August: Osage County (2014)

August: Osage County (2014)

I’m pretty partial to the month of August; it’s sunny, the days are long and I just generally feel that all is well with the world. Way better than the gloomy dark depths of winter where the only comfort you get outside is from an idling bus that’s parked beside you on the pavement. Good times. Woeful times. But then again, the winter is a good time to get inside to your local cinema or theatre and take in a film or play. In fact, these events are way more fun in winter… and not just for the warmth. So, this brings us to a play that’s now become a film! See… see what we did there? All a cunning link! Welcome to August: Osage County.

August: Osage County (2014)

August: Osage County tells the take of the somewhat dysfunctional Weston family as they deal with the death of their patriarch. At the core, we have Violet (Meryl Streep) a wife and mother that’s simultaneously dealing with advanced mouth cancer, a pill addiction and the death of her husband. Violet’s an astute woman, but also one that’s prone to outbursts and putting the cat amongst the proverbial pigeons. These pigeons? That’d be Violet’s daughters Barbara (Julia Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) and Karen (Juliette Lewis) and sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), plus their associated spouses that include Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbach and Chris Cooper amongst their ranks. As you might have assumed, this is a very character driven movie: one that tells the tale of life, death and all the arguments that fall in between.

August: Osage County (2014)

As I alluded to in the introduction, August: Osage County once begun its life in theatreland, which is highly evident throughout the run time of the film. Some of the sets are nigh-on replicas of what you would envisage to be seen up on stage. All of this lends itself perfectly to letting the characters and acting truly shine, as this is where the strengths of the film truly lie. I mean, look at that cast! With Meryl Streep you know what you’re going to get – a solid performance. But her portrayal of Violet is captivating; she veers wildly from caring and understanding mother to outrageous, totally non-PC hellraiser. Obviously, embodying someone that’s addicted to medication and suffering from terminal cancer calls for someone with some good acting chops, and obviously, Streep is more than capable of this!

Saying that, her supporting cast is nothing to be sniffed at, particularly Julia Roberts. Now, I’ve never come to associate Roberts with spell-binding roles. This is probably my fault, as I never actively sought her out in films. Hell, she’s no Bradley Cooper (no, this isn’t me proclaiming Cooper to be the King of Acting 2014… just that The Phage has a soft spot for the guy, and we actively seek him out in EVERY role… even Long Hot American Summer (which sucked)). But here she truly shines. This doesn’t come across as “acting” but “living”. I was totally sold on her role and couldn’t help but emote with her as the film progressed.

August: Osage County (2014)

This brings me to the plotting of August: Osage County. At first, I won’t lie, I was a little confused about where the film was going to head. The first third, whilst enjoyable, wasn’t wholly engrossing. Thankfully, this was just a “scene setting” exercise. By the midway point I was sold and was captivated by proceedings. There are plot twists and then twists on the twists. I like this. No, I love this. As long time readers will know: I’m not a fan of linear film telling. I like to second guess and then second guess my second guesses. I’m not sure if that means I’m fourth, sixth, or eighth guessing myself. Regardless, the plot was excellent. This is coupled with some truly heart-warmingly funny moments peppered throughout. This isn’t a comedy film per-se, but the elements of humour are scattered throughout and work beautifully.

All in all, August: Osage County is a powerful piece of film making that’s truly driven by a superb ensemble cast. Whilst the film is slow to build and may lose some in this time period, it rewards those that are with it for the long haul. Obviously, the film is here to compete for golden statues, but as I’ve said before this year: it’s another very tough year… who knows who’ll win! But head out to see August… in winter… What lies inside is a touching film that makes you smile, makes you sad and makes you recoil in shock.

A shock that’s more commonly associated with those horrible winter days. After you’ve been hunkering near that idling bus, it pulls off and sprays you with drizzle and envelops you in a cloud of diesel fumes. I’m kind of glad they didn’t make the film November: London County… although you’d certainly get a lot of indoor scenes as it’s too gloomy to head outside. Bit more stabby too.

Phage Factor:

3.5 Star

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12 Years A Slave (2014)

12 Years A Slave (2014)

A few weeks back I derided the fact that December-February brings about an onslaught of films that I deemed to be Oscar fodder. You know the types of film that I refer to: ones that focus on race, prejudice or persecution. Or generally a mix of all three components. I won’t lie – I’ve been cynical of these types of movies, as sometimes it seems that they were conceived only to give the writers, directors and actors a chance of accolade. Indeed, I’m still sure this is how the studios see these films; I doubt they’re concerned with the pathos or poignancy of a piece, merely how much revenue it can bring it. After all, it’s a business! Awards buzz = more ticket sales as people clamor to see what the fuss is all about. Then something happened to make me repeal my cynicism. That “thing” was 12 Years A Slave.

12 Years A Slave (2014)

12 Years A Slave tells the tale of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in the pre-Civil War USA. Solomon is a freeman, living up in the North East with his wife and two children. This all changes abruptly when he’s kidnapped and sold into a life of slavery with no proof as to his true origins. Over the next 12 years he sees himself overseen by various “masters”, from the more benevolent and forward-thinking Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbach) to the more oppressive and ill-tempered Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Solomon must witness all the untold horrors of slavery, whilst also keeping his past a secret lest he be lynched… slaves are paid to work, not to read, write, or think.

And 12 Years A Slave doesn’t pass up the opportunity to show you the horrors of slavery in the US. From what’s been told by director Steve McQueen, they actually chose to omit some of some of the acts that Solomon described in his memoirs (yes, this is a true story). Truth be told, you’d be surprised that that was the case. 12 Years A Slave is intensely visceral and sometimes makes for very uncomfortable viewing. It almost feels like you’re watching a snuff movie at some points. I defy anyone not to be unnerved by McQueen‘s unflinching decision to hold the camera on Ejiofor during a lynching scene… the cinematography, the noises and the background acting truly makes you want to look away or hide from the screen. Similarly, the scenes of lashings are also particularly harrowing. This isn’t a movie for the feint of heart, but is for people that want to acknowledge what actually went on in the past.

12 Years A Slave (2014)

Steve McQueen has done a fantastic job of sculpting arguably one of the finest movies in recent memory. The pacing of the film is sublime and the 120+ minute run time evaporates before your eyes. There’s no filler in this movie – it’s all top notch quality film making. And acting. Yes, a movie can only get so far on direction and story alone. The ensemble cast that’s been put together for this movie is beyond reproach. Although trailers and posters would make you believe this is a Brad Pitt fronted film (he does feature in the film… that much is true), that would be a huge disservice to the other actors, and indeed is a bit of a cheeky lie considering he doesn’t appear until the final act of the film.

British-born Chiwetel Ejiofor is  superb protagonist; capturing the joy, sorrow and adversity of the title character. I’d like to think that Solomon Northup himself would be pleased with this portrayal if he had the chance to watch this movie back. Ejiofor summons so much emotion that it’s hard to not be swept away and become emotional yourself when things don’t go his way (and that happens a lot). I feel more attention should also have been placed on Benedict Cumberbach and Michael Fassbender in the promotional materials, as both actors deliver in spades, even if this is the first time I’ve ever heard Cumberbach embrace an American accent. I really want to focus on Fassbender here though, as this is arguably one of his strongest performances to date. He embodies a vile, but critically broken man in an untold way. I was mesmerised by every scene that he was in, and he definitely deserves at least one gong for Best Supporting Actor at at least one of these upcoming ceremonies! If there’s any justice he will do anyway.

12 Years A Slave (2014)

Likewise, 12 Years A Slave as a whole, whether actors, director, screenplay or the film itself, deserves to be acknowledged for what it is: a spectacular piece of modern cinema. I expect big things for this movie over the coming month as the awards are handed out. I’m not normally one to be so taken with a film that’s a forerunner in these battles, but my mind has been changed. For me, it’s going to be a close battle between this and Captain Phillips. The true winners are however the audience… we’ve been spoiled, for sure.

12 Years A Slave is currently standing head and shoulders above all other contenders for Best Picture in our eyes at Film Phage. We’ve not been so moved and emotionally battered like this for a long time. Yes, the film is graphic, but why should the subject matter be sugar coated? Humans are a brutal species, regardless of race, gender or creed. It’s been the case since the first of our ancestors started to fight one another over territory or resources. Between Steve McQueen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Cumberbach, Michael Fassbender and a superb supporting cast, we have been blessed with a truly fantastic film to commence 2014.

You’ve got to taste the irony in my introductory paragraph don’t you? I talk at length about prejudice, and then air my own prejudices against flagrant Oscar-baiting movies. Although several are still to be unleashed in the UK, I doubt any will prove to be as worthy of praise as 12 Years A Slave. I don’t think I have any more superlatives to throw down here. Simply: see this film, or miss out on a true highlight. Done.

Phage Factor:

5 Star

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

What is it with “Part 2″‘s right now? They seem to be everywhere. 2013 – the year of the Part 2-er. Mainly, this comment is coming off the back of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire releasing only a few short weeks ago. Back in that review I mentioned the curse of the second in a trilogy, so I’m not going to trip over myself reciting what I’ve already written. Go on – go and have a look, and then come back. Good? Good! Essentially… there’s a lot of pressure on a Part 2. However, the pressure is doubled when one of Part 1’s best characters, Gollum, played by Andy Serkis never appears again in the trilogy. Time to introduce a bloody big dragon voiced by Benedict Cumberbach then right?

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

Yes, The Hobbit: The Desoluation of Smaug, or The Hobbit 2 as we’re going to go ahead and call it to save us typing out that long, long subtitle over and over, picks up where The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey ended. Thankfully, we don’t need to retread the same turid opening scenes as the first entry though. Further, now that I’m used to the “slightly too fast” 48fps filming, it was much easier to get into than the first entry. This is a solid gold star in The Hobbit 2′s homework book. Essentially, our titular Hobbit, Bilbo (Martin Freeman) must now continue his journey with his band of dwarves so that he can enter through a hidden door in The Lonely Mountain and steal back a jewel for them so that they can restore the glory of the Dwarven Kingdom. Only problem is that a huge fire breathing dragon is sleeping atop it… and he gets disturbed easily.

At the outset, this description would make out that The Hobbit 2 is far more action-packed than its predecessor. And indeed, it certainly begins with a damn sight more action than its predecessors “let’s lay the table and have a sing-song” scenes. This time you have giant bears, orcs and spiders. Take THAT last film. But… well… these action sequences just didn’t captivate me in the same way that the original Hobbit’s eventual action scenes with goblins, orcs, trolls and stone giants did. In the original Hobbit these scenes blew me away or made me smile and laugh. Here? Not so much. Spiders? Yeah, we’ve seen those before in the original Lord of the Rings trilogy. They’re not giant golems are they?! Sure, the film’s eventual climax / third features the huge dragon, and there is some orc action, but for me it wasn’t at the same level as before.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

At least the plot whisks along fairly well and we don’t become stuck in a mire for too long, unlike the first entry. One minute we’re with the elves in the forest, the next we’re in barrels, then a human settlement – it’s all rather brisk. We also get reunited with our favourite archer Orlando Bloom, who takes up a rather central role in the film and becomes involved in a weird love triangle that doesn’t seem to actually go anywhere. Lots of tension, not much affection!

Visually, the film is as you would expect: beautiful. Particularly, Benedict Cumberbach’s Smaug “feels” real enough and is one of the most animated and well-realised dragons that I can remember. You truly feel his personality coming through. Which, for a CGI dragon, is pretty tough to do. Whilst on the subject, it’s probably worth talking about the acting. Arguably, this film belongs to the titular dragon. Martin Freeman is likeable, sure, but he’s not really a “star” here. No, once again, the title of “best character” for a Hobbit film is computer-generated. Cumberbach provides the perfect voice for this character: very English, but at the same time distorted to such a degree that it’s truly menacing and intimidating. Indeed, the FINAL lines of the entire movie are fantastic.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

But that’s the thing… once again, we have a cliffhanger ending. More of a cliffhanger than The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and about on par with The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Audience members were left bamboozled and disappointed, again. But at least it shows they were engrossed in the story I guess! To me, the film just felt a tad… empty. There were no closing of story arcs (at all) and too many threads were left open. Sure, keep the majority going, but close some, at least? The film just didn’t sate me in the way that I expected it to, which is a shame. But then again, I’m sure next year’s conclusion can pick up where this left off.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a more immediately accessible watch than Peter Jackson’s first foray into prequel-ville. You’re thrown right into the action, and it never relents. However, I just felt it somewhat lacking. The creatures didn’t impress as much as in the first entry into the trilogy, but at least the 48fps shooting rate wasn’t a distraction this time around. Also, once again, we have a mo-capped character as my favourite. Replacing Gollum was hard… and I’m not saying Smaug totally makes up for this… but at least he’s there to draw the eye and the mind.

At least this is the end of sequelitis for now. Oh, wait… it isn’t. No, not with the new Anchorman on release right now. Sure, we’re heading out to see that soon – but thankfully, it’s not the part of a trilogy. Or so we’d hope. It never stopped The Hangover did it? And look at how well THAT franchise turned out! Thankfully this precious little franchise isn’t even in the same game as thos imposters…

Phage Factor:

3.5 Star

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

It’s not unusual for a film to have that “marmite” effect, where you either love it or you hate it. For instance, whilst some (The Phage included) think that Tarantino‘s films are witty, well crafted slices of cinematic gold, others see them as films that just “try too hard” and are filled with superfluous dialogue. Another aspect of cinema right now that’s proving divisive is the use of 3D technology, as not many films use it to good effect and instead use it as a way to put their hands in your pockets and pry those extra coins out. Normally to make up for a lacklustre film. But now, a new contender enters the ring to compete for “Most Divisive Tool in Cinema”: 48 frames per second shooting and projection, thanks to Peter Jackson‘s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. But is the film worth the money in your pocketses? What’s in your pocketses? You stoled it! You stoled my moneys!! Brings me back my precious!!

The Hobbit (2012)

If you’ve been living under a rock for the past 24 months then you won’t have heard about Peter Jackson‘s latest foray into Middle Earth to tell the tale of The Hobbit – a small prequel to The Lord of the Rings. I’m going to get one thing out in the open right now: I’ve never read The Hobbit. Nor have I ever read The Lord of the Rings. So what you’re getting here is a completely objective (as possible) review of the film… and not a review blinded by sentimentality about a book. So shall we begin?

To cut a long short story short, The Hobbit is the tale of Bilbo Baggins, who was played by Ian Holm in the original trilogy (and reprises his role here as the older Baggins), and is now played by Martin Freeman. The story focuses on how Gandalf (Ian McKellan) tasks the young Baggins with a task to accompany Thorin (Richard Armitage) and his band of dwarves as they trek to the Lonely Mountain to reclaim a homeland for their race. Throw in a chunk of side-plots about a Necromancer (Benedict Cumberbach – you won’t really see him here) and an orc warrior that really has a score to settle with Thorin and you’re about there. And of course… you don’t forget about Gollum (Andy Serkis). Nobody forget about Gollum.

The Hobbit (2012)

So far, so suitably epic. And I must say the film does deliver on that word: epic… eventually. The first 30-40 minutes of the film are incredibly slowly-paced and one would argue “tedious”. This is perhaps made all the worse by the new “marmite” of the cinema: 48fps. For those not in the know, you normally see a film at 24 frames per second (how fast the film is shot and projected) – it looks like a film. A bit grainy, but warm and fuzzy. What Jackson has decided to do is update the formula and shoot at double the speed. This should mean double the clarity and enrich the image. But if like The Phage, you’re not used to this style of filming, it’s extremely jarring. The opening prologue looked like it was being projected at 1.2x speed – everything appeared slightly sped-up and comedic. Not quite to the same extent to a Benny Hill sketch, but more like you’d accidentally sped up a DVD by a notch. As many have pointed out, it looks like a television sitcom or sci-fi (think 1970’s Dr. Who). You half expect Tinky Winky or La-La to stroll over the horizon banging on about “tubby custard” or that damn hoover that used to eat the pink gloop (yes, a Teletubbies reference on Film Phage… in 2012. Damn, we’re current!)

The ultimate impact of 48fps is the fact that yes, things appear much clearer… including the make up and prosthetics on the dwarves. Interior sets also look incredibly cheap and false – this is especially noticeable in the aforementioned 40 minute opening in Bilbo’s house. However… However… I warmed to this method of filming. Especially when it came to the large, lush New Zealand landscapes and anything featuring a CGI character, be they orc, goblin or troll.

The Hobbit (2012)

So whilst I speak of the CGI, let’s delve in here. Some hubbub has been made of the fact that the orcs here are 100% artificially generated. In the original Lord of the Rings trilogy, all of the orcs were extras decked out in prosthetics and they looked brilliant. You see, I’d argue that The Hobbit‘s orcs look even more fantastic – perhaps owing to that high frame rate. The same can be said of all trolls and wolves in the film too. All look simply amazing, so credit really has to go to the SFX crew working on the film. This brings us to what was, for me, the highlight of the film… Gollum.

The Hobbit (2012)Andy Serkis deserves some type of award. Or at least acknowledgement that he is a talent to be reckoned with. Whether it’s Gollum here, or Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the mo-cap performance he brings to the piece is phenomenal. Let’s also not forget his instantly recognisable accent for Gollum – perfection. The entire section revolving around him and Bilbo is cinematic gold. And the visual effects make Gollum look even more lifelike than ever before. You’d swear that he was in the room with Martin Freeman. It’s just a shame that by all accounts, this is the only time we’ll see Gollum in the rest of this prequel trilogy… a real shame. Bring on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes then!

Speaking of “trilogy”, I was initially sceptical of how a short story book could be adapted to fill three 3 hour films. It seemed a little over-the-top and very much like a cash grab. I still somewhat stick to those sentiments, but it’s interesting to see how many extra elements Jackson has thrown into the mix. From speaking with others (Phages never travel alone… like hobbitses), much of the material concerning the Necromancer and Pale Orc aren’t part of the original story – they’re part of the broader Tolkien universe. I’m looking forward to seeing how they develop as the trilogy progresses. I’m not sure it needs 9 hours to explain all of this, but I’m not as cynical as I once was… Maybe, just maybe, Jackson can pull it off again. At 48 frames per second.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey isn’t the masterpiece many expected it to be. The story lags in places and the decision to use 48 frames per second is a massive risk for Jackson. Luckily, I think it pays off once you’re able to immerse yourself in the story and get over the nausea-inducing opening gambit. Resist the urge to head to a 24fps showing in the next screen and strap yourself in. Once you see your first orc, you’ll be happy you stayed.

One thing I can guarantee is that you’ll leave the screening talking about one character, and that is Gollum. You’ll see children running around hunched over, talking to themselves, and lamenting the loss of their “precious”. A word of warning though. Don’t let them put their hands in your pockets whilst they search for the ring. I think that’s frowned upon in popular culture.

Phage Factor:

4 Star