Friday, 29 August 2014

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

Sin City. Just another Saturday night. After the events of the first film, the surviving characters are still around and trying to get by in the worst city imaginable. Marv is still destroying people for fun, Nancy's still dancing but craves revenge for John Hartigan, Gail still runs Old Town, and Dwight has magically transformed into Josh Brolin. There's also a new character, Johnny, a cocky young gambler who arrive in Sin City looking for the big action but ends up having a long, bad night. There's also Ava Lord, the eponymous dame to kill for...

Sin City was one of my favourite films growing up. A visual style previously unseen in cinema and a fantastic mix of comedy, drama, grit, and excessive violence. It went down gang busters at the cinema and plans were put in place for a sequel based on the second book in Frank Miller's series: A Dame to Kill For. Those plans were made... Then put on pause... Then put on indefinite hiatus. Then, Robert Rodriguez started making Machete films. Then, all of a sudden, Sin City 2 was resurrected and everyone from the original signed back on (except Clive Owen, but we'll get to that) and the world rejoiced, I rejoiced! Finally, the film I wanted to see 8 years ago was coming my way, and now finally it's here. It's a terrible shame that this sequel didn't come out closer to the original for various reasons: It would have hit a cinema audience in the right mind set just after the release of the original, it wouldn't have been as hyped and dragged out, the cast and crew would have been in a familiar mind set instead of trying to recreate something they've forgotten, and the film might have been better. Maybe.

Sin City 2 is just a horrendous mess, and I say this after a long, carefully considered period of reflection. It's a cluster fuck. All of the charm and wit and originality of the first film is gone and has been replaced with something else entirely. Sin City 2 feels like an exploitation film when it has no right to be. You get the feeling Robert Rodriguez has made one too many Machete films and now his mindset is warped. He's only encouraged by his co-director and script author, Frank Miller, who created half the stories in the film especially for the film and didn't take out any of his critically-acclaimed yarns. Miller has clearly tried to re-create his former glory but couldn't do it. Stick to the good stuff, Frank. Above all the many faults of this film, the thing that really stuck in my craw is the editing and the post-production. Now, I'm aware that my memories of the original Sin City may been hazy and overblown, but I'm almost certain the special effects in the first film were better employed and look far less fake than they did here. I understand it's an extremely stylised film, but when everything fits together, it can look great. It doesn't here. Things stick out, look out of place, and most criminally look fake. There are also changes in the visual style that play against the established style from the first film. There are entire people in colour now, instead of highlighted features, and it doesn't ring true. It's extremely jarring, and makes for an uncomfortable viewing experience.

But let's not forget about our actors. Jeez, where to start... OK, so Mickey Rourke's Marv was spot on, but that character's hardly a stretch of his acting abilities. Eva Green is also pretty good as the femme fatale of the piece, Ava Lord, and that's not just because she's naked for 90% of her on-screen time. Seriously, that's not an exaggeration. JGL is a great actor, but he never seems to get out of second gear as Jonny, but his second hear is better than most other actors' fifth gear. Also, Powers Boothe is brilliantly evil as Senator Rourke. Apart from that, you struggle to look at anyone else's performance with any cause for celebration. The lustre surrounding Jessica Alba has definitely disappeared. She plays a broken version of her character from the original, Nancy, but there's no passion there and she really just phones it in. Then there's Josh Brolin... I like Josh Brolin, but he's no Clive Owen. Bruce Willis makes fleeting appearances as Hartigan in a different wig to the one he wore in the first film. Dennis Haysbert is no Michael Clarke Duncan (RIP) and Christopher Lloyd plays the Christopher Lloyd character. Also, Lady Gaga is no actress.

Here's the other big problem with the film: The script. The dramatic voice over monologues that were a signature of the first film have become parodies of themselves in the second film. The opening act, "Just Another Saturday Night", was not a fitting way to open the film and was clearly only used because it was a yarn short enough to act as the intro. "The Long Bad Night" yarn was solid but predictable and repetitive. The "A Dame to Kill For" yarn overtook the entire film by taking up half the run time, and featured two of the most unnecessary characters in a film I can remember, ever. The "Nancy's Last Dance" yarn was diabolical; poor writing and poor acting and poor everything and ended abruptly, which as it turned out was the end of the film as well. The dialogue was hammy and gave up any pretence of drama about two drafts ago. Frank Miller was given far too loose a leash and has not left Rodriguez much to work with (although what was there, Rodriguez overhyped too). There are so many driving scenes in this film too, and they don't look as good as they did in the first. My theory: They could afford too make the driving scenes look good in the original because there weren't many of them. They put more in the second, and the budget got stretched, and the effects suffered.

Overall, this film is not quite a disaster, but it's not good, and is absolutely not a suitable sequel to one of my favourite film of the 2000s. Everything's just a mess, with too many creative influences having too many different ideas as to what made the original work as well as it did. The stories aren't as good, the returning characters (for the most part) can't relive their former glory, the new characters aren't as well crafted as the originals, the replacement actors for pre-existing characters aren't as good as the original actors. If Sin City is Batman Returns, then Sin City 2 is Batman and Robin. Congratulations Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller, you took your sweet time but you've successfully killed what could have been a lively, entertaining franchise after just two films. Maybe they should have gotten Tarantino to guest direct a scene in this one too.

Rating: *1/2

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

Peter "Star Lord" Quill is an intergalactic thief, taking jobs from anyone with enough money. When he steals a mysterious orb, though, things start to go awry. He attracts the attention of Gamora, an assassin sent by Ronan the Accuser to retrieve the orb, as well as Rocket and Groot, bounty hunters who also happen to be a raccoon and a tree respectively. When they all end up in prison, they meet Drax the Destroyer, who's hell bent on revenge on Ronan, the man who killed his family. When they realise that the orb is worth 4 billion units, they form an alliance to get out of prison and sell the orb. However, when they meet the buyer and realise what the orb truly is, their consciences force them to protect the orb and get it into safe hands, and definitely away from Ronan...

This is where things get interesting. We've seen Iron Man and Thor and Captain America and all the sequels, all the characters are well established and came from Marvel's most iconic characters and most well-established material. Now we reach the point of expansion, the point where Phase 2 starts moving towards Phase 3, the point where we need some new blood in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Enter: The Guardians of the Galaxy. Finally, the MCU enters space, and the possibilities become endless. I mean, we've been to Asgard with Thor and Loki, but now the entire galaxy has become our oyster, and we've been left with a thief, an assassin, a tree, a raccoon and a destroyer to protect us. Shameful admission time: I've never seen Star Wars. However, if that particular space opera is anything like this one, I'm willing to give it a go, because this was good. Like, really good.

There's something refreshing about Guardians in the context of the MCU: It feels like a fresh start. The only two characters that had been established prior to this film were The Collector and Thanos, and even then both of those were only previously seen in post-credits scenes, and no-one was even sure it was Thanos at the end of Avengers Assemble (it was, but now he's here for real). There were no carried over story lines, no crossed over characters... This is where we begin, again. Saying that, it was a bold move to start adapting lesser known material. But then, it was a bold move to self-finance and create Iron Man in the first place, and to then create an entire universe, so this seems like a natural progression of Marvel's calculated risks. Phase 3 has lined up adaptations of characters completely new to the MCU: Ant Man, Doctor Strange, Black Panther maybe? So, Guardians seems like a great way to begin introducing new characters, as it has a simple plot, it's a great origin story, and the calculated risk of picking an odd director paid off again. James Gunn, creator of the best anti-superhero film ever in Super, now as created a great anti-superhero superhero film. With me? They're not great people, if anything they're all awful, but collectively they work together and kind of fit together as well. Collectively, they're one good person, but separately they're pretty despicable.

Chris Pratt steps away from Parks and Recreation and becomes the leading man he was meant to be as Peter Quill. He's charming, he has a lot of female fans, he's funny and ties this entire film together. Finally, he's been given a chance to shine and he's taken it. He's ably assisted by Zoe Saldana as Gamora, who acts as Quill's female equal. Saldana's an action movie veteran now, having proven her fighting chops in Colombiana and her acting chops in Avatar (it might be a bad film, but she was one of few good points in it). Along side them, the CGI raccoon and tree and pretty good, very life like, and the voices of Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel fit well. Dave Bautista... He does well as a muscle-bound destroyer hell bent on revenge... But he's given a strange vocabulary to fit into his dialogue and it seems extremely unfitting of the character. But then maybe that's part of the fun? I just found it distracting. Although his quirk of taking everything literally was greatly amusing. The support cast was fantastic as well, everyone having unique characters, even the background players had some personality!

In general the entire film was funny, I'd say this is the funniest Marvel film by a long way, and that is to the credit of James Gunn and Nicole Perlman. Gunn hasn't toned down his writing style (much) and his humour definitely carries over. There's a ton of funny lines in this one, on top of the serious melodrama and explosions. Gunn definitely got the balance right, though, after a few darker Marvel films during Phase Two, we all needed a pick me up, and this was definitely it. I'll admit I missed Nathan Fillion's blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo as Captain Mal, and I thought the obligatory post-credits scene was hilarious. I won't spoil it, but all I'll say is that as funny as the post-credits was, it didn't lead to anything. We're staring down the barrel of Avengers 2, a film which should be the biggest film Marvel have produced ever, and yet we know absolutely nothing going into it. It seems as if they've got their eyes fixed further down the road, finally introducing Josh Brolin as Thanos, the biggest big bad they have at their disposal. Unless they're planning a swerve in Avengers 2 and keeping him as a surprise alongside Ultron, it seems they've forgotten the merits to short term planning as well as long term planning. The soundtrack was awesome though,

Overall, this film is entertaining, but I think we've been spoilt by Marvel films past. On their own warped scale of epicness, Guardians ends up being rather tame, and the villain is evil but not absolutely unbeatable. Of course, now we know (spoilers) that this movie's villain is merely a representative of a higher power, but there should still be some threat, something which doesn't come here until very late on in the film. The film is well constructed, don't get me wrong, but there's an awful lot going on with an awful lot of characters to the point where it feels like there's a case of too many cooks. It's a shame, because I was super hyped for this one, and perhaps I over hyped it in my own head, but it's just not the great film I hoped it would be. It's really good... It's just not great. Onto Avengers 2 we go, MCU...

Rating: ****

Friday, 25 July 2014


Mason Jr is a 6 year old boy living at home with his single mother Olivia and his sister, 8 year old Samantha. Live is as you would expect; bedtime stories, hanging out with friends, going to school and dealing with Mum's annoying boyfriend. However, Olivia announces that they are moving to Houston to allow her to go to college. From there, the life of Mason Jr is tracked over the next twelve years as he grows from a boy into a man. We see him as he meets new friends, spends every other weekend with his father, dealing with his sister and his Mum's new husband(s), all the while growing up and deciding where his future lies...

We live in a fantastic time. We have computers the size of TV remotes in our pockets which can access the world's information just by saying "OK Google", we're more affluent and free in our choices and decisions than we ever have been as a society, and we live in a time where Richard Linklater is making films. What an amazing director who doesn't get nearly enough credit when he deserves tons and tons of it.  He began his career making Slacker and Dazed and Confused, two films which inspired a number of generation X'ers to become film makers, and films which audiences continue to adopt and identify with to this day. Since then, Linklater has been a writer and director of films which continue to show modern American life and its quirks through unique characters and situations. His Before trilogy has been met with wild acclaim throughout all 3 films, he brought us Jack Black's revival in Bernie and entertained millions with School of Rock. However, it was during the filming of School of Rock that he embarked on a passion project that would consume his life for the next 12 years: The brilliant Boyhood.

Ethan Hawke described the making of this as the cast and crew getting together for a month every year and making 12 short films in 12 years. It doesn't feel like that. Despite the massive time gaps between filming dates, everything you see is one coherent narrative, it never falters or stutters. It's an extraordinary achievement to be able to craft a cohesive film from 12 years of filming, considering regular films that go into extra time filming often feel disjointed. I give massive credit to the continuity editors for getting everything right (apart from one scene, where each shot is clearly filmed at a different time of day and probably during a different filming period also). That one scene aside, everything else is spot on and it's a fascinating story of a young man growing up with a series of challenges to face and decisions to make. I think what makes this film work is that Linklater doesn't rush things, he realises real drama takes time to unfold and evolve and uses his 12 year time frame to great effect. It's a whole life story, and encompasses all aspects of Mason Jr's life from his home life with his mum, sister and absent dad, to his school life, to his friends and relationships. Boyhood becomes one of those films that is immediately identifiable with a large majority of its audience, simply because of how much ground it covers in almost 3 hours.

The film is tied together by a stuttering at first, but ultimately strong and confident performance by Ellar Coltrane. As a young boy, he seems reserved and nervous, but he soon grows more confident in front of the camera as he grows up in front of it to the point where he oozes confidence by the time he turns 18 at the end of the film. Equally as impressive is Patricia Arquette, who by the way is seriously underrated as an actress. She sports a few different hairstyles throughout the film due to other TV and film commitments, but the performance remains consistent, which I would argue is a harder job for her and her other adult co-star as they need to be the exact same character for 12 years. Wow. Plus, Arquette's character gets put through the wringer in this film, which makes her strong performance even more impressive. Equally as good is Ethan Hawke. A friend of mine remarked she'd never seen Hawke in a good film, and thinking about it, he's only ever impressed in films made by Mr Linklater, a sign he brings out the best in Ethan and should work with him more regularly. Unfortunately, Lorelei Linklater (try saying that after a few drinks), who plays Samantha, starts off strong as a 6 year old performer but fades into the background as her role is de-emphasized and reduced over the 12 years, to the point where she's almost like a cameo performer by the end instead of a co-star.

It's such an innovative idea to film a feature over multiple years in order to chart the progression of its characters, as well as charting the progression of its child actors, as both actor and character develop and becoming fully functioning adults on camera. The cast is kept small enough so that outside elements do not affect the filming and plot of the film, and each character is given a progressive story arc over the 12 year time period. My only problem with Boyhood is that although it is great to see the development of these human beings on screen, it covers too long of a time period, so no events are really touched upon in great detail, or at least not great enough detail for my liking. You see how Mason Sr becomes a responsible father in his new family, but you never see the satisfying origin story of that, only the result. You never really get to go into depth with Mason Jr's parties or his drug use or his relationship with Sheena as a teenager. It feels like everything is only touched upon, with only really significant human moments with expansive monologues and important milestones being given full screen time. Sometimes, it's about the smaller things in life that make life great. To be honest though, I'm nit picking. I don't envy the task of Sandra Adair, who was tasked with stitching together 12 years of footage into one 3 hour story of life.

Overall, Boyhood is a spectacular achievement in film making, patience, and endurance. To make a film over 12 years is taxing and difficult, keeping the cast together and committed to the project for 12 years without knowing what'll happen in the future is a significant risk (although less so when one of the stars is your daughter), but Linklater persevered and has not only produced a film that tells a coherent, structured, constant narrative, but made a film that shows characters and human beings become people in a way that hasn't been truly possible on film before. The time frame of the production allows for the film's plot lines to evolve over time, actual time rather than movie time, and allows for the dramas to develop more naturally than they would in a blockbuster. I would state that Boyhood is the antithesis of films like Transformers, showing that patience is truly a virtue and sometimes all you need to do is point a camera at life and the drama will reveal itself naturally.

Rating: *****

Saturday, 31 May 2014


Daikaiju! In the Philippines 15 years ago, two scientists discover two pods in a collapsed mine; one is closed, but one is open and something's clearly dragged itself away. In Japan, a nuclear power plant picks up seismic activity before a disaster happens and Joe, an engineer, loses his wife to a radiation leak before the entire plant goes into meltdown. 15 years later, Ford, Joe's son, returns from the army and gets a call; his dad has been arrested in Japan for trespassing in the quarantine zone around the power plant. Joe is convinced it was no accident that caused the meltdown and cost him his wife, he's convinced something ungodly caused it. As he and Joe re-enter the zone to retrieve data, they find themselves in the middle of a crisis: Whatever crawled out of the cave 15 years ago has been hibernating and feeding on radiation, but now it's about to hatch and cause havoc. But where does Godzilla fit into all of this?

I'm a big fan of big monster films. They can be terrifying, but mostly they can be really entertaining and silly. I'm no expert on the Godzilla series, but I know enough to get by, and I still remember going to the cinema in 1998 and watching Matthew Broderick battle the tiny Godzilla shown in the American version of the film. The series seemed dead and buried after that, but then 12 years later, something special happened: A special effects guy made a cracking film about monsters on no budget and off-the-shelf VFX and editing software. It was called Monsters, and I bloody loved it back in 2010. So who better than that man, Gareth Edwards, to bring back the daikaiju himself, the daddy of all monsters? Here's the immediate problem: Monsters was written by Edwards, this was not.

So, I usually start off my reviews by summarizing the plot, and I think I did a pretty good job of it above. The problem? I had to shoehorn Godzilla into the plot description. This film does not revolve around its title character. Instead, Godzilla is something that happens in concurrence to the main plot. That's not right! There's a lot of other things that happen, with a lot of other characters and a few other monsters, and the action jumps all over the world from Japan to the Philippines to Hawaii to mainland America. All the while Godzilla is spoken of in hushed tones, all respectful like. But where is he? Where is the king of all monsters? Then, there's the problem not just with Godzilla films, but with monster films nowadays. Monster movies are the Kobayashi Maru of modern cinema.

Monster movies work better when you see less of the aforementioned monster, allowing the audience's imaginations and fears to fill in the gaps that VFX couldn't possibly achieve, hence why 'Monsters' worked so well 4 years ago. However, people pay to see the monster, especially in a film like Godzilla, and as big and intimidating you make the monster, it loses its impact the more you see it. God bless them, they try their best here, as they spend a lot of time focusing on the two MUTOs and less on Godzilla until he's needed to come into play, and they treat him with respect when off-screen, making him the ultimate monster... There's just no balance that will ever satiate everyone, and even as I write this, I'm still not sure if I'm unhappy I didn't see Godzilla enough, or unhappy I saw too much. All I know is I'm unhappy.

I was completely unaware that Aaron Taylor-Johnson was the lead actor in this film, as everything revolves around his plot line. Did anyone else think it was Bryan Cranston after all the trailers? And did anyone else know that Sally Hawkins would have such a big role alongside the legendary Ken Watanabe? Well, they are, and they do, and they're both great, along with Watanabe and Cranston. Juliette Binoche is, unfortunately, relegated to a brief (but important) cameo. Elizabeth Olsen is good too and has good chemistry with Taylor-Johnson (which makes me excited to see them together as Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver in Avengers 2 next year). The score is grandiose, and also carries the feel of an old-school action film, especially at its action points. The direction is spot on, and even the dialogue is non-cheesy and somewhat logical. The problem lies within the plot and the writing thereof.

Overall, I was really looking forward to this film, and the trailer promised something incredible. In all fairness, the film delivered on the trailer, there was no misrepresentation. So then why do I feel let down by this film? Is it because there was too much Godzilla, or too less? Is it because it tried to replicate Monsters by focusing on personal stories instead of the creatures when it really should have been focusing on 'daikaiju'? I like that it stuck to the canon more than the 1998 treatment, and the little things like the blink-and-you'll-miss-it Mothra reference made me smile, but the only thing that really got me excited in this film was the initial reveal of Godzilla and that first, initial, ear-splitting scream. After that, though, it was business as usual, this could have been any other disaster film. Have we been ruined as a 21st century movie going audience? I fear yes, but I have hope that revolution can still happen, and there'll be a film one day that reviews and revises all disaster movie canon. This just isn't it though. Maybe Godzilla 2 will be a bit more daring...

Rating: **

Friday, 4 April 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Two years after the events of Avengers Assemble, Steve Rogers is living in modern day Washington DC and working for S.H.I.E.L.D. whilst struggling to adapt to contemporary society. Whilst on a mission with Black Widow, he discovers Nick Fury has given her a separate mission, which infuriates him, and leads to nick Fury showing him Project Insight, a series of Helicarriers linked by satellite to eliminate threats. Fury, however, is becoming frustrated as he is unable to decrypt recovered data, and an attempt is then made on his life. Rogers then meets the enigmatic Alexander Pierce, a senior official within S.H.I.E.L.D., in order to work out who ordered an assassination on Fury. However, before the attempt, Fury had met with Rogers and revealed his doubts about the organisation, and when Rogers refuses to reveal that information, Pierce dismisses him and makes it known he and Black Widow are wanted dead...
Is it just me or has Captain America always felt like the odd one out? Maybe it's just because I'm British and can't completely associate with the American propaganda character, or maybe it's because Captain America is the least super superhero to get his own franchise. Granted, all Hawkeye can do is fight a bow and arrow really well, and Black Widow is just good at fighting, but in the context of the Avengers, they have their place. Captain America has the super serum going for him, but there's nothing overly special about him. He has no real powers or abilities over than his super strength and the fact that his shield is indestructible (and is the only one like it in the world despite its incredible properties...) Regardless, here we go with Cap 2, an important step towards Avengers 2. Question is, can it justify its creation? Annoyingly, yes.

I thought Captain America 1 was good because it was something different, it was an origin story in a completely different era. In a way, it made it more alien than if it were set on an actual alien planet. Unfortunately, that's come to be the expectation of every new Marvel film: It has to be something different. Iron Man 3 closed the book on what was an extremely series of films up to that point. Now, the MCU needs to diversify to survive, and they've done a stand up job with Cap 2, making it the American equivalent to a James Bond film. It's full of suspicion and espionage and mistrust within an organisation, whilst retaining the superhero element which the James Bond series of film must now strive to steer clear of. It's good that they've found a niche for Captain America, a unique place for him amongst their ever-growing resume of superheroes brought to the big screen. Fittingly also, I feel the good Captain is being used in the same way now as he was back when he was created: A propaganda tool for the boosting of American morale in a time of need. Cap stands as the morale compass of an organisation that has become decayed and poisoned, and stands up to the seemingly insurmountable threat. But then maybe all superheroes are fit for that purpose, and I'm just picking on Cap because he dresses in the stars and stripes?

Regardless, Steve Rogers is played well, again, by Chris Evans. To be honest, there's nothing new or exceptional about any of the leads. That's another essential requirement now  to nay new Marvel film: They need a strong cast of refreshed characters around them for every film. Therefore, Captain America, Black Widow and Nick Fury are assisted ably by three new MCU characters: The Winter Soldier, Sam Wilson, and Alexander Pierce. Big spoiler here: The Winter Soldier, aka Bucky Barnes, is played well by Sebastian Stan again; emotionless, ruthless and near-demonic, and it's more impressive as he's playing against his instinct to revert back to the Bucky character he played so well in Cap 1. Sam Wilson is s great introductuon to the franchise as Falcon, and never grates as sometimes sidekicks can. He holds his own, and is never overawed by the fantastic Steve Rogers, rather he sees him as his equal, a fellow serving officer with whom he can share his horror stories of time on the front line. Also, Robert Redford is great as Alexander Pierce, but you'd expect nothing less from a veteran like him. Cool, unnerving, friendly and deceitful; he's a great choice for the lead antagonist here.

Here's my problem with the film though: While the plot holds up and creates an exciting and unpredictable (to a point) story, it's all very convenient. Now, I realise I'm saying this about a film, a superhero film no less, but it's true! HUGE SPOILERS HERE, READ OWN AT YOUR OWN PERIL. It's the fact that the main plot driver is the fact that Hydra, Captain America's foes from the first film set almost 70 years prior, is alive and well within S.H.I.E.L.D. and the man who helps uncover it is Cap, 70 years later. Hmm. It's lucky it wasn't Thor who found out about Hydra, he'd have had no idea what to do. That aside, I think it was an extremely brave move on Marvel's part to shake up the MCU by essentially obliterating S.H.I.E.L.D., especially since they concurrently have a TV series entitled 'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' which deals exclusively with the inner workings of the organisation. Where they go on TV next will be interesting, especially since Agent Jasper Sitwell appeared in the last broadcast episode (1st April 2014) and then appeared in Cap 2, becoming a very important part of the plot. One last thing too: I think it was an EXTREMELY smart move to shift Black Widow from the now-defunct Iron Man series into this one, she added a new dimension that Captain America wouldn't have been able to achieve either on his own, nor I doubt with anyone else.

Overall, this was a surprisingly good film. This was the second Marvel film in a row where my expectations have been low and have been exceeded with ease. I need to have more faith in Kevin Feige. I wasn;t sure where they could go with the Cap character and to put him in a James Bond-esque film was probably the best move they could have made for him. I can't see how Cap 2 would have worked had it been just a bog standard superhero film, but this is definitely something more. It's not my favourite, but it is good, and it sets things up well for the biggest risk/experiment Marvel have made so far: Guardians of the Galaxy. A film which contains no pre-established characters and has no bearing on the Avengers (that we know of yet). It's a gamble, and my expectations are high, so let's see what happens in July. Also, why do people still leave before the very end of Marvel films? Half the audience left before the first post-credits, and there were only 5 of us for the second one! Stick around, damnit!

Rating: ****

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Deep in the mountains of the republic of Zubrowka lies the Grand Budapest Hotel which, in the late 60s, lies in disrepair and guests are few and far between. However, in it's glory days in the 30s, it was home to one of the finest concierges of the day, Gustave H. Gustave spends his days courting a series of aging, wealthy blondes; one of whom is Madame D, who dies under mysterious circumstances and leaves a valuable painting, Boy with Apple, to Gustave, leaving her family enraged. Thus begins the family's quest to prove Gustave is Madame D's murderer and reclaim the painting for themselves. However, Gustave has a plan: He and his faithful lobby boy, Zero, have stolen the painting and hidden it, so when Gustave is arrested, it's down to Zero to formulate a plan to both escape and clear Gustave's name...

I love Wes Anderson and his films. I love his style of storytelling, his visual style, his colour palette, and his style of dialogue. It's unconventional, mainstream-indie cinema at its finest. If you're unclear as to who Anderson is, here's his filmography: Bottle Rocket. Rushmore. The Royal Tenenbaums. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. The Darjeeling Limited. Fantastic Mr Fox. Moonrise Kingdom. And now, The Grand Budapest Hotel. All of his films are distinct, no-one makes films quite like Anderson, you know almost immediately whose film you're watching once you see one. However, The Grand Budapest Hotel is unlike any other Anderson film previous. Why? In the past, he's co-written his films with one of his friends. The Grand Budapest Hotel is his first solo writing venture, and it reveals an entirely different side to Anderson's sensibilities.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is, without a shadow of a doubt, Anderson's most adult film to date. This is definitely not a negative, but as much as there are still all the tell tale signs of this being an Anderson film, the screenplay makes this film the most non-Anderson Anderson film yet. Make sense? There's a lot more swearing in this than any of his other previous work, and there's a lot more references to sexuality and representations of naked human bodies. It makes you wonder how different his previous films might have been had he not had Owen Wilson or Jason Schwartzman or Noah Baumbach (his frequent co-writers) in the room with him. His distinctive style is still extremely evident however, nothing else has changed and that's a blessing because it makes The Grand Budapest Hotel another of his grand adventures made up of various minutia with a whole host of characters on board to deliver vital parts of the overriding story arc. I think that's one of the things I like most about Anderson's films: He always creates an entire town's worth of characters to create a grander scale in which to tell his story, rather than focusing on two central characters and only bringing in other characters for a spot of Basil Exposition.

With that being said, the lead character is played by an actor making his debut in an Anderson film, which is strange as the key roles are usually reserved for either his favoured co-collaborators or talented child actors making their debut. Alas, it falls to Ralph Fiennes to bring to life the eccentric Gustave H. and does so with aplomb. I never thought Fiennes had an ear for comedy, but perhaps all it took was the right script to convince him to step out of comfort zone and show another side of his acting skills. Along side him, Tony Revolori is the perfect straight man to compliment Fiennes' eccentric Gustave H. The pair of them share a great on-screen chemistry and it's evident they're enjoying the crazy adventure their characters go through as much as the audience did. Also along for the ride are a host of big name cameos, all of whom are surprisingly integral to the outcome of the film; there's no wastage here. Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman, Jeff Goldblum, Jude Law, an uncredited Bill Murray, F. Murray Abraham, Owen Wilson, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Harvey Keitel, Adrian Brody and a terrifying Willem Dafoe are all great in their unique roles. Also, as a side note, I believe that Anderson has found the perfect bumbling yet commanding authority figure for his cinematic universe in Edward Norton. In both this and Moonrise Kingdom, Norton played an authority figure who was clearly in charge, but bumbled and became likeable. Don't be shocked to see Norton re-appear in Anderson's next project.

I think one of the things I like most about The Grand Budapest Hotel is the structure of the narrative: It's a story within a story within a story within a story. That's four layers. The film is told as if being read from a book by a young girl. The book concerns a mysterious author relaying the story of when he visited the hotel as a young man. The younger version of the author then retells the story told to him by the owner of the hotel whom he met upon his visit; the older Zero. The older Zero then tells the story of how he came to acquire ownership of The Grand Budapest Hotel and, in turn, the story of his mentor and closest friend, Gustave H. Who else would be brave enough to layer a story like that? All of this occurs in the first 10 minutes, by the way, so no spoilers. It clearly shows Anderson's fondness for the medium of storytelling, how a story can be told and retold to generation after generation and still have the same effect if told the right way; something I dare say Anderson has now perfected. Aside from this, the film is told in chapters as if from a book, much like his other films, with title cards introducing the next 'part' or 'chapter' with a brief descriptive title. Anderson's films are like reading different novels by the same author: You know his distinctive style, all the characters seem like they should know one another, it's broken down into easily manageable chapters, and they all take place within the same unmistakeable universe. Literally, the Wes Anderson colour palette does not change, the hotel itself is immediately recognisable as an Anderson creation.

Overall, The Grand Budapest Hotel is such a lovely and charming film, I find it hard to fault it, although I am biased as a fan. (I even got a copy of his out-of-print book shipped from America. I could sell it on eBay for a high price!) The plot never gets overly complicated, even when the characters on-screen make it out to be so. The characters, numerous as they are, never overwhelm the action and fit right in to the tone and pace of the story. The dialogue is somewhat different to the usual Anderson fare but an intriguing change of direction for the director. It's his most adult film to date, but it still has a child-like mentality at heart. I'm fascinated to find out where he goes from here.

Rating: ****1/2

Sunday, 2 March 2014


Academy Award Nominations: 4

  • Best Picture
  • Best Adapted Screenplay (Jeff Pope, Steve Coogan)
  • Best Actress (Judi Dench)
  • Best Original Score (Alexandre Desplat)

Philomena Lee has been keeping a terrible secret for 50 years: After a love affair as a young woman and falling pregnant, she is sent away to Sean Ross Abbey, where nuns make her work hard while raising her illegitimate son, but eventually the child is sent away and adopted. Philomena has been searching for him ever since, but only recently decides to tell her daughter. By chance, her daughter works as a waitress at a party attended by Martin Sixsmith, a recently fired former government advisor, who's looking for a new project. At first Martin rejects the idea of writing a 'human interest' story, but soon warms to it, and he and Philomena begin the search for her long lost son Anthony...

Philomena is the story of a number of talented actors and creators collaborating on the real-life tale of Philomena Lee, whose story was told and published by Martin Sixsmith back in 2009. First, the writers: Jeff Pope has had a highly successful career writing TV dramas for ITV including Pierrepoint and Dirty Filthy Love, whilst Steve Coogan is known worldwide as the writer and creator of Alan Partridge and other characters. Then, there's the stars: Steve Coogan assumes the role of Martin Sixsmith alongside Philomena Lee played by Dame Judi Dench, renowned as one of the world's finest actresses, appearing in the most recent Bond films, Shakespeare in Love and Mrs Brown. Then, the director: Stephen Frears has directed some of Britain's most famous film exports, films such as My Beautiful Launderette, Dirty Pretty Things, The Queen and now Philomena. All the elements are in place to take a charming story to the big screen, and they've done a wonderful job translating it.

This film is focused directly on the relationship between Philomena and Martin, with the hunt for her long lost son becoming inconsequential for well over the first half of the film. It's only as elements of Philomena's son's life are revealed that the plot focuses back to Philomena's struggle. In fact, it's because things shift in the middle of the second act that it's hard to pinpoint just which relationship this film is supposed to be about. Either way, both relationships rely heavily on the extraordinary story of Philomena Lee, which is told in a way which never becomes overly sentimental but is not a cold document of the facts either. Stephen Frears has filmed it wonderfully, and Coogan and Pope's screenplay tells the story of Philomena in a heartwrenching yet light hearted way. Also, the films has been wonderfully scored by Alexandre Desplat and helps enhance moments of whimsy and heaviness in equal measure. It's easy to see why the Weinsteins picked it up and championed it: It's extremely similar in style and form to The King's Speech, and clearly they were hoping for some form of repeat success.

It's not hard to see it being successful either; the strong female lead of Philomena Lee is excellently filled by Dame Judi Dench, one of the finest actresses in the world. A stubborn, deeply religious woman who just wants answers after 5 decades of holding this terrible secret, Dame Judi's performance is touching and underplayed, whilst also providing moments of light relief. As for Steve Coogan, the character of Martin Sixsmith is two dimensional in the film, and Coogan is the man to blame; either he underwrote the role, or failed to deliver the performance needed to match Dame Judi's dominating presence on screen. Either way, Sixsmith is never emotionally relateable and is a poor companion to Philomena Lee. Beyond that, there aren't any other stand out supporting characters, other than the evil nuns, who are so generic they could ahve come from any other motion picture where nuns are depicted as repressed and out of touch with humanity.

The main problem I have with this film is, I fear, in the writing. Where Pope and Coogan have received many a plaudit for their adaptation of Sixsmith's book, I feel that so much of their focus has gone into recreating Philomena for the big screen that they forgot to create any other character of depth to allow Philomena someone to create a rapport with. They do their best with Martin and Philomena, bbut Martin is so repressed and unrounded, that the character can never truly connect with Philomena, and even when he appears to, it seem forced and unnatural. Indeed, like another recent film Her, the best relationship on screen is between one of the actors and someone who never appears on screen with them. Philomena's relationship with her son feels real because of Dench's performance; her emotions are the only ones the audience has to play off of whereas an actual interaction between Dench and her onscreen son might have come across as forced and overplayed.

Overall, this is a lovely story, one that is certainly worthy of being told to a potential audience of millions, and Dame Judi Dench's performance is wonderful, but that's where the buck stops. Everything else seems flat and run of the mill, there's nothing spectacular about the way the story is told and the visual style, while good, is something we've seen before in films such as The King's Speech, a film which Philomena clearly aspires to be. Steve Coogan has made a charming little film, but it's so unspectacular that I hasten to say that this is probably the weakest of all Best Picture nominees this year. Two years ago, I had Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Last year, I had Beasts of the Southern Wild. This year, unfortunately, I have Philomena.

Rating: **1/2

Philomena was released on 1st November 2013 and is no longer being shown in cinemas.

Friday, 28 February 2014


Academy Award Nominations: 5

  • Best Picture
  • Best Original Screenplay (Spike Jonze)
  • Best Original Score (William Butler, Owen Pallett)
  • Best Original Song ('The Moon Song')
  • Best Production Design (K.K. Barrett, Gene Serdena)

Theodore Twombly is a lonely, introverted man going through a divorce. Luckily, it's 2025, and operating systems now have artificial intelligence which can fill the voids in everyone's lives. So, when Theodore buys OS1, he immediately strikes up a friendship with the OS which begins to call itself 'Samantha'. As he gets closer to Samantha, his work writing personalised love letters for people who can't be bothered improves, as do his friendships in the real world as he becomes more extrovert. However, after a meeting with his soon-to-be ex-wife, he doubts the reality of a relationship with a piece of software, especially when it hires someone to act as a human surrogate...

15 years ago, Spike Jonze made one of my favourite films of all time. Being John Malkovich is a wonderfully weird and surreal film from the pen of Charlie Kaufman, so to be able to translate Kaufman's eccentricity onto screen and do it successfully exemplifies why Jonze was given so much praise. The crazy thing is, after Being John Malkovich, he teamed up with Kaufman again for Adaptation, which is equally as weird, if not even weirder. Another one of my favourite films, Adaptation showed that Jonze had some creative eccentricity in him himself; it wasn't just Kaufman's script that made Adapatation and Malkovich wonderfully quirky and enjoyable. After his collaborations with Kaufman, it took him 7 years to come back with Where the Wild Things Are, based on the children's book. Here, he didn't just direct but also co-wrote the screenplay, and showed he had other talents too. Now, he's back with Her, his first solo screenplay about a man who falls in love with his OS. I wonder where he got his inspiration from...

Her is one of those films that comes with stigmas attached to it. It's written and directed by Spike Jonze, it stars Joaquin Phoenix. Translation: It's going to be one of those quirky, indy films that's over pretentious. Well, it's not. Considering the subject matter, it stays pretty well grounded, it never goes over the top at any time which only goes to make this entire film feel creepily realistic. This could happen in 10 years time. The entire film is extremely poetic, the screenplay is littered with winding monologues and love letters and poetic speeches, but it fits the tone of the film so it never feels pretentious. The direction is top notch, and perfectly shows Jonze's aptitude as a director; there's almost certainly a big project coming his way soon. The film looks great too, as if the film had been shot through an Instagram filter. The cinematography and the editing work together to create a feel for the film that's almost dream-like, like this entire film is a giant fantasy whilst staying firmly rooted in reality. Where Jonze chooses not to accentuate the ludicrosity of the plot in the action on screen or the performance or the dialogue, it's certainly accentuated in its visual style.

The entire film is pulled together by a good central performance by Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix is good, but the problem is he's playing one of those characters who you can't really relate to. Theodore Twombly is introverted and a bit creepy, there's evidence of underlying psychological problems caused by his impending divorce, and he falls in love with some software. The moustache alone is enough to put you off. What works in Phoenix's performance, though, is his relationship with a disembodied voice from Scarlett Johansson. He's able to make a single performance with an inanimate object feel like something real, so definitely deserves credit for that. Amy Adams makes a lovely few appearances as Theodore's friend Amy, a character who mirrors Theodore and is destined to be the 'perfect match' for Theodore; it's just as shame she's not on screen more than she is.

One of the best things about Her, though, is its soundtrack. A quirky film has been given a wonderfully quirky soundtrack by Arcade Fire, it's a perfect match between band and film/director. The soundtrack moves between diagetic and non-diagetic states constantly throughout the film, and it really fits in well with what's happening on screen, you can tell a lot of hard work was put into getting the tone of the music correct. Another of the good things is the emotion the piece evokes. One of the few, but fiercest, criticisms of the film is that it keeps the audience at an emotional distance because of the main character and the nature of the relationship portrayed in the film. I would wholeheartedly disagree with that statement. Although Theodore is hard to pinpoint emotionally, the best scenes in the film are when he shares a moment with Samantha, whether it's positive or negative. The structure and content of the screenplay have made sure that an emotional bond is established and reinforced between man and technology, to the point where the last 20 minutes are actually truly heartbreaking, even I was amazed by the strength of the screenplay.

Overall, Her is a wonderfully quirky and melancholic and melodramatic and unique and heartbreaking and entertaining and joyful film to watch and enjoy. That's a lot of adjectives all at once, but there's no way to really narrow down what exactly this film is. It's a Spike Jonze film, that's about as best as I can do. It's got Jonze written all over it, both in its writing and its direction. Joaquin Phoenix is confident yet unsettling in the main role, and Scarlett Johansson is surprisingly good as a disembodied voice. As much as this film could be seen as a warning about where humanity is headed with its relationship with technology, it never veers off its light-hearted romance path. Some people have called this a science fiction. These people are wrong. It's a romance about a blossoming relationship, it just so happens that one half of the relationship is an operating system called Samantha.

Rating: ****

Her was released on 14th February 2014 and is still being shown in cinemas.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Dallas Buyers Club

Academy Award Nominations: 6

  • Best Picture
  • Best Original Screenplay (Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack)
  • Best Actor (Matthew McConaughey)
  • Best Supporting Actor (Jared Leto)
  • Best Editing (John Mac McMurphy, Martin Pensa)
  • Best Make-Up and Hairstyling (Adruitha Lee, Robin Mathews)

Ron Woodroof leads a bachelors lifestyle in the late 80s with strippers, cocaine and booze... Until he gets HIV. Then, he becomes a pariah, and is told he only has 30 days to live, but he refuses to give up so easily. The latest drug to fight HIV hasn't yet been approved, but he's eager to get his hands on it, so he ends up stealing it from the hospital, but when the supply run dry, he goes to Mexico. When he gets there, however, he finds a former doctor who's leading the fight against HIV symptoms in his own run down 'clinic' with drugs and remedies which are unavailable and unapproved in America. Ron sees an opportunity, and sets up the Dallas Buyers Club: A club where you pay for a monthly membership to receive as many drugs as you need. It's only when he teams up with transgender woman Rayon that business really begins to pick up...

What in the world happened to Matthew McConaughey's career? Here are the highlights of his mainstream career from 1999-2009: EdTV, U-571, The Wedding Planner, Tiptoes, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Failure to Launch, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. The jokes were rife: He couldn't appear in a film without being contractually obligated to take his shirt off. He was a laughing stock of sorts. Then, all of a sudden, a renaissance began: The Lincoln Lawyer in 2011 gave us a different side of McConaughey, one that could act. Then followed Bernie. Then Killer Joe. Then The Paperboy. Then Mud, Magic Mike, Wolf of Wall Street and now... Dallas Buyers Club. He's made his Hollywood money, now he's taking on smaller passion projects that allow him to flex his acting muscles, and boy is he ever, because Dallas Buyers Club centers on a phenomenal McConaughey performance.

McConaughey is the glue that holds this film together; it's focused on his character and he's in every single scene, acting his heart out, though at times, you wonder if it wasn't actually a performance as an HIV victim in constant agony; given his dramatic weight loss for the role, his pain may well have been real. Regardless, his sacrifice only adds to the majestic performance. It's hard to imagine a film like this, with a plot as weighty as this, working with anyone else trying to carry the Woodroof character. There's two sides to the character, there's the headstrong homophobe from before the illness and the compassionate, ailing, strongwilled fighter who accepts his fate but fights against it, and McConaughey is able to carry both sides extremely well. There's some cross over with the characters, certainly, but it takes two different performances for the two sides of the film as the same character, something which I've seen actors try and fail to do previously, so McConaughey is worthy of acknowledgement for the hard work he puts into this. That's not to say he isn't ably supported by a strong cast.

Indeed, Jared Leto is the second man grabbing headlines from this film and rightfully so, his performance as Rayon, the transgender woman who helps Woodroof establish and run the Dallas Buyers Club is fantastic, acting as a juxtaposition to Woodroof. It's an extreme departure from what Leto's ever had to do before; the closest he ever got to a role like this before, playing someone so emotionally raw, would be Requiem for a Dream, which was a whole 14 years ago at this point. It's also nice to see Jennifer Garner giving a performance with a hint of emotion and realism for the first time in 10 years. In recent years, in films like Juno and The Invention of Lying, she's always been wooden and emotionless, as if she'd lost her edge, but she seems reinvigorated here and delivers a good performance in support of McConaughey. Other than that though, it's hard to pick anybody else out of the cast as a highlight; that's not to say they're bad, they're merely functional in their job. It just seems everybody else is a bystander to the top three cast members, which isn't hard to see why: It's still hard to talk about HIV/AIDS on film.

HIV/AIDS is still a taboo subject in cinema, even with films like Philadelphia, Precious and Rent becoming mainstream films that deal with the issue. It's easy to show the number of sufferers as Dallas Buyers Club, it's easy to show a queue of people which grows throughout the film in order to give more impact to the seriousness of the situation the developed world found itself in with the virus in the 1980s. It's a lot harder to show the individual, unique impact it has on the sufferers' lives. Even showing two main characters suffering from the virus is an advance for mainstream American cinema, especially as their suffering is shown in two very different ways. It's never glorified, this isn't pornographic in any way regarding the virus, but it shows the harsh reality of everyday life with HIV/AIDS from two unique angles. The editing is superb, and the direction is subtle and understated yet powerful and deliberate. Make sense? Probably not. It's good, it fits well with the themes of the story, which is the overriding story to take away from this film.

Ultimately, everything just fits together so nicely here. The film has been technically well made, the script is powerful yet never explicit or exploitative of its subject matter, and the performances on display are extremely well crafted and have the power to shock, awe and sympathise. It's a tough film to watch, as are most films regarding the subject of HIV/AIDS, but it's got a heart in the middle of it, a story of survival against an indeterminate amount of struggle and it's captivating. But the headline here is undoubtedly McConaughey. Where was he hiding performances like this one 10 years ago, even 3 years ago? He's rebuilt his career to a point where he may well be seen as one of the most respected actors in the industry today. It's an incredibly powerful film to watch, and it only develops in your thoughts as time passes. Ron Woodroof is a bastard, but Matthew McConaughey is an excellent actor.

Rating: ****1/2

Dallas Buyers Club was released on 7th February 2014 and is still being shown in cinemas.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Captain Phillips

Academy Award Nominations: 6

  • Best Picture
  • Best Supporting Actor (Barkhad Abdi)
  • Best Adapted Screenplay (Billy Ray)
  • Best Film Editing (Christopher Rouse)
  • Best Sound Editing (Oliver Tarney)
  • Best Sound Mixing (Chris Burdon, Mark Taylor, Mike Prestwood Smith, Chris Munrod)

Captain Richard Phillips is in charge of taking an unarmed container ship from Oman to Mombasa, around the Horn of Africa directly through Somali pirate-infested waters. Low and behold, two skiffs begin making their way toward the ship. They're able to withhold the initial charge, but when they return on the second day, they can't hold them off and the pirates take over the ship. Abduwali Muse and his three friends hold the ship and the crew for ransom, but Phillips is determined to fight back: He has his crew hide in the engine room, stop the ship, and cut the power. As determined as the American crew are, the Somalis are driven by the prospect of millions of dollars in ransom money and are well armed. It can't end well, especially once the US Navy get involved in the rescue mission...

Tom Hanks has, really strangely, become the quiet man of Hollywood. After a few quiet years, he's only recently returned to the limelight in films such as Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Cloud Atlas. He had time to write and direct his directorial debut, Larry Crowne, as well. It just seems as if Hanks has reached the point where, quite frankly, he doesn't need to take any project that comes his way; he's being extremely selective about which projects he takes on board. It was lucky, then, he chose to come on board this film based on its screenplay without a director even attached. Luckily, Paul Greengrass was offered the chance to bring his Bourne trilogy magic to this highly tense drama about a hostage situation. Initially, Tom Hanks and Paul Greengrass seems like an odd combination on the surface, and you'd be right to think so, but don't worry, even with Hanks on board, this is unmistakable Greengrass. I'll leave it to you to decide whether this is a good thing.

Here's the thing that grabbed me most of all about this film: The trailer is maybe the most mis-leading of the year. Here's why: 1. The trailer doesn't give away the fact that half the film doesn't even take place on the massive container ship you see for 90% of the trailer, and 2. The trailer in no way gives away how much involvement the US Navy has in the proceedings. The story of one man facing adversity is what everyone came to see, but as the film progresses, the Navy becomes a larger and larger part of the story to the point where Captain Phillips is almost forgotten by the conclusion, becoming a secondary to the overriding message that "America saves the day again." The focus is most definitely on Captain Phillips and the pirates, but as the movie creeps on, the Navy becomes more and more of a factor. It's a shame, because as soon as they become involved, you know how this is going to end and the film becomes a drag while you wait for how it plays out while the inevitable conclusion finally arrives.

This is, however, not really about that. This is a film that focuses on characters and the relationships that are formed between them. Therefore, it's down to Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi to carry this film, and they're both excellent. Tom Hanks is extremely sympathetic as Captain Phillips, he really carries this film without ever going over the top. At the end, there's certainly scope for Hanks to go OTT but he keeps himself in check and keeps his reactions and performances rooted in reality, which is most certainly an impressive feat. However, it is Barkhad Abdi who steals the show as Abduwali Muse, leader of the band of pirates who take over Phillips' ship and take Phillips hostage for a ransom. He's smart and evil and calm and collected and he's a real joy to see; a proper movie villain who, again, doesn't go OTT. He is the equal opposite to Hanks' Phillips in that they're both strong, confident leaders with wits and intelligence, but they're working on opposite sides of the spectrum. Aside from these two, though, the supporting cast is surprisingly underwhelming, with no-one really given a chance to shine or any real purpose in the film.

It is, then, that the film has an over-reliance on its core relationship between good and evil, and everyone else is mere cannon fodder. But then Paul Greengrass has never been one to develop characters, his films centre on action and fit nicely within his trademark quasi-documentary style. It's guns and explosions stuff that anyone could do, but the guns and explosions are hidden behind a shaky camera. Sure, there's certainly tension in this and all of his other films, but there's nothing spectacular or particularly memorable about Captain Phillips. It's argued that Greengrass' involvement with the Bourne franchise made the producers of the James Bond films rethink their franchise, and yes, you can see where Greengrass' directorial touches have been incorporated into every action film since The Bourne Supremacy, but is it really much different? Guns are still fired, things are still blown up, people still die, and America still rules.

Overall, it's nice to see Paul Greengrass attempt a proper drama instead of an all-out action film for once, but he just can't help himself, and he's turned a tense hostage drama into a head-dizzying action film. Captain Phillips got punched in the gut! CUE FRANTIC CAMERA MOVEMENT! It's the same but different from Greengrass; it's got Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi putting in some good work and it has some brief moments of tension, but it's unspectacular and surprisingly similar to what we've seen before. People love the Bourne films, but I didn't, and the same thing has happened here. Maybe I'm missing something? It's the same! Show me what's new and different and noteworthy and I'll happily write a retraction. Until then, Captain Phillips was good, but it could have been great.

Rating: ***

Saturday, 8 February 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

Academy Award Nominations: 5

  • Best Picture
  • Best Director (Martin Scorsese)
  • Best Adapted Screenplay (Terence Winter)
  • Best Actor (Leonardo DiCaprio)
  • Best Supporting Actor (Jonah Hill)

Jordan Belfort is a young stockbroker with dreams of Wall Street. When his firm fails barely into his first job, he takes a job in a boiler room selling penny stocks which come with a much higher rate of commission. Using the skills he learned on Wall Street, he manages to make more sales than anyone had previously seen selling penny stocks, so much so that he sets up his own business with a few close friends, mainly weed and drug dealers. He gives them a script, a few telephones and a new company name, and soon the money starts rolling in, and with it comes the drugs, the hookers, and the life that Belfort always wanted, but the FBI ar keeping an eye on the 'Wolf of Wall Street'...

Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio have a magnificent working relationship. Their previous films together (Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed and Shutter Island) have garnered mass critical acclaim and awards a-plenty, with The Departed even winning Best Picture in 2007 (and becoming one of my favourite films) so their desire to work together again is unquestioned. Jonah Hill was so desperate to work with Scorsese on this, he took home a paycheck just over a tenth of the size of DiCaprio's. The film was greenlit and financed by an independent studio looking to make a name for itself, allowing Scorsese complete creative control over the content. Scorsese's Boardwalk Empire co-creator Terence Winter had written the script. The film contains a laundry list of cameos and famous faces. The pins were set up perfectly, it seemed like this would be a strike on all counts. Then why does this end up feeling like a gutterball?

In my mind, there is a long list of faults with this film, but here's my chief concern: In a film with a cast list as long as my arm, there is only ONE character in the entire piece who an audience can identify and sympathise with. Every single character apart from Jordan's first wife is deplorable, the worst kind of human being imaginable. Call me a traditionalist, but I like to be able to recognise a story with likeable characters within a film that's going to keep me in a cinema for 3 hours. 3 HOURS. This film is excessively fatty, the entire second hour is completely unnecessary and bears no meaning to the story, other than to show the excesses of Belfort's lifestyle. I understand the argument that the film is overly-excessive in order to mirror the excessiveness of Belfort's lifestyle, but they can make that perfectly clear without giving us a second hour made up entirely of naked women, drugs, partying, boats, cars and money. I realise saying this makes me sound like a prude, and I can't believe I'm writing it as a few short years ago, I'm almost certain I would have loved this film. Alas, here I am, an outspoken defender of Only God Forgives and now an outspoken critic of The Wolf of Wall Street.

Leonardo DiCaprio gives a great performance, as he always does. He always gives 110% and commits to his characters. The problem is he's given a character who is supposed to be sub-human scum, and as much as he commits to this, his character is drowned in a script which negates any kind of performance and forces the focus be pulled away from performance and onto the visuals. The same happens with Jonah Hill, who's even better in this than he was in Moneyball, and I thought he was great in Moneyball. His character is perfectly slimy, and Hill does well with it, but again he's lost in a seas of drugs and excess. The supporting cast is eclectic and all their performances match the action well; Jean Dujardin is incredibly loathsome, Rob Reiner is meant to be the voice of reason but is relegated to being a pointless character with no real arc or development, Margot Robbie looks great but offers no real depth of emotion which is exactly what her character calls for, and even Kyle Chandler, the FBI agent who's meant to be the good guy is a) made out to be the bad guy because he wants to stop a million dollar fraud/drug ring and b) actually comes off as thoroughly unlikeable because of how he acts around Belfort and gloats when he finally gets his man.

What surprised me most above everything else is how technically bad this film is; it's shocking. I was amazed to see that Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese's usual editing collaborator of choice, did indeed work on this film. Her work is usually of the highest standard, and although there are some clever edits which elaborate on the work of the script, some of the editing choices are unpardonable for a film of this calibre. Let's not forget the script as well, wow. Terence Winter has created one of the best dramas on TV in Boardwalk Empire, which does a fantastic job of driving a narrative through drama, tension and character. He clearly attempts to do the same here, but there's no drama to be found at all as everything is character led, as deplorable as they all are. The direction is fine, but there was just no way he was going to be able to reign in the utter chaos that occurs on screen and his usual finesse is lost.

Above all else, I just didn't like this film. At all. It's a film of excess; the length, the script, the characters, the plot. There isn't one redeeming feature in this entire... Feature. All characters except one are deplorable and caricatures of real human beings. The film is far too long and does nothing but promote the virtues of crime, before realising it at the end and giving Belfort a light slap on the wrists, which is probably the most deplorable thing in the film considering you see the actions he takes for the first two hours. Actually, you know what the worst thing is? This is probably scarily accurate. It's sex, drugs and brokering stocks and it's thoroughly, completely disgusting. But what do I know? I'm just an online hack writing a quasi-hatchet job. Everyone else likes it, and a few years ago I probably would have done too. Do what you want.

Rating: *1/2

The Wolf of Wall Street was released on 17th January 2014 and is still being shown in cinemas.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

American Hustle

Academy Award Nominations: 10

·         Best Picture
·         Best Director (David O. Russell)
·         Best Original Screenplay (Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell)
·         Best Actor (Christian Bale)
·         Best Actress (Amy Adams)
·         Best Supporting Actor (Bradley Cooper)
·         Best Supporting Actress (Jennifer Lawrence)
·         Best Editing (Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers, Alan Baumgarten)
·         Best Production Design (Judy Becker, Heather Loeffler)
·         Best Costume Design (Michael Wilkinson)

Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser have just met and fallen madly in love. A few problems: They’re working as con artists with Sydney pretending to be a British aristocrat, and Irving’s married and he refuses to leave his adopted son alone with his wife. When they’re finally caught by FBI agent Richie Di Maso, they’re forced to help Di Maso entrap Mayor Polito of Camden, New Jersey with the help of a fake Sheikh. However, as soon as Di Maso gets wind of a bigger target higher up the food chain, the operation grows despite the concerns of Rosenfeld, Prosser and Di Maso’s boss Stoddard Thorsen. The plan continues to escalate until finally they end up meeting Victor Tellagio, a violent Mafia kingpin. Can Irving and Sydney work their way out of an impossible situation? And can they keep Irving’s wife Rosalyn under control?

Does anyone else remember the days when David O. Russell was a director to be feared, rather than adored? He makes tremendous films, but this is the guy who almost got into a fist fight with George Clooney during the making of Three Kings. This is the guy who famously had an explicit verbal argument with Lily Tomlin during the making of I Huckabees. Well, that happened in 2004. He took a 6 year break, and has since come back with 2 absolutely blinding films. 2010 saw the release of The Fighter, with award winning turns from Melissa Leo and Christian Bale. 2012 saw the release of Silver Linings Playbook, with an award winning turn from Jennifer Lawrence which everyone loved (except me apparently). Now, having developed a new reputation as an “actor’s director”, he’s returned after a year, combining the casts of his previous two films in American Hustle, his supposed magnum opus based on the ABSCAM operation of the 70s and 80s. Let me tell you, it is ALL about the crazy hair…

How this film didn’t get nominated for hair and makeup is beyond me, because this film features every kind of wig you could possibly think of. It’s the 1970s, so it is all about the crazy hair and garish outfits, and they more than deliver on that front. Looks aside, American Hustle is all well and good, I’m just not convinced they knew quite what they wanted to achieve with this film. The tone is all over the place; shifting from slapstick to thriller to rom com to drama to PG to rated X at 100 miles an hour, and when you’re sitting through 2 hours of ever-shifting tone and pace, it just becomes a real labour to watch, even though for the most part it is an enjoyable film. Never has the phrase “jack of all trades, master of fuck all” been more appropriate for a film. I think Russell just got a bit overexcited while he was writing it and assembling his cast, because it seems as if the dialogue and the characters were given the majority of his focus and attention, whilst things like coherent plot and consistency were merely an afterthought.

Being an “actor’s director”, David O. Russell is able to elicit a number of great performances from his actors and actresses here. Christian Bale has performed his now-usual trick of losing or gaining weight for a role, this time adding a ton of weight to play Irving Rosenfeld with a Bronx accent. It’s not Bale’s greatest performance, but he makes his fat, balding, con artist someone to feel sorry for which is an achievement in itself. Amy Adams, for most of her time on screen, speaks in an almost flawless British accent. Other than that, she steals most of the limelight and is better in this than she is in The Fighter, and I thought she was fantastic in that. Bradley Cooper is great as Richie Di Maso, playing an FBI agent hungry for a shot and getting in way over his depth, and he has great chemistry with Louis C.K. who plays his boss. Jennifer Lawrence is… Amazing. Her character isn’t on screen nearly enough. But then, if she was, it might be overkill, because her character is an incredibly strong presence on screen and is the most memorable thing in this film. Well…

Lawrence is the most memorable thing in the film except for the uncredited cameo appearance by Robert De Niro as Victor Tellagio, Mafia crime boss. He appears suddenly near the end of the second act, and steals the show. He’s like De Niro of old; terrifying, enthralling, captivating, electric, sinister… It’s a performance he would have put in for Martin Scorsese thirty years ago, but it’s hidden away in a short 10 minute scene without any mentions of him being there before or after. The problem with De Niro’s cameo is that it’s his best performance in years but it’s hidden in a film which is extremely shallow and self-centred. No one cares for anyone else, there’s no thought of depth, and it’s all about the surface and the non-real. Given that the film is centred on an ever escalating scam, it’s hardly surprising that the entire film is a depth-less affair, but it’s a real shame it is because you can see that there’s a lot of potential in here for American Hustle to be a really spectacular film.

Overall, American Hustle ends up being just OK, it’s not anything spectacular, but it’s not terrible. The characters are great to watch, brought to life by 5-6 great performances from its lead and supporting actors and actresses, and the humour is at time laugh out loud. The drama and tension, however, is patchy, drowned out by the overlapping tones. It’s a real mixed bag, and at times, it’s even hard to comprehend who’s meant to be scamming who. Meanwhile, the conclusion is extremely short, sweet and sudden. After two hours of build-up, the film ends so suddenly that you’re left wondering what the hell happened and where your satisfying conclusion went. The film looks great and is well put together for what it is, but what it is is a shambles. A clusterfuck on a grander scale than we've previously seen from David O. Russell. The performances are worth watching, though.

Rating: ***1/2

American Hustle was released on 1st January 2014 and is still being shown in cinemas.

Friday, 17 January 2014

12 Years a Slave

Academy Award Nominations: 9

  • Best Picture
  • Best Director (Steve McQueen)
  • Best Adapted Screenplay (John Ridley)
  • Best Actor (Chiwetel Ejiofor)
  • Best Supporting Actor (Michael Fassbender)
  • Best Supporting Actress (Lupita Nyong'o)
  • Best Editing (Joe Walker)
  • Best Production Design (Adam Stockhausen, Alice Baker)
  • Best Costume Design (Patricia Norris)

Solomon Northup is a renowned fiddle player, living as a free man with his wife and children. However, after meeting two gentlemen who claim to be interested in hiring him, he awakes from a night of drinking to find he has been tricked, as he is shackled and about to be sold into slavery. He is shipped to New Orleans and given the name Platt while he works for plantation owner William Ford, with whom he gets on with. But he soon falls afoul of Ford's carpenter, and is moved to Edwin Epps's plantation. Epps is known as a slave driver in every sense of the term who believes he is doing God's work in keeping slaves to pick cotton. Northup witnesses the horrors of slavery, especially an uncomfortable relationship between Epps and slave Patsey, as he considers his place amongst the workers: As a wrongly imprisoned man, is he still free, or does he belong amongst the slaves and imprisoned?

Steve McQueen has rapidly established a name for himself in dramatic cinema. I say rapidly, his career has consisted of only 3 feature films since 2008, as well as a Turner Prize in 1999. His debut feature, Hunger, starred Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands, the IRA prisoner who went on hunger strike in an attempt to regain political status. 3 years later, McQueen and Fassbender re-teamed for Shame, a story of a sex addict and his sister as they attempt to find their way in the world. Now, McQueen returns again with his most ambitious and epic project yet: The story of Solomon Northup, a free man wrongfully imprisoned and sold into slavery for 12 years. Films about slavery are a tricky proposition; one must find the balance between the brutal nature of slavery in order to make it a realistic document of a horrific time, whilst not going overboard and exploiting the ordeal of the hundreds of thousands of slaves, making it a spectacle rather than a drama. Mercifully, McQueen doesn't just get it right, he makes something of real cinematic importance.

First of all, let's make things clear: For the majority of the film, the same material from every other film about slavery is covered. The brutal beatings for insolence, the wicked plantation owner, the group of slaves singing as they work. What makes this different is the character of Solomon Northup. As a free man, he is considered an extraordinary negro. Yet when he becomes a slave, he doesn't fit because he's far too educated and he hasn't spent his life in slavery like 90% of his cohorts. Essentially, Solomon Northup is the most relatable face of slavery you will likely ever find in cinema. That's not to say you relate to him, I'm saying he's as close as you'll ever get to relatable, which is still a million miles away from understanding what exactly they went through. That being said, 12 Years a Slave feels like you're watching about as realistic a portrayal of life as a plantation slave as is humanly possible without first hand knowledge. This film never becomes exploitative in any way, it always keeps the viewer engaged albeit uncomfortable. The set pieces and events of Northup's life as a slave are as mesmerizing and astounding as they are horrifying and distressing. This is not an easy watch.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is given the grave task of bringing Northup to life, and does so with great aplomb. There's a lot of emotion in his actions, which shows Northup's internal struggle as he wonders whether he belongs with the slaves he shares a cotton field with. It's a really visceral performance that is unlikely to be matched this year, and has great chemistry with everyone he shares the screen with, and that's a lot of main characters and cameo appearances. He shares screen time with Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael K Williams, Michael Fassbender, and Brad Pitt, and yet manages to outshine them all thanks to the strength of his performance and the depth of character he creates on screen. For all the praise being heaped upon Lupita Nyong'o for her performance as Patsey, I was unconvinced by what I deemed to be an uneven performance. For every scene where she evokes heartbreaking pain and agony, there's a scene where she seems vacant and inappropriately emotionless. Michael Fassbender is terrifically psychotic and frightening as Edwin Epps the plantation owner though, and ends up becoming a dominating presence on screen. McQueen has a way of drawing out phenomenal performances from this man, and this time gives him a character where he can do something fantastically different.

The film is captured in McQueen's usual visual style; it captures the events in a documentary style with steadicam work mixed in with more elaborate set-ups, but the images captured are extremely rich and stylised and feel extremely cinematic rather than realistic, which creates the impression of an 'epic' film in the vein of Ben Hur and Cleopatra. There are two moments in particular which highlight both McQueen's visual style, as well as his aptitude as a director and story teller. At the impromptu funeral of a fellow slave, a song breaks out amongst the slaves, Roll Jordan Roll, a song typically sung by slaves in plantations. Close ups show Northup's face as he struggles with the decision to join in; even after all he's seen, he's unsure whether he belongs within the group of slaves. The struggle of his face is clear, and eventually he relents, begins joining in, his voice becoming more and more powerful as he becomes more asserted in his now assumed role. Later, near the end, there's a scene involving Epps and Patsey, which is filmed on a steadicam. It's a long scene, and there isn't a single edit. The content of the scene was uncomfortable enough, and the longer the take goes on, the more uncomfortable it is to watch. It never becomes overwhelming, but it shows McQueen's determination to show the real brutality of slavery in southern America and we shouldn't shy away from the facts.

Overall, this is a great film with an important message, though what that message is is up to you to decide should you choose to watch. It's brutal viewing, but ultimately rewarding, even though its conclusion is sudden and abrupt. The cinematography and editing are great, and the music becomes more than just background atmosphere as the score becomes to reflect the position of Solomon in the film and becomes its own character. It's a very deliberate film, in that every small aspect has clearly been well thought out and is deliberately on screen or coming through the speakers. It is, ultimately, the acting performances of Ejiofor, Nyong'o and Fassbender which keep you watching and make this film as good as it is. You feel in the hands of other actors, the impact of the film may have been lessened, but the combination of cast and director have created something which I would hope people will recall as 'something special' for years to come.

Rating: *****

12 Years a Slave was released on 10th January 2014 and is still being shown in cinemas.

Thursday, 16 January 2014


Academy Award Nominations: 6

  • Best Picture
  • Best Director (Alexander Payne)
  • Best Original Screenplay (Bob Nelson)
  • Best Actor (Bruce Dern)
  • Best Supporting Actress (June Squibb)
  • Best Cinematography (Phedon Papamichael)

Woody Grant is a millionaire. Or at least that’s what the sweepstakes letter he received in the mail says, and he’s determined to walk the 850 miles from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect his winnings. Unfortunately, it’s a mail scam, and everyone including Woody’s son David knows it. However, Woody is determined, so David decides to humour him and take him on a road trip to Lincoln so Woody can see for himself. However, after an accident halfway through the journey, plans are made for David and Woody to return to Woody’s home town of Hawthorne in Nebraska for a family reunion. It’s there where we meet Woody’s family, Woody’s old friends, and David gets to know his dad a little better than he did, but maybe he’s about to find out too much…

Alexander Payne has carved out a niche for himself, creating a series of reflections on contemporary American life in his films through satirical, understated, lightly funny dramedies. Election reflects on American politics through a high school election, whilst examining what happened to Ferris Bueller when he grew up. About Schmidt reflects on old age and life in general, whilst Sideways reflects on friendships and relationships. After a while away, he came back with The Descendants (which I loved) which reflects on the impact of death and the monotony of life. He returns for this award season with Nebraska, a look at family and monotony in monotone. It’s strange to think that as popular as Payne and his films have become, this feels like he’s taking a step back to his independent roots, and to be honest, it’s a real joy to watch.

Payne has spent a lot of time reflecting on who he’s become as an auteur, focusing his films on relationships, friendships and monotony in an extravagant life. However, with Nebraska, it feels like he’s chosen someone else’s script where he’s able to return to his own roots and look back at where he came from, focusing on an eccentric father and an eclectic family, as well as returning to a home town, which is almost foreign compared to the life they lead at home. The town is different and behaves in a strange way, the family members are different and lead completely different lives run by a different set of rules. This is something I can certainly relate to, so no surprise that I related entirely to this film and loved it much like his other previous works. The awkwardness and the stubbornness that emerges when two different cultures clash under the pretence of a common denominator makes for an awkward yet laugh out loud funny viewing experience, as I believe I can attest to the fact that his portrayal of this kind of culture clash is so accurate it hurts.

The story itself is charming: Old man believes mail scam is real and sets out to claim a non-existent million dollars. Bruce Dern is unbelievably good in this, really. He may be old, but he plays even older and less-able in this film to the point where you feel the performance is rooted in real life, which based in recent media appearances is entirely untrue. You feel for the guy, he’s a loveable idiot character and an adorable pensioner character in rolled into one, it’s impossible not to root for Woody by the end of this one. Also great, June Squibb as Woody’s wife Kate, who is the archetypal matriarch of the family and refuses to stand for any of Woody’s nonsense, constantly belittling him in a way that make you feel as if she’s almost reminiscing for the days when Woody wasn’t as senile as he’s becoming. Also, great here is Stacy Keach as Ed Pegram, Woody’s old business partner who tries extorting money. He’s unlikeable from the moment he hits the screen, and the character he plays only works in his favour, a real old school villain who you don’t often get to see on screen any more.

You know who isn’t good in this? Will Forte as the main supporting actor, playing David, Woody’s son. But you know who’s even worse, amazingly? Bob Odenkirk as Ross, Woody’s other son. Personally, I think they’re horribly mismatched in this film and their presence in the film undermines both the tone and the objectives of the film. This isn’t a super serious drama by any means, it is whimsical and light hearted for the most part, but Will Forte is meant to be playing a straight guy character that doesn’t play for laughs. That goes against everything he’s used to, and kudos to him for attempting to play against type for a change, but it doesn’t work, his performance is wooden and only gets better towards the end. Bob Odenkirk, however, is shockingly bad in this. You’d have thought that his experience in drama as Breaking Bad’s Saul Goodman would have helped him, but he sticks out like a sore thumb in this. The performance is atrocious, just all over the place, extremely inconsistent and distracting whenever he’s on screen, and it breaks my heart to say it.

Overall though, this is a really charming film about small town life and the decisions you make in life, all told in typical Payne manner. The older actors and actresses are who steal the show and carry the film to its conclusion, as well as develop most of the plot points. It seems very deliberate that the younger people are along for the older people’s ride in this film, rather than the usual vice versa, which is a good take on the parent-child road trip and one which works for the kind of tone they are aiming to achieve with this film, which I have to say, they get right throughout. The cinematography is lovely, vividly capturing a barren part of America whilst not stealing focus from the performances, and the dialogue is witty, snappy and realistic. It’s a feel good story with a sentimental side without becoming overly gooey and cliché ridden, which is absolutely OK with me.

Rating: ****

Nebraska was released on 6th December 2013 and is no longer being shown in cinemas.