The Voices

Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick, Jacki Weaver, Ella Smith

Director: Marjane Satrapi

Writer: Michael R. Perry


I’m at a loss over what I should write in this review mainly because I think that The Voices, much like Cabin in the Woods, is the kind of film where the audience should go in knowing absolutely nothing. This is a film with such a strange and unconventional concept that it becomes all the more fun if you go in not knowing what to expect. It is a film that throws many surprises at the audience and constantly plays with their perception and expectations. In my opinion any discussion of the plot details would steal away from the element of surprise which is why my recommendation for anyone who enjoys black comedies and isn’t too squeamish is to not read any further. Go watch the film and enjoy. However, since I have a word count to meet, I will go on further about the film for the benefit of those who don’t really care about knowing the plot details. I’ll be careful not to give away anything that you can’t find out from watching the trailer.

Seriously, if you want to be surprised, don’t read any further.

The plot revolves around Jerry (Ryan Reynolds), a guy with a ridiculously sunny disposition. He is always wearing a grin and bright, colourful clothing, he is absurdly polite to everyone in his life, and he seems blissfully clueless about everything. He meets regularly with his therapist Dr. Warren (Jacki Weaver) who talks to him as if she were talking to a six-year-old boy and who seems happy with his progress but concerned with the ambiguity of the answers to her questions (“Do you hear voices?” “Not really”). When he develops a crush on Fiona (Gemma Arterton), a sophisticated co-worker in his office, he helps organise the office party in an attempt to get closer to her. It is clear to all, especially Fiona, that Jerry is not a normal guy but he is mostly shrugged off for what most people take to be his harmless goofiness. No one, not even Dr. Warren, realises the true depths of Jerry’s troubled, depraved mind.

The audience is given a twisted insight into Jerry’s mind when he goes home to the apartment that he shares with his pets. There he has conversations with his two alternative personalities, his dog Bosco and his cat Mr. Whiskers (both voiced by Ryan Reynolds). Bosco is Jerry’s faithful, dim-witted companion who consistently reassures him that he is a good person and Mr. Whiskers is his furtive, abusive abettor who urges Jerry to act upon his baser instincts. The interactions between these three are comedy gold. Jerry’s impulsive nature eventually gets the better of him when an encounter with Fiona ends with him comically stabbing her to death by accident. His innocence is almost endearing as he politely apologises to Fiona’s bloody corpse. He takes the body back to his flat, chops her into dozens of pieces and stores her severed head in his fridge. Later when he tries to move on and forget his crime, Fiona’s head joins in the psychotic conversations as she and Mr. Whiskers impel him to become a serial killer. This compulsion becomes harder to resist when the kind and comely Lisa (Anna Kendrick) starts to show an interest in him.

Ryan Reynolds is someone I’ve never rated as an actor, put he absolutely kills it in this role (pun intended). His childish expressions and goofy mannerisms are perfect for portraying Jerry’s innocent simplicity. Due to a trauma that took place during his childhood, Jerry is very much still a little boy and he lives in a bubble through which he sees the world as this bright, colourful, wonderful place. When Jerry goes back to taking his anti-psychotic medication in an attempt to go back to normal, he becomes frightened and distressed to find that the normal world is a dark, horrible place where his home is filthy and covered in blood and his pets don’t talk. He immediately abandons his medication in order to return to the dream world. Reynolds is absolutely hilarious as he portrays Jerry’s ingenuous struggle to not become a serial killer (and, incidentally, he is also a very decent voice actor).

The film is able to convey a darkly comic tone that adds a light-hearted hilarity over the dark, twisted themes. Everything in Jerry’s world is shown to be lively and vibrant with bright colours and sunshine all round. The film is also able to convey humour through the exaggerated violence and gore that is depicted from a clumsily gruesome murder to a talking severed head. All of this makes for a darkly funny and enjoyably fucked up film. With that in mind, not everyone is going to like this film. Some people are going to find it too silly, some are going to find it too weird, and some are going to find it too messed up. However anyone who is prepared to not take this film seriously and enjoy it for its depravity and weirdness will have a great time.

★★★★

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X+Y

Cast: Asa Butterfield, Sally Hawkins, Rafe Spall, Eddie Marsan, Jo Yang, Martin McCann

Director: Morgan Matthews

Writer: James Graham


Before embarking on this film Morgan Matthews directed another film called Beautiful Young Minds, a documentary that followed the British team that competed in the 2006 International Mathematical Olympiad. While making this film he saw that many of the young mathematicians he filmed had varying forms of autism. He saw how they would often struggle to understand and make sense of other people and how mathematics was able to provide them with the order and stability that they sought. So moved and inspired was by these boys that he set out to make a film based on their experiences. X+Y is the result of this ambition.

The film is centred on Nathan Ellis (Asa Butterfield) who is diagnosed with autism at the age of 6. Even at such a young age he is shown to possess an advanced mind but displays a clear incomprehension towards people and the world around him. He is able to make some sense of the world with the aid of his father Michael (Martin McCann) until he loses him in a car accident. After that happens nothing makes sense anymore. The only place where he can find any sense of order is in the study of mathematics and so his mother Julie (Sally Hawkins) enlists a special maths teacher called Humphreys (Rafe Spall) to tutor him. Julie is a mother who was never prepared to have a child who requires special care and struggles to form any kind of a reciprocal bond between them. She constantly tries to show her love to Nathan and tries to become more involved in his life but receives only puzzlement and indifference in return. Humphreys is a former mathematical prodigy who also competed in the Olympiad. Today he suffers from Multiple Sclerosis and resents himself for not having lived up to his potential. He sees much of himself in Nathan and does not want him to end up like himself.

When Nathan reaches the age of 16 he decides to try out for the International Mathematical Olympiad. He lacks self-confidence and is at an age where it is difficult to be socially awkward, and so he relies heavily on Humphreys who is effectively his one and only friend. Mathematics is the one thing that Nathan truly enjoys and so he pushes himself to be the best at it. He does well in his test and is chosen to join a training program in Taiwan where he will have the chance to qualify for Great Britain’s team. He is sent there along with eleven other British pupils who, like Nathan, are all smart but, unlike Nathan, most of them are able to get along socially. This leads Nathan to experience a sense of alienation and inadequacy. His father had often reassured him that his condition was a little like having super powers, and so it is discouraging for Nathan to find himself in a place where he is “depressingly average”. Not only does he struggle to distinguish and to express himself, he also finds it difficult to interpret his own feelings when he is partnered up with the pretty Zhang Mei (Jo Yang). The film’s overarching story is about Nathan’s quest to come out of his shell and to learn to understand his own thoughts and feelings.

Asa Butterfield does a convincingly good job of playing Nathan and of portraying the symptoms of autism. Nathan is ultimately a young man who only wants order and balance in his life but loses them when he loses his father. He is unable to understand the true depths of his father’s loss or the profound effect it has had on him. Instead he tries to compensate for his absence with the logical stability found in mathematics, inadvertently neglecting his mother in the process. When he leaves his comfort zone he is forced to confront his feelings. The film draws an interesting parallel to Nathan through the character of Luke Shelton (Jake Davies), another autistic student who estranges the rest of the team through his hostile anti-social behaviour. Luke is able to understand that people tend not to like him but is unable to figure out how to win them over. Like Nathan he has turned to mathematics as a source of comfort and reassurance. When Nathan sees how volatile Luke can become, it adds some perspective to his own life and struggles.

Matthews has stated that it was not his intention to make a film about autism, but about the experiences of one boy on the spectrum. What results is a touching film about the challenges and struggles faced by Nathan in his journey to understand the world and himself. He comes to learn that not everything in the world makes sense nor can they all be broken down to ones and zeros. Instead of his head he must learn to rely on his heart in order to understand the natures of love, grief, and joy.

★★★★

Boychoir

Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Kathy Bates, Debra Winger, Eddie Izzard, Kevin McHale, Josh Lucas, Garrett Wareing

Director: François Girard

Writer: Ben Ripley


When a person exhibits a natural talent for something, whether it be singing, art, sports, academia, and so forth, many people feel that it ought be regarded as a gift. It is a gift that should be treasured and appreciated. Further than that, anyone who possesses such a gift is bestowed a responsibility to make use of it (just ask Spider-man). Each talent is a gift not just to the individual but also to the entire world. It belongs to everyone and to no one. This is the stance that Boychoir takes as it tells the tale of a young, naturally gifted singer in his quest to defeat the odds, to find the greatness within himself, and to become the best singer that he can be. It is the same tired rags-to-riches triumph over adversity story that has been done a million times before but, in the film’s defence, it does tells the story quite well.

The story is that of Stet (Garrett Wareing), a misunderstood 11-year-old boy with a violent temper and a troubled background who shows himself to be smart and extraordinarily gifted. He lives in rural Texas with his alcoholic mother and goes to a school where his brilliance is unappreciated by all apart from one. His teacher Ms. Steel (Debra Winger) recognises his incredible talent and gives him the chance to showcase his voice in front of Master Carvelle (Dustin Hoffman), the choirmaster at one of the most prestigious music schools in the country. Stet doesn’t want anything from these people and walks out of his audition. However, when his mother dies in a car crash, Stet is thrust into the hands of his father (Josh Lucas) who has his own family and wants nothing to do with his illegitamite son. Ms. Steel implores him to enrol Stet in the boy choir school, and so the father buys Stet’s way in and leaves him there.

Stet finds himself out of his element in a place completely alien to him. He is thrust into a difficult and demanding music program under the tutoring of Wooly (Kevin McHale), a young teacher who believes that Stet has the potential to be a magnificent singer, and Drake (Eddie Izzard), an older teacher who resents Stet for his lack of training and education. He is made to compete against other boys from privileged backgrounds who have already had years of training and experience and who look down on him for his commonness. Stet does not want to be in this school nor has he ever aspired to use his gift but, in the absence of any other alternatives, he begins to apply himself. Before long he gradually starts to fall in love with the music and realises what a gift his angelic voice truly is. He develops an ambition to become a part of the school’s internationally renowned boy choir but can only do so if he wins the approval of Carvelle. To win his approval Stet must learn to overcome his temperament, to believe in himself, and to bare his heart and his soul through music.

It is the same old story that has been told time and time again about an underdog who proves himself against all odds, but it is at least done well. The acting is all-round decent, the writing is fine, and the story does manage to inspire the audience to sympathise with Stet and to root for him. However the best part of the film by far is the music. The film features many choral masterpieces such as Fauré’s ‘Pie Jesu’, Karl Jenkins’ ‘Adiemus’, and Handel’s ‘The Messiah’, all of which are performed beautifully. One of the main themes of the film is Stet’s search for beauty and meaning in music and the masterful renditions featured in this film do a superb job of showing them. In addition Dustin Hoffman gives a proficient performance as the music maestro Carvelle. He is a man who has reached the autumn years of his life and, after a long career of teaching and performing, still holds a deep and fundamental love for music. Music is his life and his passion and so there is nothing he resents more than to see a young boy with an extraordinary gift but who chooses to squander it. Therefore when he crosses paths with Stet, who in turn responds with anger and disdain, Carvelle is driven to push Stet and shape him into the singer he knows he can be.

This is a film that falls squarely in the ‘pretty good’ category. It doesn’t offer anything new, but it still succeeds in being a decent, worthwhile film. It is well written, it makes good use of its star-studded cast, and it is an ideal choice for any viewer looking for a pleasing feel-good film. Although Boychoir is far from the most original or the most inspired film ever made, it is overall an enjoyable film that is worth watching for the soundtrack alone.

★★★

Rosewater

Cast: Gael García Bernal, Kim Bodina, Dimitri Leodinas, Haluk Bilginer, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Golshifteh Farahani, Claire Foy, Amir El-Masry

Director: Jon Stewart

Writer: Jon Stewart


I am a big fan of Jon Stewart and was strongly anticipating his directorial debut. It is a large leap for the host of a satirical news program to take the helm of a serious political drama and I was both curious and excited to see whether he would rise to the occasion. Rosewater is based on Maziar Bahari’s memoir Then They Came for Me and recounts the 118 days that Bahari spent in an Iranian prison following the 2009 Iranian election. It was an event that caused massive public outrage on a global scale and led to an internationally widespread appeal for Bahari to be released. A film based on an issue as heated as this was bound to receive some backlash, and so it did when the Iranian government spoke out in condemnation of the film. Nevertheless Stewart rose to the challenge and ended up making an enthralling film about hope, survival, and freedom.

The film centres on Maziar Bahari (Gael García Bernal), an Iranian-born London-based journalist who is sent to Iran to cover the 2009 presidential election. He recalls the turbulent history that he already shares with this country as he remembers his father, an outspoken Communist who was imprisoned by the Shah’s regime and who prided himself on having not spoken a single word in there, and also his late-sister, a revolutionary activist who was imprisoned under the government of Ayatollah Khomeini. In Iran he ventures onto the streets to get a sense of the political climate and learns that there is a strong desire for change. The protestors that he meets reveal that they’ve had enough of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s corrupt administration and plan to use their votes to swear in the opposing reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi. It is during this time that Bahari takes part in a mock-interview for The Daily Show in which the comedian Jason Jones poses as an American spy.

Whatever hope there was for Iranian reform is crushed when the presumably rigged election results reveal that Ahmadinejad has won a landslide victory. The public outrage is enormous and leads to demonstrations and riots on the streets. Bahari stays behind to report on these protests and ends up capturing footage of the Iranian military open firing on civilians. He implores the BBC to use the footage even though it will make him a target. It isn’t long afterwards until the Iranian police knock on his door. Bahari is arrested and is taken to Evin Prison in which he will spend the next four months. There he is accused of treason and espionage based on evidence that includes his Daily Show interview. He is then subject to the brutal torture of his interrogator (Kim Bodina), a man to whom the blindfolded Bahari assigns the nickname ‘Rosewater’ due to his distinctive cologne.

Bernal’s central performance is the driving force of this film. The turmoil he portrays as Bahari is compelling and his struggle throughout the film is engaging. He has been accused of a crime that he did not commit, he has been led to believe that his loved ones have abandoned him, and he is subject to brutal beatings and vicious slander at the hands of ‘Rosewater’. ‘Rosewater’ has one task which is to take away Bahari’s hope in order to extract a confession out of him. It is not clear whether he even believes the allegations of which he has accused Bahari of committing, but what is clear is his dedication to his country and to the orders that he has been given. The only other companions that Bahari has throughout these 118 days are the ethereal figures of his father, who urges him to stay silent and not to give them any sort of confession (even though there is nothing to confess), and his sister, who encourages him to not give up hope. Keeping his hopes up proves difficult as the physical and emotional duress Bahari undergoes becomes more and more unbearable. His mental state constantly jumps between confusion, despair, anger, stubbornness, hopefulness, and resignation.

Stewart has managed to make a film that is harrowing, captivating, and that even manages to be humourous. The absurdity of the police’s questions and demands when they come to arrest Bahari and the jokes that Bahari pulls in defiance of his interrogator provide comic highlights throughout the film without diminishing the drama or the tension. On the whole Rosewater tells an inspiring story about the power of hope in the face of adversity. When Bahari’s role as a journalist is brought into question, he fights admirably for the freedom of the press. He holds that the freedom to express oneself and the freedom to tell the truth are precious and sacred and that they cannot be suppressed. This is the information age and there is nothing in the world more powerful than information. Rosewater is a worthy debut for Jon Stewart and I hope he will go on to make more films.

★★★★

Still Alice

Cast: Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish

Directors: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland

Writers: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland


When a film undertakes the task of portraying the effects of a devastating disease such as cancer, dementia, AIDs, and so forth, it is often the case that they’ll try to appeal to the audience’s sentimentality whilst avoiding the bleak and messy bits that come in between. What sets Still Alice apart is its uncompromising honesty and bravery. This is a film that is not afraid to show just how difficult Alzheimer’s disease can be on an emotional level. The struggle of Alice and her family to try and retain her sense of who she is is unflinching in its brutality. The film never resorts to pathos but instead captures the audience’s attention and sympathy by portraying the dismal effects that this disease has on Alice and her family and simply letting their story speak for itself. The level of cold honesty that this film conveys is one that I haven’t seen since Michael Haneke’s Amour.

Dr. Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is a smart and accomplished woman who has enjoyed a happy and fulfilling life. She has managed to maintain a strong and loving marriage with her husband John (Alec Baldwin) all the while balancing the feats of raising three children and pursuing a highly successful career as a professor of linguistics. It is not a perfect fairy-tale life. There are cracks in the seams such as the rocky relationship between Alice and her youngest daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart), but on the whole they are content.

On her fiftieth birthday Alice and her family have a get together to mark the occasion. It is on this night that Alice begins to show the early signs of her disease. It is an offhand throwaway remark in which she confuses a story about her two daughters with one about herself and her own sister. It is shrugged off and forgotten by all as soon as it passes. However, as the days and the weeks go by, these lapses of memory start occurring more frequently. She appears at a university to give a guest lecture and loses her train of thought mid-sentence. She goes jogging along her usual route and gets lost for a few brief seconds. These happenings cause her enough concern that she visits the hospital for a check-up. After a few scans and memory tests, Alice is told that the diagnosis is early onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Alice’s world collapses at this point. She is told that she has a disease which will slowly but surely eat away at her until she loses her memories, her identity, and her humanity. On top of that, the form of the disease that she has caught is a rare genetic one meaning there is a 50/50 chance that any one of her children could be a carrier. However Alice refuses to be defeated by this disease. She resolves to do as much as she can while she is able. She wants to continue working, she wants to see her grandchildren born, and she wants to continue living her life. She rigorously exercises her memory by providing herself with words to memorise and questions to answer. Every step is a struggle and not every goal is one that she can achieve. There are some days when she is almost herself but there are others when she is completely lost. Her determination and resolve are utterly compelling which is why it is so despairing to see her fight a losing battle. She is so desperate to maintain what little control she can that she even leaves herself a message and a means of taking her own life should the day ever come when her former self is completely gone.

Last night Julianne Moore deservedly won an Oscar (and about time too!) for the tragically powerful performance she gives in this film. Her depiction of the effects of Alzheimer’s disease combined with the desolation and anguish she conveys is absolutely extraordinary. As the remnants of who Alice once was gradually disappear, so does any sign of the actress. What is left is a moving and painfully truthful performance. Also deserving of praise is Baldwin as her loyal, steadfast husband. Although it breaks his heart to see his wife disappear before his eyes, John understands that it is up to him to carry them both. He exhibits an exceptional level of sensitivity and patience in his care of Alice, even at the times when it is most difficult for them both. Baldwin delivers in every aspect.

Still Alice is a heartbreakingly beautiful film about the loss of one’s self. It offers a harrowing portrayal of what it is like to watch someone you love disappear before your very eyes. The fact that Alice understands exactly what is happening to her but is powerless to do anything about it makes it all the more devastating to watch. In one of the most poignant scenes in the film Alice maintains that she is not suffering, but struggling. She is struggling to hold onto the memories of who she is and of her family. Without them, she is nothing.

★★★★★

The New Girlfriend

Cast: Anaïs Demoustier, Romain Duris, Raphaël Personnaz, Isild Le Besco, Aurore Clément, Jean-Claude Bolle-Reddat

Director: François Ozon

Writer: François Ozon


This is a film that grabbed my attention right from the start. The opening shot is of a young, beautiful woman. She is wearing a wedding dress and we hear wedding music being played on the organ. We see make-up being applied to her face in preparation for the occasion. She stares passively towards the camera until a hand reaches out and closes her eyelids. Only then do we realise what is happening. This is not her wedding day, it is the day of her funeral. In less than thirty seconds Ozon has already presented one of the recurring themes and motifs of this film, the idea of appearance. He has shown us how things are not necessarily what they appear to be and the effect that appearances can have on our perceptions, two ideas that will recur throughout this film.

The funeral is that of Laura, the childhood friend of Claire (Anaïs Demoustier) and wife of David (Romain Duris). Claire stands before Laura’s loved ones and talks about the friendship that they had. The film presents a series of scenes that recount the life that they shared starting from when they first met at early childhood. We are taken through Claire’s most cherished memories of Laura from the blood pact they made to stay with each other forever to standing at each other’s weddings to holding Laura’s hand during her final moments as she lay in the hospital bed. From the moment they first met Claire and Laura have been with each other every single step of the way through pain and joy, through pleasure and strife, through love and heartbreak. And now it’s over. Nevertheless Claire promises to keep the vow that she made to Laura all those years ago by watching over David and their infant daughter Lucie.

Laura’s death ends up bringing Claire and David closer in the most unexpected way possible. She is completely and utterly devastated by Laura’s passing and becomes inconsolable. Not even her husband Gills (Raphaël Personnaz) can get through to her or provide her with any sort of comfort. As differences and problems start surfacing between them, Claire resolves to honour her promise to Laura and shows up at David’s house to help him care for the baby. There she discovers a shocking revelation that staggers and astonishes her. I wish I could go into more detail than that but it would ruin the element of surprise. It is a revelation that changes Claire’s entire world and which will go on to have a resounding effect on her and on David for the rest of their lives.

In the wake of this revelation Claire and David start to spend more time together and grow closer to each other. This secret that they share could have potentially volatile and dire consequences if it should ever be discovered and so it is one that they cannot ever allow anyone else, not even those closest to them, to know. However it is a secret that they can share with each other and so they meet up regularly to partake in activities that enable David to embrace his secret self. It is their mutual love for Laura that unites them as they try to help each other overcome their grief. They must also face the themes of love, sexuality and desire as they confront their feelings for Laura and for each other. Demoustier gives a wonderfully delicate performance as the graceful Claire. She switches seamlessly between comedy and drama whenever the film calls for it and perfectly complements the vulnerable and conflicted nature of Claire’s character. Duris gives an astonishing performance as David in his journey to find his hidden self. There are two separate sides to this character, one restrained and the other free, that he portrays with a perfect balance of humour and heart. It takes a very talented actor to give a performance that is both hilarious and heartbreaking. The chemistry that the two share is palpable and they compliment each other beautifully.

With The New Girlfriend François Ozon has put together a film that is sensitive, moving and witty. He expertly shifts between comedy to drama and provides an abundance of both. The story he crafts is cleverly original and the audience never quite knows what to expect next. It is a story about two characters who come together to help each other overcome a devastating loss and to try and find their identities. They find themselves to be lost without Laura who served as an anchor to them both. Her absence has left a hole that they each must fill. For all of its eccentricities or, as some viewers might see it, absurdities, this film remains at its core a heartwarming story about love, loss, and life.

★★★★★

White Bird in a Blizzard

Cast: Shailene Woodley, Eva Green, Christopher Meloni, Shiloh Fernandez, Gabourey Sidibe, Thomas Jane, Angela Bassett

Director: Gregg Araki

Writer: Gregg Araki


One of the things that can make any film grating to watch is if there is a lack of investment. If the characters don’t care about what happens to them or what they are going through, why should the audience care? This is the reason why I found White Bird in a Blizzard to be a frustrating film. There is no commitment on its part, nothing compelling or captivating for the audience to hold on to. It attempts to work as both a gripping mystery and as an emotional coming of age story, but succeeds at neither.

The story is about Kat Connor (Shailene Woodley), a seventeen-year-old girl living in suburbia with her parents. She comes home from school one day to find that her mother (Eva Green) has disappeared without a trace. She recounts flashbacks of the circumstances that preceded this incident which reveal the wild and unbalanced behaviour that her mother had exhibited before and the abusive tendencies she demonstrated towards Kat and her timid, spineless father (Christopher Meloni). However Kat seems unbothered by her disappearance, figuring that her mother has just walked out on her and her father, and simply tries to move on with her life. What frustrated me the most about this story is the severe indifference shown by the main character. The film does make it clear that Kat and her mother shared an unstable, unhappy relationship, but surely an incident of this magnitude would provoke some sort of reaction out of her. Whether it be anger, despair, confusion, concern, contempt, or even relief, an incident as immense, as unexpected, and as alarming as this should surely be met with a little more than a shrug of the shoulders.

Perhaps the emotional blankness in this film results from a lack of investment on the filmmakers’ parts, or it could stem from a lack of understanding of how emotions work in films. One trend I noticed while watching White Bird in a Blizzard was a tendency for the characters to use direct, straightforward dialogue. What I mean by this is that the characters in this film have a habit of explaining exactly what it is they are feeling, what it is that’s happening to them, and what it is they’re going through. Some writers do this because they think that this is how they are supposed to communicate emotion in a film. However, by doing this, they fail to utilize the potential of film as a visual medium. One of the main rules that filmmakers are told to apply is ‘show, don’t tell’. This film tends to have its characters explain their feelings out loud rather than just show them. It isn’t enough for the characters to describe their emotions, they have to actually express them. Otherwise the emotions never register and the audience is thus unable to empathise with the characters. The film understands this to an extent as evidenced by Kat’s dreams about her mother, but apart from them there are barely any other scenes in which the characters are able to achieve genuine human moments. It’s as if the film does not trust its audience to understand and interpret the characters’ feelings and motivations based on their characterisms or their actions and must instead spell everything out.

The dream sequences were the one part of the film that I actually did like a lot and so I think I’ll elaborate on them a bit. In her dreams Kat finds herself in a snow-covered wilderness searching for her lost mother. The film allows the visuals to do all of the talking as the environment provides a reflection of Kat’s feelings: cold, isolated, and lost. Her fragility and vulnerability are shown as she calls out into the empty landscape for her mother and receives no answer. The otherworldly state she finds herself in emphasises how surreal the experience of her mother’s disappearance has been. Woodley, a talented young actress who really deserves to be in better films than this one, shines in these scenes as she depicts the alienated state that Kat has found herself in. If only the rest of the film’s emotion was expressed as strongly as in those scenes.

This could have been a really good film. The drama inherent in this kind of concept was practically gift-wrapped. However the filmmakers either never realised or never understood how to get into the emotional heart of this story. Kat’s feelings for her mother’s disappearance are given a backseat as the film focuses more on her sexual exploits with her dim-witted neighbour and the handsome cop investigating her mother’s case. Even towards the end when the mysterious circumstances surrounding the mother’s disappearance are brought into question and give rise to the film’s mystery, the lack of engagement up to that point prevents the audience’s interest from being captured. Throughout the film I never found myself caring for Kat or the effect, or lack thereof, that her mother’s disappearance had on her.

★★

While We’re Young

Cast: Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Grodin, Adam Horowitz

Director: Noah Baumbach

Writer: Noah Baumbach


Growing old is strange. It can creep up on you before you realise it and, when you do, you start to wonder where all the years went. It is often perplexing, difficult, and even scary once you realise that you’re not as young as you once were. In While We’re Young we are presented with a couple who have suddenly become aware of this. Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are a middle-aged couple who have lost their youth. Josh, a documentary filmmaker who has been stuck on a project for the past ten years, has lost the spark, the drive, and the fervour that he had possessed as a young man. Cornelia is an aging housewife who has lost her energy, her spontaneity, and her thirst for adventure. The two of them live a quiet, settled, comfortable life and have convinced themselves that it is the life that they want. However, beneath their complacency, there is a clear sense of unfulfillment. Both of these characters have deep regrets, unrealised potential and quashed dreams that they keep hidden from those around them, from each other, and perhaps even from themselves. They have resigned themselves to a life of apathy.

However everything changes when Josh meets Jamie (Adam Driver), an aspiring documentarian in his mid-twenties who emulates Josh and his work. Jamie and his wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried) are everything that Josh and Cornelia are not. They are young, energetic, impulsive, idealistic, carefree and fun. They live in the moment and every day is an adventure for them. The two of them live an unconventional (hipster, for lack of a better word) lifestyle complete with old vinyl records, video cassettes, and home-made avocado flavoured ice cream. Josh and Cornelia become close friends with them as they set out on a journey to recapture their lost youth. The journey proves challenging as Josh and Cornelia struggle to keep up with their young friends, but they carry on regardless with all of the enthusiasm that they can muster. From a bike ride around the city to a hip-hop dance class to an ayahuasca ritual, the two couples partake in activities in which the generational gap between them makes for a funny and interesting viewing experience.

Ben Stiller shines out amongst the impressive cast as the proud but dissatisfied Josh. He resents himself for not living up to his potential as a filmmaker but is too stubborn to ask for any help on his decade-long project, least of all his father-in-law Leslie (Charles Grodin), a renowned and accomplished filmmaker who originally mentored Josh as a documentarian. He instead adamantly proceeds to figuratively bang his head continuously against a brick wall as he vainly tries to complete what he hopes will be his magnum opus. When Josh sets out to help Jamie with his own project, he both admires and envies him for his energy, his resolve, and his confidence. Jamie is a man who knows what he wants and how to get it, two qualities that Josh lacks. When Jamie’s project stumbles into something bigger and more substantial, Josh starts to resent him for his good fortune and the admiration he receives and becomes all the more bitter about his own vacillation and impotency. Stiller plays his character with enough empathy and humanity that Josh always remains both appealing and relatable throughout the film.

While We’re Young tackles many interesting and complex themes. It discusses what it means to grow old and to retain one’s youth. It is often said that you are only as young as you feel, and so this film tests the reality of that assertion. The film examines the gap that exists between the generations as the two couples spend their time together and learn from each other. Although they are younger, Jamie and Darby appear to be the wiser and more experienced of the two couples, in some respects at least, and seem to have their lives figured out. As they spend more time together, Josh and Cornelia start to wonder what it is they want out of life and whether or not they’ve been going about it the wrong way. The role of the documentary is also given a large focus as the film discusses what it means to tell real stories and, on a broader level, what it means to tell the truth.

The highlight of this film is Baumbach’s script. The dialogue has a real Woody Allen feel to it, in that the discussions held are intelligent without ever being pretentious. The humour is funny but stays grounded without ever veering into the silly or the ridiculous. The characters are authentic and are never boring. Baumbach tackles the depressing themes of getting old and losing one’s youth with such heart and wit that While We’re Young comes across as an enjoyable, bittersweet film.

★★★★

Fifty Shades of Grey

Cast: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Jennifer Ehle, Eloise Mumford, Victor Rasuk, Luke Grimes, Marcia Gay Harden

Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson

Writer: Kelly Marcel


What can I possibly say about Fifty Shades of Grey that hasn’t already been said? The discussion surrounding this film and the book it’s based on has been so heated and so scandalous that it has been pretty much unavoidable for the past couple of years. Much of the controversy surrounding the book is of course centred on the infamous sadomasochistic sex scenes, which are so explicitly and graphically detailed that the novel has often been described as pornography attempting to pass itself off as an erotic romance. Many readers have objected to the portrayal of BDSM and view the book as a disturbing account of sexual violence. Feminist critics have denounced the book for being misogynistic and for trying to romanticise an abusive relationship. Literary critics have also criticised the book for just being plain bad. In spite of these criticisms the books have proven to be wildly popular and successful, topping bestseller lists around the globe. It was only a matter of time until Hollywood would try to cash in on the books’ success.

I will say this for the film; it was always going to be an uphill battle for the filmmakers. Kelly Marcel and Sam Taylor-Johnson were faced with the task of taking a controversial, scandalous, often-ridiculed novel, and adapting it into a serious film. The subject matter alone is difficult to portray in a film without it coming across as awkward or silly (although Steven Shainberg and Erin Cressida Wilson proved that it could be done when they made Secretary). On top of that, this film bears the burden of being a widely released film that was directed by a woman, written by a woman, centred around a woman, starring a woman, based on a novel written by a woman, and targeted primarily at women. Such a thing is incredibly rare for the male-dominated industry that is Hollywood (Twilight is the only other recent film I can think of right now that was released under such circumstances) and so it is unusual, and perhaps even unnerving, to see a mainstream film with such a resounding female perspective. This film certainly deserves credit for that, if for nothing else. Unfortunately there really is nothing else.

Fifty Shades of Grey tells the story of Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), a shy, timid, young girl whose life changes when she meets the handsome, affluent, domineering Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). The two become attracted to one another when the film follows the Twilight method for building chemistry by having the male love interest brood at the female. The attraction only grows as Christian doggedly pursues Ana by showing up unexpectedly at her job and giving her rare and expensive gifts. So overwhelming is their attraction to each other that Christian eventually invites Ana to share in his sexual appetites. He reveals that he has a taste for sadomasochism, in which he likes to assume the dominative role, and asks Ana to join him as his submissive partner. In exchange for her submission, he promises to be utterly devoted to her. The rest of the film is Anastasia trying to decide whether or not this is a life that she wants for herself.

This film is not as laughably bad as I was expecting it to be, but it is still bad. It’s probably unfair for me to say that I did not expect to like this film but, with all the publicity that the film has received, it was impossible for me to avoid any pre-conceived notions. However I was surprised to find that I did not dislike it for the reasons that I thought I would. Based on what others have told me about the books, I was expecting a film that would fail hilariously at being sexy through the use of corny dialogue and over-the-top sex scenes. However I did not end up finding the film’s awkwardness to be amusing. Nor was I unnerved by it. I was expecting this film to be quite uncomfortable to sit through as I anticipated graphic sex scenes like in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac. Instead the film’s sex scenes turned out to be (relatively) tame, opting for the eroticism rather than the shock-value. In the end what made this film so unenjoyable for me was that it was exceedingly dull. I was bored out of my mind by the one-dimensional characters, the bland dialogue and the tiresome story.

Anastasia is a very uninspired protagonist who barely exhibits a personality. Christian is the film’s attempt to create a Byronic romantic lead but whatever sort of hidden depth he might have possessed is glossed over. The film is trying to convince the audience that the two of them share a romantic bond, but there is nothing there. The film expects us to believe that Anastasia is enticed by Christian for the abusive behaviour he exhibits outside of the bedroom such as stalking her, showing up uninvited at her house, and selling her car without telling her. Meanwhile Christian is shown to be so devoted to Ana that he breaks rules that he has never broken with any other girl such as sleeping in the same bed as her and going out in public with her. Yet it is never made clear why he is so drawn towards her. He has apparently never felt as strongly for any of the fifteen women who came before as he does for her, but he never explains what it about Anastasia that he finds so special. The lack of any sort of chemistry between them means that the love story this film is trying to tell falls flat.

Having written all this I feel I should acknowledge that, as a man, I realise that I am not a member of this film’s target audience. I appreciate that a lot of the fans of the book and the film just enjoy it for the fantasy. I can sort of understand why and watching it for that reason is fair enough. That doesn’t make it a good film though.

Jupiter Ascending

Cast: Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton, Maria Doyle Kennedy

Directors: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski

Writers: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski


No one can accuse the Wachowski brothers of being unambitious, but their films tend to be hit or miss. Just about everyone loves The Matrix and V for Vendetta, but the Matrix sequels and Speed Racer are universally despised. Cloud Atlas has proven to be divisive (personally I thought it was a great film). The Wachowskis are essentially two filmmakers who appear to want the best of two worlds. They want to make intelligent and insightful thought-provoking films, but they also want to make entertaining and exciting action films. Sometimes they succeed and sometimes they don’t. Jupiter Ascending is one of their misses.

The plot centres on Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), a Russian immigrant who was born under the stars as her family made their journey to America. Before his death her father, an enthusiastic astrologer, expressed a wish that his daughter be named after the greatest and most beautiful planet in the solar system. As she was being born there were signs written in the stars above, prophesying the greatness that awaits her.

Meanwhile, deep in space, we are introduced to the House of Abrasex whose matriarch has died. Her three children Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Kalique (Tuppence Middleton), and Titus (Douglas Booth) are fighting each other over her inheritance. They speak to each other in fanciful dialogue, consisting almost entirely of exposition, about politics and planets and other things we don’t care about until the subject of the Earth comes up. The Earth is apparently a key factor in whatever business it is they are discussing and becomes a matter of great interest to them.

Cut to a few years later where Jupiter and her mother are caretakers who make their living cleaning the houses of rich families. She often expresses how much she hates her life (and I mean often) and constantly wishes that she could be elsewhere. Beyond that her personality is non-existent. In order to raise some money for a telescope like the one her father had, Jupiter agrees to sell her eggs to a clinic. During the procedure the doctors and nurses turn out to be agents of Balem who have been sent to kill her. A mysterious figure bursts into the room, guns blazing, and saves Jupiter’s life. This alien warrior, Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) reveals to Jupiter the existence of extra-terrestrial life and informs her of the great destiny that awaits her. That’s probably as far as I can go without venturing into spoiler territory but I should probably say that the story that follows does not prove to be particularly exciting or interesting.

Jupiter Ascending is effectively style over substance. The visual effects are absolutely superb. The worlds they display are beautiful, creative and stunning. Rather than a sci-fi film, Jupiter Ascending is more of a fantasy set in space (like Star Wars) and so the sets and costumes are grand and epic like you would expect in a fantasy. The action scenes are somewhat entertaining but they often become so muddled and unclear that it is very easy to lose track of what is actually happening. Also, despite being a visual spectacle, this film failed to make any effective use of the 3D technology. Like so many other filmmakers, the Wachowskis don’t seem to realise the possibilities that come with making a 3D film and simply made their visuals jump at the screen a bit.

However the areas in which this film really falls short is in story and character. Jupiter is an uninspired protagonist who barely does anything throughout the film beyond serving as a damsel in distress. Caine is a typical impassive warrior whose role is to constantly rescue Jupiter from danger (seriously, every single action scene consists of him rushing in to save her). He is also obviously there to serve as a love interest to Jupiter despite not sharing any chemistry with her, leading to some very forced and awkward dialogue between them. None of this is a criticism against the actors, I’m sure they did their best, but against the bad writing and directing that they had to work with. Eddie Redmayne, someone who I know is a good actor, gives an unintentionally funny performance as the film’s main villain Balem. The way he alternates from underacting with a silly sounding voice to overacting with an even sillier sounding voice is hilarious. To give a performance that ridiculous could only have been accomplished through truly bad direction.

Jupiter Ascending tries to tell a Star Wars-like story about a young, ingenuous protagonist who stumbles her way into a grand galactic adventure in which she discovers that she has an important destiny to fulfil. However this film does not have any of the characters, the thrills or the heart that made Star Wars such a great trilogy. What the Wachowskis made instead was a film that, while visually stunning, is completely lacking in compelling characters, an interesting plot, and emotion.

★★