REVIEW: Starred Up

21 09 2014

Starred UpStarred Up,” not unlike its apparent next-of-kin “Bronson,” falls firmly into the category of great but not sensational British prison movies.  It’s entirely engaging and entertaining, even though it does not look beyond its confined setting.  And I’m totally fine with it.

The film begins with a silent bang as its protagonist, Eric Love, arrives to be locked away.  He’s the spiritual progeny of anarchic Randall P. McMurphy from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and James Dean’s renegade Jim Stark from “Rebel Without a Cause.  Already hardened by years in a juvenile facility, Eric arrives to play with the big boys and establish his position at the top of the pre-ordained social structure.

Rising star Jack O’Connell brings writer Jonathan Asser’s creation to vivid life with a viciously physical performance.  O’Connell neither entirely humanizes nor animalizes Eric, yet he’s still a staggering force.  Even as he erects barriers preventing us from really sympathizing with Eric, he becomes all the more enticing of a character.

His insurgency, of course, causes conflicts with other hardened criminals in the pen.  But it also draws the interest of two figures who feel compelled to save Eric from his foolish youthful mistakes.  One is, somewhat predictably, prison counselor Oliver Baumer (Rupert Friend) who takes more interest than usually in psychologically stabilizing a potentially dangerous inmate.  More surprisingly, the other is Eric’s estranged father Neville (the highly underappreciated Ben Mendelsohn), who wants to make sure his son finds his place in the pecking order.

There’s no conventional battle for Eric’s soul.  There’s no giant climax the film towards which the film heads.  And, yes, there’s also nothing of particularly extraordinary merit in “Starred Up.”  But it has great storytelling and great acting that is wholeheartedly effective for the film’s entire duration.  Sometimes that in itself is sufficient.  B+ / 3stars

REVIEW: The Young Victoria

1 09 2013

The Young VictoriaI know I’ve never been a fan of Victorian-era England costume dramas … or really 19th century tales of the royal or luxurious (see my less than thrilled response to “Bright Star” and my outright repudiation of “Anna Karenina“).  But believe it or not, I had actually been meaning to see “The Young Victoria” for quite some time now.  And it was not just to check the box off some virtual film bucket list; I think I genuinely wanted to watch it.  Going to London for the semester finally gave me the impetus to do so.

And after about 15 minutes, I was reminded of why I normally don’t care for these kinds of movies.  “The Young Victoria” has very little to offer save a spirited but hardly redeeming performance by Emily Blunt.  I’ve been a fan of the actress since she stole the darkest portions of my heart as the brutally sardonic Emily in “The Devil Wears Prada,” but the role is just one in a string that doesn’t recapture her triumphant entrance onto the Hollywood scene.  (It’s not even her best since then –  that would be her performance in “Your Sister’s Sister.”)

Jean-Marc Vallée’s film is a rather turgid spectacle of costumes and set design.  It has remarkably little drama, perhaps due to the rather strange narrative arc designed by screenwriter Julian Fellowes.  I’d argue the film’s emotional climax comes at about the 30-minute mark, and everything else afterwards feels like falling action.  Queen Victoria’s romance with Prince Albert (Rupert Friend) takes up the majority of the film, but there’s never any passion or tension being stirred up.  When the end finally rolls around, “The Young Victoria” just feels like a rather anti-climatic waste.  C2stars


13 08 2009

When I started this blog, my plan was to publish movie reviews in reverse chronological order, that is, starting with the most recent and moving backwards.  However, in my haste to crank out review after review, I skipped over “Cheri.”  I think that is a testament to the movie itself.  It is fairly forgettable and mediocre, the only bright spot being Michelle Pfeiffer’s spectacular performance.  Unfortunately, it will not receive the attention that it rightfully deserves because the rest of the movie is a chaotic mess with no narrative poise.

Lea (Pfeiffer) is an aging courtesan in the Belle Époque period in France who has one last fling with the introverted Cheri (Rupert Friend), the son of one of her best friends (played by Kathy Bates).  She teaches him lessons that his mother never did, including how to be kind to his future wife.  Although she denies it, Lea ends up falling for Cheri.  Unfortunately, he has to be married.  That was the first 30 minutes of the film.  The other hour was an absolute mess that bored me to tears.  By the time that the emotional climax of the film rolled around, I honestly couldn’t have cared less.

Pfeiffer is ablaze in “Cheri,” a welcome comeback to the role of a leading lady for the star.  She is willing to acknowledge and act her age, a rarity in Hollywood nowadays.  Lea is the only character whose emotions seem logical, and I think that is so only because of Pfeiffer.  Kathy Bates is bearable, but Rupert Friend is just horrific.  He thinks he can hide behind his looks and not act, and that never works.  He phones in a performance without any driver whatsoever.  The second act focuses more on him, which may be why it was so gut-wrenchingly awful to watch.

Movies set in this time period seem tailored (no pun intended) to win Oscars for their costumes, and the threads are intricately woven for this movie.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this won the Oscar for Best Costume Design.  The narrative power of the movie is quite frankly atrocious.  A narrator pops up randomly every once in a while to provide some worthless information.  Utilizing such a corny element in a movie that takes itself so seriously was an ill-advised move.  The movie jumps from emotion to emotion constantly, and all of them are poorly developed.  It goes from sensual to sweet to sad to boring to heartbreaking to just plain depressing in a matter of 90 minutes.  Overall, the movie just leaves a bitter taste in your mouth, which is a shame because I do think that Pfeiffer gives one of the best performances of the year.  C+ / 2stars