Archive for December, 2014

As my first year in film review blogging draws to a close, it’s time for me to  list my Top Ten of the year. I’ve restricted myself to films that went on general release in the UK in 2014, which means I can’t list one of my favourite films – Nothing Bad Can Happen (see April 5th review), directed by Katrin Gebbe and shown as part of the Bird’s Eye Film Festival. As a non-professional blogger I also can’t claim to have seen all the good (or bad) films released this year. Some of the films that have popped up in lists such as the Sight & Sound Top 20 or the Guardian Top Ten, but which I haven’t seen, are The Lego Movie, Ida, and Leviathan.

But with no further ado and in reverse order, here are my ten favourites of the year.

10. The Wind Rises.

9. Inside Llewyn Davis.

8. Pride.

7. 12 Years a Slave.

6. Kajaki.

5. Citizenfour.

4. Tom at the Farm.

3. Nightcrawler.

2. Boyhood.

1. Under the Skin.


10. The Wind Rises.

The Studio Ghibli animation genius, Hayao Miyazaki, has said this will be his last film. But I will not be alone in hoping that he has a change of heart. In my review (May 24th) I said that this was “one of my favourite films of the year so far and one of the greatest animated movies I have ever seen”. Pursuing a more adult theme than most of Studio Ghibli’s output, The Wind Rises tells a fictionalised version of the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the airplane designer who opposed Japan’s involvement in World War 2 but was also responsible for two of that nation’s greatest fighter planes used in the conflict. Miyazaki masterfully conveys how a child’s wonder at the marvels and mystery of flight never leaves Horikoshi as an adult, “although ultimately it is a very melancholy tale too”.

9. Inside Llewyn Davis.

Like The Wind Rises, Inside Llewyn Davis also has a rather melancholic feel, albeit balanced by the dry wit and colourful characters typical of Cohen brothers’ scripts. It tells the tale of a struggling sixties folk musician giving one last attempt at breaking into the big time. Some found the character of Llewyn Davis too unsympathetic to identify with, but I disagree. I found his increasing resentment all too easy to understand. A merchant seaman by trade, Davis finds himself watching inferior musicians dressed in chunky sweaters, singing songs about life at sea, and receiving warm applause from their audiences. The ending is rather splendid.

8. Pride.

The closure of industries during the Thatcher era of government, and especially the miners’ strike of 1985-6, has formed the backdrop for several British feelgood movies, including Billy Elliott and The Full Monty. In Pride, however, the politics of the time is much more to the fore. This is essentially a culture-clash story in which two very different beleaguered groups find they have a common cause. Based on real events, when the London-based group Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners make contact with a South Wales colliery, they find that acceptance doesn’t happen straight away. Eventually, though, strong bonds are formed, culminating in a group of miners leading the Gay Pride march in London. Pride features one of the year’s best supporting performances, from Bill Nighy as a closeted former miner who quietly comes out.

7. 12 Years a Slave.

Deservedly picking up the 2014 Best Picture Oscar, 12 Years a Slave is based on Solomon Northup’s harrowing account of his own abduction into slavery. It’s power lies not only in the terrible sense of injustice that is conveyed, but in the graphic depictions of cruelty that have a visceral impact on the viewer. Lupita Nyong’o collected the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, but powerful performances are also given by Chiwetel Ejiofor (Solomon Northup) and Michael Fassbender (as the brutal slaveowner, Edwin Epps).

6. Kajaki.

Despite the fact that British forces have been engaged in conflict somewhere every year for the past 100 years, it is hard to recall any British war films in recent times. As it happens, Yann Demange’s ’71, released in October, was a very exciting story set in Northern Ireland’s “troubles” in the early seventies. But the film that makes this list is surely one of the best British war films ever made. Kajaki is a crowdfunded movie, written by Tom Williams and directed by Paul Katis. It is the true story of a group of elite soldiers (3rd Battalion, Parachute Regiment) who get caught in a Soviet-era minefield whilst serving in Afghanistan. Realism is the watchword here, from the boredom of guarding the dam (which may have motivated what was actually an unauthorised mission to engage a Taliban roadblock) to the depiction of bloody wounds and the earthy squaddie humour. Rather unflattering depictions of equipment failure and of the RAF sending the wrong type of helicopter for the rescue mission may have been the reason for the Ministry of Defence withdrawing their support. Political questions are deliberately not overtly addressed in Kajaki, but viewers might nonetheless be prompted to wonder whether we should really have been in Afghanistan. Not for the squeamish.

5. Citizenfour.

In January 2013 the journalist and film-maker Laura Poitras was contacted via encrypted email by someone using the name “Citizen Four”. This was the codename adopted by the whistleblower, Ed Snowden. Poitras makes documentaries around political themes and, at the time of Snowden’s approach, was making a film about surveillance in the wake of 9/11 (actually the third part of a trilogy, the first two being My Country My Country and The Oath). She went to visit Snowden during the period when he was holed up in a hotel bedroom in Hong Kong, and filmed Snowden’s conversations with the journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill. These conversations, during which Snowden reveals the scale of illegal surveillance undertaken by the National Security Agency and others, form the basis of Citizenfour, but are intercut with various courtroom scenes and interviews with other key figures, such as whistleblower William Binney and computer security expert Jacob Applebaum.

The film is a riveting piece of history. More than anything, the thing that sticks with me from Citizenfour is the bravery of Ed Snowden, who was fully aware of the trouble that he was bringing upon himself.

4. Tom at the Farm.

At age 25, Tom at the Farm (Tom à la Ferme) was the fifth feature film to be directed by French-Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan. It is a Hitchcockian psychodrama about a young man, Tom (played by Xavier Dolan), who travels to the rural home of his dead gay lover’s family, in preparation for the funeral. The mother turns out to be unaware of her deceased son’s sexual orientation, and Tom is bullied into silence by psychotic Francis, the brother of the dead man. The two men then become involved in a dark and complicated fashion. With its strong imagery, complex characters and bold storyline, this is a film that has really stuck in my mind.

3. Nightcrawler.

There is a long Hollywood tradition of depicting the dark side of the American Dream in its movies. The protagonist grafts hard to work his way up the ladder, but also transgresses the law by taking dodgy shortcuts (e.g. Nightmare Alley, Wall Street, The Wolf of Wall Street). Typically this figure will eventually be brought low and there may or may not be some element of remorse and redemption. Written and directed by Dan Gilroy, Nightcrawler is possibly the most uncompromising film in this tradition. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom progresses from filming car crashes on his camcorder to rearranging crimes scenes in such a way that they will obtain a higher price from the news networks he is selling to. Bloom is not brought low. There is no remorse or redemption. On the contrary, Bloom corrupts those that he comes in to contact with. Human transactions become purely economic transactions. This is Ayn Rand’s philosophy writ large and all the more terrifying for it. Gyllenhaal is one of the best actors in Hollywood right now, and his performance in Nightcrawler ought to propel him towards an Oscar nomination.

2. Boyhood.

The top of many people’s end-of-year lists, Richard Linklater’s growing-up drama Boyhood is – as the trailer states – unique in the history of cinema. The film was made over a 12 year period and traces the childhood of Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) over this space of time, so we see him genuinely age twelve years (as well as his movie parents, played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette). Mason Jr’s parents are separated, and much of the drama comes from growing up with a mom who keeps meeting unsuitable men. It is the ordinariness of the events that matter here which, because they are covered in such detail, enable viewers to identify with and be moved by them. In retrospect, my review (June 16th) was a little ungenerous in its rating: this is ten out of ten.

1. Under the Skin.

In compiling this Top Ten I changed my mind about the rankings on several occasions, and it is quite likely that I will change my mind again once this is posted. The one film I’ve had no trouble placing, though, is Jonathan Glazer’s phenomenal Under The Skin. This is not just my film of the year, but also of this century so far. Light on dialogue and heavy on incredible imagery, it is the story of an alien (Scarlett Johansson), constructed in the guise of a female human, who is sent by mysterious handlers (men on motorbikes) to find and kill people who won’t be missed, presumably as luxury food for beings on another planet. However, certain events lead the alien to develop empathic feelings for the people she is preying on. In one of the most extraordinary scenes in any film, the alien, whilst driving around nighttime Glasgow in search of victims, engages a severely disfigured man in conversation. The encounter is variously funny, uncomfortable, and touching. Eventually, the alien gives her handlers the slip and disappears into the Scottish countryside, where she faces new challenges.

Comparisons with Kubrick are entirely justified and the title is open to various interpretations. Johansson’s performance is terrific, switching between warm seductress and dead-eyed killer, and in my opinion should make her an Oscar contender. The scenes of her driving a van around Glasgow and talking to Scottish men, some of who were genuine passersby, are terrific and not easily forgotten.

Exodus2014Poster

Director: Ridley Scott

Writers: Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine, and Steven Zaillian

Country: UK / USA / Spain

Runtime: 150 mins

Cast: Christian Bale (Moses), Joel Edgerton (Ramses), John Turturro (Seti), Aaron Paul (Joshua), Ben Mendelsohn (Viceroy Hegep), Maria Valverde (Zipparah), Sigourney Weaver (Tuya), Ben Kingsley (Nun).

Not so much an epic, as an epic failure

If 2014 is anything to go by, filmmakers just can’t do historical epics like they used to. William Wyler (Ben Hur) and Stanley Kubrick (Spartacus) would appear to have nothing to worry about in the competition stakes. I thought Noah was pretty bad (reviewed here on 5th April), but in retrospect it did at least have a fairly bonkers quality that made it watchable. Ray Winstone fighting Russell Crowe, together with those living stone creatures, had some entertainment value. By contrast, the deadly earnestness of Exodus: Gods and Kings, together with the lack of any dramatic tension, makes for an excruciatingly dull 150 minutes.

The story begins in Egypt, 1300 BCE, where a bunch of white guys have somehow bucked the regional tendency towards dark skin and rule the roost, keeping a large number of Hebrews as slaves. Ramses (Joel Edgerton) and Moses (Christian Bale) are brothers, though Ramses appears to have senior military ranking despite having less understanding of military tactics. On a trip into town Moses is appalled at the terrible way the Hebrew population are treated, but then it turns out that he himself is actually a Hebrew and not Ramses’ brother at all, a fact that is revealed by a local elder called Nun (Ben Kingsley).

When Ramses discovers the truth he banishes Moses to the wilderness. Sunburnt and thirsty, Moses finds water and rest at a tiny outpost in the middle of nowhere. At the watering hole some local blokes are trying to muscle in before a group of thirsty girls, but Moses flashes his imperial sword (not a euphemism) and the men back off. One of these girls has maintained a good moisturising regime and has brightened herself up with some eyeliner and lipstick; guess which girl Moses falls in love with? So Moses marries Zipporah (Maria Valverde), who bears him a son, Gershom (Hal Hewetson).

When Gershom is nine, he tells Moses that climbing the nearby mountain is forbidden by God, because mum says so. So of course Moses tries to climb it. In the Old Testament such disobedience would normally be punished with a little mild genocide, but on this occasion Moses only suffers a falling rock to the head and thereafter receives visitations from God in the form of a young boy, Malak (Isaac Andrews). Malak tells Moses that he should journey back to Egypt to witness how bad the social conditions have become. Zipporah isn’t too keen on Moses disappearing on this quest, thinking – not unreasonably – that the whole visitation from God thing was just a delusion brought on by the blow to Moses’s noggin.

But back in Egypt, Moses discovers that Malak was right. The Hebrew slaves are suffering badly. Moses gets a group of followers together and trains them up as a fighting force. However, they can’t take on the army directly because they are so badly outnumbered. Therefore, Moses’ plan is to destroy provisions that are en route for the civilian population, thereby making them angry at the rulers and so fomenting instability. This is basically terrorism, of course, but maybe that’s OK when God’s on your side (because, obviously, God takes sides). As it happens, God (Malak) turns up and tells Moses that his methods will take far too long. “Watch this”, says God, “I’ll show you what real terrorism looks like”, and launches a series of attacks on the civilian population, not to mention the local animals. First of all, he wipes out all the fish in the sea. This is followed by plagues of frogs, lice, and flies. Moses visits Ramses and tells him that worse is to come unless he relents and frees the slaves. Ramses says that this is not economically viable, so then God starts to wipe out the livestock and visits plagues of boils and locusts upon the people, as well as hail, thunder, and darkness.

Even Moses starts to think that God is going a bit far when he reveals his plan to kill all newborn children, but God tells him that no punishment is harsh enough for those who have enslaved his chosen people for over 400 years. Nonetheless, Moses is able to mitigate the effects of the almighty’s genocidal rampage by advising the local Hebrews to smear lambs’ blood over their front doors as a protective agent. But God’s war crime works: when Ramses discovers that his young child is dead, he relents in the face of Biblical firepower and frees the slaves. Moses then entreats the Hebrews to follow him to the promised land and so they head off into the wilderness with him. By now, Ramses has got his act together again and sets off with his army in pursuit of Moses.

Moses gets a bit lost in the mountains and calls upon God for assistance. But guess what? Despite all the help that Moses gave God, God’s nowhere to be seen when Moses needs a bit of help with the old map-reading business. Maybe God tired himself out with all that genocide stuff and was having a rest. Still, somehow Moses gets his people to the Red Sea which – as we all know – conveniently parts in order that they can cross to the Holy land. Moses is reunited with his son and his wife who, when he rocks up at their home, is still wearing full make-up. No sooner has Moses returned when God gets him busy chiselling the ten commandments into lumps of stone. “I quite like that you don’t always agree with me” God tells Moses, thus revealing a bit of a soft spot that the Old Testament God doesn’t normally extend to dissenters.

And that’s about it story-wise. I’m not qualified to say how closely Exodus follows the Old Testament story of Moses. However, the tale presented here is seriously lacking in dramatic tension. Moreover, I found it difficult to care about Moses and his battle with Ramses. Christian Bale does a perfectly fine job as Moses, though the story doesn’t really allow him to shine. In fact, all of the actors are somewhat overwhelmed by the combination of CGI and 3D (perhaps the 2D version works better). It is as if Ridley Scott was so concerned about conveying visual epic-ness that the basics of storytelling got left behind. In some films 3D works really well. Gravity is probably the best example. But in Exodus the screen just seems too busy, which is a distraction.

Rating: 3/10

Theory_of_Everything

Director: James Marsh

Screenplay: Anthony McCarten

Country: USA/UK/Japan

Runtime: 123 mins

Cast: Eddie Redmayne (Stephen Hawking), Felicity Jones (Jane Hawking), David Thewlis (Dennis Sciama), Alice Orr-Ewing (Diana King)

Tears and laughter abound in this tale of romance, religion, and theoretical physics

It is a splendid coincidence that 2014 has seen two major movies about great British scientists, first Alan Turing (The Imitation Game) and now Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. When, as a young doctoral student, Stephen Hawking was first diagnosed with motor neurone disease he was given two years to live. Now aged 72, he continues to work on the very thing that he himself has cheated: time. The Theory of Everything is based on the memoir of Hawking’s first wife, Jane, titled “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen Hawking”. It tells the intertwined stories of Stephen’s intellectual indomitability in the face of a debilitating, incurable illness, and his life with Jane until their eventual separation in the mid-90s.

Despite the reputation of Hawking’s bestselling “A Brief History of Time” as a book that many have bought but fewer read, The Theory of Everything doesn’t burden the audience with scientific detail. In fact, I envisage that from this point on physics teachers across the land will use a potato and a pea to explain the tension between gravitational forces and quantum forces. It is Stephen and Jane’s romance that is to the fore through much of the film. With his large glasses permanently perched halfway down his nose and hair swept across his eyes, the young Stephen appears superficially to be the epitome of the nerdy scientist. Yet his personality is a curious mix of bashfulness and confidence, laced with humour. He and Jane, who studies medieval Iberian poetry, are clearly attracted upon first meeting, despite their first conversation revealing that he is an atheist and she a Christian.

At the Cambridge May Ball, when asked about the poetry of the 1920s Jane teases Stephen with Yeats’s lines: “Seek then / No learning / from Starry Men / Who follow with Optic Glass / The Whirling Ways of Stars that Pass”. “Ouch!” says Stephen. He in turn, asked about the science of the 1920s, talks romantically about space and time in relationship terms: “People always thought they were too dissimilar, couldn’t possibly work out. But then along comes Einstein, the ultimate matchmaker, and decided that space and time not only had a future, but had been married all along”. Standing beneath a starry sky, Jane quotes the bible (“In the beginning was the heaven and the earth…”), which leads Stephen to take her hand and ask her to dance, a significant moment because he earlier said that he never dances.

Stephen’s illness manifests itself even before he has been awarded his PhD, but despite the prognosis of imminent death he continues to work. Jane determines that they must fight the disease, even though she has been warned that the only outcome can be defeat. She and Stephen get married, have children, and she does all she can to support Stephen. Over the years, however, the strain begins to tell. At Stephen’s suggestion Jane joins a local choir, only to find herself attracted to the widowed choirmaster. Later, Stephen finds himself attracted to Elaine, a nurse who has been brought in to assist with his caring. Following the publication of “A Brief History of Time” Stephen tells Jane that Elaine will be accompanying him to a meeting in America, at which point it becomes clear that their marriage is at an end.

Anthony McCarten’s sparkling script is full of wit, which adds depth and variety to a tale that might otherwise have been a standard one about triumph over adversity. Those of us who have recently seen the re-release of 2001: A Space Odyssey cannot fail to have been thrilled and amused by the first words that Stephen speaks with the aid of his voice synthesiser: “Daisy, daisy, give me your answer do…”. Although there is not a natural dramatic end point for the story, McCarten contrives a device to wrap things up that is moving and satisfying.

Eddie Redmayne gives a remarkable performance as Stephen Hawking, whose increasingly severe symptoms are displayed, with attendant frustration, in accurate detail and without exaggeration. Nonetheless, even when Stephen has become entirely immobile Redmayne is able to convey his mischievous wit with just a look. Surely Redmayne will be shortlisted for the upcoming Oscars. Alongside Redmayne, plaudits are also due to Felicity Jones for her portrayal of Jane, who is absolutely convincing as the woman whose love and devotion eventually gives way to exhaustion and resentment, but ultimately mutual acceptance.

Benoit Delhomme’s cinematography must also be mentioned. Almost every scene, both interior and exterior is bathed in glowing – often golden – light. Cambridge has surely never appeared so beautiful. This lighting not only suits the theme of romance, but also serves as a reminder of Jane’s religious belief and Stephen’s interest in the stars.

The Theory of Everything is a wonderful film that will have audiences laughing even as they choke back the tears.

Rating: 10/10

The Theory of Everything was previewed at the British Film Institute on 8th December 2014.

Interstellar_film_poster

Director: Christopher Nolan

Writers: Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan

Country: USA / UK

Runtime: 169 mins

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, MacKenzie Foy, Michael Caine, Anne Hathaway, John Lithgow, David Gyasi, Wes Bentley, Bill Irwin, Josh Stewart.

An entertaining and ambitious sci-fi epic

Christopher Nolan’s latest blockbuster, Interstellar, is an entertainingly ambitious, if flawed, sci-fi epic. It begins in a near-future where food supplies are dwindling, as a result of blighted crops. Presumably this is the result of global climate change, although this is not spelled out and, in fact, we never go beyond rural America to find out what is happening elsewhere in the world. The opening scenes are given a documentary feel thanks to the inclusion of some talking head segments from senior citizens reminiscing about the ‘dust bowl’ that they had lived through (these are actually clips of people describing 1930s Dust Bowl America).

Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, a widowed former engineer and NASA pilot who now reluctantly farms corn. His daughter, Murphy (MacKenzie Foy), is a chip off the old block but her brainiac tendencies don’t go down well at school, where the kids are taught that the Apollo moon landings were a hoax designed to prompt the Soviet Union into wasting money on rockets and other “useless machines”. Cooper is told that his children would be better off “learning about this planet, rather than reading fantasies about leaving it”. But when “Murph” becomes convinced that there is a ghost in her bedroom, Cooper’s investigations uncover a gravitational anomaly that is causing strange dust patterns on Murph’s bedroom floor. This discovery leads them ultimately to a top secret NASA base.

Because the American public no longer have any appetite for exploring space, the agency is now operating in a clandestine fashion. Their Lazarus Project, headed by Professor Brand (Michael Caine), has been sending missions to planets beyond a wormhole in space. Cooper is recruited to lead another mission beyond the wormhole, together with Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), physicist Romilly (David Gyasi), geographer Doyle (Wes Bentley), and robots TARS and CASE (voiced, respectively, by Bill Irwin and Josh Stewart). The wormhole appears to have been constructed by some alien intelligence, so Plan A is to return with the technology to save the Earth, but if this fails then Plan B is to recolonise a planet with the stored fertilised seeds from a variety of humans. However, Cooper is desperate to return from the mission because he wants to save his family. In addition, thanks to Einsteinian relativity Cooper’s children will age faster than him in his absence, therefore it is imperative for him that the mission goes as smoothly as possible (needless to say, it doesn’t).

For much of the first half of Interstellar, I couldn’t help ponder with some amusement as to whether the film would enrage some of the more anti-science US Republicans. You know, the ones who deny the reality of man-made climate change, who think it is arrogant to believe that people could disrupt God’s work, and who think that the end-of-the-world will involve the faithful being transported to heaven in the “rapture”. Whatever its faults, Interstellar comes across as a resolutely pro-science film, asking us to think beyond our immediate concerns and to work for the good of our species. A scene where we learn that school textbooks have been revised to show that the moon landings were faked brings to mind those American school districts that have tried to remove or water down material on evolution. Whilst some of what passes for scientific explanation in Interstellar is Dr Who-style hokum, nonetheless in a wider sense it treats its audience as intelligent adults, particularly in the aspect of the storyline that relates to relativity.

The second half, or perhaps final third, of the film is somewhat weaker as the ideas are gradually submerged beneath a swathe of frenetic action, except close to the schmaltzy ending where we get an outlandish explanation for certain events that occurred earlier on. The acting is serviceable, rather than outstanding, though this probably isn’t the kind of film that is likely to produce Oscar-worthy performances. However, even though a fair bit of suspension of disbelief is necessary, Interstellar is never less than entertaining.

Rating: 8/10