Selma (2015)

SelmaWhile in Europe civil rights activist Dr Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) is free to receive the Nobel Peace Prize with the respect of his peers and to rapturous applause, back home in America he would still struggle to register as a voter. To this end, and following a sickening attack on four young churchgoers in Selma, Alabama, Dr King returned to the States with voting rights in his sights. The plan is to stage a peaceful march to the registration office, but when his protest ends in violence and prompts a retaliatory response at a later night march King realises that he is going to think bigger. Unable to count on the President (Tom Wilkinson), he uses the media to raise the profile of his cause, and when an attempt to march to the State capital ends in further brutality it is this time caught on film for the whole country to see. No longer able to ignore what is happening, supporters — black and white — begin to amass in Selma.

With the recent events in Ferguson demonstrating that despite the progress that has undoubtedly been made since King’s day injustice and inequality are still rife in at least some of the United States of America, Ava DuVernay’s Selma still manages to be timely and urgent even fifty years after the fact. In many ways the man in question has since been reduced to a harmless soundbite, and though most people are able to recite his famous ‘I Have A Dream’ speech from 1963 they would be hard-pressed to recount any more information on one of the most important figures of the 20th Century. Hopefully this film should change that, not simply adding the Selma to Montgomery marches to his pop-culture profile but stoking a deeper interest in the man behind the movement.

Oyelowo is exceptional as King, and together with Daniel Day-Lewis’ Abraham Lincoln shows that Brits have not only conquered the American superhero genre but have now also infiltrated the nation’s pantheon of real-life heroes too. Charismatic and compelling but compromised and complex, this is King outside of his ideological dreamscape. His family is under threat, his supporters are being routinely beaten and killed, and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference is not just unwelcome in the eyes of Governor of Alabama George Wallace (Tim Roth) but sections of the native Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee too, even though they’re ultimately working towards the same goal. Many of the most powerful scenes aren’t rooted in victory at all but pain: as King consoles the father of the late Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield), as he bears witness to the first fateful Edmund Pettus Bridge crossing from afar, and has he confesses a string of infidelities to his unerringly faithful wife (an excellent Carmen Ejogo).

It’s a frustrating and often infuriating watch, and King’s indignation and disbelief at the establishment’s conceitedness and complacency is matched only by your own. Roth is perfectly cast as Wallace, actor having long since mastered the contemptible sneer, while Dylan Baker is just squirm-inducing as an unusually reptilian J Edgar Hoover. It’s Wilkinson who will really leave you frothing, and as convincing as the actor is as Lyndon B Johnson it’s hard not to be shocked by or disappointed in that nice old man from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, particularly given his outspoken condemnation of slavery in last year’s Belle. The entire cast is on top form, from established talents like Martin Sheen and Cuba Gooding Jr to equally impressive turns from talk show host Oprah and rapper Common. As much of the ensemble prepare for their final march on Montgomery it’s hard not to get swept up in the moment, and like Belle or even Pride there is a triumph and joy in seeing historic injustices being overturned that is unlike anything else in cinema. As the latter reminds us in his rap over the end credits, however, the battle may be over but the war is still far from won.

A handsome and humbling period piece with untold present day relevance, Selma is one of the most important releases of the year. It’s also incredibly potent and powerful, and a crying shame that neither DuVernay or Oyewolo have been adequately recognised for their efforts.

4-Stars

January 2015 – Brad Pitt ate my sandwich

Birdman PosterHaving ended 2014 with a list of my top ten films of the year, I began 2015 looking forward to the films I was both anticipating and borderline apprehending. Wait, that’s not right. Apprehen…siv…ing?

Two films from the first list opened in January — Big Hero 6 and Kingsman: The Secret Service — but neither lived up to my expectations. I was also unimpressed with Foxcatcher, American Sniper, A Most Violent Year and The Gambler.

Not quite so disappointing were The Theory of Everything, Into The Woods and Wild, while Whiplash, Testament of Youth and Ex_Machina really hit a chord. By far the best film released this month, however, was Birdman, a film unlike any other that might have indirectly earned the superhero genre its first Best Picture nomination at the Academy Awards.

This month I also contributed programme notes to Glasgow Film Theatre, wrote about my adventures in Edinburgh’s Pentland Hills and finally visited the Isle of Skye.

Film of the month: Birdman

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)

Kingsman The Secret ServiceGary “Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egerton) is owed a favour. Seventeen years ago, his father saved the life of a Kingsman (Colin Firth) — a secret agent independent of crown or country — who promised to repay the man’s family in any way he could. When Eggsy is arrested for Grand Theft Auto, having stolen a car belonging to one of his abusive step-dad’s cronies, the Kingsman rescinds the charges and they repair to the pub for a chat. Harry Hart — as he later introduces himself — reveals that it was he who trained Eggsy’s father, and seeing something similar in the younger Unwin offers to enroll him into the service’s training programme. Across the pond, evangelical environmentalist Richmond Valentine (Samuel L Jackson) is planning to tackle the planet’s overpopulation problem with his latest product: a new SIM card capable of hacking the cerebral cortex.

There are many reasons to be excited about Kingsman: The Secret Service — the source material, the cast, the trailer — but perhaps the most enticing factor is the re-partnering of comic-book writer Mark Miller with director Matthew Vaughn and screenwriter Jane Goldman, following their first collaboration, instant cult-classic Kick-Ass. Having successfully celebrated and satirised the superhero genre in equal measure, spawned a sequel and made stars out of Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Chloe Grace Moretz, the triumphant triumvirate have turned their attention to classic spy thrillers in the Bond mould. Sadly, however, while their latest offering is as gloriously over the top and gleefully irreverent as its predecessor, there’s no denying that overall it constitutes something of a disappointment; Kingsman only ass-kicks.

The problems are manifold, and it is worth noting that a small number of them are out of their creators’ control. Whereas Kick-Ass felt vital and innovative, opening less than ten years after Sam Raimi’s Spider-man and making a lasting impact on the genre it mocked, Kingsman is a few decades overdue and already feels somewhat out of date. There’s also the fact that in its absence the spy spoof has become something of a genre in its own right, and while the Miller-standard 15 rating opens up some new avenues of exploration there is a considerable amount of crossover; of jokes that are just as familiar as the cliches the seek to subvert. The weaponised pen, for instance, has a long and illustrious history of its own, and as fun as Eggsy’s introduction to his atypical arsenal is it’s a gag you will likely recognise from everything from Austin Powers to Johnny English.

These are mere quibbles, however, when compared to the issues firmly within the filmmakers’ control. For a movie that pits chav against suave, Brit against hick and tradition against technology, Kingsman: The Secret Service is surprisingly light on conflict. There’s action of course — fisticuffs, gun battles and even a character with knives for legs — but little in the way of actual drama. This impacts both the stakes and the eventual reward, making for a rather unengaging and unsatisfying experience, but it also effects the characters and the comedy. Egerton and Firth play off one another perfectly, but many of the other performers feel more than a little perfunctory. In an attempt to distinguish themselves Jackson affects a lisp and Mark Strong enlists some sort of ambiguous regional accent but there’s no escaping the suspicion that they are playing cartoons — and not particularly funny ones.

Unforgivably for the forces that brought us Hit Girl (and in Vaugh and Goldman’s case, Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique) the female actors fare even worse. In one scene a fellow Kingman recruit quips that ‘Eggy’ only made it into the group by virtue of positive discrimination, but the same could be insinuated about Sophie Cookson (as Eggsy’s main competition) and Sofia Boutella (the aforementioned parassassin). Usually it would be to a film’s credit that it lacks a traditional love interest, except that in this case such levels of characterisation would constitute something of an improvement. Cookson serves no purpose at all, and spends much of the last act strapped to a balloon in the upper atmosphere, while Boutella is little more than a sharper-than-average secretary, at least until her stunt double takes over. Even Eggsy’s mother (Samantha Womack) feels extraneous; her story isn’t resolved until the mid-credits sequence, her son only checking on her and her daughter/his sister’s safety after he has boned a Swedish princess.

It’s frustrating because for the most part Kingsman: The Secret Service is really quite good fun. Vaughn is onto a winner with Egerton, who like Taylor-Johnson before him grounds the craziness without completely contradicting the cliche, while Firth is on fine form throughout, whether he’s showing off his collection of newspaper clippings (‘Brad Pitt Ate My Sandwich’, reads one) or sharing a reheated Big Mac with the film’s big bad. What’s more, there are a number of stand-out scenes that impress in isolation, from a memorable melee in a crackpot Kentucky church to the most spectacular skydiving sequence since Godzilla. It’s just a shame that it’s not always sick in the good sense.

3-Stars

Testament of Youth (2015)

Testament of YouthWhen World War I breaks out it is Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander) who convinces her father (Dominic West) to allow her sibling to join the Army. Brother Edward Brittain (Taron Egerton), family friend Victor Richardson (Colin Morgan) and future fiancé Roland Leighton (Kit Harington) place their studies on hold as they depart for different training camps around the country ahead of their eventual deployment to the Western Front, leaving Vera to embark on life at the University of Oxford alone, having won a place for herself by impressing feminist academic Miss Lorimer (Miranda Richardson) in her entrance exam. However, as the war worsens Vera too decides that her talents are better used elsewhere, and enlists as a Voluntary Aid Detachment Nurse, first in London, then Malta, then France. Alongside Hope (Hayley Atwell), she treats injured German soldiers sometimes within earshot of gunfire and mortar.

Based on the first instalment of Brittain’s own memoir, James Kent’s Testament of Youth dramatises the writer’s account of her life between the years of 1900-1925. Following a fleeting fast-forward to Armistice Day, the film opens with Edward tricking his smitten best friend into trying to save Vera’s life, regardless of the fact that it is in no way endangered. Despite his obvious interest in her, however, Vera has no intentions of marrying anyone, let alone Victor, instead planning to go to university like her brother and — as if that wasn’t controversial enough in pre-war Britain — begin a career as a writer. Enter Roland: a progressive poet who immediately wins a place in her heart. It’s a slow but evocative introduction to the characters, and gives the supporting cast time to shine before they are separated from Vera’s story by circumstance. Taron Egerton makes perhaps the largest impression during these earlier scenes, though by film’s end there is little doubt that it is Colin Morgan (of BBC One’s Merlin) who gives the most poignant performance.

This is Vera’s story, however, and as such it is naturally Vikander’s film. The Swedish actress — whose other credits so far include Anna Karenina, The Fifth Estate and Ex_Machina — delivers a performance that’s as impeccable as her English pronunciation. Strong and stubborn but stridently sympathetic, Vera is a fine and formidable heroine, and the sort of woman — a pacifist, but in no way passive — usually missing from war movies. She’s in good company too, with Richardson, Atwell and Emily Watson (as Vera’s mother) given lots to work with in their respective roles and each making the most of what screentime they have. Joanna Scanlan, meanwhile, is outstanding as Vera’s escort, first employed as comic relief but later recast as loyal ally. When Roland invites Vera to see him off to France, Aunt Belle — cockblocker extraordinaire — breaks character, facilitating their first kiss by ushering them into an empty train carriage and standing guard at the door. It’s a humourous moment, but the haunting sense of pathos is nevertheless unmistakable.

That said, Testament of Youth isn’t perfect, and the languid nature of the narrative means that it sometimes feels as though Vera is telling you her life story rather than a specific series of events. While her mastery of German — foreshadowed by her decision to writer her Oxford entrance essay in German instead of Latin — becomes important later on, other scenes serve no greater purpose whatsoever. The scene in the church at the beginning of the film, for instance, is completely pointless. There is also the issue of the poems themselves. Harington, as anyone who has watched Game of Thrones will be able to attest, is a perfectly capable actor, and he has a number of moving scenes as Vera’s first love — particularly once the war has started and he returns home on leave a changed man — but his poetry recitals sadly leave a lot to be desired. (As, it must be said, was the case with his voice work on How To Train Your Dragon 2.) The performances speak for themselves, and the direction, editing and cinematography are all equally effective in provoking an emotional response, but the decision to give voice to Vera and Roland’s correspondence is an unfortunate one. They’re neither very good or particularly touching.

Testament of Youth is everything that American Sniper isn’t: compassionate, comprehensive and completely unambiguous. Whereas Chris Kyle went to war to become a legend, Vera went to war to face up to reality. There are no heroes in war, that much we know, but that doesn’t mean no-man’s land can’t have a heroine instead.

4-Stars

The Gambler (2015)

The Gambler 2015By day a literature professor and by night a gambling addict, Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) is in even more debt than his students. Despite owing $260,000 to an underground gambling ringleader and another $50,000 to a loan shark, Jim is determined to keep on betting; first borrowing money from his mother, Roberta (Jessica Lange), and, when that’s soon squandered, turning to gangster Frank (John Goodman) for a top-up, the latter of whom threatens to have Jim murdered if he can’t pay up. His two worlds begin to collide when he is spotted at a casino by a promising young student who works there after school, and later when one of his debtors takes an interest in an aspiring basketball player who just happens to take his class.

It says a lot that in a cinematic landscape populated by talking raccoons and robot dinosaurs it is still a stretch to imagine Mark Wahlberg as a university lecturer. And this isn’t even the first time he’s played an academic — who could ever forget his turn as a high-school science teacher in M Night Shyamalan’s The Happening? And yet, the suspension of disbelief necessary to accept Max Payne himself lecturing an enraptured audience on artistic integrity is too great to make. Jim Bennett just doesn’t make any sense as a character. How does he have a job? Why that job? What even is his job? It certainly doesn’t seem to involve any sort of transfer of knowledge; he doesn’t seem to teach his students anything at all. He just endangers them.

Even then, however, The Gambler struggles to establish sufficient stakes. Beyond the fact that one can write and the other can throw a ball nothing is really done to develop Brie Larson’s Amy or Anthony Kelley’s Lamar into sympathetic or even believable supporting characters. Nobody in The Gambler seems to care much about anything, be it literature or self-preservation, least of all Jim. There is no conflict of any kind — either internal or external — just meaningless money changing hands without any thought for what those sums might in fact represent: be it a bad investment or a dead family member. At no point do you believe that Jim’s life is in danger; instead, it’s just a case of waiting until William Monohan has finished writing the same scenes over and over and finally decided to (literally) write off his protagonist’s debts — Jim Bennett having apparently learned absolutely nothing along the way.

Amazingly, The Gambler isn’t completely without merit. Director Rupert Wyatt does the best he can, and in spite of a largely unremarkable cast and a repetitive script he manages to keep things at least watchable. John Goodman and Emory Cohen are similarly on fine (as in: acceptable) form, with the former stripping half-naked for one of the more bizarre business transactions of the year so far. The only fully clothed person to really make an impression is Jessica Lange, who, applying all the tricks she has learnt over the seasons at FX’s American Horror Story, adds another scene-stealing matriarch to her collection. Sadly, however, Jim’s mother is all but forgotten after only her second appearance, and disappears from the narrative mid-way through the second act, having bailed her son out for the very last time. Tellingly, you spend the rest of the film wondering whatever happened to her.

Self-destructive behaviour is never much fun to watch, but coupled with uninspiring seminars and interminable poker sessions Jim Bennett’s downward spiral is particularly tedious. Wahlberg has been worse, but sadly that’s not saying an awful lot.

2-stars

 

A Most Violent Year (2015)

A Most Violent YearIt’s 1981, and Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is preparing to close a deal on a sizeable new premises that will provide his expanding but increasingly constrained company with access to the New York City river. A string of attacks on his fleet of drivers is threatening the heating oil business he runs with wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) and mentor Andrew (Albert Brooks), and short of arming his staff — something he is reluctant to do — finding a new method of transporting his product may be the only answer to his problems. As noble as his intentions may be, however, Morales still has to compete with other, less reputable providers (Alessandro Nivola) and protect scared employees (Elyes Gabel) while also remaining accountable to the law (David Oyelowo).

Seriously, will someone just cut Oscar Isaac a break? Hunted through Athens in The Two Faces of January, driven to resent his lover in In Secret and deprived the recognition he believes he deserves in Inside Llewyn Davis, Isaac has made a career out of masochism and misery. A Most Violent Year, as its name might suggest, doesn’t mark much of a departure for the actor — Abel Morales is another good man apparently struggling to keep his head above water — but it does make for a marginally more interesting watch. Morales may be far from sympathetic, and the stakes more than a little uninspiring, but writer-director J C Chandor has nevertheless crafted an intelligent and engaging anti-crime epic that still impresses in other areas.

At first it looks to be another nostalgic gangster film, shot in wistful sepia and dressed in the finest trappings, but such first impressions are soon proven premature. The cinematography and costume design are both suitably handsome, but A Most Violent Year is more than just visually interesting. Morales himself may underwhelm but his relationships fascinate: a pacifist married to an ex-Mafioso, a fair businessman in an unfair business and a respected import threatened by the next generation of migrant workers, he is surrounded by people trying to emasculate, sabotage or take advantage of him. Unusually for such a film, A Most Violent Year isn’t attempting to romanticise criminality or corruption but condemn it. At a time when a prominent American businessman is blaming the Paris shootings on France’s strict gun laws, it’s reassuring to see a compatriot countering his claim in such a convincing manner.

The true stars of Chandor’s film are Chastain, Gabel and Oyewolo, all three of whom impress in supporting roles. Chastain in particular shines as Anna Morales, whether she’s noisily punching numbers into a calculator or shooting an injured deer dead on the side of the road. At once frustrated by her husband and infatuated with him, she can be both his best friend and his worst enemy — ready and almost eager to fight Abel’s battles for him. Gabel, meanwhile, is as weak as Chastain is strong, and continues to make things worse for himself — first taking a gun to work and then using it when his truck is targeted for a second time, causing a gunfight where there had previously only been fisticuffs and prompting an investigation spearheaded by Oyewolo’s district attourney. The three of them are never all onscreen together, but propel much of the plot between them regardless. A scene in which the DA’s department interrupt’s Anna’s daughter’s birthday party is one of the film’s best. Abel spends it moving boxes.

A Most Violent Year is something of a misnomer (A Most Trying Year might have been closer to the truth), but what Chandor’s film lacks in action it more than makes up for in nuance. Whether that’s endorsement enough I’ll leave up to you.

3-Stars

Whiplash (2015)

Whiplash-5547.cr2Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a freshman at Shaffer Conservatory, the foremost music college in the US, looking to improve and perhaps even one day equal his idol, Buddy Rich. His evenings are often spent at the cinema with his father (Paul Reiser), where after numourous visits he finally builds up the courage to ask usher Nicole (Melissa Benoist) out on a date. Neiman is forced to question his priorities, and his loyalties, however, when he earns a precarious place on Terence Fletcher’s (J K Simmons) prestigious band as an alternate. Fletcher expects his chosen musicians to work on his time and nobody elses, which doesn’t leave any time for friends or family — sacrifices his students are willing to make to stay on the band. Neiman gladly suffers verbal and physical abuse as Fletcher pushes him harder and harder, until he can no longer handle the pressure or the pain.

Ask someone whether they’ve seen the new Miles Teller film and you’ll either be met with bewilderment or ridicule. “What”, they’ll say, probably, “him from Project X and 21 & Over and Divergent? Why would anyone want to do that”. Unless, that is, they have. John Travolta made Pulp Fiction, Matthew McConnaughey made The Lincoln Lawyer and now Miles Teller has made Whiplash, a breakthrough and potentially career defining film which effectively wipes the slate clean and recasts him as a serious talent worthy of deeper consideration. Stripped of his fast-talking brogue and false bravado, the long heralded up-and-comer is finally able to connect with his audience on a more meaningful level. He also shows incredible technical prowess, convincing unquestionably as an aspiring drummer with years of practice under his belt and the dedication necessary to keep at it for as long as it takes. It’s a very physical performance — roughly five parts proficiency to one part perspiration — and Teller makes it look as hard as possible, but on purpose.

That J K Simmons is equally impressive as infamous Shaffer composer Terence Fletcher is perhaps less of a surprise, particularly given his scene-stealing turn as an angry editor in Sam Raimi’s Spider-man films and his general high standard of work elsewhere, but his performance is no less of a pleasure to watch. Shaved bald and dressed all in black, Fletcher cuts an intimidating figure; whether he’s throwing chairs at people or simply scrutinising an unfortunate player he commands an unparalleled and imposing presence for a man permanently dressed in a skin-tight black t-shirt. He’s not without his charms, and is even persuasively pleasant when inducting a new recruit or speaking to a friend’s daughter offstage, but such moments of respite are both fleeting and few and far between. Fletcher and Neiman don’t so much share chemistry as an electric charge, and when they are onscreen together the film is volatile and unpredictable — supporting characters can and do get hurt, while Neiman spends much of the film nursing unhealing wounds. He’s an unstoppable force, and he’s just met an immovable object.

It seems Whiplash showed promise from the very beginning, with writer-director Damien Chazelle’s original 85-page screenplay first earning a place on the 2012 Black List and then garnering rave reviews when a shorter version was filmed and finally unveiled at Sundance. In its finished form it is very special indeed; like Black Swan or even Foxcatcher it explores the sacrifices a performer is willing to make in their pursuit of perfection, and the role of their mentors in helping them achieve it. Though it might not quite compare to the former, which made much more of the psychological effects of such intensive training and dogged determination, but it easily outmatches the latter. What marks it out is the fact that to Neiman at least they don’t feel like sacrifices — he only surrenders a single tear. As Fletcher explains, he doesn’t see his methods as extreme but necessary; without sufficient influence the world risks depriving the next generation of contemporary genius. It’s a compelling argument, enhanced by Simmons’ charismatic delivery, but Chazelle isn’t quite convinced, choosing to intervene when Neiman’s arc falls short of full-circle. The ending is exhilarating, intense and completely satisfying, if a little contrived.

Although referring to a piece of music used in the film, Whiplash might just as well refer to the physical effect of watching it. There is a ferocity, a velocity and a sheer concussive force to Chazelle’s film that isn’t so much breathtaking as winding. A shock to the senses then, but perhaps not much of a threat to the higher faculties.

4-Stars

Ex_Machina (2015)

Ex MachinaHaving apparently won a week away with his company’s CEO, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) whisked out to a remote island only to be dropped unceremoniously in an empty meadow. He finds Nathan (Oscar Isaac) a few miles away, in a windowless building, and after being granted security clearance at the door is given the grand tour not of his host’s holiday home but of an underground research facility. Nathan is developing a robot, and it’s Caleb’s job as competition winner to determine whether or not it possesses artificial intelligence. Over the course of a series of trails, Caleb interrogates Ava (Alicia Vikander) on everything from logic to likes and dislikes in order to identify a sense of self and hopefully sign off on one of the greatest scientific advancements in human history.

From celebrated screenwriter and first-time director Alex Garland, Ex_Machina is a meditation on what constitutes consciousness and whether or not it can ever be attributed to a machine. It’s a smart script, and Garland both introduces and implements the Turing test — the literal imitation game, developed by Alan Turing to help discern whether a specific machine can think — with remarkable authority and economy. He even goes to the trouble of second-guessing his paradigm, as if pre-empting not just critical but peer review, and through Caleb’s conversations with Nathan elaborates on his experiment’s design. Caleb asks why Ava should resemble an attractive human female and not something more along the lines of HAL or R2D2, to which Nathan replies that consciousness might actually have its basis in sex and gender. What is the biological imperative for a self-concept, if not to encourage reproduction?

Even if you can’t tell your Alan Turings from your Benedict Cumberbatches, Ex_Machina will likely still intrigue. The central conceit — that Caleb is alone in the laboratory and doesn’t know who to trust, Frankenstein or Frankenstein’s monster — is a good one, and the performances are ambiguous enough to keep you guessing well into the third act. Gleeson overcomes a pointless American accent (isn’t everyone in the United States at least a quarter Irish anyway?) to impress as Caleb, both as an innocent and — as his week in Nathan’s lab goes on — as someone complicit in a crime of (com)passion. Isaac is great too, playing yet another arrogant, layabout genius but with just enough drive and dynamism to distinguish him from Llewyn Davis. You’re forever asking just how much he knows, what his desired endgame might be and if it is just Ava who is being tested; whether he is in fact capable of greatness is never in question.

Whatever happens to be the case with Ava, and it wouldn’t do to divulge too much, it goes without saying that Vikander passes with flying colours. Her performance augmented by some of the finest effects work $20 million can buy, Vikander quickly conquers the uncanny valley, perfectly maintaining a balance between her own humanity and her character’s artificiality. She is by turns beautiful, curious and really quite intimidating, particularly as she plays with other characters’ perceptions either by putting on clothes or removing sections of synthetic skin. Ex_Machina is at its most powerful and provocative, however, when Ava’s gender is brought front and centre. Sexbots are not unusual in science-fiction, but they are used to particularly disturbing effect here; when Ava begins to flirt during the experiment the atmosphere doesn’t just change in the laboratory but in the cinema, while the (mal)treatment of an earlier model is not just unsettling but genuinely upsetting. This may be a film about robots, but it is human nature that is very much under the microscope.

While the finale might lack the power it perhaps deserves, largely due to the conclusions now particularly following from the original propositions, Ex_Machina is for the most part as engaging as it is entertaining. It’s got everything a great sci-fi needs. Well, except perhaps Scarlett Johansson.

4-Stars

Wild (2015)

WildIn 1995, after years of substance- and self-abuse, Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) decided to walk the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada, a distance of 2,654 miles along the Sierra Nevada, in the hope of remaking herself as the woman her mother (Laura Dern) raised. Over the next few months, Strayed will cross three states, lose shoes and toenails, encounter desert, woodland and snowbanks, and slowly come to terms with her latent heroine addiction, her failed marriage to ex-husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski) and her mother’s untimely death. Forced to skip a portion of the trail due to hazardous weather conditions, she resolves to finish not at the proscribed terminus but at the Bridge of the Gods, 1,1oo miles from her starting point.

Following in the footsteps of Tracks, John Curran’s account of Robyn Davidson’s 1,700 mile trek from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean, Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild finds another intrepid young woman inspired by circumstance to wander alone in the desert, this time California’s Mojave as opposed to the Australian outback. For Cheryl Strayed, however, the reasons for her journey are slightly different; motivated not by generational malaise but personal trauma, Strayed (originally Nyland, but later changed — rather masochistically, it must be said — when she cheated on her husband) is seeking to redeem herself in her own eyes, and in the eyes of her late mother. Although just twenty-six when she embarked on the PCT, she had already endured a lifetime of anguish, and through flashbacks screenwriter Nick Hornby explores what Strayed herself has since dubbed her genesis story.

These parallel narratives — a feature inherited from Strayed’s own source material — isn’t the only major difference between the films, with Hornby giving voice to Strayed’s internal dialogue where Marion Nelson left Mia Wasikowska’s performance speak for itself. It’s perhaps Wild‘s signature flourish, its writer employing a hypnotic, free-associative style which not only helps to unpack Strayed’s psychological hang-ups for the audience but give her personal breakthroughs greater resonance and power. It’s disorientating to begin with, as Strayed’s thoughts — and John Mac McMurphy and Martin Pensa’s edits — cut unconsciously from one memory to the next, but then elucidation facilitates reconciliation, however vicarious, as the protagonist begins to work through and eventually come to terms with these various traumas. Most people talk to themselves when alone, and Wild does a terrific job of recreating these apparently random utterances while also using them to develop Strayed’s character.

Witherspoon is entirely convincing in the role, and though she obviously didn’t recreate the journey in full (or even in significant part) she does an impeccable job of capturing the hardships and rewards of walking a long distance footpath. The opening scene, in which Strayed delicately teases a broken toenail, is suitably wince-inducing, while her amazement that a fellow hiker is managing twenty miles a day or when he later gives up is priceless. Vallee doesn’t shy away from the darker truths either, and stays faithful to the fears and unfortunately the reality women often face when they choose to walk alone. In flashback, it’s Dern that impresses most; Witherspoon admirably bares all, both emotionally and physically, but Dern manages a heart-breaking honesty with half as much effort. Her death, and the scenes following it, are haunting enough onscreen; it’s no wonder Strayed felt the need to hike a hundred miles in reality.

That said, for all of its suffering and self-discovery Wild ultimately lacks the simple beauty of Tracks. The scenery is no less sensational and Strayed’s achievements just as great, but the motivational ambiguities (despite often exhaustive detail) are no match for Robyn Davidson’s single-minded determination. It never feels quite as wild.

3.5-Stars

American Sniper (2015)

American SniperDiscontent with his life as a rodeo cowboy, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) joins the Navy SEALs — prompting younger brother Colton (Max Charles) to sign up too — and is soon deployed to Iraq as a sniper. Over the next ten years he serves four tours away from wife Taya Renae (Sienna Miller) and his family, is promoted to Chief Petty Officer and is dubbed the most lethal sniper in US military history for his efforts, with 160 confirmed kills. Having earned a degree of notoriety among both allied and enemy forces, Chris’ attempts to identify and eliminate a figure known only as The Butcher are hampered by the price he has on his head — a reward assiduously sought by a Syrian master sniper (Sugar Shane) who is renowned for his ability to hit a target from over a mile away. Having developed something of a hero-complex, Chris feels increasingly uncomfortable when Stateside and unable to protect his friends on the battlefield.

Based on real events, or rather those recounted in Chris Kyle’s best-selling autobiography American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, Clint Eastwood’s latest is a meditation on what it means to be an American, a soldier and a hero. Neither quite celebratory or condemnatory, it instead explores the stark reality of modern warfare, in which the sniper must trust his instincts and yet remain accountable for his actions. Unlike most war movies it doesn’t limit itself to the overseas conflict alone, and though many of the film’s more potent scenes are seen through Chris’ cross-hairs just as many are coloured by his concerned wife, trying to raise a family back in Texas where the day-to-day dramas are less life-or-death but just as difficult to those enduring them. It’s a question of perspective, and Eastwood isn’t blind to the importance of family.

Although his main character might have started out as a cowboy, the director has little time for the bravado that proliferates in his chosen genre. When we meet Cooper’s character he’s perched on a crumbling rooftop with a child in his sights, attempting to decide if the object in the little boy’s hands is incendiary or perfectly innocent. It’s a stomach-churning scene, as the weight of Chris’ decision weighs heavily on all who are witness to it (bar his spotter, who gets a rollocking for his snark), and is later reprised after a flashback to his Texas upbringing, replete with rifles and rodeo. Chris couldn’t be any more American if he tried, but Eastwood just about tows the line between patriotism and propaganda; by pitting Chris’ duty to his country against his duty to his family the director is able to question his priorities without ever criticising them. American Sniper asks: is Chris nobly saving his squad and protecting his own family or is he simply killing foreigners and tearing theirs’ apart unnecessarily?

As tense and provocative as American Sniper often is, however, it never really gets to grips with the story it wishes to tell, and Eastwood slowly loses his impartiality as he slips into cliche. Being adapted from a memoir, it’s only natural that the film doesn’t necessarily follow a dramatically satisfying arc with clearly identifiable themes but there is an uncertainty to it that is nevertheless disappointing. Although measured, Chris is ultimately being immortalised, and this being such a sensitive and recent true story it is perhaps only natural that the man and his actions aren’t subjected to the scrutiny that they perhaps should be. American Sniper doesn’t seem particularly interested in context, or indeed the wider war, and as compelling as Cooper is in the lead role such a narrow view of one of the most complicated conflicts of the modern age is never fully justified. By sidelining the enemy so completely it’s impossible to judge Chris accordingly, and without due development it’s easy to forget that Chris is killing human beings. (They’re not all threatening children with electric drills.) Forgivable — perhaps even desireable — in the theatre of war, but not in the cinema.

Although better than many of his more recent efforts, American Sniper does not quite mark a return to form for Clint Eastwood. It’s a question of one man’s legacy versus another’s legitimacy, and his answer doesn’t exactly convince; Cooper and Miller both perform admirably, and the direction is deft and direct, but without an obvious target the film doesn’t really know where to aim.

3-Stars

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