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Review – The Martian (12a) [2015]

The Martian - title banner3

Star Rating: 4.5/5

Director:

Cast:

Music Composer:

  • Harry Gregson-Williams – Shrek I-IV, Kingdom of Heaven, Unstoppable, Blackhat, Life Briefly

On this blog, much has been made of the paucity of Ridley Scott’s films over the last fifteen years. For a director who once made Alien, Blade Runner and Gladiator, it is astonishing that Scott has made terrible film after terrible film since Gladiator was released in 2000. So going into The Martian, what was one to expect? Another terrible film to add to Scott’s bloated collection? Actually, nothing of the sort: a pleasant surprise.

Mark Watney (Matt Damon) with the NASA crew, led by Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain, sitting down), before they go out to explore.

Mark Watney (Matt Damon) with the NASA crew, led by Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain, sitting down), before they go out to explore.

The Martian is based on Andrew Weir’s 2011 novel with the same title. Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is exploring Mars with a NASA team, led by Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain). The team are out on the Red Planet when a freak storm occurs, knocking Mark away. Believing that he is dead, and fearing that the storm will destroy the team’s means of getting home, Melissa orders an evacuation.

However, Mark is not dead and wakes up to find that the team have left Mars without him. Considering that the next NASA flight mission to Mars is not for another four years, Mark knows he’s going to be stuck on his own on Mars for a while. Yet, he only has enough food for a few months. So how will he survive?

At its core, The Martian has a simple premise: how Mark, all on his own, is going to keep himself alive. One might ask oneself how interesting such a plot could be. Yet, surprisingly, The Martian is an entertaining, innovative and engaging movie. Undoubtedly, it is Ridley Scott’s finest film since Gladiator! (Then again, with Kingdom of Heaven, Prometheus, The Counsellor and Exodus among his recent films, that is not saying much at all.)

The sudden (contrived) storm that knocks Mark away.

The sudden (contrived) storm that knocks Mark away.

Part of the reason why The Martian is so good is because the desert scenery of Mars (or, rather, of Jordan, where the movie was filmed) is beautifully shot. Seeing the landscape of this foreign planet is as wondrous as any awe-inspiring place on Earth, as evidenced in The Way Back, True Grit, Sanctum and Macbeth, to name but four. Moreover, The Martian is an extremely interesting film. Our main character, Mark, is a (genius) botanist, and it is fascinating watching him carry out scientific experiments using natural elements in order to survive.

But while the scenery is wondrous and the experiments are ingenious, The Martian would not have been half as engrossing without really good acting. Matt Damon has such a magnificent screen presence that he, alone (quite literally), can hold audiences’ attentions. Sean Bean is good as the honourable (Ned Stark-like) man, as is Chiwetel Ejiofor. Jeff Daniel’s is also decent as the NASA director, with the (legitimate) counter-arguments to Bean’s and Ejiofor’s suggestions. And, lastly, the crew (headed by Jessica Chastain) play decently enough with the little time that they’re given on screen.

Assisting the cast, however, is a really good script, which ensures that The Martian surpasses recent, phenomenal space films such as Gravity and Interstellar. This is because the former was let down by a B-movie script, while the latter suffered from an incoherent storyline. The Martian, by contrast, has all the best elements of those movies, plus humour. The humour, in itself, warrants that viewers empathise with the characters and (cleverly) enables audiences to ignore the scientific technicalities if they don’t understand them.

Upon waking up and returning to the base, Mark sits alone and wonders what he is to do. Not least, what will he do about food as his supplies are low?

Upon waking up and returning to the base, Mark sits alone and wonders what he is to do. Not least, what will he do about food as his supplies are low?

Scott gets a lot right with The Martian. Nevertheless, that is not to say that the movie is not without its faults. First, the storm at the beginning of the film is massively contrived to get the plot moving. And, second, the movie is predictable and the ending is an utter cliché. Yet, if these are the main flaws of the film, they are quite trivial, thereby emphasising just how well Scott has done with this movie.

All-in-all, The Martian is a very entertaining film. It has no significant faults, it is innovative and it is funny. To think that the movie is predominantly about a man stuck on Mars on his own, trying to survive against the elements, underlines how impressive The Martian is. It also highlights that Ridley Scott still can direct excellent movies, despite his atrocious recent record. Let’s hope that The Martian can inspire Scott to cease making films of the poverty of Prometheus and Exodus, so that he can return to making films of the brilliance of Alien, Blade Runner and Gladiator.

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Review – Interstellar (12a) [2014]

Interstellar - title banner

Star Rating: 3.5/5

Director:

Cast:

Music Composer:

There are some directors whose movies are simply a cut above the rest. Steven Spielberg, David Fincher, Alfonso Cuarón and Martin Scorsese do not necessarily make films often, but when they do their films are invariably of the highest quality. Christopher Nolan rightly has a place among these filmmaking giants and his latest movie, Interstellar, confirms this despite the film’s problems.

Professor Brand (Michael Caine) explaining the mission and its purpose to Cooper (Matthew McConaughey)

Professor Brand (Michael Caine) explaining the mission and its purpose to Cooper (Matthew McConaughey)

Interstellar is set in the not-too-distant future. The Earth will soon be unable to sustain life due to crop failures. Mankind needs to find a new planet in order to survive. With the situation desperate, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) leads a team of astronauts into space so as to find another planet that can sustain habitable life.

Interstellar is an ambitious, innovative and stimulating movie. Like The Dark Knight Trilogy, The Prestige and Inception, Interstellar is a film full of ideas such as Murphy’s Law, gravity, love, and how time bends in space to name but four. These ideas keep viewers fully occupied throughout the film’s 167-minute running time. As in the above-mentioned films, Nolan again illustrates his intelligence by writing an ingenious script that holds much realism and does not fall into the generic (and dull) intergalactic ray-gun war between men and monsters. Nolan must be applauded for it and for not patronising his audience (harrumph Michael Bay).

Cooper saying goodbye to his little daughter, Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) before he goes on the mission.

Cooper saying goodbye to his little daughter, Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) before he goes on the mission.

Granted, most viewers probably will not completely comprehend Interstellar’s dialogue as one may need to be a quantum physics professor and an astrophysics nerd for that. If viewers are neither of those and find the dialogue difficult to grasp, they can still easily enjoy the film simply by sitting back and admiring the awesome sceneries, the breath-taking special effects, and the phenomenal music. The CGI and the music, in particular, make audiences feel like they’re on a wonderful rollercoaster ride through space, and the length of the film enhances this riveting sensation.

However, not even this terrific sensation can override or conceal the gaping holes in Interstellar’s storyline (as a train could fit through them). These holes stem from moments of tension that are there solely for the sake of tension (and filler) rather than advancement of the storyline; and from the ending being too rushed and contrived for the movie to make sense. With most directors, viewers would generally accept these plot holes as par for the course. But with Nolan, viewers expect better. Scenes of tension in his previous films have had consequence(s) upon the storylines, and he has given us some of the most original, thought-provoking and satisfying endings in movie history. To see his film suffer from similar problems as those of (cheesy) action films and (second-rate) sci-fi movies feels wrong as Nolan is too smart a man to fall into such holes.

Cooper speaking with Amelia (Anne Hathaway) as they try to determine what to do next as they search for a habitable planet.

Cooper speaking with Amelia (Anne Hathaway) as they try to determine what to do next as they search for a habitable planet.

Yet, the above-mentioned holes are not the only issues staring back at Interstellar. Like Inception, Interstellar is so plot heavy it has no time for character development. For any film, it is excusable not to give peripheral characters proper story-arcs since that bloats the film’s running time unnecessarily and can render a film with a terribly swollen cast (like Interstellar) impractical to make. But what is not excusable for any film, including Interstellar, is for the major characters to not have proper story-arcs. This is because one of the most fascinating parts of a film is the journey the main characters go on and watching how the journey affects them, for good or ill. Without such story-arcs for the major characters, Interstellar feels like a large plate with little food on it: somewhat unsatisfying.

Over-all, Interstellar is a very ambitious, intelligent and challenging movie. Yes, it has plenty of plot problems. And, yes, it does not give its characters enough time for sincere character growth. On the flip side, though, the movie is made worthwhile by the stunning landscapes, the spectacular special effects, the spellbinding music, and the interesting ideas that are seldom explored in films. Suffice to say, Interstellar does not make for an easy 167-minutes and the film would have ended up as a total mess if it were to have been directed by anyone other than a master of his/her craft. This underlines why Christopher Nolan is such an extraordinary director and why he rightly stands among the best in the business in Hollywood.

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Review – Mama (15) [2013]

Mama - title banner

Star Rating 2.5/5

Director:

Executive Producer:

Cast:

  • Jessica Chastain – The Debt, Take Shelter, Coriolanus, The Help, Zero Dark ThirtyInterstellar
  • Nikolaj Coster-Waldau – Headhunters, Game of Thrones, Oblivion
  • Megan Charpentier – Jennifer’s Body, Red Riding Hood, Resident Evil: Retribution, Never Ever
  • Isabelle Nélisse
  • Jane Moffat – Alphas, Come Dance With Me, An Enemy
  • Javier Botet – Rec I-III, As Luck Would Have It, Al Final Todos Mueren
  • Daniel Kash – The Dresden Files, Alphas, Split Decision

Music Composer:

  • Fernandez Velázquez – The Orphanage, Devil, The ImpossibleA Monster Calls

The Woman in Black and The Possession are testament not only to the tiredness, comical and abysmal nature of the horror genre, they also signal that ghost stories and films about possessive/evil spirits have been done so many times that they seem to no longer be capable of scaring audiences. Despite being a notch up from most other recent horror movies, Mama does little to alter this view.

Annabel (Jessica Chastain) and Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) talking with Dr. Dreyfuss. Lucas is determined to foster his late-brother's daughters, despite their problems.

Annabel (Jessica Chastain) and Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) talking with Dr. Dreyfuss. Lucas is determined to foster his late-brother’s daughters, despite their problems.

  Mama begins with the mysterious death of Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) in a cabin in the woods, leaving his two very young daughters, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lily (Isabelle Nélisse), to seemingly fend for themselves. But were they alone?

  Five years later, the two girls are found, looking like wild barbarians, and are sent to live with their uncle, Lucas (also Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), and his rock-chick girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain). But something else has come with Victoria and Lily; something they call ‘Mama.’

As far as horror films go, the plot for Mama is actually not bad for the first 60 of the movie’s 100 minute running time. The film may not be particularly frightening, despite a few jumpy moments, but at least it can make one’s heart-rate speed up a bit at times (which is almost novel for horror films these days).

But, disappointingly, Mama loses its way at the hour mark. Subsequently, it descends into the normal clichés and follies that are symptomatic of the genre: parts of the plot get thrown by the wayside; plot threads don’t add up; and the parts of the storyline that do work become so contrived that they might as well not work. Worse, long before the end, even the things that made the film tense and jittery lose that ability.

Annabel concerned by what devilry has come with Victoria and Lily, and is now in the house.

Annabel concerned by what devilry has come with Victoria and Lily, and is now in the house.

The key reason for why Mama can sustain viewer’s interest for as long as it does is due to the acting and the dialogue. For once, both are acceptable by anyone’s standard (and not just in comparison to the acting and dialogue in abominations like Jennifer’s Body and The Wolfman). Unsurprisingly, Jessica Chastain holds her all as the lead character, albeit in a far more casual manner than in Zero Dark Thirty, and makes conversations about evil spirits seem mundane and normal, which is not as easy as one would think (as The Woman in Black and The Possession attest). The two young girls also perform unexpectedly decently. Lily’s behaviour is particularly weird and unsettling, yet Isabelle Nélisse makes it look nothing out of the ordinary due to her character’s peculiar circumstances.

Indeed, the only actor who is somewhat disappointing is Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, and for no fault of his own. Lacking the smugness of Jaime ‘the Kingslayer’ Lannister from Game of Thrones, Coster-Waldau does alright with what he is given. But his role is quite minimal and modest, meaning that his talents are largely wasted in Mama. The rest of the cast, including Jane Moffat, as Jean, Lucas’ sister, and Daniel Kash, as the suspicious Dr. Dreyfuss, have even less to do than Coster-Waldau, rendering their value to the film close to irrelevant.

However, the person with arguably the most irrelevant impact upon Mama is Guillermo Del Toro. Was he solely made executive producer to enable debutant director Andrés Muschietti to ride on the coat-tails of his 2006 Oscar-nominated Pan’s Labyrinth? Well, that and to dupe people (like me) into the cinema most probably.

There is little doubt that Mama is not a par with Pan’s Labyrinth, but it has its own music and that should be commended. The music lacks the power, depth and variety of the scores in The Lion King, The Dark Knight Rises and Lincoln, and it might be limited in range too, but at least it does not recycle the standard stringy music (followed by a sudden crescendo) that is sadly all too common in horror movies.

Annabel with Lily and Victoria, as they realise, with horror, that 'Mama' has come to pay them a visit.

Annabel with Lily and Victoria, as they realise, with horror, that ‘Mama’ has come to pay them a visit.

  The same can roughly be said for the special effects in Mama as well. They’re not bad and, initially, whatever ‘Mama’ is can make one feel like something is crawling underneath one’s skin (which is a good thing!). But this wears out soon enough, making the effects little more than an unpleasant, immaterial sight.

  Overall, Mama is not a terrible horror film and is certainly better in every respect than The Woman in Black and The Possession. Mama shoots itself in the foot after an hour, so to speak, but at any rate, it has some suspense with passable acting and dialogue, and curious music. Nevertheless, even with all of the above and a new director, Mama underlines the exhaustion and lack of innovation in the paranormal-inclined horror genre, which has been going on for too long.

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Review – Zero Dark Thirty (15) [2013]

Zero Dark Thirty - title banner2

Star Rating: 3.5/5

Director:

  • Kathryn Bigelow – The Loveless, The Weight of Water, The Hurt Locker

Cast:

Music Composer:

When it comes to films about historical events, like Titanic, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Lincoln, one knows how they will end before even starting them. Yet, such movies can be just as, if not more entertaining and gripping than movies where one does not know what is going to happen. The same is true for the arresting Zero Dark Thirty, which also sends out a potent message to America’s enemies.

The film is a politico-historical drama based around real events. ‘Zero dark thirty’ is a military codename for half past midnight, and it is the time that the operation to kill Osama Bin Laden took place on the night of 1st/2nd May 2011 in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Maya (Jessica Chastain), baggy-eyed as she watches countless interrogations of detainees in her attempts to find a lead to Osama Bin Laden's location.

Maya (Jessica Chastain), baggy-eyed as she watches countless interrogations of detainees in her attempts to find a lead to Osama Bin Laden’s location.

Zero Dark Thirty is all about the CIA’s attempts to find the world’s most wanted man following his masterminding of the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers on 11th September 2011, and his subsequent vanishing. The film is an unhurried, yet captivating thriller that does not feel like it is 157 minutes long. Like with The Hurt Locker, it has a grounded feel, and therefore lacks the hyperbole and surrealism of 24. Even the ending mirrors this mood, which is rare and noteworthy for Hollywood.  It is too early to know how true Zero Dark Thirty is to the reality, but it feels like a realistic and fair representation of events. First, it illustrates how dangerous it is for Americans to be in Afghanistan/Pakistan, thereby emphasising how heroic they are being out there. Second, it demonstrates some of the difficulties CIA agents face operating in the field, trying to unearth information about their targets (who have multiple identities and never seem to stay in the same place twice). Third, the movie shows the CIA adopting dubious torture methods and degrading treatment upon suspected and actual terrorists in undisclosed locations in their desperate bid to find leads on Bin Laden.

There has been much controversy over Kathryn Bigelow’s depiction of torture adopted by US personnel in 2002 and afterward (when it was officially outlawed). Arguably, the film enables Bigelow to reveal her anti-American/anti-war bias again, like she did so painfully in the critically-acclaimed The Hurt Locker. Yet, it is doubtful that she glorifies torture here. Instead, she lets viewers decide for themselves, in a similar vein to Rendition, if torture is ever necessary or useful, which is an intelligent way of kicking off a moral debate on an important and current subject.

CIA agent Dan (Jason Clarke) arguing with his and Maya's boss, Joseph (Kyle Chandler), as he tries to help Maya in anyway he can.

CIA agent Dan (Jason Clarke, right) arguing with his and Maya’s boss, Joseph (Kyle Chandler, left), as he tries to help Maya in anyway he can.

But what is even more striking than the portrayal of ‘enhanced interrogations’ in Zero Dark Thirty is how the film has painted the War on Terror as merely Osama Bin Laden. Yes, he is the figurehead of modern-day Jihadi terrorism and his death is a symbolic hammer-blow to the cause. But by 2011 it is dubious how influential Bin Laden was to the pursuit of world Jihadism, due to the emergence of numerous Al-Qaeda splinter groups, such as Al-Aqaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Al-Shabaab, among others. Yet, these other terrorist groups are barely given a mention, which is strange considering the security threat they pose to the world.

Additionally, Zero Dark Thirty does not explore, even for the sake of context, the complex and conflicting relationships between America, Afghanistan and Pakistan, not to mention the contradictory nature of the Pakistani state itself. (Anyone remember David Cameron saying that Pakistan looks “both ways” on terrorism?)

However, if one can ignore the lack of political background, one can enjoy strong performances from all the cast. At the forefront, is Jessica Chastain, who demonstrates, for the first time, that she can play a leading role just as solidly as she can a supporting one when given the chance. Her single-minded character, Maya, is given the central task of finding Bin Laden. Maya might get her way sometimes in a contrived manner for reasons of plot, but Chastain looks so natural in the role, and the way Maya changes under the circumstances is indicative of Chastain’s talent.

Patrick (Joel Edgerton) enjoying banter with his marine companions before leading them to into combat to kill Bin Laden.

Patrick (Joel Edgerton) enjoying banter with his marine companions before leading them to into combat to kill Bin Laden.

Maya’s solemnity is in mild contrast to her two main colleagues, the tough-yet-amusing Dan (Jason Clarke) and the bitchy Jessica (Jennifer Ehle). Both Clarke and Ehle play well, and are more empathetic than Maya. Nevertheless, they are both outshone by Chastain’s performance.

Over-all, Zero Dark Thirty is a sincere and honest attempt to recreate the finding and killing of Osama Bin Laden. That one knows how the movie will end is irrelevant, as it is an engrossing and tense watch. The film might be devoid of much of the current context vis-à-vis the War on Terror, and it might be overly-simplified; yet, what it lacks on those fronts, it makes up for in compelling performances, not least from Jessica Chastain. Furthermore, Zero Dark Thirty sends out a stark message to America’s enemies: it doesn’t matter where they hide or for how long they hide, America will find them and bring them to justice.

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Review – Coriolanus (15) [2012]

Star Rating: 4/5

<<guest review by KJF>>

William Shakespeare and the filmed medium have an uneasy relationship. Over the years many film-makers have attempted to bring his plays to the silver screen but not all have been successful, with some versions feeling staid and flat. For all the glories of Laurence Olivier’s trilogy of adaptations, in more recent years there have been Kenneth Branagh’s Love Labour’s Lost (2000) and As You like it (2006), which were both poorly received. Ralph’s Fiennes’ Coriolanus bucks the trend, providing an inventive, violent and gripping take on one of the Bard’s later tragedies.

Coriolanus, blood-soaked, in the heat of battle.

The original play is set in the ancient world, during one of the Roman Republic’s endless wars against a neighbouring tribe. Caius Martius (Ralph Fiennes – Schindler’s List, Harry Potter VII(ii), Wrath of the Titans), is Rome’s greatest general. Having just scored a bloody victory against the rebellious Volscians, he returns to his home city and is given the honorific name ‘Coriolanus’, in recognition of his battle prowess at the Volscian city of Corioles. At Rome the populace are starving due to a grain shortage. He tends to hold the people in contempt, and when his election to the consulship collapses, and he gets exiled, the disgruntled general defects to the Volcians and plots his revenge.

Here the story is updated to a modern Balkan setting which is very effective, recalling the wars in the 1990s following the collapse of Yugoslavia. The battles between Romans and Volscians are fought on bomb blasted streets, strewn with the wrecks of cars and buildings with terrified civilians being caught in the crossfire-scenes so reminiscent of modern urban warfare. The bleak, withered, Balkan landscape is a particularly effective back-drop to the bleakness of Coriolanus’ fate in the latter part of the film.

Fiennes in directing mode with Gerard Butler, playing Tullus Aufidius

All the events of the story are told through the prism of rolling news footage, with newscasters and pundits (naturally) spinning everything. (Even Jon Snow gets a look in!) When the grain protests in Rome are depicted, this allows for some fortuitous contemporary resonance as we cannot but think of the Arab Uprisings, particularly all the protesters massing on Tahrir Square. That all the political debating on show is done in the glare of television cameras instantly broadcasting into countless households feels particularly right. In Republican Rome, many political debates were held in public in the Forum.

Fiennes is following in the grand tradition of both Olivier and Branagh as both actor-director, and this is very much his film. The camera likes to linger on his battle-scarred, shaven, bullet-shaped head, which in the heat of battle gets spattered in blood. One needs no convincing that this is a serious warrior. When faced with dealing the people of Rome he so despises, his icy contempt for them is tangible. Fiennes is supported by a fine cast. Vanessa Redgrave (Mary, Queen of Scots, Letters to Juliet, Song For Marion) as Volumnia, Coriolanus’ formidable mother, is truly magnificent. She is a civilian but her martial bearing and control she exudes over her son is emphasised by the military dress she mostly wears. The seemingly ubiquitous Jessica Chastain (The Help, Take Shelter, Zero Dark Thirty) acquits herself admirably as the other woman in Coriolanus’ life, his doting wife, Virgilia. Gerard Butler (300, P.S. I Love You, London Has Fallen) plays a brooding Tullus Aufidius, the leader of the Volscians and nemesis of Coriolanus. There is, perhaps inescapably a touch of Leonidas about his performance but he very much proves the match and the mirror to the Roman general. The Roman politicos here are a conniving bunch, all decked out in slick, expensive suits and Brian Cox (Troy, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dog Fight) brings much style to his portrayal of the loquacious, fawning senator Menenius Agrippa, supporter of Coriolanus’ family.

Virgilia (Jessica Chastain) pleading with Coriolanus not to go back to war.

The faults with the film reflect back to the play itself. Coriolanus is the most unsympathetic of Shakespearean ‘heroes.’ He is no Hamlet or King Lear to draw much pathos. We rarely see behind his front of arrogance and hauteur and his loathing of people power, to what makes him a human being. The play itself can be heavy-going at points, punctuated with very long-winded speeches. Thankfully here, Fiennes in collaboration with his screenwriter, John Logan, has done some merciful pruning, to make everything more palatable.

Thus, Fiennes should be commended for bringing a less popular and less well-known Shakespearean play to a much wider audience. Indeed the vigour and imagination on display makes the film a rewarding and thought-provoking experience.

KJF

Review – Take Shelter (15) [2011]

Star Rating: 2.5/5

Often, when it comes to a descent into insanity, one is clueless that he/she is no longer behaving in a ‘normal’ way (whatever that means); it is only those around the ‘crazy’ individual that are aware of his/her madness. This is apparent in films like Shutter Island and Black Swan. The drama Take Shelter, despite being lame in comparison to those aforementioned movies, deals interestingly with the opposite.

Curtis (Michael Shannon) looking at some dark storm clouds with concern. This is what convinces him to build a storm shelter, even if he cannot afford it.

Based in a small town in Ohio, Curtis (Michael Shannon – Vanilla Sky, Machine Gun Preacher, Man of Steel), a man in his middle-thirties, is a construction-site worker. He may live in a decent-sized house and his life might ostensibly look like it is going well, but behind the scenes things are not so rosy. Curtis’s relationship with his wife, Sam (Jessica Chastain – The Debt, The Help, Coriolanus), has become strained due to some financial difficulties, as well as emotional stresses concerning their deaf daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart).

Soon, Curtis starts having apocalyptic nightmares and visions of a gas storm that will destroy the town and its inhabitants. Fearing for his family, he builds an impenetrable storm shelter. The trouble for Curtis is that no-one else is concerned about this impending storm, and his mother, Sarah (Kathy Baker – Edward Scissorhands, Machine Gun Preacher, Against The Wall), was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in her early thirties. Curtis is aware of this and worries that he is suffering from the same mental illness. But is this the case?

Sam (Jessica Chastain) makng breakfast for her family. She wonders why her husband has become so distant to her in recent times.

The plot for Take Shelter is simple and easy to follow. Audiences will have little difficulty in differentiating when they’re watching reality and Curtis’s dreams, since the dreams tend to be darker than real world (yet surprising not disturbing). However, as a result of needing to fix the film round Curtis, the director, Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories, Mud), focuses too greatly upon Curtis at the expense of the other main characters, Sam and Hannah. Indeed, neither Sam’s nor Hannah’s problems are even touched upon, which has the consequence of making them virtually irrelevant to the storyline. This is bizarre and undermines the movie’s realism.

Furthermore, Take Shelter is slow-paced and some parts of the plot go by the way side, such as Sam’s need for (breast?) implants (which would have been a good opportunity to delve into some of Sam’s insecurities), whilst the ending is a cheap stunt to make one rethink the entire movie. Also, considering the music throughout is either an ominous, yet anticipatory, beat or a boding-doom thud, one waits expectantly for the climax, like in Black Swan, or for the revelatory twist, such as in Shutter Island. But it never arrives, which is extremely frustrating.

Viewer’s frustration is likely to be exacerbated by the film’s length. At 121 minutes Take Shelter is quite long, and the movie feels longer still because of the artistic style that Nichols has employed. In theory, there is nothing wrong with this style, but for a film about psychological disorders it may not have been the most sensible method to choose. Too many scenes have little action or dialogue, and when there is dialogue it can often have prolonged gaps and be devoid of emotion. The lack of outburst from any of the two main adult characters seems odd too (and perhaps improbable) considering the emotional strains and financial pressures that they’re under. Maybe if Nichols had taken inspiration from the emotive drama, Revolutionary Road, Take Shelter would have been considerably better.

The family in the shelter after hearing the storm siren. Such is Curtis’s paranoia that he even bought his family the most up-to-date gas masks in the case of a storm.

In Revolutionary Road, Frank (Leonardo Dicaprio) and April (Kate Winslet) had depth and the power to make audiences empathise with their respective feelings and predicaments. In contrast, here, Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain perform with a remarkable lack of intensity, plus there appears to be no love or antipathy between the married couple (even though they constantly remind us of their love for each other). The acting is not poor and it gets better as the film goes on; yet, it is a far cry from the exceptional performances in any of the aforementioned movies.

Over-all, Take Shelter shows us that people with psychological disorders can realise, to a limited extent, that they are veering towards ‘insanity.’ It is just irritating that the film is quite uneventful, tedious and lacks the strong performances necessary to put it on a par with Black Swan or Revolutionary Road.

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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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