Stars: Andrew Garfield, Vince Vaughn, Sam Worthington, Teresa Palmer
Release date: November 3rd, 2016
Distributor: Summit Entertainment, Icon Film Distribution
Countries: USA, Australia
Running time: 131 minutes
Best part: The battle sequences.
Worst part: The CGI vistas.
Over the past decade, actor, director and trainwreck Mel Gibson has had massive highs and lows. His homophobic/sexist/racist/anti-semitic comments and unapologetic attitude destroyed his reputation. However, to quote South Park: “Say what you want about Mel Gibson, the son of a bitch knows story structure”. The controversy magnet is back in the spotlight with war-drama Hacksaw Ridge.
The once-great leading man was the king of 1990s and 2000s action-drama. 1995 Best Picture winner Braveheart, adding to his preceding successes, paved the way for A-list actor/directors like Ben Affleck, George Clooney and Jodie Foster. His other directorial efforts, Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto, were also major talking points. Hacksaw Ridge a necessary jolt of adrenaline for Gibson’s career. This war-drama covers a shocking true story. Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), after a violent incident involving brother Hal years earlier, lives a peaceful life in Lynchburg, Virginia. Desmond and Hal’s father Tom (Hugo Weaving) is haunted by World War I. The boys’ religious Mother Bertha (Rachel Griffiths) bares Tom’s wrath. The boys, much to their parents’ disdain, enlist to fight in WWII. Desmond falls for local nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) before being shipped off for military service.
Hacksaw Ridge develops multiple unique and intriguing identities. Screenwriters Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan provide solid groundwork for Gibson and the cast. The narrative itself is split down the middle. The first half develops Desmond as both lover and fighter. Gibson depicts Des’s home life with short, heart-wrenching moments. Des, essentially, is middle America’s more content side. Whereas Hal jumps at the opportunity to leave, Des contemplates everything and everyone before making fateful choices. His relationship with Tom is utterly necessary. That all-important decision – whether to join up with his comrades or leave other young Americans to fight – defines their dynamic. Our hero (despite being your average white, religious young protagonist) is never cloying or irritating. He is a blank canvas for everyone to project their views onto. Unlike many Hollywood-ised war-dramas, Des and Dorothy’s budding romance never jars with the tone.
After the brisk first half, Hacksaw Ridge takes swift turns throughout the second. Gibson and co. keep the politically-and-socially-charged fires burning. Throughout basic training, Des’s religious, anti-violent beliefs – as a conscientious objector following the Sixth Commandment of the Old Testament – rustle many feathers. In particular, Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) and Captain Jack Glover (Sam Worthington) seek to eject him on psychiatric grounds. Gibson’s handling of tension and drama is sublime. He gives each party their due whilst fleshing out Des’s training and court proceedings effectively. Also, interactions between Desmond and fellow soldiers are tightly wound. The movie soars during its Battle of Okinawa recreations. Each set-piece is shockingly violent, throwing buckets of blood and guts in our faces. Within seconds, machine gun fire and grenades obliterate whole battalions. Gibson fills every frame with stunning practical effects and stunt work.
Overshadowing 2016’s slew of bland blockbusters, Hacksaw Ridge provides genuine chills and thrills. Gibson is let off the leash here. Thanks to his command, the drama, comedic moments and action never distort one another. Indeed, his cast and crew bring their A-game to every scene. This could win big come Oscar time.
Writers: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Matthew Sand (screenplay), David Barstow, David Rohde, Stephanie Saul (book)
Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, John Malkovich, Gina Rodriguez
Release date: October 6th, 2016
Distributor: Summit Entertainment
Running time: 107 minutes
Best part: The strong performances.
Worst part: The slimy BP characters.
Docudrama/disaster epic Deepwater Horizon chronicles one of the 21st Century’s most devastating true stories. The Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig explosion and fire, on April 20th, 2010, killed 11 people and spilled 210 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The investigation pointed the finger at petrol conglomerate BP’s lackadaisical actions before and after the incident.
Director Peter Berg and star Mark Wahlberg, re-teaming after 2013’s docudrama Lone Survivor, deliver the second in their unofficial based-on-a-recent-true story trilogy. Later this year, the duo re-team again for Patriots Day – based on the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings and seceding manhunt. Here, Berg and co. divert their attentions to oil drilling. The plot chronicles the professional and personal lives of driller Mike Williams (Wahlberg). Kissing his wife Felicia (Kate Hudson) and daughter goodbye, Williams hits the Deepwater Horizon for a mission seemingly like any other. Supervisor Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell) scalds BP supervisor Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich) over dangerous shortcuts. Engineer Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez) looks after the nitty-gritty details. In addition, youngster Caleb (Dylan O’Brien) and Jason (Ethan Suplee) protect the drill itself.
Deepwater Horizon, from start to finish, delves into core drilling’s ins and outs. Screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand drew inspiration from Deepwater Horizon’s Final Hours (written and researched by three people). Clearly, they and Berg became infatuated with the event in question. Like Lone Survivor, Berg’s latest effort is almost too infatuated with the topic. It pars down the drilling and engineering jargon for a wider audience (the A to B to C explanations are worthwhile). However, slower pacing was still required. The walking-down-hallways moments see characters bounce jargon off one another. Although realistic, the gobbledygook is difficult to comprehend. With that said, the effort is greatly appreciated. In fact, the first half shows every square inch of every department on said monolithic structure.
However, modern audiences aren’t interested in engineering discussions or BP representative/stock market drivel. All hell breaks loose once the second half ticks over. Berg – an action-direction master thanks to Welcome to the Jungle and The Kingdom (and difficult to trust after Hancock and Battleship) – ratchets up the tension to 11. Of course, this story deserves respect (Hollywood gleam is a little unsettling here). However, the explosive moments are worth the admission cost. The second half/final third is one extended rescue mission. Gripping set-pieces and solid practical effects turn it into edge-of-your-seat entertainment. Berg and the cast pay respects to all involved. Wahlberg expertly portrays the everyman hero. Russell, back with a vengeance, is at his charismatic best. Rodriguez and O’Brien overcome generic characterisations. However, Malkovich lends his bad-guy schtick to an already absurd role.
Deepwater Horizon is almost a great movie. The action, special effects and direction got me excited for Patriots Day and Berg’s ongoing future. More so, the cast sink into their roles and pay tribute to all whom served. However, broad characterisations and messages almost ruin good work.
Writers: Kieran Fitzgerald, Oliver Stone (screenplay), Luke Harding (book), Anatoly Kucherena (book)
Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto
Release date: September 22nd, 2016
Distributor: Open Road Films
Country: USA, Germany
Running time: 134 minutes
Best part: Levitt and Woodley’s chemistry.
Worst part: The sluggish pace.
There are many words to describe whistleblower Edward Snowden. Descriptors like patriot, terrorist, rebel, whistleblower and tyrant have been used by all manner of people. In spite of finger pointing and name calling, there is no doubt this is a fascinating tale. 2014’s Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour exposed the truth behind one of the 21st Century’s most alarming leaks of classified information.
As Citizenfour proved, the fiery debate over cyber-security, privacy and whistleblowing rages on. So, with the documentary and internet providing maximum information, what does docudrama Snowden do differently? Not much. We first meet Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) being kicked out of special forces for dodgy legs. A devastated young Snowden joins the CIA under Corbin O’Brian(Rhys Ifans)’s watchful eye. The computer genius rises up the ranks and delves further into the system. He finds the government and security agency NSA’s secrets. His discoveries affect his and long-term girlfriend Lindsay Mills(Shailene Woodley)’s relationship. Years later, he reaches out to documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen McAskill (Tom Wilkinson) for help.
Obviously, Snowden finds the dirty details, steals secrets then leaks them to the press before going into exile in Moscow, Russia. This ongoing story is far from reaching a peaceful conclusion. A better docudrama would have detailed the journey’s ethical, emotional and psychological toll. Sadly, like The Fifth Estate, Snowden becomes a straightforward, useless stunt. Unlike Citizenfour, or anything the internet would provide, its delivers little information about Snowden’s identity, job or life-changing events. Each sub-plot and conflict merely blurs together. Set to a sluggish 134-minute run-time, it shifts lackadaisically between life moments. Instead of building drama and dread, he moves between jobs and countries without any impact. For better or worse, the narrative explores the nitty-gritty of analyst/spy work (finding contacts, moving between outposts etc).
Oliver Stone is a veteran director out of his league. He began with jagged-edge thrillers (Wall Street, Natural Born Killers) and war-dramas (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July). However, his last few (from Alexander through to Savages) have bitten the dust. Like the latter efforts, Snowden drags a top-notch premise and cast through the mud. Being one of Hollywood’s most opinionated filmmakers, Stone’s interest in Snowden seemed promising. However, his paranoia is almost laughable. The second act, when not languishing in Snowden and Lindsay’s relationship politics, delivers extended montages about cyber-security. His old-man-yells-at-cloud approach broadly targets the US Government, multi-million dollar corporations and those behind the scenes. Stone clumsily attempts to jazz up desk-jockey work and hacking with flashy visuals. Levitt and Woodley escape unscathed, delivering stellar impersonations of real-life counterparts.
Snowden had potential to tell a detailed story, bring Stone back from career suicide and showcase a quality cast. Instead, it’s a meandering, boilerplate procedural with little insight or even basic information. Stone’s out-of-touch direction and point of view deliver a snooze instead of a success.
Stars: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Anna Gunn
Release date: September 8th, 2016
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Running time: 96 minutes
Best Part: Hanks’s reserved performance.
Worst part: The occasional flashbacks.
Two-time Academy Award winner Tom Hanks is a national acting treasure and all-around nice guy. Since the late 1980s, he has mastered roles of immense passion and of varying genres. His down-to-earth attitude and raw charm engage audiences across multiple generations. In an age of brand recognition over movie-star prowess, the 60-year-old still delivers results. His work in Sully is no exception.
Sully centres on a story about an American hero, told by an American hero whilst starring another American hero. Hanks teams up with Hollywood legend Clint Eastwood for this 21st Century tale of hope. It details the events before, during and after the famous ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ incident. On January 15th, 2009, Airline pilot Captain Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger began his day at work like any other. He and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) boarded US Airways Flight 1549 from LaGuardia Airport, outside New York City, with ease. However, three minutes into the flight, a flock of geese tore apart both engines. Unable to make it back to LaGuardia or to any other airport, Sully and Skiles made a forced water landing on the freezing Hudson River and saved the 155 souls onboard. Witnessed by New York and the world, the rescue efforts included the pilots, cabin crew, passengers, ferry/coastguard crews and police.
Docudramas generally involve war, conflict, and heartache to create drama and begin discussion. So, how could anyone make a Hollywood feature out of said good news story? Sully resembles a detailed and fascinating piece of investigative journalism. Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki, adapting Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow’s book about the event, capture the biggest and smallest details. The pair raise the tension and stakes with every new detail. Eastwood’s directorial filmography includes several hits and misses. The 86-year-old filmmaker and outspoken Republican puts everything aside for ol’ fashioned authenticity. His previous directorial efforts, from docudramas (Letters From Iwo Jima, J. Edgar) or character pieces (Million Dollar Baby, Gran Torino), steadily portray the ins and outs, from go to woe. Here, he crafts a peculiar non-linear sequence with painstaking intensity.
The opening scene is a twisted dream sequence. Setting the audience on edge, the scene hurls us into the hero’s inner turmoil. It leaps between the incident, Sully’s loneliness, the air crash/insurance investigation, his wife back home (Lorraine (Laura Linney)) and flashbacks. Sully could have been a long and meandering mess preying on basement-level fears. However, the movie sways gently between intensifying dread and hope against the odds. Eastwood and co. present the incident itself from multiple points of view (a mother and daughter, golfers late for the fight etc.). The entire set piece makes for, arguably, the year’s best movie moments. This flawless recreation proves truth really is stranger than fiction. Hanks may get his latest Oscar nomination. Prone to playing nice guys and real-life heroes, the legend provides raw passion and cutting humour.
Sully showcases some of Hollywood’s best in fine form. Eastwood’s silky-smooth direction pays off tremendously. Meanwhile, Hanks and Eckhart bounce off one another with ease. Like its titular hero, the movie is a tough, powerful and interesting ode to human spirit.
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell
Release date: August 25th, 2016
Distributor: STX Entertainment
Running time: 140 minutes
Best part: Matthew McConaughey.
Worst part: The courtroom-drama sub-plot.
No other Hollywood A-lister has experienced more critical and commercial ebbs and flows than Matthew McConaughey. The man’s man went from dumb action flick/romantic-comedy lead to crime-drama superstar. True Detective Season 1, Killer Joe, Magic Mike, Wolf of Wall Street and Dallas Buyers Club showcase his range and commitment. Free State of Jones continues the McConnaissance’s post-Oscar run.
Like Interstellar and Sea of Trees, Free State of Jones is sure to divide critics. Based on an inspiring true story, it’s another docudrama more necessary than worthwhile. The plot chronicles the timeline of events in Jones County, Mississippi during the American Civil War and following years. As a Confederate Army battlefield medic during the 1862 Battle of Corinth, Newton Knight (McConaughey) becomes desensitised by bloodshed and chaos. The former farmer snaps after his nephew Daniel’s death. He defects and returns to his homestead and wife Serena (Keri Russell) before befriending slave girl Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).
The best docudramas explore one part of a famous person’s life, expanding upon their social and cultural relevance. The worst ones, however, stretch from birth to death. The latter approach makes Free State of Jones one of 2016’s biggest disappointments. Based on two major texts, its reach well exceeds its grasp. Sure, writer-director Gary Ross’s pet project has good intentions. Stories about Civil War history, important historical figures, slavery in America and American politics resonate with wide audiences. This one is a high school student’s ultimate cure for insomnia. Ross captures enough material for a HBO mini-series. The plot takes multiple turns after Knight’s return home. He, seeing poor men fighting a rich man’s conflict, plans revenge on his former army. He, fellow defectors and runaway slaves take down Confederacy taxation agents and give back to local farmers. As a mix of Defiance and Glory, the first half is peaks the interest levels.
However, the second half features several underdeveloped subplots ripe for parody. The three-way romance – between Knight, the slave, and his frustrated wife – is worth its own movie. Worse still, the courtroom scenes – chronicling Knight’s ancestor fighting for rights in the 1950s – adds nothing to the narrative. The Ross packs in an exorbitant array of dot points including the Ku Klux Klan’s formation, freedom and voting rights for slaves, the Census etc. His stylistic choices merely pad out the running time. Title cards, delivered every 10 minutes, halt proceedings to display real-life footage and paragraphs’ worth of text. However, the battle scenes unleash an eye for period detail and unflinching violence. The performances also shine. McConaughey, bouncing off quality character-actors, is a charismatic force.
Free State of Jones is an example of potential ruined by execution. Stuck between gargantuan historical epic and TV mini-series, it contains too much and too little. McConaughey still gets away Scot-free.
Writer: Todd Phillips, Stephen Chin, Jason Smilovic
Stars: Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Ana de Armas, Bradley Cooper
Release date: August 18th, 2016
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Running time: 114 minutes
Best part: Hill and Teller’s chemistry.
Worst part: The derivative structure.
Director Todd Phillips exists in the same realm as Michael Bay and Zack Snyder. He began his career with adult-comedies Old School and Road Trip before delivering smash hit The Hangover. However, with the Hangover sequels and Due Date, his career fell over. Now, he’s back with something completely different and exactly the same.
War Dogs provides more meat to chew on than his earlier works. This docudrama, black comedy, war, crime flick chronicles one of the 21st Century’s most baffling true stories. Based on Guy Lawson’s Rolling Stone article and book – Arms and the Dudes – its follows twenty-something layabout David Packouz (Miles Teller) being put through the ringer. David is a disappointment – spending maximum time smoking pot and tending to rich clients as a massage therapist. After quitting his job, his one-man bed sheet business fails spectacularly. At an old friend’s funeral, he reunites with former partner in crime Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill). Diveroli is also a pot-smoking loud mouth. However, he is also a gunrunner/arms contractor for start-up AEY with ties to the US Government and troops overseas.
War Dogs resembles a blender with all-too-familiar ingredients thrown together. This sloppy and inconsistent mess is slow-moving-car-crash fascinating. Phillips, evidently, idolises Martin Scorsese and the Coen Brothers. Similarly to Bay’s 2013 sleeper hit Pain and Gain, it’s an assortment of excessive visual flourishes and questionable decisions. With any docudrama, ethics and moral quandaries come into play. Phillips – along with two other screenwriters – beef everything up for cinema purposes. The frat-boy humour and serious material never congeal. It follows the rise and fall narrative structure at every turn. Of course, the first half depicts the dynamic duo’s transformation from slackers to successes. Phillips becomes indulgent, even borrowing whole sequences from The Wolf of Wall Street, Goodfellas and Boiler Room.
Compared to the genre’s aforementioned big-hitters, War Dogs struggles to keep up. Phillips floats between admiring and despising the lead characters. Seriously, what does his movie say about these events? Does it salute young entrepreneurs slipping through the cracks? Or condemn Cheney’s America and the military-industrial complex? Nevertheless, he makes no apologies for their behaviour. Packouz, despite being the audience avatar, starts off as an unlikable schmuck and gets worse. He either blindly follows his crazy business partner or lies to his pregnant girlfriend, Iz (Ana de Armas). Despite the first half’s many fun moments, the second trudges towards the predictable dénouement. If anything, it proves Teller and Hill are charismatic enough to escape with their reputations in tact.
War Dogs is the gym junkie of rise-and-fall movies – tough and mean with little depth. Phillips’ latest places him on thin ice. This, essentially his version of a ‘serious’ effort, is The Social Network and The Big Short evil, immature brother.
Writers: Robert Carlock (screenplay), Kim Barker (memoir)
Stars: Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Alfred Molina
Release date: May 12th, 2016
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Running time: 112 minutes
Best part: The fun performances.
Worst part: The bizarre sense of humour.
Since sitcom 30 Rock‘s ultra-successful run came to its fitting conclusion, actress and writer Tina Fey has splashed out on intriguing big and small screen projects. Despite mixed critical and commercial success, the Saturday Night Live alumni is commendable for breaking down boundaries for women in Hollywood. With that said, I still can’t recommend her latest gamble Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.
This war-dramedy covers the shockingly true events from American international journalist Kim Barker’s memoir The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It begins with a swift, cutting dissection of life for white journalists stuck in Middle-Eastern countries. A loud, debaucherous party halted by a bombing in downtown Kabul during Operation Enduring Freedom. The story then jumps three years backwards. Kim (Fey), covering fluff pieces and writing transcripts for newsreaders, becomes fatigued by the desk-jockey lifestyle in New York. Called up by her superiors, she jumps at the opportunity to report breaking news stories on the other side of the globe. Struggling to balance her war correspondent role and long-distance relationship with Chris (Josh Charles), Kim delves into Kabul’s hypnotic environment.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot has a cornucopia of interesting and groundbreaking concepts at hand. True, the idea of following woman in a man’s world has been tried and tested (Zero Dark Thirty). However, the movie aptly attempts to compare the world’s view of feminism today with that of 13 years ago. Also, a story about 21st Century journalism’s ever-transitioning trajectory is always intriguing (The Newsroom). Sadly, it cannot decide what it wants to do with, or say about, such weighty subject matter. Robert Carlock’s screenplay aims for a dark, deeply personal struggle of job stress and life adjustment. However, directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa – known for genre-bending comedies including I Love You, PhillipMorris, Crazy Stupid Love, and Focus – vie for a blunt, blackly comedic jaunt.
The movie turns into a confused and jumbled mix of war-docudrama and quirky dramedy tropes. Stretched out over an exhaustive 112 minutes, Kim’s interactions with bouncy Australian correspondent Tanya (Margot Robbie), Scottish photojournalist Iain (Martin Freeman), and guide Fahim (Christopher Abbott) play out perfunctorily. Its unique third-act plot twists and biting allure don’t make up for its jarring tonal shifts and lack of depth. Ficarra and Requa’s peculiar sense of humour tars every character with the same brush. The duo’s penchant for out-of-place gross-out gags and unlikable personalities overshadows its arresting premise. Even the US Marines, led by grizzled commander General Hollanek (Billy Bob Thornton), are offensive stereotypes.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot makes a mockery of its war-torn setting, depicting all Afghan citizens as irritable and antagonistic. Worse still, vital Afghan characters including shady government figure Ali Massoud Sadiq (Alfred Molina) are played by British and american actors. Like with Bad Neighbours 2, the drama and comedy rely on the cast’s inherent charisma and commitment. Fey is one of Hollywood’s most likeable performers, with her trademark sarcastic wit elevating the movie’s most trite moments. Robbie relies on her gorgeous allure, struggling to emote through a patchy British accent. Freeman, coming off several blockbusters, fits comfortably back into his quaint, nice-guy persona. Thornton and Molina are charming despite questionable roles.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot marks the dramedy at its most obnoxious and mundane. Fusing your average war-docudrama with a run-of-the-mill Fey project, the movie combines several great tastes that don’t go well together.
Stars: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber
Release date: January 28th, 2016
Distributor: Open Road Films
Running time: 129 minutes
Writer/director/character-actor Tom McCarthy has had a topsy-turvy career chock-a-block with unique choices. From festival hits The Station Agent and The Visitor to Adam Sandler flop The Cobbler, no two projects are the same. His most recent Oscar contender, Spotlight, is the complete opposite of The Revenant, The Big Short, Carol…essentially, everything else up for consideration this season.
Spotlight is a journalism drama/detective-thriller harking back to the old-school style of filmmaking (All the President’s Men, especially). Built from the ground up, the project, thanks to McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer, braves the backlash to discuss one of the past decade’s most arresting true stories. The plot follows The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team – the United States’ oldest operating print investigative-journalism division. The team – comprised of Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson (Michael Keaton), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carol (Brian d’Arcy James) – drop everything to investigate cases of widespread child sex abuse by Roman Catholic Priests throughout Massachusetts.
Make no mistake; this story needed to be told. The events depicted in Spotlight earned the team the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. Yes, this subject matter may deter audiences until its inevitable Netflix release. However, this docudrama deserves the big-screen treatment over January/February schlock. This is the perfect example of a terrific story treated respectfully thanks to talented writers, director, and performers. The team’s movements – watched over by editing staffers Marty Baron (Live Schreiber) and Ben Bradlee, jr. (John Slattery) – look and feel organic. Delving into the pen-and-paper, early 21st Century world of journalism and truth-seeking, each action and reaction is etched carefully into every awe-inspiring frame.
The screenplay and direction combine succinctly, creating a restrained and subtle insight into some of the past century’s most harrowing events. McCarthy’s direction makes a point without ever beating you over the head. Each major twist and turn interweaves efficiently, blending together the investigation, significant political events (9/11), and the characters’ backstories. Aided by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, McCarthy’s vision makes for a mise-en-scene/attention to detail lover’s dream. Above all else, its screenplay adds enough humanity and personality to every scene – making the most difficult events seem relatable. Depicting victims, conspirators, and everyone in between, it’s hard to fathom just how accurate and necessary this docudrama is (and will hopefully remain).
The cast adapts to McCarthy’s style, their true-to-life counterparts, and confronting subject matter with aplomb. Keaton, coming off a career-best performance in Birdman, is a charismatic force as a leader stuck between a rock and a hard place. Ruffalo and McAdams deliver lively impressions of their enthusiastic and determined real-life counterparts. Character-actors Schreiber, Slattery, James, and Stanley Tucci commit to consequential roles.
Spotlight will make you angry, highlighting just how evil the Catholic Church became over several decades (without hindrance!). This docudrama is a tight, taut, and detailed insight into journalism, a devastating socio-political issue, and a community in tatters.
Verdict: Necessary and impactful viewing.
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Writer: Emma Donoghue (screenplay and novel)
Stars : Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, William H. Macy
Release date: January 28th, 2016
Country: Canada, Ireland
Running time: 117 minutes
Room, not to be confused with cult-flop The Room, is a masterclass in single-setting, survival-thriller filmmaking. Compared to everything else blockbuster and Oscar related from 2015 (favouring spectacle slightly over substance), it is one of the more down-to-Earth big-screen experiences.
This drama is certainly not for the faint-hearted, dealing with subject matter the greater population chooses to ignore. The plot revolves entirely around Joy (Brie Larson) and her 5-year-old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay)’s relationship. Confined to a single room, the two form a cohesive dynamic over an extended period. Later, as a sinister figure enters the room every night, the film reveals the full extent of their situation.
Room, like the other Oscar contenders this year, chronicles a relatable character trapped in a nightmarish situation. Based on screenwriter Emma Donoghue’s book, the story runs parallel to confronting new stories from the past decade. The titular space only takes up the first half, with Joy and Jack adapting to their predicament. Their behaviour – acknowledging everything within the room, Joy teaching Jack about the world outside, Jack’s development shifting from open-book toddler to hard-to-control child – all adhere to reality. The room becomes a being in itself, with the TV, bathtub, skylight, and kitchen key character traits.
Director Lenny Abrahamson (What Richard Did, Frank) has zero intention of making the same movie twice. Room, although more confronting and visceral than you would imagine, takes a sharp turn in the second half. After Joy and Jack’s escape from imprisonment, Abrahamson bravely balances plot and theme with strong emotional heft. As Jack discovers the intricacies of this big, blue marble, Joy suffers severe, disarming cases of PTSD, malnutrition, and depression. As her mum, Nancy (Joan Allen), dad, Robert (William H. Macy), and step-dad, Leo (Tom McCamus) step in, Joy and Jack are torn asunder by shocking spiritual, physical, and psychological hurdles. For they and us, it becomes almost too hard to cope.
Room, unfortunately, has several difficult-to-ignore inconsistencies and false notes. In particular, the score comes in at inopportune moments – drowning out dialogue and trying too hard to tug the right strings. However, Room also delivers the best set piece of 2015 – as Jack, initially shocked by seeing the outside world in person, pretends to be dead, jumps out of a pickup truck, and rushes for help in the space of a few seconds. It’s performances are similarly exhilarating, with Larson a she-in for this year’s Best Actress gong. Tremblay is a treasure, exuding equal amounts of charm and grief in every frame.
Room makes for a confronting experience, hitting close to home whilst finding the light within the darkness. Its tender craftsmanship proves less really is more in Oscar-season entertainment.
Verdict: A heart-breaking ode to the human spirit.
Writer: Phyllis Nagy (screenplay), Patricia Highsmith (novel)
Stars: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler
Release date: January 14th, 2016
Distributors: The Weinstein Company, StudioCanal
Country: USA, UK
Running time: 118 minutes
Romantic-drama Carol is one of the biggest Oscar contenders of 2015. From the outset, the movie packs a significant punch – featuring a socio-political/forever taboo topic, a stacked cast, and talented director. It fits the definition of a critical darling – resembling the type of drama people shower with praise during Oscar season.
Thankfully, with Carol, the wave of positive feedback and awards is warranted – benefitting the aforementioned pedigree, subject matter, and alluring narrative. The story is set in the 1950s New York City, illuminating the last era of formality and normality in US history. Aspiring photographer Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) is struggling to be enthusiastic about her life. Working at a high-end department store, she instantly connects with single mother Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett).
The narrative, similarly to similar LGBT-related dramas/love stories (Brokeback Mountain), revolves around a touching, slow-build romance between polar opposites. Based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, the film illuminates the original text’s fascination with 50s-era existence. Thanks to Phyllis Nagy’s screenplay, the film relates issues of yesterday to today’s socio-political climate. Without overstating its welcome, the film makes for a startling reminder of society’s unease and disdain.
Focusing on the essential aspects, the central conflict revolves around Carol and Therese’s yin-yang dynamic. Director Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine, I’m Not There), avoids convention at every affecting twist and turn. In a nonlinear fashion, the story finds its focal point in the opening scene before flashing back to the beginnings of Carol and Therese’s connection. Haynes, handling similar material with Far From Heaven, depicts their relationship with reverence and restraint.
The performances solidify Carol’s emotional impact and socio-political resonance. Blanchett, with two Oscars for searing performances in The Aviator and Blue Jasmine, is undoubtedly one of contemporary cinema’s finest actresses. Stepping outside her comfort zone once again, the Australian icon immerses herself in this confronting role. If not for Brie Larson in Room, Blanchett would be picking up a third Oscar this season. Similarly, Mara portrays the tiniest details with careful precision. Matching Blanchett point by point, this still-rising star conveys her character’s inner turmoil with class.
Carol is a unique romantic-drama and character study – with Haynes, the screenplay, and the performers bringing humanity and dignity to a thought-provoking tale.
Writers: Lucinda Coxon (screenplay), David Ebershoff (book)
Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ben Whishaw
Release date: January 21st, 2016
Distributors: Focus Features, Universal Pictures International
Countries: UK, USA, Belgium
Running time: 119 minutes
The Danish Girl is chock-a-block with everything you would expect from an Oscar-bait docudrama. The director’s style resembles that ‘British’ style of period-piece filmmaking, the script ties itself too closely to a subject you cannot ignore, whilst the actors and performances reek of attention-seeking theatrics. From a mile away, this docudrama comes off like a template of everything done 1000 times before.
The Danish Girl is not as trite or idiotic as you would expect, but it is still not good either. The story examines one of the most inspiring transgender cases in modern history. It begins with the sizzling marriage between artists Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) and Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander) in mid-1920 Copenhagen, Denmark. Gerda, to attract attention from local art galleries, paints portrait paintings of Einer in women’s clothing. However, after a string of outings in the get-up, Einer reveals his inner self – a woman named Lili Elbe he has hidden for decades.
The film marks a cavernous rift between story, direction, and performances. This version of events, based on the 2000 novel of the same name by David Ebershoff, is only loosely based on the interesting, socially relevant true story. Being the first recorded case of gender reassignment surgery, these events deserve more than Hooper’s self-conscious, tepid interpretation. The screenplay, unsure of its intended audience, shows and tells throughout the film’s exhaustive run-time. After each revelation and emotionally gripping moment, the characters forcefully describe their thoughts, feelings, and actions.
Director Tom Hooper had similar troubles bringing The King’s Speech and Les Miserables to life. Like his preceding Oscar favourites, his style overshadows and eventually suffocates the intriguing central premise. His direction – based around ‘unique’ camera angles and movements – steals the spotlight. However, Hooper never confronts or delves into the significant social, cultural, and psychological themes.
Thanks to Hooper and Redmayne, the film presents timid versions of transgender characters. Redmayne’s repetitive, one-note performance is insulting – depicting Einer/Lili’s conflict by touching fabric, quivering, blinking uncontrollably, whispering, and wincing in every scene. Since his Oscar-winning performance in The Theory of Everything, the performer has shown limited range and subtlety. Vikander eclipses her counterpart, bringing personality and charm to a difficult role.
Stars: Andre Benjamin, Hayley Atwell, Imogen Poots, Andrew Buckley
Release date: October 24th, 2014
Distributor: XLrator Media
Countries: UK, Ireland
Running time: 118 minutes
Best part: Andre Benjamin.
Worst part: Ridley’s direction.
When handling a true story, the producers, writers, directors, actors etc. involved have momentous duties to uphold. As Hollywood’s taste for docudramas and biopics grows hastily, we’re getting more true stories than ever. Attracting specific audiences (those learning about the subject matter and those already aware), these movies are designed to accelerate ongoing discussions. Jimi: All Is By My Side is the latest docudrama to aptly cover a well-known musician. So, why the average rating?
Andre Benjamin as Jimi Hendrix.
There are several factors keeping me from loving Jimi: All Is By My Side. Despite Ridley and co.’s affections, its flaws are more irritating and obvious than a narc at Woodstock. Like an old Republican yelling “get off my lawn!” at a drum circle, the movie breaks up the party before the cool stuff happens. In all fairness, the cast and crew aren’t to blame. In fact, the studio executives – normally responsible for on-set turbulence – let free will and bright ideas take control. Picking through enthralling facts and details, the movie crafts a spirited yet inconsistent take on Jimi Hendrix’s life. The movie kick off in a lowly, New York jazz club in 1966. Chronicling one year of Jimi'(Andre Benjamin)’s existence, the opening scene holds the cards and plays them succinctly. As a sideman to several forgettable acts, his career looks to be heading nowhere. Refusing to take anything seriously, the younger Hendrix lives a hazy, simplicity fuelled lifestyle. One night, he catches the eye of Rolling Stone guitarist Keith Richards’ girlfriend Linda Keith (Imogen Poots). Despite being mistaken for a groupie, Linda’s street-smarts and moxy pull people into the spotlight. After Hendrix’s discovery, aided by The Animals’ enthusiastic manager Chas Chandler (Andrew Buckley), the mesmerising musician turns friends, lovers, and record label executives against him.
Benjamin & Hayley Atwell.
Despite the true story’s value, Jimi: All Is By My Side‘s production issues overshadow the final product. Criticised by Hendrix’s former flame Kathy Etchingham (Played by Hayley Atwell here), its agenda is cause for concern. Also, writer/director John Ridley, lacking permission from Hendrix LLC (Hendrix’s estate), couldn’t use any of the singer/songwriter’s phenomenal tracks. Hindered by these restrictions, this biopic opts for a more subdued and modest approach. Ridley, having tackled story and screenplay duties for everything from Undercover Brother to 12 Years a Slave, lends a strong-willed touch to this project. Avoiding most musical-biopic cliches, Ridley dissects the guitarist’s love of music, women, music, philosophy, music, weed, and music. Infatuated with the subject matter, Ridley’s project explores the under-the-surface elements. This biopic, capturing the ins and outs of Hendrix’s identity, examines a time before the fame, fortune, classic tunes, and copycats. Avoiding America’s bright-lights music scene, its microscope-like, small-scale focus on the London years delivers several invigorating sequences and enthralling revelations. Set before revelatory first album Are You Experienced‘s release, and the Monterey Jazz Festival, the year-long storyline never hinges on his current, long-lasting notoriety. Utilising cover songs (Benjamin’s ‘Wild Thing’ cover is used twice) and extensive guitar riffs, Ridley’s glowing affection hits like reverb and pot smoke.
“I want my music to inside the soul of a person. For me it’s colours, I want people to feel the music the same way I see it.” (Jimi Hendrix (Andre Benjamin), Jimi: All Is By My Side).
Benjamin & Imogen Poots.
Despite avoiding the ‘greatest hits’ structure of Jersey Boys and Get on Up, Jimi: All Is By My Side resembles fantasy wrapped in docudrama’s bright clothing. Dodging any discussion of civil rights, the movie – like its subject – lacks clear vision and purpose. Presenting the rule-makers and rule-breakers evenly, Ridley’s 1960s is as disarming as Hendrix’s stash. Unceremoniously, the third act relishes in Jimi’s abuse of music industry practices, weed, and women. Certain sequences, including one featuring Jimi bludgeoning Kathy with a phone, rift against its hallucinogenic flow. Sadly, Ridley breaks his stings well before the climax. Having written for Steve McQueen, Oliver Stone, and David O. Russell, his style is a frenzying but overcooked mix of visual flourishes. Affectionate for this specific time and place, the archival footage, elaborate production design, and magnetic score alleviate the tension and existential crises. Unfortunately, Ridley’s direction – smashing together sound-bites, freeze frames, cut-aways, and jump cuts – rifts against the production’s restraints. Despite the visual and narrative incoherence, the performances save it from obscurity and unoriginality. Benjamin, known as Andre 3000 of RnB group Outkast, its scintillating as one of music history’s biggest hitters. Blitzing previous performances from Four Brothers and Semi-Pro, his overt charisma elevates this stagnant effort. Poots and Atwell, two of Hollywood’s most underrated women, deliver fun turns in intriguing roles.
Despite lacking ‘Foxy Lady’, ‘All Along the Watchtower’, ‘Voodoo Chile’, ‘Castles Made of Sand’ etc., Jimi: All Is By My Side swaggers and spins around production issues. Thanks to Ridley’s quiet reserve and spirited style, the movie appeals to Hendrix aficionados and average film-goers. If anything, it will attract more people to the master’s discography. Hell, it may get some hooked on ganja! However, despite the ambition and allure, Ridley overworks several gimmicky flourishes. Too bad Hendrix’s Estate isn’t as laid-back.
Stars: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Vanessa Redgrave
Release date: November 14th, 2014
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Running time: 130 minutes
Best part: The impressive performances.
Worst part: The underutilised female characters.
Every so often, Hollywood creates an effort of unconscionable grace and virtue. These achievements, from well-orchestrated winners to surprise hits, are preserved for present and future generations to admire. More often than not, these admirable efforts are composed of memorable scenes, quotes, and performances. Many classics are defined by people you’d least suspect. Turns like Judi Dench in the Bond saga, Heath Ledger as the Joker, or even Chris Tucker in Silver Linings Playbook can elevate anything.
So, how does this apply to 2014 Oscar contender Foxcatcher? Surprisingly, stunt casting solidifies the movie’s flawless execution and award-worthy glow. Suffering from crippling production and distribution issues throughout the past decade, the movie was almost closed off from humanity. Discarded from the public’s view, the movie – despite the stellar cast and intriguing story – struggled to find some attention. However, this year’s film festival circuit delivered a well-deserved boost. It may not appeal to everyone, but this crime-drama is worth the admission cost. A talking point across the world, the story, set in the 1980s, chronicles one of the past century’s most shocking true stories. depicting philanthropist John Eleuthere du Pont’s brutal murder of Olympic wrestling champion David Schultz, the movie depicts the harsh roads taken toward said horrific events. Throughout this docudrama, we follow blue-collar wrestler and lost soul Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum). Stranded in affectionate older brother David(Mark Ruffalo)’s shadow, he is ignored by his family, the Olympic committee, and the public. One day, after a solid training session with his sibling, he receives a call du Pont’s Foxcatcher estate. The du Pont family, known for a long-standing empire and inherent waspishness, boost Mark’s life. John (Steve Carell) tasks him with forging a top-shelf wrestling program.
Channing Tatum & Mark Ruffalo.
Throughout the 130-minute run-time, Foxcatcher sticks to true events and never shows mercy. In the opening credits sequence, Director Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball) crafts a microscope-level examination of the du Pont family. This sequence, depicting archival footage of the Foxcatcher farm in Pennsylvania, alludes to the dynasty’s desire for ‘Britishness’. Their colossal mansion becomes this drama-thriller’s pristine backdrop. Shown to train horses and raise hounds, this docudrama casts an eerie fog over events. Delivering another unforgettable cinematic thrill-ride, Miller’s style courses through frames like blood cells through Tatum’s muscles. Capote showcases an acclaimed writer’s analysis of a horrific crime, while Moneyball depicts America’s infatuation with one of its most popular sports. Foxcatcheris a visceral and haunting concoction of Miller’s previous features. Fusing said concepts succinctly, it depicts a balletic dance between patriotism, obsession, power, and betrayal. Relating his situation to Mark’s, John yearns for power, victory, and masculinity. Avoiding typical docudrama tropes, Miller establishes himself as a keen-eyed observer – setting up the camera and watching confounding events unfold. The first half, focusing entirely on Mark and John’s eyebrow-raising dynamic, carefully dissects their discomforting mentor/protege relationship. Showcasing wrestling’s role-models and cash-cows, its sport-as-religion agenda hits stupendously hard. Revelling in an unrefined pastime, its wrestling sequences elevate the tension. Throwing themselves – literally and figuratively – across the mat, this resonant sports-drama steadily transitions into a potent psychological-thriller.
“A coach is the father. A coach is a mentor. A coach has great power on athlete’s life.” (John du Pont (Steve Carell), Foxcatcher).
Tatum & Carell.
Evolving beyond the central plot-thread, Foxcatcher transitions into a thought-provoking cautionary tale. Shifting to David and John’s professional relationship, the narrative – similarly to Mark – transforms into a touchy and unpredictable beast. Building to a heartbreaking conclusion, this crime-drama thrusts each expression, outburst, and comedic interlude. Breaking into John’s disturbing worldview, Foxcatcher crafts a fascinating antagonist. In one scene, John, snorting cocaine on his way to a fundraising event, forces Mark to practice his speech. Introducing John to the guests, Mark practices his pronunciation of three valuable words: ornithologist, philatelist, and philanthropist. In these select moments, Miller presents the creepy sports enthusiast as a belligerent child wrapped in blinding arrogance. Alluding to John’s damaged childhood, the movie constructs a meticulous and terrifying puzzle worthy of consideration. Whilst acquainted himself with Mark, John asks him to stop calling him “sir” or “Mr. Du Pont” and instead call him “Eagle”, “Golden Eagle”, or simply “John”. Blinded by an absurd sense of entitlement, John’s grand vision of the future and gaping insecurities led to his immense downfall. Atop a pedestal, John’s jingoism and artificiality depict only small shreds of his psyche. However, the movie presents John’s mother, Jean (Vanessa Redgrave), as the major obstacle John never shrugged off. Despite the invigorating narrative, the female characters obtain little screen-time – relegating David’s wife, Nancy (Sienna Miller), to the background.
More so than touching story-telling and subdued visuals, Miller’s determination enhances this gripping and intelligent docudrama. Like with Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote and Jonah Hill in Moneyball, Foxcatcher‘s peculiar casting choices succeed wholeheartedly. Carell, Tatum, and Ruffalo – earning Oscar nominations in well-crafted roles – enhance their comedic chops and charismatic personas. Like our lead characters’ mentor/student conflicts, this experience wrestles with harsh truths and deep-seeded emotions.
Verdict: A magnificent and gruelling Oscar contender.
Writers: Graham Moore (screenplay), Andrew Hodges (book)
Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Mark Strong
Release date: November 14th, 2014
Distributors: StudioCanal, The Weinstein Company
Countries: UK, USA
Running time: 114 minutes
Best part: The charming performances.
Worst part: The last 15-20 minutes.
Mathematician, logician, computer scientist, cryptanalyst. Worthy of this Tony Stark-esque description, one aspiring man one undertook these phenomenal professions simultaneously. The man, subject of front-running Oscar contender The Imitation Game, is one of history’s bravest and most inspirational people. In fact, his momentous inventions and experiments have paved the way for some of modern civilisation’s most valuable technological advancements.
Benedict Cumberbatch & Charles Dance.
Beyond the positives, The Imitation Gamepresents key World War II figure Alan Turing’s life as a battle between arrogance and modesty. Early on, after his introduction into British Intelligence’s darkest depths, the game-changing scientist compares himself to Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton. Refusing to promote his sterling accomplishments, the twenty-something compliments the aforementioned geniuses for making momentous strides at younger ages. From there, this spy-drama depicts his momentous journey. The movie, despite the premise, starts off in a different part of his life. In 1951, after examining a suspicious robbery at Turing(Benedict Cumberbatch)’s Manchester abode, the lead investigator, Detective Nock (Rory Kinnear), seeks to learn more about him. Unexpectedly, his mission kickstarts a baffling chain of events. During an interrogation, Turing relays his life story. Jumping back to WWII, the movie then kick-starts its central plot-line. Turing – transported to top-secret Government Code and Cypher School, Bletchley Park – butts heads with Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance). Adjusting to the experience, the aspirational yet anti-social brainiac grates against fellow academics including Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), John Carincross (Allen Leech), and Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard). Enlisting British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s support, our team sets out to crack Nazi Germany’s notorious Enigma Code with Turing’s £100,000 code-deciphering machine.
The Imitation Game‘s convoluted premise appears tiresome and confusing. Largely ignored by the public, average film-goers might skip it in favour of Channing Tatum’s latest psychological-thriller (Foxcatcher) or Tim Burton’s latest visual splendour (Big Eyes). With said big names vying for our attention, the movie may only resonate with a select few. However, the movie charts one of modern history’s greatest stories. The central plot-line – pitting Turing against colleagues, higher-ups, underrated newcomer Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), and MI6 representative Maj. Gen. Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong) – clicks like Turing’s inventions. Inspired heavily by The Social Network and A Beautiful Mind, this plot-line delivers a fun assortment of pithy dialogue, intricate flourishes, and Oscar-calibre moments. As the clock ticks down, this story-thread simmers over the proverbial fires of war. Uncovering a web of conspiracy and degradation, this small-scale thriller discusses modern political and technological issues. With freedom at stake, this docudrama places us in Turing’s blockish shoes. As battles rage on across the channel, the ego-driven feuds become increasingly more interesting. Punctuated by dynamic turns from the enthralling cast, certain scenes summarise the story’s immense worth. Unfortunately, director Morten Tyldum (Headhunters) and screenwriter Graham Moore don’t trust in this plot-line. Interested more so in politics than action, our filmmaker and writer craft a meaningful tale about code-breakers and desk jockeys. However, narrative’s gear-churning shifts distort the pacing and tension. Hindering the touching personal moments, its non-linear structure lessens the impact.
“Sometimes, it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.” (Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), The Imitation Game).
Our code-cracking team.
Jumping between this story-line, the ’51 investigation, and Turing’s childhood, screen-time is needlessly confiscated from vital moments. Adding little to The Imitation Game‘s narrative, two of said plot-lines merely lessen the impact. Delivering corny dialogue and heavy-handed symbolism, the boarding school sequences become major distractions. Despite the magnetic first-two thirds, the last act speeds through plot-points, historical moments, and revelations similarly to Turing code-breaking process. Skimming over thematically resonant moments, the movie relies too much on its last few scenes and closing inter-titles. The underlying conflict, concerning Turing’s sexual orientation, is scarcely commented on. Thanks to its simple-minded liberal message, it becomes a King’s Speech-esque Oscar-baiter. Despite the issues, it combines Britain’s brightest talents to achieve a commendable vision. Separating the movie’s three time periods, Maria Djurkovic’s production design paints a haunting picture of the era. Capturing Tyldum’s attention to detail, each shot houses a rich representation of WWII England. In addition, Alexandre Desplat’s score delivers emotional weight throughout. In addition, Cumberbatch’s performance and Turing’s arc are worth the admission cost. Being one of the movie’s many skinny, Lizard-like cast members, the British actor – in his first scene with Dance – establishes himself as one of cinema’s most alluring talents. Strong, Knightley, Goode, and Dance deliver nuanced turns in compelling roles.
Turing, whose public backlash and conviction for gross indecency led to his suicide at 41, proved one person, against all odds, can make a difference. Like our inquisitive and socially awkward subject, The Imitation Game cracks the vital codes and pushes the right buttons to achieve significant results. Despite the typical Weinstein Company production issues, this historical-drama places its circuit boards and wires together in an effective sequence.
Writers: Paul Harris Boardman, Scott Derrickson (screenplay), Mara Leveritt (book)
Stars: Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon, Mireille Enos, Dane DeHaan
Release date: May 9th, 2014
Distributor: Image Entertainment
Running time: 114 minutes
Best part: The enrapturing performances.
Worst part: The laboured pace.
Today, our news-media system delivers more threatening news stories than ingenious ideas. Instead of travelling in the appropriate direction, commercialised new reports unnervingly pump stories into the airwaves. One momentous story shook the world back in 1993, but has taken a couple of decades to come into prominence. The West Memphis Three saga hit Middle America harder than any political dilemma, Fox News controversy, or racial conundrum could ever hope to. This story, thanks to the good ol’ money-hungry Hollywood forces, is now the subject of a star-studded yet bloated docudrama.
Mishandling the invigorating material, Devil’s Knot, based on Mara Leveritt’s 2002 book of the same name, becomes yet another ambitious yet underwhelming biographical account. Given a dodgy release date by the Hollywood cash machine, this crime-thriller has seemingly been forgotten by everyone associated with it. With its starry cast and intriguing director/writer team, this docudrama could, and should, have honoured this devastating true story. Following on from such influential documentaries as the Paradise Lost series and Peter Jackson’s 2011 hit West of Memphis, Devil’s Knot doesn’t even leave a fingerprint on those features. Examining this potent subject matter with ambiguity and verve, the aforementioned documentaries gave us conclusive insights into this topic. Embarrassingly, Canadian stage and screen icon Atom Egoyan (Exotica) tries to push those expository efforts out of the way. Arrogantly, this acclaimed director, thanks to his blinding gaze, delivers a one-sided account of touchy events. His feature starts off with the true story’s horrific facts. The narrative begins with modest married couple Pamela and Terry Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon and Alessandro Nivola) stressing over the whereabouts of Pamela’s son, Stevie Branch, and his friends, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore. Contacting the authorities, the couple watches on in horror as a missing persons report is filed. Finding their bodies several days later, the police, along with private investigator Ron Lax (Colin Firth), further examine this life-altering tragedy.
As we know, a month later, gothic teenagers Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr. were arrested and charged in connection with this appalling crime. From the opening scene, it becomes painfully clear that Egoyan and screenwriters Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson are afraid of the material they’ve taken on. The saying goes: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Sadly, by developing a fictionalised/dramatic account of this event, Egoyan and co. step too far outside their comfort zones. Bringing his unique style to this heartbreaking true story, Egoyan’s effort delivers more stylistic flourishes and brash opinions than groundbreaking touches and invigorating sequences. This TV-movie-like interpretation, by painting in broad strokes, doesn’t tell us anything new about the case. Avoiding neutral touches and invigorating concepts, Devil’s Knot awkwardly jumps from one depthless plot-point to the next. Unsurprisingly, the opening sequences reflect those of Gone Baby Gone and Mystic River. Introducing potent themes and dangerous characters, this crime-thriller delivers an exhaustive amount of red herrings and societal boundaries. Throughout the first third, the camera lingers on a broken town hindered by this destructive event. as rednecks clash with authoritative figures, Egoyan’s account immediately begins pointing fingers and naming names. Forcing one-or-two people’s viewpoints into each frame, this crime-thriller’s narrative rubs critics and filmgoers the wrong way. Looking down upon the deep south’s cultural practices and disturbed communities, caricature-like performances and heavy-handed symbolism ruin this otherwise well-intentioned docudrama.
“The state is gonna kill three men, and I can’t stand by and watch that happen.” (Ron Lax (Colin Firth), Devil’s Knot).
One of many courtroom scenes.
The narrative, moving beyond the monotonous detective-drama plot, sluggishly transitions into a cliche-ridden and laughable courtroom drama. Amicably, this section analyses the police department’s disgusting miscarriages of justice throughout the investigation. However, attempting to turn into a concoction of To Kill and Mocking Bird and Primal Fear, the movie’s ever-pressing conflict tries and fails to develop clear-cut heroes and villains. Bookmarking certain clues and scenes, some factions are depicted as stereotypes and apathetic hindrances. Egoyan and co. may as well have written “Bad Guy” on certain characters’ foreheads. In addition, Egoyan’s unsubtle visual style draws bizarre conclusions throughout the intricate narrative. Telling and showing us certain actions and reactions, the characters’ testimonies become irritating, narration-driven interludes. Sucking the tension out of this discomforting crime-drama, his experimental visuals – adding specific filters, grains, and editing tricks to dreary scenes – drown this feature in inappropriate flourishes, kooky moments, and trite storytelling beats. Further harming Egoyan’s vision, our eclectic performers are mistreated within significant roles. Firth, despite tackling a different type of role, is woefully miscast as the straight-laced investigator and bitter divorcee. Sharing valuable scenes with Mireille Enos, Amy Ryan, and Elias Koteas, Firth struggles to maintain his raspy, hick-drenched accent. Witherspoon, putting on weight for this project, is stranded in a one-note role. Her character, despite being the emotional core, is left to sob heartily throughout a needless subplot. In her defence, she fares better than Dane DeHaan, Kevin Durand, Bruce Greenwood, and Steven Moyer.
Placing its director’s vision and sycophantic viewpoints above the material, Devil’s Knot carries a wavering pace, dour tone, and tiresome genre conventions toward its shallow finale. Preceding cinematic endeavours, analysing the issue and developing vital interpretations, drastically overshadow this insufferable effort. Predictably, this unnecessary and obvious docudrama says nothing new about the West Memphis Three saga. If it ain’t broke, don’t break it just to gain attention.
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner, Steve Zahn
Release date: February 13th, 2014
Distributor: Focus Features
Running time: 116 minutes
Best part: McConaughey and Leto.
Worst part: The obvious symbolism.
Today, the first world looks to Hollywood for inspiration. Despite being an easy target, film and TV industries deliver symbols and heroic figures. Thanks to grand illusions, we forget that celebrities are people too. These awe-inspiring figures aren’t simply high profile people collecting giant paycheques while posing for photographs. It’d be easy for celebrities – bombarded with blissful opportunities, temptations, and fan-bases – to make simplistic choices. The late 1990s and early 00s housed laughing stock turned celebrated actor Matthew McConaughey’s extraordinary ascension. Falling into the leading man slot, he picked roles based on giant paycheques and mass marketing campaigns. However, he’s recently proven his worth within the ever-shrinking A-list club.
Fortunately, McConaughey’s slew of award-worthy movies – forming the aptly titled ‘McConaissance’ – has bolstered his once-declining filmography. With his star shining brighter then ever, low-key docudrama Dallas Buyers Club hurls this dynamic actor into serious Oscar contention. However, despite the praise, one mind-boggling performance doesn’t make for a wholly compelling docudrama. Continuing this Oscar season’s trend of fusing darkly eclectic docudramas with powerful performance pieces, the movie relies entirely on the courage of its convictions. The movie chronicles rebellious loner turned dilapidated pharmaceutical figure Ron Woodroof. We meet Woodroof during awkward yet eye-catching circumstances. Woodroof, a serial womaniser and irritable misanthrope, leads a repetitive and tiresome existence. Gambling over rodeo bull rides and card games, his insatiable lifestyle reaches critical and disastrous conditions. With his ‘enviable’ lifestyle delivering countless surprises, his identity shifts violently after an industrial accident. At his local hospital, he is diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. Taken aback by his condition, his existence is turned upside down. With his friends’ prejudices pushing him away, Woodroof finds solace through drugs and alcohol. At this point, the movie becomes a familiar yet likeable drama aching for attention. Beyond McConaughey’s physical, mental, and emotional transformations (losing 18kg for the role), the movie’s sterling attention to detail and spiritual weight launches it into overdrive.
My praise for this significant actor can’t be undone. Over the past three years, McConaughey – gracefully embodying ruthless yet sympathetic criminals (Mud), middle-aged strippers (Magic Mike), honourable and vicious hitmen (Killer Joe), and straight-laced professionals (Bernie, The Paperboy, The Lincoln Lawyer) – has become Hollywood’s most dexterous actor. Graciously, the Texan artist saved his best performance for this potent and Oscar-worthy docudrama. Though not quite reaching The Wolf of Wall Street and Killer Joe‘s standards, Dallas Buyers Clubdelivers heartwarming and confronting qualities. Based on this extraordinary true story, the movie blissfully and honourably explores American history’s most taboo subject. The AIDS epidemic, explored in major releases like Philadelphia, hits like an impactful gut-punch. Despite informative and controversial subject matter, the movie never asks for sympathy. Unlike similar medical dramas, the movie never looks down upon its morally driven characters. In fact, for the most part, the movie refuses to sit patiently in a hospital waiting room. Emphatically immersing us in Woodroof’s journey, this Erin Brockovich-like docudrama becomes a love letter to Middle America’s unique inhabitants. Thankfully, Woodroof and his enlightening journey are insatiably empathetic. Despite his brash personality, this character arc becomes a tangible and exhilarating thrill-ride. Driving through an entrancing time period, this movie’s 20-year production history, coming from a loving place, touches on this and last century’s most debilitating issues. Despite its obvious flaws, the movie’s immaculate relevance pushes it into Oscar territory. The story’s parallels chart Woodroof’s shocking transformations. In comparing Woodroof’s pre and post diagnosis lifestyles, the movie’s cliches stick out. In the first few scenes, Woodroof is the pinnacle of manliness. Snorting cocaine, throwing around dollar bills, and setting up saucy threesomes, certain traits telegraph Woodroof’s overt transformation. Pushing him into the country’s gay, lesbian, and transgender community, this homophobic and anger-fuelled man’s journey is eye-rollingly overt.
“Let me give y’all a little news flash. There ain’t nothin’ out there can kill f*uckin’ Ron Woodroof in 30 days.” (Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), Dallas Buyers Club).
Comparing Woodroof to animals and rodeo clowns, the movie’s heartening screenplay throws awkward moments into enthralling sections. Guided by his own middle finger, Woodroof’s abrasiveness and tenacity almost distort this otherwise heart-wrenching docudrama. Despite its overwhelming richness, Dallas Buyers Club‘s sappy moments and manipulative lines distract from profound narrative. With Woodroof’s transgender friend/business partner Rayon (Jared Leto) becoming a cognitive part of the Dallas Buyers Club, the movie’s touching relationships should’ve provided a well-rounded perspective. However, despite Woodroof’s commendable intentions, the movie delivers two dimensional discussions about major pharmaceutical companies, the American Medical Association, and the Food and Drug Administration. Depicted as insultingly villainous, the movie’s antagonists highlight its forceful agenda. Due to an ethically questionable screenplay, Dallas Buyers Club presents broad sub-plots and characterisations without delivering a textured viewpoint. Condemning experimental AIDS drug AZT, the movie hypocritically dishes out awkward side effects. However, director Jean-Marc Vallee(The Young Victoria)’s unique visual style elevates the questionable material. Hurling bleak colour patterns and practical effects across the screen, Vallee’s infatuation with this true story becomes evident. Thanks to the movie’s sickeningly dark turns, this mature and nuanced style amicably suits the material. Beyond Woodroof’s prowess, the performances bolster this conventional anti-hero character study. McConaughey’s turn is simply jaw-dropping. Adding confronting mannerisms to his sycophantic turn, MConaughey’s commitment is thesis worthy. In addition, Leto, known for Requiem for a Dream and Lord of War, fits comfortably into his bizarre and heartbreaking role. Leto’s first acting gig in six years places him in strong contention for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Unfortunately, the supporting characters are sorely underdeveloped. Jennifer Garner’s character, Dr Eve Saks, is a single minded and inconsistent plot device. Despite these gripes, Garner performs admirably in this middling role. Expanding her range, Garner’s inherent charm pushes her through the emotionally impactful final third.
Dallas Buyers Club, despite its niggling flaws, is an enjoyably manic docudrama. Thanks to his scintillating transformation, McConaughey shows that big-name actors aren’t just in it for the thrills. He, despite his peculiar reputation, is systematically changing the game. Like Woodroof’s work, McConaughey’s process expands our ever-growing universe. Along with Leto and Garner elevating mediocre characterisations, the movie’s intelligent messages, acute sense of humour, and shocking twists elevate it above Oscar-bait territory.
Verdict: A taut, thought-provoking, and touching docudrama.
Writer: William Nicholson (screenplay), Nelson Mandela (autobiography)
Stars: Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Tony Kgoroge, Riaad Moosa
Release date: January 3rd, 2014
Distributors: 20th Century Fox, The Weinstein Company
Countries: UK, South Africa
Running time: 146 minutes
Best part: Elba and Harris.
Worst part: The confused narrative.
Throughout the 20th century, certain political figures and celebrities reached for the stars. They ignored backlash and threats to conquer their dreams and make the world a better place. This may seem sappy, but humanity’s more positive aspects can reshape the world’s structures. One such person was Nelson Mandela. Mandela comes to mind at opportune moments. Mandela proved that one person really could make a difference. With his death shattering the world last year, he was an inspirational public figure and determined human being. Inevitably, biopics about this spectacular man, over the past decade, have come thick and fast.
The most recent entry in this blissfully specific genre, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, wholeheartedly strives to blanket his immense life story. This broad and aimless docudrama travels down a familiar road. Covering typical biopic trappings, the movie becomes a vacuously unsuccessful Oscar-hungry monster. Looking back on Mandela’s significant life story, the movie’s wavering and untrustworthy reach exceeds its weak grasp. However, despite the wasted potential, it still features several overwhelmingly commendable qualities. Despite this enthralling tale, the movie explores and comments on too much at once. Despite my harsh words, these criticisms are warranted. To take on a project of this magnitude, studios must step back, hire commendable writers and directors, and let certain biopics follow specific paths. Sadly, this production’s producers and studios sugarcoat this fascinating narrative. Long Walk to Freedom begins with a teenage Mandela embracing South Africa’s rich tribal culture. Becoming one with the four elements, Mandela convinces himself he’s ready for a purposeful and daunting life. The movie then jumps forward, and a 30-something Mandela (Idris Elba) is presented as the black community’s spirited saviour. Standing up for innocent civilians in court, he becomes a prolific symbol of black power and freedom. Protesting legislation changes as part of the African National Congress, Mandela promotes equality whilst speaking out against apartheid.
Biopics usually go one of two ways: either focusing on specific parts of a person’s life (Lincoln) or depicting timelines covering everything from humble beginnings to untimely deaths (Ghandi). Despite this story’s commendable aspects, Long Walk to Freedomdoesn’t deliver new information. Everyone with some knowledge of global affairs is aware of Mandela’s immense power and courage. Relying intensely on well-known facts and archival footage, the movie delivers a broad and underwhelming account of Mandela’s journey. The movie’s tagline reads: “Revolutionary. Prisoner. President”. Sadly, the movie provides precious little depth beyond these three significant words. Here, Mandela’s actions, motivations, and internal conflicts are under-utilised. The movie never examines Mandela’s ethical, spiritual, and moral codes. Presenting this strong-willed man as an all-encompassing symbol, the movie resembles a statue. Admittedly, this is a strange statement. However, like a statue, the movie presents a towering presence without utilising emotional weight or humanistic qualities. In addition, Long Walk to Freedom is just as static. Despite its inspirational narrative, this cumbersome biopic is inflicted with clumsy pacing and jarring tonal shifts. Screenwriter William Nicholson (Gladiator) inconsistently juggles this story’s cognitive and note-worthy qualities. Awkwardly lurching from one important event to the next, Mandela’s life is summed up in brief sequences. Throughout the first third, this biopic shifts from one incident, momentous moment, and ideal to another without warning. Confusingly, Mandela himself hurriedly transitions from womanising lawyer, to sensitive family man, to proud revolutionary. Despite the speeches and exposition, the movie doesn’t deliberate on his story’s most informative and miraculous qualities. Unfortunately, Long Walk to Freedom becomes The Butler’s slightly more interesting counterpart. Sharing similar structural, thematic, and dramatic issues, these movies delve only skin deep into all-important narratives.
“It is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” (Nelson Mandela (Idris Elba), Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom).
Idris Elba & Naomie Harris.
Obviously, Mandela’s journey is a significant part of black history. Recently, Hollywood has explored this overarching topic to uncover relevant stories whilst developing inspired creations. From big-budget fare (Django Unchained) to enrapturing docudramas (12 Years a Slave), cinema has placed an effecting stranglehold on this conquering issue. With minorities receiving harsh treatment across the globe, historically impactful stories defy prejudice and social anxiety. Despite its narrative shifts, Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, by depicting one specific period of Mandela’s life story, captured his ideologies and motivations. Despite its social, political, and cultural value, Long Walk to Freedom inadvertently presents itself as ‘yet another’ Mandela biopic. Unfortunately, like J. Edgar, Long Walk to Freedom stumbles before reaching its subject’s most remarkable conflicts. Thankfully, the stellar production design provides several stimulating intricacies for this tedious biopic. Director Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) revels in this time period’s distinct colours, moods, and flavours. Presenting remarkable scenic vistas and tangible city settings, Chadwick’s attention to detail delivers an unconscionable portrait of apartheid-stricken South Africa. Each setting and costume efficiently bolsters this uncompromising and accurate depiction of Mandela’s journey. In particular, the prison sequences are painful reminders of man’s overwhelming inhumanity throughout history. Thankfully, this shapeless biopic is salvaged by two invigorating performances. Elba, known for conquering TV series’ (Luther, The Wire) and entertaining action flicks (Pacific Rim, Thor), boosts this dreary and conventional biopic. Despite lacking Mandela’s distinctive appearance, Elba overcomes previous roles whilst immersing himself in this breathtaking journey. Exploring Mandela’s native language and distinctive accent, Elba’s towering portrayal unconscionably elevates this confused Oscar contender. Elba – thanks to his impressive physique – presents Mandela as a fighter and fearsome leader. Naomie Harris also delivers a charismatic performance. As Mandela’s determined wife Winnie, Harris embodies her character’s searing pain and overwhelming courage.
Sporting two impressive performances, stark production values, and an impactful marketing campaign, Long Walk to Freedom hurriedly immerses its mass audience into this sprawling tale. Unfortunately, the movie lacks the intelligence, sturdy structure, and efficient screenplay needed for this intriguing premise. Despite the writer, director, and Weinstein Company’s commendable intentions, this biopic is obliterated by hasty studio decisions, gigantic preconceptions, and tedious biopic cliches.
Writers: Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope (screenplay), Martin Sixsmith (book)
Stars: Steve Coogan, Judi Dench, Anna Maxwell Martin, Sophie Kennedy Clark
Release date: December 26th, 2013
Distributors: The Weinstein Company, Pathe
Countries: UK, Ireland
Running time: 98 minutes
Best part: Coogan and Dench’s chemistry.
Worst part: The wavering messages.
From Philomena‘s opening frame, its pressing arguments and perspectives fascinated me. I’ll explain why, despite my obvious and enthusiastic subjectivity, by deliberating on journalism itself. As one of history’s most intriguing and necessary professions, great journalistic endeavours, as Philomena suggests, can destroy organisations, illuminate fascinating people, and build glorious monuments to human potential. However, as this dramedy proudly asserts, harmful preconceptions and controversial actions destroy journalism’s reputation. Despite Philomena‘s wavering viewpoints, journalism’s overwhelming power and influence turns this dramedy’s weakest aspects into intriguing intricacies.
To define this argument, I’ll deliberate upon the media’s involvement with Philomena‘s creation. In 2009, polarising British actor/comedian/ writer Steve Coogan looked through the Guardian Weekend Magazine’s online hub. While net surfing, he found one of notorious journalist Martin Sixsmith’s human-interest articles. The article, The Catholic Church Sold my Child, remarkably transfixed Coogan beyond online media’s boundaries. After reading Sixsmith’s book on the same subject, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, Coogan obtained the rights. Coogan’s immense pride and valour become cognitive to this adaptation’s production. Based on Sixsmith’s intensifying words, Philomena is an impactful, charming, and distinctive dramedy. The movie immediately solidifies this story’s emotional stranglehold. Sixsmith (Coogan), at his general practitioner’s office, delivers reasons for his significantly morose state. Fired from a Labour government adviser position, Sixsmith faces damaging legal issues. With government and media officials staring him down, his reputation needs a conquering boost. Conversing at a friend’s party, he discovers a meaningful article idea. The movie then leaps into Philomena Lee(Judi Dench)’s haunting life story. With flashbacks revealing her heart-aching journey, her elderly self is a repressed and stupefying individual. Conversing with Philomena and her daughter Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin), Sixsmith discovers this story’s glorious potential. Travelling across Britain, Ireland, and the USA, Sixsmith and Philomena become contrasting yet inseparable buddies.
Despite the tiresomely cliched premise, the movie examines the story’s punishing twists and turns. Receiving disgraceful condemnation from critics and the Catholic Church, Philomena organically shifts from comedically fruitful road-trip dramedy to heart-breaking mystery. Thankfully, it’s never afraid to be honest, thorough, and revelatory. The narrative, fuelled by comedic sensibilities, hurriedly delves into the story’s broadly accessible aspects. Certain scenes, peppered with awkward silences and cutting dialogue, establish this situation’s blatant absurdity. Here, Sixsmith’s perspective becomes a stable and likeable resource. Sixsmith’s motivations, turning friends into enemies, are presented as cynical and disenfranchising facets. In the first third, the story divulges into clues and characters important to Philomena’s horrifying ordeal. Handling unique characteristics, the narrative distorts and enhances road-trip comedy cliches. Replacing cars with planes, this journey turns into a haunting and expansive odyssey. Sixsmith and Philomena, divulging into deft exposition and thought-provoking revelations, bond over this expansive research project. Director Stephen Frears (High Fidelity, Dangerous Liaisons) thoughtfully examines potent human connections whilst leaping between genres. With valuable docudramas, romantic adventures, and kinetic comedies outlining his filmography, Frears’ style combines range and intelligence. Here, he becomes startlingly infatuated with the main characters. Shifting gracefully from comedic hijinks to sickening darkness, his movie illuminates life’s most ingenious and refreshing moments. Surprisingly, this Best Picture nominee contains other contenders’ tropes. Featuring a discomforting road trip (Nebraska, Inside Llewyn Davis), wacky character relationships (Saving Mr Banks), and socio-political messages (Dallas Buyers Club), this entertaining concoction becomes the Weinstein Company’s pet project.
“But I don’t wanna hate people. I don’t wanna be like you. Look at you.” (Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), Philomena).
Our two plucky heroes.
On celluloid, Catholicism, journalism, and odd-couple relationships are meaningful and understandable subjects. This movie, righteously and ambitiously, delves into all three topics. From the hysterically witty opening, the movie states and examines its blunt agenda. Establishing its lead character as a brash and abrasive journalist, this docudrama almost delves into heavy-handedness and cynicism. Unafraid of criticism, the movie delivers vicious editors, scandals, and the ratings vs. integrity debate. Despite presenting multiple perspectives, the movie hurriedly changes its mind at opportune moments. Not to be outdone, the movie’s atheism vs. religion debate is an affectionate and thought-provoking strand. As this heart-breaking narrative’s twists are unveiled, religion’s pros and cons become vital to Philomena’s character arc. With the convent becoming a prison-like fortress, the nuns are necessarily depicted as horrific cretins. Shockingly, we become valuable witnesses to 50-year-old crimes. Ethics, principles, and convent rules are strictly enforced by Philomena’s church. Despite prejudices and cultural indifference, organised religionviciously clashes with modernity. Despite the rich subjectivity, the movie’s gripping conclusion allows for unique and dexterous interpretations. Despite its intelligent viewpoints and phenomenal plot-strands, the two lead actors heartily grapple this project. Drawing large audiences into this well-meaning dramedy, the two leads lend wit, charm, and malice to this unforgettable story. Coogan, a discomfortingly polarising comedic actor, becomes a delightfully brash presence here. As a writer, producer, and lead actor, Coogan’s intentions and verve are mercifully injected into the final product. Here, his sarcastic aura boosts this enjoyable narrative. Playing a psychologically and morally damaged character, Coogan elevates this familiar role. Alluding to the News of the World scandal, the character conveys Coogan’s agreeable viewpoints and forceful determination. Delivering another Oscar-worthy turn, Dench launches head-on into Philomena’s destructive journey. Dench, as this sympathetic character, lends tangibility and potency to confronting revelations. In addition, without being irritating, Philomena becomes a wide-eyed companion for the world-weary Sixsmith. Explaining tiny details about loveable novels, her optimism and glee deliver several hysterical moments. Like most travellers, Philomena’s curiosity pushes her through pressing situations.
Despite the wavering agenda and conventional road-trip narrative, Philomena contains enough charm, laugh-out-loud moments, and emotionally powerful surprises to elevate it above similarly light-hearted dramedies. Outdoing their previous performances and dramedies, Coogan and Dench become an intriguing, eclectic, and comedically savvy duo. This odd couple – arguing incessantly over politics, ethics, religion, and personality ticks – delivers understandable moments and heartening identities. As this Oscar race’s dark horse, Philomena is charming and appropriate enough to compete with its enrapturing competition.
Stars: Pilou Asbaek, Soren Malling, Dar Salim, Roland Moller
Release date: September 20th, 2014
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Running time: 99 minutes
Best part: The intensifying hostage negotiations.
Worst part: The two-dimensional pirate characters.
Our world is chock-a-block with protagonists and antagonists. Serving specific purposes and motivations, both ‘groups’ fight to stay alive. Despite the unique perspectives, all political, social, and cultural groups believe wholeheartedly in their grand visions. Despite their allegiances, actions, and reactions, every soldier, terrorist, politician etc. is a human being. Following similar biological and cognitive functions as everyone else, we each inhabit this world for all-important reasons. These facts and beliefs, to me, sum up several of this-and-last-years’ Oscar contenders, well-crafted crime-thrillers, and intense docudramas. With Hollywood painting black-and-white strokes about particular factions, races, and classes, other film societies intently delve into other narratives, perspectives, and opinions. When comparing Captain Phillips and A Hijacking (Kapringen), these points become painfully relevant.
Johan Phillip Asbaek.
With Hollywood’s immense power producing larger-than-life thrills and escapist fare, foreign film industries put every dollar into filmmaking’s most important intricacies. This may seem one-sided, but it’s true. A Hijacking, forming an inventive and exasperating identity despite its distribution dilemmas, is a confronting, methodical, and powerful docudrama. Despite the movie’s ugliness and intelligence, its realism elevates it above other, more prominent, docudramas. Here, we follow multiple perspectives trudging through the same nightmarish ordeal. On Danish cargo ship MV Rozen, Cheerful and optimistic cook Mikkel Hartmann (Pilou Asbaek) calls his wife and young child. Laughing and arguing over the phone, Mikkel’s life appears fruitful. En route to India, the ship’s arduous journey is almost complete. Whilst passing by Africa, Somali Pirates hijack the ship. Threatening their captives with machine guns, the pirates seize control with vast monetary gain in sight. This arduous ordeal, defined by the crews’ extraneous living conditions, becomes a hellish and disastrous experience. With the ship’s captain (Keith Pearson) falling ill, Mikkel and Jan (Roland Moller) must stick together to survive. With pirate crew translator Omar (Abdihakin Asgar) keeping this situation under control, this hostage crisis may never reach a successful conclusion. Meanwhile, back in Copenhagen, the shipping company’s CEO Peter C. Ludvigsen (Soren Malling), before learning about the hostage crisis, runs this prestigious corporation like, ahem, a well-oiled ship. Sealing high-priced deals with other big-name companies, Peter is a multi-talented and straight-laced professional. After addressing the captives’ families about the ongoing situation, Peter hires a well-known hostage crisis manager (Gary Skjoldmose Porter) to help solve this all-important crisis. Volunteering to communicate with the pirates, Peter becomes intellectually and emotionally invested in this ordeal. The situation pushes Peter to breaking point as allegiances, reputations, and personalities are tested on both sides of the globe.
Blurring the valuable line between fiction and reality, A Hijacking is a sincere and intense surprise. Hidden by this year’s Oscar heavyweights, this intense docudrama is devoid of climactic and electrifying Hollywood blockbuster tropes and manipulative docudrama cliches. Despite the all-important subject matter, verisimilitude, and appropriate earnestness, these movies sport several overwhelming and profound differences. In comparing these movies, it’s tempting to explore Hollywood and foreign film industries’ vast and intriguing differences. Obviously, budget, scope, purpose, and stylistic choices separate these wholly separated realms. This subject matter captures political and societal attention. Both movies compare and contrast everything within each frame. However, this Danish production is a meticulous and purposeful drama-thriller. Peeling back visceral and politically dense layers, the movie focuses on the topic’s most emotionally gripping, fastidious, and polarising aspects. Captain Phillips, though relentless and confronting, is a bigger, bolder, and brasher movie than A Hijacking aspires to be. With a thundering score, slight patriotic streak, and kinetic action sequences, Paul Greengrass’ feature is an appealing and punchy action-thriller. Here, the laboured pacing and documentary-like visuals serve a specific and confronting purpose. The deliberate length and tempo establishes this situation’s most heartening and slight aspects. Writer-director Tobias Lindholm (R, co-writer of The Hunt) is one of Europe’s most alluring and thought-provoking writer-directors. Taking on discomforting and gutsy material, his style and intentions are remarkably insistent and original. Here, Lindholm explains certain details whilst keeping the audience at a distance. Jumping between opposing story-lines, Lindholm refuses to display the narrative’s most important moments. The hijacking itself is brushed over via dialogue and sharp editing. Thanks to Linholm’s efficient story-telling motifs, we are exposed to this crisis’ more humanistic and methodical elements.
“We can’t rush these people. Time is a Western thing. It means nothing to them.” (Connor Julian (Gary Skjoldmose Porter), A Hijacking).
The narrative’s all-encompassing plot-threads and Lindholm’s systematic style wholeheartedly establish his ordeal’s immense length. Covered in dust, sweat, and decayed clothing, the crew-members and pirates, despite the opposing ideologies, become trapped in this nightmarish setting. Startlingly, this situation highlights social, cultural, and political divides unlike other recent docudramas. This authentic, meaningful, and in-depth docudrama is boosted by Lindolm’s attention to detail. In this Hollywood-obsessed universe, movies like A Hijacking become effective and ingenious surprises. Avoiding explosive action, chokingly tight jump-scares, and gratuitous messages, this movie’s subtle and deft style develops an enthralling and richly textured drama-thriller. Here, we witness determined characters undertaking realistic actions. On the ship, Mikkel and Jan never become John-McClane-type action heroes. In fact, the white characters don’t devise plans rebel and violently recover the ship. In doing so, these characters battle wavering emotions, disease, dwindling supplies, and tempers throughout their 134-day ordeal. Befriending certain pirates via singing, fishing, humour, temptations, and commercialism, Mikkel and Jan embody the movie’s seminal messages. Here, the Western world becomes a looming presence over this harrowing situation. Peter’s towering corporation steadily transitions from money-powered saviour to greedy conglomerate. Throughout this punishing docudrama, the scrupulous negotiations extend this ordeal beyond comprehension. This slow-burn thriller is boosted by its over-the-phone negotiation sequences. With several fat-cat executives watching on, Peter leans forward intently whilst talking to Omar. With the ransom drastically shifting, the divide between the company’s low-level employees and high-minded executives becomes increasingly noticeable. These scenes never cut back-and-forth between both parties. Peter and co’s facial expressions and mannerisms illuminate certain scenes’ overwhelming potency.
Though comparable to recently released big-budget counterpart Captain Phillips, A Hijacking forms its own unique and enrapturing identity. With tensions, ideologies, and allegiances slowly simmering, Lindholm’s attention to detail and intensifying direction highlights this subject matter’s immense political and social relevance. With believable characterisations and starting authenticity, this nightmarish ordeal solidifies this emotionally powerful and confronting cinematic experience.
Verdict: An intensifying and methodical drama-thriller.
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
Running time: 134 minutes
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.
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 Slavechronicles 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.
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.
Director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) 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 Purple, Schindler’s List, Lincoln, and Amistad, 12 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).
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.
Stars: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Paul Giamatti, Colin Farrell
Release date: December 13th, 2013
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Running time: 125 minutes
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 Banksfails 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.
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).
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.
Writer: Josh Singer (screenplay), Daniel Domscheit-Berg (book), David Leigh, Luke Harding (book)
Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Bruhl, David Thewlis, Laura Linney
Release date: October 18th, 2013
Distributors: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Entertainment One
Countries: USA, India
Running time: 128 minutes
Best part: Cumberbatch and Bruhl.
Worst part: The distracting visual style.
Patriot? Egotist? Revolutionary? Terrorist? It’s difficult to describe the most outlandish Australian outcast since Michael ‘Crocodile’ Dundee. He’s an intriguing and bizarre individual hell-bent on exposing the world’s darkest and greatest secrets. Bathroom antics and John Farnham parody videos aside, Julian Assange is, arguably, one of the world’s foremost minds. This controversial individual and his game-changing actions were bound to hit celluloid. Unfortunately, The Fifth Estate doesn’t seize its stellar opportunities, becoming a by-the-numbers docudrama unwilling to research and fact check. Sadly, this lurid and discomforting docudrama, despite the talented cast, never pushes past its immense stigma and cloying discourse.
Despite Assange’s relevance and notice within international media, The Fifth Estate delivers a confusing and befuddled analysis of his wheelings and dealings. Those uninterested in or clueless about his societal, economic, and political impact will become lost in this uninspired yet advantageous narrative. Despite the news’ importance, the best docudramas can spark viewer interest in any subject. The Fifth Estate, despite relaying vital titbits and accounts, fails to connect to the average moviegoer. The movie kicks off with the New York Times, The Guardian, and major European newspapers reporting on one of the United States military’s most crippling atrocities in 2010. The story then jumps back to 2007, and IT genius Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl) is looking for his big break into the international media and technology scene. At a tech-wiz and computer hacker’s convention in Berlin, Daniel meets his hero. Communicating with Daniel before the event, Assange(Benedict Cumberbatch)’s passion for activism and online warfare lures Daniel into a false sense of security. Working together to build information hub Wikileaks into a powerful force, Assange and Daniel become buddies. Fighting for freedom, power, and justice, the two geniuses clash over political and moral differences. When major secrets come to light, the cracks begin to appear in their already frail partnership. In addition, the US Government’s brightest, represented by Sarah Shaw (Laura Linney) and James Boswell (Stanley Tucci), seek to rescue the few informants left alive. When Daniel’s steamy relationship with co-worker Anke (Alicia Vikander) is shattered, he seeks out Guardian journalist Nick Davies (David Thewlis) to talk sense into his stress-inducing confidant.
Despite the engaging premise, this exposition-heavy drama may push moviegoers away. It’s difficult to determine the movie’s core target audience. Turning against nations, governments, and factions at random, The Fifth Estate‘s convoluted narrative could be protested against. With Assange’s outrage over the project, other, smaller scale, productions have already revealed Assange’s methodologies and motivations. With Australian mini-series Underground: The Julian Assange Story and documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks delving into this hot-button issue, The Fifth Estate presents its material in a more expansive and poetic manner. Unfortunately, this drama-thriller proves that this dense material is suited to the documentary format. Presenting specific events in a cinematic dreamscape, West Wing screenwriter Josh Singer’s diluted and dour script doesn’t delve into this issue’s most salient aspects. Throughout this over-long and debilitating docudrama, Singer delivers the ‘what’ and ‘who’ aspects of each pressing situation. The obvious details, presented as symbols in an ever-changing narrative, don’t provide the necessary ‘why’ and ‘how’ factors. Striving for the same universal acclaim and historical relevance as All the President’s Men and The Insider, The Fifth Estate recycles familiar plot-strands and messages in an underwhelming and pointless way. Despite the compelling real-life conflict, there is a significant lack of depth, drama, and development within this shallow Social Network-esque techno-thriller.
Our truth-driven vigilantes.
Lacking the wit and charm needed for this type of plot-heavy narrative, the ‘action’ is comprised of angry typing on keyboards, extensive research, and stupefying arguments. Despite computer hacking, investigative journalism, and whistleblowing’s value, important facts and figures aren’t divulged. Despite highlighting jargon and confusing intricacies throughout, discourses and titles aren’t explained. With the Bradley Manning saga and Assange’s rape allegations under-utilised, this overblown drama lacks balance. Leaning on Domscheit-Berg’s perspective, this distorted account doesn’t discuss the pros and cons of false identities and societal shifts. With the freedom of speech vs. citizen safety debate raging on, The Fifth Estate provides excessive metaphors. Hinting at greater conflicts, the movie looks down upon democracy, governments, and big-name publications. Its small scope and patronising tone, summed up by insignificant sub-plots, define The Fifth Estate as a manipulative and overblown docudrama. Computer hackers, defined in cinema as either saviours or super-villains, emphasise the internet’s impact on privacy, freedom, and technology. Unfortunately, Hollywood’s fantastical gleam overshadows this powerful story. Director Bill Condon (Kinsey, Dreamgirls)’s flashy and incomprehensible visual style overcompensates for the movie’s bland dramatic beats. Bombarding us with one trick after another, Condon has changed from biopic master to cynical storyteller (his Twilight instalments may be to blame). Afraid of its own topic and words, The Fifth Estate‘s aesthetic turns reality into a TV movie fantasy packed with pretentious dream sequences and overt symbolism.
“You can’t go far in this world by relying on people. People are loyal until it seems opportune not to be.” (Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch), The Fifth Estate).
Laura Linney & Stanley Tucci.
On multiple occasions, Condon addresses his characters as the rock-stars of their perplexing universe. Characters walk down shiny hallways and neon-lit establishments – mixing computer jargon with hipster-like intricacies. Nightclub-esque media conventions, futuristic company buildings, and exaggerated newsroom designs highlight The Fifth Estate‘s self-consciousness and obtuseness. However, Condon doesn’t stop there. Developing a Bourne-like 21st century world, shaking camerawork, globetrotting adventures, aggressive characters, and archival news footage distract from the story’s cultural significance. Assange and Daniel’s journey, summed up by kinetic, energy-drink-consumption-fuelled montages and sporadic intertitles, isn’t developed. Despite its dull personality, The Fifth Estate is saved by two ground-breaking performances. Despite not delving into personal lives or backstories, the movie establishes pressing conflicts between these immaculate minds and fragile egos. A flawed yet ambitious character, Cumberbatch’s Assange is a charismatic and misanthropic celebrity. Capturing Assange’s peculiar mannerisms, Cumberbatch develops a note-worthy and intriguing impersonation. Bruhl provides another commendable performance after his impressive turn in Rush. As an empathetic yet spotlight-obsessed genius, Daniel becomes an engaging and likeable character. Unfortunately, character actors like Anthony Mackie, Dan Stevens, and Peter Capaldi are stranded in over-the-top roles.
Despite its engaging premise and unique intentions, The Fifth Estate‘s heavy-handedness, small scope, and lurid visuals overshadow its all-important purpose. Hollywood’s involvement – linking moviegoers to this controversial issue – certainly doesn’t help. This messy and disjointed docudrama states the facts, but refuses to explore this story’s most meaningful depths.
Verdict: An informative yet inconsistent docudrama.
Writer: Danny Strong (screenplay), Wil Haygood (book)
Stars: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding, Jr.
Release date: August 16th, 2013
Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Running time: 132 minutes
Best part: The dynamic performances.
Worst part: Its over-sentimentality.
Over the past five years, writer/director Lee Daniels (Precious, The Paperboy) has garnered critical acclaim and scarily negative hype simultaneously. The bad-boy of Hollywood’s undercover existence bounced back from his disastrous antics to deliver polarising and increasingly bizarre dramas. Biting off more than he can chew each time, his efforts make critics and filmgoers squirm in their comfortable seats. Daniels’ latest feature, The Butler, is as outlandish, proud, and confident as he is. Unfortunately, this dense drama fails to live up to its unique reputation. Despite being as patriotic as baseball and apple pie, The Butler will be overshadowed by seemingly more engaging and informative dramas on the horizon.
With the monumental task of telling this harrowing and inspirational story within a two-hour limit, Daniels swings for the fences. Unfortunately, the final product’s failure overshadows the commendable technique. This conquering tale loosely chronicles long-standing White House butler and working-class hero Eugene Allen’s life. His name, despite being changed to ‘Cecil Gaines’ here, will undoubtedly live longer than this sappy drama. Cecil (Forest Whitaker), after Barack Obama’s historic inauguration, longingly reflects upon his momentous life and eight-Presidency stint in the White House. The story then travels back to a horrific time in African-American history. The Gaines family, trawling the cotton fields as instructed by nasty plantation owner Thomas Westfall (Alex Pettyfer) and his gracious elderly relative Annabeth (Vanessa Redgrave), is shockingly torn apart. With his mother raped and father murdered in front of him, Cecil fights off his burgeoning anger. Stepping out into the world, the teenage Cecil refines his skills as a servant thanks to Maynard (Clarence Williams III). With wealthy white people looking down upon him, Cecil bravely holds his reserve. Called up to the White House during his adult years, Cecil, supported by his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and co-workers Carter Wilson (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) and James Holloway (Lenny Kravitz), juggles his work-life and difficult husband-and-father duties. Cecil’s troublesome son Louis (David Oyelowo), convinced African-American citizens can forcefully obtain white peoples’ rights and privileges, lashes out at Cecil’s submissiveness. Cecil, refusing to turn his back on any family member or President (including John F. Kennedy (James Marsden) and Richard Nixon (John Cusack)), becomes a substantial link between the African-American community and US Government.
Trence Howard & Oprah Winfrey.
Undoubtedly, Allen’s story is poignant, powerful, and relevant. Anyone who has picked up a textbook or turned on a TV would know at least one titbit about white peoples’ treatment of minorities throughout history. History cannot be erased or ignored. Civil Rights era stories, like Allen’s, illustrated the contrast between those who scrounged for survival and those who did as they pleased. The Butler, despite its good intentions, struggles to tap into this story’s irreverence and potency. Daniels, despite having the spiritual and political motivation to tell this confronting story, struggles to capture it’s raw and conquering potential. Unfortunately, Daniels presents this intricate narrative in a cliched, TV movie fashion. He fails to capture the scope, historical importance, and defining traits of this bleak time. Instead, he emphasises the material’s saccharine and manipulative aspects – turning what should’ve been a thought-provoking character study into heavy-handed Oscar bait. Aiming for the heartstrings, this simplistic drama refuses to relish in its opportunities. The narrative, though interesting, struggles to delve deep enough into its all-important themes and intriguing characters. As, essentially, the neglected love child of Forrest Gump and Driving Miss Daisy, The Butler quickly becomes as inconsistent and emotionally distant as The Help. However, like The Help, The Butler directly throws the audience into this horrifying era of American history. The stench of bigotry, cynicism, and discrimination is ever present throughout this beguiling drama.
James Marsden & Minka Kelly.
Despite its flaws, important moments are highlighted and lodged in the memory banks. Presenting several recognisable faces and historical events throughout its exhaustive run-time, the Ku Klux Klan attack on Freedom Writers in Alabama, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Black Panther Party’s rise are sparingly touched upon. Daniels, hurriedly skipping from one important incident and person to another, refuses to reflect upon these meaningful historical moments. The movie’s repetitive structure and uninspired plotting, emphasised by Cecil’s heart-to-heart chats with several influential Presidents, sugarcoat the link between the African-American community and Leader of the Free World. Hokey cliches, uninspired twists, and an inappropriate score hamper what should’ve been a captivating drama. Despite the narrative’s glaring flaws, Daniels immaculately crafts every setting. Each scene is gloriously lit by his hazy cinematography. Scenes set in the Gaines’ living room become the movie’s most entertaining and naturalistic moments. Daniels’ grand vision, featuring shocking violence and his commendable attention to detail, brings this monumental era to life. The Butler‘s verisimilitude captures the evolving styles and ideologies of each passing decade. Hurriedly transitioning from one influential time period to another, Daniels mixes and matches bold colours, costumes, tunes, and settings to re-create crucial historical moments and communities.
“Everything you are and everything you have, is because of that butler.” Gloria Gaines (Oprah Winfrey), The Butler).
Cuba Gooding, Jr.
Each group, given due diligence in this manipulative drama, is defined by obvious and imperative traits. Here, the characters are charged with changing every facet of America. The Butler bizarrely suggests that Cecil and Louis’ uneasy relationship heavily influenced the Civil Rights Movement. The conservative worker vs. conscientious idealist sub-plot lends this movie some much-needed gravitas. Unfortunately, montages kick into overdrive before the audience can find any emotional investment. Thankfully, the insightful characters and hard-hitting performances become consolations. Despite the predictable arcs, the characters are intrinsically rooted into this cloying drama. Cecil, in particular, is a fascinating man. Similarly to Forrest Gump, Cecil’s reserve and persona prove one person really can make a difference within a sustainable nation. Graciously, Whitaker delivers a remarkable performance as this valued figure. Meanwhile, Winfrey, at least, earns a Best Supporting Actress nod for her tender portrayal of the butler’s first lady. Gloria’s familial issues, emphasised by her sketchy friendship with sleazy neighbour Howard (Terrence Howard), provide the emotional punch sorely lacking elsewhere. With stunt casting including Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda as Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson, and Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower, The Butler‘s impressive A-listers are hampered by Saturday Night Live-esque prosthetics.
Despite the commendable intentions and alluring visual style, Daniels’ efforts dampen this intriguing and inspirational story. Given his peculiar filmography, Daniels has thrown himself into the ‘style over substance’ filmmaking realm. This drama, if anything, suggests that directors should be judged based on ability, and not race, class, or gender. Ironically, that’s all The Butler can serve up.
Writer: Billy Ray (screenplay), Richard Phillips, Stephan Talty (book)
Stars: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Catherine Keener, Max Martini
Release date: October 11th, 2013
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Running time: 134 minutes
Best part: Hanks’ potent performance.
Worst part: The one dimensional villains.
They say that: “truth is stranger than fiction”. The aforementioned saying specifically applies to extraordinary events that re-shape the world. People judge reality by comparing what they see in real life to what they see on the big screen. Thankfully, docudramas break down societal barriers and provide explicit accounts of history’s most delicate and harrowing moments. Subjectively re-creating historical events, docudramas are, nowadays, as informative and engaging as news bulletins. Captain Phillips, thanks to its compelling material and talent, becomes one such powerful and revealing docudrama.
Thrilling and intense docudrama surges along whilst developing an attentive re-creation of one of the past decade’s most enthralling sagas. The story, based on Captain Richard Phillips’ book A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea, documents Phillips’ terrifying ordeal and the contrast between men of vastly different cultures. Set in 2009, the plot kicks off with a beguiling insight into a small aspect of Phillips’ existence. Chatting to his wife Andrea (Catherine Keener) shortly before travelling overseas on business, Phillips discovers a monumental rift between his work and home lives. This latest adventure involves captaining the MV Maersk Alabama cargo ship from Oman, through the Gulf of Aden, to Mombasa. The perilous journey, from one port/safe haven to another, will test Phillips’ multifaceted role as the ship’s leader, negotiator, and protector. Meanwhile, on Somalia’s golden, sweltering coastline, fisherman and pirate Muse (Barkhad Abdi) is sent by his leaders to attain a sustainable bounty drifting out at sea. Taking control of his life-threatening mission, Muse takes several Somali pirates with him to board and hijack the Maersk Alabama. Using machine guns and tenacity, the pirates quickly head for the ship. Both crews’ captains push themselves, even before saying a single word to one another. Taking over the ship, Muse puts a gun to Phillips’ head and yells into the intercom to kickstart this chilling hostage situation. However, Phillips refuses to give up without a fight.
Despite being hyper-aware of the true story’s outcome, I was immediately hurled into this emotionally affecting and intense thrill-ride. The story, altered to maintain the movie’s intensity throughout its exhaustive 2+ hour run-time, has been debated by historians and witnesses since the movie’s release. Despite understanding their points of view, I support the movie’s presentation of Phillips’ guile and bravery during his nightmarish ordeal. Director Paul Greengrass (United 93, Bournes Supremacy and Ultimatum) is one the most influential directors currently working. His style, treading the line between realism’s limitations and cinema’s overwhelming potential, builds recognisable and fear-inducing worlds. Here, Greengrass ably compares Phillips’ home life to his pressuring career and its life-threatening side effects. The story, with its intensity and urgency escalating throughout, uses a limited amount of dialogue to convey Captain Phillips‘ ingenious and heart-aching messages. In the movie’s opening scenes, Phillips and Muse are depicted as determined and peculiar beings willing to die for what they are paid to protect. Greengrass’ attention to detail and staggering scope develop a 21st century hostage saga with consequences and thought-provoking morals. Greengrass, efficiently re-creating the intricacies of this life-changing ordeal, never lets the viewer forget about the story’s thematic and historic relevance. The movie’s gritty and profound depiction of this saga reminds us of the First and Third Worlds’ gargantuan differences. The contrast between Phillips and Muse’s existences defines Captain Phillips‘ emotional and psychological impact. However, unlike many docudramas, the movie is neither pro-America nor anti-globalisation. Greengrass sticks to his strengths to deliver a hostage-thriller about fathers, sons, leaders, and honour codes.
The unending crisis.
Captain Phillips, despite its gripping realism and frightening narrative, follows an understandable hostage-drama narrative. This moving and grounded action-drama is bolstered by Billy Ray(Shattered Glass)’s clever dialogue. Standing out within this hostage-thriller’s numerous tension-fuelled sequences, several quips and phrases define this movie’s purpose. With Phillips and Muse staring each other down, Ray’s dynamic screenplay hurriedly explains how one wrong word can lead to a bullet in the head. Of course, the audience, despite the movie’s emotional core, will turn out for the kinetic visuals and all-important hostage crisis. Greengrass’ masterful and affecting direction has been aimlessly copied by action-thriller directors throughout the past decade. After The Bourne Supremacy wowed audiences with visceral fight scenes and stomach-churning camera-work, Greengrass was labelled one of Hollywood’s most intriguing visionaries. Captain Phillips is the third Greengrass helmed Hollywood hit, following United 93 and Green Zone, to tackle a horrifying true story. Mixing realistic situations with electrifying visuals, Captain Phillips, from the first pirate siege sequence onward, becomes edge-of-your-seat entertainment. The attack sequences, illuminating Greengrass’ grainy and pulsating style, highlight the characters’ bold motivations. This survival tale of high seas terrorism would have suffered without Greengrass’ theatrics. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd throws us directly into this nightmarish ordeal. The quick cuts, shaking cameras, close ups, and rush zooms may turn people away, but it’s their loss for avoiding this confronting docudrama. Switching from the expansive cargo ship to the claustrophobic lifeboat, the relentless hostage crisis amicably kicks off a disarming whirlwind adventure.
“It was supposed to be easy. I take ship…ransom…nobody get hurt.” (Muse (Barkhad Abdi), Captain Phillips).
The initial attack.
Though Captain Philips contains brutal violence and engaging action set-pieces, the cat-and-mouse battle of wits is worth the admission cost. Comparing Phillips’ familial issues to Muse’s on-going fight for respect and survival, Captain Phillips subtly transitions into a movie about fathers, leaders, privileges, and consequences. The story-lines, though delicate, contain hard-hitting similarities that define the movie’s all-important themes. The contrasting story-lines are, thankfully, elevated by the characters. Representing the ‘working man’s hero’, Phillips becomes an avatar for the average film-goer. These unique individuals, despite their commendable ideologies and work ethics, are presented with a limited amount of dialogue. Searching the ship and crew for weaknesses, Phillips becomes a tough-as-nails leader with the best intentions. Captain Phillips treats its titular character with respect, but never presents him as a multipurpose action hero. Despite the Die Hard-esque ‘wrong place, wrong time’ premise, Phillips is a restrained man who uses words instead of weapons. We all love seeing Hanks portraying larger-than-life personalities in such classics as Forrest Gump and Toy Story. However, he also excels at playing scarily moody and straight-faced heroes. Here, Hanks garners a scraggly grey beard and thick Boston-Irish accent to develop an intriguing portrait of this courageous individual. Taking on hard-hitting scenes with raw passion, Hanks proves he is one of Hollywood’s greatest treasures. Former limo driver Abdi delivers a nuanced and enlightening performance as the pirate leader. Fleetingly transitioning from purposeful villain to sensitive soul, Muse is a fascinating baddie. Juggling Phillips’ tricks and his crew members’ wavering emotions, he is a fascinating force whose moral compass guides him. Unfortunately, his crew members are defined by archetypal character traits. The quiet, mysterious, and loud-mouth pirate characters become annoying follies.
Not for the faint-hearted, Captain Phillips excels thanks to its attention to detail, solid performances, and tension-inducing thrills. It’s exceedingly commendable that big-name directors can become invested in heart-breaking and engaging historical events. Here, Greengrass evolves into a cinematic newscaster – throwing us into a true story that immediately enthrals.
Verdict: An intense, powerful, and gritty docu-drama.
Writers: Sofia Coppola (screenplay), Nancy Jo Sales (article)
Stars: Israel Broussard, Katie Chang, Emma Watson, Leslie Mann
Release date: June 14th, 2013
Running time: 90 minutes
Best part: Emma Watson.
Worst part: The confused messages.
We live in a mystifying, mean-spirited, and technologically advanced universe. Today, we can look up anything on Google, talk to people from all over the world via Skype, and post every little detail about ourselves on social networking sites. These groundbreaking opportunities may seem impressive, but privacy has now become a thing of the past. This issue has sparked numerous unending debates that tell the truth but don’t solve the problem. Overrated director Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation) flimsily tackles this issue in The Bling Ring – churning out a problematic and confusing docudrama as mechanical and soulless as an iPhone (there, I said it!). Twitter, Youtube, Instagram, and Facebook be damned, some things, including Coppola’s rants, just aren’t worth sharing.
Katie Chang & Israel Broussard.
This pointless, repetitive, and static dramedy (of sorts) chronicles one of Hollywood’s most baffling true stories. The Bling Ring was made up of several youngsters who stole from some of tinsel-town’s most popular citizens. This docudrama, despite changing the subjects’ names, stays true to the story’s many perplexing facts, figures, and rumours. Coppola’s technicolour fantasy starts off with a simplistic presentation of high school life. Marc (Israel Broussard) continually runs into obnoxious people during his first day of school. Quickly befriending fame-obsessed Rebecca (Katie Chang), he soon becomes a part of the zany and enviable LA party lifestyle. A sudden rush to the head prompts Mark and Rebecca to rob Paris Hilton’s house. Their diabolical and inventive scheme – to research celebrity schedules, break into their role models’ residences, and steal expensive accessories – ropes their bizarre friends Nicki (Emma Watson), Nicki’s adopted sister Sam (Taissa Farmiga), and Chloe (Claire Julien) into this twisted tale. The highs of life, and cocaine, soon spin their lives into a glittery, sexy blur. However, partying, stealing, and greediness may send egos, tensions, and material possessions flying across California. This slice-of-life/pursuit of the American Dream movie is a kinetic concoction of Spring Breakers and Pain & Gain. After the obnoxious characters are introduced, the audience is thrown into each glamorous setting whilst beholding The Bling Ring’s doomed love affair with celebrity obsession. Relevant plot-points include Nicki’s mum Laurie (Leslie Mann) schooling her daughters in life lessons spouted from self-help book The Secret, Marc and Rebecca wheeling and dealing in stolen goods, the deluded youngsters singing along to hit tunes…and that’s about it.
Homer Simpson once tested his new computer by: “Watching a Sofia Coppola movie at 20 times the speed so that it looks like a regular movie”. Funnily enough, this may be the only time I have empathised with him. Brought to life by Vanity Fair article ‘The Suspects Wore Louboutins’ and the reality TV series Pretty Wild, this story is, undeniably, a powerfully newsworthy tale which attracts heated discussions. These crimes reveal a significant amount of detail about the teenage mind-frame, the ‘thrill’ of the celebrity lifestyle, and the lengths some people will go to achieve their goals. Coppola’s movies explore existential angst and humanity in a unique fashion. Her fly-on-the-wall dramas focus on flawed and fundamentally impressionable people. For some reason, the indelible and compelling aspects of these shocking crimes are lost on Coppola. Her style irksomely relies on an absence of tension, structure, development, scope, and chaos. Here, what should be an expository look into pop-culture’s ‘monkey see, monkey do’ effect hurriedly turns into a plodding and bland docudrama. Coppola obviously wanted to make an eye-opening satire that lampooned everyone in sight. Unfortunately, The Bling Ring doesn’t know what it wants to say about societal and cultural issues. The Bling Ring‘s vapid characters unashamedly act out to fit in. Meanwhile, its emphasis on the “like” and “totally” aspects of teen-speak paints a broad and ugly picture of Gen-Y. Coppola also confusingly presents certain celebrities as money-hungry, spoiled brats. According to Coppola’s distorted, first world point of view, Hilton hides her keys under the doormat, all mansions are devoid of functioning security systems, and celebrities regularly leave their doors unlocked. Coppola’s perspective is so biased and simplistic, that The Bling Ring becomes little more than a miasma of poorly written speeches and irritating stereotypes.
“I’m a firm believer in karma and I think this situation is a huge learning lesson for me…I want to lead a country one day for all I know.” (Nicki (Emma Watson), The Bling Ring).
The fashion police!
This tiresome ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ worshipping character study is lifted by Coppola’s kinetic visual style. Like Spring Breakers, this techno-fantasy is filled with enthralling moments that provide relief from its debilitating inconsistencies. Every so often, sweaty montages and cheap collages/cutaways break up the dull banter. The pulsating clubbing sequences shove an aura of liveliness into this uninteresting narrative. However, these gorgeous actors and settings eventually become tiresome. Coppola’s refreshing eye for voyeuristic cinematography, thankfully, stands above her movie’s story-telling faults. Christopher Blauvelt and the late Harris Savides’ camerawork gives each robbery a unique and aesthetically pleasing identity. The robbery of Hills personality Audrina Patridge’s home is encapsulated in a breath-taking wide shot (seriously, why do celebrity homes have so many windows?!), while the robbery of Orlando Bloom and Miranda Kerr’s mansion is a concoction of security camera-like angles and luminescent night vision. However, none of Coppola’s aesthetic choices come together to form a cohesive vision. Throughout the movie’s 90 minute (though still interminable) run-time, I kept thinking to myself: “Why should I care?”. It doesn’t help that The Bling Ring‘s assortment of brash, irritating characters support Coppola’s insultingly shallow view of femininity. Marc, the only character with guile, charm, and a conscience, is undermined by his shrill BFFs. His submissive, fly-on-the-wall persona pushes him out of every frame. In comes Watson’s vacuous and bizarre character (“I wanna lead a country one day for all I know”). Watson is spot on as the misguided airhead – defining her immense range and charisma.
Despite the catchy hip-hop soundtrack and Watson’s stellar performance, The Bling Ring is overshadowed by two dimensional characters and Coppola’s frustrating direction. Like this year’s Great Gatsby adaptation, it contains an alluring story but lacks a competent writer/director to successfully bring it to life. I can only imagine what The Bling Ring would have been like if Steven Soderbergh was in charge. I’m just going to say it – Soderbergh’s Magic Mike is a far better slice-of-life drama!
Stars: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland, Geraldine Chaplin
Release date: January 11th, 2013
Distributors: Warner Bros. Pictures, Summit Entertainment
Running time: 114 minutes
Best part: The tsunami sequence.
Worst part: The film’s over-sentimentality.
Whether it’s horror (Hostel), action (Taken) or drama (Babel), film seems to have a serious aversion to travel. Instead of depicting a fictitious conflict, like in the films previously mentioned, The Impossible focuses on one of the most horrific natural disasters in history. It’s a tense, moving and surreal film that discusses what we, as humans, should cherish most.
This English/Spanish collaboration follows the true story of a family caught up in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. We first meet them on a flight coming into Thailand. Bickering on the plane, Maria (Naomi Watts) and Henry (Ewan McGregor) are a typical married couple. Keeping their kids, Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast), in line is their biggest priority. Exploring Thailand’s many attractions during Christmas time, their luxurious holiday seems to be going smoothly. However, Boxing Day morning will yield heartache. A sudden gust of wind is followed by birds hurriedly flying away and the ground shaking violently. The wave then wipes out the resort and its surroundings. In the Aftermath, Maria and Lucas are split from Henry, Thomas and Simon.
Both parties spend the rest of their nightmarish ordeal searching for one another. This film is a truly affecting experience. This event was catastrophic is more ways than can be imagined. The tsunami swept across multiple Asian countries whilst taking over 200, 000 lives (over 42, 000 are still believed to be missing). Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage) directs with a delicate and profound love of this subject matter. He has poignantly turned this true story of survival into a gruelling cinematic experience. Sure, people connected to this tragedy will suggest that this film comes ‘too soon’ after the event. But it’s a story that needs to be told. Both The Impossible and United 93 stand as important reminders of how historical events can change society. This story is based on a Spanish family. However, instead of Spanish actors filling these roles, Bayona and co. have chosen an almost entirely Caucasian cast. There are serious ethical problems with this decision. Yes, big names like Watts and McGregor can attract Oscar nods (Watts recently received a Best Actress Oscar nomination) and a significant audience, but this decision distorts accuracy and points out clichés.
All of the white characters are depicted as saints. The foreign and Thai characters simply recall shocking stories of survival and loss, become extras or represent the high number of corpses. Films like Babel and Contagion provide a more in-depth study of serious political/environmental issues. Despite these complaints, the story itself is what propels this film. The film is tonally divided between several important parts. The first act combines the ‘before’ and ‘during’ stages of this disaster. It’s a tense examination of this ostensibly happy family. Complaints about the house alarm, junk food and work-lives back home may seem petty, but these conversations create an identifiable dynamic between all five family members. The Christmas Day scenes, including a haunting lantern ceremony, reveal a lot about this family. Despite constant reminders of the on-coming disaster, these scenes also concentrate on the ocean’s true power. This leads up to the disaster itself. It’s a climactic and truly brutal set piece. The ocean hits with a terrifying force as people struggle to survive its wrath. This intricate sequence may, however, hit too hard for people still affected by this disaster.
“Lucas, look at this place. They’re so busy in here. You get to go and do something. Go help people. You’re good at it.” (Maria (Naomi Watts), The Impossible).
Bayona has a keen-eye for both authenticity and cinematography. The aftermath is where waves of emotion hit hardest. The immense destruction becomes truly visceral and dangerous. Captured in a panoramic format, Maria and Lucas fight for survival amongst debris, bodies and infection. These sequences are aided by the stunning and horrific make-up effects. Bruises, cuts and grazes are emphasised as blood trickles across every character’s skin. The last two-thirds show how courageous acts were vital during this harrowing catastrophe. Despite The Impossible’s brave depiction of nightmarish events, its over-sentimentality stands out. This is partly due to the, at points, manipulative score. Meanwhile, some of the coincidences and directorial tricks become slightly tiresome. Despite this, the performances truly stand out here. Watts provides the greatest performance of her career. Portraying a weakened and scared individual, she becomes a powerful presence. McGregor is once again charismatic in an emotionally charged role. His character becomes a symbol of hope when all is lost. Meanwhile, Tom Holland proves, on his début, that he is a young actor to look out for.
At points all too sentimental, this story of hope and loss is an untimely reminder of how humanity should operate. Stellar performances and direction are the film’s greatest assets, providing a range and beauty rarely seen in a big-budget production.
Verdict: A harrowing and moving cinematic experience.
Writers: John J. McLaughlin (screenplay), Stephen Rebello (book)
Stars: Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Danny Huston
Release date: December 14th, 2012
Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Running time: 98 minutes
Best part: Helen Mirren’s steely performance.
Worst part: Anthony Hopkins’ distracting make-up.
Back in Hollywood’s heyday, prolific British director Alfred Hitchcock inspired a wave of crime/thriller films and film-makers. However, none of them were able to match Hitchcock’s own notoriety. A man with an original idea can seemingly rule Hollywood. He was a man who held a quintessential vision every-time he stepped behind the camera. HBO’s The Girl and Hitchcock have recently recreated important segments of the great director’s life. Hitchcock is a loving ode to his oeuvre, yet fails to create a succinct dramatic depiction of ‘The Master of Suspense’.
This biopic picks up with Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) in the midst of the explosive success of his spy flick North by Northwest. Despite critical acclaim and studio access at his fingertips, he is pushed toward projects seemingly below his impressive status. Hitchcock becomes inspired by the story of convicted serial killer Ed Gein, depicted in the chilling best-seller Psycho. Hitchcock’s privileged yet frustrating marriage to sympathetic wife Alma Reville (Helen Mirren) is tested as adapting the novel becomes the influential director’s obsession. An instant horror-thriller classic is brought to life through a painstaking journey. The consequences of Hitchcock’s questionable actions come to light. Fresh-faced actors and actresses, intrusive studio heads and the Motion Picture Production Code breathe down his bloated neck. But he must also contend with his wife’s suspicious friendship with screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston).
Hopkins, Helen Mirren & Toni Colette.
Hitchcock created possibilities, exceeded expectations and infuriated the most important people in tinsel town throughout his illustrious career. Despite his influence on modern film-making, his professional life is as important as his degrading personal life with Alma. The story constantly jumps between the making of Psycho, a formulaic biopic, a psychoanalytic look into Hitchcock’s mind and a dramedy. This representation of Hitchcock’s perspective is lacking a sense of immersion. The storyline is filled with underdeveloped and unnecessary recreations of the great director’s experiences. Vertigo-inducing due to the film’s schizophrenic storytelling, Hitchcock creates only an elusive figure that barely delves beyond his own personality. However, the making of Psycho is the most involving aspect of Hitchcock. Psycho was one of Hollywood’s greatest success stories. It was independently funded, original, chilling, perverse and remembered for its shocking shower sequence. Hitchcock’s bizarre means of promotion, production and distribution succinctly build his reputation. Another storyline that works is Alma’s connection to her husband. Her love for Hitchcock subtly draws her closer while his brash love of blondes and film-making pushes her away. A polite and immaculate part of Hitchcock’s life, she still pushes her husband to continually prove his impressive reputation.
Films such as Chaplin and Ed Wood provide in-depth and dramatic depictions of famous directors. They create expansive stories while depicting important parts of their lives. Based on Stephen Rebello’s non-fiction book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, Hollywood’s love of Hitchcock is proven to be invaluable. Sacha Gervasi (Anvil! The Story of Anvil) creates a witty and insightful interpretation of Hitchcock’s time with the infamous Bates Motel. However, Hitchcock unfortunately lacks both the visceral joys and in-depth character study elements needed for a truly meaty Hitchcock biopic. Gervasi paints a bright yet sanitised picture of vital events. Tonally imbalanced; unnecessary plot-lines and a goofy sense of humour decrease the film’s importance. It takes the ‘cock’ out of ‘Hitchcock’. It’s safe, pulpy and light-hearted while being uncomfortably dark in others. Hitchcock is visited by Gein in the subconscious. This Shining-like examination of Hitchcock may have been vital in a greater story, but in this goofy dramedy it’s noticeably unessential.
“Beware, all men are potential murders. And for good reason.” (Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins), Hitchcock).
Mirren & Hopkins.
Hitchcock is a fun experience for film buffs; able to identify every one-per-second reference to trends, issues, directors and films of the time. The average cinema-goer may avoid this film as it ironically avoids telling this story for, ahem, the birds. The film largely avoids the director’s controversial actions and behaviour, instead developing his symbolic traits. Fact and fiction are dressed up to elevate this touching tribute to a glorious cinematic icon. The director’s unique figure and love of voyeurism are dutifully constructed, and that’s before the story develops his influential film-making techniques enlivened during the making of Psycho. Hopkin’s portrayal doesn’t help much. Hopkins emphasises the elements of Hitchcock that make him a baffling caricature. His confronting physical presence and multi-layered make-up effects are noticeable to a disastrous extent. However, it’s fun to see stellar performances from Jessica Biel, Scarlett Johansson, James D’Arcy, Ralph Macchio, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Kurtwood Smith as figures important to Psycho‘s creation.
Hitchcock was clearly the biggest presence in any room, eagerly providing imagination and a witty reaction to every word spoken against him. So it’s underwhelming that a film chronicling the work of The Master of Suspense partially lacks thrills, charm and, well, suspense.
Verdict: A confused yet witty biopic/retrospective.
Writers: Chris Terrio (Screenplay), Antonio J. Mendez (book), Joshuah Bearman (article)
Stars: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin
Release date: October 12th, 2012
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Running time: 120 minutes
Best part: Affleck’s work as director and actor.
Worst part: The uneven tone.
Throughout the last decade, Ben Affleck was seen as nothing more than an acting and tabloid-media joke. Since 2007, however, he has carried out one of the biggest comebacks in modern Hollywood history. After his astonishing directing début with 2007’s Gone Baby Gone and 2010’s thrilling crime-drama The Town, his new film goes in a completely different direction. Argo is a tense and authentic docu-drama, based on one of the most emotionally powerful and influential events from the past 50 years.
In 1979, Iranian protesters took over the US Embassy in Tehran and held 63 Americans hostage. During the start of the conflict, six US consulate officials escaped the embassy and took shelter in the Canadian ambassador’s house for over ten weeks. CIA hostage specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck) creates an absurd yet clever idea for freeing the six escapees. He will create a fake Hollywood film production, alert the press and help the victims to escape as members of a film crew currently location scouting in Iran. With the help of CIA supervisor Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston), Mendez enlists the aid of Oscar winning makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and revered producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). Mendez must pull off his plan however before the Iranian Militia finds the six hostages trying to escape the country.
Affleck & Bryan Cranston.
Affleck has now proven his worth in multiple elements of filmmaking, showing the sceptics that his Oscar for co-writing Good Will Hunting was no fluke. Affleck creates a nail-biting and affecting docu-drama in the vein of Munich and Good Night and Good Luck. Despite faltering under the direction of others, Affleck delivers a subdued yet charismatic performance, showing his determination in getting these prisoners out by any means necessary. The snappy dialogue, delivered by the plethora of underrated character actors here, is a rarity in modern cinema. Argo places the viewer in each heated and engaging dialogue sequence while showcasing Affleck’s talent for obtaining powerful performances. Bryan Cranston, finally proving his dramatic and comedic talents outside of AMC series Breaking Bad, is memorable in his small role as the embittered middle man between Mendez and the Jimmy Carter administration. John Goodman is dynamic as the sarcastic Hollywood heavyweight. While Alan Arkin impresses as the egomaniacal and foul mouthed producer unaware that his best days in the industry may be behind him. This story, known as ‘The Canadian Caper’, is still as relevant today as it was thirty years ago. With the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq being major events in the past decade, the film provides an honest and relevant account of our ongoing political strife with the Middle East. Based on information declassified by President Bill Clinton in 1997 and a Wired magazine article by Joshuah Bearman, Argo provides an objective yet enrapturing look at this harrowing true story.
Constantly on the lookout for danger, climactic scenes between the six hostages effectively create an intense and claustrophobic feel. As illustrated in his first two films, Affleck knows how to create tension in many of the film’s most terrifying sequences (similarly to the underrated thriller Spy Game). This is a situation where being seen means being killed, and the Iranian people’s anger towards american superiority provides a substantial threat for everyone involved. Affleck subtly increases the tension with each suspicious figure and militant roaming the streets. Meanwhile, the anticipation builds to an edge-of-your-seat final third. The film, however, loses the grit and danger of its opening kidnapping sequences, shifting focus to the absurdities of the major Hollywood system and its broad yet profound similarities with the US Government. Despite many humorous and satirical moments, the bold look of the 70’s era studio takes the urgency away from the situation on the other side of the globe. Affleck does, however, create an inventive and pulpy visual style in these sequences, in the vein of the 2007 political dramedy Charlie Wilson’s War. Constant references to classic film and TV icons such as Star Wars, James Bond, Star Trek and Planet of The Apes, along with the salty bite taken out of mainstream studio practices, are entertaining yet diffuse the importance of this particular situation. The film walks a fine line between patronising and complimentary. The film manages to succinctly touch upon various Hollywood and government systems.
This story is about globalisation saving people’s lives whilst, at the same time, condemning them to be targets of the Iranian people. Argo, thanks to Affleck’s momentous will to succeed, pulls its audience in, shakes the viewer around, and sends them packing!
Verdict: An intelligent and nail-biting political thriller.