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Great fun western werewolf romp.
Jake Gyllenhaal puts in an excellent performance as gaunt, awkward grifter; Louis Bloom, in screenwriter Dan Gilroy's directorial debut; Nightcrawler. Passive-aggressive, down-on-his-luck chancer, Bloom, stumbles into the dark world of TV news: a stringer that turns up at crime scenes; films them and sells his footage to whomsoever will pay for it; which, in his case, is local news producer Nina (a brilliant comeback role for Rene Russo). Nightcrawler works as a suspenseful, character-driven drama and a scathing satire on the media industry. Louis Bloom talks like a self-help seminar, sells himself to his employers and reproduces corporate spiel ver batem; he hires naïve hobo; Rick (a subtle, convincing performance by Riz Ahmed) as his second cameraman, buys a police scanner and embarks upon a serious of nocturnal misadventures that push him ever closer to the edge: Whether its hauling an injured car crash victim to a place where he can get a better angle or engineering deadly encounters to snare that all-important footage, Bloom is as ruthless as his job demands.
Nightcrawler checks all the boxes when it comes to indicting the socio-economic paradigm that creates men like Bloom; cynical, careerist lone-gunmen encouraged to embody the worst traits of humanity in order to keep their heads above water. Gilroy throws a few singing jabs at everyone and everything in the industry: from the intern-as-desperate-exploited-patsy to gore-hungry news bosses. For as Rene Russo's character explains: "We like crime; not all crime: a car-jacking in Compton isn't exactly news, now is it?.our viewers are interested in urban crime creeping into the suburbs; what that means is a victim or victims; preferably well-off, White, injured at the hands of the poor or a minority: Think of our newscast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut". Nightcrawler is a well directed, fast paced, superbly acted, very well written film that ought to be considered a modern classic in the months and years ahead. A must see.
It's almost obligatory to open a review of a Billy Wilder film by mentioning what a versatile director he was. Eureka's Masters Of Cinema Blu-ray series has included classics like The Lost Weekend, Ace In The Hole and Double Indemnity, all of which testify to the wit and panache that are synonymous with the director while all being vastly different from one another.
Even if you've only been catching up with Wilder's oeuvre through these remastered releases, it's not hard to imagine how he'd become your favourite director and Stalag 17 will top up your admiration nicely. Adapted from an autobiographical Broadway play about American airmen held in a German prisoner of war camp during World War II, this 1953 gem is at once a prison break movie, a whodunnit and even a prototypical summer camp comedy.
The plot centres on Barrack 4 in the titular prison, a barrack that appears to the rest of the compound to be cursed. There's a lot of loose information flying around between the prisoners, but somehow, this one seems to have the worst luck. A failed escape attempt leaves two men dead, which finally spurs a reckoning amongst the inmates- there must be a spy in their midst.
The prime suspect is J.J. Sefton, (William Holden) the barrack's resident spiv, for whom no luxury seems to be out of reach. He's the one who has a distillery to serve schnapps to the men, a telescope to peep on the neighbouring female Russian prisoners and a lucrative horse-racing racket where all the nags are mice- all open to any man who'll trade cigarettes to partake, even the Nazi guards.
Sefton is a cynic, but he's no spy, and it becomes all the more crucial to identify the real traitor when a new arrival, Lieutenant James Dunbar, (Don Taylor) is accused of sabotaging an ammunition train. One of the men in Barrack 4 is more than willing to sell Dunbar out to the SS, and as the only man under suspicion, Sefton is the one who has to smoke him out.
1953 was good timing for a POW movie, but it was no accident. Paramount Pictures held the film off from release for over a year, unconvinced that the subject matter would bring out audiences. When American prisoners from the Korean War were released, the studio decided to release the film and take advantage of good morale. As it stands, the film might have made a decent morale booster all by itself.
While the situation is very bleak, the film has a canny line of dark humour running throughout, pitching ahead of its time and landing somewhere between The Great Escape and Stripes. In particular, comic relief characters Harry Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck) and Stanislas "Animal" Kuzawa (Robert Strauss) provide a lot of laughs as Animal veers between obsessing over beautiful women and abject depression, while Shapiro is always on hand to cheer him up.
In one sequence that could have come straight out of a summer camp comedy from many years later, the motley duo sneak over to catch a closer look at the showering ladies on the Russians' side of the compound by painting a white line in the road, all the way past the guard. The resolution doesn't come with a summary punishment by firing squad but with a Looney Tunes-style flight from the bespectacled guard after slapping whitewash all over his face.
Layered on top of this, for contrast, is the absurdity of the Stalag guards' attitudes. The film is set in the week before Christmas 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, and the guards are keeping morale down amongst the Allied prisoners by withholding news but cheerfully telling them that German victory will soon be forthcoming. With hindsight, there's obviously plenty of dramatic irony there, but the Nazis themselves are ridiculous figures.
As Barrack 4's "alarm clock" and personal guard Sergeant Schulz, Sig Ruman keeps telling the inmates he's their best friend while also laughing in their faces, whether they're "visecracking" about their plight or showing barely veiled contempt for their captors. Otto Preminger wields a little more malice as camp commandant Colonel von Scherbach, but even he's made to look ridiculous in a scene where he puts his boots on just to answer the phone to a superior, clicking his heels with each barked affirmative response.
The best example of the film's dark sense of humour comes when a Dear John letter arrives in the post. Edmund Trzcinski (the original playwright, playing himself) receives a letter from his wife telling the implausible story of how she has found a baby on their doorstep, who just happens to have her eyes and nose. Trzcinski may have figured out what that really means when we did, but the film keeps cutting back to him, telling himself that he believes it. It's a bittersweet reminder of the cost of the men's internment, even while the tone is more upbeat and defiant elsewhere.
That branch of witty comedy never subsides, but it doesn't prevent us from taking the whodunnit seriously either. Holden won a Best Actor Oscar for playing Sefton (and famously delivered one of the shorter acceptance speeches of all time- "Thank you") and as our protagonist, we march to his beat. He's flippant when the film is messing about a bit earlier on, but after a brutal confrontation, he steels himself to find out the truth.
Unusually (and more expensively,) Wilder shot the film in sequence and made extensive rewrites during filming in order to preserve the identity of the spy from even the cast, and whether this helped or not, it makes for an effective air of mystery and paranoia. It's ambiguous enough that you can even suspect the most innocent inmates, so that when the truth comes out, the accumulated tension makes for an electric climax.
On top of that, the new Blu-ray restoration looks marvellous, making Wilder's crisp black-and-white photography look better than ever before. The camera moves as if Wilder was shooting a suspense thriller, particularly as and when plot twists arise, and there's one haunting shot of the men of Barrack 4 staring at Sefton as it's time for lights out, and the darkness doesn't even faze them.
Stalag 17 is yet another reminder of Billy Wilder's endless versatility, with his knack for dialogue and characters enlivening the bleakness of the setting and giving us one of the all-time classic prisoner-of-war movies.
Arnold Schwarzenegger is back as the Terminator, but this time, he's old. In a storyline that has been written, in part, to allow the 68 year old star to return in the lead role, Terminator Genisys boasts a new timeline that riffs on, and pays homage to, all of the best elements of the previous instalments of this long running franchise.
Kyle Reese is sent back in time to rescue Sarah Connor, but when he arrives in 1984 instead of finding a poodle-haired, waitress in the form of Linda Hamilton, he finds tough-as-nails Emilia Clarke - straight from Game of Thrones! Instead of being hunted by a T-800 sent from the future in the timeline that we know, history has been changed and Sarah has been protected by the T-800 instead - now known as Guardian or affectionally as 'Pops'. It's the first of many plot twists that keep this film ticking and keeps the audience guessing. Because whilst the plot mirrors those of the 1984 and 1991 instalments brought to us from the mind of James Cameron, it also twists the reality we once knew and changes the timelines.
Jai Courtney takes on the role of Kyle Reese but lacks the acting ability of his predecessor Michael Biehn who added delicate nuances to the character of Reese. Emilia Clarke however as Sarah Connor is every bit as strong as Linda Hamilton and bears a genuine resemblance. She's perfect for the role and impresses greatly. Jason Clarke steps in as John Connor and does his best with a difficult role - far from being the leader of the resistance and saviour of humankind in a strange twist of the story Connor is now part of Skynet. It's the only massive mis-step in a script that is otherwise enjoyable and cleverly envisaged. The biggest plus for this movie of course was always going to be seeing Schwarzenegger back as the Terminator. His performance is impressive. He adds layers to the character that perhaps audiences would not have expected. Schwarzenegger is an actor that many people have frequently under appreciated his performance here will be something of a revelation.
Several scenes from the 1984 original movie are lovingly recreated and tweaked in order to fit the changing timeline - Kyle Reese being chased by the police through the department store and the T-800's interactions with the punks at the viewpoint are both standout scenes.
Terminator Genisys is far from perfect but it's an honest attempt to re-invigorate a franchise that after a low budget, sleeper-hit classic in 1984, and a CGI-stunner in 1991, had stumbled wildly with a misconceived stab at comedy in 2003 and then almost died completely without its main star in the 2009 reboot. It's certainly better than similar, recent reboots such as the utterly forgettable Total Recall and the only marginally better rehash of Robocop.
In a world filled with cash-in sequels, irrelevant remakes and desperate reboots, Terminator Genisys is the best movie for which fans of the series could have hoped.
In this, the second episode in the sci-fi Divergent series, Tris and Four find themselves fugitives, on the run; trying to escape being hunted down by Jeannie (the ruthless leader of the Erudite elite). With the faction system of ruined post-apocalyptic Chicago now in disarray, a power struggle is in progress and war looms threateningly in the background.
Haunted by her past and against all odds Tris must persevere in her search for answers. What was so desperately important that her family sacrificed their own lives to protect? She must overcome her fears to continue her quest, seek reliable allies and fight to protect the ones she loves, ultimately saving their world.
Based on a book by Veronica Roth this 2015 film stars Kate Winslett, Shailene Woodley, Miles Teller and Theo James.
Selma is an incredible achievement and among the many things you could praise it for, it perhaps works best as the bio-pic of Martin Luther King that we still haven't had. I've always maintained that the best way to understand someone is to tell their story through one key event, not trying to encompass everything. Selma only covers a few months towards the end of Dr. King's 13 years working for civil rights and we find a man uneasy with his success, his statesman-like reputation, and how it reflects on the those he supports. He is aware of his potential fate and the strain that puts on his family; his wife Cloretta (Carmen Ejogo making the most of a limited role) speaks of death as a fog that surrounds them. While the film does not include his assassination, the knowledge that Dr. King pays that price adds an air of melancholy despite the glorious success of his achievement that started on the Edmund Pettus bridge. David Oyelowo's under-stated performance is superb, convincing as both the calm leader everyone relies on and the human being, struggling to understand if he is doing the right thing. He lifts every scene he is in, even when the film occasionally stumbles and lacks focus in the first half (particularly the awkward tone of wire-tapping sub-titles).
There was much talk of Selma being snubbed by the Academy Awards. With just two nominations and one win (Original Song for Common and John Legend's Glory) there was a notable lack of coverage for what seemed like an obvious choice. Reviews were almost all full of praise and it did have an air of importance, the sort suspicious cynics would have you unfairly believe is Oscar-bait. The Academy's omission was certainly curious in any case, but in truth, Selma does have some minor flaws that take the wind out of its sails. Overall it lacks the consistency and, more importantly, the spark that made 12 Years a Slave distinctively special.
That's understandable because it's heart rightfully belongs on the historic Edmund Pettus bridge and until we're on it, narratively speaking, Selma lacks focus, rushing to get to the march. Selma is far more complicated a story than that of persecution over race represented by good guys and bad guys. Set in 1964, America was becoming more self-aware of it's shameful history and progress had been made in Civil Rights, just not very quickly where voting is concerned. Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon B. Johnson embodies America's personality in a smartly judged role, trying to balance a past he is both ashamed of and sympathetic to, with an inevitable future that he at least believes in. In other words, of course black Americans should be able to vote without fear of discrimination and violence, but... well, it is Alabama, so maybe next year? A delay cannot be afforded though and the bridge comes to represent an emotional and Constitutional crossing as well as a physical one. It must be crossed now and the battle to do so is that of one in an on-going war. That's exactly what it was, of course and the tension before the attempted crossing is palpable. The march itself is a powerful realisation of the struggle, though in-between the catalyst to action for both sides is some horrific violence that will make you wince.
It's hard to comprehend that Martin Luther King had made such huge strides in a relatively short space of time, yet we can't celebrate his legacy as purely historical. Recent events in Ferguson show that hate and ignorance continue, 50 years on from that historic crossing. Perhaps we'll know true diversity has been properly recognised in art at least when a film such as this can be snubbed by an award ceremony because, despite it's brilliance, it simply doesn't quite measure up to other nominees. Instead, in 2015, there is still a niggling feeling of sinister motives. That isn't fair on anyone, least of all this powerful film and those who made it.
Jurassic World's cinema release in 2015 marks just over 20 years since Steven Spielberg re-wrote the monster movie with the original Jurassic Park, but it's a full 40 since he changed cinema forever with the incredible Jaws. And it's looking like a teenager. The current Blu-Ray release is stunning quality and it's striking how fresh the film still is; it's still one of the best of that kind of film and likely to remain so for some time.
But what kind of film is it exactly? Obviously horror and bearing more than a passing resemblance to Hitchcock's The Birds, yet also an event film. Along with Superman and Star Wars, Jaws ushered in the era of the original 'blockbuster'. Some would argue that's a bad thing, but while these films did open up the ruthlessly commercial side of cinema more than ever before, with a noisy focus on franchise and merchandise rather than art, it was a long time coming and these early films were made with the best of intentions and bucket loads of talent.
The first theatrical film for Spielberg (his debut Duel was made for TV) Jaws is arguably still his best film, full of invention in every frame and a superb, ambitious screenplay. It's particularly astonishing to watch the editing (with Verna Fields) and compositions, the way the simplest of exchanges are injected with energy. Akira Kurosawa (Seven Samurai) would always ensure there was movement in every scene he composed, often simply with weather in the background. As well as famous shots such as the three-step zoom on the beach, Spielberg achieves a similar ambition, yet it never feels gratuitous. Although some of his later work can be over-engineered, the mise en scene of Jaws is perfectly measured. The camera roams when it needs to roam, and lingers when it should linger. And of course John Williams' score provides the rhythm. Often imitated, it's only when you see the film again you can really appreciate just how brilliant that theme is. It creeps into the back of your brain ratcheting up the tension.
It's exhilarating stuff and every time I see Jaws there is something new, but on this last occasion I was paying more attention to the screenplay and considering the popular critical idea that it isn't about a shark at all. It's about divorce. Bit random, I know! There's definitely a very large shark in the film and it does seem to have grabbed everyone's attention. Then again there should be a reason for the creature.
The best movie monsters represent a single character's more mundane real-world demon (or a country's, with Japan's fear of nuclear armageddon represented by Godzilla). In this case it's Roy Schneider's police chief and while there is nothing explicit about a difficult relationship with his wife Ellen (Lorraine Gary) -on the contrary, they seem happy- there is a melancholy bubbling to the surface. Read between the lines and this is a marriage being worked at. Chief Brody's family are new to the town and it is inferred they moved from New York to a more idyllic lifestyle, escaping a violent job. Ironic that Brody finds in Amity a more singular deadly risk yet he is determined to deal with it despite his aversion to water and boats. That determination becomes all-consuming, almost as if he needs the distraction.
The film is fairly neatly split into two halves: 'Not On The Boat' and 'On The Boat'. When Brody eventually steps aboard The Orca with Oceanologist and shark-expert Matt (Richard Dreyfuss, in fine form) and gnarly old shark-hunter Quint (the intimidating Robert Shaw), the brief emotional scene with Ellen suggests an amicable trial separation. If he fails to kill off his shark-shaped demon he won't be coming home.
It is to Spielberg's credit that he could translate the various and shifting tones in Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb's screenplay (based on Benchley's own novel) into a narrative at once affecting and thrilling. For all his enthusiasm to skilfully scare the crap out of us with horrific moments, including the opening attack on a skinny-dipper or a young boy taken in a shower of blood in front of a crowded beach, the composition of the quieter scenes have as strong an effect. Note the moment at dinner where Brody's youngest son mimics his pre-occupied dad; or on the boat comparing scars, where Brody keeps potentially the best one quiet, before Quint tells the haunting story of the USS Indianapolis. This is already a thriller of the highest quality and that shark is still yet to be seen properly.
The magnificent beast was created by Bob Mattey and is a mile-stone achievement in animatronic effects. Well, when it worked! Spielberg himself has admitted that he probably made a better film because of the problems with Bruce (the affectionate nickname for the shark, apparently inspired by Spielberg's lawyer) limiting his plans and it makes you wonder how much higher standards could be now if filmmakers hadn't a CGI safety net to rely on. As it is the brief glimpses of the shark are deeply unsettling, especially when you see the size of him compared to The Orca. And when he finally makes his full entrance? Just keep telling yourself, he's 40 years old and made of fibre-glass! It won't work though.
The shark is all the more powerful an image for the false sense of security built up by Bill Butler's gorgeous cinematography. From snappy hand-held work to the wonderful and serene skylines, the film looks gorgeous throughout. One of those rare movies where you could pause at any moment and you'll probably get an image worth framing. Visually the film's a masterpiece, with or without the shark. That's where so many pretenders fall short; focusing too much on the monster, putting everything else in service to its appearance. Alien is another example of building the characters and sets so well that the creature has that much more power when it finally does strike because it is as real a place as possible that is being attacked.
Forty years on Jaws still retains considerable power. It is as thrilling and at times as scary as anything else in the genre. The fear of sharks may be misappropriated, but it's still a primal dread that will never dissipate, if only because audiences want to be scared that much.
There appears to be no special release to commemorate the anniversary, which is a good thing. The current Blu-Ray from 2014 is fantastic value. As well as demonstration standard presentation of the main feature, included is a superb documentary. If you have somehow never seen Jaws there really is no excuse now.
The Longest Week
Feckless philanderer and upper class twit, Conrad Valmont (Jason Bateman) is a thirty-something Man-of-Leisure, who suddenly finds himself out of pocket and potentially disinherited, when his billionaire parents file for divorce. Quietly removed from the family's Manhattan hotel, he embarks upon a week-long escapade; during which he meets mysterious model Olivia Wilde, trades barbs with debonair artist friend Billy Crudup and generally acts the fool in a desperate bid to resolve his financial predicament.
The Longest Week is a well-directed, character driven comedy that despite the rather slow pace, never outstays its welcome. Set in the present day but firmly rooted in the swinging Sixties, writer / director Peter Glanz decorates his scenes with deliberate anachronisms that hark back to the era of La Dolce Vita and Breakfast at Tiffany's (e.g Valmot's Moped, Olivia Wilde's Audrey Hepbrun look, feather rugs, rotary phones etc). And though its rarely laugh-out-loud funny, you'll find yourself smiling on the inside at Valmont's dry wit and drole observations.
Jason Bateman is one of my favourite comic actors; I like him in almost everything from Arrested Development to Extract to Horrible Bosses and even The Change Up. Bateman has impeccable comic timing / delivery and he brings a light touch to this slight, but very watchable movie. Billy Crudup is also on fine form and remains one of the most underrated actors of his generation; he's so good at disappearing into a role that he's almost subliminal as a presence in his own right. Remember, this is the same person who played a 70s rock star in Almost Famous, a dope fiend in Jesus's Son and a semi-cosmic superhero in Watchmen. Here, Crudup is Valmont's foil but has a few memorable character traits of his own e.g. his wholly inappropriate break-up technique involves giving the object of his rejection a Volvo as a parting gift!
Now most critics hated this film because they felt that Peter Galnz was imitating Wes Anderson. Personally, I'm not entirely convinced by that argument, after all, Wes Anderson doesn't hold a copyright on quirky comedies any more than Luis Bunuel does on the bourgeoisie. And whilst the subject matter may be familiar, its still presented in a generally entertaining manner which ought to appeal to fans of this genre. Worth a look.
Birdman is like nothing else you've ever seen.
It begins with a man in his underwear levitating. It ends with a moment of beautiful ambiguity involving a window and a young girl's face. And in-between, it takes in subject-matter that encompasses pretty much everything you can think of - from grand ideas about the meaning of life and the value of art, to smaller notions such as the fickle nature of celebrity stardom and the consuming prevalence of Facebook and Twitter.
But while Birdman is full of interesting content, it's noteworthy as much for its filmmaking style as for the nuts and bolts of its story. Most notably, director Alejandro González Iñárritu constructs the bulk of his movie - which tells the tale of washed-up film star Riggan Thomson (played by Michael Keaton) and his attempts to rejuvenate both his career and his personal life - so as to appear to be one continuous, unbroken take.
What initially appears to be a mere stylistic flourish quickly reveals itself to be much more than that: by constructing the story as a single shot - and keeping the action largely confined to a theatre in which Thomson is attempting to stage a worthy play that will give him the artistic credibility he seeks - Iñárritu draws us into the world of the film and never lets us go, setting the action to a compelling continuous jazz-drumming soundtrack that keeps things interesting and exciting even when they could otherwise threaten to lag.
The director encourages us to follow characters as they move from room to room in real-time, when other films might simply cut from one scene to the next; he hovers expectantly with a (daringly) empty frame for seconds at a time when characters leave a scene, building tension for the next development; he unsettles us by jumping forwards through time from one scene to the next, even though the moments appear to the viewer to be continuous; and he creates a sense of a tangible reality that helps to ground the film in its early stages, even at the same time as he shows us things that we know simply could not be happening if this film was as straightforward a drama as it initially seems.
That's because Birdman isn't a straight drama at all; or at least, it isn't *just* that. Interspersed with the more realistic elements of the story - which see Thomson attempt to juggle his relationships with his daughter (Emma Stone), his co-star (Ed Norton), his ex (Naomi Watts), his lawyer (Zach Galifianakis) and his fiercest critic (Lindsay Duncan) - are scenes in which Thomson exhibits apparently supernatural powers, converses with a manifestation of the superhero Birdman (that he used to play in a series of hit movies), and even witnesses larger-than-life action-movie style scenes that somehow seem to go unnoticed by the rest of the film's cast.
By playing with these fantastical elements, Iñárritu - who also wrote the screenplay - encourages us to question the heightened reality that's presented to us: to interpret each moment through the lens of a potentially unreliable narrator, or at least see some sections of the film as being symbolic more than literal. By blurring the line between what's real and what isn't, the director opens up his story to a satisfying level of ambiguity, allowing for a variety of interpretations that make this movie a lot more interesting to chew on than it would have been as a more conventional drama.
As the central player in a film that never takes its eyes off its lead for too long, Keaton is called on to carry much of the movie - and it's a challenge that he meets tremendously well. Of course, it helps that he's parodying his own real-life persona and playing on his real-life career trajectory to an extent: after all, Riggan Thomson being a slightly faded movie star who made his name in the "Birdman" series is not that far away from Keaton's currently relatively-low profile after his famous stint as Batman. But Keaton goes beyond simply 'playing himself' to give Thomson a sincere yearning for greater meaning, and a sense of existential anguish that really helps to round him out as more than just a two-dimensional has-been movie star.
Ed Norton, too, plays on his real-life reputation of being a little bit 'difficult' and controlling, sending himself up beautifully. And Emma Stone is utterly beguiling as Riggan's daughter, with a youthful naivety that belies the fact that she's actually one of the most insightful and mature characters in the story.
It's telling that every person that I know who has watched Birdman has taken something different away from the film. My younger, more technologically switched-on brother enjoyed the exploration of social media as being just as much of an arena of performance as the theatre within which Riggan performs; my sister saw it as a funny celebrity satire; my parents viewed it as more of a story about the relationship between the older and younger generation, and about the trials of getting older; and I saw it as more of a representation of a mid-life crisis over what defines you, how you measure your own sense of self worth, and whether it really matters what others think of you.
For me, it's those introspective elements of Birdman that really stand out, and that help to make the movie far more universally-relevant than a simple synopsis might suggest. From the regularly-glimpsed notice in Riggan's dressing-room - stating that "a thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing" - to the frequent use of reflections as a visual motif, there's a subtle recurring theme of whether you can ever see yourself as others see you, and whether you can truly reconcile your inner identity with the person that you project to the world.
Birdman's alternative title - as shown at the very start of the film - is "The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance". Like much of the movie, it's something that's immediately amusing and thought-provoking, but also ambiguous enough to be open to more than one interpretation. And that's the film in a nutshell: a likeable comedy that also carries a fair amount of dramatic weight, and gradually reveals itself to contain some fairly deep and challenging ideas that you might find yourself pondering long after you've switched off your TV.
If you're that small percentage of the film-going audience who won't go to any movie that might give you an unpleasant experience then Kids is certainly not for you. If you're offended by people having or even talking about sex, then you'd also better steer clear of this film because that's pretty much nearly all of what happens in it. Larry Clark's documentary-style account of 24 hours in the lives of a group of sexually active, homphobic New York slackers in their early teens who travel Manhattan on skateboards and subway trains, have unprotected casual sex, drink, do drugs, talk, party and crash in a familiar stupor, caused controversy by its raw, unflinching depiction of a youth culture in the mid nineties who didn't have any interests, any curiosity, any values or any frame of reference beyond immediate animal gratification. What gives Kids its documentary feel is the way it sees this culture in such flat, unblinking detail; it knows what it's talking about. We're in the characters' world and you therefore get the insider's point of view. One word to describe it is shocking. I've never seen anything like it before or since, and am unlikely to see anything like it again.
Kids centres on a terrific plot involving two girls who go for an AIDS test. The result shadows the rest of the film.
One of the girls, Jenny, played by the perfectly cast Chloe Sevigny, finds out she's infected with the HIV virus after just one sexual experience and goes looking for the sixteen year old guy named Telly who's responsible. Telly at least has an interest in life; sex. He continuously talks about his enthusiasm for de-virginising young girls and is egged on by his friends. It is this casting of Leo Fitzpatrick as Telly that has a great deal to do with the powerful impact the film delivers. He's the kind of kid who gives parents nightmares and would make them think we'd better watch and worry. He is essentially a very effective sex machine, prowling through streets of naive, underage girls. What makes him unforgettable are two things; Firstly his face, which is a scary study in self-absorption as he tells girls lies they should laugh at but being naïve or simply curious, they listen to him. He contorts his face in such frighteningly grotesque ways as he talks with great enthusiasm and conviction of his twisted sexual fantasies and conquests like a series of ugly blows, you literally want to lock your daughters away from this animal. "What if I get pregnant," asks a girl, who looks about fourteen. "If you.me, you don't have to worry about that," Telly tells her. "Why not?" "Because I love you. Because I think you're beautiful." It's as easy as that. Minutes later, with his mission accomplished, he's back on the street with his friend explaining his philosophy about virgins: "Say you die tomorrow. Fifty years from now, she'll still remember you." Hearing the way he delivers these words in a crude, grating, raspy, foghorn voice with that authentic New York twang is the second reason why this character stays with you long after the movie is over. Everything that comes out of his mouth sounds unwholesome. He's not much to look at either but that doesn't stop him from being a sexual predator. The irony of his prophecies is that when we hear the girls talk about their sexual conquests, they can't even remember losing their virginity. Telly is completely out of touch with the opposite sex.
Leo Fitzpatrick wasn't even an actor before this movie. He was a skateboarder. That makes his performance all the more remarkable. You actually dislike Telly so much you want to deny Fitzpatrick's accomplishment in creating him. The girls are under his supremely confident spell.
What's also interesting about the movie is the way it's shot. You hardly ever see Manhattan. The camera is trained on this depressing youth culture. What is not human and between 12 and 17 essentially doesn't exist. This is summarised best in a scene early in the movie. Telly's friend Casper pauses with nonchalance in full view of passersby on a street corner to urinate. That is not the shocking part. What is strange is that Telly chooses to stand around the corner from Casper as if to give him his privacy. Studying this body language, the notion that the movie is about these young people's world is reinforced as they appear to live in a place where adults simply do not exist. This is film language of the highest order.
The dialogue in the film sounds authentic, organic and improvised, though was actually written by a teenaged skateboarder named Harmony Korine. The use of non-actors adds to the natural feel of the film although at times, the lack of professional experience does affect a few performances. We do however end up with a time capsule to a specific youth culture in New York in the mid nineties and an ode to adolescent sexual mischief.
Clark's direction is discreet. He delivers his point with character and action and not with speeches, though there are wonderful discussions amongst the kids. The picture has this meandering, observational but seldom illuminating style that is extremely effective.
Much of the controversy and moral panic about Kids comes not from the level of nudity or explicitness in the film of which there isn't a lot of but from the fact that the teenagers in this movie actually look like teenagers. There are those who argue that the tone of the film is sordid with the view of these pubescent hedonists as hermetic and that the filmmakers' honesty seems obscene, exploitative and sensational. I think we live in a society that is increasingly becoming more hermetic, where people turn a blind eye to the problems faced by those marginalised in our society. We've established that few of the kids seem bothered about anything except meaningless sex, whatever illegal drugs or booze is available, and the odd bit of mindless violence. Nonetheless there is a strong message coming out of this horny AIDS parable; Kids is a wake-up call, a cautionary tale about the importance of safe sex. Of course safe sex won't civilise these kids or turn them into curious, capable citizens but when you think about Telly, you feel life has given him nothing that interests him other than sex, drugs and skateboards. He's living a hell on earth, briefly interrupted by orgasms.
The first time I saw Kids, I was a teenager myself and it didn't shock me as much as when I saw it recently as a forty year old. That is essentially because although most kids are not like those depicted in the movie, some are and I've seen, met and hung out with them. For some young people, this film is about real life. Kids from this culture do have sex, drink booze, smoke weed and commit acts of meaningless violence. If you don't believe me, you only need to read the papers to discover this and that all teenagers have a secret life and it's always darker than what their parents think. As a kid myself at the time of the film's release, though my own life didn't quite mirror those in the film, I did get it. It did feel real. You don't identify with the exact behaviour but the hanging out, skateboarding, alcohol-taking, weed-smoking and the hip-hop music resonates with most youth. We'd never seen all these elements rolled into one movie. Yes, detractors have a point that the film is a little exaggerated but you'd have to be pretty ignorant to deny things like those shown in the film weren't going on. They represent a failure at home, school, church, mosque and society as a whole. They could have been raised in a zoo, educated only to the base instincts. What the movie did is make me understand why we all need a mix of art, education, religion, philosophy, politics and poetry in our lives because without something to open our windows to the higher possibilities of life, we might all be Tellys, and more amputated than this half-man on his skateboard. Perhaps I was more shocked by the film now not because I'm an adult now but because we live in a world that's much more sanitised and candy-flossed over by the consumer and media culture that dominates us.
From a storytelling point of view, it has all the hallmarks of a great film. The inciting incident in any story is its most profound cause and the story climax in this film seems inevitable but like all great movies, it doesn't happen the way we expected it. The actions people take to fix things become exactly what are needed to be destroyed by them.
The way this amoral film delivers its message is groundbreaking and makes it something of a landmark. Yes it's depressing and unfiltered with no feel good stuff but there still appears to be a glimmer of hope, a fleeting chance at redemption. Kids is a truthful and emotionally satisfying film despite its bleakness.
In the near-future a robot police force keeps law and order on the streets of Johannesburg. When droid 122 is badly damaged in a fire-fight it is scheduled for destruction and recycling. Robotic whizz Deon (Dev Patel) patches up the robot, grants it the gift of sentience and it is reborn as Chappie. But when local criminals Ninja and Yolandi kidnap Chappie and attempt to retrain him to help them carry out a series of small-time carjackings before progressing to a huge money-truck heist, his life and his innocence are put into jeopardy.
Johannesburg native Neill Blomkamp has proved himself one of the most creative talents in film over the past few years, making a name for himself with thoughtful films, mostly focussing on very human stories that take place in a dystopian near-future. The 35 year old writer/director has had hit films with District 9 and Elysium, yet in truth his writing is actually extremely derivative. He draws heavily from classic TV such as The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and Star Trek as well as movies including Robocop and Short Circuit. However who can blame him for taking inspiration from some of the very finest sci-fi writing of the past half century? His winning ability lies in taking these ideas, expanding upon them, and adapting them for contemporary cinema. Much like District 9 and Elysium, Chappie is a film that explores several high-concept themes such as artificial intelligence, drone-technology, enforced ownership, slavery and child abuse and does so without preaching. Blomkamp's directorial skills are impressive, he always allows his performers the space and time to express themselves fully.
As the CGI-rendered Chappie, Sharlto Copley is an amazing presence in this film. His performance is confident and assured and his motion capture work is phenomenal. His movements as Chappie are fluid and realistic, imbuing Chappie with genuine life. The scenes that follow Chappie's 'birth' are captivating - scared of people and his surroundings - Chappie is timid and watching him cower when being shouted at or physically hurt is heartbreaking.
Ninja and Yolandi, making their screen debuts, produce mighty performances. Ninja's towering presence will fill audiences with fear whilst Yolandi, who becomes Chappie's de facto Mother, swings wildly from drug-crazied, gun-totting criminal to heart-warming protector. They're broken, rotten people, with little to live for apart from drugs, money and their next heist. They live in squalor and fear of the Slumlord, Hippo (Brandon Auret) knowing that they must do what he says, or face his brutal justice. Yet somehow before the film reaches its shocking conclusion, they work their way into audience's hearts.
Sigourney Weaver is competent but underused in a thankless and rather mundane role. Hugh Jackman fairs better in a role that sees him playing heavily against type as a mullet-haired, perhaps unfairly overlooked, ex-military thug that has moved into designing law enforcement robots that are so over-the-top that it's funny.
Dev Patel's performance, sadly, feels unnecessarily flamboyant, almost as if he feels the need to play the part of the seasoned actor next to Ninja and Yolandi. If this is the case he needn't have bothered as their honest and brave performances blow him off the screen.
There are several scenes in the first act that will force audiences to the brink of their tolerance for physical and mental abuse in films. The brutal treatment meted out to Chappie by Ninja and some other random thugs makes for uncomfortable viewing but those that persevere will be rewarded with a film that impresses as both entertainment and social commentary.
Viewers may well figure out the way the story will end long before the final act unfolds but the impact is undiminished, hitting hard, and asking testing questions that will resonate long after the credits roll.
Calvary is a comedy. You might have to keep telling yourself that while you watch it though, because it goes to some of the darkest places that I've ever seen a comedy go.
Calvary is a comedy, but it deals with subject matter that includes the paedophile scandal in the Catholic church, the effects of domestic violence, and the link between the irresponsibility and immorality of bankers and the recent global financial crash. It might not sound like fertile territory for laughs, but director John Michael McDonagh crafts a story that manages to wring black humour out of these subjects without ever compromising on treating them with the seriousness they deserve. His lead, Brendon Gleeson, turns in an utterly magnetic performance as a Catholic priest - Father James - who is an upstanding and morally sound member of his community, but who is told by a mystery parishoner during confession that he will be murdered in a week's time, as an act of revenge for historical abuse carried out by other unrelated priests. As Father James continues to do his rounds for what could be the last time, we start to learn more about the personal lives of his flock, and how each of them has a dark side that could provide them with the motivation to become his future killer.
Calvary is a comedy, and it features a host of great Irish comedy talent. Most notably, Chris O'Dowd (famous from the IT Crowd, but also with plenty of film experience under his belt) and Dylan Moran (of Black Books fame) play important roles that are not just comedic, but also allow them to show off their acting chops. Moran's character - a wealthy and callous banker - is just about as unsympathetic as it gets, but somehow the actor imbues him with a sense of tragedy and emptiness that leads you to somehow end up caring about him in spite of his obvious flaws. And the loveable O'Dowd plays completely against type as a butcher with violent tendencies and a failing marriage, but who may not be all that he seems.
Calvary is a comedy, but it can also boast its fair share of standout dramatic turns too. In particular, Aidan Gillen - who will be familiar to Game Of Thrones fans as Littlefinger from that series - gets a bravura scene as a cynical doctor who shares the horrific story of a young blind, deaf and mute patient, which ends up acting as a metaphor for the feelings of victims of abuse within the Catholic church. Meanwhile, Kelly Reilly carries much of the emotional weight of the story as the daughter of Father James, acting as a link to his past that underpins some of the most touching and personal parts of the story - much of it dealing with death and loss.
Yes, Calvary is a comedy, but one with an incredibly black and serious heart. For me, though, that only serves to make its moments of levity feel that much more effective and well-earned. What's more, it allows McDonagh to make a film that has genuine emotional heft to it, and which truly has something to say. And that makes Calvary a rarity in the comedy genre: a film that can make you think as much as it makes you laugh.
Scott & Bailey - Series 4
What separates Brit (and for the most part European) dramas from their American counterparts is not only their stories... but the brilliant actors they find to "do the job".
The chemistry between Lesley Sharp and Suranne Jones (the 2 main actors in the series) is simply Amazing.
Their characters are "real" people, they have "real" lives... which in the normal sense of the world can get in the way of their tv drama roles.
But in the end it works and they do it so well. Each is vulnerable, each has their own issues... but the talented writers weave this into the plot lines of stories, again, so well. And they do this with all the actors in the series.
And again, unlike their American counterparts the "hows and whys" are explained so you and I as the viewers can follow intelligently.
The audience is no where spoon fed but given just the right amount of information to stay tuned and hang on the edge of their seats.
This is Series 4: Bring on Series 5, 6, 7 and more.
Amy (Rosamund Pike) and Nick (Ben Affleck) have been married for five years. Externally, their marriage and their lives seem just about perfect, but internally, under the surface, tensions are mounting and their lives are about to be torn apart.
Amy's parents are the authors of a string of successful children's books whose main character 'Amazing Amy' is based on their daughter. Is the fact that the book version of Amy is more successful than the real Amy something that has been slowly eating away at Amy's mental state for years? Nick is a part-time college lecturer and writer who also runs a local bar. He looks clean-cut and faithful but he's secretly having an affair with one of his students.
Suddenly and mysteriously, Amy goes missing and whilst there's no obvious sign of a struggle at their home it's clear that something very unusual has happened. A murder investigation begins with Nick as the prime suspect. The story goes national as the media goes wild. Has Amy been kidnapped? Has Nick murdered her? The truth is more shocking than the fiction - Amy has devised a diabolical plan to get even with Nick for his cheating.
David Fincher is the perfect director for this dark and tense thriller filled with violence, sex and a gut-punch twist. He handles actors extremely well and his direction of scenes and photography is unparalleled in its ingenuity.
Affleck's performance is never less than adequate but the role gives little to do other than look upset about his wife's disappearance, have an affair with a younger girl and look repentant when he later admits to his indiscretion on live TV in order to win public support.
Pike's performance is fearless and haunting - as Amy she is deceptive, manipulative and ruthless. It's her finest performance to date. Gone Girl is all about Pike's truly incendiary performance, everyone else is simply there to support her.
Gone Girl is a scorpion of a film with a deadly sting in its tale.
Michael Flatley's Lord of the Dance: Dangerous Games
Eight and a half minutes during 1994's Eurovision Song Contest's interval, is all it took to catapult Irish dancing to new levels that firmly imprinted itself in the mind of a global audience. Michael Flatley and Jean Butler became overnight superstars. Destroying box office records all over the world with the now legendary 'Riverdance' - Irish Dance was here to stay.
Following Flatley's departure from 'Riverdance', came the creation of 'Lord of the Dance'. Undoubtedly, 'Lord of the Dance' is Michael Flatley's masterpiece, a tour de force of technical skills and showmanship, all executed in the unmistakable Flatley style that has proved to be a seminal piece of work for other Irish dance shows.
In his latest reincarnation, 'Lord of the Dance: Dangerous Games', Flatley maintains his unashamedly, in your face, pure entertainment. The grandeur of the London Palladium, which has hosted some of the biggest names in show business, is more than apt as the venue to house the Irish dance fantasy, as we are transported through several locations via the magic of large video screens and a rousing musical score that firmly places you in the centre of this Irish fantasy.
This reincarnation proves to be more accessible to a wider, more diverse audience than its predecessor, as the production provides something for everyone. An outlandish spectacle of the classic 'good versus evil' story; a spirit has a dream in which the Lord of the Dance (spectacularly played by James Keegan) must battle the Dark Lord and his disciples so that she will re-awaken from her nightmare. Complete with a contortionist; female dancers with legs that don't seem to stop; illuminating dancing robots; a villain with more fetish get up that would make any 'Fifty Shades of Grey' fan proud and Irish former 'Girls Aloud' star Nadine Coyle as the Goddess Erin and Flatley himself complete the line up.
Sadly, Nadine Coyle proves to be the weak link in the show as she seems to smile and coast her way through some songs, like a Norma Desmond character that never really soar to the heights that they were intended; desperately trying to hang on to past glories of her former girl group days. The strength of the show lies firmly in a line of dancers performing in unison, to the rising title track 'Lord of the Dance'. However, it is the entrance of Flatley himself, albeit brief, that turns a usually polite, pliant, well behaved British audience into our more vocal and expressive American counter-parts.
At 56, Flatley proves that he still has star power and the attraction clearly lies in his unashamedly level of confidence and intense self-promotion that has clearly ensured that 'Lord of the Dance: Dangerous Games' is a massive commercial success.
The Imitation Game
Despite it being one of the biggest and best-reviewed films of last year, The Imitation Game was a real let-down for me. There was a chance to really tell a well-rounded story of Alan Turing, a story that had largely been overlooked by many a history book.
That was the promise that so much of the marketing sold me on - 'The untold story of Alan Turing.' So I was really surprised to find that the film barely dealt with issues surrounding his homosexuality and the chemical castration that followed his 'outing'. The story of the Enigma machine had itself largely been told in the film Enigma. It was the other story I thought I would be seeing, which is why it really felt like a let-down.
Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley do fine work in the leads, and there's some great supporting stars (inc. Mark Strong, Matthew Goode, Charles Dance, Rory Kinnear, and a fairly new actor Matthew Beard), though it's mostly Cumberbatch who fills the majority of the screen time. (He's undeniably good, but there are hints of Sherlock and his similar past characters at times.)
What upset me most is that the film went on to win Best Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars, which I really don't think it deserved to win with so much stronger competition. If it had gone into greater detail about Turing's later life, as pitched, then maybe. But as it was, I thought it was a real shame. Worth watching if you're keen to see another story surrounding the Enigma machine. But if you're looking for the 'untold story' of Alan Turing, this might not meet your hopes either.
Michaël R. Roskam's name is one I was vaguely familiar with before last year, but The Drop has really put him on the map for me, and made me want to check out his earlier work.
Only his second feature-length film to date (after doing a few shorts before that), The Drop is an adaptation of an original short story by Dennis Lehane. Lehane is the man who wrote the novels that Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, and Shutter Island are all based on. And The Drop is also Lehane's first film actually writing the screenplay.
Roskam and Lehane both do a great job on the adaptation, and I think it's a real shame that it didn't get much more attention during the Oscars and BAFTAs, etc. last year. Lehane's script is a real sharp and tense crime drama, which Roskam superbly brings to life.
Tom Hardy delivers a wonderful leading performance, one of his many greats, starring as Bob, a young bartender who finds himself facing some tough choices that will ultimately decide his fate, in the crosshairs of the mob following a robbery gone wrong.
The supporting cast notably includes the late James Gandolfini's final ever feature performance, and whilst I would have loved to see him lead in his last film, he nonetheless delivers every bit as brilliantly as you'd expect from him, and it's retrospectively all the more heartfelt now that we know it to be his last.
Noomi Rapace, star of the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels, is also a pleasure to watch in the female lead, with Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust and Bone) doing another great job as another main support.
For the most part, it's really Tom Hardy that fills the screen, giving a nuanced performance as a complex character in this Brooklyn underbelly. It's a gritty thriller that deserves to be remembered and rewatched for years to come.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1
One of my favourite sequels of last year, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 takes the popular film series in a really different direction to the first film and its sequel, Catching Fire. This time, we find Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and co. beyond the Capitol's reach, on the outer rims of Panem.
It picks up pretty much immediately where Catching Fire left off, with Miss Everdeen airlifted to safety from the Quarter Quell. Unfortunately, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and Johanna (Jena Malone) have not been so lucky, captured by the Capitol and detained while Katniss joins the Rebellion.
At first reluctant to have a part in it, knowing that Peeta is at risk, Katniss is soon taken to the devastation that has hit her former home, District 12. And it is this wreckage that really inspires her to rise up and become the titular Mockingjay for her people, their saviour.
What makes it so different from the first two films is that there is no Hunger Games. In those films, we saw heavy action, largely one-on-one or small groups against small groups. The last-person-standing situation is switched out for something on a bigger scale, where the lives of Panem's citizens are at stake.
Some critics have complained that the film not having a Hunger Games has made it more boring or less watchable, but I think the reverse is true. It gives us a chance to explore the outer realms of Panem and the long-lost District 13, seeing parts of this world that we didn't get to explore in the first two. It also remains fairly faithful to the original book. And you get the sense that it's really building to something even bigger and more epic than the first two films - which is saying something! - when Mockingjay Part 2 comes out.
If you're looking for action, you might want to look somewhere else. But the characters are still just as brilliant as they've ever been, and this time we get to see Liam Hemsworth's Gale finally take a leading role with Katniss, as well as more of Philip Seymour Hoffman's Plutarch Heavensbee, Woody Harrelson's Haymitch, Elizabeth Banks' Effie, and Julianne Moore, who appears for the first time in the franchise as President Coin. So if you've been looking forward to seeing more of them, and you're excited about where the story has been heading overall in the series so far, you can't miss this.
This movie is just as bad as you'd expect.
Made by the same people as Meet the Spartans and The Starving Games, it's a spoof movie that has no real plot, no good actors, and most importantly, no real laughs. Instead, it cuts together bits and pieces from all the Fast and Furious films in the hopes of making a quick buck, essentially the worst kind of filmmaking there is.
The original films have things you can poke fun at, sure - they exaggerate things on a blockbuster level, for obvious reasons. But they know that they're big, and it's at least partly done tongue in cheek. Superfast doesn't seem to get that at all. In fairness, the budget is half decent and they do some good things with the money - there are some cool car sequences, and it did make me half-chortle in one scene. But a genuinely good spoof movie should do more than that. It's a shame this isn't one of them.
Beyond Justice is a kind of blend of action/thriller meets courtroom drama. Vinnie Jones leads the cast as a no-holds-barred businessman who wants revenge for the murder of his son, and he'll stop at nothing to get his hands on the killer.
Jones is joined by a young lawyer (Timothy Woodward Junior), an enchanting Assistant DA (Mischa Barton) & a private investigator (Luke Goss) on his path to vengeance, with all roads leading to Danny Trejo's infamous thug, Tattoo.
Also known as Throwdown in some countries, Woodward Junior's film (he also directs) is pretty much your standard crime drama with some action sequences thrown in for good measure. No one is at their best here, but they're not at their worst either. The production values look fairly indie in some scenes, and then there'll be a big explosion in others, and you sort of get the feeling that the money maybe could have been better spent/budgeted to sacrifice the fire for a better overall feel. The cast is probably enough to interest many - Jones is entertaining in most things he's in, and Trejo's his usual tough-as-nails - but the story isn't really as good as it could have been, to be totally honest. It has potential that it doesn't quite get to.