Whenever returning from back home in Alderney, I always make it a case in point to catch up with as many films as I possibly can (God forbid I’d be out of the loop). With the Oscars looming and the nominations just announced, a lot of these movies are in serious consideration within some major categories, meaning that there is some degree of expectation and hype which is rather hard to forget. This very often hampers a film which finds its release in January; while it makes for a very exciting time to go to the cinema, Awards expectations can often lead you to expect too much. With that in mind, I consumed four films (three of which are more serious contenders) all with their own degree of hype and expectation. Who came out relatively unscathed? Here are my mini-reviews for Foxcatcher, The Theory of Everything, Birdman, and American Sniper. 

Foxcatcher

Foxcatcher (Dir: Bennett Miller)

The only film from this collection of reviews that does not have a Best Picture nomination is also the one I find hardest to discuss, namely for the fact that I struggle to determine whether or not I actually liked it. It contains performances which are certainly worth witnessing, and tells an intriguing drama based on fact. But it is not a film which is entirely rewarding, nor is it one that is particularly welcoming. Sure, it tells a rather depressing tale which one would not expect to find many laughs or moments of levity, but it would seem the film has been consciously designed to isolate the viewer from the proceedings, through an ambient sound-scape ensuring that some form of noise occupies the screen, even if we can’t determine its origins (often in replacement of dialogue). While this is successful, it is also leads one to feel very ambivalent about the film itself. The story concerns 1984’s Olympic Wrestling Champion Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) who offered the chance to train on the grounds of billionaire John De Pont (Steve Carell) in preparation for the World Wrestling Championship, and sequentially the 1988 Olympics. Tensions soon arise between Du Pont and Schultz, leading to Mark’s brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) entering the fray. This sets them all down a dark path with an unexpected outcome. I did not know anything about the story from which the film is based (although it would seem that many liberties have been taken) and this ignorance certainly allowed for me to become more involved in the drama, as I tried to decipher what fates awaited these figures in anticipation of the outcome. Miller does construct a prevalent sense of dread through his rather distant camera. This distance, aiming to demonstrate the loneliness of the individuals involved, would have proved aggravating if it wasn’t for the strength of the performances on display. Tatum leads with an animalistic performance, aptly demonstrating his character’s limitations, strengths, and dedication often all at once. Carell,while refreshingly playing out of type and up-ing the creep factor, did not prove to be quite the revelation I was expecting. There seems to be enough on offer in regards vulnerability and concern for the somewhat cliché mother/son dynamic to give some reason behind Du Pont’s apparent madness, but the distracting make-up and monotone voice makes for a performance which does little to convey a real human being. Mark Ruffalo, however, proves to be the strongest asset in the cast, constructing the most likeable, and most human, figure of the central cast. Proving to be the most skilled at both the more subtle and broader dramatic moments, it is his performance which allows for the final moments to truly resonate. Foxcatcher is essential viewing in the build up to the end of this Awards Season, if only for the calibre of the performances and to see quite how volatile a true life account can be when translated to the screen. Certainly impressive, but an alienating experience. 3/5  

The-Theory-of-Everything-Poster-2

The Theory of Everything (Dir: James Marsh)

The number of biopics is usually quite high during Awards Seasons, but this year they seem to be particularly prevalent. I’d assert that it isn’t so much to do with the volume of biopics, more so it is their subjects that warrant more attention to be attributed to the respective films. Be it Alan Turing’s discoveries and struggles, Dr. King’s inspiration, or the life and romance of a certain Stephen Hawking, they all concern characters who have had a great effect on general human thought, civil rights, and to the question of our place in the universe. The Theory of Everything concerns Hawking as a young man (Eddie Redmayne) studying for his PhD at Cambridge, dealing with his tragic diagnosis of Motor Neuron Disease. In the face of such news, he begins to live life to the full in the small amount of time that he believes he has left. Part of this is to accept the love of fellow student, Jane (Felicity Jones). With the disease worsening, but also with Stephen living far beyond what was expected, the stress of Stpehen’s work and the effect of time itself on their relationship puts Stephen and Jane’s love to the test. There is much to like about The Theory of Everything. It explores a relationship which feels incredibly genuine and touching, yet does not refrain from showing the strains that occur within this unique and tragic situation. The film is at its most successful during the first act, in which we witness Stephen and Jane courting, as well as observing the first signs of the disease. The natural chemistry between Redmayne and Jones, and the means in which Marsh softly lights his two stars allows for the story to feel fantastical, magical, as if these two were always destined to meet. It allows one to become apart of their romance, hoping for the best possible outcome for the simply adorable pairing. Unfortunately, what follows is a very colour-by-numbers biopic, complete with un-interesting supporting characters, moments of clichéd ‘inspiration’, topped off with a few too many ‘home video’ montages. It manages to get back on track in the final, truly quite rousing moments, it is just a shame that there is quite a great deal of the second act which is down-right dull. The two central performances certainly keep it afloat, with Redmayne convincingly portraying the decreasing physical capabilities of Hawking, as well as constructing an identity for Hawking as a young man, and most importantly as a sexual being. Jones, arguably, is the better of the two. Granted, less is required of her physically, but what she does have to convey is a great deal of pathos, demonstrating a great deal of frustration, adoration, and guilt, often all at once. Jones aptly conveys Jane’s increasingly suffocating role as wife and mother, marking her as more of a contender than I was anticipating. A very well performed biopic that ultimately fails to provide anything particularly unique this season. 3/5

birdman-click Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Dir: Alejandro G. Inarritu) 

Where does one begin with Inarritu’s Birdman? Many have waxed lyrically concerning the Mexican director’s 5th feature, with nary a bad word to say against it. And truth be told, there is good reason for that. Conveying the turmoil of Hollywood superhero actor Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) as he attempts to put on a Broadway play in order to carve some respect for himself, Inarritu has constructed a film of unique fluidity and energy that others can only hope to match. Birdman certainly takes a lot under its wing. Not only does it deal with artistry (namely what is regarded as a ‘higher form’ of art), it also comments on celebrity status, the concerns of Hollywood, acting methods, familial relationships, egos, the purpose of criticism, the way in which we perceive events, all the while constructing a believable backstage atmosphere. It is a lot to take on, but Inarritu’s confidence manages to wrap all of the themes together very tightly. Yet, there is a sense that Inarritu’s knows how good he is, leading the film to walk a very fine line between genius and pretentiousness. It is most certainly indulgent, taking the time to revel in the long shots which contain much of the drama. The gimmick itself is more than justified to allow for the backstage vibe to truly resonate as a flowing hive of hysteria and creativity. It is really only in the film’s final moment that the film tips unfavourably towards self-indulgence, providing an epilogue that does very little for the film, coming across as rather pointless as it simply reiterates points the rest of the film had already firmly laid down. Where the film is truly a masterclass is in its ensemble casting. No one puts a foot wrong amongst the talented individuals that make up the cast. Edward Norton and Emma Stone in particular earn their nominations with dedicated and incredibly charged performances. Norton, who essentially plays a farcical version of himself, provides the film with a highly entertaining performance, often being responsible for the film’s funniest moments. It’s great to see Norton enjoying himself in a role in which there is a sense he was given a great deal of free reign, which seems to be the greatest means of getting the best from him. But the film does belong to one man, and that man is Keaton. Many have tipped him for Oscar glory, and rightly so, as the former Batman de-constructs our associations of him to deliver a character that is his own creation. His dedication is particularly evident in the third act when the film takes a turn for the oddball. Here, Keaton reminds us of the zany, angry demeanour that the man who portrayed Betelgeuse is capable of. He is the only reason the more surreal elements of the film feel worthwhile, allowing him further range to explore and a bigger sandbox in which to play. Birdman is without a doubt the best example of the craft of acting this awards season. Although its ambition and heavy thematic load does, at times, threaten to send it down the slippery path of self-indulgence, it is more than kept in check by the acting talent as its disposal. 4/5 

 american-sniper-posterAmerican Sniper (Dir: Clint Eastwood)

With the volume of backlash that Eastwood’s latest film has been receiving a week following its record breaking opening, I almost feel trepiditious in stating that I liked the film. What appears to be coming under target is the film’s position as a portrait of an individual, and the glorification of him as an American hero. The individual in question is Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history, clocking in over 100 kills (the actually number itself is widely disputed) during his four tours of duty in Iraq from 2003-2008. While the film does succumb to hero worshipping, and at times seemingly decides to run away from queries concerning the legitimacy of his kills (one scene dangles the possibility, but is literally left as a fleeting moment), there can be no denying that what has been produced is a highly effective war-time thriller. As was the case with Foxcatcher, I knew nothing about the individual(s) involved, allowing for the drama to unfold at an unpredictable clip, resulting in what I found to be a touching and devastating finale. Eastwood directs with a verve and interest that has been distinctly lacking in his films of late; his war scenes pop with excitement, tension, and threat. The depiction of the Iraqi troops is certainly problematic, with the ‘antagonists’ being coloured very lightly into almost Phantom-esque figures in the forms of ‘The Butcher’ and ‘Mustafa’. Much more could have been done to depict, particularly Mustafa, as Kyle’s equal, and in so show some respect for their plight as well. Again, at times the film seems to be heading in such a direction, only to re-focus again entirely on Kyle. Which brings me to my main argument concerning American Sniper; one should not expect a war film from Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper to critique America’s involvement in Iraq. They have set out to make a film about one significant individual in the conflict, aiming to demonstrate the effects of his involvement on his own personal mental state, and on his family back at home. And they are successful in this aim. Cooper’s dedication is evident, as aims to convey a deep, bubbling inner turmoil that slowly, but surely, begins to unravel Kyle’s psyche. Sienna Miller, despite talking on the other end of the phone for most of her screen-time, provides an important emotional lynch-pin on the home-front, allowing for American Sniper to provide one of the more effective portrayals of the effect of the Iraq War on the family that we have seen so far in Cinema. I am not saying that American Sniper does not deserve the scrutiny it is receiving, it opens itself up to be problematic by seemingly addressing issues fleetingly. But I stand by the successes of Eastwood’s work as an examination of an individual, with Cooper generating a great deal of sympathy in his well-balanced performance. This may be enough for you to like the film, or you too may find it far too problematic, as many have done. But there is something worthwhile here to witness as a product of American War Cinema. Much like many of Kyle’s actions, how you choose to deal with it is your call. 4/5

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