Category Archives: Film Reviews

Enough Said (review)

Enough Said image 1. Nicole Holofcener, director of 2013’s Enough Said, is one of mainstream cinema’s few veteran female directors. Once taught by Martin Scorsese, she has previously worked with Jennifer Aniston and John Cusack in her biggest hit (Friends with Money, 2006), as well as American actress Catherine Keener –one of her signature collaborators. Indeed Keener appears again in this film, which is a feel good summer movie that rounds off our Spring season well. Julia Louis-Dreyfus (who is unnervingly good-looking for a 53 year old actress) gives a performance balanced between humour and tragedy as easy-going divorcee and single mum Eva, whose sole hobby, outside of her day job as a masseuse, is knitting. At a party she begins two relationships that shape – and eventually disrupt – her routine for the foreseeable future. One of these is with Keener’s character, Marianne, a self-professed poet who rarely appears to have anything more interesting to talk about than her ex-husband’s most annoying habits. This relationship, which ultimately has a negative effect on Eva’s personal life, is contrasted by a sweet, blossoming romance shared with fellow divorcee Albert, whose carefree attitude and refreshing sense of humour helps lighten Eva’s disposition. Albert is notably played by James Gandolfini, a veteran American actor best known for his role as Tony Soprano in HBO’s The Sopranos (1999-2007) as well as notable film roles in True Romance and Get Shorty. Albert represents one of Gandolfini’s last roles before his death in June 2013, and it is fitting that this should be so. His character brings a refreshingly heartfelt and, crucially, honest presence that runs through the films veins. He is rightly one of the faces of this movie alongside Dreyfus, matching her for energy and flair in the role. Eventually these two separate relationships collide rather awkwardly, setting up a final third whereby Eva must deal with various plot threads that have been bubbling over during the course of the story. This being a naturally feel-good summer movie and following a course not unlike those that you’ve seen before, one is always sure that its ending will follow suit, but what the film lacks in overall originality it makes up for in a well-written script and acting that can’t be faulted. A gentle, understated soundtrack from Brazilian pianist Marcelo Zarvos complements the experience well. With a strong female cast that also includes Michaela Watkins and Australian actress Toni Collette, I get the feeling that male viewers won’t quite like it as much as their other halves, although there is something here for everyone to enjoy. Holofcener’s Enough Said is a film that does justice to its director; in an industry where consistent female talent is less abundant than it could be, this is something to be celebrated. 8 / 10 Graeme Stevenson

Kuma (review)

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A multi-layered film that transposes traditional Turkish family values onto an Austrian setting, Kuma (2012) is a well-crafted portrait of a culture alien to our own. For this reason, the twists woven into its script only seem to have greater impact than they otherwise would if we were able to follow exactly what was happening.

Umut Dag directs this debut feature; a fitting one considering his own Austrian-Kurdish origins. He manages to draw impressive performances from a predominantly inexperienced cast – Nihal G Koldas, an apparent theatre veteran, being the main exception in her role as family figurehead Fatma. This position soon comes under unexpected threat from Ayse, a young woman who has been drafted in as a second wife (a ‘kuma’, in other words) for Fatma’s husband, due to Fatma’s ill health.

This perhaps would have been a decent set-up for an interesting story in itself, but the script continues to throw further surprises our way at an almost relentless rate throughout the movie. Ayse’s marriage, for example, is passed off as a marriage to the family’s handsome son, Hasan, to cover for the fact that all Fatma really wants is a surrogate mother for her children should she pass away. Ironically Ayse then starts to genuinely fall for Hasan – whose subsequent disinterest reveals another hidden level to this unusual family unit. Another surprising twist around the mid-way point then sets the disjointed group up for an inevitable collision later on, although you may not appreciate it fully if you struggle to keep up with proceedings.

The fact that some characters regularly switch between German and their native Turkish certainly doesn’t help assuage our confusion. This does, however, serve an important plot function as the two older sisters of the family use it to mistreat Ayse, whom they clearly disapprove of but feel unable to direct their resentment towards a domineering mother. On a deeper level this also delves into an undercurrent of cultural tensions at the films core.

Ayse herself is played by Begum Akkaya. In only her second feature role, Akkaya gives a scintillating performance throughout the film, as an innocent young woman who shows both a warming maternal side and a youthful naivety in her approach to romantic relationships – for which one can hardly blame her upon observing the full extent of the situation she has been unwillingly placed in.

Overall, Kuma is a film from which you’re likely to leave questioning whether you really knew what was going on. It has that effect right up until its slightly haunting final scene, and there are one or two hints that this was, in the end, entirely intentional. Naturally it won’t appeal to everyone, and especially not to those traditionalists for whom the film may be hitting too close to home. But I think we all need to see one like that from time to time, if only to remind us how truly flawed humanity can be.

9 / 10

Graeme Stevenson

Inside Llewyn Davis (review)

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Although the film is loosely based on the true story of real-life musician and folk singer Dave Van Ronk, the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis unsurprisingly adds an original twist to the tale, crafting a curious narrative around main character Llewyn Davis. Played by one of Hollywood’s recent emerging stars, Oscar Isaac, Llewyn is a character that, I should admit from the start, I fail to fully appreciate… In a movie whose wonderful soundtrack I also fail to fully appreciate.

This is because I lack any previous knowledge about the New York folk music scene of 1961; the setting for Inside Llewyn Davis. Indeed I admit to a lack of any real former appreciation of folk music in general, but one could hardly pick a better 2013 film for an excellent showcase of musical talent than the Coens’ offering. Produced by T Bone Burnett, the films soundtrack includes not only tracks from Bob Dylan and Van Ronk himself, but also modern original songs. This includes the light-hearted – and extremely catchy – “Please Mr Kennedy”, sung onscreen by Isaac, Justin Timberlake (starring as Llewyn’s close friend Jim in a well-acted role) and Adam Driver in a scene that is easily one of the highlights of the film.

Llewyn himself is the typical portrait of a struggling singer/ songwriter who winds up falling into a set of not-so-typical unfortunate circumstances that begin with him losing a ginger cat that belongs to a friend. From here he embarks on the most eventful week of his life, from finding out that his best friend’s partner is pregnant (having recently slept with her) to a Chicago road trip alongside regular Coen Brothers’ collaborator John Goodman, whose character collapses during a routine toilet stop thanks to a heroin overdose, soon after which their driver gets arrested for needlessly arguing with a police officer.

It’s an exciting story told at a fast pace, with signature ‘Coen’ characters strewn throughout the narrative. Yet in a way this is also the films biggest fault. The Coen Brothers, I think, can only follow this pattern so many times before it begins to feel slightly old, and Inside Llewyn Davis seems to reach that pinnacle before tripping itself up over it. Their plot and the characters that drive it are increasingly pushing the boundaries of realism to the point of parody; it is a fine line that this movie threatens to end up on the wrong side of (as was the case with Burn After Reading), which is somewhat of a shame considering it is built on such strong foundations.

Nonetheless, you’d be hard pressed to find a more entertaining American film than this in 2013. Those who enjoy a light-hearted laugh in the cinema will like it very much; those who love their folk music may appreciate it even more. Both will come away reasonably happy, if not entirely satisfied that they’ve just witnessed something meaningful. Not quite the Coen Brothers’ best then, but unfortunately I suspect those days are long behind them regardless of what they achieved here.

8 / 10

Graeme Stevenson

Planet Ocean (review)

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Few films can make you feel as gloriously guilty as Planet Ocean (2012) does. It does this without really suggesting any single action one person can take to affect the core topics on which it preaches. Here is a documentary about the whole world – as its self-descriptive title suggests – and for it to be as much of a resounding success as it wants to be, it needs all of the humans living on it to watch closely and take notice. The fact that it presents its message so well means that individually, at least, we’re more than willing to listen.

Visually, Planet Ocean matches the global scale of its aims with ease. Large portions of the movie are spent underwater with a team of skilled cinematographers, who show beautiful coral reefs, and ocean depths where fascinating creatures of various shapes provide their own colourful light to an otherwise pitch black environment. Meanwhile a somewhat hypnotic voiceover provided by American actor Josh Duhamel guides us through this memorable journey, helping to inform the audience – if we needed any further informing – on the beauty of our planet.

It all feels like it’s building up to something big, and rest assured that it is. Upon presenting us with the best parts of our planet, the film then moves on to its worst component: humanity. Our increasing industrialisation and over-zealous nature in the open water fishing business have led to numerous species of fish becoming extinct, and is harming the ecosystems for existing ones. Should we keep going at this rate, then the very beauty that Planet Ocean spends its first half glorifying will soon be permanently lost. And the films message is clear: this would be a real shame.

Initially this synopsis can sound melodramatic, but it is so well presented that you really buy into the concept – and so you should. It is healthy, after all, that our pride should be hurt from time to time. Planet Ocean sets out to do this, showing our planet from a perspective that makes our technological achievements as a species simply pale in comparison.

Giving with one hand and swiftly taking away with the other, the film isn’t asking to be your friend. I get the feeling that it wouldn’t even aim for a good review. It only wants to spread the word about our dying environment and potentially our own resultant downfall. If this movie was to be found in the aftermath of such catastrophe, then we could hardly ask for a better record of at least some kind of conscience governing our ethical conduct.

9 / 10.

Graeme Stevenson

Gasland (review)

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Hydraulic fracturing is a big issue in the United States of America, as Josh Fox’s 2010 documentary Gasland makes clear. Fox fills the role of director, writer, narrator, co-producer and cinematographer of his film, taking us on a personal journey that somewhat resembles Seifert’s GMO OMG in the power of its message to the big corporations who control the harmful ‘fracking’ industry. Where Gasland differs from Seifert’s more heartfelt message, though, is in its outspoken and direct challenge to those whom it sees as its enemies.

In a nutshell, the hydraulic fracturing (digging deep into the ground for the purpose of extracting oil) taking place in the U.S. is creating problems for people who live nearby the dig sites. And these dig sites are popping up all over the country. People are offered huge sums of money to allow digging near their home. Health problems such as coughing, headaches, and worse arise when these people make the mistake of then drinking their tap water, into which has seeped all sorts of pollution as a result of the digging.

Or at least, this is the situation as it was when Gasland was made over four years ago. This outdated aspect, along with the fact that Fox’s vision is restricted to the U.S. without giving any indication of what the extent of the problem is in other Western countries, could limit the films potential impact on the audience of 2014 and beyond. Accusations against Fox for supposedly not giving the full story and manipulating certain details in the documentary (such as a mildly shocking scene whereby citizens light their tap water on fire to show the gas content in it) certainly don’t help its cause either.

Still, Gasland is as emotional a project as one can expect from any typical documentary. Some of the imagery provided will shock and surprise, regardless of your former knowledge about the fracking industry. It’s worth watching if only for the unique entertainment that American documentaries can provide – that is, a kind of patriotism that the rest of us probably fail to fully appreciate. They see hydraulic fracturing as a threat to their nation; should you not share the investment, you may find yourself struggling to empathise with the issue as it’s presented by Fox. It would have been nice if the film could have expanded its horizons even further than it dares to go here. As it stands, it undeniably feels more like a niche product.

7 / 10.

Graeme Stevenson

GMO OMG (review)

GMO OMG

There are not many filmmakers who wish their movie to “be seen by people who don’t know and don’t care” about the subject matter it deals with. But that is exactly what GMO OMG (2013) director Jeremy Seifert is quoted as saying in a recent interview* about his breakout hit. Through this creative documentary, he wants to have a major impact on America’s flailing food industry – and failing that, raise awareness for future generations about a vital issue that is affecting us all in contemporary society.

GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organisms. Should you not know much about them, or worse, have never even heard of such things (through no fault of your own but simply because major food corporations would apparently rather hide the concept from you), then this film has been made precisely for you. Yes, you! Seifert has been firm about that; this isn’t about pandering to those who are already convinced. This attitude comes through clearly in his documentary, and for that it deserves great credit.

GMO OMG builds from the ground up. Crucially not taking its audience for granted, it sets the context for how GMO’s originated through an entertaining animated sequence accompanied by Seifert’s voiceover, and continues along a logical path that brings us to an undeniable conclusion about their potential harm to our future as a species. Sounds a little melodramatic I know, but the documentary never feels like it’s running away with itself. This is a product concerned primarily with normal people in everyday life, and it reinforces its point only as much as it needs to.

Seifert as both narrator and filmmaker is convincing not through any great charisma shown onscreen or flashy camera techniques behind it (creative instances such as the aforementioned animation are expressions artfully used to keep you going through a 90 minute running time), but in his sheer honesty. Here is a man motivated by the need to secure a healthy future for his children rather than any personal ideology. You feel their occasional presence in the movie is not done for intentionally sentimental purposes, but is merely a sign of a loving father who finds it hard being separated from them.

To go into too much detail about the documentary’s content would be to steal Seifert’s thunder, as he does such an excellent job himself of covering the issue within GMO OMG’s superbly-paced narrative. I would stop just short of labelling it ‘must see’ for everyone – if only because I know there are those of you out there who dislike the very idea of documentaries which, in this case, are so intent on affecting your opinion. But I would urge not to let that stop you. Here is a film that you may just be doing yourself an injustice by missing.

9 / 10.

*This interview is a great accompaniment to the film, or even something to watch first before deciding if you want to know more about the issue. Here is the link to it on YouTube.

Graeme Stevenson

The PFS Green Film Festival.

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As I’m sure you all know, our third annual Green Film Festival begins tonight at PFS, in our usual screening room in the Eldon building. Three films will be shown in two days: one tonight and then, starting from the earlier time of 6pm tomorrow, two more. These include GMO OMG, Gasland and Planet Ocean respectively.

Therefore my review routine this week will be slightly different than usual. This coming weekend I plan to look back at each film in turn over three days – the 24th, 25th and 26th.

I also expect these reviews to have a different style to the ones I have written for our typical Thursday night screenings. After all, this is the Green Festival, and the films on show here each have a particular environmentally-focused message. My critical look at them will take this into account.

Anyway, you can get a pass for all three films for just £10, so it would be a shame to miss out! If you do though, by all means check back here over this coming weekend for my reflections on what I’m sure will be a thought-provoking and inspiring couple of days.

Graeme Stevenson

We Are the Best! (review)

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Occasionally a movie comes along that prompts you to feel sorry for those people who rarely watch any foreign film simply because it will mean having to read subtitles (and don’t seem to take my suggestion of ‘go learn the language instead then’ very seriously). Lukas Moodysson’s latest cinematic endeavour, the aptly named We Are the Best!, is a fine example of such a movie.

Portraying the lives of three young girls as they are entering their teenage years and beginning to experience all of the drama that is set to come with them, We Are the Best! introduces us to Bobo and Klara, a pair of unconventional characters who don’t fit the look or style of their peers in school. In a rebellious mood and fed up with being mocked, they decide to tackle their frustrations head on and start a punk band. However, realising they know next to nothing about actually playing musical instruments, they soon enlist the help of a third girl, the more conservative Hedvig, who plays guitar.

Unknown child actors Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin and Liv LeMoyne play Bobo, Klara and Hedvig respectively. What they may lack in experience in front of the camera, they more than make up for in their characterisation of young girls who display as much attitude and cynicism towards society as Fight Club’s Tyler Durden – yet in a more charming, spunky way than could be achieved by the latter.

Such a comparison is fitting, considering the anti-middle class message given by the lyrics of their signature song; “The atomic bombs blow up our cities, yet you want more tennis committees!” being the finest example. Make no mistake about the film; underneath its light-hearted exterior, there are serious themes hinted at. These themes are typically characteristic of Moodysson as a director but is here done in a most uncharacteristic fashion for him.

While being a film of incredible insight, a sense of innocent fun also runs through its veins. We watch the girls’ development, from their first fight over a boy to an unfortunate carpet stain following a first cheeky drinking session, almost reminiscent of our own inevitable experiences. Yet We Are the Best! is a film most appreciated, perhaps, by those whose experience was not just of these things but also of being the outcast, as these three main characters most definitely are.

In the end they do manage to give the anarchic impression of knowing better than everyone else, and you’ll get the feeling, as with many great films of our time, that you might just have missed something in your experience first time round.

9 / 10.

Graeme Stevenson

Romeo & Juliet (review)

 

Romeo & Juliet image.William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet has enjoyed more film adaptations than most plays in the past 100 years of cinema. Knowing this, any current director tackling the story is surely aware that in order to find success with it, they must produce a version entirely different than what has come before. After all, this is what made Baz Luhrmann’s (albeit flawed) 1996 adaptation stand out, as he transposed the tale onto a modernized American backdrop which captured a new, younger audience’s imagination. Carlo Carlei largely aims to do the same in this 2013 iteration. Unfortunately, though, the results weren’t so spectacular this time around.

One certainly cannot accuse Carlei of a lack of caring for the narrative; in fact it may be his love affair with it that threatens to derail the film from the start. Returning the setting to Verona during the Renaissance period, Carlei’s characters seem confused over their place in the timeline, verging between modernity in their looks and mannerisms, and Shakespearean in their speech. This confusion seeps out over the audience as we ask ourselves whether the film wants to be considered a modern yet traditional take on the story, or whether it is trying to be traditional and is just plain bad at it.

A charming young cast such as 21 year old Douglas Booth as Romeo and the 16 year old Hailee Steinfeld as Juliet (a nod to Shakespeare’s 13 year old character) gives the film its potential teenage audience. There is little doubt as to which gender the director aims to attract overall, as Romeo’s bare chest is one of the first things we see on screen, and one of the more frequently displayed objects of the movie. A curious appeal to moral values such as ‘no sex before marriage’ (the young couple obediently wait until their wedding night to make love) is also present, although one suspects this has less to do with an admirable sense of duty to society than it has with the age of Carlei’s lead actress.

While it is refreshing to hear Shakespearean dialogue being spoken in all its lyrical brilliance, I find this original aspect of the film unaltered, and at some points even hampered, by the actors speaking it. At times it became hard to hear what they were saying, and indeed if it were not Shakespeare we were listening to, I daresay many sequences would have been instantly forgettable. Put some of this down to the certain rhythm that Shakespearean dialogue has, but nonetheless one can’t help wanting to urge the actors to just *speak a little louder, and slower* in a couple of scenes where those precious words you long to appreciate are barely decipherable, drifting away in a chaotic sense of over-enthusiasm.

Originality, or rather the lack of such a thing, is the films main problem. It is a straight-forward love tale that, without its signature title to fall back on, would not have been worth the hype it has garnered. A promotional poster that hints at a modern and passionate version, misplaced sex appeal, and an overly sentimental rendition of Shakespeare’s story means the overriding feeling left by this Romeo & Juliet is not tragedy, but a sense of injustice in knowing that it promised so much more than it gives.

5 / 10.

Graeme Stevenson

Looking for Richard (review)

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Al Pacino’s 1996 directorial debut was one of the most interesting films of its year; a documentary film that mixes a theatrical performance of Shakespeare’s Richard III with a broader contextual look at the playwright’s role in popular culture. Pacino acts out a dual role, guiding the audience through the play’s plot and historical background as himself, while also playing the title character in a live action performance.

Initially that may sound like an acquired genre taste, but rest assured this film is worth watching even should you know next to nothing about one of England’s historical national treasures. Taking place in the modern day, Pacino and a core group of other American actors bring a down to earth mood and refreshing sense of humour to their conversations about Shakespeare and Richard III. This cast includes Kevin Spacey, Alec Baldwin and Winona Ryder in roles unlike most of their other work.

During the film, the group discusses the play with classical British Shakespearean performers such as Vanessa Redgrave and Derek Jacobi, various scholars and even ordinary people on the streets of London, in which Pacino is clearly a tourist. Of the topics discussed, the most entertaining include thoughts on American intimidation – and equally, English snobbery – in approaching Shakespearean theatre roles. Looking for Richard’s largely American production team aims to challenge these attitudes in its creative approach to the telling of this story, and its core values very much lie in a melding together of the two cultures.

Those traditionalists coming to the film with a more classical affiliation to Shakespeare and Richard III, still one of his most famous works, will not be disappointed either. Significant portions of the movie are devoted to an authentic performance of selected scenes played out by the actors in full costume, and their professionalism in these scenes contrasts with the more relaxed atmosphere in board meetings and directorial discussions outside of it. There’s something here for both young and old, as the film helpfully fills in the back-story of the play, pays its respects to Richard III’s place in British culture and presents it in a modern, accessible fashion.

Without doubt Pacino is the central star, with the rest of the actors joining him for a project in which you can tell everyone is having fun. You may find yourself easily becoming a part of their group for the duration of this nostalgic party, but whether the experience is something that lives long in the memory is less sure. That is the risk with tackling Shakespeare, after all: there have simply been so many adaptations of his classic plays that even a more original take on the story is going to find it hard to flourish in this industry.

8 / 10

Graeme Stevenson