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TIFF 2015: I SAW THE LIGHT Review

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Reviewer: Philip Price

Director: Marc Abraham

Stars: Bradley Whitford, Caroline Hebert, Charlie Talbert, Cherry Jones, Cory Hart, David Krumholtz, Joe Chrest, Josh Pais, Tom Hiddleston. Elizabeth Olsen. Wrenn Schmidt. Maddie Hasson, Wayne Pére

Released: N/A

Hank Williams doesn’t seem to have been that great of a guy. He became addicted to the drink, morphine and other painkillers as well as fathering several children, only one of which he ever married their mother and this all before his untimely death at the age of twenty-nine. While Williams may not have necessarily been the best guy (and possibly one of the worst parents) it is usually these types of people that stand to create the most interesting stories and in Williams case, write the most interesting ones as well. Before becoming popular as a singer Williams was primarily known for being one of country and westerns top songwriters. Williams penned and performed countless tunes for a radio show in his hometown of Montgomery, Alabama before securing a deal with the music publishing firm Acuff-Rose as a professional songwriter. All of that taken into consideration, you wouldn’t really come to learn much of it from the Marc Abraham (Flash of Genius) biopic concerning Williams as it tends to only patch together a few story points in the singers life rather than dig in and find out what really made him tick. It’s admirable that Abraham doesn’t take the easy route of opening his film backstage before one of Williams last shows and using it as a framing device for a period of reflection in which the movie’s told, but he also doesn’t come up with an alternative way to tell us anything insightful about the man and a movie needs to offer more than a Wikipedia page does.

Based on the book Hank Williams: The Biography by Colin Escott, George Merritt, and William (Bill) MacEwen, I Saw The Light begins in 1944 when Tom Hiddleston’s (Thor, The Avengers) Williams marries Audrey Sheppard (Elzabeth Olsen) in a Texaco Station in Andalusia, Alabama, with a justice of the peace. The film never touches on exactly when or how these two met or even provides any reasoning as to why they actually love one another, but instead assumes the audience trusts that they do despite the whole of their relationship being soaked in turmoil. If it’s not the bickering back and forth between Audrey and Williams mother, Lillie (Cherry Jones), concerning who gets first dibs on the money in Hank’s pocket it’s Audrey wanting to be a singer herself without owning up to the fact she doesn’t have the talent to do so. She insists her husband let her sing on his radio show or at gigs on the road, but while Williams is more than aware of his wife’s vocal shortcomings he can’t bring himself to tell her no. It should also be noted that Williams is twenty-three at the beginning of the film and while Hiddleston is a good looking, well-groomed guy he never pulls off looking this young. It is almost immediately that the fighting begins between Hank and Audrey while Hank is still attempting to get out of Montgomery and on to the Opry stage. Getting to the Opry is the sole objective for the first hour or so thus allowing for the film to focus on the aspect that one would assume would make the film stand apart from something like Walk the Line in that the core relationship here is more of a competitive one where both parties are more interested in themselves and their own successes than the each other. It would no doubt have been an interesting angle to explore more, but again, Abraham simply skims the surface never allowing any of the scenes to breathe.

After hitting on the ups and downs we’re in for concerning Hank and Audrey the film skips forward to 1947 when Williams records, “Move It On Over,” for Acuff-Rose and it becomes a hit. The family moves to Nashville and begins to get comfortable with their new roles in “Music City,” but Hank’s drinking gets in the way and Audrey leaves him for what feels like the first of a hundred times in the movie. We get the obligatory rehab scene where Hiddleston shakes and sweats in a straight jacket before running back to Audrey for her forgiveness. We then get the moment where Williams begs Fred Rose (Bradley Whitford) to let him record his version of “Lovesick Blues,” that Rose doubts, but allows anyway only to see it become Williams ticket to the Opry stage. It is this episodic nature of the film that makes it feel like little more than one moment after another strung together in order to inform us of Hank Williams life and times, but never does the film settle into a groove that feels natural to the people it is describing. The whole thing is rather stilted as we can see the recreation happening instead of becoming so involved with the characters and their plights that we forget we’re watching actors on a screen. One character in the film describes Williams music as being able to, “expose the darkness inside us all through song so that no one has to take the baggage home with them,” and while this may be true (the pioneering facet of country music is how it relates to it’s target audience) this film about one of country music’s actual pioneers never mines it’s subjects own soul to expose his many darknesses.

I Saw The Light tells us that Williams published songs under a pseudonym in order to get the less commercial stuff off his chest, it displays a deep bond between Williams and his steel guitarist Don Helms (Wes Langlois), it even has a doctor explain to Williams and his second wife, Billie Jean (Maddie Hasson), that Williams has spina bifida that has been the cause of Williams back pain his entire life, but with none of these things do we ever get any real context. We never hear any of “Luke the Drifter’s” music, we never see Hank and Don have anything more than short conversations that display their shorthand and we can only guess Williams returned to the drink and popping pills as a way to numb the pain from his spinal defect. More than any of this, we never see Williams writing a song much less any insight into what inspired him to write as much as he apparently did or how he came to love music in the first place. The usual critique of the performances being good, but the movie failing to live up to them can easily be applied here, but not even Hiddleston’s efforts and Olsen’s attempts at crafting a complex female character could save this.

While Hiddleston has Williams signature singing style down, his southern accent is a bit off on certain words. And while the story does Hiddleston’s performance few favors in allowing him to ever really dig into the psyche of Williams the actor is able to get across the singers inability to ever control his impulses and in one of the few exceptional scenes Hiddleston squares off against David Krumholtz as a reporter making an argument for the sincerity of folk music in one of the few instances it feels we catch a glimpse of what the real Williams might have been like. While this aforementioned scene is the one time in the film we cut to the core of the main character there are others, such as when Rose and Williams go to MGM headquarters to visit Dore Schary (Josh Pais), that are only present to solidify the mythology of how Williams is thought of today-as this mysterious, but stern godfather of country music that didn’t care if you liked him or not.

All of that said, the film plays it so straight that it’s not unsurprising it goes the way it does and thus we don’t really feel anything when the inevitable conclusion comes around and the credits begin to roll. The film looks gorgeous as it is handsomely mounted to capture the warmness and welcoming nature of the south and the period details are more than superior as are the handful of performance scenes we get. Hiddleston does favor the late Williams in facial structure and he pulls off his outlandish suits well. If one is looking for an unsurprising, completely traditional music biopic this wouldn’t be a bad way to go as it delivers exactly what one would expect, but the absence of any real heart or soul is apparent and made this a rather stinging disappointment for me considering I typically fall head over heels for movies about the process of creating music. If I Saw The Lightis to be taken at face value it seems Williams never really had an opportunity to enjoy his success and was more a professional at making a mess of things than a singer. Hopefully this isn’t the absolute truth and maybe one day we might get a Williams biopic that does the country legend justice, it’s just a real shame this couldn’t be the one to do that because it certainly had all the right parts in place.

I love movies, simple as that. I watch them with an intent to write about them and have always enjoyed discussing the latest news and releases with others. I received a Bachelor of Arts in Writing and Mass Communications/Digital Filmmaking and combined those interests when I began writing about cinema. Hope you enjoy the reviews, Happy reading!

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Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald ★

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Released: 16th October 2018

Directed By: David Yates

Starring: Jude Law, Johnny Depp. Also Eddie Redmayne.

Reviewed By: Van Connor

The magic’s well and truly faded with this second instalment of the erstwhile Harry Potter prequel series, as The Crimes of Grindelwald shifts the action to Paris, but its own sensibilities entirely too far into the franchise world-building spectrum that could threaten to unravel it. It never does quite unfurl from the exhaustion of it, that would, after all, suggest there were anything of note at its core. There isn’t. The Crimes of Grindelwald is precisely the patronising box-office-centric cash-grab any decent cynic’s always accused the Harry Potter series of being under the surface; all that’s changed is that, this time, they really can’t be bothered to attempt to mask it beneath any kind of fun.

One of those sequels you can rather obviously tell was never meant to exist, this very-much-a-part-two kicks off unceremoniously (it has no other setting, as you’ll discover over the course of a mind-numbing two and a quarter hours) by setting about undoing literally every closing plot mechanic of what’s come before. Did a character end up in Point A last time? Well, this time they’re going to be reintroduced via what’s either an interesting and poorly lit set-piece or clunky exposition in order to set themselves up at Point B instead, regardless of whether or not it makes sense for them to do so. Only then may the plot of The Crimes of Grindelwald begin. And plot it has. Lots of plot. Tons and tons of plot. In fact, it has very little else but plot. So, it’s somewhat mystifying that David Yates’ sixth venture into what’s evidently now branded as the Wizarding World should ultimately amount to so little.

From what little you’re able to glean of the plot, proceedings involve the immediate escape of evil wizard Gerrett Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) from the prison to where he was sent last time. On the loose once more, Grindelwald sets about exacting his master plan to ensure magical dominance over the human race, a plan that involves the formation of a dark wizarding army and the utilisation of one Credence Barebones (Ezra Miller), with the latter’s death evidently no obstacle for the likes of his contract’s sequel options. The only wizard capable of stopping Grindelwald, we’re told, is that rebellious master wizard Albus Dumbledore (now played in a younger form by Jude Law), but Dumbledore can’t, you see, because… reasons, and despatches a reluctant Newt Scamander to do so in his stead. Because, again, reasons.

Now, you can be forgiven for taking that plot in and wondering just how in the hell Eddie Redmayne’s Newt need in any way be present for any of this, and, frankly, you’d be right to do so. Certainly, Eddie Redmayne appears to be wondering the same – his contingent of the cast (essentially the main four from the last movie) each make what can charitably be described as diminishing returns, offering more outright effort in their performances to a film that really can’t be bothered to do much with them. They’re not important, you see, Dumbledore is. Grindelwald is. And creator/screenwriter/living cash hoover J.K. Rowling genuinely cannot be bothered to pretend otherwise. That movie snotty naysayers claim they always somehow see whenever there’s a new superhero movie out? The one that’s nothing but nonsense, world-building and a half-hourly set-piece? That movie actually does exist. And its title is The Crimes of Grindelwald.

Losing the magic of even its own musical arrangement, The Crimes of Grindelwald is an outright disaster not just of a seasonal tentpole release, but of a franchise picture full stop. Its script works exhaustingly to tie itself in knots to go essentially nowhere, its culmination consisting of literally nothing more than two pieces of unceremonious lore being shouted about in canon, each essentially lionised by Rowling so that at least one of them can no longer be called out as the laziest, most cynical, and ethically bankrupt product of the entire franchise. She fails in this endeavour, as, indeed, does Yates in delivering a dreary and uninvolving film to which his cast aspire to inject life, only to reanimate the narratively dead instead.

Legions of Potterites will doubtless flock to the nearest multiplex the moment the doors open, and, to be fair, that is absolutely the power the brand has and ours is not to question. If the priority of this series, though, genuinely is the continued pumping of revenue into the Rowling estate landscaping fund, would it really be too much to ask to even attempt to make it a good time? Can we not at least get some enjoyment out of this? A big ask, I know. But it’d behove Rowling, Yates, and everybody involved in this shill of a series to at least consider we might want some excitement next time around. Maybe when the second act stops dead for ten minutes to give us a canon origin story for the damned sorting hat.

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Featured Review

Hell Fest ★★★

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Released: 16th October 2018

Directed By: Gregory Plotkin

Starring: Amy Forsyth, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Reign Edwards

Reviewed By: Van Connor

In the pantheon of cinema, the slasher movie sits alongside only really Die Hard and the western as being unfathomably easy to retrofit for any occasion with “…but with this unique location instead!” Hell Fest is a textbook case of this. It has no ambition beyond merely being a slasher movie set within a specific gimmick-driven environment, no desire to offer up anything more than stock Hollywood teens being violently murdered one at a time, and is under no illusion about whether or not you’ve ever seen this movie before or even care. What it is concerned with, though, is fun. And it has that in spades.

It’s literally nothing more than “the slasher movie at an adult horror theme park”. A concept, it turns out, that you can make a fair amount of mischief with, as our group of six abhorrently gorgeous twenty-eight year-old teenagers find themselves fixated upon by a sinister figure in a wooden mask and brandishing a kitchen knife. This being the eponymous theme park, naturally there are a multitude of places for our teens to hide, but, as is par for the course in Hell Fest, where you hide could just as easily be the very means by which our masked murderer will gut you. Fun!

Though none of the cast leap out as being particularly noteworthy (Arrow’s Bex Taylor-Klaus and MacGyver’s Reign Edwards are arguably the biggest geek pulls here), each serviceably handles their limited place within the story. Amy Forsyth’s a perfectly fine Final Girl, not memorable, but likeable enough, and the rest of the cast conduct themselves to more or less the same standard. Blumhouse alum Gregory Plotkin shifts to the big chair for this one, proving he’s got pretty lively chops for a good ol’ down n’ dirty slasher flick, and Seth Sherwood and Blair Butler’s script knows just how to play with the mechanics of the formula that everyone involved can unashamedly enjoy themselves without the overwhelming need to reinvent the genre wheel.

By virtue of being set within a merchandised horror world, Hell Fest has great fun in exploiting that set up for some wonderfully cheap scares, making for an enjoyable and OTT bloody night at the pictures that will never challenge, but certainly entertain. There’s no mythology to this, no franchise being built before us, and there’s even a genre icon making an almost obligatory appearance to sanctify it all. Sure, you won’t lose your head with Hell Fest, but you will whoop and cheer. It’s just a shame it had to arrive three weeks after Halloween.

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Movie Reviews

LFF 2018 Review – Colette

Colette can feel a tad velvety at times but is lifted by Keira Knightley’s sensual performance and liberating battle that painfully resonates today.

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Director: Wash Westmoreland

Stars: Keira Knightley, Dominic West

Released: London Film Festival 2018

Born in 19th century France, Sidonie Gabrielle Colette wrote more than 80 volumes depicting her childhood, her life, her pains and pleasures. Her writings were sensual, vivid and all published under her husband name, “Willy”.

No stranger to female-centric stories, Wash Westmoreland follows up on “Still Alice” and “Echo Park, L.A.” with this dazzling period biopic starring Keira Knightley and Dominic West.

The film starts, the young country girl, Colette (Knightley), marries writer and critic Henri Gauthier-Villars (“Willy”) who introduces her to Parisian salons. Willy soon finds himself in debts and is desperate enough to seek his wife’s help. She will write. Colette writes what she knows and her first novella, “Claudine à l’école” (Claudine at school) is a success. Willy forces her to write the next ones, locked in a golden cage, to ensure his fame and success.

The settings are sumptuous and we gladly follow the camera through the stunning but confined Parisian apartments where the outside light only comes through when she feels inspired. Costumes evolve, as Colette, from heavy and restricted dresses to wild and daring clothing as if Mademoiselle Chanel had designed them herself.

Colette finally loosens from her husband and experiments with woman, society and dancing, feeding her inspiration. Forced and uncredited, Colette cannot enjoy writing and runs off to perform in the music-hall in her own name. In like most biopics, we go from one key event to another, regrettably quickly and often without knowing how we got there. Willy’s sudden appointment of his wife is left as unexplained as the abrupt ending that could have potentially seen Colette, a happy writer.

In the second part of the film Westmoreland seems more interested in looking at the awakening of a young woman rather than at the birth of an author whereas Keira Knightley shines in the lead role. Often known for playing the innocent and rebellious youth, Knightley still pulls off the young Colette in the first part of the film but is at her best when she evolves into a mature woman, aware of own desires. The best scenes of the film come when Colette is free and herself, usually in the company of other woman, particularly the terribly charming Missy (Denise Gough). Westmoreland multiplies two shots and close ups and creates impactful intimate scenes but regrettably gives up on them too fast.

It is a change to see a character such as “Willy” that is both ridiculous and loving. This duality creates, perhaps, a more truthful relationship between the two. No one is born an artist and behind every writer there is an intuitive editor (and in 20th century France, who else could it be than a man?). For Westmoreland if there is no Claudine without Colette, there would have been no Colette without Willy.

With its lavish setting and jumping plot, Colette can feel a tad velvety at times but is lifted by Keira Knightley’s sensual performance and liberating battle that painfully resonates today.

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