Archive for December, 2015

Best of…2015

Posted: December 31, 2015 in English language

Although my film attendance in 2015 has been frequent and regular, the demands of my day job mean that my reviewing – a purely personal endeavour – has rather tailed off this year. Nonetheless, with every other professional and non-professional reviewer serving up their “best of…” lists I can’t resist chipping in with my tuppence-worth.

First, though, it would be remiss of me to talk about 2015’s movies without referring to some of this year’s highest-grossing features, none of which are in my Top 10.

Mad Max: Fury Road.  Having read the many words that have been written about this film, I realise that I am in a very small minority when it comes to my appraisal. MMFR is undeniably an impressive spectacle. For me, though, it was just too relentless. There was barely any let-up in the action and hence little dramatic tension. Tom Hardy, fine actor though he is, didn’t bring Mel Gibson’s charisma to the role and this wasn’t helped by a script that meant he wasn’t even the “maddest” character in the film. But the numbers don’t lie – lots of people loved MMFR. Personally, I had a lot more fun watching Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  By contrast, the latest in the Star Wars franchise was a somewhat unexpected pleasure. I’ve never been a Star Wars aficionado. The original movie was fun enough, though the basic story was a melange of a thousand SF space opera cliches. I haven’t kept up with the storyline that runs through the prequels and sequels. But in the event this didn’t matter one jot. The preamble at the start of SWtFA told me as much as I needed to know and from thereon in I had no trouble following the action. And what action there was! It’s a matter of no small significance that the lead characters were a woman and a black man, but this would have counted for nought if the film had sucked – and glory of glories, it didn’t. The story is of course the usual daft nonsense, but we care about the characters, the action sequences are brilliant (especially in 3D), and the script is peppered with just the right amount of humour.

Spectre. Speaking of humour, Daniel Craig’s James Bond – hitherto a rather troubled and serious individual – returned with a new lightness of attitude. British critics have mostly lavished praise on this new addition to the franchise, though some critics abroad and some regular cinema goers here have been less enthusiastic. For many people, the storyline in Spectre is not as strong as in Skyfall. The earlier film did perhaps make more of its villain and also included a 39 Steps-style odd couple road trip to the Scottish highlands. Nonetheless, I enjoyed Spectre a lot. The set pieces were as thrilling as ever and director Sam Mendes ensured that things rattled along efficiently. My main complaint is that the helicopter sequence at the start of the film was more exciting than the end sequence. But perhaps the most notable aspect of Spectre was it’s pro-Snowden take on surveillance. I wonder what they made of that at the royal premiere?

Incidentally, a couple of other major movies in 2015 also included elements that could be taken as commentary on contemporary matters. Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies was about the politics and negotiations underlying the exchange of two captured spies; the Soviet spy Rudolf Abel and the American spy plane pilot Gary Powers. The film explicitly makes the point that it is foolish and hypocritical to mistreat the other side’s prisoners if you expect the other side to behave properly when your own people are captured. With memories of Abu Ghraib and America’s post-9/11 torture program not yet faded, this message could hardly be more pertinent.

The other film that could be interpreted as having a contemporary message is Black Mass, the real-life story of how the FBI did a deal with Irish-American crime boss James Bulger to bring down the Mafia in Boston. The result was that Bulger’s murderous gang were strengthened, whilst FBI agent John Connolly became compromised and corrupted. Isn’t this also the story of much Western intervention?

My Top Ten consists of movies that were on general release in 2015, but there were also some film festival previews that will be worth looking out for in 2016, notably High Rise, Desierto, Assassination and Truth.

  1. Carol. Todd Haynes’s latest feature tells the slow-burning story of the relationship between a well-to-do but soon-to-be-divorced mother and a young female department store counter assistant. Set in the 1950s, a lesbian relationship is fraught with difficulty, but this love-against-the-odds theme is one that anyone can identify with. With an opening scene borrowed from Brief Encounter and cinematography influenced by Saul Leiter, Carol is one of the great cinema romances.
  2. Hard to be a God. Reviewed here on August 21st, this final film of Aleksei German is a gruesome epic about an earthlike planet stuck in their own equivalent of our Middle Ages, with an encroaching fascism. The story concerns the difficulties faced by an undercover observer from Earth, working to a brief that forbids him to kill. But it is the realistic mud, blood and guts depiction of the world that appals and appeals.
  3. The Dance of Reality. From the director of El Topo, and reviewed here on June 17th 2014, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s most recent film is a surreal reworking of his Chilean childhood, during which his communist father tries – and fails – to assassinate the President. Jodorowsky plays with cinematic form in a way which few films dare to do.
  4. The Lobster.  From director Yorgos Lanthimos, The Lobster is a fine example of what can be achieved with fairly simple locations and a strong story. It is set in a dystopian present or near-future where anybody not in a relationship is sent to a hotel where they have 45 days to pair off with someone. If they fail to do so, they will be transformed into an animal of their choice and sent out into the wild. However, out in the forest is a group of renegades whose rules forbid them to have relationships. The Lobster is a wonderfully engaging dark satire on the rituals of mating.
  5. Black Mass.  Reviewed here earlier today (31st December), this is a chilling and unromanticised crime drama about an unholy alliance between the FBI and James Bulger’s Irish-American crime outfit in order to bring down the Mafia in Boston.
  6. Foxcatcher.  Reviewed here on January 17th. Steve Carell gives a masterful performance as troubled millionaire John Du Pont whose attempt to create a medal-winning American wrestling team leads to tragedy.
  7. Mommy.  The latest dazzling invention from French-Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan concerns a single mother’s struggle to raise her troubled but charming son.
  8. Force Majeure. During an alpine skiing holiday a father abandons his wife and children when they (wrongly) think they are about to be overwhelmed by an avalanche. Director Ruben Östlund examines the emotional upheavals that follow.
  9. Bridge of Spies. Spielberg’s latest features Tom Hanks as Everyman lawyer Thomas B. Donovan who finds himself brokering a deal with the Russians to exchange captured Soviet spy Rudolf Abel for the imprisoned American spy plane pilot Gary Powers.
  10. Tangerine.  Shot on an iPhone 5s, director Sean Baker breaks new ground with a comic drama about two transgender sex workers living on the margins in West Hollywood. For characters who initially struck me as rather unsympathetic, I was amazed to find myself rooting for them by the end of the film. Unexpectedly, it turns out to be a feel good Christmas movie!

 

 

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Cast: Johnny Depp (James “Whitey” Bulger), Joel Edgerton (John Connolly), Benedict Cumberbatch (Billy Bulger), Dakota Johnson (Lindsey Cyr), Kevin Bacon (Charles McGuire)

A brilliant performance from Johnny Depp is just one of the good things about this superb crime movie

In Black Mass Johnny Depp gives us the acting comeback that so many have been waiting for. Playing the real-life Irish-American crime boss, James “Whitey” Bulger, Depp dons a bald-wig and puts any memory of his heart-throb good looks behind him. His portrayal of Bulger as a cold, ruthless psychopath is eerily convincing.

The story concerns an unholy alliance between Bulger and the FBI, both of whom have an interest in breaking the grip of the New England Mafia on Boston. FBI agent John Connolly is a childhood friend of Bulger and persuades the latter to become an informant, a decision that Bulger justifies to himself as a sensible business deal. However, the end result of this pairing is that Bulger’s empire grows,  as does the body count of his victims, whilst Connolly himself becomes compromised and corrupted. One wonders if there is a hidden message here for Western governments: doing business with your enemy’s enemy may not work out the way you were hoping.

Black Mass can’t avoid one or two genre stereotypes, notably when Bulger chews out a terrified looking colleague of Connolly’s, only to reveal that he was just putting him on. But in the main, a strong story, strong characterisation, and refusal to romanticise mobsters give this a sense of realism that makes it a cut above the average gangster movie.

Whilst Depp is superb, the script also allows the other performers to shine and there are strong performances from the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch as brother Billy and Joel Edgerton as John Connolly.

Rating: 5/5

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Cast: Jennifer Lawrence (Joy Mangano), Robert De Niro (Rudy), Bradley Cooper (Neil Walker), Edgar Ramirez (Tony), Isabella Rossellini (Trudy)

Jennifer Lawrence wipes the floor with the rest of the cast in this against-the-odds tale of a housewife-turned-entrepreneur

Hot on the heels of Carol comes another end-of-year title consisting only of a woman’s first name. Joy opens with the statement that the film has been inspired by true stories of daring women, and one woman in particular.That woman is Joy Mangano, an Italian-American who, in the 1990s, devised a “Miracle Mop” and made a lot of money selling it on the QVC home-shopping channel.

It isn’t clear how much fictional license  writer/director David O’Russell has taken with Joy’s story, but as told here it is a pretty gripping rollercoaster. An inventive child and valedictorian in her class at school, any aspirations Joy may have had have been crushed by family demands and a failed marriage. Her ex-husband, a failed musician, is still living in the basement two years after their divorce and is joined at the start of the film by Joy’s father Rudy, who has bailed out of another broken relationship. Her mother spends most of the day in bed watching soap operas.

Joy is constantly cleaning up after everybody. After an episode where she cuts her hands squeezing out a mop-head containing broken glass, she comes up with the idea for a mop that avoids any such inconvenience to the user. From this point on Joy has to battle a variety of forces ranged against her, from sceptical family members to unsympathetic corporate executives and corrupt business operatives. Just when you think Joy has made it, there always seems to be another knock-back.

If the real Joy Mangano only had to face half the battle depicted here, then I’m full of admiration for her. Perhaps other women will draw inspiration from this film, though I did find myself thinking that the business world appears to be so awful that I can’t imagine why anyone would want to be a part of it.

David Russell doesn’t present Joy as a linear narrative. The film opens with actors in a black-and-white soap opera delivering stilted dialogue and is followed by a flashback to Joy’s childhood, as narrated by her grandmother. References to TV soap operas recur throughout the film, explicitly linking the QVC channel’s marketing of Joy’s mop to the target audience. There are also dream sequences that tell us something about Joy’s hopes and fears.

Jennifer Lawrence gives another stellar performance as the title character. I particularly liked a scene in which she marches away from father Rudy’s auto business, a look of furious determination on her face, then picks up a rifle at the nearby shooting range and starts blasting away.

However, it must also be said that Russell’s script does not really give any of the other actors room to shine. Bradley Cooper does well enough as a top executive at QVC, but we never really feel we know him. And Robert De Niro is sadly wasted as Joy’s father. His role here is little more than a slightly more serious version of the father in Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers. De Niro’s opening scene requires him to angrily smash up some crockery, a largely pointless action that the film could easily have lived without.

In short, this is Lawrence’s film through and through, and whilst the other performers are completely overshadowed I nonetheless enjoyed this a lot.

Rating: 4/5