Saturday, 8 February 2014

Rush (2013)

If I can claim that knowing nothing about Formula 1 got me anything, it's that I didn't go in to Rush knowing the ending. That's something I'm incredibly thankful for.

Rush is the (apparently very true to life) real story of the rivalry between the British and Austrian racing drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda, respectively, through the 1976 season. Two very different approaches to racing and living life collide as the two diametrically opposed personalities clash throughout the years, and those preceding it.

There isn't all that much to say about Rush other than it is tuned as finely as the cars it depicts. Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl lead the piece both playing their parts perfectly. Hemsworth shines as the real world equivalent of his Thor character: social, brash, suave and constantly teetering on the precipice. Bruhl mirrors it perfectly as the calm, slightly removed and overly logical Lauda. The two of them combine to form a dynamic yin-yang symbol with eventually each of them being dependent on the other's presence in the race for either of them to truly shine.

Many people will take many different things from Rush, but racing fans and bystanders alike will all enjoy the beautiful cinematography. The races pump with adrenaline, sweat, oil and rain throughout leaving you on the end of your seat not just worrying about who will win but who will make it out alive.

You can always be the James Hunt, sometimes you have to be the Niki Lauda.

Friday, 7 February 2014

12 Years A Slave

Gruelling, unrelenting and difficult to watch all the way through to the final cut to black, 12 Years A Slave is one of those films that you don't get all too often. Tone wise, subject wise and quality wise, films that are easily comparable to The Shawshank Redemption aren't exactly ten a penny.

12 Years A Slave tells the real story of Solomon Northup (Chitwetel Ejiofor), an educated and free man in 1840s New York who is kidnapped and illegally sold into slavery where he was stripped of everything for a dozen years.

The film very quickly gets into the territory of hopelessness. Solomon is quickly stripped of his name, his identity and his entire self as he struggles to hide his true nature for fear of being treated differently by both his co-captives and his masters. A good slave is only good at one thing: working. Solomon's talents should betray his nature as a free man, but instead they only make him a tall poppy to be trimmed. He can think like an engineer, play the fiddle and read and write, all of which are his undoing at some point, showing how slavery would eventually deprive all its victims of anything that defines individuality.

The pain in experiencing 12 Years A Slave is twofold. The first is obviously the brutality of man's inhumanity to man. Michael Fassbender plays a truly awful slaveowner who sees his slaves as not only his property but as the playthings of his wife and himself. The cruelties which he, and most of the non-slave cast (bar two examples), visit on their victims are horrific and make for a harrowing watch. The second wave comes from the slaves themselves. Man's inhumanity to man only serves to breed yet more inhumanity. In a world where stepping out of line in any way is met with a lashing or worse, standing up for your fellow man becomes impossible. Eventually you have people sharing a common enemy turning on each other or, even more hurtfully, being indifferent to their co-captives' suffering. You end up with slave children playing tag only feet away from where a man hangs in a noose frantically trying to prop himself up and prolong his life.

The only problem with the rightful criticism of slavery in the tone of the film is the Chitewel's Solomon isn't supposed to be a slave. The main injustice of the film, as it is presented, is that a legally free man is stolen away from his family and illegally thrown into slavery. Not that the injustice is that anyone could be put in that position. The idea of the large scale inhumanity is only addressed in the closing scenes of the film, and quite hamhandedly done with one white man standing up to another to tell him off.  Solomon is presented as "better" and "different" than the rest of the slaves, and as such he's undeserving of his fate, where in reality none of them are. It works brilliantly as the singular story of the struggle one man goes through, but feels a little hollow in the bigger picture.

Technically though, it's pretty impeccable. The cinematography is beautiful, juxtaposing the ever sunkissed American South with cruel, visceral violence  creates an even more unsettling image than many slavery films can boast. Hans Zimmer's score manages to be almsot as emotionally effective as Ejiofor's powerful performance of a broken man surviving as best he can, and Steve McQueen's direction has created a number of emotionally affecting scenes that will be burned into the minds of many viewer's for a long time to come.

I'd prefer other films to win Best Picture at this year's Oscars, simply because this isn't my type of film, but 12 Years A Slave is a film that everybody should see. It's by no means a "enjoyable" watch, but it is a necessary one.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

American Hustle (2013)

David O. Russell's American Hustle (starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, among others) is only the second film since 1981 to be nominated for all four of the big acting Oscars. The other one was David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook in 2012, starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, among others. So it has a lot to live up to.

It's billed as a "crime comedy drama" film with five of the biggest names in starring roles (Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner and Jennifer Lawrence). That's a hell of a lot to have going on in one film. Three genres. Five stars. Two hours.

I'm all for ensemble casts where everything comes together to paint a wide landscape instead of a detailed portrait. It works especially well in crime films, just look at Ocean's Eleven and Inception (which is a heist film, I don't care what anyone says). The sprawling web-like nature of heists and long cons just works when you've got a lot of big personalities bouncing off each other in every scene, but you can take it too far. If Ocean's Eleven is like looking at a nice colourful Picasso, American Hustle's like staring down a harshly lit kaleidoscope while on acid. You know what you're looking at is pretty damn cool, but it's a bit too much and doesn't make all that much sense.

You get the impression that director, writers and producers weren't too proud of the central plot and just heaped more on top to obfuscate this problem. It's solid though: a pair of con artists (Bale and Adams) slip up and get caught by an FBI agent (Cooper) who uses them in an attempt to advance his career by giving them the opportunity to work with him in return for immunity. Of course, Cooper's ambition get them all in over their heads with some really dangerous players and there you go you've got a movie. But then you've got all their family lives, people falling in and out of love with people, except some of them are just pretending to fall in love, and oh yeah that person isn't even who they're pretending to be for about 80% of the movie and you completely forgot that and and and... it's just too much going on and not enough of it's engaging.

There's also an issue with the characters, fundamentally. They aren't likable, not a one of them. Films don't have to have stand up guys centre screen, in fact it's usually boring, but they do have to have something about them. Another Oscar nominated film you could tag as "comedy crime drama" does it perfectly. The Wolf of Wall Street's Jordan Belfort is a colossal asshole, I'm talking unrivalled levels of scumbaggery, but he's charismatic and fun to watch and it works. Pretty much everyone in American Hustle is just looking out for themselves and does so unremarkably. The only ones who don't look out of place; Louis CK, playing Cooper's FBI handler, is a deer caught in the headlights because he doesn't want to do something incredibly risky while surrounded by people who might as well play russian roulette over their cornflakes.

Where David O. Russell's last project succeeded so where American Hustle flops. In his fantastic Silver Linings Playbook, Bradley Cooper's Pat and Jennifer Lawrence's Tiffany can be downright vicious to each other, often saying things with enough venom to knock out a horse. But they can be so cruel to each other because it's justified. The tight focus in SLP gives you a glimpse into the downtrodden and broken heads of the pair and it all becomes completely understandable and even sympathetic. American Hustle just has a cast of dicks for no real reason.

Shifting away from the tight focus that made Silver Linings Playbook  so fantastic to watch was the fatal mistake for Russell in making American Hustle. The acting is all top notch and the basic bones of the plot are solid, but with all the extras piled on, the film becomes less than the sum of its parts. It's a literal five star film (just look at the poster) that comes out with a three star rating at best.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

Oscar season is well and truly upon us and with this year it's brought the renaissance of Matthew McConaughey with it in full force. McConaughey spent years and years just pumping out forgettable, popcorn rom-coms. I mean "Ghost of Girlfriends Past"? Really? But he recently took a stand. He said no to the shitty cash cows and said yes to films like The Lincoln Lawyer and Mud. He said yes to films like Dallas Buyers Club.

Set in the 1980s, Dallas Buyers Club gives us a hard view of the world. The men are men: they ride bulls in rodeos, get in fistfights, work hard out in the oilfields, they drink hard and they play hard. They most certainly don't get one of those "faggot" diseases like HIV. Unless, you know, they have continuous unprotected sex with multiple partners (of the opposite sex, of course), do a lot of intravenous drugs or do any of the other things that can lead to higher risks of contracting HIV other than homosexual activity. One such man in Ron Woodruff (McConaughey). His lifestyle takes its toll on him and he finds himself being given only thirty days to live because of the virus. His friends and everyone around him turn on him, casting him out of their lives completely because of their homophobia, intolerance and ignorance. Woodruff only isolates himself more by repeating these views on the only people he finds who might actually support him. Eventually he is driven to crossing the border to Mexico to find medical help for his condition and begins the start of this "buyers club" where he smuggles unapproved medicines into the US for himself and to sell to other sufferers.

But you can't sell to people you won't deal with. And the biggest group of HIV positive people in 1980s Dallas happen to be the gay community that Woodruff hates so much... which brings us to the other shining star here.

Jared Leto, world renowned rock star, actor and generally just amazing guy plays Rayon, Woodruff's gatekeeper to the community he despised so much at the start of the film. Leto's role as a transgender woman has been called bold, but it's not really. The film is set thirty years ago and people like Rayon have existed publicly much longer than that, and it's not as if Jared Leto is known for his conservative values. A straight man playing a transgender woman with a boyfriend isn't bold. It's acting. That's his job. What is bold is the performance. Rayon isn't defined by the gender identity issues, but by the compassion she has for fellow sufferers and especially the person helping them, even if he is initially quite confrontational.

The pair do something transformational together through the second and third acts of the film. Ron Woodruff starts as someone truly detestable, at least by our contemporary standards, he is just a product of his environment after all. But through seeing who his real friends are and what actual support and love really are. It's hard to pinpoint it exactly because it's a smooth transition, but it's easy to see that capitalism makes Ron accept people, but it's only kindness that can foster compassion.

Politically there's another string to Dallas Buyers Club's bow. It's a damning indictment of the US' healthcare system. Despite being set thirty years ago, the system is still largely the same, with the FDA being in the pocket of big pharmaceutical companies and using cartel-like bullying tactics to force people into using only the most profitable courses of treatment, not the most effective.

Dallas Buyers Club is a film about freedom in a number of ways. People are fighting for freedom and acceptance to be who they are, and people are fighting for the freedom to determine how they treat their own bodies. They're more successful in some aspects than others, but it all combines to be a compelling watch that packs a true emotional punch throughout. McConaughey pulls a truly great turn as Woodruff and comes full circle from a hateful, self-centred asshole  to a generous and giving man who accepts people for what they are and gives help that they need. Leto's supporting role might just be career defining. They're both fully deserving of their Oscar nominations for this film. It would be no surprise to see either awarded.