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BFI London Film Festival: Easy Money 1 & 2


I’m condensing two reviews into one here with Easy Money and Easy Money II(Or Snabba Cash as it’s called in Sweden which I love the sound of). I saw both at the London film festival but seeing as they’re part of a trilogy and the first is a couple of years old I thought it easier to do.
Easy Money I is a pretty entertaining Swedish thriller set in the criminal underworld. We follow student ‘JW’(Joel Kinnaman from AMC’s The Killing) as he gets drawn into this world because of his wanting of, you guessed it, ‘easy money’ so he can continue his lifestyle of upperclass partying with his youthful, elite friends who are mostly living off they’re huge trust funds.
Firstly, that’s a tough sell. You really want me to feel bad for a guy who just wants to act like all the other spoilt brats? Sorry, but even when they throw in a sweet but slightly boring romance it’s still very hard to root for his motives.
Nevertheless, there are other characters for us to focus on like Jorge(Matias Varela) who breaks out of a prison all too easily at the start and who befriends our lead. Then there’s the crude loser Mahmoud(Fares Fares) and the hard as nails Mrado(Dragomir Mrsic) who of course has a soft side because… he has a young daughter! That’s quite a common theme through both films: ‘these hard as nails guys are really all softies underneath. Look, a kid. A romance, another romance, he just wants to be loved. He just wants to be accepted by his parents. It’s all a bit unconvincing.
Luckily though, the rest of the storyline in the first film is thoroughly entertaining. As JW gets dragged into this world, realising he’s in too deep and he starts just trying to keep his head above water the film takes many an entertaining twist and turn with just as much strong bloody violence to go with it (one of the opening sequences is not for the squeamish as a man gets his head repeatedly smashed against a urinal). The performances are also very strong and put a lot of conviction into some of the more slightly unconvincing elements of the story.
Also great is the frenetic direction and very grim, real world photography; this is not a pretty world and we can see with our very eyes how. Back this up with a very bombastic score during the action and it’s a very well constructed thriller which sets out to entertain and succeeds very well in doing so.

Which makes it a shame that the second one doesn’t quite live up to it.

Picking up 3 years later we re-join several of our characters and catch up with what they’re doing(I won’t say what as that might spoil the first film). Of course what a lot of them are doing is very loud and brash and violent. Then there’s a new romantic interest for one of the characters(the women in these films really are poorly and weakly written). You can almost see the swagger of the film from the beginning as the credits flash up full screen in huge type and backed by a fog horn. Unfortunately it’s all attitude and no substance as the separate story lines of the characters unravel into… well, nothing really. It all feels like a lot of set up to the third film. While the first one could be watched and you wouldn’t need to see the second, the second leaves several plots frustratingly undeveloped purely to lead into ‘Snabba Cash III’.

The performances are still strong, the score is still fun and the photography still great but the strange editing style that appeared fleetingly in the first film now really distracts as we repeatedly flash forward and back between one scene and the next. A sort of weird transition if you like. It’s too frequent and makes it hard to watch at times.

I’m not sure how you can get hold of either film outside of Sweden but I’d recommend the first one for pure entertainment value.

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BFI London Film Festival 2012: Argo


Argo is Ben Affleck’s third directorial film. It’s definitely his best and should finally shake off those ghosts of terrible films past like Pearl Harbour and, shudder, Armageddon.
Based on a true story, it tells the tale of CIA agent Tony Mendez who rescued 6 US diplomats from Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis by posing as a fake producer scouting for locations for a cheesy Star Wars rip off and then taking them back with him on his journey out. It’s quite a ridiculous premise but one which Affleck carries out with all the seriousness of any other hostage situation. After all, this did actually happen!

Firstly, I have to address the issue of the cast which had me smiling with recognition and appreciation as each new character appeared. Most of them were from some of my favourite TV shows of recent times. Bryan Cranston? Check. Kyle Chandler? Check. Željko Ivanek? Check. Chris Messina, Victor Garber, Richard Kind, Titus Welliver, Tom Lenk, Tate Donovan, Philip Baker Hall? All check! Still not happy? Then hey, why not throw in John Goodman and Alan Arkin? That is one hell of a cast and while some of them like Tom Lenk might only get one scene it’s still great to see them all.
Which unfortunately, makes the casting of Ben Affleck slightly odd since, Tony Mendez is, well, Latino! This isn’t helped any further by Affleck’s slightly muted turn as Mendez. It’s far from bad but when he’s going up against big hitters like Goodman, Arkin and Cranston it does show.

But hey, let’s let that pass. After all it doesn’t spoil the film which is relentlessly gripping up until the end even if you know the real life outcome. That’s definitely something to be noted. Taking on a real life story that people know the end of is very difficult. Especially if its an out and out thriller and doesn’t spend a whole lot of time delving into the character’s personalities. Only Ben Affleck really gets a small bit of back story and the diplomats are particularly one dimensional - poor Rory Cochrane barely registers any dialogue or personality behind a moustache bigger than his face. I’m sure it even got bigger as the film went on. Our main focus points are really the 4 men on the poster: Mendez, his boss Bryan Cranston on excellent form once again and the enjoyably haggered and world wearied Goodman and Arkin who provide most of the laughs and some knowingly funny moments satirising Hollywood and the film making business.

Affleck’s attention to detail is very good making the story all the more believable which is important given the very bizarre nature of the tale.
In the end though, it’s clear Affleck is going for thrills pure and simple and he ratchets up the tension to an almost unbelievable level at the end resulting in the whole audience at my screening breaking into a round of applause at one point. Before the film even ended.

The script from Chris Terrio certainly embellishes the details of the real life tale but it’s to good effect and hey, this is entertainment on a hugely enjoyable level so that is more than forgivable.

Affleck’s slightly weak turn not withstanding this is great stuff and you shouldn’t miss it.

Argo is released by Warner Bros. Pictures on 7th November.
A further interesting read is the official CIA article by Tony Mendez here.

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BFI London Film Festival: EVERYDAY


EVERYDAY (yes, all caps as seems to be the way everyone is writing it) is the latest film from Michael Winterbottom, the director of 24 Party People, Cock and Bull Story and the truly fantastic The Trip TV series.
Suffice to say my expectations were high going into this especially considering the inclusion of John Simm, Shirley Henderson and the intriguing idea of filming over the course of 5 years.

The story follows a family who are struggling to move on with life and cope with the absence of their father, Simm, who is incarcerated for an unspecified crime. I say story but there isn’t really a story at all. It’s more of a snapshot of life in this family and the relationship between the two parents over a certain period of time. You watch as Henderson struggles with 4 children, the boys of which are fast becoming independent and at times troublesome, trying just to get through the days bringing them up while making regular visits to their father in prison and trying to find her own identity without him. It’s certainly not a criticism that the film has no real story. In fact, that’s the film’s biggest strength; somehow the mundane becomes interesting and gripping even though its just, well, life. The lack of a script means the dialogue is very realistic and Winterbottom’s very ‘observing’ style of shooting makes for very accessible viewing, almost like you’re being invited to sit in on the family. The performances are excellent although the children, at least in the early stages, really are getting getting upset or making jokes or reacting to situations.

It’s endlessly watchable stuff and I could certainly watch another 5 years worth of the family’s life.

EVERYDAY is not getting a full theatrical release but will be shown on Channel 4 later this year so there’s no excuse not to see this. It’s free!

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BFI London Film Festival: The Sessions


I’ve been a huge fan of John Hawkes for many a year now. One of the most underrated actors around today(along with the awesome Garret Dillahunt), he’s always been the bridesmaid, never the bride. Always showing up in strong supporting roles from Deadwood to Winter’s Bone to Eastbound and Down. Now, finally, he gets to be the focus and seems to relish every moment.

Hawkes is fantastic in the true story of Mark O’Brien, a man pretty much paralysed from the neck down due to polio, who sets out to lose his virginity through the aid of sex surrogate. His performance as a man who really tries to live life to the full despite his disability and slight bitterness about it is all the more remarkable due to his very limited use of his body in the role. Mark frequently quips about his situation while harbouring a deep desire to love and be loved back. By a woman. And not in a “I love you, I’m just not IN love with you” way.

The film is for the most part light hearted but when it delves into the real heartbreak of Mark and the subsequent feelings of his surrogate Helen Hunt it really finds it’s biggest strength. We’ve seen many a film before where someone has a disability or something that makes them ‘different’ but not often are we made to completely forget about that and focus on the person behind that. This film succeeds to do that and it is due mainly to Hawkes and the way director Ben Lewin refuses to let it all get too heavy. It certainly teeters on the edge of becoming too comedic sometimes but it doesn’t quite fall over and that’s certainly to be applauded.

Hunt is great support as the strong willed but gentle surrogate although William H Macy seems merely there to act as a sounding board for Mark to talk us through what he’s feeling which can sometimes be a bit distracting, as much as I like Macey. The film is nicely rounded out by support from Moon Bloodgood and small turns from Rhea Perlman and an enjoyably curmudgeonly Adam Arkin.

The Sessions is released by Fox Searchlight Pictures on January 18th in the UK and this weekend in the US.

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BFI London Film Festival: Midnight’s Children


Midnight’s Children is the film adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s Booker Prize winning 1981 novel of the same name. Going into the screening I didn’t know anything about Rushdie’s novels, only knowing about him and some of the controversy he’s gone through over the years.
So I’m coming at this from a purely movie watching angle, as every adaptation should be. In my opinion it shouldn’t rely on people referring back to the book in their head while watching, something that Rushdie made a point of saying at a talk I went to with him the following night at the BFI. So it’s frustrating that, despite what he says, it felt so much like a book to screen translation.

The story follows a young man, played by Satya Bhabha, who is born on the stroke of midnight at the start of India’s independence. He is also, along with several other ‘Midnight’s Children’, born with special powers. His being the ability of telepathy and the ability to ‘bring people together’. The film starts with the events leading up to his birth and then follows him as he grows, along with the rest of independent India and during several historical events.

Director Deepa Mehta is not someone I’m familiar with but her record shows a good career including an Academy Award nomination. However lots of the plot seems rushed and very loosely stitched together, as if Mehta couldn’t wait to whisk us off to the next fantastic location(of which there are many). I haven’t been to India but the way it shows the country certainly makes me want to go. It’s beautifully photographed and endlessly fascinating. Unfortunately thats the only thing that the film really delivers on. It’s not that it’s a bad film and the performances were all solid it’s just that at no point was I really rooting for the characters and the minute I started to settle into a setting or group of characters I’d suddenly be thrown forward in the story. Rushdie’s pleasant style of narration helps in places without getting in the way too much but it’s not enough and I was left feeling like I’d been given notes on a story rather than shown the full thing.

Maybe Rushdie’s words are best left on the page because with this, his first screenplay outing, he fails to provide any real depth or real flow to a plot which could have been great. It certainly had all the ingredients, India’s rich history and culture being the biggest.

Midnight’s Children is released by 20th Century Fox on December 26th.

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BFI London Film Festival: Beasts of the Southern Wild


‘Beasts…’ was the first film of my 2012 London Film Festival and set the bar extremely high for the rest of the festival.
It centres around a very cute girl called ‘Hushpuppy’ who lives in a small fictitious community just off the coast of Southern America called ‘The Bathtub’. In this small little world Hushpuppy uses her huge imagination to watch and explore everything around her while considering her own place in it and the universe. She lives with her alcoholic father(although in separate houses), who tries to teach her how to be strong and ‘the man’ in a world which will eventually try and crush her when he isn’t around. They have a strange relationship as he tries to keep her at arms length emotionally. Things take a turn for the worst when Hushpuppy discovers something bad about him and as violent storms and floods approach, he refuses to leave.

The world we are brought into is firmly from the perspective of a child - and one with a fantastic imagination. Director Benh Zeitlin fantastically visualises the wonder Hushpuppy sees around her and backs it up with a wonderful score from himself and Dan Romer. But in the end the films true strength lies in the wonderful two leads and their incredibly strong characters. 5 year old newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis appears to very funny and cute at first but quickly develops into an incredibly strong, bold and defiant young girl. Dwight Henry as her father ‘Wink’ is also great as a tortured man who despite all his flaws you still want to root for.

Another great touch is the voice over by Quvenzhané Wallis which is written in a brilliantly observed, child like manner that really feels like it’s coming from Hushpuppy’s head rather than just as a standard voice over.

In the end this is a wonderful film that celebrates imagination and human spirit. Both myself and my girlfriend felt like we’d been through an emotional wringer by the end(in a good way) and it ends on what I felt was an overwhelmingly life-affirming moment. And I guess that’s what I’ll take away from it most; just feeling great about life.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is released in the UK by Fox Searchlight Pictures on October 19th and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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I had the pleasure last night of not only seeing possibly one of the best true spy thrillers I’ve ever seen but to also spend 45 minutes in the company of two absolute film legends, Gary Oldman and John Hurt. Ok so when I say ‘in the company of’ I mean along with a couple of hundred others, but still, I was very star struck. They turned out to be perfect gentlemen and very interesting too which was great as I’d have hated to have my view of them dampened if they’d turned up and been rude or boring. I’ve tweeted a picture for your interest/proof/gloating.

But on to the film which to put it mildly, exceeded my expectations.
The danger the film was in before it even got started was that it was condensing an incredibly complex book into a 2 hour film which had already been condensed slightly into a revered 6 hour mini series that set the bar for what could be done with British serials.
Luckily, due to the trimming of some elements of the story, the film we are left with has slightly more urgency about it and gradually builds the tension throughout much more than the TV series did. Not that the TV series was trying to but it just means that already it’s setting itself apart from it 1980s predecessor.
Then of course, there’s the very long shadow cast by Alec Guinness in the title role of the TV series. In that Guinness is devastatingly good, conveying thoughts and emotions with only the slightest of looks through those thick rimmed specs. Here Gary Oldman wisely doesn’t try to copy Guinness in anyway and makes the role his own. His Smiley is a bit more openly assertive and out going and dare I say it more friendly. It’s a great performance and one I really do think should be acknowledged come awards season.
Around Oldman are a cast most would only dream of with male acting legends of the now and probably future. And Kathy Burke.
Tom Hardy and Mark Strong are both excellent. As is Colin Firth. But it’s Benedict Cumberbatch, with probably most of the screen time after Oldman, who put’s in the best performance. Showing why he’s already in high demand after pretty much just 3 episodes of Sherlock.
The look of the film is fantastic and despite the muddy browns, greys and blacks it’s actually quite beautiful. Director Tomas Alfredson does a great job with the film, giving the actors time in some of the longer, slower scenes, often leaving a lot of silence which keeps you completely wrapped in a story which is far more dialogue heavy and less action than the trailer would leave you to believe.

Overall it’s more or less flawless and I’d recommend anyone to go see it. Just be prepared to have to think and closely follow the story. Oh, and don’t expect to have Gary Oldman and John Hurt there with you. Only I get that. Sorry.

The film opens nationwide from this friday.

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The other night I finally got round to watching the documentary ‘Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop’.
It’s a fascinating look into the big man’s world and really showed more than I expected from what was essentially a behind the scenes of his tour he undertook across America after leaving NBC.
It showed, quite openly, how much he was obviously hurt by the experience but more importantly how he just couldn’t let that stop him performing, entertaining or joking around for people whether it was for a room consisting of his incredibly sweet, hard working assistant and Andy Richter or for several thousand at the Bonaroo festival.
The reasons for this constant need to do this seemed to be a mixture of pure built in energy, addiction to the buzz from an audience and a quite noble view that if the people had come then they should get what they want. Whether that meant signing autographs, posing for pictures, chatting, joking or whatever; as long as the people went away happy, his job was done. Sometimes at the expense of his own sanity.

It’s a great film and I highly recommend it as an insight into the mad life of a entertainer who treats people how he would expect to be treated. Even if that wasn’t the case with a certain network.

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Things I’ve watched this week

Actually it’s films I saw this last two weeks as I forgot to do this last week.

First up I watched the first Scream(1996, dir. Wes Craven) in it’s entirety. I’ve never actually done that before. Pretty much seen it all but in bits so never really appreciated it properly. Sure most of the jumps and scares are way less genuinely terrifying compared to the recent generation of Saw/exorcism etc gore-fests but this film contains things those ones sorely lack; a good sense of humour & fun and genuinely interesting characters. Really enjoyed it and think I’ll follow it up with numbers 2 & 3 this week…

Then in the company of my girlfriend’s media friends/co-workers I saw a screening of the Bradley Cooper film Limitless(2011, dir. Neil Burger) at The Soho Hotel(also starring Robert DeNiro as Robert DeNiro!!). After some ridiculously nice canapés we settled down in what looked like slightly uncomfortable screening room. Luckily looks were deceiving and it was extremely comfortable with plenty of leg room and excellent projection of the film. I was impressed. The film itself was enjoyable enough. Nothing too testing and Cooper is still good fun to watch on screen (and the ladies obviously very much appreciated his other qualities!). It did have some cool, weird ‘zooming down endless streets’ camera technique which I’ve yet to find out how they did…

Then finally I saw Un Prophète(2009, dir. Jacques Audiard) on BluRay. I’d heard big things about it and wasn’t to be disappointed! It’s a truly fantastic bit of film making being powerful, scary, thrilling and many other things at any given time. The two lead performances, by Tahar Rahim as a young inmate in a very violent prison who through no choice of his own comes under the protection and employment of incarcerated mob boss César Luciani(Niels Arestrup), are  quite brilliant. Also the director creates a fantastic sense of threatening and impending violence with tight framing very gloomy, low colour surroundings. It’s really a fantastic film and one everyone should watch provided you don’t have a weak stomach.

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Everything Joseph Gordon-Levitt does just gets me instantly interested.

This is his new film with Seth Rogen by director Jonathan Levine. Out September-ish.