Archive for January, 2016

Review: Creed- Flying High.

Creed-1Anyone can be forgiven for grumbling at the prospect of another Rocky movie. That was certainly my reaction when I first heard the news of this spin-off/sequel/soft-reboot. I have a great affection for the franchise (for lack of my better judgement, I like all of them in varying degrees from bona-fide classic to guilty pleasure), but it is one that felt like it had its bow nicely tied off with 2006’s underrated Rocky Balboa, why the need to hit the streets of Philly with the Italian Stallion again? This is a question that writer/director Ryan Coogler firmly addresses within Creed, and its greatest success is in its negotiation between telling a new story whilst remaining very much a part of the Rocky franchise.

Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) has grown up without a father and with very little sense of who he is and where he comes from. His father, however, casts a large shadow over his life, as his father was the late heavyweight champion of the world Apollo Creed, who died before Adonis was born. Eager to learn more about both his father and himself, Aldonis seeks the help of Apollo’s old rival turned friend, one Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) in order to try and be the best fighter he can be, and prove himself worthy of the Creed name.

By putting Rocky more on the sidelines, Coogler and Jordan manage to construct a film which Creed-2both feels very personal and very much a film made by Rocky fans for Rocky fans. They bring the intimacy and grit that marked their previous collaboration, Fruitvale Station, as a potent piece that demanded attention. There is a bit more Hollywood gloss here, but ultimately there is a rawness here that hasn’t truly been felt in this franchise since the OG in ’77.

The character of Adonis is one that allows Jordan to truly flex both his acting chops and his finely tuned physical form, well and truly bouncing back from last summer’s quickly forgotten Fantastic Four. Adonis is a complicated character, born out of an affair to a mother unprepared to raise him and a father who died before knowing he existed. His struggle to decide whether to use his namesake or forge a legacy for himself is one that powers the narrative and enables the character to be a worthy lead for this new direction for the franchise. His relationship with Tessa Thompson’s Bianca is also pivotal and affectingly genuine, with chemistry stirring between the two young leads and Thompson delivering a great deal of depth from her very well written female role.

Stallone’s return to the role must have been a difficult decision. Not only did Balboa feel like a moment of closure, this is also the first time Creed-2.2that Stallone has played the character without also having written the script. Rocky’s voice, however, is much retained, and Stallone, away from both the scripting and directing duties, mines his most famous character in ways not seen across the franchise. The weight of his legacy is felt in his performance, as Stallone refreshingly plays his age and uses his star history to craft Balboa as both a warm and tragic figure. It is a performance that reminds one of how good an actor Stallone can be away from the action-fare that has both made him a star and tainted his name.

What truly marks Creed as a success is Coogler’s dynamism behind the camera. While he respects and adheres to a aesthetic cohesion to the Rocky franchise, there is enough original styling here to further demonstrate his burgeoning talent. The Boxing genre is a difficult one to be all that dynamic within, due to it having been a staple of Hollywood cinema for most of its history, yet Coogler manages it. It is at times over-stylised, but the way in which Coogler frames his fighting scenes engage in an intimate and brutal way, often staying tight to Adonis’ shoulder as he prowls in the ring. One sequence in particular sees Adonis take on an opponent in 3 rounds in one uninterrupted take. It is moments like this that thrill, inspire and reinvigorate this franchise in unexpected and exciting ways.

Creed neogtiates the legacy of the Rocky franchise with nicely placed beats of nostalgia, as well as a soundtrack which is often on the cusp of breaking into to the fanfare we all know so well,  but is smart enough to hold its punches until the right moment. There are issues with the film; at 133 minutes long, the pacing suffers, mostly as a result of a poignant yet loaded sub-plot in which Rocky is diagnosed with cancer. And of course, this being a Creed-4boxing movie very much in the mould of the first Rocky, the narrative itself doesn’t hold many surprises, with more of the creativity coming from the way the story is shot rather than how it is written.

Time will tell if this will lead to another storied franchise, but I for one wouldn’t be too keen on a Coogler-less installment. Much of why this film works stems from Coogler’s own personal agenda, as well as his clear affection for Stallone’s previous films; if anyone else was to continue the story, it would be hard to see it being guided with quite the same veracity and passion as Coogler’s has demonstrated here. Creed is every bit as inspiring and uplifting as any Rocky movie should be, making one want to seek out the highest steps they can and punch the air with glee once at the top.

4/5- A dynamic introduction for Jordan and an emotional return for Stallone marks Creed as a fulfilling and inspiring climb into the ring. 


Review: Room- Breaking Free.

Room-1With the Oscar race now truly in session, now comes the time of year where essentially every weekend leading up to the big night sees a release of a new hopeful (in the UK anyway). This week sees the release of three recognised films in the forms of Creed, The Revenant, and Lenny Abrahamson’s Room. The latter, self-adapted by Emma Donoghue from her own Man Booker short-listed novel, is one film that I was lucky to catch back in October as part of the London Film Festival, lingering in my mind ever since. It is an often traumatising and nerve-wrecking watch, but one that is incredibly rewarding and, at the end of the day, inspiring in the face of the impossible.

The events of Room unfold from the perspective of 5 year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay), who has lived his whole life in one room with his Ma (Brie Larson). Shortly after his fifth birthday, Ma reveals to him that she has been trapped in Room for 7 years, kept prisoner by ‘Old Nick.’ And, now that she feels Jack is old enough to grasp the concept of the outside world, Ma is keen to hatch an escape plan. Room-2

What marks Room as unique an as a truly original expression of youthful naivety and innocence is in its vicarious nature of placing us in Jack’s perspective. Abrahamson finds many angles to shoot from within one space to allow Room to feel like a small world to us, as it clearly is to Jack. There is an intimacy in this prison, yet we never feel scared by the environment; this is Jack’s home, where he plays and sleeps and enjoys his existence, therefore we do no not fear it. We fear ‘Old Nick’ as he is both a tormentor to Ma and a figure of mystery to Jack.

Much of why this perspective works is down to the impeccable casting of the young Tremblay and Larson. Tremblay in particularly is a revelation, crafting one of the finest child performances that we have ever witnessed on screen. He maintains innocence throughout with ease, despite the hardships the character goes through (and asking a kid to act these scenes is in itself an ask). He has a sense of intelligence far beyond his years and aptly emphasises the somewhat stressful nature of the situations and tasks Ma asks of him. Room-

Room confirms Larson as one of the finest emerging young female talents of the moment, delivering a performance that delivers most of the devastation of the film. It is the fear we have for her safety in particular that truly makes Room an often gruelling experience and profoundly intense. Even in the fallout from the escape plans, Room persists in displaying the ways one may react to a depressingly all too real situation (the concept was inspired by the Fritzel case). Larson is the one who is asked to carry this burden of demonstrating what the effect of being ripped out of society can have on a young woman. She is incredibly brave in a role which asks her to be both courageous yet vulnerable, with many moments of devastation coming from moments when it all just seems to much for Larson and Ma to handle.

Abrahamson has crafted himself as a very daring director, taking on properties that may very well scare off more seasoned cinematic veterans. If What Richard Did emphasised his boldness, Frank his quirkiness, Room highlights his skill for intimacy. This is a highly charged tale and one which benefits from showing the world from Jack’s perspective, and it is Abrahamson’s confidence in this world view which allows us to easily align ourselves and see the world as something both new for Jack and as a place of re-entry for Ma. Room-4

I have seen Room twice now, and it must be said that the suspense fails to be as palpable on a second viewing (as is often the case), but that does not rob the film of its emotionally rich narrative. It is a narrative which asks a great deal of its audience, pushing them to the limit in moment of simple yet very sheer intensity. It all amounts in a rewarding experience which is rousing and profoundly stirring in its final moments. It is a showcase for Larson, Tremblay an particularly Abrahamson, who should fine himself with plenty of offers after delivering a work of this level of intimacy and intensity. The darkest horse of the Oscar race which deserves to be leading the charge more so than it currently stands.

5/5- A nerve-shredding and emotionally intense experience is also one that is profoundly rich and intimate, due to impeccable work from Larson, Tremblay and Abrahamson. A must.

My Top 15 Films of 2015.

Happy New Year to you all! I hope everyone managed to see in the New Year as well as I did and just about recovered. With a New Year comes a reflection on the months just gone, and as always the time has come to compile ‘best of’ lists for the films which have graced our presence over the past 12 months. This list is restricted to films that received a UK release over the year, and as a special bonus to celebrate both an excellent year of Film and my 5th Anniversary writing this blog, I have decided to rank 15 films, rather than the usual starter for 10. So, sit back, relax, and gaze upon my best of 2015. 

Honourable Mentions:
Jurassic World
John Wick
The Martian
The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation. 

MeAndEarlPost15. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Dir: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon)

Perhaps the most Sundance film that ever did a jaunt in the sunshine, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl may be very twee, quirky and oh so very Indie, but it is also genuinely sweet and affectingly emotional, leading to one of the more draining yet rewarding cinematic experiences from this year. Telling the tale of young wannab film-maker Greg (Thomas Munn) and his friendship with the cancer stricken Rachel (Olivia Cooke), Me and Earl revels in the chemistry of its three breakout leads, with RJ Cyler as Earl filling out the trio of endearing characters. Much of the quirkiness comes from Greg and Earl’s home-made versions of popular movies, turned into parodies with titles such as A Sockwork Orange, Senior Citizen Kane and Grumpy Cul-de-Sacs. The home-stitched quality of these ingenious titles display the films breezy energy and the acute cinephile knowledge that clearly permeates both Jesse Andrews’ screenplay and Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s direction. This sense of self and the fine work from the three young actors help make Me and Earl feel unique, genuine and one that perhaps induced the most tears from me this year in one sitting. A sweet little gem.

SongOfTheSeaPost14. Song of the Sea (Dir: Tomm Moore)

From Irish Animation Studio, Cartoon Saloon, Song of the Sea is another piece of evidence to suggest that the animation house responsible for The Secret of the Kells is one capable of producing films of beauty on the level of Studio Ghibli. Tomm Moore’s expertly crafted film tells the tale of a young boy who must help his sister return home when it is discovered that she is in fact a Selkie, and is pivotal in keeping the order of nature in balance. The animation style is elegant and unique, looking like a story book that is moving on the page. It is simply a beautiful tale beautifully told and deserves every comparison to the Japanese studio responsible for Totoro and Ponyo etc. Moore’s film does have an identity all its own, one that is infused with Irish folklore and tradition, all the while not carrying one cynical bone in its body within the structure of its kindly and sweet tale of familial relationships.

SelmaPost13. Selma (Dir: Ava DuVernay)

A film from early on in the year that has some proven tenacity to appear on this list. That is in no small way due to the potent power and stirring soul of this passionately crafted snap-shot of American history. Criminally over-looked at the Oscars earlier in the year, Ava DuVernay’s film focuses on the Civil Rights March from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, led by the strong-willed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo). Choosing a more isolated moment in King’s life rather than a full blown biopic makes for a more focused character piece as we see King in his most desperate situation, witnessing both the best and the worst traits of his character. Oyelowo’s performance remains the stand out leading actor portrayal of the year; he doesn’t seem intimidated by the daunting task of the role, as he grabs the bull by the horns and commands the screen throughout with all the dignified poise that the good Doctor possessed in life. A thunderous account of one of America’s most important and defining moments in history.


12. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Dir: JJ Abrams)

A late entry on to the list, but one that was perhaps always going to end up somewhere on here. While far from perfect, JJ Abrams opening chapter in the new sequel trilogy for Star Wars does exactly what it sets out to do; give the faith back to fans in the face of the memory of the prequel trilogy. He has crafted one hell of a satisfying fan flick that has proven to be as entertaining and as stirring in repeat viewings, opening the blast doors to a promising future for George Lucas’ franchise. Combining old favourite characters and fresh faces, Abrams has delivered a new group of engaging heroes, and the finest antagonist that the franchise is yet to produced in the form of Kylo Ren. It does so many things right that one can forgive the sense of over-familiarity in its plot and structure. This is big budget film-making at its largest and at its most bombastic. It is a huge adventure that everyone can enjoy, be they fans eager to return to their favourite universe, or the uninitiated just looking to see what all the fuss is about.

ItFollowsPost11. It Follows (Dir: David Robert Mitchell)

The Horror genre constantly throws out generic garbage over the course of the year, yet there always manages to be a breakout gem that reminds you how damn inventive the genre can truly be. Probably the year’s biggest Indie breakout, It Follows has been on the lips of many, and it is not hard to see why. Through its concept of a demonic stalker who is passed from person to person when the pursued has sex with another individual, David Robert Mitchell’s film has an unnerving knack for getting under ones skin. This is the sort of film that latches on and lingers in the mind for days on end due to its truly terrifying premise, which riffs on well known staples of the genre for subversive effect. The cinematography is key to this desired effect. Whether remaining static, framing wide scenes of suburbia, or slowly spinning as we desperately search for the unrelenting Follower, the film is alive with nerve-shredding tension, further heightened by Disasterpeace’s excellent retrograde score. At once a terrific throwback and a frightening new breed of horror, It Follows is one you definitely want to catch up with if it’s passed you by thus far. It always catches you.


10. Listen To Me Marlon (Dir: Stevan Riley)

A quietly masterful documentary this one, Listen To Me Marlon allows Marlon Brando to tell the tale of his own life, using a collection of private audio recordings made by the man himself. It allows for Stevan Riley to orchestrate one of the most intimate and searching studies of an individual actor that you are ever likely to see. The finding of Brando’s audio tapes is an utter treasure trove of insight, with Brando discussing his most iconic roles, his star status and familial relationships with a wisdom and heartbreaking honesty at times. Here was a man who seemed to both loath the idea of success but one who could not help but continue to carve a name for himself with his immense talent, on that has never been truly equalled. The film is often hypnotic, particularly in moments when we hear Brando’s self-hypnosis tapes, recited through a 3-D recreation of the actor’s face, taken from digital scans that were recorded during his life. This is a bizarre document, but incredibly well pieced together and fascinating to behold.

Steve Jobs9. Steve Jobs (Dir: Danny Boyle)

Probably the finest ensemble cast of the year can be found right here in Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin’s chamber piece concerning the Apple co-founder and developer of some of the most prevalent pieces of technology in the modern age. Rather than play to the tune of a traditional biopic, Sorkin’s screenplay constructs the drama around three separate product launches in Jobs career, leading to a very definite three act structure and some wonderful scenes of eloquent dialogue for the cast to deliver. The styles of Boyle and Sorkin co-inhabit surprisingly well, with Boyle’s keen eye for kinetic visuals maintaining a sense of urgency and flair in an incredibly dialogue heavy film. Michael Fassbender turns in a stellar performance, in which he makes up for his lack of physical likeness to Jobs with great nuance and attention to movement and delivery. It may be a little repetitive in its structure, and it is an awful lot of dialogue to take in all at once, yet Sorkin and Boyle always find a way of making it entertaining, with dull moments pretty much non-existent in this creative character study of one of the most impressionable figures on the face of the 21st Century.


8. Brooklyn (Dir: John Crowley)

A truly surprising dark horse from this upcoming awards season, John Crowley’s elegant adaptation of Colm Toibin’s novel concerning an Irish girl moving to Brooklyn in the 1950s and finding love gracefully earns a spot on this list. Brooklyn is hardly the most complex or all that inventive film of the year, but it sets out to tell a timely tale via the most emotionally affecting means possible. Much of why Brooklyn works as well as it does is down to the magnetic presence of one Saoirse Ronan. The film is designed to highlight her unique beauty, and her initial passiveness to the proceedings does a great deal for emphasising the change that Tony (Emory Cohen) brings to her experience in her new home. The chemistry between Ronan and Cohen is impossible not to fall for, as the pair radiate the screen with what truly feels like a true love burgeoning right in front of us on screen.  A fine, unpretentious and effortlessly engaging piece of cinema.


7. Bridge of Spies (Dir: Steven Spielberg)

A Steven Spielberg film may not feel as much as an essential trip to the cinema as it once used to be, which is a shame, because he is now at a stage in his career where he is a true master of his craft, offering films that are technically flawless. His latest feature here sees him reunited with Tom Hanks and together they bring to life a very interesting and not oft told moment in the history of the Cold War. The contribution from the Coen Brothers on the screenplay can be wondrously felt, with moments of odd quirky humour, particularly when Hanks’ lawyer must head into East Berlin to negotiate a swap for an incarcerated Soviet spy and a captured US Fighter Pilot. It is an electrifying tale that requires the star power of Hanks to instil both is Americana and sense of righteousness in the face of the murkiness of espionage. It is a Capre-esque tale that one feels only Spielberg could have brought to the screen in such a fashion. An old-fashioned tale told through a dream-like gaze from Spielberg, a master of crafting iconography.

MacbethPost6. Macbeth (Dir: Justin Kurzel)

One of the more difficult films of the year is also one of the more ferocious and just damn intoxicating to watch. No other film this year has quite captured me in the same way as Justin Kurzel’s take on argubaly Shakespeare’s best work. From the blood-soaked beginning to the brooding ending, the film plays out like the most vivid fever dream. The cinematography conjures up some of the most striking images of the year, be it tracking a pursued Banquo through an icy forest, to seeking out a battle ready Macbeth on a smokey battle field bathed in a blood red sun’s glow. The performances are also masterful, with Fassbender providing a ferocious turn, revelling in the unravelling of the character’s warped psyche. Marion Cotillard is the stronger of the two, crafting a more subtle performance than we are perhaps used to seeing when concerned with the character of Lady Macbeth. The truly surprising turn within the cast though is in the form of Sean Harris as MacDuff, a turn both rageful and controlled. A stunning adaptation should you be willing to commit.

InsideOutPost5. Inside Out (Dir: Pete Docter)

This was the year that saw Pixar reaffirm themselves as the Animation house to beat, after a string of efforts that failed to truly inspire all that much faith. All it took was one fell swoop by a director responsible for two of the finest films from the studio, Docter’s own Monsters Inc and Up. Inside Out delivers a high concept tale that sees emotions brought to life inside the head of 11 year-old Riley. These emotions, who control Riley’s reactions from a control panel, may be a little limited, what with only Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Anger and Fear being represented, but it allows for a broader, more accessible, means to an end, an end which is concerned with charting complexities of human emotion while remaining entertaining to younger audiences. It is a balance that Pixar has always been very apt at maintaining, and with Inside Out they feel at their most sophisticated, drawing emotion from scenarios that all of us can appreciate and relate to. A hugely moving experience that remains a delight on repeat viewings.


4. Ex Machina (Dir: Alex Garland)

Science Fiction has been my favourite genre for many years, mostly due to the range of concepts and varying scales in which it can often tell tales of complex moral and ethical philosophies. Ex Machina is one such film that deals with large important ideas on a small intimate scale. The action takes place in one location and only has 4 players involved in its proceedings, which deal with the creation of Artificial Intelligence, and what the ramifications of a true A.I. could really be in a real world environment. There is a great amount of philosophy at play here, particularly when discussing one’s relation to a ‘creator’, as well as discussing the very nature of being human. Alex Garland’s directorial début is nothing short of impressive. It is a sophisticated, highly intelligent and thrillingly chilling thriller in its ambitious Sci-Fi packaging.  The main trio of players are all on fine form, with Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac displaying why they are both in high demand. The film, however, belongs to the breakout star of the year; Alicia Vikander. She has had a great year, with this standing as the defining performance. Her AI Eva is a mysterious, curious and dangerous being with a lethal intelligence to match her elegant beauty. An instant genre classic.


3. The Look of Silence (Dir: Joshua Oppenheimer)

Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion piece to his 2013 documentary The Act of Killing, which followed members of the Indonesian Death Squads from the Military Occupation of the 1960s as they recreate their killings of suspected communists through a film genre of their choosing, takes a much more intimate, and that much more devastating, approach to its horrific subject matter. Following an Optician whose brother was violently murdered by the Death Squads before he was born, we witness a more direct series of questioning to those who exacted terrible acts of violence in the name of the Indonesian Government. Visiting the perpetrators and their collaborators (including his own Uncle) under the pretence of an eye exam, the Optician and Oppenheimer ask truly pressing and searching questions which deliver shocking stories and incite angry protestations from those refusing to accept guilt. It makes The Look of Silence that much more intimate and more soul-crushing due the the more personal stakes at the forefront of this look at the effects of the killings on the people of Indonesia today. A devastating watch, but utterly, utterly essential.


2. Sicario (Dir: Denis Villeneuve)

Sicario confirms what many of us already suspected, that Denis Villeneuve is one of the most exciting and startling directors breaking through Hollywood today. Following on from the bleak yet powerful Prisoners and the weird psychedelic trip that was Enemy, Villeneuve brings us Sicario, one of the most tense and darkly suggestive thrillers since Seven. The film, which follows Emily Blunt’s FBI Agent as she goes deeper down the rabbit hole of a Mexican Drug Cartel investigation, demonstrates Villeneuve’s strength at finding horror in the unseen, and crafting tension through igniting the imagination into exploring the darkest recesses of the mind. Through another partnership with cinematographer Roger Deakins, Villeneuve’s Mexican/US Border is one bleached by the scorching sun and sizzling with threat. The cast are also on fine form, with Blunt a steady focus point, Josh Brolin on wise-cracking remorseless form, and a scene-stealing Benicio del Toro making a strong case for Best Support of the year. An intense, exhilarating and hellishly entertaining rides of the year.

MadMaxPos1. Mad Max: Fury Road (Dir: George Miller)

Almost a clichéd choice by now, but for good reason. No other reboot, no other film, hit the screen with as much ferocity and bombast than George Miller’s fourth Mad Max adventure. This time, Tom Hardy takes the mantel from Mel Gibson and helps breathe new energy into a franchise that has laid dormant for over 30 years. Miller orchestrates a symphony of mayhem as we take to the Fury Road, with Max teaming with Charlize Theron’s Furiosa to escape the clutches of the warped cult leader Immortan Joe, Essentially an extended action sequence riffing on the set-up of Stagecoach, Fury Road reintroduces the dystopian outback of Max’s world with jaw-dropping practical effects that heighten the danger of this already volatile world of stricken War Boys and crazed Overlords. It is a wonderful contradiction: controlled anarchy. Miller directs with all the energy of a man much younger than his years, putting all his know how and technical wizardry on to the screen in a glory of hell fire. He is a man determined to do all he can with his creation with the modern techniques of cinema, and it is a joy to behold and has continued to awe even on a home TV screen. Nothing has come close to matching the energy that Miller an co have brought to the screen. If Max does indeed return, he;s got a hell of benchmark to push past.

That is it! In a year in which I’ve probably watched the most at the cinema in a single year, and this is what I feel truly stood out as the highlights of a strong and varied year. Do enjoy JoBlo’s  2015 tribute montage below, which mixes some of the year’s biggest hits together in ingenious ways. Here’s to another year. Thanks for stopping by.