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Maleficent

May 28, 2015

Maleficent (2014)
Director: Robert Stromberg
Actors: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley

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Synopsis: Maleficent (Ella Purnell, Isobelle Molloy, Angelina Jolie) is a fairy that lives in The Moors – a peaceful, magical land. One day she chances upon Stefan (Michael Higgins, Sharlto Copley) a commoner from the land of men and they share a romance. In a conflicted state, Stefan clips Maleficent’s wings so he can become King of his land, but an embittered Maleficent promises revenge on Stefan, and issues the famous curse on his daughter, Aurora (Vivienne Pitt-Jolie, Eleanor Worthington Cox, Elle Fanning), that she will become a ‘sleeping beauty’ before her 16th birthday when she pricks her finger on a spinning wheel….

Review: One part Frozen, the other part Avatar, Robert Stromberg’s riffing on the origin of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ is a lovely film, helped in no small part through finding the ideal outlet for the iconographic potential of Angelina Jolie, for not being afraid to safeguard some of the old quaint romance and fantasy from its fairytale-revision remit, and in creating a genuinely arresting visual landscape – if not necessarily through the so-so CGI, but in its lovely contrast between the light and dark ‘worlds’ which compliment the struggle between good and evil in both the narrative and the central characters’ psyches.

At the risk of sounding a touch cheeky, Maleficent really is the optimum part for Angelina Jolie. Being an actress who struggles to project much in the way of range or an inner-depth in most of her adult performances, Maleficent’s stately, otherworldly quality suits Jolie’s imperious but depthless aesthetic perfectly. Also, without being too smug and self-congratulatory in its postmodern fairytale musings, Maleficent conveys nicely how if you slightly flip the simplistic paradigms of most childrens’ stories (what if Maleficent was actually wronged and persecuted by the human race, what if the King wasn’t a uniformly heroic character but actually showed a very human susceptibility to power and corruption), then it can shed a novel light on these over-familiar stories, without losing the uplifting, fablistic ethos in the process. (May 2015)

Bronson

May 26, 2015

Bronson (2008)
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Actors: Tom Hardy, Matt King, Jonathan Phillips

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Synopsis: Initially incarcerated for a relatively petty crime, Michael Peterson (Tom Hardy) goes on to become Britain’s most notorious prisoner over the subsequent thirty years due to his extremely anti-social and violent behaviour in jail under the moniker ‘Charles Bronson’.

Review: Nicolas Winding Refn is probably the least subtle filmmaker going, so I was more than a little amused when I read some of the negative reviews for his film, Bronson, which accuse it of a lack of biographical and psychological insight….Let me make clear that I rabidly dislike Winding Refn’s later films Drive and Only God Forgives, but I do feel the need to defend him here, because at no point is Bronson meant to be the conventional biopic that some people wanted, but it’s actually quite an intuitive work, taking Bronson’s publicity-courting profile as a base to conjure a lurid opera on the phenomenon of ‘Bronson’.

Thus to me, if the work is to be critiqued for anything, it’s not for frustrating a desire to present a coherent, fully diagnosed pathological history of Bronson – but because Winding Refn’s ‘ironic’ theatrical conceit of imagining Bronson’s life as a vaudeville show is a bit monotonous and one-dimensional. That said, ‘hats off’ to Tom Hardy for an outstanding, gutsy, tour de force of a performance in the title role. Not only does Hardy nail the intimidating physical aura of Bronson, but he completely understands the manic, anti-social bent too, and how Bronson was a man who simply could not conceive of a ‘normal’ life in the outside world versus his more natural habitat of prison (the sequence where his ageing parents take a completely disorientated Bronson back to their twee suburban home is a beautifully acted and filmed scene of pure farce). (May 2015)

Sideways

May 21, 2015

Sideways (2004)
Director: Alexander Payne
Actors: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen

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Synopsis: Forty-something pals, Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church), embark on a ‘Stag tour’ through the Santa Ynez Wine Valley. Jack, the impending groom, is intent on one last sowing of his wild oats, while Miles, a High School English teacher and frustrated novelist, is more interested in indulging his oenophilia and keeping a lid on his encroaching depression.

Review: Sideways is a near perfect exercise in classic storytelling, and exemplar of the Alexander Payne ‘American Gothic’ road trip template that has provided such a conveyor belt of gems over the last couple of decades. To call it a calculatingly proficient film trotting through the standard Payne ingredients (a central hook/mission, the main character undergoing a semblance of ‘growth’, a general air of light satire and whimsy masking a deeper melancholy) would underplay just how distinctive and intuitively right the whole film feels.

Payne films it in a knowingly pretence-free, downbeat manner – much like a TV movie with the lack of A-list actors, the ‘easy listening’ music score, the unglitzy opening credits and intertitles, the slightly naff use of split-screen – and this suits the ambience of the ‘everyday’ scenario of unremarkable forty-something guys going out on a drinking holiday. And even though there is a ‘high concept’ farce side to proceedings, it’s underscored by an inherently wise and truthful undertow – from the pitch-perfect performances by Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church, the sense that these two middle-aged men have reached respective crisis points as their lives drift ‘sideways’, to the probing of even deeper, endemic issues – alcoholism, sex addition, depression and bereavement. (May 2015)

Mr Morgan’s Last Love

May 21, 2015

Mr Morgan’s Last Love (2013)
Director: Sandra Nettelbeck
Actors: Michael Caine, Clémence Poésy, Justin Kirk

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Synopsis: Mr Morgan (Michael Caine) is a retired university professor living out his days in a stately Paris apartment and gently grieving the death of his wife. Morgan develops a rapport with young French dance instructor, Pauline (Clémence Poésy), who herself is lonely and misses her late father. After Morgan unsuccessfully attempts suicide, his two grown-up children fly in from the US, and try to unpick their father’s unusual relationship with Pauline.

Review: Almost universally dismissed as a piece of sentimental old pap, I’m inclined to be a touch more sympathetic to Sandra Nettlebeck’s ode to bereavement and late-life friendship, Mr Morgan’s Last Love, although even I can’t excuse some of the bizarre decision-making in the narrative construct (location, nationality of characters, various plot developments) that dissipates a lot of the otherwise sensible storytelling.

Why for example cast a famous British actor – notorious for being unable to obscure his distinctive London accent – and saddle him with a pointless American accent/nationality, and then place him randomly and tenuously in Paris of all cities, to play out this otherwise humane and deft tale of loss and the reconciliation of mortality in old age? The use of Paris seems a particularly lame attempt to fast-track some pathos and twee romanticism into the mix, but it completely jars with the sometime deep and earnest politicking on grief and family politics. Although the trajectory of Mr Morgan’s septuagenarian dilemmas is actually quite well plotted (and how refreshing and radical to find a mainstream film that actually finds some level of nobility in a form of – huge spoiler alert – moral suicide), the young French woman that dotes on him is little more than a cipher. We know the narrative needs her to be this plot-tool of a late life catalyst for Mr Morgan, but the film never really justifies her motivations in being quite so keen to tag along with him every step of the way (bar the minor suggestion that as she’s lost her own father, she might in some way ‘associate’ with Morgan). Also, Hans Zimmer’s cloying piano score doesn’t help the film move away from the sentimental and into the more cerebral territory of its subject matter. (May 2015)

Far from the Madding Crowd

May 20, 2015

Far from the Madding Crowd (2015)
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Actors: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Tom Sturridge

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Synopsis: Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) is a young single woman and farm owner in 19th Century Dorset. Over the course of a number of years, three men – stoic shepherd Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), middle-aged landowner William Boldwood (Michael Sheen) and dashing army sergeant Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge) – vie for her affections.

Review: Adapting Thomas Hardy’s “Far from the Madding Crowd” strikes me as a strange commercial and artistic decision – primarily because the main lure of the novel lies in its dense and literary detours into the minutiae of Victorian-era Dorset rural life. The actual drama draped around that sociological tapestry is in truth a touch tame, and unsurprisingly this production makes the mistake of ramping up the ‘romance’ side of the equation for an end-result that at times veers uncomfortably close to a Mills and Boon-style affair of how Bathsheba goes about her entanglements with the three cardboard cut-out suitors.

The adaptation might have proved more fruitful if in the hands of a more exacting interpreter and auteur, for example a Terence Davies, but in this mollycoddle of a handsomely budgeted, Europudding production, the story gets neutered into an Austenesque romantic drama that stereotypes and fails to get beneath the pretty surface of its period costumes and landscapes.

At least the decision to cast Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene was a sage one, although the three male leads appear eccentrically cast – most notably the suspiciously proto-metro hunky Matthias Schoenaerts who is meant to be playing the shy and taciturn lunk of a Dorset shepherd, Gabriel Oak. (May 2015)

Two Days, One Night

May 19, 2015

Two Days, One Night (2014)
Director: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Actors: Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione, Catherine Salée

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Synopsis: Young wife and mother, Sandra (Marion Cotillard), has just been laid off from her factory job after her colleagues voted for a bonus over keeping her on the payroll. A friend has managed to arrange a re-ballot, leaving Sandra just one weekend to lobby her colleagues to reconsider their positions….

Review: Once again, the Dardennes have manufactured another of their compelling parables of Socialist versus Capitalist values, and in many respects it’s their most textbook, honed theatrical offering yet – as laid-off wife and mother-of-two Sandra has one weekend to convince her co-workers that they should forgo the financial sweetener offered to them from the pot of her redundant salary.

As ever with the Dardennes – it’s that unique mix of comprehensible socialist politicking with a friendly ‘thriller’ framework that proves so digestible. Even if at times the work’s didacticism does feel more than a touch obtrusive (the high concept of Sandra having to visit her sixteen co-workers to lobby for their vote feels overly prescriptive in that each of the colleagues are obvious rhetorical ciphers – the loyal, empathetic friend, the aggressive, selfish young buck, the meek wife empowered by Sandra to leave her violent husband), then it’s offset by the sincerity and steadfastness of the Dardennes’ crystal-clear, naturalist sensibility which cloaks that theatricality. The lack of soundtrack, the long takes which draw one into the Seraing milieu, and the banality of the urban soundscape which punctuates Sandra’s odyssey (busy traffic, building work, birds singing) all contribute to this feeling of authenticity – as does Marion Cotillard’s central turn. And it’s in the plausibly gaunt and careworn visage of Cotillard that the Dardennes find a suitable icon for this most commendable of morals on the perils of neglecting social responsibility during these hardened, austere times. (May 2015)

22 Jump Street

May 9, 2015

22 Jump Street (2014)
Director: Chris Miller, Phil Lord
Actor: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Ice Cube

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Synopsis: Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) go undercover again – this time to a college campus where they hope to crack a drug-ring.

Review: As enjoyable and witty as 22 Jump Street undoubtedly is, there’s a slightly wearing tyranny in the film’s insatiable, gurning desire to be congratulated on its postmodern ‘cleverness’ at nearly every stage of its duration. Much like with my agnosticism over the film’s predecessor, 21 Jump Street, although I appreciate the inventiveness of some of the gags (once again, Schmidt and Jenko receiving their initial police brief plays as ironic mirroring of the film’s own commercial strategy), the sheer incessancy of the humour’s pleading brashness does grow monotonous.

Ironically, the film’s pièce de résistance comes in the closing credit reel, when there’s a brilliant skit on the endless potentials of the franchise’s conceit (the cops keep on going undercover to different types of ‘schools’) through a series of satirical movie trailers. This, and the magnificent cameo by Nick Offerman as the Police Chief who gives Jenko and Schmidt their initial briefing (there’s a hilarious exchange about Schmidt’s pre-credits encounter with an Octopus), are the film’s main comic highlights. (May 2015)

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