Hey everyone, I’m changing to a weekly round-up for the time being, given constraints on my time presently and commitments to other projects. For the time being, it means shorter, bite-sized reviews, but hopefully more of them. Obviously you won’t be able to look at the posts to find the review you’re after, so I’d recommend using the search box at the top, up there on the right, to find what you’re after. Anyway, to a hectic first week…
Foxcatcher (Dir, Bennett Miller, 2014) 3.5/5*
Just sneaking into the first films of the new year for me was Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, the bewildering but sadly true story of John Du Pont, and his attempt to become a world class wrestling coach of the United States Olympic team. Already a multi-millionaire and heir to the Du Pont family estate, Steve Carell’s performance has been hailed in most quarters as outstanding, along with strong support from Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum as wrestling champion brothers, Mark and David Schultz. Perhaps not the classic many wanted it to be, the film is captivating and the performances are deftly handled. It does drag its feet from time to time with Miller liberally employing some classic static framing of beautiful shot choices, which may infuriate those that appreciate performance and story over design and artistic flair. If you can get over the prothestics, then you will soon see why this is being touted as an Oscar contender, ticking alot of the boxes that the Academy like to see in their nominees. Far from film of the year, however.
The Interview (Dir, Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen, 2014) 2.5/5*
Take away all of the kerfuffle and what are you left with? This is the question that we should all be asking and not just how much money The Interview has made for Sony, despite its initial reluctance to release the film at all. Still, with American patriotism restored and the rest of Hollywood breathing a huge sigh of relief, we can now actually take stock of what it was that caused all of the fuss in the first place. Did the North Koreans really not want us to tell the world that their illustrious leader did, in fact, have a butthole? It could be argued that without the furore surrounding the film, this may have just disappeared without too much fuss anyway, so albeit its limited release in theatres, the online community went batshit bonkers, falling over themselves for the right to pay fifteen bucks to see it.
The cynics amongst you may even suggest that this was nothing more than a elegant, albeit risky, marketing plot by the makers, in order to make more money than the films release could reasonably have expected. Regardless, the film itself (if you’ve not seen it already) gives rise the popular idiom that you shouldn’t, perhaps, believe the hype. It does have a few chuckles up its sleeve and it is palpably racist, though I’m sure Rogen and Franco would love you to just shrug your shoulders and say, ‘well that’s okay, it’s only North Korea’. So, if you can stomach to one-sided patriotism and the mostly unfunny, uncouth attempts at humour, this will probably entertain, but don’t expect anything more than average and certainly nothing like the satisfaction you may rightfully expect from a film that has caused such controversy.
Die Another Day (Dir, Lee Tamahori, 2002) 3/5*
Bond 20 was notable for being Pierce Brosnan’s last adventure as Ian Fleming’s globe-trotting super-spy, before the arrival of Daniel Craig. It also introduced most of us to the stunningly beautiful Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) for the first time as Gustav Graves’ sidekick Miranda Frost. “I’m sorry James, last night was wonderful, but it really is death for breakfast” – probably the best line of the whole film, which says quite something as the script is nothing if not inventive, witty and as we were likely to see for probably the last time, quite misogynistic. Die Another Day arguably brought this particular era to an end for Bond, with Brosnan doing little more than playing up to the likes of Connery and Moore before him, almost lampooning the image that had worked so well until, that is, political correctness stuck its not inconsiderable foot in the door of creativity and wagged its finger at the Broccoli’s. No more harmless, innocent playfulness. I mean, try and smack a womans’ bottom you don’t know these days and see where it gets you. It may have been an overdue approach to society in general, but the argument about whether this was really the end of Bond as the creator imagined is a valid one. Much like the film above, North Korea takes a bit of a battering in the image stakes here too, with Bond released back to polite society after being double-crossed and then attempting to get revenge on the person responsible.
The Dark Knight (Dir, Christopher Nolan, 2008) 4.5/5*
Completing the festive movie choices this year was Christopher Nolan’s second film in his Batman trilogy, starring Christian Bale and the late, great Heath Ledger. Nolan has an enviable talent to bring unfathomable amounts of cool and kudos to blockbusters from beginnings that despite being far from humble, still benefited from his magic touch. Arguably the best of the three films in the series, Bruce Wayne takes on The Joker in this rangy, edge-of-the-seat thriller which is as grand as anything we had seen by the time of its release. As someone that usually shies away from superhero movies if he possibly can, even I cannot deny the genius at work here with the only criticism that it may just be too long and could possibly have finished twenty minutes earlier for the full effect of the projects’ many facets to be appreciated. An undeniably enjoyable project from start to finish and for superhero devotees, completely unmissable.
Birdman (Dir, Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2014) 5/5*
Talking of Batman, well here’s Michael Keaton! Alejandro González Iñárritu (Biutiful, Babel) gathers a fantastic cast for his screenplay about a washed up actor that tries to get a Broadway show underway in order to re-experience his past glories. Already nominated for no less than seven Golden Globe awards, Keaton is supported by the likes of Edward Norton, Emma Stone and Andrea Riseborough, amongst others. The script leaps off the page and the acting is exemplary and although only in January, you are unlikely to witness a better collaborative cast performance this year. In your face like a dog with a bone, it is very easy to see why Birdman has garnered such positive reviews. It is unlike much of what you have seen before and will be likely to come across in the near future. As performance art goes, that still manages to retain a complete accessibility for anyone who chooses to view it, this is the very best example in some time.
Exodus: Gods And Kings (Dir, Ridley Scott, 2014) 3/5*
At times, we are reminded just what a good film Gladiator was and just what an excellent performance Russell Crowe provided as Maximus, father to a murdered son etc etc when sitting through two and a half hours of Christian Bale trying to match him as Moses in Ridley Scott’s latest epic tale. After Noah this year being something of an eyebrow-raising headscratcher, many were looking for something more traditional, even if events were just as bewildering. And to an extent, that is what we got, but Scott may be accused of being a little too pedestrian, with much of the 150 minute running time lacking cohesion and often uncomfortably making leaps that the audience may have preferred to see more rounded and finished. What clearly wanted to be a biblical epic displayed shortcomings that undermined its all too lofty aspirations and the performances from the main cast didn’t really do justice to the content, a weighty and difficult story about the wrath of God, here represented in the form of a small boy that failed to convince those watching. In all, a valiant attempt from Scott to show us once more his abilities as visionary director, but Exodus only really displays what Scott is no longer doing, rather than what he is actually capable of.
Life Itself (Dir, Steve James, 2014) 3/5*
A film that doesn’t really require critique from someone so unworthy, really. The story of Roger Ebert’s life, movie critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and his battle with cancer is heart-breaking, tragic and yet inspiring and uplifting, offering genuine hope for everyone and embracing the imperfections of a man we all loved dearly, albeit from afar. This two-hour documentary invites some of his friends and peers to tell us a little bit more about Ebert than we probably already knew, with some footage of the man in his final year. This is frank, honest, bold and sometimes uncomfortable viewing, but nonetheless valid and full of value and honesty. Recommended if you’re a lover of movies as the insights here are very special from the likes of Scorsese et al. A very touching tribute to a man that was less than perfect, but regarded by many as the foremost cinema critic of this or any other generation.
Two Days, One Night (Dir, Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne, 2014) 3.5/5*
Subtle and almost minimalist in presentation, the Dardenne’s direction of their own story about Sandra, a young Belgian mother fighting to get her job back in the face of what seems like impossibly domestic odds, will depending on your tastes, either enrapture you entirely or bore you to tears. Starring the always eminently watchable Marion Cotillard, the supremely simple story, told in what sometimes feels like brain freeze, lives or dies on the lead performance, which is effective, engaging and impressive, which is largely the reason for the films’ positive critical response. So little happens of any note, in fact, it is almost possible to say that the whole film could have been ad-libbed and scripted on the back of cigarette packet. Such is the power of the performances and the simplicity of the idea. It raises several questions on the subjects of loyalty, family and friendship, albeit these areas are not delved as deeply as you might expect, given a lack of anything else to grapple with. Accomplished, thoughtful, raw, real film-making with the acting chops to back it up. Sandra’s professional predicament may not fly too well in the UK, given our employment laws, so this might seem a little incredulous to some, but nonetheless, an admirable performance from Cotillard makes all of the questions somewhat moot.
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them (Dir, Ned Benson, 2014) 3.5/5*
Vanity product? Well, maybe, depending on your point of view. It is argued that this third version of the same story is superfluous and that if you have seen the apparently polarised points of view of the first two goes at telling the tale, then maybe this is just unnecessary. If you haven’t seen either of the other two films from 2013 that precede this offering, then you’re as well saving yourself a couple of hours and just just accepting what Benson offers you here. It is just the same tale with the same footage, just chopped and mushed and edited about with bits taken away to keep the running time down but saving the general gist of the first two films, slapped together. If you’re a real hardened cinephile, you might want to check out these other two films (‘Her’ and ‘Him’). Less of a sequel and more of a ‘best of’, Them is the cinematic equivalent of a cut-and-shut. Whether you think the story is better in its longer version is something you can feel free to discover in your own time, as you clearly have more of it than the rest of us. Bittersweet and tragic, the performances are great, particularly from Chastain. A love story with more than its fair share of soul, highlighting eloquently the differences between men and women, which is admittedly amplified in ‘Him’ and ‘Her’ more clearly. Nonetheless, worthy of your time if you like a well-delivered story of both love and tragedy.
The One I Love (Dir, Charlie McDowell, 2014) 4/5*
I love most of what Mark Duplass chooses to do both in front of and behind the camera and this is no exception. His choices for those projects he gets behind is clearly out of a love of the film-makers art and, thankfully, originality and an eclectic nose for intrigue. Here he plays Ethan, one half of a married couple that go away for the weekend at the suggestion of their marriage guidance counsellor (Ted Danson) in order to rekindle the fire in their relationship, with some altogether surprising results that you won’t see coming unless you’ve read a review of it beforehand. Sharing the lead with Duplass is Elisabeth Moss as his wife, Sophie. The character studies are excellent, as you might expect. The story itself is admirably gathered but ultimately flawed as whether intentional or not, audience closure here is minimal to non-existent. This has caused many differing opinions on the world wide web about the meaning and conclusion to the film, leading many to ignore the talents both of those writing and the performances which made it so compelling to watch and become passionate about to argue over with other viewers. The most satisfying surprise in some time, very much in the vein of Safety Not Guaranteed. It maybe lacks the bite of my favourite film of 2012, but nonetheless, this is a worthy addition to the CVs of all involved. Definitely worth a viewing (and possibly more than one).
Obvious Child (Dir, Gillian Robespierre, 2014) 1.5/5*
Stereotypical moonlighting female stand-up comedian who works in a bookstore by-day. Check. Jewish. Check. Full of angst. Check. Gay male best friend. Check. You see where I’m going with this? Okay, so get her pregnant and then tell the story about why she plans to have an abortion with little or no consideration for either the future of the child she is carrying, her potential regret for her actions and the possible side-effects on the father of said child. Selfish characters that are mostly repellent throughout and a completely obvious misfire with regard to what is actually funny. Practically devoid of any kind of humour, in fact, that I understand. Whilst it does boast some decent performances (that I also hated, but admired nonetheless, due to looking at this from an entertainment perspective rather than a moral one), it fails to engage its audience and also lacks the only promise that it can potentially make; being life-affirming in the face of a complete lack of endearment. A dodgy premise, unlikeable characters and tepid scripting are the stumbling blocks, not to mention the films apparent loftiness with regard to its own opinions about what it assumes its audience should believe, and lectures them accordingly. It made me more and more annoyed the longer it went on. Thankfully at just a smidge under ninety minutes, it could have been much worse. Jenny Slate may well become a star, but it will be in spite of this and not because of it.
Whiplash (Dir, Damien Chazelle, 2014) 5/5*
If I’m really, truly honest, there was only a couple of films that really got the hairs up on the back of my neck at point of trailer in the past few months. Whiplash was one of them. For me, it was one of the most anticipated movies of my new cinematic year, and frankly, I could not wait to get my eyeballs on it and ears around it. Despite not being that appreciative of Miles Teller’s previous work, I do really enjoy J K Simmons in practically anything that he does, as he is truly an under-represented acting powerhouse. Here, he gets the opportunity to show off, and by golly, doesn’t he do just that. Teller also absolutely shines in easily his best acting performance thus far. Urgent, sweaty and angry, this is almost ‘Fame’ but with spitting vipers conducting the orchestra. Fiercely and unapologetically cinematic and boasting a fabulous script, delivered most notably by Simmons with such relish you’d think he was being paid in blowjobs per word. Impossible to tear yourself away from, even for a minute, Whiplash is a fantastic example of up-to-the-minute, seat-of-your-pants direction with so much style it has bags of it going spare. Brilliant, unforgettable and seriously cool.
What We Do In The Shadows (Dir, Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi, 2014) 2.5/5*
From the makers of Flight Of The Conchords, this comedy-horror-mockumentary is extended from the original version by Clement and Waititi (who also star) made in 2012. It features the lives of (initially) four vampires that all live together in a house in Wellington, New Zealand and just what life means to a vampire living in the modern world in far from salubrious conditions.
Irreverent and decidedly odd, if you’re aware of the Conchords, you’ll already be aware of the type of comedy you’re letting yourself in for and as many will be left cold by it as will laugh their way through the eighty-six minutes it takes to tell the tale, which is predominatly quite ordinary and everyday, which with a suitable sense of irony, seems to be kind of the joke. This joke does go on, however, and the characters, whilst unique and occasionally very well written, do become tiresome quite quickly. Yes, the joke that vampires have problems too is a fine idea in essence replete with tons of cliches to take advantage of, but after half an hour, the story does start to wander aimlessly. A nice idea, but this really belongs in a sketch, as for me personally, I don’t feel it translates well enough to a feature length presentation.
Miss Meadows (Dir, Karen Leigh Hopkins, 2014) 2.5/5*
Literally starting with a bang, Miss Meadows is undeniably dark, with Katie Holmes both on executive producer and star duties. Playing the part of the titular, perky school-teacher come formidable and sociopathic vigilante, the flowery dresses and ribbons in the hair delightfully conceal a much murkier persona beneath the fluff, candyfloss and verbose, grammatical accuracy. A much more impressive character study than you might at first think, Miss Meadows is let down somewhat by the pacing and to a lesser extent, a sometimes tedious choice of scripting which makes the project feel laborious at times. Perhaps not quite as satisfying as we would hope it would be, given the subject matter and opportunities for playful, violent wantonness. Nevertheless, it’s fun at times and Katie Holmes does provide good value and a suitable unpredictable flair for the more nervous viewer to be thrilled by. Those wanting or expecting a crescendo by the denouement will go away feeling a little hungry, however.
FILM OF THE WEEK – Whiplash, Birdman