Thursday, 29 January 2015


Lose weight, win an Oscar. Gain weight, win an Oscar. Play a physically challenged role, win an Oscar. Play a mentally challenged (but not full retard) role, win an Oscar. It's a cynical way to view the art of acting, where the body is as much an instrument as the face and voice, but it's also undeniable: roles requiring physical transformation garner attention.

Foxcatcher and The Theory of Everything, both contenders this awards season, are two very different films but the performances at the centre of both revolve around physical transformation.

In Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher (Roadshow Films), a chilly, almost hermetically-sealed drama, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo play the Schultz brothers, Mark and Dave; Olympic wrestlers who each won gold at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Both actors give very physical performances, and not just in the scenes of actual wrestling training and competition.

Tatum, always a fine physical specimen, is here muscular in a granite kind of way, so much so that it effects the way he walks; stiff-legged and always front on. And even when he is still, his bottom lip juts out and his eyes are laser-focused on nothing, as though a hulking statue pondering its own existence.

Ruffalo, too, has transformed. He walks with a dragging of his feet as though always sidling up to an opponent, and when he stands, his body appears to lean in two different directions -- the top half forward, the bottom half back -- as though the years of wrestling have literally bent him out of shape.

Steve Carrell has also transformed for his role in Foxcatcher, and not just from comedic to dramatic actor (always worth an awards vote or two). As John Du Pont, millionaire heir to the Du Pont chemical empire, he sports a very noticeable proboscis (a fake nose will also get you awards attention). One doubts his nose is the reason he likes to be called 'The Eagle' by his friends (of whom he appears to have none); more likely the obliviousness and vanity that comes with the absolute power of old money and being surrounded by 'yes' men.

It's perhaps the same reason Du Pont decides he wants to train the US wrestling team for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, and why he brings first Mark then David Schultz to his Foxcatcher Estate, a decision which you just know isn't going to end well. If you don't already know of the events which unfolded at Foxcatcher Estate in January 1986, Miller's icy, foreboding tone -- not to mention the foreshadowing introduction of a gun earlier in the film -- will have you suspecting that the story doesn't end with a medal ceremony in Seoul.

There are no guns in The Theory of Everything (Universal Pictures), a terribly British true-life drama, but you know exactly where this tale of the love between one of the greatest minds in human history, Stephen Hawking, and his wife, Jane, a doctor in her own right (and from whose book, Travelling To Infinity: My Life With Stephen, the screenplay is adapted), is headed.

Directed by James Marsh, better known for his documentaries including the Oscar-winning Man On Wire (2008), and the brilliant Project Nim (2011), The Theory of Everything charts the relationship between Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) and Jane (Felicity Jones) whilst simultaneously following Hawking's battle with the debilitating motor neurone disease.

Given two years to live when first diagnosed in 1962, Hawking goes on to write several books about time and the creation of the universe as well as father three children with Jane. Jane's own studies, into medieval Spanish poetry, are sidelined as she sublimates her intellectual (and sexual) desires to care for Stephen and raise their family.

Jones, a fine actress (see the wonderful Like Crazy (2011)), brings depth to the stoic Jane but not surprisingly, it is Redmayne's physical and, yes, transformative performance which is the film's centre piece (and the spearhead of its awards season campaign). Apart from looking remarkably like a young Stephen Hawking, Redmayne twists and turns his body from head-to-toe; a progression of contortions as the disease gradually takes everything from him -- including his voice, lost to a tracheotomy following health complications -- bar his beautiful mind.

Yet The Theory of Everything is as warm and fuzzy as Benoit Delhomme's cinematography, and not nearly as gnarly and complicated as its hero's (and heroine's) battle must have been. That's a shame, specially since Marsh's Project Nim was an unflinching yet humane look at a hero also at the mercy of forces beyond his control. (And no, I am not comparing Hawking to a chimpanzee.)

The performances in both Foxcatcher and The Theory of Everything are all fine, with varying degrees of greatness even; the less obvious performances of Tatum, Ruffalo and Jones easily overlooked, however, by the more show-y ones of Carrell and Redmayne. At least we can be thankful that neither man, in his pursuit of that golden statuette, went full retard.

Monday, 26 January 2015


Icon Films Distribution

The mind is a terrible thing to waste. It's an equally terrible thing to lose, particularly if your intellect is integral to who you are, your vocation and how you engage with the world on a professional and personal level.

Alice Howland, a linguistics professor at Columbia University, has a beautiful mind -- but it's slipping. Forgotten appointments, becoming disoriented whilst jogging on campus, and not being able to recall the word 'lexicon' during a seminar are indicators that something is not quite right.

Alice (Julianne Moore) suspects a brain tumor but the diagnosis is worse: early onset Alzheimer's disease. Ironically, the disease will see Alice's cognitive condition decrease at a faster rate to other sufferers because of her higher I.Q. Still Alice, written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland from a novel by Lisa Genova, charts the progress of this disease and Alice's mental decline in a rather straightforward, melodrama-free study.

While her husband (Alec Baldwin) and grown children (Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish) are devastated by the news (the disease's genetic factor has implications for all three children) and are fully supportive, this is very much Alice's story and journey. And the directors couldn't have asked for a more effective conduit than Julianne Moore.

What could so easily have been a 'disease of the week' telemovie is elevated by Moore's restrained performance. Watching the light gradually fade from this bright woman's eyes as the disease takes its toll and every day words, her children's names and her very identity are misplaced or erased from her memory is difficult to watch. And Moore conveys it all without histrionics; Alice withdraws into herself, diminishing physically as well as mentally.

But she is still Alice. In the film's most powerful scene, the former professor gives a speech at an Alzheimer's conference where she gives word to her daily battle to remember and reclaim who and what she is. While it may not appear to be the case, Alice, the real Alice, is there; trapped on the inside looking out.

If we are nothing more than the collection of our memories, do we cease to exist when we no longer have access to or the ability to recall those memories? The ability to remember who we were, what we achieved and whom we loved? Still Alice takes an unblinking look at the insidious nature of Alzheimer's disease, the gathering yet silent storm, with Julianne Moore as our emotional weathervane.

Monday, 19 January 2015


20th Century Fox Films

Not quite 12 months ago, Mia Wasikowska, four camels and a dog packed up and headed into the Australian interior on a journey of self discovery and an exorcism of personal demons. That film, Tracks, directed by John Curran, was based on the bestselling memoir by Robyn Davidson who undertook that perilous trek in the 1970s.

In 2010, Cheryl Strayed walked out of her life and on to the the Pacific Crest Trail, undertaking the 1100-mile trek in a similarly challenging journey of self exploration and exorcism. Wild, directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club) and also based on a true story and personal memoir (adapted by Brit author Nick Hornby), shares many themes and ideas with Curran's film but it is very much its own undertaking.

For one, the film's two heroines couldn't be more different. Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) is the polar opposite of Davidson's loner; the American forced to a fork in her road following the death of her mother and 'love of her life' (Laura Dern) and her subsequent downward spiral of extreme and extrovert behaviour (drugs, casual sex with random strangers, divorce). She needs to get her life back on track, and walking away from it all seems to be the answer.

As Cheryl undertakes the trek, which she is amusingly unprepared for -- too much of the wrong equipment and ill-fitting shoes -- we see glimpses of her life pre and post-grief: her happy but by no means idyllic childhood, where she, her brother and mother survive the wrath of a drunken, abusive father; her mother's illness; her self-abuse as a coping mechanism following her mother's death; the collapse of her marriage (Thomas Sadoski plays the husband); and the friend who is there to catch and slap her when she hits rock bottom (Gaby Hoffmann, pulling BFF duties again after Obvious Child).

Like his 2011 film Cafe de Flore, Vallee tells Cheryl's story through editing; a hallucinatory collage which eventually connects the dots of Cheryl's life as it unspools before her, stream of consciousness-like, as she struggles with her emotions and the elements on the Pacific Crest Trail. (If Tracks gave us too little access to its heroine, her thoughts, feelings and motivations, then Wild arguably gives us too much.)

Witherspoon (a producer on the film, and having a good year after also producing David Fincher's Gone Girl) gets her meatiest screen role since winning the Best Actress Oscar in 2005 (for Walk The Line), and there's similar buzz around this performance and not just for the superficial 'de-glamming, vanity-free' nature of the role: Witherspoon embraces the role of this headstrong though not entirely logical woman who, unprepared for the hardships of her adventure, is bruised and bloodied both literally and metaphorically.

That Strayed survived, got her life back on track and published a successful memoir (Wild: From Lost To Found on the Pacific Crest Trail) is testament to her own strength but also her grieving process: grief is a personal thing and there is no right way to experience it.

Similarly, if you saw -- and loved -- Tracks, there's no reason not to go along for Wild too; each film is as personal and rewarding for the viewer as the journeys were for their respective heroines.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015


20th Century Fox Films

After films like the Oscar-nominated Babel (2006), and the Spanish-language Biutiful (2010), featuring an Oscar-nominated turn by Javier Bardem, it wouldn't be surprising if more than one person -- friend, colleague, critic -- suggested that Mexican writer-director Alejandro G. (formerly Gonzalez) Inarritu 'lighten up'. The good news for those who didn't enjoy his previous 'misery porn' is that he has. Kind of.

Birdman, Inarritu's first film since 2010, is a comedy albeit a dark one. If cynicism were a font, you can be sure that Inarritu used it during the writing process, in bold and the occasional all caps.

Set in the backstage world of a New York theatre, Birdman is a tale of the actor's lot. That actor is Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), one-time Hollywood superhero (the eponymous Birdman) who now, on the wrong side of 40 and fame, finds himself searching for relevance in both his profession (he's mounting an adaptation of a Raymond Carver book for his Broadway debut) and his personal life.

Off-stage, Riggan's life is complicated by an assortment of people: co-stars Lesley (Naomi Watts) and Mike (Ed Norton, in a scene-stealing tempest of a performance), the latter a method actor who comes in as a last-minute replacement but immediately sets about wreaking havoc on and off stage; another co-star, Laura (Andrea Riseborough), who is also Riggan's lover and may or may not be carrying his child; and a put-upon agent, Jake (Zach Galifianakis) who is equally as invested, emotionally and financially, in the production.

Then there's Sam (Emma Stone). Riggan's daughter from his failed marriage (Amy Ryan pops in and out), Sam is newly out of rehab and working as the actor's assistant, and whether flirting with Mike, possibly falling off the wagon, or calling dad out on his bullshit, she's a constant cause of consternation for the Hollywood has-been who is slowly but surely unraveling -- he's in on-going conversation with his Birdman alter-ego -- as opening night approaches.

Shot in a dizzying faux one-take by Emmanuel Lubezki (the cinematographer who won last year's Oscar for Gravity and does equally deserving work here), Birdman unfolds as both farce and stream of consciousness; Riggan's real and interior worlds coalescing and colliding as the cracks in his sanity give way under the mounting pressures and his existential crisis.

There's much fun to be had in Birdman, and even more so, one suspects, if you happen to be an actor or someone who is privy their world, their insecurities and vanities: the film is meta, playful, scathing and hyper-real.

Whether Inarritu is saying anything new or profound, however, is cause for debate (as is that ending), but for the most part Birdman flies -- and occasionally soars -- on its visual and verbal wings.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015


Universal Pictures

Few films have been as anticipated, talked about and touted for awards success this past year as Angelina Jolie's Unbroken. The actress's second film as director sees her tackling the life of Louis Zamperini, one-time US Olympic athlete and Japanese POW camp survivor, as detailed in Laura Hillenbrand's extensive biography (adapted here by four writers including the Coen brothers).

Yet with a run-time of 137-minutes, Unbroken focuses only on Zamperini's war service, with flashbacks to his childhood and then the 1936 Berlin Olympics (he turned to running to channel his delinquent energy), and even then we don't learn all that much about the man.

Serving as a bombadeer in the Pacific during WWII, Louis (Jack O'Connell) and his crew ditch in the ocean whilst on a rescue mission (and Jolie can certainly direct an action sequence). With two fellow survivors, Phil (Domhnall Gleeson) and Mac (Finn Wittrock), he spends the next 47 days adrift; fighting off starvation, thirst, enemy artillery fire, sharks and insanity before being picked up by a Japanese ship.

Taken to Tokyo, Zamperini would then spend the next two-and-a-half years -- and the rest of the war -- in a POW camp under the watchful and sadistic eye of Captain Watanabe (Miyavi, a Japanese rock star in his film debut). Known to the other prisoners as 'The Bird', Watanabe takes a keen interest in Zamperini, singling him out for brutal punishment when he's not courting his friendship.

It is this relationship which becomes the focus of Zamperini's imprisonment and not the standard WWII prison film staple of camaraderie with his fellow Allied prisoners. The POWs, which include Garrett Hedlund and Luke Treadaway, are never developed as fully-fleshed characters nor is Louis's attachment to them. His refusal to stay down or give in to his captors -- Christ-like in its climactic moment -- doesn't seem to earn his fellow inmates' respect organically, even as O'Connell's stoic central performance does the audience's.

Louis Zamperini may well have been an inspirational figure, both during the war and in his subsequent years where he delivered on a promise to serve God. But Unbroken, though occasionally stirring, is not an inspirational film; O'Connell, and Roger Deakins' cinematography can only do so much. Conversely, Alexandre Desplat's score strains for effect giving you the sense that Jolie is plucking nose hairs rather than heart strings.

The death of Zamperini in 2014 adds a certain poignancy to his story which may indeed be a great one. Unbroken, while a solid outing for Angelina Jolie - director, is not a great film.

Thursday, 8 January 2015


20th Century Fox Films

In 2008, an unassuming, ultra-violent, quasi-xenophobic thrill ride through the streets of Paris with Liam Neeson in kick-ass mode surprised everyone by being a grubby but neat actioner and a box office hit.

Sequels were, of course, inevitable but the 2012 outing, set in Istanbul and continuing on from the first -- an Albanian father seeks revenge for the death of his son, one of the many among the body count of Neeson's ex-CIA operative, Bryan Mills, in the course of his all-out mission to rescue his abducted daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace) -- was a pale imitation of its predecessor. Lightning -- and Mills, with his particular set of skills -- failed to strike twice.

And yet we still get a sequel, for Hollywood is seemingly incapable of not making trilogies. But without the perverse thrills of the first film and the exotic locales of the second (Taken 2's Istanbul shoot that film's one redeeming feature), Taken 3, set on the streets and in the sewers of Los Angeles, is little more than a generic chase film which just happens to feature Mills and his daughter.

The plot involves the murder of Mills' ex-wife, Lenore (Famke Janssen), and his subsequent framing for the crime. Mills goes on the run to prove his innocence, chased by Russian gangsters and a dogged police captain (Forest Whitaker), who, when he's not eating other people's bagels, slowly begins to suspect that his number one suspect might just be as innocent as he claims.

That's not before Mills has racked-up a damage bill that would make a fledgling superhero proud, and added to his ever-increasing body count. (He may be retired but hey, Mills loves what he does.) But Taken 3 has none of the thrills -- perverse or otherwise -- of that first film. As the third (and final? The tagline certainly suggests as much) entry in the franchise, box office is the key objective, thus the film's violence has been effectively neutered (there's barely even any blood) so as to garner a more audience-friendly rating and more bums on seats.

You certainly can't accuse series director, Olivier Megaton, of being subtle (with a surname like that?), but he and writer-producer, Luc Besson, have shortchanged both Mills and fans of the first Taken with this bloodless effort. Neeson may have done it for the money but Bryan Mills would never have.

Monday, 5 January 2015


Walt Disney Studios Films

The movie musical was a staple of the golden years of Hollywood but for whatever reason -- rising production values, the increasing popularity of television, the realism of late 1960s-early '70s films -- what was once a flood of song-and-dance films, proceeded by Elvis flicks and Doris Day hits, soon became a sporadic trickle.

But that interest was renewed and the well re-tapped in 2001 with Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge!, and gold-plated the following year when Chicago, an adaptation of the Broadway smash directed by film debutante Rob Marshall, high-kicked its way to the Best Picture Oscar.

A spate of movie musicals have followed in the wake of that Oscar winner with varying degrees of success; a few have even had BP aspirations, most notably Dreamgirls (2006), Sweeney Todd (2007) and Les Miserables (2012). That middle film was an adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical, as is Into The Woods, which sees Rob Marshall returning to the musical after his less than stellar Nine (2009).

An amalgam of fairy tales including Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk and Little Red Riding Hood, Into The Woods is a cautionary tale about dreaming big, beyond your means and above your station; the engine driving the narrative is a baker and his wife's (James Corden and Emily Blunt) desire to be parents and the witch (Meryl Streep) who sets them the challenge of retrieving items that will help reverse an infertility curse cast upon their house (one which the witch herself did cast).

So into the woods the baker and his wife go, on a scavenger hunt to retrieve the necessary four items: a blood red cape belonging to Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), a glass slipper belonging to Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), a lock of golden hair thanks to Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), and a milky white cow which just happens to belong to Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), on his way to trade the beast -- and his BFF -- for some beans.

Throw in a couple of vainglorious princes (Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen's duelling duet atop a waterfall is the film's high point), a lascivious wolf (Johnny Depp), and a widowed giant (Frances de la Tour), and you have what amounts to a pantomime which, though performed well and intermittently entertaining, is neither substantial or affecting. And it's doubtful that anyone other than Sondheim fans will be able to recall any of the songs.

Emily Blunt, having a good year after Edge of Tomorrow, is best-in-show and Streep is, of course, strong (those put off by memories of 2008's Mamma Mia! need not fear: Meryl's been practising). The rest of the cast are solid, too, but Marshall can only manage to make things entertaining in spits and spurts, while the third act -- an epilogue to the usual 'happily ever after' of fairy tales -- is a bit of a jumble.

It's doubtful the fate of the Hollywood musical is dependent on the success of Into The Woods, but a happy ending at the box office will certainly encourage those producers and directors thinking of mounting film versions of Broadway hits, especially those who had their doubts following Jersey Boys, Clint Eastwood's D.O.A. foray into the genre in 2014. Compared to that bum note, Into The Woods is a magical experience.