Nebraska (2013)

★★★★

Director: Alexander Payne

Release Date: December 6th, 2013 (UK); January 24th, 2014 (US)

Genre: Adventure; Drama

Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb

Alexander Payne truly has a knack for relaying the road story on screen. You need more than an echelon of soul, characters whose individual hearts collectively beat in time with the narrative, and a narrative that quips comically, evolves raucously and affirms genuinely. In Sideways, he created a cinematic Everest, a pinnacle that will require something pretty spectacular to reach. And although Nebraska — Payne’s latest venture into the genre that sees characters finding their way around town before finding themselves — doesn’t quite reach the Sideways summit, it’s still a comforting, humorous and reminiscing ride.

Absolutely dead-cert he’s stumbled upon a one million dollar sweepstakes letter, getting to Lincoln, Nebraska is the first, last and only thing on Woody Grant’s (Bruce Dern) torpedoing mind. If it weren’t for highway patrol, he’d have walked there. His end goal momentarily scuppered by the confines of a police station and a sigh-fully approaching son, Woody mentally prepares a case for action. Because in his eyes, there’s a mound of cash crying out to him at the end of a Nebraskan road. Son David (Will Forte) believes the letter is a scam, and initially denounces Woody’s nonsensical intentions. However, after a number of persistence-driven incidents, David agrees to chauffeur his father towards the elder’s prescribed destination; probably not out of curiosity, rather, in order to spend time with his ageing old man.

From its elegant cinematography to a perfectly poised story, Nebraska evokes a sense of accomplishment and craftsmanship. Of course, the road-trip mantra will always centre on character study, and it’s no different here. However to not acknowledge the technical prowess on display would be doing the film a disservice. The black-and-white scape works both as a visual appeasement and as a narrative cog, as it represents not only the blunt tone, but also Woody’s depreciating mind and somewhat selfish outlook. In composing a curtain of sound, Mark Orton infuses proceedings with a Wild West twang, harking connotations of the primitive western ‘every man for themselves’ adage. Technically, the film is better than proficient. It is wholly engaging.

Having communicated the industrial superlatives, I ought to focus on the film as a depiction of characters, because without doubt Nebraska is about people and family and relationships. Those, and the subsequent pile of complex baggage associated with such humanistic tendencies. Although Woody isn’t the most amiable chap — his monetary determination prevails above all else — the viewer still sympathises with him to the point where you are subliminally rooting for the lead to walk away with a heap of cash, if only to see him smile. Bruce Dern embodies the retired Woody in all his stout manliness (“I served my country, I paid my taxes”), a portrayal that in many other hands would sway towards generic, yet Dern emits realism. But he’s also frail and his exuberance is quenched before it really gets going, demanding many a refuelling tavern trip.

Will Forte is the caring son David, who stands by his father through thick and thin. Forte must act as a sufficient bumper against all of Woody’s grouchy impulses, a challenging task if there ever was. The duo are essentially a two-man act, strained as a pairing but valiant against any external threat (much like Miles and Jack in Sideways). Enter June Squibb as mother Kate, the experienced firecracker of the family, whose hilarious opening statement sets the tone for her appearance: “You dumb cluck!” The withered status of Kate and Woody’s relationship is prevalent throughout, but it’s a natural abrasion brought on through years of being together, rather than simply a clash of personalities. Squibb impeccably channels her character’s outspoken demeanour into one of protection over Woody.

Bob Nelson’s screenplay is terrific, and Alexander Payne coats an affirming lesson with crude comedy. As father and son settle down at a family gathering alongside a ramshackle troupe of wordless Woodys and ditsy Davids, we watch that familiar social awkwardness at its most humorous. Cousins Cole and Bart insist on mundane car conversations, but at least someone is trying to cover over the cracks of silence. “Cole here did some jail”… maybe silence was the way to go after all. And it’s that tonal take-no-prisoners style that the film thrives on. Yet, there is a dramatic strand running throughout, one that takes its subject matter seriously. Woody is old. His senses are dwindling; he walks along motorways and unwittingly unveils his perceived monetary gain to strangers and enemies. This melancholic exercise on advancing years and losing oneself is relatable — everybody gets old, and many of us have spent time with elderly loved ones. Whilst Woody’s millionaire claims are momentarily amusing, they’re also sad in reflection as we see judgement fail him. At one point, you question Woody’s actual intentions: to chase a false dream, or to live and relive a reminiscent present? For David, the road-trip is a touching venture of discovery about the wholesome life endured by his father, a man you don’t get the impression David knows all that well, despite their familial ties.

Nebraska is another successful excursion for its director. Suitable in its simplicity and subtle in its sensitivity, the film is spearheaded by three admirably relatable performances. At the end of it all, Payne reflects on trust, on bonding, and on seizing the moment. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but it is, to quote Woody himself, “Pretty good”.

The Blogscars!

Well that pithy attempt at a punny title went awry.

Don’t worry, this is not a post on injured bloggers, or deformed blogs for that matter.

Credit: Oscars.org

Hey! It’s award season, and I’ve been nominated for my first blog award…

The Liebster Award!

I feel like I’ve just starred in Jerry Maguire and won Best Supporting Actor, only the Blog Gods have given me more than two minutes to exclaim my thank yous. Or perhaps that’s just down to my lack of being constrained by a rapidly flowing, live three hour televised window.

This is all very suave. I don’t really know what I’m doing, a bit like Jacqueline Bisset at this year’s Golden Globes. Okay, maybe not that bad. Or externally influenced. I digress, taking my lead from the business’ best and most bumbling in doing so; this isn’t about me, this is about all of you brilliant people – and occasional spam-bots – who read my film ramblings. Particularly, a huge thanks to the wonderful Cara over at Silver Screen Serenade whose insightful, funny and positively effervescent blog is a must read for film fans, television nuts and life folks in general! Check it out now if you haven’t already done so (though I’m sure you have). I’m also following Cara’s awards blog layout, because it’s far too nifty to ignore.

The Liebster Award rules, then:

  • Nominated bloggers must link back to the blogger who nominated them.
  • Nominees must answer the eleven questions set out by their nominator.
  • Nominated bloggers must also select eleven other terrific blogs with less than 200 followers – though a few of mine are a little above that figure – nominate, and then prescribe them eleven tantalising questions (or, make up some head-shakingly unimaginative queries, as I have done).
  • If nominated, you cannot nominate the person who originally nominated you.

Anyone else starting to verbally trip over that nonimate, err, nominate word?

Enough about rules, down with the machine! etc.

Let’s get going with Cara’s questions, all about FAVOURITES:

1. Vacation spot?

Being Scottish, I’ve spent many a holiday abroad over in Spain (we’re very particular, apparently). I did go to America a few years back though, when I played football (soccer), and absolutely loved it. The whole team went over; we paired off and lived with American families for most of the trip, and I was based in a wooded, pristine Pennsylvania neighbourhood. After spending a day in New York, I eulogise over returning.

2. Color?

Red, as you can probably tell looking at my blog’s header and logo!

3. Dessert?

Shockingly, I’m not a big dessert guy (or a big guy in general, so it’s not really that shocking after all) but I do enjoy vanilla ice-cream stacked on top of a warm chocolate fudge cake every now and again.

4. Black-and-white movie?

It’s a Wonderful Life, without question. That film is delightful.

5. Superhero?

I’ve never read a comic book, so purely based on films and television shows, Batman. Chris Nolan made Batman cool again. Don’t ruin it Snyder.

6. TV show?

This is a tough one. I watch far too much TV, and often have upwards of ten different series’ recorded and ready to watch. I’m gonna have three, because ‘down with the machine!’ etc., remember? Two that aren’t on anymore but are crazily different and therefore I cannot separate: Friends and LOST. I got into Friends over in the States actually. We watched it almost every night and I became glued, such a smartly humorous, charming show. LOST, I watched from start to finish as it aired on the tele. It gets a bad rap for the finale, but it absolutely had me going. A truly stupendous first season. Of the current shows on air, it’s gonna have to be The Walking Dead. I’m intrigued by the whole zombie/apocalypse (and zombie apocalypse) genre. Having said all of that, True Detective begins over here tomorrow and I’m big on Matt McCon at the moment – we’re on a nickname basis.

7. Book?

I don’t read as much as I should, but off the top of my head I’m going to pick The Hobbit. It’s all very adventurous, and funny, and good-natured.

8. Beatles song?

“Let It Be”. Sorry for being so generic!

9. Dog breed?

Labrador, like the little guy in those Andrex adverts!

10. Beverage?

I’m a sucker for Citrus Oasis, or any other orangey drink. Alcohol-wise, I’ve only really ever tried Budweiser, and haven’t consumed alcohol since!

11. Nerdy franchise (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Marvel, etc.)?

Nerdy franchise? Hmm, evidently I’m quite a nerd when it comes to anything in the film (and television) Milky Way, but The Lord of the Rings is my favourite film trilogy/franchise so I’ll go with that!

Now, here are the magnificent 11 I’d like to give a shout-out to!

Since I’m all about the big screen, I’m going to compile a completely random, totally unserious list of film questions. Now then, should you guys choose to accept them (and please don’t feel the need to if it’s not your thing, or you’ve already been nominated!) here are my 11 quick-fire questions:

  1. Name one film that you have yet to see, but should’ve seen by now.
  2. Do you keep a list of every film you watch, and when?
  3. What is the first film that comes to mind when you read the following word: Guitar?
  4. What is your favourite Leo DiCaprio film?
  5. Name a film that you personally dislike, but that everyone else seems to love.
  6. What is your first film-related memory?
  7. Do you listen to any film podcasts, or radio shows, or watch any television review shows?
  8. Does the phrase “Hello to Jason Isaacs” mean anything to you?
  9. Was The Phantom Menace really THAT bad?
  10. What is your favourite film that is underappreciated elsewhere?
  11. When you hear the name Shia LaBeouf, what type of meat springs to mind? 

Have fun!

Oh, and if I’ve utterly messed all of this up and ruined the award-chain, I will repent at the feet of the Blog Gods for the rest of eternity.

12 Years a Slave (2014)

★★★★★

Director: Steve McQueen

Release Date: November 8th, 2013 (US); January 10th, 2014 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Drama; History

Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o

“I will not fall into despair till freedom is opportune!”

Those purposeful words, you will have heard over the last few months in trailers, adverts and previews. They are strong-willed; in one sense uplifting, yet in another more visceral sense, haunted by humanity’s most evil endeavours. Despair and freedom, traits inversely diverging in the life, rather, the existence of Solomon Norfolk. Steve McQueen challenges us to consider and then reconsider as his depiction of the animalistic slave trade hammers with shock, but does not rely on it. For the most part, the moments of solitude and silence profoundly exhibit a monstrous reality lived by those such as the remorseless slave owner Edwin Epps. There are no punches pulled, no whippings recoiled; McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is a harrowing watch without question. More than that though, it is a necessary watch. Not to reassure a cultural ridding that hasn’t fully been expunged. Rather, to condemn what should never have occurred, and to shed a flicker of true resilience on a truly despicable time.

A well-off and considerate skilled carpenter, Solomon Norfolk (Chiwetel Ejiofor) tends to the every need of his young family. It’s 1841 and the slave trade is rife with wealthy disregard. Approached by two not noticeably iffy gentlemen, Solomon — a fiddle player at heart — is offered an extended musical job, an offer greeted with appreciative acceptance. After a drunken night, he awakens in chains, stripped of his identity and mercilessly pawned. 12 Years a Slave tells Solomon’s harrowing story, as he is traded from a would-be sympathetic slave owner (that is, if such a juxtaposition exists) to the vile, despicable Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) who has abomination clenched in his fists and the abyss peering through his eyes.

This is an intense watch, no doubt. Not necessarily because it’s another retelling of a horrible time — though that alone warrants attention and denouncing. Rather, it comes down to how Steve McQueen unflinchingly tells the story. His directorial application is admirable in that no disservice is done to those who fell victim to slavery, this isn’t in any remote sense a Hollywood-esque drama bloated full of riveting set pieces or manipulative tones. Nor is it buoyed by a somewhat ironic, semi-exploitative raft akin to that of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, a cinematic spectacle in every sense. 12 Years a Slave is real life, a reflection of events not so long gone. You may judge success on ticket sales, or audience reception, or even personal affirmation, but there’s also a genuine feeling abound that McQueen’s priorities are and would always have been aligned alongside authentic storytelling regardless. His straightforward devotion to re-imagining the unimaginable is admirable, and it’s this wholeheartedness that enables the viewer to watch with an only just an ounce of ease, but an ounce nonetheless.

From the point of his wrongful capture, Solomon wrestles with a tragic dignity-driven dilemma: does he succumb to hate to become bastion of support for his helpless compatriots already grappled by despair, or does he stoutly, fearlessly stare directly into the heartlessness of one of humanity’s worst episodes? Initially, Solomon is disbelieving, perhaps as much of slavery’s existence as of his own forced manoeuvre into it. “They were not kidnappers, they were artists… fellow performers,” he wrongly assures, detailing those absolutely iffy gentlemen. Maybe if he can convince someone, anyone, they’ll see sense. But there is no sense, not in the racist pits of Southern USA. Everywhere Solomon glances there is a monster in human skin. The slave-trader, auctioning off people like watches (“My sentimentality stretches the length of a coin”). The plantation owner, who treats his slaves fairly well — but to treat a slave well would be to treat a slave as a human, not an object, therefore not to treat a slave at all. His empathy is misguided. The hired carpenter, a white pre-Nazi figure teaming with abhorrent spew. Yet through these early trials, Solomon remains resilient and hopeful — freedom is still vaguely in sight.

Wholly, 12 Years a Slave is mighty, but a number of moments stand out in their contrasting potency. As a twenty-first century audience, we’ve sponged it all, and have resultantly become immune to most atrocities displayed in film or any other art-form. There’s something to be said, then, for an act of depicted violence that leaves you mouth gaping, eyes watering and mind searching. In a sickening whipping display not far removed from The Passion of the Christ, the film emphatically compounds its horrors. Yet it remains realistic, and that rankles the stomach. Conversely, a scene of isolation is striking. Surrounded by an audibly hissing nature, pupils dark and eclipsing, Solomon slowly stares right and left before catching the camera’s lens. Profound, absolutely. Painful, worryingly. You wonder whether Solomon has approached the point of no return, the despair, and assume thereafter that he has seen no end. It’s an extraordinary piece of filmmaking, perhaps the most poignant all both in delivery and meaning.

Chiwetel Ejiofor’s depiction of Solomon is utterly remarkable. He is defiant in hope, upsetting in pain and compelling throughout, embodying this range in absolute earnest. The role is a difficult one; Ejiofor must reign in grief and disperse it invariably at the correct moments, or risk devaluing the man. At the same time, Solomon’s sympathetic nature cannot restrain, and instead Ejiofor has to symbolise at least partial hope where there is none. Ejiofor masterfully accomplishes all of this, and more — every strained note from his mouth rings with plea, and his eyes bulge with emotion. As diabolical slave-owner Edwin Epps, Michael Fassbender demonstrably bewitches himself in a spell of pure evil. At one point Epps falls flat on his face, yet you cannot muster up the slightest node of joy because it’s obvious that his repulsive mindset enjoyed the discomfort.

Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o is also incredible. She plays Patsey, a young female slave whom Epps fantasies over and hates himself for it. Nyong’o displays an air of vulnerability, whilst at the same time commanding the screen with her undeniably astute presence. Paul Giamatti has a minor role as the aforementioned slave-trader, excelling in cruelty, the same uncaring sensibility as Paul Dano, the aforementioned hired carpenter. Brad Pitt oddly appears as a different carpenter, Amish beard and all. His random arrival is slightly off-putting, though the co-producer of the film (ah, that’s why) is solid enough. Benedict Cumberbatch is William Ford, the empathetic plantation owner whose sentences begin with an English accent and end in a southern drawl. Having said that, Cumberbatch is an excellent choice to play the role, that much-loved real life personality giving the character some small semblance of decency.

Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography is exquisite, offering a pristine vehicle for the film to vibrantly beam out of. A contagious scent of excellence must’ve attached itself to each component on set, and Hans Zimmer’s score is no different. Moving and soaring, Zimmer’s orchestral harmonies wrap around events on screen as if to comfort the forsaken humans. This contrasts with the weighty Roll Jordan Roll, a roar of solidarity that you don’t want Solomon to contribute to for fear of his own confirmation of plight.

If not the best film of the year, 12 Years a Slave is certainly the most important and probably the least comfortable to watch. Steve McQueen powerfully unravels a horrific period lived mercilessly by those far wickeder than any revised history suggests, and endured harrowingly by those whose suffering is unrelenting in its depiction. It’s stark and honest, so much so that you’ll exit the cinema, mind image-strewn, wishing the film never had to be made.

Philomena (2013)

★★★★

Director: Stephen Frears

Release Date: November 1st, 2013 (UK); November 27th, 2013 (US)

Genre: Drama

Starring: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan

It’s not often you watch a drama about the culmination of a woman’s fifty year search for her long lost son, and end up spending a significant amount of time laughing in the wake of an odd comedy duo. Settle down at the mercy of Stephen Frears’ Philomena though, and that’s exactly what’ll happen. At its heartiest the film flows with a sense of uncertain determination embodied in diverging ways by the two lead characters, but in between these moments of bottled up emotion, at its most organic, Philomena charms in tone and entertains by way of a banterous dynamic. This incredible story pitched excellently is often funny, occasionally shocking and always peculiar in believability, even if it does lose some legitimacy at its conclusion.

Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) stares wholesomely into the eyes of a young gentleman pictured inside a piece of jewellery. It’s her son, Anthony, taken fifty years earlier and placed in the care of an American family. Philomena spent her younger years as part of an Irish Abbey, sent there by her disapproving father in a rebuttal to pregnancy. By chance, recently fired Labour government adviser Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) is in attendance at a party where he is approached by Philomena’s daughter who pleas to have her mother’s tragic tale exposed to the world. It’s a “human interest story”, or for Martin, a way back into the positive glares of journalistic limelight, and so he embarks on a journey of discovery and hope with Philomena.

At the centre of the film is this weird dynamic shared between Philomena and Martin, one driven by religion and faith (or, in Martin’s case, the lack thereof). Having been forcibly separated from her child in an act of apparent punishment, Philomena retains a staunch belief in God and moreover, treats the present day nuns — of which still includes the prominent Sister Hildegard, who was instrumental in said previous events — with respect and without any incrimination. The horrendous actions undertaken in 1951 are presented in a unsavoury manner, as they should be, by both the film itself and just about every character, from tainted journalist to boisterous pub owner (“What about the evil nuns, what’s happening with them?”). Yet Philomena valiantly, admirably, stands by her beliefs and wholly practices the forgiving teachings, ensuring the narrative never plumbs over into anti-Catholic territory.

On the other hand, Martin embodies the typical cynical reporter. He spends half of the time answering his elderly associate’s questions about believing in God (“No”) and the other half truly puzzled by Philomena’s strong-willed demeanour. The journalist, who experiences a moral realignment himself as the film canters on, publicly denounces Philomena’s inbuilt faith having never sincerely lived it — although he was an alter boy once upon a time.

These quizzical debates between the pair provide the catalyst for the film’s good-humoured underbelly. That, in tow with the chuckle-worthy “little old Irish lady” and business-like, trying-to-reignite-him-career journalist, together in America, heralds a jesty atmosphere. The pair are outwardly mismatched, yet they share an intrinsic desire to reclaim a significant loss in their respective lives. For Philomena it’s her son, whereas for Martin it’s his dignity and journalistic aura, which is probably why he constantly contemplates writing a book about Russian history, a cultivated topic if there ever was. His initial detachment broods a condescending resonance towards Philomena, whose fickleness in the face of sarcasm offers a few comedic titbits. While Martin discusses how to approach divulging the story with his callous editor, Philomena amazes over the “the size of the portions!” in America, claiming she always worried about her son’s weight. While fully endorsing laughter, director Stephen Frears never marginalises his at times serious approach to the subject matter, without which the film would lose authenticity given the harrowing happenings occurred in real life, as part of Philomena Lee’s actual existence. A healthy balance is essential, and Frears achieves one.

Our two main protagonists are, in essence, conventional characters — a dour, disenfranchised reporter and an energetic-yet-inconstant wee Irish lady — but given the film is based on a true story, on genuine people, it is right that these characters should be conventional to a degree. That way they are recognisable and relatable, in turn evoking emotion from the audience. Judi Dench is wonderful as Philomena, humming the full dramatic spectrum in the process. She exhibits an ardent perseverance, the same kind that any mother would typify in a search for her child. However, at the same time she always carries that homely quality, a charming awkwardness in a world far bigger than and increasingly alien to her. As Martin Sixsmith, Steve Coogan is the perfect folly, boasting a very valid ‘been there, done that’ attitude. Unlike Dench whose character is a straight-shooter from the off, Coogan often has to reign in his thoughts (probably for fear of a skelp from his elder) as he gradually warms towards Philomena, instantaneously to the audience directing a growing fondness in the direction of Martin and his changing intentions.

Along with Jeff Pope, Steve Coogan brilliantly co-wrote the screenplay based on Martin Sixsmith’s book The Long Lost Child of Philomena Lee. The duo do an exemplary job in adapting book to the screen, a traverse that facilitates this witty, emotionally-tugging film. Nevertheless, there is a problem that arises near the very climax, one captured and dragged by the notion of dramatic licence. Dramatic licence, a function utilised by the industry’s best, creates tension where there may be none, or sprinkles a share of humour if it sorely lacks. In the case of Philomena, the dramatic licence becomes problematic because it goes beyond these constructed trivialities. There is a fabricated scene approaching the conclusion that is designed specifically to be a blow-off moment for Martin, but that resultantly, sadly, envisions a significant falsity. In a way the film takes an emotional liberty, the same kind that it spends ninety minutes preaching against. A disappointing blemish, but arguably the only one.

Martin Sixsmith, worried about his health, is told to run. This same deed is adhered to by Steve Coogan and Judi Dench, who collectively grab hold of Coogan’s delightful — if a tad tainted towards the end — script and run with it, creating waves of charm and seemingly incompatible comedy in the process. First and foremost though, this is a serious and harrowing story, and Frears ensures that it is treated as such. If you journey purely alongside the happenings on screen, not investigative of the climactic authenticity, Philomena might just tinge those emotions; the laughs and the cries.

Ray (2004)

★★★

Director: Taylor Hackford

Release Date: October 29th, 2004; January 21st, 2005 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Drama; Music

Starring: Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Sharon Warren

Ray Charles’ drive and charisma gave him a larger-than-life persona, so big that even a severely musically deficient 20-year-old knows who he is. Unfortunately, and indeed surprisingly, Taylor Hackford’s biographical drama about the electric man struggles to maintain the energy that Charles himself boasted in abundance. This is by no means down to Jamie Foxx’s sizzling turn as the title character, or the foot-stomping, arm-swinging music splashed throughout, but instead is a result of a pretty dreary and repetitive narrative presenting a story that deserves so much better.

We see music in his eyes. His effortless piano-playing hands are reflected in those iconic sunglasses. Ray Charles is at one with sound. This is the opening shot of Ray and if you didn’t know already, you do now — he is the music man. The film details the rise of Ray Charles Robinson, a young boy who became a pioneering musician after a childhood ravaged by tragedy and loss. Growing up in the 1930s on a Northern Florida plantation, young Ray and his brother are cared for by their head-strong mother as they bounce with liveliness amongst the dust. The duo share a close bond and get up to just about as much mischief as any other child does, but it is the tragic loss of his brother that kick-starts the chain of events which will eventually see Ray completely blind and hugely successful. His mother, played magnificently by Sharon Warren, teaches Ray that his deficiency is only such at the surface, that he needs to learn to live and strive on his own (“Remember you’re going blind, but you ain’t stupid”). Warren may just be the star-turn behind Foxx here, as she movingly portrays a woman who is a beacon of strength driven by frailty, and justifies the inclusion of countless conveniently placed flashbacks.

Ray’s childhood in Florida is depicted throughout the drama by way of a number of flashbacks, and these provoke part of the film’s main problem. Unlike the rhythm heard from Charles’ music, Hackford wrestles unsuccessfully in his attempts to generate and maintain a rhythm on-screen. From the get-go proceedings are frantically hurrying forward, making it difficult to catch a breath never mind work out where and when we are. One moment a young Ray Robinson is shown as he grows up, the next he is moving away to school and then before you know it Ray Charles is belting out soulful music to the needy masses. The film is long — overly long at two and a half hours — and by the time the first sixty minutes are up, the audience has seen just about everything there is to see… so we see it all again. Charles develops a drug habit, he plays a gig, he records a song, he takes some more drugs, he buys a house, another gig, recording studio, perhaps the odd forced flashback for narrative continuity, and so on. The film begins to drag, which is a shame considering its subject matter defined entirely the opposite: pizazz and meaning.

Another obstacle in the film’s way is its over-wrought lightheartedness. Besides the death of Ray’s brother (the resonance of which gets lost amongst the rapid progression of proceedings), there is too much feel-goodness going on. Of course, the underlying message that Ray’s blindness should not hamper him, nor should it make us feel sorry him, is a wholly positive one and should be placed on a pedestal for the viewer to see and hopefully learn from. His wife Bea (Kerry Washington) enforces this notion of positivity: “How can I pity someone I admire?”

That being said, the life lived by Charles was without doubt a tumultuous one, one which incorporated extensive drug use and adultery, and these issues are sidelined to an extent in favour of jovial music and exuberance. Often arguments end in laughter when they need not. Perhaps this genuinely was part of the man’s all-round demeanour — his music certainly alludes to joyfulness. However, creative license appears to be prevalent as intentions to make Charles look like a bad guy are non-existent. Again, considering its enormous run-time, delving into the depths of some of the more unattractive issues in Charles’ existence would’ve benefited the film — when a smidgen of Ray’s post-addictive exterior is displayed it is tough to watch and this is more of what the film needs in order to really tell his story. Charles does not need to look like a bad guy — by all accounts he wasn’t one — but rather a good guy who done a few pretty bad things.

On the plus side, Jamie Foxx knocks the proverbial ball out the park and then some in his performance as the soul singer. In a similar vein to Joaquin Phoenix’s turn as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, Foxx truly brings Ray Charles to life on screen. The key to his successful embodiment is just that: an outstanding use of body movement and facial expressions. Unable to deliver the goods through his eyes, which often provide the backbone to showing emotion, Foxx incorporates all of Charles’ movements and intricacies by way of a rasping shriek or emblazoned smile. It is evident that Foxx has worked hard to achieve what he does, and his award-winning achievements are magnetic.

The film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Pawel Edelman, who was nominated for an Academy Award in recognition of his work on The Pianist, and maybe his offerings in Ray should have earned him a second nomination. Alongside Foxx’s charismatic performance and a collection of delightful music, Edelman’s expert, scene-setting shoots provide Ray with all of its energy and charm, in spite of the dreary screenplay. Regardless of how repetitive it might get, or any imagination-scarcity it might suffer, you cannot help but smile when Ray Charles learns how to play “Mess Around” on the piano.

Ray is not a bad film by any means; it provides the vehicle for an incredible embodiment of one of the most influential men in music history courtesy of Jamie Foxx, and also accommodates a number of grin-inducing moments alongside an exclusively feel-good message. The film is let down, however, by a lack of creativity in the narrative department, turning the story of an incredible man’s inspiring journey into a bouncy-castle of repetition before long.

By the end, or even the middle, it sort made me just want to go and watch Walk the Line again.

Captain Phillips (2013)

★★★★★

Director: Paul Greengrass

Release Date: October 11th, 2013 (US); October 16th, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Biography

Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi

Having directed films such as The Bourne Ultimatum and United 93, Paul Greengrass is no stranger to generating drama and thrilling audiences. In Captain Phillips, Greengrass combines the very best elements from his previous outputs and creates a relentlessly intense and enthralling tale of an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation.

The film tells the true story of Captain Richard Phillips, who was taken hostage by Somali pirates while steering his cargo ship across the Indian Ocean in 2009. Tom Hanks stars as the troubled captain and delivers his best performance in thirteen years. The two-time Academy Award winner’s thoroughly convincing portrayal of the jaded mariner turned distressed captive is incredible — his astounding role in the emotionally-charged final few minutes of proceedings should seal Oscar number three come March.

In addition to Hanks’ performance are the surprisingly realistic offerings from the four previously untried actors playing Somali pirates. The group are imposing and chaotic, with Barkhad Abdi standing out in particular as the leader, and the quartet’s pursuit of the American-based vessel amplifies an already danger-fuelled atmosphere struck up by eerily droning music and Phillips’ on-edge demeanour (“We’re going along the Horn of Africa, right?”).

More than simply a story of immediate survival, the film also has a political and moral backbone. We see two very contrasting lifestyles in the opening shots: one shows a worn-out family man about to leave his wife on another extended job; the other depicts a struggling community whose only means of survival is criminal activity. Greengrass infuses these extremely current issues into the main plot-line to add another real-life layer of drama to the impassioned events.

Technically magnificent and emotionally draining, Captain Phillips boasts award-worthy lead performances and is without doubt one of the very best films this year.

Crazy Heart (2009)

★★★★

Director: Scott Cooper

Release Date: February 5th, 2010 (US); March 5th, 2010 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Music; Romance

Starring: Jeff Bridges, Colin Farrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal

Folkish melodies and acoustic guitar strums are the backbone of Scott Cooper’s Crazy Heart, a charming tale about a worn out country musician who finds hope and inspiration in a new, unexpected romance as he tries to get his career — and life — back on track.

Jeff Bridges is Otis “Bad” Blake, an ageing country singer/songwriter devoid of much enthusiasm unless alcohol is present. Maybe he lived a more frivolous and extravagant lifestyle in his younger years, but nowadays his tours consist primarily of small town bars and bowling alleys. If he makes it through a set list without choking on a beverage or vomiting in a bin, he’s probably having a pretty good day. Bridges is excellent as Blake and delivers equally well in conversation as he does in song. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s youthful journalist Jean Craddock is a recent divorcee who catches the eye of Blake and emblazons him with a new lease of life. The two actors strike up a a very equitable dynamic and make a seemingly unrealistic relationship, a believable one.

Just as Blake and Craddock’s romance progresses and the country man’s life and career both begin to reattach themselves to the rails, Blake encounters a number of alcohol induced demons, including a number of unsavoury incidents involving a car accident and Craddock’s four-year-old son, whom Blake has come to care dearly for. These issues increasingly drive a wedge between the pair and as their relationships begins to unravel, the film starts to lurch over the edge, peering cautiously into the depths of despair and darkness. Teetering on the edge of the abyss is as far as the drama gets however, as the film does not quite have the courage of its convictions.

And that is the main problem with Crazy Heart (perhaps the only problem). Too often characters are faced with a level of pain and anguish which, if prompted a little more, would generate additional degrees of empathy and frustration for them — and Blake in particular — from the audience. For a man who is surviving mainly on scraps and minuscule effort, who finds a beacon of light through love and family and who then goes on to throw all of that joy and security away by making stupid decisions, Blake seems to be dealing with life relatively well. Yes, he has a drinking problem, but he has the same drinking problem at the beginning of the film as he does after the collapse of his relationship. Scott Cooper is very close to writing and directing a perfect fable of loss and redemption, but the tone of Crazy Heart lingers a touch too high when it should be free-falling a great deal lower – Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler is an example of a film that shares many similar narrative elements with Crazy Heart, but which hits depths lower than Cooper’s film and is all the better for it, albeit more heart-wrenching.

However, what Crazy Heart does not have in depth-plummeting ordeals, it makes up for in wonderful characters, tremendous performances and an incredible plethora of music. Produced in part by Coen favourite T-Bone Burnett, the soundtrack to the film has bounce and soul and meaning; it is no surprise that the film’s headline song “The Weary Kind” went on to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song. Often the songs develop the characters, be it through Colin Farrell’s rendition of “Gone, Gone, Gone” establishing his young, successful Tommy Sweet, or Jeff Bridges’ interpretation of “Fallin’ & Flyin'”, which perfectly describes both the singer’s previous ambitions and current realisations (“Funny how fallin’ feels like flyin’ for a little while”). Burnett’s musical involvement in filmmaking rarely signals disappointment, and his work here is another shining example of getting it right.

Jeff Bridges is the stand out performer in a film where much of the focus is on him, delivering a performance which returned the second of the film’s two Academy Awards in 2010. He is a part of just about every scene, yet his presence is always welcome and never wearisome. Bridges emits near-defeat and hopeful optimism in equal measure when required, his emotions often dictated by the outcome of interactions with the protégé-turned-star Sweet or the smitten Craddock. Robert Duvall even makes an appearance as Blake’s lifelong friend Wayne, contributing melodically to match.

When the foot stomping ends and the guitar strings go silent, Crazy Heart simmers down to a very enjoyable film that boasts an exceptional lead performance and is littered with great songs, each of which do their job in encapsulating the moment. It doesn’t quite hit the perfect note all of the time, but it is not a long way off.

The Counsellor (Out November 15th, 2013)

A new image released by Entertainment Weekly.
A new image released by Entertainment Weekly.

Talk about star power.

I have no idea how I managed to miss this one when it was announced. The Counsellor is an upcoming thriller film about a lawyer who gets embroiled in the world of drug trafficking, perhaps a little further than he had hoped, and is set to be released on October 25th in the United States and on November 15th here in the United Kingdom. It sounds like your average crime drama, right? Well, check this out.

The film will be directed by none other than Ridley Scott (who recently enlightened our minds with Prometheus), a man who consistently blends out good to exceptional films and whose dedication to perfecting the visual element of his work is second-to-none. Spanning five decades, his directorial career has cultivated films such as Alien (1970s), Blade Runner (1980s), Thelma & Louise (1990s), Gladiator (2000s) and Prometheus (2010s), as mentioned beforehand, and it does not seem to be slowing down at any rate, with Scott having released almost one film per year since 2000. In my eyes, Scott is one of a handful of directors who the audience can put their wholehearted faith in to create a hugely enjoyable and commercially successful film, in any situation.

The cast of The Counsellor is composed of Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem (need I go on?). Fassbender, who will play the lead character, has been on career ascension like no other since appearing in Hunger in 2008 and then Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds a year later, both of which he received mass amounts of praise for his performances in. It does not get much bigger than Brad Pitt when it comes to names in the film industry (or any industry, for that matter), and Cameron Diaz and Penelope Cruz are two very accomplished actors (or actresses, whichever you prefer) who can more than hold their own in just about any film. Javier Bardem has just come off a BAFTA nominated performance for his portrayal of Bond villain Raoul Silva in Skyfall, and it is apparent that has been churning out excellent performance after excellent performance in recent years.

“Is this Transformers?”

The screenplay of The Counsellor has been written by none other than Cormac McCarthy, the author of novels such as the brooding No Country for Old Men and the heart-wrenching The Road (which have been adapted into Academy Award winning and critically successful films, respectively). Even though this will be McCarthy’s first feature-length screenplay, it is obvious that he has a knack for penning exceptionally good literature and it will be intriguing to see how his screenplay comes across directly on film.

The first trailer for The Counsellor has just been released and, although 44 seconds is a hardly a significant amount of time to be making too many judgements on, the film comes across as everything from gritty to slick to atmospheric to precise. It also sounds majestic. Of course, visually it appears a Ridley Scott film as the visuals are, for lack of a better description, ‘top notch’, and we get a brief glimpse of some of the characters involved — Bardem looks like he could be a show stealer in this department. As I just mentioned, this is only a short trailer and therefore it is likely that the full-length one will be made available in the coming months, by which time we will hopefully know a little more about Scott’s next cinematic outing. But for now, check out the short trailer below. And in answer to my somewhat rhetorical question at the beginning: No, not really — in fact, not at all.

Talk about star power.

CBF’s Genre Toppers: Thriller

Today I am focusing on some of my favourite films in the thriller genre. Just before I begin, I would like to be clear on how I make the distinction between thriller and action, because sometimes they seem to mesh into one. This is just my own personal way of telling both genres apart and there really is no right or wrong answer here — you may think something completely different!

Firstly, the main similarities between the two genres are the typically a fast-paced plot and, more often than not, a heroic character fighting off a villainous one in one way or another. For me, the separation tends to occur in the tone of the film. For example, a thriller seeks out suspense and jeopardy as the driving force, whereas an action film is all about excitement and liveliness. Also — and again this is just the way I see it — action films tend to be more light-hearted than thrillers (not always, but generally).

Anyway, on to five greats!

Skyfall (2012)

The newest film on the list, Skyfall was released in October 2012 and declared instantly by the vast majority of viewers to be the best Bond film ever. Helmed by Sam Mendes and with Daniel Craig reprising his role as James Bond, the film follows Bond’s relationship with M (Judi Dench) throughout his investigation of a violent attack on MI6 at the hands of former agent Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) who is out for revenge.

“Looks like it’s gonna rain.”

As I mentioned earlier, Skyfall has been touted as the best Bond film ever by audiences and critics alike, and has now grossed well over $1 billion which makes it — as of writing — the eighth highest grossing film of all time. That tells you that Sam Mendes done something right. In fact, he done just about everything right in this emotional roller coaster ride. For the first time, the audience is invited into the ins and outs of the relationship between Bond and M which makes this instalment more weighty and heartfelt, yet it still maintains that slickness that has always been associated with the franchise. Mendes has a stellar cast at his disposal — joining Daniel Craig (who plays his best Bond to date opposite Judi Dench, in my opinion) in Skyfall are newcomers to the franchise Ralph Fiennes, Ben Wishaw and Naomie Harris who each add their own nuances to the film (Wishaw is particularly good as Q). However, the star of the show is Javier Bardem with his charismatic, extravagant portrayal of villain Raoul Silva. On a par with Mads Mikkelsen in Casino Royale (we will just ignore Quantum of Solace for now) Bardem is hugely effective opposite Craig and the two flourish as a result.

Although Bond has become a genre on its own essentially, Skyfall claims a spot in my top thriller films for its crisp, free-flowing script and interesting characters.

No Country For Old Men (2007)

“Do not insult my hair again.”

No Country For Old Men is an Academy Award winning 2007 film directed by Joel and Ethan Coen (or just the Coen brothers). The plot surrounds Josh Brolin’s character, hunter Llewelyn Moss after he uncovers over $2 million worth of cash at a drug deal gone wrong and is pursued as a result by vicious hitman Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) who has been hired to recover the stolen cash. Meanwhile, almost retired sheriff, Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) finds himself thrust directly into the cat-and-mouse chase between the two.

It is not often the Coen Brothers get it wrong and, true to form, No Country For Old Men is a knockout. This marks Javier Bardem’s second appearance on my list, and for the second time he steals the show. Bardem is excellent at portraying a psychotic, emotionless killer and his aura throughout the film adds to the creepy, on-the-edge, thriller-ish atmosphere. Both Josh Brolin and Tommy Lee Jones are terrific in their depictions of a desperate war veteran and a straight-to-the-point county sheriff respectively. The 1980s Texas setting truly adds to the grit (wink) and once again proves just how good a pair of eyes the Coen Brothers have at selecting locations for their films — have a look at Fargo and O Brother, Where Art Thou? if you do not believe me.

No Country For Old Men is captivating and intense, just two of the many characteristics which make it a very enjoyable thriller.

Argo (2012)

“Screw the Oscars, man”

Ben Affleck’s third directorial feature, political thriller Argo, opened in cinemas a few weeks before Skyfall in October 2012 and stars Affleck, Alan Arkin and Bryan Cranston. The film is a dramatisation of the Iranian hostage crisis in the 1980s where six fugitive American diplomats require assistance in the form of extraction out of Iran from CIA specialist Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck).

I cannot wait for Affleck’s next film, because this one is absolutely outstanding. Argo defines the thriller genre — every characteristic required to make this film a success is in there. Gripping, intense, polished and stylish, Argo delivers on all fronts. For a political thriller, the plot is not difficult to follow, yet it remains shrewd and without any glaring mishaps. One of the more surprising elements here, particularly following the terrifying opening sequence, are the pockets of dark comedy splattered throughout the film which by no means feel out of place. Affleck manages to equate the frantic goings-on with enough dark humour to ensure the film does not become too lifeless or overbearing. Each of the performances from the cast are solid, with Alan Arkin standing out in particular, but the constantly flowing nature of the plot is the key to this film’s success.

How Ben Affleck was snubbed by the Oscars (he did not receive a nod in the Best Director category) is beyond me. Argo is a must-see film and definitely one of the best released in 2012.

Inception (2010)

Directed by Christopher Nolan, the summer blockbuster of 2010, Inception, stars a jam-packed ensemble cast lead by Leonardo DiCaprio, who receives his support from the likes of Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Cillian Murphy and Marion Cotillard (the list goes on). DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, an extractor — or plainer terms, a thief — who enters his subject’s dreams in order to carry out an extraction. When he is offered the chance to see his children again, Cobb must assemble a team of specialists together in order to plant an idea into his target’s (Cillian Murphy) subconscious — a process known as inception.

“My bad.”

I am probably going be referring to film critic Mark Kermode a lot during this next paragraph, because his review of Inception is one of the best I have heard. Massive summer blockbusters are sometimes tarred (often justifiably) as being big money-making schemes with very little for their audience, who have become accustomed to seeing films where absolutely nothing happens other than some pointless, soulless action sequences (I am looking at you Michael Bay). Kermode attributes this to a small percentage of filmmakers perhaps assuming their audience is too ‘dumb’ to be able to watch a film and at the same time… think. Yes, think. It really is absurd, but it does appear to happen. Look at Transformers for example: the whole franchise is nothing more than robots hitting each other, which is fine once (I suppose), but not over and over again until it becomes so intolerable it hurts to watch. Inception, however, is a perfect example of a massive blockbuster that provides enough action and thrills to appease everyone, but also makes its audience think during the film — and it worked, because the film has taken over $825 million. Why? Because people appreciate that Christopher Nolan is looking out for his audience and making films that will challenge them, but that are also highly enjoyable (The Dark Knight trilogy being another example). Also, because Inception had a number of different layers to it (both literally and figuratively) and because people enjoyed it, some then had to go back and see it again in order for them to fully understand it! That does not mean those people are dumb, quite the opposite in fact: it means they are thinking.

But I digress. Inception is a show-stopping thriller stuffed full of ideas, great performances, amazing visual effects, comedic moments and even some emotion (look it up, Bay).

Blood Diamond (2006)

“Is my accent really that bad?”

The oldest film on my list (albeit not very old), Blood Diamond is another political thriller starring Leonardo DiCaprio. This time he accompanied by Djimon Hounsou and Jennifer Connelly in a Sierra Leone setting. At the height of the Sierra Leone civil war (1996-2001), smuggler Danny Archer (DiCaprio) teams with a local fisherman (Hounsou) and a reporter (Connelly) in an attempt to seek out and gain possession of a large diamond, with each of the three boasting different motives.

Leonardo DiCaprio (incidentally, my favourite actor) gets a bad rap for his South African accent in this film — it sounds great to me, but maybe I am touch biased. I doubt that. The performances are very strong, with all three protagonists providing a combination of fury, optimism, emotion and anguish to accompany the desperate situation they find themselves in (particularly DiCaprio and Hounsou). The story moves at greater-than-steady pace which provides the thriller-ish aspect which the film has in abundance, with Edward Zwick’s narrative ensuring the audience remains grasped throughout. Part of the formula which contributes to Blood Diamond’s success in my eyes, is its realism as it depicts some of the hardships most civilians staying in Sierra Leone (and elsewhere) were going through during the civil war. A few of the scenes are harrowing, not in a particularly gory way, but because they dramatise atrocities occurring around the world. I would say, however, that Zwick does not make these scenes exploitative in away way — they are an essential part of the story. On a last note, the African setting is absolutely stunning and almost becomes a character itself during the film.

Blood Diamond really hits home in its realistic nature, and at the same time serves up a gripping tale of two very different men with one common goal.

 

And now for some honourable mentions:

Se7en (1995) — This is a very accomplished horror story about two men tracking down a serial killer who leaves them clues in the form of the Seven Deadly Sins… only, with people involved. Morgan Freeman and a young Brad Pitt excel in their roles.

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) — At times you get obsession, then you get Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley. What opens as a fairly innocent thriller closes with just enough menace to fill anyone for a day. Or a lifetime.

Inside Man (2006) — A very underrated film in my opinion, Inside Man sees the charismatic Denzel Washington tasked with rescuing a bunch of civilians caught up in a bank robbery masterminded by Clive Owen. Very intriguing action with a wonderful twist.

Taken (2008) — I think just about everybody has seen Taken — it’s on the TV at least once every week (and weirdly, it costs exactly three pounds in just about every shop in Scotland). Often brutal, always entertaining and the birth Liam Neeson: action star.

Wrecked (2010) — A small, independent thriller starring Adrien Brody as a man who wakes up in the middle of a forest after a car accident he cannot remember anything about. Interesting, dramatic and unique.

Source Code (2011) — This may make an appearance on another list, but as a thriller it just about misses out my top five. Therefore, I will refrain from saying much more for now (but it is very, very good).

What are some of your favourite thriller films?

 

(Note: Mark Kermode reviews each week’s new film releases between 2-4pm on Fridays with Simon Mayo on BBC Radio 5live, so check them out if you like films, or flappy hands. You will not regret it.)