Friday, 30 September 2011

'Drive' Review

'Drive' (dir: Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011) Cert: 18

The 'Man of the Moment'. A Cannes award-winning director. An abundance of gleaming reviews. 

Nicolas Winding Refn's American crime thriller has been an anticipation film for many, myself included and it seems to be a universal winner with mainstream and arthouse audiences as well as tabloid and broadsheet critics - something which is extremely unusual and something which excites one greatly. So, is 'Drive' really the best of both worlds or is it simply just another over-hyped festival flick?

A Hollywood stunt driver (Ryan Gosling) who moonlights as a getaway driver in his spare time faces new challenges when he meets a beautiful young woman called Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son. As their relationship grows, the 'Driver's original lifestyle returns and soon he finds himself in a dangerous heist which forces him to risk everything. 

 The incredible attention and buzz surrounding 'Drive' is not ill, nor over-the-top, in fact it would be a challenge to praise this film any higher than one intends to do. Refn's picture is that rare beast, that ultimate cocktail; the brains and the brawn, the pulp and the gloss. It has everything to offer it's audience and so much more.

 The film explodes onto the screen in an arresting and unnerving fashion with Driver tackling a 'job' whilst slick neon pink credits fill around the action and the darkness of Los Angeles' shimmering streets - it's truly a spectacle. Soon after, the film drops back the pace and the existential arthouse picture begins to breath life; those expecting non-stop mayhem and Hollywood car chases will be bitterly disappointed as 'Drive' is much more adult in tone and time distribution than some dumb popcorn flick. Winding Refn allows the film to use it's 100 minute running time efficiently and smoothly - no scene is rushed, no dialogue pauses are cut and consequently, nothing human or natural is lost.

Still from'Drive' (dir: Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011)
 However, once 'Drive' hits the hour mark, the brakes come off and the gas is guzzled as it ferociously bursts and spits with energy, velocity and beautifully captured lashings of ultra-violence. What's so unique and fascinating about the film is how true Winding Refn has been to his European roots. Thematically, 'Drive' couldn't be more American - it's cast bar Mulligan and Gosling (who is technically Canadian but we'll let that slide) are from the US, it's setting is Los Angeles and it's narrative flavour presents a mix of Michael Mann's 'Heat' (1995), Monte Hellman's 'Two-Lane Blacktop' (1971) and Peter Yates' 'Bullitt' (1968). For all intensive purposes, 'Drive' is an American feature, yet it feels so European in it's character studies, tone and atmosphere. Straight faces, bold body language, minimal dialogue, uncensored and unglamorous violence - you name it, Winding Refn's latest has got it.

 Considering 'Drive' has been slapped with an '18' certificate from the BBFC, viewers may be surprised by how little sexual imagery and bad language it features. Characters do swear, but the language is much more tame than say a high-school sex comedy. However, this film does feature some brief but strong images of violence that some viewers may find difficult to stomach. If you have sat through Japanese Tartan Extreme films, or notorious arthouse movies like Gaspar Noe's 'Irreversible' (2002) then there is nothing in this film that will shock or offend, but for those who have only consumed Hollywood violence then 'Drive' will strike a tough cord. Winding Refn's films have always been violent in some nature and here he uses gross-out and realistic imagery to turn-off viewers rather than make violence look cool and enjoyable. Although some have complained about the violence, it only adds to the tainted and distressed atmosphere that surrounds the entire picture and I believe it is completely necessary.

 As well as a pitch-perfect narrative and structure, 'Drive' is a tour de force in directional terms. This is a Winding Refn film - everything is so intrinsically detailed, sculpted and captured in creative fashion. From the dizzying crane shots, to swooping through the ambient lit streets of down-town LA, this is a director's piece and it's no wonder he picked up the Best Director award at Cannes for this one - I just hope he's nominated in the Oscars and Golden Globes too. The film also features a wonderfully 80s retro soundtrack blending electronica and synth which really adds to the film overall.

 The performances are fantastic with Gosling being the star - considering Driver says little to nothing, his body tells the story through his constantly gripped fists and dead-pan expressions. You can almost see cogs turning and ticking behind his pale expressions and soon enough, a cog will click and he will snap causing him to enter into a violent state of mind. Gosling's naturalness and performing expertise come out blazing here and he makes Driver one of the year's best characters. If he doesn't receive any nominations, one will be deeply shocked and disappointed.

 Mulligan is excellent and plays 'the girl next door' like a pro. Although she too has minimal dialogue, her motions and facial expressions benefit her tremendously and she gives a powerful and quiet portrayal. Bryan Cranston, Ron Perlman, Christina Hendricks, Oscar Isaac and Albert Brooks also star and all are superb in their roles, no matter how dramatic. Hendricks has a very small but vital role and she acts her socks off and Brooks is fabulous as the evil crime lord Bernie Rose and it's a true pleasure to see him play a maniac rather than a cuddly old man like he's become used to.

 'Drive' has cult status stamped all over it's chassis and it will divide audiences quicker than it can refuel for the next screening, but for those who are open to arthouse pictures and those who have extremely high expectations of how cinema ought to be, Winding Refn's movie will have you applauding down the aisles. My Two Cents are that 'Drive' is one of the year's best by a country mile and is a white-knuckle, blood-soaked masterpiece.

A sophisticated ultra-violent neo-noir which grips, thrills and captivates right from the green light. 

By Chris Haydon

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

'Red State' Review

'Red State' (dir: Kevin Smith, 2011) Cert: 18

Over the last few years, Kevin Smith (or that Kevin Smith as he likes to call himself) has built a rather broken and unsettled relationship with film critics. From his humble Indie beginnings, Smith has always been a bit of a 'sweetheart' in cinema, much like Quentin Tarantino, but after his last entry - the awful 'Cop Out', Smith is determined to stay very much in critics' bad-books. After retracting the UK première and various press screenings of 'Red State' (because he believes the only people who should see his movies are those who pay), an increasing wave of negativity has been bubbling around his latest but is it fair to judge the picture itself on Smith's irrational behaviour? I think not.

 After visiting a website for meeting sex partners, Jarod (Kyle Gallner), Travis (Michael Angarano) and Billy-Ray (Nicholas Braun) head out to meet their mystery woman for a night after receiving a sexual invitation. However after they arrive, things aren't all as they seem and soon the boys find themselves at the hands of a fundamentalist society with a cruel and sinister agenda.

 'Red State's theatrical posters sport the tagline 'An unlikely film from that Kevin Smith' which quite simply sums up the entire experience perfectly; this is an unlikely film with an unlikely narrative, but most importantly, it's unlikely we will ever see Smith hit this directorial high again. He may have ticked a few off as of recent, but 'Red State' is a fantastic example of the man's script to screen talents. As the film opens, audiences are slumped into familiar territory - blue language, crass humour and teens dwelling in the sexual fantasies but there's something in the air which just doesn't sit right and as soon as the boys enter into the demented and quite frankly terrifying religious cult, the film sidetracks and throws viewers down an unfamiliar and brutally brilliant path.

 The best way to describe the fundamentalist group in the picture is 'blinded' - I'm certain Smith's bible maniacs are based on the infamous Phelps family which are referenced in the picture. They are so blinded by their beliefs that they fail to realise their actions oppose them. Early on we see an angry mob holding horrific picket signs outside a young man's funeral because he was a homosexual. The theme of homosexuality is then defined and used as a tool to fuel the film, but much like it should, this theme causes audiences to be sickened by the religious believers and root for our hormonal heroes.

Still from 'Red State' (dir: Kevin Smith, 2011)
 As we already know, Smith is a storyteller and thus provides a bizarrely comedic if somewhat twisted screenplay to his unlikely film. The dialogue is well-structured and designed, particularly Michael Parks' monologue which consumes around 20 minutes of this 88 minute feature; nearly a quarter of it's running time. This is a risky move for any director and a large burden for any actor but Parks' warped priest Abin Cooper is such a magnetic character, the minutes fly by and viewers are engrossed in the religious jargon he utters.

 As 'Red State' enters it's third act, the horror elements start to fade away and out comes a relentless surge of action, and it's here where Smith's camera skills ignite. Whipping pan shots, bumping tracks and gritty aerials consume the screen enabling the bullets, blood and sweat to splash beautifully on the big screen. It's a surprise this picture was made for $4 million; that could have easily been spent on the final 20 minutes alone.

 This is a bleak film in tone, colour and design, and certainly disturbed in narrative and thematic terms, but like the majority of Smith's movies, there is a sort of elegance and beauty in amongst all the hate crime and mass murder. No matter what his name is attached to, it's evident that Smith loves cinema and consequently loves pleasing cinema-goers with his knowledge and passion that's so clearly expressed in his work; shame he doesn't feel the same way about myself and other critics.

 'Red State' features some strong performances, if perhaps underused - Melissa Leo is fantastic as the ghastly Sara; Abin's daughter who gains pleasure in punishing those who have "sinned against God". Leo is such a diverse performer and she sinks her teeth right into this nasty role. John Goodman is excellent as the police officer Joseph Keenan who is dragged to the church to uncover the hidden crimes. His performance is bold, frequently tough and filled with his charisma - it's just a shame he fails to get the screen time he deserves. The three boys are fine at playing the 'stereotypical teenage boy' and Kaylee DeFer is strong as Sara's daughter Dana, but the film's star is Parks. His role is sadistic yet charming; a religious Patrick Bateman if you will. He clearly has the most prominent role in the picture and he makes full use of his time in centre-stage.

 Despite some unfairly poor reviews and some personal omens many have with Smith, it's reassuring to know that there are still a few original screenplays out there and some filmmakers who are trying to better our modern commercial cinema and 'Red State' is an example of this. I doubt it will get a huge release but I wholeheartedly recommend you take a seat if it arrives at your local multiplex, just not on an Orange Wednesday - we don't want to upset Smith's 'paying customer' ethos do we?

The most original Horror of the year and Smith's best in a long time - 'Red State' is that good.

By Chris Haydon

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Looking Back At...

'The Social Network' 
(dir: David Fincher, 2010)

After recently finding my original review for David Fincher's Facebook flick on the first search page of Google, I felt compelled to watch the surprise film of 2010 for a fourth time, and after being transported back to those bitter courtrooms, alcohol-filled dorm-rooms and that lavish California office, I decided it was fitting to write an article about this magnificent picture.

 It seems so rare to actually find a simplistic story about honesty and betrayal nowadays - these emotions and this idea is as old as cinema, as old as literature, and yet it is a tremendous difficultly to actually discover such a film. 'The Social Network' filled that void and proved that pure cinematic storytelling is still a possibility. For a picture which is dubbed as the "Facebook movie", it's incredible just how insignificant the themes regarding the multi-billion dollar website empire actually are. Primarily Fincher's film, aided by Aaron Sorkin's masterful script is about two ordinary boys who discover and create something extraordinary causing them to be defined by it, but the film's fundamentals are structured by friends and foes, loyalty and betrayal, secrets and lies. If one was to strip away the Facebook element, virtually any other idea could be put in it's place.

 However that's not to say this film isn't original, far from it - although it is based on Ben Mezrich's 'The Accidental Billionaires' (which I have read and it's fantastic), this film fails to follow suit of every other rivalry picture and consequently bursts at the seams with uniqueness. Whether this be due to the constantly quotable, whip-smart dialogue, the sheer believability of the performances or because this classic storytelling arc has footing in 21st Century culture, 'The Social Network' feels as ripe on repeat viewings as it did when one first experienced it at the cinema almost a year ago.

 Films like this, like 'Inception' and many other great pictures of 2010 are a reminder of just how wonderful blockbuster cinema can be if a little hard work, brain power and passion is rolled into a project. Admittedly, Fincher's film is hardly a big-budget CGI festival, but it is a beautiful spectacle that captures the essence of Harvard university as well as the nature of growing into the shoes of a billionaire. This film proves that a character study is just as thrilling, explosive and engaging as any other monstrous feature that swallows up the box-office, and this has been proved again in 2011 by the incredible 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy'.

 Personally, I have always been a huge fan of Jesse Eisenberg as I adore American Indie cinema, and I frequently recall being at the foot of a joke for liking "such a nervous, one-dimensional wreck who plays the same character over and over". With this picture and indeed other works, Eisenberg has proven to those who doubted him that he is a supremely talented actor and that he is not a 'one-trick pony'. 'The Social Network' is so far away from his other, more 'usual' roles, yet it seems impossible to picture any other actor who could play Mark Zuckerberg and could dramatise his mannerisms, his dress sense and indeed his outlooks on wealth. Eisenberg is an actor who is grounded, uninterested by fame and driven by his work, much like Zuckerberg. The Facebook creator takes little to no pride in his achievements and proves this by his incredible generosity and his considerably frank approach to being an internet entrepreneur.

 Admittedly Zuckerberg wasn't entirely in favour of the film adaptation of 'his' story - he frequently responded to questions about making a Facebook film by saying "I just wished that nobody would have made a movie of me while I was still alive", and he was not overly keen on the anti-hero and rather dim light he as a person and character was portrayed in the picture. Considering Eisenberg or Andrew Garfield never met Zuckerberg or Eduardo Saverin in person (Justin Timberlake did meet Sean Parker after agreeing to the role), it's deeply impressing just how well the pair captured their real-life counterparts. After watching an abundance of interviews with Zuckerberg and Saverin online, it's simply uncanny just how natural the performers feel.

 For many, 'The Social Network' was the film of 2010 including top critics such as Roger Ebert and Peter Travers - my personal favourite was 'Inception' and I placed Fincher's masterpiece third - just millimetres behind 'Toy Story 3'. However, unlike some of the other films from last year, this movie has tremendous staying power and gains much higher merits for this honour. It's a film that always grips, thought-provokes and causes the sides to spilt, and consequently is something to cherish and treasure for many more years to come.

Gretchen: 18,000 dollars?
Eduardo Saverin: Yes.
Gretchen: In addition to the $1,000 you'd already put up?
Eduardo Saverin: Yes.
Gretchen: A total of $19,000 now?
Eduardo Saverin: Yes.
Mark Zuckerberg: Hang on...[Mark sarcastically adds the two figures together on his notepad]
Mark Zuckerberg: I'm just checking your math on that...Yes I got the same thing.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' Review

'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' (dir: Tomas Alfredson, 2011) Cert: 15

After months of fun-loving and easy-going flicks filling our multiplexes, September has finally brought UK audiences a 'thinking man's film' in the shape of Tomas Alfredson's cinematic adaptation of John le Carré's classic novel 'Tinker Tailor Solider Spy'. Many have fond memories of the television translation starring Alec Guinness as George Smiley but now it's Gary Oldman's turn to wear those shoes and he is bringing an abundance of British talent with him to the big-screen...

 London, the 1970s. After British Intelligence spymaster Control (John Hurt) and his espionage partner George Smiley (Gary Oldman) are sacked, sensitive information regarding the security of MI6 begins to emerge. It becomes apparent that a Soviet mole has penetrated The Circus which forces Smiley out of 'retirement' and enables him to spy on fellow spies involved in the Secret Service. It becomes evident that the mole is one of five men but suspicions and doubt absorb the tormented environment leaving it impossible to trust anyone.

 Right from the opening credits, the picture's tone is categorically established; 'TTSS' is leery, cold and unsettled. Locations, characters and plot points feel as if sculpted by acid and stale cigarette smoke - nothing is what it seems and certainly nothing is pleasant, but yet in all of this paranoia and dread lies hopeless beauty, artistic creation and a burning desire. 

 The gloom sinks in instantly when Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) is sent by Control to Budapest where he is to obtain a Hungarian general who is willing to return to the West to release the mole's identity, but this being a grimy, loathing and unnerving spy thriller, Prideaux's hard work is not respected and leads to dramatically focused consequences.

 Much like the films of Michael Haneke, Alfredson has masterfully captured raw emotion, violence, tension and doom by showing audiences such tiny portions. 'TTSS''s hard-hitting action is explosive yet invisible; if viewers are expecting car chases, gun showdowns and beautiful woman, they will be sorely disappointed. The action is condensed to four yellow-stained walls which encapsulates a group of tightly-wound older gentlemen, all whom have different mannerisms and ideals for 'success' against the mole. Dialogue exchanges are frank, punctual and in sets of brief bursts. Lingering silence and scenes of endless nothingness are intoxicating and absorbing, body language speaks volumes and slight-of-hand causes momentous tension. In fact, Smiley himself fails to utter words for approximately 10-15 minutes when the picture begins, and he is located in the majority of scenes. 

Still from 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' (dir: Tomas Alfredson, 2011)
 Oldman's Smiley makes suggestions by tweaking his glasses ever so slightly, or exhaling a thoughtful breath; his persona is tied down by the dramatic weight of his exterior shell and it's simply marvellous to endure. At some critical points, audiences can almost see inside his mind; it's much like a Swiss watch - every single part contributes to the cogs turning and presenting time. Smiley's mind is somewhat of a beautiful mystery laden with unfathomable thoughts and details so intricate, the majority would be scratching their heads as they search for an explanation.

 'TTSS' refuses to spoon-feed viewers and requires undivided attention. If you are used to this types of brooding and vast pictures, it should not take you too long to work out what is going on and why so, but if you are new to this content, or an espionage arthouse thriller does not sound like your typical cinematic visit, this may not be for you. Having said that, I whole-heartedly recommend every single soul to see this picture; it sinks it's hooks into you from the off and fails to let you go. Like a noose slowly tightening as more secrets unfold and characters begin to question others and indeed their own morality, 'TTSS' does it's up-most to keep viewers locked down and trapped into this world of slippery agents and manic fax machines.

 Alfredson was the perfect directing candidate for taking le Carré's novel to the silver screen. This being his first film in the English language, he has incorporated all that was blissfully gorgeous but tonally strict with his earlier masterpiece 'Let the Right One In' (2008) and applied it to the drab and seediness of this novel. 

 Many will also be pleased to know that this feature does not fall into the rather depressing pattern that many ensemble cast movies do. All involved have valid screen time, important impact to the narrative progression and are individually established through wonderful character development. If viewers believed the poster boasted a terrific cast, 'TTSS' features many more well-known faces including Kathy Burke, Stephen Graham and Roger Lloyd-Pack that only add to this sheer example of how exquisite our acting talent is.

 As well as Oldman’s mesmerising yet low-key performance as Smiley, Tom Hardy is simply stunning as Ricki Tarr; a rough-and-tumble type plastered by his sheep’s wool coat as he embarks on a mission set by Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) which ends up with him falling for a girl who “Isn’t even his type”. Toby Jones is also wonderful as the bitterly smug Scot Percy Alleline who obtains the codename ‘Tinker’. Strong, Burke, Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds and Hurt are also extremely well-cast and provide electric performances but the film’s star is Cumberbatch’s Guillam aided by a ‘Beatles-esque’ haircut and whip-smart dialogue. Guillam gets the best of both worlds; he has the authority to ask of favours from fellow partners but takes his share in dirty duties on behalf of Smiley. A scene involving the obtaining of documents, passing bags and checking for glaring eyes is tense, taut and beautifully performed.

  When you lay in bed at night and the only thought circling your mind is based upon what you have just seen, it is sheer proof that one has been affected. ‘TTSS’  fascinates, immerses and absorbs its audience and the payoff is extremely rewarding.  In truth, this is a ‘critic’s film’; it has all the fitted components and is driven by a tour de force of performances rather than boisterous action and glitz. It’s incredibly assured and handled, driven and maliciously motivated and worthy of many award nominations, and for my money, it is the best all-round film of 2011 so far.

Gripping, exciting and strangely beautiful, Alfredson’s adaptation is nothing short of a masterpiece.

By Chris Haydon

Thursday, 15 September 2011

'The Help' Review

'The Help' (dir: Tate Taylor, 2011) Cert: 12A

As the Autumn months roll on, pictures that are bound to gain some Oscar buzz start hitting our screens and I would be incredibly surprised if Tate Taylor's big-screen adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's novel 'The Help' is not included in all the hype and hearsay that will soon be fluttering around the cinema world. I was lucky enough to get an advance screening of this picture (it isn't released theatrically in the UK until 28th October - check me out!) and after reading an abundance of praise from our Atlantic allies, it's a fair assumption to think one's expectations were reasonably high. So, here's what I made of it.

 'The Help' follows Eugeina "Skeeter" Phelan (Emma Stone); a young ambitious writer working in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi. "Skeeter", much like many of Jackson's young people, has been surrounded by African-American maids her entire life and these woman have raised her from a tender age. Whilst the majority of the wealthy residents believe their maids are just people designed for work, "Skeeter" finds great distress in their mistreatment and decides to write a book based upon interviews with the maids she comes in contact with. Her book influences and soon close friends Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) become enthusiastic by the idea of telling 'their side of the story' but feelings of doubt and fear easily consume the maids due to living in such a racially hostile environment. 

 Cinematic depictions of race stories can certainly be dividing - films such as 'American History X' (1998) show the extremities of certain people and indeed of human nature. Personally I find these studies of race far more encapsulating than the pictures that force guilt and feelings of repression upon an audience. The films of Tyler Perry are very much a product of this, as was the successful drama 'Precious' back in 2009 which I absolutely hated. Racism themes need to emotionally engage viewers rather than punish them and almost blame them. Whilst audiences were supposed to feel great empathy with 'Precious', I felt like the film was telling me off for being a lower middle-class white person which consequently did not allow me to attach to the picture. 

 Thankfully, 'The Help' uses subtlety and heart to tell it's tale and it succeeds tremendously. Fundamentally, the film is sweet and gentle in it's telling of a depressing and unquestionably ill period in our recent history, but rather than being tied down by the weight of grit or realism, Taylor's picture uses moments of great humour and a sincerely rendered character group to bewitch viewers and become immersed in the private lives of these extraordinary women and the daily struggles they faced at the hands of the obtuse and unloving.

 It's with these mixed emotions that place 'The Help' quite comfortably into the 'Dramedy' sub-genre. It never feels wrong to giggle through the film, but it wouldn't feel right to have a silly grin wiped across your face for it's entire duration. Clocking in at a frankly staggering 146 minutes, Taylor's adaptation is a long picture but with the time comes a greatly rewarding, insightful and emotionally challenging triumph. The film never felt slack or that it needed those all important editing scissors so it seems that 2 hours and 26 minutes was the exact time needed to translate the novel to the silver screen. 

Still from 'The Help' (dir: Tate Taylor, 2011)
 Another great element about the picture is it's UK certificate - thankfully the BBFC have granted 'The Help' with a 12A rather than a 15. Although the film has no scenes of physical violence or other unruly things, it's subject matter and racially abusive language could have been enough to warrant a 15 but luckily a lower classification has been decided. One of the most important themes in the film is the power of friendship and how anything is possible to overcome when you have somebody strong to lean on - this is such an important and beautifully executed message that speaks volumes and it's great that parents will be able to take their children to experience this upon it's cinematic release. This film would be great for a mother and daughter and would certainly give young women perfect role models to admire.

 'The Help' sports a wonderfully balanced script that's funny, informative and touching yet laden with melancholy and bitterness. These different emotive states compliment the film's tone and setting making it a journey filled with ups and downs as well as laughs and tears. Although it's trailers and promotional material may make the feature look like a bubbly 'Chick-Flick', there is plenty for both sexes of all ages here and I defy anyone who isn't moved, touched or swept up by this film. It's rare for me to sob in any film, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't shed a few tears. It also looks fabulous; from the 60s setting and dress to the rich sun-soaked colour pallet, 'The Help' is somewhat of a visual feast.

 The world loves an underdog story and there is many scenes in this picture that make audiences want to pump their fists and root for the maids. These emotions are proof that viewers are engaged and involved in the characters - we are happy when they succeed and are filled with sorrow when they are mistreated. We can also find many reasons to cheer through "Skeeter" as she's the one who makes the stand and strives for change; her actions determine future events.

 'The Help' is drenched in electric performances - Stone is sublime as "Skeeter" and has proven that comedy roles are not her limitation. Admittedly she is mighty funny here, but she is driven by emotion, spirit and belief, all of which are incredibly impressive and played with great honesty. It could earn her an Oscar nod but it's possibly too early to tell. Davis is wonderful as Aibileen; her bruised nature and her haunting past at first define her but once her story is able to be told, she becomes a different woman. Davis puts strength and dignity into this incredibly moving character portrayal and it would be no shock if she was Oscar nominated. 

 Bryce Dallas Howard also stars in the movie as Hilly Horbrook; a nasty and manipulative woman who enjoys her power over the maids and does her best to try and racially divide homes by installing separate toilets for coloured people. She gives a tremendous performance and is so easy to dislike it's unbelievable - one has never truly rated her acting abilities but she is excellent here. Perhaps the picture's highest acting awards go to Spencer and Jessica Chastain who plays Minny's 'boss' Celia Foote. The pair has such charming and good-natured chemistry that offers some much needed comic relief and shows that not every household in Jackson that has a maid is a unpleasant workplace. Spencer and Chastain both act their socks off and give rounded and mesmerising performances.

 'The Help' is unlikely to excite everyone, but for those who do take the time to go and see it will have an emotional, heartfelt and amusing experience. It's ability to snap from one feeling to the next in an instant along with a cracking script and complimenting casting is what makes the film stay fresh, involving and successful. This is an exquisite example of literature filmmaking and it's amongst 2011's best offerings - I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Rich, elegant and involving - 'The Help' is a cavalcade of emotions, A-grade performances and beautiful scripting. Make a date to see it.

By Chris Haydon

Saturday, 10 September 2011

'Friends with Benefits' Review

'Friends with Benefits' (dir: Will Gluck, 2011) Cert: 15

One Year, Two Swans, Two Sex Comedies - in February, audiences were presented with 'No Strings Attached'; the more "light-hearted" entry from Natalie Portman who was currently riding off her Oscar fame from 'Black Swan', now in September, her 'Swan' buddy Mila Kunis is starring in a particularly similar feature about sexual relationships with a friend rather than a lover. With a strong cast and a fine comedic director/co-writer at it's helm, high hopes are weighted on this 'risqué' Rom-Com, but does it succeed or merely stumble back to mediocrity like many-a-Hollywood romance?

 Dylan (Justin Timberlake), a successful blog runner from Los Angeles is head-hunted by GQ Magazine for an art director position in New York. Jamie (Mila Kunis) is the company's head-hunter and is asked to collect him from the airport and show him around the state. Soon Dylan takes the job and he becomes close friends with Jamie. The pair are recently singled and are fed up with the dating scene. After a few weeks and a few beers, the pair decide to have casual sex - no emotion, no complication, no attachment. The pair's 'relationship' grows and grows but soon they realise they might want just a little bit more than sex.

 It's so hard to get excited about American Rom-Coms because they so frequently disappoint; many are constantly formulaic, unoriginal, uninteresting and poorly executed. Although it's wrong to judge an entire sub-genre based upon previous experiences, it's extremely tough not to. But when one does come along and decides to stand up to the mundane it certainly strikes a chord - and 'Friends with Benefits' is that picture.

 In comparison with the rival swan's entry, 'Friends with Benefits' runs rings around 'No Strings Attached' highlighting what a dull and miserable affair it is - in fact, this film beats it's 'sexy' rival in every department.

 Narratively, this film is predictable much like any other Hollywood entry, but it isn't gooey or obsessive, it isn't swooning or over-dramatic; it is something much different - slightly realistic. There are some scenes with 'Flashmobs' (groups of people randomly dancing together in public) that bring back the cinematic feel to the film but the realism does not lie in the film's setting or construction, it lies in the pitch-perfect scripting and the fantastic execution from Timberlake and Kunis.

Still from 'Friends with Benefits' (dir: Will Gluck, 2011)
 The pair's friendship is believable, plausible, and most importantly likeable; these are two individuals who you want to get to know, who you want to understand and who you want to succeed. Whilst watching, viewers aren't thinking "That's the bloke from N*Sync getting some from Meg from 'Family Guy'!", they are wrapped up in the characters and their on-screen developments thus making us buy into their world. We are watching chapters in Dylan and Jamie's lives unfold, not it's stars.

 Gluck's script is laced with witty pop-culture references, prods to his previous masterwork 'Easy A' (which featured in my top 10 films of 2010) and gimmicks about the 'traditional' Hollywood romance with a comic faux movie starring Jason Segal which plays throughout the film's duration. 'Friends with Benefits' is frequently funny with some moments that are genuinely side-splitting - whether that be some of the cringe-worthy sex moments, the hilarious banter or the scenes of complete stupidity.

 But as well as being riotous amusing, the film is often touching and is able to take the viewer back by it's emotional force. Dylan's father, played by the brilliant Richard Jenkins is at the fore-front of the emotional tyrant with his moving portrayal of an Alzheimer's sufferer. However there isn't enough 'tough-stuff' to make 'Friends with Benefits' gain Drama as a sub-genre because after a brief encounter with your feelings, it forces the belly laughs from you once again keeping the comedy constant and primary.

 All the performances are of great standard; Timberlake has proven his abilities in 'The Social Network' and 'Alphadog' and I believe he has taken his first 'proper' leading role and ran with it. He thrives with the gags, shows skill with the emotional content and is able to carry his weight of the film. I'm certainly a fan of his acting and this film has increased my interest. 

 Kunis is wonderful and brings a genuine, affectionate and sassy performance to the screen. She's ridiculously beautiful but her looks are completely secondary to her acting accomplishments. She makes Jamie seem like an actually decent person which makes us feel the same way towards the star portraying the character. Woody Harrelson makes frequent and hilarious appearances as Tommy; GQ's homosexual Sport editor who cracks jokes about New Jersey, woman and the likelihood of Dylan's heterosexuality. It's clear to see Harrelson is just taking it easy for a bit and enjoying playing a brief but bizarre character and he delivers the goods.

Patricia Clarkson pops up occasionally too as Jamie's mother Lorna; a woman with a rather deviant past with men which she hopes hasn't reflected on her daughter. Clarkson was fabulous in Gluck's 'Easy A' and it was great to see her here too. Also professional Snowboarder Shaun White is in a few scenes which is a little odd to say the least but hey...

 It is going to be difficult for the masses to fully restore hope in American Rom-Coms but 'Friends with Benefits' has certainly eased the pain and has proven that it's possible to achieve. It may be a little formulaic and foreseen, but ultimately this is the all-around strongest and most engaging Hollywood Comedy release of 2011 and I believe it's one of the year's best movies. Take your partner, take your friends, take anyone (as long as they are over 15 obviously...) and enjoy 109 minutes of giggling bliss.

Sexy, feel-good and incredibly impressive - 'Friends with Benefits' is the laugh-out-loud movie to beat. It's 2011's 'Easy A'; there I said it...

By Chris Haydon

Thursday, 8 September 2011

'Fright Night' Review

'Fright Night' (dir: Craig Gillespie, 2011) Cert: 15

After a remake-heavy summer, the trend doesn't seem to be showing signs of slowing down during the Autumn months either and it certainly seems that reintroducing screen audiences to updated versions of 80s Horror movies is still a fashionable idea. After the more 'traditional' remakes ('Halloween', 'Friday the 13th' et al), director Craig Gillespie has taken a more unique approach in re-vamping (excuse the pun) the classic Horror Comedy 'Fright Night'. The world seems vampire crazy right now so it seems fitting that we get some more 'original' bloodsuckers back on the big screen rather than the ones who sparkle...

When Charley Brewster (Anton Yelchin) and his 'friend' Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) begin to notice many fellow pupils are failing to turn up for school, suspicions begin to consume the dusty suburban Las Vegas town  they reside in. Charley's girlfriend Amy (Imogen Poots) starts to see a distance in her partner when his family get a new neighbour called Jerry (Colin Farrell). Jerry's mysterious behaviour links to the strange happenings across the town and it is soon revealed that he is a vampire. Charley confines in Vegas performer and supernatural performer Peter Vincent (David Tennant) for help and soon the young man finds himself in a fight for his life against the undead.

 The first thing that struck me about 'Fright Night' was how multicultural it's cast is - the majority of the lead performers are from the UK (Farrell, Tennant, Poots) whilst Yelchin is actually Russian and his mother in the movie, Jane played by Toni Collette is Australian. It is great to see such an array of talent from across the globe all involved in a single project and the film efficiently benefits from this. In fact, there is a lot involved in this film that works in it's favour making 'Fright Night' an immensely enjoyable and entertaining romp.

 Like the best remakes, it is not essential for a viewer to have seen the original source material; Gillespie's version has it's own strong footing and stands up as a perfectly valid entry into the tricky sub-genre of Horror Comedy. The original was laced with dark humour aided by moments of sheer stupidity whilst the comedic elements in the later version seem to be more grounded in pop culture and irony. Gags about 'Twilight', eBay and other miscellaneous things that are part of our culture have the finger pointed at them in a rather charming and childish way - you are more likely to giggle or snigger through this picture rather than belly-laugh. However this isn't 'Shaun of the Dead' because it's primary focus is the Horror. 'Fright Night' feels traditional in it's examples of screen fear - it doesn't use tricks or slight-of-hand to get the job done, this is a good old fashioned Vampire film including stakes, garlic and crosses. Thankfully it's traditionalism does not make the feature seem formulaic; there are some shocks and surprises which are subtly moulded into the mix leaving plenty enough for the audience to enjoy.

Still from 'Fright Night' (dir: Craig Gillespie, 2011)
 Many reviews have said about the 'high' amount of gore in the feature which is completely false - granted there is bloodshed and explosions but the film's nature is never overly-graphic, it's much more playful and knowingly absurd. The violence in the latest 'Final Destination' is far greater than this and yet those features want viewers to believe their absurdity. Gillespie's latest wants the audience to simply have fun and he has monumentally achieved. 

 Admittedly 'Fright Night' isn't perfect; there is some expected cheesy dialogue and a rather peculiar soundtrack including a country version of Jay-Z's '99 Problems'? But this film has far more positives than negatives; in fact I'm struggling to find anything else bad to say about it.

 The film sports some brilliant performances, particularly from Yelchin, Farrell and easily the film's star, Tennant. Yelchin's portrayal of Charley here is probably his best and most rounded role since the fantastic 'Charlie Bartlett' back in 2007. He is a greatly likeable screen presence and carries the film with steady hands. Farrell was a great casting choice for Jerry and provides another strong American accent. His 'bad-boy' image aides his character's vicious nature nicely forming a strangely likeable villain. Poots is well cast and is entertaining as Amy too and Mintz-Plasse is as funny as ever but Tennant's madman Peter is king - he is like a cinematic circus-freak. Tennant fans will know just how physical his performances are from his perfect portrayal of The Doctor in 'Doctor Who' and he applies the same methods here along with added swearing. Lots of added swearing. Tennant is such a bold and dramatic actor who is extremely capable and effortlessly charming, and he gives it his all in this role. It's a marvellous achievement indeed.

 'Fright Night' is a perfect choice for a Friday night flick; it's energetic, frequently funny and playfully scary along the way. In the recent wave of rehashes and remakes, this is a contender for one of the best.

Grab your stake, stash your bible and go have an absolute blast. You will not be disappointed.

By Chris Haydon