Insurgent – Film Review

Insurgent

Before we begin I think I should tell you my YA credentials so you know where this review is coming from. I have read all the Hunger Games books and seen the first two films which I don’t rate too highly. I have read all the Divergent books and liked them more than the Hunger Games though the previous film left me a little cold. As for Shailene Woodley and her troop of men in the world of YA I have read and watched both Spectacular Now and The Fault in Our Stars and have mixed feelings for the former pair and moderate praise for the latter. I’ve done my fair share of reading and watching YA and in particular watching Woodley starring in their film adaptations.

Insurgent, and to a greater extent the Divergent trilogy of four, does not stray far from the dystopian future familiar to YA fans. This second instalment finds Tris (Shailene Woodley), our uniquely gifted female lead, hiding as an outlaw while plotting to bring down the Machiavellian Jeanine (Kate Winslet), our evil leader, and shake up their society which has naturally been split into a number of houses districts factions. Along the way people die, secrets are revealed, and allegiances are tested.

The test of a YA film is arguably not in its originality but in how well it executes what we know is coming. Is the action suitably thrilling? Is the plot understandable to those who have not read the books? (Let’s ignore anyone who hasn’t seen the first film, they are on their own.) Can the actors convince us that the world is real? Does the film ever slip into boredom, ridiculousness, or outright confusion?

For my money Insurgent largely succeeds. It takes the plot of the book and streamlines it so that rather than having characters dotting around back and forth the film has more forward momentum and less down time for the audience to lose interest. The action scenes are exciting and Insurgent makes the most of having the half of its set pieces taking place in virtual reality. The CGI is mostly convincing and lends a hand in creating a real looking world for the action to take place in. With the film confined to a city the size of Chicago (because it is Chicago) a few swooping camera shots help to give the audience a lay of the land and get to grips with the dystopia at hand. As a structure the film is all good and just needs the right cast to populate it.

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Setting aside Kate Winslet and Naomi Watts who pop up occasionally to add credibility to the film, and a franchise to their filmography, the casting for the young characters is pretty impressive. For the most part. Woodley herself has a track record for bringing strength and soul to a literary character and does more of the same here. The film really does rest on her shoulders and she, and her sad eyes, do not disappoint. Theo James reprises his role of Four, the love interest, but I couldn’t help but feel as though the film-makers had wisely minimised his screen time. James is not this cast’s strongest performer and isn’t asked to do much more than look sad/angry and generally be but. Woodley’s frequent co-stars, and love interests elsewhere, Ansel Elgort and Miles Teller provide solid support as Tris’ brother and rival respectively. Teller in particular bring a special quality to his performance as the unreadable Peter and provides the only humour in what is otherwise a very dark film.

And boy is it dark. I lost count of the number of people we got to see being shot in the head. All shooting happens just off-screen of course, this is a 12A. Despite the family friendly age certificate Insurgent doesn’t hold back too much as adult themes of death and (OMG!) sex are never far from cropping up. I realise death is part and parcel of the YA genre but here the killing felt that bit more direct.

Overall Insurgent is perfectly fine. A strong cast, a decent pace, and enjoyable set pieces help Insurgent stand out from its predecessor. All is not perfect, there are plenty of convenient coincidences and sometimes everyone seems a little too serious, but for the genre you could do a lot worse.

If you’ve seen Divergent or read the books then there’s no reason not to see Insurgent. For everyone else… good luck to you.

Insurgent is in UK cinemas now.

Focus – Film Review

Focus

Watching a mediocre film is not much fun but trying to write about it is even worse. No high praise or undiluted rage; just minor complaints and a general feeling of apathy to share with the world.

Will Smith is a veteran con man who takes Margo Robbie’s amateur thief under his wing when she fails to rip him off. Smith runs a gang of thieves who work together to pull off major heists including stealing watches and picking pockets. Oceans Eleven this is not. Over a short space of time Smith and Robbie fall in love. OR DO THEY?!?!? Then with the initial petty theft completed they do not see each other for three years. It must be true love. They are reunited when Smith starts working for an F1 team as a freelance hustler and lo and behold his new boss’ beau is Robbie. Robbie is in love and out of the scamming game. OR IS SHE?!?!? Events unfold from here in a predictably twisty turning way.

Focus is not just a con movie but has desires on being a romantic comedy too. As such it needs to succeed on two fronts to win over its audience; it needs a strong con and a believable romance. Sadly it has neither. Rather than stealing millions from The Man™ in an elaborate web of subterfuge our heroes are out there on the street taking mobile phones from distracted tourists before selling them off for small amounts. These are the people I am supposed to be on the look out for when I leave the office. These are not the sleek and sexy rogues Focus wants us to embrace. A second scheme in the latter half of the film’s weird structure is a bit more complicated but fails at blowing minds when the big reveal comes round.

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So the film does not have a strong con. OR DOES IT?!?!? It doesn’t. But how does the romance stack up? Margot Robbie and Will Smith are both perfectly fine actors, and we should applaud any film that includes an interracial relationship without drawing attention to it, but the chemistry between the two is sadly lacking. We need to believe that, cons aside, at least one of the pair is in love with the other but we aren’t given any reason to. Their time together is fleeting and often filled with deception leaving their romance sceptical at best, and that’s before even thinking about the age difference.

A film that wants to be a sleek and sexy con movie with a romantic comedy twist instead comes across as a mismatched relationship between two petty thieves. There are a few laughs along the way, and some welcome distraction in the form of Adrian Martinez, but for the most part Focus is just a bland film about unlikeable criminals who don’t seem to pause for a second to question the morality of their chosen profession. If you are looking for an inoffensive film then you have found it, but if you want to see something truly exciting I suggest you look elsewhere.

Focus is on general release now.

Love Is Strange – Film Review

Love is Strange

Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) have been a couple for nearly forty years but were unable to legally get married until New York changed its attitude to same-sex weddings. After finally getting married George finds himself dismissed from his job teaching at a Catholic music school. With their income slashed the couple are forced to sell their apartment leaving them at the mercy of the New York housing market and relying on the kindness of their friends and family to take them in. The loved ones who gave such moving speeches at their wedding find themselves having to actually act on their sentiments and come up short. Nobody is willing to take in both men so after decades together Ben and George find themselves sleeping not just in separate beds but in different apartments.

Ben ends up in his nephew’s family home sharing a bunk bed with a decidedly unimpressed teenager while George moves in with some former neighbours who are a much younger couple prone to hosting loud crowded parties that George no longer has any patience for. Both try to be the best house guests they can but Ben especially finds himself getting in the way and testing the patience of his hosts. Separated and under appreciated Ben and George rediscover just how much they enjoy each others company and the understated authenticity of their long romance holds their relationship, and the film, together.

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Alfred Molina and John Lithgow are not actors known for their subtlety, both being fantastic at taking on large characters and blowing them up to fill the stage or screen. In Love is Strange though director Ira Sachs has managed to take the scenery out of their mouths and drawn out much more subtle and nuanced performances. Lithgow does none of the loud shouting that had made us love him and as a result gives one of his best performances to date. With Love is Strange the familiar faces fade away to reveal an older couple who are deeply in love and whose company is infinitely preferable to their chaotic friends and impatient family members.

Within their script Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias have a funny and tender love story set many decades after most romantic comedies end. This is the happily ever after. Despite their difficult living situations Love is Strange doesn’t bring with it high drama, settling instead for a portrait of love told by showing a few periods in our characters lives. The film occasionally jumps forward a few weeks or months and it is up to the audience to find their own footing in the gently flowing narrative. As a result of its distinctively indistinct structure the film ends not with a bang but with a slow sigh. I can see how this might frustrate but instead I suggest accepting the film for what it is; a brief interlude into the lives of a lovely couple and the people that love them. The characters have had lives prior to the film and they continue on afterwards. The fact that I wish I had seen more is to the film’s credit.

A beautiful film about love, family, and getting old Love is Strange is a pleasant way to spend an evening.

Love Is Strange is in UK cinemas right now.

Whiplash – LFF Review

Whiplash

Unbeknownst to him Miles Teller and I have had a tempestuous relationship until recently. He first crossed my path when he co-starred in the remake of my beloved Footloose and then the atrocity that was Project X; neither appearance endearing him to me. In the past year he has starred in two YA adaptations with Shailene Woodley, Spectacular Now and Divergent, playing unsympathetic characters with varying degrees of complexity. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Teller; was he a good actor making not so great films or a mediocre actor in mediocre films? I couldn’t be sure until I saw Whiplash this week. Everything is different now. Miles Teller has arrived and earned his place at last.

In Whiplash Teller plays the role of Andrew, a music student and aspiring drummer studying at the country’s finest music conservatory. His dream is to impress the intimidating Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons) who is known for pushing his students either to the brink of sanity or into greatness. Andrew works his way into the jazz band conducted by Fletcher and while his hero is initially encouraging Andrew soon experiences to extreme high standards demanded by the musical perfectionist. In a bid to match what Fletcher demands Andrew sacrifices all semblance of a normal life to practise to the brink of exhaustion and play the drums until he has secured a place in the band and then hopefully a career for himself in music. The question is not whether Andrew wants a career drumming badly enough but whether or not he will survive Fletcher’s unique brand of training.

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Whiplash is nothing short of astonishing. The energy the film has from start to finish is literally breathtaking and the sense of release felt by the audience in my screening when the film came to a close was such that spontaneous cheering broke out. Watching Teller at work playing Andrew is exhausting as he drums and drums, and drums some more. The sheer effort of the role is self-evident and the film shows blood, sweat and tears all pouring out of Teller and onto the drum kit as his sticks flying across the screen. Effort is a key component of Whiplash; it is about not taking the easy route but about earning your dreams and demanding them when others stand in your way. Andrew sometimes comes across as entitled but he damn well earns the right to his entitlement. It’s not often that cinema shows that success requires work and sacrifice or shows it so effectively.

Opposite Teller Simmons plays the role of the surly mentor with a real vicious edge. This is not your typical irascible trainer who pushes the protagonist at first but turns out to have a heart of gold. Fletcher is a horrible man intent on bringing out the best performance at the risk of sacrificing the individual. While given a slew of amusing one-liners Simmons’ performance never lets humour outweigh the underlying nastiness of the character. Fletcher is not a nice man but he and his students believe that this is key to the success of his band. Another theme in Whiplash is ego and whether or not building it up is simply going to make it harder when you are inevitably knocked down. Fletcher is constantly undermining his students egos and stroking his own making him an absolutely fascinating character to watch.

I won’t go any further in describing what takes place in the film as it is something to experience for yourself. The journey that Fletcher forces Andrew down is a painful one and Whiplash does not follow the predictable trajectory. Writer/director Damien Chazelle has made a film of high energy, exhausting workmanship, and a real pace. Whiplash is a force of nature and I came out shaken and buzzing with energy. It’s hard to explain why without you seeing it for yourself on a big screen and a decent sound system.

The one bum note to the film is its disinterest in the sole female character. Briefly introduced as a love interest she is quickly disposed off which felty slightly wasteful and perhaps surplus to requirements. That aside Whiplash was as close to perfect as this year’s festival has gotten. Get me to a jazz bar!

Whiplash has a UK release date of 16th January 2015 and screens at the London Film Festival on the 16th & 18th of October 2014.

BFI LFF 2014

Wild – LFF Review

Wild

NOTE: For this review to work please pretend that Walk the Line never happened as I didn’t see it and forgot it existed…

As an actor you can make lots of lucrative, fun but unfulfilling films in your youth but to extend your career it helps to make the shift towards more respectable fare. Last year Jean-Marc Vallée directed Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club and took him from being the lead in mediocre romantic comedies to winning an Oscar in a single film. This year Vallée is back with Reese Witherspoon as the actor getting a career revamp, and probably an Oscar nomination, in Wild.

Based on the autobiographical novel by Cheryl Strayed, and adapted for the screen by the great Nick Hornby, Wild tells the story of Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) as she walks the 1,100 mile Pacific Crest Trail from the Mexican to Canadian border. Having lost her husband following a sex and drugs downward spiral and a family crisis Cheryl decides what she needs is time to clear her head and find herself. Alongside danger, exhaustion, and pain walking this distance offers up plenty of solitude and time for reflection. As she walks Cheryl meets mostly friendly strangers and looks back on the mistakes she has made in her life so far. The further Cheryl walks the more she grows and the greater the understanding the audience gains of her character and why she felt the need to embark on this long journey.

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Witherspoon is clearly looking to put a stake in the ground and mark out a new start for her career. Far away from her Legally Blonde days Wild allows her to give a complex grown up performance as a woman who is a three-dimensional human being and not a caricature. While not a subtle film there is room for Witherspoon to demonstrate scope and depth in her acting as she plays an incredibly complicated woman who has made some truly awful decisions. The role of Cheryl does not always put Witherspoon in a flattering light and requires a certain level of exposure both emotional and physical. If nothing else Wild shows a commitment to real acting rarely seen from this particular performer. The film rests on her shoulders and she bears the burden well.

Wild is a beautifully shot film with some great performances and a witty script. While not offering anything cinematically innovative it conjures up a great sense of adventure alongside a dramatic tale of loss and errors in judgement. I am an absolute sucker for any film even remotely resembling a road trip and Wild sufficed in making me wanting to strap on a bag and walk until my feet fall off. The film earns bonus points for expertly representing the almost orgasmic relief felt when taking off hiking boots after a lengthy journey.

A solid film with a tough story to tell, Wild showcases new facets to Witherspoon’s acting chops and announces her as an actor to keep your eye on even at this stage in her career.

Wild has a UK release date of 16th January 2015 and screens at the London Film Festival on the 16th of October 2014.

BFI LFF 2014