Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Case for a Brief History

In my lead up to the Academy Awards, I had to see The Theory of Everything, the well regarded tale of the life and times of Stephen Hawking, as seen through the eyes (and the memoirs) of his ex-wife Jane.

It’s Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of the physicist that has garnered all the attention and awards, and it’s not hard to see why.  He shows the deterioration of the man from a cocky (some could say arrogant) student at Cambridge to the world renowned physicist with one of the most recognisable “voices” on the planet.  Its an incredibly moving performance, without going “the full ret@rd” and keeping the man human behind the electric wheelchair.

But it is Felicity Jones as Jane who has to carry a lot of the film as Hawking becomes more incapacitated.  She makes some tough calls, sometimes bafflingly so, and drives / forces Stephen to deal with and adapt to his changing physical abilities.  The performance is nowhere near as physical as that of Redmayne, but it needs to stay a strong and defiant and animated character whilst Hawking’s world is reduced and more insular.

Overall as a film, it works.  It’s a fairly standard biopic so there is nothing particularly imaginative in how it is developed and plays out, or about the cinematography, or the soundtrack, or anything really.  No, what makes this one stand out is the performances, and they are riveting.  

There are the odd (pardon the pun) stumbles, like when the film goes a bit too cliché at a press conference, but overall it’s a slow, quiet film with dignity and grace and a real pleasure to watch.  I didn’t feel particularly emotional at any stage, but I did feel educated and enjoyed the fairly sedate journey.

Verdict:  The actors in The Theory of Everything raise the film above the average to the extraordinary.  It didn’t blow my mind, but it definitely made me think and kept me entertained throughout – and what more can one ask?  8 theories out of 10.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Case for American Sniping

The trailer for American Sniper did little for me, but based on the strength of the critical reaction (some of it very critical indeed), I thought I really ought to give it a try.

It was a hot and muggy Titan XC session and the airconditioning seemed almost non existent.  And while the heat was possibly adding another “dimension” to the film that is mainly set in the desert, I am pretty sure the Iraqi warmth was a dry one.

Bradley Cooper plays a straight forward, no nonsense, god fearing and very up and down white American patriot, Chris Kyle, who joins the Navy Seals to defend the USA from her enemies, and does a damned good job of it too.  His marksmanship pushes his status amongst his fellow troopers into the “legendary” category, and it is not surprising that he gets the respect of all those who serve with him.

But while you have to respect him, I found it really hard to like either the actor or the character. 

[And now I will put in a SPOILER ALERT as the rest of this will contain movie spoilers, even though I think there is not really much to “spoil” in the film as there aren’t really many surprises along the way.]

Kyle is not particularly dynamic or nuanced, not particularly deep, and doesn’t really inspire either.  During one tour, Kyle takes command of a group of marines, and while the SEAL has evidently killed more people than those in the group, there is no evidence shown that he would actually be any better at storming into a person’s home and making demands than any of the others.  Indeed, the disrespect to the local inhabitants by the invading forces is probably quite real and also one of the issues that people have with the film.  For me, the former balances out the latter, though it is still disturbing to watch.

While some of Kyle’s compatriots have crises of faith, Kyle’s belief in the righteousness of his actions – that is, of protecting his fellow soldiers – is unshakeable, and he doesn’t understand and even condemns those who falter.  That’s not to say he disagrees with their questions about the meaning of the war.  He doesn’t even try to understand them at all, meaning there is a blankness and emptiness to most of his relationships, including that with his brother.  The film shows that Kyle is a compassionate man for those who suffer physical disability, but when it comes to anything psychological, he has no empathy or understanding at all.  Only in his relationship with his wife and children is there any sense of depth with the character, and even then, it all seems fairly bland.

The action scenes on the other hand are tense and well paced – when you can see them through the blowing sands.  However, the “sniper” scenes in particular feel very “movie-ised” and (to a admittedly very novice and inexperienced person like me) seem much less authentic than the (possibly more movie-ised) portrayals in films like The Hurt Locker.

So its not at all surprising that Kyle is an American hero because he really is the definition of the unthinking, unswerving, completely loyal patriot.  I wasn’t offended then by the film’s flag waving or whatever else the critics have disagreed with as, to be honest, I didn’t really care for the character of Kyle very much, and possibly would not have been too impressed by the man.  His appeal is one that doesn’t resonate with me, and I ended up more interested in the secondary characters than Kyle himself.  But then, not everyone around does have hidden depth – sometimes the surface is really all there is to see.

Verdict: American Sniper is an interesting tale, competently  told, well acted, but ultimately, due to its rather black and white main character, it ends up quite unengaging.  For me, uninspired by the main character and with no one else to really “root” for, it was a tense action movie with little emotional depth.  6 screwdrivers out of 10. 

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Case for a Birdemic

So Birdman was always going to be challenging.  A film that is loved by critics but mehed by audiences is bound to not be the easiest thing to watch.  Still, a film that stars Michael Keaton as a man living in the shadow of his former career as a superhero trying to reinvent himself on stage has a lot of levels (or should that be “is very meta”) from the get go.

 That meta-ness does not make the film easy to watch, especially with an occasionally very irritating and distracting percussion soundtrack beating its way through a lot of it.  Add on top of that Keaton’s flights perception of events and of how he influences the world, and some rather lengthy exchanges on many deep and meaningful things, and I have to say even I found the running time a trifle on the long side and found myself looking at my watch every so often.

Of course, I was hypnotised whenever Edward Norton and Emma Stone were on screen, not just because Emma Stone has eyes that are bigger than the size of her head or the eyes of anything on the Happy Tree Friends.  Both of these actors are engrossing in their portrayal of broken, tortured souls, Norton an actor who shines on the stage but is a bit of a dick off it, Stone as the Birdman’s daughter, trying to recover from a drug addiction by acting as her father’s PA.

Around the big three are other top notch performances, with Lindsay Duncan as the ball busting theatre critic, Zach Galifinakis acting against type and actually acting (surprised the hell out of me – I was impressed!) as the Birdman’s lawyer, and Naomi Watts playing a struggling actor yet again, though she doesn’t quite have the chance to shine as she did in the classic Mulholland Drive – but I digress.

The movie all progresses as if it was filmed in one long, uncut shot, though it is obvious with the time shifts and the like that the film is not uninterrupted.  We follow the cast as they weave through the narrow corridors of the theatre, out into the broader alleyways and streets of the New York theatre circuit outside.  Mainly, the film feels claustrophobic and tense, enhancing the feeling of trepidation the whole cast feel as they complete the final rehearsals before the grand opening of their new play. 

As much as I was occasionally distracted by some of the more lengthy (and drum heavy) scenes, I have to say I enjoyed most of the film.  Until the very end that is, when the resolution led to a few… well, lets just say it took a few turns I was not on board for it to take.  Flights of fancy and the imagination during the film, I could handle, but it all got laid on a bit thick at the end, and that I was not overly impressed by.

My companions were also a bit sceptical, but seemed more critical of the film than I.  It is not necessarily a film everyone will like off the bat, if at all.  Sure, we all acknowledged the brilliance of the film, the innovation (well, kind of) and the impressive performances, but it is one thing to appreciate everything a film like this brings to the table and presents, but its another thing to actually like it.

Verdict: Birdman is a challenging watch and probably a bit long at just around 2 hours running time.  Still, with some truly stupendous performances from the extraordinary cast, there is a lot to appreciate up on the screen and to enjoy, though perhaps not necessarily as a whole.  7 eggs out of 10.