Quick Review: Birdman (2015)

Birdman-3

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%

Advertisements

Quick Review: Enemy (2015)

Enemy-4

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% 

January Film Picks

Birdman (Released 1st January)

In the run-up to awards season, the one film on every critic’s lips is Birdman. In a superb (and Oscar-tipped) performance, Michael Keaton plays a washed-up actor who gained fame playing a 1990’s superhero, now struggling to reclaim his past glory. In an attempt to reignite his faltering career and show his artistic substance, he decides to stage a Broadway play. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s (Babel, Amores Perros) showbiz satire is hotly tipped for a number of high profile awards, and should definitely be the first film you see in 2015.

The Theory of Everything (Released 1st January)

A similarly impressive turn from lead actor Eddie Redmayne anchors this biographical tale of the illness that drastically changed the life of Stephen Hawking. The film charts Hawking’s determination in the face of his crippling diagnosis, as well as the relationship between him and his wife, Jane (Felicity Jones). Redmayne’s uncompromising performance means that he too is one of the front runners in the best actor category for the upcoming awards season.

 American Sniper (Released 16th January)

At the age of 84 Clint Eastwood (Gran Torino, Unforgiven) is still going strong as a director. Following on from Jersey Boys last year, his latest film follows the true story of the deadliest American sniper in history, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper).  Kyle secured his place as a US military legend but after finally coming home from four tours of duty, he finds it difficult to reintegrate and leave the war behind. Critics have praised American Sniper for its tense and compelling portrayal of Kyle’s life which grips throughout with its almost hypnotic silences. Certainly one to look out for this month.

December Film Picks

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Released 12th December)

Despite reservations over significant additions to Tolkien’s original story, the third and final installment of The Hobbit is likely to be the biggest and possibly the best yet. Expect plenty of action throughout the bloated 150 minute run-time as we bid a fond farewell to all the usual suspects of the Tolkien world. Here’s hoping Peter Jackson can serve us with a fitting end to the Middle-earth universe which he has crafted so carefully over the last decade or so.

Exodus: Gods and Kings (Released 26th December)

Looking to move on from last year’s dud The Counsellor, Ridley Scott returns with another historical epic, this time with Christian Bale at the helm. Bale plays Moses, the defiant leader who rises up against the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses, leading the slaves out of Egypt with the help of a cycle of deadly plagues. However, the film has itself been plagued by recent controversy, over the lack of non-white actors in any of the leading roles, which have gone to Ben Kingsley, Aaron Paul, Sigourney Weaver and Ben Mendelsohn. Expect big set pieces, big speeches and a whole load of CGI.

Unbroken (Released 26th December)

Having garnered critical acclaim for his roles in both Starred Up and ’71 earlier this year, Jack O’Connell returns to the big screen as Louis Zamperini , an Olympic runner who was taken prisoner by Japanese forces during WWII. Angelina Jolie sits in the Director’s chair for her second feature film (the first being somewhat of a flop), but with Joel and Ethan Coen collaborating with her to write the script, Unbroken could be one to keep an eye on this month.

Latest Review: Interstellar (2014)

interstellar_a    

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% 

November Film Picks

Interstellar (Released 7th November)

All-star cast? Check. British director (Christopher Nolan) with credits including The Dark Knight, Inception and Memento? Check. Planet on the brink of destruction due to humanity’s lack of environmental awareness and consumerist values? Check. This tantalising formula leads to an all-or-nothing mission to a nearby galaxy in search of a new habitable planet, led by two beautiful astronauts (Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway). With Inception-style mind-bending  images, Nolan’s first feature in two years  could follow in the wake of Gravity as yet another hugely successful science-fiction epic.  However, this slice of galactic pie should have a little more substance behind the visual delights, acting as a not-so-subtle comment on man’s uneasy relationship with the natural environment.

The Imitation Game (Released 14th November)

In one of the month’s more sombre offerings, Benedict Cumberbatch, a.k.a Sherlock, returns to the big screen  to portray the groundbreaking English mathematician Alan Turing. This true story, set during the height of World War II, follows Turing’s pivotal role is cracking the unbreakable German Enigma code, which was used to send coded messages of the highest importance. This was a crucial and often understated factor in the allied defeat of Hitler, without which victory may not have been guaranteed. Cumberbatch’s powerful turn may present him with his best chance yet of earning an Oscar nod, while the supporting cast of Keira Knightley,  Charles Dance (Game of Thrones) and Mark Strong also looks highly promising.

What We Do in the Shadows (Released 21st November)

This horror comedy mockumentary, written and directed by Flight of the Conchords’ Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clement, is without doubt the most bizarre offering this month. But don’t be put off by the premise – an in-depth documentary following the lives of three out of touch Kiwi vampires – as this could prove to be one of the year’s best comedies. It’s already topped the New Zealand box office and premiered at this year’s Cannes film festival, so the Conchords crew must be doing something right. Expect plenty of surreal visual comedy and a refreshing new take on the mockumentary genre.

October Film Picks

Gone Girl (Released 2nd October)

It’s the film that’s had everyone talking since the first teaser poster was revealed several months back and film-goers have been giddy with excitement since David Fincher was announced as director. Ben Affleck plays everyman Nick Dunne, who becomes the focus of an intense media circus and main suspect following his wife’s (Rosamund Pike) sudden and mysterious disappearance. This suspenseful and gripping thriller from the masterful director of Fight Club and Se7en is a ruthless deconstruction of a marriage in turmoil and is surely the must see film of October.

’71 (Released 10th October)

This directorial debut from French-born director Yann Demange plunges young British soldier Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) into the lion’s den of unrest in Belfast, at the height of disorder in 1971. Disorientated and alone, Hook must fight for survival after he is accidentally abandoned following a deadly riot. O’Connell is an actor on the rise, fresh from his critically-acclaimed performance in Starred Up earlier this year and this thriller looks likely to further underline his credentials. The ‘Cook from Skins’ tag is a distant memory; O’Connell has matured and is ready to make it on the big screen.

Nightcrawler (Released 31st October)

In his latest outing, an emaciated and ashen Jake Gyllenhaal plays a desperate and ambitious young man, Lou Bloom, who is looking to break into the merciless world of journalism. After pursuing the more traditional routes, a chance encounter draws Lou into the putrid world of freelance crime journalism in the darkest depths of Los Angeles. Gyllenhaal is at his creepy and erratic best in this sinister thriller, which also serves as a wickedly satirical attack on the whole world of news reporting and journalism in general.

A Most Wanted Man (2014)

a-most-wanted-man-indie

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s penultimate on screen character shines bright in this tense but slow-burning espionage thriller.

Over a decade has passed since the 9/11 bombings, but the city of Hamburg still remains on edge. For it was in this North German port city that those bombers lived and plotted, unknown to the authorities. Determined never to let the same mistakes happen again, veteran operator Gunter  Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) now leads a close-knit and secretive anti-terror unit in the city.

With the arrival of an oppressed Chechen Muslim, Issa Karpov, the attentions of both German and American security agencies are quickly attracted. Bachmann’s team opt to play a slow game of cat and mouse with the illegal immigrant but find their efforts increasingly threatened by the CIA’s Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright) and their own overly-cautious domestic agencies. The pressure steadily mounts as Bachmann tries to cement his authority over the ambitious Sullivan and maintain command of the possible terror situation.

Based on the novel by John le Carré, Anton Corbijn’s direction results in an often tense and gripping account of how such events may play out in real-life. However, this modern reworking of le Carré’s original thriller is occasionally too sombre. It’s not until almost an hour in that the audience is truly engaged as the pace increases beyond that of the slowly building introduction. However, it is the brilliant performance given by Philip Seymour Hoffman that separates A Most Wanted Man from similarly-based films and TV dramas such as the Bourne Trilogy or 24. Bachmann is Jack Bauer’s distant half-brother, with a little more baggage and a few extra pounds to lose. He has a history, a botched operation in Beirut forcing him to retreat to the less glamorous surroundings of Hamburg, with tail lodged between his legs. Not to mention his self-destructive nature – he is constantly smoking the ever-present cigarette in his hand, sipping his bourbon or both. Bachmann has depth and we believe in him as a dogged and weather-beaten investigator, which is testament to Hoffman’s pedigree as a superb character actor.

Save for the performance of the lead then, A Most Wanted Man is rarely brilliant, but is always engaging. House of Cards’ Robin Wright, Willem Dafoe and Rachel McAdams play their part too, despite the somewhat unbelievable American-German accent from the latter. Only the dramatic final scene shows how enthralling this material could have been, with Hoffman at his compelling and gut-wrenching best. All the more saddening that this was his last fully completed film, before his untimely and tragic death.

★★★☆☆     IMDb: 7.4      Rotten Tomatoes:91% 

September Film Picks

A Most Wanted Man (Released September 12th)

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s penultimate film takes place in Hamburg, which remains on high alert after the 9/11 bombers were discovered to have lived and plotted there in 2001. When a newly arrived Chechen Muslim is identified as a possible terror suspect, he quickly attracts the attention of the CIA and a secretive anti-terror unit headed by Gunter Bachmann (Seymour Hoffman). Based on the novel by John le Carré, a master of the spy genre, A Most Wanted Man is on the surface a gripping espionage thriller, but also a fitting farewell to a hugely loved and talented character actor, who was taken from us before his time.

The Riot Club (Released 19th September)

This adaptation of Laura Wade’s play, Posh, is inspired by the infamous Bullingdon Club, an exclusive and ostentatious society at Oxford University. Similarly, in The Riot Club, the Oxford elite, entitled rich kids with wealthy and connected parents, do whatever they want wherever they want; mostly in the form of destructive and drug-fuelled club dinners. This film takes a swipe at the elite members of such clubs and at the establishment as a whole, with past members of the Bullingdon Club including David Cameron, Boris Johnson and George Osborne. With a strong cast of Tom Hollander, Max Irons, Douglas Booth and Natalie Dormer (Game of Thrones), this film is sure to cause a stir come mid-September.

The Equalizer (Released 26th September)

Yet another Denzel Washington action flick? Well, yes, but coming from the director of Training Day, Olympus Has Fallen and Shooter, Antoine Fuqua, this may still be one to pay attention to. As we have heard several times before, the protagonist (Denzel Washington) will be coming out of retirement to fight the forces of evil (Russian gangsters in this case). And of course he’s a highly decorated former black ops commando, but would we expect any less? Throw in full-throttle action, a sizeable body count, tenuous political undertones and the wicked charm of Washington and we have The Equalizer. Simple stuff, but audiences keep coming back for it.

Stanley Kubrick: In Focus

A true visionary and genius of his field, we take a look back at a selection of Stanley Kubrick’s most influential works, in the second In Focus feature.

Paths of Glory (1957) 

Paths-of-Glory-007

Kubrick’s anti-war masterpiece still remains one of the greatest war films ever made and arguably the director’s best. Kirk Douglas stars as Colonel Dax, the commander of a group of French soldiers on the front line in WWI. When he refuses orders to send his troops on a suicidal attack against a German stronghold, his superior officers decide to make example of his men. What follows is an intense and heartbreakingly frank study of the futility and horror of war, which has a lasting impact on the viewer. The moving final scene encapsulates this and is seen by many as one of the most powerful in cinema history.

Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

peter-sellers-as-dr-strangelove

This wacky and satirical black comedy played on the cold war anxieties of the era, with an insane general (Sterling Hayden) setting in motion the path to nuclear holocaust and the destruction of the human race as we know it. A war room full of politicians and generals frantically try to stop this scenario unfolding, with the help of Dr. Strangelove, their wheelchair-bound, former-Nazi, scientific advisor. With the Cuban Missile Crisis still fresh in the mind, this bizarrely brilliant film tapped into the nuclear scare at this time and features a tour de force performance from Peter Sellers, who plays three major roles, including Dr. Strangelove himself.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

2001-spacesuit1

The defining work of Kubrick’s illustrious career, 2001: A Space Odyssey, has come to be hailed as one of the greatest films of all time, and possibly the single most important science-fiction film in history. After the discovery of an unusual artificial object beneath the Lunar surface, a small crew sets off on a long voyage into space, accompanied by the super intelligent  H.A.L. 9000 computer. Not only is Kubrick’s man vs machine/dawn of man epic a profoundly engaging and mystical one, but it also pushed the boundaries of cinema at the time with its groundbreaking special effects. The soundtrack, featuring both Richard Strauss and Johann Strauss, is another a defining feature, creating an utterly unique and unrivaled atmosphere for viewers. Both mind-boggling and beautiful, this is Kubrick’s magnum opus.

That opening:

The Shining (1980)

the shining

An all-time classic and one of the scariest films ever made, The Shining demonstrated Kubrick’s deep skill for manipulating his audiences. The spine-chilling strings soundtrack, ominous tracking shots and a stand-out performance from Jack Nicholson combine to produce a nerve-jangling horror which steadily builds in terror. Nicholson plays Jack Torrence, who heads to the Overlook Hotel with his family as the winter caretakers. Torrence is sent mad by the isolation and spiritual presences of the hotel, as he becomes increasingly unstable and dangerous. With some of Kubrick’s most memorable and haunting images, The Shining truly is masterful film-making.

Full Metal Jacket (1987)

600full-full-metal-jacket-screenshot

Kubrick’s second war feature this time focused on Vietnam, firstly on the dehumanisation of marines at basic training and then in the thick of the fighting following The Tet Offensive of 1968. As with most films based on the Vietnam war, Full Metal Jacket preys upon the general discontent surrounding the war and its profound impacts on the soldiers who fought. Kubrick uses the first, and perhaps better half, of the film to show the brutal training of the marines, with some unforgettable exchanges between Lee Ermey’s Gunnery Sgt. Hartman and his raw recruits. The latter half of the film shows off Kubrick’s skilled camerawork and his eye for detail, especially in the grisly final action sequence, whilst also providing Private Joker’s (Matthew Modine) philosophical musings on the ‘duality of man’. At once thought-provoking and brutal, Kubrick’s penultimate film is certainly a memorable one.