Monday, 25 February 2013

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Academy Award Nominations: 4

·         Best Picture
·         Best Director (Benh Zeitlin)
·         Best Actress (Quvenzhane Wallis)
·         Best Adapted Screenplay (Lucy Alibar, Benh Zeitlin)

In a southern Louisiana community called the Bathub, cut off from the rest of the world by a levee, Hushpuppy and her father Wink fend for themselves, living off the earth and looking after one another whilst living in separate yet connected houses. Wink, though, is secretly ill and is struggling to look after Hushpuppy as she grows up, but he's trying his best to teach her everything she needs to fend for herself. As a fearsome storm approaches, Hushpuppy sees it as something broken in the universe that needs fixing, so she does what she can. However, when the storm passes and the Bathtub is flooded, the community will have to pull together to fix things before the flood water kills everything and they're forced to evacuate into the mainland...

There's a reason I like doing Best Picture nominee season. It makes me watch films I'd never usually watch like this one. I'd never even heard of this film until it was announced as a nominee in this and three other high profile categories. Last year, it made me watch Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, despite the fact I hated it. In many ways, this is a very similar film to Extremely Loud, in that it tells the story of a national American tragedy from the last few years through the eyes of a child. In Extremely Loud, Oskar lost his dad in 9/11 and went on a quest to reclaim his memory. Here, Hushpuppy and Wink live through their own Katrina-style disaster and attempt to survive. Similar films, but I liked this one more. What's the difference though? A more likeable central character. I didn't want to reach into my screen and strangle the kid just to shut him or her up.

Hushpuppy is streetwise and aware of her surroundings, and actually does positive things in her desire to make the word better. Oskar was just annoying. I liked Hushpuppy as a lead character, but I didn't like the characters she was surrounded by, especially her father. Hushpuppy seems like an innocent young girl who's forced to grow up before her time because of her surroundings, but that's not made easier by her arsehole father. He's very much the Oskar of Beasts, whilst Hushpuppy would be the Sandra Bullock of the piece. The rest of the community don't even seem very helpful either, and seem more annoying than anything else, even the teacher who seems like a bullshitter of the highest degree. Maybe it's just me, but I can't connect with the Bathtub way of living, we don't have anything close to it in the UK really so it's all just lost on me.

Quvenzhane Wallis is really good as Hushpuppy, but I can't see why she's been nominated for Best Actress. I think there's a stigma attached to lead performances by child actors. The bar seems to be put far lower for child actors, so as soon as they show any kind of emotion or ferocity, they're recognised, whereas an adult female actresses would have to put in a phenomenal performance to get recognised. Don't get me wrong, she's good, but not THAT good. She carries the film without a doubt, but I've seen far better performances from other female actresses this year. If anything, Dwight Henry was better as Wink but has gone unrecognised. He was good because I hated him, which meant he played his character of an arsehole perfectly. I can't get over the fact I hated him though, big no no. Over than that, the ensemble might have played their roles as a quirky independent community well, but my lack of Bayou knowledge prevents me from saying how good they were.

The script just seems disjointed, and deliberately so in a manner that suggests they were trying to make this film as quirky as the characters it focuses on. Benh Zeitlin seems like an odd director anyway, not looking at the raw footage until after the conclusion of the shoot (which after 5 years of learning how to make films infuriates me!!) and creating a film crew out of local people from the shooting location, which would explain why the film looks so roughly shot, but again this was probably another deliberate decision. This film doesn't look like anything I've seen before and I don't like it, it just smacks of amateur film making. Clearly, all of these things were deliberate choices in order to try and achieve the look and feel of a film made within that kind of community, but I just can't agree with it. The purist in me is raging at this film and I can't get over it.

Which leads me to my conclusion. I didn't really like this film. I appreciated the story line, but I didn't like the setting of the film, the characters used to tell the story, half of the dialogue, the way the film was written, the way it was shot and the methods the director employed to make it. This isn't a film I would have watched by choice, and I won't be watching it again any time soon. I liked it more than Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close though, but that's probably the only good thing I could say about it, and even that's not much of a compliment. Other people many have liked this, and other people will like it, but I'm not one of them.

Rating: *1/2

Beasts of the Southern Wild was released on 19th October 2012 and is no longer being shown in cinemas.

Sunday, 24 February 2013


Academy Award Nominations: 5

·         Best Picture
·         Best Director (Michael Haneke)
·         Best Actress (Emmanuelle Riva)
·         Best Original Screenplay (Michael Haneke)
·         Best Foreign Language Film

Anne and Georges are retired music teachers living in Paris, while their daughter lives abroad. Life is fine for the two until Anne suffers a stroke. She undergoes surgery to fix a blocked artery but it goes wrong and Anne becomes paralysed down one side of her body. Life becomes harder as Georges struggles too adapt to taking care of Anne and Anne struggles to adapt to a life of assistance. Then, as soon as things seem to be going well, Anne suffers another stroke and becomes confined to her bed, barely able to speak. Will the love between the two keep them going despite the hardships in their way?

Michael Haneke is a film documentarian. By this, I mean he likes to create films which, rather than create drama, look in on people's lives as a natural drama unfolds. He creates a window into his characters lives for a brief period. He also has a tremendous back catalogue to fall back on. From his break out film Funny Games which has become a cult hit, every film he's made since has been better and better received. The Piano Teacher (2001) took home a couple of awards from around the world. Cache (2005) took home even more. The White Ribbon (2009) even more still and now we're at Amour, a simple story about the love between a man and his wife, and yet so complex and subtle that it has critics positively gushing at the mere mention of it, and now it becomes only the ninth foreign language film to be nominated for Best Picture. Can it live up to the hype though? Heartbreakingly, yes.

Amour is such a simple story about the love between a man and his wife despite what life throws in their way, and yet it's the subtlety of the story telling that marks this film out above all other sentimental/emotional dramas out there at the moment. There's the dialogue between the two characters that sets the scene and sets out the basics for where the characters are at that moment in time on a base level, but underneath that is the subtle looks, glances, gestures and movements all done without words that spell out so much more than a heavy handed piece of dialogue would have done. It's the same technique Haneke employed in Cache, with the visual image speaking louder than the dialogue and it had a tremendous effect on setting the tone for each scene and the film in general, and yet he re-employs it here to even greater effect because of the nature of the storyline. It's a perfect match for his style of film making, something he almost perfected in The White Ribbon because of the delicate nature of that particular story, but gets it absolutely spot on here.

That's down in no small part to the performances of the two lead roles: Jean-Louis Trintignant as Georges and Emmanuelle Riva as Anne. Around 95% of this film is purely the two of them on screen and they are an absolute delight to watch together, their on screen relationship just seems so real and genuine and pure that you become emotionally invested  in how the two get on with things and how they end up. Trintignant is great is Georges, constantly showing a stiff upper lip in the face of agony as he must watch his wife deteriorate, only occasionally slipping and letting his emotions out, much in the same way any ordinary human would be in real life. However, it's Emmanuelle Riva and her performance as Anne that's getting all the headlines and rightfully so. Her performance is pitch perfect as a woman who's first struck with partial paralysis, then deteriorates to the point of helplessness, only able to cry out "hurt" repeatedly. It's agonising to watch a formerly strong character at the beginning of the film deteriorate so rapidly and painfully over the course of the two hours, and it's something that Riva is able to pull off phenomenally.

On top of that, it's Haneke's writing and direction which have made Amour such a sensation. I would argue at this point that Haneke's trademark as a film maker is 'lingering', staying in a scene for maybe a miute or two longer than any other film maker would have in order to capture a sense of real life unfolding on the screen rather than just a snapshot of it. It captures emotion and develops thee story better than it would have done had the film been made with short takes and only small glances of Georges and Anne. It's a fantastic way of telling this story and matches the plot perfectly; in essence, all the elements of film making fall into sync with Amour.

I don't really know what to tell you, there just isn't a better dramatic film out there that I've seen in recent memory than Amour. It's heartbreaking, it's engaging, and above all else it's just simple. No fancy camera angles or heavy handed dialogue, it's all spelt out for you on the screen purely through acting and simple camera work. It'll never win Best Picture, of course, being a foreign language film, but if there was a time for it, it would be now. The Artist won with zero dialogue last year, so why not a film wining with French dialogue? This is the world we live in, where America can seemingly no longer compete with Europe, despite their very best efforts.

Rating: *****

Amour was released on 16th November 2012 and is no longer being shown in cinemas.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

Academy Award Nominations: 5

·         Best Picture
·         Best Actress (Jessica Chastain)
·         Best Original Screenplay (Mark Boal)
·         Best Film Editing (Dylan Tichenor, William Goldenberg)
·         Best Sound Editing

Maya, a young CIA officer, is a woman on a mission. Her career revolves around gathering intelligence in regards to the whereabouts of the world's most wanted man: Osama Bin Laden. After being relocated to Pakistan to face the search head-on, she begins to work with Dan, a fellow officer who uses less than legal techniques to force detainees to reveal information. After one Saudi detainee cracks, they learn that a man called Abu Ahmed is working as a personal courier for Bin Laden, and since Bin Laden never steps outside, he'll be the man to look for. So begins the hunt for Abu Ahmed, and ultimately Osama Bin Laden, in "the greatest manhunt in history"...

Zero Dark Thirty comes with two stigmas attached to it which make it a tricky film to judge without having seen it. The first is that this film was shrouded in secrecy for months and it was directed by Kathryn Bigelow, winner of Best Director and Best Picture for The Hurt Locker at the Oscars a few years ago, one of the best war movies I've seen to date, and starts Jessica Chastain, a woman who has come out of nowhere to become one of Hollywood's most in demand actresses, so Zero Dark Thirty has some fair amount of pedigree attached to it. On the other hand, this has been the most controversial  film of this year's Best Picture picks because of its graphic representation of torture and humiliation of Saudi detainees by American security forces. Whether or not it's fact, it's in the film, so will it distract from what's billed as the greatest manhunt in history? Thankfully, no.

This is a gritty, real life war drama, unsurprisingly in the same vein as The Hurt Locker; it's filmed in much the same way, set in similar looking places and tells a story which seems the same but is entirely different. This isn't about the front line side of the war on terror, this is about the behind the scenes work, the intelligence gathering and paperwork that leads to the front line action, or in this instance, SEAL Team 6 secretly entering Pakistan and entering a fortified compound to find and kill Osama Bin Laden. It's all shot well, and the drama builds up well over the two and a half hour run time, enough that my initial scepticism with the film was thrown out the window by the half way point and I was hooked despite knowing the outcome. Sometimes, it's more about the way something happened rather than the actual outcome, and this is most definitely on of those cases.

That's helped by centring the film around one single character: Maya, the CIA officer who leads the hunt for intelligence leading to Bin Laden's location. Jessica Chastain's performance as Maya is so pitch perfect, I can't see anyone outdoing her for Best Actress this year after she fell short for The Tree of Life last year (though at the time of writing, I've yet to see Amour, which is said to feature an extremely strong Emmanuelle Riva performance). The character is fundamentally flawed by her determination and unrelenting pursuit of Bin Laden and the Abu Ahmed lead, even when it seems like a dead end. However, she becomes extremely likeable, you want her to succeed despite her cold determination and unrelenting nature, and it's that the keeps the film together. Zero Dark Thirty is less about killing Bin Laden, and more about wanting to see Maya succeed. Otherwise, though, all the other characters seem like war movie clichés, there's no-one else who's truly notable in this film other than the fact that there are some surprising names playing roles here (like did anyone else know that Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong and Chris Pratt were in this before they saw it?) and that seems like a wasted opportunity. The only other semi-strong character is Dan, the torturer, played by Jason Clarke, but he's missing for large parts of the movie so you never get to see him deal with the repercussions of his actions, which could have made for interesting viewing.

Story wise, this is a fascinating tale of how the hunt for Bin Laden was so fruitless for so long and how many lives were lost during the hunt, and then how it all came to fruition in 2011. It's written sharply, and though there may be a few historical inaccuracies, it's still a great watch. In particular, the climax of the film where SEAL Team 6 enter the compound to find Bin Laden is brilliantly done, as it all takes place in real time. With the first person shots shot in night vision, and events happening in real time, it's as close as you or I are likely to get to being on an actual stealth mission, and it's an eye opening experience. That's not to say that the two hours previous to this isn't great, in fact it's enthralling viewing, akin to many political thrillers in the building of drama and tension, but the climax is so comparably different to the rest of the film that it's intriguing to see both halves of the war being shown on screen next to each other.

Overall, Zero Dark Thirty is a film I really liked because it showed more of a human side to the war on terror and how the process of finding Bin Laden took place. It's a great story, and Mark Boal creates one great character in which to bring this story to life, it's just a shame there aren't any more to back her up. Bigelow's style of directing doesn't change, making this almost like a companion piece to The Hurt Locker in many ways, but an entirely different film in other ways too. This isn't the best film I've seen this year, and it isn't the best war film I've seen, let alone the best war film by Kathryn Bigelow, but it's a good effort and definitely deserves to be a part of anyone's DVD collection.

Rating: ****

Zero Dark Thirty was released on 25th January 2013 and is still being shown in cinemas.

Saturday, 9 February 2013


Academy Award Nominations: 7

·         Best Picture
·         Best Supporting Actor (Alan Arkin)
·         Best Adapted Screenplay (Chris Terrio)
·         Best Film Editing (William Goldenberg)
·         Best Original Score (Alexandre Desplat)
·         Best Sound Editing
·         Best Sound Mixing

Amidst the chaos of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, six American embassy staff manage to escape the US embassy and take refuge at the home of the Canadian ambassador. However, with Iranian guards going from home to home searching for American “spies” and the embassy captors piecing together shredded evidence which shows there are six American workers missing from their hostages, they need an escape route from Iran quickly. Enter the state department, and specifically CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez, who comes up with a plan: He and the six embassy staff are producers on a science fiction called Argo, and are location scouting around Iran for a foreign paradise in which to shoot. Can they pull the wool over a militant Iranian guard’s eyes?

Ben Affleck has turned from Daredevil failure into Hollywood’s hottest director. He’s yet to produce a dud: Gone Baby Gone (2007) was a police procedural with something more, becoming a study of human nature, behaviour, and moral ambiguity. The Town (2010) was a further development of his skills, producing a crime story that stands out from the rest thanks to a host of spot-on performances. Now he returns with Argo, based on the true story of the “Canadian caper” which saw six embassy workers pose as a film crew to flee revolutionary Iran. It’s a fascinating story, one that had to be taken more seriously than it seemed to create drama and tension, and I’m pleased to say Affleck has delivered with aplomb.

Argo is a tricky beast, enveloping a ludicrous plot within a hyper-serious political drama, something which could only possibly have come from real life. So while there is a real life template, there was still a fine balance that needed to be delivered, and Affleck more than delivers here. For 80% of this film, it’s a serious drama that has you gripped based on whether these innocent Americans can escape Iran in time. For the other 20% though, it’s a whimsical story about how a man from the CIA teamed up with a make-up artist and an aging producer to create the illusion of filming a Star Wars rip off in Iran and how shaky the entire plan to extract the trapped US workers was, and then that the credit to the plan had to go entirely to Canada and Tony Mendez couldn’t claim his reward for a successful mission because the entire mission was classified immediately following its conclusion, only being declassified during the Clinton administration. The question is then, why has a film about this only now come to fruition? It’s the story of how America, and in particular Hollywood, saved the day. It’s perfect fodder for award season, and I’d say Affleck is a genius for being the first one to realize its potential and capitalise on it.

That bring said, it still takes a lot of excellent performances to pull this off, and it makes me smile that the only man Affleck considered being able to pull off the leading man role was himself. This is why I like Affleck as director; no-one was giving him the roles he wanted to play, so he went out and made roles for himself. He’s given himself a stage on which to shine and he’s done so again in Argo playing Mendez, combining seriousness with an aloofness that gives his character credibility and depth. Michael Parks, John Goodman and Kerry Bishé were cast after their amazing performances in Red State and they justify Affleck’s casting, especially Bishé as Kathy Stafford, as they all deliver true to life performances. Alan Arkin is also notable as producer Lester Siegel and delivers the kind of performance that got him the Best Supporting Actor accolade for Little Miss Sunshine and has seen him nominated again amidst a strong field. One notable exception in that field though is Bryan Cranston, who since his starring role in Breaking Bad has started taking these supporting actor roles in various films and has been shining. He did so in Drive, and does so again here, arguable better than Arkin, but alas Cranston is overlooked despite a strong performance and will return to Breaking Bad with more cache.

The look of the film is sharp as well, capturing aptly the hustle and bustle of busy Iranian markets and daily life, as well as subtly observing the Americans trying to get on with their lives as the Canadian ambassador tries his best to stay calm in an increasingly intense situation. Affleck’s direction, combined with Rodrigo Prieto’s camerawork, create a classy looking thriller which doesn’t intrude in the character’s lives or interfere with the story. Simply, this is a document of the period captured superbly.

Overall, Argo is fantastic. I can’t really say more than that. I can’t find fault in it despite having gone over it countless times in my head for the last few days, it’s an engaging story with likeable characters that creates humour, drama, suspense and real emotion. The look is spot on, the music is spot on, the acting is spot on, and it’s immensely enjoyable with tremendous re-watch value. I can’t think of a more perfect film this year.

Rating: *****

Argo was released on 7th November 2012 and is no longer being shown in cinemas.