Tuesday, 24 June 2014

The Fault in our Stars - A Review

The film adaptation of John Green’s wildly successful The Fault in our Stars already looks set to be the big cry-your-heart-out hit of the summer. Fans of Green’s novel can rest easy knowing that the film stays incredibly close to its source material; it is sad yet funny, enjoyable yet thought-provoking. Whilst it is hardly going to become an instant classic, it is almost certainly something which will leave viewers thankful for having experienced.

The Fault in our Stars
Shailene Woodley stars as Hazel Grace Lancaster, an intelligent, caring sixteen year old who falls for Ansel Elgort’s confident, striking Augustus Waters. The twist?  They both have cancer. What is refreshing about The Fault in our Stars, however, is that it is not a story about two cancer patients who fall in love, it is a story about two teenagers who fall in love, who just so happen to have cancer. The characters’ illnesses are certainly not shied away from – Augustus is shown to be an amputee and there is no scene in which Hazel is able to breathe without the aid of her cannula – but what the film makes abundantly clear is that they are people not patients, defined by their choices and actions, not by their treatments and disabilities.  

The strongest performance by far is that of Woodley, whose vivacity is delicately counterbalanced with an impending sense of her own mortality. There are very few actresses, especially of Woodley’s age, who would have been able to give such a strong performance in so challenging a role; her ability, however, to do so proves that there is no fault in this star, and she will undoubtedly shine bright for years to come.

No fault in this star: Shailene Woodley as Hazel Grace Lancaster
Despite only playing a minor role, the other standout performance belongs to Nat Wolff, who is brilliantly intense and genuinely funny as the recently single, newly-blind Isaac. Laura Dern and Sam Trammel both deliver solid performances as Hazel’s parents, as does Willem Dafoe in his portrayal of the troubled, world-weary Peter Van Houten whom Hazel so greatly admires. It is only Ansel Elgort whose work occasionally leaves something to be desired. It is, on the whole, decent, but it is unfortunately flecked with odd moments where his lack of experience is apparent.
There are numerous occasions where the film suffers from poor dialogue and veers too far into the realm of pretentiousness; Gus’s heavy-handed, scraping-the-barrel cigarette metaphor is eye-roll worthy to say the least. However, these are criticisms which are better levelled at Green’s book, and so on this front the film may be forgiven. There are, unfortunately, pacing issues which seem to stem from remaining a little too faithful to the novel, which results in it feeling slightly slow and flat in places. Moreover, there are also times, particularly in the final third, where the dramatic beats begin to feel rather like churned-out ‘weepy’ scenes. Though it must be noted that Woodley’s acting in these ‘weepies’ is so moving that, on this front, too, the film may also be forgiven.

The Fault in our Stars is flawed, but certainly worth experiencing.
Alhough it is unmistakably marketed towards a teen audience, The Fault in our Stars is one of those films which people of all ages will be able to enjoy; however, those who will arguably find it most rewarding are those who have followed Green for a number of years. In his YouTube videos he has spoken at great length and with greater frequency about the people and the novels which have influenced him most, and for those familiar with Green it is easy to chart these influences throughout the course of the film. (The debt it owes to The Catcher in the Rye, for example, is unmistakable.) The transition from seeing Green speak about these influences in pixelated videos in one corner of the internet to seeing them actually at work on the big screen in an internationally-successful film speaks volumes about just how far his career has come in such a relatively short period of time.

There is one scene in the film which sees Hazel and Gus display their fondness of a quotation in Van Houten’s novel An Imperial Affliction: “Pain demands to be felt.” The Fault in our Stars, despite its flaws, and if only for the stellar performance of Woodley, is a film which demands to be seen.


Saturday, 29 March 2014

Disney's Frozen - A Review

It is no secret that, throughout the 2000s, Disney struggled to match the cinematic heights it reached in the 1990s. Lacklustre efforts such as Treasure Planet and Home on the Range paled in comparison to previous critical and commercial juggernauts such as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, and increasingly Disney began to look as though it was forever destined to chase its own shadow. However, the release of Frozen, the company's 53rd and most recent animated feature, loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen, shows that Disney is still capable of producing films as great as - if not better than - the classics which made it so well-loved in the first place.

Disney's Frozen
Elsa (Idina Menzel) is the queen of the Nordic kingdom of Arendelle. Since she was a child, she has been forced to hide her cryokinetic powers, and indeed herself, from the world. However, when she accidentally reveals her powers to her subjects, she flees to the mountains and unknowingly leaves Arendelle trapped in an eternal winter. Her sister Anna (Kristen Bell) therefore takes it upon herself to find her so that together they can save the kingdom from its fate. A story of princesses and magic and heroic journeys, this is a truly epic tale and a reversion to what Disney has always done best. But one of the things that makes Frozen so wonderful is that, despite its incredible scale, it is unabashedly a story about sisterly love. Anna's great quest to bring Elsa back to the kingdom, whilst an undoubtedly compelling and entertaining adventure, is at its core a metaphor for her attempt to reconnect with her sister after years of Elsa's self-imposed isolation. This focus on the power of love is perhaps the ultimate reversion to what Disney has always done best, and Frozen is certainly all the richer for it.

It would be difficult to talk about any Disney film without talking about its soundtrack, and Frozen is no exception. Whilst Chrisophe Beck's score is atmospheric, it is, unfortunately, largely forgettable. However, the original songs, written by the husband-and-wife Broadway veterans Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, are what help make Frozen unforgettable. Of the nine songs written for the film, three in particular standout. Do You Want To Build A Snowman? is a beautiful composition which captures the innocence of childhood and blends it with the tragedy of loss. For The First Time In Forever is a joyful, uplifting, and in places genuinely funny tune which masks an underlying loneliness. But it is Let It Go which towers above all the other songs, and which, with over 160 million views on YouTube at the time of writing, must surely have secured its place amongst the greatest Disney songs ever written. A showstopping power ballad about freedom and self-acceptance, it is both the highlight of the film and one of the best few minutes of cinema to grace our screens in the past year. The fact that Frozen was substantially rewritten after Let It Go was composed is a testament to just how remarkable a song it is.

Elsa finally embraces her powers during the stunning Let It Go sequence.
One of the best things about Frozen is its cast. Idina Menzel's performance as Elsa is, particularly in the first 30 or so minutes, decidedly controlled, which makes her unrestrained, powerhouse delivery of Let It Go all the more effective. Kristen Bell as Anna is warmth personified, and handles her comedic lines as deftly as she does her more serious ones. However, it is undeniably Josh Gad's portrayal of Olaf, the snowman that Elsa brings to life with her powers, that stands out. There is something inherently funny about a snowman who dreams of experiencing summer, and Gad revels and excels in every comic beat he's given. There is also an innocence and earnestness to his voice which means that by the time he delivers lines like "Some people are worth melting for," the only things melting faster than Olaf are viewers' hearts.

The animation itself is nothing short of spectacular. Though die-hard fans of 'Old Disney' might lament the lack of traditional hand-drawn animation (not seen since 2009's The Princess and the Frog), Frozen undoubtedly espouses the benefits of a more CGI-heavy approach. Arendelle, in all its icy glory, is gorgeously realised, Elsa's ice palace makes The Little Mermaid's underwater castle look downright shabby, and certain moments, such as when Elsa uses her powers to construct her palace, or when she runs up the mountain whilst simultaneously forging the very steps she climbs, just sing. Frozen has undoubtedly set the bar for animation very, very high indeed.

Animation at its very finest.
The forging of the ice palace. Frozen sets the bar for animation very high indeed.

In so many ways, Frozen is a huge leap forward for Disney. Finally, the company seems to have stopped trying to utilise old tropes to recreate past successes. Instead, it is embracing the progressive, 21st century world and has produced a film with modern ideals but with the same warmth and spirit of the films which preceded it. Gone are the days when the heroine needed a dashing prince to rescue her. Far in the past is a time when marrying a prince you've barely even met is the norm (indeed, the film actually mocks this outdated notion). Instead, Frozen is a film co-directed by Disney's first female director, Jennifer Lee. It champions self-acceptance and self-empowerment, and highlights the importance of familial love without wholly scorning romantic love. There's even the inclusion of what may just be Disney's first ever gay family (in the form of Oaken, his partner, and their children). Given how progressive and forward-looking it is, it's worth, as a final note, thinking about what Frozen means for the future of Disney. It is, at present, undoubtedly a modern-day continuation of the Disney Renaissance of the 90s. Even more promisingly, though, it is proof that Disney's brightest days are far from over. In the future, Frozen may well be looked upon less as a continuation of the old Disney Renaissance and more as the harbinger of a new one. If this is the case, moviegoers, young and old alike, are in for a very special few years indeed.


Elsa and Anna, two refreshingly modern Disney princesses.
Frozen is out on DVD and Blu-Ray on Monday.

Friday, 10 January 2014

12 Years A Slave - A Review

"I don't want to survive; I want to live." This, in a nutshell, is the plight of Solomon Northup, the protagonist of Steve McQueen's outstanding historical epic 12 Years A Slave. Adapted from the autobiography of the real-life Northup, the film chronicles his tragic story, beginning with his kidnap as a free black man from New York and following him as he is forced into an unflinchingly brutal life of slavery in the pre-Civil War South. 12 Years A Slave is not upbeat, nor is it particularly comfortable to watch, but it is so superb that it is undoubtedly the film to which all future depictions of slavery will be compared for a long time to come.

Steve McQueen's 12 Years A Slave
McQueen's direction is a masterstroke. He begins the film by seamlessly interweaving between Northrup's past life as a free man, where he is happy as a husband, father and musician, and his current life as a slave, shackled, mistreated, and denied even the basic right of his name. The juxtaposition is extremely effective. The knowledge of his eventual enslavement casts an impending sense of doom over the scenes of his free life; however, at the same time, the brief glimpses that McQueen provides into Northrup's free life make his kidnap that much worse. Furthermore, his trademark use of long, holding shots are also used to great effect. An early scene in which Northrup is savagely beaten, first with a paddle then with a belt, for protesting his innocence is depicted in one take. Similarly, a scene in which Northrup dangles from a tree, supporting himself only with the tips of his toes whilst other slaves calmly pass by in the background, is also shot in a single take. There is even a scene in which brutal floggings are relegated to the unfocused background of a shot of slaves picking cotton.The result is effective but also incredibly unsettling, for it provides the scenes not just with a sense of helplessness but also a sort of 'matter-of-factness', reminding the audience of the characters' casual acceptance of such horrific examples of inhumanity.

The film would not be what it is without the performances of three of its actors. Chiwitel Ejifor, of course, playing Northup is remarkable to watch, able to convey 12 years of pain and despair in a single look of his eyes. He lends his character a grittiness and steely determination as well as a gentle softness, which combine to make him someone with whom it is almost impossible not to empathise. Even more impressive is the interplay between Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps, Northrup's second and sadistically vicious slave master, and Lupita Nyong'o, the hardworking, beautiful slave Patsey, to whom Epps is strongly attracted. In many ways the two performances are dichotomous. Fassbender, on the one hand, plays Epps with an incredible intensity, capturing every ounce of inner conflict and self-hatred that his character experiences, and giving off the impression that his built-up rage is ready to explode at any moment. Nyong'o's performance, on the other hand, is far more understated but equally as impressive. On the surface, a face of acquiescence; beneath, a woman being torn apart by repeated rape (at the hands of Epps) and the cruel hostilities of Epps's jealous wife. In fact, so astonishingly compelling is Nyong'o's performance that it is hard to believe that this is only her first major acting role. Her star will almost certainly burn bright for a long time to come.

Lupita Nyong'o is superb as Patsey.
Hans Zimmer's score, as always, is perfect. Though there are a number of arrangements of slave songs and folk music throughout the film, it is the main theme, Solomon, which stands out. In a fitting reference to Northrup's musical talents, it uses violins to create a poignant, sad, but fundamentally hopeful piece which succeeds in capturing the very essence of its namesake. All the scenes within 12 Years A Slave are brilliant, but the ones which feature this swelling Zimmer theme are made exceptional by it.

Though there is much violence within the film, it never feels gratuitous (the same cannot be said for last year's well-received slavery film, Django Unchained). The most brutal display of it occurs in what is also the most powerful scene: when a furious Epps, unable to do so himself (at least at first), forces Northrup to flog a stripped and bound Patsey to within an inch of her life. Nyong'o's resignation, Fassbender's fury, and Ejiofor's realisation that, after years of fighting to retain it, he is losing his humanity with every lash of the whip is deeply, deeply affecting and could make even the most hard-hearted of viewers weep.  

Chiwitel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender in 12 Years A Slave.
12 Years A Slave appears to be the slavery film that Hollywood had, until now, been too afraid to make. It does not shy away from its horrors, nor does it pretend that humanity was able to triumph in the face of such evil. It is a profoundly moving piece of film, and by the time the final scene faded to black in the showing I saw, many in the cinema were openly weeping. Quite simply, if McQueen's masterpiece does win Best Picture at this year's Oscars, it will be an injustice.


Thursday, 9 January 2014

American Hustle - A Review

Once again the film awards season is fast approaching, and one film that already looks poised to do well is David O. Russell's American Hustle. Following hot on the heels of Russell's last offering, the superb Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle features an all-star ensemble cast of Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner and Jennifer Lawrence, and provides a black comic take on a real-life sting operation from the 1970s which resulted in the conviction of several elected government officials. The plot itself is slow-moving, overlong and, at times, predictable, but what makes American Hustle truly stand out is the acting of its leads, who give one of the best ensemble performances in recent history.

American Hustle.
At the heart of the tale are Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Adams), two successful small-time con artists forced into working for Bradley Cooper's FBI agent Richard di Maso to procure the arrest of four individuals deemed to be corrupt. Along the way, a fake Sheik, a seemingly-corrupt but ultimately well-meaning mayor (Renner), and a run-in with the Mafia are thrown into the mix, and though individually these ingredients all have the making of a great story, when combined the result feels rather flat - more of a big-screen depiction of a substandard Hustle script than a nuanced tale of cunning and corruption. Russell, who wrote as well as directed the film, does try to find the right balance between comedy and drama, but unfortunately the oscillations between the two feel, for the most part, tonally jarring and poorly-handled. The sole exception to this comes in the form of Rosalyn Rosenfeld (Lawrence), Irving's neglected, stay-at-home wife whose moments of comic relief are both genuinely funny and disguise an intense desperation to be loved.

The setting is one of the few things that the film gets absolutely right. In many ways a love-letter to the 70s, American Hustle features garish outfits and retro haircuts aplenty. The real highlight, however, is the soundtrack. Featuring songs from the likes of Elton John, ELO and the Bee Gees, the music not only complements the moments it accompanies on screen, but helps to capture the very essence of the decade.

The plot and the soundtrack, however, are not what American Hustle is going to be remembered for. Without a shadow of a doubt, the highlight of the film is the acting. Christian Bale is almost unrecognisable as the balding, overweight Irving, Amy Adams delivers what may just be a career-best as Sydney, Jeremy Renner is utterly convincing as charismatic mayor Carmine Polito, and Jennifer Lawrence gives a simultaneously powerhouse and nuanced performance as Rosalyn. It is only Bradley Cooper who fails to reach the same heights as his fellow actors; he's very, very good, and he certainly captures his character's aggression, frustration and desperation to prove himself, but he's not quite on the level of Bale, Adams, Renner and Lawrence. (Special mention must also go to the actor whose uncredited surprise cameo in the middle of the film is a real high point.) In any other film, the individual performances of all five leads would have the potential to steal the show. In American Hustle, however, they combine to produce a truly outstanding display of acting at its very finest.
The ensemble cast of Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, and Jennifer Lawrence.
All in all, it will be a shame if American Hustle doesn't go on to pick up at least some awards over the coming few months. It doesn't deserve to win any of the Best Picture awards, but it sure as hell deserves some of the acting ones, particularly for its female leads. Amy Adams tends to be somewhat unlucky when it comes to the main awards ceremonies, but if ever there were a year for her to win, it's this one (even with the stellar Sandra Bullock as a rival contender). Jennifer Lawrence, on the other hand, already has more awards than you can shake a stick at, but her performance in American Hustle shows she's deserving of many, many more. Whilst the film as a whole is flawed to say the least, it is ultimately its cast that elevates it into something worthy of seeing and remembering.

Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence are the stars who shine brightest in David O. Russell's American Hustle.