Still Alice (2014)
A great film with a stunning central performance
Alice Howland has a brilliant career. She's witty, happily married and the proud mother to three teenaged children. Then she begins to forget the odd word. She occasionally loses her sense of direction. Alice is concerned but she's barely fifty - how bad can it be? A visit to a consultant delivers the shocking news - she has Early-onset Alzheimer's Disease. Her life, and the lives of her friends and family, are turned upside down. But Alice refuses to be defined by her disease. Her memory may be fading but she her resolution stays strong.
Hollywood has a pretty unfortunate track record in handling medical conditions like Alzheimer's. Cinematic good intentions become hollow,over-sentimental tearjerkers. Fortunately, Still Alice avoids this trap. It spends its time creating carefully-drawn characters that you can believe in. Each step of Alice's mental deterioration is sensitively handled, whilst the devastation the disease wreaks on the family is heartbreakingly portrayed.
There's an understandable reaction to a film like this - why watch it? There won't be a magical cure appearing in the third act to save the day. A happy ending is not on the cards. So why see Still Alice?
The first and foremost reason is Julianne Moore. Moore has cleaned up during the recent awards season, winning virtually all the trophies she was nominated for. She capped this off with a Best Actress Oscar win. And rightly so. Her performance brilliantly conveys Alice's frustration at having to deal with the disease, the dementia that is slowly destroying her memory and her ability to communicate. It's often snidely remarked that portraying an affliction can fast-track you to Oscar success. Moore's restrained yet powerful performance is fully deserving of the accolades showered upon it.
Another reason to see this film is Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland's direction of their own screenplay, based on Lisa Genova's novel. They approach the material sensitively and with great care.
At the core of the film is Alice's resolve to not lie down and be a victim. She knows that the quality of her life is slowly being eaten away by Alzheimer's but she refuses to give up. In a memorable scene, Alice decides to speak at an Alzheimer's Association meeting. As a linguistics professor, this would have been a walk in the park - now it's an uphill struggle. Armed only with several sheets of paper, a highlighter pen and her steadfast determination, she battles on.
There are other, less challenging movies around but I strongly recommend you see Still Alice. It's not an easy watch but that's evidence of its power and its integrity. Ultimately, Still Alice is that increasingly rare artefact - an intelligent, thought-provoking film about real life issues, with characters you genuinely care about.
Shaffer Conservatory Of Music is not only the best music school in New York...but it's the best in America.
Student Miles Teller - newly arrived - not only wants to succeed but wants to become one of the all-time great jazz drummers. He gets his opportunity when he's personally auditioned by teacher J K Simmons and invited to join the school's flagship jazz orchestra. Getting in was hard - staying in the orchestra proves to be almost impossible. Simmons is a ruthless taskmaster, throwing insults and chairs if anyone can't achieve - overachieve - his exacting standards. Keep up or get out. You want fame? Well, fame costs - and here is where Teller starts paying not only in sweat but in tears, blood....and his belief in himself.
Despite a supporting cast, there are really only two characters in this film - Teller's eager-to- please student and J K Simmons' brutally unsympathetic professor. It's the back-and-forth between these two personalities that gives WHIPLASH its energy, its snap, its tension. Miles Teller excels in his role, his character having to endure euphoric heights and soul- destroying lows - often in the same scene. Teller is also an accomplished drummer in his own right and so gives his part the musical credibility it needs.
However - with due respect to Teller - this is Simmons' film. He dominates every scene as the sadistic Fletcher, viciously tearing into his students with cutting, imaginative insults. Yet although he does monstrous things, Fletcher is no monster. Scriptwriter Damien Chazelle - who also directs - takes care to ensure Fletcher is not your run-of-the-mill, one dimensional hard bastard. There are many different shades to the character - light as well as dark - and Simmons blends them into a convincing, believable character. You may hate the guy but he's no cartoon. Instead, feel sorry for Robert Duvall, Ethan Hawke, Edward Norton and Mark Ruffalo. There is no way on earth that the Best Supporting Actor Oscar is going anywhere else other than J K Simmons' shelf next month.
It's a surprise to note that accomplished as it is, this is only the second film from Chazelle. It's a remarkably disciplined piece of work - tight as a drum - with no unnecessary subplots to distract our focus on the two leading characters. There's the kind of creative spark running through WHIPLASH that you find in the best of Scorcese's films. Imaginative camera-work. Razor-sharp editing. Smart, salty dialogue. There's a bold confidence to WHIPLASH that never lets up and keeps you hooked.
As well as script, acting and direction, a film like WHIPLASH stands or falls on the quality of its soundtrack; fortunately, the choice of jazz classics and Justin Hurwitz's score are both exemplary. There's a danger some will be put off by the "j" word. Don't be. Yes, jazz runs through the film - in many ways, its the film's third character - but it's great jazz. It's sure as hell not the anonymous muzak that masquerades as jazz in bars and lifts around the country. This is the real deal. Fired up, red in tooth and claw and hungry for your attention.
A terrific start to the movie year.
Heart Of Darkness, Film At Eleven
Meet Lou Bloom. Lou is in dogged pursuit of the American Dream. He knows what he wants in life, he knows what he has to do to get it and he has the determination to succeed. Surely a shining example to thirty-somethings everywhere.
Unfortunately, Lou is also a sociopath and Scary As Proverbial.
Lou's the central character in NIGHTCRAWLER, a brilliant, tonally pitch black exploration of How To Succeed In Business Without Really Caring. Bloom runs a small independent news team, cruising late night Los Angeles whilst trawling his police radio scanner. To win in this game, you have to be the first camera on a crime scene. Get the footage - as bloody as possible. "If it bleeds, it leads." notes one of his competitors and he's not wrong. The local TV companies will pay handsomely for grade-A footage. And Bloom will do whatever's necessary to get the exclusive and the sale.
Jake Gyllenhaal has turned in solid acting work for years but this is something else - a "sit up and take notice" situation. Trust me, this is a performance that demands your - and Oscar's - attention. Gyllenhaal is mesmerising as Lou Bloom, whether it be inducting wary new employee Riz Ahmed or relentlessly coming on to tough newsroom boss Rene Russo. In lesser hands, Bloom could easily have been a joke - a stereotype psycho, cranked up to 11. Not here. Gyllenhaal brings the crazy when necessary but delivers it with laser focus and burning intensity. You don't laugh at Lou Bloom. You daren't.
Writer Dan Gilroy doubles up as first-time director on this film and makes an auspicious debut. He paints Los Angeles with neon colours on a black nighttime canvas - a nod to the imagery of THIEF and DRIVE. Two set-pieces stand out - firstly, a tense sequence when Bloom manages to beat even the cops to a multiple homicide. He hurtles around the victims, shooting as much footage as he can before the police black-and-whites arrive at the murder scene. There's also a good old-fashioned car chase in the third act, a refreshing change after the recent CGI-enhanced stunts of the FAST & THE FURIOUS movies.
NIGHTCRAWLER's uncompromisingly dark and cynical heart may be too much for voters come Oscar time. No matter - this will surely end up as one of 2014's best movies.
Size IS important!
To paraphrase Douglas Adams: INTERSTELLAR is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think INCEPTION's a big film, but that's just peanuts to INTERSTELLAR...
Director and co-writer Christopher Nolan has taken the super-size option with his latest epic. As planet Earth withers on the vine, mankind needs to find somewhere else to survive - whether in this galaxy or the next. A team, led by Matthew McConaughey, heads off into space and a wormhole which may take them to a planet suitable enough to sustain human life...and our race.
Vast in scope, stuffed to bursting with ideas, INTERSTELLAR has spectacle in abundance. Although even watching it in IMAX, you get this weird feeling that you're being shortchanged. That the massive screen is somehow cramping the film's style, that the near three hour runtime is restricting Nolan's vision. INTERSTELLAR is the proverbial quart in a pint pot, a movie overflowing with purpose, ambition and scale.
All of which is to be naturally applauded. In an era of lowest-denominator comedies and cookie-cutter sequels, ambitious, original cinema is a rare commodity these days. When a film like INTERSTELLAR comes along, it fully deserves our acknowledgement and our cheers; it reminds us of how powerful and richly rewarding the cinematic experience can be.
Not that we should completely turn off our critical faculties. A closer look at Nolan's epic reveals several plot points left unforgivably fuzzy. Scientific explanations - crucial to the audience's understanding of key parts of the story - have been clumsily shoved into the dialogue. An extended sequence on a water-covered planet - whilst undeniably exciting and spectacular - is completely redundant. And don't get me started on that ending, which essentially makes most of what has gone before completely pointless.
Yet in the scale of things, these are merely nitpicks. INTERSTELLAR is not 2001: A Space Odyssey - what films are? - but it is still a brave, intelligent, thought-provoking addition to the cinema of science fiction.
Most importantly of all, INTERSTELLAR endorses us - the human race. It states that as a species, we deserve our place in the cosmos, that we have the determination to survive - no matter what the odds. A positive message to be welcomed in these nihilistic times.
Olympus Has Fallen (2013)
Not bad but no DIE HARD
Washington DC. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is under siege from heavily-armed North Korean terrorists. President Aaron Eckhart is held prisoner 120 foot below the Oval Office in his fortified bunker. And America's only hope of rescuing him prowls in the shadows of the West Wing - rogue ex-Secret Service agent, Gerard Butler...
Yes, it's Die Hard in the White House. Or that's what action thriller Olympus Has Fallen aspires to be. Oh, it really wants to be Die Hard. One small drawback, however - it doesn't have a tenth of the style, wit or intelligence that film possesses. Not to mention that there are plot holes in the Olympus script big enough to fly Air Force One through. And whilst Gerard Butler is a decent enough actor and believable in his (many) fight scenes, he's no Bruce Willis.
But it's OK. Olympus holds its own alongside other Die Hard wannabes that are still a fun watch: Under Siege, Sudden Death and - er - Die Hard 2. Olympus also boasts an impressive supporting cast of Oscar winners and nominees - such as Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Robert Forster - who between them manage to make the ham-fisted dialogue work.
Olympus Has Fallen is a decent enough popcorn movie - arguably not worth buying a cinema ticket for but certainly worth catching on DVD. It's also that rare thing these days - a red in tooth-and-claw action thriller. Olympus is no heavily diluted Good Day To Die Hard nonsense. It wears its '15' certificate as a badge of pride, with bloody on screen violence, a sky high body count and the 'F' word used in extremis. The initial attack on the White House - with terrorists strafing the Washington DC streets from their customised Hercules plane - has real impact, particularly in this post-9/11 world. True, there's some horribly shoddy VFX in this sequence but the action is efficiently directed by Antoine Fuqua and compellingly brutal.
Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Intelligent, gripping drama
Less than two years after being terminated with extreme prejudice, Osama Bin Laden returns. Kind of.
ZERO DARK THIRTY dramatises the decade-long hunt for the most wanted man on the planet. It's a story where the ending is known by everyone buying a ticket (and if they don't, their priorities in life need seriously adjusting) But there's more to ZD30 than documenting the last fifteen minutes of Bin Laden's life. The bigger picture is how American forces - both military and intelligence - stepped up their efforts post 9/11 against the invisible enemy of al Qaeda.
Understandably, it's September 11th 2001 where the film begins. A black screen, punctuated only by the white text of that fateful date. Then a collage of voices - panicked telephone calls to loved ones and emergency service switchboard operators - tumble forth from the surround speakers. It's a memorable opening, reinforcing what the flash point was in the stepping up of the hunt for Bin Laden.
We follow the chain of events through the eyes of CIA officer Maya, played by Jessica Chastain. Some have criticised this reduction of the CIA's efforts to focus on one person. As ZD30's canvas is huge - the story playing out across many different countries, with more than a hundred speaking parts - it wouldn't have worked as successfully as a drama with a multitude of lead players. In Mark Boal's lucid script, Maya is our guide, on point duty through the maze-within-a- jungle that was the tracking down of Bin Laden's location.
It's one of the CIA's methods that has attracted the most criticism and possibly ended the film's chances of Oscar glory. The torture of suspected al Qaeda members is shown explicitly - water boarding, stress positions, sleep deprivation. Whilst these scenes are not for the faint of heart, it's impossible to agree with criticisms that the film is justifying the use of these methods. Torture was a fundamental part of CIA information gathering in the early stages of the Bin Laden manhunt and to not show it would have been a gross distortion.
The climactic sequence of ZD30 - the SEAL Team Six raid on Bin Laden's Pakistan compound - is edge-of-the-seat, nail-biting stuff. Director Kathryn Bigelow knows how to do action and she knows how to do it well. It's a bravura, yet completely disciplined piece of cinema.
ZERO DARK THIRTY is not the definitive account of how Osama Bin Laden was traced and ultimately despatched. Nor, do I think, it was meant to be. Where it does succeed, however, is as compelling viewing. An absorbing, adult view on modern warfare that makes you fully appreciate the magnitude of the task and the extraordinary way the mission was completed.
This Year's Love (1999)
Pointless, unconvincing and contrived
This Year's Love is a pointless, unconvincing and contrived film charting the lovelives of six very different people. Although there is a terrific cast (Kathy Burke's self-loathing airport cleaner and Ian Hart's loser in love are two examples that spring to mind), it is wasted on David Kane's weak script and direction.
The great performances tend to cover up the fact that the characters here are so unlikeable that you don't really care what happens to them. The various sexual relationships between them are clumsily introduced and subsequently torn apart - and by the end of the film, there's a horribly unconvincing happy ending for two of the characters, who don't appear to have learnt anything from their exploits.
Shame to say, the British film industry revival takes a step back with this one.