Heading Upstream

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2014 has really kicked off and I’ve just about managed to land back on my feet. Family gatherings, society trips, meetings, spreadsheets, phone calls and films – all these rudiments of my life have been thoroughly active these last two weeks.

Now is the chance to sit back, type and reflect on the great films that I’ve managed to see – unfortunately 12 Years a Slave is not one of them (I haven’t seen it yet)! Instead, these last two weeks have been full of cartoons and animations. However, watching Toy Story on repeat with my little cousin certainly isn’t a complaint. He’s got good taste.

This last weekend, included 24 hours on a coach (to and from Amsterdam) – a great chance to reflect on life and revisit some great films. Unfortunately, the coach was packed with girls aged approx. 20 who do seem to love a good chick flick. After bringing Kill Bill 1 & 2 on DVD and voting for a double bill, my arm was the only sole standing. The film Bridesmaids was cast next and all hands rocketed – outvoted 40 to 1.

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Never mind, I still managed to see some intriguing films… alone. My film of the week (3 & 4 combined) is Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color. I’ve been catching up with some indie frontrunners from 2013, including Fruitvale Station and Short Term 12, but Upstream color is truly intriguing and vastly impressive as Carruth is practically a ‘one-man band’ filmmaker.

You don’t want to try too hard to make sense of this film; otherwise you may get a little lost. Let yourself be absorbed by the bizarre images and the woozy, dreamlike passages of narrative.

This film is about a love affair that takes place in a disorientated cityscape, which is beautifully shot in a vast array of bleached out colours and overexposed lighting. However, there is also an enigmatic figure at play, a criminal who tests peoples DNA and cultivates weird experiments, injecting whatever it is he uncovers into his pigs. He also happens to be an electronic sound composer who finds new and interesting ways to record creative music. This tense music is often juxtaposed with the reality of Kris’s life and her love affair. Kris is also a victim of the mysterious figure, making her life even more perplexing and mesmerizing.

The sequences in Upstream Color play out in parallel and we strive to detect similarities in the profligate crosscutting. There is a sense of the extraterrestrial at bay. One way or another, this film is just a fascinating pulsation of ideas mixed with wonderful sounds and images. Although, Carruth’s designs may appear derived from Cronenberg and Malick, his filmmaking is superfluous and breathes fresh and freaky air in a dawn were most is dry.

Fruitvale Station – This film will choke you

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MOVIE REVIEW

Fruitvale Station
OG Project, Significant Productions, US
85 Min
1.85:1
Release US: 26th July 2013

DIR Ryan Coogler
EXEC Michael Y. Chow
PROD Forest Whitaker, Nina Yang
SCR Ryan Coogler
DP Rachel Morrison
CAST Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer, Melonie Diaz, Ahna O’Reilly

Sincerely powerful, it reminded me of John Singleton’s Boyz N The Hood. These films are both earnest, striking and magnificent directorial debuts. Directed by Ryan Coogler, Fruitvale Station is highly ambitious, it is for the hardened hearts and Coogler has articulated his deep-rooted connection with the story flawlessly. The film is based on the real-life tragic shooting that happened at Fruitvale Station on the New Year’s Eve of 2009. This irrefutable piece of reality haunts the film and makes it duly hard to watch. Yet, you are transfixed.

Oscar Grant, a 22 year-old man with lots of feelings, cares for many people and many people care for him. We spend New Years Eve with Oscar as he goes about his daily routine, struggling and searching over the various obstacles that many working-class people face. This is the side of the story that Coogler has decided to tell. SPOLIER. It is the day leading up to the death of young Oscar Grant.

We sample Oscar’s daily life; we get caught up in his agitated world. Michael B. Jordan gives a brilliant performance as Oscar, and understands the prejudice history that exists within the borders of the Bay Hill area. Nonetheless he gets on with daily life and is determined to make a difference. He doesn’t necessarily care about what others think of him, he has the “don’t give a fuck attitude”, but this doesn’t make him a thug. It is the territory of young and black cinema, as was the term coined for the work of Spike Lee. It is promising that Coogler will have more heartfelt stories to tell that will contribute the past thirty years call for social justice in media, popular culture and sadly life.

Oscar is clearly troubled but events in his life. He wishes to share his inner burdens with others, he has a lot of close mates, but it is his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz) and mother (Octavia Spencer) who come through as most compassionate. Despite past hiccups, the family gets together and celebrates New Year’s Eve without controversy and with great empathy, as it is also Oscar’s mother’s birthday. The family is “lifted up” by God, as spoken by the radiant mother. It is soul-destroying when she blames the tragedy on herself. She only wanted her “baby” to do what would seemingly be safest: catching the BART train to town, rather than drink driving.

The cinematography is closing in, the train is entering Fruitvale Station, and my heart is already pounding. The scenes in which the incident takes place are harrowing and expertly crafted. It is mayhem and for no alleged reason; this is the lunacy of the incident. I’ve never quite felt so strung and wounded by the cinema.

This film deserves mass attention and should be honored for its courage.

5/5 stars

Watch the trailer below:

August: Osage County – 2014 is shaping up to be a wild year at the movies!

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MOVIE REVIEW

August: Osage County
Jean Doumanian Productions, US
130 Mins
2.35:1
Release UK: 24th January 2014

DIR John Wells
EXEC Celia D. Costas, Claire Rudnick Polstein
PROD George Clooney, Jean Doumanian, Grant Heslov, Steve Traxler, Harvey Weinstein
SCR Tracy Letts
DP Adriano Goldman
CAST Benedict Cumberbatch, Abigail Breslin, Ewan McGregor, Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, Juliette Lewis, Dermot Mulroney, Sam Shepard, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale

If you enjoy watching family dysfunction on screen, then August: Osage County is heaven at your door step. This film offers incredible performances, flamboyant set-pieces and a story that certainly won’t leave you hungry. If you have the energy to sit back and absorb a powerful and fiery set of performances then this film is perfect for you, if you don’t, then the film is still perfect.

Adapted from the Tracy Letts play of the same name, August: Osage County is his third to reach the screen, following William Freidkin’s films Bug and Killer Joe. On the surface, it may seem like his most straightforward piece, however beneath it rests the most perverse and violent truths. The Weston clan are a family located in the heart of Osage County, situated in the northern territory of Oklahoma. They are a family who withhold a panorama of unfulfilled lives and who do the most unforgettable things to one another. They’ve all gone a bit mad, but for reasons that are surprisingly rational.

Meryl Streep plays Violet, the electrifying woman of the household; she has mouth cancer and takes rather too many pills of varying extremities. She is one of the greatest characters I can remember ever seeing on the screen or stage; I’ll never forget Streep’s fine performance of her either. One minute she’s wearing a frightening black wig and bulging sunglasses, the next she is cursing uncontrollably and at other times she is a sweet and affectionate mother. She is always at the centre of attention though and nothing ever slips by her, as she says repeatedly.

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Following up this astounding performance is Julia Roberts’s first big appearance for some time. She plays a confused, concerned and aging woman who seems dumbfounded by her family (who isn’t?), but at the same time she is clearly petrified of turning into her mother. She looks perfect in the role, her beauty trembling away as her character has to harden to various circumstances. Other members of the cast include Juliette Lewis, Abigail Breslin, Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Chris Cooper, Dermot Mulroney and Margo Martindale; it truly is a stand of ovation.

John Wells directs the film, he is best known for having produced some small-screen spectacles such as ER, Shameless and The West Wing. Despite not being a natural feature film director per se, his achievement here is mightily impressive. The tricky task of adapting a stage play is creating a satisfactory boundary between not feeling stagebound and remaining cinematically expressive. Wells does this by maintaining an integral claustrophobia within the characters and setting without making it completely stagebound; one is reminded of Hitchcock’s brilliant achievement with Dial M for Murder. The film is also shot magnificently within a hazy half-lit house suggesting all the dark demeanours that have come and gone and the vast out-back of Osage County is exposed it its full glory. Wells has managed to make this film highly stylized; I couldn’t imagine a better cinematic treatment for this play.

So what is it that renders this film as a must see? For me, it is the characters captivating complexity and development throughout the script, the mighty fine performances and the generally striking production.

5/5 stars

Watch the trailer below:

The Wolf of Wall Street – “I always wanted to be a broker”

Leonardo Dicaprio in The Wolf Of Wall Street

MOVIE REVIEW

The Wolf of Wall Street
Sikilia Productions, Red Granite Pictures et al, US
179 Min

2.35:1
Release UK: 17th January 2014

DIR Martin Scorsese
EXEC Georgia Kacandes, Alexandra Milchan, Irwin Winkler
PROD Riza Aziz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Joey McFarland, Martin Scorsese, Emma Tillinger Koskoff
SCR Terence Winter, Jordan Belfort
DP Rodrigo Prieto
CAST Leonardo DiCaprio, Matthew McConaughey, Jon Bernthal, Jonah Hill, Kyle Chandler, Margot Robbie

This film really excites me. Martin Scorsese is ‘back’ and more prevalent than ever. Not that he ever really left, his recent films Hugo, Shutter Island, The Departed etc. have all been fantastic and full of Scorsese, but The Wolf of Wall Street truly reverberates the man we love. There are vast swirling sets, sweeping cameras, explosive/implosive characters, assertive narratives told with an expressive pace, brimming bag of laughs and a wicked sense of underlying controversy. Scorsese is truly extraordinary at understanding and communicating his visual language: cinema.

“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” Ray Liotta as Henry Hill at the start of Goodfellas is distinctively comparable to Di Caprio’s Jordan Belfort’s opening confession: “The year I turned 26, I made 49 million dollars, which really pissed me off because it was three shy of a million a week.” Both characters can be interpreted as zealous apprentice wise guys. Belfort and Hills’ journeys are strikingly similar, though Belfort is in the stock market as a supercharged salesman on Wall Street and Hill is pursuing ruthless trades with gangsters on the street in Brooklyn. They both learn the ropes early on, initially innocent. This is soon surpassed by a fast rise through the ranks and become fixated with work, drugs and girls. Who would have thought gangsters and brokers would be so alike?

What everything boils down to for Belfort, is tasting the sweet smell of success. But, like most over-their-head entrepreneurs, he can’t get enough of the taste, even when he knows the feds are beginning to tread on his back. Lets talk about Di Caprio’s performance here for a second, mind-blowing. It could be the performance of his career, but that can be said for most Di Caprio performances, he is a great actor. However, as Belfort, Di Caprio has really unleashes a charismatic turn as he swings and swaggers through the frame. He was as invigorating and magnetic as Al Pacino playing Tony Montana in Scarface.

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Of course, the soundtrack is entertaining and always tipping and topping and the editing is high-powered and frenetic making all the hustle and bustle seem ten times as ferocious. Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese’s long-term editing partner, has some interesting comments to say in this February’s issue of Sight & Sound. “Marty’s guiding principle in all his films is to never tell the audience what to think, but to make them engage with what they’re seeing and hearing.” As I touched upon earlier, this is Scorsese letting us engage in his visual language how we see fit, he is a master and commander of visual communication.

There is a particular scene in the film that I wish to note in this heady review. It involves Di Caprio dragging his face along a concrete floor and rolling down a flight of steps, literally. I won’t explain why, but it has to be the most hilarious scene I can ever recall seeing in cinema. “Marty was delighted to see that the actors could all improvise beautifully, and so he made the daring choice to give them lots of freedom to do that.” (Schoonmaker). Most certainly! The improvisation in this film gives it a fresh outlook whilst retaining a remarkably existent presence.

Lastly, it is important to recognize that this film is an absolute rarity for Hollywood. The Wolf of Wall Street should be cherished and watched over and over, with laughs becoming ever greater. It is a bold screwball comedy about the state of America, then and now, and it is, therefore, not your typical Hollywood package. And, neither is a three-hour film where every frame and beat is wild and virile with a lifetime’s accumulated genius.

If this film came out in 2013, it would be side-by-side with the other three-hour epic at my number one spot, Blue is the Warmest Colour. Lets hope there’s something else this year that can match the wolf; I’m looking in your direction 12 Years a Slave.

5/5 stars

Watch the trailer below:

Short Term 12 – Heartwarming and Heartwrenching

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MOVIE REVIEW

Short Term 12
Animal Kingdom, Traction Media, US
96 Min
1.85:1
Release UK: 1st November 2013

DIR Destin Cretton
EXEC Frederick W. Green, David Kaplan
PROD Joshua Astrachan, Asher Goldstein, Ron Najor, Maren Olson
SCR Destin Cretton
DP Brett Pawlak
CAST Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever

Short Term 12 gives itself time to take shape, but once we are on board it ends up becoming greatly powerful and passionate in its telling of vast emotional intricacy, determination and resonance. It is a simple film on paper, but overwhelmingly deep in life, body and soul. It is a heartwarming film and a heart wrenching film. By the end, we have a big smile on our faces and see that our characters’ lives come full circle for the best intentions. You can’t expect or want more from this film.

Brie Larson gives a most natural performance as Grace who is in general charge of the facility, though she is not the boss, a psychologist or even a therapist. She is simply a friendly, kind and interactive role model for these hardened kids. Larson has been a gem on the indie screen for the last few years and she certainly has a long and lustrous career ahead of her. She carries the show here.

What is so wonderful about this film is that we get to meet and follow more than one resident’s story. This isn’t a plot overdrive, everything adds up justifiably and we should, in fact, be grateful. The film is perceived to avoid the loophole of sentimentality and offer a window into convincing and manifold characters. Destin Daniel Cretton, the director, reportedly worked as a staff member at a place such like the one shown in Short Term 12. This shows through his material and ability to bring together multiple stories with such fluency and emotional impact. He ensures his characters are worthy of love and attention.

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A new arrival to the foster home, Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) seems to be one of the most deeply troubled, and is a ‘cutter’ as they call it. It is through Jaydan that we learn more about Grace’s dark past, as they strike a sweet and subtle connection with one another. One may doubt Grace’s ability to stand in the position of authority that she holds; Grace is yet to see closure with her own issues, but she is great at what she does through her kindness of heart. It’s no surprise why she does this job: she doesn’t want anyone to have to suffer the same way she did.

Due to her deeply routed internal struggles, Grace struggles to give real intimacy; she cannot commit and is prone to sudden emotional bursts that seem completely irrelevant at the time. This is obviously a problem for her boyfriend of three years, Mason (John Gallagher Jr.). Mason is a nice guy and does exceedingly well not to grab his bags and head for the hills; he will fight for what he believes in. Mason tells two wonderful stories that act as opening and closure for the film. One is funny and sets the day-to-day tone of conversation and spirit in the workplace, whereas the other is one of inspiration and romance that ends the picture suggesting that all the characters have taken a path of elevation.

5/5 stars

Watch the trailer below:

Enough Said – It is quietly brilliant

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MOVIE REVIEW

Enough Said
Likely Story, Fox Searchlight, US
93 Min
1.85:1
Release UK: 18th October 2013

DIR Nicole Holofcener
EXEC Chrisann Verges
PROD Stefanie Azpiazu, Anthony Bregman
SCR Nicole Holofcener
DP Xavier Pérez Grobet
CAST Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Catherine Keener, James Gandolfini, Toni Collette, Ben Falcone

This movie falls under the widely insufferable romantic comedy genre, yet it is so much more than that (otherwise this review simply would not exist). This film is a touching and wonderfully composed love story of a newly found middle-aged couple. Of course, there are various complications, but they are largely unforeseen. The writing is intelligent and the humour is pleasantly subtle and entertaining. Likewise, the social commentary is thoroughly engaging whilst being highly perceptive; this film almost becomes fascinating to watch.

The director, Nicole Holofcener, explores relationships in a mature and authentic manner providing a territory in a world that we wholly recognize. Enough Said is no exception, and may be her best work to date. This is held together by the two brilliant and fresh performances from James Gandolfini and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Gandolfini retires from playing a hit man or a mobster and delivers a delicate performance of a middle-aged man (Albert) falling in love. Meanwhile, Louis-Dreyfus is utterly compelling as a middle-aged woman (Eva) who is unsure of a lot of things, including love. Albert and Eva are funny, smart and weary of the world around them. Therefore, they discover unexpected pleasure when they find themselves merging in a world where romance seems dead.

The scenes in which Albert and Eva get to know each other are delightful miniatures of emotional familiarity. They strike a cord; a cord that has clearly been twisted and bruised in the past, but has now sprung to life. They are on the same wavelength. It is joyful to watch.

Ultimately, this movie simmers down to a message of love: it shows us how rare love is and that we need to grab it and not let go.

4/5 stars

Watch the trailer below: