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A Very Merry Christmas, Everyone!

call-of-the-wild

…Wayward Wolf

 

 

 

 

 

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FILM REVIEW: The Tribe

There’s a moment in the BBC Comedy series ‘I’m Alan Partridge’ when Alan, whilst being given a tour of his prospective new house, is informed that it’s close to a school for the deaf. “Does that mean there will be or won’t be noise?” he enquires. “I mean, it’s not a school for deaf offenders, is it?”

Comedy that may well be, but it does open up an interesting thought to ponder upon and more importantly challenges our pre-conceptions of those with disadvantages and of our need to stereotype, in general; for example, how many of us would perceive ‘the deaf’ as anything other than good people, struggling on through life and adversity?

A comedy, ‘the Tribe’ is not; far from it. It’s a raw and rather bleak look at a run-down, Ukrainian boarding school for the hard of hearing; a school that feels both forgotten and unloved, as though everyone that attends or works there has been abandoned in some way by their families, the system and by life in general.

Consequently, a feral existence ensues; not just tolerated but positively encouraged by those in charge; a means of money making from theft, deceit and prostitution,  promoting a feckless next generation. There are certainly shades of ‘The Lord of the Flies’ about this existence.

The new boy, played by Grigoriy Fesenko, is ‘welcomed’ into his new surrounds through a sequence of rites of passage and is soon actively engaged in the school’s plethora of wrong doings, that is until love plays a part in things. It’s the sort of twisted love that could only be born out of a place like this. Pure love has no chance to flourish here but importantly it’s a  love that breaks all of the rules and codes of The Tribe and is always going to end in repercussions, as the film presses ominously onwards towards its savage finale.

I don’t know whether it’s the winter months, the decaying, cold, blue institutional decor of this establishment or just the feeling of hopelessness in so much as you either accept things as they are here or you’re a part of a problem, to  be treated as such by the pack mentality of the students, but The Tribe is an incredibly desparate, yet remarkable piece on so many levels.

There is literally no spoken dialogue throughout, no soundtrack of any description, not even occasional incidental music to break the intensity.

It has been shot in long, drawn-out takes which offer no escape from the at times harrowing scenes that unfold (and believe me they’re uncomfortable viewing).

Everybody is seemingly in an insanely mad rush to get everywhere and do everything; a warped, yet well oiled corruption machine. All portrayed emotions are dark, angry and somewhat explosive.

The end credit sequence is short, blunt and to the point… much like The Tribe.

Bleak, yet utterly brilliant.

 

 

Film Review: Danny Collins

“He’s got a big heart, he just keeps it up his ass half the time…”

That’s Danny Collins…and… that’s Danny Collins, a film with a reassuringly big heart, too.

I suppose if you break it all down, it’s fairly standard stock.

All the ingredients are there, an unfulfilling life, the want for change, the need for redemption with those most important to you and ultimately, lessons learned and making things right; to a point.

But such a blasé summary does ‘Danny Collins’ a disservice, because regardless of the film’s complexities or lack, thereof, it works and works well.

Annette Benning plays hard-nosed, savvy-yet-sweet to perfection. Both Bobby Cannavale and Jennifer Garner turn in tender, yet weighty performances considering their relatively limited screen time. Christopher Plummer plays a wise voice of sense and reason as Danny’s long time manager and best friend and then of course, there’s Al Pacino…

I struggle to think of a single Pacino performance that hasn’t at least held it’s own over the years, no matter the script, no matter the style.

Never less than engaging, here, he near smothers us with warmth and charm, in a good way, playing Danny Collins, a ‘career successful,’ yet personally unfulfilled rock star.

On receiving an unexpected and overwhelming life changing gift from his manager, Danny Collins reassesses his drug-addled, superficial existence and decides to make some important changes; most important of all, connecting with his son and family ( Bobby Cannavale, Jennifer Garner and their precocious, yet admittedly amusing daughter).

Danny’s approach and charm offensive is predictably bold and over the top, in keeping with his superstar status, but respect and lost time cannot be bought or made up over night.

Whilst he may woo effortlessly when he has an ‘on-side’ audience, creating bonds and regaining the trust of those who would rather he didn’t exist, is quite another matter altogether.

Yes, it’s a bit clumsy at times, yes it can be a little contrived and predictable in places, but at the risk of repeating myself: Danny Collins is a film with a big heart, an excellent cast and of course, Al Pacino.

When you watch a film with no expectations and come out feeling good about pretty much everything, you know that something’s been done right. Danny Collins gets it right.

A genuinely likeable cast, laugh-out-loud moments, ‘that’ feel good factor and all carried along by the timeless music and message of John Lennon. This is great escapism and Alfredo Pacino is on top form.

Danny Collins: What’s not to like?

FILM REVIEW: Dark Horse

I don’t know much about the Sport of Kings, nor horses in general for that matter; infact I’ll go so far as to say that horses are an absolute mystery to me. Whilst some may get positively giddy over the sight of a thoroughbred, I just about manage a shrug of the shoulders at best. I really do wonder what all of the fuss is about.

That said, I do know something about underdogs and I do get excited by a good rags to riches tale and that’s exactly what Dark Horse is; a moving documentary about the unlikely rise to sporting stardom of a foal, reared, initially at least, on an allotment in the Welsh valleys.

Quite how a syndicate of inexperienced Welsh hopefuls succeeded in turning Dream Alliance into a contender in this billionaires playground, without the considerable benefits of having a Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum on speed dial, should leave even the eternally optimistic amongst us scratching our collective heads in confusion; but succeed they most certainly did.

Director and writer Louise Osmond has lovingly pieced together sections of original footage alongside assorted interviews with those from the ex-mining community whose tale it is to tell and it’s their natural charm and abundance of character that really give this film wings.

Dark Horse has the feel of a real life Brassed Off or Full Monty, capturing nicely that close-knit spirit of working class community and togetherness that many a fictional Brit-flick has done so well over the years.

Even a self-confessed, bewildered equine-sceptic like myself couldn’t help being considerably charmed by this little gem.

It might not remain on furlong, so do yourself a favour and stick it near the top of your ‘to see’ list.

Charming, at times life-affirming and a lesson to all in the power of belief and perseverance.

FILM REVIEW: X+Y

Since the sudden death of her husband, Julie (Sally Hawkins) has been desperate in her quest for the same love and approval that her brilliant, autistic son Nathan (played by Asa Butterfield) had for his late father. Nathan’s a shy and socially bewildered boy; a mathematical genius and yet he’s simply unable to formulate the necessary equations in his mathematical mind to tackle life and its myriad unpredictabilities.

X+Y is essentially Nathan’s world and how his rather insular existence not only affects the people closest to him, but somehow allows them to confront their own issues and personal demons in one way or another.

When done well, these kind of British, slice-of-life dramas tend to be the perfect blend of charm, poignancy and dry wit, components that X+Y has in abundance.

Rafe Spall in particular is superb as Humphreys, Nathan’s sarcastic, wise-cracking personal tutor and although his humour is probably lost on Nathan and is in itself more of a coping mechanism for him to deal with his own frustrations at living with the debilitating effects of Multiple Sclerosis, it’s laugh-out-loud funny at times and the perfect antidote to Nathan’s occasional innocent, yet cutting, socially unaware outbursts.

When Nathan is chosen to represent British schools in the International Mathematical Olympiad in Taiwan, he is taken under the wing of no nonsense trip coordinator Richard, played by Eddie Marsan, whom, to my consistent shame, I can never seem to disassociate from his long past ‘Grange Hill’ days whenever I see him. He’s a whole lot better than that, clearly.

A whole new world of friendships, opportunities and experiences open up for Nathan here as he confronts both who he is and the social inadequacies that he struggles with, whilst Zhang Mei (a sweet performance by Jo Yang) enters his life and an innocent sort of forbidden, young love blossoms.

Morgan Matthews has cast the roles well and directs X + Y with great respect and affection.
I dislike the ‘feel-good’ label when attached to films, but in fairness, it’s pretty apt on this occasion. It’s not quite up there with the very best of British, but it’s a charming little piece nonetheless with its heart very firmly in the right place and that’s certainly no bad thing.

Well worth a watch.

FILM REVIEW: Ex Machina

Ex Machina  feels somehow like stepping into familiar territory and whilst this may be considered a little problematic for a film that is essentially science fiction, it shouldn’t deflect ones attention from the fact that it still manages to feel fresh and innovative in doing so.

The parallels with both 2014’s excellent ‘Her’ and the much underrated, Kubrick / Spielberg offering, A.I are obvious; that of a man-made creation of artificial intelligence looking for love, acceptance and the need to satisfy an ever burgeoning curiosity. Ultimately, in very differing cirumstances and for one reason or another, both out-grow their ‘masters’ (for want of a better word).

Ex Machina is the story of Caleb (played by Domhnall Gleeson), the gifted coding employee and winner of an exclusive opportunity to spend a week with Nathan, the reclusive CEO of the world’s largest internet company; the company that Caleb works for.

Right from the off, Nathan, (played by very much the man of the moment, Oscar Isaac), cuts a rather brash, yet defensive and secretive character; personal traits that will be much in evidence throughout.

Sufficiently bowled over by Nathan’s work, reputation and his high tech ‘bunker / home’ hidden away in the most sweepingly majestic of remote locations imaginable, Caleb sets about helping his new acquaintance conduct the turing test sessions for his latest project; that being the world’s first true artificial intelligence, a girl robot named Ava, a visually perfect casting for the deceptively beautiful, ‘butter-wouldn’t-melt,’ Alicia Vikander.

As Caleb becomes more and more embroiled in the project, the week will not only reveal a number of his own personal desires and motivations, but a whole number of home truths about Nathan and the reasons why Caleb is actually there.

Fuelled by the simplistic yet powerful guitar and synth refrains of Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s soundtrack, (again familiar – think John Murphy’s soundtracks to Alex Garland’s previous ’28 Days / Weeks later’ films), Ex Machina sustains a feel of futuristic wonder offset by a continued sense of menace that hangs heavy in the air.

If I’m honest, I think if I hadn’t seen A.I or Her, Ex Machina would have packed slightly more punch than ultimately it does, but there are still enough twists and turns in the plot and a visually most impressive and crucially not over-done use of C.G.I, believable in every sense, allowing Ex Machina to very much stand on its own two robotic feet and to be considered every bit as good as its very excellent forerunners.

Much like the early months of last year, 2015 seems to be positively oozing with quality offerings and Ex Machina sustains that level.

Visually sumptuous. Futuristic yet organic. Another Alex Garland success.

FILM REVIEW: Birdman

Question: What does a late, mid-life crisis sound like?

Antonio Sanchez’s free-form drum improvisation that underpins Birdman throughout, is probably a fair approximation of what we might expect to hear, conjuring up a real sense of mad, rudderless mayhem. It’s a fitting backdrop to accompany Riggan Thomson’s (the excellent Michael Keaton), own neurotic quest for mid-life, artistic self-validation as he attempts to shed the public’s unshakeable insistence that he is and always will be, Birdman.

The character ‘Birdman’ has made him a movie star, earning him worldwide recognition and a legion of devoted fans, but now he’s struggling to reinvent himself as a serious actor in a Broadway show that he’s taking the bold decision to both act  in and direct.
Not only is there a public opinion to sway, but there’s a near perfect storm of fairly poisonous elements that surround him, threatening to derail his efforts at every turn and perhaps worst of all, the voice and lingering shadow of Birdman hovers over him like a bad avian smell, attempting to persuade him to forget his artistic plans and ideals and embrace the spirit and essence of Birdman. That, after all, is who he is and all he’ll ever be.
Director Alejandro González Iñárritu uses the claustrophobic, almost labyrinthine maze of interconnecting passages that run beneath the broadway theatre, to capture the mood of frustration, of being lost and an overwhelming sense of chaos and impending disaster. It’s a labyrinth that seemingly leads nowhere and demonstrates both the confusion and doubt that pervades Riggan’s own mind. Indeed Riggan is a man desperately trying to navigate his way through life’s maze of challenges, be they a wise-ass, fresh out of rehab daughter, an overbearing, seditious and tactless co-star (the brilliant Edward Norton), who it seems, either through a calculated devious streak or massively blinkered selfishness (it’s hard to say which), is determined to put a spanner in both Riggan and the play’s works.
Add to this Riggan’s desire to kowtow to the somewhat elitist, artistic thought processes of Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan), a theatre critic so influential and hard-hearted, that her word can and frequently does make or break any new play that finds its way onto the boards of Broadway.
Finally, we have a messy succession of lingering romantic interests from Riggan’s life, both past and present and what should be a time of concerted, artistic focus upon a career highlight, is rapidly turning into a game of spinning plates; rapidly spinning out of control that is.
Birdman is brilliantly entertaining; a dark comedy which has everything from toe-curling, excruciating farce and embarrassment to joyous, uplifting fantasy.
Deep down I suppose, much like Birdman, we all want to believe we can fly in life and if we can do that, soaring above the streets of Manhattan, to the haunting strains of Rachmaninoff, then I guess that really is what it’s all about, isn’t it? Come to think of it, Rachmaninoff’s majestic second symphony is probably exactly what a late, mid-life crisis would sound like. We search all of our lives for that kind of elusive meaning and perfection; something we’ve never quite been able to find and let’s face it, probably never will.
Birdman; brilliant and literally uplifting.

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.

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.

 

FILM REVIEW: Interstellar

I’ve seen far-off planets, failing planets, new planets, star constellations and alternate universes.

I’ve witnessed black holes, worm holes and event horizons.

I’ve looked on in awe at mile-high tidal waves and vast dust storms sweeping mercilessly across American corn rows.

I’ve observed flying craft docking in deep outer-space and marvelled at mind-bending quantum physics.

I’ve seen astronauts struggle with matters of the heart, of life and death; the birth of new generations and the cryogenic preservation of the old…

…and on top of all of this, I’ve been vibrationally rattled to the back teeth by an impressive Odeon, IMAX sound system.

Yet somehow I still feel curiously dissatisfied?

But why?

Interstellar, incase you’ve been living on some far-away planet for the last few months, is a story of space exploration and an attempt to colonise new planets on which the human race can re-start; a situation brought about by the increasingly uninhabitable nature of planet earth.

Matthew McConnaughey puts in a heavyweight lead performance of some note and he’s well supported by Hollywood’s finest. Anne Hathaway, John Lithgow, Matt Damon and even the old master, Michael Caine all put in strong performances, key to Interstellar’s plot.

Special effects (achieved impressively without the use of CGi) are very special indeed; big, bold and convincing, yet still organic and with a very ‘real’ feel to them.

There’s a strong and distinct storyline and the dialogue is mercifully, relatively schmaltz-free and believable.

Indeed, there’s actually so much to admire about Interstellar and the hugely ambitious cinematic project that it undoubtedly is, but therein lies the problem; it actually feels simply too ambitious.

On the one hand we have a very human story of the tight bonds of family and of love and longing, whilst on the other (and at times it could be said, rather shoe-horned in), we have an improbable story of space adventure, discovery and a dabble into the world of quantum physics. Even if we suspend our disbelief for a moment and take the film on face value, for what it really is, Interstellar just doesn’t convincingly marry these two elements together; to my eyes at least.

That said, you can see what Christopher Nolan was trying to achieve and there are very definitely moments of great poignancy and emotion throughout, as well as a big, cinematic dose of the  ‘wow’ factor thrown in, as you might expect from a Christopher Nolan offering.

I have a hunch that Interstellar will actually improve through repeat watchings. It’s certainly the sort of film that would benefit from it, if only to fully comprehend and appreciate some of the more complex, scientific concepts and ideas covered.

It’s a long film, yet strangely it never really allows us the ‘time and space’ to truly ponder and contemplate the enormity of the subject matter; instead we are whisked along in a fast and furious succession of thrills, spills and set pieces.

Credit to Nolan, he maintains this momentum throughout; no mean feat for a movie that clocks in at a bum-numbing 166 minutes, but it is at times somewhat at the expense of what is essentially a rather moving ‘human’ sub-plot.

I can’t help making comparisons with the 2013 film ‘Gravity’ which, whilst perhaps not being quite as ambitious, scientifically-speaking, was nevertheless a film that I feel was far more successful in blending the disparate aspects of space adventure with matters of the heart and resulted in a film that simply worked, from start to finish.

It is of course not a sci-fi competition though and I’d urge anyone to go and see Interstellar; you’d actually be missing out if you didn’t.

It’s a very enjoyable three hours or so and a lot of love and dedication has been put into its creation, that much is obvious; just don’t be expecting the hollywood classic that it’s been painted out to be…

…it isn’t.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FILM REVIEW: Night Crawler

Night crawler? Skin crawler more like.

Louis (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a petty criminal, an opportunist and a most disturbing man in anyone’s book, displaying more than his fair share of psychopathic traits.

Having stumbled upon the murky world of late night, sensational journalism, he spends his nights obsessively capturing as much exclusive video footage as he can from Los Angeles’ litany of nightly accidents, homicides and other scenes of misfortune, in order to sell it on to news stations, for a fee.

Cold-heartedly he engineers his way up the ladder of this cut-throat business, looking after number one, displaying a tunnel-vision, showing little or no regard for those affected around him. ‘Empathy for one’s fellow man’ it’s fair to say, does not rate highly in Louis’s list of priorities.

Bit by bit, Louis sinks deeper and deeper into the mire in his quest for success and everything that his very transactional view of the world, desires.

It’s a gripping tale, told brilliantly by director Dan Gilroy, creating at times excruciating levels of tension and all done with some very dark, dark humour.

Gyllenhaal is stupendous and freaky in equal measures, whilst Riz Ahmed, his hapless side-kick and Renee Russo, one of the objects of Louis’s desires, are both excellent in their respective roles. A special mention also for the brilliantly named news anchor, Kent Shocknek, played here by, Kent Shocknek; yes, that really is his name.

Only in America…

Gilroy creates just the right atmosphere throughout, capturing the soullessness of the sprawling Los Angeles suburbs whilst revealing the cut-throat, superficial and deeply immoral nature of ‘shock news’ media.

One of the best things I’ve laid eyes on all year. This shouldn’t be missed.

FILM REVIEW: Magic In The Moonlight


I’m a big Woody Allen fan. There, I’ve said it.

Ever since I first watched his slapstick antics in ‘Bananas’, way back when, I’ve been taken by this most unlikely of heroes, both as an actor and director. Admittedly, there have been moments in time throughout Woody’s distinguished career when his film making has occasionally left me a little cold. The output of the last two decades for example has had it’s highlights certainly, but seems somewhat patchy when compared to what most will consider his 1970s and ’80s prime.

Thankfully, it seems that Woody is now entering a most golden of twilights to his career, if the excellent Blue Jasmine and now Magic in the Moonlight, a tale of psychic deception and reluctant romance, are anything to go by.
Colin Firth, wonderfully cast as Stanley, a brilliant yet curmudgeonly magician, has his somewhat fixed and unshakable view of the world tested to its very limits when asked to unmask an apparently fraudulent young psychic, played beautifully by Emma Stone.

Magic in the Moonlight is a period drama, jollied along by a typically charming, 1920s / 30s Woody Allen soundtrack of jazz standards of the era. Is there any director that can so expertly portray the whole gamut of human emotions through such a musical genre? Whilst being nothing new in a Woody Allen flick, it never fails to impress me.

It’s a charming little film that keeps us guessing until the very end and deserves to be considered among his very best of recent times; perhaps not quite a Woody classic, but not too far off.

It’s comforting to know that Woody remains both so prolific and relevant with his output, even to this day. His story telling may often seem as though it’s retreading familiar old ground, yet he always seems able to say something new and thought provoking in doing so. Quite an achievement.

Truly a one-off. Keep ’em coming Woody!

FILM REVIEW: ’71

“We look after our own in the army, Cook.”

When private Gary Cook is deserted behind enemy lines by his troop, amidst the chaos of a full-blown riot, it sets up the kind of scenario you’d expect Hollywood to have air dropped Nicholas Cage into. “One man’s mission impossible… Against all odds, he’s going home…”

Mercifully, he isn’t and it’s not. This is ’71, an ultra gritty tale of a soldier trying to escape with his life, scared witless by the pitiful cauldron of hate and madness that was 1970s Northern Ireland.

There are no heroes here and no sides taken, just pawns caught up in the mess, either indoctrinated by belief systems or by ‘the system’ itself. It’s not as simple as them against us for Cook, if it was, perhaps he’d have a fair chance; instead, the confusion of subterfuge on both sides leaves us asking, “who can you trust?” and more importantly, “what are their underlying motives?”

It’s a minefield for sure and a pretty tense one at that; gripping from start to finish, something director Yann Demange deserves big credit for, ratcheting up the suspense throughout.

Whilst Cook’s part as the lone, would-be escapee is down-played by the director a little, in favour of those plotting and conniving around him, his sense of fear and bewilderment is palpable and conveyed convincingly. A naive, reluctant soldier, right in the thick of it. A pawn in the game, if ever there was one.

A very minor criticism; the ending. It feels like a bit of an afterthought. Without giving anything away, you can see the point that the director is trying to make, but that point is in itself a big topic, deserving I felt of further expansion.

Don’t let that detract though from what is a really good film.

“They don’t care about you. To them, you’re a piece of meat. You want to know what the army is? It’s posh cunts, ordering thick cunts to kill poor cunts…”

Probably a fair summation of the brass tacks of this war and every war before and since.

See it.

FILM REVIEW: Lucy

2014 has been a successful and strangely futuristic year For Scarlett Johansson; from beguiling alien in ‘Under The Skin’ to the voice of an advanced computer operating system in ‘Her’ and now this.

The prospect of elevating our cerebral efficiency from the 10% or so generally associated (rightly or wrongly) with the human experience, to a full 100% and what one can only hypothesise would essentially achieve total enlightenment, infinite possibility and a true oneness with everything, is an intriguing concept on its own, so when you marry it together with a high energy, visual effects-laden action fest, what do you have?

Well, nine times out of ten you won’t have me watching it, that’s what, but in this case, you have the latest Luc Besson offering ‘Lucy’ and it’s surprisingly excellent.

Scarlett Johansson plays the film’s lead, a girl that gets caught up in a rather sinister plot to smuggle potent, synthetic CPH4 crystals against her will, for a particularly menacing, Korean mafia outfit.

The ins and outs of the plot line are not particularly important as ‘Lucy’ is to all intents and purposes a sequence of highly-charged, visually stimulating set pieces, blending gore and violence with dark humour, increasing both in intensity and bizarreness as the film rattles along and boy does it rattle along; never really once pausing for breath, the way all good action thrillers should be and it’s all over before you can say ‘6-carboxytetrahydropterin synthase.’

“Where are you?” the question is put to the suddenly invisible Johansson on her finally achieving 100% brain function and efficiency; “I am everywhere” is her ‘virtual’ reply and in ‘Lucy’ she is indeed everywhere.

In the manner that a world class footballer is everywhere, dominating every aspect of a match, so too does Johannson here, giving an albeit slightly silly master class in the art of being utterly compelling as a film’s omnipresent leading lady.

There is barely a scene without her in it and that’s very much the reason why ‘Lucy’ works so well from start to finish.

Great fun and highly recommended.

FILM REVIEW: All This Mayhem

The world of skateboarding is alien to me. I don’t know the first thing about it and have never wanted to, so it’s thanks to the occasional member freeview screening at Greenwich Picture House cinema that I get to see films like this; and on this occasion, I’m certainly glad I did.

Essentially, All This Mayhem is a true story documentary about the rise and fall of Tas and Ben, the Pappas brothers, two kids from a rough and ready background in Melbourne, Australia, that rose to the top of the competitive ‘Vert’ skateboarding world, briefly toppling an all time great Tony Hawk in the process. It’s also a real old school tale of ‘the higher they fly, the further they have to fall’ – no pun intended.

It’s hard to ignore the fact that the Pappas brothers were at times, by their own admission overly cocky and arrogant and ruffled more than a few feathers, so much so at times that you’d be forgiven for having little or no sympathy for the pair of them, yet, interestingly, such was their heartfelt passion and balls-out approach to life, you can’t help but side with them and feel their pain as their story unfolds and life deals them often shattering, self-inflicted hammer blows. Indeed, the brothers pressed the self-destruct button on life with such regularity, it’s a wonder the sky didn’t cave in on their world a lot sooner than ultimately it did; and how it did, in a maelstrom of drug abuse and reckless, over indulgence and disastrous decision making.

As with all good film documentaries, All This Mayhem lays on the thrills, spills and jubilation along with the  pain and anguish and does so in the most absorbing and at times hard-to-watch manner. It’s emotional, edge-of-the-seat stuff that had me well and truly sucked in.

A really well paced and put together effort that deserves a larger audience than I suspect it will ultimately receive.

Very highly recommended.

 

FILM REVIEW: Chef

I really do want to say nice things about ‘Chef.’ It’s certainly a film with its heart in the right place and there are definitely good things to be had from this warm-hearted and at times rather amusing tale.
It was written by the always excellent Jon Favreau, who plays the film’s lead, Carl Casper, a divorced, frustrated chef, trying  to bring creative fulfillment to his career whilst simultaneously being the perfect father to his son Percy, played by Emjay Anthony in a sweet yet limited role.
The casting is a strange one. On the plus side, characters like Martin, Carl’s right hand man (played by John Leguizamo) lend some much needed, enthusiastic savvy to proceedings, yet a series of short cameos by Scarlett Johanssen, Dustin Hoffman and most bizarrely, a slightly megalomaniacal Robert Downey-Junior, are rather baffling; almost like token gestures in the grand scheme of this film; a heavyweight favour to the director perhaps or maybe an insistence from the film’s sponsors? Who knows.
The premise of the film is that Chef Casper’s ‘touch paper’ is lit when a renowned food critic drags his name through the mud, professionally slaughtering his menu in the process (the menu Casper had wanted to scrap but was duty-bound to serve) and the whole situation is exacerbated when Casper’s social media inadequacies lead him to inadvertently start an ever escalating, public slanging match on Twitter.
Everything comes to a head when Casper loses his marbles in front of the critic, somebody films it and the video goes viral. Needless to say, Casper’s career hits the buffers over night.
‘Chef’ should really kick-on from here and become the clever little film about work / life balance and the perils of social media in the hands of the uninitiated, that it promises to be, but it’s here in fact that it seriously loses its way.
It’s not the fact that the storyline is necessarily weak, the problem is simply that all of the good ideas in this film seem somewhat swamped beneath a rather clumsy, schmaltzy and at times contrived script and screen play which do none of the characters, no matter how well played, any favours at all. Indeed, from here on, it’s a predictable sequence of clichéd events, set pieces and scenarios with the mother of all toe-curling endings; not to mention the whole thing is basically an on going advertisement for Twitter.
The feel good film of the year?
Not for me. Feel good films whilst admittedly generally being  schmaltzy, predictable affairs, rely heavily therefore on the viewer buying whole-heartedly into the characters to such an extent in fact that whatever unlikely twists and turns a plot may take along the way, it doesn’t really matter; we celebrate the unlikely or the  down right ludicrous because quite frankly, we’re in for the ride!
Sadly, Chef combines predictable schmaltz with half-baked, rather forced characterisation and for all its eagerness to please, that’s just never going to work.
It’s all a bit of a shame really because there’s definitely a nice little film buried in there somewhere.
All of that said, it still has its moments and it remains worth a watch.

 

FILM REVIEW: Bad Neighbours

I’m sure I read a favourable review somewhere about ‘Bad Neighbours’ recently or I may have dreamt it? More likely is that I simply willed a good review from my subconscious, such is the paucity of genuinely, laugh-out-loud films, that truly sustain their comic intensity from start to finish.

I wasn’t expecting much from this Nicholas Stoller offering… and I wasn’t disappointed in that regard.

Bad Neighbours is pure Hollywood, bums-on-seats, comedy-by-numbers kind of stuff. It sticks to the same, tired old formula, namely; everything in the garden’s rosy – along comes a big problem – what are we going to do? Cue conflict, followed by solution and soul searching. Ultimately everything works out in the end and most importantly of all, we all learn a good moral lesson from it as good prevails, hurrah!

It is of course unfair to judge a formulaic Hollywood comedy by its form and structure alone. These films are more often than not simply cobbled together as some kind of feature-length vehicle for the day’s latest comedian / comedic actor, but it is fair to judge it on whether it makes us laugh throughout and although that’s a subjective kind of thing, I have to say, Bad Neighbours falls badly wide of the mark on that front.

But why?

It could be the fact that the characters seemed at best two dimensional, lacklustre and are never really ‘examined’ or allowed to be truly comedic in their own right. How often do we watch a film purely for the comedy gold, ludicrous / slapstick acting of one key character, conveniently overlooking the fact that the film itself is essentially rubbish? Perhaps the fact that the madcap antics of a college fraternity house have been lampooned so much more convincingly in other films or maybe the script was just plain poor and actors that otherwise might have made a good fist of things are left to struggle through, manfully?

That said, there’s probably still just enough nonsense in this film to keep the target audience happy – just – but essentially Bad Neighbours is simply not convincing on any level at all, be it comedic acting, ‘gross-out’ gags or genuinely funny one-liners. It struggles on all fronts and not even the lovely Rose Byrne or the sight of a ‘ripped’ Zac Efron can save this one.

In the film’s defence, there were, admittedly, a couple of laugh out loud moments for me, but they were  few and far between and certainly not enough to sustain it.

It’s not completely without positives and it’s certainly not the worst film I’ve ever seen.

Errr… I think I’ll just leave it at that.

FILM REVIEW: Jimmy’s Hall

There will be many better equipped than myself to speak knowledgeably of the politics and struggles of Ireland in the early part of the 20th century. This and the power and influence of the Roman Catholic Church very much form the backdrop to Ken Loach’s most recent, excellent offering, ‘Jimmy’s Hall.’

Based on a true story, a small, rural town is offered the chance to recapture its former spirit and social heart and soul when favourite son Jimmy Gralton returns from some years away in New York City, coming home to his mother, the woman he loved and to a town that has not forgotten the man and ‘legend’ that he was and has remained in the minds of many, before he left.

Initially reticent, but under enthusiastic pressure from the locals that a decade earlier had helped Jimmy build a community hall in which they could read, sing and dance freely, out of sight of the oppressive, overbearing nannying of a disapproving church, Jimmy agrees to be the catalyst once again to enable the people to re-live former glories by re-opening the hall and thus begins the struggle between the highly influential Church and although now slightly muted, the very much indefatigable spirit of the town folk.

In true Ken Loach style, the characters are superbly well formed, very real and difficult not to take to our hearts. Jim Norton (Bishop Brennan of Father Ted fame to many) in particular is superbly well cast as Father Sheridan but in this instance, his rather draconian and dogmatic persona is anything but ‘boot up the arse’ material, instead he’s very much a figure commanding begrudging local respect, holding much influence over the town and its proceedings.

Injustices, moral victories, moments of great joy, farce and I must admit, more than a few moments when it ‘got a little dusty’ in the cinema, all blend together to make Jimmy’s Hall an excellent film and a true highlight of 2014.

I genuinely loved this; you’d need a heart of stone not to.

Once again, thank you to Greenwich PictureHouse for yet another excellent, members’, free screening.

FILM REVIEW: Tom à la ferme

I saw the strap line of a review for ‘Tom à la ferme’ just after watching the film; it read, “dark yet strangely romantic.”

I’d go along with that although I’d also add “disjointed” and “complicated” but that’s “disjointed” to the film’s advantage and “complicated” in the way that only the most dis functional of relationships can be at times, be they relationships of the family or of passion.

It’s this sort of blend of ingredients that renders us utterly unable to avert our eyes or quell our ever growing sense of intrigue and it makes for a very unsettling, yet captivating viewing experience; “captivating” being very much the key word here.

Add to this, secrets and lies, a mild case of Stockholm syndrome, misplaced love, abuse and an overall sense of deep-rooted unhappiness and that’s quite a messed up recipe.

A mother from a family ‘unit’ that’s almost entirely unravelled, grieving for the loss of a son she really knew very little about. She lives in a world of denial with an elder, psychotic son that she can barely bring herself to love. He himself harbours  a sinister past and an equally unsavoury present, in a town that has disowned them both.

…and then there’s Tom, unwittingly stumbling into the middle of it all.

Will he be the catalyst for the building of family bridges or will his own truth (bizarrely perhaps the biggest unspoken secret of all) be the final straw? The tale unfolds…

This certainly ain’t Disney, but it’s an excellently observed piece from director and lead role (Tom) Xavier Dolan and definitely one of the year’s highlights to date.

FILM REVIEW: BLUE RUIN

A reluctant, blundering vigilante hobo with tunnel vision; driven by fear and with a score to settle… that’s Blue Ruin.

It’s a gripping thriller and real edge of the seat, heart in the mouth stuff, but that’s as much to do with Dwight (the film’s main character) and his own ineptitude when it comes to the killer crunch, as it is to do with the relentless, ‘eye for an eye’ premise of the plot.

A trained assassin Dwight is not.

Jeremy Saulnier’s direction is superb, so much so that Dwight’s fears are genuinely palpable and consequently they very much become our fears too.

What would we do if plunged into this very same, no-win scenario? Would we flee and hide or face up to things with a steely determination to seek vengeance, all the while scared out of our tiny minds?

There’s really no option in Dwight’s mind and certainly no going back, as an increasingly messy trail of carnage is left in his wake.

Blue Ruin is fairly Tarantino-esque in some ways; wickedly dark, sometimes brutal,  but with the tongue always firmly in cheek.

It’s a bloody mess, but it’s bloody good!

 

FILM REVIEW: TRACKS

A 1,700 mile trek across some of Western Australia’s deserts may not sound like everyone’s idea of fun, but ‘Tracks’ is the true story of one lady, Robyn Davidson and her attempt to do just that, with an entourage of four camels and Diggity the dog in tow.

Whilst Mia Wasikowska seems excellently cast as Robyn, the film’s success is every bit as much due to our emotional investment in and  attachment to the five animals that make the journey with her. It soon becomes apparent as the terrain becomes more inhospitable  and unforgiving that it’s the animals’ reactions and instinctive behaviour under such conditions that are just as important to the adventure as the physiological and psychological issues that unfold for Robyn herself.

It’s not so much a story of wanderlust, but of the need to get away from everything and more importantly everyone, but there’s a gradual realisation for Robyn that although her journey is indeed about removing herself from the company of other people and the many negatives that they represent in her mind, it’s this intense, extended period of relative isolation, as well as chance encounters with both native Aboriginals and well meaning folk along the way, that ultimately reaffirms her need for people too.

‘Tracks’ is a beautiful film in many ways, not least for the majestic cinematography and the engaging animal scenes throughout; a visually exquisite, life-affirming, beautiful film.

 

WAYWARD WOLF: COMMENT: The Shakespeare Half Marathon 2014

Shakespeare Half Medal

Well, that was highly enjoyable and another excellent effort from the Rotary Club of Stratford-Upon-Avon for this, one of my very favourite half marathons in the running calendar, this year commemorating the would-be 450th birthday of William Shakespeare.

Perfect conditions (for the runners at least) prevailed with overcast skies, a light breeze and occasional ‘spits’ of rain, so there could be no complaints for those runners seeking a good time and… a good time.

Talking of which…

One of these days, I’ll put together a training schedule and actually stick to it; post winter malaise has been severe this year, but I had enough in the tank today to just sneak inside my previous best time, set, strangely enough, some years back on this very course, with a new personal best of 1:47:18*

*Unconfirmed officially yet, but there or thereabouts.

I’ve not run this course for a few years now and a few things have changed since last I was here. The start has moved to Church street and the finish threw me a little, taking a slightly different route through the park, but still very much the same, enjoyable course around the town and the surrounding, undulating  countryside.

Finally, two big thank yous:

Firstly, to Tina and Gary Taylor and their very excellent bed and breakfast ‘First-Night’ in Stratford-Upon-Avon. I’ve been staying there for years now and they always go out of their way to make sure everything is just as YOU need it. A 7am breakfast, especially for race day was a lovely touch and above and beyond the call of duty. Thank you Tina!

http://www.first-night.co.uk

Secondly, a big thanks to Mick and Phil who took pity on this shivering Londoner as I made my way into town early this morning giving me a lift in their van to the race start area.

For those unaware, Mick and Phil are the awe-inspiring, Dad and Son marathon running team from Stratford-Upon-Avon. Phil is disabled and Mick runs each course, pushing Phil’s wheelchair. I’ve encountered them on a few occasions (often as they’ve passed me en route, mid-run!) They’re an inspiration to us all, Find out more at:

http://micknphil-marathonlads.com/

Incidentally, Shakespeare himself crossed the line today in 2 hours, 11 minutes or so, or at least someone dressed in Elizabethan regalia vaguely resembling him did; it was hard to tell though, he had a hat on.

Wonderful occasion. Wonderful day.

FILM REVIEW: LOCKE

Everything can be fixed. There’s always a solution… Or is there?

‘Locke’ is the story of how any of us, no matter how in control of our lives we assume we are, can see the whole thing come crashing down around us through just one moment of weakness. None of us are infallible.

Tom Hardy expertly portrays Ivan Locke, a highly honourable, dependable and meticulous construction site foreman, battling manfully and methodically, as is his nature, to stay on top of his rapidly crumbling existence, as a catalogue of hellish, personal and professional logistical scenarios unfold, all of his own making.

Director Steven Knight has certainly taken a brave stance basing an entire film on just one visible character, a night drive and a series of increasingly desperate phone calls, but it works and does so convincingly.

Littered with metaphors, innovative and engaging throughout, Locke is a definite ‘must see’ for me.

 

 

 

 

FILM REVIEW: Vi är bäst! (We are the best)

Well, well, well. Some of life’s little treats sometimes come from the most unexpected of sources and a Sunday morning, free viewing of this Swedish offering, thanks to the ever excellent Greenwich Picture House Cinema, was just precisely that.

Aside from testing my poor Swedish language skills, it was an opportunity to reminisce a little following my relatively recent time spent in the wonderful land of Sweden.

‘Vi är bäst’ is a delightful, gem of a film, acted out by a young, ever so naturally talented cast that had me hooked from start to finish.

On a personal note, a particular highlight was the amusing Västerås lampooning. Västerås is a Swedish town in the province of Dalarna that I’m rather familiar with (and have absolutely no problem or axe to grind with at all, I should add).

The all girl, punk outfit improvise on the night of ‘Tomta Rock’ and re-write their ‘Hate the Sport’ anthem to instead ‘Hate the Västerås’ thus getting under the skin of some irate locals and earning the unenviable moniker of ‘Communist Cunts’ in the process! Only a dutiful Santa Claus is on hand to avert much ensuing carnage.

It’s all most amusing, but I suspect it will be lost on those unfamiliar with the territory.

“They say that punk rock is dead, well it isn’t” – and that’s the premise of this innocent, coming of age tale that’s touching, charming and amusing in equal measure.

Highly enjoyable, early 80s, Swedish fun.

Mycket bra!

 

 

FILM REVIEW: Yves Saint Laurent

This was admittedly never one on my radar but I like to shake things up from time to time, so why not?!

As biopics go, this is pretty well put together and chronicles the ups and downs of the late, great Yves Saint Laurent. I don’t know whether the film’s primary focus on his personal life and loves over his output is a good or bad thing, not being sufficiently well versed in his designs and professional accomplishments, but on the whole, film-wise, the balance seems just about right. Some decent performances but not really anything to get too emotionally charged about, personally. Although not exclusively so, this is definitely a film more for those in the industry and his fan base than your average Joe, but not without some general appeal. Worth a look.

FILM REVIEW: UNDER THE SKIN

Under the skin is a film that whilst curious and engaging throughout, is apparently meandering nowhere, but as with many a film, it is infact actually slowly revealing itself. What appears to be every bit ‘art house’ direction, suddenly isn’t. What is evident throughout however is that something’s afoot even if we can’t quite put our finger on it, in a bleak yet mesmerising film.

Scarlett Johansson is perfectly cast in the lead role and half of Glasgow’s ‘lads’ provide a gallant supporting cast. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but definitely a must see, regardless.