April Film Picks

While We’re Young (Released 3rd April)

Among the abundance of big blockbuster sequels out this month including both Fast & Furious 7 (3rd April) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (23rd April) comes this indie comedy from writer/director Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha). Baumbach’s seventh feature follows a happily married middle-aged couple, played by Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts, who form a unlikely new friendship with an ultra-trendy twentysomethings couple, Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried. There are relevant deeper themes at play here and critics have reacted warmly to this charming and funny hipster tale. The strong cast, director and story are surely a recipe for success, as long as it doesn’t become too mainstream.

The Water Diviner (Released 3rd April)

The directorial debut of Russell Crowe, who also stars as the lead, tracks an Australian man travelling to Turkey after the infamously brutal Battle of Gallipoli, desperately trying to locate his three missing sons. Crowe succeeds in delivering some beautiful cinematography, especially of the barren and sparse Australian Outback and a strong performance from Crowe seems like a given. Although the film’s tone may seem a little confused, it’s likely to prove a worthwhile investment this month and should be another worthy flag-bearer for the Australian film industry.

John Wick (Released 10th April)

A slick-haired and sharp-suited Keanu Reeves excels in this action-packed and super stylish revenge-thriller. Several genre tropes are conformed to, with ex-hitman John Wick coming out of retirement seeking revenge, and there is an almost innumerable body count of Russian mafia henchmen, but the relentless action has a unique and stylish edge to it. The end result is both polished and pulsating and John Wick is a must for action fans this month. With John Wick 2 in development, we could have a decent franchise on our hands. Welcome back Keanu.

Read my★★★★☆ review here.

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Quick Review: Chappie (2015)

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District 9 director Neill Blomkamp’s third feature is both funny and madly action-packed, but the film’s wayward tone means that it’s a little too offbeat.

Chappie has already drawn comparisons to a number of similar Artificial Intelligence based films, including Ex Machina and I, Robot, but where Blomkamp’s offering distinguishes itself is in the dystopian setting of a gritty, near-future Johannesburg; it is at once beautiful and rife with both depravity and deprivation. Dev Patel is slightly unconvincing as the designer of a new wave of police droids, Deon Wilson, who comes to reprogram one so that it becomes sentient. The result is Chappie, who is able to display genuine emotion, played admirably by Charlto Copley in motion-capture. Chappie is nurtured and corrupted by a group of South African gangsters, played by the rap-rave duo Die Antwoord in an unusual casting move. However, the success of the film’s many action set pieces is undermined by a few too many moments which jar with the underlying action-thriller tone of the film. There are stylistic similarities to Blomkamp’s debut District 9, but the darkly comic tone which backboned this feature is not realised in Chappie. There are good moments, and some big questions surrounding true artificial intelligence are posed, but overall it is a little too muddled. With Blomkamp in line to direct the next Alien sequel, sci-fi fans will be resting a little uneasily after this underwhelming benchmark.

★★★☆☆      IMDb: 7.4      Rotten Tomatoes: 29%

March Film Picks

Appropriate Behaviour (Released 6th March)

This alternative and unique comedy is the debut feature of writer, director and star Desiree Akhavan. Born to Iranian parents, Akhavan taps into her real life experiences to document Shirin’s struggle in pinning down her identity, as she tries to be true to herself while also pleasing her deeply traditional parents. As an unconventional take on both LGTB and ethnicity struggles, Appropriate Behaviour provides a refreshing new angle among the ultra hipster streets of Brooklyn.

Chappie (Released 6th March)

Any film from District 9 director Neill Blomkamp is worth investigating, with his latest, Chappie, delving into the well-trodden world of artificial intelligence. Set in a near future South Africa, a decommissioned police droid is stolen and reprogrammed so that it becomes sentient (think Ex Macina). With Blomkamp at the helm and a strong cast including Hugh Jackman, Dev Patel, Sigourney Weaver and Sharlto Copley as the voice of Chappie, sci-fi fans will be hoping for an improvement on Blomkamp’s last offering, Elysium, especially given his recent appointment as the director of the highly anticipated Alien sequel.

The Gunman (Released 20th March)

Coming from the French director of the first Taken film, this is certainly one for full-throttle shoot ’em up fans. It may feel like we’ve been here several hundred times before, but with Sean Penn, Idris Elba, Ray Winstone and Javier Bardem featuring, this action-packed thriller looks set to deliver on some levels at least. Penn plays a former Special Forces soldier suffering from PTSD, who is forced to flee as he attempts to clear his name. There is plenty of globetrotting, a Taken-style kidnapping and probably a rather high body count; what more could you want?

Quick Review: Selma (2015)

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Director Ava DuVernay and lead David Oyelowo announce themselves as major talents in this gripping and powerful civil rights drama.

Negotiate. Demonstrate. Resist. This is the non-violent mantra of Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) and the civil rights organisation he led, the SCLC, throughout their struggle to gain equal rights for African-Americans. Selma mostly takes place in 1965, one year after a landmark victory against segregation earned King the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. He has already uttered those immortal words ‘I have a dream’ but he is not done yet. This Oscar-nominated biopic charts his determined campaign to secure equal voting rights for African-Americans, by staging a 50 mile protest march starting in Selma, Alabama. Perhaps the highlight is Oyelowo’s mesmerising performance as King; the British actor nails the accent and gives off an air of self-assurance which supplies this powerful film with huge credibility. DuVernay’s  confident direction demonstrates her skill at gripping the audience, keeping the action tense right through to the film’s uplifting final act, while the beautiful cinematography gives further credence. However, despite suggesting that the battle for equality was well and truly won through King’s actions, recent shootings in America and the Oscars snub of both Oyelowo and DuVernay suggest that it is in fact far from over.

★★★★☆      IMDb: 7.7      Rotten Tomatoes: 98%

Selma is out now in UK cinemas. Watch the trailer here

Review: The Interview (2015)

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Controversy is paramount for the Rogen-Franco double act in their puerile, Sony-hack-inspiring mission to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. 

With freedom of speech hot on the agenda following the tragic Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, James Franco and Seth Rogen’s enormously controversial piss-take The Interview finally arrives in UK cinemas. Having originally been cancelled following terrorist threats from Sony-hackers ‘The Guardians of Peace’ (almost certainly based in, or funded by, North Korea) the film was first released online and in a small number of independent cinemas in the US, but now receives a full UK release. This heavily redacted edit certainly achieves what it sets out to do; it’s lewd, crude and utterly ridiculous in its satirising of North Korea and its totalitarian political system headed up by the infantilised Kim Jong-Un. It’s anally-fixated silliness does provide some hilarious moments (‘McConaughey goat-fuck’ comes to mind), as long as you go in knowing exactly what you’re in for. It’s by no means a brilliant or groundbreaking film but if you are able to embrace the Rogen-Franco bromance for a brief moment then you’ll certainly enjoy the comic payoffs along the way. Whether or not it was all one big publicity stunt to rescue a film which may otherwise have been confined to the B-movie category, will be left for the conspiracy theorists to debate. The Interview though is knowing in its style and satire and is certainly one of the best offerings to date from this comedy duo. From Kim’s obsession with Katy Perry’s Firework and all things American to the action-packed final act, there’s still plenty to entertain here.

★★★☆☆     IMDb: 7.0      Rotten Tomatoes: 54% 

The Interview is out in UK cinemas on the 6th February. Watch the trailer here

Review: Inherent Vice (2015)

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Joaquin Phoenix’s magnificent mutton chops take centre stage in this offbeat, spiraling stoner comedy from director Paul Thomas Anderson.

Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (Phoenix) is a waster; a constantly stoned bare-footed private detective with facial hair as sprawling as the film’s narrative, who finds himself wrapped up in a new case following an unannounced visit from his ex old-lady, Shasta (Katherine Waterson). Based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon, the film tracks the doped-up Doc as he traverses the troubled shores of 1970 Los Angeles, bumbling his way through a series of interconnected investigations relating to property magnate Michael Z. Wolfman (Eric Roberts). The confounding, almost rambling narrative is dotted with amusing moments of absurdity, mostly involving Josh Brolin’s charismatic performance as Detective ‘Bigfoot’ and his unlikely buddy relationship with the hippie Doc. Visually, the film is as stylish and polished as Anderson’s most recent feature, The Master, while the foot-tapping soundtrack put together by Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood immerses the viewer even further. With a joint in one hand and a cigar in the other, Doc’s chilled-stoner persona and the wonderful performance by Phoenix are perhaps the main draws of Inherent Vice, in a similar vein to Jeff Bridge’s iconic ‘dude’ in The Big Lebowski. However, for many, especially those unfamiliar with the melancholic world of Paul Thomas Anderson, the film’s plot will be seen as unnecessarily confusing, with a little too much style over substance during the bloated run-time. No doubt, it is a film which would benefit from multiple viewings, but it’s certainly not Anderson’s best work; that may still be to come.

★★★★☆      IMDb: 7.2      Rotten Tomatoes: 72% 

February Film Picks

Inherent Vice (Released 30th January)

Visionary writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will be Blood, The Master) reunites with lead Joaquin Phoenix in his latest offering, a confounding and sprawling stoner comedy set in 1970 Los Angeles. Based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice follows the drug-fuelled private detective Larry “Doc” Sportello (Phoenix) who sets out on an investigation after an unexpected visit from his ex old-lady. With the film’s all-star cast which also includes Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro, Reese Witherspoon and Owen Wilson and its foot-tapping soundtrack put together by Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood, Anderson’s crackerjack caper is certainly this month’s must-see release.

Update: Read my review here

Selma (Released 6th February)

Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated biopic charts Martin Luther King’s (David Oyelowo) landmark campaign to secure equal voting rights in the US, via a marathon march starting from Selma, Alabama in 1965. Oyelowo’s performance in the lead has been widely praised, despite the British actor being controversially snubbed by the Academy for a best actor nomination at this year’s Oscars. DuVernay’s position as a black, female director may have also counted against her in the best director shortlist, but despite these disappointments, Selma grippingly charts this essential historical struggle, announcing both the lead and director as major talents to keep an eye on in the coming years.

Fifty Shades of Grey (Released 13th February)

Based on the erotic novel by E.L. James, Fifty Shades of Grey follows literature student Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) as her life is changed forever after meeting handsome billionaire, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). The hunky Dornan seems perfect for the role of the sadomasochistic Grey, whose fifty shades the title refers to. The book rapidly became a global phenomenon and we should expect nothing less from this capable adaptation by Sam Taylor-Johnson in her directorial debut. Fans of the book will be hoping that the full on raunchiness hasn’t been toned down for cinema-goers, but this may well turn out to be the case if the initial clips are anything to go by. Though, with 2014’s most watched trailer and a pre-released soundtrack, anticipation will be palpable come Valentine’s Day.

Quick Review: Whiplash (2015)

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The road to musical greatness is paved with blood, sweat and a single tear in Damien Chazelle’s enthralling account of an ambitious and single-minded young drummer. 

Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is a determined drummer aspiring to be one of the greats, who is spotted and groomed for an elite jazz band run by the ferocious conductor Terrence Fletcher (J.K Simmons). Simmons is mesmerising in this role, nailing Fletcher as a tyrannical perfectionist, a control freak with no time for pansies lacking in self-belief. With bulging eyes, Fletcher is in full-on drill sergeant mode as he crushes any weak links with put-downs straight from the Gunnery Sgt. Hartman (Full Metal Jacket) school of insults. The master-pupil relationship which develops between the two is fascinating, dangling precariously between father-son and an almost homoerotic sense of admiration. The ultimate lesson for Andrew is that to achieve true musical greatness his mentor must be savagely cruel in his motivation. The biggest sacrifices being are therefore required, both physically and socially. The film conveys this in a beautifully brutal manner, but is also filled with blackly funny, almost absurd moments, underscored by the psycho teacher Fletcher. An outside bet, but Whiplash is neither dragging or rushing and certainly seems to be on tempo for awards season, having secured 5 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.

★★★★★     IMDb: 8.7      Rotten Tomatoes: 95%

Quick Review: American Sniper (2015)

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A heavily bearded and bulked-up Bradley Cooper stars in this gripping and Oscar nominated true-story account of the deadliest sniper in US military history.

As both actor and director, Clint Eastwood (Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima) has been no stranger to war films and those centred on macho men-of-action. In this tense biopic, which at times resembles a first-person shooter, Eastwood charts the life of Navy Seal Chris Kyle on his way to becoming an American legend by clocking up 160 kills over four tours and 1000 days of action in Iraq. With its focus on the male psyche, this ultra-patriotic salute to Kyle as a hero of the ‘best country in the world’ is pitched somewhere between Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker and her most recent offering Zero Dark Thirty. However, despite the film’s success in engaging the viewer during the tightly directed action scenes, you can’t help but feel that a deeper exploration of the film’s shocking final revelation would have been far more worthwhile. Overall, American Sniper is both engaging and gripping, but lacks the critical edge required to cut through the ‘Hoo-rah‘s and ‘Get some‘s to explore the humans behind the assault rifles. As a result, it’s not quite Oscar-worthy.

★★★★☆      IMDb: 7.7      Rotten Tomatoes: 73% 

Quick Review: John Wick (2015)

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Action-packed doesn’t quite cover it, as a rejuvenated Keanu Reeves blasts his way through bad guys in this super stylish revenge-thriller.

If John Wick teaches us one thing it’s this: don’t mess with a man’s dog, especially if it was a final gift from his recently deceased wife, and if that man is John Wick (Keanu Reeves), a ex-hit man known to his peers as the bogeyman. Unfortunately for one young Russian upstart (Alfie Allen) and his pseudo-mafia pals, this life lesson is learnt the hard way. There is nothing new in this well-worn revenge formula, but where John Wick sets itself apart from the rest is in its sheer stylishness. Every action scene has been intricately planned and as such the film is as polished as the slick-haired and sharp-suited John Wick himself. As endless Russian bad guys are blown away, the relentless action is choreographed in such an elegant and creative way that at no point does the violence seem gratuitous. In this respect, it bears a resemblance to the graceful action in Gareth Evans’ The Raid 2, and that’s no bad comparison.

 ★★★★☆      IMDb: 7.2      Rotten Tomatoes: 83% 

John Wick is out in UK Cinemas on April 10th. Watch the trailer here.