Welcome to Me

Greetings Internet! I have been wanting to enter the world of blogging for a while now. I used to write reviews for a student magazine and I miss the days of receiving adulation from my fans (because that definitely happened…all the time). I am also hoping that blogging will help distract me from the barren wasteland that is unemployment. So what can you expect me to write? Film reviews! Book reviews! General thoughts on the universe! But for now, let me welcome you to my blog and I promise that there will soon be lots of content for you to gaze at. Ooh, also I have put up some of my old reviews if reading about films that came two years ago piques your interest. Thanks for reading.

P.S. Have a cute picture of a duck that I found on the internet.

Films, Reviews

Inside Out Review

Pixar’s latest film, Inside Out, focuses on an 11-year-old girl, Riley (Kaitlyn Dias). Or rather, the film focuses on what is going on inside Riley’s head. We are introduced to the headquarters of Riley’s mind, run by personified emotions – Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust – that control everything Riley feels. It’s been easy to keep Riley happy so far, after an idyllic childhood in her hometown in Minnesota, but after the family move, Riley’s mind grows more turbulent. After Sadness attempts to interfere with proceedings, she and Joy end up getting lost in the depths of Riley’s mind. They must find their way back to the HQ, if she is ever to feel Joy or Sadness again.

The film’s premise is an intriguing one, but what exactly does the inside of someone’s mind look like? How would it work? And is it a premise that can be sustained throughout the film’s 102 minutes of screentime? Never fear, Pixar deliver the answers to these questions across the next hour and forty minutes with imagination, inventiveness and ease. Oh, and colour. Inside Out is definitely in competition for the most colourful animated film released in recent years – from Joy’s yellow fluorescence to Disgust’s vivid green hue, and from the shimmering orbs that constitute memories to the cheerfully colourful train of thought that travels across Riley’s mind. Whereas the outside world of San Francisco is dull and grey-scale, inside Riley’s mind is buzzing with colour and activity.

The landscape of Riley’s mind is bright and fantastical. From Dream Productions, styled as a 1930s-esque Hollywood studio and the theme-park-like Imagination Land to the various Personality Islands that make Riley who she is, it’s a gloriously imaginative and wonderful world, and a perfect setting for the film’s double-act (complete opposites Joy and Sadness)’s turbulent journey to get back to HQ. For, though the world of the film is incredible, as in all Pixar films, it’s the characters that give Inside Out its soul. It seems impossible to make characters meant to personify specific emotions into complicated and interesting personalities. But Pixar’s characters are all fun, likeable and interesting, though Anger, Disgust and Fear may not get the same amount of development as Sadness and Joy. Joy, in fact, is the star of the show, the true protagonist of the film (voiced excellently by Parks and Recreation’s Amy Poehler), whose devotion to Riley pulls on the heart-strings. She may embody one emotion, but she is also all at once complex, flawed and endearing. Joy’s partner-in-crime Sadness (Phyllis Smith), is the perfect opposite to Joy’s energy and vigour, being as she is, quiet and sympathetic. Other characters shine as well: Bing Bong (Richard Kind), the imaginary friend of Riley’s earlier youth, is also a memorable character and is the one responsible for the film’s most heartbreaking moment, whilst Riley herself is a likeable character trying her best to be strong for her parents.

Along with its cast of memorable characters, Inside Out also stands out as a rare original film in a time when sequels have become the norm, both for live-action and for animation studios (Inside Out’s competitor is, after all, the spin-off Minions film). It makes financial sense – you can just look at the box office numbers to see that. Whilst there are still new films being made, they are clearly designed to adhere to a certain model – big-budget films must be franchisable, sure to spawn a series of follow-ups which will rake in the cash. This leads to these first films of many to feel more like a set-up, rather than a full film (I’m looking at you Big Hero 6). Pixar have been culprits of this sequel madness lately, with the middling Monsters University and Cars 2 as past releases, and with sequels in their future too, such as The Incredibles 2, Finding Dory and Toy Story 4. So it is a relief to see a film that is completely original. Inside Out may well get a sequel in the future, but it doesn’t need one – it stands up as an individual film in itself. This doesn’t feel like the creators are following a franchisable blueprint. The only formula that Inside Out seems to adhere to is classic Pixar: an odd-couple duo at its centre, with a life-altering journey, wit, imagination, fun and above all, heart.

Like the best of Pixar, such as Up and Toy Story, Inside Out has a deep message to impart, without being heavy-handed. No other studio can deliver with such subtle poignancy the messages imbued in Inside Out; that all emotions have their place and that, at some point, it’s time to let go of the past. It’s a classic coming-of-age story that delicately plucks on the heart strings, and gently encourages children (and perhaps adults, too) to embrace their feelings. The film is perhaps aimed at a slightly younger audience that Pixar’s previous films (there’s maybe less subtle jokes to keep the adults entertained), but as a family film, that’s hardly a drawback. With Inside Out, Pixar have gone back to their roots, and proven that, in the game of big-budget animation, they are still the superior studio in imagination, originality and emotional impact.

Films, Reviews

Cinderella Review

Cinderella, directed by Kenneth Branagh, is the first in an upcoming series of re-imaginings of classic Disney animations (Beauty and the Beast and Mulan are up next). Although, perhaps re-imagining isn’t the right word, given that this live-action version is pretty much indistinguishable from the animated original, even down to Cinderella’s affinity with mice. Given that it follows in the footsteps of films like Maleficent and Disney’s juggernaut Frozen, which both mixed up the traditional formula of the fairytale, Cinderella is somewhat surprisingly straight-laced. We live in an era where heroines now are all armed with swords, guns and witty one-liners; the most active thing that Cinderella does is some emotional horse-riding, and her mantra of ‘Be Kind and Have Courage’ means that everything that comes out of her mouth is the verbal equivalent to a sugar-coated cupcake.

But these aren’t necessarily bad things. Cinderella may be traditional but it’s also sweet, charming and damn is it pretty, with impeccable set design and costuming. In fact, there are several improvements on Disney’s original animation. It’s quite a feat to take the animated Cinderella (the blandest of the Disney princesses, and dangerously close to Snow White levels of annoying) and make her bearable, let alone likeable. But somehow, writer Chris Weitz and Downton Abbey’s Lily James manage it. Cinderella may be nice, but she’s not sappy, and she can stand up for herself. In a role that could be irritating beyond belief, Lily James is very likeable and actually quite adorable. Richard Madden similarly manages to bring personality to a potentially bland role. The leads are endearing and the relationship is easy to root for, even if the characters lack depth and are completely without flaws; the worst thing you could probably say about them is that they’re just too darn pleasant.

Among the cast however, Cate Blanchett is the stand-out. She is the only one to truly give her archetypal character depth, transforming her into a femme-fetale figure, worn down by life’s hardships. She’s a compelling villain, and demands your attention when she’s on-screen – partly due to Blanchett’s abilities, partly due to how utterly fantastic she looks in her stunning 1940s-esque fashions, designed by Sandy Powell. Helena Bonham-Carter too, is excellent, on delightfully kooky form as Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother. She brings whimsy to film that, in all honesty could do with a bit more. The film isn’t so straight-laced that it isn’t fun, but, without going down the more subversive route, a little bit more quirk and kookiness is needed to make it stand out, and more imagination could have elevated this adaptation from good to great.

In the end, Cinderella isn’t going to change the world, but for a family outing, it’s perfect. Light, fluffy and fun, the message it delivers to kids – to be kind – isn’t a bad thing to encourage, and makes a refreshing change from other films featuring more ruthless heroines. Still, a little bit more subversion would be welcome, and here’s hoping that the Emma Watson-helmed Beauty and the Beast, up next, has a bit more kick.

Films, Reviews

#OscarsSoWhite: Selma and 12 Years a Slave

The 87th Academy Awards: the Oscars that spawned the hashtag #oscarssowhite. The tag took Twitter by storm after it was revealed that 100% of acting nominees this year are white, for only the second time in twenty years. The lack of diversity wasn’t limited to the acting categories either: the Telegraph has shared statistics that reveal that a shocking 9 out of 127 persons nominated this year are not white, and only 25 women have been nominated across the board. Without the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress categories, there would be 15.

There has been uproar about many of this year’s snubs: The Lego Movie, which many expected to win Best Animated Feature, didn’t even get a nomination, whilst Gilliam Flynn missed out on a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, for adapting her best-selling book Gone Girl. But the most controversial omissions were that of David Oyelowo and Ava DuVernay for Selma, the civil rights film tracking the 1964 peace march from Selma to Montgomery led by Martin Luther King. Oyelowo seemed guaranteed a nod for Best Actor for his astonishing portrayal of the iconic man, and DuVernay was all set to make history as the first black woman to ever be nominated for Best Director. The film has garnered a Best Picture nomination, but this seems little more than a cursory nod to Martin Luther King’s legend. Aside from that and a nomination for Best Original Song, the film was ignored by the Academy. But are these snubs and statistics really telling us anything we don’t already know?

The Academy don’t have the best record for diversity, or for taking chances on fresh ideas (a conservatism that many cite as the reason for The Lego Movie’s snub), preferring instead to stick to nominating the same actors and same stories again and again: Bradley Cooper is nominated for the third consecutive year for American Sniper, a film that many have accused of being racist and glorifying a murderer, whilst Meryl Streep is enjoying her 19th Oscar nomination for musical, Into the Woods. Storywise, all of the Best Picture nominations this year (excepting Selma) revolve around white men, and many of them buy into the tortured genius storyline we’ve seen several times before (The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, Whiplash).

Many have looked to the make-up of the Academy (which is as lacking in diversity as the films it’s nominated) to explain this: 94% of Academy voters are white, 77% are male and the average age of an Oscar voter is 62. Looking at these statistics, the inbalance of race and gender in films this year (and years previously) starts to make sense.

But wait, the Academy can’t be racist! What about all the love for 12 Years a Slave last year? This is the argument taken up by many on the opposing side of those who have accused the Academy of racism. Last year, Steve McQueen’s biopic about Solomon Northup, a free black man tricked into slavery, was nominated for 9 awards, and walked away with 3 including Best Picture. Perhaps then, racial prejudice has nothing to do with Selma’s lack of nominations. Maybe 12 Years a Slave is just a better film?

In my view, it’s true. 12 Years a Slave is powerful, raw, uncompromising and a true masterpiece in filmmaking. Every line, every character grips you and doesn’t let you go. Chiwetel Ejifor’s performance is a masterclass in acting: giving a fully rounded character who we can believe in.

Perhaps 12 Years a Slave is the superior film. But that doesn’t mean that Selma isn’t a good film, or that it is unworthy of the Academy’s attention. It may not quite achieve the raw power of Steve McQueen’s tale of slavery, but it still has powerful moments (the confrontation in front of the voting office is exquisite) and David Oyelowo commands your attention as Martin Luther King: electrifying, captivating; he is what brings the film to life, and his exclusion from the Best Actor category is an error. There are plenty of things to recommend both films, but the sad truth that is emerging is that in the Oscars, for black cinema, there can be only one.

Though this year has been targeted as Oscars most racist year, the very same could be said of last year’s Oscars too. They may have been congratulated for showing a shred of diversity last year, but the there-can-be-only-one rule has never been more apparent. Some hailed 2013 the year of black cinema, with a number of films released including black characters, and the Oscars were expected to be awash with black-centric stories, with The Butler, Fruitvale Station, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and 12 Years a Slave all expecting to be nominated. However, 12 Years a Slave was the only one to get recognition. A clue to Selma’s snub may in fact be seen in the snub of Fruitvale Station last year, a film following  events leading up to the death of Oscar Grant, who was killed by police in 2009. The film brought issues surrounding race-related violence to the spotlight and Selma does the same.

12 Years a Slave is a film about slavery, something that we can at least convince ourselves is a long ago part of history (although evidence shows this to be far from true). Selma on the other hand, shines the spotlight on issues that affect us now, issues that many would prefer to ignore.

It is a film over which the shadow of Ferguson looms; anyone with the slightest knowledge of Michael Brown, and the many other black men murdered by police, will not be able to watch Selma without their names swirling round in their brains. In the film, Martin Luther King refers to ‘thousands of racially-motivated murders’. He is talking about 1964, but he could just as easily be talking about 2015. The film recognises its connection to Ferguson, and embraces it, even naming it in the song ‘Glory’ at the end of the film. But whilst Selma is ready to acknowledge the horrible, important and for many, uncomfortable truth about the current state of racism, the Academy, apparently, is not.

Films, Reviews

Still Life Review

John May (played by the ever-excellent Eddie Marsan) is the man at the centre of this gentle meditation on life (and death) from Italian director Uberto Pasolini. John’s existence revolves around his job, which is to arrange funerals for people without friends or family. He painstakingly picks out details from a person’s life – a red necklace, (many) photos of their beloved cat – to create a funeral that gives them a proper send-off. John is let go however, which leads to a sweet if rather meandering journey as John throws everything into his last case and goes out of his way to find one man’s friends and family.

Eddie Marsan’s performance is low-key and sympathetic, much like the film itself. Quiet and unassuming, nonetheless, you can always see the cogs turning: Marsan’s performance is by far the highlight of the film. It’s especially impressive when considering that to be brutally honest, he doesn’t have much to work with. John is a nice man. But that’s all he really is. There’s very little complexity to the character, which proves a problem as all the other characters are largely pushed aside to focus on our protagonist. As a result, the other characters are rather one-note and forgettable.

That’s not to say that Still Life isn’t without its charm. It has moments of tenderness and emotion, and successfully relays the pervading loneliness and relative emptiness of John’s existence. But unfortunately, the film often oversteps the line from sweet to cloyingly sentimental, and delivers characters and plot that are bland and underdeveloped.

Final thoughts: Marsan’s performance is a stand-out in a film that, though often sweet, struggles to leave any lasting impression.

Films, Reviews

The Theory of Everything Review

The Theory of Everything tells the story of the relationship between Stephen Hawking and his wife Jane, beginning with their first meeting, and continuing on as Stephen finds fame and fortune, but his health deteriorates as motor-neurone disease takes hold. This biopic is making a splash in awards season, Eddie Redmayne having already won a Golden Globe for his performance, and the film tallying up an impressive 8 nominations at the upcoming Academy Awards, with nods for Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Actress. Given the hype that has built around the film, I had high expectations, especially about Eddie Redmayne’s much-applauded performance.

I was not disappointed. As the world’s most famous living scientist, Eddie Redmayne delivers a captivating physical performance: from the first shakes and stumbles that foretells the gravity of his condition, to the point at which he is trapped in his own body, unable to move at all, Redmayne perfectly portrays not only the effects of a devastating illness, but also the spark, wit and sense of humour belonging to a man we all are familiar with. There will be some who question whether there is anything more to Redmayne’s performance than a remarkable physical transformation. These doubts are unfounded, as even without an actors’ main tools (movement and speech), Redmayne is able to communicate to the audience charm, wit and heart-wrenching emotion.

However, whilst Stephen Hawking and Eddie Redmayne are the names likely to be associated with the film, there are two women who are fundamental to its success. They are Jane Hawking and Felicity Jones, Jane Hawking being the wife of Stephen Hawking, on whose memoirs the film is based, and Felicity Jones being the wonderful actress who plays her. It is nice to see, in mainstream media, a heroine who doesn’t necessarily fit the profile of a “strong” woman: she’s not uber-confidant, there are few witty one-liners here, and she doesn’t wield around a gun or have a talent for kung-fu. Jane is in fact fairly timid and reserved. But there is no doubting her strength. In Felicity Jones’s eyes, we see Jane’s determination burn and her resilience as the years go on makes for heartbreaking viewing. Though the film spans almost forty years, Jones doesn’t undergo any dramatic make-up or prosthetics, the filmmakers instead relying on Jones herself to make us believe her transition from a naïve, young student to a woman thirty years into a complicated marriage and at the end of her tether. Jones fully delivers, and whilst the calibre of Redmayne’s performance is unquestionable, it’s possibly Jones that steals the show. Redmayne’s performance is a master class in physical control, but so is Jones’s. Stephen and Jane are both people who are trapped. He cannot escape the limitations and deterioration of his body, she the bubbling emotions that she desperately hides behind a mask of strength and stoicism. Through Felicity Jones’s performance, we feel the weight of the world on her shoulders.

Given that the film is based on her memoirs, it could easily be biased in her favour. But former documentarian, James Marsh, directs a film that elegantly shows all perspectives, and showcases imperfect, but sympathetic characters. Given that this is a film based on the lives of real people who are still living, there are potentially delicate issues here – the film is careful in its portrayal of the relationship between Stephen and his nurse, Elaine, for example, that has been the source of controversy. Marsh manages to avoid these issues, but it comes at a cost.

The film skims over the darker parts of Stephen and Jane’s relationship, meaning that some aspects of the film don’t always quite ring true. Stephen and Jane are too easy on each other, too forgiving, and there is perhaps an unrealistic lack of bitterness and resentment between them, that interviews with the real life Jane suggest did exist. That is not to say that the film sugar-coats the characters and the things they go through. We see Stephen’s physical decline in painful detail, and though their relationship starts off feeling fairy-tale-esque and the film doesn’t go as dark as it could, their relationship is shown as complicated and often strained.

In truth, this is not a film about science or illness, or even just Stephen Hawking. It is a film about a relationship between two amazing people, and it is this relationship that raises the film above many other biopics or tragic “illness” stories. Unlike so many of romances that dominate the screen, this relationship feels genuine and believable, despite skipping over some of the nastier bits. The film doesn’t offer a “love conquers all” message, and it doesn’t have a fairy-tale ending. It could have easily felt heavy-handed, systematically designed to jerk tears from your eyes. But, ‘The Theory of Everything’ in the end feels optimistic and hopeful.

Cemented by two astounding performances, The Theory of Everything rises above others of its ilk by relying on genuine, heartfelt emotion and a relationship that you can believe.

Films, Reviews

The Drop Review

The Drop. The title of new crime drama from director Michaël R. Roskam, is referring to a “drop bar” – a bar where illegal money discreetly changes hands. The film’s hero, Bob (played by Tom Hardy), is a bartender at one of these “drop bars”, figure-headed by Cousin Marv (James Gandolfini’s final role), but really run by a Chechen gang. Bob and Marv are put in a tight spot when a robbery takes place at the bar, and an investigation starts digging into the neighbourhood’s past.

There’s a lot that’s familiar about The Drop: a lonely protagonist trying to go straight in a crime-riddled world, finding his redemption in a cute dog and a cute girl (with a meddlesome ex-boyfriend).

But there is also a lot to recommend The Drop, not least its solid cast. Noomi Rapace impresses as love interest Nadia, whilst James Gandolfini’s final performance, though familiar to his others, is a good one, and we see beyond Cousin Marv’s bravado to the terrified man beneath. However, it’s Tom Hardy and the gradual uncovering of what’s beneath his character’s good guy persona that steal the show. Hardy’s deceptive performance of a complicated but sympathetic character grounds the film and makes it stand out from other similarly-themed dramas. Dennis Lehane’s dark and intelligent script, based on his own short story Animal Rescue, also gives the film an edge.

The film isn’t without flaws: the plot often seems messy, and though we are informed that Cousin Marv is a “desperate” man, that doesn’t really explain the randomness of some of his actions, and it is hard to pin down exactly what he is trying to achieve. Whilst the first half has us wondering what’s different about this film in comparison with any other crime drama, the second half picks up the pace, and leads us to an explosive final confrontation.

The Drop takes a while to find its feet, but when it does, it is gripping, moody and gives us insight into interesting and complicated characters. And it also involves an incredibly adorable puppy. Over all, there’s a lot to like.