The Pitch: Votes For Women! (For Oscars, Golden Globes, SAG Awards…)
The Review: I don’t think I’ve known what it is to be truly repressed. Sure, I was subject to the odd spell of bullying at school, for everything from my name to my nose, but I’m a white, middle class male who worked his way up from the working classes and, thanks to a diligent mother who put her families’ needs before her own, never really went without during that working class upbringing. So when it comes to a film like this, dealing with the subjugation of a part of society, I tend to judge the success of the film at least in part in how successfully it conveys what it’s like to be part of that minority. Here, then, is the first thing that strikes you about Suffragette: it’s dealing with the rights and issues of a suppressed majority. Here’s a quote from the 1911 census:
Sex Proportions. —Of the 36,070,492 persons enumerated in England and Wales in 1911, 17,445,608 were males and 18,624,884 were females. These numbers give an excess of 1,179,276 females over males, which would, however, be somewhat reduced if we could include in the reckoning the English and Welsh members of the Army, Navy and Merchant Service and mercantile community temporarily absent abroad and also the numbers of fishermen absent at sea on the night of the census.
When you’ve finished having a giggle over the phrase “sex proportions”, take a moment for that to sink in. The women fighting for equal rights were actually the larger proportion of society, yet it took a vocal minority for their cause to even become recognised and, as Sarah Gavron’s film lays out, it wasn’t even something that the majority of women saw as an issue at the time, so conditioned were they into accepting the status quo as being the right way of things.
Gavron and her screenwriter Abi Morgan (‘Shame’, ‘The Iron Lady’) create a fictional character to explore both sides of women in society in the shape of Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a dutiful mother and housewife to husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw). They both work at an industrial laundry where Maud’s mother also worked before her, and where the first rumblings of discontent over gender inequality are already rearing their head. It’s when some of the workers take part in more physical acts of disruption such as throwing bricks through windows, all under the auspices of the Women’s Social And Political Union that Maud finds herself questioning the relative lack of rights and status for women and becomes drawn into the WPSU’s work. She and her co-worker Violet Miller (Ann-Marie Duff) attend a parliamentary hearing on the subject, but Maud finds herself speaking at the hearing and is instantly flagged under the police surveillance programme looking to weed out disruptive influences (led by Brendan Gleeson’s inspector) and she’s soon suffering the same indignities and abuse as the other leading members (including Helena Bonham Carter’s pharmacist and Meryl Streep in a cameo as Emmeline Pankhurst).
Morgan’s script is fairly straight and conventional, and what it does well is to get into the intimate details of the indignities, punishments and abuse that these women suffered, simply to be allowed to express themselves in the same manner as their male counterparts. As well as the lack of voting rights, the film also clearly spells out the abhorrent working conditions that many women faced at the time, treated little better than slave labour and with their husbands often watching on; an overbearing, sexually aggressive boss at the laundry might feel a bit much but it works well as a plot device to add tension to key moments and never feels forced. Where Suffragette is slightly less successful is in attempting to understand why the men of society were so keen on preserving the current order; while it does show the lengths the police and government were willing to go to, method isn’t fully underpinned by motive and the film may have resonated even more had it been able to get under the skin. Other than that, the plotting is very much join the dots and barrels along relentlessly towards its historical climax at Epsom racecourse in 1913. The film has a trump card in its location filming at the Houses Of Parliament, but Gavron seems too intent on drawing your attention to the set dressing and some of these scenes have a somewhat staged feel. This is in sharp contrast to the prison and domestic sequences, which capture the squalor and suffering very efficiently.
Where the film comes alive, truly building on the effectiveness of its setting, is through its key performances. Many of the male characters are slightly underwritten or stereotypical so Brendan Gleeson’s stoic policeman provides welcome balance, with a veil of empathy shrouding his requirement to fulfill his duty. But the film really belongs to Carey Mulligan: it’s Maud’s journey that illuminates both the suffering of those joining the fight and the apathy and disdain of the rest of society not willing to rock the boat when they didn’t see the end outcome as important. Mulligan succeeds in being both defiant and vulnerable as the situation demands without ever descending into melodrama and she’s complemented well by the likes of Duff and Bonham Carter. It’s these performances that give the film an emotional core and allow its anger to build before a thought-provoking climax. While I don’t know that I could truly put myself in the shoes of the suffragettes to understand how they felt and what they suffered after having seen this, what Sarah Gavron’s film did succeed in is making me ashamed of the past actions of my own gender, and for that and for the performances of Mulligan, Bonham Carter and Gleeson it deserves your vote when you’re deciding on your next cinema visit.
Why see it at the cinema: Enveloping yourself in the darkness of the cinema will allow you to immerse yourself in the hardship these women endured, as well as allowing you to see every straining emotion in Carey Mulligan’s face and to truly feel her pain.
What about the rating? Rated 12A for infrequent strong language, moderate violence, a scene of force feeding. Way to go again with the rather specific spoilers, BBFC. It wouldn’t be so bad if you didn’t insist on putting them unavoidably
My cinema experience: Having spend the day with my niece for her birthday at Chessington World Of Adventures, I scoured the map for Cineworlds along my route home. In the end, I settled on Cineworld Rochester, a brief diversion off the M25 and where I had time to log a double bill with Crimson Peak.
It’s a fairly standard Cineworld, although they do insist on checking your Unlimited card before every screening. I always find this somewhat disappointing before the second film of a double bill, although I’ve done as many as five films in a day (at Cineworld Stevenage) and been checked every time.
Having then juggled phone (with QR ticket code) and wallet, I then ended up with even less hands as the timings hadn’t worked out for allowing time to have dinner: hence my Cineworld dinner – as in I’ve done this before, probably too often – of a large hot dog, a bag of Revels and a large soft drink. I’ve developed an odd predilection for putting tomato ketchup down the whole hot dog and mustard on the first half only.
I then took my seat on the front row of the main block, which in common with other Cineworlds I visit (Huntingdon springs to mind) has a railing at the front, allowing the long of limb such as myself to dangle their legs and sit in comfort. My only issue was when putting my feet on the railing, it wasn’t actually that far from the seat so I ended up curled up in a sort of ball with my bottom sliding off the seat and my knees under my chin. Good job I can get comfy anywhere. As it’s a fairly new Cineworld (or feels it, at any rate), the seats are still in good nick and there were no issues with sound or vision.
The Score: 8/10
The Pitch: You only live, er, six times. Possibly seven.
The Review: Here we are again, then. For the twenty-fourth time in fifty-three years, Albert R. Broccoli’s Eon Productions unveil their latest film version of the escapades of the characters created by Ian Fleming in his series of novels. If you don’t know which characters those are, especially the one who has JB monograms on his towels, then this is probably the wrong review for you. It’s a difficult balancing act: hoping to attract in the ten people in the world who’ve never seen a James Bond film before while trying to satisfy the demands of three generations of Bond fans, each brought up on a different interpretation of the character and each longing for what they perceive to be Bond’s quintessential qualities. The pressure on Bond, and indeed on Eon and the production team, to deliver has never been higher and you only have to look at Skyfall’s box office in the context of the overall series to see why (worldwide, adjusted for inflation, in case you were wondering):
While first Pierce Brosnan and then Daniel Craig had begun to turn around Bond’s box office fortunes, Skyfall exceeded even the previous peak of the golden Sean Connery era. Now Bond is established in the modern era as a global brand, how do you go about replicating that incredible success with another satisfying adventure for the world’s least secret agent?
The first thing you do, if you’re the current heads of Eon (Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli), is that you do whatever you can to get Skyfall’s director Sam Mendes to come back again. You also ensure that the writing team of John Logan, Neal Purves and Robert Wade return to work out the next direction for the Bond franchise. The third and final significant step you take is to resolve all of the fuss and nonsense over rights to the most evil characters in the Bond universe – a rights battle that dates back to the fourth film, Thunderball and a wrangle that lasted nearly fifty years – and having reacquired the ability to use SPECTRE in your films you waste no time in making your next film the modern relaunch of Bond’s most nefarious nemeses. Thankfully you still have Bond’s MVP, Daniel Craig under contract, so it’s just a matter of filling out the cast, pitching Bond against SPECTRE and watching the fireworks fly. Or at least, it should be. But given the intensely personal nature of Skyfall, with Bond exploring his heritage and with the most prominent role for M of the entire series, the writers also feel the need to load Bond with further baggage, so we also get a return to the roots of the SPECTRE substitute organisation Quantum (set up in the first two Craig Bonds). We also get, somewhat unnecessarily and for the first time in the cinematic history of Bond, an exploration of Bond’s upbringing after his parents’ death with details lifted directly from the Fleming short story Octopussy.
All of this means that there’s a fair amount of exposition to get through and a large cast to navigate; as well as the returning characters of Bond, M, Q, Moneypenny and Tanner from MI6, we see Mr White (Jesper Christensen) and his daughter (Lea Seydoux), the standard verbally challenged henchman (Dave Bautista), a couple of other obligatory Bond women (Monica Bellucci and Stephanie Sigman), another oily British station chief C (Andrew Scott), and the mysterious link to Bond’s past in the form of Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), a man apparently doing rather well for himself at the evil organisation Bond finds himself investigating. For a secret agent, Bond’s spent surprisingly little of his time doing actual spying over the years, preferring instead to focus on causing women to fall swooning into his arms at the drop of a hat and getting steadily drunk to remind everyone he’s not perfect.
You might need a stiff drink if you think about the plot of this Bond for too long: it manages to achieve the double whammy of not only bloating the film out to a record two and a half hour running time, but it singularly fails to blend its disparate elements into anything resembling a coherent story in that time. Not only performing a little retconning on the last few Bond films but also on Bond’s previous history, what the plot actually does is see Bond globetrot around the world in his usual casual fashion, almost waiting for the plot to come to him. When it does, sometimes after interminable amounts of simply hanging around that didn’t need to be seen on screen, it fails to be either surprising or interesting. It’s pretty much the origin story again for SPECTRE and their leader, but in a story that could probably have been condensed into the first hour of a sharper film before we got on with the real business of SPECTRE’s plan. The attempts at making the threat personal fail to resonate in anything close to the same way as Skyfall, and the big third act reveals are thrown away so clumsily as to be almost risible. (You may also benefit from giving yourself a Daniel Craig Bond marathon before setting out for this one as all three of Craig’s previous outings are regularly referenced.)
Normally Bond films can get away with a half-baked plot if everything else is at the top of its game, but that’s where SPECTRE’s inadequacies truly become apparent. There’s no denying that the opening credits sequence is up there with the very best of Bond, a single tracking shot through thousands of extras capped off with toppling buildings and spinning helicopters. It’s a shame that no other sequence comes close to matching it, with a car chase which has Bond on the phone for most of it, ignoring the peril completely, being a particular example: set reports indicate that seven of the new Aston Martin DB10s designed and produced especially for the film were written off during filming, but the results of that carnage don’t seem to have ended up on screen. The finale is a particular damp squib, with an almost apologetic lack of action and a dilemma that feels overly familiar to anyone who’s seen any of the major comic book movies of the last twenty years (*cough Spider-Man *cough* The Dark Knight *cough*)
The performances are also a very mixed bag, and it wouldn’t be so much of an issue if SPECTRE’s continued attempts to trade on nostalgia weren’t constantly throwing the film’s failings into sharp relief. Take, for example, a train sequence which is reminiscent of both Eva Green’s first confrontation with Bond in Casino Royale and Sean Connery’s bust up with Robert Shaw in From Russia With Love; they’re both decent enough callbacks but all they do is remind you of how short they fall in comparison to the originals that they’re referencing. The writing for the female characters also borders on disastrous; Lea Seydoux and Monica Bellucci’s characters seem to be slipping back to being subjected to the sort of casual misogyny that Goldeneye was mocking eight films ago and Naomie Harris’ Moneypenny is made to look even more stupid here than she was clumsy in Skyfall (example dialogue: “You’ve got a secret. Something you can’t tell anyone.”). Christoph Waltz does his best with an underwritten role, but of the support it’s only Ben Whishaw, building delightfully on his role as Q that comes away with any real credit.
It’s a curiously empty film; seemingly the extras budget was used up in Mexico City as Rome seems to be virtually uninhabited and SPECTRE’s lair has around 1% of the staff of your average volcano lair, staffed mainly by people in black sweaters who look like they’re queuing for interviews for jobs at the nearest Apple Store. (I mentioned the five main roles for the 00 division earlier, and the film also does a cracking job of convincing you that no-one else works there.) I can’t even say good words about the music, Thomas Newman’s score inexcusably missing at least two open goals to throw in the Bond theme which would have elevated the brief moments when the action scenes work; when Goldeneye was rescored to put the theme back into the tank chase, you have to wonder why Newman and Mendes’ handling is so sacrosanct. Sam Mendes’ direction only really comes to life in the pre-credits sequence and in a couple of well-framed hero shots later on, and Hoyt Van Hoytema’s cinematography is serviceable without ever hitting the heights of Roger Deakins’ impressive digital lensing of Skyfall, yet another high bar from a film which wasn’t perfect but outperforms this follow up in almost every regard.
The one thing that saves it from being totally abject is its star: Daniel Craig has looked comfortable in the role from day 1, but now he fully inhabits it and feels as comfortable with the quips as with the moments of genuine emotion. We can only hope that this isn’t his swansong, as there’s plenty that could be done to improve matters for his next outing. When Goldeneye and Casino Royale launched the Brosnan and Craig eras respectively, they gave the series fresh momentum while capturing what made the series great; SPECTRE is absolutely content to replicate what it thinks made Skyfall a box office champion and as a result makes a film that’s overlong, languid and often listless and crucially missing the energy that made all of the aforementioned films work so well. This is mid-table Bond at best and would be lower but for Craig’s rock solid performance that at least anchors the film, but it failed to leave me either shaken or even stirred.
Why see it at the cinema: Much of the later action will be a complete washout by the time it gets to DVD or TV, so do catch it on the big screen. The big screen and sound system will also allow you to appreciate Sam Smith’s not-actually-bad theme song all the more.
What about the rating: Rated 12A for moderate violence and threat. Moderate, sadly, is the operative word; no-one would have faulted the BBFC for calling it “undercooked” or “a bit limp” instead.
My cinema experience: VIP seats at the Vue in Cambridge had plenty of legroom and the sound and projection were very reasonable; just a shame that the film’s middle stretch was so unengaging that someone two rows behind me fell asleep, judging by their rather prominent snoring. The lethargy of the audience in getting up to leave at the end told its own story.
The Score: 6/10
Box office figures courtesy of www.007james.com
The Pitch: I didn’t think there was any way I could top the stupidity of my Fast & Furious 6 review. Well…
The Limerick Review (BOOM! In your face, stupidity):
There once was a man named Rob Cohen Who got this film / car series goin' He directed the first, With his camera immersed In car's exhausts, constantly flowin'. Next, sequels; but Diesel was missing, Then Walker too his role dismissing, As the quality waned We were less entertained And critics were ranting and hissing. But Justin Lin then had a great thought: The cast from the first film were all sought For more thieving car stunts, Once more with Vin's deep grunts For his girl died (or so he had thought). The fifth film showed yet more evolving, The casting door still was revolving, With the stars back en bloc They then added The Rock, So cheesy but oddly involving. The sixth sorted out continuity, But its plotting was lacking acuity. Yet the post-credits scene Kept the audience keen: Add The Stath? Oh what great ingenuity! Wait! The promise of bald Jason's madness Was tempered with deep real-life sadness For Walker died too young; His virtues were then sung. The films had no choice but to digress. The Paul Walker issue's a distraction For he'd only filmed half his action. His brothers helped out And CG's pixel clout Gave once again narrative traction. A year late comes this sixth film sequel, The Stath now arriving to wreak hell Avenging Luke Evans (Near sent to the heavens); Can only be tracked by Kurt Russell. (The adding of Kurt ain't for nuthin': The man behind this film's MacGuffin. By hiring Snake Plissken There's less of a risk in Him fading away to a has-been.) Our gang tours the world with Stath chasing, With barely a mention of racing But cars are the main tools With which they make big fools Of logic, and physics debasing. The main draw's the film's whack set-pieces Whose grasp on the real world decreases With cars in the sky In the blink of an eye; Admit it, the script's mostly faeces. You may think it of me quite petty To complain of amnesiac Letty; There's now so much plot In these films, I forgot! The story's more strands than spaghetti. The emotional core's based on family; A shame that side's handled so hammily. Yet wide demographics Like flashy car graphics - Thank casting spread wide geographically. There's so many stars, some neglected: The Rock's presence barely detected. We lost Han Seoul-Oh And Gisele (Gal Gadot)... Wait, that t's pronounced. (Rhyme rejected.) Not even two deaths have helped thin out The bloated cast list; yet they win out. They might just enchant ya With their cheeky banter And car stunts which might get your grin out. This time Lin has gone, Wan's arriving, Saw's James this time wrangling the driving. This director-for-hire Doesn't raise standards higher His style from the genre deriving. His one fetish greater than fast cars Is his lens outlining each girl's arse As each one that's hot Wanders into his shot Their bottoms are making them film stars. Overall, Fast 7's not realistic Its scenery's quite chauvinistic But if you like a laugh You could do worse by half Than the year's big box office statistic.
Why see it at the cinema:
If you like fast cars and loose women, Then don't hesitate, drop your linen, Get straight down to the flicks For big stunts and hot chicks. (If you miss it you'll be forgiven.)
What about the rating?
The BBFC gave a 12A You'll find out at this link what they say. They gave it for swearing And violence; They're caring About all film viewers. (Not child's play.)
My cinema experience:
A Stevenage Cineworld threesome, (For which I will not give a reason) I also saw two more. The others that I saw Weren't bad either, despite no Liam Neeson.
They did have Russ Crowe and Ben Stiller, With this film to their sandwich: filler. The Water Diviner Was slightly less finer And While We're Young wasn't a killer.
The Score: 7/10
April’s here, and thankfully the first of the month has been and gone without me falling for too many April Fool jokes. I would like to say I didn’t fall for any, but I am sweet and naive and I cannot tell a lie. That said, if anyone does want to assemble a fake trailer for something for next year, it would be greatly appreciated, as I need anything I can to hook me into the barrage of trailers I’m faced with every month.
I do try to watch as many trailers as possible, but with 65 films scheduled for release in UK cinemas in some form this month and 64 less Movie Evangelists to watch all those trailers, some pruning has to take place before I even fire up the YouTube. This month I took in a total of 28 trailers, and in each one I’m looking for the hook, that indefinable quality which will keep the trailer in my mind once I’ve watched so many that I’m struggling to remember my own name.
So this month, I present my half dozen trailers (plus a buy one, get one free special) with what made the film stand out before I watched the trailer, and then the hook which helped this make the list once I’d seen the respective promo. Not a fast (and furious) car, an Action Keanu or a horde of Avengers in sight, but I’m sure they’ll all be good too.
The Indian-Produced Mexican Film: Broken Horses
Vidhu Vinod Chopra, director of India’s biggest ever box office sensation 3 Idiots as well as a number of critically acclaimed Hindi films, has turned his hand to something completely different, a Western set on the Mexican-US border. Most of the promotional material online is from the Indian wing of Fox’s distribution, and it’s taken some unexpected angles.
You had me at: Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. James Cameron. But of course.
Broken Horses is on limited release from Friday 10th April.
The Not Quite Best Foreign Language Oscar Nominee: Force Majeure
The Oscars are a curious beast, and few awards are more curious than Best Foreign Language Film. Putting aside the fact that four of this year’s nominees that I’ve seen (Ida, Leviathan, Wild Tales, Timbuktu) are a country mile better than half of the actual Best Picture nominations (The Imitation Game, American Sniper, Birdman, The Theory Of Everything), you have to jump through a remarkable number of hoops even to get into the top five.
First, each country must choose one and only film and submit it, leaving the likes of Goodbye To Language and We Are The Best! falling short. The 83 films submitted then get reviewed by a committee who narrow it down to nine, and who this year ruled out Two Days, One Night, Mommy, Winter Sleep and Norte, The End Of History. (Funnily enough, they’re all better than the four Best Pictures nominees I listed as well.) And then, for reasons best known to themselves, they publish the list of nine a week before the full nominations before then cutting it down to five a week later. This year Corn Island, Accused, The Liberator and Force Majeure were the four to face last minute heartbreak.
I dream of a day when awards ceremonies just give prizes to the best films, rather than performing their current bizarre language segregation, but I also know it’s just a dream.
You had me at: Avalanche!
Force Majeure will be in art house cinemas and online at Curzon Home Cinema from Friday 10th April.
The Danish Western Set In Patagonia: Jauja
It’s got Viggo Mortensen and a brief synopsis which reads: “A father and daughter journey from Denmark to an unknown desert that exists in a realm beyond the confines of civilization.” If you’re not sold on that, maybe we shouldn’t be friends any more. No, wait, come back, only kidding! Of course we can watch Transformers again. (Sigh.)
You had me at: You’ve rounded the corners! Just like an old-timey photograph. Crazy.
Jauja is on limited release from Friday 10th April.
Buy One, Get One Free Special On Danish Westerns: The Salvation
Quite often I’ll make a snap judgement on whether or not a film’s worth a watch based on the quality of its cast. Aside from the Casino Royale reunion of Mads Mikkelsen and Eva Green you’ve also got Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Jonathan Pryce and the bloke who was Beorn in The Hobbit. That would do me even before…
You had me at: Eric Cantona. I know he’s been in films before, and I’m a Liverpool supporter so shouldn’t like him, but come on, he gets his name in the credits!
The Salvation is on limited release from Friday 17th April.
The Ryan Gosling Film You Wondered If You’d Ever See In A Cinema: Lost River
Another amazing cast list (Saiorse Ronan, Ben Mendelsohn, Christina Hendricks, Eva Mendes, the geeky bloke from Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.), but the big name here was always going to be the director. Sadly Ryan Gosling’s behind-the-camera debut has picked up poor to middling reviews, but most of them claim it to be at least an interesting failure.
You had me at: So that’s what you were keeping under the fez, Doctor. (Yes, I will watch anything with a former Doctor Who in it, what of it?)
Lost River is on limited release from Friday 10th April.
The Thickest Accent In The World Competition: Child 44
Oh, so it’s who’s got the best cast time, is it? Well, I see your Mads Mikkelsen and your Saoirse Ronan and I raise you Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, Joel Kinnaman, Charles Dance, Vincent Cassel, Jason Clarke, Tara Fitzgerald and Paddy Considine! I believe that’s a full house.
You had me at: The last time I think I heard Russian accents that thick was probably in Muppets Most Wanted.
Child 44 is on general release from Friday 17th April.
In Any Other Month This Would Seem Strange: A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence
If you want me to be all “ooh, Iron Man fighting the Hulk, and lots of other giant fighty robots”, then you’ve come to the wrong place. This trilogy capper from the man that brought you Songs From The Second Floor and You, The Living is what’s getting me most excited come the end of the month. If you’ve never seen either of those films, then go and rectify that now.
You had me at: IN THE NAME OF SANITY, WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO THAT MONKEY?!?!
A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence is probably the only thing you’ll find in cinemas that isn’t Avengers 2 from Friday 24th April.
The Pitch: Number 22… is alive! Your move, creeps.
The Review: The cinema of my childhood was defined by two very different film watching experiences. That’s if you can call it cinema, as the demise of picture palaces in my home town saw me watch most of my films on the technological wonder that was VHS. Some of that was made up of the typical family fare that was a staple of popular cinema in the Eighties, from The Karate Kid to Flight Of The Navigator and The Goonies to Short Circuit. As the decade drew to a close I was allowed by my very liberal mother to take in some of the action greats of the decade before I’d reached the 18 rating recommended, such as Aliens and Die Hard, Lethal Weapon and Robocop. I suspect, although he’s half a decade younger than me and from the other end of the world, that Neill Blomkamp may have had a similarly formative childhood, given that his latest film appears to be an attempt to splice together those two genres by combining the family friendly robot education of Short Circuit with the corporate satire and blood-letting of Robocop.
Normally I’d suggest it’s fairly reductive and not particularly helpful to boil a film down to such obvious constituent components, but Blomkamp seems to be going out of his way to remind us of the heritage of his film. While it’s thrust into the same milieu as his breakout film District 9 with the South African slums providing a stark backdrop, there’s more than a little feeling of Old Detroit about the wasteland hideout of the gangsters who take in Chappie and try to give him an unsuitable education. Even the ED-209 style robots that form the bulkier competition in the security robot industry have the voice of old Tinhead himself, Peter Weller. On the flipslide, Chappie (Sharlton Copley) is a South African accent and a set of wheels away from being Johnny Five and while the film’s conceit of what would happen if you dropped a learning robot into the wrong environment feels original, the patchwork from which it’s been composed verges on over-familiar.
But you want original? How about making two of your lead characters a South African rap duo Die Antwoord who are friends and fans of the director with no real acting experience? As security droid Chappie falls under the influence of Yolandi and Ninja, he’s torn by the basic morality given to him by his creator (Dev Patel, yet another example of a single genius creating artificial intelligence in film making you wonder why we even bother to have corporations, but I digress). At the same time, the audience is torn by wondering if casting two non-actors as the two main human leads in your film is brave or foolish, and it’s probably a bit of both. Ninja and fellow cohort Yankie (actual actor Jose Pablo Cantillo) feel like stock villains, but Yolandi adds some maternal instinct and warmth and the gangster trio are certainly quirky for this kind of film, if not always particularly appealing. Adding to that off-kilter feeling is the fact that Die Antwood’s music is playing regularly in the background – although complemented well by the hard work that Hans Zimmer’s score does to integrate it – and what you’re left with is a whole bunch of oddness to offset the familiarity.
I wouldn’t say that there was much else original about Chappie – the other prominent humans (Hugh Jackman and Sigourney Weaver) are stock characters and for a long stretch, the story doesn’t progress in any surprising directions. There’s a weak grasp of science, some of the dialogue – especially most of what Weaver is lumbered with for exposition and pretty much anything Patel says – is corny and unbelievable and Blomkamp applies many of District 9’s worst flaws, such as reality TV overlays that he promptly forgets about, without being able to capture its most redeeming features. The film makes a genuine attempt to combine the sweetness and naivety of Short Circuit with the satirical violence and grunge of Robocop, and not for one minute does it ever look like working. It’s only in the last half hour or so when the warmth begins to shine through that Chappie feels like a worthwhile exercise, and even then there’s as much to be at best bemused by as there is to love. Chappie is eccentric, oddly sweet and unlike the work of any other big-budget film maker you’ll see today, and for that we should be grateful, but District 9 is feeling more and more a one-off than the start of a solid career and Blomkamp will have to do more to convince that he’s not headed for a career residing at the bottom of the bargain DVD bin at your local supermarket.
Why see it at the cinema: Blomkamp does make good use of his frame and films his action well, even if there’s probably less of it than in either of his previous films. If South African rap-rave soundtracks are your thing, then hearing them on a top quality cinema sound set-up is also not to be sniffed at. (Based on this evidence, I can take them or leave them.)
What about the rating? Rated 15 for strong language and bloody violence. There is one stand out moment of violence at the end which feels almost incongruous against some of what’s come before, although it would have felt right at home in Paul Verhoeven’s original Robocop. I’d buy that for a dollar.
My cinema experience: Saw this at on a weekday evening at The Light cinema in Cambridge. The joys of the film playing on a large screen at The Light are that I get a seat in the middle of a row with enough legroom to sit comfortably: if you change anything as part of your takeover of the cinema, The Light owners, please keep that legroom, it’s invaluable for lanky so-and-sos such as myself.
About two thirds of the way into the film, I became distracted when someone in the row in front had seemingly become bored of the film and took his phone out to check Facebook. In my book if you’re that unengaged by what you’re watching there’s just one think you need to do: leave. On politely asking the gentleman if he would turn off his phone, I got sworn at for my trouble. I’m sorry, whoever you are, that you felt personally affronted by me asking you to turn off a four inch square torch that you were shining in the middle of a darkened room which immediately took me out of my own viewing experience, but if you believe it’s OK to sit and check your social media during a film then can I politely ask you don’t watch the same films as me in future?
The Score: 6/10
The Pitch: Moore is less.
The Review: I often have conversations with people regarding my love of horror films, and if any genre is divisive in whether or not people wish to be part of the audience then it would be that one. People ask me why I love horror movies, and some of it is that feeling of safe risk: deep down we know that there isn’t a finger-clawed maniac haunting our dreams or a giant in a hockey mask waiting round the corner to chop us into tiny pieces. What I do find more uncomfortable is that within the real world, the true horror that is the simple passage of time, as each of us inexorably presses forward to a point when we will simply cease to be. For me, the greatest fear in that is the possibility of losing one’s sense of self on the downward march towards infirmity, and conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s represent the pinnacle of that fear, the risk that we may become slowly and painfully unable to function and in the process become an increasing burden on friends and family.
The story of Dr. Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) brings that fear into sharp focus, as we experience life through her eyes from the point when her memory starts to fail her in the subtlest of ways to such time as her mental faculties have become completely withdrawn. Howland is a linguistics professor and so already has a keener insight than most into the inner workings of the mind, but when hers begins to fail at a young enough age for the doctors to invoke the words “early onset” even she seems unprepared for the effects that her mind’s disintegration will have on her, her husband (Alec Baldwin) and her grown-up children (Kristin Stewart, Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish). While trying to maintain a quality of life as best she can, Howland also puts into place plans to attempt to control her destiny once rational thought has begun to elude her, but the uncertainty of her illness has a greater effect than even she can foresee.
This feels a very personal film for writer / director pair Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, even before you consider that Glatzer’s life was ended while the Best Actress Oscar was barely on Julianne Moore’s mantlepiece. Glatzer succumbed to another debilitating condition in the form of ALS or motor neurone disease which he endured during the production of the film. Whether despite this or because of it, Still Alice for the large part steers clear of mawkishness and sentimentality, and it as its best when allowing you to absorb the impact of Howland’s disintegration in more subtle ways. Many scenes initially feel edited together strangely, but you soon come to realise that we are witnessing the story through Howland’s eyes and these lapses become symptomatic of her condition. Even so, the film wouldn’t retain the power it does without Moore’s devastating performance at its heart, one which deserves all of its recent accolades and which is the dramatic core of the film to a huge extent. All of Moore’s previous Oscar nominations came over a decade ago and while I think it would be unfair to call this film a renaissance for her career, it’s still a timely reminder that she remains one of the best actresses of her generation and the film would probably have sunk without trace without her. Even so, one grandstanding speech late on feels slightly at odds with everything else happening.
Consequently, as Moore’s character loses her grip on normal functioning so the story slightly loses its grip on many of the other narrative threads weaving out from her story. The best of these subplots concern Moore’s relationship with her younger daughter, and Kristin Stewart gets a chance us to remind us of her range after all those years of blankly wandering through Twilight and Snow White films. Sadly few of the other supporting characters get a look in, and both husband Baldwin and elder daughter Bosworth’s stories feel critically underdeveloped, not least when it’s revealed that Bosworth has tested positive for the same hereditary condition as her mother. I can’t speak from personal experience for how well the film actually captures the family experience of suffering through Alzheimer’s but it certainly doesn’t feel false. However the lack of histrionics doesn’t always serve the film’s best interests and you may find yourself frustrated that the family’s trauma becomes largely sidelined in favour of Moore’s story. If a film such as this helps to raise awareness of the horrible reality faced by people blighted by such afflictions then so much the better, but it’s Julianne Moore and her alone which really bring Still Alice to life and make it worth your time.
Why see it at the cinema: Seeing the film on a big screen helps you to allow the film to capture your full attention; consequently the rug pulls when you realise time is passing and you’ve become unaware feel all the more powerful.
What about the rating? Rated 12A for infrequent strong language and moderate sex references.
My cinema experience: I’d originally planned to see White God at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse on a Friday evening, but some unanticipated roadworks put half an hour on my journey. Thankfully the helpfulness of the staff when I arrived at the cinema late managed to sort out a replacement film, so I saw Still Alice in its place.
The end of the film took a few people by surprise, so there was more than a certain amount of chatter in the foyer afterwards. As a people watcher I love to grab snippets of this as people walk past, and the general consensus seems to be that this is Moore’s film. Can’t disagree with that.
The Score: 7/10
It’s that time again. The carpet is reddened, the bald heads are polished, the seat fillers are preparing to do their thing and the finest fashion houses on the West Coast are delighting at the sound of cash tills ringing or whatever noise 21st century cash registers actually make. Awards season reaches a climax on Sunday with the somethingth annual Academy Awards (the number’s not important, look it up if you’re really bothered, it’s eighty-something, they’re all basically the same anyway). There’s more reason than most this year to actually watch the awards, because Doogie Howser M.D. / Barney Stinson himself, Neil Patrick Harris, is hosting and I think it’s fair to say if he does it to the standard of the other awards shows he’s hosted, it should be a job for life if he wants it. Not convinced? Then try watching his opening number for the 2013 Tony Awards. If the opening to the Oscars is half as good as this, it’ll be the best thing to happen to the ceremony in years.
But it’s not just an excuse to have some song and dance and to see quite how poorly John Travolta can pronounce somebody’s name. (Am I the only one hoping he gets Best Foreign Language Film to present this year?) There are also some awards to be given out, and one film will get to stand alongside the other eighty-ish greatest films of all time already accorded the honour of Best Picture, including Crash, Chicago, The Greatest Show On Earth, Driving Miss Daisy and Titanic. Yep, I don’t even need to tell you that this awards ceremony is to justice and fairness what John Travolta is to public speaking, you already know it, but that doesn’t stop us all from some harmless speculation on who’s going to fare the best come the early hours of Monday morning.
I do wonder if the choice of host is in some way to compensate for what’s a fairly middling selection of films this year. At the end of the post you can see a breakdown of all of my ratings for films nominated for Best Picture since the award increased from five films, but even those at the top end of the chart aren’t the most inspiring films ever made. I weep just a tiny bit that the likes of Mr. Turner, Nightcrawler, Calvary, Under The Skin, Foxcatcher, Inherent Vice and Gone Girl haven’t picked up more recognition, but I won’t claim to be the slightest bit surprised. Equally inevitably, I can say that the three Foreign Language film nominations that I have seen – Ida, Leviathan and Timbuktu – are all comfortably better than at least half of the Best Picture nominations this year.
So as Oscar and his chums will get the final decisions wrong as inevitably as Transformers and Alvin And The Chipmunks sequels will continue to be inflicted upon us because we keep paying to watch the damn things, I’ve managed to see all eight Best Picture nominations so once again present For Your Consideration: the only ranking that really matters, my own view on the films that could walk off with the big one from least best to best. (Disclaimer: as far as I know, all of the Oscars are the same size, it’s just a figure of speech.)
The Least Best Picture Is The Imitation Game
Oh dear. The Imitation Game feels like it occupied a screen in my local cinemas for ever, but I fear they may have been the only one as Morten Tyldum’s film actually took slightly less money than Mrs. Brown’s Boys D’Movie in the UK last year. Rapturous public acclaim from those who have seen it can only indicate that many of those people don’t actually watch many films, for there’s only really two good things about The Imitation Game. Those two things are named Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley and both deserve the nominations in this year’s acting categories they’ve won themselves, although the fact that neither is likely to actually scoop the award is also a fair assessment.
Where to start with the problems, then? First off is the direction, which is flat, lifeless and rarely does anything above pointing a camera in the direction of the nearest stationary actor. Then there’s the script, which botches almost every aspect of Turing’s life and is a structural mess. Most of the remaining background characters are well-acted but one dimensional cyphers, Turing is made out to be somewhere between a sympathiser to the opposition and a traitor (which is all swept under the carpet late on anyway) and the title cards over the final shot are so condescending as to be deeply insulting to anyone with an IQ more than their shoe size.
But it’s the general contempt for its audience that rankles most about this year’s Weinstein Company vehicle for awards success. I’ve visited Bletchley Park and the National Museum Of Computing, and it’s a deeply enthralling place that’s awash with momentous history. Here it’s reduced to man builds magic box, man turns on magic box, magic box works, the end, which is a narrative non-event of the highest order. Good performances will only go so far, and good luck to The Imitation Game for fleecing the British public of over $20 million, but this is a desperately average film at best and a Turing travesty at worst.
Which Is Not As Good As American Sniper
Speaking of contempt for your audience, there’s nothing like showing you simply don’t give a stuff about the quality of your end product when one of the most discussed facets of your film is the incredibly fake baby that’s unconvincingly passed around to comedic effect in the second half of the film. It’s an insult to just about everyone when you can’t even be bothered to put that right, but sadly it’s also indicative of the slightly sloppy notes creeping into Clint Eastwood’s last few films.
There’s a problem with what American Sniper is, which is an unbalanced, flag waving action movie. That’s set the American box office alight but box office success and critical quality make poor bedfellows. There’s also a problem with what it isn’t, which is true to Chris Kyle’s story if the book is any judge; the film gives Bradley Cooper moral uncertainty and a sense of self-righteousness that aren’t exactly a reflection of Kyle’s own telling of his story, and you can’t help but feel that the more interesting film – and the one which the Eastwood of ten years ago might actually have made – would be one which steers closer to Kyle’s own public record of his motivations and experiences.
I would also like to go on record as being mystified that Bradley Cooper has been nominated for Best Actor or Supporting Actor three years in a row, which puts him in an exclusive club along with Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck, Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, William Hurt and Russell Crowe. I’m sure he’s a lovely bloke (and he’s also impressively bilingual), but not one of his three nominations has really been in the best of the year. Sorry Bradley.
Which Is Not As Good As Birdman
Hopefully I made my feelings about Birdman pretty clear with my review. I understand that many people enjoyed this but I can’t help but feel it’s been rewarded for technical achievement rather than artistic endeavour. Actually, maybe that’s the way forward – a combination of two sets of scores, one for technical and one for artistic, in the same way as ice dancing. It couldn’t be any more convoluted than the current voting process.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate Birdman, and I love almost everyone associated with it, but even thinking about it now, six weeks after having seen it, leaves me feeling slightly exhausted. I will be a grumpy Gus if this picks up the big award, but I have a horrible feeling it might because it’s packed full of Actors with a capital A and we’ve seen much worse Actors films (*cough* Crash *cough*) walk off with the main award in the past.
Which Is Not As Good As The Theory Of Everything
The Imitation Game and The Theory Of Everything have a lot in common: they’re two British films that have two high-flying British actors in significant roles, where the man has a role which features a requirement for an increasing level of acting tics and mannerisms. Both the lead actor and actress in each case have picked up an Oscar nomination of their own and both films were nominated for both best British film and best film at the BAFTAs. And in both cases, the two main performances are by some distance the two best things about the film.
The Theory Of Everything isn’t by any stretch of the imagination as frustratingly poor as The Imitation Game, but neither is it up to the standard of director James Marsh’s previous work, including Project Nim, Man On Wire and the excellent and overlooked Shadow Dancer. It’s a pretty standard narrative set in a chocolate box Cambridge that doesn’t pan out in the way that you expect such stories to – although many going in will already know the outcome – but it’s told in a conventional, straightforward fashion and it’s both showy and understated in a rather conflicted manner.
Then there’s rather a significant step-up in quality…
Which is Nowhere Near As Good As Selma
I don’t believe that the acting has been overlooked in Selma for reasons of race or colour, but I do believe that the nominated actors all have the attention-grabbing, theatrical roles that normally get nominated and it becomes that much harder for those whose work is less clip-worthy to nudge their way into the nominations. Selma has been all but excluded from the final breakdown. You have to go all the way back to Decision Before Dawn in 1951 to find a film with a Best Picture nomination and only one other nomination in a minor category, and that really doesn’t reflect well on the Academy’s voters who had plenty of opportunities to recognise the work done here.
There have been a few reports that the tension between LBJ and Dr. King have been overplayed, but this would hardly be the first film to adjust the truth slightly for narrative purposes (yes, that is a reference to you, The Imitation Game), but there’s still enough well placed fact here to pack the punch that the story needs to. From a gut wrenching opening explosion to scenes of focused tension when the gathered masses attempt to march out from Selma, director Ava DuVernay has a strong handle on the material and isn’t afraid to shock a little to get your attention. The song over the closing credits makes a contemporary reference to what’s happened in Ferguson over the past year and it serves as a direct reminder that the issues here haven’t gone away in the intervening fifty years; in fact, Selma could scarcely have been released at a more relevant time.
I do hope this will give career impetus to David Oyelowo, in a film littered with top draw performances from British actors such as Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth. Maybe the moral of the story is that if you’re a British, you need to be putting on an accent as posh as Keira Knightley’s plummy Imitation Game Brit-warble, rather than flawlessly mimicking the accents from across the Atlantic.
Which Is Not As Good As Boyhood
Yes, other films have watched children grow up, but never over the course of a single film to such remarkable effect as Richard Linklater’s latest towering achievement in direction: one that will, if there’s a shred of natural justice left in this overly glamorous farrago, see him pick up an award for direction that his career has long since justified. The Before trilogy may have inadvertently charted the evolution of a relationship over a quarter of a lifetime, but Boyhood is a timelapse on adolescence quite unlike anything that’s ever been attempted before.
And we shouldn’t just applaud the fact that twelve years is an insanely long time period over which to be producing a film, with no guarantee that the end product would have ended up even useful (or that the actors would have made it to the end of the process they started). Having to pick someone at the age of six and to hope he’ll still be interesting in a dozen years is an unenviable task, but Linklater gets round this somewhat by using Ellar Coltrane as the prism through which to examine the transition from childhood to adulthood, rather than the focal point.
Absolutely greater than the sum of its parts, the lead actors are all still magnificent – and Hawke and Arquette would probably both have one in a slightly quieter year, although Arquette hopefully still will – but the real power of Boyhood is in absorbing it, ideally in a single sitting, and allowing the repetition and the rhythms to wash over you.
Which Is Not As Good As Whiplash
I’ve seen a few reviews which take issue with a number of aspects of Whiplash. They can be broken down into two main categories: firstly, that the events of Whiplash are somewhat lacking in realism. Your average hospital drama does a fairly appalling job at accurately portraying the finer points of medicine, so I don’t believe we should get too hung up on the mechanics of music school. However, this also applies to some of the story structure (one character being explicitly and repeatedly told not to do something at all costs, before doing that in less than thirty seconds in a manner that’s then never explained or referred to again). While I can see where that’s coming from, I believe that Whiplash – almost perversely for a film based around jazz drumming – operates at the level of an opera, with two main characters going to extraordinary lengths to win the approval of their audience and their peers and as such, any plot manoeuvres are best not dwelt on for too long.
The other criticism, and one which carries a little more weight, is the idea that Whiplash is at best ignoring the perils of bullying, and at worst justifying that as a means to an end for artistic greatness, almost as if genius cannot be attained without suffering. I have a different take: J.K. Simmons’ Terence is modelling Miles Teller’s Andrew into his own image, even if he’s not doing so intentionally, and this is a classic power struggle, a battle for dominance between two alpha males at the cost of their very souls, and neither can reflect on their actions with any sense of pride by the end.
In between theatrical plot twists and enhanced egos there lies Whiplash, a film oozing confidence and doing a much better job of its jazz drumming soundtrack than Birdman managed to. For the first two-thirds it’s a compelling character study, but then as the plot moves up a tempo or two we reach a breathtaking climax that had my heart almost beating out of my chest. Whiplash is darkly enticing, thrilling without the promise of evolution or redemption and it does so with a jazz soundtrack that might even win a few converts. If nothing else, it elevates J.K. Simmons to the level of recognition he’s long since deserved.
The Best Picture Of 2014 Is The Grand Budapest Hotel
There’s probably around a dozen or so directors who, if marooned on a desert island, I would be content if nothing else but the products of their career’s labours washed up beside me. (Ideally a giant TV to plug in next to the palm tree would be nice). While Wes Anderson continues to make films that flirt with the deep sadness of the human condition but yet in which every single element is lovingly crafted, his last pair of films – this and Moonrise Kingdom – have been not only as good as anything else in his career, but are as deep, meaningful and hysterically enjoyable as anything else being made anywhere today.
If you want to know which film brought me more pleasure than any other last year, then look no further. But The Grand Budapest Hotel ups the ante by setting itself across four eras, each of which comes shot in its own typically relevant and period friendly aspect ratio and which emphasise the evaporation of time that comes to the best of us before we can even come to terms with it. Anderson might just have perfected the formula he’s been honing since Bottle Rocket and before.
The cast is astonishing, even those in barely a couple of scenes able to walk off with entire films elsewhere, but the pairing of Anderson with Ralph Fiennes is a masterstroke that I hope history will look back on and regard with greater significance. (Admittedly I only placed Fiennes eleventh on my performances of the year last year, but I think I was maybe being a tad harsh.) You can see why Anderson migrated entirely to stop-motion for The Fantastic Mr Fox for his films have a love, a care and an attention to detail that’s rarely seen outside the world of physical animation. It’s that unbelievable attention to detail and the total delight of the script, the direction and the performances that cause me to rate this film top of the Oscar pile for 2015. Expect the Academy voters to have totally ignored me.
And finally, as promised, my rankings out of 10 for all the Best Picture nominees in the six years since the category expanded. Sorry I’ve missed five of them, but I still think that’s a pretty good record. It doers hopefully show that this isn’t a great year, but I will keep my fingers crossed that one or two decent films will pick up something before the Oscars are over for another year.