Whiplash

My review of the breathtaking and incredibly tense Whiplash (which has now won JK Simmons the BAFTA for Supporting Actor) can be found here, for Smiths magazine.

 

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Foxcatcher

Heir to his family’s fortune John Du Pont (Steve Carrell) wants to use the ample money he has to create an environment where wrestlers, the stars of the sport he loves so much, can come and train. He secures Olympic gold medal winning Mike Shultz (Channing Tatum) as head trainer for the program he hopes will one day become the training ground for the Olympic wrestling team. Shultz leaves his training with his brother Dave (Ruffalo), and enters into a strangely intense friendship with the man who describes himself as his mentor and father figure, but who himself yearns for the approval of his distant mother (Vanessa Redgrave).

Director Bennett Miller is renowned for drawing career defining performances out of actors, from Jonah Hill in Moneyball to Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Capote. And indeed, it is the performances in Foxcatcher which seem to be gaining the most significant attention. Mark Ruffalo has long demonstrated he gives a good performance in everthing he is in, and Channing Tatum’s move away from romantic comedies to more serious character pieces (and also straight comedy as 21 Jump Street Showed) has in recent years made him an interesting casting choice, and this is certainly no end to that.

Carrell’s performance in Foxcatcher is a transformation. Inevitably when portraying someone that really existed and was in the public eye there is a sense of duty to capture a more personal element of them. Carrell is hardly recognisable in his dark portrayal of John Du Pont. Through prosthetics, make up, different skin tone, different face shape, Carrell not only looks the part but his entire demeanour is very different to that of the actor that many will recognise from Judd Apatow comedies and the US office. His entire way of holding himself, his entire celebrity identity disappears, no mean feat with a star of Carrell’s standing.

This is a film of immersive performances, something which only adds to the strange intensity which runs through its veins. The unsettling relationship between Mike Shultz and Du Pont is never overstated, never made explicit, but we still feel as though we are intruding on something incredibly intimate, almost to the point that you feel as though you want to leave the room, and leave them to it.  It’s a strange relationship to view in terms of wrestling, a sport not only viewed as very manly but which relies a lot on body contact. The film has an oddly muted feel. Everything is quiet, unsettling. You sense throughout that something is a bit off, but something unexplainable.

And although we are privy to the innermost aspects of Shultz and Du Pont, their character and their friendship, neither of them are people you necessarily want to spend time with. The most likable character is Mike’s brother Dave, whose care and devotion for his brother is, despite all the pent up emotion, the most heart-breaking part of the film.

I didn’t know anything about these real life events, or wrestling prior to seeing the film. Although, for me, this made following some of the wrestling matches a bit hard to follow, unsure who was winning when and what the rules are, I knew I had to take to care to stay out the way of spoilers. My top tip is you do the same.

BAFTA – A week on

Last Sunday, as I’m sure you’re aware, was the BAFTA awards. As a film blog you might have thought I’d have written something about it, perhaps a ‘best dressed list’ or a ‘who should have won’ piece.

A week on, I wanted to just say a little something. In the Those We Have Lost segment, there was a picture and a mention of my dad, who died in November. He was a film journalist for 25 years and inspired my love of film. He helped me write my very first blog posts on here and taught me about writing about film. He did a lot of work for BAFTA and we would pop in from time to time – quite often just to go for a wee as we passed, which would give dad the opportunity for his joke “most expensive wee I’ve ever had.”

My dad loved film. He loved old films and old movie stars and old Hollywood and great directors and genius cinematographers. In his office there are hundreds of books about film,  most of which he would pick up second hand, because they that meant they were his two favourite things; old, and a bargain. In the segment on last week’s show, the photo of dad was included amongst actors such as Peter O’Toole and Joan Fontaine, kings and queens of the silver screen. I know that the honour of being up there with them would have meant a tremendous amount to him.

In amongst the politics and paparazzi of the awards, I just wanted to say thank you to BAFTA and to anyone who helped my dad to be remembered on that screen with those people.

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Saving Mr Banks (2013)

I finally got to see this last week, and although you’ve probably heard all about it (it’s been out a little while), I thought it was pretty special. And isn’t the poster wonderful?

Based on the story of Walt Disney attempting to get the rights to PL Travers’ Mary Poppins novels and starring Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks as the two creatives, Saving Mr Banks both shows the events which led to the film being made and the events in Travers’ life which inspired her to write the books in the first place, in particular her relationship with her drunken but charming father (Colin Farrell).

All of the performances are marvellous (in particular Emma Thompson who has already won numerous awards and is nominated for a BAFTA), the film  manages to be both whimsical and cynical and somehow manages to make you feel both nostalgic for Disney and, as Travers was, disgusted with its commercialism. The cuts between Travers’ childhood in Australia and the creation of the film add such a brilliant other layer to the story of making a movie that I will never watch Mary Poppins the same way again.

Yes, at times it seems like the same old sentimental Disney, and it’s not quite true to life – Travers actually hated the Poppins film. But Emma Thompson’s portrayal of a very British PL Travers in sunny Los Angeles is incredibly cheering. Travers is a wonderful character, and Thompson’s performance never allows her to be anything less than 100% real for those watching. I for one cried through the last ten minutes.

Heart-wrenching and beautiful stuff, Saving Mr Banks will save many a wavering Disney fan I’m sure.

Fun Fact: the Disney studios logo at the beginning of the film is the one that was used in the 1960’s, when Mary Poppins was released.

Nebraska (2013)

Woody, an old and ailing man (Bruce Dern) believes he has won a million dollars after receiving a scam letter, and is determined to get to Lincoln to collect it, no matter what it takes. His son (Will Forte) humours him and agrees to drive him there, stopping off at Woody’s home town on the way, where they find something worth much more than a million dollars.

Bruce Dern and June Squibb (who plays his amazing unapologetic and shouty wife Kate) give incredible performances in this sweet and dry humoured film, which refuses to be what you expect. Shot in black and white and interspersed with shots of the vast wild landscape, you might assume the film would be bleak. Yet, in reality it is hopeful, with quick wit and dark humour. It slowly and sweetly reveals the story, not of a man becoming a millionaire, or even of a man falling for a scam, but of a man’s past as seen through the eyes of his stagnating son, at a point when all hope in his fathers redemption is lost. It touches on being old, being a parent, being the child of someone you perhaps don’t understand and being part of a community. It is rather lovely, truth be told.

Made in Dagenham (2010)

On iPlayer at the moment is the 2010 film based on the events of 1968 in Dagenham, in the factory of the Ford motor company – namely the first example of female workers striking and the first attempts at getting equal pay. Starring Sally Hawkins as Rita O’Grady, the unlikely leader of a feminist revolution which changed things for working women everywhere, the film is funny, sweet, empowering and maddening, all wrapped up in one 1960’s hairdo.

For anyone who feels like they live in a man’s world, this film stirs up the revolutionary spirit, and for anyone sick of seeing the working class bend to the big companies rule, this film will get you grinning. It’s a story of doing the right thing, and finding bravery from within even when it seems the world might be against you. It boasts a stellar cast, from Miranda Richardson to Daniel Mays, even featuring Sherlock’s Rupert Graves and the late Roger Lloyd Pack. All of the performances are stirring and the script is razor sharp.

At times, even in 2014, it’s hard to believe that equality is ever possible. But if any film will get you hoping and believing again, I think it might just be this one.

It’s also being adapted into a musical scored by the fabulous David Arnold (who also did the music for the film), and is set to hit the stage with Gemma Arteton in the lead.

Watch it on iPlayer here or buy the dvd here.

August: Osage County (2014)

Based on the award winning play and adapted for the screen for Tracy Letts, August: Osage County boasts a stellar cast and focuses on a family all coming back together due to a tragedy, and offers a glance at their dysfunctional relationships.

Starring Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis, Benedict Cumberbatch and Julianne Nicholson to name just a few, all of the performances in the entire film are breathtaking, with Streep earning a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her role as the volatile mother who links the other characters together. The depth and strength of the character writing is wonderful, and it’s particularly refreshing to see such well developed female characters, and to allow their relationships to be explored on screen. None of the characters are very likable but that is partly what makes them so watchable on the screen, and enjoyable to learn more about. 

It’s clear that this is a film adapted from a play. At times it has a static quality and the sense of entrapment is clear, both for the characters on screen and for the film makers, something which manages to both work in the films favour and against it; in a sense the film is about being trapped by the family you came from and your past, so there’s a sense of metaphor here, but on the other hand there is a lack of directorial presence, and it tends to run like a play that has been filmed.

But most of all it’s an enjoyable and emotive two hours, with wonderful performances from all of the cast and a powerful story. Perhaps not family viewing, unless you’re trying to drop some hints about what you really think of them.