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Category Archives: American Film

The Greatest Showman

Rarely does a film come along that I can praise without reservation or qualification, but this is one. So much so that it’s barely worth writing about.

What do you say about a film that hits the mark on character, balances it with plot and inspires us to be our best selves?

Nothing. Just watch the damn film. Annually at the very least. Forever.

 
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Posted by on Wednesday, 3 January 2018 in American Film, Film, Twentieth Century Fox

 

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Burnt

This post contains minor spoilers. Not enough to ruin the film, but more than I would usually give, so proceed at your own risk!

burntBurnt is one of those great little films that really gets around your prediction instinct. The plot, in a way, is really quite predictable, but it disguises itself exceptionally well.

Essentially, the film is based on the formula for an action film. It utilises the late twentieth century chronotope of the gruff and superficially unpersonable hero, but casts him as a chef with a questionable history of drug use and alcoholism, determined to prove his value, in this instance, by attaining a third Michelin Star.

Bradley Cooper, of course is the perfect man for the job. Cooper embodies the masculine stereotype, but both his manner and his filmography allow him the leeway to delve into more unexpected waters, particularly as a sensitive and relatively accepting human being.

He is supported in this endeavour by much more nuanced casting. As a heroine, Helene (Sienna Miller) makes a shrewish entrance and, though following a similar trajectory to Shakespeare’s Kate, develops in a much more textured manner to matching Cooper’s Adam. Daniel Bruhl completes a love triangle, with his character Tony engaging with Adam’s obnoxious quest out of an unrequited love. His depiction of this character is exciting in being so understated. Neither his appearance, nor his portrayal of Tony rely on gay stereotypes, and it is refreshing to see such a subtle portrayal of a queer character, especially when the character’s orientation is a key element of the plot.

Burnt may not be a brilliant film, it may not boast spectacular dialogue or a unique plot arc, but it does surprise with some beautifully drawn characters and the perfect ending.

 
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Posted by on Monday, 9 November 2015 in American Film, Film, Weinstein Company

 

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Paper Towns

Paper TownsThis year, two films with names starting with the word paper have impressed me. I’m not sure what to make of that. I’m not even sure what I should make of the fact that two films with names starting with the word paper have been released this year. Nonetheless, it seems to be a good formula, because both of them are bloody brilliant.

Paper Towns is an American Indie film, and if there’s any negative generalisation you can make about American films, American Indie films are the exception that proves the rule. American films sacrifice plot intrigue for dramatic licence. American Indie films don’t. American films have superficial characters that barely even remind you of humanity. American Indie films don’t. American films make a lot of money at the box office. American Indie films don’t. Okay, that last one wasn’t negative, but you get my drift. Want to understand the American psyche? Spend some time with their Indie offerings and you’ll encounter the sweet, sour, ugly, beautiful soul of America.

Paper Towns delivers a deeply engaging plot centred on the protagonist’s crush on his neighbour, a girl who develops a habit of disappearing. It’s a kind of coming of age story, kind of a road movie, kind of romantic comedy, but, as with all good Indie films, it defies categorisation.  Its characters really get under your skin. They’re characters you can really care about, drawn with such a fine verisimilitude that you don’t even notice the archetypes being presented. Antagonists, too, are never left to wallow in the audience’s antipathy, but they come to life as fully developed characters worth as much respect as protagonists, if not as much love. Stories like this are rare.

This is genuine storytelling. I have seen a lot lately that doesn’t quite engage me as I wish it would, but this just held me enthralled from beginning to end.

 
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Posted by on Wednesday, 15 July 2015 in American Film

 

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Big Hero 6

big hero 6In the opening moments of this film, I loved its playfulness and cross-cultural references like the name of its location in San Fransokyo and the Asian touches on the Golden Gate Bridge. The animation grabbed me immediately, and it was easy to engage with the characters. Of course, you’d expect that from these guys. Disney are masters of the dramatic arts and know how to play them to commercial advantage, and they’ve built an empire on engaging audiences across ages and cultures.

The film concerns Hiro, a young robot enthusiast who develops a brilliant new concept for robotics in order to gain a scholarship for his brother’s university. He succeeds, but the death of his brother and the theft of his concept present a need to turn from Hiro to hero before he takes up his place in academia.

The cross-cultural elements are particularly interesting, and on the surface at least, reinforce the values of multiculturalism. But I just felt uneasy as I started to notice cultural stereotypes creeping in. Despite a broad brush being applied in the races of the animated characters, it can be observed with some objectivity that all the notable Asian characters were nerds, all the characters with political, financial or academic power were Anglo-Celtic, and the muscles belonged to the African American. Not racist by any means, and the way in which these characters contributed to the functioning of the symbolically-hybridised San Fransokyo is a respectable image, but really, Disney? Is it necessary to reinforce these stereotypes? Could you not just shake it up a little bit? For the kids? Maybe?

To their credit, there are some strong, understated female role models here. The gender balance is better than the race balance, and the catchphrase “woman up” is one I hope will resonate with my daughters. The film is also very strong in character development. Though one of the characters dies early in the film, his presence remains palpable throughout, thanks to the treatment of the central character, whose grief is brilliantly established and expressed.

This really is an excellent film. It has a unique and engaging story, well-developed characters and beautiful animation. But I just feel that little bit uncomfortable with the way it reinforces stereotypes, so I have some hesitation in praising it too highly.

 

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Fury

furyWorld War Two movies really should be sold by the dozen. I mean how many times can we just keep rehashing this? With the 70th anniversary of the end of the war less than a year away, principally between Hollywood and Europe, it seems, from a cursory search of IMDB, that the rate of production regularly exceeds 40 feature films per year, with no sign of abatement. And despite the severity of the Asia-Pacific Theatre, we are predominantly focused on Europe.

So I didn’t really go to see this film because I thought it would be something remarkable or special or even noteworthy. There’s a new WWII movie for just about every week of the year. I just felt like going to the cinema, and this one was on at the right time.

And really, that’s about how this one should be valued. It’s not a bad film by any means. It has a strong plot, interesting characters, great explosions, confronting gore and just the right amount of novelty (I’ve never seen a tank battle portrayed quite like this before). It has some profound  little lines like “Ideals are peaceful, history is violent”, which are included subtly enough for my taste, and in some way justify the bordering-on-extreme degree of violence depicted here.

And that’s really all there is to it. There is no attempt to glean any new insight into humanity from the species’ darkest days. No spark of genius or flash of brilliance. There’s some valour, perhaps, but really, when we’re churning out so many films on this theme, there is absolutely nothing remarkable about this film.

So I don’t know why I’ve made any remarks at all…

Except to comment that maybe, just maybe, it would be good to start issuing licences for people who want to make films about WWII, or some kind of system that gives us an indication of whether this is just regurgitation or whether there’s something new to be said. I certainly think that there is more to be learned from this period in human history, and I’m very keen to see Angelina Jolie’s upcoming foray, but still… filmmakers, please; can we just explore the humanity of war a little more?

 
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Posted by on Monday, 1 December 2014 in American Film, Columbia Pictures, Film

 

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Gone Girl

gone girlEvery now and then a movie comes along that just hits all the right notes. For me, when this happens it is usually a film that defies categorisation. Gone Girl is such a film.

Engaging, endearing and focused turns to confronting and unnerving as this two hour adventure unravels. Just as you feel you’re approaching a defined denouement, the film takes a wild turn and plunges you back into uncertainty. It is very cleverly crafted to ensure that you know just enough to want to know more, but not enough to sit comfortably.

The film clearly presented its marketers with lots of challenges. It defies categorisation into a genre. It has multiple climaxes. It can’t be said to be “Film X meets Film Y”. And it twists like a cut snake. The resulting marketing guff that claims this story gets at the heart of a modern marriage, then, is hardly surprising. Of course it does nothing of the sort, but it does present one of the most intense and surprising films I’ve ever seen, regardless.

Ben Affleck is at his most intense, striking an excellent balance of pathos and not-really-giving-a-shit. His prevailing presence in the first substantial trajectory of the plot overshadows Rosamund Pike, who, when she gets a chance to shine, genuinely takes over as the lead character; the gone girl. Her performances truly hinge on what the audience doesn’t know, and the mystery in her character becomes the focal point as the film approaches its unnerving end.

Yes. If you like a nice and tidy conclusion to the plot, give this one a wide berth. But for a couple of hours on a roller coaster, you can’t go far wrong.

 
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Posted by on Tuesday, 21 October 2014 in American Film, Film

 

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Boyhood

BoyhoodI feel very generous. I’ve just donated three hours of my life to one of the most vain films I’ve ever encountered.

It sounds good in theory: make a film about adolescence and use the same actor throughout, but film it over twelve years so that the physical changes are naturalistic. In reality, it just doesn’t cut it. And not just because it’s too long.

When Richard Linklater appeared on the screen at the beginning and said hello to the cinema chain we had just entered and told us the name of the film we had just bought tickets for, I thought it was just a little marketing stunt. It wasn’t until halfway through I realised that this film is not a story but an exercise for its creator.

The problem is there’s no point to the film. It’s a fiction, but it’s so confused about what it’s about that it’s not really about anything. There are a series of events, some fortunate and some less so. The adolescent journey is depicted naturalistically from the boy’s transition from childhood into adolescence to his transition from adolescence into adulthood, but there is little to tie this story together as a coherent story. It just goes from one episode to another, often skipping over major events in the plot.

Judging by the title, the film should be about the boy. For the most part it follows the awareness of the boy, but occasionally it diverts from that rule. It spends more energy, I think, on his parents, and the theme of parenting, but then it loses this plot thread by the end because it goes back to the boy from the title.

The thing is, as much as I was bored most of the time I spent watching, the characters are still engaging. I’d prefer it if I could just dismiss it as a boring film, but it’s not boring; I wanted to know what happens, because the characters, particularly Ethan Hawke as the father and Patricia Arquette as the mother, are absolutely fascinating. The boy, played by Ellar Coltrane, was likewise completely enthralling.

It’s just that nothing much happens, and it takes three hours for this nothing much to happen to these fantastic characters.

I think this one got bitten by the novelty bug, and instead of a story it became a mere exercise in film making.

 
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Posted by on Sunday, 20 July 2014 in American Film, Film, IFC Productions

 

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