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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Review: THE IMITATION GAME (2014)

Let me begin: Alan Turing was an extraordinary man. A relative unknown to the general public until recently, Turing saved and transformed the lives of generations to follow. A genius, an innovator and symbol of a world we’ve left behind, at long last we’ve begun celebrate his life, acknowledge his wondrous achievements and the devastating treatment he was subjected to towards the end of his life.

This is why The Imitation Game was so important. Every since I first learnt about this man, I’ve wanted to spread the word and somehow put into words how important he is (or should be) to everyone. I never quite managed it, either by fudging through the science-y bits or feeling terribly angry and saddened by his untimely suicide and persecution due to his sexuality. I was glad to hear that he had received an official pardon from our government and yet somehow infuriated that he even needed one. A pardon!? A pardon for what exactly? He deserved an apology, a vow, a promise to never go back, to learn and reflect. Thankfully, we got that. Now all that was needed was something far more articulate than me to get his story out there. A film with a star.

With The Imitation Game, we have one. Benedict Cumberbatch is riding on the crest of a wave at the moment and in this film he has the gravitas, an oddity and intelligence to portray Turing. Adapted from the biography by Andrew Hodges (a mathematician who has spent his life researching Turing’s story) and directed by Headhunters‘ Morten Tyldum, the film focuses on the years during World War Two when Turing and a team of academics were working at Bletchley Park, the top secret centre for code-breaking and intelligence. With the blessing of Winston Churchill, some of the greatest minds in the country were tasked with breaking the ‘Enigma’. The ‘Enigma’ being a machine which translated German naval and High Command messages into coded scripts which were impossible to decipher. To crack the code would save millions of lives on the front line, divert doomed merchant convoys and to ear-wig on military strategies direct from Hitler himself.

The crackpot team in the famed ‘Hut 8’ includes Stoker and Brideshead Revisited‘s Matthew Goode, Keira Knightley, Allan Leech (Downton Abbey). All are watched over by the ever-brilliant Charles Dance and Mark Strong. It’s an impressive cast, each with their chance to shine. Knightley in particular does well, playing a character who unearths Turing’s human side as well as demonstrating the gender barriers which did prevail during wartime- despite its perceived emancipation of women.  Though sketchily drawn, it is through her eyes we see Turing’s eventual breakdown and through her support, is able to invent a ‘thinking’ machine, capable of unlocking the ciphers of the Enigma machine. In short, the world’s first computer.

Cumberbatch is astounding. As is Alex Lawther, who plays a young Turing during his school-days. Bullied and teased in the harsh public school environment, Turing develops his first emotional attachment to another pupil, Christopher. We see him flourish; happy and in love just as fatal circumstances transform him once again. Flash-forward into Turing’s later life, he is forced to punish his own nature and spend his life with his new and only companion: his wondrous machine.

I suppose I was predisposed to love this film, but I so easily could have been disappointed, left with a movie manipulated and altered for Hollywood. Instead it’s an intimate film about one of the most important stories of the last century and a tale of a determined scientist we keep on discovering long after his harrowing death.

Please watch The Imitation Game, we owe him.

Review: MR TURNER (2014)

Years in the making, Mike Leigh’s first feature-length film since Another Year (2010) is a considered and sumptuous biopic of one of the greatest British painters who ever lived, JMW Turner.

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Of course whenever Mike Leigh and Timothy Spall team up, one cannot help but to hope for a spark of the magic that produced films such as Life is Sweet (1990) and Secrets & Lies (1996) and made an award-winning star of Spall. Though Mr Turner turns to the early 1800s, Leigh’s eye for composition, interesting characters and plot tension would seem to be a perfect fit for a period of seismic change. Every scene is a microcosm of the cultural landscape which Turner attempts to capture, be it an old ship solemnly tugged to dock or a skilfully hidden elephant, an exotic wonder of the growing empire.

The film is structured as a series of vignettes, often included without much explanation or immediate significance. We are fleetingly introduced to characters that come and go from Mr Turner’s social circle, from the stuffy halls of the Royal Academy to the fishing ports of Margate where he calls himself ‘Mr Mallard’. All these scenes are beautifully composed, making wonderful use of the natural light which was obviously such an important component to Turner’s own painted works. Because of this we are never entirely privy to the whole picture, as it were. At the start of the film, Turner has already abandoned his children, become an honoured member of the Royal Academy, a supposed favourite of the king and a regular in high society. We see that he blows hot and cold with his acutely vulnerable housekeeper, Hannah (an astonishing performance by Dorothy Atkinson) and has a warm working/familial relationship with his elderly father (Paul Jesson).

For most of the film, Spall’s Turner is a grunting, shuffling beast of a man who spits and sweats for his art. Spall, who spent a number of years learning how to paint in order to play the role, seems comfortable in front of the canvas and on the occasions we do get to see the final pieces are some of the most enjoyable moments of the film. The outside scenery is beautiful. A brief connecting shot of the White Cliffs of Dover stayed particularly long in the memory- the rolling waves like the swirls of a paintbrush.

Spall embodies the role completely,  but for me the heart of the story (if you can say that this film has much of a story) belongs to the women in Turner’s life. This is where I wish the film spent more time, but from the cluster of scenes we are party to, Turner had extremely complicated relationships perhaps spawned from the guilt over his late mother. From the abuse that his housekeeper suffered, to the infatuation he showered on his later companion, Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), we see a fractured and distant character display both cruelty and passion away from his art. Lesley Manville makes a brief but memorable appearance as Mary Somerville, a pioneer for the female practice in the sciences and highlights how Turner enjoyed the company of women but struggled to maintain healthy relationships with those already in his life.  A fantastical scene in which Turner speaks briefly about loneliness and solitude to John Ruskin’s wife is presumably imagined for cinematic licence but continues to confuse a portrayal of a man impossible to wholly understand. It certainly brings to mind Emma Thompson’s Effie Gray (2014) last month, a film which perhaps could be seen as a companion piece to Mr Turner.

Overall, though a beautiful film to look at (as one would expect with a film about art), the sparse structure and isolated scenes make it difficult to feel anything other than calm admiration for a film which was obviously a labour of love for all those involved and certainly begins to illuminate the darker sides of JMW Turner’s life-long genius.

 

Review: INTERSTELLAR (2014)

WARNING: I’m not going to do a Peter Bradshaw and spoil you unless you want to be. Below is a review of Interstellar which may contain plot-points which some may consider to be spoilers. You have been notified. Quite sternly.


It’s that time of the year again for an intelligent blockbuster courtesy of Christopher Nolan (give us Inception over the Transformers series any time), and after what seems like a very long wait (unless you’re Cooper, that is!) Interstellar has finally arrived.

GIRL ON FILM watched this film three days ago and it is only now that I have formulated some sort of understanding of how much I enjoyed this film. Leaving the cinema, I was temporarily unable to speak. I wanted to discuss plot-points and theoretical physics and Matthew McConaughey’s tan, but instead I went to work and silently contemplated for the next few days.

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Here’s the basic plot: Life on earth has become a largely agrarian society following a worldwide famine. Think, the end of Gone With the Wind basically, except without any hope of another day. McConaughey is ‘Coop’, former pilot-turned-farmer who is unhappy with his lot in life. Persuaded to leave his young family in order to search for alternative habitats on other planets by scientist Dr. Brand (Michael Caine), his opportunity has arrived. The landscapes are stunningly horrifying, reminiscent of the pioneered West, a dust-bowl of stagnant opportunity and growth. It is unnervingly easy to imagine this non-specific future, a period where engineers only pioneer the technologies of their own tractors and education simply for education’s sake is seen as an extravagance and not for the good of society.

When we meet Dr. Brand in his secret NASA-funded lair, for the rest of the movie it is science jargon-overload. Aided by theoretical physicist to Hollywood, Kip Thorne, writers Jonathan and Christopher Nolan let us know they have done their research and are willing to tear it all up in order to confuse us in a good cinematic ride. The effects and scenes in space are undoubtedly revolutionary, and will surely cement the tradition of having a space cowboy every other year to showcase the newest in film trickery. Filmed in his beloved IMAX, it is a especially lovely to know that great-looking films can be successfully produced without the gimic of 3D or retrofitting.

Speaking of the third dimension, we then transcend time and space with Coop, Dr. Brand Jr. (Anne Hathaway), Doyle (Wes Bentley), Romilly (David Gyasi) and two monolithic robot TARS and CASE, who provide most of the much-needed comic relief.  The narrative takes care to try and adequately explain all the science-y bits (we even get a nice pencil drawing for the dimwits like me) just to make sure we aren’t left behind in deep space. Though there is much that we never fully comprehend, the struggles to cope with the changing speed of time on Earth and beyond the wormhole are effectively discussed, and it is Coop and the team’s constant battle with relativity that create most of the tension, aside from the death-defying action scenes. As Coop struggles to reconnect with his abandoned family, the conflict of the film boils down to whether of humanity should be saved at the sacrifice of others. As Dr. Brand announces at a crucial point, humanity are much more likely to push themselves to the limit if they believe that they themselves will also be saved.

There are a number of plot twists and signs of turbulence throughout the 2 hours and 42 minute running time, but of all the revealing cameos and breath-taking worm-hole sequences which reminded me of the ‘Star-Gate’ scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the most memorable manipulation was within the dialogue itself. Dr. Brand quotes Dylan Thomas to the embarking missioners:

“Do not go gentle into that good night; Old age should burn and rave at close of day. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Though it is a poem about being fierce in the face of approaching death, when we first hear Caine recite this poem, it is a rallying call of hope. It incites our intrepid space explorers to fulfil their destiny and to save the occupants of a dying Earth. However, when we hear those lines again later in the film it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, a twisted symbol of Brand’s devastating betrayal and pessimism for humanity and the Endurance mission.

The film is long, wobbly and ridiculously ambitious. But give me this over robots smashing each other any day. The scenes on earth were just as engaging, if not more so. Mackenzie Foy was excellent, and Jessica Chastain’s video messages to space-bound Coop were heart-breaking. A film as initially confusing as Nolan’s Inception, but hey, the puzzle’s part of the fun. I think…

If like me you could do with a friendly diagram, have a peek at this helpful guide by animator, Dogan Can Gundogdu:

https://www.behance.net/gallery/21179181/Interstellar-Timeline

Review: THE SKELETON TWINS (2014)

Saturday Night Live alumni have always made the natural transition to the big screen, some with more success than others. From John Belushi to Tina Fey we’ve seen many stars rise to the occasion. For Kristen Wiig, Bridesmaids made her a stand-out one-to-watch. Now in a more subdued but equally neurotic comedy, The Skeleton Twins with best friend and SNL chum, Bill Hader, the two shine as two estranged siblings.

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The film tells the story of Maggie (Wiig) and Milo (Hader) who are reunited after 10 years without contact. Both recovering from almost-suicides they are forced to reconnect and re-evaluate their lives and their relationship with one another. Milo is a gay, unsuccessful actor trying to get by in L.A., whilst Maggie is seemingly happily married to Lance (Luke Wilson), trying to get pregnant while also thwarting the efforts by continuing to take birth control.  Both characters return to each other and their pasts with both heart-breaking and humorous consequences.

Where the film works best are when Hader and Wiig are able to play off each other as they have undoubtedly done hundreds of times during their SNL days. A scene in a dental hygienist’s office is particularly winning, as well as a spontaneous performance of Starship’s ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’- a scene which acts as a turning point for the film and propels into the last half of the narrative. Luke Wilson is an excellent third player, being so nice and easy-going that it highlights the vitriolic and bitter exchanges that pass between Maggie and Milo. He has an unforgiving role but it is an extremely affective counterpoint for the twin’s deep-seated problems.

At its root is a serious family drama dealing with the aftermath of traumatic events and how a dysfunctional childhood can affect a pair of siblings who only had each other but were too troubled to realise it. Episodes from their childhood resurface to haunt them, like a spooky skeleton from hiding in the closet. A few funny moments and excellent performances, The Skeleton Twins is an effective indie film which won’t appeal to everyone, but does touch on the everyday family conflicts which can be recognised by many who view it.

Review: GONE GIRL (2014)

What can be remarked about Gone Girl that hasn’t already been said? Any new David Fincher-directed movie is a highlight for many a film fan, but based on a bestselling novel which became a phenomenon of recent times (no, not that one), expectations were high. So, with all the hype, media coverage and in-depth discussion , will Gone Girl disappear into cinematic obscurity?

In short, no. Much like the novel (written by Gillian Flynn. Honestly, read it if you ever get a chance: SOMEONE you know will own it), the film incites all who see it to discuss the complex characters, the sharp observations of modern life and the initial mystery we can all deduce from the title.  Paired with the visual style of David Fincher, it is a starkly uncompromising film, clinically shot and perfectly lifted from the page (thanks to a screenplay written by the one person who’d know the story best, Flynn).  Visually it evokes the claustrophobia of Fincher’s Panic Room (2002) while in pacing feels more chimed with Zodiac (2007); yet another crime investigation thriller which has a radically different time-frame.

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Ben Affleck plays Nick, a 30-something former magazine journalist now joint-bar-owner who returns home to find that his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) has inexplicably disappeared in suspicious circumstances. Set in small-town America, the film perfectly captures a landscape hit by an economic downturn and a community within which can both rally around in times of need or revolt when a investigative media circus comes to town. The search for Amy is interspersed with extracts from Amy’s own diaries which shed some Fincher-famous light on Nick and Amy’s relationship. Here is where Pike is able to shine, breaking free from her mainly supporting-role career and finally being the electrifying leading lady we have never seen before.  A performance of the year.

As the police turn to the most likely suspect, Nick himself, the film withholds and reveals information, leaving the viewer never entirely certain of their own sleuthing instincts. Key moments lead you down the “he/she definitely did it” path only to leave another breadcrumb clue for you to pick up and reconsider gobbling up. The eventual reveal is shocking, satisfying, mind-boggling. and unnervingly thrilling. I defy you to look away.

I write this as Gone Girl goes to Number 1 in the UK Box Office Top Ten. It is a pretty staggering achievement for an 18-certificated movie, especially in a climate where film distributors are clambering over themselves to dilute films down to the 12A rating in order to make any sort of impact in ticket sales. It has been slow burn, but the word-of-mouth effect has once more taken hold, just as it did with the original source novel. Sometimes when the movie is good, the advertising takes care of itself.

Review: THE JUDGE (2014)

We’ve seen it before, high flyer returns to his childhood home and remembers why he left in the first place. We’ve also seen countless John Grisham-evoking courtrooms on the silver screen. But like all the best legal dramas, it’s not the jury’s verdict that reveals the most truths…

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The Judge stars two Robert Ds (Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall), Duvall as the titular ‘Judge’ Palmer who has been the keeper of justice in the small town of Carlinville, Indiana. Downey Jr. is Hank Palmer, his estranged middle son who is now a big-shot (if over-worked) lawyer in Chicago. Returning home for this mother’s funeral, curt greetings and a cold handshake between the two leads hint at a lifetime of resentment and animosity. When his father is accused of killing a former convict who he himself sent to prison in a hit-and-run accident, it turns to Hank to represent his curmudgeonly father in court.

Inevitably, Hank comes face-to-face with the shadows of his past: his high school sweetheart (Vera Farmiga) and his two brothers played by Vincent D’Onofrio (who can give powerful performances in his sleep…probably) and Jeremy Strong. The film dedicates a sizeable portion of the running time to the tension-filled Palmer family before spending much of the latter half in the courtroom. Watching Palmer and Son struggle to put their deep-set grudges aside and work through defence strategies and dodge touchy subjects like familial landmines (which do eventually explode- big time) gives the film an On Golden Pond sheen over the whole thing.   The generation gap, how to cope with a parent who has never loved you in the way you thought you deserved and what to do when you find your roles are suddenly reversed are just some of the themes touched upon during The Judge.

The dialogue-heavy script is a shoe-in role for Downey Jr. who has always skirted around being know-it-all wordsmith in many of his roles, and here he relishes in it. A snake in the court and mouse in his father’s home, he eventually stands up to the family demons that have cursed his relationship with his father for long enough during his final interrogation at the witness stand. Emotional and surprising, Duvall and Downey act their hearts out. A scene in which Hank cares for his incontinent father in the bathroom is a stark and saddening but refreshingly honest scene in a slick but often predictable film.  Displaying such tact, it’s hard to believe that the director (David Dobkin) past work included Wedding Crashers and The Change-Up

Special mention goes to supporting actor Billy Bob Thornton who has to have one of the best introductions for a character in a film this year. All I can say is, wherever he got that from, I want one!

Sometimes clichéd but rarely dull, The Judge is a well-acted  and touching film about the ties that bind and those who break them.

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