Thursday, January 30, 2014

Film Review: Out Of The Furnace (2014)

Russell (Christian Bale) is a steel worker who lives in the Rust Belt with his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), an angry young soldier who keeps getting ‘stop lossed’ back into the Iraq war.  Rodney has slipped into perpetual gambling in between his tours, and has resorted to borrowing money from John Petty (Willem Defoe), an underground boxing promoter who uses him in his fights.  

One night, Russell visits John to offer him some money for Rodney’s debt, and on the way home has a car accident and ends up in jail.  When he is eventually released, Rodney is in deeper than ever and goes missing whilst trying to earn money in a more dangerous, yet profitable bare-knuckle fighting circuit with the psychotic Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson).  This leads Russell to the Northeast to try and find his troubled brother…

The film is essentially a collection of metaphors that combine to create a damning critique of a bleak 21st century America.

Russell spends his time at the steel mill where he proudly works, a location that has many symbolic functions.  The rusted, functional architecture is a visual representation of the traditional American heartland that he feels keeps the country together; whilst shots of rusted steel, burning furnaces and billowing smoke towers reinforce the underlying tension and violence of the story.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Film Review: We Steal Secrets (2013)

We Steal Secrets

At its heart, We Steal Secrets is a story about stories.  The stories that we tell ourselves and the stories that we are told by authority figures.  The two men that are at the heart of these stories are both defiant and reactionary and both are trying to reveal an uncomfortable truth about the world they live in: One about the government and one about the military.

In 1991, Julian Assange was arrested in Australia for hacking a Canadian telecommunications company.  He eventually moved to Europe and founded the website Wikileaks, which had revolution as its mission statement.  At first he presented the idea that the site was populated with dedicated recruits that were organized and had their fingerprints all over the digital world, yet it was really just Julian working solo with a handful of mobile phones and IP addresses.

The unique selling point of the site was that it allowed users to dump unedited private data into the public domain with complete anonymity.  The software was designed to attract corporate, government and military whistleblowers to give information to a protected electronic forum, which could then be disseminated worldwide in order to encourage radical reform of corrupt institutions. Assange always believed that the truth would set us free.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Film Review: August: Osage County (2014)

August: Osage County

Films that are adapted from stage shows usually have two things in common; they contain talented ensemble casts and they revolve around a located family tragedy.  The new film from talented TV producer John Wells delivers both in large helpings in a blistering summer month in Osage County, Oklahoma.

The story begins with a confessional between the poetic elderly patriarch Beverley (Sam Shepherd) and his new Native American maid Johnna (Misty Upham).  He explains to her that she will mainly need to look after his wife Violet (Meryl Streep), who is suffering from mouth cancer and addicted to pills. 

Bev then goes missing one day, which prompts the return of their three daughters Barbara (Julia Roberts), Karen (Juliette Lewis) and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) – who each bring their prospective complicated love lives with them.  The resulting narrative twists all over as the family unleashes all manner of dark family secrets and pent-up darkness on each other almost all within the confines of the family home.  A beautifully staged soap opera that plays out in three acts...

Even though the plot is fanciful and excessive (essentially, all of the characters reveal a secret in turn over the space of two hours) it is a joy to watch due to the calibre of the acting talent – Chris Cooper plays a great rugged Midwest republican; Juliette Lewis plays up for the trashy and superficial middle-sister – but the two that have been rightly highlighted for award recognition are Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep: Onscreen arguments haven’t been this fun since Kate Winslet and Leo DiCaprio in Revolutionary Road.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Film Review: The Square (Jehane Noujaim) 2014

The Square

Documentaries about recent political/cultural history often have an internal dichotomy that shapes audiences viewing experience:  viewers remember the beginning and the end of an event, yet normally miss all of the important details that happen in between.  This gives documentaries an important socio-historical function, but at the same time can provoke heartbreaking empathy as viewers watch events unfold towards an inevitable conclusion of which they are already aware.

The Square tells the personal story of the Egyptians who witnessed the revolution of 2011 and the fall of Hosni Mubarak – the president/dictator who held power for 30 years.  The three main characters are: Khalid, a British-Egyptian actor who leaves London to join the revolution; Magdy, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and a religious democrat; and Ahmed, an articulate activist who believes in fierce and independent opposition to authoritarian rule.  There are also a number of other brave and dedicated men and women from different backgrounds who all predominantly and profoundly agree that an informed electorate should decide the future of Egypt.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Film Review: Pussy Riot - A Punk Prayer (Mike Lerner) 2013

Pussy Riot

On 21st February 2012, four women entered the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow dressed in bright clothes and neon balaclavas and sang a protest song, interrupting a church service.  This performance has since become a global news story with all kinds of people claiming that the event has become a symbol for something much larger than itself. Some see it as a return to Soviet religious persecution, some as a feminist call-to-arms, or an anti-Putin protest, or punk-terrorism… A new documentary tries to tell the story of the build up to the notorious act and then the aftermath and trial that came of it from all different points of view.

The main players in the scandal are Nadia, Masha and Katia – three intelligent, articulate, middle-class feminists who were put on trial for ‘disrupting society with an act of hooliganism [that is] motivated by religious hatred’.  They see what they did as simply “metaphor and art” – something that the state simply doesn’t understand.  The filmmakers give the women each a human backstory, something that has been refused of them by the press, and it is explained how they grew up interested in conceptual art and human rights.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Film Review: Cutie and The Boxer (Zachary Heinzerling) 2013

Cutie and The Boxer

For the past 60 years, New York has enjoyed a mythical status concerning bohemian artists and radical art exhibitions.  From Andy Warhol and his Pop Art Studio, to Jackson Pollock and his moody abstract expressionist drip paintings – New York has always been a centre for avant-garde artists.  No surprise then that it eventually became home to Ushio Shinohara; an eccentric neo-dadaist from Japan.

Shinohara gained attention in his home country for creating large found object sculptures that resembled the Pop Art that was thriving in the USA.  He also created his trademark ‘boxing paintings’ that he would create by dipping boxing gloves in paint and having a fight with a canvas.  He then settled in New York in 1969 only to meet his future wife Noriko, an art student.

The documentary, that has been lovingly filmed by Zachary Heinzerling, explores how the couple go about creating their individual art works, as well as telling a brief history of their relationship through animated sequences based on Noriko’s cartoon character Cutie.  The film culminates in a joint exhibition that is comprised of a main room full of Ushio’s anarchic ‘junk’ sculptures and an original backroom full of paintings of Cutie tenderly created by Noriko.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Film Review: Mission To Lars (James Moore, William Spicer) 2012

Mission To Lars

Fragile X syndrome is a hereditary learning disability that causes a combination of learning, social, language, attentional, emotional, and behavioral problems.  The name comes from a deficiency in the X chromosome – something that males have one of (XY) and females have two of (XX), meaning that it generally causes more problems in males.  The condition is the genetic equivalent of behavioural autism, effecting 1 in 4000 males and 1 in 8000 females with varying severity.  Mission to Lars is the story of one of those males.

Tom Spicer was diagnosed with Fragile X when he was in his teens and has led him to live in a care home called Bystock Court.  His younger brother Will became a filmmaker and his older sister Kate became a journalist.  When his siblings realized that they had begun to grow apart in their adulthood, they decided that they would give Tom an adventure.  One that he had spoken about for as long as they could remember:  to meet Lars.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Film Review: Dirty Wars (Rick Rowley) 2013

Dirty Wards

“The world is a battlefield, and we are at war”

I recently wrote an article about the representation of the Iraq War in Hollywood fiction and how American filmmakers had failed to reflect the long drawn-out conflicts in enough of their cinema.  For such a profoundly important subject matter, it surprises me how little fiction writers had explicitly written about it.

The opposite is true of documentary films – relying heavily on televisual broadcasting conventions, a huge number of non-fiction films were made to show ‘the realities’ of war that in fact did nothing more than over-saturate the audience with scenes of conflict and horror.  Dirty Wars is a work that combines Rick Rowley’s artful cinematography with Jeremy Scahill’s relentless determination to tell a story to create a harrowing, yet personal film about the last 10 years of American history.

The story that Scahill is trying to tell starts with a nighttime raid conducted by the United States army on a house in Gardez where an extended Afghan family is having a celebration.  That night, 7 people were killed including one man’s wife, sister and niece.  He later describes how the soldiers dug the bullets out of the bodies and disappeared back into the night – later a NATO press release would inaccurately described the fatalities as ‘honour killings’ carried out by the family on their own women.  Scahill testifies about this incident to the US congress but none of the congressman bother to show up…

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Oscar nominations 2014 announced

Twelve years ago, I started this blog to celebrate some of the brilliant films from 2012.  From independent films like Beasts of the Southern Wild to Silver Linings Playbook, to more mainstream successes like Django Unchained and Les Miserables – I thought that it had been a great year for American films.  I didn’t want to go back and review older films, only to look forwards to 2013.

Much to everyone’s delight, this last year has been widely accepted to have been even better for cinema…  I have already written about my ten favourite mainstream films, but today is the day where Hollywood insiders announce their nominations for the most prestigious awards ceremony of the year – the Oscars.

 Below is a list of the nominations for the big categories:

Best film



Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Film Review: The Wolf Of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese) 2014

The Wolf Of Wall Street
If there was one good thing about the financial crisis of 2007/8, then it is the abundance of good cinema that has come in its wake.  There have been a number of financial thrillers that have been directly inspired by the events: some of them gripping and insightful, like Margin Call and Too Big To Fail, some of them not so good, like Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and Arbitrage.  There have also been some excellent documentaries: Inside Job, Hank: 5 Years From The Brink, and The Flaw.  The Wolf Of Wall Street is definitely the best (black) comedy to be inspired by the crisis and is probably one of the funniest films of the year.

The story follows the rise and fall of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont.  Belfort is introduced as a hungry new broker at the highly prestigious investment bank L.F. Rothschild where he learns to cold-call rich clients and sell them stock.  He loses his job in Black Monday and gets a new job selling so-called ‘penny shares’ in backyard small-businesses to working class people who think they can make easy money.  The respectable investment bankers make 1% commission on every transaction but sales in penny shares earn 50% commission.  This factor leads Belfort to start his own company with a sycophantic, greedy crack-smoker called Donny (Jonah Hill) and trade higher and higher volumes of high-commission trades to vastly growing profits. 

Monday, January 13, 2014

Film Review: Blackfish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite) 2013


Exposé documentaries, of all subject matters, are usually relegated to television schedules.  There is something inherent within the televisual medium that perfectly propagates hour-long reporting of a scandal or a tragedy that has evolved over a clear legacy of broadcast news / non-fiction.  This proud heritage makes it even more poignant when an obvious exposé with such a televisual structure and subject matter crosses over to the cinema.

Blackfish tells the story of Tilikum, a 12,000-pound Orca Whale that performs at SeaWorld.  He was captured in the wild around Iceland in 1983 when he was just 2ft long and immediately transported to a small aquarium in Canada.  After a few years of captivity he was involved with the death of a trainer so was sold to SeaWorld, Orlando where he has been ever since.  Since he has been there though he has been involved in the death of two further people. 

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Film Review: 12 Years A Slave (Steve McQueen) 2014

12 Years A Slave

***Mild Spoilers Alert***

If questioned, most people would say that they went to the cinema in order to be entertained, and to laugh; or thrilled, and to be amazed or tricked into thinking that one outcome would occur in a story and then be pleasantly surprised when it turns out that an alternate outcome is more satisfying.  The new film from Turner prizewinning director Steve McQueen tells the harrowing and brutal true story of Solomon Northup, a free man sold into slavery in 1840s America.

Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a lower-middle class carpenter living with his wife and children in Saratoga New York.  Here he one day meets two travelling musicians who convince him to go to Washington to earn some money in a circus as he is a skilled fiddle player.  Here he is drugged, beaten and forced into slavery under the name ‘Platt’ and is transported down river to the South to be mercilessly sold.

At first he is bought by the relatively (!) sympathetic slaveholder ‘Master’ Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and forced to work with his carpentry skills.  Here he meets the stupid and sadistic Tibeats (Paul Dano) who humiliates him at every opportunity.  When an argument leads to Tibeats bringing some men to try and lynch Solomon, Ford is forced to transfer him to the drunken and violent Edwin Epps’ plantation where he has to pick cotton for years in an atmosphere of random violence and cruelty.  He is finally rescued with the help of a white Canadian worker (Brad Pitt) who manages to send a letter to Solomon’s family and friends in the North, who travel down to rescue him.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

BAFTA nominations announced...

The award nominations for the BAFTAs have been announced.  It is mostly accepted that 2013 has been a really good year for films and the awards season is looking like it could be quite unpredictable.

It is easy to dismiss the awards culture as vacuous and elitist, but it is undeniable that they help to shape the next couple of years of interest within the industry so it is worth keeping an eye on.

Some notable categories are:

Outstanding British film


Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom



Saving Mr Banks

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Film Review: American Hustle (David O. Russell) 2014

American Hustle

The first great film with a 2014 UK release goes to David Russell for his quirky follow up to last year’s Academy Award darling, Silver Linings Playbook.  A sexy ‘70s heist film with a smooth and jazzy soundtrack that essentially updates the Oceans Eleven model for the more urbane 2013/14 audiences.

The film is basically a pair of love triangles between four characters:  Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), a small-time conman that hustles people with the promise of large loans that never materialize; Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), his new girlfriend that joins the scams by pretending to be a wealthy British royal; Rosalyn Rosenfeld (Jennifer Lawrence), Irving’s wife and the mother of his child who likes to drink and be the centre of attention; and Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) an FBI agent who is trying to uncover corruption and is falling for Sydney (who he thinks is called Edith).

The backdrop of all of the romance is that Richie catches Irving and Sydney attempting to commit fraud so he forces them to help him in setting up a bribery bust with the mayor of New Jersey Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) and other politicians.  The plan originally involves offering money for much needed infrastructure development and ends up involving casino mobs and mysterious Middle Eastern Sheiks that are trying to reap the benefits off gambling licenses.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Film Review: The Canyons (Paul Schrader) 2013

The Canyons
It is hard to review a film that has been so widely criticised by the majority of film critics:  If you agree, then you run the risk of seemingly following the pack; if you disagree then you run the risk of being smugly contrary.  It makes it even worse when the film is written by one of your own personal literary heroes.  And I've had this film on my radar for months

I’ve been a massive fan of Bret Easton Ellis’ work for nearly 15 years.  His ever-widening fictitious universe is wonderfully complex and the experience of reading (and rereading) his fascinating novels is incredibly rewarding due to the strange boundaries of new each book.  Characters reappear in different books having relationships with unexpected people, and his world is full of casual drugs and casual sex.  The dominant theme that flows throughout seems to be ironic and ambivalent misunderstanding between friends and enemies.

The Canyons is the story of trust-fund rich twenty-something Christian (James Deen) who is funding a movie that his girlfriend Tara (Lindsay Lohan) is loosely involved with.  The lead role in the film has been promised to Ryan (Nolan Funk), who is dating Christian’s assistant Gina (Amanda Brookes).  We first meet the four over an expensive looking dinner where Christian reveals that he likes to introduce random couples (‘hook-ups’) he has found online into his and Tara’s sex life.  This seems to upset Ryan somewhat, and we soon find out that he has been having an affair with Tara.  As Christian begins to suspect the affair he becomes increasingly paranoid towards Tara and the motivations behind producing the movie.