Starred Up – A Revelation of Talents

Starred_Up

MOVIE REVIEW

Starred Up
Film4, Sigma Films et al, GB
106 Mins
UK Release: 21st March 2014

Director David Mackenzie
Producer Gillian Berrie
Screenwriter Jonathan Asser
Cinematographer Michael McDonough 
Cast Jack O’Connell, Rupert Friend, Ben Mendelsohn, Sam Spruell

It is raw, vicious and compelling, David Mackenzie has boiled up a British prison drama (our take on A Prophet) to please the tough skinned and humanist hunters, but also the subtle and complex. It is a sharp-toothed affair with the peak of human hostility on offer, yet Mackenzie brings his direction to, ultimately, what is a stirring and touching family drama, be it the cliché of a father-son relationship (interestingly, it is biological).

Mackenzie does not shy away from the jargon of high-risk convicts; the “c” word is used countless times alongside a myriad of crudeness and repulsive deeds. Whilst, this may sound off-putting for some, it is compulsory for the realist approach Mackenzie takes in order to effectively portray this nitty-gritty prison drama.

The film begins and our Starred Up teenager (19 years of age) Eric (played by the rising star Jack O’Connell) is stripped down and moved to his new cell. Immediately, we are immersed in the prison environment, which is to remain so claustrophobic for the entire rest of the movie. Mackenzie likes to linger, and his camera scrutinizes Eric, it penetrates his soul and then it unleashes the animal before our eyes. It soon becomes clear of Eric’s troubles and expertise, if you like, at his exertion of frolicking and literally pounding his opposition. What may sound excessive is in fact highly believable. The screenwriter, Jonathan Asser, draws on his experience as a therapist (similar to the character of Oliver played by Rupert Friend) to shape the immersive world. Yet, more importantly, the cast and the entire ensemble give superb performances that yearn for unfathomable insight from the audience. The question swiftly develops, do we sympathize with Eric, or is he simply a lost cause, as Governor Hayes (Sam Spruell) likes to believe?

The answer is that we wish to understand Eric’s behaviour and jaunt along with him; indeed his traumatic childhood is discussed and his inept father evident. Jack O’Connell’s performance is something of a revelation, composed one minute, explosive the next; his character turns all the emotions one might expect to see from a disfigured adolescent. Neville, the father, played by Ben Mendelsohn, is a distressed and colossally troubled character. I could watch Mendelsohn continually perform and find him evermore impressive and enthralling. The two meet each other as their match, Neville the assumed prison superior and Jack the ‘rising star’ battle it out through love, hate, jealousy and sheer animosity. The love broods through the fortification and intrinsic self-possession of a father for his child, this is present in a climax scene that exposes the shock and corruption of prison-life.

It is great to see Film4 head the funds of yet another successful British film where acting and filmmaking talents are so vivid. Don’t let this film slip under the radar, as it nearly did for myself. Eric is waiting for your support.

4/5 stars

Watch the trailer below:

Jeune & Jolie – Francois Ozon is staking out impressive territory in the cinema

young&beautiful_01

MOVIE REVIEW

Jeune & Jolie (Young & Beautiful)
Mandarin Films, France
94 Min
1.85:1
UK Release: 29th November 2013

DIR François Ozon
PROD Eric Altmayer, Nicolas Altmayer
SCR François Ozon
DP Pascal Marti
CAST Marine Vacth, Géraldine Pailhas, Frédéric Pierrot, Charlotte Rampling

Just when you thought there’d been enough fascination with teenage girls’ coming of age in the cinema, François Ozon’s Young & Beautiful (Jeune & Jolie) comes along. Ozon’s provocative and vibrant tendencies are far from asleep in this wonderful and intriguing exploration of a 17-year-old girl’s malicious entry into the world of prostitution. The film instantly reminded me of Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour where Catherine Deneuvre, playing a frigid housewife, also steps willfully into the enraptured trade. However, of course, Ozon is far less ambiguous and detached as Bunuel, taking the situation into far more emotionally challenging places, heralded by the stunning performance from the young and beautiful Marin Vacth.

The film begins with a provocative shot of Isabelle (Vacth), our heroine, on the beach in her bikini, seen through the lens of peering binoculars. It then becomes clear that Isabelle is on a seaside vacation with her family and desperate to lose her virginity with the mentality of getting it done and out the way. She’s even happy to tell her younger brother “it’s done” when she gets in. Ozon then cuts to the fall and we are greeted by a vamped out Isabelle, one laced with a silk blouse, heels and vivid rouge lipstick. She will sleep with any man for $300 and appears to favour the elder. This plot may seem gimmicky, but there are many more twists to come and Ozon crafts a film that is far more complex than at first may appear; it certainly isn’t an impermeable and literal diary of a teenage prostitute.

young&beautiful_02

Despite the film being a voyeuristic approach to a young and beautiful girl having sex, there isn’t much erotica, and the attitudes and positions of Ozon’s characters, alongside the framing and cinematography, are surprisingly uniform. This isn’t to say there’s no nudity or startling imagery, for starters, we’re talking about a French film here! Though, the shots are well lit and nicely complement the dramatic approach of the film. I’m not saying that Ozon particularly needs to push the boat out with his style; the mood suitably meets the confinements of our lead girl Isabelle. Her wicked compulsion is self-contained and her emotions rarely float above the surface, but when they do, it is a combination of self-destruction, redemption and arguably bad parenting – just some of the themes entwined into this uncanny picture.

The biggest area, no doubt, to critique is “why”? Isabelle comes from a rich family, so money is out the question. The family appears stable, thus ruling out childhood trauma or repression – her Mother actually encourages her to grow up by leaving out condoms on the side! Perhaps Isabelle wants her own sense of control, a chance to breakout, and her families bourgeois inclinations may have driven her towards this. However, it ultimately boils down to the fact that sometimes we don’t exactly understand our actions and this is positively implicit of a 17 year old. The story might not have been pulled off if it wasn’t for Vacth being such a strong and intriguing lead as Isabelle. Not for one minute does the film feel dull; Isabelle’s next step is constantly ambiguous. Ozon crafts his films in such a lifelike, yet peculiar fashion that one could watch on with intent for hours before dawning back to reality.

4/5 stars

Watch the trailer below:

Big Bad Wolves – shock value and comedy go hand-in-hand

bigbadwolves_01

MOVIE REVIEW

Big Bad Wolves
United Channel Movies, Israel 
110 Min
2.35:1
UK Release: TBA for 2014 by Metronome Distribution

DIR Navot Papushado, Aharon Keshales
PROD Tami Leon, Chilik Michaeli, Avraham Pirchi
SCR Navot Papushado, Aharon Keshales
DP Giora Bejach
CAST Lior Ashkenazi, Tzachi Grad, Rotem Keinan, Dov Glickman, Menashe Noy

Hailed by Quentin Tarantino as the best film of the year, so far, at Busan international film festival, it’s easy to see why with the flair, punch and shock value that Big Bad Wolves brings to the table.

The film is, ultimately, a black comedy that takes you headfirst into the rather corrupt underworld of the Israeli police. However, it is also a spin on the horror film with torture scenes designed to make your jaw drop one minute, and the next, to laugh out loud. This is by no means a new experience, but there is something fresh about the way Navot Papushado and Aharon Keshales (the directors) combine horror and comedy. The horror itself, is not funny, it is overwhelmingly shocking, but it is constantly being switched on and off with unforeseen interruptions of almost burlesque value. We are bounced back and forth in our seats.

The story is quite straightforward: A reckless cop, Miki (Lior Ashkenazi), and a missing girls irate father, Gidi (Tzahi Grad), are drawn to the attention of Dror (Rotem Keinan) who they relentlessly believe is guilty of raping and beheading the girl. The pair duo up and take things into their own hands in order to find a way to extract the truth from Dror. It is the classic set-up for an acrimonious torture scene.

It is within this torture-ology that the film swims in the murky waters of good vs. evil where perspective is the only thing separating the two. You are left constantly trying to guess what the characters will do next, which keeps us tied right to the edge of our seats. This tense atmosphere infuses an air of moral superiority into the narrative. You can’t help wondering, surely there is a better way to go about this? There is also a comical play-off between the local Jews and Arab communities – a statement of change and novel friendship between the two.

The only thing lacking for me in the film was the absence of any real character development. Okay, it is not entirely necessary for the script to work as our squirming and laughing out loud soon sidetracks us. Also, part of the reason this film is so impulsive lies in the lack of back-story. However, there is also nothing to explain why Miki and Gidi are so focused on Dror, the man they are targeting as the killer. Towards the beginning, there is simply an anonymous throwaway line regarding someone alleging to have seen Dror with the child.

Big Bad Wolves is, nevertheless, beautifully crafted, from its apprehensive and muted prologue to sinisterly lit forest scenes and pronounced, sweeping camera shots of the basement corridors and walls. The film is innovative in nearly all respects, it is brimming with the unusual and it boasts a brilliant genre fare. Not since Park Chan-wook’s pictures has a director managed to maintain such a light tone whilst depicting a deeply troubling subject matter.

4 stars

Watch the trailer below:

Gloria – It’s all a bit desperate

gloria-01

MOVIE REVIEW

Gloria
Fabula, Chile
105 Min
2.35:1
UK Release: 1st November 2013

DIR Sebastián Lelio
EXEC Andrea Carrasco Stuven, Juan Ignacio Correa, Mariane Hartard, Rocio Jadue
PROD Juan de Dios Larraín, Pablo Larraín, Luis Collar
SCR Sebastián Lelio, Gonzalo Maza
DP Benjamín Echazarreta
CAST Paulina Garcia, Sergio Hernández, Coca Guazzini, Antonia Santa María

Gloria opens with a late-middle aged, desperate and timid woman dancing in a club and ends this way. The events have gone full circle, but within that circle there isn’t really much to consider, other than the fact that Gloria may have relieved some anxiety and sexual frustration. The dope, the alcohol, the lust, the inability to walk in high heels, Gloria has discovered these tropes throughout the course of the film as if for the first time. It’s a strong critical standpoint, but this movie is rather futile. Of course, a good film does come full circle, but it shouldn’t be so eminently parallel as it is with Gloria. Others may view this narrative as a blessing of realism. Perhaps, for all women out there under a similar depressive state, the film gives you a boost to realize that you aren’t at all as depraved as Gloria?

I admit my viewpoint on this film still remains somewhat sunken in murky waters. Regardless of its flaws, the film is actually refreshing in a pragmatist kind of way. Sebastian Lelio is exploring an alternative lead role and therefore laying bare the realities of time – something mainstream cinema would never dare. Lelio is also accepting the significant sexual desires of its ageing characters; Pauline Garcia, as Gloria, gives the audience a decent flash or two. Further afield, Garcia’s facial expressions are full of complicity, I would gaze into the character to regain my hold on the film. Occasionally, her eyes would leap out in a sinister and seductive fashion through those boundless nannie glasses of hers.

gloria-2

However, the story isn’t very exciting at all and is told in a rather episodic style. Lelio does add a lightly comical touch to his material though, which acts as a crowd pleasure for most part. In particular, the cat is rather entrancing with its bare coat, as it stealthily intrudes into Gloria’s flat. In fact, the cat symbolizes the only ‘humanistic’ aspect Gloria overcomes: at the end of the film she shows love towards it in contrast to before.

Gloria’s lifestyle is like that of a coming of age teenager. She is interesting to watch and Benjamin Echazarreta’s camerawork is fitting to her regime. He uses occasional hand held shots when Gloria is out on the town and 360 degree encircling shots when she is at a point of near lunacy. Gloria’s character doesn’t develop and she becomes entrapped in her gloomy circle of existence.

Rodolfo (Sergio Hernandez), Gloria’s playmate and futile attempt at a relationship, is an awkward, childlike man. He has pleading eyes and seems star-struck by Gloria. He takes Gloria paintballing and shows overblown affection to her. However, once Rodolfo is not the centre of attention, he flees, as at Gloria’s family dinner party. Lelio is offering a thought-provoking character study of both Gloria and Rodolfo, but the study doesn’t take us anywhere. This film just didn’t fulfill the senses it laid on the table for me, but perhaps this is what Lelio wanted to achieve.

Gloria is an eloquent film that tries to be uplifting, funny and enchanting, but just doesn’t work out for all its childish behavior and insignificant pointers. But, maybe I’m just too juvenile to fully appreciate its catch?

2/5 stars

Watch the trailer below:

The Family – The Manzoni’s need a chill pill

the_family

In most mob films it’s evident philosophy that the gangsters try to maintain some distance between family life and business. This is not so with the Manzoni’s, they are a mob, and they all feed off each other’s mishaps.

It’s refreshing to see Robert de Niro at home in playing Giovanni Manzoni (a great gangster name, by the way) as he blunders around, in contradiction of the witness protection restraining orders in place on the family, condemning trivial enemies to savage beatings with various tools (a sledgehammer and baseball bat, to name a few). It’s a reminder of why we thought of him as so great in the first place: De Niro is capable of honest warmth and love for his family whilst, at the same time, holding at bay his psychopathic tendencies which we’re always subliminally aware of. Michelle Pfeiffer, who plays Maggie, the wife, gets to toy with a role she has so perfectly executed in the past (Scarface, Married to the Mob) after a recovery of working sparingly for over a decade. Not to mention that she still looks amazing and manages to pull of a likable character, even though she has committed so many sins that even the priest is shocked and henceforth refuses her presence at the church. It’s a wonderful mix.

Another veteran in the mix is Tommy Lee Jones, who plays Stansfield, the main man assigned to overlooking the Manzoni’s case. Jones is his usual deadpan perfect self and has a few moments of invaluable countenance appearing next to De Niro. Stansfield is indeed given a hard time trying to keep the Manzoni’s at bay!

Luc Besson approaches the subject in a refreshing, witty and light nature. Despite mixed reviews, The Family is no different from Besson’s entertaining and chic approach, held across the board of his filmography, from Nikita to The Lady. He is not afraid of big, flashy action sequences, when the story demands it, but when he takes this direction he does so with a pleasant dose of over-the-top humour and a flair comparable to Tarantino. Although in this film, not meant to be seen entirely as a farce comedy, Besson doesn’t shy away from various in-jokes and occasional moments of sporadic tongue-in-check moments; moments I actually laughed at.

de_niro

Giovanni’s previous life is brought to attention when we see snippets of a previous mobster gang stewing in a rather luxurious prison cell – a refrigerator, music, and jail guards acting as servants? No doubt, Giovanni ratted out this gang, hence his current position under a witness protection plan in Normandy, France, and the gang being obsessed to find the Manzoni’s and literally blow them off the face of the Earth.

The way in which the Manzoni’s cover is blown is unequivocally whimsical and daft. It’s one of the many lunatic moments in this movie, others include: Maggie blowing up a French supermarket for not stocking peanut butter, Belle (the daughter) blooding the face of a creep with a tennis racket and Warren (the son) constructing a coalition to deliver vicious payback on bullies. This isn’t great cinema but it’s certainly good fun.

It’s not all fun however, some subplots just don’t work – whether this was intentional, I’m not sure. For example, Belle’s romance with the Math teacher, her despair over the fact he was the love of her life, and the families offbeat relationship with the Feds across the street. Giovanni’s attempts at being a writer also seem a little discharged and despondent.

A fantastic in-joke worth noting is when Giovanni is asked to perform a debate on an American classic at the local film society. Ironically the film that ended up screening was Scorsese’s Goodfellas – Giovanni’s typecasting on the film is a gigantic triumph with the residents who all stand up in astonishing applause.

To sum up, The Family is a deliberately eccentric, chirpy, violent and hit or miss film with just enough moments of inspiration to permit a recommendation. Be prepared for weird, different, but good.

3 stars.

Diana – Media Intrusion Never Ends!

diana_film

Diana is not about Diana’s death at all; it is merely a rom-com about her doomed love life and Diana’s illusive belief that she can regulate the media. The film is interested in showing one real thing: a wonderful princess who is in love. After all, she is the Princess of Hearts.

Despite all the love, I struggled to be moved by this film. At times, I was beginning to feel something, but then it was quickly shattered by schlocky romance. The movie lasts nearly 2 hours and the trouble is, the film’s romantic storyline struggles to sustain this length. It’s blatant that the producers are being careful not to offend – you can’t blame them – but this caution makes the film rather lightweight and dreary, even at the most hasty of times. By the end of the film, I felt horribly neutral and was definitely fed up with the penetrating sound of multiple shutter buttons releasing – a result of the endless media intrusion depicted throughout the biopic.

The film also lacks subtly, there is no mystery or tension, and thus everything is laid out plainly before our eyes. It is, like I said, a schlocky romance. The dialogue, therefore, leans towards the expository; it celebrates Diana’s fame and popularity, yet this is the very thing her character is aiming to steer wholly from. Apparently, Diana could be devious and sometimes ruthless – the film completely deviates these mannerisms, killing the potential life of this picture.

Oliver Hirschbiegel is bitterly disappointing; one would expect more from his noble filmography. There is little flair to his direction in Diana and no real aptitude towards the romance. Maybe he should have stuck to depicting the last 12 days of Diana’s life, as he did Hitler’s in Downfall (a great film by the way).

In real life, Diana called her heart surgeon lover, Hasnat Khan, (played in the film by Naveen Andrews) ‘Mr Wonderful’. My question here is: why does the film depict him as solitary, unhealthy, aggravating and, quite simply, a rude gentleman? It certainly doesn’t make the love affair more interesting, if anything it makes you wonder why Diana put herself through so much trouble… He is also unwilling to put love before his career. Frankly, by the end, we don’t care for his loss (the break-up) – though it is rumored that Diana ended the relationship and not Khan (the film portrays the opposite). Khan also initiates some idiocies such as “you don’t perform the operation, the operation performs you.” Did this imprudent man (how he is represented in the film) really win over the kind, generous and beautiful heart of our nation’s treasure? However, I really can’t help feeling sorry for Dr. Kahn, wherever he may be.

Though, you couldn’t pick a better actress than Naomi Watts to play Diana, I struggle to confess, I felt she was fatally lacking glamour whilst carrying out her role. Christopher Tookey puts the facts in pace: “Watts is noticeably at least five inches too short, nowhere near as athletic in her build, and eight years too old.” This is true, but more than these physical features, Watts was just too normal, she didn’t have the charm, maybe she wasn’t English enough? If there was flair, it didn’t shine through the lens. However, she does manage to imitate Diana’s walk and rhythms – Hirschbiegel liked to accentuate this through low tracking shots (a nice arty touch). Beside all this, you still have to praise Naomi Watts for taking on such a demanding and risky role – I’m still a fan.

A statement worth noting of some aptitude in Hirschbiegel’s direction is also when, at the start of the film, Dianna is walking down a hotel corridor, with the camera emphatically following her, when she suddenly turns to look at us (down the lens). At this point, the camera reverses and tracks backwards away from her, a sense that life itself is leaving her. There is a long pause before everything carries on as normal. The omnibus grumble on the soundtrack also heightens a daunting atmosphere.

Another oddity is the fact that Diana appears distant from her children who she so dearly loved; they appear on-screen once, briefly. Also, Prince Charles and the rest of the Royal Family are nowhere to be seen. Perhaps mirroring their absence from Dianna’s life, or just the Royal Family receiving another rubdown of their vanity. Although the film is ultimately on Diana’s side, she nevertheless becomes cruel due to her devious acts with Dodi Fayed (Cas Anver) to make Hasnat jealous. The wonderful, kind Diana is only momentarily portrayed positively when she is shown to be supporting the campaign to abolish minefields, and raising considerable amounts of money. It also highlighted, almost in idiotic fashion that every stranger who passes Diana jumps up grinning with glee like a possessed child. True, one would be excited, but this seems desperately fictional. We also get a sense of fun through Diana’s personality, which presumably comes through her being in love. She shouts: “Last one back to the car is a squashed tomato,” when out romancing on the cliff tops with Hasnat. Diana is a mixed bag, but the bag is losing its buoyance.

The narrative, as I’ve stressed greatly by now, is comparable to an archetypal rom-com. It makes me wonder what Oliver Stone or the makers of The Queen might have offered?

At the end of the day, it’s sixteen years later and audiences, young and old, are being summoned to a great biopic, which really isn’t so great at all. It seems as if media intrusion is going around in circles here, just let Diana rest in peace.

RIP Diana.