Friday, 8 November 2013


Academy Award Nominations: 10

  • Best Picture
  • Best Director (Alfonso Cuaron)
  • Best Actress (Sandra Bullock)
  • Best Original Score (Steven Price)
  • Best Cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki)
  • Best Editing (Alfonso Cuaron, Mark Sanger)
  • Best Production Design (Andy Nicholson, Rosie Goodwin, Joanne Woodlard)
  • Best Sound Editing (Glenn Freemantle)
  • Best Sound Mixing (Skip Lievsay, Christopher Benstead, Niv Adiri, Chris Munro)
  • Best Visual Effects (Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, David Shirk, Neil Corbould, Nikki Penny)

Dr Ryan Stone is on her first space mission aboard the Explorer accompanied by Matt Kowalski, a veteran on his last mission. In the middle of a spacewalk, they receive word from mission control that a destroyed Russian satellite is destroying other satellites, creating a chain reaction of debris heading their way. Stone and Kowalski attempt to get out of its way but they're too late: They get hit by the debris, and are left stranded in space, untethered to any shuttle or station, with no communications with Earth and no way of getting home...

Usually in this paragraph, I'll ramble about the history of the film being reviewed, whether it's sequels or the material the film's based on, I might even touch upon the production history before kicking off. I'll be honest, I knew nothing of Gravity until the first trailer appeared. Wow. Then the second trailer appeared. Wow. Since then, it's been everywhere: George Clooney and Sandra Bullock lost in space from the director of a Harry Potter film. No-one knew much of the plot or what would happen, and slowly but surely we found out the film is three years in the making after being written by the director and his son. It's been a long time since I've seen an original film not based on another text. Gravity is, unfortunately, a rarity in modern cinema. Let's hope that trend is bucked after this, because... Wow.

Gravity is stunning. Why sugar coat it or go a long way around saying it? It's stunning, it's a stunning piece of cinema. But where to begin? Let's go with the cinematography. This film has been excellently filmed by Emmanuel Lubezki, cinematographer previously on The Tree of Life and Children of Men. Given that this film is mainly a green screen production with heavy special effects, that's no mean feat. Essentially, the film has been shot in a series of long takes where the camera is completely fluid, moving from long shot, to close up, to third person, to first person, all in one seamless movement for a good 20 minutes. The way the film has been shot is just one element (of which there are many) which contribute to the audience's involvement in the film; you feel like you're there with the characters, whilst also being taken out of it and made to look at the horror and the beauty of the situation. The editing is minimal because the cinematography does all of the editor's hard work for him. It captures wonderfully the beauty of space, as well as the terror of a vast, uncontrollable, unending setting in which there are no directions, there's no up or down, there's no control, and personal locations are completely subjective. With the film being a series of long takes, it takes a fantastic amount of talent and control from its lead actors.

George Clooney and Sandra Bullock are given a monumental task in Gravity; they have to get through a series of long takes without any mistakes, they were asked to act in a situation where nothing was real and they were surrounded by green screens and cranes with only the hope that they're doing the right thing, and there are no other acting performances in this film; they are left to carry a 90 minute film by themselves. They did it, man. Research tells me that most of Sandra Bullock's scenes were shot while fastened into a giant mechanical rig simulating weightlessness, where she often spent 10 hours a day without breaks. Good for her, because she's still amazing. Terrified, yet optimistic; brave, yet flawed. George Clooney is great as well playing a stereotypical veteran astronaut on his last mission, evoking any number of sci-fi space films with a veteran commander. He's charming, charismatic, brave, bold, smart, all of the above and more. But it's Sandra's film, despite some dodgy dialogue.

If anything, that's the only fault with the film. The dialogue, technical space mission stuff aside, sounds like it was lifted straight from a 1950s B-movie adventure. However, I dare say this film overcomes this because it's such a non-important part. It's not about what they say, it's about what they do and where they do it. Alfonso Cuaron is a fantastic director, and this proved it. How he creates the situation, how he lets it play out, how he resolves it, it's all spot on and really engages the audience with its characters. He calls upon a number of sci-fi tropes and themes, especially in the hiring of Ed Harris as the voice of mission control (think Apollo 13), to make the audience know what kind of territory they're in with this film: As soon as you see Sandra Bullock essentially becoming Ripley from the Alien films in one scene, you know Cuaron's influences here. It explains the B-movie dialogue: Gravity is a big budget, effects laden, sci-fi B-movie that surpasses its inspirations. It even out does Wall-E at one point.

Overall, this film is an event, an experience that needs to be seen in the cinema. Don't download it illegally, don't even wait for the legal download or the DVD or Blu Ray. This film needs to be seen on the biggest screen possible, with the biggest sound system possible, and as much as I hate to say it, it needs to be seen in 3D. Being set in space, you don't really lose that much light from the 3D glasses, and the 3D effects, which were done post-production, are essential to the experience. Cuaron has managed to portray both the sheer beauty and the sheer terror of open space. I'm giving this film 5 out of 5 stars because I've never seen a film that has immersed me in the watching experience as much as Gravity did, I don't think I've ever left a cinema screen so exhilarated and near-breathless. It may lose a star, star and a half once it leaves cinemas because this film was made for cinematic viewing, not for home viewing. If you're going to watch Gravity, do it in the next 5 weeks at a cinema in 3D. Don't wait until you can see it at home, because you'll be missing out on what makes this film great.

Rating: *****

Gravity was released on 4th October 2013 and is no longer being shown in cinemas.
This review was edited and updated for its inclusion to Best Picture Nominee Season.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Thor: The Dark World

Eons ago, Bor, father of Odin, defeated the Dark Elves led by Malekith and hid their weapon for plunging the universe into darkness, the Aether, leaving Malekith and the Dark Elves to enter suspended animation until the Aether is found again. Meanwhile, in the present day, Thor is almost at the end of a two year war to bring peace across the realm while his brother Loki languishes in prison, and Jane Foster is still on Earth, now living in London. However, while investigating an anomaly, she is pulled into a portal to another realm where she discovers the hidden Aether, which takes residence inside Jane Foster. When Thor finds her, he realises she is ill and brings her back to Asgard but it's too late, the damage has been done and Malekith has been reanimated and is coming back for the Aether. Thor needs a plan to stop him, but that involves having to trust the one man he can't trust: Loki...

Can you believe it's only been two and a half years since Thor came out? It really seems like the kind of film that's been around for longer than that, especially since The Avengers was only a year and a half ago. Nonetheless, we're now into Phase Two of Marvel's Cinematic Universe, and here's film number two after Iron Man 3. I'll be honest, the trailer made the film look as epic as any other Marvel offering, but I came into Thor: The Dark World with tempered expectations. Where do they go from what we've already seen? How do they make any epic series of films even more so? For the first time in a long time, I came into a film ready to be disappointed and looking for its faults. I liked the first one, and I'm a big fan of what Marvel have been doing and comic book films in general. Well... long story short, I was wrong. This was fantastic. Let me explain why.

For the first time in a long time, Marvel hasn't tried to outdo the previous film in terms of scale. Don't get me wrong, there's still multiple big battle scenes and the enemy our hero has to vanquish is great, but they haven't tried to "Man of Steel" things by destroying absolutely everything in order to better the amount of damage and to make the final boss fight more epic than the one in the last superhero film. What we see in TTDW doesn't try to outdo its predecessors, it builds upon them to tell a surprisingly compelling story. What we get is a far more compelling drama than we've seen before from Marvel where we get to see more of the characters than ever before. Thor 2 is unlike Thor more than any other Marvel sequel is unlike its predecessor. The only film that comes close to being like Thor 2 is Iron Man 3; they deal with similar themes and the characters are given more time to develop and allow more of their traits and personalities to emerge. I like where Phase Two is heading.

All of this is down to a script that relies extremely heavily on its main cast of actors pulling off fantastic performances, but not its leading stars funnily enough. Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman are not anything special in his film, they do their thing and get the job done. Instead, it's Tom Hiddleston's Loki who steals the show AGAIN. The performance is great and the character is developed so well in this film, it's hard to see them not bringing back the character at least one more time. Anthony Hopkins is given more screen time as Odin, and plays an ailing and embittered king really well. Plus, Christopher Eccleston is fantastic as Malekith considering he doesn't speak English for half the film. He's menacing, and presents a true threat to Thor which is what a story like this needed.

What I like about this film, is that as dark as it gets at times, there hasn't been a funnier MCU film to date, and that includes all films featuring Iron Man. The character of Darcy, Jane's assistant, was the comic relief in the first Thor and she's given the chance to step up that role where she has some of the best lines in the film. Dr Erik Selvig makes a welcome reappearance, but they've shifted his character That, and the development of another side of Loki's character means he's able to more playful and funny in this film. There's some great writing at work here too, allowing for a random, hilarious, un-natural yet un-forced Captain America cameo in the midst of a serious piece of drama. The film is, of course, wonderfully shot and looks amazing, and never goes too over the top with the effects given this is a film about a man with a magic hammer. A majority of the action that occurs in London is non-CG, which is nice, and its always nice to see a film like this take place somewhere other than America, just another thing that sets this film apart from its predecessors.

Overall, I was impressed with this film. I didn't think I'd like it, I thought Marvel had reached the end of the road in terms of innovation, perhaps naively so. Marvel have a multi-arc, multi-year, multi-film plan for their MCU, and this is only the beginning of Phase Two while they're already planning for the end of Phase Three. As far as I'm concerned, this is the first film that makes me think there is life for Marvel after The Avengers; Iron Man 3 dealt with a character shift but the action remained much the same, whereas Thor represents the beginning of a complete shift of focus from non-stop action onto character development and drama. I think there's still some ways to go with Phase Two before we reach The Avengers: Age of Ultron, but I think this film represented the first of three films to initiate the change of direction for the MCU. The next two? Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy. Only time will tell if these are as successful as Thor: The Dark World, but if the post-credits sequence is anything to go by...

Rating: ****1/2

Saturday, 12 October 2013


It's Thanksgiving, and the Dovers have been invited to spend the day at the Birches. After dinner, their two young daughters Anna and Joy go to play, but later the parents and siblings realise the two young girls are missing. After they track down a suspicious RV that was parked in the area, the driver is revealed as Alex Jones, a man with the IQ of a ten year old. The evidence isn't there and Alex is released, but Keller Dover refuses to believe Alex didn't do it, and so tracks down and imprisons Alex in his former house, torturing him relentlessly until he gives up the location of the girls. However, Detective Loki is more interested in the suspicious character he witnesses at a vigil being held for the two girls...

The Black List is a list produced every year of the most exciting unproduced screenplays without any studio attachments. Previously the list has contained gems like Juno, Lars and the Real Girl, The Social Network and Up in the Air. Prisoners is another such film, ranking fourth on the Black List way back in 2009. Almost immediately after its inclusion, X-Men's Bryan Singer signed on to direct with Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale on to star. Then, Wahlberg and Bale were forced to leave after a scheduling clash with The Fighter, and Singer departed soon after. Next up was Antoine Fuqua on to direct, then Daniel Espinosa who would have had a fan of his, Leonardo DiCaprio, star. Finally, Denis Villeneuve signed on to make his English language debut with Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis and Melissa Leo on board to star. Finally, after nearly 5 years of production turmoil, Prisoners has come to the screens, but can it deliver the heavy punch it promised to deliver back when it was on the Black List? Overwhelmingly yes, yes it can.

I'll be honest, the trailer is extremely deceptive. I was not expecting Prisoners to be the way it was, but in a way, I'm glad it didn't deliver on the trailer. Having watched Prisoners, I felt more rewarded than I probably would have done had I seen the film I was expecting to see. Confused? Don't be. Prisoners is certainly a thriller, the trailer got that right, but it goes far darker and twists and turns more than the trailer lets on. Perhaps that's a good thing, it doesn't divulge any of the films secrets (I'm not spoiling anything, it's a thriller, there are going to be secrets which are ultimately revealed). It's an extremely clever script, with multiple threads running concurrently along one plot line. It's all kept under control, and everything ultimately comes together, there's not a thread left untied and that's something that's hard to come by in today's modern cinematic efforts. However, it is able to tie everything up by extending its running time. This is a long film, and it feels like it. You realise two or three times during the film that you've been there a long time and it still  doesn't look like being over any time soon.

What makes the long running time feel even longer is the fact the film deals with some extremely dark material; kidnapping, missing children, psychopaths, torture, forced imprisonment... This is not a light hearted film. The film is bright and sunny for roughly 10 minutes, until the children go missing. After that, you know it's downhill from there, much like Mystic River, except this explores territory unseen in a film that deals with child abduction before. You get the grieving parents, of course, and the tough determined cop, but the film branches out into scenarios you wouldn't expect, scenarios which are at times extremely difficult to watch. But, it's a cracking mystery, one that leaves you guessing right until the very end and one that comes together nicely over the space of two and a half hours. There's a lot to get through, and there's a lot of time to do it. All the while, the cinematography in this film is great, there's a lot of contrast between man and nature on display as decrepit buildings and mother nature steal the frame. It all ties into the heavy theme of the film, and so relies on some top draw performances from its leads to be able to carry out this traumatic experience.

Hugh Jackman, unfortunately, seems out of place as Keller Dover, a man who's lost his daughter and is desperate to get her back by any means necessary. He doesn't fit the character very well, no matter how hard he tries. Don't get me wrong, it's not a lazy performance by any means, he just doesn't ever seem comfortable with what he's being asked to do, which leaves him unable to deliver the necessary emotion required for such a sensitive role. However, on the flip side, Jake Gyllenhaal is fantastic as Detective Loki, performing a gruff outsider role that goes against type, and he delivers in spades; this may even be on of his best performances I've ever seen, and he's had some good ones. Aside from these two, Terrence Howard and Viola Davis are unremarkable as the Birches, as is Maria Bello as Keller's wife. Paul Dano never goes full retard playing Alex Jones, and he does well in an extremely difficult role. Finally, Melissa Leo is surprisingly good as Holly Jones, seemingly a bit-part character who Leo truly makes her own in the second half of the film and makes her one of the stand outs in this film.

Overall, Prisoners is an extremely hard film to sit through, not that it's bad, it's just an extremely uncomfortable subject matter and viewing experience. The subject matter is dark and continues to get darker as the film progresses. However, this is all necessary to tell what is ultimately a very clever story which utilizes its characters and surroundings well. It hasn't received much attention, and it'll probably disappear into the ether, but you can do a lot worse than to sit down for a few hours and watch this. Like Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, it's a dark story that'll make you sit up and pay attention. It never exploits, it only ever tells a story. Good luck.

Rating: ****

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Only God Forgives

Billy and Julian live in Thailand and run a boxing club. Except they don't. They run an underground drug smuggling operation. When older brother Billy rapes and kills a young Thai prostitute and surrenders to the police, it's not the police who take revenge, rather Lieutenant Chang, the "Angel of Vengeance", brings in the girl's father and allows him to beat Billy to death. As Julian goes on the hunt for the man who killed his brother, their mother Crystal turns up demanding vengeance. When Julian realises the man who killed Billy is suffering enough after losing an arm at the hands of Chang, he lets him go, but Crystal has other ideas for the people who have wronged her family...

I'm not going to lie to you, I thought Drive was spectacular, and thoroughly under-respected outside of critical and academic circles. Everyone I know loves it, then again most of my friends are the kinds of people who like obscure and over-looked films. It's one of those films people will tell you is good and that you need to watch it. Much like any other work by Nicolas Winding Refn. The Pusher trilogy, Valhalla Rising, Bronson... Art house cinema that attempts a mainstream audience yet couldn't find it until Drive. Starring Ryan Gosling. Now we comes back with Only God Forgives. Starring Ryan Gosling. Rest assured, Refn is sticking to his now most popular style and only goes deeper and darker.

Firstly, Only God Forgives is a beautiful film to watch. It's been lavishly shot with the same stylistic verve and clinical precision that Refn came to perfect in Drive, and it makes the seedy underworld of Bangkok look stunning and, frankly, attractive. Secondly, there's little to no dialogue in roughly 90% of this film, which places the emphasis on two things; the aforementioned beautiful visuals, and the physical acting performances of its leads Ryan Gosling and Vithaya Pansringarm, playing Julian and Lt. Chang respectively. Essentially, Only God Forgives is a 90 minute game of cat and mouse played out subtly and violently. That may seem like a contradiction of terms, but here they combine to create a unique beast that's captivating and essential viewing.

The story is basic, and one that's been played out in a million gangster films: Crime family searches for revenge after family member murdered whilst constantly fighting poice. Except this is different. We're in Bangkok now, the police don't work the same way, and Lieutenant Chang thinks he's God, dishing out justice with a samurai sword. Plus Ryan Gosling never speaks, he acts. And he lusts after a prostitute. It's Julian's mother Crystal who causes the trouble. It's as if Julian understands the culture he lives in and that justice has already been done before Crystal searches for a higher justice. It's subtle storytelling, done largely through Gosling and Pansringarm's acting, and an incredible performance by Kristin Scott Thomas as Crystal acting largely as the mouthpiece for the action on screen. Even the film's use of music is minimal. Everyone remembers the soundtrack of Drive as much as the film. Here though, the action is kept as real as possible, the heightened reality is dampened by the sounds of real life, with music only used to punctuate particular sequences.

However, as I mentioned before, one of the two most important things here is the acting, and the quality on display here is immense. Ryan Gosling all but revives his character of the driver in Drive by playing a character without any emotion outpouring on the surface, but clearly feels sympathy and remorse and anger under the surface. However, he is equally matched here by Vithaya Pansringarm, who plays Lieutenant Chang, or the "Angel of Vengeance". Cold, emotionless, logical, and justice delivered at his fist or at the end of his samurai sword. He's a great find by Refn to match Gosling's gritty integrity here and only goes to make this a thoroughly darker, murkier affair to sit through. However, it's Kristin Scott Thomas who steals the attention here. Wearing a blonde wig and playing a role that contrasts both to every other character in the film as well as every other character she's ever played in her career, Crystal is a unique character who acts as the touch paper that starts the fire and keeps it burning to the bitter end through her dialogue and expressive visual acting.

Overall, it would be a lie to say I'd never seen a film like this before, because I have, made by the same director and starring the same lead actor. However, this goes further and way, way darker than Drive ever dared to go. It's an unrelenting and emotionally draining 90 minutes, which sounds short, but it's really not when you're sat in front of this visceral treat. It switches between the dark, the odd, the blackly humorous and the surreal with the greatest of ease and it all makes perfect sense. It makes sense because once you enter the world of Winding Refn, you're in for the full journey. And I am loving every minute of it at the moment.

Rating: *****

Monday, 22 July 2013

The World's End

In 1990, Gary and his group of friends Peter, Steven, Oliver and Andrew attempted the Golden Mile, a 12-pub crawl around their home town of Newton Haven, but failed to reach the last three pubs. In 2013, Gary attempts to reunite the group for another attempt at the Golden Mile. However, Gary's friends have all grown up and moved on, getting real jobs and making families. They've all grown up, with the exception of Gary, who's still as untrustworthy and impulsive as ever, drives the same car from 1990, and now comes with a myriad of addiction problems as well. The friends reluctantly undertake the crawl as they take pity on Gary, but as the night goes on, they realise something isn't quite right in Newton Haven any more...

Everyone has their favourite trilogy. Most would say Star Wars (the original trilogy), some might say Back to the Future, Lord of the Rings, maybe even Iron Man if they haven't watched many other films. Personally, my favourite trilogy, or at least the first two-thirds of it, was the Blood and Ice Cream trilogy, or the Cornetto trilogy, depending on what you call it. Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg's writing, Edgar Wright's direction and Simon Pegg and Nick Frost's performances had so far made for two exceptional British films: Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007). Films that everyone has a copy of, films that everyone can quote endlessly and films that everyone will watch whenever they're on TV. Finally, after a 6 year wait, double the wait between films 1 and 2, film number 3 comes out: The World's End. Will it be a case of Toy Story 3, or more a case of The Godfather Part III? Thankfully, this is more cowboys than Corleones.

Shaun of the Dead billed itself as the world's first "rom-zom-com", while Hot Fuzz was a good old fashioned buddy-cop film with a rural British setting. The World's End is a strange one to define, as there are plenty of social aspects it explores, whilst also mixing in a ton of sci-fi. Social sci-fi, perhaps then? Either way, it's a great character study as the other two films were, and mixes in a lot of laughs in an extraordinary situation the characters find themselves in. It's strange to see Nick Frost in such a straight-laced role, one that would usually be reserved for Pegg, while he pays the slacker role normally reserve for Frost. I think the reversal of roles plays well in the film's favour though, and changes the formula slightly but not dramatically and separates the film from being 'just another trilogy film'. It stands up, even if there aren't as many obvious laughs here as there were in Shaun or Fuzz.

A lot of this seems like a nostalgia trip for Wright and Pegg, from the characters to the soundtrack; never in the trilogy has it felt more like there were writing an extended, final episode of Spaced than it does here. They call upon all the things they grew up with and loved music wise and socially, much as they called upon their love of buddy-cop films with Hot Fuzz. There's also the running jokes within the trilogy that are carried on, partly for nostalgia, partly out of a sense of obligation to continue them. There's the use of a former James Bond actor, this time in Pierce Brosnan, the Bill Nighy cameo, the jumping over a fence joke, the Cornetto reference, they're all in there, though a couple miss the mark more often than not, as if they had no actual place in the screenplay for them and threw them in at random. That withstanding, the writing was generally top notch, aside from the ending, which I found to be lacklustre and unbefitting to the end of a film like this one, or even a trilogy like this one. The film looks great, all visual effects were top notch and the action sequences were great, especially impressive considering how many of them there are and how long they tend to go on for each time.

The performances were OK for the most part. Simon Pegg seemed to revel in playing a different role for once, and does really well as Gary. Nick Frost does well as the sober Andrew, but does better later on the film when he is allowed to revert to his standard character performance. Paddy Considine isn't as great as he was in Hot Fuzz, but it's a different role, perhaps one that doesn't quite suit him. Martin Freeman is great, because it's a Martin Freeman-type role, only smarmier and more uptight, meaning he's allowed to bring his A-game. Eddie Marsan is a revelation, however, playing a quieter role than usual but is able to shine through more than most of the other characters because of the writing for him. Rosamund Pike plays Rosamund Pike, so there you go.

Overall, it's unfortunate that this film will be always graded against Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, because on its own, it's a nice and funny film, but compared to the other two, it's just not as good. Maybe they should have gotten this film over and done with years ago when they were still riding high from the previous two's successes. It is funny, but only sometime in a laugh out loud belly laugh kind of way, mostly it's small chuckles or polite giggles. They go very heavy on character this time with a darker story line than what they'd previously dealt with, but it's refreshing to see them deal with it as well as they do and good for them for doing something different but still in the same vein. It's a very nice, if unspectacular, end to the Blood and Ice Cream trilogy. Let's leave it at this though, shall we, boys?

Rating: ***1/2

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Man of Steel

Krypton is falling. The planet's natural resources are exhausted and the end of days are nigh. After giving birth in the planet's first natural birth in centuries, Jor-El and Lara send away their son, Kal-El, to Earth to escape both the planet and General Zod, Krypton's military leader who attempts a coup before killing Jor-El and ultimately being banished to the Phantom Zone. On Earth, Kal-El, now Clark Kent after being found by Jonathan and Martha Kent, is struggling to hide who he is, accidently displaying his super-strength in times of need. As he grows older, he outcasts himself and constantly tries to hide from everyone. That is, until one day, when he crosses paths with reporter Lois Lane, who finds out about him and what he can do. However, when General Zod comes to Earth to find Kal-El, it seems everyone may soon find out who exactly he is...

Superman is not only a comic book icon, but is Warner Bros's biggest intellectual property, earning them billions upon billions of dollars over a number of years. The original Superman quadrilogy is well known, although films 2, 3 & 4 are perhaps not known for particularly good reasons. After the franchise's last reboot in 2006, which also flopped, it seemed Superman was to be the franchise which would get lost amongst the current resurgence in comic book films. However, Warner Bros had no choice but to try again or risk losing the rights. So who could they possibly give it to? They tried giving it to the person who did so well with X-Men and X-2, so this time it went to the person who had saved Warner Bros's second biggest intellectual property: Batman. Christopher Nolan was given the reigns as producer, hired Zack Snyder as director and the rest is history. So has Nolan Batmanned Superman? Or has Snyder Sucker Punched it? It's somewhere in the middle of the two, unfortunately.

Man of Steel is supposed to be a collaborative work between Nolan as producer and Snyder as director, and yet the film has ended up being an awkward and disjointed two halves of a whole. The first half of the film, with Kal-El's back story, is all Nolan with beautiful cinematography, slow story telling, subtlety and compelling dialogue. The second half of the film, with Kal-El's battle against Zod, is all Snyder, with things exploding, ham-fisted attempts at meaningful dialogue and all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. What the first half of the film promised went undelivered in the second half, and that's a real shame, because the first half I loved, even if at times the visual style made it seem like I was watching a Terence Malick film. The second half was all style and substance was an afterthought and I was greatly disappointed. I understand Superman was a big responsibility to shoulder and they wanted to convey a grand sense of scale, but it all got too much and by the end, the climax was actually a welcome relief.

Speaking of the climax, I found there were two major problems with the end of the film. Firstly, no spoilers, but there was a matter of finality in the battle between Superman and Zod which I didn't appreciate. Batman never killed The Joker, and The Joker never killed Batman. That's how it should work, especially if they want to establish a franchise. Secondly, there's a line near the end of the film... From an army official to Superman, it was something along the lines of "How do we know you won't turn against America?" Wait, what? America? Was the battle between Superman and Zod not global? Did Zod not hold the entire world to ransom, not just America? Superman just saved the world, not just America. Also, can you still not trust him?! I put it to you that that line of dialogue, in the biggest film of the year so far, may be amongst the stupidest lines of dialogue spoken this year, this decade, ever? It's a colossal fuck up and shows a complete lack of forethought and sense of audience appreciation beyond America. Well done, David Goyer.

Aside from that, it's a really good looking film and the actors performances are all spot on, especially Russell Crowe as Jor-El, a surprising casting decision that's paid off. Henry Cavill looks great as the next Superman, though I'd still argue Brandon Routh from Superman Returns looked as close to the comic book Superman as there possibly could be. I just have one more personal gripe with Man of Steel, and the comic book film genre and their audiences in general. There's a lot of CGI in this film, which is understandable given the protagonist was born on an alien planet, can fly, shoot lasers from his eyes and has super strength. It gets obvious and is used by the bucket load in Man of Steel, but it will be looked over because it's a Superman film. When Green Lantern did exactly the same thing, people hated it. See the disparity? Just because Superman is a pre-existing franchise should be no reason to love it for the same reason people hated on Green Lantern, just because no-one knew who he was. People complain there aren't any new ideas for films any more; there could be if you gave the same kind of chances a Superman film gets to other potential franchises.

Overall, I liked the first half of Man of Steel. I liked it a lot. I wasn't overly sure about the second half. I liked the scale of things, but I feel they tried to make what was already an epic film in the eyes of the fans overly epic. It just got too much, but then maybe that's a reflection of modern film audiences. Have we been spoiled so much that now film makers feel they have to go OTT to try and create the feeling of an "event film"? It's a real shame, but in reflection, perhaps Snyder was the wrong man to take the wheel. People had their doubts after Sucker Punch, but I was convinced Nolan's influence would outweigh Snyder's penchant for style over substance. Unfortunately, it was just too much, and the two just couldn't work together to create a cohesive, compelling film. There will almost inevitably be a Man of Steel 2, and maybe Snyder will turn the director's chair over to someone else... Someone with experience with large-scale superhero films... Someone with experience of the franchise... Someone with a proven track record... Someone called Christopher Nolan...

Rating: ***

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Iron Man 3

After the events in New York a year previously, Tony Stark isn't the same man. He's isolated himself, holing himself away in his lab with Jarvis, building a variety of Iron Man suit variations, and suffers from anxiety attacks whenever he thinks back to New York. But he needs to pull himself together when two problems rear their ugly heads. Firstly, The Mandarin, an international terrorist, has been taking over the airwaves and promising a series of attacks on America and the President. Secondly, Aldrich Killian, a scientist who Stark spurned years previously, has re-emerged touting his new regenerative therapy called Extremis. However, Pepper Potts fears Extremis could be weaponised, and her fears are confirmed when a series of super-fighters begin making Tony's life a living hell...

Welcome to Phase Two. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has entered its second stage. Phase One was all about leading up to the assembling of The Avengers, with Iron Man playing a key role; Iron Man 1 was ground breaking and was the first film made and released under Marvel's own production studio, establishing them as a cinematic force, and Iron Man 2 being the first film to begin the long lead up to The Avengers once and for all. Now, Marvel returns to its most successful franchise so far to kick-start the next phase and to wrap up the Iron Man trilogy. However, Shane Black has replaced Jon Favreau in the director's chair, but this is a new phase, it should be all about new beginnings, right? If Iron Man 3 is anything to go by, then yes, yes it is.

Iron Man 3 was always going to be a crucial film, because it's the first Marvel effort to follow the highly successful and universally acclaimed The Avengers, so it's of no surprise they've returned to their most successful franchise to start the post-Avengers phase, and I think they've gotten things right. The most praise-worthy aspect of Iron Man 3 is that it's grounded in what reality the Marvel Cinematic Universe has to  offer. The events of The Avengers isn't something easily forgotten, and Iron Man 3 sees Tony Stark almost as a shell of his former self as he tries to deal with what happened. You get the feeling Phase 2 will, for the foreseeable future, be focused on the fallout and consequences of The Avengers (I can only presume Thor 2 will deal with much the same given the key roles of Thor and Loki in The Avengers). I like that they're considering how big an event The Avengers was, and how much it will affect the individual characters. Also, I'd like to praise the plot to Iron Man 3.

The main antagonists, The Mandarin and Aldrich Killian, work well together and combined give Tony Stark the biggest fight of his life so far. I really liked the plot twist (no spoilers), even though it's gathered some negative reactions. I appreciated how it made Iron Man 3 a reflection of modern day terrorism, and I think it makes this film one of my favourite films that Marvel has produced. However, it's not all sunshine and lollipops. The writing in Iron Man 3 is, unfortunately, awful. I like the plot structure and how things unfolded, but the execution of the events made the film extremely predictable right from the beginning. If they only could have worked a bit harder in masking its plot twists and revelations, I would have enjoyed it even more, instead of feeling triumphant that I guessed what was happening or going to happen about 30 minutes previously. That's another thing too, Iron Man 3 is long, because they cram a lot into this. Imagine how long it would have been if the Pepper Potts sex tape sub-plot was included? Or the Bullitt-esque car chase sequence? Or the other three antagonists that were to appear alongside the other two?!

All of this aside, the film's held together by its actors performances. Robert Downey Jr has perfected the suave, cool, cocky billionaire philanthropist, but here he also gets to show Stark's vulnerable side and does so with aplomb. It isn't just about watching a self-indulgent billionaire come good by building an awesome suit any more, it's about the human inside, as there's more on-screen time for Stark rather than Stark in the suit. Pepper Potts comes into her own in this film as well, as she's given a more pivotal role than previously, and Gwyneth Paltrow steps up. At first, she seems she may be lost in a bigger role, but by the end, she owns the role and maybe even the film. Guy Pierce is fantastic as Aldrich Killian, a real world villain without the over the top eccentricities of many previous superhero film bad guys. Ben Kingsley also gives a good performance as The Mandarin, a role which carries with it a lot of expectation from die hard Iron Man fans given the mythic ethos surrounding the character, and Kingsley does exactly what he needs to do with the role.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Iron Man 3, I liked where they went with the characters and with the storyline, even it was highly predictable. I liked that Pepper Potts and Happy Hogan were given key roles in the film as well as Stark, and that the film felt more like a collaborative effort, rather than a focus on a single, larger than life character, even if it is someone as infinitely cool and likeable as Tony Stark. What I didn't like was the execution of the plot. It's all very predictable, as once you figure out one element of the story, it kind of leads you to figure the rest of the entire film, and while it's more thrilling than previous instalments, in no way is this ground breaking cinema. However, I am and always will be a superhero film fan, and if this is the beginning of what Marvel has lined up for Phase 2, I say bring on Thor 2 and Captain America 2 and Guardians of the Galaxy. I'll be there for all of them if they entertain me as much as Iron Man 3 did.

Rating: ****

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Warm Bodies

R is a zombie who spends his days mindlessly wandering around an airport and observing the life of his other zombies, questioning who they are and why they do what they do. One day, on a hunt for fresh human brains, he encounters Julie and her group of survivors who have left their safe haven in search of supplies. After he kills and eats Julie's boyfriend's brains, he shares the boyfriend's fond memories of Julie and decides to save her through rudimentary communication and a promise not to eat her. Ass the two spend more and more time away from the other zombies on an abandoned plane, the two build a connection, but is the world ready for a human/zombie relationship? And can zombies really reclaim their humanity?

Warm Bodies is a great idea for a film: What if zombies could actually feel emotions and communicate with humans again? Basically, what if film makers actually remembered zombies used to be humans before they became brain eaters? And it's a perfect time to explore that idea, given the phenomenal worldwide success of Twilight, which focused on the relationship(s) between a human girl and a vampire and a werewolf. Plus, almost everything else has been done with the zombie genre, so why not a zombie film told from the zombie's point of view? It's a fantastic idea, and seems it like it could have cult appeal in the same vein as Kick Ass and Scott Pilgrim, so has it been executed to its full potential? I would argue, no.

The problem is a book allows you to develop scenarios and plot devices over time. A film requires you to rush towards a conclusion faster, so everything that happens in order to drive the film forward toward its final third is rushed, and that's exactly what you get here. The zombies go from unintelligible to word smiths in a relatively short space of time, seen especially in Rob Corddry's character M. He goes from mindless zombie to authoritative zombie army leader in the space of half an hour, which admittedly is a third of the film, but it's just too short a space of time for anyone other than the main character to develop those kind of skills. For R, it would have been understandable, in order to keep the film moving forwards, then maybe in a sequel (Warmer Bodies?) he could have spread his gift to the other zombies and reclaimed their humanity and rejoined the world then. Instead, they're welcomed back into the world at the end of 90 minutes and closes the door on a potential sequel, which I found to be disappointing, as otherwise I would have liked to have revisited this world again at some point.

At times, the romance between R and Julie gets a little bit schmultzy, but alas this is the world we live in now and the relationship they need to put on screen is one that appeals to a younger audience who watched Twilight in their millions and millions, but at times it was done extremely well and the development of their relationship was well timed and well executed. I liked Nicholas Hoult's performance as R, he was extremely affable and likeable throughout and was well written for, given some great lines and offers some amusing insights into the life of the zombie. Teresa Palmer's performance was uneven at best, going from wooden to over the top in love in the blink of an eye. Still a better performance than Kristen Stewart, and still a better love story than Twilight. John Malkovich is in this film not nearly enough, though the bits he is in, he delivers the same kind of strong but strange performance he's now mastered over the years. Rob Corddry is bad. That's all the needs to be said.

Aside from all the issues I have with the plot and the development of the story, the film is technically sound, with some shots extremely reminiscent of Scott Pilgrim as they appear to be in a comic book style and leap out as something different. The soundtrack is really great too, creating a really memorable mix of contemporary and nostalgic, creating exactly the right kind of mood for the action on screen. The editing is done well and the visual effects are great, if sometimes a little too gory for the kind of audience they're aiming for. Sometimes, it seems like the True Blood effects team had their way with the film instead of the Twilight effects team, and it's offputting from the action we're meant to be focusing on.

Overall, this isn't a bad film, it just didn't grab me as being anything too special, which is a shame given the subject matter. It could have had the same kind of cult appeal that Kick Ass and Scott Pilgrim have ascertained, but I feel like this one will be a forgotten film, one of those DVDs that'll be on the shelf of CEX for £2.50 within the year. I reckon there is a great film in there somewhere, it's just aimed toward the wrong audience and it loses its appeal and originality by going in the wrong direction. I may watch this again, but not if I have to pay more than £3 for it in CEX. I love that place. Probably a bit more than this film, unfortunately.

Rating: **1/2

Monday, 25 February 2013

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Academy Award Nominations: 4

·         Best Picture
·         Best Director (Benh Zeitlin)
·         Best Actress (Quvenzhane Wallis)
·         Best Adapted Screenplay (Lucy Alibar, Benh Zeitlin)

In a southern Louisiana community called the Bathub, cut off from the rest of the world by a levee, Hushpuppy and her father Wink fend for themselves, living off the earth and looking after one another whilst living in separate yet connected houses. Wink, though, is secretly ill and is struggling to look after Hushpuppy as she grows up, but he's trying his best to teach her everything she needs to fend for herself. As a fearsome storm approaches, Hushpuppy sees it as something broken in the universe that needs fixing, so she does what she can. However, when the storm passes and the Bathtub is flooded, the community will have to pull together to fix things before the flood water kills everything and they're forced to evacuate into the mainland...

There's a reason I like doing Best Picture nominee season. It makes me watch films I'd never usually watch like this one. I'd never even heard of this film until it was announced as a nominee in this and three other high profile categories. Last year, it made me watch Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, despite the fact I hated it. In many ways, this is a very similar film to Extremely Loud, in that it tells the story of a national American tragedy from the last few years through the eyes of a child. In Extremely Loud, Oskar lost his dad in 9/11 and went on a quest to reclaim his memory. Here, Hushpuppy and Wink live through their own Katrina-style disaster and attempt to survive. Similar films, but I liked this one more. What's the difference though? A more likeable central character. I didn't want to reach into my screen and strangle the kid just to shut him or her up.

Hushpuppy is streetwise and aware of her surroundings, and actually does positive things in her desire to make the word better. Oskar was just annoying. I liked Hushpuppy as a lead character, but I didn't like the characters she was surrounded by, especially her father. Hushpuppy seems like an innocent young girl who's forced to grow up before her time because of her surroundings, but that's not made easier by her arsehole father. He's very much the Oskar of Beasts, whilst Hushpuppy would be the Sandra Bullock of the piece. The rest of the community don't even seem very helpful either, and seem more annoying than anything else, even the teacher who seems like a bullshitter of the highest degree. Maybe it's just me, but I can't connect with the Bathtub way of living, we don't have anything close to it in the UK really so it's all just lost on me.

Quvenzhane Wallis is really good as Hushpuppy, but I can't see why she's been nominated for Best Actress. I think there's a stigma attached to lead performances by child actors. The bar seems to be put far lower for child actors, so as soon as they show any kind of emotion or ferocity, they're recognised, whereas an adult female actresses would have to put in a phenomenal performance to get recognised. Don't get me wrong, she's good, but not THAT good. She carries the film without a doubt, but I've seen far better performances from other female actresses this year. If anything, Dwight Henry was better as Wink but has gone unrecognised. He was good because I hated him, which meant he played his character of an arsehole perfectly. I can't get over the fact I hated him though, big no no. Over than that, the ensemble might have played their roles as a quirky independent community well, but my lack of Bayou knowledge prevents me from saying how good they were.

The script just seems disjointed, and deliberately so in a manner that suggests they were trying to make this film as quirky as the characters it focuses on. Benh Zeitlin seems like an odd director anyway, not looking at the raw footage until after the conclusion of the shoot (which after 5 years of learning how to make films infuriates me!!) and creating a film crew out of local people from the shooting location, which would explain why the film looks so roughly shot, but again this was probably another deliberate decision. This film doesn't look like anything I've seen before and I don't like it, it just smacks of amateur film making. Clearly, all of these things were deliberate choices in order to try and achieve the look and feel of a film made within that kind of community, but I just can't agree with it. The purist in me is raging at this film and I can't get over it.

Which leads me to my conclusion. I didn't really like this film. I appreciated the story line, but I didn't like the setting of the film, the characters used to tell the story, half of the dialogue, the way the film was written, the way it was shot and the methods the director employed to make it. This isn't a film I would have watched by choice, and I won't be watching it again any time soon. I liked it more than Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close though, but that's probably the only good thing I could say about it, and even that's not much of a compliment. Other people many have liked this, and other people will like it, but I'm not one of them.

Rating: *1/2

Beasts of the Southern Wild was released on 19th October 2012 and is no longer being shown in cinemas.

Sunday, 24 February 2013


Academy Award Nominations: 5

·         Best Picture
·         Best Director (Michael Haneke)
·         Best Actress (Emmanuelle Riva)
·         Best Original Screenplay (Michael Haneke)
·         Best Foreign Language Film

Anne and Georges are retired music teachers living in Paris, while their daughter lives abroad. Life is fine for the two until Anne suffers a stroke. She undergoes surgery to fix a blocked artery but it goes wrong and Anne becomes paralysed down one side of her body. Life becomes harder as Georges struggles too adapt to taking care of Anne and Anne struggles to adapt to a life of assistance. Then, as soon as things seem to be going well, Anne suffers another stroke and becomes confined to her bed, barely able to speak. Will the love between the two keep them going despite the hardships in their way?

Michael Haneke is a film documentarian. By this, I mean he likes to create films which, rather than create drama, look in on people's lives as a natural drama unfolds. He creates a window into his characters lives for a brief period. He also has a tremendous back catalogue to fall back on. From his break out film Funny Games which has become a cult hit, every film he's made since has been better and better received. The Piano Teacher (2001) took home a couple of awards from around the world. Cache (2005) took home even more. The White Ribbon (2009) even more still and now we're at Amour, a simple story about the love between a man and his wife, and yet so complex and subtle that it has critics positively gushing at the mere mention of it, and now it becomes only the ninth foreign language film to be nominated for Best Picture. Can it live up to the hype though? Heartbreakingly, yes.

Amour is such a simple story about the love between a man and his wife despite what life throws in their way, and yet it's the subtlety of the story telling that marks this film out above all other sentimental/emotional dramas out there at the moment. There's the dialogue between the two characters that sets the scene and sets out the basics for where the characters are at that moment in time on a base level, but underneath that is the subtle looks, glances, gestures and movements all done without words that spell out so much more than a heavy handed piece of dialogue would have done. It's the same technique Haneke employed in Cache, with the visual image speaking louder than the dialogue and it had a tremendous effect on setting the tone for each scene and the film in general, and yet he re-employs it here to even greater effect because of the nature of the storyline. It's a perfect match for his style of film making, something he almost perfected in The White Ribbon because of the delicate nature of that particular story, but gets it absolutely spot on here.

That's down in no small part to the performances of the two lead roles: Jean-Louis Trintignant as Georges and Emmanuelle Riva as Anne. Around 95% of this film is purely the two of them on screen and they are an absolute delight to watch together, their on screen relationship just seems so real and genuine and pure that you become emotionally invested  in how the two get on with things and how they end up. Trintignant is great is Georges, constantly showing a stiff upper lip in the face of agony as he must watch his wife deteriorate, only occasionally slipping and letting his emotions out, much in the same way any ordinary human would be in real life. However, it's Emmanuelle Riva and her performance as Anne that's getting all the headlines and rightfully so. Her performance is pitch perfect as a woman who's first struck with partial paralysis, then deteriorates to the point of helplessness, only able to cry out "hurt" repeatedly. It's agonising to watch a formerly strong character at the beginning of the film deteriorate so rapidly and painfully over the course of the two hours, and it's something that Riva is able to pull off phenomenally.

On top of that, it's Haneke's writing and direction which have made Amour such a sensation. I would argue at this point that Haneke's trademark as a film maker is 'lingering', staying in a scene for maybe a miute or two longer than any other film maker would have in order to capture a sense of real life unfolding on the screen rather than just a snapshot of it. It captures emotion and develops thee story better than it would have done had the film been made with short takes and only small glances of Georges and Anne. It's a fantastic way of telling this story and matches the plot perfectly; in essence, all the elements of film making fall into sync with Amour.

I don't really know what to tell you, there just isn't a better dramatic film out there that I've seen in recent memory than Amour. It's heartbreaking, it's engaging, and above all else it's just simple. No fancy camera angles or heavy handed dialogue, it's all spelt out for you on the screen purely through acting and simple camera work. It'll never win Best Picture, of course, being a foreign language film, but if there was a time for it, it would be now. The Artist won with zero dialogue last year, so why not a film wining with French dialogue? This is the world we live in, where America can seemingly no longer compete with Europe, despite their very best efforts.

Rating: *****

Amour was released on 16th November 2012 and is no longer being shown in cinemas.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

Academy Award Nominations: 5

·         Best Picture
·         Best Actress (Jessica Chastain)
·         Best Original Screenplay (Mark Boal)
·         Best Film Editing (Dylan Tichenor, William Goldenberg)
·         Best Sound Editing

Maya, a young CIA officer, is a woman on a mission. Her career revolves around gathering intelligence in regards to the whereabouts of the world's most wanted man: Osama Bin Laden. After being relocated to Pakistan to face the search head-on, she begins to work with Dan, a fellow officer who uses less than legal techniques to force detainees to reveal information. After one Saudi detainee cracks, they learn that a man called Abu Ahmed is working as a personal courier for Bin Laden, and since Bin Laden never steps outside, he'll be the man to look for. So begins the hunt for Abu Ahmed, and ultimately Osama Bin Laden, in "the greatest manhunt in history"...

Zero Dark Thirty comes with two stigmas attached to it which make it a tricky film to judge without having seen it. The first is that this film was shrouded in secrecy for months and it was directed by Kathryn Bigelow, winner of Best Director and Best Picture for The Hurt Locker at the Oscars a few years ago, one of the best war movies I've seen to date, and starts Jessica Chastain, a woman who has come out of nowhere to become one of Hollywood's most in demand actresses, so Zero Dark Thirty has some fair amount of pedigree attached to it. On the other hand, this has been the most controversial  film of this year's Best Picture picks because of its graphic representation of torture and humiliation of Saudi detainees by American security forces. Whether or not it's fact, it's in the film, so will it distract from what's billed as the greatest manhunt in history? Thankfully, no.

This is a gritty, real life war drama, unsurprisingly in the same vein as The Hurt Locker; it's filmed in much the same way, set in similar looking places and tells a story which seems the same but is entirely different. This isn't about the front line side of the war on terror, this is about the behind the scenes work, the intelligence gathering and paperwork that leads to the front line action, or in this instance, SEAL Team 6 secretly entering Pakistan and entering a fortified compound to find and kill Osama Bin Laden. It's all shot well, and the drama builds up well over the two and a half hour run time, enough that my initial scepticism with the film was thrown out the window by the half way point and I was hooked despite knowing the outcome. Sometimes, it's more about the way something happened rather than the actual outcome, and this is most definitely on of those cases.

That's helped by centring the film around one single character: Maya, the CIA officer who leads the hunt for intelligence leading to Bin Laden's location. Jessica Chastain's performance as Maya is so pitch perfect, I can't see anyone outdoing her for Best Actress this year after she fell short for The Tree of Life last year (though at the time of writing, I've yet to see Amour, which is said to feature an extremely strong Emmanuelle Riva performance). The character is fundamentally flawed by her determination and unrelenting pursuit of Bin Laden and the Abu Ahmed lead, even when it seems like a dead end. However, she becomes extremely likeable, you want her to succeed despite her cold determination and unrelenting nature, and it's that the keeps the film together. Zero Dark Thirty is less about killing Bin Laden, and more about wanting to see Maya succeed. Otherwise, though, all the other characters seem like war movie clichés, there's no-one else who's truly notable in this film other than the fact that there are some surprising names playing roles here (like did anyone else know that Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong and Chris Pratt were in this before they saw it?) and that seems like a wasted opportunity. The only other semi-strong character is Dan, the torturer, played by Jason Clarke, but he's missing for large parts of the movie so you never get to see him deal with the repercussions of his actions, which could have made for interesting viewing.

Story wise, this is a fascinating tale of how the hunt for Bin Laden was so fruitless for so long and how many lives were lost during the hunt, and then how it all came to fruition in 2011. It's written sharply, and though there may be a few historical inaccuracies, it's still a great watch. In particular, the climax of the film where SEAL Team 6 enter the compound to find Bin Laden is brilliantly done, as it all takes place in real time. With the first person shots shot in night vision, and events happening in real time, it's as close as you or I are likely to get to being on an actual stealth mission, and it's an eye opening experience. That's not to say that the two hours previous to this isn't great, in fact it's enthralling viewing, akin to many political thrillers in the building of drama and tension, but the climax is so comparably different to the rest of the film that it's intriguing to see both halves of the war being shown on screen next to each other.

Overall, Zero Dark Thirty is a film I really liked because it showed more of a human side to the war on terror and how the process of finding Bin Laden took place. It's a great story, and Mark Boal creates one great character in which to bring this story to life, it's just a shame there aren't any more to back her up. Bigelow's style of directing doesn't change, making this almost like a companion piece to The Hurt Locker in many ways, but an entirely different film in other ways too. This isn't the best film I've seen this year, and it isn't the best war film I've seen, let alone the best war film by Kathryn Bigelow, but it's a good effort and definitely deserves to be a part of anyone's DVD collection.

Rating: ****

Zero Dark Thirty was released on 25th January 2013 and is still being shown in cinemas.

Saturday, 9 February 2013


Academy Award Nominations: 7

·         Best Picture
·         Best Supporting Actor (Alan Arkin)
·         Best Adapted Screenplay (Chris Terrio)
·         Best Film Editing (William Goldenberg)
·         Best Original Score (Alexandre Desplat)
·         Best Sound Editing
·         Best Sound Mixing

Amidst the chaos of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, six American embassy staff manage to escape the US embassy and take refuge at the home of the Canadian ambassador. However, with Iranian guards going from home to home searching for American “spies” and the embassy captors piecing together shredded evidence which shows there are six American workers missing from their hostages, they need an escape route from Iran quickly. Enter the state department, and specifically CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez, who comes up with a plan: He and the six embassy staff are producers on a science fiction called Argo, and are location scouting around Iran for a foreign paradise in which to shoot. Can they pull the wool over a militant Iranian guard’s eyes?

Ben Affleck has turned from Daredevil failure into Hollywood’s hottest director. He’s yet to produce a dud: Gone Baby Gone (2007) was a police procedural with something more, becoming a study of human nature, behaviour, and moral ambiguity. The Town (2010) was a further development of his skills, producing a crime story that stands out from the rest thanks to a host of spot-on performances. Now he returns with Argo, based on the true story of the “Canadian caper” which saw six embassy workers pose as a film crew to flee revolutionary Iran. It’s a fascinating story, one that had to be taken more seriously than it seemed to create drama and tension, and I’m pleased to say Affleck has delivered with aplomb.

Argo is a tricky beast, enveloping a ludicrous plot within a hyper-serious political drama, something which could only possibly have come from real life. So while there is a real life template, there was still a fine balance that needed to be delivered, and Affleck more than delivers here. For 80% of this film, it’s a serious drama that has you gripped based on whether these innocent Americans can escape Iran in time. For the other 20% though, it’s a whimsical story about how a man from the CIA teamed up with a make-up artist and an aging producer to create the illusion of filming a Star Wars rip off in Iran and how shaky the entire plan to extract the trapped US workers was, and then that the credit to the plan had to go entirely to Canada and Tony Mendez couldn’t claim his reward for a successful mission because the entire mission was classified immediately following its conclusion, only being declassified during the Clinton administration. The question is then, why has a film about this only now come to fruition? It’s the story of how America, and in particular Hollywood, saved the day. It’s perfect fodder for award season, and I’d say Affleck is a genius for being the first one to realize its potential and capitalise on it.

That bring said, it still takes a lot of excellent performances to pull this off, and it makes me smile that the only man Affleck considered being able to pull off the leading man role was himself. This is why I like Affleck as director; no-one was giving him the roles he wanted to play, so he went out and made roles for himself. He’s given himself a stage on which to shine and he’s done so again in Argo playing Mendez, combining seriousness with an aloofness that gives his character credibility and depth. Michael Parks, John Goodman and Kerry Bishé were cast after their amazing performances in Red State and they justify Affleck’s casting, especially Bishé as Kathy Stafford, as they all deliver true to life performances. Alan Arkin is also notable as producer Lester Siegel and delivers the kind of performance that got him the Best Supporting Actor accolade for Little Miss Sunshine and has seen him nominated again amidst a strong field. One notable exception in that field though is Bryan Cranston, who since his starring role in Breaking Bad has started taking these supporting actor roles in various films and has been shining. He did so in Drive, and does so again here, arguable better than Arkin, but alas Cranston is overlooked despite a strong performance and will return to Breaking Bad with more cache.

The look of the film is sharp as well, capturing aptly the hustle and bustle of busy Iranian markets and daily life, as well as subtly observing the Americans trying to get on with their lives as the Canadian ambassador tries his best to stay calm in an increasingly intense situation. Affleck’s direction, combined with Rodrigo Prieto’s camerawork, create a classy looking thriller which doesn’t intrude in the character’s lives or interfere with the story. Simply, this is a document of the period captured superbly.

Overall, Argo is fantastic. I can’t really say more than that. I can’t find fault in it despite having gone over it countless times in my head for the last few days, it’s an engaging story with likeable characters that creates humour, drama, suspense and real emotion. The look is spot on, the music is spot on, the acting is spot on, and it’s immensely enjoyable with tremendous re-watch value. I can’t think of a more perfect film this year.

Rating: *****

Argo was released on 7th November 2012 and is no longer being shown in cinemas.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Silver Linings Playbook

Academy Award Nominations: 8

·         Best Picture
·         Best Director (David O. Russell)
·         Best Actor (Bradley Cooper)
·         Best Supporting Actor (Robert De Niro)
·         Best Actress (Jennifer Lawrence)
·         Best Supporting Actress (Jacky Weaver)
·         Best Adapted Screenplay (David O. Russell)
·         Best Film Editing (Jay Cassidy & Crispin Struthers)

Pat has just spent the last eight months in a mental institution in Baltimore after the breakdown of his marriage and subsequent bipolar diagnosis. Having been released into the care of his parents, he becomes determined to get his life back on track by starting on bipolar medication, seeing a therapist, and trying to win back his wife Nikki by reading her teaching syllabus and getting his job as a substitute teacher back at her school. However, his plans to get back on track are derailed by Tiffany, his friend’s sister in law, with whom he begins a strange friendship as they become fascinated with one another. When Tiffany reveals Pat could send letters to Nikki through her and bypass her restraining order against him, she wants something in return: A dance partner for an upcoming competition…
Silver Linings Playbook is the undeniable success story of this year’s award season. Not only has this film attained nominations in all four acting categories, the first film to do so since Reds in 1981, but it’s the first film since Million Dollar Baby in 2004 to achieve nominations in The Big Five (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay). It’s a hugely impressive feat, yet you think back on all the films that have come and gone since Million Dollar Baby, surely there was one on there that could/should have done it before now? And now it’s been achieved by what seems to be a bog standard rom-com? There must be something to it. On the face of it, all the major players are there, they just need a good script behind them…. For the most part, it is, but it’s nothing spectacular.

David O. Russell has a knack for writing and directing pure life stories, opening a window into everyday life in an extraordinary situation. He did a fantastic job with The Fighter, producing some great performances from Christian Bale and Melissa Leo and creating an emotive story, so it’s a strange but not completely unjustifiable decision for him to take on board this story of two broken people trying to find their way in the world again. So what makes this more than the bog standard rom-com? Firstly, the cast. Bradley Cooper is the leading man here and delivers his best performance in anything I’ve ever seen him in, he’s given something more than one-dimensional character for once and he runs with it, possibly opening the door for future roles like this. Then there’s his co-lead, Jennifer Lawrence. Her performance in Winter’s Bone a few years ago was stellar, and she’s proven herself to be Hollywood’s next big thing with films like The Hunger Games. She’s good here, albeit flat at times and unemotive, but then that’s part of her character, so one could argue that it’s a better performance that deliberately doesn’t evoke a reaction with audiences.

As for the supporting cast, where do you begin? Robert De Niro is great as Pat’s dad, pulling off mild OCD and a gambling addiction with subtlety, no overacting or ham-fistedness here. Jacki Weaver also delivers a powerful performance as Pat’s mum, generating the most evocative reaction of all the actors on show. Even Chris Tucker is good as Pat’s friend from the mental institution; it’s an all-round great performance from the entire cast. All of this, you have to put down to David O. Russell’s adaptation of the book and creating a solid script from the material he’s given. My only problem is that this doesn’t really do anything spectacular plot wise.

As far as the story goes, there’s nothing spectacular about it. There are a few troubled characters, but it’s nothing life-threatening or truly drama-inducing like those in The Fighter. The characters seem to be more quirky than troubled and that didn’t help my enjoyment of this film. If anything, it seemed as if ‘mental health issues’ was used as a by-word for quirkiness and originality here. Pat’s problems created the drama, and Tiffany’s manifestation of her grief in losing her husband became a parallel for Pat’s problems, even the two issues are incomparable. Even though the two main characters have problems, the rom-com formula remains the same with no real inventive twists or turns which I’d expect from something from Russell. It’s a shame, but then this film isn’t about what happens, it’s more about who it happens to.

Overall, Silver Linings Playbook is unspectacular apart from a host of great performances from its ensemble cast. The plot is nothing special, and the writing and dialogue is OK at best, but Cooper, Lawrence, De Niro and Weaver make this film somewhat memorable. I had expected a little bit more given the number of plaudits it was receiving and given O. Russell’s history of quality filmmaking, but I was mildly disappointed. It’s a good watch, just not great. It’s well directed, but nothing spectacular. In short, Silver Linings Playbook is unfortunately generic, average and relies heavily on its actors to not fade into obscurity.

Rating: ***

Silver Linings Playbook was released on 21st November 2012 and is no longer being shown in cinemas.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Les Misérables

Academy Award Nominations: 8

·         Best Picture
·         Best Actor (Hugh Jackman)
·         Best Supporting Actress (Anne Hathaway)
·         Best Costume Design (Paco Delgado)
·         Best Makeup & Hairstyling (Lisa Westcott)
·         Best Original Song (Suddenly)
·         Best Production Design
·         Best Sound Mixing

In 1815 France, Jean Valjean is released from slavery after a 19 year sentence by prison officer Javert. He decides a convict's life will get him nowhere, so he breaks parole and starts a new life under a new identity. Eight years later, he is the mayor of a small town and factory owner. Fantine, one of his workers, is fired for sending her wages to her illegitimate daughter being cared for in another town. Valjean has his own problems though, as Javert returns and recognises him when he tries to save Fantine from a life of prostitution. He goes on the run, and decides to save Fantine's daughter, Cosette, on the way. Together they go on the run. Nine years later, with revolution in the air, Cosette is now a young woman, who gathers her fair share of admirers, while Valjean is an old man who refuses to reveal his and hers pasts, but can he summon the strength to take on an angry, brooding Javert one last time...?

Les Misérables is known the world round. Not as the classic Victor Hugo novel which has entertained and depressed generations of readers, but as the worldwide smash-hit musical which has graced the world's stages and entertained millions with its story of hard lives and bleak futures for everyone to laugh at, so it was only a matter of time before someone decided to bring it to the screen, much as countless other musicals have been, both successfully and dreadfully. It's a multi-faceted tale of revolution and slavery and struggle... So who better to bring it to the big screen than the man who gave the world The King's Speech two years ago, made millions upon millions of people smile at a stuttering king and won countless awards for it? So does it work? Has the transition from stage to screen been seemless? Umm... No. No it hasn't.

I'm not a big fan of musicals to begin with, but I have tried to be as objective as possible while reviewing this and to treat this like any other film. Something which was made difficult by the fact this isn't a film. It's a stage performance with bigger sets and bigger stars. I understand that this might be how the musical is, with everybody singing the dialogue instead of speaking it and creating a seemless link between songs... But this is a film. It's fine if that happens on stage, because you get a break half way through. But this is a relentless two and a half hour singsong, with dialogue between the songs being unnecessarily sung and unnecessarily performed instead of just spoken. It's just frustrating. In a film, you need a structure, with coherent dialogue, and this film lacks it entirely by simply making this a film version of the stage show. It also has too much ambiguity, not that that's a bad thing in films, but I didn't know the story going into this and I got very lost within the first half an hour because there was nothing there to explain the storyline properly, just people singing songs about how they feel instead of giving me a coherent plot to enjoy. Sorry for being a film purist, but I like my films to have a coherent plot.

That being said, I did enjoy a handful of the performances in Les Mis. Hugh Jackman is a showman, and he's in his element here, playing the lead Jean Valjean as he struggles through life. In the beginning, he's engaging and sensitive. By the end, he puts in a heartbreaking performance. Really good stuff. Anne Hathaway is also fantastic here as Fantine, you really feel for her as she becomes one of "les misérables" and struggles through life before her untimely demise. It means Hathaway is in the film for little more than half an hour, but she makes a memorable impact. Other than that, Russell Crowe isn't great, but surprisingly better than I assumed he would be. However, when you're singspeaking your words to what seem to be the same tune all the way through the film, it would be hard to mess it up as badly as, say, Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia? Apparently that's a bad thing? Amanda Seyfried starred as older Cosette, which makes it a shame that she has an annoying singing voice, yet she's going to be able to put "starred in the two biggest film musicals of all time" on her IMDB page, very strange. Isabelle Allen is far better as the young Cosette. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are mildly entertaining as the evil Thénardiers as well.

The film itself looks great. The sets are lavish and extravagant, the costumes are detailed and authentic, and the soundtrack is tried and tested on an audience of millions so the actors know which beats to hit and where the greatest amount of emotion will be evoked. The camera work is interesting as well, a lot of handheld camera and Dutch tilts, but I actually liked it and personally, I would have liked to have seen Tom Hooper nominated for best director for this, as I think there's more stylistic flourishes and expression on display here than there was in The King's Speech. The cinematography is brave too, getting extremely up close and personal with the French Revolution. It's clear that they put all of the thought into the look of the film rather than the substance, they've literally transplanted the stage script and score onto the big screen so you're not getting anything new in that regard, other than the Hollywood A-listers singing them. That aspect just seems lazy to me, it's as if they've forgotten they had a fantastic source novel to work from, add dialogue from, add element of the story from to help with the transition, instead of solely relying on the stage musical.

Overall, it seems as if Les Mis presents a lost opportunity. They could have written a fantastic script with the music from the stage show worked into a well-scripted dialogue-centric script. Instead, they picked up the play and threw it onto the big screen and it just doesn't work. It cheats the audience too, as they don't get anything new from the film that they wouldn't have gotten from the stage show. This was an opportunity to present Les Mis to a whole new audience, but instead they aimed squarely at the audience they already have and will have, given its successes on Broadway and the West End. The main cast are good, the ensemble know their lines well from having been on stage with it, and the mise-en-scene was as good as any Hollywood production. Before going into this, I'd never seen Les Misérables on stage. After sitting through this, I feel like I don't need to, nor would I ever want to.

Rating: **

Les Misérables was released on 11th January 2013 and is still being shown in cinemas.