Movie Review – Black Panther

Black Panther – 2018 – Ryan Coogler

Following the recent success of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Thor: Ragnarok, Marvel brings it right back to Earth with Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. After his introduction in Captain America: Civil War, T’Challa of Wakanda gets his own film that is very much its own self contained story. Black Panther sees T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) rise up to that title following the death of his father T’Chaka in Civil War, only to see his throne, his nation and his entire world challenged by an outside threat.

Seeing as it is such a separate world, it is best to start with Wakanda itself. A (fictional) nation in Central Africa, Wakanda was built on a meteor site that has filled the land with vibranium, a rare and valuable metal known for its hardness (think Captain America’s shield) and for various other very handy uses. The vibranium has allowed Wakanda to develop technology far beyond anything else on Earth, but fearing what everyone else would do with their technology, they hide themselves away and masquerade as a 3rd world country. Wakanda is magnificent to look at, a futuristic metropolis surrounded by spectacular African mountains, rivers and plains. It would have been great for some of it to have actually been filmed in Africa, but $200 million only goes so far.

The people of Wakanda are, like everywhere else, diverse individuals. The royal family consists of T’Challa, his mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and his teenage sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), who is depicted as being a tech genius at the same level or beyond Tony Stark. Then we have the warriors- W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), head of Wakanda’s Border Tribe, basically the police force; and Okoye (Danai Gurira), head of the Dora Milaje, which, for GoT fans, could be compared to an all-female version of the King’s Guard. Next is the spy and T’Challa’s ex Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), a bit of a crusader for human rights and for Wakandans providing aid to other countries. Rounding out the more heavily featured characters is Zuri (Forest Whitaker, butchering another accent), who is some sort of Shaman or medicine man.

At first, everything is going along swimmingly. T’Challa passes his first test, a challenge for the throne from M’Baku (Winston Duke), the leader of a Wakandan outsider tribe the Jabari. But then the unsavoury sorts start getting involved. The first of these is Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), the repellent South African arms dealer we last saw getting his arm cut off by Ultron in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Far more capable and resourceful than he appears, Klaue, who has long history with Wakanda, manages to escape the Wakandans in a very cool set piece set in South Korea. With the help of the C.I.A’s Everett Ross (Martin Freeman, last seen in Civil War), they do manage to eventually capture Klaue and take him in for questioning and punishment.

This is when the film’s real big bad, Erik “Killmonger” Stevens enters the fray. A black-ops soldier (what else?), whose nickname illustrates his propensity and talent for taking lives during various conflicts around the world, Erik has a massive monkey on his back and is obsessively driven to get into Wakanda and take over power. Killmonger is a fanastic villain, possibly Marvel Cinema’s best yet, not just because he is a human who uses training, ability, intelligence and desire to get what he wants, but because he has genuine cause. I won’t spoil any details, but Erik’s villainy has far less to do with power than it does with a misguided sense of revenge, retribution and oppression. 

All of these characters are at least semi fleshed out, and all get their moments to shine. Michael B. Jordan, Danae Gurira and Letitia Wright are probably the standouts, but I certainly can’t underestimate Boseman’s work here. He is the glue that holds it all together and while stoic and steady doesn’t blow people away, it is exactly what the story calls for. Coogler’s talent with actors and characters is very apparent in Black Panther, and the interplay between both friends and foes is spot on. I believe only the Captain America films have had such effective character and relationship development as what is done here.

The third act goes pretty much exactly as you think it will, and a lot of the CGI is dodgy (again, where does $200 million go?), but by this point the job has been done. Marvel have again enlisted the help of a young, talented director and let him give his own vision to one of their films. This is a superhero film in every sense of the word- invisible planes, magic herbs and metals, technology beyond our lifetimes, and of course war rhinos- but still very much ground level. It is very self-contained from the rest of the Marvel world, and all the better for it. Of course, Wakanda’s tech will definitely tie-in and become crucial for Infinity War, but the individual nature of this film works a treat. 

Filled with wonderful African as well as African-American culture and featuring terrific black actors playing strong black characters, Black Panther is a perfect example of what can be done when Hollywood steps away from tradition. The fact that Wakanda is such a futuristic place can be seen as a metaphor for what could be possible if we lived in a world of equality. An engaging and interesting story, a great villain and very good performances from all involved, Black Panther is exactly what Marvel needed heading into its biggest play yet.

Rating: A

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Movie Review – Phantom Thread

Phantom Thread – Paul Thomas Anderson – 2017

*Potential spoilers*

With the likes of Nolan, del Toro and Villeneuve releasing highly accomplished and acclaimed films in 2017, debate was reignited about who is the greatest modern day director. Then Paul Thomas Anderson (hereafter PTA) comes along with Phantom Thread, and reaffirms what I’ve known for a decade; he is the best director alive, bar none. Phantom Thread is the kind of challenging, humorous and mesmeric film that only he can make. Now to somehow talk about the film…

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At its most basic, and it’s anything but, Phantom Thread could be seen as a romance-mystery. It is ostensibly about two people in 1950’s London- Daniel Day Lewis’ renowned couturier (yes I googled that) Reynolds Woodcock and Vicky Krieps’ Alma Elson, a young waitress at a local restaurant- and their burgeoning relationship. However, the film ends up being more a comment on dominance, and the part it can play in the dynamics of relationships. Dominance between this seemingly mismatched couple, as well as Reynold’s live-in sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), and even his deceased mother.

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Right at the centre of all this complexity is Reynolds himself. This man is one of the more unusual and challenging I’ve seen. A high-fashion designer who would nowadays be considering effeminate and odd, he is extremely acclaimed and sought after and spectacularly meticulous. His well-honed habits and quirks go right down from his work to every day activities such as eating and sitting quietly, these routines enabled over the years by Cyril.

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When the much younger and looser Alma enters his life, Reynolds is at first enlivened by her presence, but soon finds her merely a disruption to his precise way of living. Reynolds quite clearly has severe issues going on- some reading it as repressed homosexuality- but for me, an overbearing relationship with his mother, and her subsequent loss, have created this overly particular tyrant of a man. I need not spend too much time on Daniel Day Lewis, but if this is his final screen performance, he has done himself no harm in the contest for the greatest actor of all time.

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That being said, I can’t help but feel this is Vicky Krieps’ film. Alma finds herself in a world so foreign and with siblings who have such an exact way of life that she starts to flounder. But then Alma finds a way to not only fit in and connect with Reynolds, but to gain control. Krieps plays with Alma with a great deal of vulnerability, but always with some glimmer of more going on behind the eyes. Alma has fallen in love with a man whom it would be very difficult to remain in love with, and Krieps plays the confusion of her situation perfectly.

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Lesley Manville, used so effectively by Mike Leigh throughout both their careers, is typically great here. Her Cyril is almost as eccentric and difficult as her brother, living this sheltered and perfectionist lifestyle, and Manville imbues in her a sense of loneliness and constant fight for control. She is also the only one who doesn’t get bullied by Reynolds, which one scene so perfectly spells out. After the massive oversight that was her not getting even a nomination for Another Year, it’s great to see Manville get some recognition from the Academy for her work here.

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Being a PTA film, it goes without saying that the technical elements here are top notch. He has again enlisted the services of Jonny Greenwood for the score and while it is perhaps a little too constant, at times bordering on intrusive, it certainly compliments the beauty on display and when called for, heightens the tension. Surprisingly, with his preferred cinematographer Roger Elswitt unavailable, PTA has apparently filmed the majority of Phantom Thread himself. Considering the beauty of the film, which is at times feels like a moving version of a 19th Century gothic poem, this is a rare and noteworthy achievement.

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There are so many elements at play in Phantom Thread: dominance, control,  love, loss, obsession, fashion, mummy issues, and yes, even food and S&M. How someone comes up with a story about a fashion designer and a waitress in 1950’s London and produces something like this I have no idea. PTA is a master storyteller and an even better filmmaker. The best of his generation and at just 47 years of age, there’s plenty of time to reach the very peak.

Review Round Up – January 2018 Part 2

It Comes at Night (2017)

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Billed as a horror but more accurately a very effective thriller. Young director Trey Edward Shults is well aware that the unseen is far more terrifying than shoving the “it” in our faces at every turn. I still don’t have the least idea what “it” was, and this makes the film a success in my eyes.

Rating: B+

The Matrix (1999)

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A re-watch in order to show my ten year old brother for the first time. He is probably a little too young for it but there’s plenty to enjoy here even if you aren’t fully following the concepts. The action and effects still hold up remarkably well, as does Keanu’s acting.

Rating: A

Interstellar (2014)

Speaking of following concepts and ideas…

There is so much emotive power, blow-your-mind (pseudo) science and visual splendor to Interstellar, that despite its flaws, I can’t help but love it. I think what I feel for this is what most others seem to feel for Inception, a film I just can’t get behind.

Rating: A

The Florida Project (2017)

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Much like 2016’s Moonglight, this is a masterfully knowing and understated look at the lives of Americans you just don’t see on the big screen. There are excellent performances from newcomers and veterans alike, and I have no doubt this will be popping up a few times in my 2017 awards.

Rating: A

Lady Macbeth (2017)

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Quietly affecting and surprisingly shocking, Lady Macbeth features a winning performance from Florence Pugh. In a dire, oppressive situation, Pugh’s Katherine decides to fight back, managing to scrounge up enough courage to go places few people can. Pugh’s transition to control is terrific to watch, even though some moments are quite difficult to watch

Rating: B+

The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)

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Just my second Earling comedy, after Kind Hearts and Coronets,  and another great example of the talents of Sir Alex Guinness. His perfectly mannered performance here is the highlight, but the film itself is breezy and very easy to sit back and enjoy.

Rating: B

A Monster Calls (2016)

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Do not watch this if you’re in a bad mood. As upsetting as the trailer makes it out to be, A Monster Calls is nonetheless full of hope and life lessons. Young Lewis MacDougall, 12 at the time of filming, is a revelation in the lead role, completely selling the extraordinarily difficult circumstances this young boy finds himself in and how he deals with it. The effects are spot on as well, Liam Neeson’s (who else) Monster one of the more impressive looking CGI creatures of recent years.

Rating: B+

L’Avventura (1960)

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I struggle with Italian films at the best of times so I knew I would struggle with Michelangelo Antonioni. The film is just too slow, too dull, too many rich people doing stuff all. The Monica Vitti character is far more interesting than the rest, but when she is out of focus mine disappeared as well.

Rating: C-

Review Round Up – January 2018 Part 1

As with December, a bit of time off and motivation resulted in a slew of movie watching for me throughout January. A few trips to the cinemas for new releases, a few favourites re-watched and a heap in between:

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

There’s plenty to like here, notably the strong performances and general wackiness; but ultimately, I felt Martin McDonough bit off a little too much than he could chew here. Themes of loss, grief and justice are mixed with statements on policing, racism, rape, forgiveness and dozens of others. There’s just a little too much going on and too often it loses focus. What is done right is better than most films, but as a whole I don’t see it as a success.

Grade: C

Fantastic Mr. Fox

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One of the strangest and most enjoyable films I’ve seen, Fantastic Mr. Fox loses nothing on a re-watch. In the 8 or so years since its release, Wes Anderson’s stop motion animation has become one of the most popular and loved of all films. I never would’ve imagined Anderson’s style would work with animated foxes and badgers, but here it is.

Grade: A

Philomena

Another re-watch, this one for the purposes of showing my girlfriend a film I think she’ll enjoy. She did, and how could you not. Taking a potentially melodramatic and stuffy story and adding a healthy dose of humour, Stephen Frears’ tale of an elderly woman trying to find her long lost son is a delightful and humanistic success.

Grade: A

Straight Outta Compton

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Despite the colourful characters and language, Straight Outta Compton never really manages to escape the common biopic tropes. There’s some strong acting and enjoyment to be had, especially in trying to guess which cameo is coming next, but it’s all just a little too familiar and safe, which I certainly didn’t expect going in.

Grade: B-

Spotlight

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2015’s Best Picture winner may be a little by-the-numbers in many eyes, but for me it manages to capture two completely different things very well- the journalistic process and normal reactions to shocking news. There is great subtlety to the film, only once does anyone really get pissed off about the material they are uncovering. But Spotlight is showing us a professional world filled with professional people, and they way they go about their work and systematically uncover the horrors of the Catholic Church is to me, thrilling to watch.

Grade: A

The Darkest Hour

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Yet another real life story and yet another case of seen it all before. The one difference here is a committed and enthralling performance from Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill. Perfectly suited (not physically of course) to these kinds of histrionics, Oldman relishes being let off the leash and makes the film well worth watching.

Grade: B-

The Right Stuff

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The final one in my run of based on real life films, The Right Stuff is one of my favourites and I’ll likely feature it in my favourite films series so won’t say too much. It is dense, it is broad and it is brilliant.

Grade: A+

Columbus

Mumblecore pretensions at its absolute worst. Haley Lu Richardson’s breakout performance can’t save this from being a stinker. Comes across as a project from a film student who should be a photographer or cinematographer, not a story teller.

Grade: D

Good Time

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A dark and grimy film that somehow makes you feel dirty while you’re watching it, Good Time is one of the more surprisingly good films of 2017. It’s to see R-Patz has fully escaped Twilight and is picking interesting and challenging roles like this. I expect to see all involved here have long careers ahead of them.

Grade: B+

 

 

Movie Review – The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water – Guillermo del Toro – 2017

Some of the best films of 2017, such as The Florida Project and Lady Bird, tell the stories of very human and realistic characters and situations. Others, such as Blade Runner 2049, use the medium to display the kind of fantasy elements that work so well in cinema. Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water could be seen as almost a mix of both. There is a strong element of the human condition on display here- loneliness, acceptance, friendship, love- but being the story of a mute woman and a sea creature meeting and falling in love, it obviously leans more towards the fantasy than realism.

Del Toro, perhaps best known for his 2006 masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth, does this style so well. He has an innate ability to blend together the stark, harsh realities of life with the endless possibilities in our minds. Crucially, he has also mastered how to most effectively display this juxtaposition on the big screen. The majority of The Shape of Water is filmed in quite low light, with dingy, gloomy settings. These moments are enlightened by the use of both fantasy sequences and with water, which on several occasions flows into the film as a kind of relief from the challenges of life.

Sally Hawkins in the film THE SHAPE OF WATER

The story is basically a modern (though set in the 60’s), adult take on a fairy tale. Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a mute woman who works as a cleaner in a top secret government laboratory facility in Baltimore. Her life is ruled by monotonous structure and repetition. She has two friends- her next door neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), an unemployed artist, and  Zelda (Octavia Spencer) who works with Elisa in the facility and serves as her interpreter.

Sally Hawkins and Richard Jenkins in the film THE SHAPE OF WATER. Photo by Kerry Hayes. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

One day a strange tank arrives at the facility, along with Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) who has captured what is supposedly an amphibious creature from the Amazon. Sensing a kindred spirit, the lonely and frustratingly outcast Elisa quickly finds a way to connect to the creature. With the Cold War currently raging, Strickland is ordered to kill the creature to bisect and study it for any possible advantages it will give the Americans. Elisa is obviously not about to let that happen, and sets a plan in motion to rescue the creature and get him to the ocean.

The Creature’s Tank

The film is del Toro through and through, there’s no doubting that. However, without having someone in the role of Elisa who is capable of showing the outward vulnerability and inward strength and determination, the film would not work. Sally Hawkins, terrific in pretty much everything she’s done in the last decade or so, reaches a new career peak here. Hawkins’ combination of first rate acting ability and unusual looks work perfectly for Elisa; creating a potentially iconic character of unexpected heroism. The gimmick of Elisa’s muteness never feels as false as it could have done, mostly down to Hawkins’ ability to sell it.

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The rest of the cast is brilliant, one of the best all round acted films I’ve seen in a while. Along with Hawkins, Jenkins and Spencer have been the ones to get traction during award’s season. Jenkins is excellent as Giles and completely deserving of attention; a middle-aged homosexual struggling to get the recognition for his advertising art, and able to find some courage and meaning within himself due to his neighbour and friend Elisa. Spencer is solid, but while her character is essential to the plot, she doesn’t get the arc nor the individual moments to really make an impact.

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Outside the well-recognised trio we have the likes of Michael Shannon, whose Strickland is one of the better villains in recent years. He is not the sadistic tyrant that Pan’s Captain Vidal is; his villainy is more based on his own twisted sense of pride of country and self. Shannon is as good an actor as we have right now, and he is able to sell Strickland as a generally frightening man but still allowing a hint of humanism to sit there under the surface, keeping him from becoming a cartoon. Also terrific is Michael Stuhlbarg, as Soviet spy Dr. Hoffstetler, who is also able to see how remarkable the creature is and seek to free him from the facility. Stuhlbarg had a hell of a 2017 and with his portrayal here of a conflicted and ostensibly decent man, it’s no wonder he is getting cast in every second film.

Michael Shannon’s Cold Command

The Shape of Water is a perfect example of the magic of story-telling via film. With visuals and actors perfectly delivering everything the audience needs, an engaging story and a director preternaturally designed to make films like this, The Shape of Water is a resounding success and one of my favourite films of 2017.

The Best Supporting Performances of the 2010’s

Here is my much delayed (quite honestly, I forgot) follow-up to my Best Leading Performances of the 2010’s. It’s one thing to be the lead in a film, get a full story arc and plenty of opportunities to make your mark- having a lasting impact as a supporting player is in my view, just as difficult and just as critical. The 2000’s were extremely rich in terms of supporting performances, so let’s see how the 2010’s match up:

Jacki Weaver – Animal Kingdom – 2010

Animal Kingdom was something of a sensation when it came around 7 years ago. Australian productions have hit big in America before, but rarely do they receive critical praise on this level. With a relatively early US release date, the film had lost most traction by the time awards season rolled around. But Weaver, as the matriarch of a Melburnian crime family, kept on going right through, garnering truckloads of nominations and wins and likely only just missing out on the Oscar. Actively working in Australian films since the early 70’s, it was great to see Weaver’s terrifying performance thrust her into the worldwide spotlight.

Christian Bale – The Fighter – 2010

As former professional boxer cum crack addict Dickie Eklund, Bale was handed a golden opportunity to get what many felt was long overdue awards recognition. But so often these so-called “sure things” are complete swings and misses. Not here. Bale went through his customary physical transformation to become Dickie. He didn’t just lose weight- the hair, the teeth, the mouth, the movements- he embodied the man in a way far beyond impersonation. He also provides the emotional punch in the film’s third act, with Dickie’s own version of redemption allowing his brother to continue pursuing his dream.

Andrew Garfield – The Social Network – 2010

Andrew Garfield as Eduardo Saverin in The Social Network (2010)

Bale was the winner a long way out, but Garfield should’ve been there making a fight of it on Oscar night. He too is the emotional driver in his film, filling the void left by the almost sociopathic Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) as his best friend and financier Eduardo Saverin. It’s a good role for Garfield, the genuine nice guy in a sea of snakes, but he perfectly sells it with the authenticity and honesty his acting has come to be known for.

Lesley Manville – Another Year – 2010

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Mike Leigh has created innumerable great characters throughout his career, but due to his stark realism, the actors don’t often get a chance to stand out amongst the flashier roles. But Manville, as the depressive alcoholic divorcee friend of Ruth Sheen and Jim Broadbent’s happily married couple, sweeps through the film like an unwanted breeze, knocking things around and trying to bring everyone down with her. Her desperation and sadness strangely illuminate the film, and the performances power is helped by the fact that being in a Leigh film, there is a strong element of reality to her.

Brad Pitt – The Tree of Life

Say what you will about the film (or just say it’s a masterpiece), there’s no denying the quality of the acting in The Tree of Life. The kids, especially Hunter McCracken, do an excellent job and Jessica Chastain is terrific, but I didn’t think it was her best performance of the year (more on that in a minute). Pitt on the other hand, delivers what I consider the best work of his entire career. His disciplinarian father, trying his best to parent his children as he, a product of the 30s and 40s, knows best, is at first a unlikeable character. But following the death of his son during Vietnam he is racked with guilt and despair. It’s the kind of emotion Pitt rarely gets to display, and having lived quite a life by 2011, the role came at the perfect point in his career.

Jessica Chastain – The Help – 2011

Octavia Spencer won all the awards, which I’m not too upset about, but in my view, Chastain’s is the best performance in this terrific ensemble cast. It seems a bit wrong to single out one of the white characters in a film like this, but Chastain’s Celia is almost the most sympathetic person in The Help. Out of place amongst the other wives and dealing with numerous miscarriages, her friendship with maid Minny (Spencer) provides the film with some of its funnier moments as well as some poignancy and ultimately, satisfaction. In a breakout year where she had 5 other credits to her name, this stands out to me as the role that made her a star.

Philip Seymour Hoffman – The Master – 2012

For all he achieved in a titanic career, this is the role for which I will always remember PSH. I’ve said a little about the performance and character in my post on The Master last year (https://deadlymoviesandtv.wordpress.com/2017/05/09/my-favourite-films-of-all-time-2/) so I will keep it short. This is one of the very best performances in all of film and I am certain time will only serve to cement this, Joaquin Phoenix and the film in general, as the brilliance they are.

Jake Gyllenhaal – Prisoners – 2013

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I’m not usually a fan of this type of mannered performance, but Gyllenhaal manages to imbue his Detective Loki with subtlety that not only tones down his quirks, but makes him far more interesting and mysterious. Right in the middle of a rich vein of form for Gyllenhaal, his performance here works well with his lead role in Nightcrawler to illustrate just how capable an actor he is.

Sam Rockwell – The Way Way Back – 2013

A bit of an outlier in this group of mostly quite dramatic roles, Rockwell’s work here is nonetheless every bit as impressive. His Owen, the manager of a local water park that protagonist Duncan (Liam James) visits on his summer holidays, Rockwell is hugely effective as both comic relief and the driver of a lot of Duncan’s development throughout the film. It’s the kind of thing Rockwell can do with his eyes clothes, but he’s never done it better than here.

J. K. Simmons – Whiplash – 2014

As with Bale, this is another example of a role and an actor that on paper, appear a match made in heaven. And here again, it is even better than we all could hope. A familiar face in TV and film since the mid 1990’s, in Terence Fletcher, the brutal, perfectionist jazz music instructor at a New York music school, Simmons found a role he could really sink his teeth into and stand out. He completely dominates the film and rightfully, did the same during awards season.

Edward Norton – Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – 2014

Often seen as one of the more talented actors of his generation, Ed Norton probably has not had the career he deserved or appeared destined for when he first hit the scene. But regardless of the roles he gets, he is always reliable and often, as is the case here, far more than that. Like his character, pretentious actor Mike Shiner, Norton launches into the role and demands all his co-stars keep up. Michael Keaton is able to, but Emma Stone and Naomi Watts don’t fare as well, there decent work completely shown up by an in-form and firing Norton.

Mark Ruffalo – Foxcatcher – 2014

I did seem to enjoy Foxcatcher more than most, and the same can probably be said for Ruffalo’s performance. Steve Carell and Channing Tatum get the plum roles, as millionaire John du Pont and Olympic wrestler Mark Shultz respectively, and they are both excellent. Ruffalo, as Mark’s elder brother and fellow gold medalist Dave, is a no flash no frills type perfectly suited to Ruffalo’s acting style. It may be that following all of Carell’s oddness, and the uncomfortable relationship he forms with Mark, Ruffalo’s presence in the film is heightened as being deeply human and genuine. Whatever the case, it works for me.

Alicia Vikander – Ex Machina – 2014

Vikander puts herself in the company of Rutger Hauer and Haley Joel Osment as actors who have managed to successfully convey a wide range of depth and emotion whilst playing android or robotic characters. Vikander’s Ava, a creation of Oscar Isaac’s eccentric programmer Nathan Bateman, is a robot with a human face. But, befitting the god-like ability Nathan is depicted as possessing, Ava is far beyond a robot. In fact, she shows thought and consciousness, specifically in the form of manipulation and deceit, that even intelligent humans would struggle with. It took an actor like Vikander, heading into the prime of her career, to pull off something like this, and besides Isaac’s dance, her performance is why we will remember Ex Machina.

Patricia Arquette – Boyhood – 2014

From a robotic character acting remarkably human, to a remarkably human character that barely feels like acting at all. Arquette  has been around for quite a while, establishing herself in film and TV and at the time filming began in 2002, had recently become a mother. Richard Linklater’s decision to film Boyhood over 12 years, with the actors growing at the same rate as the characters was a bold move that created a huge impact as we see the children in the film become young adults as the story progresses. But even more effectively, it allowed Arquette and her ex-husband in the film, Ethan Hawke, to really grow with the story and their characters. The overwhelming result of the film is a deeply personal and affecting depiction of motherhood. Perhaps not what Linklater intended, but a success nonetheless.

Mark Rylance – Bridge of Spies – 2015

A noted stage performer, writer and director, Rylance was seen as an odd choice for the crucial role of accused spy Rudolf Abel in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. But his portrayal of this quiet, polite, mysterious man is so evidently spot on from the very first scene he is in. He uses his stage experience not to make himself noticed, but to perfectly identify how the audience will view this character and to play to that uncertainty. A deserved winner of the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, Rylance’s quiet stoicism was again but to great use in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, this time as a man quite clearly on the right side of morality.

Mahershala Ali – Moonlight – 2016

Barry Jenkin’s masterful depiction of identity and loneliness is split into three roughly equal sections. Ali’s Juan is only in the first section of the film, where, oddly as he is a drug dealer, he becomes a sort of role model and father figure for young and confused Chiron. Despite this, his impact is so great that his shadow hovers throughout the rest of the film. In one of the most uniformly best acted films I’ve seen, Ali’s is the performance that shines brightest.

Viola Davis – Fences – 2016

One of the best actors working today, and with a Tony Award under her belt for the very same role, it was no surprise to see Denzel Washington cast Davis in the role of Rose for his screen adaptation of Fences. It was even less of a surprise to see Davis completely dominate the role. The film is very wordy, and Denzel says a lot of words, but Davis’ ability to convey feelings with her face and body language is what makes her stand out. It’s a tough role in a demanding film, and if not for an actor of Davis’ calibre, I’m not sure I would’ve got all the way through.

 

Review Round Up – December

As I sit down to begin my set of reviews for my January viewings, I realise I’ve forgotten to do December. A prolific month for me, with some time off and some good new movies to check out:

Mudbound

Doesn’t add anything remarkable to the genre, but I found this to be a very well-acted and engaging look at race relations post WWII. Mary J. Blige is deserving of all the awards traction she has received, but I thought Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund were just as good.

Grade: B

The Lost City of Z

Something of a more grounded version of Aguirre, The Wrath of God, The Lost City of Z is a wholly engrossing and beautifully presented take on adventure and obsession. Charlie Hunnam is serviceable in the lead role and there are lots of nice supporting performances, notably from Robert Pattinson and Sienna Miller, making the most of wife role.

Grade: B+

Only the Brave

Going in expecting a solid, workman like film befitting the firemen it depicts, I was hit pretty hard with just how powerful this film is. Well-made and engaging right from the start, but the impact of the third act makes it something a little more memorable.

Grade: B+

War for the Planet of the Apes

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Continues the trend of the series so far- entertaining and hits all the right beats, without ever stamping itself as anything above good genre fare.

Grade: B-

The Big Sick

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A little more formulaic than I expected, but as with Netflix’s Master of None, it’s refreshing to see these culturally diverse tales that are much more reflective of today’s society. I really didn’t expect to see Dinesh in a successful feature film but that’s the wonderful world we live in.

Grade: B+

The Queen

As expected, The Queen does nothing wrong but never really reaches any heights beyond successful biopic. Twelve years later, it’s good to finally be able to comment on the 2006 Best Actress race. Verdict- happy enough the Mirren swept the board.

Grade: C+

American Made

A story that could’ve been a much better film, if told a little more seriously and more coherently. But Cruise is clearly having a great time and for what it’s worth, I had a decent time as well.

Grade: C+

Call Me By Your Name

All round brilliant story-telling and film-making. Review to come.

Grade: A

Throne of Blood

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It’s a good film and I can’t really trash Kurosawa, but I think Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth will forever be the definitive version in my eyes.

Grade: C

The Zookeeper’s Wife

A sympathetic story, good performances, cute animals; nothing to get too excited or angry about here.

Grade: C+

Movie Reviews – Paddington 1 and 2

Paddington (2014)

The greatest surprise I’ve had from a film in a long time came in late December when my girlfriend decided we would be watching Paddington. Knowing it was well received on release I accepted, but expected to half-heartedly watch it at best. But very early on in the scenes set in darkest Peru I was entranced. This wasn’t just a kid’s movie with a bit of humour to keep the adults interested, this was a beautifully and carefully crafted tribute to one of fiction’s most enduring and loved bears.

The first thing done right was to cast Ben Whishaw as the voice of Paddington. His gentle cadence perfectly suits the naive, kind, pleasant-natured bear. The rest of the casting is just as good, from Hugh Bonneville the cautious risk analyst Henry Brown and his illustrator wife Mary, played with whimsy and charm by the ever-reliable Sally Hawkins; through to Julie Walters’ Mrs. Bird, the Brown’s housekeeper who has seen it all and Peter Capaldi’s cantankerous neighbour Mr. Curry. Nicole Kidman has fun with her villainous Millicent Clyde, never taking it too seriously but still able to be genuinely threatening to our hero.

The story is solid but not exceptional. Following the death of his uncle Pastuzo (voice of Michael Gambon) in Peru, Paddington’s Aunt Lucy (voice of Imelda Staunton) sends the little bear to London to find explorer Montgomery Clyde, who had previously promised Lucy and Pastuzo a home there whenever they needed. Our marmalade-loving friend finds all kinds of fish-out-of-water trouble both before and after being taken in by the Brown family, all the while being pursued by Clyde, wanting to stuff Paddington and put him in the National History Museum. What sets the film apart from similar is the way its cast of likable characters draw you into the story and the perfect blending of live-action and animation keeps you constantly entertained.

Paddington 2 (2017)

Surely Paddington was just a flash in the pan, a rare case of everything aligning and being able to strike gold? Paddington 2 proves that it wasn’t a fluke, Paul King (writer/director) and co simply just know how exactly to use this character in our modern day world. Here he adds even more great characters to his now well-established world, part reality part magic.

The most significant addition is Hugh Grant as the extremely narcissistic Phoenix Buchanan, an actor struggling to let go of his glory days and drowning in debt. Although pigeon-holed as either the pomp or the cad, Grant has shown himself to be a more than capable character actor. This may be his best performance yet. Buchanan is a flamboyant and quite ridiculous man, who may even be suffering from serious mental issues. This allows Grant to have an absolute ball, getting to flounce about like a buffoon and try out every accent imaginable. Unlike Nicole Kidman’s villain in the first film, who simply helped created conflict in the plot, Grant stands out as one of the more memorable characters of recent years.

The story here is again, not what makes it all work. Paddington wishes to send his Aunt Lucy a pop-up book of London for her birthday, but a classic case of mistaken identity sees him going to prison for the theft of the book. With the help of his delightful nature and marmalade, Paddington quickly befriends the hard-men of the prison, including Brendon Gleeson also having fun and producing great work as prison cook Knuckles McGinty. The inmates and of course the Brown family, must help clear Paddington’s name and get the book back.

The book itself allows King to really experiment with visuals. There are several beautifully animated scenes where Paddington imagines he is actually within the pages that are feasts for the eyes. The look of both films is also noteworthy: drab, gloomy London is lit-up by not only Paddington, but by the colourful Brown family. The audience needs little more than the carefully thought-out mis-en-scene to know exactly who each character is. The Brown’s son Jonathon, for example, has a room filled with science experiments, quickly letting the audience know he is a bright and thoughtful young man. It’s a level of production that you don’t expect from what is ostensibly a children’s film.

Putting the technical stuff aside, the Paddington films are simply delightful and enjoyable fun for children and adults alike. I know find myself very weirdly awaiting however many more of the films they can throw at me. Keep going until you miss I say.

 

Family Top 10s – 2010’s

In this new series I will give topics to my family and ask for their respective top tens. The lists are likely going to illustrate just how different all our personalities and tastes are, with very little cross-over. Due to the excruciating length it takes some family members to give me their lists, this could be a rare series! Without further ado, here are my family’s individual top ten favourite films from 2010 onwards:

My Ten

  1. The Master (2012)
  2. The Tree of Life (2011)
  3. Drive (2011)
  4. Carol (2015)
  5. Moonlight (2016)
  6. Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
  7. La La Land (2016)
  8. The Social Network (2010)
  9. Steve Jobs (2015)
  10. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Honourable Mentions: Life of Pi (2012),  Gravity (2013), 12 Years a Slave (2013), Foxcatcher (2014), Birdman (2014), The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), Macbeth (2015)

My Girlfriend’s Ten

  1. The Social Network (2010)
  2. Skyfall (2012)
  3. Dunkirk (2017)
  4. Gone Girl (2014)
  5. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
  6. The King’s Speech (2010)
  7. The Martian (2015)
  8. Argo (2012)
  9. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 (2014)
  10. Steve Jobs (2015)

Honourable Mentions: The Hobbit Series (2013-14), Star Trek Series (2013, 2016), The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014), Spotlight (2015), Wonder Woman (2017)

My Mum’s Ten

  1. Baby Driver (2017)
  2. La La Land (2016)
  3. The Magnificent Seven (2016)
  4. The Greatest Showman (2017)
  5. Gone Girl (2014)
  6. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
  7. Easy A (2010)
  8. Django Unchained (2012)
  9. Robin Hood (2010)
  10. Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011)

My Brother’s Ten

  1. Gravity (2013)
  2. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
  3. Manchester by the Sea (2016)
  4. La La Land (2016)
  5. The Place Beyond the Pines (2012)
  6. Carol (2015)
  7. Our Little Sister (2015)
  8. Whiplash (2014)
  9. Nebraska (2013)
  10. Lady Bird (2017)

My Sister’s Ten

  1. Wonder Woman (2017)
  2. La La Land (2016)
  3. Logan (2017)
  4. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
  5. Gone Girl (2014)
  6. Whiplash (2014)
  7. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
  8. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
  9. Lion (2016)
  10. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 (2014)

Honourable Mentions: Black Swan (2010), Super 8 (2011), Life of Pi (2012), The Hunger Games (2012),  The Imitation Game (2014)

My Brother-in-Law’s Ten

  1. Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
  2. Birdman (2014)
  3. Her (2013)
  4. Inception (2010)
  5. The Revenant (2015)
  6. The Raid (2011)
  7. Nightcrawler (2014)
  8. Sicario (2015)
  9. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
  10. Whiplash (2014)

Top Ten – Favourite Biopics

While they can often be stuffy and formulaic, when a biopic is done right they can result in highly emotive and interesting experiences due to their (mostly) true events. I’ve tried to make this actual biopics, not films focusing on real events (Apollo 13, Spotlight, The Right Stuff) but ones that focus on the people involved. In chronological order:

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Probably the biopic to which all biopics aim to emulate, David Lean’s epic about the life of British Lieutenant T. E. Lawrence features classic story-telling with spectacular visuals and of course, one of the all-time great performances from Peter O’Toole. Its four hour run-time doesn’t exactly fly by, but the quality on display here is top notch and a journey every film fan must go on.

Patton (1970)

General George S. Patton is one of history’s most interesting men, and George C. Scott one of the history’s best actors, so this was always a film destined to succeed. But it is still surprising how successful the film is. At nearly 3 hours long, barely any of Patton’s military life is left untold, but it is completely fascinating to watch this unorthodox man go about his business during the 20th Century’s most pivotal moments.

Amadeus (1984)

The title is deceiving, because Amadeus is just a much a biography of Mozart’s great rival Antonio Salieri as it is of the man himself. Tom Hulce and F. Murray Abraham as Mozart and Salieri respectively deliver vastly different types of performance, one wild and free, the other internalized and subtle, but equally effective. The two stars and director Milos Forman work off a terrific script from Peter Shaffer to produce what is one of the best films I’ve seen.

Elizabeth (1998)

Elizabeth is the perfect example of a biopic defying the genre’s stuffiness and giving us something that is both an insight into an extraordinary life, and a completely engrossing and entertaining political drama. In the role that made her a star, Cate Blanchett will surely never top her Elizabeth I, as it is one of the all-time great performances.

Chopper (2000)

Another case of a fascinating character, albeit in a completely different way, being played with gusto by an actor doing his very best work. Known almost exclusively as a comedic performer before landing this role, Eric Bana puts in the performance of his life as Melbourne’s most famous hitman. At times both chilling and funny, Bana’s Chopper is better than the film itself, but more than enough reason to give it a watch.

The Aviator (2004)

Similarities between Martin Scorsese and Howard Hughes are few, but one they do share is in excess. Hughes, played brilliantly by Leonardo DiCaprio, is a man who wants, and knows how to get, all things in life. Scorsese doesn’t aim so high, but he does pack his films with as much as they can possibly contain. This results in The Aviator being quite a bloated affair, but with strong performances from all involved, a highly kinetic style and the fascinating life Hughes lived, it is a hugely enjoyable affair.

Walk the Line (2005)

Johnny Cash led an interesting life all by himself, but the combination here of he and his second wife June Cash, and the way they are played by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon respectively, elevates Walk the Line above the stock-standard biopic. Both Phoenix and Witherspoon, who won the Best Actress Oscar and has never been better, fill the screen with charisma and chemistry. Doing their own singing adds to the authenticity and effectiveness of the portrayals, but regardless they are that good individually and together that the film could have survived even a bad dubbing.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

As with Amadeus, Andrew Dominik’s second entry on my list is very much a biography of two men. In fact, it is Robert Ford with whom the audience spends the most time with, and his journey we are most invested in. Jesse James, played with a unique kind of distant charisma by Brad Pitt, is put across as an almost mythical character. Ford, which looked like forever being Casey Affleck’s career peak before Manchester by the Sea, is given the far more human treatment by Dominik, warts and all. It is captivating viewing and will leave you wondering more about Jesse James, but knowing a whole lot more about Bob Ford.

The Social Network (2010)

Working from a script by the inimitable Aaron Sorkin, David Fincher’s The Social Network is a film with both writer and director’s fingerprints all over it. Considering the ability of both, this is obviously a great thing. Their story of the origins of Facebook and its creator, Mark Zuckerberg, never sounded like particularly interesting viewing. But when it came out it blew audiences and critics away with it’s highly perceptive story and the energetic way in which it is told. Jesse Eisenberg, an actor I can’t stand in anything else, is tremendous as Zuckerberg, giving the man just enough sympathy to tone down the mostly negative acts he is depicted as doing.

Steve Jobs (2015)

Another brilliant Aaron Sorkin script and another great director, this time Danny Boyle, who knows just how to get the most out of it. The film sees three pivotal moments in the life of Steve Jobs, played to perfection by Michael Fassbender, as he strives to establish Apple as the company we know it as today. Extremely talky and stagey, the film still manages to be cinematic thanks to Boyle and his production unit’s ability to make the most of the sound, space and light.

Honorable Mentions: 127 Hours, Gods and Monsters, The Madness of King George, The Lost City of Z, Jackie, The Imitation Game, Milk, The Motorcycle Diaries