Mr. Turner Review: Masterstrokes & Milestones


Director: Mike Leigh

Writer: Mike Leigh

Stars: Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey


Release date: December 26th, 2014

Distributor: Entertainment One

Country: UK, France, Germany

Running Date: 150 minutes


 

4/5

Best part: Spall’s mesmerising performance.

Worst part: The anti-climactic denouement.

Review: Mr. Turner

Verdict: A mesmerising and meticulous docudrama.

Jersey Boys Review – A Bum Note


Director: Clint Eastwood

Writers: Marshall Brickman, Rick Elice (screenplay & book)

Stars: John Lloyd Young, Vincent Piazza, Erich Bergen, Michael Lomenda

 


Release date: June 20th, 2014

Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 134 minutes


 

 

 

2/5

Best part: The catchy musical numbers.

Worst part: Eastwood’s direction. 

Musicals – some people absolutely love them, while others despise them more than death, taxes, and the Republican Party combined. Gen-Y, a group infatuated with bright screens and tight clothes, is a generation with no interest in musical theatre. In fact, most youngsters would take Selena Gomez any day over Jean Valjean. Despite the preceding few sentences’ condescending tone, I must ask the following questions for the sake of objectivity – is this a major issue? Which demographic is the focus of musical theatre? Is anyone to blame the fall of specific genres, trends etc. throughout entertainment history?

Our troupe in action.

With all this in mind, Hollywood has thrown several big-budget musical adaptations at us over the past decade. With everything from Les Miserables, to Moulin Rouge, to Rock of Ages gracing us with their presence, this trend, like any others, has its fair share of spectacular hits and crippling misfires. So, who would be the best person to elevate this genre above its blockbuster-drenched competition? According to…himself, actor/director maestro Clint Eastwood is the man to make this potentially transcendent cultural shift happen. His latest directorial effort – and first musical adaptation – Jersey Boys, despite its charming high points, lands with a deftly sullen thud. Beyond the commendable intentions, this tale of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons delivers far more false notes than grand crescendos. I’ll stop myself there. Before I delve into my complaints, I’ll describe the topsy-turvy plot. Jersey Boys kicks off with three miscreants struggling keep their heads above water. Stuck in New Jersey, bad-boy Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) and his sidekick Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) spend their days scoring gigs and breaking the law. Moving through “revolving door” prisons, these boys are destined to either join the mob or die. However, after timid confidant Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) wows an audience, their aspirations become reality. Along the way, after the group hires ‘Short Shorts’ creator Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), recording contracts and country-wide tours make stars out of our four rapscallions.

Mike Doyle.

Resting on several generations’ love of nostalgia and peace-of-mind slices of entertainment, this Jersey Boys adaptation feels like it’s been released about 5-10 years too late. I don’t mean to illuminate my age or insinuate a hatred of anything even remotely twee. In fact, I recently saw the West End stage production of Jersey Boys in full bloom. The musical – gripping onto its obvious archetypes, fun sense of humour, and lively visuals – sets the right tone for this harmless narrative from the get-go. Inexplicably, Eastwood leaves out everything vibrant and profound about the original material. For his forceful and misguided adaptation, his style drenches this light-hearted tale in a distressing brand of darkness. From the first breaking-the-fourth-wall narration sequence onward, the musical’s iconic tropes clash with the movie’s dour tone and meandering development. Here, the differences between film and theatre production stick out like Valli’s piercing falsetto. This time around, the younger Joe Pesci’s inclusion lacks any sense of verve or sky-high wit. Eastwood, who may be going senile, clings onto the musical’s intended audience whilst neglecting its most valuable conceits. Without stretching the musical’s boundaries, his adaptation takes an inappropriately maudlin approach. At the very least, Eastwood’s comforting themes about the good ol’ days, Americana, empowerment, and masculinity aid this otherwise peculiar adaptation. Regrettably, noticeable in comparing the musical with Eastwood’s efforts, this adaptation clearly isn’t concerned with attracting new followers.

“Oh, by the way, if you’re ever in Vegas, go to a casino. Say the name, “Tommy DeVito”. My hand to God, you’ll be outta there in 12 seconds.” (Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), Jersey Boys).

The amazing Christopher Walken.

Like Walk the Line and Ray, this version follows our famous musicians through poverty, success, temptation, and salvation. With his style known for creating ever-lasting time capsules, this version could, and should, have been an epic tale of devastation, regret, and profound accomplishments. With tinges of Martin Scorsese and David O. Russell shining throughout, these filmmakers would’ve brought more enthusiasm and wonder to this note-worthy concept. With muted colour patterns, an acute attention to detail, and lingering camerawork defining Eastwood’s directorial efforts, his visual palette prevents this adaptation from hitting any high notes. Worst of all, our leads are hampered by dodgy old-age make-up in the final scene. Beyond this, the musical numbers are largely neglected in favour of the by-the-numbers-biopic execution. However, used sporadically throughout, certain songs become shining lights in this morbid affair. Paying homage to everything from the Ed Sullivan show to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, performances of ‘Sherry’, ‘Walk Like a Man’, and ‘Who Loves You’ provide context and gravitas for Eastwood’s out-of-touch vision. Graciously, like with every Eastwood production, the performers shine throughout. The four leads excel despite the awkward circumstances. Having played Valli on stage, Lloyd Young excels as this heartbroken celebrity figure. In addition, famed character actor Christopher Walken is a delight as high-end gangster Gyp DeCarlo. Meanwhile, Mike Doyle is enrapturing as the group’s “theatrical” manager Bob Crewe.

Whilst I was watching Jersey Boys, I spent a certain period of time imagining what Eastwood’s day-to-day production schedule must’ve been like: At 8am he starts filming, at 3pm he talks to a chair, and at 4: 30pm he goes to bed. I know this is a cruel way to talk about such a colossal Hollywood legend. However, here, like with Invictus, Hereafter, and J Edgar, he’s taken promising material and tarred it with soppy story-lines, leaden pacing, and a bafflingly dark tone. ‘Walk like a Man’? More like ‘Direct like an Amateur’. Sorry, Clint.

Verdict: Yet another Eastwood-helmed flop. 

Theatre Review – Les Miserables @ Queen’s Theatre


Directors: Trevor Nunn, John Caird

Music/Lyrics: Claude-Michael Schonberg, Alain Boublil, Jean-Marc Natel, Herbert Kretzmer

Stars: Simon Shorten, David Thaxton, Celinde Schoenmaker, Tom Edden

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Basis: Les Miserables (novel) by Victor Hugo

Adaptation: Claude-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boublil, Trevor Nunn, John Caird

Premiere date: 1980 (Paris), 1985 (west End)

Genre: Musical, drama


 

 

4½/5

Best Part: The rousing musical numbers

Worst Part: The stodgy love triangle

Courageously, a handful of musicals have stood the test of time. These select few, visually and thematically standing out from the crowd, have been proven worthy of pop-culture acclaim. Even the average Joe, who may or may not know anything about musical theatre, is aware of these productions and their effect on the world. However, big-budget musicals like Wicked, The Loin King, Jersey Boys, and Miss Saigon – despite their overwhelming auras – all pale in comparison to the world’s biggest theatre production. I’m, of course, talking about period-piece extravaganza Les Miserables.

The cast in control.

So, the question remains, how has Les Miserables become this prominent and insightful? Why is a musical about a French Revolution considered to be the most important creation in theatre history? Certainly, the narrative doesn’t inspire confidence or rave rounds of applause. The premise is steeped in one of history’s most depressing periods. In fact, its acclaim all comes down to the execution. The musical, thanks to acclaimed writers/lyricists Alain Boubil and Claude-Michael Schonberg, is a worthwhile delight in the midst of its exhaustive pop-cultural impact. After 25 years in the spotlight, this theatre extravaganza is still holding onto its best-and-brightest characteristics. Nowadays, after the 2012 blockbuster adaptation collected an enthusiastic choir of newcomers, future performances need to excel to satisfy its ever-increasing audience. So, does the West End’s ongoing iteration still hold-up to scrutiny? Well, in short, yes it absolutely does! Obviously, each performance tells the same story about heartfelt characters struggling to survive. However, this version delivers more refreshing nuances than operatic high notes (and that’s saying something). Queen’s Theatre, the heart of London’s artistic hub, now hosts this extraordinary endeavour. Walking up the steps, the anticipation builds like a grand crescendo. Greeted by courteous employees, I was immediately impressed by the venue’s atmospheric vibe.

A vibrant French Revolution.

Soon enough, after the rabid theatre geeks and groan-fuelled school kids took their seats, the lights steadily dimmed as the performance kicked off in style. Closing the surrounding curtains, the venue had prepped the audience. From there, the projector beamed bright colours and titles onto the stage’s immense canvas. The narrative rears its disgusting head in 1815, Digne. Matched by a momentous opening number, disgraced prisoner Jean Valjean (Simon Shorten) is released from his sentence by notorious lawman Javert (David Thaxton). Rejected by society, Valjean is ignored by everyone except the gracious Bishop of Digne (Adam Linstead). Those familiar with the musical will be able to track where this story goes after its traumatic  opening. After factory worker Fantine (Celinde Schoenmaker) is forced into prostitution, Valjean risks everything to help her daughter Cosette (Emilie Fleming) achieve a better life. Shockingly, I find it difficult to spell-out these details. This musical’s prowess lies within its darkest and most transcendent elements. Les Miserables‘ tiniest details reveal themselves at opportune moments. Suitably, viewers will lap-up this exhaustive, gripping, and touching experience. The story, revelling in the time period and courageous characters, is just one of several invigorating aspects of this stirring extravaganza. From there, several major and minor characters and plot-threads clash throughout the 150-minute run-time. Thanks to Thenardier (Tom Edden) and Madame Thenardier(Wendy Ferguson), a love triangle forms between Cosette, idealistic student Marius (Rob Houchen), and Eponine (Carrie Hope Fletcher).

“I had a dream my life would be so different from this hell I’m living!” (Fantine(Celinde Schoenmaker), Les Miserables)

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The Thenardiers.

Suitably, Les Miserables‘ musical numbers fuel its scintillating and unrelenting narrative. From the confronting opening sequence onward, the show’s top-tier numbers ring throughout the venue. Here, the performers deliver each song flawlessly. Within the first 45 minutes, this musical showcases its most profound and memorable songs. ‘Valjean’s Soliloquy’, ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, and ‘Castle on a Cloud’ tug on the heartstrings whilst telling gritty stories in themselves. Describing our lead characters’   conflicts and motivations, these numbers are first-half highlights. In addition, despite being brash comic reliefs, the Thenardiers work wonders for this sombre tale. ‘Master of the House’, fitting comfortably into this sprawling narrative, is a punchy and effective song. Utilising the entire stage, this version’s intricate production design boosts the experience. Switching sets with flawless technical precision, Les Miserables smoothly transitions between time periods, locations, and set pieces. Thanks to the swivelling stage mechanism, the larger-than-life execution crafts a momentous scope. The second-half’s battle sequences, combining the love triangle with Valjean’s dilemma, deliver timeless numbers and breathtaking choreography. Gun shots and bellowing cries help paint a portrait of this vital conflict. Graciously, the performers bolster this stirring stage production. Shorten, replacing Peter Lockyer for this performance, is a breakout success as the troubled prisoner turned protector. Within the first act, his revelatory performance matches Colm Wilkinson and Hugh Jackman’s turns.

Pushing itself to be better than previous productions, this West End version lives up to the original’s efforts and audience expectations. Eclipsing Tom Hooper’s cinematic adaptation, this version sticks to the original’s roots whilst delivering an exciting experience. As the world’s most popular and enlightening musical, the story, set and costume designs, musical numbers, and character arcs stand the test time on both sides of the Atlantic. Do you hear the people sing? Yes, we do. In fact, judging by box-office receipts, we cling onto multiple listens.

Verdict: An immense and note-worthy musical experience. 

Theatre Review – Jersey Boys @ Piccadilly Theatre


Director: Des McAnuff

Music/Lyrics: Bob Gaudio, Bob Crewe

Stars: Michael Watson, Jon Boydon, Edd Post, Matt Nalton


Premiere date: 2005 (Broadway), 2008 (West End)

Basis: Four Seasons songs


 

 

4½/5

Best Part: The dynamic musical numbers

Worst Part: The cheesy comic-strip back-drops

New Jersey, known to many as “that place near Manhattan”, has birthed and bred some of America’s greatest talents. In amongst the factories, strong accents, and family ties, true passion resides. Transforming the music scene, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons obliterated the pop charts for several decades. Releasing hit songs throughout five decades and selling over 175 million records, the group reached the little people of suburban Jersey and the world.

Jersey Boys on the West End.

The Four Seasons, taking the name from a neon sign overlooking a bowling alley, is still seen as one of music’s most influential acts. Broadway smash hit Jersey Boys tells their scintillating and heartbreaking story with style and vigour. Keeping it in the family, Bob Gaudio’s hand in the production elevates this seminal jukebox musical above the rest. Gaudio, as one of America’s bravest singer/songwriters, is one of several gems amongst this production’s overwhelming cultural glow. Jersey Boys, soon to be blessed with a Clint Eastwood-directed adaptation, hits everyone similarly. It’s easy to become immersed in the group’s phenomenal hits and overwhelming aura. The musical, tracing the rise-and-fall ride of the group’s time in the spotlight, keeps toes tapping and hearts racing throughout the 2½-hour duration. In a reflective twist on typical jukebox musicals, the musical kicks off with ‘Ces soirees-la’, a cover of Four Season’s hit ‘December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night). Told by rebellious bandleader Tommy DeVito (Jon Boydon), the story then jumps back to a simpler time of diner-set gigs and “revolving door” prisons. Thrown in and out of jail, DeVito’s troupe, changing its name every week, is a major source of trouble in downtown Jersey.

One of many hit musical numbers.

Beyond the seasonal changes and alignment switches, the group’s journey swiftly glides through the momentous, easy-to-follow structure. Peppered with larger-than-life characters, this musical hits high notes from DeVito’s first words onward. Of course, DeVito’s greatest discovery comes in the form of timid singer Frankie Valli (Michael Watson). Pushing him into the spotlight, women and recording contracts threw themselves at this enlightening ensemble. As a Martin Scorsese feature set to pleasant pop tracks, Jersey Boys embraces its iconic locations and hearty stereotypes. As a heartfelt tribute to Middle America and the notorious group, the musical never forgets about the troupe’s origin story and connections with the mob. “I’m gonna be as big as Sinatra”, Valli confidently says to his first squeeze, and future wife, Mary (Victoria Brazil). After that sweet and hysterical statement, the musical’s immense nostalgia factor rises like Valli’s distinctive voice. Breaking the mould, the narration paints a succinct and detailed picture of each member’s perspective. Brushed with fame and frustrations, the group’s astounding prowess is lovingly touched upon. The other members, acclaimed singer/songwriter Gaudio (Edd Post), who wrote ‘Who Wears Short Shorts?’ when he was 15, and wily bass player Nick Massi (Matt Nalton) round out the musical’s impressive aura. Massi, at one point, even labels himself the “Ringo” of the group. Outlining everything from the “British Invasion” of pop groups in the 1960s to their induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, the musical’s beating heart is never overshadowed by its rousing covers or eye-popping production design. Shifting sets and time-periods faster than anticipated, the production comes off as an inescapable trip down memory lane.

“Like that bunny on TV, it just keeps going and going and going. Chasing the music. Trying to find our way home.” (Frankie Valli (Michael Watson), Jersey Boys)

The ultimate crescendo.

Despite stellar production values, cartoonish images – depicting pretty girls, band names, and important dates – become false notes in this otherwise harmonious tribute. However, the real flair resides in this unfolding narrative etched into music history. Along the way – as we speed through Summer, Autumn, Winter, and Spring – the band ascends and descends in spectacular fashion. DeVito’s gambling problems and Valli’s relationship issues round out a jaw-dropping second half. Matching catchy tunes with heartbreaking twists and turns, Jersey Boys accepts the good and bad of this story. However, pushing past the feuds and foibles, each track casts a timeless and insatiable spell upon the already manic audience. Their greatest tracks, ‘Sherry’, ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’, and ‘Walk Like a Man’, tell a hearty story about the transition from misfortunate troupe to Top-100 success story. Depicting a time of studio pressure and racial tensions, the musical depicts the Four Seasons as a group daring to be tangible and ever lasting. In this visceral journey, Valli and Massi take over story-telling duties. Valli’s story – bolstered by sterling renditions of ‘C’mon, Marianne’, ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’, and ‘Working my Way Back to You’ – juggles divorce, gargantuan expectations, and debts as tragedy strikes. Despite this, the performances relish in this production’s comedic heights. Watson’s Valli is a mesmerising one. Capturing Valli’s falsetto sound and rambunctious dance moves, Watson is a standout performer. Boydon, a spitting image of DeVito, is a charismatic and lively force. Maintaining DeVito’s outlandish voice and emotional current, Boydon is an entertaining young actor. Keeping focus on the Four Seasons, Post and Nalton become charming foils in this gargantuan tale.

Soaring beyond minor quibbles, Jersey Boys lives up to its stellar reputation. As the most intelligent and invigorating jukebox musical to date, this glorious production invests in its all-powerful quartet by revelling in a hearty dose of nostalgia. Thanks to boisterous comedic moments, clever set designs, and wondrous performances, this West End production skilfully carries the undying Jersey Boys legacy.

Verdict: A rambunctious and potent jukebox musical. 

The Grand Budapest Hotel Review – Wild, Wild Wes-tern


Director: Wes Anderson

Writer: Wes Anderson

Stars: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe

 


Release date: March 21st, 2014

Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 99 minutes


 

4½/5

Best part: Anderson’s direction.

Worst part: The unnecessary bookends.

Words like “hipster” and “pretentious” are thrown around far too often nowadays. Intended as insults, these words are too often taken out of context and placed into judgemental analyses. Unfortunately, these words are often directed toward writer/director Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom). Sure, his style stands out from every other big-name filmmaker out there. But why should we criticise him for being different? This year, Anderson has pursued a new and improved form of critical and commercial acclaim.

Ralph Fiennes & Tony Revolori.

Simultaneously lampooning and embracing his distinctive style, Anderson’s new feature The Grand Budapest Hotel reaches out to newcomers and long-time fans. Here, this near-rabid fandom is what Anderson strives for. In  this delectable dramedy, his bold visuals, deadpan performances, and relevant themes are dissected and meticulously placed back together. To introduce readers to Anderson’s universe, I’ll describe this labyrinthine plot. In one timeline, a girl places a key on a statue before diving into a novel named ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’. We are then introduced to the novel’s narratorial force. The author (Tom Wilkinson) describes one significant event in his tumultuous life. From there, we meet the author’s younger self (Jude Law) residing in 1968. Meeting the hotel’s elderly owner Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the author enquires about Moustafa’s past. We then examine Moustafa’s younger self (Tony Revolori) whilst learning of the Hotel’s former glory back in 1932. This timeline, set in the fictional Eastern European country of Zubrowka, deals with countries and businesses during wartime. As a lobby boy, Moustafa becomes friends with the hotel’s favourable concierge Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes). Over the years, Gustave courts several rich, elderly women whom come for the hotel’s reputation and stay for his “exceptional service”.

Adrian Brody & Willem Dafoe.

Heartbroken over his lover Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe-und-Taxis(Tilda Swinton)’s death, Gustave, after acquiring prized painting ‘Boy With Apple’, is pursued by her son Dmitri Desgoffe-und-Taxis (Adrien Brody), assassin J.G.Jopling (Willem Dafoe), Deputy Vilmos Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum), and Inspector Henckels (Edward Norton). Honestly, it’s difficult fitting this expansive, starry-eyed cast into this synopsis. In true Anderson fashion, commendable lead and character actors fill each role. Here, Anderson’s auteur status ascends to a notch above transcendent. Embracing narrative tropes and visual flourishes, Anderson takes full responsibility for each detail. Conquering screenwriting and directorial duties, this masterful dramedy icon embellishes what others fear. Idealistically, fun concepts are explored in this sprawling tale about hope, love, age, loss, and survival. The Grand Budapest Hotel, escaping Anderson’s conventional familial-drama confines, delivers an investigation into an entire country’s peculiar inhabitants. Despite including one-too-many timelines, Anderson’s deft touch and focused direction delivers an honest and fruitful idea of humanity’s lighter and darker shades. The author’s timeline fuses with Moustafa’s in a tricky yet purposeful fashion. As a showcase for renowned performers, The Grand Budapest Hotel is chock-a-block with impactful moments and hearty surprises. In fact, around every corner, characters, laugh-out-loud gags, and clues reside to bolster this quirky tale. In addition, the movie throws gunfights, murders, and tension into this whimsical concoction. Thankfully, the movie never becomes quirky for quirky’s sake. Gustave’s journey never becomes corny or materialistic. Instead, this harsh yet intelligent narrative explores Anderson’s most enigmatic ideas. 

“Keep your hands off my lobby boy!” (M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), The Grand Budapest Hotel).

Jude Law & Jason Schwartzman

Of course, generating fans the world over, Anderson’s signature visual style eclipses this narratorial thrust and opinionated viewpoints. Beyond being the all-knowing creator of prescient dollhouse-like universes, the mis-en-scene, from the ground upward, builds glorious interiors and kitsch exteriors. As Gustave compliments people on their artistic merits, we can see Anderson applauding his own identity and style. Here, his universe becomes more wondrous, idiosyncratic, and gargantuan than anything a modern blockbuster can, and would, deliver. As blockbusters for the indie crowd, Anderson’s features exclaim more than expected each time. Overcoming obvious and ill-conceived preconceptions, his attention to detail almost becomes a cure for a conquering bout of Hollywood-itis. Overcoming the cynicism, his near-symmetrical compositions, clashing colours, stylistic experiments, and blank-faced characters develop near-wordless conversations. Here, his glorious style interacts with over-arching messages. Paying homage to everyone from Ernst Lubitsch to The Marx Brothers, Anderson uses hallways, elevators, cramped spaces, and lobbies to accentuate the story’s manic energy. Fitting its entire cast onto a bevy of key hangars, the poster reveals only a fraction of the movie’s content. Despite the vagueness, these performers, whether they be new to or accustomed to Anderson’s flourishes, admirably reinforce this tale’s enthusiasm, vision, and ideology. Fiennes breaks from tradition to embody this unhinged and comedically-charged role. Tapping into his slapstick chops, the iconic British actor jumps into each scene with charm, maliciousness, and reverence. Newcomer Revolori is also a standout as Gustave’s naive and witty number-two. Bolstering their already esteemed reputations, supporting players like Norton, Goldblum, Brody, Saoirse Ronan, Bill Murray, and Harvey Keitel stand above this immensely talented ensemble.

Eclipsing Anderson’s best efforts, including Rushmore and The Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Grand Budapest Hotel is an effervescent and efficient love letter. In addition, it outright refuses to become a sorrowful apology to Anderson’s detractors or even average filmgoers. Anderson, now reaching critical and commercial acclaim, holds his head up higher than even the most respectful hotel staff member. Ideally, it’s worth making reservations for, and checking-in to, this hysterical and dexterous dramedy.

Verdict: Anderson’s most gleeful and nuanced effort yet.

The Monuments Men Review – Stuck in Trenches


Director: George Clooney 

Writers: George Clooney, Grant Heslov (screenplay), Robert M. Edsel (book)

Stars: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman

monuments_men_xlrg


Release date: February 7th, 2014

Distributors: Columbia Pictures, 20th Century Fox

Country: USA

Running time: 118 minutes


 

2/5

Best part: The fun performances.

Worst part: The dreary pace.

What ever happened to the concept of ‘classic Hollywood’? The Golden Age of Hollywood was defined by artistic efforts created by influential and enviable crusaders…I presume. Having researched this part of entertainment history (I know, I’m a nerd), I’ve come to a predictable yet apt conclusion – Hollywood doesn’t make movies the way it used to. Literally and figuratively, this statement sports several obvious and subtle traits. Modern Hollywood, continually compared to what it was, doesn’t stand up to criticism. So, who better to boost Hollywood’s wavering reputation than national treasure George Clooney? From Tibet to Timbuktu, everyone knows who he is.

Matt Damon & George Clooney.

In fact, Clooney’s latest effort, The Monuments Men, strives to make gigantic and awe-inspiring leaps of faith. Unfortunately, the movie trips and falls more often than not. Tellingly, this movie contains the right ingredients. In particular, not to be overlooked, the movie’s A-list performers have boosted some of the past decade’s greatest works. However, this saccharine docudrama’s reach exceeds its grasp. Embarrassingly, the movie keeps reaching for Clooney’s previous efforts’ level of quality. His immense star power and determination fight to bring classic Hollywood back. Unfortunately, The Monuments Men comes off like an elaborate dress rehearsal. Needing one-or-two final look-overs, this mawkish dramedy fits great assets into awkward places. Admittedly, this is an inspirational and unique story. Based on Robert M. Edsel’s literary account The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History (had me at the title alone), this kooky adventure flick can’t decide what it wants to do. Here, multiple characters take this troop’s intentions across harsh lands to all corners of Europe. Set during WWII’s final moments, the movie picks up with the Nazi’s retreating to Berlin. Stealing priceless artefacts and destroying cities and communities, Adolf Hitler’s forces are taking everything to hell with them. Noticing their disgraceful actions’ impact, Lt. Frank Stokes (Clooney, of course) presents his findings to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. 

Cate Blanchett.

Given the all-clear, Stokes recruits representatives from Western Civilisation’s brightest sectors. After throwing Lt. James Granger (Matt Damon) back into the action, Stokes invites a gaggle of veteran soldiers to take-on Germany’s fiercest armies. Honestly, I’m trying to make this movie’s intricate plot seem more interesting than it is. Though their names aren’t important, the supporting characters are boosted by a plethora of acclaimed performers. Soon enough, Manhattan architect Sgt. Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), sculpter Sgt. Walter Garfield (John Goodman), painter Lt. Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), theatre director Pvt. Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), and Lt. Donald Jefferies (Hugh Boneville) join Stokes. Gathering intelligence proving Hitler’s Fuhrermuseum to be in development, the group infiltrates  Europe to such retrieve artefacts as the Van Eyck Altarpiece and Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child. Sadly, despite the immense talent dousing each frame, star power and attention to detail don’t distract from The Monuments Men‘s crippling flaws. Obviously, the premise is boosted by these esteemed actors. It’s invigorating seeing these actors collaborate and crackle on screen. Unfortunately, from the twenty-five-minute mark onward, this rambunctious crew splits up to take on different missions. The narrative, separating into several under-utilised and tedious parts, exhaustively plods. Within the first third, the movie’s jarring tonal shifts and underwhelming turns stick out. After their separation, Granger meets up with disgruntled museum curator Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett). With Simone key to the mission’s success, Granger’s intentions become distorted. At least, that’s what I thought his story-line was about. For this subplot highlight’s the movie’s biggest flaw – cluttered with convoluted arcs and under-utilised concepts, the movie’s underdeveloped plot-lines are disjointed and meaningless deviations.

“Stop, stop. Stop. I seem to have stepped on a land mine…of some sort.” (James Granger (Matt Damon), The Monuments Men).

Bill Murray & Bob Balaban.

Beyond Clooney’s hubris blinding his gaze, his and long-time co-writer/producer Grant Heslov’s screenplay lacks depth, charm, and consistency. Steering away from emotional impact, the exposition-and-cliche-driven story-lines lack definitive resolutions. Considering Clooney’s greatest works (Good Night, and Good Luck, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), he should know how to fuse relevant, politically-driven narratives with eclectic, period-piece settings. Unfortunately, The Monuments Men‘s broad, bloated sub-plots distract from Clooney’s grand vision. With plot-strands switching from blissfully lighthearted to disturbingly dark and vice-versa, this homage to classic Hollywood already feels wholly dated. Irritatingly so, Clooney’s influences and viewpoints rest close to his heart. Like with The Ides of March, Clooney uses his democratic, no-nonsense agenda to kick this movie into overdrive. Thanks to the true story’s significant profundities, the movie almost  becomes socially and spiritually involving. Commenting on art’s effect on culture, the search for Weapons of Mass Destruction, and the first world, Clooney’s fiery viewpoints reach breaking point. Amongst Clooney’s feisty attacks, the hit-and-miss gags also distort his intentions. Injecting slapstick humour into heartbreaking sequences, The Monuments Men awkwardly  connects contrasting genres and influences. Beyond the kitsch opening credits sequence (honouring The Dirty Dozen), Clooney’s overt sense of humour hinders this heavy-handed docudrama. Thankfully, Clooney’s visual style elevates this otherwise underwhelming dramedy. Along with the movie’s sumptuous and electrifying mis-en-scene, Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography is jaw-dropping. Overcoming Clooney’s tonal transitions, the visuals are far more substantial than his overwhelming opinions. 

I hate to criticise Clooney’s work. For an entire generation, his scintillating screen presence and immense talent establish him as one of Hollywood’s greatest treasures. However, The Monuments Men, despite the commendable intentions, is an uninspired, confused, and weightless dramedy. Hampered by Clooney’s agenda and affection for classic Hollywood, his ambitiousness and profile prove costly. Somehow, this WWII docudrama lacks dramatic tension, laughs, and genuine thrills. Despite Clooney and co.’s involvement, its clear why Brad Pitt didn’t show up. 

Verdict: A lively yet disappointing WWII dramedy. 

Labor Day Review – Like Undercooked Pie…


Director: Jason Reitman 

Writer: Jason Reitman (screenplay), Joyce Maynard (novel)

Stars: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Clark Gregg 


Release date: December 27th, 2013

Distributor: Paramount Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 111 minutes


 

1½/5

Best part: The charismatic performances.

Worst part: The egregious romance.

Romantic-drama Labor Day‘s opening credits sequence sets its audience up for a heart-breaking fall. Here, the movie introduces us to one of Middle America’s most gorgeous suburbs. Sure, this seems pleasurable. But, as this sequence goes on, the tedium steadily sets in. In one 30/40-second shot, Labor Day transitions from intriguingly simple to bland and dreary. This movie, leading itself down Oscar-bait lane, is nowhere near as interesting as its all-powerful competition. From the aforementioned credits sequence onward, the movie crashes and burns.

Kate Winslet.

Dear young and old couples alike, don’t be drawn into Labor Days alluring marketing campaign! This movie is the ultimate relationship test. If anyone who watches it says, to their respective partners, things like: “that was so romantic” or “these characters remind me of me”, they should take a long, hard look in the mirror. Despite my scornful words (really, they’re just words!), Labor Day does sport several interesting scenes and revelatory performances. However, despite the slight positives, I still hate this messy and disgraceful melodrama. Anyway, I guess I should describe the ‘plot’. In a sector of 1980s America (I presume), depressed and agoraphobic single mother Adele (Kate Winslet) struggles with day-to-day life. Forced to look after her son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) full time, the thought of even stepping outside makes her shake uncontrollably. Relying on Henry’s acute precociousness, she’s unable to fend for herself. In addition, at the local supermarket, several things remind Adele of her current predicament. Henry bumps into escaped convict Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin). Forcing himself into their maudlin lives, Frank finds solace in their quaint home. Over Labor Day weekend, Frank becomes ingrained into their peculiar familial structure. Based on Joyce Maynard’s semi-autobiographical novella, this adaptation bludgeons this already weak-minded genre. Admittedly, the story’s heart-warming premise seems romantic. My steel-like heart melts the tiniest bit for concepts like these. However, Labor Day’s execution, to be gleefully hyperbolic, is as painful as witnessing an actual execution.

Josh Brolin & Gattlin Griffith.

Before I go on a “modern romance is awful!” rant, I’ll stop myself dead. My cynical perspective, somehow, became darker as I watched this insipid and egregious romantic-drama. Its problems stem from the story’s core ingredients. As Adele and Frank fall in love, Labor Day slides into a brainless and vacuous lull. Anyone, of any age group, can tear through this unending melodrama’s plot mechanics. Relying on coincidences and implausibilities, the story’s hollow and archaic nature becomes frustrating. From their creepy meet-up onward, Adele and Frank’s romance hurriedly, and unexpectedly, becomes ethically questionable and unlikeable. From then on, the movie falls into manipulative territory. Forcing himself into their lives, Frank, inexplicably, turns into a cross between Bob the Builder and Martha Stewart. Within Labor Day’s malfunctioning 72-hour window, Frank fixes everything around the house, teaches his ‘victims’ how to bake, and turns Henry from a sensitive child into a baseball-loving primate. Even more unrealistic, the leads’ relationship blossoms over this alarmingly short space of time. Frank’s muscle flexing and Adele’s cleavage-friendly dresses become catalysts in this uninspired love story. As the saccharine love child of Fifty Shades of Grey and Nicholas Sparks’ harlequin romance novels, this exhaustive mess is just as stale. Like Safe Haven and The Lucky One, Labor Day is mind-numbingly dull and oddly psychosexual. Sadly, Dear John is much better. My disappointment rests squarely on its wasted potential. Romance, despite mass cultural and critical vile, can make for intriguing and invigorating cinematic gold. The Notebook and Titanic, though not without their flaws, still sit at the top of this schmaltzy leaderboard.

“I don’t think losing my father broke my mother’s heart, but rather losing love itself.” (Henry (Gattlin Griffith), Labor Day).

The ‘family’ in action.

The blame rests with acclaimed writer/director Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air). Reitman, known for insightful and darkly comedic character studies (Thank You for Smoking, Young Adult), avoids his satirical shades and witty edge here. Instead, this energetic filmmaker reaches into an ancient bag of tricks. Where is his sense of humour or acute insight into pop-culture? Despite Reitman’s ambitiousness, his new career path falls into dangerous and degrading territory. Like with Nick Cassavetes, commercial glory and watchful studio eyes now cast a debilitating shadow over Reitman’s distinctive style. Here, Reitman examines his and Maynard’s livelihoods. Based on Maynard’s peculiar experience with a prison pen-pal, the young filmmaker’s efforts dampen this manipulative tale. Displayed in flashback, Frank’s life story and motivations become clear. However, Reitman, clinging onto small and intriguing details, mashes the flashback and flash-forward buttons. Unfortunately, inconsistent flourishes distort several plot points and revelations. Jumping from pre-Vietnam 60s, to present day, then to the swinging 70s, the movie’s timeline doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. However, one sequence is effectively handled. Examining Adele’s dilapidated psyche and harsh life story, this flashback-fuelled vignette sits head-and-shoulders above the present-day romantic dross. Rescuing this atrocious romantic-drama from the cinematic doldrums, Winslet and Brolin deliver touching performances. Though unable to elevate such soggy material, Winslet injects charm and malice into this frustrating character. Looking beyond her character’s child-like mind, the Oscar-winning actress – making the most of this career misstep – relishes in the narrative’s wavering emotional state. Here, Brolin is endlessly charismatic. Despite the lack of chemistry, Brolin’s distinctive voice and charms bolster this irritating character. Meanwhile, Griffith is revelatory as the patriarch turned concerned citizen.

Sadly, Labor Day is a gigantic waste of time, potential, and talent. Despite the cruelty, I see this as a public service announcement. Depicting a joyless and hollow version of romance, this romantic-drama is a calculated, lugubrious, and cynical mess. Earning a spot on my 2014 Worst of the Year list, I pray this Hallmark Channel reject is just a one-off for Reitman. I still like him, but this is pushing it! Even the world’s craziest cat ladies are too intelligent for this one. Skip it at all costs!

Verdict: A laughable and frustrating melodrama. 

Dallas Buyers Club Review – Southern Struggles


Director: Jean-Marc Vallee

Writers: Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack 

Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner, Steve Zahn


Release date: February 13th, 2014

Distributor: Focus Features

Country: USA

Running time: 116 minutes


 

4/5

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. 

Matthew McConaughey.

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.

Jared Leto.

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 (BernieThe 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 Club delivers 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).

Jennifer Garner.

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.

American Hustle Review – ABSCAM Anarchy


Director: David O. Russell 

Writers: Eric Singer, David O. Russell 

Stars: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner


Release date: December 13th, 2013

Distributors: Columbia Pictures, Entertainment Film Distributors, Roadshow Entertainment

Country: USA

Running time: 138 minutes


 

4½/5

Best part: The entertaining performances. 

Worst part: The alienating plot turns.

In one of American Hustle‘s more pivotal scenes, Christian Bale’s Character Irving Rosenfeld asks Bradley Cooper’s character Richie DiMaso the movie’s most important question: “Who’s the master? The Painter? Or the forger?”. Despite being the trailer’s most valuable moment, the query still efficiently sums up this crime-drama’s raw edginess. American Hustle, safely landing into Academy-Award-contention territory, is one of 2013’s most puzzling yet entertaining movies. Its top-flight cast, enigmatic plot, and dizzying set pieces deliver multiple rewards.

Christian Bale & Bradley Cooper.

Despite presenting itself as a “For Your Consideration…” Oscar trap, American Hustle is an honest and adept crime-drama. Today, we rarely become witness to such ground-breaking yet kinetic movies. Despite facing stiff competition in this year’s Oscar race, American Hustle wouldn’t care if it won, lost, or drew. Acclaimed director David O. Russell (The FighterSilver Linings Playbook) is obviously his own man. Given his fiery on-set temper and inspiring talent, O. Russell achieves the near impossible – delivering a stylish, convoluted, and enlightening crime drama free from pretentiousness and overblown moments. Despite my glowing recommendation of American Hustle, I understand the movie’s already-discomforting-yet-minor backlash. It’s certainly not for everyone. At least, I can try to win people over by describing the movie’s terrific yet dicey plot. Rosenfeld (Bale) is a despicable businessman running several companies within New Jersey. With his dry-cleaning and glass-installation businesses in tip-top condition, he becomes a slimy yet clever small-town hero. However, Rosenfeld’s world is rocked by seductive beauty Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). With Prosser becoming Rosenfeld’s mistress/business partner, their greatest plans kick into gear. Embezzling large funds from gullible investors, the terrible twosome expand their vast riches. Thanks to Prosser’s alter ego ‘Lady Edith Greensly’, their schemes and romance blossom into something dreadfully beautiful (or beautifully dreadful, it’s difficult to tell). However, Rosenfeld is bewitched by his bi-polar wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and adrenaline-and-cocaine-fuelled FBI agent DiMaso (Cooper). Forced into the FBI’s clutches, Rosenfeld, Prosser, and DiMaso forcefully work together to take down corrupt yet well-meaning Camden Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner).

Amy Adams.

Amy Adams.

From there, allegiances, plans, and ideologies are warped, tortured, and eviscerated. It may seem diabolical, but the dramatic beats liven up this talky crime-drama. Depicting the late-70s’ ABSCAM scandal, American Hustle delves into the true story’s intricate webbing and most enigmatic elements. With its opening title card saying: “Some of this actually happened”, the movie pokes fun at Hollywood’s stranglehold over inspirational yet unbelievable true stories. After biting into ABSCAM’s saucy yet dangerous secrets, the movie sporadically delves into its own fantastical and larger-than-life adventure. I’ll admit, the convoluted plot-strands and alienating exposition become this cognitive structure’s most problematic elements. However, these inane moments hurriedly brush past the audience. Its most memorable moments are worth the admission cost. Here, ABSCAM’s most confusing aspects are insignificant titbits stuck in an increasingly formidable conflict. Before and after the scandal is brought up then brushed aside, the characters take control of the movie’s electrifying and alarming narrative. Within the first ten minutes, American Hustle takes us on a discomforting, sexually appealing, and comedic journey. Thanks to Rosenfeld and Prosser’s shared narration, these characters introduce and describe themselves. O. Russell, continually choosing controversy over convention, makes several brave choices within the first act. Beyond the schizophrenic narration, the narrative jumps from one influence to another. Despite the movie’s overt self-indulgence, O. Russell displays a glowing affection for such influential crime-drama directors as Martin Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Sidney Lumet. The tonal shifts, ever-changing perspectives, and debilitating plot-turns are derived from Goodfellas and Casino. In fact, like those pulsating movies, American Hustle graciously explores the criminal mind’s most fascinating intricacies.

Jeremy Renner.

Despite the engaging narrative, the plot occasionally gets away from O. Russell and co-writer Eric Singer. Highlighting the true story’s most baffling parts, the movie locks onto its comical and distasteful characters. Despite this, the movie’s sickening comedic touches quickly launch into overdrive. With the wild characters embracing this pressing situation’s absurdity, the biting and ironic humour comes thick and fast. Stuck between rocks and hard places, these dim-witted heroes and villains bumble, wine, and cuss through every dangerous conflict. With lives and reputations at risk, insults fly across each swanky setting. In particular, Rosalyn’s nasty insults and abrasive attitude hit with gut-punch-like effect. Credit, obviously, belongs to O. Russell for the movie’s pitch-black humour and cynical outlook. Despite the punchy tone and zippy pacing, O. Russell’s work hurriedly descends into darkness and chaos. With his filmography covering the gulf war, mental illness, and fallen sporting heroes, his misanthropic perspective casts a detailed shadow over each unique project. American Hustle, his most violent and zany effort yet, illuminates similarities between 70s, post-Vietnam USA and post-economic-crisis Earth. O. Russell, giving fraudulent miscreants second chances whist looking down upon important government agencies, develops several truthful yet misguided opinions. Like Catch Me if You Can and The InformantAmerican Hustle‘s criminal/lawman conflict supports the anti-hero and flips-off the villainous yet untouchable government fat-cats. At least, O. Russell’s work says what we are all thinking. Beyond that, O. Russell bravely pokes fun at the American Dream. Deliberating on race, gender, and class, the movie makes middle class, suburban living seem like a torturous adventure. Setting household appliances, inventive schemes, and aspirations alight, American Hustle is not for the faint-hearted or ignorant.

“Did you ever have to find a way to survive and you knew your choices were bad, *but* you had to survive?” (Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), American Hustle).

Jennifer Lawrence.

Jennifer Lawrence.

Thankfully, for less-opinionated viewers, the visuals develop a kinetic and entertaining sensory experience. Sporting elaborate costumes, hair-dos, and personalities, each character sustains exterior and interior quirks. With these characters’ schemes as outlandish as their skin-flashing outfits, the costume design lends American Hustle a pulsating and tangible sheen. In addition, each character – whether they be rich, poor, innocent or slimy – balances stupefying hair-dos atop their attractive facades. DiMaso’s perm, Rosalyn’s beehive, and Polito’s road-kill-like hairstyle are enlightening distractions. Opening with Rosenfeld pasting a bizarre toupee atop his bulbous scalp, American Hustle‘s characters are defined by styles and substance. The mis-en-scene, plastering ugly colours, swanky interior designs, and elaborate patterns across every frame, lends verisimilitude to this otherwise sketchy and kooky narrative. O. Russell, infatuated by overt 70s icons, pumps up the catchy soundtrack at opportune moments. Wings, Steely Dan, The Bee Gees, and Elton John elevate certain tension-inducing sequences. However, credit belongs to the A-list actors draped across every sizzling frame. Their determination and courageousness, tested by O. Russell’s punishing direction, pushes them through each discomforting scene. Like O. Russell’s previous efforts, the shouting matches develop each puzzle piece and flawed character. Swiftly increasing each interior setting’s temperature, the pithy dialogue and loud voices reveal each character’s ugliest qualities. Bale, carrying a belly and comb-over, transforms into a seedy, depraved, and quick-witted figure. Cooper steals his scenes as the incessant and manic agent. Adams, falling boob-first into every scene, is revelatory as the slinky yet tough mistress. Renner and Lawrence provide big laughs and immaculate performances. Meanwhile, Robert De Niro, Louis CK, Alessandro Nivola, Jack Huston, and Michael Pena contribute commendably.

With his energetic direction, elegant screenplay, and Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook alumni, O. Russell has pulled off a stunning hat-trick. Despite minor quarrels, American Hustle peels back several purposeful layers over its 2+ hour run-time. Unlike American Gangster, American Psycho, and American Pie, this crime-drama discovers that particular word’s immense ironic twang.

Verdict: A funny, scintillating, and engaging crime-drama. 

Argo Review – Affleck’s Artwork


Director: Ben Affleck 

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

Country: USA

Running time: 120 minutes


 

4½/5

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.

Ben Affleck.

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.

“Argo F*ck yourself!” (Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), Argo).

John Goodman & Alan Arkin.

John Goodman & Alan Arkin.

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.

Moonrise Kingdom Review – Young Lover’s Yonder


Director: Wes Anderson

Writers: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola

Stars: Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Edward Norton, Bruce Willis


Release Date: May 25th, 2012

Distributor: Focus Features

Country: USA

Running time: 94 minutes

4/5

Best part: The engaging performances.

Worst part: The irritable supporting characters.

Bravely holding up the peace sign in protest against modernity and establishment, Moonrise Kingdom could be seen as this generation’s Easy Rider. A big statement to make for sure, but its quirky tone and important discussion of free love and youth are held onto with a fond emotional resonance and artistic beauty.

Jared Gilman & Kara Hayward.

Jared Gilman & Kara Hayward.

Its 1965, America is a transitional state and its youth are easily impressionable to the evolving tapestries of temptation and rebellion. Violent and socially awkward Suzy (Kara Hayward) finds her soul mate with the equally strange and detested Sam (Jared Gilman). They run away from home to the island of New Penzance, isolated from the throes of a bland American life. The parents and local authorities are made aware of their indiscretions and become determined to keep them apart, but a physical and emotional escape from their confines has forever drawn them into the realm of forbidden desires. Along the way, our heroes  run into several peculiar townsfolk and obstacles as their relationship reaches new peaks and troughs. In addition, with the town looking high and low for our cute couple, we look on as people from all different walks of life become bitten by the same bug that recently struck our two leads.  Guided by Sam’s boy scout savvy, the forest-dwelling existences may just pull their friends and well-wishers out of their tedious existences.

Edward Norton.

Edward Norton.

Forbidden desires, love and loss bring this anti-American prophecy to life through the vision of acclaimed director Wes Anderson. Anderson, known for his niche fan base and strange dramedies such as The Royal Tenenbaums and  Rushmore, has created his most concentrated work yet with Moonrise Kingdom. Everything on-screen glows as every frame is a reminder of this acclaimed auteur and his peculiar vision in a modern filmmaking era. The Anderson tropes are all in full effect; precocious children, dysfunctional families, a 70’s aesthetic and uncomfortable themes provide just the tip of the knife, piercing the heart of any viewer taking in this touching and cheerful dramedy. Based in a storybook like setting, his messages are surely based on his childhood in an era of free love and inhibitions dancing in the wind. The film speaks to the modern and adult viewer about valuable contrasting issues. Society, family, age and politics are all questioned as the film breaks down more than just the fourth wall. Looking into the camera at characters off screen, tracking and panning across settings through limited angles, abstract imagery, spit screen dialogue sequences and cutesy geographical narration from Bob Balaban’s gnome-like character question the comfort, voyeurism and staged representations of modernity and order. Moonrise Kingdom is one of art house sensibility, constantly creating delicate cutesy moments out of the darker side of life.

“I always wished I was an orphan. Most of my favorite characters are. I think your lives are more special.” (Suzy (Kara Hayward), Moonrise Kingdom).

Norton, Bruce Willis & Tilda Swinton.

Norton, Bruce Willis & Tilda Swinton.

The child characters are a part of us in one way or another. We go through their strange yet spiritually enlightening journey, knowing how and when their changing bodies and personalities will soon affect each other. First experiences, with concerning issues such as sex and violence, may catastrophically destroy their innocence. We witness however the pair shuffling through the bases, in the hope they find their own slice of Valhalla in an era of war and hatred. The adult characters sadly add little more than thematic representations and roadblocks to this hippie-era love story. With the boy scouts representing the army at the height of the Vietnam War, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman and Harvey Keitel as scout leaders are suitably charming yet lack moral depth. The film is delightfully based on children learning by doing, displaying not that parents are wrong for their treatment of children, but should give them a chance to grow by themselves. Despite both child character’s anti-social and even masochistic tendencies, including piercing ears with fish hooks and brutally attacking boy scouts, delectable performances from Hayward and Gilman illustrate the joys of living discovered through adventure.

Moonrise Kingdom, marking Anderson’s spectacular return to form, is a rich, hearty dramedy with something to say. Talking about life, love, and inhibition, the movie comes from a significant place close to Anderson’s heart.

Verdict: A sweet and quirky coming of age tale.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Review – Specific Spywork


Director: Thomas Alfredson

Writers: Bridget O’Connor, Peter Straughan (screenplay), John le Carre (novel)

Stars: Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, Colin Firth


Release date: September 16th, 2012

Distributor: StudioCanal UK

Country: UK, France, Germany

Running time: 127 minutes


 

3/5

Best part: The engaging visuals.

Worst part: The egregious pace.

Those expecting Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to be a fun, retro, fast paced spy flick will be sorely disappointed. The film, based on infamous crime novelist John Le Carre’s book of the same name, is actually a tense yet confusing tale of betrayal, regret and corruption within the head of British Intelligence. It buries its head in the sand for the longest time as it becomes increasingly difficult to detect either the pivotal antagonist or any sense of an emotional connection.

Gary Oldman.

Right from the beginning, The shooting of Jim Pridieux (Mark Strong) sparks a chain reaction in the life of senior spy George smiley (Gary Oldman) as he is forced to retire due to the outrage surrounding Pridieux’s failure. Too soon, however, is Smiley forced back into the field, as an out of touch informant gives up information leading to the assumption of a mole high up in ‘the circus’. Smiley, feeling shame and regret for the death of his boss ‘Control’ (John Hurt) and the separation between him and his wife, narrows the list of suspects down to four. They comprise of ‘Tinker’; ambitious new head of the organisation Percy Alleline (Toby  Jones), ‘Tailor’; arrogant womaniser Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), ‘Poorman’; Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) and ’Sailor’; Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds). His investigation soon turns into a game of cat and mouse as everyone involved is suddenly forced to look over their shoulders at both each other and the reluctant Smiley.

Benedict Cumberbatch.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is filled with stellar yet stoic performances from everyone in its A-list cast. The chemistry between some of Britain’s elite actors is constantly engaging. Hanging evidence on each other in many of sound proof meetings  is fascinating as the snappy dialogue continually bounces off them. Gary Oldman delivers in his very repressed role; conveying a very quiet, damaged representation of a professional constantly on the edge. Subtle touches in both his actions and facial expressions deliver traits of a character who is forced into a life he will never be comfortable with. Another stand out is Tom Hardy as the disgraced rogue spy turned informant Ricki Tarr. Hardy gives yet another captivating and sensitive turn as the gritty secret agent who broke the first rule of being a spy. Unfortunately, many of the supporting characters  lack depth or emotional attachment. Firth, Jones, and Hinds are barely focused on, taking all the intensity out of the reveal in the third act. This tale of corruption within British intelligence soon becomes tangled in its own web of conspiracy and espionage. The large list of characters together with the intertwining story lines and lack of clear exposition make the film difficult to deduce.

“He’s a fanatic. And the fanatic is always concealing a secret doubt.” (George Smiley (Gary Oldman), Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy).

Mark Strong.

The pacing also suffers due to the complex story. Despite building a strong sense of tension throughout the film, culminating in a brutal and satisfying conclusion, many scenes carry out longer than required, constantly losing focus and quickly becoming dull. The direction by Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) is used to terrific effect in creating the world surrounding high class 70’s agents living in a gritty urban landscape. The graphic violence and realistic sex scenes create an authentic and disturbing depiction of their high flying lifestyles and blood soaked situations. The mis en scene is Drenched in bold and contrasting colours and settings, representing the 70’s retro era of exaggerated costume and interior designs. The film has a smooth, straight edged style that perfectly displays Alfredson’s creation of atmosphere and intriguing experiments with cinematography. The use of soft lighting, experiments with depth of field and framing with patterns, and tight camera work deliver a unique pallet that distinguishes Alfredson’s subtle and stylish direction from other European arthouse directors.

Boiling over well beyond necessity, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a meticulously studious spy-thriller adaptation. Despite the overwhelming flaws, this mesmerising narrative is bolstered by its stellar cast and unique visuals. Next time, hire a editor.

Verdict: A cloying and overlong spy-thriller.

Midnight in Paris Review – Moonage Daydream


Director: Woody Allen

Writer: Woody Allen

Stars: Owen Wilson, Marion Cotillard, Rachel McAdams, Corey Stoll


Release date: May 20th, 2011

Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

Countries: USA, Spain

Running time: 94 minutes


 

4/5

Best part: The kinetic visuals.

Worst part: McAdams’ annoying character.

Woody Allen has found his home away from home with Midnight in Paris, a film about finding your imagination hiding in the city of love. Reminiscent of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie, Allen illuminates the historical and famous locales of Paris, turning the city into a charming and expressive work of art. Allowing us to view both the past and present through his eyes illustrates his love of Paris, and is reminiscent of his representations of his native Manhattan.

Owen Wilson & Marion Cotillard.

The story centres around Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), a thirty-something writer struggling to find a worthwhile ending for his first novel. Unable to fit into the life his obnoxious fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams) has picked out for him, including expensive belongings and pedantic friends, Gil feels a special connection to Paris that no one around him understands. One night while walking through the streets of Paris, he stumbles across an antique 1920’s car. After accompanying the people inside, he travels back in time and meets his literary and artistic idols, including Salvador Dali, Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway. His love for their work, and new-found friendship with Picasso’s mistress Adriana (Marion Cotillard), creates a desire to continually return to this world at the stroke of midnight.

Wilson, Corey Stoll & Kathy Bates.

Allen’s direction and screenplay make Midnight in Paris a smart, witty and charming adventure. The beginning of the film, featuring continuous wide shots of the city, details 24 hours in Paris and develops the feeling of a wonderful fantasy. A bold visual style featuring elaborate 1920’s era fashion and nightclub settings, and a smooth guitar and jazz based score, delivers a quaint and comfortable representation of the past. Both artistic and literary references and discussions, based on the work of his role models, spark delightful scenes of dialogue that Allen is known for. The chemistry between every character is electric and the desire to learn more about, but not spending too much time on, each icon leaves a surprise around every turn and keeps the film consistently exciting. Despite the historical and literary discourses becoming alienating at points,  the appearance of every icon keeps the viewer interested in both their work and their reactions and connections to a fan like Gil. Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein, Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali, Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill as Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald respectively, and Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway deliver standout performances in their small but dignified roles.

“No subject is terrible if the story is true, if the prose is clean and honest, and if it affirms courage and grace under pressure.” (Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Midnight in Paris).

Adrien Brody.

Owen Wilson’s standout performance becomes the most beguiling aspect of Midnight in Paris. Not only does Wilson portray a representation of Allen perfectly but he also becomes the avatar for the audience. Gil’s writer’s block and desperate search for creativity post screenwriting are defined by his entrapment of simple ideas. His inability to fit into Inez’s life of material things, and his increasingly different views to others around him on the art life of Paris, make him a likeable, funny and dynamic character. He feels a true sense of belonging when confronted with his heroes in the same place and when entwined with their overarching stories. Gil’s feeling towards his situation contains many signs of Allen’s theories of film-making and creating a true piece of art. Allen’s ode to a “Golden Age” of creativity is both a homage to the art and literature history of Paris and a representation of his struggle to fit into the present Hollywood system.

Allen, from Annie Hall to Match Point, has gone out of his way to boost Hollywood cinema above the norm. Midnight in Paris, tapping into his long-lost optimism and light-heartedness, is a fun and frivolous romantic comedy.

Verdict: A witty and sumptuous dramedy.