Chronic

Director Michel Franco (2016)

In this deeply humane yet bleak drama, Tim Roth plays a home care nurse for the terminally ill.

David is trying to rebuild his life and tentatively reaching out to his adult daughter after some time away.

He becomes too close to his patients but isn’t guilty of the crime of which he’s accused.

The film suggests possessing too much empathy is a trait which is not only undervalued by society, but one destined to be punished.

Filmed with an unflinchingly clear eye, a sober sensitivity and a largely static camera, it’s an intelligent and sensitive call for compassion and support for the lonely and infirm.

 

Joy

Director: David O. Russell (2016)

With sparkly charisma and a bucketful of talent, Jennifer Lawrence polishes her acting credentials in this dynamic biopic of a mop making entrepreneur.

Lawrence teams up again with writer/director David O Russell for whose Silver Linings Playbook (2012) she won the best actress Oscar.

I wouldn’t bet against her being nominated a third time for this slick, smart, sweet and sour slice of the American Dream.

Along with American Hustle (2014) this is the third consecutive time Lawrence has appeared in a Russell film with Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper.

It’s Cooper’s fourth collaboration with Lawrence including the non-Russell directed Serena (2014).

Despite being one of a select few who saw Silver Linings Playbook and wasn’t bowled over, I can’t deny Russell brought out the best in his cast and does so again here.

Which for fans of De Niro can only be a good thing.

Lawrence stars as hard working single mum Joy Mangano.

In a chaotic living arrangement, Joy’s ex-husband shares the basement with her father, she is at odds with her half-sister and is the prime carer for her depressed mother Terry.

The outrageous story lines of the TV soaps Terry watches all day provide a fictional extreme and help us believe Joy’s barely credible life story.

Inventive from an early age, Joy’s exasperation at the quality of kitchen mops on the market leads her to build and try to sell a mop of her own design.

But being an utter novice in the world of business she struggles with bad advice, dodgy contracts, legal disputes, ever increasing debt and zero sales.

A potential saviour appears in the handsome form of Cooper’s Neil Walker.

The softly spoken and messianic head of the QVC channel sees commercial potential in her mop.

Such is the innate on screen chemistry between the two performers it’s almost impossible for them not to suggest a romantic attraction.

Russell keeps his camera walking and his cast talking in his typical caffeinated style, pushed along by a soundtrack of familiar pop and rock tunes.

And he comments on the corrupting  power of commerce by slyly riffing on scenes from gangster epic The Godfather (1972).

To underline this, De Niro appears as Joy’s auto shop owning father Rudy.

Working from his own screenplay, the director is at least as interested in the combustible chemistry of the characters as he is in Joy’s remarkable story.

Regardless of age, race or status, Russell just wants to let them loose them on the screen and see how they react.

From Diane Ladd’s grandmother to Isabella Rossellini’s investor, Dascha Polanco as Joy’s best friend to Melissa Rivers as her own mother, the comedienne Joan Rivers, this is a story filled with interesting women.

But none of them can outshine Lawrence.

The Danish Girl

Director: Tom Hooper (2016)

Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne aims for more Academy gold as a transgender artist in this period drama.

As in The Theory Of Everything (2015) where he played scientist Stephen Hawking, the British actor gives a committed performance as Einar Wegener.

However he is outshone by Swedish co-star Alicia Vikander as his on-screen wife Gerda who offers strong marital support.

She acts with her eyes and he with his mouth. Some of his alarming lip quivering reminds us of his space camp turn in the terrible Jupiter Ascending (2015).

Gorgeous costumes, polished interiors and fresh exterior locations give Copenhagen of 1926 a living, picturesque appeal.

But it’s suffocatingly sincere and suffers from banal dialogue and a lack of conflict.

Plus director Tom Hooper inflicts on us the same close ups and curious framing which marred his films The King’s Speech (2011) and Les Miserable (2013).

Gerda producers portraits and wears the trousers while Einar paints landscapes and discovers he enjoys wearing frocks.

As he discovers himself more comfortable in women’s clothes than men’s, Einar adopts the alter ego of ‘Lili’.

Gradually she becomes his dominant personality and seeks to make a permanent transformation to womanhood.

Redmayne is a pretty boy in real life but no great beauty as a woman, especially when stood between to his gorgeous on-screen wife and her ballerina best mate Oola, played by Amber Heard.

Lili’s selfish behaviour fails to garner much sympathy and nor does she meet much resistant to her life choices. Society is indifferent to Lili’s plight. So was I.

 

In The Heart Of The Sea

Director: Ron Howard (2015)

It’s all hands on deck for an epic old fashioned adventure on the high seas.

Based on the events which inspired Herman Melville‘s classic novel Moby Dick, it’s a shipshape and manly yarn full of arrogance, greed and danger.

The story is anchored by the reliable talents of Ben Whishaw and Brendan Gleeson as novelist Melville and drunken old sea-dog Thomas Nickerson.

One dark night in 1850, Melville pays Nickerson to tell the truth behind the voyage of the whaling ship The Essex, on which he served on as a cabin boy thirty years earlier.

Whaling is a dangerous and potentially lucrative industry, harvesting the seas for oil to serve America’s fast growing population.

Back then Nickerson was in the charge of Owen Chase, an experienced first mate, played with manly gusto by Chris Hemsworth.

The star of Marvel’s Thor always gives good smoulder and here he glowers with resentment.

Impoverished and eager to provide for his pregnant wife, Chase’s ambitions to captain his own ship are thwarted by the shipping company directors.

They make him serve under Benjamin Walker’s novice Captain Pollard, the privileged son of an important investor.

Lashed together in mutual antipathy and greed, they sail from Nantucket round Cape Horn to the Pacific ocean.

The scenes where the crew row out in tiny boats to manually harpoon their enormous prey are terrific.

But the increasingly desperate hunt for whales goes awry with the crew facing fires, storms, mutiny and of course a very angry white whale.

The heart of the sea becomes a very dark place indeed as despair and madness grip the sailors.

Following Rush (2013) the biopic of motor racing star James Hunt, this is the second film Ron Howard has made with Hemsworth.

Exciting, intelligent and respectful to it’s source In The Heart Of The Sea is the sort of film Hollywood is now accused of not making any more.

Well now they have so you really should go and see it.

 

 

 

The 10 best films of 2015 (UK release)

When I stepped back to look at my list of the 10 best films of 2015, I noticed 4 of my choices are science fiction and a further 3 are animated.

Cinema is escapism and if I wanted real life I’d stay at home. When I go to the cinema I want to go to places I can’t go in real life. There’s no place I can’t go to more than outer space.

Any film holds the possibility for fully exploiting cinema’s epic potential if it combines intelligent storytelling, tremendous visuals, an out of this world scale and a sense of humour.

As ever it’s impossible to see every film released each year, and so the absence of drama 45 Years (2015) and documentary Amy (2015) shouldn’t be read as a judgement upon them.

However the absence of probably Oscar contender Carol (2015) is deliberate. You can read about here.

Top 10 films of 2015

1. Mad Max: Fury Road

George Miller’s barkingly brilliant reboot of his own 1979 action classic is an extraordinarily epic non-stop thrill-ride, an apocalyptic nitrous charge of pure cinema.

2. The Martian

Matt Damon was marooned on Mars in this breathless, big budget sci-fi adventure which rockets along to a disco beat. Who knew Ridley Scott could do funny?

3. Song of the Sea

This gorgeous Irish fairytale is a moving and magical adventure full of enchantment and transformation. Oscar nominated for Best Animated film.

4. Ex Machina

Sexy, sharp and stylish, this brilliant British sci-fi thriller explores man’s relationship to machines with verve, wit and polish. Alex Garland is happy to acknowledge the debt it owes to long running comic 2000AD.

5. Whiplash

An aspiring jazz drummer clashes with his menacing music teacher in this  exhilarating music masterclass. Won three Oscars including Best Supporting Actor for JK Simmons.

6. Big Hero 6

Disney gave us this hilarious, joyous and thrilling tale of a boy and his inflatable robot Baymax. Winner of the Oscar for best animated film.

7. Birdman

Michael Keaton soars in this extraordinarily ambitious black comedy about a desperate actor enduring a nervous breakdown. It’s funny, sexy, brave and bold. It won Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay and Cinematography.

8. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Magical and moving, this animated folktale of a young girl who comes of age is a charming, moving and beautifully crafted joy, bursting with humour and life.

9. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

A light speed blast of fun from this epic seventh and third best episode in the long running sci-fi saga. Fast, funny and visually spectacular. The force is strong in this one.

10. Spring

Little seen but fabulous horror of an American in Italy who falls for a mysterious girl. A gorgeous and terrifying love story. Narrowly edged out It Follows as best horror of the year.

And the best of the rest:

Horror 

It Follows

Documentary

Red Army

Precinct 75 

Western

The Salvation

Slow West

Bonus movie:

The return of Keanu Reeves in kick ass form as the puppy-loving assassin John Wick.

Top Ten worst films

1. Jupiter Ascending

2. Entourage

3. The Last Witch Hunter

4. The Boy Next Door

5. Seventh Son

6. Captive

7. The Visit

8. Vacation

9. Hot Pursuit

10. Everly

The Hateful Eight

Director: Quentin Tarantino (2016)

Quentin Tarantino’s new western is a slow burning fistful of cinematic dynamite which explodes all over the screen.

In a set up surprisingly reminiscent of Agatha Christie, eight hateful desperadoes are brought together one night by a Wyoming blizzard.

The discovery of loose connections leads to the opportunity to settle old scores and much bloodshed.

It’s a major work from an important director and a minor masterpiece of the genre.

Building on the strengths of Django Unchained (2013), Tarantino’s burgeoning maturity after a mid career slump of Kill Bill 2 (2004) and Death Proof (2007) suggests the mouthwatering prospect his best work is yet to come.

The Hateful Eight (2016) is proclaimed as Tarantino’s 8th film. With one eye on his legacy the 52 year old director recently speculated he would only make 10 movies, adding he felt he would never dominate the Academy Awards with multiple wins for a single film.

His current upward trajectory suggests his tenth and possibly final film could easily sweep the Oscars board.

In any circumstances I very much doubt Tarantino will go quietly into the cinematic night of his own accord.

With two consecutive westerns under his gun belt, Tarantino seems to have found his meter in the genre, itself the great American art form.

His previous best work was Jackie Brown (1997) based on the novel Rum Punch (pub. 1992) by Elmore Leonard.

The inestimable crime writer produced a raft of novels, many of which ended up on screen. Notable examples are Hombre (1967) Get Shorty (1995) and Out of Sight (1998).

However he began his career as a prodigious writer of pulp westerns. Three-Ten To Yuma (pub. 1953) was filmed in 1957 as 3:10 To Yuma starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, and filmed again in 2007 with Christian Bale and Russell Crowe.

Should Tarantino feel the need for inspiration he could do worse than tackle another of Leonard’s many works.

Until then we have The Hateful Eight which as rich in character and performance as any movie Tarantino has made thus far.

The former enfant terrible of Indie cinema takes a more mature and traditional approach.

He throws out the pop cultural references in favour of discussions on justice and the morality of the civil war.

Also out are the eclectic rock soundtrack and in comes a score by the maestro of spaghetti westerns, Ennio Morricone.

As good as it is, it’s no disservice to suggest it’s not the greatest work from the composer of the score for The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, among many others.

And it’s worth the entrance fee to be able to savour it on a cinema sound system.

A majestic opening shot features a vast snow-filled plain with a stagecoach driving past a frozen crucifix.

This elegant, eloquent statement of intent gives an icy indication of the grand guignol the passengers are heading towards.

This is cinematographer Robert Richardson’s 5th Tarantino movie after Django Unchained (2013), Inglourious Basterds (2009) Kill Bill 2 (2004) and Kill Bill (2003).

His ridiculously impressive CV includes 6 Scorsese films, 9 by Oliver Stone and works by Robert Redford, Barry Levinson and Robert Reiner.

Plus he’s one of only two living persons to win 3 Oscars for his craft. There’s another 5 nominations in there as well.

Colorado stands in for Wyoming and camera movement is kept to practical minimum while capturing the magnificent icy vistas.

Once inside in the relative warmth, Richardson’s camera glides about the confined space to skilfully illuminate the dialogue.

Even with 2 screenplay winning Oscars from 3 nominations, his sharp wordcraft is among the best Tarantino has written, it’s no wonder actors return to work for him time and again.

Heading what is now practically of troupe of Tarantino regulars, Samuel L. Jackson plays Major Warren, a former Union soldier turned bounty hunter.

Our first encounter him reprises the entrance of John Wayne in John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939).

Other visual influences are Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) and Robert Altman’s McCabe And Mrs Miller (1971).

With his frozen bounty in tow Warren hitches a ride on a private stage hired Kurt Russell’s bounty hunter, known as The Hangman.

It’s always great to see Russell in anything  and seeing him in wrapped up in a blizzard raises pleasant memories of John Carpenter’s sci-fi chiller The Thing (1982).

The Hangman is transporting outlaw Daisy Domergue to the town of Red Rock to be hung. Jennifer Jason Leigh brings a fierce humour to her demented portrayal.

Her heavily bruised eye resembles the stylised look of Alex from Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), and suggests some impending ultra violence.

Vying with Leigh as the most valuable player in the uniformly excellent cast is Walton Goggins. He plays a racist former confederate soldier called Chris Mannix.

Other returning Tarantino regulars include Michael Madsen, Zoe Bell and Tim Roth channelling Terry-Thomas.

Caught up in a blinding snowstorm the travellers reluctantly take refuge together in an isolated holding post where other guests are warming themselves.

This fraught atmosphere demonstrates Tarantino’s ability to and it frequently wrong foots us in our expectations of where the story is going.

All the characters have nicknames referring to their status, The Prisoner, The Sheriff and so on.

When doubt is shed on their self-declared personal narratives, this remove from their professed identities adds layers to the slowly building snow drifts of lies, fear and mistrust.

As we’ve come to expect from Tarantino, there is a non-linear narrative. This gives a greater opportunity for character development than a more straightforward approach to structure would allow.

There’s a crude and confrontational tale Major Warren tells Bruce Dern’s aged General and some may feel this scene is evidence the director hasn’t yet shaken off his juvenile sense of humour.

However it serves a narrative purpose and there’s a sense Tarantino can’t resist baiting his film with poisoned morsels for unwary detractors.

Domergue suffers repeated physical abuse. It’s not the violence itself which worries, that can be justified by the milieu and far worse treatment is meted out to women in the westerns of Leone and Eastwood.

What’s problematic about this violence is its use as a literal punchline. The abuse of a captive woman, the only female character of note, is intentionally used to draw laughs from the audience.

The defence could reasonably claim more and greater violence is trespassed against other characters and done in an equally intentionally comic and more grisly manner.

Plus her tolerance for pain and patience for revenge tells us a great deal about her character.

Production of The Hateful Eight ran parallel to the Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle The Revenant (2016).

Although superficially similar in their brutal nature and western setting, the two frozen features are very different beasts except in the extremes of their ambition.

With The Hateful Eight distributor Harvey Weinstein stealing a commercial march by opening in the UK a week earlier, it’s doubtful a mass UK audience could stomach two similar seeming films in quick succession.

With this in mind I expect The Hateful Eight to win at the box office but The Revenant to win bigger at the Oscars.

 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

SPOILER ALERT

While care has been taken to not give away major plot points, if you desire an untainted viewing experience you may wish not to read this until after you have seen the film.

Director: JJ Abrams (2015)

Strap yourself in for a light speed blast of fun in this epic seventh episode in the long running sci-fi saga.

Visually spectacular, fast, funny and very, very familiar, it’s a huge relief this is a vast improvement on the last three thunderingly dull films.

Director Abrams is such a super Star Wars (1977) fan and loves the original film so much he’s gathered all his favourite bits together.

Then he’s mixed them about, souped them up and sent them roaring back into the cinema.

There’s lightsabers, lasers, robots, aliens, stormtroopers and a bigger, badder Death Star called the Star Killer.

It’s the original surname given to hero Luke Skywalker in the early drafts of the first film, another of the geek orientated references littering the galaxy far far away.

Yes it’s the series’ third space travelling super weapon which contains enough fire power to destroy whole planets.

This one is controlled by the First Order, the new identity of the old evil Empire whose resurgence is threatening to destroy the peaceful New Republic.

Harrison Ford makes an emotional return as the swashbuckling space pilot Han Solo. Alongside Peter Mayhew as hairy first mate Chewbacca, he is once more in debt and on the run.

The first appearance of his battered spaceship the Millennium Falcon is brilliantly handled but as with many jokes in the film, it’s a moment which mainly plays to the fans.

Another persistent problem is using the film’s ferociously paced planet hopping to glide over the minor plot holes scattered about the universe.

As anyone who’s seen Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) will be aware, Abrams has never been particularly punctilious about plotting and simply uses his ample momentum to rocket across them.

Solo falls in with a scavenger, a renegade stormtrooper and a small orange beach ball style of a robot called BB8.

They’re trying to return the droid to it’s master as it contains information vital to the future of the galaxy.

Brit actors Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are brilliantly refreshing as Rey and Finn, bringing humour and energy to enthuse the old stagers.

2016 has been a great year for kick ass action heroines and in Rey it’s snuck another one in under the wire. She’s a physical, feisty and frequently surprised at her own abilities.

Stalwarts of the first trilogy Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill and Anthony Daniels appear briefly as General Leia Organa, Luke Skywalker and C-3PO.

Cinematography Daniel Mindel is experienced with working on big budget CGI heavy sci-fi movies such as Abrams’ two Star Trek movies.

Though equally fabulous looking this is a less glossy, more dynamic affair. Following the Millennium Falcon in flight, his camera arcs, dips and spins in breathtaking manoeuvres.

Plus his camera is careful to capture the excellent production design by Rick Carter and Darren Gildford.

Their work gives the bashed, bruised and broken worlds the weight of history, anchoring the fantastical elements in their own mythology.

As the third best Star Wars film, the force is strong with this one.