MrMarakai's Movie Ratings - Rotten Tomatoes

Movie Ratings and Reviews

Chinatown
Chinatown(1974)

In the 1970's a bunch of American filmmakers and actors were given a bunch of money and told to just go away and make movies. And that they did. The consistent results led to the 70's arguably being the best decade in cinema that America has ever produced. We were gifted such classics as Taxi Driver, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's, Mean Streets, The Godfathers and Dog Day Afternoon. Chinatown is another of those films that can be considered a classic among this elite list and one of a few from this era of filmmaking that time has been most kind to.

Plot: In 1937 Los Angeles, private detective JJ 'Jake' Gittes (Jack Nicholson) specialises in matrimonial/cheating spouse cases. When he is hired by Evelyn Mulwray who suspects her husband Hollis - a high-profile engineer - of having an affair, he gets on the case and produces photographs of him with a young girl. It soon transpires that Jake was hired by an impersonator and not the real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway). When Hollis is found dead by drowning, Jake finds himself involved in a complex web of deceit involving murder, incest, and corruption that are all related to the city's water supply.

Opening with Jerry Goldsmith's seductive and evocative noir score, Chinatown establishes it's mood from the very opening credit sequence and a perfect introduction of what to expect. Paying homage to the traditional gumshoe approach of Humphrey Bogart's Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, Roman Polanski has a confident handle on Robert Towne's meticulously detailed screenplay. No sooner are we introduced to Private Investigator Jake Gittes as he surveys the sun-kissed lands of Los Angeles while applying the tricks of his trade to tail and investigate the latest of his infidelity cases. Like all good noir's, however, our doggedly determined P.I. soon stumbles onto something much bigger. In this case, the possibility of murder and the financial benefits of gentrification. As a result, Chinatown becomes a labyrinthine puzzle of a wider political spectrum that reaches far beyond anything expected and where nothing is quite as it seems.

It's apparent from the offset that Chinatown is an impeccably crafted film with a measured pace and an attention to detail that has rarely been matched. There's so much on display that it's obvious that the entire cast and crew are operating at the top of their game; Richard Sylbert's production design perfectly captures the look and feel for 1930's L.A. and it's complimented greatly with John A. Alonzo's sumptuous cinematography. It's the twists and turns of Towne's Oscar winning script that impress the most, though. He keeps us at arms length for the majority of the film and never forces his hand a minute too soon. Nothing is rushed here as it marvels in patience. Even the title of the movie is elusive and doesn't fully make sense until the film is given time to play out. In the meantime, Towne and Polanski tease with smidgens of information peppered throughout the narrative. For the first time viewer this could be a slight challenge but Chinatown has grown in its stature over the years because it's has replay value. In fact, it demands it. This is not a film that can be appreciated in one sitting but if invested in, it all comes together masterfully.

Even Jack Nicholson and his penchant for grandstanding is kept to a minimum. Nicholson keeps his usual histrionics at bay and although he displays flashes of his energetic approach to a character, his Jake Gittes is a far more reserved performance. Oscar nominated for his work, some still claim this to be Jack's best performance and it's not hard to see why.

An elusive masterpiece of mystery and intrigue. The beauty of Chinatown's narrative lies in the deceitful lies told by it's characters. So much of the dialogue and interactions are not what they seem and it maintains a sense of secrecy and mistrust that the story and film thrive on. At one point, John Huston's callous and calculated Noah Cross says... "You may believe you know what you're dealing with but you don't" - this quote, in itself, sums up the film which also has a knock-out reveal that you, simply, don't see coming.

It may be blasphemous to some (if not many) but my favourite of the sub-genre is still Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential. That said, Hanson's vision for that James Ellroy adaptation would, most likely, never have been possible had it not been for Chinatown leading the way in its style and composition. This is a timeless piece of cinema. Of course, the 1930's setting lends a hand but Chinatown hasn't aged in over 40 years which is a real testament to Polanski's approach to the material and the exemplary work by all involved.

Mark Walker

Alien: Covenant

When it was announced that Prometheus would would have Ridley Scott revisit the Alien world of his 1979 classic, there was much excitement and anticipation for him to revisiting the franchise that he originally created. However, the end result caused huge disappointment for fans and many were left wondering why Scott even bothered in the first place. Alien Covenant (the fifth film in the series) was a chance for Scott to right some wrongs and have another go but, unfortunately, he doesn't achieve that. If anything, Alien Covenant is an even bigger misstep.

Plot: The crew of the deep-space colony vessel Covenant are bound for a remote planet to build a new life. En route they intercept a transmission from a nearby planet that may resemble Earth and decide to investigate. What they find is a dangerous world that they must escape as soon as they arrive.

It has been said that Ridley Scott is on a collision course with his own creation - much in the same way that George Lucas did by delivering three unnecessary Star Wars prequels that were less than the sum of their parts. Scott's decision to claim that Prometheus wasn't actually part of the Alien storyline was such a confounding claim that it verged on being insulting by trying to pass it off as something that it obviously wasn't. That has seemingly all but been forgotten, though, as Alien Covenant makes no such claim. In fact, it's so much like previous Alien films in its structure that it becomes apparent very early on that there's no originality involved. Scott's original film hangs heavy over the proceedings and he has no shame in also stealing straight from James Cameron's sequel when it comes to action set-pieces; he even borrows from David Fincher's third instalment by showing us the occasional point of view of the alien itself. These approaches are glaring and despite trying to bring the best of these three films, Scott is unable to make them work or improve upon them at all. After a laborious first hour, it's apparent that Covenant is going nowhere fast and having an assorted cast of characters with little to no characterisation doesn't help matters (why James Franco even makes a cameo appearance is also pointless and off-putting). Much like Prometheus, the only saving grace is having Michael Fassbender - this time in a dual role - trying to hold this mess together. As good as he is, even he can't rise above the woefully lazy script and dreadful dialogue.

The biggest problem for me, however, was the special effects. For a big-budget science fiction there really is no excuse for having such shamefully sub-par CGI. Scott manages to deliver an Alien film where the aliens themselves simply don't work. They are so laughably bad that they ruin any attempt at tension or suspense - the very bread and butter that Alien films thrive upon. There is one important piece of dialogue whereby Fassbender informs us that "One wrong note eventually ruins the entire symphony". This is where I can, at least, find some credence in Scott's latest misfire but it's wise words that he really should have paid more attention to.

With the Blade Runner sequel due in a few months, I'm actually much happier now that Scott has decided to take a step back from his earlier masterpiece and pass the reigns to Denis Villenueve. Scott may be a visual master but his ability to provide overall quality anymore is seriously in question. It's fair to say that he has further plans for this franchise but after the disappointment of Prometheus and the ineptitude of this, it's a series of films that I'm finding it increasing more difficult to invest in.

Mark Walker

Silence
Silence(2017)
½

Martin Scorsese is, undoubtedly, one of the great American filmmakers. For over 40 years he has been the guy that has wanted to wash the scum off the streets; claimed it's better to be King for a night than schmuck for a lifetime; advised us to never to rat on our friends and to go home and get our fuckin' shine boxes. These classic cinematic moments aside, he's also known for the occasional deviation from the norm of his criminal outings and delivered films with deep religious themes; The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun and now Silence completes his unofficial religious trilogy.

Plot: In 17th century Japan - at a time when Catholicism was outlawed - two Portugese Jesuit priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) travel to the foreign land in search of their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) who's lack of correspondence and silence has led to rumours of his apostasy. In order to find the truth behind his disappearence, the two missionaries decide to enter dangerous territories where Christians are tortured and killed, putting their own faith to the ultimate test.

Having a religious faith has always been a recurring theme throughout Scorsese's filmography. Despite Catholicism predominantly being the focus, he did embrace the Buddhist philosophy when he delivered the fascinating saga, Kundun in 1997. With Silence, Marty takes us back to the guilt-ridden suffering that his Catholic faith has, seemingly, brought him.

It's clear from the opening of this film that Scorsese wants to go big and the truth is, he goes very big. This is a film on a grand scale. Not just in terms of visuals but in terms of its dense and thought provoking themes. For all it's religious rhetoric, though, it manages to avoid preaching. And that's what I respect most about Scorsese's endeavours. There's a deep commentary on the importance of different cultures and the influences they have on belief systems, psyche's and human nature.

This is a thought provoking examination on the desperation of faith and greater need to believe that it will prevent suffering in life and provide absolution. Alas, it may lead to nothing. Some people's faith might stand strong while others will be led on a journey of self-discovery and an eventual reluctance to tread a preordained path. Scorsese ponders hard on whether faith has any substance or tangible affinity with a supreme or celestial being. Despite being raised Catholic myself, I personally think it's wholly illogical and such a ridiculous notion that it has become a socially accepted form of madness. Granted, if not take literally, it can provide some comfort in the vast enigma of our existence but I prefer to approach life in accordance with science and logic and, like some of the characters in this story, I had to turn my back on blind acceptance.

Although this is based on the novel by ShŻsaku EndŰ - who wrote from the rare perspective of being a Japanese Roman Catholic - this feels a lot like Scorsese exercising his own demons and how faith and it's constructs have held him back within his own personal life. In some senses the film is a close relative to Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now. Organised religion may take the place of Coppola's tribal spiritualism but this is no less an existential journey than Cpt. Willard's search for Col. Kurtz. Here we have Garfield (delivering an excellent performance and deliberately looking like Christ himself on occasion) and Driver - who perfectly capture the youthful naivetť of their devotion. Their search for their mentor Neeson, who has abandoned his faith and succumbed to eastern beliefs, captures the same intrigue and wonder that Apocalypse Now possessed in terms of a once devoted man now choosing a completely different and unexplained path. And what right does one's beliefs have over another? This is the crux of the film and Scorsese poses this crux without ever having to be forceful. He lets it smoulder and the events and beliefs explain themselves.

Throughout this journey, Scorsese and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto conjure up very striking and haunting imagery. They don't shy away from depicting human suffering but they also look at the beauty of our world and look aghast at how we "under the watchful eye of God", can commit atrocities to one another.

This is, somewhat, of a demanding film and it requires a certain patience but if you give it your commitment, it's a thoroughly rewarding experience. Scorsese lets loose on a subject that is very close to his heart. We've seen religious symbolism and references throughout his work over the years but none have been as potent as his work is here.

Mark Walker

Mulholland Falls

Released in 1996, Lee Tamahori's Mulholland Falls has largely been overshadowed by the Oscar winning L.A. Confidential - which followed a year later. Although I often find fault with the Academy, on this occasion, I'm not going to split hairs them and argue that Tamahori's film is as good, because it's not. But that's no shame in Tamahori's efforts as, for me, L.A. Confidential is one of the best films over the last 20 years. Mulholland Falls is a very admirable attempt that doesn't deserve to have become a forgotten addition to L.A. themed noir.

Plot: Post WWII, Los Angeles sees the LAPD set up a special crime unit known as "The Hat Squad". It comprises of four no-nonsense Lieutenants: Max Hoover (Nolte), Ellery Coolidge (Palminteri), Eddie Hall (Madsen) and Arthur Relyea (Penn). They are tasked with controlling organised crime within the city - even if it means breaking the law themselves - but when they find the crushed body of a young woman, it opens up some personal demons for Hoover. Her death also implicates the involvement of the U.S. Army and attracts the attention of the F.B.I.

Over decades, L.A. Noir has become a sub-genre all to itself. For many, Chinatown is the epitome but my preference is the aforementioned L.A. Confidential. I think Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgaland done a fantastic job in developing a coherent script from a very difficult James Ellroy novel but all that aside, L.A. Noir isn't always an easy endeavour. There are some that promise so much but fail to deliver - Gangster Squad being a recent example of how it can go wrong. In order for stories of this type to be effective, there are many things that need to come together; the cast, the script, the cinematography and the music are all important to setting the mood and, for the most part, Mulholland Falls manages to capture all of these.

First of all, Tamahori assembles a very impressive line-up of performers which lends the film an epic feel and the script by Pete Dexter captures the requisite mystery and intrigue to hold your attention. Haskell Wexler's cinematography precisely captures the time and Dave Grusin provides an evocative and dramatic score. The production design by Richard Sylbert is also flawless as you should have no problem feeling like you're back 1950's L.A.

Everything fits here, but it's only as the film comes to the denouement that it starts to falter and if any fingers must be pointed, they'd have to be pointed to Pete Dexter's script. Things make less sense as the film draws to a conclusion. The tempo is accelerated to the point that you feel like Tamahori may have been under studio pressure to finish within a certain running time. This is such a shame, as the film is genuinely entertaining and very particularly paced up until that point. It's the exclusion of Chris Penn and Michael Madsen in the final third that lead to some questions over the film being butchered in the editing suite. And this comes just around the time of the film's reveal. The reveal itself is acceptable but it would have been more effective had it not been fumbled. That said, the only reason this stands out is because the earlier part of the film is so measured and involving.

Benefitting greatly from its attention to mood and atmosphere, there's much to admire here. It's a reminder of how strong a presence Nolte can be and he's supported by an impressive ensemble. Mulholland Falls is a damn good slice of noir that enthusiasts will take plenty of enjoyment from.

Mark Walker

Triple 9
Triple 9(2016)
½

After his relentlessly grim debut The Proposition and it's equally grim follow-up, The Road, director John Hillcoat carved a reputation as a less than cheery filmmaker. However, he was clearly one with an undeniable ability to capture a time and place. His third feature - Lawless - proved again that he had a great eye for detail - even though it was lacking a depth of narrative. With Triple 9, Hillcoat, yet again, showcases his gritty realism but it suffers the same problems in terms of the story.

Plot: Blackmailed by Russian mobsters, a gang of crooked cops, led by Terrell Tompkins (Chiwetel Ejiofor), plan the murder of transfer officer Chris Allen (Casey Affleck) in order to buy themselves time to pull off an audacious heist.

Within moments of Hillcoat's crime yarn taking place there are instant reminders of Michael Mann's Heat and the precision in which its characters carry out their bank heist. It's an explosive and very involving start to the film. Soon after, the opening credits display name after name of quality actors. The ingredients are here and there's no doubt about that from the offset. That said, the critics have not been favourable to Triple 9 which had led to me putting it off for so long. Sometimes when this is the case, though, it can lower your expectations of a film and you can approach it with an open mind. I didn't expect much from this and I'm glad I didn't as it delivered many positives for me. For a start, the acting is, as expected, top drawer; Affleck, Harrelson and Ejiofor deliver solid work and it's good to see TV stars Aaron Paul and Norman Reedus breakthrough even if they're essentially rehashing their roles from Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead, respectively. Needless to say, it's a male dominated environment but that doesn't stop Kate Winslet from stealing every scene she appears in as a ballbreaking Russian mob boss.

For the most part, everything comes together wonderfully; Hillcoat's direction is kinetic and his action set-pieces are brilliantly handled with the aid of Dylan Tichenor's skillful editing and Nikolas Karakatsanis' sharp cinematography. The action moments here rival the aforementioned Heat but what's missing is an attention to plot and characterisation: the very thing that Heat set a benchmark with. Triple 9 simply lacks it and that's where I can find agreement with the film's critics. Character development is nonexistent and for a film that's close to 2 hours, it really shouldn't be as aloof as it is. Some plot strands and character interactions don't make sense at all and it can often leave you wondering if some of the film has ended up in the cutting room floor as it wouldn't have been difficult to take a few extra minutes to explain the relationship of the characters in a little more depth.

It's a real shame that it's not quite the sum of its parts as the action is expertly handled and the cast, under Hillcoat's watchful eye, are outstanding. In the end, though, it's Matt Cook's incoherent muddle of a screenplay that lets them down. There's an old saying that too many cooks can spoil a broth but in this case it took only one.

Despite the weak script, though, I still admired plenty about this gritty cops-and-robbers yarn and it certainly isn't the write-off that it's been burdened with. When all is said and done, the poor writing didn't spoil my enjoyment or take too much away from the abundance of quality elsewhere.

Mark Walker

The Straight Story

Walt Disney and David Lynch are two names that you wouldn't ordinarily expect to see involved on the same project. Disney is, of course, the leading production brand for family entertainment and Lynch's work couldn't be further from that magical and innocent material. However, that's exactly what we're looking at with The Straight Story which is a complete change of direction from the usually dark and disturbing Lynch and he proves to his naysayers that he's entirely able to construct something of a different nature altogether.

Plot: After hearing that his estranged, older brother has taken seriously ill, 73-year-old Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) decides that he's going to put aside their differences and visit him before it's too late. Unable to drive a car or take public transport, Alvin buys himself a ride-on lawnmower and begins his long journey over hundreds of miles in the most unconventional way.

Not just in terms of the main characters' namesake, The Straight Story is exactly what it sounds like; a straight and simply told tale that's, without doubt, the most accessible film on Lynch's resumť. Those with a sound knowledge of Lynch will notice that the characters have no nefarious purposes, there's no metamorphosis, dream logic or hidden metaphors. This is an emotional and heartfelt odyssey about self-reflection, regrets and family connections and there's nothing to suggest that Lynch isn't absolutely at ease with lighter material. His film is a beautiful and poignant road trip that's full of pathos and stunningly captured landscapes.

Despite the simplicity, Lynch still can't contain his propensity for oddball characters and slightly off-key tones but it entirely works for this material. What's most strange about this story, though, is not as a result of Lynch's involvement but because it's actually based on a remarkable true story. The one thing that will draw reminders to Lynch's usual work is his love for small town America and the odd inhabitants therein. Although he keeps himself on a leash, he is still able to capture the idiosyncrasies and mannerisms of ordinary people which still adds a (albeit lesser) surrealistic flavour to the film.

Lynch is aided considerably with regular collaborators as well; Freddie Jones' sublime cinematography captures some stunning images and Angelo Badalamenti's beautiful score compliments the proceedings.
At the heart of the film, however, is a commanding and heartfelt central performance from Richard Farnsworth. Rightly Oscar nominated for his superb work, Farnsworth is the beating heart of this story - a man that has come to terms with himself and the mistakes he's made in life but still has enough left in his twilight years to right some wrongs. Sadly, Farnsworth's outstanding performance is tinged with poignancy and sadness itself as the actor died with a self inflicted gunshot wound to the head, shortly after the film's release. Apparently, he himself, was nearing the end of his life with bone cancer and took the decision to go out on his own terms - much like the character of Alvin Straight.

A wonderful and measured piece of storytelling from David Lynch. For those that can't handle his darker and more twisted films, then this is one for you. There's no denying it's charm and it's introspective reflection of life and all the challenges that come with it. This really is a pleasant, yet bittersweet journey.

Mark Walker

Inland Empire
½

"A dream of dark and troubling things" is how Lynch himself described his directorial debut Eraserhead in 1977. It's fitting them that his first and (so far) last film share similarities with this description. In fact, this is probably the most coherent thing you can take from INLAND EMPIRE (Lynch insists the title is capitalised). Even the marketing executives had no idea how to promote the film and, in the end, decided to punt it with the most basic of taglines: A woman in trouble. The rest is basically up the individual viewer. But make no mistake, INLAND EMPIRE lands you squarely in Lynchland.

Plot: After taking the lead in a new movie "On High in Blue Tomorrow's", Hollywood star Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) learns the script was actually filmed once before as a Polish film named "47". Her director (Jeremy Irons) informs her that the film may have been cursed as it was based on an old Gypsy folktale and led to the murder of its previous actors. Believing this to be true, Nikki's imagination takes over as she struggles with her own identity and unable to tell the difference between her new role and reality.

Known for his inventiveness and wicked sense of humour, there was a time, in Lynch's career that he adopted a particular approach to his storytelling that involved surrealism and dream logic. These approaches initially featured sparingly but they arguably became more prominent with Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me or, to a greater extent, Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive with particular attention to symbolism and metamorphosis. INLAND EMPIRE has much in common with the latter two and as difficult and perplexing as these films were, they still had answers to be found within - with some effort, their puzzles could be solved. INLAND EMPIRE, on the other hand, is a very different beast and probably the most challenging film in Lynch's oeuvre. I have to put my hands up and admit defeat. I couldn't entirely grasp what Lynch was going for here. I have ideas but eventually I had to make peace with the film and just go along with the mystery and the confusion and revel in Lynch's mastery at mood and composition.

At 3 hours long it's quite the commitment and demands the utmost concentration. This is an unforgiving film experience that will not accept anything less than a viewers full commitment and if you're not up for that, then forget it. I'd also add that this is a film that's strictly for Lynch enthusiasts. Naysayers and doubters need not apply.

Lynch's decision to shoot in low-grade digital video may put many viewers off and it has often been said that the film isn't aesthetically pleasing. It can often look grainy and out of focus but, personally, I thought his intention here was a masterstroke. It allows him to utilise his low-lighting mood and gives the film a more personal vibe with the events and characters feeling much more authentic. So much so, that it only adds to what is already a deeply disturbing and unsettling experience.

It's been admitted by Lynch that he began this movie as an experiment and over the period of three years he would film certain scenes and images before constructing a narrative. Shooting began when he didn't have a script in place but the more he shot, the more the film grew and his ideas merged into something. Many, if not all, viewers will still wonder what he has came up with as this is a film that's so abstract and surreal that it could easily be written off as self-indulgent and pretentious. You could also say, that certain scenes and events don't make sense at all and Lynch is throwing what he can at the screen just to see what sticks. There's no doubt that it's a difficult film to determine meaning from but I also find it difficult to accept that it's accidental. There's a spiritual and existential angle to the film which may or may not be about our main character being in a state of purgatory and going through some form of spiritual cleansing. There's a central theme that can just about be grasped but trying to make sense of the Rabbits sitcom (with out-of-synch laugh tracks), the prostitutes dancing The Locomotion or crazy clown faces are just some of the more bizarre inclusions.

The first hour is actually fairly coherent and easy to follow but it's in the second third that the narrative changes perspective and, quite frankly, baffles the shit the out of you. It's very difficult to keep up but this is because the time frame and the characters shift and you're left unsure as to what and whom is doing what and unable to tell the difference between fantasy and reality. At one point Dern even utters the words... "I don't know what was before or after. I don't know what happened first and it's kinda laid a mindfuck on me". Not only will you identify with this feeling but it's a reminder on how the film should be viewed. Any chance of piecing the mystery together has to be done by shuffling the events and characters and approaching the film from a non-linear perspective.

Lynch has often toyed with alternate realities, dream states and doppelgšnger's and INLAND EMPIRE feels very much like the evil twin to Mulholland Drive. They share similar themes and commentaries on the nature of Hollywood and stardom but for as dark and disturbing as Mulholland Drive was, INLAND EMPIRE takes it much further. This is a truly nightmarish depiction of fractured psyche's and shattered dreams.

Like Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive, Laura Dern is front and centre and delivers an outstanding central performance. This an actress I've had a few questions about over time but there really isn't any fault in her superlative work here. She has to play around with several roles and she's entirely committed and convincing in all of them. That said, even Dern and the rest of the cast admitted that they had no idea what the film itself is about. Maybe that's the point. Lynch did, after all, admit that it was an experiment and maybe the fault lies with the viewer for thinking otherwise. In this case, I just accepted the journey as the reward.

One of the most challenging and exhausting films I've ever seen. Whether or not you make sense of it, doesn't take away from the fact that you've witnessed an artist at work and been thrust into an intriguing mystery that has the utmost refusal to be solved. If this proves to be Lynch's last film (and I sincerely hope it's not) then he bows out with the ultimate head-fuck. He's most definitely an acquired taste. If you don't like him?... You should acquire some taste.

Mark Walker

The Voices
The Voices(2015)

In 2007, director Marjane Satrapi delivered the autobiographical, coming-of-age animation Persepolis. It garnered her an Oscar nomination, making her the first woman to receive a nomination in the Best animated category. Foreign language films, Chicken with Plums and The Gang of the Jotas followed after but these two films slipped under the radar. Now, though, she tackles the American market with a blackly comic, serial killer tale.

Jerry (Ryan Reynolds) is a likeable and charming factory worker who, with the help of his court-appointed psychiatrist (Jacki Weaver), plucks up the courage to ask his co-worker (Gemma Arterton) out on a date. However, when she stands him up, Jerry looks to his household pets for advice and things start to take a much more sinister turn.

I suppose I should put my hands up and express my feelings when it comes to Ryan Reynolds. To be honest, I've never been a fan. He's one of those actors that seems to rub me up the wrong way even though he hasn't done anything of particular note that would lead me to feel such disdain towards him. That's exactly why I nearly avoided this film altogether. That said, credit where it's due. Reynolds is absolutely brilliant in The Voices and he plays a huge part in making the film work. He displays a whole myriad of emotions and shows good range in doing so. He plays Jerry like the clean-cut, boy next door but it isn't before long that he shows a nervousness and social dysfunction with sadness and anger eventually culminating into a brooding danger. That's before we even get to the fact that he provides the voices to his pets which add a lot of welcome humour. His dog Bosco is an adorable docile support to him, while his cat, Mr. Whiskers is a malevolent manipulator. At first, it seems that Reynolds doing the voices of the animals is nothing more than a gimmick but there's a moment within the film where the cracks of his character appear and the voices shift from being a gimmick to a being an essential part of the plot. It makes perfect sense and transpires to be a very clever decision. Their voices could have been provided by someone else but the fact that it's Reynolds adds a very important element to the film.

Despite the macabre material, though, the film is also genuinely hilarious at times and Satrapi also uses many flamboyant touches to bring a really colourful palette to its darkness. It possesses the type of humour that wouldn't be out of place in the hands of the Coen brothers while also managing to deliver on the more twisted elements that they are known for.

This is a film that could quite easily fall prey to being tonally uneven but the script is really sharp and Satrapi's handling of the different tones are near seamless. It's an ambitious gamble from the director but it's one that she manages to pull off. What could have been an inconsistent mess turns out to be a very clever and surprisingly astute depiction of mental health and the psychological motivations behind a disturbed schizophrenic.

I have to say, I was taken aback by how good The Voices was. It seems to have gained some traction but, for the most part, this has been a hugely underrated and unappreciated little film that boasts a career best performance from Reynolds.

Mark Walker

Split
Split(2017)
½

When The Sixth Sense was released in 1999, it became an instant hit and has since entered popular culture. It's director, M. Night Shyamalan, became the hot property in Hollywood and much anticipation followed his projects. However, Shyamalan has never quite reached the same level of quality. In fact, some of his films were so poorly received that he became synonymous with mediocrity or, in some cases, inspired unintentional laughter. To be fair to him, though, his ideas were always great but he just wasn't able to deliver the finished product and his latest in Split suffers a similar fate.

Plot: Three girls are kidnapped by a man and held captive in a locked room. The more they interact with their abductor, the more they realise that he assumes different personalities. Plotting their escape, they try to work out which of his personalities might actually help them while the threat of a more dominant and malevolent personality waits to surface.

The problem that has seemingly plagued Shyamalan is that his twist ending of The Sixth Sense was such a rug puller that many audiences expected the same time and time again. No film has came close but Shyamalan has never wavered on trying to deliver them. His concepts actually operate on there being a catch so, in many ways, Shyamalan has consistently set himself up to fail. The ideas behind The Village, Lady in the Water and The Happening, for example, all had massive potential but they all ended absurdly.

It's not my intention to offer spoilers here but what I will say is that Split actually ties into one of Shyamalan's earlier films. It's only at the end that you realise this and, by that, it leaves you feeling duped again with yet another ending that feels misplaced. That said, it will appeal fans to fans of Shyamalan's earlier work that have been waiting patiently for one of his particular stories to continue.

As a psychological thriller, Split has many positives going for it. It's very well shot and achieves the requisite, claustrophobic atmosphere but it's not the direction or cinematography that's the biggest positive. It's actually James McAvoy. Charged with delivering numerous characters throughout his split personality, McAvoy shows great range. He's in danger of over-acting at times, but his ability to switch from one persona to another (to another) in quick succession is very impressive indeed. To be quite frank, without McAvoy's committed performance(s) this film simply wouldn't work. The problem he faces, though, is that he's not given much to work with. The script is actually very lazy and it's a wonder that he manages to make anything of it all. His commitment to the film actually demands more of a pay-off for him but sadly he's not quite provided it.

McAvoy is the film's anchor with an absolutely meticulous display of personalities and had Shyamalan stuck to his guns and focused on the job at hand, he might have produced a solid psycho-thriller. However, it's his decision to tie this in to another genre that's feels like a cop-out. As impressive as it's delivered, it fell short for me.

Mark Walker

Don't Breathe

After a series of horror shorts, director Fede Alvarez was finally given his big break into feature length filmmaking by being tasked with reworking the cult classic horror Evil Dead. This also brought the backing of the original film's director and star, Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell who took producer duties. It was a huge task for Alvarez to undertake and although it worked for some, it happened to be one of the worst films I had the misfortune to see in 2013. With Don't Breathe, however, Alvarez has managed to claw back some respect.

Plot: A trio of teens, who make money breaking into people's homes, target the residence of an old blind man (Stephen Lang). The blind man isn't as helpless as he seems, though, and what should have been an easy job turns out to be fight for survival.

The premise of Don't Breathe is a simple one. And sometimes simple is best. Alvarez seems to be aware that all he has to do is set the scene and then let the thrills flow. And for the first half of the film, he does just that. This really is edge of your seat stuff and provides several moments where you take the title of the film quite literally. He doesn't waste any time in getting down to the nitty gritty and employs an effective fast pace that keeps the tension flowing with ease. This, in turn, lends the film a genuine unpredictability and makes for hugely enjoyable and claustrophobic entertainment.

However, it stretches credulity past the halfway mark and veers off into territory that almost undoes the great build-up work. What was a solid cat-and-mouse thriller, soon descends into macabre and garish horror. Needless to say, it also abandons its tight and simplistic narrative at this point and chooses, instead, to focus on ridiculous and overly convenient plot points. There's a distinct feeling that the well ran dry and Alvarez had no idea how to bring it to a satisfactory end. That said, it's well shot and Alvarez certainly handles the set-pieces very well.

Although it's been marketed as a horror - and it does have elements of this - it's more of a suspenseful thriller that's brushed past some horror tropes. If you can forgive the latter half's incongruous absurdity, then there's much to recommend it.

Mark Walker

The Infiltrator
½

After their collaboration on The Lincoln Lawyer in 2011, Director Brad Furman reunites with Bryan Cranston and John Leguizamo once again. Most of the positivity surrounding that film was slightly overshadowed by Matthew McConaughey's renewed invigoration for dramatic acting (or the start of the McConaussance as it came to be known) while the likes of Cranston and Leguizamo filled in as support. The film itself was a decent enough legal thriller and now with The Infiltrator, Furman explores the other side of the law. Only this time, his fringe players take the central roles.

Plot: Alongside partners Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo) and Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger), Federal agent Bob Mazur (Bryan Cranton) goes deep undercover to infiltrate a drug trafficking organisation that reaches all the way to Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar. The deeper Bob goes, though, the more danger he puts himself and his family in until he's so deep he's left with no choice but see it through to the end.

There's really nothing going on in The Infiltrator that we haven't seen before. It's old but, admittedly, not yet tired ground we're covering here; undercover agent and devoted family man putting his neck on the line to infiltrate some serious criminal players. Needless to say, it affects him personally and any comparisons with Donnie Brasco would be well founded. With Bryan Cranston you'd also be forgiven for having flashbacks to his sublime, star-making work on TV's Breaking Bad. Like I say, we've been here before.

That said, there's still much to recommend The Infiltrator. Based on the real-life story of Robert Mazur and working from a script by his mother, Ellen Brown Furman, Brad Furman has an impressive handle on events. He displays some stylish direction and has a keen eye for period detail. Ultimately, though, he keeps an even pace and manages to hold your interest while delivering several thrilling set-pieces.

There's also an impressive cast of familiar faces in supporting roles with Leguizamo, in particular, lending fine support. The lesser known but steadily rising Joseph Gilgun (This Is England, Preacher) makes a welcome appearance and it always pleases me to a see very talented low-key actor make some headway in bigger films. He's a chameleon like performer that's thoroughly deserving of more work and one that I've been watching with much anticipation.

But, ultimately, there's one thing that shoulders this film and that's the leading man himself. Cranston delivers very strong work and, as always, shows a versatility and a complete command of his character. As touched upon, there are hints of his Walter White and/or Heisenberg from Breaking Bad. It may be a little too close to the bone for some but I welcomed seeing Cranston do it all again.

Robert Mazur's real life story is just as tense and exciting as anything that was depicted in Joe Pistone's story as Donnie Brasco but because The Infiltrator has been filmed afterwards, it puts it at a real disadvantage before it's even had a chance. This is a shame really as Furman and his cast rarely put a foot wrong. Unfortunately, comparisons will be made and this happens to arrive a little too late for it to achieve any freshness or originality.

It's not genre defining by any means but it's also not a complete right-off either. Despite it succumbing to formula, it still has many stand out scenes and maintains its momentum admirably. Cranston is most impressive and the film is worth it just for him.

Mark Walker

Eastern Promises

With A History of Violence in 2005, David Cronenberg seemed to take his career in a more mainstream direction. It wasn't the horror or dark science fiction that many had come to know him by, but an arresting thriller that was actually based on a graphic novel. It was a big success and, two years later, led to Cronenberg sticking with his leading man Viggo Mortensen and attempting something similar with Eastern Promises. You could say that their second collaboration delivers something even more satisfying.

Plot: Deeply affected by the death of a Russian teenager in childbirth, nurse Anna (Naomi Watts) takes it upon herself to find her family and save the baby from foster care. With access to the girl's diary, Anna is led to Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), the owner of a Trans-Siberian restaurant. Semyon isn't the endearing character that he makes out, however, and the closer Anna gets to the girls story, the closer she gets to the enigmatic 'driver' Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) and the bloody underworld of the Russian Mafia.

When you think of a mob movie, your memory will most likely be jogged to the glamorously brutal Italian American variety. The obvious ones being the exemplary work of Scorsese's Goodfellas or Coppola's The Godfather. You may even consider the violent Cuban's of DePalma's Scarface and the Puerto Rican's of Carlito's Way or perhaps the Irish goons from The Coen brothers Miller's Crossing. With Eastern Promises, though, Cronenberg decides to focus on the Russian mafia operating from a restaurant in the drab, Hackney borough of London. Although it mines the same well as some of the aforementioned films, it feels like a fresh take on the mob movie, primarily because it's an ethnic group of mobsters that don't often get attention.

Steven Knight's screenplay focuses on the murky world of people trafficking while exploring the tradition and initiation of Russian criminal codes. The gangsters of this story have to earn their positions and their stripes which are represented in tattoo form and by doing so, brings forth an genuine air of mystery and intrigue to the characters. This is the master stoke of the film. And Cronenberg knows it. He's not overly concerned with the plot itself. Sure, it plays out with a good degree of tension and more than holds your interest but the real draw here is what we don't see. It's the machinations of this criminal underworld and their untold code of ethics that intrigues the most. This is exemplified with some great performances; Naomi Watts delivers the perfect bewilderment of a women out of her depth and while I'm a huge fan of Vincent Cassel - and his loose-cannon, Kirill, gets a substantial amount to do here - even he isn't the standout. It's the unnerving work of Armin Mueller-Stahl who brings real gravitas as Semyon, the patriarchal head of the family and the quietly affecting, yet very intimidating, Viggo Mortensen who own this film. When we speak of mystery and intrigue, Mortensen's loyal driver Nikolai is the epitome of it. It's an absolutely captivating performance which rightly gained him his first (and long overdue) Oscar nomination with his involvement in a steam-room brawl worth the nomination alone.

Where the film is slightly let down is in its rushed denouement. For the most part, it revels in a particular pace, but when it's drawing to a close it feels muddled and determined to finish within a particular running time. Up until then, however, it's a brutal and punishing crime yarn that hits many a strong note and breathes new life into the mob film.

A viceral, stylish and compelling story that benefits greatly from masterful acting. It's arguably both Cronenberg and Mortensen's finest work. This Eastern themed film keeps good on its Promises.

Mark Walker

Hacksaw Ridge
½

It's hard to believe that Apocalypto in 2006 was the last time Mel Gibson was behind the camera. I suppose 10 years in movie-making exile is where antisemitic rants gets you in Hollywood. That aside, it's a pleasure to see Gibson directing again as he often delivers big, entertaining spectacles and his latest certainly falls into line with that.

Plot: The true story of private Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield) who joins the army during WWII but refuses to bear arms due to being a conscientious objector. At the battle of Okinawa, Doss serves as a medic, saving numerous lives and becomes the first man in history to win a Medal of Honor without ever firing a gun.

If you consider the material of Hacksaw Ridge, you might notice that's it ripe material for Mel Gibson and his personal beliefs. As a man who has
been very outspoken (a bit too much) on his Christian values, this film seems like the perfect vehicle for him to channel these beliefs. Faith and religion course throughout this and, as much as you can may want to overlook it, it just won't let you. This is a film about a saviour and it can't help but bombard you with religious rhetoric and imagery. In the end, you could ask where God is in all this bloodshed and mayhem but that might be a tad too philosophical for what Gibson is going for here.

Sadly, that's what's missing from Hacksaw Ridge; Its jingoism feels out of touch and I couldn't help but wonder what, say, Terrence Malick might have done with the material. If you consider Malick's The Thin Red Line, for example, you'll find a philosophical depth that's lacking from Gibson's film yet it would have benefited greatly from.

There's also a contradictory nature; Despite feeling like an old-fashioned, Hollywood style picture it has many riffs and rip-off's of contemporary war movies. There are several unashamed nods to Full Metal Jacket, Saving Private Ryan and Gibson's own Braveheart and Hacksaw's major problem is that it doesn't come close to bettering any of them.

I'm also not sold on the choice of leading man; Andrew Garfield is not a bad actor by any means but he doesn't deliver a performance that's worthy of the Oscar nomination he's received for this. I don't know, maybe it's just his appearance that throws me off. He's too boyish or maybe it's just that I can't help but focus on how disproportionate his hair is to his face. It's not the first time in a film that I've noticed his monumentally large hair. It's very distracting.

That said, despite its cliches and sometimes woefully written dialogue, this still has much to offer in terms of entertainment and it's a pleasure to see Gibson calling the shots with his usual visceral approach. He still has a ferocious ability to stage a good action set-piece and Hacksaw provides a good number of them.

Although old sugar tits just can't help but put his Christian values and themes of religious devotion into this, it's hard not to be swept up in the combat and the man behind the astounding true story. It's not subtle storytelling from Gibson but it's simple and effective nonetheless.

Mark Walker

Manchester by the Sea
½

As Oscar season arrives, you can always expect a film to appear where it wants to throw its weight around and get its hands dirty by delivering a downbeat drama where the writing is empathetic and the actors can really show off their chops. Manchester By the Sea is that sombre type of Oscar bait film but to think of it as solely that, is to miss it's true depth and beauty.

Plot: Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a Boston janitor who lives his life as a loner. One morning, he receives a phone call that his brother has died from a sudden heart attack. As a result, he returns to his hometown where he finds out that he's been trusted with the guardianship of his 16-year-old nephew. Lee rejects the responsibility while being back home begins to unearth a dark and tragic secret that caused him to leave in the first place.

Kenneth Lonergan is a well respected playwright and screenwriter in the Hollywood circle but he's actually directed less than a handful of films - three to be exact. His debut You Can Count on Me in 2000 was critically acclaimed and even managed a couple of Oscar nominations - including one for Lonergan's screenplay. However, it took him years before he could get his next film completed. This film in question was the underrated and overlooked Margaret. It was finished in 2007 but didn't get a release until 2011 due to lawsuits surrounding the final cut of the film. Such nonsense could have forced Lonergan to give up entirely and that's exactly what his friend Matt Damon was thinking. As result, Damon approached him with an idea that he and John Krasinski had come up with. The result was Manchester By the Sea. Sadly, Damon had to drop the lead due to prior commitments and the part went to Casey Affleck instead. Who, in hindsight, turns out to be perfect for the role.

Much of Affleck's character is shrouded in mystery and that's the driving force behind Lonergan's screenplay. It's the ambiguity and air of secrecy that holds your attention but throughout the earlier part of the film we are given snippets of information. When the revelation is actually made and it becomes clear why Lee is so reclusive and withdrawn, it's absolutely devastating and changes the narrative and motivation of his character considerably.

For the most part, it's a quietly affecting drama. It doesn't play its hand too forcefully, instead relying on its moments of emotive power to develop naturally. It focuses on bringing dignity to the lives of everyday people and fully relates the heartache in looking grief and sorrow in the face and finding love and responsibility in their place.

Although it's sounds depressing, Lonergan fills it with a lot of dry humour and the entire cast are excellent; Kyle Chandler only features in flashbacks but he brings a really strong paternal presence and, despite appearing high in the film credits, Michelle Williams actually features very little. Although you wouldn't think so, such is the power of her performance in a few short scenes. Ultimately, though, this is Affleck's film. I'd heard a lot of positivity surrounding his award winning work here and I have to admit that the praise is justified. The thing is, on the surface it doesn't look like he's doing very much at all but there are many subtle layers to his performance and to his understanding of this afflicted and tortured character. It's a masterclass in understatement. He allows Lee to reveal himself naturally (and quietly). Much like his performance in Jesse James, Affleck does very little yet says so much. It's hard not to see him win an Oscar for this.

Manchester By the Sea is a slice of life where the characters are meticulously drawn and the small town itself plays a major role. It possesses real emotional depth and with a leisurely pace and a lengthy running time, it's a big ask from Lonergan for you to invest in these people. But if you do, you'll be paid dividends and he keeps good on that promise.

Mark Walker

La La Land
La La Land(2016)

The Hollywood musical has all but become a thing of the past and a genre that few filmmakers attempt anymore. If I'm honest, it's really no loss to me. Musicals are not something that I'm overly enthusiastic about. Growing up, I remember liking Grease and contemporary ones like Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge and, especially, John Turturro's Romance and Cigarettes were very enjoyable but, for the most part, I often overlook them. That said, with a record equaling 14 Oscar nominations and a record breaking 7 Golden Globe wins, Damien Chazelle's follow-up to the impressive Whiplash can not be scoffed at.

Plot: Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress in Hollywood struggling to catch a break. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is in the same boat as he dreams of getting out of playing cocktails bars and becoming a serious jazz musician. Their paths cross and as their relationship blossoms, they are faced with either stardom or holding onto true love instead.

Song, dance, razzmatazz and Jazz are what's on the menu with Chazelle's latest. Whether you enjoy musicals or not will most likely play a huge part in your enjoyment of it, though. Technically, it's wonderful and Chazelle has a real handle on his musical numbers and choreography. It's also quite beautiful to behold. There's no arguing with the style on show here as it's quite a dazzling picture. However, there's very little substance underneath it's style. It suffers from a generic romantic plot and there's a few too many musical ditties to cover up it's glamorously dull narrative.

I actually think I might have enjoyed it more had it been tighter. For a start it's way overlong and overstays it's welcome by a good half hour. There isn't enough material here to warrant its 2hrs 8mins running time. In fact, Chazelle really wrings the material out at the end. To paraphrase one of my six-year-old daughter's more unusual quips: 'He held onto this like he was strangling a baby's neck'. Don't get me wrong, though, the end sequence cleverly brings things full circle and doesn't succumb to formula but I got the distinct feeling that Chazelle never wanted it to finish. Like a rebuffed lover, he refused to let go. And who can blame him when he's having so much fun? I, on the hand, had had enough by that point.

This being said, it is hard to be unkind to the film as there's an obvious array of quality on display; David Wasco's production design is a sumptuous palette of colour and Linus Sandgren's cinematography captures it beautifully. It's also got two delightful lead performances; Gosling showcases some genuinely impressive piano skills while Stone delivers a wide range of abilities and both of them display an adeptness at their song and dance routines.

Credit where it's due, Chazelle has successfully brought the musical into the modern era with this, unashamedly, nostalgic piece. It's a charming film but not one that excited or entertained me as much it has others. Those that enjoy romantic or musical films will find much more to embrace here and will, undoubtedly, rank it higher than I have. I can't argue with that and I can't say it's a bad film. I appreciated it for what is but musicals in general don't really have me singing from the rooftops.

Mark Walker

Nocturnal Animals

Former fashion-designer Tom Ford took his first steps into film directing with A Single Man in 2009. It's a film that didn't initially catch my eye but when I finally caught up with it, it really impressed. In fact, I thought it a near masterpiece of style and composition. As a result, I've been very eager to see what Ford would do next and although his follow-up isn't quite as good as his debut, there's still much to recommend.

Plot: Wealthy art curator Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), receives a manuscript from her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). As she settles into reading Edward's story, she is forced to confront her past and the breakdown of their relationship as the story within the manuscript turns violent and deadly.

Based on the novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright, there's a clever structure to Nocturnal Animals. It's a story within a story and not being content with that, it also employs flashbacks just to make it more narratively complex and frames it's all as three stories in one. The stories aren't vignettes or separate, though. They are very much related and feed into each other as the film addresses the differences between past and present and the fine line between reality and fantasy with one fictional story even serving as a metaphor for another. It's quite an ambitious project for Ford in only his second film but he's able to keep command of all the narratives and manages to combine a reflective drama with a mysterious, psychological thriller while bringing it all together to make a complete and coherent whole.

It's not just Ford's narrative juggling that impresses, though. There's plenty to admire throughout the entire film; Ford's direction is ambitious and, like his work in A Single Man, he has a keen artistic eye with some vibrant and striking imagery captured by Christopher Brown's art direction, Seamus McGarvey's sombre cinematography and the gorgeous production design by Shane Valentino and Meg Everist invites you into the characters' dark, dual existences without ever losing its consistent tone. It also boasts a very impressive cast who are all on good form; after her anchoring work in Arrival, the always reliable Amy Adams delivers another reserved performance; the Oscar nominated Michael Shannon manages to convey so much with the minutest facial expression and Golden Globe winning Aaron Taylor-Johnson tackles a darker role, that he's not normally associated with. Put simply, he knocks it out the park and I hope that Johnson continues to explore more of his range in the future.

Like the performances themselves, there are so many layers to Nocturnal Animals that it stays with you long after the credits have rolled. It's had its critics with many claiming style over substance as a major issue. Personally, I disagree, and happen to think it has an abundance of both. It's a very well crafted film that's awash with symbolism and has you continually questioning it's meanings and messages.

A complex and elegant love story that successfully interweaves with a sadistic film-noir. Tom Ford has shown that A Single Man was no fluke. This a director with sophistication and one that delivers material that's as dense as it is captivating.

Mark Walker

Arrival
Arrival(2016)

With his debut Incendies in 2010, Denis Villeneuve really hit the ground running and has been one of the most consistently interesting director's for the last 7 years. There's a host of films and genres that Villeneuve has explored in that time; from the nightmarish surrealism of Enemy; his unflinching kidnap thriller Prisoners and his drug cartel action drama Sicario. If you put aside his forthcoming Blade Runner sequel, you could say that Arrival is his science fiction warm-up to attempting to re-engage with that much loved classic.

Plot: 12 mysterious, alien spacecrafts land across the globe with the whole of mankind questioning their intentions. Expert linguistic Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is hired to attempt to communicate with them. In the meantime, frustrations are leading earth to a global war and the answers Louise begins to decipher could mean the difference between saving or eradicating humanity entirely.

The renowned astrophysicist and author, Carl Sagan once wrote "The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff." This is a theoretical topic that courses throughout Villeneuve's film and, at one point, even referenced directly.

Based on Ted Chiang's "Story of your Life", Arrival is not overly concerned with being a big-budget science fiction film. It certainly has these elements (and they are very well executed) but it's more concerned with mood, atmosphere and exploring the very nature of our existence through language and our relationship and understanding of time and space. In doing so, Arrival has much in common with Robert Zemeckis' 1997 film Contact (which itself was based on a book by the aforementioned Sagan). Both use the form of extraterrestrial communication as a device to understand ourselves and it's this communication angle (and the reveal that results from it) that eventually turns Arrival on its head. It's an angle that has split some viewers; is it too clever for its own good? Does it disappear up its own wazoo? Or is it a clever sleight of hand that questions our linear and literal perception of events? I'm siding with the latter but these questions are better left to the individual viewer.

What can be said, is that Villeneuve has done his homework on this. Much like Christopher Nolan's approach to Interstellar, Villeneuve extensively ensured the film's scientific ideology was accurate by enlisting the help of renowned scientists and tech innovators who advised on all the terminology, graphics and depictions. As Villeneuve is in no rush to tell his story, he demands a patience and a willingness to open up to the films theories and possibilities. It can often be a bit weighty and does occasionally tread a fine line between absurdity and suspending your disbelief but there's much to ruminate over and Villeneuve is aided immeasurably but his cast and crew; Bradford Young (who previously impressed me with his work in A Most Violent Year) delivers some stunningly captured cinematography and Jůhan Jůhansson's score perfectly accompanies the mood and imagery. At the forefront, however, is a quietly effecting performance from Amy Adams. She brings such subtle emotional depth that she contributes hugely to your ability to buy the films premise in the first place. It's a performance that I'm very surprised has been omitted from this year's academy awards.

I struggle with the 'masterpiece' label that has been thrust upon Villenueve's film but there's no doubt that Arrival is a delicate, thoughtful and accomplished piece of work. If he applies the same level of intelligence and challenging material to his Blade Runner 2049 then the continuation of Ridley Scott's master of the genre may well be in good hands.

Mark Walker

Moonlight
Moonlight(2016)

"At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you're going to be. Can't let nobody make that decision for you"

Backed by Brad Pitt and his production company Plan B, Moonlight done the festival circuit before becoming a darling with the critics. It has since received 8 Oscar nominations and it's probably fair to say that it has become the biggest underdog success story of the year. As impressive as these accolades are, though, there's still an overhanging question... Is it actually any good?

Plot: A triptych story told in defining chapters on the life of a young man named Chiron. From a young boy, (played by Alex R. Hibbert) he questions who he really is before we follow him through high-school (played by Ashton Sanders) and his relationships with his peers and exploration with connections. We then settle on him as an adult (played by Trevante Rhodes) and his coming to terms with his identity.

I have to admit that I really wasn't drawn to Moonlight when I first heard about it. It might have been a film that I would've eventually gave a chance. However, call me a victim of hype if you like, but once the reviews started pouring in and the Oscar nominations were announced, I knew I couldn't drag my heels any longer and had to give it a look sooner than I intended.

Just so we're clear from offset here; I got the message of Moonlight. I got what it was trying to say. I was even impressed with its artistic approach and it's seamless merging of three narratives. It's a story about connection, sexuality and masculinity. It's a universal tale about self-discovery. I didn't misunderstand it. What I don't understand is the praise that's been lavished upon it. This is, unequivocally, one of the most overrated films in quite some time.

I'll give director Barry Jenkins his due, his deliberate approach to the material is impressive as it verges on european art-house. Some of his and cinematographer James Laxton's eye for a shot can be striking but, in the end, the film meanders and finds it very difficult to steer clear of contrivance. Frankly, the film takes far too long to say anything. Tedium sets in very quickly and by the time the film reaches its final third, it dawns on you that all you're really getting from this is pretentious twaddle.

It talks a lot, but (like Chiron himself) says very little. It has been said that "humility is no substitute for a good personality" and this is the case with our lead character. He's very difficult to identify with and any personality he might have must have been kept in his underpants as it certainly wasn't anywhere to be seen onscreen.

What Ang Lee done for cowboys in 2005's Brokeback Mountain, Barry Jenkins does for drug trapping homies in Moonlight. It sheds its light on the plight of gay men who struggle with their sexuality and identity - especially when living in a masculine environment. It's an important topic which, rightly, deserves more attention but Lee's film was overrated then and Jenkins' film is overrated now. When approaching this particular type of material, I would highly recommend Tom Ford's sublime A Single Man instead; a film that was genuinely artistic and heartfelt, yet was sorely overlooked by far too many.

8 Oscar nominations? Bitches be trippin'! This is not that kind of caliber and it stinks to me that the academy are trying their best to look politically correct after the lack of black representation in the nominations last year. Giving sympathy votes, however, doesn't right that wrong.

Mark Walker

I, Daniel Blake

After Looking For Eric, The Angels' Share and Jimmy's Hall I think it's fair to say that Ken Loach, in his twilight years, wasn't quite as hard-hitting as the reputation that preceded him. In fact, two films inbetween these - Route Irish and It's a Free World - where largely ignored all together. You'd have to go back to 2006 and his politically charged, Irish revolutionary drama The Wind that Shakes the Barley, to find quintessential Loach. Now though, he returns with another political drama in I, Daniel Blake and it's one of his most potent and important films.

Plot: After a heart attack leaves him unable to work, widowed carpenter Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is forced to apply for state welfare. However, the system is designed to make it difficult for him to receive any support at all. Throughout his ordeal, he befriends Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother who finds herself in a similar situation, while trying to raise and feed her children. Together, they try to rise above the indignity of the governments extreme 'austerity' measures.

In 2014 (directly after Jimmy's Hall) Loach decided to announce his retirement from filmmaking. It was crushing news from one of the most passionate political voices in British cinema. Not to say that there isn't other talents who tackle similar projects and important social issues in film (Shane Meadows and Mike Leigh spring to mind) but there really isn't anyone quite like Ken Loach. In keeping with his socialist views - before he said farewell - he allowed all of his filmography to be available for free via YouTube. However, his retirement lasted just over a year before he stated his intent to come back and make a film on the British welfare system and the Tory government's barbaric treatment of the most vulnerable people in society.

Loach obviously felt that this was a story that needed to be told. And it is. In fact, this film has been so effective that it was even raised and commented on in the Houses of Parliament, itself. Naturally, the Tory MP's lambasted it for being unfair (oh, the irony!) or for failing to accurately depict the "decency" of those that work with the Department of Work and Pensions - the very foot soldiers of the Govt who have been imposing such harsh penalties and sanctions on the average working class or disabled person. Methinks the Tories protest too much and, in actual fact, Loach has hit a very raw nerve. Those that work in the DWP may claim that they're only doing their job but really they're just whores of the state that are facilitating nothing less than a fascist regime.

"Work Will Set You Free" a slogan that was once used by the Nazi's above the gates of Auschwitz. This is the very ideology of Tory Britain in our current times: Don't have a job? - Tough shit! Poverty on the rise? - Fuck That! Using foodbanks to eat? - Fuck You!... I think you get the gist. Put simply, the lower classes, the sick and the disabled are seen as parasites to a dulled-down, media-controlled society that perpetuates and excuses a fascist government. A government full of toffs that wouldn't know how to walk without a silver spoon up their arse and are blatantly happy giving tax breaks to corporations and their greedy wee cronies.

Social justice has always been a recurring theme throughout Loach's films and here his voice on the matter is ferociously loud and clear. I, Daniel Blake is a scathing indictment on the government and their complete lack of empathy towards its own citizens.

As is often the case, his films capture a raw authenticity. There's a stark reality to this that almost feels like a documentary. He has a real ability to focus on everyday people living in everyday situations. Even if you left aside the political commentary, you'd still find that Loach has crafted a genuinely touching human drama. Ultimately, this is a story about dignity, self-respect and injustice.

The film is anchored by two excellent central performances; normally known for stand-up comedy, Dave Johns as the titular character delivers solid work in his film debut but it's Hayley Squires as the single mother of two who finds herself in some devastating circumstances that truly captures your heart. For all it's unapologetic candidness, however, it also has a surprising amount of humour. To manage this, with such a bleak subject matter, only reaffirms Loach's ability to capture every aspect of life. Despite the hardships and the barbarism that people face on the lower echelons of society, there's is still a humanity that shines through.

Loach has always championed the browbeaten, lower classes and his work in I, Daniel Blake (at the age of 80) shows that the fire in his soul hasn't wained a bit. Like Daniel Blake himself, he's a true voice for inequality and the dispossessed. For an understanding of how cruel our government and society has fast become, this is essential viewing.

Mark Walker

T2 Trainspotting

When Hollywood decide on doing sequels they tend to green-light them as soon as they see the box office receipts. The majority of the time it's a financial decision and they don't want to miss out on turning another coin. The same can't be said for Danny Boyle. He's waited 20 years to put this sequel together. The time had to be right, the actors had to naturally age and the script had to have substance. This wasn't just about cashing in. This was about doing justice to its predecessor. Many had reservations on this sequel even happening at all, such is the love for the first one, but T2 is still a meaningful journey and takes the lives of it's characters in a satisfying direction.


Plot: Twenty years have passed since Mark Renton stole £16,000 from his friends and disappeared to live in Amsterdam. After a health scare, though, he returns home to Edinburgh where he has to face up to his old pals and, somehow, come to terms with his choices in life. Getting around Sickboy (Jonny Lee Miller) and Spud (Ewen Bremner) is one thing but Begbie (Robert Carlyle) is less forgiving and still has murderous intent.


I'm a recent interview, Danny Boyle related a story about his time making T2 whereby an Edinburgh local (who witnessed and realised what they were filming) bluntly called out to the director: "This better no be shite, Danny!". I think it's fair to say that this person managed to convey the sentiments of everyone in a simple (but necessary) comment. This was always the worry when it was announced that Trainspotting 2 was going ahead. That said, the wait is over and Danny Boyle has now delivered his vision on the middle-aged lives of these much loved characters. This man's comment can now be answered and, thankfully, T2 is not shite. In fact, it's rather good.


Back in 1996, Trainspotting spoke to a generation. A generation that suffered at the hands of a Thatcherite government that turned its back on the working classes who, steeped in poverty and desperation, succumbed to a drug epidemic that permeated their neighbourhoods. It had such a vibrant and passionate approach that it resonated deeply with audiences. It was hailed as a modern masterpiece of British cinema and, to this day, still remains one of my all time favourite films. Attempting to recreate that magic was always going to be an extremely difficult task. In fact, it's an impossible task. The original was never going to be surpassed. If you can accept that then you'll be more open to what T2 does deliver. It certainly won't appeal to everyone and those expecting the vibrancy and 'lust for life' attitude of the original will be sorely disappointed. It's a wise move from Boyle, though. He doesn't tread the same ground and pitches the tone with a melancholy sadness. But it feels authentic and John Hodge's script is fitting for the passage of time. The youthful enthusiasm of these characters is now gone and in their place is a more mature and jaded view. Like life itself, it's abundant with reflection.


However, despite the protagonists being 20 years older, they're still stuck with the same characteristics; Renton is still morally questionable, Sickboy is still wheeling and dealing, Begbie is still a deranged psychopath and, most tragically of all, Spud still struggles with addiction and recovery.


Once again, the performances are excellent. All of the actors step back into their respective roles with absolute ease and the standout's are similar to the previous outing; Ewen Bremner's Spud brings the heart and soul while Robert Carlyle's Begbie brings the dangerous edge and gleefully dark entertainment. If one isn't attempting suicide by putting a plastic bag over his head, the other is popping copious amounts of Viagra and getting a hard-on for violence. Despite it's downbeat tone, though, it still has the ability to provide the laughs and hasn't lost touch with Irvine Welsh's black humour. Added to which, are welcome flashbacks and referential nods to T1 - which include cameos from Kelly Macdonald, Shirley Henderson, James Cosmo and Welsh himself.


There are a couple of missed opportunities, though. In Welsh's follow-up novel, Porno, Renton would anonymously send Begbie gay porn magazine's when he was in jail. Naturally, it drove Begbie mad and he was determined to find the culprit. I thought this was one the novels most hilarious narrative strands but it's completely omitted here. The other thing is that John Hodge doesn't touch upon the Scottish Independence referendum of 2014. Considering Renton's rant from the first film about how "It's shite being Scottish" and "we're colonised by wankers" it's slightly disappointing that it was ignored. It does, however, do a clever and genuinely hilarious sketch on the ignorance of British Nationalism and the knuckle-dragging Orange order. It's probably the closest the film gets to any form of a political commentary. That said, politics are not the main focus here. It's about life and choices, it's about despondency and facing your demons. It's actually more in tune with Sickboy's world view from the first "You?ve got it, and then you lose it, and it?s gone forever.? T2 is not concerned with chasing the high's anymore, it's about accepting and living with the low's.


It may lack the kinetic energy that made it's predecessor so entertaining but in its place is a maturity and a wisdom that can only come with age. In many respects, it's the ideal sequel. Danny Boyle employs his usual visual flourishes but he's more restrained and that's what the material demands. This is a nostalgic companion piece and there's not much more you can ask for. It doesn't match the first but, at the very least, it compliments it.


Mark Walker

War on Everyone
½

After two brilliant outings with The Guard and Calvary, all eyes were on Irish writer/director John Michael McDonagh's third feature. There's a problem though, and that problem is the same one that plagued his brother Martin when he delivered the woefully misjudged Seven Psychopaths after his successful debut, In Bruges. Martin's problem was heading straight for Hollywood while forgetting to take a coherent script with him and this film has a similar sense of deja vu.

Plot: Terry Monroe (Alexander SkarsgŚrd) and Bob BolaŮo (Michael PeŮa) are two cops who are just as corrupt as the criminals they arrest. However, when they try and shake down a strip club owner, they stumble on an even bigger crime lord.

Leaving behind the idyllic coasts of Ireland, McDonagh's third outing focuses on the sun kissed streets of L.A. where he delivers a generic buddy/cop story. He attempts to play with conventions a little by throwing in some one liners that are sure to cause offence with some minority or other but the jokes are strained and few, if any, work at all. You might think that if the humour doesn't fly then you'll find something else to grab your interest but there isn't anything. The story lacks drive and there's nothing here that we haven't seen before. In fact, most recently Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe tread the same ground with The Nice Guys with much more entertaining results.

I actually felt sorry for SkarsgŚrd and PeŮa; they are two gifted actors but there's no material here to work with and, together, they simply lack chemistry. There's also no attempt, whatsoever, to craft a three dimensional villain. What we get in this respect is strictly a stereotype with Theo James' upper-class, nasty attitude and posh English accent. Some vibrancy is attempted with the introduction of Caleb Landry Jones' flamboyant strip-club owner but the only colour he injects is his bright yellow socks. It's actually hard to believe that this was the same person who wrote and directed the sublime Calvary - one of my favourite films of 2014.

An absolutely pointless and messy endeavour that suffers horrendously from a lazy script In fact, to quote the film itself, "it starts and ends with the script. If you ain't got a good script, you ain't got shit". Wise words but it's just a shame that McDonagh didn't pay heed to them.

Mark Walker

Coherence
Coherence(2014)

Much has been said about Karyn Kusuma's dark mystery The Invitation in 2015. It became the dinner party thriller that people were talking about yet James Ward Byrkit's Coherence (which was first released two years earlier) went largely unnoticed. It did gather some positive word-of-mouth around the festival circuit but this film was more dynamic and much more deserving of a wider audience.

Plot: A group of friends meet for an evening of chow and chat on the night that a passing comet flies close to the earth's atmosphere. It's an event that hasn't happened for decades but also has the possibilities of some strange events occurring. The friends soon discover that they might be living in an alternate reality as fear and paranoia creep into their increasingly fraught and tension filled dinner party.

Shot on an impressive shoestring budget of $50,000 in one location and with an entirely unknown cast that improvised most of their lines. With this in mind, Coherence has a very strong chance of being an absolute disaster and a word of warning to all budding filmmakers in what not to do. However, it's quite the opposite. Byrkit shows what the possibilities are when the writing is strong and you have a confidence in your approach. He has a fine and steady hand with his direction and delivers a taught, intelligent and hugely involving mystery in his feature debut. Coherence really has no right in being as good as it is but it absolutely works. It's strengths lie in treating the audience with respect and you're left in a position where you have to return the favour. It earns it as it demands your attention to keep up with the twisted and, sometimes confusing, plot developments. That said, Byrkit doesn't want to leave any of his audience behind, so he does take the time to explain his scientific and philosophical theories but he never loses sight of the film's brisk pace and he doesn't forget that the film is essentially a complex puzzle. And a very good one at that.

There are some minor plot discrepancies here and there but these do not overshadow the sheer brilliance and execution of its genuis science fiction concept. A remarkably assured debut from a promising new directorial talent.

Mark Walker

Hell or High Water
½

Scottish director David Mackenzie has steadily been making a name for himself over the years with some strong, low-key work in his native Scotland; Hallam Foe, Young Adam and, especially, Perfect Sense showcased his obvious abilities. It would seem that it was his superb prison drama Starred Up in 2013 that caught everyone's eye, though. Hell or High Water now sees him taking his first venture onto American soil but it doesn't hinder his abilities in the slightest. If anything, it has proven that Mackenzie is a director of genuine quality.

Plot: Needing to pay off the reverse mortgage on their recently deceased Mother's ranche, brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) target several branches of the Texas Midland Bank to raise the money. This invites the attention of Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) who is doggedly determined in tracking them down and putting an end to their spate of robberies.

It doesn't take long to realise that Hell or High Water is a very different type of western. It's one that, for obvious reasons, has been labelled as a "neo-western" but it's contemporary nature is the very angle in which it's able to fully explore its themes. The west has changed and the end of its way of life is fast approaching the characters of Taylor Sheridan's dense script. He makes regular mention of the passage of time, ever changing landscapes and epoch's; if it wasn't the white settlers taking the land from the natives then it's the banks foreclosing on it, forcing families into debt and desperation.

This is ultimately the motivation that drives the antagonists as other subtle hints on the state of the American economy are delivered under the guise of a crime/heist film. What we see on the surface of Hell or High Water doesn't begin to describe the many layers underneath. And that's ultimately what sets it apart from most other films of the genre.

As mentioned, Sheridan's script is multilayered and he also incorporates the themes of brotherly love, loss, family responsibility and ownership which are demonstrated through crisp dialogue and genuinely dramatic (and sometimes darkly humorous) exchanges between the mismatched characters.

Speaking of which, the characters are authentically drawn while also excellently played by the three leads; Pine exudes a brooding intensity while Foster is allowed more room to explore the unhinged sociopath. Now that Bridges is getting older, he has pretty much mastered the surly old-codger routine and does so again with great authority and panache.

There's a deliberate pace to the film, so those expecting tension filled bank robberies and high speed chases will have to be patient. These moments are provided but they come at the cost of investing your time in the characters. And it's an investment that pays off.

It also helps that's its beautifully shot by Giles Nuttgens and Mackenzie makes good use of the photography and employs a meditative approach to the proceedings while showing an assured confidence in his direction.

A rich and rewarding western crime story that delivers on many levels. It's broad strokes signify a maturity and that maturity is tied up with a very satisfying conclusion.

Mark Walker

Hunt for the Wilderpeople
½

After the hilarious vampire comedy, What We Do In The Shadows in 2014, there was much anticipation for Taika Waititi's next film. Hunt For a the Wilderpeople has now arrived and arrived to yet more critical acclaim. The positivity surrounding it, however, has also been its slight undoing for me. It's an admirable little adventure but it didn't quite strike the chord that I was expecting.

Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a young delinquent sent to live with his Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Uncle Hec (Sam Neill) on their remote farm. But when his aunt passes away, child welfare want to relocate Ricky. This forces him and his Uncle to go on the run throughout the New Zealand bush as a national manhunt is ordered to capture them.

Despite the dark edge to What We Do In The Shadows, Waititi's deftness was in finding a lighter tone and cleverly tapping into vampire folklore to provide the laughs. It was a playful and kind-hearted satire that hit all the right notes. With Hunt For the Wilderpeople, he, once again, displays a kind hearted nature and taps into the angle of a pair of mis-matched misfits on a journey of self-discovery. Amiable as it is, though, it just doesn't have the laughs that made his previous film so successful.

That's not to say, that this film isn't an enjoyable experience. It has plenty going for it.
For a start, the two leads in Sam Neill and young Julian Dennison are an absolute treat. Their camaraderie and wit is infectious and they both embrace their characters with a genuine sentimentality. Neill's surly old codger and Dennison's haiku writing, wannabe rapper are a joy to watch and they're given fine support in the early part of the film by the hugely enjoyable Rima Te Wiata (Housebound).

It's the characters and their quirky humour that Waititi captures very well but it's was, sadly, the narrative (based on Barry Crump's novel) that I didn't find as engaging as it could've been. It's a pleasant journey with a fine balance of humour and pathos but, to be quite honest, I found it became rather lethargic and overstayed its welcome. Waititi tries to inject a quicker pace with some action in the final third - which is unashamedly reminiscent of Thelma & Louise - but it feels misjudged and out of place. However, fans of the Thor franchise might take some positivity from Waititi being selected for the next instalment as he showcases his ability to stage bigger scenes.

Without question, though, Waititi's film looks beautiful and his picturesque New Zealand locations are quite stunning and he makes fitting use of music throughout. In a different frame of mind, I think I could've enjoyed Hunt For the Wilderpeople more than I did. It's one of those films were my expectations were so high, that it was always going to be a stretch to meet my demands.

There's some impressive work on show but, ultimately, this is
nothing more than a delightful little adventure that encourages a mild chuckle rather than belly laughs.

Mark Walker

Captain Fantastic

In a year vastly consisting of the superhero (take your pick), the sequel (Independence Day: Resurgence), the reboot (Ghostbusters) and the disappointing (Hail, Caeser!), 2016 was beginning to have a very underwhelming vibe and lack of originality. Leave it then to the indie circuit to take a firm hold of the fading year and offer the best film so far. It's with absolute conviction that I can say that, actor turned director, Matt Ross has finally delivered a film that satisfies and resonates. Admittedly, there has been the occasional delight in 2016 but none more delightful than Captain Fantastic.

Plot: Distant from the constructs of societal pressures, Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) dedicates his life to teaching his six children how to become well-rounded and intelligent individuals while living in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. However, when a family tragedy strikes, Ben and his brood are forced to leave their self-sustainable home and experience the outside world which brings new experiences and challenges for the reclusive family.

It's often said that you shouldn't judge a book by its cover but in the case of Captain Fantastic I had already done so. Last year, I came across a still from the film and the photo spoke volumes to me. After hearing some positive word-of-mouth, I had an underlying feeling that this was a film I would really enjoy. A film that looked like it had something to say. I awaited its arrival with great anticipation and I can now confirm that it was worth the wait.

It's not unlike Wes Anderson's work in its look and it's approach. It shares similarities with the dysfunctional family of The Royal Tenenbaums or the cross-country, brotherly relations of The Darjeeling Limited. It's as vibrant in its colourful pallet and as deep in it's characterisation and commentary on achieving a meaningful existence.

It's no surprise to hear that this is a biographical account of director Matt Ross' own experiences. It feels authentic and his affection and understanding of the characters, and their moral standpoint, shines through.

There's a political edge and intelligence to the film. The unorthodox family live their lives by the philosophy of Plato's The Republic and have regular
discourses on dialectical materialism. Mortensen's Ben talks with his oldest son, Bo (George McKay), about whether he's expressing Marxist or Trotskyist views and encourages his other children in the works of Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov and Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. They embrace Buddhism as a philosophy and reject any form of organised religion. At one point they even question why they should celebrate Christmas, preferring instead to celebrate "Noam Chomsky Day" where each child receives a gift on the birthday of the intellectual historian and political activist.

Needles to say that this is a family who reject capitalism and the consumerist construct that it has birthed. They prefer their off-grid, nonconformist living and struggle to adapt to society when they are finally forced to confront it.

What's interesting, though, is that Ross doesn't play this entirely one sided. He does actually question Ben's motivation and his responsibilities as a parent. He pairs him with a very different patriarch in Frank Langella's wealthy, capitalist father-in-law who obviously doesn't approve of Ben's freedom of expression or alternative parental views.

The theme of the film is about striking a balance in life and that's exactly what Ross achieves in the structure of his film; it's about the intellectual and the cultural, awareness and ignorance and he manages to bring an emotional sensitivity to the proceedings without being overly sentimental.

As mentioned it has a distinct Wes Anderson flavour but it's also a reminder of the same misfits of Little Miss Sunshine. Where that film created its characters to be dysfunctionally comedic, Captain Fantastic's feel more authentic and three-dimensional.

Spearheading them is an absolutely outstanding Viggo Mortensen. There's a subtlety and depth to his performance and he captures the nuisances of being a strong-minded and arrogant individual while also affording a tender and loving fatherly figure to shine through. It's not flashy and there's no grandstanding involved. Mortensen's too wise and too good an actor to even have to do that and it's in his subtlety that he allows the space for his young co-stars to have their moment too. It's a confident but very unselfish performance that anchors the entire film.

A poignant social commentary that benefits greatly from all its little quirks and attention to detail that capture the essence of life itself. It's funny, heartbreaking and uplifting all in equal measure and (like Mortensen's sublime lead performance) Matt Ross delivers it with both hard truths and a loving affection. A beautiful film.

Mark Walker

Mulholland Drive

?It?ll be just like in the movies. Pretending to be somebody else.?

A recent poll by BBC Culture surveyed the opinion of film critics, academics, and curators from 36 countries across every continent which consisted of 177 of the worlds foremost movie experts. They were tasked to compile an international list of the top 100 films released since the year 2000 to come up the best film of this century so far. It's no easy task but when all was said and done, the film that topped the list was David Lynch's hallucinatory and meditative film-noir, Mulholland Drive. It came as a surprise to some but for those familiar with the film itself, it was a fitting accolade.

After a car crash leaves her with amnesia, Rita (Laura Harring) has no idea who she is or where she's come from and wanders around the streets of Los Angeles in a daze. She eventually finds refuge in an apartment where she is found by ambitious young actress Betty (Naomi Watts). Betty and Rita then work together and investigate the mystery of Rita's condition and seek the answers to her true identity.

It's pretty much common knowledge now that Mulholland Drive was a failed proposal by Lynch to embark on a new television series. Originally conceived while filming Twin Peaks, it was to be a spin-off featuring the character of Audrey Horne (which was played by Sherilyn Fenn). Lynch went on to direct a 90min pilot for ABC but, in the end, the network executives rejected it. As a result, Lynch rejigged and regurgitated the material into a feature film and produced, arguably, his finest work to date.

So complex is Mulholland Drive that Lynch released 10 clues to help in deciphering the plot. It's in my opinion that these 10 clues are actually useless. Lynch notoriously doesn't explain his work and the clues he provides only serve as a false pretence in which to view the film. He toys with our perceptions and preconceived ideas of how a film should be constructed. I've viewed the film many times and the clues predominantly lead to a dead end. This is a film that demands numerous viewings and yet can still come out different each time. That is the sheer genius and craftsmanship that has went into it. There's a lot about the film that simply isn't explained; narrative arcs and characters appear and then disappear. This could have been intentional or it could have been the result of the material being planned for a long running TV show where they would've been explored in more detail. Either way, it works and adds to the hallucinatory vibe that courses throughout. It could be argued that the film is just a series of scenes loosely tied together and it's up to the viewer to interpret for themselves. Like Lost Highway, what the individual viewer brings to the experience is what they will walk away with. If you invest the time and respect to Lynch's vision, you will be richly rewarded.

It operates on many levels and the lines between fantasy and reality are constantly blurred. Some claim it to be a parallel universe, or repurposed elements to a person's failed past but the strongest interpretation is that it's predominantly a disconcerting dream state involving displacement and transference and where the reality and the fantasy intertwine.

The significance of the The Cowboy and his cryptic messages, the importance of the blue key and the blue box, the uneasy encounter with the man behind Winkies and the moment at Club Silencio where we are reminded that what we see isn't necessarily always real. All of these tie-in with the symbolic importance of dream imagery.

It can also be viewed as a cynical and scathing indictment of Hollywood culture - which could be a direct reference to the problems that Lynch has faced with studios in the past or even the issue that he faced in trying to promote this particular film as a TV show. At one point in the film, studio bigwigs try to influence a director's decision on whom he casts in his film. This was purportedly what Lynch faced by casting unknowns Watts and Harring in the lead roles here and one of the reasons that ABC rejected it (apparently they were too old). They couldn't have been more wrong, though, as Watts delivers masterful work. There are at least three different interpretations to her character and she nails every one of them. She showcases her extensive range which, considering the narrative of the film, ironically made her a Hollywood star overnight.

Form over structure and the combination of sight and sound has always been a major attribute to Lynch's work and in Mulholland Drive, they are integral to the overall composition. Regular Lynch composer Angelo Badalamenti's haunting score compliments the uneasy mood and atmosphere created by Peter Deming's foreboding cinematography, lending the film a truly sinister and ethereal feel.

The biggest achievement though, is how much Lynch respects his audience's intelligence without compromising or diluting the concept. This is a visual jigsaw and putting it together is a very challenging endeavour. Many, if not all, viewers will find pieces that just don't to fit. That aside, this is still an intoxicating mystery and even when it's seemingly inexplicable it's still gripping and hugely involving. Those who like their narrative spelled out for them needn't bother but those that enjoy a challenge will be enthused throughout this fascinating piece of work.

We've all had those dreams where people, places and events are twisted and distorted and that's exactly what Lynch captures. There is a running, logical narrative that courses underneath it but it's very much delivered in dream logic. Any coherent interpretation lies within the importance of it's symbolism.

When you consider Lynch's filmography over the years, this feels like the film that he has been building towards. All of his usual themes are on display; the psychological duality in an individual and the juxtaposition of innocence and corruption, beauty and depravity, shattered dreams and living nightmares. Put simply, it's an abstract masterpiece.

Mark Walker

Wild At Heart

Around the time of Wild At Heart's release, David Lynch was already enjoying an abundance of praise for his cult TV show Twin Peaks. However, this time he was working on an adaptation from another writer's work. The last time Lynch attempted to do this (Frank Herbert's Dune), the results were catastrophic. That said, Barry Gifford's source material is far more suited to Lynch's style. This may be a more linear film than most Lynch fans expected but it's one of his more accessible offerings while still maintaining his talent for the weird and the offbeat.

Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) and Lula Fortune (Laura Dern) are young lovers fleeing south from Lula's vengeful mother Marietta (Diane Ladd). In a fit of rage, Marietta is determined to prevent the two from seeing each other and employs the services of a P.I and hitmen to track them down.

Some may (and do) claim that this is not Lynch's strongest output. I'm not about to split hairs on that particular opinion but there are some obvious reasons for this. For a start, Lynch has already got some solid films on his resumť and, as mentioned earlier, the original material is not his own. He also attempts something a bit different from his norm. For the most part, he abandons his surrealist, claustrophobic narrative for something more open and approachable: a road movie with numerous different characters and motivations.

It isn't entirely what we have come to know and love about a Lynchian experience but he still manages to imbue it with some colourful dialogue and showcases his idiosyncratic knack for oddball characters which provides great fodder for an eclectic cast of strong performers: A lot has been said about the downfall of Nicolas Cage's career in recent times but it can often be overlooked just how good he was in the 80's and 90's and he's rarely been better than he is here. It's a very energetic performance and he plays it at just the right note whereby he's both funny and dangerous - not to mention the Elvis impersonations and the love he has for his snake skin jacket which "represents his individuality and belief in personal freedom"; Laura Dern is no less his equal as she captures the hyperactivity and naivetť of an infatuated teenager - even if she is slightly too old for the role; Diane Ladd is simply wonderful (and deservedly Oscar nominated) as the bitter and spiteful Marietta that will stop at nothing in achieving her vengeance and retribution on Sailor. It's a film filled with eccentric characters and the supporting ones are just as memorable: there's cousin Dell (Crispin Glover) who has a thing about Christmas and putting cockroaches in his underpants; Marcelles Santos (J.E. Freeman) the menacing hitman with a wicked sense of humour and real threatening conviction and Private Detective Johnny Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton) as the gentle heart of the film. You could also mention a brief and suitably odd Jack Nance or Sherilyn Fenn as a random car crash victim who deliriously worries about her purse while picking at the fatal wound in her head. It doesn't even have to be a prominent character, sometimes it's just a name; Uncle Pooch, Bob Ray Lemon and the enigmatic criminal kingpin, Mr. Reindeer - a character that wouldn't look out of place in a Quentin Tarantino story. There's so many vibrant characters that it's difficult to name them all but the best of the sordid bunch is when the lovebirds reach Texas and arrive at the town of Big Tuna and meet Willem Dafoe's incredibly creepy, Bobby Peru. If there's any comparison to the dark characters that inhabit Lynch's world then Blue Velvet's Frank Booth is probably the only one that can compare to Peru and his downright nastiness.

The narrative itself is a dark and twisted delight; Lynch has always claimed the film to be a love story between Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe as they travel through the land of Oz and Lynch makes constant references throughout the film. Some work and others don't but there's no denying his inventive approach to the material.

As much as this is a more linear and more approachable David Lynch movie, that's almost what makes it a lesser effort. It's his dream-like ability to work within realms that's missing. That's not to say that Wild At Heart doesn't have touches of this but it's not as prominent as it often is. That said, it still has the requisite amount of bizarre to please Lunch enthusiasts. Those who also enjoy a crime yarn with colourful characters will find plenty to admire too. In fact, I've mentioned Tarantino earlier for good reason. There's no doubt that Tarantino has been influenced by this particular film in his lovers-on-the-lam, screenwriting endeavours of True Romance and Natural Born Killers and the ability
to make such inconsequential supporting characters so memorable. He even, personally, admitted that the film was a big influence on the style and tone of Pulp Fiction.

Ultimately, the problem that makes Wild At Heart feel less like a Lynch film, though, is because he's constantly on the move. He rarely gets a chance to remain static and create an ambience within a room. This is what Lynch is a master at but having to focus on so many characters and so many locations doesn't provide him with that opportunity. That said, his deranged approach to characterisation is ever present and Wild At Heart contains some of the best.

Like the odd love child of Tarantino and The Coen Bros. It matches the violence of the former and the zaniness of the latter and comes out feeling just as fresh and original as their work often does. It may be one of Lynch's more coherent films but it still has flashes of his dreamlike quality, peppered with strange, outlandish characters and events. Regardless of it being more linear, though, it's still a depiction of the off-beat and depraved underbelly of America, that no-one can do quite like Lynch.

Mark Walker

Twin Peaks - Fire Walk with Me
½

Only two years after winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes for Wild at Heart, David Lynch decided to revisit the town of his much loved TV series Twin Peaks and explore more of that mystery. Only this time at Cannes his film was booed and jeered out the door. Critics hated it. However, if you're a fan of the TV series then this prequel is pretty much essential viewing.

Twin Peaks' homecoming queen, Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) is a struggling teenager who, by day, is a sought after and cherished member of her small town community. But she leads a double life and, by night, she has an obvious sexual promiscuity and spiralling cocaine habit that explain the circumstances which led to her demise - ending where the television series began.

From the opening shot of Fire Walk With Me, Lynch makes a bold statement on what to expect from the film. He depicts a television with no reception before quickly smashing it with an axe. It doesn't take much to understand the symbolism. This film is not in the same style or the quirky, off-beat approach that the TV series had. This is a much violent and sinister revisit to Twin Peaks.

Maybe this is the reason why critics gave it a mauling. Although most of the criticisms seem to stem from it being indecipherable. As is often the case with Lynch, though, answers don't come easy and if you haven't seen the television show then this film will, admittedly, make no sense whatsoever. As an avid fan of the show, I personally think this is a superb companion piece and one of Lynch's most criminally underrated films.

As much as its tone is darker, it still flirts with the Twin Peaks vibe. The majority of the characters from the series reappear and Lynch also introduces some new one's that fit into the story perfectly; Agent Chet Desmond (Chris Isaak) and his forensic partner Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland) dominate the opening of the film as they investigate the murder of Teresa Banks in the town of Deer Meadow and how her death could have implications on future murders. Their segment of the story contains some classic Lynchian moments - as well as Lynch himself making another welcome appearance as the hard-of-hearing FBI Chief Gordon Cole.

From there, we move forward a year and back to Twin Peaks, for the last seven days of Laura Palmer's life. It's here that Sheryl Lee takes centre stage. She had little to do in the series but here Lynch makes her the focus of the film and Lee embraces the chance. Her performance is absolutely superb. She conveys a wide range of emotions and fully captures the despair of Laura. Her struggle is a harrowing and heartbreaking experience and feels, very much, like a tangible tragedy.

Along the way, we also get a glimpse of some familiar characters and places; Kyle MacLachlan's Special Agent Dale Cooper makes a brief appearance as does The Man From Another Place and, of course, Killer Bob. We visit The Black Lodge and The Red Room and a genuinely unsettling scene involving the appearance (and disappearance) of David Bowie's Philip Jeffries.

Surreal paintings, a dancing lady with a blue rose, backwards taking dwarves, log ladies and oscillating uvulas. This is classic Lynch and his vision of Twin Peaks and the duality of Laura Palmer's life is an altogether nightmarish one. His usual exploration of the depths of the human psyche is once again the major theme as he explores the psychological torture of individuals struggling with good and evil, loneliness and abandonment and the downward spiral of Laura, in particular, weighs devastatingly heavy.

It can often be overlooked how much of horror this film is. It's not one in your conventional sense, though. It deals more with the evil within an everyday person and has dark forces at work but it doesn't have the archetypal spectre dressed up for a particular day of the festive year. They don't wield weapons or are seemingly indestructible. The evil at work here is what lingers under the facade of people and that psychological depth is what makes Lynch's film a masterclass in absolute terror.

If your a fan of the series then this should appeal very highly. Otherwise, it's probably a Lynch film that you'll want to avoid. Either way, the critics got this wrong. Only those with a lack of familiarity or love for the cult show should find fault here.

Mark Walker

Blue Velvet
Blue Velvet(1986)

The debacle of adapting Frank Herbert's Dune in 1984, is now pretty much common knowledge among film enthusiasts. To put it plainly, it didn't do well at the box office and was even tagged with the moniker of being the Heaven's Gate of science fiction films. So upset was David Lynch with studio interference and losing final cut of the film that he vowed never to work with a big budget again. He regrouped, however, and two years later he delivered one of his own original scripts in the form of Blue Velvet. Not only did it put him back on the map but it's still widely regarded as one the best films from the 1980's.

Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) is an impressionable young man who return's back to his home town to care for his ill father. After a visit at the hospital he takes a short cut through an abandoned field and finds a severed human ear. He takes it to the police before embarking on his own investigation. This leads him to nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) and a criminal underworld that he had no idea existed.

The opening of the film has such a striking beauty to it with crisp and colourful cinematography by Frederick Elmes while Lynch doesn't mince his words on his message. White picket fences with vibrant red roses, a fire truck strolls by with a waving fireman while a man hoses down his manicured garden. It's quaint and calming imagery. Suddenly, the hose gets stuck on a branch, the water splutters and the infuriated gardener suffers a stroke. He falls to the ground while a toddler looks on and a dog's only interest is in catching the water from the hose which is still in the grasp of the fallen gardener. It's here that Lynch turns his camera to the grass and the dark underbelly of this picture-perfect, suburban lifestyle is exposed in a colony of insects. We then cut to a billboard saying "Welcome to Lumberton" - where it is later described as "a town where the people really know how much wood a woodchuck chucks". There's a playfulness on show and Lynch imbues the whole affair with satire and a deep cynicism.

From here, Lynch takes his time with his narrative - which, when you look at it now, is deceptively simple. He uses a very linear approach throughout the beginning of the film. Lumberton is a middle class suburbia where seemingly everyone is pleasant and there's a feeling of safety. It has an air of mystery to it, though, after the discovery of the severed ear.

It's from the investigations and uncovering the truth that the film gets more bizarre by the minute and the Lynchian weirdness begins to creep in. This is predominantly with the arrival of Dennis Hopper's Frank Booth. From the plethora of Lynch's obscure and unhinged characters, Frank is the one that seems to get the most attention. It's not hard to see why, though, as this deranged, amyl-nitrate huffing psychopath is a character that lingers long in the memory. It's an Oscar worthy performance from Hopper but, strangely, the academy choose to nominate him in the supporting category for Hoosiers. As good as he was in that film, Frank Booth has become one of, if not, the most iconic performance of his career.


For all it's strangeness, though, effectively Blue Velvet is a film-noir. It has all the hallmarks of the sub-genre but, as is usually the case, Lynch puts his own spin on the proceedings. It's dark, gloomy and hugely atmospheric. It's also not without its disturbing elements as it delves into the darkest recesses of the psyche and explores the psychosexual motivations of its characters - which is hinted at with a quote from Laura Dern's angelic Sandy - "I can't figure out if you're a detective or a pervert".
This line perfectly sums up the juxtaposition that courses throughout the film. Lynch is interested in capturing the different extremes; in society, human relationships and Freudian and Oedipal subconscious desires. All the while, he keeps us reminded that dreams can so easily lead to nightmares.

If there's one moment that showcases Lynch's ability to project mood and capture the extremes it's with a cameo from Dean Stockwell as the suave, glad-handling dandy, Ben. His miming rendition of Roy Orbison's In Dreams using a worklight is simply one of the best scenes Lynch has ever put onscreen. It's at once hilariously comical yet also surreal and deeply fuckin' creepy.

A startlingly beautiful yet genuinely horrific tale and proof that Lynch is probably the most subversive of filmmakers working today. This erotic and perversely self indulgent piece of work remains one his best films. To think that this came out in the mid 80's is proof of Lynch's untamed brilliance and majesty.

Mark Walker

The Conjuring 2
½

Word on the Ouiji board had us believe that James Wan was walking away from horror movies. He ventured into the Fast and Furious action franchise (with its 7th instalment) and stated his intention to leave the horror genre behind. However, his nostalgic frightener The Conjuring in 2013 was such a resounding success that Wan decided to return and take charge of its sequel. Often with sequels, they fail to deliver on the predecessor's success but Wan still has a few tricks up his sleeve.

In the London borough of Enfield in 1977, single mother Peggy Hodgson (Frances O'Connor) believes that something evil and malevolent lurks in her house. When her young daughter Janet (Madison Wolfe) starts to display signs of demonic possession, Peggy reaches out to the church and the media to provide help. News soon travels to American paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) who find that the spirit that's plaguing the family has also been plaguing themselves for years.

Opening on a seance that takes us back to the mass murder of the Amityville story James Wan employs some stylistic directorial flourishes that set this film up on a strong footing. His feel and rhythm for the material is apparent from the offset and his use of camera angles lend an unnerving atmosphere to the proceedings. After such a striking opening, he slows events down and introduces new characters and a new location.

However, the haunted house routine is, once again, at the forefront and the usual horror tropes are on full view; creaking doors, knocks on the walls, vibrating beds and disembodied voices from the darkest corners of a room. It's credit then to Wan that they don't feel overused or even stale for that matter. The narrative is helped by relocating to England where, what is essentially a retread, feels like a new chapter in the paranormal dealings of the Warrens and Wan introduces a new demonic presence that looks like Marilyn Manson in a nuns habit. This may sound ridiculous but it's a very unsettling entity and Wan also throws in creepy ghostly images of a 72 year old man that refuses to leave the house (or the family) alone.

What doesn't work so well is a subplot involving zoetrope character The Crooked Man. It's shoehorned in to give a young side character something to do and feels almost like an attempt to provide another future tie-in horror film (much like the doll Annabelle that originated from the first instalment). It just doesn't work and provides absolutely nothing to the story at hand and its omission could have saved 20mins from Wan's slightly overlong running time.

For the most part, though, Wan wrings out the terror with a very assured hand. He builds assuredly and allows the horror to creep in with the occasional image or revelation hidden in a corner of the frame. In doing so, there are several efficient jump-scares and hairs on necks and moments and that's ultimately how I judge a horror. Admittedly, there are issues and contrivances in the story and the "based on a true events" angle has caused controversy but Wan's ability to stage a creepy scene is hugely effective and he delivers a package that does exactly what it sets out to do.

Horror films of late seem to have taken a much needed look at themselves and there have actually been some notable inclusions in recent years. With James Wan returning to this platform, it will do the genre no harm whatsoever.

Mark Walker

The Prestige
The Prestige(2006)

Having delivered such strong films as Memento, Inception and Interstellar (outwith the hugely successful Dark Knight trilogy), it's safe to say that director Christopher Nolan's output is of a very high standard. Many may even claim that he's yet to make a bad film and that his filmography is nothing but quality. For me, though, The Prestige is an exception to that and a major blip in an otherwise solid rťsumť.

At the turn of the 19th century, celebrated stage magician Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) is accused of the murder of Julia McCullough, the wife of his partner Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman). Her death happened during a magic trick but Angier puts the blame solely on Borden. As a result, the pair become rivals and a bitter feud takes place between them as they try to sabotage each others tricks with dangerous consequences.

As the film opens, we are informed that every magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called "The Pledge" where the magician shows you something ordinary. The second act is called "The Turn" where the magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary (like disappear). But making something disappear isn't enough; you have to bring it back. That's why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part that's called "The Prestige". And so the stage is set for Nolan's stylish and elaborate sleight of hand. He adheres to this magicians three act rule in the films structure but it's the hardest act (and the one that shares the film's title) that actually undoes the whole affair.

In saying this, it would suggest the film is let down solely by it's reveal. It's not. From the outset the film is very slow and tedium sets in very early. I don't have a problem with slow builds and I'm actually very fond of a good magic trick. Nolan's premise is very enticing and having two warring magicians play against each other should make for gripping entertainment. Only it doesn't. It's a laborious and excruciatingly dull endeavour which is very surprising considering it has Nolan in charge.

With films of this kind, you know there will be an attempt to pull the rug from under your feet. That's a given and given Nolan's track record of being more than able to deliver a good twist you expect that you're in safe hands. However, it reaches a point where it's just one preposterous plot twist after another with the ultimate misgiving being that Nolan doesn't capture a sense of wonder. It's difficult to accept the plot developments when you know that it's all just elaborately staged for the sake of it. It's like trying to convince the viewer that CGI is actually real. There's no way your going buy it and this film is as similarly unacceptable as that preposterous proposal. As for the final reveal, when it actually happens, it just stinks. It's a ludicrous revelation that's so tenuous that it's practically impossible to work it out and left me with feelings of frustration. Maybe this was Nolan's intentions all along but, to me, it felt like a con.

Granted, Nolan has a good eye for the period and his regular cinematographer Wally Pfister does some beautiful work in capturing the Victorian era amidst Nathan Crowley's impressive production design. To the eye, it certainly looks the part but really the appearance is all smoke and mirrors. There's really no consistency underneath it all.


Even having the charismatic leads in Bale and Jackman should work in it's favour but the film never really knows who to fully focus on at any given time leaving the development of their relationship - and their own identities - a bit of a muddle. It's hard to know which one to root for as their character arcs are continually blurred and messily delivered.

From what I can gather, I'm in the minority with this one. Many critics and viewers have lavished nothing but praise on it but I fail to see what the attraction is. As I've said, the three act structure is undoubtedly on show; we are offered the "pledge" and it delivers the "turn" but Nolan's reveal simply doesn't work, leaving the final product lacking the "prestige". Which doesn't say very much for a film that can't even live up to its own title.

Mark Walker

Midnight Special

After making his name with three independent films in Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and Mud, director Jeff Nichols approaches his fourth feature with a bigger budget, making it his first studio production and allowing him to operate on a slightly more ambitious and grander scale. However, Nichols has a particular approach to storytelling and resists the urge to let the budget overshadow his intentions. Fans of his will be happy to hear that he continues his promise as a director with great depth and substance.

Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) is young boy with a very special gift. So special that it attracts the attention of religious extremists and the Federal Government. To protect him, his father Roy (Michael Shannon) and his longtime friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) go on the run with Alton to try and uncover the truth behind his special powers and how it could have a huge impact on the world itself.

From his aforementioned independent films, Nichols utilised the intensive talents of Michael Shannon and it has become a solid collaboration that you can rely on. With the exception of Mud, Shannon again takes front-and centre in Midnight Special and it's yet another example of how this actor/director partnership works so well. Nichols likes to tread a particularly methodical path with his stories and Shannon always seems to know the terrain very well, complimenting Nichols' approach with his usual brooding intensity. What's different this time, however, is that Nichols aims higher and quite literally aims for the stars. Gone is the Shakespearean tragedy of Shotgun Stories and the parable of Mud and in its place we experience the otherworldly and supernatural elements that he attempted with Take Shelter. In doing so, Nichols puts his trust in the audience to accept the premise and roll with it. It's a gamble but it's a gamble that pays off due to Nichols' sincere approach to the story and through the sincerity of his committed cast.

There's and unmistakable flavour of Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind and John Carpenter's Starman but yet still has the deliberate approach that Nichols has shown in his previous films. He resists the urge to shower the narrative in schmaltz, instead choosing to linger long on shots and capture the angst amongst his characters.

Is it formulaic? Yes. Is it predictable? Yes it is, but despite the formula and the film heading closer and closer to a predictable conclusion, Nichols still manages to pull through. His revelations verge on going too far but by the end you realise that you've witnessed a film that crosses all sorts of genres; it's an introspective drama, a restrained chase movie and an imaginative Sci-Fi and it tackles all the tropes with a deftness and skill. We've seen it all before but Nichols utilises that sense of wonder and touches upon the biblical elements that made his previous films so engaging. His grandest achievement, though, is maintaining a freshness and preventing a tried-and-tested story from becoming stale.

Much of Nichols' vision wouldn't be realised without his strong cast. For imaginative and otherworldly material of this type, it requires a commitment from those onscreen and all the principal leads deliver; Shannon is always an actor that can express so much by doing so little and it's easy to see why Nichols stands by him but it was the emotive (if underwritten) Dunst and, particularly, the charismatic Edgerton that really stood out for me. They both offer an emotional balance to Shannon's stoicism and young newcomer Jacob Lieberher has an ease and likability that convinces.

It's four for four from Nichols now and he's fast became a director that instills a feeling of anticipation on the news of a new project. His next film Loving (again with Edgerton and Shannon) can't arrive quick enough.

Mark Walker

Green Room
Green Room(2016)
½

After his little seen debut Murder Party in 2007, Jeremy Saulnier's second film Blue Ruin took the film circuit by storm in 2013 and turned out to be one of the biggest surprises of the year. It was a taught and very well constructed low-budget thriller that reached many people's list of favourites (myself included). As is always the case, though, it brought much anticipation for his third feature. And deservedly so. The pressure was always on but by sticking to a winning formula, Saulnier again delivers a film that has much to recommend it.

Punk band, The Ain't Rights, get a last minute booking in a Neo-Nazi club deep in the backwoods of Oregon. What seems like a standard gig soon turns into something very dangerous when they witness a murder backstage. They take refuge in the Green Room, and finds themselves planning and negotiating with the club's ruthless owner (Patrick Stewart) to ensure they walk out alive.

As if there wasn't enough attention surrounding what Saulnier would deliver next, this film also had some added publicity with leading actor Anton Yelchin - who died in a freak accident just after the film's release. This adds a bittersweet feeling when watching him onscreen. His death was sad news but Green Room is a wonderful reminder of his talents. What works best with Saulnier's structure, though, is that no one really takes centre stage. This is a siege film that benefits from not knowing which character will perish next and with films of this type, that always adds an extra layer of tension. With the help of Sean Porter's gritty cinematography, Saulnier seems to build tension with ease by using a similar authenticity that Blue Ruin benefited greatly from. His characters feel genuine and he draws out some great performances. Much has been said about Yelchin or an imposing, cast-against-type, Patrick Stewart but it's Blue Ruin's leading man Macon Blair that shines most. Blair is given less screen time here but he's afforded a character who's motivations change throughout the film and his subtlety and three-dimensional approach to the role is very impressive indeed.

However, as the film went on I found it harder to invest in. Plot holes gradually crept in and credulity wained in the final third with a relayed paintball experience becoming integral to a particular character's motivations which I found tenuous and a desperate attempt to dig itself out a hole. Some may disagree and have less of a problem with this but it felt jarring an unsatisfactory to me. Normally, this wouldn't be an issue had the film not set itself up so well but it's solid premise and excellent early delivery almost draws attention to it's flaws later on. I admire Saulnier's chutzpah but, despite his flawless direction, his story eventually runs out of steam.

That aside, Green Room still has plenty to offer. It may sound like I'm criticising but I'm merely pointing out problems that prevented it from becoming as astute and tightly wound as Saulnier's previous output. To be fair to him, though, that's a very hard act to follow.

What it lacks in depth it makes up for in well staged tension. Green Room ain't no Blue Ruin but regardless of how you mix your colours, this is still an interesting and impressively handled thriller.

Mark Walker

Lost Highway
Lost Highway(1997)
½

"l like to remember things my own way"

Whenever you approach a David Lynch film, you really have to be prepared for a surrealistic, mind-boggling challenge. His films rarely come as an easy pass to answers or entertainment and can even frustrate to the point of absolute bewilderment. Lost Highway is no different and ranks alongside Inland Empire as, probably, Lynch's most difficult film to date.

Jazz saxophonist Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) awakes one morning to find a video tape lying on his doorstep. He and his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) watch the tape only to find that someone has been filming the inside of their house. The tapes appear with increasing regularity, each time revealing more and more footage. This only adds to Fred's suspicions of his wife and her friendships outwith their marriage. Not before long Fred is drawn into a labyrinthine plot with a Mystery Man (Robert Blake), ferocious gangster Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia), pornography, murder and teenage mechanic Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty) who may, or may not, be involved.

Working on the script alongside his Wild At Heart author Barry Gifford, Lynch crafts an experience that truly is a hallucinatory nightmare and one of the most effective horrors I've ever seen. It's a great combination of noir and horror with shady characters, femme fatales and downright freakish oddities and there's an ambience that's classic Lynch with his very unsettling and minimalist approach. The man can craft sinister from absolutely nothing; bare lamps, shadows and vacant spaces speak volumes and he's aided considerably by - regular collaborators - Angelo Badalamenti's foreboding score and Peter Deming's hugely effective cinematography (which was supposedly shot in one of Lynch's own L.A. homes).

Some critics have been harsh on Lost Highway, claiming that it's self-indulgent and lacks depth but it's one of those films where you really have to pay attention. Even the minutest detail can be so important to unraveling the mystery.

It's a film of two halves and the trick is in trying to piece the two to make a complete whole. The first half of the film is fairly linear but in the second, a metamorphosis takes place that really is a bizarre and confounding plot twist. From that moment on, nothing is as it seems and it just gets weirder and weirder. Only Lynch can get away with this kind of mind fuck. And get away with it he does. It's a hugely involving and complex piece of work. So much so, that you actually question whether you're intelligent enough to understand it at all.

Is there a point? Who knows for sure. I have my theories as I'm sure many others do but the beauty in this film is that it's a transcendental piece of art. Does there need to be a point or is it like all other great art, whereby you interpret the voids for yourself. The voids where the artist isn't readily giving you clarity. How it affects each viewer will, no doubt, be different and unique and there's not many filmmaker's or artists out there can still achieve such an impact.

If you're reading this review, looking for definitive answers, then you're looking in the wrong place. If I did offer my answers to the conundrum, it would only rob you of your own experience. And anyway, like all great works of art, you already have the answers. The answers that make sense to you. They're not mine, they're not anybody else's, they're yours. And that's what I love about this filmmaker. There's no-one quite like David Lynch and his idiosyncratic genius.

One things for sure, it explores the themes of sexual insecurity and paranoia but when it operates on a metaphysical level that's when things get very challenging. You could view it from a schizophrenic angle, it could be an alternate reality, an underworld purgatory or you could be trying to interpret dream hallucinations and suppressed memories. It could be many things and although I have settled on a particular meaning, my reasoning could be entirely different to another's. Put simply, it's open to interpretation and will depend on each and every individual viewer and what they bring to the experience themselves. You just have to open yourself up and embrace it. And therein lies the art.

You could argue that this is Lynch's most cerebrally nihilistic film to date and a variation on the same themes explored in Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire. Like those films, I have seen it many times and each time I manage to decipher another piece of the puzzle. For years, I couldn't make heads nor tales of it but I now have a better grasp on what (I think) it's all about. However, trying to work it out is not in the slightest bit easy. All I know, is that I love the experience each and every time and sometimes I even question why.

Mark Walker

The Nice Guys
½

Back in the 80's and 90's writer Shane Black was actually quite a prominent player in Hollywood and a big contributor to the hugely successful wave of "buddy-movies". His writing credits would extent from The Monster Squad, Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, Last Action Hero and The Long Kiss Goodnight before he decided to take a break from studio pressures. He did return in 2005 for his directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang before disappearing again, only to resurface with Iron Man 3 a few years ago. For those that grew up on Black's earlier works (like myself), his latest in The Nice Guys should come as a fond reminder of his action/comedy antics.

In 1970's Los Angeles, mismatched private investigators Holland March (Ryan Gosling) and Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) finds themselves having to work together to find a missing girl who might be related to the death a porn star and in some way involved in political corruption.

The Nice Guys certainly isn't very far from where Black found most of his success. Once again, he uses kidnapping as a plot device while having time to focus on the friendship/partnership from his leading protagonists.

Where Black finds a new niche, though, is in his setting. The decision to set it in the 70's brings all sorts of new possibilities. We settle in to a murky noir where a porn star has been murdered, a dame has gone missing, corruption is rife and there are two local gumshoes trying to turn a buck.

And it's in the casting of the gumshoes that Black strikes gold; Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling are a superb duo. The chemistry they share is absolutely infectious and it's this chemistry that raises the standard of what could have been a very formulaic film.

Crowe plays the straight-man to Gosling's slapstick, physical comedy and they play off each other brilliantly. It really must be noted just how funny Gosling is, though. I don't want to take anything away from Crowe as his contribution is solid but Gosling near runs away with the film. The delivery of his dialogue and comic timing is genius. He might have done a few skits on Saturday Night Live and showed his comedic chops in Crazy, Stupid, Love but Gosling excels himself here.

What lets Black down, though, is when he veers away from the comic chemistry of his stars and allows a muddled, cartoonish action segment to take over. It's around this point that the story lacks coherence and without the great work of Crowe and Gosling, the film wouldn't quite be as entertaining as it is.

To be fair to Black, he attempts to shuffle quite a bit in his narrative. A convoluted plot with action and comedy isn't easy to pull off but, for the most part, he handles it well. Even if the film gets a little overly complex and suffocates under it's own weight. Some supporting characters come and go and the likes of Kim Basinger's character doesn't contribute very much - which is probably a good thing considering her performance is wooden and as constricted as her Botox. Kudos to young Angourie Rice, though. Her contribution gives the two leads a run for their money and for such a young actress, she shows a lot of promise.

It's an ambitious near miss that's still has plenty of entertainment value. And definitely worth seeing for it's snappy dialogue and it's even snappier leading actors.

Mark Walker

The BFG
The BFG(2016)
½

With the exception of The Adventures of Tintin in 2011, Steven Spielberg has been getting all serious on us over the last five years. He's predominantly dealt with war, politics and espionage in War Horse, Lincoln and Bridge of Spies respectively. However, he now reunites with his E.T. screenwriter Melissa Mathison to bring a much loved children's novel to the big screen in The BFG - a film which brings reminders of his fantastical adventures and his ability to deliver family friendly entertainment.

One evening in her orphanage young Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) encounters something she never knew existed - a 24 foot tall giant. To protect his anonymity, the giant decides to take her back to Giant Country where an initially apprehensive Sophie realises that the Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance) is actually very gentle and well mannered. However, her arrival in Giant Country attracts the attention of bigger, more bloodthirsty giants that have been known to eat children, leaving Sophie and the BFG formulating a plan to get rid of them for good.

Spielberg always seemed like the perfect choice to adapt Roald Dahl's classic children's novel and it doesn't take long to to realise the story is in safe hands with him. From the opening sequence alone on how the giant manages to hide while prowling the city at night is one of the film's true highlights and while still putting his own stamp on the proceedings, Spielberg shows that he has a keen eye and ear for the essence of the book. The BFG's lexicon of gibberish language is a delight and the stunning visuals really bring the character to life. As is often the case with Spielberg's fantasies, it's quite a spectacle.

In a combination of CGI, motion capture and exemplary acting abilities Mark Rylance delivers a solid performance as the amiable giant. Despite his imposing presence, Rylance captures the emotion and sensitivity required for the role without ever overplaying it. Put simply, he's an absolute joy to watch. And the same goes for Jermaine Clement as the Fleshlumpeater - The BFG's bloodthirsty nemesis.

The BFG is not without it's problems, though. For a start, it has pacing issues. It's overlong and within it's two hour running time has several periodic lulls which can cause your concentration to waver. Younger viewers, in particular, may find themselves distracted. That said, the final third taps more into a child's sense of humour with the odd fart joke here and there and Spielberg can't resist being overly sentimental on occasion. As much as this will capture the enthusiasm for kids, it will probably ostracise some adults and it's this unbalanced approach that becomes a slight sticking point. Overall, though, these are small gripes as there's still plenty to admire from Spielberg's efforts. It's escapist entertainment with a genuine heart and playfulness and when it's called upon to be exciting, it has some excellent set-pieces that Spielberg is more than able to handle.

The late Melissa Mathison's screenplay has a tendency to wander and the film could have been tighter but the visual effects are astonishing and Rylance and Clement really deliver the goods in the acting stakes. A magical childhood classic that has finally been given the big screen treatment that it's deserved for years.

Mark Walker

Night and the City

Coming off the back of Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear remake in 1991, Robert DeNiro and Jessica Lange collaborated again a year later on another remake; this time Jules Dassin's 1950's film-noir, Night and the City. The original had a lot of admirers which can often lead to a retread being heavily criticised and even though I haven't seen Dassin's version, Irwin Winkler's certainly didn't deserve the much maligned reception it received.

Two-bit, incompetent lawyer Harry Fabian (Robert DeNiro) takes whatever unethical approach is required to defend his clients but when he finds himself involved in a lawsuit with a prize boxer, he develops and interest in the boxing world. In another of his get-rich-quick schemes he decides to stage his own boxing event but in doing so, he steps on the toes of the local mob boss and has to borrow money off everyone he knows to put his plan together.

From the offset we overhear Sam the Sham's Wooly Bully played out to the sidewalks of Manhattan as DeNiro's Harry Fabian shuffles in and out of the busy commuters. It's a brisk opening and sets the tone for the rest of the film. Fabian is a man that's always on the move and by his own admission "I'm like a shark: I stop moving, I die". He's a very colourful character and it's another one of DeNiro's interestingly offbeat portrayals that's not unlike his desperate hanger-on Rupert Pupkin from The King Of Comedy. Fabian is basically a no-good, shyster who ambulance chases his way to a living. He lacks scruples and a moral integrity and anyone that gets close to him, simply isn't safe from his financial shenanigans. He really is a hard man to like but that's all the more reason to single out DeNiro's magnetic performance. As a viewer, you don't trust this man as far as you could throw him but DeNiro still makes you care. Despite his faults, Fabian is still shown to have a modicum of decency and it's a decency that DeNiro teases out of the role.

He's not the only one on form, though, the entire supporting cast deliver very strong work; Jessica Lange's ambitious but bored waitress, Cliff Gorman as her controlling and suspicious husband, the great Jack Warden as DeNiro's business partner and Alan King as the local mobster "Boom Boom" who takes a strong disliking to Fabian. It's an eclectic mix of personalities that make up this quintessential New York story as cinematographer Tak Fujimoto makes great use of the locations to capture the flavour and vibrancy of the city itself.

All positives aside, though, this film came in for some very heavy criticism; there has been complaints about it's tone, a muddled script, poor direction and badly judged performances but I really didn't see it that way. DeNiro's kinetic energy brings a very lively pace to the film and Irwin Winkler's direction handles the pace more than admirably and employs the use of some impressive tracking shots along the way. Even these weren't good enough for some, though, as he was criticised for trying too hard to be like Scorsese (who was originally onboard to direct before passing it on). I can accept that the ending of the film loses a little steam but, for the most part, Richard Price's screenplay is filled with humour, sharp dialogue and three-dimensional characters. There's not much more that's required.

An under the radar and vastly underrated slice of New York life that benefits greatly from, a rarely offscreen, DeNiro in one of his most enjoyable roles. Forget the critics, there's much to recommend this and it's a film that should be on every DeNiro fan's list.

Mark Walker

The Road
The Road(2009)

I'll always remember the experience I had reading Cormac McCarthy's 2006 novel The Road. It wasn't something I was initially drawn to but the fact that a film adaptation was in the pipeline led me to investigate further. It was a very bleak and emotionally shattering read but it was also morbidly fascinating and nigh-on impossible to put down. When I came to the end I remember wondering how this could be visually translated to the screen considering it delivered so little in terms of descriptive prose. Credit then to Australian director John Hillcoat for delivering a faithful recreation of a very intimate novel.

An unspecified apocalypse devastates all animal and plant life on Earth, leaving those remaining in a state of lawlessness and cannibalism. A man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) are left to survive, by any means necessary, in the hope that salvation lies ahead somewhere on the road.

The sheer power of McCarthy's novel led it quickly to become a beloved piece of literature and anyone willing to attempt an adaptation was always going to have an unenviable task. With this in mind, it seemed fitting that John Hillcoat would follow-up his stark and primitive debut The Proposition with another realistic survival tale. In fairness, the emotional power of book is somewhat diluted but this can so often be the case with page to screen transfers. For the most part, though, Hillcoat manages to capture the essence of the story and his visual representation is practically spot-on for how it was depicted in my mind when reading the book. In achieving this, it be would unfair not to single out the exemplary work of Javier Aguirresarobe and his fittingly, desaturated cinematography as well as keeping the CGI to a minimum which makes the stark images and locations all the more impressive and effective.

Make no mistake, The Road is an arduous journey with a palpable sense of doom. As a result, this led to my first impressions of the film not being entirely positive. It felt to me like I was trudging through it, like the characters are wearily trudging through the harsh and barren landscape. However, on a recent reappraisal it strikes me just how powerful a film it is. A bold move (like the book before it) is never to explain the circumstances of the apocalyptic event. It's irrelevant. Instead we're thrust, into a society whose fragility has been exposed to its weakest point with man's inhumanity to man the biggest threat to anyone's survival.

At it's core the film is galvanised by two very strong central performances. Sure, there are brief, but welcome, appearances from the great Robert Duvall, the always reliable Charlize Theron and the vastly underrated Guy Pearce but, ultimately, the film rests upon the shoulders of Kodi Smit-McPhee and Viggo Mortensen, who both deliver emotionally harrowing work. Their father/son relationship captures the moments of despair and desperation while complimenting these with a tender and heart-rending vulnerability.

With the exception of the Coen brothers' Oscar winning, No Country For Old Men, Cormac McCarthy's prose have proven difficult for some filmmakers but John Hillcoat manages to bring a faithful adaptation to the screen that's, ironically, both bleak and beautiful.

Mark Walker

A Scanner Darkly

In 2001, director Richard Linklater delivered a little-seen, gem of a film called Waking Life. Many didn't pay notice to it which is one of many a film viewers biggest mistakes. Granted, the philosophical material may not have been everyone's idea of entertainment but this film pioneered a filmmaking technique that, simply, shouldn't have been overlooked. Linklater approached Waking Life with an animation method called "Rotoscoping". Basically it was animation added over live actors and it's a process that can be painstaking to deliver. The results were hugely effective for the material and, five years later, he decided to use the technique again on his adaptation of Philip K. Dick's paranoid science fiction novel, A Scanner Darkly. Once again, the results are very impressive.

In the near future, Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) an undercover cop, is given the assignment to bring down a vast network of drug distribution, dealing in "Substance D" which is highly addictive and mind altering. He fully immerses himself in the lifestyle, to the point were he has become an addict himself and even his superiors don't know his cover story. As a result, they order him to spy on himself. Being under the influence regularly, it causes him to lose his grip on reality where nothing is clear anymore.

Before this film went into production, it had gained interest from a couple of notable players in the film industry. Director Terry Gilliam was interested in the early 90's and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman had actually drafted a screenplay that was eventually unused once he became more sought after following the success of Being John Malkovich. One can only wonder at what might have become of an adaptation had they been involved but that doesn't lessen the fact that Linklater does a sterling job here. For a start, his decision to implement the interpolated rotoscoping animation again is a stroke of genius. On Waking Life it complimented the existential dream-like story and it's used similarly on this film. It's a technique that could be in danger of overuse but when the story and characters themselves are operating from an occasional surreal point of view, rotoscoping is perfectly fitting. It serves as a metaphor for the characters' drug induced alternate realities and allows us to identify with their paranoia and the struggle with their personal identity. You'd be forgiven for thinking that it might take away from the actors performances but it doesn't. In some ways it enhances them. Reeves is an actor that has came in for some criticism throughout his career but he's really rather good here and the support, from Harrelson and especially Downey Jr, is excellent. Who better to be included in a film of substance abuse than a couple of actors who have dabbled with both herbal and chemical remedies in their time?

The script is also very faithful to Philip K. Dick's own source material. You can tell Linklater has invested a lot of his time in adapting, what is essentially, some of Dick's own paranoid thoughts √Ę" he was heavily involved in the abuse of amphetamines and psychedelics at the time of writing it and explores the usual themes involved in his novels; the sociological and political aspects of human society under the control of an authoritarian government. If your a fan of Dick's musings then you'll find them all here. Some may find fault with the film's slightly lethargic pace but the visuals and thought provoking content are so captivating that the pace can be forgiven. Sometimes Philip K. Dick's stories are not afforded the proper treatment in movies; there are stinkers like Nicolas Cage's Next and Ben Affleck's Paycheck but this ranks very highly alongside the successful adaptations like Total Recall and Blade Runner.

Linklater's attention and commitment to Philip K Dick's challenging material pays off and he produces a thought-provoking head-trip of a film that delivers both intellectually and visually.

Mark Walker

High-Rise
High-Rise(2016)
½

Having established himself as a director for the watching with the darkly disturbing Kill List and blackly funny Sightseers, Ben Wheatley continued to explore dark themes with his modestly budgeted A Field in England. Now, though, it's apparent that he's been afforded more money and allowed to work on a grander scale with more established actors. That said, the style and approach to High-Rise still retains that Wheatley edge.

Physiologist, Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves into a new apartment in a luxury tower block that is insulated from the outside world. It has been designed by Architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) and operated to provide it's affluent tenants with all the conveniences and commodities that modern life has to offer. However, when the infrastructure fails and tensions between the lower and upper floors escalate, the residents become violent and the situation spirals out of control.

Based on the 1975, J.G. Ballard novel of the same name, High-Rise is a provocative exploration of the human psyche when manipulated within a socioeconomic environment. A film adaptation nearly came to fruition in the 1970's with Nicolas Roeg. A later attempt by Cube director Vincenzo Natali also fell through before it, eventually, became a project that Ben Wheatley was interested in. Admittedly, it's a book I haven't read but from what I gather, Wheatley has captured the source materials ferocious and provocative commentary on capitalism and the social constructs therein. Not surprisingly, class division is at the forefront with the ones on the lower level dreaming of more money to enable a move to a higher floor while the rich, aristocrats look down on them with their pompous superiority.

A permeating feeling of dread overhangs the proceedings and an almost claustrophobic atmosphere pervades this ruthless and mistrusting insular society. Like all commentaries on class struggle, there's a hierarchy at work and with it comes a darkness that results in disharmony among the residents; it begins with the drowning of a dog in the communal swimming pool while it's owner - a narcissistic actress - grieves while watching herself in the mirror. Before long, drugs, booze and debauchery lead to paranoia before Anarchy eventually ensues. The problem is, it takes over an hour in this capitalist cauldron before the class divide implodes and the "very unhappy bunnies bouncing about" resort to barbarism. That said, Wheatley employs an offbeat, black sense of humour which saves the film from becoming overly depraved and there are welcome moments of surrealist
beauty and some genuinely striking imagery.

Despite it's fragmented plot, I admired Wheatley's ability to imbue the whole affair with a revolutionary spirit and the clever and succinct parting shot of an overheard radio broadcast of the tyrannical words of the Iron Bitch, Margaret Thatcher, and her hatred of the working class... "Where there is state capitalism there will never be political freedom".

It's an ambitious project from Wheatley and it's material that you can't help but feel wouldn't be out place in the hands of Stanley Kubrick but it lacks an urgency and can sometimes stumble towards it's conclusion. When all is said and done, though, there is much to admire here and I didn't find it as bad as many critics have claimed. It left me with echoes of a contemporary A Clockwork Orange.

Mark Walker

10 Cloverfield Lane

For some reason or other, Dan Trachtenberg is a director who's name has been familiar to me. Considering this is his first feature length film and I haven't seen any of his short films, I have absolutely no idea why his name rings a bell. That aside, Trachtenberg is a name that won't be going away any time soon after this impressively handled debut that follows on (loosely) from Matt Reeves and J.J. Abrams' 2008, found footage-horror film, Cloverfield.

After a near fatal car accident, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) awakens in an underground cellar with Howard (John Goodman) who brings her meals and nurses her wounds. Howard proceeds to tell her that he saved her from an apocalyptical event and that the outside world has come under attack. With no evidence to suggest so, Michelle is left questioning whether Howard is actually her saviour or her captor.

Having just recently viewed Mojave in the hope that I could have been approaching a tense low-key thriller, I was left sorely disappointed. Sometimes the mood takes where you just want to be on the edge of your seat and 10 Cloverfield Lane is exactly the type of film that delivers that tension. Whether or not you've seen the original Cloverfield is neither here nor there as this film works in it's own right. In fact, any prior knowledge allows only the slightest of insights - with Abrams himself describing the film as merely a "blood-relative" or "spiritual successor".

This is an altogether different beast; the found footage approach is ditched, as is the grand spectacle of events (for the most part) in favour of a more deliberate and focused affair. This, in turn, brings about an intense and claustrophobic psychological thriller. John Goodman's volatile Howard is the man behind the construction of an underground bunker and his apocalyptic story of how the world outside has come under chemical attack is really all we've got to rely on and it's this premise that has you constantly questioning events.

It's a slow drip of psychological terror but all the more effective as result of Dan Trachtenberg having a thorough handle on the material. There are several moments of watching just three characters interact in their cramped conditions by sharing meals together and playing board games to pass the time but these events, in all their simplicity, still manage to grip like a vice. In all honesty, the least said about the plot the better but rest assured that the pacing is competently constructed with never a dull or clock watching moment and the performances of Winstead and Goodman bring the requisite intensity to make the whole thing believable.

Sometimes a direct sequel to a successful film can often create expectations and despite the filmmaker's ambitions these expectations can often lead to disappointment. However, with J.J. Abrams again overseeing the production and a promising new director in Trachtenberg, the decision to take this slight tie-in in a different direction altogether pays dividends. It could even herald the way in how an original story can be opened up to new, franchise, possibilities.

Mark Walker

Hail, Caesar!
½

Three years ago, the Coens brothers delivered a dramatic, musical piece that focused on the folk scene of the 60's in Inside Llewyn Davis. If truth be told, it was a film that didn't peak my interest at the time. But, give the brothers their due, they managed to deliver an astounding piece of work that finished the year as one of my favourite films and proved they are still full of surprises. As they often do, they like to switch from drama to comedy and, as a result, follow-up that dramatic work with the satirical Hail Caeser! Again, this was a film that never really peaked my interest but unlike their previous film, it didn't work as well as it possibly could have.

As the head of physical production in 1950's Hollywood, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is charged with the task of keeping the Hollywood stars free from controversy. However, once the news that Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) has disappeared, Mannix finds himself dealing with Communist kidnappers, as well as having to juggle an unhappy director (Ralph Fiennes), a talentless actor (Alden Ehrenreich) and an out of wedlock pregnant star (Scarlett Johansson) before the gossip columnists (two Tilda Swinton's) get wind of what scandals are going down.

With the brothers Coen, there has now become an expectation of quality. Whether it be their dark and involving dramas or their zany, oddball comedies there is always something to take from their films. It's interesting then, that the Coens should tackle the medium of filmmaking and use their skills and expertise to send up the industry itself. Only they don't. This is the first Coen brothers film since The Ladykillers in 2004 that I've struggled with. They're known for their labyrinthine plots and extensive, quirky, supporting characters but, although I could see what they were striving for here, it just didn't work as well as I'd hoped. Granted, Brolin delivers great work in the lead as Hollywood fixer Eddie Mannix and Clooney's numbskull movie star Baird Whitlock is another entertaining comedic performance that fits nicely with his "trio of idiots" from the Coens' early work - O Brother Where Art Thou?, Intolerable Cruelty and Burn After Reading. However, as good as they are, these two highly appealing actors feel, strangely, restrained. The rest are simply underused; Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum get a chance to get involved in some song and dance numbers that are little more than the razzmatazz they're intended for and the likes of Jonah Hill, Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes are merely just names filling out inconsequential parts. Probably the biggest surprise from the cast is relative unknown Alden Ehrenreich. As Hobey Doyle he delivers a hilariously nuanced performance of an actor who can't actually act.

The Coens have delivered similar storylines before; Barton Fink in 1991 briefly touched upon the difficulties and cutthroat nature of the film industry and the act of kidnapping or ransom has been a regular theme throughout their filmography. It doesn't matter in which genre they approach it as it's often to marvellous results. Hail Caesar!, however, is a misjudged affair. It doesn't have snappy dialogue. It doesn't have memorable supporting characters. It doesn't have the character actors of Jon Polito, Steve Buscemi or John Turturro that often make the most flippant of Coen's scenes or characters so vibrant. What it ultimately lacks, though, is humour. I never thought I'd say such a thing and it pains me to speak ill of my favourite filmmakers but Joel and Ethan's
latest venture is lacking their usual spark.

Hail Ceaser! is a half-baked idea that had the potential to be a hilarious send-up of Hollywood but results in being a missed opportunity. There are sporadic moments of brilliance but they are too few and far between and, dare I say it, the film verges on the brink of tedium and instills a feeling of boredom.

It's often been said that the Coen's off the boil are better than most on it and for the most part this is true. This is sumptuously filmed by the great Roger Deakins but, that aside, the Coen's forget to entertain and even the star-studded cast can't save it. It's ripe material for a riotously, screwball comedy of which the brothers are known but when all is said and done, it's a surprisingly humourless, minor work from them.

Mark Walker

Mojave
Mojave(2016)
½

After winning an Oscar for his taught and labyrinthine screenplay duties on Martin Scorsese's The Departed, William Monahan decided to embark on his own directorial projects. His debut was the misjudged, crime drama London Boulevard which, although not entirely successful, still had some flourishes of substance. Now, with Mojave, Monahan delivers a huge surprise. A surprise, that an Oscar winning writer can deliver something so woefully inadequate.

Tortured, put upon, artist Thomas (Garrett Hedlund) heads into the desert to find himself and what he wants from life. What he finds is Jack (Oscar Isaac), a tortured, homicidal drifter which leads to Thomas committing a deadly act that he can't run away from. Jack intends to remind him of it by following him back to L.A. to challenge him to face up to it while destroying his privileged lifestyle in the process.

In the interests of fairness, I have to admit that Mojave's premise in two suicidal guys who find themselves hunting one another is a promising one. But that's also what makes the film so frustrating. It has the potential to be an intense, cat-and-mouse revenge tale but never builds on it's promise. There's also a potential intelligence to the film as it makes references to Shakespeare, T.E. Lawrence and explores the philosophical theory of the duality of man. It seems to wear it's existential heart on it's sleeve and the characters talk a good game but Monahan never delivers anything other than words. And even then, some of it is incomprehensible drivel that's dressed up to sound deep. He lacks the ability crank up the tension when it's plain to see that the film is squandering it's positives right before your eyes.

To be frank, the problem is with the writing. Plot developments are woefully and insultingly handled; one instance, in particular, has a police officer make a random appearance in the middle of the desert without any explanation as to why he's there. The only reason is to move the plot along and that's not the only time this happens throughout the film. It's problems like this that make you realise that Monahan is not showing any attention to detail and seemingly doesn't care that he's insulting his audiences intelligence.

Having Garrett Hedlund as the lead doesn't help matters either; he simply doesn't have the gravitas to carry the film and it's very difficult to find any sympathy for his privileged, self-important character. The least said about Mark Wahlberg's presence, the better. He has nothing to do but hang around in a dressing gown and entertain hookers and it's hard to fathom why he even made an appearance at all.

There really is only one redeeming feature and that's Isaac. He adds layer upon interesting layer on his Mephistophelian character and affords him a depth that I'd wager was missing from the script. Monahan doesn't even deserve the talent and commitment of Isaac here. His effortless magnetism gives the film a much needed lift whenever he's onscreen but it's still not enough to save the film overall.

Underdeveloped and underwhelming nonsense. The one oasis in this film is the committed work of Isaac but other than him, the content of Mojave is as dry, barren and unproductive as it's title suggests.

Mark Walker

Barney Thomson (The Legend of Barney Thomson)

Unless your a follower of the TV show Once Upon a Time (which I'm not) then you'll probably have noticed the absence of actor Robert Carlyle from our film screens. The occasional low-key drama like California Solo in 2012 and Samantha Morton's hard-hitting The Unloved in 2009 have surfaced here and there but they didn't receive a wide release at all. In fact, I have yet to even see the former and Carlyle had a very small role in the latter (albeit a powerful one). You'd probably have to go as far back as 2007's 28 Weeks Later to mention a film that a mainstream audience might be more familiar with. Now, though, he's back. And back he comes to his hometown of Glasgow to make his directorial debut with a very Scottish-centric black comedy.

Barney Thomson (Carlyle) is a socially awkward barber who fails to strike up any rapport with his customers. As a result, his boss Wullie (Stephen McCole) decides to let him go. Without his job, though, the only thing Barney has got in his life is his domineering mother Cemolina (Emma Thompson) and in aid to keep a hold of his job, Barney finds himself in the unlikely position of becoming a serial killer.

Anyone who's followed my blog for a period of time may remember the glowing praise I have regularly afforded to Carlyle. I think he's a fantastic actor and one of Scotland's best. It's been saddening to see so little of him over recent years but a pleasure to see him return with an adaptation of the first book in writer Douglas Lindsay's Barbershop Seven series - The Long Midnight of Barney Thomson. It's a quintessentially Scottish story that requires someone with a knowledge of the city (and it's inhabitants) to adapt it for the screen and, on that note, Carlyle is the perfect man for the job.

His ability to capture the Glasgow idiom is, as expected, on full display here and there are regular moments of hilarity. He also utilises the austere city locations to brilliant effect. The time in which it's set is not entirely clear (it could be set in the 70's or 80's) but Carlyle has a good eye for a bygone era and captures a particular style with crisp and observant detail.

He's also managed to assemble an impressive cast who contribute characters that are as colourful as their language;
Emma Thomson is a foul mouthed treat under her cheap leopard print coat, heavy make-up and an even heavier Glaswegian accent. Winstone does his usual cockney fing but it works well for the material and there's a quality supporting cast of Scottish actors from James Cosmo, Martin Compston, Stephen McCole and Ashley Jensen - who gives Winstone a run for his money in the three-testicle profanity stakes. As the titular character, Carlyle flits between drama and comedy with ease and displays and myriad of emotions along the way: despair, desperation and rage consume his character daily and his nervous disposition and social awkwardness doesn't help matters.

As an actor, Carlyle's chops have never really been in question but the overhanging question surrounding this film is whether his direction is it up to scratch? Well, the answer to the that is a simple... yes. Yes it is. Carlyle shows some impressive and inventive directorial flourishes and you can see where directors he has worked with have had an influence on his approach. It's definitely a talent that I hope he chooses to explore more of - although he has already stated that he's in no rush to do so.

The film is not without problems, though. They don't lie with the performances or the direction but, predominantly, with the narrative. At times, the pacing feels off and the least said about the final third of the film, the better. Suffice to say that it drastically falls apart with a misplaced, explosive denouement that looks like it's wandered in from another film. It's the type of material that the Coen brother's handle comfortably but in his first directorial outing Carlyle has enough panache and talent to make it work and make it enjoyably macabre and offbeat entertainment.

It's always been apparent that Carlyle has a flair for drama but he proves to have a good eye and ear for comedy too. I wonder how well this would translate to others who are perhaps unfamiliar with Scottish humour but, over time, this has the potential to become quite the little cult movie.

Mark Walker

Talk Radio
Talk Radio(1988)

"Sticks and stones can break your bones but words cause permanent damage"

It's been difficult of late for director Oliver Stone to find a project that has the same spark or controversy of his earlier work. He was probably at his best back in the 1980's when he wrote the screenplay for Brian DePalma's Scarface and directed such visceral works as Salvador, the Oscar winning Platoon, Wall Street and Born on the Fourth of July. The one that seems to be least mentioned in his filmography, at this time, though, is the sadly overlooked, Talk Radio; his adaptation of Eric Bogosian's Pulitzer Prize nominated stage play.

Barry Champlain (Bogosian) is a late night 'shock DJ' who doesn't mince his words when it comes to rebelling against the opinions of his many callers. Night after night he takes calls and the more he rebels, the more he finds that his abrasive statements and scathing personal opinions are nothing more than entertainment for a disillusioned American public.

Maybe the reason this entry from Stone has been so overlooked is because it's not as culturally or historically significant as his aforementioned films. He's not trawling the war torn lands or jungles of El Salvador or Vietnam, nor even the frantic, greed-infused stock exchange. He's primarily stuck in one room - a small, pokey radio studio - and primarily focused on one man, making this essentially a chamber piece. But, don't be disheartened, this brings just as much drama with it's intense and claustrophobic exchanges. As expected, in such a minimal setting, the film is very much dialogue driven and this is largely at the command of a ruthless Bogosian. Whenever he's allowed to deliver his scathing rants and monologues (and there are many) the film has an energy and spark that makes for gleefully fraught entertainment.

The callers add as much spice to the proceedings as Champlain though, and it gives Stone a chance to depict the dark underbelly of America. There are calls from psychotic white supremacists, lonely cat people, doped up Rock and Rollers and suicidal lovers. Champlain doesn't pull his punches, though, he obnoxiously attacks and challenges these people for their contribution (or lack of) to society in general and even when their thoughts hold up a microscope to the disturbed psychosis of society it also displays that Champlain, himself, is no less tortured than the one's he sarcastically chooses to insult. As a result, it becomes a scathing indictment of what's wrong with America. Each caller is a representation of it's greed, it's consumerism, it's self-righteousness and it's racism. But that's not all. Stone and Bogosian lure us in, challenging us to question ourselves and question our own contribution to society, our own politics and our own self-awareness.

A highly charged and criminally overlooked film from Stone's catalogue. Dialogue driven it may be but this is a polemic who's bite is as ferocious as it's bark.

Mark Walker

Far From Heaven

Todd Haynes has often been an experimental director throughout his career. He tackled the Glam Rock era with the dazzling, if mid-judged, Velvet Goldmine and had 6 different actors portray various phases of Bob Dylan in I'm Not There. Most recently his adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's Carol made many critics and viewers' lists for the best film of 2015. Despite his creative ambitions, however, he's never really been recognised in terms of awards. The only Oscar nomination he has received was, in fact, an Original Screenplay one for this film. I've yet to see Carol (which apparently shares similarities with this) but so far, Far From Heaven is Haynes' masterpiece.

Connecticut in 1957 finds Cathy (Julianne Moore) and Frank Whitaker (Dennis Quaid) as the seemingly perfect couple at the heart of their community. Frank has a secret, though, and when Cathy discovers his double life, she begins a friendship with her black gardener Raymond (Dennis Haysbert). But such behaviours soon invite the unwanted attention and scorn of their so-called friends and neighbours.

As soon as this film opens, you are instantly struck by Elmer Bernstein's evocative score and a colourful palette that just radiates from the screen. It doesn't take long to realise that Haynes is paying homage to the film's of the 1950's. Douglas Sirk is a particular director that Haynes is emulating and recreating his melodramatic soap opera's like Imitation of Life or All That Heaven Allows is so convincing that you'd be forgiven for questioning whether or not you're watching a contemporary film. There's an intoxicating attention to detail whereby Haynes puts so much care into this film that you're transported back the 50's era. His efforts are so meticulous and refined that Far From Heaven is nothing less than a stunningly crafted piece of cinema. Peter Rogness' art design and Mark Friedberg's production design are simply splendid and the lavish costumes by Sandy Powell change throughout the film to suit the seasonal changes in the plot. All of this is perfectly framed by Edward Lachman's stunning cinematography. His use of light and vibrant, oversaturated colours keep in tune with the bold use of technicolor from Sirk's melodrama's and is absolutely exquisite work.

Haynes' intention is to capture the nuclear, corporate family living the dream of white picket fence America and he does so with a confidence and hugely creative eye. Despite his accomplished recreation of the times, however, Haynes chooses an entirely different direction for his narrative. What sets his film apart from the style of Douglas Sirk is that Sirk's films were all very conservative, whereas Haynes' perfect suburbia is shattered by very personal problems that would have been taboo and risqué by any standards during the 50's. Society, in Haynes' world, is full of casual racists and homophobes who view homosexuality as an illness and being kind to Negros socially unacceptable. The underrated Patricia Clarkson is the perfect embodiment for the judgmental rottenness that permeates the neighbourhood. She epitomises the very people of society that the three, inherently decent, principal characters of Quaid, Haysbert and Moore are up against. With the facade of some and anguish of others, it cuts across so many divides: gender, race, class, sexual orientation but although it's about several different levels of oppression it's, at it's heart, a story about the oppression of women. Ultimately, this is about a women's place at this time; how tolerant they were expected to be and how keeping up appearances was at the forefront of their place within a fractured, consumerist environment.

With his experimental evocation, Haynes could easily fall prey to pretension but for as much style as the film has, it has content to match. Simply speaking, it's a work of art.

Mark Walker

Song Of The Sea

After receiving an Oscar nomination for his exquisitely animated film The Secret of Kells in 2009, director Tomm Moore achieved the same again with his unique style of animation for his follow-up, Song of the Sea. In the first instance, he lost the Oscar to Disney's Up and the second time around Disney prevailed again with Big Hero 6. However, it's still good to see Moore's films challenge such big hitters.

After the death of their mother, Ben and his little sister Saoirse are sent to live with their grandmother as their father is still in grieving. They take it upon themselves to find their own way back home by embarking on a fantastical journey across the sea where they are tasked with freeing faeries and saving the spirit world while discovering the magic and ancient legend of the Selkies - mythical seals who can change into human form when on land.

As he did in The Secret of Kells, Moore again focuses on Irish folklore and imbues the whole tale with the same ethereal beauty that he employed so stunningly in his debut. His traditional, hand-drawn animation is a joy to behold and so refreshing in an age of overproduced, computer generated material. Despite having made only two films (and a forthcoming contribution to a segment of Khalil Gibran's The Prophet), Moore has been mentioned in a similar light to the great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki in his ability to create his own magical and enchanting stories. Personally speaking, I think the comparison to Miyazaki is far too premature but Moore is certainly an undoubted talent, regardless. His worlds and imagination can, at times, be breathtaking and Song of the Sea is a wonderful piece of storytelling. Like The Secret of Kells, however, he has slight pacing issues and younger viewers may find their concentration tested. That being said, he's refined a lot the faults that befell that film. His story is stronger and more involving and his decision to stick with composer Bruno Coulais and Irish folk band Kila results in a perfectly fitting score that captures and compliments the essence of Celtic mythology.

A rich and beautifully crafted rights-of-passage fable where the story and imagery interweave with near perfection.
Thoroughly deserving of it's Oscar nomination last year and very unlucky to lose out to Big Hero 6. The Academy are well known for making wrong decisions but it's hugely disappointing that they'd overlook this in favour of something that just happened to make more money. This is a genuine gem of animation.

Mark Walker

Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs(2015)

With The Social Network in 2011, director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin managed to strike a chord with critics and audiences by making a film about Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg an improbable success. Sorkin went on to win an Oscar for his writing but, personally, I didn't see what all the fuss was about. This time Sorkin is at it again by focusing on Apple Inc. co-founder, Steve Jobs and if this film is anything to go by, I really should give The Social Network another chance.

Throughout the 1980's & 90's, entrepreneur Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) is at the epicentre of a digital revolution. His ingenuity drives him to the forefront of digital technology but the impact his innovations have on the changing world also cause personal and professional conflicts.

When this film was first announced, I struggled to see what the appeal was. We'd already had Ashton Kutcher take on the role in Jobs in 2013 and that's a film I had (and still have) little desire to see. As much as I often have my nose stuck to my iPhone and can appreciate the technological inventions that Steve Jobs has been involved in he's not a man that piques my interest. What did grab me, though, was the abundance of talent involved in this project and the fact that Fassbender can do no wrong these days.

To be honest, I expected the film to be a slog but it didn't turn out that way. Straight from the offset, Danny Boyle hits the ground running and doesn't stop for the entirety of the films 2 hour duration. There's an impressive kinetic energy to his direction and Boyle deserves applause for managing to turn a fairly generic story into something exciting. It's not just Boyle that's on form here, though. Aaron Sorkin's dialogue laden script fizzes with gripping conversations and Fassbender delivers an absolutely towering performance. It's a demanding role that requires Fassbender to be onscreen at all times and considering he doesn't stop talking, this (by his own admission) was a real challenge for him to remember his lines. Quite simply, his Oscar nomination is thoroughly deserved. It's increasingly looking like it's Leonardo DiCaprio's year with his work in The Revenant but where DiCaprio displayed a physical performance, Fassbender's is a very wordy one. It's hard to choose between their work as they're polar opposites but it would be wrong to begrudge Fassbender a nod such is the effort he puts in. It's a tremendous achievement. The strong supporting cast in Winslet, Rogen, Stuhlbarg and Daniels also deliver fine work and cannot be overlooked with their overall contribution but, ultimately it's Boyle, Sorkin and Fassbender that really bring the film to life.

Jobs is depicted as an inventive genius but not an entirely likeable one and that's the mantle upon which the film rests. It's an astute and unflinching character study and although some (or most) events are fictional the film's drive is to explore both the man and the myth. In doing so, Boyle and Sorkin employ a three act structure that focuses on Jobs backstage and on, launching his latest product. Act I is about the arrival of the Apple Mackintosh in 1984, Act II, the introduction of the NeXT Cube in 1988 and Act III, the world changing iMac in 1998. Boyle also cleverly approaches these three acts by shooting them with different film; 16mm, 35mm and then digital to capture the changing times and the influence of technology. Fassbender also wisely doesn't try to mimic Steve Jobs; as this is predominantly a fictional retelling of the events in his life, it's less about capturing Jobs as a whole and more about exploring the contradictory nature of a flawed visionary. For a man who's products brought the world together, he struggled to maintain personal connections with those closest to him. It's this irony that makes for an intriguing psychological portrait.

Much better than I expected it to be. In fact, it has no right being as entertaining as it is. Not that I ever questioned the talents of Fassbender, Boyle and Sorkin but it just goes to show how well a film can come together when all the ingredients are in place.

Mark Walker

The Martian
The Martian(2015)
½

Director Ridley Scott has always been somewhat of a mixed-bag and I think it's fair to say that audiences don't always connect with his material. However, science fiction has proven to be the genre where he has excelled the most. Alien and Blade Runner are rightly regarded as two of the best but his revisit to the Alien world with Prometheus didn't hit the high benchmark he had set for himself. With this in mind, I entered into The Martian - his fourth science fiction endeavour - with a mixture of anticipation and reservation.

A manned mission on Mars goes awry when a storm hits and the crew has to abort the mission. During the evacuation, astronaut and botanist, Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is struck and presumed dead. When he awakes, he find himself alone and stranded. With limited provisions and limited time, Watney must find a way to contact NASA and inform them of his survival.

When the 2015 Golden Globes were announced a lot of people had questions as to why The Martian was categorised as a comedy. It seemed like a bizarre decision and looked like they were trying to shoehorn the film into a category so it had a chance of winning something. It eventually went on to take Best Picture and Damon Best Actor in a musical or comedy. A none too shabby 7 Oscar nominations followed and it would seem that The Martian had something to offer.

I'm sad to say that I must have missed that something. All the awards buzz surrounding the film lulled me into a false sense of security. To be perfectly frank, I expected something much better than what Ridley Scott delivers here. This should not have won at the Golden Globes or even been considered for the Oscars. This is not Best Picture caliber and as appealing as Damon is, there have been far worthier performances than his over the course of 2015. The most ridiculous of all, though, is Drew Goddard's lazy and childlike screenplay. The Martian plays out like a colour-by-numbers affair. Everything is spelled out for us with Damon's Mark Watney relaying his experiences to a video diary where he talks directly to the screen. As direct (or supposedly indirect) as it may be, Damon pretty much breaks the fourth wall on a consistent basis. By doing so, he basically takes us by the hand and walks us through the film by stating the obvious. This probably won't bother many viewers but I found it lazy, contradictory and insulting storytelling. Admittedly, I never read Andy Weir's book on which it's based so I can't comment on the structure he used in the original source material. However, what works in literary form doesn't necessarily have to be the case in visual form. The beauty of film is that it's a medium that can adopt a different approach but I got the impression that Scott and Goddard didn't trust the intelligence of their audience and went for the safe option. The whole narrative structure felt patronising to me.

Just to clarify my stance on this; The Martian is pleasantly entertaining. I'm not disputing that, but that's all it is. For a space survival film of this kind, it has an odd feel to it. In some sense you can see why it was considered in the comedy category at the Globes. It's playful and Damon gets to show his lighter, likeable side while under extreme pressure in a seriously grave situation. In his predicament you'd expect a little more angst and loneliness but no, not Damon's Watney. He wisecracks about how he'll "science the shit out of this" and is generally cool about the whole thing. As a result, the tone of The Martian is not as I expected. I expected the sombreness and desperation of Gravity or the torturous isolation of Tom Hanks in Cast Away but what I got was a happy-go-lucky, disco dancing Damon.

What Scott does deliver on is his usual visionary approach to the genre. The production design of the Mars landscapes are undeniably impressive but ultimately this is yet another misfire from him. Prometheus was his fall from science-fiction grace and The Martian does nothing to change that. I doubt it'll win any Oscars (at least not the major ones) but it really shouldn't even be in the running at all. It's mediocre and Ex-Machina was a far superior science fiction film which took a major snubbing in so many categories. Surely the academy ticked the wrong boxes when it came to voting between these films?

If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs... then you obviously haven't grasped the situation. Make of that what you will.

Mark Walker

The Revenant
The Revenant(2015)
½

Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's track record speaks for itself in terms of his sombre and unrelenting material. Working alongside screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, his loose trilogy of films Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel all dealt with tragedy and issues of loss and grief and his 2010 film Biutiful confirmed that grim material was his forte. However, his biggest success came last year with Birdman where he was awarded the Oscar for best director. Birdman wasn't just successful in terms of awards, though, it proved that Inarritu had the ability to craft something of a lighter nature. But now that he's got that out the way, he's back to delivering another punishing drama.

Inspired by the life of frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) who, while fur trading on an expedition through the American wilderness in the 1820's, is mauled by a bear and left for dead by his own team. In order to survive, Glass must overcome insurmountable odds in order to take revenge on John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) - the man responsible for abandoning him and killing his son.

As The Revenant opens I was reminded of a particular filmmaker from the offset. It has a quiet and calming influence in the opening scenes and employs a connection with nature that Terrence Malick is renowned for. This is short lived, however, as what follows it's calm and meticulous opening is a harrowing battle sequence that's reminiscent of another director; Steven Spielberg and his chaotic, D-Day landings in Saving Private Ryan. Not since that film has battle been so expertly and brutally depicted onscreen. It's at this point, early on in the film, that you realise this is going to be a completely immersive experience. Some films often claim the platitude of "an assault to the senses" but Inarritu's work here is one of the few that can authentically be claimed as such. We follow our protaganist, Hugh Glass, through a series of life-threatening challenges; his ravenous hunger; the cold chilling him to the bone, or the savage altercations with man (and beast), all the while, experiencing his overriding will to survive. Of course, a lot of this realism comes from how convincing DiCaprio is. Rarely has he been as committed to a role as he is here. It's an astonishingly physical performance as he doesn't say a word for long periods of time yet still manages to command your attention throughout some visceral and seriously gruelling ordeals - and his commitment looks highly likely to end his Oscar drought this year.

As good as he is, though, Hardy is no less his equal. He brings that dead-eyed stare and ferocity that only Hardy knows how. His John Fitzgerald is a frightening and detestable human being but, under the surface, Hardy hints at something more and manages to turn a fairly straight forward villain into an intriguing, three-dimensional character. He, like DiCaprio, has rightly been recognised with an Oscar nomination and it's a much deserved recognition of one of the most consistently excellent actors from recent years.

What impresses most, however, is not the command of Inarritu, the two fabulous leads or even the fine supporting work by Domhnall Gleeson and Will Poulter but Emmanuel Lubezki's sublime camerawork. That's the biggest draw here. His use of steadicam and long tracking shots amidst the battle scenes are absolutely captivating and his sumptuous capturing of the landscapes are truly breathtaking. The things this man do with a camera are, quite simply, unbelievable and with every frame, he crafts an absolute work of art. As if that's not enough, he does it all with the use of natural light. This type of imagery doesn't come easy, though. The technical difficulties involved led to a spiralling budget and the film's shoot going over schedule but when the results look this good, it's worth it. Since we're talking awards, Lubezki throughly deserves to make it three Oscars in row after his previously outstanding work on Gravity and Birdman.

Many will find it hard argue with the work by everyone involved here but that's not to say that the film doesn't have it's flaws; the passage of time isn't entirely clear, leaving it to look that Glass healed from his wounds overnight but the biggest issue for some could be how threadbare the story is. There's really not a lot in regards to plot but I suppose that's not entirely important when the whole aim of the film is create a sensory experience. When all is said and done, this isn't a film that's reliant on it's plot. If taken at face value, it's linear structure could be deemed meaningless. However, if you approach it in a more metaphorical sense then the film works on a whole other level.

It's about nature in all it's beauty and unforgiving savagery. It's about man's place within this environment. It's about greed, the origins of capitalism and how trading became devastating to the land and it's indigenous people. Ultimately, there's an environmental message that overshadows it's central revenge theme. It's as much about nature's revenge as it is about Glass'. You could even argue that Glass is the embodiment of nature itself. These are interpretations that are better left to the individual viewer but when ruminated on, there is much to discuss.

How many adjectives can you use to describe Inarritu's craftsmanship? Most of them have been used far more effectively than I ever could. How about voracious, rapacious and ostentatious? This is all of these things and revenge has never been more brutally depicted as it is in this epic survival tale.

Mark Walker

Creed
Creed(2015)
½

Nostalgia has crept into a lot of films lately. In 2015 alone, we've revisited Bond (for the 24th time) in Spectre, Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation is now the 5th film spawned from the 60's TV show, Mad Max was rebooted with Fury Road, Jurassic World and Star Wars: A Force Awakens tapped into the magic and excitement of their predecessors and now Ryan Cooglar's Creed is a revisit to the boxing gyms of Philadelphia and has much in common with the original Rocky of 1976. Yes, it's hard to believe but it's been 40 years since Balboa first had us on the edge of our seats and punching the air with delight.

Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) has had a troubled youth and always forced to fight his corner in juvenile correction facilities. When he learns that his late father was World Heavyweight Champion, Apollo Creed, Adonis decides he wants to go into boxing himself. With no-on-one to train him, though, Adonis heads to Philadelphia to seek the mentorship of his late father's friend, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone).

Let's face it, Creed was always going to be a bit of a gamble. Some people had written it off before it had even arrived but Ryan Cooglar and Michael B. Jordan's follow-up to the brilliant Fruitvale Station is a gamble that pays off. For a start, Jordan is a very talented and charismatic actor who has a magnetic presence while Cooglar manages to put his own stamp on the proceedings, considering he's essentially retreading old ground. A huge helping hand comes from the man himself, though; Stallone reprising his most iconic role is a real treat and it's not just for nostalgia reasons. Sly is genuinely very good here. He's not normally credited with strong performances but when he's going against his tough guy persona - like he did in Cop Land - it just shows how well he can fit that type of role and that's exactly what he does again. It's the first film to feature Rocky that hasn't been written by Stallone himself but Cooglar and co-writer Aaron Covington seamlessly manage to capture Stallone's flavour for the character. Rocky is now older, slower and more vulnerable and Stallone has no problem displaying and embracing this vulnerability.

As mentioned, it isn't really anything new. We've seen, done and wore the gloves before but that's even more of a testament to Jordan, Stallone and especially Cooglar for making this work. The fact that he goes back to making it more story and character-based and less about the pugilism adds a much needed freshness to the franchise and the bouts in the ring that we do see are very impressively handled. They're frantically involving as Maryse Alberti's camera dances around the ring as much as the actors and every crunching blow makes you feel more like a participant and less of an observer - It's also an added bonus that the unashamed, flag waving jingoism that was so prominent in the Rocky sequels is toned down somewhat.

Albeit from another character, this very much looks like the continuation of the franchise and it's off to a good start. The only problem now is whether they can find the material to keep it from becoming stale. For the moment, though, Creed can certainly handle itself.

Mark Walker

The Big Short
½

Better known for his comedy films like Anchorman, Step Brothers and Talladega Nights, The Big Short is a big leap for director Adam McKay. Going from improvised Will Ferrell gags to dealing with the true story of the global financial crisis of 2008 is quite a departure from his usual comfort zone. If truth be told, I'm not a fan of his comedies and had some strong reservations about this but it was hard to resist seeing such quality actors sink their teeth into a very personal subject that has affected us all.

Hedge fund managers Michael Burry (Christian Bale) and Mark Baum (Steve Carell), trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) and retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) all work within the financial sector. However, they see a problem arising; the housing credit market is about to collapse and no-one but them can see it coming. They see it as a perfect time to invest against the banks and make money from what turns out to be the fall of the global economy.

First off, The Big Short is not an easy film to like. It's so dialogue laden that the bankers and brokers jargon can leave you scratching your head in bewilderment. There's really only so much talk of C.D.O's, Short's and Subprime's that a person can take but that's exactly the point. McKay knows this and he's clever enough to point out that the bankers want it this way. They want the ordinary, every-day working stiff to think it's only them that know how to manage our money for us. McKay doesn't pull any punches and goes straight for the jugular when it's comes to the inner dealings of these immoral and reckless financial swindlers who brought down the world economy. He depicts their carefree avarice in such a detestable way that you're left infuriated. If this was his intention (which I'm sure it was) then you have to say that his film is a success. However, the manner in which he does it can be off-putting. There's a kinetic energy to McKay's direction and, although impressive, it's a little messy with too many jump cuts and forth-wall-breaking moments. Despite his best efforts, his stylistic devices don't always help you to understand the complexity of these events and he finds it tricky to fully transcend the confusion by employing a frantic pace to everything. That said, this is a hugely difficult subject to tackle and he does deserve some credit for managing any form of coherence at all. McKay is clearly angry and it's an anger I, wholeheartedly, share. His scathing attack on the fraudulent activities of these people is potent. His message (and conscience) is clear and his attempt to bring it to a mainstream audience, with quality actors in tow, is an admirable one.

It's a good ensemble he's put together and they all deliver fine work; Pitt is the one who takes a back seat and seems underused but Carell proves that his dramatic chops from Foxcatcher was no fluke while Bale has some fun with his eccentric glass-eyed turn. From the leads, I found Gosling to be the most comfortable with his cocksure wolfishness and it's always a pleasure to have the likes of Melissa Leo and Marisa Tomei make an (all-be-it brief) appearance. I can only hope that with such a recognisable cast that the masses wake from their slumber and pay attention to, not so much the disjointed film itself, but the message and teaching behind it.

It's not an entirely successful endeavour as it struggles to entertain without getting bogged down in investment lingo but it's an important morality tale with a message that still resonates. If Joy is this year's film to embrace the capitalist system then The Big Short is the indictment of it.

Mark Walker

Joy
Joy(2015)

After Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, David O. Russell had established himself as somewhat of an Oscar recorded breaker. Not only were these two films nominated - back-to-back - for Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Screenplay and Supporting Actor/Actress roles, they happened to be first time in the Academy's history that this was ever achieved. You could say that the pressure was on for O. Russell and his trio of actors in Lawrence, Cooper and DeNiro to make it a hat-trick. Sadly, this time around, it appears that the pressure was too much.

For as long as she can remember, Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence) has always had ideas. Ideas that will one day propel her into a life of success. Spurred on by her grandmother (Diane Ladd), Joy refuses to accept her working-class lifestyle and longs for the day where she can break. That day comes with an invention that grabs the attention of businessman, Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper).

I suppose we really should start with the positives of Joy as those positives are on display as the film begins. O. Russell has the same panache and exuberant style that his aforementioned, Oscar nominated films had. It's playful, snappy and hyper-stylised. In fact, the introduction to the characters is so good that it certainly looks like O. Russell and his strong cast are on to another winner. However, what starts as a film about women's empowerment (which it clearly states from it's opening credits by informing us that this is a film about one strong woman in particular) is an audacity that certainly doesn't hold up throughout it's duration. I even wonder if O. Russell actually believed this to begin with.

There's a glaring problem that lies with this film about a "strong woman" and that problem is domestication. Joy invents a mop; one of many household implements that has kept women in their domestic place for generations. Not only that, Joy can't make her "miracle mop" a successful business venture unless a man gives it the thumbs-up. It could be argued that this is still a film where the female overcomes the adversity of a male dominated society and that the protagonist is still calling the shots. However, once you scrutinise and start picking at the threads of this shoddily knitted yarn, you realise that it's still inherently the male that wears the trousers and rather than empower women, it's a pathetic depiction that only adds further insult.

O. Russell doesn't even manage to subtly suggest the course of events. He shoehorn's them in. He manipulates the audience to embrace this rags to riches tale.
There's a moment in the film where it introduces the beginning of Joy's success through home-shopping channels like QVC. It was around this point that I started to question the film's motives. I thought that O. Russell might be taking this opportunity to expose the facade and falseness of such salesmanship endeavours but he didn't. He embraced it. And the film failed to recover as result. I couldn't believe that after such a strong start that this was the path it had chosen.

There's a patronising nature to this film that further fuels the argument of how few strong roles are available for women in Hollywood. That said, I have to give Lawrence her due, she looks committed and delivers another strong performance but her work is lost in a formulaic narrative and Hollywood manipulation. With Winter's Bone and The Hunger Games franchise, Lawrence has somewhat put herself in the position of spearheading the strong female characters in American cinema but this is a seriously misjudged choice and I can only fault her misguided trust in O. Russell for this.

The supporting cast come off even worse. They are mere ciphers that ultimately serve no purpose but to move the plot along; Ramirez, as the ex-husband, is a wet blanket that lingers around in the background and although he seemingly shows support for Joy he's still led by the hand. DeNiro is the doting father but somehow must always take responsibly for his daughters failings - thereby suggesting that her achievements are also in part due to him? His character features prominently in the early part of the film only to fall into obscurity in the latter half while Rossellini as his new wife is seen as the wicked stepmother who's only interest in Joy is a financial one. Cooper has little to do but take credit for any of Joy's success and Virginia Madsen is the no-use mother who lies in bed all day watching soap-opera's. The only redeeming supporting character is Diane Ladd's caring and supportive grandmother. Her advice is a constant source of inspiration for Joy but as a stand-alone character she hardly makes an impact.

All of these characters are lost in a muddled script where plot developments are lazily and insultingly handled. One scene, in particular, has Joy meeting with two stereotypical, cocksure businessmen who dismiss her concerns. She then asks to use the bathroom. And guess what? Yep, the bathroom has a (very convenient) secret doorway that leads to the warehouse where her patented product is being manufactured in a way that goes against her whole idea and design. She hits rock bottom. Takes a pair of scissors to her hair to signify empowerment and before we know it, she's fighting back. This is her invention, dammit, and every domesticated little wifey shall have one. It's pitiful.

The title would suggest that this is a heartfelt film - full of Joy - but that's ultimately what it lacks. During times of austerity, it's intentions are dubious by insensitively portraying money as a means of success and happiness and only by conquering the capitalist system will all your problems be solved.

Quick! Someone grab a mop. I think David O. Russell has just emptied his arse all over the place.

Mark Walker

The Hateful Eight

In January 2014, Quentin Tarantino officially announced that he would be following up his successful western Django Unchained with yet another trip down the trail with The Hateful Eight. However, the script was leaked shortly after this announcement and he abandoned the project - seemingly in favour of releasing it as a book instead. After a successful live script read at the United Artists Theatre in Los Angeles, Tarantino again changed his mind and decided to go ahead with making the film. It's now close to 25 years since he arrived on the film scene with his blistering debut Reservoir Dogs and in that time he's only released eight films with the intention of retiring after his tenth. That said, he's made enough for us to reflect on his style and in some ways you could say that - although the genre is very different - this is as close in structure to his debut than any other film he's done.

In Wyoming, after the civil-war, John "The Hangman" Ruth (Kurt Russell) is on his way to the town of Red Rock. He's also escorting a fugitive - Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) whom he intends see at the end of a rope. En route, they encounter bounty hunter and ex-soldier, Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) who happens to be the newly appointed Sheriff of Red Rock. Before they get there, however, a blizzard forces them to take shelter at Minnie's Haberdashery. Here they encounter four more strangers; Bob "The Mexican" (Demian Bichir), Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) and ex-Confederate General, Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern). These eight strangers soon learn that not everyone is entirely who these say they are and making it to Red Rock will be harder than they thought.

There's a moment in The Hateful Eight where we're informed that "The name of the game is patience". Unfortunately, this advice comes later in the film when we've already learned this for ourselves by that point. Tarantino has never been as leisurely as he is here and it would be wise to prepare yourself for his lengthy and almost interminable first half as for approx an hour and 15 mins there's little else but talking. A lot of talking. It's a fairly straight forward affair and, with the exception of the distinct dialogue, Tarantino's trademark style is nowhere to be seen. Gone too are his pop-cultural references and chronological playfulness. This is very much a deliberately paced Tarantino. So deliberate that it feels like it's playing out in real time which is an approach that may leave many viewers colder than a ranchers ass on the snowy peaks of Wyoming. However, patience is a virtue and if you have it, it will be rewarded in the second half where the expected trademarks and stylistic flourishes appear with a bang, amidst a literal haze of blood, bullets and brains. For sure, The Hateful Eight becomes "a mushroom-cloud laying motherfucker. Motherfucker!"

When Tarantino decides to shut up shop and play out the majority of his action in a confined space, his use of the the small space is skilfully handled; he segregates the room into a North and South divide with race and politics adding to the magnitude of the characters' wildness. After building slowly he goes on to, essentially, craft a whodunit; a murder-mystery chamber piece (that shares more than a few passing resemblances to Tarantino's debut) and could easily transfer to the stage with it's concentrated and ferociously loquacious interactions. That said, it's a bizarre choice for Tarantino to set his story so minimally and confined when he's decided to shoot the film on 70mm with Panavision anamorphic lenses and a wide aspect ratio that's normally suited to grand, outdoor filmmaking.

As a result, claims of self-indulgence wouldn't be out of place. You get a slight whiff of Tarantino's ego on display but this extends mostly to the writing; some scenes definitely go on too long and it would seem that Tarantino hasn't listened to the critics who felt that Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained suffered a similar problem. He certainly knows how to write - there's no question about that - but he also doesn't know when to stop writing.

That said, his ability to stage tension has only grown stronger in his development as a filmmaker and despite overlength and messy denouements, Basterds and Django still contained some of the most intense scenes he's ever delivered. The second half of The Hateful Eight very much keeps in tune with that. His propensity for violence is ever present but never been as brutal or gratuitously playful as it here. The recurrent Mexican stand-off used in Dogs, True Romance and Pulp Fiction is, once again, on display as well. In fact, the whole film feels like one big stand-off as each of the characters continuously suss one another out before it eventually culminates in true Tarantino fashion.

With the opening landscapes and the poundingly effective score by Ennio Morricone you could be fooled into thinking that Quentin is out to emulate the classic spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone but this is really where the comparison ends. By his own admission, Tarantino was more influenced by John Carpenter and his classic paranoid horror, The Thing - of which Morricone was also the composer. In fact, there are three tracks throughout the film that were unused from The Thing's original score. With this in mind, it would also explain the canny casting of Kurt Russell and the intense interaction in Minnie's Haberdashery are very reminiscent of the closed quarter, paranoid exchanges in Carpenter's classic.

The performances, for the most part, are fantastic; Jackson, as always, was born to deliver Tarantino's crisp and colourful dialogue while Russell fits the bill perfectly. He's channeled John Wayne before in Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China and it would seem that QT is happy for him to deliver in the same deadpan, grizzly fashion. Jackson may rejoice in his profane and detailed monologues but it's Russell's one-liners that hit the mark. Jennifer Jason Leigh, as the rare female of the piece, gets more to do in the second half but for the first she's merely fodder for her male counterparts' consistent beatings and putdowns. Screams of misogyny can be heard across the plains and it's really not as funny as Tarantino maybe intended. The welcome touch of humour comes in the form of Walton Goggins who seems to enjoy spouting Tarantino's dialogue as much as Jackson but, sadly, it's the Reservoir Dogs duo who suffer the most; Roth's English gent feels like he belongs in another film and Madsen is sorely underused. His quiet, brooding "cow puncher" always feels like he's got more to offer but he simply doesn't materialise. It feels like a waste of Madsen's effortless presence much like his underused character in Kill Bill.

When all's said and done, though, this is Tarantino we're talking about. Despite his glacial pace, occasional padding and some underdeveloped supporting characters, this is still another hugely enjoyable outing. Let's put it this way, it's never dull. Tarantino doesn't do dull but I did have to question whether there's enough material here to warrant a near 3 hour running time.

Mark Walker

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Before even the days of "Raiders Of The Ark", Spielberg had expressed an interest in making a James Bond movie but he couldn't get the go-ahead from Bond producer Albert "Cubby" Broccoli. Indy was just as good an opportunity for him, though, and who better to cast as Indy's father than (the original) James Bond himself? It's actually through the casting choice of Sean Connery that this third instalment of Indy's adventures really takes flight and silences the critics of "The Temple Of Doom".

In his third outing, Dr. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) goes in search of his father, Prof. Henry Jones Sr (Sean Connery) who mysteriously disappeared while searching for the Holy Grail. Once again, though, the Nazi's are also in tow. After losing on the Ark of the Covenant, they too want to get their hands on the Cup of Christ.

By the time of this films release everybody was fully aware of Indiana Jones. With only two films under his fedora, every woman wanted him and every man wanted to be him; Indy had already become an icon of American cinema. With a fond familiarity, people welcomed him into their homes and that's the very reason why the opening of this third instalment is such a joy. It's depiction of Indy in his youth is wonderful addition to his backstory and the late great River Phoenix does an excellent job in capturing Ford's mannerisms. We learn of his use of the whip and the resulting scar on his chin. We also get an insight into the procurement of his famous fedora and how his unusual name of "Indiana" originated from the family dog... (It was actually George Lucas' dog that was named Indiana and it also served as the inspiration for Chewbacca in "Star Wars").

After being heavily criticised for his dark tone in "Temple of Doom", Spielberg finds his lighter side again and delivers the funniest and most gleefully entertaining of Indy's adventures. The likes of Denholm Elliott and John Rhys Davies return from Raiders with more fleshed out comical roles but, as mentioned, it's the great interplay between Ford and Connery that's the biggest draw to here. The chemistry between them anchors a poignant family adventure while providing numerous father/son comedic moments.

Like the previous two, though, there's no shortest of nail-biting action as World War II is on the brink and the Nazi's are once again Indy's foes and gives Spielberg another chance to put the Third Reich to the test. "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan" are obviously his more personal films on the subject but with Indy he gets the chance to have fun with them again, leaving this third instalment with more in common with "Raiders" as well as honing in on the biblical aspects of the story. Out goes the Ark and in comes the coveted Holy Grail and while the fourth film in the franchise - "The Kingdom Of The Crystal" - explores a misjudged science-fiction element, it confirms that Indy's adventures are better left in the paths of the religious or the occult.

Raiders may still be the absolute classic of them all but it's hard to give a film with as much excitement and entertainment as this, anything less than top marks.

Mark Walker

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Following the massive success of "Raiders of the Lost Ark", it was inevitable that a sequel would follow. No sane minded, or financially aware, production company would ever dream of missing the opportunity to boost a few more zero's on their bank accounts. And so... the sequel made it to the screen three years later. Now, some have given this second adventure a bit of hard time but I happen to think it's a very underrated and action packed addition to the adventures of the whip- cracking, fedora-wearing Dr. Jones that we have come to know and love.

This time, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is in search of the Sankara Stones - artefacts that an ancient village believe has protected them for generations and with the recent disappearance of their children, only the stones will bring them back, as well as, the protection of their people. As is customary, Indy agrees to the exploration, but he does so with wanted (and unwanted) people in tow.

Although a follow-up, Indy's second adventure actually precedes Raiders by one year (essentially making it the beginning of the franchise) and this time were we find ourselves in 1935. The Nazi's haven't occupied Europe, yet Indy is still going about his endeavours with just as much bravery and commitment as we'd expect. His (and our) adventure begins in China before moving onto India as Spielberg and Lucas leave behind the Nazi adversaries and opt for a more world exploration in the travels of our favourite archeologist. Some might argue that the Nazi's were part of the draw in Raiders - and I'd agree with them. Who doesn't like the Nazi's being challenged? However, what can't be argued, is that Spielberg still hasn't lost his touch in concocting an exciting matinee yarn.

Even though the Nazi's are omitted (and missed) as villains, the second instalment adds to the overall sense of world wide adventures that Indy has experienced. That being said, many viewers were not happy with this film. It's a little more bubble-gum entertainment than the solidity of it's predecessor but when the character and his escapades are so much fun, it's still very difficult not to be drawn in.

Let's face it, Raiders was an achievement that was never going to be surpassed but I admire Spielberg and Lucas' determination in trying. For example, the escape from a nosediving airplane by rubber dingy is genius action material, as is, the roller coaster chase through the mines and the (hugely iconic) ultimate rope bridge showdown make up some of the best action set-pieces in any of the films. In fact, the opening rolling gong at the Shanghai nightclub and mine shaft chase were originally planned for parts of Raiders but they couldn't fit it in. You could also say that the sense of humour was diminished in favour of a darker tone (leaving this to be one of the first films to ever be prescribed a newly appointed PG-13 rating).

Once again, Ford embodies the role with such commitment and believability and despite the dark tone, Spielberg still retains a sense of humour with the incorporation of damsel in distress Willie Scott (a gleefully entertaining Kate Capshaw) and child sidekick "Short round" (a perfectly cast Ke-Huy Quan) and his action skills are, simply, at the peak of his powers.

Despite it possessing some of the most iconic scenes and confrontations of Indy's adventures, this had been pilloried for being a lacklustre follow-up. It does have faults, for sure, but this is still one of most underrated of action adventures that Hollywood (or Spielberg) has ever produced.

Mark Walker

Raiders of the Lost Ark

In 1975, George Lucas and Philip Kaufman came up with the concept of a film that would pay homage to the action serials of the 1930's and 40's like "The Adventures of Captain Marvel" or "Dick Tracy" - you know, the one's were they'd always end in a cliffhanger? However, this idea was put on hold so that Lucas could concentrate on "Star Wars" in 1977. After the surprise success of that film, Lucas then embarked on the proposal and enlisted the help of Lawrence Kasdan on the screenplay and gave his friend Steven Spielberg the chance to direct and prove the studio bosses wrong after the star-studded, monumental failure of his World War II comedy "1941", a couple of years previously. This meeting of minds resulted in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and has since became one of cinema's most revered and iconic film's.

Dr. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is a renowned archeologist who is hired by the U.S. Government to find the Ark of the Covenant - a chest the Hebrews carried around containing the Ten Commandments. Indy is not the only one after the Ark, though, as he soon crosses paths with Hitler's Nazi's, also intent in getting their hands on the artefact.

Classic Adventure film of the very highest caliber. In fact, it's hard to argue that this isn't the one to beat in terms of sheer indulgence and escapist entertainment. I grew up with Indiana Jones and there are very few characters or films who have had such a direct or major influence on my love for the cinematic art-form.
It's difficult to find the words for Raiders that haven't already been said. Quite simply, it's a true action spectacle that's unparalleled and stands as one of Steven Spielberg's finest moments. He's a director that's, rightly, regarded as one of Hollywood finest filmmakers and you don't have to look much further than this film to see why. With one hair raising set-piece after another, Spielberg keeps the action relentless and fully realises a romanticised pastiche of the aforementioned serials' clichéd plot elements and devices. Of course, what aides immeasurably in bringing it all together, is a perfectly committed and physical performance from the leading man.

Contrary to popular belief, Harrison Ford was the first choice for Indy. Well... it was in Spielberg's eyes, anyway. It was Lucas who wanted to cast someone else as he wanted to create a little distance from Ford having already worked with him on "American Graffiti" and "Star Wars" and as common knowledge would have it, Lucas preferred Tom Selleck. Unfortunately for him, though, he was already committed to the television series "Magnum P.I." which resulted in Ford securing, what would become, his signature role.

I think it's fair to say that Ford has never exactly been praised for his acting range. Sure, he's certainly able to deliver some wonderful work; his powerful turn in "The Mosquito Coast" and his Oscar nominated performance in "Witness" are proof of this but his portrayal of Indiana Jones is absolutely spot on. He captures the requisite charm, wit and smarts to win you over. He exaggerates his facial expressions to the point of parody and completely sweeps the audience up in his heroic adventures. Even though he's the hero of the story, Ford never let's you think for a second that he's infallible or indestructible. Every scrape, punch or altercation still feels like it could be Indy's last and that's a fabulous achievement when you pretty much get the gist of the film's formula or structure.

Considered one of the best films ever made and, to this day, remains one of the highest grossing. It went on to win four Academy Awards out of nine nominations and these accolades alone speak for themselves. I, for one, couldn't argue with any of them.

Mark Walker

The Fitzgerald Family Christmas
½

In 1995 a young Edward Burns came onto the film scene with independent, family drama The Brothers McMullen and followed it up with equally impressive films like She's The One and Sidewalks of New York. Not everyone took notice but those that did began to compare Burns' writing and directing style to that of fellow New Yorker Woody Allen (without the neurosis). However, after his crime drama Ash Wednesday in 2002 people seemed to stop taking notice and Burns' directorial efforts disappeared from the limelight. He was still making films and even though I was a big admirer of his earlier stuff, even I had forgotten all about his more personal projects... until this one landed in my lap.

The Fitzgerald's are a big Irish-American family that have no shortage of problems. There are seven siblings who all look out for one another but when their estranged father wants to return home for Christmas after walking out 20 years ago, the siblings (and their mother) all have to work through their feelings and resentment towards him.

Those going into this expecting a happy family Yuletide event will certainly not get what they're expecting. As far as Christmas films go this one isn't filled with much cheer. In fact, the only reason it seems to be set around Christmas time is solely to stage an event where all the characters are forced to come together. It's a dysfunctional family drama that, once again, showcases Burns' astute eye and ear for natural characters and dialogue. With a plethora of different personalities onscreen, Burns makes it look effortless as he affords everyone the time and space to grow and develop their roles and crafts a impressive and sensitively handled ensemble piece.

In his impressively handling of the narrative strands and personal problems of his characters, Burns never forces anything. He lets the flawed individuals speak for themselves and he's aided by a solid cast that bring just the right amount of humour and heartbreak to proceedings without ever resorting to sentimentality.

Family dynamics has been the forte of Edward Burns' writing over the years and it would seem that he still has plenty to say on the matter. This may not be as solid as his debut but it's a perceptive piece nonetheless and Burns' continual independent filmmaking is deserving of a bigger audience.

Like I say, it's not the holiday cheer you might expect but also not a depressant either. It finds itself neatly under the mistletoe with a welcome embrace and a reminder that forgiveness can make a huge difference.

Mark Walker

Miller's Crossing

"You ain't got a license to kill bookies and today I ain't sellin' any. So take your flunky and dangle".

It was in 1984 that we were introduced to (what would become) two of cinema's finest writer/director's in Joel & Ethan Coen. Their darkly cynical debut Blood Simple grabbed audiences by the crotch yet their wacky follow up, Raising Arizona, managed to tickle said area. By their third film, Miller's Crossing, there was no denying that this was truly a creative partnership that knew how to construct and deliver films of great substance and enjoyment.

In an unnamed town during prohibition times, Tom (Gabriel Byrne) is the right-hand man to crime boss Leo (Albert Finney). Leo is heavily involved with Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) and losing his judgement as a result. When rival boss Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) comes to Leo for permission to kill Verna's brother Bernie (John Turturro) for double-crossing him, he's refused. What follows, is a war between gangs and Tom finds himself shifting allegiances while playing one side against the other.

When it was released in 1990, Miller's Crossing was a box-office failure. It took about half of it's reportedly $10 million budget and I often wonder if this could have been influenced by Martin Scorsese's more realistic gangster film, Goodfellas, being released in the same year. In hindsight, though, it has achieved somewhat of a cult status and celebrated for depicting it's criminals and their unlawful activity in a very different fashion.

The Coen's have been known to reference a few hard-boiled crime writers throughout their films: James M. Cain had a heavy presence in The Man Who Wasn't There and Blood Simple while Raymond Chandler coursed through The Big Lebowski. In this case, it's Dashiell Hammett and, most notably, his novels The Glass Key and Red Harvest that Miller's Crossing references and intertwines.

Set in 1929, Barry Sonnenfeld's rich cinematography is a thing of sumptuous beauty. He captures the time and feel of the 20's to absolute perfection by utilising a very particular gradation of colour in deep red, green and brown hues. This is arguably the Coen's most visually stunning film to date and that's saying something considering the meticulous attention to detail throughout most of their work.

The characters are just as rich. I'm not normally a fan of Gabriel Byrne but at the centre of the labyrinthine plot he delivers a solidly reserved performance as consigliere Tom Reagan, while those around about him have the more colourful, offbeat roles - the kind of which we have now become accustomed to with the Coen's. From Albert Finney's hopelessly romantic kingpin, Leo O'Bannion to (Coen regulars) Jon Polito as his hotheaded nemesis Johnny Caspar, John Turturro's shady bookie, Bernie Bernbaum and his cohort Mink, a small but important Steve Buscemi. All of them deliver memorable work and play like caricatures from the gangster sub-genre. Their dialogue is just as colourful as their characters and the Coen's ability to write snappy, witty lines has never been more present than it is here.

From some corners, the film received criticism for being too self-conscious in its approach. There are metaphoric images of Fedora's tumbling through autumnal forests and hilarious discussions on the "ethics" of corrupt business but these moments only add to the film's originality and it's ability to carve it's own niche. Admittedly, there isn't the sense of realism that you'd expect from a gangster film but when the characterisation and pallet are as striking as they are, then it's an approach that's very welcome indeed.

Those who have a particular appreciation for the film-noir's of yesteryear will, no doubt, be the kind of audience that Miller's Crossing will appeal to most. However, those that appreciate smart storytelling while basking in gloriously visual filmmaking will be in safe company too. Miller's Crossing was one of the Coen brothers' earlier works and, to this day, remains one of their best.

Mark Walker

Drive
Drive(2011)

In 2008, just three years after the publication of James Sallis' crime novel Drive, Universal Studios got behind the idea of a film adaptation. Originally, The Descent director Neil Marshall was to take the reigns and craft an L.A-set action mystery with Hugh Jackman as the lead. Two years later, this proposed plan collapsed and in stepped Ryan Gosling. With a spate of successful films and strong performances already behind him, Gosling was an actor in high demand and for the first time in his career he was given the opportunity to choose who would direct the film. Already a big admirer of his work, he choose Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn. The film was eventually released in 2011 to mass acclaim and struck a chord with audiences and critics alike. Not only was Refn awarded Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival but the film received a 15 minute standing ovation and in a year filled with excellent movies, Drive remains the best.

‚~Driver‚(TM) (Ryan Gosling) is a man of few words and keeps to himself while working for his mechanic friend Shannon (Bryan Cranston) who also gets him some Hollywood stunt man jobs. By night, though, he makes his real money in the criminal underworld as a top-flight getaway driver who lives by a strict code. However, when he develops an affection for his next-door neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) he is drawn into helping her ex-con husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) who has brought unwanted attention and conflict to their doorstep from the local thugs and menacing mafia figures including Nino (Ron Perlman) and Bernie (Albert Brooks).

There's a moment in Drive - and it happens within minutes of it opening - that you release you could be in for something very special. From the outset we are thrust into a heist. This is no ordinary take on a heist, however. We never actually see what is going on during the robbery. All we see is a silent driver, waiting in a car, ready to make a getaway when the looters return to the vehicle. It's hugely effective in allowing us to see things from our main characters point of view and this absolutely gripping and adrenaline filled introduction sets a precedent for what is to come in Refn's abundantly stylish, art-house thriller.

It doesn't stop there, though. Directly following this, a kitsch, vibrant pink, credit sequence is thrust onto the screen as 80's inspired synth-pop track Nightcall by Kavinsky blares overhead. Make no mistake, Drive oozes cool and should be viewed and listened to with the best of screens and speakers available. You can actually feel your senses heightening and the excitement setting in.

As much as Refn has said the film is dedicated to the existentialism of Alejandro Jodorowsky (as was Gosling and Refn's later collaboration Only God Forgives) there are numerous references and influences from a number of films and filmmakers; from car movies like Peter Yates' Bullitt, Monte Hellman's Two Lane Blacktop and Walter Hill's The Driver there are also long protracted night shots of L.A. that are reminiscent of the cityscapes of Michael Mann's Thief or Heat. The influences even extend to Gosling's unnamed character. He has been likened to Clint Eastwood's The Man with No Name from Sergio Leone's classic spaghetti westerns due to his lack of verbal communication but, in terms of living by a strong moral code, he also shares similarities with the lone-warrior mythology of Alain Delon's hitman, Jef Costello, from Jean Pierre-Melville's French classic Le Samoura√Į.

Despite all of these influences, though, Drive still stands as a film in its own right. The story arc is nothing new as the aforementioned films and filmmakers attest to but what makes Drive tick is it's approach. This is a film steeped in mood and atmosphere which is thanks in large to Newton Thomas Sigel's gorgeous cinematography where each moment is expressively captured. Even when the characters say nothing, Refn and Sigel's decision to linger long on shots seems to suggest their innermost thoughts purely by capturing a protracted gaze and Cliff Martinez provides a haunting music score that compliments the striking visuals onscreen. There are also numerous beats of ethereal beauty and just when you‚(TM)re settling into it‚(TM)s meditative tone, you‚(TM)re exposed to sudden fulminations of brutal violence. One moment it can be pondering life, love and relationships, the next it's literally pummelling your head into the ground. The momentary or seemingly deliberate pace it had, making the unrelenting savagery all the more intense and effective.

Refn's unique and poetic approach to the genre also extends to his approach on casting. No tapes or auditions were used; With the exception of Gosling, all actors would meet with the director and he would cast them on the spot if he felt they were right which results in a rich collection of performers where no one puts a foot wrong;

The always excellent Bryan Cranston (apparently ad-libbing most of his lines) pitches in a desperate and downtrodden character and manages to convey a certain world weariness and sadness in how he has come to be where he is in his life; Fresh from her leading actress Oscar nomination for An Education, Carey Mulligan exudes the requisite vulnerability and sensitivity as her innocence is swamped with the depravity and violence around her; Largely unknown at the time, Oscar Isaac turns a very flat underwritten character into a three-dimensional one (that wasn't originally in the script). He brings a charismatic, family man edge to his role and steers him away from the archetypal ex-con. He's hardly in the movie but makes an important contribution and shows just why he's an actor that has went on to bigger things; The same could be said for Christina Hendricks, she has less than a handful of small scenes with sparse dialogue but she still impresses; Normally associated with comedic roles, Albert Brooks plays it convincingly against type and delivers a menacing villain while his henchman in Ron Perlman adds the right balance of presence and ferocity to Brooks' cold calculation; Despite having the most screen time, however, you could say that Gosling actually has less to work with. Being a man of few words, he has to base his performance on mannerisms and subtle facial expressions and he does so with understated brilliance. If you're seeing Drive for the first time then Gosling probably won't stand out as anything special but on repeat viewings it's clear just how commanding a performance he delivers. He can effortlessly act with his eyes alone which allows his silence to speak volumes and with the very nature and mood of the film's dependency on a minimalist lead, Gosling captures it perfectly.

There's a particular understanding and crucial tone to the performances that are fully in tune with Refn's rhythm and elegant, art-house style. He takes a mainstream American idea and defies conventions by putting a European spin on it while employing existentialism and ambiguity as key factors in his vision. This is the very basis that makes Drive such a success. It's respectful to it's audience and turns a tried-and-tested storyline into something fresh and exciting.

A sophisticated, ultra-violent neo-noir that manages to combine a tender love story with intense action set-pieces, while channeling an artistic creativity. To put it simply, it's the best film of 2011 and of the very best in recent years.

Mark Walker

God's Pocket
God's Pocket(2014)
½

‚??I don‚??t know why writing down what everybody knows, is any better than knowing it in the first place‚??

Along with A Most Wanted Man, God‚??s Pocket was sadly one of only two remaining lead performances from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman ‚?? after his untimely death in 2014 to a heroine overdose. For this alone, it‚??s worth reminding yourself what a great talent this man was and how the medium of film will forever miss his astonishing onscreen presence. If truth be told, it‚??s not a role that requires him to do very much and the film itself continually switches tones but like many other movies featuring this fantastic actor, it benefits from his commitment and his everyman naturalism.

After a mysterious construction ‚??accident‚??, where his step-son Leon (Caleb Landry Jones) is killed, street hustler Mickey Scarpato (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is urged by the boys mother (Christina Hendricks) to find out what actually happened and to give the boy a decent burial. Mickey tries his best to investigate with the help of his friend Bird (John Turturro) but things go from bad to worse when Mickey gambles the funeral money and is left with a body he can‚??t bury and a debt he can‚??t pay as a local columnist (Richard Jenkins) begins to expose the events.

A sombre, lowbrow mood piece that‚??s very much character driven and has an authentic feel for it‚??s titular working class, Philadelphia neighbourhood, God‚??s Pocket. It‚??s inhabitants are seemingly stuck in their turgid, everyday lives where in order to make ends meet, they are forced into one scam or another. There are few redeeming characters in this tiny corner of the world but debutant director John Slattery (Roger Sterling from TV‚??s Mad Men) gives us an inside, almost fly-on-the-wall, look at how these blue collar crooks operate. The subject matter is certainly grim and cinematographer Lance Acord paints a suitably bleak picture. However, despite the stark nature, before you know it the film shifts from being a character drama to a very black comedy and it‚??s here that Slattery‚??s inexperience in calling the shots comes to the fore. Considering that the film starts so seriously, a sudden burst of humour comes as a real surprise and it takes a while to adjust. Once you accept that this, though, the black comedic moments become better timed. It‚??s certainly tonally uneven and you get the sense that Slattery is a little out of his depth in balancing it all but he does manage to deliver many excellent scenes, has a fantastic eye for detail and draws out superb performances from his entire cast.

This bodes well for the the directorial future of John Slattery but it‚??s just a damn shame that we won‚??t see much more from Hoffman. Not that I‚??m the religious type but if I was, I‚??d like to think that Hoffman has found centre stage in the pocket of God and it‚??s a pocket I wouldn‚??t hesitate to pick to bring him back to us. In such a short time, he proved to be one of the screen greats.

Mark Walker

21 Years: Richard Linklater

They say that a career should never be judged until 21 years have past. Although it's hard to believe, director Richard Linklater has achieved this milestone and now filmmakers Michael Dunaway and Tara Wood decide to shine some light and appreciation on one of the most inventive and daring of contemporary American filmmakers.

Sadly, Linklater himself doesn't actually feature in this documentary but we do get contributions from a whole host of reputable actors that have known or worked with him.
The enthusiasm from collegues such as Matthew McConaughey, Ethan Hawke and Keanu Reeves on Linklater's intelligence and approach to filmmaking is infectious and their anecdotes and insights into his work are a joy. However, it's only really Hawke (his most common collaborator) who seems to fully know what makes him tick. If you're a fan of Linklater and have a sound knowledge of his work then there's nothing here that you won't already know and the film, unfortunately, doesn't really shed any light on the man personally.

Dunaway and Wood's primary focus seems to be a brief commentary on all the manner of genres that Linklater has tackled: Sports flick, Bad News Bears; Period piece, Me and Orson Welles; Western, The Newton Boys and Sci-Fi, A Scanner Darkly, all get a look in while it also highlights his lack of pretension and his ability to dig deeper into more meaningful and intelligent projects. The authenticity of Dazed and Confused and the walk-and-talk theatrics of the Before trilogy get the most focus (the latter being humorously referred to by actor/director Mark Duplass as the lowest grossing trilogy of all time). This focus may, like myself, leave some viewers disappointed that the marvellous work of Waking Life gets very little discussion yet it's probably his most thought provoking film and shadows the fact that Linklater was always a philosopher to begin with and just happened to choose celluloid as the medium to express himself.

The tidbit of information I found most surprising, however, was the dialogue throughout his films. Although much of it seems like improvisation due to the encouragement for his actors to be free and loose it's actually verbatim which seems all the more impressively delivered when you look at how his films are structured and, as expected, it explores his penchant for similar themes of alienated characters, the social constructs of America and how he effortlessly evolves through his work while working diversely between Independent and bigger productions. It also highlights the effort that Linklater has made in support of independent filmmaking and how he was influential in helping create the Austin Film Society whereby old film prints could be saved and showed, as well as raising money from filmmakers to help make more films

Overall, it does little but scratch the surface and a bit more in-depth analysis to his films would have been welcome but to paraphrase Billy Bob Thornton on the outtakes at the end; "Rick Linklater doesn't need anyone to make a documentary about him. He's fine". However, a film that runs a mere 78mins is hardly demanding and if your a fan of Linklater then it's a pleasant appreciation.

Mark Walker

Suburbia
Suburbia(1997)
½

"Idealism is guilty middle-class bullshit"

Having already delivered Slacker and Dazed and Confused beforehand, Richard Linklater's third film, SubUrbia, somewhat confirmed him as a voice for the disillusioned youth and their struggling transition into adulthood. This is a common theme among his films and has lasted from his debut in 1991 to his most recent 2014 film Boyhood. It's seems to be his niche and one that will surely continue in his future endeavours.

Jeff (Giovanni Ribisi), Tim (Nicky Katt) and Buff (Steve Zahn) are three aimless friends that do nothing more than hang around their all-night convenience store, drinking, eating pizza and bitching about life in general. On one particular evening, they await the arrival of old high-school friend Pony (Joyce Bartok) who is now a successful musician. As the night progresses, though, tension, jealousy and resentment grow.

Taking a break from writing duties and focusing on the work of playwright (and sometime actor) Eric Bogosian, Linkater finds a project that is not unlike his own material. However, there's a slightly angrier and darker piece of work here that's a little out of Linklater's usual comfort zone. Like a lot of his films there's very little in terms of plot as it focuses on a bunch of friends hanging out and discussing their lives, the choices they've made and where their futures might lie. Again, like many Linklater films, it doesn't sound too appealing on the surface but he has a real knack for capturing natural dialogue and performances and that's where the film really finds it's feet. The always reliable Giovanni Ribisi waxes philosophical in true Linklater fashion while we have Steve Zahn lightening the mood in a film that's predominantly concerned with pessimistic conversation.

Linklater, once again, has a good eye and feel for small town, Texan mentality and he films with a colourful vibrancy whereby many scenes and exchanges of dialogue could have been cut and pasted directly into Dazed and Confused and they'd appear seamless.

The sticking point of the whole affair, however, is the running time; it's just shy of the two hour mark and you do get the feeling that characters overstay their welcome, particularly as the tone of the material gets darker and more depressing. That being said, this is still another enjoyable outing from Linklater.

A sharp and observant character piece that fits comfortably into Linklater cannon of films and once again showcases his ability to capture the disenchanted, cynical youth on the periphery of society. It's one that fans of his will not be disappointed in.

Mark Walker

Knock Knock
Knock Knock(2015)

Not being a fan of Eli Roth or the torture porn sub-genre itself, I went into this film with serious reservations. I hoped against hope that with the appealing inclusion of Keanu Reeves that this might be worth some time. Reeves has been involved in the occasional dud here and there, but he's also been known to unearth a few gems in his time. I was hoping for the latter and also hoping that Roth may have moved on from his gratuitous early films like Hostel and Cabin Fever and actually managed to mature somewhat Alas, my reservations were correct.

Evan Webber (Keanu Reeves) has the house to himself for the weekend while his wife and children take a trip away. Evan's supposed to be working from home but the arrival of two young women at his doorstep temp him to do otherwise...

Those familiar with the 1977 psychological thriller Death Game will know what to expect already with this one but for those unaware, fear not. It doesn't take long to get the gist of this and co-writer/director Roth doesn't waste any time setting up this remake: Reeves is a happily married man, living the suburban life with his wife, kids and family dog. There is, however, a small hint from a passing comment of Reeves flirting in the past and it's also noted that, due to family life, he and his wife haven't had sex for three weeks. So, the stage is set... Reeves gets on with his work one stormy evening until two young damsels come knocking on his door. They've lost their way, of course, and ask for his help. They flutter their eyelashes, make suggestive sexual comments and dance flirtatiously to Spanish music. Not before long they're naked and helping themselves to a shower while poor Keanu is folding their panties that he so obligingly dried in his machine. Naturally, they refuse to catch the taxi home leaving good ol' Reevesy with no choice but to bump fuzzies. Now, if only Reeves had been privy to the ominous use of music (that the audience hears so consistently to foretell danger) he'd have known that these ladies are bad news. And so ensues depravity, torture and mayhem. You may be reminded of such psychological films as Michael Haneke's Funny Games or David Slade's Hard Candy but the major difference is that those films are actually very good. Quite frankly, this is awful.

Had it's tongue been lodged firmly in it's cheek it might have gained a modicum of respect but it didn't. And it doesn't! If there's any attempt at humour here then Roth has failed to capture it. It takes itself far too seriously. There's absolutely no consideration for the plot other than to move things along to the next depraved moment and the acting is woeful; Reeves is as wooden as he's ever been but, to be fair, his best moments come when he's being tortured. Or maybe that's because I could completely empathise with his excruciating pain while enduring this film.

Ridiculous doesn't even begin to describe this and I should have trusted my instinct before going into it. I simply don't like Roth's films and after this I'll not be going near another one. If truth be told, I wish he'd just go away and stop wasting everyone's time.

The last I heard, "Knock Knock" was the beginning of a child's joke. However, this joke stretches over 90mins and doesn't even deliver a punchline. At one point Reeves' character even screams out "what's the point of all this?" - I found myself asking the same question.

Unequivocally one of the worst films I've ever had the misfortune to sit through. Maybe once the dust settles I might be able to see this as one of those films that are so bad they're good. I doubt it, though, this was absolutely awful. Like Roth's previous films it's just downright nasty and leaves a very bad aftertaste.

No, Eli! Just No! Back away from the camera and leave the filmmaking to the bigger children. Now, go home and get your f@*in' shinebox.

Mark Walker

Out of Sight
Out of Sight(1998)

Elmore Leonard had been writing crime and western novels as far back as the 1950's and has had numerous adaptations of his work: Paul Newman in Hombre, Clint Eastwood in Joe Kidd and Charles Bronson in Mr. Majestyk are just some of the more familiar ones. However, around the mid 90's there was somewhat of a reinvestment in his work. After the release of Quentin Tarantino's hugely influential Pulp Fiction in 1994, crime became cool again and Elmore Leonard became the go-to guy for the material. John Travolta would follow-up Pulp with an adaptation of Leonard's Get Shorty and Tarantino himself adapted Rum Punch into Jackie Brown. There were other TV Movies like Gold Coast and Pronto, Paul Schrader's misjudged Touch and the short lived TV series Maximum Bob. Steven Soderbergh then rounded them off with this stylish film that, arguably, handed George Clooney the first role that suited him as a fully fledged leading man.

Jack Foley (George Clooney) is a career bank robber that's done his fair share of jail time. After a recent breakout, he heads for Detroit to pull off his final job by relieving tycoon Richard Ripley (Albert Brooks) of his uncut diamond stash. However, Foley has to contend with other ex-cons with the same idea while evading the law and his infatuation with US Marshall Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez).

Opening with the most remarkably cool and composed bank robbery you're ever likely to see, it's clear from the offset that Soderbergh and Clooney are on very fine form. The mood is also helped by an excellent score by David Holmes that taps into a 70's caper vibe while Soderbergh employs a whole host of stylistic, directorial flourishes; he cleverly plays with the time frame throughout the narrative with complex use of flashbacks and freeze frames and puts a fresh spin on film noir.

Anyone familiar with Leonard's novels will be fully aware of his colourful characters and sharp, snappy dialogue. In bringing them to the screen, Soderbergh assembles a rich gallery of performers; despite Leonard envisioning Jack Nicholson or Sean Connery as Jack Foley when he sold the film rights of his novel, it's a role that fits Clooney like a glove. He brings the requisite charm and charisma and it remains one of his most perfectly suited roles to this day. He's accompanied by a stellar supporting cast too; Jennifer Lopez is not normally someone I'd rate very highly but she delivers some strong work as the doggedly determined Federal Marshall and shares great chemistry with Clooney. Ving Rhames brings his usual reliability as Foley's right hand man, Buddy Bragg while Steve Zahn adds welcome comic relief as stoner, Glenn Michaels. It's the dialogue and interplay between all of these characters that's one of the films major highlights and it provide numerous light, entertaining moments. However, these moments are balanced out with a well judged element of danger. For the most part, the personalities seem flawed and comical but Don Cheadle's chillingly psychotic Snoopy Miller, in particular, is a sobering reminder of what's at stake and what some of these career criminals are capable of.

Despite the story predominantly taking place amongst unsavoury criminals, you could say that this is as much as a romantic drama as it is a crime drama and Soderbergh handles them both (and the comedy elements) with a deftness. The non-linear approach demands a certain concentration as it zips back and forth while teasingly bringing everything together. When you talk about the post-modern cool of 90's crime movies then this is certainly worthy of inclusion.

Crime may be the angle of it's characters but the real crime was this being overlooked upon it's release. It didn't do well at the box-office and many have yet to still uncover this gem.
Having been well versed in the work of Elmore Leonard over the years, I have to say that Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Frank do an exemplary job here. Adaptations of Leonard's work have rarely been better.

Mark Walker

It Follows
It Follows(2015)

Too often with contemporary horror films we are subjected to a barrage of positive claims. Claims that the most recent one is the best for decades. It almost seems like audiences and critics are desperate for it to actually be the case, such is the lack of any true quality in a failing genre and the desperate demand to be spooked again. Sooner or later, though, one had to arrive where the positivity surrounding it would be genuine. Finally, we have It Follows: a film that can confidently stake it's claim to being that coveted frightener.

After a sexual encounter, 19-year-old Jay (Maika Monroe) is told that she will then be followed by a presence - someone or something - determined to kill her. The only way it'll stop is if she has another sexual encounter where she can pass it on. Initially, she's doubtful but soon enough the disturbing visions begin...

If you're ever in any doubt that you're being stalked by a malevolent force of some kind, then it's probably best to steer clear of the old rumpy-pumpy. Going by the usual horror tropes, when someone butters the muffin it inevitably leads to their demise. And by that, director David Robert Mitchell cleverly bases his entire horror concept around that promiscuous premise.

What works in It Follows' favour is it's homage to films of old - namely, John Carpenter's Halloween. If you consider Carpenter's depiction of Michael Myers, you'll notice that he works slowly and never in a rush to fulfil his murderous intent. That's very much like the entity in this; there's a self-assurance in it's unrelenting pursuit. The setting also takes place in a similar leafy suburban neighbourhood and our protagonist goes by the name of Jay (short for Jamie) - a direct tribute to Halloween's afflicted heroine, Jamie Lee Curtis. Even Rich Vreeland's scaled down music is very reminiscent of Carpenter's classic synthesised score.

You could actually spend some time identifying the previous horrors that Mitchell riffs on but that would detract from his own work and his ability to put his own stamp on the proceedings. His decision to shoot with a sombre mood and deliberate pace adds to the overall foreboding atmosphere and allows us to effortlessly enter into any given moment. This works the same in identifying with the characters. Their plight and struggle is all the more involving because it feels like we are getting a glimpse into their lives. It also helps that the cast is headed by reliable, and relatively unknown, faces and as the characters are in their teens, the film works as both an urban-legend horror and a dark coming-of-age tale. Their progression to adulthood and their promiscuity also sets up a clever sub-text that courses through the film in terms of sexually transmitted diseases: a reminiscent 80's setting suggesting the AIDS epidemic, in particular, and channels the deadly nature of that disease as it's psychological device.
Mitchell's real trump card, however, comes from his use of space and setting up his shots. The background plays a major part in the film as you never know at which moment "It" might make an appearance, leaving you to regularly scan the whole frame for any movement.

There's an undoubted ambiguity to Mitchell's film and while some may balk at this I, personally, welcomed it as it added another thought provoking layer. It works on many levels. If you're so inclined, you can adopt a metaphorical approach to the proceedings and delve into it's deeper meanings. But then again, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, right? If your not the type of viewer that wishes to explore the metaphors and just want to be entertained then the film can still be enjoyed at face value and works as a chilling and effective horror yarn, nonetheless. With or without mastication.

In only his second film (the first being The Myth of the American Sleepover in 2010) there's no denying David Robert Mitchell's commanding handling of events and his ability to stage a real sense of uneasiness. It's an impressive sophomore effort that has given the horror genre a much needed shot in the arm by delivering substantial terrors and retaining a sincerity in its delivery.

Mark Walker

Halloween
Halloween(1978)
½

The "slasher film" is now a commonly known sub-genre among horror films and has developed a devoted fan base. Many would say that Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho in 1960 was one of the most influential and successful of such a film. Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1974 also cited as a major player. However, there was once a "Golden Age of Slasher film" which ran from 1978 to 1984 and incorporated such iconic horror characters as A Nightmare on Elm Street's Freddy Krueger, Friday the 13th's Jason Vorhees and, of course, Halloween's Michael Myers. It's this John Carpenter film that was the kickstarter for the Golden Age and credited with being the film that defined the genre.

On Halloween night, 1963, a teenager is brutally murdered by her six-year old brother, Michael Myers. After 15 years in psychiatric incarceration, Michael escapes and, with murderous intent, returns to stalk the Midwestern, Illinois suburb where he first struck.

After opening on the face of a carved, candlelit pumpkin and Carpenter's now iconic synthesiser score playing overhead, we are introduced to a young, murderous Michael Myers. It's worth noting that this entire sequence is shot in 1st person shaky-cam to depict the perspective of Myers. Now somewhat of a cliche in horror movies, Carpenter's skilful inclusion of it not only makes us a voyeur but also makes us complicit in the murder. It's the only time we ever get to see things from Myers' point of view as we then spend the rest of the film trying to evade the unrelenting nature of him.

Carpenter has a knack for delivering genuine chills but his real skill is in making the ordinary, "safer" moments just as scary. Most horror directors rely heavily on darkness descending before revealing the murderer/stalker/monster but Halloween's creepiest moments actually come during the daytime - Myers is seen stalking his prey while driving around schools, lurking by a hedge on a packed suburban neighbourhood or, most eerily, looking on from laundry hanging in the backyard. These are the moments where Carpenter shows his mastery of mood and composition.

Without making too many ridiculous comparisons with the aforementioned Psycho, Carpenter does make tribute to the 1960's classic. Like that film, it creates suspense with minimal blood and gore and the hiring of Jamie Lee Curtis shadows that of Hitchcock's casting of her mother, Janet Leigh, while Carpenter's main theme tune has become as synonymous with horror music as Bernard Herrmann's iconic work. Both scores have been endlessly imitated and work so effectively in their repetitious simplicity.

As much as these trademark approaches command respect, however, there is still something clear from the offset; the acting and the dialogue are plain woeful at times. There's no denying Carpenter's impressive ability to capture a shot or form atmosphere but, overall, it doesn't quite hold the impact it once had. This is a common problem when it comes to Carpenter's work; he was so ahead of his time and constantly trying to realise his visions on a shoestring budget that they don't often age well and a contemporary audience may well frown upon his films.

Speaking of budgets, Carpenter managed to string this thing together for approx $300,000 (with the experienced Donald Pleasance receiving $20,000 of that for 18 minutes onscreen work) and shot in 20 days. With no money for a costume department, the entire cast wore their own clothes and the actual mask that Myers wore was a William Shatner Star Trek mask - spray painted white and the eyes reshaped. It was bought for $1.98 from a local hardware store. This aside, the film went on to gross $70million worldwide, making it one of the most successful independent films ever made.

Halloween happens to be one of his Carpenter's most lauded and iconic films but I don't actually think it's in the same league as The Thing in terms of it's unflinching paranoia and sheer terror and I don't even think it's as good as Prince of Darkness in terms of it's concept. That said, Halloween certainly has it's place among the genre and is quite possibly the most influential of all horror movies. It has spawned countless clones, sequels and remakes and is, understandably, still revered by many.

For all it's flaws, there's no denying that this was a game-changer. Even though the impact has lessened and some flaws are now glaring, there are many times where Carpenter shows that he was once a true master of his craft.

Mark Walker

The Gift
The Gift(2015)
½

"You think you're done with the past, but the past is not done with you"

Is there no end to Joel Edgerton's abilities? Although he'd been involved in projects before, it's probably fair to say that it wasn't until David Mich√īd's Animal Kingdom that opportunities began to really open up for him. He's since went on to work with Kathryn Bigelow, Baz Luhrmann and Ridley Scott, while also penning Mich√īd's impressive second feature The Rover. Now he makes his own feature length directorial debut and it would seem that we have much more to see from Edgerton's talents.

Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) are a young married couple leading a comfortable lifestyle. Out of the blue, they meet Gordo (Joel Edgerton) an old high school acquaintance of Simon's who begins to make uninvited appearances at their house and always comes bearing gifts. Simon and Robyn begin to question his motives but Gordo's motives are not the only ones in need of questioning.

When you consider the plot or concept of Edgerton's The Gift, you may be reminded of stalker thrillers of the past like The Hand that Rocks the Cradle or Cape Fear. On the surface, it does share some similarities with these films but Edgerton manages to put his own spin on the proceedings. The film starts with the conventional creepy stalker tropes but it soon resists these conventions by throwing in some unexpected plot developments which turn the narrative on it's head.

Edgerton wisely shows restraint and plays events down by employing a low-key edge and a deliberate pace. He's in no rush to jump into any revelations and the character arcs are given time to play out which only adds to the tension and suitably unsettling atmosphere.

The performances also hit all the right notes; Edgerton brings the requisite portentousness to his enigmatic stranger while Bateman shows good range and balances the nuances of his character well.

To speak more of the film would only give away plot developments that are better left unsaid. Suffice to say that, although as a genre piece, it's nothing new but it's the tight and clever handling of it that impresses most and unravels as a satisfying psychological thriller that's worthy of some attention.

There's a strong cinematic output from our Antipodean friends at the moment, of which, Edgerton seems to be spearheading and this will no doubt convince studios to invest further in his directorial endeavours.

Mark Walker

Ted 2
Ted 2(2015)

Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane always struck me as the type of humorist that had a seemingly endless amount of jokes. His animated show has been hugely successful for years and seems to have the ability that The Simpsons has, in terms of staying power and maintaining a high standard of entertainment. However, that ability to provide the goods is severely lacking from this second instalment.

In order to make his marriage work, Ted (Seth McFarlane) and his new wife Lynn (Jessica Bartha) decide to have a baby and go looking for a suitable sperm donor. However, in the eyes of the law Ted is not a human and therefore unable to adopt or even for his marriage to remain legal, setting forth a struggle for him to prove his place in society.

When he delivered Ted in 2012, fans of McFarlane's humour were happy with his transition into feature length and with a profane and anthropomorphised new character in tow, he was on to a winner. Ted was a comedy gimmick that worked and I was happy to see more when this sequel was announced. That said, this doesn't bring anything new to the table and is so boring you're likely to fall asleep halfway through our cuddly friend's one syllable name.

The jokes (if you can even call them that) are regurgitated but this time they really don't stick. It's hard to imagine that the creator of Family Guy actually had anything to do with this. I'm not one who's easily offended. In fact, I actually welcome risqu√ (C) jokes but a film that has nothing more to offer other than how many black penises appear on the Internet every time you use a search engine frankly verges on racism and isn't even a funny gag the first time, never mind the third or fourth attempt.

It's never a good sign when you feel the need to force out a few disingenuous laughs but I found myself doing that here. I was almost trying to convince myself that there was something here but I should've known from the start; the song-and-dance sequence alone is overlong and, ultimately, pointless and from the outset you get the feeling that McFarlane has started padding before the opening credits have even finished.

Call me old fashioned but I was always under the impression that a comedy should actually consist of, erm... comedy. This whole, misjudged, cock-centric affair is absolutely bereft of humour and considering it's so overly concerned with the male genitalia it's actually quite limp and fails to perform when it matters. It only succeeds in being turgid, tedious and a hugely disappointing and desperate attempt to recreate it's predecessor's wonder and magic.

This is a one trick teddy, overstuffed with a (fully justified) inferiority complex. Ted's inability to procreate echoed that of my feelings towards the film itself. To paraphrase wiser fellas than myself... it's a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase.

Mark Walker

The Blues Brothers

"It's 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it's dark and we're wearing sunglasses..."

It's always a tricky one when you revisit a film that was a big part of your adolescence and in some ways responsible for laying the groundwork on your love of movies. There's likely to be a tinge of nostalgia or reminiscence, making it difficult to judge it objectively. That said, sometimes the film is just so much fun and so enjoyable that you know why you hold it in such high regard in the first place. Without a shadow of a doubt, The Blues Brothers is (still) that kind of film.

When "Joliet" Jake Blues (John Belushi) is released from prison, he and his brother Elwood (Dan Aykroyd) pay a visit to the old Catholic home where they grew up. They soon find out that the orphanage is to be shut down due to lack of funds. As a result, Jake and Elwood go on a mission to re-form their old blues band and raise the money required.

Say what you will about the comedic talents of Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler or Mike Myers but they share something in common in terms of making their name on comedy sketch show Saturday Night Live. These names are just three of the shows recent successful comedians but having, personally, been born in the late 70's and grew up throughout the 80's, most of the comedies I was exposed to were filled with the familiar faces that actually had a hand in the origins of this show - Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy and, of course, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. In fact, The Blues Brothers is an adaptation of a short sketch that first aired on Saturday Night Live and is one of only two successful film adaptations from the show - the other being Wayne's World.

However, despite this films success, it was actually fraught with production problems and a budget that got way out control. Firstly, Dan Aykroyd's script was a massive 324 pages (three times longer than a normal screenplay) which he jokingly bound in the cover of the Yellow Pages before delivering it to John Landis to edit it down. Also, Landis' outlandish car chases and vehicular pile-up's throughout the end of the film sent the budget $10million over it's initial $17.5. This wasn't helped by John Belushi's spiralling drug habit which would cause him to disappear for lengthy periods from the set.

These issues aside, though, The Blues Brothers still struck a chord with audiences and critics alike - even the Vatican gave it the thumbs-up for being a good Catholic movie - and it has since went on to become a cult classic. Over 30 years later, it's easy to see why...

The story doesn't really amount to very much but the titular characters are hard to resist as they ooze a laid-back cool, dressed in their iconic black suits and dark Ray-Bans - a good ten years before Tarantino's similarly attired Reservoir Dogs. Jake and Elwood manage to get themselves in all sorts of scrapes and upset a whole horde of different people; a machine gun, bazooka wielding disgruntled ex-girlfriend (Carrie Fisher), the Illinois Nazi Party, country band The Good Ol' Boys and, not to mention, the sheer tally of cops, all in hot pursuit. It's riotously over the top and when the film reaches it's denouement it has already crossed the ridiculous border but Landis and Aykroyd know this. They simply don't care. And that's what makes the film so enjoyable. There's an unashamedly free-spirited nature to the proceedings which is highly infectious but nothing entertains more than the magnificent musical numbers from a choice selection of Soul and R&B talents. Among the many toe-tapping highlights are Aretha Franklin's "Think", Cab Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher", John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom" and the great Ray Charles with "Shake a Tail Feather".

The Blues Brothers has stood the test of time and truly is one of a kind. It's provides action, laughs and song and dance numbers that haven't aged a bit. It's admittedly raucous, loud and chaotic but as far as I'm concerned, anything goes when you're "on a mission from God".

Mark Walker

Locke
Locke(2014)
½

Despite appearing in many films beforehand, I think it's fair to say that Tom Hardy's breakout role was in Nicolas Winding Refn's Bronson in 2009. Many (myself included) were instantly struck by his bravery and his ability to inhabit such an intense role. In that film he threw everything at us and since then he hasn't looked back. What's most encouraging, though, is that he isn't afraid to spread his talents. He's already done Hollywood: The Dark Knight Rises, Warrior and Inception, to name a few, but it's in this small independent project that Hardy delivers some career best work.

Successful construction manager, Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) is a man of principals and a dedicated father and husband. However, on the eve of the biggest deal of his career he receives a phone call which forces him to assess some choices he has made in life and sets forth a series of (e)motions that threaten to undo everything he has been dedicated to.

Locke has a very simple premise. So simple, it would lead you to believe that it's a very dull and uninteresting affair. It basically consists of spending 1hr 25mins stuck in a car with a man who does nothing more than talk to people on his hands-free device while driving from Birmingham to London and talking through his personal problems. However, it's anything but dull. In fact, the very simplicity of writer/director Steven Knight's approach is what makes the film so compelling.

Hardy talks a lot. A lot about his work in concrete; building development and laying foundations but the real development and foundations are built from his emotionally charged character.

Set entirely within the confines of his moving vehicle, the real driving force behind the narrative is the dialogue. It methodically peels back the layers of one man's quest to right a wrong in his life and Hardy's expressive mannerisms completely own the screen. Granted, he's the only person who actually appears onscreen (Olivia Colman et al literally phone in their roles) but that's not to take away from his exceptional and spellbinding performance.

For a film that's constantly on the move, it's actually deeply rooted in character development. Ivan's goals, achievements and morals are teased out with every conversation he's involved in and Hardy's emotion and nuance lends a captivating intensity to the overall mood and atmosphere.

A claustrophobic chamber piece that defies the big spending studios by delivering something personal and intimate without digging too deeply into it's pockets. It's more like a one-man play than a film and a great example of how less can be more.

Mark Walker

The Drop
The Drop(2014)

The Drop is one of those films that almost sneaks by an audience but strangely there's still something that catches the eye. That something may be because it's yet another adaptation of the normally successful page to screen transfer of crime novelist Dennis Lehane (Gone Baby Gone, Mystic River, Shutter Island), the English language debut of Bullhead director Micha√ęl R. Roskam or that it features the last screen performance of the late, great James Gandolfini. All of these are reason enough to see it, but the one that really makes it worthwhile is a quietly commanding Tom Hardy.

Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy) is a quiet, unassuming bartender working with his cousin Marv (James Gandolfini) in his Brooklyn bar. Marv is a bit of a has-been who lost his bar to incoming Chechen gangsters who use the establishment as a "drop" for illegal money takings. However, when the bar is robbed it puts them in a tight spot and leads to an investigation that brings up the past and the depths of the neighbourhood's criminal affairs.

The Drop has come in for a fair bit of criticism from numerous corners. Predominantly these issues have stemmed from plot strands not coming together or Lehane going a bit on the soft side and to a minor extent I can agree with this. There are some problems with the narrative, namely a religious sub-plot involving John Ortiz's church-going cop that feels misplaced and underdeveloped and the talented likes of Noomi Rapace is wasted in a woefully underwritten supporting role. However, what the film manages to capture is a perfect sombre mood and uses a patient approach that very much works in it's favour.

Cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis captures Brooklyn in all it's blue collar edginess while the two central characters in Bob and Marv are afforded the space to grow and develop at their own pace - resulting in both Gandolfini and, especially, Hardy raising the film to a whole other level. There's also a good support from rising Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts (Bullhead, Rust and Bone). However, Gandolfini's presence hangs heavily over the film and it's a real shame that this is the last we'll see of this fantastic actor. That being said, he's not the main player and you get the impression that Gandolfini is happy to step aside and allow Hardy to do his thing.

I don't suppose there's anything here that hasn't been done before but that still doesn't take away from this slow-burning, gritty drama. It's a fine addition to a sub-genre that I have a real soft spot for and that's, ultimately, down to the strong performances. Roksam has a good command over Lehane's prose and dialogue but the plot comes secondary to the characterisation. And in terms of Hardy and Gandolfini, there's plenty of that to be had.

We may have lost a great actor that'll be hard to replace in Gandolfini, however, rising star Schoenaerts is deservedly becoming more prolific and Tom Hardy just continually manages to impress. The Drop's low-life tale of criminality benefits from seeing all three deliver solid work.

Mark Walker

Cop Land
Cop Land(1997)
½

"Being right is not a bullet proof vest, Freddy"

The problem with Cop Land, is that it's full of cops. Well there is that, but in all seriousness, for any fan of the crime genre they will find there are two things that are unavoidable when looking over the cast of the film. One, is legendary director Martin Scorsese and the regulars that feature in his work: There is, of course, DeNiro and Keitel (who need no introduction) but there's also Liotta (Goodfellas), Cathy Moriarty (Raging Bull) and Frank Vincent who appears in both the latter two (as well as Casino). Vincent also brings me to the other unavoidable thing... the finest television series on the subject; The Sopranos. By my count, there's no less than ten cast members that are recognisable throughout six seasons and those well versed will notice; Carmela, Paulie, Arty Buco and Vincent's Phil Leotardo, among others.

The New Jersey town of Garrison is populated by cops from the NYPD who have set up their own community to live in peace. As intended, it's a community that doesn't need policing but still employs local Sheriff, Freddy Heflin (Sylvester Stallone) to oversee things. Freddy always wanted to join the police force but was prevented from doing so because of a childhood accident that left him partially deaf. However, when Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel) and his corrupt activities begin to surface it brings it to the attention of Internal Affairs Agent Moe Tilden (Robert DeNiro) who may just have the policeman's job opportunity that Freddy has coveted.

Narratively, the film starts very strongly and draws you into the murky depths of police corruption and cops ruling cops. Director James Mangold also seems to know what he's doing; he builds the tension slowly and assuredly and introduces his characters at precise moments. It's not long before we realise Keitel is one of the shady one's and firmly in control of his environment. Stallone also happens to establish himself quickly by playing firmly against type. The whole premise of the film is built around Sly and the, seeming inability, to do the job he's been denominated for. It's quite a distance from most of his action-hero work but it's the supporting roles of a strung out Liotta and doggedly determined DeNiro that really bring shape to the whole corrupt debacle.

All of the supporting players are brilliantly placed but it's, unsurprisingly, the aforementioned four actors that drive the film. Liotta, Keitel and DeNiro deliver the high calibre expected from them but the biggest surprise is Stallone. He's wise enough to sit back and let the heavyweights chew the scenery while he subtly underplays it and brings a touching vulnerability to his afflicted Sheriff.

With an abundance of talent on display you might ask why Cop Land doesn't entirely work? Quite simply, it's a generic and formulaic story. The leads do what they can - and they all get their moment to shine - but the lack of three dimensional characterisation and some redundant plot strands only allow them to go so far. However, despite Mangold's inability to come up with a solid script, his handling of events and a who's-who cast are very diligently attuned. It's also worth noting that the denouement is impressively intense in a High-Noon homage with Mangold, very skilfully, utilising Freddie's hearing impairment to the utmost effect and manages to turn, what would normally be considered a Hollywood hokum get-out, into a refreshing and satisfying showdown.

Alas, Cop Land is not the sum of it's parts. It had the potential to be a classic but ends up just another attempt at a genre that so many have covered to better results. That said, it's hard to argue with the cast and the solid performances but because it's easy to see the potential this film had, it makes it all the more frustrating that it doesn't quite achieve it. It's good, but it could've been great. As it goes, the problem with Cop Land is that it's not full of cops, the problem with Cop Land is that's it's full of quality actors working under restrained and clichéd material.

Mark Walker

Awakenings
Awakenings(1990)
½

"I'm sorry! If you were right, I would agree with you".

Despite being a prominent director throughout the 80's and 90's, surprisingly, Penny Marshall seemed to hang up her boots after 2001's Driving in Cars with Boys. To be fair, her films always had a cloying or whimsical tinge to them and her last few movies didn't reach the enjoyable heights of her earlier work like A League of Their Own and Big but she always showed promise as a director - with Awakenings, arguably, being her most accomplished work.

In 1969, Dr. Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams) takes a Neurology position in a Brooklyn Psychiatric hospital where he finds patients that have been in a catatonic state for decades due to a condition known as post-encephalitis. With further investigation, he focuses on Leonard Lowe (Robert DeNiro) and begins to prescribe a drug called L-Dopa. Miraculously, Leonard responds to the drug, awakes from his "sleepy-disease" and begins to move, talk and embrace life once more.

Based on the true life events depicted in Dr. Oliver Sacks' novel of the same name, Marshall has a solid handling of the material. Steven Zaillian's script has a good balance of humour and pathos and an all-important sensitivity to the characters while Marshall is aided with a wonderful cast where she's able to tease out heartfelt, powerful performances.

Even the relative unknowns bring something to the table but, ultimately, it's the two major players who shine brightest: Robin Williams brings real humanity to his excruciatingly shy doctor while DeNiro is a tic-ridden, tour-de-force as his patient and delivers one of his very best, and heartbreaking, performances. It would not be out of place to argue both actors deliver some career best work here. Williams plays it absolutely straight and resists any urge to wisecrack or improvise while DeNiro is simply astonishing. You can watch him, fully informed of his acting prowess, yet he still manages to convince you that his involuntary movements and speech patterns aren't for real. DeNiro was rightly awarded with an Oscar nomination for his work but why he didn't win is beyond me. In fact, it must have been a frustrating year for him at the Academy Awards in 1991. He lost the Best Actor award to Jeremy Irons in Reversal of Fortune but this was the same year that one of DeNiro's best films - Goodfellas - would be overlooked and his good friend Martin Scorsese also ignored for Best Director. On reflection (although not unsurprising) the Academy made a number of mistakes but there's no doubt in my mind that DeNiro took the brunt of it and thoroughly deserved more for his output that year. His work as Leonard Lowe is truly captivating and epitomises the sheer breadth that DeNiro is capable of. Actors embodying a disability or medical condition tend to be Oscar bait with the likes of Dustin Hoffman (Rain Man), Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump) notably winning the Academy over. As good as they were, DeNiro's performance is even better than those and the only exception that just might overshadow them all is Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot.

Despite my admiration, Awakenings has come in for some criticism. In particular, a forced sentimentality has been found by many. I suppose this will depend on the individual viewer and in a sense I can see why they might think that. However, I found the sentimentality to be well judged and the performances balanced and authentic. That said, there's no denying it's ability to bring on the water works. It's hard to keep a dry eye (especially with the help of Randy Newman beautifully pitched score) but I, personally, didn't see this as being overly sentimental but more about it having the ability to relate and draw you into it's very personal and tragic story. And what a story it is. Admittedly, I never read the late Dr. Sacks' novel on which it's based but I did read his memoirs and case studies told in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and that, like Awakenings, was a book of medical revelations and anomalies that are nothing short of fascinating.

Powerful and affecting, Awakenings is a film that captures the heart and triumph of the human spirit to it's empathic core. It also provides two exceptionally excellent performances from Williams and, especially, DeNiro. It's through these captivating performances that we are allowed access to the wonder and bewilderment of human conditions and Penny Marshall's delicate handling brings it to the fore.

A genuine treat from the early 90's that possesses one of Williams' strongest dramatic roles and one of DeNiro's last truly committed.

Mark Walker

Mean Streets
Mean Streets(1973)

Although Mean Streets wasn't Martin Scorsese's directorial debut it can often feel like it was. He'd already done Who's That Knocking at My Door in 1968 and Boxcar Bertha in 1972 but this was the film that not only began his illustrious collaborations with Robert DeNiro but it was his first film to delve into the gangster sub-genre and displayed all the embryonic, stylistic trademarks that he has now become synonymous with. Quite simply, Mean Streets showcased the talents of Scorsese and fully confirmed the arrival of one of the greatest American directors while becoming hugely influential on future films and filmmakers alike.

Charlie (Harvey Keitel) is a small time criminal trying to work his way up the local mafia food chain. However, his religious beliefs continually cause him to question his choices in life and as his conscience gets the better of him, so too does his misjudged loyalty to his low-life friends.

Some may find the style and fashion of this early 70's classic as dated but Scorsese's flamboyant skills and style are far from it. This was a young, relatively inexperienced director who was way ahead of his time and displayed approaches to filmmaking that are now taken for granted. That said, when you look back at Mean Streets and consider just how early Scorsese delivered this, it still packs a punch and is, without doubt, one of the best and most impressive films from the decade.

Following on the heals of Francis Ford Coppola's sweeping crime classic The Godfather in 1972, Scorsese took us to a more personal, working class criminal environment. It feels raw, even claustrophobic, when compared to Coppola's epic proportions. The characters in Scorsese's tale are more real and easier to identify with. They're not throwing elaborately expensive weddings or severing horse's heads to send messages, they're just trying to get by, day to day, and turn a coin from whatever petty criminal activity comes their way.

At it's core, it's anchored by two excellent performances: Keitel shoulders the brunt of the film's narrative as Charlie; basically a good guy who has chosen a life of crime that leaves him in a tortured state due to his religious upbringing and near constant state of catholic guilt. He struggles with the choices he makes in life and struggles even more with those of his self-destructive friend, Johnny Boy, played with real electric verve by a young DeNiro. Even though Keitel delivers a solid lead performance, it's DeNiro's recklessness that really stands out. There's not a moment where he doesn't command your attention with his maniacal and random fits of rage and immaturity.

As this proved to be the moment that Scorsese came to everyone's attention, it done the same for DeNiro. His improvisation and natural ability does, in front of the camera, what Scorsese was doing behind it. Both of their work seems to mirror and compliment one another and this became the birthing of one of cinema's greatest, long term, partnerships.

Mark Walker

Housebound
Housebound(2014)

The minute I find myself being critical of comedies and horrors (or the lack of good ones, as the case may be) two splendid film's come along in quick succession that manages to cut across both genres. After the hysterical Antipodean horror-comedy What We Do In The Shadows - which was hands down the funniest film of 2014 - it's refreshing to see that New Zealand had yet another up their sleeve, as well as a promising new writer/director in Gerard Johnstone.

Kylie Bucknell (Morgana O'Reilly) is a wayward young woman who is court ordered to spent 8 months detention in the house she grew up in. What's worse is that she has to suffer her talkative but well-meaning mother who has a strong belief that the house is haunted. Wearing a restrictive tag, Kylie is somewhat trapped in her surroundings as strange and unexplained events begin to unravel.

In terms of its structure, Housebound is very different from the satirical vampire comedy What We Do In the Shadows. It's not done in a mockumentary style but instead it channels the old haunted house routine. We've certainly seen many film's over the years that have tried (and failed) to bring something new to this stagnant sub-genre but first time director Gerard Johnstone injects new life into it and skilfully manages to tease something that feels fresh and exciting.

For a start, its marvellously shot and Johnstone shows a competent hand throughout. After opening on a hilariously bungled bank job - involving a sledgehammer and a cash machine - he settles down to introduce his contemptuous and free-spirited housebound protagonist who's rebellion against her mother (brilliantly played by Rima Te Wiata) and society in general is put to the side to fight against the unknown.

Johnstone cranks up the tension with ease and employs a host of genre traits; from randomly talking toys to secret passageways and the revelation that the house was once a looney bin. Even though he goes for the occasional jump-scare moment, he still manages to pull it off and by maintaining an uneasy atmosphere he keeps you in suspense throughout the film's entirety. What's most surprising, though, is his ability to mix in some deadpan humour which gives the film another layer of enjoyment. It's Johnstone's ability to capture the absurdity in every day moments and objects that bring a real originality to the proceedings. In one of the film's funniest scenes we find the characters fighting each other with anything that comes to hand - a whisk, a cheese grater and... erm... the restraining properties of a laundry basket. What should be a hilarious scene, is indeed one, but it also has an element of danger and that's down to brilliant handling from the director.

This really is an impressive debut and with the ability that Johnstone displays, you'd never think this was a first time director. The same could be said for his impressive cast of unknowns. All of them handle their roles with the prefect balance to suit the numerous genres that Johnstone so effortlessly combines.

New mileage is found from an old format and future cult status is assured. A surprising success all round and so much so, that an American remake is is already in the works.

Mark Walker

What Doesn't Kill You
½

"I'm sick of all this nickel and dime bullshit"

The Best Supporting Actor nominations in this year's Oscars was arguably the toughest category of any. We had screen legend Robert Duvall in The Judge, a rejuvenated Edward Norton in Birdman, deserved winner J.K. Simmons in Whiplash and Mark Ruffalo and Ethan Hawke for Foxcatcher and Boyhood respectively. But, like me, what you may not have known is the latter two had already shared the screen together in true life crime drama What Doesn't Kill You.

Paulie (Ethan Hawke) and Brian (Mark Ruffalo) are a couple of small time hoods who can only muster some small change from their petty crimes. This puts a strain on their personal lives and the bosses they work for so they decide to start aiming higher and branching out on their own. However, like most criminals, the deeper they get the greater the consequences.

On the surface this looks like it's just another conventional blue-collar crime drama but on reflection it's much more than that. After it's opening heist scene, we are taken back to the early days and how Paulie and Brian got involved in their errands for local gangsters and the lack of any other opportunity presented to them. Slowly Hawke's character tails off and Ruffalo's afflicted family man takes centre stage and the film becomes more about his personal journey: trying to make ends meet; remaining loyal to his no-hoper friend; kicking his drug and alcohol addictions and supporting his wife and two sons. All the while, he's trying to stay one step ahead of the police and keep himself out of jail.

The film works primarily on it's realism. The characters feel real, the South Boston setting feels authentic and it's anchored by Hawke and, especially, Ruffalo's excellent central performances.

At one point there's a shooting (I won't say whom) but it's Pop, Pop, Pop.... there's a real sense of panic, helplessness and disorientation that you don't often see in scenes of this nature but I would have liked Goodman to inject a bit more adrenaline into his heist or robbery scenes as occasionally they can feel a little flat and not as exciting as they could've been. However, his focus on the more personal and heartfelt struggle of his characters impresses most and it's a solid directorial debut.

Unfortunately, the film wasn't marketed very well and due to the collapse of it's distributor (Yari Film Group) it was released on a very small scale. This largely contributed to it slipping through the cracks. Added to which, some of the film's posters can make it look like a cheap B-movie and the fact that it's title changed a number of times across many countries done it no favours either. It's also know as: Boston Streets, Real Men Cry and Crossing Over. As you can see, the film never really had a chance. This is a real disservice, though, as it's a fine addition to the genre and both Hawke and Ruffalo deliver some of their best work while Goodman (who also co-wrote with Donnie Wahlberg) confidently displays his understanding of this harsh and unforgiving environment.

In fairness, you'll have seen many films like it before and it doesn't really bring anything new the table but that's no reason for it to be overlooked. (And it certainly didn't deserve to be buried the way it was). If your a fan of this type of material and the leading actors, then these are reason enough to highly recommend it.

Mark Walker

First Snow
First Snow(2007)
½

"Your fate lies on whatever road you take. Even if you choose to run from it"

Guy Pearce is a very talented actor that hasn't quite achieved the leading man credentials he so thoroughly deserves. However, he still has a knack for choosing great roles. The real gems among his work tends to be lower budget indie fair. Some can hit the quality heights of Memento or L.A. Confidential and reach a mass audience while others become respectful career choices that tend to slip under the radar. Personally, I think Pearce's choices are always very interesting and First Snow is a prime example of his astute eye for a good role and project.

Jimmy Starks (Pearce) is a cocky salesman who's car breaks down outside a desolate New Mexico town. To pass the time he pays a visit to a roadside fortune teller (J.K. Simmons). Although skeptical, Jimmy soon realises that the psychic is no con man and he's told that his future is very bleak. In fact, he's told that his life will come to an end when the first snow arrives, leaving Jimmy to explore how his fate will be sealed.

Making his directorial debut, screenwriter Mark Fergus (Children of Men, Iron Man) sets his stall up with a metaphysical tale that wouldn't be out of place in a Twilight Zone episode. The premise is simple (but all the more effective for it) and there are elements that also bring reminders of Pearce's Leonard Shelby from Memento. With a similar claustrophobic edge, his character is holed up in his apartment - or the occasional motel room - having anxious discussions on the telephone that may or may not seal his fate. It's this psychological angle that really benefits this impressive and intriguingly abstract neo-noir.

It's very well shot and the always reliable Pearce adds another solid character to his resume. He shows great range and holds the whole film together with his ability to switch from cocksure arrogance to paranoid wreck and has you delighted when it comes to watching him squirm. Pearce's effortless range really brings his character to the fore but what also works is it's haunting atmosphere and ability to maintain it's eeriness and mystery on such a low-key scale.

It's a slow burner that explores the theoretical themes of predestination and self-determination and has you constantly wondering how events will pan out for our conscience-stricken protagonist. Unfortunately, the destination of his repentant road doesn't end as well as it should. After a such a gripping build up, the pay-off feels rushed and unsatisfactory but up until this point it's a very involving thriller.

An impressive feature debut from Mark Fergus and on this evidence it's a shame that he hasn't stepped behind the camera since. The ending may let it down but this is still a taut, psychological mystery that deserves to receive a wider audience.

Mark Walker

Interstellar
Interstellar(2014)

"You might have to decide between seeing your children again and the future of the human race".

Over the years, director Christopher Nolan has carved himself a place among the Hollywood elite. His sophomore movie Memento still remains one of my top ten personal favourite films but it was his hugely successful Dark Knight trilogy and the teasingly elaborate Inception that most people identified with. As a result of these blockbusters, there was much anticipation upon the release of his Sci-Fi epic Interstellar. Many were so enthused that they were literally counting down the days till the film's release. The anticipation was so huge that there was bound to be disappointment as few films can ever truly deliver on such a basis of expectation. Interstellar has become prey to this and I can honestly say that I wish I hadn't listened to the naysayers and their feelings of deflation.

In the near future, Earth is on the brink of decimation from climate change - resulting in dust clouds, famine and drought. Humanity's last hope comes in the shape of astronaut turned crop-farmer, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) who leaves behind his family to join a small crew of scientists and explore a wormhole in the far reaches our solar system. Travelling through this allows them to investigate planets which may be capable of sustaining life and possibly pave a new beginning for the human race.

Let's face it, Nolan has never been one to scrimp on ideas or refrain from challenging his audience. Trying to tie your head around Inception or Memento, for example, were hard enough but he manages to go even further with Interstellar - and on a even grander scale. Beginning as a family drama, Nolan builds his characters and their relationships with a touching sensitivity - that he's not normally known for. As much as he's been able to bring a realism to his imaginative and convoluted films in the past, he's never really brought a deliberately paced, dramatic edge. He normally sets up his stall and fires on with it. Interstellar, however, shows him at his most restrained. He builds slowly and assuredly which, ultimately, add real scope to his overall vision. And that scope is astounding; he achieves the apocalyptic dread of a decaying earth before reaching for the stars and injecting hope and wonder. Of course, this is not before he forces you to get your thinking cap on and ponder the complexities of gravity, neutron stars, spinning wormholes, black holes and Einstein's theory of relativity.

In order to ensure the film was scientifically accurate, Nolan enlisted the help of theoretical physicist Kip Thorne - who acted as a consultant throughout. His theories may be challenging but they only add to how impressive the film's idea's are and how they're not merely grown from a Hollywood script - they actually consist of scientific possibilities. This alone, hugely contributes to Interstellar being more than your average science fiction yarn. True, these theories and possibilities can be hard to wrap your head around but by building three dimensional characters and having reliable actors to embody them, Nolan has enough behind his grand ambitions to make events believable and manages to explain a fair bit on layman's terms. That being said, there are some questionable moments whereby we are offered a hypothesis on how love can transcend time and space. Admittedly, this is misplaced and clunky (even laughable) but the magnitude and scope of the film is so vast and ambitious that it's easy to overlook.

It's occasions like these, however, that resemble a maudlin, schmaltzier touch more akin to Steven Spielberg (who was originally planning to make the film). Where it benefits from a Spielbergian influence, though, is in it's sense of wonder and adventure. Despite it's heavy themes, Nolan never forgets to entertain and (like Spielberg) delivers a real visual spectacle that reminds you of just how magical and escapist movies can be.

The film does, admittedly, have inconsistencies but they were not enough to bother me. If anything, I found the whole experience to fit wonderfully together: Hans Zimmer's marvellously emotive score echoes the ethereal work of Philip Glass and serves the film perfectly - bringing a real gravitas to the whole spectacle - and McConaughey, yet again, delivers a central performance of real depth to a character that could so easily have been swamped with the big budget and special effects.

Added to which, at a running time close to three hours, Nolan, seemingly, doesn't know when to stop. However, I didn't want him to. Any clock watching I found myself doing was only a result of not wanting it to end. It's visually spectacular and as much as I greatly admired Alfonso Cauron's Oscar winning Gravity for it's visuals, I thought it's story was found wanting. Interstellar, on the other hand, is narratively dense and the overall film that Gravity wishes it was. That being said, Nolan (and his co-writer and brother Jonathan) came in for some criticism in terms of their (almost indecipherable) plot and the holes therein. Personally, I think the criticisms are a tad harsh. Can it be deciphered? Is it too complicated for it's own good? Is it because it strives to be an intellectual voyage yet remain a crowd pleaser the reason it has split audiences? These questions are better left to the individual viewer but big budget spectacles, where they dare to challenge and entertain are hard to come by and on it's ambition alone, Interstellar succeeds.

Nolan's epic odyssey is an old fashioned mix of grandeur, sophistication and entertainment. The frequency on which he's transmitting hasn't been well received by everyone but, personally, I was fully tuned in.

Mark Walker

Inherent Vice

Do you know that feeling of anticipation you get whenever a respected director is releasing a new film? It's the same feeling that often surrounds the released from Quentin Tarantino. Well, I also get that feeling when I hear of a new Paul Thomas Anderson project and I'm pretty certain many others do too. That being said, Anderson's last two introspective films There Will Be Blood and The Master took him much further away from his earlier vibrant works of Boogie Nights and Magnolia and left a number of his fans finding them too onerous. Many may not agree but if he was ever to bridge that gap then Inherent Vice is that bridge.

It's 1971 in Gordita Beach, California, where private eye, Larry "Doc" Sportello conducts his gumshoe business. He's approached, out of the blue, by his ex Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Watertson) to search for her, recently vanished, new boyfriend and real-estate tycoon Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). Doc takes on the case but stumbles on a conspiracy that involves a whole host of corrupt characters and soon realises that things are certainly not as they seem.

Let's just begin by stating that Inherent Vice poses more questions than it actually answers. As a result, the film is downright perplexing - to say the least. The answers that can be found amidst it's dense cloud of cannabis smog are not easy to find and Anderson is in no mood to walk you through it either. In fact, during the opening scene where Doc is hired by his ex-girlfriend on a possible abduction case she wonders why he's not overly interested in the details, to which he responds "Don't worry. Thinking comes later". And indeed it does come later. So much so, that you begin to wonder if your bewilderment is a direct result of your own drug addled, misspent youth.

What's very important to note is that the confusion is entirely intentional and a lot of events are possibly taking place in Doc's head which (as our overhead commentary informs us) are also influenced by the astrological alignments with Jupiter and other planetary systems. Let's face it, Doc's a Hippie and if his head wasn't a little drug infused and mashed up then we'd be reaching our whodunit conclusion a lot easier and smoother - and the film would be a lot more dull as a result. This is what allows the story a creativity. All be it, a creativity that confuses the viewer. One minute he's watching two women getting it on at a massage parlour where you can purchase a pussy feast for $14.95 and the next he's, unsuspectingly, batted around the head only to wake up next to a dead body where the local police take an interest. The police interest takes shape in a hilarious turn from Josh Brolin's Lt. Det. "Bigfoot" Bjornsen who's described as an "old hippie-hating mad dog... SAG member, John Wayne walk, flat top of Flintstone proportions and that evil, little shit-twinkle in his eye that says Civil Rights Violations" - and he also seems to have some very expressive sexual urges that manifest in his eating of phallic, chocolate coated bananas.

By now, you'll have heard about the films mentioned in the same breath as Inherent Vice. It has an almost indecipherable plot like Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep; the same offbeat Hippie private-eye from Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye and the same pot-headed, labyrinthine confusion and humour of the Coen brothers' The Big Lebowski. I found the latter to hang heavily over Joaquin Phoenix's work. At times, it's hard to forget Jeff Bridges as Phoenix skilfully manages to channel his inner Dude and delivers a nuanced and, surprisingly, hysterical performance. None of the comparisons are inaccurate, however, as it's heavily influenced by them all, but Inherent Vice can admirably lay claim to carving it's own place among them.

Those well versed in Anderson's work will no doubt recognise his usual traits and ability to capture the times; in Boogie Nights you felt the fun-filled and erratic cocaine vibe of the 70's/80's disco scene. In Magnolia, you felt the burden and pain of dysfunctional families and relationships. In There Will Be Blood, you felt the weight of the depression and the greed of an oil baron. In The Master, you were transfixed by the cult and it's charismatic leader and here, in Inherent Vice, you feel the hazy marijuana comforting your head, making it lazy and hard to process even the smallest detail. Anderson himself, knew about the complexity of Thomas Pynchon's 384 page novel (of which he personally, and painstakingly, deciphered and adapted) and even worried that it would be criticised as "Incoherent Vice". There are numerous characters introduced, making it hard to work out who's who and plot strands drift off and go up in smoke quicker than Doc's joints. On a first viewing it can look like a mess but Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright summed it up nicely by calling it "Inherent Twice" as after reflexion and a (very much required) second viewing, Inherent Vice, is a wonderful piece of work. In all honesty, it would take quite a number of viewings to fully comprehend it and even then you'll realise that some plot strands are intended to be pointless. There's a level of surrealism in many scenes that it only reinforces our "patchouli fart" perception of events. All before Anderson abandons the sharp humour for a most intense and explosive denouement that's very impressively handled.

It's hard to talk about the plot of the film as a) it would delve into spoiler territory and b) it's just too fuckin' hard to talk about in the first place but there are so many positives from this film that's it's disappointing to hear that many have chosen to judge it too soon. Whether it be Incoherent Vice or Inherent Twice is entirely up to the viewer. I can side, somewhat, with the former but absolutely agree with the latter. If the film can be described in two words I'd use the words of Doc Sportello himself... "Right On!"

Mark Walker

Foxcatcher
Foxcatcher(2014)
½

After the likes of Capote and Moneyball it comes as no surprise that Bennett Miller has chosen yet another true story for his third feature film. With these films in mind, it also comes as no surprise that his ability to focus on an individuals obsession and determination is as intense as he's proven already.

John du Pont (Steve Carell) is an influential billionaire who takes it upon himself to restore American pride in the sport of Wrestling. To do so, he employs the talents of Olympic freestyle wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum). Despite his abilities, Mark has always lived under the shadow of his brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) when it comes to the sport and see's du Pont's offer as a chance of a lifetime. However, an increasingly strange du Pont eventually hires Dave as well, turning Mark's experience into a very difficult and life-changing one.

As Moneyball was built in and around the sport of Baseball, Miller chooses to do so again, this time focusing on Wrestling. However, Moneyball was less about the sport itself and more about the individual embroiled in it. The same rules apply in Foxcatcher. Wrestling is only the backdrop to allow him to explore the fractured psyche's of eccentric multimillionaire John du Pont and his chosen protégé Mark Schultz. As a result, Foxcatcher becomes less of a sports biopic and more of a restrained character study. To compliment that approach, he teases some career best work from his trio of actors. First off, both Steve Carell and Mark Ruffalo have managed to gain Oscar nominations for their work here and it's easy to see why. Normally known for his comedic work, Carell hides under a lot of prosthetic make-up which, at first, is distracting but over time, it's apparent that his performance towers over and above his enormous hooter and he delivers a work of great subtlety. Carell's du Pont is a very creepy and manipulative character. A man who's used to getting what he wants and when that doesn't happen, the consequences can be dire. Ruffalo, on the other hand, is the understated heart of the piece. As Dave Schultz, he's a family man with good intentions, his only aim is to succeed in what he's good at while providing for his wife (Sienna Miller) and young children but also to provide for and support his younger brother, Mark. This is were Channing Tatum comes in. Not normally an actor that I greatly admire, Tatum delivers solid work and can consider himself unlucky not to receive an Oscar nomination along with his co-stars. His whole demeanour and physicality has changed. Cauliflower ears included, he carries himself with the frame of a primate and despite his limited intellect, he has the drive to be the alpha male yet contradictorily displays an infantile vulnerability to the paternal du Pont where Miller also seems to hint at the development of a psycho-sexual relationship.

The psychological interplay between these three different characters is a real driving force behind Miller's most accomplished film yet. It manages to be a moral commentary on the class divide - the drive and passion of the working class mirrored against the privileged and self-indulgent lifestyles of the wealthy elitists and their vacuous void in truly achieving something meaningful in life. Even du Pont's rhetoric brings the weighty theme of American exceptionalism.

Despite their lack of money, the love and camaraderie between the Schultz brothers is a richness that du Pont can only dream of and Miller never forces the issue. His deliberate and retrained approach is reflected in his actors as they slowly reveal the layers to their characters and as jealousy and obsession begin to take hold, so does the enormity of the calamitously dysfunctional relationships.

Hugely rich in detail and thoroughly deserving of it's Oscar nominations (although not to receive a Best Picture nod is an enigma). This is a film that ominously creeps up on you and before you know it, has you in a choke hold from which it's hard not to submit to. Strong and absorbing work by all involved.

Mark Walker

Birdman
Birdman(2014)
½

"Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige"

Mexican director Alejandro Gonz√°lez I√Ī√°rritu is not normally known for his jeu d'esprit and has seemed more comfortable while dealing with heavily pessimistic and sombre themes. His previous films Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel and Biutiful are all excellent works but they require serious commitment to get yourself through their excruciatingly downbeat material. With that in mind, it's no surprise that his latest effort in Birdman is ultimately about the fractured and fragile psyche of a man on a seemingly downward spiral. However, Birdman shows another side to I√Ī√°rritu's talents; black it may be but he now surprisingly displays a great talent for comedy.

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) was once a massive Hollywood star that made his reputation playing the superhero Birdman. However, his career faded after the third instalment of the franchise and he now finds himself working on the Broadway stage. He's determined to prove his worth as a real actor and director by adapting a Raymond Carver play but problems with his cast, his family and his own fragile mental state threaten to sink his ambitions.

Films within films have often been a theme throughout filmmaking. To become self-referential is a bold move. Robert Altman's The Player, Spike Jonze's Adaptation or the surreal work of David Lynch's Mulholland Drive are notable works that have toyed with the life imitating art imitating life structure. It can be hard to pull off but these films are just some examples of when it's done right and I√Ī√°rritu's latest can now consider itself to be on the same level.

On previous evidence, I√Ī√°rritu has proven to be a very clever director. He has always had a grasp on his material and delivered their fractured structures and timeframes with deftness and consummate skill. His work on Birdman is as impressive as he's ever been but it's the handling of comedy that's impresses most. Not only is he able to capture the absurdity and quirks in human behaviour but he also utilises these behaviours to create an inventive and original farce.
Employing the likes of Emmanuel Lubezki as director of photography is also a genius stroke. In a short space of time, Lubezki has become one of the most respected cinematographer's in the business and if you look at his work on Gravity last year or his work here, you can easily see why. He manages to keep the camera constantly moving throughout the films entirety; one minute we're focused, up close and personal, on the actors before sweeping through claustrophobic corridors, upstairs and down to find another dramatic moment. The film wasn't shot as one continuous take but it's miraculously made to look like it and credit must go to editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione for their seamless work on Lubezki's constantly mobile camerawork.

As the long, seemingly continuous shots grab your attention, though, so too do the performances. Across the board, everyone delivers. Amy Ryan and Andrea Riseborough are given small roles but they're by no means ineffective. Naomi Watts produces the emotional quality she always does and Emma Stone really sinks her teeth into the conflicted and tortured daughter role. Again, Zach Galifiniakas is given a small role where he only sporadically appears throughout the story but whenever he does, he commands a surprising range of emotions. I was very impressed with his dramatic work when he's normally considered a comedy actor. From the supporting players, though, it's Ed Norton who shines brightest. It's been a while since Norton has had a role that he's able to reaffirm his talents but he finds it here. Again, self-referential, Norton sends himself up. He has a reputation for being difficult to work with but bravely embraces a character that similarly reflects his acting methods. As a big admirer of Norton, I can only hope that this sees him back where he belongs. Which brings me to the leading man; I've never really been too kind or retrained on my dislike for Michael Keaton. I've often found him to be quite a self-conscious actor and could never shake off the feeling that most of his work is nothing more than a performance. He never allowed me to suspend my disbelief and for any actor that is a major demerit and (to be brutally honest) unforgivable. That being said, as Riggan Thompson, Keaton wonderfully parodies himself and I have to hold my hands up here... he's absolutely outstanding in Birdman. It's by far his finest work to date and a role that's tailor made for him. Having successfully donned the Batsuit in Tim Burton's take on the dark knight, Keaton never really reached those heights again. He had the occasional role that provided him with reasonable supporting hits but, for the most part, Keaton had had his day. This is the film that will, no doubt, bring him more work where his fans will rejoice in seeing his solid return.

I was honestly one for passing Birdman by. I do enjoy the works of Norton and I√Ī√°rritu but when I heard about Michael Keaton headlining a film, I considered giving it a wide berth. However, the buzz surrounding it left me with no choice but to check it out. I'm glad I did as it's an accomplished piece of work that explores the weighty themes of the human ego, past successes and the inability to come to terms with failure. Meanwhile, it satirises showbiz, and in particular, the superhero hero genre. Everyone from Woody Harrelson in The Hunger Games to Robert Downey, Jr in his "tin-man get up" takes a dig but ultimately the film is one big in-joke that manages to tread a fine line between fantasy and reality.

Mark Walker

Whiplash
Whiplash(2014)

One simple word springs to mind when I think of Whiplash. Just one word... "Oz".
Those are that familiar with the HBO series that ran from 1997 to 2003 will no doubt remember the brutal intensity of the white supremacist character Vern Schillinger. It was one of my first experiences of actor J.K. Simmons and ever since then I've been a big fan. Now I'm not suggesting that Simmons is the only thing about this film that strikes you but he'll mostly be the thing that leaves you continually thinking about it.

At a highly prestigious music school, 19 year old Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is determined to prove his worth as a drumming student. However, in order to prove himself he has to go through the exacting conductor Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Fletcher is a man who accepts nothing but the best and to impress him becomes an arduous ordeal for young Neiman.

Inspirational teachers are often depicted in film with great respect and admiration. They often touch the hearts of their pupils and bring out the best in them. In Oscar nominated turns, Richard Dreyfuss' played music teacher Glenn Holland in the little-seen Mr. Holland's Opus and as the passionate English professor John Keating, the late Robin Williams achieved the same in Dead Poets Society. Two thoroughly heartwarming characters that inspired their students to want to learn and grow. Whiplash, however, takes an altogether different path; J.K. Simmons' Terence Fletcher certainly inspires his students but it's not through admiration or respect, it's through spite and a determination to prove his vehement criticism wrong. As a result, the film becomes a highly charged, back and forth, exchange between teacher and pupil.

The back and forth tension between the two characters almost reflect the instrument at the centre of the film itself; caught in the snare or Fletcher's marching bass, Neiman is like the clashing symbol trying to break out. There's a constant beat between them that director Damien Chazelle captures wonderfully. He has complete control over his scenes and when the moment is called upon to hold tight and build the tension, he does so with the ability of a director with twice his experience. Added to which, he manages to maintain this approach until the very end making Whiplash a great achievement in only his second film (after the Jazz musical Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench in 2009 he originally delivered Whiplash as a short film which won the Short Film Jury prize at Sundance Film Festival before being funded for a feature length film).

In order for Chazelle to realise his vision, though, he must have the actors to pull it off and he does; Young Miles Teller breaks free from his earlier romantic comedy roles to deliver a work of real maturity while Simmons is simply electrifying. As mentioned earlier, though, if you've seen Oz then this will be of no surprise to you. He's an absolutely ferocious and towering presence that dominates every scene he's involved in. Having already won numerous critical and festival awards including the Golden Globe - as well as being hotly tipped to take the Best Supporting Actor Oscar - it finally looks like Simmons has caught people's attention. I can only say... it's about fucking time. Simmons has been doing outstanding work for over 20 years now. No matter how big or small or how dramatic or comedic, he always delivers and no one, at this time, is more deserving of praise for their efforts than this man. Welcome Mr. Simmons! There's certainly no need for introductions. It's always a pleasure having you.

An intensely powerful and personal film that turns, what could be a generic and dull drama, into one that's gripping and absorbing from the offset. It's masterfully directed and outstandingly performed and when films of this nature creep up on the 'bigger' films of the year it not only demands your attention, it's deserving of it.

Mark Walker

A Most Violent Year

"When it feels scary to jump, that is exactly when you jump, otherwise you end up staying in the same place your whole life, and that I can't do".

After the impressively talkative Margin Call and the hypnotically silent All Is Lost, the third film from J.C. Chandor had a lot of expectations behind it. However, due to a misjudged marketing campaign, I think many people will be left disappointed with A Most Violent Year. It's doesn't have echoes of The Godfather as the trailer would have you believe but is, in fact, a leisurely and low-key criminal affair that will mostly appeal to those who are prepared for it's more personal story.

Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is self-made businessman who is determined to expand his heating oil organisation. However, someone keeps hijacking his trucks costing him money and the trust of his local investors. Abel tries to deal with the situation lawfully and non-violently but his no-nonsense wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain) suggests he gets tougher on the gangsters and the unions around him before everything he's worked hard for comes crashing down.

The title A Most Violent Year will mislead many when it comes J.C. Chandor's third film. It actually refers to the year (1981) in which it's set, whereby New York had an upsurge of violent crimes. This violence isn't necessarily relevant to the film itself and to know this beforehand may allow you to enjoy the film and it's methodical and meticulous approach all the more.

Although this film should certainly not be compared to Francis Ford Coppola's Corleone saga, you can definitely see Oscar Isaac resembling a young Al Pacino. He plays his character with the same simmering intensity and intelligence and it's largely due to Isaac's towering performance that the film succeeds in being a mood-piece or a solid character study and less of a mob movie. It's not overly concerned with people getting 'whacked' or double-crossed but more concerned about business and how our struggling protagonist deals with things in a controlled and dignified manner despite his righteous indignation. It also doesn't help that his wife is the daughter of a Brooklyn gangster who feels the solution to every problem is a violent one. Keeping her in check is a constant problem, especially when it's played with such verve and dangerous passion by Jessica Chastain. Personally, I'd liked to have seen the leads among the Oscar contenders this year as the work they produce here, is some of their very best.

As well as the performances, the film's look is equally impressive. Bradley Young's gorgeous, desaturated cinematography captures the feel for the time and the city of New York and (as some critics have already pointed out) echoes the gritty early work of Sidney Lumet. It manages to avoid the usual genre clichés and deliver a work of thoughtful suspense. It leaves you hanging and waiting for something to happen but resists the urge to tread a well worn path within the sub-genre and, as a result, succeeds in the very things that it doesn't do.

In hindsight, if Chandor had chosen a different title then he might not have led many viewers into false expectations. However, this is a slow burner and if you resist the urge to judge the film before seeing it, you'll find it as stylish and refined as the camel-haired apparel that Isaac carries so gallantly.

Mark Walker

What We Do In The Shadows

"Yeah some of our clothes are from victims. You might bite someone and then, you think, 'Oooh, those are some nice pants'".

Anyone familiar with the little independent Antipodean comedy Eagle vs Shark or the cult TV series Flight of the Conchords will happen to find themselves on comfortable ground with What We Do In the Shadows as the co-creators of these works, Taiki Waititi and Jermaine Clement collaborate again to deliver one the most genuinely funny comedies for some time.

There's a big event for the undead in Wellington, New Zealand called 'The Unholy Masquerade' and upon the day, a documentary film crew are allowed access to film a bunch of vampires as they share their experiences and what everyday life is like for these creatures of the night.

Fly on the wall mockumentaries is a format that been done many times before. The TV series The Office has had great success in recent times and the likes of Rob Reiner's This is Spinal Tap has made a lasting impression on people since it's release in 1984. However, Waititi and Clement have came up with a new (and strangely obvious) idea on how to gain more mileage from this particular style of filmmaking. Why has no one tapped into the lore and dark myths of vampires and used it for laughs? Granted, some films like Vampire's Kiss in 1989 had an outrageous Nicolas Cage using his couch as a coffin and (famously) eating live cockroaches and Roman Polanski's 1967 The Fearless Vampire Killers had found a cult status but vampire's, probably now more than ever, are in very hot demand what with the Twilight movies and HBO's True Blood. We can't seem to get enough of them but we are still taking them all very seriously. As a result, this film comes at a perfect time.

For a project of this nature to work, though, you have to be up on your vampire knowledge and the pop-culture surrounding them. By this, I mean from Bram Stoker to Anne Rice; Blade to The Lost Boys and not forgetting Nosferatu along the way. You also have to open to the ways and needs of a vampire's existence. If you are all of the above, then sit back and allow this film to sink it's teeth in and deliver it hilariously satirical comedy.

First and foremost, the characters are brilliantly written and every one of the actors deliver brilliant performances. Each of our vampires have their own style (or lack of, as the case may be); we have the 379 year old Viago (Taika Waititi), the dandy gent of Anne Rice.
183 year old Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), the cool rock star type al la The Lost Boys.
862 year old Vladislav (Jermaine Clement) who riffs on Bram Stoker's work and 8,000 year old Petyr (Ben Fransham), hiding in his darkened room and resembling the Max Schreck of Nosferatu!

As they co-habit and flat share, they argue about domestic duties and who's turn it is to do the dishes. Deacon hasn't done them in five years and anal-retentive Viago would like his flatmates to give some consideration for the decor and furnishings by putting newspapers down before feasting on their victims as the arterial spray can cause quite a mess. They even knit a scarf for their human friend who they all agree not to feed on.
It's these exchanges with each other that provide genuine laughs and as they scour the New Zealand night scene for "food" they must rely on doormen to invite them into nightclubs as they can't enter on their own accord and have run-in's with the local Werewolves who are so gentlemanly and well mannered that they don't want to be known as Swearwolves.

Admittedly, there are periodic lulls but, thankfully, they're brief and when the laughs are delivered they can be genuinely side splitting. I can often be very critical of both horror and comedy as I often find that they either try too hard or simply don't have the material but What We Do In the Shadows really hits the spot with sharp and observant humour,

A hugely successful medley of of a filmmaking style and pop-culture sub-genre that is, without a doubt, one of the silliest and funniest films of 2014.

Mark Walker

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Those familiar with Wes Anderson will now know that his style needs no introduction. So much has been written or said about his idiosyncrasy that there are few adjectives left in which to describe his very unique approach to filmmaking and storytelling. Those that find him ostentatious or grandiose will likely want to avoid this (his eight film) while those that rejoice in his work will no doubt find this a boisterous festivity and celebration of his artistry.

During the 1960's, a young author (Jude Law) visits The Grand Budapest Hotel - one of Europe's most respected establishments. He meets it's owner M. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) who tells him of when he was a young lobby boy (Tony Revolori) and how he came to know the colourful and flamboyant M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and the adventures they shared in the hotel.

As much as Anderson's style is so well known now, so too is the consistent ensemble of actors that he's able to amass. All-be-it in cameo roles, his most reliable trio from the early days of his career in Wilson, Schwartzman and Murray are here, once again. His mid-career actors like Goldblum, Dafoe and Brody make further appearances while Swinton, Norton and Keitel add themselves to the mix again following "Moonrise Kingdom". Their roles may be small but no matter how small, it's still great to see such a wonderful ensemble of actors all get the chance to interact. However, it's the newcomer in Fiennes that's the main focus and the true star of the show. His performance is endearing and his comic-timing absolutely note perfect. His ability to accentuate a simple word of profanity can, at times, produce some genuinely hilarious moments. After witnessing his work here and his darker comedic turn in "In Bruges" it would seem that Fiennes is just as comfortable with comedy as he is with drama. I'd definitely welcome him flexing more of his comedic chops in the future.

Another one who plays a major role in the proceedings is Robert Yoeman. No Wes Anderson review would be complete without mentioning the sublimely colourful work of this fantastic cinematographer. The film is a real feast for the eyes and as Anderson maintains a brisk pace while juggling numerous characters, Yoeman allows him to create his illusion on a wondrous palette of delicacies.

It's fast. It's intricately layered. It has a slight edge of darkness. Ultimately, though, it's entertaining - as Anderson so often is. Many have declared it his best film and although I don't agree, I wouldn't argue with it being his most ambitious. 9 Academy Awards (although a glaring omission for Fiennes) is further proof that he hasn't ran out of ideas or that his approach has become tiresome. There seems to be life in Anderson yet and I still find myself wondering and intrigued by what his next adventure will be.

Mark Walker

The Monuments Men
½

When George Clooney made his directorial debut in 2002 with the off-beat Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and followed it up with the superb McCarthyism drama Good Night and Good Luck it seemed that he had just as much talent behind the camera as he did in front of it. However, the dull Leatherheads and largely disappointing The Ides of March came next which threw some doubt over his ability to call the shots. With The Monuments Men I'd, unfortunately, have to say that this has more in common with with his latter efforts.

During World War II, Frank Stokes (George Clooney) learns of Hitler's intention to steal the world's greatest works of art for his own personal museum. Under the permission of President Roosevelt, Stokes assembles an unlikely platoon of art experts to enter into war-torn Europe and rescue thousands of years of cultural heritage before the Nazis and the Soviets get their hands on them.

Credit to Clooney for trying to evoke old-fashioned Hollywood movies as, for the most part, he succeeds. There's a pleasant feel to the proceedings that brings reminders of John Sturges' The Great Escape or Robert Aldrich's The Dirty Dozen. Like those films, it has an abundance of quality actors onscreen and despite their roles seriously lacking in characterisation they bring a certain playfulness and much needed charisma. In fact, if the stars weren't as easily watchable as they are then the film itself would completely fall flat. Despite it's easy going nature, though, there are glaring shifts in tone. Just as your relaxing into the whole caper vibe, it throws in some serious dramatic moments and events that are jarring. I suppose I may be being overly critical when the film is all about a race against fascism but it just struck me that Clooney couldn't fully realise his intentions here.

An admirable attempt to replicate an old-fashioned movie but it only really works on the surface. Once you dig a little deeper, it's all very two dimensional and superficial. That being said, if all you're looking for is some unabashed entertainment without having to think too much then this should go down without much fuss.

Mark Walker

Kramer vs. Kramer
½

"Who's gonna read me my bedtime stories?"

The 1970's has always been a decade of film that I've never withheld my appreciation for. I'd go as far to say that's it's been the best in terms of American cinema. It was the decade where we were introduced to some of the finest screen actors in DeNiro, Nicholson & Pacino. We had films of such high calibre as The Godfather's, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, The Deer Hunter, Dog Day Afternoon. I could go on and on here but I mention this because Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep where another two of these marvellous performers and Kramer vs Kramer one of the films that's so often forgotten about.

Career man Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) is so caught up with work that his wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) feels exhausted and unappreciated. She makes the decision to leave him but also decided to leave him with their six-year old son Billy (Justin Henry). Ted has to learn quickly how to be a hands-on father and by the time he gets used to it Joanna reappears claiming custody of Billy.

As well as the 70's being a strong decade, much admiration has also went to films in terms of Oscar sweeps. Only three films in the history of the Academy Awards have won all top five awards (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress & Screenplay). If you consider Kramer Vs Kramer for a moment, most wouldn't normally think that this film came close to that achievement. But it did. The only award that it didn't win was Best Actress but had Meryl Streep been considered in the leading actress category it might well have done. She won Best Supporting Actress instead which makes this film very close to achieving the full sweep.

Resisting the temptation to be melodramatic, it's a fairly straightforward family drama. Films of these types tend to fall into courtroom drama's (of which this touches upon) but never falls prey to that sub-genre. The beauty in Kramer vs Kramer is not to rely on high tension or confrontation but on the human aspect of relationships and family life. It emotionally resonates by showing us the everyday; heated discussions, playtimes, bedtime stories and frustrating meal times. It might not sound like much but there's a real heartfelt authenticity in capturing these moments. Director Robert Benton, wisely, knows when to focus on his actors and has a marvellous ability to capture realism. As a result, he's aided with some stunningly delivered performances; both Hoffman and Streep are at the very top of their game and young Justin Henry is no less their equal as their young afflicted son caught in the middle.

A beautifully realised dramatic piece that benefits from the whole cast and crew delivering honest work. It fully manages to capture and depict both the beauty and the difficulty of parenting and with a thoughtful intelligence, portrays the motivations and decisions from it's characters without ever passing judgment. Another one of the decade's true highlights.

Mark Walker

The Rover
The Rover(2014)
½

"You should never stop thinking about a life you've taken. That's the price you pay for taking it"

After the surprise success of his Australian family crime drama Animal Kingdom, David Mich√īd became a highly anticipated new director overnight. It opened to rave reviews with Quentin Tarantino himself reportedly ranking it his third favourite movie of 2010. The most familiar face onboard was Guy Pearce but it also introduced many cinema goers to the fresh and vibrant talents of Joel Edgerton, Ben Mendelsohn and Jacki Weaver. Now four years later, Mich√īd's back with a post-apocalyptic road movie working from a story he collaborated on with Edgerton and allows Pearce to add another solid role to his resum√©.

Ten years after an economic collapse, modern society has been brought to it's knees. Travelling through Australia is Eric (Guy Pearce) a former farmer with a violent past.
When his car is stolen by a gang of thieves Eric goes in pursuit and will, seemingly, stop at nothing to get it back.

When exploring the Australian outback in a dystopian setting one would be forgiven for thinking of George Miller's Mad Max but as that film had fantastical elements and caricature villains, Mich√īd's The Rover is an altogether different beast. It's no fantasy and any form of humour only comes in the blackest of dialogue. This is a near-future economic collapse that's so bleak that images of people crucified to telegraph poles is just accepted and dogs are kept in cages just to keep them alive.

It's grim stuff and Mich√īd seems to wallow in it. He's also in no rush to reach his destination; the story is ambiguous, the pacing deliberate and some would even complain that it lacks any form of narrative drive. However, it's nihilism can be strangely captivating and it's so well shot by cinematographer Natasha Braier that's its hard not to find some beauty in it's stark landscapes.

Throughout it's periodic lulls, it's held together by it's two excellent central performances. The always reliable Pearce is a snarling menace of a man who has adapted to survive in this environment at the cost of his own soul. And Pattinson. Yes! Twilight pin-up, Robert Pattinson, surprisingly, holds his own. I expected to be critical of him but he delivers revelatory work as a dim-witted tag-along complete with facial tics and nervous energy and I'm sure his work here will silence many of his critics. Where both their performances excel is actually in their eyes. They deliver the requisite empty and dead-eyed stare of men who have been reduced to nothing more than barbarism. That barbarism comes in sudden bursts of mindless violence that jolt you out of your seat and the gun shots, bullet wounds and deaths all have a palpable sense of realism.

Despite the marvellous performances, striking appearance and visceral approach, though, the story lacks depth and if it did have a consistency beyond veiled existentialism then I must have missed it. Ultimately, there isn't really a story but it's the ending that will no doubt make or break a viewers experience. Either you'll feel convinced and that it has meaning in exploring the last vestige of hope from a desperate and broken man or you'll feel robbed and that the steak you thought you were savouring for an hour and 45 mins turns out to be just an old piece of leather. It's entirely up to you.

Much like the the hair style of Pearce's character, it's patchy. But it's hard to take your eyes away. I can't honestly say why I liked it, I just know I did.

Mark Walker

Under the Skin

Having been a fan of both Sexy Beast and the underrated Birth, I was happy to hear that Jonathan Glazer's third directorial outing would be an adaptation of a Michael Faber popular science fiction novel of the same name. Also (as a Glaswegian myself) I was even more intrigued to hear that this forthcoming story would be set primarily in Glasgow. I was interested in how the city and it's inhabitants would be depicted and I have to admit that Glazer's decision to do so, has paid dividends.

A mysterious, and otherworldly, woman (Scarlett Johansson) arrives in Scotland where she wanders and drives around with the intention of seducing lonely men. The encounters she has, lead her to question her own existence as she strives for some meaning to her life and those around her.

Did I hear anyone say Species? Of course, those who are familiar with Roger Donaldson's 1995, B-movie Sci-Fi will undoubtedly make comparisons with the premise of Glazer's third outing but the film itself actually shares more in common with the originality of Nicolas Roeg's 1976 film, The Man Who Fell To Earth. However, these films are mentioned in the same breath for very good reason as Under The Skin feels, somewhat, like the love child of Natasha Henstridge and David Bowie. Scarlett Johansson's unnamed extra-terrestrial has the same man-devouring intentions as Henstridge while director Jonathan Blazer has an uncanny knack for Roeg's ethereal qualities. It could also be pointed out that Bertrand Tavernier's Death Watch in 1980 could have had an influence in utilising the grim and gloomy Glasgow locations for a sombre, science fiction mood piece.

It's has a hugely experimental approach to filmmaking but one that's entirely fitting to the films themes of isolation and understanding. Many Glasgow residents were filmed in secret (signing a disclaimer afterwords to be included in the final cut) and it's this secret filming that adds an authenticity to their behaviour and allows us to see ourselves through the eyes of another entity. In this case, it's almost a stroke of genius to have the often indecipherable Glaswegians as the focus of this alien being's intentions. Many don't understand the Glaswegian dialect or idiom and even though I completely understood what they were saying, I can only assume that many viewers wouldn't quite grasp it the same way. Maybe I'm wrong but I often get the impression that the colloquialisms of the city do seem alien to people. I could even sense that Johansson herself didn't know what they were saying at times but this only added the distance between her and the supporting characters. No one does anything of particular note but it's their mundane existence that Johansson's character finds interesting and it adds a rather captivating edge when seen through her eyes. Few, if any, science fiction films have managed to capture this concept or observation so well and it's this that lends the film a true originality that bypasses the B-movie shlock of Species and comfortably finds it's path on Roeg-ish territory.

That being said, Under the Skin can, at times, be a tough watch and will certainly not appeal to those that who prefer to be spoonfed their science fiction. There's a leisurely pace and the foreboding music score by Mica Levi and brilliantly bleak cinematography by Daniel Landin only add to the overall sense of dread and depression. The entire point of it all in creating and conveying a distance is also the very approach that could leave many a viewer struggling to find any enjoyment. It's also a role for Johansson that will 'alienate' many of her fans but those who are patient and appreciate art-house cinema will be richly rewarded.

Much like the lure Johansson has over her male counterparts, the film itself lures you into a meditative frame of mind and refuses to let go. Some may see it as pretentious but whether or not you grasp it√Ę??s existential pondering√Ę??s, there√Ę??s still no denying it√Ę??s mesmerising mood. Bold filmmaking and quite unlike anything else from 2014.

Mark Walker

Pulp Fiction
Pulp Fiction(1994)

"Just because you are a character doesn't mean that you have character"

By the time that Quentin Tarantino's sophomore effort reached us in 1994, he had already been heralded as the new wunderkind of American cinema. His debut Reservoir Dogs recaptured the magic of the heist thriller and his screenplay to the bold and brilliant True Romance opened up a real desire to see more of his fast-talking low life's. Pulp Fiction is no different and is now widely considered a cinematic classic. It received 7 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Director and one for each of it's leading trio of actors in Travolta, Thurman and Jackson. It walked away with the Best Screenplay award and it won the coveted Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. On this evidence alone, it's hard to argue that Tarantino not only delivered on, but surpassed, his early promise.

In L.A.'s criminal underworld, the lives and stories of the inhabitants intertwine. There are two hitmen with very different outlooks, a boxer forced to take a dive for the money, a gangster's moll who likes to dance and do drugs and many others who play a part in shaping their redemptive paths.

"...a shapeless mass of matter" or "a magazine or book containing lurid subject matter...". These are the definitions of the word "Pulp" which we are provided with before the film even begins. As a result, Tarantino's masterpiece is self-referential from the opening title card. What follows is only proof of his intentions to recreate the trashy and hardboiled pulp novels of the early 20th century. Even the film's poster reflects the sensational cover art of these novels and it's this attention to detail that's often overlooked in Tarantino's homage to a bygone age. I suppose it's understandable that these details are overlooked considering Tarantino's highly stylish approach. He employs his (now common) nonlinear storylines and chapters, his abundantly original cast of characters and his dialogue has rarely been sharper. Quite honestly, he takes great pride in making pop-cultural references but the film itself has nowhere red the very pop-culture it revels in. To this day, it's endlessly quoted and few, if any, will ever frown at you inquisitively if you were to make a Pulp Fiction reference.

It's not just the one-liners, the observant monologues or the endless back and forth, intelligent and philosophical discussions between the characters, it's the fact that snippets of dialogue actually matter in terms of the overall structure. Something can be flippantly mentioned one minute only for it to resurface with relevance at a later part in the film. Ultimately, it's the dialogue that brings every strand together and it's, quite simply, masterfully assembled.

To embody his colourful characters, Tarantino assembles his most impressive cast yet. Considering his relative obscurity at the time, it was a bit of a gamble to have John Travolta headline the whole affair as hitman Vincent Vega (the brother of Michael Madsen's Vic Vega from Reservoir Dogs) but I don't think I'd be alone in saying that it was a welcome return to scintillating form. Uma Thurman also impresses as Mia, the coke snorting gangster's moll who seems ill at ease with all the violence and whispers that surround her no-nonsense kingpin husband Marsellus Wallace (a brilliant Ving Rhames). Even the limited acting skills of Bruce Willis are all but forgotten as the self-important, ageing pugilist, Butch Coolidge (a role originally offered to Mickey Rourke and Matt Dillon) but the real prize possession would have to be Samuel L. Jackson's Jules Winnfield, Vincent's unhinged partner who likes to quote passages from the bible and believes in divine intervention.

There are so many great performances that it's hard to mention them all. From top to bottom, the whole cast bring Tarantino's dialogue to life; from the aforementioned main performers to the supporting likes of Christopher Walken's Captain Koons who hid an uncomfortable watch "up his ass" for 2 years to Zed and Maynard - Peter Greene and Duane Whitaker's white trash who like to "bring out the gimp" and sodomise their captives. There's even a character who only gets mentioned by name but still makes an impression: Antwone Rockamora, brilliantly nicknamed "Tony Rocky Horror" who's mentioned in an unforgettable, lengthy discussion on the sexual implications of massaging a woman's feet and whether it's in the same ballpark as "sticking your tongue in the holiest of the holies". So iconic are these characters and blackly comic dialogue that most will know exactly what I'm talking about without me having to elaborate and therein lies the sheer joy and richness of the film.

From illuminated McGuffins to Big Kahuna Burgers, Pulp Fiction is one of a kind. It redefined the crime film with it's emphasis on cool and endlessly quotable dialogue and there's so much attention to characterisation that Tarantino could have made several films from his material. Watching "a bunch of gangsters doin' a bunch of gangster shit" has never been more enjoyable.

Mark Walker

Boyhood
Boyhood(2014)

"You know how everyone's always saying seize the moment? I don't know, I'm kind of thinking it's the other way around, you know, like the moment seizes us"

For me, an overriding question often hangs over the work of Richard Linklater which is; how long will this fantastic director go on without awards recognition? He‚??s, quite simply, one of the truly great American filmmakers. His ideas are always highly original and the execution of them nothing short of pure brilliance. From his debut "Slacker" to the recent completion of his "Before" trilogy, Linklater has always shown the skill to match his hugely ambitious projects and after filming over a 12 year period, "Boyhood" may just be the most impressive feat he has ever undertaken. I wouldn‚??t be surprised if at least a nomination comes his way now.

Beginning in 2002, we follow the lives of a Texan family: Single mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) has been left with her two children, 6-year-old son Mason Evans, Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) and his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) while their estranged father Mason Sr, (Ethan Hawke) is somewhere in Alaska ‚??finding‚?? himself. Over 12 years, we witness how their relationship grows with one another as Mason reaches 18-years and eventually leaves for college where he embarks on his own adult journey.

So as not to be confused with the recent release of "12 Years a Slave", Linklater changed his original title "12 Years" to "Boyhood". However, there is so much scope here that it isn't always just about the boy. It's about his immediate family as well. Sure Mason, Jr is primarily the focus but his sister, mother and estranged father get as much development and attention as he does, leaving "12 Years" a more apt title and the focus on all these people and their relationships with each other brings a real depth and expanse to the story. It's a marvellous achievement from Linklater and one that takes constant reminders from yourself to appreciate that what you're witnessing is, in fact, unlike anything you might have seen before. It isn't just this lengthy endeavour that impresses, though. Thankfully, Linklater's script is very sharp in shaping this family and bringing each of the four characters to a level of believability and, more importantly, to life. There's a chance that it could have came across as pretentious or simply that Linkater couldn't manage to realise his ambitions due to the very high commitment required. To film the same actors over a 12 year period couldn't have been easy but Linklater makes it look so. It also helps immeasurably that he's served wonderfully by a first rate cast. Taking a gamble on young Ellar Contrane really pays off as this young man maintains his acting chops throughout the duration (as well as an uncanny resemblance to Hawke in his later years). Linklater's daughter Lorelei also delivers some fine work and both Arquette and, especially, Hawke are reservedly outstanding as the flawed but loving parents.

What's unmistakable is that there's no doubt that it's a Richard Linklater film. It channels the same themes that have been recurrent throughout his career: As a coming-of-age drama it's reminiscent of "Dazed and Confused"; With the progression into adulthood it resembles "SubUrbia" or "Tape"; From the adults perspective and their relationship issues it's on the same path as the "Before" trilogy and all the while it questions life itself leading it philosophically into "Waking Life" territory. The film is dense with characterisation and reflects accurately what we have all faced at one point or other in our own journey's and that's where Linkater deserves the most praise. The passage of time and perspective is consummated through laughter, tears, changing fashions and an excellent use of music but it's Linkater's insight into human relations and our different stages of development that impresses most as he fully manages to capture that the only constant thing in life is... change.

Simply put, this is a highly observant near masterpiece. To achieve such a feat without the use of prosthetics requires the utmost commitment and that's exactly what we get from the entire cast and crew. It achieves such a sense of realism and reflection that's it hard not to compare your own experiences to it. Sometimes a film can be described as a "slice-of-life" but this isn't so much a slice as a whole chunk.

Mark Walker

Tape
Tape(2001)

"I'm not high and mighty. I'm too high to be high and mighty"

As a companion piece to the marvellous Waking Life, director Richard Linklater delivered this experimental and solid little adaptation of Stephen Belber's stage play. Some may not have even heard of this one, let alone seen it as it's probably one of his most unseen works. As always with Linklater, though, it confirms his place as one of the most original and under appreciated of American filmmakers.

Jon (Robert Sean Leonard) is a local boy who catches a big break as an actor and returns to his home town to attend a film festival where he is appearing in a new movie. At a motel he meets up with Vince (Ethan Hawke), his old high school friend. However, Vince hasn't changed a bit and seems intent on bringing up things from the past which Jon seems happy to let go of. When (Uma Thurman), another friend from school appears, things don't quite add up as their past relationship has more to it than some of them care to admit.

Set entirely within the confines of a small, cheap motel room with bad decor, Linklater's ingenuity is apparent from the offset. He shoots on digital video achieving a true minimalism that fully captures the feel of a stage play. There's no music score or elaborate sound effects, but only the highly charged, back and forth interaction between Hawke and Leonard (reuniting after Dead Poets Society). This might not sound too appealing on the surface but it's entirely effective for the material and the inclusion of an old flame in Thurman, adds a captivating edge to the overall purpose and motivation of the three-dimensional characters.

As a chamber piece, dialogue is the order of the day here and it's sharply written and tensely delivered by all three cast members. Their awkwardness is apparent in their exchanges and they have us constantly wondering who to side with while Linklater utilises his environment to marvellous effect. In such a confined space, his movement with the camera is very impressive and he fully captures the claustrophobia and tension to perfection.

Sometimes Linklater will delver a film that just doesn't receive the recognition it deserves and Tape can certainly be included among these. Criminally overlooked upon it's release (and since) as this is a brilliantly realised adaptation that benefits from strong performances, inventive direction and maintains it's intensity right to the very end.

Mark Walker

Calvary
Calvary(2014)

The first collaboration between director John Michael McDonagh and Brendan Gleeson was 2011's hugely original and hilarious Irish film "The Guard" which delivered one of Gleeson's most memorable roles and showed that McDonagh shared a similar offbeat approach to his brother Martin's "In Bruges". Martin went on to make the misjudged step to the U.S. with "Seven Psychopaths", meanwhile John wisely decided to remain in Ireland and produce the best film of them all.

With taking confession, Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) learns that a member of his church was abused by another priest from the time he was 7 years old. Now that that priest has died, the unknown confessor intends on retribution by killing Father James in a week's time. Uncovering the person proves to be a difficult task, though, as there are a number of locals who all have their own reasons to hate the Catholic Church.

Calvary: 1. (Art Terms) a representation of Christ's crucifixion, usually sculptured and in the open air
2. (Literary & Literary Critical Terms) any experience involving great suffering.

The definition of "Calvary" is only the starting point on how perfectly McDonagh handles his affairs. The title itself is perfectly suited to the films themes as our protagonist, Father James is to be subjected to his own form of crucifixion. He's to atone, not for his own sins, but for those of another simply because killing a good priest will make more of a statement than killing a bad one. And so begins the story of a man forced to confront his own mortality.

As much as this seems like a foreboding and sombre journey (which it is to an extent) it's also a poetic and satirical one. It's, at once, a commentary on faith and compassion while managing a blackly comic absurdity in the vein of the hilarious Irish, parochial comedy series, "Father Ted". It also teases us with a whodunnit style murder mystery where each of the colourful cast of characters are hinted at being Father James' possible killer. The skill in this, is that what we hear at the beginning of the film is still only a threat yet we suspect each of the parishioners as if the murder has already happened - trying to decipher who the culprit is as the priest finds himself in a Manichaean conflict between good and evil.

It's the finely tuned balance of downbeat existential drama and off-the-wall gallows humour that's most impressive about McDonagh's second feature. The writing is sharp and well judged as are a whole host of supporting characters; from the suffering Kelly Reilly, the jovial Chris O'Dowd, to the mephistophelian Aidan Gillen and the salacious Dylan Moran. There's even a rare appearance from the great character actor M. Emmet Walsh. Anchoring it all, though, is a toweringly solid performance from the always reliable Gleeson. As a late starter to acting (aged 34), Gleeson has delivered some outstanding work but this is arguably his best work yet, and that's saying something. He's a soulful, avuncular character that possesses a quiet power and tolerance of the wayward, rural community mentality. Such a mentality is reflected in the environment and Larry Smith's sublime cinematography captures it in all it's stark beauty with a wonderfully fitting music score to compliment the images. Quite simply, no-one puts a foot wrong.

Touted as the second part of a planned "suicide trilogy" between McDonagh and Gleeson and if the third instalment is even half as good as this then we are in for yet another treat. "Calvary" has certainly received it's fair share of plaudits and may well feature in many "best of" lists at the end of the year. There's no doubt that it'll make mine. An absolutely solid and thought provoking piece of filmmaking.

Mark Walker

Frank
Frank(2014)
½

"With all his issues, Frank is the 100% sanest cat I've ever met."

With the exception of Matthew McConaughey and his outstandingly brave career choices of late, there are few actors who have been as consistent or interesting to watch as Michael Fassbender. After the much (and unfairly) maligned The Counselor and and an Oscar nomination for 12 Years a Slave, Fassbender's decision to pop on a papier-m√Ęch√© head and remain unseen for almost the entirety of an independent, oddball comedy is certainly a interesting choice. However, it's a good one and proves that his ability to spot a unique and worthwhile project is thoroughly intact.

Jon Burroughs (Domhnall Gleeson) is a young aspiring musician who luckily gets a chance to play keyboard with US band The Soronprfbs led by frontman Frank (Michael Fassbender). However, Frank is a very mysterious and enigmatic person and Jon finds himself involved in something he doesn't fully understand.

Many viewers will probably be unaware of director Lenny Abrahamson but those in the the know will no doubt be aware of his unseen little Irish gem Adam & Paul. If not, I implore you to check it out. It's a marvellously offbeat tragicomedy that shares many of it's themes with Frank and shows that Abrahamson has a knack for eccentric and original filmmaking. Much like Adam & Paul, the characters of Frank are social misfits, living on the periphery of the norm and struggling to connect in a world that's not very inviting to them. As well as the array of eccentric oddballs on display, the beauty and enjoyment of the film lies in the mystery of it's titular character and even though Fassbender is masked under a massive, papier-m√Ęch√© bonce, he still manages to bring humour and an intriguing depth to the role and leaves you questioning whether Frank is a non-conformist musical genius or a fragile, would-be artist with mental health problems. In juggling the psyche of this man, we are treated to a film with genuinely hilarious moments coupled with some finely balanced pathos.

Rounding out the cast of delightful oddities we have strong performances across the board: Domhnall (son of Brendan) Gleeson yet again proves his worth in an ever increasing list of good roles while Scoot McNairy and, the always excellent, Maggie Gyllenhaal deliver yet more welcome eccentricity amidst the mayhem. The film works primarily on these appealing characters, their idiosyncrasies and differing emotional angst and still manages to make a commentary on the nature of art and the integrity of an artist.

With the shifts in tone and off-beat wackiness some may be left just as unsure about the film as they would be about pronouncing "The Soronprfbs" - the name of the avant-garde rock band at the films centre. However, with an open mind many will appreciate the sharp writing, excellent performances and the finely tuned balance of black humour. After this charming and engaging little dramedy, I wouldn't be surprised if all the cast and crew developed a big head. Fine work from everyone.

Mark Walker

The Babadook
The Babadook(2014)

"You can't get rid of the Babadook"

By now, most people will be aware of the Kickstarter project where people raise funds to get their projects of the ground. There have already been some notable films that have reached their goal in Rob Thomas' Veronica Mars movie and Jeremy Saulnier's marvellous Blue Ruin. Well, director Jennifer Kent has managed to do it again by raising $30,000 to add to her modest budget and make a feature length film of her 2005 short Monster. Most of these funds were channeled towards the art department and with the evidence onscreen, it's money well spent.

Single, widowed mother Amelia (Essie Davis) tries her best to manage her imaginative six year-old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman), who has a strong belief in monsters. One evening, he produces a strange children's book called Mr. Babadook for a bedtime story. Reluctantly, Amelia reads it but it only adds to Samuel's nightmares and his increasingly difficult behaviour. It's not before long, however, that fear strikes and Amelia begins to share her son's fantasy that a monster called the Bababook lurks throughout their home with no intention of leaving.

Paedophobia is a recurring theme amongst many horror movies and has been the driving theme for such films as Richard Donner's The Omen, William Friedkin's The Exorcist and even Lynne Ramsay's contemporary horror/drama We Need To Talk About Kevin. It also goes without saying that the old haunted house routine has been tried and tested for generations and it's these popular genre traits that Jennifer Kent taps into with her directorial debut. Employing a spooky tale (originating from a children's bedtime story) with the huge responsibility and fear of parenting is a psychological device that's entirely relatable and, for the most part, Kent is onto a winner with her concept. She captures the fear and disconnect between a struggling parent and an imaginative, problem child to great effect while still having time to utilise the genre clichés of creaky doors, perceptive family pets and looming presences in the shadowy corners of the household. Kent's vision is very effective and she's aided precisely by cinematographer Radek Ladczuk who does a marvellous job in achieving a monochromatic palette that depicts the house as cold and empty by using washed-out colours. The two central performances by Essie Davis and young Noah Wiseman are also equally committed and deserve mention for managing to convincingly portray their afflicted characters throughout the films entirety.

Without a doubt, it's impressively handled. However, (and I find myself saying this often with modern horror) it fails to maintain it's momentum. As we get closer to the revelation of The Babadook, we get further away from anything that resembles coherence or a convincing resolution. Maybe I missed the point but I was hugely disappointed in the direction the story took and I didn't make complete sense of it. As is often the case with shorts that are fleshed out into a feature film, they have a tendency to run out of steam and I got the impression that Kent had a similar problem here. She struggled to deliver a satisfactory ending, leaving me frustrated (yet again) with a horror that had a lot of potential but, alas, suffered the same fate as so many others.

Despite it's lacklustre denouement, there's no denying that this is a very accomplished debut from Jennifer Kent. Her knowledge of the genre is apparent and her ability to stage it well goes without question. I hoped for a little more towards the end but I'd imagine less critical fans of horror than myself will be far more satisfied.

Mark Walker

Cold in July
Cold in July(2014)
½

"Well, boys, it's Howdy Doody Time"

Jim Mickle is not a director who's name you instantly recognise but he's one that's been chipping away at career for himself. Along with writing partner Nick Damici, they've delivered some relatively successful, low-budget horror films over the last few years with Mulberry St, Stake Land and We Are What We Are. With Cold In July they've went on a different path and again the results are quite impressive.

In 1980's Texas, an intruder breaks into a home and awakens family man Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) who shoots and kills him. After an investigation by local Sheriff Ray Price (Nick Damici), it's more or less a closed case and Richard is allowed to continue as he was. However, the intruder's father (Sam Shepard) is looking for retribution and begins to haunt Richard and his family which opens up all sorts of new information and how the intruder could have been a set-up, which draws Richard further and further into a dark underworld.

Based on the pulp novel by Joe R. Lansdale, there's much to admire in Cold In July's feel for Texan noir. It's reminiscent of the likes of Jim Thompson's After Dark, My Sweet or The Killer Inside Me in driving us down the dirt roads of seedy underworld gangsters and their depravity. Nothing is what it seems and that's exactly the appeal. What begins as a random act of self preservation soon becomes a quest for the truth and vigilantism. Dexter and Six Feet Under's Michael C. Hall carries the film very well but he's aided immeasurably by two old hands in Sam Shepard and Don Johnson. The latter doesn't appear till half way through the film but with his cowboy hat and his Cherry convertible, he injects real energy into the proceedings.
Up until then, director Mickle had been tightening his grip steadily and deliberately with his honing of some impressive moments of brooding tension and utilising Jeff Grace's John Carpenter-esque synthesiser score to great effect.

It's certainly not without faults; plot strands are left unresolved or discarded entirely and the progression of our main character from doting family man to vigilante, stretches credulity. However, there's enough style going on to allow you to forgive its shortcomings. If, like me, you're a fan of trashy pulp noir then this should go down like a neat little shot.

Mark Walker

Frank Miller's Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
½

"No one's ever really guessed what hell is. It's watching the ones you love...in pain"

After a nine year gap, director Robert Rodriguez finally returns to the dark graphic novel's of Frank Miller's Sin City and it's pugnacious inhabitants. Fans of the original (myself included) had been waiting with bated breath for more of the same but sadly this doesn't deliver as well as it could and feels somewhat flat in comparison.

Predominantly set as a prequel to the 2005 film, this time we follow the path of Dwight (Josh Brolin) as he tries to help out his old flame Ava Lord (Eva Green) from the clutches of a powerful mogul. Meanwhile, cocksure card-sharp Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has an old score to settle with his father Senator Rourk (Powers Boothe) at the poker table as Nancy (Jessica Alba) swears revenge on the same man for the death of her protector, John Hartigan (Bruce Willis).

There is much to admire in terms of it's stylistic approach and hard boiled, filthy noir but suffers the way many sequels do; it has no substance and lacks the originality of it's predecessor, leaving you with a heavy feeling of having trodden these paths before. Despite some excellent set-pieces the vibrancy of the original is lost and the characters don't gel as well as they did. The first film worked wonders by sticking to chapters where each one was meticulously threaded into the other but in this case, they cross over. There is no beginning middle or end and as a result, we end up with a muddled and incoherent narrative.

As much as the recasting choices are good it's hard to grasp just who's who. Sans Clive Owen as Dwight McCarthy we are given Josh Brolin before the characters facial reconstruction and as much as I admire Brolin, Owen was a better fit. Dennis Haysbert tries to fill the massive boots of the late Michael Clarke Duncan as Manute. Again, it's an admirable attempt but it's not as effective and the least said about Jeremy Piven taking over Michael Madsen's small role as Bob, the better. In fact, you would never be able to work out that it's the same character if you hadn't done your homework beforehand. On the up side, Mickey Rourke's Marv is just as much of a brutish treat as he was in the first outing but he's underused and Bruce Willis delivers nothing more than a cameo as the much trusted Hartigan. It's actually Eva Green who really shines most as a true femme fatale but maybe that's because she does more acting with her breasts than anything else, leading the film down a similar misogynist alleyway. Gordon Levitt's story is apparently tacked on and not an original part of Miller's stories but he's quite effective playing against a cigar-chomping Powers Boothe on fine form once again. Overall, the performances are good enough but they're given very little to work with and for all it's style, it's just not enough to see it past the post this time around.

Another example of how Rodriguez can be such a hit and miss filmmaker. Maybe if he concentrated less on producing, writing, cinematography, editing and music scores, he'd actually have enough left in the tank to concentrate on being a director. An admirable list of talents these may be but he so often bites off more than he can get his gums round and ruins what could have been a great experience. I'm saddened to say that I was left disappointed in this underdeveloped revisit to Basin City. Not so much hard-boiled and half-baked.

Mark Walker

Reservoir Dogs

"Somebody's stickin' a red hot poker up our asses and I wanna know who's name's on the handle"

Before becoming a cinematic auteur a young Quentin Tarantino worked in the film rental store Video Archives in Manhattan Beach, and would often recommend little-known titles to customers. On one occasion, he suggested Louis Malle's "Au Revoir Les Enfants", to which the customer mockingly replied, "I don't want to see no Reservoir Dogs." And so the title of Tarantino's blistering debut film was born. It was originally planned as a $30,000 personal film with his friends, before Harvey Keitel showed an interest in the script and came onboard as the star and co-producer which helped hike the budget up to $1.5 million. The rest, as they say, is history. Tarantino had finally made his mark on the movie map and has since become one of the most highly praised directors of his, or any other, generation.

Crime lord Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) and his son Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn) assemble a crew of trusted criminals who they appoint with colour coded aliases to protect their identity: Mr. White, (Harvey Keitel), Orange (Tim Roth), Pink (Steve Buscemi), Blue (Eddie Bunker), Brown (Quentin Tarantino) & Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen). Their plan is simple: rob a jewellery store and make off with the diamonds to a prearranged rendezvous. However, the robbery doesn't go down well and those that are left alive suspect that they have a police informant amongst them.

Few debuts have made as much of an impact on cinema goers as Reservoir Dogs has. It heralded the arrival of an energetic new writer/director and opened up the floodgates to numerous crime imitations thought the 1990's. Few, if any, achieved the same impact. However, there were some that criticised Tarantino for being a plagiarist. There were obvious references to films like Stanley Kubrick's The Killing, John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle, Joseph Sargent's The Taking of Pelham 123 and most notably Ringo Lam's City on Fire. Without a doubt, Tarantino was influenced by these movies but stealing is a very strong accusation. Now, many years and several more films down the line, I think it's fair to say that Tarantino has an extensive film vocabulary and often pays homage to some of his favourite filmmakers. Film knowledge may be deemed esoteric by some but in Tarantino's case it helped him craft three of the best films from the 1990's - along with Dogs there was, of course, Pulp Fiction and the vastly underrated Jackie Brown. And besides the point of plagiarism, it was Tarantino's dialogue (entirely his own) that received the most praise for it's true originality. His characters talk fast and the words seem to jump of the screen and that's exactly where Reservoir Dogs' strengths lie.

If it wasn't for the non-linear, chronology of events it would essentially be a chamber piece. Set largely within the confines of an abandoned warehouse, each character talks through what actually went wrong during their bungled heist. The heist itself is never witnessed as Tarantino decides to focus on the aftermath of the robbery rather than the event itself but it's the sharp and descriptive dialogue that allows these events to come to life in our imagination and each of the actors are allowed to spout their words with as much colour and vibrancy as their blood soaked shirts.

There are many highlights amongst the ensemble but the three that stand out the most are the loyally professional Harvey Keitel, a highly-strung and opinionated Steve Buscemi and the cold, psychopathic Michael Madsen. If I had any issues with the cast at all, it would be Tim Roth's tendency to overplay his work. He, by no means, delivers a poor performance but too often over acts and his personal section of the story interrupts an otherwise precisely structured flow. This is a small gripe as Tarantino still has a solid handling on the material and executes it with the deftness and skill of a director twice his age. On this evidence alone his extensive, esoteric knowledge of film certainly paid off - not only for him but for the viewer.

Heavily influenced by the likes of Martin Scorsese and Brian DePalma, among many other filmmakers, Tarantino was certainly not the first to use non-linear storylines, Steadicam techniques or distinctive soundtracks but he was a luminary to ambitious young directors that followed, and a lot of that came from this breathtaking film that set a whole new benchmark. One critic described Reservoir Dogs as "...a bloody, brash, brilliant heist thriller that grabbed audiences by the lapels and kneed them in the crotch"... I couldn't have put it any better myself.

Mark Walker

Serpico
Serpico(1973)
½

With their second collaboration in 1974, Al Pacino and Sidney Lumet delivered one of the very best films of the decade with "Dog Day Afternoon". It was a taut and captivating true-life story of a bank robber that gets way in over his head. Two years previously, though, they worked on another true-life story from the opposite side of the law. This time it was NYPD officer Frank Serpico and how he got way in over his head with police corruption rife all around him.

1960's New York: Frank Serpico is a cop who refuses to extort the local criminals and take pay-off's even though all his colleagues seem to be in on it. As a result, nobody trusts or wants to work him and Serpico begins to realise that his life is in danger by the very people who have sworn to protect and serve. Time and time again, he refuses to go on the take, hoping that an investigation will be launched into the conduct of his numerous partners but knows that it will take his own involvement or testimony to make a difference.

After a frantic opening where Serpico is rushed to hospital bleeding from a gunshot wound to the face, Lumet slows events down and goes back to where it all began. We witness his recruitment to the police department and his ideological approach to the job. It's slow to start and spends a bit too much time on Sepico's home life when really all you want is for the police corruption angle to move along. That being said, when things do start to get going, the film improves as it progresses.

Revered as one the finest films of the 70's and for it's time, that's completely understandable as police corruption drama's were not as commonplace as they are now. However, it now looks dated and time hasn't been all that kind to it. Arthur J. Ornitz's cinematography is observant enough to utilise the New York locations to excellent effect which lend the film a suitably grim and realistic tone but some scenes are far too dark to fully make out what's actually going on. For the most part, Lumet's handling of the material is strong and he's in no rush to relate this biopic. Although this is commendable, his pacing is slightly misjudged leaving you with feelings of lethargy and an overlong running time. Added to which - with the obvious exception of Serpico - there really isn't any other character that gets attention in Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler's screenplay. The support are all two-dimensional and some of the acting on show is very questionable, indeed. It even wastes the talents of great character actors like M. Emmett Walsh and F. Murray Abraham in thankless bit-parts. The most glaring flaw, however, is Greek composer Mikis Theodakaris' ridiculously overused and misplaced music score. It's feels random, tonally different and bears heavily on particular scenes that it brings nothing of value to. It even plays over the dialogue which can be difficult to hear and results in the film feeling cheap.

Now, this sounds like a lot of flaws for a film that's held in such high regard but they do happen to be there and wouldn't be looked upon kindly by a contemporary audience. That aside, though, there is still much to recommend the film. It builds tension with ease and has numerous standalone scenes that are of a very high quality and the denouement is, simply, a work of genius.

Ultimately, it's a vehicle for Pacino and, unsurprisingly, he delivers an explosive central performance. It's one of his most iconic and his commitment to the role actually raises the film beyond a particular standard. "The Godfather" may have been the film that made his name but it's his performance here that cemented it. He not only echoes the reservation of Michael Corleone but also displays moments of frustration and rage that allow him to grandstand in the way that only Al knows how.

Much like the refusal of Frank Serpico to go on the take, I refuse to fall into line with the particular posse of critics who see no fault in this film.
I honestly thought I'd be handing out top marks for a film I was very fond of in the past but I wouldn't be being honest if I did. That's not to say that it doesn't have quality in there too, though. Age may not have been kind but you can't put a time on a top class performance.

Mark Walker

Blue Ruin
Blue Ruin(2014)
½

Many didn't pay attention when Jeremy Saulnier made his directorial debut in 2007 with the little seen comedy/horror film "Monster Party". I know I didn't. Now, though, it's going to be hard to forget him as his sophomore effort "Blue Ruin" hits our screens (and our jugulars) with an impressively handled and assembled dark thriller that brings reminders of the arrival of the Coen brothers and all the taut and twisted glee of "Blood Simple".

Dwight Evans (Macon Blair) is a man seemingly down on his luck but his self-imposed exile from society is the result of his parents being murdered at the hands of a powerful criminal family. When he discovers that the man convicted of his parents‚?? murders has been released from prison, he sets out to even the score with a revenge killing.

The first thing that strikes you about "Blue Ruin" is it's odd choice of a leading actor. Relative unknown Macon Blair doesn't have the chiseled looks or the physique of a man on a revenge mission. There's a vulnerability to him and from the outset we are introduced to him as nothing more than a hobo who eats from garbage bins and hides under a mane of greasy hair and a long unkempt beard. Blair, however, doesn't use his hirsuteness to mask his performance. Once he actually grooms himself, he reveals an even more vulnerable side with gentle eyes that speak volumes. He's an flawed everyman that's easy to relate to and identify with and Blair's outstanding central performance is pitched to the perfect level. He lends an authenticity to an already believable and cleverly structured modern noir.

Writer/director/cinematographer Saulnier's approach the material couldn't be more deftly handled either. He doesn't rely on an intrusive music score or shock tactics (as you'd maybe expect from a director who cut his teeth on a low-budget horror movie) but wisely pairs events down and allows the tension and suspense to build assuredly around natural characters, performances and events. He's also not adverse to interspersing the proceedings with some welcome dark humour. This is an absolutely solid piece of work that commands your attention from the opening scene and even though it has a quiet, reflective tone to it, it sustains it's vice-like grip and refuses to let go.

On this evidence, it looks like we've witnessed the arrival of two very special talents. Both Jeremy Saulnier and Macon Blair are definitely for the watching and they've delivered one of the best (and biggest) surprises of the year. This is raw, visceral and unbearably tense filmmaking.

Mark Walker

Maleficent
Maleficent(2014)
½

Better known for his visual effects supervision on such films as "Life of Pi", and more significantly, as production designer on "Oz: The Great And Powerful" and winning Oscars for "Avatar" and "Alice in Wonderland", Robert Stromberg now delves into his first directorial outing with a reimagining of the classic fairy tale, "Sleeping Beauty". Much like the aforementioned "Oz", the characters from this well known children's story are playfully recreated in a lush and involving fantasy and with Stromberg's expertise who better to take us on that journey?!...

In a Kingdom halved by both fairies and humans, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) is a fairy who protects her half from human intruders. However, a childhood relationship she developed with a human named Stefan (Sharlto Copley) proves to be her undoing. Stefan has ambitions to be King one day and betrays the trust of Maleficent to achieve it. As a result, she curses his first born child, Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) to a death-like sleep on her 16th birthday that only a true-love's kiss can break.

Opening on a wondrous, enchanted land with fairies, nymphs and magical powers, we are introduced to the young Maleficant - the winged guardian of her idyllic, peaceful forest. From the outset we're definitely back in the realm of the fairy tale where Maleficent wasn't the evil villain with a grudge to bare but a caring fairy, pure of heart and who, quite frankly, got turned over. And this is exactly where "Maleficent" succeeds. It twists what we've come to know and invents a whole new story by ditching the mysogynistic reveries of righteous King's and handsome Prince's who's lip-locking charms can save a damsel in distress with a mere peck. This is more of a feminist revisioning as we get more of a backstory and focus on what is predominantly seen as the antagonist of this story. Much like Mila Kunis' portrayal of the Wicked Witch in "Oz" and Julia Roberts' Evil Queen from Snow White's story in "Mirror Mirror" we learn that their motivations derived from being scorned or abandoned by the men in their lives, lending a welcome complexity to these female characters - which brings me to Angelina Jolie's titular role. Throughout a film awash with CGI it's her that shines the most. She brings the requisite emotional depth and her motivations are entirely clear and understandable when really they were skimmed over in the classic 1959 Disney animation. It's hard to imagine anyone else being as perfectly suited to Maleficent as Jolie is and it ultimately works on her committed three-dimensional performance alone.

Another welcome addition to the proceedings is Stromberg's ability to combine the light and the dark. His expertise in the visual department is certainly on show and can be enjoyed by both adults and children alike but as much as Linda Woolverton's script dares to venture into the emotional turmoil of Maleficent, it doesn't bring much scope to the other characters. Fanning's Princess Aurora is given little to do but looked perplexed in this magical land and Copley's King Stefan has a slightly misplaced Scottish accent (see also his recent turn in "Oldboy"). As the title suggests, though, it isn't really about anyone else other than Maleficent and on that front, both the character and the performance, deliver the goods.

Despite it sagging slightly around the midway point this is, largely, an engaging and successful retelling that isn't afraid to conjure up some darkness from it's fantastical melting pot.

Mark Walker

Out of the Furnace

After finally helping Jeff Bridges to a long overdue Oscar in "Crazy Heart", director Scott Cooper follows up that tale of a downward spiralling musician with another one of downward spiralling blue collar workers. Narratively, it's lacking a certain something but one thing's for sure with Cooper; he certainly knows how to bring out the best from his actors.

With a cruel twist of fate, Russell Baze (Christian Bale) lands himself in prison after a driving offence. While inside, his terminally ill father passes away and his younger, ex-soldier, brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) takes to bare-knuckle fighting to pay off debts. When Russell is released, he finds that Rodney is in over his head with a ruthless crime ring led by Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). When Rodney eventually disappears, Russell takes matters into his own hands.

If the town depicted in "Out Of The Furnace" feels familiar then that because it's likely reminding you of the same Pennsylvania steel-mill town that was the setting for Michael Cimino's "The Deer Hunter" in 1978. It would also seem that Scott Cooper is intent on regularly referencing Cimino's classic throughout this films duration; it channels a similar theme of a lack of opportunities for the characters and even though some serve their country in war (Iraq steps in for Vietnam this time) they are forgotten about when they return home. We also get to stare down the scope of a hunting rifle now and again, and there's even a scene where actual deer hunting takes place. And the point of it all, I hear you ask? Well, to be frank, I'm not particularly sure. Maybe Cooper is trying to tell us that so many years - and wars - down the line nothing has changed for these working class people. They're mere fodder and left to go back to their land of opportunity were opportunity doesn't really exist for them. This could be Cooper's intention or it could just be that I'm reading into his script a little too deeply when it's highly possible that there is no depth in the first place. Somewhere there's a commentary on the economic state of contemporary America but the message is muddled somewhat, as it veers into a generic backwoods crime thriller.

The film is a strangely frustrating experience whereby what you see in front of you is visually commanding but it's hard to connect to the character's and their plight. The weakness of the script is apparent and it's hard to grasp the film as anything more than a revenge flick that leaves a slightly nasty aftertaste. That being said, Cooper is certainly a director that has a good eye and feel for detail and he has a full command over his splendid ensemble. It's the solid performances that really make the film tick. Not that any further proof is required in terms of their acting abilities but a smoulderingly intense Affleck and a snarling, brutish Harrelson really excel and solid (all-be-it, underwritten) support is delivered from Whitaker and Dafoe. It's Bale who impresses most, though, in one of his most effective and understated roles. There's nothing heroic about him. He's simply a soulful man with a deep sense of family commitment and refuses to yield when anyone threatens that.

As much as I couldn't see what the point of the whole affair was, I still went along with it. It's deliberately paced and still manages to hold your attention. As a director, Cooper shows a lot of promise but he needs to tighten up on his writing duties. When that happens, I suspect we'll see a real improvement on this potentially solid filmmaker.

Mark Walker

The Deer Hunter

"You have to think about one shot. One shot is what it's all about. A deer's gotta be taken with one shot. I try to tell people that but they don't listen"

Released in 1978, only three years after the official end of the Vietnam war, Michael Cimino's "The Deer Hunter" seemed as if it may have been too soon for the American psyche. It was a surprising box-office hit but was also one of the most controversial, major theatrical releases about America's involvement in the war. It went on to receive 9 Academy Award nominations (winning 5 - including Best Picture and Best Director). Despite this, the backlash was pretty vehement. It received criticism from the likes of Jane Fonda and John Wayne who in his last public appearance had to present it with it's Best Picture award even though he wasn't fond of the film. These criticisms came in many forms but for as many critics as it's had, there were also a great number who considered it to be another American classic.

Michael (Robert DeNiro), Stevie (John Savage) and Nick (Christopher Walken) are among a group of friends who live and work in the steel mill town of Clairton, Pennsylvania. They spend their time getting drunk and going deer hunting before they are enlisted in the airborne infantry of Vietnam. What was once a slow-paced and fun-filled life is shoved into the stark reality of warfare and how their experiences change their lives forever.

Clocking in at just over three hours, "The Deer Hunter" is a film of length. However, it's one that never overstays it's welcome as Cimino wisely works within a three act structure - book-ending the war with marriage and death. He may take his time and linger long on shots but it never gets boring. To view it as simply another Vietnam film is to entirely miss the point also. If it is to be viewed in any way, it should be as a commentary on American disillusionment and it's loss of innocence at this time. It's intention is not focus on the war itself but on the aftermath and the impact war can have on the lives of ordinary working people. In fact, the scenes that take place in Vietnam only amount to a very small portion of the film, overall. Ultimately, it's a character study that's only heightened by the 50 minute wedding sequence at the beginning of the film. Many grumble about this being too indulgent but it's integral that we get to know these characters in order to fully understand them. It's during the wedding reception that they come across a Green Beret who has just finished his Tour of Duty; they buy him a drink and take offence when all he has to tell them about the war is... "Fuck it!". This perfectly sums up the naivete of these young men as they seem to have a romanticised idea of war and have absolutely no idea of what is to become them.

Following this, a bunch of them go on a deer hunting trip where we again see the dynamic of the group and get to know each of them more personally. Suddenly, we are then thrust into the chaos of Vietnam and it's not before long that the films iconic and controversial Russian roulette scene takes place. This is a scene that has received much criticism in not only being claimed as inaccurate - as there was no evidence to suggest that any such atrocities took place during the conflict - but for being racist in it's sadistic stereotype of the Viet Cong captors. These criticisms are justifiable to an extent but, personally, I think the critics have taken it far too literally. If viewed as a metaphor for the senselessness of war and the inhumanity of man during wartime struggles then it's entirety fitting to the films themes and says more about an initiation into manhood. It was literally minutes before this powerful scene that DeNiro's Michael and Walken's Nick were discussing how a deer should be killed with "one shot" and now (ironically) they must face a similar fate. This game of chance is the catalyst that changes the dynamic of the three principle characters (the other being John Savage's Stevie) and further adds to the character development that was so playfully and innocently displayed in the opening wedding sequence or the camaraderie of the deer hunt. It's purpose is not to be racist but to capture the extreme pressure that soldiers face in conflict. In the film's final act, some of them return home only to realise that they're traumatised as they struggle to fit back into society. There have been claims that it doesn't take an overly pro or anti stance towards the conflict but I struggle to see how. This was one was of the first films to challenge the perspective on Vietnam. The likes of "Platoon" and "Full Metal Jacket" were praised for such honesty and I believe this deserves the same credibility.

"The Deer Hunter" is, undoubtedly, epic filmmaking and despite your political interpretation, there's no denying the power of it's emotionally devastating narrative. It's unlikely that Cimino will be able to deliver a work of this magnitude ever again. He tried and failed in 1980 with "Heaven's Gate" (bankrupting United Artists Studio in the process) but his scope and ambition here deserves the utmost respect. So too does the work of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond for his astounding ability to capture both the expansive landscapes of Pennsylvania and the war ravaged mountainous villages of Vietnam. The actors are also very strong and committed throughout. This would be the last performance of the great John Cazale - before his untimely death to cancer - and the first notable one from Meryl Streep, who brings a touching vulnerability to her supporting role. Walken (who won a Supporting Actor Oscar) is a marvel and deservedly made a name for himself in the process. As good as they are, though, it's DeNiro who anchors the film in a enigmatic display of stoicism. Another deserved Oscar nomination came his way and even though this is a film that many omit from DeNiro's plethora of magnificent performances throughout the 70's and 80's, it happens to be one of his strongest and most unsung. DeNiro apparently described his role as one of the most physical and exhausting that he's ever done, and it's easy to see why. Every emotional, physical and mental abuse that he seems to be suffering is perfectly and gruellingly displayed onscreen.

The 1970's are well known for producing some of the finest experiences in cinema and "The Deer Hunter" can, proudly, consider itself one of one them. It's marvellously structured, harrowingly vivid and so grand and ambitious that it thoroughly deserves it's epic status. Truly one of the best of it's decade.

Mark Walker

Enemy
Enemy(2014)
½

Reportedly made before they collaborated on the impressive vigilante thriller "Prisoners" in 2013, Jake Gyllenhaal and director Denis Villeneuve crafted this fascinating and hugely involving psychological drama. Now that the surrealist master David Lynch has seemingly taken a backseat from filmmaking, it's promising to see that someone else is able to handle the material that wouldn't be out of place in his hands.

Mild-mannered history professor Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal), is disillusioned with his life and current partner (Melanie Laurent) and apparently in search of some other fulfilment. On the suggestion of a colleague, he happens to rent a movie one evening and catches a glimpse of a bit-part actor (Gyllenhaal again). He pauses the film for a better look and notices that he shares an identical resemblance to him. After some investigation he decides to meet his doppelganger but their lives begin to intertwine and the real problems begin.

"Chaos is order yet undeciphered" - pay heed to this opening quote, as well as the opening scene while pondering the complexities of Villenueve's marvellously twisted, psychological offering. It certainly wont make a whole lot of sense to begin with but it'll serve you well in trying to decipher just what the hell is going on and even though some will still not fully grasp it, the answers are definitely there. There are plot elements that are better left unexplained but rest assured that this is a film that's entirely deserving of your time and effort and by doing so, you'll be thoroughly rewarded.

The destination will leave many perplexed but the beauty of "Enemy" is the intriguingly dreamlike and suspenseful journey. Not unlike the style of David Fincher, Villeneuve chooses to shoot in desaturated colours which adds to the sense of loneliness and detachment and Gyllenhaal delivers some towering work. On the one hand, he leads a empty existence, reflected in his social awkwardness and soulless, repetitive lifestyle while on the other he captures a dark arrogance that counterbalances his characters. Gyllenhaal's dual role offers many delights as you watch the subtlety of his different mannerisms and without such convincing central performances, the film probably wouldn't work as well as it does. Kudos to Villeneuve's as well, though. His adaptation and handling of Jose Saramago's compelling, 2002 novel "The Double" is very tight and assured. He keeps the running time short, rarely wasting a moment, and sustains a palpable sense of unease and tension right up until the shocking (and thought provoking) end.

If you could splice Lynch's "Lost Highway" or "Mulholland Drive" with Fincher's "Fight Club"while adding a little of Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut" then this would be their bastard child. It's as cerebral and surreal as those aforementioned films and just as good at channeling their similar themes of moral uncertainty.

With an Enemy like this, who needs friends?

Mark Walker

Do the Right Thing
½

Remember the days when Spike Lee's "joints" has a real edge and potency to them? Nowadays, he's rolling out more generic, Hollywood tripe like "Oldboy" but there was a time when he was a highly original and passionately political filmmaker as he regularly touched upon important social issues and conflicts. However, few of his joints have been as packed or as provocative as "Do The Right Thing".

On a hot summer day in a Brooklyn neighbourhood, the residents struggle to keep their cool in the increasingly sweltering temperature. Sal (Danny Aiello) owns the local Italian pizzeria where he happens to upset black activist Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito) who, in turn, demands the black community boycott his place. Most people are unwilling to do so but it still adds to the discontentment amongst the community as racial attitudes and prejudices begin to surface.

Taking the title from Malcolm X's quote "You've got to do the right thing" and being inspired by an actual incident in Howard Beach, New York, Spike Lee crafts an important and unflinching portrayal of racial tension in a literal urban melting pot. He sets his intentions from the outset with the ferociously pumping music of Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" and infuses his story with an eclectic mix of races, characters and personalities, while still managing to lend the film an important lightness of touch. It has a distinct and observant humour that magnifies the absurdity in people's preconceptions and judgments but this absurdity is soon, skilfully, shifted to frustration and rage which descends his characters into a chaotic madness.

Filled with an abundance of excellent performances from Danny Aiello's hard working Sal to John Turturro as his racist son Pino and a small but highly entertaining role for Samuel L. Jackson as the radio dj, 'Mister Se√Īor Love Daddy' - who seemingly oversees everything in the neighbourhood. Lee's direction is vibrant and colourful and makes full use of an excellent hip-hop score before other filmmakers even realised it was cool to do so. His script is also as sharp as they come with endlessly quotable dialogue and he even has the bravery to have a selection of characters - from different ethnic backgrounds - rhyme off very personal and racial slurs in a montage that breaks the fourth wall. With this scene alone, it's easy to see why some were offended by the film upon it's release. It's a passionate reflection of racism and race relations and one that raises as many questions as it answers. However, that's the whole point; Lee's agenda is not to incite trouble but to rouse debate and he does a sterling job in doing so, while still being empathetic towards each and every one of his characters - regardless of their ethnicity. That's the real key in preventing this film from being contradictory in it's arguments as many critics have claimed it to be. Few films have ever dealt with racism as powerfully or as thought provoking as Lee does here. He has a strong voice on the subject and this outstanding piece of work is one that's still as relevant today as it ever was.

Beginning with a simmer before ending in a boiling intensity, this a powerful and thought provoking, sociopolitical commentary. Lee would go on to deliver the similarly themed "Jungle Fever" and "Malcolm X" after this, which cemented his reputation as one the most important black filmmaker's of our (or any) generation.

Mark Walker

To The Wonder
½

"You have to struggle with yourself. You have to struggle with your own strength".

Say what you will about the stylings of Terrence Malick. He's undoubtedly a director that puts his own stamp on things and refuses to tell a story in any conventional sense. He's more interested in capturing moments and subtle glances while pondering the larger themes of love, life and religious beliefs. When you back at his older works of "Days Of Heaven", "The Thin Red Line" or "The Tree Of Life", for example, you'll find these themes in abundance. From a personal point of view, I often find Malick's approach to be highly appealing but with "To The Wonder", I was left somewhat distant and uninterested this time around.

Marina (Olga Kurylenko) is a Parisian single-mother who falls madly in love with tourist Neil (Ben Affleck) and moves with her daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) to America. Their love begins to dissipate, however, and Neil eventually seeks solace in his old friend Jane (Rachel McAdams) as Marina turns to Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), who is also exploring his own dwindling faith and confusion.

Opening in Paris with the focus on Affleck and Kurylenko who obviously have a strong emotional engagement, we are guided through Malick's soulful exploration of love. We hear the internal dialogues of his characters as they strive for reason and understanding. Unfortunately, as a viewer, I too was searching for these things as Malick is so elusive and overly suggestive that it becoming increasingly frustrating and depressing as we observe hugely underwritten characters that do very little to grab your attention or even evoke any level of appeal or understanding.

Malick's vision is certainly a beautiful one and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki delivers some striking work. The camera pirouettes with long, sweeping movements that again capture Malick's ethereal approach. However, after about 20 minutes, you realise that it feels like you're watching a Chanel perfume ad and after several scenes of a cool breeze rustling through the cornfields and Kurylenko dancing her little cotton sock off under an autumnal sun, it's apparent that this all we're going get. The dialogue is sparse, to say the least, and there's more nibbling on earlobes than there is any actual verbal exchanges between the characters. Affleck, in particular, says very little throughout the entire film and is only required to stand around with his hands in pockets and brood. Rachel McAdams makes an appearance of another of Affleck's love interests but all she has to do is brush her horse's main on her Oklahoman ranch and let the wind blow her hair across her face from time to time. Our religious commentary comes in the form of Bardem's afflicted priest who has began to question his spiritual fulfilment. Is god still around us? Does such a entity even exist? Would relationships be easier if we felt more of his love and presence? Do we really care?

It's not often I've find myself criticising Malick. Like I mentioned earlier, he's a director I greatly admire and "The Thin Red Line" is a masterwork in my eyes but this is strictly a colour by numbers effort that's seriously aloof and lacking in narrative. Some may revel in it's abstraction and ambiguity but, quite frankly, I found it to be tediously dull. As much as I love Malick's affinity with nature, I'd rather have watched the grass grow on this occasion.

Not so much Wonder as Wander; Malick's latest existential elegy is meandering, pretentious clap-trap that surprisingly (from a former philosophical lecturer) has very little to say and it's entirely understandable why it was met with boos at the Venice Film Festival.

Mark Walker

Taxi Driver
Taxi Driver(1976)

Now regarded as a cinematic classic, I have to admit that Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" was always a film that left me as isolated as it's lead character. The first time I saw it, I thought it vastly overrated. Admittedly, I was in my teens at this point and never managed to fully grasp it's themes. With each viewing it, admittedly, grew in stature but I could never really get over my initial judgement. It's not often that I'll backtrack on my opinion but I have now come full circle and can appreciate just how good a film it is and why it's regarded as one of the true greats of American cinema.

Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) is a lonely, mentally unstable taxi driver who scours New York City every night where he becomes increasingly disgusted with the seedy cesspool around him. He attempts to strike up a connection with local presidential campaign worker, Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) but when that falls flat, he takes it upon himself to change things and fails again in an assassination attempt on the Senator himself (Leonard Harris). Determined to make a difference, he turns his mind to rescuing Iris (Jodie Foster), a preadolescent prostitute from the clutches of her pimp and lover, Sport (Harvey Keitel).

Opening with Bernard Herrmann's distinctive and sleazy score, we are thrust into the nightlife of New York City where there's a blaze of neon light reflected on the streets and rainswept windscreens. The grim debauchery of the city's nightlife is captured to perfection by Michael Chapman's striking cinematography. As much as Herrmann and Chapman play a major part in the proceedings, though, so too does the unsettling delivery of DeNiro in a bravura show of restraint and suggestion. The film wastes no time in introducing us to his iconic Travis Bickle: a 26 year old, Vietnam veteran and insomniac who struggles to socially connect. This truly is one of DeNiro's finest moments onscreen. He would receive, a well deserved, Oscar nomination and to actually win the award would not have been out of place either. It's a captivating performance and it's hard to avert your eyes from his intensity. Speaking of eyes, it's easy to lose count of the amount of times that DeNiro acts with them alone. At times, he doesn't even need to speak as his eyes, either directly or indirectly, speak volumes. We often get a glimpse of them as he observes the city's inhabitants through his rear view mirror and there's a lot going on. Behind them, a simmering menace and desperation are so expressively captured and Scorsese is wise to focus on them. Essentially Travis' eyes are our own in this debauched and immoral world of degenerates. Even DeNiro's (now infamous) "You talkin' to me?" ad-lib stems from him observing himself in the mirror and playing out his deranged fantasies. Whether intentional or not, Scorsese's use of mirrors play quite a significant part in reflecting Travis' alienation and paranoid psychosis.

As for the Big Apple itself, Scorsese has regularly been known for his ability to capture it in the minutest detail but "Taxi Driver" has to be the most descriptive he's ever been. Through Travis' perspective, he depicts it as a nightmarish, hell on earth; the steam rising from the street vents and crime and prostitution at every corner. This is a city that's depicted with dark and repugnant depths as the dirt and grime oozes from it's pores. Our troubled protagonist struggles to come to term with it as we observe his increasing frustration and distance. We feel his alienation and through his diary entries we are allowed to hear his innermost thoughts. It's unnerving to see Travis' decent and the dangerous fragility of his mental health. When he finally attests to having "... some bad ideas in my head", we realise that the depravity of this environment is dangerously permeating this man's psyche.

At one point Travis is compared the lyrics of Kris Kristofferson's song He's a Pilgrim: "... a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction.
Taking every wrong direction on his lonley way back home" which is cleverly dropped in at an early point in the film but only makes complete sense when his odyssey is over. It's moments like this that only serve as a reminder of the layers in Paul Schrader's script. This isn't simply about one man's struggle with society but an astute, psychological character study that ambiguously treads a fine line between redemption and damnation while leaving us to question our interpretation of events. The denouement is particularly interesting and although Schrader himself has stated that the closing "could be spliced to the first frame, and the movie started all over again" suggesting that what we've witnessed falls more into the damnation element of Travis, there also exists a sequence that could arguably be claimed as redemptive which would leave Travis Bickle as on of cinema's most intriguing (and contradictory) anti-hero's.

Almost 40 years on and now firmly part of American film culture, this still has as much staying power as it had upon its release. It's just a shame that it's taken me all of 20 years to fully appreciate it. A reappraisal of this film was always a major requirement of mine but by going into it with a more open mind, I can honestly say that I feel I have experienced "Taxi Driver" as if it was my first time and that experience was, simply, magnificent.

Mark Walker

Oldboy
Oldboy(2013)

Park Chan Wook's 2004 Korean original of "Oldboy" is one of the most visceral and emotionally devastating thrillers that you're ever likely to find. As a result, it totally baffled me when I heard about the intentions for an English language remake. I don't care how much of an impressive cast or crew were assembled, as far as I see it, there really isn't anything else that could have been brought to treading this ground again. Now that I've seen Spike Lee's version, I stand by that even more. This was a completely pointless exercise.

Estranged husband and father Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) is on a downward spiral with his alcohol problem. One drunken night he's kidnapped from the streets and wakes up in a locked room with no windows and no means of communication. He's held here without explanation, while on the outside he's framed for the murder of his ex-wife. After 20 years in this locked room, he‚??s suddenly released and sets about finding out the truth and why he was held in the the first place.

I'll start with the (very few) positives this film has to offer and that simply comes down to Josh Brolin and Elizabeth Olsen. They are both on particularly fine form and give this misguided endeavour more than it actually deserves. The same can't be said for the villains of the piece, though. Normally, the nasties are the one's that stand out in a film of this type but in this case, it's them that suffer the most in their caricature roles; Jackson is his usual, reliable self and (with that idiosyncratic tone of his) can make even the worst of dialogue work for him. He adds a requisite sprinkle of menace but he's so elaborately overdressed that he looks like he's just there to do a little turn on the catwalk. Copley, on the other hand, I feel both sorry and embarrassed for. He's even more ridiculous. His accent and histrionics are so laughably bad and completely misplaced that he looks like he's wandered in from a child's pantomime. The only thing missing was an audience taking great delight in booing or hissing him off the stage. If Copley doesn't get his act together soon, he'll fade into obscurity and his wonderful work in "District 9" will be a thing of the past.

The film itself looks the part, though, and Spike Lee almost gives the impression that he knows what he's doing by capturing a suitably grim and foreboding atmosphere. However, it's ultimately the script that lets everyone down here. It's practically a scene-for-scene remake of the original (well, the good bits at least) but the changes that they do make to the story don't improve it in the slightest. It really is perplexing why they would've even went to the bother and why such an acclaimed director and cast would put their reputations at stake.

The scene that stood out for me was the ridiculous hallway fight (where Lee is obviously trying to emulate Park's impressive handling of a similar one-take scene from the original). Here, Brolin takes on an abundance of adversaries and it's obvious how badly choreographed it is. His opponents are absolutely nowhere near him as they swipe the air with pieces of plywood while our man sets about them with his claw hammer. It's was around this point that I gave up on the whole affair, as it was apparent that the filmmakers were putting as much of an effort into the film as I am this review.

With almost ten years between them, I can only assume that Hollywood thought that this was ripe for a remake. It's not! Granted, it might work a lot better for those that are unfamiliar with the original but for others, it's pretty much a guarantee that it won't. If it does appeal to those that are already versed in Park's sublime original, then I'll eat my claw hammer with a live Octopi chaser.

Mark Walker

Nymphomaniac: Volume I

When provocateur Lars von Trier released the magnificent "Dogville" in 2003 and followed it up with "Manderlay" in 2005, I was very eager to see him complete his USA: Land of Opportunities trilogy. Unfortunately, the third instalment "Wasington" never came to fruition. He did, however, venture into another trilogy - focusing on depression. The gruelling and unforgettable "AntiChrist" was the first, followed by the restrained and meditative "Melancholia". Now, von Trier completes this outstanding trilogy in style.

Volume I: Joe (Charlotte Gainbourg) is found in an alleyway by a compassionate man named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). She is badly beaten so Seligman takes her back to his home to nurse her. It here that Joe proceeds to tell him her life story of being a self-confessed nymphomaniac and the encounters she has had during her adolescence.

Volume II: Joe's story of sexual exploration grows darker as she recounts her erotic adult experiences of group sex and bondage and how she found herself in the alleyway where the A-sexual, scholar Seligman found her.

Von Trier is certainly no stranger to quoting controversy. Throughout his whole directing career he has always managed to raise a few eyebrows and invite some vitriolic hatred towards his films. Personally, I regard him as one of the most important and visionary directors that we've ever had. I admire his unflinching approach to taboo subject matters as well as his intelligence in tackling such endeavours. He, admittedly, can be shocking but there's always a level of intelligence to his films that far out way any of the gratuity that he's proclaimed to deliver. "Nymphomaniac" is no different and it's definitely a film to masticate over. Yes, I said masticate... That's just your dirty minds taking hold already.

As you will have noticed, this is a review that encompasses both volumes in their entirety. The film is one complete story and being released in two parts, only strikes me that audiences wouldn't have been fully prepared for a 4 hour sitting (although the Director's Cut would be even more of a challenge as it runs for a full 5 1/2 hours).

Say what you will about von Trier and his movies but there really isn't anyone else at the moment that's tackling the matters that he does. As a society we often avoid uncomfortable subject matters or issues but if we fully explore the artform of film and how it can help us cathart or explore our innermost desires or fears then von Trier is certainly at the forefront of doing so. His films are, by no means, for those of a sensitive or prudish nature but for those willing to delve into the depths of human psyche or behaviour this man really shows no bounds. I, for one, applaud his unrepentant boldness and audacity.

The numerous claims that this is just a self-indulgent porn film are sorely mistaken. This is, in fact, so much more than that. It's an odyssey of self discovery and nihilistic sexual exploration, laid out in eight novelistic chapters (which also reflect Fibonacci numbers and the amount of times our protagonist was penetrated when she lost her virginity) and incorporates everything from masturbation, a montage of penises, the use of a Nymph in fly-fishing, Johan Sebastien Bach's polyphonic harmonies and the use of the Prusik knot in bondage. If that's not enough to wet a voracious vulva, then an education in "the silent duck" may just do the trick. But (as the tag line says) "Forget about love". Love, we are informed, is "just lust with jealousy added".

Von Trier doesn't mince his words here and he rarely skips a beat. There are shades of the sexual promiscuity that he covered so well in "Breaking The Waves" and a similar, playful humorousness that he delivered in "The Idiots" - where he also had porn actors engage in genuine scenes of intercourse. Speaking of which, the intercourse scenes here are seamlessly and impressively handled with CGI and it's difficult to tell where the porn actors start and the dramatic actors end. It's quite an achievement and it's during these scenes that some will view the film as exploitative or mere titillation but there's a truth and depth to von Trier's ambitions. He questions the intrinsic polarity of how a form of sexual-liberation can also be empty and soulless and he explores how science and religion form the constructs of how we behave socially.

Of course, a certain willingness to go along with von Trier's philosophical ramblings is required and that's where his cast pay him dividends. It's through the commitment and bravery of his ensemble that he's able to realise his vision and few, if any, let him down; Charlotte Gainsbourg (who has appeared in the complete trilogy), once again, shows a fundamental courageousness and Stellan Skarsgård (another of von Trier's most reliable regulars) anchor the film with their naturalistic approaches. Solid support also comes from Jamie Bell as a sadomasochist and the American contingent of Willem Dafoe, Christian Slater and Shia LeBeouf (despite a very questionable accent) deliver good work. From that assemblage, though, it's Uma Thurman who really shines as a scorned wife and mother. In one of the films most memorable scenes, she gate-crashes the house of her husband's mistress asking to show her children the "whoring bed", which their father has found so sacred. The biggest revelation, however, is newcomer Stacy Martin who fearlessly tackles her extremely difficult role with as much professionalism as an actress twice her age. Von Trier has unearthed a talent in this young actress and I'd be very surprised if we don't see more of her in the future.

Quite simply, this a work of outstanding quality and substance and von Trier has opened up a whole new can of possibilities. He's somehow managed to cross the boundary between pornography and mainstream filmmaking and delivers an ethical hypothesis that's by turns comedic, sensationalist and intimate but does require a progressive open-mindedness in order to be receptive to it's provocative themes. Trust me, leave your conservative mind at the door and embrace a true work of art.

Mark Walker

Nymphomaniac: Volume II

When provocateur Lars von Trier released the magnificent "Dogville" in 2003 and followed it up with "Manderlay" in 2005, I was very eager to see him complete his USA: Land of Opportunities trilogy. Unfortunately, the third instalment "Wasington" never came to fruition. He did, however, venture into another trilogy - focusing on depression. The gruelling and unforgettable "AntiChrist" was the first, followed by the restrained and meditative "Melancholia". Now, von Trier completes this outstanding trilogy in style.

Volume I: Joe (Charlotte Gainbourg) is found in an alleyway by a compassionate man named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). She is badly beaten so Seligman takes her back to his home to nurse her. It here that Joe proceeds to tell him her life story of being a self-confessed nymphomaniac and the encounters she has had during her adolescence.

Volume II: Joe's story of sexual exploration grows darker as she recounts her erotic adult experiences of group sex and bondage and how she found herself in the alleyway where the A-sexual, scholar Seligman found her.

Von Trier is certainly no stranger to quoting controversy. Throughout his whole directing career he has always managed to raise a few eyebrows and invite some vitriolic hatred towards his films. Personally, I regard him as one of the most important and visionary directors that we've ever had. I admire his unflinching approach to taboo subject matters as well as his intelligence in tackling such endeavours. He, admittedly, can be shocking but there's always a level of intelligence to his films that far out way any of the gratuity that he's proclaimed to deliver. "Nymphomaniac" is no different and it's definitely a film to masticate over. Yes, I said masticate... That's just your dirty minds taking hold already.

As you will have noticed, this is a review that encompasses both volumes in their entirety. The film is one complete story and being released in two parts, only strikes me that audiences wouldn't have been fully prepared for a 4 hour sitting (although the Director's Cut would be even more of a challenge as it runs for a full 5 1/2 hours).

Say what you will about von Trier and his movies but there really isn't anyone else at the moment that's tackling the matters that he does. As a society we often avoid uncomfortable subject matters or issues but if we fully explore the artform of film and how it can help us cathart or explore our innermost desires or fears then von Trier is certainly at the forefront of doing so. His films are, by no means, for those of a sensitive or prudish nature but for those willing to delve into the depths of human psyche or behaviour this man really shows no bounds. I, for one, applaud his unrepentant boldness and audacity.

The numerous claims that this is just a self-indulgent porn film are sorely mistaken. This is, in fact, so much more than that. It's an odyssey of self discovery and nihilistic sexual exploration, laid out in eight novelistic chapters (which also reflect Fibonacci numbers and the amount of times our protagonist was penetrated when she lost her virginity) and incorporates everything from masturbation, a montage of penises, the use of a Nymph in fly-fishing, Johan Sebastien Bach's polyphonic harmonies and the use of the Prusik knot in bondage. If that's not enough to wet a voracious vulva, then an education in "the silent duck" may just do the trick. But (as the tag line says) "Forget about love". Love, we are informed, is "just lust with jealousy added".

Von Trier doesn't mince his words here and he rarely skips a beat. There are shades of the sexual promiscuity that he covered so well in "Breaking The Waves" and a similar, playful humorousness that he delivered in "The Idiots" - where he also had porn actors engage in genuine scenes of intercourse. Speaking of which, the intercourse scenes here are seamlessly and impressively handled with CGI and it's difficult to tell where the porn actors start and the dramatic actors end. It's quite an achievement and it's during these scenes that some will view the film as exploitative or mere titillation but there's a truth and depth to von Trier's ambitions. He questions the intrinsic polarity of how a form of sexual-liberation can also be empty and soulless and he explores how science and religion form the constructs of how we behave socially.

Of course, a certain willingness to go along with von Trier's philosophical ramblings is required and that's where his cast pay him dividends. It's through the commitment and bravery of his ensemble that he's able to realise his vision and few, if any, let him down; Charlotte Gainsbourg (who has appeared in the complete trilogy), once again, shows a fundamental courageousness and Stellan Skarsgård (another of von Trier's most reliable regulars) anchor the film with their naturalistic approaches. Solid support also comes from Jamie Bell as a sadomasochist and the American contingent of Willem Dafoe, Christian Slater and Shia LeBeouf (despite a very questionable accent) deliver good work. From that assemblage, though, it's Uma Thurman who really shines as a scorned wife and mother. In one of the films most memorable scenes, she gate-crashes the house of her husband's mistress asking to show her children the "whoring bed", which their father has found so sacred. The biggest revelation, however, is newcomer Stacy Martin who fearlessly tackles her extremely difficult role with as much professionalism as an actress twice her age. Von Trier has unearthed a talent in this young actress and I'd be very surprised if we don't see more of her in the future.

Quite simply, this a work of outstanding quality and substance and von Trier has opened up a whole new can of possibilities. He's somehow managed to cross the boundary between pornography and mainstream filmmaking and delivers an ethical hypothesis that's by turns comedic, sensationalist and intimate but does require a progressive open-mindedness in order to be receptive to it's provocative themes. Trust me, leave your conservative mind at the door and embrace a true work of art.

Mark Walker

Grudge Match
Grudge Match(2013)

Although their careers have went in very different paths, Sylvester Stallone and Robert DeNiro have been around roughly the same amount of time and have, on occasion, come together. In 1976, they were Best Actor nominees for two of their most successful roles in "Rocky" and "Taxi Driver" (both losing out to Peter Finch in "Network") and in 1997 they shared the screen for the first time in "Cop Land". Now they're at it again...

Henry 'Razor' Sharp (Stallone) and Billy 'The Kid' McDonnen (DeNiro) where once two towering rivals in the boxing ring. However, after one win each, Sharp promptly announced retirement leaving the public and McDonnen eager for a deciding match. 30 years down the line, they are both given another opportunity to settle their score once and for all.

Who would win in a fight between Rocky Balboa and Jake LaMotta? - you can almost hear the film being pitched by some fanboy fantasist as two of cinema's most iconic films and boxing characters are capitalised on. There seems to be a lack of decorum in it's concept and it only goes to show that money always does the talking in Hollywood.

Basically, what you see is what you get. It has an element of fun but really never extends to anything more as it leans heavily on the ridiculously cliched and self-indulgent end of things. In fairness, this probably did sound like a good idea, especially when the leads seem to be game for sending themselves up but really, it's all just mediocre tosh.

You'd have to be punch drunk to find anything more than a modicum of enjoyment and that essentially comes from the two stars' commitment and conviction. Stallone does his usual Sly-schtick and the kind of vehicle you expect from him these days. The same could be said for DeNiro but he does seem quite up for having a laugh and surprisingly delivers an entertaining performance. As for the support, Jon Bernthal does what what he can in a small underwritten role as DeNiro's son while Kevin Hart's promotor is only added for irritating comic relief. Alan Arkin brings a welcome light humour to the proceedings but it's certainly not up to his usual standard and Kim Basinger has little to do but stand around the periphery, sulking about her past history between the two boxers. That's about all that can be said as this certainly isn't a film that would require any form of an in-depth dissection. I've said enough already.

It's so much Grudge Match as Pudge Match. The two ageing stars struggle to move themselves around the ring let alone land a blow. There are some blows to be had, though, but they only connect with their fading reputations.

Mark Walker

Dazed and Confused

Richard Linklater is one of those directors that consistently delivers fresh and original material yet somehow remains a filmmaker with a lower profile. His projects certainly gain the respect they deserve but they never really go over and above that in terms of awards. He's always been innovative and has adopted some daring approaches to filmmaking with the likes of his free-form indie debut "Slacker", the expansive "Before Sunrise" trilogy, the philosophical "Waking Life" and it's rotoscope animated companion piece "A Scanner Darkly". Even his forthcoming "Boyhood" - a 12 year project following a boy's journey from 5 to 18 years old - is a feat that few, if any, directors have tackled. However, one of his most poignant and entertaining escapades happens to be the mosaic "Dazed and Confused". It was largely ignored upon it's release but has since gained a strong cult status. And for very good reason.

The year is 1976 and it's the last day of high school in a small Texan suburbia. Everyone's up for a party and in search of booze and drugs but first, the incoming freshmen must go through some embarrassing initiation rituals organised by the senior students, who take great pleasure in putting the youngsters in their places.

Much like his aforementioned and experimental approach to "Slacker", Linklater doesn't have a lot going on narratively. He's fully aware of this, however, and acts only as a mere vessel in allowing his actors the space to breathe and run free in their roles. That being said, there's still a complete focus here and the result is far more solid and entertaining than his debut. It's not often I'll praise a film for it's lack of narrative but in the case of "Dazed and Confused" it's the characterisation that leads the way and each and every one of the actors really shine; Wiley Wiggins is our young guide throughout this turbulent time for teenagers as he falls into a friendship with the senior students on his last day of freshman year and Linklater astutely captures a whole myriad of teenage angst and the carefree emotions of a disaffected youth.

Let's not forget that this was only Linklater's second film and it wasn't just him that was finding his way, but also the impressive cast that he put together. Largely unknown at the time of the film's release, many of the actors would go on to become part of the Hollywood firmament. We get well judged performances from all sorts of high school types; from Jason London and his jock pals Sasha Jenson and Cole Hauser to Rory Cochrane's stoner, Adam Goldberg's nerd and Ben Affleck, playing one of his most unlikeable characters, as the school bully. The most memorable from the entirely great ensemble, though, is a small but dynamic and scene stealing role for Matthew McConaughey as the older guy who refuses to grow up and move on.

Outwith the performances, Linklater also has a keen eye for capturing the 70's setting (in all it's flair and hair) and taps perfectly into the tone of the era. It's a nostalgic look back at daunting initiations, rebellion and the agonising awkwardness of adolescence and it's told with an affectionate wit and charm. I may not have went to an American high school or got involved in tanning some freshman ass with a pre-made baton but the energy and love for this poignant time really shines through and still operates at a level that will appeal to everyone who has any memory at all of their school experiences or peer pressure.

Sharing much in common with George Lucas' "American Graffiti" or Greg Mottola's more contemporary "Superbad", this is a funny and insightful coming-of-age contemplation. Linklater has delivered some wonderful film's over the years and I'm sure he'll continue to do so but, so far, this is his best film to date. It's absolutely superb.

Mark Walker

The Counselor

Being a huge fan of Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Cormac McCarthy, Ridley Scott was originally planning to adapt his controversial 1985 novel "Blood Meridian" before the project eventually fell through. Scott, however, was given another chance when McCarthy wrote his first ever original screenplay in the mould of "The Counselor". Circling it for a short time, Scott eventually took the reigns and drafted in a star studded cast which led it to be one of the most anticipated movies of 2013. When it finally reached the public-eye, though, it was met with such a vehement backlash that I actually steered clear of it... until now.

Deeply in love with his fianc√ (C)e Laura (Penelope Cruz), The Counselor (Michael Fassbender) aims to provide a high standard of living for her. To do so, he enters into a one-time deal with dangerous drug dealer Reiner (Javier Bardem), his sociopathic girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) and middle-man Westray (Brad Pitt). Despite several warnings about the severe consequences of dealing with the Mexican cartel, The Counselor foolishly decides to go ahead anyway.

"Inert", "directionless", "disjointed", "misjudged" - these are just a few of the adjectives that I came across when "The Counselor" was released to mass disappointment. As a result, I went into it with very heavy reservations. If truth be told, I was preparing to write a scathing review where I could really pick out the flaws and expose them for all their ludicrousness. Much to my surprise then, that after 20 mins I found myself with nothing to criticise and if anything, I started to find my feet in this elaborate thriller and found myself enjoying it more and more with every passing minute. It became apparent that this isn't a film that's "misjudged", this is a film that has received a very misjudged marketing campaign. It's not the fast paced, slick crime thriller that many were expecting but more of a deliberate and philosophical parable about the nature of greed and the rippling effect of immoral decisions.

A lot has been said about McCarthy's first ever screenplay and his unconventional method. Many have claimed it to be deliberately cryptic and indecipherable. Admittedly, at times, it can be but the real key to understanding the film is breaking through our preconceived ideas of how dialogue should be delivered. The answers are there, they just need that extra concentration and willingness to find them. Some lengthy monologues do keep the audience at a particular arms length and it can be difficult to break through their very dense and metaphoric meanings but I managed to play along and actually found the film to be richly rewarding.

It looks fantastic, with wonderful picturesque locations and even though the characters are lavish and colourful, this is still a very believable and foreboding criminal underworld. Scott shows a confident handling of the material and the acting ensemble all seem fully committed to McCarthy's abstract and idiosyncratic prose. I didn't get the impression that they felt strained or unsure of what they were involved in here and that's primarily what makes the film work. Each of their characters are convincing and they all deliver solid performances.

That being said, this is not a film that will appeal to everyone and it's entirely understandable why it hasn't been kindly received. Very little is explained; there's no backstory or linear conclusion and even Fassbender's Counselor is never revealed by name. In fact, those that were critical of the underwhelming epilogue of the Coen brothers' adaptation of McCarthy's "No Country For Old Men" in 2007 will likely be frustrated with "The Counselor" in it's entirety. The whole film operates on that suggestive level. It's a bold and daring move but one that I find respects the audiences ability to read into events and possibilities.

Having been disappointed in a lot of Ridley's Scott's recent films, I was expecting more of the same here. Far from it, though. This is a highly underrated neo-noir that's one of Scott's best efforts for some time and McCarthy constructs a transcendent, almost Shakespearean, tragedy. It only leaves me with hope that this won't be the last time he writes a screenplay - despite it's much maligned reception.

Mark Walker

All Is Lost
All Is Lost(2013)
½

In dealing with the financial meltdown of an investment bank, J.C. Chandor's directorial debut "Margin Call" in 2011, was an impressively handled, fast paced and very dialogue driven film. It also had a who's who of familiar actors as they wheeled and dealed their way out of their crisis with a spot of verbal jousting. Now, in only his second feature, Chandor has left all that behind and delivers a film that couldn't be further from his debut. There's only one actor and you're lucky if you get a couple of lines of dialogue in the entire film.

In the Indian Ocean, a man (Robert Redford) wakes up on his yacht to find that a shipping container, that has been left adrift in the seas, has collided with him. It's ripped a hole in his hull and he's quickly taking in water. He manages to patch it up but a violent storm brings yet more problems and soon, time is running out for him.

As the film opens we are told that it is 1700 nautical miles from the Sumatra straits. That's about all we get in determining where our protagonist is. He's never actually named either - referred only as 'Our Man' in the end credits - so we don't know who he is or why he's there, other than some brief voiceover dialogue informing us that he's sorry for something. Again, we don't know what he's done or who he's apologising to - possibly his family. Either way, he's alone on his yacht and we don't know where he's heading to. That's about as much information as we are given and it doesn't get any clearer. It's this very ambiguity that sets the films tone; it doesn't concern itself with details or backstory or even much dialogue for that matter. This is a meditation on human resilience and determination. Anything else other than that leaves us just as alone as our nameless protagonist. Chandor's intention is to obviously keep things at a minimum and force us to look for the film's themes. Finding these themes, though, is just as elusive as our characters chances of survival. Maybe I missed the point, but all I could find here was the was he was going through some form of penance for his past misdeeds or that the story is an allegory for mortality. Other than that, I felt as lost as him and could fully relate to the film's appropriate title.

That being said, there's still much to admire here. Chandor's minimalist approach manages to balance the vast open space with a real sense of claustrophobia and Redford's paired down performance is absolutely captivating. He has such a comforting and recognisable presence that it's easy to adapt to his character and his isolation. It takes a great actor to be able to hold your attention when they are practically saying nothing and completely carrying a film on their own. Redford's work here is reminiscent of Tom Hanks' exemplary and Oscar nominated performance in "Cast Away" and it's hard to accept that he missed out on an nomination himself, when many expected him to feature. His performance is a very physical one and all the more impressive considering he's now at the tail-end of his 70's. It's a lonely and gruelling journey and despite the lack of dialogue, Redford's subtlety speaks volumes. It's almost as if we we can hear his internal dialogue and the conversation he's continually having with himself. There is much to recommend this film but if there's only one reason to see it, it would be for Redford.

Most of the ingredients are here for a potential modern classic. Chandor's direction is impressive, as is Redford's outstanding central performance. Alex Ebert also conducts a wonderfully ethereal music score that compliments the powerful cinematography.
However, as much as I enjoyed "All Is Lost" for these attributes, I struggled with it's relentlessness and couldn't really see the point of it all.

Mark Walker

Nebraska
Nebraska(2013)

If he's not already there yet, there's no doubt that Alexander Payne is a director who is fast becoming a name that's synonymous with quality. I've yet to see his 1996 debut "Citizen Ruth" but from "Election" in 1999 to the "The Descendants" in 2012, Payne has delivered a consistency that few directors can match. With every film, he just gets better and better and "Nebraska" is no exception.

After receiving a letter from the lottery sweepstakes, elderly Montana resident Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is convinced he's won $1 million and decides to travel to Nebraska to collect his prize. His son David (Will Forte) realises that his fathers growing senility has gotten the better of him but decides to accompany him on the journey to look after him. As they make several stops along the way, David learns more about his father's distant past and how it's shaped the person he is now.

After tackling the road-movie in "About Schmidt" and "Sideways" Payne successfully returns to that sub-genre. Like those aforementioned films he, once again, astutely focuses on the interaction between odd and eccentric individuals who are struggling to come to terms with how their life and relationships have worked out. The beauty of Payne's work is his palpable sense of realism and his consistent ability to capture believable character's in all their frailty and vulnerability and "Nebraska" is no different. In fact, it's arguably his finest work yet.

Working from a cleverly nuanced script by Bob Nelson, Payne's casting choices are what really stand out here. A lot has been said about the Oscar nominated performance of Bruce Dern and I can only add that the plaudits and superlatives this veteran actor has received are all very well deserved. Dern is simply marvellous as the cantankerous old-timer Woody, who's stubbornness and determination drives the narrative. That being said, as good as Dern is, he's not the only one on form here. As his patient and good-natured son, Will Forte delivers solid support and another veteran actor in Stacy Keach brings a reminder of his outstanding qualities and begs the question as to why his talents are not utilised more these days. Added this already fine line-up is the marvellous (and also Oscar nominated) June Squibb, as Woody's pugnacious and passionately pragmatic wife. With Jennifer Lawrence already gathering awards for her performance in "American Hustle" and Lupita N'yongo seemingly the viewers favourite for her performance in "12 Years A Slave", I'm very surprised at how little Squibb's work has been mentioned. I've made my mind up that this unsung actress deserves to go home with the coveted golden baldy. She really is that good.

Primarily, though, this a father/son relationship tale played against the backdrop of a satirical depiction of Americana and it's beautifully touched upon. For a film that has a seemingly sombre and melancholic appearance, it's actually a bittersweet and often hilarious examination of family dynamics, memories and the passing of time which is reflected wonderfully in Payne's decision to shoot in black & white. It's a very wise move and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael's desaturated look not only reflects ageing memories but also the character and mindset of Woody himself, with his outlook and opinion on life consisting of few grey areas.

Payne has crafted a very rich and nuanced character study here, that's not only one of his finest moments but contains some of the best work by everyone involved and is rightly regarded as one the years best films.

Mark Walker

Her
Her(2013)

After bringing the warped and surreal works of Charlie Kaufman's "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation" to the screen, director Spike Jonze carved himself a reputation for the off-beat. However, a misjudged adaptation of Maurice Sendak's classic children's story "Where The Wild Things Are" followed and I have to admit that doubts were raised about his abilities. I wondered how much of Jonze was in his earlier films or did he actually need Kaufman in order to construct something of substance? On the evidence of "Her", though, it's apparent that Jonze is the real deal and fully capable of crafting his own original work.

Spending most of his time writing love letters for others,
Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a very lonely man in the midst of a bitter divorce. In order to find some sort of emotional connection he purchases the world's first artificially intelligent operating system known as the OS1 and going by the name of Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). As they interact, Theodore and Samantha grow closer and closer to the point that they fall in love. However, both of them struggle with the lack of physical interaction and their feelings of elation turn to doubt and inner conflicts.

The first thing that strikes you about "Her" is the gorgeous production and set design by K.K. Barrett and Gene Serdena. Along with cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema they achieve their vision of a not-too-distant future by indulging in lush pastel colours and dated fashion that's reminiscent of the 80's. It's at once both stark yet beautiful and draws comparisons with the work of Stanley Kubrick and his clinical approach to "A Clockwork Orange" or, more so, "2001: A Space Odyssey" in it's reliance on computer operated systems and voice interaction. The now infamous HAL9000 from "2001" is not that far from Samantha and the comfort and correspondence that it provides it's human counterpart. Also like Kubrick's aforementioned Science fiction classic, Jonze's concept of the future concentrates on the abstract and metaphysical. As a result, it taps into the zeitgeist and becomes an important and astute commentary on a generation connected to the world but foolishly ignoring the ability to connect personally.
The growing intelligence of Samantha as an operating system also begs the philosophical question of Cartesian doubt and the relevance of free thought and emotion. As Samantha begins to explore her possibilities, Theodore and the other human characters are drifting towards an empty and soulless existence. This contrast allows Jonze to hint at the problems we can expect in our worrying obsession with technology.

On paper - or to the ear - the concept may sound ridiculous but on a visual and emotional level, Jonze has crafted a sublime piece of work here and it works primarily because of the irresistibly expressive voice talents of Scarlett Johansson and a superb anchoring performance by Joaquin Phoenix. His omission from the Oscar nominations this year is glaring and he can feel himself very unlucky to be so. He delivers the requisite shyness and vulnerability that brings Theodore's loneliness to the fore and it's also worth pointing out that he actually spends most of his time onscreen completely alone. For Jonze to fully realise his vision he needed an actor that could hold your attention and never allow the material to fall prey to absurdity and it's Phoenix's nuanced abilities that drive the heartfelt message to it's Brave-New-Home.

To quote Albert Einstein "I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots". We may not quite have reached that point yet but Jonze's social, Sci-Fi fable about our co-dependence, increasing disconnection and the technology that perpetuates it, is stark and thought provoking material. It's simply a wonderful piece of filmmaking and one of the very best of the year.

Mark Walker

Dallas Buyers Club

There has been no better or more consistent actor over the last few years than that of Matthew McConaughey. It's a fact! From someone who started a bright early career and worked with the likes of such quality directors as Richard Linklater, John Sayles, Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis, he soon drifted into the dreaded rom-com territory that's no better than drifting into obscurity altogether. His reputation wasn't amounting to his early promise and it seemed he would never recover. So when did it all go right for him then? Well, in 2011, he got back in tow with Linklater to do "Bernie" and followed that up with dark and blisteringly brave performances in William Friedkin's "Killer Joe", Lee Daniels' "The Paperboy" and Steven Soderbergh's "Magic Mike". It didn't stop there, though. He continued his solid work in Jeff Nichols' "Mud" and a brief but excellent role in Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf Of Wall Street" before finally delivering this awards laden performance in "Dallas Buyers Club". The resurrection of his career is now complete and McConaughey's work has now, rightfully, gained the respect of critics and viewers alike.

The true story of Ron Woodroof (McConaughey), a hard-drinking, homophobic, Texan Rodeo Rider who discovers one day that he's HIV positive. He's given 30 days to live but when he point-blank refuses to accept it, he learns all he can about the disease and gets involved in backmarket medicine that been proven to help, instead of the government issued treatment that was actually harming patients.

In making it to the screen, the extraordinary true story of Ron Woodroof was one that was fraught with production problems. In the mid 90's it had Woody Harrelson attached to the lead with Dennis Hopper on directing duties before it's financial backing fell through. It then crossed the path of director Marc Forster with Brad Pitt taking on Woodroof. That also fell through before Craig Gillespie and Ryan Gosling entered into talks in 2008. Before anything was decided French/Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée signed up and cast Matthew McConaughey in what's, arguably, the most powerful role he's ever had. Ron Woodroof is a fascinating character and McConaughey's embodiment of him is a tour-de-force performance. Dropping 40lbs, McConaughey's transformation is astonishing. He looks gaunt, withered and seriously ill and masterfully captures both the impending fate of Woodroof and his drive to survive. In order to survive, though, he had to go against medical practice and fight for the right to treat himself with drugs that were unapproved by the government. In doing so, he became somewhat of a saviour to AIDS victims across America during the 80's despite the government and the law fighting him at every step.

It's an extraordinary story that's depicted with heart and passion and being shot on a relative shoestring budget, adds to it's palpable sense of realism. Granted, with a script that's lay in limbo for 20 years or so, there are some creaks and cracks and some slight distortions of facts and dramatic licence on show but this is a film that has a voice and one that demands to be heard. In fact, it's still relevant today. Not just for the community of HIV sufferers but across the treatment of many illnesses. An example being, the government refusal to accept that cannabis can be used for medicinal purposes and it's oils are known to help in cancer treatment. This, of course, doesn't suit the pharmaceutical companies and the business to be made from their "legalised" products. Comparisons have been made between "Dallas Buyer's Club" and Jonathan Demme's "Philadelphia" but I reckon the comparison extends further to Michael Mann's "The Insider" and another example of the small man fighting corporate business, as Jeffrey Wigand did with the tobacco industry.

Comparisons aside, this is still a strong piece of work and it benefits massively from it's committed performers. Too often an actors physical transformation can suggest that that's enough to merit a great performance but McConaughey is more than that here. His acting, really is, top quality stuff and he's supported by Jared Leto with equally impressive commitment. These two actors have been sweeping the awards boards of late and if they go on to win the Oscar, I certainly wouldn't be arguing about it.

Mark Walker

August: Osage County

If you're aware of the work and tone of play-write Tracy Letts (who also provides the screenplay here) then you'll pretty much get the gist of this one. He was responsible for two of William Friedkin's finest moments; the dark, psychological horror "Bug" and the intense and disturbing thriller "Killer Joe". Now, this doesn't quite explore the depravity of those aforementioned films but it's no less powerful in capturing a similar claustrophobic tension.

Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) is a hard-drinking poet who has been living with his cancer stricken wife Violet (Meryl Streep) and her addiction to prescription pills and venomous outbursts for too long. When he suddenly disappears, Violet calls upon their children Barbara (Julia Roberts), Karen (Juliette Lewis) and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) to return home and offer some moral support. The problem is, there are no morals amongst this fractured family as past issues rear their ugly heads.

Following on from the likes of "American Hustle" and "12 Years A Slave" this is another of the years great ensembles. If the Academy Awards deemed it fit (and one day I hope they do) to hand out an award for the efforts of the whole cast then this could consider itself a serious contender. With ensembles of this kind, sometimes a story can struggle to bring depth to a particular one or two but in this case, it felt like every character had their purpose and few, if any, were left unturned. Streep heads the onslaught with as much gusto and grandstanding as she's ever done and acts as the catalyst to the revelations of the inner turmoil amongst her family members. She says what she wants, when she wants and refuses to yield to anyone around her - despite her own serious and damaging shortcomings. Roberts, her eldest daughter, doesn't fall too far from the apple tree though, and gives as good as she gets. Although unlikely to win the Oscar with such strong competition around them, both have been nominated and it's understandable why they have been. It's not just these two on show, though. There is excellent support around them; Chris Cooper is a real standout, as the uncle with a conscience, as is the oft missed Juliette Lewis as the dippy younger sibling and touching performances from Benedict Cumberbatch and Julianne Nicholson as affectionate cousins. The only one that seemed out of place was Ewan McGregor as Roberts' estranged husband. He wasn't bad, but he struggled to get a handle on a decent American accent and it made him stand out from the crowd ever so slightly. However, the family dynamics are still plain to see and the uncomfortable interactions are played out with such fraught tension - including a 25 minute, vitriolic, dinner scene that's one of the finest of the year.

What with the intense acting on show and the characterisation and attention given to each of them, it can often be overlooked how sharp and blackly funny the dialogue is and how intricate Letts' writing can be. It's not only masterfully acted but masterfully written as well. Letts' Pulitzer-Prize winning play has many layers and even though it sometimes comes across as slightly uneven due to director John Wells not being the most experienced in peeling those layers back, the actors certainly don't miss their chance and sink their teeth, firmly, into them.

There may be an overly pessimistic and downbeat tone to this dysfunctional family affair but it's containment of black humour manages to balance the venom and spite that can so often be found in family feuds and makes for hugely enjoyable theatrics.

Mark Walker

The Wolf of Wall Street
½

Although retirement may possibly be on the horizon for one of America's finest directors, at age 71, Martin Scorsese certainly doesn't look like he's slowing down. If anything, he's as racy as he's ever been and shows as much energy as someone half his age. "The Wolf Of Wall Street" may not be his most original approach to filmmaking. We've seen all this before as it strongly resembles the structure and downfall of Henry Hill in "Goodfellas". It does feel a little like he's repeating himself here but it's still entirely suitable for the story he's relating. I can't see how else he would have done it. If he'd played it more straight, it probably wouldn't have worked. He had to be outrageous and for that, it's most certainly amongst his funniest outings.

Based in the memoirs of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), a Long Island penny stockbroker who served 36 months in prison for defrauding investors in a massive 1990s securities scam that involved widespread corruption on Wall Street and in the corporate banking world,

On the surface of Scorsese's latest tale of amorality it can often look like he's glorifying the capitalist system and the enjoyment that wealth can bring but, in actual fact, this is less of a glorification and more of an indictment on American wolfishness or rapacity and the ruthlessness therein. He exposes corporate business in all of it's avarice but never has such covetousness or amorality been so thoroughly enjoyable. This is thanks, in large, to Scorsese's approach to the absurdity of it all and the commitment from all involved. What's most apparent is it's kinetic energy and the superb performances across the board. The ball really starts to roll with the energetic introduction of Matthew McConaughey. When he appears - as experienced stockbroker Mark Hanna - and gives a young, wet-behind-the-ears Belfort a lesson on how to succeed, he's the catalyst for the mayhem that ensues. McConaughey's role is short but sets the hilarious tone of the film wonderfully. From there, it's all about Belfort taking his lesson and running with it. And run he does. This is one of DiCaprio's best and bravest performances. He delivers a virile and dynamic show that actually demands him to be very physical. Not just dramatically but comedically as well, and he handles both angles with aplomb. If truth be told, DiCaprio has a funny bone that I never realised he possessed. With his running commentary on the events that took place, he breaks the fourth wall to add a more personal and involving touch and makes the audience complicit in all of his dodgy dealings and shenanigans.

As it's constructed in a non-linear approach, our first introduction to Belfort's debauchery (when he's already successful) sees him, literally, tossing dwarves at a dartboard to indulge his hedonistic ways before we then see him snorting cocaine from a prostitutes arse. And that's just the beginning... What's follows is one of the most raunchy and outrageous films that Scorsese and DiCaprio have ever been involved in. When things are in full swing they're positively rampant; every other minute we are exposed to naked women, orgies, public masturbation and enough drug taking to kill a small horse. By now, most people will have heard about the Quaaludes overdose scene which is absolutely hilarious and DiCaprio nails the histrionics as if he were a comic genius. He's not the only one on form here, though, he's aided immeasurably by Jonah Hill. Hill has already proven that he has great comic timing but, as he did in 2010's "Moneyball", he shows his solid acting chops again. The film benefits greatly from his presence and genuinely earns it's laughs. Nothing feels forced and it's great to see Scorsese handle so many hilarious scenes with the skill that he does. Granted, he's tackled (dark) comedies before in "The King Of Comedy" and "After Hours", but this is a very different beast altogether.

The characters are certainly on the wrong end of the moral scale and teeter on the brink of losing your affection but with Scorsese's deft handling of the tonal shifts he keeps the saga of their rambunctious and disorderly behaviour highly entertaining and holds your attention throughout it's lengthy (but not overlong) three hour duration.

Scorsese and DiCaprio push new limits here with their tenacity and extravagance and the result could quite happy rest with the moniker... Raging Balls.

Mark Walker

Rush
Rush(2013)

Before he became a director, Ron Howard was originally known for his acting as Richie Cunningham from ‚Happy Days‚? and that character seems to have plagued his career since. Howard can certainly resemble the character‚(TM)s name in some ways; He makes production companies ‚~rich‚(TM) and he most certainly delivers ‚~ham‚(TM) but he lacks the ‚~cunning‚(TM) to be the truly great director that he perceives himself to be. Please excuse the very poor puns but if Howard can get away with as many clich√ (C)s as he does, then I deem myself the right to use as many bad puns as I want. ‚Rush‚? is further proof of Howard‚(TM)s over-praised talents and no amount of money or positive word-of-mouth will change that.

The real-life story of British playboy James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and pragmatic Austrian Niki Lauda (Daniel Br√ 1/4hl) who develop a bit of a rivalry while racing in their younger years in Formula 3. As both of them grow in stature and skill, though, they soon make it to the top of the sport and find themselves in fierce competition with one another for the coveted Formula 1 Championship.

So, Hollywood hack Ron Howard is up to his old tricks again. I‚(TM)d heard so many good things about this film beforehand and upon it‚(TM)s opening it seemed like they were all true; there was a good feel for the 70‚≤s setting; there was an interesting dynamic between the characters; there was the anticipation of these characters going head-to-head in a historical sporting rivalry; the racing scenes were even shaping up as the film‚(TM)s momentum grew and‚¶ then‚¶ well‚¶ Howard couldn‚(TM)t help himself. He pulled out his dog-eared, almanac of Hollywood clich√ (C)s and finger-licked his way through the pages to tick all possible boxes. Dramatic licence was cranked into 7th gear and every moment that could have melodrama, was indeed, very melodramatic. Subtlety went out the window quicker than a discarded cigarette butt; the schmaltzy music was used at every possible turn and the film became more manipulative by every shifting gear. There was no resistance to include each sports flick clich√ (C) in the book: the watching family and friends at home; the growing respect between the rivals before the big event ‚" which in this case, results in a ridiculous salute ‚" and, of course, the obligatory and overly-descriptive sports commentary that no film of this genre can do without.

You have to feel a bit sorry for the actors, though. They are actually quite good; Hemsworth brings the requisite cocksure arrogance to James Hunt and Daniel Br√ 1/4hl brings the dramatic weight and focused determination to Niki Lauda. However, even their performances can‚(TM)t quite overshadow the ridiculously tacked on dialogue. Of which, I‚(TM)m quite surprised about. Screenwriter Peter Morgan is normally quite reliable but here, his material is in the hands of an unoriginal and very generic director. When will people finally come to the realisation that Ron Howard is a buffoon. He epitomises everything that‚(TM)s bad about Hollywood and only serves the high powered executives who‚(TM)s interest is solely in commercial gain.

Doing very well with the box-office and viewers alike, I was lulled into a false sense of security and expectation with this. Considering the acclamations I had heard, I was surprised to see it omitted from this years Oscar nominations (as many others seemed to be) but I have to say, the Academy got it spot on here. This film was simply and categorically abysmal and it‚(TM)s laughable to even consider it amongst the years best. Quite frankly, this it‚(TM)s one of the most colour-by-numbers and weakest of 2013.

‚Rush‚, you say? After two hours, I was in a rush for this stinker to pull into a pit-stop and get written off. The skid marks in my underwear carry more weight and interest than any you‚(TM)ll see in this film.

Mark Walker

12 Years a Slave
½

After so vividly scrutinising the agony and the plight of Irish revolutionary Bobby Sands, in his 2008 directorial debut "Hunger" and following that up with an equally agonising portrait of sex addiction in 2011's "Shame", artist turned director Steve McQueen quickly established himself as a very raw and unflinching filmmaker. As did, his fearless leading actor Michael Fassbender. Now, with their third collaboration, it doesn't look like they've had any change of heart and tackle the painful subject of slavery in 1840's America.

Based on the incredible true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man in pre-Civil War Saratoga. As a talented musician he is lured to Washjngton D.C. with the promise of paid work before awaking to find himself in chains and sold into slavery where he endures a long fight for his freedom.

It could be said that the common theme that runs throughout McQueen's films is polemical; "Hunger" addressed the political atrocities forced upon the Irish while "Shame" addressed the nuerotic, psychological condition satyriasis and how it's just as empty and unfulfilling for men as nymphomania is for women. With "12 Years A Slave", there's no doubt about the polemic that McQueen is addressing. It's one that has resided in the heart and history of America (and the world) since it's inception and one that should never be forgotten. On this evidence it's clear that McQueen is in no mood to allow you to forget. He depicts these atrocities with such brutal condemnation and documents this dark period of American history with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. He refuses to pull any punches, even lingering long on shots of abuse and punishment, forcing you to stay with it and not giving you the chance to divert your gaze. One scene in particular has Solomon on his tiptoes, noose around his neck and struggling to preserve his life by staying upright. Meanwhile, the plantation workers go about their business and children play in the background. It's sobering and excruciating to watch but essential viewing.
Much has been said about the solid work of Ejiofor in the lead and his acclaimed performance is entirely justified. This is an actor that manages to convey emotion with the blink of an eye and extremely subtle facial expressions. He's so subtle that his performance is an absolute masterclass in minimalism. This leaves Fassbender to play the opposite. He tears the screen up with a ferocity and shows why McQueen always manages to get the very best from him. They're starting to develop an almost Scorsese/DeNiro like understanding and I, for one, welcome it wholeheartedly. When "Hunger" and "Shame" were released, there was no other actor that was better or more committed to their roles than Fassbender yet he was shamefully overlooked for awards. It's now time to remedy those mistakes and recognise this man as one of the very best around at present. Fassbender's Edwin Epps is a detestable and highly controlling individual. He's prone to wild fits of rage but under his eyes hide the gaze of a man who's struggling with his own demons while relying on scripture to excuse his abusive behaviour. The object of his unwanted affection and abuse is the fragile Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) who not only has to endure all physical and sexual abuse from Epps but she must also endure the jealous wrath of his wife (Sarah Paulson). For Patsey, there really is no let-up in the relentless nature of her existence. If Nyong'o is the beating heart of the film then Fassbender is the visceral head and Ejiofor, most certainly, the dignified soul. All three of them deliver performances of such outstanding vigour and commitment. As much as it's these three who shine the most, though, the surrounding cast members deliver some solid work too; Cumberbatch as a more gentlemanly slave owner; Giamatti as a insensitive trader and particularly the aforementioned Paulson as Epps' vindictive spouse. There's also some light delivered from producer Brad Pitt but his late appearance as one of the truly decent white characters seems somewhat misplaced and distracting due to his star wattage. It's also around this point that you realise that the film has no real sense of time, it's hard to decipher where we stand and how long Solomon has been subjected to his detention and labour and even though the film so thoroughly captures the endurance of the human spirit, ultimately, it fails to add anything further to the ongoing debate about slavery itself.
Despite these were minor quibbles, though, McQueen still delivers a vital and overwhelming cinematic achievement.

With Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" drawing the film year to a close in 2012, it's fitting that McQueen should end 2013 with what could be considered that film's perfect companion piece. Not easy viewing by any means but this is an important and cathartic elegy about the determination for survival against insuperable odds.

Mark Walker

American Hustle
½

Following on from the Oscar winning success of "The Fighter" and "Silver Lining's Playbook", director David O. Russell is seemingly intent on sticking with a winning formula. His choice of actors in "American Hustle" have all delivered wonderful work for him in the past, so it makes sense to go with the ensemble that he has. Bale and Adams return from the former and Cooper, Lawrence and DeNiro return from the latter. One thing's for certain, it was a very wise decision as every one of them deliver excellent work again.

Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) runs a meagre dry-cleaning business but also isn't adverse to the odd scam to boost his bank account. With partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), Iriving is soon caught by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). They end up cutting a deal whereby Irving will receive clemency if he catches other high-profile offenders - mainly New Jersey politician Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) - in the act. Irving agrees to the sting but his loose-cannon wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) threatens to undo the whole deal.

Originally titled "American Bullshit" and loosely based on the FBI ABSCAM sting-operation of the late 70's and early 80's, this was one of those black listed Hollywood scripts that lay dormant for years. I really can't fathom why, though, as the material is strong stuff and ripe for any self-indulgent audience's enjoyment. The most striking aspect to it, is it's abundance of style. It has a great feel for the time and place that lends a reminder of Paul Thomas Anderson's "Boogie Nights" but the biggest influence of David O. Russell's approach here is, undoubtedly, the style of Martin Scorsese and his crime movies "Casino", or in particular, "Goodfellas". There are flash cuts, zoom effects and numerous voiceover's that are quite obviously an unashamed nod to the great auteur's work. Yes, it's been done before but O. Russell is clever enough to know that it will work again. And it does. The one thing that he doesn't manage to achieve, though, is an effective pace. His direction is skilfully handled but also strangely misleading. The film looks like it's moving fast but the pace is slightly off, leaving you feeling adrift during some periodic lulls. Although this was a shortcoming that I couldn't overlook, it's really the only one the film has.

Everything else culminates into one of the most enjoyable films of the year. What it lacks in drive it makes up for in style and an excellent, on-form ensemble. Christian Bale goes through another impressive transformation by putting on 40lbs and sporting a hilarious combover (of which, we are treated to the meticulous time and effort that he puts into getting it right). He a towering presence and one that should, at the very least, see him get another Oscar nomination. The two female leads are also exceptional; I've always been a big fan of Amy Adams and her role here only further confirms why she's one the best around at present while Jennifer Lawrence can do no wrong these days. In the hands of lesser actresses these roles could have blended into the background but they both add a three dimensional edge that I suspect wasn't there on paper. Bradley Cooper also holds his own amongst these heavyweights and utilises his comedic chops to good effect. It also doesn't hinder his chances when even he's cutting around in a perm that's tighter than the script. Added to this, we are treated to a brief cameo by a bald Robert DeNiro who, despite very limited screen time, still manages the requisite criminal menace as we've become accustomed to and adds yet another nod to Scorsese. Apparently there was a lot of ad-lib between the actors which only reinforces how good their respective performances are and with them spearheading this elaborate show, you're taken along for the ride. Who's conning who? And are we marked for the big con too? These are the questions that lie at the heart of this film and like the hairstyles, you never quite know what to believe. What you can take comfort in, is knowing that curlers and hairspray are only products of masquerading as something else. The characters do and the film does too but the fun is in finding out what's underneath.

A vibrant and colourful tapestry of genres buoyed by rich and off-beat characters. It may have pacing issues but this is still a film that's hard to criticise as it has so much in its favour.

Mark Walker

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Now a year down the line, the residing question of wether Peter Jackson's decision to adapt "The Hobbit" into a trilogy was a wise choice or not, has now become a little easier to answer. I'd have to say, that he can probably feel somewhat vindicated as his vision seems to be working. That being said, there's still an abundance of padding and repetition going on in this second instalment - just as there was in the first - but Jackson has definitely improved here by ironing out the creases a little more.

Now fully on their journey to Erabor and the Kingdom under the mountain, Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and the dwarves must find their way through a dark, arachnid filled, forest before escaping the clutches of Elfin King Thranduil (Lee Pace) and a horde of rampaging Orcs. All this before they've even faced their biggest adversary yet... "the serpent of the north".

With all the character building already established in "The Unexpected Journey" and the omission of the drawn out and, frankly, tedious songs, Jackson finds his feet on more solid ground here. These aforementioned hang-up's are what hindered the pace of the first instalment but with them now put to the side, we are allowed to enter the fray from the outset which benefits the film immeasurably. Once again, Jackson shows his highly creative abilities in staging an action set-piece and that's where most of the enjoyment comes from. He introduces some new and old characters that really kick things up a gear, especially the inclusion (or invention) of Evangeline Lilly's elfin warrior Thariel, who adds a much needed strong female character to the proceedings and Orlando Bloom's Legolas makes a welcome return. Both of whom, find themselves in the midst of a high speed river chase that's one of the film's most impressive and exciting action sequences. Speaking of which, there are many moments that are marvellously and thrillingly handled; the giant spiders in the forest to Gandalf's confrontation with the Necromancer and the showdown with Smaug as Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) storms the mountain to reclaim his throne. Although exceptionally handled they, once again, have a tendency to feel relentless and leave very little room for actual storytelling or characterisation.

Martin Freeman is still perfectly suited for Bilbo but there's so much going on around him that he seems like a side character in his own story. Much of the focus is on the dwarves and even then, very few of them actually get to really bring their characters forth, with the exception of Armitage's Thorin and the fragility of his strong facade. The absence of Andy Serkis' Gollum is also a major drawback but Jackson does have an ace up his sleeve with the astounding motion capture of Benedict Cumberbatch as the fearsome dragon, Smaug.

It's through exploring the darker territory of Smaug or the Necromancer that Jackson's willingness to gain momentum is apparent. The laborious nature of the first is tightened up and there's no denying this one's energy or it's ability to entertain. Things are kept very exciting and Jackson maintains your interest right up until the final moment where we close on a blank screen... frustratingly, awaiting part three.

Despite some of the criticisms I heard (and shared) about "The Unexpected Journey", I still thoroughly enjoyed the film and, ultimately, that's the whole point. It's escapism of the highest kind. With this being an improvement on that, it still boasts well for the trilogy to go out with a bang, in the way "The Lord of the Rings" done so brilliantly.

Mark Walker

Fruitvale Station
½

I have to admit that the events that took place involving Oscar Grant on December 31st, 2009, weren't all that familiar to me. I have vague memories of hearing something but there wasn't very much UK media coverage about this day. As a result, I went into this film rather blind and for those that find themselves in the same situation as myself, I'd advise that they leave it that way. It makes the story all the more effective and hard-hitting but even if you are aware of this man and what happened, there's still no denying how raw and effecting this film truly is.

22 year-old Bay Area resident Oscar Grant (Michael B.Jordan) has a bit of colourful past but he wants to change so that he can be a better son to his mother (Octavia Spencer), a better partner to his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz) and, most importantly, a better father to his young daughter (Ariana Neal). However he hard he tries, though, his fate isn't always in his own hands.

In the event of giving away too many details, I'll try to avoid spoilers where I can here. I'm sure that by now, most people will be aware of how the events played out, either by reading others' reviews or being aware of it first hand but it's not my intention to reveal anything for those that are still in the dark. As previously mentioned I knew very little about the story other than hearing some glowing reviews (which I largely avoided) and that the film won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. These were enough to know that I had to check the film out. I'm really glad I did, but it also left me speechless. When the end credits were rolling, I sat in silence with the emotional weight almost too heavy to bare.

This is a heartfelt and harrowing story that benefits all the more from first time director Ryan Cooglar's documentary like approach. There is a heavy sense of realism and the largely unknown cast, deliver fantastic performances. The real standout is, of course, a towering lead performance by Michael B. Jordan. The only time I've seen this actor was in 2012's impressive found-footage film "Chronicle" but after this, I'm certain we'll be seeing a lot more of him. This young actor is a real talent and he brings the requisite heart and commitment to portraying Oscar Grant. He makes sure that we empathise with his character despite his personal flaws and maintains the balance of a story that could easily have fell too far into sentiment or manipulation. Oscar Grant was a family man but he was by no means perfect. He struggled to provide for his family and had served time in prison for drug dealing, as well as possessing a temper that would often get him in trouble. Despite these failings, his heart always seemed in the right place and Jordan displays a whole myriad of emotions to capture this flawed individual striving for a better life. Will Jordan be remembered when the Academy Award nominations are handed out? Probably not, but I certainly wouldn't complain if he did feature. He delivers one of the performances of the year here.

With all this in mind, it would seem that this is a downbeat and depressing film. It's not. For the most part, we are given an intimate glimpse into this man's life and there are many positives to be taken from it. The approach is naturalistic and never comes across as intrusive or with a heavy heart. That is... until the devastatingly, visceral and emotional finale.

With a solid, multi-dimensional, leading performance that's reminiscent of a young Denzel Washington, Michael B. Jordan will not go unrecognised. Nor will the very talented writer-director Ryan Cooglar who, in his debut, delivers one the best and most harrowing films of 2013.

Mark Walker

Don Jon
Don Jon(2013)

For anyone remotely interested in film, it's been hard not to notice or monitor the rise of Joseph Gordon-Levitt over recent times. Sure, he started off as a child actor in 1988 and appeared in such television shows as "Family Ties", "L.A. Law" and "Quantum Leap". He made his film debut in Robert Redford's "A River Runs Through It" before arguably becoming a household name in the brilliant TV show "3rd Rock from the Sun". Since then, his meteoric rise has went from strength to strength in both independent and blockbuster movies. "Don Jon" now marks another achievement in Gordon-Levitt's career; it's his writing and directorial debut and it's a very strong footing to start on.

Jon Martello (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a New Jersey playboy - nicknamed "Don Jon" for his ability to pick-up a different girl every night. He soon meets his match in Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson) and decides to leave his old habits to the side as he tries to succeed in a meaningful relationship. However, there's one habit that Jon can't break and that's his obsession and addiction to internet porn.

From the offset this film bombards us with sexual images of scantily clad women in bikinis; they're on the beach, they're at sports events, they're on adverts and within minutes it's clear that Gordon-Levitt's intentions are to remind us of the sexual exploitation of women in our society. It's a less than subtle device but very effective all the same. We then get to meet the man himself - "Don Jon", staring blankly at his laptop with a box of hankies by his side and talking us through his love for internet porn. At this point, I was reminded of Michael Fassbender's character in Steve McQueen's "Shame" and how male's with a high labido and sexual prowess are being scrutinised in more depth in contemporary cinema.
Their bravado is not a sign of strength, but weakness, and it's refreshing to see the layers and indiscretions of such a character more exposed. Fassbender gave the performance of the year in 2012 and deserved kudos for his bravery in that role. Gordon-Levitt deserves likewise; he doesn't shy from away from depicting his character as anything less than an asshole. With a towering physique and predatory demeanour, he no longer looks like the average boy-next-door and impressively handles his most unsympathetic role yet. It's not just his performance that stands out, though. His ability to handle his supporting cast, draws out excellent performances from everyone involved and the subtlety of his writing brings a three-dimensional edge to all the characters. His relationship with Scarlett Johansson's Barbara, for example, only serves to reflect himself. On the surface, it would seem that they are completely different but it takes the shallowness of one to expose the other and the relationship with his father (an excellent Tony Danza) hints at where Jon may have been influenced in his views on the opposite gender. There's a maturity to Gordon Levitt's writing and to do it under the guise of a romantic-comedy is cleverly done. Some may categorise this film in that genre but I found it to be more of an astute character study and a welcome commentary on our increasingly distant society (his sister is always preoccupied with her phone and doesn't interact with anyone) or the tokenism of religious beliefs where everything with be absolved with a few Hail Mary's or Acts of Contrition. All is not lost, though, as hope comes in the form of a free spirited Julianne Moore where Gordon-Levitt seizes the opportunity to lambast the beauty myth and urges us to look further than the imposed objectification of women.

It would be hard for anyone to deny that Joseph Gordon-Levitt is one of the most consistent in the business. He's everywhere at the moment and, thankfully, it doesn't look like he's about to go away anytime soon. All eyes may have been on him as he ventured into different territory here but - if you'll pardon the pun - he manages to pull it off.

Mark Walker

500 Days of Summer

Before he was given big bucks and entrusted with reinventing the franchise of "The Amazing Spider-Man", director Marc Webb cut his directorial teeth on this highly appealing and (un)romantic-comedy. For a debut it's very impressively handled and brings a fresh approach to the tired old boy-meets-girl formula.

Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) could be an architect but finds himself working for a greeting card company in New Jersey. It's here that he meets Summer (Zooey Deschanel) and believes she could be the girl of his dreams. Summer isn't interested in having a boyfriend but they soon become an item regardless. However, things don't quite work out the way Tom planned as he recounts the 500 days that led to their break-up and where it all went wrong.

I have to take this moment to remind people never to judge a film by it's poster. I'm sure many of you don't make this mistake very often but Marc Webb's "(500) Days of Summer" is a film that fell prey to my judgement purely by it's poster and it exuding the appearance of just another romantic-comedy. Categorically, I avoid these types of films. I even overlooked the fact that it had two exceptionally talented leads in Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel. Much to my surprise then, that within minutes of the film starting I was informed by the narration that "This is a story of boy meets girl, but you should know upfront, this is not a love story". I was hooked. From the offset I admired the film's chutzpah and my perseverance and attention were greatly rewarded. This narration wasn't entirely true as it is still a love story but it's done out with the realms of convention and that "love story" really only concerns one half of the relationship. Where the film finds it's appeal is in it's non-linear structure and it's ability to effortlessly flit back and forth in time, giving you an inside look at the whole anatomy of a relationship. In doing so, it provides a fabulous vehicle for Gordon-Levitt to show a wide range of emotions; one minute he's elated and dancing through the streets, the next he miserable and buying twinky's and Jack Daniels for breakfast. It's this disjointed approach that brings a stylish originality and quirky, off-beat sense of humour that's impossible to resist.

With a sharp script, two very appealing central performances, a well judged balance of emotions and
excellent and well placed song choices, there's not much more you can ask for when it comes to this genre. I'm hoping that with the likes of this, "Ruby Sparks" and "Silver Linings Playbook" that the rom-com is taking itself a little more seriously now. These films have so much originality that they could spare some to the dross that mainly features Jennifer Aniston or Kate Hudson.

Mark Walker

Le samouraÔ
Le samouraÔ(1967)
½

When a film is revered as a classic of world cinema by viewers and critics alike, it's only so long before you have to check it out for yourself. In the case of Jean-Pierre Melville's "Le Samoura√Į", I did just that, and I didn't regret it for minute. It's entirely understandable why this features on my people's lists of favourites.

Jef Costello (Alain Delon), is a hitman who lives alone and has very little human interaction or real relationships. It's the code he lives by in order to remain professional. After completing his contract killing of a nightclub owner, Costello lets his guard down and is witnessed by one of the club's singers. Before he knows it, he's brought in by the police who suspect he's guilty but don't have the evidence to prove it. He's released, but the police are on his trail and so are his employers who now see him as a liability.

As the film opens we linger on a shot of a small desolate room containing only a birdcage and a bed. At first site, it appears the room is empty until you notice a man lying on the bed, smoking a cigarette and saying nothing. This opening shot alone, sets the tone for what is to come in Jean-Pierre Melville's fastidious and incisive near masterpiece. Melville wastes no time on backstory or over explaining the plot. He also has an aversion to dialogue but a very high inclination on style and content. What dialogue there is, is short and to the point. Things are as they are, and that's it. Although, this might sound like there's very little substance to be had here, that couldn't be farther from the truth. Despite, Melville's minimalist approach, the film is awash with symbolism and a deep existential core. This is a director that paved the way for French New Wave cinema, but when you look at his work here, you realise he wasn't as flashy as, say, Jean Luc Goddard or as disjunctive as Francois Truffaut. Melville opts more for restraint and meticulous detail. It's here that he's served perfectly in his leading man Alain Delon. Very rarely have I seen an actor do (and say) practically nothing yet remain so magnetic. Delon is absolutely superb and one of cinema's quintessential and most compelling anti-hero's.

Despite the obvious restraint from cast and crew, though, the film's not without it's moments of masterfully crafted tension. An exchange with the police as they try to identify Costello in a line-up is drawn out and quietly suspenseful and a brilliantly constructed chase on the French metro - which has influenced such directors as William Friedkin in "The French Connection" or Brian De Palma in "Carlito's Way". But again, Melville or Delon never overplay it. The tension is purely built on a sense of realism and grows from their reservation and seemingly stoic approach. When you break "Le Samourai" down a little, you'll see the inspiration that it's had on many films since; directors Jim Jarmusch and John Woo have openly declared the effect it had on them and their films "Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai" and "The Killer", respectively. Even Quentin Tarantino has claimed it to be his favourite gangster film.

It's easy to see why this postmodern, art-house, thriller has appealed and influenced so many filmmakers, as Melville manages to seamlessly blend Western crime folklore with the traditions and warrior codes of the East. He gives it that classic noir look and feel that was so prevalent in the American movies of the 30's and 40's and his vision of Paris' underworld (in desaturated colour) echoes that of American noir in his use of nightclubs, enigmatic jazz singers and dark streets and alleyways that reflect an almost war ravaged city.

Tarantino himself, is guilty of moulding a generation of crime loving cinema goers who expect gratuitous violence and have a propensity for fast talking mobsters. However, when you look back at the stylish and meditative work of Melville, you realise that in order to capture an audience's attention, you don't have to have Mexican standoff's or be talking about Big Kahuna burgers or getting medieval on people's asses with a pair of pliers and a blowtorch. Simplicity can be just as effective.

Mark Walker

Prisoners
Prisoners(2013)

In 2011, Canadian director Denis Villeneuve's "Incendies" received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language film. For that, he depicted a family that ventured on a journey of discovery. In "Prisoners", Villeneuve turns his eye to another bleak family drama where 'discovery' is, once again, the driving force behind his characters' motivations.

After a thanksgiving meal, two young girls go missing. The fathers of the girls, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) refuse to accept the procedure of the police in their investigation and take it upon themselves to be very active in the manhunt. When the main suspect (Paul Dano) is released from custody, Keller takes extreme measures in finding the answers to his daughters whereabouts.

Set in a cold, working class, Northwestern town, the look and feel for "Prisoners" is established from the off-set. It's harsh and bleak environment is reflective of the characters that inhabit it and Villeneuve wastes no time in depicting it's grim tale of child abduction. In it's early stages and premise, both of the lead actors reminded me very much of two Sean Penn films: Jackman's tortured father resembled that of Penn's character in "Mystic River" and Gyllenhaal's doggedly determined police officer echoed the work of Jack Nicholson in Penn's marvellous directorial outing "The Pledge". Like these aforementioned films, "Prisoners" benefits from being anchored by these powerful leads. I'm not normally a fan of Jackman but the man cannot be faulted here, in his ferocious turn as a protective father, stricken helpless and with no control over his situation or grief. His furious and emotional outbursts are entirely believable and Gyllenhaal's subtle ticks and repressed display of a very similar character compliments the work of Jackman. On the outskirts, an impressive supporting cast are assembled in Paul Dano; Oscar winner Melissa Leo and Nominees Viola Davis and Terrence Howard, although the very talented likes of Davis and Howard are somewhat wasted in thankless roles that don't utilise their talents to the full.

In capturing the stark environment, cinematographer Roger Deakins delivers some sublime work. In a time of recession, this small town has little or no future and it's grim reality and sense of desperation and paranoia oozes from every pore. Villeneuve also cleverly plays with time; the town has come to a standstill during the investigation and even though every day counts for the grief stricken families, time seems laborious and torturous. The twists and turns of events unfold at their own pace making this, for the most part, a very tight and involving thriller. However, at two and half hours, the film is a little overlong with the final 30 minutes consisting of some tenuous and cliched plot developments and a few too many red herrings but these only stand out because the film is so strong up until then.

A solid and unrelenting thriller that has some uncomfortable moments and an ever shifting moral compass. "Prisoners" is the perfect title in describing the entrapment - in one way or another - of each of the characters but when it comes to the audience, director Villeneuve doesn't take any.

Mark Walker

Prince Avalanche
½

David Gordon Green is a director who's work I'm largely unfamiliar with. I've never been drawn to the comedies "Pineapple Express", "Your Highness" of "The Sitter". However, I've heard that he's done some good dramatic material in "George Washington". Before this, the only film I had actually seen, that he was involved in, was Jeff Nichols' "Shotgun Stories" - on which Gordon Green was a producer. That being said, if "Prince Avalanche" is anything to go by, then I reckon I could find some enjoyment from his previous outings, as well as future endeavours that he might be involved in.

After a forest fire scorches a whole stretch of Texan landscape, two workmen set about remarking the road. Alvin (Paul Rudd) is the thoughtful, intelligent type while Lance (Emile Hirsch) is only concerned with girls and parties and only got the job because Alvin is dating his older sister. As they set to the monotonous work at hand and struggle to connect with each other, they receive news from back home that the women in their lives are no longer interested in them. This causes them both to assess themselves and the choices they've made in life.

Gordon Green's strange little drama is apparently a faithful remake of an Icelandic film called "Either Way" made in... I haven't actually seen that so I have no prior knowledge in making a comparison. That being said, I still found plenty to enjoy here. I've always been partial to, off-kilter, character studies and that's the best way I can describe this bittersweet and unconventional little film. It's one of those pieces that refuses to be pigeonholed and suffice to say it's, at times, strongly meditative and heartfelt, while at others showing a subtle humour and canny observation for the need for human interaction. The characters go nowhere fast and very little happens but, thankfully, the director isn't going anywhere either and is happy to focus on the strained and awkward relationship between two lost and lonely souls that find some solace in each other. A great example of minimalist cinema that's held together by a perfectly pitched Paul Rudd and an overweight Emile Hirsch (looking a little like Jack Black). The two of them are great and hold the film together despite some periodic lulls while cinematographer Tim Orr consistently keeps things interesting in his striking choices of imagery. So much so, that the barren landscape becomes a character in itself.

An odd and eccentric little odyssey, about life, loss and rebirth that has some insightful things to say about our connections with past and present.

Mark Walker

Europa Report
½

Being released in the same year as the big-budgeted and visually stunning "Gravity" would normally hinder the successful chances of any other film in the science-fiction genre. However, Sebastien Cordoro's "Europa Report" actually manages to find it's own niche and invigoration by relying purely on a strong premise and confidence in it's delivery. It will, most certainly, not pull in the revenue or audience of "Gravity" but it's proof, yet again, that coughing up the green isn't always necessary when venturing into the cosmos.

Aboard Europa One, a crew of six astronauts embark on a privately funded mission to search for life on Jupiter's fourth largest moon. After six months all communication with mission control is lost but the crew carry on regardless and discover an unexplained bioluminescence underneath the moons surface. When mission control finally regain contact with the ship, they discover what actually happened to the crew and what the mysterious lighted object was.

The first thing that strikes you about this film is it's excellent use of atmosphere and it's foreboding music that captures a suitably sinister tone from the off-set. Even though it's running on a cheaper budget than the aforementioned Alfonso Cauron blockbuster, it still manages a strikingly crisp appearance. The most impressive aspect to it, though, is it's simple yet entirely feasible concept. Europa (Jupiter's fourth largest moon) actually does have an ice surface and scientists hypothesise that there is a water ocean beneath it, meaning extraterrestrial life is entirely possible and it's through this, that screenwriter Philip Gelatt succeeds in relating his story.

In bringing Gelatt's story to the screen Cordoro's decision to use the found footage approach not only suits his budgetary constraints but also the the material itself. It plays out like a Nasa documented mission, interspersed with interviews of the crew and in doing so, achieves the desired sense of realism. Having a multinational (and relatively unknown) cast also adds this, much in the same way that Danny Boyle's "Sunshine" benefited from not knowing which crew member will perish at any given time. The found footage approach is so understated that it's easy to forget that the film falls into that sub-genre. It's intimacy also contributes to clever use of tension that builds slowly and effectively and any reliance on CGI is kept to a minimum.

Despite some ponderous moments that make the film feel longer than it actually is, the only real issue I had was the payoff: like so many films of this type - particularly in the horror genre - it's when the big reveal is delivered that it falters and detracts from the tension and the unknown, which made the film so strong in the first place.

Other than that, this is a highly impressive endeavour and, for the most part, a solid indie science fiction thriller. It won't have you in awe like "Gravity" but it will have you pondering the credible possibilities in our solar system.

Mark Walker

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

In 1934, Frank Capra's "It Happened One Night" made Academy Awards history by becoming the first film to win all top five Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress & Screenplay. 80 years on, this is an accomplishment that has only been achieved twice since that time. Most recently was in 1991 with Jonathan Demme's "The Silence of the Lambs" and the other (that's the most deserving of them all) is this 1975 adaptation of Ken Kesey's radical novel.

Randall Patrick McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) is a convict who fakes insanity to escape the confines of prison and instead, spend his remaining years of incarceration in a mental hospital. McMurphy gets more than he bargain for though, when he comes across the tyrannical Head Nurse (Louise Fletcher). Rebelling against her control over the vulnerable patients, McMurphy turns the hospital ward upside-down with his wildly infectious and challenging personality, which incurs the wrath of the embittered Nurse.

Now widely considered a classic of American cinema, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" was not without it's problems in making it to the screen. The film rights to Kesey's novel were actually owned by Kirk Douglas who starred in the 1963 Broadway production. However, there wasn't a major studio that was interested in financing it. Douglas' intention was to reprise the leading role but the film took so long to get off the ground, that it left him too old to play the part.
Before passing the rights down to his son, Michael Douglas, he recruited Czechoslovakia's Milos Forman as a suitable director and even had a screenplay drafted up by Ken Kesey himself. It was Forman who rejected this version, though, as Kesey wanted to retain the mute, Native American, Chief Bromden as the narrator of the story (as it was in the novel) while Forman's intention was to focus on McMurphy. This proved to be only the beginning of the films problems; Kesey was so incensed with the filmmakers approach to his material that he sued the producers and vowed never to watch the completed film while numerous actresses including; Audrey Hepburn, Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft and Faye Dunaway turned down the, supposedly coveted, role of Nurse Ratched. Nicholson wasn't even the first choice for McMurphy either; Marlon Brando and (Kesey's proffered choice) Gene Hackman turned down the part while Forman had his heart set on Burt Reynolds.

With a sense of irony, it could be said that these fraught production issues actually reflected the fraught and rebellious themes of the material but despite the hiccups, the film opened to widespread critical acclaim and went from a $3 million budget to gross over $100 million and as well as sweeping the board at the Academy Awards, it received a further four nominations.

Nicholson may not have been the first choice but there's no doubt that he was born to play McMurphy. He's an actor that has always produced high quality performances and has even become synonymous with rebellious characters but this is the absolute definitive, The only difference between actor and character is that Nicholson‚(TM)s appearance is nothing like the flame-haired Irishman described in the book (where it's easy to see why Kesey might prefer Hackman) but he‚(TM)s McMurphy in every other hazardous and feral way. He's the perfect embodiment of the character's reactionary behaviour against the repressive and authoritarian figurehead of Louise Fletcher's villainous and castrating Nurse Ratched. Although it's these two stupendous performances that anchor the film, the rest of the supporting cast are equally solid - with particular mention going to Brad Dourif and his nominated turn as the stuttering, immature Billy Bibbit. Also not going unnoticed is the haunting score by Jack Nitzsche and the striking cinematography by Haskell Wexler in capturing the stark, enclosed environment that reflects the perceived insanity of the inmates.

Whether observed from the point of view of Chief Bromden or R. P. McMurphy, it doesn't matter, as there's still no denying that it retains the free-spirited theme's of Kesey's novel and the revolutionary and anti-establishment ethos that was rife throughout a generation. A masterful adaptation where Milos Forman and screenwriters Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman put their own stamp on the indicting material without losing any of it's emotive or uplifting power. Simply superb!

Mark Walker

Gravity
Gravity(2013)
½

In 2009, director James Cameron opened the floodgates on the innovation and possibilities of stereoscopic filmmaking when he delivered "Avatar". Since then, it has been experimented and tinkered with by many filmmakers but now, four years later, Mexican director Alfonso Cauron has set a whole new benchmark.

Fixing a satellite on a seemingly routine spacewalk, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) finds themselves in the midst of a catastrophe when their shuttle is destroyed by flying debris. They lose all contact with home and end up adrift above the Earth‚(TM)s atmosphere with their oxygen running dangerously low. Somehow, they must find a way to save themselves as they spiral into the blackness of space.

When word broke about the revolutionary use of 3-D in Cauron's "Gravity", cinema goers flocked in their numbers to see what all the fuss was about. So much so, that only a mere two weeks after it's UK release date, I felt very much like the film's protagonist and that I was getting left behind. Now having finally seen it with my own eyes, I can personally answer the major question that hangs over it: Is it worth the hype? The answer to that is a resounding, Yes! In terms of a visual and immersive cinematic experience, "Gravity" is simply unparalleled. Cauron and his highly talented cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have crafted a film of such powerful magnitude and engagement that it will have you in awe at just how they managed to do it. I began the film expecting dazzling visual effects and long uncut shots in the style that Cauron has become accustomed to - his work with Lubezki in "Children of Men" has one of the most impressive tracking shots I've ever witnessed and here, they both go about their business in the same manner. The opening 10 minutes alone are entirely one long, uninterrupted, shot and after this I gave up trying to work out how they actually achieved it. It's such a seamless, technical marvel, that it's nothing short of mesmerising.

As is often the case with special effects laden movies, though, there tends to be shortcomings elsewhere. Which brings to me answer another overriding question at the film's core: Does Gravity have the requisite depth in terms of it's story? The answer to that is, sadly, No! It certainly achieves a feeling of claustrophobia and existential dread but it's story is rather tame in comparison to its sumptuous visuals. It could, understandably, be argued that this isn't an issue in the grander scale of things, but I was looking for more. In fairness, it does attempt the themes of science and technology versus religion with constant reminders hinted at in the shape of Christian and Buddhist iconography. It even touches upon life and loss with symbolic representations of rebirth and being in the womb but ultimately, this is a disaster story, reflecting the human spirit and the insistence of survival against insurmountable odds. It's here, that the film focuses on the suffering and endurance of Bullock's character. Many have heaped critical praise on the actress but her casting was another slight issue for me. I'm simply not a fan. I don't think Bullock has the ability to command the screen for as long as she does. It's not a poor performance, by any means, but she's more of a kooky rom-com actress and lacks the range to fully convince. As for Clooney, he's in it very little, but again, I found the Cloonmeister's charm and charisma a little distracting and misplaced here, reminding me that it was still a movie I was watching. I wanted to forget and be swept into the film's endless void but it never allowed me to fully do that, leaving me with the feeling that lesser known actors may have worked better here. Despite, these minor flaws, though, the film itself is absolutely gripping. Cauron builds the tension slowly, letting you bask in the sheer beauty of our planet and the wonderment that lies beyond it, before bombarding you with dizzying and visceral action set-pieces that refuse to let up. Take my advice and see it in all it's visual splendour at the IMAX where if any film deserved to be seen on such a scale, it's this one. On that note, I wonder about the replay value of a film like this. Only time will tell wether it will have the same impact when viewed in 2-D or on the small screen.

At the time, I couldn't quite overlook the slight, aforementioned, issues but on reflection this isn't a film whose main intention is to appeal intellectually or existentially, this is a film that intends to immerse you in a physical experience and for that it deserves a rapturous applause. There's really no denying that "Gravity" is an involvement and an adventure like no other and it will leave you, without a doubt in your mind, that you've just witnessed the most accomplished use of special-effects in cinematic history.

Mark Walker

The Family
The Family(2013)
½

During the 1990's, Luc Besson was a director that I kept a very keen eye on. He delivered the dynamic French thriller "Nikita" before moving on to the kinetic and striking "Leon". He followed this up with an outrageously unique Sci-Fi in "The Fifth Element" before tailing off with more obscure art-house and animation fair. "Angel-A" in 2005, was the last time I seen anything good from him and his latest in "The Family" would suggest that I'll have to wait a little longer before he finds his feet again.

Giovanni Manzoni (Robert DeNiro) is a former mob man who enters the witness protection programme with his family and are relocated to Normandy, France to lay low. The problem for Manzoni, though, is that he finds it hard to keep a low profile and his old volatile habits bring just as much attention as they did back home.

A farcical French/American mob movie that has all the potential to be something quite exquisite; a (once) quality director in Luc Besson; three outstanding central performers in Robert DeNiro, Michelle Pfeiffer and Tommy Lee Jones and the great Martin Scorsese lending his hand to producing duties. With this abundance of talent involved, you'd be forgiven for expecting that nothing can really go wrong here but that isn't entirely the case. For a start, the writing is very scratchy indeed. It's farcical nature doesn't gel with it's sporadic violent outbursts and it can't seem to make amends with it's extreme tonal shifts.

In it's favour, it has a snappy energy, buoyed by it's solid trio of actors; DeNiro seems to be right up for it with his subtle comic timing in-check but it's just a shame that he's let down by Besson who doesn't write any decent gags for him and those that are in place don't work with the rest of the material. In fact, most of the sub-par gags are so forced that they're delivered with some whimsical French accordion music playing overhead, reminding us that it's supposed to funny - much in the same way that canned laughter is used. Pfeiffer is as watchable as ever and lends ample support with shades of her work in Jonathan Demme's "Married to the Mob" and it's great to finally see DeNiro and the great Tommy Lee Jones share the screen together. Unfortunately, their relationship is seriously underdeveloped and comes across as more of a missed opportunity than anything else. They do, however, share an amusing "Goodfellas" in-joke towards the end. It's arguably misplaced but it's still an enjoyable little moment between them.

As far as the actors go, they can't be faulted but the material does very little for them. If only Besson had settled on a particular tone then this could have worked so much better. It would also have helped if he had a script in place that wasn't so lazy or mediocre and didn't overly rely on his strong cast to carry him. There are good scenes to be had but they just don't come together as a complete whole with some plot strands woefully underdeveloped and, in some instances, completely forgotten about.

It's a film that strangely finds itself caught between a rock and a hard place. It might have worked better had it been more in touch with its funny bone or it might have been wiser to omit the humour altogether. I can't quite decide but, as it is, the final product is very much hit-and-miss with an emphasis on the latter.

Mark Walker

Moon
Moon(2009)
½

Being the son of legendary musician David Bowie must put a lot of pressure on you, especially if your chosen profession is also to entertain. However, this is a pressure that director Duncan Jones seems to relish. His talents are used in a different medium from his father but equally as impressive with this relatively low-budget debut and he produces one of the finest science fiction film's for quite some time.

Lone astronaut Sam Bell (Rockwell) is nearing the end of a three year service harvesting the Moon for much needed resources to keep Earth functioning. While carrying out his duties, he is involved in a collision resulting in a serious concussion. Upon wakening, he realises that things are not as they seemed during his years of isolation and that he‚(TM)s not been alone either.

While having some obvious comparisons to ‚2001: A Space Odyssey‚? in terms of it's onboard computer Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey) resembling HAL- and a similiar structurely directing approach to Stanley Kubrick‚(TM)s, that‚(TM)s where the comparisons end. The themes of isolation and loneliness have more in common with Steven Soderbergh‚(TM)s tormented ‚Solaris‚? or the existential pondering and exploration of individuality and memories echo the work of Ridley Scott's ‚Blade Runner‚?. Being a fan of both of those, I found "Moon" to be very appealing indeed.

In a time where science fiction, seems intent on throwing as much money on the screen as possible, it's refreshing to see one that works on it's simple, yet very effective, concept rather than smooth over the cracks with excessive special effects. It's through this that real talent is allowed the room to develop and that opportunity is seized by an outstanding Sam Rockwell. In a year that Awards pretty much had Jeff Bridges‚(TM) name already engraved on them for "Crazy Heart", Rockwell‚(TM)s performance here was shamefully overlooked. He at least deserved a nomination. By now, everyone is aware of this great actors talents but Jones gives him the chance to really show his range in multiple roles and without his sublime and commanding work, this film might not have worked as well as it does. However, it does work and very well at that. Jones has a good handle on the thought provoking material and shows a restraint beyond his years, while the subtlety of Rockwell's performance brings out the spiritual and intellectual struggle of his character(s).

Gary Shaw's sublime cinematography does not go unnoticed either. He perfectly captures the claustrophobic environment which only serves to heighten a foreboding sense of paranoia and Clint Mansell‚(TM)s excellent use of music is eerily atmospheric by simply using basic piano notes.

Not only on modern terms, "Moon" can hold it's own with some the best that science fiction has to offer and just goes to show that a basic concept, a basic structure and a minimal cast can culminate into something quite special.

This cemented an already talented actor‚(TM)s reputation and heralded the arrival of a promising new director. With the impressive "Source Code" already in the bag and the forthcoming "World of Warcraft", Jones is certainly one for the watching. He‚(TM)s a director that already shows confidence in himself and won‚(TM)t be rushed into telling his story, making it all the more satisfying for a contemporary audience that's been slapped around the head with too many Michael Bay movies.

Mark Walker

Jackie Brown
Jackie Brown(1997)
½

After "Reservoir Dogs" in 1991 and "Pulp Fiction" in 1994, Quentin Tarantino was hailed as the new wunderkind of contemporary American cinema with his triumphant originality and seemingly effortless ability to excite audiences. However, there were still claims of him borrowing heavily from other movies and despite the second feature from a new filmmaker predominantly being the 'tricky one', it seemed that it was Tarantino's third that posed this problem for him. Added to which, he still had a few doubters wondering if he could emulate his previous successes.

In trying to make ends meet, middle-aged air hostess, Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) is also a courier for local gun-smuggler Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson) but when federal agent Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton) and LA cop Mark Dargas (Michael Bowen) get wind of her plans she faces time in jail. With the help of bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster), Jackie hatches a scam to play the police and her boss off one another.

As a big fan of crime writer Elmore Leonard and, in particular, his novel "Rum Punch" (upon which this is an adaptation), I was admittedly left with feelings of disappointment when I first seen "Jackie Brown". I was unimpressed and even entertained the thought that Tarantino‚(TM)s critics may well have been right. Upon repeat viewings though, it becomes apparent just how good a film it really is. For the most part, Tarantino resists the temptation of his usual pop-cultural references or the gratuitous violence that his name had become synonymous with. Instead, he opts for a more subtle and leisurely approach and in doing so, allows his actors the space to develop their characters and the drama to unfold at it‚(TM)s own pace. Again it could also be said that Tarantino pays yet more homage to films of the past. He changed the ethnicity of the lead female character in Leonard's novel from the white Jackie Burke to a black Jackie Brown which allowed him to cast Pam Grier and reference her blaxploitation films "Foxy Brown" and "Coffy" as well as, employing the use of Bobby Womack's "Across 110th Street". In no way is this a blaxploitation film. It's much broader than that but certainly has some hallmarks from that particular sub-genre.

As for Grier, herself, it's a bold move by Tarantino to cast her in the lead and essentially structure the film around her. Many have applauded this casting choice (I mean, let's face it, Tarantino rarely gets it wrong and has resurrected a few careers in his day) but I think I'm one of the few who actually thinks that Grier's performance is a little stretched at times. With the abundance of talent around her, she seems to play her hand a little too forcefully and has a tendency to overact. That being said, it would be hard not to play it this way when the company she's keeping are as strong as they are: Tarantino's go-to man for dialogue delivery Samuel L. Jackson echoes Pulp's Jules Winnfield only this time his gun-running Ordell Robbie has less biblical monologues and more of a dangerous cutting edge; Bridget Fonda plays his vacuous beach blonde accomplice to perfection while Michael Keaton's doggedly determined ATF agent Ray Nicolette has the requisite cocksure arrogance. The biggest revelation, though, is Robert Forster's Oscar nominated turn as bale bondsman Max Cherry. Forster achieved some acclaimed film and television performances throughout the 1960's and 70's but eventually fell into obscurity before Tarantino revived his career with this role. On this evidence it's hard to see why Robert Forster disappeared for so long. His work here is a nuanced and very subtle piece of work - which brings me to the other Robert.

Most of you will be aware of my fondness for all all things DeNiro but his work here is one of his most under-appreciated. While everyone around him sink their teeth into there colourful characters, his stoned ex-convict Louis Gara is left to sit in the background with very little to say or do. Leave it to DeNiro then to bring this character to life; his glazed look and awkward social communication is pitched so well that it's hard to take your eyes off him. When he is given something to do, though, DeNiro brings this subdued characters volatility to the surface with dangerous and convincing results. Rarely have I seen him steal so many scenes by practically doing nothing and even though he's seriously under-utilised, this is one of my favourite performances of his.

Not as well received on its release as the exceptional Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction but over the years this has gradually gained the respect that it deserves and stands as one of Tarantino's finest and most mature outings.

Mark Walker

The Way Way Back

Nat Faxon and Jim Rash may be familiar to some but they haven't really been household names over the course of their careers. They are both sometime, bit-part, performers having appeared in numerous TV shows but it wasn't until 2011 that they earned some well-deserved attention by winning an Oscar for their screenwriting duties on Alexander Payne's "The Descendants". Now, they turn their hand to directing and it's apparent that they're just as comfortable when calling the shots themselves.

Pam (Toni Collette) and her new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) are on a summer holiday with his daughter and her son Duncan (Liam James). Duncan is a shy awkward teenager who has trouble adapting to his new "family". As he struggles to fit in, he eventually finds a friend in man-child Owen (Sam Rockwell) who gives him a job on the local water park and also some good advice on life itself.

As the film opens we are introduced to our young protagonist who's been relegated to the rear of the family station wagon. This is known as "the way back seat" and also serves us with the reason to the film's title. This symbolic status is pretty much how the young man has been throughout his awkward teenage years and having his mother's obnoxious boyfriend talk down to him doesn't help matters. Straight away we feel for his plight and it's this very sympathy that drives the film.

On the surface, it shares striking similarities to Greg Mottola's 2009 film "Adventureland", in terms of a coming-of-age story set around a summer job on a theme park, but that's where the comparisons end. Where that film revelled in teenage schmaltz and contrivance, this has an actual beating heart under the surface and benefits from a sharp wit and a perfectly pitched poignancy. On the evidence here, it also shows that co-writer/directors Faxon and Rash have a keen sense of both adolescence and adulthood and that "The Descendants" was no fluke in applying them both. Their characters are well observed and beautifully played by all involved; although it's nothing new for her, Collette delivers her usual reliability while Carell (who I'm not normally a fan of) underplays his role to perfection and does well to leave his comedic chops to the side and allow others to take over. Young Liam James is entirely convincing in balancing the requisite resentment and sullenness of an introverted 14 year-old without ever losing your sympathy and the wonderfully talented, and vastly underrated, Allison Janney delivers her gregarious and borderline alcoholic, single mother, with aplomb. It's her quick-fire deliveries that keep the film on comfortable ground through some periodic lulls until, the always excellent, Sam Rockwell makes an appearance. Rockwell has never given a poor performance in my eyes but rarely has he ever stolen the show like he does here. The screen is almost not big enough to contain his charisma and superb comic timing (a lot of which was apparently improvised). As good as the entire cast are, though, a lot of credit has to be given to Faxon and Rash for their engaging writing. The laughs are consistent and never feel forced while it's sentimentality is in equally good measure. It's testament to them that a film that really should've came across as formulaic and contrived, simply doesn't. It comes across as fresh, honest and, more importantly, thoroughly enjoyable.

Not only reuniting Carell and Collette from "Little Miss Sunshine", this is also a reminder of that film's balance of humour and pathos and captures the same human frailty and ability to overcome.

Mark Walker

The Conjuring
½

Having already had a hand in fuelling the string of torture porn horrors when he began the "Saw" franchise in 2004, director James Wan opts for a more retrained approach to his latest horror. "The Conjuring" harks back to vintage horror movies of the '70's where atmosphere takes precedence over shock tactics. As a result, it manages to be one of the more successful horror movies of recent times.

Up rooting to a rural Rhode Island house, Roger Perron (Ron Livingston), his wife Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and their five daughters get more than they bargained for when strange and terrifying phenomena begin to plague their lives within their new home. Desperate for answers, they enlist the help of Psychic investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) but even this experienced couple find the haunting beyond anything they‚??ve witnessed before.

When it comes to horror, I'm a hard viewer to please. Even more so, when one from the genre proclaims to be "based on a true story". This label can sometimes be a hindrance as it really has to convince me, whereby others might be more willing to readily accept it. For the most part, it works here as the characters of Ed and Lorraine Warren where actual paranormal investigators that worked on the Amityville case which was brought to the screen in Stuart Rosenberg's 1979 film "The Amityville Horror". Anyone familiar with that movie will see the similarities involved. In fact, James Wan models "The Conjuring" on many films from that era. Even the 70's style and attire help in taking us back there but it's his simplicity and refusal to go for cheap jump-scares that is most admirable. Instead, he adopts a more psychological approach by staging the tension and suspense in small doses. Of course, the usual machinations and conventions are customary; there are things that go bump in the night, freaky-eyed dolls, the suggestion of things lurking under the bed and, of course, the proverbial creaking doors that open and close by themselves. Wan has to be given credit for their success, though. His power of suggestion is what keeps the film ticking over and his more than reliable cast help immeasurably despite their abundance of stilted dialogue. As is the case with most horror films, though, revelations must be made and when they are, the film starts to lose some credibility and that "based on a true story" tag comes back to haunt it as much as the characters are haunted. It's such a shame that Wan's skilful and authentic chills are wasted in the final third but up until then, he conjures an effective and frightening piece of work.

After "Insidious chapter 2", James Wan will, apparently, be leaving horror behind and moving on to pastures new. If this proves to be the case, then he will have left the horror genre with one that's worthy of note from recent times.

Mark Walker

Sunshine on Leith

After recently enjoying the debauched underbelly of Edinburgh in Irvine Welsh's "Filth", I was curious to see Scotland's capital feature again in a more lighthearted film. As a general rule, I avoid musicals at all costs as I'm just not that keen on people bursting into song every few minutes. However, I was impressed by actor Dexter Fletcher's impressive directorial debut "Wild Bill" in 2011 and couldn't resist the urge to see a musical featuring the fantastic songs of The Proclaimers.

After a tour of Afghanistan, two young recruits, Davy (George MacKay) and Ally (Kevin Guthrie) return home to Leith, Edinburgh to adapt to civilian life. They both find love in their lives but realise that relationships are never easy, regardless of age. Davy hooks up with nurse Yvonne (Antonia Thomas) while Ally plans to marry Davy‚??s sister, Liz (Freya Mavor) who wants to move to America. Meanwhile Davy‚??s mum and dad Rab (Peter Mullan) Jean (Jane Horrocks) have problems of their own.

There will more than likely be a few readers who are unfamiliar with the music of Scottish double-act, The Proclaimers but don't let that deter you from this film. The songs of Charlie and Craig Reid are perfectly fitting to this working class drama and Fletcher does a fantastic job of intertwining the struggles of his characters with the band's clever and poetic lyrics. As expected, people do burst into song every now and again but the delivery is so charming and delightful that it's very difficult not to get swept up in the enthusiasm of everyone involved. Such classics like "I'm on my way", "Letter from America" "I'm gonna be (500 miles", "Should have been loved" and, of course, the beautiful "Sunshine on Leith" are pitched perfectly for individual scenes either with the requisite verve or pathos that's demanded. Quite simply, the film is an absolute joy and credit has to go to Fletcher for another interesting and accomplished directorial outing. Admittedly, the film has it's moments of over sentimentality but the performances are committed enough to make it work overall; Peter Mullan's gravelly tones may not be to everyone's satisfaction but otherwise he's reliably solid while the likes of Jason Flemyng and youngsters George MacKay, Kevin Guthrie, Freya Mavor and Antonia Thomas all equip themselves well. For those that have seen "Little Voice", however, will not be surprised to hear that it's Jane Horrocks who's most comfortable with her numbers. Not only is she a highly underrated actress but also one with wonderful vocal talents.

What with likes of Danny Boyle's "Trainspotting" and "Shallow Grave", Ken Loach's "My Name Is Joe" or even the aforementioned "Filth", it's refreshing to see a film set in Scotland that steps away from the grim social realism and paint the city inhabitants in a playful and joyful manner.

Cheerful, easy-going and so warm that only the hardest and coldest of hearts will be able to resist it's charm. What "Mamma Mia" did for fans of Swedish band Abba, this little gem will, no doubt, do for those that enjoy The Proclaimers.

Mark Walker

Filth
Filth(2014)

As the year draws to a close, so does the (unrelated) British trilogy of James McAvoy leading roles. He began with the disappointingly generic "Welcome To The Punch" before moving on to the teasingly elaborate "Trance" before finally heading back to his native Scotland to tackle "Filth" - the 'unfilmable' novel by cult writer Irvine Welsh. Since "Trainspotting" in 1996, Welsh's material hasn't really been given an adaptation deserving of his talents, but here, director Jon S. Baird delves (groin first) into Welsh's unrelenting prose and delivers a sharp, sordid and deeply debauched, delight of a film.

Roaming the Edinburgh streets is Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson (James McAvoy). He's not your average cop, though, but one that's as corrupt as they come. After a marriage break-up, he's become a hard-drinker with an out of control cocaine habit, leaving him mentally unstable. All of which are getting in the way of his police work and his ambition for promotion to Detective Inspector.

In bringing a very difficult novel to the screen, Baird deserves the utmost credit; he captures the surreal and uncompromising, gallows humour of Welsh's work - and characters - while avoiding the inevitable pitfalls that comparisons with "Trainspotting" might bring.

Some omissions from the book have be made, namely the talking tapeworm which was a prominent feature in the book. This time it manifests through Robertson's psyche in the shape of crazed Australian psychiatrist Jim Broadbent. This is probably the only part of the movie that isn't entirely successful but it's a good attempt to incorporate it anyway.

Anyone familiar with the work of playwright and author, Dennis Potter ("The Singing Detective", "Lipstick on Your Collar"), will rejoice in the hallucinatory moments provided here, and in particular, a bizarre song and dance number by none other than David Soul from 70's television show "Starksy and Hutch", while others will recall Abel Ferrara's brutal and unrelenting "Bad Lieutenant".

As for the performances, everyone involved is absolutely superb; Brian McCardie is a grizzling treat while John Sessions, Gary Lewis and Jamie Bell all bring wonderful comic timing to their roles. Eddie Marsan also continues his great run of character acting in a tragic turn as Bladesey - Robertson's only true friend - and a friend whom the salacious Detective has no qualms about harassing his wife, Bunty (played excellently by the kooky and vastly underrated Shirley Henderson) with prank, sexual phone calls.

Behind all the madness and misanthropy, though, is a fully committed McAvoy who commands the screen entirely. There really are no depths to which his racist, homophobic and sociopathic Bruce Robertson won't stoop; with a raging labido and spiralling cocaine and alcohol habit, he elicits oral sex from an underage girl, has sexual relations with his colleagues' wives and indulges in regular, furious, masturbation, meanwhile, double-crossing and manipulating everyone in his path.
Complete with pallid completion, bulging blood-shot eyes and scraggly ginger facial hair, this truly abhorrent human being is detestable in both manner and appearance (according to the actor himself, he was actually hungover most days on the set to fully capture the authenticity). Superlatives have been lavished McAvoy's way for fearlessly tackling this very challenging role, and rightfully so. Despite, these objectionable and distasteful characteristics, he (very surprisingly) manages to bring a humanity to the role that's not without saddening moments of fragility and extreme pathos. For anyone that might not be convinced by McAvoy's talents, this is the role to silence his critics. He's simply outstanding. The Academy will, more than likely, overlook his commitment here (as they did with Michael Fassbender in "Shame") but that won't stop his performance remaining one of the very best of the year. He really is that good.

Lewd, crude and deliriously dark and humorous. Those familiar with Irvine Welsh's razor sharp prose will take great delight here, while others should be warmed that the title of the movie says it all really.

Mark Walker

Oblivion
Oblivion(2013)
½

Say what you will about Tom Cruise but there‚??s no denying that his choice of projects have always been bankable. Throughout the 80‚?≤s and 90‚?≤s most of his films and performances were of a particularly high standard. The same could be said of the 00‚?≤s as well. However, over the last three years, cracks are beginning to appear; ‚??Knight and Day‚??, ‚??Rock of Ages‚?? and ‚??Jack Reacher‚?? have failed to register any form of quality. On the surface, ‚??Oblivion‚?? has all the hallmarks of the Cruiser getting back on track but, unfortunately, proves just as lacklustre as the aforementioned duds.

In the year 2077, Earth has been obliterated by an alien race and the surviving members of humanity have moved on to inhabit Saturn‚??s moon, Titan. Jack (Tom Cruise) and his wife Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) have remained on earth, though, to protect machinery harvesting the planet‚??s resources before Jack begins to suspect that his mission isn‚??t as straightforward as he thought it was.

Director Joseph Kosinski follows up his previous science fiction film ‚??Tron Legacy‚?? with another venture into the future. He works from his own graphic novel and delivers an intriguing premise that pays homage to classic Sci-Fi movies like ‚??2001: A Space Odyssey‚?? and ‚??Planet of the Apes‚??. His setting is suitably bleak (captured beautifully by cinematographer Claudio Miranda), his use of visuals are striking and his tone is perfectly sombre. In fact, Kosinski actually assembles a good addition to the science fiction genre. Unfortunately, his assembly soon falls apart due to a script that‚??s devoid of any substance or characters that we can invest in. The pace is lethargic, to say the least, which only really registers that a lot of the film is just padding. Nothing happens for a good chunk of the movie and when the plot is finally opened up, it fails to make sense or hold any form of coherence. Even if it did, your likely to have lost interest by that point anyway. Cruise wanders around aimlessly (presumably in search of characterisation) and the likes of Morgan Freeman and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau needn‚??t have turned up at all. The most frustrating thing overall, though, is that the big reveal is one that we‚??ve seen many times before and all, but completely, rips-off Duncan Jones‚?? far superior ‚??Moon‚??. The similarities are almost shocking and I wouldn‚??t have been surprised to have seen Jones‚?? name on the screenwriting credits.

Kosinski is a director that may yet find his feet. He certainly has an eye for sumptuous visuals and can stage a fine action set-piece. However, he really needs to work on a coherent narrative and one that isn‚??t as dull or desolate as the landscape that his characters roam.

Mark Walker

Stand by Me
Stand by Me(1986)
½

Predominantly known for his horror stories, writer Stephen King released a book in 1982 called "Different Seasons". It contained four novellas, three of which, went on to become successful Hollywood movies which were very far from most other adaptations of his work. One was Bryan Singer's "Apt Pupil" another was Frank Darabont's "The Shawshank Redemption" and the third - originally entitled "The Body" - became Rob Reiner's "Stand By Me".

Four young friends, Gordie (Wil Wheaton), Chris (River Phoenix), Vern (Jerry O'Connell) and Teddy (Corey Feldman) go on an adventure together to find the dead body of a local boy who was supposedly hit by a train. By following the tracks, the friends' journey becomes more about them and their personal struggles and soon, the boyish adventure becomes about their experiences of entering adulthood.

Delivered with a wonderfully nostalgic narration by Richard Dreyfuss and a good feel for 1950's Americana, this inviting and honest, coming-of-age, tale captures the spirit of youth like very few others. Reiner's feel for the time and the material is pitched so perfectly that you are completely transported back to this era. It's imbued with a sublimely evocative soundtrack of classic 1950's songs, ranging from; Jerry Lee Lewis' "Great Balls of Fire" through Buddy Holly's "Everyday", The Chordettes' "Lollipop" and, of course, Ben E. King's "Stand By Me". It's this very attention to detail that truly brings this affectionate and sentimental film to life, while completely involving you in the trials and tribulations of the four, endearing, youths at it's centre. The four youths in question are embodied with charm and nuance by Wheaton, Feldman, O'Connell and, especially, Phoenix. They are so natural in their deliveries that the failed careers they would go on to have didn't merit the performances delivered here. Phoenix was the only one of the four who would receive critical praise, but sadly his life was cut short at the tender age of 23, making his performance all the more poignant.
Rarely has a film captured the innocence and growing pains of young boys on the road to manhood and rarely do you ever get such a rich and heartfelt delivery. It doesn't matter if you didn't experience the 1950's; stepped foot on an Americana front porch or played mailbox baseball. What matters, is that you identify with the characters' rite of passage and that it still perpetuates it's relevance.

A wonderfully rustic and nostalgic gem, that's still as inviting and honest as it was on it's release. This is one of those timeless cult-classic's that will always find an audience to resonate with.

Mark Walker

World War Z
World War Z(2013)

In making it to the screen, World War Z wasn't without it's problems; firstly, there were complaints of it's very loose take on Max Brooks' novel, then it's violence was toned down to achieve a PG-13 certificate; a script rewrite happened half way through production; cinematographer Robert Richardson left to work on "Django Unchained" and the likes of Ed Harris and Bryan Cranston dropped out due to scheduling conflicts. As all these problems piled up, the expectation was that the film would be an absolute disaster. Well, quite simply, it's not. Despite it's problems, it's actually quite a tense and impressively handled thriller.

Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) is a former UN worker, happily spending some time at home with his family, until the sudden outbreak of a zombie plague takes over his home city. They are forced to flee and Gerry manages to get his family to safety but news breaks that the world over is suffering the same outbreak, forcing Gerry back into the field and using his experience to find a cure.

After a brief introduction to our protagonist, Forster doesn't waste time in getting down to business. Within minutes we are thrust into an absolutely exhilarating opening sequence of the rampaging undead overtaking Philadelphia (actually filmed in Glasgow, where I witnessed them shooting) and it's from here that you realise that there's plenty of potential in this summer blockbuster. It doesn't matter that there's a lack of blood or gore because the suspense is handled so competently and effectively that you're still on the edge of your seat. In fact, it's the perfect example that less can be more sometimes. What's most impressive, though, is the epic scale in which it's delivered. There are several intense action set-pieces where hordes of zombies leap from rooftops, clamber over walls and rampage through an aircraft mid-flight. As an action movie, it certainly delivers the goods and also finds the time to incorporate geopolitics as the epidemic goes world wide. Anchoring all this mayhem is a solidly understated, central performance from Pitt. Having produced this movie - throughout it's spiralling budget - his commitment to make it work comes across in his performance. He's entirely believable and identifiable as a family man desperate to survive his chaotic surroundings. Nobody else really gets a look in, including a severely downsized role for Matthew Fox and a brief cameo from, the always reliable, David Morse. Ultimately, the film rests on Pitt's shoulders, though, and he handles it with aplomb. So much so, that the lack of blood splattering and zombie flesh eating takes a back seat to a character driven dramatic thriller. Due to it's production difficulties, plans for a sequel were shelved. However, having now become a box-office summer smash, the sequel has been given the go-ahead. I, for one, welcome it.

Against the odds, this manages to be a satisfyingly tense addition to the zombie sub-genre. It doesn't go for the jugular in a gratuitous manner, instead it works on your nerves and focuses on telling a relatable story. Die hard horror fans may want more from it, but it delivered just the right amount of thrills for me.

Mark Walker

Evil Dead
Evil Dead(2013)
½

It‚??s been over 30 years since director Sam Raimi gave us his cult horror classic ‚??The Evil Dead‚?? in 1981. Now, like most other films of the genre, we are given the unavoidable remake. Raimi is on-hand again, with producing duties, but the same can said of most remakes, in that they needn‚??t have bothered in the first place.
In order to kick her heroine habit, Mia (Jane Levy) and a few friends head to a remote cabin away from society and any temptations. It‚??s here, that they stumble upon some strange goings on in the cellar and find the Book of the Dead, which once opened, releases a demon intent on possessing them all.
The difference between this and the stylishly imaginative original, is that Raimi‚??s was shot on a shoestring budget by a bunch of college students, intent on experimenting and pushing boundaries. This, on the other hand, throws in the bucks and it‚??s use of gratuitous gore simply doesn‚??t have the same impact or originality of it‚??s tongue-in-cheek predecessor. The approach that debutant director Alvarez takes is the film‚??s biggest issue: it has an innate inability to laugh at itself. It‚??s far too serious and as a result has to be judged on that. It‚??s one of those horrors were you know not to expect logic, reasoning or any form of a sensible decision by it‚??s characters. They‚??re merely there as fodder for some soul devouring evil entity. It is what it is, and that‚??s fine, but when you ask an audience to fully commit themselves, then you have to offer them something in return. If it was in touch with it‚??s sense of humour then this could have been a wild ride in a similar vein to ‚??The Cabin in the Woods‚??. Unfortunately, it isn‚??t and its serious, po-faced approach comes across as ludicrous. Added to which, it‚??s a horror film that has very few genuine frights, a surprising lack of suspense and it‚??s use of jump scares are glaringly obvious and redundant. To be fair, it does bring some laughs to the table, but those laughs are entirely unintentional.
One for the torture-porn generation that have no interest in characterisation or plot development. It‚??s main agenda is to deliver gore and plenty of it. In that respect, it delivers but on every other level it fails miserably. Unequivocally, the worst film of 2013.

Mark Walker

Spirited Away
½

Having co-founded Studio Ghibli in 1985 and directed 11 films himself, the highly unique animator Hayao Miyazaki has announced his retirement. The forthcoming "The Wind Rises" will be his last venture, so it now seems like a good time to look back at arguably his best film.
Chihiro is a 10 year old girl who is moving to a new neighbourhood when her father decides to take a short cut and gets the family lost in an abandoned theme park. Helping themselves to food that's on display, Chihiro's parents are transformed into pigs and it soon becomes clear that they have stumbled into an alternate reality. Chihiro is then forced to find a way to free herself and her parents and find a way back to the human world.
Quite simply, Miyazaki's "Spirited Away" is a triumphant, fantastical, masterclass. Not only is his hand drawn animation as gorgeously refined and refreshing as ever, but his storytelling incorporates everything from the mythical to the magical, taking us on a truly breathtaking visual and intelligent journey. As his later film "Ponyo" would channel the likes of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid", here, Miyazaki has undoubtedly crafted his version of Lewis Carroll's "Alice In Wonderland" and it's in this similar realm of imagination that he is able to flourish. We are introduced to a myriad of fantastical figures from Gods, Spirits and Witches to a Sea Dragon, an enormous baby and strange little coal miners, known as "Sootballs". Despite the rich hand drawn animation, though, it's not all played for fun. It's a rights-of-passage tale about the progression of a child to adulthood while finding the time to comment on the economic downturn of Japan and the increasing loss of it's culture to the western world. It's this very complexity that makes this Miyazaki's near masterpiece. The only issue with the film is that it's overlong, resulting in periodic disengagement - especially for younger viewers. It's runs just over the two hour mark and this is with several parts of the story cut out- the original version of Miyazaki's story would have run over the three hour mark. That being said, this is still one of animation's true classics and thoroughly deserving of it's Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2002.
A breathtaking tour de force from one of the finest and most imaginative storytellers that animation has ever seen. Sadly, there will be only one more outing from Miyazaki but thankfully we've had to the pleasure to enter into his creative genius at all. Such accomplished cinematic experiences will be sadly missed.

Mark Walker

The Iceman
The Iceman(2013)

What more can be said about the acting chops of Michael Shannon? Despite being a household name now, he's still happy to deliver supporting roles in the likes of "Mud" and "Man of Steel" while managing to work within the time constraints of television with "Boardwalk Empire". Thankfully though, he's not adverse to the odd leading role and "The Iceman" is the type of film that allows him to fully embrace centre stage.
In the 1960's, Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) was a quiet family man, who secretly worked as a porn lab technician until the New Jersey mob that ran his employment, shut him down and persuaded him to become a contract killer. For decades, Kuklinski would kill over 100 people and gain a reputation for his cold blooded professionalism, meanwhile keeping his wife (Winona Ryder) and kids completely in the dark about where their money came from.
Based on actual events, the story of Kuklinski is quite an intriguing one. This was a man who managed to separate his work and family life for so long that he was clearly a very manipulative and dangerous sociopath.
Much like Kuklinski's victims, though, the film seems strangely lifeless. Most mob films have you on the edge of your seat at least once throughout their running times but "The Iceman" never really manages to do that. Ariel Vorman's direction is flat and he poorly handles the script's leaps in time; relying on consistently changing facial hair as a narrative device. It just doesn't work and as a genre piece, it misses a real opportunity to follow in the footsteps of the similarly themed "Donnie Brasco".
Where the films strengths lie, are in the performances; Mafia boss Roy Demeo, is captured ferociously by Liotta, who seems to be the go-to-guy for mob figures these days, and the likes of Chris Evans impresses in an almost unrecognisable role as Robert "Mr. Freezy" Pronge - another hitman that Kuklinski gets involved with. Added to this, are smaller roles for James Franco, Stephen Dorff and an awkwardly ponytailed and moustachioed, David Schwimmer. Ultimately, though, it's Shannon that keeps this film afloat. Despite a fascinating character, the role is surprisingly underwritten, yet Shannon still manages to deliver a detached and menacing portrayal. Quite simply, without his presence, this would would be just another generic, colour-by-numbers, wannabe.
Good in places but ultimately, it's restrained to the point of monotony. This is a film that had so much potential but squandered it on cliché and rely's too heavily on it's leading actor. Shannon delivers but he doesn't really get anything back for his efforts.

Mark Walker

Raging Bull
Raging Bull(1980)

While shooting "The Godfather Part II", Robert DeNiro found himself reading the book "Raging Bull: My Story", based on the life of 1950's middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta. It was a story he felt very passionate about bringing to the screen and took it to his good friend, Martin Scorsese. Scorsese was, at first, reluctant to do a boxing movie as "Rocky" had recently been released to massive success and he, himself, was going through a personal crisis at the time due to the failure of their previous collaboration "New York, New York" and his spiralling addiction to cocaine and lithium - leaving him hospitalised with internal bleeding. They brought in screenwriter's Mardik Martin ("Mean Streets") and Paul Schrader ("Taxi Driver") and the film eventually went ahead. It became a form of therapy for Scorsese and has since been lauded as a cinematic tour-de-force and voted - in numerous polls - as the best film from the 1980's.
Italian-American, middleweight boxer, Jake LaMotta (Robert DeNiro) has inner demons and is prone to obsessive rage and sexual jealousy which threatens to destroy his relationship with his wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) and brother/trainer Joey (Joe Pesci). In the ring, he a prizewinner but it's outside it, that he seems to lose everything.
On the surface, Raging Bull could be seen as just another boxing biopic, much like Denzel Washington's portrayal of Ruben "Hurricane" Carter, Russell Crowe's Jim "The Cinderella Man" Braddock or Will Smith's Muhammad "Ali". Scorsese and DeNiro's vision is an altogether different one, though. It's not their intention to glamourise LaMotta or deliver a conventional film about pugilism. Their intentions lie in exposing the man beyond the ring - where his real fights took place. The biggest opponent for "The Bronx Bull" was actually himself and his struggle with a raging, psychosexual insecurity and his propensity for self-destruction. It's here that DeNiro fully takes centre stage in what is, unequivocally, his finest moment (and that's saying something) throughout an illustrious career of exceptionally strong performances. His transformation is near miraculous; while researching and preparing for the role, De Niro actually spent the entire shoot with LaMotta so he could portray him accurately and went through extensive physical training, entering into three genuine Brooklyn boxing matches and winning two of them. According to La Motta, De Niro had the ability to be a professional fighter and that he would have been happy to have been his manager and trainer. Following this, production was stopped for two months so DeNiro could pile on 60 pounds to portray LaMotta in his older years. His commitment to the role (and project) has now become legendary and highly respected amongst his peers. Quite simply, DeNiro's smouldering (and deservedly Oscar winning) display is an absolute masterclass in the profession.
Scorsese's skills manifest in his operatic approach; he's less interested in cranking up the tension or theatrics of the bouts and more focused on the punishing brutality of the sport. He employs the use of flashbulbs, and several different sound effects - like smashing glass and squelching watermelons - to achieve an overall crunching effectiveness. He's aided immeasurably by Thelma Schoonmaker's sharp editing technique and Michael Chapman's sublime, monochrome, cinematography which serves the film as a whole in it's mood and noir-ish atmosphere. If the bouts in the ring are claustrophobic then the same could be said for the 'quieter' moments outside it; LaMotta's personal life is uncomfortably scrutinised in his abuse towards his wife Vickie and brother Joey. There are very personal scenes of fraught and jealous conversations that are unbearably tense, and fully depict how much of a brute this man really was. It's testament to the commitment of the entire cast and crew that this highly unappealing individual can make such compelling viewing.
A truly searing, cinematic classic, that addresses the unflinching, animalistic, behaviour of a man in need of absolution and redemption. It also happens to possess one of cinema's most breathtaking and riveting performances. On this evidence, there's no question that Robert DeNiro is a master of his craft and it's arguably Martin Scorsese's finest work as well.

Mark Walker

Only God Forgives

After the success of "Drive" in 2011, another collaboration with director Nicolas Winding Refn and star Ryan Gosling was highly anticipated. Now that we are delivered the results with "Only God Forgives", many have been left disappointed and, from many corners, it has received very harsh criticism. It doesn't possess the postmodern cool of their previous effort but what it does have, is art house and depth written all over it.
Julian (Ryan Gosling) is a US ex-pat living in Bangkok, where he runs a Mauy Thai boxing club and a family drug business behind the scenes. Things begin to wrong, though, when his brother Billy (Tom Burke) is killed with the involvement of local police Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). This, in turn, brings the arrival of Julian's sadistic mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) to avenge her first born's death. Julian soon realises that they are up against someone who will not be stopped.
For some, this will be a sumptuous five star experience while others will (understandably) criticise it for it's perceived pretension and ambiguity. It's a very difficult film to rate and I can't give it any less than I have, simply because I do believe that there's substance contained within. I didn't entirely understand it but that doesn't make it a bad movie. That's a fault that rests with me rather than the filmmaker and I think this is the problem that many people are criticising it for - not to mention, Gosling fans' annoyance at his distinct lack of dialogue.
Anyone familiar with Winding Refn movies, will quickly realise that this type of filmmaking is actually the norm for him and much closer to his idiosyncratic style than "Drive" ever was. It's filled with symbolism, metaphors and spirituality and categorically it simply isn't the action movie that most viewers were expecting. Credit has to be given to Winding Refn and Gosling for their bravery here. They refuse to try and recreate their previous magic and deliver a whole new experience. There are others deserving of mention here too, Larry Smith's spellbinding cinematography is absolutely gorgeous and entirely authentic in capturing both the beauty and the beast of the city of Bangkok, while Cliff Martinez evokes a foreboding score. The biggest revelation, though, is a bleach-blonde, foul mouthed, Kristin Scott Thomas as the dangerous matriarch Crystal, where every time she's onscreen she absolutely chews it up. It's an outstanding, against-type performance from the once ("Four Weddings and a Funeral") English rose. Thai actor Vithaya Pansringarm's Chang is also worthy of note with his cold, supernatural, god-like, approach and wielding his own form of justice with the aid a samurai sword that he keeps on his person. He can be seen as the phallus to Scott Thomas' yonis, leaving the lost and soulful Gosling with an Oedipal complex and dreamlike imaginings of castration - symbolically represented by the loss of his hands. Events don't exactly make sense on a first time viewing but this is a film that demands repeated efforts to fully capture it's themes. It has the similar surrealist approaches of directors David Lynch and more importantly Alejandro Jodorowsky (whom the film is dedicated to) and there's no questioning Refn's stylistic abilities.
Is it for everyone? Most certainly not, but it will appeal to those who enjoy uncompromising, art-house minimalism and rely on a linear storyline where everything is readily explained. It's ambitious and experimental and you probably won't see a more polarising film all year.

Mark Walker

The Hunt (Jagten)
½

There have been a number of films that have addressed the harrowing nature of child abuse; "The Woodsman" is a notable one where Kevin Bacon's character - just released from prison - admits his guilt, leaving the audience in an almost impossible position in showing any sympathy, whereby John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt" left the audience questioning the guilt of Philip Seymour Hoffman's afflicted priest throughout it's entirety. This time, Thomas Vinterberg tackles the issue from the point of view of the innocently accused.
Mild mannered, nursery school teacher, Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), lives in a small village where he leads a simple life. However, one of his young pupils accuses him of inappropriate behaviour and his life is thrown into turmoil by all around him as he struggles to prove his innocence.
Vinterberg sets his protagonist's motivations from the off-set. He's a humble man who is active in the community and seems to have a solid network of friends and a close relationship with his teenage son. To embody this kindhearted soul, Vinterberg chooses wisely in Mads Mikkelsen - who won best actor for the role at Cannes in 2012. Mikkelsen is the type of actor who, having such a unique physical appearance, can perform many different characters. He made a great Bond villain in "Casino Royale" and now confirms that he can completely win you over in a gentler role. He exudes an appealing demeanour that has you fully affectionate towards him and it's this very affection that has you infuriated at the witch-hunt and complete injustice and turmoil he has to endure. The problem is, there are no bad people in this film. It's layered and nuanced so well, that even those that choose to abandon and ostracise him are only doing what they believe to be right. As an insider, the audience are privy to all the information and it makes it easy to not just understand Lucas' plight but to also identify with the shock and grievances that his friends and family have towards him. Quite simply, it's a film that tears you in many different directions and refuses to let go.
The nature or subject matter of it, may originally put some people off but I can confirm that nothing here is uncomfortably or exploitatively dealt with. It's entirely honest and innocent and that's the very thing that it demands the utmost respect for. Vinterberg doesn't balk from depicting human nature in a cruel or victimised fashion but he cleverly shows restraint in his approach, allowing the actors to deliver the realism and the dangers involved in condemnation through ambiguous gossip.
A gripping and emotionally draining, social drama that manages to be both provocative and empathetic. Proof, once again, that the Scandinavian output of cinema is at the top of it's game right now.

Mark Walker

I'm Still Here
½

In 2008, Joaquin Phoenix announces that he's quitting acting to pursue a music career in hip hop. His bother-in-law, Casey Affleck, decides to film his every move over the course of a year and delivers a portrait of an artist at a crossroads in his life.
Beginning with home video footage from 1981 in Panama, of a young Phoenix jumping from a waterfall, this films sets it's stall out in exploring a life that's seemingly always been documented. Phoenix has been in the public-eye from a very tender age, having appeared as young as 8 yrs old in the television series "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" before moving onto "The Fall Guy", "Hill Street Blues" and "Murder She Wrote". His first recognisable movie roles came in the shape of 1986's "Space Camp" or 1989's "Parenthood" before moving into more edgier roles in Gus Van Sant's "To Die For" in 1995. Up until then, he was better known as the younger sibling of (the late) River Phoenix but eventually gained the full respect of movie goers with two Oscar nominations (now three, since the release of this movie). It's was through this steady rise in the film industry that brought so much media attention to his, seemingly, self destructive decision to abandon acting and become a rap artist under the guidance of Sean "P. Diddy" Combs.
This fly-on-the wall documentary follows Phoenix's obvious lack of talent for rapping and the abandonment of his personal hygiene, while his fragile mental state increased due to a voracious appetite for cannabis and cocaine. As he's constantly high and stoned, a frenzied media where clambering for his story and a reason for the meltdown of an actor in the prime of his career. Ultimately, though, the joke was on them (and us), as the whole thing was an elaborate hoax and an exposé of the nature of celebrity and their pandered ego's and lifestyle's.
Phoenix is entirely believable in his bearded, paunched appearance and his spiralling egotistical, mental anguish and arrogance. He even dares to tackle chat-show host David Letterman (in a now infamous episode) and when you consider that this was a role that completely consumed him - not only throughout the length of the shoot but in the eyes of the world, before and after - you realise how outstanding he is. It's a powerful display of commitment and it's probably one of the bravest and boldest moves that an actor has done.
As entertainment, though, it's questionable. It goes on too long and there are points where the voyeurism pushes boundaries and comes across as bad taste. What could have been the downfall of a man going through a serious mental breakdown, struggles to decide whether it's comedic or dramatic. That being said, it's interesting viewing and it at least exposes the bitter behaviour of western media and how easily they can turn.
Being a fan of Phoenix, will certainly add to the appeal of this film, but if you can normally take or leave him, then this won't hold much of an interest. It's flawed, but it's a bold and noteworthy experiment all the same.

Mark Walker

Dead Poets Society

Robin Williams was predominantly known for his hilarity and exuberant sense of fun before he finally started to show that he had acting chops. In 1987, he received an Oscar nomination for "Good Morning Vietnam" and then, two years later, followed that up with another Best Actor nomination for "Dead Poets Society". To this day, this still stands as one of his most appealing characters and performances.
Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke) is sent to a school where his popular older brother was valedictorian. It's here that he meets room-mate, Neil (Robert Sean Leonard) and many other bright young men, who have lots of potential but lack any real direction. That is, until they meet their new English teacher Professor John Keating (Robin Williams). He's one of the few who sees the potential in them and encourages them to embrace life.
"Carpe Diem. Seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary." These are the words that encapsulate this inspirational story about having a passion for and "sucking the marrow out of..." life. Professor Keating teaches in a very different and personal manner, quoting from such poets as Walt Whitman, Byron, Henry Thoreau and Robert Frost. He has a passion for what he teaches and shows a determination to instil that in his pupils. This passion also exudes onto the audience as we too, explore and enjoy the great writer's and poet's of our past and how rich and effective their words can be.
Director Peter Weir draws on his own experiences of a boarding school education and Tom Schulman's script (partly based on his experiences at an all-boys preparatory school he attended and his professor there, Samuel F. Pickering Jr.) exposes the rigidity within the walls of such an environment. It's to their credit, though, that they manage to bring a sense of hope to education and the joy and expression that lies therein. Filled with many visual and verbal poetic moments, Weir's film is at times, both haunting and beautiful with gorgeous cinematography by John Seale and an effective music score by Maurice Jarre.
There are also a whole host of very impressive performances from it's young cast - an excruciatingly shy Ethan Hawke, being a particular standout. However, it all rests on the shoulders of Williams; he's brilliant, with a very charismatic and heartfelt performance. He taps into his comic abilities, never over doing it and when he needs to deliver the dramatic weight, he does so with aplomb. You're able to warm to him and be completely swept up in his infectious enthusiasm, in turn, allowing you to fully identify with his impressionable students.
At times the film can be emotionally manipulative and doesn't always work but, for the most part, it's very memorable and delivers one of the most uplifting movie endings I can remember. Never has a school desk been used so effectively.
What more can you ask from a film that's able to instil thought, encourage an agreeing nod, raise a smile and even shed a tear? Weir, Williams and co. manage all of these things and for that reason, I give applause... "Oh Captain, my Captain".

Mark Walker

Potiche
Potiche(2011)
½

French performers Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu are two household names in their native France but also familiar with English speaking filmgoers. Basically, they've been around and have delivered an incalculable amount of great performances throughout their careers. This is a film that brings them both together (although not for the first time) and serves as a reminder of how skilful and commanding they are on screen.
Suzanne Pujol (Catherine Denueve) is a "Potiche" - a decorative, trophy wife - who runs a household, while her husband Robert (Fabrice Luchini) runs the family umbrella factory and philanders with his secretary. A workers strike breaks out which leads to Robert having a heart attack and while he recuperates, Suzanne reluctantly takes control of the family business with her two adult children. However, Suzanne is more shrewd and clever than given credit for and she manages to regain the trust of the workers and turn the fortunes of the business around while steadily gaining respect from numerous corners of society including Maurice Babin (Gerard Depardieu), the influential Mayor.
It takes a little time to work up to "Potiche" as it's very dialogue driven. So much so, that it's quite difficult to keep up with the subtitles and it's constant stream of verbal exchanges. However, it's confidently handled and when it does get going it throws in many facets of an individuals life and the complexities and challenges that life throws at us all.
Where it's strengths lie is in it's perfectly pitched commentary on the struggle that women faced throughout the 1970's in order to achieve the same equality as men. Denueve's Suzanne Pujol is the perfect embodiment of a woman hanging up her apron and reclaiming her respect and dignity. It also shows a balance between the strength and vulnerability involved in such a time; on the surface, Suzanne is seen as weak yet she grows in confidence and even considers divorcing her husband. Meanwhile, her daughter Jo√ęlle (Judith Godr√®che) is seen as strong and independent yet ultimately can't bear to be alone. One of the few decent male figures is Suzanne's son, Laurent (J√©r√©mie R√©nier). He's a prominent supporting character and even though he's male and serves as his mothers rock, he seems to carry a certain femininity. This is one of the many clever little devices that provide this film with an astute commentary of the politics and the cognitive shift between the sexes during the 1970's.
The only issue I had was the pacing; despite the wonderful story, quirky humour and solid performances, it fails to completely hold your attention. This is a small gripe but still one that I couldn't ignore. If it delivered itself with a bit more urgency, then this would have been top class.
A subtly handled little dramatic comedy that manages to incorporate many facets of life and has a sumptuous rendering of the 70's era. It could have been tighter but it's still a lot of fun.

Mark Walker

The Place Beyond The Pines
½

When director Derek Cianfrance and star Ryan Gosling collaborated on the grim, but excellent "Blue Valentine" in 2010, they explored the dissolution of a married couple's relationship. Two years later, they're at it again with yet another personal journey about the relationship between fathers and sons. The results are no less impressive than their previous delivery and, this time, arguably better.
Motorcycle stunt rider Luke (Ryan Gosling), meets one of his old flames Romina (Eva Mendes). It turns out that Romina has a son and Luke is the father. Luke then decides that he wants to provide for him but it leads him into robbing banks where he crosses the path of a rookie but ambitious policeman (Bradley Cooper). Their altercation ends up affecting more people than they ever expected.
A triptych movie - divided into three parts - where Cianfrance adopts a deliberate pace and allows his characters the space to grow and develop. First off, this is the most impressive element to the film; the characters are all three-dimensional with deeply emotional drives and motivations as Gosling, Cooper, Dane DeHaan and relative newcomer Emory Cohen, all get ample time to find their feet and get into their roles in each of the chapters. Despite the maleness on show, a solid Eva Mendes flits in between them with an impressive turn in what is a very underwritten role. It's through the committed performances that we are easily able to identify with each the characters and become embroiled in their tangled relationships, that spans a generation. Cianfrance's scope is highly ambitious and for the most part, very successful. In the first third he focuses on Gosling's, Luke and his life of crime while striving to support his family and delivers some very intense heist scenes, one after another (all the more impressive as they were apparently done in one take). Much like his performance in "Drive", Gosling combines good and bad so well. He's able to exude an innocence but also an underlying darkness that few actors that achieve. It's this very combination of qualities that has Gosling at the forefront of contemporary performers. There is an absolute smouldering intensity to him. Then, just as we're getting to know Luke, the film takes a shift towards Cooper's tortured police officer, Avery Cross, in the mid-section. The blending and shift in tone is seamless and impressively delivered but as much as I was a big admirer of Cooper's recent, Oscar nominated performance, in "Silver Linings Playbook", he doesn't quite have the gravitas to make this role work for him in the same way. He does well and can't be faulted too much, but he's too blue-eyed to cut it as a tortured soul here. The intensity that Gosling brings to his role is the very thing that Cooper fails to capture. This may be slightly unfair on Cooper as he's by no means bad, but it only serves to show how strong Gosling is. His performance actually permeates the remainder of the film once he gone but it does still stumble without his presence.
Cianfrance then goes on to finish the saga by audaciaclly jumping 15 years ahead. At this point, the director fully states his ambition and although admirable, he also stretches credulity somewhat. That being said, the film is so well delivered that it's acceptable and just about gets away with it. Unfortunately, the father/son relationship that runs deep within becomes a little muddled and relies far too heavily on a coincidental encounter. With Cianfrance stretching his canvas so far it almost tears apart, held only with the most tenuous of threads. His ambition is almost too vast in relation to his material or more appropriately his running time. I could easily have watched another half hour for the latter characters to be fully rounded and any shaky plot developments ironed out.
However, the more I'm writing this, the more I'm realising that I'm being quite critical. It's not my intention to put this film down, I'm merely pointing out the things that stop this film from being a five star experience. It's very nearly there and I enjoyed it immensely.
Vast, immersive and marvellouslly assembled. Cianfrance really seems to know his stuff when piecing his stories together. "Blue Valentine" was proof of that already but he goes another step further here and the results are no less impressive. It's early doors, but so far, this is the best of 2013.

Mark Walker

Mama
Mama(2013)

After producing the disappointing "Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark" in 2011, Guillermo del Toro lends his name - and financial services - to another American horror production, which is actually an elaboration of the 2008, three minute short, "Mamá" by the same Argentine director Andrés Muschietti. For the most part, del Toro has wisely chosen a director to invest in, but like so many before him, he fails to deliver the ultimate punch that's so important in this particular genre.
A father (Coster-Waldau), seemingly in a state of desperation abducts his two young daughters and flees with them to a remote cabin in the woods. His intention is to kill them but before he does, a dark entity interjects and kills him instead. For years afterwards, the father's twin brother (Coster-Waldau again) searches for his nieces and eventually finds them. They have went feral and claim to have been looked after by something they refer to as "Mama". However, when they head back to civilisation, "Mama" has no intentions of leaving them alone.
Let me just start by saying that "Mama" is a very frustrating movie. When I say frustrating, I don't mean bad, as this film can't quite be labeled as such. It has many things to recommend it; the deliberate pace; the teasing build up; freaky children; the spectre only hinted at or briefly glimpsed. Director Andrés Muschietti (or Andy as he's credited) certainly knows how to build tension and raise the goosebumps. He does it so commandingly and assembles two impressive lead actors that are at the forefront of everyone's minds at present; the ubiquitous, two-time Academy Award nominee Jessica Chastian and rising "Games Of Thrones" star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau - not to mention two excellent child actors in Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse, but (forgive me if I'm mistaken here) is the role of executive producer not to produce, or oversee, the financial side of a film, allowing a director to fully express their vision and help with the distribution of the product? If that's the case, then Guillermo del Toro can certainly be seen to have done his side of the bargain on the latter half, as this has reached quite an impressive audience, but on the the former he has to come under scrutiny. When this film is forced into delivering the visuals, they seem cheap and really not up to the standard that a more sophisticated audience are accustomed to. The finale is delivered in such a way that it strips the whole film of the good work that went before. Namely, revealing the spectre too much and too soon. When will filmmakers - particularly those in the horror genre - learn, that less is more? It's not necessary for us to witness the antagonist in full view and allow our minds to be force fed, when it worked so much better when we were kept in the dark. In fairness, it's a poorly written denouement that still falls at the feet of director Muschietti , who co-writes with Neil Cross and sister Barbara Muschietti. They construct a brilliant horror concept with an effective, mother/daughter emotional core, but are simply unable to bring it to any satisfying conclusion. That's exactly where the frustration lies; this film had so much going for it, that it leaves you in disbelief that it's all squandered in contrivances and poor CGI, which ultimately leaves you with the overriding feeling that not all short film's have the ability or mileage for a feature length endeavour.
For the most part, this is a very effective and engaging modern horror but like so many from recent times, it fails to deliver when it really matters. Here's some advice from your "Dada"... expect less and you'll receive more.

Detachment
Detachment(2012)
½

Having been a big fan of "American History X" in 1998, I was eager to see what else director Tony Kaye had in store. Unfortunately, he didn't make that many films and those that he did - "Lobby Lobster" and "Black Water Transit" - didn't quite reach a bigger audience. As a result, I was happy to come across "Detachment" which proves that Kaye hasn't lost any of his style or starkness.
Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody) is a substitute teacher brought in to a struggling urban high school to teach English and work with kids who are performing at a very low grade. Being a substitute is exactly the way Henry likes it as he deliberately tries to avoid making genuine connections with people (and that includes his pupils). As time goes on, though, Mr. Barthes realises his pupils' needs for his input which forces him to confront his own demons and isolation.

"And never have I felt so deeply at one and the same time so detached from myself and so present in the world."
As the film opens, this is the quote from French philosopher Albert Camus, that's scribed onto a blackboard before we are introduced to the protagonist and the personal conflict he finds himself in. On the one hand, he's a caring individual but on the other, he deliberately keeps a distance from people as he's consumed by a guilt that doesn't belong to him. His detachment is also reflected in the frustrated and disillusioned pupils he teaches, making this a melting pot of emotionally dysfunctional people. It's this very mirroring in the individuals that make this quite a thought provoking character study, as well as a diatribe on the state of the American educational system and the problems therein.
Kaye shoots the film with an edgy, fly on the wall approach, utilising the shaky-cam technique and numerous close-ups that bring you closer to the characters and their inner turmoil. There's also the assembly of a very impressive cast, all-be-it, a lot of them are wasted in thankless, underwritten roles. The likes of Bryan Cranston, Blythe Danner and William Petersen needn't have turned up at all, but James Caan lightens the mood whenever he's onscreen and the young unknowns get a chance to shine instead; particularly (the director's daughter) Betty Kaye, who develops a crush on her teacher and Sami Gayle as a young prostitute who develops a similar infatuation. The real star, though, is a brooding and commanding Brody. He's rarely offscreen for the entirety of the film and even though it's no surprise that he delivers his usual reliability, he's especially good with a very powerful and charismatic performance. However, the cast and the impressive handling of the material can't save the film from being overly depressing, or when drawing to it's conclusion, descending into melodrama from which it never fully recovers.
Cut from the same cloth as the, Oscar nominated, Ryan Gosling movie "Half Nelson", director Tony Kaye delivers a good insight into the difficulties of teaching and the importance of instilling a good childhood and sense of self in our youth.

Mark Walker

Saving Private Ryan

When Steven Spielberg was finally handed a long overdue Oscar in 1993, he received it for tackling the harrowing genocides of World War II in "Schindler's List". So far, he's only received two Best Director Awards and the other was fittingly received when he tackled the battlefields of that very same war in "Saving Private Ryan". Two different film's but equally as powerful as the other.
During WWII, Chief of staff General Marshall (Harve Presnell) is informed of the death of three brothers in different conflicts and that their mother will receive the telegrams at the same time. A fourth brother, Private James Ryan (Matt Damon) is believed to be still alive, somewhere in the French countryside, and the decision is taken to locate him. Captain Miller (Tom Hanks), is given the rescue mission of leading his 2nd Ranger battalion through Nazi occupied territory to find Ryan and send him home.
Spielberg is, quite simply, one of the finest filmmakers that has ever graced the craft. He is, and will continue to be, heralded throughout generations of audiences and that's with very good reason, as he's instilled a sense of awe and unadulterated entertainment for over 40 years now. Despite an impressive backlog of movies that consists of such classics like "Jaws", "Close Encounters...", "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "E.T", the opening 25 minutes of "Saving Private Ryan" - where he thrusts us into the 1944 D-Day landings of Omaha Beach - is arguably his most impressive and certainly his most visceral work. It's absolutely exhausting in it's construction and sense of realism and the realisation soon sets in, that this cinematic autuer is not about to pull any punches in portraying a time in history that's very close to his heart. The opening is so commanding that some have criticised the film for not living up this grand and devastating scale but Spielberg has many more up his sleeve. He's just not able to deliver them too close together - otherwise, the film would be absolutely shattering and very difficult to get through. To bridge the gap between breathtaking battles scenes the film falls into a rather conventional storyline about men on a mission but it's only purpose is to keep the film flowing and allows Spielberg the ability to make the brutality of war more personal. Two scenes in particular, are as overwhelming as the opening to the film: the hand-to-hand combat between a German soldier and Private Mellish (played by Adam Goldberg) and the deeply emotional and ironic injuries of T-4 Medic Wade (played by Giovanni Ribisi). These moments in the film are the most difficult to watch but they only really work because we are allowed the time to bond with the characters beforehand and experience the combat with them. Each of them have a particular but very different appeal, making it harder to accept when some of them perish in savage and harrowing circumstances.
The cast also deserve the utmost praise for making the roles their own; the always reliable Hanks is solid in the central role and there are exceptional performances from the first rate support, namely, Barry Pepper and the aforementioned Goldberg and Ribisi, who are all outstanding.
Janusz Kaminski's magnificent cinematography is also starkly delivered; his images are both beautifully and horrifically captured and Spielberg's decision to desaturate the colour and adopt some handheld approaches, add an authenticity that's rarely been captured in the genre and brings another dimension to some of the finest and most realistic battle scenes ever committed to the screen.
There's not much in the way of criticism that I can throw at this near masterpiece, other than Robert Rodat's script; the conventional plot strays into cliche where the Germans are completely stereotypical and there is absolutely no sign of an Allied soldier anywhere. Rodat would have you believe that America fought the war singlehandedly, but despite these discrepancies, the film has so much power that these faults can be overlooked.
One of the darkest chapters in our history is viscerally captured in a raw and uncompromising piece of work from a virtuoso director, tapping into the highest of his abilities. Some may prefer the more fantastical and escapist nature of Spielberg, but for me, this is the finest film he's made.

Mark Walker

Sleepers
Sleepers(1996)
½

After the massive box-office flop of "Toys" in 1992 and the overlooked, straight to dvd, "Jimmy Hollywood", director Barry Levinson seemed to be in need of some stronger material. As a result, he decided on a couple of adaptations; the first was Michael Crichton's "Disclosure" followed by "Sleepers", the controversial novel by Lorenzo Carcaterra, which served as a reminder that Levinson still had something to offer.
Growing up in Hell's Kitchen, four close friends, Shakes (Joe Perinno), Michael (Brad Renfro), John (Geoffrey Wigdor) and Tommy (Jonathan Tucker) fill their days playing pranks and making their own entertainment. However, one of their pranks lead to a man getting seriously injured and they are sentenced to time in the Wilkenson Detention Centre in upstate New York. In the centre they are subjected to beatings and sexual abuse by the guards. Over ten years later, two of the boys take revenge on one of them (Kevin Bacon), which drags up the past and involves everyone they know.
What we have with "Sleepers" is a stellar cast, a more than capable director and a story that's purportedly based on fact. There's really not that far you can wrong in these instances but, unfortunately, it's the "based on fact" angle that let's this film down. Everything else is handled with skill, but no matter how well it's delivered, it leaves an aroma that smells vaguely of garbage. It's too far fetched and under closer scrutiny and investigation, the events that writer Lorenzo Carcaterra claims to be true, are unfounded. There simply isn't any evidence of them. Now, if this film just played out as a piece of storytelling then that issue wouldn't exist and you'd be able to sit back and enjoy what this film has to offer. And what it has to offer is plentiful. The cinematography by (Scorsese regular) Michael Ballhaus, captures the look and feel for the times that reflect, in some ways, an urban version of "Stand By Me" in the earlier part of the film and Levinson does a very professional job on his direction duties. Where his strength lies is in drawing out brilliant performances from his impressively assembled cast: Throughout an abundance of familiar names, it's Patric (playing writer, Carcaterra) that get's the most focus but the rest still get enough to work with; Bacon verges on the stereotypical side but still channels an effective sadistic presence; Pitt, in a lesser role (when he was still on the rise) captures the cocksure arrogance required and the always reliable and masterful Hoffman brings a lot of depth and humour with his subtle mannerisms. At the risk of sounding biased, though, it's DeNiro that impresses most as the avuncular priest, Father Bobby. He delivers one of the most endearing and charismatic performances of his career and happens to have a moment in the film where his expression is solely focussed on, as he hears about the tragic and abusive events that took place. He doesn't utter a word, but his pain, anguish and compassion is expressed entirely and powerfully within his eyes. The only drawback amongst the performances is that the greats of DeNiro and Hoffman don't get a chance to share much screen time together. (In fairness, Levinson rectified this in his later movie "Wag The Dog" and subsequently they have shared the screen in the "Meet The Parents" sequels). These two fantastic actors have never really went toe-to-toe on dramatic terms, though, and this film seems like a missed opportunity on that level. As for the structure itself, it's a film of two halves; the first concentrating on the boys' high jinks (again, with great performances from it's young actors - Joe Perrino and Brad Renfro being the standouts) while the latter half descends into a formulaic courtroom drama which stretches credulity and eschews any form of logic in order to deliver the drama. It's during this, that the "true" nature of the story becomes seriously questionable and we're also left with an overhanging, dubious message on justice. Despite these issues, though, there are many highlights to be found and at nearly two and half hours long, it's never dull. Whether or not it's true is another matter but at the very least, Carcaterra has written an emotional and involving tale.
Flawed and uneven with a conclusion that simply doesn't convince, but if you're able to sidestep these faults then there's still a great film at it's core.

Mark Walker

The Secret in Their Eyes (El Secreto de Sus Ojos)
½

The 2010 Academy Awards category for Best Foreign Language film contained some strong contenders with the likes of Jacques Audiard's "A Prophet" and Michael Haneke's "The White Ribbon"; two films that could easily have laid claim to the award. However, it was this film crept up from under their noses and took the Oscar. Whether or nor you pay any credence to the Oscars is neither here nor there but there's no doubt that this is solid and absorbing filmmaking.
In 1999, retired criminal justice officer Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darìn) decides to write a novel about a murder case that he investigated in 1974. He decides
visits his old colleague Irene Hastings (Soledad Villamil) to talk it over. The case had repercussions for everyone involved but Benjamin didn't realise the direct effect it had on him or his deep, suppressed feelings for Irene.
With a title like "The Secret In Their Eyes", this film states it's intentions and stands by them. Director Juan José Campanella lingers long on shots and wisely focuses on the eyes of his performers. For a film that's predominately dialogue driven, the abundance of close-up's add another dimension where the eyes speak a thousand words. It's a great technique that conveys a myriad of hidden meanings in the relationship between the two main characters, Benjamin and Irene. However, this relationship is not entirely apparent from the off-set. It's only when the film's layers are revealed that this comes to the surface, as in the meantime you're too preoccupied with it's murder-mystery plot developments. This mystery progresses into a manhunt, while taking time to explore the judicial system and political corruption that was rife in Argentina in 1970's. It's during this, that Campanella takes advantage of the thriller element in the story, delivery an absolutely astounding and very skilfully handled tracking shot through a football stadium, leading to an impressively assembled chase sequence. Just how they managed to do it is beyond me and needs to be seen to be believed. There are many moments of intensity when it matters (including a nerve-racking elevator moment that's hard to forget) but it also knows how to ground itself and that's were the performances come in; Ricardo Darin is a charismatic presence who more than holds your interest with unshakable ideals and a strong moral compass, while Soledad Villamil delivers a strong and reserved show. It's the chemistry between these two wonderful actors that play a big part in the film's, effortless, tonal shifts. It's also not without humour or tragedy which is provided by Guillermo Francella as Benjamin's alcoholic, but loyal and reliable colleague, Pablo.
Quite simply, it's easy to see why this film took the Oscar, it's has a bit of everything; a sharp and involving script that pays great attention to detail; skilful direction;
rich cinematography and natural, committed performances.
A complex tapestry about life, love and chances rued that's built around the constructs of a thriller. It excels in everything it challenges and that's exactly where it's strengths lie.

Mark Walker

Gangster Squad

Although I've yet to see director Ruben Fleischer's previous comedy film "30 Minutes Or Less", I did manage to catch his debut "Zombieland" which injected a lot of humour and style in the zombie sub-genre. For his third film, he assembles one of the year's most impressive casts and decides to drop the comedy and focus on a real-life crime story. His stylish approach is, once again, on show but unfortunately, his film suffers from a dreadfully threadbare script that fails to utilise his very talented ensemble or elaborate on a story with massive potential.
Los Angeles, 1949. Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) is determined to take hold of the city and muscle out any competition. Police Chief William Parker (Nick Nolte) has other ideas, though. He forms a squad of no-nonsense cops to fight back and puts World War II veteran John O'Mara (Josh Brolin) in charge of the operation. O'Mara assembles his crew and tackles Cohen's organisation with the same brute force that he acquired it.
From the off-set, Fleischer doesn't waste time in getting down to business. The brutality of Mickey Cohen is captured within the first few minutes by a scenery-chewing Sean Penn, on menacing form. Following suit, we are then introduced to Brolin's strong arm of the law, charged with bringing this notorious gangster to justice. Straight away, Dion Beebe's gorgeous cinematography and production designer Mather Ahmad manage to capture the glitz and grime of late 1940's L.A. and it looks like we could be treated to something akin to Curtis Hanson's sublime "L.A. Confidential". Unfortunately, the look and feel is where the comparison ends. This isn't anywhere near as tightly constructed as James Ellroy's labyrinthine thriller and that's the most frustrating part; it could have been. The elements are in place but the all-important script seems to have it's concrete shoes on. The writing is repetitious and lazily strung together and for a film that's seemingly focused on it's characters, it ultimately fails to deliver anything that resembles a three-dimensional role for any of the impressive cast on show. Brolin, Gosling and Penn get most of the screen time but this is a role that's completely beneath the abilities of Gosling as he takes a back seat to the other two and the talented likes of Ribisi, Mackie and especially Pe√Īa needn't have turned up at all. It all but completely abandons the good work it sets out to do and resorts to stylistic action scenes that are drawn out and devour the latter half of the movie - eventually leading to nothing more than a shoot-em-up and an obligatory toe-to-toe thrown in for good bad measure. Quite simply, the whole thing comes across as a poor case of cut-and-paste and squanders what little powerful scenes and performances it does possess.
It's a real shame that this ended up so superficial when it had so much potential. Instead of being a passable piece of pulp with too much reliance on it's star wattage, it could have been a solid addition to the gangster genre. I'm sure Fleischer believed in the material at one point but my Tommy-Gun's not convinced.

Mark Walker

In the Mouth of Madness
½

After "The Thing" in 1982 and "Prince Of Darkness" in 1987, director John Carpenter completed his self-titled 'Apocalypse trilogy' in 1994 with "In The Mouth Of Madness". Unfortunately, by this point, Carpenter couldn't get any strong studio backing for his projects and as a result his excellent concepts never really took off as well as they could have. This film is another example of the financial problems that he was facing.
When renowned horror writer Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow) makes a sudden disappearance, strange things begin to happen. His ability to describe evil, literally, starts to come to life and effect everyone in society. To investigate his mysterious disappearance, Insurance investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) is sent to a little East Coast town called Hobb's End. However, this little town is actually a figment of Cane's imagination and Trent soon finds himself questioning his own sanity as he is drawn further and further into the dark recesses of Cane's twisted mind.
As always with Carpenter, the concept and premise is one of sheer brilliance and it possesses more than few references to real life horror writers Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft but unlike his previous efforts there is something amiss here. Maybe it's because Carpenter doesn't actually write the script himself or even compose the soundtrack with the idiosyncratic and atmospheric style that fans of his will be accustomed to. Despite the excellent premise, I found that the films major issue was a lack of drive. It didn't catch me the way it did when I first seen it. Also, it suffers from a failure to bring a depth to any character other than Sam Neill's investigator. Sutter Cane is a very intriguing antagonist with a lot of potential but he features very little and when he does appear, the films budget is tested in order to realise it's horror. All in all, this struck me as an attempt from Carpenter to appeal to a wider audience and as a result sacrificed the very style that made him a unique filmmaker to begin with. That's not to say that this is a poor film. It's not. It's very cleverly constructed and for the most part, very well delivered. Carpenter is a master at his build up and construction of atmosphere, meanwhile, cleverly unravelling the mystery. However, the film takes a little too long to get going and just when it's hitting it crescendo, it feels rushed and over a bit too soon.
For the most part, Carpenter does well to blur the lines between fantasy and reality but ultimately it doesn't quite come together as obscurity and pretentiousness creep in. It's a great attempt, but Carpenter has delivered better.

Mark Walker

Things to Do in Denver...When You're Dead

Post Quentin Tarantino and "Reservoir Dogs" there was an influx of stylish and fast-talking crime movies. It became the fad during the 90's and beyond. "True Romance", "Pulp Fiction" and "The Usual Suspects" were another few. Some fell by the way side while others genuinely succeeded and "Things To Do In Denver..." is one of those films that creates a positive, lasting memory. Crime escapades and colourful characters are what this film has in abundance.
In order to fund his small business, Jimmy the Saint (Andy Garcia) is in debt to lone sharks. However, his debt is bought over by an old venomous cohort from the past (Christopher Walken) who drags Jimmy back into a life of crime and orders him to scare off the new boyfriend of the ex-fiancée of the boss's simple-minded son and heir. Jimmy assembles a tight-knit crew to keep the job simple but things don't go to plan, leaving him and his friends with contracts on their heads.
As the lively and spirited Tom Waits song "Jockey Full of Bourbon" is played overhead we are introduced to our suave, confident, wheeler/dealer protagonist 'Jimmy the Saint' and given an almost instant idea of this films stylish intentions. Like Jimmy, this film moves fast and talks fast. However, this isn't strictly down to him. Where this film succeeds is not just in one particular character or it's particularly cool demeanour. Where it succeeds, is in it's plethora of interesting and delicately written supporting roles and a whole hot of quality actors to embody them. A lot of them get limited screen time but it's still a testament to the writing qualities of Scott Rosenberg who manages to give them enough of a backstory to make them stand out and the actors bring the right amount of presence required for us to invest in them. The real standouts from Jimmy's crew are: Christopher Lloyd's leper - nicknamed 'Pieces' on account of his fingers and toes falling off from a circulatory disease and a completely on-edge Treat Williams as 'Critical Bill' - a psychopath, who can't seem to stop harming people. He even uses funeral parlour corpses as punchbags to relieve his tension. There is also excellent support in Christopher Walken's crippled mob leader 'The Man With The Plan', who's so ruthless, he even threatens to have his henchmen pull out his "dead dick" for Jimmy to suck on. He's a lamentable nasty but one that Walken excels at, and all the more, because he acts only from the neck up. On the sidelines - but no less memorable - is Steve Buscemi's clinical hitman 'Mr. Shhh', who's brought in to despatch of Jimmy and his crew. Buscemi gets the least amount of dialogue and screen time but anyone familiar his role in "The Big Lebowski" will know that this is never a problem for him to still make a lasting impression.
At times, there is an elusive nature to the sharply written dialogue and the characters' use of a distinctive vocabulary but it only helps to convey a strong bond and understanding between them. On closer inspection, their patois is explained and the camaraderie and altercations throughout the film are driven by paying as much as attention as it does, to such a vernacular approach.
Fast talking dialogue with fast and colourful characters in the fast and dangerous Denver underbelly. This film has the goods to satisfy fans of the crime genre and manages just the right amount of cool that Quentin Tarantino made his name on. An overlooked and thoroughly entertaining addition to the genus.

Mark Walker

Sightseers
Sightseers(2013)

After the dark crime thriller "Kill List" in 2011, writer/director Ben Wheatley has decided on a slightly lighter approach for his follow-up. Just 'slightly' mind you, as the premise of this tale is equally as dark and deranged. However, it does contain a lot of humour and will most likely remain one of the blackest comedies all year. It's also confirmation that Wheatley is definitely a talent to watch.
After accidentally killing her mother's beloved dog with a knitting needle Tina (Alice Lowe), makes a decision to leave her domineering mother and go on a caravan holiday with her new boyfriend Chris (Steve Oram). What Tina doesn't know is that Chris has a penchant for killing people who upset him. Tina soon becomes influenced by him and as they tour the English countryside, they leaves bodies in their wake at the camp sites, museums and tourist destinations that they visit.
After a brief introduction to our travelling odd-couple, Wheatley gets down to his turgid roadtrip where all manner of darkness ensues. Despite the, blacker-than-black, nature of the story he infuses it with a deadpan humour that counterbalances the events, disturbed behaviour and thought processes of the characters. After casually and callously despatching of unsuspecting, innocent victims our couple share their thoughts and warped sense of justification; at one point over dinner Tina suggests that "by reducing their life span you're reducing their omissions", to which Chris responds "so what you mean is... murder is green? I never thought of it like that". Tina is also a character who likes to have intercourse while sticking her face in a bowl of pot-pourri and wearing hand-knitted, crotchless lingerie. These are just a couple of examples of their deluded outlook and off-the-wall behaviour. Believe me, there are plenty more on their travels. What aids the film immeasurably is the two superb central performances from Steve Oram and Alice Lowe who also happen to have written the screenplay. While playing out their own characters, it shows that they fully understand the material and what's required to make them three dimensional. Meanwhile, Wheatley handles the extreme shifts in tone with absolute ease. There are some genuinely, hilarious moments that are coupled with a very twisted nature. For a film to have you laughing at it's darkness, is a testament to all involved here. Black comedies don't come much darker than this.
Having proved beforehand with "Kill List" that he could craft a sense of realism imbued with absolute horror. This time, Ben Wheatley shows excellent skill in balancing humour with an altogether different kind of horror and lunacy. It has been compared to the likes of "Natural Born Killers" and Mike Leigh's "Nuts In May" but I'd refer to this thoroughly rewarding little treat, as "Badlands" in the Midlands.

Mark Walker

Welcome to the Punch
½

This film marks the start of a trilogy of UK ventures from actor James McAvoy in 2013. It was released practically back to back with Danny Boyle's "Trance" and an adaptation of the Irvine Welsh novel "Filth" will complete McAvoy's year. Let's just say that he hasn't got off the best of starts with this one.
During the pursuit of master criminal
Jacob Sternwood (Mark Strong), doggedly determined policeman Max Lewinsky (James McAvoy) is shot in the leg which allows Sternwood to escape. Now disgraced within his precinct, Lewinsky believes he will never get the chance bring Sternwood to justice. That is, until Sterenwood is forced out of hiding to return to London from his Icelandic hideaway and hunt down the man responsible for shooting his son. Lewinsky is given the perfect opportunity to rescue his reputation but he also uncovers a deeper conspiracy involved.
I've said it countless times before but I'm afraid I'm going to have to say it again; I'm not a massive fan of the action genre. I find it all a bit hollow and the story and logic always suffer for the sake of set-pieces and excitement. This has that very same problem. The reason I went into this was for the actors and the curiosity of how a British made movie, in this genre, could compete in terms with the U.S. At least, on both these accounts, I wasn't disappointed. McAvoy, once again, proves his leading man credentials with fine support by Mark Strong and British character actors like Peter Mullan, David Morrissey and Johnny Harris. The film's, near futuristic, look and gritty feel is also perfectly fitting and for a change, a British action movie handles itself just as well as any other. However, it's ultimately no different from the mind-numbing, generic dross that this genre so often delivers and the plot, as expected, has holes aplenty. In fact, they are so wide, they are actually quite offensive. Despite it trying to play clever and keep it's cards close to it's chest, it's all rather predictable and leaves you with the feeling that you've just wasted your time. Eran Creevy does well in the directing stakes and conducts his action set-pieces with impressive ease but his script has more creeks and holes than his protagonist's dodgy knee. If it wasn't for the committed actors and the neon-infused cinematography by Ed Wild, this would be a complete write-off.
With a better script and more respect for the audience this could have been a lot better. Sadly, it has neither of these and carries so much self-indulgence it would be more aptly titled... Welcome to the Paunch.

Mark Walker

Casino
Casino(1995)
½

Five years after delivering one the mob genre's finest films in "GoodFellas", director Martin Scorsese reunited with screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi and several of the same actors - mainly Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci - to focus on another true-life crime story. This time he takes it away from the mean streets of New York and focuses on the deserts of Las Vegas. The results may be highly similar but they're just as impressive.
Sam "Ace" Rothstein (Robert DeNiro) is a smooth and ambitious type that moves out to Las Vegas to become the operator of the Tangiers Casino. Things go well for him until his volatile childhood friend Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) arrives to get in on the action and Sam falls in love with conniving, unbalanced and untrustworthy, showgirl Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone). Before long, a cycle of drugs and violence ensues while Sam struggles to hold onto his casino license and the mob back home are less than happy with the results.
The hallmarks of Scorsese's style and structure - that were so prevalent in "GoodFellas" - are all on show again here. He has his usual reliable cast, delivering voiceover narrations that take us through the events and there is regular use of classic tracks from The Rolling Stones. His directorial techniques and are also on show; from flash-cuts to freeze-frames, crash zooms and montages. In other words, Scorsese is doing it all over again and it's these very techniques and stylistic flourishes that have drawn some criticism Casino's way for being too similar to his aforementioned crime classic. To some extent, I can understand these gripes. There is definitely a feeling of repetition and lack of originality in it's approach. The most obvious comparison being the casting of Joe Pesci. As good as Pesci is (and he is very good) it may have served Scorsese better to cast someone else in that role. The character is too similar to Pesci's Oscar winning Tommy DeVito. I'd liked to have seen (another Scorsese regular) Harvey Keitel, for example, just to mix things up a bit and he's proven beforehand that he's an actor that plays off DeNiro very well. That being said, there is an argument of 'if it ain't broke, dont fix it'. It does tread old ground and doesn't really bring anything fresh to the table but it's old ground that's worth treading again. Where Scorsese does succeed, is in his casting of DeNiro. In "Goodfellas", DeNiro was underused but here he delivers some solid work. He has a less showy role than those around him, making it easy to overlook just how effortless he is. He's rarely offscreen for the entire 3 hours of the film and shows an absolutely commanding reservation. Other great inclusions in the cast are a weasel like James Woods and a surprisingly outstanding Sharon Stone. She takes a back seat in the early stages but when she properly enters the fray, she delivers a very powerful and layered performance and the convincing catalyst for the unravelling of the characters' indulgent lifestyles. She was rightfully Oscar nominated for her work here and very unlucky not to win. It's a testament to these committed performances and Scorsese's expertise that this film still manages to stand alone as a very fine piece of cinema in it's own right. Added to which, the lavish production design by Dante Ferretti and Robert Richardson's sublime cinematography bring the whole glitz, glamour and corruption of Las Vegas to fruition.
An enthralling and intimate portrayal of the decline of the mob in the 1970's. It may not be as tightly constructed as "GoodFellas" but how many film's are or ever will be? If this is the only criticism that can be appointed to Casino then there's no point criticising at all. Another fine addition to Scorsese's canon.

Mark Walker

Le Donk & Scor-zay-zee

Director Shane Meadows is no stranger to low-budget filmmaking. In fact, most of his films to date have been made with relativity tight constraints. This time around, he goes that one step further and makes an all-out, fly on the wall mockumentary, which also happens to be his third collaboration with actor Paddy Considine.
Documentary maker Shane Meadows (playing himself) follow the life of music manager Le Donk (Paddy Considine), who reckons he's unearthed a new talent in rapper Scor-Zay-Zee (Dean Palinczuk). As a slot with band The Arctic Monkeys opens up, the would-be manager and his protege hit the road to try and make a name for themselves.
If the brilliant "A Room For Romeo Brass" and "Dead Man's Shoes" were anything to go by, you'd be forgiven for getting very excited about the prospect of Meadows and Considine working together again. I know I certainly was. Unfortunately, this film isn't quite up to their previous high standards. In fairness, they've adopted a different approach but for a film with a running time of just over an hour you'd expect it to move briskly and get down to telling it's story. In the early stages it does this, with some hilarious observational humour and "kitchen sink" drama that's reminiscent of Ricky Gervais' "The Office" but the delivery soon becomes a bit stale. The idea is good, the performances are good but for a film to enter into this mould it needs to provide more laughs than it does. I'm sure it probably will appeal to many people but for me, as a big fan of Meadows, I had set my sites too high. It loses it momentum and relies too heavily on the presence of Considine and his perfect balance of ambition and desperation. He's most definitely the highlight here. However, there's only so much one man can carry. The humour and awkward situations are well captured but it essentially there isn't much of a story and becomes not much more than a showcase for real-life rap artist and freestyler Scor-Zay-Zee who's not that appealing to begin with.
An interesting, if unsuccessful, project from Meadows. He's not made many bad movies and I wouldn't say this is bad either. It's just not as eventful as it could have been.

Mark Walker

Pan's Labyrinth

Despite being quite a prominent name in cinema just now, director Guillermo del Toro hasn't actually made that many movies. He came to attention in 1993 with his excellent feature debut "Cronos" before Hollywood quickly took note and employed him on such films as "Mimic" and "Blade II". However, his strengths lie in his own original work where he retains creative control. Of which, there are three that really stand out; the aforementioned "Cronos" is one, "The Devil's Backbone" another and "Pan's Labyrinth" - which to this day, remains his masterpiece.
Following the Spanish Civil War in 1944, young Ofelia (Baquero) moves to a rural town with her pregnant mother (Gil) to live with her Fascist military stepfather (López) who is determined to weed out resistance fighters to Franco's dictatorship. It's in this remote town that Ofelia meets a faun in the centre of a labyrinth who tells her that she is a princess. However, to claim her rightful place in this magical land she must perform certain gruesome tasks to prove her royalty.
It's hard to pigeon hole a film like Pan's Labyrinth as there are so many facets to it's structure. On the one hand, it's a political/historical drama and on the other it's a fantasy/horror. Few (if any) films will spring to mind when these genres are mentioned in the same breath which reflects the very craftsmanship that's at work here. One thing that you can undoubtedly count on, though, is it's highly imaginative nature. Sure, we've had fantastical stories before where a young girl escapes her constrained life to enter bigger and more possible worlds. We've also had commentaries on the brutalities and restrictions of fascist regimes but to combine them into a wondrous journey of life, struggle and imagination is an amalgamation that I have rarely witnessed. Such is the case with this film and such is the skill of del Toro in his writing and handling of the material. He incorporates an abundance of childhood fantasies, from delving into books and mythology - that feature fauns and fairies - to the power of a piece of chalk on the wall. This may be built around the point of view of a child's eye but its also not afraid to explore the darker recesses of that very imagination and construct some of the most monstrous creatures that can inhabit that realm. Del Toro is in absolute command here and he's aided, immeasurably, by cinematographer Guillermo Navarro in capturing and contrasting his world within a world; one is a visually striking and enchanting fantasia, the other a stark and brutal reality. It's a balance that's difficult to achieve but with deft handling of coexisting genres, del Toro's vision is able to come to fruition and manages to be both a reminder of the rigidity of fascism and the escapable ability of an imaginary youthful mind.
To embody the young protagonist, we are gifted an outstanding performance from Ivana Baquero who carries a heavy weight on her young shoulders and does so, with a skill beyond her years. Sergi Lopez also provides marvellous support as the bestial Captain Vidal who's a smouldering villain that's on a par with any of the war genre's nastiest characters.
It's very difficult to find criticism in this film as there simply, isn't any. The only one that stands is in the film's title. It's slightly misleading as "Pan" never actually features here. The original international title translates as "Labyrinth of the Fuan" which is probably the most pedantic gripe you'll ever hear from me.
A stunning piece of work that's both beautifully and horrifically executed. Modern masterpiece is a term that gets brandished around too often these days but this is one that's certainly deserving of such praise.

Mark Walker

The Paperboy
The Paperboy(2012)
½

After his Oscar winning film "Precious", which was an adaptation of Sapphire's novel "Push", director Lee Daniels decides to follow that up with another adaptation. This time it's the 1995 novel of "The Paperboy" by Pete Dexter and another exploration of highly dysfunctional personalities.
Naive reporter Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) heads back to his home town of Lately, where he's determined to exonerate convict Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), who awaits execution on death row for the supposed murder of a local Sheriff. Ward is accompanied by his brother Jack (Zac Efron), ambitious colleague Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo) and flashy seductress Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman) - who has a fetish for incarcerated men and Van Wetter is her latest obsession. The murky details of the investigation soon uncover truths about everyone involved and truths that were better left alone.
This is a film that's very much a mixed bag and it's easy to see why some people just didn't take to it. First off, the narrative is disjointed. At times, it doesn't seem know to which direction it's going in and the tacked-on, voiceover narration, doesn't really help matters. In the earlier part there's humour and it gives the impression that it's got it's tongue stuck firmly in it's cheek. As the film and characters grow, though, it becomes progressively darker. So much so, that it will having you wincing in both disgust and horror. These shifts in tone are less than effortless and also threaten to undo the film as a whole. However, even though the tone is uneven it's throws up many memorable moments; Kidman urinating on Efron's face, Cusack and Kidman engaging in masturbation while 10 feet apart and other brutal and shocking revelations, which I'll allow you to find out for yourself. It's in these memorable moments that you realise where the film's strengths lie; the characters are all three dimensional and the brave cast are uniformly brilliant. Efron has come a long way since his "High School Musical" days and looks like proper leading actor material; McConaughey continues his recent run of seedy and risqué roles; Cusack captures the intensity of a loutish psychopath and Kidman is a revelation as an oversexed floozie. Fine support is also delivered by a surprisingly talented Macy Gray and the enigmatic David Olywewo. It's the very commitment from these actors that has you believing in the material even when their characters' motivations are not always clear or convincing. Another big player in the proceedings is cinematographer Roberto Schaefer. He captures the searing heat and uncomfortableness of backwoods Florida to perfection while balancing the class divide and racial tension that drips from every pore.
Daniels' direction may be a little hyperstylised at times and his grasp on the film's structure is less than convincing. Incoherence does creep in and the film sags around the midriff, becoming in danger of losing interest entirely. At one point, when it should be wrapping up, it throws in further complications and character developments but to give the director his due, he knows how to drop subtle hints without revealing too much, leaving the story's denouement more satisfying than first thought. There's no doubt that this is a flawed endeavour but the scathing opinions of it are a little unwarranted, all-be-it, understandable. There is much to admire. Yes, it's trashy, tawdry and most certainly deranged but it's also edgy and unpredictable which is more than you can say for a lot of studio releases these days.
Sexploitation, exploitation and telekinetic masturbation. What more can you can ask from a film that doesn't pretend to be anything more than a deranged venture into the American south with a committed cast that are game for anything?
This might have been booed at the Cannes film festival but for it's trashy audacity alone, it deserves applause.

Mark Walker

Frankenweenie

Tim Burton has occasionally been involved in animated movies throughout his career, having served as producer on "The Nightmare Before Christmas", "James & The Giant Peach" and "9". However, the only time he's actually been behind the camera on any of them was "Corpse Bride" in 2005 and his animated short in 1984 "Frankenweenie" - of which this is a feature length expansion of. Some may feel that he's treading old ground here but there's no doubt that this is still a highly successful endeavour.
Victor Frankenstein is a lonely young man who's best friend is his energetic dog, Sparky. When Sparky is run over and killed by a car, Victor is devastated but he refuses to give up hope of spending time with his beloved friend again. Inspired by his science teacher, he decides to rig up a laboratory and harness the lightning to bring Sparky's corpse back to life. His attempts are successful but it soon causes havoc within his neighbourhood.
Burton has came in for a critical panning from many people of late (myself included). The major issue being his seeming inability to change his idiosyncratic style. With this latest venture into stop-motion animation, he has answered his critics in style and it makes you wonder whether he even should change his approach when the results can be as good as this. Here, his gothic idiosyncrasies are entirely suited to this homage to director James Whale and his classic horror movies "Frankenstein" and it's follow-up "Bride Of Frankenstein". He also throws in some references to horror stars Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre and Vincent Price and includes a whole host of quirky characters - the one that stood out for me the most was 'Mr. Whiskers'; a cat who can predict the future of others by the shape of the shit left in his litter tray.
Burton's decision to film in gorgeous monochrome really adds to the proceedings and gives Mary Shelley's classic literary tale his own spin and he (and us) has a lot fun in doing so. It also has a similar off-key suburban setting like Burton's earlier film "Edward Scissorhands" and shares the same balance of that film's darkness and macabre humour. Younger children may balk at the unravelling of the darker tale but older kids and adults can revel in it's decent into a reanimated, monster B-Movie which is entirely fitting and in doing so, never loses it's sense of fun.
A lot of animated films these days have an appeal for children and adults alike and the balance that Burton achieves here is proof that that's not about to change anytime soon. One of 2012's very best animated films and one of Burton's best for quite a while.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

When news of an adaptation of J.R.R Tolkien's "The Hobbit" arrived, I have to admit that I was very eager to see it move along briskly. Unfortunately, that didn't happen. Production was so slow that original director Guillermo del Toro had to leave due to other commitments. Although this was disappointing news, all was not lost as "The Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson returned to the helm to assume control of this prequel. Expectations were high and it left the overhanging question as to whether he could emulate his past successes. Well, it's certainly not without it's flaws but again Jackson has delivered another indulgent cinematic experience from the treasured quill of Tolkien's world.
The Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor has been taken over by the fearsome dragon, Smaug and a plan is set to reclaim it and the treasures lost. Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is a Hobbit who finds himself thrust into this quest on the recommendation of the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen). Smaug is not the only thing that stands in their way, though; a malevolent presence is at work in middle-earth which could affect all of them.
After a brief introduction to the plight of the dwarves and a devastating introduction to the dragon Smaug, we are taken straight back to the Shire where the whole story of the Hobbit adventures originated. It's here that we're reminded of the twee environment in which these little halfling's reside and with Jackson calling the shots, you know straight away that you are in comfortable hands. Gandalf and Bilbo's first meeting is addressed and the rest of the main characters are rounded up before the film begins it's "unexpected journey". When I say this, though, it sounds like the film gets straight down to business and gets the formalities out the way. It doesn't. Jackson takes his time in establishing the set-up and he chooses to flesh out every detail. As a result, it becomes apparent that the film isn't flowing as easily as it could do. Things do pick up, though, and it's very difficult not to get swept up in the sheer visual masterclass that's delivered before your eyes. It's absolutely breathtaking to observe and none more so, than when Jackson begins to deliver his highly impressive, action set-pieces. From a confrontation with campfire Trolls to battling Rock monsters and giant sweeping eagles, they're all absolutely astounding and thrillingly executed. However, despite the excitement, what these moments lack is the ability to feel like the characters are in any real danger. Maybe this is because I had read the book beforehand or maybe it's because the set-pieces only served to instil some excitement before taking a break and doing it all over again. There is a feeling of repetition to the film and, dare I say it, a feeling of tediousness. Jackson's decision to flesh out this short children's novel into a trilogy of films - that will no doubt run between two and three hours each - seems wholly unnecessary but I suppose time will tell on that. As it is, though, this film is certainly overlong and it, simply, didn't need to be. Some scenes are laborious and you can't help but get the feeling that Jackson should just move it along. On the other hand, I found it hard to deny how much fun I was having. Much like "The Lord of the Rings", it's aided by very strong performances; McKellen is his usual reliable self as Gandalf and although I wasn't convinced with the choice of Martin Freeman as Bilbo, I have to admit that he slotted in very well indeed. As for the dwarves, well, out of the whole thirteen of them, only a handful actually stand out. The one that really rises to the surface is that of Thorin Oakenshield and Richard Armitage plays him to perfection - channeling an Aragorn/Viggo Mortensen charismatic presence. He's so commanding that it's hard to accept that he's only a dwarf. Another highlight from the performances is seeing Andy Serkis reprise his role of Gollum. Once again, the go-to guy for motion capture brings this complex little character to life.
The ingredients are all here and it certainly looks like there's more mileage in these characters yet. I just hope that Jackson knows when to trim the edges next time round.
A little less plodding and bit more urgency will be required for the second instalment, if this trilogy is to truly find it's feet. That being said, it finishes strongly and if Jackson can keep that momentum going then this could still turn out to be a successful return to middle earth.

Berberian Sound Studio
½

This second feature from director Peter Strickland (following "Katalin Varga" in 2009) is certainly an interesting bag of mixed opinions. Some have claimed it to be a five star experience, while others simply didn't get it. I suppose it depends a lot on your approach beforehand but there's no mistaking that it's one of those film's where your left to make up your own mind.
An experienced British sound-engineer is hired to work on a low-budget Italian horror movie called "Equestrian Vortex". Throughout his work, he struggles with the language-barrier and constant exposure to horror movie images and finds himself drawn into a vortex all his own, as he begins to lose his grasp on reality.
The thing that strikes you most from this film when it opens is it's good sense of atmosphere. It possess an almost strange sepia tint, as if the proceedings have been desaturated. There's a permeating feeling dread and unease that courses through it as time, itself, seems to stroll by. Strickland is certainly in no rush to tell his story and he also abandons any conventional method in doing so; a good chunk of the dialogue is in Italian and there's a deliberate omission of subtitles. This may put some people off but it serves to create an understanding and affiliation with the loneliness and isolation of the protagonist, Gilderoy (played brilliantly by Toby Jones). Although deliberate, and an interesting method, I also found it somewhat frustrating. What's also very interesting is that the story takes shape in the sound that's provided for film's rather than the images. How many times have you ever seen a horror movie that relies solely on audio rather than visual? Cabbages are stabbed and plunged into water to provide the perfect accompanying sound of someone being stabbed or drowned. It's an interesting insight and the suggestion of horror is actually captured very well using this approach. When we do, eventually, see the images that have been getting dubbed, it throws the film into a completely new surrealistic direction that shares similarities with the mind-bending talents of David Lynch and his art imitating life theme of "Inland Empire" or "Mulholland Drive". Of course, thats where the similarity ends as Strickland doesn't have the ability to construct his story with any real meaning in the way that Lynch excels at. I'm no stranger to surreal cinema, in fact I love it but this leaned a little too far to self-indulgence for me.
Anyone familiar with the 'Giallo' horrors of Italian cinema during the 60's and 70's will, no doubt, take a lot more from this film than I did. That being said, there's no denying it's grasp on atmosphere and it's impressive ability to build tension. However, as our protagonist becomes increasingly withdrawn and descends in madness, we descend into obscurity without any real satisfying conclusion. For me, the film just ended. I was aware of it's nature and prepared for any subtext or symbolism that it might throw my way, but in the end, it didn't quite come together. I was hoping for a more satisfying conclusion.
It's certainly not to everyone's tastes. For some, it will bore; for others, it will confuse. However, if your open minded enough, it will draw you in. Basically, it's an art-house horror that can either be seen as pretentious clap trap or an astute homage. I find myself somewhere in between.

Amour
Amour(2012)

Danish director Bille August was the only director to win back-to-back Palme d'Or awards at the Cannes Film Festival (in 1988 & 1992) with his film's "Pelle The Conqueror" and "The Best Intentions". That was, until Austrian director Michael Haneke recently equalled that achievement. His first came in 2009 with "The White Ribbon" and he done it again in 2012 with this deeply emotional and profound film that's been heralded by many as a masterpiece.
Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are couple of retired music teachers who have been married a long time and are now enjoying life in their eighties. One morning at breakfast, Anne displays some unusual behaviour and becomes momentarily distant without any memory of doing so. It's transpires that she has suffered a stroke which leads to symptoms of dementia. Georges takes on her care but the very close relationship this couple once shared, is put to it's greatest test.
I'm not one for giving away spoilers but that decision is taken out of my hands straight away by Michael Haneke. He gives us an opening scene of firemen breaking down an apartment door to find the deceased body of an elderly woman lying on her bed with flower arrangements around her. Following this - in bold letters - the seemingly contradictory title of the film is displayed; "Amour" - or the English translation; "Love". It's a powerful opening and from the off-set Haneke shows his confidence by delivering the ending at the very beginning. However, it's the journey up to this point that's the real story behind this film.
When we are introduced to our protagonists, Georges and Anne, we are given a glimpse into their daily lives and how familiar and comfortable they are in each others company. It's obvious that they've shared a lot of time together but it's also this sense of realism that packs the real punch, when the health of Anne rapidly deteriorates.
Set, almost entirely, within the couples' household, Haneke uses the space and setting masterfully. It's subtly done but on slightly closer inspection you can see that the house is in slight disrepair much like the failing health of this elderly couple. Despite time being against these people in their twilight years, time also seems to slow right down in their home. Haneke builds slowly and refuses to be rushed. He lingers long on shots and reactions and refuses to use any form of a music score to manipulate or force you to feel. What you witness is raw and uncompromising and rarely is such reality and authenticity captured on screen.
This a profound and honest exploration of mortality and the nature of ageing; the loneliness involved and the humiliation and inability to maintain dignity. It's heartbreaking to witness the deterioration of an individual and the performance of the Oscar nominated, veteran French actress, Emmanuelle Riva is an astounding piece of acting. Trintignant also puts in some very fine work as the loving husband who finds himself out of his depth and his frustration begins to show in his level of care and compassion.
As is normally the case in Haneke's film's, all is not plain sailing. There's a depth and ambiguity involved. The couples' relationship with their daughter seems distant and strained and there's a recurring, symbolic, appearance of a pigeon that keeps entering the household. On the surface, it would seem that this film is simply an honest commentary of flailing health and fading memories but it also operates at a depth beyond this.
A deserved Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film. This is sensitive, emotional and deeply involving filmmaking which tackles a part of life that's rarely touched upon. It's a beautiful piece of work but also the most devastating love story you'll likely to see.

The Master
The Master(2012)

Paul Thomas Anderson has only done a handful of films since his 1997 directorial debut "Hard Eight" but has he really got anything more to prove after such strong and consistent deliveries? Maybe only one thing... that he can keep up the very high standard he has set himself. If "The Master" is anything to go by, then it looks like his reputation is more than secure.
World War II has now ended and the troops are sent back home to adjust to civilised society. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is one of these men. He's also one that finds it hard to readjust and relies heavily on alcohol, eventually drifting from place to place and unable to hold down gainful employment. He is given another chance at life, though, when he happens to stumble upon Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) the charismatic leader of a cult.
Anderson's film's certainly seem to have matured over the years. To go from his colourful and riotously entertaining second film "Boogie Nights" to the epic and Oscar winning "There Will Be Blood" is quite a leap in style and substance. His films always seem to have the recurring theme of a tortured protagonist and this is no different. It shares more in common with the aforementioned latter film, though, in terms of it's depth and cerebral approach and it's depiction of a struggling, disreputable man, challenging the religious beliefs of another. What else this has in common is Anderson's ability to bring out the best in his actors. There are three searing, Oscar nominated, central performances from Hoffman as the confident and charismatic Lancaster Dodd and an emaciated, animal-like, Phoenix who looks unbearably uncomfortable as his frustrated protégé Freddie Quell. Phoenix undergoes a complete transformation here and his performance is nothing short of miraculous - if he wasn't up against Daniel Day-Lewis for the Oscar, he might just have snapped one up for this. On the side lines and lurking in the background, we also have Amy Adams who gives a muted but very powerful performance as Dodd's committed, Machiavellian,
wife Peggy. In many ways, she is the driving force behind her husband and far more influential and conniving than is recognised. It's not just the actors that grab your attention, though, I found every single scene of this film a work of art. The production design is flawless and the recreation of 1950's america is captured in it's entirety. Shot in 65mm by cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr, this film captures the minutest details of the time. Anderson is also in no rush, emulating masterful directors before him like Scorsese, Kubrick and David Lean. The patience and respect he shows his actors and the confidence he has in his scenes to work themselves out is a skill beyond his relatively young years. Like the domineering character Lancaster Dodd himself, Anderson also has you completely within his grasp. The film is as hypnotic and confident as it is domineering, never giving you a moment to relax and instilling a genuine feeling of unease throughout. There's a raw, realistic, fly-on-the-wall vibe that permeates every second. It felt like I was involved in every scene and that's, simply, down to the flawless direction and performances. They are stuff that movie gold is made from.
In terms of the story; obvious comparisons with the belief in Scientology will be made. However, it's never called by name, referred only as "The Cause" but there's no doubt that this is the very sect or cultish behaviour that Anderson is driving at and Lancaster Dodd is certainly an embodiment of it's founder L. Ron Hubbard.
This understanding of such a confidence-trickster persona was witnessed before in Anderson's "Magnolia" where Tom Cruise's Frank T.J. Mackey is a misogynist, egotistical, self-help guru who does seminars and talks on how men can "tame" women and turn them into their "sperm receptacle". He's a detestable person that operates on the weaknesses of others. Ironically, Cruise is a well known believer in Scientology, in his personal life, and the mirroring of that character and his domineering behaviour is reflected in both the main characters from this film: Dodd has the ability to convince and Quell has a deviant sexual side. This would be a debate for another time but I couldn't help but notice and wonder about it's significance.
Despite the abundance of quality throughout, though, the film does have it's faults; as it progresses it's ambiguity increases and it never answers the overriding question as to why Dodd is so fascinated in Quell. It leaves us only with the suspicion that they are very similar people in search of something in their lives and it would seem that this should suffice. As a result, when The Master should really be ending with aplomb, it stumbles in it's climax and also delivers a bizarre and obscure musical passage of "A Slow Boat to China". Let's just say that I think that Anderson was going for another grandstanding, memorable ending like the 'revelation' of Dirk Diggler in "Boogie Nights"; the raining frogs from "Magnolia" or, most of all, the "I drink your milkshake" ferocity of "There Will Be Blood". Simply, it doesn't quite match those but it doesn't matter as it recovers from this particular mishap. Then it dawned on me just how effective this was; it stuck in my mind enough for my concentration to be broken. It was the first time it had been throughout the entire film and it was at this point that I realised that I had been completely captivated. I didn't fully understand the character of Freddie Quell but I did understand his struggle and the sheer magnetism he was up against.
Original and unrestrained filmmaking of this sort has to be applauded. I'm absolutely astounded that this film and the director were omitted from the Academy Award nominations. Another major omission was from Anderson himself; he seems to have forgotten the continuation of his movie's title. It should have read: "The (Near) Master(piece)".

Argo
Argo(2012)

After a great directorial debut with "Gone Baby Gone" in 2007 and a brilliant sophomore effort with "The Town" in 2010, all eyes were on Ben Affleck in his third outing as director. Questions were asked as to whether he could do it again. And the answer? The answer is a resounding, 'Yes'. Argo completes Affleck's hat-trick behind the camera and confirms that he's definitely a director that has an abundance of talent and awareness.
Based on true events in a post-revolution Iran in 1979. A mob of Ayatollah supporters storm the US Embassy and take 56 American hostages. 6 officers managed to escape, however, and take refuge in the home of a Canadian Ambassador. After two months in hiding and their sanctuary becoming increasingly risky, the CIA hatch a plan to get them home and extraction officer Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) is given that responsibility. His plan is to create a fake movie called "Argo" and pretend that the six officers in hiding are his crew, scouting for shooting locations within the country.
Before going into Argo, I admittedly expected a heavy-handed political thriller but that's not exactly what it delivers. Apart from the first five minutes of a brief overview of the, questionable, political relations between the U.S. and Iran, it sidesteps any political agenda and gets down to capturing the thrilling, human drama at it's core. I'm not adverse to political film's at all. In fact, I thoroughly enjoy them but Affleck is wise not to get too bogged down in boardroom banter and bureaucracy when there's an brilliantly exciting story to tell. It does share similarities with the great political tinged thrillers of the 1970's like Alan J. Pakula's "All The Presidents Men" or "The Parallax View". The late 70's and early 80's style is captured to perfection by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and Affleck's orchestration can sit comfortably beside any from that great decade of cinema.
Chris Terrio's solid screenplay delivers many dialogue driven scenes but Affleck keeps things moving at a frantic pace and not for a second, does the film ever get dull or drawn out. The tension is almost unbearable at times. Why Affleck didn't, at the very least, nab an Oscar nomination for his substantial and well-constructed direction here is beyond me. There's no doubt that he's in complete command of his material as he leaps from Tehran to Washington to Tinseltown and delivers completely satisfying environments and effortless shifts in tone for the whole film to gel and come to life. He has the ability to capture a politically ravaged country; the backroom jargon of the CIA and the dark humour of Hollywood (that shares a strong resemblance to Barry Levinson's "Wag The Dog"). In order to capture this ludicrous, stranger-than-fiction story in it's entirety, it demands a maestro at work and Affleck can certainly consider himself one.
This is the edge-of-your-seat tension that "Zero Dark Thirty" wishes it had. With only three film's under his hat, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Affleck has been at this directing malarky for a very long time. The comparisons with actor, turned quality director, Clint Eastwood will rage on and if anyone thinks otherwise, then Affleck can tell them to "Argo fuck yourself".

Pecker
Pecker(1998)

It's hard to describe director John Waters and his idiosyncratic style but if I had to try, I'd compare him to David Lynch on amphetamine's. He's done some seriously wacky comedies over the years. Some of which been referred to as "deliberate exercises in ultra-bad taste". He had been around since the 1960's before making a name for himself with "Hairspray" in 1988. An early Johnny Depp film - "Cry Baby" followed and then he directed Kathleen Turner in the hilarious "Serial Mom". Those who have heard of him will know what to expect. Those who haven't should be warned; Waters certainly doesn't water down his humour.
A young man named "Pecker" (Edward Furlong) who works at a Baltimore sandwich shop also has a real talent for taking photographs. He's forever snapping things that most people wouldn't even think of. When a New York art dealer (Lili Taylor) sees his work, he becomes an overnight sensation in the art world.
As mentioned, Waters' films are somewhat like the lighter side to the nightmares of Lynch. He has the same off-beat and occasional surreal approach but rather than delve into the darker recesses of the subconscious, he plays it all for laughs. His more recent efforts have not been entirely successful and his brand of uncouth and crass humour will certainly not appeal to everyone but Pecker is one of his most accomplished and audience friendly pieces. Where he excels is in his array of very colourful characters - and this film has plenty of them.
Pecker's family are a real bunch dysfunctional delights; his mother Joyce (Mary Kay Place) likes to accessorise the fashion of homeless people; his father Jimmy (Mark Joy) is an advocate for the public showing of pubic hair being made illegal; his grandmother 'Memama' (Jean Schertler) is a ventriloquist with a statue of the virgin Mary; his younger sister Little Chrissy (Lauren Hulsey) has an addictive personality, that begins with sugar before moving onto Ritalin and snorting vegetables and his older sister Tina (Martha Plimpton) runs a gay bar where "teabagging" (the slapping of testicles on a person's forehead) is a custom that's expected within the establishment. Pecker himself is just a naive, but likeable, photographer who captures all this mayhem on his camera and this is only his family. There are many others, that include his kleptomaniac friend Matt (Brendan Sexton III) and characters that dry hump washing machines on spin cycles. By now, you'll gather that Waters' bad taste is still alive and well but what makes it all the more hysterical is that the actors all play it straight, making the zany situations that befall them all the more entertaining. Waters, most certainly, depicts this Baltimore slice-of-life with real zest and zaniness and, at times, his sheer audacity and outrageousness is gut-wrenchingly funny but while all this is going on, he still manages to take a pop at the pretentious, snooty-nosed, yuppies of the New York art scene.
As a self confessed Waters fan, I greatly enjoyed this lighthearted, quirky gem. It will not be a comedy that will appeal to everyone but if you enjoy your humour a little more on the edgy and surreal side, then this should do nicely.

Cloud Atlas
Cloud Atlas(2012)
½

Recently, Yann Martel's novel "Life Of Pi" made it to the silver screen after an exemplary adaptation by Ang Lee. However, the novel itself had been deemed 'unfilmable' beforehand. There are many literary works that have come under this assumption and David Mitchell's Booker Prize-nominated novel Cloud Atlas is another. The reception of this film has been very mixed but, give or take, the odd discrepancy and noodle scratching moment, this is an impressively successful endeavour that proves, once again, that the ability to transfer page to screen is entirely possible and vibrantly alive.
1849: a Pacific ocean voyage that unearths a stowaway slave.
1936: an inspirational composition of classical music in Edinburgh.
1973: a manuscript that invites a dangerous conspiracy in San Francisco.
2012: a publisher goes into hiding in a nursing home fearing for his life.
2144: a totalitarian regime in futuristic Korea gives birth to a rebellious clone.
2321: a post-apocalyptic Hawaii that's leads to the cosmos...
These are the six stories that connect life, the universe and everything as past, present and future interlace with another and humankind struggle to make sense of their existence.
What better way to tell a story than to begin it in the ancient way? An old man sitting around a campfire with scars on his face and wisdom on his tongue. That's exactly what the trio of directors Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer have done and it sets the perfect opening to an expansive, spectacular and hugely ambitious and visual storytelling adventure. It's so vast and labyrinthine that it's hard to even begin to break it down. It works on so many levels; from the metaphorical to allegorical, as well as, the tangential and does so while setting it in six different centuries (from the 19th to the 24th) and having the same actors play several different roles throughout. It's difficult to find your feet and it could take at least an hour before you even get a hint or actually begin to grasp anything that's going on. Once the narrative strands do come together, though, the film becomes a completely immersive experience.
It poses questions as to the meaning of our existence and the direct relation we have to one another and whether our experiences in life are just luck or predestined by means of Karma, reincarnation or simply through a greater, unknown, connection within the universe. In other words, it explores the complex questions and search for answers that have been pondered from time immemorial. It also incorporates the influence of art, television and how easily deities can be constructed and how, essentially, humankind is their own worst enemy. There will certainly be more questions than answers throughout this journey but what this film does, is run with life's conundrums, meanwhile freeing itself from narrative conventions and hits you from six different angles all at once. It really is astoundingly complex stuff.
Now, I don't profess to understand Cloud Atlas in it's entirety. I did manage to get a reasonably good handle on it's elaborate tapestry but it's a film that requires, at least, a couple of viewings to fully grasp. The utmost patience and concentration is essential and if you happen to switch off for a second - throughout it's almost three hour long running time - then it will, ruthlessly, leave you behind. You have been warned: this film will pickle your brain for weeks. It has confounded many; so much so, that it's been written off as disappointing or a pretentious mess. I, on the other hand, strongly believe that it should not be ignored. The only drawbacks I found were the tenuous linking between a couple of the stories and the tone of the film shifted a little uneasily in places. Nevertheless, this is one of the most ambitious, intelligent and beautifully constructed film's for quite some time and, if invested in, will bring many rewards.
I don't know why I'd choose to paraphrase at this point other than to sum up this film (and my review) by leaving you with the words of a wiser fellar than myself: "I guess that's the way the whole durned human comedy keeps perpetuatin' it-self, down through the generations, westward the wagons, across the sands a time until - aw, look at me, I'm ramblin' again... Catch ya further on down the trail".

Flight
Flight(2012)
½

It's been a long wait (12 years to be exact) for director Robert Zemeckis to get back to making a live action film. His last was "Cast Away" in 2000 before he delved into computer generated animation with "The Polar Express", "Beowolf" and "A Christmas Carol". Despite his attempts to perfect the medium of animation those three film's weren't entirely successful. However, having him back on more 'adult' duties is a reminder of how good he can actually be.
During what may, or may not, be a technical fault with an airline passenger plane, pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is forced into emergency procedures in order to land safely. The media hail him as a hero but there are troubling circumstances that lie underneath: Whip is an alcoholic and was intoxicated beforehand.
Within seconds of this film starting we are given a complete introduction to our protagonist Captain Whip Whitaker; there's a naked woman in his bedroom and he proceeds to do a massive line of cocaine to straighten himself out before he flies a plane at 9am that same morning. Straight away, you know that this is a man that takes too many chances but it's his cocksure arrogance and determination that has you captivated and convinced in him. We then move onto the flight itself where he helps himself to a few vodka miniatures before taking to the skies. With this strong introduction to Whitaker's persona, what follows is an even stronger aircraft scene. It's an intense and nail-biting set piece that will no doubt have you buckling up the next time you board an aeroplane.
After such a robust and persuasive opening you'd think that the rest of the film would suffer in comparison but Zemeckis deserves the utmost credit for slowing things down yet still managing to maintain interest. It progresses into a thoroughly engrossing character study that isn't afraid to shed some light on the nature of addiction and the unravelling of a person in denial. Zemeckis is in no rush to tell his story which helps in establishing the feeling that this is a really solid piece of work. He also delicately handles the ethical conundrum of whether the sacrifice of a few lives is worth the saving of many. The film skilfully flitters back and forth between one 'heroic' action and the iniquity and irresponsibility of another; toying with the audience's own moral judgement. Whitaker is a character that you'll continually question but also one that can be identified with, and the ability of Zemeckis' direction, John Gatins' writing and a towering central performance from Denzel Washington make it all entirely believable. Washington has received a lot of critical praise from many corners here, and rightfully so. He absolutely commands the screen and without his presence or ability, this character could have crumbled in a lesser actors hands. There is strong competition amongst the Oscar nominated actors of 2012 but Washington is thoroughly deserving of his inclusion. The rest of the cast have little to do in comparison but still manage to add to the proceedings; Kelly Reilly's addicted junkie adds further realism and although her relationship with Whitaker is rushed, it's also somewhat believable. The corporate and legal side of things are dealt with admirably, by Bruce Greenwood and Don Cheadle and John Goodman's character brings a welcome addition of comic relief. All-be-it, he seems to have wandered in from another movie.
As the denouement approaches, the film, admittedly, falls into conventional territory with a pending legal case and the unravelling of Whitaker's affliction and personal demons brought to the forefront.This is unavoidable with the nature of the story but it's still handled with tact and remains, nothing less, than absorbing and thoroughly rewarding.
It may succumb to storytelling conventions and some subplots don't entirely fit but, on the whole, this is filmmaking of the highest order. After this, I can only hope that Zemeckis doesn't fall back into relative (animated) obscurity.

Baraka
Baraka(1993)

Released in 1992, it's took me a while to get around to this one. It's director, Ron Fricke, had previously contributed writing, editing and cinematography duties on the similarly themed and outstandingly powerful "Koyaanisqatsi" by Godfrey Reggio before embarking on this (his own) journey ten years later.
I wouldn't even call this a film. I'd call it more a series of moving images. But what stunning beauty there is to behold here. It was filmed by a five person crew over a period of 14 months in 24 countries across 6 continents and there are a plethora of images that will instil a myriad of emotional responses; they will enlighten and disturb, they will force you to ponder and wonder. In short, they are images of evolution and life and they will leave you in absolute awe of our natural world and the direct involvement we have in it. It explores different cultures and tribal rituals, it marvels at cloud formations and stunning sunsets. This is the flora and fauna of our environment in all it's most natural beauty. If you can imagine Terrence Malick directing a dialogue free, documentary then you have a idea of what to expect here. It does contain a certain, loose, narrative structure and like the sublime, BBC, David Atteborough nature programs it is stunningly captured and assembled. As mentioned, it contains no dialogue whatsoever, relying solely on sounds and an ethereal music score, featuring the haunting and angelic vocal talents of Lisa Gerrard.
Anyone familiar with the aforementioned and absolutely amazing, visual documentary "Koyaanisqatsi" or it's follow up "Powaqqatsi" will know how much of treat they are in for here. If you haven't seen any of these, then I urge you to do so.
There isn't much else I can say to describe this other than... the meaning of the word 'Baraka' is an ancient Sufi word that translates to "a blessing, or the breath, or the essence of life from which the evolutionary process unfolds"
It simply has to be seen to be believed.

The Impossible

One of the very best of recent horror movies was "The Orphanage", released in 2007. As part of it's marketing campaign it was executive produced by the familiar name of Guillermo del Toro ("Pan's Labyrinth"). Of course, del Toro wasn't the creative mind behind the film - little known, Spanish director, Juan Antonio Bayona was. With this follow-up Bayona tackles an altogether different horror in the shape of one the world's worst natural disasters: that of the Pacific Basin Tsunami of 2004.
Maria (Naomi Watts) and Henry (Ewan McGregor) are a British couple who takes their three sons on a Christmas family holiday to Thailand. Their idyllic setting is soon torn apart when a powerful and deadly tsunami rips through the beach resort. Maria and the eldest son Lucas (Tom Holland) manage to struggle to safety but Henry and the younger boys are separated, leaving them fighting for survival and unaware of each others' fate.
Bayona starts his film off gently, as he introduces the quaint British family going about their holiday with love and enthusiasm. He takes little time in establishing his characters but takes enough to convey them as a strong unit. When they are separated by the sheer destructive force of the Tsunami, Bayona establishes his skill and deft handling of the disaster in all it's devastating force. It's entirely believable and absolutely awe-inspiring as man made structures and natural habitats are swept aside like playthings. On top of this, he gives us a turbulent, first-person point of view of the confusion whilst being churned around in this tidal wave. It's a cinematic achievement that's nothing less than impressive. From here, it progresses into a survival story as the separated family strive to find one another and it's at this point that the film slows down and gets in touch with it's emotional core. I was actually surprised by it's level of emotion but that's not to say that I didn't like it. It worked primarily because we can identify with these suffering individuals. This is a natural disaster that affected many throughout the world and the loss was practically incalculable. As a result, the film becomes a bit of a tearjerker and some may even claim manipulatively so. I was so unprepared that at several points, I was wondering why I had a lump in my throat and why it didn't seem to be going away either. Quite simply, the film's emotional power captured me and refused to let go. Of course, to make this believable, you have to look at the cast members. Each and every one of them were superb; Naomi Watts has been Oscar nominated for her turn but Ewan McGregor can count himself very unlucky not to receive similar recognition. They both deliver outstandingly strong work. Special mention must also go to Tom Holland as the eldest son, who actually carries a large amount of the film of his young shoulders. We could be witnessing the arrival of a very fine actor here. Ultimately, it's through these performers that we invest ourselves into this tragedy. Surprisingly, the only film that I'm aware of that has touched upon this disaster is Clint Eastwood's "Hereafter" but it didn't deal with it to the extent and technical ability that this does.
It's not often we get such an impressive piece of work that, so easily, tugs on the heartstrings. In fact, the last time I felt this was with Juan Antonio Bayona's aforementioned "The Orphanage" but to capture such a disaster in all it's ferocity, reaffirms that the impossible is not so hard to believe in contemporary cinema any more.

Silver Linings Playbook
½

As a personal rule, I normally avoid comedies or dramas that involve romance. I find the formula tedious and repetitive, not to mention, dull. However, director David O. Russell's material is often interesting and off-beat so I decided that I wouldn't overlook this one (especially when it features my favourite actor in Robert DeNiro). I have to say, I have renewed faith in the genre when there are talented people involved and it's futile to resist one with such depth and unpredictability as this has.
Pat Solotano Jr., (Bradley Cooper) is discharged from a state metal health institution after an eight month spell for bi-polar disorder that has led to him violently beating his wife's lover. When released, he lives with his parents Dolores (Jacki Weaver) and Pat, Sr. (Robert DeNiro) and decides to get himself fit and healthy again to gain back his estranged spouse. While out jogging, he crosses paths with Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a recovering sex addict with mental health issues of her own but as their friendship grows, they realise that they can both help each other to achieve to their goals.
David O. Russell has tackled dysfunctional families before in "Flirting with Disaster" and "The Fighter" and mental health in "I Heart Huckabees" so in many ways, he's on comfortable ground here and thankfully for us, it shows. He has a complete command over his material and even though you'd be forgiven for thinking that this is just your average, boy-meets-girl, romantic comedy, it isn't. It teeters on the edge of formula but it also knows how to play with it and never becomes predictable. The ace in Russell's pack, though, is the immeasurable help by a talented and commited cast. All the performances are absolutely excellent; Bradley Cooper is an actor that was always just been passable for me but here he shows a very impressive side to his acting talents; Jennifer Lawrence has impressed before in "Winter's Bone" and "The Hunger Games" but this may well be her finest performance to date as she balances vulnerability and strength with ease. My favourite of the bunch, though, was seeing DeNiro finally get a role where he's able deliver a whole range of emotions. One moment he's breaking your heart, the next he's in a fit of rage and also adds a lovely comic touch to things. Although, I was surprised at his Oscar nomination, I also wouldn't argue with it. It's great to have him back doing what he does best and hopefully this is the catalyst for bigger and better roles for him. I think we can all admit that he's deserving of better material than he's been getting of late. Added to which, apparently, it was DeNiro's absolute commitment to the film that encouraged the rest of the cast to raise their game. While we're on the subject of awards, all the leading performers have been Oscar nominated for their turns here (and that includes the great Jacki Weaver) - This is the first time this has been achieved by a cast since Warren Beatty's political drama "Reds" in 1984. It's also doesn't hinder things when the talented likes of Chris Tucker and Shea Whigham are pitching in from the sidelines either. Ultimately, the plaudits must go to Russell for the deft handling of the material, though. Yes, it has generic elements of the genre but by the end, it can't be pigeonholed and the characters aren't your average troubled souls that are played for laughs or zaniness. There is a depth and pathos to their struggle and the intermingling of their fractured, dysfunctional obsessions is a hard balance to achieve. Russell manages it with aplomb and every one of his cast do too.
I've always been a fan of the off-beat nature of David O. Russell's work but he has surpassed himself here and delivers an astute, not to mention, very refreshing commentary on mental illness.

Zero Dark Thirty
½

So, after the Oscar winning heights of "The Hurt Locker", director Kathryn Bigelow decides to stick to a winning formula and follow up that success with another war themed drama. Personally, I wasn't keen on on her previous Oscar winning movie and I'm just as less enthusiastic about this one.
Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden becomes the prime target following the attacks of September 11th, 2001. Heading the search operation is CIA intelligence analyst Maya (Jessica Chastain) who commits ten years to tracking him down, while others around her have their doubts and reservations. In 2011, her commitment pays off as she believes that he has been in hiding in Pakistan and a U.S. Navy SEAL team are sent in to capture or kill.
Beginning with the events of 9/11, the film fast forwards 2 years where it dares to expose American torture tactics to find the culprits of that fateful attack on New York. Although distressing, they are brilliantly and bravely captured which has led to some controversy on Bigelow's part. The film, basically, doesn't waste time in getting down to business and although the early stages consist of interrogations, Bigelow does well to maintain interest and tension. After this, the film gets bogged down in an attempt to capture recent events that require much more than a 2 1/2 hour movie to sum up.
Apparently, the script of this film was changed during the filming; the original story was the hunt for bin Laden but his (supposed) capture and death occurred before the film was completed. As a result, we have the ending to this manhunt. Personally, I don't buy bin Laden's capture. That's not to say that I think he's still roaming the earth. He may well be dead but I just don't believe that events played out the way we have been told they did. It stinks to me that we are supposed to buy the - almost hush-hush - news coverage of such a high-profile event in current affairs. Sadam Hussein's death was plastered all over the media but with bin Laden we are to just accept with very little evidence produced. Call me a conspiracy theorist but I can't (and won't) readily accept everything I'm told in the media. I believe it to be western propaganda that only serves to instil a belief in people that an end to the conflict is near. People want to believe. People need to believe. Much has been said about the 10-year-long manhunt to capture and kill bin Laden but if, buffoonish, Bush Jr, wasn't so hell bent on drilling for oil and finishing his dear old pappy's lucrative business in Iraq then that time wouldn't have passed.
Anyway, I digress. My write-up is becoming more about my personal beliefs than it is a film review. So let's get back to the job at hand. This is a film that is, undoubtedly, well structured and captured but I found that it meandered and as a result, I began to write a big "lefty" spiel (which I have omitted here) on my opinion of the conflict that we, as the west, finds ourselves in. And the reason this happened? Frankly, it was because I was bored. It wasn't until the hour mark that things begin to get interesting but just when it began to look good, it got bogged down in boardroom scenarios and endless eastern locations. I have been a big fan of Bigelow's previous movies but her recent venture into political events doesn't cut it for me. She's a director that has vibrancy and energy that is hard to compete with but on recent evidence, she's entering into a territory that doesn't accentuate her skills.
What does work in this, is the performances; Jessica Chastain proves, once again, why she's everywhere at the moment. Her progression from shrinking violet to doggedly determined shows good range and some supporting actors also deliver solid work; Jason Clarke ("Lawless") is a standout in the earlier part of the movie and Kyle Chandler ("Super 8") gets a chance to flex his acting chops in some tense verbal confrontations. James Gandolfini and Joel Edgerton are a couple of late inclusions and it's only in the last half hour that Bigelow shows her abilities in staging the action set-pieces. By then, though, it's too little too late. What she does do, in her defence, is portray the actions of soldiers less than heroic. Which is one of the few truths that she shows in the entire film. Another is the ambiguity in the identity of bin Laden. At one point Stephen Dillane's character says "... bin Laden, do I give up all hope of possibly seeing a photograph of him?" Eh... I'm afraid so. As an audience, we have to, yet we're still expected to believe that he was identified and located on a farmyard, killed and buried at sea and an agency expert visually confirmed his identity when she hadn't, physically, ever laid eyes on bin Laden herself.
Gung-Ho, western propaganda at it's most concentrated. Some of it is impressively handled but ultimately, it's nonsense that masquerades as intelligent filmmaking. It's far from it and another blip in Bigelow's, seemingly, great reputation. As a surfer- dude once said, in her earlier psuedo-spiritual, action pinnacle... "Go back to the valley, man...".

Lawless
Lawless(2012)
½

The last film that director John Hillcoat and screenwriter/musician Nick Cave collaborated on was the 2005 neo-western "The Proposition". Four years later, Hillcoat went on to make his adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" (on which Cave supplied the music) but now they are together again with Cave back on screenwriting duties. If you're familiar with the aforementioned films then you'll also be familiar with the sark sense of realism that they bring. This is no different and just as good as anything they've produced so far.
In Franklin County, Virginia, in 1931, the Bondurant brothers: Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke) and Jack (Shia LaBeouf) run a distillery and bootlegging business in Moonshine. However, the District Attorney decides to clamp down on the bootleggers as Prohibition is introduced. To enforce the law, crooked and unscrupulous, Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) is brought in to bring the brothers down but the Bondurant's refuse to yield.
When the reviews of this film started flooding in, the opinions were less than favourable, leading me to lower my expectations. In many ways, I'm glad this happened as I found plenty to enjoy here and feel that the film may be a little harshly criticised. For a start - as mentioned earlier - Hillcoat has completely captured the gritty realism required. His feel for the time and place and eye for detail is highly impressive and it's accompanied by an excellently evocative score by Cave and Warren Ellis. From the offset, it establishes it's methodical and deliberate pace. It builds slowly but assuredly and spends quite a bit of time on character development; LaBeouf impresses with his, runt of the litter, leading role but the standout's among the cast are a brooding Hardy and an extremely corrupt and unsavoury Pearce. However, this particular path that it treads so well, is also the films undoing. Too much time is spent on some characters and not enough on others; Chastain has little to do but still manages to do well, with what she's got. The third member of the Bondurant brothers (Jason Clarke) is underwritten but again squeezes enough from the material he's given and still manages to make an impact amongst a high calibre cast. The most criminally underused is Gary Oldman, though. It builds his character up and then doesn't let him loose. Oldman is an actor that excels in these type of roles, yet it would seem that most of his scenes were left on the cutting room floor. Regardless of their screen time, everyone manages to pitch in here, though, and if this wasn't a talented collection of performers, then some would have faded into the background. The fault with this has to lie in the hands of Nick Cave and his patchy, underwritten script. The conclusion is rushed and unsatisfactory and despite promising an enticing confrontation between it's central characters, it fails to deliver. Maybe this would have led it down the formulaic path but I still would rather have that, than the ending we are provided. That being said, I still found this to be an engrossing, atmospheric and vivid depiction of depression-era times. It definitely does have it's flaws and if you scratch the surface you'll find a generic crime film but it's so richly textured that it's flaws are, mostly, forgivable.
Much like the old Jalopy's that they drive, this doesn't quite have the mileage to see it comfortably to it's destination but it still a thoroughly involving, if occasionally bumpy, ride.

Seven Psychopaths

When "In Bruges" was released in 2008 it marked the emergence of Martin McDonagh, a filmmaker that was able to combine a dark crime drama with a real sense for the off-beat and provide unabashed politically incorrect humour. I wasn't exactly convinced in it's entirety but it offered something fresh and exciting. The same could be said for McDonagh's second feature, only this time it's sense for the off-beat is way off course and it's elaborate crime yarn, lacks coherence.
Marty (Colin Farrell), has been working for while on a Hollywood screenplay called 'Seven Psychopaths' but he hasn't got past the first page and has developed a reliance on alcohol to see him through it. His friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) is eager to help, so gives him anecdotes on real psychopaths that he's aware of. Some of which, include crazed gangster Charlie (Woody Harrelson) who loves his little Shih-Tzu dog, Bonny. It's only when Billy and his dognapper friend Hans (Christopher Walken) decide to steal Bonny, that Marty finds himself in all sorts of trouble - and inspiration.
The film sets it's stall up well, as we are introduced to Martin, a struggling, Irish, alcoholic writer with absolutely no creative spark whatsoever. It's a self-referential premise that has been done before - most notably by the Coen brothers when they wrote "Barton Fink" as a result of writer's block in trying to finish "Miller's Crossing". Only, McDonagh is not a Coen, nor is he a Quentin Tarantino - who he obviously fancies himself as. Those filmmakers have made strong career's from combining crime and comedy but after this sophomore effort, McDonagh doesn't match those aforementioned auteur's of cinema. "In Bruges" was so well received that this film gathered a lot of anticipation and it even allowed McDonagh to assemble a very impressive cast. It had all the ingredients for being another darkly humorous endeavour. Dark it may be, but it's seriously lacking in the humour department. While I was watching this, I had the feeling that something was just around the corner but when that corner was turned, there was still a vacantness. The jokes were forced and most dialogue and scenes were shoehorned in such a way that it was forcing laughs rather than earning them.
On the positive side, it had plenty of style and the performances, for the most part, were great; Farrell, Harrelson and especially, Rockwell and Walken, all seem to be having fun. There's also fine support by Tom Waits but the belief that this ensemble have in the material is squandered as McDonagh has no idea what he's doing. The story-within-a-story concept is nothing original but if tackled properly, it can be a very fulfilling journey and Charlie Kaufman's "Adaptation" is a prime example of how it should be done. This, however, is an example of how it shouldn't.
This is a wasted opportunity to create something really good. It's a clever idea and it could be said that the movie is one big in-joke. Although I'm aware of this, it's still the very incoherent and lazily written crime yarn that it proclaims to be against.
It thinks it's smarter and funnier than it actually is and goes down as the biggest disappointment of the year.

Django Unchained

Few director's can claim such enthusiasm upon the release of their new film but Quentin Tarantino is certainly one of them. There's always a real buzz and anticipation to see what provocative and sensationalist material he'll be serving up. So, back he comes and once again he has revenge on his mind. This time it's not with Samurai's or Nazi's but with six-shooter gunslinging as he heads West (or south, as the case may be) to pay homage to the films of Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci. This being the most renowned, creative (or plagiaristic) auteur behind the camera, though, he just can't help himself, and infuse it with all sorts of influences. And the results? The results are highly impressive but mostly, thoroughly and bloodily enjoyable.
In the American South, two years before the civil war, former dentist now bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) free's a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) who will be able to help him track down three outlaws known as 'the Brittle brothers'. As their relationship develops, Schultz learns of Django's wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) who is now the property of ruthless plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and they both hatch a plan to free her.
Depictions of slavery have been commonplace throughout the history of cinema. The television show of Alex Haley's "Roots" in 1977 was one of the first to have a major impact on audiences and Steven Spielberg gave a harrowing introduction of it in his 1997 film "Amistad". Despite some distressing early scenes in that film, though, Spielberg decided to focus more on the legal issues involved and it progressed into a courtroom drama. Here, Tarantino chooses differently and doesn't pull any punches. He depicts the brutality these people faced with daring and damning conviction. As always, controversy has followed. It uses racially aggressive language throughout but although Tarantino isn't known for his entire commitment to historical events, his attention to detail here is fitting and even though it's been criticised from others (mainly Spike Lee who refuses to even watch it) it has, in Tarantino's words, created a "dialogue" amongst people about the seriousness of this dark chapter of American history. If one positive is to be taken from this film, it's that. These heinous events should be addressed and it would seem that Quentin is the only one willing to do it. Personally, I applaud him.
Like most (if not all) of Tarantino's films, when the actors are verbalising the work of his quill the results become an oratory dance with dialogue. On the surface, this doesn't have as many quotable lines as his previous works but where Tarantino has improved, is in keeping a scene running with endless wordplay and skilfully teasing a tentative audience. There are memorable and quotable lines here, for sure, but his maturity now lies in drawing out the almost unbearable tension between his characters. His past movies have always contained riveting dialogues but "Inglorious Basterds" was proof that he'd taken it further and could craft masterful scenes of suspense. This is no different, and it's helped immeasurably by the actors involved; Foxx delivers some solid work as the titular character but has little to do in the earlier part of the film and, if truth be told, he gets overshadowed by three sublime supporting performances (who incidentally had their roles written specifically for them); Waltz is, simply, superb and a similar breed to his character Hans Landa from "Inglorious Basterds". He's just as loquacious but, only this time, more endearing; DiCaprio acts up a storm with a rare villainous role who is prone to fits of sadistic and uncontrollable rage and Jackson is perfectly fitting as his dedicated servant who is a conniving and twisted individual. It's in these superb actors that most of the enjoyment is found in Tarantino's latest. Although the subject matter is dark and the violence vividly displayed, the story's not without humour and one particularly satirical scene involving the Ku Klux Klan and their inability to see through their makeshift hoods is absolutely hilarious. It also looks magnificent with cinematographer Robert Richardson capturing the vast and desolate landscapes to perfection.
Even though they are slight, the film is not without faults. Over-length is an issue with some scenes that could have been trimmed without compromising the overall impact and, at times, there was too much reliance on convenience in some plot developments. Still, when it's the ingenuity of Tarantino at the helm, these minuscule misjudgements can be overlooked as the journey itself is so enjoyable.
A parody of Spaghetti-Western, with humour, violence and blaxploitation. If anyone can make this work, Tarantino can. And that he does. This is another impressive addition to his canon and even though the "D" may be silent, his artistic voice is, most certainly, not.

Killing Them Softly

So, Brad Pitt and director Andrew Dominik collaborate again after their ethereal western "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford". They now attempt a crime movie that runs over an hour less than their previous effort but in some ways feels just as drawn out. That's not to say that's it's unsuccessful. It has received criticism from many corners but personally I think expectations and preconceived ideas have led to a misunderstanding with this one.
Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) are a couple of smalltime crooks for hire. They get a job to hold up a high-stakes, mafia run, card game that's overseen by middle-man Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). As Markie has openly admitted to holding up a game in the past, he becomes the obvious suspect but something doesn't quite add up. To clear up the mess, outside enforcer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is brought in the get to the bottom of it.
Films that fall into the crime genre will always have a certain level of expectation about them. It must be difficult for a director to try and establish a new format when there is a demand that they follow a particular formula. This adaptation of the George V. Higgins novel "Cogan's Trade" is exactly the type of film that has been criticised for it's lack of urgency and has suffered in it's comparison with previous genre classics. Personally, I admire Dominik's attempt at crafting something different here, and despite a glacial pace, I still found it gripping. This is a film that focuses less on action and more on talking and it's entirely understandable why some didn't appreciate it, but for me, the talking was the action and that's thanks to solid performances from everyone involved. Every actor is as good as the other and it's through their strong, and lengthy, exchanges of dialogue that each of them are able to shine; McNairy and Mendelsohn carry the weight of the first part of the story with two very different but equally unlikable low-life's; Liotta plays a perfect, desperate middle-man; Jenkins epitomises the business side of things and Gandolfini is a perfect display of regret and melancholia from a hit-man who's lost his touch. Ultimately, though, it's the reserved central performance from Pitt who commands. Arguably, he's got less to work with but his subtlety is key in expressing the coldness and stark reality of the business that these people operate in.
Of course - as is now expected of Dominik - he doesn't just deliver a formulaic gangster story. Instead, he infuses it with allegory and makes a social commentary on the financial state of America. Throughout the film there are, ironic, radio and television broadcasts of political speeches and discussions about the economy and reminders of how America is the land of opportunity. It's a, less than subtle, device but one that worked quite well. On slightly closer inspection, the criminals that roam this underbelly of modern America are no less disingenuous or manipulative than the politicians in office. They just happen to be conducting their business on a lesser scale. At one point Pitt's Jackie Cogan even describes his cohorts as "Corporate mentality gangsters". That aside, this is still a crime film and as a result, it's not adverse to rolling up it's sleeves and getting it's hands dirty. There may be only sporadic moments of action but when they do appear they are brutally delivered and some of the violence displayed on-screen is wince inducing.
Much like the aforementioned western collaboration between Dominik and Pitt this film dares to incorporate a sociopolitical commentary throughout it's genre. It's unconventional but very effective nonetheless and the last line of the film sums up it's theme perfectly... "America is not a country, it's just a business. Now fucking pay me."

Life of Pi
Life of Pi(2012)

The amount of times that director Ang Lee has delivered fresh material is testament to his bravery and skill as a filmmaker. He pushed genre conventions with Annie Proulx's "Brokeback Mountain", delved into the prose of Jane Austin with "Sense and Sensibility", as well as, a meticulous take on Rick Moody's "The Ice Storm" - and these are only his adaptations. He has challenged numerous genre's from martial-arts ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") through comic-book ("Hulk") to war and romance ("Lust, Caution"), among others. This time, Lee attempts an adaptation of Yann Martel's 'unfilmable', bestselling novel and it's another remarkable achievement.
On a huge freighter, leaving Pondicherry, India for Canada, a zoo keeping family are going to sell their animals and start a new life. Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) is the zoo keeper's son and after the ship is sunk in a storm, he finds himself adrift on the Pacific Ocean in a lifeboat. He's not alone, though. He shares the boat with a Zebra, a Hyaena, an Orang-utan and "Richard Parker" - a 450-pound Bengal Tiger. Somehow, he must find a way to survive.
As the film opens we are given glimpses of wild animals roaming around their habitat. Although subtly handled, it works an absolute treat in establishing it's use of 3D. I'm not a fan of this new viewing gimmick we've had thrust upon us but in the hands of Lee it is used to it's best and fullest potential. Visually it's astounding (and it only gets better as the film progresses) and along with Martin Scorsese's "Hugo", it's the best use of 3D I've seen yet. After this brief introduction, Lee gets down to the story. He builds slowly; introducing his protagonist's curiosity of life and religious beliefs and does so with a lightness of touch and humour that makes him instantly endearing. Cleverly, Yann Martel's story makes a point of incorporating many religions. Our protagonist doesn't follow one particular belief but encompasses many, which is very important for the film to work on it's spiritual level and not ostracise the audience. It's these very beliefs that are questioned when the story of survival takes place and it's here that Lee pulls an absolute mastery in his use of CGI. He skilfully combines the beauty and ferocity of our natural world and even though his palette is vast, he juggles it in limited space - You'd be hard pushed to find a more stunning piece of cinema from 2012.
When getting down to the bare bones, this a story about life, spirituality and metaphysics but ultimately, it's a story about storytelling itself and the infinite possibilities that lie therein. It manages that rare balance of being both literal and symbolic and Lee and screenwriter David Magee's biggest achievement is immersing the audience into this odyssey and allowing a freedom of choice in how it can be perceived.
Ang Lee has always been a director that has commanded respect but he has surpassed himself here. This is one of the most challenging book-to-screen adaptations ever made and it's also one of the best.
Wondrous and awe inspiring storytelling is a rarity these days but this film certainly achieves that. Not that I ever really lost it but it has a vibrancy and depth that reaffirms my belief in the magic of cinema. Quite simply, it's a film that's bold and breathtakingly, beautiful.

The Imposter
The Imposter(2012)

Over the last couple of years, there have been a number of sophisticated documentaries which have been structured in such a dramatic way, as to become an exciting new style of filmmaking altogether. Maybe it's just that I've reached an age where I have the patience and can fully appreciate how a documentary plays out but I don't remember them ever being as gripping as they are now. Either way, this is another one that can be included alongside the recent, impressive likes of "Exit Through The Gift Shop" and "Catfish".
The true story of Frédéric Bourdin, a lonely but confident con-man who ends up in a Spanish orphanage, claiming he is Nicholas Barclay - a 16 year old Texan boy who went missing three years ago. The Barclay's are contacted and Frédéric is flown over to meet with his estranged family. The fact that Frédéric has darker eyes, an accent and many other physical differences from the missing Nicholas doesn't seem to bother the Barclay family; they are happy to welcome him back even though things just don't add up.
This story unfolds while playing with the conventions of your average documentary. It's has the obligatory interviews with the real life people involved but also intercuts with reconstructed dramatisations of the events and shapes the story with a film-like narrative. Anyone familiar with TV shows like "Crimewatch" will know what I mean when I compare it to such a style. That being said, it's a highly effective approach and keeps you thoroughly involved. The biggest involvement comes from the actual events themselves, though. How these events even managed to take place is hard to believe. So much so, that it had me wondering whether this documentary was manipulated, much like the aforementioned "Exit Through The Gift Shop" and "Catfish". That being said, it slowly reveals it's darker layers that becomes a classic case of the truth being, most definitely, stranger than fiction. At one point, there is a revelation - which I won't explore here - where you realise that the very thing you thought to be a hoax is surpassed by an even bigger web of deceit and it's an absolute punch in the gut. The only issue I had with the film overall, was a lack of probing or further investigation into the startling revelations but this with this, I'm just looking for fault.
An absolutely gripping and frightening docu-drama that manages to create a real sense of unease. What's more frightening is the unusual behaviour of the so-called 'innocents' involved, though. An impressive piece of work.

The Experiment
½

Once again, a brilliant foreign language movie ("Das Experiment") is given an English language remake and once again, it fails to do the original justice in any shape or form. If any positives are to be taken from this, then a major one would be it serving as a reminder of how good director Olivier Hirschbeigel's 2001 German film was.
Strapped for cash in order to travel to India with his girlfriend (Maggie Grace), gentle mannered political activist Travis (Adrian Brody) decides to take part in a behavioural psychological experiment whereby 20 or so men are chosen to live in a makeshift prison for two weeks. Each of them will assume either the role of guard or inmate but once the doors are locked and they are left to their own devices, things begin to spiral out of control.
The fact that this went straight to the DVD shelf when released says it all really. From the offset there are shades of a made for television appearance. This doesn't last for the entirety of the film but the standards don't rise very far above it and the voyeuristic nature of the story will appeal to fans of reality TV shows like "Big Brother".
It's strengths, unsurprisingly, lie in the performances; Brody is an excellent leading presence and fine support is delivered by a towering Forest Whitaker but the inclusion of Maggie Grace's love interest is entirely unnecessary, adding little to no substance to the film and could have been completely dropped without it making any difference whatsoever. In retrospect, it's a lazily written script that's the films biggest downfall. Where the original instilled a sense of realism, this version just seems staged. The premise is still thoroughly intriguing though and all the more so, with the knowledge that it was based on a real experiment that took place in 1971 at Stanford University before it all got out of hand.
It's decent enough to pass an hour an half of your time but don't expect anything special. It's the performances that make it worthwhile but overall, it's just another example of a completely unnecessary remake.
If anyone is unfamiliar with the events or the original German film then this film will go down nicely. However, it'd be wise to seek out Hirschbeigel's version instead.

Point Break
Point Break(1991)

Before the Oscar winning heights of "The Hurt Locker", director Kathryn Bigelow cut her teeth on some intense and very impressive pieces of work; the brooding western/vampire movie "Near Dark", the stylish and futuristic "Strange Days" and "Point Break, the adrenaline filled action movie that proved a female director could compete with any male in the genre - hands down.
A gang of bank robbers known as The Ex-Presidents have been looting the banks of coastal Los Angeles towns. Not much is known about them as they commit their crimes while wearing the masks of presidents Reagan, Nixon, Carter and Johnson. What is suspected is that they are surfers, so the F.B.I send in special agents Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) and Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey) to uncover more information. Soon Utah is mixed up with surfing guru Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) and gets drawn into his adrenaline filled, spiritual lifestyle.
This film was a real favourite of mine growing up in the early 1990's and still ranks as one of the very best of cop/action movies. Quite simply, where it's strength lies is in some breathtakingly fantastic action scenes and shows that director Bigelow could always compete with the best of them when it comes to staging an action set-piece. The chase scene alone - through the streets by car before going on-foot through alleyways and houses and at one point, the involvement of a pit-bull - is one of the best action set-pieces committed to the screen and Bigelow should be immensely proud. This is also bookended by some excellent close-contact surfing scenes a spot of bank robbery and sublime skydiving. What more could you really want? It's a film filled with testosterone and macho posturing but it's unashamed in it's delivery. It even throws in some light spirituality and Bigelow juggles the elements with a high level of skill. One thing she doesn't have here is restraint but that's entirely the appeal. She's out to set pulses racing and have some fun and that's exactly what she does. If you give yourself over to it, you will too. Of course, the film's lack of restraint throws up some moments when it goes way over the top and stretches credulity to breaking point but it doesn't matter. It's entirely forgivable due to it's sheer indulgment and edge-of-your-seat entertainment.
So is the action genre just one for the boys? According to Bigelow, the answer is a resounding... No. She displays such skill and conviction that she crafts one of the most enjoyable action yarns available. It's tagline is "100% pure adrenaline..." and on the evidence, it's not far off it.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

2012 has been a bit of an underwhelming year at the movies for me. So many films have promised so much, yet failed to deliver. It's encouraging though, that one of the art-house films of the year comes along and restores your faith in creative and original cinema. "Beasts Of The Southern Wild" is exactly that type of film.
Based on the one-act play "Juicy and Delicious" by Lucy Alibar, this tells the tale of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) a philosophical little girl who lives in a rundown Louisiana town called "The Bathtub". It's a bayou steeped in poverty, yet brings a certain freedom to the villagers. Their freedom is compromised though, when a storm floods the entire area and kills the livestock, forcing the community to flee their homes in search of pastures new.
As we are introduced to our young protagonist Hushpuppy, we see her building a nest for a bird and before long we witness her holding small chicks to her ear to hear their heartbeat. In her own words "Strong animals know when your hearts are weak." This is a child that's completely in touch with nature. It's this very understanding and connection with nature that makes her such a sweet and appealing character and one that's a real pleasure to share her journey with. That journey takes shape in her struggle for survival and a sense of belonging, as her home is destroyed in a storm, leading her on her life-affirming travels that address the nature of family, community and the refusal to be defeated or succumb to the norm. This is a film about culture and the automatic assumption that those who live a different lifestyle (even impoverished) need to be helped or changed into a mainstream or industrialised way of living. Ultimately though, it's a right-of-passage story about bravery and survival and an allegory for climate change.
It's strikingly shot throughout with the camera rarely staying still, adding that all important, stark sense of realism, required for the material. This is a film that's filmed from a child's eye view and young Quvenzhané Wallis (who was only 5 years old at the time of filming) is absolutely outstanding in the lead role. This young, untrained, actress should not be overlooked when the awards are being dished out. Fine support also comes from Dwight Henry as her defiant, stoic and seemingly harsh father Wink. To think that these two performers had never actually acted before is astonishing. They both deliver some of the best work all year. There are also shades of director Terrence Malick ("The Tree Of Life") and his fascination with flora and fauna and it also adopts his scrutiny of such things. Quite simply, this is a stunning debut from director Benh Zeitlin who's not afraid to infuse his story with surreal and highly effective visual moments of mythical wild aurochs who pursue Hushpuppy on her travels. It manages that rare ability to balance fantasy and reality and does so with such poetic flair. There was a moment in the film where I thought it was losing it's way and rushing towards it's conclusion but this was short-lived; it soon got back on track and finished with absolute aplomb.
Throughout the soulful journey, we get to know and love Hushpuppy and in her moment of self-assurance she informs us "In a million years, when kids go to school, they gonna know: Once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in The Bathtub"... How could we ever forget?
Heartwarming, uplifting and not without it's moments of pathos. This is a film of purity and truth and one of the years very best.

Looper
Looper(2012)

"12 Monkeys", was the last time I seen a science fiction/time-travel movie that featured Bruce Willis and if that was anything to go by then this film could do no wrong. In hindsight, it's not as tight or as clever as it thinks it is and it's not quite up to the standard as the aforementioned Terry Gilliam movie but it's still thoroughly good entertainment.
The year is 2044 and organised crime has a grip on society. Hit men (known as 'Loopers') are employed to execute people sent back from 30 years in the future. Time travel is illegal but being under the control of the mafia, it allows them to eradicate people without a trace. One of the rules of being a Looper though, is that they must execute their future selves when they are transported back. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a Looper but he fails to carry out the hit on his older self (Bruce Willis) and they are both forced to go on the run, potentially altering their future with very dangerous consequences.
For any good sci-fi yarn to work, it has to have an interesting and thought provoking concept. This film can certainly claim to possess that. All-be-it, it's a little self-indulgent and doesn't entirely hold up under scrutiny but once you let yourself go the film has a lot to offer. Wisely, it doesn't overplay it's futuristic setting, preferring instead to go for a more subtle and minimal approach. This helps in creating a better sense of realism for it's genre and concept, as well as making it easier to identify with the characters - of which, the ubiquitous Joseph Gordon-Levitt takes central stage. Now, a lot has been said about the prosthetic make-up of Gordon-Levitt to have him look more like a younger Bruce Willis and I can see why people have had issues with it. For a start, it seems unnecessary to have a very talented young actor mimic one that isn't exactly known for having a massive range in the first place. However, this was the path they chose tread and for the first half of the film I thought Gordon-Levitt captured the mannerisms of Willis very well indeed. In some ways, he gave a better performance as Willis than Willis does himself. The only problem I had with the make-up was the meticulously shaped eyebrows. They looked too dark, out of shape and well out of place. Anytime, Gordon-Levitt was onscreen in the latter half of the film, I was distracted by them. Not only did he not look like Willis, he didn't even look the same way that he started the film. It was bizarre to say the least. That aside, the film is brilliantly structured, well realised and poses the odd noodle-scratching moment. My only criticism would be the second half; it takes the action away from the dystopian city and heads into rural farmland and around this time hits a bit of a lull. Its saving grace being an outstanding performance from young Pierce Gagnon who, just about, acts everyone else off the stage.
Upon it's release it was heralded as 2012's "Inception". I wouldn't go that far in my praise for this; it didn't quite have that Nolan magic but in respect of being a piece of exciting and thrilling escapism, it'll hold up amongst the best of the year. For that reason, filmmakers like Rian Johnson can't be encouraged enough when they seem intent on delivering movies that an audience can really get embroiled in. I was a big fan of his modern-noir debut "Brick" and despite some critical panning, I also enjoyed his con-man follow-up "The Brothers Bloom". This is, undoubtedly, a bigger step forward for Johnson but he handles it admirably and I can only hope he continues to provide innovative pieces of work like this, without the Hollywood studios getting their claws into him.
A smart and imaginative thriller that manages to squeeze out more mileage from the time-travel sub-genre. It does so by bringing a fresh and original approach to it's paradox while also possessing a moral compass.

Ted
Ted(2012)
½

After many years of success with the hilarious animated sitcom "Family Guy", it's creator Seth MacFarlane finally ventures into his first feature film. It shares little in common with the aforementioned show except the same brand of lewd and crude humour, so any familiarity with that show will stand you in good stead in what to expect from this.
When John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) was 8 years-old he wished that his beloved stuffed bear would actually come to life and never leave his side. One stormy night, his wish comes true and Ted (voiced by Seth MacFarlane) transforms into an actual walking, talking, bear. 25 years later though, John isn't really moving on his life and his lifelong friend is getting in the way of John's relationship with his girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis). Decisions have to be made, which could separate their childhood attachment forever.
Now let's be honest on this one and face the facts straight up; without the gimmick of a weed-toking, talking, teddy bear this film wouldn't be anywhere near as successful as it is. The profanity of it's cuddly protagonist is the very basis on which this film relies on it's entertainment and for the most part, it works. The jokes don't always hit the mark but on occasion it delivers some outrageously hilarious moments. MacFarlane seems to be aware, that the more you keep up a rapid fire of jokes the higher the likelihood of some of them sticking. He delivers a relentless fighting scene that will bring reminders of the long-winded dual with the chicken in recurring "Family Guy" episodes and the rest of the film is peppered with in-jokes to films and popular culture of the past, as well as incorporating "Flash Gordon" star Sam Jones in quite a prominent role that's filled with self parody. Some of these jokes will be wasted on younger viewers or anyone unfamiliar with MacFarlane's TV show but one thing's for sure, the same brand of risqué humour can certainly be relied upon and the bonus of it coming in the form of an innocent, cuddly looking, teddy bear make it all the better.
The only drawback, is it's stumble towards it's conclusion where it succumbs to formula and loses it's way slightly but it's the performers that keep it consistently entertaining; Wahlberg is an actor I find it hard to warm to but he delivers some fine comedic work here and the always reliable Giovanni Ribisi adds just the right amount of darkness to the proceedings. Ultimately though, the star of the show is MacFarlane. His voice talents really bring Ted to life and his controversial and observational humour is ever present and welcome.
I wouldn't go as far to call it comic genius but it's certainly a lot of fun. Like it's title character, embrace it and it'll bring comforting rewards.

Ruby Sparks
Ruby Sparks(2012)
½

After 6 years, husband-and-wife directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris deliver their long-awaited follow-up to the brilliant "Little Miss Sunshine". It would seem that the director's were in no rush to emulate their previous, Oscar winning, success; preferring instead to wait for the right script. It would also seem that that time has now come and it's, certainly, been worth the wait.
Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) is struggling writer who once wrote a 'genius' novel when he was 19 years old. The trouble is, he's now struggling for material and suffers from writer's-block. On the advice of his therapist (Elliott Gould), he begins to write about a girl that has been appearing in his dreams: Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan). The next day, Ruby becomes a real person and they both strike up a beautiful and loving relationship. What Calvin then realises is, that if he can will her into existence by writing about her, then he can change her at any time and make her do what he wants by writing more.
Not many films built around romance have had the audacity to explore the very nature of love itself and the stipulations that seemingly come with it. It's a genre I'm not fond of but that's only because most are catered for the masses. This film dares to explore the complexities of a relationship and the stipulations that both sides make. It questions whether we can really love a person, wholeheartedly, without their indiscretions ever becoming irritating or intolerable. It also addresses the nature of dominance within a relationship and how that, in itself, is destructive.
Therein lies the beauty and honesty of this film; it's not afraid to pose these questions and it's also not afraid to explore the darker elements to it's premise or get it's hands dirty when it needs to. After a gentler, more romantic-comedy beginning, filled with wonderful touches of light and observational humour, the denouement takes a brave, impressive and twisted dramatic turn, that shows the darker side to the fantasy. Wisely, the film's fantasy premise is never explained. This may irk some viewers but really, the film wouldn't have gained anything by trying to break it down. Quite frankly, it just wouldn't have worked but that's testament to the filmmakers, the terrific ensemble of actors and most importantly Zoe Kazan's highly original screenplay as they all have you believing in them, even when you know you shouldn't. Once you've accepted the premise, you can sit back and enjoy the excellent performances all round; Dano, once again, displays his more than capable acting chops with a character that is often, and cleverly, likened to writer J.D. Salinger and wonderful comic-relief comes in the form of Bening and Banderas as new-age hippie parents. The biggest surprise is from the screenwriter and eponymous Zoe Kazan though; she brings a real warmth and creativity that manages just the right balance and allows her to flit in-between moods with ease. Without such an endearing and understanding performance, the film wouldn't have worked as well as it does.
With excellent performances all round, and a great mixture of humour and pathos this is one of 2012's genuinely surprising highlights. Like "Little Miss Sunshine" before it, this is a real treat.

Sinister
Sinister(2012)

Admittedly, I wasn't a fan of director Scott Derrickson's previous films "The Exorcism Of Emily Rose" and "The Day The Earth Stood Still" so it's promising to see that he actually can craft something of a reasonable amount of quality. This didn't impress me as much as it did others but it's still an admirably (sometimes excellently) crafted horror movie.
Crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) has a career that is now nosediving. He's in desperate need of another bestseller and to achieve this, he moves into a house to research a book where the hanging of an entire family took place. His wife (Juliet Rylance) and children are oblivious that they‚??re living in a crime scene but once Ellison discovers a box of home movies in the attic, the dark events begin to unravel and affect them all.
Derrickson's handling of the material here is quite impressive. He keeps the plot moving briskly and has a good grasp on mood and atmosphere. He's also aided by a typically reliable lead performance from Ethan Hawke. From the offset, it appears that all the ingredients are in place and for the most part they are. Very few modern horrors have achieved such a commanding hold over a contemporary audience. However, once the supernatural element to the story is introduced it begins to lose it's way and credulity becomes stretched. If it had relied more on it's highly effective, investigatory nature, it would have made a very good serial-killer thriller: the Super-8, home video scenes alone, are truly alarming and disturbing and instil a real feeling of dread. That being said ,this a horror at the end of the day and most fans of the genre will, no doubt, be satisfied. Personally, I wish it had stuck with the intriguing first half. During this time, it was a far more effective take on Joel Schumacher's earlier 1999 film "8mm" that also dealt with a similar theme of investigating 'snuff-movies'. Like most horrors, it has the protagonist making foolish decisions in the dark and it throws the obligatory jumpy moment at you - which doesn't always work - but for me, the real horror came from the genuinely unsettling atmosphere.
On the whole, this was a very effective and chilling film but it was the unravelling of the mystery in the final third that didn't quite match what had went before. A fine effort but it could have been tighter.

Everything Must Go

Anyone that's been reading my reviews for any length of time will be aware of my dislike for the humour of Will Ferrell. Don't get wrong, I've enjoyed some films of his: "Stranger Than Fiction" and "Elf" are a couple but for the most part his humour just doesn't work for me. Thankfully, this is Ferrell minus his funny bone and as he plays it straight, he delivers some impressive work.
Nick Halsey (Will Ferrell) is fired from his sales job for his reliance on alcohol. When he returns home, he finds that his wife has left him, locked him out of the house and left all his belongings on the front lawn. He refuses to accept this though and decides to camp out in his chair and drink beer for days on end. As this is not legal, his cop friend and AA sponsor (Michael Pe√Īa) suggests that he pretends to be having a yard sale to buy him some time. Not before long, Nick starts to makes friends with the neighbours who help him sell his stuff.
The problem with this film isn't Ferrell as I'd expected it to be. The problem with this film is that the material doesn't stretch far enough. It's based on the short story "Why Don't You Dance?" by Raymond Carver who was responsible for the serious of vignettes that made up Robert Altman's magnificent film "Short Cuts". Where Altman got it right though, was in keeping all the segments little tales of their own and never fleshed them out too far. This had been a short story for a reason; there just isn't enough material to cover the ground of a 90 minute feature - and it's shows. Despite a series of very good moments and the struggle and believable, emotional downfall of the protagonist, it has a series of lulls which just felt like padding. As a result the dramatic weight is lessened and your concentration begins to waver. That being said, there is still plenty to admire here and that mainly comes in the form of Ferrell, who flexes his acting chops in a more serious role than audiences will be used to. I'm not normally a fan of his brand of comedy but as a dramatic actor he's actually quite good. Unfortunately, for him though, the whole film rests on his shoulders; most of the other characters are secondary with Laura Dern, particularly wasted, in a thankless bit-part. However, the theme of a downward spiralling individual forced to confront his past - and his addictive problems - is reflected well, in the coveting of material objects and their relevance to a person as a whole.
More of a tragi-comedy with the emphasis on the former. It has serious moments of lethargy but worth watching for it's metaphoric approach to life and to see Ferrell command the screen with depth, in a rare dramatic role.

End of Watch
End of Watch(2012)

David Ayer certainly seems to know his way around South Central Los Angeles: He delivered the screenplay to the Oscar winning "Training Day" in 2001 before making his directorial debut, four years later, with "Harsh Times". The James Ellroy adaptation "Street Kings" followed, and with his latest being yet another foray into those crime-ridden L.A. ghettos this is confirmation of Ayer's comfort zone.
L.A. cops Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pe√Īa) routinely patrol the streets and neighbourhoods of South Central. These guys aren't just partners but good friends and they both take their jobs very seriously. It's the strong bond between them that allow them to effectively deal with life threatening situations every day. But through their absolute commitment to their work, they discover a violent drugs cartel that puts both their lives in danger.
Anyone familiar with the aforementioned films that Ayer has been involved in, will know that he has a propensity to focus a lot on the interplay of his characters; mainly this is done in the car, allowing the audience to get a closer proximity to the back and forth banter and camaraderie. Where this film differs though, is in the use of a found footage/steady-cam approach. This particular style may be wearing thin with a lot of people (myself included) but for the most part, it works here. Following a couple of cops on the beat adds another angle to the sub-genre that's not been explored yet and taps into the voyeuristic nature of the reality tv shows that we're bombarded with these days. I've never really been a fan of these neo-fascist, propaganda shows that depict the police carrying out their duties but sometimes they can be intriguing and many find them very appealing. However, Ayer is smart enough not to rely solely on this 'reality' approach; he intercuts it with wide-angles whenever the documentary vibe is unsuitable, which gives a good overall balance to the action. That being said, the film does suffer periodic lulls and falls prey to cliche with underwritten and stereotypical gangsters but it's the rapport between Gyllenhaal and Pe√Īa that keep the film interesting and involving. Both deliver solid performances and their exchanges of dialogue are entirely believable and, at times, genuinely humorous.
The steady-cam now makes it's way into the mainstream with some financial backing and familiar faces involved. It may irritate some but ultimately adds a sense of realism that's required for the material. Once you accept the conceit, the rest is an intense, visceral and action filled movie.

Dawn of the Dead
½

In 1968, director George A. Romero made his directorial debut with the - now infamous - zombie horror film "Night Of The Living Dead". At the time, it was considered the ultimate gore-fest and has since spawned numerous imitations. Not many have achieved the same standard of that classic zombie movie but Romero himself released this follow-up, ten years later, in 1974 and arguably, it's as good as (if not better than) his debut.
The epidemic of zombies, who have risen from the dead and are now walking the earth, continues as four survivors of the zombie plague take refuge in a deserted shopping mall. They decide to stay longer than they thought and try to hatch a plan to escape somehow but with the arrival of a gang of militant bikers their security is compromised.
Less of a sequel and more of a remake to "Night Of The Living Dead", this film benefits from an ingenious and very memorable conceit; four people barricaded in a huge shopping mall while the undead lurk and prey outside. It allows itself to be an allegory of consumerism with a clever and highly satirical approach. It contains an occasional humorous nature but the overall terrifying premise is never compromised. Some of this humour even comes unintentionally, due to it's cheap budget and sub-par special effects - the blood used looks like vibrant, red, children's poster paint. However, the low budget only adds to the overall authentic feel and despite it bordering on the ridiculous, Romero's skill still shines through. His use of tension is excellently delivered, simply by using an extensive series of cuts. Each action sequence is edited in such a way that it is nothing less than highly skilful filmmaking and with Romero assuming both director and editor credits, he deserves the utmost respect. A more sophisticated audience may balk or snicker at the budgetary constraints and abysmal acting but really, it doesn't matter. The material is so good and handled with such skill that it overshadows any lack of worth or imperfections.
In this particular sub-genre, bad acting and bad effects would normally make for a bad movie but in this instance, that's not the case. Romero is a master of his craft and this is evidence enough to prove so. A hugely enjoyable, and one of the best, post-apocalyptic zombie flicks.

Wanted
Wanted(2008)

Action is not normally a genre I'm drawn to but when it's done without reservation, I can completely enter into it. I, normally, find that the genre always goes a little too far. That being the case, if your going to go far you night as well go all out and be as innovative as you possibly can. This can certainly claim to do that.
Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy) is a bored and downtrodden office worker who gets bullied by his boss while his best friend is sleeping with his girlfriend. His life is a shambles. That is, until he is approached out of the blue by the mysterious Fox (Angelina Jolie), a highly trained assassin who is part of a secret society called the Fraternity. Wesley's father was also a member and now that he's recently deceased, Wesley is heir to the skills of a master hitman and the Fraternity bring him onboard.
In his first English language feature, director Timur Bekmambetov brings the similar style from his Russian vampire movies "Night Watch" and "Day Watch" and proves that he's a director that can certainly stage an action scene or two. There are cars that do 360 degree flips, people that leap from skyscrapers, bullets that collide with each other mid-air and even ones that bend round corners, buy hey, it's based on a comic-book by Mark Millar (also responsible for "Kick Ass") so anything goes right? The action scenes are sublimely hyper-stylised and delivered with a breathtakingly fast pace. It also stages a lot of the action in glorious slow-motion, encapsulating the moment and allowing the audience the wallow and appreciate even further.
To begin with, the film may instil a certain deja-vu as it borrows heavily from "Fight Club" in it's premise of a disheartened man, in a dead end job, that finds a new lease of life. Mainly what it incorporates though, is the balletic skills of Hong Kong action maestro John Woo and the gravity defying works of "The Matrix". Quite simply, it's ludicrous stuff but riotously enjoyable all the same.
McAvoy struggles a little with an American accent but for the most part he's good and his performance captures both a sense of humour and an impressive and convincing action ability. A heavily tattooed and vampish Angelina Jolie also gets her fair share of action moments, all-be-it, without much in the way of dialogue. As good as they are though, this is not a film that spends a lot of time or focus on character development. It's an action movie that doesn't pretend to be anything else and is all the better for it.
Visually astounding with a breakneck pace that rarely let's up. It's exciting, innovative and enjoyable, but most of all it's fun. Exactly how an action movie should be delivered.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Maybe it's to do with the 2012 Mayan prophecy but over the last couple of years, there seems to have been a recent fad of 'end of days' movies. So far, we've had Lars von Trier's "Melancholia", David Mackenzie's "Perfect Sense", Mike Cahill's "Another Earth" and now this. Of the four though, I'd have to say that this is the weakest.
A 70 mile-wide asteroid named Mathilda is on a collision course with Earth with attempts to divert it thwarted. Earth will be obliterated in 3 weeks. Throughout this time, Dodge (Steve Carell) and his British next-door neighbour Penny (Keira Knightley) strike up an unusual friendship and embark on a road trip that should suit them both. Dodge wants to track down the real love of his life and Penny wants to get back to Britain to spend her remaining days with her family. Along the way though, things don't turn out exactly as planned.
The major problem with this film is that it doesn't know what it wants to be; it starts off with some sharp observational and gallows humour but doesn't manage to be a laugh out loud comedy. It then delivers a serious dramatic tone - while pitching in elements of science fiction - which, surprisingly, bog it down in tediousness from which it never recovers. The genre in which it is most suited is romantic-comedy but the characters are dull and their situations even more so. It also suffers from an extreme lack of pace. You'd think that a film that delivers a premise of the entire earth having 21 days to live would have a bit of urgency about it. You'd also be forgiven for expecting some ridiculous 'bucket list' scenarios but it simply doesn't provide them, despite threatening to on occasion. There are sporadic moments where it promises to get it's groove back but ultimately falls into a slow and meandering cross country love story that, for the most part, is dreadfully uneventful.
Steve Carell is starting to annoy me in these kind of tragic, everyman, loner roles and I'm not a fan of the snobby Keira Knightley at all; I can't get over the fact that she always comes across as if she was born with a silver spoon up her arse. There are some welcome appearances from the likes of Martin Sheen (who needn't have bothered) Patton Oswalt and William L. Petersen - the latter in particular getting a much needed humorous scene involving the expected appearance of a hitman. It's little moments like this that make the film all the more frustrating; it shows glimmers of great potential but doesn't stick to what it does best and ends up being tedious and melancholic. After all this has (finally) passed by, the film almost redeems itself at the end with a lovely and touching moment between the protagonists but by then, it's too little too late.
Despite not being a massive fan of the two leads, I was intrigued by the films premise. That being said, any potential it had was floundered by delivering scene after scene of mind-numbing emptiness.

Red White & Blue

I'm not a fan of unnecessary violence in movies but when it's delivered in a psychological fashion like Michael Haneke's "Funny Games" or possibly Shane Meadows' "Dead Man's Shoes" then I can certainly go with it and respect the skill of the filmmaker. This shares some similarities with those aforementioned films but ultimately became far too savage and obstinate for me to fully appreciate.
Erica (Amanda Fuller) is promiscuous Texan woman who has frequent, casual sexual relations with different men and completely indiscriminate in her choice of partners. One night she meets Iraqi Vet, Nate (Noah Taylor) and strikes up a genuine affection and friendship. However, Erica goes missing one day and Nate decides to look for her which uncovers some wrong doing and also brings out a sociopathic nature in the seemingly gentle Veteran.
A film of two halves: The first, slow and methodical as it builds the relationships between the characters. During this time, it's filled with empty and loveless sexual encounters. It has a deliberate pace that may lose the interest of some viewers during this time. However, the second half of the film picks up the pace considerably and relentlessly. It's filled with violence and retribution and falls into torture porn territory with a frighteningly realistic and ambiguous performance from Noah Taylor. It's a shift in tone I wasn't fully prepared for and, as a result, found it a little hard to stomach. This is saying something, as just days before, I had sat down to the dark and disturbing William Friedkin film "Killer Joe" and enjoyed it immensely. The content of that movie was was no picnic (in more ways than one) but this film outstripped even that in terms of it's lasting and unsettling effect. If I had fully known what I was getting into with this, I'd probably have avoided it. That being said, I can't fault the construction and skill of director Simon Rumley on his pervading sense of dread or commentary on modern America but the resultant material just isn't for me. The most interesting aspect is seeing Noah Taylor flex his acting chops in a style that we're unaccustomed to and proves that despite still being relatively undervalued, he's a very fine actor.
A stark and uncompromising film that's very well handled but when it's disturbing and violent nature takes hold, the content is very tough going.

The Shining
The Shining(1980)

Despite being one of horror's most prolific and impressive writers, Stephen King's novel don't always transfer well to the screen. Reportedly, he can't stand this adaptation of his work as director Stanley Kubrick changed a lot from the original source material. If that's the case and this is the end result, then maybe more director's should add their own spin on King's work as this is one of the genre's finest horror movies.
Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is a novelist who agrees to become the caretaker of the secluded 'Overlook Hotel' during the winter to work on his new book. To keep him company, Jack takes his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd) along with him. However, the hotel has a history of gruesome murders taking place at the hands of the previous caretaker. Not before long, evil and spiritual presences influence the behaviour of an increasingly unstable Jack, while Danny begins to experience prophetic visions.
What can really be said about the The Shining that hasn't been said already? Quite simply, it's a classic. I could just leave it at that and move along to something else but I'll shed a little light on why it can be - and predominantly is - regarded as such. First off, for any horror to achieve it's full potential, it's essential that it gets the mood right and this can certainly claim to have that. There is a foreboding feeling of dread that permeates almost every scene. Kubrick's approach is to linger long on shots and seemingly empty spaces. I don't think I've ever witnessed a horror where looking at static furniture in a hallway - waiting for something to happen - has ever been more creepy. That something rarely ever does happen but it's Kubrick's use of lavish sets, designed in the most meticulous detail, that's visual arresting. He uses vast, well lit, rooms and corridors yet creates a smothering feeling of darkness and claustrophobia. The power of the setting itself can often be overlooked as to how horrifying it really is, as most of the horror comes in the form of a maniacal Jack Nicholson; his decent into murderous madness is one of his finest and most iconic performances. There's not many actors that can channel a character so demented and unbalanced yet remain, very much, a pleasure to watch - even root for. My biggest issue with the film would be Shelley Duvall; I've never really been a fan of hers and despite putting in a good show here, she's too irritating and hysterical - leaving you with the feeling that maybe Jack should just 'bash her brains in'. That being said, the relationship between the two add a curious nature to story. On the surface it would seem that's it's a decent into madness from Torrance but there's ambiguity involved. Could it possibly be the vulnerability of Wendy and her unresolved past issues with her husband's physical abuse of their child, manifesting in her own decent? Does she even exist, or is she a figment of Torrance's imagination? Or is it vice-verse? It's this very ambiguity that raises the film above a conventional horror story and Kubrick only teases the audience with the details, never fully revealing them and leaving it open to argument. It's also benefits from a deliberate pace and some sublime camerawork by John Alcott, not to mention a dynamic, sledgehammer of a score that leaves you shaken and overwhelmed.
This is how unrelenting terror should be delivered; slowly assuredly and with consummate skill in maintaing it's eerie atmosphere. Kubrick delivers one of his finest pieces of work here and Nicholson follows suit. Let this be a lesson to all.

Skyfall
Skyfall(2012)
½

Whenever a new James Bond film is released, it seems to strike up enthusiasm and excitement amongst moviegoers. I'm admittedly not a massive Bond fan but having the reliable Daniel Craig shaking the Martini's and introducing himself by surname first has worked a treat so far. It's also not too shabby when Oscar winning director Sam Mendes is at the helm, as well as having an Oscar winning actor play the proverbial nasty. Even though I couldn't summon the same enthusiasm as others, I also couldn't resist in seeing what all the fuss could be about.
After a botched mission in Istanbul, Bond (Daniel Craig) is presumed killed in action. In actual fact, he's been laying low and indulging a bit too much on alcohol. He resurfaces when he hears the news of attacks on M16 headquarters in London and M (Judi Dench) brings him back to resume service. It transpires that the attack on M16 HQ is at the hands of Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) who has a score to settle with M herself.
This is not your average Bond movie at all. Recently they have been doing away with the conventions of the franchise and stripping it back to basics. I, for one, have been a fan of this recent minimal approach but I still wasn't prepared for how bare this one was. A lot of attention is placed on character development which is almost unheard of from a movie featuring this character. In a lot of ways, it seemed like this film was making a new statement and relaunching a new take on Bond. It dares to make some serious plot developments involving prominent characters and introduces new ones in the shape of Ben Wishaw as a welcome and convincing Q and a new introduction to Miss Moneypenny. The other developments I won't divulge here. It even gives a little history and backstory to Bond and also shows some weaknesses in his character; Bond isn't as invincible as some of the earlier instalments which is a welcome change of direction. Of course, this is all handled well by Craig who is very convincing in the role, further fuelling the argument as to whether he's the best yet.
No Bond write-up would be complete without mentioning the villain of the piece and this is where the excellent Javier Bardem comes in. He puts in a marvellously on edge and surprisingly humorous performance that I really wasn't expecting. Bardem can do these type of creepy characters with aplomb but unfortunately, it's the decisions of his character that leave his addition to the 'Bond baddies' rather ordinary in comparison. When the writers intend on keeping things more realistic it would probably be wise not leave gaping holes in the story and have the characters behave a little more cautiously. It seemed to me that they'd rather have the best of both: they wanted the realism as well as the indulgence and the two don't really go hand in hand. The villains in previous Bonds always made critical mistakes but to have one that just stumbles around as if they're invincible is a little insulting to, not only, the deadly 007 agent but also to the audience. That being said, it's still a decent flick and there's plenty of enjoyment to be had with some clever nods to the Bond movies of old and some sumptuous cinematography by Roger Deakins.
I'm not sure how Bond enthusiasts will receive this one. There's a good chance if you're into the franchise then you'll like it but personally I thought it was a little underwhelming. It doesn't match the intensity of Craig's first outing in "Casino Royale" but is admittedly an improvement over his second "Quantum Of Solace".

Lťon: The Professional
½

After some successful and highly creative films in his native France, director Luc Besson turned his hand to American cinema in 1994 with "Leon". He had already covered the story of a lethal assassin in his 1990 film "La Femme Nikita", which also featured Jean Reno in a small role as a "cleaner". This time he focuses more on Reno and gives him the lead as a similar hitman for hire. It may be set in New York - with English speakers - but this is still very much an artistic French film.
Leon (Reno) is a contract killer and is seemingly content with his minimal social life. However, when his young and impressionable 12 year old neighbour Matilda (Natalie Portman) comes home to find her family has been killed by corrupt cop and drug dealer Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman), she runs to him for help. The closer they become, the sooner she discovers Leon's profession and asks him to teach her the skills so that she can have revenge on her family's killer.
From the off-set, Besson's visual style is clearly apparent and he makes wonderful use of New York locations with regular cinematographer Thierry Arbogast. He also allows the characters to blossom and creates and endearing friendship that serves as the heart of the film. Both Reno and especially a young Portman (in her film debut) are marvellous as the unlikely pairing but while they share some genuinely heartfelt moments, the boundaries are blurred with an uncomfortable, sexual subtext between them. Granted, this is formed through the romanticised eyes of a 12 year old and Leon is entirely innocent but it adds a different edge to their sentimental relationship. On the periphery, is the inclusion of a scenery-chewing Gary Oldman that adds a real sense of danger to the proceedings. His performance has been criticised for over-acting but personal I thought he was superb and it's ranks as one of my favourites from him.
What's most impressive about the film is Besson's assured hand and his ability in framing a scene; seemingly insignificant details play a massive part in the sheer beauty of this film while the dynamic music score by Eric Serra is a perfect accompaniment for Besson's sumptuous attention to detail and deliberate approach. Action movies rarely have such style but this is one that starts and ends with a bang and delivers a warm and affecting emotional core in-between.
A stylish, captivating and emotionally complex film that could comfortably be described as an art-house thriller.

Killer Joe
Killer Joe(2012)
½

The last time I visited a film directed by William Friedkin was his highly underrated psychological horror "Bug". That also happened to be written by Pulitzer-prize winning playwright Tracy Letts and this foray into the darker recesses of the human psyche is just as impressive and unrelenting as their earlier collaboration.
Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) is a young Texan lowlife that has found himself in considerable debt to local nasties. To get himself out of trouble, he decides to murder his mother and collect the insurance money. He runs it by his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) and they decide to hire Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) an amoral police detective, who also happens to be a contract killer. As they don't have the money to pay up front, Chris offers his sister Dottie (Juno Temple) as a retainer until the insurance comes through but things of this nature don't always go to plan and Chris, Ansel and Dottie realise they're in way over their heads.
Upon our introduction to this films characters we have a stepmother who answers the door while wearing absolutely nothing from the waist down and the father spits on his own floor after coughing up a lung. Straight away its apparent that these people are completely dysfunctional and lack any moral fibre. From there, things get progressively worse but what you wouldn't count on, is meeting anyone else actually more disturbed than these detestable people. That is, until McConaughey's Joe Cooper enters the fray. He is far more depraved than the degenerates and reprobates that we have been introduced to, leaving you with an all round uncomfortable feeling of dread and questioning yourself as to why you're even spending time with such disreputable company. That's partly the hook of the film though. It becomes a bit of a guilty pleasure watching what will happen next when there are seemingly no rules or depths that the characters won't stoop to. Friedkin and Letts deserve the utmost credit for their uncompromising approach here and in a film with no shortage of brave and bold performances, it's McConaughey that truly excels. He's a dark, brooding character and a far site from his recent rom-com's. If he really wants to change his image then this is the way to do it. This man can certainly act and after this, I'm not sure he could go back to rom-com's even if he wanted to. This is a character that will stick in the minds of many for quite some time. Kudos to the bravery of Gina Gershon also though. She commits herself to one of the most disturbing and outrageous scenes you're likely to see this year, or any year for that matter. I'm sure by now that many people have at least heard of the depravity of an almost surreal scene involving a (now infamous) chicken drumstick... I didn't know whether to laugh or balk when it arrived and it left me wondering if the sales of KFC will suffer as a result of this. Poor old Colonel Sanders will be rolling in his grave as it brings a whole new meaning to their slogan "finger licking good". This is a scene that seems to have overshadowed the word on the film itself which is not entirely unfair as the scene is most certainly shocking but there's far more to this. Apart from the excellent performances, Friedkin's direction is up close and personal and captures the claustrophobic nature of Letts' writing and his blacker than black humour. It's a lot like "Bug" whereby a lot of the drama comes from the close proximity of the characters. The tension is only heightened because of this and it challenges the viewer to even question their moral standpoint on why would you even find enjoyment in this seedy and lascivious world.
An extremely black, depraved and uncompromising piece of work but it's also strangely captivating and possesses a humour that's "darker'n a black steer's tookus on a moonless prairie night" - as a wiser feller than myself once rambled.

The Angels' Share

This is the 12th collaboration between director Ken Loach and writer Paul Laverty. Their previous efforts have been mostly very successful films and have largely dealt with the hardships of Scottish working class lifestyles. This is another slice of that life and yet another little treasure.
Young Glaswegian Robbie (Paul Brannigan) is sentenced to community service for repeatedly offending. He has a baby on the way and finds himself in a continual circle of violence with his girlfriend's father but he's desperate for a way out of his life of crime. He is taken under the wing of social worker Harry (John Henshaw) who teaches him the appreciation of fine malt Whiskies. It's only then, Robbie discovers a distillery that's home to a rare Scotch Whisky worth thousands of pounds and involves his friends to take some for themselves.
There is a Scots Gaelic way of referring to the alcoholic beverage Whisky and that is "Uisge Beatha", literally translating as 'Water of Life'. This name, in itself, could be a perfect title for this film (and it's themes) but Loach has gone and conjured up another one: When Whisky is matured over the years there's some that escapes from the casket and evaporates into thin air, never to be tasted or seen again. This is referred to as "The Angels' Share" and, on reflection, is a fitting title for the story.
Loach is one of those directors that has a perfect sense of realism. It just courses right through his films; from the storyline, through the setting to the authentic dialogue and untrained actors. This is no different and it shares a similar theme to two of his and Paul Laverty's earlier collaborations: "My Name Is Joe" and "Sweet Sixteen", in terms of a struggling protagonist trying to break free from his brutal environment and make a life for himself. What this has, that those two didn't, is a sense of humour and a delicate, lightness of touch. It doesn't get bogged down in the kitchen-sink mentality that you'd expect but breaks free from that mould to become a lighthearted caper movie. Don't get me wrong, Loach still has the power of gritty authenticity and on a few occasions he displays that but like the beverage they are concerned about in the film, it has a nice balance; it manages to be both rough and smooth. Glasgow is depicted as a brutal environment with damaged disillusioned youths and Loach's eye for locations and mostly untrained actors is ever present. All the performers deliver admirable and, in some cases, excellent work. A talent that Loach has shown over the years is his ability in finding these quality young actors. In a lot of ways he's become somewhat of a pioneer for Scottish cinema - the city of Glasgow in particular. No film set in Scotland's largest city would be complete without the humour though and in this case Loach and Laverty capture the idiom perfectly, delivering regular and balanced humour.
A slight change of pace from Ken Loach and more upbeat than fans of his will be accustomed to but he manages the understatement very well and delivers one of his most feel-good films to date.

Dear Frankie
Dear Frankie(2005)
½

This is a highly underrated little gem from first time feature director Shona Auerbach. It's a film that shows a real delicacy and understanding for human relationships and a sensitive perception of life in general.
Frankie (Jack McElhone) is a 9 year old deaf boy has never met his father. His mother Lizzie (Emily Mortimer) left him years ago but never had the heart to tell her son. Instead, she concocts a story and tells Frankie that his father is working on a ship, sailing around the world. She also sends letters to Frankie, pretending to be his dad in far off places. Her story threatens to come to pieces though when Frankie discovers that his dad‚??s ship is due to dock at their hometown of Greenock. Instead of telling Frankie the truth, Lizzie employs the services of a stranger (Gerard Butler) to pretend that he's Frankie's father.
Every now and again you come across a low-key drama with real depth and honesty that when it's all over you are left feeling genuinely touched; a tear may even well-up or for that matter fall. This is that type of drama. It's a film that tugs on the heartstrings but doesn't use any form of manipulation to do so. It's just good, honest, storytelling that uses observation and an understanding of life and the heartbreaking complexities therein. It touches on the extent that parents will go to protect their children and also the difficulties faced by broken, impoverished families. What it also does, is put your faith in the kindness of strangers. That being said, this is not a film that's depressing. In fact, it's quite the opposite. It's a life-affirming story filled with humour as well as pathos and everyone hits just the right note. It's also a film that could claim to showcase the real charm and charisma of Gerard Butler before he hopped aboard the fame train. He's an enigmatic presence and delivers a wonderfully subtle, turn that gained him a lot more recognition amongst critics and filmgoers alike. The same could be said of Emily Mortimer; she is absolutely superb as a supportive but desperate mother striving to protect her son and further excellent support is delivered by young Jack McElhone as the eponymous and gentle natured Frankie. He doesn't physically talk throughout the film but we get to hear his thoughts through the letters he writes to his absent and elusive father. It's through these heartfelt, emotional performances that the film really resonates. That's not to take away from writer Andrea Gibb's endearing screenplay or director/cinematographer Shona Auerbach's sensitive handling of the material though; everyone pulls their weight in capturing just the right tone here. It's a such a shame that Auerbach hasn't made a film since as on this evidence, she certainly has the ability and a 15 minute standing ovation at Cannes would further fuel that.
A sweet and poignant little drama with fantastic performances all round. A film with a head and a heart and good feel for the moment.

One More Kiss

Over the course of the next couple of days I'll be posting a little trilogy of Scottish films that will have, no doubt, passed many people by and are certainly worthy of some more attention. I'll begin with this 1999 film set in the Scottish borders that although it falls into a particular romantic genre, it dares to do things differently and succeeds admirably.
Sarah Hopson (Valerie Edmond) has been living a successful, high-flying lifestyle in New York but when she finds out that she has a terminal illness, she heads back home to Scotland to prepare for her death. When she arrives, she reacquaints with her childhood sweetheart Sam Murray (Gerard Butler). Sam now runs a restaurant and has since married but Sarah approaches his wife (Valerie Gogan) to ask that she spend time with him before her death - causing everyone some mixed emotions.
The film opens with a lone female, arms aloft, teetering on the edge of a skyscraper. It's a powerful piece of imagery and an opening scene that sets the tone of this heartfelt tale. This is not a film about death but about life, love and relationships. It explores the mistakes and regrets but also delivers a chance of redemption. It's in the human relationships that this film finds it's strength. It's not just about Sarah and her need to tie up loose ends but it confidently explores the effects on the people around her; she brings both a mixture of pleasure and pain to the other characters. At times she can come across as arrogant and selfish yet she also brings hope and instills a belief in people to live their lives fully. This is a film that wears it's heart on it's sleeve and for the most part, the performances are great. It's interesting watching a young Gerard Butler and Valerie Gogan as his suffering wife is fantastic. James Cosmo is also especially memorable as Sarah's cantankerous, rough diamond father. However, Valerie Edmond as the lead, looked a little stretched at times which I just couldn't understand; in some scenes she was absolutely superb and in others she was quite poor. This could be down to her delivery of the dialogue though. I tend to be a little harsh on Scottish performers as sometimes the dialogue isn't delivered properly. Most Scots have a certain slang nature to their dialect and when you hear words uttered with correct English pronunciation it jars a little. Understandably this has to be the case, so as to appeal to a wider audience but as a Scotsman, it seems out of place. That being said, Edmond still gets the job done and although some of the idiom may lost, the film still retains it's subtle Scottish humour and delivers moments of highly impressive, realistic drama.
Despite some small inconsistencies this is still a beautifully played, poignant and heartfelt life/love story. It's not normally the type of film I'd be drawn to but I was impressed with it's execution.

Machete
Machete(2010)
½

In 1997, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez released their Grindhouse double bill which consisted of "Death Proof" and "Planet Terror" respectively. They also included a series of trailers beforehand. Of course, these trailers were fictional works but there at least two, so far, that have been made into feature films and director's Eli Roth and Edgar Wright have expressed interest in adapting their trailers in the future also. One that has already reached the screens is Jason Eisener's "Hobo With A Shotgun" and the other is this unashamed, violent gore-fest from Rodriguez.
Machete Cortez (Danny Trejo) is a former Mexican Federale who is set-up by his corrupt bosses, resulting in the death of his wife and child. He manages to escape death himself and heads over the border to the United States, vowing revenge on those that wronged him. Not before long though, Machete is involved in a failed assassination attempt on US senator John McLaughlin (Robert DeNiro) and again finds himself on the run. It would seem that both betrayals are linked and Machete will stop at nothing to get to those involved.
With a highly stylistic and candid Grindhouse opening that's nothing less than impressive, it's apparent very early on what you're letting yourself in for here. This is not a film that will demand very much from you, other than checking your brain at border control beforehand. I'm surprised that I actually went with this, as I often find Rodriguez's stuff to be very self-indulgent. This happens to be more of the same and shares Rodriguez's propensity for some preposterous action scenes. That being said though, it's still quite a lot of fun. It doesn't pretend to be anything other than what it is and benefits from a great cast of deliciously nasty characters, spouting some choice moments of dialogue. A bit like Tarantino, Rodriguez seems to be able to command a plethora of acting talents and again like Tarantino, gives familiar actors - that have fallen on harder times - another shot onscreen. In this case, Don Johnson, Jeff Fahey and (amazingly) Steven Seagal get interesting characters to play. It's also fun to see Danny Trejo in a rare leading role and the underrated - but fast rising - Shea Wigham also makes a welcome appearance. The biggest disappointed (as it often is these days) is a criminally underused DeNiro. All in all though, it's the cast that play a big part in the enjoyment of this cliche ridden homage to 70's exploitation flicks where it also can't resist throwing in a satirical commentary on US immigration policy. Rodriguez's style is, without doubt, an acquired taste and one that I admittedly don't always have but if you're a fan of his films then this should go down nicely.
Not a lot can be said about a film that is ultimately about showcasing the many different ways a person can perish at the mercy of a machete. You can either accept the premise and run with it or you can avoid it completely. Either decision would be entirely understandable, as this is a film that will only work on a complete suspension of disbelief.

Killer Elite
Killer Elite(2011)

Jason Statham is normally a 'type-cast' kind of actor that I normally steer clear of. It's not that I dislike him personally but his films tend to be of a particular genre that I don't much care for. All they seem to consist of, is the "The Stath" serving out his knuckle sandwiches on some stereotypical numskulls. For me, the draw to this film was my liking for Clive Owen and especially my personal favourite Robert DeNiro. Unfortunately, even those two couldn't save this film from mediocrity.
Former assassin Danny Bryce (Jason Statham), is brought out of retirement to save his mentor Hunter (Robert DeNiro), now held captive by a Oman sheikh. In exchange for Hunter's freedom, Danny must hunt and kill the SAS officers that the sheikh believes killed his three sons during the Oman war. Danny is certainly up to the job but it's not made easy when another ex-SAS officer, Spike Logan (Clive Owen) is determined to keep what happened in Oman a secret.
Opening with an intense action set-piece sets this film up well and from the off-set, it promises to be quite a thrilling ride. Statham delivers his usual bad ass schtick and it's great to see DeNiro flex a little of his (ageing) action muscles too. Once the initial 10 minute action is over though, DeNiro takes a back seat, Statham takes over and Clive Owen is brought into the mix of intrigue and espionage. Surprisingly though, it doesn't deliver the action expected and the intrigue is less than... erm, intriguing. The film falls flat very early on and it seemingly has no chance of redemption. That is, until Statham and Owen finally cross paths in a brutal physical exchange that's impressively handled and before we know it, the film has found it's feet again. Or so it would seem for this fleeting moment of fisticuffs. After that's over and done with, the film falls back into it's not-so-comfortable formula and fails to ever resurface. Reportedly, it is based on true events (as reflected in ex-SAS and adventurer Rannulph Fiennes' book "The Feather Men") but whether that's true or not, it still doesn't add anything to the story. The delivery is just a bit too tedious which I found to be quite a conundrum in itself as the material should make for an exciting watch. Added to which, nobody really puts a foot wrong; Statham and Owen deliver the goods and solid support is given by DeNiro and Dominic Purcell from TV's "Prison Break"; debutant director Gary McKendry also seems to be in command of his material and frames his film well. Sadly, it just doesn't quite come together, which leads me to the conclusion that it's the script that's the major issue here.
This is the type of film that's neither an out-and-out action movie or a complete spy thriller. It can't seem to make it's mind up and as a result will probably disappoint fans from both camps. At one point Statham says "Killing's easy. Living with it is the hard part": the same could be said of this film; putting it into the DVD player is easy, getting through to the end is the hard part.

Prince of Darkness
½

During the 70's and 80's director John Carpenter was delivering consistently, innovative pieces of work; his shoestring budget sci-fi "Dark Star", followed by his homage to Howard Hawks' "Rio Bravo" with "Assault On Precinct 13" and his horror classic "Halloween" which was one of the original slasher films. He followed these up with cult classic "Escape From New York" before eventually delivering "The Thing" and "Big Trouble in Little China" to poor box-office receipts. Two highly undervalued films but ones that also marked the point where Carpenter couldn't get his films the proper financial backing anymore. As a result, he went back to making lower budget films and "Prince of Darkness" is one of them. It may be lower budget but Carpenter's abilities never left him.
For many years, in the basement of an abandoned church lies a vat containing a unknown and moving green liquid. It had been protected by a priest that had belonged to a secret sect and upon his death, the sinister secret of the vat's existence is passed on to Father Loomis (Donald Pleasance) who enlists the help of a physics Professor (Victor Wong) and his graduate students to investigate. Upon closer inspection, they find that the vat contains the son of Satan who is intent on breaking free and releasing his father into the world.
Like most of John Carpenter's films it's his own music score that first grabs your attention - "Prince Of Darkness" is no different. His synthesiser mixed with pop sounds
set the foreboding tone wonderfully. Not before long, he hits you with a superlative concept of both science and religion combing to understand a super demonic power while also tapping in the subconscious and
incorporating dream-states, premonitions and the possibility of time travel through "tachyons". Of course, while all this is going on, Carpenter is delivering the frights slowly but surely. His skill lies in his eerie use of space and being able to make city streets and rooms seem lonely and isolated. By doing so, the horror takes hold. He keeps the danger lurking - as if it's just outside the door - and shows an absolute command of his material. He knows the tricks; the pace, the mystery and finally the satisfaction of a truly horrific delivery. This film creeps me out every time I see it and regardless of how I get my frights, I still get them. He sets in the panic amongst the characters at just the right time, cranking up his wonderful score and delivering a depth that is so often unappreciated in his work. He's an intelligent filmmaker and, quite simply, this is one of his most frightening and affecting pieces. Due to budgetary constraints though, the film does have flaws; the acting is certainly one of them (I've probably never seen acting so bad in a film that I actually like) but if it wasn't for these small indiscretions the film might not have worked as well as it does. If anything the abysmal performances add to the overall low-key feel. I don't want to overstep the mark and fool people into watching something that they just might not appreciate as much as I do but if the faults are overlooked then there is much to admire here. Horror is definitely a genre that I'm highly critical of, so when one happens to be available that far exceeds the dross of today, it deserves to be looked at. Most critics have panned this film and to some extent I can see why but if you see beyond the poor performances, the slightly dated appearance and occasional sticky dialogue then you'll still find that Carpenter's intelligence and skill is at the core of this imaginative and deeply unsettling, Lovecraftian horror. (The second instalment in Carpenter's 'Apocalypse Trilogy', starting with "The Thing" and finishing with "In The Mouth Of Madness").
One of the most underrated horror films