Wednesday, 31 December 2014

The 14 best films of 2014

THE 14 BEST FILMS OF 2014

From experimental filmmaking to the blockbuster fare of Marvel Studios, with a sprinkling of folk and a dash of eastern adrenaline, these were the 14 best films of 2014.


14. Locke


There is every chance that the average cinemagoer opted for more accessible diversions than Stephen Knight's ostensibly obscure Locke when searching the listings back in April. Watching Tom Hardy drive along the M1 in a BMW for 84 minutes is hardly a prospect holding mass appeal, but for those who did take that plunge, the rewards were all too obvious by the end. Experimental and fascinating, the story focuses, exclusively, on construction overseer Ivan Locke, who leaves behind the biggest job of his career to deal with a personal matter that will destroy his comfortable life. 


Inexplicable Welsh accent notwithstanding, Hardy is a magnetic figure, a superlative talent capable of dwarfing those around him (see his recent demented schtick in Peaky Blinders). He is all there is to look at here and one is inevitably drawn deep inside his confidence while everything unravels around him in nail-biting, gut-wrenching real time. There will be many who chose not to waste their time getting into the car with Locke. What a pity.

13. Guardians of the Galaxy


It would not be inaccurate, or unfair, to point out that James Gunn's mega-budget Marvel juggernaut checked all of the usual comic-book boxes when it skipped onto general release as the studio's summer tentpole. Big and bulky visuals, a kaleidoscopic palette, lots of explosions and enough CGI to satisfy James Cameron; this was a blockbuster, no doubt about it. How refreshing then to discover that Gunn had also conjured a swaggering action comedy as knowingly over the top as anything anchored in an era spawning that 'awesome mix' playlist so cherished by 'Star-Lord', Chris Pratt's slyly hilarious idiot-cum-crusader. 


A genuinely fantastic intergalactic odyssey built around the crackling chemistry shared between Pratt and his fellow reprobates, Guardians of the Galaxy's pedigree may present itself in the enormous final stanza but where this truly excelled is in the intertwined strength of those memorable lead players. This mixed bunch sealed the deal: Zoe Saldana's watchful assassin Gamora; humourless nutcase Drax (Dave Bautista); the digitally rendered tandem of Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel), spiky badasses with crap attitudes and arguably the best lines ("I am Groot" or otherwise). With such a solid base, the only direction was towards the stars. 

12. '71


Unusually for a filmmaker focusing on Northern Ireland's troubled history, Yann Demange seems to understand the waters in which he is swimming. Working from a script by Scottish playwright Gregory Burke (Black Watch). Demange is not alone in getting his head around the complex politico-religious fervour — both Steve McQueen and Paul Greengrass have successfully touched on the Troubles — but with '71, the Paris-born director faces that era's darkest excesses head on, bending them into a picture of mesmerising proportions. It sees Jack O'Connell inhabit the skin of flinty squaddie Gary Hook, cut off from his unit in alien territory: west Belfast. 



At heart, '71 is a brilliant, coiled, pulsating thriller. In O'Connell it enjoys the perfect mix of raw talent and authentic hardscrabble survivability to suggest that this really is a callow lad, lost and alone in a deadly hornet's nest. 


11. The Wolf of Wall Street


In keeping with much of his back catalogue, Martin Scorsese’s scorching ode to unhinged hedonism is a kinetic blitzkrieg of razor-sharp dialogue, its true-story roots constituting a graphic tapestry of the financial sector's most horrifying clichés. In short, it's dazzlingAs the preening Wall Street wunderkind Jordan Belfort, Leonardo DiCaprio chews up every last piece of scenery. His subsequent Oscar nomination surely represented some kind of reward for the non-stop, hernia-inducing hysteria that punctuates much of the film and through a haze of expensive booze, copious barbiturates and no small number of beautiful women, financial corruption has never seemed so appealing, or energetic. 

At Belfort's right hand, however, Jonah Hill steals the show as demented douchebag sidekick Donnie, his unsettlingly bleached dental crowns glowing like nuclear rods. Everybody hates these trader dickheads, perhaps, but we sure can't take our eyes off them. 

10. Cold in July 


This adaptation of the 1989 novel by Joe R. Landsdale is a strange and mighty beast. Springing from a place somewhere between HBO's True Detective and David Cronenberg's twisted small-town noir, A History of Violence, this jagged, clammy southern gothic features a trio of leads one would hardly expect to see crammed into the front of pickup truck seeking answers and vengeance in equal measure. 


When he discovers a night-time intruder in his home, quiet, lightly mulleted patriarch Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) kills the prowler, only to attract the ire of the dead man's father (Sam Shepard) with that single shot. Regular B-movie director Jim Mickle takes what might have been a predictable plot in a number of riveting directions before the end, aided in that task by the strutting Don Johnson as a flamboyant pig-rearing private detective. Episodic in nature but pulled off with cool dollops of style, a retro score and three charges of electrifying acting, Cold in July can feel awkward, though the end result is undeniably affecting. 

9. Out of the Furnace


muscular tale located deep in the rusting core of faded Pennsylvanian steel country, Scott Cooper's follow-up to the gorgeous Crazy Heart finds a glowering and tormented Christian Bale searching desperately for a brother lost to the grimy rural environs of the hillbilly bareknuckle circuit. With its verdant landscapes and blue-collar honesty, Out of the Furnace explicitly invokes The Deer Hunter, as proud men are jettisoned in that horrible hinterland between pointless war and industrial decrepitude. 


Yet this is no lazy riff on a stately progenitor. Cooper and Bale render a handsome picture, imprinted with a sad atmosphere best summed by the elegiac sounds of Pearl Jam's 'Release'. Eddie Vedder's sultry tones wash over the narrow Appalachian surroundings more than once. They seem as uplifting as this milieu is ever likely to be. 

8. The Guest 


Yes, that is the guy from Downton Abbey playing a vaguely psychotic Abercrombie model. Worry not, however, for this film, an arch, pulpy and whip-smart brew of genres, shares absolutely no DNA with ITV's endlessly silly romp. The Guest is, instead, an incredibly enjoyable and paranoid thriller, where the largely bonkers plot never once encroaches on director Adam Wingard's merciless sense of fun. 


Fusing a variety of familiar themes — warrior PTSD, government conspiracy and teenage angst (no, seriously) — with the synthy stylistic tropes of recent hits like Drive and Cold in July, what could have been an uneven mess is actually the year's most original guilty pleasure. Stevens, in particular, distinguishes himself as a leading man of significant presence. 

7. Dallas Buyers Club


The story of Texan rodeo rider Ron Woodroof's battle with both HIV and Big Pharma during the Eighties' AIDS crisis, Jean-Marc Vallée's film is, by turns, amusing and deeply moving, driven from beginning to end by an emaciated, Oscar-winning Matthew McConaughey in the lead role. Undoubtedly the apex of McConaughey's incredible career renaissance (the McConaissance?), his Woodroof is a complicated grifter of questionable morals and unpredictable motivations. Sniffing out a profitable business opportunity to import Mexican drugs, this unlikely saviour seems well formed in a modern age of the anti-hero.


Beyond McConaughey's layered characterisation, Jared Leto ably justifies his own Academy laurels as the suave, wonderfully androgynous transexual Rayon. It is a performance infused with rare class and quite stunning bravery, and one wholly typical of the Dallas Buyers Club's spare Texan charm. 

6. The Raid 2


The moment that The Raid exploded onto screens in 2012, delivering a gut-punch to Western action cinema's tired old fighter in the process, a sequel seemed inevitable. And so it proved as Welsh director Gareth Evans — a talent to watch — stripped his original down to its component parts before rebuilding and catapulting it onto a template as large, and as visceral, as anyone could have hoped. 


Centred on the humid Indonesian underworld, The Raid 2 sees the unstoppable SWAT cop, Rama (Iko Uwais), debriefed following the murderous events of the first movie and then dropped into an undercover role to tear down Jakarta's biggest mob boss. Realised, thrillingly, with gravity-defying martial arts, ambitious storytelling and a host of visual flourishes, this is mighty Asian cinema in its finest, purest form. 

5. Inside Llewyn Davis 


In spite of their previous Oscar success with No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers have never stood out as automatic fixtures on the Academy radar. While the brilliance of their work, rather than any cynically selected subject matter, has often won them recognition, it still appeared a snub to see Inside Llewyn Davis overlooked for the major honours at February's big awards. It was the Academy's loss. 


The Coens' work is an exquisite, reined-in paean to the folk scene of 1960s Greenwich Village, quietly bracing and free of the siblings' signature quirkiness. A tenderly elegiac story of loss and lucklessness, afforded room to grow, Llewyn Davis is girded by a filmmaking duo who are, quite simply, existing at the very pinnacle of their craft. Alongside that, the wonderful soundtrack is not simply an ancillary element, designed to squeeze out extra revenue once the credits roll, but a pulsing heartbeat in the chest of this melancholic and profoundly defining creation.

4. Gone Girl





In 2012, author Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl swept through the literary landscape, carrying with it a chilling account of marital collapse and psychological torture. Two years later, visionary auteur David Fincher adapted Flynn's novel to a masterful degree, wringing every last drop of tension from her dark story. Capable of mining even unthreatening subjects for sinister undertones — see his Facebook opus The Social Network, a movie fuelled in no small part, as in this instance, by Trent Reznor's remarkably ambient score — Fincher's picture exploits the bleakness of foreclosed, recession-hit Nowheresville, Missouri, to roll out a film as disturbing as it is beautiful. 





Did Ben Affleck's Nick murder his wife, Amy (a disturbed Rosamund Pike)? Is she really dead? Should these two even be together? The questions come thick and fast, the answers unfurling to reveal the monstrous central conceit. Intense and pervasive, Gone Girl was 2014's nastiest conundrum. 



3. 12 Years a Slave



Steve McQueen's Oscar-winning drama was no mere worthy period piece drenched in sumptuous colours, a stunning visual feast of sticky southern refinement in the hot box of Louisiana's cotton belt. No, the acclaimed filmmaker offered something far more profound, an unblinking view into the heart of darkness. This adaptation of Solomon Northup's 1853 memoir of his time in bondage picks at the corners of white guilt; McQueen trained his artists's gaze, with furious elegance, on the vileness of slavery.


Boasting a thunderous Michael Fassbender as the grotesque master, Epps, and a similarly impressive Chiwetel Ejiofor as the eponymous chattel, 12 Years a Slave symbolises more than any ordinary depiction of America's original sin. It skewered the plantation, lighting it with a truth free from any ambiguity or filter of cultural mores. The result is an unyielding and urgent picture of rare power, unafraid to confront history's swelteringly violent reality. 

2. Boyhood


On the one hand, Boyhood is about nothing remarkable. It pushes no weighty message, there are few scenes of note. There is little, in a narrative sense at least, to set it apart from countless other family anthologies featuring modest budgets and recognisable indie stalwarts. To come at it from another angle, however, is to witness its greatness. Director Richard Linklater's coming-of-age epic is a story of childhood experienced, then lost, told mainly from the perspective of Mason Evans (Ellar Coltrane), an ethereal and precocious youngster of America's post-millennial age. 



What sets this apart from the genre, of course, is Linklater's visionary decision to construct his project over the course of 12 years. He captures his characters' natural ageing and maturation in the process, an approach which moves beyond gimmickry thanks to a subtle melding of time and plot. Shot through with authenticity, possessed of believably natural characters, Linklater's masterpiece is a towering tribute to cinema's singular power. 



1. Interstellar


A soaring space opera from writer-director Christopher Nolan, Interstellar blurred the lines between sci-fi and human drama, its vast canvas of dying planets seeking new horizons the thrilling converse of Alfonso Cuarón's claustrophobic, though equally magnificent Gravity


A tale from beyond the cosmos playing out through the prism of its director's signature spartan realism, this is a grand fable of love and legacies, apocalypse and genesis. With ideas as massive as those distant starscapes, there can be no doubting the scope of Nolan's boundless imagination. 

Thursday, 25 December 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies


So that's it. Six films, a slew of awards, billions in takings; Peter Jackson's time in Middle Earth is finally at an end. Thirteen years after he first unleashed his peerless vision on the moviegoing public, this saga fades out with less of a fizz than the participants will have intended. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is a mighty offering, make no mistake but it is also, sadly, a profoundly flawed one. 

Given the considerable box-office performance of the previous two entries (An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug), Jackson’s narrative makes few allowances for those who might not be entirely au fait with the series as it stands. He plunges straight into the action, picking up from where left off as the terrifying dragon, Smaug — infused with the molten tones of Benedict Cumberbatch — turns the fetid Lake-town into cinders in retribution for being disturbed in his nearby gilded lair. As Bofur and friends scramble to escape the onslaught, only the stoic Bard (played with a degree of sub-Mortensen charisma by Luke Evans) chooses to challenge the beast. 

It is an opening as exciting as it is inaccessible and, in the wake of this flaming bonanza, the smaller moments of displaced people and broken lives come off as flat, ancillary even. The sense that these quieter instances are somehow getting in the way of the titular battle, is hard to shake. As the band of Dwarves led by Richard Armitage’s brooding Thorin resettle the great halls of a homeland once stolen by Smaug, the relative slightness of J.R.R. Tolkien’s elegant source novel — a publication barely exceeding 300 pages — appears more obvious than ever. 

Jackson, alongside co-screenwriters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo Del Toro, reaches deep into Tolkien’s additional notes and appendices to bulk up this tale, peppering the story with nods to his later (earlier?) troika that range from subtle to downright ham-fisted. For a man tied to Middle Earth in the minds of the post-millennial generation, Jackson’s enthusiasm would now seem to outweigh his material.

With the author’s masterful construction stretched to the point of becoming unrecognisable, Jackson possesses little choice but to concentrate his abilities on realising a face-off afforded only a passing mention by Tolkien. More than half of the unusually spare running time (144 minutes) is taken up with an encounter between factions which are, in a interesting departure from the good-versus-evil tropes otherwise inherent to this milieu, competing for territory and riches. 


The resulting donnybrook is a dazzling achievement of gorgeous visuals and technical prowess. Jackson has form here, of course, his fondness for staging enormous scenes encrusted with lovingly rendered imagery shows no sign of waning. Indeed, it remains a skill set far removed from the grimy gorefests of his early career. By the same token, however, familiarity may well breed fatigue and Five Armies presents nothing that fans of the Kiwi’s work — certainly as it extends to this genre — have not already witnessed. 

Vast armies clash (a bizarre, digital Billy Connolly commands his host of ornery Dwarves with raucous aplomb and a giant hammer; Lee Pace’s sinister Elf king, Thranduil, rides around on an elk), the camera swooping and veering between their rowdy lines. Hulking trolls, utilised as machines of war by the antagonistic Orcs, lay siege to a city in the shadow of Thorin’s Lonely Mountain. 

On automatic pilot Jackson may surpass most of his peers but the cold truth is that we have been here before. He can summon no instances to rival to the bravura barrel fight in The Desolation of Smaug and nor is the soaring, Oscar-winning, era-defining majesty of The Return of the King’s Pelennor Fields matched by any element in a picture now tagged as Middle Earth’s ‘defining chapter’. 

As the force of his colossal ambition overwhelms everything, Jackson sees his cast suffocate beneath that weight. In committing himself so comprehensively to the kind of breathtaking tableau that has defined both his Hobbit trilogy and the towering Lord of the Rings triple header, he essentially abandons rounded characterisation for glossy, CGI-fuelled spectacle. The Lord of the Rings, for all its marvels, was underpinned by the richly drawn fellowship in its midst and while The Hobbit’s Dwarven company exudes, at times, a similar spirit, it earns limited opportunities to complete its arc. A collection of choppy, poorly scripted subplots are passed off as adequate storytelling, a triumph of style over substance. 

Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellan) serves as weary expositor once more, though his explanations remain confusing even as he and the cameoing trio of Elrond (a sword-wielding Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and latter-day villain Saruman (Sir Christopher Lee, playing Sir Christopher Lee) explore the machinations of franchise scourge Sauron, along with the reasons for this large-scale attack upon the mountain by the "forces of darkness". Armitage descends into a greed-clouded madness only to clamber out, with puzzling swiftness, and lead his comrades into the breach. Meanwhile, the clunky romance between Kili (Aidan Turner) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) endures as this trilogy’s most gratuitous fabrication. 

Most regrettable of all, is the sidelining of a brilliant Martin Freeman, who disappears from view beneath the cacophonous din of full-scale conflict. This wonderfully grounded actor imbues his scenes with a humane maturity that staves off the encroaching melodrama and it is the heartbreaking corruption of Bilbo Baggins, the eponymous Hobbit — a shrewd, courageous operator and loyal observer — which forms so central a strand of the Tolkien mythology. Shamefully, his mounting obsession with the ring he found scrambling in the darkness of Gollum’s lair is left largely unattended until the end. These concluding references to later seminal events are neatly accomplished, perhaps, but Bilbo’s time in the spotlight ultimately feels like too little too late. 

Jackson is no ordinary filmmaker, this much is obvious. Melding a cheeky edge of schlocky grubbiness with that capacity for epic high fantasy, his time as the custodian of Tolkien’s precious legacy should be judged as nothing less than a glowing success. Yet, with this newest instalment, the once gushing river has finally run dry. Time to move on. 


Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Black Sea


Kevin MacDonald is no stranger to high stakes. His documentaries Touching the Void and One Day in September both stared unblinkingly at the extremes of the human experience, the former a study of man against nature in the Peruvian Andes, the latter an Oscar-winning study of chaos at Munich’s Olympics. MacDonald's features, meanwhile, have been equally tense. State of Play and The Last King of Scotland, in particular, explored the fates of isolated and flawed crusaders battling for survival.

With his latest project, Black Sea, the filmmaker returns to that familiar well once more, installing his motley band of mercenary submariners in a clanking old boat and plunging them headlong into the abyss — a milieu described by morose helmsman Reynolds (Holywood actor and comic Michael Smiley) as analogous to ‘dark, cold death’. 

From the beginning of this excellent maritime thriller, there exists a populist air to the simple premise, one raging against degradation and indignity driven by the cruelties of our recessionary age. Jude Law plays Robinson, an inexplicably Scottish sub captain made redundant early on by the faceless suits at his marine salvage company. Dispatched, with a meagre handshake, to sign on and watch as his son is raised in the affluent surroundings provided by his ex-wife’s new husband, Robinson is filled with a bubbling bitterness towards wanton corporate greed. In the confines of his pokey, spartan flat Law’s glowering seaman appears close to despair. 

Redemption comes then in the form of an operation requiring his particular expertise. Given that Black Sea sits easily in a genre almost wholly defined by Wolfgang Petersen’s masterful Das Boot, the presence of a sunken U-boat at the bottom of the eponymous waterway holds obvious significance. For Robinson, the millions in otherwise forgotten Nazi bullion resting deep inside its belly are too much to resist. With a half-British, half-Russian crew in tow, and working on behalf of a shadowy financier, he hires a soiled, failing submarine before setting off to liberate the loot.


The result is a tense, superbly volatile adventure story, laced with a grimy claustrophobia — the leased vessel is an appalling totem of Soviet functionality — that morphs, steadily, from by-product of hard-edged expediency into something visceral and infinitely more frightening.

Piloting a rusted submersible to the depths of the Black Sea takes a certain degree of steely determination, of course. These men are not amateurs but this mission has not been undertaken for the sake of their own egos. Money, prospects, a decent life; such things are entirely absent, and so they dive onwards, trusting that bravery will reward them. 

Desperate men are prone to act desperately, however, and when Robinson makes the fatal mistake of informing this collection of bleak souls that they are to receive an equal share of a gilded stash, the twin spectres of avarice and mutiny quickly take hold. 

In the lead role, strange accent notwithstanding, Law is superb, registering a forceful reminder of how magnetic a personality he can be away from the tittle and tattle of the tabloid swamp. The notional hero, Robinson is merely an ordinary man with everyday concerns. Plainly motivated by financial gain, he places this interest above most other considerations, and is complicated enough to unnerve the reprobates under his command. 

Of these, none is more threatening than Ben Mendelsohn’s unhinged master diver, Fraser. The Australian again proves himself a rising talent and his is an instantly corrosive personality, a fascinating creation. On deck he seems little more than a petulant psychopath; in the treacherous sands of the sea bed he serves ably as a calm leader, responsible for the safety of his comrades. Ultimately, his destructive choices prove fatal, manipulated into place by the voyage’s snivelling white collar, Daniels (played with typical ease by Mendelsohn’s Killing Them Softly co-star Scoot McNairy).

When disaster descends — and descend it does — the mettle of these disparate characters is severely tested. Few reach the standard, though quiet hope forms in callow Tobin (Bobby Schofield) and gentle navigator Morozov (Grigoriy Dobrygin, seen most recently in Anton Corbijn’s terrific A Most Wanted Man). As the scheme comes close to crumbling, life is weighed against the promise of fortune; McDonald, ramping up the stress, pushes even his dependable men to the point of breaking.

As focused as the film is on those human dynamics, it does not scrimp on spectacle and the director introduces occasionally startling imagery to offset the drama. In one scene his camera pulls out to reveal a stricken U-boat, swastika on show, marooned on an underwater precipice. Later, as the expedition negotiates a narrow gorge, the murky green vastness of the sea almost consumes their tiny presence. 

By contrast, there is a soiled intimacy to the interior of Robinson’s submarine that promises only doom. The dank walls are, as the dependable Smiley perceptively suggests, the sole surroundings in which these hopeless individuals might properly function. 

An unamended version of this article was first published here

Friday, 5 December 2014

St. Vincent


Once upon a time, Bill Murray was an over-the-title star of zany comedies, money-making multiplex material that relied on his special brand of archly rumpled cynicism. Stripes, Groundhog Day and the Ghostbusters series were all infused with that unknowable menu of distinctive Bill Murrayisms, their sly, sniggering plots driven on by the sad-sack smirking of the former Saturday Night Live gag-peddler. Scrooged will be buried in the television listings this Christmas. Be sure not to miss it. 

Beneath his comic shell, however, Murray was hiding a significant talent for straighter content. In the latter years of a career no longer punctuated by the landmarks which defined it in the 1980s and early 1990s, the erstwhile Peter Venkman has carved out a comfortable niche as a wearied character actor of striking quality. With Lost in Translation, Murray confirmed his renaissance; the performance as faded performer Bob Harris — a light spin on his own shifting palette — in Sofia Coppola’s sumptuous Tokyo romance chimed with a refined understatement few would have imagined in the days when the actor was striding around our screens shooting lasers at flying green ghouls. 

Dabbling since then in most of Wes Anderson’s quirky ensemble fables, leading the way for the likes of indie stalwart Jim Jarmusch (Broken Flowers) and vaunted newcomer Aaron Schneider (Get Low), Murray continues to follow the demands of his heart rather than his bank manager. He may wear the expression of someone who rarely concerns himself with the public’s foibles, but his recent career path seems especially wise when assessing an effortless, complex turn in debut writer-director Theodore Melfi’s occasionally charming St. Vincent

Murray excels as the eponymous Vincent MacKenna. Grizzled, rude and often less than sober, this ostensibly unlikeable curmudgeon spends his days at the track or in the pub, shooting mildly acidic barbs at its long-suffering proprietor. Avoiding his shifty bookie (a terribly underused Terrence Howard) and half intending to do right by a pregnant Russian prostitute-stripper girlfriend (the heavily accented Naomi Watts), Vincent is Brooklyn’s Jeff Lebowski, minus the charm and the robe. 


As the ornery centrepiece in this mellow, sweet, but often silly, comedy-drama, the weight of Melfi’s less polished ambitions rest on Murray’s shoulders and he delivers manfully. Vincent is not a bad guy, though he is not an especially nice one either, and when Melissa McCarthy’s vulnerable Maggie moves in next door with her son, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), he is dragged, with no little grumbling or financial incentive, into their domestic turmoil. 

A friendship develops between Oliver and Vincent, both worldly in their own ways, the older man’s blunt guidance the mark of a surrogate father figure that the young boy unknowingly craves. As saccharine as this may sound, Melfi’s commitment to a delicate narrative conceit — neither is desperate for such a connection, yet each quietly embraces it — succeeds in most respects. 

Vincent’s life is an otherwise lonely ruin of debt and petty hustling; Oliver’s easy-going companionship proves an ample remedy. Where director and star score highest, mercifully, is in steering Murray away from any mawkish redemption story. Where he might have morphed into an agreeable old codger with the aid of Oliver’s innocent faith in their relationship, Vincent essentially remains unchanged. His stubborn inelegance is merely accepted by those around him. 

As one would expect, Murray is afforded the room to weave layers into his characterisation. He hints at gold beneath the surface, his unpleasant exterior and genuine humanity the unavoidable run-off of significant life experience. Unfortunately these meaty extras are woefully underwritten, replaced instead by an increasingly superficial tale which aims for charm but feels as rote and predictable as anything featured in Adam Sandler’s more puerile efforts.

The overall effect, therefore, is ultimately clumsy. Murray’s scene-stealing, so watchable throughout, grates against the distracting ancillary arc of Maggie’s custody battle with her ex-husband and a ham-fisted school project — overseen by Chris O’Dowd as a droll Catholic priest — which sees Vincent forced into a corner so cuddly that he appears embarrassed just to be near it. 

Next to Murray, the always brilliant McCarthy more than holds her own by battling against a dearth of depth. A fine comedienne, she, like the leading man, possesses an impressive dramatic range.  Personable and amusing in equal measures, hers is a presence deserving of better. Watts, on the other hand, looks rightly confused by an undefined and needlessly unpredictable role. Her pecking nag smells vaguely insulting for an actress of Watts’s gifts and suggests, perhaps, that 2013’s Diana debacle is not easily overcome. 

Lieberher, however, is a talent to watch. With an air of resigned acceptance and displaying not a hint of irritating precocity, his believable stoicism serves to ground the maudlin final chapter even while he is forced to engage with it. 

An edited version of this article was first published here

Friday, 28 November 2014

The Drop


When James Gandolfini passed away suddenly in June 2013, he did so possessed of an acting legacy more or less characterised by a hoodlum. It was no mere hoodlum, of course, for Tony Soprano defined a generation, as much a part of post-millennial pop culture as the now humble iPod. 

A wonderful actor, kind of countenance and refined of speech, Gandolfini was born to portray the brashly complex Jersey mob boss, relying on his skill, bulk and obvious Italian roots to drag television, almost single handedly, into its second golden age.

There is a faintly cruel irony then in the fact that Gandolfini’s final role should come playing low-level wannabe gangster Marvin Stipler, the grizzled anchor of Michaël R. Roskam’s potent, desolate crime drama, The Drop. Stipler is a tragic figure and failed hustler, the kind of guy who feeds at the end of the trough before kicking up most of his meagre earnings to Tony Soprano. Devious, yet utterly without good fortune, the man known throughout as Cousin Marv represents a fitting final entry in the Gandolfini canon. 

Based on Dennis Lehane’s newest novel, The Drop reeks of that author’s weighty Boston anthology, from Mystic River to Gone Baby Gone. Lehane has made a successful career from mining thrills out of his native city’s blue-collar Celtic underbelly — Red Sox games, funny accents, Irish-Americans — and whether they are contemporary or period (Shutter Island, The Given Day) each tells a gripping tale rich in character, ripe with atmosphere. 

The Drop is no different from its creator’s established pedigree and owing to Bullhead director Roskam, this cool urban noir is well served by a subtle infusion of Belgian elegance. Lehane’s muscular source material is a spare effort, an extension of his own short story, Animal Rescue, which inspired him to write the screenplay here before fleshing out the concept in literary form. Roskam seems inspired by his collaborator’s style. Choosing to leave the tone undisturbed, he delivers a brilliantly acted, terribly impressive English-language debut that is infinitely smarter than it initially appears. 


Tom Hardy plays Bob Saginowski, the unassuming barman at Cousin Marv’s grotty establishment. Transposed by Lehane, for no apparent reason, from Boston to Brooklyn, the bar is a front, owned by the sinister Chechen mob and used, on an irregular basis, as a storage waypoint for the gang’s dirty cash. With his own survival in mind, the gentle Bob is uninterested in little beyond pulling pints and labouring diligently for Marv, his actual cousin. 

After his demented turn in the recent series of Peaky Blinders, Hardy’s brooding visage is a welcome change. He paints Bob in a variety of unthreatening shades: loyal, devout, unworldly. The undertones of crackling tension with Marv, however, are especially fascinating. As former members of an insignificant crew, the pair occupy similar places in the local pecking order but Bob’s calm contentment — symbolised by the adorable boxer puppy he rescues from a trash can and a tentative romance with the flinty Nadia (Noomi Rapace) — is an irritant that Marv, an unfulfilled never-really-was, simply cannot shake. 

Hardy and Gandolfini convey a time-wearied sense of solidarity built on familiarity, not affection. When it is shaken by an armed robbery at the bar, along with the unwelcome arrival of unhinged extortionist Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenarts), their lightly squabbling dynamic takes on a darker edge. Tellingly, Roskam establishes the Bob-Marv relationship as his focal point; money must be reclaimed and ties severed. The film, stripped of those few ancillary elements included in Lehane’s book, feels all the better for it. 

As the ensemble suggests, Roskam’s greatest asset is a stellar cast. Hardy, Rapace, John Ortiz; these are some of the finest performers currently working. Gandolfini’s presence speaks for itself but, for those familiar with his résumé, it is no surprise to see Schoenarts stand out. His physicality, so magnetic in Rust and Bone and the Oscar-nominated Bullhead, has been reigned in, replaced by a dangerous air of violent childlike neediness. Resting, unpredictably, between unsettling stalker and outright crook, Schoenarts is the director’s scruffy wild card, an unpleasant sadist whose Flemish inflection has been lost beneath a seriously impressive Brooklyn drawl.

Pared down to its most visceral components, The Drop ultimately succeeds in moving from wintry thriller to effective mystery. Personified by Ortiz’s watchful detective, the latter strand may fail to truly titillate, yet it is, nevertheless, slickly accomplished. Lehane is famously partial to a twisting finale and the instant conceit is genuinely clever, both revelatory and easily grasped. 

Do not believe everything you see.

An edited version of this article was first published here

Thursday, 27 November 2014

The Imitation Game

For many, the field of mathematics is likely to set pulses racing at an uncomfortable rate, stirring up memories of cold sweats brought on by algebraic confusion and a swamp of geometrical bewilderment. This is, in truth, a discipline holding little cinematic allure; maths just isn’t very sexy. 

That being said, it is rather important and this fact shapes the core of The Imitation Game, a sleek, genuinely superb English language debut from Headhunters director Morten Tyldum. In spite of some recent criticisms that churlishly focus on historical inaccuracies while ignoring unavoidable artistic licence, this is as captivating as it is factually flawed. 

Based on Andrew Hodges’s biography of wartime cryptanalyst Alan Turing, the Norwegian’s stylish thriller offers up an exquisitely tuned portrait of a remarkable man, a man who stole Nazi secrets by breaking into Enigma, the coded communications system by which all military instructions were relayed. He essentially defeated Hitler in the process. 

It would not save him. Turing was gay and, in 1952, he received his reward for that service to king and country: a homosexuality conviction and court-mandated chemical castration. He committed suicide two years later. 

Part arrogant savant, part lost child burdened with an intellect incapable of simplistic thought, Turing would, in the oak-panelled environs of Bletchley Park’s Code and Cypher School — the austere progenitor of communication overlords GCHQ — head up a unit of incredibly clever boffins, all committed to the apparently impossible task of getting inside Enigma. 

Thus, with that in mind, any filmmaker looking to engage an actor capable of playing maladjusted genius oddballs with significant personal baggage need look no further than Benedict Cumberbatch. An extraordinarily brilliant performer, he has easily cornered the market in maladjusted genius oddballs with significant personal baggage and his willful, charismatic but profoundly haunted Cambridge codebreaker constitutes a fascinating creation. 

Cumberbatch and Tyldum make immediate headway thanks to screenwriting debutant Graham Moore’s punchy script, ripe with the kind of crisp and snarkily playful dialogue Aaron Sorkin might produce if he anchored his narrative in the emotional wilderness of the British class system. Indeed, there is a great deal to chew on in the middle stages, where the ongoing war is merely part of a larger puzzle that Turing and his colleagues must tackle over the course of years. 

Working to come up with a solution before the enemy changes settings at midnight, rendering each day meaningless, this urgent premise is framed by a more sedate post-war setting: Turing recounting an incredible tale, via flashback, after his arrest on indecency charges. There are glimpses of one seminal period as the bullied prodigy at a public school, illuminating multiple plot points.


His ally in this endeavour is Christopher, the gargantuan and expensively assembled bombe device. A clunking tribute to the pre-analogue age, this super computer (operating, admittedly, at a level of sophistication which makes the humble Nokia 3210 seem like Star Trek’s warp drive) is Turing’s creation, his masterpiece and, ultimately, the means by which the Allies may endure. Christopher is the closest one might come to conceiving the scale of Turing’s genius, subtly beautiful in its plodding design.

His supporting cast excel in portraying a group of people largely confounded by the central player’s obtuse methods. Amongst this motley band of intellectuals the elegantly unreadable Matthew Goode plays British chess champion Hugh Alexander and, alongside him, Downtown Abbey regular Allen Leech (working with superior material) provides a good deal of humanity as Scottish linguist John Cairncross. Mark Strong’s slyly obscure spymaster, Stewart Menzies, meanwhile, is awarded the best lines. 

In an otherwise masculine ensemble, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), the genteel mathematician who establishes a touching platonic connection with Turing, serves to add a dash of perky refinement to all the high-functioning testosterone. There is no small sense of triumphant fraternity, however, when the team, pouncing on the inevitability of human error, finally unlocks the mystery. The subsequent comedown is just as dramatic, an icy realisation that to act hastily is to induce the Germans into switching away from their compromised system.

Cerebral as it is — the solving of the problem will confuse even hardcore crossword enthusiasts — Tyldum’s grandest trick is to maintain a sense of pioneering spirit, exciting and accessible. This is an era when computer science was an edgy category on the academic spectrum and artificial intelligence little more than a zany concept; neither was of use in the real world, let alone conducive to the traditions of mass conflict. 

Turing must battle, then, against the relative philistines holding authority over him, as well as the endless combinations that the Third Reich may employ to conceal its plans. His obsession is almost an art form and when it blossoms, shaking the foundations of all scientific understanding in an instant, the true meaning of the breakthrough becomes clear. 

Unfortunately, with that moment at its zenith, the remainder of the story sags in places. The relationship between Alan and Joan feels worthy of deeper study, the meeting of kindred minds compensating for a lack of physical chemistry, but it is eventually beset by melodrama. When Turing vetoes the decision to warn an Atlantic convoy of an imminent U-boat attack, condemning a friend’s relative in the process, there is a gratuitous residual rancour which disappears as quickly as it arises. 

An underwritten subplot involving Soviet spies is technically relevant but adds little here beyond a measure of occasionally distracting intrigue and Turing’s sizzling rivalry with Charles Dance’s Commander Denniston (Tywin Lannister in a naval uniform) sits abandoned also, denying viewers the satisfaction of witnessing the latter fall foul of Christopher. 

Most disappointing is the strange manner in which Turing’s sexuality is handled throughout. Tyldum, Moore and the magnificent Cumberbatch have not shied away from the topic yet, for much of the picture’s duration, it lingers like an abstract equation, something Turing addresses in frank terms but barely bothers to explore. 

Maybe there is a reason for this evasiveness. His sexual proclivities, perhaps, were arguably less important than the machines and theories which comforted an unknowable figure in the miserable final years of his towering existence. Whatever made him tick, Alan Turing, responsible for profound greatness, was certainly deserving of more.

A version of this article was first published here