A Most Violent Year

Cast: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Albert Brooks, Elyes Gabel, Catalina Sandino Moreno

Director: J. C. Chandor

Writer: J. C. Chandor


In A Most Violent Year we are presented with a moral tale about a man who follows a path of truth and honour in the face of violence and corruption in his pursuit of the American Dream. It is a perilous path that he chooses as outside forces beyond his control threaten to bring him down. However, no matter how desperate his situation becomes, he refuses to abandon his principles and stray from his path. He carries on regardless, all the while placing his trust in the belief that whatever choices he must make along the way there is always one choice that is “most right”. He trusts that all will be well so long as he follows his moral compass and does what he believes to be the right thing. This proves to be very difficult and dangerous as he stands to lose everything that he has worked for.

The film is set in the backdrop of New York City in 1981, one of the most violent years in the city’s history. Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), an immigrant who runs a successful oil business, is in the process of making the biggest deal of his career when a series of his lorries are commandeered by armed men as they make their deliveries. Abel is an ambitious, strongly principled man who prides himself on having built a business from honesty, hard work and integrity. Even after one of his drivers is beaten to a pulp during one of the hijackings, Abel refuses to allow his employees to carry weapons. These incidents indicate that someone has targeted Abel and his company and that he must try to find and stop them. However things become worse for Abel when the district attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo) informs Abel that a case is being built against him, accusing him of corruption and embezzlement. This takes a toll on Abel’s business as none of his partners will participate in this deal anymore.

The troubles that Abel faces threaten not only his business, but also his family. When Abel catches a man trying to break into his house in the middle of the night, his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) demands to know what is happening. Abel tries to assure her that everything is under control, only for Anna to later find their daughter playing with the intruder’s gun. Abel is left with no option but to tell his wife the truth. Chastain plays a Lady Macbeth type of character as she pushes her husband to resort to dishonest methods. She is just as ambitious as her husband but does not share his sense of morality. She has no qualms about keeping her family safe through immoral means, a view that often leads to clashes between her and Abel.

Isaacs, who appears to be channelling 1970’s Al Pacino in his performance, plays Abel with a calm and collected demeanour coupled with an underlying sense of panic. This is a man who is trying his utmost to keep everything under control, but finds himself struggling to cope as more of these problems keep slipping through his fingers. He is adamant that this business deal must happen and that it cannot wait until his legal troubles are over, and so he finds himself scrambling around trying to borrow the money that he needs. On top of that he struggles to keep his situation with the district attorney and the police under control, especially when they show up in the middle of his daughter’s birthday party with a search warrant for his house. His legal troubles become even worse when one of his lorry drivers is involved in a gun-related incident. He attempts to face his troubles with all the dignity he can muster, but he exhibits a clear sense of desperation beneath it all. As his difficulties get worse and worse, one wonders how long it will take before he finally snaps.

Despite the compelling struggle of Abel Morales and his ideological clashes with his wife and his associates, I found A Most Violent Year to be a somewhat underwhelming film mostly due to its lack of payoff. When all is said and done, the film never really builds up to anything and never really finds a resolution. I’m not convinced that Abel as a character has learned anything by the end, and so I find myself wondering what it was all for. The inaction that Abel displays may be necessary as a character motif, but in the end it ultimately builds up to something of an anti-climax. It certainly isn’t by any means a bad film; in fact I believe it to be a worthy addition to J. C. Chandor’s filmography. But ultimately I did not find it to be particularly effective or memorable.

★★★

Ex Machina

Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac

Director: Alex Garland

Writer: Alex Garland


The theory of Artificial Intelligence has always been a fascinating one. Is it possible for a machine to possess a human consciousness? What does it mean to be human and what does it mean to be a machine? Can thoughts and emotions be programmed? How does someone tell if a machine’s thoughts and feelings are real or artificial? This subject, which has been explored in a wide range of films from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Her, is tackled by Alex Garland in his directorial debut Ex Machina. He addresses all of these questions and more as he sets out to understand the nature of Artificial Intelligence and the potential implications and ramifications it holds for mankind.

We are introduced to Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) who wins a competition and is selected to participate in an exclusive project for the company he works for. He is an introverted young man with no social life to speak of and who had never expected to ever be presented with this kind of opportunity. Without knowing where he is going or whom he is going to meet, Caleb is taken by helicopter to an isolated location deep in the woodlands where he is left alone to find the base of this secretive project. The woodlands provide a beautiful yet strangely ominous setting. There is something not quite right about this place; it seems almost too perfect. The unsettling tone and atmosphere that this place creates reverberates throughout the film.

Caleb eventually finds the base and meets Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the owner of the company. Nathan is a young, multi-millionaire genius who has brought Caleb on board to participate in the greatest scientific breakthrough in the history of mankind. Nathan reveals that he has built the world’s first Artificial Intelligence and that he wants Caleb to give it the Turing Test, the test that assesses a computer’s ability to exhibit the behaviour of a human being. It is Caleb’s task to determine whether Nathan has created a being capable of conscious thought and genuine emotion by interacting with it and forming a social bond with it. Like the woodlands they inhabit there is something menacing about Nathan’s character. He displays the behaviourisms of a man with something to hide and the way he candidly talks to Caleb combined with his incessant drinking all hint towards something disturbing.

Before long the test begins and Caleb is taken to the room where he will meet the subject. He is surrounded by a glass wall that will separate him from the AI where he notices a small crack, again hinting towards something sinister beneath this whole endeavour. We are then finally introduced to Ava (Alicia Vikander), a robot with the face and figure of a beautiful woman. The two are instantly fascinated with each other as Ava shows herself to possess very human traits. She engages Caleb in intelligent conversation, she makes jokes, and she draws pictures which reflect her creativity. She also has a keen curiosity about Caleb, about humans, and about the outside world and shares with him her desire to one day see a busy road in the middle of a city where she can watch and observe all the people going about their varying activities. However when a power outage renders the cameras recording their conversations inactive, Ava delivers a warning to Caleb. She warns him that Nathan is a liar and that he must not trust him or anything he says. As soon as the power is restored Ava returns to normal and carries on talking as if nothing had happened.

As Caleb ventures deeper into this project his mind becomes more uncertain and his situation more hazardous. He does not know who he can trust or whether he can even trust himself. He starts to doubt his own judgement as he steadily becomes infatuated with Ava, who in turn reciprocates his affections. He starts to question whether there is more to this test than he was told. He wonders what exactly it is that Nathan is hiding from him. He contemplates whether Ava is trying to deceive him or if she’s even capable of deception. The relationship between him and Ava grows more intriguing and complex as he starts developing strong feelings for her and is overcome by a desire to help her.

The mystery surrounding Ex Machina is endlessly fascinating and stimulating. As soon as you start to think that you’ve figured it out, something new is revealed that changes your perception. It is a film that keeps you guessing up to the very end. The discussion surrounding the theme of Artificial Intelligence is also captivating as the nature of the human mind and what it means for a computer to display that nature are considered in an intelligent and interesting way. This film never provides any answers but instead provides food for thought so that the audience might find their own answers. The film draws parallels with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as it considers the implications of creating a being with a human consciousness. It is Caleb who declares that “to erase the line between man and machine is to obscure the line between men and gods”. An exciting thought but also a terrifying one.

★★★★★

American Sniper

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Luke Grimes, Kyle Gallner, Sam Jaeger, Jake McDorman, Cory Hardrict

Director: Clint Eastwood

Writer: Jason Hall


American Sniper has been praised by some critics as this year’s The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty and, like those films, it has run into its share of controversy. Much of this controversy stems from the film’s ideology and from the debate over whether or not the film’s subject Chris Kyle deserves to be hailed as a hero. With 160 confirmed kills Kyle has been declared the most lethal sniper in American military history. Some have declared him to be a hero, allocating him with the nickname ‘Legend’, while others have denounced him as a murderer. Left-leaning critics of the film have branded it a propaganda piece that glorifies war while right-leaning supporters have acclaimed it as a celebration of the US troops and the hardships and sacrifices they have to endure on a daily basis. Personally I’m less interested in the political aspect of this film and more interested in the human aspect. Bradley Cooper, who plays Kyle, has stated that the film was intended to be a story about one man and his internal struggles. That is the film that I wanted to see as I entered the theatre.

The film starts off with an incredible opening scene where Kyle, who is perched on a rooftop in a warzone on the lookout for any potential threats, spots a woman and a young boy entering the site. He fixates upon them, waiting to see what they plan to do. The young boy is handed what looks like an explosive device and Kyle is suddenly faced with a difficult decision. He has seconds to decide whether or not to fire knowing that there will be dire consequences if he makes the wrong choice. He must weigh the ramifications of taking a child’s life against the potential threat posed to his nearby allies and make a split-second decision that he can never take back. Each agonising second that passes is tenser than the last as we wait to see what Kyle will do. It is an opening that instantly grabs your attention and immediately provides the audience with an outline of the inner conflict that will torment Chris Kyle throughout this film.

The film then goes into flashback mode as we see scenes from Kyle’s childhood in which his father teaches him how to shoot and imparts upon him a lesson about how all people are either sheep, wolves or sheepdogs. He is adamant that both of his sons shall grow up to become sheepdogs, i.e. men who stand up to bullies and who help those in need. Cut to a few years later, Kyle is living in Texas as a rodeo cowboy. He spends his days drinking beers with his brother without a worry in the world until one night when he sees the news coverage of the 1998 US embassy bombings. In that moment Kyle feels the call of duty and immediately enlists in the US Navy to become a Navy SEAL. I imagine that Eastwood was trying to appeal to a sense of American patriotism in this scene, and perhaps he succeeded (I’m not American), but to me this moment came across as a bit corny. To the film’s credit it does manage to diminish the supposed glamour of joining the armed forces with its brutal training montage.

Afterwards we see Kyle in a bar where he meets his future wife Taya Renae (Sienna Miller). Throughout this film Miller does do her best with the material she is given, but she simply isn’t given much of a character beyond being Chris Kyle’s wife. They fall in love and get married just before Kyle is deployed to Iraq in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. He excels as a soldier there and builds up a considerable kill count, but it soon becomes clear that the war is having a distressing effect on him. Whenever he comes home to see his family, he isn’t really there as he is still being haunted by the war. He is still driven by a strong sense of duty and refuses to leave the Navy until he believes that he has done enough.

Bradley Cooper does a commendable job of portraying Kyle and the trauma that he experiences. The film makes a strong attempt to depict Kyle as a hero by emphasising how he is haunted not by the lives he has taken but by the lives he failed to save. However my major gripe with this film is that it never really gets under Kyle’s skin. The film does a good job of showing the inner struggle that Kyle suffers but never really tries to uncover a deep understanding of it. The film seems more determined to revere Kyle as a hero rather than view him as a human being. Therefore the sum of his inner conflict simply amounts to him caring too much. This may make for an admirable character but it also makes for a simplistic one.

American Sniper is overall a stirring film with some great moments, but I was ultimately underwhelmed by the lack of a compelling character study. I couldn’t form an emotional bond with Kyle as a character until at the very end when we are shown the archive footage of his memorial service at the Cowboys Stadium. That, for me, was a strong emotional moment because it was actually real. The rest of the film, as decent as it was, never really felt like a real story. Perhaps this is because it was clearly made with a strong ideological motive in mind that was pretty difficult to ignore. Not that there’s anything wrong with having a such a purpose in a film, whether it be politically, morally, or patriotically motivated, I just felt that it got in the way of what could have been a better film.

★★★

Whiplash

Cast: Miles Teller, J. K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist

Director: Damien Chazelle

Writer: Damien Chazelle


Pursuing a dream is often difficult. One could argue that everyone would do it if it were easy. It requires patience, determination and passion. Even then a dream can often prove to be unattainable. Other times it can consume you and turn into an obsession. Some people can chase their dreams so fervently that they lose sight of all else and end up destroying themselves. This is the central theme of Whiplash, a film about a young man’s compulsive quest for perfection and greatness and the sufferings, inflicted both by himself and by his teacher, he undergoes in order to achieve his dream.

The film opens with Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a talented jazz drummer enrolled at one of the best music schools in the country, practising on the drums. Andrew is an ambitious young man who emulates the big names of jazz music, including Buddy Rich and Charlie Parker, and aspires to one day join their ranks as one of the greats. He stops playing when he notices that one of the school’s music maestros, the jazz conductor Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons), is listening in. Fletcher puts Andrew on the spot, asking him confrontational questions and giving him a complex drum beat to play, before leaving in the middle without another word. After a second audition, which takes place when Fletcher spontaneously walks into his class and asks each student in turn to play him a couple of bars, he makes Andrew the new alternate drummer in his band.

Simmons gives a powerhouse performance as Fletcher, a musical genius with psychopathic methods who demands perfection and nothing less. He proves to be a teacher with a sadistic temperament who verbally abuses his students for the slightest offences. It is startling to see him casually talking to Andrew with a calm and kindly demeanour when only a few minutes ago we saw him reduce one of his musicians to tears and kick him out of the band for playing out of tune. When he asks Andrew about his parents, one wonders if he is genuinely trying to be friendly or if he is simply looking for ammunition that he can use against him. He assures Andrew not to be too worried about getting the music right only to fling a chair at him moments later for not keeping tempo. He goes further to strike Andrew repeatedly and brutally insults him using his recently acquired knowledge of Andrew’s family as the rest of the class watches in grave silence.

Following this first session Andrew becomes utterly determined to improve his technique and to prove himself to Fletcher. He furiously practices on the drums for hours on end until his hands bleed. Wanting to save himself from any distraction or future difficulties, he pre-emptively breaks up with his girlfriend so that she won’t divert any of his time or attention from becoming a great drummer. Yet in session after session he continuously fails to impress Fletcher who unrelentingly berates him for not being good enough. During a jazz competition when Andrew loses the drummer’s notations he rises to the challenge by performing Hank Levy’s ‘Whiplash’ from memory, earning himself the post of the main drummer. Believing that he has finally proven himself to Fletcher, his pride is short-lived as Fletcher brings another drummer into the band. Fletcher then maliciously pits his drummers against each other in an intense sequence where all three drummers play themselves through blood, toil, sweat, and tears as they try to earn the right to perform the double-time swing in the song ‘Caravan’.

The conflict between Andrew and Fletcher throughout this film is harrowing to behold as Andrew undergoes a disturbing transformation. He goes from being a quiet, mild-mannered boy, frequently spending his afternoons with his father and too shy to ask out the pretty girl who works at the cinema, to an aggressive, wrathful man who scorns his family for failing to appreciate how talented he is and who pushes himself to extreme lengths in order to be the best. He pursues a path of desolation and self-destruction, all the while with Fletcher’s merciless attacks provoking him even further.

Fletcher might have easily turned out to be a caricature of a character (not unlike J. Jonah Jameson in the Spiderman films) if not for the depth he is given. In one of the most striking scenes in the film, Fletcher comes to a session with a mournful look on his face. He asks his band to listen to a piece of music and after a moment reveals that the musician they are listening to is a former student of his who recently died in an accident. He praises his late-student as a “beautiful player” before bursting into tears. It is astonishing to see a man who has performed such heinous acts over the course of the film show such sensitivity. Knowing what we know about him, one starts to wonder whether his outburst is motivated by grief or by guilt.

As Andrew pursues his destructive ambitions, the film raises the question of how far one should go when pursuing their dreams and whether there’s even such a thing as going too far. A recurring story that Fletcher tells to justify his actions recalls an incident where Jo Jones threw a cymbal at a young Charlie Parker’s head for failing to keep the tempo during a concert, an incident that motivated Parker to practice obsessively until he delivered the iconic performance that made him the jazz legend that he is today. This story is used as an incentive for Andrew to endure all the trials and tribulations that are thrown at him because they are what it takes for someone like him to be a great musician. Yet as Andrew pushes himself further and further and becomes more volatile, we the audience are unsure whether or not he will even survive this ordeal. The result is a truly astonishing film with an explosive finale that leaves you hanging on the edge of your seat.

★★★★★

Foxcatcher

Cast: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Sienna Miller, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Michael Hall

Director: Bennett Miller

Writers: E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman


Until I saw the trailer for Foxcatcher I had never heard of John du Pont or of his crime. I never got round to looking him up so I walked into the film without knowing the particulars of his story, which in a way might be a good thing since I don’t like going into films with preconceived notions. What I ended up seeing was a staggering film about a deeply disturbed man and the traumatising ordeal he inflicted upon two brothers. Even now the thought of John du Pont with his cold gaze and unnerving voice frightens me. I have no idea how accurate the film’s account of the story or its portrayal of du Pont is but to speculate on that might be to miss the point. Maybe this film isn’t about du Pont or the Schultz brothers, but is instead a film that uses their tale to tell a story about, amongst other things, the quest for and the cost of greatness.

We are first introduced to the wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), an Olympic Gold Medallist who is dissatisfied with his station in life. He goes to give a talk at an elementary school where the children plainly do not who he is and are not interested in what he has to say. He gets mistaken for his older brother David Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) who is also a gold medal winning wrestler, an early indication of the shadow that Mark lives under. He lives in a small apartment where he eats cheap food and every day is an endless cycle of training with his brother and going home. Mark is dissatisfied with his present state because he believes himself to be less than what he could be. Mark is a man who aspires to greatness. He wants to be a champion. He wants to be a role model. He wants to be the best wrestler in the world.

Enter John du Pont, played by an unrecognisable Steve Carell, a multi-millionaire who appeals towards Mark’s aspirations by offering him the chance to join his Foxcatcher team along with the best resources and publicity that money can buy so that he might win the gold at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Mark sees this opportunity as the big break he has been waiting for. He accepts and tries to persuade his brother to do the same. David, in contrast to Mark, is completely satisfied with where he is and has no desire to seize this chance. He has a wife whom he loves, children that he adores, and a training routine that works for him. Mark, who feels that his own achievements are somehow less because he has always lived under his brother’s shadow, accepts this. He rushes over to the Foxcatcher estate, excited at the prospect of going at it on his own. However his time with John du Pont proves to be a traumatic experience.

John du Pont, like Mark Schultz, is a man who aspires towards greatness and he expects to receive it. He comes from a very wealthy background in which he grew up wanting for nothing. He’s used to getting whatever he wants whenever he wants it and has developed a strong sense of self-entitlement. When David Schultz rejects du Pont’s offer, du Pont is stunned. He doesn’t understand the prospect of not getting what he wants or the concept of a man who cannot be bought. Similarly he fully expects to become an Olympic level wrestling coach despite not having the knowledge nor the experience for it. He speaks about wanting to give America hope by providing them heroes to admire because that is how he wants people to see him. Du Pont wants to be regarded as the all-American hero. A great deal of du Pont’s insecurity stems from his relationship with his mother (Vanessa Redgrave) who has always been discouraging towards him, saying that she doesn’t like seeing him do “something low” like wrestling. This sort of dismay hurts du Pont and causes him to vent his anger onto those around him, particularly on Mark Schultz. Perhaps du Pont’s resentment towards Mark is on some level because he sees him as the man he wishes he could have been, but more likely is that he abuses Mark in order to make himself feel superior.

Wrestling is often viewed as an animalistic sport and there is a strong sense that John du Pont views the wrestlers under his employ as little more than beasts and himself as their master. He often treats Mark as if he were nothing more than a pet, striking him and talking down to him. Although Mark has developed a friendship with du Pont and has grown to view him as a father figure, his affection is rewarded with disdain and abuse. Du Pont is a man who wants to be revered and believes that he is entitled to reverence by those he deems inferior to himself. When David Schultz does join the team his indifference towards du Pont appears to have a grating effect. Whatever it was that drove du Pont to murder David shall always remain a matter of speculation but the film suggests that du Pont was maddened by the thought of someone who did not look up to him and who did not rely on him, not dissimilar to the way that his own mother regarded him.

In Foxcatcher Bennett Miller delivers a dark, disturbing story about the scarring effects of a man in pursuit of respect, love and greatness. When all is said and done Mark Schultz survives du Pont’s malice, but not intact. A part of Mark has been grievously damaged by du Pont’s abuse, perhaps beyond repair. Being treated as a beast has had a horrendous effect on him that he may never escape. When we see Mark Schultz competing in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, perhaps it’s not a coincidence that his closing image is of him fighting in a cage. This film is as cold and as merciless as du Pont’s maliciousness and still gives me chills.

★★★★★

The Theory of Everything

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Charlie Cox, David Thewlis, Simon McBurney, Emily Watson

Director: James Marsh

Writer: Anthony McCarten


Last year I saw a documentary about Stephen Hawking which introduced me to his remarkable story. I was deeply moved by the extraordinary life that he has led and was very much looking forward to seeing his story realised in a dramatic form. However I do realise that a remarkable story does not necessarily make a remarkable film and shall attempt to assess this film based on its own merits. With that in mind, The Theory of Everything is in itself a rather moving film that admirably depicts the struggle of a man with a brilliant mind suffering from motor neurone disease and the struggle of his equally brilliant wife in her effort to support him.

The film starts off at Cambridge University in 1963 where an astrophysics student named Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and a literature student named Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones) meet at a party. Stephen is shown to possess a very advanced mind and a keen thirst for knowledge as he reveals his greatest aspiration to be the search for the answer to life and existence. Jane meanwhile shows herself to be a very learned and cultured woman who is fascinated by Stephen’s intelligence but is not daunted by it as she challenges him on his dismissal of God’s existence. The two are smitten with each other and soon embark on a romantic relationship. The way this is done is a bit too romanticised for my liking (eyes meeting from across the room and all that), but the chemistry this couple shares is captivating and so I find myself willing to overlook this.

While this is happening Stephen starts showing the early signs of his disease as he has difficulties picking things up and stumbles slightly as he walks. He shrugs off these symptoms and attends a lecture on black holes which finally gives him the inspiration he needs to form a working theory about the creation of the universe. As he begins his pursuit of this theory he has an accident that leads him to visit the hospital. It is here that he receives his crushing diagnosis. Stephen is told that he has a degenerative disease that will deprive him of the control over his body and is given two years to live. Despite his attempt to push Jane away in order to spare her from pain and heartbreak, she finds out the truth and resolves to make the most of what little time they may have together. The rest of the film portrays the difficulties that Stephen’s disease brings to his work and marriage as he and his wife fight tooth and nail not to let his disease defeat them.

Eddie Redmayne delivers a breath-taking performance as Stephen Hawking both emotionally and physically. His portrayal of the effects of motor neurone disease on the way he walks, talks, looks and behaves are so convincing and so harrowing to watch that one often forgets that he is in fact an actor playing a part. He shows great conviction as Stephen in his effort not to let his condition prevent him from becoming one of the greatest minds in scientific study.Felicity Jones delivers a formidable performance as a woman struggling to cope with the life that she has chosen. She gives up her own ambitions so that Stephen might realise his as she dedicates herself to Stephen’s care and to raising their children. Jones depicts her character’s struggle with such heart and turmoil that it becomes all too apparent that this disease has just as heavy a toll on Jane as it does on her husband. Through Jane the film raises compelling questions about love and marriage and what exactly it means to love someone in sickness and in health.

It is often the case with biopics that the screenwriter and director merely attempt to recreate the key moments of the subject’s life, almost like a greatest hits compilation, without attempting any insight into the people themselves or what they did. The Theory of Everything is not one of those films. The director James Marsh and the screenwriter Anthony McCarten do not merely attempt to portray the struggle that this couple endured, they attempt to understand it by showing how it affected them. Stephen copes with the loss of his body by using the one resource that he still controls, his mind. He focuses all of his efforts onto his work so that he might do the one thing he knows he can do well and not allow himself to be limited by his disease. By doing so he neglects Jane who in turn must seek love and affection where she can find it, all the while never forgetting her duty and responsibility to her husband. This does not go unnoticed by Stephen, nor does he judge her for it.

The Theory of Everything is a wonderfully sensitive film that provides insightful reflections on these two characters and the marriage that they shared. It raises the challenges inherent with being unable to love someone or to be loved by their hearts’ desire. It depicts a powerful story of mind over matter. It provides an inspired and honest portrayal of a truly remarkable man and his remarkable life and marriage.

★★★★

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Cast: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts

Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu

Writers: Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo


Often when an actor is cast to play an iconic character such as a superhero, it is very difficult for that actor to break away from the role. This is something that Mark Hamill learned when his post-Star Wars career found little success due to his identity being so strongly linked to that of Luke Skywalker. Similarly Bela Lugosi gave such a stellar performance as Dracula that he was forever typecast and cursed to live out the rest of his career playing minor parts in lesser horror films. Michael Keaton suffered the same fate when he left the role of Batman behind in 1992 only for his career to be met with modest success afterwards, an experience that doubtless provided him with a valuable insight into the tortured unhinged psyche of washed-up Hollywood actor Riggan Thomson.

Riggan, a role that surely must have been written specially for Keaton, is a former movie star whose career peaked decades earlier when he played the iconic superhero Birdman. Having experienced little success in the years since he left the role behind, he makes a last-ditch effort to save himself from irrelevance, obscurity and mediocrity by writing, directing and starring in a theatrical adaptation of Ray Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. This proves to be a tortuous ordeal as he pours everything he has into this production and is faced with family issues, difficult actors, a disdainful critic, and his own deranged mind. His thoughts are constantly at war with one another as he battles with the abusive voice of his alter ego Birdman and his grip on reality loosens as he imagines himself to be a super-heroic figure, performing feats of levitation and telekinesis. Riggan undergoes a psychological breakdown and a lamenting downfall befitting a hero of a Shakespearean tragedy, an appropriate comparison given the inclusion of Macbeth’s soliloquy later on in the film.

Keaton delivers the performance of his career as he impeccably portrays the fanatical personality of Riggan Thomson complete with the erratic mood swings, the conflicting personalities and the desperation of a man at the end of his tether. Riggan finds himself in a despairing state as his ego is constantly undermined by antagonistic forces. There is the abrasive actor whose undercutting criticisms challenge Riggan’s creative vision. There is also the pompous New York Times critic who resents Riggan for his impudence and ignorance. Most demoralising of all is the cruel voice of Birdman whose abuse constantly puts Riggan down and who insists that he is out of his depth and must return to the glory days of Birdman. So extreme is this inner turmoil that the lines between Riggan and Birdman become blurred and one starts to wonder whether the two are even interchangeable.

Iñárritu’s direction complements Riggan’s rapid and irrational mentality as he shoots and edits the film to look like one continuous take, crammed with paranoid shakes of the camera and schizophrenic close-ups. The camera moves haphazardly from room to room and follows character after character as hours or even entire days fly by in a single motion. This is a film that never stops moving and that never allows the audience to feel comfortable. The chaotic and frenzied tone that Iñárritu conveys deftly hides the fact that every scene must have had to be precisely timed and rigorously choreographed in order for them to be properly captured. The inclusion of an original score played mostly on the drums also adds to the hectic tone.

Although Birdman is very much Keaton’s film the supporting cast is also worthy of praise, particularly Edward Norton and Emma Stone (who, perhaps not coincidentally, are also famous for starring in superhero films). Norton plays the brilliant but unstable and hot-blooded method actor Mike who constantly challenges Riggan as a writer, director and actor, and who actively insists on drinking real gin and on being threatened by a more realistic looking gun while on stage in order for the act to “feel real”. Stone plays Riggan’s daughter Sam, a recovering drug addict who resents her father, despite not quite knowing why, and who lashes out because of him. Both actors portray their characters with great intensity and fury while also allowing some humanity to balance out the absurdity. The cast also includes Zach Galifianakis as Riggan’s best friend and producer trying to stop everything from falling apart, Naomi Watts as an aspiring actress finally getting her big break on Broadway, Andrea Riseborough as Riggan’s discontented girlfriend, Lindsay Duncan as the critic who has set out to destroy Riggan, and Amy Ryan as Riggan’s ex-wife who perhaps knows him better than he knows himself.

Birdman is a challenging film that raises many questions. How much of what happens takes place in Riggan’s head and how much of it is real? Are Riggan and Birdman separate personalities or are they one and the same? What happens at the end and what does it mean? These questions are never given any explicit answers and perhaps they aren’t supposed to. After all it isn’t called The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance for nothing. Half of the fun is in not knowing. Regardless, Birdman is an immensely creative and compelling film that invites the viewer to not just watch, but rather to experience a story. It is a unique and unusual film that can understandably be daunting or even frustrating for anyone more preferential towards films with traditional narrative structures. Having only seen it once I cannot claim to have completely figured this film out and maybe I never will. However I can claim to have been exceedingly fascinated, mentally stimulated, and thoroughly entertained by this film and I look forward to the prospect of watching it again.

★★★★★

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee

Director: Peter Jackson

Writers: Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh, Guillermo del Toro


Before I go into depth about my feelings on this film, I figured that the best place to start is with my thoughts on the films that came before. Since this film is the final instalment of a trilogy that is a prequel to another trilogy, it is impossible to adequately judge this film without the context of the other films. Before Jackson embarked on this trilogy he of course made the Lord of the Rings trilogy which I absolutely love. Over the years I have acknowledged that the films are somewhat flawed and imperfect, but none of these criticisms have ever been able to diminish my fanboy love for this trilogy. Therefore I inevitably had high hopes for The Hobbit trilogy.

When An Unexpected Journey came out I thought that it was a decent enough start. Like most people at the time I was not convinced that an entire trilogy was necessary for this story, but I felt that the first film was solid enough in its own right. It was clear that Jackson was going for a lighter tone with this trilogy, which is unsurprising since The Hobbit is in fact a children’s book, so I was willing to forgive some of the sillier aspects of this film such as the comic relief provided by the dwarves, the excessive CGI and Radagast the Brown’s rabbit sled (that was particularly difficult to forgive). There were many good scenes in this film that balanced out the sillier aspects such as the Dwarven song, the meeting in Rivendell and Gollum’s riddles. Overall it succeeded in allaying some of my prior fears and, despite not achieving the same quality as the original Lord of the Rings films, was still enjoyable in its own right and was a promising enough start for the new trilogy.

I then went to see The Desolation of Smaug and I hated hated hated it. All of my worst fears came true in this film as I saw Jackson fall into the infamous George Lucas Trap, in which the director forgets what it was that made the original films work and sets about trying to outdo the originals rather than trying to recapture them. When Jackson first directed the Lord of the Rings it was the first time he had ever worked on a film this big, so he was naturally cautious to begin with. As the films went along and he grew more in confidence he gradually made the action bigger and made more use of CGI, which worked in this case because the growing scale of the action complemented the growing threat that the characters faced. However when Jackson set about making the Hobbit trilogy, a smaller story with a smaller threat, he was unable to pull himself back. Instead he tried to go bigger, which resulted in exaggerated and ridiculous action sequences that decreased the sense of danger. In the original trilogy there was never really a sense that any of the characters (with the exception of Legolas) were unkillable. Whenever these characters faced any danger, the scale of the action was both great and grounded enough to make the danger feel real. In The Hobbit trilogy however we are constantly presented with over-the-top action sequences that result in these characters surviving relatively unscathed, making it clear that these characters are indeed unkillable. Consequently these sequences are completely lacking in tension because it is clear that these characters are never in any actual danger.

The Desolation of Smaug was the ultimate offender in this regard because it is clear that Jackson was manipulating the action in order to allow the characters to survive to the extent that the action sequences defied reason, physics and logic. An example of this is that bloody awful river chase sequence where every possible aspect is manipulated to ensure the dwarves’ survival. The dwarves are conveniently given the exact weapons they need at the exact time they need them. The elves conveniently show up at the exact time they are needed to save another character’s life. Worst of all is Bombur’s barrel roll in which he is sent into an uncontrollable free-fall that conveniently knocks down every orc in his path, while he is left completely unharmed, before he re-joins the dwarves in a convenient empty barrel that is inexplicably there. It is almost impossible to believe that the characters are ever in any danger when the film allows for so much convenience to take place. The second film did have some good scenes such as those with the Necromancer and the confrontation between Bilbo and Smaug, but these were overshadowed by the grating action scenes and also by the pointless filler that was shoehorned in between like the forced dwarf-elf love story and the unnecessary Lake Town politics.

With all that in mind, I was very cautious when I sent to see The Battle of the Five Armies. However I ended up being pleasantly surprised and found it to be the strongest film in the trilogy. The main reason for this is that I finally got the action that I had been waiting for. For the first time the characters were faced with a threat that actually felt real. This was the first time that I actually felt the stakes of what was happening. This was the first time that I actually felt like I was watching a Lord of the Rings film.

The Battle of the Five Armies picks up right where the second film left off and shows Smaug’s attack on Lake Town. It is a thrilling scene in its own right, even if it does contain some of the gimmicks that annoyed me so much in the second film, but I couldn’t help but feel that it would have worked better as a climax rather than as an opening. When the sequence was over it felt almost anticlimactic. After a year of waiting to see what was going to happen, I was left with the thought ‘is it over already?’ Overall it was an exciting, if somewhat unsatisfying, way to open the film.

In the aftermath of Smaug’s attack the people of Lake Town are destitute and, with their homes destroyed, they are left with no option but to go to the Lonely Mountain and claim their share of the treasure. Meanwhile at the Lonely Mountain tension is building up between the dwarves as Thorin becomes obsessed with finding the Arkenstone. His mind is corrupted by this raging obsession and he finds himself unable to trust anyone, not even his own blood. He refuses to share the dragon’s treasure with either the men of Lake Town, nor with the elves of Mirkwood, and calls upon a Dwarven army to come to his aid as he prepares for war.

While this is happening Gandalf is still being held prisoner by the Necromancer until his allies come to his aid. This sequence (which, retrospectively, might have served as a better opening for the film) is exhilarating to watch as we get to see characters who are familiar to us in action as they band together to combat the threat who has now been identified as Sauron. Gandalf is rescued and must race to the Lonely Mountain to warn everyone about the Orc army heading their way.

We all know that the titular battle is going to happen sooner or later so there is a sense of agonising inevitability (in a good way) as we see Bilbo and Bard do all they possibly can to try and prevent a war while Thorin and Thranduil have already resigned themselves to this eventuality. The tension is unbearable, the stakes are high and the resulting battle is epic (even if it does contain some of the gimmicks that annoyed me so much in the second film). This was the film that I was waiting for after I first saw An Unexpected Journey and it was a satisfying way to end a trilogy which, at the end of the day, really did not need to be a trilogy. If the team behind the franchise had stuck to their original decision to make two films instead, I believe that The Hobbit would be held in much higher regard than it is now. As it stands, The Battle of the Five Armies is a good film in its own right and is a satisfactory conclusion for the deeply flawed Hobbit trilogy.

★★★★