The Theory Of Everything (2015)

The Theory of EverythingWhile studying Cosmology at Cambridge University, Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) runs into Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones) at a house party with his classmates. He and Jane begin dating, but both their relationship and his studies suffer a setback when Stephen is diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease and given just two years to live. Jane, however, refuses to give up on him, and soon they are married with children. Stephen also resumes his work, graduating and remaining on at Cambridge as an Honourary Fellow to study the origins of time. As Stephen’s condition deteriorates and his workload increased, Jane seeks help and companionship from her choirmaster, Jonathon Jones (Charlie Cox), while advances in speech generation software lead to Stephen spending more and more time with his nurse, Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake).

Basically in some form of development since 1988, when screenwriter Anthony McCarten was inspired by Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, The Theory of Everything didn’t really take shape until he had read Jane’s side of the story over a decade later. After all, as impressive and influential as Hawking’s theories and counter-theories have undoubtedly been, they are only half of an even greater story: as the Professor strove to further science, Stephen sought to beat it. Despite being told that he would be lucky to see 1965, Hawking is still alive today — and what a life he has lived. Two marriages, three children and countless honours and awards later, Hawking is one of the most popular and prodigious scientists working today — having done wonders for disability outreach, experienced zero gravity aboard a Vomit Comet and appeared on both The Simpsons and Futurama.

No film was ever going to do his accomplishments — both personal and professional — complete justice, but director James Marsh gives it his best shot. He’s hired an impressive cast, and between them Redmayne and Jones carry not only the film but the weight of responsibility that comes with representing living subjects. Redmayne arguably has the more difficult job, required as he is to not only mimic Stephen’s progressive disability but convey the necessary emotion too. It’s an incredibly physical performance, and one that is as much about what he can’t do as it is about what he can. That said, Jones does tremendous work as Jane, the actress never letting you forget how important a role the one-time Mrs Hawking played in her husband’s life, or how much of that work was taken for granted. She’s as effervescent as ever in their earlier scenes together at Cambridge, but beautifully conveys the selflessness and sacrifices necessary to support her other half. It weights heavily not just on her shoulders but her very soul; and you can really feel the burden.

And yet, for the towering strength of those central performances and the respect afforded to the true story there is something lacking from The Theory of Everything. Bookended by scenes at Buckingham Palace where Stephen and Jane reunited to receive an honour from the Queen (and ending with the fact that Hawking then went on to refuse his knighthood, for unexplained political reasons) the film never really feels like a complete story — the choice of beginning and end feel completely arbitrary. What’s more, Marsh doesn’t do enough to distinguish his film from reality, and many of the scenes — particularly those in auditoriums and lecture theatres — don’t feel cinematic at all. It’s a peculiar film, and one that never truly justifies itself as an isolated narrative in its own right. Unlike Hawking’s scientific work, The Theory of Everything lacks purpose and falls short of making any significant conclusions. This may be intentional, perhaps as a comment on the disorder of human relationships against the structure of atomic or sub-atomic particles but it’s unsatisfying regardless. And that’s not to suggest that Marsh is immune to melodrama either: his decision to inter-cut Stephen’s hospitalisation with pneumonia with Jane and Jonathan’s first entanglement feels cheap and intrusive.

Although undoubtedly impressive, The Theory of Everything never quite surpasses its central performances. This doesn’t feel like the definitive telling of the Hawking story — either Hawking. Only time will tell what happens next.

3.5-Stars

Big Hero 6 (2015)

Big Hero 6In downtown San Fransokyo, 14-year-old Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) is making quite the name for himself — and a fair amount of pocket money — as an illicit robot fighter. Worried for his younger brother’s future, university student Tadashi (Daniel Henney) takes him along to the campus’ robotics laboratory to try and inspire him to put his talents to better use and perhaps even enroll himself. Before Hiro can register, however, a fire breaks out at an annual exhibition killing Tadashi. Hiro’s pain activates Baymax (Scott Adsit), a personal healthcare robot Tadashi was developing when he died, and the two bond over an investigation into the fire’s origins that Baymax believes will aid the healing process. Together with his brother’s old classmates — GoGo Tomago (Jamie Chung), Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr), Honey Lemon (Génesis Rodríguez) and Fred (T J Miller) — Hiro and Baymax confront the man they believe to be responsible for Tadashi’s death.

The 54th film in the Disney Classics series, following 2013’s indomitable Frozen, Don Hall and Chris Williams’ Big Hero 6 is the first to draw from Marvel Comics’ extensive back catalogue, which the studio acquired in 2009. It is a loose adaptation of a relatively obscure title created by Steven T Seagle and Duncan Rouleau, with the film’s screenwriters severing ties with the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe (as well as Sony’s Spider-man and Fox’s X-Men) in order to focus on the relationship between a young boy and his late brother’s legacy. Disney and Marvel, however, make for awkward bedfellows; the first act is an overcomplicated mess of technobabble and schmaltz as the film tries to meet the demands of two very different audiences, one expecting traditional fairytale values while the other anticipates pixilated superhero spectacle. However, while Pixar can condense and concentrate a life-time of love and loss into a ten minute montage or serve up space-faring set pieces at a moment’s notice their parent company can’t help but make a meal of it.

Fortunately, once the introductions, motivations and machinations are out of the way the characters and relationships begin to speak for themselves. This change roughly coincides with the arrival of Baymax, at which point the pace, the tone and the energy of the piece all pick up considerably. In the space of a single scene Hiro has found a renewed purpose, the film has reconciled its competing codas and audiences have a new favourite robot. From the moment he squeaks onto screen, squeezing past Tadashi’s bed and knocking over all of his books, an icon is born. A cross between an airbag and an iPod, Baymax — who bears little resemblance to the Battle Dragon from the source material– is completely irresistible, proving a consistently amusing presence in his own right while simultaneously bringing out the best in everyone around him. Hiro’s exchanges with Baymax are hilarious, honest and heartfelt; the complete opposite of his trite altercations with Tadashi. Indeed, their best scenes together — in Hiro’s bedroom diagnosing puberty; reporting a preposterous crime to a skeptical police officer; returning home apparently drunk and disorderly — go some way towards compensating for their worst scenes apart.

And then, two acts too late, Big Hero 6 suddenly remembers that it’s supposed to be a superhero movie. Having already upgraded Baymax with Iron Man-esque technology, Hiro turns his attention to what had previously been little more than the supporting cast. GoGo Tomago, Wasabi, Honey Lemon and Fred are all eye-catching and unique characters (though apparently from the Power Rangers school of colourisation), but given that they each constitute one sixth of the eponymous super-team they feel more like canon fodder than core members. That said, they’re undoubtedly impressive in action, helping to ensure that each set piece is imbued with as much spirit as it is spectacle — Jamie Chung and T J Miller in particularly making the most of every line of dialogue. Ultimately, however, this is Hiro’s story and Baymax’s movie, and inevitably it all comes back to them. The film has some surprisingly complex things to say about grief and maturity, and a number of twists and turns keep things interesting though the third act, but the appeal of their relationship is as much to do with flying really fast around the diverse and beautifully designed streets of San Fransokyo as it is about their capacity for foregrounding mental health and mortality.

A story of three halves, Disney’s latest struggles to define itself as either a family drama, a buddy comedy or a superhero origin story. By the time Baymax enters the fray and Hiro finally founds Big Hero 6 the film is already beset by structural issues that prevent it from ever really hitting its stride. It has its moments, undoubtedly, but in the end it’s neither an official Marvel film or a true Disney Classic.

3-Stars

Birdman (2014)

_AF_6405.CR2More than twenty years after Birdman 3 marked the end of his career as a superhero, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is still trying to rebuild his reputation as a serious actor. His latest and most drastic attempt involves staging an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” for which he will serve as writer, director and star. But while Riggan may be through with Birdman, Birdman isn’t quite through with him; as Riggan works to resolve conflicts with his esteemed co-star (Edward Norton), snooty New York Times critic Tabatha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan) and his estranged, drug addict daughter (Emma Stone), the spectre of Birdman works to undermine his self-confidence and erode his resistance to a fourth movie.

There’s nothing quite like Birdman; whether it’s cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s hypnotic long shots, editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione’s seamless stitching together of scenes or writer-director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s trans-narrative approach to storytelling, Birdman pushes boundaries until it defies categorisation altogether. As the camera follows Riggan in and around the theatre in what appears to be one uninterrupted take, with little distinction between on- and backstage drama, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction. As such, when the film opens with our (reluctant) hero levitating a few feet off the floor, it’s not entirely clear what exactly you’re looking at. Is Riggan imagining these powers or is he genuinely manifesting telekinetic abilities?

These powers continue to develop throughout the movie, as Riggan uses them to move various items with his mind and eventually take to the skies in full-blown flight (as you’ll have likely seen in the trailer). It’s also possible that he used them to incapacitate one of his weaker actors — though it might just as easily have been simple sabotage or coincidence. Now in need of a replacement he hires Mike, one of his other cast-members’ other halves who just happens to be a renowned method actor himself. Keaton and Norton are terrific together, their rivalry compelling in its own right but further enhanced by their obvious onscreen chemistry. This is ultimately Keaton’s film, but when Mark gives Riggan a crash course in acting Norton owns the scene. The whole ensemble deserves mention, though, with Andrea Riseborough and Naomi Watts impressing as their respective girlfriends, and Zach Galifianakis displaying real gravitas as Riggan’s lawyer-producer best friend.

Birdman can be enjoyed as a bravura and increasingly bizarre black comedy, but it also holds up to a little more scrutiny. Like Riggan Thomson, Michael Keaton is best known for playing a superhero. The parallels don’t end there either, as both hung up their cowls in 1992 and since struggled to either redefine themselves or recapture their early success. It’s clear that Iñárritu has something to say on the subject of superhero movies — Norton and Stone are no strangers to the genre, while Iron Man and X-Men: First Class are referenced in conversation — but it’s difficult to be completely certain what his message might actually be. To call Birdman an attack on the genre or those who engage with it seems overly simplistic, but it’s certainly raises a few pertinent questions. Iñárritu also has something to say about acting in general, about fame and fortune, and about those whose job it is to criticise the performances of others.

Birdman isn’t going to appeal to everyone — it’s unashamedly enigmatic and esoteric — but those willing to engage with it ought to find something to ponder and puzzle over. Rather than being the closing statement that many would like it to be, however, Birdman is merely the start of a much larger conversation. This isn’t a conclusion; it’s a curiosity.

4-Stars

Ten 2015 Movies I Could Take Of Leave…Preferably Leave

Since starting to blanket watch the latest releases — first to better serve customers while working in a cinema and later to inspire reviews for this blog — I have seen an incredible amount of dreck. Every year is the same, and yet each year I continue to watch films I know full well will be terrible — either out of unrelenting optimism (nothing pleases me more a pleasant surprise) or some misplaced sense of professionalism (nobody’s going to reprimand me for missing the new Transformers). I have already written a list of the films I am most looking forward to in 2015, so here’s a list of the films I’m not looking forward to at all.

The Divergent Series: Insurgent

InsurgentThey say that there are only seven stories in fiction, but everyone knows that when it comes to the emergent Young Adult genre the one usually suffices. Even so, the first Divergent film seemed especially derivative, with its dystopian districts (or factions), its annual sorting assemblies (or Choosing Ceremonies) and crazy games (or whatever they call that zip-line thingy). The second film looks set to take things to whole new levels of incomprehensible, as the preposterously named Tris Prior is subjected to another round of nonsensical tests — this time in a bid to open a mysterious box.

Get Hard

Get HardJust as there are actors whose developing careers you follow with interest, there are those whose ongoing success you can’t quite explain. Last year the most inexplicable of all was Kevin Hart: star of such torturous tripe as Ride Along and About Last Night. Hart has a number of films out in 2015 — among them Top Five and The Wedding Ringer — but to date Get Hard looks to be the worst of the lot.

Hot Tub Time Machine 2

HTTM2The first Hot Tub Time Machine was a mess of hackneyed but ultimately wholesome 80s nostalgia and the sort of mean-spirited bilge that’s gone on to supercede jokes in 21st Century comedy. The trailer sees Rob Corddry (deservedly) shot in the crotch, necessitating another trip to the eponymous jacuuzi so that he, Craig Robinson and Clark Duke can track down the shooter — this time travelling to the future. John Cusack has been replaced by Adam Scott, but even that’s not enough to win me around.

Insidious: Chapter 3/Sinister 2

Insidious 3The most exciting thing about Insidious and Sinister upon their respective ’10 and ’12 releases was that they were a bit different. At a time when the horror genre was dominated by sequels, remakes and reboots they dared to nightmare up something, if not new, then at least relatively novel. The fact that they have since gone on to produce franchises of their own (to be joined by the equally disappointing The Conjuring 2 in 2016) goes against everything that made the original films special. That they’re each starting fresh with new characters doesn’t help either.

Minions

MinionsWith Gru having gone it alone in Foxcatcher, it seems that his minions have been left to their own devices. Minions will see his little henchthings serve some of the most famous villains in history — Genghis Khan, Napoleon, and Dracula (haha…ha, get it? Hilarious) — before auditioning for the big bad of the 1960s: Scarlet Overkill. Unfortunately, with the synopsis promising a “threat to all minions” it’s sounds an awful lot like Penguins of Madagascar, which doesn’t bode well for Universal Pictures. After all, the original Despicable Me was practically identical to another DreamWorks Animation — Megamind — only inferior in just about every way.

Terminator Genisys

TerminatorThat title! For all Terminator Salvation‘s many, many flaws, at least it managed to spell its title correctly. How do you pronounce it? What does it mean? For goodness’ sake, why? Terminator fans are used to second-guessing the franchise — its timeline alone poses a number of unanswerable questions — but this is the first time they’ll be scratching their heads before the start of the movie. Good thing Hurricane Bale’s no longer involved, or the person who thought Genisys up would likely be in for a battering.

Fantastic Four

With the superhero genre reaching saturation point — there are as many as thirty comic book movies due out in the next five years — it takes a special kind of alien/mutant/billionaire-playboy-philanthropist to stand out. Fantastic Four couldn’t even distinguish itself in the years before Marvel Studios (and its MCU) had monopolised the genre, and there is no evidence to suggest that the reboot will be any different. It’s hard to remember a film that has generated such negative buzz prior to release (even Tim Story’s sequel was given the benefit of the doubt), and when even the amazing Spider-man can’t guarantee box office success you really need every positive word you can get. It’s out in August and we’ve not even had a poster yet.

London Has Fallen

London Has FallenI haven’t seen the first one admittedly, but with only ten months to go until the release of the sequel I can’t imagine myself having the time or the inclination to catch up with it in time.

Spectre

SpectreSkyfall was great. Really great. After one of the most pointless reboots imaginable — and whether you liked Casino Royale or not, there’s no denying that Quantum of Solace undermined it completely — Eos’ James Bond franchise had arguably the most convoluted and confused continuities in cinema (while also being the most inconsistent in terms of quality). Nevertheless, screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan managed to mark the 50th anniversary of Dr No in style, with a celebration of the character, concept and iconography that felt not only coherent but conclusive. It had taken twenty three attempts to get it right but the studio had finally produced the definitive 007 movie. Although director Sam Mendes was subsequently tempted back for another instalment, it already feels like a compromise. Do we really have go through all this again?

Ten 2015 Movies That Can’t Come Quickly Enough

I have terrible taste in movies, or so I’m regularly told. But given that three of last year’s predictions made it into my Top 10 of 2014 (up from two in 2013) it would seem that I’m getting better. What’s more, just because Step Up: All In wasn’t quite as good as Under The Skin or Boyhood doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy it immensely.

There are a lot of big films due out over the next twelve months, and while the majority look very promising indeed there are only a select few that I am actively anticipating. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched the trailers for the following (where trailers are available), but I can tell you it’s more than all of the as yet unreleased-in-the-UK awards contenders combined.

Scroll down for my list of the ten 2015 films that can’t come quickly enough. At this rate, four of them might actually be worth the wait.

Kingsman: The Secret Service

KingsmanKick-Ass was one of my favourite movies of 2010, and while X-Men: First Class may have left me slightly cold the prospect of Matthew Vaughn making another comic book movie is still an appealing one, especially as Kingsman: The Secret Service will see him reunite with Mark Miller for another spoof, this time of suave spy thrillers in the Bond mould. The film — co-written with regular collaborator Jane Goldman — stars Colin Firth, Samuel L Jackson and newcomer Taron Egerton, and by the looks of the trailer a woman with swords for legs.

Big Hero 6

Big Hero 6Twelve months on and umpteen million renditions of ‘Let It Go’ later, Disney’s Frozen still isn’t getting old. (OK, maybe a little — but it’s still better than Tangled.) Even if it is wearing a little thin, however, rest assured that the studio’s next film, Big Hero 6, couldn’t be more different if it tried: a sci-fi adventure featuring little-known Marvel Comics characters, it swaps sisters for brothers and princesses for superheroes. Released last year in the US, following appearances at Toronto and Abu Dhabi Film Festivals, it has already opened to critical acclaim and box office success.

Jupiter Ascending

Jupiter AscendingNot every film on this list is based on a comic book, though the Wachowskis are admittedly no strangers to the genre. Jupiter Ascending marks their first original screenplay since The Matrix Revolutions, following a string of adaptations. It follows an unassuming cleaner and a very assuming wolfman-from-outer-space as they attempt to outrun an alien prince on rocket roller-blades. It sounds insane, even for The Wachowskis, but if it’s half as good as Cloud Atlas then it could be the film to beat this year. (It made this list last year but was pushed back to February 2015.)

The Signal

The SignalEvery list needs a wildcard (or a wilder card), and with an IMDb rating of just 6.2 The Signal could well be it. Another film with links to The Matrix, The Signal stars Lawrence Fishbourne in full Morphius mode as the head of an underground research facility tasked with mentoring a messiah, this time in the form of Brenton Thwaites (previously seen in just about every film released last year). The film earned some promising reviews when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival back in January 2014, and the trailer is very intriguing indeed.

The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out Of Water

SpongebobDespite never having watched a single episode of the long-running, kids-turned-cult television series, nor the by all accounts bonkers 2004 movie with David Hasselhoff, the trailer for The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out Of Water nevertheless has me hook, line and sinker. The only trailer to out-crazy Jupiter Ascending, Spongebob’s serves up two and a half minutes of the silliest, surrealist and squarepantsiest action comedy imaginable. After all, it stars Antonio Banderas as a pirate who forces a sponge, a starfish and a squirrel to leave their pineapple under the sea and become superheroes in order to retrieve a secret burger recipe.

Avengers: Age Of Ultron

AvengersNone less than the eleventh instalment in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, Age of Ultron reunites Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye for the first time since they had shwarma together at the end of 2012’s The Avengers. Never one for resting on his or anybody else’s laurels, returning director Joss Whedon is set to grow the roster by three as Vision, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver join the fight against the titular antagonist. Presumably they’ll be facing off against one another first.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad MaxOstensibly a sequel to the original trilogy rather than a straight reboot, Mad Max: Fury Road managed to escape the blind vitriol and automatic animosity usually reserved for 21st Century reimaginings of 80s genre flicks — even though director George Miller has recast the role (with Tom Hardy taking over from Mel Gibson). In fact, there seems to be genuine excitement for it. This is perhaps less surprising when you consider just how astonishing the various trailers have so far been.

Jurassic World

Jurassic WorldJurassic Park 4 has been on the cards for years, and while always a juicy prospect it wasn’t until Colin Trevorrow was chosen to direct and Chris Pratt was cast as star that Jurassic World evolved into something truly exciting. The new film may share little connective tissue with the original trilogy (only supporting actor BD Wong is set to return) but the designs glimpsed in the trailer made it clear that the similarities would nevertheless be unmistakeable. Featuring all new dinosaurs (to both the series and science itself) the film promises brave new things.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star WarsWhile the prequel trilogy may have disenfranchised some, it did little to diminish my own love for Star Wars. Looking forward instead of back, J J Abrams’ Episode VI promises to reunite audiences with their childhood heroes for another go at the dark side — this time with lens flares as well as lightsabres with which to wage war. Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher are all back, alongside mainstays Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker and Peter Mayhew, and they are joined by newcomers John Boyega, Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver. Oh, and the Millennium Falcon’s back too. I have a good feeling about this.

Victor Frankenstein

Daniel Radcliffe’s ongoing attempts to distance himself from Harry Potter have produced some remarkable results. Even so, Paul McGuigan’s Victor Frankenstein has always been the most enticing project, not least for the mixed reports variously pitching it as a horror, a comedy and a romance. All we really know for sure is that Radcliffe is set to play Igor opposite James McAvoy’s Frankenstein, and that the script is from none other than Chronicle scribe Max Landis. All we need now is a poster.

What are you looking forward to?

December 2014 – Charlize, they’re on the machine!

Men Women and Children PosterAnd so that was 2014. I’ve already published my list of films of the year, but I’m hardly going to let that stop me from picking my film of the month.

I started December with Men, Women & Children, which counter to the critical consensus immediately overtook the likes of Under The Skin and The LEGO Movie to top the aforementioned list of the best 2014 films. Not unusually, it spoke to me in a way that it didn’t anyone else (i.e. not condescendingly) and I haven’t really stopped thinking about it since.

Next up was Penguins of Madagascar, the long-awaited — nee long overdue — spin-off from DreamWorks Animations flagship Madagascar franchise. While not quite as good as it should have been, it was still reliably riotous and one of the smartest spin-offs in years.

December then dropped the ball, with both The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies and Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb ending their respective trilogies on an all-time low. Note to filmmakers: not everything has to be a franchise. Sometimes one film is enough.

Luckily, this lull was short-lived, as everything else I saw this month — both current and future releases — had at least something to offer. Life Itself ranked sixth among my films of the year, while Exodus: Gods and Kings and Unbroken just failed to break into my top twenty.

Stay tuned for more from Popcorn Addiction (and @popcornaddict) in the New Year, starting with my review of Birdman in the next few days. For now though, Happy Hogmanay and all the best for 2015. Let’s just hope the Force is strong with this one.

Film of the Month: Men, Women & Children

Films of the Year – 2014

It has been a particularly strong year for cinema, both blockbuster and indie. There have of course been disappointments along the way, but 2014 has been bolstered by a reinvigorated superhero genre, whip-smart animations and accessible foreign fare. It was a good year for the Brit-flick (Postman Pat: The Movie notwithstanding), an interesting twelve months in Australian filmmaking (The Rover sits just outside my top twenty) and high time for some cinematic introspection (even Step Up: All In had something to say about reality television and celebrity culture). Most importantly, however, it’s been glorious fun. Scroll down to see my pick of the most thoughtful, emotional and entertaining films of the year. Haha, awesome!

10. Pride

Pride film stillBased on a true story, Pride dramatises the unlikely alliance of the LGBT community and a Welsh mining village in protest against Tory spending cuts to tremendously rousing effect. Though fundamentally uplifting, director Matthew Warchus doesn’t underestimate or undermine the obstacles that stood in either group’s way.

09. Noah

Noah 2014The story of Noah’s Ark may be a Sunday school favourite, but Darren Aranofsky’s adaptation is no nursery rhyme. Mining the fairy tale for unseen dramatic depth, it is a brutal tale of obsession, egomania and entitlement that ends in exile, attempted murder and alcoholism. Amen.

08. How to Train Your Dragon 2

HTTYD2 2014Four years ago Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders’ How To Train Your Dragon topped my list of the best films of 2010. The sequel — this time directed by DeBlois alone — came very close to doing so again, thanks to its emotional performances, spirited score and unparalleled 3D animation.

07. Boyhood

Boyhood 2014Eleven years in the making, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is a film like no other. Documenting the development of Mason Evans, Jr. (and Ellar Coltrane, who plays him) from boy to man, it condenses and in many ways concentrates the aging process in a manner that is both inspiring and utterly heart-breaking.

06. Life Itself

Life Itself 2014Although perhaps best known as part of a double act, Roger Ebert was still remarkable in his own right. Steve James’ documentary explores his subject’s formative years, his international, multi-media success as a film critic and his almost decade-long battle with terminal cancer with an honesty that makes the story accessible to all.

05. X-Men: Days of Future Past

Days of Future Past 2014It’s safe to say that nobody went into Bryan Singer’s third X-Men movie expecting very much. Since X2 the series had staggered and stagnated, spreading itself paper thin and rendering itself almost unintelligible through endless spin-offs, retcons and reboots. Not only did Singer manage to create one of the best superhero movies ever, however, but retroactively consolidate and even exonerate a franchise that had apparently passed its prime.

04. Tracks

Tracks 2014Based on a memoir which was in turn based on a National Geographic article, John Curran’s Tracks told the true story of Robyn Davidson, a disillusioned Australian woman who in 1977 walked 1,700 miles from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean. Tracks is remarkable not only for its story, its minimalist script and its beautiful cinematography, but for Mia Wasikowska’s transformative central performance.

03. Under the Skin

Under the Skin 2014It’s been quite a year for Scarlett Johansson, but while the traditionally indie actress managed to prop up tentpole movies such as Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Lucy it was in Jonathan Glazer’s low-budget, high-concept Under the Skin that she truly excelled. By turns sexy, sympathetic and terrifically sinister, it’s a performance that mesmerised almost everyone who witnessed it. This adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel also boasts the best soundtrack of the year and an ending that will haunt you long into the next.

02. The LEGO Movie

The Lego Movie 2014How To Train Your Dragon 2 may have boasted the best animation of 2014 but The LEGO Movie is its best animated movie. Simultaneously satirising consumer culture and embracing it, writer-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller both have their cake and eat it. With a top-notch voice cast, cameos from some of cinema’s most iconic characters and a gag rate that most live-action comedies would give their whoopie-cushions for, The LEGO Movie is the very definition of family entertainment.

01. Men, Women & Children

Men Women & Children 2014Unfairly dismissed by most who saw it, Men, Women & Children has to be the most underrated and misunderstood film of the year. It may not be realistic, or even particularly subtle, but where would cinema be without the occasional suspension of disbelief? Using Pale Blue Dot as reference point, Jason Reitman asks pertinent and even prescient questions about our place in the universe — whether the abstract or exotic realities we forge online or the insignificant little galaxy that we call home in RL. Ansel Elgort and Adam Sandler, meanwhile, give the performances of their respective careers.

11. Guardians of the Galaxy, 12. Paddington, 13. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, 14. Fury, 15. Next Goal Wins, 16. Frank, 17. The Babadook, 18. The Riot Club, 19. Lone Survivor, 20. Starred Up

Unbroken (2014)

UnbrokenHaving ran his way to 8th place in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Louis “The Torrance Tornado” Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) enlists in the United States Army Air Corps where he receives the rank of Second Lieutenant. When his Bombardier is shot down during a routine rescue mission, Louis finds himself adrift at sea with Russell Phillips (Domnhall Gleeson) and Francis McNamara (Finn Wittrock). For forty-six days the three survivors fend for themselves, first killing a seagull and when it proves inedible baiting its entrails to fish for something a little more palatable. They are eventually rescued by the Japanese, at which time Louis is interred in a Japanese Prisoner of War camp run by Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe (Miyavi) where he labours for the enemy.

Produced and directed by none other than Angelina Jolie, the film is an adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 non-fiction book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption about the real-life Zamperini. Considering this is only Jolie’s second directorial effort, after In The Land of Blood and Money, it’s notably accomplished. After all, she’s working from a Coen brothers script (Ethan and Joel having collaborated with Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson), has hired Roger Deakins as her cinematographer and confidently amassed an impressive cast of rising stars. Sadly, however, Unbroken isn’t quite the sum of its parts.

Essentially three stories in one — namely how a young immigrant came to represent America in the Olympics; a tale of record-breaking survival at sea; and a story of torture and torment at the hands of a Japanese officer — Unbroken can’t help but labor its point: Louis Zamperini is made of sturdy stuff. Any one of these narratives might have made a fine film — as we have undoubtedly seen with Life of Pi and The Railway Man — but together they find themselves competing with rather than complimenting one another. The Olympics is the first casualty, awkwardly cut with an aerial attack when such a singular achievement deserves an audience’s undivided attention, but throughout the film structural decisions work to undermine not just the sheer scale of Louis’ ordeal but the scope of his myriad accomplishments.

Nevertheless, the cast give it their all, and while it’s never quite as powerful as it should be Unbroken is still a tough and touching watch. O’Connell has gone from strength to strength this year — even making an impression in 300: Rise of an Empire — and Jolie’s film sees him continue on that upward trajectory. He’s as charismatic and compelling as ever, but the nature of this particular role pushes and perfects his abilities more than ever before. Even at his most malnourished and mistreated Louis shines with the same intensity and survivor spirit that exemplified Starred Up‘s Eric, ’71‘s Gary or even Skins‘ James Cook. The rest of the supporting cast are just as memorable, with Gleeson and Wittrock rounding out an ensemble which also includes John D’Leo, Garrett Hedlund, Jai Courtney, Luke Treadaway and Japanese singer-songwriter Miyavi.

For all of its faults there is no denying that Unbroken is ultimately successful in its endeavour to do justice to the extraordinary life of Louis Zamperini — at least within the constraints of the cinematic medium. O’Connell is sometimes left to pick up the slack, but in such moments it only becomes clearer that he was the right man for the job. Regardless of however much pressure he may be experiencing O’Connell never falters, let alone breaks.

4-Stars

Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

ExodusOn an official visit to Pithom to meet with Viceroy Hegep (Ben Mendelsohn), Moses (Christian Bale) — adopted son of Seti I (a miscast John Turturro) and brother to Prince Ramesses (Joel Edgerton) — encounters a slave (Ben Kingsley) who reveals his true lineage: Moses himself was born a Hebrew slave. Following the Pharaoh’s death, the now King Ramesses confronts Moses about the rumour and banishes him to the desert. Nine years later, while living in exile with his wife and son in Midian, Moses is contacted by Malak (Isaac Andrews), a boy claiming to represent God. Following the encounter, Moses leaves Midian and returns to Egypt where he plans to use his military experience to train an army of slaves. When Ramesses refuses to grant his people’s freedom, Moses and Malak unleash an attack not just on Memphis but the entire country.

We all know not to judge a book by its cover, but when it comes to cinema we aren’t always as open-minded. The movie poster is an art form in itself, and it’s often the case that forgettable films are preceded by similarly uninspiring posters — whether it’s the infamous rom-com lean, the latest Brit-flick with a white background or whatever happens to be plastered to the nation’s buses. This year there has arguably not been a worse poster than that for Ridley Scott’s latest film, Exodus: Gods and Kings. Featuring its two leads rendered in an incongruous combination of grey-scale and gold, poorly photo-shopped onto a backdrop of cloudy skies and a black and white pyramid, it’s the sort of nightmarish image usually reserved for only the worst kind of straight-to-DVD rubbish.

It should come as a surprise then, that not only is Exodus: Gods and Kings competently coloured, composed and photographed, but it’s actually rather good. Scott may have fallen into disrepute following the one-two of Prometheus and The Councelor, but there’s no denying that he isn’t an esteemed director with more than a few classics to his name. Exodus may not reach the heights of Alien or Blade Runner (or even Gladiator), but it shows enough storytelling prowess and proves sufficiently intelligent to be considered seriously: not least for the strong performances given by Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton and an unrecognisable-in-all-but-lisp Ben Mendelsohn, the impressively implemented 3D special effects and the innovative and interesting approach taken by the director in adapting such a well-known story. Why does the river run red? Why, that would be the crocodile-eating crocodiles, of course.

If Darren Aronofsky’s Noah recast Genesis as a treatise on environmentalism then Scott’s film uses Exodus to discuss terrorism. He invites his audience to side with Moses, a freedom fighter who orders an attack not on Ramesses but on the latter’s people: those who serve his palace. When this proves ineffective, Moses turns to God for help. Innocent people are then subjected to a series of increasingly devastating plagues: first their water supply is tainted, then their crops fail and their livestock are culled, and finally their children are killed by a mysterious affliction. Many have criticised Scott’s decision to anachronistically cast Caucasian actors in Middle Eastern roles, but if his intention is to draw parallels between Western (predominantly white) excess and Egyptian godliness, or Jewish justice and Muslim jihad, then it serves him well. How are these attacks any different from those perpetrated by modern day terrorists? We may not have to worry about the wrath of God (‘theirs’ or ‘ours’); nowadays people don’t have to turn to the heavens for comparable weapons of mass destruction.

Then again, this is little more than interpretation and inference (on the part of someone with only a limited understanding of the Bible story itself); Scott might have had other intentions for his film, but the fact that Exodus: Gods and Kings is provoking such questions stands it in better stead than most. After all, Moses is an important character in a number of faiths, and whatever Scott’s intentions it is nigh impossible to comment on one iteration without commenting on others. Even as an atheist it is difficult to ignore the political, philosophical or moral implications of Scott’s film. This isn’t a parable; it’s a premonition.

3-Stars

Life Itself (2014)

Life ItselfChicago Sun-Times’ film critic Roger Ebert, born on June 18th, 1942, was perhaps best known for co-hosting At The Movies with longstanding foe-turned-friend Gene Siskel. Though his television work turned him into a national (and later international) celebrity, and conspired to make both he and Siskel synonymous with one another, he was also a remarkable individual in his own right. He has inspired filmmakers as diverse as Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog, raised a family with wife Charlie “Chaz” Hammelsmith at a time when interracial marriages were still controversial, and spent the last few years of his life battling a pervasive thyroid cancer that cost him his lower jaw. He saw himself as a character in his own movie and refused to deny himself a third act, watching and reviewing films until the end.

How do you make a good film about a film critic? After all, it’s difficult to make a protagonist compelling when they spend most of their time sitting alone in the dark watching stories about other people — and doing so surely constitutes a pretty thankless task when you consider that a large portion of your prospective audience is likely to be other critics. But Roger Ebert is not your average film critic: he was the first to win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, the first to be granted a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and now he’s the first to be the subject of an Academy Award-shortlisted documentary film. Steve James’ Life Itself is an adaptation of Ebert’s own memoir — published in 2011 — and was released a year after the latter’s death.

Ebert certainly makes for a fascinating study, with his friends — though always respectful — refusing to eulogise him as either a saint or an unfortunate soul. He was a recovering alcoholic, prone to petty hatred, and unpredictable, not least when he served as screenwriter on Russ Meyer’s critically condemned Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. James presses for answers on such questions of character, and Ebert’s responses are both honest and insightful. Naturally, Ebert’s death during production leaves some queries unanswered — perhaps most intriguingly his reasons of choosing Life Itself as a title, both for his memoir and the James’ film adaptation — but you still leave feeling that you have a better understanding of the man himself. Neither does James shy away from the illness that beset Ebert’s later life, and in addition to shedding light on a pop culture icon he also highlights a lesser known form of cancer; Ebert was adamant that they showed suction — an essential part of his daily routine –onscreen.

Of course, it’s difficult to do justice to a film critic without documenting at least some of the films covered over the course of their career, and James dedicates much of the second act to a selection of Ebert’s favourite films and most famous reviews. Ebert’s love of cinema is clear, whether from footage of on-air debates, anecdotal evidence about his time at Cannes or teaching film at the University of Chicago, or the memories offered by his friends and family — some of them more famous than others. It’s incredibly moving, particularly when his grandchildren reminisce about the films that he introduced them to and the reasons he gave for doing so. Even Herzog brings a tear to the eye. Like all the best documentaries Life Itself takes a relatively esoteric subject matter (not just film criticism, but one film critic in particular) and makes it interesting and essential to all. It is simply the story of human being, and that’s something that anyone should be able to relate to.

Whether you share Ebert’s tastes or not — heck, whether you love cinema or not — Life Itself is uplifting, upsetting and inspiring. How do you make a good film about a film critic? Just ask Steve James. This one gets two thumbs up from me.

5-Stars

 

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