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.

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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 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.


 

REVIEW: Now You See Me

Remember when Paul Daniels was on TV, sawing his wife in half (matron) and generally making magic seem like the least cool thing ever? Fast-forward to 2013 and this is not the world in which the internationally-renowned Four Horseman occupy. For them its all sell-out tours, car chases and magician groupies, and that’s before you take into account being fugitives on the run from the FBI for robbing from the rich and giving to the poor.

It’s all very exciting, and it has to be, because frankly magic in the movies doesn’t quite have the same appeal as in reality. After all, watching Isla Fisher fly around an auditorium in a bubble is all well and good, but it doesn’t provide that “How are they doing that?!” moment that you get from actual illusionists.

Of course that doesn’t mean a magician-based movie can’t be a hit (The Prestige anyone?) – it just means the narrative and the characters have to deliver – and by Jove, Now You See Me gives it one hell of a go.

Running places incoherently is central to the Now You See Me plot.

Running places incoherently is central to the Now You See Me plot.

The Four Horseman comprise street magician J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), ‘mentalist’ Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), escape artist Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) and all-round cheeky chappy Jack Wilder (Dave Franco), all of whom have been brought together by a mystery figure who’s motives are unknown.

From there the Four Horseman take to the road with the show planned meticulously by their inconspicuous boss, with the first of which involving an apparent bank robbery. Why they would place themselves at the centre of an FBI investigation (headed up by Mark Ruffalo’s Dylan Rhodes) all on the say-so of someone they haven’t met or know the identity of is one of many questions that you will be asking during Now You See Me, but fortunately Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) is on hand to provide the answers to many of them.

Bradley is a magician-debunker; explaining how they pull off their tricks armed with nothing more than a glamorous assistant and a couple of cameras. He’s essentially a professional party-pooper, but he comes in particularly useful for the FBI who require his services for understanding how exactly the Four Horseman might be pulling it all off.

It’s rather convenient really, because if he hadn’t been about we’d have been left needing the narrative to explain the various twists and turns, which to be honest would have been bloody complicated.

Just say it was your card and we can all go home.

Just say it was your card and we can all go home.

In the end that’s pretty much how it goes for the entirety of Now You See Me. In one moment it sets up an intriguing premise, and in the next gets Morgan Freeman to explain how its actually all very simple, and it’s a level of exposition that is actually pretty patronising and distracting.

It’s a shame because there are some interesting ideas in there – some of which are even socio-economic of all things – and you can see the potential for a really twisting, turning and intriguing film, but it never gets there and ends up wavering dangerously close to dull.

During his police interview Atlas explains that the first rule of magic is to always be the smartest guy in the room. Unfortunately for Now You See Me it isn’t anywhere near as smart as it thinks it is.