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With most of the major Awards ceremonies out of the way, it would be fair to say that the Best Picture Oscar race has been boiled down to three films; The Revenant, The Big Short and Spotlight. As they stand, The Revenant is the favourite for glory on Oscar night, what with numerous Best Director awards and the Globe and BAFTA for Best Picture under its fur coat. Yet, one cannot over-rule the possibility of either Spotlight or The Big Short coming out on top, what with the films sharing screenplay awards on both sides of the pond (Spotlight for Original, Big Short for Adapted), and Spotlight winning the SAG Award and The Big Short claiming that all important Producer’s Guild of America Award for Best Picture along the way. With the competition at boiling point, now is as good as any to share with you my thoughts on the three films as I once again attempt to catch up with my frivolous viewing. 

RevenantThe Revenant (Dir: Alejandro G. Inarritu)  

Say what you want about the films of Alejandro G. Inarritu, you cannot deny his immeasurable work ethic. The Revenant arrives exactly a year after his previous Best Picture winner Birdman, and it is nothing short of amazing to see what he has managed to produce within that short turn around. Shooting entirely on location, with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki once again only using natural lighting, The Revenant is a beautiful film in a very pure and primal manner, a film which drags you through the mud, makes you feel the cold, as well as sends you reeling in the face of an attack from one pissed off Grizzly Bear.

Frontiersman Hugo Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is leading a group of hunters through uncharted and dangerous territory in 1823, when he is attacked by a Grizzly Bear and left with terrible injuries. When placed in the care of John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), Glass witnesses the murder of his son at the hands of unhinged Fitzgerald, who proceeds to bury Glass alive, leaving him for dead. However, there is still life in the resourceful frontiersman, as he claws his way out of his untimely grave and sets on a path of survival and revenge.

The Revenant is very much a Western, despite begin shrouded in ice and snow, as well as taking place mainly on what is the East coast of the United States. Its placement within Anerican history and the conflict with the Natives very much colours it as a Western, but it is very much concerned with operating on a different, more mythical level for the frontiersman of American history. Hugo Glass is a figure who has slipped into folklore and legend, with Inarittu establishing and maintaining a very ethereal atmosphere as we witness Glass’ mission of revenge. The vistas look stunning, and Inarittu is constantly capable of producing startling imagery, giving an account that feels both very real and fantastical.

While nothing occurs in a great hurry, emphasising the perseverance of Glass’ struggle,Revenant-2 much of what captivates ones gaze is the commitment of not only DiCaprio , but of all involved both in front of and behind the camera. The elements are as much a character,
offering Glass safety and challenges, in much the same dynamic as one can imagine the crew faced on set. It is the commitment by all that truly leaves a mark, rather than the admittedly thematically thin plot.

The Revenant‘s languishing pace and lack of speechifying classes it as perhaps the strangest Best Picture front-runner for quite some time. It is a primal film determined to brace the wind and lay down an American myth in a manner as uncompromising as the elements faced by those that made it. It may prove difficult for some to embrace, but what has been delivered is a unique sensory experience, if nothing much more. 4/5 

BigShortThe Big Short (Dir: Adam McKay)

Adam McKay has always been a director that has shown the potential to be more than just an individual who pumps out Will Ferrell comedy vehicles. Each of his films has always been shot with a clear and crisp eye, while he has also demonstrated a brilliant hand with actors and multiple big name stars. The film which demonstrated most of this potential is arguably The Other Guys, a film which operates as both a very funny Ferrell comedy and an energetic action movie. What makes it more interesting though is how it operates as a pre-cursor to The Big Short, McKay’s first ‘serious’ picture, as one may remember, The Other Guys delivered well explained material concerning embezzlement and the banking crisis only two years after the 2008 Crash. With The Big Short, McKay has a bigger canvas in which to express his concerns and anger with the banking system, adapting Michael Lewis’ text of the same name, and he delivers an accessible, riotous depiction of the events leading to the Crash in an attempt to unravel what the fuck happened.

McKay and Charles Randolph’s script focuses on three different individuals/groups of men who first discovered that something was amiss within the U.S. housing market. The first to discover a fishy smell; Michael Burry (Christian Bale) an eccentric hedge fund manger who chose to bet against the housing market as early as 2005, despite protestations from his fellow shareholders. His discovery soon worked its way down the line, with Trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) validating Burry’s predictions concerning a collapse in the U.S. Housing Market. Once Vennett lets Hedge Fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his team in on the secret, it soon becomes clear that it is not just the U.S. housing market that is extremely unstable, but the entire world economy.

The Big Short is at its best when it operates as almost a docu-drama, as we follow different strands of individuals involved in unravelling the shit-storm that sent the world economy reeling in 2008. We are led through the film predominantly  by Gosling’s Vennett (Gosling essentially playing Jordan Belfort) in a somewhat inconsistent voice-over. None the less, the presence of Gosling’s voice-over and breaks in the fourth wall (stylised with  numerous cut-aways populated with celebrity cameos to explain terms such as Collaterized Debt Obligations) firmly position the viewer as the most important character in the proceedings, as the film aims to achieve an understanding for all of us that have been affected by the crash yet may not fully understand exactly what happened. It makes the film a kinetic affair, one that delivers exposition in more refreshing ways than most films, while still maintaining a strong sense of momentum.

What The Big Short struggles to shake off is a sense of smugness. McKay’s stylings do certainly provide the film with numerous moments of hilarity, but the cut-away’s do, at times, grate, particularly when certain concepts have been explained  coherently enough without the use of a celebrity cameo and/or extended metaphor. The elements which both provide the film with great moments of humour and show a certain measured level of design also threaten to feel condescending rather than informativeBigShort1.

The film also asks a lot from its audience in terms of empathy, as we are expected to engage with individuals who figured out what was happening to the Global Economy yet set out to save their own backs, rather than sound the alarm bells. McKay seems aware of this, and particularly addresses his concern through Carell as Mark Baum. Carell is on particularly fine form here, standing as the man who is most at odds with the weight of the information he holds. Yet, divergences in to his personal life and unresolved family traumas feel far too at odds with the self-aware stylings that mostly colour the picture , meaning many of Carell’s scenes simply do not feel cohesive  with the rest of the film.

Ultimately, what The Big Short is more successful at is in delivering the facts of the economic situation which led to the crash of 2008 in a fashion that will make it clearer for many of those in the dark. Its satirical approach makes that bitter pill a little easier to swallow, yet keeps the severity and destructive nature of the greed of  bankers very much at its forefront, leaving a very cold yet important message with its audience once the credits begin to roll; Bankers are Dicks. 3/5 

Spotlight

Spotlight (Dir: Tom McCarthy)

One of the more mature pictures amongst this year’s nominees has come from an unlikely individual, namely the director of Adam Sandler’s The Cobbler. Taking a focus on the team of investigative journalists at the Boston Globe who exposed numerous cases of child molestation committed by a number of Priests, McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer throw us into the world of investigative journalism like no other film before it. Yes, even All the President’s Men. 

Spotlight is a film of incredible restraint as it aims to depict the unravelling of the controversy at its centre in a very realistic and by-the-facts fashion. It colours the proceedings as very procedural, and for the first half hour or so, this is a little grating. But it is all for a purpose. Once the weight of the situation begins to bare upon the characters involved, we ourselves realise how implicit we have become in the investigation and how much we ourselves also feel a sense of responsibility for the events that have unfolded.

The players of Spotlight are demonstrated as folks eager to see important news delivered in the most detailed and astute way possible, but once more and more details become unveiled to us, it soon becomes clear that no one here is entirely without blame. Moments of the past have passed these reporters by, moments which provided opportunities in which they could have uncovered such a scandal earlier. This feels like the real world, one where everyone is guilty of something, despite their best intentions.

Spotlight arguably lauds the best cast of this awards season (hence why it will more than likely be getting a lot of the Academy Actor’s votes) and McCarthy has made sure he has populated his film with character actors who are incredibly dependable and believable in such a real world dramatisation. Michael Keaton follows his incendiary performance in Birdman with a tun that is poised and driven, as well as sporting a well tuned Boston accent. Rachel McAdams is given a strong and layered character, one who is often under-served in a film lacking in much focus on female roles.Spotlight1

Much of the weight of the material falls with Mark Ruffalo, who provides the most ‘Oscar-baiting’ performance of the cast. He is at turns naturalistic, showcasing a range of character ticks that help form a truce account of his character, yet he is also given the more dramatic monologues, which often feel at odds with the more sombre and reserved tone that it mostly exudes.

Spotlight stands as the film that I perceive has the most chance of snapping up Best Picture in the face of The Revenant‘s momentum. It is simply the sort of film the Academy seems to enjoy; a sort-of but not too timely topic, a respected cast, mature sensibilities, and little in the way of fast edited action. It is a fine drama and an excellent demonstration of a script and a director working with an amazing amount of patience and restraint. 4/5 

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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.

StarWarsPost

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.

ListenToMeMarlonPost

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.

BrooklynPost

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.

BridgeofSpiesPost

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.

ExMachinaPost

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.

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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.

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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.

 

Disclaimer: I will do my best to avoid major spoiler details, but this review will discuss certain plot points. To enjoy The Force Awakens in its fullest, I suggest you stay spoiler free, and avoid this review for the time being (feel free to skip for the verdict). But do promise to come back once you’ve seen it. StarWars-1

‘This will begin to make things right.’
These are the first words uttered in the seventh instalment of the Star Wars franchise. Uttered by Max Von Sydow’s Jakku Elder as he hands a vital piece of information to top resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), setting the plot in motion and taking the next step to restoring balance to a Galaxy now beseeched by the threat of the First Order, who have risen from the ashes of the Empire. It is also something of a meta comment. The Force Awakens marks the first instalment following the much disdained prequel trilogy, a trio of films that very much lost devotees of the Original Trilogy. Star Wars remains beloved, but there was a certain pressure on JJ Abrams, despite the almost guaranteed monetary success. How does one re-stall faith in a franchise that has let its fan-base down so many times before? The answer, it would seem, is simple: just give them what they want.

30 years after the Empire has fallen, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is missing and in his absence the First Order has risen and has become a significant threat to the New Republic. General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) leads a Resistance against the new threat, who are strong with the Dark Side, what with the sinister Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) in their ranks. When a disillusioned Stormtrooper (John Boyega) breaks away from his ranks, he sets out on an adventure with scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) one which will throw them into the fight for peace in the Galaxy and change their destinies forever.

Straight off the bat, it must be said that the narrative offers little in the way of surprises. The film is quick to set down a letter of intent, throwing set pieces left right and centre, all the while playing like a ‘best of Star Wars’ reel. Many of the beats of the plot are almost exactly the same as that of A New Hope, from plans hidden in a StarWars-2droid, to a young hero on a desert planet, to a huge weapon capable of destroying an entire planet. While it certainly allows for the nostalgia to flow, in a similar way to the intoxicating pleasures of Jurassic World, there is no escaping the feeling that this is somewhat a little lazy in regards to how the story-telling can develop within the Star Wars universe.

The nostalgia factor is one that is certainly forgiveable for the first time back in a world where the Original Trilogy exists. There is a great thrill in seeing the original cast members return, and while the beats and winks to the Wars past do threaten to grate, they are simply placed with the intention of ensuring that this feels like the Star Wars from ones youth. The 40’s serial that inspired George Lucas are similarly evoked, if only because Abrams is evoking Lucas’ film-making style rather than drawing directly upon more varied titles. This is a Star Wars made by a man who loves Star Wars movies, and that energy is infectious and helps drive the film with a rollicking pace that often forgets to stop and take a breath. Abrams, while more than adept at constructing wonderful action set-pieces, seem almost too concerned with having as many as he can leading to action beats which are never slack, but not always all that inspired (I’m looking at you Rathtars).

Nonetheless, Abrams is an assured visual director, but I think perhaps his greatest strength is within casting, something which Lucas truly lacked within the prequel trilogy. The combination of bringing back both the original cast and introducing new characters to the Star Wars universe is perhaps the hardest trick that Abrams has had to pull StarWars-3here. After effectively rebooting a whole cast of Star Trek characters however, this almost seems easy. The main focus on particularly Harrison Ford’s Han Solo allows the film to combine the old and new very effectively, as Ford provides an engaged performance, while the new characters prove just as engaging and as endearing as old favourites.

The new hero of this trilogy looks set to be Daisy Ridley’s Rey. While her initial line readings approach prequel levels of wooden-ness, she quickly settles into her role once she is paired with the charismatic Boyega as conflcited Stormtrooper Finn. Her characterisation is what is impressive, with Rey providing fans with a new poster figure, giving young girls a Luke all their own, while giving female fans a hero they have been waiting for for quite sometime. Boyega shows great potential and incredible screen presence as Finn, demonstrating why he will have a successful career far and beyond even the likes of Star Wars. Oscar Isaac exudes his usual charm and bravado in a role which lacks the complexity of both Rey and Finn’s arcs, but none the less is a role which utilises the strengths of dashing good looks and unwavering likeability as a star.

Where the film truly excels is in developing a new antagonist for the Star Wars universe, one who manages to use the looming shadow of Darth Vader to his advantage. Kylo Ren is one of the more complex, intriguing and fierce characters that this series has produced. Attempting to hold the visage of Vader, Ren’s struggle to truly attain the dark side is what tears him up inside, a wonderful reversal on the struggle we have usually seen within this franchise; the light is what he must refuse, not the darkness. Adam Driver plays him StarWars-4with a ferocity that is at once menacing and like  teenage tantrum at the same time. He relishes the complexities of the character and truly comes out as the more defining character of this sequel trilogy thus far.

The Telegraph’s Robbie Collins once described JJ Abrams as less an auteur and more an upholsterer, and its kinda easy to see his point. Abrams is a Fanboy director whose filmography thus far has been entirely about revamping existing properties (M:I3, Star Trek) or crafting love letters for his heroes (Super 8). Here, he combines those two facets, facets which are undoubtedly strengths. He has a very keen awareness of what it is that people love above certain properties, even if his Trek films owe more to Lucas than they do Trek-lore. Star Wars needed to return with a bang, Abrams delivers an atomic bomb. Its over-whelming, its emotional, familiar, and feels like the Star Wars we grew up with. Leaving as many question open as he answers, Abrams has set the course for a bright future for the franchise. He has more than begun to make things right.

4/5- Stuffed with action and driven by familiar plot devices, The Force Awakens delivers the Star Wars film fans have been craving for. A rollicking start for a new generation.

 

GoodDInoThe Good Dinosaur (Dir: Pete Sohn)

This year marked the first time that Pixar Animation Studios had two films released for our viewing pleasure. The first, Inside Out reaffirmed the studio as one capable of developing unique and original story-telling after a sequence of flagging sequels. Their second of the year, The Good Dinosaur, is one that has come through a somewhat troubled production, seeing its director and its cast replaced in the last hour. It would be sensible, then, to enter this flick with a certain sense of trepidation. Its concept, depicting a world in which an asteroid never wiped out the dinosaurs, leaving them as the dominant species on the planet, has potential, and while it may not reach its fullest, The Good Dinosaur can stand as another surprisingly mature and beautiful piece of animation from the highly regarded studio.

When his father dies and he is separated from his family in an accident, young neurotic Apatosaurus Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) is left stranded up river far from home. His only chance to mark it back is to cover a vast area of land, with only a small feral human child to accompany him.

The variation of a boy and his dog tale, what with the dinosaur as a boy and the young human, who comes to be known as Spot, as the dog, drives the somewhat tired homeward bound journey which has piloted one too many Pixar movies over the years (Inside Out included). It is a dynamic that proves effective though, with both the characters having suffered great losses, finding solace and safety in each other (the moment where Arlo draws out his loss in the dirt is achingly poignant). They also make for a lovable pairing in which to follow on high stakes adventures, adventures which see them tangle with Cowboy-esque T-Rex’s, and nefarious Pterodactyls.

What marks The Good Dinosaur as a truly worthy addition to the Pixar canon is its beautifully rendered visual landscapes. The world presented here, one that is still prehistoric but close to modern American outland, is nothing short of spectacular. You would be forgiven for thinking that the backgrounds were deployed here were in fact live action and not the work of animators and pixels. It if hard to believe quite what they mange to craft here, be it a reflection in water, injury detail, rock formations or the glow of a thousand fireflies, every frame is stunning.

It is a shame that the characters themselves look far too much like cartoon characters to inhabit this very realistic world.  The very serious characterisation helps to establish Arlo and Spot, but the character designs feel like an after though of the troubled production, rather than what should be committed to screen.

The Good Dinosaur offers little in the way of a surprising narrative, but it is an affective one. It taps into relate-able emotions of loss, loneliness and inadequacy, with a certain level of sure-handedness but never with a a truly unique drive. As a result, The Good Dinosaur feels fairy routine rather than another home run in the shape of Inside Out. But there can be no denying that is presents perhaps the most beautiful scenery that the studio has ever produced. 3/5  

Peanuts

Snoopy & Charlie Brown: The Peanuts Movie (Dir: Steve Martino)

The work of Charles Schulz is held fondly by many, particularly by many of our parent’s generation. Celebrating its 60th Anniversary this year, it was perhaps inevitable that Charlie Brown, his loyal dog Snoopy and friends would return to the screen for both the old and new generation. With it comes the also somewhat inevitable ‘3D-ification’ of Schulz’s characters, as seems to be the case for any big screen adaptation of once hand-drawn characters. While the style applied here initially jars, it, and the film itself, end up pulling through to stand as a loving tribute to the work of Charles Schulz.

With a new school year beckoning, the accident prone yet good-natured Charlie Brown looks sets his sights on changing the public perception of himself amongst his peers. That goal becomes something even greater with the arrival of the new Red Haired Girl, whom Charlie falls hopelessly head over heels for. In his desperate attempts to impress, Charlie must learn that perhaps he has had the best qualities all along.

The story-telling of The Peanuts Movie is incredibly slight, even for a kids movie, with each attempt by Charlie to prove his worth coming off as a little episodic. A side adventure with Snoopy, whilst staying true to the nature of Schulz’s comic strips, feels very forced and a little too much like narrative filler. It helps, then, that all of the Peanuts cast of characters remain true to themselves and work to charm throughout.

Charlie Brown and snoopy may not be the most iconic within British Children’s culture, but for those that spent time with them at a young age will easily find the means to engage and hold on to the nostalgic memories that are very much needed to engage with this film. Schulz’s characters have always held a higher sense of self and wisdom than most characters that populate children’s entertainment properties, and what makes this film work is its respectful nature to the intellect and maturity of the characters that populate the screen. 3/5

Steve JobsSteve Jobs (Dir: Danny Boyle)

The case of Steve Jobs has been a perplexing one. A promising limited release in the States was colouring this to be the hot awards ticket that many expected it would  be. Yet when Universal made the decision to push wide earlier than scheduled, the film bombed. Now, while certain to be present this award season, this Boyle/Aaron Sorkin joint simply doesnt seem to be burning up among movie-goers. Discussion of it is limited almost to nothing. Which is a shame because it is one of the most finely acted, sharply scripted and energetically directed films of the year.

Focusing on three separate product launches, from the Mackintosh in 1984, to the ill-fated Next System in 1988 and culminating with the release of the i-Mac in 1998, Sorkin’s screenplay keeps all the drama backstage in the build up to each of Job’s presentations, demonstrating his relationships with colleagues, friends, lovers and the girl who he refuses to admit is his daughter.

Through focusing on issues both technical and personal, the film attempts to give a portrait of Jobs as a man without following the tropes of a more conventional bio-pic. It is a structure that feels more accustomed to the stage, and while it may feel repetitive at times, the film is undoubtedly unique, bold, and uncompromising in the way it wishes to proceed. Much like the man himself.

Each back-stage encounter allows Jobs, evoked rather than imitated by Michael Fassbender, to interact with all the key players in his life, from devoted assistant Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), old friend and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniack (Seth Rogen), CEO of Apple John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), his former girlfriend (Katherine Waterston) and his supposed daughter, Lisa (Perla Haney-Jardine, Ripley Sobo, and Makenzie Moss at different ages). Each back-stage walk and talk sees Jobs encounter everyone, battling with some and reconciling with others, allows Sorkin’s dialogue to truly fly, delivered by a fine cast of actors, arguably the finest assembled to deliver Sorkin’s words. No one puts a foot wrong, but it is by far Fassbender’s film, doing so much to make us see this version of Jobs as both a portrait of one of the most significant men in the modern age, and as a character who lives and breathes thanks to his presence.

Being a Sorkin script, the film is incrdibly dialogue driven, which is why the choice of Danny Boyle as director seems a bit strange, as he is a man often applauded for his visceral kineticism as a director. Somehow, though, it works. Boyle finds movement and pace through his camera work and through his clever and bombastic visual tweaks which highlight points and drive home Jobs rhetoric. Shooting on era appropriate flm stock and moving to digital gives the film a unique aesthetic, while Dnaiel Pemberton’s score does wonders to punctuate the faultless editing in numerous sequences of heightened drama.

The repetitiveness of the structure and Sorkin’s occasional lapse in to crafting lines of rather cringe-worthy prohesising of the future of Apple, Steve Jobs is nothing if not indulgent; but it is entertaining in only the way a Sorkin scripted movie can be. His energy is paired somewhat brilliantly with Boyle’s developing a film which is entertaining throughout and a wondrous master-class of actorly craft. 4/5  

BlackMass

Black Mass (Dir: Scott Cooper)

Black Mass has been particularly highlighted as marking a return of Johnny Depp as a ‘serious character actor’ after a string of performances which which require little of him beyond the ‘Jack Sparrow’ routine, and that’s without acknowledging that none of them have been particularly well received at the box office. Black Mass certainly does offer a role for Depp that allows him to flex more than he has in recent years, and he certainly delivers what is asked of him. The problem is that the film itself ends up asking little of hi in a scattered and un-focused snapshot of one of America’s intriguing criminals.

Depp plays Whitey Bulger, a Boston Gangster, who manages to use the powers of the FBI for his own gain when child-hood friend Agent John Connelly (Joel Edgarton) approaches him with an offer to help take down rival gangs in the city. Bulger managed to orchestrate for himself an untouchable empire, and managed to evade capture for many years despite being responsible for many violent crimes, and taking many  people’s lives. While the figure is undoubtedly interesting and worth exploring, Scott Cooper’s film fails to truly land on a point of focus, leading to a frustrating and wholly generic gangster pic that could have been so much more.

We initially seem to be taking on the perspective of a leg-man in Whitey’s ranks, played by the ever-dependable Jesse Plemons, before then jumping into to Whitey’s personal life with his mother and publicly adored Senator brother (Benedict Cumberbatch). That is until it takes more of a focus on Connelly, on his desire to both impress Bulger and rise in the ranks of Federal officials. It never settles on any one character, leaving many thinkly sketched, relying on the admitteddly very talented cast to paint in more than the script actually allows them.

Thankfully for the film, the cast is up to the challenge. Edgarton is on particularly fine form as Connelly, delivering great nuances and conflict in a man who never seems to have grown up from being a small boy admiring the strength and control exuded by Bulger. Depp himself disappears behind heavy prosthetics to present a monstrous image of one of America’s criminals, but is let down by the film which seems to only want to depict him as a sneering, unmerciful killer come the final third, despite their being shades of something much more complicated.

There is a strong film here, with many separate moments proving affecting thanks to stellar work from the actors, and Cooper is certainly a director who knows how to send a chill down your spine. The main issue is that it all feels too disjointed to come through as a convincing character study, something which it seems entirely un-interested achieving. 2/5 

 BridgeofSpiesBridge of Spies (Dir: Steven Spielberg)

Trust Spielberg to be the one to make it like they used to. With a dash of Capra, a lashing of Carol Reed and a good dose of his own sensibilities, Spielberg has crafted a refreshingly old-fashioned Cold War drama which is pure Americana in its most purest and un-cynical form.

Lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is called upon to represent a suspected Soviet Spy named Abel (Mark Rylance) in the face of the Cold War. After showing great strength and resilience in upholding the constitution despite representing what many deem to be the enemy, Donovan is once again tasked with the impossible; he must negotiate a swap for Abel after a US fighter pilot is caught taking aerial photographs over Russia. The location of the swap: Soviet Occupied East Berlin.

A wonderfully complex moment in Cold war history, Bridge of Spies tells its tale vicariously through the eyes of Donovan, a man of unshakeable moral ethics, a decent and honourable man who could perhaps only ever be played by Tom Hanks (in another era, this would be a Jimmy Stewart picture). Partnering with Hanks for the fourth time, Spielberg uses his star’s persona to power much of the characterisation of Donovan, and it quite simply works. Hanks is wonderful in a role which relies upon his natural confidence and charisma. We need to believe Donovan is a man who can talk himself out of any situation, all the while never bending his ethical and moral code, and having someone as established and as dependable as Hanks in the role firmly establishes Donovan as such in a believable way.

However, as a result, it is often difficult to feel there is all that much at stake; history is written and its Tom Hanks, of course he will win out against the obstacles that stand in his way. Spielberg therefore frames his story as a moment of courage and resilience in a complicated political climate, and as a reminder that neither side may be right. Donovan may be American, but he sees how Abel’s own resilience is something to admire, despite him being part of ‘the other side.’ Rylance’s quietly assured and affecting performance enables this mirroring and duality to take place, offering Abel as a character of sympathy, not one who should be judged.

Spielberg is now rather effortless at establishing his aesthetic, working with tried and tested crew members to produce a finely crafted picture. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski often chooses high key lighting to give the film an almost dream-like quality at times, while producing some truly chilling imagery come Donovan’s entrance into East Berlin.

The second half of the film moves away from the Capra-esuqe courtroom drama of the first hour. We witness an eye-catchign moment of spectacle as the US Fighter pilot is shot down, we enter East Berlin and the sense of danger is palpable. It is in these moments that the script contribution of the Coen Brothers can truly be felt, presenting us with ridiculous figures of military authority and obscure beats of dark comedy. This combination of Coen wit and Spielberg driven visuals allows Bridge of Spies to stand as something quite special for both sets of respected auteurs.

Bridge of Spies is one of the more wholly satisfying cinematic experiences of the year; it is simply a well crafted tale that revels in an engaging and complex moment in history with a confidence that perhaps only Spielberg can exude. The Spielberg-schmultz ending feels earned, a feat many of his films struggle to achieve. Compelling, entertaining, and filled with old school charm. 5/5 

 Brooklyn-PosBrooklyn (Dir: John Crowley)

Immigration tales may be ones that many regard as very predictable affairs. Young go-getter moves to a new country, struggles to fit in, finds solace and maybe love in a local, leading to a brighter future in their new home. These are the beats you expect, and it is a beat that John Crowley’s Brooklyn very much marches to. However, Brooklyn does so much more than play out a tale that you think you already know. Through slight adjustments, a ear for humour, and an eye for warmth, Brooklyn transforms in to one of the finest and simply one of the most moving films that this year has had to offer.

Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) leaves her sister and mother behind in Ireland to start a life in America, with life back at home offering little for her. Upon her arrival in the city of Brooklyn (roll credits), Eilis finds herself gripped by the woes and aches of homesickness, struggling to adapt to a new life on the other side of the Atlantic. All that soon begins to change when she meets young Italian American Tony (Emory Cohen), whom she begins dating and slowly but surely falls in love with. However, when some shocking news calls her back home to Ireland, Eilis finds her heart torn between her original and adoptive home.

Brooklyn may well prove to be the dark horse of this Awards season due to its understated brilliance at telling a story that does not experience a great of incident, but delivers in genuine emotion to compensate for its sleight narrative weight. Eilis is a passive character for the most part of the opening of the film as she attempts and struggles to settle in to a new life in New York. These moments feel entirely genuine, with Eilis being alone, despite being surrounded by many fellow countrymen and women.

When Eilis encounters Tony, the film moulds from immigration tale into an old fashioned romance that is simply about to people falling head over heels for each other, enjoying each others company, and allowing us to fall equally for them as a pairing. The narrative takes a sharp turn as it heads into its third act, sending Eilis back to Ireland in the face of tragedy.

It is in the third act that most of the drama and tension that the film has to offer arises, as Eilis is faced with a decision; whether to remain in Ireland, where she is suddenly offered a life that was never there for her, or to return to Brooklyn to forge a life with Tony. Her confliction stems from very relate-able concerns, allowing us to share in the pain of her plight.

Ronan delivers throughout through well crafted emotional beats that allow her to showcase her tremendous range as an actress. Nick Hornby’s adaptation has great wit and warmth and has gifted Ronan with a fine role, with Crowley often using the frame to highlight her exquisite and unique beauty. The supporting cast are also incredibly strong, with a delightfully memorable turn from Julie Walters and an eye-catchingly charming turn from Emory Cohen as Tony.

Brooklyn is hard to fault due it its un-fussy approach and simple agenda of telling an effectively emotional tale through the prism of a young woman on her journey of self-discovery, dealing with love, family and friends through relateable situations. It is incredibly engaging and should have you hooked through its unassuming charm and lightness of touch. 4/5 

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Carol (Dir: Todd Haynes)

Ah, Carol. For many, Todd Haynes’ latest is one of if not the best film of 2015. It is an impressively crafted love story and one which relies on precise film-making and well articulated performances. The craftsmanship on display is nigh on impeccable, with Carol being one of the most sumptuously shot films of the year. Why, then, did it leave me rather cold?

After a chance meeting in the department store where she works, Theresa (Rooney Mara) starts a friendship with glamorous older woman Carol (Cate Blanchett). As she becomes more entwined in Carol’s life, her feelings develop into something greater, all the while Carol must deal with her crumbling marriage and the risk of not seeing her young daughter whom she loves dearly.

Carol, adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, tells a love story that is both refreshing and feels entirely genuine due to the two performances delivered by Mara and Blanchett. Carol’s marriage is, for lack of a better word, a sham, merely adhering to social convention as Carol’s sexuality simply does not compute with what is expected of a 1950s matriarch. Carol’s desire to fulfill her needs makes her a very driven and seductive woman; as soon as she sets her sights on Theresa she seems determined to learn more about her and eventually woo her. Theresa is equally intrigued, and each flirtatious encounter is powered by achingly long stares and dialogue that is often a little on the nose, but none the less suggestive.

Much of the earlier moments of the film rely on the chemistry of Mara and Blanchett, and it is most definitely strong in a relationship that for quite sometime feels very uneasy and almost dangerous. The film only truly hooked me in the final act, when Carol must return home to face hard truths and make a final stand for her own needs in the face of a society that simply will not expect that she is a homosexual. The material is at its strongest when dealing with the injustice of 1950s America towards anything not deemed ‘conventional’ rather than in its central love story.

Todd Haynes directs with impeccable precision to the point where it almost lessens the film. Every emotion, every gesture, every framing is very clearly and delicately crafted and strict to a vision that it stops some of the more affecting moments from feeling all that genuine. Most of the feeling is aided in no short way by Carter Burwell’s stunning score, which will surely be the score to beat this awards season. Haynes’ framing is exquisite though, generating some truly beautiful imagery of 1950s America. His decision to shoot on time appropriate Super 16mm gives the film a distinct look and further demonstrates Haynes’ keen craftsmanship as a film-maker.

As it stands, Haynes’ Far From Heaven is a more accomplished and affecting film that deals with similar issues. Catol has been a critical darling this year, and is present on many lists, and it is undeniably a fine piece of film-making, yet one I found perhaps too calculated to truly engage with as a love story for the ages. 4/5 

Saturday marks the day of Halloween, the time of year to engage with all things, ghastly, ghouley and frightening. One of the best ways to do so is through the numerous horror flicks that the movie world has kindly unleashed upon us. To mark the event this year, I have themed a snack-time post with my thoughts on three films which dabble in horror in their own distinct ways. One is through straight up spectral happenings, another through Gothic romance. And one by being just so a horrifically terrible movie. I’ll leave you to guess which is which.

Pan-PosterPan (Dir: Joe Wright) 

Well, what the fuck happened here? The story of Peter Pan is one which has charmed children and adults alike for over 100 years through various forms. J.M. Barries’ timeless creation of a story of a boy who refused to grow up has had many a different take, from more traditional Disney fare to a ‘What if?’ scenario in Spielberg’s Hook. A true origins tale is not one that has been translated to screen, but one does exist in Barrie’s own writing, a dark tragic tale of a boy who ran away from home, only to be replaced by another child. What it doesn’t have is white-washing, ugly visuals, Southern Captain Hooks, or a cocky little shit as its lead. Just why all that exists here is anyone’s guess.

Peter (Levi Miller) is an orphan living in an Orphanage in World War 2-era London, an institute run by the cruel Mother Barnabas (Kathy Burke). With children mysteriously disappearing, Peter soon finds out that Barnabas has made a deal with a gang of Pirates from another world, Neverland, a world in which Peter believes he may find his long lost mother (Amanda Seyfried). Once he is captured himself, Peter enters the world of Neverland to discover that he may be the prophesised saviour of the Indian tribe, driven into hiding by the dastardly Captain Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman). Teaming up with the rogueish James Hook (Garret Hedlund), Peter sets out to discover his destiny and to find out what really happened to his mother.

There is potential in delving in to the origins of Peter Pan, but quite why it proceeds in this fashion is boggling, considering there is already a version of the origins worthy of adapting. Joe Wright, who is by no means a talent-less director, shoots everything in an incredibly stage like fashion, meaning that the proceedings end up feeling cheap, tacky, and garish.

The visual effects range from competent to utterly appalling, as we stumble through noisy set piece after noisy set piece. There is the odd thrill, particularly once Peter learns to fly, but it does not compensate for the bizarre decisions made throughout. Hedlund’s performance is baffling in its Indiana Jones-lite fashion, while Rooney Mara’s controversial casting as Tiger Lily is only made worse by the fact that the character is so thinly drawn and rarely allowed to kick ass as she should, simply becoming an object of affection for Hedlund’s Hook.

The only member of the cast that seems to be in on the joke is JAckman, who crafts an entertainingly campy pirate through Blackbeard, although many of the stylistic choices attributed to him remain ill-advised (‘Teenage Spirit’ as a work song? Why? Is it post-modern? I don’t even know any-more). The young Miller delivers an incredibly forced performance, over-annunciating every line, and crafting Peter into an obnoxious, smug and irritating hero who never does anything to prove himself worthy of being a hero, he just simply has everything handed to him.

The film becomes incredibly laborious very quickly, amounting in cinematic venture to Neverland that lacks true invention or anything all that worthwhile. It may distract kids with its garish imagery, but its script that is riddled with plot holes and its lazy design which rips off everything from Pirates of the Caribbean to Avatar drown an admittedly talented cast. Nearly everyone involved in this film has proven themselves to be incredibly talented in the past, but everyone seems to have taken an off day with this one, producing one of the most arduous cinematic experiences I have had this year. Congrats Pan, you get my first one-star review of the year. 1/5  

CrimsonPeak

Crimson Peak (Dir: Guillermo del Toro)

Now before you say anything, I know that this, Guillermo del Toro’s fifth English language movie as director, is not strictly a horror movie, what with it only having shades through its Gothic lashings within a dark tale of romance. Marketed as such though, Crimson Peak may disappoint those looking for much in the way of scares this Halloween. That being said, it is not without its creep-tastic imagery in the form of the ghosts which visit our heroine, budding author Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), who is swept away to a crumbling mansion on top a clay mine when she falls for the charming yet mysterious Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). Living with both her new husband and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), Edith embarks on a dark tale that rival her own imagination.

Crimson Peak may well stand as the most ‘del Toro’ picture he has made in the English language, with much of the Gothic overtones recalling The Devil’s Backbone, and as a result is a delightfully gruesome and ravishing picture to behold. It is an utter master-class of production design, with the set designs brimming with pulsing life. Nearly every frame could be held and examined to discover more about the world in which del Toro populates his romantic characters. Allerdale Hall, the house atop the titular Crimson Peak, ripples with life, with clay seeping like blood from the walls of the hall that once held much grandeur but has since shed its life with the decline of the Sharpe name. The designs of the ghosts as well are capable of being quite terrifying when given their moment to shine, resulting in an incredibly unsettling atmosphere throughout.

Where Crimson Peak is not quite so finely tuned is within its screenplay. A great deal of time passes before we actually get to Allerdale Hall, with mystery surrounding the Sharpe’s being somewhat obviously established. While it is not afraid to delve into some dark corners, the film proceeds as you would expect, rarely pulling the rug from under your feet whilst you wonder the sumptuous halls of the Sharpe’s fallen estate.

The story maintains your interest due in large part to the design, but also due to the fine work from its three leads. Wasikowska is very much suited to this type of Daphne de Maurier Gothic heroine, leading us through the proceedings with wide eyes and a candle stick in hand. Hiddleston is suitably charming and appropriately allusive in his approach. It is Jessica Chastain that steals the show however, bubbling with a sinister spirit before truly letting rip with a gloriously mad performance in the final third.

Guillermo del Toro thankfully has once again refused to compromise to more conventional ‘horror’ techniques, allowing this film to stand firmly as a Gothic Romance, marking it as a somewhat unique text within the pantheon of modern screen horror. It is first and foremost a romance, one which becomes warped and doomed as it proceeds via the nature of its atmosphere and the dark pasts of its characters. It is a visually rich and utterly ravishing piece of cinema, a richness which should only prove more rewarding on repeat viewing. 4/5 

ParanormalParanormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (Dir: Gregory Plotkin)

 The Paranormal Activity franchise is one that I have actively supported since the first instalment came along and gave a kick start to the flailing found footage sub-genre of horror. While further instalments in the franchise have not been particularly well received on the critical spectrum, but I have found all of them to be rather affectingly diverting and frighteningly fun (with number 3 actually standing as my favourite of the franchise). Yet, however, there has always been a common issue with every instalment. While many of the episodes do enough to increase interest in the mythology of Toby the Demon, all ultimately have quite underwhelming endings as it simply leaves another loose end to be tied. Well, now, we have The Ghost Dimension, the film that promises to be the final chapter, revealing the activity in full bodied glory. Was it worth the wait and dedication? Unfortunately, not quite.

A new family becomes victim to the prophecy that looks to see the demon Toby come to full bodied life. Yet, this time, the family happen upon a camera which allows them to see the demonic presence on tape. Now they only have to find a way to stop it.

The Ghost Dimension sells itself on the notion that there is now a camera that allows the activity to be seen. While an intriguing idea, the actual execution leaves much to be desired. For starts, the camera comes very much out of nowhere, with no information given to us as to who designed it (considering it’s nowhere to be seen in any previous instalments). While this could be forgiven if the film provided some truly fresh and scary imagery with the gimmick, but sadly the cheap as chips budget aggressively shines through, presenting terrible CGI forms in amateurish 3-D.

That being said, there are moments that work. The cast of unknowns work a treat, with the child performance particularly proving effective. There are also some rather successful moments of creepiness, mostly through plays on perspective and creepy child performances. It does things very competently, as it seemingly builds to a big and intriguing climax set within the titular ‘Ghost Dimension’, yet when the film gets there, its over incredibly quickly. The film does not allow us to bask in this new and exciting realm, one thinks because of budget restrictions. It results in a film with a significant amount of build up with limited pay off in what is supposed to be the culmination of this franchise. Time wasted. 2/5 

Spectre-1The James Bond franchise, as I’m sure many of those who know me and/or are familiar with this blog, is one that I hold very close to my movie-going heart, easily standing as my favourite film franchise. I would be the first to say that it is probably the most inconsistent of popular film franchises, but that is very much part of its charm. The series hit its biggest success with Skyfall, the first Bond film to make a billion at the box-office (not adjusted for inflation). This, of course, puts a certain amount of pressure on the follow-up, an amount of pressure which can most certainly be felt within Spectre, the 24th official Bond movie, leading to a Bond experience which is undoubtedly a Bond-flick, but an uneven one at that.

After an un-ordered mission in Mexico, James Bond (Daniel Craig) begins to investigate the possible existence of a secret terrorist organisation known as ‘Spectre’. What he doesn’t know is quite how personally this investigation will affect him, as players from his past soon reveal themselves to be involved with the shady and dangerous organisation. Meanwhile, M (Ralph Fiennes) is involved in a power struggle with C (Andrew Scott), head of a new agency merger called Joint Intelligence Service, which seeks to put an end to the 00 program, as well increase surveillance across the globe.

Spectre attempts to set out on a similar path to Skyfall in that it Spectre-2constructs a story which places a personal stake on Bond and reveals more about his past. It is something which has never truly been attempted with Bond before, yet while it felt organic within Skyfall, here it feels a little forced. The association of Bond with villain Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) feels a tad too contrived and not entirely convincing. It allows for Craig’s tenure of Bond to continue its psychoanalytical exploration of the character, but in a much less organic way than that of his previous efforts.

What is largely the problem with Spectre is that the script never feels entirely complete, often pausing whilst the many credited writer’s attempt to figure out where next to move the plot. They largely rely upon tried and tested Bond formula, calling moments from Bond’s past which have worked in the past. It allows the film to feel distinctly like a Bond film, more so than Craig’s first two efforts, but a little too retrograde. It gives the film a certainly pleasant feel, but makes the film a little too representative of Sam Smith’s song that accompanies it; certainly Bondian, but lacking a certain uniqueness and gusto to make it truly soar.

What feels particularly retrograde about this entry is the treatment of the Bond ladies involved. Monica Belluci is tragically underused, but it is the relationship between Bond and Lea Seydoux’s Madeline Swann that struggles the most. It strives to give us another romance on the level of Vesper Lynd, but stumbles through clumsy writing and the fact that the age gap between Craig and Seydoux is quite apparent. There is certainly nothing wrong with the stunning Seydoux’s performance, much of the depth of the character comes from her initial steely gaze, but she quickly descends into an under-written damsel in distress involved in an unconvincing romance.Spectre-3

Right, now to the good stuff. Sam Mendes, coming back to the fold after Skyfall, remains in constant control of the visuals. The opening is a franchise highlight, a long beautifully controlled one shot which follows Bond through a Day of the Dead parade, as he signals out his target and goes in for the kill. Throughout, Mendes and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (Interstellar, Her) deliver us spectacular vistas, making full use of varied and visually arresting locations, finding hidden corners within many different cities and countries. The film also features incredible practical stunts within its brilliantly executed action scenes. All the set pieces work a treat, and ride on the strength of the reported $300 million budget (although there are some sloppy CG shots which are somewhat unforgivable). Mendes has certainly improved on the action front and delivers some spectacular work here, from a chase down a mountain in Austria, to a From Russia With Love-esque fist fight on-board a train.

The cast are also on particularly fine form, even if their performances are sometimes diminished by the knotted nature of the screenplay. Craig is very confident in this role now, and even though he may be showing his age a tad, he still very much carries off the macho-energy and bravado needed for Bond, whilst maintaining a playful glint in his eye. Waltz is underused but provides enough cheerful menace to brighten up the film whenever he is present, while Andrew Scott fails to make all that much of an impact. Where the cast is particularly strong is in the supporting MI6 cast. Rory Kinnear has become a welcome main stay for the franchise, while Naomie Harris and Ben Whishaw truly grow into two valuable members of the team, having a great time with their versions of Moneypenny and Q, who both have refreshingly revised relationships with Bond. The stand-out, though, has to be Ralph Fiennes stepping in to Judi Dench’s shoes as M. He does incredibly well to establish a new dynamic with Bond, possessing a venomous dry wit, whilst also proving capable at stepping up to the action plate should the call arise.Spectre-4

Spectre is undoubtedly enjoyable, if a little testing at two and a half hours. It thrives on the thrills of practical stunt-work and by revisiting classic Bond tropes, such as an ejector seat, a silent henchman, villains shrouded in shadow, but it all feels somewhat by-the-numbers. If this does indeed end up being Craig’s last turn in the role, it is not quite as glorious as Skyfall, or as hard-hitting as Casino Royale, but it does stand over Quantum of Solace, and provides some spectacular action along the way. It is by no means a sour note, more just a film which appears to have had some structural issues through the writing process which are sadly all too apparent. However, it remains a thrill to see a new James Bond film on the screen, proving to be a worthwhile and often very exciting entry for Ian Fleming’s enduring 00-agent.

3/5- Never lacking in spectacle or style, Spectre unfortunately does suffers from a seemingly troubled screenplay, yet manages to provide all the thrills one can expect from Her Majesty’s finest secret agent.