Tuesday, 27 January 2015


(Alex Garland, 2015)

It's not a criticism of Ex Machina to say it resembles an extremely good episode of The Outer Limits stretched to feature length. In fact, it may be a compliment.
This provocative piece of science fiction, filled with ideas and founded around three strong characters makes for an intense, unsettling experience.
Domhnail Gleeson is Caleb, a coder at a hugely successful search engine company who wins a workplace lottery to spend a week at the isolated, beautiful estate of the reclusive founder-owner-genius Nathan (Oscar Isaac).  There he discovers that Nathan has created a robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander), and he wants Caleb to perform a turing test on it through conversation.
Writer-director and former novelist Garland has structured his debut like a novel; it is split, with onscreen titles pages, into days and once during each day Caleb has a conversation with Ava. Afterwards he hangs out with the Bro-like Nathan (who gets drunk late at night, and alternates detox and boxing a punchbag in the mornings), becoming increasingly disturbed and suspicious about his methodology and motivations. This may have something to do with the fact that he might in fact be falling in love with Ava, who is worryingly beautiful, and even seems to be flirting with him.
Gleeson and Isaac are brilliantly cast here, with the former's jumpy anxiety a fine contrast to the cocky intensity of the latter. Isaac gets the best speeches and the most interesting depths, and much of this film plays like a theatrical two-hander - intense exchanges and arguments between intelligent individuals about abstract ideas. Their dynamic is perfect; Isaac penetrating, patronising and deliberately cool. Gleeson struggling to retain any composure.
Vikander's Ava then, comes out of left field. First seen in silhouette, she makes a lovely electronic whirring noise as she moves. But she seems more and more human with each scene, though Vikander never loses the odd, alien quality she gives the character - there in the way she holds herself, the way she turns her head. She seems to fall for Caleb just as much as he has fallen for her, but the film is full of dire warnings of the consequences for her creation: early on, Caleb equates Nathan with a God (Nathan's deliberate (?) misremembering of this moment is a quiet comic highlight) , and later, Nathan speculates that one day A.Is will view humans as we regard fossils on the plains of Africa - dumb apes and their clumsy tools. All of this and the growing tension between the three characters (together with Nathan's silent maid, Kyoko) makes for a growing sense of unease. Garland's cinematographer, Rob Hardy, is a vital contributor here - he shoots Nathan's house-cum-research facility with long, muted tracking shots down corridors, plenty of oblique angles on Ava, observed and aware, in her room, the nearby vastness of the green mountainsides and waterfalls emphasising the isolation of these characters as their drama plays out.
And it is a drama which has a great ending that makes perfect sense and seems inevitable, in retrospect. As if nothing else could have happened, it could have gone no other way. That's what's in the eyes of the three principals in the climactic moments: This is how it always had to be.
Garland should have a hell of a career ahead of him.

Monday, 19 January 2015


(Clint Eastwood, 2014)

Fascinating, flawed, and fascinatingly flawed, American Sniper is by turns genuinely impressive and disgracefully shoddy. Based upon the autobiography of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) a Navy SEAL with the most confirmed kills of any sniper in US Naval history, it turns its focus chiefly upon Kyle's four tours of duty in Iraq, where he earned the nickname "the Legend" as he picked off insurgents and "military age" males from rooftops.
This is rich material for cinema, and Eastwood does some of it absolute justice. Some of it, however, feels incredibly lazy; a script riddled with horrendous cliches, an approach to the direction of many scenes that feels incredibly rote and casual, and not in a good way, alongside a slew of characters who serve no real narrative function. A good example are the many scenes set back home. The early scenes of Kyle as a boy, defending his brother from schoolyard bullies as a speech from his father on being a sheepdog in a world of wolves and sheep is intercut are one, barely acceptable thing, but the way every later scene seems set in a world of daytime soap ugliness and banality is another. The camera angles seem near-automatic, the lighting flat and colourless, the cuts sluggish. Perhaps Eastwood is making the point that this is how the world looks to Kyle after the hyper-adrenalised world of Iraq, but it seems more likely he is just coasting through large chunks of this film. His attention only really feels fixed upon his material in a handful of terrific set-pieces. Chief amongst these is the climactic firefight which erupts as a sand-storm rolls in, but the framing device wherein Kyle must decide whether or not to shoot a woman and boy he suspects of carrying a grenade is equally powerful.
This is, oddly enough, a sort of super-hero movie. Kyle's abilities are spooky, his prowess legendary among the grunts he sees himself as protecting. He has a couple of arch-enemies: his unit (wearing Punisher skull insignia) become engaged in a lengthy hunt for "the Butcher" and he develops a sort of personal duel with "Mustapha" a Syrian sniper fighting for Al Qaeda. He seems protected - literally above - the sort of fear that assails infantrymen fighting in the same conflict.
These scenes are interesting, often supremely gripping, darkly witty and exciting. And then Kyle returns home to his secret identity, his wife and children and little house in San Diego. Where Bigelow's The Hurt Locker beautifully established the disconnect it's protagonist felt Stateside in one or two brief scenes, Eastwood stretches the same sort of material out across the whole movie here as Kyle returns home, acts like all is well, feels guilty that he's not protecting his brothers in arms in Iraq, listens to his wife (Sienna Miller) complain about how distant he seems, experiences some awkward fatherly moments with his kids (in a couple of instances played by freaky fake robot babies) then goes back for yet another tour. Miller has an absolutely thankless role - whining in improbably articulate lectures about how hard all this is on her, looking frightened when a phone conversation with her husband is interrupted by a ferocious gun battle.
Cooper, however, is the best thing in the movie. There is no little political complexity here; Eastwood seems to avoid making any kind of statement, instead portraying the Iraq conflict as a war without much of a political dimension (which is of course a political dimension all of its own). He is instead concerned with the toll it takes on the men on the ground, and Cooper depicts that beautifully, something frightening sliding behind his face as the movie goes on, an emptiness which morphs into rage in inappropriate situations, his natural charm tweaked somewhat into something awkward and halting.
The post-script further complicates the political resonances here, and is a big part of what makes this film so interesting and (already) misunderstood.

Saturday, 17 January 2015


(Chad Stahelski, David Leitch, 2014)

John Wick achieves a strange sort of perfection.
It keeps certain elements blessedly simple; the plot, for example, finds former legendary assassin Wick (Keanu Reeves, arguably the leading action star of the last couple of decades in terms of pure strike rate - The Matrix, Speed and this is some action c.v...) brooding on the recent death of his beloved wife (a Bridget Moynihan seen only in flashback and on iphone videos). Prior to her death she has arranged for a puppy to be delivered to give him something to love, but when nasty Russian gangster (Alfie Allen) takes a fancy to Wick's vintage Mustang, a nocturnal invasion of his house leaves Wick badly beaten, without his car, and with a dead puppy.
Thus we have a revenge thriller, and you know it is going to be bloody by the response of the elder gangsters to the youngster's impulsive act - their terror of Wick evident in a few facial expressions and awed dialogue exchanges. After the first big action set-piece we realise that this film is set in a sort of comic book universe wherein the criminal underworld exists by a set of odd rules, trading gold coins for a body clean-up service or access to a hotel and bar called the Continental, where there is no violence or business permitted. That explains the heightened colours of the photography here, which is stylish and often beautiful.
Even more beautiful is the action choreography. Action scenes are often misleadingly labelled "balletic", when more usually they are chopped up and hyperactively edited for visceral impact. But this film - directed by two former stuntmen and second unit directors, who obviously intimately know their stuff - is shot like a classic musical. While the camera moves steadily, the takes are long and beautifully choreographed and blocked; combatants dart and tumble in and out of frame as Reeves despatches them in ludicrous numbers, generally with a pistol but also with his fists and feet, blades, assault rifles and even automobiles. There is a dark wit to some of this - notably in the inventive, quick solutions Wick improvises to certain problems in combat -and it is all incredibly satisfying on a couple of levels. It has the obvious pleasure of the righteous revenge film - they killed his puppy!! - and the satisfaction of watching action that is coherent, stylish and pleasingly impactful.
It goes on a little too long but it has lots of great character actors in minor roles (a couple of The Wire alumni, Willem Dafoe, Ian McShane and John Leguizamo all pop up), always looks and sounds beautiful, is brilliantly serious in its goofy silliness, and generally makes you wish every action film could be so good. It is also great to see Reeves embrace action, where he is effective as Liam Neeson; brawny, broody and elegant of movement, he is perfect here. And in those intricate, hilarious action scenes, it feels almost transcendent and tremendous; perfect.

Thursday, 15 January 2015


(Damien Chazelle, 2014)

A drama that plays like a gut-wrenching thriller, Whiplash is impressive in enough ways that its flaws cease to matter early on.
It tells the story of Andrew Neman (Miles Teller), a 19 year old music student at the prestigious Schaffer Institute in New York who wants to be the world's greatest jazz drummer. To that end, he craves the attention and approval of Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the leader of the Institute's house band and a fearsome taskmaster and moulder of talent. Fletcher notices him, drafts him into said band, and begins a campaign of attrition seemingly designed to break the young man, insulting and threatening him, humiliating him in front of peers and rivals, making him play until he literally bleeds onto his drums. Meanwhile Andrew alienates his sweet new girlfriend when he tells her she will only distract him from his quest to be "great", insults his fathers friends when they patronise his calling, and generally finds his life shrinking down to himself, Fletcher and his drum-kit. And then things get worse.
This is in every way a debut; it feels tightly controlled and planned in every particular the way debut films are, by hungry young filmmakers eager to make sure their first shot is the one. The screenplay is tight and a little too rote in parts; the scene where Andrew returns home seems as if it has been inserted just to show us what he is actually like, since up to this point we have mainly watched him react to things and people and heard relatively little from him about what he thinks or feels. It feels a little like the result of some feedback from a screenwriting seminar. Later on the story reaches a few silly heights, but it has you in it's grip then, and will not let go, for all the silly coincidences and unbelievable actions may strain your belief.
That should not diminish Chazelle's achievement; Whiplash is powerful, pitiless stuff. He shoots it mainly in tight, gorgeous close-ups and his colour palette is phenomenal and seems somehow to echo this romantic, lush music - deep crimsons, rich golden hues, chestnut backgrounds surround the faces, pooled in light. Cutaways and inserts give a real sense of the texture of life in a big band. The script is full of great lines, the majority given to Simmons, who tears away at Fletcher like his career depended on it. He is ferocious, witty, passionate, and he finally meets a match in Teller's blank-eyed slave to ambition and Buddy Rich. These duelling sociopaths would destroy everything in their path, but their own clash makes for terrific drama, and much of the credit has to go to the two actors, who are wonderful.
Chazelle orchestrates the tension beautifully - a few scenes are almost unwatchably intense, based on nothing more than human drama - and he knows when to let the music play too; Whiplash is filled with great tunes.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015


(Bennett Miller, 2014)

There is no air in Foxcatcher. That's mostly deliberate on the part of Bennett Miller, stretching out the tension in this quietly beautiful drama until we feel as if the movie itself might snap. As soon as John Du Pont (Steve Carrell) enters the story, we watch and wait for him to explode. He is a billionaire scion of an old American dynasty, and an obsession with Greco-Roman Wrestling leads him to establish his own training facility in the grounds of his huge estate. The first wrestler he recruits is Olympic Gold Medalist Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), and their relationship grows needy and complex even before DuPont recruits Dave (Mark Ruffalo), Mark's charismatic older brother and mentor. Eventually, the dynamic between the three becomes so difficult that somebody has to leave...or die...
For all the remarkable precision in Miller's filmmaking and the air of serious thematic import, Foxcatcher is a little silly in it's use of a fascinating true story to say some vague things about America, and its relationship with competitors and heroes. The good stuff is in the intimate close-up relationship material; the delicate familiarity of the relationship between the Schultz brothers, the way Du Pont never ever seems comfortable in his own skin and can barely have a normal conversation with another human being, the rush and complexities of wrestling and the athletes who live with it daily. The performances match the control of the direction. Ruffalo is brilliant, his body language alone a miraculous piece of acting. Tatum is a little more one-dimensional as the sulking ape, while Carrell does magnetic work as Du Pont. Magnetic but baffling - this film never once makes his actions explicable. Du Pont remains a mysterious enigma, bizarre and unknowable. Foxcatcher feels like it barely knows its subject.

Friday, 2 January 2015


(Alejandro Gonzalez Inarittu, 2014)

I liked almost every element of Birdman.
The big gimmick of the film - that it's been made to seem as if it has been shot in one long continuous take - starts off exhausting and nerve-wracking, but as the rhythm of the movie is established and stabilises, it works, becoming spontaneous, and jazzy; even witty in places. It is also crucially stunningly beautiful in places. Emmanuel Lubezki is a genius, and he takes full advantage of all of the surreal sights backstage at a theatre.
That world is vividly captured in all its shabbiness and glamour - this is a sensitively textured film, and that texture is a big part of the film's appeal.
The story is a simple one, but it succeeds in creating tension: A fading movie star named Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) famous for his role as a winged super-hero in the Birdman movies, struggles with his cast, his emotions, his ex-wife and daughter, his critics and his own expectations and issues as he approaches the opening night of the Raymond Carver adaptation he has written, directed and stars in. As that opening approaches and Riggan falls apart, the tension rises, as does the comedy. This is basically a satire of the showbiz world, full of caricatures (the pretentious method actor, the bitter critic, the desperate ageing Leading Lady) and broad moments, but some of it is hilarious.
The cast do a better job with those caricatures than anybody could have expected. Keaton has always been an underrated actor, but here he makes Riggan a haunted man, torn between his ego and his needs, his moods swinging wildly. He seems without vanity here. Edward Norton plays Mike Shiner, a pompous New York stage actor, who is most himself playing somebody else, and he makes him relatable and human and oddly affecting. He is also hilarious and hugely annoying. Emma Stone is Riggan's daughter, fresh from rehab and angry at her father and the world, and she makes a cliche of a part moving and fascinating, and her scenes with Norton may be the best in the film. Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough are the two actresses in the play, struggling with their leading men and their insecurities, and they both do quite a lot with not very much.
The score, improvised on drums by Antonio Sanchez, is perfect for the scattered nervous energy Inarittu is trying to create, and gels well with the photography.
So: I liked all of that. I'm just not sure it all adds up to much at all. It is a dense, intoxicating cinematic experience, but it doesn't provoke much beyond admiration at the technical feat of its making and the acting. It is saying something about the nature of creativity and what makes each of us special, but it says that in 5 minutes. Much of the rest of the time it is saying embarrassing things about pop culture (Superhero movies are BAD!!) and social networking (Twitter is RIDICULOUS!!), while those caricatured characters inevitably lead to more than a few caricatured plot eventualities.
Inarittu's big statement (and yes, he always has one) seems to be revealed in the final scene, when Riggan's powers (previously assumed to be either a magic realist flourish or confined to his imagination) appear to be real. Is he saying that we all have such magic inside us, but that the world means that we focus on other, less important qualities? Or is that final shot just his daughter moving into his fragile headspace?
It is all a bit vague, a bit studiedly ambiguous. Which feels like a bit of a cop-out.