Sunday, 23 March 2014

Starred Up

****
Have to admit I was not immediately familiar with the name David Mackenzie. On further investigation I was reminded that he helmed 2011’s highly-original Perfect Sense (do check it out). Starred Up has forced me to sit up and take notice of this talented director. I won’t forget his name again in a hurry.

The title refers to the rare process in which a juvenile delinquent is so problematic that he is ‘Starred Up’ from a young offenders unit to an adult prison. The problem with young Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) is his unrelenting proclivity for violence. He is duly processed into the far-heavier-duty prison world and continues to fight both the system and its inmates like it was his true calling. The kicker here being that he’s been assigned to the same wing as his father, Neville Love (Ben Mendelsohn).

Striking a great balance between visceral thrills and thoughtful drama it’s powerful stuff. The film brilliantly captures a young buck’s instinct to lock horns. Eric does little in the way of thinking - he dives in fists first with little thought about the consequences. The transfer is like a promotion for him and he wears it like a badge of honour. This is a new and interesting spin on a tale set in lock-up. I always love the unpalatable (and often ingenious) minutia of a good prison flick and this has plenty. We’re shown in fine detail how easy it is to make a deadly shiv with just a cigarette lighter, a safety razor and a toothbrush. These kind of touches are fascinating and downright nasty.

The onus is very much on O’Connell and he impresses throughout. (He also looks like he’s done some serious working out to cut an authentic prison physique.) I was an instant fan of Ben Mendelsohn after seeing 2010’s Animal Kingdom and here the Australian actor more than convinces as a lifer London thug. Rupert Friend delivers as posho-out-to-do-good prison therapist. The group therapy scenes are unique for their intensity and unlike anything I’ve seen on screen - they involve a series of ferocious stand-offs with an intelligent commentary by each of the participants.

Mackenzie clearly has a nose for a good script. Jonathan Asser takes sole screenwriting credit. I don’t know what Asser’s background is but suspect he’s rubbed up against some right wrong’uns in his time and he’s put that experience to great use. Either that or he’s a master of research. The authenticity of the dialogue is terrifying and the writer displays a very cutting wit.

The film is not without its faults. There are a couple of slightly duff performances – from the prison staff - but thankfully they don’t feature too heavily. (I should add, the cons themselves are all superb.) However, the raw power of the film makes up for any such minor imperfections. Director Mackenzie gives us something tough, lurid and uncompromisingly British. He’s also achieved tremendous production value with a £2million budget. It’s both fantastically entertaining and a thought-provoking watch.

Highly recommended.


Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Blue Ruin

****
Once in a while a film comes out of nowhere that makes an unexpectedly big impression. This is one such film. Blue Ruin is a taught little thriller that gripped me from the off. Much of its power comes from keeping things simple. The tension is amped up considerably due to the lean narrative. It follows a sequence of dramatic events within a narrow timeline, and all in excruciating detail.

The ragged, heavily-bearded Dwight (Macon Blair) has nothing. He sleeps in his car, lives off junk from the beach in Delaware, and does the odd bit of breaking and entering. He is unexpectedly informed by the authorities that the man who killed his parents is due for release from jail. And with that, he journeys to Maryland in his battered Pontiac Bonneville preparing to become the unlikeliest of assassins.

In this, his second feature, writer and director Jeremy Saulnier delivers an unconventional thriller free from cliché. His startling original script is brought to realisation with fine precision. Saulnier says he set out to strike a balance between arthouse and genre piece, and he certainly fulfilled that remit. The first act is largely silent and has a beautiful melancholy. From then on, the dramatic thrust increases considerably. The action, when it happens, appears in short incendiary bursts. It works as both thoughtful indie and credible genre flick (and hopefully it will appeal to fans of both). Saulnier employed a Kickstarter campaign to complete the film – and the budgetary constraints lend credence to necessity being the mother of invention. Said invention brings to mind the Coens' debut Blood Simple. As with that film, Blue Ruin’s strengths lie in atmosphere and a damn fine screenplay.

Revenge is a classic cinematic more and one of which I’m very fond. Blue Ruin gives us a great take on that. The foundations of Dwight's cunning springs from his homelessness, which is such a fresh concept. Increasingly out of his depth, his survival depends on it. His demeanour – as the action progresses - becomes increasingly that of a wounded animal. The raw survival instinct associated with such a creature keeps him going and makes for a fantastically tense watch. The film centres on this wonderful, understated performance from Macon Blair - himself a childhood friend of the director. It’s a star-making turn and we are certainly going to see a lot more of the actor. Another nod must go to Devin Ratray. Fresh from his entertaining turn in Nebraska, he provides a touch of much-needed comicality amidst the excitement.  

A film like this makes me so excited that there are still stories out there to be told in new and interesting ways, and that there are film-makers, like Jeremy Saulnier, with the guts and determination to deliver.

Make sure you catch it on the big screen for full impact.


Thursday, 20 February 2014

Dallas Buyers Club

****
Here Matthew McConaughey loses 46 lbs for the role. Some may see this as Oscar-baiting. Well, I see it as the guy doing an extraordinary job. And then some. He looks fantastically awful throughout and the film reaps huge benefits from this commitment. It is not simply McConaughey’s film, I should add. Director Jean-Marc Vallée does an exceptional job and the writers Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack deliver a cracking script.

The year is 1985. Electrician, rodeo cowboy and party animal Ron Woodroof is diagnosed with AIDS and given 30 days to live. Refusing to accept the diagnosis, Woodroof sets about finding alternatives to survive. Questioning the hospital’s policies, especially their use of AZT - a drug that damages all cell life - he seeks help from a doctor in Mexico. He then buys uncontrolled (and far-more-effective) substances from across the border and distributes them to AIDS patients in the US. Woodroof’s laser focus on drug research combined with his street smarts make him a tough opponent of the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). And along the way he is forced to confront his rampant homophobia.

Dallas Buyers Club has a heady atmosphere. The sex and drug scenes involving this epicurean cowboy have a lurid tenseness. It’s refreshing to see hedonistic excess not confined to the Eastern or Western edges of the USA. (A lot of that obviously happens in the middle, too.) Director Jean-Marc Vallée directs with aplomb. He throws everything at this film - it is alternately humorous and horrific - but ties it all together with an evenly-toned work. Woodroof’s arc is redemptive. Suddenly a victim of the ‘gay plague’ he warms to those in a similar morass (namely gay people) and redresses his previously-held bigotry. But it’s not sugar-coated. While supplying incredible help to those with HIV he still retains his inexorable Lonestar Outlaw persona.

It has a wonderful odd-couple pairing at the film’s centre - namely that between the homophobic Woodroof and the transgender Rayon (Jared Leto). As well as plenty of pathos there is much comedy to be found in this double-act. McConaughey is marvellous in the role. His unrelenting swagger in the face of such extreme adversity makes for a great watch. And the film’s rock ‘n roll ethos makes it one of the coolest ‘Issue Movies’ of all time.


Saturday, 25 January 2014

All Is Lost

****
Following the extremely wordy (and superb) Margin Call JC Chandor proves his versatility with a near-wordless film. All is Lost is astonishing in a number of aspects - the absence of dialogue, the boldness of the story's simplicity, and a muscular performance from septugenarian Robert Redford. Simply credited as 'Our Man', Robert Redford battles nature all alone as his yacht gets into serious trouble somewhere in the Indian Ocean. The situation grows increasingly worse and, as the film's spectacularly-bleak title suggests, things do not look good. Drawing on every ounce of his resourcefulness and seamanship, Our Man never gives up. I came to this with more than a few preconceived ideas. The title itself felt like a giveaway and almost prevented me from actually watching the film. (I couldn't help thinking I knew what was going to happen.) However, every single second of this made for thrilling viewing. The writer-director keeps things fantastically alive. Just when you think it can’t get any worse it does. Each and every one of the curve balls thrown at Our Man surprises and astounds. The scale of the spectacle is much grander than I’d expected too. The thrills and spills provided certainly allow this to be described as an ‘action film’. (It’s just one with brains.) Redford is phenomenal in the role. Internal performance has been key throughout his career. His star-making role of The Sundance Kid was a quiet one (in contrast to Newman's verbose Butch Cassidy) and this also brings to mind Jeremiah Johnson, in which he plays a man also very much alone, out in the wilds. His performance in All is Lost - following a long and lustrous career - is the zenith of that internalisation. There are no tricks or winks to emphasise the actor's presence. (And no talking to himself à la John McClane.) He's just phenomenally and authentically there, which makes for such engaging viewing. The role forces so many physical demands on Redford that, admittedly, there may not have been a huge amount of acting necessary. Single-handedly sailing the stricken vessel for real (and all the while soaked to the skin) clearly worked as a motivational tool for the actor. With the current state of cinema it's amazing that it actually got made. If this is a reaction against the infantilisation of Hollywood then long may this trend continue. 





Friday, 24 January 2014

12 Years A Slave

*****
Director Steve McQueen progresses through an increasingly-strong body of work in leaps and bounds. Although this is his most conventional film to date he has is no way compromised himself. 12 Years a Slave proves quite the opposite.

It's 1841. Solomon Northup is a free man - a musician, in Saratoga Springs, New York State. He has a wife and two children. Duped by a pair of strangers, he is lured to Washington DC, subsequently kidnapped and then sold into slavery. He becomes the property of a series of slavers as he is shipped further South. He does all he can to survive the ensuing horrors and to get back to his family, over the eponymous twelve years.

It is a harrowing tale - the stuff of nightmares - and makes for ugly and disgusting viewing. The film is filled with unimaginable behaviour. Any form of resistance to slaving is met with violence. The whip is casually used as any other farm tool. The slaves are not treated like livestock they are livestock. With all civil liberties robbed from them, simple private acts such as disrobing to wash, are watched over. The casual frequency of overseeing such nudity, for ablutions and at slave markets, is particularly vile. A woman is separated from her two children in a quick, simple monetary exchange. While racism is, admittedly, still endemic the extremes in the film are unfathomable. It is almost like a warped, dystopian science-fiction.

It’s a dream cast but doesn’t at any point feel like ‘stunt casting’. Each and every one of the actors - whether noted glitterati such as Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender or talented newcomers such as Lupita Nyong'o - gives a thoroughly committed performance. Even an actor with the star wattage of Brad Pitt (who also produced the film) makes his small role so authentic that it would take a lot of cynicism to find his appearance distracting.

It's muscular film-making from McQueen but not without achingly-beautiful detail: the waves created by a paddle steamer are enchanting, sunsets are seen but only through treetops as if from the slave quarters, corners of the plantation without much of a view. The dialogue is incredible. It drips with authenticity but is never staid or stilted (as so often occurs in period drama). Adapted from Solomon Northup's book screenwriter John Ridley delivers lean, punchy prose.

While it's a tough watch it's fantastically rewarding. As a white, straight, Anglo-Saxon male in the 21st Century it's takes some imagination to consider what it's like to be a victim of prejudice. This is an appropriately vivid and visceral illustration of prejudice and one we really should expose ourselves to. Considering the pain these people went through, simply sitting in a darkened auditorium for a couple of hours is hardly a stretch.The experience of watching reinforced how lucky I am, made me grateful for a painless upbringing and reminded me how very easy my current situation is in the world. There is white guilt involved in the viewing experience. And so there certainly should be. It shines a big, bright light on the systematic abuse that we - the US (and the UK) - should be forever shamed by.



Sunday, 19 January 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

****
Bombastic, bold and ballsy - this is not for the faint-hearted. Sporting a well-deserved 18 Certificate this shies away from none of the excesses in the story of stockbroker Jordan Belfort. Sex and drugs sit at the forefront in this tale of corporate crime. Hallelujah! In an era dominated by films marketed to children, films based on toys, and dilution of content to be granted wimpy 12A/PG13 Certificates, we've got a large-scale ($100 million-budgeted) film for grown-ups on our hands. And the great thing is, it's doing really well at the box office. (It sailed past $120 million very early on and is yet to open in a large number of territories.)

Young buck Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) joins a large Wall Street firm in 1987. Mentored by boss Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) he's encouraged to embrace the superabundance involved in stockbroking - namely sex and drugs. Before Belfort can make an impression Black Monday strikes and he loses his job. He then works in a Long Island boiler room selling 'penny stocks' - shares for smaller companies but involving a far-heftier percentage for the broker. Making serious inroads he uses this model to take things into the bigger leagues and forms the deceptively-legit-sounding firm of Stratton Oakmont, fronted by a team of oddball buddies. They go on to make obscene amounts of money but not without drawing attention to the FBI.

You know in Goodfellas when Henry Hill breaks the fourth wall and starts talking to camera at the end? Well, this picks up where that left off - Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) starts rabbiting at us, the viewer, very early on in a similar vein. On paper, I'd say that would have looked like a very bad idea but Scorsese smashes it out of the park. The effect is hypnotic and works brilliantly. Belfort's voice-over leads us through the entire film, making us - the audience - less observer more participant in the mayhem that ensues.

Though tense and taught, the film is incredibly funny. It is spectacularly un-PC and therein lies much of the comicality. While Scorsese may never have made an all-out comedy he has a strong history of weaving drollery into the dramatic. And here, he turns things up to 11. A scene involving Quaalude-overload is uproarious, with DiCaprio delivering a breath-taking performance of physical comedy.

In the on-going, phoenix-like 'McConnaissance' Matthew McConaughey makes a big impression in a small role. He displays a great knack for comedy and it's startling - what with his bona fide movie star charisma - that he owns this part of a character actor. It makes me eagerly anticipate every single one of his future roles. Jonah Hill completely inhabits the portrayal of a reprobate, bottom-feeder. He really does act, without relying on any of his funny guy schtick (of which, it should be noted, I'm also a big fan). Not sure he'll actually win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar but it's a well-deserved nomination. Respect to the Academy for paying attention. Margot Robbie supplies a huge whallop of sex appeal and proves herself deft at the drama. She’s one to watch.

The film has received more than a few accusations of glorifying this solid gold world. DiCaprio has, quite rightly, described the film as a "cautionary tale". Not once did I want to be any single one of these people or have any of their lives. They are shown up, throughout, to be vile, pernicious, money-grubbing scum. In short, a bunch of dickheads who get what’s coming to them.



Powder Room

***
In a dead-end job and unlucky in love, Sam (Sheridan Smith) is having a “quarter life crisis”. She meets up with an old university friend, Michelle (Kate Nash) who she’s been stalking on Facebook. Michelle brings along her friend Jess (Oona Chaplin) with whom she runs a fashion blog in Paris. Sam is overawed by the pair’s success and supposed dream lives. Desperate to compete she creates a fictional life of her own, telling them she is a successful lawyer and in a great relationship. Already struggling to keep atop of this web of lies, her tight circle of friends then turn up unexpectedly. This arrival threatens to blow her cover. The rest of the night involves Sam’s attempts to keep the two groups apart. And all pretty much confined to one central location – the ladies toilet.

Using a single location has been put to great use in a number of successful films – Twelve Angry Men, and Rope did it rather brilliantly. As did Kevin Spacey’s underrated directorial debut, Albino Alligator. This is notably a different beast from the aforementioned but the same rules apply. MJ Delaney shows directorial flair, embracing the single location, keeping the space interesting and cinematic. Never at any point does the film feel like a play or that it ought to be on the stage. NB: The original script of the play – what was essentially a series of vignettes – was given a significant overhaul.

You have to admire Powder Room’s chutzpah. Sex and drugs and rock ‘n roll are all dealt with in a frank and unglamorous manner. It doesn’t shy away from bodily functions either. All the gory details of a messy night out are portrayed with brazen honesty. It’s all very British too and that adds to both the humour and the realism. Colloquialisms abound and this is rarely a bad thing. When filmmakers consider their audience too carefully when crafting a script, the resulting work often ends up diluted and anodyne. So this is certainly not the case with Powder Room. The familiarity of it all (to those who know this world) should prove to be Powder Room’s main appeal.

It helps that it is directed by a woman, MJ Delaney and adapted by Rachel Hirons from Natasha Sparkes play When Women Wee. The dialogue and general voice of the film feels authentically female. Some obvious clichés are nicely avoided. The loose ends don’t all end up perfectly tied and there’s a very funny MDMA scene without being preachy about drug use. Sadly, a musical number at the end very almost ruins the film. The switch in tone is too incongruous. It’s unnecessary and feels like a forced attempt to up the feel-good factor. There are some big laughs in the film and not all of the crass variety. There’s some neatly-observed humour.

It has a great central performance from Sheridan Smith. She proves to be averse at both the comedic aspects required of her and the more dramatic. She is a likeable presence on screen and brings much pathos to the role amidst all the rude and crude goings-on.

Admittedly, this won’t be to everyone’s taste. It would be easy to be mean about Powder Room. Sure, the film – generally speaking – is not subtle but it’s a lot of fun and it’s great to see the girls giving as good as the boys. It’s wild, outrageous and gross-out. In this respect, it struck me how there is a huge, un-tapped, young, female audience out there. This is not to say men won’t enjoy it. (I did.) It may not set the theatrical box office alight but I predict it will have a healthy life on home viewing formats. 



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