About Eric Wood

Eric Wood is 21 years old, from Bury in Greater Manchester, and a graduate of Salford University where he studied Journalism and English Literature. His first novel comes out later in the year, and he begins work directing his first feature length movie in the summer. Eric absolutely adores all forms of writing and loves movies so he’s the ideal film critic. His greatest inspiration for many years has been Michael Crichton, as Crichton has written novels, non-fiction, screenplays, and directed movies. Eric would love to be able to achieve all of those things in my lifetime.

Film Review: 12 Years A Slave

12 Years A SlaveIt would be wrong of me to claim that this is a film review. If anything, it is a love letter. A love letter to the wonder that is cinema. The movies are the world’s great art form and quite often it is sold short. Sometimes by the people who watch the movies, who refuse to see something new that may not involve CGI robots or explosions. Sometimes by the movie industry itself, that incorrectly assumes that the cinema is about box office takings and keeping plots and methods of storytelling simple so then the audience doesn’t have to be inconvenienced by thinking.

On far too rare an occasion though, a film will come along that illustrates everything that is good about cinema. A film that amazes you. A film that makes you think. A film that stays with you for days after seeing it. A film that makes you realise just what an astounding medium cinema is. In my case, a film that lights a fire underneath me to pick up a pen or sit at a keyboard and write the words ‘fade in’ at the top of the page. For everyone, the list of films that achieve this is different. For me, David Cronenberg did it with “Crash,” Christopher Nolan did it with “Inception,” Quentin Tarantino did it with “Reservoir Dogs,” Park Chan Wook did it with “Oldboy,” Alfred Hitchcock did it with “Psycho,” Ridley Scott did it with “Alien,” and Ingmar Bergman did it with “The Seventh Seal.” And now, Steven McQueen has done it with “12 Years A Slave.”

It’s devastating then that I will probably never watch it again. It is that unflinching and difficult to watch that even distant memories of it are haunting. While watching it in the cinema, it’s difficult to resist hiding your eyes behind your hands while trying to pretend you are somewhere else. It’s an appropriate sensation, considering that Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is probably feeling the urge to do the same thing as he’s left hanging by his neck in a field, his feet stuttering around in the mud as he struggles to breathe while his fellow slaves continue working, unable to come to his aid. The same can be said towards the conclusion of the film, when Solomon gives a long lingering look directly into the camera. Directly at the audience. He’s pleading for help and for mercy. It feels like he’s tearing out your heart.

While the film covers a subject matter that requires a certain degree of sensitivity, director Steve McQueen handles it with intelligence. The plot itself is very simple. Solomon Northup is a carpenter and talented violinist living in New York with his wife and two children. He is approached by two businessmen who claim to be part of a travelling circus, and they want Solomon to join them as a professional musician. Flattered by their kindness and the opportunity, Solomon accepts their offer during a late evening meal. He drinks too much wine and gets drunk. When he wakes up, he’s in chains and being beaten for claiming to be a free man.

Solomon is sold to a plantation owner called Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). While some of of his experiences on the plantation are scarring and brutal, Ford is ultimately one of the more gentle owners. He encourages Solomon to use his mind and help improve the way the plantation works. Ford celebrates with his slaves when Solomon constructs a method for using the nearby river. He allows Solomon to have his violin back, and tells him he hopes to hear him play it soon. It’s as close to happiness as Solomon will get in his ordeal. Half way through the film, Ford is forced to sell Solomon to another plantation owner called Epps (Michael Fassbender), and that’s when Solomon’s real nightmare starts. Epps prides himself on beating and trying to break his slaves. If the weight of the cotton the slaves pick doesn’t increase every day, they get whipped.

The majority of the film’s 134-minute length is dedicated to his time on Epps’ plantation. We mainly see his day-to-day life, where he works under the constant fear that violence and brutality is going to come his way. He and his fellow slaves never get a moment to think. They never get a moment to feel safe. They’re all living a life of fear and pain that seems to have only one escape route. Full credit has to be given to McQueen for the way he approaches this. He doesn’t opt to hint at the horrors or the fear. This isn’t supposed to be a fleeting sensation. This is a movie designed to linger and exhaust the audience. It is an exercise in raw human emotion. Solomon is a slave for 12 years, but with McQueen’s direction it feels like it could be a lifetime.

At no point are we given any indication about how much time has passed. Given his situation, would Solomon know himself? We interpret the world through his eyes, and for that reason time doesn’t have any meaning. McQueen makes it clear that for him, an image needs to be more than just something to look at. It has to effect the audience mentally and physically in order to meet McQueen’s demands. Every single second of ‘12 Years a Slave’ is effecting. That’s a cinematic achievement that is rarely achieved.

In a time when the majority of mainstream movies aim to impress and create awe with expensive but ultimately hollow images, it is something to be cherished when directors like Steve McQueen come along and make a movie like this. Movies after all are supposed to evoke the purest of human emotions, as indeed all art forms should. It’s not an easy thing to achieve, and when it happens, it like lightning in a bottle. It’s something that every screenwriter and every director should aim for.

So, let’s all raise a glass. To Ingmar Bergman. To Stanley Kubrick. To Alfred Hitchcock. To Quentin Tarantino. To Steven Spielberg. To Martin Scorsese. To Christopher Nolan. To Park Chan Wook. To Steve McQueen. Here’s to the movies. And to ‘12 Years a Slave’ – one of the greatest movies ever made.

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Film Review: Mandela – Long Walk To Freedom

Mandela Long Walk To Freedom“Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom” had a lot of expectation surrounded it because of its subject. That was before the untimely death of Nelson Mandela and the world started mourning the passing of one of history’s greatest heroes. And yet, despite the opportunity before the filmmakers to try and find the real Mandela, they opt to go down a more sympathetic route and create a rather conventional biopic.

Anyone who is aware of Mandela’s life will know that some parts, particularly in his younger years, are less than desirable. When he first became leader of the ANC, he instigated bombings on public buildings and riots in the streets. He claimed not to be a violent man while carrying a gun. He neglected his first wife and committed adultery. While these events are addressed, they pass by quickly and without question. At no point does anyone go up to him and suggest that his course of action is wrong. It is a missed opportunity that this film didn’t take the time to examine this part of his life a little more, considering his transformation from armed protester to messenger of peace is the most interesting aspect of his life.

When it comes to a central role like this, the only actor you can really think of who can provide the right amount of gravitas is someone like Idris Elba. His tall and strong build makes him stand out from the people around him. When he joins in a boycott of the bus services started by his friend, he literally towers over the rest of the protesters. You fully believe that Elba can enter and have the full attention of the room without even saying a word.

Elba does a superb job charting the different stages of his life. When he’s young, passionate and womanising, he comes across smooth and oozing confidence. When starts leading the ANC down a more violent route, you can see the pain that he’s feeling. Every bomb plays on his conscience, but he knows it’s the only way he and his people can get attention. When he’s in prison, he becomes a mournful man who struggles to deal with the fact that the lives of his loved ones are continuing while he has to spend the rest of his life on pause. He rallies his friends together to try and get their prison guards to respect them. Even when facing life imprisonment he continues to fight. Then finally, we see the elderly statesman trying to bring the violence to an end so then all South Africans can live in peace. Because of his screen presence, Elba looks somewhat presidential all the way throughout.

Because of Elba being so enigmatic as the leading man, it’s easy to forget about the wonderful performance put in by Naomie Harris as Winnie Mandela. When we first meet her, she is a gentle and supporting woman trying to help her boyfriend and then husband in any way she can. When Mandela is sent to prison, Winnie realises that the fight for freedom must go on and she takes over the reigns as his successor. Throughout Mandela’s time in prison, she continues to fight, using violence whenever it is necessary. When Mandela is released and wants to negotiate some form of peace, it’s understandable that Winnie disagrees with him. She’s been fighting with her bare hands for years only for her more highly regarded husband to tell her his initial plan of action was wrong.

Winnie can’t quite understand where this sudden change of philosophy has come from, and the problem is neither can the audience. The film aches with the pain of trying to make Mandela’s transformation seem natural while still ticking off the milestones, but it isn’t able to do that. It is genuinely hard to grasp his transition when he becomes an instigator of peace.

The final scene however is very affecting. The sense of achievement during this moment is a little overwhelming. There’s no denying that Mandela lived an amazing life that should be celebrated, and that is why this film aims to do nothing more than pay homage to the man in good faith. You can’t shake the feeling though that someone like Mandela deserves a little more examination. It was a long walk to freedom for Madiba. Unfortunately in this case, the walk may be too long.

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Film Review: What Maisie Knew

What Maisie KnewWhat Maisie Knew is the story of a child trying to make sense of a grown up world that seems to be giving up on her. She has to stand and watch through the crack in the door, or through an open window as her parents separate, leaving her stuck in the middle trying to understand what’s gone wrong. You begin to wonder if Maisie (Onate Aprile) blames herself. It’s not an easy thing to watch at times, but What Maisie Knew is nonetheless engaging and touching.

Maisie is an adorable pixie of a girl living with her parents Susanna (Julianne Moore) and Beale (Steve Coogan). They fight a lot, forcing Maisie to retreat into her own self contained world. She’s certainly very street smart – we see her paying for a pizza during an early scene when mummy and daddy are too busy fighting to even notice the door bell. The camera gently remains focused on her as she watches her parents’ marriage fall apart. They both fight for custody and make out that they want what’s best for her. This doesn’t stop them forgetting to pick her up from school, or allowing her to walk through a drug and alcohol soaked party. Deep down Maisie doesn’t matter to Susanna and Beale. The only thing that interests them is one-upmanship.

Susanna is a bad mother. She’s a rock musician who’s seen her career take a massive dive over the past few years. She wants to record new songs, get back out on tour, and generally refuel her professional life. She’s very possessive and needy around Maisie, to such an extent that she actually gets angry when she doesn’t feature very much in a story her daughter wrote. She spends a lot of her time talking to her daughter like she’s a teenager, leaving Maisie to just stare blankly at her.

Beale is a bad father. He’s a distant and occasionally callous person who disappears for long periods for overseas work that we never fully understand. At one point it looks like he might be an art dealer who can only seem to find work in London. He makes a lot of jokes, particularly about Susanna, and Maisie just stares at him blankly. Even though he’s lived with Maisie for her entire life up until this point, he doesn’t seem to know anything about her. He talks to her like an adult, and then sighs heavily when she doesn’t understand.

With both her parents fighting over her in a petty self-centred battle, Maisie is able to find happiness with her parents’ new partners. Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard) is Susanna’s new husband who has a night job working in a bar. He’s a little nervous around Maisie to begin with, but his heart is in the right place. He keeps her happy and entertained while she’s staying with Susanna, who’s too busy recording a new song. He’s almost a little too perfect to be a believable character, but the chemistry between Skarsgard and Aprile is beautiful. Their bond takes time to grow, rather than just forcing itself into the story.

Beale’s new partner Margo (Joanna Vanderham) is the nanny that he and Susanna had hired when they were still together. We can see that Maisie loves Margo and is very comfortable around her, no doubt because she represents the last piece of the loving home she once had. She’s a caring person who only has Maisie in mind, even when Beale goes away on another mysterious business trip leaving her alone with his child. She’s neglected, but she doesn’t let Maisie see that. Instead she lavishes her with attention to try and keep both their minds off the increasingly absent Beale.

What Maisie Knew is certainly a triumph of acting. Julianne Moore and newcomer Onata Aprile in particularly give heartbreakingly natural performances. Steve Coogan is fairly convincing as the deviant and slightly creepy Beale who can still be charming when he wants to be. All the performances are so slick and natural it almost feels like they filmed without a script. Some scenes are very difficult to watch, in particular when Susanna decides to change the locks and leave Beale homeless. The estranged couple shout at each other through the door in an alarming moment as Maisie watches on. It comes out of nowhere because we’re looking at the world through the eyes of a child. What kind of child in a comfortable home with parents could predict a horror like this?

In contrast we also get moments involving Lincoln and Margo which are genuinely touching. The very simple scene involving them both playing Monopoly late at night with Maisie has to be one of the most beautiful movie moments this year. What Maisie Knew is an interesting film with interesting ideas that doesn’t feel the need to over sentimentalise things to make it’s audience care. It knows that we’re all hoping that Maisie is able to find the tenderness and hope that she’s looking for.

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Film Review: Bernie

BernieThere are times when it just works. There are times when the soufflé rises just right. Sometimes it’s explainable, but if we’re being honest, it’s best when it happens miraculously. That’s how I felt when I watched “Bernie.” It’s difficult to describe – as a complete work – what it is that makes it such a triumph. It just is. Director Richard Linklater combines pitch black humour with a sweet and gentle lead character who’s story is so bizarre it must be based on a true story. It’s enough to make the Coen Brothers smile.

You have to wonder if, when Richard Linklater read an article by Skip Hollandsworth in Texas Monthly about a kind hearted man driven to murder, he knew that he’d struck gold. A story about a man so well liked by a small community in Texas that his murder trial had to be moved 50 miles away, because the local jury would almost certainly let him off. Obviously an intriguing character if ever there was one, and one that certainly deserves a movie, but it’s very easy to get this kind of thing wrong. Just ask the writers and creators of the excellent TV show “Dexter” how much controversy they created with their sympathetic serial killer who only kills bad people.

From our perspective, Bernie (Jack Black) kills a bad person too. He arrives in the small town of Carthage, Texas looking to take a job as a mortician. He’s an expert in preparing the dead, to the extent that some of them look better than when they were alive. He sings in church, performs in the local theatre, and makes an effort to check on the local widows for a few weeks after their husband’s funeral. Some residents think he may be gay. Others think he has a thing for older women. The majority just think he’s a very nice man.

Then Bernie meets Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a wealthy old widow who seems to delight in making the people around her miserable. When her grandchildren abandon her when she becomes totally unbearable, it confirms her world view that everyone hates her. Then Bernie arrives at her house bearing gifts, and the two of them soon spark up a friendship. They go away on holidays together, and Marjorie goes to see Bernie perform in his theatre productions. Again, the town’s people start to gossip, and a rumour starts that they are having an affair. It feels like we know more about Bernie than they do though, and we can safely assume he was probably celibate.

Eventually Marjorie’s true nature comes to the surface, and she starts controlling Bernie’s life and ordering him around. When he attempts to leave, she accuses him of hating her like everyone else. Life becomes so unbearable for him that he eventually takes Marjorie’s gun – which he refers to as the “possum gun” – and shoots her four times in the back. We see Bernie’s horrified reaction, and we feel sympathy for him. This is the point when the film really takes flight.

Because Bernie is an all round “nice guy” we support him through everything, even though we do remain a little suspicious of him. Or perhaps it’s just cynicism. We wait for Bernie to be revealed as a nut case, when all the time he was just a “nice guy” pushed to extremes. Richard Linklater at no point attempts to pass any form of moral judgement; he just allows Bernie to be Bernie. The only person we really come across who doubts him is the local District Attorney Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey) who thinks he’s Columbo when he seems to have more in common with Clouseau.

Jack Black proves to be rather inspired casting. He avoids drifting into his usual comedy wackiness, and creates a satirical performance with considerable substance. Linklater intercuts scenes from Bernie’s life with documentary style interviews, some of which involve actual residents from Cathage, Texas. It’s a small town with a population of roughly 7,000, so as you’d expect, the majority of people there know each other. Every now and then – especially when talking about Bernie’s sexual orientation – the interviewee’s use colloquialisms that add a humorous touch of realism.

Linklater’s script – co-written with Skip Hollandsworth – brings out a lot of droll dark comedy from a story that could have easily been misjudged in the wrong hands. But Linklater keeps everything under control, and delicately allows the story to tell itself. Throw in Jack Black giving one of the best performances of his career, and you have a real triumph. The content is well judged and the tone fits perfectly. It just works.

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Film Review: The Look Of Love

The Look Of LoveWhilst watching “The Look Of Love,” it’s hard not to think that it would be better suited for a Sunday night on BBC Four than a Friday night at your local cinema. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with it; it’s solidly made by people who know how the game is played, and has moments of humour that help bring out it’s own unique charm. But for those looking for a character study of what has to be a fascinating person, it’s probably best to look elsewhere.

We learn everything we need to know about Paul Raymond, an unconventional entrepreneur with an excess of character, who found success with his nude circus acts and strip joints. He later went on to create Men Only, one of the most profitable erotic magazines ever. We learn about his relationships with the people around him, of course mainly the women. And yet, the big discovery this film unearths is one you realise you never really thought about before. “The Look Of Love” shows us that British erotica really is breathtakingly unerotic. The Americans are able to add glitz and glamour and a smoothness to their porn. The Europeans add a slinky, sensuous exoticism. And then we have the British, who can’t seem to elevate themselves over tacky and miserable.

That certainly didn’t stop Paul Raymond (Steve Coogan). The film starts with him as a middle aged man, looking back on his life after a tragic event inspires him to reminisce. He thinks about his rise in fame and wealth, his struggles with his wife Jean (Anna Friel), his affair with the attractive Fiona Richmond (Tamsin Egerton), the relationship with his daughter Debbie (Imogen Poots), and as you’d expect, how his party lifestyle ultimately costs him everything. He doesn’t lose anything of material value though. As the end credits point out, Raymond was named Britain’s richest man in 1992.

Steve Coogan’s Paul Raymond is an unaggressive, charming man. He has strong convictions, is clearly very self confident, but ultimately avoids confrontation. He has absolutely no trouble chatting up young women to join him and Fiona in their bed, but looks distinctly uncomfortable when his daughter Debbie cries during a public confrontation with him. Steve Coogan himself is very well restrained, only adding delicate touches of humour at points that seem like perfect opportunities to go all Alan Partridge.

Most elements of Paul Raymond’s character are quite accurate, apart from the charm. That is a Steve Coogan addition. In real life, Raymond often came across as a rather cold man. This is the point where the film starts to lose its way. Instead of going in for a proper study of the man, for the most part it is very affectionate, at times uncomfortably so. There is a limit to how appealing a character who exploited women on a daily basis should be.

It’s quite admirable then, that Anna Friel and Tamsin Egerton are able to put in such impressive performances in a film and a world that is so male orientated. Both of them exude a uniqueness that deserves a bit more exploration, but ultimately they are forced to revolve around Paul Raymond’s orbit. Friel and Egerton do a great job though creating strong women who are forced to put up with too much of Raymond for far too long.

As you’d expect in a film like this, both Anna Friel and Tamsin Egerton appear nude, the latter several times. It’s doubtful the film goes more than five minutes without a smattering of female nudity, but it’s not done in a way that’s supposed to shock. Considering this is a film directed by Michael Winterbottom, who certainly has a reputation for embracing explicit images, that is a little bit of a surprise. Plot-wise, he keeps everything very straightforward in an unadventurous rise and fall story. He’s aware that the nudity is tasteless and tacky, and allows the film to revel in it.

Even though the central story is supposed to revolve around Raymond’s relationship with his daughter Debbie, the issues of that relationship are skimmed over. Whenever it looks like we might be about to penetrate the surface of Paul Raymond, the story shifts back to his relationships – mainly sexual ones – with women. When Raymond is asked by the press if Debbie will be appearing nude in one of his shows, and he replies that she absolutely will not, all we get is a frown from Fiona to highlight his hypocrisy. In another interview he’s asked if his erotic publications are degrading to women. He simply says “no,” the press laugh, and it’s never spoken of again. “The Look Of Love” is ultimately a solid and straightforward film that has strong performances from the likes of Steve Coogan, but after a while, rather like the erotica on constant display, it all starts to grate.

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Film Review: Spring Breakers

Spring Breakers“Spring Breakers” is the best film Harmony Korine has ever made, but that’s not really a compliment. Up until now Korine’s films have been nothing more than self-indulgent and overly self-conscious tripe. However, with his first feature film since “Trash Humpers” in 2009, he seems to be a changed man. Is that for better? Moderately, yes. His ability to create impressive imagery remains, but the over indulgence has been replaced with a keener eye for the mainstream.

Korine’s latest film is an orgy of excess. A world of intoxicating hedonism, that only acts as a disguise for the nihilism and gradual self destruction that’s going on underneath. Given his past problems with drugs and alcohol, perhaps Korine is actually being more self-conscious than initially thought. Perhaps his life became one massive spring break; spiralling to destruction and thinking you’re enjoying the prime of life. The four girls at the heart of “Spring Breakers” are of that exact frame of mind. They want to go to Florida for spring break so they can escape from all the monotony in their lives. When the girls sit around and talk about their boredom with real life, it’s vaguely reminiscent of the “Choose” monologue at the beginning of Danny Boyle’s “Trainspotting.”

The girls decide they need to go to spring break for the sake of their spirits. Only problem is, they don’t have any money. They discover a quick, easy, and exhilarating fix to their problem – rob a restaurant. They take their money and head straight for Florida, where they find more “spirituality” than they thought they would. They go to parties where people get drunk, take cocaine, smoke pot through makeshift bongs made out of dolls, and women constantly parade themselves topless.

As you’d expect, reality soon fights back, and the police arrive at one of the parties. The girls are arrested and spend the night in the cells, before they go before a judge the next day. They’re informed that someone, unbeknown to them, has paid for their bail. When they leave court, they meet their saviour – at least that’s what he is now – Alien (James Franco). He’s a drug dealer, arms dealer, and part time rapper. His entire life is one long spring break. He embraces the chaos of the world around him, either because he’s part of it, or because he knows it will probably destroy him before he has a chance to get bored. To the girls, he’s like an inspirational speaker.

That is except for Faith (Selena Gomez). She’s instantly suspicious of Alien, who tries to show them a good time. She tells Alien of her suspicions, and James Franco easily slips into creepy manipulator mode. In this insane world of total fantasy, Faith is the only person we come across who seems genuine. All she wants is to get away from bible study for a few weeks and get drunk in the sun. Getting arrested and hanging around with a dread-locked lunatic wasn’t what she had in mind. She’s almost a representation of the audience, if it weren’t for the fact most of us would have ran away from this sunny circle of hell after ten minutes.

But that of course isn’t really the point. If the aim is to create satire or some form of social commentary, then realism has no place here. Harmony Korine doesn’t really permit real life a chance to get in. The courtroom scene, when the four girls appear before the judge still only wearing the bikinis from the day before is proof of that. Korine’s love of arresting visuals and unique soundtracks come together when Alien plays a Britney Spears song on his white piano, while the girls dance around him, wearing pink balaclavas and swinging automatic handguns over their heads. Yes, their still wearing bikinis.

Korine’s visual style often comes to save many of the movie’s scenes. The script is rather painfully written, with dialogue that is too on the nose. Not that it really matters. “Spring Breakers” is a film that allows you to talk to the people next to you and quickly check Facebook without missing anything. Perfect for young movie goers then. Often the actors are encouraged to ad lib, which is something a skilled actor like James Franco, who seems to enjoy taking risks with his work, no doubt enjoyed.

And yet, despite the interesting visuals and pumping dubstep soundtrack (which occasionally becomes irritating), things do become surprisingly dull at times. Still, “Spring Breakers” invites you down to the very depths of wasted youth, where only debauchery and chaos are allowed. It gets so painfully close to becoming the next big teen cult movie, but fails to clear the bar. That’s what makes it so irritating. Despite all the gloss, all the booze, all the drugs, all the guns, and all the bare breasts, it has a hollow core. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t like it either. The problem was I felt nothing, and therefore didn’t care about what was happening on screen. While it is an intoxicating and immersive experience, it fails to be the effective social commentary it desires to be.

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Film Review: Trance

Trance“Trance” is a film about a man having fun. It’s not one of the characters though. It’s not even one of the three main cast members, who are clearly enjoying being part of a quick-moving puzzle. It’s the director, Danny Boyle. He gets everything he wants; the stylish music video-like visuals, the pumping soundtrack, the complex plot. It’s all rather joyous. However it’s best you don’t focus too much on logic, or look for sympathetic characters. It will drive you crazy.

It starts off with the tone of a heist movie. Simon (James McAvoy) is our narrator, explaining how art heists have become more complicated over the years as security at auction houses have heightened. Simon works at a high-class auction house where paintings worth millions go under the hammer. During an auction on a painting surpassing £25 million, Franck (Vincent Cassel) and his gang burst onto the scene and steal the painting from Simon when he tries to take it to safety. In the process, Franck belts Simon across the head with his gun, leaving him near death on the floor.

It’s not really much of a plot spoiler, but Simon was involved in the theft; an inside job. Franck though soon discovers that the painting is missing, and so tracks down Simon upon his release from hospital. Simon says he’s lost his memory, and has no idea where the painting is, or why he would have taken it. Franck isn’t entirely convinced with the amnesia story, so starts removing Simon’s finger nails with a razor just to be sure.

The torture doesn’t work, and Franck is convinced Simon has amnesia. Turns out if people stick to their story while their finger nails are being removed, they’re probably telling the truth. Franck hands Simon an IPad (lots of Apple products on display here) with the yellow pages on, and asks him to pick out a hypnotherapist. Simon picks Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) out seemingly at random. Simon says he picked her because he likes her name. After Simon goes for a few hypnotism sessions however, Elizabeth soon figures out that something is going on.

Simon, Franck, and Elizabeth are our three main characters, and the story revolves around the way they interact with each other. All three have their likeable moments, but soon they shift into crazy territory, before bordering on plain scary. There’s very little reason we should empathise or trust them, but Danny Boyle is aware of that. He doesn’t want us to like them, because then there’s a chance we may believe their side of the story, which would completely detonate any chance of a twist.

There is a twist. In fact there are several. Quite a lot of them, mainly during the final act, are a little silly, but Boyle’s intention is just to create vibrant pulp fiction. He delivers on that, but because he wants to get as much in as possible, it pushes things a little too far on occasion. The more serious revelations that occur towards the conclusion feel like they’ve been forced in, and don’t really have a place in a pulp fiction story. Some people may also find the final scene a little too upbeat considering what has happened previous.

It’s a risk Danny Boyle is willing to take though. He keeps things going at a break neck speed; something he clearly delights in. It’s certainly not a coincidence that many of his most famous scenes involve people running. It’s clear that he is having a delirious amount of fun making this; enjoying the purity of the cinematic experience by playing with visuals and the narrative. Yes, it is rather hollow and all about the surface, but it’s still one of the most enjoyable films you’ll see this year.

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Roger Ebert: In Memoriam

Roger Ebert 1942-2013I first became aware of Roger Ebert when I was 17. I was studying film studies at college, and was required to do a presentation on a particular director or genre. I chose to do my presentation on Steven Spielberg. Given that it was to be my first time speaking alone in front of an audience for 10-15 minutes I was a little nervous.

We were required to find quotes from film critics and theorists to back up our arguments. After a little internet searching, I came across a man who wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times. His name seemed to pop up on Google searches a lot, so I figured he must have a bit of a reputation. I found his website, rogerebert.com, and was amazed with what I found.

No one has been able to write with as much joy and passion as Roger Ebert. Here was a man who allowed himself to sink into the magic of cinema, and then once the credits started rolling, pulled himself out in order to put his thoughtful and unique observations onto the page.

Roger Ebert was born on June 18th 1942 in Illinois. He became interested in journalism in a very early age while at high school, when he started writing for science fiction fanzines. He attended the University of Chicago, hoping to get a PhD and seek work as a freelance writer. He started working for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1966 as a feature writer, until a year later he was offered a job as the newspaper’s film critic.

It all started with a favourable review of a Russ Meyer film, a man he would later become good friends with. During his early years as a film critic, he wrote a few movie scripts for Meyer, including “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.” The film was very poorly received upon it’s release, and Ebert regularly joked that he was the brains behind the film, which has now become a cult classic. His other films for Russ Meyer included “Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens”, which was classed as part of the exploitation genre. Ebert referred to Meyer’s films as “skin-flicks.” Ebert’s films were a clear sign of a man embracing the sheer thrill and enjoyment of the medium.

Roger Ebert became such a unique voice in film criticism that it wouldn’t be honest to say he formed the consensus on movies. In fact it was fairly common for him to have a completely different opinion to his colleagues. When “Jurassic Park” was released with wide spread critical acclaim for its visuals, Ebert was one of the few people who sounded sceptical about making a movie purely “to show us dinosaurs.” In one of the more recent incidents, Ebert received a lot of negative comments when he gave a full four out of four stars for the Nicholas Cage film “Knowing.” Critic consensus said it was a disappointment. Watch the film, then read Ebert’s review – you’ll see he was right.

He was a man who certainly embraced his right to free speech and creativity. His negative reviews were often so witty and scorching that they were compiled into a book, wonderfully titled “Your Movie Sucks.” One rather infamous review was for the low budget rape-revenge shocker “I Spit On Your Grave.” In it he tore into the idea that it was somehow a feminist movie, and gave a rather disturbing account of his horror when some male members of the audience during the screening actually started cheering the male characters on during the rape scenes. His last great zero star rant was given to the atrocious comedy “Movie 43”, where Ebert joked about his dismay when he took a pill someone told him would make him forget about the movie, and it didn’t work.

It was in television though where Ebert is widely thought of as a pioneer. He took to the screens with fellow critic Gene Siskel, where the pair frequently clashed in hilarious exchanges of opinion. After Gene Siskel died in 1999, Ebert started co-hosting his show with his close friend Richard Roeper.

His television career however came to an end in 2002 when he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. He had surgery, but later had to undergo a second operation in 2006. Complications left him unable to speak, and at one stage was in such a critical condition his doctors said he was “a breath away from death.” Remarkably, Ebert recovered and continued writing movie reviews, slowly returning to his usual 5-6 reviews per week output. He simply refused to allow his life threatening cancer to take away the joys in his life. That’s certainly a quality we can all admire.

2012 was the busiest year of Roger Ebert’s career, writing a massive 300 reviews, two blog posts a week, and several other newspaper and magazine columns. On Monday 1st April, he wrote his final ever piece on his blog where he spoke about “taking a leave of presence” to improve his health, and spoke of all the projects he was planning for the future. He passed away on Thursday 4th April.

Roger Ebert was one of a kind. There never will be a writer who soaks up the passion and ingenuity of the world’s most influential industry like he did. Thanks to the internet, his thousands of reviews will remain online for millions to be mesmerised and inspired. And so with that in mind, we will simply conclude with his concluding paragraph from his final blog post:

“So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I’ll see you at the movies.”

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Film Review: Parker

ParkerDonald E. Westalke’s anti hero Parker has never found a suitable film avatar. Mel Gibson perhaps came close to hitting the nail on the head in “Payback”, but it just didn’t feel like the professional criminal who featured in over 20 novels. Now, Jason Statham has stepped up for the role, and it’s possible that Parker has finally found his perfect leading man. If you are a fan of the novels, it will be hard for you to read them again without hearing Stath’s cockney accent. He certainly encapsulates Parker’s hard man persona. No one knows his first name, so even his girlfriend has to call him by his surname. He makes an attractive real estate agent strip to make sure she’s not wearing a wire. And he doesn’t think twice before forcing a knife into his hand to avoid it penetrating his eye. Think of him as a bored unemployed James Bond.

Based on the 19th Parker novel “Flashfire”, the professional thief once again finds himself shot and left for dead after he refuses to perform a heist with hard-nosed criminal Melander (Michael Chiklis) and his crew. After being rescued by a kind hearted family, he escapes from hospital and sets about getting revenge on Melander for double-crossing him. He enlists the help on Leslie (Jennifer Lopez), a real estate agent who has vital information that can help Parker steal the jewellery Melander claimed in a heist.

The director Taylor Hackford intended on making “Parker” a film noir that paid plenty of respect to the source material’s pulp fiction roots. For the most part, Hackford misses the mark. What could be something quite memorable turns into a rather ordinary action film. Having said that, there is a brief moment when it drifts into smart caper territory when Parker and Leslie are planning how they’re going to get hold of the stolen jewels. It doesn’t take long though for a few scenes of brutal violence to come along and remove any doubt of the film becoming too cerebral. Thank goodness for that.

While Jason Statham owns the role of Parker, Jennifer Lopez is a surprising delight. She’s not had much luck with acting roles in recent years. In fact, her appearance with George Clooney in “Out Of Sight” was probably the last good film she starred in. Here she’s given the rare opportunity of being a female love interest in an action film that actually has more than two dimensions. This in part is why “Parker” is slightly easier to like than many other efforts from the Stath’s back catalogue. It has all the necessary elements that could make it a slick and entertaining actioner, but Taylor Hackford just can’t put all the ingredients to good use.

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Film Review: Side Effects

Side EffectsIn 1989 Steven Soderbergh made his début with “Sex, Lies, and Videotape.” He took the film to the Cannes Film Festival for what turned out to be one of the most stressful experiences of his life. It was a time when independent films didn’t garner much respect, and he was having a very hard time securing distribution. If you look at the photos of him accepting the Palme d’Or award on stage with Jane Fonda, you can see in his face that he’s thinking of various ways he can make a getaway. The whole experience is detailed explicitly in Peter Biskind’s wonderful book “Down And Dirty Pictures”, a story which could put even the most resilient person off the idea of becoming a film maker.

Of course “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” eventually found a distributor, and it’s only in hindsight that it seems ridiculous Soderbergh wasn’t beating away Hollywood executives with a stick. When he turned up he was talented. He had a clear voice. And he was cool. His self-styled approach created a rather pleasing mix of arty originality with slick cinematography. Since 1989 he’s taken that approach and applied it to wide variety of material, from films like “Erin Brockovich” to “Traffic”, and “Che” to big ensemble blockbusters like “Ocean’s Eleven.” With every movie it felt like he was growing. And in recent years that’s seen him turn to a more minimalist style.

In 2008 he made the underrated “The Girlfriend Experience”, a film that was talked about with hushed whispers because he’d cast porn star Sasha Grey in the lead role. He made it rather cheaply with a single Red One camera, a digital camera that is able to record at a professional high resolution without costing too much. From that point on the camera became his baby. He even used it for last year’s hit “Magic Mike.” But now Soderbergh is calling it quits. We think. He’s said this before. This time however it looks like HBO-style TV projects are going to steal him away for good. “Side Effects” then will probably be his last hurrah, and it brings together all the great elements of his past worked without making it seem like a tribute reel.

One of the main criticisms of some of Soderbergh’s recent films, such as “The Girlfriend Experience”, was that he was too distant. He would position his digital camera far away from the action while we listened in on a conversation, which felt a little too voyeuristic for people’s comfort. There are scenes like that in “Side Effects”, but they are sparring. For the most part it is a high-class thriller with characters you can’t quite figure out.

The film is written by frequent collaborator Scott Z. Burns, who wrote one of Soderbergh’s most recent successes “Contagion.” The script feels well grounded, even though it flies around from one thriller mode to another. Emily (Rooney Mara) is a young woman, waiting for her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) to be released from prison after being arrested for insider trading. He’s a big confident man, looking to get back into the game quickly, like his life has just been on pause for a few years. For Emily on the other hand, it’s a case of her life being taken away from her. She made her life about her husband, and then he goes away to prison on their wedding day. As a result, she fails to see any future direction. In other words, she has clinical depression. Martin hits the ground running as soon as he’s released, while Emily struggles to shift out of neutral. She’s vulnerable and very fragile. It’s almost hard to believe that this character will later have much more in common with Sharon Stone in “Basic Instinct.”

After a car accident, Emily is visited in hospital by Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who works as a psychiatrist. He quickly picks up on Emily’s depression and suggests that she starts seeing him in private sessions. He prescribes some drugs for Emily, but they don’t work. All they do is make her feel sick. The drugs are designed to work over time, but Banks is the kind of the person who wants instant results. When he comes across an experimental pill called Ablixa, he feels he may have found the answer. And he gets $50,000 for participating in the study. He prescribes the drug to Emily, and for a while she feels much better. She has more energy during the day. She can have energetic sex with Martin at night. It’s not long though before side effects start kicking in.

Steven Soderbergh seems to enjoy telling this story; setting it up as a study of depression, then veering off into horror, before finally morphing it into a Hitchcockian heist movie. He knows that the characters should create the story, and not the other way around. And so he has four leads who are all very proactive, and at some point you will trust, doubt, like, and dislike every single one of them. Catherine Zeta-Jones provides the fourth lead as Dr. Victoria Siebert. She is Emily’s former therapist, and also one of the people behind the Ablixa drug.

While Steven Soderbergh allows the characters to bounce off each other with thrilling results, he’s able to bring his film making style full circle. He has plenty of artfully framed scenes, most notably when Emily crashes her car in a parking lot. He focuses strongly on Emily’s state of mind as she sits silently in the driving seat. The sound of her releasing the handbrake feels like a gun going off. Instead of showing too much gory detail when the car connects with the wall, he uses the impact as a blunt and rather shocking transition. He enjoys keeping the camera far away from the action, especially in public places, like we’re listening in on a private conversation. In other scenes he sticks with Hollywood tradition, usually in scenes involving Jude Law, and keeps the composition rather simple.

It’s not an easy thing to juggle both styles, but Soderbergh seems very comfortable here. Perhaps this is a sign that his plans for retirement should be taken seriously on this occasion. It’s certainly a big leap from the self confessed martyr who accepted the Palme d’Or 24 years ago. He’s 50 now, which is actually fairly young for a director currently promoting his swan song.

He’s certainly grown over those 24 years of directing movies, and perhaps now he’s finally come to terms with the fact that he’s one of the finest auteurs of his generation. Much like the characters in “Side Effects” grow and change throughout the movie, Soderbergh has changed throughout his career. He started out as an indie director, then moved sharply into Hollywood, before finally discovering the best of both worlds with his minimalist style. He takes his single Red One camera and his small crew and makes a film for worldwide release with a big cast. It’s a daring approach, but after 24 years, you get the feeling that he knows what he’s doing.

“Side Effects” brings many of the themes from Soderbergh’s previous work together, but it doesn’t feel like a compilation. It has all the energetic freshness of someone making their directorial début. When the film was press screened, he insisted that no critic be allowed in the cinema once the film started. Like Hitchcock, he wanted to let them know there was a big twist coming up, and he didn’t want them blabbing about it.

There’s actually more than one twist. There’s a chance it actually hits double figures. He even has the audacity to make Jude Law’s character rather inactive in the first act, before he actively moves into the second and reveals a totally different side to his personality in the third. All the way through scenes are scored expertly by composer Thomas Newman, who consistently creates the sense that something sinister is happening beneath the surface. Soderbergh gives the soundtrack a cool modern touch as well, with the addition of the track “The Forgotten People” by Thievery Corporation.

While the majority of twists and turns are intelligently executed, some will feel that the final 10 minutes is forced on them. One notable revelation does push the boundary of believability a little bit, but that shouldn’t been enough to put you off. The big twist that arrives before the audience has had a chance to settle into the movie certainly grabs attention, and Soderbergh has the skill to keep a firm hold of it throughout. It’s an intelligent adult film filled with suspense. If this is Steven Soderbergh’s final film, he’s concluded with an absolute thrill ride.

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Film Review: Side by Side

Side By SideSide by Side is an impressive documentary that brings a crucial and fiery debate to the screen. The subject: is celluloid being replaced by digital film making? With front-man and narrator Keanu Reeves, director Christopher Kenneally picks the brains of some of the most influential and respected Hollywood members, from directors, to writers, to technicians. This alone should illustrate that this is no small debate. This is an analysis of the future of the world’s most influential industry. Celluloid was the only method available to film makers for over a hundred years, until the 90s when digital technology became available. It’s cheaper. The cameras are smaller, so it’s easier to move around and be creative. But does that mean it’s better?

Both sides of the argument are very well represented. Director Danny Boyle talks about how he will never go back to using celluloid, after the problems he had making probably his most negatively received film The Beach. Since then, Boyle has made every film using digital cameras, and is very happy doing that. Watch the trailer for his upcoming film Trance, and you can see how the technology has benefited Boyle’s alarming visual style. At the other end of the spectrum, we have directors like Christopher Nolan, who still insist on using film. His defence of celluloid is exactly the same as the majority of people in the pro-film camp; it’s more real.

While Kenneally and Reeves try to keep a step back throughout proceedings, their own viewpoint eventually starts seeping through. They are pro-celluloid, there is no doubt about that. When James Cameron suggests that digital film making is far superior to celluloid, Keanu Reeves intervenes in almost vitriolic fashion. He tells Cameron that his movie making style is fundamentally fake and devoid of reality. Cameron doesn’t lose his temper like you would expect him to. He simply smiles and responds to Reeves by making a very good point. He mentions all the times that Reeves has been stood on a street, that is actually a set in a sound studio. He points out all the times movies have used fake rain. As far as Cameron is concerned, cinema has always been fake and make believe.

Despite Keanu Reeves’ views, and the many people he finds who defend celluloid, there is no doubt that it is now on its death bed. No big camera manufacturer is producing celluloid cameras anymore. In some cases, they are even being pulled from sale, never to be used. It seems inevitable that digital will become the only way to make movies. Side by Side sees this as a bad thing, but it’s getting harder and harder to prove that is the case. When digital first came along in the 90s, it was rather dirty and imperfect. Now though, digital cameras have advances to such an extent that post-production effects to improve picture quality are becoming more and more obsolete.

While Side by Side attempts to defend celluloid, it completely forgets a reality that seems to be lurking in the background of some of the interviews. Digital film making could have saved Hollywood. It’s considerably cheaper to get hold of a digital camera than it is a film camera. It cuts down on the amount of time needed for post production, as digital cameras have the ability to show you what the image looks like before you record. With celluloid, directors have to wait to watch dailies. Editing, as you would expect, doesn’t take as long either. It saves money without hindering quality, which at times like this, will be music to Hollywood’s ears.

It still will be a sad day when celluloid disappears. It has given birth to entire industry, and delivered some of the biggest cultural moments ever experienced. While Side by Side is a little biased in its views, it is a heavenly film for movie geeks, and an eye opening one for everyone else. It shows the audience that cinema is at a crossroads, and the medium that we all so dearly enjoy will never be the same again once the material that brought it to us for over a hundred years bids us farewell.

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Film Review: To The Wonder

To The WonderOne hundred and twelve minutes. That’s how long it takes for To The Wonder to pass before your eyes. That’s how long it takes to watch Olga Kurylenko prance around in a field like she’s not getting enough iron in her diet. One hundred and twelve minutes of listening to Javier Bardem’s monotonous voiceover. “Christ is above me… Christ is below me…” He keeps going and includes Christ to his left, right, and heart. He makes that last for around five minutes. It takes one hundred and twelve minutes to hear Ben Affleck say pretty much nothing while we try and tell how he feels from his facial expressions. It may be one hundred and twelve minutes, but it feels more like a four-day test match. Only there’s no cricket, just prancing.

In the interest of fairness, you have to give the director Terence Malick some credit for the beautiful images he can create. Combine that with a wonderful operatic soundtrack, and you’ve got a film that is rather hypnotic. At least it would be, if the script and indeed the story didn’t feel like a two-hour long version of a perfume advert with Brad Pitt. Replace Brad Pitt with Ben Affleck, and the similarities are disturbing. None of the all-star cast are really acting, but then again it’s not a requirement. All they have to do is stand around and look sad, happy, angry, or thoughtful. For the most part, everyone just looks vacant.

Here’s the plot of the film. Neil (Ben Affleck) is a wannabe writer who meets Marina (Olga Kurylenko) in Paris. They fall in love, and decide to move to America, along with Marina’s daughter. Five years later, the couple start having problems. Marina leaves, and while she is away, Neil meets Jane (Rachel McAdams) and they have a brief affair. But Marina returns, and the couple attempts to make their relationship work. The majority of this plot synopsis had to be printed in the press notes for the film. Without it, we wouldn’t just be missing most of the plot; we wouldn’t even know Ben Affleck’s character is called Nick.

When the film premièred at the Venice Film Festival, people in the audience actually laughed at scenes that were supposed to be serious. That’s how truly terrible To The Wonder is. It’s possible Terence Malick thinks the film all makes perfect sense, but he needs to get out of the habit of thinking that explaining the plot is for feeble minded people. Instead, all we get is a collection of meaningless shots strung together to make a feature film out of a plot that would be better suited to a short film. There probably is some sort of deep meaning that Malick is trying to get across. But whatever it is doesn’t make it. Not even over the course of one hundred and twelve minutes. But it will only take around five of those for you to realise that this is nearly two hours of your life you’ll never get back.

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Film Review: Hitchcock

Hitchcock“Hitchcock” is an uneven film that has a few comically pleasing moments, but ultimately comes across as shallow. Anthony Hopkins is the master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock, a man who has become a mythical creature just as much as he’s become a directorial legend. In this instance, he’s an insecure general, who leers at his blond leading ladies, bullies people on set, and while he’s worried about his weight he’s fed up of his wife Alma (Helen Mirren) pestering him about it. The problem is, we already know all this about Hitch. We’ve known for years. As a result “Hitchcock” doesn’t really feel like a movie. It’s more of a TV movie you’d expect to find on the BBC at Christmas.

This is rather ironic, considering that the BBC did just that with “The Girl”, a rather dark depiction of Hitchock’s obsession with Tippi Hedren, his leading blond in “The Birds”, and how he put her through hell when she spurned his lecherous advances. If you were to put both “Hitchcock” and “The Girl” side-by-side, the latter probably edges it. That’s not to say “The Girl” was good; it was actually a bit of a hatchet job. But at least it had the guts to be darker, and cast doubt over the integrity of one of the best British directors that ever lived. Plus “The Girl” just feels like more of a movie than “Hitchcock”. It illustrates how in the current climate, TV has very quickly overtaken movies. They’re better written, better acted, they have more depth, and are comparatively cheaper.

There’s no doubt that Anthony Hopkins nails Alfred Hitchcock. He looks like him. He sounds like him. But still, he fails to convince. For the most part it feels more like mimicry than embodiment. It sounds strange that this is a criticism, but Hopkins really has too big a screen presence. When he introduces the story to camera in delightful Hitchcockian style, he doesn’t seem like the quiet narrator. He seems like someone who owns the film.

At the start of the film, Hitch is walking out of the premiere of “North by Northwest”. The press are gathered outside, all clamouring to ask him questions. One of them asks him if, considering his latest film is such a triumph, and his age, he will be calling it quits soon. We don’t hear Hitchcock answer, but we know what the purpose of this question is. It’s planted the idea in Hitch’s head that he must find something fresh and original to do next. This is probably the closest to the real master of suspense we ever get. We admire his urgency to find something no one has ever seen before. We feel warm when we see his delight when he comes across the novel “Psycho”, based on serial killer Ed Gein. And we smile wryly when he disgusts the press with his crime scene images, and finger sandwiches that he says are made of real fingers.

The director Sacha Gervasi gets the mood spot on during the first half hour. It’s a joy to watch Hitchcock rushing around, attempting to convince people that “Psycho” is worth investing in, despite it’s incredibly violent content. Hitchcock mortgages his house in order to fund the film himself, and Gervasi clearly admires his artistic integrity and passion in order to do that. But it’s when they actually start filming “Psycho” that the wheels fall off the wagon. “Hitchcock” turns from an uplifting comedy drama to a soapy melodrama. It has no idea what it wants to be. One minute Hitch is cracking jokes, the next he’s leering through a peep hole into Vera Miles’ (Jessica Biel) dressing room. Hitchcock’s misogyny is more truthful to the real life director, but it’s presented so fleetingly in the mix that it feels totally out of place. It’s strange, but the comedic build-up to the start of the production actually betrays the story. Gervasi wants to focus on the idea of Hitchcock being vulnerable and flawed, but still can’t seem to resist making him a wryly humorous charmer. Here Hitchcock is a quick witted personality first, and a deeply flawed, lecherous misogynist second. If Gervasi wants to make a great film, he needs to swap those priorities around.

We get a peek into Hitch’s psyche when he dreams about witnessing Ed Gein (Michael Wincott) commit his murders. He later goes from the subject of dreams to a full blown hallucination when Hitch becomes obsessed with his wife Alma (Helen Mirren) and her friendship with her writing partner Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston). One minute the director is making a dry joke about how men can easily be driven to kill when Alma tries to take away his ice cream, the next he’s trying to collect evidence of Alma’s suspected affair when Ed Gein suggests it. “Hitchcock” is trying to explore Hitch’s complex mind, but it’s unable to multi task. Gervasi seems torn as to what to focus on; Hitchcock or “Psycho.” He should be able to do both at the same time, and while he attempts that during an on-set tantrum, it fails to break the surface.

Everything should revolve around the process of making “Psycho”, but really things just happen around it. Alma eventually accepts her husband’s new vision, and she allows him to mortgage their house when not a single studio will touch “Psycho” with a barge pole. Helen Mirren is a delight, as always, in the role and she has decent chemistry with Anthony Hopkins. But as their marriage comes under predictable strain as the film goes on, what was a good relationship shifts into soapy melodrama.

Alma is given a little more screen time than most lead character’s wives. This is probably down to Helen Mirren’s screen presence for the most part, but Sacha Gervasi is the main source of any deep insight. It’s like he’s constantly battling with the script, trying to find something that isn’t common knowledge. When portraying the production of “Psycho”, Gervasi brings a lot of intrigue to the process, and teases us along the way. The filming of the infamous shower scene however is painfully misinformed. It has no doubt been altered for the purposes of the story, but an infamous moment like that deserves a little more screen time.

There’s no doubt that Sasha Gervasi has good intentions, but perhaps they are a little too good. He wants to pay respect to one of the greatest directors that ever lived, but perhaps feels he can’t do that if Hitchcock’s darker nature came to the service. Ultimately, “Hitchcock” should probably be a TV movie. It has some comic pleasures, and some enjoyable moments, but as a whole it’s rather shallow.

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Film Review: Warm Bodies

Warm BodiesDespite the explosion of the zombie genre in the last decade, the undead themselves have become predictable one trick ponies. They stumble around. They drool. They’re most commonly very stupid. They hunger for human brains. And eventually, they’re killed off with a bloody gunshot to the head. It’s almost impossible to put a new spin on zombies without taking away the very characteristics that made them so memorable in the first place.

Warm Bodies provides a solution to that problem. Not by changing the zombies themselves too much, but by putting them in a different context, in this case a romantic comedy. A zom-rom-com if you like. In this instance, the zombie apocalypse is caused by an addiction to technology, which when you think about it is a hauntingly plausible idea. It sounds like the kind of zombie film David Cronenberg would make. And yet, the apocalypse itself is barely explored. It’s central theme of love being the best form of redemption removes the edginess of the premise, but it’s still admirable that a film like this could adopt such a positive outlook.

After the apocalypse, a zombie known as R (Nicholas Hoult) lives in an abandoned airport with fellow members of the undead. When R and a group of other zombies attack a group of humans, he meets Julie (Teresa Palmer) and is suddenly overcome with a strange affection for her. Throwing caution to the wind, R rescues Julie from the rest of the pack, and the two soon find themselves developing a strong bond.

R really could be the first of his kind; a zombie that feels there could be more to life than eating people. Or at least that’s what he hopes. But then again, there are many things that make R more human than zombie. He tries to remember his name, but is only certain it starts was an R. He fantasises about the past human lives of his zombie friends at the abandoned airport. Nicholas Hoult does a great job bringing it all together, combining understated charm and wit with the occasional scene of snarling and drooling.

Teresa Palmer’s Julie may not be quite as well drawn out as R, but at least we can see why they like each other. The unlikely friendship that forms between the two of them feels genuine, and that’s mostly down to the rather natural chemistry between Hoult and Palmer themselves. John Malkovich also makes an appearance as Julie’s heavily militarised father. Malkovich for the most part gives a restrained performance, no doubt because he knows the material is already strange enough.

Director Jonathan Levine handles the source material by novelist Isaac Marion very well. He gives the film occasional flourishes of style, mainly during the scenes that have an impressively cold grey tint. He doesn’t forget to provide plenty of humour during the dark and bleakly comic portraits of the day-to-day life of a zombie. Levine handles it more like an indie film that has more in common with smart and quirky rom-coms like (500) Days of Summer than it does with romantic teen fluff like Twilight.

Ultimately, Warm Bodies has a central universal theme, despite having all the niche qualities of a cult classic. It’s about the difficulty in communicating what you truly feel. R struggles to tell Julie how he really feels, at points rather comically, because he thinks he’ll seem creepy. The film manages to keep the rather darkly charming laughs coming throughout, despite the final act which drifts into more unoriginal action movie territory.

There are times when it feels like the film has made the point it’s trying to make, but it still feels the need to hammer it home a little too much. All things considered however, that is a minor fault. There are after all very few zombie films around that are so warm that it makes the threat of an apocalypse seem charming. It’s a heartwarming and entertaining delight that has the, erm, guts to go in a different direction.

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Film Review: Lincoln

Lincoln“Lincoln” is an unexpected triumph. You expect it to be a talky biopic, that as a consequence is dry and dusty. It is talky, but it’s also thrilling. This is down to the precise vision of Steven Spielberg, who gives the story wonderful coherence. He doesn’t need to be loud and flashy; he’s making a movie about a political hero.

It’s taken a long time to get to cinema screens too. Steven Spielberg has owned the rights to Doris Kearn Goodwin’s biography “Team of Rivals” since 2001. Liam Neeson had been on board to play the 16th President of The United States from the start, until he pulled out in 2010 when Spielberg wanted to get filming underway. Playwright Tony Kushner was given screenwriting duties, and provided Spielberg with a 550-page script. Spielberg removed the last 80 pages and went to work. Instead of making an epic biopic, the director decided to dedicate the movie to the fiery final months of Lincoln’s presidency.

To be more specific, “Lincoln” is about the President’s attempts to pass the 13th Amendment – abolishing slavery. Here we have a quietly intellectual man, who knows that the very soul of his nation is at stake. Tony Kushner is more than aware of that, and it shows in his clinically planned screenplay. He knows that slavery came very close to continuing with the South contemplating a return to the Union. For Lincoln, it was now or never.

He’s even willing to give up a peaceful end to the Civil War in order to get his amendment passed in the House of Representatives, a place that feels like a grand theatre. Because Spielberg ditches the idea of biography in favour of a precise approach, the focus is very much on the heated situation, and the crisis hammering at Lincoln’s door. Many movies like this reveal a lot about the director’s mindset. Oliver Stone applied paranoia to “JFK”, and poked fun at an easy target with “W”. With “Lincoln”, we can see that Spielberg clearly admires the President. He likes hiss passion, and his quiet cerebral nature. Spielberg and Lincoln themselves have rather a lot in common.

Take for example their shared subtle intelligence. Steven Spielberg is often accused of being too restrained as a director, but “Lincoln” proves those naysayers wrong. He demands that the audience pay full attention, all the way through it’s two-and-a-half length. Every line of dialogue is thoughtful, and the language leaps from the screen. Every camera angle is precisely executed, and often have more to say than the dialogue. It’s designed with a consuming dark brown and grey tint, with flowing clouds of tobacco thickening the air.

Daniel Day-Lewis’ Abraham Lincoln is surrounded by a very strong supporting cast. There’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Todd Lincoln, the President’ son. In the rather minor family based storylines, Lincoln attempts to protect Robert from enlisting, more than aware of all his other American sons who have fallen in the Civil War. Sally Field is Mary Lincoln, the President’s wife who drains him with her concern and heartbreak. James Spader is also a delight as the wonderfully moustached William N. Bilbo, a Republican once imprisoned by Lincoln, now lobbying for the amendment to be passed. But no one is having more fun than Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, a man who could strike fear into any Congressman on the floor of the House.

It goes without saying though that this is Daniel Day-Lewis’ film. His performance is remarkably authentic, which isn’t really surprising for an actor who clearly immerses himself in research. It’s easy to see how Lewis and Spielberg make such a good partnership. Despite the final five minutes of the film shifting into melodrama, “Lincoln” is heartfelt, delightfully intelligent and gripping right until the very end. It’s the only way you can tell a story about a man who raised the bar high, and then had the audacity to clear it.

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Film Review: The Sessions

The SessionsThe Sessions is an alarming film, but not for the reasons it’s plot suggests. It’s not because of graphic, steamy sex scenes, or the fact that Helen Hunt bravely bares all to the camera. It’s because it handles the sexual nature of the story with tenderness and maturity. It rights all the wrongs left behind by the countless Hollywood films, that attempted to titillate with cheap sex scenes that have no meaning.

This isn’t an easy thing to accomplish, but it does prove to Hollywood that a grown-up film about sex can be done. And not just sex, but sex involving a severely disabled person. It’s certainly a subject that you don’t envy anyone tackling, but Ben Lewin’s film handles the subject matter with gentility, and rather extraordinary frankness. And it’s one of the few films you’ll see this year, or indeed ever, where a protagonist getting it on is a joyous and crowd pleasing moment.

Based on a real life story, Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) is suffering from polio, that has left him severely disabled. He’s unable to move his arms or his legs, and yet he’s devoted his life to becoming a writer. When he’s asked to write an article about how disabled people approach sex, he realises that because he’s been so devoted to carving out a writing career, he himself is still a virgin. Realising he may not have much time left, he contacts Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a sex surrogate who, over the course of six sessions, helps him lose his virginity.

One of the bigger injustices with the Oscar nominations has to be the absence of a Best Actor nod for John Hawkes. He has been one of the most underrated actors in Hollywood for some time, ever since he announced his presence in the superb TV series Deadwood. He’s an actor of tremendous versatility, and he certainly demonstrates that here. It’s certainly a physically demanding role (you try not moving a single muscle even when your instincts tell you to), and he’s still able to elevate the story in touching, and often funny ways.

It’s not only John Hawkes though who has to carry the story forward. Helen Hunt is also relied on to take some of the strain. As the sex surrogate Cheryl, she delivers a performance of tremendous tact and delicacy. She’s a very warm presence, and seems surprisingly comfortable during the scenes where she bares all, some of which have a considerable length. Cheryl herself is a very professional person, who lays out the ground rules for Mark before they begin; there will be no more than six sessions, and the intention is by no means to fall in love. Mark understands this.

There is some excellent support along the way too. William H. Macy is a particular delight as the liberal priest Father Brendan, to whom Mark confesses that he has a desire to have sex with a woman. While during the early stages Father Brendan is comically a little out of his depth with the topic of conversation, he eventually tells Mark that God would tell him to go for it. He tells him that even though sex outside of marriage is a sin to the Catholic Church, that God would grant him a free pass on this one. And so Father Brendan caps off some humorous scenes with a moment of joyous compassion.

It’s very rare in this day and age, when special effects often take centre stage, that two actors are called upon to carry the heart of a film, but director Ben Lewin knows that it’s in safe hands. Lewin is himself a survivor of polio, with some disability. No doubt he’s very aware that the script and characters are right where they need to be. Although, when you strip away the emotion and sensitivity, the plot itself is rather formulaic. Many people will also wince a little when lots of mechanical detail is divulged regarding sex for the severely disabled.

The sex scenes themselves though are handled very tastefully, regardless of how graphic they are. We never actually see any intercourse take place, and that’s really a wise move on Lewin’s part. He knows it’s the idea of what is happening that prevails. And in the end, The Sessions really does serve as a gentle reminder of what a unique and joyous experience sexual intimacy is, and illustrates that we wouldn’t really want anyone to go through life without experiencing it at least once. It’s a film that celebrates being kind to one another, without resorting to cheap or corny tactics. Certainly an achievement that deserves more than just one Oscar nomination.

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Film Review: Quartet

QuartetQuartet has become the surprising tool of political debate in the United Kingdom over the past month. Because of recent events that are really too dull to get into, the status of the senior members of our society has been put under the political microscope, and Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut is being used to illustrate that OAPs can live the closing years of their lives with vitality. This has probably come as a big surprise for the film makers, considering that Quartet is nothing but a gentle slice of fluff.

It’s all really come down to timing. First of all, politics have changed the context surrounding the film’s release. But second of all, Hoffman’s life affirming debut is just the latest in a wave of retiree films. In 2012 the joyous The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel became a surprise hit when retirees started flocking to the cinema to watch Dame Judi Dench and Bill Nighy growing old disgracefully in India. Hollywood figures there can only be two possible explanations for this; either the older generation are rediscovering cinema through films that appeal to them, or they’ve been going to the cinema all along and nobody noticed. It seems like a little bit of both.

The plot is certainly something that will resonate with the older generation. British treasure Maggie Smith plays Jean, a diva who reluctantly arrives at a retirement home especially for senior musicians. They’re planning an annual concert to celebrate Verdi’s birthday. It’s a concert that could save the retirement home from closure, so the rest of the residents try their best to convince the grumpy Jean to take part. To make matters worse, one of the residents, Reginald (Tom Courtenay), was briefly married to Jean before she cheated on him hours after taking their vows.

It’s the relationship between Jean and Reginald that takes centre stage. Maggie Smith and Tom Courtenay bring a lot of heart to their story of reconciliation, but there are points that test the audience’s patience a little. For example the conclusion of the film, which goes exactly the way you would expect it to, or rather the way you hoped it wouldn’t. It probably will go down as one of the corniest moments in cinema this year, and for the people who are not too forgiving for things like that, it may cause the stomach to turn a little.

This occurs mainly because of the honesty on Dustin Hoffman’s part. He knows he’s making a light and fluffy film, so makes no attempt to have it masquerading as something else. The only downside is that because Hoffman keeps things rather traditional, there is a serious lack of memorable moments, apart from a narrative issue that involves someone having what presumably is a stroke, and making a very quick recovery to be in the concert. Billy Connolly certainly brings in some laughs as Wilf, one of the residents. You can tell Connolly is having a good time making this film.

Pretty much the same can be said about the entire cast. Considering this is a film about the pressure of performance, the cast seem to be taking it easy. Perhaps this is down to the directing style of Dustin Hoffman, a man who has had more than his fair share of acting experience. He of course will know how to direct actors, and indeed cast them perfectly. That’s certainly one thing you can’t fault about Quartet – it does have a cast of actors that are perfect for their roles.

That is rather fortunate, because for the most part, the plot stumbles along a little. The characters are very genuine, and Dustin Hoffman deserves a lot of credit for making them so, but the plot has more in common with an early afternoon TV movie than anything cinematic. But it’s incredible light hearted charm will win a lot of people over, especially people of a certain age group. It still could have been smoother and funnier; a problem which could have been fixed with a few exotic marigolds.

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Film Review: Grabbers

GrabbersIf Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) ever wrote a horror film, it would be exactly like Grabbers. Almost like an Irish Shaun of the Dead mixed in with an invading monster of the Roger Corman tradition, Jon Wright’s second film is wonderfully silly and is very aware of it. For people who are sick to the back to teeth of terribly written and executed alien invader movies with massive budgets (Michael Bay, we’re looking in your direction) then Grabbers will go down very well as a witty and gory antidote. When the inevitable moments of bad taste do crop up, they’re delivered with such a cheery Irish smile that it’s almost impossible to resist. In many ways it’s filling in the gaps where Lake Placid failed to deliver.

The problem with many comedy-horror films is that they know how to bring the funny, but they don’t have the energy to deliver any decent scares. Here though, Jon Wright manages to keep everything on an even keel through what seems like very simple delegation. He saves the more humorous moments for the characters, while the alien invaders (aptly named grabbers) are able to do what they do best. And that usually involves swiping people away with big long greasy tentacles and drinking their blood. Hence their name. And the grabbers certainly don’t care about cinema conventions as they merrily spring up without any warning, claiming the lives of characters you were convinced were going to make it to the end. Think Samuel L. Jackson in Deep Blue Sea, only a few times over just to keep you on your toes.

So what exactly are the aforementioned grabbers? They’re aliens made up almost entirely of tentacles and teeth. They arrive on the back of a meteor which smashes into a small island off the coast of Ireland. The grabbers then start picking off the laid back inhabitants and drink their blood. Only these grabbers have one Achilles’ heel; they can’t drink blood that contains a high alcohol level. It’s almost impossible to even type this without grinning. In falls to permanently drunk Garda police officer Ciarán O’Shea (Richard Coyle) and the attractive, uptight new recruit from Dublin Lisa Nolan (Ruth Bradley) to try and find a way to stop the feckin’ aliens. You might be able to see where this is going now. What’s their big plan? That’s right; head to the pub for a massive lock-in.

It’s every bit as barmy as It sounds, but that’s what makes it such a joy to watch. There’s nothing entirely original about it; the grabbers themselves have a very basic design. But then that’s not really the point. It’s a victory for style over substance (again, Michael Bay we’re looking right at you). There are of course special effects, but these are used sparingly and only when it’s really necessary. It’s the boozy Irish charm that makes this linger long in the memory as a fun, Friday night monster movie experience that’s almost impossible to resist. Because of the limited budget it only has a limited release, but if you can then it’s definitely worth grabbing.

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Film Review: Seven Psychopaths

Seven PsychopathsSeven Psychopaths is a unique cinema experience to say the least. To put it bluntly, it’s as crazy as a squirrel trapped in a pedal bin. Much like Shane Black’s wonderful Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, it’s a chaotic film that’s very self aware. It knows it’s a movie, and so exploits that from start to finish. There are more than a few nods to the camera. But more importantly than that, it’s incredibly funny.

Chances are though once you’ve seen it for the first time you’ll have missed a few things. With Christopher Nolan’s Inception, many people went to see it again because there were plot points that slipped under the wire of complexity. In the case of Seven Psychopaths, you may miss a few jokes, but you’ll want to see it again to judge the ludicrousness of the whole thing. Some of it even takes place in the form of pure fantasy. It’s debatable if the first scene, for example, really happens or it’s just the mental stirrings of the main character. Just like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, it doesn’t really matter.

It doesn’t really have a plot either. Just a very complicated dance. Let’s attempt to make sense of it all; Marty (Colin Farrell) is a screenwriter struggling with writer’s block. He’s writing a screenplay called Seven Psychopaths, but all he has is the title. So his friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) puts an advert in the local newspaper asking psychopaths with interesting stories to come forward. At the same time, there is a serial killer called the Jack of Diamonds, who’s wondering round LA knocking off bad people. Oh, and there’s also Billy’s friend Hans (Christopher Walken). Together they kidnap dogs and take them back to their rightful owners for a reward. They accidentally kidnap a shih tzu called Bonnie, that belongs to maniac mobster Charlie (Woddy Harrelson). So, Marty, Billy, and Hans all take off into the desert with Bonnie to try and avoid the mobster hell bent on revenge. Phew!

The script is rather glorious, but it’s given that extra massive push forward by what has to be the best ensemble cast of 2012. Colin Farrell as always is better here in the small independent film than he is starring in bigger films, such as the rather dull Total Recall remake. He’s effectively the audience’s eye – the only non-psychopath. It contrast we have Sam Rockwell, who is hilarious as a good friend with the tendencies of a maniac. In one very funny exchange, he points out that Marty can kill off as many of his female characters as he likes, but he can never kill off the animal. Cue another nod to the camera.

Somehow the show still gets stolen, but it should come as no surprise as to who runs away with it. Two words – Christopher Walken. It’s hard to describe exactly what it is that makes his performance so memorable, but he approaches this film with full strength Walken power. It borders at many points on self parody, but pretty much all of his scenes are quotable. Whether it’s his foul mouthed tirade about cops, or a simple but side splitting moment when he refuses to put his hands up at gunpoint, you can see he’s in his element. He can still do dramatic acting as well as the rest of them too. His face-off scene with Woody Harrelson is a wonderfully tense moment. Walken hasn’t been that good since his face-off with Dennis Hooper in True Romance.

For Martin McDonagh, this has to be a benchmark film. Starting out his career as a renowned playwright before bursting onto the film making scene with the terrific In Bruges, McDonagh has proved that he’s one of the best writers of his generation. He’s often compared to Quentin Tarantino, mainly because of the style of his storytelling, and the dialogue that fizzles and crackles. He wrote the script for Seven Psychopaths a couple of years before In Bruges, deciding to approach the latter first, considering the resources needed to attempt the former.

The first scene is the best written moment of the film, and possibly the entire year. Two mob hitmen, Tommy (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Larry (Michael Pitt) are stood on a bridge waiting for their target to come walking past. In proper Tarantino style, the two attempt to make small talk, trying to remember which famous historical figure it was got shot in the eye. Larry says he once stabbed someone in the ear. Tommy colourfully points out that that’s something totally different.

This is where McDonagh is at his most Tarantino-like. He enjoys creating these fascinating and often psychopathic characters, and then stepping back and watching in amazement at what they can do. That’s exactly what McDonagh did with In Bruges. But with Seven Psychopaths, he throws in a story that really only he can tell. It’s a extremely funny and possibly one of the most entertaining films you’ll see this year. A wonderful slice of controlled chaos.

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Film Review: Gambit

GambitThe Coen Brothers’ script for Gambit had been floating around Hollywood for about ten years before it went into production. That’s roughly how long it took Christopher Nolan to write his terrific mind bending heist movie Inception. If the Coen Brothers had decided to spend those ten years rewriting it, Gambit would still probably be filled with jokes that feel incredibly forced. It’s flat, and profoundly unfunny.

But let’s be fair for a moment. It is a comedy crime caper, which is a sub-genre that is almost impossible to get right. It either goes really well, in the case of films like The Pink Panther (the original, obviously), or it can go totally wrong like Ocean’s Thirteen. It’s a tricky balancing act between regular gags, an intelligent crime at its heart, and a series of complications that have to be more farcical than the last. It’s enough to even send Blake Edwards crazy. Most films tend to hit one of two of these and fail on the third (usually the comedy). But Gambit fails on all three counts.

Harry Deane (Colin Firth) is a British art curator, struggling to cope with his abusive tycoon boss Lionel Shahbandar (Alan Rickman), who also happens to be a nudist. Deane decides to get some sweet revenge against Shahbandar by conning him into buying a fake Monet painting. However, in order to make his plan work, he has to enlist the help of PJ Puznowski (Cameron Diaz), a Texas rodeo queen.

This set-up sounds great, and it worked very well for the original film starring Michael Caine. But this remake fails to make the initial sparkle of the premise work. Take Colin Firth in the lead role. He starts out very well, emulating the original Michael Caine performance, glasses and all. But slowly he moves to the more traditional ground of a repressed, nervous Brit. Alongside him is Cameron Diaz, who is short changed by the script. We know from her comedic experience that she can do great things. She deserves better. Plus, it’s time it stopped being a requirement that she strips to sexy lingerie during every film.

The only bright spark really is Alan Rickman. His nudist scenes do irritate the nerves a little, but he’s very convincing as a tight-fisted overbearing tycoon. He genuinely has Rupert Murdoch written all over him. He’s the main source of laughs during the films only funny scene when Firth’s Deane breaks an office chair, and is forced to sit on it while he slides across the room. It’s Rickman’s reaction that works really well in that instance.

This of course doesn’t change the fact that the Coen Brothers’ script is devastatingly poor. Apart from the occasional flourishes of eccentric humour, you’d think it was written by somebody else if their names weren’t plastered all over the posters. For the most part, Gambit skips over the actual crime set-up and moves along straight into the heist. It becomes clear later on that this is to avoid giving away any third act surprises (at least that’s the intention), but it just stinks of laziness.

This is no more evident than during the long sequence involving Colin Firth losing his trousers. It’s a joke that goes on for a crazily long time, to such an extent that it’s actually made a plot point. And apart from the aforementioned chair gag, the rest of the film relies way too heavily on toilet and fart jokes. If that’s what we wanted we’d watch a Farrelly Brothers film. It certainly doesn’t help much that the director Michael Hoffman likes the clumsy slapstick scenes, but can’t find humour in any of them.

Gambit is a film that feels like it’s being forced upon us, which can only be down to mismanagement on Hoffman’s part. If he had allowed the cast to run with the script a little more they may have been able to squeeze out just a few more laughs. During the ten year wait for this film, both Jennifer Aniston and Ben Kingsley were connected with the project before they both pulled out. If they see the end result, they’ll be breathing a sigh of relief. Colin Firth, Cameron Diaz, Alan Rickman, and the Coen Brothers all in one film. It should be sublime. Instead, it’s painfully disappointing.

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Ten Films To Look Forward To In 2013

2013 looks set to be another year when sequels and comic book movies dominate the box office. Shane Black is taking the director’s chair for Iron Man 3, which judging from the sneak peeks we’ve been given this year, looks set to be much darker than the first two instalments. Thor will also be returning to our screens in Thor: The Dark World, with Alan Taylor taking over Kenneth Branagh as director.

There are of course many other films that look very promising in the upcoming year. Here are my top ten films to watch out for in 2013:

10. A Good Day To Die Hard (Dir. John Moore): John McClane is back, for what looks like his riskiest movie outing yet. This fifth film in the franchise sees McClane leaving America for Russia, to help out his son Jack (Jai Courtney) who’s caught up in a terrorist plot. Considering the previous film fell short of many people’s expectations, it will be interesting to see if Bruce Willis and co. can pull this off. We’ll certainly enjoy watching them try.
Release date: 14th February

9. Pacific Rim (Dir. Guillermo del Toro): This is set to be Guillermo del Toro’s biggest film to date. Literally; it features 25-storey high robots (built and piloted by humans) and aliens. Del Toro has fought hard with the studio to make sure the 3D version of the film is immaculate. He’s supervising every single frame.
Release date: 12th July

8. Side Effects (Dir. Steven Soderbergh): This supposedly will be Soderbergh’s penultimate film before retirement. It’s a thriller set in the mist of the mood medication industry, starring Channing Tatum and Catherine-Zeta Jones. If it’s a success, it will certainly raise expectations for Soderbergh’s final film.
Release date: 15th March

7. Stoker (Dir. Park Chan-wook): This Gothic horror from Park Chan-wook, the director of Oldboy, is his first English-language film. It stars Mia Wasikowska and Nicole Kidman, and is scripted by Prison Break star Wentworth Miller. He wrote the script under a pseudonym just in case no one liked it. If Chan-wook wants to make it his first English-language film, it must be good.
Release date: 1st March

6. Antiviral (Dir. Brandon Cronenberg): This will be the début feature from Brandon Cronenberg, son of David Cronenberg. It’s about a company the takes diseases from celebrities and injects them into paying customers. Talk about a chip off the old block.
Release date: 30th November

5. Sin City: A Dame To Kill For (Dir. Frank Miller & Robert Rodriguez): At last the long awaited sequel to Sin City has finally arrived. Although, since the first film’s release, two of the cast members (Brittany Murphy and Michael Clarke Duncan) have passed away, so their roles have been recast. Also expect a few new characters thrown into the mix.
Release date: 4th October

4. Byzantium (Dir. Neil Jordan): Jordan returns to making films about vampires. This time, Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan star in a dark and gory mother daughter story with a bit of, ahem, bite. Arterton has already revealed that earlier in 2012 during filming she was required to stand under a blood waterfall. Given Jordan’s eye for stunning visuals, it could be one of the best vampire films of recent years.
Release date: TBC

3. Calvary (Dir. John Michael McDonagh): The brother of Martin McDonach teams up with Brendan Gleeson for the second time, after John Michael’s hilarious début The Guard. This time he brings us a dark comedy about a priest trying to protect a small community when it’s threatened with murder. It’s a McDonagh film, so expect very dark humour, foul language, inappropriate gags, and for them all to be delivered with heart.
Release date: TBC

2. Trance (Dir. Danny Boyle): After his stunning opening ceremony at the Olympics, Danny Boyle returns to the director’s chair with a heist movie starring James McAvoy, Vincent Cassel, and Roasrio Dawson. It’s about a con man who loses his memory, and can’t remember where he has hidden a very valuable painting. Expect realities to blur as Boyle messes with our minds.
Release date: 27th March

1. Star Trek: Into Darkness (Dir. J.J. Abrams): As always with an Abrams project, the plot to his Star Trek sequel is still under wraps. All we know is that Benedict Cumberbatch will be playing the villain, but he will not be the infamous bad guy Kahn. All we know is Abrams did a wonderful job re-introducing Star Trek to the cinema nearly four years ago. You can almost guarantee he’s going to take things to a new level. If the trailer below is anything to go by, it’s going to be darker and on a much bigger scale. Consider this the The Dark Knight of Star Trek movies.
Release date: 17th May

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The 10 Best and Worst Movies of 2012

I know film critics say this every December, but it’s true; this has been a great year for movies. Yes, there have been a few bumps along the way (ten of them are featured below) but for the most part, this year’s cinema experiences have been spectacular.

We’ve had a summer of superhero blockbusters taking over the box office, including the incredibly enjoyable The Avengers (or Avengers Assemble), and the epic conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises. And as Oscar season heats up, we’ve had some great award contestants from Ben Affleck’s Argo to Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. Oh, and there was the small matter of James Bond’s 50th anniversary, celebrated in style with the superb Skyfall.

So here are my ten best and worst films of the past year. Please note that this list is based on their release date in the UK, so some will have technically been released in the US during 2011.

Let’s start by getting the rubbish out of the way:

10 Worst Films of 2012

10. Silver Linings Playbook (Dir. David O. Russell): A lot of people are tipping this for Oscar success, but that is part of the problem. It’s clear Oscar bait from start to finish, and that’s a little annoying. It’s very uneven, the humour is rather cringe worthy, Robert De Niro is irritating, and poor Bradley Cooper is left to twist in the wind with a bad script. Jennifer Lawrence is superb; that’s the only redeeming feature.

9. Alex Cross (Dir. Rob Cohen): This was the film that was supposed to bring the Alex Cross franchise back to life after a stuttering start with Along Came a Spider and Kiss the Girls. Matthew Fox even features as a homicidal maniac. Instead the end result is just a formulaic bore with loud noises. James Patterson fans would be wise to stay away.

8. Snow White and the Huntsman (Dir. Rupert Sanders): This is a film that thinks it’s something new and impressive. Instead it’s the same old claptrap they keep forcing on us because a lot of people like Twilight. It’s aimless and doesn’t really go anywhere. It made a fair bit of money though. A sequel is already on the cards – oh, the joy.

7. Gone (Dir. Heitor Dhalia): When it was coming up to the release of Gone, the studio decided it didn’t want to do much press coverage. They’d probably just watched it. It’s got straight-to-DVD written all over it, so it’s bewildering that it actually turned up on cinema screens, and not many of those either.

6. Men in Black 3 (Dir. Barry Sonnenfield): Men in Black 3 sports the biggest plot hole of the year, when Will Smith’s J appears miraculously immune to the effects of time. Tommy Lee Jones appears on all the posters, even though he’s only in it for ten minutes, and they had to stop filming while they tried to fix the script. They should have tried harder.

5. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Dir. Timur Bekmambetov): Seth Grahame-Smith’s book contains a lot of tongue-in-cheek and dark humour. The film takes itself way too seriously, and is filled with very poor CGI. The book is good, the adaptation is terrible.

4. Red Lights (Dir. Rodrigo Cortes): It’s hard to believe that this is from the same director who brought us the gripping Buried. Despite the all-star cast, this is just a dreary mess. And just when you think it couldn’t get any worse, it has a “twist” ending that just beggars belief. A crying shame.

3. Taken 2 (Dir. Olivier Megaton): The first instalment of Taken was one of the most deliriously fun films of the decade. The sequel is just a series of loud, ridiculous events. The writer Luc Besson said he wasn’t interested in making a third film, until he saw how much money Taken 2 had made and has now changed his mind. He really should have focused on the fact that it’s total bile.

2. Top Cat: The Movie (Dir. Alberto Mar): Really?! I mean, are they kidding with this? Apparently Top Cat is very big in Mexico, so they made their own terrible film version, voiced by actors who sound nothing like the original characters. Top Cat fans should stay away from this if they value their sanity. Just watch the repeats on Boomerang, you’ll be much happier.

1. This Means War (Dir. McG): So once again McG proves that he’s completely incompetent when it comes to directing movies. This film is filled with so much creepy, uncomfortable, and voyeuristic humour that it makes you want to tear your own eyes out just to have something else to do. The stars Chris Pine, Tom Hardy, and Reese Witherspoon all deserve so much better than this pile of absolute dreck. To summarise – I hated it.

10 Best Films of 2012

10. Shadow Dancer (Dir. James Marsh): One of the opening scenes of Shadow Dancer is shot in complete silence as a bomb is planted on the London underground. It’s one of the most tension-filled scenes of the year. James Marsh certainly is one of the most promising young directors British cinema has to offer. Giving him a Bond film certainly would be an interesting idea.

9. Ted (Dir. Seth MacFarlane): Anyone who is a fan of Family Guy, or generally has a funny bone, will enjoy Seth MacFarlane’s film. It’s crammed to the rafters with hilarious jokes, all of which would be quotable if they weren’t so filthy or offensive. It’s amazing what a cute teddy bear can get away with saying.

8. Skyfall (Dir. Sam Mendes): Bond is back, this time with a film that isn’t just filled with gripping action but also has a deep and thoughtful story. Many people want Sam Mendes to come back and direct another Bond. If Skyfall is anything to go by, then that would be a very wise decision.

7. Seven Psychopaths (Dir. Martin McDonagh): This was certainly a Marmite film, you either loved it or hated it. I certainly fall into the former category. Deliriously fun, with plenty of dark hilarious moments that have become a trademark of McDonagh’s work. Incidentally, the short pre-credits scene at the start of the film – best written scene of 2012.

6. Into The Abyss (Dir. Werner Herzog): Very few people can make deep and thought provoking documentaries on a regular basis like Werner Herzog. His film about the aftermath of a double homicide is a harrowing watch, that at the same time is a celebration of life. Poetic, and very wise.

5. Margin Call (Dir. JC Chandor): This is quite simply one of the best films about Wall Street ever made. Set during the 2008 economic collapse, the film takes place over one night as a company struggles to come to terms with what is about to happen. Intelligent, and gripping even though we know what’s coming. It made a last minute appearance at the Oscars when it was nominated for Best Original Screenplay. Quite right too.

4. Moonrise Kingdom (Dir. Wes Anderson): No one can really create a world like Wes Anderson. Even though it sports an all-star cast, it’s the two children at the heart of the story that are really impressive. It’s a celebration of the innocence of childhood, and sends the message that if we look hard enough, we’ll never be alone. A delight from start to finish.

3. Headhunters (Dir. Morten Tyldum): Once again the Nordic writers and film makers are showing us how to make great crime thrillers. Based on the novel by Jo Nesbo, Headhunters is captivating, funny, and the most enjoyable film of the year. Sadly, there is already an American remake in the works. Even if you don’t like subtitled films, please watch this and avoid the remake. Believe me, you’ll have fun.

2. The Dark Knight Rises (Dir. Christopher Nolan): Many people will have breathed a huge sigh of relief after watching Christopher Nolan’s conclusion to his Batman trilogy. He didn’t let us down, and he delivered on the hype. A gripping, stunningly epic conclusion, which ended in the best way possible. Pure genius on Nolan’s part.

1. Cosmopolis (Dir. David Cronenberg): I know this is going to raise a few eyebrows, but I can explain. Yes, the dialogue is strange – that’s why it’s the best written movie of the year. And yes, it makes no attempt to emotionally engage with the audience – but that’s the point. Cronenberg is presenting to us an uncomfortably realistic vision of the future, where capitalism leaves us as emotionless unsatisfied vampires. It’s proved to be a little too distant and unattached for some people, but for me it was a work of sheer brilliance.

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Film Review: Trouble with the Curve

Trouble with the CurveTrouble with the Curve is the ultimate anti-Moneyball movie. Many members of the baseball community in the US, most of them relatively old, still have difficulty accepting that their game can be won by someone who’s good at maths. Trouble with the Curve is a celebration of those old scouts you saw battling against Brad Pitt in Moneyball; the people who believe that it’s all about athletic ability, and good old-fashioned gut instincts.

Is Trouble with the Curve as good as Moneyball? No. Not even close. Moneyball was a film that had great flares of originality and snappy writing separating out the obligatory moments of sports cliche. Trouble with the Curve however makes no attempt to do anything new. It’s exactly the same baseball movie that’s been on the big screen since Eight Men Out and Field of Dreams. And yet, Trouble with the Curve still works. It’s still watchable and rather solid. You don’t have to look far to see why. It’s all down to a certain man called Clint Eastwood, who proves he’s still one of the best actors around.

Eastwood plays Gus, and ageing baseball scout who’s soon stopped in his tracks when his sight starts failing. It goes without saying that without perfect sight, he can’t work. So he turns to his estranged daughter Mickey (Amy Adams), who reluctantly agrees to join him on one last recruiting trip before Gus brings his illustrious scouting career to a close.

Yes, Clint Eastwood may have been playing the same character for quite a few years now, but here he’s near his most engaging. His performance is perfectly tuned. It’s still a little hard to believe that this is the same man last seen ranting at an empty chair at the Republican Party convention. Opposite him his Amy Adams, who’s quickly proving to be one of the best young actors in Hollywood. She goes toe-to-toe with Eastwood and delivers a strong performance. The only problem is, they don’t quite have the right chemistry. It’s close, but they just can’t quite connect.

Herein lies the film’s main problem; while most of the performances are good, their chemistry lacks and sort of spark. The worst relationship is between Mickey and Johnny (Justin Timberlake), a scout who was once one of Gus’ big baseball prospects. Timberlake doesn’t deliver the best of performances, often appearing to be very flat, and his relationship storyline with Amy Adams is incredibly irritating. However the always reliable John Goodman makes an appearance as Pete Klein, who aides Eastwood in keeping the film on the rails.

Clint Eastwood’s producing partner Robert Lorenz, who has produced the last twelve films for him, takes the director’s chair, after Eastwood decided he didn’t want to direct this one. Lorenz has clearly learnt a lot from the veteran Eastwood; making the film efficiently and keeping it at an unhurried pace. Lorenz in the past has worked as second-unit director when Eastwood was directing, so he’s had plenty of first hand experience. Despite that, it’s surprising that Lorenz is able to make such a solid film whilst making his directorial debut.

The bigger story though are the rumours circulating around Hollywood that this will be the last time Eastwood appears in front of a camera. He hasn’t confirmed or denied these rumours, but it’s hard not to read a little too deep into some scenes. For example, at one point while talking to a player, Gus tells him that no matter what, family is the most important thing. The actor Eastwood shares the scene with is Scott Eastwood, his son. Read into that what you will.

Will Clint Eastwood get another Oscar nod? It’s quite possible. In fact, if it becomes public knowledge that this will be his last acting appearance, then you can almost say he’s a dead cert. He had originally planned on Gran Tarino being his final acting role, and that probably would have been the better choice. That’s not to say Trouble with the Curve isn’t a good film. It is. It may be straightforward and filled to the rafters with cliche, but it’s so solidly made that you don’t really care. Sometimes it’s just nice to sit back and watch a story be told beautifully.

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Film Review: End Of Watch

End of WatchYou really should turn your nose up at End of Watch, but you can’t help but be captivated by it. It’s made up of pretty much every cop movie cliché going, and you’ve seen the plot more than a few times before. And yet, the bits that seem like they’ve been cut and pasted from other films are the real highlights. Quentin Tarantino is a master at this – making constant homages to other films, while still writing and directing them in a way only he can.

What’s even more surprising is that the version of End of Watch we see on the big screen is the product of a director losing his nerve. Originally, the plan was to make the film entirely from the viewpoint of the camera owned by officer Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal), who’s making what presumably is an illegal documentary. This reduces the scope of the film considerably, so it’s not surprising that the director David Ayer couldn’t follow through on the stylistic premise. It just doesn’t make sense that Taylor would film everything; the big plot hole in most found footage films. In terms of style, the end result is rather inconsistent, but by allowing the camera to move more freely, Ayer’s film is able to accomplish much more.

The film follows Taylor and his partner Mike Zavala (Michael Pena) as they patrol the streets in one of the more dangerous areas of Los Angeles. During what they think is a routine traffic stop, they find money and guns in the back of the car they’ve pulled over. Both Taylor and Zavala then find themselves in the firing line themselves, when they discover the confiscated items belong to a notorious drug cartel.

Brian Taylor is certainly the most memorable half of the partnership. He’s, to put it bluntly, a mouthy arrogant show-off. He’s lusty, often going into vivid detail about sexual encounters and fantasies. What really makes Taylor stand out so much though is the skilled actor playing him. Jake Gyllenhaal is a big on screen presence, in contrast with his other performances that are a little light-weight. No doubt Gyllenhaal also gives the film a little stability, just to make sure it doesn’t tumble off the rails.

Taylor’s partner Mike Zavala has a similar sense of humour, but he still would prefer if Taylor concentrated on his job a little more. He’s married, an expectant father, and is much more cautious than his friend. It’s all very Lethal Weapon; the straight-laced cop becoming the unlikely friend of a mouthy maverick. It has been reported during the build-up to the release of End of Watch that Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena had struggled to get along during the first few weeks of filming. This certainly isn’t evident on screen; the pair sharing a wonderful chemistry.

This marks an interesting turn in the career of director David Ayer. With his previous films like Harsh Times and Dark Blue, Ayer has made a career out of making the police corrupt. Now he’s honouring them in a humane way. It doesn’t seem too difficult for him either, which goes to show how talented he can be. He doesn’t completely bail on the found footage idea, filming most of it like a reality TV show. Even though it feels rather overused in a film that doesn’t really need it, Ayer is able to create an abundance of atmosphere that makes the insults traded between Taylor and Zavala just as much fun as the obligatory car chases.

At some points though, the cliché does become a little too much. The bad guy’s for example from the drug cartel are horrifically written. They painfully follow the stereotype, and it’s hard to find any substance in the scenes they make an appearance. But all the other elements feel very real. Not because of the found footage style that’s used to excess in modern mainstream film making, but because of the two lead performances from Gyllenhaal and Pena.

End of Watch really is part of the new cop drama style that has drifted through both film and television over the past few years. While we used to be captivated by the procedurals that showed us the science and the method in police work, we’re now much more interested in the people who wear the uniform on a day-to-day basis. This is why End of Watch works so well; it takes place during the highest moments of genuine human drama.

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Film Review: Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings PlaybookIt’s never very easy to tell what direction director David O. Russell will go in. He went from the superbly intelligent Three Kings to the more bewildering and uneven I Heart Huckabees in 2004. He didn’t turn up again until 2010 with the Oscar nominated film The Fighter. It was supposed to signal a return to form for the director. With Silver Linings Playbook however, Russell makes another very uneven film.

It’s similar in terms of style to The Fighter in many ways, instead it’s set in a nicer part of town. And The Fighter had a story that felt human and genuine. Silver Linings Playbook however feels very contrived, and has just about as much corniness and misjudged sentiment as a cheap rom-com dumped onto television on a late afternoon. It’s surprising given the talent involved that it would end up this way, but David O. Russell can’t seem to find his way through the mushiness.

Former teacher Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) leaves a mental hospital after an eight month stint. He’s been struggling with bipolar disorder ever since the discovery of his wife’s affair destroyed his marriage. After leaving the mental hospital he moves back in with his parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver). Pat then meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), with whom he agrees to partner in a dance competition, with the hope of catching his wife’s eye to win her back.

Bradley Cooper’s Pat is a difficult man to root for. The script never really paints him as a likable character, but Cooper does the best he can with what he’s given. This is probably the hardest Cooper has ever had to work on a film, through no fault of his own. We know he’s capable of playing so much more than a comedian or a total maniac. Limitless was great evidence of what he can do when the material is good enough. But here, Cooper is left to twist in the wind by his director, and make what he can out of the material.

The only real glimmer of excellence comes from Jennifer Lawrence, a young actress proving she could well be one of the future greats. She demonstrates an incredibly wide range, considering she’s playing a character that’s roughly Cooper’s age, when Lawrence is actually fifteen years younger. And she does have good chemistry with Bradley Cooper. Chris Tucker comes out of semi-retirement to make an appearance in a few scenes, and he brightens the screen every time he appears. If the material matches his strengths, then he could feasibly make a small comeback. Robert De Niro also makes an appearance as Pat’s OCD father, but his cute eccentricities soon become exhausting.

What’s really surprising is that David O. Russell seems to have lost a little of his edge. He’s usually known for having good instincts, encouraging improvisation and acting a little on impulse. On The Fighter it worked brilliantly. On Three Kings it also sparkled, even though the gentlemanly George Clooney was driven to punch him in the face at one point. But on this occasion, Russell’s impulses don’t really work. In fact, they’re rather boring.

Take for example the film’s comedy. First of all, making any jokes about a bipolar character is going to be rather difficult, but in this case the jokes just feel very awkward. It never seems to match the tone of the story, and every time a joke comes a long it makes you squirm a little in your seat. Silver Linings Playbook certainly should be applauded for not shying away from it’s eccentricity, but it’s all way too uneven to really satisfy.

The film was released on the back of very positive reviews in the American press. This was followed by whispers that it could be a potential Oscar winner. It was also produced by Bod and Harvey Weinstein, two brothers who are notorious for their Oscar campaigns. They know how to win, just ask Colin Firth. Taking all of this into account, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this is just Oscar fodder. It has all the necessary ingredients to be a winner, but given how poor it is compared to the competition, you really hope this doesn’t succeed.

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Film Review: The Master

There are few directors that make mesmerising films about absolutely nothing like Paul Thomas Anderson. It’s for this reason that it’s very difficult to describe exactly what The Master it’s about. But at the same time, there are no hidden meanings. There’s nothing to “get”. Everything is laid out for the audience to interpret. It’s like a good novel. And just like a novel, you are tempted to revisit it every now and then.

The Master is probably the most novelistic film of the year, that never really breaks away from one man’s imagination. It doesn’t really reach a climax like a traditional film either, more of a breaking point. With Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) we have just two men trying to make sense of a world still only just managing to recover from the horrors of World War II. And they discover that there is no real master, just two sides to a very complex coin. And both sides are looking for answers, even if they don’t quite know what the question is.

Naval veteran Freddie Quell arrives back home in America after fighting in the WWII. He’s very unsettled and doesn’t really know what his future is, so he just stumbles around for a while waiting for something to happen. Then he meets Lancaster Dodd, known for a large part of the film as the master in question. He’s the charismatic leader of The Cause, a rather interesting sect that Freddie becomes tantalised with.

Joaquin Phoenix brings a superb edge to the character of Freddie Quell. It’s like he’s read his lines, noted what emotion or reaction is needed, and shuffled them. It’s not entirely a work of genius, but for the most part Phoenix is totally unreadable, and is the unlikeliest of heroes. For people who find this king of storytelling dull, Phoenix’s performance should be able to keep their attention. We really do have no idea how he’s going to act from scene to scene.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is really the biggest surprise here as Lancaster Dodd. He shows a new side to him that we haven’t really seen in his previous work. He’s funny, charming, and enthusiastic. When Dodd and Freddie are together, you can feel a real clash of egos. It’s a tension that really drives the film. There is more than a gentle hint that Lancaster feels a little emasculated by his wife Peggy (Amy Adams). She’s very tough and business-like. There are many occasions when it seems if anyone can be described as a master, it’s her.

This is one of the real beauties of Paul Thomas Anderson’s film. Each scene is left wide open for the audience to interpret. It certainly will be a great film for audience’s to talk about, partly because of the presentation of Dodd’s cult The Cause. It looks and sounds like Scientology, and Anderson thinks that’s okay. He’s intelligent enough to admit that while many of it’s activities are unorthodox, or even illegal, it does work for some and that’s good enough for him. He certainly doesn’t paint Dodd as some maniac, or Freddie a brainwashed innocent. Anderson thinks if you want to come to that conclusion, you should reach it yourself.

While The Master is a film open to many forms of interpretation, that doesn’t mean that it can’t have a big impact. Some scenes are so memorable and powerful that they will stay with the audience for a long time after they leave the cinema. Dodd and Freddie continue to collide with each other, possibly because they’re trying to cope with an inconvenient truth; it really is impossible to recover from the past.

It’s naturally being tipped for Oscar glory, and deservedly so, if only the audience saw it that why. When it opened in the US it was met with a rather mixed response, with some people probably feeling a little alienated by Paul Thomas Anderson’s style of storytelling. The conclusion of the film certainly disappoint some people expecting a crescendo. Never the less, The Master is poetic, beautifully made, and is the boldest movie to come out of the US in 2012.

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