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Reviews

That Awkward Moment

I tried hard to ignore the fact that I wasn’t seeing as much honesty from That Awkward Moment‘s girls as I was from its boys. I wasn’t as interested as you might imagine in taking the film to task for gender balance issues. I think the Bechdel Test worked brilliantly as a comic, but it’s a wholly unreliable indicator of a problem that has existed for as long as film has been around, and its approach won’t so much solve that problem as create others. I certainly didn’t think I should dismiss the film just because the women in it never interact with one another. The film is, and has every right to be, from the boys’ point of view.

But That Awkward Moment really wants you to believe it’s getting women right. It gives them a little well-reasoned bite and lets its three male leads discombobulate around them. It wants to be a frat-boy comedy and a witty romancer all at the same time, determined as it is for multi-quadrant appeal. It might be enough to fool some, but there’s no truth here at all.

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Inside Llewyn Davis

Like Once, the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis stops dead every moment it lingers on one of its stunning musical performances. They are, literally, show-stopping. And it’s through them that we learn most about Llewyn Davis’s soul. Like the best of their creations, he is flawed: a man with an over-inflated ego, little gratitude for those helping him out and an entirely self-defeating attitude to life and work. You should hate him. But when he sings…

This is surely the brothers’ best work in years, imbued with that particular Coen Tone that seems to pervade most of their work, but that hasn’t been this unfiltered in a long time. There’s truth as much as fantasy; drama in balance with comedy. Few filmmakers have this sort of skill in baking highly incompatible ingredients into a whole with such satisfying results. It has something to say to any of us who’ve had a dream and let life get in the way, but it is definitive for any artist whose drive to persevere demands a wanton disregard for practical sense.

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Crystal Fairy

It doesn’t take long before the urge to run from Crystal Fairy becomes almost overpowering. The first aroma wafting from Sebastián Silva’s odd Sundancer is pungent; a murky, drugs-happy party somewhere in Chile, as Michael Cera says nothing through a haze of one too many Instagram filters. The idea that these people, and the trip they’ll take, could ever yield anything beyond surface hipsterism seems far-fetched at best.

But, given time, the film comes round. Michael Cera continues his career-long exploration of the obnoxious as Jamie, an American traveller who teams up with some of the locals to go in search of a San Pedro cactus to brew into a psychedelic by the beach. He’s impatient to get out there, and exasperated by the invite he’s extended to Gaby Hoffmann’s hippy, Crystal Fairy. He’s rude to her, even more so as she wins around the rest of the car. He is frustrated by how long it takes them to find someone willing to sell an off cut of the plant. It’s the most authentic character he’s ever delivered; what little we know about Jamie, Cera ensures we explore.

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The Wolf of Wall Street

In a letter to his daughter, published in Italian in the magazine l’Espresso, Martin Scorsese speculated that his friend and mentor, John Cassavetes, would suggest the fundamentals of filmmaking haven’t changed with technology. “[He would] continue to repeat the things he always said – you have to be totally dedicated to work, you have to give all of yourself and you have to protect that first spark that led you to make that movie. You have to protect it with your life.”

Which leads me to believe that Martin Scorsese really doesn’t care about the feathers he’s ruffled with The Wolf of Wall Street.

And boy, have they been ruffled. There’s an odd misunderstanding going on that Scorsese’s latest opus somehow glorifies the crimes of Jordan Belfort. The stock-trading playboy swindled clients out of hundreds of millions of dollars and his company thrived on debauchery, drug-taking and decadence. As played by Leonardo DiCaprio, he really, really enjoyed it too.

But the brilliance of what Scorsese has pulled off here is in what it allows us to conclude. It’s a flip on the usual biopic structure, in which a character’s ups are sweet while their downs are sour. When DiCaprio’s Belfort starts describing the illegalities he’s engaged in, he breaks off. “You know what, it doesn’t matter,” he says. Because it doesn’t. There’s no question that every decision Belfort makes goes against taste, decency and the letter of the law. The environment is cutthroat, shown to thrive only at its most despicable. When Belfort’s firm, Stratton Oakmont, throws one of its office parties, we witness degradation, prostitution and drug abuse. There’s no grey area here. These people are having fun at the expense of others, but we aren’t joining in, we’re bearing witness.

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Out of the Furnace

Permit me to introduce my issues with Out of the Furnace by borrowing from a chunk of its screenplay.

Moments prior to the scene copied below, Christian Bale’s Russell Baze had attempted to procure drugs from a dealer at the home of Woody Harrelson’s Harlan DeGroat, the man he believes has something to do with the disappearance of his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck). DeGroat wasn’t in, but it didn’t matter: Baze was there on a fact-finding mission, which he made obvious by his deeply suspicious demeanour, the asking of far too many questions and a refusal to sample to product he was purchasing. After being satisfied by “Meth Guy”‘s answers, and completing his transaction, he leaves…

INT./EXT. METH HOUSE – FIRST FLOOR – MOMENTS LATER

BAZE and RED glance into each room and move toward the front door. Suddenly, a VOICE turns them around...

VOICE

Hey?

They both turn to find METH GUY holding their bag of METH.

METH GUY

Forgot this.

Baze moves toward him.

BAZE

Oh.... Thanks.

Meth Guy holds it up and slightly pulls it back...

METH GUY

Who’d you say you were?

BAZE

... I didn’t.

Baze holds Meth Guy’s look for a long, uncomfortable beat. Grabs the meth from Meth Guy.

RED

C’mon, bud...

Baze pockets the PURE TINA and moves to his truck...

It’s hardly Breaking Bad, is it?

This scene is only a small sample of the storytelling mistakes made by Scott Cooper’s second feature. In it, apparently rational characters behave irrationally for the sole purpose of drawing out emotionally-manipulative drama. It does no more than any number of low-rent horror films, in which the victim makes bad decisions that ensure they remain in the killer’s grasp. But at least low-rent horror films aren’t this worthy.

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12 Years A Slave

It’s a strange thing, that what seems like it must be Steve McQueen’s most personal project feels somehow less true to him than the films that preceded it. Perhaps it’s too early to be ascribing a style to McQueen’s work, but there’s an accessibility to 12 Years A Slave that almost seems designed to make it more palatable to the awards season crowd. And yet it dampens the resolute power with which McQueen commanded Hunger and Shame, like he’s on best behaviour, not to serve the story but to serve the season. This is not, then, the best film of the year. It’s not even Steve McQueen’s best film. But it might be his most likely to resonate.

In the end, we end up with some kind of compromise, in fact, because it’s in the moments when McQueen does discard his restraint that 12 Years A Slave is truly made. When our beleaguered hero is strung up for doing a good job, and McQueen’s shot holds on him, in his agony, for longer than we can bear, and them some. When Michael Fassbender’s demented plantation owner takes the whip to Lupita Nyong’o’s Patsey with such ferocity that we feel it might break the screen. If the approach is somehow more traditional, the effect is no less demanding. Solomon Northup’s 12 years were brief compared to the lifetimes served by those born into bondage, but we can be in no doubt that the acts related had no right to exist for a second.

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The 2013 Top Ten

After a devastating summer of almost total mediocrity I’d nearly given up on 2013. No amount of love for bombast and spectacle could forgive the embarrassing, cynical cash-grabbers we endured during this blockbuster season. But as we reach the end of the year, a lot has changed. I wouldn’t like to make a call on this year’s Best Picture winner right now, because I can think of at least 10 candidates all in with a pretty good shot. If push came to shove I might lean towards my number 10 entry below, and it nearly didn’t make it onto my list. I reserve an honourable mention for Mud, Jeff Nichols’s wonderful ray of light earlier in the summer, which slipped off after a re-viewing of 12 Years a Slave.

My methodology is a little unusual – I want to include the year’s awards stock, but I also want to work off the UK release schedule. I follow my variation of BAFTA rules: any from the 2013 release calendar, plus those that have qualified for BAFTA releasing between Jan 1st and Feb 14th 2014, and excluding any that did a similar qualifier for last year’s awards.

10.12 Years a Slave12 Years A Slave

Steve McQueen has never been closer to an Oscar – nor less Steve McQueen-y – than with 12 Years a Slave. Black history seems to have been the dominating theme of 2013, with Django Unchained (my last number one) leading us into the year. The Butler and the Nelson Mandela biopic Long Walk to Freedom have both been set up to run this awards season too. McQueen’s film outshines them – by far – though it’s safer than his previous artistry. More palatable. I think it might have been higher on my list if it had been similar in tone to McQueen’s previous. Honestly, I feel I learnt more about this world from Django Unchained. But a heart-wrenching narrative, and the outstanding thesping can’t be ignored.

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1: Life on the Limit

Formula 1 documentaries – particularly those with aspirations to reach the big screen – have a pretty tough act to follow after Asif Kapadia’s utterly stunning Senna. I’m not sure I’d touch the subject with a barge-pole. Paul Crowder has taken the opposite approach with 1: Life on the Limit, choosing to dive in and tell the history of the entire sport.

Of course, the overriding theme of Senna and Rush – that this is, or was, an incredibly dangerous pursuit, becomes the thrust of this account also. That’s no bad thing, since it offers incredible context for the risks the subjects of those previous films faced. Though it doesn’t do much to settle my internal debate about whether F1 drivers are brave or mad.

Michael Fassbender’s sparing narration fills in details here and there, but it’s the accounts of those closest to the Formula 1 that really tell the story. Crowder has had access to many key names, though as the stories of new drivers are introduced, a F1 novice like me waits with bated breath for their first talking head, fearing a dark turn.

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Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

It is, too.

Justin Chadwick’s retelling of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography offers a 140-minute slog through the South African revolutionary’s life highlights, tells us nothing about the man we didn’t already know, and leaves us altogether unenlightened. It’s a common problem with biopics of famous figures, but here it seems all the more damaging. It may be a rare case of the man being greater than the legend.

Try as he might, Idris Elba cannot channel the enigmatic mix that made Mandela so captivating, and so much ground is covered that the film slides into the common biopic pitfall of rushing through events. Mandela talks to Winnie for the first time in one scene; in the next they are getting married.

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All is Lost

The economy with which J.C. Chandor constructs All is Lost is impressive. An opening monologue is really all we hear from Robert Redford’s wayward seafarer over the film’s 106 minutes, as he navigates an increasingly desperate sequence of events onboard a sailboat.

And that economy stretches beyond dialogue: we learn precious little about this man other than that he has a recreational familiarity with sailing. We don’t learn his name and, by journey’s end, we may not even be sure what happened to him.

I’m wont to be weary of such stoicism. So often, ambiguity disguises poorly realised storytelling; the answers aren’t given because they don’t exist. But this is smarter. The answers are irrelevant, and the themes are primal. All is Lost concerns that most basic of life’s drives: survival. Its execution turns the potentially mundane into the effortlessly gripping. We’ve seen this story before – one of the best films of the year, Gravity, is a version of it – but Chandor dares to construct it so far from convention, and, surprisingly, it resonates come closer to home in the process.

Your read on the film’s climax will be your own, and may or may not tell you something about yourself. You might see God’s hand in the challenges thrown down for Redford’s character, or you might see a man with a run of incredibly luck. Whichever way you choose to go, All is Lost will let you lead. Sheep may wish to look elsewhere.

In a film this ambiguously withholding it’s a surprise we’re given a movie star to follow. How much Robert Redford’s star lights our journey is unclear – perhaps the man we’re following isn’t such a stranger after all – but there’s a certain sense that his familiarity helps us root for him. In any case, he doesn’t let us in much. Chandor favours longer shots, observing as his character goes about the business of survival, rarely making much of his emotion, and rarely giving us a sense of how much trouble he believes himself to be in. These, again, are decisions for us to make.

Chandor’s debut was the Manhattan-locked financial talkie Margin Call, released a couple of years ago, which couldn’t be further removed from this sophomore effort. On the strength of All is Lost, I can’t wait to see where he takes us next.

All Is Lost is in UK cinemas on December 26th.