Life Review

Preface

He made three successful films and died before he was even 25 years old. Yet, sixty years after his death, James Dean is still one of the most studied and admired style icons of the last century. Back in 2015, I was looking forward to Life, the biopic of Dean and his friendship with photographer Dennis Stock, but for some reason it did not get a wide release. Now it’s out on DVD, so I’m catching up on it.

Review

Life stars Robert Pattinson, Dane DeHaan, Ben Kingsley, Joel Edgerton and Alessandra Mastronardi and is directed by Anton Corbijn. The film follows Magnum photographer Dennis Stock (Pattinson) as he follows James Dean (DeHaan) in an attempt to produce a photo essay for Life magazine.

It’s interesting how director Anton Corbijn started as a rock photographer before turning to film. It’s almost a return to his previous profession as we watch Stock follow Dean almost like a lost puppy, trying to steer him towards something resembling a photo shoot. It feels like a pet project film and Corbijn’s knowledge of the working relationship photographer’s forge with their subjects is very clearly seen throughout the film. His time spent as a photographer can be seen throughout Life, he composes some lovely shots that would look great just as standalone stills, and the film has a golden sheen, reminiscent of the films that Dean made.

I’ve always liked Robert Pattinson. I defended him during his initial star making roles in Harry Potter and Twilight and I thoroughly liked his performance in Cosmopolis, here is Life he’s doing a much steelier an colder performance than I’ve seen him do before. It reminded me a lot of Ryan Gosling in Drive, you don’t get a lot on the surface but you see the performance behind his eyes. Sadly though, a lot of these moments, where Pattinson decides to act are few and far between, leaving the performance rather wooden and without passion. He looks like he isn’t enjoying the role half the time.

On the opposite hand, Dane DeHaan, well known for his roles in Chronicle and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, is perfectly cast as James Dean. It’s a completely different role to anything he’s done before and he manages to embody everything that James Dean stood for. The dishevelled-but-stylish hair, the half-asleep daze, cigarette hanging out the corner of his mouth and speaking in a quiet and almost shy voice, DeHaan looks the part but also manages to bring a lot of depth to the secretive Dean. Through the film we follow Dean back to his childhood home in Indiana and we see the small interactions with the rest of his family, working on the farm in the deep snow, or reading comic books with his younger cousin, it shows the sort of man he was. DeHaan makes the part his own and is one of the standout reasons to watch the film.

I talked about my problems with Pattinson’s acting ability earlier in the review, but it isn’t confined to him, the whole film seems to have an underlying problem in that it never feels, dare I say, alive. There are small moments where it does come to life, mainly helmed by DeHaan as Dean, such as a monologue on the train back to Indiana, or a speech he gives at a high-school dance as well as some lovely moments of silence on the homestead while Stock is taking pictures of him. But apart from these minute flourishes of brilliance the film sadly falters and feels too reverent and sombre, as if it’s a museum piece rather than a work of film.

In the end, while I enjoyed moments of Life, I just felt a little let down that it wasn’t as entertaining as I thought it would be. It’s still a good watch, but it’s not going onto the Must-Watch List.

Score: 7/10 DeHaan’s performance is the main reason to watch.

Advertisements

The Big Short Review

Wall Street is good theatre. Several films have been set on what is basically the capital of the United States market and economy. In that sort of high-stress environment, good cinema thrives, with films like Margin Call, The Wolf of Wall Street and…well Wall Street. Does The Big Short (nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars) stand with these great films?

The Big Short stars Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt and is directed by Adam McKay. Based on the book of the same name by Michael Lewis, the film follows several brokers on Wall Street who predicted the 2008 Housing Crisis and decide to bet against the market and get rich.

If you don’t know the first thing about stocks, don’t worry I’m right with you. Top bond salesman Jared Vennett (Gosling) turns to the camera early on and says, “I know this is boring and confusing, so here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to explain it.” The film does this several times, with celebrities such as Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdain popping up and explaining what several of the market terms mean through simple analogies. It’s incredibly funny and is kept up throughout the entire film, with characters turning to screen to explain how things happened or drawing pictures in thin air. However, don’t think it’s a pure comedy like The Wolf of Wall Street (despite it being nominated in several awards under “comedy”), it’s more of a drama that a laugh-out-loud film.

You have to pay attention throughout, the film will stop and explain a term but it will then set off again and assume you got the gist of it. I missed a couple of lines of dialogue and for the next ten minutes I was confused over what was happening. It’s a film that isn’t afraid to talk about complex and deliberately puzzling exchanges and statistics. Luckily, with the help of those previously mentioned cut-aways to celebrities or a Jenga set to symbolise the housing market, the audience can follow along the winding trail of buying and selling dodgy commodities. It’s a riveting script, and McKay and collaborator Charles Randolph have done a fantastic job of making what could be an intensely boring subject into one of the most suspenseful.

The cast is a major strong point. A lot of the main players are playing against type; Steve Carell is a surly man with emotional baggage, Christian Bale is a doctor with Aspergers who walks around his office barefoot and plays music obnoxiously loud and Brad Pitt is quiet retiree who is paranoid the government is spying on him. Most of these men never meet face-to-face, but they all figure out at some point that the market is going to collapse and the joy comes from their different methods and approaches to how they will get out of it without losing money or their jobs.

By far the best performance is Ryan Gosling. Sure, I might be a fanboy, but in The Big Short he is fantastic. He’s obviously channelling Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort and looks like he’s loving playing the part of a ruthless salesman. The moments where he verbal puts-down his underlings, or clears an entire men’s bathroom so that he can have a private phone call are funny and create an interesting character, and serve as a good distraction in-between the major money-conversations.

As soon as I finished The Big Short, I knew that it had majorly shaken up my predictions for the winner of this year’s Oscar. It’s riveting and often hilarious but it’s painfully fast. When your problem with the film is “there should be more of this”, you have something good. If you think you can keep up with its rapid pace, then The Big Short get’s my recommendation.

Score: 9/10 Thrilling, funny, thought-provoking and totally deserves it’s nomination.

Room Review

In a bid to make a reasonable decision on the Academy Awards this year, I’m trying to watch all the nominations before the show. I’ve seen most through 2015, but there are a few trying to slip in the last weeks. One such film is Room.

Room stars Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Sean Bridgers, Joan Allen and Tom McCamus and is directed by Lenny Abrahamson. Based on the novel of the same name by Emma Donoghue, the film follows Joy (Larson) and her five-year-old son Jack (Tremblay), who have been locked in a room by “Old Nick” (Bridgers). They plot to trick “Old Nick” and escape.

I went into Room pretty blind. I’d seen the trailer, which had given away a few details, but originally I thought this was going to be a horror film. My co-host on Pure FM, Zach Lockwood, said to me that he thought it was going to be a sci-fi film. So I was surprised and in the end, overjoyed that Room turned into a humane drama about the relationship between mother and son.

Most of the film’s time is spent in the company of Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, who both sell the idea that they are parent and child. Brie Larson has taken a gigantic leap from her two most known roles (21 Jump Street and Trainwreck, both comedies) to her role as Joy in Room. It shows her ability as an actress, and highlights that she can do serious Oscar-bait dramas as well as comedies. Jacob Tremblay though is the standout of the film. This kid is nine at the time of writing and he’s already worthy of praise, which for child actors is rare. He pulls off every change that the script calls for with conviction and totally deserves the acclaim, I would give Best Actor to him over Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant.

The cinematography seems to be deliberately tied in with Jack’s vision throughout the film. It stays at a very low height, and emphasises the small things throughout the room. Jack has never experienced the outside before, all he knows is the room and amazingly, the cinematography is able to capture how he believes that the room is large and is his entire universe.

Once Jack finally manages to escape, the cinematography changes, it takes in wide-shots of the sky and tries to focus in on everything, just like Jack is doing. We almost feel the same as Jack does when he first get’s out, we’ve been cooped up in the room for so long that when the characters do get outside, it’s like nothing we’ve seen before. Even things like “Old Nick” are viewed through a child-like lens, he’s the equivalent of the Bogey-Man, never truly visualised and always steeped in shadow, similar to how Toy Story visualised demon-child Sid’s father. It’s a novel way to capture a story and makes it all the more interesting to watch.

Room is a story that drags you through what could be one of the most hellish experiences to ever happen to someone but it’s all through the always-optimistic eyes of a five year-old. While it could have been easy for the film to become melancholic and depressing, it somehow manages to keep you happy to a degree. You smile and laugh even in the most dark points of the story because you see a young child who has joy and happiness in his life.

To summarise, Room deserves it’s place in the Best Picture nominations. I know that it’s only January, but when we get to the end of 2016, I’ll be surprised if Room doesn’t make it onto my Top Ten of the year. This definitely one to not miss. You might want to bring your tissues though, nearly the entire theatre I was in were in tears by the end.

Score: 8/10 Over-whelming and somehow joyous.

David Lynch Collection Review

Preface

This review has been a while in the making. I first teased this collection on my Twitter feed nearly a full month ago, but I finally thought I should start now, after finishing the last film I wanted to feature on this list. This collection review will work much like my Bruce Lee one, yet this time focussing on the director David Lynch.

I love David Lynch. I believe he is one of the best directors alive today, with his creation of epic-spanning surrealist nightmares and non-linear narratives getting him both lauded and criticised in the film world. The seven films I chose for this review are:

  • Dune
  • Eraserhead
  • Blue Velvet
  • Lost Highway
  • Mulholland Drive
  • Inland Empire
  • Wild At Heart

A brief warning, nearly all of these films contain copious amounts of swearing, violence, nudity, and a few contain some of the most unsettling and foreboding moments in cinema. Watch them at your own discretion.

Dune

Lynch’s first big-budget studio film, Dune is an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s epic science fiction novel of the same name. Featuring Lynch regular Kyle MacLachlan as Paul Atreides, a son of the Duke of Atreides, one of the several warring partners in the empire of space. The film focuses on the struggle over the planet Dune, which is rich in the spice required for interstellar travel. Featuring a vast array of talented actors, Dune also features some impressive miniature work, with Herbert’s giant Sandworm being a standout attraction. Also be on the lookout for Lynch’s cameo and the soundtrack composed by Toto.

Score: 8/10 It’s a bit like Game of Thrones in space.

Eraserhead

Lynch’s first feature film, and one that is made of nightmares. Eraserhead is about a man named Henry (played by another Lynch regular Jack Nance), who after his wife gives birth to a deformed mutant, leaves him and the new baby to fend for themselves in the post-apocalyptic dystopia. Shot in stark black and white, this is the start of Lynch’s surrealist imagery, with stop-motion chicken breasts, gruesome body horror, and a chilling song with the famous Lynch line, “In heaven, everything is fine.” The constant crying of Henry’s child is laced throughout the film, making the film one of the most disturbing of the bunch.

Score: 7/10 Not one to watch before you go to sleep

Blue Velvet

Probably the sanest and easily to follow of the film on this list. Kyle MacLachlan returns again, this time playing Jeffrey Beaumont, who returns home after his father is hospitalised. While on a walk, Jeffrey discovers a severed ear in a field, and starts his own investigation into the mystery, when the police go nowhere with the case. Dennis Hopper’s portrayal of sadistic criminal Frank Booth is one of the most memorable villains within cinema history, while Isabella Rossellini portrayal of his abused plaything Dorothy is unnerving. Video game fans will get a kick out of several scenes within the film that were recreated in Silent Hill 2.

Score 10/10 Lynch’s best film by far.

Lost Highway

A twisting narrative of parallel lives and invasions of privacy, Lost Highway features Bill Pullman as jazz musician Fred, who keeps receiving tapes of him sleeping in is bed. Again featuring an all star cast, with an unnerving performance by Robert Blake as the Mystery Man, Lost Highway has some of the more frightening flashes of Lynch’s filmography, (viscerally similar to the hells scenes from Event Horizon), yet stumbles around the halfway mark with some rather boring story points. In the end it all comes together, but this one you might need to read several internet theories to eventually get.

Score: 5/10 Visceral and unsettling in places, but it’s not one of Lynch’s greatest works.

Mulholland Drive

After an attempted assassination/car crash on the eponymous street, a woman called Rita (Played by Laura Harring) is left with amnesia. She stumbles across aspiring actress Diane (played by Naomi Watts) and together the two set off to find what actually happened to Rita on Mulholland Drive. With several Lynch cast alumni featuring, along with an odd bit of casting in the form of Billy Ray Cyrus, Mulholland Drive is a brainteaser that answers more and more questions with each repeat viewing, with everything drenched in symbolism. With several startling moments and foreboding imagery, it’s a feast for the senses.

Score 10/10 This is one you’ll keep coming back to.

Inland Empire

Lynch’s most recent work and also his longest, at just under three hours. Inland Empire could be considered a very loose adaptation of anime classic Perfect Blue, with Laura Dern playing actress Susan, who while filming her latest film starts to lose her grip on reality. The closest thing to a horror movie that Lynch has created, with several scenes making me jump out of my seat with fright, Inland Empire has many of Lynch’s scariest moments. The three hour run time might be a bit too long for some, along with the meandering story, which feels like it’s about to end before going on for an extra half an hour. Plow through it though and you’ll have some of the most frightening and surreal images ever committed to film burned into your psyche forever. Stick around for the credits and you’ll be treated to nearly all the cast singing and dancing to Nina Simone’s Sinnerman.

Score: 6/10 The run time kicks the legs out from Inland Empire, but it is still a clever and enjoyable (in a horror way) film.

Wild At Heart

A romantic/crime road trip based on the novel of the same name, featuring Nicolas Cage as Sailor and Laura Dern (again) as Lula. While some of the subject matter discussed and shown, including, childhood abuse, murder, shotgun injuries and a ridiculous amount of sex can be off-putting to several audience members, what is left is a darkly funny script about two people who are in love. Nicolas Cage is as crazy as usual, and extra praise should be given to the bad guy Bobby, played by Willem Dafoe, who exudes menace. Throw in a superb rock and roll soundtrack, and you got yourself a pretty good movie.

Score: 9/10 A fun neo-noir thrill ride.

Woman In Gold Review

I can already tell this film is going to be at the Oscars for 2015. Let’s look at the facts. Is it a biopic? Yes. Does it have big name stars in the lead roles? Yes. Is it from a nearly unknown director? Yes. Those are the three things that make you virtually get given an Oscar, so let’s look at the rest of the film.

Woman In Gold is directed by Simon Curtis and stars Helen Mirren as Maria Altmann, Ryan Reynolds as her lawyer Randol Schoenberg and Daniel Bruhl as an investigative reporter, Hubertus Czernin. The film follows Maria and Randol, as they investigate and then legally battle for a painting of Maria’s aunt, the titular Woman in Gold, stolen by Nazi’s which is currently being held in the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna.

When I first heard about Woman In Gold, I was a bit sceptical. Of course Helen Mirren is known for her “talkie” films, yet Ryan Reynolds is not known for his serious drama work. I was thinking it was going to be, to borrow another reviewer’s phrase, “Meg Ryan is a helicopter pilot” all over again. Yet Reynolds pulls off the lawyer role, in one of his strongest roles yet. Helen Mirren as well does a role she could do in her sleep, although her Austrian accent drops in and out of the film. Daniel Bruhl is his usual lovable self, although doesn’t really add anything to the overall plot in the film, he just drops in to add a few titbits of information and expertise. And it’s always nice to see Jonathan Pryce in films, even though if his role consists of barely five lines and ten seconds of action.

The story is a dual narrative, with Tatiana Maslany playing a younger Maria during the initial stages of the Austrian invasion and then cutting to present day now and again. It makes the film one of two halves though, one part historical drama and the other a sort-of courtroom drama (since we hardly spend time in the courtroom yet have many discussions between lawyers), but around two thirds into the film the historical part ends and we are firmly rooted in the courtroom, until the final few scenes transport us back to Maria’s final moments in Austria. It has a similar resemblance to Russian Ark, and I know that is the most obscure reference that could be ever made but it does draw similar styles to Alexander Sokurov’s masterpiece. (If you haven’t seen Russian Ark then please find a way to watch it, it’s a marvel of filmmaking.) The final scene is a beautiful montage sequence of Helen Mirren’s Maria walking through all of the historical Maria scenes we have previously watched, with a small addendum to one of them, which is easily the most emotional scene in the film even making me nearly shed a tear.

The film, like all other films, has some problems. At 109 minutes the film feels a bit overly long, with some pointless scenes that were added for historical accuracy. Another problem I had with the film is with its use of foul language. The BBFC at the beginning of the film labelled it a 12A for “infrequent strong language”, yet there is only one word in the entire film that could constitute that. My problem with it was that it wasn’t needed, it didn’t add anything to the scene or the film and if it wasn’t included then the film could have moved down to a PG, which I think would have been good since I believe this is a film an entire family should watch at some point. Some characters are glossed over as well, such as Maria’s husband Fritz (played by Max Irons) or Randol’s stay at home wife Pam (played by Katie Holmes). Apart from a few lines from Helen Mirren, we hardly find out about what happened to Fritz at the end of the historical part of the film and we only see Katie Holmes in conjunction with her on screen husband.

In summary, Woman In Gold takes both the historical drama and a small bit of the courtroom drama and adds them together to create a thought provoking and moving real life tale about identity and lineage.

Score: 7/10 Just like the eponymous painting, Woman in Gold is a worthy piece of cinematic art.