Category Archives: Film Reviews

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, Glesson, 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 on 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.

Review: BIRDMAN (Or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

Widely praised by critics, Birdman (Or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) has finally landed. The closing film of the 29th Leeds International Film Festival last year, this crazy, swooping joy-ride of movie directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu has been on the lips of critics everywhere ever since its UK premiere.

Michael Keaton returns to our screens as the titular ‘hero’ once more, playing Riggan Thomson, a former winged-superhero movie star trying to rebuild his reputation by starring, adapting and directing a Broadway play. He is joined by an impressive cast, all in someway connected to his ill-fated adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’. Zack Galifianakis is his best ever, shrugging off his perpetual hangover-days and unveiling a frustrated neurotic producer, desperate to save the play at whatever cost. The excellent Andrea Riseborough is Thomson’s put-upon actress girlfriend who is increasingly fascinated by the leading lady, Lesley played by Naomi Watts. Watts adds shades of her former role in Mullholland Drive (2001)- a woman dreaming of her ‘big break’, even as the world around her collapses.  While Ed Norton stirs up the tension as man-child maverick thesp Mike Shiner and hilariously embodies the rampant narcissism that is so easy to imagine in the personality of an actor.  Emma Stone once again holds her own as Thomson’s neglected daughter and personal assistant. Fresh from rehab, she rudely awakens Thomson to the responsibilities of fatherhood and the nature of celebrity in the age of social media.

Seemingly shot all in one take with some expert cuts, the continuous shots and long takes wonderfully recreate the confined pressure-cooker environment of a small theatre leading up to the opening night. Conversations in hallways, behind curtains or up in the rigging are uncovered and laid bare for us to listen in on. The narrative is structured into segments concerning the hurried preparations for each preview before their residency begins, each one as disastrous as the other.

As the trailer suggests, the film pays special attention to its wondrous special effects which are made all the more magical since you’re never really sure if it is all a whimsy of the protagonist. Thomson battles with his inner demon; an alter-ego taking the form of his most popular role, Birdman. Struggling to sleep, to hold his anarchic production and his crumbling family together, Thomson is at times a pitiful character, desperate to be taken seriously whilst also enjoying a penchant for self-destruction. His need for legend-status is granted in a way we least expect, highlighting the absurdity and bizarre nature of fame.

Of course, critics don’t get off lightly in this story. Nor should they. Lindsay Duncan has a small but memorable role as a powerful theatre critic who has the power to destroy or resurrect careers with the quick flourish of her pen. Acidic and acerbic, it is a terrifying insight to the love/hate relationship between the artists and critics on Broadway, and indeed in any hierarchical cultural society deemed capable what deciding what is worthy and what isn’t. Even when Raymond Carver, Thomson’s boyhood hero offers his review, it is arguably wholly disingenuous.

Strange, funny, surreal and at times awe-inspiring, Birdman is deserving of the buzz surrounding it. A film to talk about, to laugh and to wince at, Birdman is most certainly is an ‘event film’ with an impressive ensemble cast to boot. It is wonderful to see Michael Keaton on our screens again, reminding us just how charismatic of a performer he can be. When Thomson loses his temper, I did jokingly wonder if someone had uttered ‘Beetlejuice’ three times.

Highly recommended.

Review: TAKEN 3 (2015)

Barely out of the starting blocks of 2015, the third instalment of the multi-million geri-action Taken franchise sets the bar low for the rest of the year. Anyway, enough of the sporting metaphors, onto the bloodshed (or lack thereof)…

So, a catch-up. His daughter was taken in erm, Taken (2008). His ex-wife was taken in, you guessed it, Taken 2 (2012). In this final film, no such plot device is used. The only thing is that is ‘taken’ is your time and money…while Liam Neeson doesn’t even seem particular pleased to be in receipt of it.

Taken 3 sees Forest Whitaker plays the LA police detective on the trail of Neeson’s Bryan Mills after he is the only suspect in his ex-wife death played once again by Famke Janssen. Dialling in his performance (probably whilst thinking of his Oscar), his character is laden by clichés, from the haphazard box of doughnuts to the rubber-band snapping which is never explained. Even the eventual cat-and-mouse phone calls between these two acting heavyweights are dull and perfunctory. Mills is once again psychotically single-minded and still appears to completely misunderstand the needs of his daughter, much like in the previous films- I’m sure she really enjoyed those CIA spy laxatives. I suppose in that sense I should congratulate the continuity. The same cannot be said of the character played by Dougray Scott. You can’t recast a minor part of the previous outings and then expect us not to immediately single out a culprit.

Laughable, repetitive and cheap (though I’m sure the explosions cost a pretty penny), the film is cynically and lazily directed by Olivier Megaton and proves once again that just because Luc Besson is involved, it doesn’t mean it’s worth viewing.  Rated at 12A, Taken 3 is left with the bare bones of a tired story which reminds you just how good The Fugitive (1993) was and how bonkers but grimy the first film, Taken could be at times.  Now cinema-goers can happily watch Bryan Mills practically water-boarding another character with all the family. And yet because the film has been awkwardly edited to get the widest audience possible, your children won’t even get to realise how terrible it is to see the hero do that.

If you are going to see this film, play a game. I call it: Bagel Bingo. All will be revealed and trust me, it’ll make Taken 3 so much better.

Review: PADDINGTON (2014)

You need not worry, Paddington is great.  Don’t bother with Nativity 3: Dude Where’s My Donkey? and treat your partner, children, grumpy neighbour or distant-relative-housekeeper to this joyful ride this Christmas.

Entering the cinema with high expectations, within the first five minutes I knew all my fears would be alleviated. Youthful titters and the initial rustle of boiled-sweet wrappers (The Wittertainment Code of Conduct should be National Curriculum, ahem) were immediately drowned out by an inventive re-imagining of a timeless classic. Been living in Darkest Peru for nearly 60 years? Allow me to introduce you to Paddington Bear…

The film is Paddington the Bear’s origin tale, telling the story of how a marmalade-mad bear from Peru travels to London in search of a new home. Wearing only a moth-eaten red hat and bearing (pun intended) a tag which simply reads “Please take care of this bear”, Paddington befriends the Brown family. Poles apart husband and wife (Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins) and their two misunderstood children react to this unexpected guest in very different ways and thus begins an slapstick adventure of exploration and acceptance. Voiced by Ben Whishaw (‘Q’ in Skyfall or Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited or Freddie in The Hour. I could go on…) the bear of our story is instantly likeable and charming. Clumsy and hopelessly polite, Whishaw manages to breathes wide-eyed enthusiasm into the beloved character, whilst the stunning CGI-live-action animation is enough to make you not mourn the fantastic 1970s stop-motion too much. I was almost emotional when Paddington receives his iconic blue duffle coat, but that’s being a softie for you…

Arch-villain Nicole Kidman goes all out to be the most convincing evil taxidermist since Norman Bates and succeeds. The supporting cast including Peter Capaldi, Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters all shine, occupying a London-setting that is both terrifying and wondrously beautiful. Think Richard Curtis London meets Walt Disney’s London: ‘Poppins Hill’.

A great big bear-hug of a family film, Paddington is a FUNNY, clever and beautiful romp that is sure to satisfy film-goers of all ages. No need to acquire a child to sneak into a showing of this one, there’s something for everyone. I should know, I dragged along four grown men and they liked it. Praise indeed.

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