Author: hannahgrace01

Pride (2014)

There’s nothing quite as lazy as reviewing a Brit-flick to be the new Billy Elliot or the new Full Monty, but here I go doing it anyway, because like its much heralded predecessors, Pride is a perfect slice of that thing we Brits do best. Set in 1984 and based on the remarkable true story of the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners campaign and its effect on one small Welsh mining town, Pride is equal parts uproarious and touching, with a true respect paid by the filmmakers to a very bleak part of Britain’s history.

Seen through the eyes of yet-to-come-out Joe (George MacKay), the film charts the movement from its early formation as the brain child of activist Mark (Ben Schnetzer), who is quick to correlate the treatment of gays with the treatment of miners in Thatcher’s Britain. What follows is an uneasy journey (many of Mark’s friends are quick to dismiss the movement due to their own experiences with miners) from the Gay’s The Word book shop in London to the Dulais valley in Wales, where Uncle Bryn-like Dai (Paddy Considine) is paramount in welcoming his new friends to the community.

Boasting an excellent cast list (I no longer trust a British film if it doesn’t contain Bill Nighy), Pride excellently weaves in and out of the lives of its whole ensemble, so it’s hard not to care about each and every one of them, whether it’s “gobby northern lesbian” Steph (Faye Marsey) whose opening line of “She broke my heart at a Smiths concert” sounds like a Smiths song in itself, Gwen (Menna Trussler) with her rallying cry of “where are my lesbians?” or shy Welsh Gethin (Andrew Scott) who struggles with the journey back to his homeland in the wake of his life as an openly gay man in London.

Pride is that remarkable kind of film that manages to acknowledge the injustices of its characters without cheapening the film with sentimentality, preachiness or forced scenarios, a feat for any film based on a true story. Alright, there is a scene where Dominic West’s theatre luvvy Jonathan wins over the miners’ social club with his sweet dance moves, but the history books will never be able to convince me that didn’t happen. And with a soundtrack as perfect as Pride‘s it’s hard to resist displays of such blatant showboating.

As I write this review of this stunningly crafted film, the news has broken that Pride has received an unwarranted R rating in the States. It really is a shame. Pride not only contains no sex or violence, it teaches the strength of friendship and the damage of prejudice. It’s also down right entertaining, and there’s not a single part of that that should be restricted to audiences.

Maleficent (2014)

In a typically Disney-esque land, two kingdoms sit uneasily next to each other. The land of the humans, and the magical forest of the Moors, home to the once peppy and curious fairy Maleficent. After being taught a lesson about the fickle and uncaring capacity of men’s hearts, Maleficent takes a turn for the dark and witchy, with her first port of call being to curse the newly born princess of the human world, Aurora (well, we’ve all been there…). Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but Aurora is doomed to prick her finger on a spinning wheel on her 16th birthday and fall into a “sleep-like death,” with her only chance of reawakening being true love’s kiss. In a deliciously cynical delivery Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) reveals she chose the loophole because of its utter ridiculousness, such a thing just doesn’t exist.

And therein lies the tone of Disney’s reimaging of 1959’s Sleeping Beauty. Veteran Disney screenwriter Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King) does a commendable job of balancing the expectations of fans of the kids’ classic with the desire to throw Maleficent’s splendid flavour of scorn over the proceedings. Not that Maleficent is all doom and gloom. The film’s middle act dedicates itself to our queen of evil watching over Aurora as she matures in scenes largely played for laughs. “Go away, I don’t like children” Maleficent deadpans as young Aurora (played by Angelina’s own daughter, Vivienne Jolie-Pitt) tries valiantly to disarm her with adorableness. It’s a charmingly played scene that roused laughter in our screening.

The film falters however when it’s restricted to the original mythology. The presence of Prince Phillip (Brenton Thwaites) as a One Direction-esque love interest with the potential to offset Aurora’s (Elle Fanning) curse is an awkward inclusion and does nothing but stall the plot and show the influence of the Twilight school of flirting. Additionally, Aurora’s story is the most boring element of the film and Fanning is tragically given nothing more to do than smile and play with leaves. Mercifully her curse becomes the least important plot line, because let’s face it, kissing someone when they’re asleep is beyond disgusting.

But this is Jolie’s film. And she absolutely revels in it. Watch how in the cursing scene, Maleficent’s monologue is almost lifted line for line from the original cartoon. And yet in Jolie’s hands it becomes something new, something more sinister and yet more enjoyable. Jolie clearly enjoys and basks in the film, she simply is Maleficent, unlike say, James Franco in Oz The Great and Powerful who gave the distinct impression he was sleepwalking his way to a pay cheque.

Maleficent is a flawed film, no doubt. It lacks the universality of Frozen and first time director Robert Stromberg gets a little too influenced by his special effects background (Aurora’s three Aunts’ pixie form comes across as especially unnecessary). But another subversive Disney film is to be warmly welcomed, especially one which rests on the shoulders of such a delightfully flawed protagonist who is destined to become the Halloween costume of choice for a lot of its core audience. Oh, and special mention has to go to that Lana Del Rey cover of Once Upon A Dream. All together now, I know you…

Calvary (2014)

Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) is a good priest struggling with the Church’s reputation and with the increasingly obvious seedy underbelly of his parishioners. There’s a hint of the man he may have once been in the fact of his not drinking anymore, but for the most part Lavelle is a quietly decent man with an open ear for the problems of others. When John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary opens, Lavelle is confronted by an unidentified man in the confession booth. In retribution for the years of abuse he suffered at the hands of a priest in adolescence, the unnamed parishioner will kill Lavelle the following week, relishing the irony of killing a priest on a Sunday. “That’ll be a good one.” Lavelle has nothing to say, but promises to come up with something by Sunday week.

And thus, like George Falconer in A Single Man, Lavelle encounters a number of characters in his close-knit Sligo community through a new filter of his own mortality. One such character being his daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly), a product of his pre-priesthood life as a family man. Fiona is troubled but blasé, a fresh set of bandages on her wrists dismissed with a shrug and brief mentions of a boy. Whilst trying to smooth this relationship, Lavelle also tries to help those around him but finds it for the most part to be an uphill battle of flaunted adultery and drug taking.

Father Lavelle is a beautiful creation by Gleeson, an outwardly placid seeming man with just a flicker of frustration and pain bubbling beneath the surface. It’s a quietly dignified performance bolstered by its total lack of showiness and one completely deserving of every merit. Gleeson’s supporting cast are given the best lines though in the blackly humourous confrontational scenes, with Lavelle’s piousness being undone by the likes of Aidan Gillen’s cynical doctor Frank (“great cocaine…very moreish”) and Chris O’Dowd’s shuffling Jack. Dylan Moran is the absolute scene stealer though as Michael “very expensive” Fitzgerald.

All in all Calvary is a slow meditative character piece about a man trying to hide his disappointment at not only those around him but also in himself. It’s not entirely successful, Lavelle and Fiona’s relationship never seems to reveal quite as much as it should and the pacing doesn’t feel quite as sharp as it probably could. But in capturing the bleakly funny exchanges of everyday small town life, McDonagh has created a community of memorable characters, and a darkly resonant tale.

Starred Up (2014)

Jack O’Connell savours his lead role as Eric Love, the 19 year old livewire who finds himself transferred from a young offender’s unit to an adult prison. As a showcase for the young Skins alumni’s talents, Starred Up is a marvellous exercise. But the plot’s lack of focus and reliance on seen-it-all-before cliché really lets down this British drama.

Directing duties are adeptly handled by David MacKenzie (Young Adam, Hallam Foe), with an unrelenting and unwavering commitment to demonstrating the grimness of Eric’s reality. In an almost wordless opening, Eric is stripped, inspected, transported and locked away, leaving him alone to quickly fashion an improvised weapon with just a toothbrush and a razor blade. With so little we are informed of so much about Eric’s character.

Unfortunately this restraint is not present elsewhere. Eric’s tumultuous relationship with his father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), who happens to be in the same pen, is not only clichéd, but presented through ham-fisted dialogue that tarnishes the stellar work done by both O’Connell and Mendelsohn. Then there’s Rupert Friend’s well-bred volunteer Oliver who leads group therapy sessions with the most aggressive of the inmates, to which Eric gets swiftly initiated. Friend admirably fleshes Oliver’s passion and optimism into a nuanced performance, but the therapy sessions themselves descend into outburst so rapidly as to be laughable and the whole subplot is constructed of every middle-class-teacher-working-in-adversity movie trope.

Ultimately, Starred Up never really decides what it wants to be. In trying to tackle so many issues, (father/son relationships, rehabilitation vs punishment, institutional bureaucracy, prisoner cliques) the film simply stretches itself too thin. That said, O’Connell gives a powerhouse performance, worthy of a ticket price alone, and the film should be congratulated for ensuring him with an intriguing career path.

Oldboy (2013)

Analysing a remake without explicit comparison with an original is hard enough work. In the case of Oldboy (2013) it all gets little more complicated. Whilst we could view it as a new adaptation of Garon Tsuchiya & Nobuaki Minegishi’s original source manga, Spike Lee’s latest joint seems to go out if its way to invite comparisons with Park Chan-wook’s 2003 critical darling. Except it’s not a Spike Lee “joint.” Lee got frustrated with cuts he was apparently forced to make from his original 140 minute feature that he downgraded Oldboy from “joint” to “film.” So here we have a new film, based on the Grand Prix winning favourite of Quentin Tarantino and almost overwhelmingly revered by film fanatics all over, which even its own director isn’t happy with. Signs do not bode well.

For the uninitiated, Oldboy tells the story of city boy Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin), a belligerent drunk who is imprisoned by an unknown entity for 20 years, framed for the murder of his ex-wife and eventually released back into the world obsessed with the idea of revenge. Where ever the supposedly imposed cuts were placed on Oldboy’s content, it was most certainly not on the film’s opening, a dreadfully slow, indulgent and cheap depiction of Joe’s alcoholism. With the subtlety of a battering ram, Brolin sways, stumbles and pukes his way through the city streets before hammily screaming “does anyone have any more alcohol?!” at apartment blocks. His imprisonment arrives after he chases an Asian lady with an umbrella through Chinatown, a motif that is consistently repeated to lead Joe into dangerous situations. It’s probable the filmmakers were trying to tip their hats to the original Korean film, but the overall association of badness with this corner of the city reeks of lazy and unsavoury Orientalism.

But Oldboy’s laziness extends far beyond its treatment of illness and culture. The infamous hammer hallway fight scene from Park Chan-wook’s original is practically copy and pasted, albeit with sickeningly cheesy guitar-led fight music that makes the whole scenario seem like Josh Brolin is levelling up on an awful arcade game. Then there’s the scene where Joe idly stares at a CGI octopus in an Asian restaurant. Brief and unnecessary, it’s very likely all involved thought this wonderfully subversive and clever, but it’s just an aching reminder of the superior version you wish you were watching.

There’s a chance that there is some enjoyment to be had in Oldboy if one has never witnessed how perfectly the story can be presented, as it was ten years ago. But for those familiar with the original there is precisely nothing new introduced, the twist climax limping in like a predictably unwanted guest, an over-acted one at that. Oldboy is completely undone by its lack of personal touch from its auteur director, its poor lead performance, and subtle-as-a-brick storytelling. Like its protagonist’s imprisonment, expect tedium and aggravation.

August: Osage County (2014)

When Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) goes missing and leaves his drug addled wife Violet (Meryl Streep) alone in their family home, the Weston daughters Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), Karen (Juliette Lewis) and Barbara (Julia Roberts) congregate to show their support. Also in tow are the Aikens, Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), her beleaguered husband Charles (Chris Cooper) and their man-child son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch). Karen’s sleazy boyfriend Steve (Dermot Mulroney) is spending a little too much time trying to impress Barbara’s 14 year old daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin), whilst Barbara’s husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) is still brooding about the slow decay of their marriage. Emotions are fraught in the claustrophobic Weston house and the heat is sweltering, plus Violet’s dependence on prescription pills and her viciously loose lipped nature all amount to a brutal few days in August: Osage County.

Let’s get the obvious thing out of the way. That cast list. It really is rather impressive. And there’s not a loose link in the whole bunch. You’ll no doubt have heard that Meryl Streep is brilliant and she truly is. Violet is a hideous, bitter creation who uses her past sufferings to denigrate her children’s and Streep perfectly slurs and spits her way through her every twisted monologue. But of course. In the words of Modern Family’s Cameron, “Meryl Streep could play Batman and it would be perfection.” Elsewhere, Juliette Lewis is gloriously spacey and Margo Martindale marvellously fierce. Julianne Nicholson is quietly resentful but determined as the only sister who never left Oklahoma, and Benedict Cumberbatch is wonderfully pathetic as her emotionally stunted puppy dog of a cousin. But the real revelation is Julia Roberts. Not since Closer has she allowed herself to be a character so flawed and oftentimes wholly unsympathetic.

Based on Tracy Lett’s play of the same name, August: Osage County is a little too long, somewhat bizarre given that it devotes relatively little time to its individual subplots. There’s also a few too many monologues. Whilst it is interesting having characters divulge their secrets in eloquent confidence, it’s hard not to ignore the theatrical origins of the story in such moments. Whilst the script is unmistakably intense, it’s also worthy of note that there are several points of darkly humourous character conflict. See how Cumberbatch’s Little Charles propels himself out of his dinner seat to confess to a secret only to retract lamely back into his shell again, or when Robert’s Barbara and Streep’s Violet go head to head over breakfast. There are some brilliant lines in August: Osage County ready to save the film from when it gets a little too po-faced, and the film benefits from it totally.

All in all, August: Osage County nails the claustrophobia of family and the bitterness of familial tensions perfectly, thanks mainly to John Wells’ relatively understated direction and powerhouse performances by Roberts and Streep. Just don’t be surprised if like the Westons themselves you wind up begging some small release from its unnecessary two hour duration.

12 Years A Slave (2014)

Artist and film director Steve McQueen is a bit of a mixed bag in the eyes of this reviewer. Whilst Hunger was a taut and compelling vignette of Bobby Sands, Shame wasted what started as an interesting premise on flabby pacing, aimless meandering and an awkwardly outdated portrayal of homosexuality. However with 12 Years A Slave, McQueen seems to have finally found his perfect balance, that of a lingering character study presented against the larger political backdrop of an uncomfortable theme. 12 Years A Slave tells the real life story of free man Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who is duped and drugged before being sold into slavery, based on his own 1853 autobiography. States away from his family and unable to produce his freedom papers, Solomon must endure cruelty upon cruelty whilst keeping his being literate a secret. Needless to say, 12 Years is brutal but necessary viewing.

Surely no one can claim to being ignorant of the viciousness of America’s history of enslavement, but McQueen finds innovative ways of truly and bleakly presenting the human experience at the hands of such a regime. When Solomon awakens to find himself in chains, his claims of being a free man are met with the unforgiving and repeated smack of a bat on his back, and the excellent sound editing coupled with McQueen’s absolutely unwaveringly stationary camera placement make for a visceral and terrifying few minutes.

McQueen is a director known for unrelenting shots on discomforting scenes, but whereas in Shame it amounted to an aura of self-indulgence, in 12 Years we as an audience become unwilling participants in the acts of cruelty, our complicit and silent observation as damning as the horrifying acts unfolding. This is a film that grabs you and forces you to acknowledge the sheer awfulness of a past not explored enough by cinema. For example, in the slave market scene where Solomon and others are forced to stand, degraded as animals in a zoo, some naked, and being presented as no more than pieces of meat, whilst wealthy white men like William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) price them up. McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt’s camera weaves in and out of rooms, past slave after slave as if we ourselves are being given the sales pitch. It’s a gut churning way of making us connect with the subject emotionally rather than through an objective history textbook lens, and it’s extraordinarily successful throughout the film.

Hans Zimmer’s score is equally haunting, punching through the film like Solomon’s petrified heartbeat. But this really is Ejiofor’s film. It’s impossible not to feel his despair, often when it is simply his eyes doing the talking. Ejiofor’s portrayal of Solomon as man who refuses to give up on his hope and dignity is beautifully judged, a state of mind completely counter balanced by fellow slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), who becomes a victim of plantation owner Edwin Epps’ (Michael Fassbender) lust and feels utterly defeated. Nyong’o and Fassbender are both utterly fantastic. Where other actors are concerned, there are strong performances going on, but after a while it can feel like there’s a factory line of Oscar baiting going on as a list of famous names perform their racist monologues and leave the story.

But the worst part of 12 Years A Slave, one which is truly my only complaint about the film, is the inclusion of Brad Pitt in the cast list. Whilst he is to be thanked and commended for his contribution as a producer with his Plan B company, his inclusion as an actor is woefully misjudged. Whilst there are a string of big names lending their services to the story (Ejiofor, Fassbender, Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, and Paul Giamatti) they are much more chameleonic than a man like Pitt. This is not to discredit his acting, he does everything perfectly in his brief scenes, but Brad Pitt in a film nowadays is always some facet of Brad Pitt; two time winner of People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive ‘accolade’, and having him smack in the middle of a film of such as this as one of the only sympathetic white characters just feels awkward and hokey, and the Jesus-like carpenter image he casts is just too much.

That being said, 12 Years A Slave is ultimately a brilliant film, one which had my fellow cinema goers silenced, a respect unfortunately not awarded to most films at the best of times. Visually innovative, brutally presented and excellently acted, 12 Years A Slave is an important piece of a cinema that I hope lingers on in discussion long past the standard award season hype.