Awards Season Review: La La Land

This has been my most anticipated movie for almost a year now. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone reuniting for a third time, this time directed by the incredible Damien Chazelle (who should have won at least one Academy Award for Whiplash), and on a big scale, old school musical! I had built it up so much over the months, and watching the many award show wins in the run-up to it finally being released here in the UK, I worried it would be overhyped. Thankfully, I was not disappointed.

La La Land follows two dreamers. Emma Stone’s Mia, a failing actress who works at a coffee shop on the Warner Bros lot, and Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian, a jazz pianist playing cheesy Christmas music at a restaurant, who dreams of owning his own jazz club. We see them meet, we see them fall in love, we see them struggle, we see them argue. It’s a beautiful blossoming romance and it’s a tear-jerker too. It’s like the equally brilliant Blue Valentine, except less depressing, and you know, more full of uplifting duets.

La La Land manages to be both sweetly nostalgic for the musicals of an age gone by (from the opening credits to the filming of certain dance numbers) as well as incredibly forward thinking and revolutionary, perhaps helping create a new golden age for the musical. No doubt this will be linked time and again to the love of Seb’s life in the film itself: Jazz. It is out of fashion and stuck in the past. Whereas Keith (John Legend) merges pop and jazz into this strange monster, Seb himself wishes to honour the past greats but forge a new future. He’s thus stuck between his dream and his reality, the same struggle Mia is engulfed in.
As expected, the chemistry between Gosling and Stone is electric. The film is at its best when the two of them share the screen, cracking wise, enjoying each other, and falling in love. Thankfully Chazelle knows this, and there are barely a couple of background characters to interrupt them. This is simply their story, even the hint of a difficult relationship between Seb and his old band member Keith, is left for another time. Chazelle wants only Stone and Gosling centre stage, and that is a wise decision.

Emma Stone is utterly charming as always, and mixes wonderful singing and dancing with a deep heartfelt performance and her usual impeccable comedy timing. Gosling’s Seb is a little harder round the edges, at least in the beginning. His determination to succeed in his singular goal-oriented mind is reminiscent of Andrew Neiman from Whiplash in a few of the opening moments. However, the introduction of Stone’s Mia sees a different side to Seb appear. Gosling is one of the most underappreciated comic actors. He has some real comedy chops (last year’s excellent The Nice Guys was cruelly underseen) and Chazelle’s script allows him to be endearingly funny here.

As for the music itself, there are some great songs throughout the movie, but obviously the one that sticks out is the slow, beautiful City of Stars. Aside from that, the opening number, shot on a freeway ramp in LA is grandiose and spectacular. It harkens back to the large scale filmmaking of old, with very few edits. The kind we rarely see anymore.
The choreography is spectacular, from the very opening scene, which introduces the audience to this completely magical version of Los Angeles. In a film of such brilliance, it needs to be made sure that Mandy Moore’s exquisite, complex work is not forgotten.
The set and costume design is also excellent. It’s a gorgeous, unreal, dream of LA that we are immediately transported to and completely buy in to. A movie like this succeeds so spectacularly because it is the accumulation of everyone putting in some of the best work of their lives. The director. The actors. The cinematographer. The choreographer. The set design. The list goes on. It is not just visually stunning but stunning in all aspects of production.

The one slight flaw here is a little bit of clunky pacing around two thirds into the movie, but no movie is ever perfect. Energy and enthusiasm and pure love just flows out of the screen, which is enough to more than make up for a slow moment.

So will it win big? Most likely. The film itself has been beloved by all awards committees thus far and the Oscars should be no different. Chazelle and the team behind the scenes certainly deserve gongs for what is some truly incredible work. Gosling is certainly a forerunner for Best Actor but may get pipped to the post by Manchester By the Sea‘s Casey Affleck, whilst Stone should and probably will win for Best Actress.

Verdict: It’s a film that adores the past but also, crucially, looks forward to the future. Gosling, Stone, Chazelle, Moore, hell the whole cast and crew, deserve to lap up the awards for the work here. 9.5/10

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5 to see: January

January is a vital month for those movies looking to win big at the Academy Award ceremony in late February, and thus many tend to be released around this time. Along with the usual Oscar-bait there is a return by a Hollywood legend and a long-awaited sequel.

Let’s dive in…

The Magical Musical
La La Land
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After the success of his directorial debut, Whiplash, Damien Chazelle takes on the impossible: making a hit musical for the big screen. It has been done before sure, but not for a while, and musicals have been at the bottom of the genre list in recent years, slightly below westerns. Nobody is making musicals today. Well except now they are. And if La La Land is as big a hit as it is projected to be (sweeping up at the Oscars would do no harm), then we could be getting a revival of the genre. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone star in this love story to the City of Angels, and they have enough chemistry alone to make this movie a hit (see: Crazy, Stupid Love).
In Cinemas January 12th

The Heart Wrencher
Manchester By the Seamanchester-by-the-sea-sundance-2016

My original title for the section about this Kenneth Lonergan movie was “The Oscar Favourite”, but after La La Land cleaned up at the Golden Globes and looks set to do so again next month at the BAFTA’s, I can’t help but feel that would have come across somewhat sarcastic. Still, Casey Affleck in particular has been picking up plaudits left right and centre for his role as Lee Chandler, a man who returns to his hometown to look after his newly orphaned sixteen year old nephew. May be it’s time he isn’t left in the wings watching big brother Ben pick up the little golden statue on awards night eh?
In Cinemas January 13th

The Scorsese
Silence
silence
Need any other reason to see this movie than the one given above? It’s Scorsese, get in the cinema. You need more convincing? Really? Well Silence is a historical drama focusing on Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield as two Christian missionaries who travel to Japan to find their lost mentor (Liam Neeson). It is the seventeenth century and so their presence in Japan is banned. Expect: powerful performances and incredible cinematography from Rodrigo Prieto.
Now get in the cinema.
Out Now

The Sequel to a Classic
T2 Trainspotting
trainspotting-2

Long-awaited sequels are rarely great. Most tend to fall somewhere between fair and disappointing. However, if there is one man who can pull it off, surely (surely?!) it is Danny Boyle, director of Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Sunshine etc. etc. Bringing back together the original cast of the cult classic, the story picks up twenty years later. Not much is known except the general premise that Renton returns to Scotland to see Sick Boy and Spud. Begbie is no doubt not too far away.
The only worry with this movie, is that they will pull an Anchorman 2 and replay the same jokes from the original.
Surely Boyle knows better I tell myself. Just have faith. Choose T2.
In Cinemas January 27th 

The Great Return
Hacksaw Ridgehacksaw-ridge-2016-images-andrew-garfield

Mel Gibson might be one of the most polarising men in Hollywood, but with Hacksaw Ridge he shows once again just how great he can be at times. It focuses on Andrew Garfield’s Desmond T. Doss, who was a famous conscientious objector during the Second World War. He was the only American soldier during the war to fight on the front line without a weapon. Quite the story right? A great actor, a great director and a great director. See it.
In Cinemas January 27th

Marvel vs DC vs Fox: Year in Review

Earlier in the year I wrote an article discussing the comic book movies from the first half of 2016. Looking back over that post I can see that I (quite rightly) ranked Marvel as having the best start to the year with the epic Captain America: Civil War. Fox were second after the good but not great Deadpool, and DC were lagging behind after the clunky misfire that was Batman v Superman. In that same post I discussed how excited I was for the rest of the year. Doctor Strange intrigued me but it was Suicide Squad and X-Men: Apocalypse that really got me excited. The DC anti-hero movie promised something completely different to what we had seen for years in comic book movies, whilst Apocalypse was the third installment in an otherwise fantastic prequel franchise.
Now 2016 is coming to a close, I can look back at the year and definitely say:
Well that wasn’t great.

 

Marvel

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Civil War really reinvigorated my love of comic book movies after a gradual slide in interest beginning around the time of 2015’s Age of Ultron. I expected less of Doctor Strange but was still rather excited. I took my seat in the IMAX cinema and whilst it didn’t stray too far from the Marvel formula, it still managed to completely blow me away visually. No doubt seeing the film on such a large screen really benefitted it, as I was truly immersed in the mind-boggling multiverse. For that scene alone it was worth it. Although I’m not sure it will be quite as effecting on the smaller screen on a repeat viewing. Aside from that, as i said, it was rather formulaic, but the action sequences were still impressive, and there were a few nice surprises thrown in. Marvel did a particularly good job in introducing magical elements into a universe that is already well developed, and I look forward to seeing how it is used in future movies.

Doctor Strange: 8/10
Score for the Year: 8.5/10

 

DC

SUICIDE SQUAD

DC didn’t get off to the best start with Batman v Superman, but they had a great chance to save their new cinematic universe with Suicide Squad. The original trailers appeared promising but as soon as the first reviews came out it was obvious something had gone wrong. The result is a choppy movie, which never really takes off. The action is generic, the characters one dimensional, and the story quite honestly boring. The horrific CGI monsters only add to the mess.
It seems DC have been in panic mode since the very beginning. They have tried so hard to rival Marvel that they continuously mess with the films being made, and the movies never hit the spot. They are three movies in now and Man of Steel remains the best of a rather poor bunch. I’m unsure how much longer this universe can survive on such torrid output. In 2017 they really need to hit a homerun with either Wonder Woman or Justice League in order to stay relevant.
Whilst both BvS and Suicide Squad ultimately beat Doctor Strange in box office numbers, they were both released in better months than Strange which was straddled with a November release. Neither BvS nor SS got close to the one billion mark that Civil War breezed through either. That is a worrying sign, especially since DC threw all of its eggs in one basket having all three of their big hitters in Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman appear in BvS.

Suicide Squad: 3/10
Score for the Year: 4/10

 

Fox

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Reading my previous post I can see I was really excited by Fox this year. Sure I didn’t love Deadpool as much as everyone else seemed to, but I still preferred it to BvS, and I was thoroughly excited for X-Men: Apocalypse. By the time Apocalypse was released however, my enthusiasm had waned somewhat, and it was the only comic-book movie this year that I didn’t journey to the cinema to see. Instead I watched this one most recently, only days ago, in the comfort of my own living room. It is a middling effort unfortunately. Not as dull as Batman V Superman or Suicide Squad, probably thanks to the very talented ensemble cast, but nothing special either. Instead of forging its own path (the exact reason why First Class was so brilliant) it relied too heavily on copying the destruction of Days of Future Past. Comic book movies needn’t just be world-destroying action! There’s a moment near the start of the film where Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey, having left a screening of Return of the Jedi, states that the third film is always the weakest in a trilogy. Obviously that was a dig at the underwhelming Last Stand, but it also unintentionally became a self-fulfilling prophecy for Apocalypse too.

X-Men: Apocalypse 5/10
Score for the Year 6/10

 

So overall, I have to say, it’s been quite the disappointing year for comic book movies. Out of the six released, I can say only one was truly great. A couple were good but the other three were duds. I’ll only be rewatching one in the future which I think says a lot.
There’s been a lot of talk in recent years of superhero fatigue. I began to feel that in 2015, and the feeling has only grown this year.
Perhaps other people are beginning to feel that too. Sure Civil War and Deadpool cleaned up at the box office, but BvS and particularly X-Men: Apocalypse struggled to hit the high numbers they hoped for. There’s a lot of comic book movie output and it can get tiring, repetitive and expensive for people.
But it’s not all doom and gloom.
There are a number of very exciting comic book movies being released in the coming year, and they will be addressed in a post very soon.

Thanks for reading and Happy New Year!

 

Top Ten Best Movies of 2016

I haven’t seen all the movies of the last year, but from what I have seen I can rather confidently conclude that it hasn’t been a vintage year for cinema. There has been a lot of output sure, but the ratio of classics to middling movies and duds is seemingly much lower than years gone by. Thankfully though there are a few movies which I will be happy to revisit time and time again in the years to come, and thus I have decided to create a list of these – my favourite movies from 2016.
The films on this list have been released in the UK in the last twelve months.

Let us start with some honourable mentions. Those movies that were great but just didn’t make the cut.

the-hateful-eight

Honourable Mentions

Of course I have to mention Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight which started the year off with a bang and only narrowly missed out on my top ten. Another close call was Shane Black’s magnificent The Nice Guys, featuring the ragtag team of Ryan Gosling’s hapless PI Holland March, and Russell Crowe’s hardman Jackson Healy. It was a great buddy comedy of a bygone era, the like of which only Black seems to be able to do justice to these days. There was also a return to form for Woody Allen, who delivered with the rather special Cafe Society. Independent cinema also threw up some surprises, for example Mistress America, a wonderful film about a shy freshman who befriends her quirky soon to be step-sister, and King Jack, a tiny movie about a  young troubled boy growing up which reminded me of Stand By Me. A similar coming of age film, Taika Waititi’s second feature, Hunt for the Wilderpeople lived up to the hype, with incredible performances by both Sam Neill and the young Julian Dennison. Charlie Kaufman excelled as always in the most haunting, most human film of the year, despite the fact it focused entirely on puppets, in the unique Anomalisa. And of course, Gareth Edwards knocked our socks off with the intergalactic war movie, Rogue One.
Finally I have gone back and forth on this one, but 10 Cloverfield Lane just missed out on the top ten by an inch. Dan Trachtenberg built an underrated gem with just three superb actors and a post-apocalyptic bunker. The tension grows and grows until it is unbearable and the twists and turns are excellent. It was ultimately pipped to the post by…

10. Hell or High Waterhell-or-high-waterJust go out and see this one. A fantastic crime thriller with Chris Pine and Ben Foster as the bank robbing brothers and Jeff Bridges as the aging cop on their tale. This is a type of movie we see very rarely these days – a middle budget Hollywood film; a completely original, rather complex, premise; and some big name stars attached. There’s a brilliant article about it here:
https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/sep/06/hell-or-high-water-hollywood-film-making-70s.

9. The Jungle Book jungle-bookDisney’s live action remakes (Maleficent, Cinderella) have received middling reviews thus far, so it was nice to see The Jungle Book absolutely knock it out of the park. The work of young lead Neel Sethi carries the film, and he is backed up by excellent support, most notably from Bill Murray as Baloo and Christopher Walken and Ben Kingsley as King Louie and Bagheera respectively.

8. Zootopia  zootopiainA loveable animated film, that managed to distinguish itself from the crowd and crack the one billion mark at the box office despite the tough animated competition in the form of Finding Dory, Trolls and Sing. Finding Dory in particular was a great film, but Disney really stepped the game up this year with Zootopia, and deserve to walk away with the Oscar come awards night.

7. Captain Fantasticcaptainfantastic1280jpg-485641_1280wThis quirky tale of a man and his family who live in the wild could have easily been too wacky and unfunny, but Viggo Mortensen and a strong young cast made it both laugh out loud funny as well as heartwarming.

6. Mustang mustang-cannes-film-festivalNaturally this movie about 5 young sisters who rebel from the very conservative society in which they live in remote Turkey has been compared 2000’s The Virgin Suicides. However this is a much more accomplished movie than that Sofia Coppola film, and yet it was just as underseen and underappreciated. The five sisters are quite incredible, and the tale of their struggle and revolution is one of the most beautiful stories told this year on screen.

5. Everybody Wants Some!! everybody-wants-some-1459784161Richard Linklater created this spiritual sequel to stoner classic Dazed and Confused, and managed to live up to all expectations. As with the aforementioned Dazed it is equal parts hilarious and nostalgic and all parts incredible. It doesn’t take itself or its characters too seriously, and there is no life-altering meaning, and that is exactly why it is so brilliant. All it tells us to remember is to enjoy life.

4. Room 'Room' is a journey out of darkness, director saysA truly harrowing movie that perhaps should have stolen the Oscar for best film from under the noses of Spotlight and the Revenant. It is a tough watch but the ultimate hope of the story is so uplifting that it is worth the investment. Whilst Brie Larson certainly deserved her Oscar for what is a near perfect performance, Jacob Tremblay as the young boy who has never seen anything beside the one room in which he lives, may actually be even better.

3. Paterson paterson_film
A return to form for Jim Jarmusch, Paterson focuses on Adam Driver’s bus driver who just so happens to be a poet too. It’s a lovely, charming movie, which excels in looking at the beauty of the everyday person. It is thus in its simplicity and its very ordinariness that Paterson shines brighter than almost any other movie this year. Despite the lack of big money effects and explosions we have become accustomed to through summer blockbusters, Paterson is more memorable than any comic book movie this year. It somehow manages to stay in the mind long after the credits roll, the scenes of everyday life pervading your own.

2. American Honey  AmericanHoneySashaShia.0.0.jpgShot in the intentionally boxy 4:3 ratio this tale of the lost youth of America is enchanting. Travelling across the country right in the car with them, as an audience, we are privy to this often unseen, completely bizarre world. Sasha Lane is extraordinary as the lost soul who is enticed by Shia Labeouf’s mysterious Jake, and thus agrees to a life of driving across country, figuring it out as they go. It’s a very twenty-first century film, and it feels like one that will be studied in years to come – a bizarre capsule of a strange unseen corner of modern society; the tale of a confused generation.
1. Arrival  arrivalA science-fiction film for the ages.
It is a genre that is often done well but not perfectly. Big name directors have tried and failed to find the correct formula – most recently Christopher Nolan with Interstellar – but here Denis Villeneuve figures it all out by not making a science fiction film at all, but instead making a family drama. It is spectacular. It is heartbreaking like almost nothing else seen this year. And it will play on your mind for weeks on repeat long after the fact. A true classic of the genre that (if Prisoners, Enemy and Sicario haven’t already) cements Villeneuve as one of the best directors working today. That is why it is my film of the year.

And so that was 2016! Here’s hoping for more classics in the New Year!

Atlanta Season 1 Review

Donald Glover spoke of how he wanted to make “Twin Peaks with rappers.” There is perhaps no better way to describe Atlanta, the bizarre, hilarious, relevant story of a broke twentysomething year old Earn (Glover) who becomes the manager of his cousin, underground rapper Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry). Glover has poured everything into this show, taking every risk possible, in the knowledge that it may only receive the single ten episode run (thankfully for us all it has now been renewed), and it really shows the potential of truly original shows not bound by the directions of a big studio.
Despite the seemingly basic premise Atlanta is perhaps unlike anything else seen on television this year. Glover manages to blend the utterly strange – an invisible car, a black Justin Bieber – with great moments of comedy, and of course a grounded realism too. It could have easily come across as farcical to jump from a moment of such weird levity to something as serious as police brutality and mental illness but Glover and his incredible cast make it a smooth transition.
Speaking of the cast, Zazie Beetz as Vanessa, the mother of Earn’s child and his on-off girlfriend, is perhaps the best of the bunch, stealing every scene she is in. The writing allows her the room and time to develop and so she moves above the one-dimensional girlfriend figure that you see in most other shows.
Glover switches the focus of the episodes up daringly and admirably, with some primarily concerned with Earn and his personal struggle, another about Earn and Van’s relationship, another about Paper Boi etc. etc. with each being as strong as the last. One particular episode stands out for its daring approach. “B.A.N” is as if you are watching this alternative world’s television channel Black American Network, where Paper Boi is a guest on a talk show. It is even complete with hilarious advertisements.
This unusual approach to television will no doubt split the audience but even if you are not a fan of that particular episode it is well worth sticking out to the end because it is some of the best television produced this year.

P.S Look out for the Childish Gambino vinyl hidden in Craig’s very weird “Black History” office in the episode “Juneteenth”.

Verdict: 9/10  

Nocturnal Animals Review

Tom Ford’s sophomore attempt follows Susan Morrow, an art gallery owner who is struggling to be happy in her rich luxurious life. This is reflected in the beautiful but incredibly cold aesthetic present in her section of the story. She receives a manuscript from her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), that is dedicated to her. Reading this strange, demented tale of revenge in West Texas leads her to reminisce somewhat nostalgically about her life with Edward. The film is thus split between the present, her past and the novel. Each has its own style and mood, with the shots of the past drenched in this wistful tint, and the scenes set in West Texas taking on a grittier, dirtier feel.

All of the leads in this story are admittedly superb, doing great work with what they are given. Amy Adams is cold and stern and emotionally shattered at times, just about holding it together. The problem however is that she feels cruelly underwritten. Her character is only half there, with Adams admirably trying to fill in the rest on the fly. She is barely recognisable as a real human being. We, as an audience, have no way to connect to her emotionally, and thus have no real inroad into the movie itself. We are kept at an uncomfortable distance, unable to be truly moved by the happenings on screen. Then again perhaps that is the point. She is just as cold as the world she inhabits.

Armie Hammer’s cheating husband however is generic and rather useless except as a plot point to pile on the dismay in Susan’s life. Gyllenhaal though is magnificent in his dual role as Tony and Edward. These roles make full use of his quite incredible range, and thus despite his characters’ sensitivity, he is also able to tap into the unhinged side that made Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler so compelling. Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor Johnson are suitably unnerving and add greatly to the unsettling atmosphere. Being character’s within a novel, something in a way almost entirely separate from the film at hand, allows them great freedom.

There is a particularly scene that runs and runs and runs and it is honestly rather superb. The tension builds and builds, until the final moment of devastation. Unfortunately for Nocturnal Animals the scene takes place in the opening half of the movie, and no matter how hard it tries it can never reach the same level again. The tension is there, and it is certainly enjoyable cinema, but it just never packs the same amount of punch.

Ford certainly has an interesting approach to filmmaking. His incredible style is unquestioned, but the actual substance and storytelling of his work has come under criticism in both of his movies so far. Here his storytelling decisions will once again divide. Gyllenhaal’s Edward, Susan’s ex husband and the man who wrote the book she is reading, is surprisingly absent throughout most of the film. Instead his psyche is presented only through the actions of his fictional protagonist Tony, also played by Gyllenhaal. It’s an interesting approach, but it means that the moments between Susan and Edward are less affecting than perhaps they would have been had we been given more of their actual relationship. Instead we only see small slivers of the past before the climax of the movie. It appears there should be two great devastating moments towards the end. Both however just fall rather flat, leaving the audience thinking “Wait, was that it?”. Therefore unsurprisingly the final scene will be met with mixed reactions.

It’s certainly not a film for everyone. Strangely it reminded me a little of Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon from earlier this year, although i would argue Winding Refn’s effort was even more stylised than the designer Ford’s. Both however end with a bizarre thud when the preceding hour and a half promise something perhaps more gripping.

Actor Appreciation Week 3 Review: Nightcrawler (2014)

Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom is not only one of the best antiheroes we have seen on the cinema screen in the twentieth century, but one of the best characters in the last 16 years period. It is utterly bizarre that neither Gyllenhaal nor the actual film were honoured by the Academy Awards, because it was one of the best movies of 2014, and has rightly taken its place as a cult classic.

We first meet Bloom whilst he is making ends meet through petty thieving. Immediately we gather, through Dan Gilroy’s brilliant script, that Lou is somewhat charming, but also greatly unsettling. He has learned all he knows from the internet, and uses rehearsed quotes and phrases to communicate with the people he meets. He sounds like a slightly twisted inspirational speaker. After coming across a car wreck on the highway he learns of the world of the Nightcrawlers – men who seek out devastating incidents in order to film them, and sell their tapes to the highest bidding news channel. Something clicks deep within Lou and he is addicted to this gritty, somewhat sleazy, and certainly unwholesome world. Lou climbs the ranks, becoming a prominent figure in video news, and even hires his own assistant, Rick (Riz Ahmed). This is when the movie kicks up a gear and the tension builds to a fantastically shocking finale.

Lou is a fascinating character to spend two hours with. He makes you squirm in your seat as he quickly and seamlessly shifts from merely unnerving to completely demented and terrifying. Gyllenhaal is utterly compelling in the role, shedding weight to create a gaunt, bug-eyed, almost Nosferatu-esque figure, who roams the night. The leading man good lucks are stripped away to reveal the slimey, discomfiting Lou underneath. Few other Hollywood a-listers would have been able to shed their reputation and inhabit such a character in such a way.

Nightcrawler allows us to delve deep into a unique and strange world. One that actually takes place in society around us. The moral and ethical questions that it brings up are fascinating, as are the legal ones when Lou decides to take things into his own hands. It is the perfect thriller, that will genuinely haunt your thoughts for days, and will mean you never look at news the same way again.

 

Actor Appreciation Week 3 Review: Jarhead (2005)

The war movie is a genre that many have tried to perfect. It is however also a very difficult genre to get right. And so out of the hundreds of war movies made in the last hundred years, only a handful or so stand out above the rest as absolute classics. Jarhead, unfortunately, does not sit amongst such movies as Apocalypse Now or the Deer Hunter (both of which are watched by Swoff and co. in the movie (well we at least see the Deer Hunter’s opening credits)). It is however much better than most war movie output seen over the last few decades or so. That is thanks to a number of factors.

First is the men behind the scenes. Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall) directs, with Roger Deakins as cinematographer, and these two work incredibly well together, to create a disturbing but at times beautiful war zone. The great vastness and potential unseen dangers of the desert are so unnerving that Swoff’s slow mental breakdown works brilliantly.

Of course the actors are also magnificent, inhabiting the world Mendes and Deakins create, and adding the raw masculine energy, and the hidden brokenness of the men inside the camouflage. Jake Gyllenhaal leads the way as Anthony “Swoff” Swofford, on whose memoir the film is based. It is the late 1980’s and he enlists as a Marine shortly before the Gulf War. In boot camp he learns from Staff Sergeant Sykes (Jamie Foxx)  to become a sniper along with his spotter Alan Troy (Peter Sarsgaard). They are then shipped out to the Arabian Peninsula where they have to cope with the gruelling conditions.

Swoff, the new kid, undergoes the usual transformation from the unknowing innocent to military hard-head. Sykes is a dictator-esque commander; and Troy the somewhat cocky, intelligent leader of his group. Thankfully Jarhead doesn’t stick to these original cliches though, allowing each character to develop and become something much more recognisable as human beings. They all struggle to cope with their new environment, whether it’s their first time at war, or they are veterans. Paranoia and boredom and jealousy and envy and anger all rise amongst the group. We see the harsh reality of war but in a new way. Because this story isn’t about the crash bang explosions of war, but about the effects on the people involved. It borrows more from  The Deer Hunter than any other war film in that way.
As Swoff says towards the end, his involvement in the war only lasts four days. This film is about the build up and the waiting. The fear that grows out of that, and the cabin fever. We get access into the minds of the men who sign up for this, and we see the effects it can have on a human being.

Where the movie perhaps trips up is at the very end when the war is over and done with (and no I’m not talking about the travesty that is the dreadful wigs). It all works nicely to show how war never leaves those who have served, but there is a single scene that isn’t as affecting as perhaps Mendes had hoped for. That however is a minor gripe.

Jarhead is an admirable attempt, not least because for the most part it takes the “war” out of the “war movie” and instead leaves the audience for two hours waiting with the soldiers on the sidelines. It’s fun and at times hilarious, but also manages to find that emotional aspect without it feeling heavy handed. A good, if not amazing, modern war film.

Actor Appreciation Week 3 Review: Donnie Darko (2001)

Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko is the type of movie that everyone should see at least once in their lives. It is completely captivating and completely bizarre and unlike anything else out there. Hence why Darko has become a cult favourite. It is neither a sci-fi nor a psychological thriller nor a drama. It is indefinable. It is one of the few true masterpieces of 21st century independent cinema.

This was my second viewing of the film, having seen it perhaps five years ago. Previously I watched the Theatrical Cut, whereas this time I sat down to enjoy the Director’s Cut which is around twenty minutes longer. The DC is more of a hand-holding experience, but in having that approach, it does clear up a few of the (many) questions one would have after watching the TC. Both cuts are highly recommended, although I’d say the TC just about edges it, especially for a first viewing.

The film follows the titular Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal), a young troubled boy, who narrowly avoids certain death by following a six-foot bunny away from his house on the night when a jet engine falls through his bedroom window. Safe from danger, the bunny, called Frank, informs Donnie that the world will end in 28 days. Over the course of the movie we see Donnie struggle with this apocalyptic prediction and the directing finger of his new friend Frank. It’s a time travel movie like no other, an idea so original and so perfectly executed. Gyllenhaal is quite frankly superb. Donnie does some terrible things in the movie, and yet Gyllenhaal allows the honesty and innocence and even fear of Donnie to seep through. The chemistry he has with Jena Malone’s Gretchen adds a great emotional element to the movie. It is heartwarming and at times completely heartbreaking.

Richard Kelly has only made three films in his career. Thankfully he created his masterpiece with his very first one. Donnie Darko will intrigue you, flabbergast you, thrill you and then break your heart. Still, after all that, it will leave you wishing for just a little bit more of its crazy (some would say ‘mad’) world.

Actor Appreciation Week 3 Review: Source Code (2011)

Duncan Jones is certainly a young director to watch. His first film Moon (2009) was revolutionary, one of the best science fiction films of the 21st century so far, and it quite rightly has developed a cult following. For his follow up, 2011’s Source Code, Jones called upon the leading man charm of Jake Gyllenhaal, to carry the peculiar, in many ways Groundhog Day-esque, sci-fi thriller. Gyllenhaal is military man Colter Stevens who wakes up on a commuter train with no idea why. A beautiful lady in front of him by the name of Christina (Michelle Monaghan) keeps calling him Sean and claiming she knows him. In all the confusion a bomb explodes somewhere in the train and everyone perishes. Colter then wakes up in some type of capsule with Vera Farmiga’s Captain Goodwin communicating with him through a computer screen. The shady Dr Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) lurks in the background teasing at unknown secrets to come.

It’s a lean film, coming in at just under 90 minutes, and yet it packs more into its runtime than most films manage in 120 or 150. That is in part due to a very tight script from Ben Ripley, who ratchets up the tension from the word go. He expertly weaves a tale of great stakes both personal and for the greater good. The mystery aspect is slowly unravelled and it concludes with at least a couple of knockout moments. Knowing the ending doesn’t cheapen a second viewing either, and in fact another watch rewards the viewer who pays attention and seeks out the teases and nods.

This sort of action thriller can only work if the actors are on top form, and thankfully Jones and his crew recruited four excellent lead actors. Gyllenhaal’s ability to switch from charming, smooth ladies man, to cool and collected army vet, straight into panicked, flustered and at times terrified civilian out of his depths is absolutely incredible. Monaghan’s Christina has more depth and more gravitas than she would have had in many other similar films played by other actresses. Even though we understand the train has already exploded, we still root for her, urging her to escape with Gyllenhaal’s Colter/Sean hybrid. The two of them actually spend a rather small amount of the film together, and of course she sees him as Sean not Colter, so it is a true testament to the two performances that we are so invested.
Instead most of Gyllenhaal’s screen time, when he’s not assaulting random civilians on the train, is spent interacting with Farmiga’s Goodwin on the small television screen. Again even though she spends 90% of her performance simply acting to a camera, Farmiga is able to display expertly the conflicting mentalities rattling around in her character’s brain.

Carried by these great performances Source Code is an intelligent action thriller. Thankfully it finds a nice middle ground between explaining too little, and trying to over-explain the science-fiction elements involved. Still, it will likely be divisive when the end credits roll. That does not mean it is one to be missed. It’s a tense and at times emotional thriller, which you’ll be discussing (/arguing about) for weeks once it fades to black.