Sunday, 28 February 2016

The Best of the Rest

In case the Best Picture Nominees don't quite fulfil your Oscar needs, here are all the other films nominated for more than one award tonight - and then some!

Carol (Nominated for Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costume Design, Best Cinematography, and Best Original Music)

Carol portrays two women who fall in love in 1950s New York. Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara) come from conventional backgrounds and after an innocent meeting, a connection forms between the two which grows deeper and more passionate as society tries to stop it. Whilst the intensity and pace of the film can drop, it offers a stunningly shot and truly touching story. Held up by absolutely stellar performances by Blanchett and Mara, Carol is a beautiful and heart wrenching tale that takes the viewer on a roller coaster of emotions, good and bad. It is an engaging and powerful piece of cinema.

The Danish Girl (Nominated for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Production Design, and Best Costume Design)

Tom Hooper shot to stardom with the excellent drama The King's Speech, followed up by musical drama Les Miserables. Now he presents another emotional drama. It never quite reaches the likability of his dabble with royalty, nor quite deals with hardship as movingly as his musical outing, but there is still something compelling about The Danish Girl. The film is the story of Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander) as Einar struggles with his gender identity and life is pumped into the narrative by the sensational chemistry between Redmayne and Vikander. Individually they both put in incredible performances but Vikander particularly shines. A beautiful story told in a beautiful manner.

Ex Machina  (Nominated for Best Original Screenplay and Best Visual Effects)

Alex Garland's directorial debut is a bold adventure. Not only was he behind the camera for this gritty sci-fi thriller, but he also wrote it. It tells the story of Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) who is invited to work alongside tech billionaire Nathan (Oscar Issac) to test the AI he has created. The AI is Ava (Alicia Vikander), but can she convince Caleb that she has conciseness in the ultimate Turing Test?. Ex Machina is dark, claustrophobic, and utterly compelling film making. Every second keeps you on your toes right up until the nail biting conclusion. It adds to an already excellent year for all three leads, and promises great things for Garland's future as a director.

The Hateful Eight (Nominated for Best Supporting Actress, Best Cinematography, and Best Original Music)

There is always added pressure when a film's runtime exceeds three hours; the film has to justify its length . Fortunately, Tarantino is still on top form here. The Hateful Eight follows Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) as he hitches a ride with bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to try and keep ahead of a blizzard. What the film does so masterfully is to keep the film constantly engaging for the entire runtime. Every time Tarantino is about to reach the climax of one narrative, he cuts away to build the suspense as long as possible. He creates an intimately intense piece of cinema with some typical Tarantinoisms. Fans of the director will not be disappointed, even if the ending leaves a little to be desired.

Joy  (Nominated for Best Actress)

Jennifer Lawrence continues her successful partnership with David O. Russell, though that relationship may not be mutual. Whilst Lawrence is in fine form as Joy Mangano, the inventor of the miracle mop, the rest of the film falls short. Whilst she shares the screen with Bradley Cooper as Neil Walker, master of the QVC shopping channel, the film is at its strongest. The pair bring a charisma to the film that O. Russell struggles to replicate at other points. The editing in the first quarter of the film is awkward and there are jarring dream and flashback sequences that simply do not fit.

Sicario (Nominated for Best Original Music, Best Cinematography, and Best Sound Editing)

Sicario picks up its nominations primarily in technical categories, but this is one of the most thrilling films of the year. Quite literally opening with a bang, Sicario throws the audience straight into Kate Macer's (Emily Blunt) world as she gets hired to help take down a cartel. From tense set piece to tense set piece, we are taken on an action packed and suspenseful journey into Mexico and back. An astonishing achievement in modern thrillers that is relentless in its shockingly realistic depiction of the violence involved in the drug trade.

Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens (Nominated for Best Original Music, Best Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Editing, and Best Sound Mixing)

When Star Wars first came out in 1977, the world went wild. Over the past forty years, Luke, Leia, Hans, Vader, and their universe have become cultural icons. The Force Awakens is a welcome return to form after the questionable prequels, with new icons being created in the form of Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and BB-8. The old faces of Fisher, Ford, and Hamill are all present also in what is just as much a throw back to A New Hope as it is a contemporary revisiting to a galaxy far far away. It is accessible to a whole new fan base whilst building on the already existing Star Wars universe. It is a fun filled ride with gloriously constructed action sequences, stunning special effects, and a John Williams score to die for. It all feels a bit familiar, but perhaps that just the feeling of returning home.

Steve Jobs (Nominated for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress)

The late great Steve Jobs was undoubtedly one of the biggest influences in the world of technology of all time. It is not just his technology that catches eyes, but the man himself. Steve Jobs tells the story of that man through his product launches - the good, the bad, and the ugly. Be focusing in on the big stage moments of the career, Steve Jobs takes the image we know of Jobs (Michael Fassbender) and shows us the behind the scenes moments. Behind the black turtle neck and small circular spectacles is an emotional tale of an incredibly intelligent, passionate man who struggles to fit his personal world into his professional plans. With Fassbender putting in a brilliant turn as Jobs and a stunning performance from Kate Winslet as Joanna Hoffman, Steve Jobs is a brilliant, if not occasionally disjointed, film, brought to life by another fantastic screenplay by Aaron Sorkin.

Straight Outta Compton (Nominated for Best Original Screenplay)

Straight Outta Compton tells the story of notorious rap group N.W.A., detailing their rise, their fall, and every thing in between. A brilliant and compelling piece of story telling. The first half is a completely engaging, new-school musical, dropping some dope beats and underlined by the gritty life coming from the back allies of Compton.With stunning turns from O'Shea Jackson Jr. (Ice Cube), Corey Hawkins (Dr Dre), and Jason Mitchell (Eazy-E), three unknown actors who come from obscurity to build one of the strongest ensembles of the year. Whilst the second act loses some pace, the performances remain strong and the narrative becomes more intense as well as more moving.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

The Cold War in Warm Rooms

The Cold War. Courtroom Drama. Spies. Individually, these elements have each produced some great works of cinema. We make think of Dr Strangelove or A Few Good Men or even Skyfall, but what happens when you take these three aspects, roll them all together, and put Spielberg behind the camera? This is Bridge of Spies.

When Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Russian spyis captured by the FBI, it is extremely important for the image of the United States of America that he gets fair representation at trial and therefore someone must be appointed the lawyer for the most hated man in America. The lawyer that gets appointed is James B. Donavan (Tom Hanks), an insurance lawyer, and he has to convince the country not to kill his client. His argument begins to hinge on the notion that, should it be required, Abel could be used to trade for any similarly captured Americans. When a U-2 spy plane and its pilot are shot down over Russia as well as an American student getting arrested after crossing the Berlin Wall, suddenly having Abel alive becomes an appealing idea.

Abel (Mark Rylance) and Donavan (Tom Hanks)
 in the court room

Over the years, Tom Hanks has developed from a loveable young, romantic comedy star, into a serious award winning actor, and then into some sort of friendly and yet exceptional everyman. He continues that trend here in Bridge of Spies. Donavan is a family man who works in insurance and he is suddenly thrust into an extraordinary  situation and Hank's performance reflects this. He is charming yet firm and powerful. He is warm and loving, yet determined and authoritative. It is a hard balance to strike, but not for someone as accomplished as Hanks. Rylance, already an established presence on the stage, is the standout performance here though, and the film rests on this. The success on how the audience engage with the film's narrative is dependant on how they relate to Abel. As the soft spoken Russian spy, Rylance is absolutely delightful and, despite being a traitor to the United States, we root for him and against the American government.

Tom Hanks as Donavan's world begins to change

Spielberg's influence over Hollywood is vast. Year after year he makes brilliant, award-winning films. With Bridge of Spies, he continues in excellent form, but the film is undoubtably improved and made whole by Joel and Ethan Coen's tinkering with Matt Charman screenplay. In a film that is centred around talking and negotiating, the Coens pump life into a dialogue-heavy second act. They bring warmth to the Cold War in the form of Hank's Donavan, though never letting the intensity of the situation slip away. Accompanied by small yet spectacular set pieces, brilliantly captured by Spielberg's camera, the film's visual construction sometimes says more than the Coen's words ever could. A gentle foot chase through the rain, a train carriage of staring faces, a snowy and still Glienicke Bridge scattered with shadowy figures.

Whilst there are dips in pace, Bridge of Spies seamlessly combines several genres and exhibits some of the finest performances of the year. It also proves that Spielberg may not be revolutionising the cinematic world with the likes of Jaws and E.T., but he has not lost any of his film making power. 

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

United States of Ireland

The Oscars are no strangers to romantic films, and the last few years have been no exception. Sometimes they are biographical (The Theory of Everything), sometimes they are about the struggles on the way to love (Silver Linings Playbook), and sometimes they are a bit kooky (Her). So what can we make of this year's tale of love? This is Brooklyn.

Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) is a young Irish girl who leaves for America lead a better life. With arrangements made by Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), an Irish priest, Eilis moves to Brooklyn, New York, to join the Irish community there. She is accepted into the home of Mrs. Keogh (Julie Walters) who also hosts several other young Irish girls. She begins to work in a shop, she meets a nice Italian boy called Tony (Emory Cohen), and her new life in Brooklyn begins to settle down rather nicely. But a quick trip back to Ireland could prove to upset that.

Emory Cohen and Saoirse Ronan as Tony and Eilis

Brooklyn is a film built on small yet significant roles; in a story about community, fellowship, and relationships, the supporting cast are just as important, if not more so, than the lead actress. Not to take anything away from Ronan, who we will come to in a moment, from Walters' deliciously entertaining Mrs. Keogh to Cohen's charming Tony to Domhnall Gleeson's delightfully handsome Jim Farrell, the smaller characters are what give Brooklyn its life and its energy. But its heart and soul do still come from its leading lady. Ronan plays Eilis calmly with grace. From the moment the film starts rolling, her soft manner draws the viewer in, her friendly, warm nature invites them along for the journey across the sea. Eilis has a constantly determined will that's always held back by a society that wants to keep her grounded, but Ronan's versatile charm keeps the audience rooting for her; we share in her confusion, we feel her pain, we fall in love alongside her.

Emory Cohen and Saoirse Ronan as Tony and Eilis

There is a rare quality to Brooklyn that few films accomplish. It is hopelessly romantic but also comments on a far bigger picture. Between the lines of love it tells the story of immigration, of old lands and new, of starting afresh. Nick Hornby's screenplay is structured around the struggles faced by Eilis in love and finding her home but never fails to keep sight of both of those key elements, intertwining the two with precision and care, turning the narrative of love into a metaphor for the difficulties of finding which side of the ocean her heart lies. Director John Crowley takes this story and turns it into a gloriously moving tale assisted by beautiful production design by François Séguin.

Brooklyn is an unrepentantly romantic piece of cinema and a warm hearted accomplishment of the screen. Touching, funny, and full of heart. A true success.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Unbreakable Brie Larson

You know how uncomfortable it is to share a lift with another person? To be caught in such close proximity with another person, with no escape, for a short amount of time. Now imagine being in that lift for seven years. That is sort of what this film does. This is Room.

Ma (Brie Larson) and Jack (Jacob Tremblay) live in Room, a 10 by 10 foot room, where they are held captive by Old Nick (Sean Bridgers). Nick has had Ma locked away for seven years and regularly rapes her. After a couple of years, along came Jack. Born and raised in Room, Jack knows nothing of the outside world and quizzes Ma over the existence of dogs, why the leaves turn brown, and other bits of common knowledge. Ma dreams of better things for Jack and begins working on a plan to get him out of Room and away from Old Nick, but perhaps the outside world is not as warm and welcoming as she recalled.

Jacob Tremblay and Brie Larson as Jack and Ma in Room

You may remember Brie Larson from such comedy outings as 21 Jump Street, Scott Pilgrim vs The World, and even Community on the small screen. In Room, she moves away from making us laugh and instead invites us into a world of turmoil and suffering. In a narrative that could easily tip into being melodramatic, Larson controls Ma's mood swings and emotional instability as she tries to hold her life together for Jack, keeping the character real and devastatingly effective. But Ma does not just support Jack, she is also supported by him. Their relationship is built on each other, and the expansion of their world to include other people throws off that delicate balance. Jacob Tremblay - at only 9 years of age - expertly portrays the introverted fear and yet childlike wonder that an isolated five year old would experience when entering the world and meeting other people for the first time. 

The pair getting into the swing of things

Room is a stunning portrayal of the darkness that exists in our world. Not that it is based on a true story, but it strikes a lot of similarities to a real case that influenced the plot. But it is not just the nature of Big Nick's crimes that are shocking; it is Ma and Jack's reaction to the outside world. Jack longs for the comfort and security of Room, something that is brilliantly visualised by a nifty bit of camera work that makes that 10 by 10 foot space seem huge and spacious. Ma, on the other hand, struggles to reaccustom to day to day life, and spirals into hard-to-watch arguments with her mother and worse. The supposedly brighter world outside Room is full of unaccepting fathers and invasive media. Room, however, is a compelling story wonderfully told by director Lenny Abrahamson and writer (both novel and screenplay) Emma Donoghue.

Room is unapologetically heavy. It is not a nice or easy story, but it is one of the most engaging films of the year. Both Larson and Tremblay are completely outstanding and deserve every accolade coming their way. The weight of the film can make it a little draining at times, but ultimately a very rewarding watch.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

The Weirdos of Wall Street

Around a decade ago, banks across the world collapsed. Not many of us really understand the details of what happened, but we all agreed that bankers were to blame and they were bad, bad people. A few filmmakers have tried to explain the events that led us to this conclusion (Margin Call, Inside Job), and trying to join that club is Anchorman director Adam McKay. This is The Big Short.

The Big Short tells three vaguely interlinking stories of bankers who predicted the crash of the housing market and bet against the banks. Firstly, there is Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a millionaire who discovers that banks are using subprime loans to add more mortgages to their plans. Subsequently he goes to the biggest banks in America and bets against the housing market. Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) learns of these transactions and presents them to the second set of bankers, Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his team of investors, who investigate the issue further. Finally, two young bankers, Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), find Burry's pitch regarding the housing market bubble and team up with retired trader Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to help them make the trades. But as the three sets of bankers reveal more about the housing bubble, the more the moral implications of their bets are brought into question and the corrupt system simply keeps getting worse.

Steve Carell as Mark Baum

McKay has gathered a stunning cast to tell this important story. Steve Carell is on the top of his game, reuniting with a director that made him eat coffee grinds in one of their last outings. Carell's Baum is the moral compass at the centre of the film; he hates bankers and yet is one himself. While the others betting against the house market, like Bale's genius Burry or Goslings sleazy Vennett, are only aiming to gain in either pride or money, Baum is constantly fighting an internal battle and Carell portrays this brilliantly. The ensemble work brilliantly together on screen, though rarely at the same time. Burry is never out of his offices, whilst Pitt, nigh on unrecognisable as Rickert, spends most of his time on the phone, physically separated from those he is performing with. But this does not hold them back, and this is a character based film. We have to care about the people on-screen because they are still part of the corrupt system that the film is criticising - they need to be the good-bad guys - and every single actor give performances that aid that goal.

Brad Pitt as Ben Rickert

Much like this year's Spotlight, The Big Short is a film that takes a incredible ensemble cast and explores the evil actions of humanity. Whilst the subject matter is not quite as dark as Spotlight, it is no easier to swallow. For many of us, what caused the 2008 financial crisis was incomprehensibly confusing, but what McKay does, helped in no small part by screenwriter Charles Randolph, is make it accessible. With entertaining cameos from Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez, Richard Thaler, and Anthony Bourdain as themselves, who help break down some of the more complicated elements of caused the collapsed (Subprime loans, CDOs, Synthetic CDOs) with handy, understandable metaphors (blackjack and fish stew, anyone?). The self-referential postmodernism does not stop there; the fourth wall is nothing to McKay, and characters often take themselves out of a scene to talk to the audience. With such a complex topic, the direct address often adds much needed clarity.

Though a bit clunky at times, cutting to archival footage that breaks up the films pace, and a little bit too long, The Big Short is an engaging, accessible, and important story of corruption, greed, and contemporary history.

Friday, 5 February 2016

Revenge is Best Served Cold

This years Oscars seem to be a year of survival films. Both Mad Max and The Martian had the theme of survival at their core but neither even come close to today's film. Today's film takes the survival theme and stretches it to its very limits. This is The Revenant.

Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) live on a settlement with a fur-trappers. When their hunting party is attacked by a local tribe of native Arikara Indians, they have to flee to try and make it to a safe outpost. Led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) and accompanied by John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), the group venture out towards safety but on route, Glass gets separated from the others and mauled by a bear. Despite the freezing winter, the others rescue him and carry him between them on a stretcher. However, after being slowed down by the burden, Glass is eventually left for dead and buried alive when Fitzgerald tricks Bridger into thinking they are about to come under attack, forcing them to leave Glass behind. But Glass fights to survive and he has one sole intent - to get revenge on Fitzgerald.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass

The Revenant is, very simply put, Leonardo DiCaprio's film. Not only is the film almost entirely focused on Glass' fight to survive, giving him a huge percentage of the screen time, but it is also a testament to DiCaprio's acting ability. Not that this was ever in doubt, but after several roles that involved a high amount of physicality and volume (see The Wolf of Wall Street), his performance as Glass pushes him to his limits. Glass, for a good majority of the film, can hardly move or speak, and yet DiCaprio brings such life to an almost lifeless character. Tied down to the stretcher, completely incapacitated, his constrained facial expressions and muffled grunts tell a more detailed and developed narrative than whole films managed in 2015 (see Pixels). Despite this, DiCaprio is surrounded by a stellar supporting cast, Tom Hardy in particular. There is something nasty about Hardy's Fitzgerald but, at the same time, terribly endearing. He is intelligent but brutal, dishonest but authoritative. He has superb survival instincts but is only out for himself. Hardy encapsulates this and creates one of the best antagonists of the year.

Tom Hardy as John Fitzgerald
The Revenant is an epic adventure from start to finish. It opens with an absolutely astonishing set piece, the camera tracking through the carnage of battle, following one hunter until their death, then another then another. We adopt the camera's viewpoint and stumble through the fighting in confusion but also never looking away; we even plunge underwater with Will Poulter's Bridger as someone attempts to drown him. Alejandro González Iñárritu uses similar techniques to his Best Picture winning Birdman last year, albeit in shorter supply, to drag us into the gritty realm of survival. But is it any surprise with someone as talented as Emmanuel Lubezki (Birdman, Gravity, Children of Men, The Tree of Life) behind the camera that The Revenant excels in its visual story telling. Bookended by two incredibly shot scenes of fighting, The Revenant does almost as much in how it portrays its narrative as what it is portraying. The long shots of the wilderness tell us its great expanse, the long takes tell us the relentlessness of the struggles faced.

Without a doubt the most gorgeous film of the year, but perhaps also the grittiest; the true story it is based on is not even as brutal as the film's depiction of the events, but Iñárritu and Lubezki really capitalise on their visual art form and make something truly memorable.