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Sunday, 31 January 2016

Best and Worst of January 2016


Usually January is regarded as the dumping ground for movies, or at least it is in the U.S. Over in the U.K however we find ourselves bombarded with all of the Oscar contenders that have yet to be released over here, because in a world where you can transport literally anything from one country to another overnight it takes a whole three months for some films to arrive here. The bad news is that in February I will probobaly have a load of terrible movies that have dominated the stateside cinemas during January. But I saw so many amazing movies in this month that I didn’t know what to do at this point, beyond making a quick honourable mention for ‘Anomalisa’, Charlie Kaufman you’re whimsical, philosophical and potentially insane, don’t ever change.

3: Creed

Who would have thought that after witnessing what we thought was the death of the Rocky franchise, twice, that there was still life and vigour to be found in the story of the Italian Stallion. Well Ryan Coogler did and along with Michael B Jordan (thank god he found something good out of 2015 after the disaster that was ‘Fant4stic’) crafted a deeply impactful story that was both reminiscent of the original and injected a fresh outlook on old characters as well as new ones (that could also describe another recent film, but you don’t see ridiculously long hate articles about ‘Creed’ do you? I’m talking to you ‘Force Awakens’ haters). Any film that can potentially earn Stallone an Oscar deserves praise.

2: The Revenant

Alejandro Inarritu cements his position as one of the defining directors of this decade and I would say that Leo is bound to win that Oscar but I don’t want to jinx it so I’ll simply say that DiCaprio is excellent, conveying the desperation and drive to prevail against all odds both physically and emotionally. Tom Hardy and Domnhall Gleeson are also on hand to provide some amazing supporting work but above all else the real showstopper is Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography that manages to be both sweeping and intimate, contrasting the beauty of nature with the brutality of man, it may be a theme we’ve seen before but it’s rarely been done as well as this.

1: Room

I can honestly say that ‘Room’ is now my favourite film of 2015 (for those of you who are interested, I would remove ‘The Hateful Eight’ from my top ten list and move everything down a spot to place this at number one). Having marked himself as a director with potential in ‘Frank’ Lenny Abrahamson stages a masterclass in intimate storytelling even when the characters are not confined to the 11x11 room. But the performances are something else, Brie Larson (is anyone pretending that Oscar doesn’t belong to her?) conveys such a sense of emotional honesty with her role that it becomes endearing beyond belief and Jason Tremblay is now the definitive and singular answer to the question ‘what is the best child actor performance ever?’ it’s Tremblay, and now ‘Room’ is my answer to the question ‘What was your favourite film of 2015’.

And the worst ….

Point(less) Break

See what I did with the clever title change? I know, but to be honest I put more effort into that than the maker of this remake did with updating the story of Johnny Utah. I mean for a start the main character isn’t even called Utah so that’s an instant failing right there. But the generic action scenes, uninspired directing and lack of innovation only add to the list of reasons why rebooting movies like this is a terrible idea and must stop forever. The plot of ‘John Wick 2’ is now Keanu Reeves killing the executives who thought this was a good idea.

Talkin' Scorsese: Who's that Knocking at My Door



"Everybody should like westerns, solve everybody's problems if they liked westerns."

Welcome to the first part of my series on the one and only, Martin Scorsese and when I said I was going in depth I meant it because here we travel back to 1965 when he crafted his very first feature film ‘Who’s That Knocking at My Door?’ does anyone else find that title slightly ironic, as once you watch the film you realise that that question could well be asked by the film industry as the young Scorsese uses this film as a way to knock at their door, I’ll explain why later.

Chronicling the relationship between a young college student (Zina Bethune) and her Italian-American boyfriend J.R (Harvey Keitel) as they each struggle to cope with their different backgrounds and ideologies with the girl having a well-educated and catered upbringing whilst J.R is still very much a part of the gang culture of New York.

It’s remarkably difficult to view this film without drawing parallels to other work from Scorsese. It’s easy to point out so many themes and characteristics that run through his subsequent films that are on display here, they are not as polished or refined as we will later see from him, but one can witness the themes of redemption, guilt, crime, the contrast of violence and innocence, blending tragedy with his own dark sense of humour as well as the start of his obsession with the city of New York that has cropped up repeatedly in his career like from ‘Taxi Driver’ to ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’.

 Scorsese completed the film when he was just 25 and then watched as it spent two years failing to get a distributor and sat on the shelf of the American indie scene. To get it to theatres he had to shoot some kind of nudity scene to justify the film’s rating and make it feel more like an exploitation film because as far as the studio was concerned, that was the best way to sell the movie (that’s right, back then studios wanted you to shoot sex scenes rather than take them out). It takes place within the fantasies of J.R and while it is a well-directed scene it feel oddly out of place with what is on the whole a remarkably grounded and gritty film.

It also has the feel of something that the director did not want to include in the film, given that so much of this film is clearly Scorsese’s vision. His vision is sometimes melodramatic and overly obvious though, with certain scenes being awkwardly manufactured and lend themselves to what Scorsese thinks the audience will understand rather maintaining a clarity of vision and simply saying what he wants to. Marty takes more credit for the shortcomings of the movie than he would usually as this was one of the few that he wrote as well as directed.

The film excels when it feels intimate, focussing purely on the two characters that lie at the centre of the story. When they first meet them they get into a conversation about John Wayne and though at times it feels awkward, it comes across as a deliberate choice to capture the nervousness and embarrassment each of them feel. Keitel and Bethune retain such marvellous chemistry and consistency throughout as they remain true to their characters, and we know that because they are so brilliantly established within their first scene together.

The film is not as strong whenever is strays from this intimate focus. It wants to capture some of the vibrancy and diversity of the environment these people inhabit but it always comes across as much less interesting and less evoking. It drifts between them rather inelegantly and though it does help to develop the characters and flesh them out, I wish there was an alternative and more intelligent method to accomplish it.

‘Who’s that Knocking on my Door’ is so clearly an effort for the director to tell the story he wants so tell, something that is directly applicable and relevant to his own life. It’s an evocation of his faith and its application to society around him consisting of life within New York City. This representation feels painfully true and tragically pertinent. The whole film rests on its ability to make us identify with it and Scorsese achieved that perfectly.

While it is far from a perfect film, Scorsese’s first directorial effort is essentially a smaller, less refined version of what was to come.

Result: 6/10

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Room


"Remember how Alice wasn't always in Wonderland, because I wasn't always in room"

Just out of curiosity, I wonder how many people will try to watch this film, accidentally mistake it for the Tommy Wiseau film ‘The Room’ and watch in disbelief as ‘Room’ wins multiple awards and garners universal praise, wondering how such a hilariously terrible film can win all of the awards. Such an incident would be a tragedy as ‘The Room’ is often described as ‘the Citizen Kane of bad movies’ whereas ‘Room’ can be described as a modern masterpiece.

Having been abducted several years ago, a woman (Brie Larson) is held captive in a small room along with her young son (Jacob Tremblay), who has never seen the outside world, existing only within the small room he occupies. Repeatedly abused and suppressed, the mother plots to escape from their prison.

That description makes ‘Room’ sound more like a thriller (something that Denis Villeneuve would direct maybe) but it really isn’t. To say that it lacks tension or terror would also be untrue as it blends those elements into it seamlessly, but the film draws strength from its catharsis. There are moments of in which it is gruelling to watch, as if you don’t want the film to continue out of fear of what happens next. The reason is because the film so brilliantly establishes its two main characters very early on. I creates an endearing connection between the two and you clearly get an insight to this impenetrable bond between them and how neither can survive without the other.

‘Emotionally impactful’ seems too simple a phrase to describe the effect ‘Room’ had on me. Watching this film is almost an exhaustive process as your feelings are wrnched around so frequently and to such great effect that I can honestly say that no other film of 2015 (because even though it’s only just arrived in the UK it counts as a 2015 release date) has had a greater impact on me, not ‘Spotlight’, ‘Steve Jobs’ or anything else. Does that make it my favourite film of the year? Perhaps.

In one sense ‘Room’ is a story or survival and perseverance. It dedicates itself to asking why a person would continue to fight against insurmountable odds and then answers that question in beautifully simplistic and compassionate manner, because other people need us. In this instance Larson holds onto Jack as a way to carry on struggling. She is resourceful enough to cobble together toys for him, educate him and ensure that he is kept away from the true horrors of their encapsulation. When Jack catches glimpses of this horror we see it from his own limited perspective, which actually makes it even more unsettling.

It’s unsettling for a number of reasons beyond just the obvious ones because we care about Jack’s well-being, we can see his innocence and the best laid plans of Larson slowly fading and because we believe is his character completely. Jason Tremblay achieves an astonishing goal here (that most grown actors struggle to achieve) as it never seems as if he is performing. He is a real person, captured on film in front of us. Acting does not feel like the word to describe it, truthful might be more accurate.

But what about Ma herself? Brie Larson has had a fairly unique career in how she switches so effortlessly from comedy to tragedy. I’ve seen her in ‘Scott Pilgrim vs the World’ and ‘Trainwreck’ but then I’ve seen her in ‘Short Term 12’ and if you’ve seen any of those films you know what a change of trajectory that is. In this film though the rawness of her performance is almost beyond belief, it is so utterly compelling that when she struggles and suffers it is painful to watch. But there’s an endearing sense of hope that permeates the performance and we can only watch in awe as she dares to hope and dream against the monster that incarcerates her. Oscar for Best Actress? If it doesn’t go to Larson I will consider it a travesty.

You may think you have the film sussed by now, you know the gist of it and are unprepared for shocks to come. But there is a whole act of this movie that may take you by surprise and it may be the most heart wrenching of all, the toughest to watch and the most elating part of the film. I don’t want to spoil it for the risk of robbing you of the chance to experience it. What Lenny Abrahamson does with such a limited space is amazing, he constantly finds new ways to view an 11 by 11 box and the glimmers of the outside world are filmed with such a sense of distance and surrealism that within a few minutes, you feel the mother and son’s plight so strongly that it is almost painful.

Emotionally endearing beyond belief, supported by two beautifully truthful performances, and superbly directed, ‘Room’ is simply masterful (just be careful not to add ‘The’ to the title).

Result: 10/10

Monday, 25 January 2016

Point Break (not really)


"I believe the people responsible for these robberies are extreme athletes, like me."

What is the purpose of this film, why does it exist, why are people allowed to do this? These are questions I was asking myself once I had finished watching ‘Point …’ I can’t even say the name because this film is not ‘Point Break’, it is not a remake of Kathryn Bigelow’s film nor is it an original action film. It is lacking in depth, plot, character, emotion, charisma and exhilaration as it stumbles from one set piece to the next in a preposterous mess of a movie. And this comes from someone who is willing to admit that the first one is no masterpiece either.

Having suffered a career-ending accident that outs an end to his career as a moto-cross rider and YouTube sensationalist (that’s right, no football here) Johnny Utah (not really) takes up a career within the FBI (and disappointingly never announces it in over the top bravado) and goes undercover to track down a group of robbers who accompany their crimes with wild stunts.

To continue that sentiment, ‘Point Break’ is no masterpiece but it is without question one of the most enjoyably ridiculous action films ever made and it made such an effort to make you care about the characters within it and apart from a few nostalgic 90s references it still holds up just fine. So why would one bother to remake it, particularly in such an uninspired, bland and boring way?

Such a question does not have a straight answer and I fear it never will. Why did Hollywood decide to remake ‘Total Recall’ and ‘Robocop’ and why the hell are there rumours of remaking ‘Starship Troopers’ (why are all of Paul Veerhoven’s films being remade, seriously that’s three right there, what’s next ‘Showgirls’?), why is a remake of ‘Memento’ underway (how can that story be improved, how, tell the story in the correct order, change the ending, make it a different crime? What the hell can you do with that story in a remake?). I don’t know.

 I admit this is turning into more of a rant on remakes in general rather than specifically this film, the reason for that is due to the fact that there is barely anything to talk about. For starters Johnny Utah is not actually Johnny Utah, it’s just a nickname. Yep, that happens. To be fair the trailer has one of my favourite lines ever said in a trailer, ‘I believe the people responsible for these robberies are extreme athletes, like me’. The ridiculous sentiment is said with such a deadpan delivery and is somehow expected to be epic and dramatic is laughable enough on its own, but not in a good way, not in an ‘I am an F…B…I Agent!’ kind of way.

But back to Utah, he is a self-described extreme sports expert (if such a thing exists) who though he starts out on a motorbike is easily able to pose undercover in the gang of extreme athletes (what am I saying?) and is essentially perfect at everything. He can skydive, ski, surf and paraglide perfectly and instantaneously (even Keanu had at least one afternoon of training before he became a pro surfer). Utah is never challenged physically or emotionally within the extreme sports he is undertaking or the fact that he is infiltrating a dangerous crime ring and as a result we simply don’t care and are not invested within the action.

The crime ring in question is also one that I take issue with as the motive behind Bodhi’s crimes are unnecessarily heightened in stakes. Instead of just wanting to fund his excessively long beach parties this version of Bodhi is a crusading eco-activist trying to change the world with his unlimited amount of resources and money to finance his campaign against …. Every wrongdoer in the world. It’s never really expressed what Bodhi’s ultimate goal is and how exactly he thinks he can change the world. Ultimately he just comes across as a psychopath, and you still don’t give a crap.

The action scenes themselves aren’t filmed with any sense of flair or aptitude. At least it doesn’t rely on shaky-cam but there are a lot of sudden and rather jarring moments of editing that make it seem, somehow, much less exciting than it actually is (it’s a guy jumping out a plane, did we really need to emphasise any danger with that because I think it’s pretty obvious already).

This is a film that lacks soul, innovation or any sense of joy or happiness while watching it.

Result: 2/10

Sunday, 24 January 2016

The Danish Girl

"I love you, because you're the only person who made sense of me. That made me possible"

So it’s time for the Academy to kick themselves in the teeth for giving the Oscar to Redmayne last year right? It does seem that way as it would have given them an opportunity to give the award to the more deserving Michael Keaton (we nearly had Batman winning an Oscar, how awesome would that have been?) and they wouldn’t have to stress much about giving it to him this year for a superior performance. Problem solved ….and then Leo came along in ‘The Revenant’ and even this alternate reality plan has gone to hell, anyway moving on ….
The true story of painter Einar Wegener (Redmayne) who is happily married to an amateur artist Gerda (Alicia Vikander). One day Gerda asks her husband to act as a female model for one of her artworks by posing in silk stockings and satin slippers, but this inadvertently sets Einar on a path to her true self.
While Tom Hooper has made a name directing films that hit on a social zeitgeist by reaching into the past ‘The Danish Girl’ would appear to present him with the potential to craft his most relevant and poignant one yet as well as one that challenges some social traits of the modern day maybe? While there is a lot to admire in ‘The Danish Girl’ it does none of the things I just suggested.
While I understand the concept of presenting this story in a more prestigious way the film seems to lose some of its potential relevance as I rarely see it as an important story that needed to be told, I see it more as awards bait. Now I admit that is rather unfair as half of the films released at this time would also be aiming to grab an award but I just have the feeling that the film is automatically trying to appeal to a wider audience by presenting its subject matter in a less explicit manner. Rather than being challenging it presents itself as luxurious and esteemed film.
Maybe that is intentional, as after all a film can have the answer to world peace but it makes little difference if only a select group of people are willing or able to watch it. Casting Redmayne in the role has been controversial for reasons that I won’t try to discuss because frankly, I’m not in a position to do so and I do not personally know anyone that is either (I guess I should expand my social circle). I will however say this, when you consider the achievements of ‘Tangerine’ and reflect on how that is a ground breaking film in almost every sense of the term, one can’t help but be disappointed that the big studio picture has a lot less to say than the tiny indie flick.
So while it may appear that by playing it safe the film could avoid alienating anyone and simply convey its message in the simplest form, ‘The Danish Girl’ never quite hit me on an emotional level. It’s an exquisitely crafted film, make no mistake, but it’s made to appeal to that side of you and rarely evokes a deeper emotion. Once again I have to refer to ‘Tangerine’ (which you really have to see if you haven’t already) as a film that connected with me emotionally when it didn’t even need to. It was filmed entirely on a phone, I’m already impressed, but by including such a compelling and entertaining story the film went from strength to strength. ‘The Danish Girl’ never really evolves into anything else as it progresses.
Concerning Redmayne’s performance, it is probably as good as one would expect from him by this point as he fully commits to the transformation, gradually altering his mannerisms as he does so as well as coming across as confused, conflicted and vulnerable. It is a much more subtle process than ‘The Theory of Everything’. Hooper’s direction and Danny Cohen’s cinematography draws more attention to his physical appearance as well to further emphasise the process, to impressive effect.
However, it is not Redmayne that steals the show here. Alicia Vikander, who is having a great year with ’Ex Machina’ also to her credit, (on a side note, to any casting director listening, hire Alicia Vikander immediately, whatever role it is doesn’t matter, she can do it brilliantly) proves astonishingly versatile in this role alone, she becomes supportive, caring, energetic, enthusiastic and just as conflicted as her husband and ultimately, grief stricken. While she is clearly joyous that Einar can be happy she has effectively lost the man she fell in love with and Vikander conveys every emotion with such grace, depth and brilliance that she really steals the show here, if anyone from this film deserves an Oscar, its Vikander first.
Worth experiencing for the performances, especially Vikander’s, and design, not necessarily for the safe story.
Result: 6/10

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Suicide Squad: Trailer Review


Screen Shot 2016-01-20 at 10.10.35 AM

What is it with DC and their inconsistency with trailers? In the case of ‘Batman v Superman’ they can make a superb one for Comic-Con and then an awful one. Then with ‘Suicide Squad’ they can make a rather mediocre one for Comic-Con and an utterly fantastic one to follow it up.

Firstly of course we must mention the soundtrack. I’d have thought ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ could never be used as the soundtrack to a trailer, the soundtrack of a trailer should be able to supply the most simplistic and primal sense of what the tone of the movie will be, something like ‘Hooked on a Felling’ for ‘Guardians pf the Galaxy’, weird, exciting and amazing. Freddie Mercury’s soaring ballad on the other hand is thoughtful, haunting, thrilling, ridiculously entertaining and completely insane. If I were to be asked what I want this movie to be, that’s a rather good description.

Screen Shot 2016-01-20 at 9.52.27 AMWe open with Jai Courtney actually displaying another emotion other than mundane boredom, so that’s one miracle already achieved. A number of sublimely striking images depicting our main characters and their incarceration from Harley Quinn (which differs from her suspended cage look in the first trailer) to Killer Croc’s water logged enclosure.

Another thing I love is the darkly humoured way in which it sets out this scenario and describes its characters. As Deadshot is being beaten by guards it’s done so in a restrained manner that emphasises the brutal and bleak nature of the scene while also being somehow enthralling. It effectively sets a scene in which we are witnessing damaged characters being brought together (that’s what you call ‘a time bomb’ Bruce Banner).

Margot Robbie may be on the way to becoming an icon of superhero cinema here, the pressure of bringing such an iconic character as Harley Quinn for the first time in live action is daunting, but she just seems to cope with ease, finding a troubled yet playful attitude and making the playful side the more threatening aspect. Will Smith also looks like he’s bringing a good amount of attitude to the role, of course we’ll have to wait to see if he can sustain it for the entire film, but for now it looks very promising.

Screen Shot 2016-01-20 at 9.59.15 AMI don’t know why, but I find it immensely satisfying when trailer match their sound effects with their music (so if you still can’t understand why I love this trailer so much, that may be a big reason). It just works so perfectly, finding humour in atrocities, bringing a sense of intensity to what was already quite a thrilling sequence and one hell of a crazy ride.

Jared Leto is slowly meandering his way into the Joker role, inch by inch. He’s yet to convince me of whether or not he can pull off the role (and I’m still not sold on the look) but he’s edged his way forward with the few lines of dialogue and images he has here. Occasionally breaking the sequence of music to showcase some smaller moments like Captain Boomerang secretly taking a swig of beer, they work surprisingly well, though it’s slightly jarring it seems to suit the tone of the film, much more than the effect did for ‘Batman v Superman’.

Screen Shot 2016-01-20 at 10.01.52 AMThere are any number of images here that conjure up various questions and I’m sure one could spend hours delving into them and pondering their many secrets. But frankly, I’m already sold. It seems to be heading closer to the vibe that ‘Fury Road’ wanted of utter insanity, which I’m fine with as long as there are moments of gravitas to back that insanity up, and from the number of beautifully stark images it looks as if they have that as well. Even better is the fact that the trailer still didn’t give anything away in terms of plot, all I know for sure is that this is a team made of the ‘Worst Heroes Ever’ and I can’t wait.

I am about to make a bold statement here, but after this trailer ‘Suicide Squad’ is now my most anticipated superhero film of 2016. Now before you throw your computer against the wall in rage (I’m kind of honoured anyone takes this page that seriously) I can easily say that ‘Deadpool’ looks more entertaining, and I have much more confidence in ‘Civil War’ being a generally amazing movie over this, but in terms of one that I genuinely cannot wait to see, ‘Suicide Squad’ just topped that list.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Creed


"Every move that I make, every punch that I throw, everything's being compared to him."

I must be honest, as someone with virtually no emotional connection with the ‘Rocky’ franchise (beyond the first one) I was never deeply excited by the prospect of another sequel, especially as none of them come anywhere near the brilliance of the first one. What does excite me however, is the prospect of Michael B Jordan and Ryan Coogler teaming up again to make another movie, which just happens to be this one.

Donnie Creed (Jordan) the illegitimate son of the former world heavyweight champion Apollo Creed makes the bold decision to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a boxer but wishes to accomplish it through his ability rather than relying purely on the Creed legacy. To do this he enlists the help of his father’s former rival turned best friend, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone).

The plot of the original ‘Rocky’ movie can be summed up in a similarly short sentence, but what makes this movie exceptional is the characters and their relationships with each other. This is so much more than just a fight for the young Donnie, it’s living up to the legacy that has overshadowed him his entire life, from a man he never knew. It’s about searching for a father figure and trying to find a calling in life. Rocky himself simply has no will to go on fighting. Together they make up the majority of this films emotional impact, and contribute to what could even surpass the original film as the best in the franchise.

 Michael B Jordan has had too few opportunities to display his talents as an actor, because everything so far has just been a small indication of what he can achieve on screen. Like Stallone did back in 1976 Jordan embodies that sense of selling the role on a physical level while displaying enough vulnerability to make us sympathise with him. He comes across as the underdog and sometimes pessimistic, but never defeatist. He evokes such a sense of compassion that one has to root for him out of responsive sympathy more than anything else, he is at a crossroad of identity, something we have all gone through. But additionally you get a genuinely rich character with captivating motivations that help sell the new frontrunner even more.

‘Fruitvale Station’ (Coogler and Jordan’s previous collaboration together) was a powerfully provocative movie and ‘Creed’ takes similar elements and applies them to that classic ‘Rocky’ formula we know and love. Through this Coogler is able to write a love letter to the franchise while observing it from an entirely new perspective. It’s hard not to get hyped up in the same way that one did when watching the original ‘Rocky’, with one scene in particular in which Donnie runs down the streets of Philadelphia in real Rocky style, but accompanied by enough modern adjustments to make it relevant and original.

The way in which Coogler directs this film is superb on many levels. From the stunning way he captured the streets of Philadelphia in a beautifully urbanised manner, to the boxing matches themselves. Rather than do what previous ‘Rocky’ directors have done and adopt a spectators view of the action, Coogler places his camera within the ring itself to capture the raw and visceral nature of the fighting. It works brilliantly because the film is permeated with warnings to Donnie concerning the dangers of his father’s profession, and in a few seconds Coogler brings all of those forewarnings to fruition.

At the same time though, Coogler knows just when to hold his camera still and allow the actors and characters to be the forefront of the films strength. Tessa Thompson left such an impression on me with ‘Dear White People’ and once again she brings depth and complexity to a role that could so easily have been side-lined. As the love interest of Donnie who suffers from partial hearing loss,she becomes a fully fleshed out character and rather than lose any of that when she devotes herself to another person, she merely integrates it with the character’s personality.

But of course we have to talk about the Italian Stallion himself. What makes Stallone’s performance so excellent is how, more so than any other outing for Rocky, he has developed the character immensely through sheer acting talent. He carries a weary presence with him but lacks none of the passion and drive that the has always possessed. It’s all done in such a brilliantly subtle way that one could be forgiven for missing these fantastic turns from Stallone. But they are there, and they are magnificent.

Impactful, reminiscent and wonderfully original.

Result: 8/10  

Rocky: The Franchise So Far ...


Can you believe that Sylvester Stallone is currently a frontrunner to win an Oscar, roll that thought around in your head and then try to remember when we still thought that was impossible? Not only that, but it’s for a role that he first played forty years ago, and six other times as well. Has that ever happened in Oscar history before? It’s not rhetorical I honestly don’t know, I can’t be bothered to research it, I assume it is. But regardless, this seems like the ideal opportunity to look back on those six previous efforts, to revisit the epic saga of the Italian Stallion.

In 1976 ‘Rocky’ hit theatres and was not the smash hit it is regarded as today. While many credible reviewers praised the film, several were dismissive of it. After reviewing it as impartially as I can, I’m still in the former side of the argument. ‘Rocky’ is the definitive underdog story, and even though it made training montages and boxing ring showdowns famous, I’m always surprised by the amount of humanity and warmth within Stallone’s script, how it chooses to focus so primarily on the intimate moments rather than big spectacle. One tiny aspect of the film that continues to stun me to this day (and seems to perfectly personify my earlier remark) is the last few seconds, where the actual announcement of who wins the boxing match is almost shoved aside in favour of Adrian’s declaration of love, it’s barely audible and rather abrupt, almost anticlimactic. That is so significant because ultimately it sums up why ‘Rocky’ works so brilliantly, Balboa only loses in the literal sense of the word. He has triumphed as a person more than anyone could triumph as a fighter.

Though we may think of Stallone’s Oscar contention as laughable, when you re-watch that first ‘Rocky’ it suddenly becomes incredibly plausible. He brings such a mystical quality to the role, embodying a sense of durability, but also vulnerability. Some went as far to say that he was reminiscent of a young Marlon Brando, but he carries an almost larger than life quality to him, it allows the prospect of Rocky undertaking this challenge to be more believable and it makes it all the more poignant when he opens up emotionally. Then there’s the factor of just how uplifting the movie is, and one can never underestimate that quality in a movie.

So rather surprisingly, ‘Rocky’ went on to win Best Picture at the Oscars that year (which I’m fine with) as well as Best Director (which I may take issue with as John Avildsen’s directing was rather uninspired and nearly downplays the emotions of certain scenes, especially in comparison to Scorsese’s ‘Taxi Driver’ and Lumet’s ‘Network’ that were also nominated). The only major player who didn’t bag an award was Sly himself, who received two nominations for writing and acting, but neither resulted in a win.

So it’s little wonder that he chose the helm the next instalment ‘Rocky 2’. At the very least it retains that sense of the underdog, rarely making its title character too powerful and even in the final round it seeks to establish how Rocky himself still has a lot to prove to the eyes of the world. On the one hand I can’t help but think it undoes a little bit of what the first one did, in the sense that winning never really mattered, what counted was that Rocky went into the ring with everything he had, and left with so much more, ‘Rocky 2’ meanwhile takes that concept but inject a literal win at the end and ultimately the end result is something quite familiar, if not equally well made.

‘Rocky 3’ retains those essential qualities yet again in many respects. Credit to this series for realising very quickly that once Rocky becomes more than an underdog going into that final fight, then he’s already lost as far as the audience is concerned. So it places Rocky on a pedestal only to knock him off of it in rather spectacular fashion. The problem comes from the fact that so many of these elements sound fine on paper, but are turned up to the maximum amount of 1980s nostalgia with multiple montages, Eye of the Tiger, Mr T and Hulk Hogan. So in retrospect, it’s essentially another re-tread with some differing elements that mean it lacks the humble nature of that first film.

Can you believe we’re only halfway through? ‘Rocky4’ is perhaps the epitome of 1980s nostalgia. On the one hand it once again retraces the steps of the last film (first fight, mentor dies, sad Rocky, training montage, final fight, rousing speech, end) but once again shifts the elements enough to keep you interested. The film really feels like it brushes over too many potential emotional scenes like Apollo’s death, and then Rocky choosing to fight the monster that is Ivan Drago, the prospect of being used as a political tool more than a fighter, the list goes on. Talk about not overpowering Rocky, by the end of the film he literally ends the Cold War (here’s hoping that Stallone’s Oscar acceptance speech brings about world peace).

‘Rocky 5’ is where things get ridiculous … more so ….  again. It made the classic mistake of messing with the established formula to an extent where it was almost unrecognisable as a ‘Rocky’ movie. It also isn’t that uplifting, so instead you just end up with the ridiculous 1980s clich├ęs, except they’re a decade late by this point. The whole film is odd in its structure as it feels as if meatier sections are over in a minute, and moments that should have been over in seconds are still going several minutes later (how long does it take for Rocky’s kid to deal with bullies). There seems to be a strange build up towards killing Rocky, with his injuries and the ironic nature of his own creation being the cause of it (I’m not saying I wanted Rocky to die, especially in retrospect) but then they don’t follow through with it, and without any dramatic punch you’re left with a rather hollow conclusion, in which Rocky, despite being retired from boxing and engaging in a street brawl with a young boxer in his prime, is still the best and acknowledges that, the end.

It also feels ridiculously unnecessary. At least the other all develop the story, so if you wanted to catch up for ‘Creed’, Part 1 is the origin, Part 2 establishes his victory, Part 3 is his friendship with Apollo, Part 4 highlights Apollo’s death, but what about 5?

That is probably the main motivation behind ‘Rocky Balboa’. It may be slightly implausible that anyone would want to stage a match with a sixty year old boxer, but frankly who cares? It gave Stallone an opportunity to bow out the character of Rocky as the central character of the film. ‘Creed’ may revive him but only as the supporting role, as the star of the show, this is ‘Rocky’s’ last bow. It also gets a lot of my respect for focussing much less on spectacle and using the fighting as a secondary feature to the emotion. Sometimes it verges on being more of a homage than a singular film, but I can forgive it, mostly.

So can ‘Creed’ continue this legacy, foe better or worse?

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Outsiders, Evolution and Spaceships: David Bowie

1947 - 2016

There are many things I was not expecting to do today, having to sum up why I rank David Bowie as one of the most influential musicians of my, and millions of others, life was not one of them. Songwriter, performer, poet whatever you deem him to be you could probably have made a good case for it as few musicians have ever had a career as successful, as defining or as unique as that of Bowie.
His first TV appearance was in 1964 with … an interview with the BBC because … he had just founded the Society of Gentlemen with Long Hair. Even at that level he was something different, something so utterly unique and separate from everything else that one can’t relay be that surprised by the career that would follow, not likely.
Bowie was a chameleon of music, he blended and experimented with more genres in just a decade than most musicians will dabble in for their entire careers. As his 1980 album Scary Monsters proclaimed with its tagline, he was ‘Often copied, never equalled’. His influence stretches across continents and you’d be hard pressed to find a successful musician working today that was not affected by his music in one way or another. Right at the beginning with Space Oddity he announced himself as something no one had ever seen or heard before, from the beautiful structure of the song to Bowie’s haunting and compelling vocals, it resonated strongly with a generation whose head was pointed directly to the stars.
 ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders of Mars’. Now that is a title. You would buy that in a second when you first saw it in 1972, and the whole persona of Ziggy Stardust itself is something of an oddity when you consider how we were looking at science fiction as a fact based genre by now, not something to be melded with fantasy and treated like an outlandish trip. Also can anyone point to another album that has a better premise than a bisexual rock star who acts as a messenger for extra-terrestrial beings?
But despite that utterly irreplaceable album, it defines just one moment in Bowie’s career. Despite the sheer eccentricity of it, we don’t remember David Bowie just for Ziggy Stardust even though he character and his music broke boundaries in every way that a musician can (beyond just the boundaries of mere music), with its glam rock, sexual exploration and social commentary. Bowie somehow moved on from this to transcend genre and brand, just look at 1974’s, ‘Rebel, Rebel’. A far cry from his space-opera origins, something that you could hear from an angst fuelled Rolling Stones maybe? Then ‘Life on Mars?’ just feels like another artist all together, contrary to its title that may suggest another space based tale, it is remarkably down to earth and a surreal dreamscape simultaneously, the kind of power ballad that might be heard from The Beatles in their Sargent Pepper days.
That video for ‘Life On Mars?’ is remarkably hypnotic upon re-watching it. The way that Bowie just summarises those themes of alienation and youthful confusion through his appearance, the fact that it draws attention to his eyes is no accident as  it further emphasises that point of being an outside in a world you didn’t create. This epitomises how Bowie was performing in every sense of the word, his image was crafted to reflect exactly what he was signing about every single time, from Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke, they all told a story.
 We get it then, he’s an outsider but what, you may ask, is really so special beyond a few bizarre songs and styles? In the mid-1970s he chose to radically reinvent himself again by travelling to Berlin to produce a trilogy of albums, ‘Low’, ‘Heroes’ and ‘Lodger’ went on to change the face of contemporary music, they were darker and more daring, taking many fans by surprise. Would any musician take such a risk now to nearly cut out half of their fan base? Just when you think he’s become grounded again Bowie made ‘Ashes to Ashes’ and … well just watch the music video and you’ll see my point. This success continued right up until his recently released, elegant swansong ‘Black Star’.
He went on to dabble in glam rock, prod rock, electric rock, soul, swing, existential, basically any genre you can think of, Bowie will have experimented at least once, and often more because it’s hard enough to reinvent yourself as an artist, even harder to make it work, and to do that consistently, year after year with success after success … there’s only one person that has done that.
When I first heard his music it changed a lot for me, it changed the part that music played in my life and how it could transcend simple noises and lyrics. It could be infinitely poignant and endearing and compelling. Bowie spoke to a generation of social misfits and then grew up with them through his music, every song has appealed to me in a different way at some point in my life and I have little doubt they will continue to do that forever. His music reached the weirdness in everyone and celebrated what was unique about everything.
David Bowie himself, just seemed out of place on this world, half the time you almost want to believe he was an intergalactic messenger, a starman, a man who fell to earth. And if he was then all I can say is this, thanks for paying us a visit and sharing your genius. We’ll miss you.

Monday, 11 January 2016

The Revenant


"I'm not afraid to die anymore. I've done it already."

After watching ‘The Revenant’ I am left with no doubt that Alejandro Inarritu is the finest filmmaker working today. There are legends like Spielberg and Scorsese who are still going strong, current favourites like Fincher and the Coens who equally brilliant, but in terms of a director who is continually pushing the boundaries of filmmaking, ‘The Revenant’ proves that Inarritu is currently the master of the art.

In 1823, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) leads a fur trapping expedition into the American Midwest but the group are attacked by American Natives and matters only get worse when Glass is assaulted by a bear and left for dead by one of his partners Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy).

So back to Inarritu, maybe it’s because I only recently got around to watching ‘Babel’ as well (overdue viewing I know) or perhaps it was based more on my continuing love of ‘Birdman’ but I just feel like ‘The Revenant’ cements his position as the most innovative and creative director working today. Tests of endurance in cinema have rarely felt as powerful, as poignant or as epic as the spectacle Inarritu delivers here. It is a relief that this film is as magnificent as it is due to how wild reports were coming in that the director of ‘Birdman’ had gone wild on some kind of disaster project in the frozen north, exceeding his budget, ruining his equipment and endangering his actors. Had the success gone to his head, was he determined to see this supposedly doomed project through to the end, was he ignoring all logical advice? If he did ignore it then can I say this to Inarritu, never listen to logical advice again.

It is an astonishing experience, like ‘Birdman’ before it ‘The Revenant’ is utterly cinematic and transports you to another place and time so effectively that more than once I felt myself growing colder as I watched DiCaprio’s miniscule figure battling against the full force of nature. It’s almost exhausting to watch it, maybe not as exhausting as trekking across the wilderness after being savaged by a bear, but still rather tiring. Right from the opening scene you are plunged into a world of such astonishing beauty and such gruelling circumstance as we are fully submerged into a vicious battle between the fur trappers and a group of Native Americans. I didn’t just feel like I was watching that scene, I was in it, completely entranced by the multiple layers of texture and the sheer captivation of the scene. It left me awestruck within the first ten minutes.

Do not think that this film gives away its party piece at once though, there are multiple occasions in which I could not comprehend how they achieved the hots they obtained, I was left in utter disbelief and not only that, but by being shot with strictly natural lighting, Emmanuel Lubezki achieved a feat of cinematography that is almost unparalleled (sorry Roger Deakens). Every hint of warmth from a glimmer of sunlight to an ember of fire ignites the tiniest hope of salvation regardless of how dire the situation.

But for every moment of natural beauty that permeates this film, there is one of disturbing brutality to contrast it. These moments of brutality come in the form of man against nature and man against man. A majority of the film does consist of Glass’ journey through the wilderness to seek revenge and the unbroken nature of them once again immerses you within the moment as the wasteland just seems to crawl on forever, becoming one massive and never-ending expanse. But this unbroken technique works even better for moments of intensity such as the bear attack which is captured in stunning savagery. At times it becomes slightly surreal as Glass teeters on the verge of death and these sequences are almost as haunting as the world he faces when he returns to reality.

There are great supporting turns from Domhnall Gleeson (who has had an incredible 2015 with ‘Ex Machina’, ‘The Force Awakens’ and ‘Brooklyn’ which I hear is great) and Tom Hardy who is doing his usual thing of turning everything up to eleven and somehow still making it seem menacing rather than comical. But make no mistake, this is Leo’s movie. He commits himself to this role completely with his physical performance standing as one of his best with every moment there is a sense of struggle and desperation. His spirit remains enduring throughout, with a passion and ferocity that one can only marvel at, it is utterly hypnotic.

‘The Revenant’ is a film of searing beauty, astonishing brutality and enthralling humanity.

Result: 10/10

Friday, 8 January 2016

Anomalisa


"What is it to be human, what is it to ache, what is it to be alive."

Charlie Kaufman, you already know you’re going to do a lot of thinking. No matter what else you have seen recently in the world of cinema, nothing compares to what Charlie Kaufman is making, but don’t mistake that for instant praise. While ‘Being John Malkovich’, ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ and ‘Adaptation’ were all breath-taking and wondrous, I controversially take issue with ‘Synecdoche, New York’ his directorial debut (I’ll explain why later) and the main question going into ‘Anomalisa’, his next directorial effort, is as follows; what?

Customer service representative Michael is feeling isolated and disconnected from the rest of the world, searching for meaning. Then he meets Lisa, who may or may not be the love of his life. But come on, it’s a Kaufman movie, the premise is almost an afterthought.

Now that it’s later, I can explain that while there was a lot to admire in ‘Synecdoche’ and the film has devout followers (Roger Ebert named it the best film of the decade) I’ve always felt a disconnection to it, as if its themes and undercurrents were too far reaching for its own creators to comprehend and there was a distinct lack of humanity within the film for me, not to mention how damn depressing it was, I know not all films have to be happy and fun but when you examine the premise it implies some wonder and ‘Being John Malkovich’, ‘Adaptation’, and ‘Eternal Sunshine’ were not nearly as devoid of happiness.

‘Anomalisa’ instantly resolves some of my issues with Kaufman’s previous film, even though its premise is far more menial (it is essentially a romantic comedy as far as the plot goes) but of course, being stop-motion animated allows the film to naturally carry a cheerful and wondrous nature to it without any effort. It carries even more charm with just how natural the movements and dialogue is, initially it is almost surreal to see animation look this realistic, not that you ever forget you are watching puppets, but they inhabit their world so similarly to the way we inhabit ours that you have to marvel at the level of detail and skill of the writing.

Kaufman’s writing takes the most trivial of conversations and gives weight and essence to them, a short and improvised recital of ‘Girls just wanna have fun’ turns into something distinctly beautiful and as we watch his usual and quirky imagination permeate this script, and that is where the animation comes into its own. The sets are beautifully designed and shot with the help of Kaufamn’s co-director Duke Johnson (perhaps his best known work includes the episode of ‘Community’, ‘Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas’), and multiple moments (particularly within the third act in which things start to slide into the uncanny valley) half a dreamlike sense of spectacle to them, while being full of intimate and personal moments of character. It was everything that was missing from ‘Synecdoche’.

But what was not kissing from ‘Synecdoche’ was a satisfying and definitive conclusion, and while I may not have understood what it was trying to say, I felt like it said something. Just when ‘Anomalisa’ feels like it’s preparing to make a poignant statement on … whatever Kaufman wants to talk about, it just stops. It all happens so fast that one can’t help but feel almost dissatisfied with the result as its deep thinking nature ultimately builds up to a very fast conclusion that seems to lack any final sentiment or declaration.

What was Kaufman trying to say with this movie? I’ve never been less sure of that with any other project of his I’ve seen. With ‘Being John Malkovich’ there seemed to be the theme of perspective, ‘Adaptation’ had creativity running throughout and ‘Eternal Sunshine’ contained an evisceration of relationships. Is ‘Anomalisa’ trying to say something about love, mundanity, life itself? I have no idea and I’m not saying this film would be better if it directly told me, but I feel as if the film chooses to stop rather than risk tackling anything specific and can’t think of what to do next, so just wraps it up and lets us decide. Normally this would be a fantastic way to end the film, leaving it to interpretation, but as I said the abrupt nature of it doesn’t quite sit right with me.  

‘Anomalisa’ is just asking to be studied and pondered over, and I have little doubt it will be as it is unique and deeply provoking, even if it inevitably escapes its own grasp.

Result: 8/10

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Joy


"It's my fault, I gave her the confidence to think she was more than just an unemployed housewife."

So the first new film I see in 2016 is another directorial effort from David O Russell (‘Three Kings’, ‘The Fighter’ and ‘Silver Linings Playbook’) that stars Jenifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and the one and only Robert De Niro. I think I can safely say that there are worse ways to start a year.

The true (sort of) story of how Joy Mangano (Lawrence) went from humble origins to become a giant in the business of household appliance manufacturing, overcoming obstacles and the demeaning attitude her father (De Niro) holds towards her as well as the rest of the business world.

Not what you would call an obvious choice for a biopic, as the story of Joy Mangano does not contain a tragic setting, uncovered trauma or massive controversy. Look at some recent biopics and you can’t help but notice the decidedly tragic pattern. But then again where did the rulebook say that biopics had to be traumatic, why can’t they just be inspirational stories of people overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds made all the more relevant as they are true?

Such a biopic is not unheard of, but quite often they have to fictionalise various elements to either emphasise their victory or struggle. Remember though, the inspirational achievement of ‘Joy’ is a woman inventing a mop. No disrespect to Mangano herself (in case she reads this I guess, doubtful) but what O Russell is essential doing here is asking us to become emotionally invested in a mop, its conception and distribution. It doesn’t quite work as a concept, in fact it is quite ridiculous and while it may appear to be deliberate as a method to emphasise the comedic aspects of the film, but if it is it is a technique that is never fully explored nor developed. Instead it finds a rather cumbersome middle ground between a comedy and a melodrama that never quite feels natural.

The same cannot be said for Jennifer Lawrence as her performance never falls flat, never strays and never fails to amaze. In many ways I feel as if she is the ideal audience for this film, with the passion and emotional investment she puts into her own invention. During a searing monologue in which Joy tries to sell her mops on QVC she speaks with such force and conviction that had someone been selling them outside, I would have bought one in an instant. As well as this though Joy becomes an immensely likable yet emotionally challenged character, the fact that she has been underestimated her entire life rapidly becomes her advantage and you feel for her when she succeeds. This downtrodden upbringing in which her father and family has questioned every decision she has made, from her marriage to her business, gives her a sense of vulnerability but as she emerges into a strong and independent character Lawrence is able to unleash this outburst of pent up authority and power, as if every word only makes her doubters more incorrect.

Having worked with her three times now O Russell seems to have designed this entire film around Lawrence, realising that it lives and dies on her performance and using it to showcase all of her acting talents. That can also be where it stumbles as every other character feels relatively underdeveloped and unimportant, merely accessories to Joy’s own emotional arc. This would be fine if there were just a few supporting characters but there are in fact a lot of accessories, from her family, business associates and rivals as well as a few additional faces from her father’s rich girlfriend that helps fund Joy’s enterprise to the sales executive who gives her a moment in the spotlight. Many of these characters feel unnecessary even if the actors in question such as De Nrio and Cooper are good in their roles, as if you could have cut them, replaced their role with a different character to expand their story and limit the number of deviations from the plot.

That would be extremely useful as ‘Joy’ deviates a lot, skewing from the central plot to further Lawrence’s performance rather than tell a well-structured story. The end result is that beyond Joy herself, very little else ultimately matters in the film, with virtually no emotional investment, development or progression.

While ‘Joy’ may be a pure showcase for Lawrence’s performance, that is still a pretty good excuse to make a showcase.

Result: 6/10