12 Years a Slave Review – Definitive Docudrama


Director: Steve McQueen 

Writer: John Ridley (screenplay), Solomon Northup (book)

Stars: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano


Release date: January 10th, 2014

Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 134 minutes


 

5/5

Best part: McQueen’s direction.

Worst part: The slightly exasperating run-time.

Docudramas, popular during Oscar season, take exasperating true stories and transform them into celluloid masterpieces. From small-screen mini-series’ to big-screen historical epics, these docudramas strive to inspire, inform, and enlighten. This description may seem clichéd, but the information is necessary and appropriate for this review. Docudramas, despite the vast number of them released each Oscar season, provide interesting insights into shocking and influential events. Several holocaust, slave, and war dramas – 1977 TV special Roots, in particular – have re-shaped Hollywood conventions. Before heading into highly anticipated slave-drama 12 Years a Slave, filmgoers must understand just how inhuman and confronting this topic is.

Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Though this topic has been depicted before, this exasperating and meaningful docudrama is significantly more astonishing and enrapturing than this season’s other docudramas. 12 Years a Slave becomes a truly enthralling experience!Based on Solomon Northup’s influential 1853 memoir of the same name, 12 Years a Slave chronicles Northup’s painful, revelatory, and transcendent journey against all odds. Despite the colossal preconceptions, viewers should drop their guards before absorbing this artistic endeavour. The story kicks off in in Saragota Springs, New York in 1841, with Northup embracing his enviable and likeable existence. Living a peaceful life with his wife and two children, his financial, spiritual, and moral wealth becomes irreplaceable. Hurriedly, he’s offered a fruitful gig with a travelling circus by two advantageous figures, Brown (Scoot McNairy) and Hamilton (Taran Killam). After an infectious celebratory dinner, Northup is drugged, kidnapped, and sold to slave owners for a hefty profit. Tortured, abused, and re-named “Platt” by his captors, Northup must stick close to his fellow prisoners whilst avoiding his masters’ violent bursts. Shipped from Washington DC to Louisiana, Northup comes across malicious slave trader Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti). With Freeman’s despicable personality inflicting his ‘property’, slave owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) saves Northup from Freeman’s overwhelming grasp. Sharing bible passages and gracefully interacting with his workers, Ford becomes a kind-hearted and honourable plantation owner. However, the plantation’s other inhabitants aren’t impressed with Northup’s presence and skills. With the other slaves keeping to themselves, the white employees treat their black counterparts with disdain. Pushed to breaking point by disgraceful carpenter John Tibeats (Paul Dano), Northup, after beating Tibeats, seeks Ford’s council. Ford, believing Northup to be an honourable individual, trades him to fellow slave owners Edwin and Mary Epps (Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson). Coming across downtrodden slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) and carpenter Bass (Brad Pitt), Northup must defend himself and seek justice during his time under the Epps’ control.

Michael Fassbender.

The bible, for a text so heavily lauded and practiced by people across the world, describes slavery as a natural condition. In fact, verse one, Peter 2:18 specifically states: “Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh”. Every so often, a Hollywood production comes along that illustrates cinema’s over-whelming power and potential. Breaking down cultural preconceptions and social barriers, 12 Years a Slave compromises between ambitious moviemaking and its heart-wrenching story. This docudrama, forming a unique, potent, and tangible identity, wholly detaches itself from the Hollywood system. Wholeheartedly, it deserves its already overwhelming critical and commercial success. This courageous docudrama explores controversial and sickening depths. This extraordinary and intelligent artistic achievement enhances cinema’s courageousness and tenacity. Escaping from cinema’s commercial, moral, and ethical confines, this experience violently buries itself under the skin and into the mind. Here, we are exposed to a disturbing and despicable period of human history. With Slave-dramas normally classed as Oscar bait, this narrative removes the genre’s manipulative and obvious trappings. Embracing its prestigious opportunities and glorious advantages, the movie paints an honest and distressing portrait of one of history’s bleakest periods. The story immediately states is discomfortingly direct intentions and startlingly solid viewpoints. With Northup’s journey being a profound, terrifying, and heartbreaking tale, the movie examines vital periods and facets of his fascinating existence. During his twelve-year ordeal on four plantations, Northup’s tale becomes a heartbreaking reminder of mankind’s most disgusting shades. The movie considerately and thoughtfully chronicles Northup’s inconsolable transition from respected upper-middle class citizen, to broken object, to deprived yet honourable slave. Northup, with his ideologies and identity traits destroyed during several violent beatings, becomes a blank slate for white upper-class men to contort, distort, and manipulate.

Benedict Cumberbatch.

Director Steve McQueen (HungerShame) is unafraid to inject his own ideologies, morals, and principles into this chilling narrative arc. Throughout this gritty slave-drama, McQueen defines history, religion, and entertainment as life’s more note-worthy aspects. Despite holding onto Steven Spielberg’s emotionally gripping story-telling ticks, McQueen turns this brutal slave-drama into a confronting, visceral, and philosophical masterpiece. Eclipsing Spielberg’s The Colour PurpleSchindler’s ListLincoln, and Amistad12 Years a Slave  exclaims that man was, is, and will always be Earth’s greatest and yet most deplorable creature. With humans controlling, harming, and tricking one another throughout time, the movie depicts and describes our worst tendencies without blaming the audience. Slave owners, whether they were good samaritans or psychopathic Neanderthal-like monsters, eternally condemned themselves through obvious malpractices. Modern cinema’s greatest Black directors, including McQueen, Spike Lee, Lee Daniels, and Ryan Coogler, create thought-provoking dramas heartily discussing race, gender, class, and the human condition. This ambitious and emotionally powerful slave-drama, living up to the true story’s emphatic potential, is bolstered by McQueen’s uncompromising direction. Directing with brains, braun, heart, and moral fibre, McQueen’s unquestionable talent and commendable intentions develop an original, heart-breaking, and revelatory slave-drama. Here, like with his previous films, McQueen, with screenwriter John Ridley’s assistance, illuminates the narrative’s most gruelling aspects without creating an overwrought and gratuitous Hollywood feature. Analysing and deconstructing slavery’s overwhelming negatives, he explores this issue’s many controversial, neglected, and dangerous shades. Embracing this story’s socio-political insight and emotionally affecting moments, McQueen and Ridley deliberate on this harrowing topic’s facts, intricacies, and perspectives. Despite the noticeably exasperating run-time, McQueen, refusing to inject fantastical elements or overwrought opinions into the narrative, presents an objective and engaging account of this potent true story.

“I will survive! I will not fall into despair! I will keep myself hardy until freedom is opportune!” (Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), 12 Years a Slave).

Brad Pitt.

Comparable to Paul Thomas Anderson’s work in There Will Be Blood, his style scours this story’s most promising aspects by crafting memorable sequences. Pushing the camera into each pressing situation, extended takes linger uncomfortably on unflinching images. These moments, complimented by raw silence, illuminate the characters’ degrading situations. McQueen pierces vital settings whilst conveying powerful messages and viewpoints. The noose sequence is comprised of several nail-biting shots. Wide angles establish the characters’ predicaments and the sequence’s relentlessness. Smash cutting and splicing contrasting images together, the poetic editing style links symbols to valuable story-threads. Outdoing himself at each twist and turn, McQueen alleviates this heartbreaking story with artistically conquering montages. These near-wordless vignettes, depicting this poignant journey’s most captivating moments, become enthralling and disconcerting flourishes. However, gruelling sound effects elevate McQueen’s sumptuous and edgy style. With each whip crack, hammer and nail, and buckling shackle, the movie’s intensity is drastically heightened – defining the movie’s most shocking moments. Hans Zimmer’s score also elevates certain sequences. The music cues’ percussive rumbles and beats throw vital sequences into overdrive. However, the actors also craft this confounding drama’s ingenious and cognitive aspects. Ejiofor delivers a powerful and awe-inspiring turn as the degraded lead character. Tenaciously devouring several enthralling sequences, he delivers the decade’s most valuable performance. Fassbender and Cumberbatch excel as slave owners with vastly different Methodologies. Paulson, Dano, and Giamatti steal scenes as despicable and polarising figures. However, newcomer Nyong’o provides an insatiable and unique performance as Epps’ favourite slave and Northup’s guiding light. Meanwhile, Pitt, Killam, McNairy, Garret Dillahunt, and Alfie Woodard succeed in one-or-two-scene roles.

Examining one of history’s most distressing time-periods, movies like Django Unchained  and 12 Years a Slave become compelling Oscar-worthy treasures. Though its graphic violence and sickening darkness may prove too much for some, 12 Years a Slave‘s compelling story, enrapturing directorial flair, and fascinating performances classify it as one of the decade’s greatest cinematic accomplishments. With subject matter this valuable; McQueen’s blood-sweat-and-tears approach has crafted an appropriate and chilling portrait of America’s darkest era.

Verdict: A powerful, haunting, and rich slave-drama. 

Inside Llewyn Davis Review – Friendly Folk Flick


Director: Joel & Ethan Coen

Writers: Joel & Ethan Coen

Stars: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman


Release date: January 16th, 2014

Distributor: CBS Films

Country: USA

Running time: 105 minutes


 

4½/5

Best part: The memorable soundtrack.

Worst part: The abrupt resolutions.

Movies about music, due to an artist, movement, or genre’s immense popularity, regularly take on lives of their own. Launching cult classics, trends, and modern re-inventions, these movies range from musicals (Dreamgirls), to dramas (Walk the Line, Ray), to comedies (Oh Brother Where Art Thou!). Despite aiding specific movies’ soundtracks, how exactly does music launch certain big-budget efforts into the cultural stratosphere? Tapping into pop-culture’s infatuation with nostalgia and popularity, Inside Llewyn Davis chronicles one genre’s immersion into the public’s line of sight. Folk music’s long-awaited return to the spotlight is illuminated in this hysterical, insightful, and charming dramedy. Kicked off by chart-topping groups like Of Monsters and Men, Mumford and Sons, and Passenger, folk music’s resurgence has boosted the once-neglected genre’s range, influence, and relevance.

Oscar Isaac & cat.

Despite being a polarising genre, folk brings ageless intricacies and nuances to this kinetic slice-of-life character study. Here, music, love, life, and regret interweave to form an eclectic and meaningful rhythm. Inside Llewyn Davis, bolstered by ingenious performances, poetic directorial flourishes, and, of course, a catchy soundtrack, becomes one of the past decade’s most distinctive dramedies. Touching upon music’s profound social and cultural impact, this movie speaks to the toe-tapping samaritan inside us all. This purposeful narrative chronicles insatiably irritating yet well-meaning simpleton, and former merchant seaman, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac). After his musical partner’s catastrophic suicide, Davis struggles to make ends meet. Crashing on friends’ couches or random periods, job prospects run afoul of Davis’ abrasive personality. With downtown club ‘the Gaslight Cafe’ keeping him afloat, burgeoning crowds and unique musicians frustrate Davis. Davis finds a new partner after his friends’ cat escapes from their cluttered apartment. Davis and his feline companion scurry across New York looking for shelter and company. Keeping out of the cold, Davis soon finds sanctuary in his musician friends’ apartment. Briefly staying with Jim (Justin Timberlake), Jean (Carey Mulligan), and their other guest Troy Nelson (Stark Sands), Davis witnesses Jim and Jean become Peter, Paul & Mary-esque Gaslight celebrities. However, Davis, thanks to his irritable agent Mel (the late Jerry Grayson), sleazy Gaslight owner Pappi Corsicato (Max Casella), and friend Al Cody (Adam Driver), hatches an ambitious plan to travel to Chicago. Reaching for a ground-breaking opportunity in the windy city, Davis comes across Johnny Five (Garett Headlund) and crippled jazz extraordinaire Roland Turner (John Goodman).

Carey Mulligan.

Though writer/producer/director maestros Joel and Ethan Coen need no introduction, I’m going to give them one anyway. The Coens, ever since Blood Simple shocked film-lovers across the world, have drenched themselves in blood, sweat, laughs, existential angst, and Middle America’s most unique musical movements. The dynamic duo’s range, richness, and tenacity are evident in every project. The Coens, leaping from westerns (No Country for Old MenTrue Grit), to hardened gangster flicks (Millers Crossing), to sickeningly dark comedies (Burn After ReadingThe Big Lebowski), to frenetic dramedies (A Serious ManFargo), place their hearts, souls, and perspectives into each narrative. Their polarising yet compelling efforts, despite the cloying moments, launch horrifying sequences and ambiguous characterisations into the consciousness. Fusing classic and modern Hollywood cinema conventions, their honest direction and ambitious writing tropes shine throughout Inside Llewyn Davis. Giving bluegrass roots a heaving kick-start with Oh Brother Where Art Thou!, the Coens apply their talents and wisdom to the opportunistic folk scene. Fortunately, despite the dour marketing campaign, this slice-of-life drama, from go to woe, is a winning, thought-provoking, and modest examination of the human condition. Pitting man against the cold weather, lacklustre employment prospects, fate, and the future’s ever-looming uncertainty, the Coens inject heart into this comedically callous journey. With slapstick humour and shocking expletives highlighting the first-half’s kinetic formula, the movie kicks off with style, panache, and grace. Moving from one underwhelming destination to another, Davis’ journey is one of heartache, self-discovery, and determination. However, the second half becomes a philosophically powerful yet sombre road-trip-based adventure. Meeting peculiar characters and bizarre revelations, the final third slowly sheds the first two thirds’ malevolent wit and optimistic aura. Ultimately, the Coen’s latest effort discusses our infatuation with varying entertainment mediums. Genres and movements are ably presented as impressive creations crafted by inspiring artists. Here, Davis and co. craft life-changing works out of impulse, burgeoning motivations, and extraordinary ideas.

“If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.” (Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), Inside Llewyn Davis).

John Goodman & Garrett Headlund.

Refusing to answer its thesis by the half-way mark, Inside Llewyn Davis hurriedly delves into pop-culture’s fascination with nostalgia. Davis and co’s mental, spiritual, and emotional angst paints a haunting picture of the past, present, and future. Nostalgia may bring back fond memories, but won’t play a show-stopping track or put a coat around Davis’ shoulders. The Coen’s statements are illuminated by the movie’s awe-inspiring and memorable musical interludes. Describing key moments of this all-encompassing narrative, the soundtrack is crafted out of love, admiration, and care for this immaculate genre. Conceived by the Coens, Isaac, T-Bone Burnett, and Marcus Mumford, Inside Llewyn Davis becomes a quirky and enlightening musical minus the genre’s insufferable tropes. From the opening frame, music plays a vital part in emphasising and re-shaping 1960s-America’s social, political, economical, and cultural landscapes. The first track, ‘Hang Me, Oh Hang Me’, is a distinctive, impactful, and poetic gut-punch. With Isaac’s haunting vocals carving into the soul, the track potently and engagingly examines Davis’ existential and emotional conflicts. Fortunately, the seceding musical numbers elevate the moody and eclectic material. Yet another Coen Brothers classic is humanised by its characters. Davis, though prickly and distinctively sarcastic, is a strangely likeable presence. Slimily weaving into friends’ lives, this irritable and harmful musician follows a dingy path. Isaac, placing egotism and aura aside, is revelatory in this complex role. Mulligan provides another touching and multi-layered performance as the dismissive friend. Throwing expletives and criticisms at our bewildered antihero, Jean is an exasperating and unconscionable character. Suitably, David and Jean deliver twists, turns, and haunting lyrics. Meanwhile, Timberlake builds charisma and range as the blissful nice-guy. Timberlake, Isaac, and Driver deliver the movie’s most enlightening musical number. ‘Please Mr. Kennedy’, featuring stirling vocals and electrifying lyrics, provides refreshing relief from this heart-wrenching tale. Once again, Goodman electrifies a small yet significant role. Throwing hysterical insults at Davis, his character revels in life’s most intriguing pursuits and absurdities. His comedic lines (“Folk songs? I thought you said you were a musician?”) relieve this dark road-trip story.

With the Coens up for Oscar contention yet again, Inside Llewyn Davis, like its lead character, deserves some much-needed love and care. As a concentrated dose of Coen-Brothers-moviemaking tropes, Coen fans, film buffs, folk aficionados, and average filmgoers will absorb this visceral and confronting dramedy. Laugh-out-loud moments, attention to detail, and tenderness transform this slice-of-life drama into an infectious and award-worthy artistic endeavour. Like the best folk songs, Inside Llewyn Davis‘ poeticism, narrative, and inherent charm will put a song in everyone’s hearts.

Verdict: An intelligent, hysterical, and enlightening drama. 

Saving Mr. Banks Review – Sickeningly Sweet


Director: John Lee Hancock 

Writers: Kelly Marcel, Sue Smith

Stars: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Paul Giamatti, Colin Farrell


Release date: December 13th, 2013

Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 125 minutes


 

2½/5

Best part: Thompson and Hanks.

Worst part: The flashback-fuelled structure.

One of the English language’s most complex words can’t be found in a dictionary, award-winning autobiography, or dissertation. It doesn’t even come from an advertisement. It originates from one of history’s most beloved family movies. The word in question is ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’. Once said out loud, fond memories pour into the consciousness like tea into a cup. According to well-meaning yet underwhelming dramedy Saving Mr. Banks, it’s the word we use after we exhaust our intellectual powers. Mary Poppins follows this word’s creativeness and blatant absurdity to the letter (all 34 letters, to be exact). The movie’s kooky imagery and emotionally impactful scenes develop an engaging and revelatory musical.

Tom Hanks & Emma Thompson.

Admittedly, nothing I say can do the movie justice. Unfortunately, Saving Mr Banks fails to do it justice also. With children across the world growing up on this fantastical creation, Saving Mr. Banks needed to tap into its viewer’s souls to reach everyone’s inner children. Despite the enjoyable moments, its over-sentimentality, frustrating plot, and irritating characters undermine the intriguing premise. Buying into this Oscar season’s overwhelming glow, the movie rests entirely on nostalgia, conventional direction, overly sentimental screen-writing, and whimsy. Despite the notorious pre-production schedule and baffling personalities on offer, the fascinating real-life story is transformed into a sorely treacle docudrama. The plot itself, like the movie’s lead character, doesn’t stick to the courage of its convictions. The movie kicks off in Australia in 1906. Helen ‘Ginty’ Goff (Annie Rose Buckley), daughter of Travers Goff (Colin Farrell) and Margaret Goff (Ruth Wilson), is a precocious and engaging youngster looking for inspiration. Reaching to the skies for guidance, Helen seeks an inspiring adventure and sustainable future. Unfortunately, she’s forced to witness her dad’s transition from enthusiastic banker to drunken layabout. With this likeable family unit facing a painful demise, not even Aunt Ellie (Rachel Griffiths), despite fixing the family’s irritating flaws, can stop Helen from becoming a cynical adult. The movie then jumps to the 1960s, and Helen, changing her name to ‘P.L. Travers’, is a curmudgeonly middle-aged spinster. Travers (Emma Thompson), living a lonely existence in a minuscule house in London, is facing bankruptcy.

B. J. Novak & Jason Schwartzman.

Inspired by her aunt and father, she turns her life story into a fantasy novel series chronicling a magical nanny, broken-down family, and talking umbrella’s adventures. With writer’s block and diminishing sales eviscerating her bank account, Travers is forced to grant Hollywood the rights to her beloved novels. Promising to succinctly and accurately adapt Travers’ creations for the cinematic realm, multi-talented and intriguing media mogul Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) pulls her into the mega-studio system. Working with screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and composer/lyricist/siblings Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak respectively), Travers dismisses every idea and tool at her disposal. Turning smiles into frowns throughout Los Angeles, Travers’ irritating attitude may erode her and this adaptation’s immediate futures. Guided by chauffeur Ralph (Paul Giamatti), Travers must conquer her demons before signing off on this potentially successful project. Director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side), with his eyes on the prize, delivers another treacle and uninspired docudrama. Reflecting upon Hollywood’s greatest efforts, movies chronicling infamous film productions, from the opening frame, must be intensifying and entertaining. With the end result embedded in pop-culture and the consciousness, this hurdle, admittedly, is extremely difficult to overcome. Unfortunately, super-conglomerate Disney casts a sickeningly dark shadow over this docudrama. Disney immediately reveals its despicable intentions. As an ethically questionable project, Saving Mr. Banks credits Disney for single-handedly saving Hollywood. Applauding its own 20th-and-21st-century achievements, this unsatisfying effort becomes a deluded, self-affirming, and desperate PR stunt. Despite these obvious conundrums, the branding-fuelled company refuses to spoil its own image.

Paul Giamatti.

Sticking to Disney’s family-friendly roots, the movie can’t break through the cloying restrictions and conventions. The story and characters are doctored to fit the movie’s fantastical nature. Aiming for a bombastic narrative and fairytale-like aesthetic, the movie removes wit, darkness, heart, and depth from this enthralling premise. Unfortunately, this version of events lacks cinematically compelling aspects. As a cookie-cutter Disney creation, this Oscar contender becomes a predictable, sanitised, and tepid dramedy. The contrivances, obvious references, and broad slapstick hijinks fall into Disney’s more saccharine, stereotypical, and unambitious cinematic endeavours. Developing an immensely cheesy narrative, certain sub-plots and character arcs, despite hinting at compelling concepts, are picked up and dropped without warning. In addition, the pacing wavers when Hancock presses the flashback button. Jumping hastily between contrasting settings and time periods, the flashbacks add little to the narrative. Repetitive and uninteresting, these moments throw in several underwhelming plot-twists. Like Hitchcock, this nostalgic endeavour inexplicably switches from sentimentally dramatic to frantically comedic. Relying heavily on the original production’s songs and footage, this docudrama becomes forgettable faster than you can say “Dick Van Dyke”. Relying on critical, commercial, and Academy acclaim, the movie lacks the relevance, kinetic direction, intelligence, and charm of this year’s other Oscar contenders. I kept asking myself: “Who is this movie for?!”. The pre-production jargon will bewilder children while the unengaging story will bore adult viewers. As artificial as dancing penguins, the movie’s themes are hurriedly plastered across certain scenes. At one point, Travers criticises the original script by claiming it lacks heart, gravitas, and realism.

“Well come on! When does anybody get to go to Disneyland with Disneyland with Walt Disney himself?” (Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), Saving Mr. Banks).

Colin Farrell.

Regrettably, the movie lacks these valuable elements. Tapping into modern criticism’s commentary on movie-making practices and the money-hungry studio system, the movie displays slight shades of life. However, capitalisation and globalisation are described as minor hiccups in this movie’s fluffy universe. Despite the relevant complaints, this movie’s glorious visual flourishes aid this otherwise conventional docudrama. Painting L.A. as a glowing cityscape, the production design develops rich, textured, and kinetic settings. In addition, the eye-popping costume designs elevate certain sequences. Suits, dresses, and mascot uniforms romanticise this valuable time period. Introducing Saving Mr. Banks with the original Disney/Buena Vista logo, the tiniest details make a significant difference throughout the 2+hour run-time. Despite the small scope, these bubbly aesthetic touches develop and imaginative and charming 1960s-obsessed universe. In addition, Disneyland is a sun-drenched, lively, and eclectic vista. Travers and Disney’s stroll through the tourist attraction is a charming moment. Credit belongs to the A-list cast for delivering monumental and well-meaning performances. Elevating themselves above manipulative material, Thompson and Hanks’ thespian qualities pit two gargantuan forces in a culture clash driven by wit, intellect, intent, and courage. Thompson’s purposeful mannerisms and inherent watchability make up for the character’s irreverence, cynical outlook, and irritating personality. Hurling insults at everyone in earshot, the character becomes tiresome by the half-hour mark. Hanks brings levity and charm to his controversial role. Stripping Uncle Walt of his anti-Semitism, cigarette addiction, and money-grubbing ways, Hanks’ charismatic presence develops a likeable and enigmatic go-getter. He delivers his best line – “Well when does anyone get to go to Disneyland with Walt Disney himself?” – with style and aplomb. Giamatti provides the movie’s most enlightening moments as Travers’ latest admirer. Novak, Schwartzman, and Whitford become engaging comedic foils. Farrell excels in his enthusiastic and well-meaning role. Meanwhile, newcomer Lily Bingham is appealing as Disney’s sickly-sweet receptionist.

Saving Mr. Banks, claiming that a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down, pours a pound of it down its viewers’ throats. With big-budget movies based on novels, classic feature films, TV shows, video games, and board games, the movie should’ve commented on this business-driven trend. Resting on nostalgia and marketing, this fictionalised account lacks cinematic appeal and relevance. Saved by Oscar-worthy performances, an attention to detail, and tiny heartwarming moments, this uninspired, dreary, and corny low-2½-star docudrama doesn’t match the Oscar-worthy competition.

Verdict: A well-acted yet uninteresting and meandering docudrama. 

August: Osage County Review – Family Firestorm!


Director: John Wells

Writer: Tracy Letts (screenplay & play)

Stars: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper


Release date: December 27th, 2013

Distributor: The Weinstein Company

Country: USA

Running time: 120 minutes


 

3/5

Best part: The biting dialogue.

Worst part: Streep’s hammy turn.

I believe it was the influential American author F. Scott Fitzgerald who famously said:”Family quarrels are bitter things. They don’t go by any rules. They’re not like aches or wounds; they’re more like splits in the skin that won’t heal because there’s not enough material”. If that’s the case, then both families in August: Osage County follow Fitzgerald’s words to the letter. With the Weston and Aiken families holding certain incidences and issues against one another, this moody yet insightful dramedy turns into a brash and unrelenting 2-hour thrill-ride. With its stellar cast, pitch-perfect dialogue, and alluring visual style, this movie surprises, frustrates, and shines when required. Just don’t tell anyone I talked about these people behind their backs. Yeesh!

Meryl Streep & Julia Roberts.

Based on Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play, August: Osage Country is an honest, brutal, and claustrophobic adaption. With Letts taking control of his productions’ adaptations, his guiding hand proves useful, effecting, and practical. Here, like with previous adaptation Killer Joe, his characters are trapped in certain settings and situations. Trust me – his characters are unenviable, childish, and torturous! No one would ever want to spend a weekend away with these people! So, efficiently, Letts brings his characters straight to us. However, despite the flaws, August: Osage County‘s performers make this adaptation somewhat tolerable. This meandering dramedy begins with the Westons living in complete disarray. Hiring a Native American nurse/housekeeper, Johnna Monevata (Misty Upham), Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) relays personal stories to her about life, loss, regret, and literature. To his cancerous (in multiple ways) wife Violet(Meryl Streep)’s dismay, Johnna listens intently to Beverly’s every word. However, as Beverly’s sudden disappearance becomes a major hurdle, Johnna, despite Violet’s irritating attitude, must care for her. Soon enough, the Weston and Aiken clans show up to give Violet their best wishes. Violet’s three daughters, Barbara (Julia Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), and Karen (Juliette Lewis), follow one another back to their old home. With memories, tempers, and heat-waves flaring, the three sisters band together to overcome each other’s burgeoning problems. Barbara, separated from her husband Bill (Ewan McGregor), struggles to control their daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin). Not to be outdone, Karen’s hotshot fiancée Steve Huberbrecht (Dermot Mulroney) breezes into town with his bright red Ferrari and interminable personality in tow.

Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, and Abigail Breslin.

If that wasn’t enough, Violet’s sister Mattie Fae Aiken (Margot Martindale), her husband Charlie (Chris Cooper), and their son ‘Little’ Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) throw themselves into this sprawling recipe for disaster. To continue on with this family reunion/meal theme, August Osage County is chock-a-block with characters willing, but unable, to stir the pot before its contents boil over. All family reunion movies have the potential to knock themselves for a loop. With multiple characters, story-lines, messages, and hurtful one-liners flying across comforting settings, The Big Chill is still seen as a meaningful fluke. Letts’ writing style, made famous by the play, places personalities and ideologies against one another. Director John Wells (The Company Men) ably adapts to the egos and auras floating through his ambitious projects. Handling impressive ensembles competently, Wells is undoubtedly an actor’s director. His attentive style elevates mediocre characters from the doldrums whilst shining spotlights in their eyes. Despite the previous comment’s darkness, Wells’ controlling direction and attention to detail elevates this otherwise frustrating affair. However, Wells can’t detach this project from its stage-based roots. Walking an uneasy line between stage and screen, the movie’s scope, subtext, and characterisations are pushed overboard. Unfortunately, Wells and Letts butt heads over this movie’s intentions. Showcasing Oaklahoma’s countryside at opportune moments, Wells seems intent on separating this narrative from the play’s restrictions. However, Letts sticks to his creation’s most claustrophobic aspects. Sadly, this confrontation throws this dramedy’s tone off balance. With Wells and Letts’ visions not reaching their true potential, this dramedy awkwardly mixes Secrets & Lies‘ dramatic beats with Death at a Funeral‘s farcical hijinks. Despite the narrative’s faults, August: Osage County hurriedly sweeps up its audience. Targeted at 40-something women, the movie, after its sombre epilogue, delves into modern romantic-drama’s typical and uninspired traits.

“Thank God we can’t tell the future. We’d never get out of bed.” (Barbara Weston (Julia Roberts), August: Osage County).

Meryl Streep, Margot Martindale, and Julianne Nicholson.

With its familial dramatic moments, strong-willed women, and picturesque cast, the movie acknowledges its monstrous advantages compared to similar Oscar-starved fare. However, with Letts’ piercing dialogue steering his thought-provoking story, the movie becomes a cynical, cold, and visceral black comedy. Like most families, August: Osage County crackles whilst set around the dinner table. Two table sequences – elevated by smashed plates, cruel jokes, punishing insults, and physical violence – switch from elaborate set pieces to hysterical and identifiable shouting matches. Charlie’s woeful attempt to say grace is met with kooky ringtones, rolling eyeballs, and mean-spirited laughter. Like most family gatherings, startling revelations, broken relationships, detailed anecdotes, and shattered perspectives define this movie. Several harsh one-liners are burned into the consciousness. Beverly, accepting of his alcoholism-controlled sanity, is inexplicably told to: “F#cking f#ck a sow’s ass!”. Unfortunately, the symbolism goes overboard from the opening frame. Violet, stepping out from the shadows during her first appearance, is defined by obvious idiosyncrasies. Receiving pharmaceutical-based relief from mouth cancer, this matriarchal character is disgracefully over-the-top and unlikeable. Unfortunately, Streep’s overt impersonation of Cate Blanchett in I’m Not There spectacularly misfires. Thankfully, everyone else is top notch. Roberts provides her best performance since Erin Brockovich. As a stranded-in-denial character, Roberts’ intensity and verve elevate certain sequences. In addition, Martindale and Nicholson provide scintillating turns in valuable roles. Meanwhile, the male performers become witty, kooky, and insightful comic reliefs. Cooper and McGregor steal scenes as the resilient husband-and-father figures. Mulroney and Cumberbatch provide impressive performances in understated roles.

Lacking Festen‘s dramatic weight and You’re Next‘s brutal murders, August: Osage County lacks subtlety and uniqueness. Despite the movie’s overt metaphors and broad characters, the emotionally resonant moments, cutting one-liners, and solid performances boost this intriguing and kinetic dramedy. Ironically, this movie is perfect for lazy days on the couch…at home…with the family.

Verdict: A frustrating yet entertaining dramedy.

 

Stories We Tell Review – Climbing the Family Tree


Director: Sarah Polley 

Writer: Sarah Polley

Stars: Sarah Polley, Michael Polley, Harry Gulkin, Rebecca Jenkins


Release date: May 17th, 2013

Distributors: Mongrel Media, Roadside Attractions

Country: Canada

Running time: 109 minutes


 

4½/5

Best part: The catchy soundtrack.

Worst part: The never-ending ending.

The holiday season, though imbued with joy and charm, can become a tiresome chore. Transporting us between realistic and heart-wrenching realms, independent drama darling Sarah Polley has returned home. With family reunions normally regrettable and unintentionally laughable, Polley prevents family members and friends from starting gigantic feuds and running jokes. Here, Polley’s immense talents are applied to her confident and loveable family. Her latest effort, Stories We Tell, paints an emotionally charged portrait of life in the Polley household. With serious Oscar contention in sight, Stories We Tell is a frontrunner for this season’s generous rewards.

Sarah Polley.

This dramatic-documentary delves into several noteworthy and confronting topics. With Polley embracing her directing, writing, and acting chops, the movie is unlike any other released this decade. Despite its relevance, the story necessarily and patiently absorbs its subjects’ enthralling words. Stories We Tell is about Polley’s assortment of charismatic relatives and the documentary filmmaking process itself. Challenging herself throughout each extraneous step, Polley’s motivations specifically rely on honouring her late mother Diane. Having died when Polley was eleven, Diane’s overt generosity and happiness touched many lives. Taking on this immense task, the movie kicks off with its subjects facing up to Polley’s talented production crew and intense questioning. Once the filmmaking boundaries are established, the movie allows each subject to open up about the pros and cons of family values, responsibility, and trust. Providing a memoir-like narration, Polley’s father Richard sits in a recording studio. Waiting to talk into the microphone, Richard deliberates on everything embedded in his consciousness. Providing a poetic foothold, his words soon delve into the infectious tale of Polley’s childhood. Not to be overshadowed, her siblings are given room to breathe. Her brothers, Mark and John, discuss important issues developed during their childhood years. These undead titbits, though simultaneously hilarious and distressing, develop the intriguing narrative.

Michael Polley.

Despite her brothers’ good-natured attitudes, Polley’s likeable sisters, Susy and Joanna, further develop this expansive and mystifying tale. Deliberating on love, divorce, and redemption, the sisters’ testimonies link certain situations to Polley’s life story. In addition, she interviews several people involved with Diane’s acting and singing careers. With familial ties an out-stretched theme this holiday season; Stories We Tell is an ambitious, realistic, and loving portrait of an infectious ensemble. Guided by experience and will power, Polley conscientiously seeks out the truth. No matter the cost to her family’s brick-wall-like structure, she explores every nook and cranny of her subjects’ lives. This honest and dense documentary hurriedly grows a brain and heart. It’s easy to connect to this bunch of charming and surprising subjects. Polley’s career, ranging from star-studded directorial efforts (Take this Waltz) to acclaim-worthy performances (GoSplice), has blossomed into a commendable and impassioned artistic endeavour. Here, Polley tirelessly pushes herself to honour her family’s name. After the comedic and fourth-wall-breaking opening, the movie delves into anecdotes and points of view. Objectively presenting Diane’s friends and relatives, this performative/investigatory documentary highlights the genre’s raw potential. Elaborating on this format’s glowing intricacies, Stories We Tell provides a though examination of art, life, secrets, and the human spirit. Ably presenting each step of her grand methodology, the end profoundly justifies the means. With a close connection to these subjects, Polley’s style lures us into this family’s past, present, and future. Thanks to its empathetic and heartening narrative, the movie’s cracking pace and revelations comfortingly push it along. With each twist and turn, I heard titters, gasps, and cheers from several overly-enthused, surrounding audience members. Despite the disturbances, it inexplicably enhanced the movie’s hard-hitting narrative. With its pleasant tone and messages, it reminded me that life’s smallest intricacies are immensely important to the bigger picture.

“I’m interested in the way we tell stories about our lives.” (Sarah Polley, Stories We Tell).

Rebecca Jenkins as Diane Polley.

Continually sidestepping documentary movie-making’s restrictions, Stories We Tell discusses subjectivity, memory, and humanity’s overwhelming importance. The medium, considered plain and tiresome by some, is pulled apart with Polley’s ingenious directorial nuances. With some pans, zooms, and tilts, the movie hysterically shatters its own immersive effects. With each subject questioning this topic’s worthiness, the movie develops engaging, definitive, and intelligible layers. While peeling back these layers, Polley’s quirky style draws a profoundly sentimental line between her latest work and its commendable Oscar-hungry competition. Thankfully, the movie’s visual touches don’t overshadow the all-important messages. Developing a titanic, tug-of-war struggle between archival footage and elaborate dramatisations, this drama-documentary constantly plays tricks on the unsuspecting audience. With seamless aesthetic ticks, the flashbacks sit comfortably with this tender and enrapturing story. Revealing the movie’s own secrets during the conclusion, Polley’s filmmaking techniques stand up to this extraordinary tale. Handheld cameras, distinct film grains, and period piece settings are key aspects of Polley’s impressive vision. However, despite obvious visual flourishes, this trip down memory lane almost unravels during the final few minutes. The ending, relaying the movie’s seminal themes with incessant monologues and symbols, throws this heartening documentary off balance. Despite this, the interviewees solidify Polley’s ambitious and conquering investigation. Revealing secrets and in-jokes to the world, her relatives laugh with, and at, Polley throughout this unique production. Anecdotes and revelations aside, certain interviewees’ characteristics make for intriguing and unsettling highlights. Sporting beaming smiles, hearty laughs, and kinetic personalities, Polley’s family members are engaging and likeable people.

Flicking through interviewees, anecdotes, and opinions, Stories We Tell provides one of modern cinema’s most dynamic and baffling stories. Polley – holding her family, friends, and colleagues in high regard – injects sensitivity, intelligence, and wit into this tear-jerking adventure. With its engaging visual style, interesting interviewees, and determined direction, this drama-documentary proves that truth really is stranger than fiction.

Verdict: A touching and intelligent documentary.