REVIEW: Still Alice

Usually when you come out of a cinema planning how you’ll kill yourself it’s because the film you’ve just put yourself through hasn’t done a particularly good job of keeping you entertained. Here at TOTB we’ve lost count of the number of existential crises that have been brought on by that very unique feeling of having had a few hours of your life essentially stolen from you. Not wasted, no, but stolen; stolen by broken cinematic promises that leave you feeling empty and betrayed.

It’s the sort of feeling you get if you’re dumped by the person you love, or if you’ve ever seen an Adam Sandler movie.

As we all emerged from the screening of Still Alice, the entirety of the audience blinking through tears as we wondered how old we’d be when we finally needed to book our Dignitas consultation, we felt very much the same – except this time it’s exactly what they wanted. The sick bastards.

It feels somewhat redundant reviewing Still Alice when it has been in the public consciousness for so long. After all, Julianne Moore had won the Oscar for Best Actress before the film was even released in the UK, but Think Outside the Box has never shied away from being redundant.

For those of you who don’t know, Alice Howland (Moore) is a well respected Linguistics professor who, after finding herself forgetting simple things and even getting lost while jogging around the university campus where she works, is diagnosed with Early On-set Alzheimer’s Disease. From here, the narrative plays out much as you’d expect, with both Alice and her family struggling to come to terms with the rapid and debilitating effects of the condition.

The drama is quite televisual at times, however it is elevated hugely by the performances of Julianne Moore and, to lesser extents, Kristen Stewart and Alec Baldwin. Dialogue that would sound prosaic in lesser hands is brought to life by a performance that is every bit an Oscar winner. A lot credit needs to go to the directors too (the late Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland), as the framing of the shots is key in developing that sense of isolation and disorientation that our main protagonist is experiencing. During Alice’s first conversation with her neurologist the camera remains fixed on her, and it is little moments like this that help to create such a personal story.

Still Alice certainly isn’t flawless, and if it hadn’t been for Julianne Moore’s performance then it may be that we’d be seeing it in five years time on the True Movies channel. The supporting cast are barely fleshed out beyond surface details (in fairness, perhaps a deliberate mechanic to ensure the viewer is very much alone with Alice) however such is the magnitude of her portrayal that it is actually one of the most moving things you’ll see all year.

Just don’t expect to enjoy it.

REVIEW: It Follows

For as long as anyone can remember, horror movies have been punishing young people who have sex. If Christian Evangelicals want teenagers to abstain from it altogether until they’re married – shirts on, lights off and with as little enjoyment as possible – then they should consider signing up Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees rather than hand out pamphlets decrying intercourse as a gateway drug to crystal meth and suicide.

After hearing a brief description of the plot of It Follows you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was yet another clichéd teen slasher, where scantily-clad college girls and buff, shirtless jocks get hacked up by a sexually frustrated ghost for having the audacity to get it on, pick on a fat kid or drink a beer.

As STIs go, being plagued by a voiceless demon is probably one of the trickier ones to explain at the GUI clinic, but that is exactly what 19-year old Jay (Maika Monroe) has to deal with after a seemingly innocent sexual encounter with the slightly mysterious Hugh (Jake Weary).

After drugging and tying her to a wheelchair in an abandoned building it’s exposition o’clock, with Hugh explaining that he’s passed something on to Jay, something that will be walking towards her wherever she is until it catches up with and kills her. Unless she passes it on.

It Follows 2015

Yeah.. maybe we’ll just cuddle.

It sounds like the recipe for a by-numbers exploitation horror, which is why it was so refreshing to find that, rather than descend into a cliché and jump-scares, It Follows is one of the most interesting and original horror movies in recent years.

Starting strongly and building on it for the entirety of the 100 minute running time, the film delivers a level of tension and dread that is as relentless as the demon that stalks its main protagonist. Although ostensibly set in the present day – evidenced by the early sight of one of Jay’s friends using an e-reader – It Follows feels as though it is based in the 1970s in every other respect. From the classic cars owned by the main characters (there are modern vehicles occasionally visible in the background), to the black and white Sci-Fi B-movies the teenagers watch on old analogue television sets, the film suggests inspiration from Charles Burns’ graphic novel Black Hole – a similar exploration of teenage sex and relationships with more than a little monstrousness thrown in – rather than Halloween, Friday the 13th or any other Hollywood horror flick you’d care to mention. The performances are perfectly pitched too, with Maika Monroe in the lead role and Keir Gilchrist as Jay’s long-term admirer-from-afar Paul particularly good, both eluding to that very private but eminently relatable teenage suffering everyone goes through to some degree.

Like the sexual tension and anxiety between the young characters that is present in almost every scene, Rich Vreeland’s (aka Disasterpeace) original score hangs in the air throughout, dictating the mood and, in the same way as the soundtrack for Nicholas Refn’s Drive, does just as good a job of emphasising the suggested era of the film as it does the building of that perennial sense of dread.

Eerie, angsty and frequently terrifying, It Follows looks set to become a contemporary horror classic.

REVIEW: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

As a general rule, money and greed pretty much fuck up everything society holds dear. Marriage, democracy, Space Raiders going up to 15p – and cinema is no exception.

Hell Michael Bay is allowed to create his risible, putrid film output as much as he wants, all because they rake in a shit load of cash at the Box Office – regardless of to what extent they poison our collective consciousness.

It is the motivation of money that leads movie studios to take decisions such as splitting The Hobbit – a book of 300-odd pages – into a trilogy of three hour films, or, as we’re about to discuss, the final Hunger Games book into two parts.

With this in mind you’d be forgiven for expecting The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 to be somewhat inconsequential and frustrating, like indulging in some foreplay before your partner turns to you and says, “Okay that was great, we’ll reconvene next Christmas”. So how does THG:MP1 – that acronym is sure to catch on – get away with it?

We pick up the story with Katniss Everdeen not looking very happy at all, and why would she? After all, we have all just seen her boobs. She was of course rescued from the Games’ arena by the District 13-based rebels, although the mental scars of battle have left her not so much surly and aloof like before, but rather surly and kind of sad. Just wait until she realises her home, District 12, has been transformed into an episode of Time Team. That’s a combination of rubble and skeletons, non-archaeology fans.

As the first half of a greater narrative it goes without saying that the story doesn’t progress massively, and in terms of ‘stuff happening’ it doesn’t match either of the previous two installments, however it is in creating a general dystopic feeling of dread and tension that it really excels.

Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

Jennifer Lawrence’s face oscillates between kind of upset to really quite upset.

 

The overall tone of Mockingjay Part 1 is incredibly dark for a 12A, and it is any wonder they managed to retain the certificate with such constant levels of distress and threat, as well as the odd grisly moment. It’s refreshing to see a big budget movie realise that excitement doesn’t equate to blowing the shit out of everything in sight for 45 minutes, a la the likes of Man of Steel or many of the Marvel franchise.

There’s strong performances across the board too, with Jennifer Lawrence delivering a boat load of tumultuous emotion, the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman effortlessly cool as usual, and even the previously whiny Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) suddenly becomes a far more interesting protagonist. Julianne Moore’s somewhat staid performance belies her character’s presidential title, although she does spend the entire film alongside Hoffman.

If Mockingjay does a great job of developing an atmosphere, it perhaps doesn’t expand on the Panem world to a great extent, with the hinted at civil disobedience and acts of rebellion that occur outside of District 13 merely depicted with a couple of brief action set pieces. This may be a consequence of the fact that the final book is written solely from Katniss’ perspective, however if they weren’t going to stick with this dynamic religiously throughout the film anyway, the uprising could’ve been developed further. The District 13 rebels spend much of the movie filming propaganda material, although at times you can’t help wondering if anyone’s actually watching it.

It’s a minor issue really in what is an otherwise satisfying sequel. The caveat however is that, although Mockingjay Part 1 may very well be an enjoyable 2 hours that does an excellent job of setting up next year’s finale, we can’t help thinking that it could have made for an altogether better film experience had it never been split up in the first place.


 

REVIEW: Interstellar

Science-fiction, at it’s best, deals with some of humanity’s biggest questions.

Can our species have a future on a world of limited resources? Will we ever be able to live beyond our own planet?

They’re the sort of issues that can only be addressed by man’s best and brightest; pioneers and explorers; or, well, the first guy to stumble out of the dark. It just so happens that guy is Cooper (Matthew McConaughy), a rough around the edges engineer-cum-farmer who dreams of being all surly and melancholic out among the stars.

The planet Earth of Interstellar is one of a dwindling human population and an even more dwindling food supply. Set somewhere generically dusty in the USA, humanity has regressed to an agrarian society where all ideas of spending money on technology – let alone space travel – have been unceremoniously thrown out of the window. Show them an iPhone 6 and they’ll jab you in the eye with a carrot.

Fortunately Michael Caine and NASA are on the case – the space agency now reduced to little more than a table of men who ‘were in that thing – wait, what’s his name?’ Our hero Cooper has stumbled upon ‘the best kept secret on planet Earth’, though apparently not so secret that he can’t have every element of their work explained to him within a 20 minute montage of exposition and unnecessary organ music.

Cooper realises that, due to time dilation, he's going to miss the rest of Games of Thrones.

Cooper realises that, due to time dilation, he’s going to miss the rest of Games of Thrones.

Professor Brand (Caine) invites Cooper to lead the crew of Endurance (including Brand’s daughter played by Anne Hathaway) on a journey through a wormhole to discover if one of three potential habitable worlds are capable of becoming man’s new home.

It’s the mission that he was trained for before an unfortunate crash put paid to his astronaut career, and he makes the tough decision to set out to find humanity’s new home and leave his two children behind… immediately. He doesn’t even briefly consider it, and even finds the prospect of returning home to find his daughter Murph decades older – while he remains the same age – really quite amusing.

But it is the presence of time and gravity as antagonists rather than simply narrative devices that sets Interstellar apart from so many science-fiction movies. An unexpected turn of events during a trip down to the surface of a planet where one hour is equivalent to seven Earth years results in the team losing nearly three decades – and the realisation for Cooper that he has missed his children growing into adults.

The film really ups its game during the second half once the story moves beyond the confines of Earth, with the combination of incredible visuals and intelligent use of sound creating a stunning and effecting sense of isolation among the vast expanse of nothingness.

Interstellar is a film of big ideas; a film of admirable scale and ambition that is hard to satisfactorily summarize in a review, and you could discuss the concepts, both scientific and philosophical, for hours. It is light years away from flawless, while the last 20 minutes stretched incredulity to breaking point, but it gets away with it – particularly if you’re a Sci-Fi fan who can appreciate what Nolan is trying to achieve.

At times beautiful, frequently ridiculous but constantly awe-inspiring, Intersteller is an impressive feat of film-making – and a must-see for any serious science fiction aficionados.


 

REVIEW: The Monuments Men

The true story of a band of men who set about trying to save mankind’s greatest artistic treasures, it is remarkable that we haven’t heard more of The Monuments Men tale until now.

A cross between Dad’s Army and The Antiques Roadshow, the answer may lie in just how incredibly dull it is.

As the war shifts in the Allies favour, Frank Stokes (George Clooney) petitions President Roosevelt to allow him to set up a team to steal back the art stolen by the Nazis during their occupation of Europe, but then why would anyone care about art at a time when thousands of people were losing their lives? It’s a question acknowledged numerous times during the film, but one that is answered – for Stokes and his team at least – with the assertion that “if you destroy a people’s history, if you destroy their achievements, then it’s as if they never existed.” Fair enough, then.

A bit like this, but with guns.

A bit like this, but with guns.

It you were expecting a wartime Ocean’s Eleven, or an art-based Where Eagles Dare, then you’re going to be exceptionally disappointed, as The Monuments Men comprises largely of people talking about art, walking into churches and looking at art, and talking about art while looking at art inventories and some maps.

Despite an all-star cast featuring Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett and John Goodman, it’s an incredibly tedious two hours, and the odd moment of levity (provided mostly by Murray and Bob Balaban) or action does little to salvage a plodding narrative.

The problem lies in that the film requires you to really care about the fate of the artwork which, although everyone can probably agree is significant, doesn’t make for much of a compelling protagonist on screen, and no amount of men looking in awe at paintings or sculptures of women with their boobs out can convince us otherwise.

Of course it is a true story, so it isn’t like we can have Clooney and Co. jumping out of a plane under enemy fire, but that doesn’t mean the film can’t be more engaging for a mainstream audience, yet The Monuments Men just doesn’t do the job of bringing it to life. It’s the sort of thing that would have made for a fascinating hour-long documentary, but as it is it’s a film that oddly enough could do with both more brevity and more historical context.

If a future fascist dictatorship wants to steal the DVD copies of this film, we should probably just let them.


 

REVIEW: Dallas Buyers Club

If Dallas Buyers Club teaches us anything, it is that learning you have a terminal illness is a very transformative process indeed.

After discovering he is HIV Positive and has approximately 30 days to live, homophobic, beer-swigging and drug-abusing Texan Ron Woodroof gets himself clean and campaigns against Big Pharma’s dominance over the illness’ treatment, and in particular controversial drug AZT. It’s a pretty impressive turnaround for a guy who, for the first half hour of the film, appears to be more like an extra out of Deliverance than a male Erin Brockovich.

With this in mind, here at Think Outside the Box we can only presume that the film’s star Matthew McConaughey has AIDS. Why? Because a look back over the star’s acting career displays a very sudden and dramatic sea change in his film output.

Back in 2009 a spectacularly under-whelming rom-com, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, was the latest addition to a career that included the likes of Failure to Launch, The Wedding Planner and Fool’s Gold, all of which involved turning up, looking attractive and taking his shirt off.

Fast-forward to 2014 however and McConaughey, the perennial leaning on the side of a bus man, is being tipped as a serious contender to edge out Chiwetel Ejiofor for the Best Actor Oscar for his star turn as blue collar worker-turned-activist Woodroof, hot on the heels (ish) of the critically-acclaimed The Lincoln Lawyer, Killer Joe and Mud.

It is difficult to truly compare the two starkly different roles performed by McConaughey and the British 12 Years a Slave actor, however what is for sure is that the former gives an absolute tour de force, so much so that it has gotten us talking in French platitudes.

With such an impressive display it would be understandable if the supporting cast shrunk into the background, yet Jared Leto is brilliant as Woodroof’s transgender business partner Rayon, picking up a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his trouble. It is arguably the most impressive performance in the film, requiring Leto to portray sassy confidence underlined by a rampant vulnerability, compared to Woodroof’s unrelenting confidence and bravado.

Jennifer Garner has a tough job matching up to two such powerful characters and performances, but does so ably, putting in a perfectly good shift as the fairly straight-down-the-line Dr. Eve Saks.

Although a biopic that is based on a true story, Rayon and Eve Saks are fictional, however the artistic licence taken (and it is acknowledged that there is some, including in the portrayal of Woodroof himself who friends insist was never as extreme in his views as the film suggests) not once damages the film’s credibility, instead only enhancing the story where necessary, and otherwise complimenting the genuinely incredible true story.

A combination of first-class acting performances, perfect pacing and length (3 minutes shy of 2 hours), as well as cinematography that feels authentic for the period, Dallas Buyers Club would surely be a shoe-in for the Best Film Oscar any ordinary year that wasn’t so strong. Instead it will just have to make do with being a major contender.

Perhaps Adam Sandler and Vince Vaughn should consider getting themselves some AIDS too…


 

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REVIEW: Prisoners

It’s fun to eviscerate bad movies. You get to feel all smug and clever and use creative similes, such as ‘watching this film was like spending an hour and a half in the company of Nigel Farage’, or ‘it was like being made to eat your own balls. And then having your eyes put where your balls were’. Yeah… witty things like that.

You also get to avoid putting yourself out there for ridicule over liking a movie that everybody else has deemed fucking terrible.

TOTB liked a film once. We gleefully pronounced Dune as the next Star Wars and that Sting’s performance would blaze a trail for a prolific acting career. It wasn’t, it didn’t, and we can still hear the laughter ringing in our collective ear.

Never again we vowed, which is why it is with regret that we now come to review a film that is actually quite good.

Menly Men Being Men

The Dover’s are your typical all-American family. The sort of family where men chop wood, kill things with guns and have beards. It’s the American dream, until their young daughter Anna is abducted along with her friend, Joy Birch.

The opening scenes are punctuated by an ominous and oppressive atmosphere that are reminiscent of Scandinavian noir. The sun never shines and the elements are constantly making their presence felt – heavy rain and snow falling relentlessly on the two families consumed by grief and stomach-churning dread.

Jackman is great as the father driven to desperate measures in an attempt to find his daughter, but it is Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki who is the star of the show, putting in a quietly powerful performance that ensures you can’t take your eyes off the film whenever he’s on screen.

Prisoners

Everyone’s feeling a bit glum, to be honest.

Yet Prisoners isn’t as straight down the line as just two families trying to deal with child abduction, instead contemplating some pretty weighty moral ideas, most notably that of evil begetting evil.

Desperate to track down the two girls, Keller Dover kidnaps chief suspect Alex Jones (Paul Dano, Looper) with the aim of making him reveal the girls’ location, resorting to increasingly extreme measures – but is he guilty? Parallels with the US’ policies on dealing with terrorism suspects is obvious, though the film doesn’t quite deal with the issue comprehensively once the plot picks up pace in the third act.

It’s a shame a film that, for the most part, displays an emotional and intellectual depth unlike many in its genre regresses to the mean towards the end, and the finale is arguably somewhat anti-climactic. Nevertheless, Prisoners doesn’t lose any of the intensity it so effectively builds at any stage – an impressive feat given its 153 minute running time.

So does Prisoners deserve the privilege of being the first movie that Think Outside the Box doesn’t point and laugh at like you would at a fat kid falling over? Probably not to be honest.

There are a few fantastic performances but it isn’t going to change the world, win any Oscars or even warrant a second viewing. But at least it doesn’t have fucking Sting in it.