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Hail, Caesar! (2016)
7/10
The Coens, '50s Style.
31 March 2016
"Hail, Caesar!" (2016), directed by the Academy-award winning Coen Brothers, is a light-hearted portrayal of nineteen-fifties Hollywood, where large film studios are all powerful. In amongst the barbs and repartee, the Coens' clearly feel an affinity with the era, and along with their cinematographer Roger Deakins, recreate the visual look of the decade with an uncanny precision. It's the first film in years to recall the Technicolor brightness of American pictures of that time; it reveals a real affection, while still maintaining a clear-eyed sense of the iniquities of the then-studio system. Studio executives control their stars' lives to the smallest degree, while waspish gossip columnists try to discover any scandal.

The Coens add into this mix a number of pastiches, not just of Roman and Biblical epics, but of Westerns and musicals, with a spot-on musical number featuring Channing Tatum as a sailor (in clear reference to "On the Town", 1949), one of the film's highlights. Being at heart a screwball comedy means the Coens' darker impulses are kept in check so that even the malevolent group the Future, who abduct George Clooney, are seen as charmingly misguided.

Josh Brolin displays fine comic skill and brings a layer of nuance to his serially perturbed studio boss character, while the ensemble cast match the all-star extravaganzas so popular in the nineteen-fifties: everyone seems to appear, from Tilda Swinton to Scarlet Johansson, Jonah Hill to a very memorable Aldren Ehrenreich as a singing cowboy.

Perhaps one criticism that could be made is that it never becomes more than the sum of its parts: the script, by the Coens, offers a wonderful whirlwind of episodes, jumping from Ralph Fiennes' refined director offering Ehrenreich elocution lessons to a distraught Brolin trying to hide the fact his biggest star is missing. Yet it never quite coheres into an organic whole and by the time it concludes, you're left feeling that it is a rather slight, shaggy-dog story: a lot of fun and frequently amusing, but not one of the Coens' masterworks, a minor work by major auteurs.

However, it would be churlish to deny the film's many pleasures, from Carter Burwell's score to the production design by Jess Gonchor, with costumes from Mary Zophres. It's authentically nineteen-fifties and that alone is reason enough to see it; combined with witty performances and deft direction, it almost doesn't matter that the film is about very little. Enjoy the ride and forget about the destination.
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8/10
The Franchise Awakens...
16 January 2016
"Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens" (2015), directed by J.J. Abrams, is the latest, much anticipated entry in a series that spans 38 years and counting. Every decade since the seventies has had its "Star Wars" and this, the first in a decade, is the start of a new trilogy. George Lucas, the original creator and director of perhaps the most iconic (and financially successful) franchise of all time, sold the rights to the series to Disney in 2012 and it is intriguing to see what "Star Wars" without Lucas is like.

On the whole, it must be said, very good. Abrams, director of the recent "Star Trek" (2009) reboot, working with Lawrence Kasdan (a noted director in his own right) and Michael Arndt, creates a host of memorable new characters: Finn and Rey are standouts, as well as fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and alien Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong'o). They're brought to life by a fine cast, with newcomers Ridley and Boyega comparing well to the returning cast, which includes a suitably gruff and laconic Harrison Ford as Han Solo and Carrie Fishers as Leia Organa. In many respects, these performances are the best part of the film. However, not all is so bright.

Adam Driver, as the film's main villain, the masked, petulant Kylo Ren, lacks a distinctive presence and, in a first for the series, the nefarious evil force fighting the Resistance, seem a little colourless. Perhaps this is due in part to Abrams devotion to recreating the original films to such an extent that "The Force Awakens" in much of its plotting operates as a recreation of "A New Hope" (1977), not so much a sequel as a remake by stealth. Consequently, it lacks the wonder, awe and mystery that defined the first film and is more of an affectionate homage, with action scenes directly echoing previous ones. Even two shocking plot twists which it would be churlish to reveal, are not so very distant from previous films.

It's exciting, it's funny and ends on a cliffhanger which will leave you waiting for the next instalment; however, it will also leave you hoping for a more original, creative film next time we visit a galaxy, a long time ago and far, far away...
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Spectre (I) (2015)
8/10
Spectacular, Occasionally Flawed
16 November 2015
"Spectre" (2015), the twenty-fourth James Bond film, and directed by the Oscar-winner Sam Mendes, is a remarkably lithe affair. Mendes opens the film with an incredible, five-minute opening shot following Bond as he makes his way through the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico City. It's a stunning visual coup, unprecedented for the series or in any other similar action film of recent years, and announces that Mendes, after making "Skyfall" (2012), is still interested in innovating within what has become a venerable British institution.

Craig, reprising his role for the fourth (and it has been hinted, final) time, looks more relaxed and at ease as Bond than ever before. While still cutting a gaunt, serious figure, he can also handle the script's wry sense of humour: this is truly the funniest Bond in decades. He's ably supported by an impressive cast: Ralph Fiennes (as M), Ben Whishaw (playing Q) and Naomie Harris (Ms Moneypenny), making for an excellent recurring cast, while Léa Seydoux, Monica Bellucci and Christoph Waltz are very fine. Waltz in particular, relishes his villainous role, bringing a gleeful wickedness to his character. He lacks the visceral impact of Javier Bardem in "Skyfall", but his performance deserves to propel him into the upper echelons of Bond villains.

Hoyte van Hoytema's cinematography is superb, matching Roger Deakins' work on "Skyfall" by taking a very different approach: shooting on film, van Hoytema brings a sophisticated, classical elegance, capturing the blazing light of Morocco and the shadowy, diffused look of Rome. One of Mendes' key legacies during his tenure as director of the series will be how elegant photography defines both of his films.

That's not to say, however, it's a perfect film. It lacks the delicious surprise "Skyfall" provided, uprooting so many of our assumptions of what a Bond film was; "Spectre" is far more deliberately traditional. Worse, the screenplay, by John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth, introduces a subplot about the potential closure of MI6. While it helps make the film feel very contemporary, the chief component, Max Denbigh (played by Andrew Scott), is disastrously underwritten and frankly, uninteresting, lengthening an already long film. The script also, mystifyingly, constructs a two-part climax which feels unnecessary. It under-utilises a fascinating location in favour of an overly-familiar one and try as Mendes might, he can't pull the broken-backed finale off.

Still, Thomas Newman's score is an improvement over his music for "Skyfall", introducing John Barry-esque strings and horns, while Mendes displays his panache as an action director with a number of thrilling sequences. It's a ferociously entertaining, unrelenting film, and questions of plausibility aside, it's a high watermark for the James Bond series.
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Woman in Gold (2015)
6/10
Far from Golden
30 September 2015
"Woman in Gold" (2015), directed by Simon Curtis, is anchored by Mirren's performance. She has the sharp, intelligent, quintessentially Austrian character of Maria Altmann down to the slightest mannerism, Mirren disappearing into her character. It's to the credit of the script, by Alexi Kaye Campbell, that it creates a character so strongly delineated, as well as letting Mirren (who won an Academy Award for her performance in "The Queen" (2006)) suggest the inner vulnerabilities which her tough exterior seeks to hide.

If it's a powerful, memorable performance, then it's unfortunate that it outclasses the surrounding film. The material, tackling the important issue of the repatriation of art stolen by the Nazis, to their true owners, highlights the complex nature of modern-day Austrian society, still uncomfortable about its role in aiding Hitler during World War II. However, Curtis doesn't seem up to the task. Previously having directed "My Week with Marilyn" (2011), his treatment too often errs on the side of the predictable, bathing flashbacks to the Anschluss (the German annexation of Austria in 1939) in the now customary desaturated palette, providing a gloss on the past. Neither is there the hoped-for dynamism in handling the complex series of court cases that had to be fought against the Austrian government, both in Austria and the United States. The intricacies are glazed over in favour of dramatic speeches, although Ryan Reynolds as the lawyer is surprisingly good and manages to play the moments of humour early on in the film to maximum effect.

There's an extensive cast, including Daniel Brühl as a sympathetic Austrian journalist, Charles Dance enjoying himself as a brusque head of a law firm and Jonathan Pryce in one scene playing the Supreme Court's Chief Justice, William Rehnquist, although Katie Holmes is given nothing to do as Reynolds' wife.

The film's major flaw then, is its script, from which Curtis is tied to. There's no insight into Klimt and the eponymous "Woman in Gold", Adele Bloch-Bauer I, is an exotic enigma, as flat as Klimt's portrait of her. Shot in opalescent golds, in a literal cinematic transcription of her portrait, we never know who she is. Tethered to Mirren's character childhood memories of her, her Austrian past is rendered as a simplistic golden era destroyed by the coming of Nazism. There's no attempt to confront the existing anti-Semitism that was rife in Austria throughout the early 20th century, long before Hitler's ascent to power; ultimately, the film sells the past short. It's on steadier ground with Mirren and Reynolds grappling with the Austrian government's attempts to frustrate their claims to Klimt's masterpiece and these are the best portions of the film, perhaps as it focuses on Mirren and Reynolds, who have an undeniable screen chemistry. It's thanks to their efforts that this film still remains worth viewing.
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Everest (2015)
8/10
A High Peak of Cinema
23 September 2015
"Everest" (2015), directed by Baltasar Kormákur who has been known only for generic action films like "Contraband" (2012) and "2 Guns" (2013). Yet here he makes a beautifully-executed film which never takes a misstep, capturing both the awe and terrific danger of Mount Everest. The film sets out to examine the disparate group of people who are willing to pay $65,000 and risk all by trying to reach the summit, which we're solemnly informed by Rob Hall, is at the altitude of a cruising Boeing 747.

Kormákur's strength as a director, allows the actors to imbue their real characters with a sense of naturalism, from the mailman Doug Hansen (John Hawkes) to the Texan bravado of Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin). The script, by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy, takes an ensemble approach to its narrative, a mosaic of climbers from which emerges a community with underlying tensions between experienced mountaineers and "tourists" paying to get to Everest's peak. Poor decisions made at over 29,000 feet can be fatal, especially when compounded by the fierce intensity of the Himalyan weather.

Kormákur actually shot at the Everest base camp and filmed climbing scenes in the Italian Alps, giving the film a powerful realism; watching it, you feel the sub-zero temperatures and the vertiginous heights. He's also adept at building tension, particularly in showing climbers crossing a ladder at Everest's Kumbu Ice Fall, where just from the sound alone, we wince at every step taken. It's an extraordinary tense film, especially as, being based on real events, we know some will not survive. Yet Kormákur refuses to sentimentalise the drama, lending a dignity to the ill-fated characters: death is not over-dramatised, instead the fragility of life on the mountain is emphasised. He's aided immeasurably by an excellent cast: Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal, John Hawkes, Josh Brolin and Emily Watson. If there's a criticism to be made, the film sometimes spreads itself too thinly, and actors like Sam Worthington and Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson are relegated to the background.

The clarity of Salvatore Totino's cinematography enables us to appreciate the savage beauty of the mountains while the editing of Mick Audsley admirably clarifies a complex story, cross-cutting between base camp and the different groups fighting their way back down through a horrific storm. It's a dramatic survival film, rooted in humanity enduring the extremes of nature, but it never looses sight of the individual. It's the rare Hollywood film which believes in character and employs special effects in the service of the story, to create an entirely satisfying piece of cinema.
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Touch of Evil (1958)
10/10
Wellesian Magic
10 September 2015
"Touch of Evil" (1958), directed by Orson Welles, is a great, baroque film noir which marked Welles return to Hollywood after a decade of self-imposed artistic exile in Europe. The man who had transformed theatre, radio and cinema by the time he was 25, took a pulp thriller called "Badge of Evil" by "Whit Masterson" (a nom-de-plum for Robert Allison Wade and Robert Clatworthy) and produced a startling, daring masterwork.

Welles translates the intensity of theatre into cinema with long, mobile takes: the opening three minute shot has become justifiably iconic, a testament to what cinema is capable of. A small film in and of itself, it traces the progress of the car which has a bomb planted in it, along the main street to the border post. This shot introduces us to Vargas and his wife, the geography of the town and establishes the crucial back story. It's the organic integration of the shot into the story which makes it extraordinary. Throughout the film, almost without the audience registering it, whole scenes are composed in one take, and it contributes to the picture's fluid, propulsive dynamism, Welles' formal devices are as exciting as the ostensible thriller elements. The deep focus cinematography Welles had helped to pioneer on "Citizen Kane" (1941) is further refined here by Russell Metty, underlining the visual and moral darkness of the town, a key aspect of the film.

Despite making what was supposed to be a B-movie, Welles imbues his film with a Shakespearean concept of character, with his own character cutting a fascinating figure. Quinlan goes on intuition and plants evidence to get the murder; yet it's revealed that he did indeed get the right man, leading to a muddying of the initial good cop - bad cop dichotomy established between Vargas and Quinlan. In the Wellesian universe, there are no simple answers.

Charlton Heston playing a Mexican is absurd but it does contribute further to the viewer's feeling of dislocation, that within the seedy environs of the border town, anything could happen. He seems to be the film's moral compass, but his error of judgement in abandoning his wife at a motel and later use of underhand methods to try and catch Quinlan leads to a far more complex, multi-faceted character.

Welles called on many of his friends to act in the film as a favour, leading to a phenomenal cast of character actors: Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, Ray Collins and even a cameo from Marlene Dietrich. It's an incredible gallery of faces, performances, leaving indelible marks on cinematic history.

"Touch of Evil" proved to be one of the last of the classical noirs, but its impact still reverberates through cinema today. Filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich summed it up simply as "a masterpiece - a Goya-like vision of an infected universe". No one else could have made it and it's one of the great artistic achievements of the 20th century.
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Tomorrowland (2015)
5/10
Yesterday-land
10 September 2015
"Tomorrowland" (2015), directed by Brad Bird, is a science fiction film that tries to be bold, original and optimistic, to translate the hope for the future felt in the 1950s into 2015. It's a brave attempt, but sadly Bird isn't successful. Formerly the director of the animated films "The Iron Giant" (1999), "The Incredibles" (2004) and "Ratatouille" (2007), before making his live action film debut with "Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol" (2011), Bird has always been hailed as an unique filmmaker, someone who helped seal Pixar's reputation as the finest animation studio in America, but here something has seriously gone askew.

It's perhaps the script's fault, authored by Damon Lindelof with Bird, which insists on a bright, cheery optimism as its rasion d'etre and then tells its audience this, repeatedly. Hugh Laurie as Nix, the principle villain, is presented as such a ridiculous, doom-mongering character that it is hard to take the character's threat to the protagonists seriously. What is normally a thematic undercurrent to a movie becomes a hyperbolic statement, expanded upon by character's being given speeches as clunky as the retro design of Tomorrowland itself is sleek and smooth. There's no subtlety in the script at all and talented actors like George Clooney and Britt Robertson have an uphill task when their roles are defined in single, non-changing character traits. Only Raffey Cassidy as the android Athena manages to imbue her character with any nuance and depth.

This might be all the more easily forgivable if Bird handled the scenes with the wonder and awe the script continuously rhapsodises about, but the design of the future, in keeping with the 1950s roots of the film, is predictable and is more likely to inspire waves of familiarity rather than astonishment, even when Tomorrowland is introduced to Casey via a continuous six minute shot. The computer-generated effects here are frequently more banal than extraordinary; only two sequences, at the decommissioning of a NASA shuttle launch pad and a scene at the Eiffel Tower really work in terms of special effects. These highpoints contrast with the film as it nears its climax, which becomes rushed and unclear, with the editing of Craig Wood and Walter Murch (who cut many of Francis Ford Coppola's films, including "Apocalypse Now" [1979]), becoming depressingly reminiscent of television commercials.

Many of these defects might have become mitigated in fact, if, like Bird's finest films, it had been animated. With another script rewrite introducing much needed doses of humour, it wouldn't be hard to imagine it as a successful Pixar film. As it is though, this is an extended misfire.
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7/10
Solid Entertainment
10 September 2015
"The Man from U.N.C.L.E." (2015), directed by Guy Ritchie, is a recreation of the hit 1960s American television series which originally starred Robert Vaughn and David McCallum. For the 21st century version however, we have Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer, who are both remarkably effective at communicating the initial distrust and then, later, grudging respect for each other. This central dynamic helps make the film never less than entertaining and several set pieces are memorable precisely due to the tensions and unexpected similarities between the two.

In keeping with the Cold War setting, Ritchie recreates the 1960s with a nicely chosen soundtrack (Roberta Flack, Nina Simone) to a fun opening title sequence (reminiscent of Maurice Binder's titles for early James Bond films). However, just as in Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes pictures with Robert Downey Jr., he never truly captures the atmosphere of the sixties beyond the fashion of the period. Yet Ritchie demonstrates his ability to put together a very good action scene with Solo's extraction of Gaby from East Berlin at the start of the film. Ritchie though, does understand that it is the shifting relationships between these three which is the most engaging aspect of the film, with the character scenes being handled with a deft touch.

Ritchie's visual pyrotechnics at times, such as the tiresome flashbacks and over-edited chases, keep interrupting the flow of a film whose script (by Ritchie and Lionel Wigram) is uneven to say the least. High comedy and grave seriousness alternate, not always comfortably, highlighted no more so than by the tonally misjudged torture scene of Napoleon Solo which ranges from the Holocaust to slapstick comedy.

The cast though, can't be faulted, with Jared Harris, as Solo's controller, delivering a creditable Brooklyn accent, and Hugh Grant does his perfected debonair English gentleman impression. Alicia Vikander is fine, as is Elizabeth Debicki as the principle villain. With most of the film set in Italy, it looks, due to cinematographer John Mathieson, excellent, although some ugly digital inserts do mar the aesthetic.

"The Man from U.N.C.L.E." went through many production difficulties and permutations of director and cast (George Clooney and Tom Cruise were both cast at different points to play Napoleon Solo) and the sometimes generic plotting (particularly the climax) seem like below par Bond material. Ritchie, to his credit, does maintain an enjoyable style and it's a film easy on both eye and mind, even if it only ultimately makes a shallow impact.
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Selma (2014)
7/10
Fine Civil Rights Drama
13 May 2015
"Selma" (2014), directed by Ava DuVernay, is a snapshot of the US Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960s and its attempts to get black Americans the vote in segregated southern states.

DuVernay has crafted a film which consistently refuses to take an idealistic perspective, ensuring the movie remains on a human scale throughout. It takes King as a significant but fallible figure; the British actor David Oyelowo perfectly captures the rhythms and cadence of his speech, although one of the strongest scenes in the film is where he is confronted over his marital infidelities by his wife, Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo). This mixture of the historical and the personal is the film's most impressive asset, refusing to succumb to a hagiographic awe and thus bearing comparison in approach to Spielberg's "Lincoln" (2012).

Oyelowo embodies King throughout with admirable intensity and conviction; no better performance could be asked for. He's ably supported by a cast including Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon Johnson, Tim Roth as Alabama governor George Wallace and various other recognisable faces such as Martin Sheen and Giovanni Ribisi. However, it's clearly Oyelowo's film from the very beginning and is actually at its weakest when the film shifts it's focus, such as the scenes between Lyndon Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker), director of the FBI. Not only have issues been raised about their historical credibility, but they fail to have the same emotional resonance and momentum as the sequences showing how King and his associates actually go through the complex problems of organising the march. The infamous attack on the protesters by the police and civilian militia on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, shows DuVernay's skills as director, the fog of tear gas and the wounded, running people, shot and cut like a war scene.

Cinematographer Bradford Young shoots with a palette of warm brown and golden tones and DuVernay certainly isn't afraid of letting Young's camera sit unobtrusively in medium shot, letting the audience experience the actors' interactions and performances, most notably when King and another activist just cruise along the darkened Selma streets, reflecting on recent, tumultuous events.

The film is at its weakest when trying to cover too much, such as factional in-fighting in different civil rights groups or when it starts to resemble standard Hollywood biopics with the final triumphant scene at Alabama's state capitol: it's undoubtedly stirring but feels a little formulaic. "Selma" is at its best when it takes an alternative tack to the usual Hollywood formulations and delivers an intimate portrayal of a crucial moment in American history.
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5/10
Far from Perfect
10 April 2015
"Jupiter Ascending" (2015), directed by the Wachowskis, is an intergalactic science fiction film that seeks to provoke awe and exhilaration but falls short on both counts. The Wachowskis have struggled in the sixteen years since making the trend-setting "The Matrix" (1999), not quite recovering their reputation after the critically disappointing sequels and their financially-underwhelming films "Speed Racer" (2008) and "Cloud Atlas" (2012). This means "Jupiter Ascending", originally scheduled to be released in July 2014 but pushed back to January 2015 to complete the work on the computer generated special effects and to allow its studio Warner Bros., to mount a more effective marketing campaign, has so far struggled critically and commercially. It's not hard to see why either, with a clunky and exposition-filled opening that betrays a lack of confidence with its subject and further hampered by at times poor dialogue. The script, an original, is all plot and forward momentum, clearly influenced by a number of literary sci-fi sources including Frank Herbert's "Dune" series and some half-baked allegorising on capitalism. The Wachowskis' eagerness to create a blockbuster franchise means they rely too heavily on the expected genre traits of epic odysseys, with silent, brooding heroes (Channing Tatum) and hysterical, manic villains (Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne, who alternates between quivering whispers and exploding uproar) with an ingénue female lead to be rescued and have the plot explained to (a rather wooden Mila Kunis).

The script is an unsatisfactory mess that manages to conform to every expected reversal in the plot and the Wachowskis compound the feeling of familiarity with a quick editing rhythm (with Alexander Berner doing the actual cutting) that is redolent of many other mainstream action films. The only distinctive directorial set piece is an eight minute aerial battle over the dawn skies of Chicago that allows John Toll's cinematography to truly breathe and deliver a genuinely thrilling moment in a film that otherwise has little time for Toll's photographic magic. The other memorable sequence is when Kunis must claim the title to Earth from a galactic bureaucracy; it's a rare moment of humour in an otherwise po-faced filmed. The production design (by Hugh Bateup) and costume design (by Kym Barrett) is inventive and excellent, from a planet created with a Frank Gehry aesthetic to incorporating Ely Cathedral into the spaceship of Titus Abrasax (Douglas Booth in an amusing, self-deprecating performance, the best in the film). It's visually extraordinary but almost too much; combined with the unrelenting special effects, the rich textures become suffocating, especially when their isn't the script or characters to sustain it.

In thinking the audience are engaged with its stolid characters, it fails to find any fun in itself, even when Sean Bean is supposed to be half man and half bee. Instead, we're left to dwell on its ephemeral pleasures, from the costumes and sets to Redmayne's twitching mannerisms and one well-done action scene. It's not enough to sustain the picture, leaving the film ultimately hollow and superficial; the Wachowskis were once renowned as original, visionary filmmakers, but now it seems they're as over-enamoured with special effects and franchise-building at the expense of depth as the rest of Hollywood.
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