Hello everyone. Welcome to week two. This week it’s a late and final visit to Middle Earth, Clint Eastwood’s latest stab at Oscar glory, Reese Witherspoon pops out for a walk, Disney’s version of a Sondheim musical, our reaction to those BAFTA nominations, artistic plagiarism with Tim Burton, plus much, much more…
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Dir, Peter Jackson, 2014) 2/5*
Pointless and embarrassingly self-indulgent. Peter Jackson could really have done all of The Hobbit justice in just the one movie, and certainly even at its most laborious, an extra twenty or so minutes on the end of The Desolation of Smaug would have rendered this effort entirely superfluous. Existing solely then, it would seem, for fans of World of Warcraft and cgi nerds across the globe, The Battle of the Five Armies is an example of what ‘blockbusting for hard cash’ has become. Greedy and loud, this (hopefully, but hell, who knows) last trip to Middle Earth doesn’t even belong in the same franchise as those glorious moments captured in The Lord of the Rings, which in a strange moment of irony, spawned the possibility that something quite as unforgivable and sub-standard as this should even exist. Further highlighting the great things lacking in this franchise, the early departure of the only character with any kind of magnetism meant you could have safely popped out for two hours and then returned with ten minutes remaining and actually have missed nothing of real note. By halfway through the film, I had stopped reading the orc subtitles as I had stopped caring about any of the characters enough to bother and was no less informed on events, which really says something, or nothing. You choose. Freeman does make a decent Bilbo, but is on screen too little to really be appreciated and the rest of the cast have character arcs so diminished as to be practically invisible compared to those experienced in the first three films. Given the budget and talent at their disposal, this is very disappointing and yet, somehow entirely expected.
American Sniper (Dir, Clint Eastwood, 2014) 3.5/5*
Yep, it’s that time of the year again and the Oscar hopefuls are starting to finally come out of the closet. With some serious contenders already showing their hands, it’s now time for Clint and Bradley to do their thing. Immediately, you want to pigeon-hole this as Academy catnip, featuring as it does a recent former performance darling and a perennial returner who refuses to just sit down and die quietly in a corner somewhere. Where Eastwood gets his energy from is beyond everyone, but it’s a
good thing for everyone that he still loves his work. Thankfully entrenched in enough harsh reality to not ever draw attention away from the vagaries of war, Eastwood directs with one sharp eye fixed on the tragedy and another on the performances, predominantly of Cooper and to a lesser extent, an admirable turn from Sienna Miller. As a comment on patriotism, it is morally questionable and begs the viewer to argue the case that military legends are made and not born, with enough backstory of our hero’s past to make you wonder not only if notoriety is accidental in an environment where enthusiasm for honour has possibly become confused, but also whether this heroism is, for the individual at least, altogether healthy. Always watchable and littered with scenes that will keep you on the edge of your seat, this is as much an enlightening character study as it is a military memoir. Eastwod continues to impress with his output, although his goals seem increasingly clear. I imagine he may come close this year, but may just fall at the final hurdle.
Into The Woods (Dir, Rob Marshall, 2014) 3/5*
Maybe not the fairy tale you’re looking for? Well, you’ll probably know this by the end of the first couple of minutes. If you’re like me, you probably weren’t expecting the singing, having paid as much as no lip-service even to the trailer. Yet, here we are, a musical eh? Boasting as formidable if not always remarkable cast, Rob Marshall’s take on the Sondheim musical of some of literature’s most fondly regarded fairy tales is firstly quite unique and imaginative, not least down to the method by which the stories are tied together. If you’re not familiar with the stage-play (like me), you might at first be taken aback somewhat, though once you know what you’ve maybe unwittingly stepped into, the experience becomes much more enjoyable for the most part. Starring James Corden, Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, plus a plethora of others in support like Johnny Depp, Lucy Punch, Chris Pine and Tracey Ullman, we are truly spoilt in the acting department. And this is a good job too, as the production demands strong performances from all. Mostly, these are provided, even if the film comes off as a little too camp and occasionally, a tad precocious, not to mention being a good half an hour too long. Far from being a member of the target audience, however, it may not be for me to judge, given that you will probably get an entirely different response from others. Character arcs are hard to appreciate as there are so many stories going on here at once, even if they gelled well by the conclusion. However, if you are a Sondheim fan or even just a lover of fairy tales in general, the tone and pace is great as well as the beautiful cinematography. A satisfying project overall, though not actually outstanding, Streep’s performance is the most enticing and the films’ real highlight and she anchors the story admirably.
Big Eyes (Dir, Tim Burton, 2014) 3.5/5*
The story of Margaret Ulbrich (Amy Adams), who created paintings of children with large, sad eyes and her initial separation from her first husband, her move with her daughter to San Francisco and her marriage to second husband Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) culminating with Keane’s adoption (or theft via coercion, if you will) of Margaret’s work as his own. As a realtor, ‘sunday painter’ Walter’s true talent was one of marketing and his entrepreneurial flair plus his need for recognition made this plagiarism of sorts almost inevitable. Tim Burton’s dramatization here is touching and subtle with both Adams and Waltz giving fine performances (Adams was announced only this morning as being nominated for a BAFTA for her work here) which are completely convincing. Burton, often known for works of a more bizarre bent reigns in his own direction and there is only the occasional dalliance with fantasy which we should be grateful for, managing to keep his head mostly in reality, which may have been a concern for some beforehand. Overall, an entertaining project throughout with admirable performances and a keen eye for detail. Altogether, a worthy addition to Burton’s CV.
On something of an aside, the BAFTA nominations have been announced this week;
BAFTA 2015 – Nominations & Thoughts
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything
Thoughts? – For me, of the films BAFTA have chosen to honour with nominations, Birdman has to be my personal favourite of the bunch and the one I would hope to win on that basis. Boyhood is the critics darling for most this year and I would expect Linklater’s film to come away with the prize.
Outstanding British Film
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything
Under The Skin
Thoughts? – Under The Skin is head and shoulders the best film of the ones nominated in my opinion, though I haven’t seen Paddington, Pride or ’71. I don’t imagine I will be watching Paddington before the awards are given out, but I will certainly be seeing Pride and ’71 before the awards ceremony, so any changes to my choice may come later. I expect The Theory of Everything to win, however, as it will fail to pick up the Best Film award in favour of the superior Birdman.
Benedict Cumberbatch – The Imitation Game
Ralph Fiennes – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Jake Gyllenhaal – Nightcrawler
Michael Keaton – Birdman
Eddie Redmayne – The Theory of Everything
Thoughts? – A fine collection of performances here, all told, with my own personal favourite of this list being Jake Gyllenhaal for Nightcrawler. I feel my second choice on the list, however, will scoop the prize, that being Eddie Redmayne for The Theory of Everything.
Amy Adams – Big Eyes
Felicity Jones – The Theory of Everything
Julianne Moore – Still Alice
Rosamund Pike – Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon – Wild
Thoughts? – Not seen Still Alice, so my favourite is Rosamund Pike for Gone Girl. Also, I think BAFTA will back me up here, though she should get pushed hard by Reese Witherspoon in Wild.
Wes Anderson – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Damian Chazelle – Whiplash
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu – Birdman
Richard Linklater – Boyhood
James Marsh – The Theory of Everything
Thoughts? – This is a very close call and as Denis Villeneuve is not nominated, I am genuinely torn between Inarritu for Birdman and Damian Chazelle for Whiplash. If I’m forced to come off the fence, I think Chazelle might just nick it as my personal favourite on the list. As for BAFTA, I think they will honour Linklater with Best Director as well as Best Film.
And now, Cinema Sins! – Guardians of the Galaxy!!
Inherent Vice (Dir, Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014) 3.5/5*
The greatest accolade I can think of here is that he appears to be, at some points in Inherent Vice at least, channeling the Quentin Tarantino of the early-mid nineties. But overly complicated, elegant, elaborate exposition coupled with an auteur’s lack of respect for his audience makes Inherent Vice a sometimes tiresome trial and Anderson could never, unlike the aforementioned Tarantino, be accused of being ‘user-friendly’. There are those that would suggest that spoon-feeding your audience is naive and patronising, but to purposely befuddle them is just as much of a sin, so finding a middle ground for one so clearly talented with both camera and pen makes demands of his audience unlike many others of his peers. Either that is a good or a bad thing, normally depending on how much it’s cost you to have that opinion to begin with. Not the least disposable and just as accessible if truth be known, but if you can concentrate hard enough, and you have the patience, Inherent Vice will be a rewarding experience, but you have to really want it.
The Gambler (Dir, Rupert Wyatt, 2014) 4/5*
Probably the most surprising of this weeks’ screenings is the story of Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg), English Literature professor and, in his other life, an apparently helpless high-stakes gambler. Rupert Wyatt’s direction is darkly lit and enveloped in smoke and mirrors both literally and metaphorically speaking. This remake of the 1974 film that starred James Caan is suitably updated for a modern audience, mostly in the form of a crisp, crackling script full of relish and buoyant bravado, though there is really nothing here visually that ties the film to a place or time, save for the technology employed and the decor of some of the lesser involved scenes. Putting this reviewer in mind of the self-destructive character of Ben Sanderson (played by Nicholas Cage) as both of these characters have lost (or never had) everything they hold dear. Here, Bennett is looking for perfection and unable to see the grey for the black or the white, and Wahlberg does a great job of conveying that ambivalence to anything but the extraordinary in his own existence, choosing his own end over the normal hand the life has dealt him. This makes him a very difficult character to admire and even more so, a risky person to lend money to, given the threats upon it non-return are met with little more than a careless shrug. Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed the performances of both Wahlberg and a great turn from John Goodman, thanks not least to the fantastic, engaging and charged script written by William Monahan.
Coherence (Dir, James Ward Byrkit, 2013) 3/5*
James Ward Bykrit’s first directorial feature (he also writes the screenplay here) is, for some, something of an ironic conundrum. The irony lies in the title as unless you’re up to speed on your quantum theory, you’re not likely to get much sense out of most of this. Independent as the likes of Shane Carruth’s Primer, the question about whether the writer/director is relying on bewilderment in order to get away with imparting a tale that make no apparent sense, dressing up the plot and the narrative in the emperors new clothes is for some, a little telling. It’s hard to convict a murderer you’re unable to catch, after all, even if you know who it is. There is method in the apparent madness as much as there is science in the strange here, however, and as such, the film should be applauded for having a go at making sense of what may rightly be described by some (or even most) as ridiculous. Whether it deserves anything more than an episode on The Twilight Zone is really up to the viewer as there will be some that take much more from this than others. Acting-wise, the cast are suitably up to scratch and there are no real weak links in the list of players and the character arcs are defined well enough to retain the interest of a viewer that may rely on the human aspect rather than the scientific one. In this respect, this fares better than Carruth’s Primer, whose character development was secondary to the vision. Shot almost entirely inside the house during a dinner party on the night that a comet passes overhead, creating all manner of odd occurrences, the camera work is sometimes a little disconcerting and the shot choices at times are aggravating. Overall, however, this micro-budget if should be admired for its existence and persistence, if nothing else. Worth a watch, but don’t expect answers or understanding.
Night At The Museum: Secret of the Tomb (Dir, Shawn Levy, 2014) 3/5*
Well, it could have gone horribly wrong. There were many out there in the internet wonderland that stated, quite fiercely in some quarters, that this should not even exist. But we can ultimately be glad that it does. It may not bring too much new to the franchise, which now must not surely and gratefully end, but to end on a high note is worthy indeed of the amount of entertainment and fun that the series has provided. Shawn Levy’s third installment takes the franchise’s most notable characters to London, along with the infamous tablet, to introduce us to a few new characters and as an extra delightful excuse, the opportunity to wander a different collection of relics brought to life, including Dan Stevens’ Sir Lancelot, Rebel Wilson’s Tilly and Ben Kingsley, as Ahkmenrah’s father, Merenkahre. In London to find out the reason that the tablet is fading along with the exhibits, it’s down to Ben Stiller and friends to get to the solution, and with suitable haste. Once the scene is set, then it’s pretty much normal service resumed as the assembled heroes are forced to deal with various obstacles in their path to save the day. Featuring probably the last performance from Robin Williams you are likely to see, you will know that the goodbyes are coming and you will want to prepare yourself for it as the double-meaning of this farewell will most likely be upsetting for some. With some great performances and a good deal of heart, this is very enjoyable to sit through as all of the franchise has been, if never actually becoming outstanding at any point. With a couple of cameos thrown in to surprise the audience, you’ll have a good time, much like my children and I.
Big Hero 6 (Dir, Don Hall, Chris Williams, 2014) 4/5*
Family, friends, action and drama. No catchy Frozen songs, but crikey, this seems like another home run from Disney, dipping their toe into their Marvel Comics purchase to come up with something very special indeed. I laughed and cried at times, but at no point was I ever bored. Not once did I look at my watch. The story of Hiro and his nerd friends adventures is admittedly garish, loud and colorful, but this has heart and emotional heft in spades. If you were wondering if Disney could match their success of that wintery princess movie with anything else, or as quickly, you can be rest assured they have. With endearing main characters and a story simple enough for the demographic at which it is aimed to understand, this may be the best animated offering this year, and we’re only in January. Something will have to shine brightly indeed if it is to cast a shadow on what Lasseter et all have achieved here. With the loss of his geeky, inventive brother at the foremost of his mind, Hiro plans to catch the villain responsible for his death with the help of his friends and he uses his brothers own invention to help, in the form of Baymax, the robotic healthcare assistant. He’s fat, he’s round and he bounces on the ground, but this robot has so much character imbibed into him that he steals practically every scene, not to mention the hearts of the audience. Set in the future, in the brilliantly unique city of Sanfransokyo, the mish-mash design of east meets west is seamless and the animation highights the attention to detail in a city that almost becomes a character in itself. Overall, a brilliant, vibrant delight that will thrill the senses and tug at the heartstrings in equal measure.
Rickhaw Passenger (Raksha Sawari) (Dir, Aneel Ahmad, 2014) (Short, 15 Mins)
The invite for the first of local boy Aneel Ahmad’s new shorts to be released this year, Raksha Sawari, arrived in my inbox this week and it was pretty much the first thing I wanted to do when I got to sit down for quarter of an hour and was suitably rewarded for my time spent in the company of his creation, a simple tale, based in Pakistan, of a hotel call-girl and a Rickhaw driver. Always refreshingly crisp, Ahmad’s eye for a frame is what you will continually be drawn to, yet here he has delivered not only an inventively shot piece, but here he compliments this with an exquisite score and a dramatic appreciation of colour and lighting dynamics, not to mention a story you will want to see more of, which is the films’ only real gripe. Immediately intriguing and maybe surprisingly accessible to a host of audiences is one you shouldn’t take your eye off. As an auteur, Ahmad continues to impress with his work and this may be his most accomplished project so far.
Wild (Dir, Jean-Marc Vallée, 2014) 3.5/5*
The story of Cheryl Strayed (and she really did) and her adventures on foot across 1100 miles of American wilderness, taking in deserts, snowstorms, the occasional fox and a host of characters, some more dangerous than others, that littered her massive hike. After her divorce and the death of her mother, Cheryl becomes understandably lost and her soul yearns for some closure as well as purpose. She takes it upon herself to walk the entire Pacific Crest Trail, documenting her travels into what would become a book that Nick Hornby would then adapt into this screenplay starring Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl. I’m sure there are fans of Witherspoon out there that would happilly watch her wander about in the middle of nowhere for two hours, but the rest of us need a little more to go on, which is ably covered by the regular snippets of backstory that start from Cheryl as a young girl up until the point at which her mother (Laura Dern) passes away and her divorce becomes final. This enabled the viewer to really get under the skin of Cheryl and understand her need for both solace, and just as important, discovery. The cliche of finding oneself is a well-worn one, but this is as true as it ever was here and Witherspoon’s portrayal of a determined woman doing something insanely stupid is well realised. As her journey and the trials that beset it go on, you can almost see her healing and as an advert for a bloody long walk, this is as good as any you will see. Just don’t forget to bring suitably fitting boots. A great performance from Witherspoon, some beautiful cinematography and a heartfelt, often sombre, but brutally honest script make this anything but a trial to sit warm and comfortably through. I expect this to do well in awards season and really want to believe that Witherspoon suffered as much as her character. Not because I’m sadistic, but purely because I really hope any awards she scoops, she knows that she truly deserves it, because it seems like she does.
[REC]4: Apocalypse (Dir, Jaume Balagueró, 2014) 2/5*
Just when you thought the third film in the franchise had killed off all hope of this series continuing, the team responsible for both the first and second films (which were very good, if we’re honest) come along and make another one. How much of a hurry you will be in to see it, however, will depend on your feelings about the last film which put such a spanner in the works, it would understandable if no-one bothered. Dispensing with the found-footage approach that made the original films so successful (not to mention spawning an English language remake in the form of Quarantine), we are thrust back into those apartments like that wedding never happened. We’re not there for long, however, as unfortunate roving journalist Angela Vidal is whisked off to a ruddy big ship for ‘testing’. At this point you start to have Resident Evil flashbacks as Angela wakes, tied to a gurney, with only a flimsy smock for company as modesty. Alice, I’m looking at you. What follows is a ‘zombies on a boat’ horror yarn that frankly is beneath the original creation in every way. This is often pedestrian and moreover, genre predictable, which is probably its biggest crime, given the roots of innovation and tension from which it spawned. If you’ve seen 1 and 2, you’re probably going to want to avoid this.
Cake (Dir, Daniel Barnz, 2014) 3.5/5*
Just as many people have been waiting for ‘the’ Jennifer Aniston performance as have been hoping it never came. The two polarised halves of gushing admiration and unfettered loathing seem never the twain to meet. There is a healthy third option where most of the uncluttered, honest opinion lies, and that is somewhere between the two ends mentioned above. As a bonafide American sweetheart, Aniston has aged, some would say, like a fine wine, in front of everyone. If you’re a resident of the middle camp, y’know, the ones with the alleged common-sense that shows up with parity and is neither emboldended or repelled by what you regard as a comedy actress trying to be serious, then there are some very interesting things to take from Cake. A very strong lead performance, for starters, but if you’ve watched Aniston in anything other than Friends, you will already know that she is much more than Rachel Green a couple of decades on down the line. As such, a strong performance should not only not be a surprise, but more of a given. If you expect it, then this becomes, somewhat ironically, a little less impressive overall. The loudest advocates, it seems, are the ones that are most surprised. This doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things, as you are left wondering then, why are you so shocked? Cake is a multi-layered yet still accessible story, divulged in its own good time that despite its intricacies, is quite simple at its core. Shot with care and leaving no quarter for vanity, the cynic could possibly argue that this is the film Aniston wanted to make to get her an award, replete as it is with everything awards voters appreciate. Whether this effort is a little too obvious remains to be seen, but lest we forget one thing, Aniston is ten times the actress most people think she is and if I have to choose a side, I’m unashamedly one of the gushing admirers, but then I always have been.
Film of the Week – The Gambler, Big Hero 6
Next Week? – Well, more films (duh!) and those Oscar nominations!!