Son of a gun! When was the last time you heard anyone say that? It would fit right in with Julius Avery's film, which is full of equally clunky chunks of dialogue.
"Things are not what they seem," warns public enemy number one, Brendan, to prison newbie JR (Thwaites). Then he gets out a chess set and begins an unsubtle metaphor about thinking ahead of your opponent. "You can get checkmate in four," offers JR.
Taken under the convict's wing, the teen soon finds himself assisting in an escape and a heist. But can he really trust his mentor? Can he fit in with the hardened criminals? And who will win that all important game of chess?
Things unfold in a predictably unpredictable fashion, as JR's coming of age journey takes us from Starred Up-like jail time to Godfather-like gangster drama via film noir-like forbidden romance; a mix of genre tropes that sounds haphazard.
But things are not what they seem.
What could be cheesy or uneven on the page works surprisingly well on the screen, thanks to an excellent match of people in front of and behind the camera. Thwaites is ideal as the naive apprentice, ambitious but always looking slightly uncomfortable in his expensive leather jacket. Alicia Vikander is typically unrecognisable (and excellent) as token moll Tasha, torn between obeying orders and helping her lover.
It's Ewan McGregor, though, steals the show as the ruthless lawbreaker. It's a treat to see the actor play against type, complete with tattoos and facial hair. (Given the last time Ewan went full beard was Star Wars, seeing Obi-Wan shoot people is shockingly effective.) In fact, this feels like a return to form for the actor, who sinks his teeth into the meaty role with a physical presence he rarely displays - don't be surprised if you come out of the cinema thinking "McGregornaissance".
Avery, meanwhile, holds it all together with a pace that drives up the tension, even as the script threatens to veer off down a side road. He juggles aesthetics to match the changing tone, from the handheld indie opening that nails the oppressive claustrophobia of being behind bars to the riveting blockbuster-like escape sequence, complete with helicopter. His cast are with him every step, right down to the decision to retain Ewan's broad brogue accent, rather than try to emulate an Australian one; this is a film smart (and confident) enough to leave some questions unanswered, even as it spells out others a little too eagerly. Halfway between Hollywood and Australia, if this is a calling card for an upcoming filmmaker, it's an extremely gripping one. Checkmate? Not quite. But son of a gun, it's good.
Director: James Kent
Cast: Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington, Colin Morgan
Another British war movie marches on UK cinemas this month, but Testament of Youth brings a rousing new side of WWI to the screen. Based on the memoir of Vera Brittain, it arrives hot on the heels of The Imitation Game, yet couldn't be more different; this is poetry to its maths; literature to its science; female to its male.
While it might sound reductive to associate romantic verse with women, it's indicative of the time in which Vera lived. When she tells her parents (an enjoyably uptight Emily Watson and Dominic West) that she wants to go to Oxford instead of marry a fine, rich fellow, they strongly disapprove. But go she does, only to fall for Roland (Kit Harington), a friend of her brother (Kingsman's Taron Egerton), who shares her ambitions of becoming a professional writer. Inevitably, war breaks out - and Roland is shipped overseas, along with her brother and his friends.
Normally, at this point, we would follow the soldiers through the mud and blood of the trenches. But Testament of Youth lingers on British soil, as Vera struggles to cope with life - and a seemingly endless wave of loss. That oft-overlooked focus is what gives Testament of Youth, an otherwise tame movie, its emotional heft. Director James Kent shoots the period scenes solidly, but the cast elevates the movie above its practical presentation.
It helps that it is compromised of so many excellent young actors. Colin Morgan, Taron Egerton, Kit Harington and Jonathan Bailey all play the central men and their fresh faces only emphasise the tragedy of conflict. In the middle of it all, Alicia Vikander is breathtaking as Vera; beautiful, sad and almost trembling with a passion kept beneath the surface. Quitting Oxford to volunteer as a nurse, she is determined to match the male sacrifice on the field with a female act at home. The fact that we spend more time with her than on the front gives the occasional intrusions of brown and red on the bright domestic palette an impact that could well have been lacking from a more familiar tale. Indeed, Vera's seminal tale is less a war film (or even a wartime romance) and more a film about a woman striving to overcome the war; even Harington, Morgan and Vikander's love triangle, complete with letter-writing (that most perilous feature of period drama), manages to move.
By the end of WWI, as society appears not to have learned anything from the past four years, Vera delivers a heartfelt speech about grief, reconciliation and those left behind. It's undeniably stirring stuff.
Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller
American Sniper opens in the middle of a war zone, as Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle is faced with the decision to shoot a child or not. It's a sight that is familiar to anyone who has seen the trailer - a moment so striking and tense that Clint Eastwood even dares to repeat it again later in the film.
For Kyle, though, that's the essence of his existence: making the call on whether to pull the trigger or not. He lives for it - rather than living for his wife and kids. As a result, she weeps at home for her lost husband, while the men in Islamabad glorify him as a legend. You can see why: with 255 kills to his name, Kyle's accurate eye keeps countless Americans alive in Iraq. "The most lethal sniper in US military history", declares the trailer.
But Eastwood's account of Kyle's service isn't the pro-military movie it might be mistaken for: starting with his Bible-reading childhood and lessons in bullying from his dad, Jason Hall's script examines what makes a man want to become a killing machine. Bradley Cooper is unrecognisable as Chris, beefing up to play the cowboy with a mostly silent performance; compared to his fast-talking roles in American Hustle and The A-Team, Bradley becomes increasingly withdrawn, turning what starts out as a curious drama into a pained account of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Sienna Miller is equally superb as Taya, moving from flirtatious early romance to frustrated marriage. The pair work well together, selling their relationship over detached phone calls on Kyle's satellite phone, as he prepares to take another bad guy out. Eastwood presents the action with an immediacy that recalls Kathryn Bigelow's award-winning work with Jeremy Renner, keeping you on the edge of your seat without any gung-ho flourishes. It's an approach that gives events a deceptively complex air; Kyle may have the simplistic view of Iraqis as "savages", spurred on to ship out after seeing attacks on TV, but the movie is far from patriotic, paying as much, if not more, attention to psychological fallout as the movie's flag-waving finale.
The introduction of an enemy sniper may seem straight of an action movie playbook, but even his presence only serves to ramp up the tension - this is war as adrenaline, giving the audience a hit of the rush missing when Kyle's at home. Is he addicted the thrill? Haunted by those he couldn't save? Cooper's conflicted face is as sympathetic as it is sad. Think The Hurt Locker 2, in a good way.
Cooper spends his time with Miller and their baby staring at footage of kills on the telly, almost re-processing his experiences as video game-like entertainment. It's here that the bullets really fly. While Taya tends a kids' birthday party, Kyle perches, on edge, surveying the scene for potential risk; that opening scene stuck on a loop like a movie trailer he can't turn off.
Director: Bennett Miller
Cast: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo
Ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist. That's how John du Pont asks Mark Schultz to describe him in an awards speech. Taking the wrestler under his multi-million dollar wing, he invites Schultz into his world of status and superiority, one where such titles matter.
Ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist. Schultz chews up the words as he echoes them, stumbling over the syllables. John repeats the phrase, a teacher drilling it into his pupil. The temptation is to laugh at such a bizarre class divide, but Foxcatcher stops you before you can get there, instead leaving you with a creeping sense of unease about its true story.
The majority of that comes from Steve Carell. The word "unrecognisable" may have become an all too recognisable description for his role, but the comedian delivers everything unnervingly straight. Setting his sights on winning the 1988 Olympic games in Seoul, Carell's John stares at his seduced underling over his giant, hooked nose; part Roman Abramovich, part Dracula.
Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum's champion siblings are equally mesmerising. Tatum is brutal as the everyday contender, beating himself up over losses and failures, while he tries to meet the approval of his new benefactor. He isn't just a lunkhead; he lunks. He lunks about the ring. He lunks his head into a mirror. He lunks around on the sprawling du Pont estate, standing out against the opulence around him. Ruffalo, meanwhile, is generous to a fault, playing his kind-hearted brother with an understated air that gives Channing a chance to shine.
We first see them together in a practice session, grappling each other silently on the floor. Even without them saying a word, we learn everything we need to about their relationship, from David's loyalty to Mark's frustration at being in his older brother's shadow. They couldn't be more different to Carell's investor. Where they move fluidly together, he is awkward; where they come from average homes, he fills his halls with trophies and stuffed animals; where they have each other, he has his disapproving mother (a brilliantly cold Vanessa Redgrave).
The shifting dynamics of this unnatural trio becomes fascinating to observe - an examination of sports becoming corrupted by wealth and status. "You're a friend," he tells Mark, after he calls him Mr. du Pont. "My friends call me Eagle." Then he recruits David for a documentary about himself, ordering him to talk about how influential he is as a mentor.
The less things are played for humour, the scarier they become. How much of du Pont's actions are driven simply by a desire to have the brothers' intimacy, be it physical or emotional? Writers E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman hint at several factors behind his and Mark's bond, while Schultz seems equally keen to have a father figure, but there are no answers explicitly offered - even as things end in an unexpected final act.
Throughout, director Bennett Miller captures everything with a detached air reminiscent of his earlier Capote, letting events unfold slowly with no signposts or psychological insight. That clinical approach will leave many feeling uninvolved, but the lack of engagement only adds to the troubling nature of du Pont's behavour; weeks later, you'll still be haunted by it, puzzling over what happened. Ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist.
Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons
Jazz is all about timing. Many people think it's solely made up on the spot, any-which-way-you-fancy improv, but a large chunk of it is also written down. There are chord progressions, standard songs, time signatures. If you want to make it over the top - to become really, truly great - you first have to understand the rules of engagement. The question, though, is how you go about it.
No one knows the law of the battlefield like Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). The hardened conductor lords it over the Shaffer Conservatory's best big band with a fist of brass. Brass covered in blood. So when young pupil Andrew (Miles Teller) manages to sit on the group's coveted drum stool, he's determined to stay there - and Fletcher's determined to make him earn it.
How? Practice. You need to devote time so you can keep time - something that most films about music seem to forget. Usually, biopics present us with famous musicians who go through personal trials and tribulations, only to emerge the other side a fully-formed artist. It's a treat, then, to see a film about the practical nature of music, one that plays out like the messy underside of that artificial drum; the side with the snare on it.
"Are you rushing or dragging?" Fletcher interrogates Andrew, as they rehearse the titular track by Hank Levy. He asks over and over, like a drill sergeant auditioning for Full Metal Jacket: The Musical.
Simmons is terrifying, a wide-eyed brute whose foul-mouthed insults are as hilarious as they are intimidating. Anyone who has ever had a bullying music teacher - and (speaking from personal experience) they do exist, albeit not as extreme as this - will immediately recognise the fear of playing a wrong note and the disappointment of both letting your mentor down and, worse, yourself. But there is a universal intrigue to that process, the unseen way in which talent in any field develops - which, in Whiplash's hands, is arranged as a thrilling piece of physical, human drama. (In the words of Alan Partridge, crash, bang, wallop. What a video.)
Teller, who can play the drums in real life, is sensational as the eager student, a boy so focused that he shuts out all other concerns: family tensions and romantic dates are all ignored by him and the blinkered script follows suit. The only thing that matters here is the music.
Grimacing, laughing and sweating profusely, the young star is astonishing to watch in action - not only acting while playing the drums, but appearing out of sync believably enough to spark Fletcher's wrath. Together, the pair form a dazzling duet, riffing off each other, as Teller's drumming becomes tighter and their relationship changes key, from nasty humour to just plain nasty.
All the while, director Damien Chazelle keeps tempo - a breakneck metronome that, like Justin Hurwitz's score (including a selection of standards, such as Caravan), is a toe-tapping masterclass in precision. As Andrew gets better, pushed by this monster with a manuscript, Chazelle's camera shoots across the kit, bouncing off the hi-hat and toms with its own fascinating rhythm.
The pair, the screenplay reveals, are labouring under the (misunderstood) legend of Charlie Parker, who was given the push he needed to become Bird by Jo Jones lobbing a cymbal at his head. Aren't they missing the point altogether? After all, jazz needs soul as well as skill. It helps if all your body parts are intact too.
The director skilfully modulates the tone from unnerving comedy to sceptical horror, but the real crescendo occurs with the last movement, a blistering dash to the closing bar that finally throws all that rigid conducting out of the window and goes for a freewheeling rim-shot to the gut. Mention jazz to most people and they'll switch off, dismissing it as made-up noise. Whiplash, though, brings the house down every time. It's all about timing. And it doesn't miss a beat.
"Homeward bound, I wish I was… Home, where my thought's escaping. Home, where my music's playing…"
There's something about true stories of human endurance that we, as an audience, find rewarding. While those have often been tales of claustrophobic survival in extreme conditions - All Is Lost, 127 Hours - there have also been movies about personal journeys and self-imposed isolation: Into the Wild, Tracks and The Way. What's impressive about Wild is that it genuinely moves - and does so in its own way.
The film follows Cheryl Strayed, who decides to hike all the way up America's 1,100-mile Pacific Crest Trail - effectively from Mexico to Canada - on her own. Her reason? To get away from it all.
It all, we discover through a series of flashbacks, consists of everything from unwanted pregnancies and deceased relatives to failed marriages. While this litany of mistakes could be cheesy or trite, though, Nick Hornby's script - based on Cheryl's own memoirs - ensures that Wild's tale become one not of self-penitence but self-appreciation. The decision to approach her sins of the past as part of what makes her who she is in the present frames her journey as something positive and uplifting.
Reese Witherspoon delivers a career-best performance as Cheryl. She manages the physical ordeal with convincing stamina, from losing toenails right down to her ungraceful, backpack-laden walk. But it's the honesty that she brings that strikes you, managing to act half her age for flashbacks featuring sexual encounters and tragic loss - supported excellently by Strayed's own daughter as a even younger Cheryl.
Director Jean-Marc Vallée stitches together the gentle revelations and geographical
progression seamlessly, balancing between stubborn independence and habitual reliance upon convenience stores. The widescreen lensing captures the shifting snowy, sandy and woodland landscapes, but the movie is powered by a fantastic use of sound and music; each time a song is hummed by the people Cheryl meets mid-walk, it triggers memories of other times when it was playing. That understanding of how a tune can get stuck in your head, not only as a temporary ear-worm but also as an accompaniment to one's life story, stops the narrative from becoming fragmented, reinforcing the catharsis of each step Cheryl takes. Homeward bound, she wishes she was. Home, where her music's playing.
The result is a moving drama that shirks corny regret for an oddly positive exploration of isolation. In a sea of mostly male stories about human endurance - and a time when actual female characters are rare in Hollywood - Wild feels empowering; a film about a woman who finishes her story without a job, money or a bloke and still finds a happy ending, in her own way. Every small success along the road is a triumph. "Now I can eat hot mush instead of cold mush!" she yells, after getting her gas stove working, to no one but herself.
Director: Angelina Jolie
Cast: Jack O'Connell
Jack O'Connell is amazing. If you've seen Starred Up or '71, you'll already be well aware of this. Now, he goes through the wringer once again for another tale of intense suffering: Unbroken. The movie, directed by Angelina Jolie, tells the true story of Olympian Louis Zamperini, who is dealt tough hand after tough hand by life's dealer, but comes out the other side... unbroken.
If the title is something of a plot spoiler, it also gives away the movie's tone: far from subtle.
Louis starts his incredible life as a young tearaway, fighting blokes, eyeing up girls and drinking booze from milk bottles. He soon learns to tear away in another sense altogether: by running around a track. Guided by his older brother, Zamperini goes on to become an Olympic runner for America, breaking records and competing in Berlin.
So far, so inspirational. But the problem isn't the story, it's the way it's told: all of the above is told to us in flashbacks, while Louis is stranded on a raft years later. Stuck there for 47 days, he and his crewmen (including a fantastic Domhnall Gleeson) struggle to survive. At one point, sharks attack them. At another, they eat raw seagull. Look at him eating puking his guts out! Jolie seems to say. Now look at that time he ran really quickly! And remember that time he was in a fighter plane that almost got shot down?
Delivered in a seemingly endless string of harrowing events, Zamperini's existence descends into a Russian Doll of torture: he's like a real life Jack Bauer, saying "This is the longest day of my life" on repeat. Then, just when you think things can't get any worse, he ends up a prisoner of war in a Japanese WWII camp, where he's tormented by the cruel chief (played with curious, wide-eyed naivety by Takamasa Ishihara, aka music star Miyavi).
Why is Watanabe so mean to his star prisoner? Their oddly homoerotic relationship could be the basis of a fascinating film in itself - and that's largely the problem. Each part of Louis' life is a satisfying, standalone narrative. Sandwiched together in laborious back-and-forths, it feels like a jumbled mess. The fact that four people all contributed to the screenplay only adds to the patchwork air. Individual moments grip, from the thrilling fighter pilot sequences to the scene where Louis must hold a plank of wood above his head for hours (complete with Christ-like iconography), but they also feel squandered and underdeveloped.
Jolie shoots the aerial stunts with aplomb and doesn't shy away from the brutality of Louis' wartime treatment, but the forceful reminders that Zamperini's spirit isn't crushed begin to grate: by the time you've seen him symbolically overtake a pack of other runners in the final lap of race for the nth time, you've got the message.
The result is a showcase for an extraordinary young man, who takes everything that's thrown at him and still shines through. Unfortunately for Jolie, it isn't Zamperini. Writers Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, P.S. I Love You's Richard LaGravenese and Gladiator's William Nicholson all line up to knock Jack O'Connell down, but he doesn't give up, even when the movie's at its most heavy-handed. “If you can take it, you can make it!" shouts his brother in one of the cheesy flashbacks. On the basis of this, O'Connell's definitely going to make it.
Film review: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Written by Ivan Radford
Saturday, 13 December 2014 13:04
Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage
"Why does it hurt so much?" cries Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), her face cut on the battlefield. "Because it's real," her father, Thranduil (Lee Pace), replies. That is one thing Peter Jackson has always managed throughout his epic 13-year saga: he has successfully made Tolkein's Middle-earth real. Until now.
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Cast: Jude Law, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn
Earlier this year, it was announced that Dennis Kelly's TV series, Utopia, had been dropped by Channel 4. It was tragic news for fans of the show, and TV in general, as the British thriller was brutal, important viewing; not because of its nasty violence, but because it never shied away from dark social truths. It's a pleasure, then, to see his name on the script for Black Sea.
The film follows a disgruntled submarine captain (Jude Law), who takes drastic action after being fired. The plan? Round up the gang, track down an old, abandoned Soviet sub and seize the Nazi bullion left there in WWII.
Nazis? Submarines? Hidden treasure? If your mind is floating back to the days of 40s adventures, you're definitely on the right ship: Kevin Macdonald helms this with the kind of zip you'd expect from an Indiana Jones romp, not letting the pace slow below 35 knots.
But this is Indiana filtered through the dark mind of Dennis Kelly; a dystopian take on a matinee flick. That gives Black Sea its own anaerobic vibe, one that sucks out the breath of adventure with a long, wheezing dive.
Jude Law's Scottish accent may be more Shrek than Sean Connery, but he's a great fit for the obsessed captain, his receding hairline only adding to the air of failed ambition. He's supported by a fantastic crew, from Michael Smiley's typically twisted comic relief to Scoot McNairy's slippery man in a suit, whose there to bankroll the operation but doesn't have the stomach for small spaces.
That's where Kelly strikes home, in the claustrophobic contrast between the rich and the poor; the employers and the (ex-)workers. With everyone promised an equal share of the booty, that communal ideal is corrupted by individual greed, as people realise that you don't have to be a banker to be a bastard. As the tensions rub the characters the wrong way, Ben Mendelsohn emerges to steal the show. Ever since Animal Kingdom, he's perfected a certain type of unbalanced male man, but put among an emsemble of equally aggressive people, he torpedoes the lot with eye-boggling intensity.
It could descend into dumb cliche or heavy-handed Ken Loach commentary, but it's testament to Macdonald that he reins everything in, keeping things entertaining and (just) believable, even as the mildly daft final act - complete with forced familial sentiment - arrives. The result is a enjoyably old-fashioned thriller that relies on people rather than pyrotechnics. In an age of loud, bombastic blockbusters, Black Sea admirably sinks to explore the depths of humanity. Not everything it finds may be solid gold, but this is highly pressurised stuff.
Viago, Deacon and Vladislav are three flatmates in Wellington. They wake each other up for flat meetings. They go out on the town. They get annoyed at each other for not doing the dishes. And they try not to disturb Petyr downstairs. They're just normal, typical blokes. Who happen to be vampires.
It's a simple idea behind What We Do in the Shadows - a mockumentary from New Zealand - but that simplicity makes the humour delightfully complex.
From the moment the desperately eager Viago (Taika Waititi) rouses Vladislav upstairs, only to find a hairy Jemaine Clement surrounded by naked ladies halfway up the wall, it's clear that this Kiwi comedy is taking its vampiric lore seriously. "Meeting in 10 minutes," calls Viago, after hurriedly closing the door. Vladislav apparates by the door and opens it quickly. "20."
That respect for traditions is evident at every level of the silliness, from nightclubs where they can't go in unless the bouncers invite them to the fearful opening of curtains at 6pm in case sunlight might still shine through. The result is a creative mix of old tropes and new ideas; a reviving bite to the neck for a genre that has become all too familiar in recent years. One hysterical scene featuring Viago's "Basgetti" mind control trick is worth the price of admission alone.
The cast throw themselves into it, donning over-the-top costumes and covering themselves in fake blood, but they never lose sight of the naively friendly New Zealander quality that made Flight of the Conchords so endearing. Reunited with Clement after Eagle and Shark, Waititi and his co-director/co-star clearly know their comedy games, repeatedly setting up the right buttons for the other to push. Rhys Darby, meanwhile, steals the few scenes he appears in as a highly amenable werewolf struggling to keep control of his pack. "That's a good pair of trousers ruined there," he laments, as one of them puts on jeans instead of jogging bottoms ahead of a full moon.
But what elevates What We Do in the Shadows above a scattershot spoof is the way it uses all of these elements to develop its characters. Viago, it turns out, is longing for his lost love, but in turn is the subject of unrequited feelings from his slave, who irons his frilly shirts in the hope that one day she will become immortal too. Insert a new convert who keeps bringing his human best friend round for tea and you have an awkward web of dead and undead loyalties. Into that surprisingly tender set-up flies Ben Fransham's Petyr, a Nosferatu-like monster (complete with full make-up) who sends the sentimental moments spinning down into genuinely jumpy shocks. Edited and re-edited until its scarily tight, this is a sharply tailored vampire flick that upholds tradition yet sinks its teeth into it with flair. It's moving, it's clever, it's mercilessly quick, but most of all, it's bloody funny.