn’t damn well care that you might have been through this before.

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Director J.C. Chandor, whom previously helmed ‘Margin Call’, has proved he can deliver a tightly-woven and thrilling film. Here he moves away from financial crises and power suits, but still demonstrates assurance and thought in depicting a vast and empty seascape. His cinematography is pared back, switching elegantly between high angle shots, as well as underwater ones that emphasise Redford’s boat as a mere dot dwarfed by vast and tempestuous surroundings. The depiction of sunrises and sunsets with each passing day that Redford is able to survive could very well rival ‘Life of Pi’ in their breathtaking beauty. Chandor, alongside the sound crew, create a film of elegiac and ambient detail. Every creak, whistle and groan is amplified to the extent you never feel dialogue is required. Moreover, the array of shots and pacing of the film mean that despite an unchanging setting, you never know what to expect. It’s gripping stuff.

Holding the film together, as well as his boat, is the delightful Robert Redford. Unlike the situation, he’s easy to watch. You feel safe in his company, trusting that he’ll deliver an honest, subtle and emotive performance. But this isn’t so much a performance, as a complete embodiment of character. It’s unfussy, naturalistic and thoroughly praise-worthy. He remains admirably calm throughout most of the tribulations, so when on the verge of tears he yells ‘Fuck’, you know he’s in trouble. There’s a moment when he’s curled up, or perhaps crumpled, within the dingy, the darkness rolling in, that if the credits were to roll you would feel distraught. Utterly bereft even. Over 1000 people died in the sinking of the Titanic, but this is one man you are willing to stay alive; such is the power of Redford.

There are bug-bear moments and slight flaws in consistency – the fact Redford has access to completely dry and uncreased paper in his lifeboat to write a letter to his family hints at a lapse into contrivance, and the soundtrack felt a tad overbearing. At one point deep and ominous drumming music alluded to possible shark attack – which then reoccurred with the appearance of sharks – whilst at Redford’s moment of peaceful resignation, the non-diegetic music became painfully melodramatic.

But these are small flaws in otherwise bravura filmmaking. It’s testament to the changing nature of film – with ‘Gravity’ being another example – that studios, actors, directors, e.t.c. feel able to make these slow-burning, unfurling and narratively- diverse pieces of cinema. And like ‘All is Lost’, still hold and very much reward, our attention.

VERDICT: A distressing, experimental, measured and fascinating film. Just as Redford’s fate is at the hands of the ocean, for an 1hour and 40mins you are utterly at the hands of this narrative. Soak it up. 

Review: Zero Dark Thirty

Players: Kathryn Bigelow (DIR), Jessica Chastain, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Elhe, Mark Strong, Joel Edgerton

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YxC_JNz5Vbg (link to the trailer, if this review doesn’t convince you to go and see it).

Before going to see this film I decided I had better brush up on my knowledge on the search for Bin Laden. It having gone on for a decade or so, I figured there were a few things I might need to know prior to watching one of the most controversial films of the year so far. So whilst sitting in Cafe Nero, trying to obscure the words ‘torture porn’ and ‘terrorism’ from the people sitting next to me, I quickly crammed in all that I could read about ‘The Saudi Group, ‘Tora Bora’ and ‘Black Sites’.

Whilst a little bit of background info certainly helps when political and CIA jargon is being fired at you faster than a round of bullets, it’s not imperative to understanding the film. Director Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break, The Hurt Locker) creates a sort of docudrama that is edge of your seat gripping. One might think that the days, turning to months, turning to years of investigations, false leads and waiting for sources, opportunities or evidence would make for a drawn out and insufferable film. Bigelow however, does a fantastic job of selecting exactly what you need to know – covering both the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks in a tasteful, victim-oriented way, as well as the methods used in the manhunt.
She shows enough that you gather it’s a central part to the search for Bin Laden, without over-sentimentalising it, as well as focusing on the process as it changes. From the political decisions made, i.e. the ending of detainee project/extraordinary rendition policy to the changing of government from Republican to Democratic, Bigelow has a timeline constantly in the background – reminding us of its basis in facts, but providing us with a human connection to this debilitating, frustrating and alienating struggle for a world terrorist target through her protagonist Maya, played with fierce restraint and conviction by Jessica Chastain.
Maya is a heroine you root for. She’s a ballsy ‘motherfucker’ (as she tells White House aide James Gandolfini) who has sacrificed friends, a social life and any sense of normality to chase the bad guy for 12 long years. It’s jarring when Maya and a female colleague exchange IM’s expressing excitement about a source-turned-suicide bomber who might have provided information in the same way you and a friend might chat about your plans for a girl’s night in. They have devoted their existence to this search. But at the same time it’s not saccharine in its portrayal of this; we don’t see photos of missed relatives and the only tears shed are at the end of the long process when the sole aim motivating Maya’s career has finally been killed. Where does one go from there?
It is also ballsy filmmaking. Bigelow has become the industry’s go-to-girl for politically charged war movies that look at things from a different perspective. This isn’t fighting from the frontline, nor from behind the desk – it’s not afraid to limit the action when there isn’t any, nor detail the failures when they happen. The final sequence when the ‘kill-team’ breaks into Bin Laden’s suspected compound is excruciatingly tense; most of us know what happened, but not how and apart from a few unexpected explosions, the film is free from fancy pyrotechnics or crowd-pleasing thrills. This is cold, calculating objectivity, still seen through the lens of patriotism and seeking rightful vengeance for the homeland, but without the added doses of demagogy and liberalism that have peppered various other productions on similar topics. And before you get all hot under your collar about how it endorses the use of torture – fuck right off. It doesn’t. Not in the slightest. It shows torture to be part of the process, it doesn’t overplay the interrogation techniques or show them to be utterly vital in capturing OBL. Bigelow couldn’t have made this film without mentioning that the detainee policy was an integral part to CIA operations both pre and post 9/11. Perhaps it is a seedy and shameful underbelly to a country that considers itself to be morally righteous and advocates of democracy with a capital D, but Bigelow doesn’t glamorise this process. It emotionally destroys the character of Dan whom we first meet water-boarding a captured prisoner and eventually leaves to take a more removed job at CIA HQ Langley and ultimately it doesn’t provide Maya or the operatives with the information they want or need. The first victim Anmar reveals intelligence about a courier after being deprived, humiliated and abused; the scenes in which he is tied by ropes, crammed into a box or stripped naked are not easy to watch – if anything they serve as deterrents of torture techniques than support for it. It then takes years for Maya to prove that this courier even knew or worked for Bin Laden or that he was important to al-Quaeda. Torture was not indispensable to the search for Bin Laden, but it is an inherent part to the film’s honesty about it.
Those who actually work in the CIA may find it to be over-dramatised or over-simplified, with a whip-smart protagonist and ineffective leadership pandering to the cliché of ‘Maya against the world’. But polished, glitzy Hollywood filmmaking this is not. It is at once a compelling spy thriller and a realistic documentary. John Barrowmen’s cameo momentarily sucks you out of thinking it the latter, but on the whole the performances reaffirm this notion. Chastain’s is a powerhouse, career-changing performance. She is introduced to us as a rookie; softly spoken, wearing her best suit to an interrogation and nervously playing with her hands as she participates in her first act of torture. The manhunt hardens her; she shuts off from human interaction (the one time we see her ‘socialising’ ends in a bombing of the restaurant) and rejects the idea of sleeping with a colleague. At once an emotional fortress and achingly fragile, she proves herself just as smart, focused and forceful as any man on the team and the haunting intensity that Chastain gives Maya – during the ending especially, really evokes the film’s central question of whether it was all worth it. Does the end justify the means?

Reliable support is provided from Kyle Chandler as Maya’s boss; the official bureaucrat who struggles to devote himself or the government’s money in the same way Maya does, as well as Jennifer Elhe and Jason Clarke as the colleagues who suffer the burden of duty in different ways.

I left the cinema feeling a little emotionally drained and exhausted, but utterly impressed with the filmmaking. Don’t expect party poppers or fireworks as the climax occurs; this is not a film that necessarily celebrates the death of Osama Bin Laden. Instead it holds up a magnifying glass to how it happened. It depicts the complicity and controversy of morally ambiguous policies – weaving its way effectively through the nitty gritty of the 9/11 aftermath and America’s conscience, but without ever swaying you towards a side. It’s a risky tactic, as debates about the film’s stance on torture have proved – but one that I think pays off in dividends.
As technically proficient as it is compelling, the use of a grainy camera feel adds to the stripped back realism of the film, whilst the framing and costuming of Maya show her to become more and more embroiled in the manhunt. Equally, the editing builds suspense in the right places; you can sense when something isn’t quite right, but without resorting to sensationalism. The pacing could be said to be patchy in places, however the 157 minute running time never drags and if anything it adds to the feeling of tedium that embodied the wild-goose chase. Not as visceral or searing as The Hurt Locker, but once again Bigelow proves herself a master of the provocative, pared down and politically relevant.
Verdict: Taut, clinical and well-executed, it lays down the facts and lets you make a judgement.

Review: Lola Versus

 
(2012)

Players: Daryl Wein (DIR), Greta Gerwig, Joel Kinnaman, Zoe Lister Jones, Bill Pullman, Debra Winger

I recently read a review where someone chastised the recent glut of indie filmmaking as subjecting audiences to ‘drowning in a culture of quirk’. And to some extent this rings true. Quite a lot of films these days brand themselves on being hip and cool and counterculture, perhaps without considering what that really is or just trying too hard to be.
 
Lola Versus could be accused of being one of those films. The female protagonist Lola (Greta Gerwig) is having an existential crisis. She’s still obsessed with her ex-fiancée Luke (Joel Kinnaman), sleeping with his best friend Henry as well as a weird salmon guy who designs prisons and has a monster dick. (Her words, not mine) and just wants so badly to figure out who she is. Nothing embodies the notion of #whitegirlproblems as much as the ‘anti-heroine’ who must cancel her destination wedding to Peru to choose between three guys and ponder her heartbreaking situation whilst partying her way through New York. Gosh her life really does suck. Plus the choice of who she should be with is clear as soon as her douchebag but deliciously good-looking fiancée appears on the screen (yes Joel Kinnaman I’m looking at you). So she spends the entire narrative drunkenly, highly and sullenly bemoaning her way through a series of mishaps and fuck-ups, until she’s finally told to sort her life out. So she does some therapy, some yoga and detoxing until she discovers she really needs to focus on ‘her’ now.
The film attempts to have heart and honesty, looking at seemingly unglamorous people who smoke weed and make mistakes and are about to turn 30 and really don’t have their shit together, but it still feel superficial and glossy and like nothing one can actually relate to.
First let me get it out of my system how annoying these tropes of quirkiness have become in films. The four main characters live in New York and all indulge in artsy careers that don’t really seem to take up much time and yet fund hedonistic lifestyles and achingly cool apartments. Lola is a PhD student and writer who studies French poetry, her fiancée is an artist, her best friend an actress and her fiancée’s best friend is in a band. They’re so ‘indie scene’ it’s actually generic. What’s worse the characters, for all their zippy, random charm and heart-melting smiles (yes Joel Kinnaman, I’m still looking at you) are pretty self-absorbed.
For me, the issues lies in the fact it wants so much to be anti-traditionalist and bucking the trends of the romantic comedy genre where the guy gets the girls and everything is dandy in the end but just instead it ends up being a bit meandering, aimless and frustrating. The fact that they’re all rather unsympathetic doesn’t help any.
It seems that the broad intent of Lola Versus, trying to take an honest look at life and love in the big city, parallels what Lena Dunham is doing with the new HBO series Girls, just with less clarity and hilarity. Lola is seeking identity and meaning, finding her purpose in life outside of a relationship, but as much as it should feel like a hoorah when she decides to take control of her life and reject Luke in favour of herself it lacks verity and believability.
Beneath the obscuring layer of idiosyncrasy and whimsicality this film has coated itself in lies some funny dialogue and enough warmth and tenderness to stick with it for all of its 90 minutes, due to some endearing and engaging performances from the cast. But for all its intended profundity and reassurance of existential anxiety one can’t help but feel that rather than being refreshing it’s tiresomely familiar.
A well-trodden path that does indeed drown itself in an excessive dose of quirk.

Review: Shadow Dancer

Shadow Dancer

2012

Players: James Marsh (DIR), Andrea Riseborough, Clive Owen, Gillian Anderson, Domhnall Gleeson
 
 
Belfast 1973. Car-bombs, killings and riots are rife as the conflict between the British government and IRA intensifies. Witness to this conflating violence is young Colette McVeigh, who 20 years later finds herself in London, embroiled further in the hostility than her child-self could ever have imagined.

 
Directed by Man on Wire helmer James Marsh this character-driven spy drama oozes a bleak docudrama feel; all peeling wallpaper, greying skies and austere interiors. This tone extends to the actors themselves with Andrea Riseborough as reluctant MI5 informant Colette McVeigh and her case officer Mac (Clive Owen) exuding very little emotion and subsequently receiving very little empathy.

 
However the impossibility of Colette’s situation, caught between 25 years in prison for an attempted bombing or spying on her fervently Loyalist family, is one which renders the audience sympathetic nonetheless. As suspicions arise and fingers start pointing, the mystery wrapped in misery, will grip you tighter than the government do Colette.

 
Supporting performances from Gillian Anderson as Mac’s ruthless, secretive boss and Domhnall Gleeson as Collette’s protective IRA terrorist brother add to the restrained classiness of the film. Nobody gives anything away.

 
This is a gloomy slow-burner by any definition; Tinker Tailor-esque in its attention to detail and superb plotting. However, the tension, subtle as it is, builds to a crescendo worth waiting for.  You’ll leave the cinema with shivers.
 
 
A clinical, expertly-executed and intelligent political thriller with brilliantly understated performances from the entire cast.


Review: To Rome With Love

Not quite the reaction Allen should expect from this film.

To Rome With Love

2012


Players: Woody Allen, Alec Baldwin, Roberto Benigni, Penelope Cruz, Judy Davis, Jesse Eisenberg, Ellen Page, Greta Gerwig, Alison Pill

After a return to celebrated form with the romantically nostalgic Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen no doubt thought he was onto a good thing in using European cities as the focus of his cinematic yarns. But alas what was charming and clever in the former, is careless and derivative in To Rome With Love.

We flit randomly between four sets of stories. Woody Allen is a retired opera director who upon hearing his daughter’s father-in law to be singing in the shower is inspired to restart his career. Alec Baldwin is an aimless architect advising a fretful, younger version of himself (Jesse Eisenberg on truly indecisive, insufferable form) on choosing between two women; neither of whom I might add are particularly alluring. (Greta Gerwig as serious student Sally and Ellen Page as mischievous actress Monica – the stereotypes couldn’t be more painfully obvious). Two young newlyweds get separated and each discovers themselves sexually with the help of hooker Penelope Cruz. Oh, and regular working guy Roberto Benigni whom complains that no-one listens to him, one day wakes up as the most famous guy on the planet for absolutely no reason at all. It doesn’t feel as if Allen is scraping the barrel for material here at all.

To exacerbate matters it is utterly indulgent. As if Allen is resting on his laurels and fast-waning reputation to draw in audiences rather than offering a worthwhile plot or in fact any point to making the film whatsoever. Indeed that can be the only reason and perhaps the lure of a paid holiday to Italy that enticed such a star-studded cast.

Rome itself is the only saving grace, which is admittedly beautiful shot. But even then we see it as a tourist might, stopping by the Colloseum, the Trevi Fountain, a storm-surrounded Pantheon and ivy-lined cobbled streets. Rome is glorified but not discovered. Allen pans around the city as if flicking through a handful of postcards and the stories themselves have no real attachment to it.

Whereas Paris really was a muse for the writers such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald that featured in Midnight in Paris, you get the feeling this could have been set anywhere. There is no real narrative or interconnection between the four seemingly random vignettes. And what’s worse the characters in them are unlikeable, anxious, neurotic and morally vacuous. The complete lack of resolution or significance to the stories may be acceptable had they been enjoyable to engage with, but the characters talk too much, whine and actually have nothing much to say.

Whilst Baldwin and Cruz clearly have fun with their roles and Benigni playing the fool as he does best, everyone else are cookie-cutter caricatures for which there is little time or reason for sympathy or attachment.

Allen touches upon some more meaningful themes – the tenuousness and idiocy of celebrity, cross-cultural communication, the hardship of marriage and love and all that jazz, but by leaving ends untied and stories hurried, it has more holes in it than a perfectly baked focaccia bread.

And did I mention this was meant to be a comedy? You might be laughing at the sheer insanity of it all, but not at the jokes themselves let me assure you.

Under-written, uneven and un-enchanting.