Month: January 2015

Wake In Fright

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15/1/15

This neglected morality piece by Director Ted Kotcheff, originally released in 1971, gets a timely rerelease on DVD and shows us parts of Australia that the guide books would doubtless prefer to skip. Young teacher John Grant (Gary Bond, looking uncannily like a young Peter O Toole) sets off from a remote town in the outback with the intention of spending his summer vacation with his lady love in Sydney. Driven to boresom by his current job, from which there seems no escape unless he can buy himself out of his contract, he is relishing six weeks of freedom. But the trip incurs a one night stopover in Bundanyabba, a bustling little township where drinking and gambling seem to be the residents’ full-time occupation.

John bumps into local copper Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty) who shows him ‘the sights,’ most of which seem to involve the imbibing of copious amounts of alcohol and he also encounters Doc (Donald Pleasance) a former man of medicine, now a full time drunk. Before very long, John finds himself drawn into a local gambling craze, where people bet large amounts of money on the toss of two coins. At first, he wins and starts to see a possibility of a way out of his financial problems… but almost before he knows it, his luck changes and he finds himself drunk, broke and reduced to begging off the locals for his board and lodging…

Wake In Fright barely got noticed on first release and it’s easy to see why. Its unsympathetic illustration of the outback aussies as a race of drunken halfwits wasn’t going to make any friends in Australia, (particularly when helmed by a Canadian director) and his unflinching depiction of the ‘sport’ of kangaroo hunting, utilising genuinely harrowing footage, must have had the animal rights lobby all stirred up too. Throw in an ending that’s about as bleak as a wet weekend in Morecambe and it’s little wonder that this didn’t put bums on seats in ’71. But with the gift of hindsight there’s much here to admire, not least the performances of Gary bond and the late, lamented Donald Pleasance, who offers yet another in his gallery of grotesques. As a salutary warning to avoid the excesses of alcohol, it’s powerful stuff that was probably years ahead of its time.

Give it another shot. But be warned. If you were planning to go Walkabout in the outback thss year, you might find yourself rethinking the whole thing.

 4 stars

Philip Caveney

15/1/15

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Foxcatcher

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11/1/15

Like director Bennet Miller’s previous effort, Moneyball, Foxcatcher is a sports movie for people who really aren’t that keen on sports. It arrives in cinemas already garlanded with praise and with much talk of upcoming Oscar nominations for its lead actors. It’s undeniable that both Steve Carell and Channing Tatum have transformed themselves physically (in Carell’s case he’s barely recognisable thanks to the addition of a false nose and false teeth) and they both excel in their respective roles but it’s also true to say that great performances alone can not guarantee a great movie experience. There remains the distinct feeling that Foxcatcher has been somewhat overpraised.

Mark Shultz (Channing Tatum) is a gold medal winning wrestler, who under the guidance of his older brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo) ekes out a grim existence in a trailer, eating poor quality food and training constantly for the upcoming 1988 Olympics in Seoul. Dave too is a gold medal winner but a much more gregarious person than his younger brother who has been living in his shadow for quite some time. But Mark’s life takes a sudden upward surge when out of the blue he is contacted by a representative of John du Pont, a member of America’s richest family and a wrestling enthusiast. Mark goes to his estate in Valley Forge where du Pont explains that he is putting together a team for Seoul and he wants Mark and Dave to join up with him, under his coaching. In exchange for a handsome pay check the two will also have all their accommodation and training costs paid for. Mark needs no second bidding but Dave, a happily married family man, is not so easy to coax onboard, so Mark, sensing an opportunity to prove himself, goers without him. As he settles in with Team Foxcatcher it soon becomes apparent that du Pont is an unstable person, shallow, self-aggrandising and totally in thrall to his domineering mother (Vanessa Redgrave.) And when du Pont introduces Mark to the pleasures of cocaine, things begin to go seriously awry. As this is a true story, viewers will know not to expect any happy endings…

So yes, as I said, superb performances from the three leads… but Bennet’s slow-burning style tells the story at a funereal pace and perhaps more fatally, he absolutely fails to inject any excitement whatsoever into the wrestling sequences, which basically come down to a couple of men in spandex cuddling each other on a mat. Consider Warrior (a film with which this has been compared) and think about the blistering fight sequences in that. Foxcatcher is frankly not in the same league. Coupled with this, Tatum’s character is a monosyllabic mumbler while du Pont isn’t exactly Mr Motormouth either, preferring instead to stare at people for minutes at a time and the result is… dare I say it? A bit lumbering, a bit dull. Which is a shame, because there’s a fascinating story locked up here and it needed a different kind of director to set it free. As it stands, the film makes a worthy attempt at greatness but is not entirely successful.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Orphan Black

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11/1/15

It’s always a joy to discover a new, long-running series and Orphan Black has been our big discovery of 2015. Hard to categorise (a scientific thriller, perhaps? A conspiracy mystery?) and even harder to anticipate, the first series gripped from the very first moments and kept us in it’s clutches right up to the final shot, then left us with a cliff hanger that almost defied us not to check out Series Two. This one took the lovingly crafted ball created by John Fawcett and Graeme Manson and ran with it, proving if anything to be even more riveting than the original.

Steet-wise hustler, Sarah Manning (Tatiana Maslany) finds herself in a sticky situation at a New York tube station one night. On the run from people who she owes money too and being sought by her low-life drug dealing boyfriend,Vic (Michael Mando) she witnesses a suicide. A woman jumps in front of a train, but not before Sarah has seen that the stranger is her exact double. Without time to think, Sarah grabs the woman’s handbag and runs off with it, intending to assume her identity and thus get herself out of trouble. But she soon discovers that the jumper was a police woman and that she wasn’t the only double that Sarah has out there. In fact there are a lot off them. Aided by her cheeky, rent boy foster brother, Felix (Jordan Gavaris) Sarah sets about unravelling the mystery… and begins to discover how deep this particular rabbit hole can go…

There’s so much to enjoy in this series, not the least Maslany herself who proves to be an exceptional actress, confidently playing at least six main characters (and quite a lot of minor ones) and managing to give each and every one of them a different persona – in a scene where one character is impersonating another, there’s never any confusion as to who is who, while her performance as uptight ‘soccer mom’ Alison, often had me laughing out loud. Gavaris’s turn as Felix is also priceless – so much more than just comic relief, he manages to convey everything with a withering look and a sarcastic one liner.

The writers keep up incredible momentum, thrusting us from one thrill ride to the next, constantly keeping us off balance and repeatedly pulling the carpet from under our feet. Furthermore they venture into areas where few other companies would dare to tread. Also this is Paranoia Central. Just when you think matters are in danger of flagging, the next conspiracy comes lurching out of the wings to hit you square in the kisser.

Moreish? Oh yes. Try it. Go on, we dare you. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed. Meanwhile, a Series Three is on it’s way…

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

The Theory of Everything

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6/1/15

After the tragic tale of Alan Turing as portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game, prepare to be totally devastated by the almost equally tragic tale of Professor Stephen Hawking. Even if this story has a more uplifting conclusion, (Hawking winds up as a National hero rather than being chemically castrated) there’s still plenty to weep over along the way so be prepared and take along a good supply of tissues.

Based on the book my Hawking’s ex-wife, Jane, the story begins in 1963, where a vigorous young Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) is studying his craft at Cambridge University. The period detail is quite nicely captured, though this is a 1960s where (apparently) nobody smokes a cigarette and where a firework display looks decidedly better than the dismal pyrotechnics I remember from my own youth. But these are minor niggles. After a chance meeting at a pub, Stephen connects with Jane (a radiant Felicity Jones) and after a little uncertainty, they become lovers. But tragedy waits in the wings when after a fall, Stephen is diagnosed with motor neurone disease and told that he has two years to live. Cue the tears.

The remainder of the story is how the couple triumphed against all odds, managing to become parents three times over and how Stephen came to write the most successful book that nobody actually read. It’s also essentially about how Jane sacrificed so much in order to be Stephen’s full time carer. If you were worried that it would be all hearts and flowers, don’t despair, because there’s a fairly sour conclusion to this real life tale that’ll get the old tear ducts flowing all over again. A host of solid performers struggle to make themselves visible in minor roles (poor Emily Watson barely gets a look in) but this film belongs entirely to its lead actors. Redmayne is frankly astonishing, managing to inhabit Hawking’s tricky persona with ease and never losing sight of the man’s innate dignity, but it’s Jones who is the real revelation here, portraying Jane as a woman determinedly maintaining her English Rose composure whilst clearly displaying every inner torment through those soulful eyes. It’s surely a performance worthy of Mr Oscar when the time comes around.

The Theory of Everything is more than just another tearjerker. It’s stylishly done and comes complete with two superb performances fitted as standard. Just don’t forget to take that box of Kleenex!

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Annie

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4/1/15

Will Gluck’s reworking of Annie is a curate’s egg of a movie. The screening we attended what not so much peopled by ‘little girls’ whose freckles needed stamping on, as by women my age, who had clearly been fans of the 1982 version – and if they were anything like me – had high hopes this might have more verve and sparkle than the anodyne 1999 Disney adaptation. It certainly does have more verve and spark. In the lead role, Quvenzhané Wallis (an absolute delight in Beasts of the Southern Wild) is as feisty, kooky and determined as she needs to be and, she’s charming too, so that her disarming of Jamie Foxx (the restyled Daddy Warbucks) is quite credibly portrayed. The modernisation is nicely handled also. Foxx plays Will Stacks, a self-made mobile phone entrepreneur in need of a better media image; his cribs-style apartment is pure property porn. Rose Byrne as his PA, Grace Farrell, is perfectly adequate and it’s good to see Annie’s friendship with the (accidentally) racistly-drawn character of ‘mystic’ Punjab ousted in favour of a more sympathetic relationship with Warbucks’ chauffeur, Nash (Adawale Akkinuoye-Agbaje.)

But there are some unfortunate mis-steps too. Cameron Diaz’s Miss Hannigan really doesn’t work. She’s unconvincing as a foster mother of any sort, lurching and gurning her way drunkenly around the children’s home, clearly playing at trashy rather than living it. The music’s a bit hit-and-miss too. There are some interesting re-arrangements of the the old songs and a few new numbers thrown in to good effect, but they all lack lung-power and musicality; surely every musical needs at least one big blousy number? In 1982 Annie had some to spare. Here, they have been summarily kicked out and this is a mistake I think. Likewise the half-hearted choreography. Back in the day everyone hoofed it up in great style but here the actors stumble apologetically around as though they don’t quite want to admit they’re actually in a musical.

Overall, I liked it. Sort of. But I don’t see it capturing the imaginations of today’s kids in the way that Aileen Quinn and Carole Burnett did in the 80’s. This version simply isn’t strong enough to compete with everything that has gone before.

3.1 stars

Susan Singfield

Birdman

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1/1/15

The first film of the New Year turns out to be this quirky and offbeat offering from Alejandro Gonzalez Inaritu, a riveting slice of cinema that’s actually all about live theatre and the essential differences between the two media. It’s heartening to see a packed screening on opening night for what is essentially a highly experimental work, one that has as many questions as it does answers and one moreover that is cleverly edited to look like one continuous tracking shot.

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is undergoing a long dark night of the soul. Formally the star of a series of successful superhero movies, he is attempting to rejuvenate his career by appearing on Broadway in an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story which he has written himself. When his lead actor is injured the night before the first performance, he manages to acquire the services of Mike Shiner (Ed Norton) a conceited method actor who is as destructive as he is accomplished. Meanwhile Riggan juggles the affections of his daughter cum personal assistant, Sam (Emma Stone), his lover Laura (Andrea Riseborough) his lead actress Lesley (Naomi Watts) and his manager, Jake (an unusually retrained Zach Galifiniakis.) But the spectre of his previous screen persona still haunts him and he is having terrible trouble differentiating between what is real and what is imaginary…

The film is never less than captivating and from time to time takes off on inspired flights of fantasy that dazzle the eye and stir the imagination. Keaton is a revelation in the lead role, giving the audience insights into the mind of a man who is constantly on the edge of insanity (his previous incarnation as Tim Burton’s Batman gives the story added poignancy) and the script comes laced with a vein of dark humour that never shrinks from savaging the very industry that has nurtured it. If the other films of 2015 are in this league it’s going to be a fine year indeed.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Exodus: Gods and Kings

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30/12/14

Ridley Scott is perhaps the closest thing we have to a director of the stature of David Lean. Unabashedly old school he is never happier than when commanding armies of extras on a massive scale, so perhaps it was inevitable that he would eventually take on a biblical subject – the story of Moses. Here, the great man is played by a scowling Christian Bale who at the beginning of the film is fighting the Hitites alongside his ‘bessie mate’ Ramses (Joel Edgerton.) But when Ramses becomes pharaoh, word gets out that Moses is actually an adopted hebrew, a fact that gets him banished from Egypt and sent back to join ‘his people’ where before very long he is instructing them to seek their freedom.

There has already been some controversy about this film which features two caucasian actors in the lead roles and Scott’s reply (that it was all about getting funding and who would pay to see Mohammed Whatever in the lead role?) was understandably badly received, but I’m going to put that matter aside and concentrate on what’s on the screen, which really is a great big curate’s egg of a film. This being a Ridley Scott production, there are scenes of incredible cinematic splendour – the construction of the pyramids is amazing, the Plagues of Egypt are particularly jaw-dropping and the climactic parting of the waves is nail-biting stuff – but along the way we have to endure too many turgid scenes of people standing around in temples talking in (suspiciously contemporary terms) about fairly boring subjects. And one has to wonder why Scott bothered to engage the services of Sigourney Weaver when he wasn’t going to bother to give her anything to say. What I did like was the daring treatment of many of the accepted fantastical elements of Moses’ story. The parting of the waves is quite clearly a tsunami, we see Moses himself carving the ten commandments onto stone tablets and most contentious of all, ‘God’ is depicted as a scruffy kid with a bad haircut. Some will hate this, but what was the alternative? A white haired, bearded old geezer speaking in a stentorian voice? A bit too Life of Brian, methinks.

in the end, Scott does it his way and God help anyone who stands in his path. Overall, I enjoyed this, but those slow lengthy passages dragged down the final score somewhat. One thing is clear. When it comes to epic cinema, nobody else comes close to the majesty that is Ridley Scott. On a sad note, the film is dedicated to his brother, Tony, who took his own life in 2012.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney