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Certain Women

certain-women

Intentionally quiet and slight arguably to a fault, Certain Women nonetheless is not without its charms.

I want to love Certain Women.  I really and truly do.  Even within the more independent filmmaking world, Certain Women represents a sort of breath of fresh air by its mere existence.  In a sphere of film mostly dedicated to Sad White Men dealing with their Sad White Men problems in a low-key fashion, here is a film all about depicting the mundane lives of three women.  And when I say “mundane,” I really do mean “mundane;” these are lives that are profoundly uneventful even when they are, by comparative metric, eventful.  Writer-Director Kelly Reichardt, who has made her name with measured and uneventful interpretations of stories that are usually fodder for more traditionally thrilling fare, here adapts a few short stories by Maile Meloy and consequently works with set-ups that are devoid of basically any kind of dramatic conflict whatsoever.  One story never acknowledges an earlier potential conflict generator in its own story, another simmers on words unsaid but never truly boils over, and the third intentionally deflates itself at the first opportunity in the driest possible way.

In effect, what you end up watching is less of a series of short narratives with clear beginnings, climaxes, conflicts, etc. and more a collection of snapshots of ordinary if lonely women living their lives.  These kinds of lives just don’t get told in Film that often, not in this kind of frank and empathetic way, and especially not for women.  Women in the rural-American Mid-West, no less!  Dealing with loneliness and isolation in a world that often attempts to forget they even exist.  So, I do want to love Certain Women.

I just can’t quite get there, though.  That same intentional quietness and deliberate pacing that provides the film’s selling point is also its major weakness for me.  All three stories touch on the same themes, have the same pacing, and are so intentionally slight that my mind couldn’t help but wander from time to time.  There may be a tangible empathy here, particularly in the stunning final segment, but there’s also just a bit too much of a sedate distance to proceedings, where the film is purposefully avoiding anything eventful and instead filling up that time with very long takes where not very much happens at all.  When the film is clicking on all cylinders, where its stories ache with a noticeable pain and quiet suffering, it’s not an issue.  But when it’s anything less than that, either by not sketching that story’s protagonist deeply enough or holding an interminably long conversation that’s going nowhere in no particular hurry, then it starts to poke holes in the enterprise.

That, I guess, is my way of saying that not all of the stories are created equal.  The first involves a lawyer, Laura (Laura Dern), dealing with a long-disgruntled client (Jared Harris).  The second has a married couple, Gina (Michelle Williams) and Ryan (James le Gros), trying to convince a somewhat-crotchety old man (René Auberjonois) to sell them some sandstone that they can use to build their house in the wilds.  The third, and best by a country mile, follows a lonely Ranch Hand (newcomer Lily Gladstone) as she finds herself drawn to a night school class and forges a connection with the teacher, amateur lawyer and out-of-towner Beth (Kristen Stewart).  The second is the millstone, somewhat fittingly, that drags down the rest of the enterprise, being so slow and so uneventful that I found myself checking my watch frequently and wondering if there was a point being made at all with it.  There is, it’s just that said point is made almost immediately and the segment fails to find any further spins on it for the rest of its run time.

It’s also the most dialogue-heavy of the three segments, or at least feels like it, and the most static.  Strangely, dialogue often turns out to be a crutch for Certain Women as a whole.  It’s not that any of it is bad, sometimes it even manages to provide some dryly humorous levity to proceedings, it’s more that the film’s most powerful moments come from a lack of.  From words unsaid, from connections unrealised, from an honesty that can’t quite be reached.  Gina goes off on runs that are more excuses to sneak a cigarette without Ryan knowing, whilst Ryan is revealed in the first story to be having an affair with Laura but her story never allows him the chance to finish his attempt at ending the thing, whilst the moment that the third story gets as close to an honest admission of feelings as its protagonists can, the resultant pause communicates more hurt than a thousand words ever could.

These are women who feel isolated from society around them, lacking in any real meaningful connections or any connections at all.  Christopher Blauvelt’s cinematography, which is low-key gorgeous for the record, goes to great lengths to frame each of these women as separate from the rest of the world around them, for that kind of isolation and enforced distance to become quietly wearying on the viewer like it is for the women themselves.  How society renders them all-but-invisible in subtle ways that are only picked up on by those on the receiving end – Laura’s client only accepts the exact same judgement that Laura’s been telling him for the past 8 months once it comes out of a man’s mouth, the old man that Gina is trying to buy the sandstone from often straight up ignores her and talks solely to Ryan instead, whilst the Ranch Hand deliberately secludes herself at the back of the class lesson after lesson and is ignored wholesale by the rest of the class members, despite one student’s claim that “we all know each other.”

Rather than dance around the point any further, I’ll just come right out and say it: the reason that you need to watch Certain Women, even if the whole doesn’t quite rise like it should and its second story is just kind of dull, is for that third story.  That’s where everything comes together – the writing, the measured pacing, the commitment to depicting the crushing mundanity of a lonely life, the empathy for all those involved, and the quiet pain of longing constantly flowing under the surface – to deliver a phenomenal half hour that builds to a closing oner which devastates ever more the longer that it runs.  It also stands head and shoulders above the rest of the stories due to the performances and unique chemistry of Stewart and Gladstone, both awkwardly dancing around the central question of their connection with a tangible caution clearly born out of a desire to not hurt or get hurt that only serves to make those unsaid words cut that much deeper.  Gladstone, especially, is a full-on revelation, particularly when that final shot comes around.

I kinda wish, in all honesty, that Certain Women were just that story, since then I’d be able to properly love it.  Don’t get me wrong, this is in no way a bad film, not in any respect, even that second segment isn’t bad so much as I just found it wholly unengaging.  For me, though, just under 110 minutes of this much deliberate slowness and intentionally minor storytelling was ultimately a little too tiring for me to be able to properly love.  I’m honestly fine with that, however, and not just because I know that there are certain people who will absolutely adore Certain Women.  When the film clicks like it does many times during the final story, the resultant cinema is enrapturing.  And even when it’s not, there really is something to be said for its commitment to realising and empathising with the sort of uneventful (often) middle-aged female life that it squarely focusses on.  We can’t all have dramatic lives.  Sometimes, all we can ask for is to be acknowledged by anybody at all.

Certain Women is playing in UK cinemas from March 3rd.

Callum Petch sees what we’re gonna forget.  He can usually be found at his own website, callumpetch.com.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

London Film Festival 2016: Day 4

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by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

You would think that I would have gotten up bright and early on Saturday morning in order to catch the press screening for DreamWorks Animation’s Trolls, given that I am still (to my knowledge) the film critic who is the world’s leading expert on the works of DreamWorks Animation thanks to The DreamWorks Animation Retrospective.  I chose to skip Trolls, however.  I wanted to have a minor lay-in, for one, but primarily it was due to the film dropping in UK cinemas in just over 2 weeks, so seeing it with such a small gap between festival and theatrical screenings felt like wasting precious festival time – hence why I also skipped Thursday’s screening of American Honey.  I am at a film festival, as a credited member of the press, able to see a whole gaggle of films that either won’t be out for several months or won’t make it to Hull at all, so I should take full advantage of that fact!  Indeed, I was going to instead see the other animated feature being screened that morning, Psychonauts: The Forgotten Children (Grade: D+)!

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This was a choice that I would come to regret.  Based on the graphic novel of the same name by co-director Alberto Vásquez, Psychonauts – and, no, it has no relation to the beloved videogame, in order to get the obvious jokes and ignorance out of the way immediately – is set on an island of animal-people hybrids ravaged by some kind of industrial disaster that has split the island into two halves.  The titular Forgotten Children live in the trash-filled Industrial Zone, spending their days searching for copper they can sell for money to buy food which they in turn sell for more copper, caught hopelessly in this cycle of poverty.  The slightly more civilised parts of the island, meanwhile, are all desperate to escape and make their way to The Big City across the sea, in the meantime succumbing to drug addictions that appear to manifest themselves as literal malicious demons, and persecuting the mute Birdboy, an addict whose father sold drugs to children and whom the island’s police force wrongly believe is following in his father’s footsteps.

Hopefully you already see the main problems here.  Psychonauts is far too messy and barely coherent, featuring too many characters – including Birdboy, the Forgotten Children, a group of teenagers trying to get off the island, a fisherman caring for his heroin-addicted mother, and far too many others – each with their own plots, many crossing paths several times, and all utilising different metaphors that complicate any potential message.  Addicts and those suffering from mental illnesses have literal demons that appear to overtake the host’s entire being and can cause harm separate from the host themselves, for example.  The Forgotten Children get barely any screen time and the film never asks the viewer to properly sympathise with them, either, lest its big violent 3rd act setpiece become too offputtingly disturbing for the viewer.  Hell, the film doesn’t even manage to establish a coherent geography of the island itself; I spent much of the film thinking the Industrial wastelands were a framework for a story being told in-medias-res rather than a going concern.

The film is too quirky for its own good, throwing every possible trippy image at the wall and hoping that something sticks – in this world, even otherwise inanimate objects have conscience thought and coherent speech, for some utterly bizarre reason.   Admittedly, the animation is visually striking, which is what saves the film from being a total waste, but it’s also, design-wise, nothing you haven’t seen in the notebook of an emo high-school kid from back in the mid-2000s.  Plus, like with Ari Folman’s visually-trippy but thematically-muddled and narratively-empty The Congress, all the visual trippiness in the world can’t make up for a lack of story and a hopelessly muddled thematic core.

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On the subject of film choices I came to regret before the credits rolled, Una (Grade: D), or “What if a paedophile were actually a really honourable and upstanding man aside from the whole ‘grooming and molesting an underage child’ thing?”  Una wants to tackle our preconceptions of consent and rape, kind of similarly to Paul Verhoeven’s Elle (which I saw and discussed in yesterday’s piece), by demonstrating that the case isn’t always as clear-cut for either party as it may appear on paper, that there are long-term ramifications for both parties, especially if one of them sincerely believes that they are in love with the other.  There is a way to tell a story like this, where we come to understand both characters and their headspaces, see them as complex people with wants and desires that aren’t as simple as society would have us believe, and how that can be more disturbing than pat simplicity, or at the very least can be told in a way that isn’t a horrifying mess…

…this ain’t it.  Instead, Una proceeds to spend much of its 94 minutes providing sympathy and understanding and explanations for the rapist, and basically nothing for the title character (Rooney Mara).  Ray (Ben Mendelsohn) gets to plead his side of things repeatedly, cycling through all of the stock bulls**t excuses, complaining about how the 3 month “mistake” ruined his life, and how he had to fight with all of his might to turn things around and claw together the pretty nice life he has now, with a new name, a decent job, and a wife oblivious to his past.  Una, initially, gets to give as good as Ray’s got, tearing down his “woe-is-me” arguments and angrily retorting with how she never got the chance to get her life back thanks to him.  But eventually, she starts to give up, as does he, and the two start to work towards the admission that maybe there was something sincere there between them once, and that may still be there now, 15 years on.  That is interesting, if handled well, and Una proceeds to squander it massively by shifting in its final third to making Ray ultimately a “nice guy” and Una the crazy woman who can’t let the past go.

This massive lapse in judgement ends up occurring as a result of the multitude of smaller, easily avoidable mistakes that litter the film up to that point – first-time film director Benedict Andrews filming almost all of the flashbacks in romantic soft-focus like this were any normal love story, the script not giving Una the depth or comebacks that Ray ends up getting, and awkwardly shoe-horned in subplots only serve the purpose of trying to make Ray likeable all being particular offenders.  Then on just a film level, away from those problematic undertones, it’s just far too blandly shot, uninvolving, and stagey (the film is an adaptation of writer David Harrower’s own play Blackbird and it really shows by the halfway point) to be worth anyone’s time.  Ben Mendelsohn is putting in excellent work playing the character as written, but it’s ultimately wasted on, well, the character as written.  Una is utterly abhorrent, and the worst part is that I don’t even think it knows just how far off-base it ends up going.  Christ, Election did this far better and it wasn’t even a main part of that film!

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Continuing a day of disappointments all round, although this one is much milder and subjective than the others, I must confess to not quite “getting” Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women (Grade: B-).  Taking place across 3 mostly unconnected segments, the film essentially dramatises a day or two in the life of a group of women whose lives are uneventful even when they are, by some metric, eventful.  The first follows a lawyer (Laura Dern) as she deals with a difficult client (Jared Harris), the second follows a working mother (Michelle Williams) with her husband (James le Gros) as she tries to buy sandstone from a crotchety old man (René Auberjonois) in order to build her house, and the third follows a lonely Native American rancher (Lily Gladstone) who tries to strike up a relationship with an overworked lawyer (Kristen Stewart) who is teaching a night class on School Law.  Each of these segments run about 30 minutes a piece, start unassumingly, end suddenly, move very glacially, and nothing much happens in any of them.

This is very much by design, mind you.  Reichardt takes great pleasure in subjecting the viewer to the same boring suffocating loneliness that most of the film’s characters experience, and the overall point, if there even is one since I found very little to connect the three segments beyond them all taking place in and representing a forgotten rural American town, appears to be depicting life.  Monotonous, day-to-day, glacial life.  I can respect that intent, though I do still side with anybody who ends up watching the film and, by the 7th minute of Gina and Ryan’s interminable conversation with Albert or the 14th scene of the rancher riding around the snow on her ATV chased by her adorable dog, yelling, “OK, YES, WE GET THE POINT, ALREADY!  DO SOMETHING, FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY!”  It can be too slow and dry for its own good, at times, particularly because it’s not aiming to make any grand statements or even perform much of a character study of any of its protagonists.

Certain Women could have been paced better, basically, particularly since it follows up its worst segment (which just goes on for ages and fails to accomplish anything) with by far and away its best.  That final segment is quietly devastating, particularly thanks to the chemistry of Kristen Stewart (inarguably one of the finest actresses working today) and Lily Gladstone (who is one hell of a find and needs a fast-tracked career right the hell now), building up to a phenomenal oner that just broke my heart even deeper the longer it ran on for.  Outside of that segment, though, I was more just appreciative of what the film’s trying to do rather than enthralled or touched by it in any significant way.  It is, in reductive terms, Slow Cinema – cinema that’s paced deliberately for the sake of being paced deliberately – and whilst I can respect it doing exactly what it set out to do and doing it well, I have to admit that it’s not really for me.

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I closed out the day by finally getting an approved press ticket ahead of time for a public screening, that for Jewel’s Catch One (Grade: C), a documentary about the titular nightclub, one of the first openly Black and LGBT discos to open in the USA, and its owner, Jewel Thais-Williams.  It’s an interesting story, examining the club’s societal and cultural significance, its turbulent history, and the life and activism of Jewel herself, a Black working-class lesbian who poured her heart and soul into the club and eventually returning to college to learn various skills that she could apply to her non-profit Village Health Population.  The film is also clearly a labour-of-love, having been worked on for about 6 years, and aims to crowdplease, which it definitely succeeds at judging by the frequent and raucous rounds of applause that occurred during my screening.

Sadly, though, the film is also much too messy and unfocussed to recommend outside of its inevitable home as a Netflix curio.  Part of this is by design, since the subject in question is very locally specific, so archival footage is limited.  Mostly, the film tries to split its chips between the club and Jewel herself.  Either would make a great documentary on its own, but trying to do both at once leads to lots of rushed history, glossed-over sections that should be important (like the founding of the club), and a lack of trying to explain its cultural relevance for those not already up to speed.  There’s a whole extended segment on The AIDS Crisis and I somehow sat there not being particularly moved, which should not be something that happens in a documentary about an LGBT nightclub.  Near the end, the film, on the final night of the club, opts to show a montage of former patrons relating their experiences with and connection to the club, and I could briefly see a glimpse of a far better film than the one we have.  As it stands, Jewel’s Catch One is an interesting story that’s not done enough justice by the documentary telling it.

Day 5: Terence Davies tells the story of Emily Dickinson in A Quiet Passion, Adam Driver plays an introspective poet in Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, and two women get an uninvited dinner guest in Chameleon.

Callum Petch will ease up on our mind.  You can usually find him at callumpetch.com!  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Failed Critics Podcast: Sharman & Other Filth

american_ultra_2015-1366x768Welcome to another edition of the Failed Critics podcast. This week, hosts Steve Norman and Owen Hughes are joined by Paul Field (making his first appearance since the Corridor of Praise: Danny Dyer episode) and Phil Sharman, one third of the award nominated comedy podcast Wikishuffle.

On top of the news about Danny Boyle confirming production will begin on Trainspotting 2, there are two new release films reviewed by the team this week; Nima Nourizadeh’s stoner comedy American Ultra, starring Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, and the Statham-less Statham-vehicle Transp4ter (…no? AKA The Transporter Refueled.) As well as the new releases, Owen discusses the documentary Welcome to Leith (which is screening this week at the Cambridge Film Festival) with Paul, who also reviews Fort Tilden. Phil rewatches a recent favourite in The Adjustment Bureau and Steve follows up on a discussion from last week’s FrightFest summary by checking out Australian pre-post-apocalyptic thriller These Final Hours.

Fans of our classic debates will also be in for a treat as plenty of our most popular topics were brought up for discussion at various points! A conversation about the Netflix series Narcos somehow ends up as a rambling stream of thought about the BBC and future of broadcasting. The Transp4ter review leads into another rant about film classification. We even manage to squeeze in a quick chat on the merits of found footage horrors, American remakes of English language movies and a short quiz complete with dodgy fake accents.

Steve will be on holiday next week but you can join Owen and Phil again, who will be ably assisted by Jack Stewart and Andrew Brooker to review Legend, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and The Visit.

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American Ultra

by Andrew Brooker (@Brooker411)

american ultra 2015“Look at us. We’re the perfect fucked up couple.”

Jessie Eisenberg, a man who gets on my nerves but I can never figure out why; a man who only really has a couple of film credits to his name that I can happily watch more than once and while he’s okay in Zombieland and The Social Network, I tend to enjoy the rest of the film in spite of him being in them. Add to him Kristen Stewart, a woman who I loathed while she was making Twilight films. She very quickly got into my good books recently with stellar performances in movies like Still Alice and Camp X-Ray that gave me hope that she would one day become someone who’s films I would actively seek out and watch whenever a new one came around. On paper, those two, in a not-quite stoner comedy about dodgy CIA dealings left me a little skeptical.

Thankfully, a good trailer and years of reading stories about the American MKUltra program and projects like it had me intrigued and a little excited for American Ultra.

So, American Ultra, a comedy about Jessie Eisenberg’s Mike Howell; a stoner who, unbeknownst to him, is really a government agent that has been trained to kill in a million different ways, with a million different things, but has instead been left to his own devices with his pot smoking girlfriend in a crappy town in the middle of nowhere. Left with some dodgy brain programming that gives him panic attacks whenever he goes near a highway or a plane to leave his hometown keeps him locked in this backwoods little place and safe from prying eyes.

Unfortunately, those prying eyes have been watching him repeatedly try to leave the hole they hid Mike in and make the decision to terminate him before he finds his way out to somewhere important where he could cause trouble. Getting a deepthroat style phone call from up on high to warn her of Mike’s impending demise, Victoria Lasseter, the high-level CIA desk jockey responsible for the program that created Mike, heads to West Virginia to try to save him from the CIA kill team that’s been sent for him. Things quickly go wrong when Lasseter – Connie Britton in yet another film to come out this week that she’s great in – tries to “activate” Mike’s training by saying a suitably ridiculous phrase that should end with Mike going from stoner to trained killer in an instant, but instead of shaking up the assassin locked up inside, the phrase appears to fall on deaf ears.

With the pothead chalking up the visit to just another weirdo and moves on, thinking nothing more of it until a little later on when, in an attempt to stop what he thinks are a pair of low-life thieves from breaking into his car, he finds himself going all Jason Bourne with a pot of noodles and a spoon on a couple of CIA tough guys out to kill him.  The magic phrase seeming to have worked, Lasseter seems to have kick started a chain of events that will have Mike, his girlfriend Pheobe and Lasseter not only uncovering the truth of what has happened to him, but on the run from the CIA’s best agents trying to stay alive with Howell’s skills as a super-spy killer type come in immeasurably handy in this endeavour.

In a well-paced 90-something minutes, American Ultra works very hard to convince you that Jessie Eisenberg could really be a quiet bad-ass with a marijuana habit and for the most part it succeeds very well. As the CIA throws everything, kitchen sink included, at Mike to eliminate the threat that the shady agency has invented out of nowhere, Eisenberg dispatches all the would-be assassins with ease in some well filmed and nicely choreographed action scenes that are very convincing in making me believe that the weird little stoner could in fact be a sleeper agent.  Eisenberg plays the part well enough for me to be happy to watch him pick apart the CIA through a haze of joint smoke.  Armed with a brilliant supporting cast, American Ultra doesn’t mess around with the list of talent the film has managed to attract. The seemingly ageless John Leguizamo throws a great comedy turn as Mike’s dealer of all things, not just drugs; considering the man has clocked up over fifty years on this earth, he certainly doesn’t look or act like it as he channels Gary Oldman’s Drexel in a shiny tracksuit. Kristen Stewart is near flawless as the unwitting super-spy’s girlfriend. I don’t think I’ve seen her showing off her comedy chops yet and here, as with everything I’ve seen her in recently, she doesn’t disappoint. Her timing is great and her comedic acting is splendid. I remain blown away by her talent and hope someone high up sees it too. She deserves a shot at something big someday soon.

Special mention has to go to a man that many will know, but not many will know his name. The FX channel’s veteran nut bag from superb shows like The Shield and Justified, Walt Goggins makes a brilliantly twisted and nasty turn as the CIA’s best (worst?) exterminator “Laugher”. I mean, I always knew the man could play a great psychopath but this is the first time I can remember seeing him doing it on the big screen (okay, I’ll give you Predators, but this is a much bigger role) and boy does he relish it. Stealing every scene he is in and making it his own, this veteran of over two decades of film and TV is still working hard to prove just how good he is. I’m convinced, Mr Goggins, I have been for a long time but wow, you were amazing and terrifying here.

American Ultra‘s comedy is more subtle than I expected it would be. But it is, without a doubt, spectacular. Up there with great comedy dramas like Burn After Reading and The Men Who Stare At Goats, whose comedy is brilliant but not really in-your-face like your average stoner comedy. Make no mistake friends, this isn’t Pineapple Express and it isn’t trying to be. In fact, with a little more practice, this director’s (Nima Nourizadeh) films will easily be confused with the Coen Brothers, such is his style. This is in no way a complaint or an insult, it’s a style and brand of comedy that I adore but feel we are lacking nowadays and I, for one, really appreciate that it’s been brought back with a bang, and a boom, and a slightly tinny sound of a frying pan killing a man, in American Ultra.

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.

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.