Gravity (2013)

Alfonso Cuaron, drama, fucking beautiful, George Clooney, review, Sandra Bullock, space

Gravity is one of the films that has featured in a pretty much every ‘Top Films of 2013’ lists and, despite being extremely late to the party, I managed to fit in a viewing before the year came to an end. Despite the cavalcade of positive feedback that poured out following its release, a friend of mine saw this fairly early in its release and came up with the one word review of “weird”. Although, as she is the same friend who argued the case for the awful 2011 Three Musketeers remake, I wasn’t prepared to miss the opportunity based on her analysis. (She also hated Hugowhich, if you ask me, is unforgivable.)

Gravity comes to us thanks to Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón and his co-writer son. Quite frankly, it is one of the nerve-wracking, emotional and visually exciting films you will probably see with a main cast of only three people. Cuarón does a grand job throughout his pretty short runtime (91 minutes to be precise) of balancing the phenomenal space landscapes and knuckle-biting drama. Everything that the director throws at you is designed to take your breath away but not entirely steal focus. It’s clever and precise film-making that will restore your faith in the industry.
The opening manages to be both sedate and breathtaking. In the impressive and unbroken 13 minute take, the camera slowly pulls away from aerial shot of planet Earth to reveal the films meagre cast making repairs to a satellite. Sandra Bullock plays rookie engineer, Dr Ryan Stone, who can only boast of six months specialist NASA training. Understandably nervous, she carries out her repairs under the watchful eye of veteran spaceman Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) who would rather spend his time gleefully playing with his super cool jetpack. He happily lets the scientists work as he regales Houston mission control (voiced by Ed Harris in a wonderful reference to his role in the 1995 space-adventure Apollo 13) with his all too familiar anecdotes.
It is a lovely and understated opening to a film that is pretty much guaranteed to keep you on the edge of your seat for the remainder of the narrative. For, inevitably, the mission isn’t all plain sailing. All too soon word reaches our space folk that trouble is brewing in the shape of debris heading straight for them. When Dr Stone finds herself untethered and drifting through space, the audience is spinning along with her. We join her on her frantic race against time: equally alone and equally lost.
Gravity is a tense experience. Thanks in no small part to Steven Price masterful and atmospheric Gravity is made what it is because of sound or, in actual fact, the lack of it. Taking its lead from that Alien adage “in space, nobody can hear you scream”, Cuarón, for the most part, leaves the film hauntingly quiet. The most claustrophobic moment occurs just after Bullock has been set adrift in space where the audience moves inside her helmet and can only hear her frantic breaths.  Bullock essentially carries the weight of the film on her shoulders. Thankfully, she pulls it off with great gusto: showcasing not just physical flexibility but emotional range and mental strength.
soundtrack.
Since it was released, there has been a great deal said against the scientific fact on show within this film. Whilst I admit I’m no real scientist (my A Level Chemistry teachers would definitely attest to this fact), I honestly can’t say that I care. Gravity, like every other Hollywood film, behaves as though the characters and story that it is presenting is both relevant and entirely feasible. It stands out as a film set in space because it neither refers back to the golden age of space exploration nor looks into an exciting and unknown future. Gravity is a contemporary piece that could very easily be happening above our heads. Meaning that, even though Cuarón’s film may demand you suspend your disbelief on a fair few occasions, this film becomes all the more absorbing.
For that is the great thing about Gravity: from the opening subtitles onwards, it engulfs its audience. I, like most sane people, haven’t completely warmed to the new 3D era of film. I have enjoyed specific productions that have utilised it well but have yet to be convinced it was a technological advancement that we desperately need. Hugo, The Hobbit and, though I’m loathe to offer it too much praise, Avatar have all shown that, given the right love and attention, 3D can be a benefit. Then comes Gravity: quite simply the visual effects supplied by Tim Webber are mind-blowing: the only time I’ve ever been one of those people who ducks when something comes flying towards them. Avatarwas the first triumph for the third dimension but Gravity takes it to another level: providing a totally immersive experience.
It is only when the film reaches its denouement that everything looks to be on shaky ground. Cuarón hammers homes the idea of rebirth and evolution. It feels a little sloppy and rushed after such a sensational display of talent and care. Stone is the ordinary woman who finds herself in the most extraordinary of situations and she has to fight, at times with herself, to survive. Cuarón is forever pushing the drama throughout the film and, by the final scene, there is a disappointing sense that he has tried to push it too far. However, by the time it reaches that point, you’ll have gone through too much emotional turmoil to really be paying attention.

Flight (2013)

Bruce Greenwood, Denzel Washington, drama, drugs, John Goodman, review, Robert Zemeckis

In my opinion, Flighthad a pretty terrible marketing campaign that presented it as something much worse than it actually is. The first time I saw the trailer I was completely put off. It looked silly and badly written and, let’s be honest, any trailer that places John Goodman in a prominent role is realistically likely to be disappointing.  The best way I could describe the idea I had about this Robert Zemeckis film was as something written by the two lazy film writers from That Mitchell and Webb Look. (“We wanted to write a film about a pilot that survives a crash but we don’t know anything about aeroplanes. We were super busy so we just thought sod it.”) Then it went and got great feedback, Oscar nominations and glowing recommendations from friends. It seemed only fair to ignore my first impression and give it a go. Denzel Washington deserves that much at least.

Flight is Zemeckis’ first foray into the world of live-action film-making after a decade spent playing with motion-capture. Whilst it advertises itself as a lazy and mindless drama revolving around air-travel, it actually turns out to be a sombre look into the tortured life of pilot Whip Whitaker (Washington). It has been described my many as an intensely adult film to help the director move away from the family friendly material he’s been distributing recently. To make this point even clearer, Zemeckis starts his film with boobs.
Those boobs belong to sexy flight attendant Katerina (Nadine Velazquez) who has accompanied Whip on a wild night indulging in a combination of drink, drugs and sex. The pilot wakes feeling slightly worse for wear but easily jolts himself back into action with a swig of stale beer and two lines of cocaine. After an argument with his ex-wife (his marriage being a victim of his addictive lifestyle), Whip leaves his hotel room so he can take his seat in the cockpit of a flight departing for Atlanta. Whip further prepares himself by taking a hit of oxygen. Whip has clearly become adept at hiding his problem and, despite his co-pilot’s (Brian Geraghty) suspicions, manages to get himself together enough to project an air of professionalism and authority from behind his aviators.
 
The first half hour or so is put together by Zemeckis to continually mess with the audience by building and lowering the tension until the inevitable happens. Not only must we live with the knowledge that our trusted pilot was snorting the white stuff only moments before stepping on board but he is then forced to take evasive action on take-off to avoid turbulent weather conditions. When the plane finally starts to fail your emotional will already have been put through the ringer in a way that Alfred Hitchcock would have surely been proud. Zemeckis, as we know, has experience with grounding planes but this certainly outweighs anything we saw in Cast Away. The crash itself is an amazing example of dramatic cinema; a tense nose dive, during which Zemeckis barely moves out of the cockpit.
Thanks to some quick-thinking and a rather swish idea to invert the plane (plus an extra large dose of Dutch courage thanks to some stolen bottles of vodka), Whip manages to land after a mechanical failure sends it into plummeting to the ground. It was Whip’s ability to keep calm in the face of certain death that allowed him to save all but six of the souls on board his craft. A feat that we are later told no other pilot succeeded during a simulation of the crash conditions. We are forced to face the terrifying reality that the results were as happy as they were not despite of Whip’s intoxicated state but, rather, thanks to it. This is the ethical conundrum that runs throughout Flight. After all, if he managed to land an unlandable plane, how much of a problem does he really have? Certainly, in his own view, Whip is in fine with his lifestyle and the aftermath of the crash only pushes him closer to self-destruction. In order to avoid life in the limelight Whitaker takes up residence at his grandfather’s farm where he takes part in some soul-searching and trips down memory lane; in between binges, of course.
Flight can basically be described as the study of a broken man living in denial; Whip’s constant flight from the truth of his sorry personal situation. The film has an unending focus on Washington who remains on screen for almost the entire run time. He, of course, was Oscar nominated for his performance and it is easy to see why. He’s on fine form and plays the role with a subtlety that would be lost had a lesser actor taken the role. He is thoughtful and emotive rather than in-your-face and angry. Washington lets his eyes take the focus in a way that none of Zemeckis’ recent motion-capture monstrosities could ever hope to replicate. Despite your frustration towards his actions and attitude, Washington plays it in such a way that you’re always willing Whip to change. It’s a performance that shows us the pilot’s weaknesses, denial and meanness (alcohol induced) whilst containing more than a glimmer of the actor’s own charisma. You know you shouldn’t like Whip but there is something about him that stops you from walking away.
Unfortunately, you can’t get away from the sense that Whip is being allowed a little too much time to wallow and, at 2 hours 20 minutes, it does feel rather bloated and self-indulgent. There can be no getting away from the feeling that large sections of Flight are both dull and completely redundant. Most notably being the heroin addict with a heart of gold (played by the hugely talented Kelly Reilly) who Whip philosophises with in a hospital stairwell before rescuing her from her squalid life. For her part Reilly plays the cliché with a gritty determination but she is both horribly underused and completely unnecessary to the plot. The same can be said of the rest of the supporting cast who, aside from John Goodman who has a couple of scenes to let loose, are left floundering  in the background as Washington naturally demands all of your attention. Bruce Greenwood and Don Cheadle both offer fine performances as Whip’s friend and a ruthless lawyer respectively but their potential is limited because the focus is solely on the main man.
Despite being somewhat hampered own its own alcohol-induced bloat, Zemeckis’s film does provide an interesting moral argument and contains moments of cinematic genius. It is a film made by its main star and, thankfully, Washington is more than up to the task. Managing to keep the film moving despite a lengthy running time, a flabby plot and a script littered with off-putting religious symbolism. Flight is by no means a terrible film but there were certain aspect that could have been sharper or better thought-out to make it a film worthy of its lead performance and instead of its misleading trailer.

Behind the Candelabra (2013)

drama, Liberace, Matt Damon, Michael Douglas, review, Steven Soderbergh, television

Steven Soderbergh is in an odd position when it comes to his supposedly last film ever. After American film studios chose not to fund a no-holds-barred look at Liberace’s private life just in case it came across as a bit too gay, it became necessary for HBO to step in to back the adaptation of Scott Thorson’s account of his five year relationship with the superstar pianist. Therefore, we are in the odd position of this potentially being Soderbergh’s last film outside the US only. It also means that neither its director nor its stars will have any chance to receive Oscar nominations for their work here.

The film picks up in 1977 where, thanks to a random hook-up with a very 70s Scott Bakula, Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) finds himself surrounded by a gaggle of women at one of Liberace’s Vegas shows. Finding himself backstage with the legend, the animal handler and wannabe vet offers his services in caring for the pianists much loved dog and ends up becoming his live-in companion complete with bejewelled chauffeur outfit.

This may be a look behind Liberace’s candelabra, but there is no denying who the stand-out star really is. Damon gives a superb performance as Liberace’s young lover, despite being well over 20 years older than Scott really was at the time. Some amount of technical wizardry and make-up has taken place to make Damon seem younger than his actual 42 years, but nobody is able to truly turn back the clock. Of course, the lack of realism has little effect on the overall might of the performance and Damon once again proves how much better he is than the Jason Bourne films suggest. The actor plays Scott as fairly passive and it feels as though the slightly naïve youth is simply swept along on a wave of adoration, celebrity and wealth. Although there are hints of a real affection and admiration for the pianist and is captivated by his presence from his first glimpse.
And it’s easy to see why, thanks to Michael Douglas’s sensational job of bringing Liberace to life. There is no doubt that Douglas is a talented actor, but if he hadn’t embraced the chance to glide around a stage this whole thing would never have come together. He has such confidence in his own sexuality and performance that there is no awkwardness from the fact that a very heterosexual actor is playing a very homosexual star. Douglas portrays Liberace as someone who is aware of all of the facts. The performance is slightly tongue-in-cheek and you get the sense that the actor is much more embracive of the ridiculousness of the situation than Liberace ever could have been. He has to accept the façade because of the role, but that doesn’t mean he has to believe it.
It is during our first glimpse of the great man that we get the greatest sense of the extent to which Lee and his audience were engaged in their mutual delusion. The figure we see floating around the stage covered in jewellery, sequins and fur is so incredibly at odds with the accepted image of the womaniser with his gaggle of lust-filled female fans. Everyone, even his own mother (played by an almost unrecognisable Debbie Reynolds), buys into the lie because, as Lee himself explains, “people only see what they want to see”. Just as the film’s audience will only see what they want to see.  Watching Douglas in performance mode you know deep down that there is no way the actor is responsible for the technical wizardry on show, but watching everything unfold before your eyes you’ll happily give him the credit for the double-time boogie-woogie. Douglas isn’t just playing Liberace he is Liberace. You can certainly see why Scott becomes so enamoured quite so quickly. The film’s opening section leaves you in no doubt that the man had endless talent and a great sense of showmanship.
Such a great showman that Liberace managed to hide a bucket-load of neurosis and personal pain. The pairing works because they each receive something vital from the other. When they first meet, Scott tells Liberace that he was orphaned as a child and moved between foster homes. It is his fear of abandonment and lack of strong fatherly presence that drives the young man to accepting the offer: within Liberace he has found someone to love, protect and teach him. On the other hand, Lee is drawn to younger men so he can cling to the youth that he still can’t accept that he has lost. With every year that passes Scott becomes less interesting and the star’s wandering eye finds itself focusing in on potential replacements. It is a romance that is doomed from the start and we see a glimpse of Scott’s future in the shape of the pianist’s former squeeze, his duet partner Billy Leatherwood. All of Lee’s boys outlive their welcome. It is just a case of making the every year count.
It is after seeing footage of himself on television that Liberace gets slapped in the face by his ever-advancing years. Hoping to cling to his youth for a little longer Lee embarks on a series of intense plastic surgery at the hands of his delightfully grotesque surgeon, Dr. Jack Startz, played by an unrestrained and fantastically funny Rob Lowe. Deciding that Scott has grown too comfortable with his new life of luxury, Lee pays for another deluge of surgery to turn the young man into a replica of the young pianist. (Amateur psychologists eat your fucking heart out with that one.) Startz gets Thornson hooked on a regimen of prescription drugs leading to his further decent into the murky waters of addiction.
The naïve Scott grows more aware of his lover’s lessening affection and instead turns to his drug dealer to provide him with the means to ignore it. We see Damon go from innocent young country bumpkin to a broken, world-weary man. When Scott finally comes to realise that he is just like the boys who have gone before him there is a wonderful glimmer of humiliation, anger and self-hatred in his face. We all knew this relationship was damaging and would end in an inevitably bleak manner, but that doesn’t stop Damon allowing the audience to feel sorry for him. It would have been easy to overplay both of the men, but these two stars have more than enough talent and restraint to give this film the extra layers it needed to prevent a horrible fall into celebrity soap opera.
In fact, there is a great sense of old school Hollywood beneath all of the gaudy visuals, sex, drug use and gory close-up scenes of plastic surgery. Soderbergh’s film has been put together with great care and every scene feels as well designed and detailed as Liberace’s public image. This film knows what it’s trying to say about its characters and presents its vision with such confidence that you simply get swept along with the story. The camera work is simple, but effective: we are treated to a mixture of graceful long shots, locked-down close-ups for more intimate moments, and a small amount of shaky cam to aid Scott’s descent into booze, diet pills, and coke. Thanks to Soderbergh’s immense skills as a filmmaker (taking his usual additional roles as DOP and editor here) and a remarkable script from Richard La Gravenese, a trashy tell-all book has become something sensational. It is funny, dramatic, heartbreaking and heart-warming all at once. If this truly is Soderbergh’s last work than the film industry is losing a titan and will no doubt be worse off for it.

Argo (2012)

Ben Affleck, drama, John Goodman, review
I’ve never really seen the point of Ben Affleck as an actor. For a considerable amount of time he was nothing more than the friend of the much more talented Matt Damon. Whilst he is not always awful but he was, more often than not, forgettable. However, like Clint Eastwood and George Clooney, Affleck has made a much more noticeable step into the world of directing. Gaining critical acclaim for his previous efforts Gone Baby Gone and The Town, Affleck now tackles Chris Terrio’s script based on a strange but true part of American and Canadian history. For his third time in the director’s chair, Ben Affleck moves away from the familiarity of his much loved Boston to tackle the wider world and bigger issues.

Declaring itself to be ‘based on real events’, Argo is set during the Iran hostage crisis that took place from 1979 to 1981. It opens with a brief but vital introduction to the history of the West’s involvement in Iran presented rather sleekly in the style of a graphic novel. Yes, this segment may be criticised for being simplistic and reductive but sets about to remind the audience that Western powers helped to establish the monarchy in Iran. An issue that led to the Islamic revolution that gave vent to anti-American feeling within the population. When Iranian militants stormed the U.S Embassy in November 1979 and took 52 American citizens hostage, six workers managed to escape undetected. Taking refuge at the home of the Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber) they were forced to lay low for two months for fear of being captured.

With both the American and Canadian governments under pressure to keep all those involved safe, there followed a frantic race to think up a plan that would safely lead the diplomats out of Tehran and back home. Considered to be the best option available, CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez, along with some key players, turns to Hollywood to provide an alibi for the group’s presence. They are to be provided with Canadian passports and passed off as part of a film crew scouting for locations to shoot their Star Wars-esque sci-fi movie. It’s an absurd plan but it’s just crazy enough to work.

Affleck has a knack for telling a story. He ensures that the action is always moving forwards but never fails to keep everything feeling realistic enough. Aided by some beautiful work by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and some propulsive editing, the plot advances relentlessly without any evidence of unnecessary material. Argo is a mature, intelligent and efficient film. It does what it needs to do in as simple a manner as it is able. Affleck is not just looking back to the 1970s but emulating them. From his use of the old Warner Brothers logo to the grainy look of the entire thing, the director is creating his own brand of 70s suspense film.

With an appropriately beardy look, Affleck places himself in the role of sober 70s action hero and does so remarkably well. I’ve seen a fair amount of criticism about Affleck’s portrayal of Mendez but I have to disagree. His performance is very thoughtful and professional but there is a certain amount of likeability beneath all that stocism. Detached though it may seem I have to argue that Affleck’s portrayal of the ‘exfil expert’ is perfectly in keeping with the plot. The nature of the story being told means that Mendez shouldn’t be in your face and overly dramatic. He is a CIA agent given the huge task of sneaking six people out of a very volatile setting. This isn’t Mendez’s story but the story that comes out of his idea.

He surrounds himself with a cast of great performers, not all of whom are big Hollywood names, and ensures that their performances are reined in enough to let the narrative speak for itself. Non of the characters are given a great amount of depth but they are all believable thanks to some fantastic performances. Everyone is perfectly cast and offer some amazing performances: Bryan Cranston as Mendez’s boss; Victor Garber as the Canadian ambassador; and Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham and Kerry Bishe as the six hostages. They’re all absolutely on point.

Of course, the stand-out comic performances come from John Goodman as Oscar winning make-up artist John Chambers and Alan Arkin as composite character Lester Siegel. Both actors give great performances with Arkin, in particular, providing the brunt of the humour. It is during the Hollywood scenes that Affleck introduces his audience to his sub-theme, a droll inside look at Hollywood. The pair repeatedly take shots at the inherent egomania and self-denial of the movie business. However, it is all done with an obvious amount of affection and the importance of Hollywood in the rescue of innocent lives can hardly be forgotten.
As a director, Affleck does a brilliant job of combining the comedic and dramatic elements of the narrative. Thanks also to the superb editing, courtesy of William Goldenberg, the film moves majestically between moments of drama and humour in this horrendously far-fetched yet true story. There are some fantastic moments where the action cuts back and forth between the staged reading of the fake film, the Iranians in control of the embassy, and the tense atmosphere within the Canadian ambassador’s household. These potentially jarring elements come together harmoniously. The narrative glides smoothly towards the inevitably tense climax.

It’s safe to assume that nearly all of the audience know the outcome of the story before the opening credits but Affleck still manages to bring a certain amount of tension to the plot. Though we must not forget that this is still Hollywood so the houseguests find themselves in more moments of heart-stopping drama than was actually the case. The final stage of the escape plan is wrought with all kinds of danger with several near misses and the obligatory chase scenes. However, that does not mean that Argo is not an intelligent film. Yes, the plot is sensationalised and there has been a fair amount of artistic license taken but, more importantly, the true bravery and drama remains.

There has also been a great deal of criticism regarding the historical accuracy of Affleck’s film. There has been much said about the increased importance of the American government in the plan and the consequent lessening of the Canadian role. Terrio’s script attempts to simplify the matters and does so by removing evidence of the aid given to the six by the English and Australian ambassadors. To many, Argo has been viewed as nationalist propganda intended to inflate America’s already large ego. Although, that is ignoring the fact that, whilst Ken Taylor’s role has been minimised here, Affleck has the greatest respect for the amount of work the Candian government did in helping get the six Americans out of danger. I also don’t think the ending is that full of pro-America feeling and Affleck is always keen to remind us of America’s role in starting the revolution. The ending has a great sense of general joyous celebration that goes hand-in-hand with a successful operation rather than drowning the audience in an atmosphere of “America, FUCK YEAH!” I could understand people getting angry if Affleck and Terrio had set out to create a documentary about that period but this is a film. Argo does wish to inform, that cannot be denied, but it is also intended to entertain. If there’s one thing we can learn from Quentin Tarantino, it’s that anyone who uses Hollywood films as historical sources probably doesn’t deserve to know the truth.

Coriolanus (2011)

Brian Cox, drama, Gerard Butler, Ralph Fiennes, Shakespeare, tragedy, Vanessa Redgrave, war

Ralph Fiennes has a deep history with this particular Shakespeare play after his much appraised portrayal of the title character about ten years ago. With the help of screenwriter John Logan (GladiatorHugo) and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (The Hurt Locker), Fiennes offers us an exciting modern adaptation of the little known and little loved play. Modern adaptations of Shakespeare are not uncommon but there is always the danger that the connection between the plot and the updated setting will start to wear a little thin. For example, I was lucky enough to see Michael Sheen in Hamlet at the Young Vic last Christmas. Not only was he amazingly talented, mesmerising and rather beautiful (in a crazy way) but the adaptation itself was pretty exciting. The action was set in a mental asylum where Claudius and Gertrude were medical staff and Hamlet their patient. This worked incredibly well until the plot demanded that the staff organise a deadly fencing match between their patients. Obviously there needs to be a suspension of disbelief but the scene did stand out as a bit much. When plays deal with plots set in the Elizabethan period there is bound to be a certain amount that doesn’t quite translate. The trick is making sure these elements blend in enough that it doesn’t really matter.

For Fiennes’ masterpiece, the centurions of Ancient Rome have been replaced with modern soldiers armed with the AK-47s and running the risk of getting caught up in impressive explosions.  Logan’s script cuts down the lengthy tragedy down to two hours of classic drama and heart-stopping action. It is a film that shows the necessary appreciation to its source whilst avoiding the potential trap of a straightforward and traditional production. Logan includes as much of Shakespeare’s language as is possible and all of the key scenes have been given due care and attention. Filmed on location in Belgrade, the costumes, props and cinematography could be taken straight out of most modern war films. Gone is the city of Rome and the action is placed in a modern Balkan like state. The political focus of this play fits well into the turbulent times we have all seen in the past few years. In Logan’s skilled hands and with a certain amount of help from modern scenes we are all familiar with (smart-phones, internet streamed assassinations and satellite news) this Ancient Roman tragedy becomes a modern tale of the struggle for power and respect. For my part, I enjoyed the way that certain conversations that organically would have taken place between Roman citizens were transformed into news items and interviews with experts. I can understand the reviewers who found it a little too tongue-in-cheek but I relished the cameo by Channel 4 news presenter Jon Snow and firmly believe he should do all news items in Shakespearean language from now on.  It is amazing how easily the play fits into this setting and it only goes to remind us how relevant the issues Shakespeare raised 400 years ago. The place which calls itself Rome could indeed be anywhere and the action sequences and rolling news could well have been seen on any news channel in recent times. 

 
Thanks mostly to the fantastic work of cinematographer Barry Ackroyd who most recently worked on the Oscar-winning film The Hurt Locker. As expected from Ackroyd he places the camera in the centre of the action creating scenes of shockingly realistic and immediate brutality. The action sequences themselves firmly place the play within a modern setting. Ackroyd is the main man when it comes to putting the shaky cam in the thick of the action. It sets us up for some exquisite visuals and effects as Coriolanus and his men advance on their enemy. Shakespeare’s own Rambo dispenses his brutal punishment on those who are posing a threat to his city and he walks out to meet his adversary covered in their blood. Fiennes has certainly ensured that, visually at least, his soldier is the centre of attention. In this modern setting Fiennes has transformed the Roman soldier into a Nineties Balkan warlord like figure. There is a striking image towards the end of the film when Coriolanus, with his shaved head and army fatigues, accepts his wife and mother whilst slouching in his chair surrounded by gunmen with his legs splayed. It is the ultimate sign of his manly arrogance and sums up his actions throughout the film. He is a soldier, a killer and he demands the respect that comes with it. Fiennes has never been one of my favourite actors but he shows a certain amount of restraint here but plays the title character with his usual intensity.
 
One of Fiennes’ greatest decisions was to surround himself with a supporting cast made up of truly wonderful actors. Despite placing himself in the key role, Fiennes takes a step back and allows seasoned performers like Vanessa Redgrave and Brian Cox do what they do best. Unsurprisingly, Redgrave gives us the standout performance of the entire film. In a case of life imitating art, this is a film that is dominated by Redgrave’s Volumnia, in much the same way as Coriolanus himself is ruled by his overbearing and belligerent mother. It is the scenes where we see mother and son together that really bring this film to life. The pair both flourish in their roles and Fiennes is able to allow Redgrave to show us all why she’s one of our finest actresses. Her performance is so mind-blowing that, at times, it would be possible to believe that Shakespeare first wrote the role with her in mind. In a more understated role, the ever reliable Brian Cox plays silver-tongued politician Menenius and gives us another exceptional performance. He doesn’t draw attention in the way that Redgrave is able to thanks to the dominance of her character but he is on hand to offer us a careful and considered performance.
 
To anyone who went into this film doubting Gerard Butler’s Shakespearean potential: shame on you. Yes, Butler has made some questionable, romantic-comedy based choices recently and is more of an action hero than a tragic one but he is no stranger to Shakespeare and this play in particular (having been cast in Steven Berkoff’s 1996 stage production). Taking up the role of Coriolanus’ adversary Tullus Aufidius, he gives a confident performance. Shakespeare’s words seem natural coming from the mouth of a man who is more used to playing action men of much fewer words. He plays the brutal Aufidius as a dangerous savage and worthy opponent to the mighty Coriolanus. The men have met each other in battle several times and the fact that he has never manage to best the General is a constant source of shame and anger for the beardy and brooding Aufidius. Fiennes’ casting decision may have been slightly bizarre considering the wealth of Shakespearean actors out there but, after his first dramatic scene, there is little doubt that Butler is the perfect actor to update the Volscian commander into a modern action man that would sit just as easily in the type of film Butler may usually be seen in.
 
What Fiennes has attempted to do with his directorial debut is create an adaptation of a play he is undoubtedly passionate about that will resonate with ardent Shakespeare fans and those who would normally find the Bard a little over facing. In some respects that is my major problem with the film. It doesn’t seem very complete or self-assured. The action elements and the Shakespearean dialogue fight for supremacy and often find themselves at odds with one another. Logan has obviously pared back the play to make it more cinema friendly but I can’t help but feel that more should have been made of Shakespeare’s words. Unfortunately, this film has not been handled correctly. The visual aspects, whilst stunning, don’t always work in harmony with some of the issues that are at the heart of the original play. Coriolanus may have contained the greatest number of battles of all the plays, but violence and war were never the major focus. This is a play about the character himself and the problems of mixing military might with political power. The greatest moments come when Coriolanus comes face to face with his mother and her plans for his future in politics. It is the politics of the family and the emotional and psychological elements that demand the floor but they are often partly overshadowed by the generic action movie imagery. What we have is a fitting debut in the director’s chair for Ralph Fiennes but it is far from being a perfect production. 

Beginners (2011)

Christopher Plummer, drama, review, rom-com

Mike Mills is an example of that breed of cool indie artists who has turned his hand to music videos, album-cover art and edgy films. As such, his semi-autobiographical drama/romantic-comedy (drom-com?), Beginners, is quirky, visually enticing and poignant. Months after his mother dies, graphic designer, Oliver’s world turns upside down when his father, Hal, reveals that he has been hiding his true self for the past 40 odd years and is, in fact, gay. The story that follows shows the two men’s quest to find happiness after years of lies and fear. This is a monumental discovery for the artist; it improves his relationship with his father; changes his opinion of his parents marriage; brings new meaning to his mother’s outlandish behaviour during his childhood; and forces him to rethink his already shaky views on love and relationships.

The film follows three periods in Oliver’s life: his childhood; his last years with his father; and the time directly proceeding Hal’s death. These three periods are linked thanks to Mills’ jumps in the narrative. Through Oliver’s voiceover and slide-shows of photographs the different time-frames are contextualised. We get a picture of the wider world and the more intimate one at the moments when his parents met and married, when his father came out and after his death. These moments are presented to provide a break in the more dramatic and emotional parts of the film. Just as the subtitles that allow Hal’s Jack Russell terrier, Arthur, to provide a wry commentary on certain events and provides an example of truth that only an outsider could provide. On paper, this technique sounds like one quirk too far but in Mill’s experienced hands it works wonderfully.

The three periods explain Oliver’s character and his connection with love. The moment that affects them all is the moment when a father has to explain to his son that, despite being married for almost 40 years, he is, and has always known that he is, gay. Oliver accepts his father’s news but finds if difficult to come to terms with the idea that such a natural desire needed to remain hidden for so long. Christopher Plummer is spectacular in the role, something that can be seen through his barrage of awards. The sense of relief and freedom that he portrays after Hal reveals all to his son is refreshing and not overly sentimental. The moments we see of Hal embracing his new life are handled sensitively and convey the pride that Mills felt after his own father’s revelation.

Goran Visnjic stars as Hal’s much younger lover Andy. The character is a removal from Visnjic’s usual roles but he plays him with tenderness and a charming naivety and innocence that make it easy to see why Hal loves him. It is seeing his father finally find happiness that prompts a change in Oliver. He is uncomfortable around Andy, not because he is gay or so much younger than Hal, but because he cannot understand their intimacy. As we come to learn, Oliver has a problem letting himself get close to others and is constantly waiting for something to go wrong or someone to get hurt. This is rather hastily explained through some brief flashbacks to his childhood where his frustrated, unfulfilled and unhappy mother uses humour and eccentricity to conceal her true feelings and protect her family. Brief scenes of kisses that lack intimacy and real feeling are repeated and followed by moments of childish and playful behaviour. Just as Mills’ uses visual aids to break up the moments of intense drama, Georgia attempts to suppress her inner turmoil.

It is the knowledge that the intelligent and witty mother he remembered was in fact a deeply troubled woman that shows Oliver how unhealthy his idea of love is and how important it is that he change. Ewan McGregor is charming enough as Oliver and his burgeoning relationship with French actress, Anna (Mélanie Laurent) is sort of adorable. Although, he is a rather placid character; merely accepting the role of narrator with little to add emotionally. We never see him react to anything with any real emotion. His healthiest relationship being with Arthur whose personality has been created by Oliver himself. The moments he spends with Anna are surrounded by shots of him sitting in his office working on his melancholic and, quite frankly, insipid, art project ‘The History of Sadness’. To counter this, Laurent does a wonderful job playing the free and easy spirit that sets out to heal Oliver’s heart. Their relationship is undeniably very lovely and twee; the pair form a group, along with Hal’s terrier, Arthur, and merrily avoid the real world. The pair soon find that, despite wanting to avoid it, they have unwittingly got themselves into a relationship. They have little left to do but accept their fate and go about their business.

This is a narrative that we have seen countless times before and, even considering Mills’ artful direction and narrative, eventually starts to feel staid and self-indulgent. The pair are emotionally damaged and hope that finding a kindred spirit will provide a cure. It is the moments that focus on Oliver’s last months with his father that provide the most engaging and fulfilling moments. They are over too soon in order to make way for the meaningful journey that Oliver must travel along. There isn’t really anything to dislike about this film but it is certainly harder to connect with Oliver and Anna in the same way that you do instantly with Hal. After their insanely charming meeting, where Oliver is dressed as Freud and Anna is rendered mute, I found my interest in their journey to stability waning. Although, thanks to Mills’ direction and tendency to flit back and forth throughout, I enjoyed the film despite these slower moments. This film deals with some difficult subjects and it does so in a sensitive and artistic manner. Add to that, some great performances and a fantastic four-legged star, Mills’ film is a winner in spite of its slight annoyances.

Jane Eyre (2011)

Bronte, drama, Judi Dench, Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, review

(Feel I should point out this contains spoilers but doesn’t everyone know the story of Jane Eyre even if they haven’t read the book? Maybe not. SPOILERS!)

For a reason that remains unknown to me, Edward Rochester is the most popular romantic literary character ever. Rochester is not the kind of man you fall in love with. He is creepy, possessive and, generally, just a bit of a dick. Oh, but all he needs is a hug, a cup of tea and your love, right ladies? So he’s a tortured soul, who made a mistake in his youth but that really doesn’t justify psychologically torturing the young Jane. Although, maybe it is every girl’s dream to meet a man who loves her so much he is willing to convince her he is marrying another woman and break her heart before revealing that it was all a plot to make her jealous? What? In the words of renowned fashion designer Jacobim Mugatu, “I FEEL LIKE I’M TAKING CRAZY PILLS!” Rochester is a man who is bitter about ruining his life by marrying a woman he not only didn’t love but who turned out to be mad. This does not give him to right to play games with an innocent, young woman, fresh out of school, who is stupid enough to fall in love with him. I don’t get it and I never will.

This mindless rant isn’t quite as off topic as it may seem at first. My main issue with the film is the characterisation and casting of Rochester. No sane woman would fall Mr Rochester at first sight (I still maintain that after that it would be difficult but I have to get on with this). On the other hand, very few women would be able to stop themselves falling for Michael Fassbender at first sight. Fassbender cuts an attractive but brooding figure against the backdrop of the wild moors (much more akin to Heathcliff than Rochester). Within this setting, a truly complex man and this turbulent relationship is transformed into a stock character from a romantic comedy. This is not Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre this is When Harry Met Sally in breeches.

The awful and cruel Rochester of the book, who enjoys playing games with Jane’s emotions, has been replaced with a slightly offhand and bored man. For the most part, Jane is treated like his pet, used for his entertainment until, all of a sudden, he is wildly and obsessively in love with her. It is an even more nonsensical relationship than the one within the book (even taking into account that the moment where he disguises himself as a gypsy has been taken out). The intense feeling that is represented within the book never quite translates onto the screen.

The novel has remained a favourite literary work because its heroine represented a great improvement in the representation of gender politics and feminine power. Jane as a character is plain but, most importantly, she is passionate, intelligent and strong. Mia Wasikowska doesn’t stand up to the brutish Rochester and instead comes off as dull, rather pathetic and stiff. She sits opposite Fassbender’s Rochester and barely makes an impression. It is no wonder that the romance never really takes off within the film when the two lovers are as worn-out and dull as this pair.

I’m in desperate need of something positive to say about Cary Joji Fukunaga’s adaptation or this will turn into a review that beats Rochester in the broody and annoyed stakes. Clutching at straws here: I was rather impressed with Wasikowska’s Northern accent. As a proud Northerner myself, I found that my ears were not bleeding in response to her performance, as they indeed were post-viewing of One Day (Anne Hathaway has probably been ridiculed for this enough but casting her in that role is a representation of everything that is wrong with the film industry today. Why pick the best person for a role when you can pick the person who appears in the most magazines? Sorry, still bitter.)

At the same time, Judi Dench is as wonderful to watch as ever but her time onscreen is limited and there is very little she can do to improve the overall quality of the film. Her elderly housekeeper Mrs Fairfax is undeniably rather hammy but she is the only character that it is possible to have any real connection with. She is the only figure that I ended up caring about in the long run. Her happiness at having Jane in the house and their lovely reunion at the end of the film brings a much needed dose of emotion and life into the dusty Thornfield Hall.

However, I was thoroughly disappointed with the portrayal of Bertha as the gothic presence within the film. Having written my post-graduate dissertation on gothic fiction which I’m fairly sure now makes me an expert on the subject (hell if, Jamie Cullum can describe himself as an “expert on Shakespeare” thanks to his degree in literature then I can be a fucking expert on this.) The mysterious screams, the talk of dark figures walking around at night and secret passages are either forgotten or given such little emphasis that there seems little point that the discovery of the secret wife was included at all. They should probably have just fully descended into the world of romantic comedy and had Jane catch Rochester in bed with Judi Dench. Bertha, who is seen for all of 2 minutes, is reduced to the mysterious figure who sets fire to a bed, stabs her brother and give Rochester a well-deserved slap. In the novel, she is feral and very dangerous; within the film she is just an annoyance that prevents Rochester from getting it on with his employees.

Whatever the film lacks in figurative darkness it certainly makes up for in literal darkness. As far as cinematography goes, it was an interesting choice to use as few lights as possible during filming. I realise we are meant to believe that we are witnessing events within the past but that I would have thought it was prudent to allow the audience the chance to see the magnificent sets and Yorkshire backdrop. Of course, this could just be a clever cinematographic attempt to represent the darkness within Thornfield and the unseen gothic feeling that was such an important part of the novel but wouldn’t dare accuse this film of something so clever/pretentious. I

Although, for what you can see of it, the film is visually stunning. Great use is made, during the opening scene, of the wild moors that surround Thornfield. The costumes are stunning and Dario Marianelli’s score is beautiful. In terms of artistic merit Jane Eyre really does deserve the amount of praise it received following its release. Fukunaga’s style is simplistic and understated. He lets the materials that he has at his fingertips do the work for him and it is beautiful. It is just a shame that  the main event, the love story, does not deserve it.

I guess, all in all, Jane Eyre is a decent enough film. The main actors both do commendable jobs that, had it not been for the fact that this is one of many adaptations, would have been satisfying. As it is indeed one in a vast ocean of similar works, this film fails to live up to the reputation of either the original material or the many others that have come before it. The main characters have been so greatly diminished that their love story doesn’t really stand out from the crowd. The film pretty much collapses under the weight of the reputation of its beloved and well-known characters. The ending (expertly mirrored in this review) is rushed and doesn’t offer an adequate resolution for the audience.

War Horse (2012)

Benedict Cumberbatch, drama, fucking magic horse, review, stage, Steven Spielberg, Tom Hiddleston, unintentionally funny, war

Before I even saw this film I objected to it. It’s kind of sad that Hollywood believes the only way to show a modern audience the true horror of the First World War is through the story of a boy and his horse. I mean the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth managed to keep all things equine out of it and still be an emotional fucking rollercoaster. I don’t think there’s anything that can be added to the horror of the real life events by putting a horse into the equation Especially when you don’t have the book’s ability to give the horse a voice or the amazing puppetry of the stage show to justify it. Still, I decided to watch it because, you know, Tom Hiddleston’s face is in it. And I’d watch anything that gave that a starring role.

Spielberg attempts to play the film as realistically as is possible for a narrative revolving around what, essentially, becomes a fucking magical horse. A horse that survives certain death through a mass of coincidences and a ridiculous amount of good luck. The film’s narrative begins in the horse, Joey’s, home in Devon where he is trained by Albert (Jeremy Irvine), the son of a wounded ex-soldier struggling to keep his farm afloat. The partnership between boy and horse is torn apart when war breaks out and Joey is sold to become a part of the war effort. What follows is his adventures through war-torn France where the horse moves between the British and German camps with an almost pleasant stop gap as a young French girl’s pet.

Producing a film from the point of view of a horse without the use of any type of voice-over is problematic. No matter how many fantastic stunts the horse can perform it is always just going to be a horse. Joey will never be able to react to the situations he finds himself in. The best we can hope for is that he stays in shot long enough to get the scene finished. This means that the main emotional emphasis within Joey’s story is placed upon the people he meets on the way. The acting is, for the most part, fantastic but, ultimately, this isn’t the story of the German soldiers, the French farmer or the Geordie private. This is Joey’s story. There is no real time to get engrossed in the human stories because they have to be wrapped up quickly in order to move Joey’s plot forward. It is a waste of such great talent and potential drama.

That is not to say that there are not moments of genius within the film itself. Spielberg is celebrated for his ability to create spectacular cinematic moments and there are some stunning single sequences that really do stand out. The most obvious being the cavalry charge taken from the point of view of the young Captain Nicholls, wonderfully portrayed by Tom Hiddleston. The camera focuses on his face as the young man comes to realise the devastating consequences of the fighting. It is a harrowing and truly emotional moment. There are other single Spielbergian visuals that provide moments of brilliance in what is otherwise a lame beast of a film. Take for example the stunning entrance of a character shown through his reflection in Joey’s eye. Then we have the scene towards the end of the film where a German and a British soldier come together in the middle of No Man’s Land to save the trapped horse. It is a scene that seems to sum up the whole film in managing to be both utterly preposterous and thoroughly entertaining.

That’s the main problem with this film; it has dual personalities. It doesn’t quite know whether it is a hard-hitting war film or a Disneyesque animal fantasy. The bi-polar narrative flits between moments of utter devastation and the constant reminders that Joey is a “miraculous” horse. The repeated emphasis on this special quality has the same effect that saying a single word over and over will have. By the end of the film, it has completely lost any meaning and becomes an unintentionally humorous plot point. To be honest, I laughed my way through this film. I doubt Spielberg would have approved. War Horse lacks any real dramatic punch thanks to its classification as a family film. Spielberg is always skirting close to the violence of war but, because it cannot be shown, the viewer remains detached from the human casualties. The cavalry scene is never able to reach the height of its emotional argument thanks to the fact that Spielberg is unwilling to show death on screen. Instead it is alluded to with cuts between the loud and furious charge with silent, blurry images of riderless horses galloping off into the trees. Rather than finding it harrowing, I found it fucking funny.

It was always going to be difficult to suggest the mindless violence that defined the war without being able to show the loss of young lives on screen. We have a film that is focused on the survival of its animal star instead of the loss of its supporting human cast. Therefore, the deaths come thick and fast but have little, if any, emotional impact. From a director who gave us the gritty realism of warfare in Saving Private Ryan, War Horse becomes nothing more than Homeward Bound 3: Lost in No Man’s Land.