Review: OCEAN’S 8

To say I was anticipating this film would be an understatement. As a longtime fan of the first Ocean’s 11, well, Steven Soderbergh’s own reboot of the classic ensemble heist movie anyway, but less so of the subsequent sequels, an all-female spin-off was thigh-rubbingly exciting. And without the vitriol facing the all-female Ghostbusters film released the year Ocean’s 8 began principal photography, we were left to eagerly await the movie in peace. And quietly (or not so quietly, in my case) pray for the gay.

I’ve been always been happy to wallow in the subtext for my queer fix, whatever Ocean’s 8 would gift me, that’s just part and parcel of my film watching experience, and I was certainly happy to just enjoy an all-female cast in a big budget movie. And what a cast. Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett is a combo I never knew I wanted, and as ringleader Debbie Ocean (George Clooney’s Danny’s sister and fellow swindler) and the effortlessly cool Lou, there was plenty to ‘squee’ over. Honestly, whoever decided to put Blanchett in all those suits deserves the Oscar for Best Costume Design. The collective sighs and swooning as set pictures were released during filming remain justified upon seeing the final film.

Making up the eight are Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Sarah Paulson, Rhianna, Mindy Kaling and Awkwafina. I did get the impression that there was a lot that was probably left on the cutting room floor with this script, as each of the eight are given paper thin backgrounds and motivations, but once the heist gets underway, it’s all about the mechanics of the play at hand. The goal? To steal a diamond Cartier necklace from under the noses of security and celebrities at the New York Met Gala.

The motivation of Debbie, much like her brother’s in Ocean’s 11, and under the guise of it being “what’s she’s good at”, is in part to get revenge. While Danny sets his goal on reuniting with his ex-wife, it works less well in this instance. The greedy former lover is a distraction from the main narrative, and when Lou confronts Debbie about her need to balance the scales with the man who effectively put her in prison, you are never really convinced of Lou’s threat to walk nor of the plan being in jeopardy. It’s needless extra impetus in a film that is most successful when we get to see female con artists unable to resist the pull of doing what they do best, regardless of the possible gains at the end of it all.

Though an ensemble cast, Bullock and Blanchett do carry most of the film, as Clooney and Brad Pitt did in their first scheme together. Bonham Carter does great with what she’s given – another ‘kooky’ character, and Hathaway as the ludicrously annoying Daphne Kluger remains on the right side of believable. Rhianna, possibly the most surprising piece of casting, is great too, effortlessly snarking and hacking her way through tasks. Awkwafina and Kaling are instantly likeable, but again, many of the scenes that aren’t directly related to getting the heist on the road appear to be prematurely cut short.

And well, the gay isn’t overt, but Bullock and Blanchett have share enough glances and chemistry to make my heart flutter all the same. And not since Archie Panjabi and Gillian Anderson in TV’s The Fall did a motorbike scene scream: ‘GAAAAAAAAAAAAAY’…

Overall, Ocean’s 8 offers me everything I love about the franchise, but contains few surprises, despite a sprinkling of callbacks to the earlier films and a couple of heist-y (not a word) twists. The whole eight-sided package is watchable, popcorn, Saturday night entertainment that I can definitely see myself picking off the DVD shelf when I need a fun, girl-tastic, kick-ass caper to indulge in.

Ocean’s 9 anyone?

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Review: A QUIET PLACE (2018)

Amazingly, my local cinema was truly engulfed in silence on Sunday night. Despite the optimistic purchases of popcorn and other confectionery, they were all but forgotten once A Quiet Place, John Krasinski’s (of The American Office, It’s Complicated and Away We Go) debut horror feature took hold.

The concept is gripping one: you make noise, you die, which is essentially a movie tagline writer’s dream, and follows a family who must live life in silence while hiding from creatures that hunt by sound. What we do know is that most of Earth’s human population has been wiped out by an invasion of alien creatures with hypersensitive hearing.

All of this is expertly told without over-explanation or exposition. The streets of an already sleepy town are strewn with undisturbed leaves from passing seasons, drugstores have been raided and trails of sand have been marked so that surviving inhabitants can creep quietly without fear of detection. One such band of survivors are the Abbott family. They talk in whispers, but mostly by cannily using American Sign Language, in part due to the fact that one of the children is deaf.

Scenes of the family attempting to go about their daily lives are still somehow fraught with tension. Even an innocent game of Monopoly is dicing with death. Our discovery that the mother, played with steel and gumption by the always brilliant Emily Blunt, is also pregnant is gut-punch of a plot point.  The camera pans over the wall calendar to glance at the due date, and a wave of dread hits. The family wouldn’t survive an inadvertent clink of plates on the dining table, never mind the arrival of a screaming newborn baby.

Coming in at just 90 minutes, the film makes quick use of the premise, turning even the smallest of drama into an opportunity for the family’s devastating annihilation. The protruding nail on the stair scene in family romp Home Alone will forever now send me screaming back to the gory horror of A Quiet Place. And when the father, also played by Krasinski, takes his youngest to a nearby waterfall, it is an understated scene of catharsis for both his understandably nervous son and the audience.

I’m not sure I want to put too much weight onto the allegorical nature of the film’s themes, but the best horrors have always played on societal fears. That’s just Film School 101, right? A Quiet Place is equally ripe for unpicking. Pressure to keep quiet and obfuscate, plus our increasing acquiescence about being ignored in a world of noise and fake news are flipped on their head in this silent wasteland. Expression, the act that differentiates us from animals, is somehow now the method of our own extinction. So when Blunt and Krasinski come together to share an earphone rendition of Neil Young’s Harvest Moon,  it is a touching moment, but its one that disturbs the silence we’re now all too comfortably complicit in.

As expected, the good old-fashioned tropes kick in wonderfully and the Alien-style cat and mouse chase across the family’s farm makes for an unbearable watch at pretty much every beat of the action. With multiple perilous set pieces to grip the armrest through  and a monster that is seemingly unbeatable, A Quiet Place is a sweat-inducing time in the cinema. Nerves are shredded and nails are bitten and as soon as it ended, I wanted to do it all over again.

Review: LOVE, SIMON (2018)

Occasionally, a film comes along that we not only want, but need. Love, Simon is such a film.

Watching this teen drama-comedy (more drama than comedy, but there are some genuinely laugh out loud moments), I wish I had been young enough to be the target audience. In my teens I made do with Napoleon Dynamite (genius), ripe-for-sleepovers high school slasher flicks and John Hughes’ body of work in the 1980s. But as fun and as formative as those films were, none of them were able to recreate or hold a mirror up to how it might be to go to school ‘in the closet’.

Without realising it for most of my youth, I was that closeted teen. I ‘admired’ my history teacher, I held Dana Scully up as simply a ‘great role model’ and saw Mamma Mia! three times because, well, ABBA plus Meryl Streep is just pure cinema gold, isn’t it? And I, like Simon, had a good group of friends who wouldn’t have cared at all if I was queer.

This is the point of the story where we meet Simon (Nick Robinson). He’s aware of his privileged home and school life, and isn’t particular ashamed of the fact that he is gay, but cannot quite bring himself to find the ‘right’ moment to relate this small aspect of himself. An amusing scene, doing the rounds on the trailers (SIDE NOTE: This film is being PROPERLY ADVERTISED! It’s a shame films like 120 BPM aren’t get the same time in the spotlight), imagines the heterosexual characters in the story having to ‘come out’ to their parents. It’s on the nose for sure, but it works, highlighting the ridiculous act we all still face, sometimes on a regular basis, no matter our age or circumstance.

As ridiculous as it is, Simon’s attempts to control how and when he comes out is a recognisable one, and is a privilege that is all too often taken away from queer teens or LGBTQ+ identifying people in the public sphere. I completely identified with Simon’s desire to wait until university, when are you are able to forge a new identity of your own and control the way you present yourself to the adult world for the first time. And in an amusing scene where Simon participates in a fantastical flash mob dance to Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody’, we are witness to Simon’s adorable and completely relatable need to belong.

When his identity is about to be revealed against his will, it kick-starts a domino effect of events that challenges Simon to question how far he is willing to go to come out on his own terms. When the pieces come crumbling down (this is a high school drama after all), we’ve become so invested in these ice-coffee drinking, Panic At The Disco-loving teens that the real prospect of finishing high school alone without lifelong friends in tow is a true narrative gut-punch.

Robinson is ably backed up by a strong supporting cast, including Jennifer Gardner and Josh Duhamel as his liberal and soppy parents who both get opportunities to present a sympathetic portrayal of supportive parents who love their son, whatever the nature of his “secret”. The direction by Dawson’s Creek and Supergirl alumni Greg Berlanti gets the leafy, middle-class, middle-America down to a tee. All the characters reside in the kind of houses that LadyBird longed to infiltrate in Greta Gerwig’s vision of staid high school life. When Simon puts the record player needle down on The Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset, I couldn’t help but make a mental note to search for the pristine OST on Spotify. Millennial and proud.

The film’s tagline “Everyone deserves a great love story” could not be more apt. With Moonlight, Call Me By Your Name and God’s Own Country getting widespread acclaim, the teen movie deserved a chance at telling a gay love story, and Love, Simon is a confident and fun-loving success. It’s portrayal of an average guy that just wants to experience love for the first time is endearing and so tear-jerkingly touching that I couldn’t tell if my tears were tears of happiness of tears of relief at finally seeing a mainstream movie tackle this subject without any evasion or cynicism.

A film about trying to embrace who your are, pass your exams and all the while balancing the careful act of not getting your phone confiscated. Now if that’s not a universal teen experience, then I don’t know what is.

Love, Evangeline.

 

Review: ISLE OF DOGS (2018)

When a new film is helmed by an Anderson (Wes and Paul Thomas – sorry, Paul WS), it’s practically demanded that supposed film fans make a trip to the cinema to form their own opinion. And a new Wes Anderson film is just the sort of big budget ‘quirky’ film to whip us up into a frenzy.

Like the devotees of P.T. Anderson, Wes fanatics are a devoted bunch, declaring their favourite Bill Murray performance with ease and asserting that Luke Wilson is the best Wilson brother at the drop of a Steve Zissou red bobble hat. So upon hearing that Wes’s whimsical style has been shone through the prism of animation once again in the form of Isle of Dogs, I thought it better warrant a visit to my local cineplex (a shout out to Cardigan Fields in Leeds – leather-seated mundanity yet reliable as ever).

Isle of Dogs tells the tail (sorry) of a fictional Japanese city sometime in the future, where dogs have been outlawed and are infected with a debilitating flu-like disease known as ‘snout fever’. Mayor and angry-shouldered despot Kobayashi’s solution is to deport all dogs to Trash Island just miles off the coast – a festering waste land that acts as a rubbish-laden mausoleum to the city’s throwaway society.

We are introduced to a band of bedraggled canine characters, led by Bryan Cranston in a gravelly voice that rattles the speakers and is reminiscent of George Clooney’s own charismatic voice work in Anderson’s last animated feature Fantastic Mr Fox (2009). Anderson alumni Bill Murray, Edward Norton and Jeff Goldblum are Boss, Rex and Duke respectively – and though it is a delight to here them bicker as this mutt-ley (again, sorry) crew of dogs, it’s only Cranston who gets the opportunity to shine in the role and leave a lasting impression as Chief, the curmudgeonly stray. Once 12 year-old Atari Kobayashi crash lands on Trash Island to find his missing and much-loved guard dog, Spots, action takes the place of character development and the focus is placed on Chief and the frighteningly determined Atari, a former ward to the mayor. As they are embroiled in a seemingly impossible task to reunite the boy with his animal companion, implausible hijinks ensue.

Anderson’s work has always delighted in throwing together characters that are finely drawn to cause conflict and eke out emotional breakthroughs, see The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited for examples of this (with varying degrees of success), and Isle of Dogs once again plays with this narrative trope.

Back in the city, foreign exchange student Tracy is on the brink of discovering the conspiracy that has caused the whole dog population to be exiled. Voiced with riotgrrl determination by Greta Gerwig, nothing will get in the way of Tracy leading a teenage rebellion, fuelled by chocolate milk and armed with a trusty tape recorder. It could be said that the film is less interested in this side of the conflict, but the unfolding drama is cleverly told via anime-style newsreels and the Japanese dialogue is translated by Frances McDormand, at her best playing a competent, if slightly exasperated English language interpreter tasked with relating the mayor’s increasingly alarming doctrines.

The film is also served well by a welcoming narration by Courtney B. Vance (known perhaps for most recently playing the outrageously savvy Johnnie Cochran in The People vs. OJ Simpson).

Like Fantastic Mr Fox before it, Isle of Dogs is stunning piece of artistry that can be admired even if the film is not loved by all. There are rare moments of stillness within scenes that allow you the briefest of chances to inspect the fine hairs that form Atari’s eyebrows or notice the shade of iris blue chosen to illuminate Chief’s frenzied stares. When the four-legged adventurers let their animal instincts take over, the animation doesn’t shy away from bloody horror of the Mad Max-style battle for survival Trash Island can be either. Puppet dog ears be damned.

Infused throughout the film, the trademark ‘quirky’ humour remains, even when annihilation is threatened. A pug, whose handful of lines are voiced by Tilda Swinton is a hilarious minor detail and well deserved the chance to prolong the gag of her supposed psychic abilities.

Isle of Dogs is a lean, mean and yet admirable adventure story that isn’t afraid to be decidedly adult in its execution and themes. It succeeds where Fantastic Mr Fox occasionally failed, in balancing the family-friendly credentials of its source material while creating a film that Wes fans and even sometime Wes skeptics (like myself) can get enormous pleasure out of too.

 

 

Review: BLACK PANTHER (2018)

When I went to see Black Panther, it had already had been announced as Marvel’s most successful superhero film and as of April, was still showing at various multiplexes despite being initially released in February. It was also to go down in history as the first film to be screened in Saudi Arabia in 35 years.

Before it had even hit cinemas around the world it was marking its territory in our cultural history forever. Marvel, the comic book-film studio juggernaut that has currently 17 on-the-whole acclaimed film adaptations  in its ‘cinematic universe’ was considered to be at something of stalemate. Fans and cinema-goers alike were getting a tad battle weary from tireless Hulk smashes and clamours from Thor’s hammer. Though that didn’t stop us from flooding to the box office to witness the next installment.

The release of Thor: Ragnarok was a shot of much needed levity to the Marvel franchise however, bruised from an ambitious but overall disappointing Captain America: Civil War, and though it is naive to connect that the successes of Ragnarok had any influence on the universe follow-up, Black Panther, after post production on Ragnarok had barely begun filming, it did signal a left turn in Marvel’s cinematic journey.

Black Panther, directed by Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) tells the story of T’Challa (played by an effortlessly regal Chadwick Boseman), crowned king of Wakanda following his father’s death. His sovereignty is soon challenged by a new adversary, Killmonger, who plans to abandon the country’s isolationism and initiate global revenge. Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, played by Michael B. Jordan, is equal parts terrifying and sympathetic as a maligned Wakandan descendant who was left fatherless and abandoned in Oakland, California as a child – allowing for plenty of time to foster a loathing of Wakanda and yet fantasise assuming its throne and destroying the country’s idealistic policies. Occupying a secretive existence in the world has sheltered T’Challa and his subjects to entrenched racism across the globe. You might not agree with his methods but it’s practically impossible to not understand the reason behind Killmonger’s quest.

The temptation to keep the sanctity of Wakanda’s status as a supposed ‘third world country’ (though in reality is a society transformed by the discovery of vibranium, used to develop advanced technology) , weighs heavily on T’Challa’s shoulders, and though the film falls back on Marvel’s tried and tested formula of superhero showdowns in the final third of the film, the main conflict remains whether to make Wakanda’s true status known to the world. The debate of intervention and globalisation are political and ethical decisons that we and our representatives (hopefully) grapple with at the hit of every new headline…so what to do if a history of humanitarian intervention and occupation has never existed before? Does that mean you ought to intervene in global crisis and injustice because you have the powers to do so? Is it really our place? The dilemma to reveal Wakanda’s true powers is the age-old superhero crisis of whether to come out behind the mask, writ large.

And for once, this superhero romp doesn’t dispense with its strong female characters just as the action starts. Okoye, leader of the special forces played by a powerful Danai Gurira, Lupita Nyong’o as spy Nakia and the adorable Letitia Wright as T’Challa’s mischievous sister and very own ‘Q’, Shuri, are a breath of fresh air. The Dora Milaje, the battalion of spear-wielding women led by Gurira are a breathtaking sight, while the female characters remain integral to the story and are empowered, both physically and intellectually. They know how to use their power and wield it accordingly, and rarely for blockbusters,  sex appeal is obvious but secondary to personality and skill. Neither Okoye or Nakia consider their roles and cause as anything another than the most important things in their lives and remain so, even in the film’s final act.

It would be remiss of me to not point out just how significant this film is, goodness knows there’s been plenty of think pieces about it, and rightly so. Black Panther has opened up the conversation proving that films with an African-descended casts and African (albeit fictional, though don’t tell Trump) histories are box office draws. It’s important to point out however, that these stories have always existed waiting to be told, African American lives on screen should matter, it’s just that the powers that be in Hollywood have only caught on to that fact. Even if it the mirage of dollar signs that tempted them, I’m grateful Black Panther was made. Meanwhile, Dee Rees, Ava Duvernay, Jordan Peele and the imitable Spike Lee are proving time and time again that box office and critical acclaim is in reach for black filmmakers. There’s still a long way to go to ensure that this becomes the norm, not the exception, but there is no better film than Black Panther to spearhead (pun not intended) this groundswell.

 

Review: PROFESSOR MARSTON AND THE WONDER WOMEN (2017)

Spanking, bondage and S&M. Three things not immediately associated with Wonder Woman, but thanks to Professor Marston and the Wonder Women written and directed by Angela Robinson (up the women!), the curious hidden story of this iconic bastion of feminine superpowers, gets its own origin flick.

Starring Luke Evans as Professor William Moulton Marston, last seen chugging ales and four dozen eggs as Gaston in the incredibly successful Beauty and the Beast live-action remake, Evans is the centre, if not the emotional heart of this story based on true events.

Marston is married to the out-spoken and ridiculously talented Elizabeth (the always impeccable Rebecca Hall), who has been denied a psychology professorship at Harvard, despite being cleverer than everyone on campus, including her husband who leads lectures on his own theories as she looks on from the sidelines. Elizabeth is coarse, dynamic and striking – everything that grassy Ivy League Boston in the 1920s just cannot to get to grips with.

The marriage is a competitive partnership that is bonded by love, mutual respect and an endearing understanding of the other’s foibles. When the couple need a research assistant to help them test their early iteration of the lie-detector test (yes, it’s all still true), their quietly rebellious world is about to be infiltrated.

Enter Olive Byrne, played with wide-eyed intensity by Bella Heathcote. Initially we are party to Marston’s instant attraction to the young student, but as the three bright sparks begin to muddle along, it is Elizabeth and Olive’s increasing affinity for one another that offers a unique opportunity for the three leads to embrace a sexual as well as an academic, simpatico. The scene in which Elizabeth finally allows herself act on her passion for Olive is one of the most intense scenes in the first half of the film, and Hall and Heathcote’s chemistry throughout is one of the highlights of the whole piece.

When the scandalous relationship is uncovered, Marston and his wife, along with Olive are forced to leave the campus behind, and it is from here that the evolution of the character that would go on to be Wonder Woman begins. Inspired by his interests in bondage (all in the name of science, of course) and desperate to provide for his unconventional family unit, the iconic superhero takes shape. “Suffering Sappho!” cries Wonder Woman in the early editions – there’s certainly none of that in the wonderful Wonder Woman movie of 2017.

Throughout, the film cuts to scenes with Marston attempting to justify and explain his comic book creation to the influencers of 1940s domestic life, the Child Study Association of America, and as the film enters its latter half, we are shown the reactions to both the Marston’s “perverted” lifestyle and the amusing and ultimately harmless instances of bondage play scattered throughout a wartime comic book for adults and children. Instead, the gold tinted and warmly filtered scenes of intellectual and sexual bliss from early on in the film make way for starkly coloured scenes that portray how the family have to emerge from their self-created Eden within a picket-fenced US suburbia.

As Elizabeth and Olive, Rebecca Hall and Bella Heathcote offer one of the most believable bonds on film this year, and Luke Evans as the titular professor is effortlessly charismatic as an ambitious chancer who was inspired by the women in his life.

I really admire how proudly this film wears its heart on its sleeve, even if the more convenient elements of the story have been conflated or altered to make a more palatable and narratively coherent version of events. It’s such a shame that this film disappeared completely under the radar, especially in the wake of the success of Patty Jenkins’ first Wonder Woman movie. The two features together make an incredibly satisfying double-bill.

Seek this one out if you’re in the mood for a heartfelt film that’s tantalisingly tongue in cheek at times and has plenty of rope-play. Now there’s a combo.

 

 

 

Review: THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY (2014)

To start, it would perhaps be notable to point out that The Duke of Burgundy is not a BDSM film with lesbians. That is to say, though The Duke of Burgundy is a tale of two female lovers in a physical and emotional power-struggle, it cannot be reduced to such an apparently sensational sound-bite. Though the film is decidedly ‘queered’ by the contemporary film-goer, the story exists in a world where everything is female; a homogeneous fantasy world.

British director Peter Strickland returns after the ambitious but divisive Berberian Sound Studio (2012) with another tense drama which explores the dark side of human interaction and intimacy. The all-female cast is led by Sidse Babett Knudsen (you’ll know her from the excellent Borgen) and Berbarian Sound Studio’s Chiara D’Anna: they dominate every scene, slowly turning page after moth-eaten page in the saga of their relationship. Cynthia (Knudsen) is a butterfly professor (there’s a posh name for it probably) living in an ivy-entombed hideaway mansion, while Evelyn (D’Anna) is her maid, at the beck and call of Cynthia’s petulant whim. While Cynthia click-clacks around her library in ‘power-suits’, pencil-lined and precise, she belittles and directs a timid Evelyn. It soon becomes clear that the two women are fiercely entwined in a role-play which subverts our first meeting with these characters.

Shocking and strange, The Duke of Burgundy is a peep-hole view of a warped relationship which seems more preoccupied with the projection of love rather than love itself. It becomes more and more obvious that Evelyn’s sub-domination is what is keeping these two women together, for better or for worse. As Cynthia’s increasing suffocation (not the erotic kind) propels the film into a kaleidoscope of madness, cumulating in an extended sequence of butterfly mirages and strange hallucinogenic montages, reminiscent of the darker moments of Berberian Sound Studio.

The unfortunate shame of this film is that it will probably be best remembered in years to come as the lesbian ‘Fifty Shades’, especially when it makes the rounds on late night television. The triumph of The Duke of Burgundy however, is that it is so much more than that. From its crackly soundtrack by Cat’s Eyes (which, by the way, is bound to be the must-have film score on vinyl…or whatever your format of choice is), to the brave and daring performances by Knudsen and D’Anna, it deserves to become a landmark in erotic cinema. Even if you don’t find any of it remotely sexy.

Review: EX MACHINA (2015)

When taking our seats in the cinema, we constantly search for things that identify us as uniquely human in film. In Alex Garland’s directorial debut, what makes us human and how we identify others as so is pushed to the ultimate limit.

In Ex Machina, the set-up is immediately gripping. A computer programmer named Caleb wins the chance to spend a week with the reclusive mega-rich CEO of the search-engine company he works for: ‘Bluebook’. A wordless first scene in which Caleb is informed via a computer pop-up (‘Grand Prize!’) sets the story in motion, and so he is whisked away to meet Nathan (Oscar Isaac) at his isolated forest retreat.

It soon becomes clear that Caleb is there for more than just beers and good times. Nathan is an unsettling presence, with a ‘red pill/blue pill’ opportunity for the impressionable Caleb; to meet his first A.I. creation. When the young programmer sees ‘Ava’ (Alicia Vikander) for the first time, we are complicit in the same voyeuristic emotions which drive our protagonist. The face, hands and feet of a beautiful woman are attached to a frame which is undoubtedly mechanical- a robot with human-like expression.  To Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), he has won the ultimate prize, to conduct a ‘Turing Test’ on Ava to discover if advanced Artificial Intelligence can pass for human. When the daily sessions begin, Caleb becomes increasingly enamoured with Ava, immediately impressed with her ability to hold interesting conversation and even more intrigued by her apparent flirtation.

Essentially a three-hander between Caleb, Nathan and Ava, Gleeson, Isaac and especially Vikander are tremendous in their roles. With the help of entirely convincing computer graphics, Vikander whirs and glides eerily within every shot. Just as Caleb begins to disregard that Ava is a cyborg, we also begin to forget that Vikander is an actress playing a machine. Isaac’s Nathan is domineering, veering from ‘just one of the guys’ sociability to bullishness and anger. A disturbing scene in which Nathan spontaneously starts dancing to ‘Get Down Saturday Night’ is a frightening example of how the powerful can indulge whims at the expense of those increasingly under their influence. As the power-play between the three leads intensifies, Ex Machina works as a haunted house horror tale, with secrets behind every keycard-operated door. Garland’s clinical direction unveils secrets and creepy hidden-camera scenes which add alternate threads to the man versus creation B-movie plot.

Like Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), the female form is constructed and destroyed. Ava’s artificiality is undermined by her womanly curves and her clever use of her given sexuality. Just as Jack Torrence is swayed by the beautiful woman in Room 237, Caleb’s analytical head is turned. As the film reaches its conclusion, Ava’s man-made femininity is fatal. How very film noir.

Review: THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING (2014)

It has taken me a long time to get around to watching The Theory of Everything, thanks to a truly irritating trailer that circulated before Christmas which was a ‘Behind the Scenes/Please PLEASE puuurlease please watch this film’ trailer, interrupting the sacred pre-film teaser trailer reel like an unwanted kernel of un-popped corn entering my mouth.  The idea of a Dr. Stephen Hawking biopic pretty much sells itself; I don’t need to see the whole film in shutter-speed to convince me.

Purged of said trailer and buoyed by the film’s recent award nominations, I decided to give it a go. For anyone who doesn’t have a broad idea of the life and achievements of Hawking, James Marsh’s film is the perfect amuse-bouche. Focusing on the relationship between Hawking and his first wife, Jane, and based on her own memoirs of their marriage (‘Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen’), the film serves as a window into their relationship, family life and ultimately Hawking’s diagnosis of Motor Neuron Disease. The film of course hinges around Hawking, played by the astonishing Eddie Redmayne in a role which completely devours him, much like the disease, transforming Hawking from a disarming genius, into a scientific demigod, paralysed, recognised by millions and inspirational the world over. Though the script is often quite fluffy (especially in the ‘falling in love’ scenes) Redmayne is able to portray Hawking’s charm and wit, even as Hawking’s instantly recognisable computerised voice takes that facet of the performance away from him.

Felicity Jones refashions her ‘nice posh girl’ typecast and matures into the role of Jane. Though this is Redmayne’s film, Jones excels as her character wearies, showing how her love for Hawking tests her own strength to fight the diagnosis and raise a family. It has been noted that because the narrative focuses so much on Jane and the unique constraints and lifestyles choices that faced the Hawkings, that the science of what made Dr. Hawking world-renowned has been overshadowed. But while Hawking still lives and continues to work, even disproving his earlier theories which changed modern science, their are other stories about his extraordinary man which can also be told. We do get to see Hawking continuing to work, defying prognosis and re-evaluating his own discoveries. The story that is being told here however, is a portrait of marriage from inception to separation. It is a glossy film, made to attract attention but not to thoroughly educate you of Hawking’s work.

I do get the impression that the film was heavily cut with extended family scenes fitting in awkwardly around the one-to-one scenes between Jane and Stephen. Emily Watson appears so fleetingly that I can only imagine that there was more to come from that casting. When we finally see Jane and her mother (Watson) together the scene seems out-of-place and cold to the viewer. Coming in at over two hours long, it does seem that the hard science and extraneous plotlines where left out in favour of the central relationship between Stephen and Jane.

The Theory of Everything is an accomplished film with an important story to tell. In a classic ‘the woman/man behind the genius’ tale, we get to see a richly heartfelt portrayal of illness and human endeavour. A love story that extends beyond the earthly ties of marriage and wraps a narrative around the uneasy battle between science and faith. Bound to annoy those who want more insight into Hawking’s work and less about an extraordinary marriage, The Theory of Everything tries to please the broadest of audiences possible and will no doubt attract plaudits come awards season. Jones’ and Redmayne’s stars will continue to rise, quite rightly so. And as for Dr. Hawking himself? Well, his star has always shone the brightest in the universe.

Review: WHIPLASH (2014)

A few months ago I tweeted a prediction for the upcoming film, Whiplash.

“#Whiplash…Full Metal Jacket for musicians.’

After seeing the film yesterday, boy was I right! Whiplash is a marathon of a movie, demanding as much stamina from its audience as from its characters, “rushing” and “dragging” the viewer through exhilarating sequences of endurance.

We meet Andrew (the impressive Miles Teller), an aspiring jazz drummer and first-year student at the prestigious Schaffer Conservatory in New York. A chance encounter with Terrance Fletcher, a snarling, terrifying and vitriolic jazz band conductor played with brutish physicality by J.K. Simmons, Andrew is enlisted into the music school’s competition jazz orchestra. With the menace and discipline of a drill sergeant, Fletcher rules the practice room with an iron fist, repeating the oft-told story of Charlie Parker being hurled with a cymbal- a mantra which excuses his bullying behaviour in the search for musical perfection.

From the very first band session, Andrew is thrown into the firing line, coming face to face with Fletcher’s verbal sadism. Intimidating and shocking, Fletcher employs whatever is necessary to get the best out of his band. Simmons excels, a human fireball scorching wherever his dangerous gaze lands or whatever his pitch-perfect ear for jazz hears. Driven to the edge, Andrew assimilates the rage of the band room into his playing, drumming all hours of the day and leaving the distraction of human relationships behind. Teller is wondrous: his eyes darkening; his baby-face hardening as he becomes closer and closer to his goal: to be the greatest.

The third star of the film is undoubtedly the music. Usually derided, the jazz (including the titular ‘Whiplash’) is quick with vitality and accomplishment, expressive with passion yet deceptive in its rigidity. To many, jazz is without structure or purpose, but the thumping beat of Teller’s drumming volumizes the discipline and musicianship- and the blood, sweat and tears that can go into even the most languid of pieces. Scenes in which Andrew continues to drum, even as his hands are red with blood are stomach-churning to watch: the musician movie equivalent of Rocky getting back up again.

Embellished from a short film made by the director, Damien Chazelle, Whiplash is a snappy, spiky and ultimately scary story about the search for excellence  and those who will go the furthest to reach it. J.K. Simmons is glory-bound with his villainous portrayal of an ‘ends justify the means’ mentality whilst Miles Teller’s transformation as an innocent protégé into a recklessly ambitious recluse deserves equal praise. The last fifteen minutes is a crazy, rip-roaring ride of unspoken emotion played through music which will leave you wobbly-kneed in its conclusion.