Now that the romantic comedy genre has been overdone to the point of cliché, a new wave of work has emerged which attempts to subvert the stereotypes and toy with our expectations, sometimes referred to as anti-rom-coms. Actor turned filmmaker Joseph Gordon-Levitt was a key figure in one of the pioneering movies of this sort when he starred in 500 Days of Summer, and has now had a go himself. ‘Don Jon’ takes a seedy peep into the life of a modern man, Jon Martello Jr, who is obsessed with internet pornography, and who struggles to connect with women emotionally because of this. When he meets his dream girl Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), who has a fixation of her own in Hollywood romances, can he put his virtual fantasies to one side in return for a real relationship?
In Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut, he certainly wears his influences on his sleeve. The quick cut quirkiness could be taken straight from the mind of Edgar Wright and is used freely and frequently to illustrate and summarise his interests, which consist mainly of masturbation, working out and attending church every Sunday to renounce his weekly sins. This provides a fun opening third, developing the macho man central character that looks like a product of watching too many Robert DeNiro films and the family dinner scenes play up the Italian-American trademarks entertainingly. The father-son rapport is particularly funny, with Tony Danza playing Martello Sr drooling over his son’s glamorous girlfriend. As the plot progresses, things get a little repetitive and when we sadly find ourselves in more familiar territory, the initial creativity is lost. A more humane personality is introduced in Esther (Julianne Moore) to interact with the one-dimensional lothario leading to a crossroads where he must re-evaluate his priorities.
It is a cheekily clever casting choice from Gordon-Levitt in picking Scarlett Johansson as his love interest. Her curves and blonde locks are impressive attributes to his superficial lead who instantly judges potential lovers by their looks scoring them out of ten with his friends. Is this the twisted representation of the modern relationship it presents itself as, or is it truer to life than he thinks? I think his narrative is, in a way, probably a more accurate social commentary than the lovey-dovey Channing Tatum weepies that Barbara is so fond of, but it is an intriguing topic to tackle nonetheless.
Aside from his writing and acting, Gordon-Levitt manages to give a charismatic performance given that his role, for the most part lacks depth, and he gets solid performances from his supporting cast. Brie Larson putting in a near muted turn as Jon’s sister who is glued to her mobile phone in every scene she is in, perhaps in a fun-poking reference to the insignificant hushed females from old Italian-American gangster movies, another nod from the director to his inspirations. ‘Don Jon’ is an ambitious first outing from a filmmaker who has an impressive knack for constructing nice visual set pieces, but lacks an original concept. The indie quirks are enough to amuse for a while, and Johansson is definitely easy on the eye, but both begin to wear thin when the potential isn’t maximised. It marks an exciting sign for things to come from a fresh thinking filmmaker who I believe that one day will create his masterpiece.
Based on an incredible true story, ‘Philomena’, directed by Stephen Frears, tracks a mother’s search for her long-lost son nearly fifty years after he was brutally taken away from her, with the help of a disgraced journalist. Judi Dench stars as Philomena Lee who was sent to the Sacred Heart convent in Roscrea after falling pregnant at a young age, and was forced to sign away parental rights. After keeping her first born a secret for decades, believing she had committed an unforgivable sin, she meets former Labour party advisor Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) who is seeking a fresh new direction after very publicly losing his political position due to his controversial words being taken out of context, and they embark on an investigation which takes them further than they could ever imagine. Exploring themes of religion, forgiveness and redemption, the factual account is beautifully told, helped by a strong script and even stronger performances.
Coogan takes script writing duties as well as producing and of course co-starring, and this is very evident in the dialogue between Sixsmith and Lee. A balance is accomplished between the serious nature of the subjects tackled and an almost Partridgean humour which is laced through key scenes, with Dench expressing a knack for natural comic timing showing the fragility and naivety of her character. Their friendship blossoms after a slow start because as Sixsmith assists Lee, she also helps him as he welcomes the distraction, choosing Philomena’s ‘human interest’ story in an attempt to win back readers, rather than beginning a novel on Russian history which he initially considers when he is left in need of a new career path.
Aside from the brilliant conversational scenes, Frears directs in documentary fashion at times, using found footage style fragments to accompany the globetrotting mission, revealing a little more bit by bit, teasing and shocking the audience while leaving every turn unpredictable. The flashbacks of a young Philomena are also well handled in providing a lengthy character arc and how her dark past living with the evil nuns has left deep personal scars on her outlook of life. The portrayal of the wicked sisters is typical yet harrowing with Barbara Jefford impressive as the cruel Sister Lindegarde who played a pivotal role in Philomena’s fate. Her strict religious background clashes with Sixsmith’s atheist views, coming from Coogan’s own mindset as he boldly rubbishes organised religion and those who conform to it. His anti-religious rants are both impactful and very funny, and his eloquent way with words reflect the intelligence of the film. Dench is equally effective, her reactions to the narrative twists are heartfelt and hard hitting, packing emotional punches that brought me close to tears on more than one occasion.
‘Philomena’ is a huge storytelling achievement, developed from Sixsmith’s book ’The Lost Child of Philomena Lee’, offering a weighty, well judged adaptation. This marks a fitting end to a remarkable year for Steve Coogan, rounding off a series of well measured performances in films including The Look of Love, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa and the wonderful What Maisie Knew, displaying his versatility to switch between serious turns and the comedic roles which he is perhaps better known for, given his TV background. This may be an exciting sign for things to come in an acting career that hasn’t received deserved recognition thus far but working with veterans like Dench can only improve his reputation. He has certainly established himself as my actor of the year, in a powerful picture that goes down as my film of 2013.
Gone are the days of western stalwarts like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood when the genre was at its busiest, bringing cowboy films to cinema screens thick and fast. In more recent times, tradition and stereotypes from that field have been replaced by more ambitious modernised takes that come few and far between but are usually worth the wait. Notable examples include Andrew Dominik’s epic The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Tarantino’s twisted homage Django Unchained, both directors applying their own style and attitude to the familiar environment of the western film.
In steps David Lowery with whose artistic vision has been strongly compared to that of Terrence Malick, with ‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’, his Bonnie and Clyde-esque romantic crime drama starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. Set in 1970s Texas, criminal lovers Bob Muldoon (Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Mara) are embroiled in a shootout with the authorities and when Ruth shoots local police officer Patrick (Ben Foster), Bob takes the blame, leaving her to raise their daughter alone while he is sentenced to life behind bars.
Although the plot focuses on a notorious outlaw on his quest to reunite with his soul mate, there is a lot less action that you would imagine. Key events such as Muldoon’s prison escape are spoken of but go unseen and instead Lowery aims his directional wand at glorious landscapes, revelling in the dusty beauty of candlelit rooms allowing the characters to develop at a brooding pace. Bob and Ruth’s bruised bond is continued through scribbled love letters accompanied by a drawling voiceover delivered convincingly by Affleck but as time wears on and news of Bob’s flee circulates, Ruth is faced with the choice of holding out for him as promised or settling down with Patrick who holds a torch for her, unbeknownst to the fact that it was she who pulled the trigger on him years before. The internal dilemma can be seen as the youthful wilds of western ideologies versus the realities of growing up and nurturing a child. Ruth is interestingly caught somewhere in the middle, raising questions of her flawed character and her relationship with Muldoon who is still living out his own misguided version of the American Dream.
Rooney Mara gives a very impressive performance as the conflicted Ruth Guthrie, continuing a fantastic run after the brilliant Side Effects earlier in the year. She manages to underplay a charismatic blend of vulnerability and unpredictability perfectly, and I would not be surprised to see her receiving a second string of nominations at the awards season. Affleck also is in fine form, fighting from under the shadow of his older brother, and carrying on his association with the modern day western after his memorable turn as the aforementioned Robert Ford. He and Mara establish an early connection effectively in the beautifully filmed opening scene and this chemistry resonates through to the closing frames holding the minimal narrative together.
The aesthetic impact outweighs the uncomplicated story which trickles through middle sections at a snail’s pace which is fine for the most part but lacking a little oomph to carry it through. In defence, this is Lowery’s biggest project to date and ultimately shows potential and perhaps if he was as inventive a screenwriter as he is a director then it would make for a sturdier, more balanced film. It is however exciting to see another interpretation of the genre which successfully dodges the deep cliché pitfalls and joins an exquisitely made collection of the neo-westerns, and though it may not be as impactful as others, it is a far cry from flogging a dead horse.
Of all the films released in 2013, perhaps none were shunned in as much controversy and adulation in equal measures. French romantic drama ‘Blue is the Warmest Colour’ has received criticism for its explicit sexual content but despite this went on to pick up the illustrious Palme d’Or award at Cannes Film Festival. It is based on a graphic novel by Julie Maroh, which is evident in its interesting use of colour, and follows teenager Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) as she embarks on a journey of personal discovery and meets art student Emma (Lèa Seydoux) before coming of age. It is ambitiously shot, and the resulting outcome shares the same attributes as its protagonist; outspoken, flawed but beautiful to watch.
The film opens in muted fashion, patiently tracking Adèle on her day-to-day routine but in an unusually unflattering manner. The lens studies her, close-up and explorative, as she sleeps open mouthed, runs clumsily for the schoolbus and attacks the bowls of spaghetti bolognese served up from her mother. This style is continuous throughout and as we find out more about the character, and as she finds out more of herself, we see more of her, the camera acting in parallel with her arc. Later when Emma paints Adèle, she describes her as her inspiration and her muse and it seems the same rules apply for the director, Abdellatif Kechiche, which raises one of the topics of controversy in the way he presents the girls on screen. The sex scenes which are introduced in the second third are overlong, the longest lasting around seven minutes, but they don’t add an awful lot to the narrative and in fact make for slightly uncomfortable viewing after a while, resembling a gruelling rally of women’s tennis as the girls exchange deep, intense stares and grunt back and forth. I found their conversations away from the bedroom a lot more worthy and key to the development of the story as their relationship blossomed. In one scene, they share a tender moment which is filmed masterfully with the sun beaming in the background, and this captures a turning point for Adèle perfectly.
The colour blue features heavily and significantly throughout, even used in the English title, though the original French title is La Vie D’Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2, translating as The Life of Adèle – Chapters 1 & 2. I felt that the script struggled to translate, particularly the early school playground dialogue, coming across as incredibly basic. It improves vastly as the plot develops and offers some very funny one liners in the ‘meet the parents’ scenes which occur almost in turn. What never fails to translate is the use of the colour, and as Adèle’s inner battle with her sexuality builds we see a wash of blue coming across in nail art, plastic jewellery, clothing and most noticeably in Emma’s wacky hairdo. Art is consistently seen or talked about with several references made to the works of Pablo Picasso and it seems Adèle, or maybe Kechiche, goes through their own twisted interpretation of his famous ‘blue period’ replacing the depressive connotations with those of sexual awakening. The performances from both leads are as striking as the cinematography, especially from Exarchopoulos who conveys a range of emotions through subtle expressions, from wide-eyed naivety to confident assurance as she takes us through Adèle’s metamorphosis.
‘Blue is the Warmest Colour’ has achieved what independent films aspire to in that for good reasons or bad it has been discussed heavily and in its publicity has been recognised accordingly, which it fully deserves to. It tackles its subject matter head on and refuses to hold back leading to its issues in pacing but although it runs for just over three hours it represents a period of around five years, providing a solid structure and a fitting resolution. It is brave filmmaking and very visually impressive, and though it occasionally verges on becoming unrealistically Skins-y in its quest for artiness, the characters ring true, aided by the powerful portrayals, offering an unflinching depiction of young passion and sexual discovery.
Highly regarded as one of the best filmmakers of his generation, Ridley Scott has brought us classics such as Alien, Blade Runner and Gladiator yet his reputation has strangely taken a beating of late. Last year, his sort-of prequel to the Alien series Prometheus failed to satisfy the loyal fans of the franchise and his latest piece, ‘The Counsellor’ has been poorly received to say the least, though I for one, thoroughly enjoyed it. It stars Michael Fassbender in the eponymous role, as a man who gets in over his head in the drug trafficking industry around the Mexico/Texas border succumbing to greed and temptation with very little persuasion. He heads an all star cast which includes Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz and Brad Pitt, who all revel in delivering well constructed passages from veteran novelist Cormac McCarthy’s complex screenplay as The Counsellor’s glamorous lifestyle collapses around him.
It seems that the recurring criticism is that as well written as McCarthy’s script is, it is said to struggle to translate to the big screen. In the past, his dark novels have been adapted into screenplays, with the most acclaimed example of this being No Country For Old Men, which the Coen brothers transformed into a multi-Oscar winning delight, but this is his first attempt at writing for the cinema. This results in an intelligent dialogue driven film and the A-list cast lap up every sentence, articulately conversing with one another brilliantly. I liked the flow of the dialogue, my personal favourite line belonging to The Counsellor himself as he lovingly tells his adoring fiancée Laura (Cruz) over the phone ‘life is being in bed with you, everything else is just waiting’. The on-screen spark between the two is electrifying from the explicit pre opening credits scene.
The excellent script is accompanied by wonderfully sticky cinematography, as if every frame has been dipped in a sticky gloss. The shallow almost cartoon-like characters are well suited to the plastic environment that Scott creates, where money is everything, morals mean nothing and every room of every house looks like a page ripped out of a designer catalogue. The narrative does have gaps, and virtually no sign of back-story or character arcs, but I enjoyed piecing it together whilst allowing the visuals to wash over me. The structure reminded me greatly of equally stylish Brit crime thriller Layer Cake as I drew comparisons between the unnamed leads – both opportunistic charismatic males who like to dabble in a criminal underworld believing they are too smart to suffer any consequences, and both terribly, yet predictably, underestimate the realities of their actions.
A gangster flick with such an established crew was always likely to attract an equally established cast, and the list of names does not disappoint. The utilisation of the female stars raises eyebrows as if filling places of both a feisty femme-fatale and a naive innocent lover, it’d be easy for one to assume that Penelope Cruz would take on the former and Cameron Diaz the latter, but here the stereotypes are reversed with a pleasing outcome. Cruz’s vulnerability is stunning, and Scott’s use of the extreme close up is successful in getting the most out of her natural beauty, whereas Diaz plays ‘the bitch’ in a way I could never have imagined, her cheetah obsessed diamond witch is like a younger version of Kristin Scott Thomas’ sadistic blonde matriarch in Only God Forgives. She also gives us one of the finest film moments of the year, involving a Ferrari windscreen, that is hard to forget.
Of the male members, Brad Pitt is expectedly solid, but unfortunately underused, though his part is integral to the plot and he takes centre stage in one of the films best scenes. Bardem’s portrayal perhaps has the least depth as he fills the boots of the generic kingpin, his segments are so clunky that they are vaguely reminiscent of GTA cut scenes where you are nearing the end of the game play and are introduced to the end of level boss. The least sensationalised is Fassbender who gives a powerful turn as a man losing control but he is so responsible for his actions that it makes it difficult to empathise. No matter how flawed or underdeveloped the characters are presented, they all look amazing, except Bardem, and do justice to a uniquely mesmerising script.
This is far from the expected crowd pleaser the cast and crew suggested, and will not be to everyone’s taste. McCarthy chooses to keep the audience guessing, refusing to offer up a spoon fed plot and Ridley Scott directs in a way that is pleasing to the eye, and occasionally terrifically violent, but this is well judged and he handles the graphic elements perfectly. Ultimately, he presents the film in an attractive package and lets the script most of the talking which bring out well measured performances all round and is chockfull of cleverly formed philosophical snippets commenting on the dirty Juarez layer in the which a group of cheap selfish individuals inhabit an expensive, materialistic society.
Since the teaser trailer arrived online in the summer of last year, the anticipation of sci-fi thriller ‘Gravity’ was immense, and deservedly so. Coming from Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón, who is best known for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Children of Men, his latest picture sees Sandra Bullock star as Dr. Ryan Stone, a NASA medical engineer who is sent on her first space mission to service the Hubble Telescope. Accompanied by the highly experienced astronaut Lieutenant Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), their assignment is soon put into severe jeopardy when a collision on a defunct satellite sends a horde of space debris directly towards them. Revolutionising 3D with stunning camera work, and using its magnificent setting as a terrifyingly open canvas to tell an intense human survival story, this is not only unlike anything you’ll have seen this year, it is entirely different from anything you will have ever seen on the big screen, providing a refreshing cinematic experience.
‘Gravity’ will pull you in immediately and won’t let go, from the glorious opening scene which slowly swoops and dips for seventeen minutes without a cut, establishing the vastly disorientating environment, the 3D effects unrestricted by horizons and benefiting hugely from it as we, the audience, at times essentially become the camera. Avoiding the science fiction familiarities of lasers and aliens, Cuarón cleverly utilises the scenery to explore more grounded themes of parenthood, life and death, and isolation as our two Hollywood stars float around in space alone, open and honest in the silence of the surroundings. Kowalski has a care free attitude, taking enjoyment from the freedom of space and the blissful escapism from the humdrum day-to-day existence, savouring the view from above. Stone, in contrast, is in search of solace, detaching herself from the trauma she has suffered 372 miles below on earth’s surface.
As events force both Stone and Kowalski to contemplate their futures, their opposing life viewpoints are split further apart which is fascinating to watch, despite rather unimaginative dialogue. Where the aesthetics launch us to exciting new realms and future possibilities, the dialogue harks back to the past with worn out phrases like ‘I’ve got a bad feeling about this’ and ‘it’s not rocket science’ standing out as the championing rotten, yet cheekily delivered, lines in the script. Though I guess when the overall concept and visual elements are so pioneering, it doesn’t matter quite so much what the characters are saying, though I’m sure Clooney’s material as the caped crusader had more originality. In saying that, he and Sandra Bullock are both outstanding throughout, and given the fact they are the only two actors in the piece, aside from voice performances, they share the screen very well together, connecting beautifully in some of the most gripping scenes. Bullock provides a sympathetic, hard-hitting turn in the key role, handling the emotion perfectly as we relate to her personal grief whilst in shock of her sensational circumstance leading to a scene which will blow you away. She displays a commanding presence, as she floats solo for the majority of the film.
Cuarón squeezes this incredible journey into a surprisingly tight running time, allowing us to catch our breath and regain composure after just over ninety minutes, showcasing a unique and admirable technical achievement as well as telling a brilliant story of great depth and courage. This is one of the very few films I would recommend seeing in 3D, alongside only Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, and I urge you to experience it on an IMAX screen if you can. At a time when we thought we had seen it all, ‘Gravity’ has pushed the boundaries and expanded the possibilities, and in refusing to take small steps, signifies a giant leap for cinema.