Monthly Archives: January 2015

American Sniper (2014)

Another week, another Oscar contender. This time we have acclaimed director Clint Eastwood teaming up with Bradley Cooper in this film based on the autobiography by Chris Kyle.

American Sniper is the story of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) the deadliest marksman in U.S. military history. We follow Kyle as he goes through four tours while being hunted by the enemy snipers and the effect war has on his family back home.

This is a tense and thrilling movie throughout. The opening scene in particular had my nerves on edge as Kyle has to make a decision no one would ever want to be in. Clint Eastwood directs the movie well as Kyle is repeatedly sent back into danger. And as his reputation as the best American sniper gets bigger, so does the danger he finds himself in. You’re getting everything from the soldier’s view, where you don’t know what’s around the corner, if the people you meet are friend or foe and you only have a moment to make a call that can be life or death for you and your team.The film doesn’t feel like it’s trying to preach, instead it tries to show what combat is like in the eyes of a sniper. We’re told that killing is what he is good at. He has to kill to protect the soldiers but what toll can that take to a person?

Bradley Cooper is more known for his comedy roles like The Hangover then in serious films. Although we’ve seen him take on dramas before like Silver Linings Playbook, that was still a comedy in places. American Sniper puts Cooper in full drama mode and he puts in a great performance. I know there’s been some debate about whether he should be in the Best Actor category when many other actors got snubbed (and yes I would have preferred Jake Gyllenhaal’s disturbing performance in Nightcrawler to have gotten recognition over some of the actors who got the nod instead). However his performance here is strong and he captures his character well. Torn between his family and his duty to his country but doesn’t stray into cliché territory (just about).

Sienna Miller finally gets a role where she is not just the pretty girlfriend. Her character actually seems like she has a personality, and just about manages to stop her going into ‘nagging wife’ territory that these biopic about men seem to love painting women in.

While I was mostly engaged in this film, by the time it got to Kyle’s fourth tour I was feeling, like his wife, that it’s probably about time he goes back home and let this come to an end. For those who are looking for the film to give a wider view on the War on Terror this does not really offer debate or contemplation. This is war seen through the eyes of one man and this film makes no apologies for that.

Rating 4/5 – an exhilarating and satisfyingly tense thriller

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Whiplash (2014)

One of the dark horses in the Oscar race this year, Whiplash has been wowing critics all over, with particularly praise going to J.K. Simmons performance. But will it have the same effect on me?

Andrew (Miles Teller) is a first year student at a prestigious music school. After hearing him play one evening, conductor Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) accepts him as a drummer for his band. However Fletcher’s methods for conducting his students are unconventional to say the least and physically and emotionally abusive at worse. As Andrew strives to prove to Fletcher he’s the best drummer he has to decide whether Fletcher’s tactics work and at what cost?

It’s not often I see a movie that I can’t get out of head for days after I’ve seen it but Whiplash is one such film. Writer/Director Damien Chazelle has made a movie that could possibly become a modern classic. It is that good.

That’s not to say that Whiplash is an easy film to watch. At times Fletcher was so horrible to his students that I was covering my eyes like I do in a horror film. Whilst categorised as a drama film, I’ve seen comparisons to sports movies, and I can see the similarities. The ongoing battle between Fletcher and Andrew can feel like a boxing match, with Fletcher constantly displaying his dominance and Andrew just doing his best not to get knocked out entirely. At times the movie can be pretty funny too, there’s a lot of dark humour here. What I also liked was that the film provokes a lot of discussion and debate about the methods Fletcher uses. He seems to be of the end-justifies-the-means school of thought, but doesn’t seem to care about the repercussions of what he does to his students. And if he does happen to produce a genius from his methods does that make what he does ok? I don’t think so, but I can imagine others may see it differently.

It’s no wonder that J.K. Simmons won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor. After spending years in the background in small character roles Simmons finally gives a wider audience a chance to show what he can do. Fletcher is at times monstrous but Simmons never hams it up. The character is grounded, he feels terrifyingly real. Like the worst teacher you’ve ever had multiplied by a thousand. Yet at times we see a softer side to him. You’re never quite sure whether he is being genuine and that makes for an interesting antagonist.

While I’m glad that J.K. Simmons has been getting a lot of deserved praise it’s a shame that Miles Teller has been rather neglected this award season, however he has been nominated for the BAFTA Rising Star Award so at least he has not been completely ignored. Teller plays the part of Andrew just right. At times he is the victim and at other times a self-entitled brat that treats his girlfriend (Melissa Benoist – soon to be Supergirl in a new tv series). You can really see Teller putting everything into his performance as Andrew fights blood, sweat and tears (literally) to keep up with Fletcher’s demands.

Is it a perfect film? Maybe not. The anecdote about Charlie Parker that Fletcher uses as his reason for why he pushes his students so far has been long been discredited. Also if you prefer a film about nice, likeable people, this isn’t one of them. And if it were, it would be a far less interesting and compelling movie for it.

Rating 5/5 – a brilliant movie with two leads who spar off each other perfectely

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Foxcatcher (2014)

Who knew there was so much drama behind the scenes of Olympic wrestling. Based on a true story Foxcatcher has seen Oscar nominations for actors Steve Carell and Mark Ruffalo as well as for director Bennett Miller, can this movie live up to the hype?

Brothers Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) are both US Olympic Wrestlers, however Mark feels overshadowed by his older brother Dave. When Mark is contacted by billionaire John E. du Pont (Steve Carell) to his farm, he offers Mark to join his private wrestling team, “Team Foxcatcher” (after his land Foxcatcher Farm), Mark sees an opportunity to make something for himself away from his brother. However Du Pont’s eccentric behaviour becomes more disturbed as time goes on, and when Dave joins the coaching of Team Foxcatcher, things becomes out of control.

Foxcatcher is one of those stories in which you can’t believe you haven’t heard of it before. Or at least I hadn’t. This a well made film, full of tense atmosphere and great performances. It’s mostly a drama but with Carell’s Du Pont menacingly hanging around the edges and circling the Schultz brothers it comes across like a thriller at times. The cast is strong all round, but Carell is the performance you will remember after watching the movie.

However there has been some controversy over the making of this film with the real Mark Schultz angrily disputing some elements of the movie. With that in mind you wonder whether interactions between Mark and Du Pont are as accurate as its portrayed in the movie. It also felt slow at the beginning and ends rather abruptly after the climax of Du Pont’s actions. Also while the movie is good, it’s doesn’t stand out as much as the other movies around this award season.

Rating 3.5/5 – three fine performances grounds this true crime drama

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Into The Woods

An all-star cast lead this adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim’s award-winning Broadway musical, but will I be singing its praises?

To lift an infertility curse a baker and his wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt) are set a challenge to bring four items to the  witch who put the curse on them (Meryl Streep). Their task intertwines with the tales of Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), who are all wishing for their lives to change. But as the saying goes, they should be careful what they wish for.

I haven’t had a movie song stuck in my head this much since The Lego Movie’s Everything is Awesome, unfortunately while the title song Into The Woods starts off fun and entertaining it soon becomes a bit boring and irritating as it goes on far too long. Much like the film itself.

Maybe I’m being a bit harsh but at 124 minutes this movie is much too long. The first half of the movie is fine. Corden and Blunt are sweet as the Baker and his wife, and Blunt has a lovely singing voice. The film looks great and I love the costume, especially Johnny Depp’s wolf costume. Speaking of Depp, he is a lot of fun as The Wolf, but his role is basically a glorified cameo. I liked Cinderella’s story with Kendrick being as likeable as ever and Chris Pine is hilarious as her charming Prince. His duet with his brother (Billy Magnussen as Rapunzel’s Prince) is one of the highlights of the movie. And Meryl Streep is, well Meryl Streep-what else needs to be said she’s great.

Ok so Little Red Riding Hood and Jack are fairly annoying and Rapunzel disappears halfway through the movie making her character a bit redundant. But for the most part the first half is enjoyable enough.

However just as it seems the movie is reaching its natural conclusion when characters reach their happy ever after, the film then goes on for an extra half hour or so. I’m not against fairy tales having a darker side, in fact I enjoy that kind of thing (such as earlier in the movie when the Stepmother uses unusual techniques to get her daughters to fit into the glass slipper). But this ‘darker’ half of the movie just fell rather flat for me. The fun and humour from the first half disappears and the second half never feels as bold or subversive as the movie wishes it was. Perhaps its due to the changes from the original stage version, where some of the darker moments are cut from the film.

Rating 3/5 – a good first part gives way to a duller ‘darker’ second half that outstays it welcome

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The Theory of Everything

The Theory of Everything has been a success critically and has recently received a Golden Globe for its leading man Eddie Redmayne. But is the film really worth all the awards and critical applause?

In 1963 young,astrophysics Cambridge University student Stephen Hawkins meets fellow student Jane Wilde at a party and fall in love. However Stephen is soon diagnosed with motor neuron disease and is told he has two years to live but Jane refuses to give up on him or their relationship. With Jane’s help Stephen not only manages to live beyond his life expectancy but become a world-renowned physicist.

The Theory of Everything is well made and directed but this film is really about the two lead performances. I was a bit dubious before how Eddie Redmayne was going to transform convincingly into Hawkins but he is brilliant in the role. It’s not only a physically demanding role as Redmayne contorts his body like Hawkins but he also excels at showing how the disease takes an emotional toll on Hawkins. After a while I forgot it was Redmayne in the role.

Taking nothing away from Redmayne but the person myself and others were raving about when we left the cinema was Felicty Jones as Jane Wilde. It could so easily have been written as another ‘wife of’ role that has been seen so many times in biopic like this -you know, the barely two-dimensional supporting/nagging wife of a brilliant man. However this film is as much about Jane as it is about Hawkings (perhaps not so surprising once you realise the film was based on Jane’s book Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen). Jones is superb, going from determined and loved up young girl to the exhausted wife of a brilliant but frustrating man. It may not be a showy role Jones simple dazzles on-screen and brings real empathy to her role.

Some people may find themselves wanting to know more about Hawking’s work and theories but I liked that the film focused on this amazing couple who achieved extraordinary things through their determination and love.

Rating 4/5 – a lovely British filmwith two wonderful leading performances from Jones and Redmayne

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The Woman In Black: Angel of Death

Some ghosts just won’t rest will they-even with a war going on! Two years after The Woman In Black stormed the box office Hammer films is back with the sequel. But with no Daniel Radcliffe to bring the Potter fans in will this result in another dud horror sequel?

In the midst of World War Two, young children are being evacuated from London with their schoolteachers to Eel Marsh House, in the now-deserted town of Crythin Gifford. Young schoolteacher Eve (Phoebe Fox) starts to notice strange things about the house and sees a mysterious figure around the grounds. Could it be the work of the woman in black? (spoiler alert-yes)

Years ago I saw the theatre show of The Woman in Black and it scared the crap out of me (as well as gave me an irrational fear of rocking chairs), and I enjoyed the 2012 movie at lot. Sequels-especially horror sequels are normally a let down. Still The Woman In Black: Angel of Death at least give us a good reason why the protagonists have gone to Eel Marsh House. With the Second World War going on, the evacuees don’t really have their pick of places to go.

It’s not an exceptional sequel and the pace is a bit slow in places. Especially as the audience already know the secrets of Eel Marsh House and the ominous woman in black, so it’s a bit frustrating watching the characters trying to work out what is going on. Perspective love interest Harry (Jeremy Irvine) is also a little on the dull side with a not very interesting back story (although at least it does set some things up for the movie’s climax). But Eve makes for a sympathetic protagonist and Oaklee Pendergast is adorable as Edward, the young boy the woman in black wants in her clutches.

The film mainly works on effective scare jumps and glimpses of the woman in black. Luckily for a sequel the film doesn’t overuse her and rarely do we see her in close up. Horror movies like this tend to work best when the villain is not thrown in the audiences faces all the time-overuse is not scary.

Rating 3/5 – serviceable horror best enjoyed with a group of friends who enjoy a few jumps and scares

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Birdman (2014)

Actors and their egos can create strange things, and is explored in Alejandro Ganzalez Inarritu’s latest film. The director of 21 Grams and Babel leaves the intertwining, nonlinear stories for a single narrative. But does this change in direction make for an Oscar-worthy film?

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is an actor known for his role in the Birdman superhero movies. Days away from staring and directing in his own adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love on Broadway, Riggins starts to be tormented by the voice of Birdman. With extra grief coming from his recovering drug-addict daughter Sam (Emma Stone), critics out to destroy his play and the egos from his fellow actors, will Riggins play ever make it to opening night?

Two times Oscar-nominated Inarritu departs from his usual style with Birdman, and it may be one that could finally get him the Oscar trophy. Birdman is perhaps more straight forward than his other movies but that doesn’t mean he sits back and takes it easy. Birdman is shot in what is seemingly one continuous take, something used in movies such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, but it never distracts from the film or seems like a gimmick. Instead it gives the film a theatre like aspect as you are following the characters over the days in the lead up to opening night.

Inarritu has embedded his film with several accomplished actors who all gamely have the camera focused on their insecurities and egos. Even without the obvious winks to his Batman films Keaton is great. He is relishing every moment on-screen whether its roaming round New York City in his underwear or battling a half-naked Edward Norton as the fight over the spotlight. Just as Norton’s Mike threatens to steal the show from Riggan, Norton nearly steals the movie away from Keaton as the talented but destructive method theatre actor. His scenes with Stone are particularly good, as are Keaton’s with Stones, that show a bit more depth to their characters than they otherwise appear. Stone herself shows her character has more range than just the despondant daughter with daddy issues and a chip on her shoulder. Be interesting to see who is awarded with Oscar nominations on the night.

The film takes swipes at superhero movies (and their dominance over Hollywood), method actors, and critics alike. While it sometimes verges on being smug the film manages to balance this out with a dark sense of humour throughout. I’m  also not sure about the film’s final shot, and maybe the movie should have ended a bit earlier. Perhaps that’s something to reflect on in a second viewing.

Rating 4/5 – Beautifully shot and brilliantly cast, Birdman is a great Oscar front-runner

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