Archive for January, 2014

The Coen Bros have always skilfully manoeuvred the lines between popular crowd pleasing fare and intelligent, artful cinema, so it is interesting that for their latest film they have set their eyes upon an individual who resolutely fails to bridge this gap. Set in bohemian 1960’s Greenwich Village, we follow the struggles of one Llewyn Davis, a folk singer who just can’t catch a break. The film has a strong kinship with one of the Coen’s earliest films, Barton Fink. While that film focused on a disillusioned, introspective screenwriter struggling to conform to Hollywood whims, at least the character had some sense of purpose.

Llewyn, played by Oscar Isaac, is a difficult character to like. Sullen, tetchy and self entitled, he trudges across a wintry New York foraging for couches to sleep on at night. One of these couches belongs to Jean (Carey Mulligan) and Jim (Justin Timberlake), two old friends who are now coupled up. Relations between Llewyn and Jean are frosty from an ill advised one night stand and the potential after effects. Meanwhile, Llewyn’s vague attempts to make a go of his solo career are hampered by the need to recover a friends cat that he has haplessly lost.

Inside Llewyn Davis is a meandering, muted affair by the Coen bros standards. They have reined in the bombastic set pieces and the eccentric characters for a more reflective character piece. Llewyn is probably the most elusive and dislikable lead in their canon yet, even in amongst the apathetic stoners, cold blooded killers and petty criminals. At least with them there was some wit and flair – here Llewyn seems like he has given up on his life. There are a few more eccentric moments to warm the palette, in John Goodman’s colourful jazz guru and the humorous travails with the errant cat.

Music obviously plays a huge role in the film. Much has been written about the involvement of T-Bone Burnett and Mumford & Sons (Wait! Come back!), and the folk songs are faithfully recreated on screen. I think without the musical interludes the film would have tested even the most willing viewer; they provide a respite both for Llewyn and the audience. You get the feeling this is all he has to live for, and yet, perhaps I am projecting, the songs are fairly unremarkable to my ears. I wondered if it was a conscious decision by the Coens to demonstrate Llewyn as a run of the mill talent.

Aesthetically the film is beautifully rendered, with Bruno Delbonnel stepping in for their regular DP Roger Deakins. Most of the film is drawn out in sickly browns which adds to the muted tone, yet the night time scenes are deliciously noirish and smoky. As per usual the performances are all on song, with Isaac giving an uncompromisingly grumpy turn as the lead. While we never sympathise with him, there is a sense of empathy. One flaw I did find was in Mulligan’s role as Jean, which seemed mostly one dimensional as the aggressive ex-lover.

Inside Llewyn Davis will go down as one of the Coen bros left turns, where they eschewed any Hollywood thrills for a more personal rumination. It is a hard film to love, withdrawn and melancholic, yet there is something lurking beneath the surface that draws the audience in. Anyone who has ever felt lost or embittered by the choices they have made in life will find kinship with Llewyn, and I think many people will be able to relate to his battle between dreams and everyday reality.

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American Hustle, the new film from David O’Russell (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook), has ridden a wave of good press and nominations, both Golden Globe and now BAFTAs, owing to a stellar cast and string of good form from the director. Intriguingly, despite being billed from its trailers as a crime-thriller, based on the controversial late 70’s ABSCAM sting which imprisoned several US politians, it’s nominated in the best musical or comedy category at the Golden Globes and this is perhaps an important distinction to make in approaching this film.

For American Hustle is a riotously funny film, it’s tone arriving from the offset with the faux-disclaimer “Some of this actually happened”. This is due in no small part to its central players, each turning in excellent performances in what feels to be somewhat of a victory lap in first viewing, each enveloping their sleazy and seedy caricatures. Christian Bale dives head-first into his performance as Irving Rosenfeld, an overweight, balding, small-time con-man, working in the shadow of his accomplice and lover Sydney Prosser played by the always irrepressible Amy Adams. Elsewhere Bradley Cooper is excellent as the creepy and volatile FBI agent Richie DiMaso and Jennifer Lawrence practically lights up and steals every scene she’s in as Rosalyn, the obsessive housewife of Rosenfeld.

Much of the humour comes from a reportedly largely-improvised script, with highlights including a then primitive Microwave, here lovingly ascribed as a “Science Oven” given by Camden, New Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) to Irving. Equally, cameos from Louis C.K as Bradley Cooper’s chief superior and Robert de Niro as mob boss Victor Tellegio lead to many brilliant scenes. C.K turns up his awkwardness ratchet as the nervous and frequently overpowered supposed superior of Cooper’s DiMaso and features a running joke between the two of a cheesy background fable which never gets completed.

At it’s most interesting, American Hustle is a film about performance. The characters are all cheats playing people that are bigger than their boots. Irving is actually reluctant to go too big with his operations, understanding that being a small-time operator conning desperate men out of their remaining 5k is enough to get by; but he knows how to play his role, shown in the opening shot of him delicately preparing his costume (comb-over), which we see repeatedly from each of the main characters.

This applies none more so, however, than to Adams’ Sydney Prosser, who creates an exotic allure in order to entice these desperate men under her power as Lady Edith Greensley of “British nobility”. Adams’ British accent is at once-convincing, but wavers as the narrative progresses, knowing that it will go largely unquestioned in seedy America. Comparatively the Mexican FBI agent Paco Hernandez (Michael Peña), employed to play the Sheik who’s “money” is the driving force of the plot, is intentionally less convincing. The decreasing quality of Sydney’s accent seems plausible in this story of acting, not just because of Adams’ strength as an actor, but because the film allows that doubt to exist.

The problem with American Hustle however, is that, while it has some powerhouse performances, much like Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, it in fact outweighs the film itself. While the initial set-up of the film is charming; Irving and Sydney’s blossoming sexual and professional relationship, Richie’s entrapment of them, Rosalyn’s neglect as a result of all of the above, the plot to entrap politicians and connected gangsters from taking bribes starts rolling, it begins to feel a little unfocused and lifeless.

As a result, tonally the film is a bit of a mess. While it remains highly amusing throughout, the emotional connection to any of these characters, bar perhaps Rosalyn, gets lost amongst the laughs. Once the film finally reaches its conclusion, for it is overly long, there is no real pay-off. The effect of seeing Sydney and Irving’s final plotting at work is largely dulled as the emotional connection and threat has disconnected. De Niro’s appearance is the only purveyor of any sense of danger for a brief time, but his motivations are unclear. Meanwhile  we are constantly told that Mayor Polito is acting for the good of the people, but the message is muddled in preachiness.

There’s a painful lack of back-story to truly engage with any of these characters, the largely pathetic Ritchie in particular, and though that may seem reasonable with con-men & women, there’s no real reason to care whether they succeed or fail at the films close. It’s a shame because, for all the excellent performances, soundtrack, costume and even the occasionally interesting but inconsistent cinematography, the film just feels a bit empty. Perhaps it is crucial the word American appears in the title, for this truly was an American scandal, and it’s effect, like Sydney’s accent, is lost in translation.

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Film Review 12 Years a SlaveSince Steve McQueen first delivered to our screens Hunger (2008) and later Shame (2011) there was a raw, great talent yearning to be established. Utilising his Art School learnings and ambition, and having won the Turner Prize award in 2006, McQueen in his previous two feature films had already established a niche to the burgeoning auteur inside. He was the man most likely to.

So when it was announced he was being given a large, partly Brad Pitt funded, budget to adapt the memoirs of Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave, expectations were understandably high. McQueen has taken on the political and personal of the human condition, here his aim is to combine the two in to the most prolonged institution of inequality known to man, it’s roots still felt centuries later in the present, and in the directors own words make a film about slavery because it “is a very important subject which hadn’t been given any visual platform when I started to make the film.”

In a year where exploring America’s horrific slave-owning past was wide-spread from the eyes of white diplomats (Spielberg’s Lincoln) or in violent buddy comedies (Tarantino’s Django Unchained) nothing even remotely comes close to how vital this film is. It’s almost difficult to explain, such an unbelievable experience is the film that it’s pretty tough to find the words to do it justice. Never in my life, certainly of Hollywood “blockbusters”, has a film managed to be so striking, so convincing, unsentimental and ultimately, so crucial.

Steve McQueen has created a triumph here; managing to control such a difficult subject and presenting it with stark realism, as well as a frankly incredible cast. Long-term collaborator Michael Fassbender gives his trademark stunning performance from as the abhorrent yet tangibly human, self-loathing slave-driver Edwin Epps. Elsewhere Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano and a break-out performance from the fragile heroine Lupita Nyong’o all seem to relish the opportunity to work with such a monumental director and story. Even Brad Pitt manages his annual attempt to derail a great film with his presence, just about getting away with being the only person who doesn’t seem to fit.

Crucially though, this film would be nothing without it’s central lead performance from Chiwetelu Ejiofor as the (sub-)titular Soloman Northup. The film would quite simply fall apart without his incredibly moving role. If we do not believe in the British actor’s immersing into a world a long way prior to African-American’s rights, then the impact would be lost and seem gratuitous. Set 20 years or so before abolition, as a freedman in the North who is educated and a talented artist, Solomon is stripped of his human traits and slowly re-builds his character to remain both defiant and survive. He is dehumanised, made to make unspeakably awful decisions and finally give in when all seems lost, all conveyed from a range of subtle moves from Ejiofor.

This is felt no more resolutely, not just at the moments of extreme violence and suffering inflicted towards Northup, but when, at his lowest, he joins his fellow slaves in a gospel song which rattles around the periphery of much of the film. It may not seem much, but complexities in his deciding to sing because there’s nothing else left to do but to assimilate into his forced community, is such a powerful, bitter-sweet moment that it typifies the unrelentingly cruel struggle we observe. When we do reach the narrative’s climax with Northup, it is an incredibly moving moment, after every inch of trauma over the previous two hours has been felt and culminating in one of the most uplifting and upsetting final scenes recorded to film.

But make no mistake, 12 Years a Slave is an unapologetically brutal film. The film’s trailers intentionally do not pay justice to what a difficult watch this film often is. And yet it is completely essential to the film to feel every injustice served against not just this man, but an entire race in disrepute over where they stand. For instance, Alfre Woodward as the house mistress seems to actively enjoy her role as a sexually exploited African-American, such are the fleshed-out complexities served to every character, regardless how small a role.

Whereas Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ was violent to the point of exploitation, here it serves an important message of, to some extent, guilt but also realism. These horrific experiences are lifted almost directly from Soloman Northup’s real autobiography detailing his (and others) harrowing ordeal. Epps’ brutal wife (played exquisitely by Sarah Paulson – who should be nominated for best supporting actress at the Oscars) is often the purveyor of shocking white supremacist violence, adding yet more layers to this incredibly complex issue and period.

Ultimately, 12 Years a Slave is surely the most deserving film to sweep up at awards season (not that the Academy always work with logic). Nelson Mandela’s biopic’s timing notwithstanding, 12 Years a Slave is an important film that should be viewed by as many people as possible. I fear of talking it up too much, but I feel that the torrent of hugely positive reviews that will surely follow in this country (and already exists in America with a staggering 96% on rotten tomatoes) should make this happen. Such a stunning film McQueen has created here, he and his actors will surely get the recognition they deserve in handling such a delicate story with such integrity.

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