Demolition

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper, Judah Lewis

Director: Jean-Paul Vallée

Writer: Bryan Sipe


Sometimes when I watch a film that is clearly trying to say something profound and I find that I don’t understand it, I’ll often wonder whether the fault is with me or with the film. Is the film really saying nothing of value or am I just missing it because I haven’t thought enough about it? Other times however I know straight away that there is no need to ask myself that question. Either it possesses a genius that is self-evident or it has failed spectacularly. Demolition is one of the latter. It tries so hard to be deep and thoughtful that it completely misses the target and fails to reach any sort of a meaningful resolution. Through its attempts at providing social commentary, its blatantly obvious metaphors and its moments of forced emotion the film tries to present itself as being intelligent and insightful. Instead it achieves the exact opposite.

When his wife dies in a car crash Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal) is rendered into a kind of stupor where he feels detached from everything around him. He finds himself unable to mourn for his wife and alarms everyone, especially his boss and father-in-law Phil (Chris Cooper), with his seeming aloofness and indifference. He is no longer focused on his work, he lies in his bed wide awake for hours on end and he speaks to everyone he comes across glibly and apathetically. When the vending machine at the hospital fails to produce a packet of M&Ms for him, he decides to complain to the machine’s company in a series of letters that detail the entire history of his relationship with his late-wife for context. The company’s head of customer services Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts) is moved by these letters and reaches out to Davis. With her help and that of her teenage son Chris (Judah Lewis) Davis attempts to build a new life for himself by destroying (or demolishing if you prefer) his old life.

It is clear that Demolition wants to say something deep and insightful about life and loss, new beginnings, the pursuit of happiness and the nature of change. However Sipe’s script tries far too hard at this and ends up becoming almost a parody of the kind of film it’s trying to be. The film wants to be quirkily unbelievable, in that it depicts two unlikely characters finding each other in an unlikely way, but ends up being wildly implausible. Davis speaks and writes as if every statement he makes is intended to be profoundly contemplative, almost as if he thinks he’s the first person to think any of these things, but just comes across as superficial and hollow. Some of his insights are downright laughable such as in one particular instance when he asks, “do you ever feel like everything is a metaphor?” (a question that is almost worthy of an ostentatious high school English essay). Any hint of complexity and perceptiveness gets lost in the film’s attempts to be cute and quirky, allowing cheap sentimentality to undermine and destroy whatever depth this film might have had.

In fairness to the film there were some moments that I enjoyed. One scene I enjoyed was when Davis meets Karen’s son for the first time and is met with a barrage of F-bombs. Davis puts Chris in his place by explaining to him that “fuck” is a fantastic word and that he undermines it by overusing it. Another scene I liked was where Davis and Chris find a gun that belongs to Karen’s boyfriend and decide to try it out. What follows is incredibly silly but it is also the funniest scene in the film. A few highlights however is not enough to save a film that had me rolling my eyes at its cutesy tone, one-dimensional characters and weak philosophy. There is nothing believable about how Davis and Karen become friends with one another and little chemistry to speak of. Chris is a decent character but is still a victim of the script with its embarrassingly hollow dialogue.

For a film that wants to be intuitive and meaningful, it takes a frustratingly safe approach to its concept. Instead of really trying to confront its themes of loss, sorrow and rebirth, it throws in some light comedy and half-baked philosophies that end up undermining the story. It wants to convey this fantastical feeling of wonderment and chance by having its two unlikely characters meet in an unlikely way and finding both of their lives to be richer for it, but it simply isn’t smart enough to pull it off. It is too farfetched, too schmaltzy and too senseless. The deeper meaning that the film thinks it is finding is clichéd and trite and falls short of anything close to profundity. Neither the story nor its characters feel real; therefore the emotions they are trying to inspire don’t feel real. The result is an aimless, overdone and empty film.

★★

Advertisements

Disorder

Cast: Matthias Schoenaerts, Diane Kruger, Paul Hamy, Zaïd Errougui-Demonsant

Director: Alice Winocour

Writers: Alice Winocour, Jean-Stéphane Bron


At first glance Disorder looks like it has the making of a typical, even generic, European thriller. An ex-soldier is hired to be the bodyguard of a beautiful woman and stays with her in a secluded summer home where the two are often alone together. I can only imagine what Hollywood might have done if they had managed to get their hands on the script. However the fact that the leading creative mind behind this film is a woman is interesting. Films of this genre tend to be seen in purely masculine terms and, in an industry that is already overwhelmingly dominated by men, it is refreshing to see a more feminine approach to this type of story. Winocour’s approach has turned out to be quite revealing of how films like this are typically made. For example this film portrays its main character, a man, in an alluring way which makes one think of how women tend to be portrayed in these films. I don’t think Disorder is by its own merits a particularly great movie but it is interesting in what it reveals about gendered approaches to film.

Vincent (Matthias Schoenaerts) is an ex-soldier suffering from PTSD following his service in Afghanistan. He now makes his living as a bodyguard under the service of a wealthy Lebanese businessman with some rather shady dealings. When his boss must travel abroad for a few days, he leaves his wife Jessie (Diane Kruger) and son Ali (Zaïd Errougui-Demonsant) under Vincent’s protection. They travel together to their summer home Maryland in the countryside where they expect to find nothing but peace and tranquillity. Vincent however cannot help but feel paranoid at all times and starts to wonder whether his condition has had a corrosive effect on his instincts as a soldier. He also wonders whether his attraction to Jessie is proving to be equally detrimental to his judgement.

The angle this film adopts in depicting this story from the perspective of a traumatised soldier does prove quite effective. There is an undeniable air of paranoia as Vincent question everything around him in order to protect this woman and her child. He sees a car following them as they make their way to the beach and cannot help but wonder whether it’s actually tailing them or is in fact perfectly innocent of any intrigue. When his actions start to scare Jessie and Ali, Vincent begins doubting himself. In his state he could very well be more of a threat to the family than anybody else who might seek to do them harm. Winocour does a good job of reflecting this in her direction, examining everything purely from Vincent’s perspective and allowing enough instability in the camera movements to put the audience at unease. Is the camera shaking because something bad is about to happen or is it because Vincent is on the verge of a meltdown? We don’t know and that’s just the way Winocour likes it.

With that said however, Vincent himself isn’t really that interesting of a character. He’s traumatised and tormented but doesn’t display much in terms of personality. Maybe his service as a soldier has eaten away at his personality, leaving a hardened warrior in its place, but I felt like there should have been something there that the audience could have connected with on a human level. Although Schoenaerts was serviceable in the role, I simply didn’t think the character made enough of an impression on me for me to really empathise with him. Kruger was also decent in the role of a trophy wife who is actually more of a prisoner than she initially appears to be but, again, there just wasn’t much to the character herself that I found that interesting. Both Vincent and Jessie are good ideas for characters but I never found their stories to be that interesting because I didn’t think the film took the step to make the characters themselves interesting.

Disorder is a well-constructed film that succeeds at building tension and that has some rather intense action. I also like the perspective that Winocour brought to the film, treating the subject with more sensitivity than a male director or writer might have been inclined to. The film takes its time with building its atmosphere, which was greatly assisted by the score, and there is definitely a strong sense of paranoia. We are never sure how safe these characters are or whether they can trust anyone or even themselves. The characters however were not interesting enough to truly engage me and the ending was greatly underwhelming. Still, all things considered, it is interesting what this film reveals about gender in film today. The palpable tension and well-executed action show that the thriller is by no means a man’s genre. Winocour shows herself to be a thoroughly capable director with a sound understanding of filmmaking and has crafted a thriller that is overall neither better or worse than the rest being made today.

★★★

Louder Than Bombs

Cast: Gabriel Byrne, Isabelle Huppert, Jesse Eisenberg, David Strathairn, Amy Ryan, Rachel Brosnahan, Devin Druid

Director: Joachim Trier

Writers: Joachim Trier, Eskil Vogt


The film opens on a shot of a newborn infant clutching his father’s finger. As the child’s life begins, so does he intuitively form a powerful bond with the parent whom he recognises as his custodian. It is a bond built upon love, faith and nurture that endures for the duration of their lifetimes. The opening shot reflects the fragility of this bond as well as its instinctive nature. There is a beauty to this image but there is also a certain pathos as its portrayal of life at its inception ends up serving as a contrast to the remainder of the film. Louder Than Bombs tells the story of what happens when the bond that is formed at this very moment is ultimately and inevitably severed by death. When a director understands the importance of an opening shot and how powerful it can be, it is a strong sign that the film you’re watching is in capable hands.

It has been three years since Gene Reed (Gabriel Byrne) tragically lost his wife and now there is going to be an exhibition in her memory. Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert) was a renowned photographer famed for capturing images of war zones who committed suicide, leaving behind her husband and two sons. Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) is the elder son who has since graduated from college and is now married with a newborn baby. He returns home to assist the upcoming exhibition by sorting through his mother’s things while also taking the chance to reconnect with Erin (Rachel Brosnahan), an old flame. The younger son Conrad (Devin Druid) is still in high school and still living with his father. He has become increasingly withdrawn since his mother’s death and remains in the dark about the fact of her suicide. He spends his days shut in his room where he can avoid his father and lose himself in his video games. So affected are they by Isabelle’s death that the three of them are unable to connect with one another or reconcile their feelings about the woman whom they all remember in different ways.

Despite the impression that the title might form in the viewer’s mind, Louder Than Bombs is in fact a strikingly quiet film. The suburban setting is thousands of miles away from the destructive and chaotic areas of conflict that we only ever see in Isabelle’s photographs. What makes this film stand out is how much it is able to convey with its stillness. By far the most striking image in this film is when the camera focuses squarely on Isabelle’s face for what seems like an eternity as she subtly yet vividly conveys an entire spectrum of emotion. Whereas a typical image is said to be worth a thousand words, this is an image that speaks entire volumes. Isabelle is not featured prominently in this film and yet she makes her presence felt, haunting the memories of those who remember her. The absence she leaves following her departure is almost deafening in its silence. This family has been fractured by her death and nothing is as it once was. The way this film jumps between chronology and perspective is indicative of this as each family member reflects upon their own unique remembrances of her.

The up and comer Devin Druid gives the film’s standout performance as an introverted teenager unable to fully comprehend the loss of his mother. He deftly conveys this character’s anxiety and confusion in his attempt to make sense of it all. He isolates himself from his father without quite understanding why, he plays video games for hours on end in order to escape his own thoughts and he has no clue how to vent his frustration and anger. Huppert also shines every moment she is on screen as a woman who finds herself torn between her life as a photographer, which provides her with stimulation and fulfilment, and her life with her family, which provides her with love and comfort. When she is home she misses her work but when she’s away she misses her family. Through this character she expresses an agonising inner-conflict that perhaps could never have been reconciled. Neither the audience nor the characters are ever given a clear answer over why she took her own life. All we have to go on are the memories of her.

As well as an engaging and emotional story, Louder Than Bombs is an interesting exercise in the power of perspective. Conrad reflects on a lesson he learned from his mother about how changing the frame of a photograph can completely change its meaning. Trier teaches this same lesson by allowing certain scenarios to play out from different points of view. He directs this film skilfully and purposefully as he reflects how our perspectives can affect our perceptions, our relationships and our feelings in revealing ways. In order for their reconciliation to happen each of these characters has to have their eyes opened in a profound way and learn to see things differently from how they appear. Louder Than Bombs is a film that does not seem great or profound upon its first impression. It requires patience, thought and concentration to really sink in but is well worth it. Upon reflection I discovered it to be an intelligent and thoughtful drama about the effects of loss.

★★★★★

Miles Ahead

Cast: Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor, Emayatzy Corinealdi, LaKeith Lee Stanfield, Michael Stuhlbarg

Director: Don Cheadle

Writers: Steven Baigelman, Don Cheadle


When speaking of this film Don Cheadle has exclaimed that he hates the word ‘biopic’ just as much as Miles Davis hated the word ‘jazz’. He’s right to avoid this categorisation because Miles Ahead is far from a conventional biopic. Instead of compiling a sequence of ‘greatest hits’ moments from Davis’ biography, the film places its focus on a particular moment in his life. During this moment he is asked to consider how he would describe his own life. He considers this question by looking back at the day he met his interviewer and the events that followed. The flashbacks we see are not merely scenes from the past, they are memories that play out in Miles’ head. He interacts with them, inhabits them, and watches them on repeat. These memories are set off by triggers which affect him as he goes about his day. This film should not be mistaken as a retelling of Miles Davis’ life, it is an exploration.

It has been five years since Miles Davis (Don Cheadle) put away his trumpet and took a break from his music career. While his production company has paid for him to record a session for his comeback he has refused to hand them the tape. On this particular day the Rolling Stone reporter Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor) turns up on his doorstep for an interview. Forcing his way into Miles’ home, he follows him around in an attempt to learn more about his life and music. The day that follows ends up being a wild one complete with booze, drugs and an attempt by the music executive Harper Hamilton (Michael Stuhlbarg) to steal Miles’ new tape. Over the course of this day Miles thinks back to the romance he shared with Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), a relationship that ended in heartbreak.

I like it when a film resists the temptation to stick to the same generic format as every other biopic and actually tries something new. Miles Ahead doesn’t make any mention of his childhood or his early career or any of what J. D. Salinger called “that David Copperfield kind of crap” because none of it is relevant to the story it wants to tell. It depicts Miles at a point in his life when he is dejected, estranged and adrift. The only memories that are relevant to him today are those of his wife Frances whose face graces the cover of his album ‘Someday My Prince Will Come’. He recalls the moment they met, the moment he asked her to give up her career as a dancer and the moment it all went wrong as he drinks and dopes the hours away waiting for his next cheque from the studio. These flashbacks are not simply cutaway scenes that play out before the story is allowed to continue, Miles is actually reliving them. There is one moment where listening to one of the tracks from ‘Sketches of Spain’ literally transports him back to a moment in his past. The film’s determination not to follow the traditional mainstream format of biopics is reflective of Davis’ own nonconformist attitude and works well, I think, for the film. Some viewers however will doubtless be put off by this film’s irregular style.

Cheadle delivers a transformative performance as Davis, inhabiting the look, the voice and the mannerisms. He assumes Miles’ arrogance, swagger and obstinacy in such a larger-than-life way that the actor himself completely disappears. The portrayal is not a sentimental one as Cheadle proves his commitment to show the ugly, lamentable side of Davis as well as his ingenious, creative side. This is demonstrated most notably by the flashbacks of his marriage to Frances where Miles is shown to display infidelity, abuse, neglect and misogyny. The result is a complex figure who presents something of an enigma as an irrational, disagreeable, self-destructive man who somehow created music of incredible beauty and ingenuity. McGregor also excels as a reckless, intrusive reporter keen to solve the enigma.

Miles Ahead is not a film that will work for everyone. Fans of Miles Davis who might expect greater emphasis on his achievements as a musician or on the music itself will probably be disappointed. Other viewers are liable to be put off by the film’s impressionistic style which is quite alternative and improvisational, much like jazz itself. For what Cheadle has set out to do with this film though, I think he has succeeded remarkably well. Miles Ahead seeks to explore the nature of this fascinating man at a certain point of his life and to discover what his music really means to him. Rather than provide an answer though, the film paints the portrait and allows the viewers to decide for themselves what it is they see. One thing that is clear is that Cheadle was determined not to make a generic film about this remarkable man. In the words of Miles himself, “if you’re gonna tell a story, come with some attitude, man”. Miles Ahead has plenty of attitude.

★★★★★

Urban Hymn

Cast: Letitia Wright, Shirley Henderson, Isabella Laughland, Ian Hart, Steven Mackintosh

Director: Michael Caton-Jones

Writer: Nick Moorcroft


When I saw this film being screened at the Glasgow Film Festival there was a Q&A afterwards with the director Michael Caton-Jones and some of the film’s stars. During this Q&A a point was raised by an audience member about how British cinema has often told the stories of outsiders and provided voices for those who often went unheard. Such is the subject of Urban Hymn. The young offenders featured in this film are amongst those who are often written off by society. Due to the hard lives they’ve lived, they carry much anger and animosity that they are unable to express in a healthy way. Their actions therefore inspire hostility and rejection when what they need is compassion and understanding. Without anybody to help them and to believe in them, they are doomed to pursue paths of indifference and self-destruction. This is why their stories need to be told.

Following the 2011 UK summer riots Kate Linton (Shirley Henderson) gets a job as a social worker for troubled children in a home. Two of the girls there are Jamie Harrison (Letitia Wright) and Leanne Dixon (Isabella Laughland), both of whom act out against their carers. They spend their nights drinking, doing drugs and committing crimes that frequently get them into trouble with the police. While Leanne, the more aggressive of the two, serves a term for one of these crimes, Kate takes the opportunity to try and reach out to Jamie. After hearing her sing and learning of her passion for music, Kate invites Jamie to try out for the community choir. Having become a part of something that actually makes her happy and where she is praised and accepted by others, Jamie starts working to commit herself towards a brighter future. Her friendship with Leanne however threatens to destroy whatever chance she might have.

I think my main issue with this film is that I’ve seen it before. It tells the story of a troubled youth from a tough background who possesses a talent that allows him or her to find inspiration and fulfilment. However, unlike Good Will Hunting or Billy Elliot, this story belongs to a girl and is refreshing because of it. Her perspective allows the film to tell this story in a different way which doesn’t feel tired or routine. The familiar beats are all still there but they haven’t been worn-out because the story now belongs to a character we haven’t seen before. Jamie has the same aggressive temperament as many of the characters depicted in these kinds of stories but also shows herself to be caring and protective of the children sharing the home with her. When one boy gets attacked by a bully, she steps right in and intervenes. When one girl comes into her room after having a bad dream, she lets her stay in her bed. She also remains steadfastly loyal to Leanne, even when she brings out the worst in her and holds her back from reaching her potential.

Although this film is Jamie’s first and foremost, Kate also has a story to tell. She has known tragedy in her life and helping these children is her way of dealing with it. When she discovers that Jamie is gifted with a beautiful singing voice and learns more about her background, she takes it upon herself to help her realise her potential and to help open the doors that Jamie always thought were closed to her. Again, it’s a story that’s been done but still manages to feel fresh in large part due to Henderson’s sublime performance. Leanne is by far the film’s most singular character. This is a character who doesn’t have the trust or the self-worth to believe that she can make a better life for herself. She has resigned herself to a life of neglect, rejection and incarceration and so has given up caring what happens to her. The one thing she does care about is her friendship with Jamie and refuses to let anything come between them. Laughland is absolutely ferocious in this role.

While the film did feel familiar to me it still had enough charm to draw me in and engage me. The film also manages to convey a sense of authenticity through the setting of the 2011 riots, a cameo by Billy Bragg as himself and most of all through these authentic characters and the believable performances of the actors playing them. Best of all is the music which provides Jamie with moments of true happiness, belonging and freedom. Her journey and growth as a character is the heart of this story and Letitia Wright sells every single second of it. During this Q&A she spoke about how this film is somebody’s story which was why it was so important to her to give as honest a performance as she could. Urban Hymn is a touching and honest film with a story that, while familiar, is nevertheless moving.

★★★★

High-Rise

Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes

Director: Ben Wheatley

Writer: Amy Jump


While watching High-Rise I was very much reminded of Lord of the Flies. Like Golding’s celebrated novel, High-Rise depicts the collapse of civilisation and the ascendancy of disorder, savagery and anarchy. However, while Lord of the Flies was in essence a portrait of the darkness and evil that exists in all men’s hearts, High-Rise is a social commentary that raises themes of class, technology and power. The apartment complex where all these characters live is one where flat assignments and relationships between neighbours are determined by social status. The inequitable distribution of such necessaries as water and electricity speaks of the economic situation of the 70s, the decade Ballard wrote the novel, which remains very much relevant today. The residents of this building are isolated from the rest of the world and suffer from severe detachment and alienation. It is a film that speaks of a bad situation getting continually worse with no hope of restoration in sight.

Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), a young doctor, moves into the 25th floor of a lavish tower block where he finds himself both seduced and bewildered by the way of life. Governing this building is its architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) who rules from above in his penthouse apartment, unreachable to those who are not invited or summoned. Amongst Laing’s neighbours are Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller), a loyal advocate for Royal, and Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), a documentary filmmaker determined to expose the injustices exercised within the building. Through them Laing discovers the belligerent tension between the occupants of the upper and lower flats and bears witness to the complex loyalties and acts of provocation that result. As the situation grows more volatile it is only a matter of time until chaos erupts and the state of affairs is destroyed through violence and bloodshed.

High-Rise is set in a dystopic future of the 2000 A.D. kind that the writers and filmmakers of the 1970s might have imagined. Nearly the entirety of its story is set in the imposing tower with its dark interiors, oppressive architecture and intricate layout. Wheatley makes marvellous use of his setting and conveys an acute sense of being trapped and confined. The tower block was specially designed to be self-sustaining, complete with its own gym, swimming pool and shopping market, and so there is seldom a reason to step outside into the empty landscape. At one point two characters step into the parking lot only to discover that they’ve long since forgotten where they’ve left their cars. Through the use of montage Wheatley is also able to convey a sense of disorientation as the situation in the tower grows more explosive. We know that this chaotic breakdown takes place over the course of three months but our sense of time becomes distorted as the days meld into one another. Wheatley’s depiction of the horror that unfolds as chaos and disorder become rampant is unrelenting in its brutality and stunning in execution, particularly one sequence involving a kaleidoscope.

Hiddleston delivers a top-notch performance as an outsider slowly conforming himself to the way of life in the tower block. On the surface he is calm and immaculate but there is a hint of melancholy and madness that is gradually brought out by the increasingly unstable environment he has inhabited. Initially he seeks to achieve some form of balance between the two opposing classes, forming friendships with those below and arranging trysts with those above and is very much the observer to the catastrophe that is inevitably to follow. The rest of the ensemble is a collection of peculiar characters following a conformist way of life that is doomed to collapse. Evans shines as the deplorable, misogynistic Wilder whose quest to challenge the higher ups and expose their tyranny somehow makes him as close to a moral voice as a twisted world such as this can produce. Sienna Miller and Elisabeth Moss both provide highlights as single mothers of different social classes who become exasperated by this way of life and its subsequent downfall.

My main problem with High-Rise is that by the time the third act started I was ready for it to be over. So exhausting was the film’s constant violence, wild characters and disturbing subject matter that I, along with other members of the audience, was utterly drained as the film approached its climax. Perhaps this was intentional on the film’s part, to weary me with its relentless nature in order to drive its point home. This film has a clear point to make about society and is unmistakable in its approach. The film ends on a similar note to John Carpenter’s The Thing where, just when you think it’s all over, it leaves you with a hint that the worst is yet to come. Even though I felt that the film did lose momentum towards the end and thought that the narrative struggled at certain points, High-Rise is overall a well-crafted film with challenging themes that packs a real wallop.

★★★★

Hail, Caesar!

Cast: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum

Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen


This latest offering by the Coen brothers is one that harkens back to the Golden Age of Hollywood, a time before television when film was the single most popular form of daily entertainment. The studios were titans, the movies were phenomena and the actors were gods. The film’s 1951 setting marks a time when this age of glitz, glamour and glory was nearing its end following a decision by the US Supreme Court to abolish the studio system and end the monopoly of the ‘Big Five’. Cinema approached an age of uncertainty with the adoption of TV on the rise, as was the fear of Communism and McCarthyism. Many of the films Hollywood made at this time were escapist fantasies from majestic westerns like The Searchers to dazzling musicals like Singin’ in the Rain to biblical epics like The Ten Commandments. This age of disenchantment, paranoia and frivolity, all based around the movies, is the perfect setting for a Coen brothers movie.

The film follows a day in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a Hollywood ‘fixer’ whose job it is to preserve the public image of Capitol Pictures and its stars. When Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the star of the studio’s biggest production ‘Hail, Caesar!’ is kidnapped and held for ransom, it becomes Eddie’s job to recover him without the press finding out. Along the way he must also deal with such problems as the pregnancy of Deanna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), a celebrated actress who remains unmarried, and the grievances of the esteemed director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) who finds working on his period drama with the inept Western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) impossible. Mannix is also offered a job by an airline company, a prestigious job with better pay that would allow him more time with his family, and must decide what working for the studio really means to him.

I’m a little stumped by Hail, Caesar! The Coen brothers have never been ones to opt for simple, conventional narratives and their off-beat, eccentric style has always been liable to throw some viewers off at first. However I couldn’t help but feel lost while watching this film. I was definitely entertained by it but, when it was over, I was left wondering what had actually happened and what it was all for. The stars whose roles amounted to little more than cameos, the stories that were left unresolved, the outlandish plot developments; all of these had me wondering what on earth Joel and Ethan Coen were thinking as they made this film. However I must remind myself that these concerns are also present in The Big Lebowski which is by all means a great movie. The Coen brothers are two quality filmmakers whose work has proven to be largely consistent (with a couple of exceptions) and are therefore entitled to a certain degree of trust and faith.

Faith. Based on the closing monologue to ‘Hail, Caesar!’ (the movie within the movie), faith seems to be the idea behind it all. Faith in an institution, faith in an ideology, faith in a greater being; these are all featured prominently in the film. The protagonist Eddie is an earnest, well-meaning, god-fearing man whose work often requires him to do things that weigh heavily on his conscience. Every night he unloads his sins onto his confessor, looking for direction and reassurance. In other words he is suffering from a crisis of faith. Brolin is excellent in this role. I think the reason I felt perplexed though is that the film felt bloated to me. There is so much going on in this movie on top of Eddie’s story that the central point kind of gets lost in the middle of it all. Layered storytelling is nothing new to the Coen brothers but the film’s larger purpose usually remains prevalent through it all. Here it just seems like the story took a backseat to the comedy, characters and homages.

With that said, the comedy, characters and homages are all splendid. The film’s recreation and parody of Golden-Age Hollywood is spot on and was a constant pleasure to behold. Standouts as well as Brolin include Clooney as the oblivious and impressionable movie star, Ehrenreich as the hopelessly miscast actor and Tilda Swinton as a pair of twin sisters who run rival gossip columns. There is also a one-off appearance by Frances McDormand that is pure gold. The movies featured within this film pay tribute to many of Hollywood’s classic tropes including the stylised looks, the song and dance numbers and the large and extravagant sets. ‘Hail, Caesar!’ itself is basically a reimagined Ben-Hur. The comedy jumps between satire and farce and leads to some hysterical moments, one of the best being Laurentz’s futile attempts to direct a refined performance out of Doyle.

After watching about half a dozen Coen films before this, I’ve reached a theory that they all follow one central theme: shit happens, and it happens for no reason. This is why I think their films often end without reaching a definitive resolution, because you cannot resolve chance. These is no blatant deliberation to their stories, they are just a string of events that simply happened. In the end, when it’s all over, life goes on. What I think sets Hail, Caesar! apart though and prevents it from attaining greatness is that the larger point it wants to make gets buried underneath the multitude of stories and characters that, while entertaining, lack depth. One of the things I love about Fargo is that it always feels like there is something larger at stake in the film’s conflict and that all of the characters, including the minor ones, have a purpose. Hail, Caesar! simply doesn’t have enough of that. What it does have is an ensemble of entertaining characters, great comedy and a wonderful retrospective of classic Hollywood.

★★★★

Youth

Cast: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda

Director: Paolo Sorrentino

Writer: Paolo Sorrentino


I was first introduced to Paolo Sorrentino when I saw his Oscar winning film The Great Beauty back in 2013, a marvellously contemplative film that was partly about the past as a reflection. By having his main character reflect on a certain memory from his youth, Sorrentino provided an exquisite composition of romanticism, nostalgia, desire and regret. These are themes that are featured prominently in Youth, which is essentially a film about how life is lived. It is about the struggles of aging, the past as a memory, the future as an ideal, and the finality of death. The film reflects on these themes through art, providing a musician and a film director as its two central characters. Both are men who have dedicated their lives to art in their attempts to find meaning in life. In essence Youth is a film about what could’ve been, what might be, and what is.

Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) is a retired composer and conductor on holiday in the Swiss Alps. With him is his best friend of many years, the film director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) who is currently working on the screenplay of what he believes will be his magnum opus. Together they spend their days talking about the lives they’ve lived and contemplating the lives of those around them. Amongst them are Fred’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) and the actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano). Fred is approached by an emissary for Queen Elizabeth II to conduct his ‘Simple Songs’, his most famous compositions, in a royal performance. Fred refuses without giving a reason why. Over the course of this holiday Fred reflects on his life and all of the joys and sorrows he has known and caused, wondering if there is anything left for him to live on for.

Youth is the kind of film where you’re either going to be completely absorbed or utterly bored. The narrative is not so much driven by story as it is by thoughts. It takes a philosophical approach to its themes with the melancholy musings of its two central characters coupled with an air of surrealism. Just like in The Great Beauty Sorrentino continues to be influenced by Fellini with his dream-like sequences, contemplative tone, and portrayals of beauty. As well as the representation of visual beauty provided by the Miss Universe character, Youth conveys emotional beauty through art. The beauty of music, in Fred’s eyes, is that it is universal; it is something that can be understood by everyone regardless of age, language or culture. There is a particularly moving scene where he sits in a field conducting a herd of cows, basking in the music of the mundane and ordinary. Mick’s art meanwhile is film and here he is struggling with the ending of his screenplay which never seems quite profound enough. What seems to separate these two art forms, in this particular instance at least, is that film requires meaning whereas music is pure in its form. Perhaps that is why Fred seems so unsentimental and withdrawn, because he’s not trying to find any meaning in his life.

The search for meaning is something that occupies the thoughts of every character apart from Fred. Mick’s job is to create meaning through stories and it is his hope that this film will allow him to understand the story of his own life. Lena seeks to understand her father and why it is that he chose to live his life as a musician rather than as a husband or a father. Jimmy meanwhile is wandering about aimlessly through life and is unsure which way he should go. Even as they find the answers that they all seek, they also find that the quest for meaning is a never-ending one. Even Fred is undergoing such a quest, although he doesn’t realise it. Caine provides a nuanced performance as this character as he lives his life of solitude, finding mild amusement in the lives of those around him and occasionally pondering his own life. What he eventually finds is that there is a part of his life that he’s been hiding from which he must finally confront. The scene in which he reveals the real reason for his refusal to perform the concert and makes this realisation is a moving one made all the better by Caine’s astounding performance.

There is a real beauty to Youth in all of its deep contemplation, quiet tragedy and melancholy romance. In their searches for meaning the characters find significance in the everyday and beauty in the unexpected. They discover truths about themselves both joyous and painful. By the end of the film each character’s perception of life has been altered in a fundamental way. The universal search for meaning could be construed as the search for happiness and, while not every character finds it, they all more or less achieve some form of satisfaction (or maybe acceptance would be a better word) for better or for ill. The climax of this film consists of a resoundingly moving scene that drives home the emotional profundity of art. Youth is a thoughtful, poetic and beautiful film that offers a meaningful meditation on life and art.

★★★★★

My Oscar Predictions 2016

It’s that time of year again and, with two weeks left to go until Oscar night, I’ve put together my predictions for the main categories. Even though I am completely obsessed with award shows, I’ve always been kind of aware of how out of touch they can be. The failure on the Academy’s part to show any diversity in their nominees for the second year in a row despite the number of worthy contenders (Michael B. Jordan, Idris Elba, Jason Mitchell, Benicio del Toro, Ryan Coogler, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Samuel L. Jackson, etc) is pretty weak of them. While I’m not in favour of having political correctness play a role in determining the nominations, the simple truth is there are some (just a few) nominees this year who simply aren’t as deserving as the names I’ve provided. With that said there are some great films and great performances this year that absolutely deserve the recognition they’ve received. Putting together these predictions is always a lot of fun and hopefully I can do better than I did last year.

 

Best Picture

Spotlight

This was a tough one to call. Even though my head tells to me to go with the most nominated film, I’m just not convinced by The Revenant as a Best Picture winner. I haven’t predicted it to win Best Director and it wasn’t even nominated for its screenplay. The last time a film won without a win in either category was Chicago in 2002. On that basis my choice was narrowed down to Mad Max: Fury RoadSpotlight and The Big Short. In the end I decided to go for Spotlight because it just seems like it could be this year’s Argo. It isn’t the most creative or innovative film to be made this year nor is it necessarily the most deserving. It’s simply the film that seems to have the most support. The Critics’ Choice Awards certainly helps as does its SAG win for Best Ensemble. Every Academy member may vote in this category so the support of the actors could go a long way.

Runner Up: To be on the safe side I’m going to predict The Revenant just in case voters do decide to pick the film with the most nominations. The film’s Golden Globe and DGA victories definitely help and the Academy certainly proved last year that they are fans of Alejandro G. Iñárritu.

Best Actor in a Leading Role

Leonardo DiCaprio

Because in The Revenant DiCaprio delivers a fully-committed physically demanding performance to stunning effect. Because this is his fifth acting nomination without a win. Because he’s won every major award so far. Because he’s bled for it. Because the internet will explode if he wins. Because dammit, he’s earned it.

Runner Up: Michael Fassbender is unstoppable in Steve Jobs. He single-handedly carries the film all the way through and commands the audience’s complete attention. He is loud, energetic, charismatic and larger than life. Steve Jobs is packed with great performances and yet Fassbender still stands out above them all. No other nominee completely dominates their film the way Fassbender does.

Best Actress in a Leading Role

Brie Larson

Brie Larson delivers a breathtaking performance as a prisoner whose only source of comfort and enjoyment is her son, a boy who has never known a world beyond the room they live in. Larson is excellent at both conveying the touching bond that she and her son share and the despair she feels from being held against her will and cut off from the rest of the world. This performance has already won her accolades across the board, including a Golden Globe and SAG, and so Larson is in the best position out of all the nominees for an Oscar victory. A well-deserved one.

Runner Up: In Carol Cate Blanchett delivers a sublime performance. There is nothing quite like watching a great actor at the peak of their abilities and this performance is one of Blanchett’s finest.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Sylvester Stallone

When Stallone won the Golden Globe in this category he was met with a standing ovation. Not only is Rocky Balboa the character that made Stallone’s name, he’s also the most iconic and beloved character he has ever played. Watching him return to the role was like watching a returning champion. He plays the role so naturally and organically that it hardly seems like he’s even acting. I never thought I would ever say this but Sylvester Stallone truly does deserve to win this Oscar.

Runner Up: I really cannot imagine the Academy choosing anybody else over Stallone but, if they did, I guess it would probably be Mark Ruffalo. Out of the remaining nominees, his role seems the most geared towards winning an Oscar. He even has an impassioned speech in Spotlight that’ll make for a great clip when they read out the nominees at the ceremony.

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Rooney Mara

Even though she hasn’t won any major awards and isn’t the favourite to win, I’m going to take a risk by predicting Rooney Mara for Carol. Her performance is just too good not to win. It isn’t as showy a performance as Blanchett’s which is probably why voters were able to accept her more easily as a supporting role. In any case the quietness of her performance is a part of what makes it great. There are scenes in which she conveys an entire spectrum of emotions with just her eyes. This is more of a hopeful choice than it is a calculated one but she really does deserve to win.

Runner Up: The most likely actress to win is probably Alicia Vikander for The Danish Girl. She gives what is by all means a strong performance worthy of recognition and has a SAG and a Critics’ Choice Award to show for it.

Best Director

George Miller

The last time the Academy awarded a director two consecutive awards in this category was Joseph L. Mankiewicz in 1950 and 1951 when he made A Letter to Three Wives and then All About Eve. I’m just not sure about Iñárritu winning this award when he was awarded last year for directing a better film. Instead I’ve opted for George Miller who directed a film unlike any other made this year. Mad Max: Fury Road was the single most intense, thrilling, adrenaline-pumping movie of the year and this is due to Miller’s vision as a director. The action he created was incredible and absorbing while also coherent and creative. No other director created the enthralling visual experience that Miller made with this film.

Runner Up: If the Academy did decide to award Iñárritu a second time, it wouldn’t be unjustified. The Revenant is a technical marvel with a stunningly directed opening scene and a great command of its tone and environment.

Best Adapted Screenplay

The Big Short

The Big Short did the impossible: it made economics interesting, funny and entertaining. More than that it made an important film about an important story in a creative and accessible way. It is an ingeniously written film packed with complex characters, good comedy and clever ideas. The breaks of the fourth wall, the cutaways and the dialogue are all employed to tell a complicated story in the clearest, most entertaining and most informative way possible and succeeds beautifully. This is an easy pick.

Runner UpRoom seems like the go to choice most Academy voters would go for if The Big Short was not nominated. It is a moving story exquisitely told with exceptionally touching dialogue. Jack’s narration contains a child-like innocence that is nothing less than heartbreaking.

Best Original Screenplay

Spotlight

Another easy pick, this is a screenplay that was written to win an Oscar. Like The Big ShortSpotlight tackles an important, controversial and socially-relevant subject. It tells its story with remarkable insight, intellect and sophistication in a thoroughly captivating way. Spotlight is a brilliantly tight story that employs every second at its disposal towards its telling. It is a marvellous film almost entirely by virtue of its writing and should win this award if nothing else.

Runner Up: Sometimes, as was the case with Her, the Academy proves itself responsive towards truly original and innovative ideas which is why Ex Machina might have a slight edge in this race. Ex Machina was one of the cleverest and most compelling films of the year and kept you guessing with every twist and turn, a credit to its screenwriter/director Alex Garland.

Best Animated Feature Film

Inside Out

This was a no-brainer. Pixar is practically invincible in this category to the extent that the Academy chose Brave over the vastly superior Wreck-It RalphInside Out however is a film that absolutely deserves to win. It is an inspired and cleverly written film with incredible characters, stunning animation and outstanding emotional moments that has brought grown men to tears. I’m surprised this film wasn’t nominated for Best Picture because it absolutely deserves to have been.

Runner UpAnomalisa is a film I’ve yet to see because it isn’t going to be widely released in the UK until March (although I have booked a ticket to see it at the Glasgow Film Festival at the end of this month). Based on its reception so far it seems that this film could very well challenge Inside Out for the top spot. I would’ve expected nothing less from Charlie Kaufman.

Best Foreign Language Film

Son of Saul

Again, I cannot speak for this film because it has yet to be widely released in the UK. It is however unquestionably the foreign language film to have generated the most buzz. As well as winning the Golden Globe and the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, Son of Saul also depicts a challenging story set within the Holocaust, a subject that has often captured and moved Academy voters. This isn’t a category where surprises often happen so whatever film seems like the surest choice is usually a safe bet.

Runner UpMustang seems to me like the most likely challenger. It contains what seems like a challenging story, it was nominated for a Golden Globe and it was submitted by France, a country whose number of victories in this category is second only to Italy.

Best Documentary Feature

Amy

Depicting the untold story of a beloved singer who died tragically young, Amy provides a moving and sorrowful portrait of the woman behind the icon. Although the film has inspired negative criticism from Amy’s own family, the overall reception has been overwhelmingly positive. As well as winning the Critics’ Choice Award and a wealth of other documentary awards, it is also the single most successful British documentary of all time. Its victory would be well deserved indeed.

Runner Up: Made by the Oscar winning director of The Act of Killing (a marvellous film), The Look of Silence depicts a similarly dark and provocative subject about the survivors of the Indonesian genocide confronting its perpetrators. This is a film that could easily shock and mesmerise Academy voters the same way that The Act of Killing did.

The Oscars is two weeks away and I look forward to watching it and seeing how I do. I’ll also be watching the Baftas tonight, a show that could very well change my perception for some of these choices. Nevertheless, in the words of an Oscar winning song, “que sera, sera”.

Spotlight

Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci

Director: Tom McCarthy

Writers: Tom McCarthy, Josh Singer


It is tough for me to review a film like Spotlight because, as I look back at it, I’m forced to ask myself whether my feelings towards it were inspired by its subject matter or by the film itself. When a film tackles a controversial subject of this importance it can be tricky to work out whether you really do like the film or if you only think you like it because you feel like you are supposed to. There is no doubt that Spotlight has an important story to tell, the question is whether or not it stands out as a film. When I compared it to some of the year’s other releases I realised that Spotlight is not actually that remarkable in terms of filmmaking. It doesn’t have the energy of Steve Jobs, the creativity of The Big Short or the atmosphere of Bridge of Spies. And yet I got a stronger reaction from watching Spotlight than I did from any of those three films. I think this has less to do with the subject matter though and more to do with the story, characters and dialogue.

The film is set in 2001 and tells the true story of the reporters at the Boston Globe who uncovered the Catholic Church’s cover-up of the child molestation scandal. The head of the Spotlight team conducting the investigation is Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), a veteran reporter on friendly terms with some of the most influential Catholics in Boston. The members of his team include Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), all of whom are deeply affected by this story for their own personal reasons. Overlooking this investigation is the new Editor-in-Chief Marty Baron (Live Schreiber) and long-time Boston Globe editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery). Between them the Spotlight team discover that the instances of child molestation carried out by Catholic priests extends far beyond a few bad apples and start to suspect that the men at the very top could very well be aware of what’s happening and are even enabling it.

Although the directing in this film is not particularly creative or innovative (and certainly not worthy of an Oscar nomination), I think that Spotlight is a showcase of how great writing can make a great film. The construction of the film’s narrative is so methodical and intricate that there isn’t a single faulty step in its telling. Every scene and every conversation that takes place is employed to progress the story and does so fluidly and captivatingly. Even though the subject of the film is complex and challenging, the story itself is straightforward and upfront. The film gets straight to the point and goes exactly where it needs to go. The viewer is able to become invested through the characters as they uncover this conspiracy piece by piece and are all personally affected by what they discover. There is a directness and matter-of-factness to the film’s approach that makes it all feel downright and true and therefore honest. The drama is never overplayed and is never exaggerated. Through smooth pacing and subtlety the film allows its story to play out naturally and every moment of drama that does occur is completely earned.

Spotlight could also very well have the best ensemble of the year. There isn’t an individual that I can single out because the strength of their performances is that they work best as a collective. If I had to pick out a favourite though it would probably have to be Stanley Tucci as the tired yet dedicated lawyer who has seen too many injustices and empty promises in his time. Each character in this film is fully rounded and are all challenged by what they uncover. Robinson is a born-and-bred Boston man who discovers that he didn’t know his city or its people as well as he thought he did. Rezendes is horrified by the corruption of an institution he believed to be good and just. Pfeiffer is deeply affected by the trauma of the victims and the impenitence of the offenders. Carroll is a family man who cannot help but wonder whether he can keep his own children safe. The actors play their roles so authentically and candidly that they completely disappear into their characters.

It is tough to set aside a story’s social relevance and to assess a film like this purely as a film. I know that the film had a profound affect on me. The question is whether this is because I was already worked up by the film’s notorious subject matter or because I was moved by the film’s story. On reflection I think I have to side with the film. As I played it over in my head there was one particular sequence that stuck with me which involved a children’s choir singing ‘Silent Night’. After everything that had come before, that particular scene struck me like a hammer. After all of the corruption, tragedy and depravity that had been uncovered, the film chose to drive it all home by contrasting it with an image of what had been lost in the middle of it all. It was an image of such heartbreaking innocence that I couldn’t help but be moved. Spotlight is such a slow-burner that it captivates you without you even realising it. It is a marvellously written film with an excellent ensemble and an emotional and powerful payoff that is well worth the wait.

★★★★★