Ageing in Hollywood

Ageing in Hollywood is a double-edged sword. Either you embrace the graceful climb over the hill and vie with Meryl Streep for all the peachy roles coming your way. Or you try and stay looking as youthful as possible for as long as possible, because let’s face it, there are more roles for those lithe, glowing-skinned, and eternally energised monsters known as ‘young women’ than there are for their predecessors (and most likely, trail-brazers). And if you do beat one of those taut beauties to the part, then you have Russell Crowe breathing down your neck saying that ageism isn’t a problem at all and you should just embrace the whole getting older shebang. Sigh.

MIC wrote a very accurate and incisive piece on the issue with his comments, which initially appears as though he’s encouraging (more like demanding that) female actresses to be happy in their own skin. And rather than selling themselves short by competing with all the up and comers of the film industry, they should focus on playing women their own age.

Oh Russell. How funny you are. All those intelligent, wise and elegant elder ladies of Hollywood must have bypassed the reams and reams of intelligent, wise and elegant roles written for them, in search of bit parts as muses, girlfriends, manic-pixie-dream-girls, supporting wives and leggy prostitutes. Oh wait.

He appears to have glossed over, and trivialised the issue at hand – the fact that roles suited to older women in Hollywood are few and far between. According to a 2013 study, It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World: Onscreen Representations of Female Characters in the Top 100 Films of 2013, researcher Martha Lauzen found that:

“Females comprised 15% of protagonists, 29% of major characters and 30% of all speaking characters. Female characters remain younger than their male counterparts,” Lauzen writes. “The majority of female characters were in their 20s (26%) and 30s (28%). The majority of male characters were in their 30s (27%) and 40s (31%).”

The hard fact to face is that it’s easier for men to sustain careers in Hollywood simply because there are more roles for them. Whereas their trajectory into fame might remain pretty consistent, or even soar as they age, for women it’s more likely to decline (unless you’re Amy Adams). Paul Rudd, at the age of 45 is playing the hero in Marvel’s latest outing Ant-Man. Whereas the only superhero roles currently available to women are being assumed by the significantly younger Scarlett Johansson. For guys over 40 like Crowe, 55% of all male characters on screen are for guys who are his age or older. Flip the side of the coin, or undergo a sex change operation (and besides making headlines) he would discover the number of roles available to him decreases dramatically.

His comments also do a disservice to the fantastic actresses that do live in their own skin, and consistently turn in performances that celebrate the process of the ageing, and the complexities that come with it. Generalising actresses that are only in the market for youthful roles, neglects the fact that are many talented thesps besides Streep that showcase their capabilities, neuroses and wrinkles – and are all the more fantastic for doing so. Here are a handful of my favourite characters/role over 40 played by terrific, multi-faceted actresses over 40 in the past few years. From ball-busting bosses and gun-toting assassins, to pill-popping anti heroines and everything in between, these women are fierce, vulnerable, sharp-tongued, witty, acerbic, badass, and most of all, show strength in the face of adversity. They are role models not just for women their age, but for a younger generation of women and actresses who demand longevity out of their careers.

movies_skyfall_update_8‘M’ – Judi Dench (Skyfall, Casino Royale, Die Another Day, The World Is Not Enough)

Meryl Streep (Doubt, Mamma Mia, The Devil Wears Prada, The Iron Lady, It’s Complicated)051abba1MOS_468x641

‘Nic’ – Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right)

‘Dr. Alice Howland’ – Julianne Moore (Still Alice)

rotator_gravitycover‘Ryan Stone’ – Sandra Bullock (Gravity)

‘Penny Chenery’ – Diane Lane (Secretariat)

Kate’ – Catherine Keener (Please Give)

Helen Mirren (Gosford Park, The Queen, The Tempest, RED, Hitchcock)

‘Abby’ Rosemarie DeWitt (Touchy Feely)

‘P.L. Travers’ – Emma Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks)

19JPKITTREDGE2-articleLarge‘Olive Kitteridge’ – Frances McDormand (Olive Kitteridge)

‘Claire Bennett’ – Jennifer Aniston (Cake)

‘Liz Gilbert’ – Julia Roberts (Eat, Pray, Love) and ‘Barbara Weston’ (August: Osage County)

‘Maria’ – Naomi Watts (The Impossible)

jasbreakdown‘Jasmine’ – Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)

‘Elizabeth Taylor’ – Helena Bonham Carter (Burton and Taylor)

‘Cathy’ – Allison Janney – (The Oranges)

tilda-swinton-as-mason-in-snowpiercerTilda Swinton (Only Lovers Left Alive, Snowpiercer, The Grand Budapest Hotel)

Review: Still Alice

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Still Alice, US, 2014. DIR. Jonathan Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland. Starring: Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish.

Based on the 2007 novel by Lisa Genova, this Toronto Film Festival release places Julianne Moore at the centre of an emotional tour de force that illuminates the experience of Alzheimer’s disease.

Moore plays Alice Howland, a distinguished linguistics professor at Columbia University, who is particularly fascinated by the relationship between memory and communication. Signposting her demise from the get-go, the film carefully drops hints that Alice’s sharpness might be going blunt. A conversational mistake here and there, a name forgotten or a momentary fumbling for words. The stakes are immediately clear – this is a woman whose everyday existence depends and thrives on her grasping of language, just as she appears to be losing it.

KSF-SA2014Intellect is Alice’s currency, her way of understanding the world – she supports her daughter’s law career and her son’s medical career, but her youngest daughter’s aspirations to become an actor are deemed frivolous and unrealistic. Everything she has defined herself by centres around academia, and use of the mind. The devastation of Alice’s diagnosis of early onset Alzeheimer’s is compounded by the possibility of it being hereditary and the risk that if her children were carrier’s they would be 100% likely to also suffer from the disease. Eventually, when Alice’s lectures become increasingly erratic and muddled and she’s forced to let her employees know of her medical condition, so unravels a fear of being redundant and useless.

There is a quote from The Great Gatsby that seems to illustrate Alice’s experience well: “he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world… He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass”. Everything that seemed stable and simple now appears to her as strange or complex; her familiar sky has become incoherent. The film does a brilliant job of communicating this gradual deterioration of the mind.

When Alice goes for a run for example; she loses her bearings. Moore’s frightened and disoriented expression becomes all the powerful considering this is her normal, repeated route. Camera movement and cinematography firmly locate our perspective with Alice’s, employing blurred visuals and 360 degree rotations, as Alice becomes increasingly panicky, to simulate her sense of being untethered and utterly lost. This is also effectively contrasted throughout the film with crisp and focused close-ups; of ice on a branch, seashells in a bowl, etc., so when specifics become increasingly difficult for Alice to grasp and her mind become vague and unfocused, the cinematography becomes all the more potent.

It’s tempting to call Julianne Moore a revelation, because her performance is so convincing, nuanced and heart breaking. But of course, Moore has been giving us stalwart, versatile and brilliant performances for two decades. Her Alice is at once brave, terrified, defiant and practical about her inhibited future. As she painstakingly loses grip of her reality, Moore’s eyes become more vacant, her skin more colourless, her body cowers in frailty and vulnerability and finally, she loses her beloved words. It’s a transformative performance – physically and intellectually – that won’t fail to tug on your heart-strings.

Moore immaculately, and accurately, captures an experience of Alzheimer’s and the sheer degeneration of the mind that no-one can really prepare you for.

75-2Alec Baldwin meanwhile plays a subdued and supportive husband, whilst their three children: Anna, Tom and Lydia are depicted by Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish and Kristen Stewart respectively. As an ensemble they illuminate the variety of responses to dealing with Alzheimer’s, from obliviousness to compassion to pandering to the disease. In part down to the precision of the script, the cast provide impeccable, subtle support without ever stepping on Moore’s toes.

Stewart in particular reveals an attentiveness and vulnerability to her performance, as Lydia grows from being a distant, struggling actor to an emotional pillar of the family, and someone on whom Alice can rely. Her scenes with Moore are a testament to the virtue of stripped back storytelling, and together they articulate a stunning depiction of a mother-daughter relationship, tested by tensions, disparities and misunderstandings, but united by a profound love for one another.

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Still Alice also goes a long way to changing the perception of people living with Alzheimer’s. There’s a particularly heart-wrenching speech that Alice delivers at an ‘Alzheimer’s Association’ conference, which reveals her keen awareness of being patronised, ridiculed or victimised and how removed she becomes from the decision-making process which affects her life. But it’s in the quiet moments of despair and misrecognition that Still Alice is at its most compelling and devastating, when Alice suddenly mistakes Lydia for someone else or when her sense of time lapses. You can’t help but feel empathy and sadness for her struggle (it goes without saying that tissues should be close to hand).

The delicacy and sensitivity with which Alzheimer’s disease is realised could in part be down to the fact that writing/directing couplet Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland have had to deal with Glatzer’s diagnosis of ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Whilst Alzheimer’s attacks the mind, and ALS ravages motor-neurone functioning, their understanding of incremental setbacks and adjustments and of living with something that alters your perception of your self is very clear to see.

still-aliceThe soundtrack predominantly consists of piano or string compositions, which layer a melancholy into the narrative at times unnecessary. But there’s also a discordant buzzing or tense crescendo in moments of memory lapse or crisis, that reiterate Alice’s confusion, to terrifying and poignant effect. Integrated into the narrative are also snippet flashbacks of Alice’s childhood, distinguished by a sepia-toned and grainy effect, until they eventually blur to non-existentence. This compositional synaesthesia weaves colour, sound and editing into its exploration of the disease, and work to dramatic effect to create for the audience a tangible and visible emulation of Alice’s struggle. An especially striking compositional touch, was this shot to the right, where the several mirrors resonate with the idea that Alice perception of herself is fracturing.

Still Alice could be accused of putting a prettier face on the disease, choosing the elegant, athletic and 50 year old Moore, as opposed to a more senile protagonist. And in doing so suggesting that is somehow more painful and more of a loss to get Alzheimer’s when you’re well educated, middle-class and have everything to live for. Whoever you are and whatever ever age you are, the gradual disintegration of your memories and of all you’ve accumulated in life, is a harrowing experience to endure.

But ultimately, this is Alice’s story and by extension, Moore’s film. A story of one individual whose self-assurance and control is eroded, whose ability to remember and recall is lost, but whose intelligence and vitality will be remembered by her family, and whose memories are never entirely forgotten.

Verdict: One of the most understated, powerful and shattering films of the year. Julianne Moore gives herself over to portraying Alice and perhaps much like the disease’ effect on her, this adaptation will leave you speechless.

 

Review: The Imitation Game

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The Imitation Game, UK, 2014. DIR. Morten Tyldum. Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Charles Dance, Mark Strong,

You’d be forgiven for not having heard of Alan Turing. Until 2013, when the Queen granted this wartime cryptanalyst and mathematician a royal pardon, he had all but been omitted from the history books.

imitation-game-2014-001-group-around-benedict-cumberbatch-on-enigma-machineThis biopic seeks to correct that. Partitioned into three segments: his time at Sherbourne School in Dorset, during which he was builled; his ground-breaking and astounding contributions to deciphering the German Enigma code during WW2 and his tragic conviction of ‘ gross indecency’ that led to chemical castration and ultimately, suicide, in 1954. Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game is a belated and beloved recognition of the man that history forgot.

Demanding our attention from the get-go, Tyldum combines enthralling thriller with tasteful period drama in equal measure. Naval bombings collide with cucumber sandwiches, Nazi superiority with walks in the stunning British countryside and Soviet spies with pints in the pub. It makes for a biopic that is surprisingly amusing, and frequently heart-pounding.

imageIt’s testament to screenwriter Graham Moore and Tyldum’s slick, pacy direction that that a set-up where we ultimately know the outcome, can feel so tense and emotionally heightened. As Turing battles authorities and naysayers to build his painstakingly crafted enigma-deciphering machine Christopher, I could feel my fists clenching in the hope the cogs would eventually stop to signify a cracked code.

Alongside all the calculations, computers and cryptography, this is a film dealing very much with relationships and humanity. Alex Lawther plays young Alan Turing with incredible pathos, as a boy struggling to connect with his classmates. Whilst Turing’s later interactions with his Bletchley Park colleagues provide some much needed humour amid WW2 woes.

Despite all these ingredients spelling out masterpiece, I can’t help but feel we’re two letters short of the truth. The Imitation Game skates around the periphery of the sensitive subject matter and dives headfirst into safe, saccharine territory. There are clichés in abundance and each moment of dramatic intensity is orchestrated to the point of contrivance. The moment during which a relative of one of the code-breakers is on a naval ship about to be bombed, you find Tyldum and co. hammering home this conflict just a tad too indelicately.

Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation GameThe Imitation Game is as calculating and tightly-woven as the Turing machine itself – almost to the point of robotic predictability. Economical in it’s dispatch of narrative strands and executed with the extraordinary precision seen in Tyldum’s first film, the slick Norwegian thriller ‘Headhunters’, my only wish is that the film had coloured outside of the lines just once.

That’s not to say the film doesn’t deliver when it comes to emotional climaxes or generating sympathy for this hitherto historically neglected figure, but rather it never trusts the audience to glean its emotional complexity without first spelling it out. Almost like a teacher consistently reminding you to ‘show us how you got there’ when doing Maths problems.

Screenwriter Graham Moore, believes firmly in the rule of three and forgoes nuance for a rather cumbersome repetition of the film’s central tenet: “sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.” Indeed, it goes through various stages of transformation and takes on different meanings, but the underlying feeling is that Moore prefers clarity as cut-glass as the British accents that feature than any possibility of ambiguity or interpretation.

Some films that err on the side of caution, as arguably this biopic does, are elevated by central performances of overwhelming conviction and magnetism. Daniel Day Lewis in Lincoln is one such example. Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing is another.

To say Cumberbatch completely immerses himself in this role seems flippant. Turing’s clipped vowels, curt mannerisms and anti-social behaviours are mastered with beguiling ease. And as the stakes are raised, his intellectual capabilities, vulnerabilities and the tragic, climactic result of gross mistreatment are conveyed with the assured and poignant dexterity of a man at the height of his game. The point at which Turing tries to push poor Joan Clarke away reveals the many layers to Cumberbatch’s performance, one for which he fully deserves that much hyped Oscar nomination.

183367Keira Knightley too, elevates the film and seems at her most comfortable when playing distressed individuals in period dramas. And the character of Joan Clarke provides ample opportunity for her to demonstrate the compassion, subtlety and wit of which she is capable. Knightley’s Clarke exudes warmth, vivacity and the frustration of a woman frequently underestimated.

There is steadfast support from the likes of Matthew Goode, Charles Dance, Mark Strong and Allen Leech, as various cogs in the code-breaking machine. Though their characters are all relatively one-note caricatures, they are no-less charming for it.

The look and sound of the film are exquisitely composed. The soundtrack is delivered courtesy of the genius that is Alexandre Desplat, of ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ fame. He underscores the intensity and urgency of certain situations with great style, and the rhythmic, pulsating feel of the score seems to resemble the high-wired, methodical nature of Turing’s mind. It’s far more constant and elegant than his quirky work on Wes Anderson’s latest, but in that regard it suits the film perfectly.

Meanwhile, the cinematography effervescently captures crisp, autumnal British weather and the soft-focus lighting makes it ideal for Sunday afternoon viewing. Oscar Faura has given us something utterly sumptuous and pristine to look at, and Bletchley Park has perhaps never looked so alive.

imitation-game-2Grumblings about brushing Turing’s homosexuality under the carpet have been voiced. Indeed, whilst open to his colleagues and to Joan about his sexuality, we never see him act upon or necessarily confront these desires. Instead they are given credence – and innocence – during a flashback to Turing’s childhood when a close friendship develops into something potentially more. And then sidelined somewhat to focus on the blossoming intellectual companionship between Turing and Clarke. Once again, heterosexuality is championed as being the safer, and more lucrative option.

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And yet for all this potential criticism, Tyldum has delivered a thoroughly entertaining, thoroughly British and thoroughly engrossing depiction of the events at Bletchley Park that altered history. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t leave the cinema wiping away stray tears. But for a man as unique, eccentric and brilliant as Alan Turing, it all feels rather, well, tame

Verdict: A paint-by-numbers biopic, comparable to ‘a beginners guide’ to Alan Turing. Nevertheless, this is a memorable and poignant cinematic experience, featuring a career best turn from Benedict.

Benedict Cumberbatch to Receive Variety Award at BIFAs

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It’s a big year for Benedict Cumberbatch. To say that he currently appears to be the most in demand actor in the business seems both obvious, and an understatement. Not only is he garnering significant Oscar buzz for his role as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, but the news was just awash with his recent engagement to British theatre director Sophie Hunter (in an admirably discreet and classy submission to The Times ‘forthcoming marriages’ section).

And now a press release details that he is to be honoured at the 2014 British Independent Film Awards on 7th December. Alongside his nomination for Best Actor, he will receive The Variety Award, which historically “recognises a director, actor, writer or producer who has helped to focus the international spotlight on the UK”.

THE IMITATION GAMEThe Imitation Game has also been nominated at the British Independent Film Awards for British independent film; screenplay for Graham Moore and actress for Keira Knightley.

Considering that Cumberbatch is the UK’s most illustrious and acclaimed (or any other superlative you might care to label him with) export of late and has 7 films in production, as well as a hotly-anticipated role as Hamlet in the Barbican’s 2015 production of Shakespeare’s renowned play, this award seems well-justified.

Cumberbatch commented: “I am delighted to receive this prestigious award and would like to thank Variety and The Moët British Independent Film Awards for this incredible honour. It is made even more special by the recognition of The Imitation Game in this year’s nominations, a film I am very proud to be a part of.”

At various press conferences for The Imitation Game, Cumberbatch has played down the anticipation that he might receive an Oscar nomination and claimed that as long as it shines a light on Turing’s work, or creates greater interest in The Imitation Game, then he is happy.

The Variety Award was bestowed upon Paul Greengrass last year and has previously been awarded to Jude Law, Kenneth Branagh, Liam Neeson, Sir Michael Caine, Daniel Craig, Dame Helen Mirren and Richard Curtis to name a few.

imagesCumberbatch’s ascent to mega-stardom seemed to begin with his portrayal of the hyper-intellectual Sherlock Holmes in the BBC series, and continued with roles in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Star Trek: Into Darkness, Parade’s End and last year’s Academy Award Best Picture, 12 Years a Slave.

So far this year, Cumberbatch has been filming Black Mass, playing Bill Bulger alongside Johnny Depp, and Shere Khan in Andy Serkis’ Jungle Book. He is also part of the voice-cast in DreamWorks Animation’s Penguins of Madagascar, which is released later this year.

He is currently shooting The Hollow Crown for the BBC and Neal Street Productions, in which he plays Richard III alongside Judi Dench. Next he will shoot Lost City of Z, directed by James Gray and based on David Grann’s novel, where he will play British explorer Percy Fawcett, who set out to discover the City of Z in the Amazon in the 1920s.

If one thing seems certain, it’s that this spotlight won’t be fading soon.

Review: White Bird In A Blizzard

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DIR. Gregg Araki. Starring: Shailene Woodley, Eva Green, Christopher Meloni, Shiloh Fernandez, Thomas Jane, Angela Bassett

As the apt title suggests, this adaptation of the Laura Kasischke’s novel, deals in ephemerality, absence and the unknown.

Set in the Fall/Winter of 1988 and exploring the well-trodden road of dissatisfactory suburbia, director Gregg Araki almost drowns his audience with the mood of melancholia. Our protagonist is Kat Connors (Shailene Woodley), a gothic, waif-like figure who shares her friends desire to get out of this dead-end town and finds escape in music, booze and sex with her simple, stoner boyfriend (Shiloh Fernandez).

Constantly framing isolations; a lone car in a car park against a whitewashed background; the singular figure of Kat walking down a deserted road, the film aches with detachment and misunderstanding. The colours are all but saturated and the characters uniformly plod along on a conveyer belt of misspent youth and unrealised dreams.

Kat’s father (Christopher Meloni) is a meek and easily pleased man, whilst her phantom-like mother Eve (a snarling Eva Green) drifts into alcoholism and madness, as the banality of her life becomes too much to bear. Until one day she disappears altogether.

MV5BMTEwOTY0MjY4MjBeQTJeQWpwZ15BbWU4MDg4OTQ5NDIx._V1_SX214_AL_And so the mysterious element of the plot kicks in, sadly missing the vital ingredient of mystery. Kat is surprisingly calm and treats the episode as a bit of a breather from her suffocating-verging-on-stalkerish mother, whilst the detective put on the case (Thomas Jane), seems more intent on responding to Kat’s seductions than looking for Eve. Even Kat’s friends unsubtly point out they’d harboured suspicions all along, so when her dubiety kicks in they literally spout, ‘I told you that ages ago’.

Skip forward to the Spring of 1991 and Kat’s gone to college, but is still haunted by frequent and disturbing dreams of her mother. Her therapist (an underused Angela Bassett) tells her they mean nothing, but Kat’s suspicions and unanswered questions mount.

Eerie acoustics mixed with epic anthems of the 80s/90s, make for an atmospheric effect, at once nostalgic and haunting. Whilst the narrative attempts to slowly build an air of unease, like a sedate game of Cluedo, or an even longer True Detective.

The ending therefore is a disappointing mix of hasty exposition and a twist that literally comes out of nowhere. It feels almost as if the filmmakers were shooting footage alongside reading the novel, and suddenly realised they hadn’t laid any groundwork for the big finale. That’s not to say, this isn’t at times an effective and compelling film. Just that once the pieces of the puzzle fall into place, there’s a sense you bought the defective box with more than a few pieces missing.

Shailene Woodley, however, does a great job with the material she’s given and proves she’s one of the best actresses working today… Who can cry on cue. But seriously, she a very natural performer and builds on her increasingly versatile resume with her mix of angst-y adolescence and damaged soul.

Eva Green, meanwhile, whilst not entirely convincing as a suburban housewife (still exuding all the glamour that made her a perfect Vesper Lynd), does her best impression of a time bomb. As boredom mounts to desperation and increasingly oddball antics, Green sizzles with both menace and fragility. However, she predominantly appears in Kat’s surreal dreams and often feels like little more than a set piece, wheeled out for special occasions.

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Indeed, the entire film oozes with an illusory nature, as if you might be watching one long, extended dream sequence. In fact there’s something distinctly Lynchian about the texture of absurdity and surrealism that weaves together in the fabric of this story (further confirmed by a cameo from Sheryl Lee). All the while disguising itself as a coming-of-age story built around a family mystery, the ending may just confirm its true identity as a slightly bizarre black comedy. It’s just a shame the comedy element is as absent as Eve.

As Kat muses about her vacant boyfriend, “when you scratch beneath the surface, it’s just more surface”, it rings true with this adaptation. The icy indifference that bubbles under the surface of the Connors’ marriage eventually transcends off the screen and what could’ve had you shouting at the screen ‘someone must know something?!’ ends with a disappointing shrug of one’s shoulders.

Verdict: A confused, but occasionally effective thriller. Woodley is as watchable as ever, but Araki’s eleventh film will leave an impression as long as a footprint in snowfall.

Essay: Why we’ll never get rom-coms to change.

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The rom-com continually tells us that perfection exists. And thus, often sets up unrealistic expectations for love and relationships.

I saw the film What If somewhat recently and found myself perturbed by the nauseatingly perfect ending. This is a film that spent a good deal of its narrative time setting up the implausibility of Wallace (Daniel Ratcliffe) and Chantry’s (Zoe Kazan) union. After all, she had a long-term boyfriend and he didn’t want to be the jerk to come between them. But the ending, with its musings on marriage and love lasting forever reverses any sense of originality hitherto established. Sure, it’s quirky and offbeat, peppered with cutesy animations and macabre witticisms. Yet, for all it’s intentions to carve out a new territory in rom-com history, where a man and a woman could just be friends, or where marriage doesn’t have to be the ending, it fell at the last hurdle into a hackneyed puddle of traditionalism. Which begs the question, will rom-coms ever change? Even those deemed the most original and self-reflexive seemingly can’t help but reinstate conservative values.

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Girls Night In: Wine, PJs, and a Rom-Com?

The romantic comedy is the genre most frequently relegated to the ‘guilty pleasure’ league; associated with girls nights’ in, boyfriends being dragged unwillingly to the cinema and accompanied with a glass of wine and a box of tissues. Commonly known as a chick-flick (a term denigrated by connotations with effeminacy, sentimentality and melodrama), these are the films berated as ‘fluff’ that we turn to when we wish to mindlessly, passively consume a piece of entertainment; to switch off from all that is real and serious and indulge in pure escapism. For decades, the rom-com has been positioned as the zenith of a utopian cinematic experience, as possessing solely the capability to reaffirm our belief in true love, but doing nothing to subvert, challenge or provoke. In recent years, several films have been released – chief among them 500 Days of Summer – that engage with the shifting culture of courtship and aim to depict relationships more realistically. However I would argue that the contemporary romantic comedy, though flaunting complexity, reflexivity and originality, and flouting traditional modes of representation, is merely the same present in different wrapping paper. Some examples that come to mind – Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Save the Date, I Give It a Year, Peace Love & Misunderstanding, Going the Distance. They all point to difficulties in relationships and marriage and try to undermine the notion that ‘forever’ is really forever. And yet, problematically, they all revert to the sense that happiness can never be truly achieved without a significant other. They perpetuate the myth of ‘the one’. No matter how strong the claim to difference and challenging generic and cultural norms, these films reinstate the power of the couple, the valorisation of love to functionality and normality and that deviance from this pattern results in unhappiness. Ultimately we leave the cinema with a heightened awareness that relationships aren’t easy, but that ‘the one’ will materialise anyway. I would argue that the romantic comedy is more complex than historically-defined, yet ultimately restores dominant values and seemingly can’t help but do so, as central to its very plot is the notion of meeting someone with whom to fall in love. nick-and-norah2Another generic trait seen in rom-coms is the idea that the couple are meant to be together and that their personalities are perfect matched – either because of common interests, or because opposites attract. In Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2009, Peter Sollett), Kat Dennings’ character seems attracted to Michael Cera on the sole basis she shares his music taste and enjoys the mixed tapes he’s been compiling for an ex-girlfriend. In Serendipity (2001, Peter Chelsom), the meet-cute between Jonathan (John Cusack) and Sara (Kate Beckinsale) occurs in Bloomingdale’s as they both try to purchase the same pair of cashmere gloves. This narrative contrivance is indicative of paths aligned, a moment of destiny that these two people were absolutely meant to meet. Rom-coms perpetuate the notion that there is a male glove to fit every female hand and that the compatibilities and connection between the two protagonists is enough to prevail over any narrative obstacles. In 500 Days, this is immediately shot down by Tom’s 12-year old sister who asserts that “just because a girl likes the same bizarro crap as you doesn’t make her your soulmate”. Moreover, the narrative fragmentation and flashbacks serve to show how these compatibilities can deteriorate. Tom and Summer bond over shared jokes in IKEA, their love of The Smiths and vinyl records and whereas, conventionally this might be played over a montage to convince the audience of the couple’s inherent perfection for one another, 500 Days replays these scenes to depict how the jokes become stale and that these sparks, that rom-coms convince us are enough to sustain a relationship, can begin to fade and grate. 500 Days is, in some respects, unconventional and more complicated as it reveals an inherent distrust of the durability of the relationship. Indeed, my favourite moment of the film occurs when Tom’s expectations are pitted against the reality in a split-screen sequence, underscoring it’s belief that true love is perhaps a fantasy. Moreover, 500 Days continually attempts to foreground its diegetic realism; emphasising that the characters inhabit the real world, as opposed to the utopian fantasy world of stereotypical rom-com characters. Indeed, Tom laments to his two best friends that ‘it’s off’ between him and Summer, though could’ve been ‘on’ “in a world where good things happens”. His friend replies “that’s not really where we live [though]”, as if to ensure the audience are aware 500 Days operates outside of rom-com normality and takes places in the same world as they inhabit. This tone persists to the denouement wherein the opening scene, day (488), plays again, but now with the audience awareness that the relationship has failed and Tom and Summer were simply not meant to be together. As Katherine Glitre asserts, “the fact of the happy ending has conventionally been understood by critics to prove the conservative nature of the genre; a movement from stability through disruption to the reaffirmation of the status quo” (1). Henceforth, that Tom and Summer don’t end up together would confirm the unconventionality of the film and a subversion to our expectations for the genre. And yet, equally, it does exist in a world where we are expected to suspend disbelief at the fact he meets a girl called ‘Autumn’ after things with Summer ended. Furthermore, diversion from a standard happy ending is hardly a panacea to the ills of the romantic comedy. That Summer converts from cynic and anti-relationship proponent to the married woman believing in fate alludes to the underlying conservatism of 500 Days, and its reversion to generic norms. Whilst 500 Days eschews traditional narrative methods, it still invokes the possibility of a happy ending. Though not achieved between our two protagonists, Summer gets married to her ‘Mr. Right’ and Tom’s encounter with Autumn promises transition and achievement (a new season, a new job). It’s as if 500 Days functions as the prequel to two different love stories. One can easily imagine Summer’s story as to how she met her husband “reading Dorian Gray in a deli” as the meet-cute for a more standard rom-com. Though they weren’t right for each other, Summer’s final revelation authenticates the film’s belief that fate does exist and that had she not been sitting there on that particular day, she would never have met her husband. Steve Neale (1992) has pointed you've got mail benchout that, “the wrong person provokes the learning process, which the protagonist must undergo in order to realize a successful relationship”. This is seen in You’ve Got Mail, wherein Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) and Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) begin the film in relationship with other people ill-suited to them or lacking in passion, as if to provide the justification behind their covert-bordering-on-adulterous-conversations and instigate the learning process that they are better off together. Equally, in When Harry Met Sally, Harry and Sally are set up with mutual friends on a date, however the friends have more in common with each other and therefore act as the ‘wrong people’ for Harry and Sally to realise they are meant to be together. Tom Hansen is Summer Finn’s ‘wrong person’ and thus the film relocates the focus of the typical rom-com, but still utilises certain conventions. Arguably the success of the rom-com now lies in a retelling of a traditional narrative with a heroine, or protagonist who eschews Hollywood convention and is more relatable. This can be observed in Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001, Sharon Maguire), in which Renee Zellweger plays the slightly overweight, unlucky in love, every-woman with whom we can sympathise exponentially more than a leggy Julia Roberts, for instance. They may both, ultimately be rewarded with their version of a fairty-tale ending, but the rom-com’s allegiance to utopia is traded in for a grittier, and more honest, portrayal of love in a contemporary context.

Female characters nowadays tend to reflect a more forward-thinking romantic comedy that isn’t afraid to allow women to dictate their own lives and pursue sexual desires.

500-days-of-summer-24Deschanel’s Summer initiates their physical relationship when kissing Tom in the copy room, as opposed to the traditional belief that a girl should wait for the guy to make the first move and is shown to know her own mind: “I’m just not comfortable being somebody’s girlfriend. I don’t want to be anybody’s anything”. Summer makes a change from the ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ who permeates a raft of contemporary romantic comedies, serving the purpose of merely helping the male protagonist realise his own dreams. Although the criticism of vapid eccentricity and constructed kookiness is often levelled at Zooey Deschanel and in 500 Days she often encourages Tom to pursue his architectural ambition, she also refuses to be his supporting role and breaks out of the mould of ‘ideal woman’ that Tom cocoons her in. She very explicitly states that she only wanted a casual relationship and does not stick around for the purpose of giving meaning to Tom’s life. Nevertheless, even the modern woman requires a man to ‘complete’ her. Or so rom-coms would have us believe. Most films of this quirky, whimsical ilk (look to Save the Date for a frustrating example), go to great measures to depict their female protagonists as strong, independent women, resistant to conformity and the oppressions or conventions that a relationship might impose. And yet more often than not, these women come running back to a man. Sure, in Going the Distance, Drew Barrymore did it on her terms and much like the love story between Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester it was about the equality between sexes and achieving a balance, rather than advocating singledom as the way forward. Yet I can’t help but feel that the modern woman has become a scapegoat for conservatism, a way for rom-coms to appease a younger, flirtier and more liberated audience, whilst still espousing the belief that love conquers all.. Having discussed the various factors that contribute to the conventions of the rom-com, I now wish to explore the appeal of this genre, as here is where the engrained belief of the rom-com as a guilty pleasure lies and still exists rampantly. Gerald Mast explains that the films in the genre create a comic climate through a series of cues to the audience: subject matters are treated as trivial…and characters are protected from harm. Even though the drama poses serious problems, such as choosing a life partner, the process appears light-hearted, anticipating a positive resolution. 500Therefore, the appeal of the rom-com lies in our preconceived belief that we will get a happy ending. We don’t want surprises in this genre – perhaps diversions or digressions – but as long as it comes good, we’ll be satisfied. I believe audiences are complicit in the rom-com’s occupation of this academic space, and preserve its connotations with easy, uncomplicated viewing. I tested this view by asking several friends and peers to comment on their opinion of the romantic-comedy – whether they found it to reinforce stereotypes, or rather reflect a realistic and refreshing portrayal of modern love. This provided a varied qualitative response, which is at odds with much of the academic criticism I have read and overwhelmingly situated the rom-com as pure entertainment or sleepover fodder; the appeal being they can be trusted to deliver saccharine escapism. The problem with the rom-com then is that it’s very genre expectations appear to undermine complexity – the happy ending being intrinsic to the rom and a cheerful tone required for the com. The assumption of cultural lowliness that has traditionally accompanied the genre has led most to reduce romantic comedies to guilty pleasures, an “unworthy” object of analysis for academics who generally belittled it either by omission or simply through plain derision, regarding it as simplistic, predictable and hopelessly associated with a conservative view of love and marriage. Indeed, the rom-com is an apolaustic genre with an ingrained expectation for a contented or uplifting feeling upon viewing. 1 Despite moulding conventions to suit a new era, where casual relationships are de rigeur, as well as being very much aware that its creating a love story – or not, as 500 Days would have us believe, at its core this film retains the formulaic sentiment that somehow once you’ve found the person you’re meant to be with (suddenly Summer ‘just knows’ what she was never sure of with Tom), your life will fall into place. It’s for this reason that I deem 500 Days of Summer (and those that attempted to imitate its success) to play by rom-com rules – even if recycling them. Though attempting to challenge it’s audience and try to display love and relationships in a more authentic way; their heart of gold, upbeat tempo and feel-good music leaves us feeling very much like we watched a good old rom-com.

Review: The Pretty One

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The Pretty One, 2014.

DIR. Jenee LaMarque. Starring: Zoe Kazan, Jake Johnson, John Carroll Lynch, Ron Livingston, Shae D’lyn, Frankie Shaw, Sterling Beaumon

Upon reading the plot to this film – twin sisters Laurel and Audrey are involved in a car accident, whereupon Laurel takes the identity of her now-dead but more popular sister – you would be forgiven for giving it a miss on the basis of sheer ridiculous. Somehow, however, the film succeeds in pulling off this premise with relative aplomb.

I suspect this is in part down to the likeability of the lead actress who plays both sisters, Zoe Kazan.

After a sparkling breakout performance in Ruby Sparks, Kazan has cornered the market for slightly awkward, but adorable love interest. And The Pretty One is no exception.

audrey laurelWe meet Laurel first. As she’s losing her virginity. To the boy she used to babysit. Mousy, painfully shy and a penchant for wearing her dead mother’s dresses, she asks her male companion if their tryst makes them boyfriend and girlfriend. He laughs. She’s not joking. Unkempt, unconfident and underestimated, Laurel has settled for  helping her widowed father (John Carroll Lynch) with his painting-forgery business.

Audrey, meanwhile, exudes sexiness and self-assurance. Having fled the nest when their mother died, she has her own apartment, a job as a real estate broker selling “storybook houses,” and a sharp dress sense. It’s not hard to see why Laurel might want to switch places, a la Mary-Kate and Ashley in most of their films. A tragic car-crash becomes the perfect vehicle for this desire when the hospital confuses the twins and Laurel sets about adjusting to life as Audrey.

One of the reasons the film works despite this underlying implausibility (surely someone would realise?) is by acknowledging our doubts. When Laurel gets a haircut that exactly imitates Audrey’s wavy ombre do, Audrey’s reaction is believably aghast and irritated. Similarly, Laurel (as Audrey) is on the precipice of bean-spilling, but her family have nothing but put-downs and silence to offer about Laurel. Her stepmother even goes so far as to say ‘it’s better this way’. Though we might not agree with Laurel’s choice, her alternatives are slim.

Moving into her late sister’s apartment and taking over her job, Laurel covers up her odd behaviour and general lack of knowledge about her own life, by feigning post-traumatic amnesia. She soon discovers the flaws Audrey tried so hard to mask – an affair with an intense married man (Ron Livingston – his allure turned on full) and a feud with her next-door neighbour/tenant, whom she was about to evict – the awkward and roguishly charming Basel (Jake Johnson). Increasingly drawn to the latter, Laurel quickly finds herself in a pickle; falling in love with a man who is falling in love with her, as her twin.

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The screenplay contains contrivances that are to be expected when dealing with this kind of plot and director/writer Jenne LaMarque doesn’t entirely succeed in selling it. That being said, the screenplay exhibits some darkly comic and intelligent touches – Laurel attends a “Twins Without Twins” support group, a cover version of the Tootsie theme song plays during the end credits and as Laurel finally learns to be happy in her own skin, she quits art-imitation and starts to paint some originals.

theprettyone1That the film is so watchable is largely attributable to Kazan, who movingly conveys Laurel’s predicament and desperation to be more like Audrey. (Her wardrobe is also highly enviable). Also, praise-worthy are Johnson, of Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies and New Girl fame, putting in another relaxed, likeable and comedic performance, whose warmth and charm convince Laurel to confront her façade. And Lynch, the father who struggles to come to terms with the loss of his two daughters, and exhibiting genuine pathos as he does so.

Verdict: At times laboured and contrived, this otherwise cute film transforms a dark (and potentially sociopathic) premise into a charismatic and heartfelt story of self-discovery.

 

Review: The Invisible Woman

The Invisible Woman
The Invisible Woman, 2013. DIR. Ralph Fiennes. Starring: Felicity Jones, Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Tom Hollander, Joanna Scanlan

Despite being Ralph Fiennes’ second directorial effort, with himself starring as acclaimed novelist, philanthropist and public figure Charles Dickens, this is the story of how Nelly Ternan became his lover, and this is Felicity Jones’ film.

It is she that the film opens and closes with, as we find Nelly operating under a different name, working as a teacher and telling her husband Dickens was a childhood acquaintance. It is her anguish, isolation and desire that the Abi Morgan penned (based on Claire Tomalin’s novel) biopic explores and through her position as Dickens’ lover, muse and confidante that we discover the women that lived in the shadow of a national treasure.

From the moment we observe Nelly’s all-black ensemble, slightly aged face and brisk walking pace across a vast and empty beach, there is a sense of her being haunted by the past. Thus, when the film takes us back to Dickens’ and Nelly’s first meeting, there interaction thereafter is tainted with the torment and tragedy that is to follow.

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Felicity Jones turns in a mesmerising, heart-wrenching performance as the beguiling ingénue, who captivates the self-absorbed Dickens with her clarity and sensitivity. Her subtlety and sadness match the tone of the film perfectly, both saying more in glances stolen, and secrets untold.

The scenes between Nelly and Charles are refreshingly non-sexual, and focus on their intellectual compatibility rather than their bedroom antics. Indeed, one particular scene that sees Nelly torn between her love for Charles and her social reputation shows incredible restraint in not allowing the protagonists to kiss. The longing gazes and yearning caresses are tantalisingly painful to watch; the characters almost afraid to cross a line from which there is no turning back.

After flamboyant, vivid turns in The Grand Budapest Hotel and Coriolanus, Fiennes demonstrates his versatility as both a director, and actor, who has accomplished restraint and delicacy in his treatment of this romantic partnership. His Charles’ is vexing, cruel, and narcissistic; a man who boards up half of his house to physically separate himself from his long-suffering wife Catherine, who admits he loves his audience more than his family. And yet, his passion, joie de vivre, and seemingly genuine interest in the welfare of the underclass, allows us to understand Nelly’s attraction to him. the-invisible-woman-2013-img01

Their relationship is at once paternalistic (a facet perhaps aided by the fact Fiennes and Jones played father and daughter in 2010’s Cemetery Junction) and tender. Conversations had by candlelight and secluded country walks cement a romanticism, rather than perversity to their pairing – she was 18, and he 45 when they met. And both actors bring these real people back to life with assurance, charm and poignancy.

Fantastic support is found in the performances of Kristin Scott-Thomas, as Nelly’s reluctantly complicit mother; Tom Hollander, as Dickens’ friend and colleague – himself living with a mistress and finally, and the astounding Joanna Scanlan as Dicken’s rejected wife. Her finest moment comes when she is forced to confront Nelly upon Charles’ order to deliver a present to her. Ouch, indeed.

The pacing of the film is almost irritatingly languid, with Fiennes choosing to focus a great deal more on their introduction and gradual getting to know one another, rather than their actual relationship – which is in fact boiled down to the denouement.

Nevertheless, the film manages to wonderfully capture the Victorian era, replete with 4am revelry, the poverty of the working class and the restrictions and shame that women were subjected to. And as with many period dramas that detail the difficult of a forbidden affair, potency is found in the moments and words left unsaid. Fiennes’ acknowledges this to devastating effect.

Verdict: Assured and sensitive, there are echoes of ‘Bright Star’ and ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ as Fiennes’ painstakingly unravels the makings of a forgotten muse. With a keen grasp of the novelist’s talent and influence, as well as the era, The Invisible Woman makes for an aesthetically pleasing and engaging, if not entirely pleasurable cinematic experience.

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.