Posts Tagged ‘cinema’

Director: Naji Abu Nowar

Writers: Naji Abu Nowar and Bassel Ghandour

Country: United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Jordan, UK

Runtime: 100 mins

Cast: Jacir Eid, Hassan Mutlag, Hussain Salameh, Jack Fox

An outstanding desert survival drama from a talented first-time director

It is 1916. A group of Bedouin sit around a nighttime campfire in the Arabian desert. A stranger approaches on a camel. He is a British Army officer (Jack Fox), trying to catch up with his regiment. The Bedouin welcome him into their group and the next day two of them set out to accompany the soldier across the desert. However, young Theeb (meaning “wolf”) refuses to be left behind by his older brother (both of them are orphans) and chases after the group on his donkey. The older Arabs are reluctant to take Theeb (Jacir Eid) along with them, but it is a long way back to their camp and the boy is persistent. They all travel together, but eventually tragedy strikes when they are attacked by other Arabs.

As the story develops it becomes more than just a tale of a small group trying to survive a journey in the desert (although it is very much about this too). It is about how encroaching modernity, exemplified by the Ottoman’s desert railway, threatens the survival of nomadic peoples.  The Bedouin in the film are all non-professional actors, drawn from the last remaining Bedouin tribe in Jordan. They turn in quite exceptional performances. Unfortunately, as neither the London Film Festival programme, nor iMDB, connect the actors’ names to the characters I don’t know who to praise for his portrayal of a black-clad Arab bandit that Theeb encounters. By turns desperate, angry, trusting and friendly, this is a performance that dominates the film. For a first-time feature-film director to obtain such performances from non-professionals is really quite something special.

An obvious point of comparison for Theeb is Lawrence of Arabia, especially in relation to the blond-haired English officer seeking assistance from the native Bedouin. Writing in Sight & Sound magazine, Nick James wrote that he saw Theeb as “an antidote to the imperial swagger of Lawrence of Arabia”. However, whilst it is difficult not to make the comparison, in reality these are two entirely different movies. I don’t even consider that Lawrence has “imperial swagger”, which strikes me as a fundamental misreading of that great film, whose protagonist sought to champion the autonomy of the Arab peoples. In fact, to the extent that the two films have any connection it is the way they invite the audience to side, or at least sympathise, with the Arabs rather than the British or the Turks. In conversation after the film, Director Naji Abu Nowar explicitly stated that he did not consider his film to be an “antidote” to Lawrence, and went on to express his great regard for David Lean and that movie.

The opening segments of Theeb lull the audience into a false sense of security. For about fifteen minutes or so the film moves along quietly at a fairly sedate pace, showing hospitable Bedouin conversing with each other, looking after their English visitor, drinking from wells, and also depicting the slow careful pacing of camels through the desert. Then, just as you have convinced yourself that Theeb is going to be some sort of arty meditation on desert living, there is a shock that had many of the people around me cry out and raise their hands to their faces (OK, I admit it, I did this too). A few minutes later there is another shock that will most likely make you jump up in your seat. At one point the woman in the seat next to me was covering her eyes with her hands, like a child watching the Daleks circa 1973. From hereon in the film becomes a gripping drama.

Theeb is one of the most memorable pieces of dramatic cinema that I have watched this year and has deservedly won plaudits for director Naji Abu Nowar, including director prize at the Venice Film Festival Horizons section and Arab Filmmaker of the Year prize from Variety at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.

Rating: 9/10

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USA 1932

Director: Todd Browning

64 minutes

The historical elements of the following review were written with the help of the BFI (British Film Institute) programme notes

Currently showing as part of the BFI’s season Hollywood Babylon: Early Talkies Before the Censor, Todd Browning’s Freaks is one of the most controversial movies ever made. Based on Tod Robbins’ short story Spurs (1923), Freaks concerns a sideshow midget who falls for a beautiful trapeze artist, except that she is only interested in his money. Browning, who had worked in a travelling circus, sold MGM the idea of filming the story using real people with deformities. Keen to get into the growing horror market, the studio bought into the idea.

The first sign of trouble came after a disastrous preview, whereupon some retakes were shot and 30 minutes were cut from the film. Upon release the film was a major flop. Whilst people were quite happy to accept monsters based on make-up, they had trouble dealing with real “freaks”. MGM fiddled about with the film further, adding a ludicrous prologue in the form of a scroll, which was apparently intended to educate the viewing public into understanding the plight of the people they were about to see. They also added an epilogue so that the film would have a “happy ending” (some current versions of the film show this but others don’t). Despite this, for a long time Freaks was considered beyond the pale by many people. Some countries – including Britain – banned it altogether. Eventually, following a 1962 screening at Cannes and the film’s rediscovery by the counter-culture Freaks began to be reappraised and critically accepted.

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** SPOILER WARNING**

In the opening scene of Freaks a sideshow barker is preparing a crowd for the deformed people they are about to see, simultaneously reminding them that they are deserving of our sympathy whilst also hyping up the prospect of something horrific. As the crowd gathers round an exhibit a woman screams, and at this point we flashback to an earlier period at the circus. We are introduced to Hans and Frieda (Harry and Daisy Earles), a couple of circus midgets (to use the terminology of those times) who are engaged to be married. Unfortunately for Frieda, Hans appears to be smitten with Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), a beautiful trapeze artist more than twice his size. Cleopatra humours him, but when she learns that he is in possession of a considerable inheritance then she really begins to lead Hans on, and the little man leaves Frieda. Meanwhile, Cleopatra has actually begun an affair with the circus strongman, Hercules (Henry Victor). Eventually, Hans and Cleopatra marry. There is a celebration with lots of drinking, and the assembled freaks announce their acceptance of Cleopatra as one of their number, chanting “We accept her, we accept her. One of us, one of us. Gooble-gobble, gooble-gobble”. Cleopatra is suddenly horrified, and when she is handed a goblet of wine she tosses it over one of the little people.

Shortly after, Hans becomes ill, but Cleopatra is found to be poisoning him with the connivance of Hercules. During a stormy night the various freaks exact their revenge on Cleopatra and Hercules. The latter is last seen lying in wet mud, with a knife in his side, as the rain pours down and various small and deformed people come writhing through the dirt towards him. Then we cut back to the present time and the sideshow barker is telling the audience that no-one knows exactly what happened to Cleopatra to make her the way she now is, at which point the camera pans down to show her as a grotesque: no legs, and with her lower half tarred and feathered to look like a duck.

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In all honesty, some of the acting in Freaks is not of the highest quality – one consequence of casting around for non-actors to play the deformed circus people. Nonetheless, there is a raw honesty in the way Browning portrays them. They are shown sympathetically, but not in a patronising way. There is one particular scene that takes place outdoors, where a group of performers encounter two strangers, one of whom is horribly prejudiced but one of whom behaves in a kindly way. Fortunately, the latter prevails. Elsewhere, we see the performers going about their daily business, alternately squabbling and laughing, just like anybody else might.

In essence, it is Cleopatra and Hercules that are the monsters in this film. In fact, in some ways it is perhaps unfair to label this as a “horror” film, as – viewed through modern sensibilities – the term is unkind to those people who, through a quirk of fate, happen to be physically different from the majority. Maybe Freaks is really a film-noir with a cast of differently-abled people. But before I veer off too far into politically correct reflections, it should be noted that the culmination of the revenge scene is quite consciously horrific. The sight of the strongman Hercules, lying wounded in the mud at night, as the storm rages, with an army of misshapen people writhing towards him with hate in their eyes, is extremely powerful and not easily forgotten (in fact, in the uncut version of the film, probably lost forever, Hercules is castrated and later seen singing in falsetto).

It is hard to imagine that Freaks could ever be remade and, as such, it is a unique contribution to the history of cinema.

Rating: 7/10

Showing at the BFI on 3rd April (20.50) and 21st April (20.50)

 

Rome_Open_City

In August 1943 Rome became an “open city”, abandoning all defensive efforts in the expectation that it would no longer be bombed. The following year, Rossellini began shooting a documentary about a priest who was involved with the Italian resistance. Partway through, he decided to combine this with another story about the resistance activities of children in Rome. Thus was born his neorealist classic Rome Open City.

The story revolves around the Nazis’ attempt to capture the leader of the resistance, Georgi Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero), who has been hiding out in a multi-occupant tenement block. One of the other occupants is Pina (Anna Magnani), pregnant by another resistance fighter, Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet), who she is due to marry the next day. Father Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi), who is to perform the ceremony, gets called upon to deliver a package of money for the resistance. Shortly afterwards the streets are rocked by an explosion, which turns out to have caused by the local children bombing a Nazi target. The following day, the day of the wedding, the Nazis come for all the men.

In the tradition of Italian neorealisim, Rossellini adopts documentary-style shooting in the exterior shots. The one outstanding exception to this occurs following the children’s evening bombing raid, when we see them silhouetted against the light in the background as they come running over the brow of a hill, heading towards the viewer. It is a truly glorious moment. And of course the backdrop for all the outdoor scenes is not a studio set, but the actual city of Rome as it was in 1944. Many of the performers were not professional actors, but everyone is suited to their role, and we feel that we could be eavesdropping on genuine conversations.

As is so often the case with serious subjects, the impact of the most tragic moments is rendered all the more powerful by the inclusion of some quite comic scenes. However, when we get to the torture scenes, despite the fact we see almost nothing of what is actually happening these really make the viewer squirm. The whole process of torture is overseen by the Nazi Major Bergmann (Harry Feist), whose camp portrayal is hard to imagine being allowed in a serious modern film but nonetheless serves here to make his character even more chilling.

Rating: 9/10

Showing at the British Film Institute until 5th April 2014.

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Mainstream movies about sex always raise questions as to whether they are titillating, pornographic, exploitative, or misogynistic, and with increasingly explicit scenes in recent movies those questions are even more salient. So, given Lars von Trier’s reputation as a provocateur it was with some trepidation that I approached Nymphomaniac. In the event, the story of Joe’s (Charlotte Gainsbourg) sex addiction started out pretty grim and then proceeded to get worse. I wouldn’t dare to predict other viewers’ responses, but there was nothing here that struck me as particularly titillating.

Volume 1 begins when Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) discovers Joe, beaten up and lying in an alley. She won’t let him call an ambulance or the police, so he takes her home. There, she tells Seligman her life story. This begins with a teenage Joe (Stacy Martin) asking a young man, Jerôme (Shia La Beouf), if he would be willing to take her virginity, which he does. Not long afterwards, Joe and her friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) take a train journey, the sole purpose of which is to see who can have sex with the most male passengers before they reach their destination. Back in their home town, the two of them determine to have meaningless sex with as many men as possible, but never more than once with the same man. The joint venture eventually ends when B commits the sin of falling in love, but by now Joe is in the early grip of her sex addiction.

Seligman proves to be a surprisingly non-judgmental listener, as Joe’s unfolding story starts to include examples of the hurt she has caused to others. Indeed the cultured Seligman chips in at intervals, comparing the episodes from Joe’s life to examples from science, art, and literature.

There is no real ending to Volume 1, except to provide us with a kind of cliffhanger that leaves us wanting to see Volume 2. In the second film Joe continues to tell her story in flashback, whereby she pursues even more extreme erotic interactions to satisfy her sex addiction, with disturbing consequences.

I had somewhat mixed reactions to Nymphomaniac. At various points I did wonder if matters were getting just a little bit silly, but nonetheless I still found it quite compelling. Partly this was out of a desire to find out just where the story was going to go, especially as Volume 1 begins with Joe’s rescue. But also the film grabbed my attention because of the compelling performances by Gainsbourg and Skarsgård, as well as by Hollywood stars such as Christian Bale, Willem Dafoe, and Uma Thurman. The latter in particular has a wonderful cameo as a wronged woman dragging her children round to Joe’s flat, where she insists on showing them “the whoring bed”.

I also was a little mystified about the criticism that Shia LaBeouf’s performance has received. To be sure, he wasn’t the standout performer here, but his much-derided accent was not as bad as I had been led to expect. Various reviewers have described his accent as the worst cockney accent since Dick Van Dyke. Maybe I just have a tin ear (though I am a Londoner and can “do” cockney), but LaBeouf’s accent struck me as rather impossible to place – if anything, it seemed a gentle combination of Irish and London. It certainly didn’t disrupt the film for me in any way.

As to where it all leads, there is a twist in the tale (of sorts), but to some extent it does seem to turn Nymphomaniac into a bit of a shaggy dog story. However, we are provided with some dark entertainment along the way.

Rating: 8/10

As I write, there are just a few hours to go until the 2014 Oscars. I certainly couldn’t comment on all the categories, but happily I have managed to see all the films nominated for the Best Picture award so can share a few thoughts about this category as well as one or two others.

First, though – omissions. Everyone will have their own view about films that should have been included in the Best Picture category but weren’t, as well as those that are less deserving of inclusion. For my money, the most notable omission was the Cohen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. Although this was a virtually plotless movie, it was a perfectly pitched and paced character study, melancholy in mood but punctuated by fine moments of humour. I also thought that All is Lost was a strong achievement. Like Gravity, this was a story about one person’s survival. But what was so unique about it was that it managed to be gripping whilst breaking some of the usual rules of cinema. There was no backstory for the character, monologue but not dialogue, not another person seen in the film (apart from one body part), and no real development of character. Despite all this I found myself really rooting for Robert Redford’s lone sailor. I would rather have seen either of these included in the nominations than Her, which failed to interest or convince me.

One of the controversies following the recent BAFTAs in London was the choice of Alfonso Cuaron as Best Director for Gravity, with many thinking that award should have gone to Steve McQueen for 12 Years a Slave. However, whilst there was a minimal cast involved in Gravity, it is pretty clear to me that this film had quite extraordinary challenges in terms of direction. Cuaron (and his crew) had to solve all kinds of problems, and much of the direction involved working with an environment that looked very different from what was finally experienced on screen. So, for my money, I’d be quite happy to see the Best Director award go to Cuaron.

I’m pretty sure that one of the reasons there was so much controversy about the BAFTAs is that we are particularly spoilt for choice this year. There are some very strong contenders for prizes. From the shortlist for Actor in a Leading Role my own three main contenders would have to be Christian Bale (bulking up for Hustle), Matthew McConaughey (slimming down for Dallas Buyers Club), and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). Bale shows great humour and nuance as the overweight grifter with the world’s worst comb-over. McConaughey is virtually unrecognisable from his role in The Wolf of Wall Street, in which he was also brilliant, and he perfectly conveys the journey from reckless, homophobic redneck to a man who sets up business with a transgendered individual in order to provide medicine to help desperate HIV sufferers. Chiwetel Ejiofor displays a masterful use of facial expression in order to convey the plight of a slave, filled with rage at his and others’ treatment, but who must hide his education and intelligence in order to survive. I think any one of these would be deserving winners, but in my opinion Matthew McConaughey just shades it.

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Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 years a Slave

I am at a slight disadvantage in commenting on Actress in a Leading Role, as I have not seen August: Osage County, for which Meryl Streep is nominated. This aside, as with the men’s category, all of the nominations are surely justified. My preference would be for either Judi Dench, conveying both pathos and humour in her titular role as Philomena, or Cate Blanchett as the troubled socialite in Blue Jasmine. Ultimately, Blanchett’s performance as someone both mentally fragile and also a victim of circumstance, is so powerful that I find it hard to imagine that anyone else could win this category, and I think Blanchett would be fully deserving.

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Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine

The category where I have the greatest difficulty forming a firm opinion is Actor in a Supporting Role. If I try to find rational reasons to judge the strength of these performances, I find it hard to put a cigarette paper between them. Intuitively, I would narrow the options to Jared Leto’s transgendered HIV sufferer in Dallas Buyers Club, or Barkhad Abdi as the Somali pirate in Captain Phillips. Here, I would follow BAFTA’s choice in giving the award to Barkhad Abdi for his fully convincing naturalistic performance.

For Actress in a Leading Role, whilst acknowledging the quality of all the nominees’ performances, there is really only one option as far as I am concerned. The award should go to Lupita Nyong’o for her proud, fiery performance as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave. That said, I did love June Squibb in Nebraska, particularly the hilarious moment where she tells her extended family “You can all go and fuck yourselves!”.

For Best Adapted Screenplay I would opt for Philomena (Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope), which used the device of an odd-couple road trip to tell an important story. However, the third part of Richard Linklater’s lovers’ tale, Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, Julie Delpie, Ethan Hawke), once again contained the most wonderful, natural, extended dialogue.

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Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in Philomena

For the category of Original Screenplay, again I would have loved to see Inside Llewyn Davis included in the nominations, and indeed this might well have been my favourite. I loved Blue Jasmine, but as it seems to be a modern update of A Streetcar Named Desire I’m not sure it scores top marks on the originality criterion. My choice from the final shortlist would have to be Dallas Buyers Club (Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack), but with a nod to Nebraska (Bob Nelson).

Finally, which film should get the Best Picture award? Gravity is obviously being seen as one of the front runners in this category. However, whilst this film was a great technical achievement that produced a spectacular experience in the cinema, outside of the cinema I found that this was not a film that lingered particularly long in my mind. For me personally, the strongest contenders in this category are mostly those based on real-life events (albeit most of those films have taken a few liberties for the sake of dramatic effect). My personal favourite among these was Philomena, which recounted a dark episode in the history of Irish Catholicism, in the form of a journalist helping the title character trace the child that was taken from her years earlier by nuns, and sold to an American couple. What could have been a thoroughly depressing tale is elevated into something much more compelling and enjoyable by balancing the darker elements with some laugh-out loud comic moments arising from the character conflict between the two main figures.

However, some films have such an historical significance that they are impossible to ignore when considering best picture awards. Slavery is such a huge part of America’s history, with ramifications that continue today, and yet the topic has received precious little attention from Hollywood. It may indeed be telling that it has taken a British director to bring Solomon Northup’s biographical story, 12 Years a Slave, to the screen. This is a very powerful film with some scenes that are extremely uncomfortable to watch. For tackling this topic so skillfully I think 12 Years a Slave probably deserves to take the Best Picture award.

Summary of my preferences (not predictions!):

Best Picture: 12 Years a Slave

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips)

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave)

Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity)

Best Adapted Screenplay: Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope (Philomena)

Best Original Screenplay: Craig Borten and Melisa Wollack (Dallas Buyers Club)

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First released in 2012, The Attack is a story that addresses the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, yet has been banned in most Arab countries because it was partly filmed in Israel. This is a great shame because it is a splendid film. I caught up with it this week at the BFI in London.

The film tells the story of Amin Jaafari (Ali Suliman), an eminent Palestinian surgeon who works with Jewish colleagues at a hospital in Tel Aviv. Just prior to receiving a major award, Amin’s wife Siham (Reymond Amsalem), who is visiting family, rings his mobile phone, but he tells her he cannot speak at that moment and will have to call later. Upon receiving his award, Amin gives a speech that acknowledges the difficulties of being a Palestinian in Israel, but expresses optimism for the future.

The following day, whilst Amin is lunching with colleagues on the hospital terrace, the city is rocked by an explosion and shortly afterwards Amin is trying to save the lives of bloodied victims. We discover that a bomb exploded in a restaurant and most of the dead were children who had been enjoying a party. Later that night Amin is woken from sleep by a phone call and asked to come back to the hospital. Upon arrival he is asked to identify his wife’s body. She was killed in the explosion. The identification scene is truly distressing, because only the top half of Siham’s body is on the mortuary table.

Shortly afterwards Amin is arrested by the police. They tell him that his wife’s injuries are such that she must have been the bomber. Based on this they assume that he, too, must have been involved. Amin’s interrogation is brutal, involving sleep deprivation, being forced to listen to loud music in his cell, and bullying questioning from tough shaven-headed cops. However, there is no evidence to substantiate Amin’s involvement and he is released. He goes home, only to find his house has been ransacked and graffitied, but then he discovers the letter that his wife has left him and the truth is revealed. She was the bomber. He then resolves to discover the terrorist cell who had brainwashed her (he assumes). What he discovers is a world of fear and distrust among family, friends, and the religious radicals he believes to be behind acts of terror. Even his Jewish colleagues at the hospital, who he had considered friends, and who are trying to be sympathetic to his plight, are now viewed with suspicion.

Although The Attack was a story told from the perspective of a Palestinian, it seemed to me that Ziad Doueiri’s film was pretty even-handed. There was no moralising and no simple political messages. On the one hand, we can sympathise with Amin at the end of the picture when he is left wondering if he has abandoned his roots in order to pursue his personal career. The optimism he had expressed in his speech at the start now rings hollow. On the other hand, it is quite easy to sympathise with Amin’s Jewish colleagues when they watch in helpless bewilderment as the man they respect so much starts to distance himself from them. The film also leaves us with the question that features on the poster for the film: “Do you ever really know the one you love?”

Rating: 9/10

Updates: Spelling error corrected on 27.02.14

ImageWes Anderson movies, certainly since The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, have tended to be Marmite affairs: people either love them or hate them. Having said that, I’m kind of just OK with Marmite. I don’t mind it but don’t love it. It’s pretty much the same with Wes Anderson: I haven’t seen all of his films, but those I have I find quite enjoyable. My appreciation stops there, though.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is no exception. It has the usual deadpan humour combined with a distinct visual style. There are no end of linear perspective shots: views down corridors, down railway tracks, down roads. Within these landscapes vehicles come into view, go out of view, and faces are zoomed in on. There are also lateral tracking shots – in one instance the camera tracks left simply to move from one person to another at a dinner table. The three timelines depicted in the film are represented by three different aspect ratios – 2.35:1, 1.85:1 and 1.33:1 (thanks to the BFI programme notes for that technical info).

The story is based on the writings of Stefan Zweig. Ralph Fiennes displays a wonderful comic skill playing M. Gustave, the concierge at the Grand Budapest Hotel, located in Eastern Europe. M. Gustave has a courtly charm that beguiles his guests, male and female, and he makes no bones about the fact that he frequently sleeps with them. One such guest, the elderly Madame D (Tilda Swinton), is so in love with M. Gustave that she has returned for 19 seasons. Following Madame D’s death M. Gustave discovers that she has bequeathed him a valuable painting, ‘Boy with Apple’. However, anticipating trouble from Madame D’s family, led by her vicious son Dmitri (Adrien Brody), M. Gustave removes and hides the painting, replacing it on the wall with a rather different sort of painting – ‘Two Lesbians Masturbating’. Shortly afterwards, it is announced that Madame D’s death was murder, and M. Gustave finds himself framed and arrested. From hereon in much of the film consists of a prison break and extended chase.

Throughout much of this M. Gustave is accompanied by the hotel’s lobby boy, Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori). The two of them are an inspired deadpanning comic double act and their interactions are one of the delights of the film. The cast is particularly star-studded, and many of the performers are regulars of previous Anderson films, notably Bill Murray, here playing M. Ivan, the leader of the concierges’ organisation, The Society of the Cross Keys.

The story is told in flashback by Zero as an older man (played by F. Murray Abraham), and these segments top and tail the film. The main action takes place against in 1932 against the backdrop of some sort of fascist uprising in the region. Whether this adds a more serious emotional element to Anderson’s mannered storytelling, or whether it is merely jarring, may be a matter of taste. On first viewing, at least, I felt perhaps it veered a little towards the latter.

Overall, I found The Grand Budapest Hotel to be an amusing diversion, but it didn’t give me the kind of laugh-out-loud experience that I recently had watching Philomena, a story involving real-life heartbreak that nonetheless succeeds in being hugely funny.

Rating: 7/10

ImageFrom the title alone you know that this film is going to be pretty grim viewing. However, for anyone concerned that 12 Years a Slave might be worthy, but not cinematically fulfilling, then I would urge them to think again. This is not a perfect movie, but it is a very fine and important one.

The story begins in New York, where we encounter the talented violinist Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor). He meets two men who offer him a two-week job on an out-of-town tour. We next see Northup sharing a fine meal with the two men who are clearly plying him with drink. Sometime later Northup wakes up in chains in a darkened room, and his miserable ordeal has begun. He is taken to a slave market, where he is sold to plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Ford turns out to be relatively enlightened, and when Northup devises a scheme for efficiently transporting logs down a waterway Ford presents him with a violin as a mark of gratitude.

However, Northup is harrassed by the racist carpenter John Tibeats (Paul Dano), who eventually rounds up his white friends to lynch Northup. Northup only survives this episode due to the intervention of Ford, but Ford explains that his own life will be endangered if he continues to protect him. Thus, Northup is sold on to another slave owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who puts his slaves to work picking cotton. Epps believes that the Bible gives him the right not just to own, but to abuse, slaves, and he forces his desire on the slave-girl Patsey (Lupita N’yongo). In this terrible environment Northup must hide his intelligence in order to survive, especially as Epps becomes ever more demented.

As most potential viewers of 12 years will undoubtedly agree that slavery is a bad thing, one might ask just why it is that this film is worth seeing. The answer to this is that it is one thing to intellectually know that slavery bad, but it is another thing to understand at a visceral level just how bad slavery is. With that understanding, perhaps, can come an even greater appreciation of the anger felt by the descendants of slaves in western societies who nonetheless remain victims of discrimination. Two moments in the film stand out as particularly brutal. In one, Patsy is whipped so severely that the weals on her back could only have looked worse if this had been shot in 3D. Arguably even more distressing than this, is a scene in which Northup is strung from a tree in such a way that the only way to avoid strangulation is to stand on tip-toes for hours. Whilst he does this we see people going about their business in the background as though nothing were untoward.

There are a number of performances in the film that have been rightly praised as outstanding. Chiwetel Ejiofor is utterly convincing as Solomon Northup, using his face more than words to convey the inner turmoil of a man who must suppress his intelligence and his rage. Lupita N’yongo as Patsey likewise shows us the utter desperation of a woman who would rather die than suffer further abuse and humiliation at the hands of Epps. And Fassbender himself, as Epps, gives us a portrait of a man for whom slavery appears to provide a vehicle for the deranged expression of his own inner demons.

If the film has shortcomings, then one of these must be the third-act appearance of Brad Pitt, whose superstar presence is a real distraction at that point. Secondly, in terms of dramatic tension, it is perhaps a little churlish to criticise a film for staying true to the real-life story (I have not read Northup’s own book, but I believe this is the case). However, most films present us with a series of emotional ups and downs that keep tension alive. In 12 Years, by contrast, things start bad, get worse, and then get really worse again. And because most people will know that 12 Years is based on the real-life Northup’s account of his ordeal, we also therefore know that the movie Northup must survive his ordeal. In this respect, I did feel that the film, while unflinchingly brutal, nonetheless lacked a certain degree of dramatic tension.

Such quibbles aside, however, with so few Hollywood movies touching on the topic of slavery 12 Years really is an outstanding achievement.

Rating: 9/10

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Philomena is a marvellous film, one which tells an important story, and in doing so arouses laughter, anger, and sadness in roughly equal measure, but never leaving the viewers feeling that their emotions are being toyed with. In a series of flashbacks at the start of the film we learn that Philomena (Judi Dench), as a young Catholic girl in Ireland, conceived a child out of wedlock and was taken in by nuns at the Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea. Along with other girls in a similar situation she has to pay for her stay by working in the laundry. We learn that these vulnerable young women are persuaded by the nuns to sign a contract whereby their children will be given to married couples who are able to give them a good home. In fact, the nuns are making a profit by selling the children to wealthy Americans. The day comes when Philomena’s son is taken, and she is absolutely distraught.

Several decades later, Philomena is still tormented by thoughts of what has become of her child. On several occasions she has been back to the abbey to find information about her son, but despite providing tea and sympathy the nuns always insist they have not been able to trace the child. Philomena’s daughter puts her in touch with Martin Sixmith (Steve Coogan), the journalist and former adviser to the Labour government, who had been forced to resign in controversial circumstances and who is at something of a loose end. Working together, they finally uncover the truth.

Philomena is, in fact, an odd couple road trip movie. Sixsmith is portrayed as slightly snobbish and cynical, and is initially reluctant to assist Philomena because of his disdain for human interest stories (they are for “weak-minded people”). Philomena, on the other hand, is depicted as working-class, rather naive, and with populist tastes (she loves bodice-ripper romances). Coogan, whose comedy career has largely specialised in depicting oddballs and uncomfortable situations, is at his element in his interactions with Dench. At one point, as they are driving along a country road, Philomena proffers a packet of throat lozenges and asks “Would you like a tune?”, to which Sixmith responds “If you hum it, I’ll play it”. She misses the joke entirely, and holds the lozenges closer, repeating her offer. Further along the journey Philomena responds with raucous laughter when Sixmith says something personal and serious. This clash of worlds occurs again later, in an American hotel breakfast bar. Philomena is thrilled at the range of free food on offer and keeps trying to tempt the well-travelled Sixmith, who is not hungry and for whom such culinary experiences are nothing new.

In real life, Coogan is not only an atheist from a Catholic background, but is a victim in the phone-hacking scandal, a witness at the Leveson inquiry, and a campaigner for press regulation. i wonder how much of this was on his mind when he decided to take on the role of a journalist investigating a Catholic scandal. Was he trying to work through his feelings about both Catholicism and journalism? However, Coogan’s own acting is restrained and generous, allowing Judi Dench to come to the fore brilliantly in depicting the tragedy and humour of her own character. Like all road trip movies, the way the two characters develop over the course of the story, and what they learn about themselves and each other, turns out to be as important as the achievement of their goal.

Rating: 10/10

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In Her, Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a lonely guy who separated from his wife a few months earlier. He makes his living by writing touching letters for special occasions on behalf of inarticulate people. His life changes when he installs a new “intelligent” operating system on his computer, a system that learns from experience and adapts. Using a female voice, the OS takes the name of Samantha, and before long Theo finds himself discussing his personal life with Samantha. They fall in love and have virtual sex. Needless to say, the path of true love does not run smoothly and, before long, Theodore is having to deal with Samantha’s insecurities as well as his own.

The other main human presence in the film is Theo’s friend Amy (Amy Adams), who herself gets involved with an OS after her own relationship falls apart. It also turns out that other people are having relationships with OSs, and even people in happy human relationships seem to view the human-OS relationship as entirely normal.

The film delivers us a meditation on the nature of love and social isolation in the modern age. Unfortunately, I found that I was unable to suspend disbelief to take seriously the notion that an operating system could demonstrate sufficiently the human-like intelligence and feelings that Samantha demonstrates. If it ever happens that is still going to be a long long way in the future.

Even more importantly I could not empathise with Theodore Twombly. I don’t know if this was inherent to the screenplay, whether it was because of the way Phoenix played him, or if Phoenix was just the wrong person for the part. If Jim Carrey were a bit younger I could have seen him in this role (think: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). But the script didn’t do Phoenix any favours either. An early scene shows Theo seeking someone for phone sex and getting it. The woman on the other end turns out to be really weird, and Theo is somewhat horrified, but rather than ring off he politely sees it through. Presumably this was meant to elicit some sympathy for Theo, but it merely made him seem marginally less creepy than he otherwise did. Throughout the movie I couldn’t shake the feeling that Theo was, well, just a bit too weird for my liking, and found myself in agreement with a blind date who tells him that he is a “really creepy dude”. This impression was also magnified by Theo’s appearance: a huge moustache and trousers that seemed to come up to his chest did not exactly make him the epitome of cool.

This is a shame, because there was a good idea underlying all this. Indeed, I liked the conceit of Theo being a letter writer on other people’s behalf, meaning that he himself was a kind of operating system for others. But sadly, the execution just wasn’t good enough.

Rating: 5/10