Saturday, 31 January 2015

Best and Worst of January 2015

One month down, eleven to go. Here is a look back at the three best films I’ve seen in January 2015 and the one worst film as well. I think I can say that it’s pretty good start to the year. Naturally no major blockbusters yet but a few smaller films and some stragglers from 2014 show up in UK cinemas. So without further ado let’s tackle the best
3: Foxcatcher
An amazing and brutal film, stripping down the glamourous sports life to its raw and ugly core. Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo all appear to play three very different but very tragic figures, each with their own traumas that plague them and ultimately destroy their hopes and aspirations. Throw in the beautifully bleak directing and you have the most successful sports tragedy for a long time.
2: Whiplash
A thriller about Jazz. Ask yourself how such a concept was pitched to studios, on paper it must have looked mediocre and fairly straight forward. But then you add the directorial techniques of a thriller from Damien Chazelle. Then you add the damaged and aspiring performance from Miles Teller and JK Simmons as his psychotic and brilliant teacher. You then have the most thrilling, emotional, and thought provoking film of last year. You’ll be left with your heart in your mouth and yelling for more.
1: Birdman
Not only is Birdman a painfully true performance from Michael Keaton, it soars on cinematic imagination. It’s an experience unlike anything else in film history and it all spans from the mind of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarittu. It reminds me why I love movies, it’s humorous, emotional intellectual, visually breath-taking and vital to the time. It acts as a commentary on the movie industry as we watch the mother of all meltdowns and the father of all fight-backs.
And now the worst…
Taken 3

Wow, I’d say this franchise has fallen a long way but it didn’t have that long to fall in the first place. The brutal action of the first has been reduced to a mix of sequences more comfortable in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. All held together with a thin and tiresome plot. Liam Neeson gives a decent performance given the poor writing but that is definitely not enough to save it. Expect the full review shortly. 

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Top 5 Films Directed by Eastwood

With American Sniper rounding up the dollars at the cinema and several award nominations already in the bag it would appear that Clint Eastwood is doing pretty well as a director. Believ it or not of course he has been successful for several years prior to this and today I am going through my top five. Eastwood has to be directing though, he can on and behind the camera or just behind it. And here are the best for me.
5: The Outlaw Josey Wales
Given that his role in this western is so iconic it can be easy to forget that Eastwood also directed this gloomily beautiful western. This is clearly a specific vision that was fully realised by the directorial techniques used throughout to make the story about the American Civil War. It’s set in the past yet still disturbingly parallel to modern times and is rightfully branded as a western masterpiece.
4: Letters from Iwo Jima
Portraying WW2 from a Japanese perspective might appear to be unusual from an actor turned director infused with classic American culture. Almost entirely in Japanese but still able to retain a strong connection with American audiences, helped by its counterpart Flags of Our Fathers together these films portrayed good and evil on both sides of the battle, with stunning recreations of war and humanity Eastwood gave us USA and Japanese soldiers as different sides of the same coin.
3: Gran Torino
 Once again Eastwood transcended his association of an old fashioned American to direct and star in this achingly detailed story of an old man accepting the changing world around him. As well as being Eastwood’s most successful film to date it’s also a sleek and stylish, yet traditional and emotional experience that’s thrilling sometimes, humorous when it needs to be and touching throughout.
2: Million Dollar Baby
Possibly the most tragic and astonishing story of the last decade was the tale of boxing, redemption and atonement. Rather than simply being Rocky with a girl Million Dollar Baby exceeded the expectations of its own genre and grew to become an remarkable achievement. The emotional impact is unprecedented and the performances are all amazing, only highlighted by the dark substance that Eastwood gives the film.
1: Unforgiven
Even as a director Eastwood cannot escape the old west, and thank god for it. Not only does it unite three screen legends, Eastwood, Freeman and Hackman but it masterfully blends the western feel with that classic noir and sophisticated look that gave it a gritty yet classy edge over all others. It won four academy awards and acts as a fitting contemplation of heroism, age, bravery and character. It’s only fitting that it was in tribute of Sergio Leone himself, and in many ways, to all westerns in general. It’s timeless and Eastwood’s greatest achievement.
So what’s your favourite film that Eastwood directed? Whatever it is leave a comment below to let me know and don’t forget to recommend Film Fanatic on google.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015


"I'm lonelier in my real life than I am out here."

From the director of Dallas Buyer’s Club comes this very different yet also remarkably similar film. DBC was a very interesting and unique perspective on a story that could have been portrayed very differently in the hands of another director. So another journey of self-discovery should be right up Jean Marc Vallee’s street.
Overcome by grief and addiction a desolate woman called Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) undertakes an epic hike of the Pacific Crest Trail. She has virtually nothing in terms of preparation for the physical or emotional hardship that lies ahead of her.
It would be difficult to make a film about hiking so interesting. But if Whiplash proved anything if you have the talent you can make a riveting story out of almost anything (exceptions might include stamp collecting and writing reviews for films on a blog, guess which one I do).
One of the aspects that makes this film so interesting is that I’m immediately thrown into the journey. It’s by seeing things along the way that Cheryl is reminded of her past and so do we through flashbacks. But a lot was left out for a majority of the film. So not only was I following the central character on her physical journey and emotional turmoil but I was also trying to piece together and try to get a perspective of her reasons for doing what she is. It becomes a sort of emotional mystery.
But this play on revelations at certain points can get tiresome sometimes. Occasionally you struggle to see the significance of one moment against the larger backdrop and not all of them are given closure or a thorough enough explanation by the end. It can be difficult to relate to a character when so many of her motives are kept a secret for so long.
Reese Witherspoon is amazing in this role. The film relies on her acting credibility a lot and it pays off for every section. It’s a raw and painfully real portrayal of a character that although you can admire for deciding to kick her previous addictions and take part in this astonishing challenge set for herself you also pity for having been allowed to sink so low until now. The only emotion that you do not feel towards her is boredom.
In a film centred on the outdoors so much the cinematography would have to be up to top standards. And it is, capturing the beauty and brutality of the wild throughout. When Cheryl is content and happy with the progress of her journey the environment is portrayed as her friend. When she begins to struggle it becomes an enemy that is laughing at her and has to be conquered if she can retain any fragments of her tormented life.
Wild also never needs to resort to sentimentality or stoop to manipulation in order to achieve its emotions. Though she may be centre of the film it relies on her a bit too much at times. Though as a character Cheryl is intriguing, the world around her isn’t as interesting to the same extent. I felt as if her reactions to what happens make up too much of the film and although her reactions are believable they can become unusually specific for the plot to continue down that route.  
Wild is an emotionally raw, brave and quiet coming of age story that manages to avoid falling into cliché and skirts around the classic formula whilst also using Witherspoon’s acting credibility to give it some real heart and emotion.
Result: 7/10

Monday, 26 January 2015

American Sniper

"Would you be surprised if I told you that the Navy has credited you with over 160 kills?"

Given that the last true story that Clint Eastwood brought to cinema was a bit of a disappointment this story of the deadliest sniper in US history seems to be more up his street. And with Bradley cooper starring, can the man with no name prove that he still has what it takes to be a great director as well as a great actor.
Based on Chris Kyle’s (Bradley Cooper) life, a shooter who became a US sniper in Iraq, is chronicled in American Sniper. From his brutal training to his family life, his decorated tours of duty to his obsession with finding the high level insurgent known only as the Butcher.
There are many elements of Eastwood’s directorial trademarks present here. For a start there is that large scale of action mixed with human drama. Eastwood applies different techniques to nail them both, the human aspect feels fleshed out and real and the action feels brutal and heart pounding in comparison. The differences between the two are studied and used repeatedly as a theme throughout the film as Kyle struggles to keep his professional personality separate from his role as a family man.
The suspense it creates is drawn up to great heights as it was with The Hurt Locker, and there are a lot of elements that ring true for both stories. Whether it was intentional or not Eastwood borrowed some aspects from Kathryn Bigelow’s masterpiece.
However there are some issues with the film and that does come down to what you fear it might be from a film called AMERICAN Sniper. Rather than attempting to remain in the neutral zone the writing and direction of the film is far more black and white than one of this subject matter should be. American Sniper fails to explore the deeper and darker aspects of PTSD that are implied throughout. This is clearly a damaged and wounded individual and it looks like Cooper wants to explore that as an actor because he takes every opportunity he can to hammer this point across.
Furthermore this film never questions Kyle’s actions on the level that it could. This is not a man who is hailed by everyone and many take offense to his praise as a hero. And while most biographical films should take a chance to celebrate their subject when they can, if you’re dealing with a man as controversial and questionable as this and take the approach that American Sniper does, it feels like a wasted opportunity.
It’s not just down to a question of morality, it also fails to deliver on the psychological level in the same way that say… Nightcrawler did. And I know that maybe I’m critical of this film instinctively as American Sniper and Bradley Cooper took the place of Nightcrawler and Gyllenhaal at the Oscars, both of which are far superior in my opinion.
Cooper does give a fantastic performance here. He manages to portray the emotional trauma and fear within the character but that just makes it more irritating that they didn’t go deeper into his psych. He wants to be a simple person and remain connected to his personal world. But he also conveys to obsession an madness that comes close to consuming him.
To the film’s credit it does portray the ugliness and grittiness of war, but in a way it uses that to make Kyle more of a hero. It shows how he has to cope with himself and overcome this horrific side of himself. While on paper that sounds complex it gives it more of a feeling of standing against the odds and overcoming terrible aspects and never leaves it to the viewer to understand.
Though there are some excellent elements of American Sniper, there are not enough of them nor are they explored in enough detail to make it truly great.
Result: 7/10

Saturday, 24 January 2015

87th Academy Awards: The Favourites and the Underdogs

Oscar season is upon us and between now and the ceremony I shall be giving a run-down of the nominees, the favourites, the dark horses and those that missed out. Toady I’m looking at the main categories and choosing my top picks for the winner. If you want to hear anger directed at the movies that missed out then don’t worry, I’ve saved an entire post to do that. For now though let’s focus on what we have.
Best Picture
A number of surprises in American Sniper and The Grand Budapest Hotel are here and though I would love to see Wes Anderson’s comedy caper take the award, it appears to belong to Boyhood. The achievement alone makes it an automatic nominee, but it’s executed so well that it just looks definite. Selma (which I haven’t seen yet) and Whiplash would both be dark horses but their scale can’t quite match that of Linklater. The only other serious contender appears to be Birdman, but that would be a surprise.
Best Director
It’s down to Linklater and Inarritu. That’s the simple truth of this year and it comes down to scale or scope, Birdman is a cinematic marvel and Inarritu has lost out previously to the great Scorsese with Babel losing to the Departed. But Linklater has gone without praise from the academy for so long and the Critic’s Choice Awards favoured him. Linklater to win, but be braced for Birdman.
Best Actor
The shock here comes from Carell, though he’s good he appears to be in the wrong category. That aside, for me it looks like a two horse race, it’s Cumberbatch or Keaton and I’ll go for Riggan Thomson to take the award based on experience. But where’s Gyllenhaal?
Best Actress
Quite an even ground here, all five nominees have the capability to win a relatively early career boost. Only one really stood out for me and that would be Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl, so she’s my choice to take the gold.
Best Supporting Actor
This one goes to J.K Simmons, is anyone going to argue, no. Didn’t think so, I did like Ed Norton but he just can’t compete with the intense performance from former JJJ.
Best Supporting Actress
Once again there isn’t anyone that immediately stands out as an obvious favourite. Tey are all very good and could all be accepted as winners. Emma Stone and Kiera Knightley both appear tp be contenders but given that Patricia Arquette gave twelve years to her role in Boyhood, I think she has the edge.
Best Animated Feature
I know that not everything is awesome but there’e no escaping the fact that it is not. So we have to pick a winner out of tese and given that it would already be the most likely to win after Emmet and his pals, How to Drain Your Dragon 2 looks ideal to win a this rather disappointing selection.
Best Adapted Screenplay
This one is more difficult than it initially appears. Though the obvious choice might be Whiplash ask yourself, was it the writing that really stood out in that film or was it the direction and acting? So with that in mind my choice is the Imitation Game.
Best Original Screenplay
Some strong contenders here, whimsical or realistic, existential or thrilling, take your pick from a wide variety. I’ll pick a film that relied on its screenplay more than the others, meaning that the acting and direction only added to the film instead of carrying it, and that is Grand Budapest Hotel.
So what do you think of the nominations. Do you have a favourite or underdog amongst the mix of categories? If you have any angry comments to make about the various snubs then save them for the next Oscar post about the mistakes of the academy.  

Wednesday, 21 January 2015


"There are no two words in the english language more harmful than 'good job'."

‘I want drumming about Spider-Man’. Sorry I had to, but putting J.J.J (John Jonah Jameson) aside, J.K Simmons plays one of the most intense, frightening and thrilling roles, matched to a film with the same aspects, in recent history. And it’s about Jazz music, that traditional thriller base mark.
Andrew (Miles Teller) is an aspiring drummer who is studying at a prestigious music school, and he wants to be the best. To achieve this he will have to impress the debatably psychotic, and even more debatably brilliant, conductor Fletcher.
It’s is startling to think that of all the tense spy thrillers, hostage negotiations and terrorist plots of recent years, a movie about drumming would become the most intense one of them all. As the tension builds and builds you really begin to feel for young Andrew, you almost believe, as he surely does, that unless he masters the drums his life will be over, full stop, nothing else and no more options left. It’s almost as if his very existence depends on it.
J.K Simmons’ Fletcher is rather reminiscent of the Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. The intensity and passion behind every single line and interaction is astonishing. The anger and need to improve are relished not just once but repeatedly, and in every aspect. Even when the emotions of the character begin to change he retains that stormy core that pushes and pushes continuously.  
Nearly everyone has praised Simmons and though he deserves it, save some for Mr Miles Teller please. He perfects the victim who must either take it and make it or stand up and lose it all (I couldn’t rhyme that). He puts everything he has into this role, going from promising student, scarred professional and then…(spoiler). Teller actually plays a larger part in raising such huge tension from such a relatively small practice.
Their combination is also a work of brilliance. As their relationship evolves and changes the abuse that Fletcher inflicts becomes psychological. It reaches new, unprecedented levels that are brought to life fantastically by the performances. The film also asks vital questions over how far you should push yourself. Andrew drums because he loves it, but to succeed and do it forever he needs to be good at it. So he needs to practice with such brutal training methods that surely it defeats the point of following that path anyway, it becomes just as daunting and pressurising as manual labour.
My last review was Foxcatcher and I criticised it for misplacing its protagonist, and Whiplash had the potential to do the same thing. But it didn’t, it kept the focus of the film on its emotional attachment and although the more fascinating character was present almost constantly, the emotional centre was Andrew.
My one and only criticism, and it’s a small one, is that when Andrew reaches breaking point it happens in a very eventful way. In an attempt not to spoil it but until this point the anger and tension had been built up through small actions. At this point the story merges on melodramatic when it doesn’t seem necessary. Given Simmons’ attitude to his point you’d think that only one of the events needed to happen to make Andrew snap, but instead they all happen and they make it seem slightly staged. But like I said, this is one complaint and it only effects those single ten minutes of the film, which are still very good. The following scene when Andrew finally confronts his tormenter makes it worth it.
Whiplash also doesn’t rely too much on the actors either. Simmons and Teller add to the drama and then some but the directorial techniques used by Damien Chazelle still work to beautiful effect. He turns a film about the smooth music into a heart-stopping and emotional thriller.
On paper this film sounds like a more serious and boring version of the Karate Kid. On the screen it’s an entirely different and unique creation. Drumroll please.
Result: 9/10

Tuesday, 20 January 2015


"A Coach is a father, a coach is a mentor, a coach has great power on an athlete's life."

If someone had told me when I walked out of Anchorman 2 that in just over a year the guy that played Brick, the mad, trident wielding, green screen misunderstanding, weatherman, Steve Carell would be nominated for the academy award for best supporting actor… well, why do you think I would’ve said. Actually, I probably still would have said ‘He’s not getting nominated for his role as Brick?’
When Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is hired by athletics enthusiast and billionaire John du Pont (Carell) to lead a team to international glory it appears that he has just grasped the chance of a lifetime. But when his brother (Mark Ruffalo) becomes involved and du Pont’s behaviour becomes increasingly bizarre, his opportunity shapes into a different life changing experience.
At the centre of this film is a study of various psyches, like an educated billionaire having the soul of a rabid animal or an experienced father having extreme ideals or a young, strong man being impressionable and weak willed. Each participant portrays this part perfectly, with Ruffalo, known for being the most intelligent Avenger, becomes shockingly brutal and idealistic. He’s a man who cannot express himself emotionally at all, in fact Dave Schultz is closer to Bruce Banner’s alter ego than anything else.
Channing Tatum is normally a glamorous dramatist or just a comedy actor, but here there is nothing glamourous and certainly not comedic. Like his brother Mark clearly struggles with emotional expression. But he is more aware of his situation, but not at all in control of it. It’s a fascinating idea and Tatum never plays a character with a clear sense of direction. Nor does he make this extravagant or overly dramatic, his performance is stripped down to its raw core.
Steve Carell must be going against ever instinct he has built up as an actor to play this role. Under prosthetics he transforms completely, though there are slight changes to his face I could still tell it was Carell. But his mental portrayal of the character mask that more than any effects could, he brings this dark and broiling man to life. With a schizophrenic personality that utilizes Carell’s comedic and dramatic talents that can turn a humorous exterior into a horrifying soul. It is truly exceptional.
Directorial restraint plays a vital part in this story. Bennett Miller creates a bleak look to the picture that succeeds in sucking out all of the overtones that could damage the film. The whole theme of this story is dealing with the soul, taking away the layers that people use to cover their inner dilemmas.
Perhaps if there is a fault to find with Foxcatcher it’s that the dark and brooding look of the film can subtract from the story slightly. Though it suits the film it can’t help but make the film seem slow paced at times. It appears to be only a slight problem in the final format of the film, but I can’t help but think that the problem would be much worse with three less talented actors. The more I think about it the more I have to admit that the screenplay would feel tedious without the amazing talent and direction to support it.
It also appears to have its priorities mislaid for who should have the main focus. Although Carell is magnificent and never waivers and the film tries to explore his motives, you feel more emotionally connected to Tatum. He’s the human centre of the film compared to Carell’s remarkably inhuman character, so it might benefit from substituting a few scenes du Pont for Schultz as it might add to the emotional connection that, once again, without the stunning performances, I might have lost completely.
Featuring career best performances from Steve Carell and Channing Tatum (Mark Ruffalo is only excluded because he already has many career defining roles, but this one is equal to them as well), Foxcatcher is shockingly brutal and expertly shot, spots drama of the highest order.

Result: 8/10

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Into the Woods

"Into the woods without delay, be careful not to lose the way."

Given that this year they own the distributing rights to so many massive franchises such as Star Wars and Marvel, Disney want to be sure that they can pull off a darker story to convince the fans that their own beloved franchise’s will not be effected by new ownership. Adapting the 1986 stage musical Into the Woods seems like a good place to start.
Various characters from the Grimm fairy tales meet on a series of intertwining tales overlooked by a baker and his wife as they seek to undo a witches’ curse. Basically it’s the Pulp Fiction of fairy tales. They encounter many characters such as Jack (from the beanstalk) little riding hood (of the red variety) and Cinderella (you’ve heard of that).
Sadly I am not accustomed to the stage musical, though I probably should have researched it for a review, regardless though I am aware that many fans of the musical were worried that some of the adult content might be affected by the Disney treatment. From what I can understand there have been some small changes to the story but for the most part they remain faithful to the source material, even the more mature elements. While there is an uncomfortable song from Johnny Depp with some fairly obvious sex references that’s bound to upset some parents, if you’re comfortable with that then you’ll find it very enjoyable.
Speaking of Depp, it’s good to see him step back a bit here. In the Lone Ranger he was rather forced into the central role rather than the title character, but here he stays in his place no longer than is necessary, as do all of the other actors. While Chris Pine is debatably the biggest current star of the film he has a relatively small role compared to other, smaller stars. But he plays it brilliantly, adopting an arrogant, but still very fun, persona. He’s definitely not the classic Disney prince, but certainly the most entertaining.
To the three leads, James Corden and Emily Blunt are both wonderful in their roles. Though they are not the outspoken characters of the film they are essential to its tone and nature, tying the stories together and providing that human link. Like I said before, currently Pine is probably the biggest star, but if you mean of all time and space, then that would have to be the legendary Meryl Streep. Who knew she could sing? I mean, I would have assumed she’d be good if I thought about it, but I never did prior to Into the Woods, and now she is and it is brilliant. A true outspoken, charismatic, yet sympathetic witch who is also essential as she provides an all knowing, set in motion, feel to the story.
Into the Woods also has that slightly gritty but a remaining enduring feel thanks to director Rob Marshall. The problem is that this does feel like a stage show put on film. The whole appeal of theatre is that you’re that close to the spectacle that every detail can be pivotal. Films have to stretch a bit more to break through that thicker fourth wall and as a result, by following the play, the film appears to be slightly underwhelming at times. It needs to put on more of a spectacle to stand out and create a magical feel, but then again maybe that was the intention, the lessen that vibe. But for me it feels slightly unfinished by the end.
Aside from that though, Into the Woods is an immensely likable and charming Disney tale. If they wanted to convince me that they could be darker when they need to be, they succeeded, if they wanted to show me that they can still connect with their original magic, they proved that as well.
Result: 7/10

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

The Theory of Everything

"It has been a great joy to watch this man defy every expectation, both scientific, and personal."

To quote Sheldon Cooper, ‘if Hawking’s theories are proven correct, then they will merely explain why the universe exists, how it came to be and how it will ultimately end’. So the appropriately titled Theory of Everything is another Oscar hopeful and by this stage it just appears that it’s trying to make the decision of who to give the award to this year even harder.
Stephen Hawking is a gifted theoretical physicist. But his research lacks focus or a theme as he is studying for his PhD. At the same time he meets and falls in love with Jane Wilde, but their relationship must survive Stephen’s devastating diagnosis of motor neurone disease as he makes the breakthrough in physics that will go on to consume him.
This is certainly a challenging but rewarding film, in the same way that the best dramas are. Eddie Redmayne catches every aspect of this long and progressive disease with such integrity doe each stage. The physical aspect of this performance is staggering, but to maintain such standards without the use of his voice for a good deal of the film, Redmayne takes the transformation elements of acting to new heights. There is a real feeling of Hawking slowly losing his former identity as the process continues, but there’s definitely the human touch necessary to create a sympathetic character.
Though the Theory of Everything deals with the most mind bending theories that Hawking’s extraordinary mind created over the years, it never appears to be disconnected with its audience. I won’t claim to understand every aspect of hawking’s theories, though I admire and am fascinated by all of them, so I was glad that despite not knowing half of what he said without a dictionary, you could sense the passion and the emotion behind his argument for these theories, and that it why I connected with him. I found Redmayne’s portrayal to be one that maintained its intelligence but also the emotional connection, without sacrificing either of the vice to also achieve the versa.
But of course, Redmayne is not the only outstanding performance. We see Hawking’s relationship and we see his Felicity Jones expertly acting out the woman behind all of the support, all of the pain and in many ways the driving force behind this film. There’s a subtle element of struggling to cope with a life-time existence with her husband. The inner turmoil is there, as is the sympathy and love. One familiar with the real Hawking story may be cautious of her demonization but in all honesty, there is nothing of the sort here. Both actors respond as humans would caught in such a tragic yet optimistic situation.
The story is inspirational in highlighting the achievements and struggles of this extraordinary life. Similarly to the Imitation Game the Theory of Everything works as more than a biopic, it’s also a romance that is done with all of the right ingredients to make it feel like a romance. Give this film a protagonist with a different name and you have, a plagiarism of Hawking’s biography, but also a good film anyway. But it manages to use our knowledge of an iconic figure in today’s world to its advantage. There is of course the wonderful moment when that sentence is stated in that familiar voice for the first time, ‘My name is Stephen Hawking’. Only to be given an entertaining spin a few seconds later as Jane remarks, ‘It’s American?’
Immensely entertaining and inspirational throughout, the Theory of Everything features two standout performances and a stunning physical and mental transformation. There are a few elements of it being your usual tragic romance, so as a film it may be flawed. But as a celebration of possibly the greatest mind of our time, it succeeds beautifully.
Result: 8/10 

Monday, 12 January 2015

Big Eyes

"Keane sells paintings, then he sells pictures of the paintings, then he sells postcards of pictures of the paintings."

Though he’s developed a knack for gothic movies with Batman and Beetlejuice, and then bad remakes with Planet of the Apes and Alice in Wonderland, Tim Burton at his prime had a knack for displaying intimate human emotions in their most bizarre and innocent forms. So this return to his origins, swapping Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter for newer models, shows extreme promise.
Already enduring one failed marriage, artist Margaret Ulbrich (Amy Adams) appears to have found happiness as she meets and marries fellow artist Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) and her paintings of wide eyed figures become popular and bring in money. But she discovers that hubbie has been taking the credit for her work.
Immediately there is a sense of breaking away as far as directorial choices go, Burton chooses to take up a lighter look of the film, straying away from the dark, goth’s fantasy, style. The only Burton film that comes close to this in terms of story is Ed Wood, but that was still dark, literally as it was black and white. Big Eyes is much more colourful and captures the tone of its artistic background quite successfully.
The story itself seems to match Burton as a director, some of his films can be described as art, but then again he clearly has no trouble with mass producing his art, just look at Jack Skellington. The Keane portraits were produced as pictures and prints and it was disputed whether or not something mass produced can be considered true talent, an argument that we’ve seen in Birdman previously.
The two leads both make an impression, particularly Waltz. However this can have repercussions, like all of his roles he’s a charismatic, larger than life character who can be seen lying and cheating his way to the top. That works very well at some points such as drawing the audience and Adams in to his web but at others I felt as if the charisma needed to be pushed aside in order to make way for more human drama. On that basis, the better performance seems to come from Adams, a more ordinary yet more human portrayal of a woman who must choose between blissful suppression or dangerous recognition. The performances also seem to be influenced by the writing mainly, so given a screenplay that examines their relationship on a closer level, Waltz could really deliver, but sadly we just do not see it here.
Though this entire situation is abuse at the end of the day, a man suppressing his wife in order to support his own ego, but it tries to maintain a light tone for more time than necessary. The result is a rather mixed tone and one that seems distorted, we see Amy Adam’s cracking psyche and Waltz’s abusive personality, some caricatures of the art world with other characters, they don’t fit together that well.  
But there is a nice personal tone to the story. It reflects Margaret’s own personal struggle as she must draw upon her own inner strength in order to stand up against her husband. The way that these paintings begin to dominate her life and personality, so much so that she begins to see the big eyes in ordinary people and herself, some impressive yet also subtle CGI.
Big Eyes is part biopic, part romance, part portrayal of marriage and art in the 1950s and part period drama. Though all of the fighting tones can make it feel mismatched, it’s a charming film and undoubtedly Burton’s best for a long time.
Result: 7/10

Saturday, 10 January 2015


"If I can take it I can make it."

Angelina Jolie’s second film behind the camera seems to have Oscar written all over it. Already it’s been nominated for best picture at the Critic’s Choice awards but if you look at its score on Rotten Tomatoes it has a rating of just 51%, a curious rating for a website made of critics opinions on a film nominated for an award based on critic’s opinions. So is there some misunderstanding here?
Olympic class runner Louis Zamperini’s athletic career is put on hold when he joins the US army following the breakout of WW2. After his plane crashes in the Pacific Ocean he survives adrift only to be picked up by a Japanese unit and taken to a POW camp.
Just in case you hadn’t realised, because every trailer hammers this fact into your head, this film is based on a true story. And it is quite an incredible story to say the least. Another big selling point is Jolie as a director and I can say that although there are some issues with the film (we’ll get there later) she has a real eye as a director. The movie is strikingly beautiful to watch and experience, painting a very different picture of combat here that results in a very interesting look and feel to this entire story, it really captured me while watching it.
It also has a good tone for catching the right mood. When we’re in the bomber we feel intense and claustrophobic, when we’re drifting in the ocean we feel lost and dazed, when we’re in the POW camp we feel desperate and exhausted. There’s some extraordinary shots and techniques employed during the stranded section of the film. The actors all give such great performances, first optimistic and then very slowly giving that aurora of dread as their chances of survival lessen by the hour, combined with Jolie’s eye for desolation on this scope allows you to be captivated.
Unbroken also seems to take pleasure in making its audience goes ‘how can someone actually get through this?’ It enjoys responding with ‘well someone really did’. The stress and pain that Zamperini continues to endure is felt by every audience member.
So far so good, but then things start to unravel. As he’s taken to the POW camp Unbroken seems to slow down when you expect it to speed up on some level. It just feels as if by the time it got to this stage no one attempted to alter the tone again. So far we’ve seen action and deprivation, so this section should promise a combination of both, which it does. But then it fails to deliver anything new as well, which is what it really needed. It needed to make a tweak to the scope or imagery or tone in some way to define this section.
The pace also feels slow by comparison, whether it’s because they used all of their tricks on the boat, it appears to be stretched a bit thin in terms of reaching the point that history requires it to. Although I enjoy films that don’t through in violence unless it adds to the scope or suits the tone of the film, in the POW camp there was a slight lack of brutality. Though on paper all of these torturous ordeals sound horrific, they don’t translate to the screen in the same way. When Zamperini is pummelled by guards it needs to have more of a ‘BOOM’ feel. It should be more brutal rather than being drawn out, which is what Unbroken actually does. Short but powerful, and I can’t help thinking that the film might work better in that format.
Though visually stunning, Unbroken doesn’t quite match the physical gravitas to match its unbelievable true story. It’s a beautiful story, but told without a punchline.
Result: 5/10  

Friday, 9 January 2015


"You're Birdman, let's go back one more time and show them what we're capable of."

I wonder how long it will take for the phrase ‘I’m Birdman’ to replace ‘I’m Batman’. Let’s face it that will probably never happen, but then again it just might for Michael Keaton.
Riggan Thomson, the former and fading superstar of the popular Birdman franchise, fights to reclaim any artistic respect by staging a Raymond Carver adaptation on Broadway. But it will be a challenging fight, filled with dangers like the battling cast, his sceptical family and his own crumbling sanity.
Keaton is probably paying a role that is much closer to himself than he would like to admit, the Birdman franchise failed in 1992, the same year Batman Returns came out. So a deliberate casting choice it would seem, but my god is it the right one. But first, well, I don’t know. I like to start with the standout feature but it is very difficult to choose between everything in Birdman, it’s all so good.
Okay, remember how you love that scene in Goodfellas where Henry Hill walks through the club and we follow him right through until he sits down. Birdman uses a similar technique for the entire film. It isn’t actually one shot but it’s directed and edited to look that way. It’s something that you can’t quite grasp until you actually see the film, so how Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu envisioned it I cannot imagine. He took what was already an impressive story, something that did not need any fancy tricks to make it stand out, and made it spectacular from a director’s point of view. Watch out Linklater, Alejandro’s (it takes too long to remember how to spell his last name) coming for that director Oscar.
Birdman is visually stunning in almost every way. It defies formula and reduces the highest concept special effects to noting with the use of innovation. Keaton’s inner crisis seems to take place on an epic level and continually astonishes us. It manages to succeed in going against movie law through pure cinematic imagination.
Michael Keaton, no wait there’s supporting characters as well. Half of them also seem to have had some experience in the superhero genre but the lesser side of it take Emma Stone, part of the less popular Spiderman franchise and Edward Norton the lesser Hulk. But they all do such a fantastic job, thanks to their portrayal there was not a single character is disliked, they all interact with our main character so well that it would have been all too easy for him to be reduced to merely an onlooker but he’s still the main character and still the one we empathise with.
Where The Dark Knight is a dissection of the superhero, Birdman is a dissection of films and acting in general. It keeps the story grounded in reality by  throwing in references to Robert Downey Jr and Jeremy Renner but uses the more surreal moments to peep into the mind of Keaton. It’s an internal battle between doing what he wants and what is easy. Should Keaton just go back to the Birdman franchise and sell out, but then again would that reduce his acting credibility. Birdman raises a lot of themes over the conflict of today’s Hollywood. If you star in a blockbuster does that make you  a person who’s only after money, but if you are in an indie film does it automatically make you an actor, or are you a sell-out purely for being in a blockbuster? It deals with a lot of things.
Finally to the man himself, Michael Keaton. Though casting him in the role may be deliberate, it is far from a cheap stunt or just to give a wink to the audience. No, Keaton can draw from personal experience here to play this character, as I said it’s probably closer to himself than he would admit. But that doesn’t matter, he was cast because, believe it or not highbrow critics, Michael Keaton can act, and I mean really, really act. This is an incredible performance playing both a hideous alter-ego and a damaged human. But you care and connect with both of them. Welcome back, you have been missed very much.
Result: 10/10  

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Top Ten Movies of 2014

2014 was an amazing year for cinema. At first I considered making a top ten for this year to be relatively straightforward but more than any other year in recent cinema, this the one where I found myself rounding up the biggest amount of contenders. The variety and magnitude of quality cinema made it feel as if we were spoiled for choice, where even the blockbusters manages to raise their standards to compete with the prestige and independent pictures. Whereas previous years have seen a clear distinction between the different products of each section of the industry, 2014 saw them merge to a point where we didn’t have to say “this was great….for a mainstream movie”, we could point to the best of each section and say “this was a great movie”. Before I get into the main top ten of the year I have a few honourable mentions to hand out:

It shouldn't take long to realise that this year was incredible as far as blockbuster action went. The Marvel Cinematic Universe managed to deliver two ridiculously entertaining features in the form of 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier' and 'Guardians of the Galaxy'. There was also Keanu Reeves' amazing turn as the unstoppable assassin 'John Wick'. Doug Liman teamed up with Tom Cruise to deliver a surprisingly intelligent action spectacle with 'Edge of Tomorrow'. But of all the action movies of this year the best would have to be the truly magnificent 'The Raid 2', a sequel with twice the ambition of the original whilst maintaining the same level of quality.

There were also a number of brilliant biopics that yielded some fantastic lead performances, from Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game' to Eddie Redmayne in 'The Theory of Everything' and not forgetting David Oyelowo in 'Selma'. Even though it's more of an ensemble than one can't go without mentioning Steve Carell in 'Foxcatcher'. Even Mike Leigh threw his name into the biopic genre with the poetic 'Mr Turner' that featured an elegant performance from Timothy Spall. 
But aside from the Oscar contenders there were still plenty of smart, subversive and highly entertaining movies. David Fincher's masterfully crafted 'Gone Girl', Jenifer Kent's 'The Babadook' and 'Two Days, One Night' by the Dardenne Brothers. We also saw Paul Thomas Anderson confuse and amaze us with 'Inherent Vice' (I still like you even if I have no idea why). Lenny Abrahamson made us feel endeared to a musician whose face we hardly ever see in 'Frank'. 'A Most Violent Year' was a thrilling and fresh feeling crime saga, and 'Force Majure' was a wonderfully dark comedy.  

10: What We Do in the Shadows
No one said that in this day and age a mockumentary about vampires had to be this innovative on both a creative level and a humorous one. It is one thing for Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clement to put so much effort into crafting a hilarious film, but for its direction and performances to be so wonderfully well-made is another. It is atmospheric and beautifully stylish, balancing its broader comedic strokes with on point satire, parody and some refreshing character based humour as well. Having crafted such oddly endearing characters the film is able to evoke some surprisingly poignant moments, but as I already said, at the end of the day ‘What We Do in the Shadows’ is simply hilarious on a level no other film could match this year.

9: Under the Skin
I think comparing a film to the work of Stanley Kubrick is a dangerous move, firstly for the risk of overusing the complement and secondly for the risk of it being flat out false (after all there was and will only ever be one Kubrick). However ‘Under the Skin’ is probably the film most worthy that comparison in recent memory. Jonathon Glazer’s eerie science fiction arthouse project places Scarlett Johannsson in a role unlike any she’s played before but one that she pulls off with mesmerising results. As well as a terrific score and too many hauntingly striking visuals to count, Glazer’s direction and minimalist script evokes a sense of utter horror that is sure to reach under the viewers skin in a way that few films ever have.

8: Mommy
Regadrless of what you think of Xavier Dolan’s films, one can never deny the boldness of his vision. Despite admiring his previous efforts I have to confess few of them really connected with me, but this year ‘Mommy’ was able to craft such an emotionally intricate and universally compelling story that Dolan’s unique visual style and vision was elevated to new standards of excellence. Boasting a tirade of stunning performances that are all able to bring Dolan’s deeply personal script to life with immense power, ‘Mommy’ reveals itself to be a surprisingly deep and infinitely resonant tale that leaves me excited over what lies ahead for the young auteur.

7: Only Lovers Left Alive
Who knew that we would get not one but two astonishingly brilliant vampire films in the same year (we have come a long way since the dark days of ‘Twilight’)? Jim Jarmusch’s gothic, existential love story is worth seeing purely for the amazing performances of Tom Hiddlestone and Tilda Swinton alone. But when you include Jarmusch’s unique sensibilities on both a written and directorial level that blends his two best traits, the down to earth dialogue that is amusingly complex, with the visual poetry that makes you feel as if you are watching an oil painting come to life. Wonderfully dry yet achingly passionate, the film is an anomaly that despite being for an acquired taste, has to be seen to be believed.

6: Life Itself
It has been a good year for documentaries, but if I were to pick my favourite it would (for rather obvious reasons) be Steve James’ biographical look at the life and legacy of the great Roger Ebert. Given that he remains a huge influence on my own style of writing and outlook on movies, it was beautifully engaging to see Ebert’s life and times examined and relived on the screen, with contributions from the likes of Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog, in a gloriously detailed and immensely intimate portrait. The fact that during production the film morphed into a documentation of Ebert’s final days as he succumbed to his ten year battle with cancer only made it a more poignant yet joyful tribute, one that spoke of movies but also of life itself.

5: The Grand Budapest Hotel
I keep trying to tell myself that one day Wes Anderson will make a movie I don’t fall in love with, surely it has to happen one day? But as of 2014 I’m still waiting, because ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ stands as not only Anderson’s most ambitious project to date, but arguably his best as well. Every solitary frame of the film is so exquisitely crafted that it defies belief, it makes one wonder how anyone could possibly create a story that could match the aesthetics. But Anderson’s endlessly unique sensibilities, his offbeat humour, surprising depth and bittersweet view of life gives the film such wonderful complexity that you’ll be even happier they assembled such a ensemble cast to bring it to life.

4: Enemy
After such a strong breakout with 2013’s ‘Prisoners’, some were left confused and disappointed by Denise Villeneuve’s decidedly more experimental thriller, ‘Enemy’. In fact I must confess to initially being in that camp as well. But as time has gone by, and I’ve been allowed to ponder and contemplate the movie more, I have come to appreciate it for the masterpiece that it is. It is elusive, layered and mysterious, but these qualities only give the film a lasting effect and compel the viewer to dive into it as many times as possible in order to unravel it. Even if one cannot make heads or tails of its inner messages, the tight construction, pitch perfect direction and disturbingly complex performance from Jake Gyllenhaal make ‘Enemy’ a film that demands admiration.

3: Nightcrawler
Speaking of Jake Gyllenhaal and of the disturbingly complex, within the film ‘Nightcrawler’ Gyllenhaal was able to transform in a way that I have never witnessed from him (or any other actor this year) before. The kind of character study that only comes along once in a generation, with an actor and director who are confident enough to display their main character in all his iunredeeming glory, ‘Nightcrawler’ is a masterclass in dissecting modern media and the kind of people who thrive within it. In his directorial debut Dan Gilroy’s sleek and stylish visual flair shows a lot of promise, as he displays a thrilling and disturbing sensibility that is so perfectly in tune with his leading man that it feels like destiny.    

2: Whiplash
Of all of the up and coming directors this year, there may be no finer artist than Damien Chazelle. His electrifying breakthrough stands as one of the most intense and psychologically riveting films of the modern era, combining a masterful eye for style and rhythm as he guides the viewer through this tightly constructed tour de force. Held together by Miles Teller’s empathetic performance, with J.K Simmons’ astonishingly unnerving role as the centrepiece, ‘Whiplash’ balances its various elements and integrates them with one another so perfectly that by the time you have made it through the intense and stunningly constructed story to reach the inspiring finale, you’ll be wondering where the last 106 minutes of your life seemed to fly by in an instant.

1: Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
In a year where I’ve celebrated the ambition and boldness of each directors vision, none of them seem to match that of Alejandro Inarritu. It is unusual for films with such a clarity of vision and technically ambitious to be as humane and endearing as this. With ‘Birdman’ Inarritu has crafted a masterpiece of stunning complexity, one that manages to be dreamlike but grounded, humorous yet heartfelt and layered in spite of being so intimately focussed. With Michael Keaton at the centre, ‘Birdman’ offers a unique character study that takes the viewer right into the inner mind of its subject, dealing with identity and transformation with such sympathy and accuracy that it becomes near impossible not to fall in love with its characters. Given that the supporting cast are equally magnificent, it’s more than appropriate to say that ‘Birdman’ soars unlike any other film of 2014.