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The World's End (2013)
How to complete a trilogy...
How do you complete a trilogy that contains two of the best-loved and funniest British comedies of recent years? This is what Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg must have been asking themselves when writing "The World's End", very aware that everyone would be comparing it to "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz". I think it's no wonder that the film polarised people, most of whom expected it to be very similar to the previous films. Sure, it does share ideas with the other two, but it manages to feel very original at the same time, covering a lot of new ground. And most importantly, it's a consistently funny parody of science fiction, lead by a brilliant set of performances.
Simon Pegg plays Gary King, a man who never grew up, still trying to live out his teenage dream of completing the "Golden Mile" pub crawl in his home town. The four friends with whom he once attempted the challenge have all moved on from that life, going into suit- wearing professions and ending up on very different paths to the one Gary has chosen. But Gary is determined to finish the Mile, so brings the other four back together to complete it once and for all – however, as is expected from a Pegg/Wright comedy, not everything goes to plan.
The film manages to convey the eerie sense of returning to a once-familiar place, seeing how much has stayed the same, and also making a point about the bizarre nature of modern life – all the pubs are owned by chains and look the same, "youths" are patrolling the streets, technology is now everywhere. We get through four pubs, and you can see the reluctance of everyone but Gary, who is convinced that he's some kind of local hero. We discover more and more about why the group separated, what Gary did and how he's ended up like he is, and behind all of the jokes, it's a really interesting character study. And then the tone changes with a fight scene in the toilets of pub 4, when we discover the reason why the town is like it is – androids.
While "Shaun of the Dead" was very obviously a zombie film, and was explicitly marketed as such, I don't know if "The World's End" made its secrets so obvious, so the scene when we suddenly discover that the film is now sci-fi does come as a bit of a shock. Such an enormous change of tone could have been the end of the film, but thankfully it keeps at its heart the most important thing – comedy. The ending is unexpected and tends towards preachy at times, but it never, ever stops being funny.
Wright's style should now be familiar to his fans, and is in full swing here – at times his methods seem a bit like a dark Wes Anderson, but he knows how to make them distinctive and original. The performances at the centre of the film work perfectly, with each of the main 5 characters providing great on-screen chemistry with each other, not to mention a great performance from Rosamund Pike. Obviously, Pegg and Frost steal the show, adding a slight twist to the relationship that we've seen between the two actors in the past. What makes "The World's End" so brilliant and fun is that it's nuanced and subtle underneath all of the broad comedy. It slips in clever references that you'll want to look out for, and is rewarding for both long term fans of the filmmakers, and viewers with no previous experience.
Brilliantly self-aware, satirical and visually extremely unique...
This was the last of the 8 'Best Picture' nominees from 2015 that I saw, and I was terrified of watching it. "Birdman" had received a huge amount of hype over the lead up to the Oscars, and what if I only liked it because I thought I was supposed to? I went into the film ready to critique every tiny detail, to be annoyed by it and to go against the crowd. What made the film even more incredible, therefore, is how much I enjoyed it by the end. "Birdman" completely took me into its world and made me adore it, not allowing me to find anything to be annoyed at. It's brilliantly self-aware, satirical and visually extremely unique, and what's more, it deserves every single nomination it's been given.
In a plot that mirrors real life in no way whatsoever, Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thompson, an actor who cannot escape the shadow of the superhero he once played on film. Thompson has written, directed and is starring in a new play on Broadway in an attempt to revive a serious dramatic career, but not a lot is going right. He is forced to hire Mike Shiner, a self-absorbed actor with whom he is constantly at odds, and as a result every one of the previews goes in a very unexpected direction. Also at the heart of the film is his strained relationship with his daughter, played by Emma Stone, and with the two female members of his cast, played by Andrea Riseborough and Naomi Watts.
The film builds up towards Opening Night, with everything making Thompson more and more stressed – he's convinced that the reviews are going to be terrible, that everything will go wrong. Making matters worse is the voice in the back of his head, that of his on screen alter-ego, Birdman. Birdman is frequently reminding him of how much of a failure he is, and it eventually drives Thompson to various breakdowns from which he does build himself back up. One scene involving Thompson flying about New York and becoming a superhero once again is visually stunning and a brilliant moment in his character development.
It would be impossible to talk about the film without mentioning the visual effect at its core – the trick of making everything look like one continuous take. Iñárritu pulls it off masterfully, making it noticeable but not detracting from the on-screen action one bit. It merely complements the winding corridors of the theatre and makes everything seem almost dreamlike. The script is constantly sharp and very witty, never taking itself too seriously. This is crucial, especially given the huge amount of "high art" that is referenced throughout the film. Everything from Jorge Luis Borges and Shakespeare to Mahler and Ravel is referenced throughout the film, and it takes huge risks at seeming unbelievably pretentious. Because you know that satire is at its heart, especially given the constant pop- culture references and deep conversations about the nature of art/celebrity, it's all very tongue-in-cheek and you're allowed to enjoy these artistic name-drops.
Having only seen one Michael Keaton film before, that being the underwhelming Batman film that "Birdman" is partially satirising, I didn't know what to expect, but I thought his performance here was outstanding. He brings across the mental struggle of his character perfectly, and also never stops being believable – the scene where he rushes through Times Square in his tighty-whiteys is hilarious, and Keaton suspends your disbelief the perfect amount so that it never stops feeling true. The supporting performances work very well, and Norton, Stone and Zach Galifianakis are all very good throughout. There is far too much good stuff to mention here, but visual effects, set dressing (nothing feels glamorous and that adds to the realism) and music all deserve a look in.
So, "Birdman". I made myself want to hate it just in case, and it made me love it. I adored the artistry of it all, was entirely captivated by its world and found every element fascinating. Perhaps the messages about art, criticism, celebrity and social media struck me most, but I think it could appeal to anyone. Definitely a very strong contender in this year's Oscar race.
There is an astounding and intense story at the heart of "Whiplash"...
Teachers in films can be placed into two categories. On the one hand, you have your John Keatings (from Peter Weir's "Dead Poets Society"), who are kind, think-outside-the-box teachers who unlock parts of their students minds and inspire them to want to do better. On the other hand, you have your Terence Fletchers, who is played here by J.K. Simmons, who are feared by their students and use this to get the results they're after. You could write whole essays on which teaching method is more effective, but right now the focus is on Fletcher, the monster who attempts to make Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) a greater drummer. This is the astounding and intense story at the heart of "Whiplash".
You can tell within the opening minutes of the film that Neiman is not cool. He doesn't have many friends, and he lives for jazz and playing the drums. We open with him alone in a practice room, playing and trying to get better. This is when he has his first encounter with Fletcher, who is brash and cold. He makes no attempt to be friendly, he merely sees what he wants and leaves. Over the course of the film, Neiman is invited into Fletcher's high- profile jazz band, where he is the victim of verbal abuse, psychological torment, and ends up with an intense drive to impress. If anything, he wants to impress too much, and reacts badly to Fletcher taking away the things that he's given him. 90% of the film is one long psychological trick on Fletcher's part, slowly turning Neiman insane. What makes the film so inspiring is that for the last 10%, Neiman takes his sanity back.
There are three elements at the heart of the film that make it so incredibly watchable and gripping. Firstly, the film is clean, classy and shot incredibly well. It has the colour scheme of a "jazz" film, and some of the camera work, such as the flicking between drummer and conductor or instrument close-ups, is inspired. Next, the music is crisp and catchy, with so much toe-tapping throughout. The parts of the score that aren't played on screen are just as good, all fitting in with the styling of the film.
But the most important element is made up of the two key performances at the centre of the movie - J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller are nothing but astounding in the film. In Teller's acting, you can see a real determination and desire to succeed. He brings across the awkwardness and lack of cool that the character has so well, and also his drum playing is pretty good. But it is Simmons who truly steals the show - Terence Fletcher is a terrifying, brutish, foul monster for the majority of the film, and simply would not be believable if he wasn't acted so well. The cursing and violence feels spontaneous, the coldness in his character seems to be so true, but I think it is the occasional signs of humanity (such as the discovery of a former pupil's death), which cement the character. He's not just a monster, he's another human who's been taken over by an internal drive. As much as Neiman's goal is to be one of the great drummers, Fletcher's goal is to cultivate one of the great musicians, something he believes he can only do through verbal abuse. His message is that "Good job" is never going to make anyone great, and he argues it so well that you do leave the film believing that.
It's possible to have read everything I've written so far and feel that "Whiplash" is going to be a tough 2 hour pain-fest, but it's anything but. It's quite funny in parts, due to the absurdity of many of Fletcher's comments, and you can't help but leave it inspired. As for its place in this year's Oscar race, it utterly deserves its place among the other "Best Film" nominees, and there is no doubt in my mind that it's one of the top contenders for that award.
I think "Se7en" is my favourite David Fincher film...
I think "Se7en" is my favourite David Fincher film, and given the body of work which the director has so far produced, that was not an easy decision to make. Much as I adore the intense character study of "The Social Network", the dark mind-games of "Gone Girl" and the rich storytelling in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button", I feel that "Se7en" is Fincher showing off everything he does best. It's a brooding, jet black thriller which makes you look inwardly and consider so many aspects of human nature.
In the film, Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman play homicide detectives – one recently transferred to a large city, the other getting ready for retirement. On paper, their relationship is a detective cliché, but Pitt and Freeman's chemistry ensures that it transcends this. The pair start to discover a string of horrific murders, each one linked to one of the seven deadly sins, and attempt to track down the killer. They get closer and closer, and it becomes almost a game as the detectives try to prevent the next murder from occurring. There are twists and turns at every single corner up to the point where the murderer actually hands himself in, and even then you can tell that the game is barely over.
It's a film with a very clear process from the beginning, but this is not a bad thing. It takes you along so you feel like you know what's going to happen next, and then subverts your expectation right at the next step. The three lead performances are all brilliant, but the standout performance is that of Spacey, whose slow speech and constant calmness turn him into such a convincing psychopath. The greatest scene in the film is in set in a car, towards the end of the film, when Spacey explains his reasoning for committing the murders. The terrifying thing about the scene is that you can, in a way, completely understand the murderer's point, and this is cemented greatly by Spacey's performance.
As is to be expected from Fincher, the visuals in the film are incredible, and he doesn't waste a moment when he can shock. Each of the portrayals of the seven sins is as shocking as the next, and "gluttony" doesn't really kick things off that lightly. But again, Fincher's success is in disturbing his audience merely by suggestion rather than explicitly showing them anything. The murder based on "lust" isn't even described that graphically, but the very idea that it produces causes it to be one of the most difficult to watch scenes in the movie.
In "Se7en", Fincher has created a near-perfect thriller. There is not a bored moment in the entire film, and not even Gwyneth Paltrow's presence can spoil the atmosphere or enjoyment. Pitt, Freeman and Spacey complement each other perfectly, and help the film to achieve something that is actually relatively rare in movies of this genre – it actually makes your heart race.
This film isolates an event as an example of the bigger picture...
Perhaps it shows my broad lack of knowledge about the Civil Rights movement in America, but if I were to make a biopic of Martin Luther King, it would probably contain two important events – the famous "I Have a Dream" speech, and his eventual assassination. "Selma" contains neither of those things, and to be honest I was extremely glad that it didn't. Apart from the fact that "I Have a Dream" is so important and influential that perhaps no other man should perform it, the film succeeds in showing us a single event in the man's career, rather than the entire thing. It isolates this event as an example of his influence and determination, and succeeds as a snapshot which we can easily extrapolate to get a wider idea of the difficulties of the time.
In the American South, black people are still unable to vote, despite it being their legal right to do so – they are constantly barred by white officials who make up ridiculous rules so that they can't register. Despite the movement coming on so far, there is still so much work to do, and Martin Luther King is not giving up. He has numerous tense meetings with President Lyndon B. Johnson in which he attempts to get what he wants, but the President isn't budging. In King's mind, there is only one thing to do – travel to Selma, a small town in Alabama, to make an example of how black people are treated. King always knew how to influence people in non-violent ways. He stages marches which he knows will end with black people being treated violently, so that the horrific and brutal scenes are on the front of the national newspapers every single morning.
King's tactics are admirable, and it is so incredible to see the extent to which he refuses to be violent or destructive, and always remains extremely calm. The FBI try to break up his relationship with his wife, and there are very moving scenes where the tension between the two of them becomes almost too much, but they are able to stay together despite all of this. In choosing the events in Selma as a case study, we get a glimpse of the much wider picture: not every black person agreed with King's methods (including Malcolm X, who later sided with them); the white population were extremely divided, but many came out in person to support; and most importantly, King was one of the greatest orators of the 20th century. We are shown a few of his sermons at the church in Selma, and the way he speaks is truly inspirational. In this, we are also shown the quality of David Oyelowo's performance, which is so moving and powerful, since he truly believes in what he is saying, and is not just reciting words on a script.
The supporting cast of the film is also extremely strong, with special mention going to Carmen Ejogo as Coretta King for her excellent portrayal of their marital struggles. It doesn't take itself too seriously at times, and it's not at all a depressing two hours, despite knowing when it needs to shock. The fact that it only takes place in a short period of time means that it rarely drags, and it constantly wears its message on its sleeve. As well as all of this, it is visually extremely satisfying, with excellent use of imagery and some very beautiful shots. The framing of King's speeches in the church, as an example, is truly perfect.
It's a huge shame that Oyelowo doesn't have an Oscar nomination. It is easy to compare this to "12 Years a Slave" since both tackle ideas about race, and in many ways this is a stronger film. Both tackle ideas about resilience and strength of mind, but this makes you care so personally for a much broader range of characters. You root for them throughout, and the final scenes honestly brought me extremely close to tears. It's one of the most powerful films I've seen in a long time, and is a worthy representation of a truly great man.
The Theory of Everything (2014)
A very moving biopic, with two outstanding performances...
The greatest difficulty in making a film about someone with a disability is ensuring that you don't let the disability take over the film. It's so easy for a movie to say "oh dear, look at how much of a struggle having this disability is" without having any other grounding or message, and a lack of fully developed characters. I was extremely surprised, therefore to see exactly how "The Theory of Everything" deals with Professor Stephen Hawking's motor neurone disease. Inevitably, it portrays his continual physical decline and how he deals with it, but this isn't the point of the film. The film's focus is a relationship between a man and a woman in love, and how they go through struggles together. It's very moving, mostly thanks to two outstanding performances from its leads.
"The Theory of Everything" follows the life of Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) from his Cambridge days to the publication of his world-famous book "A Brief History of Time". It doesn't waste any time at the start, introducing in the very first scene the beginning of Stephen and Lucy's (Felicity Jones) relationship – this is to become our primary focus for the next two hours. Sure, its introductory shot is of Stephen riding a bike, which slightly feels like a "he won't be able to do that soon" kind of shot, but it doesn't dwell too much. We are shown just how intelligent Hawking is, and the great romance that lies between him and Lucy, but then the crushing blow comes – he is diagnosed with the disease that he will be identified with for the rest of his life.
Where this film succeeds most is showing the effects of the disability on Stephen and his work and his relationship. Enter Jonathan Jones, whom Lucy meets at her church and who starts to look after the family despite him and Lucy having feelings for each other. You can see clearly how their relationship is often strained, how they make life difficult for each other at times, and the two actors work together so well on this. So much has been and will be said about Redmayne's exquisite portrayal of Hawking, picking up every physical and vocal nuance that he has (although I'm sure that, had this not been en pointe, no film would have been made), but it is the relationship and chemistry that is the real highlight of the film. Felicity Jones is just incredible as Lucy, showing both emotional pain and extreme resilience throughout, and it's thanks to her that the film can be so heartbreaking at times.
My slight issue with the film came from the amount that it attempts to cram into 2 hours, something which is extremely understandable given the subject matter. We cover the space of 25 years in that time, and sometimes we're flying and other times crawling through those years. There is a period where his physics career seems to be put aside entirely, and it's a slight shame that we do lose that focus, but I suppose it allows us to get the "snapshots of a relationship" feel that it's going for.
If anything, the film makes you marvel at the courage and determination of its two main characters, one of whom defies all odds put against him, and the other who makes it her duty to stand by him every step of the way. The film is, very simply, charming, and is a masterclass in portraying a difficult relationship even more than in portraying a challenging physical illness.
Fight Club (1999)
The mixed morals are thankfully only an afterthought...
And so I returned to my fear of watching IMDb Top 10 films for the first time with "Fight Club", worried what I was going to think of it and afraid that I seemingly be the only person that didn't like it. By the end of the film, my fears were mostly quelled, but there was still a niggling feeling that something wasn't quite right. I couldn't immediately see what point "Fight Club" was trying to make, and for me it felt like it had mixed morals, but those are merely an afterthought in what is a stylish, humorous and very well acted movie.
The unnamed narrator of the film is played by Edward Norton, and provides witty and nihilistic commentary throughout the film. His life is boring, he is an insomniac with mental health issues that go even deeper than that, and he needs to find some excitement. He starts going to support groups for the terminally ill just so that he can feel emotional outlet, a method that's also carried out by Helena Bonham Carter's character. It's a foul idea, but the film very nearly makes you able to see where they're coming from. On a flight one day, he meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), and sees a man that is everything that he's ever wanted to be – successful, exciting, daring, attractive, not stuck in a boring day-to-day job. The Narrator and Durden start spending more time together, and that's when things get crazy.
Through the pair's setting up of a Fight Club, initially as a substitute for the support groups, but eventually as a training ground for their minions, we are subjected to a horrific amount of violence and animalism. The Narrator gets carried away, spurred on by Durden, and they embark on "Project Mayhem", an operation whose sole intention is to mess stuff up and 'destroy capitalism'. It is only after a sudden blackout from Norton's character that we are provided with our twist, a discovery that changes the entire meaning of the film, and the final half hour does an extremely good job of working out and justifying that.
It's a film that is held up by its performances and styling. Norton and Pitt work off each other extremely well, with Norton's narration providing an interesting and witty commentary over the bleak events of the movie. In a film as dark as this, finding yourself laughing really does make you look at yourself. Bonham Carter is brilliant, yet severely underused, and her character could have been made so much more prominent to provide a bit more of the "twisted moral compass" that she seems to have. The film is shot through a darkened lens, which superbly captures the rainy, dingy and crumbling world that the characters inhabit.
"Fight Club" is a film with a message, shown by The Narrator's eventual rejection of Durden's ways and philosophy, but only just. He doesn't want to become like him, ruining everything and destroying things for the sake of it. The problem I have with the film is the way that it gets there – in displaying the violent and anarchistic build up to its lead character's rejection of those ways, it glamourises it. The whole point of the film is that we too are taken in as followers of Tyler Durden and his ways, and I worry that, even though the actual Fight Club scenes are only a small part of the film, their extreme nature does more harm than good. It may not be advocating violence, but to people who don't quite absorb its message, it may seem like it does.
Despite the hype and huge cult following of the film, it's not Fincher's best work. It has great set-pieces, performances and visuals, but the plot occasionally jumps around confusingly and the message has a tendency to feel muddled. It is worth watching and for the vast majority of the runtime really enjoyable, but perhaps my best advice would be not to read too deeply into it.
Baron Cohen lampoons everything, with no exceptions...
I can still remember very clearly the time "Borat" came out, mainly because everyone that I seemed to interact with was talking about. The posters were everywhere, it was in the news, the hype was enormous. Somehow it took me 8 years to see it, but for a film which is incredibly topical it still feels alarmingly relevant. It's crude and offensive, and yet extremely funny because of the situations that go on. Of course, Sacha Baron Cohen shines in the title role, lampooning everything he can with no exceptions.
For anyone that's been living under a rock for the past 8 years, Borat is a Kazakh journalist who goes around tricking people into doing or saying absurd things. We meet him in a rural town in Kazakhstan, where he is sent by the government to America in order to make a documentary about their culture. He goes with his producer, Azamat, with whom he has a sometimes rocky relationship, and they meet people from all walks of life. The character is inherently funny as a cultural stereotype who is stupid and offensive, but the real laughs in the film come from the reactions of other people. Because he is often so plausible, people will do or say things that they wouldn't on US television, and he baits his targets with ridiculous situations just to see how they'd react.
It's a film based less on plot and more on hilarious set-pieces, which become even funner because the reactions are genuine and unscripted. Borat releases chickens on the subway, sings made up words to the US national anthem at a rodeo, embarrasses himself at a a dining club, goes to a Pentecostal church meeting and has a naked fight with Azamat through a crowded hotel. The stunts are all hilarious, and made even more-so by the fact that they actually happened - it's really just a standard road movie, but accentuated by being real.
At the start of the film, you try to figure out who the film is satirising through its offence. It seems anti-Semitic or anti-Kazakhstan, but it soon becomes quite clear who the fools of the film are - the American people. Borat is there to exploit American stereotypes of nationalism, rednecks, conservatives and Christian crazies. Sure, he's a stereotype, but the fact that he's so often taken as genuine shows Americans as gullible and stupid. His choice is dangerous, however, since there are many who won't understand the depth of this lampooning, and instead think it's okay to be anti-Semitic etc. In this way, the film very occasionally crosses a line in terms of taste.
The film is just over 80 minutes long, and this feels like the perfect length for it. Any more and the jokes might become tiresome - there isn't really a proper plot to any of it, just a series of vignettes. Having finally experienced it, I can instantly tell why it was such a craze and has become so iconic - it's quotable, and nearly every scene makes you laugh. In this way, it's better than a vast number of scripted comedies these days. Shouldn't we be worried about this?
Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
The very first Adam Sandler film I have ever loved...
Remember when you saw "The Truman Show", "Lost in Translation" or "Dead Poets' Society" for the first time. It was a bit of a shock wasn't it, seeing a great comedy actor (Jim Carrey, Bill Murray and Robin Williams respectively) take on a more serious role and gives one of his finest performances to date. It might not be possible for every comedy actor to achieve such great success in a more dramatic role, but strangely, "Punch-Drunk Love" argues that it is. It takes one of the world's most polarising and broad comedy actors and puts him out of his comfort zone, allowing him to portray great emotional depth and working off his slightly awkward, neurotic mannerisms. That actor is, strangely, Adam Sandler, and this movie is the very first one of his that I have ever loved.
Sandler plays Barry Egan, the lonely manager of a business which sells novelty toilet plungers out of a warehouse. From the very opening shot of the film we get a sense of his isolation, as he sits behind the solitary desk in the adjacent warehouse, but then interesting things start to happen all in the same morning. He witnesses a car accident, finds an abandoned harmonium and meets a strange English girl, played by Emily Watson. As the film proceeds, Egan falls in love with the girl, and weird things continue to happen, culminating in him being hunted down by gang members trying to get money off him. Various scenes in the film are laugh-out-loud funny, especially Sandler's naive encounter on a phone-sex line. The villain of the film is Philip Seymour Hoffman, who bizarrely owns a sofa store and runs the phone-sex line, and his eventual meeting with Sandler is a surreal and hilarious exchange of swear words.
The film takes full advantage of Sandler's idiosyncrasies and bizarre manner, while still making Egan a character that we want to succeed. It's also quite funny, helped by the brilliant chemistry of the characters and the odd nature of the situations that take place. Because of the strength of the characters, however, you constantly suspend your disbelief and allow yourself to be taken into their strange world. It's both directed and written by Paul Thomas Anderson, who brings his unique eye to the film and makes it truly his own. The montage in Hawaii to the song "He Needs Me" from "Popeye" (sung by Shelley Duvall of all people) is so strange, but so totally enjoyable.
Something that was very obvious to me by the end is that this film is not going to be to everyone's tastes. I watched it with my family and by the end none of them could understand why I loved it so much. I found brilliant comedy and charming emotion in the film, but others will simply find it quite strange and not be able to see past that. My advice would be to challenge yourself – if you're a fan of PTA or films by Charlie Kaufmann or Spike Jonze, this should be right up your street. It's just so sweet, and allows you briefly to change that awful opinion of Adam Sandler that you've always had.
A stylish, well acted and particularly grisly thriller...
There are two crucial details which set "Zodiac" apart from any other serial-killer film (like Fincher's own "Se7en", for example) – it's based on a true story, and that true story still doesn't have an ending. To this day, much like Jack the Ripper, the identity of the "Zodiac" killer still hasn't been confirmed, which leaves an interesting dilemma for any filmmaker attempting to adapt the story. Do you leave the film without a resolution, or sway against the truth and invent an ending? Neither of those two options is perfect, but thankfully the process of the film is thrilling enough that a complete conclusion is never particularly necessary. It's a stylish, well acted and particularly grisly thriller which skilfully tackles ideas about obsession and the need for an answer despite never actually getting one itself.
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a cartoonist who becomes fascinated by the murders, the film follows his attempts to solve the case with the help of a journalist at his newspaper, played by Robert Downey Jr, and local detective, played by Mark Ruffalo. The case gets increasingly complex as more murders (which are shown in extremely graphic detail) take place and the unknown murderer continues to taunt the police through his cryptic letters. At its very best, it is an exercise in creating tension in its audience, especially when the Zodiac killer is on the phone live on TV, or when Gyllenhaal's character is searching a suspect's house.
At its infrequent worst, however, the film drags as a result of its methods – while the first half of the film is relatively close together in time, it begins to jump later and ends up spanning nearly 20 years. There are slow passages where little new information is learned, and you long for either another murder scene or something crucial to happen. Thankfully it is held up most of the time by brilliant performances from all three leads (Downey Jr is probably at his least annoying here), who work together very well and convey the constant mystery of their situation very well. Gyllenhaal deserves particular praise for his excellent portrayal of an obsessive, who cannot stop until the case is closed.
If anything, this feels like a classic Fincher film, with its moody cinematography and 'keeps you guessing' plot-line. The music adds both suspense and a large amount of nostalgia through its referencing of period classics, and the film's desire to transport you back entirely to the 70s is very commendable. It's an entertaining if sometimes slow-going thriller, and certain to give you your own theories about this ongoing real-life murder case.
American Sniper (2014)
I'm not a big fan of glamourising war...
I've never been a big fan of glamourising war. This doesn't mean that I don't like war films - 'Saving Private Ryan' is one of the best films I've ever seen, but I think its success comes mostly from its desire to show it at its most brutal and emotional. Nobody watches 'Saving Private Ryan' and thinks "I can't wait to sign up". I could tell, therefore, from the very opening minutes of 'American Sniper' that it was going to irritate me somewhat. It's a film that makes a point that I do agree with, but unfortunately it takes two hours to even begin making it.
In the film, we are told the true story of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL who spends most of his time lying on the top of buildings squinting through the sight of his gun and shooting people who don't know he's there. It opens with a fairly shocking realisation, that he is going to have to kill a child who is about to throw a grenade at one of the US tanks. We then cut away to a montage of Kyle's growing up and development. He watches 9/11 on the TV and decides that he needs to fight for his country - he is a true patriot. (I was initially annoyed at the use of 9/11 as a plot point, but then remembered it's a true story, and let it off slightly). What follows is 2 hours of war, interspersed with a bit of his family life, but to the extent that everything feels clipped. Of those in the army, only Kyle really has enough time spent on him, so when the others die it never packs the emotional punch that it should. We get brief snippets of Sienna Miller, who plays Taya Kyle, being unhappy with Chris' devotion and damage, but never long enough that you truly care.
This would all be okay if it wasn't for a crucial flaw in the film's process - nothing made me care about Chris Kyle for the vast majority of the runtime. A biopic only really succeeds if you're rooting for the main character, and here I didn't feel that at all. Bradley Cooper does act fairly well, but the material is lacking and this causes the film to feel like a list of his kills rather than an emotional journey. The saving grace of the film is the very end, when he resigns from service after his fourth term (most of his friends seem to be dead by now), and he decides to do some good at home. He helps out veterans with little hope, and we see the effects of shell-shock on him. Finally, we're given the slightest glimpse that war isn't as cool or easy as you might think.
Eastwood's direction seems quite hands off, and the cinematography is washed out and unremarkable. Having seen 'Mystic River', 'Gran Torino' and 'Changeling' fairly recently, it's a shame to see his directing style become a bit lazy, as if he's relaxing into a process rather than really committing himself to the film.
I did clock on leaving the cinema that the film might not be for me. I'm not American and I'm not that patriotic. I'm a fairly pacifist person and fundamentally disagreed with Chris Kyle's job. But the way the film is made causes it to live up completely to the joke "American Propaganda", making the American soldier look like the hero, and any Muslim character instantly a bad person. I was annoyed while watching it because it didn't interest me or emote me, and because I couldn't help but remember that it's nominated for 'Best Picture' at the Oscars and 'Gone Girl' is not. I watched a number of great films last year, and a fair few of them were way better than this.
You may really enjoy this film. You may relate to its message or its main character in a way that I could not. You may admire his patriotism and desire to save his country by shooting people who couldn't see him. Unfortunately, I did not.
The Usual Suspects (1995)
This provides one of the most incredible payoffs in cinema...
An incredible twist is enough to propel any film into greatness, even if it's not an incredible movie. People can have their opinions of a film completely changed just because of a cunning twist at the end, even if the rest of it is unremarkable. It is therefore crucial when reviewing a film of this nature that all of the movie is taken into account, not just the ending. Thankfully, "The Usual Suspects" is completely worth the journey to the end, earning its runtime with funny and thrilling cinema, and providing one of the most incredible payoffs at the end. For those who haven't seen the film, I will attempt to keep this as spoiler-free as possible, but I can't promise anything.
The film is told mostly via flashback by Kevin Spacey's character, the odd "Verbal" Kint, about a group of criminals who are brought together by the mysterious crime boss Keyser Soze. They get into deeper and deeper trouble throughout the film, only meeting Soze's strange associate, "Mr Kobayashi", played masterfully and mysteriously by the late Pete Postlethwaite. The ensemble, made up of Stephen Baldwin, Gabriel Byrne and Benicio del Toro, among others, has incredible chemistry, and you believe every one of the fights and fall-outs that they have. The whole point is that they're being forced to work together, it's not their choice.
The film is an excellent example of neo-noir styling, especially in its cinematography and score, and the climax on the ship at the end is pulled off extremely well. It's a truly heart- pounding sequence, helped by the fact that you're manically trying to unpick the mystery at the same time. What makes it such a success is the fact that nearly all of the preceding hour and a half is interesting and engaging. The characters are well thought out, not just one-sided, and the performances on display really complement each other well.
*SPOILERS FROM HERE*
Is it perfect? Almost. It's inevitable that putting so much reliance on a twist can scupper parts of the film's success, and despite taking you completely by surprise, it does in many ways completely invalidate everything seen before. Obviously the true test of this is whether it stands up a second time, once you know the twist, but I have yet to experience this. An unreliable narrator is okay so long as you can piece together some form of truth afterwards, and I'm really not sure if this is possible.
Despite this, the first watching certainly holds up. You're taking on an incredible ride with the film, constantly trying to guess its secrets, and if anything, it's a brilliant way to experience one of Spacey's two breakout performances.
The Sting (1973)
This is a feel-good film, which ticks all the right boxes...
If you look at the 10 films that won an Oscar for "Best Picture" in the 1970s, you'd notice a general trend. The majority of them are long, hard-hitting movies – just look at Parts 1 and 2 of "The Godfather", "Patton" or "The Deer Hunter". There are two exceptions to this trend: the hilarious "Annie Hall", which was awarded in 1977, and "The Sting", which was nominated in a year where none of the other nominees were standard Oscar bait. It's a feel- good film, which ticks all the right boxes in terms of its light-hearted nature, great soundtrack, and the way it embodies its chosen aesthetic.
The film tells the story of two con-men, played by Robert Redford and Paul Newman, and their attempts to escape the police and get one over on the crime boss Doyle Lonnegan. It's a film which makes you care about its characters, despite them being criminals, whilst also being fun and keeping you guessing. The film's greatest successes are its plots, from the very opening scene to the big finish at the end. It's cleverly written so that you don't always have as much information as the two leads, making the reveals even more rewarding. Throughout the film, the dynamic between Redford and Newman is outstanding in every emotion they show, whether it be friendship or falling out. Each of them gets to show their skills individually too, and Newman's entry into a poker game halfway through is exemplary acting.
The challenge which "The Sting" faces is not taking itself too seriously, without being too light-hearted. In order for it to be a success, you have to care about the characters but feel the fun in their capers. The 'prestige' of the film simply wouldn't work if you weren't constantly rooting for the characters and didn't believe that the plan has failed. The film adopts the aesthetic of its time, with inter-titles, costumes and use of Scott Joplin (somewhat anachronistically) to make you feel the Great Depression. It's not a film without flaws, however, and at just over 2 hours, it sometimes feel like it's dragging on.
The other problem it faces, which is very difficult to pull off for any film about tricks or magic, is that it occasionally has one too many twists and turns to follow. Discovering late in the day that a character who you've previously believed to be a bad guy is actually working with the whole operation can feel a bit cheap sometimes, and while "The Sting" just about pulls it off, it's not always effective.
"The Sting" is undoubtedly a cinematic achievement. While it might not be perfect, it is extremely fun, thanks to two excellent lead performances, and is not afraid to keep its audience guessing its tricks.
In anyone else's hands, "Fargo" would be a very ordinary movie. Thank god for the Coen Brothers...
The best movies are the ones that not only tell a good story, but make you think about yourself. They can be inspirational stories that make us strive to be better, or cautionary tales to make us more aware of things to look out for in life. Alternatively, they can make us think about who we really are – this is where "Fargo" comes in. In anyone else's hands, "Fargo" would be a very ordinary movie, telling the story of a series of crimes and a detective who tries to solve them. In the hands of the Coen Brothers, it's a gory and often hilarious look at criminal life in cold Minnesota, and the oddball characters involved in it.
The focus for the first third of the film is Jerry Lundegaard, a car salesman played superbly by William H. Macy, who is in need of money, and hires two criminals (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife so that he can take some of the ransom money. He's a brilliantly written character, who gets far too nervous in the tricky situations he's stuck in, and always tries to recover as things don't go his way. As things go wrong for the criminals they are forced to kill a number of witnesses, which gives them even more problems. This brings in the film's main character, pregnant Police Chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), who is calm and polite in her investigations and fascinating to watch. McDormand manages to steal the show brilliantly, with her awkward facial expressions at times and perfectly placed one-liners at others. It's difficult to see anyone else playing the role.
The script of the film is so sharp, but it's rare that the Coen Brothers don't deliver that for us. Why does the film make you think about yourself though? Because of its violence and the way you react to it. When Jerry's wife is being kidnapped, she hides in the shower and then runs along the hall unable to escape from the shower curtain, eventually falling down the stairs. It's brutal, but it's so ridiculous and so well shot that it's also kind of funny. The criminals, especially Buscemi's character, are so idiotic that their mishaps, including Buscemi being shot in the face, also make you laugh. The thing that really makes all of this click is the setting, the wintry town of Fargo, its bizarre residents and particularly the accent. There is one scene where Marge only says "Yah", but does it in such a way that it can't help being funny. They're ridiculous without being too simple, and constantly watchable.
"Fargo" is a relatively brief movie, at only 98 minutes long, but it uses every second to its advantage in painting this brilliant, funny and bizarre story. It shows all of its actors, and its two directors, at their very best, and doesn't let up for one moment so that you are always willing to go along for the ride.
The LEGO Movie (2014)
I wrote this off as another attempt to sell a product. How wrong I was...
Two lists I want to bring to your attention on Wikipedia: Movies based on Video Games and, more relevant here, Movies based on Toys. If you look at the films on these lists and look for their Rotten Tomatoes scores, you will notice that very few are rated 'Fresh' - a startlingly low number, in fact. Why is this? I think this is because video games and toys often don't have plots that translate well to films, because they involve you doing things to them, and not characters as much. I will accept that video games are now a bit different, and that many are now far more plot based, but this was certainly the case in the past. When I first found out about "The LEGO Movie", I very quickly wrote it off as another attempt to sell a product within a shoddy plot framework. Thank goodness I was unbelievably wrong.
"The LEGO Movie" is funny, intelligent and exciting for the entirety of its runtime, and so many elements contribute to its outstanding success. The film tells the story of standard mini-figure Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt), who teams up with the 'Master Builders' in order to save the universe from the evil Lord Business (Will Ferrell). In that simple form, it's an ordinary "chosen one" plot line, but the writing and details ensure that it's anything but ordinary. Along the way, Emmet meets a host of different Lego characters, including the blind wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) and many superheroes (Will Arnett's Batman is particularly great), and they travel through loads of different Lego landscapes on their quest.
You're probably still not sold on it, which is understandable - the film's plot isn't really its greatest quality. What makes this film so great is the writing and animation, both of a consistently high quality throughout. Everything in the animation is made of Lego, and is therefore animated like Lego. It's incredibly detailed, and through this you notice charming details throughout that make you appreciate just how much care has gone into the film. The visuals are great, and are the main thing that young kids will appreciate. The reason adults will see it is for the humour. I found myself laughing far more than my 6 year old cousin, and that's because it's written with the adults in mind. The song "Everything is Awesome", the ridiculous 'follow the rules' state that Emmet lives in, the references to Lego of the past, characters such as Liam Neeson's Good Cop/Bad Cop and the noticeable cameos are all things which adults will love and appreciate. The real genius of the film is that it appeals so easily to both age groups.
"The LEGO Movie" had the potential to be something so much worse. It could have been a thoughtless attempt to sell more Lego by constructing a shoddy, uninteresting plot around some bland characters (c.f. Transformers), but enough love and attention has gone into the film that you can't help but enjoy it. Phil Lord and Chris Miller, from '21 Jump Street' and 'Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs' fame, are the perfect people to helm this film, with their irreverent and sharp sense of humour, especially visual humour. With a final quarter that is both surprising and poignant, this is undoubtedly a film that will touch adults and children alike, and leave them 100% satisfied.
The Godfather (1972)
A film of epic proportions...
I must confess, I find it really tricky to watch movies that are considered "The Greatest of All Time", because of one enormous fear: What if I don't like it? Sure, you don't have to stick to social majorities when forming your opinion on a film, but I suppose there's a certain reaction that comes when you say something like: "Yeah, I wasn't so seen on The Shawshank Redemption, actually". So this was my worry when I finally purchased "The Godfather" trilogy on DVD, and sat down to watch the first one. Thankfully, I absolutely adored it. It's a film of epic proportions, following 10 years in the history of the Corleone Family, with excellent drama and beautiful cinematography. And it also keeps you interested for the entirety of its 3 hour run time, which is by no means an easy feat.
"The Godfather" follows Don Vito Corleone (played by the masterful Marlon Brando), the head of one of the most powerful mafia families, and his son Michael (Al Pacino), who is soon to take over the family. We begin with Michael's wedding, which uses brilliant juxtapositions between the bright, happy event, and the dark office of the patriarch, where he hears the requests of his family and friends. It's a great scene because we realise the image that the family tries to send out, and the actual goings on behind the scenes. We also observe the power and influence that the family has in places like the media (involving the head of a certain animal ), so that we can then understand how much of a force to be reckoned with they are.
The film takes place over 10 years, and packs a lot of events into 3 hours, from the attempted assassination of Vito, to Michael's refuge in Sicily. Coppola shows us so clearly how life in a mafia family is a dangerous one, where you always have to watch your back and where people are always trying to kill you. Thanks to the character of Kay (played by a young Diane Keaton), we get an outsider's perspective on the family too, and Michael tries to show her that the business will become 'legitimate' soon, although we knows this is unlikely. The greatest sequence in the film is also one of the most famous – the massacre that takes place during a christening, with sinister Bach organ music played over the top. It's a fantastic section because Coppola is contrasting life and death so well, making us aware of the cycle of mafia life.
"The Godfather" is truly one of the great masterpieces of cinema. It's complex and often slow going, but always reaches points which make waiting worthwhile. The acting is totally stunning, which Pacino and Brando shining in particular in their roles, and the whole film is shot with a dark, noir-ish lens. Every part of it is well thought out, particularly its score and pacing, and you can appreciate it at the end as both a great feat of filmmaking, and a satisfying watch. I was extremely pleased to find how much I enjoyed watching this incredible film, and can't wait to tuck into the rest of the trilogy.
It's a simple masterpiece, but a masterpiece all the same...
Most people who talk about "Boyhood" will discuss its incredible production history, and I will admit, it's a pretty incredible thing. Richard Linklater must have been incredible passionate to convince four actors, a whole crew and a studio to make this film, which documents the growing up of a boy and his family over 12 years. It was shot for 3 days at a time, once a year, and it is a miracle that everyone stuck with it over that period. But the fact that the production stayed together would have been worthless if the film had been a cheesy affair with no substance and all style. Lesser filmmakers would have gone down that route. Thankfully, Linklater is no lesser filmmaker.
Due to the fact that it fills so many years into such a short space of time (and 166 minutes is no short movie), the film can often feel like a photo album – a collection of events that documents the passage of time. Most photo albums record the so-called 'important' events in peoples' lives – birthdays, weddings, family gatherings. These are the landmark moments which we take keepsakes of, so that we can look back years later and remember. "Boyhood" is not like that, because Linklater is very conscious not to make it cheesy. It's not a Hollywood film, and we don't get any Christmasses or First Kisses, which you'd think were the key moments to record. We actually only get one of Mason's (Ellar Coltrane) birthdays, and I think Linklater does this to make sure that we're not seeing repetitions of life events.
What he clocks into is the fact that the events that you remember aren't the 'important' ones, but the random ones that make you laugh or cry. Mason recalls to his father (Ethan Hawke) an event from a young age where he was promised his dad's car – he can remember the event precisely, even whose house they were going to that day. It's not a key event, but it stuck with him. The film's success is in showing you these odd events which give us clear ideas about who these characters that we're seeing develop are, and making you root for their successes.
There are so many great points to the film, that I can't focus on anything. Linklater's vision and focus on people is as clear as ever – much like the "Before" movies, nothing overwhelming happens, there's no plot twists or surprises, he's just showing you conversations which are fascinating. The acting is great, and you can tell how much these characters have become part of the actors' lives over the 12 year period by how close their relationships are. The script is sharp and extremely funny at times too. Hawke plays the father figure particularly well, giving his children 'the sex chat' and lessons in 'the art of conversation'.
I cannot recommend "Boyhood" to you enough – it was difficult as it is to keep this review brief. It's a simple masterpiece, but a masterpiece all the same, which is made great by a flawless script, interesting characters and extremely convincing acting. The concept and choice of events ensure that there is at least one moment which every audience member will relate to. Sitting inside the cinema, I could hear people from around the room chuckling to themselves (I did it too), because they've been through what the characters are doing. I'm unbelievably glad that's it's getting the recognition it deserves, and I simply hope that it reaches and touches as many people as it should.
What went so wrong with 'spoof' films?
We live in a world where satire is abundant and 'spoof cinema' has been taken to the extremes. Every year movies like "Scary Movie", "Disaster Movie" or "Vampires Suck" are released which attempt to lampoon recent film releases, but these always fail at the most simple hurdle – being funny. In order to find some genuinely funny spoof comedy, you must go back to the very roots of the genre, and there is no finer place than "Airplane!", the greatest spoof of disaster movies that exists. Why does it work so well? It's not spoofing its immediate predecessors, but films made around 25 years before it. It knows all the genre tropes so well, and subverts them for our entertainment.
The film follows Ted Striker (Robert Hays), an ex-fighter pilot, who is on the same plane as his ex-girlfriend Elaine (Julie Hagerty) when both pilots and many passengers are taken ill and he is forced to try and rescue the plane. They are helped by the doctor on board, played by the genius of comic timing Leslie Nielsen, and together they manage to get the plane onto the ground safely. Normally I would apologise for writing the end of the movie in my review, but honestly, it's not the thing that you care about at all in the film.
What makes "Airplane!" so great is the constant one-liners, and endless source of comedy in the fantastic actors, and the easy mocking of common tropes. The jokes don't feel cheap for a second, but subvert your expectations and use the many passengers, crew and people working at the airport as comedy. There are so many people involved, and everyone gets a look-in. Even the airport announcers get a joke at the very beginning, which is extremely funny and sets the tone for the film well. It's not afraid, among the barrage of lines, to refer to previous jokes and make them even funnier. The original "Don't call me Shirley" line which is so famous isn't actually that funny, but the followup line later on is what really qualifies the gag.
Everything is spoofed in the film, even the classic "disaster film" soundtrack. Elmer Bernstein is used for his experience in serious films and genre classics (his scores for "The Magnificent Seven" and "The Great Escape" are extremely well known), and is deliberately writing serious music so that the fact that none of it is serious is even better. "Airplane!" is fabulously written, and doesn't give the audience a single moment to breathe through the laughter. It truly is the greatest part of the genre that it revived, and it's a shame that its legacy is not better recognised by the trash that is "A Haunted House" and other films of a similar vein.
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
This is a continuation of the dark sense of humour that the Coen Brothers have thrived on...
I have to confess that I don't know as much of the work of the Coen Brothers as I'd like to. I've seen "No Country for Old Men", "True Grit" and "O Brother, Where Are Thou", all of which I adored, and "The Ladykillers", which really isn't as bad as people said it was. Their dark sense of humour and ability to capture beautiful scenes is what sets them apart from the crowd as directors. Naturally, "Inside Llewyn Davis" is no different, with brilliant black comedy and memorable cinematography, except this time, just like "O Brother", we have the pleasure of music as well.
The title character, played by Oscar Isaac, is a folk singer living in Greenwich Village in 1961, around the same time as Bob Dylan. Nothing goes right in his life, with his singing partner's recent suicide and his failing solo album both adding to his depression. He is homeless as well, but despite so many bad things he doesn't give up, and constantly continues to try and make it. This is not always helped by the people around him, including his friend Jean (Carey Mulligan) who tells him that she's pregnant and it might be his, and the always odious Roland Turner (John Goodman). The Coens write their characters extremely well, and they all have believable relationships with each other. They can give us a first impression with so few words too, which makes the characters even stronger. Their writing is as strong as always, with their eye for dark comedy coming through constantly. There are so many devastating scenes which you can't help but laugh at, or throw away lines that make you chuckle despite their grave nature. Goodman's line, "George Washington Bridge? You throw yourself off the Brooklyn Bridge, traditionally. George Washington Bridge? Who does that?" is mere genius.
Three things, apart from the plot, make this film such a joy to watch. Firstly, the acting is brilliant. Isaac's performance is bold and intimate, making us long for him to succeed so much. Among the supporting characters, Goodman, Mulligan, surprisingly Justin Timberlake and F. Murray Abraham all leave their mark with brilliant, funny or devastating scenes. And the cat that Llewyn is charged with looking after for so long is also great. The cinematography is great too, with the film being shot with a bleak, saturated lens. It feels dark and appropriate for the setting, but doesn't become too noticeable so as to be annoying. And finally the music is brilliant. All of the songs are memorable and well sung, with "The Death of Queen Jane" being my particular favourite, mainly because Isaac sings it so well. They don't feel pointless in the film, but there are times where you can just sit back and enjoy them.
"Inside Llewyn Davis" won't please everyone, because there are people who simply just don't 'get' the Coen Brothers' sense of humour. But for those that do, it's incredibly rewarding, and undoubtedly one of their best works yet. It was utterly robbed of a Best Picture nomination in February, and I cannot understand for the life of me why.
In a World... (2013)
Laugh out loud funny, and never too serious that it loses its goals...
The best comedies, especially indie comedies, are frequently the ones which also have the most drama. "Lost in Translation" and more recently "Mary and Max" are both extremely funny films, but they have dark sides to them which hit home on serious points. The reason this is done is because comedy films are so hard to make consistently funny and intelligent at the same time. Enter "In a World
", which is a low-budget comedy focusing on rivalry in the voice-over business. It's frequently laugh-out-loud funny, brings some excellent satire on the film industry, and never goes too serious that it loses its goals.
Lake Bell (who also wrote, directed and produced the film) stars as Carol Sotto, a struggling voice coach who lives in the shadow of her father, the so called "King of Voiceovers". When she provides a temp track for the trailer of The Amazon Games, a brilliant Hunger Games parody, the producers love it and want her to do more, angering a number of figures in the voice-over world. It's a sexist world where there are no real female figures, where every male voice is deep, gravelly and macho. Over time, she tries to become accepted into the industry, with the help of Louis, an awkward romantic interest for her, played by the hilarious comedian Demetri Martin.
The film's cast is one of its best features, with Rob Corddry and Michaela Watkins making a sweet couple which breaks your heart when misunderstandings begin. Ken Marino is also brilliant as Gustav Warner, the industry's golden boy, who is extremely full of himself. The scene where he and Carol spend the night together is fabulously awkward and the two play it so straight that it makes it even funnier. But it is of course Lake Bell who shines in this film, which has a brilliant vision that runs through it. Her impressions and awkward nature are brilliantly carried off, and are what makes the film funny throughout. In particular, the scene where she automatically replies to a 'baby voice' girl in the exact same voice is hilarious, not just because of how perfect an impression it is but because of the content too.
"In a World " is the kind of comedy that it's a shame we don't see more of. It's got a razor- sharp script which doesn't let up for a second, a set of likable and relatable characters, and hilarious situations that have come from close observation. Lake Bell makes a brilliant first-time director and writer, and I absolutely cannot wait to see what she comes up with next.
Does "JFK" work as an interesting film, not just a politics lesson? Kind of...
There are a lot of problems that can be faced when making deeply political movies. Filmmakers try to share their views on corrupt systems and political mistakes, but through this they ignore the one thing that is most essential in an interesting film - the plot. There's a fine line between a fascinating thriller and a politics lesson, and occasionally directors will fall on the wrong side of that line. This has never stopped Oliver Stone, however, who has now built up a reputation for dealing with tricky subject matters, such as the Vietnam War, 9/11 or various presidents, in his movies. Here, he tackles the topic of JFK's assassination in a 3 hour movie which addresses as many conspiracy theories that it can. Does it work? Kind of.
The movie follows Jim Garrison, played by Kevin Costner, the District Attorney of New Orleans who begins to look into the JFK assassination, since he is convinced that Lee Harvey Oswald could not have been the only killer. It begins by showing Kennedy's life just before his killing, through newsreel footage, building up to a reconstruction of the actual assassination. The film is intelligent in using this as exposition rather than a major plot point later, since it is such a familiar event, and we can then get right into the fallout. Various theories are debunked and brought up during the course of the film, including a scene where Garrison tests out whether it was actually possible for Oswald to have hit Kennedy from his supposed position at the time.
The acting in the film is mostly superb, with Costner being a likable lead who is also a powerful speaker. The speech that he gives during the court case right at the end is long, but he is a good enough orator that you focus on everything he says. Other great members of the cast include Tommy Lee Jones, playing Clay Shaw, a man accused of conspiring to kill Kennedy, Donald Sutherland, a man high up in Washington who suggests that the CIA had something to do with it, and Jack Lemmon. Kevin Bacon's performance seems like more of a caricature, and is slightly out of place in the film.
"JFK" is a fascinating and often thrilling movie at its best points. But it tends to drag when interesting information is not being discovered, and there is no way that all of its 3 hour runtime is necessary. Certain parts feel gratuitous so that every theory is covered, and others are just a bit confusing. There is also the important question of whether it matters if everything in the film is factual. So long as audience members know that it is supposed to be a representation of possible events, rather than stone cold fact, then this does not matter that much, since it is interesting enough as a movie, and at no point claims to be a documentary.
If you're going to watch "JFK", know that you're in for the long haul, and that some parts of the film are not easy to get through because they do drag. However often Costner's performance alone is great enough that interest levels are maintained in the telling if a story which is still shrouded in so much mystery.
12 Years a Slave (2013)
This is one of the most difficult films I've had to watch, but is filled with phenomenal performances...
Some films have subject matters which are tricky to watch but important to know about. "Schindler's List" is by no means a film that you come out of and think "I really loved that", but it gets its message across effectively and is emotionally rewarding. In that film particularly, realism is key, and Spielberg doesn't hold back in images of brutality. "12 Years a Slave" is even more horrific at times and one of the most difficult films I've had to watch in a while, but it conveys important messages about racism and slavery, and thanks to its phenomenal performances, makes you relate so much to its characters.
The film follows Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man who is kidnapped and taken into slavery. He fights for years to prove his innocence, while working under numerous cruel masters, including those played by Paul Dano and Michael Fassbender. One of the film's successes is in not creating a clear divide between black and white, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Brad Pitt both playing characters who support and are kind to Solomon. But under Fassbender's character, Edwin Epps, he is beaten often, as is Patsey, played by Lupita Nyong'o.
The performances in the film are all brilliant, especially those of Ejiofor and Nyong'o, who convey pain and suffering like I have never seen before on screen. They are both convincing and don't overstate it, which is what makes the characters so successful. You feel every minute of Solomon's journey, and he makes you root for him so much. The film's brutality is one of its most important parts, and occasionally you have to look away due to the sheer extremity of it all, but the fact that nothing is held back adds a sense of reality to it. The scars on Patsey's back after she has been lashed repeatedly are horrible to see, but send such an important message.
Steve McQueen shoots the film in a very artistic way, with lots of lingering shots on the beauty of the New Orleans country side. However he knows where to focus his camera during the more painful scenes to make them even stronger. A single extended shot, which runs for probably 2 minutes but feels like ages, shows Solomon tiptoeing around in some mud while hung up by his neck. The camera does not move, and you just hear the sounds of his throat clicking as he gasps for breath. It's difficult to witness, and goes on just a bit too long, but again this cruelty is important to the story, because it makes the audience think. It also makes the ending, which is filled with so much emotion, a whole lot more rewarding because we have seen and can understand everything that these characters have been through.
"12 Years a Slave" is an utterly unique movie. It has moments which are so difficult to watch, and perhaps it is important for audiences to know what they're getting in for before they watch this, but the stunning performances and breathtaking cinematography help to make it a rewarding and thought provoking experience.
This has great songs, beautiful romance, and is just a really great film overall...
When a movie has a minuscule budget, often sacrifices have to be made which can change the overall look or feel of the film. Things like special lighting and special effects are kept to a minimum, while locations are very simplistic. And often, this can be an extremely positive thing for a film, adding to its charm because of its simplistic nature. This is precisely one of the things which make "Once" such a charming and wonderful movie – the constant realism which flows throughout the film. It's got great songs, beautiful romance and is just a really great film overall.
When the 'Guy' (Glen Hansard) is out busking one day, he meets and gets talking to the 'Girl' (Markéta Irglová), a Czech flower seller. There is clear chemistry between the two, and they meet again the next day and play music together. The nature of their relationship is always kept at a distance, since the Girl is married but her husband lives in the Czech Republic, and the Guy wants to get back together with his ex-girlfriend in London. Therefore, the two, along with a band of buskers, record a demo album so that the Guy can show it to the ex-girlfriend when he meets her. The ending is both incredibly daring and very satisfying, not falling back on classic Hollywood romance clichés.
However, plot in "Once" is not as important as the songs which feature throughout, a mixture of ballads and folk songs. "Falling Slowly", the film's main song which ended up winning an Academy Award, is a beautiful song, and its context within the movie is both simple and beautiful. The songs are all played naturally in the film, with one exception in "If You Want Me", a heartbreaking love song which the Girl sings with headphones in while walking down the street, and with the singing voice of the Guy played in the background. It's a bit more like a music video in that scene, but it's well shot and a brief moment of suspending the audience's disbelief.
The two leads are not professional actors, and neither are the majority of the supporting cast, but this merely adds to the naturalism which the film exudes. Director John Carney shoots it in a very natural way too, saving up any fancy camera-work until the very end. The film is brief, with a running time of only 86 minutes, but it fills that whole time with interest and never feels slow. Ultimately, "Once" is a beautiful and heartbreaking love story, with songs that you won't be able to get out of your head for weeks afterwards.
The Shining (1980)
This is both terrifying and surreal, but not too much to make it unwatchable...
I generally tend to steer clear of the 'horror' genre, because it's not really something that appeals to me. The concept of the "Saw" films is something that disgusts me, and I don't quite understand the appeal. The only foray I've made into the genre is probably "Psycho", which still has scary moments but is not overly terrifying. It was with some apprehension, therefore, that I purchased a copy of "The Shining" and decided to sit down to watch it, not really knowing what to expect. Thankfully, I enjoyed it immensely, finding it both terrifying and surreal, but not too much to make it unwatchable.
The film stars Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance, a man hired as caretaker in a strange and isolated hotel during the winter months. A previous caretaker of the hotel went mad and murdered his family, but this does not affect Torrance, and he comes to the hotel with his wife and son, played by Shelley Duvall and Danny Lloyd. His son has supernatural powers which give him visions and premonitions, and some of these visions provide for thrilling viewing, including the iconic image of the two girls in the corridor. Over the course of the film, Torrance goes steadily madder and ends up trying to murder his family. The film gets more bizarre as it progresses, with imagery becoming more surreal and events getting scarier. Among these interesting and bizarre things are the strangely crowded hotel bar, the blood pouring from the lift, and the final shot of the film.
The film's overall pacing is quite steady, and Kubrick allows for a lot of build up until Jack actually goes 'axe-murderer' mad. However it is not uninteresting, and a lot of focus is put on the eerie hotel and how it affects the characters. Nicholson's performance is fantastic and incredibly creepy. We aren't too sure what to make of Torrance from the outset, and Nicholson makes him a fascinating person to watch. Duvall is occasionally quite annoying as the constantly crying victim of her husband's rampage, but it doesn't jar too much. Kubrick has a fantastic visual eye for the film, helping the pacing to be slow and subtle. The moving shots which follow the tricycle, the symmetrical corridors or vivid colours used all help to give the hotel an unearthly quality, making the eventual actions scarier. It's occasionally hard to follow, because some things don't make any sense, but it doesn't feel too confusing because the world of the film doesn't make much sense in nature.
And yes, it is a scary movie. There are a lot of really creepy scenes, such as one shared between Nicholson and a lady in a bathtub, and a lot of outright terrifying moments. The chase scenes and Nicholson's now famous axing down of the bathroom door put your heart right in your mouth, and are completely gripping. There are also a few jumps, but these don't feel gratuitous, and simply help to add to the excitement of the film. With "The Shining", Stanley Kubrick created a deep-thinking horror film which manages both to creep out its viewers, and give them an enjoyable time watching it.
21 Jump Street (2012)
An enjoyable and self-aware comedy that only occasionally crosses the line...
Only a few days ago I wrote in this blog that I've said the words "Channing Tatum? I'm not watching that..." far too many times. As an actor he's limited himself to mindless action films (note "G.I. Joe") or vomit-inducing chick flicks (don't see "The Vow"), which are the types of movies which I usually try to distance myself from. When I sat down with the family to watch "21 Jump Street", my hopes weren't that high, but I must confess now that I found him bearable and actually quite funny here. This is an enjoyable and self-aware comedy, with some good performances, that only occasionally crosses the line in terms of crudity.
In the film, Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum play cop partners, who went to high-school together and did not get on. Hill was the nerdy kid while Tatum was the handsome jock who bullied him. They meet many years later when both sign up for the police force, and decide that their partnership would allow each to motivate the other. Due to some difficult and hilarious circumstances, the two are punished by being moved to the "21 Jump Street" division and sent undercover into a high-school to investigate a drug problem there. Much of the comedy comes from the two integrating themselves back into school life, accidentally taking each others' fake personalities, and being generally awkward.
The cast of the film is very strong, with Jonah Hill's comedic performance being one of the best I've seen him in yet. In the supporting cast, Brie Larson plays a great love interest for Hill's character, and Ice Cube brings some fantastic self-referential humour into the film, about how ridiculous the concept of the '21 Jump Street' operation actually is. The fact that the film knows how implausible most of it is makes it all the more funny throughout. Dave Franco makes for a fairly believable bad guy, but the standout performance in the film goes to Nick Offerman, despite his small screen time, for his deadpan Police Chief, which is utterly hilarious.
The film is directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who also helmed the first 'Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs' film and 'The LEGO Movie'. As shows in all of these films, their talent as comedic directors is extremely good, and they create a believable world for the characters. The film's greatest problem is that sometimes the jokes don't work, and some go too far. The crude nature of a lot of the film turned me off it slightly, particularly the final gross-out gag at the climax of the film. It doesn't feel particularly necessary, and is just a bit disgusting. It is this brand of comedy that is prominent in the not-so-funny "Hangover" movies, but thankfully not all of the jokes in this film are based on it. All in all, "21 Jump Street" is a funny and interesting comedy, and despite a few flaws, is incredibly watchable.