Review: A Place Beyond the Pines

21 Apr


Derek Cianfrance’s latest film sees another silent and brooding Ryan Gosling as a daredevil stunt biker at a local carnival who turns to robbing banks, using his bike skills to get away from the police. There seems to be something similar here. Fortunately, though the film doesn’t actually turn out to be Cianfrance’s re-hash of Drive. It is similarly bleak and slow moving, but as it plays out, it opens up a series of deeper and more poignant events.

After discovering that he has a baby boy that his lover (Eva Mendes) has hidden from him, Luke (Gosling) turns to crime in the hope of supporting him. Eventually though the law catches up with him in the form of the cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), which concludes the first ‘act’ of the film. A tattooed Gosling plays his mysterious and often desperate role frenetically and phenomenally, whilst unfortunately completely outclassing Cooper. The charming pathos Gosling brings to a rough edged biker is captivating. However, Cooper plays his part well in the dubious cop squad, which naturally would not be complete without a menacing Ray Liotta.

The story unfolds with tension and a perfectly floating pace, being complimented perfectly by beautiful shots and compositions. From the moment the camera tracks Gosling from behind at the start, the film is subtle in its visual brilliance. Perhaps just on the right side of artsy, the skill of the direction shows in the shots, creating a wonderful aesthetic. The ominous soundtrack adds to this aesthetic as it accentuates the tension and sinister tone of the film, making the whole experience unsettling at times. It can be quiet and understated when it wants to be, whilst building a raucous intensity exactly at the crucial moments.

The overall tone is captivating and ideal for the subject matter it frames. Various themes are developed throughout as the effects of absent parents and the ensuing psychological damage are shown. Although the events might be overly contrived by the ending, the film ultimately shows the viciously cyclical nature of poverty and abandonment. It shows that one action taken in the heat of the moment, one mistake, can have disastrous and amplified consequences in the future.

What starts out slow and focused, eventually moves into a story that is truly epic. There is a feeling of wide scope through the latter half of the film, which perhaps justifies its length. However, it never drags, maintaining its eerie and slightly empty feeling towards the end and right through the credits, which is guided through by the delicate melancholy of Bon Iver’s falsetto.


Bourne separate, never to Bond together

7 Jan

Here is a long overdue article I wrote with my co-editor for the film section of the Edinburgh Student Newspaper. Around the release of Skyfall, we decided James Bond should square up to the rival spy thriller franchise star Jason Bourne. Decide who won in a comment below?

It was originally published on Tuesday 13th November 2012 in the Student.


26 Film

A Day in the Life of the Toronto Film Festival

19 Sep

STAR GAZING: Film fans hope for a glimpse of the biggest names in Hollywood

Standing in the press and industry rush line at 7.30AM on a Monday morning is certainly an experience. The combination of overtiredness from the film last night that finished at 1AM and the loud, obnoxious American press type repeatedly screeching “Is this the line-up for The Master?!” is dazing. The unchanging reply from the patient volunteer is a weary “Yes, but we’re trying to organise four films at the same time, so please hang on”.  The queue, stretching nearly a block, is full of members of the press and the film industry, hoping to be lucky enough to get into a screening of Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest offering, reportedly a look into the world of what may or may not be scientology, – its never explicitly mentioned, – featuring Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix. One of the most talked about films of the Festival, with its cast, direction and subject matter, The Master has heaps of promise. The anticipation is building. But the chances of getting in are slim, unless you’re eager enough to line up an hour and half before the film starts, which a surprising number are. An official looking woman – she has a headset so she must be official – does periodic checks of the line. After about an hour, she comes by again, this time announcing, “The Master is full. No more seats for The Master”. The remainder of the line collectively sigh.

This is a typical festival experience for press screenings of the really high profile films, but doesn’t dampen the mood in the slightest. It is to be expected. There are at least half a dozen films playing at the same time across the city that you can “rush” for, most with a much higher chance of admittance. In the centre of downtown, the festival ‘village’, it feels like there is a venue on every corner with theatres and lecture halls alike being turned into temporary cinemas. As the largest public film festival in the world, and only behind Cannes in terms of prestige, the buzz around the city is palpable.  People flock from around the world to take part in the cutting edge of films and filmmaking and it really shows. The city definitely has its fair share of glamour as celebrities are seen casually strolling around.  Star watching abounds, so if you’re at all lost and stumble across a swarm of people with cameras, you’re probably in the right place. The premieres of Looper and Argo were swarmed with fans and carried all the glitz of the red carpet with them.

The ticketed public screenings bring this fervour into the cinema with plenty of applause and enthusiasm. Being crowded though it’s quite hard to find a seat, but it’s worth it when there happens to be Joss Whedon and the cast of his modern adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing sitting a few seats across. That is a highlight of the public screenings, as in nearly all cases the directors and actors please the crowd with a live question and answer session after the film. And even if there are some unfamiliar faces, it’s still a great experience. Contrast these to the press screenings and the two sides of the Festival are clearly shown. The casual nonchalance and haughty look of the critic is hugely different from the applause at almost anything of the forgiving public. Both are great despite their differences. At the press screenings it’s easy to enjoy the film quietly, it’s just sometimes you end up being ‘that guy’ who’s awkwardly clapping at the end.

So following rejection from The Master, the only thing to do is to consult the Bible: the complete film schedule of all screenings during the Festival. After scanning the programme, the best bet looks to be a German film set during the Cold War; The Shores of Hope. The brilliance of the Festival is the mix of big Blockbusters and smaller art house films, so in amongst the big names, you can find hidden gems. The Shores of Hope was not quite a gem, more of an old rare coin. Featuring a good cross section of the Inglourious Basterds cast, it is part prison drama and part espionage thriller. A good enough story and intense at its best, but it is no The Lives of Others. But when you see a few films a day, for a week, not all of them are going to be Oscar winning. The sheer volume is definitely a big draw of the Festival and there will plenty more big names and big screenings, so bring on next year! But just one tip: when they say, “arrive early to avoid disappointment”, heed that advice.

TIFF Review: Imogene

13 Sep

“Oh my god it’s Darren Criss!”, “I love you Darren!”, “Darren you’re my inspiration!”. These are the squeals outside the theatre. Apparently someone called Darren Criss is in this film?

Quirky and endearing seems to be the new cool in comedy, or at least it certainly proved a good formula in films like Juno and Superbad. In this respect Imogene is no different. The film opens with a feisty younger Imogene rehearsing a school production of The Wizard of Oz and telling her teacher that Dorothy’s longing for home is a bit ‘provincial’. After this both endearing and funny beginning we are shown a thirty-something Imogene (Kristen Wiig) who is far from home and her sassy younger self. Facing an out of the blue break up and a general life crisis, she stages a suicide attempt in the hope that her man will come rushing back to her side. Unfortunately, things don’t go exactly to plan and she ends up being taken care of by her gambling addict mother (Annette Bening) and doing some soul searching.

Kristen Wiig puts in an endearing comedic performance in the lead role and delivers the sharp dialogue with great timing, making Imogene a genuinely funny light-hearted comedy. Darren Criss also features, in his big screen debut, as the quintessential antagonist turned love interest. He works well opposite Wiig and they make a good pairing. Of course they find time to put Criss’ musical talents to use, which will definitely be well received by the teenage girl demographic.

The film continues the trend of quirky and borders on the ridiculous at times, steering itself to an inevitably typical heart-warming conclusion. The main drive is the characters and the script rather than the plot; the underlying drama doesn’t really deliver, while pieces of the story are cast aside and picked up when it suits the moment rather than being consistently relevant. However, the comedy helps the plot to drift along happily until the end.

TIFF Opening Night: Looper Premiere

9 Sep

The opening night premiere for the Toronto Film Festival this year was an odd choice. Apparently they usually choose a reasonably conventional Canadian film, however this time it was a full on American guns blazing action sci-fi thriller. So it was a bit of a difference to say the least. However, it manages to mediate some of the action with an interesting futuristic concept. We are introduced to a group of heartless assassins known as ‘loopers’ who are hired to kill people who have been sent back from the future and then dispose of the body. Thirty years ahead of the setting of the film time travel has been invented and has been made illegal. But it is still used by an underground organisation to send back the people they want taken care of, so there is no trace of them, as it’s supposedly easier to hide a body in the past.

So it’s slightly confusing but sounding good so far. There’s one catch though. At some point the loopers inevitably get called in to ‘close their loop’. This catchy buzz phrase means that their future self gets sent back and they have to kill themselves, in a manner of speaking. The film follows one looper in particular, Joe (Joseph Gordon Levitt), who gets told to close his loop, but when the time comes to kill his future self (Bruce Willis) he starts to get cold feet.

The concept is pretty clever, which helps the film to reach beyond the average action flick, though the walking action figure himself Bruce Willis manages to put in a hallmark bad man performance. He pulls out plenty of badass moves taking down countless cronies with plenty of automatic weapons on his mission to escape death. He is rock solid opposite Gordon Levitt who puts in a similarly rugged yet troubled performance. Both are masters of the furrowed brow.

The world created for the film is a classic dystopia, with plenty of menace and cool little gadgets, like hover-bikes and phones that can change shape. In fact it’s got all the trimmings of a sinister futuristic world gone wrong: shotgun wielding hit men, drug abuse and strip clubs. It has the feel of a cult sci-fi movie that’s been packaged in Hollywood wrapping paper. There is clear influence from Philip K. Dick, particularly Blade Runner, which the director Rian Johnson is not afraid to admit. The film draws on these influences and makes them its own, delivering just as much intensity. The suspense is broken up nicely though with flashes of humour that shows a self-awareness of the occasional over the top ridiculousness.

So despite some of its controversy, Looper manages to throw together a spectacular blend of comedy, story, sci-fi concepts and people blowing of each other’s heads off with shotguns. Science fiction has had a bad rap lately, often favouring flashy visuals over substance. Looper harks back to the good old days of noir thrillers set in the future, whilst putting in a high score on the IQ test while it’s at it.

The cast and director

TIFF Review: Anna Karenina @ TIFF Bell Lightbox

8 Sep

At first glance it seems Joe Wright’s staple concoction of classic literature, period costumes and a pouting Keira Knightley has been poured all over Tolstoy’s canonical work. Certainly all of these ingredients are still there, but they have been mixed in a slightly different way this time. The work is still a classic, the costumes are still prim and yes Knightley is still pouting, however Wright has managed to add a twist. Most of the film is framed with staging as if the action is taking place in a theatre, so the whole film looks and feels like a stage production. This touch is an interesting high concept adaptation of the Russian text.

The basic story is preserved, with Knightley as the adulterous Anna Karenina who succumbs to her passions, having an affair with Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and ultimately being ostracised by her society and cuckolded husband (Jude Law). The main thrust of the story is highly emotional and dramatic, but the focus is slightly drawn from this and more onto the costumes, dancing and sensationalised love scenes. The themes of divine love and love of the appetite are actually helped by these moments, but border on the ostentatious. However, amidst the glamorous set and Keira Knightley’s slightly ajar lips, Jude Law really stands out as the reserved and dejected Alexei Karenin. Similarly, to his credit, Aaron Johnson continues to show his versatility by putting in a good performance as the boyish count.

The main interest of this adaptation though is Wright’s use of the slightly fantasy stage world the film is set in. The clever scene changes help to drive the story and prevent the film from getting weighed down by its own period costumes. The theatrical feel also adds to the drama of the plot and inventive uses of freeze-frames add to the intensity almost turning it into melodrama. Although the use of staging is not entirely consistent, it does help to show the artifice and façade of Russian high society. So the scenes in the open air feel more domestic and private, a place where the characters are allowed to be honest with each other and themselves.

The film reimagines a classic novel in an inventive fashion, breaking the trend of prim costumed period dramas. Knightley, Law and Taylor-Johnson make a compelling love triangle, and manage to rack up the emotional intensity, which is as a whole is highly compelling. What it lacks in subtlety it makes up for in captivating visual spectacle.

TIFF Bell Lightbox

An Introduction to the Toronto Film Festival

6 Sep

Not that this world-renowned festival needs much introduction, but for those who don’t know the Toronto International Film Festival is probably the largest public film festival in the world. Behind Cannes, it is the most important film event in the calendar year. The main draw of the festival is that not only do the stars and starlets of the industry make an appearance, but this festival is open to the general public to come and witness the latest world premieres and rub shoulders with the celebrities. Over the course of 10 days some of the biggest blockbusters to the smallest shorts will be showcased for the press, the public and the world. Not only is this the place where you can ‘see it first’, but some of these films will never be seen again, as filmmakers negotiate with distributors to get their films seen over the world. The Toronto Film Festival is an exciting place to be and looks to really be a film fan’s festival. The influence of the festival has been really prominent in recent years, as the last 5 Oscar winners for Best Motion Picture were screened in Toronto.

And the best part of all this? I will be attending the festival this year as a student journalist! Its the first day of the festival today and there is buzz in around the theatres and queues already forming. Hopefully there will be plenty of films seen and many reviews to follow them.



The Genius of David Fincher

1 Apr

Dark, thrilling, highly stylish, yet always perfectly shot, David Fincher’s impressive portfolio of films never fails to impress. Known for twisting tales and often-twisted characters, he has directed three detective thrillers, but all of his films have a shadowy thread running through them. Even his instant remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo manages to enhance the macabre tone of the original, if that’s actually possible.

At the heart of Fincher’s films are fundamentally gripping and intense stories, which are done justice to every time by the direction and cast. One of his first major successes was the 1995 crime thriller Seven featuring both Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman as dynamic detective duo. A chilling Kevin Spacey brings to life a serial killer who commits gruesome murders in the style of each of the seven deadly sins. The horrifying crime scenes show Fincher’s willingness to use uncomfortable material to ask serious moral questions. The dark and dingy feel of the film culminates in a staggering and shocking twist by the end, which captures his mastery of storytelling. The film-with-a-twist is a subtle creature that Fincher has managed to perfect in Seven and in Fight Club. Using excellent source material from a novel by Chuck Palahniuk, the film once again shows one of the director’s specialties. Starting the film with shots from its ending sets up the film somewhat enigmatically, but when the threads are finally woven together at the film’s denouement it gives you a breath-taking finale. Originally taken by a poor critical reception, the film’s intense look into consumerism and existential crisis has now developed a huge cult following; Edward Norton’s iconic interior monologue being quoted all over the blogs of cinephiles.

More recently, Fincher continued with the theme of detective thrillers about serial killers with Zodiac. A step up from seven, the film is an adaptation of the saga of real serial killer who went by the name ‘The Zodiac Killer’. The killer was at his peak in the 1970s and would call in to newspapers and have them print a code that, if cracked, would reveal the details of his next crime. A cleverly twisted premise, Fincher’s heart must have skipped a beat when we discovered the story. The material is perfect for deeply psychological battle between a cartoonist at one of the papers whose entire existence becomes consumed with the killer and his codes. To this day the killer has never been officially been apprehended, so it his or her identity is still ambiguous, making the film all the more intense.

Taking a brief break from the shocking and unnerving mass murderer genre in 2010, Fincher directed the adaptation of the inception and rivalries behind Facebook. Showing his mastery of filmmaking, a divergence from his usual type of movie managed to expose an intimate and revealing, if a bit factually dubious, story of the success behind the world’s biggest social networking site. As with all his work, the film brings to life an already fascinating story, with a dash, as ever, of shades of darkness.

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