Tag Archive | drama

Tarantino’s Django Unchained is right on target

No one quite makes films like Quentin Tarantino.  With a taste for excessive, darkly comedic violence, a flair for sharp-tongued dialogue, and a love for retro stylings, there’s no mistaking the markings of the celebrated, controversial and foul-mouthed filmmaker.  Now, over three years since QT’s last and most successful film, Inglourious Basterds, comes the eagerly anticipated, Django Unchained.  Tarantino fans who have been left salivating in the run up to the film’s release will be thrilled to know that Django Unchained exceeds expectations.

With its events set throughout the Southern United States two-years prior to the Civil War, Django Unchained is very much a slave’s story that isn’t bothered with being about slavery itself.  Greatly indebted to 1966 Spaghetti Western Django, Tarantino introduces the audience to Jamie Foxx’s Django, who trudges along in shackles, whilst Luis Bacalov’s “Django” (his original theme from that very film) plays in full.  It’s the first of many eclectic, oft anachronistic, tracks that add a special touch that only Tarantino can integrate into a film this well.  When German dentist King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) makes his entrance, it’s only a matter of time before Django is, indeed, unchained. The unlikely pairing set out to hunt down wanted outlaws and re-unite Django with his enslaved wife.  As much a love story as it is a revenge tale, Django Unchained, though lengthy, is a fast-paced, enthralling drama full of over-the-top bloodiness, coarse language and rich characterisation.  Of course, as always with QT, it’s all delivered with a certain level of tongue-in-cheek humour (including an odd cameo appearance from the man himself) that ensures Django Unchained is utterly enjoyable from beginning to end.
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Life of Pi delivers a powerful cinematic adventure

With Life of Pi, director Ang Lee took on a considerable challenge.  The practical issues presented by Yann Martel’s 2001 award winning novel become glaringly obvious from the premise that places a young man adrift at sea in a lifeboat shared with a Bengal tiger.  Yet another important question Lee may have been faced with was, how to reach an increasingly God-less public with this strikingly spiritual tale.  The 2011 English and Welsh census has recently revealed a 10% increase in those who consider themselves to be of no religion compared to 2001′s numbers.  Luckily, Lee and screenwriter David Magee have risen to the occasion by, not only taming the logistical beasts of such a production, but also by ensuring Life of Pi is able to resonate with believers and sceptics alike.

Lee’s Life of Pi takes place in the form of an adult Piscine Patel (Irrfan Khan) recounting his most unique life-story to Rafe Spall’s nameless novelist; one that would, according to rumour, “make me believe in God”, but not before an array of exotic animals take to the screen during the opening credits. They provide a stunning introduction to the kind of gorgeous aesthetics Lee and director of photography Claudio Miranda have in store for the audience.  The delightful origin of Pi’s name makes for a warm welcome to his world, which again allows for several dazzling scenes, including excellent underwater imagery.  The meat of the plot comes when the Patel family’s Canada-bound ship goes down amidst a terrible storm.  Included in the ship’s cargo is a large collection of zoo animals.  Having managed to escape on a lifeboat, which happens to also contain a severely injured zebra, Pi (now played by Suraj Sharma) finds himself lost at sea.  However, it is soon revealed that they are not alone on the canvas covered boat and before long, survival of the fittest leaves Pi in a test of wills with Richard Parker, a fierce, hungry Bengal tiger.  The journey and how it unfolds is inspiring, but intentionally unbelievable, as Martel’s story serves as a contemplative allegory for belief, whatever form that belief might take.
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Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy opens with an unsatisfying Unexpected Journey

Nine years on from Peter Jackson’s last, Academy Award winning visit to Middle Earth, the ambitious director has returned to JRR Tolkien’s world to bring The Hobbit, or There and Back Again to life on the big screen.  Stretching the material over three-lengthy films is just one of the controversial moves Jackson has made, with his decision to film the trilogy in the high frame rate (HFR) of 48 frames per second (as opposed to the traditional 24fps) likely to create as much discussion as the actual content of his films.  Opening a new series that will conclude in December 2014, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey welcomes audiences back to quite familiar territory.  However, anyone expecting to quickly settle back into the comforts of the Lord of the Rings films is in for an uncomfortable surprise.

After a few old friends ease viewers into this pre-Fellowship of the Ring tale, the pace of An Unexpected Journey idles whilst the new, sizable cast is introduced.  At the forefront is Martin Freeman, having been passed Bilbo’s torch from Ian Holm.  Sixty years prior to the start of The Fellowship of the Ring, a young Bilbo is unwittingly recruited for an adventure by Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen, looking noticeably and understandably older than when last seen donning the wizard’s cap).  Gandalf leads a band of Dwarves out to reclaim their homeland, now ruled by Smaug, a treasure loving dragon of mammoth proportions, and believes the Halfling to be the perfect complement to the ragtag group of warriors.  Jackson lingers considerably in Bilbo’s home, setting the pieces in play and engaging in some light comedy before allowing for a song break.  When Gandalf declares “all good stories deserve embellishment”, it’s as if Jackson himself is justifying this unexpected stalling.  Though this time is used to provide a feel for several of the multitude of characters, with such a long road ahead for all parties involved, it feels unnecessary to drag The Hobbit’s hairy feet so blatantly.
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Trouble with the Curve avoids striking out

It’s been nearly 20 years since Clint Eastwood was last seen on the silver screen in a film he didn’t direct, 1993’s In the Line of Fire.  For Trouble with the Curve, Eastwood’s perennial bridesmaid-never-the-bride assistant director Robert Lorenz finally gets his day in the sun, as he takes the reins, whilst under his mentor’s squinty-eyed watch.  The resulting baseball-heavy film is an unspectacular slice of cinematic Americana that explores ageing, abandonment and insecurity.

Screenwriter Randy Brown’s story introduces Trouble with the Curve’s central character in the most memorably unusual of ways, as Eastwood’s aged professional baseball scout, Gus, is first seen arguing with his lethargic penis.  It’s a moment that makes one wonder whether Eastwood’s infamous Republican National Convention speech, where he had a discussion with a chair, wasn’t just a clever stealth marketing ploy.  With rapidly deteriorating eyesight and a high profile draft pick to be made, the grumpily defiant Gus rejects the protestations of his doctor (sporting a sure-fire best supporting toupee nominee) and offers of assistance from his legal-eagle daughter, Mickey (Amy Adams).  Trouble with the Curve rather predictably brings Gus, Mickey and former major league prospect, turned rival scout ,Johnny Flanagan (Justin Timberlake, yet again turning on the nice-guy charm) together in sunny, southern US locales as they try to determine whether or not hefty, diva-in-the-making Bo Gentry (Joe Massingill) really is the next big thing the statisticians make him out to be.  Very much a counter-point to Moneyball, Trouble with the Curve is all about heart and experience over clever thinking and that darn, new-fangled technology.
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Captivating and deeply affecting, The Hunt is not to be missed

The Dogme 95 movement, co-founded by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, emphasised storytelling as the heart of filmmaking, whilst rejecting flash and big budgets.  Vinterberg’s 1998 feature Festen was the first of many films that embraced the concepts put forth by the Danish directors.  While Festen was received to great acclaim, Vinterberg has struggled to find sure footing since.  Following a series of made-for-TV movies and music videos, forays into English-language productions with It’s All About Love and Dear Wendy proved largely unsuccessful.  Now, 14 years on from his most celebrated work, Vinterberg has come storming back with the chillingly relevant Jagten (known as The Hunt in English-speaking markets), a film certain to fuel much discussion and debate amongst its audience.

Penned by the director and Tobias Lindholm, The Hunt portrays a modern-day witch hunt, as a local Danish villager is accused of sexually abusing a child at the school he works at.  Before any actual evidence surfaces, public opinion begins to harshly swing against him.  With the UK swept up in gossip over a paedophilia scandal with links to press and government, The Hunt could hardly have been released at a more appropriate time.  Mads Mikkelsen, already terrific earlier in the year in A Royal Affair, continues his hot-streak with a powerful portrayal of Lucas, the divorced father whose life is torn apart by baseless allegations.  It’s not a spoiler to say that Lucas is wrongly accused, as The Hunt has no pretensions of being a crime-thriller.  Instead, Vinterberg presents a tale of mob paranoia, injustice, familial bonds and loyalty.  That the girl, Klara (Annika Wedderkopp making an intense debut) Lucas is accused of molesting is his best friend’s daughter makes for all the more poignant of circumstances.
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Peña and Gyllenhaal light up End of Watch

Let it never be said that David Ayer doesn’t love Los Angeles.  Or police.  Or police in Los Angeles.  The director of Harsh Times and Street Kings,  has taken on screenwriting duties on his CV for L A-steeped films The Fast and the Furious, Training Day and Dark Blue, to name but a few.  So the fact that his latest effort, End of Watch, which he has written and directed, focuses on a pair of LAPD officers should surprise, roughly, no one at all.  It also, probably, shouldn’t be surprising that even Ayer himself seems to have grown tired of the standard procedure, as he presents End of Watch from an experimental perspective.

Much of End of Watch is exhibited via “found footage”, which is largely culled from Officer Brian Taylor’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) cameras of various shapes and sizes, as he records the daily activities of he and partner Miguel Zavala (Michael Peña) for a film-making class.  Brian and Mike may be low on the food chain, but the idealistic young officers prove to be a dynamic duo, as the audience sees them, over an indeterminate period of time, brave house fires, gun fights and drug cartels.  Yet, the meat of the film is what happens in between these episodes, as the documentary-like structure takes the viewer on patrol with the young guns and bears witness to their brotherly bond through their banter and dynamic.  Talk of family and love is peppered with ball-busting of the most amusing and affectionate nature.  The narrative arc consists of a turf war, which depicts a cultural changing of the guard in South Central Los Angeles, as a Mexican gang assumes power.  Unfortunately, none of this manages to be anywhere near as compelling as the time spent in the cruiser with End of Watch’s heroes.
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Silver Linings Playbook blows its golden performances

Regardless of what one might make of his films, there’s no denying that David O Russell knows how to bring a brilliantly eclectic cast together.  His follow-up to the critically acclaimed The Fighter is no exception, as Silver Linings Playbook brims with A-list Hollywood talent (and Chris Tucker).  A loose adaption of Matthew Quick’s 2008 debut novel of almost the same name, Russell sets the stage for his all-star players to go crazy upon, and, indeed, crazy is the name of the game here.

I’ll have what he’s having.

Bradley Cooper is Pat, he of the silver linings outlook that has helped him pull his post-psychotic-breakdown life back together.  Fresh out of the psychiatric hospital following a lengthy stay, Pat is taken in by his parents, as brought to life by the formidable duo of Jacki Weaver and Robert De Niro.  Though not as unstable as his son, De Niro’s Pat Sr is a rather bonkers, obsessive compulsive bookie, whose behaviour implicitly poses the question of whether or not superstition is a minor form of mental illness.  It’s not just the boys who get to bring the batty, though, as soon Jennifer Lawrence enters the scene as a severely bereaved young widow looking to fill her void, so to speak.  It’s tricky ground that Russell’s treading upon here, as serious portrayals of mental illness tend to be played for laughs.  When Tucker’s chronic escapee keeps popping up, it’s certainly amusing, but it’s difficult to not be tinged with a touch of sadness.  This is more so the case when Pat struggles to readjust to life in a world far less familiar to him following eight months of treatment.  The idea that someone might flip out over Hemingway’s A Call to Arms at four in the morning plays to the idea that the film is merely entertainment.  However, if the intent of Silver Linings Playbook is to elicit an emotional response to the suffering of these characters it asks viewers to care about, then it’s hardly fair to frame how they behave as comical.  Lacking an intelligent balance of heart and humour, Silver Linings Playbook teeters in tone for the first half before it squarely lands in predictable rom-com territory.
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Margin Call delivers economic disaster in the comfort of home

In the years to come, there will likely be many films which tie themselves into 2008’s economic collapse.  For now, with recovery still inching along and dominoes continuing to fall, it’s reasonable to believe that audiences aren’t too eager to revisit capitalisms’ darkest days.  So it was without much fanfare that JC Chandor’s debut feature, Margin Call, slipped into UK cinemas in early 2012.  The home release now gives those who missed it the first time around a chance to catch Margin Call’s terrific cast at work in this Oscar nominated stock market thriller.

An unnamed global financial institution based in Manhattan is filled with some big name stars as a landscape changing financial crisis begins to unfold.  Any film that can send Stanley Tucci packing within the first fifteen minutes had better have some serious talent waiting in the wings and Margin Call doesn’t disappoint.  With Kevin Spacey comfortably stepping into another besuited head honcho role and Paul Bettany liaising between the low level grunts and the major players, there’s no shortage of alpha males brimming with (over) confidence.  That’s even before Jeremy Irons steps in to assume control of a situation that threatens to bring the entire company crashing to the ground.  With Simon Baker’s shark-like executive and Demi Moore straining to be heard in a sea of testosterone-fuelled arrogance, Chandor has assembled an impressive ensemble cast that clashes effortlessly, yet without any one member overplaying their hand.  The end result may be a given, but Margin Call presents a compelling, balanced peek into the choices investment bankers have to make and their motivations for doing so.  The general public may not be clamouring for a fair depiction of the 21st century’s most vilified profession, but that’s part of Margin Call‘s point.
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My Brother the Devil brims with fresh talent

There certainly has been no shortage of gritty, British urban-centric films over the years, as much of Ben Drew’s cinematic career alone will attest to.  As a result, it has become all too easy to wave a dismissive hand towards the next of, what seems to be, an endless supply, of gang-bangin’ English youfs.  With many films that appear to celebrate the culture before sloppily condemning it during their closing minutes, it’s easily understandable if many viewers have vowed to never again subject themselves to a constant stream of bruvs, bluds, and cuzs during a night out at the movies.  However, Sally El Hosaini’s debut feature, My Brother the Devil breaks the mould of the tired genre with an effort that is as much art house as it is urban.  So impressive is the outcome that the director picked up the Best British Newcomer award at this year’s London Film Festival, as decided by jury consisting of some of Britain’s top talent, including Tom Hiddleston and Olivia Colman.

Of course, that’s not to say that My Brother the Devil is without its bruvs or fams.  No, the script that focuses on the gang-life of a pair of Egyptian-British brothers is steeped in the slang of Hackney’s underbelly.  What sets My Brother the Devil apart from its genre is the skill apparent at script level, in the direction and within the leads.  At centre-stage is James Floyd’s Rash, a high level officer of the DMG (drugs, money, guns) gang who attempts to break out of the lifestyle following the death of his closest friend.  On the flipside, is Mo (Fady Elsayed), Rash’s little brother who has idolised his brother and hopes to follow in his footsteps with DMG.  Along the way, Hosaini’s script depicts the impact of gang life within the confines of family and the difficulties faced by a member looking to turn his life around.  That may have been compelling enough, but My Brother the Devil throws in an additional twist that turns the relationship between the brothers on its head and challenges its audiences’ preconceptions towards these types of characters.

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Rust and Bone’s detached air outweighs its beauty

2012 may go down as the year UK cinemas were invaded by physically disabled Frenchies. The critically acclaimed comedy Untouchables has quietly wheeled its way to a tidy sum in limited release and now the film it beat out as France’s Foreign Language Oscar contender for 2012 is about to open relatively wide across the Kingdom.  However, there’s nothing funny about Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone; a film long on melodrama and short on legs.  Having claimed the top award at the 56th London Film Festival last month, Rust and Bone has a tremendous buzz heading into its release.  The question is: does it really deserve it?

Audiard’s script uneasily shifts focus between his two leads, Matthias Schoenaerts’ single-father, the brutish Ali and Marion Cotillard’s Stéphanie, a killer whale snack…. errr, trainer.  The film brings the two together through a chance, violent encounter before sending both sides on their own ways soon after.  For all its visual beauty, Rust and Bone embraces violence of all sorts, finding embodiment in Schoenaerts’ Ali himself.  This so-unconventional-it-could-only-be-French romance boasts an overactive plot that packs arguably too much punch into two highly eventful hours.  If Stéphanie’s efforts to tame the macho booty-call addict weren’t enough, Audiard’s script adds a pinch of illegal surveillance, a dash of bare knuckle fighting, and of course, a healthy spoonful of legless-ness.  That’s just for the first course! Rust and Bone is so peppered with conflict and obstacles that it becomes difficult to buy into the otherwise realistic depiction of the characters and the world they exist within.  So, much like an over spiced meal, Rust and Bone, despite how great it looks becomes quite difficult to swallow.
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