#52FilmsByWomen, Film, Reviews

#52FILMSBYWOMEN – FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH:

After watching Amy Heckerling’s Clueless as part of the #52FilmsByWomen pledge, I decided to revisit her debut, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which is considered a cult classic and launched the careers of many actors including Jennifer Jason Leigh and Sean Penn

Directed: Amy Heckerling

Starring: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Phoebe Cates, Brian Backer, Robert Romanus, Judge Reinhold, Sean Penn, Ray Walston

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source: Youtube

Amy Heckerling is one of a very select group of women who has managed to forge a lasting career in mainstream cinema, and this is no doubt largely due to the strength of her debut. Fast Times at Ridgemont High is a staple of the teen genre, featuring an ensemble of then up and comers who are now some of Hollywood’s most respected players.

The 1982 film, written by Cameron Crowe, is based on his non-fiction book of the same name, which he wrote after going undercover at Clairemont High School in California. The film has only a loose narrative, telling the tales of a number of High School students over the course of a school year.

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source: Born Unicorn

Characters include 15 year old Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who is looking to lose her virginity and taking the advice of her older friend, the more experienced Linda (Phoebe Cates). Mark “Rat” Ratner (Brian Backer) admires Stacy from afar and takes dating advice from his own older friend Damone (Robert Romanus), whilst Stacey’s older brother Brad (Judge Reinhold) navigates a series of part time jobs. The film also follows stoner Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) as he gets engaged in a battle of wits with history teacher Mr. Hand (Ray Walston).

Sean Penn is hilarious as perpetually stoned Jeff Spicoli and has no doubt inspired every similar character to appear in a film since, including Travis (Breckin Meyer) in Clueless, who is essentially just a more self aware and 1990’s variation of Spicoli. Even his stoner/surfer style has become iconic, with his character being largely responsible for the enduring popularity of Vans slip-on shoes.

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source: Oyster

It is Penn’s performance that remains the most enduring and popular, with stories of how he stayed in character throughout shooting and would only answer to the name Spicoli becoming popular trivia, but the excellent turns from the rest of the cast is not to be ignored.

Jennifer Jason Leigh is a standout as Stacy, communicating the dual sense of braveness and vulnerability of exploring sexuality for the first time, whilst Pheobe Cates is also amusing as the older friend whose every word is lapped up by Stacy in spite of the fact she clearly isn’t all that sure what she is talking about. Each character is relatable in some way, especially Mark, who was based on Andy Rathbone, who has gone on to become the successful author of the For Dummies book series.

Other stars to be to look out for include Nicolas Cage (credited as Nicolas Coppola) and Forest Whitaker in their respective feature film debuts, as well as Eric Stoltz as a stoner buddy of Spicoli’s.

It is a credit to Heckerling’s direction that the film never feels meandering in spite of the loose narrative, and we come out feeling like every character has been on a journey of some sort. The film doesn’t shy away from exploring serious issues such as sexuality and abortion, and it probably has more in common with the raunch-fest Porky’s (1981) than the John Hughes classics of the decade.

The film is so on the nose about these issues in fact that it has sometimes drawn criticisms for sexism – Roger Ebert gave the film one star in his review and described it as:

“a failure of taste, tone and nerve – the waste of a good cast on erratic, offensive material that hasn’t been thought through, or maybe even thought about.” 

Ebert also denounces the film as sexist and bordering on sexploitation, and it has been debated for years whether or not Heckerling’s film is sexist. There is a plenty to suggest that it may be – particularly the famous swimming pool scene starring Cates – but the film is actually a very rare example of sexuality as portrayed largely from the female perspective.

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source: Youtube

This is clear at many points throughout the narrative, but is most obvious through the character of Stacy. When she gets pregnant she decides to have an abortion and Heckerling explores this in a wholly realistic way. There is no judgement, or even any debate, it is merely shown and the film ends in a way that suggests that Stacy learnt something and moved on, as is the case with many teenagers.

In her book It’s A Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Enviroments, Amanda Marcotte argues that the film is a very positive and female orientated depiction of the High School experience, saying it:

“…doesn’t romanticise high school from the point of view of a middle-aged man, but shows it as it is in all it’s cringworthy, immature nonglory.” 

In spite of the John Hughes dig, Marcotte does raise an interesting point about the film – whilst we see Stacy explore her sexuality, her encounters are far from the overblown and unrealistic depictions of sex usually put to the screen, and are much more reflective of real life experiences as had by many.

The film, like any great teen movie, also boasts a fantastic soundtrack which serves as proof that a pop music can have just as much impact as a traditional film score. From the opening track We Got the Beat by The GoGo’s it is clear that Heckerling has a talent for encapsulating contemporary youth culture, and the soundtrack features an array of brilliant tracks from the likes of The Eagles and Stevie Nicks.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High is a time capsule to the 1980’s, infused with a little more grit than the sugary sweetness of John Hughes, but with enough brains to still be feel-good, it inspired generations and films such as Dazed and Confused (1993) and many more would not exist without it.

What do you think of Fast Times at Ridgemont High? Which films are you watching as part of #52FilmsByWomen? Share your views in the comments section! 

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#52FilmsByWomen, Film, Reviews

#52FILMSBYWOMEN – OBVIOUS CHILD

Directed: Gillian Roberspierre

Starring: Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffmann

For my next #52FilmsByWomen viewing I decided to go for something recent and fell upon 2014’s Obvious Child, a female-centric comedy drama that I was drawn to because of Gaby Hoffmann’s involvement. I am a huge Hoffmann fan after seeing her in Girls and Transparent, so when I saw she was in Obvious Child and that it was directed by a woman it became essential viewing. 

Obvious Child began life as a short film and tells the story of twenty-something Donna (Jenny Slate) who finds out she is pregnant after a one night stand with Max (Jake Lacy) and decides to have an abortion. The premise alone is brave considering abortion continues to be a near-untouchable taboo in cinema. Even the more daring films such as Juno sort of skirt past the issue, making Obvious Child a breath of fresh air in its frank tackling of the subject.

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source: Youtube

In spite of the taboo subject matter, Obvious Child is surprisingly and refreshingly unpolitical. Sure, there is most likely a political message tucked in there somewhere, but it’s a subtle one and it is clear from the beginning that the film isn’t so much about peddling a pro-choice argument than telling the story of one woman’s experience with an unplanned pregnancy.

The first act isn’t great and the set-up is done to death – woman gets dumped, gets wasted, loses her job etc. – but once the plot has been established the film really hits its stride. Jenny Slate plays Donna with comic vulnerability and in a way that is sure to strike a chord with any woman who has found herself in a less than ideal situation. Jake Lacy is equally charming as Max, whilst Gaby Hoffman appears in a brilliant supporting turn as Donna’s best friend and room-mate Nellie.

The supporting cast are excellent, with David Cross even showing up for a hilarious extended cameo, but the film rests entirely on Slate’s shoulders. The humour is crude in a way that probably won’t sit well with every viewer – vagina jokes are commonplace – but there is a lot of heart beneath the vulgarity and the film finds more success in it’s dramatic moments than it’s funny ones.

In her review for The Nation, Michelle Goldberg argues that the film’s narrative is actually quite conventional in spite of its tackling of a sensitive subject matter, and this is true to an extent. The abortion route is different and little explored in film, but the rest of the story we are presented with is pretty standard indie rom-com fare. This is not a bad thing as such, but it can be easy to overstate how inventive Obvious Child is due to it’s brave tackling of abortion.

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source:In Bed

That said, there is enough going on here to make it feel refreshing and the film is a great example of how you don’t need overt political messages to communicate ideas. Obvious Child is a fun and charming film about a subject that is anything but fun and charming, so it’s certainly doing something right.

Obvious Child is available to stream on Netflix UK.

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Film, Reviews

FILM REVIEW: ZOOLANDER 2

Directed: Ben Stiller

Starring: Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Penelope Cruz, Will Ferrell

When Ben Stiller’s Zoolander hit cinemas back in 2001 the world was still in shock over 9/11, but over time the film has become a comedy favourite due to the biting satire of the world of high fashion and the hilarious performances from Stiller, Owen Wilson and the ever-hilarious Will Ferrell.

Cut to 15 years later and the world is a very different place, and Zoolander 2 at least has the sense to acknowledge this, making it one of the main themes. In order for the sequel to move forward, the opening montage informs us that the happy ending we saw at the end of the original didn’t last and that Zoolander has become a “hermit crab” after his Centre For Kids Who Can’t Read Good and Want to Learn to do Other Stuff Good Too collapses, killing his wife and scarring Hansel (Owen Wilson), as well as losing his son.

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source: Telegraph

Comedy sequels are notoriously hard to pull off – they usually either end up being a retread of the original, or they go way over the top. Zoolander 2 falls into the latter category, which isn’t great considering the original was already pretty out there. With 15 years between the films it really begs the question – was this film necessary? Sure the fans might have wanted it, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea (hence why there should never be a Friends reboot). It feels much like the same situation that arose with the Anchorman sequel – the original is so beloved that unattainable expectations were never going to be met.

Another reason I don’t understand why this sequel has come about is the character of Zoolander himself. The guy literally has no personality beyond being dumb beyond belief, and it’s funny to an extent, but it’s lucky that he managed to carry one film, so why bring him back for another? Why couldn’t the guy just have that happy ending that we all saw at the end of the first movie? It’s not like there’s any character development on display here.

But, anyway, as unnecessary as it may be the film does exist, and unfortunately it can’t claim to be much more than mediocre. Sure, it raises a few laughs, but the extremely talented cast are wasted on average material – Kristen Wiig in particular, who’s weird accent is meant to be funny but never quite lands.

The whole point of Zoolander was to lampoon the fashion industry, but it feels here like the script is going for anything but the fashion industry. Hipsters? They get it pretty bad. Celebrities? The film opens with Justin Bieber being riddled with bullets. But the fashion industry? Not so much. The original film was so biting in its satire – think the bulimia jokes – and everything we see here is just a pale imitation.

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source: Youtube

When you have so many cameos from members of the fashion industry you’ve probably lost your bite, and that’s what has happened here. Speaking of the cameos, they deserve a whole section dedicated to them alone. Anyone who finds the plot insufferable could make a game out of celebrity spotting – they don’t all work, but some of them do raise a laugh, such as Willie Nelson (!?) and Keifer Sutherland.

Zoolander 2 feels like a frantic attempt to emulate everything that made the original so funny, but ultimately it doesn’t have the bite and, whilst far from being unwatchable, these are characters that were probably best left in 2001.

 

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Film, Reviews

FILM REVIEW: DEADPOOL

The ‘merc with a mouth’ finally gets the film he deserves. 

Directed: Tim Miller

Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, Ed Skrein, T.J Miller

To say expectations for Deadpool were high would be an understatement. Back in 2009 cult-favourite character Deadpool appeared in X-Men Origins: Wolverine with his mouth inexplicably sewn up, much to the horror of fans the world over. Seven years later and here we are – Deadpool is finally here in all his glory.

A passion project from star Ryan Reynold’s, the film has had one of the best marketing campaigns of recent times, which only served to intensify the hype. It was going to take something good to live up to expectations, but don’t worry, Deadpool delivers.

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Deadpool in X-Men: Origins. source: Comic Book Movie

Known in the comics for breaking the fourth wall, Deadpool was never going to be a conventional superhero movie. After that test footage was released and Reynolds and director Tim Miller secured that sought after R rating (a big deal in the US, here in the UK it’s a 15) fans were more than convinced that the beloved character was in safe hands.

With fourth wall breaking, cartoonish violence and vulgarity galore, Deadpool delivers on it’s potential in spades. In terms of narrative structure, it veers into surprisingly tired territory with the typical origin story – probably at the insistence of the studio (aka “the guys who sewed his fucking mouth up the first time”). Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) is an ex-military mercenary who finds out he has multi-organ cancer and allows some shady people to do some suspicious experiments on him in order to live for his girlfriend Vanessa (Monica Baccarin).

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In spite of the origin story narrative, Deadpool is no superhero, and the film is a revenge flick at heart. In fact, the guy is certifiably insane, and the film is all the better for it. Wise-cracking his way through a rising body count, it’s almost a stretch to call the guy an anti-hero. Reynolds is perfectly cast, delivering too many one liners to count. That’s not to say that the rest of the cast don’t keep up – Baccarin is fantastic as hard-as-nails Vanessa, who takes the typical girlfriend trope and inverts it brilliantly. Sure, the film plays with the damsel-in-distress stereotype, but it arguably gets off with it by being so hilariously self-aware.

T. J Miller provides the comic relief as Weasel, Wade’s best friend who stops short at being a sidekick. Miller’s deadpan delivery of some of the films best lines perfectly suit the tone and again offsets the film as a lot more than typical superhero fare. The only true weak link is, probably unsurprisingly, Ed Skrein’s Ajax. The ‘villain’ of the piece who is responsible for making Wilson both immortal and, in his own words, “unfuckable.”

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Ajax. source: The Guardian

Skrein is the typical ‘British villain’ – though the film pokes fun at itself by pointing this out to us in the opening credits – but in this sort of movie, it doesn’t really matter that the big bad is two-dimensional. It is yet another example of the film’s self-aware nature being it’s saving grace.

Set in the X-Men universe, it was a given that some of Professor X’s proteges (“James McAvoy or Patrick Stewart?”) were going to show up, and they do in the form of Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrande). Kapicic replaces Daniel Cudmore and portrays a version of Colossus that is much more in line with the comic books, whilst Hildebrande is hilarious as a moody teenage mutant.

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Just because the film comes from the same studio as X-Men doesn’t mean they were safe from Deadpool’s lampooning, and there are some truly hilarious exchanges as he berates them for their ‘hero’ status. In a market inundated with clear-cut ‘heroes’, it is refreshing to see a frankly psychotic anti-hero who’s only real agenda is revenge.

The film is the directorial debut for Tim Miller, and his background in visual effects is clear from the beginning with an inspired opening sequence. The direction is assured for a debut and he indulges in extreme violence, with heads literally rolling. It could easily have come off as cheap, but Miller ensures that the violence is actually executed much more artistically than one would expect.

Sure, the visuals are great, but of course it was always going to be all about the dialogue. Reynolds played a heavy role in the writing, and the script from Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese is a laugh a minute.

The film only came out in the UK two days ago, but Fox have already confidently announced a sequel and appear keen to keep the creative team together, which seems fair considering what they have managed to pull off here. Reynolds has made it clear that he would ultimately like the character to be part of an X-Force movie, so it looks like this is only the beginning for the ‘merc with a mouth.’

Here are my top five quotes from Deadpool, which is probably the most quotable superhero film of all time…

DEADPOOL

Negasonic Teenage Warhead and Deadpool. source: The Wrap

“Oh, I so pity the dude who pressures her into prom sex.” 

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Deadpool. source: Screen Rant

“And a convivial Tuesday in April to you, Mr.Pool” 

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Deapool and Colossus. source: Twitter

“That guy was up there before we got there.” 

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Deadool. source: The Verge

“The T-Rex was always the dinosaurs’ fiercest enemy!”

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Deadpool.

“Tell Beast to stop shitting on my lawn.” 

What did you think of Deadpool? Let me know in the comments section! 

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Film, Reviews

FILM REVIEW: THE REVENANT

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Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass. source: 20th Century Fox

Directed: Akejandro G. Inarritu

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter

Fancy a nice Friday night popcorn flick? Do not go and see The Revenant. Seriously, it’s not for the fainthearted. I would be lying if I said I enjoyed watching it – I spent most of the 156 minute run-time squirming in my seat – but it is without a doubt an experience (which is probably what a trip to the cinema should be).

Telling the story of fur-trapper Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), the films title tells you all you need to know – a revenant is someone who has come back from the dead. Life is not kind to this man. He’s lost his wife before the film even starts, and then we see him get mauled by a bear and watch his son get murdered before he is placed in a shallow grave. Puts your problems into perspective, right?

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That bear attack. source: Sunday Morning Herald

DiCaprio is at the top of his game here, delivering the performance that could finally bag him that Oscar. To be able to communicate meaning into long sequences that are free of dialogue (bar wailing and grunting) is a credit to the guy, and whilst the other Best Actor nominees all delivered great performances I think he is truly the best of them.

Whilst it would be easy to say that the acting is all down to DiCaprio’s central performance, that would be unfair to the equally strong supporting cast. Tom Hardy almost steals the show as John Fitzgerald, a character who would have come across as purely villainous in the hands of a lesser talent, yet Hardy manages to communicate glimpses of humanity through fear.

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Tom Hardy as John Fitzgerald. source: 20th Century Fox

Will Poulter and Domhnall Gleeson round out the supporting cast providing the most emotional turns, which keeps the film grounded amidst the near animalistic characters played by DiCaprio and Hardy. One thing that is clear across the board is that the authenticity – filmed on location in Canada and Argentina, these guys were actually out in the sub-zero temperatures and it shows in the final product.

Speaking of on location, it’s no secret that most of the cast and crew appear to have been to hell and back in the process of making this movie. Hopefully they will all deem it worth it now that they know how incredible it looks on screen – there is no way you could mistake the stunning locations for a green screen.

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The Revenant. source: 20th Century Fox 

The small touches of CGI blend in seamlessly – particularly that uncomfortably authentic bear attack. There were mistaken reports early on that the bear rapes poor Hugh, but it’s more of an intense mauling, which is by far bad enough. You feel every excruciating blow.

The sound work is also incredible – you feel like you are out there in the cold with them (hence the squirming I was talking about earlier). The score from Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto is used sparingly to great effect. The painstaking effort that has gone into making this film is clear in every aspect, from the cinematography to the editing, and it is almost a given that it will win big this month at the Oscars.

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The Revenant. source: 20th Century Fox

It could be argued that the film is perhaps a little heavy on the graphic brutality and less on the philosophical lessons, but this is a film about surviving against the odds (and nature), and in that sense it delivers and then some. The stories about shooting have been well documented, but did you ever take a minute to think what eating a raw bison’s liver and sleeping in an animal carcass would look like on screen? Spoiler alert: It’s not pretty.

In terms of the brutality, it is unflinching from the get go but never for the sake of it – these were the conditions that fur trappers really had to deal with, after all. The Revenant is a visceral experience in every sense of the word, a technical triumph in film-making that demands to be experienced.

What do you think of The Revenant? Let me know in the comments section!

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#52FilmsByWomen, Film, Reviews

#52FILMSBYWOMEN – CLUELESS

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source: Plugged In

As part of #52FilmsByWomen I decided to revisit 90’s teen classic Clueless. Written and directed by Amy Heckerling, who is also behind 80’s hit Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982) and Look Who’s Talking (1989), Clueless is based on Jane Austen’s novel Emma.

Released at the same time as Disney’s Pocahontas and Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, the film became a sleeper hit and is now regarded a cult classic. Clueless tells the story of Beverly Hills high-schooler Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone) as she navigates her privileged life, taking new student Tia (Brittany Murphy) under her wing.

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source: Cinapse

Clueless is best remembered for its hilariously quotable dialogue, with the constant pop culture references being just as funny today as they were two decades ago. Heckerling’s script is full of soft satire, which pokes fun at the west coast and high school lifestyle in the way that a loving friend would.

The cast is full of familiar faces who were at the time relative unknowns – perhaps the most prolific being the even more baby-faced than usual Paul Rudd – and there is a real sense of comradery that runs throughout the film.

The untimely death of Brittany Murphy in 2009 tinges the film with sadness, with her adorable turn as Tia being one of the main highlights. Alicia Silverstone and Stacey Dash are brilliant as Cher and best friend Dionne,  and it is in their friendship that Clueless’ greatest strength lies.

In any other teen movie, Cher and Dionne would be the stereotypical ‘mean girls’. Heckerling actively inverts this expectation by making them likable. The characters are realistic within the hyper-realistic and slightly satirical world due to the fact that the dynamics between them reflect how teenagers really interact with each other – there aren’t heroes and villains like there are the movies.

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source: ET Online

Heckerling acknowledges this and there aren’t really any straight out ‘villains’ in Clueless. Sure, Amber (Elisa Donovan) and Elton (Jeremy Sisto) act negatively at points, but they are not straight out bad guys. It’s rare to see this in a teen movie, even today, and it one of the reasons Clueless has such an enduring legacies.

Another beloved aspect of Clueless is the fashion, with costume designer Mona May firmly shaking off the muted grunge style of the early 90’s to embrace something much brighter and adventurous. It is a credit to May that the costumes don’t look anywhere near as dated as they should – in fact, some of them look positively modern.

Clueless is timeless for many reasons, but the biggest is its huge heart. A perfect example of how female-centric comedies can be funny without making them all about men and bitchiness, it was also, in many ways, way ahead of its time.

Here are my top five quotes from Clueless… 

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source: Buzzfeed

“Dionne and I were both named after famous singers of the past, who now do infomercials.” 

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source: AustenBlog

“That’s Ren and Stimpy. They’re way existential.”

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source: Celeb Buzz

“You’re a virgin who can’t drive.”

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source: Pintrest

“Is Josh giving you shit because he’s going through his post-adolescent idealistic phase?”

“If I’m too good for him, then how come I’m not with him?”

What are your favourite lines from Clueless? Let me know in the comments section!

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Film, Reviews

FILM REVIEW: TRUMBO

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Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo. source: TV Daily 

Trumbo tells the story of Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten who was put to prison for defying the House of Un-American Activities Committee and placed on the blacklist. McCarthyism was a dark period for Hollywood, a time of paranoia and fear that saw many lives ruined, and whilst there have been countless cinematic adaptions of the period, Trumbo still feels like an important story to tell.

Jay Roach, probably best known for the Austin Powers movies, is confident in his direction.Aesthetically, the film has a gloss associated with the nostalgia of old Hollywood only to pull the rug as the narrative means the veneer gives way to the darkness beneath. Pair the polished visuals with a jazzy score and Trumbo is a treat for both the eyes and the ears.

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The real life Dalton Trumbo. source: Stuff

Cranston is nothing short of magnificent as Trumbo, perfectly embodying the spirit of the man who’s stubborn nature was both greatest strength and weakness. He anchors the entire film, keeping it strong through its wobblier moments. Particular highlights include a bittersweet speech and a magnificent display of the artistic process.

The supporting cast are a mixed bag, though John Goodman almost steals the show as B-movie producer Frank King, who perfectly conveys the more satirical and amusing moments. Helen Mirren almost threatens to go into pantomime villain area with her take on gossip columnist and HUAC-advocate Hedda Hopper, but it’s still fun to see her take on a bitchy role.

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Helen Mirren as Hedda Hopper. source: Screen Prism

Diane Lane is understated but strong as Cleo, Trumbo’s long suffering wife who, along with his children, has to deal with the reality of the blacklist, but also of Trumbo’s own stubborn idealism. Elle Fanning also brings a lot to what could have been a shallow background role as daughter Niki.

The film doesn’t work all the time – sometimes it feels like the glossy exterior is also masking some of the real horrors of the era. We see the impact on Trumbo’s family, but it feels isolated and it can be hard to forget that the blacklist impacted thousands. Louis C.K’s character can also be a distraction – whilst his deadpan deliveries are funny, his style is so associated with his stand-up that it can take you out of the film.

Trumbo is a good film that uses a comedic touch to tell a very serious story and with Cranston’s Oscar-worthy performance providing the beating heart, it is perpetually on the edge of greatness.

 

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