Tag Archives: drama

Kids

by Nicholas Lay (@laidbaremedia)

Screen Shot 2015-07-23 at 23.38.11A young couple, stripped down to their undies and suspiciously underage in appearance, engage in some overly gaping lip locking via the medium of extreme close-up. Then, they fuck. During said fucking, our man comments, by way of narration, that his lady friend is a virgin – he likes virgins. A little-known musical project named Deluxx Folk Implosion’s rusty-raw punk fusion proceeds to spin overhead as the opening credits finally roll. Larry Clark’s Kids is four minutes old, and already your eyes are shifting a little uncomfortably as you debate switching it off and pretending the last few moments didn’t happen, content that you’ll never see or hear from Mr. Clark again. But you don’t. You watch it. Don’t worry; we’ve all been there.

Larry Clark’s divisive art house flick has been labelled many things since its initial 1995 release, ranging from “a wake-up call to the world”, to outright “child pornography”. It maintains an almost 50/50 split amongst critics, with many continuing to deplore its frank, graphically disturbing material and heavily sexual nature. Whilst undeniably brutal however, it’s very watchable, a testament to the stylistic and technical achievements of Clark and his team, on what was his debut picture. Whilst his direction has never come even close to scaling such engrossing, high quality heights again (2001’s Bully is an outside shout – everything else should be avoided at all costs), his hectic, down to earth day-in-the-life depiction of New York’s mid-90s youth is a tragic tale well worth revisiting during this, the month of its 20th anniversary.

I myself maintain a weirder-than-average relationship with the film, due primarily to the unconventional manner in which I first viewed it. Though my geeky mid-teen lust for classic cinema meant my 15-year-old-self was no stranger to 18-rated movies, usually the process of watching one was dictated strictly on my terms. After all, when you need to borrow Pulp Fiction from your mate’s brother and sneak a few hours with your sister’s VHS player in order to witness Jules and Vincent shooting the shit without your parents knowing (they probably knew, I think they just wanted me to work for it), you know when to take risks and when to be patient. In short, rather than being sought of my own free will (I’d never even heard of it at the time), Kids was shown to my entire class and I by our almost certainly loopy GCSE Media Studies teacher – for no real reason, I might add. I won’t go into details, but suffice it to say that particular lesson was an experience.

While, of course, it is not advisable to show Kids to, er, kids, seeing it through a child’s eyes, unlike most critics, provided me with a sense of relatable perspective. After all, the majority of the actors cast were around my age, meaning the peak of life’s first stage of discovery portrayed on screen, re: sex and drugs, was certainly part-tangible, but also still very much part-wonder in real life. The film’s example of youth culture is a rather extreme cluster fuck of literally everything a young person could get up to in one day, but many individual aspects here and there will relate to different people in different ways, more so if watched when you yourself are at that exact stage in your, so far, rather clueless life.

Telly, Jasper, Jennie and co. smoke, they swear, they drink, they fuck, they steal, they fight, and they party. They’re confused, ill informed, and casually aggressive when it comes to issues such as sexuality, sexual health, contraception, rape, and race. Kids doesn’t want or try to make real life teens do anything extraordinary. Rather, it sums up and reaffirms what’s painfully normal, bringing all the little pieces that usually fly under the radar together in an orgy-like, warning-laden crescendo of, in theory, how one’s young life could be effectively destroyed if you don’t keep things in check. Basically, it’s a film that should be viewed by everyone, and no one through ages 15-18.

The themes may be darker than dark, but what stops it from being purely an example of grimy indie exploitation is the part played by practically everyone involved in the production. The kids in front of the camera were virtually all newcomers – real life local skaters whom Clark encountered in Central Park and elsewhere around New York. It’s pretty much a perfect cast, with Leo Fitzpatrick and the late Justin Pierce owning their cocksure roles with easy bravado, and future Hollywood successes Chloë Sevigny and Rosario Dawson showing how and why they went on to big things in spite of their amateur status at the time. Harmony Korine’s streetwise screenplay is smart as hell, giving the impression of constant ad lib sessions when in reality the entire thing – bar one or two scenes – was scripted. The soundtrack is hazy, in your face, hazy, repeat; creating and maintaining tone throughout.

Holding everything together of course, is Larry Clark. Considering he’s a certified screw ball, as his later films prove (again, DO NOT watch anything post-Bully), and had no prior filmmaking experience – certainly in terms of a feature film – he really pulled it out of the bag on this one. Using an eavesdropping, handheld documentary-esque style of shooting, Clark utilises angles and scope alike to create a world that’s up close and far away all at the same time. Bright, intriguing; claustrophobic, frightening – he rarely lets your eyes rest, leaving indie-type iconic imagery burning for a while after, from the aforementioned opening scene, to Jennie’s revelation, to four very young lads crammed on a sofa, sharing a spliff and chatting shit, to Telly and Casper’s respective final conquests.

Clark’s cinematic technique and subject matter go hand in hand, but the sex, drugs, violence, and related range of raw emotions on show aren’t there for the sake of it. Instead, Clark ties the numerous everyday aspects of being young together in a compact (and, granted, over the top) timeline, summing up the dreams and nightmares of the average city-dwelling western youth (and their parents); images that are still relevant now, but that were one hundred perfect in need of attention in 1995. It’s perfectly shocking, lightning in a bottle stuff from Clark, something that no one will likely repeat anytime soon. Him most of all.

Southpaw

by Andrew Brooker (@Brooker411)

southpaw 2015She’s hurting too. You’ve got to let her hate you, so she can get better.

I got hit by a southpaw guy once. I honestly thought he’d broken or popped something the second that his foot hit my unguarded and unprepared ribs. As the pain of the hit went through me, I thought I was going to die! I wheezed, I hit the deck and I called time on what was nothing more than a typical Tuesday night training session. To fight “southpaw” is, for want of a better description, to fight lefty. To switch your stance in such a way that punches (and kicks) are thrown from the wrong direction for your opponent. It provides a tactical advantage over the guy in front of you, fighting what is essentially a mirror image of yourself isn’t easy to combat. It’s harder still when a well trained fighter switches stance halfway through a fight, suddenly changing how you have to fight and defend and opening you up for a world of hurt.

Now, my little story is from an MMA point of view, and no matter the discipline, the term “southpaw” always means the same thing, but it’s primarily a boxing term and boxing is where we find ourselves with Jake Gyllenhaal’s latest drama, a film about a man who suddenly loses everything and simply doesn’t know how to cope without the things most precious to him.

Gyllenhaal is Billy Hope, a champion boxer with 43 wins and no losses under that huge championship belt. Nicknamed “The Great”, Billy’s strengths lie in his ability to take a beating, to get hit over and over again and still have the strength in him, in his arms to throw enough punches to get the win. Always moving forwards, always getting in close is Billy’s key to success. A man impossible to beat into submission, a rabid dog who knows only how to bite and keep biting until he’s pulled off of his victim. But, on the flipside of that coin, once Billy is outside of the ring, he’s a doting family man; living only for his wife Maureen, his childhood sweetheart who came through the fostering system with him, and his daughter Leila, a headstrong kid who adores her fighter dad.

“The Great” Hope’s life is turned upside down when a charity dinner turns bloody and Maureen is the victim of a stray bullet fired in the heat of the moment. As Billy is forced to watch the life drain from the love of his life as she dies in his arms, as the light leaves her eyes, it begins to leave Billy’s too. With the woman that anchors his life suddenly gone, Billy spirals out of control and, try as he might, he can’t drag himself up from the hole he has found himself in and his daughter is beginning to feel the consequences of her dad’s actions.

After Billy is pushed into his next fight by his manager, uncaring of Billy’s situation and only smelling the money, the once proud, undefeated warrior lets himself take a beating in the ring hoping for some kind of deliverance in the hits he’s taking. Not defending himself, not fighting back, after the fight is stopped, events quickly take a turn for the worse and a rash decision on the boxer’s part quickly snowball and leave him without a home, without an income and with the State of New York taking Leila into care subject to Hope getting his act together and proving that he’s a man worthy of the title of “Father”.

At rock bottom and needing help clawing his way back up, Hope turns to Forest Whitaker’s Tick Willis. A former pro coach turned gym owner who spends his time training the neighbourhood kids and keeping them out of trouble. In a last-ditch attempt to get back his pride, his dignity and his little girl, Billy puts his trust in Tick to lead him down the right path to find some form of salvation from the road that he’s found himself on.

Southpaw comes to us from a pretty heavy hitting team-up. Starting with a great turn from Jake Gyllenhaal, a man who was robbed of an Oscar nomination for last year’s Nightcrawler, puts in an outstanding performance as the broken and beaten Billy Hope. A man who couldn’t be beaten in the ring but couldn’t hold it together outside of it. Direction duties come courtesy of one of my favourite directors working at the moment, Antoine Fuqua. Apart from the fact that he made Training Day, one of my all-time favourite films, he’s turned his hand to a few different genres with a few well known actors and has always been able to make an enjoyable film with what he’s given and that trend absolutely continues with Southpaw. But maybe my biggest surprise was when I discovered that it had been written by Kurt Sutter. A man not everyone knows, but those that do, know that his work is outstanding. Most famous for creating motorcycle drama Sons of Anarchy and being on long-term writing duty for The Shield, Sutter has put together a powerful film with enough emotional pull to get the heart straining at what you’re seeing on screen.

But, outshining all of them, even Gyllenhaal’s impressive change into Billy Hope and his spectacular performance, is (at the time of writing) twelve year old Oona Laurence’s performance as Leila Hope. As Billy’s heart, soul and reason for living, she stole every scene from Gyllenhaal and put in an award worthy show as the distraught little girl who’s lost her mum and is being wrenched from her dad. As one half of Billy’s “fighter” and “father” moniker tattooed along his arms, her fight is almost as great as his as she has to grieve and try to be a grown up for her dad. All of the magic of Southpaw comes from her performance. Every look of anger and disappointment from her will make your heart sink and every glimmer of pride for her old man will make all but the soulless weep for her.

The bottom line, is that Southpaw doesn’t really break any new ground. It’s a redemption story that has been told a hundred times before. Jake Gyllenhaal’s transformation to Billy Hope is a spectacular one and a testament to how hard he worked to make his fights look as painful as they do with Fuqua’s direction making every hit hurt and every quiet moment tense. The film’s Oscar worthy performances, its strangely under-stated direction and its great script make it shine above other similar films. Fuqua and Sutter do an amazing job of subtly playing to the fears of every guy wanting to be a dad to their kids and NEEDING to be a man to their daughters. By the time I left the film last night, I was suitably emotionally drained and desperate to get home and hug my little girl, that’s praise enough for me.

You already know if you’re Southpaw‘s audience. Those that are, will love the little over two hours you’ll spend with Billy Hope on his journey for salvation. Those that aren’t, well, I’m sure there’s a talking animal film on for you somewhere.

Camp X-Ray

by Andrew Brooker (@Brooker411)

camp x-rayYou ask why I want to die. But you can’t see, that I’m not living

The subject of the almost permanent detention of Muslims at Guantanamo Bay is one rarely brought to the screen for audiences to ponder. More often than not, when it is, it’s very heavy-handed and black and white. There’s never any ambiguity about the circumstances that led these men to be in the most famous prison since Alcatraz and there’s never any thought that these men might not belong there. It’s a tough sell for me; in a world where we are so quick to celebrate when anyone’s freedoms are finally handed to them when they should have had them from day one, the constant demonisation of an entire religious group sticks in my craw a little bit and I yearn for a film that can at least show us a little of the grey area of this particular subject.

A few years back, I thought I was going to get just that with My Name is Khan, a film centered on an Indian Muslim with autism trekking across the country to talk to the president and tell him that he is not a terrorist. I saw the trailer and thought it was going to be great. But the trailer didn’t hint at the fact that the film was actually a Bollywood style musical which then ruined what could have been an exceptionally powerful film. So when I read about Camp X-Ray doing relatively well at Sundance last year, I was intrigued, excited, but a little skeptical all at the same time. Of course, once again, over here in the UK we miss out on the movie completely because no-one thinks British people want to watch films like this. So now the film has been through the theatres and has hit Blu-Ray and VOD in the States, it’s time to take a couple of hours and give this film with such potential a once over.

Starting us off with a glimpse of the burning World Trade Centre in New York on the morning of September 11th, the film quickly cuts to a shot of Ali, soon to be detainee 471, being black bagged by special forces in the middle of his morning prayers. We see the man, and others, being transported across the world in the now world famous orange jumpsuits and eventually thrown into a small cage. His hood removed, we see Ali’s beaten and bloodied face as he squints under the Cuban sun at the beginning of what is going to be a very long time in prison.

Eight years later, the standard annual guard rotation has begun and this time rookie recruit Amy Cole has rotated in to the prison. Orientation done and dusted, Cole is eager to prove she can stand with the men on the watch and so she volunteers to help when the call for a reactionary force, a five-man team sent to calm rowdy inmates, comes in and gets stuck in. Taking a beating and having her face spat in by the inmate, Cole gets the acceptance she needs and having jumped in at the deep end, is ready for anything the prison can throw at her. Anything except the boredom and monotony of guard duty, that is.

Early on, Cole is on library duty, the daily slog of dragging a cart around between the tiny cells and swapping out detainee’s books for new ones if they wish. Born from this monotony is the young soldier’s relationship with inmate 471 who, in an unexpected moment of levity, complains about the American’s cruel and unusual torture methods by not letting him read the seventh and final Harry Potter book and finding out how the story ends! This starts what turns out to be a very up and down relationship between the young recruit and the Guantanamo veteran. A moment of rage at the system leads Ali to take his anger out on Cole, running with pretty standard guerrilla prison tactics, he throws a cup filled with crap at her. Leaving her stinking and filthy and him on one of the more brutal psychological punishments where he’s carted around from pillar to post for days having his sleep withheld and his sanity taken away. It’s a situation that Cole not only can’t abide by, but she suddenly sees just how little she can do about it.

Ali’s return from his punishment sees the pair’s bond strengthen. A mutual disdain for an unfair system combined with the crushing loneliness on the block give the unwitting friends a mutual point of discussion and closeness to form their camaraderie around. Learning more about the prisoner than even his captors did, Amy slowly starts to comprehend the hopeless situation that Ali finds himself in. Innocent or not, released from his imprisonment or not, he’ll never be free of Guantanamo Bay and so he’s reserved himself to a life of fighting against a system that’s condemned him without so much as a fair trial.

Camp X-Ray is, on its surface, a simple story of a relationship formed between a prisoner and his guard. But scratch the surface a little and you can see a tale of a man beaten, physically and emotionally, by a country intent on demonising him and everyone like him; but we also see a story of a young female recruit who has her own battles on both sides of the cages. She has to fight against a military that still doesn’t respect female soldiers for the equals they are while simultaneously fighting a battle with her wards, a group of men from a culture that can have just as much disdain for women. Her battle to work within the lines of her chosen profession while being respectful of the men under her care is one she loses skirmishes to on both sides but ultimately is the better person for it.

Following a stellar performance in Still Alice, Kristen Stewart has completely wiped the mopey Twilight teen from my memory with yet another amazing performance. Wearing her heart completely on her sleeve and bringing the naivety of a young soldier with little understanding of her surroundings to the screen in a way that makes your heart sink for her. You just want to hug her and tell her that it’ll be alright. Opposite her, Payman Maadi (from Persian Oscar winning A Separation) plays the Detainee 471 brilliantly; equal parts man fighting for his freedom and man who’s lost the will to fight anymore. In a role that would be far too easily overplayed for sympathy, Maadi’s quiet Ali Amir is the perfect embodiment of a culture singled out through other people’s fear of them.

It’s all too easy for films like this to go the “America! Fuck yeah!” route in an attempt to justify the country’s actions over the years. Similarly it’s very easy for these film to act like documentaries, showing the atrocities put upon the prisoners in these places. But first time writer and director Peter Sattler has sidestepped these issues with finesse and decency, not going preachy in either direction and simply letting the viewer make up their mind who may or may not be in the right. Ok, so the ending is a little tacky and manipulative, but its effect on you makes it completely forgivable and outside of thinking “yeah, I knew that was coming” I haven’t given the cheapness of it a second thought. It’s a very slight blip on an otherwise very good, emotionally charged film. Those going in expecting Zero Dark Thirty will come out disappointed, but those looking for a great psychological study wrapped in very real current events will be blown away.

Closer to God

by Andrew Brooker (@Brooker411)

closer to god 1You say she has no soul? She’s closer to God than any one of you!

Good films, no matter the budget, director or cast should make you think when it tries to ask tough questions. You don’t have to agree or disagree with its position, but a good film should plant the seed and leave you ready to debate the subject at hand. Great writers and directors take it one step further. A good filmmaker should be ready to shine a light on a subject that they feel strongly about and be brave enough to tackle their issues no matter how inflammatory or taboo the subject. Now while Closer to God may not be the greatest film you’ve ever seen, it’s certainly brave enough, and interesting enough, to throw a few of those tough questions at you.

Jeremy Child is Victor Reed, a geneticist in a privately funded research centre working to develop human cloning. With a donor giving birth to a cloned baby girl, Elizabeth, right at the start of our story, the doctor announces to the world that he has successfully cloned a human and at almost a month old she seems to be doing well. Unfortunately, the good doctor has been doing his experiments in America, where the mere hint at doing something not mentioned in the bible brings on a fear of the impending apocalypse and hoards of angry bible thumpers outside your place of work screaming that what you’re doing isn’t natural, it’s against God and you’re all going to hell.

Braving the deluge of media attention and public protest, Victor spills just a few of the beans on Elizabeth’s conception and creation. Admitting he was a donor in the process to bring the girl to the world, his refusal to let the public see her and someone in his staff leaking pictures of the baby starts the ball rolling on government proceedings to have the baby examined and the doctor arrested. Fearing for the security of his creation, the doctor moves Elizabeth and his lab to his house where he can keep them safe. Moving his new child in with his wife and two young girls introduces a whole host of issues with Reed’s work, the worst of which is the monstrous secret living in the doctors out building with his maid.

It turns out, that Elizabeth isn’t good old Victor’s first foray into cloning, but she is his most successful one. Hiding on a dark corner of his estate is the doctor’s failed experiment, Ethan. Obscured from vision, we are offered the suggestion that Ethan is suffering from awful deformities caused by the cloning process and in an attempt to atone for his part in the boys pain, Reed has given him a place to stay away from everyone.

Like I said four paragraphs ago, a good film will throw the tough questions at you and get the conversation going. I also said the the film isn’t afraid to ask those questions. But what I didn’t say, was that the film had any real balls or confidence in its convictions. Closer to God plays out, for the most part, like a genetic cloning pros and cons fact sheet. Literally reeling off a list of good and bad things. Yes, it is a medical breakthrough, but it’s against God. Yes, it’ll be an immeasurably helpful tool in finding cures to a whole host of illnesses, but, errr, it’s against God? You kind of get the idea. It plays like all those moronic arguments on Twitter when something positive happens for the gay community or feminism. It’s lazy and gutless at best, eye-rollingly stupid at its worst and just poorly developed the whole way through.

The film is almost rescued in its last twenty minutes. As the doctor’s issues come to a head, it quickly becomes a super-creepy monster-in-the-house film that ups the tension nicely as the film takes hints from others like Pet Sematary, Eraserhead and that one X-Files episode with the killer foetus and actually had me on the edge of my seat and genuinely interested in how it was going to play out.

Closer to God is by no means the worst straight-to-VOD film I’ve seen. Its problems definitely outweigh its good bits and the filmmakers just don’t have the courage to pick what side of the fence they are on and because of it, the film comes off as bland, lifeless and almost PowerPoint like in its delivery. This retelling of Frankenstein comes into its own when it becomes a monster film but unfortunately it’s not enough to rescue this otherwise boring film from its guaranteed slot on movies4men.

Still Alice

An achingly sad and deeply affecting film that leaves you emotionally jarred long after you’ve left the screen.

by Andrew Brooker (@Brooker411)

still alice 1I’m sure I can’t be the only person that’s terrified by the idea of Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a life destroying illness that your everyday passer-by simply can’t see. Almost anyone you walk past could have it and you’d never know it. You can’t see the pain and turmoil that the person is going through. You can’t see them desperately trying to remember their dog’s name or which bus they need to get home, scared that they barely remember their address. It’s this anguish that Still Alice tries very hard to show us. And while it may not hit every note spot on, it’s a brilliantly scary little glimpse into the lives of those people you’ve been walking past.

Now I’ve only seen a couple of films that deal with dementia in any of its various forms and while they’ve all been great and the performances solid, I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that dealt with the early onset of such an horrendous condition. The idea of losing those faculties long before anyone should is one that directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland have brought to the big screen and while previous films I’d seen have been decent, by the time I finally got to see it, Julianne Moore had already won her Best Actress Oscar for this film, so my expectations were sky-high.

Based on Lisa Genova’s self published 2007 book, Still Alice sees Julianne Moore take on the roll of Dr. Alice Howland, a world renowned professor that teaches linguistics at a New York university, who’s life is turned upside down when a forgetful spell or two ends with her in a doctor’s office being diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Instantly, her and her family are thrown head first into the harrowing challenge of living with the degenerative disease. It’s a story as much about Alice’s family as it is about her and her struggle. How they handle the news being broken to them, through to how they handle the diagnosis and its subsequent changes to everyone’s day-to-day lives.

Alice’s struggle to fight with the disease while trying to enjoy her time with her family, creating fresh memories even as they are failing her is brought to the screen with a brilliant performance from Julianne Moore. Every time she desperately tries to remember something or someone, the panic and anguish she shows us is absolutely heart breaking and her moments of clarity are just as powerful. Those moments that allow Alice to be a mother and a wife the way she used to, even for just a little while, are as emotionally tugging and physically draining as any scene depicting her degenerating mental health. One poignant scene has her explaining to her youngest daughter just how it feels to live with the disease. The presence of mind Alice has as she explains how it feels to live with precious little of it is such a powerful moment that I defy anyone to not be left with a lump in their throat. The juxtaposition of this completely lucid person explaining not just to her daughter, but the audience, how it feels living with a terrifying illness that takes your cognisance from you is just one gut punch in a film filled with them.

Of course, Julianne Moore isn’t alone on the screen. She has a decent cast supporting her and they make a pretty interesting family. Husband, John (Alec Baldwin), daughters Lydia (Kristen Stewart) and Anna (Kate Bosworth) and son Tom (Hunter Parrish). All of them rally around Alice, in their way, to help her through her illness. The film does a decent job of showing how people can try to understand the problems sufferers like Alice go through, but can’t truly know how it feels. While the supporting cast are absolutely there to help Moore’s light shine a little brighter, they all do a great job of giving her a board to bounce off and making sure we see her full range against them.

Honourable mention, however, must go to Kristen Stewart. Still Alice is one of a pair of films that she has been in recently that I am desperate to see, hoping she can finally shift that Twilight and Snow White thing that seems to be plaguing her and show herself as a decent actress. So far, I’m not disappointed. On paper, as the rebellious younger daughter, this film wouldn’t be stretching her talents too much. But she gives an exceptional, emotional performance as Lydia and it gives me hope that she can come out from this with a few decent roles and shake off the mopey teen we all think she is.

Still Alice is a sad film to watch and a painful film to experience, but it is necessary viewing none the less. The tale of how this most horrible of diseases takes everything away from even the richest and smartest of people will leave you with a pit in your stomach long after the credits have rolled. There has been discussion about Julianne Moore’s status this past year as an Oscar contender with at least one other film making us all turn our heads and scream for a nomination for her. But make no mistake, Alice is one of the greatest performances I’ve seen on screen. Not just from Julianne Moore, but at all.

As an aside, a challenge. When you see this film, very early on Julianne Moore’s Alice is given a memory test. You’ll know what it is when it happens. Try and pass it. Just try. You’ll be sitting there frantically trying to remember the things you need to remember and concentrate on everything else that is going on. You know what? You’ll fail it. I did. Tell me you don’t feel a little empathy for Alice after you’ve sat for your two hour film knowing you failed it too.

Still Alice is out in cinemas in the UK right now (finally) and you can catch Andrew on the next episode of the Failed Critics podcast.

Focus

Will Smith’s latest movie, the heist-pulling con-comedy drama, Focus, is clichéd, it’s predictable, but it is hard to hate.

by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)

Will Smith and Margot Robbie in FocusCon-man comedy-drama’s are a dime a dozen. The majority of those that get churned out of Hollywood’s money-making factories all follow a very simple, very tried and tested format.

Firstly, set up the characters and assemble a team; pull a few small jobs; set up the big one and look like they’ve failed before– SURPRISE! [That] wasn’t the real con. [THIS] was. It’s a format that has always served the genre well and continues to do so, regardless of how artistically it may be presented from time to time. From Steven Soderbergh to Guy Ritchie. From The Hustler to The Thieves. Sometimes it works more successfully than others, of course, but it never really strays too far away from that traditional stratagem. Focus is no exception.

Written and directed by John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, who have previously worked together on the feature films Crazy, Stupid, Love and I Love You Philip Morris, they reunite to bring their own spin on the con film. Staring the ever-popular Will Smith as Nicky, a professional con-man from a family of con-men, and rising-actress Margot Robbie as his protégé, Jess, they bring their own brand of humour and sex-appeal to what is essentially a disappointingly bland script.

The narrative of the film (or its focus, if you will) is based around the relationship of Nicky and Jess. After Jess tries and fails to pull her own amateur con on Nicky, unaware of who he actually is, she eventually convinces him to take her under his wing after what can loosely be described as a job interview. A series of small but well paying jobs later, a hint of romance between the couple blossoms and gambling problems and presents itself, before the biggest job they’ll ever pull appears. It’s nothing outstanding and certainly something you’ve no doubt never seen before (unless you’ve somehow managed to avoid watching any con-man film during your lifetime.)

Let’s get the performances out of the way first of all. To use modern parlance, Will Smith’s gonna Will Smith. He likes to show off his physique, so every other scene where he’s not looking pukka in a suit either shows him in a tight shirt or no shirt at all. His comic timing hasn’t yet deserted him which does make him perfect for the role. He’s charismatic, he’s funny, he’s just reliable ol’ Will bloody Smith putting in a shift that’s at a level somewhere between his Anchorman 2 cameo and Men In Black 3. His opposite, Margot Robbie, does what few actors and actresses manage to do when sharing the screen with the Fresh Prince, in that she often steals the spotlight away from him, much like she often did with DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street. Despite having to deal with a much weaker character, whose role as exciting young pick pocket is snatched away from you before you’ve noticed and replaced with generic love interest, she still lights up the screen with her enthusiasm and humour. In fact, on a number of occasions, her conversations with ‘sidekick to the stars’ Adrian Martinez were the most natural and genuinely funny moments in the entire movie. It made me wish I had a friend like Martinez.

The thing is, the performances aren’t the issue here. Even the series of escalating con-jobs the characters pull aren’t a problem either. We all watch films like this knowing exactly how the story will pan out and what level of character we’re soon to be dealing with. What we all hope to see instead are creative and inventive cons, heists, twists and swindles. It doesn’t have to be tense, the jobs don’t even have to be on a grand casino-robbing scale, so long as they’re entertaining and fun. To be fair to Focus, it isn’t intelligent, it isn’t clever and the twists are polarised from the get go. Nevertheless, they still remain the most entertaining aspects, as they quite rightly should.

I can’t complain about the build up to the individual jobs, both large and small, because quite frankly the fast-cuts and jazzy music simply makes them hard to dislike. As soon as Robbie is strutting through a packed street, pinching wallets and slipping off watches, it’s all made to look so incredibly slick. A scene at a football stadium that sees the culmination of (admittedly well plotted) teasing is both predictable… and, surprisingly, absorbing. If you’re anything like me, you’ll think you know how everything is going to pan out eventually anyway, but it’s that need to see the film to its conclusion that will keep you rooted to your seat.

Therefore, whilst it undoubtedly has a badly written and predictable story, full of genre clichés and obvious twists, I can’t complain too much about the cons. If I were feeling generous, I’d probably even describe them as well directed. Focus is, if nothing else, impressively and suitably flashy. At worst, these fancy-Dan jobs are diversionary tactics to keep you from thinking too hard about the intelligence insultingly poor “who’s playing who” romance angle between Robbie and Smith. It tries to keep you guessing right until the end. Unfortunately, you’re not wondering what will happen, it’s more that you’ll be wondering when it will inevitably be revealed. It’s infuriating how often they felt the need to explain away events and how it will relate to events-yet-to-be.

Still, as I say, it’s hard to dislike. Occasionally I sat up and took notice at how well it had been cut and edited; just little things, like when Jess walks into a clothes shop, or as they’re pulling a few minor con jobs during her “interview”, or (as seen in the trailer) when a maniac smashes his car into Will Smith’s sporty little two-seater Peugeot etc. Evidently Requa and Ficarra know how to shoot and write stunts more so than they know how to build character relationships worth emotionally investing in.

Conversely, at other times, I was practically stifling laughs at how awkward and downright terrible it was. A super-serious-sex-scene that I assumed was being played for laughs, given how early on they make reference to the fact that Jess can’t “play” men and is utterly crap at being sexy, wasn’t actually meant to be so funny. It was a genuine, proper, “please take me seriously” sex scene that just happened to be absolutely dreadful. If there’s one problem between the dynamic of Robbie and Smith, it was that romantic chemistry just never sparked.

Overall then, as I said on last week’s podcast, it’s painfully obvious right from the get go exactly what sort of movie Focus is going to be, but it’s hard to hate it. If you can do your utmost to stop second guessing it, just sit back and let things play out as intended, then it does have a number of redeeming qualities. It’s funny when it wants to be, the jobs they pull are aren’t the most daring of any con-man film I’ve ever seen but are set at just the right tempo, but it won’t be anything new to regular film watchers. It plugs the gap of this year’s dumb but flashy light hearted thriller. To compare it to recent con-films, it’s more Now You See Me than it is American Hustle. Fine to watch if there’s nothing else on at the cinema and you’ve got a burning desire to munch some popcorn, but not really a particularly special film.

Focus is released in cinemas nationwide tomorrow (27 Feb). You can hear Owen talk about the film on last week’s Failed Critics podcast with Steve, Matt and Paul.

Wild

Beautiful natural American scenery, a wonderful heart-felt performance from Reese Witherspoon and an honest, interesting story help stop Wild from becoming yet another boring yarn of self-discovery.

by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)

Reese Witherspoon as "Cheryl Strayed" in WILD.Have you ever been travelling? Like, really travelling, not just spending three weeks camping? I haven’t. The thought of walking a thousand miles through a desert on my own, wearing ill-fitting boots, lugging around a back-breakingly heavy ruck sack and eating cold watery porridge does not appeal to me, funnily enough.

However, I am lazy and contented. I am also more than willing to give up a little time up to spend an evening in a cinema watching somebody else struggle with all of the aforementioned. Particularly when that film is directed by the Oscar nominated Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club, The Young Victoria etc) and stars multiple award winning actress Reese Witherspoon in the lead role.

Wild is adapted for the screen by Nick Hornby (An Education) from the memoirs of best-selling writer Cheryl Strayed as she hiked 1,100 miles up the Pacific Crest Trail from California to Oregon during the 90’s. A personal challenge that the 26 year old embarked on to liberate herself from her life as a divorced heroin addicted grieving daughter, in order to (for want of a better phrase) find herself. It was a test of faith; not in God but in her own nature. To know that by the time she reached the end of her path, she would not only have moved on from her problems in a literal geographical sense, but also metaphorically.

As strange as it may seem, the story really isn’t about running away from your problems. Cheryl isn’t quitting her life, rather she is just on a different and new path. That’s mostly why I enjoyed Wild. Anybody could tell a story about walking from one place to another. Some people have and in the process bored the tits off of everyone listening. A journey isn’t just about moving your physical presence from one location to another, it’s about a change. A visible and honest growth of personality, maturity and character. It’s not even about Cheryl returning to the person she was before her recent traumatic experiences, because through the use of flashbacks to the time spent with the love of her life, her mother (Laura Dern), we see how she could sometimes be a pain the arse. It’s about accepting and overcoming what has happened. As painful as it is, the grieving process is not yet over for her and as she walks, with each step and bruise on her body, we can see a visible detox from lost, to slowly understanding, to almost-found.

It’s not an entirely satisfactory experience watching Reese Witherspoon’s progression. Nor, do I believe, is it fully intended to be. Scenes leading up to the start of her trek seen in flashbacks, showing Cheryl at her lowest ebbs, such as her marriage falling apart after having affairs with multiple complete strangers, or lying naked in a crack den, mirror aspects of her journey a bit too well. Vallée avoids being explicit in terms of laying things out for you or using too much exposition, but by the same token, images and songs used over and over to beat you into submission is not all too necessary when you get it the first time around.

To expand on that point for a second, the soundtrack is used two-fold. Firstly, cuts of tracks such as the (quite frankly brilliant) haunting folk song El Condor Pasa by Simon & Garfunkel is used to generate atmosphere as it plays over the opening title credits… and then quite a lot of other scenes afterwards. Secondly, as with a lot of other songs throughout, it is emotionally connected to Cheryl’s relationship with her mother and brother. Therefore, whenever you hear it, you too are then brought back to various other scenes without the need to literally see them again. It’s a cleverly employed technique, but can become distracting or artificial in its insistence on frequently relating experiences to one another.

When Carole Petts saw the film at the London Film Festival in October last year, she commented that “the film is a little thin on plot but worth seeing for its redemptive nature and for Witherspoon’s excellent performance”. It’s quite difficult to disagree with any of that. Particularly the final comment. As much as I loved Witherspoon in Election, this performance tops it.

Yes, the path trodden is well worn and despite some dark undertones and genuinely uplifting triumphs that penetrate both the flashbacks and the actual hike, it doesn’t really have a lot new to tell us. Of course that doesn’t automatically equate to an unoriginal and bland film; it’s still a competently delivered story with an actress unlucky to miss out on the best actress award at the Golden Globes this weekend. What I would say is, as a word of warning, if this doesn’t sound like your kind of film before going in, then it most likely won’t be your kind of film once you come out. If you’ve enjoyed the director, writer or actresses previous work at their best, then chances are this will also be of interest to you too.

Wild hits UK cinemas this Friday 16 January and will be featured on the upcoming Failed Critics podcast.

Foxcatcher

Career defining performances from its three leads leaves you astounded as this bizarre true story unfolds in front of your eyes.

by Andrew Brooker (@Brooker411)

foxcatcher 2It’s no secret amongst filmmakers that some of the best ways to get the Oscar committee’s collective genitals tingling is to give them a true story or a good sports film (note: GOOD sports film. Adam Sandler’s crap “The Longest Yard” remake doesn’t count). So every couple of years a great sports film comes along that’s based on a true story and you just know that it’s destined for one of those DVD covers with its nominations and wins proudly displayed all over the front.

Personally, I never quite know how “famous” a story is. I’ve always loved American sports, combat sports especially and I love to know as much as I can about the sports I watch. It’s how I can spew random American Football facts few in the UK will know or even understand. But it’s also how I went into Foxcatcher already knowing the story of the Schultz brothers Dave and Mark and their time spent with John DuPont and team Foxcatcher. As such, I’m not entirely sure how well known the story is in the UK so for the sake of keeping this review spoiler free, I will keep to the basics and not reveal the end to this tragic true story.

Shortly after winning Olympic gold with his brother, wrestler Mark Shultz (Channing Tatum) is invited to meet with eccentric multi-millionaire John DuPont (Steve Carell) who proposes Mark’s relocation to Pennsylvania to train for the upcoming wrestling World Championships at the newly formed Team Foxcatcher. Encouraged to bring his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) along with him to the team, Mark jumps at the opportunity. His sibling opts to stay where he is and not move his family, leaving Mark alone with DuPont.

A man used to getting everything he wants, John DuPont’s pursuit of wrestling success from his team is as unrelenting as his pursuit of Dave Shultz. What he can’t win honestly, he’ll buy. And what he can’t get dishonestly, just isn’t worth his time. Seeing success with Foxcatcher in the championships and beyond, DuPont starts to build his own little empire with him, and his ability to talk Mark Shultz into anything, at the centre of it.

It’s a bizarre true story to tell. John DuPont is a petulant child in a grown man’s body. Literally stomping his feet when things don’t go his way. But as an insanely wealthy grown up, he gets to throw money at the problem and get exactly what he wants one way or another. Combine this with him forcing himself into Mark Shultz’s life as a much needed father figure and using it to control him, there isn’t much that the weird philanthropist can’t do or get where his wrestling aspirations are concerned. As the story progresses and we see things come apart at the seams for all involved, it’s DuPont’s instability and it’s affects on all those he surrounds himself with that takes centre stage.

Director Bennett Miller is beginning to make a habit of bringing us outstanding, Oscar worthy pictures. Previously directing the late, great, Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Capote and Brad Pitt in Moneyball, his latest addition to his filmography easily compares to either of his earlier offerings. I think it’s important to mention 2011’s Moneyball because I believe it holds more significance than being just another great, Oscar nominated sports film. Miller gave the world an opportunity to see Jonah Hill as more than a doofus comedy actor. He worked so hard and left such an impression on the audience that it earned him a Best Supporting Actor nomination and I think this may be where Miller’s directorial genius will be recognised in the future.

Steve Carell surprised me with his performance. Besides his strange posture throughout the film that makes it look like he’s scared of his makeup slipping off. He looks like a dog trying to balance an invisible biscuit on his snout and a glass of water on his head. The entire top half of his body barely moves! That said, his portrayal of John DuPont was simply out of this world and he deserves all the fanfare that he’s currently receiving for the role. DuPont is obsessed with his power. The power he buys and the power he forces upon others. His obsession with wrestling and his need to turn himself into Team Foxcatcher’s mentor and an all-American hero consumes him and there is an air about the man that it will eventually be his downfall. Carell is almost unrecognisable as the teams self-made patriarch and if there aren’t awards in his future, I would be very surprised.

Equally deserving of praise are Carell’s co-stars. Of course, we’ve all seen Mark Ruffalo in dramatic roles before and as the older Shultz brother, he’s as impressive here as he has been in any other role. His commitment to the part shows in his build and his demeanour. Telling as much of his story with his body as the rest of the film does with dialogue. The man that’s equally as committed to his family as he is his sport shows a weariness in his movement telling of a man working hard for his team.

Channing Tatum though. I was genuinely in awe of his performance here. His portrayal of Mark Shultz opposite Carell’s DuPont is absolutely outstanding. The mental and physical abuse he allows DuPont to subject him to is played just right by an actor that constantly surprises me. What differentiates him from his Jump Street co-star’s turn in Moneyball is subtle hints of being weak willed and simple minded. Hill went from comedy actor to drama actor with a great turn. Tatum has gone from comedy actor and beefcake to a dramatic actor who stops quite a bit short of his Jump Street “my name is Jeff” performance and shows how easily the world class wrestler is influenced through his body language and his interactions with Steve Carell. We’re not talking Forrest Gump or Rain Man here. But we are talking just enough for the audience to look at Shultz and say “Man, is that dude ok?”, a turn like that from an actor mainly regarded for his abs, is just as worthy of recognition as any other actor in this piece.

Foxcatcher is a consistently brilliant drama. Stunning performances from its stars that deliver every line, every look and every grapple convincingly. All set to a perpetually gloomy atmosphere with an underlying air of menace making for an amazingly directed and brilliantly acted dramatic masterpiece.

Owen Hughes: 2014 Reviews Part 2 – Jul-Dec

by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)

Following part one of my year in review articles where I picked out my favourite first-time watch of each month in 2014 (excluding new releases) from January to June, it’s about time I got my arse in gear and wrote up my second and final piece. So here it is! Starting with July….


the great white silenceJuly – Samaritan Girl (2004); THE GREAT WHITE SILENCE (1924); Blue is the Warmest Color (2013); Forgotten Men (1933); Peeping Tom (1960); Excision (2012); Red Sorghum (1987); Amores Perros (2000); Splinter (2008); Audition (1999)

Originally released in 1924 but recently restored by the magicians who work at the BFI to a gloriously high definition standard, The Great White Silence uses real footage from Captain Scott’s two-year long ill-fated journey to the South Pole aboard the Terra Nova ten years earlier. Nevertheless, it is as provocative and inspirational now as I’m sure it would’ve been to those viewing it 90 years ago. I was completely taken by surprise with it. In fact, I’ve no memory of even adding it to my LOVEFiLM rental list! However it got there, I’m glad it did because I have never been taken aback by the breathtaking beauty in a documentary quite like I was with this. I had no idea that this 100 year old footage even existed, let alone that the expedition was immortalised by Herbert G. Ponting. It was absolutely fascinating to see Captain Scott and his crew trampling snow underfoot that had never seen human life before. The optimism in the air is captured tremendously well considering there wasn’t even any sound recorded, just film footage. Unsurprisingly, that does give proceedings a rather ominous tone given the fact we know what ends up happening to Scott and his four friends. It’s just a tremendous documentary and an incredible restoration to boot.


secret sunshineAugust – House (1977); Revenge of the Ninja (1983); The Battery (2013); American Movie (1999); The Battle of Algiers (1966); Doomsday Book (2012); Oasis (2002); SECRET SUNSHINE (2007); A Separation (2011); Pastoral: To Die in the Country (1974)

With a week in the middle of the month where I was away, and with FrightFest leading me to catching up on a few new-release horrors, I saw very few first time watches that weren’t actually released in 2014. However, for my birthday I did receive an imported copy of Lee Chang-dong’s (the guy who made Peppermint Candy, which I talked about in Part 1) Secret Sunshine. Starring one of my favourite Korean actors, Song Kang-ho, in a supporting role and Jeon Do-yeon absolutely batting it out of the park in the lead role, it’s one of the most moving and genuinely heart-touching performances I have ever seen. After moving from the big city to her recently deceased husband’s small home town in order to start over, and then suffering further tragedy as her only son goes missing, you are completely dragged under the waves of emotional outpouring with no strength to fight against the tides. As she’s constantly battered by family and friends, by well wishers and local creeps, in her fragile state she reaches out for something to soothe her pain. When she finds it in the communal church going community, Lee Chang-dong attempts to unearth exactly why religion and faith can protect someone from their grief, whilst all the time analysing and exploring the fragility of such a thing. It was such a traumatic watch for me that I literally had to take a break in the middle of the movie to go and get a cup of tea! But like with Peppermint Candy, like Poetry, Green Fish and like Oasis (which I also watched for the first time in August), it’s the complexity of the narrative interwoven with multiple layers of emotional depth that leave such a mark on the viewer and why even after pausing for a moment, I had to go back and finish the film. Alas, it was the last film of Lee Chang-dong’s I had left to watch, and it has left a hole in my cinematic heart because I know there’s no more feature length films directed by him out there left for me to consume.


ordetSeptember – American Mary (2012); The Importance of Being Earnest (2002); The Breakfast Club (1985); An Education (2009); The Midnight Meat Train (2008); Lord of the Flies (1963); ORDET (1955); Le Jour se lève (aka Daybreak) (1939); Potpourri (2011); Happiness: The Himalayan Boy and the TV Set (2013)

Released in the US as ‘The Word‘, Ordet is Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s only financially and critically (upon initial release) successful film in his entire canon. Whereas something like The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) may be one of my favourite ever films, as it is for a lot of other people too, it was a financial flop due to the surrounding controversy and lack of distribution / censorship resulting from that. His films were not always immediately accepted by critics, either. Vampyr was famously booed at festivals and became one of the leading factors in his nervous breakdown. However, back in September, you would not have heard me booing him nor his work as I became utterly engrossed with this extraordinary story. Much like Secret Sunshine come to think of it, the key aspect seems to be one of the human will power and ability of the mind, versus that of faith and religion. It tells the tale of three brothers, their devout father and Inger, married to one of the brothers who is agnostic, in a small 1920’s farming community. The youngest brother plans to marry a girl from another local “rival” community. The final brother is called Johannes, who is the most interesting character in the film by far. He used to study religious texts but has gone slightly insane and now thinks he’s Jesus Christ. As a film, it’s less about a story and more of a naturalistic look at people; how family and religion and faith all come together and what that means to different people. It may have a rather tepid pace, but this only forces you to think for yourself about what’s going on, about seeing beyond what’s there on screen, and look deeper into it. Of the five Dreyer films I’ve seen, it’s certainly the closest to bettering The Passion of Joan of Arc that he came.


corman's worldOctober – The Masque of the Red Death (1964); A Bucket of Blood (1959); The Fly (1986); The Fall of the House of Usher (1960); Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966); CORMAN’S WORLD: EXPLOITS OF A HOLLYWOOD REBEL (2011); Fright Night (1985); The Intruder (1962); Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954); The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

Seeing as how I’ve already written a lengthy article chronicling my attempts to watch a horror film every single day throughout October in my Horrorble Month piece, I don’t think there’s much point repeating myself! Suffice to say, I discovered during those 31 days leading up to Halloween that I am an enormous fan of Roger Corman. After inducting myself to his work primarily via Vincent Price when researching films for the Decade In Film: 1964 article, I became fascinated by him. At some point during the month I was recommended the documentary Corman’s World, which had as profound an effect on me as I think Life Itself appears to have done for Callum. Quite rightly a hero to many thanks to his plethora of b-movies, both those directed and the hundreds he produced, to fans and colleagues alike (indeed, Martin Scorsese, Jack Nicholson, Ron Howard, Peter Fonda, Dick Miller etc all pay tribute to him in the documentary). The ambition and drive that Roger Corman has is infectious and an inspiration. If you want to make a movie, then do it. Don’t wait for somebody to tell you that you can, or that you’re good enough. If you’re prepared to work hard and if you are talented, then you can make it. Eventually. Maybe.


nashville_b3.tifNovember – Life is Beautiful (1997); NASHVILLE (1975); Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988); My Bloody Valentine (1981); Creepshow 2 (1987); Panic Room (2002); Miller’s Crossing (1990); Monkey Shines (1988); Black Rain (1989); The Mummy (1959)

I did not do it! I did not pick The Room after Carole made us watch in for the podcast! I didn’t! It’s bullshit. I did not! Oh, hi folks. November was not a fantastic month for first time watches for me (excluding 2014 releases, of course). Barely any of those listed above scored any more than 3.5 stars out of 5. Well, excluding the Robert Altman directed, Joan Tewkesbury written musical drama Nashville, that is. As anyone who has read our Meet the Critics page will be aware, I bloody hate musicals. Even more so when it is essentially country music. To give a little bit of context as to why I ended up watching this; for much of November, my internet was down. This meant I finally had to open that envelope from LOVEFiLM (yes, it’s a perennial problem that I leave them on the side unopened for up to 6 weeks at a time before bothering with them) and put on the three hour long DVD. After 20 minutes in, I really wanted to give up on Nashville. It just wasn’t winning me over, I hated the music, it seemed completely devoid of plot and interesting characters, and was so, so slow. Even 20 minutes from the end, despite a vast improvement, I was still checking the digital display on my blu-ray player, trying to work out how long was left. And then…. it ended. And I was gutted. Quite unaware of exactly what had happened, it seems that despite my protestations at terrible country music, an inordinate run time and a lack of uniquely interesting characters, I was actually gutted that Nashville had finished. So I sat there, I thought about it, and came to the conclusion that actually, I had enjoyed it. More than enjoyed, I had really, really liked it. I realised that the character is the place, and the people, and the music, and all that it entails. The story is the simple story of life. Of celebrity, of love, of exploitation, of triumph, humiliation, of belonging, of culture, of family… of Nashville. It wasn’t just a well acted and well shot film. It was a key hole and I had been peering through it solidly for 160 minutes, confused, enthralled and unaware.


3-ironDecember – Brother (2000); Bait (2012); Skeletons (2010); Afflicted (2012); Labyrinth (1986); Willow (1988); Scrooge (1951); The Coast Guard (2002); L.A. Confidential (1997); 3-IRON (2004)

December became mostly a month of fantasy films. After watching the entire extended edition Lord of the Rings trilogy, and re-watching the two Hobbit films in preparation for The Battle of the Five Armies in November, I ended up ploughing through films like Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, Willow, Legend, Krull and so on. Yet, it wasn’t any of these that were my favourite first time watches during December. In fact, towards the very end of the month, in that gap between Christmas and New Year, I watched a boat load of Kim Ki-duk movies. Moebius, his entirely dialogue free story of a boy whose mother cuts his penis off in his sleep and eats it in a revenge attack against her husband/his father for sleeping around, which is as weird as it sounds, ended up making my top 10 films of the year list when submitting my votes in the Failed Critics Awards. I already liked his films like Pieta and probably his most famous work Spring Summer Fall Winter… And Spring. Yet, I had a few movies on my DVD shelf that were unwatched and what ended up becoming my favourite films of his (and of the whole of December), watched on the penultimate day of the year, was 3-Iron. Whilst nowhere near as bizarre as Moebius, or even Pieta, it was even better. The plot begins following a young man who appears to reside in the shadows (metaphorically speaking), breaking into the houses of people who are away from their homes and spends the night there. He does a few domestic chores, takes a few photos of himself around the place, that sort of thing. It’s all a bit creepy, but ultimately harmless. Upon entering one home he assumes is unoccupied, he ends up meeting Lee Seung-yeon, who appears to be in an abusive relationship. I say “appears” because neither Lee Seung-yeon nor Lee Hyun-kyoon have any dialogue. At all. The message seems to be that love can transcend language. What you feel is not restricted to the sounds that you can make with your mouth. It’s the way that what’s unsaid is actually what’s being whispered the loudest that makes 3-Iron his most beautiful, soft and haunting film. The final 5 minutes are probably the best thing he has committed to film in his entire career.


And that’s it! My favourite 120 non-2014-release first-time-watches of each month from last year. With a bit of luck, 2015 will be just as consistent with each new discovery. Thanks for reading!

Mr Turner

Mr Turner successfully captures the beauty of JMW Turner’s work whilst remaining itself a believable, entertaining, fascinating period piece full of natural wonder and intelligence.

by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)

mr turner 2To anybody even remotely familiar with my writing in the past, or who knows the kinds of films I enjoy, I think it’s fair to say I would not take offence to anybody labelling me as a philistine.. within context, of course. I love a wide variety of movies. You know those annoying people you sometimes meet and when asked “so what kind of [music/film/novel/other-small-talk-related-topic] do you like?”, they rather indifferently respond “oh, anything really”. Well I apologise in advance because I do pretty much like anything when it comes to films. The only caveat being it has to be good.

And, 99% of the time, not a musical.

Of course, I don’t like every film I’ve seen. But  I like to think that I know a little bit about the films that I do like. Hell, even the books I’ve enjoyed and their authors I’d like to think I know a little bit about them too. However, when it comes to painters or other artists, I’m afraid I belong to the great unwashed masses. To coin a phrase (that Google is struggling to attribute to any particular individual,) “I may not know art, but I know what I like”. Similarly, I may not know JMW Turner, but I know that I like director Mike Leigh’s Palme d’Or nominated period drama based on the final 25 years of the titular character’s life.

‘Pointing out the obvious’ alert! There’ll be three main types of people who will go to see this film: those who know a lot about Turner and his incredible body of work, looking to make sure Leigh has done him justice; those who know a little about him, who he was, what he painted, the time he lived in, and this movie will fill in the gaps; and then there’s the ignorant fools like me who are basically seeing this because of either the cast, directors, or to see what all that fuss at the Cannes film festival was about. At a push I probably could’ve told you he was around in the Dickensian / Victorian era, painted landscapes, and that the Turner Prize is named after him. That’s about it. What’s great about this film then is how it immediately grabbed my attention and held it for virtually the entire 150 minute run time. It wasn’t dumbed down or patronising in the slightest, yet neither was it too high-brow nor intellectual. The balance was just about perfect.

Timothy Spall’s ‘Best Actor’ performance as ‘Billy’ Turner is a fitting tribute to a genius artist. As he grunts, groans and ‘harumph’s his way through a quarter of a century of Turner’s life, you really get a sense of who the man actually was beyond just a signature at the bottom of a painting of boats. What he was like in his private life, how he interacted with his peers and fellow painters, all of his flaws and traits that he possessed, they are all brought to life stunningly by a truly excellent performance. He wasn’t alone. Dorothy Atkinson, Paul Jesson, Marion Bailey and Martin Savage were all worthy of mention for the part they played in bringing this story to the silver screen.

Whilst that side of the film might not have been a problem for me personally, I can’t help thinking, if only I’d have known just a little bit more about him prior to sitting down in that uncomfortable cinema seat for two and a half hours, I’m sure I would have gotten a lot more out of it. If only I’d have known more about his paintings and art, then there’d have been a whole other dimension opened allowing me to enjoy the film on a completely separate level. All I could do in this regard is watch and listen to the cultured spiffing what-what professorial gentlemen types of Oxford who I happened to be sharing the cinema screen with. With my stereotyping of the kind of crowd there to see an art-house movie, I could hear audible gasps at times for (what I presume were) paintings that they recognised were being brought to life before our eyes. I wish I could tell you which paintings specifically, but even to a philistine like me, it looked breathtaking. And also painstakingly detailed.

Dick Pope was the cinematographer for the film and won the Vulcan prize for technical artist at Cannes – he’s also been nominated for a BIFA this week – and deservedly so because it is an absolutely gorgeous movie. Mike Leigh should almost definitely get credit too for that, but between them, they’ve made early 19th century Britain look beautiful. Well, between them pair and Turner, of course!

In a lot of ways actually it reminded me of last year’s The Great Beauty. Turner was just a larger than life man who had the extraordinary ability to observe the staggering beauty of the world around him, whilst also participating in it. He’s a ship being thrashed by the waves of one of his own seascapes. He’s not portrayed as a saint, nor is he particularly debauched. He’s just a man with his own issues, but that’s all he is. A man with a notepad and a pencil.

It feels like I’m nitpicking in talking about any negatives associated with this film. It’s a film that will take a while for you to digest everything that has occurred, mostly because through the course of the run time, a lot of subtle changes take place. One thing that I noticed immediately after leaving the cinema on my drive home was that I didn’t really get a sense that 25 years had passed. Obviously you can tell time is passing as events unfold, but how much time I was never certain. However, that didn’t effect the quality of the movie. It was inconsequential in the scheme of things.

Ultimately, it’s a moving, beautiful story that looks as good as you would hope. Fans of Turner will presumably enjoy it as much as, if not more so, than the layman like me who just wanted to see a good film. Which, it is.

Mr Turner is in cinemas right now. You can hear Owen review the film on the next episode of the Failed Critics podcast.

Before I Go To Sleep

There’s this film that exists in the real world that tells the story of someone who, each day, forgets everything that has happened to them. A form of amnesia that’s rife for basing a mystery-movie around. A twist here, a shock there, a revelation half way through that changes everything that’s gone before; it was an ambitious project that was both original and very entertaining.

by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)

IMG_0124.CR2But enough about Memento. (See what I did there? They’re both about.. ah, never mind.) The lazy and obvious comparisons to Christopher Nolan’s award winning hit from 2000 (and currently the 40th most popular film of all time according to the IMDb ‘Top 250‘) pretty much end here.

Rowan Joffe’s movie, based on the S. J. Watson best seller of the same name, stars Nicole Kidman as the lonely amnesiac ‘Christine’ (as her doctor (Mark Strong) refers to her. Or ‘Chris’, as her husband Ben (Colin Firth) calls her. Or Chrissie, as her only friend calls her. Depends on which character you like most, I suppose?) Christine suffers from anterograde amnesia, which affects her short-term memory. Every night, Christine’s mind erases everything she’s learned that day. She will always wake up the following morning with absolutely no recollection of anything that has happened to her since she was involved in a traumatic event several years ago. She’s now forty years old and has no memory whatsoever of meeting Ben, never mind marrying him. With the aid of a daily morning routine consisting of her spouse explaining her condition, reading post-it notes with her name on stuck to photographs in the bathroom and answering the phone to a doctor claiming to be treating her without Ben’s knowledge, she slowly begins to unravel the mysteries of her past. Both recent and distant.

A common pitfall for psychological dramas is often the over-reliance on putting all of its eggs into a shock-twist basket, delivered approximately two-thirds to three-quarters of the way through, that suddenly changes how you see everything that’s gone before it. A frequently used example of how to do this successfully would be the Darth Vader reveal in Star Wars. Not only is it timed to perfection, but it changes character dynamics and their motivations, greatly impacts the story and comes as a massive surprise (ignoring the fact that it’s pretty well known these days). Just take a look at YouTube for some of the reactions kids have had to that scene. That is how a good twist should make you feel.

There are some notable down sides, though. Focussing too much on a twist can also detract from the overall quality of a film. If the build up is too weak or obvious, meaning you see it coming from a mile away, then it loses the shock value thus leaving the viewer quite rightly thinking “so what?”. If the twist turns things around too far, it becomes ridiculous, unbelievable and nonsensical, in turn removing that vital suspension of disbelief. Tease the twist too much and the audience will start to suspect that what’s happening on screen is little more than filler and thus get bored of waiting for the inevitable. There’s a very fragile balance to be maintained that few great psychological thrillers manage to tread.

However, what if the entire film was a series of twists? What if all that the main character knew about herself – about the situation she’s in, her back story, about who the other people in her life are etc – what if that was the same as what you (the viewer) knew? That is to say, virtually nothing. From learning about her family, to receiving a phone call from Dr Nash informing her that she’s sneaking around behind her husband’s back to receive treatment; these are all revelations for the main character, as well as for the audience. You learn as she learns with each progressing day with only the benefit that you can remember this information, rather than requiring a video diary every 5 minutes.

Of course, in a film like this, some of these revelations hold a much greater significance than others. Unfortunately, Before I Go To Sleep does have issues in maintaining interest in each new piece of information that it bombards you with. Some of which are (as you would expect) red herrings and others do not seem to hold any importance to what’s going on at all. Whereas some of the seemingly more relevant disclosures are definitely worth waiting for. They mix things up, creating new angles to the relationship between doctor/patient, or husband/wife. Details of which were apparently spoiled the other day live on the BBC Breakfast during an interview with Nicole Kidman. Obviously I’m not going to tell you what was revealed! That would be completely unfair of me. Wouldn’t it, BBC?

How many viewers do you reckon watch that show gets? A million? Two million? I bloody hate spoilers.

I digress. There’s very little fat to trim from this short 90 minute movie, but there are elements that are very repetitious. By its very nature, they are issues that there’s no getting around. Spanning approximately two weeks of Christine’s life, there will be days where she has to repeat certain actions. The majority of these are tucked away very cleverly in overlay narration, but occasionally it gets irksome. It’s also too uneventful for a thriller, with most of the major events in the plot occurring through conversation or exposition. In addition, it’s too light-weight for a serious drama. The dialogue in particular leaves a lot to be desired. Nicole Kidman is a good actress. If she’s scared, we’re going to know she’s scared from the way she’s behaving. Was it really necessary to make her exclaim “I’m scared” so often? Superfluous dialogue like that has no justification and patronises those who are watching the movie.

Whilst I’m on the topic of Nicole Kidman, she plays Christine in a very plausible way. It is easy to believe she is genuinely suffering from this illness and is an emotional wreck because of Kidman’s ability to convincingly portray that high level and range of emotion. She doesn’t overdo (nor underplay) her role. Essentially, she makes the most of a rather wishy-washy script. There’s dashes of humour throughout the film, but they’re few and far between and quite possibly the weakest aspect of her performance. Colin Firth and Mark Strong are pretty much the only other two main characters who are given any worthwhile screen time, save for a late appearance from Anne-Marie Duff. They are, on the whole, decent. Firth, playing the tired and manipulative husband, hides some dark truths from Kidman that gradually begin to seep out as her relationship develops with the uncharacteristically non-menacing Mark Strong. We’re not talking The King’s Speech or A Single Man heights for him, but of the two main support characters, he probably has the most complex role to play and does it to a good enough standard. Firth and Kidman have a similar level of on screen chemistry to that which they achieved together in The Railway Man earlier this year, but it’s nothing special.

The saving grace for this welterweight whodunnit is the fact that, for at least 60 to 75 minutes, it will keep you guessing. You forgive any moments of boredom or sillyness (and there’s plenty here that is utterly ridiculous, by the way) because there’s always a “what happens next” waiting for you around the corner to peak your interest. It establishes its premise quickly and without any wasted time, barely leaving pause for thought about just how absurd the plot is. But as shaky foundation after shaky foundation is built upon, it does wobble towards the end like a Weeble without totally falling down. It’s a fine one time watch that won’t pull up any trees. But, a bit like rain on your wedding day or a free ride when you’ve already paid, you’ll probably have forgotten most of it by the time you get up for work the next day.

Before I Go To Sleep is out in cinemas nationwide right now. You can find Owen ranting and raving about whatever film he’s seen lately over on Twitter.