Monday, January 27, 2014

Oscar Watch, Part One: movie reviews

It's my favourite time of the year, the lead up to The Academy Awards, which means loads of brilliant movies to research.
I've managed a few good ones lately, which will make choices very hard when it comes time to 'vote'.
American Hustle
David O. Russell has assembled a core group of regular actors and they feature in this fabulous caper, and American Hustle is a caper in the true sense of the word. Christian Bale is unrecognisable as Irving Rosenfeld, an oddball hustler with a heart of gold. Irving meets his match in Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), another hustler who is eager to meet and match his own schemes. Thing is, Irving is married to Rosalyn, Jennifer Lawrence, and thus an awkward love triangle is formed. Step in eager FBI agent, Richie DiMaso played by Bradley Cooper, and after a busting Irving and Sydney he gives them a 'break' if they help him bust open a bigger case, including politicians and the mob.
This is a really amusing, yet at times dramatic, romp set in New York in the 70s. With twists and turns, and double crossing and affairs it keeps you on your toes guessing what will happen next. The supporting cast is fabulous with Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Jack Huston, Michael Pena, Elisabeth Rohm, and an uncredited Robert De Niro. But the four main stars really make the film. In particular Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams, both bona fida stars, are outstanding on screen, especially in their few scenes together. I have been a huge fan of Amy Adams, since her breakout role in the indie film, Junebug. This, I think, is her finest role since, and she lights up the screen, even when she is not glamorous. Bradley Cooper, the lesser actor of the four, does struggle a little I think. His character is a bit of a dope, and is easily the funniest. His hair/perm reeks of Lindsay Buckingham circa 1977...which was hotter on Lindsay than Bradley.
The costumes and wigs are outstanding and possible stars of the film too, and the soundtrack a killer. This is just a great script, brilliant ensemble cast, and an all round perfect movie. I reckon it might take out Best Picture...but it's early days yet! 
August: Osage County
It's been days since I saw this powerful drama and I am still haunted. Based on Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize winning play, August, it's about an estranged family, The Westons, coming together after the disappearance of their father (Sam Shepherd) and to keep an eye on their mother, a former drug addict with mouth cancer (Meryl Streep). It's a sweeping drama set in the Oklahoma and the endless highways and stretches of corn fields look stunning, and yet add to the bleakness and isolation of the story.
The cast is nothing short of brilliant. Meryl Streep looks shocking as the ratbag matriarch, Violet Weston, dying and passing every inch of her pain onto those around her. Sam Shepherd, Beverly Weston her husband, is briefly in the film and his presence is felt the entire way through the film. It is his disappearance that brings this family back under the same roof.
The underrated Margo Martindale plays Meryl's sister, Mattie, and Chris Cooper her husband, the gentle and kind Charlie. Mattie rules over her husband and child, little Charlie (a very understated Benedict Cumberbatch) forcefully and at times with great menace. The Weston girls are Barbara (Julia Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), and Karen (Juliette Lewis). Ivy lives nearby, assists her parents, is single, very much put upon and has a huge secret. Karen, the youngest arrives with her sleazy fianc√© (Dermot Mulroney) in tow. Barbara, the eldest, arrives with her estranged husband, Bill, and 14 year old daughter, Jean. (Ewan McGregor and Abigail Breslin).
There is tension is every single relationship, these people have never treated each other with respect and as the days go by the tensions get worse. Violet's addiction has resurfaced and assists her behaviour from awful to disgusting and family secrets begin to come out. Barbara is given the greatest responsibilities and burdens to bare. You feel every ounce of pain she is suffering and more. Julia Roberts shines as this dull, dreary, pained woman who has reached the end of her tether with every single person around her. Meryl Streep is a stunning actress, but by god Julia pretty much acts her off the screen and as someone who has never really rated Roberts, I cannot even believe I am writing this. In terms of looks this movie does none of the actresses any favours, they look real, their age, hardened and worn down. And it's stunning to see.
There is so much more to write about this movie, but is difficult to do so without giving away the twists and turns. I thought the male actors could have been given more screen time and depth, apparently they do in the play, the film has had a good third cut out of it. This seems a shame as I could have easily spent more time watching it. It is unpleasant and harrowing yet one of the best dramas I have seen in a very long time. This is due to the magnificent acting of the ensemble cast. If you love great acting and seeing brilliance in motion, this is for you.
The Wolf of Wall Street
Before I begin I must say the behaviour of the real life people these characters were based on are scum of the earth and I am conflicted about this review. Mostly as I really enjoyed the movie and feel rather bad about it. The behaviour within was despicable in every sense but it was funny, ironic, and hilarious to watch. I laughed a lot, mind you there were moments where I did not laugh (though most others in the audience did...I judged them silently!) But it is a black comedy, so expect to be disgusted and expect to laugh, and expect that to sometimes happen at the same time!
After all it is Martin Scorsese, think of all his past films, and this is much the same, it especially reminded me of Casino. And like those gangster films before this, he manages to walk the fine line between opening up the seedy underbelly and exposing these people for what they are, all the while entertaining us...remarkable directing, this is why he is the master.
So the movie follows and rise and fall of real life Wall Street broker, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio). Jordan begins at Wall Street in 1987 and the company he works for dissolves after Black Friday. He gets a job in a small brokerage and makes a small fortune which he uses to open his own firm with his neighbour, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill). There is sex, drugs, drinking, misogyny, and debauchery and a lot of language. The film supposedly uses fuck more times than any other drama in cinematic history, can't say I noticed! It's Scorsese, what did you expect!?!
The story is surreal and unbelievable at times, the highs, lows, double crossing, and back stabbing keep things flowing quickly, it was the quickest 3 hours I have ever spent at the movies. The cast is outstanding, a great supporting cast of Rob Reiner, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Jon Favreau, Jean Dujardin, Fran Lebowitz, Spike Jonze, Ethan Suplee, and Joanna Lumley. McConaughey and Lumley had very small but pivotal roles and were both incredibly funny. It was also fantastic seeing the great Rob Reiner on screen as Jordan's Dad. I also thought, and have done for a while, that Jonah Hill was impressive, holding his own with DiCaprio, and having some incredibly funny and dramatic scenes.
But it is DiCaprio's film, he was outstanding. I admit (baring that awful boat film) I have been a fan of his since seeing him in What's Eating Gilbert Grape some 20 (!?!) years ago, he has barely tread wrong since. This is surely his chance at Oscar, there is some competition but the range he shows - humour, drama, physicality, and surrealism (there is one scene straight out of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas I swear!!) - is outstanding. I love the pairing of Scorsese and DiCaprio, they are making some very fine films indeed. This film is not for everyone I guess, but I came out pleasantly surprised!
Philomena is the heartbreakingly beautiful story of Philomena, an elderly Irish woman (Judi Dench) and her search for her long lost son. Philomena fell pregnant whilst young and was sent to the local convent to give birth and work for payment of the nun's assisting with the birth and to bring the child up with many other young mothers in similar situations. The thing is the children were given up for adoption and so as a cute young toddler, Philomena's son was taken away. She kept this dreadful act a secret until her son's 50th birthday and decided she must try and find him.
Enter Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), recently dismissed from politics and returns to journalism and looking for a good story, bumps into Philomena's daughter who tells him her story. He initially brushes it off as a 'human interest' story but then comes around and agrees to help Philomena find her son. The search begins at the convent and they keep finding road blocks, but a chance meeting at the nearby pub gives them the lead they needed. The Convent had sold many of the babies to rich Americans, and so Martin and Philomena journey to America to see what they can find.
I will not tell you any more of the story except it is heart wrenching, sad, happy, funny and beautiful. To be honest the story has so many twists and turns it almost seems unbelievable, but in fact it is true, shockingly so. Stephen Frears gently and lovingly directs this story and brings out the most delightful performance in Steve Coogan. I've been admiring Coogan since I saw him as Tony Wilson in 24 Hour Party People. Over the years he has perfected the role of Steve Coogan being someone else but still a little bit Steve Coogan...and I adore him for that. But this role is his first real dramatic one (he also helped adapt the book to the screen) and he shines.
Judi Dench is delightful and formidable as Philomena, her face just about killed me in most scenes, she didn't have to say a word, you could tell exactly what she was feeling. On any other year the Best Actress Oscar would be hers, but this is a remarkable year for women in film and being nominated should be prize enough.
The story of Philomena may make some people uncomfortable, but it shouldn't, it is a story that simply must be told, a devastating part of recent Irish (and I am guessing other nationalities) history. Yes, you will need a few tissues to get you through this film, but it is ultimately uplifting and, like myself, you will be pleased you saw it.

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