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45 Years (2015)
Beautifully restrained, ultimately heartbreaking
"45 Years" is a great demonstration on how to evoke so many layers of emotion and inner turmoil with a fairly simple filmmaking approach. These types of stories have been told lots of times and probably a bit better (Mike Leigh promptly comes to mind). But what director Andrew Haigh does here which provides the film it's gut wrenching sensation is that he writes these characters with so much depth and naturalism that the events that slowly unravel begin to make the film more and more despondent as it goes on.
Here we have a happily married couple getting ready to celebrate a milestone 45 year anniversary, only for an untimely piece of news regarding Geoff's (Tom Courtenay) past flame whom has passed away, which puts a spanner in the works. Being such a long time ago it would be feasible to think that this won't affect their current relationship, but suddenly all these memories come storming back and he suddenly gets caught in a sort of time warp. He brings her up at every opportunity, he can't stop talking about her. And this is where the film skillfully shifts it's focus onto Kate's (Charlotte Rampling) character. What she once thought was a perfect marriage filled with unbridled endearment immediately turns into a self-doubting thought process. Does he really love me? Am I his one and only?
Rampling is just extraordinary. Subtle in her expressions and exterior but inside the hurt is palpable. No showy antics, no histrionics - simply a masterclass in masking her grief. Haigh uses the bleak Norfolk countryside to great effect, placing her in the center of surroundings that perfectly illustrate what she's feeling -- forlornness and heartache. Courtenay is excellent as well, though not quite as affecting. But what he does brilliantly is convey the actions of an individual that can't quite come to terms with this news and it sets off a chain reaction of resorting to bad old habits and outlandish behavior.
The final scene however couldn't have been crafted any better if they tried. Whilst directed with so much grace and acted wonderfully by Courtenay with his anniversary speech, it was Rampling who elevated it to devastating effect . The words may have been music to the ears for many, but for her it was just so bittersweet because she didn't feel that same affection. She displays a multitude of emotions throughout; smiling, laughing, sorrow, melancholy. Her mind is constantly in a state of befuddlement. What should be one of the greatest nights of her life is far from it. And then the dance, which honestly made me tear up. Not only for Ramplings acting and heartbreaking final shot, but the lyrics to the song pretty much summed up everything that was destroying her;
"When that lovely flame dies Smoke gets in your eyes"
Their marriage may live on, but it will now always be shrouded with her belief that her husband doesn't hold the same love for her that he once had, and this woman from days gone by will always be present for the rest of their lives.
"45 Years" is a slow burning, intricately designed exploration of the underlying grief us humans undergo when in tough times. It's both beautiful and harrowing, aided by incredible performances.
Knight of Cups (2015)
A surreal look into a man's crumbling world
Let's get one thing straight; Terrence Malick's films aren't exactly everyone's cup of tea. They're arguably the most unconventionally crafted movies from a well renowned director out there. Audiences normally criticize him for being highly pretentious and having no meaning in his work. But for some, his films represent everything we love about the artistic medium of motion pictures. With his latest offering, "Knight of Cups", Christian Bale stars as a screenwriter eager to explore his seedy persona in the dreamlike whereabouts of LA.
The film swoons along with a plethora of illusory montages, with Bale being Malick's primary focus as he trudges through the streets of downtown L.A., bizarre nightclubs swarming with vibrant dancers, house parties exclusively for the rich and meditative walks through the desolate wastelands of the Las Vegas desert. For the majority of the film he cuts a forlorn figure, basically looking to find some sort of significance of his life and finding the answer to faith. And in typical Malick fashion, none of what we see on screen is straightforward and we're left to determine our own meaning on the gorgeously composed images. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki once again has a vice like grip on how to bring an ethereal visual lyricism to surroundings.
Malick is one the very few directors who really embraces the beauty of artistic filmmaking. They may not follow a clear cut narrative, but there's no doubting that there's an alluring poetic rhythm that's present in his films. The key is for the viewer to figure out what Malick is attempting to portray. And even if you can't, just go along for the experience. Simply put, if you enjoy his films, you'll most likely find some sort of reward with this.
Lawrence is the only saving grace in an otherwise tepid affair.
"Joy" marks the third film that director David O. Russell and Jennifer Lawrence have joined forces, following on from 2012's brilliant "Silver Linings Playbook", and the less impressive "American Hustle" a year later. With this latest offering, O. Russell decides to explore the story of Miracle Mop inventor Joy Mangano and her rise from struggling Mother in onerous money problems to a business aficionado.
O. Russell's strength usually lies in his writing but here it eludes him, making for a story that can never be fully realized. He seems to get caught in between two minds with what to tell and how to tell it. There's a lot of unnecessary scenarios and cheesy sub-plots wedged into the main narrative, which is essentially the film's downfall. In addition to that, the slew of characters we're presented with don't particularly add anything notable. O. Russell has always had a knack for creating memorable roles for his actors but the talented cast which include Robert DeNiro, Isabella Rossellini, Diane Ladd & Bradley Cooper feel almost like filler parts, with none of them able to really make much of an impression.
The film's most redeeming quality however is the star herself. Lawrence gives a lively and unwavering performance, doing just about enough to make us give a damn about Joy Mangano. But like her co-stars, the script stifles her from doing more with the character. Good work from Lawrence, but it's a missed opportunity because she could have been great.
There's not much to write home about when it comes to "Joy". We've seen these tales of people in hardship striving to turn their life around told many a time. This film doesn't stand out in any way from the others due to the sloppiness of the screenplay, pacing issues and lack of care. Lawrence is the only saving grace in an otherwise tepid affair.
The Revenant (2015)
Deep-rooted, barbarous revenge tale aided by a staunch DiCaprio performance and breathtaking visuals
It was just over a year ago that renowned Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu brought us "Birdman", a fantastic and audacious dark comedy that deserved every one of it's 4 Oscars which included Best Picture and Best Director. He's a filmmaker that has built up a reputation for being very nihilistic and bleak in his approach to his work, often leaving viewers feeling rather inhospitable. And whilst "Birdman" was a drastic and welcome change to his style, with "The Revenant" he has crafted a sprawling, violent and visceral epic that is an experience like no other.
The film is set in the 1820's and follows American frontiersman Hugh Glass who is mauled by a Grizzly Bear whilst hunting in the frigid, mountainous landscapes. Left for dead by his fellow hunters and witnessing his son killed by one of them, he embarks on an agonizing journey through treacherous winter conditions as he seeks revenge and justice.
The opening sequence sets the tone right from the off, as we're introduced to Glass through a stunning dream sequence in which his wife and son are present. Many familiar with Terrence Malick's work will immediately find semblance in the way a majority of scenes in the film are put forward; dainty close-ups projecting a wide array of human expression and emotions, and appreciation of the beautiful nature that surrounds them. Shot in pure natural light, cinematographer Emmanuel 'Chivo' Lubezki masterfully captures every facet of the awe-inspiring but harsh exterior which almost feels like a character of it's own. In a growing list of sublimely lensed films by Lubezki, this may be his most impressive and personal work to date.
DiCaprio has made no secret of the tribulations that he endured making this movie, going as far as to saying that he almost died a couple of times. And watching him as Hugh Glass, it's not hard to understand why it was such a difficult shoot but which I think will ultimately turn out to be very rewarding. He immerses himself fully into the role, whether it be crawling on rough terrain, relaying maximal anguish and pain or trying escape from the glacial waters, it's a role like nothing he has ever taken on before. It's the perfect example of a part that is dependent on the actor being able to transmit their character's identity to the audience in an almost 100% physical manner. DiCaprio embodies Glass with the utmost devotion and this may finally be his ticket to long awaited Oscar glory.
The rest of the cast also do very solid work. Tom Hardy's intuitive and fierce charisma jumps off the screen once again as an unhinged and villainous entity. His disheveled appearance also gave him an extra layer of cruelness. And Domhnall Gleeson, who's enjoyed a great year, ends it with another impressive turn as the stout Captain of the hunting troupe.
This is not a film for the faint-hearted; it's savage and austere. Yet amongst all of the brutality, one cannot ignore the lyrical visual splendor that is present in every frame. Iñárritu isn't afraid to show his spiritual hand here; in fact he embraces it. It's a story of survival. It's a story of one being able to find peace with themselves. And it's a story of what nature means to our world and how stunning and savage it can be. "The Revenant" is a spellbinding piece of cinema.
Love is a powerful force.
"Carol" is the latest film from acclaimed director Todd Haynes and stars Oscar winner Cate Blanchett and Oscar nominee Rooney Mara. It tells the story of an estranged young woman called Therese (Mara) and a glamorous blonde in her mid-thirties named Carol (Blanchett), who develop strong feelings for each other after they meet in a toy store one day.
The film relies on both Blanchett and Mara's uncanny ability to display so much with saying very little. Carol is in the middle of a nasty divorce, so her attraction to Therese is part desire and part seeking some sort of comfort. For Therese however, due to her longing for any sort of company, it's pure infatuation. She see's Carol as the flawless angel type, someone whom she feels most at ease with. Mara is terrific as a vulnerable and sheepish individual not quite sure what she wants in life yet. But her admiration for Carol is certainly clear and she projects this through many curious and intense glances and gazes. Blanchett is similar in her approach, a much more understated turn than we're used to seeing from her but the role calls for it, and she's brilliant as per usual. I don't see Blanchett winning an Oscar for this (nomination at best) but Mara is certainly in a prime position to do so.
Todd Haynes' direction is very assured, once again demonstrating his confident handling of period pieces.The wonderful production design and costumes instantly transport the viewer to the 1950's era, and Edward Lachman's photography is ravishing.
"Carol" is a finely crafted love story without bringing much new to the table. The narrative isn't something you haven't seen before, but thanks to the excellent performances and assertive grasp of the content, "Carol" succeeds on many fronts.
Richly profound and incredibly acted.
"Room" is based on the 2010 novel of the same name, written by Irish-Canadian author Emma Donoghue who was also responsible for the film's screenplay. It tells the story of a 5-year old boy named Jack (Jacob Tremblay) and his Ma (Brie Larson), who are living in the confines of a small enclosure after Ma was kidnapped by a man when she was 17, and has been held captive there for last 7 years. This same man was responsible for Jack's birth, so Jack knows nothing or has seen anything else in his life apart from this room he's currently holed up in. After a daring escape plan finally frees Ma and himself, both individuals must find a way live a customary lifestyle again, but things are much harder than it seems.
"Room" works simply because of how unembellished and dreary it's narrative is and how seamlessly Larson, Tremblay and Joan Allen fit into this world of hopelessness. The acting from the two leads are stunning; you will not see a more genuine and heartbreaking Mother & Son relationship as this for a long time. Their rapport and on screen chemistry was dazzling.
Larson exudes that devoted motherly persona, doing her utmost to keep her child protected at any cost and blames herself forcefully for the situation they find themselves in. She doesn't care about her own wellbeing; everything she does, all her actions and rational thinking is about how she can get her child out of this nightmare and how to bring his life back around to normality. If you loved her in Short Term 12, she takes it up another notch here with a monumental display of sadness, anger & pure unadulterated love. Amazing, Oscar worthy stuff and if she won it would very much deserved; a performance that packs an almighty wallop.
Tremblay couldn't have played this role any better and he can easily join the ranks of the greatest child performances I've ever seen. It's a difficult part to play, but like Larson he gives his character so much depth and complexity and carries the same amount of care and affection for his 'Ma' that she has for him. Being such a young age, he doesn't quite understand what's going on, so he takes whatever his Ma says as gospel. He only knows 'Room'. He only knows what he see's on the TV in Room. He only knows the sky is blue. He doesn't know there's a huge universe out there waiting for him, that there are more people like him and Ma, that the dogs and cats and trees he see's on TV are real. The growth we see Tremblay's character experience and the way he conveys it is utterly transfixing; it's hard to believe he's just 9-years old. A big, big future ahead for this hugely talented kid.
And credit must also go to Joan Allen, whom I've admired for a while now but hasn't had a role like this in years. It's such a delicate and thoughtful performance, perfectly nuanced but enough there to feel her woes. It reminded me of Dern in last year's 'Wild', and I was so happy when Dern got a nomination because I loved her in that. I feel the same way about Allen.
The direction is very much on point and the gorgeous score has been criminally under-appreciated. It's not in your face but it doesn't need to be, as composer Stephen Rennicks elects to keep a smooth, perfectly apt melody whilst only increasing the strings slightly for the more intense moments.
"Room" is a film that will stay with you for days. It's subject matter is dark, leaving very little leeway for humour or any sort of respite from a grim situation. What we're presented to us is a highly grounded tale of human nature, the ugly side of it, but also the true beauty and strength of a Mother-Child bond.
The World's End (2013)
Disappointing is an understatement
Back in in 2004, the talents of Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (the latter two collaborating for the umpteenth time) brought us the best homage of George Romero's notorious Zombie franchises -- the supremely clever, tongue-in-cheek and laugh out loud hilarious "Shaun of Dead". From there it spawned what we now know today as "The Cornetto Trilogy" and the trio returned three years later to somehow top their previous effort with "Hot Fuzz", which followed the same formula as "Shaun" but instead took jabs at cheesy buddy cop 80's movies whilst incorporating it's own incredibly witty script and identity to make it, for my money, one of the best comedies ever made. So when I learned they had one more film left in them, I was beyond excited. Even if they couldn't top the last two, being half as good would have been perfectly fine for me......except it wasn't.
The main problem with "The World's End" is that it doesn't know what story it wants to tell -- it veers from one plot line to another which ultimately derails any sort of momentum the film may have been gaining. On paper, the concept of four old high school friends reuniting one last time in their hometown to embark on a wild pub crawl sounds like a blast, and to an extent you do get to go along with them on this adventure for about the first half of the movie. But it takes a nose dive when these silly looking prosthetic robots who have somehow invaded the town are introduced and by then all the fun is just sucked up into a vacuum leaving the film to trudge along towards it's even more tiresome and ridiculous climax.
That's not to say it isn't without it's merits, however few there may be. The choreography in the fighting scenes are well done and Simon Pegg gives his best and most heartfelt performance to date as a struggling alcoholic. The accomplished supporting cast which includes Eddie Marsan, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman and Rosamund Pike also try inject some much needed zeal into proceedings. That they didn't keep the storyline tighter and more focused on these characters is what ultimately brings everything down though and they're left with next to nothing to work with.
It seems that Wright, Pegg and Frost succumbed to the pressure of ending the trilogy on the same note it started on. And given the standards they reached with "Shaun" and "Fuzz", it's certainly understandable -- but it's nevertheless a huge disappointment.
The formula to life itself may never be solved...
This film twisted and turned my emotions in so many ways. It's so simple in it's execution yet extremely heavy in all the themes it presents. All the characters have their own hardships that they must try to overcome however difficult it may be for them and they're all searching for that one silver lining that can carry them through. The acting is incredible from everyone, no matter how much screen time they had, and they all left some sort of lasting effect on the film.
I wasn't Asa Butterfield's biggest fan but he's completely changed my mind with this performance; he was perfect. Such minimal dialogue yet so much to say through his body language and expressions. He perfectly captured the behaviour and mindset of a socially inept individual in a world of his own who's still mourning the loss of his Dad, the one person in his life who understood how to communicate with him and make him feel less of an outsider than he always felt. Such a tender and moving turn and I loved his relationship with Zhang Mei (Jo Yang), who was also terrific and a ray of sunshine.
Eddie Marsan continues to show his infinite versatility. I had no idea what sort of character he'd be playing but I knew he'd be fantastic as always. He brought the most laughs out of the film and reminded me of a few teachers I came across during my time living in England. Rafe Spall and Sally Hawkins though.....just wow. I could write pages and pages of their performances but I'll just say that Hawkins work in Happy-Go-Lucky (which I consider one of the best of the decade gone by) finally has a worthy rival and Spall's obvious ability has been unlocked to full potential here.
Hawkins is the true emotional anchor to this film; a mother/widow who's loneliness can be felt with great force as she deals with her Husband's death but also longs for the same sort of affection from Nathan that he had with his Dad. Having difficulty connecting to her son, she turns to his Math teacher, Martin Humphreys (Rafe Spall) hoping he would be that person who could plug that hole of vast emptiness. But Humphreys has his own issues, carrying a crippling disease known as Multiple sclerosis, and he can't live the life he wants to anymore because of it. Spall skillfully creates a multi-dimensional character, ranging from a cocky, jester and virile individual to one who, underneath it all, is petrified about the future that awaits him.
Amongst this hugely talented cast however, one must give a special mention to young newcomer Jake Davies who steals every scene he's given. He's the sort of person that, if you met him in real life and didn't know what he was going through, would be easy to hate -- but he may have been the most troubled one of them all. The only existence that was keeping his head above the water was mathematics; it kept his brain from thinking about the things he didn't want to think about, the things that unhinged him. So he had that incessant nature about him in that he had no choice but to try and perfect this one aspect that had taken ahold of his life. Making friends was almost impossible due to his abrasive personality, but it was something he couldn't control. When he ultimately fails doing the thing he only knew how to do and loved, it's a heartbreaking meltdown. There's a sequence where he recites the famous 'Parrot Sketch' from 'Monty Python's Flying Circus' and it's acted with great tenacity, but he saves the best for last in a devastating outpouring and heart to heart with Nathan. I hope to see more of his work in the coming future because he was simply brilliant.
It's a shame this film got such limited buzz; it's one of those rare, beautifully crafted pieces of work that comes by and bowls you over. A story that is essentially about people looking for the answer to life itself, one formula that even the greatest mathematicians may never solve.