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Jupiter Ascending: Have the Wachowskis lost their way?

Film

There’s a moment in the Wachowski siblings’ latest epic film where the main character realises bees respond to her and protect her. It’s quite tender and touching. A quieter moment in an otherwise epic – and thoroughly bonkers – sci-fi action film.

To say Andy and Lana Wachowski have been getting weirder of late is an understatement. Either that, or they’ve got to the point where they can now – as Sinatra once said – do it very much their way. A couple of years ago they tackled a book widely considered unfilmable (Cloud Atlas) and did a commendable, perhaps even brilliant, job. They delved into some big themes, jumped across time zones and dealt with constant shifts of tone, all whilst keeping the focus on the human side of things. And of course we all know just how good the first Matrix film was. Great concept, great story, with some exhilarating individual moments and scenes.

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And so on to their latest… Jupiter Ascending. One of their hits or a giant misfire? Well the truth is it’s somewhere in-between. Plot wise it’s utterly ludicrous. Although perhaps no more so than other sci-fi films, so maybe it’s the way it’s told and the performances, which we’ll come to in a bit.

After a bit of setup backstory we quickly meet Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), living out her life as a cleaner. We jump between her grim life and also get introduced to ‘the bad ones’ of the film, three siblings from the Abraxas family, a bunch of power-hungry, rather mad intergalactic royals; Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) and Titus (Douglas Booth).

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Through certain events the Abraxas lot discover Jupiter is the descendant/reincarnation (or something like that) of their family line, and she actually stands to inherit the earth ahead of all of them. Earth being the most profitable planet in their collection in terms of ‘mining raw materials’ (see the film to understand those quotation marks).

Obviously Jupiter has no idea about any of this until handsome splice (part human, part wolf) soldier Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) walks into her life. He thens whisks her into space for further adventures (with his top off a lot, naturally). Let’s leave it there plot wise, shall we? Beyond that it starts to go off the wall and then some.

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Getting a handle on a Wachowski film is the thing. With most directors you’ve got an idea of their style and material they get drawn to. With these two, the best you can say is they like characters that are fluid in terms of their sexuality and gender and race and colour and all that stuff. They love sci-fi and pushing the limits of what special effects can do. However, this does not make a good story, it just augments it.

I think, what it looks like they’re going for with Jupiter Ascending, is a fun thrill ride. A space adventure – and a bit of a love story. In that respect it delivers. It is fun, and thrilling and adventurous. It has funny moments and a few really odd ones (a sort of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy/Brazil moment in the middle of the film is, tonally, very confusing and kills the pace of the movie dead). On the plus side, it looks gorgeous. The sets are beautifully detailed and stunningly realised. And the effects are thoroughly immersive (particularly Caine’s rather fetching anti gravity boots).

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By and large, the characters are not vastly fleshed out. They probably suffer in that respect due to the vast amount of world building the Wachowskis have to do in the film’s first third. Kunis and Tatum are compelling enough leads (albeit largely lumbered with some particularly clunky, soap opera-esque dialogue, particularly Kunis) and Redmayne, after the emotional heavy lifting he did as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything (which recently won him an Oscar), is clearly having the time of his life as the big baddie, really cutting loose going full out Emporer Palpatine. With his creepy, withered voice you half expect him to say something like, ‘Oh, I’m afraid the Death Star will be fully operational when your friends arrive.’ It’s that sort of performance.

His siblings, Titus and Kalique fare less well. Or just have a lot less to do. Each gets a scene or two, but it’s not much, after which they’re pretty much forgotten. You half wonder if the Wachowskis overcomplicated it having three siblings. Why not just have Redmayne’s Balem as the main antagonist and give him more scenes facing off against the strong and silent Caine? Actually, come to think of it, the same happens with Sean Bean, he turns up for a few scenes as Caine’s buddy Stinger (half man, half bee… keep up), then he bows out for an early bath and an easy pay cheque.

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Tonally, the whole thing feels like it sits quite well with the first Star Trek film of recent years (the J.J. Abrams’ one) or a slightly more melodramatic (less funny) Guardians of the Galaxy. Frankly, it’s no Matrix, but then what is? However, if you judge it on its own terms as a bit of a caper in space with some fun action set pieces, you’ll probably enjoy it.

So, get in the popcorn, leave your ego at the door and sit back and take it all in.

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Oscars 2015: As the dust settles

My musings

So that’s the Oscars done for another year. Were they everything you expected? Did the actors and films you’d hope get recognition actually get it? And, more importantly, does it all even matter?

In answer to the last question, probably not, but industry acclaim is often (but not always) indicative of a job well done. And who wouldn’t want a big shiny award for their efforts?

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This year it seems Grand Budapest Hotel cleaned up (production design, best score, costume design, makeup and hair). As did Birdman (picture, director, original screenplay, cinematography) and Whiplash (supporting actor, film editing, sound mixing).

Eddie Redmayne took Best Actor for The Theory of Everything and Julianne Moore Best Actress for Still Alice.

So, were these all worthy winners? Were any overlooked or snubbed?

Yes, yes and yes.

There’s always going to be unhappy people come awards season, but I think Birdman perhaps did a little too well – although it does seem typical Oscar material. Last year my film of the year was Nightcrawler, which got barely a look-in, although it got a nomination for Original Screenplay and it would have been nice to see it beat Birdman, but this was a tough category and all entries there were outstanding ones.

Talking of tough categories, Best Actress was apparently a shoo-in for Julianne Moore for Still Alice. I’ve not seen the film yet but it sounds very ‘Oscar worthy’ in terms of the material and her performance. Literally all of the other nominees could have won in my book, they all were fantastic (Rosumund Pike – Gone Girl, Reese Witherspoon – Wild, Felicity Jones – The Theory of Everything, Marion Cotillard – Two Days, One Night).

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I’m pleased Redmayne took Best Actor. His performance was truly astonishing and a thoroughly affecting one as Stephen Hawking, edging out Keaton’s washed up actor trying to reinvent his career in Birdman. And out of a category with five nominated, two were Brits (the other being Cumberbatch for The Imitation Game) which was pleasing to see.

Given the experimental nature of Boyhood or the electric performances in Whiplash it would have been nice to see either take Best Picture, but losing out to Birdman is something I can grudgingly accept with a ‘well played, sir’.

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Best Supporting Actress went to Patricia Arquette for Boyhood. Now I haven’t seen the film but I’d have really liked to see Kiera Knightley take this category for her underrated performance in The Imitation Game, or perhaps Laura Dern for her tender one in Wild.

I could go on and on, but let’s stop there. To sum up, not a bad list of winners. Not too many surprises or upsets. There’s some I would have preferred to win over others, but I’m not too cut up about it all.

What was your reaction to this year’s winners and losers?

Oh, and a final note, The Lego Movie should have won for Best Original Song. In that respect, everything is not awesome.

Until next year.

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Top 5 button-down psychos

Best Of lists

Sitting having lunch outside recently my eye was drawn to a rather odd fellow walking past. With a bolt upright posture and off-kilter gait, shirt tucked neatly into high waisted chinos and a backpack pulled super tight, he instantly put me in mind of a psycho.

Not an overt ‘Begby’ style one a la Trainspotting, but a buttoned-down average Joe, one of those blue-collar types. The kind that no one notices… Until it’s too late.

To paint you a better picture here are some creepy characters that sprang to mind. Pray you never meet them as your day will most likely get a hell of a lot worse.

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William Foster (Michael Douglas) Falling Down
Douglas’s Foster is the most average Joe on this list (if you couldn’t tell from his outfit) and managed to dominate every situation he encountered – in a zen like way only achieved by a man who’s long ago fought the devil of insanity and lost but grimly accepted the outcome.

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John Doe (Kevin Spacey) Seven
Whatever you do, ensure you know where your wife is at all times, especially if you’re on the hunt for an unassuming chap like Spacey’s Doe. Only appearing completely in the flesh near the end of the movie, he still made a profound and visceral impact.

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Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) No Country for Old Men
Beyond his supremely creepy haircut, which just screamed psycho, Bardem gave his character a really understated level of malevolence and menace. His weapon of choice, too, was inspired, and should earn a place in the psycho hall of fame.

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Don Logan (Sir Ben Kingsley) Sexy Beast
Barely concealed fury personified. In Logan, Kingsley created a character which, in other actor’s hands, could have been laughed at or dismissed as thinly drawn; yet here he commands you watch and fear him. Ray Winstone looked scared to death.

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Kevin (Ezra Miller) We Need To Talk About Kevin
This film didn’t grab me initially but there’s no denying Miller’s consummate performance as Kevin. The subtle yet brazenly disturbing way in which he torments his family – particularly his sister – before letting loose on his school is truly frightening.

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Whiplash: Who knew jazz could be so brutal?

Film

His knees weak, arms are heavy, vomit on his sweater, mom’s spaghetti… Sorry, lost myself in the moment there.

Short of a hoodie and a rap battle, there’s a lot of similarities to be drawn between Whiplash and 8 Mile. In fact, any sports movie (if you consider freestyle rapping a sport). There’s blood, sweat and tears aplenty. Not what you’d expect from jazz, but then you don’t even have to like or appreciate jazz to enjoy this film. What you do have to like – and what it comes down to – is the will to win, to succeed, to be the best whatever it takes. To really dig deep.

Beyond that it’s essentially a character study.

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We start with music student Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) furiously practicing his drumming, then in walks feared and revered teacher Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), who gives him a mini grilling then leaves, clearly unimpressed, returning briefly – as Andrew’s face lights up – only to say he forgot his coat.

In this opening scene we’re introduced to the main characters, we find out who they are, their motivations and their attitude – all within a few short lines of dialogue. Great screenwriting from Damien Chazelle (who also directs this). This also sets the scene for what follows. Neiman eventually does enough to work his way into Fletcher’s sought-after studio band, but then that’s when the hard work really starts.

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If you’ve ever had a tough boss count yourself lucky. They all pale in comparison to Simmons’ ferocious Fletcher. Not since the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket have we witnessed characters be subject to such abuse. Yet Neiman comes back for more. He wants to be the best and, deep down, he knows that if he meets Fletcher’s exacting standards, he will be.

The other students in the class are scared to death of Fletcher, yet Neiman has an inner fire that sets him apart and he gives as good as he gets. As an actor, Teller is a bit of a rising star. He’s been in Rabbit Hole, Footloose and Divergent, and he’s soon to be seen in Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four reboot. He also has a musical background (as a drummer for a church youth group band), which clearly stood him in good stead for the drumming scenes, which are frenetic, frenzied and exhilarating.

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The camera circles Neiman during many of these scenes where Fletcher tests his mettle, screaming at him to drum faster. He’s soaked in sweat with blood dripping off his hands. These scenes could be at home in a boxing movie (Rocky, we’re looking at you) but in jazz it’s somehow all the more frightening.

If you had to explain this film to someone you’d probably end up doing a poor job. ‘Well it’s about jazz and drumming and a guy who wants to be a jazz drummer and, er, that’s about it.’ So plot wise it’s not too dense. But, as I said earlier, it’s a character driven film, so plot is somewhat incidental.

And as the drums roll and the sparks between student and teacher fly, all the way up to the film’s finale, you’ll be utterly hooked. You’ll come out exhausted and elated and emotionally drained – and quite possibly never look at a cymbal in the same way again. And those reactions – all of them – will be very much a good thing.

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Kingsman: Bond on steroids!

Film

A dollop of James Bond, some London swagger straight out of a gritty Noel Clarke film, and a dash of the weird and fantastical lessons from Hogwarts in early Harry Potter films and… You’re not particularly close to what Kingsman: The Secret Service is all about.

Ok, let’s take Colin Firth. A bit of The King’s Speech, a sprinkle of Bridget Jones and, er, this really isn’t going to work. How on earth did Matthew Vaughn get funding to direct this film? It must have been impossible to explain, assuming he genuinely explained what he was actually going to do.

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I bet getting Firth on board was the easiest job of all. You can imagine the conversation. ‘Colin, I want you to take all the things that audiences love most about you and embrace them for this part, but turn them all on their head. Oh, and in the process I want you to kill people. Lots of people. All whilst in an impeccably tailored Savile Row suit.’

After Kick Ass, technically, people shouldn’t be surprised at the kind of films Vaughn likes to create. Or at least, the ones where he’s clearly having the most fun. Free from the shackles of a big studio – and with source material (graphic novel) from the twisted mind of Mark Millar – he’s been allowed to show the creators of the Bond franchise exactly what he’d do with a spy movie, given the chance. Vaughn doesn’t hold back in the slightest, picking up where he left off in Kick Ass, in a way, he really pushes the envelope. Not just shocks for the sake of it either, every moment of hilarious violence or edgy joke is there to serve the story and the characters.

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And talking of characters, newcomer Taron Egerton plays young tearaway Eggsy. A chap with bags of natural talent but has so far squandered it. Indebted to his family – and therefore looking out for Eggsy – is Harry Hart (Colin Firth), a Kingsman and super spy extraordinaire. Taking Eggsy under his wing he trains him up, under what Kingsman trainer Merlin (Mark Strong) calls ‘the toughest job interview in the world.’ During this time their big bad nemesis Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson, having a whale of a time) is cooking up a plot to reduce the world’s population by having them cull themselves in a mass brawl.

So, plot done, what are we left with?

Well, this is a film that is, simply put, a ton of fun. Yes it’s ultra violent in a cartoonish sort of way, and yes it revels in that fact. But that’s sort of the point. There’s an early scene with one of the Kingsman, Lancelot (Jack Davenport, great to see him back) that really sets the tone in a gruesome yet hilarious way. And it goes on from there.

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Egerton impresses in his first major role. Rumour has it that Aaron Taylor-Johnson was considered for the part, but Egerton brings a freshness and vitality and is less of a distraction than a more established actor would have undoubtedly been. Jackson plays a meglomaniac, which probably wasn’t much of a stretch, but he, too, is allowed to let loose, which is a joy.

And then there’s Colin Firth. Never again will you look at him in the same way. Taking an entire career’s worth of withering, foppish, and very droll put-downs and quips, he inverts them in a most glorious manner. Has his filmography been building up to this moment? We can only hope so.

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There’s been talk of Kingsman developing into a franchise, but, if it does, it will probably go the same way as Kick Ass, and you’ll never have that same level of surprise and delight (or horror, depending on your point of view) as the first time round. Better to leave as a one-off I say, preserve the insanity and balls-out brilliance just as it is.

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Ex Machina: Lessons in playing God

Film

Alex Garland is a mighty fine writer. He’s now a director. His past writing credits include The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go, Dredd and now Ex Machina.

With the latter he’s stepped up to the director’s chair, and done so without missing a beat. He’s been helped by a great cast of course, in three rising stars: Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander.

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The story here starts with young coder Caleb (Gleeson) winning a competition to spend a week with reclusive genius Nathan (Isaac), CEO of Bluebook (essentially, Google). He quickly finds out he’s to be the subject of a ‘Turing test’ (to determine artificial intelligence) with beautiful cyborg Ava (Vikander).

Attempting to manipulate – or at least stay on the good side of – an unhinged genius is something Gleeson has done before (in Frank opposite Michael Fassbender), but here he has his work cut out for him with Nathan.

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Right from their first meeting we see Nathan pumping iron outside his beautiful forest/mountain retreat. He’s a beast of a man with a shaved head and bushy, slightly unkempt beard, looking more like South American gangster than the head of one of the world’s most powerful tech companies. But then that’s the point, he’s not what you expect. He confounds expectations.

And with a masterclass in passive-aggressive behaviour, Isaac keeps us guessing. We see him as Gleeson’s Caleb sees him; drinking heavily then attempting to cancel it out by furiously detoxing. He calls Caleb his buddy, sharing a beer with him one moment then the next cutting him off mid-sentence with a psychotic look or antagonistically dismissive comment. In short, he’s used to being in control but has his demons. Lots of them, judging by the film’s first third.

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As most of us have been dimly aware, over the last few years Gleeson’s career has skyrocketed. Other actors often have showier parts, but he tends to provide the anchor to the story and a way in for the audience – if he was a footballer he’d be a defensive midfielder. Often overlooked, but the rest of the team know he makes them look good.

And talking of the rest of the team, when Caleb isn’t having unnerving conversations with Nathan he’s being challenged by Ava in an altogether different manner. Vikander is a revelation as Ava, all sharp, precise movements and piercing looks, she puts Caleb on the back foot from the get-go, challenging why he’s there and what he truly wants and desires, making him question himself as much as the situation.

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All in all, this is a riveting film from start to finish. The three leads excel in equal measure and Garland’s script and direction are strong. It’s tense, dramatic, emotional, and makes you question – in terms of technology and what it means to be human – where we as a race are going. Or where we might be going. It’s timely too, with Stephen Hawking’s recent comments that the existence of AI poses a threat to our very existence.

So, if films cannot tackle big themes and do so in a commanding, compelling and affecting manner, then what good are they? Or, to put it another way, if you care about the future of humanity and thoughtful, challenging filmmaking, go see this film.

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American Sniper: Cooper comes of age

Film

Bradley Cooper first broke out in The Hangover in 2009, followed by The A-Team a year later. So he’s into comedy, nothing heavy. Fair enough, he’s that kind of actor. Or so it would seem. Then, in 2012, he hit us with a double whammy, The Place Beyond the Pines and Silver Linings Playbook. Both fascinating, flawed and complex characters. And both critically acclaimed (and very human) dramas.

Two years after that he returned to comedy with another pair of hits, American Hustle and Guardians of the Galaxy, perhaps proving that, if he is going to do comedy it’s going to be worthy films, one where his character plays a pivotal – or at least vital and significant – part.

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So at this point he’s worked with David O. Russell (twice), and up-and-coming directors Derek Cianfrance and James Gunn. And in the process he’s been nominated for two Academy Awards. Not bad at all. But now, with American Sniper, it was time to step it up. With Clint Eastwood directing there was every chance he’d gain critical acclaim for his performance again (which he did, which another Oscar nomination).

Here he plays Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, with the film’s story based on Kyle’s book American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History. With 255 kills (160 officially confirmed ones) Kyle was the deadliest marksmen in U.S. military history (as you can tell from the book’s title).

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From his beginnings as a Texas rodeo rider, he’s sparked into life by 9/11 and the terror attack on the World Trade Centres and signs up to do his part. At this time he meets Taya (Sienna Miller) in a bar, the pair quickly marry up before Kyle heads off to war. Eastwood gives us just enough scenes to believe Chris and Taya’s bond and chemistry, because after that he’s off on the first of four tours hunting down bad guys.

Each of his excursions to face the enemy are up there with the most tense ones you’d care to name in The Hurt Locker. However, in contrast to Jeremy Renner’s tightly wound, volatile and abrasive IED disposal expert, Cooper’s marksman Kyle is calmness personified. Whether under fire or faced with a morally tricky situation, he reacts in a measured and calculated way. You’d expect nothing less from a sniper, but Cooper’s portrayal is understated and quite masterful. One you could watch time and again and see new things in the most nuanced of facial expressions. In general he gives little away, so you have to stay on a swivel to spot key tells.

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Eastwood has to take some of the credit. And it’s not a stretch to imagine that working with this legend of cinema has helped Cooper really up his game. Beneath the surface his Kyle is much more than just a Texan-boy-turned-soldier, he cares deeply about his fellow man, particularly his team, and he’s compassionate and considered yet implacable, guarded and resolute in his resolve to take the fight to the enemy. In short, he’s one driven sonnuva bitch.

And, like you’d expect, upon returning home from each tour, he’s removed from real life, disconnected to a degree, which doesn’t play well with his long suffering wife. Sienna Miller does admirably in a part which largely has her distraught on the phone as Kyle engages in yet another firefight without managing to end the call. And when he’s back on US soil she fares even less well, faced with a zombie of a husband who’s emotionally distant and simply cannot adjust to civilian life.

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As a real life – and really very quite recent – tale, it’s a worthy one. It needed to be told. And Eastwood, Cooper and Miller give it warmth, humanity and believability. It’s tense where it should be tense and emotional where you’re expecting it to be. Yet it lacks something. Maybe spectacle… maybe it just needs to give us something we haven’t seen before. Maybe Kyle as a character is a little difficult for us to connect to. It’s hard to say for sure what the issue is.

That’s not to say it’s a bad film by any means. It’s good, great even… but maybe – with the many, many war films out there – great just isn’t enough to put it in the modern classics category. Compare it to say Zero Dark Thirty (another worthy tale which needed telling) and you’ll see what I mean. So, mixed feelings really. A good effort, but must try a little harder to reach cinematic greatness.

INTERSTELLAR

Ladies and fellas: Top 10 performances of 2014

Best Of lists

Sometimes a film isn’t that great all the way through, but an individual performance stands out. Sometimes a film is carried along by that performance, by an actor knocking it out the park at the top of their game. And sometimes the film is great all the way through, but it goes up another level when buoyed by a stellar lead performance.

In 2014 there were a fair few of both of these. And in the interests of balance I’ve split them out into the fellas and the ladies. Where do you stand? Any missing you’d like to have seen?

THE LADIES
Rosamund Pike as Amy – Gone Girl
Scarlet Johansson as Laura – Under the Skin
Margot Robbie as Naomi Lapaglia – The Wolf of Wall Street
Jessica Chastain as Murph – Interstellar
Kiera Knightley as Joan Clarke – The Imitation Game

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THE FELLAS
Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou Bloom – Nightcrawler
Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort – The Wolf of Wall Street
Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing – The Imitation Game
Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof – Dallas Buyers Club
Iko Uwais as Rama – The Raid 2

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‘American’… what?!

On my mind

I blame American Sniper. (Damn you Bradley Cooper.) Maybe this film was the final straw. To explain: over the last few years (or even the last few decades) there’s been a regular slew of films that start with the word ‘American’. Is it a sure fire way to gets bums (at least, American ones) on seats? Or does it simply sound cooler to have that word at the start of a film’s title? I mean, c’mon… French Sniper, British Sniper, German Sniper – they just don’t inspire, do they?

Maybe it’s just simpler.

American Sniper. You know what you’re going to get. Job done. Whatever the reason, here are my top 5 (in order) that proudly wear that word loud and proud for all to see.

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1. American Beauty (1999)
The debut of Sam Mendes as a director and the introduction (largely) of Kevin Spacey to the moviegoing public. Getting close to two decades old, the film still stands up perfectly today and is immensely watchable. No scene is wasted, every line loaded with meaning. A modern classic which reminds us of all the beauty in the world.

2. American Psycho (2000)
Upon hearing the part of Patrick Bateman had gone to Ewan Mcgregor, Christian Bale allegedly called him and argued (convincingly) that he’d be better for the part. And he really was. Played as a dark comedy, the world was finally introduced to the twisted, mad intensity of the man that would be responsible (along with Nolan) for reinventing Batman.

3. American History X (1998)
Yet another introduction (in a way) to a manly, pumped up and thoroughly volatile Ed Norton. As a modern-day Lieutenant in a right wing neo-Nazi gang, the arc Norton’s character goes through is hugely affecting. A riveting and towering performance that commands your attention in a film which deals with some big and complex issues.

4. American Pie (1999)
I remember explaining this film to my parents. ‘Well, there’s a guy that has sex with an apple pie, it’s full of crude humour yet…. you have to watch it.’ They were skeptical, but watched anyway. My poor description failed to explain that it was a warm, incredibly well-observed, coming-of-age tale about four very likeable lads. Sadly, the magic was never captured again with the franchise that followed.

5. American Hustle (2013)
Bit of a guilty pleasure this one, featuring both Bale and Cooper (again). It will be interesting to see if this movie stands up over time. Ultimately it’s a fairly shallow tale, but a fabulously looking one with an impressive cast. Worth your time for Bale’s combover and beer belly and all the huge hair and power dresses. As well as Bale, both Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence were also on fine form.

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Reese Witherspoon in Wild

Wild: Witherspoon’s epic journey of discovery

Film

Reese Witherspoon is due a good performance. The last time she gave one, let’s be honest, was as June Carter in Walk The Line in 2005. Since then she’s been coasting a little with below par rom-coms and the like.

However that’s water under the bridge now, or snow down the mountain, whatever wilderness phrase you care to use; for with Wild she gives a raw, real, stripped back and unflinchingly honest performance in this true tale, based on the memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed.

Reese Witherspoon in Wild

Witherspoon plays Cheryl, a woman who has had an altogether bad lot in life. Following the rather sudden and early death of her mother (Laura Dern) as well as a messy divorce, she tries to numb the pain with drugs and meaningless sex (don’t we all?), but realises the only way to come out the other side of her grief is to ‘put yourself in the way of beauty’, as her mother puts it. So she opts to hike the entire length of the Pacific Crest Trail to rediscover who she is and come to terms with her grief and self-loathing.

Following Dallas Buyers Club in 2013 Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee has delivered a one-two punch on his filmography in the last couple of years, drawing incredibly honest and affecting performances from his leads – McConaughey in Dallas and Witherspoon here.

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He directs in a languid, unhurried style, with confidence in his script (penned by author Nick Hornby) and lead actress. Cheryl’s journey up the PCT covers over 1000 miles and is mostly slow plodding, so as an audience we need some respite. Vallee gradually builds up a picture of Cheryl and why she’s taken on this life-defining challenge by giving us regular flashbacks to her past, which play out like a pleasant fever dream (if there is such a thing), like casting your mind back to a perfect summer’s day as a kid.

Whilst clearly painful to relive these memories, Cheryl is being driven along by a deep, almost unfathomable love for her mother, played superbly by Dern (who herself brings a vitality and vulnerability to a relatively small role). Vallee allows many scenes to take place wordlessly, or with little dialogue, letting us think and feel as an audience. With so many modern movies spoonfeeding emotions the filmmakers would like us to feel, it’s a refreshing approach for a director to treat the audience with this level of mutual respect.

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As a result this is one of those films where you can expect to be saddened, touched, uplifted and delighted. It has lighter moments peppered throughout (a particularly amusing hitchhiking encounter with a journalist is one to watch out for), as well as some incredibly tender moments (one where a young child sings Cheryl a song will probably have you getting a bit misty-eyed).

Moreover, the character of Cheryl is an interesting one… it’s clear why Witherspoon was drawn to the part. It’s the sort of challenging role you could see Jennifer Lawrence playing, as it’s a bit like her character in Winter’s Bone. However she’s in so much these days that it’s good it went to someone else.

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And Witherspoon is nigh on perfect for Cheryl. She’s one tough cookie, yet achingly vulnerable underneath it all. Physically she really laid herself bare. This is no ‘let’s slap a bit of fake Hollywood dirt on her’ approach, she really looks like she’s been hiking in the outdoors for months. An engrossing performance, made all the more poignant by the fact that it’s a true tale.

They do say that you can’t beat real life for the best stories, and this shows it. So hurrah for Vallee, Hornby and Witherspoon for bringing this sort of story to the screen. If this marks a new direction for Witherspoon’s career, I’ll be paying much closer attention from now on.