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Steve Jobs

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Among the recent films centred on Apple’s late CEO, Steve Jobs is the best. Penned superbly by Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, Moneyball), and directed with flair and ingenuity by Danny Boyle, Steve Jobs humanises and presents rather ambivalently the personal and professional life of Jobs (Michael Fassbender) in three tightly wound acts, set at product launches in 1984, 1988, and 1998.

The three theatrical “backstage” acts heighten the sense of emotion in the film. Sorkin has written a clever biographical character study that feels urgent, without skimming on details. This is delivered via Sorkin’s trademark dialogue. Like Jobs’ tumultuous career, conversations change direction and tone just as quickly, as a friendly exchange can spiral into bitterness and hate. The best exchanges come between Jobs and former Apple CEO, John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), as their relationship skirts between father figure, business advisor, and vicious adversary.

Boyle’s direction is solid, keeping what is essentially a three-act play lively with visuals and tracking shots. As an added touch, DOP, Alwin H. Kuchler (Sunshine), films each period in different film stock (16mm, 35mm, and digital) to exemplify the advancement of Apple’s technology throughout the period. While this can add to the self-aggrandising of the product, Sorkin digs deeper into what made Jobs loved and hated by so many. Surprisingly, the emotional pull of the film lies in Jobs’ relationships with the central females in his life – his faithful head of marketing, Joanna Hoffman (a wonderful Kate Winslet), his one-time partner and mother of his child, Chrisann (Katherine Waterson), and his daughter (played by a different actress in each period). With a tremendous cast, a great script, and solid direction, Steve Jobs carefully balances capitalistic exaltation with Jobs’ more humanised flaws, brought to the screen in equal parts dazzle and heartbreak.

 

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The Hateful Eight

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The Hateful Eight is Quentin Tarantino’s eighth film and second western after the gleefully bombastic, Django Unchained. Despite occupying the same genre, The Hateful Eight couldn’t be more tonally or visually different than the 2012 hit. As the title suggests, Hateful doesn’t feature a cast of loveable rogues and it’s as dark and unrelenting as anything Tarantino has directed before.

The story has bounty hunter, John Ruth (Kurt Russell) transporting criminal, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the town of Red Rock to hang. Along the way John picks up Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and soon-to-be Sheriff, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins). This unlikely band are soon forced off the road by a raging blizzard and they take cover in Minnie’s Haberdashery, a small business run from a wood cabin. Inside they meet Bob (Demian Bichir), Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) and General Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern).

The Hateful Eight then spends most of its 167 minute runtime in said cabin, as characters reveal their pasts and true intentions through banter, monologues and telling reactions. It’s staged almost like a play, and the sense of mounting tension is genuinely gripping. The pace is deliberate, some might say slow, but it’s a testament to the director’s faith in his story and it’s faith well-placed. The third act of the movie features some of the most shocking, graphic violence on screen in recent memory. Set against the backdrop of the howling blizzard outside and Ennio Morricone’s haunting score, the tone is bleak indeed. Sure there are some laughs, big ones in fact, but it’s pitch black gallows humour that underlines rather than lightens the savagery on display.

Performance wise Kurt Russell is his most delightfully John Wayne-ish since John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China and Samuel L. Jackson delivers yet another stunning turn. However the two big surprise performances come from Walton Goggins and Jennifer Jason Leigh, who both do the best work of their already impressive careers.

The Hateful Eight isn’t a pleasant film, but it’s a brutally engaging one, the confident character work juxtaposes with the shocking bloodshed (and seriously, you haven’t seen a cabin this blood-soaked outside of an Evil Dead film) and racial subtext to create something quite unique and memorable. It certainly won’t be a film for everyone, but for those who can handle the brutality and nihilism, there’s a lot to love about The Hateful Eight.

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Cemetery of Splendour

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Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s first feature since his Palme d’Or winning, Uncle Boonmee Who Can’t Recall His Past Lives (2010), finds the director returning to his roots in what is his most personal, and narratively linear film to date. Cemetery of Splendour centres on Jen (Jenjira Pongpas), a middle-aged housewife and volunteer at a makeshift hospital situated in a disused school, which Jen attended as a child. Jen watches over and cares for Itt (Banlop Lomnoi) a handsome soldier plagued with a mysterious sleeping sickness. Through a young medium, Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram), Jen communicates with Itt, drawing a connection between the soldier’s condition and the spiritual site that lies under the hospital.

At once similar, yet strikingly different to Weerasethakul’s previous films, Cemetery of Splendour is that rare treat – a playful mix of history, politics, memory and dream, interwoven into a humorous synthesis of wakefulness and reverie, switching imperceptivity between the two. Imagery and dialogue move between the ancient and the mundane as Weerasethakul never loses his sense of humour. Although the film will be brandished in the ‘slow-cinema’ tradition, Cemetery never feels like a slog as it washes quietly over you, instantly engaging and thoroughly captivating.

Shot in the director’s hometown using many of the locals, Cemetery explores the rapidly changing social landscape, marked primarily by a strong military presence and encroaching globalisation. Weerasethakul explores these themes using memory – its function and how it’s shaped by experience. Utilising the eye of DOP Diego Garcia, Cemetery is filled with ever-shifting light, both natural and artificial. The neon light therapy used in the hospital extends to the dreams of soldiers. Natural landscapes shift in a similar manner as Jen and Itt shift spatially and temporally in their thoughts.

Both a film of resistance and an openly escapist experience, Cemetery of Splendour envelops you in immediate reverie, pulling you in with its quiet rhythms and cadences, be that of the omnipresent background hum of crickets, or the serene and tender exchanges between Jen and Itt. Weerasethakul’s incandescent heartbeat latches onto you like the childhood spirits he seeks out in the film, leaving you with a childlike sense of joy.

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Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

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Based on the sick-lit novel by Jesse Andrews, the ‘Me’ in the title alludes to seventeen-year-old loner Greg (Thomas Mann) who narrates his final year navigating the social battlefield that is high school; made even more arduous when his mother (Connie Britton) insists he befriend Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a girl from his old Hebrew class who has just been diagnosed with stage IV leukemia.

Greg’s social unease is evident when he describes himself as a pudding with a rat face. He has only one friend (or ‘co-worker’ as Greg prefers to call him), an African-American boy named Earl (RJ Cyler) whom he has known since the age of six. The duo’s friendship is founded in a mutual passion for making amateur art house films and their collective lenience toward exotic meats, which was introduced to them at an early age by Greg’s eccentric and cultured father (Nick Offerman).

Initially unenthused by Greg’s disingenuous offer of companionship, the reality of Rachel’s deteriorating health is brought to light through the platonic nature of their simple relationship. There are spectacularly cringe worthy black humour moments, particularly with Rachel’s seductively fragile and boozy mother (Molly Shannon).

Well cast and with clever dialogue, the film emulates the high IQ ‘quick wit’ of the summer indie flick Juno. Unpredictable camera work paired with the repeated stop motion animation interludes nicely compliment the aspirations of the endearing filmmaking teens. The glimpses we get of Greg, Earl and Rachel’s parents are both an accurate and charming view of the love and shortcomings inside a family home.

Me and Earl & the Dying Girl is a superb tearjerker that skilfully captures the vulnerability that comes with intimacy and the bittersweet inevitability of life and death.

 

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Carol

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Right from Todd Haynes’ highly original 1991 feature, Poison, it was apparent that this was a natural director with a great feel for cinematic language. Haynes doesn’t exactly crank them out; he hasn’t made more than a handful of films since (Velvet Goldmine, Safe, Far From Heaven, I’m Not There), but all of them have been well worth watching. Carol is an honourable addition to his oeuvre.

As a gay man, Haynes understands implicitly how society’s disapproval creates all kinds of problems for same-sex attracted people. For years, people remained “in the closet” and falsified their emotional lives just to fit in. This was even more the case in America in the fifties, when the film (based on a Patricia Highsmith novel) is set. Beautiful but mousy Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) works behind the counter of a posh department store in New York. When the stunning Carol (Cate Blanchett) waltzes into the shop, there is a sly but instant connection. Carol seems happy enough, but her marriage is flatlining, and she is now reckless or desperate enough to risk seducing the much younger Therese.

True to the spirit of Highsmith, domestic tensions hide something even more murderous underneath. At first, Carol feels that she can flout conventions, but she seriously underestimates the anger of those around her, and the lengths to which they will go. The film plays smoothly as period piece, but the sexual politics at its core are done with a light touch. Once again, Cate Blanchett is centre stage in a film-grabbing role. She doesn’t inhabit the part flawlessly though. Although her expressive face can register a dozen thoughts in a look, the physical passion is not very convincing. That said, it is a classy entertainment with a delicious combination of psychological manipulation and latent liberation.

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The Revenant

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Obviously wanting to spread his cinematic wings after the largely interior Birdman, Mexican writer/director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, goes into the wild with The Revenant, shooting almost entirely on location, and dragging forth a visually stunning but gruesomely primal tale of survival and revenge that recalls masters like Sam Peckinpah, Walter Hill, Werner Herzog, and Terrence Malick. In this mini-epic of dirt, grit, and blood, beauty and horror bash against each other at will, and the human spirit is revealed in all of its nobility and brutality. And at its centre is a group of actors who literally go to the bottom of the well to deliver a collection of highly committed, deeply felt performances that go beyond mere acting and push into something else altogether.

Working with limited dialogue, Leonardo DiCaprio wholly inhabits the character of Hugh Glass, an experienced wilderness tracker working as guide to a bedraggled crew of fur trappers plying their trade in The Rockies in the 1820s. After being mauled by a bear (in a staggeringly rendered scene of protracted, horrific violence and physical violation rivalled only by Monica Bellucci’s desecration in Irreversible), the barely alive and practically mute Glass is then betrayed and left for dead by Tom Hardy’s trapper, John Fitzgerald, a revoltingly insensitive and avaricious misanthrope who rates as one of the most despicable villains to metaphorically twirl his moustache in years. His body battered and eviscerated, the determined and highly skilled Hugh Glass then begins a long and torturous journey back to what passes for civilisation, where he hopes to have a few angry words with the aforementioned John Fitzgerald…

As a technical achievement, The Revenant is a work of art beyond compare. The images conjured by cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, are painterly but horribly immediate, bathed in natural light and literally shimmering off the screen. The special effects are expertly woven through this visual tapestry, with the CGI blending in seamlessly with the natural surroundings, creating a sense of breathless realism. And while not previously a proponent of action cinema, Inarritu crafts a number of set pieces that will blow audiences back in their seats, with an early attack on the trappers by a Pawnee tribe rattling with a Saving Private Ryan-style mix of horror, confusion, and body-blasting violence. At 156 minutes, however, The Revenant is tough going, and screams out for a judicious edit. Hugh Glass’ journey is a long and painful one, and at times, the film mirrors that too intently, with this broken but dogged mountain man’s litany of hardships becoming almost unbearable to witness. When he climbs into a gutted horse carcass for warmth, the damage is near irreparable. But with that agony comes equal ecstasy: it might be an endurance test, but the rewards of The Revenant are plentiful. This is big, brave, and borderline deranged filmmaking, reaching with arms outstretched for the heavens while its boots are stuck in the mud and the muck.

 

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Sisters

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The hipsters got their party movie with The Great Gatsby, the kids got to drain the keg in Project X, and now the fortysomethings have their turn at the bar with the gut-busting Sisters, the new comedy vehicle for Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Walking the same raunch-plus-relatability-and-heart territory as Trainwreck and Bad Neighbours, this foul-mouthed thigh-slapper lets its gifted leading ladies off the leash, and offers new comic delights from both, as they effectively swap their traditional roles, with the usually buttoned-down Fey playing the wild child to Poehler’s peppy but uptight stiff.

When their parents (the impossibly handsome James Brolin and the utterly charming Dianne Wiest) sell their family home, sisters, Maura (Poehler) and Kate (Fey), decide to have one final blow-out, getting all of their high school friends and enemies (including John Leguizamo’s sleazy lech, and Maya Rudolph’s bitchy diva) back together for an age-defying smoke, snort, and guzzle fest. The party starts off slow, but eventually gets buckwild, allowing for dazzling comic interplay from regular collaborators, Poehler and Fey, who get their best big screen showcase here, riffing and improvising at will, as a host of comic scene stealers (most notably Poehler and Fey’s Saturday Night Live cast mate, Bobby Moynihan, and WWE superstar, John Cena) spins around them. Even Poehler’s standard love interest is given real comic life thanks to the funny and disarming everyman charm of Ike Barinholtz (The Mindy Project, Eastbound & Down).

Winningly and often filthily scripted by big screen debutante, Paula Pell (Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock), and zippily directed by Jason Moore (Pitch Perfect), the admittedly slight Sisters is a dirty delight, with Poehler and Fey proving that they can drop queef and taint jokes with just as much ribald precision as Amy Schumer or any of the other comic-crown-chasers out there. Fresh, funny, and heartfelt, Sisters makes up for what it lacks in plot with a rolling succession of tear-inducing jokes and a gaggle of hard-partying characters that you would actually want to buy a drink for.

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