Saturday, 26 September 2015

Scary Saturday: Promiscuity Kills

Recently, I discussed the successes of certain horror films and what makes a 'good' horror (the article can be read here). Today is a day dedicated to some of the modern examples of the genre. So I ask you this question: would you rather be chased by a hungry lion for an hour or a giant, deadly snail for the rest of your life? This is one of my personal favourite 'would you rather' questions. The slow snail seems like an inviting option however there is the constant knowledge that it is coming for you. You can always run, but eventually it will catch up. Today's film explores a similar topic. This is It Follows. 

Jay (Maika Monroe) is your normal 19-year-old girl. She goes to school, she enjoys swimming in her pool, she likes boys. She has sex with one boy in particular, Hugh (Jake Weary), in the back of his car after a date. Nothing out of the ordinary here. Well, that is until Hugh covers her mouth with a cloth and knocks her out. Suddenly, Jay is introduced to her new life; a life in which she is always being chased by something. Whatever it is, it has the ability to appear as anyone and if it catches you, you die. It can be passed on to another person by having sex with them, but if they die, it comes back after you. Oh, and it can only walk, never run. With her group of slightly awkward school friends, Jay has to fight both a battle for her life, and a moral battle: does she keep running or does she knowingly inflict her curse on someone else?

From the moment It Follows begins, something terrifying is going on. A girl runs out onto the road in fear wearing next to nothing, before getting into a car and driving as fast as she can away. The next morning, her body is found distorted and bent out of shape. No explanation from the film, just the notion that whatever it is, it is bad. What follows is the world's most beautifully shot, slow motion foot chase. The brilliance of it is that it could be anyone of the extras in the background, any one of her friends, any person on the street. The ominous notion that anyone could be trying to kill you means it has to be treated as everyone is trying to kill you, which is an isolating and lonely experience. Not to mention that it appears in all sorts of nasty ways: a staring naked man, a girl urinating on herself, a young boy with hollow eyes. It Follows has no need for guts and gore, it relies on suspense and shock.

The intrigue of It Follows is in its layers. One part The Breakfast Club, one part Halloween, David Robert Mitchell's take on a coming-of-age tale is suspenseful, but also deeply warming. There is more than just a scary story here, there is a deep core structured around friendships. Jay's friends, particularly Paul (Keir Gilchrist), don't write her off as crazy. Immediately they want to help her resolve whatever the situation is, even if it makes no sense. But do not underestimate the horror value because of this. We join Jay in the unique perspective of being the only person in the group that can see it, and because of this, the film can utilise dramatic irony freely and effectively. At one point a looming figure walks through the doorway with some of the teenagers who are completely unaware of his presence. But we are, and we share in Jay's fear. The film doesn't makes little use of jump scares, it prefers to keep the audience constantly in the know, along with Jay, but also positioning her, and therefore us, somewhere in which it is impossible to help the situation. It's emotionally draining and completely chilling.
An excellent demonstration of what the horror genre can still offer. Something smart, charming, and ultimately rather scary. A refreshing breath of ingenuity and originality into the female-led horror cliches places It Follows well above its competition. It is modern, it is fun, and it is exciting.

Best Bit? The group head to the beach to put some distance between them and it, but soon enough Yara, Jay's sister, is in two different places at once. And one Yara is walking very slowly towards Jay.

Scary Saturday: Bad Book

Recently, I discussed the successes of certain horror films and what makes a 'good' horror (the article can be read here). Today is a day dedicated to some of the modern examples of the genre. First up is a film that came out of the land of Australia and took one of the oldest fears and gave it a little update. The monster under the bed has never been so scary. This is The Babadook.

Motherhood can be hard, but for widowed mother Amelia (Essie Davis) it is nigh on impossible. Samuel (Noah Wiseman), her son, is terrified of monsters under his bed and is insistent that he is going to catch them and kill them. It gets to the point where he makes weapons and takes them to school with him leading to his suspension. Amelia has to cope with an increasing lack of sleep trying to control him and bedtime stories just cannot cut it. One of these stories is a pop-up book telling the tale of the Babadook, a terrifying monster that kills non-believers. Naturally, this does nothing to help Samuel's fears, but Amelia starts to experience things that make her question the irrationality of being scared of the Babadook.

They say never work with animals or children but Noah Wiseman proves that rule is absolute nonsense, or at least half of it is. Without a doubt, the most chilling scenes of the film are rooted in Wiseman's performance. Shrieking in the back of the car, shouting at an unseen threat, Wiseman raises the hair on your arms and the back of your neck. Essie Davis, too, descends brilliantly into madness with her son. As the Babadook becomes more powerful, the conflicts between mother and son heighten in intensity thanks to the pair's impeccable acting ability.

Simply one of the most haunting films since Paranormal Activity and easily more chilling. Probably the best horror movie of the decade so far with the downright scariest monster since your childhood nightmare. Rather than convince you the bogeyman doesn't exist, director Jennifer Kent shoves you in the wardrobe with it and chains the door shut. The Babadook is an inescapable journey into insanity that you, the viewer, are also partaking in. The nature of the creature is left ambiguous, shrouded in mystery, and the audience have to suffer the uncertainty of what exactly it can do. It's not a poltergeist, nor does it seem to be a physical entity. It is a psychologically torturous being that penetrates into the mind of the character and spectator alike.

The Babadook is not only one of the finest horror films since the turn of the millennium, but in a world of reboots and sequels, it has brought a new and original sense of fear back into the cinema.

Best Bit? Samuel screaming in the back of the car before coming to a sudden, staring silence. There's a presence with him but we can't see it. It's the middle of the day. The Babadook does not work in the confines of darkness, he is there constantly; we just can't see it... yet.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Stunts: The Argument for Academy Recognition

The Oscars are the highlight of the film calendar for many, this blogger included, and brings out all of the glitz and glamour of Hollywood for one night. On this night, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences present awards for the best of the best in every category in film making for the year. But are they missing one of the most crucial, demanding, and creative aspects of film making in the contemporary world?

Stunt work is by no means a small part of film making, just look at that list of names under 'Stunts' in the credits of the next blockbuster you see. Every time a car crashes, a fight breaks out, or someone jumps the gap between two buildings, there was a stunt person behind it and a stunt coordinator behind them. It is also not a new development in film making. The works of Buster Keaton are littered with jaw dropping stunts way before the days of CGI or stringent safety rules. So if stunt work has been so fundamental to cinema since its inception, why is it not recognised at the Academy level that everything else in film is?

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation

The debate around an Oscar for stunt work has been around for a while, spearheaded mostly by stunt coordinator Jack Gill. For almost 25 years Gill has presented his case to the Board of Governors of the Academy and gets turned down year after year. He doesn't even mind if the award is part of the televised ceremony or not, he just wants recognition for the 'life and blood'1 that he and his colleagues put into their work. After all, their work is evident in almost every film ever. If it is fair for Academy voters to vote for things they do not even understand (see sound editing and mixing2), it seems fitting that they should also vote for something that is so obvious throughout all of cinema. Many films only get their recognition in technical departments, including some of the greatest (Fight Club, The Matrix, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, The Prestige, Die Hard), and these days the technical departments can be a defining feature in making the film great (Gravity, Birdman, The Tree of Life). Stunt work is no different.

Colin Firth and stunt double Rick English on
 the set of Kingsman: The Secret Service

Richard Corliss claimed that Fast Five was the first great 'posthuman' film3. Essentially, it is not the human characters or performers that make the film great, but the stunts; the stunt work has more personality than Vin Diesel's Dom and the story put together. It is an interesting point of view; with the seventh instalment of the franchise destroying the world's box office and crushing the previous film's worldwide gross (by almost $1 billion), there can be no disputing the franchise's success4. And whilst they do not have an Oscar nomination between them, they do have multiple Taurus Awards (the awards for cinematic stunt work) as well as nominations from the Screen Actors Guild for stunt work. Considering Furious 7 is the fifth highest grossing film of all time and is likely to rake in a few Taurus nominations, is it not worthy of Academy notice? Are the Transformers films really more worthy of a gold statuette on their counter5?

Fast and Furious 6

Of course, the Transformers franchise earned academy recognition by being exemplary in two or three areas (sound editing, sound mixing, and visual effects) and it would be demeaning to eliminate them because they were poor films in general. So it seems unfair to ignore the Fast and Furious franchise and similar films because their main appeal lies in excellency of stunt work especially considering their huge success with fans and critics alike. In the same way Michael Bay has expertly utilised visual effects in his films, Moritz and Diesel have incorporated stunts in theirs; they should not be ignored.

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark

Admittedly, it is getting harder and harder to turn a blind eye to the excellence of stunt work. This year's Mad Max: Fury Road could be used as Gill's portfolio for why stunt work should be recognised by the Academy. The film, which was in essence a two hour car chase, filled its run-time with Chinese pole work on the back of moving cars, meticulously timed motorcycle jumps, and explosive chases with a huge oil tanker. It was also received extremely highly by all of the critics (racking up 98% on Rotten Tomatoes and 89% on Metacritic). Mad Max appears at the same time as many other films associated with the current resurgence of 'practical effects' which is leading films  today to make their stunt choreography bigger, better, and more real; Tom Cruise really is hanging off that plane in the recent Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation6. With the quality of films like Mad Max, Furious 7, and Mission: Impossible 5 being at least somewhat defined by the quality of their stunt work, it is becoming impossible to claim that it is only a minor aspect of today's film making.

Polecats in Mad Max: Fury Road

It is not just the big set pieces that demonstrate stunt work's value to cinema; sky diving, fight sequences, and even rolling down hills require intricate planning and design to make them a reality. These stunts are also more likely to transcend genre too; perfectly choreographed fights, for example, have been utilised in all genres. Look at the comedy violence of Jackie Chan or of The World's Endto the fist fights in Skyfall, to the ultra-violent ways of the recent Kingsman: The Secret Service or Tarantino's filmsTarantino may keep winning Oscars7 for writing but the people who bring his brutal screenplays to life are being forgotten. But not their work. Mike Smith, a veteran stunt man and now stunt co-ordinator points out the absurdity:
'Here’s how ridiculous this is: They give an Oscar for Makeup and Hair, but when there is advertising to get the movies sold they are not showing the makeup and hair, they are showing the action shots. They are trying to get people to come in and sit in your theatre'8.
It's almost plagiarism. Stunt coordinators design the stunt, stunt men and women perform it, the director puts it in the trailer, the trailer brings the audience in, the film gets praised for being successful but the people who made it successful, that risk their life and limb for their art, are left behind. Those guys that flipped a truck in The Dark Knight, the polecats in Mad Max, the stunt double for Harrison Ford who clambers around a truck in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, their work is featured in the trailers for the films but their name is not up in lights. Why?

Harrison Ford and stunt double Vic Armstrong.
The writing reads: Vic - If you learn to talk I'm in deep trouble! 

Stunt work is driven by a stunt team's passion. Passion for the work they do, but also for the films they help make. The sort of passion that can bring George Miller close to tears9, the sort of passion that leads you to carry on despite injuries (Keaton broke his neck doing the water tower stunt in Sherlock Jr.10, Jackie Chan has broken nearly everything in his body over his career11), the sort of passion that encourages you to keep going in the face of rejection from the Academy for 25 years when other proposed categories stopped after one try (looking at you Best Casting and Best Title Design). That sort of passion needs acknowledgement. If dance direction had its own Academy Award when dance films were peaking in the 30s, shouldn't a category that has been out-doing itself for decades finally, finally get the recognition it deserves?

Let me know what you think in the comments below. Are there any particular films that you think deserve an Oscar for stunt work? Or should individual stunts be nominated? Let the discussion commence.

Some references:

2: and
5: Seven oscar nominations between them - three Best Sound Mixing, two Best Sound Editing, two Best Visual Effects.
7: Five nominations - three Best Original Screenplay and two Best Director with two wins for writing.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Dead or Alive? The Horror of the Horror Genre

What scares you? This is the question that the horror genre has been trying desperately to answer and exploit since the 20s (and many would argue before). In the last twenty years alone, the average horror grossed $19,048,963 which is around two and a half times the amount of the average drama - the genre with the most films produced each year.1 So, considering that on average horrors earn more than dramas, comedies, and rom-coms, why is the horror genre victim to constant sequels, spin offs, and re-makes?  Looking back over the last twenty years again,  of the top grossing horror films each year, eleven are sequels or prequels, two are spin offs, and two are English language remakes.  Apart from the Twilight franchise, the drama genre has none of the above. Is there no originality left in horror? Do people only want to see Freddy invade more dreams, or more paranormal activity? What makes a good horror film and is that different to a successful one?

The Paranormal Activity films held the top spot of the
 horror box office for four years from 2009 until 2012

A while ago I examined a similar question focusing on the comedy genre, begging the argument between comedy and quality. Like that debate, with horror, not only is there a question of quality and 'scariness', but also of box office success. Paranormal Activity 4, for example, topped the horror box office, just like its three predecessors,  but was a critical failure. And, unlike the third and first instalments of the franchise, was lacking in a scare factor.2 A quick Google search for 'Best Horror Films' will immediately treat you to the 'Best' horror films, the 'Scariest' horror films, and the 'Creepiest' horror films. What's the difference, if there is one? Is the best horror film the scariest, the one that does best at the box office, the one the critics love the most, or the creepiest? The answer seems to be none of them.

Like comedy, fear is subjective. George A. Romero, father of the zombie genre and all round horror genius, says: ‘I don’t know why we love these movies so much. It must be an involuntary response. Why does a joke make you laugh? It’s the same thing with a scare.’Returning to the original question of this article, horror aims to scare you. What scares you is different to what scares me; what scares this generation is different to what scared the last. Look at the trends in horror films over the decades: nuclear and cold war fears in the 50s and 60s, 'Hyperpostmodernism'4 in the current age. Horror tries to capture the current anxieties of the time, but without a single universal fear today - as Tyler Durden so brilliantly put it 'We have no great war. No great depression'5 - the horror genre has to try grab any zeitgeist it can get its hands on.

Saw's success saw its sequels top the
horror box office in 2005, 2006, and 2008.

Without a universal fear to capitalise on, the most successful horrors of the 21st century have been those that will still manage to scare the majority. The Paranormal Activity films show things going bump in the night, using unexpected jump scares to keep its audience on edge, whilst the Saw franchise simply made their sequels so bloody that most movie-goers would have to watch through their fingers. But are these just cheap thrills designed to appeal to the sofa-dwelling adrenaline junkie? As Ben Wheatley (director of the fantastic A Field in England) says 'With horror you want to feel afraid, because you can do it without consequences.' Do these films actually make us afraid, or do they just make us jump and feel squeamish? Is there no more building suspense to an exasperating climax, no more looming dread? Just think, how many jump scares did 'King of Horror' Alfred Hitchcock use per film?

Hitchcock describes it better than I can; tension causes the audience to engage emotionally whilst jump scares cause a brief rush of adrenaline. Often, and this is particularly evident in the Paranormal Activity sequels, the innovation of jump scares takes priority over creating a solid narrative for a film which leaves the audience little to connect with. Perhaps this is where horror has fallen down; it sacrifices structure for scares. Even in Ancient Greece, Aristotle's Poetics lists plot and character as the most important aspects of tragic storytelling, yet rates spectacle as the least important. In horror, isolated moments of fear followed by dialogue-heavy stretches with undeveloped characters may make us scream embarrassingly loudly in the cinema, but how often do we leave appreciating the whole film rather than the spectacular moment? Or is this the 'Post-Human Era' of film that Richard Corliss spoke about where the set pieces matter more than the script?7

Oculus entered the box-office at number 3 but
dropped out of the top 10 in under two weeks.

But this box-office topping era of Post-Humanist film making has not taken its toll on all films in the genre. Every year hosts of narrative and character driven horrors are released but are often independently funded, meaning they get a limited release. Without a star or gimmick (i.e. 'Based on a true story') to attach to their marketing, the films go undetected by the masses. See, for example, the recent films The Babadook or It Follows which have received critical acclaim and high recommendation. Of course, that recommendation is only good if you are lucky enough to find somewhere showing it. But even the mainstream suffers from lack of exposure. Look at 2013's Oculus, which managed to have Karen Gillan (pre-Guardians of the Galaxy) as the lead. But despite the film's strong psychological fear factor and positive reviews, the film was forgotten about almost instantly. Perhaps a Doctor Who star does not a Hollywood star make. With no star to advertise with, the film had trouble filling the seats of the cinema. Is a horror's success based on how marketable it is? In which case we come back to money.

Australian horror The Babadook took the critics by storm.

The Babadook grossed less than $5,000,0008 worldwide and yet has racked up a 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and a fantastic 86 on Metacritic. To compare, we can look at some of the better marketed films which turned into box office success. For example, James Wan's films Insidious, Insidious: Chapter 2, (both produced by Oren Peli of Paranormal Activity) and The Conjuring all use his success with Saw in their marketing. Insidious can even claim to be by the creators of Saw and Paranormal Activity while The Conjuring can use Insidious' success too. Not to mention that all of these films had star leads (like the Oscar nominated Vera Farmiga and Barbara Hershey, as well as Golden Globe nominee Patrick Wilson). The difference between Babadook and Conjuring? Somewhere in the region of $310,000,0009 in worldwide grossing.

Of course, The Conjuring was a genuinely good film (as was the first act of Insidious before it drifted into a strange limbo-type realm) and deserved its financial gain. Its success promoted its critically slammed spin-off, Annabelle to the top of 2014's horror box office. So if marketing can explain the box-office trends, we have finally gathered evidence to prove something. That you need to spend money to make money. And that is what these countless sequels have: money. Whilst The Babadook is a better film than both The Conjuring and Insidious, you probably just never got the chance to see it. So has the horror genre lost its variety and quality? Is it doomed to forever be subject to sequels, remakes, and spin-offs? No, that is just what makes money. The horror genre is still alive and well and as varied as ever. For every blockbuster horror hit that gains a list of sequels, there will be several original and excellent pieces of horror cinema out there to scare yourself with.

From Saw to The Conjuring, James Wan's
creations continue to dominate the horror box office.

If a successful horror is to do with subjective fear, then this ultimate question of 'What makes a good horror?' cannot be answered. But rather than despair at the state of the horror genre, film fans should become pro-active in finding films that scare them. To bring back what Wheatley said, horror allows us to be scared free of consequence. If it is blood and gore that scares you, perhaps try Martyrs over Saw V. If you like psychological horror or films that play with your mind, maybe A Field in England would suit you. Or do you like satire? If so, you have Cabin in the Woods, You're Next, or the hilarious Tucker and Dale vs Evil. Maybe you prefer an even more niche market and you want found-footage satire with genuine scares. Try Grave Encounters. All of these films are from the last five years and are a small selection of what is out there.

But what scares you? Are you still in despair over horror films? Or do you just want a recommendation that will suit your particular set of phobias and fears. Leave a comment below and, in the words of Mike Enslin, 'Stay scared!'10

Some references:

1: Statistics from:
2: Read what I thought here:
3: Quoted in:
4: Wee, V (2005) ‘The Scream Trilogy, "Hyperpostmodernism," and the Late-Nineties Teen Slasher Film.’ Journal of Film and Video Volume 57 (Issue 3): Pages 44-61
5: Fight Club (1999) Directed by: David Fincher
6: Quoted in:
7: Corliss, R (2011)
8: Statistics from:
9: Statistics from:
10: 1408 (2007) Directed by: Mikael Håfström

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Saturday, 21 February 2015


Equality. It started as a dream. A dream voiced by one man as he led the oppressed masses in rising against the powers that held them down. That man was Dr Martin Luther King Jr., and today's film tells some of his story. This is Selma.

King (David Oyelowo), King's dream is being held back by voting laws in Southern USA. President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) is reluctant to take immediate action and Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth) has riddled the voting system with all sorts of hoops for the black community to jump through if they want to cast a ballot. For King, this does not stand. With James Bevel (Common) and Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce) he begins to plan marches from Selma to Montgomery to protest. But with the FBI watching King's every move and the hostile Alabama police force doing everything they can to prevent the protesters getting what they want, simply marching between two places becomes a life or death situation.

King apparently briefly dressed for work on the railroads

If there is something to be outraged about regarding Selma it is perhaps the lack of nominations for performances. Oyelowo, particularly, stood out as Martin Luther King, a voice known throughout the world, a face plastered across any equality movement. He does not just portray the doctor, he becomes him. At points, it is hard to tell if archival sound and video are used as he is so convincing in the role. Supported by a powerful ensemble, both as friends of King and as obstacles to overcome, Selma excels in representing a community. A community consumed with rage and anger, which is felt in the audience. The silence broken only by the sound of a police baton striking flesh encourages an enraged response, much like the clergy that viewed the hostility towards the peaceful protesters in 1965. We are drawn in to feel the upset of the characters on screen.

The importance of Selma today

Selma, as many successful biopics do, tells the story of a game changer. The marches portrayed pushed the president to take action, signing the voting act. Where it draws it strongest power, however, is in its continuing relevance in the United States today. Released in the year of numerous racial controversies (the Ferguson shooting, Tamir Rice's death, the chokehold that killed Eric Garner, the hashtags #icantbreathe and #blacklivesmatter), the film says, 'This is still important. We still fight these battles', a message captured brilliantly in Common and John Legend's 'Glory', a message which old white Oscar voters are offended by. Selma does more than tell a story, it holds up a mirror. Ava DuVernay has not only done justice to an important historical event, he has tapped into something topical and somewhat unnerving.

Selma is an important film. At times it moves a little slowly and drags around many scenes of King's personal life, but its set pieces are captivating, engaging, and upsetting.

Best Bit? The protesters sit, hands on their heads, knowing that the police will get violent. It is still, it is tense. It is powerful.

Friday, 20 February 2015

A Brief History of Hawking

Oscars are always hot for biographical stories. This year alone we have had The Imitation Game, Selma, American Sniper, and today's film. The story of the finest, or most renown, scientist of a generation, this is The Theory of Everything.

A young Cambridge PhD student by the name of Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) is a typical student. Staying in bed until the afternoon, doing assignments last minute, chatting up girls and drinking at parties. Just your normal student. Well, except for the fact that his thesis will rock the scientific world, whilst his attempt to disprove it will rock the world further. But in and amongst his academic achievements he falls in love with Christian girl Jane (Felicity Jones)and is diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease, two things which do not compliment each other. The film follows Hawking's struggle with his illness, family, celebrity, and his research.

Before the chair, Hawking travelled by carousel horse

This film, whilst centred around Hawking's relationship, is all about Redmayne's performance. The tag line posts that this is the story of Jane and Stephen Hawking but Redmayne's complete physical immersion into Hawking's disability leaves his co-star in the shadows. Now, this is not to say that Felicity Jones' performance is not a strong one. On the contrary, Jane's struggle with different loves, her conflict with Stephen's beliefs, and her determination to stand by what she believes is right is wonderfully portrayed and with a suitable subtlety that echoes her conservatism towards rocking the boat. As with many cases at this time of year, the debate of 'most acting' versus 'best acting' is hotly discussed, and The Theory of Everything is a prime example. Incredible acting from all throughout, but for a story claiming to be about a pair, it features remarkably less of one of the performers, which leaves the film feeling unbalanced.

Stephen has to be chairful when playing football...

The film is well produced. The dramatic punches hit hard, whilst the comedy even makes way for laugh out loud scenarios; it is a rare achievement to weigh up both elements in the correct measures so as not to make either one seem out of place. An excellently written piece of cinema complimented by a moving score and stylish camera work throughout (some even would consider the lack of a cinematography nominations a snub). The film glides through the events of Hawking's life and achievements, perhaps a little quickly, giving a nice overview of struggles and difficulties he has had to face. It is James Marsh's tribute to a great scientist as much as it is a factual biopic.

A moving biopic, but not without its flaws. Filled with excellent performances all round.

Best Bit? Eddie Redmayne.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Grow up

The 'coming of age' genre comes in many ways, shapes, and forms. Think The Breakfast Club or Ferris Bueller's Day Off. But today's film offers something revolutionary to the genre, and to the world of film as a whole. Shot over twelve years, this is Boyhood.

Our titular boy, Mason, lies looking up at the sky. He is six years old. The film shows us his progress through childhood and onto his college years. We see his sister Sam grow up with him but this film is ultimately about family. The two children come from a broken family, supported by their struggling mother and swept away occasionally by their young, care-free, musician father for the weekend. As the film goes on, we see these relationships develop, adapt, or crack.

Three little kiddie-winks

Of course, where this story differs from other family dramas and coming of age stories is that Boyhood is shot over twelve years meaning the same boy grows into a young adult before our eyes in just under three hours. Not only is this a cinematic achievement of epic proportions, it also gives the film something a uniquely special, almost documentary, feel. This film, had it have been shot over a few months with well cast look-a-likes of different ages, would have tipped towards mediocrity. It instead a strives towards excellence. A study of the human life, old and young, with the visible reality of ageing, weight loss or gain, and other aspects of human change really makes the story come to life like no other could.

Today we learn Ethan Hawke aged the most in 12 years 

Linklater has achieved in more than just film making with Boyhood. His understanding of the popular and tapping into the zeitgeist of the years he filmed help them remain relevant, so long after it was shot. We see the importance of the first iPod, the Gameboy, the Xbox, the Wii in the kids lives, and other points we listen to conversations about the possibilities of another Star Wars (four years before the announcement of Episode VII). The audience's conceptual knowledge of all of these things only adds to the enjoyment of the film. Not to mention the wonderful performances by the whole ensemble. No doubt that focus is (and should be) on the child actors who grow up within the film, but not for a single moment can we turn away from the stellar performances of Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette. Like the the younger performers, they too had to commit to a twelve year project and remember, develop, and become their characters time and time again without a single fault. Not to take anything away from Coltrane and Linklater, of course, but whilst the film is about them, it is given heart by the parents. They portray experiences of alcoholism, abuse, divorce, heartbreak, abandonment, unemployment, and unconditional love for the children and they do it incredibly.

Is Boyhood the best film of the year? No. But it is perhaps the most ambitious, most exciting, and most triumphant cinematic achievements of all time.

Best bit? The best bits of Boyhood are not heart warmers, they are heart breakers. A step father who falls victim to alcohol, a mother realising how short life really is as her children grow up and begin to fly the coop. Tear jerking, but powerful.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Bloody Drums

Imagine a suspenseful thriller. What do you picture? Guns and crime? Murder and detectives? Now think of an underdog story. Again, what do you see? Sports or dance, perhaps. Forget all of those things. Replace the guns with trumpets and the crime with a jazz orchestra. Focus the plot around drums. Sound crazy? This is Whiplash.

Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller) is a young, ambitious drummer. Enrolled at the Shaffer academy of music in New York, he dreams of being a core drummer at the Lincoln Center. When Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the conductor of the Shaffer studio band hears him perform, that dream seems to be one step closer to being a reality. But Fletcher is no Mr-Nice-Guy. Slapping, screaming, and hurling chairs are not out of the ordinary in his practise room. Whiplash shows the twisting relationship of the pair as Neimann gets pushed harder and harder, whilst Fletcher's constant changing attitudes make everything as uncertain as a coin toss. 

Teller's performance really packs a punch

This uncertainty, created by the impeccable encapsulation of Fletcher by Simmons, is exactly where Whiplash draws its power as a thriller from. Simmons makes Fletcher a see-saw, constantly shifting dramatically, but never becoming unlikeable. Even at his most abusive, he manages to convince you his motives are pure before stabbing you in the back. It wonderfully villainous and utterly captivating. It will leave you with trust issues. It takes a truly talented performer to achieve what Simmons has here. Miles Teller is also not to be forgotten. Like his character, he put his own blood into the performance and through his mix of arrogance and ambition, he assists in raising questions about Fletcher's intentions. Together the pair fire off of one another with some of the best chemistry, albeit negative chemistry, of the last year.
Fletcher can get really brassed off
Whiplash dances with its camera and music, the editing jives and swings between shots with immaculate precision and focus. Take for example the first band practise; the band nervously prepare, the camera shooting from instrument to instrument in rapid succession before it focuses on the specifics of Simmons raised hand, the band in soft focus, secondary to the conductor's gestures, and then the room explodes into wonderful music. From then tension, conflict, and suspense are formed with how the camera jumps, or refuses to jump, between instrument and conductor. Sometimes Chazelle lingers or circles around the action, at other points he darts between two focal points like a tennis match. One things for certain, it's editing will get your heart beating harder than percussion laden score.

Whilst Whiplash does not do anything grand like some of the other big films of the year (Birdman and Boyhood), it is a testament to how effective the simple tools of film making can be when applied to their biggest potential. An incredible film, and possibly the best of 2014.

Best bit? A gruellingly long scene in which the three drummers try to match Fletcher's tempo. Blood splatters, drums fly, and sweat drips. Music, man.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

A Bird on Broadway

Successful cinematography is one of the defining features of any successful film. Some films aesthetic appearance is easily their strongest feature - see Malick's The Tree of Life or Korine's Spring Breakers - but to integrate physical performance, narrative structure, and all other filmic elements within the beauty of photography is another challenge altogether. This is Birdman.

Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton) is a washed up star of a superhero franchise - the titular Birdman - and he is attempting to regain his artistic integrity with a Broadway show - an adaptation of Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, written by, directed by, and starring Thomas. The film opens with Riggan levitating in his dressing room moments before a light falls on one of his cast, leaving him with a role to fill. Cue Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a Hollywood actor who needs the stage to feel real in order to perform. Arriving with his lines pre-learnt, Shiner is shown around by Riggan's drug addicted daughter Sam (Emma Stone) and his supporting performer and some-form-of-lover Lesley (Naomi Watts).As the rehearsal process continues, and without a preview ever going off without a hitch, the show - and Riggan's mental state - could be in real jeopardy.
The actors had to get high for this script to make sense.

Having already scooped up a couple of trophies for Best Ensemble at various awards evenings, there is no denying the talent displayed in Birdman. Firstly, Keaton's outstanding personification of a mid-life crisis as Riggan quite literally puts his mind and body on the line for his production is fantastic. The descent into madness (or continued downward spiral) is one part heartbreaking, and one part satisfying catharsis. Keaton allows us into Riggan's insane life (or it just insanity), treating only the audience to the depths of his psychological struggle. Norton is on top form here too. Over 15 years since his best work in American History X and Fight Club, 2014 shows him performing excellently in two roles (here and The Grand Budapest Hotel) and reaching for those heights he touched before. Whilst the second act almost drops him entirely, he brings the life and vigour to the first, causing conflict, throwing gin bottles across the stage during live previews, and spending a large quantity of time naked. A truly fantastic performance. The pair are supported by a stunning ensemble consisting of a drugged up Emma Stone, a Naomi Watts dreaming of her big break, and a Zach Galifianakis in an unrecognisably brilliant turn as Riggan's lawyer and best friend, Jake. Looks like Jonah Hill is not the only 'fat' comedian that dabble with critical award winners.

Riggan finds out about a club Shiner used to be in

The film's greatest success, as alluded to in the introduction to this review, is its aesthetic achievement. Minus some bookending images, the film appears as one long uninterrupted shot, weaving through the backstage of the Broadway theatre, occasionally swinging into a liquor shop or bar along the way. Not only does that require a huge amount of commitment and dedication from all the performers, but also director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki and editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione. Their talent made what could have been a clunky disaster a smooth success. The film boasts a percussion heavy score by Antonio Sanchez, who even appears at occasion for a split second as Keaton passes by him playing, which keeps the film's temp up, but it also provides a slightly chaotic element to even the mundane.

Birdman's successes are not just hidden away in its technical achievement, the performances are some of the finest in a comedy in the past few years and, in true black comedy form, it succeeds in being both hilarious and heart wrenching. It tackles real, human topics in a surreal way and the ending leaves you plenty to talk about on the journey home from the cinema. Alejandro G. Iñárritu has made a wonderful film.

Best Bit? The stage quite literally being screened allowed for some of the most entertaining moments, as well as some of the most captivating performances. Gin bottles were thrown, finger guns were used, men walked close to naked through the aisles. The film's strongest scenes happen on the stage.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

War Under The Scope

Award season is known to bring the drama. That hard hitting, nail biting kind of thrill that comes with great performances, masterful writing, and a handy director. And one topic that appears constantly is the war film. Consider, in the last few years, Kathryn Bigelow's films The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty and their award successes. And this year, Clint Eastwood has turned his hand to the Academy's favourite genre. This is American Sniper.

Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is a wannabe cowboy with a cheating girlfriend and very few prospects. But after the 1998 attacks on US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, he signs up for the Navy SEAL program, during which he meets Taya (Sienna Miller). After excelling as a sniper in training, Kyle soon finds himself deployed to Iraq after the 9/11 attacks and his wedding to Taya. Slowly but surely, he racks up kills to make himself one of the most legendary marksmen on the planet, but also one of the most wanted. A brutal terrorist known as The Butcher is attacking and dismembering the Iraqi innocents who assist the US military in any way and it becomes Kyle's mission to take him out.

Camouflage that even works indoors. 

With three Academy Award nominations in a row, Bradley Cooper is at his finest yet here. After brilliant performances in both Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, Cooper takes on the challenge of portraying a man both loved and hated by many*, the most deadly sniper in the US who also suffered with PTSD. He is almost unrecognisable as Kyle, stuttering his way through conversation and having beefed up tremendous amounts of body mass for the role. There is subtlety and conviction to Cooper's performance and it carries the film almost single handedly. Wonderfully supported by Miller and the rest of the cast, American Sniper is filled with thrilling acting throughout.

'What do you mean they cancelled Firefly?!'

Clint Eastwood had a busy 2014 with Jersey Boys under his belt as well, but American Sniper is a roaring success. Rattling on with a killer pace, its representation of war is unrelenting and brutal. Bullets hit hard on all sides, bodies drop quickly, the is no over played, heart-felt farewell scenes. Whilst the film is not without its flaws (one scene where a death is rather dramatised is particularly forced and jarring with the rest of the film's pace), it is a suspenseful and tense thriller that deserves more of the praise and less of the controversy surrounding it.

It is no Hurt Locker, Full Metal Jacket, or Saving Private Ryan, but its vision of war and the traumas and mental strain it produces are both touching and unsettling.

Best Bit? Kyle is pinned down on a roof with an enemy sniper aimed at him whilst The Butcher closes in with a drill on a child's knee. Tense stuff.

*Author Disclaimer: This is a blog interested in reviewing films on the film's merit. Criticism of Chris Kyle as a real man are, to me, a different subject. Entering the film with no prior knowledge of him is how my review is written. To me, this film is more than a representation of an American 'hero', it is a representation of war and the psychological damages that come with it. 

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Pastel Colours and Murder

Many directors have a distinct style. Many of you will remember the review on Baz Luhrman's The Great Gatsby on this blog, and how it claimed the film was dripping with the director's unique visual aesthetic, for example. Well today we look at another director with a very clear set of stylistic trademarks in his telling of the story of a man telling the story of how he heard a story from a man. This is The Grand Budapest Hotel.

The Author, a man whose words have meant the world to some, wants to now tell us, the audience, how he came across those words. Flashback. A younger author (Jude Law) is suffering from a very real - cough - disorder and resorts to staying in The Grand Budapest Hotel, a run-down shell of its previous majesty. Whilst there, he meets Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the owner of the hotel, who offers to tell The Author his story. Flashback again, to 1932, where a teenage Zero (Tony Revolori) is the new lobby boy for the hotel under the watchful eye of concierge, M. Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes). When a client of the hotel, and a close acquaintance of Gustave, Madame C.V.D.u.T (Tilda Swinton) dies, the pair of hotel workers are thrown into a battle of greed and selfishness with her son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) and along their adventure they meet all sorts of personalities like an army inspector, an artistically gifted criminal, and a concierge that can get you anything from (in the forms of Edward Norton, Harvey Keitel, and Bill Murray respectively).

'Uh, just checking the wall was safe...'

With a cast so numerous in stars that hold Oscar statues or nominations (including a nigh invisible cameo from Jean Dujardin), it is difficult to imagine anything less than top level performances from all the cast, and The Grand Budapest Hotel does not disappoint. First and foremost is the absolutely fantastic Ralph Fiennes. His perfect combination of charm, bluntness, and crisp diction (not to mention his campness) are a delight to behold. A man so wonderful, he can make the biggest brutes in prison his assistants. Along with rookie Tony Revolori, the pair keep the film rattling on at a frightful fun pace, visiting prisons, mountains, strange cult-like churches all whilst on the run from wicked Adrien Brody and terrifying Willem Dafoe.

Zero was feeling a bit boxed in.

But as is the case with all Wes Anderson's films, it is the production, the beauty with which the film is crafted that stands out. The pastel colours and symmetrical images create a dreamlike landscape which you will wish you would be absorbed into. If life were as wonderful as The Grand Budapest Hotel makes it seem, we would live in a wonderland of pinks and baby blues. Coupled together with a touching and hilarious screenplay, Anderson uses all the possibilities that the medium offers him to make his story as engaging as it can be. Colour, aspect ratios, camera positioning, and sound are just a few of the elements that Anderson uses as part of his playground.

Easily one of the finest and most entertaining 100 minutes of 2014.* A treat for any viewer, old or young, for academia of for leisure. Rest assured, The Grand Budapest Hotel is art.

Best Bit? The film is so packed with 'best bits' that is nigh impossible to chose. I'll leave you to make your own mind up.

*So good, it promoted this blogger to buy his first ever Blu-Ray. 

Monday, 19 January 2015

Computers Won The War

The biopic. The film that dramatically portrays the life of a true person. This stage of fame is only reached by the truly revolutionary. From Johnny Cash to the Queen to Jesus, those figures who influence our world are almost doomed to be immortalised in film; better hope the film that does it is not a flop! This is the story of a man whose great successes were secrets until after long after his death - Alan Turing. This is The Imitation Game.

War in Europe has broken out for a second time. The Germans communicate through coded messages, encrypted by an Enigma machine. The machine is programmed daily to a different setting making it nigh on impossible to crack the messages. One secret team are hired by MI6, and other military personnel to attempt to beat the Enigma, and amongst that team is Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) who believes that the way to beat a machine, is with a machine. As the war death toll mounts, the Germans March forward, and the war seems never ending, the pressure mounts on the Enigma team, Beat the Enigma, end the war.

'Pass me an Alan key'

With a character who, in a simple description, would sound so close in personality to Sherlock (egotistical, incredibly intelligent, slightly autistic, closet homosexual), it would not be an unfair assumption to think that even Benedict Cumberbatch might struggle to bring originality to Turing and separate himself from his most famous role. However, these doubts are misplaced as Cumberbatch is completely absorbed by his performance of Turing. Together with a Keira Knightley at her best and a powerful supporting ensemble, The Imitation Game hosts some of the finest acting of the year. The cast all provide genuine and moving performances that depict some of Britain's brightest minds in a dark era of history, telling the tale of the men (and woman) that helped to win the war.

The team were having a cracking time.

With a emotionally driven screenplay, The Imitation Game tugs at many heartstrings but ultimately it is a story of hope, a story of success, and a story of the brilliance of humankind. But it is more than this. The film is a thriller through and through which rattles along at a captivating pace, adding puzzle to puzzle with a constant clock to beat in a life-or-death war setting. Morten Tyldum's direction with Graham Moore's screenplay is a match made in heaven and with such a strong cast, The Imitation Game moves from success to success. Whilst those who are more aware of the historical scenarios surrounding Turing's solving of the Enigma Code may find issues with the accuracy and some moments feel a bit forced to emphasise a point (the realisation that there will be decisions on who to save is an example of this), but the film's merits well outweigh its flaws.

A moving picture that tells the stories of one of the most important discoveries in military history. Captivating from start to finish (though sometimes a bit muddled in its presentation), The Imitation Game is a must see.

Best Bit? When the team find the link they need to decrypt the code, anyone who does not have a shiver down their spine as they put into the machine is possibly soulless.