Reviews

Oxstu’s writers review the latest releases.

Series review: True Detective

Series review: True Detective

True Detective hit the small screens back in January, and two months later, it has all come to an end. The show splits into two, with the first half focusing on two Louisiana State detectives talking about their first case together; that of the death of Dora Lang, a woman killed, stripped and left in a field with a crown of antlers. The second focuses on their actions in the present day, decades after the case ended, after they were meant to have found closure. With its stellar cast and its short series run, it is a booking that came in with big expectations. Are they met? Absolutely.

HBO’s show is a renegade in several senses. There is no crack team of writers and directors all jigsawing the show together; instead it’s left to the two man unit of Nick Pizzolatto writing every single episode and Cary Fukunaga directing each one. The series is an anothology—eight episodes encompassing one single story and then moving on. Different case, different actors. The final effect is of something that is just subtly more cohesive than anything else that has come before, something that feels whole.

The acting for a start is simply magnificent. If Fool’s Gold and Ghosts of Boyfriends Past has been the price paid for McConaughey’s current emergence, well then, the price is worth it. McConaughey plays Rust Cohle, a dark, twisted, bitter cop with a viciously nihilistic take on the world and the people around him. Pizzolatto’s writing shines through him, with the first episode laying down the marker for the rest of the season; Rust slips scathingly into a cold, calculated tirade against human existence. Marty Hart, his partner, played by Woody Harrellson asks ‘So what’s the point of getting up in the morning then?’ ‘Because it’s obviously my programming… and I lack the constitution for suicide,’ comes the deadpan, matter-of-fact answer.

With so much of the praise headed towards McConaughey, it would be easy to miss Woody Harrellson, and it would be wrong too. As Marty, he is the foil to Rust’s venom, the straight guy to the philosophical mess that is his partner. And with these two comes the fizzing, flickering tension that the show is really about. For all the death and symbolism, the show is about these two men as partners who struggle to stay in the same room together. This is not a buddy cop antagonism, this is far deeper and far more visceral—a palpable sense of distrust and borderline intolerance of each other and what they each stand for. For a show so dominated by these two men and their issues, with life, love, death and work; credit must also go to Michelle Monaghan as Maggie Hart, Marty’s wife. While not afforded as much screen time as the others, she still manages to pull off her role with subtlety and verve, playing a wife who watches her husband slowly succumb to the case he works.

The entire show is shot through with a heavy sense of dread, an almost physical weight of unease that seems to hang darkly in the air. It’s a combination of so much in the show, the slight sepia colouring to the screen; the long, slow drawls between the main characters; the thudding growl of the guitar in the background as the tension ramps up. The vast openness of Luisiana, with its unkempt wild grass and the wilting, splintering houses stretching out along the Bayou paradoxically suffocate the viewer, pinning them down with the idea that a killer could hide anywhere. The Dora Lang case which is the sole pivot of the first half of the season is played out slowly and deliberately—the occult and voodoo surrounding the case, the deer antlers and Carcosa and the Yellow King all left unnervingly unexplained as the show spools out.

Cary Fukunaga, with no real experience and almost unheard of, punches leagues above his weight, handling the camera with the confidence and style of someone far, far more experience. The highlight of course, something inevitably championed by anyone who has seen the show, is the utterly phenomenal six and a half minute tracking shot that plays out in episode 4- an astonishingly choreographed six and a half minutes that sets off and ends one of the true great scenes of screentime.

The second half of the season slips back into a more standard cop drama thriller, with Marty and Rust chasing down a dead lead from a long time past. This tends towards a lessening of the dread that was cultivated through the previous episodes and at times it feels like a different show, but what it loses in unease, it gains in ratcheting tension levels. The chases and the leads, the unearthing of new clues in slick snapshots steer the show towards it’s inevitable ending, with the inevitable unmasking of the monster at the end of the dream. The final scenes, when they come, feel right. Maybe not what you were hoping for, and maybe just a touch below the startling brilliance of the early part of the show, but right nonetheless. The show highlights some of the best writing since Breaking Bad, and possibly also some of the best acting. If you watch nothing else this year, be sure to watch this.

PHOTO/ wired

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Review: The Crimson Field

Review: The Crimson Field

Oona Chaplin stars in the BBC’s new drama, The Crimson Field, which forms part of the centenary season for the First World War. When three young nurses arrive at a hospital camp near the front line, they are thrown into a world very different from the one they are used to. As the new voluntary helpers, they are instructed to treat the wounded where possible, comfort the patients and turn down beds, all overseen by the frosty yet benevolent matron (Hermione Norris).

Chaplin plays Kitty, the surly and quick-tempered newcomer with a past troubled by love, whose attitude immediately forces her into the bad books of matron Grace. Then there’s Flora (Alice St. Clair), naïve but well meaning, and Rosalie (Marianne Oldham), reserved and desperate to be of use. There are some rather clichéd ‘baddies’, who take the form of cake-hogging meanie, Sister Quayle, and unsympathetic Colonel Purbright, who forces shell-shocked Lance Corporal Prentiss to return to the front line, despite the best efforts of the kindly resident surgeon (Kevin Doyle from Downton Abbey).

While the script is relatively simplistic and the action is pretty slow moving, the opening episode was intriguing enough to persuade me to return for the second installment. That said, I had no idea everything would be quite so clean in a war-zone hospital (the aprons are constantly gleaming white and the vehicles are bizarrely lacking in any scratches or dirt). The nurses are surprisingly glamorous, while even the gory bits seem contrived and weirdly out of place. I was therefore left a little disappointed. I was rather hoping for something grittier.

There is, however, an array of strong performances. Norris is formidable as Grace, striking a balance between strict and soft. Chaplin in particular stands out among the rest of the cast, whose grace and subtlety as an actress I have always been a fan of. After her stint on Game of Thrones came to a dramatic end last year, I am glad to see her thriving on our screens once again.

One will see immediate similarities with BBC drama Call the Midwife and obvious links can be made with season two of Downton Abbey. In fact, it seems as though they’ve tried to combine the two hit shows in an ambitious attempt to create some kind of ‘super period drama’. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that the end result feels both too safe and a little confused at the same time. Who knows? Perhaps that is the intention.

The Crimson Field may not be ‘outstanding’ or ‘innovative’ telly, but it certainly understands what the British public want. The impressive viewing figures are testament to how we really can’t get enough of these types of shows. As long as it doesn’t take itself too seriously and we take it for what it is, a slightly shallow but ultimately compelling watch on an otherwise dull Sunday evening, I can’t see the harm in one more.

Photo: historyextra

Review: Starred Up

Review: Starred Up

Jack O’Connell, once of Skins fame, shines in this simple yet powerful drama about a young offender struggling against authority. It follows his 19 year old character, Eric Love, as he battles against staff, inmates, his father and his own temper when he is forced to fend for himself after being prematurely transferred to adult prison.

Eric quickly makes enemies and exhibits his proneness to extreme violent outbursts. Nev, who happens to be both his father and a fellow inmate, warns him to dial down his aggression and unsuccessfully tries to be more of a protective father figure than he had been on the outside, his own anger often getting the better of him. Meanwhile, Eric takes part in therapy sessions with other prisoners, which seem to have an effect on the troubled protagonist.

The tension is ever-present and violence is never far from the surface, keeping the audience entertained but never fully comfortable. The atmosphere is pretty bleak throughout and it all feels quite claustrophobic, which works well given the subject matter. I’d go so far as to say that the film felt a little slow moving overall and there were times when I could potentially have lost interest if not for the consistency of the hard hitting performances.

Rupert Friend is great as Oliver, the prison therapist who leads the various group discussion sessions. Not to mention Ben Mendelsohn as Nev, whose performance is gritty and compelling. But the real star is O’Connell. He thrives in a demanding role, always striking the right balance between volatility and vulnerability. I remember watching his scene stealing performance on Skins all those years ago (when “Cook” was just about the only interesting character on a distinctly mediocre show and certainly my only reason for watching it), and I am reminded of his extraordinary acting ability, which really hits its stride in this “raw and immediate” drama.

Jonathan Asser’s professional roots as a prison therapist are manifest throughout, with the most effective scenes being the group discussion sessions lead by Friend’s character. It is here where his script is particularly convincing and his experience is a huge advantage. Other aspects are not so convincing, namely the rather too obvious character of Governor Hayes (Sam Spruell) as the token evil and corrupt prison official. The depth and complexity of the characters is, for me, the strongest part of the film, so in this way Hayes feels a little out of place.

However, these are just a minor quibbles. All in all, it is a well-written and strongly performed drama which is a bleak yet powerful statement (although about what specifically I’m not exactly sure). It is well worth seeing for Jack O’Connell alone.

Review: Game of Thrones ‘Two Swords’

Review: Game of Thrones ‘Two Swords’

Opening with a bravely symbolic sequence involving Tywin Lannister melting down the Valyrian steel blade once belonging to Ned Stark to make two new swords (giving the episode its title), season four of ‘Game of Thrones’ promises not to shy away from the political (and quite literal) mess left in the wake of season three’s Red Wedding. If the re-purposing of ‘Ice’ for Lannister ends was too subtle for you, Tywin throws a wolf pelt onto the fire to drive the message home. Indeed, although Sunday night’s première may not shock like Bran’s fall from the Winterfell battlements nor thrill like Daenerys’ liberation of the Unsullied, ‘Two Swords’ (at a pace far more subdued than viewers of ‘Game of Thrones’ are used to) develops into a powerful and nuanced character-centric episode: character-driven at the expense (quite rightly!) of the action. Don’t get me wrong, ‘Two Swords’ is appropriately bloody, with an utterly riveting action sequence starring the Hound and Arya occurring near the end of the episode. But, all in all, characters in this episode are in a state of flux rather than activity. Jamie, Tyrion and Cersei struggle to come to terms with the changes forced upon them last season rather than driving the action relentlessly forward as we’re used to.  Peter Dinklage as Tyrion  in particular treats us to some first-class acting in his battle to patch-up his relations with his young bride, Sansa, after the brutal murder of her family at the hands of his father (Sophie Turner’s acting was remarkable for her unique blend of numb-shock and melancholy, incidentally).

Certainly, for a show famous for its blood, guts and breasts, ‘Game of Thrones’ refuses to succumb to the temptation to ram its first episode full of brainless battling and pointless plot developments. Instead, ‘Two Swords’ continues to subtly and masterfully develop the myriad of  plot-lines which D.B. Weiss and David Benioff have to balance their own quiet, assured manner. Indeed, with some magnificently-phrased profanities from the Hound and some ominously sadistic smirks from Arya (coupled with their fearlessly bloody, squirm-inducing encounter with some Lannister goons), the character-development of this simultaneously moody and surprisingly funny ‘duo’ is definitely the highlight of the episode (and perhaps, at this rate, the entire season to come).

A particular challenge addressed in this episode is also how to introduce new characters and plot-threads, appearing, most obviously, in the form of the side-smiling, yellow-clad, Oberyn Martell (otherwise known as the ‘Red Viper’), and his smoulderingly beautiful ‘paramour’, Ellaria Sand. The explanation of Oberyn’s backstory was a little rushed, perhaps, given its emotional importance. However, within minutes of being on-screen, Oberyn lifted the pace with some bloody and erotic (not at the same time) antics at the brothel. Plus, Oberyn’s threatening reworking of the Lannisters’ vow to ‘pay their debts’ shows that his back-story did pack some hefty punch when it needed to. The appearance of Brienne with the Tyrells, although neither are new characters, was also a pace-enhancing sequence. With more girl-power than you can shake a stick at, the Tyrells and Brienne are a match made in Heaven…it just remains to be seen where their relationship will go.

PHOTO/ pixgood

Review: Divergent

Review: Divergent

Divergent, arguably one of the biggest young adult film releases of 2014, hit cinema screens last Friday with hordes of teenage girls storming cinemas all over the world. The mixed reviews from critics didn’t deter audiences as five times as many Divergent tickets were sold on Fandango in comparison to Twilight (the ultimate fangirl franchise), which was released six years ago. Divergent is the sort of film that critics love to hate, so all reviews must be taken with a pinch of salt as there are just as many good things as there are bad with this film.

Divergent follows the structure of a young adult film to a T. Essentially, a strong-minded teenage girl living in a dystopian world finds out she’s different from the rest of society but this is a secret she must keep or she will be killed. Throw in some action scenes, and a man with the most impressive jawline you’ve ever seen with a penchant for taking his top off, and you’ve got a major blockbuster in the works.

Somewhat unusual for a film aimed at teenage girls, but the acting in this film is actually pretty darmn good. It is the two protagonists, Shailene Woodley (The Sweet Life of the American Teenager) and Theo James (Underworld: Awakening) that keep most audiences captivated, not the plot and certainly not the repetitive and unimaginative action sequences. The strong female heroine is losing its novel status and fast becoming a pre-requisite for young adult novels but Shailene Woodley brings Tris Prior to life in a way that few other actresses would be able to. Alongside her is Theo James who is undoubtedly the perfect man to play Tobias Eaton (aka Four). Although over ten years older than his on screen counterpart, there’s something about him that is both powerful and gentle at the same time which perfectly captures Tobias Eaton.

Fans of the book are likely to be disappointed as this film diverges (excuse the pun) from Roth’s plot line by a fair amount. Whilst numerous readers have stated that they believe the film to be even better than the book, I would have to disagree on this point. There are so many details in the book that are not translated onto screen, and whilst this is understandable, it doesn’t make it acceptable. Numerous scenes in the film are rushed and unexplained and without the background information learnt from reading the books one would be left constantly fighting to catch up with the plot, just like the clueless Dauntless transfers running for their first train.

Having read the book myself, I know that there was so much potential for this film to be brilliant but unfortunately it falls short. The general plot and the relationships between characters remain largely undeveloped and the characters often seem rather flat because of the uninspiring script. That said, there are still many positive aspects to this film. Firstly, the acting, as mentioned above; secondly the score, put together by Hans Zimmer, the man behind the scores of Inception and The Dark Knight; and thirdly the graphics, which had to be pretty impressive given that this is an action-packed dystopian film.

No matter what the critics say, it is clear that this new series is going to be getting a lot of attention and making a lot of money. The sequels, Insurgent and Allegiant, were put into work before the first film was even released which suggests there are high hopes for this series. I guess producers know that no critic will stand between a teenage fangirl and Tobias Eaton.

PHOTO/ fanpop

Review: The Double

Review: The Double

An empty train carriage, clattering along an unknown rail line. Jesse Eisenberg’s Simon James stares vacantly out beyond the camera. The texture is a perfect blend of grubby Wes Anderson and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.

‘You’re in my place’, an unseen mousy brown haired young man says – Simon looks around the carriage, the vacant seats. He stands up and lets the man sit down.

The opening shot to The Double firmly establishes the inner mechanisms at play and come to resonate through the film. Simon, a feeble, submissive, entirely invisible individual is posed against his ‘Double’, a doppelgänger’d James Simon; cocksure, manipulative and overwhelmingly successful both romantically and in the workplace. Their relationship becomes one of ideologically opposed masculine traits – that of circumstantial actuality and submissiveness (Simon) versus an idealistic implausibility (James). There is a sense of inevitability running through the piece, from the first moment we are introduced to Simon’s double right the way through to the finale. These two opposed individuals are both intrigued and repulsed by their coexistence.

Eisenberg has to be praised in that respect. The differences between the two characters he plays are predominantly extreme but never in an overwhelming capacity – James can distinguish himself from Simon purely through a confidant smirk and slightly less firm posture. Physicality, it seems, is key. The rest of the cast embellishes this great performance. Mia Wasikowska, originally essentially an ‘object’ of Simon’s fancies, eventually manifests herself into a complex and compelling figure. It is worth noting that this romantic element is a creation of Ayoade’s own, fleshing out Dostoyevsky’s novel by placing it in a new, though perhaps more accessible context.

The film is a huge success for Ayoade’s rise to the top. Producer Robin C Fox had, upon picking up the script, been ‘stalking’ Ayoade in an attempt to get him to join the project, well before his 2010 directorial debut Submarine. There are cinematographic choices here that hark back to Submarine – a sporadically intrusive soundtrack, or the tight close-ups that revel in their own intensity. But The Double goes further – Ayoade has chosen not to place his film in any recognisable location (unlike the distinctive Swansea) and instead crafts a dystopian, claustrophobic environment capable of emphasising the distinctly submissive nature of Simon’s character. Not a single shaft of daylight comes through the entire film. There are also clear Anderson remarks – a long shot as Simon’s hand extends over a table being an obvious example (suggesting others would ruin the film’s ending).

It was difficult, in a press screening room, treated to free beer and friendly corporate marketers, to attempt to find fault with the film.  At Toronto it enjoyed widespread acclaim and it is clear to see why. For the vast majority of the viewing I lost track of time – not knowing if I’d been in the cinema for half an hour or an hour and a half; to the extent that when the end came it was a whirlwind of action and narrative and thematic conclusion. This change in pace adds an extra element of suspense, but the frenetic nature is both conducive to the thematic dichotomy at work and, perhaps, risks undermining it with its overly swift resolution. Nevertheless, The Double is an incredible piece of art more than anything else, perhaps bordering on pastiche, yet wholly absorbing.

PHOTO/ giga, indiewire

Review: Calvary

Review: Calvary

John Michael McDonagh is doing a nice job of differentiating himself from Martin, his eminent brother, writer and director of In Bruges and Seven Psycopaths. John Michael himself also has a previous success to fall back on, in the shape of 2011’s brilliant The Guard, which starred Brendan Gleeson as an awful Irish policeman dealing with interference from Don Cheadle as an American agent. Now the writer and director reunite with Brendan Gleeson for Calvary, sharing a few themes with that film, but largely a more serious, thoughtful piece. Gleeson’s character is the antithesis of his role in The Guard.

The foul-mouthed copper is replaced by a mild priest, thoroughly kind, despite antagonists’ attempts to provoke him, living in peace in a small Irish town of County Sligo. The film opens with a threat, or rather a promise, made to this Father James in confession – that the man on the other side of the screen will kill James in one week’s time. This threat coincides with the arrival of his estranged daughter (Kelly Reilly), in an attempt at reconciliation, and the film follows him on a day-by-day basis as he attempts to prepare for the event he’s been warned of, all the while dealing with the tribulations of his ‘congregation’, such as they are. In this group of people there is a roll-call of moderately successful Irish television actors, from Chris O’Dowd (The IT Crowd), and Dylan Moran (Black Books) to Aiden Gillen (Game of Thrones) , and all do well with their material (though Gillen’s delivery is as hard to pin down as it is in Thrones – is it deliberately off?).

As the noose begins to tighten around his neck, and Father James’ few dear possessions are brought under threat, the strain starts to take its toll, and Gleeson does a phenomenal job of relaying the pressure Father James feels. When, at only a few points, this pressure breaks through, the emotions are raw and affecting. Where The Guard was raucous and pointed, but ultimately not a terribly serious film, Calvary is a picture with a serious core. The would-be murderer explains in his opening dialogue with James that as a child he was abused by an Irish Priest “orally and anally, as they say”, and that he will kill James not because he too committed pederasty, but because he didn’t – a non-revenge killing will get more attention. The not universally unfair, but nonetheless callously unjust logic this applies to James’ Catholicism is brutal, and the futility it inspires in him is visible onscreen. That he is so kind a character only makes it more wrenching when we see him weighing up his very limited options, some of which will dehumanise him too. The filming of Calvary is naturalistic at times, with the beautiful surrounds of Sligo lending a bleakness and forlorn look which the film scarcely needed help with, while every so often a clearly deliberately framed shot pops up, long enough to warrant pondering and observation. If John Michael McDonagh continues like this, he might well start to muscle in on his brother’s ground as Ireland’s preeminent screenwriter.

PHOTO/ reform-magazine

Review: Captain America – The Winter Soldier

Review: Captain America – The Winter Soldier

Marvel is fast on its way to world cinema domination. 2014 will see the release of The Amazing Spiderman 2 and X-Men: Days of Future Past, both based on some of the company’s comic book icons. There will also be a new addition to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, with Guardians of the Galaxy out later in the year. The biggest release of them all though? As the only Avenger to grace the screen this year, Captain America: The Winter Soldier had to pack a punch. Without a doubt, it doesn’t disappoint.

Before his onscreen performance is even considered, there’s a claim against Captain America that needs to be addressed. It’s repeated by critics again and again, gaining traction as it goes, that he just isn’t quite super enough compared to the other Avengers, because he’s only a stronger, faster human. Right? Wrong. He’s not only a super-human, he’s THE ultimate good guy. It’s this quality which sets the Cap apart from the other Avengers, and it really is what makes these films tick. Thawed into the modern day, Steve Rogers is a man trying to adjust. He even has his own to-do list. As Steve discovers though, the way the world works hasn’t changed all that much. Fortunately, neither has his determination to change it.

While keeping the character profile consistent, The Winter Soldier differs from its predecessor in terms of tone. Rather than all out action – though to be fair, a pretty hefty amount of city does get blown to smithereens – the film’s central concept is political espionage and a covert global power-play. S.H.I.E.L.D. is inevitably tangled up with questionable scheming, but gets caught in the crossfire itself. This leaves Steve Rogers stranded out in twenty-first century Washington DC. He has a disguise (apparently a pair of glasses are Marvel’s first choice too), a new friend, and a borrowed costume from his own museum exhibition. Nick Fury’s advice: trust no-one.

It’s the most sophisticated of the Marvel Avengers series with truth, lies, and spies thrown in amongst the political greyscale. Scarlett Johansson returns as Black Widow, still kicking some serious ass but showing a more subtle side too, which works in her favour. A potential new addition to the Avengers is a daringly enjoyable twist, as the Falcon graces screens for the first time. Played by Anthony Mackie, he fills the role of Steve’s wingman – quite literally. Don’t dismiss him as a mere sidekick however. Falcon is a character with plenty of potential of his own. Captain America’s masked enemy is also a familiar face, but with murderous intentions and a metal arm as strong as Cap’s vibranium shield. It’s a violent showdown and an emotional reunion all at the same tear-jerking time.

Despite all its enigmas and complexities, the film’s one let down is a deceptively simple fix which, if you think about it too much, will eat away at the logical half of your brain. The solution resides in the most accessible, empty-of-all-guards area of a Helicarrier. And it takes a single data card to undo a system’s worth of programming. The bad guys in this are pretty hi-tech. It goes without saying that there should be a failsafe. Or at least an entry code.

The Winter Soldier is Marvel’s biggest success yet. Without Iron Man and Thor there isn’t the madcap humour of The Avengers, replaced instead by a well-balanced amount of satire and sarcasm. A development carried over from the previous instalment of Captain America not only makes a great plot in the follow-up, but will improve viewing of the first. The action sequences are tightly controlled, the characters are given new life, and neat little surprises continually entertain (ranging from an appearance by Steve’s old flame and a passing reference to another name in the Marvel Universe). It’s a film on the edge of super-hero greatness.

Finally, as always: DO NOT LEAVE UNTIL THE SCREEN IS DEAD! You’ll just be kicking yourself later.

(Easter Egg Alert! For any Samuel L. fans, watch out for a nod to his character in Pulp Fiction. Clue: the path of the righteous man is a grave one…)

PHOTOS/ fansided.com

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