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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Whiplash

Along with the Grand Budapest Hotel, this was my personal favourite of this year's very solid Oscar lineup. I'm still kind of astounded by this fact.


Whiplash is, in no uncertain terms, a brilliant piece of work. It is also, however, a seriously odd duck. It's a music film with a nasty heart; a tense, edge of your seat thriller where most of the action happens behind a drumset and, most unbelievably, an emotionally riveting and thoroughly enjoyable piece of storytelling that is lacking in anything even remotely resembling a single likeable lead character. It's also a film that approaches music not as art but as a grueling, almost martial sport; as something that isn't a mode of expression but as something that's all about mathematical precision and superhuman technical abilities. Most audaciously, it presents a nine-minute long jazz-drum solo as the height of dramatic tension.

It's a film of contradictions, paradoxes even, that refuses to adhere to formula, to bow to expectations or to give so much as an inch towards accessibility or unearned sentiment. And it's this very stubborn conviction that makes it the masterpiece that it is.    

Personally, I love music and I love films about music but Whiplash's writer/ director Damien Chazelle takes virtually everything that I love about both music and music films and doesn't so much turn it inside out, as it does kick it in the balls and send it on its way. Music is one of the purest - if not the purest - forms of art in existence. It's something that touches the soul in a way that damn near nothing else of earth can. And films based on music - from A Hard Days Night to Inside Llewyn Davis - tend to thrive on this particular power. Even if, as in Inside Llewyn Davis, the characters themselves are having a rough time of it, the music itself is always presented as something fundamentally uplifting and life-affirming.

In a way, Whiplash seems to continue this tradition. Even if I'm not the world's greatest jazz fan, the music in the film is undeniably terrific: representing the very best of jazz with none of that self-indulgent waffling that tends to turn off those of us who don't see wanking about on your instrument as the truest form of artistic expression. Here's where Whiplash goes flying off the reservation, however. While the music is groovy, melodic and exhilarating to its very core - which is everything you could want from a successful music film - Whiplash presents the actual process of making such transcendent music as something that is just a broken back away from hell on earth.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Cake

With the Oscars having just been, now's a pretty good time to take a look at a movie that clearly really, really, really wanted one. 

Doesn't mean it deserved one though. Sorry, Ms Anderson.

This review is also up at Channel 24.

What it's about

After a young woman in her grief-counselling group commits suicide, Claire Bennett finds herself becoming obsessed with the woman's life and suicide, all the while dealing with her own tragedy.

What we thought

Coming hot on the heels of Still Alice and soon to be followed by The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby and Wild, Cake is – and not to be too flippant about this – yet another story about a woman coming to terms with her own tragic circumstances. Unfortunately, it's also by far the weakest of this current crop of tragi-dramas.

As the film itself is weirdly very reluctant to reveal the nature of the tragedy at the centre of its story, I won't reveal it here, but suffice it to say that whatever else is wrong with it – and frankly, there's quite a bit – Cake is at the very least an unquestionably sincere and presumably well-intended expression of life at its toughest. It's an unflinching, largely unsentimental take on grief, depression and self-destruction, featuring Jennifer Aniston at her all-time least glamorous.

It's also, it has to be said, about as much fun to watch as its subject suggests.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service

Sorry it's a bit late but a new Matthew Vaughn film is always worth talking about.

Also, there has been a weird bit of controversy to do with the ending of the film, which is something I'll address in the post-script of the actual review.


Based on the original comic book series by Mark Millar (Kick Ass, The Ultimates) and Dave Gibbons (Watchmen), Kingsman: The Secret Service is the first major comic book movie of the year. It also sets the bar quite high for for what's to follow it.

Director Matthew Vaughn is hardly a stranger to comic book adaptations, as he directed X-Men: First Class and, more pertinently, Kick Ass and, in spite of the existence of a Kick Ass 2 film, Kingsman feels like the real followup to that superhero-deconstructing cult hit. Again teaming up with Kick Ass screenwriter Jane Goldman and working closely with Millar and Gibbons, Kingsman: The Secret Service does for spy films what Kick Ass did for superheroes.

It's not simply a deconstruction of the spy genre but is a celebration of it too - in particular the more outlandish Connery and Moore James Bond films. I haven't yet read the original comic but Millar's habit for overdoing the edgy cynicism in most of his work (something that he's finally starting to back away from, it has to be said) is tempered by Vaughn's uncanny ability to bring real heart to his adaptations and Kingsman is certainly no exception. Sure, Kingsman constantly pokes fun at the spy genre and is both ludicrously violent and quite sweary but it clearly also has plenty of affection for both its spy-genre trappings and its characters.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Still Alice

The movie everyone should be talking about this week.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

Alice Howland is a world-renowned linguistics professor and a loving wife and mother of three grown children but when she is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease, her familial bonds are tested as she is forced to confront losing everything that makes her who she is.

What we thought

There are many genuinely exceptional things about Still Alice but perhaps its greatest triumph is that it manages to present a no-bars-held account of a a life being ripped apart by an awful and inescapably debilitating illness that, as a film and as a piece of storytelling, engrosses, rather than repulses the viewer.

Compare it to the upcoming Jennifer Aniston vehicle, Cake, for example, whose similarly tough subject matter makes for a truly unpleasant viewing experience. Still Alice, on the other hand, may not be what anyone would call a “fun” film – even “enjoyable” and “entertaining” are probably stretching it – but it is a captivating, almost magnetic, character drama that draws you in even as it hits you with one tough emotional punch after one another. It also features a sense of dread that you would be lucky to find in even the best horror films.

The film isn't quite perfect as some of its secondary characters are somewhat under-drawn (though they are portrayed uniformly excellently by the likes of Alec Baldwin, Hunter Paris and, yes, Kristen Stewart who is perfectly cast here) and it brings up the horrible reality that Alice's strand of Alzheimers has a 50/50 chance of being passed down to her children but never actually develops that idea for longer than five minutes. For all of its (relatively minor) flaws though, there is simply no denying the quality of the sharp, almost entirely non-manipulative writing; the empathetic direction or the first-rate performances.

Fifty Shades of Grey

The movie that everyone's talking about. 'Nuff said.

This review (along with a million-and-one comments) is also up at Channel 24.

What it's about

Based on the mega-selling “literary” sensation by E.L. James, Anastasia Steele is a shy university student who becomes sexually and romantically involved with the coldly controlling Christian Grey, an elusive billionaire bachelor whose many dark and kinky secrets threaten to torpedo their blossoming relationship before it even begins.

What we thought

Cards on the table time: I have not read the vast, vast majority of the Fifty Shades trilogy, nor do I plan on doing so, but I have read a chapter or two out of morbid curiosity and have heard enough about this huge phenomenon (not least of all through hilarious celebrity readings of the sex scenes by the likes of Gilbert Godfrey and George Takei) that I really shouldn't have been surprised by just how uncomfortably wrong-headed its story turned out to be when laid out on screen. And yet, though I actually think there is a lot to like about the film, I was shocked by just how... uncomfortable I was by the film's central relationship - which is sort of a problem since that's kind of what the whole thing's about in the first place.

To be absolutely clear, this isn't a prudish response to the film's relatively tame but quite, um, effective sex scenes, nor to its attempted exploration of BDSM sexuality, but is a deep unease with how Fifty Shades of Grey uses its apparent misunderstanding of this particular fetish (most people who are actually into this stuff in real life apparently despise the way it has been portrayed in James' novels) to romanticize a relationship that is built on seriously questionable power-play dynamics and sexual politics.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Interview

The movie that almost started World War III. Well, not really but it's still funny to think that a silly Seth Rogen flick caused this much of a ruckus. Especially after seeing the thing.

This should also be up at Channel 24 at some point and I'l post a link if and when that happens.

What it's about

Dave Skylark, the charismatic but not too bright anchor of an entertainment news show, is invited for a once-in-a-lifetime interview with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Before he and his best friend/ producer, Aaron Rapaport, head off for their rendezvous with the infamous “Supreme Leader” in his home country, however, they are enlisted by the CIA to use their almost unheard of close proximity to Jong-un to discreetly assassinate him.

What we thought

At this point, the Interview is far more famous for the bizarre circumstances in which it was released than anything within the film itself – and, honestly, that's probably for the best.

It's not absolutely terrible by any means as it does contain an above average amount of laughs for a latter day Seth Rogen vehicle and both James Franco as the affably slappable Dave Skylark and Randall Park who is pretty damn great as Kim Jung-un himself offer up a couple of very enjoyable comic performances. At the same time, Rogen himself along with newcomer Diana Bang and the always welcome Lizzy Caplan more than hold their own as the film's relative straight men (and women) and, even when it's not causing you to bust a gut laughing (which is most of the time really) its nearly two-hour running time goes by pretty painlessly.

The problem though, is that while it's perfectly OK as a very disposable, sporadically funny and dopey buddy-comedy, the film absolutely refuses to step up to the plate and do its potentially satirical, cutting and chutzpadik premise the justice it so absolutely deserves. The ludicrous over-reaction to it by North-Korean-sympathizing terrorists looks all the more silly when you consider just how infantile and safe the film ended up being. But then, terrorists have never exactly been known for either their sense of perspective or their ability to take a joke, now have they?

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Jupiter Ascending

Oops, forgot to post this here.

Check out the original review at Channel 24 for some tasty hate-comments. I honestly don't know why I reply to these people...

Oh yeah I played around with my usual reviewing format, maybe that had something to do with it.

What it's about

Jupiter Jones, a young woman, who divides her life between her obnoxious immigrant family and her job cleaning toilets, suddenly finds herself the centre of an intergalactic family feud.

What we thought

My dear, dear Wachowski siblings, what ever are we going do with you?

We all know that the Matrix was never as original or (maybe, just maybe) as good as its reputation suggests, but it was still a major event in the history of science fiction cinema that took bits of everything from Grant Morrison's comic books to Philip K Dick's novels to oodles and oodles of Asian cinema (both animated or otherwise) and turned out a product that at least felt like something genuinely new and exciting. Sure, it had rubbish dialogue, plenty of plot holes and a too-cool-for school aesthetic but damnit was it exciting!

Since then, what have you offered us? Ghastly sequels to your breakout hit, a psychedelic tribute to an old cartoon and a failed adaptation of a highly respected novel, that's what. And yet, through all the cod philosophy and narrative pretzels, I still respected your ambitions and, at the very least, your attempts to actually say something with your films. Well, not so much Speed Racer, both because I never saw it and because it's Speed Racer but your other films, certainly. Yes, even your really, really terrible Matrix suck-wells (see what I did there?).

Monday, February 2, 2015

Catch Up Time - Early February 2015 edition

As always, I still have a few films to look at from the past month that I haven't covered in full yet. I should point out that I haven't quite seen everything but only Map to the Stars seems to be a particularly major omission. I hope to catch up with that soon.


The Imitation Game. I do almost feel that I should give this film the proper respect it deserves with a full review but, honestly, it actually doesn't really need one. It's neither particularly deep, nor particularly dazzling on a technical level so I don't have too much to say about it. What I can say though, is this: it's a spectacular story, told really, really well with a terrific lead performance from Benedict Cumberbatch and is, in equal measure, heartbreaking and profoundly inspiring. Oh yeah, and quite funny too. This largely true (some liberties have been taken but the main points are true) story of the guy who both created computers as we know them and helped to end the second World War is a serious must-see. (9/10)

Into the Woods. Based on the acclaimed stage play and featuring the music of Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods is a total mess of a film. For the first half or so, it's a really enjoyable piece of work, with a great cast giving plenty of life to some very old fairy tales with plenty of wit and a generally boisterous treatment of not very memorable, if lyrically complex, songs. Johnny Depp is, admittedly, truly awful as the Big Bad Wolf, while Emily Blunt, Meryl Streep and Chris Pine steel the show. Sadly, the film actually ends at the 75-minute mark but apparently someone thought that was too short for a major Hollywood musical directed by the dude who did Chicago, so it then goes on for another forty-five leaden, down-beat and utterly superfluous minutes, utterly ruining all the good will it built up in its first half. (4/10)