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Review – Elle (18) [2017]

Star Rating 4/5

Director:

  • Paul Verhoeven – Robocop, Basic Instinct, Starship Troopers, Black Book, Lyon 1943

Cast:

  • Isabelle Hubbert – Hidden Love, Amour, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them, Barrage
  • Laurent Latiffe – The Crimson Rivers, Little White Lies, Divorce French Style, KO
  • Anne Consigny – 36th Precinct, Wild Grass, History’s Future, La Deuxième Étoile
  • Charles Berling – Ridicule, Forbidden House, March of the Penguins, Flueve Noir
  • Virginie Efira – Second Chance, It Boy, Up For Love, Pris de Court
  • Christian Berkel – Downfall, Inglorious Basterds, Anti-Social, In Wahrheit
  • Judith Maguire – The Lovers, Jesus of Montreal, Nathalie…, Parisiennes
  • Jonas Bloquet – Private Lessons, The Family, 3 Days To Kill, Valerian and the City of a Thousands Planets
  • Alice Isaaz – The Gilded Cage, Smart Ass, One Wild Moment, Espèces Menacées

Music Composer:

  • Anne Dudley – The Gathering, Black Book, Poldark, Away

How did Emma Stone win the Oscar for Actress in a Leading Role earlier this year? Yes, her performance in La La Land was decent. But it was not Oscar worthy. There were other performances than deserved the award more than hers. One need only look at Amy Adams’ two superb performances in Nocturnal Animals and Arrival to see better performances (both of which were scandalously disregarded even for nominations!). Another performance is that of Isabelle Hubbert in Elle.

Michèle (Isabelle Hubbert) out with friends and drinking wine, after her ordeal.

Elle is directed by Paul Verhoeven and based on the book oh… by Philippe Dijon. The film begins with Michèle (Isabelle Hubbert), a successful business woman, getting raped in her plush Parisian home by someone wearing a ski mask. Who is it? And, more pertinently, why does Michèle not call the police?

Elle is a French psychological thriller. Paul Verhoeven has Showgirls and Basic Instinct in his back catalogue. But neither of those films are on a par with Elle as Elle is highly disturbing and morally bankrupt film, even by the standards of the genre.

The movie revolves around Michèle and the people who surround her: in particular, her friends; her neighbours; her colleagues; her aging mother and her (toyboy) boyfriend; and her delinquent son and his (scummy) girlfriend. Very soon into the film, however, it becomes apparent that our protagonist plays fast and loose with the truth and that she is not just an unfortunate victim of a horrific crime. This is a woman with a bad past and her behaviour is that of a sociopath.

Michèle buying an axe to defend herself against potential future intruders and assaults.

Furthermore, Michèle does not react to the rape like someone who has been raped. (Granted, there is no single reaction to this and everyone reacts differently, but) Michèle displays no hint of numbness or of being shattered, personality-wise. This raises the troubling question of whether she has been raped at all; especially as, before long, her rapist is texting her. How many masked rapists do that? Also, the rapist broke into her house. Why is there no sign of a break in?

These are for Elle to answer. Yet, when the answers come they don’t make sense in the context of the rest of the film. This is very disappointing. One can expect to be thrown off guard by a psychological thriller, for sure. Gone Girl did that with spectacular success and jaws gaped. But with Elle, one merely thinks: huh?

This is not the only problem with the movie. The score is filled with cheap tropes. Foreboding music plays on the nerves when it is unnecessary, where there is no danger for the characters. This irritates the viewer after a while, as the music is as untrustworthy as our central protagonist.

Michèle looking lovingly at her married friend and neighbour, Patrick (Laurent Latiffe).

Speaking again of Michèle, Isabelle Hubbert plays her phenomenally well and covers many of the holes in Elle’s plot. Indeed, all of the actors play really well. Yet, Hubbert is outstanding in the lead role. She captivates and makes her character come alive in a dishearteningly plausible way. This feat should not be underestimated as Michèle is a multifaceted person, who is as envious as she is successful, as underhand as she is shameless, and as villainous as she is a victim. This again forces one to question how Emma Stone won the Oscar earlier this year. Stone’s role in La La Land was not nearly as demanding as Hubbert’s in Elle, and Stone did not hold the attention of the audience as Hubbert does here.

All-in-all, Elle is a French psychological thriller. It has its flaws story-wise, and it is sick and twisted at its core. But it also has brilliant, praiseworthy performances; Isabelle Hubbert’s being exceptional. It is a shame that she has not received more recognition and awards for her role. It is a travesty that she was overlooked in favour of Emma Stone.

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Review – La La Land (12a) [2017]

la-la-land-title-banner

Star Rating: 4.5/5

Director:

Cast:

Music Composer:

Damien Chazelle announced himself to the world two years ago with aplomb. Since Whiplash left cinemas, viewers have waited patiently to see what he would do next. Well, now, Chazelle has returned with La La Land and it is another masterpiece.

Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, working as a barista in between auditions at a coffee shop along the Hollywood boulevard.

Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, working as a barista in between auditions at a coffee shop along the Hollywood boulevard.

La La Land is predominantly about Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). Both live in Hollywood and are struggling to make their dreams come true. She is an aspiring actress, working as a barista to pay bills; and he is a jazz piano player, doing the odd gig here and there to make ends meet. They bump into each other a few times and a romantic relationship blossoms. But is their relationship compatible with their careers?

  La La Land is a delightful musical drama. It is an unashamed throwback to Hollywood’s lost golden era and it is full of radiant joy. Everyone is happy and they frequently break into song and dance to show the world how happy they are. (If anything, the characters are too happy and this grates on the nerves. Nothing is seriously wrong in their lives and money is never a problem, even though both of the main characters lack funds.)

Bill (JK Simmons), the owner of a restaurant, telling Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) to just play Christmas themed piano pieces and not the jazz tunes that Sebastian likes to play.

Bill (JK Simmons), the owner of a restaurant, telling Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) to just play Christmas themed piano pieces and not the jazz tunes that Sebastian likes to play.

In many ways, La La Land is the polar opposite of Whiplash. Whereas Whiplash was intense, with the passion and pace of a boxing thriller, La La Land is laid back and blissful. Yet, it shares the jazzy elements of Whiplash as well as the desire of its characters to fulfill their ambitions, regardless of the price. The issue of compromise is key throughout both films, and it is interesting to see which direction the characters decide to go in La La Land when they are confronted with the junction of their careers on the one hand and their relationship on the other.

The reasons we have no idea which way the characters will go is, one, because of the tone of the film; and, two, because of the acting and chemistry of the two main characters: Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. The good-looking pair have worked well together before in Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad, but La La Land is undoubtedly their best collaboration to date. Their characters are clichéd, but Emma Stone shows a solid range of emotional skills and also that she can sing decently too (Gosling less so).

However, the two real stars of La La Land are Justin Hurwitz and Damien Chazelle. First, hats off to Hurwitz: his score is wondrous. The music he created for Whiplash was terrific, but this is another level; especially, as the range of jazz in La La Land is extraordinary. Even if one does not like jazz in general, one will love it in this film thanks to Hurwitz.

Sebastian and Mia happily dancing (as everyone is wont to do in La La Land), while looking lovingly into each other's eyes.

Sebastian and Mia happily dancing (as everyone is wont to do in La La Land), while looking lovingly into each other’s eyes.

And then there is director Chazelle. What can one say? He is proving himself to be quite a talent. His understanding of directing, editing, cinematography and choreography is exemplary. He also seems to love what he does and this shines through in every scene. Long may it continue!

Over-all, La La Land is a spell-binding musical drama. It is happy-clappy, but it is charming and its two leads perform really well together. Additionally, the music is gorgeous. Nevertheless, it is Damien Chazelle who steals the limelight. More than anything, he proves with La La Land that Whiplash was not a one-off marvel and that, at the tender age of 32, he is on the right road to a distinguished career.

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Review – Birdman (15) [2015]

Birdman - title banner

Star Rating: 4/5

Director:

  • Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu – 21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful, The Revenant

Cast:

  • Michael Keaton – Batman, Jackie Brown, Need For Speed, Spotlight
  • Noami Watts – The Ring, 21 Grams, Eastern Promises, Diana, While We’re Young
  • Andrea Riseborough – W.E., Shadow Dancer, Oblivion, Nocturnal Animals
  • Zach Galifianakis – Into The Wild, The Hangover I-III, Due Date, Tulip Forever
  • Emma Stone – Easy AFriends With Benefits, The Help, The Amazing Spiderman I-II, La La Land
  • Edward Norton – American History X, Fight Club, The Illusionist, Sausage Party
  • Amy Ryan – Gone Baby Gone, The Wire, Escape Plan, Goosebumps
  • Lindsay Duncan – Under The Tuscan Sun, Rome, About Time, Alice In Wonderland I & II

Music Composer:

  • Antonio Sanchez

Movie trailers are designed to give viewers a feel for the film and whet one’s appetite for the film. The trailers for Gone Girl and Whiplash were mouth-watering and suggested that those movies were of the highest quality and had to be watched. In contrast, Birdman’s trailer makes the film look unappetising, strange and worth skipping. But the film has been awarded with multiple Oscar nominations. So, is Birdman better than its trailer suggests? Is it deserving of its Oscar nominations?

Zach Galifianakis (Jake) reassuring Riggan (Michael Keaton) and Leslie (Naomi Watts) that the production is going well when it's not.

Zach Galifianakis (Jake) reassuring Riggan (Michael Keaton) and Lesley (Naomi Watts) that the production is going well when it’s not.

Birdman is about Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), a former super-hero actor, whose career has been going downhill for two decades. Now, Riggan is trying to rejuvenate his career by writing, directing and acting in a Broadway adaptation of John Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The problem is that the show is a shambles, which puts untold pressure on Riggan, who is also battling his own, inner demons.

Birdman is an original film and something different. It may not entertain viewers for its entire 119-minute running time and vast swathes of the movie may seem purposeless. Additionally, some of the storylines go nowhere and the final scene is incongruent with the rest of the movie.

Nevertheless, Birdman is a unique film. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu deserves his Oscar nomination for best director due to his exceptional editing and choreography. He has made Birdman appear as if the whole movie has been filmed in one, super-long shot without any cuts. That is simply an amazing feat, especially as so much happens in each scene and the camera never keeps still. (Although, for viewers the editing feels strangely like being under water for too long. Before long, one is gagging for Iñarritu to make a cut so viewers can take a breath and relax in the knowledge that a scene has ended.)

Yet, Birdman has not been Oscar nominated solely for its directing. It has also been nominated in the cinematography, best actor in a leading role (Michael Keaton), best actor in a supporting role (Edward Norton), best actress in a supporting role (Emma Stone), and best original screenplay categories.

Riggan reading criticism of the production and ignoring the attentions of his sort of girlfriend, Laura (Andrea Riseborough), much to her angst.

Riggan reading criticism of the production and ignoring the attentions of his sort of girlfriend, Laura (Andrea Riseborough), much to her angst.

The cinematography is simple and apt. The movie is set predominantly in the (grotty) behind-the-scenes areas of the Broadway Theatre. It all looks plausible and builds on the shambolic atmosphere of the theatre production because it adds layers of insecurity and stress onto the characters; not least Michael Keaton’s Riggan.

Keaton is outstanding as the volatile, selfish and unstable Riggan. He fully deserves his Oscar nomination. Nonetheless, is Keaton not essentially playing himself in Birdman, the same way Matt Le Blanc did in Friends and Mickey Rourke did in The Wrestler? Riggan last played the fictional superhero Birdman in 1992 and has done little else of note since. How convenient that 1992 is the same year Keaton last played Batman in Batman Returns and has done little else of note since. No, it is not convenient. Yet, because one knows Keaton’s predicament going into Birdman, one genuinely pities Riggan’s situation and hopes that he (like Keaton) does something extraordinary to revitalise his (/their) floundering career(s).

But Keaton is not the only actor who seems to be playing himself in Birdman to acclaim. Edward Norton plays an arsehole with an inflated ego, and behaves in a manner that is difficult to work with. Funny that: Norton has a reputation for being arrogant and a difficult actor to work with. All the same, Norton is great in Birdman. He justifies his Oscar nomination and reminds viewers of his talents that have been lying dormant since his last Oscar nomination back in 1999 for American History X. That Norton plays himself is beside the point.

Not all of the cast, though, play themselves in Birdman. Emma Stone doesn’t. Stone seems like a balanced person in real life. But, in Sam, Stone plays Riggan’s messed up, unstable daughter in terrific and passionate fashion. The scene (part of which can be seen in the trailer) where she vents her frustrations at Riggan earns her her Oscar nomination as audiences feel her pain, the pain she inflicts on Riggan, as well as the guilt she feels afterward for what she says. That is quite an achievement. It also helps that her character is multifaceted and Stone demonstrates this throughout the movie.

Sam (Emma Stone) exploding at her father, Riggan, for being a useless dad. But is this true?

Sam (Emma Stone) exploding at her father, Riggan, for being a useless dad. But is this true?

Alas, the other two main female characters, played by Andrea Riseborough and Naomi Watts, are not as properly fleshed out. It is a shame as both actresses are talented. Moreover, they are not assisted by their storylines being as messy as their changing rooms, which is strange considering how well Birdman is written and choreographed. Yet, if this is Birdman’s major glitch (after the ending), it should be somewhat overlooked. The film deserves its Oscar nomination for best original screenplay as its script is, in the main, highly impressive.

All-in-all, Birdman is a quirky film. It is not the most enamouring of movies and some of the plots go unfulfilled. However, Iñarritu’s style of editing is distinctive and innovative. This, in addition to the exceptional cinematography, acting and script illustrate that Birdman’s trailer is, to some extent, misleadingly unappetising and that the film is worthy of its Oscar nominations.

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Review – The Help (12a) [2011]

Star Rating: 4.5/5

John F. Kennedy (JFK), President of America (1960-63), proclaimed in 1963 that “moral courage is a more rare commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence.” He was referring to the civil rights movement in America, when African-Americans, particularly in the south (now known as the ‘Bible-belt’), were discriminated against and did not have the right to vote. The Help magnificently brings to light the inequality that African-Americans suffered in Mississippi in the early-1960s, and that there were some people with the moral courage to put an end to it.

Eugenie ‘Skeeter’ Phelan (Emma Stone) out for a meal with friends, looking fabulous.

The Help is based on the book with the same title, written by Kathryn Stockett. It is not a true story. The film revolves round the aspiring young author, Eugenie ‘Skeeter’ Phelan (Emma Stone – Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Friends With Benefits, Birdman). At a time when the civil rights movement is picking speed in America, Skeeter has become uneasy by the way her friends treat their African-American maids, and so decides to write a book about it. She decides to write her book from the angle of the help in order to highlight Caucasian maltreatment to them in the home.

Skeeter approaches Abileen (Viola Davis – Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Eat, Pray, Love, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close), the maid of her friend Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard – The Village, Spiderman 3, 50/50), for her opinion and experiences. Abileen is a middle-aged woman who has spent her entire life raising Caucasian children, almost from birth, only to see them turn into their parents. Despite being initially reluctant to speak out, due to the fear of violent reprisals, Abileen lets Skeeter interview her. Soon, Minny (Octavia Spencer – The Soloist, Herpes Boy, Girls! Girls! Girls!), another African-American maid, tells her stories too. Then, many more do the same to give Skeeter an all-round picture of what life is like for African-American maids in Caucasian homes.

The Help may be a very slow and far-from-intense film; yet, it is powerful and emotive. The movie may not be factual, but it is based on much truth and reflects the period accurately. In the same way that the works of Charles Dickens and Theodore Dostoyevsky are seen to be more representative of their respective eras than historical narratives, so too can The Help be seen in the same vein. Despite a few minor historical inaccuracies, such as segregation, one could probably learn more about the innate levels of Caucasian racism towards African-Americans in the Bible-belt in the 1960s from this film, and the variety of ways it manifested itself, than from most factual history books.

Abileen (Viola Davis) eavesgropping on a conversation wherein she hears a torrent of racism towards African-Americans.

But for a film about racism, The Help is surprisingly honest. It shows all sides to be human, meaning that all the characters, whether Caucasian or African-American, have decent and defective qualities. This should be applauded since it would have been easier for the director, Tate Taylor (Pretty Ugly People), to have made one side inherently ‘good’, the other side inherently ‘bad’, and one or two instances of crossovers as a cheap façade. That Taylor doesn’t do this makes The Help plausible.

The realism of the film, however, would not be possible without the actors putting in exceptional performances. Indeed, the entire cast, and their accents, are flawless. The pretty Emma Stone demonstrates that she can play intelligent roles with vigour, enabling her to grow more beautiful and appealing in the process. Viola Davis performs so well, viewers can empathise with Abileen’s predicament and cry because of her awful experiences.

Octavia Spencer may not make audiences weep like Davis does; nevertheless, she too plays marvellously as the feisty, loud-mouth and funny Minny. Furthermore, one can even appreciate the performances of the horrible, racist women, portrayed by Bryce Dallas Howard, Ahna O’Reilly (Herpes Boy, House Under Siege, Girls! Girls! Girls!), Allison Janney (The West Wing, Pretty Ugly People, A Thousand Words), and the other ladies, or the silly, naive Celia, played by Jessica Chastain (Jolene, The Debt, Take Shelter), as they are all performed with brilliant consistency.

A first day at work for Minny (Octavia Spencer) at the house of the over-excited Celia (Jessica Chastain).

Like the quality of the acting, The Help has been put together superbly. At 146 minutes, the film might feel drawn out, but the choreography has been stitched together smoothly and the cinematography is apt for the locations of the movie. What’s more, the music has been chosen well to enhance the scenes, particularly the heart-rending ones.

All-in-all, The Help might drag, but it is an excellent, touching film. The acting is remarkable and the movie epitomises well the attitudes of people, whether Caucasian or African-American, living in the deep-south of America in the early-1960s. In 1963, JFK proclaimed that the struggle for civil rights “will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetimes on this planet. But let us begin.” The Help, therefore, enables us to measure how far we have come in almost fifty years because of people like JFK and Skeeter who had the moral courage to start changing people’s attitudes towards African-Americans.

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