FILM REVIEW: The Theory of Everything

The theory of everything chronicals the rise, fall and rise again of Professor Stephen Hawking from his days as an awkward Cambridge university fresher to the brilliant, wheelchair-bound, household name we’ve known him to be for many a year now.

It’ll come as no surprise that it’s quite an unsettling film and from the moment that Hawking is diagnosed with Motor Neurone disease and informed that he probably has, at best, two years to live, we have a rough idea of the sort of path the film will take.
The fact that Hawking is still with us over forty years later is medically remarkable but rather than scrutinising Stephen Hawking, the medical case study, The Theory of Everything focuses more on the touching and understandably rather melancholic story of his life and love; love that is, in the face of huge adversity.
Felicity Jones plays the object of Hawking’s affections, Jane; a pretty, sweet, yet surprisingly determined and emotionally strong girl. These are characteristics that will serve both she and Stephen well throughout the course of their relationship; from college sweethearts to married couple rearing a family, all the while mindful that the rapid and cruel progression of Hawking’s condition is likely to curtail the happiness of their union far too prematurely.
The performances are strong and assured throughout and whilst the direction is clearly geared towards the mainstream, it doesn’t detract from the intimacy and detail of the story.
Hawking, (played with eerie precision by the no doubt, Oscar-destined Eddie Redmayne ) is portrayed sympathetically as a man of great courage, keeping a brave face and self deprecating outlook on things in spite of such insurmountable odds. In contrast, it’s interesting to see Jane’s, at first stoic resolve, begin to wain as time goes by and the harsh realities of her unavoidable role in the marriage begin to take their toll. Director James Marsh focuses well on the no doubt immense frustrations, guilt, loneliness and resigned melancholy that they both must have experienced.
The Theory of Everything is above all, an affecting and at times very beautiful telling of a story that could so easily have been one of self-absorbed sadness and regret, yet, although this is no fairy tale with a standard happy ending, it does nonetheless leave us believing that anything is possible and that life and indeed love, even if not in the way me might have come to expect, can and will find a way. Given the context, an unlikely, yet very welcome sentiment, you’ll surely agree.
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FILM REVIEW: Whiplash

During my long-distant university days, for just a brief time I had a Latin percussion tutor by the name of Dave Hassell; a serious fella, a top notch professional drummer and by all accounts a bit of a task master according to the resident ‘skin beaters’ on my course. Certainly they were no strangers to putting in hours of practice above and beyond what might have been expected of them.

Drums were not my instrument so I couldn’t vouch for the intensity of his methods, but if he imposed even a quarter of Terence Fletcher’s ferocity in his approach, then, my belated commiserations guys!

Whiplash is a serious film about the serious business of jazz music, and wannabe jazz musicians.

Terence Fletcher (played by the excellent J.K Simmons with uncompromising menace, bordering on the psychotic) is both revered and feared in equal measures by his students at Shaffer college, America’s premiere music conservatory.

Here, the students ‘lucky’ enough to make it into Fletcher’s studio band are pushed to their very limits by his tough, uncompromising, almost boot camp style, none more so than newbie ‘squeaker’ Andrew Neeman (played with great conviction by Miles Teller) who aspires to be spoken of in the same breath as such jazz luminaries as drummer Buddy Rich.

There’s no room for sentiment or hard luck stories here in Fletcher’s world and his methods and insatiable desire to discover his Charlie Parker or Buddy Rich, undoubtedly will break and indeed has broken many a determined spirit along the way.

Neeman’s initial, ambitious yet quiet and reflective demeanour gives way to a scowling, cynical selfishness and arrogance as the film progresses. How much of this is down to Fletcher’s methods and how much of it is Neeman’s possibly natural latent character is hard to say, but the change is definite, pronounced and unsettling.

What follows is an exilharating tale of single-minded desire, drive, revenge and counter-revenge producing at times almost excruciating levels of tension as the plot twists and turns, keeping us guessing right until the very end where the whole thing crescendos to one hell of a tumultuous climax; a genuinely electrifying finale!

It’s absolutely riveting viewing, swept along by a brilliant, powerful and pounding Justin Hurwitz soundtrack.

Whiplash fully deserves every last accolade it has already received and surely will continue to receive on it’s full, UK cinema release.

Not many films produce a loud cheer from a clearly enthralled cinema audience at the end – Whiplash did – as much, I’d imagine, a collective release from the film’s at times tortuous tension as it was a joyous show of appreciation of what is clearly going to be a very strong contender for film of the year.

Absolutely stunning!

FILM REVIEW: American Sniper

Wayne Kyle only appears fleetingly at the beginning of Clint Eastwood’s latest directorial offering, but his words and mantra live long and strong throughout, nowhere more so than in the head and psyche of his eldest son, Chris, played with surprising gravitas by Bradley Cooper.
To paraphrase Chris’s father: There are three types of people in this world, sheep, wolves and sheep dogs. You are a sheep dog; don’t ever let me find out that you’re a wolf.
Essentially, Chris knows he has a duty to protect those ‘sheep’ unable or incapable of protecting themselves from life’s aggressors; ‘wolves.’
A noble stance in essence, no doubt and one that Chris lives and breathes in his daily existence, but one, when applied to the unsavoury business of war and the need for some kind of work/life balance, threatens to tear him and those he loves apart.
Everything seems to serve as a trigger for Chris’s ingrained or possibly even innate need to protect the vulnerable, never  more so than when he becomes aware that his brother (also in the forces) has been deployed to Iraq too. This causes Chris to down his sniper rifle and join the foot patrols from where, in Chris’s head at least, he can better protect his brothers in arms. His own brother’s deployed whereabouts he’s apparently not actually even fully aware of.
This level of devotion to his Navy Seal comrades, be that in the guise of chief protector or self-appointed vengeance-seeker, continually over-rides the importance of his role as a husband and father, forcing him back for tour after tour to the battlefields of Iraq where his position as America’s top sniper is both essential and unrivalled.
The stakes, on both a personal and professional level intensify with each sortie and the very real threat of loss of both comrades in the battlefield and of his cherished family unit, always hangs heavy in the air.
It’s a credit to Eastwood’s direction that he tells Chris’s tale in such a way that this here lily-livered pacifist even found himself emotionally rooting for this most highly decorated of marksmen and is proof, if any were needed, that American Sniper is not your average shoot-em-up war tale. Instead, it has a real depth to it and works on a number of superbly considered levels and all of this without really even needing to broach the rather sticky subject of the validity of the Iraq war or indeed any war. That is very much left up to the viewer. Whilst hard issues of morality are prevalent throughout, this is not a film that chooses to focus so much on the rights or wrongs of war in general, instead, concentrating on its psychological impact upon those it affects, both directly and indirectly.
It was only at its end that I realised American Sniper is actually based on a true story. There are moments throughout (and forgive the rather off-kilter tennis analogy) when the screenplay ‘lobs one up,’ ready for the big Hollywood smash-down and then wrong-foots us entirely with a Michael Chang-esque under arm serve, not least, some shades of The Wild Geese reworked towards the end.
Of course, what happens in life happens, but life is not a Hollywood film, no matter how hard they try to sell it to you and a screenplay such as this, based upon a genuinely true story, benefits immeasurably as a result.
It’s a film that makes no secret of its pride and reverence for a great American patriot and the Stars and Stripes are in abundance, lining the packed streets in his honour, but it’s not an over-bearing sentiment; there is good balance to this story throughout, the sign, I certainly believe, of a really good war film.
And American Sniper is just that; a really good war film.