Boyhood – A Review

Boyhood

TL;DR: More like Lifehood, Linklater combines essences from previous works to present a Texas-based coming of age, time-lapse narrative that demonstrates how growing up is not just specific to children, boy does it work.

My expectations were high upon entering the splendid Phoenix Picturehouse in Oxford for their 14:30 showing of Boyhood, it being one of my most anticipated films of 2014 due to my love for the overwhelming majority of Linklater’s previous films. One thing I love is how Linklater, ever since Slacker, has demonstrated how strong his dialogue writing can be in many different contexts be it comically yet intimiately such as in Bernie, lovingly and explorative like in the Before films or existential and abstract as in Waking Life. Boyhood is no exception. What the film lacks in snappy plot twists it makes up for in relatable characters we can empathise with due to a timeline of impactful life events with visualized consequences.

The unique selling point of Boyhood, which must be mentioned, is that the film’s production span is over a decade (Because the 9 year separation between the Before films were not enough real time tomfoolery for Linklater). This means that character development here is as true as it could possibly be, we literally see Mason Jnr (Ellar Coltrane) grow from an infant to a college student in just shy of 3 hours. The soundtrack and nostalgia-inducing references to the different years are brilliant and help establish the year tenderly, Mason’s older, yet still young, sister singing “Oops I did it again” and the evolution of the mobile phones used are just a couple of examples.

The film’s storyline is linear and begins with a young Mason gazing at a blue sky as a young boy of about 6. Mason’s the kind of kid that’ll be happy playing with dirt and rocks in the garden for hours; that’s not to say he’s dumb though, he does his homework but he does forget to hand it in. We meet his family. His older sister Samantha, played by Lorelei Linklater, is giggly and can be stubborn like a lot of girls are at that time of their lives but eventually grows to be strong, independent and funny. His single mother, Liv (Patricia Arquette), is loving and amiable but the struggles of life and love are visibly beginning to take their toll. Most of the film is spent observing them deal with life just like we did or will do, be it as a child or a parent, whilst they grow as people and as a family unit. Our family almost relocated when I was younger like they did in Boyhood and that hit me hard. The life events slowly change from happening around yet affecting a young Mason (Mum’s damaging relationships) to happening to him and because of him like prom, graduating, bullying and developing interests as he grows older; this is a film seeped in reality, even if a lot of the conversation is probably too deep for how most kids talk these days.

Linklater regular, Ethan Hawke (apparently channelling his inner Sam Rockwell) plays the kids’ Dad with heaps of energy and depth but is undoubtedly outshined here by Arquette’s heart-making and breaking performance. She transforms herself several times throughout the film, seemingly losing/gaining weight for each relationship she engages in as well as unavoidable aging, for me, she really exposes how parents see their children, how much they love them and love being with them especially when it comes to letting your babies fly the nest.

The real star for me though is Ellar Coltrane as our leading boy/man who acts way beyond his years, in particular, in his early to late teen years. Looking at times like a young Ethan Hawke himself (his chilled voice and semi-open eyes could be seen as a little stoner like, though for me, he seems pensive), Coltrane portrays that time of life seen in so many other coming-of-age stories; you really want to follow your dream but aren’t particularly sure of what it is, you blindly fall in love and are heart-broken when it’s all torn down. These are areas Linklater’s writing excels in (see Dazed and Confused, I keep getting older and it stays just as good), and his direction style is apparent throughout such as in a Jesse and Celine-esque long take of Mason and a female friend chatting casually whilst walking along a street. Mason’s travels through his early years, into puberty and beyond and his interactions with those who love him and support him made me wonder what’s truly important in life… not many actors or films can do that so the whole cast deserve credit on such an evocative, ambitious project.

Boyhood is like taking a trip down the memory lane of the guy who lives down the next street. You were there at the same time but you never put on his shoes and stepped out of his front door and that’s what makes Boyhood interesting.

8.4/10.

Chef – Hunger inducing yet remarkably satisfying – A review

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Previously I’ve worked in a reasonably classy hotel restaurant for 4 years and have witnessed first-hand the camaraderie between the chefs and seldom the odd tiff between kitchen and management that Jon Favreau’s newest film “Chef” demonstrates so clearly.

At said restaurant our head chef used to be this mountainous Frenchman, Laurent, booming voice and all. I’m partially conditioned to immediately stopping what I’m doing whenever I hear the word “service” now thanks to this man. The menu was beautiful. Venison, lamb, duck, beef dishes to name a few. Though season to season throughout those four years the presentation of each dish or the sauce changed a little there was never really anything adventurous that could really put the restaurant on the map.

Carl Casper (Favreau) has worked Head Chef in the same Venice beach restaurant for over a decade and triumphantly commands a renowned kitchen, he maintains happy staff on his side of the pass and is churning out gourmet food week in week out. He’s a much better cook than his predictable, tried and tested menu portrays him as though. When his stale menu causes an important encounter with a prestigious food blogger (who was originally a fan of the restaurant) to go sour Casper eventually erupts and quits his job. Here, just like in the kitchen I used to work at (and so many other occupations) consistent success is often valued much higher than experimentation and gradual evolution of a healthy business. This often comes at the cost of staff satisfaction. The film continues with Oscar, his son (Emjay Anthony) and his incredibly loyal, helpful sous-chef Martin (John Leguizamo) embarking on a funny, fulfilling adventure across America into the unknown that is the food truck business in a kind of “Office Space” meets the food channel romp.

This satisfaction and contentment scenario is one of many real-world situations presented to us in “Chef”, one of many because this is film is quite impressively realistic. The date is quite clearly now give or take a year or two. “Do the other kids have iPhones?” Oscar asks his son, yes, to answer that, nowadays most 10 year olds probably do have a medley of Apple products. The working environments feel real, the relationships have problems and the lead has his flaws which helps us to sympathise.

Though not the most technical film there is still a very savvy feel to the plot and how it has been arranged. Gorgeous, voluptuous food porn that features heavily in the first act and a half had me salivating like Homer Simpson; especially one particular cheesy, grilled number. The extensive use of tablets, iPhones, popular internet videos and Tweet projections work well under the plots context and don’t feel cheesy at all on the other hand (“I’m everywhere like a cat on a keyboard”). The honesty of the relationship between Oscar and his son (a child coping with the realities of divorced parents) is also credible, touching in fact, several moments had me on the verge of tears.

I do have a couple of complaints though. This is another example of film where female characters are wooden, isolated and uninteresting. Scarlett Johansson and Sofia Vergara are both absolutely gorgeous (a scene snapping between a seductive Scarlett and a mouth-watering pasta dish caused an acute temperature anomaly beneath my collar) but all they do is completely focused on if the happiness of our leading male can be achieved or routinely and kind of annoyingly checking up on Oscar and his son, just in case they’re having too much fun, of course. Secondly, and maybe it’s just because I’ve listened to Kermode’s audiobook which has a section dedicated to this topic, I had a sense that scenes where the critic (blogger) were involved were a little unfair on the side of the critic when like Oscar, he’s just doing his job.

“Chef” made me laugh a lot (Oscar’s naïve misuse of twitter…still laughing), tugged on my fondness for the coming age genre and forced me to think about what could be if I were able to do whatever I’m passionate about for a living; something it truly deserves credit for.

A really nice watch, proving once again that Favreau can make films that are money without lots of explosions, an extra seasoning of complexity throughout would have been more to my palate though. 7.6/10.

TL;DR: Glossy food porn and a middle finger to stifling creativity, served in a warm realistic success-story with a side of comedy and morality. “Chef” hits the spot if you’re looking for something light but could leave those looking for hard-hitting flavours a little underwhelmed.

Fruitvale Station – (Late to the party)

Fruitvale station

 

One thing I love about film is that a story that needs to be told will always attract an audience.

Fruitvale Station, written and directed by Ryan Coogler is the story of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), a young man who became the victim of police malpractice on New Year’s day of 2009. I emphasise that this is the story of Oscar; not just the story flung over the news that fateful day and likely weeks and months thereafter.

After having watched the unwavering real-life smartphone footage recorded during Grant’s seizure by the police that the film opens with I was gripped by a crippling sense of dread. The footage slowly divulges from back and forth between officer and “criminal” then tails off into that chaotic chorus of screams, name-calling and panic which most would recognise as a precursor of uncontrollable actions and dire unnecessary consequences. This made the film seem so real, these situations genuinely scare me and had me willing for a circumstantially appropriate equivalent of a boxing referee to waltz in from stage left and break it all up.

The meat of the film introduces us to everything about Oscar Grant’s life. Oscar takes his daughter to school every morning and slips her a sugary treat unbeknownst to her mum (Sophina, Oscar’s girlfriend, expertly played by Melanie Diaz) like any quirky dad might. He then drops off his right-minded girlfriend at work and goes about the day’s errands like buying food and a birthday card for a family gathering. Whilst shopping and despite Sophina’s issues with his promiscuous, out-going personality he calls up his Grandma for a fried fish recipe to help a stranger out (after eyeing her up) and has a laugh about it with his friend who works at said shop; this is just Oscar’s personality.

Like all interesting characters, real or fictional, Oscar has problems too. He’d previously been jailed for selling drugs and now sadly after having lost his job because of his punctuality issues he feels forced into relapsing back to the trade for the sake of providing for his family. A particularly striking scene, a long shot of Oscar emptying a zip-lock bag of weed off a rocky peninsula into the ocean, was beautiful, thought-provoking and solemn all at once. The film asks us is it better to be financially comfortable dishonestly than struggle and barely get by? Oscar resists temptation (he decides to give away a morsel of left-over product than sell it) demonstrating his change into the man he wants to be; a change his better-half is also happy with ( ;-) ).

What happens afterwards is yours to see and will probably leave you scouring the internet for articles like it did for me. Films like Fruitvale Station make you briefly re-evaluate the way you consume your media. Every story be it a murder, a trial, a survival story, whatever, involves real cogitative people whose lives are condensed into mere minutes for our rapid digestion, not to mention the family and friends of the person/people in the spotlight. In this respect I feel I may have become a little desensitized to many events in recent years and should potentially work some more empathy into my life.

This film is a portal into the lives of a family, of friends and most importantly of the man who didn’t deserve the fate he was dealt; much like many others in America and around the world that suffer because of police brutality. Passionately acted and beautifully shot, Fruitvale Station tugs the heart strings just enough to subtly raise awareness of an important tragedy in the hopes of it never happening again and absolutely succeeds.

Late To The Party

Just an FYI. Now and again if a film that’s been out for a while (could be months, could be a few years) gets me going and I simply have to write about it, I’ll tag it late to the party. This is because I’m late to the party, the review party that is.

 

Thanks.

The Raid 2: Berandal – A Review

ImageThe badass cop from the first film penetrates yakuza-like gangs by going undercover hoping to expose more of the corruption unveiled in his police force. There’s the plot; in my opinion though, it’s openly just a vehicle for the bewitching action sequences that put this series on the map.

Welsh director Gareth Evans knows how to put together a fight scene. The hand to hand combat in particular was so brilliant in his first film “Merantau” and the original “The Raid” that the latter is now one of the most popular foreign language films on Netflix. Expanding on this, “The Raid 2: Berandal” attempts to go bigger and better on all fronts and for the most part succeeds.

19 times. My mouth went dry 19 times, unbeknownst to me it just hung open during each fight scene and I think that reaction is exactly what the film is going for. These are some of the most inventive, chaotic and yet poetic action sequences filmed in recent years. Silat martial arts as well as a combination of other disciplines are demonstrated masterfully by the main characters, including a return of the “dog”. Watching Iko Uwais perform all his own stunts was actually quite refreshing too as there aren’t many people in cinema nowadays willing to take such risks. Furthermore, there are also lots of people firing guns which is always good.

The first fight of the film is contained in a toilet cubicle in prison where Rama (Uwais) takes down 15 men on his own through rapid attack and defense. The handycam action is so engaging, it literally dances round the action. In fact, the cubicles in this scene were built on expandable hinges so the camera could slip beside and behind Rama as the challengers filed in, this and more was explained in the wicked behind the scenes videos available on Vimeo.

Evans gives us fight scenes just about everywhere. Offices, restaurants, nightclubs and muddy prison grounds among others become battlegrounds and he uses each environment in combination with awesome choreography to make each engagement completely unique. On a boggy, muddy surface? Try and drown your enemy in it. In a bar? Throw every glass and smash every bottle in reach. The multitude of locations is much more visually stimulating and allows Evans to apply his own style to extra elements such as car chases previously unavailable as the entirety of the first film occurred in one building.

The film is 50 minutes longer than its predecessor however and I don’t think it needed to be. “The Raid 2” attempts to humanize characters that in my opinion are better off remaining one-dimensional and introduces a multitude of other characters which in some instances make the story a little complicated. At the same time though, Hammer Girl and… let’s call him “Bat-Boy” (potentially inspired by Team Fortress 2?) are pretty astounding in the way their weapons of choice are incorporated into their fighting style. Also, the most convincing performances come from non-combat characters such as Bejo, our villain, and Uco, the overly-ambitious son of the Asian Godfather equivalent. In fact, an overly civilized meeting of the heads of the houses reminded me massively of “The Godfather” and also punching the wall in prison of “Oldboy”, possible nods of the head?

“The Raid 2” is a spectacle. If you loved the fast-paced brawls of the first one, the sequel is the same but on crack with a story that might rope you in emotionally too but probably won’t.

I loved it, 8 out of 10 from me.

Noah – A Review.

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“Noah” is about a man with a hell of a lot of responsibility. Adapted from the renowned biblical texts, adventurous director Darren Aranofsky floods our senses with the audiovisual experience of climactic grandeur that only he can portray.

Half a cinema was present in sharing the first showing of “Noah” in my area, indicating the controversy and cast grabbed a lot of attention. From what I’ve read Aranofsky has stayed quite true to the source material story-wise though with only some minor changes to keep things exciting (an altered story arc for Ham for example); which in my opinion were very worthwhile.

After a run through of the book of Genesis (Creation, temptation in the Garden of Eden, Cain murdering Abel and the watchers leaving heaven to help on earth) we meet a young Noah who flees after witnessing the murder of his father by Cain’s selfish descendants. The film cuts forward and Noah, himself a descendant of Adam and Eve’s third son Seth, is now a father of 3 who respects the Creator’s work enormously. “We only take what we need” he says as his son picks a flower for its aesthetics alone. Suddenly, a single rain drop hits the ground and a flower springs up instantly, of course this must be a sign from God so Noah decides to take his family to seek advice from his Grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins). En route, they find an injured orphan named Ila among the remains of a massacre and out of love take her with them as they flee into an blackened wasteland from a mob of warriors approaching quickly. Noah is later stricken with several haunting and beautifully represented dreams where he is suspended underwater above the drowned human race, he decides to build an ark to save the good of the world from the flood that could end it.

Russell Crowe, like most of the other performances, is solid and believable as Noah but not outstanding; his somber voice really hitting home some profound anecdotes and memorable lines. As the audience we are able to watch him slowly change his outlook and reflect on his own way of life which held my interest. Jennifer Connelly as Noah’s wife is largely expressionless but then has an emotionally charged speech later on that makes up for it. Ray Winstone as the king of Men is brilliantly creepy and comical however his surprisingly timid sword forging and some other minor quips (London accent etc.) broke the spell now and again if only for an instant. Emma Watson was a real gem, but maybe I only say that because I’m madly in love with her.

The Watchers though… If it is in the source material that the fallen angels really did meld with rock then Aronofsky’s interpretation is pretty darn awesome. Imagine the offspring of a mech from the Matrix sequels and an Onix and you have an Ark-building, human-stomping Watcher. The film is always visually stunning with multiple epic set pieces in and around the monumental Ark such as the influx of different creatures by air and land. The story of man’s destructive downward spiral into hatred from their humble beginnings as single celled life-forms and even earlier is also gracefully interpreted. Scenes post-flood in my opinion look gorgeous, similar to the groundbreaking visuals in certain “Life of Pi” scenes. What I love about Aronofsky’s films in particular is how he usually builds to a climax. Previously his films have built to a huge crescendo and then just end, such as the final fight in “The Wrestler” or performance in “Black Swan”, aided by a tantalizing score that pushes you steadily to the edge of your seat. In Noah, there are multiple critical climaxes which though not quite as impactful still mesmerise and entertain.

Overall, “Noah” is a great film not without the refined editing, music and style we’ve come to expect from this director’s work. Though likely heavily restrained by the production company’s fear of offending, the film’s over-arching themes of respect for the earth and largely encapsulating visuals (apart from a couple of painfully rendered green-screen scenes) make up for times where I thought the screenwriting was a little too safe.

Thoroughly enjoyable and I learnt a thing or two, 7.5/10 from me.

The Grand Budapest Hotel – A Review

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Wes Anderson fans, rest assured, this is Wes Anderson’s most “Wes Anderson” film to date. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a beautifully crafted, encapsulating period piece that oozes the playful, energetic notes the director is known for.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is the story of Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), a refugee of a far-flung, difficult to pronounce eastern country and how he comes to own a copious amount of his new found fictional home, Zubrowka, including the hotel itself. The film’s pacing is good; regularly narrated by an aged version of Jude Law’s young writer character who recounts Zero’s story to the audience word-for-word, just as he’d heard from an aged Zero when he was passing through the then less voluptuous hotel when he himself was a younger, travelling man.

The hilariously quirky plot is driven by two interesting and likeable though not the most relatable characters and a host of brief cameo-like appearances from Anderson regulars such as Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzmann and now Harvey Keitel. Adrien Brody’s ravenous Dmitri (Mme D’s son), Jeff Goldblum’s stern-willed attorney and Willem Dafoe’s cold killer are also particularly commendable performances. Ralph Fiennes’ truly incredible performance as M. Gustave is what really carries this film in my opinion though; Revolori’s young, meek Zero is rightly outshined by Gustave’s massive personality which helps us to watch their friendship develop and their social status steadily change with clarity. Not too dissimilar from DeNiro as Ace in Scorsese’s “Casino”, Gustave is the man in charge at the Grand Budapest and does so with panache. Fiennes plays Gustave fearsomely such that he is never without his social airs and graces whether he’s front of house or in prison but to his staff he as strict as what you expect someone who runs one of the finest establishments in the world should be. Gustave is not completely above board though; he has a promiscuous side too, regularly sleeping with regular elderly female guests (“I sleep with most of my friends”) which ultimately drives the plot of the film. Mme D (Tilda Swinton), one of Gustave’s most beloved blonde lady guests dies early in the film and whilst attempting to say a final goodbye he finds out that she bequeathed him a highly desirable priceless painting, “Boy with apple” in her will. The film unfolds as we follow Zero and Gustave as they fight to honour (slightly greedily) Mme D’s final wishes and expose the malicious nature of her money hungry family.

The screenwriting is excellent with lots of great exchanges of witty dialogue between Zero, Gustave and the other characters that had me in stitches (Zero’s interview, for example) and really helped to keep their actions believable. Nothing is forgotten here, there’s actually something for everyone whether you’re a fan of drama, romance, comedy or action.

I liked how from the opening shot to the ending credits, Anderson’s trademark style is apparent and as loveable as always. His different shots of the stunningly designed and vibrantly coloured hotel sets absorb you into the film’s isolated pseudo-eastern European world. Countless panning shots tracking people down hallways give you a sense of the hotels scale, the rotation of the camera on vertical and horizontal axis too made me feel like I was manipulating my own neck to look up to that hotel window or look round that corner in the prison; not to mention the Kubrick-esque still camera shots of the hotel that were particularly impactful. Another example of the masterful cinematography on offer was the fantastic depth of field scenes, notable ones being an early inter-bathtub exchange and when Gustave is chased from the hotel reception desk to the stairs by Edward Norton’s character and his gang of henchmen. As well as all this there were the little things such as familiar-feeling fonts, close-ups of objects on surfaces, flashes of snappy animation, a stylish score and clever use of aspect ratio and the AndersonTM Instagram-like colour grading to indicate the time period that just kept me smiling all the way through.

I saw the first showing of this film in my area, granted it was in the middle of the day there were still only 4 or 5 people in the cinema with me and as much as I’d love to see it kill in the box-office I can’t imagine it will. Films of this like, especially Wes Anderson’s, are not really made for the masses (explosions, Marvel characters…) but instead more, I believe, for the joy of making films eg. Bottle Rocket. It really looked like all the actors knew this too and truly were enjoying themselves (like how each character doesn’t just turn up in the film, they make an appearance) and that made me want to enjoy it more and more. The Grand Budapest hotel is a wonderful experience, transporting you to a different world in an outstandingly convincing fashion; so overall I’d have to say it was “very gooood”.

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