Movie Review – La La Land

It seems like an awfully long time ago the first ripples of buzz for La La Land starting moving through the film community. Ripples which since developed into a full blown tsunami. And, as is customary around awards season, there has also been significant backlash against this film which seems to have captivated so many. With La La Land now sharing the throne with Titanic and All About Eve for most Oscar nominated film in history, both the fans and the critics are more vocal than ever.

La La Land is a film I was practically sold on before I even saw one image. I was completely blown away by Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, a piece of work that made me think this particular director was going places and I was going to follow him to those places – figuratively speaking. La La Land was also described as a re-invention of the old Hollywood musical – yes please! And then, the casting of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, whose on-screen chemistry is so powerful the producers probably saw nothing but tap dancing dollar signs on the screen.

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In case you are one of the few people who have absolutely no idea what La La Land is about, let me bring you up to speed. Mia and Sebastian are two young people in Los Angeles, struggling to achieve their dreams. Mia is an actress, but spends more time working in a coffee shop than acting, and has to endure repeated disappointments at castings. Sebastian is a jazz pianist, longing for the golden age of jazz music and dreaming of opening his own jazz club. The two meet and develop a relationship, but the relationship is tested by the all-consuming pursuit of their dreams.

How to define success, and the sacrifices necessary to achieve greatness, were issues that were beautifully dealt with in Whiplash, and La La Land picks up on a lot of the same themes. It is a movie that quite forcefully rejects the notion of “having it all” and in this way puts itself in opposition to some of the more dreamy-eyed, naive Hollywood narratives. The look of La La land may be nostalgic, but the message is entirely pragmatic.

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And yet, I have to say that I wasn’t completely dazzled by La La Land. I really, really enjoyed it, make no mistake. But, taking into consideration what Chazelle has done before, I am a tad baffled that this is the film to sweep the awards circuit. It has taken me a long time to digest this film and try to reconcile my conflicting emotions around it.

The chemistry between Stone and Gosling is as cracking as ever, the script is funny and the cinematography is both dreamy and daring. Emma Stone is just on fire in the best possible sense throughout the film. The dancing and singing is not Rogers/Astaire level but I actually love the soundtrack so much I bought it. So what’s missing, and why isn’t it something I would put in the running for movie of the year?

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A very good friend of mine said that she wished they would have just left out the musical parts of La La Land. And I have come to realise that I kind of agree. I like the musical parts, and I like Mia and Sebastian’s journeys towards their dreams. But I maybe like those things better apart? I understand that a key part of the film’s message is that this is a musical which looks so much like a classic Hollywood musical but is not, in actual fact, that movie. And I also appreciate that the film’s musical elements often have a grittier, more realistic take on classic musical scenes. You can really see the dirt and the uneven surfaces of LA’s roads, and Gosling and Stone are more relatable thanks to their less than perfect dancing skills.

But, when you commit yourself to this particular genre, you will invariably be measured according to the standards of the greatest musicals. There’s a really fascinating video essay which does a side-by-side comparison of scenes in La La Land that were inspired by scenes in other musicals. I watched it as I was interested to see what little nods Chazelle had given to these classics, but was also struck by how much better and more vibrant those original scenes looked.

Again, this isn’t to say that I in any way disliked La La Land or that I wish it would burn in the fiery pits of hell as some people seem to feel.

It is a lovely film, which I will probably watch again and which I will encourage others to watch. The message of the the film stuck with me afterwards and made me think. The film as a whole just isn’t as polished and punchy as one might have expected given Chazelle’s previous work – and yes, I do know how young and “new” he still is! I’m a year older and can only make Stikbot videos with my kids, so I really shouldn’t talk.

I wonder if anyone else out there is in the same camp as I find myself, as it seems to be that you either have to think La La Land is the best evs or the worst evs? So let me know how you feel about it in the comments, I’d love to know!

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Movie Review – Arrival

We are nearly at the end of 2016, and thank God for that. This year has been a supremely tough one, both on a personal level, and because the world as a whole is clearly going to the dogs. Hence the extremely infrequent and erratic writing, despite the best of intentions.

When the going gets tough, I can always seek solace in movies and I have really been holding out hope for Arrival, the latest from Denis Villeneuve. I liked Prisoners, LOVED Enemy and was a bit underwhelmed by Sicario. But I knew that this one delved into questions about the nature of communication, a favourite subject of mine, as well as starring the stunning Amy Adams, so I hoped this would make it a rewarding experience overall.

The story centers around a professor of linguistics, Louise Banks (Amy Adams), who is chosen to head a team trying to decipher the language of aliens that have come to Earth. These aliens have arrived in 12 huge vessels hovering over different countries around the globe. Her task is not only to make sense of the in-human sounds of the alien language, but to share her findings with other teams around the world, in an atmosphere that is growing increasingly tense and hostile with each passing day that the aliens remain on Earth. No one knows what these creatures are here for; do they mean to harm us or help us?

What then unfolds is a story that is more about humans than it is about aliens. It is an intelligent, but not cold, examination of our human flaws and foibles.

The script, adapted by Eric Heisserer from a short story by Ted Chiang, deftly handles the very tricky and seemingly un-cinematic subject of linguistics. It also introduces a believable “aliens just arrived on Earth”-scenario, avoiding the pitfalls of so many other films that are all screaming hordes and shouty army sergeants.

And how refreshing it is to have the hero of a film be a professor of linguistics!  Watching Louise puzzle over the aliens’ attempt at communication alongside her colleague, a theoretical physicist named Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), was, to me, just as exciting as any action scene. As a bit of a linguistics nerd, I savoured the theoretical discussions about language and the way we construct it and it constructs us.

Amy Adams is, as per usual, just a delight to watch. We see our own wonder and curiosity reflected in her face as she slowly gets closer to the aliens she is studying.

All of the fantastic elements of the film are then held together by the most incredible score by Jóhann Jóhannsson. The score is a beautiful combination of otherworldly sounds and mechanical noises with an undercurrent of indecipherable vocals that lend the tracks the same human warmth that is pulsating throughout the film.

And this is where Arrival really stood out for me, and gave me some peace in a worrying and stressful time. The movie doesn’t just grabble with theory. It elevates – and yes, stretches – the ideas behind the theory, and applies it to the narrative in a way that clarifies the human impact of these ideas.

What if your greatest gift would also cause you the greatest pain? Would you embrace it, or would you fight it? The science may not hold up to close scrutiny but, as with any great science fiction story, you need a healthy dose of fiction to go with the science. Great science fiction is never just a showcase for shiny spaceships, cool robots and scary alien creatures. At the core you have to have a human story that helps us see our place in the world more clearly. And, after Arrival, I do.

Movie Review – Captain Fantastic

In Captain Fantastic, we meet a family that has decided to live apart from the modern world. The Cash family live in a forest, in an unbearably quaint campsite they have built for themselves. Mom, dad and their six children spend their days learning survival skills and exploring the natural world around them. They are also a thoroughly intellectual family, spending much of the day reading about and discussing political tomes and classical literature. But, tragedy strikes, and Ben and his children have to leave the place they call home on a road trip that will expose the children to the world – and the people – their parents shunned a long time ago.

Maybe at some point in your life, maybe after reading some Thoreau, you have found yourself thinking: “If only I could pack it all in and go live in the forest, wild and free, reading books and eating foraged berries, then, then I’d be truly happy.”

It certainly feels like we live in a world where, as we are still striving to improve, grow, modernise at any cost, we simultaneously get bombarded with messages about how toxic our modern world is, and how nature has the answers we are all looking for. Modern life is – for an awful lot of us – stressful, lonely, anxiety-inducing and perplexing.

So on the surface, Captain Fantastic might seem like just another David Wolfe-inspired Facebook meme come to life. But, in actual fact, it is a deeply moving and honest portrayal of a family full of individuals trying to figure out who they are and how to define who they are. And, yes, even the adults are still just figuring it out, as are most of us. Their way of living is attractive and is even described by one character as “paradise”, yet we are made to understand from quite early on that living in the wild is not a panacea. There is still pain, and there is no running from it.

The concepts that Captain Fantastic grapples with hit incredibly close to home for me and so naturally I was completely taken with this movie. It is a movie about the difficulty of choosing the right path, parents’ love for their children, unconventional living, family ties, mental health and loss. It asks you to think about what it means to live a good life and how parents can give their children a good life that will shape them into well-rounded adults. How do we walk the balance between our own convictions and the rules of society around us?

The acting is spectacular, with Viggo Mortensen’s performance perfectly pitched as a man trying to come to terms with the mistakes he has made while still fighting to keep his family together. He wholly inhabits the role and it’s hard to imagine anyone else doing as good a job. The children are all fantastic, well-written characters and the actors bring them to life so well. Particularly the eldest child, played by George MacKay, undergoes a complete transformation in front of our eyes, as a young man just coming into himself. You will miss this family once the credits start rolling.

A lot of the reason for this is also thanks to writer-director Matt Ross. His screenplay is witty, fun, thoughtful, heart warming and heart breaking and manages all of those tones well. There is no doubt that he has an affection for these characters and for their unconventional lifestyle. However, I think it’s important to acknowledge that he has made some choices in his writing which allow us a more even handed understanding of who these people are than what one might expect at first. As a slightly crunchy liberal type who was reading Marx at 14, but is nonetheless too skeptical to completely douse myself in the organic, vegetable-dyed, sugar-free Kombucha-Kool-Aid that many hippie types offer up,  I really appreciated this balance.

I loved this movie with every fibre of my being, and know this is something I will return to again and again. The thought that I was left with at the end is that, ultimately, the most essential thing is not so much how we live our life but more who we live it for. And that’s something we could all do with thinking about.

Bumper Review Post – Every Movie I Saw on Four Long Distance Flights

You know what they say is the key ingredient that makes a great blog right? Consistency! You have to consistently post something, even if every post isn’t a Pulitzer Prize contender. Well, I guess that makes this blog sub-par, but I hope that hasn’t scared you off.

I intend to make up for my months long absence by throwing a bunch of short and to the point movie reviews at you, as I have watched an awful lot of movies lately. I have just returned from an overseas trip that required several lengthy legs of air travel. These days air travel can feel a bit like cinephile heaven, if you can just ignore the fact that your legs have completely stopped getting a fresh supply of blood, your 8 year old has a screen that randomly changes languages to French and Spanish mid-movie and that your 6 year old refuses to understand the concept of taking off their headphones while talking, resulting in them very loudly asking WHY ARE THEY KISSING LIKE THAT MOMMY as they catch a glimpse of the non-child-friendly film on your screen.

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So yes, maybe these extended cinema trips in the sky have some downsides, but then they also have wine, so it all balances out in the end.

Before we dive into the reviews, a quick disclaimer. When flying and watching movies simultaneously, I cry more easily. This, in fact, is a very common phenomenon, as any faithful listener of Kermode & Mayo’s film review will know. But I also tend to laugh more easily and generally enjoy stupid stuff more.

In fact, when choosing movies on an airplane I often specifically gravitate towards some of the lighter fare that wouldn’t normally be top of my viewing list. I just don’t seem to enjoy serious and slow movies as much on a plane. I once tried watching Tree of Life on a plane; big mistake!

So, take my opinions with a grain of salt, they were likely heavily influenced by the recycled cabin air and all those cute little bottles of free wine.

Where to Invade Next

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Michael Moore decides that, rather than invading foreign countries for their oil, America should rather just steal great idea of governance from other countries, ideas that have so far not taken hold in America. During the film, he goes to Iceland, Tunisia, Slovenia, Italy, France, Portugal, Norway, Finland and Germany in search of better ways to live.

I’m not sure the central conceit of the documentary worked, it was definitely a bit jumbled and didn’t make for a coherent film. I also have serious reservations about some of the facts as they were portrayed in the documentary. But, I really enjoyed it nonetheless. It was uplifting to see so many individuals who had great ideas and beliefs about what makes a good country and what makes a good life, and who actually managed to live by those beliefs.

There were some truly touching moments in the film, such as when an American school teacher explained why she had moved to Finland to teach, as well as when the father of a teenager murdered during the terrorist attack in Norway explains how Norway managed to come out of that horrific time with its national identity and freedoms intact. Indeed, the whole section on Norway and their approach to incarceration was a complete eye opener and has left me thinking about it for days afterwards.

Eye in the Sky

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Eye in the Sky takes place in several different locations around the world, but the bulk of the focus of the film is in Nairobi, Kenya. This is the location of a house with known terrorists and we follow various military personnel and ministers around the world as they try to decide whether to agree to a drone strike. A child is in the vicinity of the target for the drone strike and so the implications of that need to be considered.

I had heard several great reviews of Eye in the Sky but I was also slightly wary of watching another drone warfare movie. I have already watched Good Kill, which I enjoyed well enough, but I worried that this would just be more of the same. I needn’t have worried. The film was thought provoking and truly thrilling, nail-biting stuff. At one point, I half hid under by airplane issued blanket because I couldn’t bear the tension. And this is in a movie with very little action, the main action was people in rooms arguing with each other.

I thoroughly recommend this movie. It’s rare that you find a movie that has you on the edge of your seat AND also gives your mind things to chew on for a long time afterwards. It’s timely, relevant and important and it has Alan Rickman. What more is there to say?

Everybody Wants Some!!

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Richard Linklater’s newest movie, set in the early eighties, follows a house full of rowdy baseball players in the days leading up to the start of college.

I have a soft spot for Linklater’s work. The whole Before trilogy is an absolute delight and I also loved Boyhood. If I could use just two words to describe my general feeling about Linklater’s movies, it would be “deeply human”. They feel like flesh and blood movies, pulsing with experiences, ideas and conversations that so many of us have had, across ages, genders, races, nationalities etc. The Before trilogy is my favourite; romantic movies that don’t romanticise but show the real conflicts and ambiguities inherent in any relationship between two separate human beings trying to form and maintain a meaningful relationship.

Everybody Wants Some!! left me feeling far more conflicted. To begin with, I couldn’t stand the characters in the movie, the exact types of people I would have never spent time with in college, or university, as I would call it. Chauvinist young men who think it’s charming to pester girls and who have no particular interest in actually learning anything of an academic nature while in an institute of higher learning. The movie featured so much raucous, macho shouting that at times I just wanted to turn off the sound completely.

However, the acting was great and many of the actors had enough charisma that they wore down my defences and allowed me to connect with the characters more. There is an obvious nostalgia trip here for Linklater and it’s also clear that he has great affection for these characters. This affection is strong enough that some of it rubbed off on me, despite myself.

Linklater has made a movie which probably authentically describes his own college experience and that’s okay. It would just have benefited from a bit more balance and some self-reflection, in particular in regards to its female characters.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

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Based on a memoir by journalist Kim Barker about her time living in and reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan, this movie stars Tina Fey, Margot Robbie and other well known faces.

Honestly, don’t have too much to say about this one. It was forgettable to the point where I can’t recall much of what happened and can’t even remember how it ended. Maybe I was also seriously sleep deprived at this stage? It’s possible that I nodded off during parts of the movie but, hey, if it had been gripping enough I wouldn’t have! It has some amusing parts to it, but I didn’t particularly like any character in the movie. And, despite trying to address the whole ‘white lady travels to exotic place to find herself’-trope in at least once instance, it doesn’t really do much to move beyond that trope and tell a story that engages on a different level.

It wasn’t offensive or terrible, but I would rather have had more sleep than watched it. And we’re talking about sleeping bolt upright with my head dangling from side to side in Economy class of a long haul flight.

Anomalisa

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Customer service guru goes to a conference to speak, tries to hook up with ex, meets a stranger that he immediately falls in love with and wants to leave his wife for, decides “nah”, has mental breakdown during conference talk, goes home. Oh, and it’s stop-motion!

Anomalisa is a memorable film in a very unusual format. It’s not every day we see very adult issues acted out by puppets brought to life via stop-motion. Its main strength lies in its ability to make its characters seem believable and human even when they are clearly not.

That being said, the central character of Michael Stone is so unlikeable and pitiful that it was difficult to really get onboard with the movie. It is perfectly possible to have unlikeable characters in movies, but it does require that the movie reflects critically on its character’s flaws, and I didn’t feel Anomalisa did so.

The film seems so centrally anchored in Stone’s bleak world view where everyone else is somehow uninteresting and bland, and if only he could just find a special snowflake like himself, all his problems would go away. His greatest problem in life seems to be that he is burdened by having other people around him that are not him. I would have loved to have seen this story from the character of Lisa’s point of view, as Stone was just unbearable to be around.

I am not one to dissuade anyone from seeing Anomalisa though. It is unusual and I would love to see more films of that nature finding an audience and paving the way for other unconventional film-making methods.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2

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The final, no really, for real, instalment in The Hunger Games series, where Katniss and the rebels finally make it to the Capitol to bring the battle to President’s Snow front door.

I read the Hunger Games years ago and watched the first movie in the series in the cinema. Since then, my interest has waned though. I would usually stream the movies at home, but with this final one I didn’t even do that. So it was that I only watched this when I had a lot of hours to kill on a plane. The reviews I had heard also led me to think I might not have missed out on much.

However, I have to say that this movie was a pleasant surprise and a fitting finish to the series. Despite seeing this on the – very – small screen, the action scenes were impressive and the pace was great. There was a sense of danger and risk and it’s a relief to not see as much weightless destruction as, for example, a lot of superhero movies dabble in. The themes of war and trauma are also as strong as ever and rendered in a meaningful way.

It also felt like a more complete film than Mockingjay Part 1, which is not surprising. It is unfortunate that so many movie franchises get hacked up into so many pieces that some of those pieces end up completely out of place and seem pointless on their own. There’s almost a palpable relief to this movie, that they don’t have to tread water anymore and can actually finish what was always going to happen anyway. Or maybe that’s what I brought to it?

45 Years

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A married couple is preparing to celebrate their 45 year wedding anniversary, when the husband receives news about the girlfriend who died on a hiking trip years before he met his wife.

Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay star in, and effectively carry, this moving drama about marriage, secrets, ageing and love. This is one of those quiet, slow movies, which I’m usually scared to watch on a plane in case my mental faculties are not working as well and I end up disliking something that is actually good. Not so with this one, I enjoyed it immensely even under the circumstances and it has stayed with me since.

The acting is just stunning, never more so than when Rampling’s character is filmed looking at old slides in the attic. This moment feels so intimate, so immense that you almost want to look away. But her face mesmerises and you can’t. The portrayal of a marriage that has lasted so many decades rings true and the honesty is refreshing. This film doesn’t try to romanticise what it means to live with the same person for the better part of a lifetime, but it also doesn’t shy away from showing how older people love and make love to each other. The characters’ story is the kind of story we do not see often enough portrayed on film.

This is a quiet movie that will make a lot noise in your head for a while afterwards.

How To Be Single

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Comedy about a young woman who arrives in New York, dead set on standing on her own two feet outside the confines of a relationship but then has a bunch of relationships before realising where her priorities should lie.

On paper, this is the kind of movie I would absolutely hate. I really, sincerely don’t like the genre of movie that has a voice over where the lead character muses on the supposedly profound wisdom she has accumulated through her romantic dalliances. And, no, I never liked Sex & the City – the movies or the TV series.

And this movie does have that annoying voice over. That being said, the bits in between are actually not that annoying; amusing and entertaining even. There are a lot of likeable, fairly fleshed out characters and the movie does manage to avoid a lot of cliches it could have thrown itself head first into. Unfortunately, I think a lot of the raunchier jokes were edited out for this plane-friendly version, so I probably got the watered down version.

But, seriously, why are these kinds of movies never set in Seattle or Washington D.C. or something?

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Okay, that’s it folks. You’ve made it to the end, but I kindly request that you remain seated until the fasten seatbelt signs have been switched off. Hope to see you back again soon!

Review – Hush

Last month, I was lucky enough to stumble across a couple of movies that have not been released in cinemas and have instead gone straight to streaming platforms. This used to be a sign of a forgettable movie; “straight to DVD” being in effect a three word review that said all you needed it to say. But, as viewing patterns and technology evolve, we can’t always rely on this any longer. And, if we do, we run the risk of missing some real gems, such as the movie I’ve reviewed here.

Hush was released this year by Netflix and is directed by Mike Flanagan who was also the director behind Oculus. I wasn’t a huge fan of Oculus, but there were enough interesting elements in it to make me give this one a shot. Flanagan also co-wrote the script with the lead actor Kate Siegel, so in every way this is a small scale production.

Kate Siegel plays Maddie, a deaf author who lives by herself out in the forest. One night, a psychotic serial killer comes to her house intent on adding her to his list of victims, but not before he has played a very twisted cat and mouse game with her.

It’s a very simple premise, but it is one that works. There are two main reasons for why this is a standout horror movie that I hope more people seek out.

Firstly, the premise of having a deaf/mute girl as the main character brings some really interesting elements to the horror genre. While watching the movie, you realise how dependent you as the viewer and the characters within horror movies are on sound to alert you to danger lurking around the corner/in the next shot. Reducing the film’s reliance on creaky floorboards, shaking doorknobs etc. means that tension levels automatically shoot sky high.

You just have to watch the trailer above to get a sense of how the film uses the lead character’s hearing impediment, as well as our modern technology in the form of cell phones and instant messaging, to really good, creepy effect. This part of the film also bears strong resemblance to the opening scene of Scream, in the best possible way.

Surprisingly, I found the fact that Maddie doesn’t speak to be an oddly empowering aspect of her character, making her stand out from the endless female targets in horror movies. It took a while for me to realise that I was watching a horror movie that had almost no screaming in it. It’s very refreshing and sets film apart from more torture-porn-like films. In a way, Maddie’s silence is her strength. In a situation where the odds might seem stacked against her, by refusing her stalker the – for him – gratifying sound of her despair and fear, she is helping to rig the whole game just slightly more in her favour.

Secondly, the film’s small budget has been used to the absolute best effect and it translates to a focused, taught story. We never leave Maddie’s house and its immediate surroundings and this gives a sense of claustrophobic tension. The small budget and small,  but solid cast, is what helps it feel like a well executed horror movie unlike so many baggy, unfocused horrors we are subjected to.

The running time is kept short at 1 hours 20 minutes so we don’t waste a lot of time on back story and character motivations. Nothing impresses me more these days than when a director has the good sense to allow his/her movie to hold something back, to not tell us everything, and to let its audience free of its grip before they start looking at their watches and shifting in their seats.

Hush is the kind of horror movie I wish received more attention, so that studios took more notice. Not so that they could swoop in and plan Hush 2, 3 and 4 but rather so horror movies that have great stories and believable characters were given the time of day more often. At a time where cookie cutter horror movies are being churned out, Hush is – excuse the pun – a quiet little film that packs a punch.

Review – The Revenant

In recent years, it feels like survival stories have been the basis of some of the most popular movies to grace our screens. A couple of years ago, we had both 12 Years a Slave and Gravity and now we have The Revenant. And, yes, I feel like 12 Years a Slave fits in this category as the story of a human being who endures the unbearable and through grit, determination and ingenuity finds his way back home.

There is an obvious appeal in these kinds of stories for audiences. We are forced to examine what is possible and to consider how far we would go to survive if faced with a situation where the odds – and the elements – are against us. They make us feel small, make us recognise our own frailty yet, when the protagonist prevails, reminds us that there is always hope and that this most singular of human emotions can be stronger than forces much bigger than us.

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The Revenant is the semi-biographical story of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a fur trapper in America in the 1800s who is on an ill-fated expedition. His hunting party is decimated in an attack by Native Americans and he is subsequently torn to shreds – really, literally – in a gruesome bear attack. Incapacitated and barely alive, he becomes a great burden to the group, but his son and others in the hunting party refuse to give up on him. However, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), one of the men in the group, murders Glass’s son and leaves Glass for dead in a shallow grave. In single minded determination, Glass slowly, painfully makes his way out of his grave and across a hostile, frozen landscape to exact his revenge on Fitzgerald.

In this way, the story differs from the other movies I have mentioned, as it is not a story of a man wanting to survive for surviving’s sake, or to see his family again – Glass has none left now  – he wants to survive to kill Fitzgerald and that is his sole motivation. My favourite movie critic, Mark Kermode, argued in his review that it was a survival story more than a revenge one, but I have to disagree. It is a movie about a man surviving unbearable conditions, yes, but only in order to revenge his son. Glass even puts words to this in the movie: “He knows how far I’ve come to find him…” He sure hasn’t come that far to put up his boots and rest by the fireplace with a hot toddy and a nice sandwich!

The Revenant is first and foremost a beautiful film. It looks gorgeous even when the screen is splattered with blood. Emmanuel Lubezki is very likely to get his third Oscar in a row for cinematography, which is certainly deserved but also a bit sad if it means once again passing over Deakins’ work, this year in Sicario. But Lubezki does undeniable have a skill for manipulating your emotions with his camera work, fluctuating between making you feel trapped and scared on the one hand and completely in awe of the stunning landscape on the other hand. Early on in the movie, at the beginning of the first attack scene, the camera angle is capturing everything from below and looking out from the hunting party’s point of view, with little indication of where the attack is coming from. It is an almost claustrophobic experience, as you feel disoriented and like you want the camera to pan out and scan, so that you can find your bearings. Exactly how the characters feel. There are too many examples of great cinematography to list here but it’s important to stress how integral to the film it is.

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There are also great performances throughout the movie. Much has been made of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Oscar nominated performance, although I would argue that Tom Hardy gives the greater performance. The more I see of Tom Hardy, the more I am in awe of how he works. He has a particular knack for acting in a way that I can only describe as unselfish. His performance is solely about his character and the character’s part in the story, not about grandstanding. And he’s a chameleon; just compare this role to the one he played in Inception. Will Poulter is also fantastic in a role that is a far cry from his role in We Are The Millers. May he go from strength to strength. There are unfortunately few female characters in the film but Melaw Nakehk’o as Powaqa gives us one of my favourite moments in the movie, right at the end (POTENTIAL SPOILERS!) where she gives Glass a look that says a whole lot of things but, mainly, “Yes, you’ve been spared now, you know why, but don’t for one second think that makes you anything. I’m a f***ing princess” It’s a moment that goes some way to restore some balance in a movie that has women mainly as corpses or victims of sexual assault and prostitution.

Despite all these great elements, The Revenant is still not a perfect movie, or even the year’s best movie. The parts of the film where Glass is remembering his deceased wife seem ill-judged, and pander to the old cliché of having a Native American character who does nothing but speak of the wind and the trees in a quasi-profound way. It really takes you out of the grittiness and earthiness of the movie. I’m also not sure that we really feel emotionally involved enough in Glass’ character, rather than just his struggle. Could his character not have been exchanged with any other in the movie and the result would be largely the same?

Finally, it’s too long and because of it seems a tad self-indulgent. There is, in my opinion, a tendency with Alejandro González Iñárritu’s films to tip over into indulgence and self-importance. It’s one of the reasons I love Mad Max: Fury Road so; it manages to be hugely entertaining and looks completely over the top, but scratch the surface and it shows real restraint in what it decides to include and exclude. 

Overall, The Revenant is a beautiful, often nail-biting, movie worth seeing, preferably in a cinema where you can really drink in the scenery the way it was intended to. But at times it is lacking the structure and focus that it needs to hold up all that luscious cinematography. Let’s see if The Academy agrees in a few weeks time. Until then, let me know what you thought of The Revenant in the comments below!

Review – Sicario

Sicario is the latest movie directed by Denis Villeneuve, who was also behind Prisoners and Enemy. Enemy was, without a doubt, one of my favourite movies of 2014; a completely mind bending experience that just kept on getting better the more I delved into its possible meanings after it ended. I was disappointed that it wasn’t more widely viewed so when hype started building around his next project, Sicario, I was pleased to say the least. He’s a film maker that deserves more attention.

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The film introduces us to the FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), who is recruited for a special unit tasked with locating cartel hitman Manuel Díaz who will hopefully lead them to the whereabouts of the Mexican drug lord Fausto Alarcón. Joining the task force means following the leader of the task force Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and working alongside his partner, the elusive and stone faced Alejandro Gillick (Benecio del Toro). At the beginning, we don’t know much about Gillick or the role he plays in the operation, except that he seems to work with unorthodox methods. Macer, with her idealism and play-by-the-book attitude, is a fish out of water in this operation and we follow her down the rabbit hole of horror that is the war on drugs.

The first part of the movie is truly exhilarating and terrifying. With skilful direction and the superb cinematography of the Roger Deakins, each frame looks like a painting, if a painting was a living, breathing thing. From the moment the film starts, it pulls no punches in showing us the horrors of the drug trade and the inhumane effect it has on all the areas it passes through. The part of the movie set in Juarez is edge-of-your-seat film making; each pothole the heavily armoured police vehicles drive over sending a jolt through you, as if you were sitting in the vehicle yourself. The score makes you think we are in Mordor, and the sheer brutality on the streets suggests you shouldn’t be surprised to find orcs running at you at any moment. The tension builds and builds until we find the characters stuck in a traffic jam, a scene which is very probably one of the best of the year.

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The problem with the movie, however, is that it peaks right here. All the elements of an outstanding movie are there, great cast (not least del Toro, who stands out), director and cinematography, a story which is more real than you would wish and, yet, somewhere in the middle of the movie, I found myself bored. I really, really tried to suppress the feeling, but there was no denying that my mind was drifting and my hand was twitching for my phone. The movie hits another high note towards the end of the film with an incredibly tense dinner table scene, but the damage had been done by then and I wasn’t fully engaged any longer.

I don’t know if the middle of the movie was actually boring or if it was just that it started on such a high note and then shifted tone abruptly. Maybe, if we had all the character exposition at the beginning, building up to a climax, I wouldn’t have felt so deprived of the adrenaline that surged through me at the start.

What did work for me though, was the way the movie uses Blunt’s character as our introduction into this world. The story, for me, is actually mostly about del Toro’s character and his quest to right the wrongs that have been done to him. But had we been fed his story in a more traditional way, with him in the centre of the movie, the movie would have felt very different. In that scenario, they could have replaced him with Liam Neeson and had him growling at people about his “special set of skills”.

As we see things through Macer, Gillick is more of an enigma and that does keep your interest longer than it otherwise would have. Macer herself is a frustrating character sometimes, but the movie needs a newcomer to this world to remind us of our own humanity and not just get swept away by the violence and chaos.

Sicario is by no means a bad movie. It has a multitude of strengths and in parts displays real cinematic genius. But it was a disappointment for this Villeneuve fan. Will I be watching his next film? You bet! Will I temper my expectations next time around? You can count on it.

Review – Goodnight Mommy

We’ve made it into 2016 so cheers to that! I’m excited for the year ahead in film and hope we’ll get to see some real masterpieces in the year ahead.

If you’re looking for something cheerful and upbeat to keep the festive season going, I’m afraid today’s movie isn’t going to help you. But you may take something else of value from it. As a warning, I just want to say that it’s difficult to discuss this movie and its themes without possibly revealing some spoilers, so if you want to watch this with absolutely no knowledge of it, better read this review after you’ve had a chance to see the movie.

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Goodnight Mommy is an Austrian movie which takes place in a modern country house and the surrounding countryside. We meet the twin brothers, Lukas and Elias, who seem to spend their days playing in the woods and fields largely unsupervised. Their mother returns to the house to recover from plastic surgery, her head and face bandaged completely, making her difficult to recognise. The boys seem disturbed by their mother’s new appearance and start to observe behaviour from her which doesn’t fit with the mother they know. They become suspicious and start to explore the possibility that the person behind the bandage may not be their mother at all. Testing her in ways that become increasingly disturbing, Goodnight Mommy leaves you wondering who you need to fear; masked adult with bloodshot eyes or the freckle-faced young boys.

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It’s a common theme in horror movies to use evil children to scare the living daylights out of you; The Omen, Children of the Corn, Mean Girls…okay, that last one is a stretch, but only by a little bit. Recently, however, I feel like I’ve seen a change towards a more realistic portrayal of disturbed children, children who do not fit our society’s expectations of normal behaviour, rather than your more common Spawn of the Devil/possessed by evil spirits-child.

One of the best horror movies of recent years was the sublime The Babadook. The horror in that film is not so much to do with the titular boogey man character but rather to do with the fraught relationship between mother and child. Another movie, The Orphanage, also explores some more than challenging aspects of parenthood that are far scarier than the ghostly apparitions in the film. Goodnight Mommy explores some of these same areas to chilling effect.

I wonder if this could be a whole genre of its own; Parental Horror? The fear that parents, particularly mothers, have of having to deal with a challenging child and being branded as an incompetent parent when you fail is not to be downplayed. It is an alienating, identity-anihilating experience not unlike having a bucket of pig’s blood dropped on you in front of your peers.

I will say, though, that I am not sure this movie can be correctly classified as a horror movie. Yes, the last third is unequivocally a horror, with some incredibly hard to watch scenes of violence. But leading up to that it is a very slow exploration of the dynamic in this secluded household, and I think many who might go into this expecting thrills and scares will feel disappointed. It fits maybe somewhere between a psychological thriller and a horror, but a slow version.

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Similarly to The Gift, which I reviewed recently , the house in Goodnight Mommy is like a character in its own right, offering us clues and setting the mood for the film.

Throughout the house, we glimpse huge canvas photos of a person we can only assume to be the mother, but all the photos are blurry, so that she is out of focus. These canvases help us piece together a picture of the boys’ mother as someone whose sense of self is anchored strongly in her appearance. But the blurriness adds a disturbing feel to the photos, taking them beyond your standard narcissistic celebrations of female beauty. There are also some candid snapshots of the mother before her surgery which leave you wondering: why did she feel the need for surgery in the first place? Nothing is directly spelled out in this movie, but there are plenty of elements which leave you puzzling with pieces of the story, trying to figure out how they fit together.

In short, Goodnight Mommy is not afraid to explore some really dark themes, pushing us towards the uncomfortable. It doesn’t handle these themes as entertainingly as some other movies, but it is a worthwhile addition to a growing collection of films that seek to scare us not with horrors that come from another world but with horrors that we fear most right here in our own world.

As always, I’d love to hear your opinions in the comments section. Much obliged.

Review – Brooklyn (2015)

Merry merry and good cheer all around, I hope you’ve had a lovely few days if you celebrated Christmas. I’ve got a real gem of a movie for you to catch during the holidays, one that makes you feel the range of emotions from sadness to joy without having to succumb to the smarminess of Love Actually and other seasonal staples.

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Brooklyn is the story of Eilis, a young Irish girl going nowhere fast in a small town in 1950’s Ireland. With the help of her sister, she manages to secure a job and a place to live in Brooklyn, New York, so she packs up what little is left of her life and travels by boat to New York. Although she has a boarding house to live in and a decent job, her first few months are marred by an unrelenting homesickness. She corresponds with her sister via letters and each one reminds her of what she left behind, even if it didn’t seem like much at the time.

The local Irish priest enrols her in bookkeeping classes, where she excels and begins to find some of her own identity, separate from who she was in Ireland. Then, one evening, she meets Tony, an Italian-American, and with this meeting her life in Brooklyn really begins to change. However, just as their relationship seems to come into itself, tragedy strikes at home and Eilis is forced to return to Ireland for a period. Here, she finds she now has the opportunities she never had before she left and she must decide where to make a life for herself.

Not long in to the movie, one of my companions asked me “I wonder where this story is going?” The thing is, Brooklyn is not a movie with a high concept plot that has you at the edge of your seat. If that is the kind of story you are after, you should be prepared to be disappointed. But I urge you to watch it nonetheless.

If you do give it a go, rather than at the edge of your seat, you should find yourself completely immersed in a certain, critical period of time in a young person’s life. With outstanding performances by Saoirse Ronan (Eilis) and Emory Cohen (Tony) you feel so invested in these characters that you are at a bit of a loss when the movie finishes. I already knew Ronan to be a formidable actress, with a face that’s like a canvas for emotions, but Cohen really came out of nowhere. He plays Tony with just the right amount of charm, yet there is also an awkwardness and sincerity to him which makes him endearingly vulnerable. I lost count of the amount of times I just wanted to reach through the screen and hug both of them.

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And before you think this is “just” a love story, let me correct you straight away. Brooklyn is a highly relatable portrayal of what it means to leave behind the place you came from and create a life for yourself elsewhere. As someone who has lived outside of my own country of birth for almost half my life, and have had to start over in different countries several times, Eilis’ anguish was like a stab in the heart to me. The confusion you feel when you move some place new, the rootlessness, the loneliness; Brooklyn brings all of these aspects beautifully to the screen thanks to its measured script and engaging performances. I imagine that people will relate even if they only ever moved from a small town to the nearest big city.

Lastly, the film is absolutely stunning in its cinematography (DP is Yves Bélanger, also known for Wild and Dallas Buyers Club), art direction, costume design and make-up. It will leave you aching for the 1950’s, even if it means giving up your iPhone, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and various civil and human rights you take for granted now.

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Brooklyn is a true delight, the kind of film you will happily watch again and again, just to spend some more time with its characters. If you come away from this movie with anything less than a broad smile and a warm fuzzy feeling inside, I’d love to hear from you and confirm you aren’t, in actual fact, some grumpy unicorn.

Review – The Gift (2015)

A few months ago, I wrote about my love of trailers and the ability they have to build a movie up or sometimes tear it down, before we’ve even seen the finished product. At the time, I was particularly interested in the reaction I had had to watching the trailer for The Gift and the reviews I had read that suggested my initial reaction was way off.

Well, I have now finally watched The Gift and, yes, the trailer does not adequately represent the quality of the movie, whether by design or accident I don’t know.

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The movie introduces us to the married couple Simon and Robyn, who have recently moved back to Simon’s hometown of Los Angeles due to a Simon’s new job. Shortly after moving in to their beautiful new home, they bump into an old class mate of Simon’s, Gordon or “Gordo”. Gordon seems really excited to have reconnected with Simon, Simon seems superficially friendly and not terribly interested, and Robyn, who from the get go has an air of loneliness and melancholy around her, seems pleased to have met a friendly soul in a new place.

Gordon begins dropping by their house unannounced, always bringing gifts. These visits leave Simon increasingly agitated, which only befuddles Robyn. She sees Gordon as kind but misunderstood, Simon relishes in telling her stories of how he was called “Gordo the Weirdo” in school and gets annoyed when Robyn doesn’t find these stories amusing. There is tension in this marriage already and it only gets exasperated by their differing reactions to Gordon’s visits.

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Finally, during one awkward night when they have been invited to have dinner with Gordon, Simon loses patience and tells Gordon in no uncertain terms to stay away from them. At this point, we’ve all watched enough of these thrillers to think “Ooooooh, you’ve gone ‘n done it now Simon!”

Sure enough, after that, weird and disturbing things start happening in and around their house.

I’m not going to say too much more about the plot in order to save some of the mystery and enjoyment of watching it. Safe to say is that what follows is a depiction of a deeply flawed and unequal marriage, and an interesting if somewhat superficial look at how the misdeeds we commit against others can have far reaching, long lasting effects.

The movie is really well crafted and far better than you would expect for a first time director. Joel Edgerton wrote and directed the film and took on the role of Gordon. That’s some serious multi-tasking! His portrayal of Gordon is spot-on, treading a very fine balance between benign awkwardness and creepy, leaning ever so slightly towards either of those qualities whenever the script calls for it.

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The cinematography is superb, not a total surprise as the DP is Eduard Grau, who also worked on A Single Man and other great movies. There’s is a certain aesthetic throughout the film and particularly the scenes shot in and outside of Robyn and Simon’s house are so well composed. There are lines dividing the screen in key scenes, panes of glass suggesting the presence of someone looking in, it looks beautiful but cold and lonely too; the whole house is a physical embodiment of the physiological issues the characters are going through.

This also brings me to one of the other excellent qualities of the movie; it is surprisingly scary! We were four people watching it, and three of us jumped in our seats and YELPED several times during the movie. It got my heart racing more than any horror movie I’ve watched this year.

Now I’m going to say some things about the storyline I didn’t enjoy so much, and it may get mildly spoiler, very mildly.

The less successful aspect of The Gift, for me, is to do with the Simon’s character and his past with Gordon.

Simon is a really terrible person. We see glimpses of this from early on, and when it is revealed later on just how awful he is, it’s no big surprise. However, the fact that he is clearly just rotten to the core takes the edge off the story for me a bit. I think the plot would have worked better had Simon been someone more relatable. Not a good man, but a flawed one who had done things that were just close enough to our own lapses that we would cringe. It may not be the intention of the movie to make us look inwards and reflect on the small (and big) cruelties we may have committed ourselves, I just think the movie would have been more powerful had it tried to. Without it, the story is really more a story of a bad man being really bad and finally having bad things happen to him.

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I know a lot of people didn’t like the ending, found it exploitative and unnecessary. Personally, I think the ending worked. I did not see it coming and it left me thinking for a while afterwards about what I believed had happened, what seemed the more likely scenario, where the characters would go after that etc. I enjoy movies where the last five minutes forces you to rethink the whole movie and run through scenes in your mind. Did you see what you think you saw? What did you leave out because you were focusing elsewhere? You have to go back and pick up the trail of breadcrumbs because you walked straight past them the first time.

The Gift gets a resounding thumbs up from me, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Joel Egerton comes up with next. If this is his beginning, I think he will have really great things to show us in the future.