Friday, 5 August 2016

Suicide Squad

It is easy to get lost these days in the seemingly endless maze of comic book adaptations flying and exploding across multiplex screens on an almost monthly basis. The Marvel stable, via various studios, has brought us the X-Men, Spider-Man and the cacophonous onslaught of the Avengers, with all those intersecting strands of expensive CGI and Robert Downey Jr. 

Competitor DC, meanwhile, has taken a while to match that level of output, though the fact that this current generation of cinematic superheroes was ushered in thanks to Christopher Nolan’s peerless Dark Knight trilogy surely means that DC, rather than Marvel, has set the bar. 

What the former is only now starting to attempt to emulate, however, is the kind of overarching genre that the latter now wields as a matter of course across multiple platforms (film, television, Netflix). Zack Snyder’s crushingly underwhelming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was meant to be the first step in such an approach (the upcoming Justice League is the next stage). It brought together a grizzled Batman — Ben Affleck instead of Nolan muse Christian Bale — and Henry Cavill’s Superman, fresh of his impressive turn in Snyder’s Man of Steel, an accomplished, if somewhat glowering take on the tale. Regardless of its reception, the stage was set for something larger to take shape. 

Curiously, the next instalment in DC’s grand project comes hurtling out of left field. The crux of Suicide Squad is that it deploys a coterie of the publishing house’s worst villains as a rapid response team aimed at tackling terrible situations with the most terrible human beings alive, a make-believe equivalent of tasking Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and Donald Trump with the job of fixing climate change, or Brexit. 

Given its delicious premise, cool cast and obvious pedigree, the anticipation for a filmic portrayal of one of the more niche strands of the DC universe has reached boiling point. Director David Ayer’s record in churning out muscular, hard-edged crime thrillers (End of Watch, Street Kings, Harsh Times; he also wrote Training Day) tipped Suicide Squad over the top as a promising and gloriously nasty blockbuster, worthy of the public’s attention. 

It should come as a disappointment, then, that hope and reality diverge in so dramatic a fashion. Ayer’s film is, to put it politely, a mess, plagued by tonal inconsistencies and a plot that seems (amazingly) barely comprehensible. There also runs through it a whiff of smugness, one born of all involved believing their work to be far cleverer and much more subversive than it actually is. 

This was a production that underwent significant reshoots and while this in itself is hardly an indictment, Suicide Squad appears thrown together. From the intense period of exposition that opens proceedings — characters’ backgrounds and aliases fly from the lips of shadowy, string-pulling bureaucrat Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) — to the bouts of action and characterisation that sit so unevenly in concert, this is not a picture displaying a great deal of fluidity. 

There exists an episodic nature here that serves only to erode any connection one might have with the material, for there is only so often that specific sarcastic moments can be juxtaposed with specific emotional moments before one’s patience wears thin. Early scenes involving Affleck’s taciturn vigilante may contribute to the crucial wider context but they smack of tokenism at best and feel ill conceived at worst — Batman’s encounter with Deadshot (Will Smith) must surely represent the least exciting thing Bruce Wayne has ever done.

As for the overarching peril against which the team must do battle, its lurch towards the supernatural is as preposterous as it is senseless. While the onset of this threat signifies karmic retribution for Waller’s own machinations, the whole episode is handled so clumsily (how, exactly, is Jai Courtney’s lager-swilling Australian stereotype, Captain Boomerang, one of the few people alive suitable for tackling an ancient inter-dimensional despot?) that any spectacle is soon lost beneath the weight of rampant silliness. 

What positives there are stem from a cast that is otherwise wasted. Smith, as ever, marries swagger, arrogance and heroism while mostly retaining his dignity, Deadshot’s status as an amoral killer rather than outright lunatic acting as a counterbalance in a milieu where almost everyone is utterly bonkers. 

Margot Robbie, too, emerges with reputation intact. Her Harley Quinn is complex enough to be curious; Robbie, so often cast as gorgeous prop, conveys both Quinn's vulnerability and fondness for savagery. 

Unfortunately, Jared Leto fares less well in playing the Joker, Quinn’s paramour and the yin to her yang. Leto has proved himself an exceptional performer in recent years, yet his presence here, as anarchic and unsettling as it is, fulfils no discernible role, neither antihero nor antagonist. One of popular culture’s great miscreants, he is instead relegated to secondary status, the pursuit of Quinn, his muse, standing as his sole raison d’etre. Never has so arch a villain been so underused. 

Elsewhere, Joel Kinnaman — an actor capable of a great deal — looks vaguely embarrassed by the naffness of Rick Flag, a dour crusader plagued by personal travails and a fraying code of conduct. Neither is interesting.

Ultimately, as with those Marvel counterparts, Suicide Squad descends into a miasma of overblown effects. Its deliberately bleak attitude is quickly forgotten in the din as characters once described as the “worst of the worst” embrace their inner angels. A message about the innate goodness of humanity underlays it all, perhaps, though the result is so inept as to render any moralising irrelevant. 

A sly finale may attempt to claw back the ground but the damage, by that point, is long sustained. Boring and without even a sliver of inspiration, this is one issue undeserving of a plastic cover. 

Friday, 17 June 2016

The Conjuring 2

Whether or not one believes in ghosts, ghouls and things that go bump in the night, it seems more than likely that the Enfield Haunting was a load of cobblers. 

A hoax, not a poltergeist, probably set the pulses of the Hodgson family racing, in a suburban council house, between 1977 and 1979  media attention and teenage angst served to scare up a series of unexplained events that were as unsettling as they were false. Children 'levitating', alien voices, moving objects; many hallmarks of a spectral entity were on display. But for some deeper digging and a healthy dollop of skepticism, the whole thing might have been believed. 

Regardless of the Haunting's veracity, however, the tale, taken at face value, is an undoubtedly sinister one, ripe for cinematic exploitation. Thus, filmmaker James Wan's The Conjuring 2 builds, liberally, on reality's foundation, introducing an expensive franchise sequel to 2013's outstanding The Conjuring.

As with the latter film (which spawned a ropey spin-off, Annabelle), Wan centres his focus on the happenings in the enclosed intimacy of a strikingly normal household. General subject aside, the two pictures are connected by Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, respectively), the married couple whose careers as paranormal investigators provide the necessary context for events occurring on either side of the Atlantic. 

Their involvement, in 1976, with the infamous Amityville case serves as a bridge, Wan's latest opening with a seance in the horribly iconic surroundings of the erstwhile Lutz homestead (introduced before the end of The Conjuring). The fallout from this prologue follows the Warrens throughout the remainder of the movie, its influence occasionally puzzling, though never less than disturbing. 

Tasked by Rome to discern the truth of the Enfield incidents — allowing the Church to intervene — the Warrens wade into the Hodgsons' disquiet, armed with only with their own bravery and Lorraine's clairvoyant abilities. 

There is a great deal here to admire, especially when it comes to crafting the requisite atmosphere. The Hodgson property is a dull and slightly ramshackle semi-d that exudes genuine menace precisely because it looks so unremarkable. Within its dreary walls Frances O'Connor's Peggy and her brood, including possibly possessed daughter Janet (Madison Wolfe), are driven mad by shadows and murk. 

Their tormentor takes the form of the home's former occupant, Bill Wilkins, whose lonely death has stoked the malevolence of his spirit. That spirit manifests itself in a number of ways and though few are especially original, dark corners, heavy footsteps and a sense of foreboding remain trusted tools in the horror genre. There are surprises, too. On more than one occasion, a child's tent made from blankets is transformed into something hideous, its black, cramped interior a dwelling for the film's simmering wickedness. 

Later, as the Warrens conduct their own examination, Wan produces The Conjuring 2's standout scene: Janet, captured in blurred focus and sitting on cinema's creepiest rocking chair, appears to morph into Wilkins while Ed trades barbs over his shoulder with the bitter old codger. It is a bravura sequence, completed in a single take, perfectly lit and underplayed by both Wilson and the increasingly haggard Wolfe, whose dabbling with a ouija board may or may not have summoned evil.

In the lead roles, Wilson and Farmiga continue their sterling performances from last time round. The Warrens were real and, apparently, honest professionals, a fact that both actors aim to emphasise by plumping for stoicism over posturing. Wilson is invariably superb — calm, heroic, serious — yet it Farmiga stands out. Lorraine is no crank. She is a flinty individual capable of staving off the demons she regularly encounters, as well as a loving wife and mother. Her presence, along with Ed's uncomplicated masculinity, returns a tangible sliver of joy to beneath the Hodgson roof.

These are not the only layered portrayals. O'Connor excels as a woman, driven to despair by penury, who is unequipped to counter whatever it is that plagues her family. Simon McBurney, meanwhile, peeks out from beneath thick brows and bushy whiskers to inhabit paranormal true believer Maurice Grosse, a potentially comic character who ultimately feels as real the rest.

If there are missteps then they present themselves during a terribly overblown finale. As with the previous instalment, Wan chooses to eschew the chill running through the meridians of his own work. Instead, proceedings screech towards the finish line. The action ticks upwards as a rain, lightening and grotesqueries pour in against a narrative backdrop that never really makes sense. The director has terror in mind but delivers only bombast. When something quieter is required, the threat of silence is undermined by noise. 

Regardless of that din, there exists an emotional power to save the whole thing from itself, an element shaped around the genuinely affecting relationship between Ed and Lorraine. Its sincerity colours the larger canvas, filling the gaps between the myriad frights. 

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

The Nice Guys

The pastel shades and neon nightscapes of 1970s Los Angeles receive the Shane Black treatment in The Nice Guys, a meandering buddy comedy that plays fast and loose with message and form, but succeeds, ultimately, on star power, as well as the confidence of its cheeky writing. 

This is Black's third film at the helm and while Iron Man 3 was largely an exercise in frustration, 2005's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang satisfied as a debut effort, one driven on by Black's ability to mine gold from unlikely sources (Val Kilmer as a gay private detective possessing a fondness for the c-word, anybody?). 

After his Marvel sojourn, then, the writer-director returns to Kiss Kiss's neo-noir framing. Rolling out a tale as unpredictable as it is knowing, Black's hardboiled dialogue, crafted in concert with Anthony Bagarozzi, spills out from between the cracks of a sunny, often very silly period actioner.

It is entirely possible that absent the over-the-title A-listers, The Nice Guys could have been swallowed up by its own casual smugness. Instead, Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling are entirely engaging leading men, capable of delivering their lines with a sense of wit and clearly so at ease in each other's company that one feels genuine disappointment at such a connection being delayed until now. 

Crowe plays Jackson Healy, an enforcer for hire whose core services involve punching people in the face and then breaking their arms. When one of Healy's clients, Amelia (Margaret Qualley — seen most recently in HBO's beautiful, bizarre The Leftovers), goes missing, Healy falls in with licensed gumshoe Holland March (Gosling), himself pursuing a case that may or may not involve the other man's employer.

Gosling excels in his role, breathing easier without the yoke of intensity that he often assumes to break away from that meme-friendly matinee idol personae. Shifty, amoral and teetering on the brink of alcoholism, March is pretty shitty investigator — though an endearingly useless, if devoted single father to Holly (Angourie Rice), his razor-sharp pre-teen daughter — who must enlist the help of the bulky Healy to track down their mysterious quarry 

The result is an enjoyable mish-mash of genres, each jostling for position without ever properly winning out. Fans of Black's work will recognise his proclivity for splicing action and sarcasm, two elements he throws out here to good effect. Crowe and Gosling riff off each character's failings (Healy is a thug, March a borderline degenerate) with glee, a seemingly unending crusade to discern the plot a distant second to exploring the outer reaches of their chemistry. 

Indeed, the central players do much to pick up the slack of a story that threatens to spiral away from them more than once. What might have been a tight little mystery instead throws much as the screen; some of it sticks, other bits do not. The staples of the milieu are all present and correct: corruption, vice, drugs, booze, gut-churning fashions. 

Throw in a disco soundtrack and Black appears determined to address, with equal concentration, every single idea his mind chugged out in bringing this vision to life. If it seems muddled, that's because it is. Events will, of course, eventually become clear, yet such is the density of their presentation, keeping track is no small task. 

Mercifully, however, the leading men possess enough charm to drag us along for the ride, wherever the road winds. 

There exist some nice touches to punctuate the violence and hard-bitten tropes. America's post-Nixon decline is a spectre even in California's glitzy locales (a masked, Point Break-inspired Tricky Dicky figure even makes a cameo) and the belief in the immortality of the hulking auto industry — one strand of the broader conspiracy at play — sounds woefully naive as more and more of Detroit's outer reaches are now reclaimed by Mother Earth.

Kim Basinger, too, shows herself later on, firing up old memories with Crowe as if they were back in the world of LA Confidential that has so clearly had a bearing on Black's approach. Just don't take any of it seriously.      

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

The Revenant

This time last year, Alejandro González Iñárritu was exposing cinema audiences to the singular brilliance of Birdman, a project as audacious as it was weirdly hypnotic. For all its arch tendencies and sly humour, that film was, primarily, a sensory experience.

With its meandering form and slick mechanics giving the impression that the entire enterprise was conducted in a single take (it wasn’t), Iñárritu mined a great deal of impact from the construction, not just the substance. Vindication quickly followed, Academy Awards for Best Film and Best Director signalling an appreciation for his craft and Birdman's quirk.

In spite of this, it would seem that the Mexican’s tricky approach represented a mere dry run for something much grander, namely The Revenant, an adaptation of Michael Punke’s real-life historical novel based around legendary frontiersman Hugh Glass. To take on the Western genre is no small feat. Many have surrendered either to cliché or farce, such are the well-worn tropes of tough men, unbending landscapes and restless natives. Discerning true freshness can be unenviable task.

Iñárritu, however, excels where others have stumbled. Make no mistake, his is an extraordinary picture, as brutal as it is transcendent, boasting a level of originality to which we should all bear witness.

Violence constitutes an inherent trait of The Revenant. It is often chilling and never less than uncompromising, though there exists beauty also, born of man and of the earth. The relentlessness of the human soul, for better or worse, displays itself, bucking against the majesty of nature’s power. 

Iñárritu harnesses it all with uncommon élan. He turns in a feat of awe-inspiring filmmaking that must surely, considering last weekend’s successes at the Golden Globes (Best Drama, Best Director, Best Actor), place him out ahead in the year’s Oscar stakes.

Given the intricate quality of its creator’s previous work (Birdman, of course, but also Babel and 21 Grams), The Revenant is, in a narrative sense at least, a surprisingly straightforward period tale. Leonardo DiCaprio portrays Glass, a guide for the fur-trapping expedition led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), which includes, amongst others, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Jim Bridger (Will Poulter).

It’s 1823. Deep in the untamed reaches of the Louisiana Purchase, Glass and his companions are set upon by a band of warriors from the Arikara Nation. Scattered, bloodied and light a profitable bounty of animal pelts, their fortune takes a turn for the worse when Glass is mauled by a grizzly bear, forcing Henry to eventually leave him to his fate under the watch of Bridger, Fitzgerald and Glass’s mixed-race son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck).

When Fitzgerald, a professional malcontent lent a cold and calculating edge by the consistently excellent Hardy, leaves an ailing Glass for dead, the wounded trapper is forced to endure the elements and the limits of his own mortality to ensure survival.

The resulting drama is an immersive, genuinely striking feat of creative endeavour. From the terrifying ferocity of the bear attack — those things really aren’t cuddly toys — and the swooping, unedited opening skirmish, to the increasingly epic tone that later substitutes the director’s clever, intense, centre-of-the-action framing, Iñárritu’s ultimate triumph in accomplishing it all is to provide a bravura cinematic spectacle without encroaching on the plot’s primacy. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki must also receive his share of the acclaim for conjuring visuals that feel truly alive.

Indeed, the technical proficiency on show augments the story. It is no lazy gimmick, rather a fully fledged element of the superlative whole. For Iñárritu, an artist so in command of the medium as to appear almost arrogant, The Revenant is the culmination of a career spent gradually honing his skills. He shot this using only natural light and occasionally opts for realism over polish, breath and gore staining the lens. Yet, for a production that underwent considerable travails out on the Canadian tundra, the finished article registers as complete, tranquil even.

In the lead, DiCaprio deserves the plaudits coming his way. An astonishing actor, he exudes the flinty instincts of someone well used to the harshness of the world. Glass was the son of Ulster-Scots settlers, resilient people who hacked an existence from the wilderness, bearing their children along the way. That heritage is unmistakeable, present in every look and every movement; it seeps from him as he presses ever onwards towards redemption, revenge, or both.

Gleeson, Poulter and Hardy stand out, too, with the latter, particularly, DiCaprio’s equal in inhabiting a character of few admirable qualities.

And Glass pursues him, across lake and plain, through desolate valleys and forests scarred by winter, equipped only with the fire of his wrath. If there is madness here it is to be found in the central player’s indomitable spirit — his actions can only be admired.

An eloquent final image quells the storm but the stage has already been set by Iñárritu’s ambition. Prepare to be captivated.

A version of this article was first published here.

Thursday, 31 December 2015

The 15 best films of 2015


Be it raging hitmen, dystopian chaos or the rasp of a conductor's disapproval, 2015 featured some outstanding trips to the cinema. Here are the best ones. 

15. John Wick

Something of a surprise package, this ferocious debut from co-directors Chad Stehelski and David Leitch sees Keanu Reeves tearing his way through an army of evildoers, his eponymous avenging angel hunting those who killed his dog and stole his motor. The leading man remarkably casts aside that dross littering his résumé since the spectacular success of The Matrix

Uncompromising, unspeakably ruthless, Wick explodes from the frame, the roiling mass at the centre of a rippling and brilliant thriller. It eschews pulpy B-movie tropes for a gorgeous neon-drenched milieu that reaches visceral high watermarks once thought lost to mainstream American cinema. Possessed of near balletic gunplay and a current of savagery lingering beneath the sheen, this is a forceful precursor to an inevitable sequel. 

14. It Follows

In David Robert Mitchell’s steady grasp, It Follows is rendered a terrifying, relentless contemporary chiller, ripe with a sense of cool and a charge of intense foreboding that runs throughout its confidently glacial progress. As a band of terrified teenagers pass a hex between themselves via the sexual contact that they otherwise crave, the anonymous poltergeist-cum-demon-cum-angry-spirit hunting them could be forgotten in a less assured picture.

Driven by a curiously evocative electro score that recalls the synthy menace of John Carpenter’s finest work, this is gripping fare exploring surprisingly profound themes, skirting around convention without succumbing to it. If a filmmaker of Mitchell’s considerable stylistic talents can resist the allure of the mainstream, there should be many more scares in store. 

13. Selma

This handsome civil rights tale is far from a flawless product but its greatest strength rests in a comprehensive emotional resonance. Director Ava DuVernay underplays sensibly, allowing the subject matter to speak for itself and her portrait of a bleak time arouses horrified awe almost from the beginning. 

Tugging at the corners of modern civilisation’s guilt, DuVernay finds a noble avatar in the increasingly adaptable form of David Oyelowo. As Martin Luther King, he draws humanity, both real and inspiring, from a character most will only ever know by his deeds. This preacher-activist’s non-violent approach to demanding fairness made him no less a despised individual in the sneering, sweat-soaked, racist South, but Oyelowo, fascinatingly, adds a dash of cold-eyed political manoeuvring to King’s aspirations on the hallowed turf of the eponymous battle ground. 

12. Spectre

In following up his previous Bond outing, Skyfall, auteur-cum-big-budget-helmer Sam Mendes chooses a new tack. He shifted tone from the cold fury that marked his first film to a truly hot-blooded affair, one imbuing his leading man with humanity, myriad flaws and a significantly extended backstory that goes far beyond the largely ambiguous hints that have peppered Daniel Craig’s tenure until now. 

Spectre is no dour tragedy, of course, but Bond is a serious man for a serious world. As with the other post-Bourne instalments, he constitutes a coiled and dangerous creature, increasingly synonymous with the millennial strut that Craig, in all his silent, hard-drinking forcefulness, lends to a figure not quite up to speed with modernity. As a touchstone for an established franchise, his is a necessary presence in grounding the spectacular scenery and sleek, occasionally brutal action sequences. How Craig finally bows out next time round will be fascinating. 

11. A Most Violent Year

As with Margin Call and All is Lost, J.C. Chandor tells a big story from a position of intimacy in A Most Violent Year. His forbidding and artfully conceived tale plays out on a canvas grander than before, namely the feted, nebulous, arguably unattainable American Dream. This is what is at stake as Oscar Isaac’s hard-grafting immigrant tycoon Abel Morales wagers money and reputation to move up the social ladder before it is pulled from his grasp.

With a hypnotic Jessica Chastain by his side, Morales’s pursuit of elevation proved too slippery for the Academy. The film was snubbed in every major category for February’s Academy Awards, a baffling decision given its dark muscularity and unflappable pedigree. Chandor’s subtleties, his abundance of wintry greys, suggest that this is far from the conclusive masterpiece normally lauded by the establishment. It’s their loss.

10. Beasts of No Nation

Nobody should be put be put off by the small-screen origins of Cary Fukunaga’s drama, which debuted to a worldwide audience on Netflix (its principal distributor) in October. There is nothing inconsequential about this adaptation of the 2005 novel by Nigerian author Uzodinma Iweala, a beautifully realised portrait of chaos and lost innocence in one hellish corner of planet Earth. 

The movie centers on the travails of a young boy (Abraham Attah) who, in the midst of a civil conflict in an unnamed West African country, falls in with a battalion of zombified child soldiers led by Idris Elba’s Commandant. Fukunaga proves equally adept as writer, cinematographer and director, conjuring a brave, arresting, and ultimately haunting movie that does not shirk from the abject horrors of war. The cast, too, led by the charismatic Elba, excels in conveying the gamut of human frailties so inherent to the species. 

9. Brooklyn

Colm Tóibín’s acclaimed literary source material is brought to life by director John Crowley and the increasingly transcendent Saoirse Ronan. They elevate this elegant story of diaspora and nationhood to a level above the tweeness that can so often invade the annals of Irish America’s formative experiences. 

Shot through with restraint and a maturity belying potentially maudlin stylings, Brooklyn displays a rare ability to affect even the most hardened souls, its undercurrent of hope mixed with longing for home playing out through the experiences of callow Eilis Lacey (Ronan). Her search for a place to belong is as old as emigration itself, but Crowley crafts a narrative of such poise that this seems less like a teary melodrama than a deft commentary on the ties that bind us all together. 

8. Wild

In spite of her status as a staple of the gossip pages, Reese Witherspoon has always remained a gifted performer regardless of the genre — witty, passionate, engaging. That said, in Wild, Jean-Marc Vallée’s follow-up to Dallas Buyers Club, Witherspoon is pushed to the outer limits of her talent, both physically and emotionally. She emerges on the other side bloodied but unbowed, boasting a career-best portrayal of a person brought to the edge through the nudging of her own demons.

This adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir about her self-discovering quest along the mighty Pacific Crest Trail wields beautiful photography, breathtaking scenery and a sincerely affecting account of sturdy endurance in the wilderness. Yet, Witherspoon rises above it all, eliciting sympathy with a performance of stark honesty, equally startling and rewarding. 

7. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Art imitates reality as Michael Keaton strives for a career rebirth in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s powerhouse satire that mixes black comedy and surrealism to a heady degree. The deserved winner of this year’s Academy Award for Best Picture, Birdman’s strength lies in its relentlessness, its audacious mechanics never letting the audience settle into a groove. 

Keaton plays a faded star who craves professional respect via his self-directed Raymond Carver adaptation on the Broadway stage. Iñárritu chronicles every insecurity, every backstage clash, every slip into mediocrity with an unblinking focus on his star’s twitchy has-been. Filmed, save for a brief interlude, in one apparent take (it isn’t), this is a singular, important study of hubris run amok.  

6. Ex Machina

Screenwriter and novelist Alex Garland’s directing debut, Ex Machina, is a chilled exploration of the male-female dynamic, which unfolds through the prism of noirish sci-fi, all glistening surfaces and whirring smart technology. A sophisticated adult fable about three immature beings, Garland’s project channels Frankenstein in questioning the limits of mankind’s unending scientific evolution.

When programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins the chance to spend a week at the vast eco ranch of his boss, software magnate Nathan (Oscar Isaac — think Dan Bilzerian with a genius intellect), his task is to test the latter’s newest invention: a robot named Ava who bears the exquisite features and grace of Alicia Vikander. Caleb is on hand to carry out the Turing test on the humanoid, thus establishing the scale of her sentience. The resulting interplay between the leads is entirely unsettling, Nathan’s ulterior motives as obvious as Caleb’s hidden depths are unexpected. It is Vikander, however, who shines with an ethereal autonomy that bewitches and unnerves in equal measures. 

5. Sicario 

Emily Blunt may not be the first actress who springs to mind when imagining a dowdy FBI rescue specialist plagued by exhaustion and a pulseless love life, but in Sicario, Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s border-crossing thriller about the US's endless war on drugs, the usually radiant star is every inch the tiny cog within the clanking gears. Villeneuve, utilising a similar palette to his terrifically accomplished Prisoners, weaves a web of shadows and obscurity that never comes close to the straightforward conceit at the heart of that latter work. 

This is, instead, an infinitely more challenging picture. Featuring shifting realities, treacherous ethics and fluid allegiances, Sicario bursts with a dark, murky power both horrifying and chilling in its complexity. Such grey areas are best exemplified by Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin, twin totems of America’s grimier business who, with unblinking acceptance, embrace the necessity of their respective existences. 

4. The Martian

Ever the aesthete, Ridley Scott is no stranger to more intimate pieces, away from the blockbusting fare he is most famous for churning out. Matchstick Men, American Gangster and even, to a lesser degree, Alien were all films that relied on substance over spectacle. What a pleasant surprise, then, that Scott’s adaptation of The Martian, Andy Weir’s 2011 novel of the same name, should combine his fondness for human drama with the visual flair that has always defined him. 

Starring Matt Damon as the astronaut stranded on Mars, Scott’s latest sci-fi is a vibrant and moving epic that beats with a heart every bit as effective as the vastness of its crimson landscapes. In the midst of his alien exile, Damon’s Mark Watney is a vessel for our own inherent tendency for survival and while it lacks the existential conflicts of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, The Martian — exhilarating, replete with significance and, crucially, very enjoyable — is no less soaring in its study of what mankind is apt to achieve. 

3. Foxcatcher 

In delving into the rather niche field of Olympic wrestling, stylish straddler of genres Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball) mines utterly exquisite contributions from a trio of actors one would not immediately throw together in pursuit of dramatic tension. A classic leading man (Channing Tatum), a comedian (Steve Carrell) and a chameleonic character actor (Mark Ruffalo) all merged to test each other in Miller’s true-crime take on the bizarre happenings at Foxcatcher Farm, the training base designed and funded by millionaire John Du Pont. 

Given that competition rests at its core, Foxcatcher’s three pillars cannot be separated, with Tatum (as Olympic gold medallist Mark Schultz) genuinely remarkable, steeped in pathos. Carrell jettisons that likeable shiftiness for a brew of psychopathy and petulance, his financier placing himself at the centre of a world to which he will never belong, while Ruffalo, portraying Schultz’s older brother, Dave, clings to his own sanity. The latter, in particular brandishes a rare streak of subtle adaptability and alters his voice, his posture, even his gait, in a depiction that hits multiple emotional notes.

2. Mad Max: Fury Road

For all the abundant qualities exhibited by George Miller’s original Mad Max trilogy, its status as a somewhat cult staple in the dystopian canon, not to mention a 30-year absence from the zeitgeist, afforded the franchise’s newest entry, Fury Road, a relatively low-key arrival on the big screen. 

That said, those intrigued by the continuing adventures of Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy, replacing Mel Gibson) were promptly rewarded by a glorious, swaggering and kinetic injection of purified adrenaline that banishes memories of the rubbish that grabs our money, offering only Vin Diesel in return. Miller’s resurrection of his iconic character may be deranged, but it is executed with such panache — blistering set pieces fill almost every frame — that the beauty in the chaos is its own reward. A reminder that blockbuster cinema is still able to captivate, Fury Road was the kind of rush that the medium requires to stay true to itself. 

1. Whiplash

On the face of it, an indie movie about jazz drumming at a haughty New York conservatoire does not immediately capture the imagination. In reality, however, sophomore director Damien Chazelle’s scorching psychological odyssey, Whiplash, fully justified the pre-release hype and firmly established itself as 2015’s best film. 

While Miles Teller brings his own shifty charisma to the screen as the young drummer with an ambitious streak that feels less admirable than it does distasteful, it is J.K. Simmons who dominates. Simmons was rightly awarded an Oscar for his portrayal of band conductor Terence Fletcher and it is a performance of monstrous proportions — white-faced, black-clad, gimlet-eyed. Channelling every sneering teacher you ever wanted to punch but couldn’t, Simmons’s ferocity courses throughout this astonishing picture, carrying it to a place both dark and unimagined. Simply magnificent. 

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Black Mass

James ‘Whitey’ Bulger is a bad guy. Murder, extortion, racketeering and 16 years on the lam (including 12 on the FBI’s Most Wanted list) all filled out a colourful, genuinely sinister career. 

Arrested in 2011, Bulger’s eventual incarceration brought to a conclusion the fugitive life of America’s most notorious modern-day gangster, a free-range scumbag now rotting in a Florida prison and destined to end his days away from the society for which he had such disdain. 

How he got to that point, however, is particularly remarkable considering his notorious and brazen predilection for chilling violence, his criminal streak as unmistakable as the South Boston brogue that rolled off his tongue. Bulger was in bed with the Feds, you see, a high-priced government informant whose activities were tolerated in exchange for the information he provided on the Cosa Nostra, an entity attracting far more attention than his own less glamorous Winter Hill Gang. 

With a State Senator for a brother and the FBI on a leash, Bulger considered himself untouchable. He wielded a reign of terror on his community that went largely unnoticed until the authorities and his associates finally cut him loose. 

Jack Nicholson famously portrayed a shadow of Bulger in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, and while his Francis Costello — cartoonish, raving mad, a bit charming — inspired a certain measure of reluctant sympathy, the real-life version was a drastically different beast. 

Featuring Johnny Depp on the finest form he has displayed in years, Black Mass, Scott Cooper’s muscular and occasionally grimy study of wickedness and corruption, wields a character whose profound flaws appear less watchable than they do morbidly fascinating. Gimlet eyes shining, flickering over their subjects as if they were prey caught in a snare, Depp’s performance brims with a menace leering enough to make skin crawl. 

Operating in a similar blue-collar milieu to that explored in his previous pictures, Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace, Cooper lays out the expected genre tropes early on with a coterie of tough characters populating an equally tough landscape, namely Boston’s jagged outer edges, a place steeped in proud working-class traditions. 

Discerning that Bulger’s progress was built on a forceful personality, Cooper fills the frame with his main player to an almost uncomfortable degree. Ever watchable, Depp struts his way through a performance as layered as it is chilling, one laced with a cruelty that stems from the kind of tragedy that can affect all of us, no matter how brash or fearsome. The early scenes involving his son, mother and politician brother (Benedict Cumberbatch) are surprisingly touching, brave depictions of a man who inflicted so much pain on others. 

Yet, as he sinks deeper into the mire of his criminal designs, even Bulger’s peers eventually cast their eyes about for alternatives and it is these men — Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons), Stephen Flemmi (Rory Cochrane) and Johnny Martorano (W. Earl Brown) — who contextualise the route that their former boss took to the top, via a series of intercut police interviews.

None of it would have been possible, of course, without the naive complicity of Joel Edgerton's preening FBI agent, John Connolly. A childhood friend of the Bulger siblings, Connolly exploited his ties to recruit Whitey, only to end up burned by the latter’s rampant villainy. Edgerton excels in a role engendering little sympathy; Connolly’s flakiness would betray lesser talents, though the Australian continues to define himself as a superlative character actor. Indeed, there is something faintly pathetic about his quest for acceptance in company he should no longer be keeping. 

Like the rest, he is torn down by Bulger’s machinations. Using the FBI as a shield for his nefarious activities and mostly ignoring the restrictions placed on him, there are few boundaries that he does not cross. Depp proves consistently hypnotic in a way that serves the understated tone Cooper strives to maintain. 

If anything, its understatement is Black Mass’s greatest fault. Aside from the specific instances of mayhem attributed to Bulger, his is an enterprise that is spoken about instead of witnessed. At no point does Whitey’s alleged empire chime with anything seen on screen. Instead, it is simply necessary to believe that this is an especially odious individual worthy of destruction. 

In one respect the director should be commended for eschewing the trap of aping every great gangster movie but the nasty intricacies of Bulger’s crimes — rather than the random collection of offences depicted here — mattered enough to US Attorney Fred Wyshak (an abrasive Corey Stoll), so why not to Cooper? 

The result is not insignificant. For all the ugliness peddled by Bulger, this is not a picture committed to filling out the details, nor is it a history lesson. Given its true-story nature, the oversight is unfortunate.

Be it a dalliance with the IRA (an accurate element, if a little uninteresting) or the cold, brutal execution of those who crossed him, the Bulger résumé was replete with myriad horrors. Quite what should be made of it all remains less clear than the power of the central turn.