Saturday, 17 January 2015

Foxcatcher (12) | Film Review

Foxcatcher, dir. Bennett Miller, wr. E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman, st. Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Vanessa Redgrave, Sienna Miller

Much has been made of Carell's career-turning performance in Miller's film, based on the true story of billionaire John du Pont and his unhealthy interest in the wrestling brothers Mark and Dave Schultz, with many drawing comparison with Robin Williams' turn as Sy Parrish in Mark Romanek's One Hour Photo. Like Williams, albinoed and asexualised, Carell too has undergone a drastic physical transformation. With his peculiarly strained voice and narrowed, piercing eyes staring out over an impressive nasal prosthetic, Carell's du Pont is a truly memorable eccentric. Predictably, this has proved irresistible to this year's Academy who have awarded him with a nomination, albeit curiously in the lead rather than supporting category. Limbering up in the remaining two corners of this tragic triumvirate is Channing Tatum as Mark, a hulking and near mute mass of detached stoicism and Mark Ruffalo as his brother Dave, a markedly more genial family man, the pair united in their love for each other, their sport, and a shared simian stroll. Miller's film actually plays at times more like a gothic horror than biopic. Du Pont's vast mansion is ornate and deserted apart from the ghostly presence of du Pont's wheelchair-bound, horse-trainer Mother Jean (Redgrave) who disapproves of her son's interest in wrestling, and the grounds upon which she keeps her beloved horses are seemingly unending and primordial. When Mark moves on-site to train, he's given a well-kitted outhouse in which to reside but told the main house is "off-limits". At one point, du Pont orders a tank, seemingly on a whim, but becomes petulantly enraged when it arrives without the quoted mounted gun-gimbal. There is, Miller patently knows, nothing so chilling as observing an unbalanced man's unpredictability. There is, obviously, a fine line between artistically floating mere whispers of reason for the purposes of retention of mystery, and leaving a character half-baked and unresolved, and as recently seen in Clint Eastwood's American Sniper, this can prove unsatisfying. Here however, ably supported by a quietly tense and unsettling score from Rob Simonsen and West Dylan Thordson, this emerges a thoughtful if rather grim character study of obsession and loneliness.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Whiplash (15) | Film Review

Whiplash, dir/wr. Damien Chazelle, st. Miles Teller, J. K. Simmons, Paul Resier

"Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work", wrote Gustave Flaubert; such is the methodology and ambition of Andrew Neiman (Teller), an attendee of the prestigious Schaffer Conservatory, and burgeoning genius jazz-drummer, plucked from the chilled-out disorder of a beta jazz ensemble and dropped into the grinder of the pro Schaffer Studio Band, run with autocratic ferocity by Terence Fletcher (Simmons). Hollywood's thematically scholastic oeuvre is littered with kindly teachers, mentors, supporters and enablers, enlightened adults coaxing their wards to seize the day or play the sunset. At Schaffer, Fletcher's having none of that. He goads, provokes, and abuses his students to higher planes, dragging them kicking, screaming, and bleeding out of mediocrity and into arenas of brilliance. "There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'Good Job'", he declares. For his part, Neiman is desperate to succeed, partly, we glean, from a genuine interest in the subject, and partially, from one revealing scene around the family dinner table, due to the indifference to him and his art by family and friends. At its core, Whiplash, based in part on writer/director Chazelle's autobiographical experiences, isn't so much a tale of talent-nurturing as it is an age-old fable of embattled wills, with student and teacher cyclically and vociferously feeding off each other's rule and distress, Fletcher's haranguing urging Neiman to push himself painfully, bloodily on, and in the course of it, allowing Fletcher to see how far in that case he can dial it up. This isn't aspiration and desire conceived as something beautiful and organic, it's a traumatic thirst, a near sickness for success. Teller, a natural real-life drummer, gives an exhaustive and exhausting performance as Neiman, a frenzied mass of frustrated capability, and Simmons, a recent recipient of a Golden Globe for his role, reveals real nuanced sociopathy, and emerges as one of the most compelling cinematic antagonists of the year past. The music - original and standard - is, of course, breathlessly mesmeric in the same way Clint Mansell's augmentation of Tchaikovsky laid a sonic bedrock for Aronofsky's Black Swan, a film that Whiplash unconsciously covets right up to and including its deliciously delirious finale. It won't seem like it at the time necessarily, curiously, as the characters and narration are just too absorbing, but Whiplash's musings on the cost of genius will inevitably play on your mind. A palpable hit then and a surefire winner in some capacity at this year's Academy Awards ceremony next month, but to be fair any film that ekes the most remarkable tension and catharsis from a nine-minute drum solo has my vote.

Monday, 12 January 2015

American Sniper (15) | Film Review

American Sniper, dir. Clint Eastwood, wr. Jason Hall, based on American Sniper by Chris Kyle, Scott McEwen, Jim DeFelice, st. Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Max Charles, Luke Grimes

Here's a question: to what extent do filmmakers have an obligation to historical accuracy? What about Mel Gibson's Braveheart, a commercial success upon release, nowadays having had its flagrant errors well and truly documented? Or Argo, recipient of seven nominations and winner of three at the 85th Academy Awards, similarly exposed for its artistic licence? "Forget the facts, just tell a story", some might say. After all, who cares? It's just a movie, right? One possible answer might be that it depends on the story being told. That William Wallace came from aristocracy and not farmstead peasantry as Braveheart might have you believe arguably troubles few but History academics. But when you're dealing with perceptions of war and the assignation of the enemy to a particular country or culture, issues that arose yet again only last week, surely there does exist an obligation to report fact and refrain from muddying already murky waters. 

Which brings us to Clint Eastwood's American Sniper, based in part upon Navy Seal Chris Kyle's own autobiography. Here, Eastwood mercifully soft-peddles the kind of saccharine histrionics of the kind that plagued the inexplicably acclaimed Million Dollar Baby, choosing instead to follow a relatively straight-forward biopic-narrative that sees young Kyle, conditioned by his church-going, stick-wielding Father, to see humanity as compartmentalised as sheep, wolves, or sheep-dogs, an indoctrination that ties neatly into the kind of blind patriotism revered as scripture by Kyle himself. Assuming the role of grand protector then, Kyle enlists and ends up being awarded the spuriously celebrated title of Most Lethal Sniper in US History after four tours in the Iraq War. Kyle, the film shows us, grows gradually more and more dissociative with every shore leave back home, his wife Taya (Miller) growing increasingly frustrated with his isolation and, as she sees it, misplaced loyalties. Miller and Cooper actually give rather detailed and credible performances, and Eastwood proves ever the proficient filmmaker at the grand age of 84, even if some of the intense, thick-of-it battle sequences are nothing we haven't seen before on an episode of Homeland. The problem lies in the depiction of Kyle himself, a man who by his own admission, described killing as "fun" and something he "loved" to do, as well as displaying a near sociopathic fervent zeal in going about his work. His private security firm, Craft International, features as its logo, a deaths-head skull bearing the motto, "Despite what your momma told you... violence does solve problems." All that isn't exactly in keeping with Eastwood's portrayal of Kyle as a man in pain, a reluctant hero, a rational patriot. A better film, one that really sought to question the validity of war and that explored the debilitating effect the training and conditioning process might have on young men and women, might have included more of Chris Kyle than what Eastwood deigns us to see. As it is, by the time American Sniper's credits roll over stock footage of his 200-mile funeral procession across Interstate 35, lined by hundreds of mourners, a moment scored by yearning bugle-led orchestrations, any disclosure of the complexity of the man is, sadly, forgotten.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

The One I Love (tbc) | Film Review

The One I Love, dir. Charlie McDowell, wr. Justin Lader, St. Elizabeth Moss, Mark Duplass, Ted Danson

A neat little dissection on the versions of ourselves we reveal to others, and the versions of others we covet more than others, Charlie McDowell's two-hander gets off to a cracking, ingeniously intriguing start and, for the most part, sustains its tricksy premise without too much unravelling. In an attempt to restore their flagging marriage, Ethan (Duplass, threatening to wrestle the title from Chris Messina by being in "fucking everything") and Sophie (Moss) are packed off by their therapist (Danson) to an idyllic countryside retreat in order to reconnect. On arriving, the rekindling begins in earnest, thanks in part to what they discover in the retreat's guest cottage. To say more, even to muse upon the various genres that The One I Love shrewdly riffs upon, would be saying too much. Suffice to say that what might have been style over content, an elaborate napkin-scrawled premise, never truly possessing the weight of its own lofty ambitions, actually transpires to be a rather poignant and at times rather solemnly perecptive meditation on therapy, its effectiveness, and the effects of its self-administering. Moss in particular is always good at these kind of close-quarter relationship illustrations and Duplass too makes for an endearingly goofy other half, but the true terrifying investment of The One I Love may come from thinking about the one you love and assessing your capacity for compromise. It's not pretty for sure, but that's indeed the film's charming insidiousness. 

Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) (15) | Film Review

Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others), dir/wr. Florian Henkel von Donnersmarck, st. Ulrich Mühe, Martina Gedeck, Sebastian Kock, Ulrich Tukur

When Minister for Culture Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme) forms an unctuous crush on the girlfriend of celebrated playwright Georg Dreyman in 1984's GDR, he assigns the Stasi responsibility for placing his home under surveillance in the hope that something may be discovered that'll give him legitimacy to have him removed from the equation. The Stasi official assigned to the attic above Dreyman's apartment, where he obsessively listens in and meticulously logs every detail of his mark's life, is Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler, played with touching stoicism by the late Ulrich Mühe. Wiesler is a true patriot, a man who's horrified to discover his mission is the result of Hempf's grubby infatuation and his boss Anton Grubitz (Tukur) views it only as an opportunity for advancement through the ranks. Disillusioned but impotent to defy his superiors, Wiesler conscientiously sets about his task monitoring Dreyman, and slowly uncovers the potential fallibility in everything he's been brought up to hold dear. Von Donnersmarck's remarkable film unfolds at a glacial pace, helmed by a reserved and immaculate portrayal by Mühe as a man who begins as the bogeyman under the bed, and ends up as the guardian angel overhead, a rare protagonist in the motion picture industry - someone who doesn't tirelessly, endlessly talk, but intently listens. It helps, of course, that the sense of period and terrifying political environment is superbly realised, and that cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski goes all out in de-romantiscising the palette with dour greens and greys. Recipient of the 2006 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, The Lives of Others, especially in this time of increasing concern at state surveillance, is unreservedly, most essential viewing.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (15) | Film Review

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu, wr. Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., Armando Bo, st. Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough, Emma Stone, Amy Ryan, Naomi Watts

Miffed that Robert Downey, Jr. seems to be nigh on the only actor earning credible critical acclaim and public adulation for his portrayal of a superhero, fading Hollywood star Riggan Thomson played with fatigued frustration by Michael Keaton, once besuited himself in Tim Burton's 1989 Batman, decides to mount a production of Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love on Broadway, assisted by his rehabbing daughter Sam (Stone), produced by his best friend Jake (Galifianakis), and co-starring his girlfriend Laura (Riseborough), in order to validate himself to an audience whose approval he craves and a psyche whose ego hangs in tatters. Aided by a tremendous turn by Edward Norton as Mike, a brilliant but volatile actor who joins the production in its previews (and does his fair share of thunder and daughter-stealing), Birdman broods much on the nature of celebrity, the restless desire for approval, and the illusory deception of reinvention, all packaged in an aptly stagey production (ostensibly shot in one take by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki) that glides us around the secret backstages and roofs of theatres and down populated sidewalks and squares. It is, undoubtedly a technical marvel, and Keaton taps hitherto unseen reserves of neuroses and mania that reminds us just how much of a beat-perfect comic actor he can be. Stone too amps up the tetch as a doting but similarly frustrated ex-addict, wooed and swooned by Norton's Mike, a method-man whose rapid-fire delivery of the text, often out-Sorkining Sorkin, is a perfect verbal accompaniment to the spinning, unrelenting choreography of González Iñárritu's lens. Ultimately though, Birdman is a film that invests too much in the supposed coherence of is message. There's precious little in the way of understanding just what makes Riggan tick or how his tragic unravelling began. Instead, we are compelled to fill in the gaps ourselves, dazzled by subtle in-camera trickery, or overwhelmed by purportedly whip-smart dialogue. The result is a film that merely flits overhead when it should truly soar.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

The Equalizer (15) | Film Review

The Equalizer, dir. Anton Fuqua, scr. Richard Wenk, based on The Equaliser by Michael Sloan, Richard Lindheim, st. Denzel Washington, Marton Csokas, Chloë Grace Moretz, David Harbour, Melissa Leo, Bill Pullman

Poor Robert McCall. All he wants to do is leave his Special Forces past behind him and wallow in his spartan monk-like existence of literature and insomnia but dammit people keep needing his help. If it's not Ralph, his portly colleague at the hardware wholesalers where the two work, who's trying to lose the pounds to become a security guard, it's Grace Moretz' sex-trafficked teenager Alina, repeatedly on the receiving end of her pimp Slavi's violent temper. Very loosely based on the 1985 CBS TV show of the same name, The Equalizer clearly strives for loftier ambitions than the average revenge-drama. Watching Washington's reluctant hero slice and dice his way through a Eurovision of European scumbags, it suddenly becomes clear what the vigilante movie means to Hollywood. It's its way of having it's cake and eating it. Look, it says, we get it. Violence is never the answer. Only sometimes, you know, it is. But only at the hands of someone who's intrinsically non-violent. And Grace Moretz may very well be a feminist who won't play the plot device, but... that's exactly what she's doing here. Alina is bona fide 100% pure victim. Somewhere in an alternate cut, there's more than the whisper we see of her in the film's first act, but for a motive for violence that purports to be all about rescuing her innocence, she's curiously absent for most of the movie. And further maddeningly, Washington and Grace Moretz are really rather good, who in between the latter's hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold closet-songstress cliché, and the former's killing machine with a code, who may read Hemingway's The Old Man And The Sea, but won't hesitate to put a shot-glass through your eye histrionics, share some rather genuinely soulful moments. Too humourless to trouble the likes of Brian Helgeland's Payback, that subversively recasts the vigilante as a incorrigible do-badder, and too disinterested to fully immerse itself in its own thematic murky waters of human trafficking, The Equalizer is just another 80s beat-'em-up shrouded in the veil of contemporary morality.