Showing posts with label Drama. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Drama. Show all posts

Monday, 19 May 2014

The Two Faces of January

The Two Faces of January is an interesting little film written and directed by Hossein Amini, a man best known for penning the script of Drive. Here Amini delivers another taught script set in early 1960s Greece. American tour guide and part time swindler Rydal (Oscar Isaac) gives tours to unsuspecting travellers in the Greek capital Athens and one day comes across an American couple with whom he strikes up conversation and a brief friendship. The tour guide is charmed by the couple and drawn to their wealth and beauty but when it becomes apparent that the couple aren’t quite as well refined and put together as they first appear, Rydal helps them to evade those hunting them before becoming embroiled in their strange and murky circumstances.

There were two things that attracted me to this movie. The first was the name Amini. I was curious to see the screenwriter’s directorial debut and was interested in his script. The second factor was Viggo Mortensen. At this stage in the actor’s career I feel as though I can pretty much trust that if he’s agreed to be in it, it will be good enough to see. Mortensen does indeed impress and his choice of role is once again solid. The movie is about surface and sheen and the attraction that bright and beautiful things hold while under the surface bubbles something more sinister. There’s an uneasy feeling which envelops the film and it stabs through the false surface from time to time in a wonderfully calm but out of control manner.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

The Lost Weekend

Billy Wilder’s multi award winning The Lost Weekend was one of the first movies to tackle the pull of alcohol head on. The fantastic script details four days in the life of long time alcoholic Don Birnam (Ray Milland) who despite his best intentions to stay sober, ends up down an ever spiralling path of addiction. The winner of four Oscars and nominated for three more on top, The Lost Weekend was one of Wilder’s most lauded films and has lost little of its potency in the near seventy years since its release. Opening in the apartment which Birnam shares with his long suffering and devoted bother, Wick Birnam (Phillip Terry) is attempting to get his brother out of the city and away from the temptation of liquor for a few days. He hopes that the cold turkey approach will aid in his brother’s recovery and allow him the time and clear head to write – a career which Don attributes to himself with little evidence of success.

This first scene displays Don’s dependency through the use of the first of several hidden bottles of rye. Whilst packing, Don tries to slip into his case a bottle which he has attached to a rope swinging outside his window. This, unlike many other bottles is soon discovered but Don still manages to wriggle out of the booze free break and instead settles in for a weekend of petty criminality and hard drinking. Don’s first act of cruelty in the pursuit of his fix is to steal the $10 which his brother has left for the housekeeper. He lies to her that the money (her wage) isn’t waiting for her and purchases two bottles before heading to the bar for a drink. The look on Don’s face when he is presented with the short glass of light brown liquid tells us all we need to know about his addition. He’s like a child of Christmas Day, eager, excited, unable to wait. The first drink is downed and swiftly followed by several more.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Touch of Evil

Touch of Evil is only the second film I’ve seen to be directed by Orson Welles but both are amongst the most beautifully constructed I’ve ever seen. Based on the novel Badge of Evil, legend has it that Welles challenged producer Albert Zugsmith to provide him with the worst script available, which Welles promised to turn into a great film. Whether true or not, the second part of that sentence is utterly correct. Welles turned out a terrific picture which is handsomely directed, tightly written and wonderfully acted. 

The movie opens on a famous three minute and twenty second tracking shot, a shot which has been copied by and influenced scores of film makers since. A car is loaded with a bomb and is then driven across the Mexican border, into Texas. After exploding on the American side of the crossing, a newlywed Mexican drug enforcement official named Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston) is one of the first on the scene. After ushering his wife (Janet Leigh) to safety, he quickly assesses the crime but is soon pushed to one side by the old, dependable local Police Captain, Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles). Quinlan and Vargas chase the leads but soon Vargas begins to believe that his American counterpart isn’t playing fair.

Sunday, 16 February 2014


Wadjda, a German-Saudi Arabian co-production was one of the films I missed last year which I most wanted to catch up with. The first feature film shot entirely in the KSA and the first to be directed by a Saudi woman, Wadjda was a film which I had hoped would wipe away my preconceived ideas about a nation I know little about. Unfortunately it acted to strengthen those ideas and actually add to them. It is however a thought provoking movie with a lot of heart and allows a glimpse behind the curtain and into a rarely seen land.

Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is a sprightly and industrious eleven year old girl living in Riyadh. It’s her dream to own a green bicycle which she spots in a local shop but more than that, she dreams of the freedom which would accompany owning the bike. Constricted by rules and religion, Wadjda is a rebel, wearing Converse trainers and listening to foreign pop music, she’s often at her School Principle’s office or causing her equally troubled mother concern. In order to earn the money for her prized bicycle, Wadjda enters a Koran reciting competition for which she studies (ahem) religiously.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Dallas Buyers Club

About four or five years ago, I couldn’t imagine being excited about a Matthew McConaughey film but then came his McConaissance and on the back of tremendous performances in the likes of Killer Joe, Mud and The Wolf of Wall Street, he’s quickly becoming one of my favourite actors of recent times. I still can’t believe it. His latest provides us with perhaps his finest performance to date and accompanies a terrific film which instantly becomes one of my favourites of the young year.

Based on a true story, McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof, a Texan rodeo cowboy come electrician who enjoys women, beer, drugs, women and women. Having been obviously sick for a while, he is taken to hospital and when wakes, is given the shocking news that he has HIV. This being mid 1980s Texas, Woodroof is, shall we say, taken aback by the news but more worried about accusations that he’s homosexual or ‘faggot’ as he rather ineloquently puts it. After denial and some research plus a stint in a hospital south of the border, Ron discovers that he can help himself and fellow HIV patients by smuggling unapproved medicine into the USA, a decision that puts him on a collision course with the FDA and the American Justice Department.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis

As with any new Coen brothers film, I eagerly anticipated the release of Inside Llewyn Davis and the good things I’d heard from America before its UK release only added to my excitement. The fact that it’s taken close to a week to write something about the film though, might tell you something about my reaction to the movie. Unfortunately I left the cinema feeling disappointed. I’d go so far as to say that I didn’t really like or even enjoy the film and the last week or so has found me struggling to find a spin on it so that I could reward it with a favourable review. Alas I’m out of time so here’s what I think.

To put it bluntly, the film did little for me. I wasn’t entertained and was rarely amused. I didn’t get much from the story and disliked the central character. It left me feeling cold and uninterested and I never got on board with Llewyn, willing him on to succeed. Instead I just thought he was a bit of a dick. His misfortunes were often his own and his undoubted talent was clouded by his personality. Although the Coens’ attempt to present other characters even less favourably, I still wanted nothing to do with him and was only happy when he was singing.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

All About Eve

All About Eve is a 1950 drama that for nearly fifty years stood as the lone record holder for most Academy Award nominations. At the 23rd Academy Awards it was nominated for a total of fourteen awards, a feat unmatched until Titanic equalled it in 1997. The film wouldn’t be a successful as James Cameron’s sprawling, water based epic however and won just six of it’s nominations including the important Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay. Sixty four years on and today I watched the film for the first time to see what all the fuss is about. My immediate impression upon completing the film was that of surprise for its multiple nominations and victories but stepping back a little, the film features a lot to like, not least some fantastic writing and superb acting performances.

The film strangely shares many themes with another 1950 release, Sunset Boulevard, and indeed the two would battle it out in eight of the categories at the Oscar’s ceremony I just spoke of. Another film that All About Eve congers memories of is stranger still and that is Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls. All three movies feature stories about revered and ageing stars who are or at least feel threatened by perkier, younger women. Here, the marvellous Bette Davis plays Broadway star Margot Channing, a talented actress with an outwardly sense of entitlement but who is inwardly frail and uneasy, worried for her place in the theatre world. Her fears come to the forefront of her mind when she is confronted with the attributes and ambitions of Eve Harrington (Ann Baxter). Harrington begins the film as a timid and star struck young girl but what lurks beneath her downtrodden and excited appearance is a viciously ambitious starlet.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Gone with the Wind

Epic in every conceivable facet, Gone with the Wind is a hugely successful, multi award winning melodrama which sweeps its way through intertwined families of the Old South during The American Civil war and subsequent reconstruction era. Notable in its day for its long pre-production and actual production problems, the film has come to be known as one of the most loved in history. As well as receiving a record ten Oscars, a feat that wasn’t beaten for twenty years, it was also the highest grossing picture of its day and still remains the highest grossing film in history when adjusted for inflation. When released in 1939 it also had the distinction of being the longest American sound film, clocking in at a patience testing 221 minutes, or 234 including overture and intermission.

Although recognised upon its release as a critical and commercial success, and despite its place in history well and truly assured, more recent critical reassessments have been less kind, picking up on details which were less consequential in the late 1930s and early 40s. I’d heard both the good and bad second hand but decided to finally set aside many hours on a rainy Sunday and watch it for myself. My opinion of the picture is less favourable than the norm but I’m able to recognise it for its strengths and can’t dispute its historical standing in the medium of film.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washinton

Nominated for eleven Academy Awards but having the misfortune of being released in the same year as Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a political comedy-drama that stands the test of time. Though produced and set in 1939, the film feels as fresh and relevant as the day of its release and contains the breakthrough performance of one of Hollywood’s greats, James Stewart. Stewart plays Jefferson Smith, the head of the Boy Rangers, local newspaper owner and all around good guy. When one of his state’s Senators unexpectedly dies, the local political machine looks for a replacement that will be popular with the people but keep his nose out of their shady political dealings. After much deliberation it’s decided that Smith is their man and he heads off to Washington, wide eyed and wet behind the ears.

Although this is very much Jimmy Stewart’s film, he was given second billing to co-star Jean Arthur. Arthur was already a star by 1939 whereas Stewart was very much on his way up, on the back of strong supporting roles in the likes of Navy Blue and Gold and You Can’t Take It With You, which as with Mr. Smith was directed by Frank Capra. Stewart launches himself with this role though and despite his long and successful career, this is remains one of his defining performances.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014


Aningaaq is a short companion piece to the award winning Gravity that was written and directed by Jonás Cuarón, son of Alfonso Cuarón. I should make it clear right away that this review will feature spoilers so if you haven’t seen Gravity then you may not wish to continue. Have you left? Good. Aningaaq is a seven minute short that shows a scene in Gravity from the reverse angle. Having given up aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) begins to receive a faint radio transmission. Initially believing it to originate from a Chinese Space Station, she soon realises it’s in fact coming from Earth. This film shows us the other side of the conversation the two people have; Stone, miles above Earth on the verge of death and Aningaaq, an Inuit fisherman on a frozen fjord.

Aningaaq begins with a long, slow panning shot which depicts the inhospitable icy surroundings in which the Inuit fisherman finds himself living. This connects beautifully with the story of Gravity in that both characters are separated from their species by many miles and life snatching surroundings. Both films share the same eerie silence, further promoting the idea of bleakness and exposure. Unlike the blackness of space though, Aningaaq is shown in a near white out, the exact opposite of Dr. Stone.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Monsieur Verdoux

Released seven years after Chaplin’s last film The Great Dictator, Monsieur Verdoux arrived after yet another turbulent period in the actor/writer/director’s life. Based on an idea by Orson Welles which Chaplin bought from his friend for $5,000 in 1941, the film is loosely based on the life of a famous French bigamist and murderer called Henri Landru. Here Charlie Chaplin plays Henri Verdoux, who after losing his steady job during the Great Depression, marries several wealthy old women before murdering them and stealing from their estates. Chaplin plays Verdoux as a dapper and cunning gentleman. Charming and flirtatious he is an expert salesman - his product, himself. Cleverly he woos unsuspecting women, keeping several on the go at once and when money becomes tight he strikes. Speaking accurately about his work to a neighbour he declares, “Yes I have a job. If I lose one, I can always get another”. It’s this kind of pitch black humour that runs through Chaplin’s darkest film and the same humour that drew mass criticism from journalists and the public alike.

Stepping back in time for just a moment to understand where Chaplin found himself in 1947 it’s not difficult to see why he was given such a hard time in the press. Following several highly public failed marriages, often with women several decades younger than himself, Chaplin found himself in 1943 at the centre of the biggest celebrity scandal since the Arbuckle trials over twenty years earlier. An inspiring actress who Chaplin had privately tutored called Joan Barry had publicly declared the star to be the father of her new born child and a paternity case was played out in the full glare of the media that same year. Although two blood tests proved Chaplin was not the father, the court still ordered him to pay child support and the media backlash was something that Chaplin never really recovered from. Added to this was Chaplin’s refusal to become an American citizen after over thirty years of working in America and suspicions of Communist sympathies in an ever more paranoid and right wing country. So when in 1947 Chaplin released a film that not only did away with his popular Tramp character but also appeared to glamorise murder and polygamy, the knives were out.

The Railway Man

The memoir of Eric Lomax, a man held as a Prisoner of War and forced to work on the Thai-Burma railway, had the potential to form the basis of an excellent movie. Unfortunately in the hands of director Jonathan Teplitzky it’s a flaccid hodgepodge of sentimentalism and redemption with an overbearing amount of romance crammed in to satisfy its grey haired target audience. The film goes to great lengths to show the impact that those harrowing years had on the central character but in doing so waters down its effects. Over and over again we are shown Lomax as a reserved, quiet man who is screaming on the inside and the more we see it, the less it holds sway. Instead of focus, Teplitzky meanders through the aging Lomax’s mind, boring his audience when he should be shocking them.

The film works using flashback to show tantalising glimpses as to what happened between 1942 and the end of the war and this is when the film is at its strongest. The numerous scenes in later life do little to add to the story before a terrific climax in which Lomax is reunited with the Japanese soldier who tortured him while a prisoner. The elder Lomax is played by Colin Firth who while always watchable, sometimes looks as though on auto pilot. His younger self is an excellent Jeremy Irvine who captures the mannerisms and speech of his older co-star. The remainder of the film is miscast with a doe eyed and wooden Nicole Kidman as Lomax’s long suffering wife and Stellan Skarsgård as his Swedish sounding superior officer. Skarsgård makes no attempt at affecting an English accent despite the strong and pronounced accent of his younger self (Sam Reid). Tanroh Ishida is capable but hardly threatening as the young Japanese torturer who is played by Hiroyuki Sanada in the later scenes.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Good Vibrations

A feel good sleeper hit, Good Vibrations is based on the life of Belfast’s godfather of punk Terri Hooley. Set during the 1970s and 80s with civil war raging across Northern Ireland, Hooley set himself apart from the political and religious fighting by opening a record shop in the troubled capital. Maintaining neutrality and encouraging the same, he drew people from both sides together through their shared love of music before becoming an instrumental figure in the burgeoning punk scene with Good Vibrations Records, a small label that signed the likes of Rudi, The Outcasts and The Undertones. 

Good Vibrations didn’t get a huge release back in March 2013 and it deserves more attention that it’s been getting since. It’s a charming, funny and engaging film which put a smile on my face and helped me look beyond Belfast’s infamous past.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

12 Years a Slave

Considering the ferocity of Steve McQueen’s small but impressive oeuvre and the subject matter of his latest film, I never expected to be in for an easy ride with 12 Years a Slave but nothing, not the trailer, the word of mouth nor my own imagination could prepare me for both its excellence and the horrors to be found within it. The director’s third feature is based on the memoir of one Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from up-state New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. The film charts the following decade and the unimaginable ordeal that is daily life for a slave.

It’s rare these days that I can report to have sat through a film screening in a packed cinema without seeing at least one or two phones light up in front of me. Talking and popcorn rustling are two other offenders which take one out of a film and back to the annoying reality of the fact that there are other humans around you. Throughout the two and a quarter hours of 12 Years a Slave however I didn’t hear a peep from the audience besides a few sniffles and yelps. The film gripped one and all from its opening frames and touched myself at least (but I suspect most) with a profound sense of heartache, perplexity and dare I say it, guilt.

Following a brief few scenes which outline Solomon’s life as an accomplished and well respected musician, living in middle class surroundings, side by side with blacks and whites, the film takes the turn you know to expect. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt presses his camera uncomfortably close to the actors during these scenes in a trend that continues during Solomon’s kidnapping. The screen becomes claustrophobic and seems to envelop the audience as though we too are being taken against our will. I struggled for breath and my palms were clammy, as they remained so long passed the credits began to roll. The camera is unflinching, not allowing the audience to avert their gaze from both the kidnapping and the horrors that are to follow.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

American Hustle

Already attracting awards buzz and with seven Golden Globe nominations to its name, David O. Russell’s American Hustle is one of the early showers from this year’s awards season. Set in the late 1970s and making use of an ensemble cast plucked from his most recent productions, the film is set in the world of an experienced and successful con artist called Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale). Irving and his partner Sydney (Amy Adams) are caught by cocksure and ambitious FBI Agent Richard DiMasso (Bradley Cooper) who offers immunity in exchange for help in capturing more prized targets.

The plot isn’t a strong area of American Hustle which is why I’m surprised its screenplay has received many of the film’s plaudits. Although it spirals seemingly uncontrollably into deeper recesses of confusion, subterfuge and double cross, it features a sagging belly larger than that sported by Bale and drags on for too long before reaching its always expected conclusion. The movie’s strengths lie elsewhere, primarily in the design and acting, two areas for which the film deserves all the plaudits its being given.

Sunday, 22 December 2013


It’s been a few weeks now since I saw Nebraska, Alexander Payne’s monochrome comedy-drama and I didn’t originally intend to write about it. But of all the films I’ve seen in the last couple of months, it’s the one that has stayed with me the longest. Nebraska stars Bruce Dern as Woody, a grouchy old man whose moments of lucidity are swamped by his seemingly frail mind. Woody receives a sweepstakes letter which tells him of a million dollar prize win which he is determined to collect in person. Despite warnings from his family that the prize is bogus, Woody is undeterred and eventually his son David (Will Forte) agrees to drive across country to Lincoln, Nebraska with his father to pick up the winnings. Along the way the pair stops in Woody’s small hometown where he reconnects with the past.

At this late stage in 2013, Nebraska stands as one of the best films I’ve seen all year. It’s an absolute delight, merging neo-realism with caricature in a way that I’ve rarely witnessed before. It manages to be both grounded but quirky, serious and flippant and focuses in the everyday side of America rarely featured in Hollywood films. The characters don’t moan about money while living in mansions or complain about their dream jobs, these are Middle Americans, dealing with normal issues and I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

The Great Dictator

The Great Dictator saw Charlie Chaplin return to the screen following an absence of four years since 1936’s Modern Times. It also marked his first true talkie, a departure from the silent cinema which had for a time made him the most famous person on the planet. From a script written in 1938-39, The Great Dictator satirised the Fascist regimes of Italy and Germany and in particular the moustache stealing Adolph Hitler. Despite pre-production condemnation from Hollywood and a Hitler appeasing British Government, the film which was financed solely by Chaplin himself became a huge critical and commercial success, no doubt spurred on by its staggered release in 1940-41 by which time Europe and then the whole world was at war.

Chaplin who had by this time become increasingly political in his film making can be considered as somewhat of a visionary in his approach to the film. While writing the script much of the world was seduced by Hitler and saw him and his Nazi Party as the antidote to the spread of Communism. His strong, conservative Germany formed a vital buffer between the Soviet Union and the West and became an important trading partner once again. While many politicians were unable to see beyond Hitler’s immeasurable charisma, Chaplin focussed his film on those in the firing line of Hitler’s new Europe, specifically the Jews.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

My Life to Live

Having dipped my toe into the murky waters of the French New Wave with Breathless last week, I’m now ankle deep but the water is no clearer. I enjoy exploring new cinematic avenues, whether it be silent comedy, Italian horror or Korean thrillers but I’ve never had so much difficulty in expressing myself with the written word as I’m having while trying to compose my thoughts about the films of Jean-Luc Godard. My Life to Live or Vivre sa vie in its original French is a film in twelve chapters about a young Parisian woman who dreams of becoming an actress but is drawn into prostitution when money becomes ever more illusive. Anna Karina, Godard’s then wife, stars in the central role and puts in a mesmerising performance in a film which I struggled to enjoy but couldn’t take my eyes off.

From what little I’ve seen of Godard’s canon, I think it’s fair to say that he’s a director with an eye for beauty. The images he crates are sumptuous and filled with splendour despite the slightly crinkled, low budget style of film making in which he partakes. Breathless was amongst the best looking films I’ve seen while My Life to Live exerts its beauty in a steadier, more measured manner, lingering on beauty rather than allowing it to rush by. At the centre of all this is Anna Karina herself, a woman whose eyes flash at the screen in such a way as to make her audience melt.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Life is Beautiful

Buongiorno principessa!” Two simple words that bought a huge smile to my face during a film which has more emotional peaks and troughs than a very emotionally peaky troughy thing. Life is Beautiful or La vita è bella in its original Italian is a passionate and multi award winning comedy-drama set in Italy during The Second World War. Its dark themes are counterbalanced with some delightful comedy and a sweet story about a man trying to protect his young son from the harsh realities of the war. Italian Jew Guido (Roberto Benigni – also director) is a wildly imaginative and romantic soul who woos a local woman in amusing and inventive ways. Fast forward a few years and Guido and his wife Dora (Nicoletta Braschi) have a cute little boy called Joshua (Giorgio Cantarini). When Guido and Joshua are taken to a work camp by the Germans, Guido puts in tireless effort to hide the truth from his son, telling him that they are playing a game for points in which the winning team will win a real life tank.

Life is Beautiful really is beautiful in of itself. It’s one of the sweetest films I’ve seen and is amongst many people’s (including my Dad’s and girlfriend’s) favourite films of all time. Not only is it a good-natured story but it’s also very bold. Upon its initial release it faced some criticism for making light of the Holocaust but personally I don’t think it does anything to mock that horrific event or undermine the suffering of the millions who had to endure abysmal treatment under the Nazis and their collaborators. Instead it displays the triumph of human spirit and the deep love of a father for going to great lengths to protect his son.

Sunday, 21 July 2013


I started to really get into cinema when I was at university after first watching a couple of Martin Scorsese’s early movies. I was dumbstruck by the guerrilla style of Mean Streets and easy flow and strange editing of Taxi Driver as well as the way that both movies captured a time and place which although I’d never personally experienced, felt familiar. In the near decade since then I’ve expanded my cinematic experiences and ventured down many genre avenues, finding much that to like. It’s taken me to my late twenties though to venture towards The French New Wave, a period and collection of film makers who inspired those early Scorsese pictures perhaps more than anything else.

Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless or À bout de souffle in its native France is one of the most famous examples of the New Wave films which steamed across the Atlantic in the late 1950s and into the 60s, influencing the next generation of American directors. The influence follows a similar pattern to British rock music of the period as Godard and his compatriots François Truffaut, Éric Rohmer and others were themselves being influenced by what they saw in American cinema. It’s almost as though the French put their own spin on what they saw in Hollywood and then this was subsequently appropriated and re-Americanised by ‘movie brats’ of the 70s.