An Uncomfortable Birth

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Jason Reitman has been known up to this point for making comedies (Up In The Air, Thank You For Smoking, Juno) or at least comedy dramas in the case of Juno. Labor Day, based on the novel by Joyce Maynard, sees him heading in a different direction. Kate Winslet plays depressed single mum Adele, who encounters Frank (Josh Brolin) with her son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) at their local grocery store. The encounter changes their lives forever as it turns out that Frank is an escaped convict and he becomes a major part of their day to day existence. Labor Day is well acted and likeable but mostly it feels like one of those made for TV Channel 5 afternoon films albeit with a better cast and better acting. Brolin is always a personable screen presence and he is credible here with some charisma. Winslet, of course, is a very good actress and there is some chemistry between Adele and Frank. But it is very predictable and you can guess the end almost from the start. You also have the annoying voice of Tobey Maguire as adult Henry, which becomes quite grating. It’s not that Labor Day is a bad film but there is nothing here that lifts it above a solid but unmemorable drama. Perhaps Reitman should stick to comedy dramas in future…

Taking Stock

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In recent years, Martin Scorsese’s output has been very patchy. His last film, Hugo, fell between the stools. It was halfway between a children’s film and one aimed at cineastes, so it didn’t really work. The Wolf of Wall Street, based on the book by Jordan Belfort, is a warts and all look at the career of Wall Street trader Belfort, played by regular Scorsese collaborator Leonardo DiCaprio. He began his career in a huge broking agency but then it all turns pear shaped when Black Monday hits. The rest of the film shows how Belfort built himself up by creating his own company and the film has been criticised as a celebration of the man’s life (which included lots of drugs, women and drink). However, if you watch it, you can see that, like Goodfellas, The Wolf of Wall Street is all about Belfort’s hubris, which eventually proves to be his undoing. It is very long, clocking in at three hours, but it doesn’t drag as the director has lost none of his deft touch for action and drama. DiCaprio is excellent as Belfort, holding everything together with an omniscient narration reminiscent of Goodfellas. Support from Jonah Hill as Belfort’s second-in-command Donnie Azoff and Jon Bernthal (formerly of The Walking Dead) as Brad is very strong and Scorsese manages to inject the film with enough comic moments to keep the pace rolling along. Screenwriter Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire) also manages to display his sureness of touch with characters that has become his trademark. It isn’t quite as exceptional a piece of work as Goodfellas, as its running time could have been cut without sacrificing anything dramatically and sometimes what is happening is unclear to the layman viewer but it is definitely the most impressive Scorsese film since Casino back in 1995. Also, some of the more graphic scenes don’t add that much to proceedings, although perhaps it could be argued that Scorsese has set out to make a film that matches the craziness of the time and the behaviour of the people on Wall Street. During this time of year, when so many weighty dramas and significant films are released, it is obvious that the director is trying to make a serious point here and his ambition should be applauded. The Wolf of Wall Street shows that Martin Scorsese has lost none of his cinematic nous even this late in his career.

Dramatic Tensions

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London-based film director Steve McQueen has made a name for himself through intelligent films over the past few years (Hunger, Shame) but 12 Years A Slave, already winning accolades and likely to grab a number of Oscar nominations in this year’s list, will lift him into the big leagues. The veracity of the film, which stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as freed man Solomon Northup who finds himself sold into slavery, has been questioned but regardless of how true it is, it is a very powerful story. We are introduced to Northup as a well-regarded man who lives in Saratoga in New York State who gets duped into joining a couple of men on a journey to Washington where his life is turned upside down and he is sold to a number of different sadistic masters including the most sympathetic of them, Master Ford (played by the ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch), who is forced to sell him on when one of Ford’s men decides that he doesn’t like Northup and is out for blood. Northup’s final master, the insane Epps (Michael Fassbender), is perhaps the most dangerous of the lot as it seems that his mercurial temperament could lead to the end of Northup’s life. Ejiofor is excellent as Northup, renamed as Platt in his new predicament, and 12 Years A Slave is like the flipside to Tarantino’s disjointed, uneven mess, a weighty drama with some exceptional performances. McQueen manages to strip away the layers of the civilised Northup and show a man brutalised by circumstance. Fassbender is also very good, displaying a complexity to Epps, a man who is a monster but very occasionally shows flashes of humanity. Slavery is a subject that has been covered before in Hollywood but this is arguably the most powerful portrayal of it in recent times. McQueen refuses to flinch from the difficult aspects of this story and with the significant help of Ejiofor, he has created a sympathetic and credible central character in Northup/ Platt. . Sometimes it’s not easy to watch but 12 Years A Slave is a compelling drama with some exceptional performances and one of the high points of a year that has so far lacked quality cinema, a film that will be remembered for posterity…

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GO WEST, OLD MAN
Over the last few years, the films of Alexander Payne have become a particular highlight when they are released. Election, Sideways and The Descendants are movies that have really engaged with me (I am less fond of About Schmidt). Nebraska is Payne’s latest effort, a low-key drama about Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an old drunk who decides to make the journey from Montana to Nebraska to claim his winnings in a sweepstakes marketing prize, accompanied by his son David (Will Forte). Shot in black and white, Nebraska is not a film that will appeal to a general audience, as it’s got far more of an art house feel to it with a pacing that is almost glacial. Dern is good on screen but the film really belongs to Forte and Stacy Keach as calculating Ed Pegram, a ‘friend’ of Woody’s who shows what the promise of money does to ordinary people. Nebraska is an effective study of the human condition and while not much actually happens, Payne presents us with a film that stays with you after the credits roll. It is refreshing in these days of bloated tentpole summer blockbusters that filmmakers like Alexander Payne continue to fly the flag for understated human dramas. If you like his other films, you’ll find something to appreciate here…

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HAT’S ENTERTAINMENT
Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a film that has been eagerly awaited for years. At one point, it seemed in jeopardy that it would ever get made but it’s out at last. This biopic, which focuses on the 16th president’s attempt to get the abolition of slavery passed into law while resolving the bitter Civil War, shows off some of the director’s most assured and thoughtful work. Rather than take the usual route of cramming in the entire life of President Lincoln into one film, Spielberg decides to focus on this very pivotal part of US history and it pays off well. He handles the various machinations that Lincoln and the rest of his party have to go through to get the bill passed with rare skill and deftness. Daniel Day-Lewis is brilliant in the title role, with an unusually measured and human performance and deserves the various gongs he has already received. He inhabits the part in a way that you can’t really imagine anyone else doing. If he doesn’t win an Oscar, I’ll eat my stovepipe hat. But it would be remiss of me to neglect to mention the rest of the cast. Tommy Lee Jones as the wonderfully named Senator Thaddeus Stevens, fellow abolitionist, and Jared Harris as Yankee general and future US President Ulysses Grant, are just two of the standout members of the cast. Lee Jones is suitably irascible and Harris shows why he is becoming one of the most interesting character actors of modern TV and film. Lincoln has a running time of two and a half hours and at no point does it drag or outstay its welcome. It’s not perfect by any means: it may have been a more dramatic conclusion if it had ended when the bill becomes law rather than showing us the death of Lincoln and sometimes you wonder if Lincoln really did speak in aphorisms like he chooses to sometimes here. But these are minor quibbles: Spielberg and production designer Rick Carter have created a painterly 1860s America, beautiful on screen. But the beauty is tempered by real human tragedy like the casualties of the Civil War, an event which drove a poisonous spike through the heart of America. It is impressive that, despite the fact that Steven Spielberg has making films for five decades now, he is still able to impress with something as weighty, as light-fingered and as erudite as Lincoln. Lincoln is a bold and well-made look at one of the most important figures and periods in American history…

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BRITISH INSTITUTION
Ealing Studios was a British institution and it’s easy to forget that they didn’t just make comedies. This month, Studio Canal have three of their films released (Nowhere to Go, The Titfield Thunderbolt and Dance Hall). Nowhere to Go and Dance Hall have been issued on DVD whereas The Titfield Thunderbolt, tying in with its 60th anniversary, is getting a Blu-ray and a DVD release.
Nowhere To Go is a great British noir film, based on the novel by Donald McKenzie and scripted by Kenneth Tynan, made in 1958. This is an uncut version of the film which has never been released before. Canadian conman Paul Gregory (played by George Nader), has come to London to steal the rare old coin collection of old woman Harriet Jefferson (Bessie Love). He does this successfully but ends up going to prison, sentenced to ten years. The spivvy Victor Sloane (Bernard Lee, playing against type here) helps to break Gregory out of prison but despite the fact he does escape prison, his journey to flee the country is hindered by a number of double crosses and accidents and so he finds himself on the lam with young socialite Bridget Howard (a very young Maggie Smith). Director Seth Holt, who also went on to make Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb and The Nanny, moves the action on with panache and Nader is very good as its protagonist and it’s refreshing to see Lee in a role that’s quite different. Nowhere To Go is an exciting slice of fifties noir with a very British feel and it’s certainly worthy of a new home cinema release…
The Titfield Thunderbolt, which was made in 1953, deals with a classic Ealing preoccupation: small town vs big business. A group of railway enthusiasts decide to run their own train when British Rail decides to cancel their service. The restored cut does look lovely on screen but The Titfield Thunderbolt does feel rather lightweight these days. Director Charles Crichton (Lavender Hill Mob) does manage to make the journey entertaining though, with his lightness of touch and bringing the bucolic Titfield to life, and the cast, which includes Stanley Holloway, John Gregson and even a cameo from Sid James, do bring an infectious liveability to what is a very slight film. It’s not up there with Ealing’s classic output but it is definitely worth a watch…
Finally, Dance Hall, which predates The Titfield Thunderbolt by three years but was also directed by Charles Crichton. This is an odd film: a drama about four factory girls and their romances at the local dance hall. Alexander Mackendrick, who went on to direct The Ladykillers, is one of the screenwriters here and Dance Hall does have its own naive charm. We get to see a young Petula Clark and a youngish Diana Dors as two of the girls, although Dors was never much of an actress. It is interesting to see London in 1950 but much of it feels very artificial. There are some nice moments though: the fight between the two men caught in a love triangle, Alec (Bonar Colleano) and Phil (Donald Houston), is surprisingly well orchestrated and there are some well-delineated relationships between the characters. Natasha Parry as Eve is also stunning and magnetic on screen. It doesn’t compare to Ealing’s classic films either but it is worth watching if you’re an aficionado of British cinema. Dance Hall is a curio but still worth checking out.

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FESTIVE BEHAVIOUR 2012 PART THREE
The last film I saw at this year’s London Film Festival was End of Watch, which is a gritty police drama set in South Central Los Angeles starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena. Directed by David Ayer, Gyllenhaal and Pena make a very decent team and the hand-held feel, which lasts for most of the film, is well-handled. Ayer wrote Training Day, so he definitely has the right pedigree for this. Alright it’s not that different to what you’ve seen before but it is well-made. What makes LFF an interesting festival is its diverse raft of films and End of Watch doesn’t feel out of place here. I am glad I saw it as Gyllenhaal is always watchable and in fact, he is turning into a very decent character actor. Recommended…

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LONDON CALLING PART TWO

As promised, here’s reviews of the two other films I caught at press screenings at this year’s London Film Festival.
First is The Descendants, directed by Alexander (Election, Sideways) Payne and starring George Clooney, Matthew Lillard and Beau Bridges. Clooney plays lawyer Matt King in Hawaii and the film opens to reveal the fact that Matt’s wife Elizabeth has just had a terrible boating accident and she is in a coma in a hospital. As well as dealing with her wife’s predicament, King is also the head of the family trustees and the entire family has to vote what to do with a large unspoilt piece of land in Hawaii, whether to sell it to developers or leave it unspoilt. It turns out that King and his relatives come from a family whose wealth can be traced back to the fact that their ancestor married a Hawaiian princess in the 19th century. Unfortunately, as King battles with what his and his family’s future holds, certain things come out about his wife, causing him to rethink his life with his two daughters. The Descendants shows the same sharp and keen eye for dialogue and getting the best out of actors that Payne displayed with Election and Sideways. Clooney, a little inconsistent in his film choices, made a smart move here as he is very sympathetic and very human as the father and husband whose world has suddenly changed in an instant. The rest of the cast are also very good including a particularly degraded looking Beau Bridges as King’s cousin, Shailene Woodley as King’s difficult teenage daughter Alexandra and Payne uses the idea of Americans with a foothold into Hawaii very effectively. We see Hawaii as a place with the same problems as the US mainland. Bittersweet and funny at the same time, The Descendants is a well-made and accomplished drama with a very likeable cast and a strong script…
A Dangerous Method is the latest effort from David Cronenberg and looks at the relationship between Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud and how modern psychoanalysis was created. This is the third collaboration between Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen, who plays Freud. The ubiquitous Michael Fassbender (X-Men First Class, Shame) is Jung while Keira Knightley plays Sabina Spielrein, a troubled Jewish Russian girl who comes to Jung for treatment. There are a number of flaws in A Dangerous Method: it feels too much like a play rather than a film with its theatrical setpieces and Knightley just doesn’t convince here, pushing her chin out to show the audience that she’s not all the ticket. The tone is rather arch, cold and self-important too which is a shame because the story of Jung’s friendship with Freud is one that should be intriguing and engaging. Mortensen and Fassbender do have some chemistry as the doomed friends but none of it really gels. Cronenberg is a strange director and while he should be applauded for trying to move outside of his comfort zone, A Dangerous Method really doesn’t work although it does look stunning…
Here’s a few pics from the press conferences for both film with Cronenberg, Payne and others…

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THEIR DAY ISN’T HERE YET

Directed by Costa Gavras’s son Romain Gavras, Our Day Will Come (Notre Jour Viendra in French) is a film about two of society’s outcasts, united by their red hair and their mistrust of society. Vincent Cassel plays psychiatrist Patrick and Olivier Barthelemy is teenager Rémy. Their paths cross when Patrick encounters Rémy when the boy is running away after hitting his mother in the family home. Patrick sees in Rémy a figure who he can manipulate for his own entertainment as he is bored of listening to other peoples’ problems in his work. So he forces Rémy into increasingly more extreme and violent situations on the way to the ferry to Ireland, where Rémy believes that he will arrive as some sort of redheaded messiah, fitting in better than he did back in France. It’s a very strange film and despite its attempts at profundity and Cassel’s performance, which is always worth watching, it has little dramatic cohesion and doesn’t really feel that credible or consistent as a film. Olivier Barthelemy as Rémy does turn in a pretty intense performance as Patrick’s partner in crime though. It is Gavras’s longform debut however and so it does show that there may be promise in his future work. The direction is pretty accomplished for a first feature, so he’ll definitely be a name to watch in the future. Out on blu-ray now, it is worth watching despite its shortcomings…

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ALLEN GOES AYCKBOURN
Woody Allen’s last film, Whatever Works, with Larry David, was particularly awful and pointless. So expectations for his latest effort, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, weren’t high. Returning to shooting in England (partly because these days European money seems to be the only kind he can get), You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger is a drama about Helena Shebritch (Gemma Jones), married to Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) and their daughter Sally Channing (Naomi Watts). Sally is married to American writer Roy, played by Josh Brolin. When Alfie splits with Helena as part of some late mid-life crisis, and takes up with brainless bimbo Charmaine (Lucy Punch), the rest of the family’s life seems to feel the ripples. Sally’s husband Roy takes a fancy to gorgeous neighbour Dia, played by Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire) while Helena goes to ‘find herself’. You can tell from the offset that none of it is going to end well but one of the biggest problems here is that it’s such a slight concept that it leaves your brain almost as soon as you have finished watching it. Allen doesn’t seem comfortable in this world of English manners and foibles and dialogue comes across as stilted and unconvincing in the mouths of the predominantly British cast. The character portrayed by Antonia Banderas as Sally’s boss is redundant and Punch as gold-digging airhead Charmaine comes across as unreal and caricatured. Watts turns in a decent performance as does Hopkins, who underplays things for a change. So You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger is an improvement on Whatever Works but it’s hard to believe that this was the same writer/ director responsible for Annie Hall, Manhattan and even Bullets Over Broadway. So worth catching on DVD when it comes out but nothing would be gained by seeing it at the cinema.