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.