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‘Film Reviews’ Articles

‘Dallas Buyers Club’ (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2013)

The Matthew McConaughey resurrection marches on, sucking up the awards and acclaim long denied our favourite rom-com slummer. From the dark days of Failure to Launch and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past comes the best of a string of five or six extraordinary indie turns, the air sweet with the smell of a decent character actor realising the potential of his twenties and crashing back to relevance after a fifteen year dry patch.

Whether it be politics, historic genocide or – in this case – AIDS, you toss in a little body transformation (practiced before by co-star Jared Leto in the less-appreciated Chapter 27), and you’re soon putting up new shelving to handle the torrent of silverware. It’s to Dallas Buyers Club’s credit that it fights a winning battle against the dreaded assumptions around subject-matter heavy awards contenders. This is more Philadelphia than Monster, noteworthy beyond its exceptional performances for telling a singular, worthy story whilst touching effectively on attitudes to the disease/treatment during the period amongst both the local community and wider government.

Loathe though I am to encourage longer runtimes, if Dallas Buyers Club seems a tad unremarkable (Leto and McConaughey aside), it’s the result of elements that feel crudely shaved away or condensed. Vallée fudges the pacing in the second half, skimming over interesting developments in the story by jumping too readily into poorly executed montages. Relative to the strength of a cast always happy to smooth over any blips in the edit, these are mere minor failings.

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Awards Season Catch-up: ‘Nebraska’ (Alexander Payne, 2013)/’Inside Llewyn Davis’ (Coen Bros, 2013)

Another year, another elegiac Alexander Payne road movie, but will I ever tire of them? I’d have thought by now he could slam these things out in his sleep, so it’s to Payne’s credit that each offering has a slightly different flavour, the product perhaps of different writing partnerships and the gradual accumulation of learned experience. He’s maturing with age, as his characters, from Laura Dern in Citizen Ruth to her father in Nebraska, appear to drift back in time toward adolescence. Observing this film in the context of a busy awards season (a pressured release window that doesn’t much help Payne’s gentle projects), I’ve noticed Nebraska falling victim to what we call ‘Rain Man syndrome’, in which the older, showier performance grabs the plaudits whereas the quiet younger part, the real focus of the piece, is bafflingly considered something of a ‘supporting’ role. To ignore Will Forte’s great work is to ignore the real beating heart of this film, the subtle, challenging drama ticking along besides the gruff and amusing Dern. 

The Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis shares a melancholic soul with Payne’s latest but without its hope or conventional pulse, playing instead as a sixties mood piece of downbeat folk tracks and bleak outlook. In a career built on impeccable soundtrack selection, this is a disc like Todd Haynes I’m Not There that’s crying out for purchase, perhaps even eclipsing the achievements of its excellent accompanying feature. After being denied the lead in that non-Damon Bourne sequel and scrabbling for bit parts in other mixed successes, Oscar Isaac finally crashes through into leading man status, dominating proceedings as he journeys through every scene. Adam Driver and Alex Karpovsky meanwhile pop up to cause maximum confusion for fellow fans of HBO’s Girls, and the rest of the cast (Timbersnake, Mulligan et al) continue to demonstrate their inestimable talents in a sharp, albeit sombre work more interested in study of character and mood than traditional plotting or happy endings.

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‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ (Martin Scorsese, 2013)

It’s hard to place a film like The Wolf of Wall Street in the context of any sort of awards campaign. It feels too stylistically fresh, too dynamic and alive to be seriously invited in with the typical combination of sober ‘important’ pictures and prestige try-hards. Besides relaxing back into that most elemental of themes, greed, I’ve got to credit the crew, first and foremost, for delivering simply the funniest cinema experience I’ve had in a while. Forget your studio comedies, three hours with Scorsese, DiCaprio and every narcotic under the sun had an audience of two hundred crying with laughter in a way too rarely seen.

Leonardo DiCaprio, fresh from the Golden Globe win, deserves everything coming his way. A coke fuelled monster with none of the humanity or fundamental decency of his fellow swindler from Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, Jordan Belfort is a cold-hearted charisma machine, seduced away from the normal world by the lure of drugs, money and power. It’s a tour-de-force performance; probably the best of an impressive career, combining the magnetism of a raucous stand-up set with expertly staged sequences of physical comedy.

As with the misplaced smears thrown in the direction of Zero Dark Thirty last spring, a stark contrast remains between depicting events and condoning them. Sickened by how far these degenerates have drifted from any sort of acceptable human behaviour or moral compass, Martin Scorsese (+ screenwriter Terence Winter) might engage with, often even revel in these obscene behaviours, but there’s always a condemnatory eyebrow raised from behind the camera, always a supporting character willing to prick the bubble and question the acceptability of this lifestyle. Like Scorsese’s own Goodfellas, there’s no shortage of crippling consequence to the debauchery and crimes, enough to rightly question any accusations on the films part of overtly celebrating a life at the limits of excess.

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’12 Years a Slave’ (Steve McQueen, 2013)

12 Years a Slave is the most impactful depiction of slavery I’ve seen on screen, a snapshot of a period served by a singular story dragged through two hours by a filmmaker with drive and fiery purpose. Through the complicity of the good to the sadism of the bad, Steve McQueen’s film co-opts the visual language of the great American epics to tell a story that feels striking, relevant and pressingly important 150-years after its passing.

This is the third feature from Turner prizewinner McQueen (though we won’t hold that dreaded award against him). I admired his first two, Hunger & Shame, more for the sharp photography and great performances than any sort of deep individual connection. If I’ve accused McQueen of a faintly impersonal air in the past, I apologise now for misreading his character; 12 Years displays the heart of a filmmaker in union, heart and soul, with his work.

Screenwriter John Ridley deserves great credit for delivering a script with such shape to its storytelling, long but never indulgent, rich but never excessive. It’s the sort of drama where a multitude of extremely well known actors are willing to take bit-roles simply to be a small part of an obviously important project. They fill out the corners as McQueen contrasts the beauty of the Southern landscapes with Northup’s descent into hell. Too few prestige pictures can truly be considered worthy of the tag, but 12 Years is no standard awards pap or winter cooler, but a brawny, visceral and vital contribution to modern cinema, essential viewing for British audiences heading to the multiplex this January and a well-deserved front-runner as we journey into Oscar season.

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‘American Hustle’ (David O.Russell, 2013)

The last three or four years has seen a late-career explosion for the perennial underachiever David O.Russell. Grounding himself firmly in the American North East, scribbling out decent, mid-budget scripts and surrounding himself with a small troupe of actors, he’s finally found his niche in a competitive market.

American Hustle, a frivolous, highly entertaining caper, is too insubstantial to deserve serious awards contention. Made for the dressing and the actors. A 138-minute runtime may give the impression that there are deep wells of dramatic depth, but this is effectively the antithesis of O.Russell’s Silver Lining’s Playbook (drama masquerading as frothy rom-com), with little more to it than a time-travel Ocean’s 11 (a role Clooney’s own imminent Monument’s Men also appears to fill). 

There’s no shame in being an antidote to dreary weather and post-Christmas blues. This is an extremely satisfying picture, a problem only arises if audiences begin to mistake its lurid hair, panto costumes and predictable pop soundscape for something of greater significance. It’s fluff. Expert fluff, but fluff nonetheless.

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‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’ (Peter Jackson, 2013)

I think the greatest problem faced by these Hobbit films is simply that audiences, self-included, have come to expect too much from Jackson and his crew. Lord of the Rings formed such an epochal, mammoth part of our filmic landscape that any attempt to compare with that is bound to be greeted by some degree of suspicion. Bloating this thing out to a trilogy of Rings sized epics was a catastrophically misguided decision that fails as a coherent piece of storytelling. Forget about appendices and ‘prequel nonsense’, the material, and the work of Jackson’s team, would’ve been best served by a tight two-parter that better honoured the lean, children’s adventure published in 1937. If this wasn’t apparent after the first film, now it’s practically academic.

That aside, unburdened by expectation, I genuinely enjoyed The Desolation of Smaug. Once the murky territory of unnecessary fanbaiting has been navigated, there’s a lot of pleasure to be taken from indulging in an Orlando Bloom ‘greatest hits’ tour and counting the sad prevalence of dodgy CG shots over the old-school model and makeup work that played such a significant role in Rings. Besides chronic pacing issues, An Unexpected Journey failed in offering up much in the way of memorable setpieces, a fault The Desolation of Smaug is all too happy to rectify with the rollicking ball of fun that is the river barrel chase and the strikingly rendered dragon battle that pushes the heart rate to 200. Through the momentum of well-executed action, Jackson’s film finds its purpose and tees up the third instalment with the sort of energy its sluggish predecessor never quite mustered. See you next December!

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‘Philomena’ (Stephen Frears, 2013)

Stephen Frears has fashioned a thirty-year career out of these sorts of middlebrow dramas, though rarely are they anchored by a story as immediately compelling as Martin Sixsmith’s The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. Unlike fellow travellers, the Stephen Daldry’s of this world and so on, Frears never milks the tragedy to play to the back of a room. He’s very much a film and television guy, no theatrical background pushing for those overwrought moments to hit the balcony seats. Frears is a better filmmaker than most of his British contemporaries because he services the material he’s given, whether it’s Nick Hornby, Peter Morgan or, in this case, Sixsmith’s book, he’ll shape the thing to fit its desired format and intended audience, and he’ll always underplay the big moment if it’s the right thing to do.

Aside from the best original score of the year (another bow for the unstoppable Alexandre Desplat), Philomena features two perfectly observed, tightly complimentary performances from the never better Judi Dench and (co-writer) Steve Coogan, both funny, charming, and knocking lightly through the journey without smoothing down those rougher edges around their characters.

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‘Gravity’ (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013)

I remember thinking about three years ago that the actors turning down Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Gravity’ project might live to regret it. Before settling on Bullock and Clooney, a multitude of potential pairings seemed to float by, all inexplicably rejecting what was always going to be a very special opportunity. From the beginning it seemed clear that if the conceptual ambition of the film could be realised on screen, its stunning reality would leave those numerous disinterested groups regretting their haste in turning away.

I found Gravity an almost overwhelming audiovisual experience, immersive in a way few films dare, wrapped in the sights and dangers of a wholly foreign world over 200 miles above the Earth, whilst succeeding, ultimately, not just because of its bold, mesmerising visuals but because Cuarón never loses sight of the human story. For all the technical achievements, and each frame is rich with them, it’s the raw, survival thriller at the heart that really takes hold, reminding me more of Joe Carnahan’s The Grey than an Apollo 13.

As a critic of the increasing pervasiveness of 3D across major releases, I remain cautious when each fresh release rumoured to be the one to ‘convert’ the unconvinced passes without stirring any sort of reassessment. Gravity, for all its triumph as a feat of cinematography, galvanises my view that the 3D effect should be isolated to IMAX theatres, and the sorts of releases capable of capitalising on the technique. By good virtue of being largely animated (always a benefit) and unusually featuring no fixed-camera points, it’s the rare, almost unique, example of a film that might, dare I say it, benefit from the stretched depth of stereoscopy. My mind isn’t changed about the number of releases abusing the format solely for commercial reasons, none of which achieve anything for the furthering of the photographic arts, but as for Gravity – it’s my most positive 3D experience since Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express.

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‘Ender’s Game’ (Gavin Hood, 2013)/‘Thor: The Dark World’ (Alan Taylor, 2013)

I read, and enjoyed, the Orson Scott Card novel of Ender’s Game some fifteen years ago, though any residual affection hasn’t really passed over to this competent, albeit unremarkable, adaptation. I’m not sure how long the development process has been going on for, but I can’t help feeling this film probably should’ve been shot in the eighties, with plastic sets and dodgy wirework giving a nostalgic sheen that slick, modern special effects will never share. I feel bad for director Gavin Hood, the pressures of a sizeable budget forcing a thoughtful text to conform to audience expectations of a visually punchy seasonal blockbuster. Elysium, another troubled late-summer mixed bag, had similar problems – on that occasion the heavy-handed commentary was layered on too explicitly, and it felt swamped by the mess of interesting ideas fighting for space over its limited runtime.

Thor: The Dark World (aka – character actors play dress up) is every bit the pantomime of the first. A couple of years ago I praised Kenneth Branagh’s confident troupe for embracing the theatricality of this nutty universe and getting away with playing it so broadly with their OTT costumes and ever-so-slightly exaggerated accents. Replacement director Alan Taylor, like Branagh, combines his skill as a dramatist with a certain lightness of touch that continues to help this fantasy/comicbook hybrid franchise ride its wave of innate silliness without so much as a flicker of doubt. For their unashamed silliness, the Thor films are probably my favourite of the current Avengers standalones. May they never mature.

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‘Captain Phillips’ (Paul Greengrass, 2013)

Paul Greengrass is the master of these intense, docu-dramaesque pieces. His two Bourne sequels succeeded not just because of Tony Gilroy’s screenplays or Matt Damon’s charisma, but because Greengrass, beyond those cynical accusations that handheld is an easy mans game, brought a grubby legitimacy to a Hollywood thriller so keen, as they all are, to unteather itself from any sort of reality. Whether it’s Damon leaping between buildings or a real-time 9/11 re-enactment in United 93, Greengrass is there, dropping the audience right into the action. His work doesn’t quite have the breadth of vision Mark Boal’s scripts bring to Kathryn Bigelow’s similarly taut combat dramas (but then Zero Dark Thirty operates on levels few films in a lifetime dare to reach), however as a master of re-enactment, as a pop purveyor of tension in nail biting contemporary thrillers, there’s no one else out there quite like him.

Working with a bona fide auteur like Greengrass might be the smartest move Tom Hanks has made in some time. With the exception of Cloud Atlas (which I kinda loved – in spite of itself), Hanks has been slumming it for years, bubbling along nicely on the Robert Langdon paycheques and neglecting his quite unique rapport with audiences. It’s a sublimely effective, perfectly cast role, that catapults him back to relevance and the inevitable awards season circus. Greengrass, for all his concern with the propulsive, immediacy of unfolding events, allows his leading man loose on the full playground of his range in a way I don’t think I’ve seen since the Robert Zemeckis collaborations.

Hanks, for all his poster-topping status, has always been a terrific team player and works well with the unknown Somali co-stars, finding common ground together in the (accurate) view that Somalia is generally pretty rubbish unless you’re Mo Farah or a khat-chewing gang boss. The young Barkhad Abdi as the head pirate is especially strong, expressing the strange sort of buried humanity a lesser performer (or director, for that matter) could quite easily ignore.

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