Archive for January, 2015


Posted: January 30, 2015 in movie reviews
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Foxcatcher_First_Teaser_Poster****1/2 (out of five)

Bennett Miller’s new film, based on true events, is an extremely cold, creepy and brilliant examination of the spookiest edges of the male psyche. It is methodical, deliberate, kind of heartbreaking, but mostly simply chilling. I loved it.

Attention is being called towards Steve Carell’s transformative performance as the creepy John DuPont, and for Awards Season he’s being touted for “Best Actor”, which is totally fair enough as, in what is essentially a three-hander, he’s the antagonist, and thus a “lead”. But, really, this film is built solidly on a remarkable three-piece ensemble, with Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo giving no less inspiring, and deeply skilful, performances.

Tatum and Ruffalo play real-life US wrestling champions Mark and Dave Schultz, Olympic Gold Medallists both, who are conscripted by gazillion-heir John Du Pont to spearhead a training unit of wrestlers with the goal of achieving success at the 1988 Games in Seoul. Exactly why Du Pont wants to do such a thing with his money and, essentially, his life; how he goes about it; and how the brothers respond to him and the claustrophobic atmosphere of his camp form the sinew of the mysterious and ever-foreboding drama.

And it is foreboding. The film is a hundred and twenty-nine minutes of menace, all cloudy skies, peculiar conversations and chilly rooms and landscapes. Du Pont is a creep and Miller and Carell don’t soften him an inch. But the Schultzes, to varying degrees, are no angels either, and everyone’s got an agenda. The film is admirably restrained in keeping their goals, if not obtuse, at least opaque; it’s an extremely intelligent film that allows for great degrees of analysis, interpretation and speculation. Miller’s measured pacing and the film’s overwhelmingly bleak tone are not geared to the YouTube generation; this is a thoughtful, adult movie, and quite brilliant.

**** (out of five)11189150_800

Jean-Marc Vallée follows up The Dallas Buyer’s Club with Wild, another strong, urgent, raw piece of filmmaking that offers an Oscar-nominated turn for its lead actor, in this case Reese Witherspoon. Witherspoon, who has never been less than excellent in anything, plays real-life Normal Person (as opposed to Sniper, Billionaire Murderer, Brilliant Mathematician, Civil Rights Leader or Other Brilliant Mathematician) Cheryl Strayed, who, in order to cleanse her suffering from her mother’s death and subsequent divorce, undertook hiking the 1,100 mile Pacific Crest Trail and then wrote a book about it.

Just as Bradley Cooper bought the rights to American Sniper and took them all the way to an Oscar nomination, so too did Witherspoon buy the rights to Strayed’s book, and she’s found a terrific collaborator in Vallée, but also in the (I find) surprising choice of screenwriter in Nick Hornby. I suspect this book was a tough nut to crack, but the method the men have chosen works. Essentially, the film glides poetically and constantly from Strayed’s hike to the life she’s walking off (or away from), and while the hike is generally portrayed in a forward linear fashion, the past comes in snatches and bits, and not linearly, but as Strayed remembers them. Thus an encounter with condensation on the roof of her tent may drive a memory of her mother in hospital, and so on.

It may sound whiny, self-help-y or new-age-y, and maybe it is a little, but it’s handled with great care (and toughness). I was entranced and engaged from start to finish and really sad to leave the world, into the weird, cold reality of the shopping mall housing the cinema. Strayed’s interior journey – the parts of her mind she needs to reconcile – is a rough road, and the hike is a goddamned killer, but she, and those she remembers, and the scenery around her, are all beautiful, and it’s this juxtaposition of, dare I say it, beauty and sadness that works so well. It is a very similar film, in many ways, to Sean Penn’s Into the Wild, but this time it’s about a woman, which actually makes it completely different. Witherspoon, need I say, is simply excellent in every scene. Highly recommended.

**** (out of five)

Bradley Cooper gives an intricate, psychologically detailed performance as Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in US military history, in this cool, elegant biopic from Clint Eastwood, who was eighty-four when he directed it. Kyle was a slippery character. According to his autobiography, also called American Sniper, he was extremely proud of his lethal prowess, and of his “kill count”, which was officially pegged at 160 but which he claimed was 255. He was also fiercely single-minded in his perception of the Iraq War, which was his main playing field; he saw Iraqis as “animals” and “savages”, and there are those who see Kyle as, essentially, a racist serial killer who managed to get into the right profession at the right time.

The truth to someone like this is always complicated, but there is no doubt that Kyle suffered, to a degree perhaps less than many but to a degree nonetheless, some PTSD upon each of his Stateside returns (he did four tours). Like Jeremy Renner’s character in The Hurt Locker, with which American Sniper shares many similarities, Kyle was – and is shown as – someone who was pretty addicted to the thrill of battle. He was extremely good at his job, enjoyed being good at it (in his book he claimed to have “loved killing”) and lapped up the legendary status he held amongst his fellow soldiers. He was so good his unit gave him a symbol – that of the cartoon character “The Punisher” – and all adopted, stencilling it on their hardware, in an effort to frighten the opposition. It worked: Kyle had a huge bounty placed on his head by the enemy.

The film doesn’t present a racist serial killer, nor an arrogant psychopath, and it probably portrays Kyle as more humble than he was, but as a clinical examination of how a great soldier (and in particular a Navy SEAL) is made, what a sniper does, how the door-to-door searches that made up so much of the Iraq War worked, and of the intricacies of what may be thought of as relatively mild PTSD (but strong enough to be dangerous and debilitating), the film is winning on all counts. Like 2014’s Fury, it is more of a war film than an anti-war film; Kyle is our protagonist, we’re meant to like him, and he takes out Iraqis, and sometimes when he does, we’re kind of meant to cheer. Don’t forget that Eastwood is a deep Republican, and the film has that sensibility – and yet it’s neither insulting nor off-putting, and it’s not racist. It’s a serious story told with steely conviction, and if its politics are a little right of my comfort level, its obvious cinematic benefits are right in my wheelhouse.

Cooper is fantastic. His performance is totally precise. The gradations he and Eastwood have chosen to show – of Kyle’s character, personality and disease – are perfectly graded. We really get a sense of a full man, and if that isn’t exactly the man Chris Kyle was, it’s certainly an indelible movie character. Sienna Miller provides strong support as his wife Taya; beyond her, there are a bunch of dudes playing soldiers, who all do fine, if predictable, work. Which is probably how it is: amongst a lot of guys who are all a little alike, Chris Kyle obviously stood out.

Into-the-Woods-banner***1/2 (out of five)

For many, many musical theatre aficionados, Into The Woods is a master work, one of the best pieces by the best maestro, being Stephen Sondheim, the anti-populist, intellectual, “difficult” composer and lyricist. Into The Woods is one of his biggies, featuring excellent music and songs, strong characters, and a clever storyline that subverts a bunch of fairytales. Huge in scale – there’s a witch, a giant, a castle or two, a cow, magic beans, a wolf and an awful lot of woods – it’s long been ripe for cinematic treatment.

Rob Marshall’s adaptation is straightforward and respectful. Since the material itself is slyly subversive, there’s no need to subvert it in the transition from stage to screen; all that is necessary is to flesh it out, fill the screen with it, and Marshall’s done that. Thus The Witch (Meryl Streep) can get up to all manner of creepy manoeuvres, the beans can burst skyward as a thundering, towering beanstalk, the giant can look like a giant and her footsteps can cause the shattering of a castle tower.

There is one shrieking element of total theatricality: The Wolf (Johnny Depp) doesn’t look like a wolf, he looks like Johnny Depp with some whiskers. It’s an odd choice and clashes with Steep’s effective witchiness, the giant’s giantism, and the cow, which is mainly played by a real cow. Depp comes and goes early and is pretty much forgotten by the end, which is just as well; his episode is the film’s least compelling.

The best character is Cinderella, and Anna Kendrick is sublime. She’s got a terrific song on the castle steps that is full of humour and nuance. Kendrick is bagging all the great singing-on-screen roles, from her franchise (Pitch Perfect) to her upcoming two-hander The Last Five Years, Jason Robert Brown’s excellent musical. She deserves to. She sings beautifully and you believe her singing; even as she sings along to her own recordings (as they did on this one, as opposed to the “live” singing of Les Miserables) you can see her lower lip trembling in vibrato. She’s a perfect Cinderella.

Also terrific is Emily Blunt as The Baker’s Wife. She outshines The Baker, James Cordon, and fans will be bummed to see one of his big numbers cut. Mostly, though, the songs are all there, unlike the recent Annie, which bombed the Dresden out of its own source material. Meryl’s fine – in that Meryl Streep way of “fine” meaning typically excellent – but my Musical Theatre Expert, who accompanied me to the screening I saw, said that she didn’t own the role – and the singing – as it has been owned by Bernadette Peters on stage and in a famous PBS filmed stage recording. My Musical Theatre Expert did single out young Daniel Huttlestone, as Jack (as in, “…and the beanstalk”) and even applauded after one of his big numbers.

Everything is very competent and it’s all good fun. It doesn’t seem to have any raison d’être except that, perhaps, someone finally got the money together to make it. It doesn’t comment on our age, doesn’t offer a bold new perspective, and doesn’t feature any particular “star” performance. But if it only exists for Sondheim fans, it exists well for them. Supposedly the man himself is happy with it, and so he should be. It treats his work with complete reverence, respect, and love.

****1/2 (out of five)

Birdman-Movie-Poster-KeatonBirdman, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s fantasia on celebrity, persona, art, criticism, family and, more than anything, theatre, is so kinetic and percussive that I left the cinema giddy with excitement. It’s like a roller-coaster for cinephiles: working mainly in the confined spaces of a Broadway theatre, González, in an echo of Hitchcock’s Rope, makes the film appear to be, with the exception of book-ending scenes, one, enormously long continuous shot. Rope was set in an apartment but Birdman’s theatre setting has many rooms, long corridors, and, of course, the stage, so it has tremendous dynamism; Hitchcock was confined to elegant dolly moves but González and his cinematographer, (the great) Emmanuel Lubezki, have all of Steadicam’s mobility combined with CGI faux edits. Combined with a purely drummed score and huge swathes of rapid-fire, crackling dialogue, the film is a ride.

Its big theme is career crisis and personal validation, but its big thrill is how wonderfully it gets across the realities of backstage life. The theatre where superhero movie star Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is producing, directing and starring in a self-adapted play of a famous Raymond Carver short story, the St. James, is grimy, worn in, claustrophobic and dilapidated, and the stuff of theatre actor’s dreams. It is the biggest character in the movie and thoroughly loveable. Its beating heart is reflected in the many backstage workers always on the edges of the frame or scooting through it; some we understand what they’re doing, some we don’t, but they’re as lived in as the theatre, Broadway unionised techs and mechs with all the lingo. “Break a leg, Mr. Thomson” says one as Riggan rushes to an onstage call. In theatre, you don’t not address the star, but you do call them by their last name.

Being so hectic, the film may wear out some, and some may find its characters simply too self-involved to appeal, but anyone with a taste for the theatre, the craft of acting, or Broadway itself will be in their element. The film restricts itself so much to the interior of the St. James and the immediate buildings around it that when it even moves a couple of blocks away it feels too spacious: we become accustomed to – indeed briefly addicted to – the close quarters of the theatre and its environs, and when we’re away from them feel adrift, because we miss that heartbeat.

An ensemble cast, lead by Keaton but by no means dominated by him, are all terrific. Ed Norton has the showiest role as a toast-of-Broadway actor who is both insufferable and legitimately brilliant; Naomi Watts once again nails a really tough challenge: playing an actress who has a role just slightly beyond her abilities, she shows us that actress’s limitations – in other words, she does some really good “bad acting”. Andrea Riseborough shows huge vulnerability (and the ability to play American) and Lindsay Duncan gets a meaty slice of an appearance as the New York Times Theatre critic. But the performance that leaps off the screen the most is that of Emma Stone; playing Keaton’s daughter, she is by turns irritating, exasperating, mysteriously compelling and ultimately moving. Stone has an extraordinary look but she has never been shot so well as she is here; Lubezki has brought out her otherworldliness (those eyes!) more than any other cinematographer, and in many scenes she is a startling presence.

Rope, in keeping with its conceit of appearing to be one take, took place in real time, whereas Birdman, while borrowing the conceit, actually takes place over four or five days and nights. Some may call its methods of achieving such temporal elasticity magic realism or stylisation; I think that the film simply plays by its own rules. It is hugely ambitious, rambunctious, loud and thrilling; it takes risks at every step, and while not all pay off, most do in spades. It’s not always funny but when it is, it’s hilarious. It is also highly original – and that always deserves credit. Maybe it’s not a masterpiece, but it’s definitely a wonder.

**1/2 (out of five)The-Imitation-Game-Quad-poster-Benedict-Cumberbatch1

Spoiler Warning: this article refers to historical details that also form major plot points in “The Imitation Game”.

The Imitation Game is a tough customer. It’s clumsily directed and badly written, yet features two outstanding elements: a great lead performance and a truly heartbreaking story spine.

The story – which is also the tragedy – of WWII Enigma-code breaking British mathematician Alan Turing is spectacular, as story and tragedy. In a pithy pitch: he saved his country, and then his country castrated him. Literally. The injustice of Turing’s treatment, both as a hero but even were he the most insignificant citizen of Britain, is outrageous – in that it fills one with rage. This is the story of one of the twentieth century’s most disgusting personal betrayals.

Before that, though, it is the story of the breaking of a code, and that story is poorly told here. Just as Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) routinely yells at people about his work, “You couldn’t possibly understand!”, so too the director and screenwriter, Morten Tyldum and Graham Moore, obviously figure we can’t either, so they don’t bother telling us how the code was cracked. Instead, they dolly up an awful lot of dramatically inert scenes – some embarrassingly attempting to be “screwball funny” – to pad the journey to the Eureka! moment, which, when it comes, is dreadfully trite (it happens in a pub, as a co-incidence, and it’s bad).

The stuff that comes after that is the most dramatically fascinating but is given truly surprisingly short shrift. Turing’s persecution for his sexuality was abominable – as were the laws of the time – and the stuff of great drama, but they’re practically thrown away here. We could have done with far fewer scenes of Turing and his fellow code-breakers at the pub (!) while plodding along in their laborious work, and much more Turing in later life. Where, for instance, is the story’s most dramatic scene – that of Turing being offered a choice of prison or castration? It’s not on screen, but relegated to a single line of expositional dialogue: a completely bizarre and dunderheaded choice.

Better are scenes of a young Turing (Alex Lather, doing a wicked boy Benedict) discovering young love at school. These sequences, feeling very Another Country, are the best written and directed in the film, and unfortunately show up how obvious, expositional and clunky the rest of the dialogue is, and how unenthusiastically it’s shot. There is no directorial stamp in evidence from Tyldum; the film looks and sounds like any semi-fine British TV drama, with visual effects that are unconvincing, a mise en scene that is too crisp and familiar, and supporting performances that are only about plot, and never about character.

What it has, is Cumberbatch, and he single-handedly raises the material to watchable. Despite being burdened with some horrible dialogue and an unsubtly written character, Cumberbatch, like all very good actors, finds his own way in, and at least presents the semblance of an inner life. It’s not a showy performance but it’s consistent and true – it has integrity, and he makes Turing, who was obviously a very strange man, believable. Unfortunately, this shows up how unbelievable the others appear. Good actors such as Charles Dance and Matthew Goode are left hanging by single-dimension roles (Dance is particularly awful, essentially playing Tywin Lannister in a Naval uniform) while Keira Knightley, although cute and sparky, has been directed as though she’s in a RomCom. Only Mark Strong, who now possesses the Nicest Voice In Movies, makes it out with any class as the MI6 honcho running the operation from the shadows (and who is introduced lurking in the shadows – it is that kind of movie).

It’s hard to make the workings of the scientific mind dramatic, but unfortunately The Imitation Game doesn’t even try. That’s a double shame because this will no doubt stand as the film about Turing for many years; in a year full of formally bold and invigorating films such as Boyhood, Birdman, Locke, Force Majeure, Nightcrawler, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Under The Skin, the very conventional and indeed old-fashioned – and old hat – Imitation Game, at least as of this writing, is considered a front-runner for the Best Picture Oscar. I shouldn’t be surprised.