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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%

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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% 

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.

Quick Review: Birdman (2015)

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Michael Keaton and Edward Norton excel in Alejandro G. Inarritu’s audaciously subversive showbiz satire.

Keaton plays Riggan Thompson, a washed-up superhero actor who attempts to reignite his acting career by staging a new Broadway play. As we follow the build-up to the show’s opening night, Inarritu’s camera weaves its way through corridors and along New York streets in what appears to be one continuous long-take throughout the film. With the use of seamless digital editing and inventive between-scene transitions, Birdman appears utterly natural; almost as if we are following these idiosyncratic characters in real-time. Along with Keaton, the supporting cast including Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts and Zach Galifianakis are also utterly absorbing. When combined with the mesmerising power of the camera’s movement and Antonio Sanchez’s wonderfully erratic drum score, the effect is truly engrossing. Having already picked up a best film Golden Globe this month, Birdman and its lead must be considered strong favourites when The Oscars come around later this year.

★★★★★     IMDb: 8.5      Rotten Tomatoes: 92%

Quick Review: Enemy (2015)

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Prisoners director Denis Villeneuve again teams up with lead Jake Gyllenhaal in this borderline experimental take on the doppelgänger thriller. 

With its bleached colour palette and atonal soundtrack Enemy proves to be one of the director’s best films to date and one of this month’s more unconventional offerings; a deeply unnerving and sinister vision of a nightmarish scenario. After watching a late night film, mild mannered history teacher Adam seeks out the small time actor who seems to be his exact, and equally bearded, look-alike. Gyllenhaal shines in this double role, underpinning the slow burning yet thoroughly engrossing puzzler which unfolds. There are some inexplicable images, sudden cuts to black and a clever manipulation of perspective, which all add to the unsettling atmosphere. Unfamiliar and confusing it may be, but it’s beautifully shot and should have you thinking long after the film’s shocking final scene has past.

★★★★☆      IMDb: 6.8      Rotten Tomatoes: 73% 

Latest Review: Interstellar (2014)

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Christopher Nolan’s gargantuan sci-fi epic is certainly his most visually wondrous and aspirational offering to date, but given the intergalactic subject matter it could have been so much more.

The world is running out of food. Adaptation is no longer an option. The unheeded messages of concerned environmentalists still ringing in the ears. Surely the only option left then is to explore the darkest depths of space in search of a new habitable planet? But how to do this with current technology? Easy. Use a wormhole to shorten an interstellar journey (between stars) by folding both space and time, then locate a suitable planet on which to start all over again.

That, in a hugely simplified nutshell, is the plot of Interstellar. With this scale of story, Nolan is able to flex his directorial muscles, producing a film that is epic in magnitude, time, space and above all ambition. A slowly building first third gives way to a visually enthralling second act which follows Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), Amelia (Anne Hathaway) and their team on their voyage into the wormhole. There are echoes of 2001: A Space Odyssey as empty space and sparkling stars flicker by; extreme close-ups of grimacing, helmeted faces with reflecting and shimmering lights seemingly a direct homage to Dave Bowman’s own hypnotic voyage. The slowly rotating and distant Endurance spacecraft also harks back to Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking work, in particular the spinning hibernation chamber.  Nolan is a great admirer of Kubrick’s opus, but Interstellar never really reaches the same level of beauty or transcendence. Granted, there are still visual delights abound and there are a number of genuinely awe-inspiring moments. However, whether these are able to match the innovative images from 2001 or even Alfonso Cuaron’s equally pioneering Gravity, is debatable.

Herein lies one of the key problems for Nolan’s blockbuster. Interstellar doesn’t quite achieve the gripping realism of Gravity and yet neither does it push the boundaries of reality as 2001 so magnificently did. Having said this, there is still much to savour from Nolan’s science-fiction epic. Matt Damon’s unnerving performance as Dr. Mann is a hidden gem and the ship’s sarcastic marine robot, TARS, proves to be one of the most charismatic members of the all-star cast. Some of the imagery conjured up in the final third of the film is also truly stunning, which adds to the unexpectedly moving, if a little hollow, denouement.

Interstellar doesn’t quite live up to the hype then, and it’s certainly not Nolan’s most complete film. There are flashes of brilliance, moments of staggering beauty, but there are also moments which don’t quite work. Hollywood will be hoping that Interstellar can save it from a disastrous year at the box office, which it most likely will do given how much more expansive and aspirational it is versus Hollywood’s other features this year. Despite this, one can’t help but feel that so much more could have been made of the stunning visuals which Nolan envisages. As it is, Interstellar sits rather uneasily alongside fellow space marvels Gravity and 2001.

★★★☆☆     IMDb: 8.9      Rotten Tomatoes: 72%