Tuesday, 28 October 2014

FILM REVIEW: THE YOUNG AND PRODIGIOUS T.S. SPIVET



Potential Films/Madman Films

It's not easy being the smartest person in the room, and even less so when you're only 10 years old. But T.S. Spivet isn't just weighed down by the size of his considerable brain; he's also burdened by grief at the loss of his twin brother, and the guilt that comes with feeling responsible for his sibling's death.

Heavy subject matter for what is essentially a children's film, French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet's adaptation of Reif Larsen's novel The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, is as brightly coloured and whimsical as his more recent films (Amelie (2001), A Very Long Engagement (2004), Micmacs (2009)) without ever talking down to its intended young audience.

T.S. (Kyle Catlett) lives in Montana with his rancher father (Callum Keith Rennie), entomologist mother (Helena Bonham Carter, refreshingly quirk-free), and big sister Gracie (Niamh Wilson), as well as the ghost -- metaphorical rather than literal -- of brother Layton (Jakob Davies), who died in a shooting accident in the barn which nobody talks about but which T.S., who was also in the barn that fateful day, can not forget. Nor forgive.

His mother has since retreated into her work (the study of bugs), while his father, already the silent, stoic archetype of a Montana rancher, is even more withdrawn: Layton was the apple of his father's eye and the hands-on round-the-farm yin to T.S.'s intellectual head-in-the-clouds yang.

It's when T.S. is selected to receive a prestigious prize from the Smithsonian Institute -- for his invention, sorry, his plans for the invention of a perpetual motion machine -- that he decides to abandon his family: perhaps his absence will allow his family to heal much faster? T.S. sneaks out in the early morn, hopping the rails cross-country to the nation's capital.

The American scenery is stunningly captured by Thomas Hardmeier's cinematography as T.S. journeys east, lending the landscapes a storybook palette which is further enhanced by the use of 3D, a first for a Jeunet film. And while the Frenchman's outsider view looks romantically at America's bountiful plains, he's a little less kind to that nation's obsession with fame, the dumbing down of science and dismissal of dreamers, and lax gun control.

This, and themes of grief and guilt, may concern some parents but it's the delivery of some f-bombs (thank you, Judy Davis, as the Smithsonian's duplicitous press secretary) in the film's third act which has no doubt seen the family-friendly The Young and Prodigious T.S Spivet slapped with an M-rating instead of a more appropriate PG.

Unlike T.S. himself, the parentals are best not to let their kids undergo this journey on their own, but they could do a lot worse than have them enjoy the company of a smart, sensitive young hero whose brain is his superpower and who discovers, like so many adventurers before him, that home is where the heart is.

Monday, 27 October 2014

FILM REVIEW: PRIDE



eOne Films

Ten years before a bus christened Priscilla carried two drag queens and a transexual from the safety of inner Sydney into the Australian outback, another bus full of queers undertook a similarly potentially fraught journey: from London into the Welsh mining community of Onllwyn.

The year was 1984 and Britain's coal miners were on strike against the conservative Thatcher government's plans to close coal pits across the country. Recognising a similarly oppressed community, a band of gay and lesbian activists, Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, decided to throw their small but passionate support behind the striking miners, raising funds and organising food drives. Strange bedfellows to be sure but then again, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, no?

That is the basis for Pride, directed by Matthew Warchus and penned by first-time screenwriter, Stephen Beresford; a none-too-subtle but wholly sincere retelling of those events which had almost been lost to the public consciousness. Indeed, many of the cast, and Beresford himself, have admitted in interviews that they'd never heard of LGSM and their involvement in those tumultuous events of 1984-85.

Led by young radical, Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer, unrecognizable from last year's The Book Thief), and viewed through the eyes of the closeted Joe (George MacKay), who lives at home with his parents and, and aged 20, is still considered a minor in the eyes of the law when it comes to the homosexual act, we watch this band of idealistic misfits – including Jonathan (Dominic West), a middle-aged actor and one of the first people in Britain to be diagnosed with AIDS; and Steph (Faye Marsay), initially the only woman contributing the 'L' in LGSM) – rally in support of the strikers.

It's when they decide to take their fundraising directly to the source (the Unions refusing to accept the donations once they hear who it's from), that events take an unlikely turn. After first meeting in London with Dai ((Paddy Considine), a representative of the pit from the Welsh village of Onllwyn, the troop pack in to a small bus and head to Wales to accept the invitation of thanks extended by the Dulais Valley community centre.

But not everyone in this small, working class community is happy to welcome these outsiders, despised as much for being from London as they are for being 'homosexualists'. And while the local men, excepting Dai and club secretary Cliff (Bill Nighy, affecting in a rare subdued performance), keep their distance, it's the town's womenfolk – led by the headstrong Hefina (Imelda Staunton), the inquisitive Gwen (Menna Trussler), and young firebrand, Sian (Jessica Gunning) – who embrace their out-of-town supporters.

Of course, Rome wasn't built in a day and the relationship between the Onllwyn community and LGSM experiences many ups and downs (some factual, some as part of necessary dramatic license) over the course of their almost 12-month-long struggle. The London media gets wind of the oddball coupling, dubbing them 'Perverts for Pits', with LGSM embracing the term like so many derogatory names the gay movement has reclaimed before them (the miners not so much). There's also personal issues to be dealt with within each community.

The film itself tackles many issues – gay rights, worker's right, coming out, AIDS, female empowerment – some of it cliche and not all of it with a light touch. But there is an honesty and a sincerity to both the comedy and the drama in Pride, which tonally sits somewhere between the sledgehammer feel-good of The Full Monty (1997) and the emotional authenticity of Billy Elliot (2000).

But it would take the hardest of hearts not to be won over by the film's charm. Make no mistake, Pride is a feel good film but in the best possible sense. It celebrates two communities coming together and moving forward; not through tolerance but acceptance and co-operation. A remembrance of victories passed, Pride may also serve as a rallying cry for battles still to be won.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

FILM REVIEW: FURY



Sony Pictures

War is hell. It's a sentiment that's been at the heart of almost every war film ever made so there's little to distinguish David Ayer's Fury in that regard from the battalion of movies which have preceded it.

Not even its focus on the one Sherman tank and the five-man squad which inhabit it is an entirely novel concept: the 2009 Israeli film, Lebanon, took place within the claustrophobic confines of an army tank during the Lebanon War of 1972.

Fury is the name given to the Sherman tank captained by Wardaddy (Brad Pitt), a take-no-prisoners leader who stands strong for the men under his command and does all his doubting in the rare moments he's alone. Boyd (Shia LaBeouf), the Bible-basher, Trini (Michael Pena), the Mexican-American, and Grady (Jon Bernthal), the redneck, have seen all of their action in North Africa and Europe in Wardaddy's company and now, in the final months of World War II as the Allies push further and further into Germany, they're joined by newbie, Norman (Logan Lerman).

A military clerk, Norman has not seen any action but he's about to undergo a baptism of fire; Wardaddy keen to impress upon the young man that it's 'kill or be killed', with no room for sympathy no matter the age or sex of your enemy, nor even if they appear to be dead or not. An extra round of fire into a lifeless body can't hurt either way.

Episodic in structure, Fury excels in its action sequences -- the film's third act comprised nearly of one entire 'last stand' scenario -- but splutters somewhat when it stops to focus on the men inside the war machine.

And things aren't helped any by the at-times indecipherable dialogue. While the highly effective sound design has you rattled by shell fire and jumping at exploding land mines, it's often a struggle to understand Grady's thick Southern accent or Boyd's recitation of Bible verses when the men are at rest. We get subtitles whenever Wardaddy spricht Deutsch, but we could use them for some of the English too.

Never as overwhelmingly claustrophobic as Lebanon but intermittently tension-filled, Fury succeeds when in the midst of battle but fails to win hearts and minds when a ceasefire is called to focus on the less than convincing human drama.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

FILM REVIEW: WHIPLASH



Sony Pictures

The two most harmful words in the English language, according to Terence Fletcher, the God-like teacher at the New York Conservatory of Music, are 'good job'. For Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), mediocrity breeds contempt and Hell hath no fury like this music instructor underwhelmed; his temperament is more Zeus than Jesus, and he's more likely to throw thunderbolts -- or a drum cymbal -- your way than a compliment.

Understandably, Fletcher's students live in fear and awe of the man; desperate to be selected for his jazz band, desperate to please him and equally desperate not to incur his wrath. Andrew (Miles Teller) is one such student. A first-year pupil on scholarship, Andrew has a way with the drums and a desire to be recognised as one of the greats. Being chosen as a member of Fletcher's jazz band -- which competes in State competitions -- is a sure sign he's on his way.

It's also the beginning of a nightmare in Damien Chazelle's Whiplash, a film that makes drumming seem like a vocation as fraught as bomb disposal, and an experience which will leave Andrew's -- and the audience's -- nerves completely frazzled.

Chazelle, making just his second feature with Whiplash, and expanding upon his own similarly titled short film, explores themes about the pursuit of perfection in art, and the giving over of one's self completely in that pursuit. It's similar territory to Black Swan (2010), but unlike Natalie Portman's ballerina, it's all but Andrew's mind that is left unscathed.

For Andrew, the pursuit of greatness involves the abandonment of a life outside of music; dumping his sweet girlfriend (Melissa Benoist) in a brutally honest break-up scene, because he doesn't want her to come to resent his focus on drumming nor he to resent her for holding him back. He also puts his body on the line on more than one occasion.

Miles Teller is a young actor who continues to impress. After Rabbit Hole (2010) and The Spectacular Now (2013), he again proves that he is the real deal. Teller is no pretty boy headed for matinee idol status but the guy can act. As charming as the best of them, he also possesses a steeliness which allows him to be tough and unforgiving when required.

J.K. Simmons' Fletcher is equally unforgiving. There's perhaps one too many homophobic missives fired off by Fletcher -- lest you forget he truly is an awful person -- but there's no denying the fun to be had in hearing the maestro tearing his pupils a new one, nor the fun Simmons must have had in playing him. Perhaps best known as the kind-of-cool dad in Juno (2007), here he plays the drill sergeant teacher from Hell, sinking his teeth into the role and the scenery.

But as sadistic as Fletcher is, Andrew is equally masochistic: drumming until his fingers bleed and coming back time and again for more of his teacher's abuse. Even after they part ways, Andrew can't help but be drawn back to Fletcher to seek, and hopefully win, his approval.

If the love of Andrew's father (Paul Reiser) is unconditional and undemanding, Fletcher's is hard-won and all the more rewarding for it. It's tough love in extremis but Fletcher, it seems, completes Andrew in what might just be the most dysfunctional movie romance of 2014.

Whiplash is definitely one of the better films of the year, even as, like Andrew's drum solo in the film's tension-filled climax, it goes on a little too long and slightly wayward. Perfect it may not be but when it's on a roll and in full flight, Whiplash is much, much more than a job well done.