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Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Best and Worst of November 2016


Well 2016, you tested my patience, you delivered one mediocre movie after another with only brief glimpses into anything better. From one of the most disappointing summers in recent memory we now arrive at the awards season, and after waiting so long for this year to deliver it has finally done so. During November it feels as if we have been spoiled for quality cinema, with not just three but several amazing movies, any one of which could easily have ended up amongst the best of this month and are very likely to be making an appearance on my final top ten of the year.

While the month was not free of disappointments in the form of ‘Snowden’ and ‘Birth of a Nation’ that could not help but fall short of their ambitious goals, we saw such an abundance of amazing films with such a variety of style and genre that I have to give a few honourable mentions. Mel Gibson returned in full force with the powerful ‘Hacksaw Ridge’, a war film of striking ambition that remained surprisingly intimate. But if one speaks of intimacy they cannot go without mentioning Jeff Nichols poignant historical drama ‘Loving’ that will likely pick up a slew of award nominations over the coming months. Last but not least is Ken Loach’s social realist drama ‘I, Daniel Blake’, a work that could be shatteringly depressing with its political undertones and true to life atmosphere, but contains such a sense of warmth and humanity that it is endlessly endearing.

But now for the top three.

3: The Edge of Seventeen

John Hughes may no longer be with us, but his legacy and lasting influence is keenly captured in Kelly Fremon Craig’s truthful and wonderfully empathetic view of adolescence. Boasting a career best performance from Hailee Steinfeld as well as a host of supporting actors who are no less talented, Craig’s smart script contains such a superb blend of comedy and drama that it is difficult to distinguish the two. It presents its characters as fully realised individuals and makes the audience sympathise with their plights as often as they are made to laugh at them. It captures the pain, hope, joy and sheer complexity of high school life better than any film I can think of in modern memory and may be the strongest directorial debut of the year.

2: Arrival

Denis Villeneuve might just be the greatest director of this decade, the consistent quality and variety of his work continues to astound me to the point where to say ‘Arrival’ is the best yet is almost irrelevant. Every one of his movies are masterworks and to rank them is an exercise in futility. With ‘Arrival’ Villeneuve has delivered us a science fiction masterpiece for the ages, one of such grand ambition and intimate emotion that it is likely to resonate on every conceivable level. Amy Adams delivers magnificent performance that ensures that for all its stunning set pieces, existential minefields and visual eye candy the film has a beating and deeply emotional heart. It is the kind of film that demands to be seen and discussed, not just for its big questions but also its personal ones.

1: Nocturnal Animals

Part two of the Amy Adams appreciation passage, the only film that could beat the sweeping grandness of ‘Arrival’ is the provoking and uncompromising mastery of Tom Ford’s ‘Nocturnal Animals’. Boasting an all-star cast who are all working at the top of their game , from the cold eeriness of Michael Shannon to the unpredictable temperament of an unrecognizable Aaron Taylor Johnson and Jake Gyllenhaal’s amazing ability to craft numerous roles each with their own distinct personality and depth of feel, as well as the aforementioned Adams who is just as amazing. But the true star is Ford, whose screenplay weaves multiple stories to create a layered and complex tale of betrayal, grief and guilt. It is hard to know which is more impressive, Ford’s talent as a writer or his skill as a director, as his own screenplay is brought to life within a dark and twisted world that seems to be a combination of Hitchcock, Kubrick and Lynch. Gorgeously stylistic and awe-inspiringly realised, Ford’s vision is unsettling and unnerving, as well as utterly masterful.

And the worst…..

The Accountant

I do feel slightly guilty by  declaring ‘The Accountant’ to be the worst film of the month because in all honesty there is a lot to like about it, such as the strong performances from Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick and JK Simmons as well as half of an intriguing character study and some inspired direction by Gavin O’Connor. In fact had it come out during the summer it may well have ended up amongst the best of the month selection. However it’s jumbled screenplay, poor structure and ludicrous plot twists ruin what started out as a surprisingly strong action/thriller, in which the plot becomes overly complex and under developed to a point where Simmons’ character literally sits the audience down and explains it to them.

The Edge of Seventeen


"There are two types of people in the world; the people who radiate confidence and naturally excel at life, and the people who hope all those people die in a big explosion."

I do like a good coming of age story, something about capturing youth in all its joy, pain and complexity that has always specifically appealed to me. I say this now as an explanation for my enthusiasm over the directorial debut of Kelly Fremon Craig, as though it may seem odd that I’m about to lavish praise on the writer/director whose previous credit was the awful rom-com ‘Post Grad’ I can’t think of any debut this year that is more deserving of it.

17-year old Nadine Franklin (Hailee Steinfeld) can’t seem to catch a break in life. Having undergone a recent personal tragedy her school life only seems to be spiralling further out of control as her best friend begins dating Nadine’s older brother, her social anxiety reaches new levels of awkwardness and her only source of expression is her regular conversations with her teacher Mr Bruner (Woody Harrelson).

I would not consider it a coincidence that every time ‘The Edge of Seventeen’ featured a modern day piece of technology, such as a mobile phone or a laptop, I had to remind myself that this wasn’t an inaccuracy and the movie never had been set in the 1970s. I kept convincing myself that the film was following the route of ‘Almost Famous’, ‘Dazed and Confused’ or ‘Freaks and Geeks’ by setting itself decades ago, and that may be because it could easily stand alongside those aforementioned examples as a classic in the coming of age genre.

The key to this genre is relatability and Craig’s sharp script hits that beat excellently, from the difficulty of navigating the social hell that is high school to the vulgarity of teenage speech patterns (score one for bold R rated teen comedies, you have been missed), everything within the film feels genuine and empathetic. The script captures that sense that everything happening at this moment in your life is life changing, how we think we’ll always be defined by how many parties we get invited to and why for some people the art of socialising will forever be a mystery.

Now if all of this doesn’t scream John Hughes at you then chances are that you weren’t paying close enough attention (or you don’t know who John Hughes is in which case I have no time for you). The humour and bittersweet nature of the film blend so excellently amid the strong characterisations and sensationally empathetic scenarios help the film shine. ‘The Edge of Seventeen’ is not above laughing at the plight of its characters but it ensures that we always sympathise with them as well. Nor is it afraid to include some darker undertones and subsequently address them head on.

In some regards the film could be called a drama just as much as it is a comedy. Craig melds the two both through her writing and direction, which is stylistic enough to feel fresh and energetic but also suitably grounded to make the movie feel true to life. The comedic and tragic aspects of the story are weaved together excellently, often it is a comedic situation that leads to a dramatic one. The film opens with Nadine walking into Mr Bruner’s office and announcing that she is preparing to kill herself, what brought her there may be the funniest scene in the film, only rivalled by how hilarious Bruner’s attempt to deal with the issue is. It’s these kind of touches that make the film so wonderfully endearing, and ultimately reveal it to be surprisingly mature as it tackles each serious issue in a truthful and heartfelt manner.

 What further elevates the movie are the terrific performances. Having turned in an Oscar nominated performance in the Coen’s ‘True Grit’ Hailee Steinfeld shines as Nadine, a character with a strong identity that isn’t compromised or exploited for cheap laughs. Instead she is given the appropriate amount of attention to forge a likable character who also isn’t afraid to be flawed, if anything it is the way Steinfeld brings those flaws to life that makes Nadine even more endearing.
All of the supporting characters are treated wonderfully as well, with none of them being reduced to one dimensional caricatures in favour of a more truthful and complex view of young life. Not only is their dynamic with Nadine immensely interesting, but even taken on their own they all have unique characteristics that help to create a distinct personality, from Haley Lu Richardson as Nadine’s slightly more well-adjusted friend to her widely beloved brother played by Blake Jenner. But perhaps the most radiant of all is Woody Harrelson, whose understated performance produces some of the films best scenes both when he is conversing with Nadine and when his character is allowed to reveal his own private life.

Genuine, truthful and as heartfelt as it is hilarious, ‘The Edge of Seventeen’ feels like the best John Hughes movie that was never written by John Hughes.

Result: 9/10

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Loving


"I know we have some enemies, but we have some friends too."

In all honesty when I first heard what Jeff Nichols next directorial effort would be I was somewhat surprised not just for its content but for how relatively normal it seemed to be. Whereas his other films like ‘Shotgun Stories’ ‘Mud’, ‘Take Shelter’ and ‘Midnight Special’ have all subverted a genre or told an ambitiously unique story on their own, ‘Loving’ seemed to be more of a conventional filmmaking exercise than I expected. Or at least that is what I thought it would be.

Based on the true story in which Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) and his wife Midlred (Ruth Negga) find that their marriage is not valid and that they are, according to the laws of their land, committing a crime by being together. With no other option they begin a legal battle to bring about the end of anti-miscegenation laws not just in their state, but for the whole of the United States.

Biopics of this kind, especially those cantered around a court case, usually follow a similar approach to filmmaking. You will find long winded monologues, obvious parallels to modern society and how different everything is and a hefty amount of melodrama to back it up. But as one of the best storytellers working in cinema today Nichols does not take that approach. He takes this tale and focusses purely on the people at the heart of it. There is no obvious attempt within ‘Loving’ to comment upon anything ese other than the two characters at the centre of the story and that is part of what makes the drama so compelling and so refreshingly personal.

Even the method of conveying that story is unconventional in itself. There is no clear structure or pace to the story yet somehow that natural flow and progression works beautifully as the audience slowly become accustomed to who Richard and Mildred are, their identity and their platonic love for one another. As a result of this, when we see their world turned upside down due to the anti-miscegenation laws of their time, we feel frustration and anger at their plight for more reasons than just basic human decency, but also because we can clearly see their bond and why they should be allowed to remain together.

What makes this all the more remarkable is the fact that Nichols doesn’t actually lend them a massive amount of dialogue, or at least not the amount one would expect for this kind of story. As I said there are no epic speeches or drawn out debates to be seen within the actual film. Instead we are just observing their day to day life. So much is conveyed on a visual level that it becomes poetic in its method, and while that can prove unfulfilling in some regards, to see such intricate and personal storytelling conveyed in this manner is remarkable to behold. The impact of the ensuing legal battle is not witnessed on a nationwide level, but instead a more personal one. ‘Loving’ is the kind of film where you’re less likely to see the governmental ramifications of a legal act over seeing how it effects what time the parent will return to their children, or whether or not the family dinner will include a lawyer or journalist.

It helps that the cast are impeccably strong as well. Like the film around them Negga and Edgerton take a more retrained approach to their portrayal of the Lovings, painting them as a reserved couple who do not set out to change the world but simply ensure that they can spend the rest of their lives together. Both are turning in career best performances, Edgerton for his quiet and staunch look that carries over throughout the entire film. Not only tat but one can almost see the strain of coping with day to day oppression weighing down on him, for this is a man who wants nothing more than to take care of his family and finds an entire legal system hell bent on stopping him from doing that. It is perhaps best personified when at one point Richard’s lawyer says to him “Is there anything you want me to say to the supreme court of the United States?” Richard replies not with some grand political or moral statement, instead he chooses to say “Tell the judge I love my wife”.

But despite this fantastic turn from Edgerton, it may be Negga who steals the show. Unlike Richard, Mildred is more willing to accept outside help and open her family life up to the world if it will help their plight. Nichols keeps his camera pressed tightly to her performance, allowing the viewer to soak in every subtle detail that further carve out a rich and layered character. Like Edgerton, Negga allows the physical strain to show as the years press on, and her ability to be both strong and vulnerable leads to a fully believable character. It is easy to push an agenda with this kind of story and that can often get in the way of what matters most, the human side of the story. With performances like this, and in a film so fully realised, historical figures and what they represented, have rarely felt as prominent or personal.

A deeply personal film that relies on humane storytelling over flashy gimmicks, with terrific performances all round.

Result: 8/10

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Snowden


"Most Americans don't want freedom, they want security."

Sometimes even the best combinations still don’t mesh together in the way you would want them to. This occurs frequently within the art of filmmaking, where what appears to be a perfect match of source material and director can’t help but disappoint. I realise this isn’t setting up a promising scenario on what my verdict will be concerning Oliver Stone’s latest movie ‘Snowden’, and while there is a substantial amount of promise within the movie, it ultimately falls somewhat short.

Depicting the true story of how an American computer professional and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon Levitt) met with journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) to leak classified information in his possession regarding illegal mass-surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency.

As I said several times when discussing this film prior to its release, despite being one of the most provocative directors of the last three decades, it has been a while since Oliver Stone has made a truly great film. ‘Platoon’, ‘Wall Street’, ‘JFK’ and ‘Natural Born Killers’ are just some examples of his stylish, culturally relevant and often controversial approach to storytelling. So while on the surface the story of Edward Snowden would appear to be the perfect chance for him to craft another masterpiece that confronts a dark side of society just as skilfully as it displays a master filmmaker at his best, ‘Snowden’ doesn’t quite do that.

In fact for all the attention directed at Stone himself in the build up to this project, the most valuable player in the project is easily Joseph Gordon Levitt as the titular character. He conveys the inner conflict and struggle of the character with ease, and it more than ready to delve into the more intricate details of his life. Without even realising it, Levitt’s performance makes the viewer comfortable with who Edward Snowden is before plunging him into a labyrinth of conspiracy, thereby emphasising the sacrifice he is about to make. Levitt’s physical alterations and tone of voice seem like an impression rather than an embodiment at first, but as the film progresses he sinks deeper into the character until he transforms. While the supporting cast are not given a substantial amount of depth, they are also very competent within their own roles.

In many ways that makes the rest of ‘Snowden’ so frustrating. As I already stated, Levitt seems more than capable of delving further into Snowden’s many relationships and interactions, but the films poor structure, offbeat pacing and repetitive nature put a limit to what Levitt can do within the role. The plot takes the unwise decision of focussing almost entirely on the build up to Snowden’s decision to leak the information and while that is interesting, thematically it makes for an uneven structure that severely hinders the film as a whole.

As the film tirelessly recounts each new piece of information that lead Snowden to uncover the massive conspiracy, each scene comes across as more of an obligation to the true story rather than letting its titular character be the driving force of the film. It has an almost episodic tone in which none of the new revelations feel distinguishable or impactful. Whereas his previous masterpieces have homed in on the characters and allowed their own experiences to comment upon whatever wider social issue he is tackling, here Stone becomes a bit to obsessed with the facts of the story, intent upon playing each event out how it actually happened beat by beat.

If anything that is one consistent flaw within all of Stone’s less successful movies (except ‘Alexander’, I don’t know what the hell happened there), he prioritises his political views over the emotional centre of the story. That’s all well and good if you want to avoid factual scrutiny. But when there is already an outstanding documentary on the subject (‘CITIZENFOUR’) that recounts the entire incident while also being much more engrossing, why not use the tools that are unique to a narrative feature rather than just recite what we already know?

Biopics should be able to cut through the story and focus on the emotions being experienced by these real characters. They can use film as a way to convey what the character endured on an emotional level rather than a purely factual one. We are not permitted a detailed view of Snowden’s own emotions or those of the people he loves, instead they all feel as if they have been relegated to the side-lines. From his girlfriend to his associates, they all feel like background accessories rather than being there to provide any meaningful substance to the movie. Great biopics work around their factual inaccuracies in favour of prioritising their characters in order to reach their emotional core. Look at the way ‘Steve Jobs’ stripped away the technology and told a story that was, in the simplest terms, that of a father and daughter, or ‘The Social Network’ and its tale of friendship and betrayal amid the digital revolution. What I am saying (beyond the fact that Aaron Sorkin should have written this) is that ‘Snowden’ is obsessed with facts, to the detriment of all else.

As a debate on our current society ‘Snowden’ brings up some worthwhile points. But as a narrative feature, beside JG Levitt’s excellent performance, it is severely lacking.

Result: 5/10

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Talkin' Scorsese: The Aviator


"The way of the future."

Despite the fact that he’s more often associated with the crime genre (and with good reason) Martin Scorsese seems to be quite well versed to crafting biopics as well. With ‘Raging Bull’ standing as one of his greatest filmmaking achievements, ‘Kundun’ being a flawed but well-crafted addition to his filmography and while ‘Goodfellas’ is a crime story first, one must remember that it too is based upon a biography of a man’s life. So when he takes on the story of one of the most interesting and innovative minds of the 20th century the results are basically as impressive as one would assume.

Following the life of Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio), between the late 1920s and 1940s. During this time he establishes himself as a prominent and ground breaking figure within America’s aviation industry, as well as a successful film producer. However Hughes’ mental state grows increasingly unstable due to his severe obsessive compulsive disorder.

The later life of Howard Hughes is one of the most painful declines any prominent figure of the 20th century endured. Having gone from an eccentric and charismatic entrepreneur he gradually faded from the public eye, his body a wreck due to various airplane crashes and his mind unstable due to his debilitating OCD. His drug addictions, poor diet and reclusive lifestyle that involved staying in the same dark room often for months on end meant that by the time of his death he was virtually unrecognizable, having deteriorated so much over the course of a few decades.

But as interesting as that chapter of his life sounds Scorsese’s 2004 film barely addresses it. ‘The Aviator’ focusses mainly on the glory years of Hughes life, when he was at the top of the world and seemed invincible. It is for this reason that the looming shadows of what is to come, and the gradual onset of depression and paranoia seem all the more tragic when contrasted to the life Hughes was living before the descent. Scorsese revels in those glory days, bringing a vigour and exuberance to them as if they were lifted straight from a lionised retelling of Hughes life. The heedless ambition and possibility to achieve anything are ever-present and celebrated with such enthusiasm that it is difficult to not be instantly drawn in.

The setting and environment only serve as another alluring aspect that entices the viewer, and the director himself possesses an obvious love for this era of Hollywood that shines through in every beautifully staged shot. It is difficult to know whether this period was as glamourous and joyous as Scorsese makes it look, but this is probably how it felt and when we watch the film we’re in no doubt of it. This if the first of Scorsese’s films to feature and abundance of special effects but the auteur knows better than to throw CGI at the screen to substitute a lack of substance. From the awe inspiring test flights to the spectacularly horrifying XF-11 crash, the visuals are always fully realised and excellently crafted.

But beyond the visual extravaganza that the film offers, ‘The Aviator’ is packed with raw emotion that complements its intricate character study. The structure is a simple rise and fall affair, but executed with such intensity that it is engrossing from start to finish, albeit not quite justifying its immense run time of 170 minutes by sagging slightly in the middle. Having once been collaborating with the best and biggest stars of Hollywood and shaping an entire industry in his own image, the tragedy of the fall is sternly recognised when Hughes, now so paranoid and fragile, becomes trapped in a bathroom due to being too wrecked by his germ phobia to touch the door and let himself out.

While Leo DiCaprio barely resembles Hughes, he embodies the spirit of him so well that it barely matters. The energy and passion he breathes into the character are evident from the start, as are the tragic ailments that will eventually lead to his downfall. Having suffered from OCD for most of his adult life DiCaprio undoubtedly drew from his own condition in order to portray Hughes (the actor apparently took months to regain control of his condition) and the performance carries substantial authenticity as a result. While it would be a challenge for many actors to make the radical transition from an eccentric auteur to a man shrouded in depression within the space of one movie, DiCaprio executes this perfectly, injecting an appropriate amount of subtleties and nuances into his performance to not only make that transition seem believable, but also tragically inevitable.  

But outside of the titular role the cast are all excellent, particularly Kate Blanchett (who would earn the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her work here) who brings wonderful depth and complexity to her portrayal of Katharine Hepburn. While a less accomplished actress would pass her off as merely a cheap caricature and only a small player within Hughes’ larger story, Blanchett brings forth an intricate performance that leaves a lasting impression on both the audience and Hughes himself. It never even needs to be stated that his relationship with Hepburn had a lasting effect on him, we can see it playing out right in front of us. But with the rest of the ensemble cast doing such wonderful work like Kate Beckinsale, John C Riley, Ian Holm, Gwen Stefani, Alec Baldwin and Jude Law, the idea of anyone standing out amongst the crowd is even more remarkable.

Exquisitely crafted and emotionally raw, 'The Aviator' is an involving and tragically cathartic biopic.
Result: 9/10

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them


"Time is running out Mr Scamander."

Before any movie I try to remain objective going in and not get caught up in my own personal expectations concerning said movie. However literally moments before I sat down to watch ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ someone likened the film’s aesthetic to “The Untouchables with wizards” and shortly after, I was made aware of rumours that Matt Smith was originally up for the title role. So at that point all I could think about was a movie in which Matt Smith teams up with Sean Connery to take down dark sorcerer Robert De Niro, which sounds like greatest thing in the history of anything ever. But anyway, this is the version we got, and it’s good too.

A Young wizard named Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in New York with a suitcase full of magical creatures where the atmosphere is already tense due to a strained relationships between the magic community and the outside world and a mysterious darkness that lies in waiting.

Despite the fact that proven franchises and existing brands are supposedly reigning supreme at the box office right now, ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ is commendable for mostly sticking to the description of its creators, being that it is a story within J.K Rowling’s wizarding world and does not really contain any of the characters that defined those original seven books and subsequent eight movies. While that may change in their pre-planned sequels, for now this movie remains a standalone story that opens up an entirely new world we’ve yet to fully explore.

This is why it is hardly surprising that the biggest star of the movie is ultimately that world. The characters of the movie are endearing enough but ultimately the whole process feels like a showcase for new environments that the audience will be allowed to explore. That being said, when they are all as imaginatively crafted and exquisitely realised as they are here then it’s difficult to complain too much. Rowling makes her screenwriting debut here and the way she and director David Yates build and expand their cinematic world is superb, with terrific set and costume design, state of the art visual effects and the titular beasts that are, as promised, fantastic.

However while Rowling’s script revels in its expansive universe, it suffers slightly in terms of its pace and structure. The characters don’t feel fully involved within the plot, which occasionally seems sprawling and unfocussed in how it juggles several different plot arcs and brings them together in what can’t help but feel like a coincidence heavy story. The eagerness for world building is also reflected in how the protagonist relates to the antagonist. Rather than having their development intertwined and juxtaposed like Harry and Voldemort, Newt and his adversary never develop anything close to a connection or involvement with one another aside from their final encounter. There isn’t a belief to defy, a shared history or any real connection beyond the fact that Newt is going about his own business, while separately the antagonist of the film is going about their business and the two just happen to come to blows when the two plots converge at the end.

But speaking of New Scamander, the more I watched Redmayne the more I believed the rumours that Matt Smith was in consideration. In many ways both Scamander’s personality and Redmayne’s performance reminded me of Smith’s tenure in ‘Doctor Who’. The eccentricity, subtle yet distinctive mannerisms, separation from the rest of the world and hints of a damaged past all echo the Eleventh Doctor, even the costume and hair seem similar in style. But taken on its own Redmayne’s performance is an enjoyable one. He makes for an engaging guide through this world and his obvious wonder with each new discovery is utterly infectious. He doesn’t necessarily undergo any emotional arc or strong development but Newt remains an entertaining and empathetic character nonetheless.

The companions that accompany him (the more you think about it the more this film turns into an episode of ‘Doctor Who’, even the plot of alien creatures run amok in New York isn’t something beyond the realm of possibility as a story for that series) are also pleasing to watch as well as interesting enough. Katherine Waterson and Alison Sudol fill their roles nicely as do Colin Farrell and Ezra Miller, but the standout is without a doubt Dan Fogler. Both Fogler’s performance and the character he is portraying are utterly joyful from start to finish, as being a non-magic user he observes this world through fresh eyes and it is wonderful to behold. But amid this is an undertone of sadness that speaks even louder. So despite starting off as the comic relief, Fogel is ultimately handed one of the biggest and the most satisfying emotional crux of the film, which he handles brilliantly.

This plays into the films larger thematic undertones that ultimately separate it from its predecessors. As I said at the start this feels like a standalone story not just for its contained plot (aside from one small revelation that feels added for sequel bait) but for its more mature issues that include clashing cultures and ideologies, fanaticism, racism, bigotry, abuse and while none of them are explored in great depth they help separate the movie from the Harry potter series, even if it isn’t quite as captivating.

Whimsical and wonderful, though lacking in some areas ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ is likely to please the appetite of any long term Pott-Head.
Result: 7/10

Friday, 18 November 2016

Hacksaw Ridge


"Private Doss, you are free to run into the hell fire of war without a single weapon to defend yourself."

Mel Gibson, is that it? Can we please leave now without any further ado or awkward subjects? Well as I explained in my review of ‘Blood Father’ Gibson’s personal life has no merit for me on how I judge his work, that is unless it happens to be a film whose central thematic conceit is grappling with some kind of complex concerning maintaining one’s faith in the wake of a masculine image and violent, self-destructive environment. Good thing ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ won’t contain any of that, right?

Private Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) enlists in the army but is immediately reduced to an outcast due to his refusal to carry a firearm as part of his beliefs as a conscientious objector. When he finally reaches the warzone at the Battle of Okinawa, despite not being armed with a single weapon, his heroism and bravery would eventually make him the first objector to be awarded the Medal of Honour.

I think it’s safe to say that as an actor and director Mel Gibson is a unique talent, and the prospect of seeing him helm another project, particularly one of this size and scale. In many ways ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ acts as the culmination of Gibson’s career as a director thus far, which is not to say it is his best effort. But in terms of a film that blends the visceral and unsettlingly violent images of war we’ve witnessed in ‘Braveheart’ to the unapologetic expression of faith in ‘The Passion of the Christ’, almost everything about Gibson’s body of work and state of mind acts as an ideal counterpart to bring this story to life. It is the purest representation of his own damaged psyche, a deeply personal movie that is as much a personal confession as it is a story of bravery.

But contrary to what one might expect, Gibson’s action scenes are not always presented as a never ending splatter fest. As he frequently switches to his characters emotions, pressing tightly to their own realisation of the hell scape around them shortly before the audience are treated to viewing what they are experiencing. When that moment comes it is unlike anything I have witnessed in a war film since Spielberg’s ‘Saving Private Ryan’. Though other directors like Ridley Scott or Kathryn Bigalow have been able to capture the ferocious intensity or chaotic disorder, Gibson’s film unleashes a vision of hell few filmmakers have replicated. It is violent and sadistic in almost every regard yet also utterly engrossing in its presentation. The carnage is difficult to accurately describe in words, as dismembered bodies fly, explosions ring out with such ferociousness that it becomes a terrifying scenario all on its own. Gibson’s eye for storytelling and flairmake it even harder not to be dragged head first into the experience. The scenes of war are both intimate and epic, but to call them stunning would be a lie, as violence of this magnitude yet framed at such close-quarters is ill suited to such a description.

This doesn’t quite allow the film to escape the inevitable questions concerning its hypocrisy. Should a film devoted to pacifism be so focussed upon violence between men? It depends which aspect of Doss the film takes the most pride in when describing him as heroic. Was he a hero because he saved lives, because he refused to take lives, because he maintained his faith or simply stood against adversary in all its forms? Ultimately that is up to you, and while ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ does its best to leave interpretation as the key factor over its purpose, it is hard not to notice the film tearing itself apart under the strain of which direction it should take. Is its director more intrigued in representing the sin than the salvation I wonder?

Luckily this is redeemed somewhat under another guise that the film can take. The guise that it is a character study of Doss and not a lesson in morality. If that is the case then I could easily accept it, due in large part to Andrew Garfield’s truly terrific performance as Doss. As opposed to a transient saint Doss is portrayed as a complex man with conflicting emotions when it comes to his decisions. Garfield allows the character to express more doubt and fear over his own self-righteousness than less confident actors would allow. He tackles Doss’ motivations and ideologies but also the ways in which he doubts himself even at the best of moments. Despite the pre-action narrative feeling poorly paced and oddly structured at times, Garfield and a strong holster of supporting actors such as Hugo Weaving, Sam Worthington and Vince Vaughn each turning in their own fine performances to ensure that it at least remains interesting. Despite being more of an expository vehicle for the gargantuan achievement that is the second act, it works well enough and ultimately is worth the price.

Like it’s director, ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ has its flaws and it frequently at odds with itself, but its undeniable power, ferocity and sheer strength of vision make it a bold and endearing effort.

Result: 8/10  

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Talkin' Scorsese: Gangs of New York


"With this knife that struck him down, let me put to rest my father's ghost."

Sometimes a films components don’t quite add up to the sum of its parts. Take the greatest American director of the latter half of the 20th century, team him up with debatably the greatest method actor to ever walk the earth and an up and coming superstar would surely produce an astonishing and transcendent result? Well when it comes to ‘Gangs of New York’ that depends on who you ask.

Following a series of violent gang wars in the newly forged New York City, crime lord and political kingmaker Bill Cuttings (Daniel Day Lewis) has enjoyed sixteen of ruling over the city following a massive is about to witness a disturbance in proceedings when a young man named Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) joins his gang, as unbeknownst to him, Amsterdam is a man looking for revenge.

One common trait with cinematic epics, or a common flaw so to say, is that while many of the greats such as ‘Seven Samurai’, ‘Once Upon a Time in America’ and ‘There Will Be Blood’, those that fall short do so due their second acts. Epics start and end on breathtakingly strong notes but when taken as a whole don’t quite live up to their potential. ‘Gangs of New York’ almost fits that description perfectly. Its visceral opening scene depicting the battle that establishes Cuttings as the leading crime figure in New York is a stunning piece of filmmaking and stands as one of most exquisitely crafted scenes in Scorsese’s filmography. Then its final shot stands as a rousing and emotionally heavy sequence that paints a hauntingly beautiful closure to a character as well as a tribute to an entire city (one that must have had even more resonance in 2002 when the city was still recovering from the events of 9/11).

However as I said before this speaks volumes about the film as a whole, because while those two examples give weight to the idea that the film starts and ends about as strongly as a movie possibly can, the story and pacing both suffer during the middle section of the film, becoming convoluted and dreary in their structure. Despite populating his film with a number of interesting and eccentric characters, all of which are played by great talents like John C Riley, Jim Broadbent and Brendan Gleeson, ‘Gangs of New York’ seems so desperate to wrap up each intersecting storyline and character arc to provide a cleaner final act that it strays from the path somewhat. Rather than using the extra time to create three dimensional portraits of these characters though, the film feels as if it’s introducing them in one scene then trying to generate closure in the next, meaning that none of them expand beyond eccentric caricatures.

That being said they are all performed by immensely capable actors, who all revel in their unique and memorable roles. All of them except Cameron Diaz that is, and while I won’t dwell on the shortcomings of one actress amid an ensemble or pretend it drags down the film as a whole, but I will say that the usually comedic actress is clearly out of her depth here. The two main players that underpin the story though, are both absolutely fantastic. DiCaprio has an elusive nature to him as well as a sense of vulnerability that places his character in a sense of danger, thereby heightening the audience’s trepidation of whether or not he will achieve his goal. He also establishes a pleasing amount of conflict as Amsterdam’s arc develops, ironically finding a father figure in the man who deprived him of his real father as he bond with Cuttings continues to develop. At the same time though he brings forth a resolve that means we are always aware of the motivation that drives both the character and the story.

But even Leo’s best efforts are almost dwarfed by those of Daniel Day Lewis. While Bill Cuttings lacks the depth and complexity of his other characters like Daniel Plainview or Abraham Lincoln, Day Lewis brings such a ferocity and unrestrained rage to the character that it is truly frightening. It is an ever present threat that even in the quitter moments hangs over the scene as a looming menace. But those quieter moments are made all the more frightening just by how they contrast to the moments of violence with that of sophistication and intelligence. He makes the warped, father/son relationship more convincing and honestly the most intriguing part of the film. In many ways I’m saddened that the film as a whole doesn’t focus on this more personal story rather than delving into its grander territory that can’t quite fulfil its potential.

That being said, despite the shortcomings in the script Scorsese’s direction is on hand as usual to elevate the film to a higher standard. His craftsmanship is evident from the start to the end, and once again his personal attachment to the story shines through, as the film expands upon the directors continued fascination with the city he grew up in, and tells its history without condemning nor condoning the violence on hand. Scorsese knows that despite the ugliness of the bloodshed, it is one of the aspects that forged the city as it is known today. This is of course reflected in the film’s final shot as well as the labour of love that this massive project represents.

‘Gangs of New York’ is admirable for its ambition and filled with many amazing aspects that help levitate some of its structural flaws.

Result: 8/10

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Arrival

"There are days that define your story beyond your life. Like the day they arrived."

Denis Villeneuve is the kind of director that we will, at some point in the future, be studying for their work. With ‘Incendies’, ‘Prisoners’, ‘Enemy’, ‘Sicario’ as well as the upcoming ‘Blade Runner 2048’ Villeneuve has truly marked himself out as a director to watch out for. So with that being said, his latest feature, ‘Arrival’, a daringly ambitious science fiction film should catch the attention of most people to say the least.

A group of mysterious, extra-terrestrial shells suddenly arrive on earth, prompting a planet wide investigation into their origin and their purpose. Among the selected experts is a linguist named Louise Banks (Amy Adams), who is haunted by the memories of her deceased daughter. With mounting pressure from various nations, the situation turns into a race against time to find a way to communicate and understand the mysterious objects.

The best kind of science fiction stories are not necessarily the ones that tackle the biggest questions, the most far out concepts or the most spectacular set pieces (though ‘Arrival’ does have all of those in plenitude). The best kind of science fiction is the kind that is rooted firmly within humanity, one that finds an emotional connection with its characters and focusses on what the people ate the heart of this story are going through rather than the aliens visiting them. From Spielberg’s intimate stories of connections across galaxies to Kubrick’s giant existential minefields, the best kind science fiction has always been about people.

That is why ‘Arrival’ works as well as it does. Combining Villeneuve’s talents with this material not only creates a masterfully directed tale of intrigue, mystery and suspense but also a deeply moving character study that is empathetic and hugely engaging. I would say that a large part of that is due to Amy Adams’ performance (so along with ‘Nocturnal Animals’ this is shaping up to be a pretty good year for her to say the least) that is understated at a glance but upon closer inspection is layered with subtle undertones that not only carve out a fully fleshed out character who proves to be emotionally riveting and engaging for the audience.

It also helps that all of the supporting cast are in the same position. Though not all of them have the depth and complexity of Banks, they are each written with a grounded sensibility that makes them likable or if not that, at least relatable so the viewer can understand their plight, sympathise with them and comprehend their point of view. One example is Jeremy Renner, who as theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly brings a welcome amount of charisma and likability to proceedings, which not only furthers the amount of empathy the audience feels for each character, but ultimately proves to be an essential aspect of the movie’s main emotional conceit.

But as I said before, while the main strength of ‘Arrival’ is in its emotional core, it still has a number of impressive set pieces, mind bending concepts and existential questions that are additional pieces that further the experience rather than substituting for it. It is the kind of movie that you will want to discuss and ponder over for days after watching it, one that may take time to digest and interpret. While some will inevitably be put off by its challenging and provocative themes those patient enough will find that the movie rewards this way of thinking, guiding your thought process to avoid making the story an overly complex mess but never dumbing down the material either.

This brings me onto the director himself. Denis Villeneuve is so completely in control and confident in his telling of this story that it seems amazing that he didn’t have a hand in writing it. While a great amount of credit should be given to the film’s screenwriter Eric Heisserer for crafting such an intimate yet stunningly ambitious story, it is Villeneuve’s direction that truly brings it to life. Bu evoking such a state of unrelenting tension in the film’s first section then tapping into the emotional undertones that define its thematic climax, Villeneuve has such a brilliant understanding of how best to bring the script to life and what components are best suited to the art of cinema that it almost takes your breath away. There are no flashy gimmicks or clever tricks, he brings forth a set of skills that engage the viewer on a subconscious level that is unique to film, one that you could easily miss unless you were looking for it.

Despite not having the visual eye candy of Villeneuve’s other efforts (basically saying Roger Deakins was not the cinematographer for this one) Bradford Young’s visual flair is acceptable enough, rendering a few brilliantly composed and eerily haunting images that add to the atmosphere of the film along with Johann Johannsson’s tense and emotionally fuelled soundtrack. Aside from the pace dragging slightly in the second act, a few contrived plot points and one or two stilted lines of dialogue the film as a whole is masterfully made from start to finish. For all its ambition and wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey concepts this is a movie about simple communication and how it often breaks down in the face of fear and grief, but also about how it can ultimately prevail through the strong.

Emotionally engaging, masterfully made and stunningly ambitious, ‘Arrival’ is a movie that demands to be seen, discussed and interpreted. A science fiction masterwork for the ages.

Result: 9/10

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Nocturnal Animals


"Do you ever feel like your life is turning into something you never intended?"

So a weird thing happened to me when I mentioned this film to a friend in a recent conversation. When I mentioned that the name of its director was Tom Ford she said “The same as the fashion designer”. It was only after Googling his name that I realised they are the same person, and that Ford is actually more famous for his work in the fashion than in film. Firstly this answers my question of why he has taken seven years to make another movie after his brilliant debut ‘A Single Man’ and confirms that he should probably be just as highly regarded for his directing as his designing.

 An art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) is haunted by the new novel from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), a violent thriller that tells a tale of justice and vengeance in the Texas desert, she interprets as a veiled threat and a symbolic form of revenge.

From the very first frame of the ‘Nocturnal Animals’, it would seem that Tom Ford delights in unnerving his audiences. But then again Ford’s obsessive attention to detail, impeccable shot composition and strikingly complex storytelling process lead to believe that he takes delight in making his audience experience something that can be called pure art. Almost every aspect of this film feels designed with an exact intent, as if every subtle glance and tiny object has been placed to provide a deeper insight into this dark and twisted world.

It is for this reason that some will deem the film cold and clinical, which is a sentiment I can understand. However I found that if there was a coldness to the film it was only due to the character it was portraying, one that did not evoke sympathy, but empathy. The beating heart of ‘Nocturnal Animals’ is a visceral, awe inspiring one that weaves themes of grief, guilt, fear, revenge and loss. Like the themes the story handled multiple aspects, with each layer bleeding into one another, contrasting each other as often as they complement one another. The sleek stylings of Los Angeles seem especially out of place when placed against the rustic Texan landscape, but the brutality of both worlds seems particularly harsh alongside the warmth on display in flashbacks to Edward and Susan’s earlier days.

One would think that all of these contrasting elements would come ultimately result in a product that has the feel of multiple movies welded together. But as stated earlier, Ford’s ability to merge each conflicting layer makes the film absolutely invigorating. Each aspect feels like a carefully placed piece of a much larger puzzle that is both versatile and rigidly taught. The film shifts genres throughout its runtime but maintains a constant undercurrent of tension and suspense despite the fact that it is a thriller one moment, a pulpy neo-western at another and an elusive noir at as well. Then again some of the scenes in the film are so viscerally evocative that they feel more at place with a horror film than a movie about the lives of the rich in L.A.

But what is even more remarkable is just how tightly paced the whole film feels. Rather than sagging under the weight of its multiple themes and stories Ford’s movie ramps up the pace and rarely stops to let the viewer breathe. There’s a Hitchcockian kind of relentlessness to it, but that breakneck pace is supporting a story full of Lynchian traits from its dark subject matter to its warped view of reality. In fact comparisons to films like ‘Blue Velvet’ are probably justified due to how there are multiple moments that come across as pure nightmare fuel, designed unsettle and challenge anyone watching the events as they unfold. It’s little wonder why Amy Adams’ character never gets any sleep if she has to live in a world like this.

Though it would seem that Adams is reduced to the role of onlooker amongst the films wider stories she is still given plenty to do, and Ford’s direction supplies her with the best possible outlet to do so. From the start there is an inner sadness that permeates the character and the way Ford intensely focusses on her allows the viewer to see every subtle mannerism of her performance that conveys it. Adams employs some remarkably expressive techniques to unnerve the audience with her reactions, but at the same time she also knows exactly when an even more unsettling reaction would be that of restraint. The rest of the cast are just as mesmerising if not better, with Michael Shannon’s utterly terrifying role being told with such conviction that he comes across as an unstoppable monster, while Aaron Taylor Johnson is unrecognizable in his role. Jake Gyllenhaal has the challenge of playing two different characters (Edward and his literary counterpart Tony, envisioned by Susan as she reads the novel) but he carves such distinct personalities for each of them yet retain an eerie similarity that one can clearly see the Susan’s association of the two entities.

 Evocative and challenging while also being so beautifully designed and artistically rendered, ‘Nocturnal Animals’ is a masterwork of layered and complex storytelling that is sure to unsettle you from start to finish.

Result: 10/10

Monday, 7 November 2016

Talkin' Scorsese: Bringing Out the Dead


"Here's to the best job in the world."

As far as writer/director partnerships go, Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese formed a deeply impressive team that has produced each participant’s best work in the medium of film. Having worked together on ‘Taxi Driver’, ‘Raging Bull’ and ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ Schrader and Scorsese’s last collaboration to date was this 1999 drama, which as it turns out is another underappreciated classic from the director.

Haunted by the patients he failed to save, an extremely burned-out Frank Pierce (Nicholas Cage) works as a Manhattan ambulance paramedic and now, over three fraught and turbulent nights, must fight to maintain his sanity as one horrifying emergency after another unfolds before his very eyes.

It may be difficult to imagine now, but there was a time when Nicholas Cage was not only a wonderfully eccentric action star and box office draw (as seen in ‘The Rock’, ‘Face/Off’ and ‘Con-Air), but he was also a sought after dramatic actor, one that worked alongside the best of the best like Francis Ford Coppola, the Coen Brothers and David Lynch as well as a recent Oscar win for his work in ‘Leaving Las Vegas’. Amongst that impressive body of work (before it all went to horribly, bafflingly wrong) was his pairing with Martin Scorsese for ‘Bringing Out the Dead’ where Cage not only reminds us of why he was once such a revered talent, but makes us wonder how on earth he fell so far.

Cage’s haunted and world weary performance is what underpins the entire film, provides it with a sense of structure and cohesion as well as its immense compassion and thematic depth. As a tired man on the verge of breaking point Frank is the centrepiece of the entire film, and Cage is able to bring that to life with such conviction and complexity. Frank seems to be in a state of perpetual anxiety yet his professionalism and skill is always evident so as to never make the viewer question how he hasn’t cracked already. His vulnerability shines through amid this powerful duty to do his job and all the while chaos seems to be erupting around him and yet each time Cage’s character faces a new horror he provokes a slightly different reaction, adding variety, complexity and a deep sense of empathy to the performance.

The film has no real plot, yet Schrader’s screenplay (based off the book of the same name by Joe Connelly)is able to find structure within the sprawling series of events, using three consecutive nights as the bare bones of his narrative’s structure from which to place each manic and brutal event. Instead of drifting into one random occurrence after another the script is somehow able to include a note of clarity by focussing in on its central character (something Schrader always excels at, as you realise that you couldn’t really describe the plot of ‘Taxi Driver’ or ‘Raging Bull’ without describing the main character of each story). The narrative is so intrinsically linked with its main character that it almost can’t help but become a remarkable study of a man and his great pain.

At the same time the story offers no easy answers or cheap resolutions. It sets up each internal and external crisis and rarely provides the characters with a way out that will please everyone or keep their conscience clear. It adds to the brutality of the film more so than the horrific accidents playing out with each passing emergency call, that ultimately for all their skill and ability to retain a grasp on reality, Frank and his team of paramedics will never be able to save everyone and as that fact becomes crushingly obvious to the audience we begin to understand Frank’s own descent into depression.

Despite being in the familiar territory of New York City, this is a vision of the city that Scorsese has rarely shown before, or since. Gone are the usual hyper stylistics of the New York from ‘Taxi Driver’ or ‘Mean Streets’ and instead we get the cold and clinical treatment in order to increase the sense of visceral harshness. Scorsese adopts an almost documentary like view of the story, choosing to display each terrible ordeal in all its unflinching glory. Yet despite this hands on approach to portraying the events in question, the film still pulsates with a sense of energy and urgency, rarely letting up from start to finish. While this effect if initially used to grab the viewer’s attention it is soon turned against us, as like Frank we almost want the horrors to stop, if just for a moment. But reality is rarely so forgiving, and despite the fits of madness and struggle to maintain one’s sanity, reality is what Scorsese is capturing here.

Engaging on a visceral and emotional level, underpinned by a fantastic character study that is brought to life with great empathy by Cage’s strong performance, ‘Bringing Out the Dead’ is an underrated masterwork.

Result: 9/10

Saturday, 5 November 2016

I, Daniel Blake


"When you lose your self respect, you're done for."

Few directors have been able to merge personal and political filmmaking like Ken Loach has over his long and illustrious career. Having made five decades worth of socially progressive dramas with widely acclaimed masterworks like ‘Kes’, ‘Family Life’ and ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’ being among them’ you may think that having come out of retirement to make this latest feature he would be less outlandish and more reflective. But you would be wrong.

A widowed joiner named Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) finds himself stuck in Newcastle’s benefits bureaucracy as his declining health means he can no longer take a job nor claim a Jobseekers’ Allowance. As he struggles to maintain his dignity and welfare, he befriends a single mother Katie (Hayley Squires).

Earlier this year ‘I, Daniel Blake’ was entered into the main competition at the Cannes Film Festival, and up against the titans of world cinema like Park Chan-wook, Jim Jarmusch and Nicholas Winding Refn, it was Loach’s film that walked away with the festivals top prize, the prestigious Palm d’Or. Like many of Loach’s films it forces the audience to observe the more mundane struggles of everyday life. It lands in a category of social realism that more and more modern movies seem to overlook today, where by placing the narrative within the context of more real world issues it ultimately leaves a more lasting impact.

Despite its brilliance ‘I, Daniel Blake’ certainly can’t be called an enjoyable film, however it is undoubtedly an important one. It is both a criticism of the modern bureaucracy that reduces human lives to numbers but also a celebration of the kindness from one human to another. While it would be so easy for Paul Laverty’s script to be nothing but raw anger and rage against the system, it finds a warmth and humanity to this story that is able to engage the viewer on an emotional level as well as a social one.

Part of that comes from the scripts ability to ground its characters in the realm of realism in the same way it does with its story. Every character within this film feels like a genuine and fully fleshed out person whom over the course of 100 minutes you come to know and befriend. They could be people you already know, people who endure struggles and hardships to a point that almost goes against the rules of storytelling. Loach is able to play with your emotions by manipulating your own expectations, out of some subconscious assumption that everyone will eventually succeed Loach manages to turn that against you to heart wrenching results. These people with whom you have laughed and shared memories with are suddenly failing time and time again, and it is tough to watch.

Though it sounds odd for this kind of drama, comedy ultimately plays a large part in why is succeeds. The script and performances find the perfect line between comedy and tragedy that ultimately makes the story so endearing and engaging. In fact a majority of the movie would probably be funny in a farcical way if it wasn’t so painstakingly true. Loach’s grounded direction adds to this as well, paying close attention to the harsher details of modern life and using them to further illuminate why this struggle is such a large one. Though the relative lack of style or flair might seem uninspired at first, as the film progresses you realise that Loach’s direction is seeking to shed light in the sheer bleakness of the situation, and it accomplishes that perfectly.

The crowning achievement of the film however, may be its two central performances. In the titular role Dave Johns is able to create a character of such empathy that even those who have never been faintly aware of his situation before will be entranced by his plight. His quest to maintain his dignity but continue to live in a world he no longer understands is played for humour and heartbreak, both of which are executed perfectly. His dynamic Hayley Squires only makes it all the more rewarding as her role acts as a counterpart to Johns, but at the same time finds a humane connection that is likely to resonant with anyone.

It is easy to see why Loach came out of retirement to make this film (which many believe will be the last of his career) because it is not one of pure anger and social indictment, though those are two major presences throughout. At the heart of it this is a story of human lives, a story that Loach has been telling for his entire career.

Despite its depressing nature and political undertones, the warmth and humanity is what makes ‘I, Daniel Black’ an extraordinary work of social realism.

Result: 9/10

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

The Accountant


"This guy risks his life uncooking the books for some of the scariest people on the planet."

So 2016 is shaping up to be a very busy year for Ben Affleck, while the unmitigated failure of ‘Batman v Superman’ probably wasn’t the best way to launch his career as the caped crusader Affleck’s widely praised incarnation of the hero has left him in a good position. Towards the end of the year he is also finally making another directorial outing (likely to be his last before taking the helm of ‘The Batman’) with ‘Live By Night’ and now he gets a chance to shine in front of the camera with ‘The Accountant’.

On the surface Christian Wolff (Affleck) seems to be a good natured if not slightly socially secretive autistic man. However in reality he is an internationally renowned accountant who earns a living by performing superhuman levels of mathematics of the finances of criminal organisations, and due to the company he keeps Wolff also holds knowledge of weapons training, marksmanship and hand to hand combat.

I was somewhat sceptical about this movie upon going into it, not only for the actual quality of the film itself but given Hollywood’s history of oversimplifying or misrepresenting autism as a condition it might be awkward to see it applied to this film as an excuse for why a character has superpowers. However as far as that front is concerned I need not have worried. An interesting character study and delicate performance from Affleck means that the film rarely feels exploitative and is clearly making a sincere effort to avoid such an accusation. In fact the character of Christian Wolff is by a wide margin the best aspect of the film.

Wolff himself is portrayed as a fully three dimensional character and his struggles are rarely reduced to mere plot devices. Instead they come across as genuine attempts to break down a character and present a clear message to the audience concerning how we overlook and underestimate certain individuals. Not only that but ‘The Accountant’ does not great Wolff as a child-like man in a blarger world, Wolff is very clearly an adult with complex issues, rational opinions and an understanding of the world around him but just happens to process that information differently than most people do. With Affleck portraying him he becomes a humane and sympathetic character, with the performance being one of great conviction and commitment that remains consistent to characteristics established at the start of the movie and rarely puts a foot wrong in carrying those features for the entirety of the movie.

As a character study then, ‘The Accountant’ has a lot going for it, in fact I would much rather see a franchise about this man of mystery than whatever the hell the DCEU is planning. However what gets in the way of it being a truly worthwhile experience is the plot of the film. Despite the premise I gave at the start of this review the actual plot of the movie concerns Wolff tackling a non-criminal client only to uncover a huge conspiracy that turns both him and an employee he has befriended, played by Anna Kendrick, into targets for assassination.

While at a glance that would appear to be a serviceable plot and a good means to provide some narrative structure to the film, the ensuing mystery that powers said plot is that it comes to dominate so much of the film that it inevitably loses focus on its central character that it did such an excellent job of establishing. Character pieces and mysteries rarely mesh well for the sole reason that for the audience to be invested in the mystery they have to be in a position where they want to uncover information that they do not know. Meanwhile a good character study requires the audience knowing as much information about the character in order to empathise with him. When the two collide the withheld information comes across as cheap and gimmicky when it finally is revealed and the movie continually gets caught in trying to up the ante with each plot development by throwing one surprise twist at us after another.

The end result is that the movie becomes needlessly complicated as well as utterly pointless to the overall development of the film, with a sense that the twist was added purely to pad the runtime of the film. Throw in an awkwardly paced and underdeveloped sub-plot about J.K Simmons investigation into who the titular accountant is (I assume he wanted pictures of him) then the entire film feels like a collection of meandering plot turns that never reach a destination more satisfying than the superb character work that is sadly squandered.

A good character study wrapped up in a bad mystery.

Result: 5/10

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Birth of a Nation


"The Lord has spoken to me, visions of what's to come, a rise of good against evil."

So reviewing a movie that has become embroiled in about as much controversy and deals with as many bad discussion topics on a first date that you could possibly imagine, from race to religion, politics and even gender issues as well as the lionisation of history. As well as the fact that the film deals with slavery in the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite scandal, as well as the fact that said film is named after the techinically innovative but overtly racist 1915 film by D.W Griffith. What could possibly go wrong with trying to review that?

In the Deep South of the USA, Nat Turner (Nate Parker), a literate slave and preacher, is used by his financially strained owner, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), to subdue unruly slaves with his preaching. As he witnesses countless atrocities against himself and his fellow slaves, Nat orchestrates an uprising in the hopes of leading his people to freedom.

So it is essentially impossible to critique this film without at the very least acknowledging the controversy surrounding it. First a bit of context, as the Oscars debate raged on the Sundance Film Festival took notice and distributors were sure to be attentive for any potential leaders in the race to bag the next Oscar contender from a black director or featuring a black cast. With ‘Birth of a Nation’ they seemed to find that film, and with Fox Searchlight putting in a record breaking bid for the distribution rights the public became intrigued and already had the film marked as a heavy awards favourite. The fact that the film was conceived by Nate Parker out of a frustration due to the lack of prominent roles for black actors in Hollywood made it seem like the perfect candidate.

However as the press circulated around the film due to its increasingly high profile as well as all of its stars, Parker’s personal life came into the spotlight. Without becoming embroiled in any sensitive issues (because the internet is great at doing that), having been accused of rape in 1999 and the case under some shady, at best, circumstances. This only served to make the whole situation drastically more complicated and while it’s easy to say “it’s about the art not the artist” (which is the excuse I use whenever I try to talk about how much I love ‘Chinatown’) given that Parker is so intrinsically linked with this production having starred in, directed and written by Parker, placing himself as the absolute hero of the story the already complex issue just got even more difficult to navigate.

So with that out of the way what about the movie itself? (Do you remember that, we were actually going to try and review a movie today wouldn’t you know?) Well for a film that was initially backed as being a revolutionary break through in the way these kind of stories are depicted on film, ‘Birth of a Nation’ is ultimately a fairly standard, competently made, melodramatic recreation of history that if it were any other film would probably be pegged as an Oscar contender not for its challenging nature but for it’s entertaining and occasionally inspiring values.

While ‘Birth of a Nation’ is telling an important story it doesn’t necessarily seek to create one that is complex or deep, coming across more as an ideological myth that paints its protagonist as an unquestionable hero rather than ever seeking to look beneath his skin. We have seen icons of history deconstructed in cinema before and the filmmakers were still able to maintain their inspiring and admirable status, if anything by viewing their flaws and weaknesses it made them more relatable to us as an audience. However the way Nat Turner is portrayed in ‘Birth of a Nation’ never really leaves room for that, while it gives us a strong characterisation and motivation that are by no means (or any means at all in fact) not justifiable, as a character he comes across as a proto-typical, two dimensional historical hero.

However we have seen this approach work before, one only needs to look to ‘Braveheart’ (and yes there is an irony in approaching Mel Gibson for clarity on an issue involving race)for a course of mythologizing a historical figure, filling it with heavy handed symbolism, crowd pleasing euphoria in its message and an uplifting if not extremely brutal relating to warfare and freedom. However where Gibson’s film was superbly directed feature, Parker’s feel for the camera isn’t nearly as polished or perfect. While he is competent enough for the battle sequences and moments of high drama that become visceral and shockingly violent in their depiction of warfare, the moments in between are not nearly as well thought out or executed. The result is a story that not only feels tonally uneven in the way it is directed, but also unstable due to how it tries to mesh scenes of high stakes warfare and contemplative seriousness. Not only that but due to the characters lacking a significant amount of depth they become less compelling and we are given less reason to care for these moments.

In fact much of that summarises Parker’s entire involvement in the film from his acting, directing and writing as well as the movie itself. During the scenes when it tries to emphasise the mythic importance of Turner and his historical importance such as rousing speeches, noble sacrifices and fearless leadership, everything works at its best with plenty of evocative imagery and inspiring dramatic moments to support it. However, during its quitter moments the components lack the depth, innovativeness or substance to make the film engaging on a more profound and humane level.  

An important story with an imperfect execution.

Result: 6/10