Magic in the Moonlight – It is Woody Allen, that’s all.

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Magic in the Moonlight (US, 2014)

UK Release by Sony Pictures Classics – 19th September 2014

Written and Directed by Woody Allen

Brief Synopsis: A profound romantic comedy about a pessimistic yet largely successful magician sent to unmask a likely fraud in the South of France.

Woody Allen manages to dispel a number of his perilous qualms surrounding mortality and the meaning of life into this loveably quotable and highly imaginative little picture. My favourite line from the film being: “You’re born, you commit on crime, and then you’re sentenced to death.” It is simply a delight for fans. There is ample intelligence to be sourced beneath the dialogue and turn of events in this film; it is a lesson in existentialism and it will open up a wonder of insightful queries for your mind to dwell on (but, don’t dwell for too long!). There are illustrious characters in tasteful dramatic conflict, elegant costumes, classy music, amiable and warm cinematography and just about whatever else you’d expect from Allen. However, if you aren’t a fan of Allen’s work, forget it, you will hate the film!

The plot is straightforward and the twist is undeniable, but this is no reason not to seep with enjoyment. In this case, one can know what to expect from Allen and that be the pure reason for the enjoyment. The charm and wit of his filmmaking is on show and it is an admirable trait, so thoroughly grounded in his vast body of work that we can forgive the odd slip-up and count it for bonus points.

Colin Firth plays the pessimistic magician who acts as we imagine Allen himself would; the character evidently explores Allen’s feelings and beliefs, as every good writer hopes to achieve through their characterisation. Firth is cast well and acts with the clear self-loathing and doubt that is needed for the typically unfriendly hermit. Although, I continue to struggle with his persona, the sly appearance that finds its way into all his films. However, it fits the character here, so the traits merge rather uncannily. Every turning point for Firth is leaps and bounds and one might feel a gurgle of over-acting, yet in the world of this hopeless world, the latter becomes manageable and a flamboyant image of the 20s. At times, I would have found the film more appealing if Allen had taken on the role, no doubt he would have been flapping all over the place, but he might have carried off the part with greater conviction (because he would be playing himself). This reminds me of Kenneth Branagh’s performance of an Allen archetype in Celebrity, which was spot-on; unfortunately, with Firth that isn’t the case so you have to give him an alternate epitome.

Emma Stone, dare I say, is somewhat divine in her portrayal of the young socialite spirit seeker. She is the perfect gauge of timid and alluring. Every subtle gesture can be read a number of ways, and it becomes clear that everyone is falling head over heels for her intriguing ways. There is the comedy that Stone brings to the character that excels; one can imagine a young woman travelling away from America in the 20s to be having just as much fun and commotion. Her obsessive admirer and the rest of his family are catastrophically ludicrous and provide much amusement in the way of tantalising prose and burlesque behaviour. Allen’s characters always sound wildly fictitious, yet they frankly resonate in conveying the truth behind certain ways of human beings and thus implement profound meanings. This makes a film special, and for me it is what makes Allen’s so enthralling.

There is a curious substance in Allen’s films that is hard to expound, it is neatly wrapped up in his pictures; the ingredient might be a direct belief explicated to the audience but without the bite; it is a piece of an artists integrity. Allen’s genius has not wavered despite what many critics say; the Allen that many of us know and love is still there to enjoy and explore further, as every new picture entails. I believe audiences get lazy when an artist grows old; I say stop reminiscing over Annie Hall and view each picture in the light of a fresh or, rather, more refined soul. Magic in the Moonlight explores the meaning of life and its inexplicable possibilities more head on than ever before; one way of looking at it is that the poor man still has no answers to life and its multifarious frustrations!

4.5/5 

Pride – Are you proud to be British?

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Pride (UK, 2014)

UK Release by Pathé – 12th September 2014

Directed by Matthew Warchus 

Brief Synopsis: It is London in the summer of 1984 and it is time for change. A young group of Gay UK activists develop a group to support the Mineworkers strike happening across the nation, it is a long-shot but they soon find a struggling local community in Wales and raise enough money to support them. There is controversy and plenty of chaos to ensue.  

What a triumph! Not only for the British film industry as an entity, but for everyone involved: a fabulous ensemble cast and spectacular craftsmen. Notably, Anthony Radcliffe’s cinematography boasts great aerial shots of Wales, the M4 and Westminster; they certainly wet our appetites for what Britain has to offer.

The film is not just good looks on all fronts, it has deep meaning and certain truths about the ways of life that are fully enlightened by pitch-perfect and dynamic performances. These performances are complemented by charming set pieces and a fruitful, rich and shipshape storyline. The story crusades through the life of each individual and sheds a bright light on equality and justice, standing up for what you believe in, whether grand and political or simply within the checks of personal life. Of course, the film does have a big political message, and everything stems from the political encounters, yet I would still argue that it is fundamentally a film about friendship; friendship should not be taken for granted and it is one of the most important and valuable possessions we have to live our lives as human beings.

Think big, aim small is an interesting motto that I take away from this film. It is depicted in the film via the progress of the highly entrepreneurial and outlandish group LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners). They think big; it is 1984 and so, after all, being homosexual promptly indicates that you are a radical. However, it is only when one of the members of LGSM realises that they must make a small step to begin with (by supporting an individual village suffering from the strike rather than the entire nation of miners) that results happen and the pieces begin to fit together. There are setbacks along the way of course, but the previous small steps taken provide a counter balance. In this sense, the film is a series of events exploring the equilibrium of relationships. A number of sub-plots work themselves tightly into the script, each plot a slightly different approach to the relationship equilibrium; it is wonderful writing. Yet, and this should always be the case, we are interacting with a visual medium so it is the actors who must garner most of this credit. They play their characters with joy, temperament and with the fluidity you’d expect from the theatre to create a respectable portrait of life. It is directing, casting and performance at their most cohesive and talented. I am very excited to see what work the future holds for Matthew Warchus.

Not to be mistaken, Pride is full of laughs and each segment of comedy blends naturally into place without interrupting the flow of drama or force behind these devices. Your emotions will be allowed to take the full circle; they will spark every basic feeling and consequent thoughts of acknowledgement, belief and certainly nostalgia. The film is complete: it has told a factual story with wit, intelligence and all the pleasure you’d expect from an indulgent piece of fiction. It dramatises to logical and even insightful conclusions and it delivers 110% on craft.

A final remark, whilst the film was a tremendously joyous and thoughtful experience, do not make the mistake of believing its surface naivety. Of course, its characters want to believe they can change the world, that is true of them, so expect a bit of farce from the homosexuals. I am largely a pessimist, and even I didn’t become frustrated and managed to overlook the latter; the reality you are searching for lies a fraction behind the curtain. I loved it.

5/5

A Most Wanted Man – An important film just not very good.

hoffman-wanted-manA Most Wanted Man (UK, 2014)

UK Release by Momentum Pictures – 12th September 2014

Directed by Anton Corbijn 

Brief Synopsis: A private detective and his team are located in Hamburg and concentrate their efforts on the international war on terror. When a Chechen Muslim illegally immigrates to Hamburg, all forces become caught up in a case of vast interest and importance. 

A Most Wanted Man is happy to plod along and cover every little detail resulting in a rather stodgy and belated middle act. Yet, we still wish to anticipate every movement with excitement even if a fulfilling reply isn’t lurking around the corner. I believe a sustainable interest is largely due to the relevance of this films nature; it is a powerful encapsulation of the international war on terror. But, for the rousing territory of film, it is a minor nutshell; it becomes a shallow grave with no soil; there is no shovel for each character; the chemistry vanishes. And, whilst the ending is somewhat refreshing for the big screen, it places them and us exactly where we left off.

I do not doubt Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s brilliance; he is the parcel, the entire package. His character Gunther offers a bundle of subtle feelings if we can be open to their interpretation. The problem is I feel as though Corbijn simply hasn’t given Hoffman enough to play with other than a cigarette that appears in every shot. His character is morose, monotone and clearly reaching the edge of a hopeless spindle. Yet, I could watch Hoffman on screen for hours on end, passion seeps through his performance and allows the character to continue picking away at his work. I would mention life in replace of work, but it appears his life simply is work; although, there is one domestic scene in which Hoffman plays the piano late one night, it is surprisingly powerful and suggests a buried artist underneath the tough, worn skin. Whatever else is buried certainly makes a much-needed appearance in the final scene of the film; no matter how stale parts of the film may be, we will never forgot this (his – Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s) very last scene.

I wish Daniel Bruhl was given more screen-time, he was magnificent in Rush yet here he is a pawn whose character gets to watch the CCTV and mutter a few lines. Rachel McAdams feels miscast as the social lawyer ‘in too deep’; she acts well, but frankly she is too beautiful for such a role, I don’t know, I just didn’t believe her. Willem Dafoe is always worthy, but the rest of the cast feels flat and partially idiotic at times. Lets just say, this team of private detectives would get busted in five seconds. Not to mention, the infuriating accents, it gets worse: in a couple of scenes they switch to German – one or the other please! Preferably, an all-German cast speaking German if the movie is set there and meant to be German civilians. I am reminded of the terrible accents in The Book Thief that could have been great; for me it ruins the authenticity in a picture.

The films pace and overall aesthetic feels uneven and without a clear direction. One shot might be handheld with a fast edit and the next an entirely rigged shot with a long take. This can work of course, but the complexion of this film either made things slower or overtly confusing when they should be simple. In other words, it doesn’t do anything to suggest or further the director’s vision. The narrative waves in and out, it thus keeps us on our toes, but it appears for all the wrong reasons. It is inevitable that watching Hoffman stagger across the screen is enough to fill the holes and happily get the viewer through the picture. It is a haunting feeling that when the credits roll, the realisation is goodbye.. a fine farewell for the man either way. An interesting point for me, the fact that his performance made me believe he was alive (in real life) as I was watching him is somehow a testament to what a great actor he is.

3/5

 

Before I go to Sleep – It deserves an audience, but not a place in the history books

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Before I go to Sleep (UK, 2014)

UK Release by StudioCanal – 5th September 2014

Directed by Rowan Joffe

Brief Synopsis: Christine Lucas wakes up feeling exactly the same every morning: confused as to her whereabouts and believing she is still in her twenties. She is only able to store information for a day, but soon begins to seek terrifying truths in her life when her psychiatrist gives her the upper hand. 

Credit is due for Nicole Kidman who continues to take on interesting and challenging roles (Grace of Monaco, The Railway Man, Stoker, The Paperboy), or rather she isn’t afraid of a bit of independent spirit. Admittedly, Grace of Monaco and The Railway Man are largely forgetful, but her elegance and depth as an actress is always current. Here we find her playing Christine who is battling with daily memory loss, a role that shows off Kidman’s effectual paranoid traits evident in The Others. It isn’t Memento and it isn’t Spellbound, but it isn’t entirely insensible either. The film leaks a steady rush of adrenaline in the viewer and will continue to trick them, even if the twist finale does come with a slight pinch of salt.

What I find most appraising is the achievement by Rowan Joffe to get this project off the ground (or quite literally the page) and boast British talent from Ben Davis’s noteworthy cinematography that plays on every axis to Melanie Oliver’s watertight editing. The project clearly had international backing with Sweden (Filmgate), France (StudioCanal) and Millennium Films in the US all packing their heat. Although, Ridley Scott’s Scott Free Productions involvement does a great deed to make this film British, or does it? Who knows, at least we get to see it over a month before the US! London is also on great show with wide-shots of the city from the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. The British weather is also heralded with rain more often than not and a remote house in the woods, where most of the action takes place, provides the complimentary backdrop; this is a thriller after all.

Whilst the film doesn’t dig deep enough to obtain a meaningful psychological existence in the viewer, it does highlight the importance of keeping a healthy brain (or mind rather) and how intolerable it must be for one without so. The condition here labels Christine as an amnesiac, in fact, this is clearly reiterated throughout, though it induces efficacious reality in the viewer more than it does frustration. Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth’s chemistry rightly demonstrates the dedication and audacity needed to live such a banishing lifestyle. Here, Colin Firth as the sinister husband of Christine, Ben, is thankfully somewhat more infusing than usual; lets just say it is more daring and the emotion far more vivid and certainly less pretentious than his abominable portrayal of Eric in The Railway Man and even more so Harry Deane in Gambit. I nevertheless, highly anticipate Firth’s role in Woody Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight, lets see if Allen can make good of him.

The plot in Before I go to Sleep thickens fast, yet one is always aware of where it will lead even if the ending is far more sentimental than I had expected; a sharper note would have brought the picture to a close with far more substance. Still, good performances on show (Mark Strong is also admirable as Doctor Nash) and a definite watch for psychological thriller fans, just don’t expect it to make any of your top ten lists.

3/5

 

Night Moves – An atmospheric gem

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Night Moves (US, 2013)

UK Release by Soda Pictures – 29th August 2014

Directed by Kelly Reichardt

Brief Synopsis: Three environmentalists turn radical in taking on the biggest protest of their lives; they battle their conscience and try to remain ethical in what becomes a very unsettling environment. 

I am no skeptic to the fact that this thriller is slow-paced, but it is more than calculated for by the intensely paranoid and highly energetic performance from Jesse Eisenberg as Josh, the radical environmentalist with a conscience too great for his own good. As the events unfold, and they do in great depth, the film promotes a totally immersive character study of Josh and reveals the true depth of his concern, guilt and all the other distressing facets that lay beneath the surface. This exploitation of subtext allows the viewer to fully engage their imagination on feeling his every emotion. Point of view shots chart Josh’s every move, we see exactly what he sees: ordinary lives passing by, and yet with every inch of movement there is the sense that something drastic may happen. And here’s the paradox, when there is a dramatic climax, it appears no different, life remains at the same pace and the nightmare continues. This is psychological depth.

Dakota Fanning and Peter Saasgard make up the team and give equally intriguing performances as wannabe radicals. Saasgard is particularly endangering and the conflict between the three is taut with absolute playwright precision. Driven by passion and nerve, or perhaps idiocy of the innocent, they set off on this weekend journey that will greatly alter their lives; the viewer will be side by side for every encounter and feel every nuance of angst and occasional fortitude felt by the characters/actors.

What appears so liberating about Reichardt’s direction is that she allows and clearly encourages the actors to appreciate and grasp an eclectic sense of their time and space, their surrounding environment (or set if you will). The actors are wholly aware of the world they are living in, and thus its components (for example, objects, space) to counterbalance their characters emotions and expression. Consequently, the actor truly becomes one with the world they are living. For example, Reichardt will show Josh working alongside others who are more productive, or she will counterbalance Josh’s silence and reflection with active participants going about their morning affairs; the contrast between Josh’s deep thought and everyone else’s peace of mind couldn’t be more powerful. This is no new discovery for directors, or audiences alike, and these are largely subtleties, but Reichardt has dissected a truly powerful film when it may have otherwise been quite simply a tedious tale. In other words, Josh/Jesse is complemented by factors allowing him to magnify his intricacy of emotion.

There is no sense of urgency in the script; a single event must be explored in great detail for the film to work the way it does. Yet, a paradox is that the visual analogy is one of great urgency and this is made possible by the magical chemistry between the cast. And further still, within this straight-lined exploration lie indefinite truths; each character has a dark shadow and at times it is up for the audience to decide for themselves (did that actually happen?). Cinema can show things, but rarely can it make up your mind for you; such is the truth of well-directed pictures.

It may not satisfy everyone’s attention for fast-cut action, but it will never suggest such a method and neither will it attempt to expand on any sub-plot. This is not a derogative, you could argue the film supersedes any need for it, the imagination can replace such need: it knows what action may avail, it can picture the prevailing action and it can design a feeling of compelling either way. The mind is key.

4.5/5

The Guest – A delicious guilty pleasure

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The Guest – US, 2014

UK Release by Icon Film Distribution – 5th September 2014

Directed by Adam Wingard

Brief Synopsis: In what is fundamentally a new spawn of Stoker, a hard-hitting solider fools a family into welcoming him into their home. The rather intense accidents that follow are no coincidence.. 

One may initially ponder why they bothered to make the effort, but Dan Stevens and the atypical character he plays called David will soon keep you entranced. David, at first, is presented as the lad prototype, the guy who gets all the girls and beats up the bullies, but he soon becomes far more than this, he is bound to a complexity and his presence becomes mysterious. He shows no purpose or desire; it appears that he even has to pretend to become excited when a beautiful young woman rides half-naked on top of him. Then, in an instance, the territory switches and the scales rise, although we are never quite sure what to believe and Wingard successfully lets us play with our imaginations throughout and beyond.

At times, the film reminds me of Quentin Tarantino’s work because we find ourselves connecting with an unlawful character that moves across the screen with sufficient pardon. Not to mention the outbursts of violence and borderline parody that is often adopted. The music is also explosive and dynamic in its use of sound effects that bridge the action effectively; the tone is close to becoming a pulp bonanza. There are inevitably loose areas in such a film that attempts to play its audience around, but plot holes are looped with bullets and captivating face expressions. There is a hint towards David’s real background, but it is largely bumped of as one of these experiments gone wrong; we are left to imagine and the realm of science fiction is certainly on the cards. The last shot of the film will let you decide for yourself on the latter.

Both Brendan Meyer, the awkward son of the family, and his sister, played by Maika Monroe (definitely one to watch as they say) are terrific and give the believable performances that are needed alongside the taut David. They are the necessary sounding board for the temptation and animosity that Stevens brings to David. He indulges in their affairs for better or worse and ignites in them quite a life experience to behold. It can get pretentious, but hold out as you will be entertained and this film will make you think, despite what its marketing campaign may suggest.

4.5/5