Sunday, 31 January 2016

All The Pope's Men

Journalism. A profession which involves a lot of writing, a bit of research, and occasionally, some changing the face of a country. There was Watergate in 1972, the revelation of the extent of the NSA's surveillance in 2013, and there was even The Daily Telegraph's discovery of the MPs Expenses scandal in 2009. But the journalists of today's film did not just upset a nation. They upset a worldwide institution. This is Spotlight.

The 'Spotlight' department of The Boston Globe are a specialist group of investigative journalists headed up by Walter 'Robby' Robinson (Michael Keaton) and when the new boss, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), takes over the running of the Globe, he notices an old article on child molestation by a priest. Eager for the story to be followed up, Robby's department is nominated to look into it. The process is simple - Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James) looks into the old clippings on the topic, Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) looks into the potential victims, and Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) runs around the city looking for any more leads - but what they discover is much more difficult to handle. Several dozen covered up cases of molestation by priests in the Boston area, and the revelations just keep coming.

The Spotlight team

It is rare for a film to completely embrace the notion of an acting ensemble; a cast that works as a unit, all cogs functioning in harmony to create a riveting piece of cinema. There is no lead in the traditional sense, there is four of them. Of the four, Ruffalo's Rezendes particularly stands out from the pack. He is the most energetic of the group, dashing into offices, charming information out of Stanley Tucci's Garabedian, and essentially pestering anyone who might know anything. But this is a cast all at the top of their game. Keaton continues his fine form after Birdman last year, and this is easily a career high for McAdams and d'Arcy James.

Michael Keaton and Rachel McAdams as
Walter 'Robby' Robinson and Sacha Pfeiffer 

Spotlight is not comfortable viewing. Around every corner there is a further revelation that takes us deeper into the rabbit hole of the church's actions and their cover ups. What makes Spotlight so exciting, however, is the thrill of finding out how deep that rabbit hole goes and how the characters navigate through that darkness to gain their answers. Written with wit, intelligence, and sincerity, the film perfectly balances a disturbing subject matter with a light handling and effective editing. Take a scene where two victims are interviewed simultaneously and the camera cuts between the two, never allowing the audience to listen to a full dialogue, but exposing the full story through the similarities of the two testimonies. Its narrative is gritty, but it is honest; the Catholic Church have even praised the film for its representation of the facts.

There a few examples in film that so clearly demonstrate the snowball effect as the story grows larger and darker. The bitter taste left in your mouth as the credits roll remind you that his is real. That this happened. It is no All The President's Men - the film's closest relative - but the story is one that is just as worthy, if not more so, of being told. Spotlight does just that, and does it brilliantly.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Life on Mars

Space is a huge expanse of unexplored place but NASA has that which they can explore in their sights. The plans to put people on Mars in the 2030s is well underway but perhaps today's film will provide some ideas of what to expect when they get there. This is The Martian.

When a terrible storm on the surface of Mars threatens the first manned mission to the planet, the team of astronauts prepare to jet off home. As the storm hits, the team are outside and a piece of debris hits the team's botanist, Mark Watney (Matt Damon). Losing him in the low visibility and believing him to be dead, the remaining four team members take off to return to Earth. The next Sol (or day in Layman's terms), Watney wakes up to find himself alone in the red deserts of Mars, wounded but alive. His only option in order to survive? Well in his own words, he is going to 'have to science the shit out of this'.

It is no surprise, in a film about one man stranded alone away from humanity, that this is Matt Damon's movie. He is the source of all the comedy (bar one prat fall from Donald Glover) as well as the emotional heart. Whilst the supporting cast consists of a strong ensemble (Jessica Chastain, Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, and many others), they never detract from Damon's performance. This being said, often their roles are limited to staring at computer screens and responding emotionally, so as far as that is concerned, they are exceptional.

The Martian, which was dubiously dubbed as a comedy at the Golden Globes, is a smart and emotional film that is as funny as it is thoughtful. It raises questions of morality and ethics, whilst also making jokes about using human faeces as fertiliser. As well as a solid screenplay, The Martian also boasts some gorgeous camera work that turns the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan into a gloriously beautiful Martian landscape. However, at just under two and a half hours, the film runs for just a little bit too long. The middle section begins to drag as the only communication between Earth and Mars is through written text on a computer; the characters read aloud as they type and then again as they receive messages*. Similarly, the end of the film goes on for a long while with drawn out obstacles and plenty of unnecessary shots that add little to the overall narrative.

The film is grounded by the optimism of Damon's Watney; it keeps it real. Ridley Scott's film does not fall into the isolated paranoia of Moon nor into the fantasticism of similar sci-fi movies such as 2001: A Space Odyssey or Interstellar but instead remains cheerful, funny, and full of hope. There is a human element at the core of this space drama which is all too often awkwardly handled or overlooked in science fiction (just look at that 'Love and Gravity' scene in Interstellar). In many ways, The Martian succeeds where others in the genre have failed, but it also lacks the grand, epic nature that keeps the audience engaged for two and a half hours.

A fun and enjoyable film, if not a little too long. The many obstacles that face Watney are slowly deminished by the predictibly accurate optimism of the characters, but this does not divert from the quality that The Martian displays. A rare feel good, easy to watch sci-fi which is a welcome addition to an all too often glum and complex genre.

Best Bit? In order to grow potatoes, Watney needs water. To make water, Watney needs to use all of his science knowledge in a brilliant little segment which demonstrates the dangers of fire in space.

*Every Frame a Painting, an excellent channel on youtube, discuss this issue in film in more detail here:

Monday, 4 January 2016

What if Feelings had Feelings?

Pixar Animation Studios are renown for their high-quality, tear inducing, heart jerking, comedy films. Very few studios, live action or animated, can create films with the emotional resonance that Pixar can create; no one can make us feel like Pixar makes us feel. But this year, Pixar explored our feelings further by personifying them. This is Inside Out.

Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) is a typical 11 year old girl. She plays hockey, doesn't like broccoli, and is a complete goofball. These are some of the foundations of her personality formed by her core memories. Inside her head, the formation of these memories, and the way Riley acts, are controlled by five emotions: Joy (Amy Poehler), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Sadness (Phyllis Smith). Joy tends to run things and all of Riley's core memories glow yellow with joy, or at least until Riley's family suddenly move across the country to San Fransisco and Riley's first sad core memory is formed. Wanting to keep the core memories happy, Joy tries to stop the memory before it becomes part of Riley's personality but instead dislodges all of the core memories and they are sucked into long term memory along with Joy and Sadness. Together, the unlikely duo must make their way back to the control room with the core memories before Riley causes irreparable damage to her relationships and is left emotionally empty, devoid of personality.

From left to right: Bing Bong, Sadness, and Joy

As always, Pixar's animation is still leading the way in 3D, computer generated animation. Inside Out continues to push the boundaries of what is possible in the medium. One sequence, when Joy, Sadness, and Riley's old imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind) are passing through the abstract thought area, they are reduced to a cubist incarnation of themselves before being flattened to two dimensions. Pixar's imagination is shown in full force here, creating a whole world inside of Riley's mind that is full of innovative landscapes that, despite their scope, never drift into absurdity. Even the most ridiculous of characters, Bing Bong, an elephant-chicken-dolphin hybrid made of cotton candy with a rocket  powered by song, is treated seriously and plays a pivotal role in the narrative. It would be so easy for a secondary character like Bing Bong to be played for laughs, but Pixar treat all of their creations with care, attention, and development to make sure that their story is as three-dimensional as their animation.

From left to right: Sadness, Anger, Fear, Disgust, and Joy

After over five years in the making, Inside Out is Pixar's labour of love and it shows. The films has been precisely crafted with equal parts fun, heart, and brain. The production team consulted with psychologists and other experts to ensure their fantasy world fit within the way the mind really works whilst the animators brought this vision to life in a vibrant fashion. The writing, too, is perhaps some of Pixar's finest yet. Not only is it completely hilarious, riddled with smart humour, but it is an extremely moving tale of growing up, dealing with sadness, and coping with change. The level of passion displayed in the production of Inside Out combined with the vocal talent of Poehler, Smith, Kaling, Kind, Hader, and Black, creates a completely remarkable, genuinely entertaining, and utterly moving piece of cinema. It is no surprise that it is now being discussed in terms of educating children about mental health.

Pixar have hit the ball out of the park with Inside Out. After three efforts in a row not quite hitting the Pixar standard that audiences have become accustom to (Cars 2, Brave, Monsters University), Inside Out proves that Pixar have not lost what makes them so special and that they are still the most innovative animation company out there.

Best Bit? Aside from the trip through abstract thought, which is a particular highlight, the time spent in dream production, styled as a classic holiday studio, is exceptionally funny.

Saturday, 2 January 2016

Hit the Road, Max

There are only a few words in the English language that make a film fan's skin crawl. Perhaps the most notable is the term 'sequel', but maybe 'remake' and 'reboot' are also among those that induce a shiver of fear to run down one's spine. But what about a 'revisiting'? This is Mad Max: Fury Road.

In a post-apocalyptic wasteland, it is survival of the fittest and despite his best efforts, Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) ends up being kidnapped by a group of 'War Boys' to become a human blood bag. But when the leader of the War Boys, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), sends one of his war leaders, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), to Gas Town on a supply run and she betrays him by fleeing with his prize wives, the War Boys are summoned to bring them back. One War Boy, Nux (Nicholas Hoult), brings Max, his new blood bag, along for the ride. With Max fighting to survive and Furiosa fighting to escape, the two join forces in the car chase to end all car chases.

Tom Hardy as Max

In 1979, George Miller created a legend in Max and solidified that status with two more films, fashioning an icon of the post-apocalyptic genre. After a stint in development hell, Fury Road attempts to do the nigh on impossible: to continue building Max's legendary status with a new actor filling his leather, diesel-punk attire. James Bond and Doctor Who were successful with it, so why not Mad Max? Tom Hardy has absolutely no difficulty in immediately capturing Max's essence; his kind nature compromised by a drive to survive and his mind riddled with the guilt from those he could not save. But be clear, this is not Max's film. Fury Road is Furiosa's film. Theron is the driving force of the movie and its emotional core. Her performance grounds an otherwise wild ride into being more than just another mindless action. She gives the film its heart, its soul, and also its bite.

Charlize Theron as Furiosa
The success of Fury Road lies not in its story or performances alone. With Mad Max, George Miller did not just create a character, he created a world - a world that needed rebuilding and adjusting for Fury Road. Here, Miller shows us that the wasteland has got more brutal, more baron, but it is the same landscape as before. The road gangs are now war cults, the shortage is now of water. The production design tells just as much story as the characters or the plot - we see see a vision of the human race reduced to its most primitive and in desperate need to adapt to survive. But director of photography, John Seale, makes it strangely beautiful, leading to some of the most entrancing cinematography of the year. The same too should be said of editor Margaret Sixel. With Seale's centre framing and Sixel's editing, the film, consisting almost entirely of action, became captivating to watch. The audience was drawn into the wasteland and taken on an exhilarating journey.

Incredible stunt coordination with the 'Polecats'

And on that note, it seems absolutely vital to discuss the stunt work that went into creating this film. Action films are defined by the scale of their action and for Fury Road, this scale seems endless. Nothing is done in halves and no type of action takes precedence over another. The hand to hand combat is just as effective as the driving, the ariel work is as thrilling as the explosions. Every element of the action comes together to form a ferocious and entrancing thrill ride through the apocalyptic desert.

Mad Max: Fury Road is, simply put, the most outstanding film of the year. Not only is it excellently made in every aspect, but it is unlike anything else in its genre. It blows away the competition in its own market as well as subverting expectations of action films and firmly making a name for itself amongst the serious award contenders for 2015.

Best Bit? It is rare I say this but the film's standard almost never drops below a certain point. Its consistency is incredible. So don your leather jacket, prepare to enter Valhalla, scream 'What a lovely lovely day!', and watch this movie.