Friday, 30 January 2015

A Most Violent Year


J.C. Chandor does not tend to play it safe. His debut as both writer and director was 2011’s Margin Call, a horrifying depiction of clinical boardroom cynicism run amok on the eve of the Great Recession, its ensemble cast idly playing God with the world’s money. Two years later, All Is Lost seemed no less dramatic as Robert Redford’s nameless, taciturn mariner faced his own immortality engulfed by the solitude of the high seas. Chandor is unfazed by boldness.

For all their grand themes, however, both of his previous films played out in startling close-up; death and global penury felt terribly real. That similar intimacy courses through the veins of Chandor’s latest offering, A Most Violent Year, should not register as surprising, yet this is a story laid over a grander canvas: the feted, nebulous, arguably unattainable American Dream, an aspiration incapable of being caged in the stifling confines of a Wall Street office or the lonely hull of a stricken yacht. 

The year in question is 1981. Hardworking immigrant Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) runs a successful business selling home heating oil in the endless suburbs of the New York City area. Prosperous, married to Jessica Chastain’s beautiful Anna and installed in a finely furnished home, Morales has pulled himself up by his boots straps; he is the living embodiment of the Republican ideal. 

The evolution of success in this context is, naturally, the acquisition of even more and when he pumps every last cent into a precarious land deal, Morales risks losing everything for which he has grafted. Those efforts are not helped when the ongoing targeted theft, by persons unknown, of his fuel trucks becomes an expensive problem. Such activities, of course, constitute a mere drop in the ocean during one the city’s most violent years — a statistical fact reinforced by the radio reports of crime and murder peppering the background of a forbidding, artfully conceived tale. 


Chandor’s film is a powerful one, simmering and, despite its title and overall tone, remarkably free of actual violence. The little bloodshed that occurs is brief and brutal, though the plot takes precedence over any gratuitous savagery. A sense of impending upheaval manifests itself in everything from the precarious health of Morales’s business to the raft of malpractice indictments handed down by an intensely ambitious assistant DA (the quietly leering David Oyelowo). Threats to his safety and his family lurk in the frigid shadows. To his credit, the director excels in weaving these strands into a complex and genuinely fascinating adult drama. 

A pair of technically adept, thrillingly kinetic chase scenes serve to underline Chandor’s ability to stage a spectacle but the triumphs form properly in quieter moments of human interaction. They rest on towering central performances from Isaac and Chastain, two actors on the perpetual rise capable of turning their considerable talents to almost any role.

The latter is bewitching as a man whose slightly shifty air never robs him of his decency. He is, to all intents and purposes, not a crook and there is something hugely admirable about an enduring disdain for the underhand dealings that appear necessary to get ahead. Isaac — also distinguishing himself at present in the Alex Garland-directed sci-fi thriller Ex Machina — has developed into a chameleonic performer, utterly convincing as the steely business tycoon, both serious and upstanding, who cares deeply for his employees’ welfare. Morales’s interactions with sensitive driver Julian (Elyes Gabel), conducted in English at his own insistence, are laced with a paternalistic subtext that will never be elucidated and his considered, discomforting sales technique sits, just, on the right side of hard-selling sleaze. 

By his side, the ever outstanding Chastain is all cold civility, a woman of singular focus. Somewhat scornful of her husband’s naive decency, raised, one is led to believe, in fairly hardbitten surroundings, Anna is an equal and autonomous partner in the Morales enterprise, as willing to cook the books (‘standard industry practice’ to use her casual parlance) as she is to execute a dying stag by the roadside. Chastain’s role lacks the all-consuming focus of Mya, the obsessive CIA analyst in the searing Zero Dark Thirty, but in her elegant grip they are both mighty totems of credible female strength.

A Most Violent Year was snubbed in every major category for February’s Academy Awards, a baffling decision given its darkly muscular swagger and cool pedigree. Yet, perhaps it is too difficult to categorise, a crime epic with little discernible villainy, a period piece largely unconcerned with winking and nodding at its dated setting. 

The Academy is not necessarily unafraid of the weird or playful — the nomination for Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman represents proof enough. Chandor, however, conjures nothing so arch. His subtleties, his abundance of wintry greys, suggest that this picture is far from the conclusive masterpiece normally lauded by the establishment. It’s their loss. 

A version of this article was first published here.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Whiplash


J.K. Simmons gives the performance of his life in Whiplash, sophomore director Damien Chazelle’s scorching jazz opus, fully justifying his recent win at the Golden Globes in the best supporting actor category and propelling himself, almost certainly, into pole position for the same award at next month’s Oscars. 

The ever superb Simmons has made a living out of portraying gruff autocrats and falls comfortably under the broad heading marked ‘That guy from that thing.’ His terrifying band conductor, Terence Fletcher, however, is infinitely more fascinating than almost every other character he has portrayed in a career taking in a diverse slate, from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy to the Jason Reitman-directed Juno

Fletcher, to put it bluntly, is a monster, an arrogant, vicious bully whose rein of terror over his in-house band at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory feels absolute. Wielding a volcanic temper and the ability to shatter the confidence of grown men, Fletcher’s ferocious conflict with jazz drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) catapults Chazelle’s astonishing psychological drama towards a breathless conclusion. 

In suppressing his fratty leanings, Teller plays his part with rare gusto, banishing the memories of that ropey fare (DivergentFootloose, 21 & OverThat Awkward Moment, to name a few) in which he has passed his time thus far. He possesses a fine ability to slide between personalities, gentle and polite in one moment, pushy and abrasive in the next. It is a gift which is tested to the extreme by Chazelle, who throws his main character — a talented, but fragile, young musician — into the bear pit overseen by Simmons’s tyrant. 

Eager to please, Neiman is unprepared for what awaits him: a sustained mental assault offset, initially, by Fletcher’s obviously insincere pre-session pep talk. Intensely ambitious, the new recruit is, nevertheless, floored by the velocity of his notional mentor’s anger. Within minutes Neiman is a sobbing mess as Fletcher cruelly twists personal details offered in friendship only minutes before. 


‘Whiplash’ is also the title of Hank Levy’s standout composition — chosen for its maddening complexity — and this is a relevant link. Violent tension rips through Chazelle’s film as if it were a car wreck, inescapable and utterly destructive. Fletcher channels every sneering teacher you ever wanted to punch but couldn’t; Simmons basks in the glow of such a deliciously conceived villain. In one scene he drives three drumming hopefuls long into the night until they can match his tempo, unleashing upon them a torrent of world-beating verbal abuse targeting all minorities in the room: the Jews, the Irish, gay people. 

This poisonous atmosphere seeps into Neiman’s pores, corroding his kindly nature, the tentative romance with a nice girl and the relationship with his father (a solid Paul Reiser), at whose table he insults a gathering of friends in an unnecessarily snide dismantlement of small-town values. It even chisels away at the tower of fear upon which Fletcher stands to survey his meek charges. When the older man dares to consider a change of lead drummer, Neiman, fuelled by a desire that sees Teller subject himself to prolonged physical torture — equal parts perspiration and blood — explodes in a fraught five-minute sequence that takes in a blown tyre, a car crash and even a brawl. 

Chazelle has explored this musical milieu before with his somewhat abstract debut feature, the little-seen festival favourite Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, and it is clearly a world in which he is invested. Save for the veracity of an oft-repeated anecdote about Charlie Parker’s ascent to jazz immortality, his latest appears steeped, for the uninitiated anyway, in genre lore. The prophet of this unpredictable medium is the white-faced, black-clad, gimlet-eyed Simmons, who owns the film, even with Teller’s quite brilliant input. 

Fletcher is no mere cartoon, eventually displaying depths that do not quite tally with initial impressions. His tears at the death of a former protégé are sincere, so too is a friendly conversation with the small girl he encounters in a corridor. Later, as fate takes him in a new direction, he explains, with gentle clarity, that his job is not to patronise mediocrity but to spark greatness, by whatever means necessary. A wounded lion is still a lion, of course, and the show-stopping finale serves as a chilling reminder that those early eruptions simply covered darker elements. 

That finale is transformative; Neiman sheds potential for greatness. In doing so, Teller strains every muscle to convey something fleeting and largely indescribable. Sweat-drenched, alive with an urgency that only great films can induce, if Whiplash cannot be classed as a thriller, it is no less thrilling. 

An edited version of this article was first published here

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Testament of Youth


When Vera Brittain published Testament of Youth in 1933, she offered up an anthem for a shattered generation surrendered to the blasted heaths and sodden trenches of the Great War. Brittain’s memoirs of her experiences before, during and after that pointless exercise represented an intimate portrait of wartime Britain, the theme of forfeited innocence clearly never far from the surface. 

In the latest cinematic adaptation of that seminal work, director James Kent succeeds in conveying a slow burning but sumptuous film, intense and inherently, unavoidably heartbroken. Anchored by the wonderfully layered Alicia Vikander, drawing on those wells of emotional maturity that have defined her performances from Anna Karenina to A Royal Affair, Kent’s epic story of love and loss feels truly significant in its elegant conception. 

Opening on Armistice Day 1918, a clearly grief stricken Vera (Vikander) flashes back to the halcyon summer of 1914 in which she and her sensitive brother, Edward (Kingsman: The Secret Service star Taron Egerton), entertained his school friends, Victor — a gentle Colin Morgan — and Kit Harrington’s soulful Roland. The spiky, bookish Vera immediately falls for the latter, drawn in by his poetry and respect for her own dreams of a writing career, of an Oxford education. 

Given the prevailing era, the shadow of conflict rests in the background, its encroachment unnoticed at first in Vera’s verdant home patch of Buxton, Derbyshire, an achingly exquisite, occasionally desolate, setting which Kent and cinematographer Rob Hardy capture with a loving embrace. Not-so-distant horrors soon crowd in, however, and the Brittain homestead appears less relevant, polluted even, its gentility upended by cruel realities. 


This is not a tale of warfare. Kent focuses instead on the corrosive effect such bloodshed has on the ties that bind humankind together. Vera is not the sole victim here, yet a time of great change, be it social, global or sexual, unfolds through her mournful eyes. It takes shape with her entry into the austere all-female environs of Somerville College, Oxford; it forms around the dismantlement of class boundaries in the hell of shell-torn France, calcifying as newspapers publish nothing but lists of lost boys, rich and poor. Nothing will ever be the same again. Tellingly, the director opts to keep the mounting tragedies largely invisible, for it is the survivors who must pick up the pieces of destruction wrought by unseen and foreign violence, not the dead.

Vera volunteers for nursing duty, treating the wounded — both British compatriots and German prisoners — in the Western Front’s groaning charnel houses and these experiences seem to awaken the spirit of pacifism that would define her later existence. How could they not? Kent sinks his once handsome film into the mud of rain-washed barracks, the incessant grime creeping infesting each foul hut to carry away the broken souls within. 

Unsurprisingly, Vera, driven to seek solace away from the heartbreak of losing those most close to her, sees the creative spirit she shared with Roland condemned to a life before the sky darkened. Even their time together on home leave feels less hopeful, a stay of the inevitable. 

Soaking in this turmoil is Vikander, a strikingly accomplished young performer around whom the events roil and burst. Undeniably beautiful in a real-world sort of way, her mature, suppressed, unreadable features come to fill the screen, Kent’s camera lingering with a lazy handheld focus fuelled by intrigue more than anything else. With happiness stolen before it may be fully realised, hers is a presence to remind us that profound human suffering extends far beyond the field of battle.

The trio of male leads make the most of the space afforded them: Egerton is every inch the loyal sibling; Harrington carries off his anti-Jon Snow with a subtlety not always demanded by Game of Thrones. Armagh actor Morgan, meanwhile, delicately portrays a noble and good soul who would rather create a fictitious fiancée than pursue Vera, the shimmering object of his hesitant affections. Dominic West, too, excels, with limited opportunities, as the stoic patriarch who adores his children.

Ultimately, of course, this is Vikander’s show. Save for the irritating anti-war grandstanding in a somewhat exhausting finale, the Swedish actress, hiding any trace of her Nordic inflection, exhibits the kind of sober English tenacity that would steel many a weaker soul. 

An edited version of this article was first published here

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Taken 3


Of all the pit stops on Liam Neeson’s strange journey from intense, gravelly-voiced thesp to hulking action star, the Taken franchise is undoubtedly the most recognisable. Playing imposing former spy Bryan Mills, a man possessing a "very particular set of skills," Neeson’s physicality and po-faced embrace of the role have served as a compelling combination in the weirdly persistent series produced by Luc Besson and overseen by fellow French directors Pierre Morel and Olivier Megaton. 

Taken opened in 2008 to toxic reviews. Critical opprobrium later softened when audiences warmed to Mills’s diplomacy-free approach in rescuing his gormless daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace), from white slavery in the grimy Paris underbelly. Highly entertaining, if somewhat charmless, it wrought a loud Istanbul-set sequel fours years later, as inevitable as it was awful, Mills shooting every vengeful scumbag relation of the scumbag Albanian traffickers he’d smoked so mercilessly in France. 

It made money, however, lots of it, and thus, from the dregs of Taken 2, Fox has brewed up a third entry in a brazen money-making exercise that might shame even Peter Jackson. Fittingly, Megaton takes the reigns once more, infusing this picture with the delicate subtlety one would expect from a man responsible for The Transporter 3. 


Make no mistake, Taken 3 is a profoundly terrible film. Poorly directed, plagued by a rote plot and pedestrian action, the only distinctive trait is that it seems, remarkably, less enjoyable than its preceding instalment. At least one could catch a glimpse of the Bosphoros, or the elegance of the Blue Mosque, last time out. Now, in a move that suggests everyone making it was as bored as the audience is likely to be enduring it, Mills’s latest donnybrook is set in his own backyard of Los Angeles: a desperately dull place apparently, even with a cabal of lazily conceived Russian mobsters (led by Sam Spruell as the cartoonish villain) running amok. Indeed, in this soft-lit suburban jungle — think a less refined version of Michael Bay’s sun-dappled crassness — Neeson’s grizzled warrior buys stuffed toys for an adult daughter and attempts, half-heartedly, to woo Lenore (Famke Janssen), his ridiculously attractive ex-wife.

The excruciating first half hour crawls by during which Mills attempts to negotiate treacherous domestic ground, like handing out sage advice on purchasing puppies. In fairness, our hero appears to be enjoying the stunted normalcy as much as a trip to the dentist but when he is made a patsy for Lenore’s sudden murder, this being the universe of Taken, somebody is going to pay. The incredible truth is that from hereon out, events taken a turn for the worse. Neeson is a working actor, there’s no shame in that, and his cheque was surely a hefty one, yet, at 62, the fighting days are clearly behind him. Shuffling around a completely uninteresting conspiracy, he looks knackered by the end, the shield of Megaton’s hyperactive editing arguably a contributor to that overall sense of fatigue. 

In the meantime, Grace — last seen, in this context anyway, merrily flinging live grenades around Turkish rooftops — must contend with her mother’s death, an oily step-father (Dougray Scott: obviously complicit) and the inconvenience of being plied with laxatives by her no-tactic-too-far patriarch. She has always played the distressed damsel with miserable enthusiasm, though her irritating character displays few signs of developing beyond that tired cliché. Of the other notable cast members, Oscar winner Forest Whitaker portrays the same perceptive cop he rolled out for both Phone Booth and The Last Stand.

Back when Neeson first growled that famous threat to "find' and "kill" the dirty scoundrels messing with his little princess, he did so in a gritty, hard-edged, 18-rated thriller. The same trope is embarrassingly aped here, more than once, with Mills now forced to trot out component parts of that iconic moment in a feature carrying a 12A certificate for maximum earning potential. Robbed of the impactful original’s visceral brute force, Neeson stars in little more than a dull, sterilised, child-friendly adventure movie. Late on, as he waterboards a hapless bad guy in the finest traditions of the CIA, pre-pubescent viewers are likely to recall more frightening examples of water usage in Frozen. Or in the bath. 

Feeling lightyears longer than its 109 minutes, Bryan Mills’s ill-advised anthology may, at last, run out of gas, sealed off once and for all by a dreary finale delivering all the emotional resonance of a Downton Abbey Christmas special. 

But hey, at least the opening titles are cool. 

An edited version of this article was first published here

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

The Theory of Everything


It will come as something of a relief to many that The Theory of Everything is not really interested in science. There are few blinding mathematical equations to contend with, no stylised renderings of cosmological diagrams. Mercifully, it is a film about a scientist, rather than his field. 

That scientist is a fairly famous one: Stephen Hawking, a man whose name has come to be intrinsically linked with high genius. In this beautifully realised biopic, the Cambridge professor recognisable by his unflinchingly confronted degenerative disability and iconic speech-generating device — not to mention A Brief History of Time, the seminal tome which launched him into the zeitgeist — is played with aplomb by a superlative Eddie Redmayne.

The physicist aspires to a ‘single elegant equation to explain everything’ throughout, yet director James Marsh (the maker of stellar documentaries Man on Wire and Project Nim, and the less satisfying Belfast-set IRA drama Shadow Dancer) balances the numbers with a challenging love story built around Hawking’s 30-year marriage to fellow Cambridge student Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones). As Hawking, Redmayne gives a performance as powerful as it is layered, his usual intensity offset greatly by a noble sense of light-hearted positivity. 

Opening in 1963, Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten depict Hawking as a PhD student of peerless ability. Redmayne, all raffish confidence and aloof brilliance, buys into it, exploring the character’s easy relationship with his own startling intelligence. Indeed, the earliest challenges for the cool, bespectacled Hawking are getting a date with the equally bright Wilde and settling on a thesis topic. 

In the austere surroundings of Trinity Hall, captured with sumptuous understatement by cinematographer Benoît Delhomme, Hawking engages with the full gamut of an Oxbridge existence: ale, intellectualism, coxing. So far so spiffing. In the wake of a nasty, palsy-induced fall, however, his charmed life is upended by the diagnosis that would come to define his public image. He is told that he suffers from motor neurone disease and has only two years to live. 


The subsequent picture extracts a great deal from the juxtaposition of his crippled form and soaring mental capacity, a challenging development faced, without self-pity or remorse, in partnership with Wilde’s great woman behind a great man. Redmayne’s presence is the tour de force here, of course, transforming from a sprightly imp — albeit one exhibiting subtle hints of encroaching deterioration, almost from the beginning — into a twisted, still and impassive shell. 

The actor’s physical evolution is extraordinary, neither impersonation nor insult. Crucially, Redmayne sends out intermittent flares of Hawking’s latent personality, his fixed grimace softened into a smile here, the flicker of an eyebrow there. It sits easily with Marsh’s mature direction, which is confident enough to cast as an icon a flawed man whose selfishness becomes increasingly prevalent as his isolation grows. 

Moments of real emotion persist in a marriage laced with frustrated ambitions, yet built on enduring love and, ironically, Redmayne dazzles to the point of dwarfing his own identity. Hawking remains a strangely unknowable figure, the things that make him tick lost beneath this wonderful piece of acting. Jones, on the other hand, enjoys few chances to show off. Her controlled display, therefore, is all the more inspiring for it. 

Jones's personal journey is a humbler one, perhaps, yet there is bravery also in standing next to Redmayne as he undergoes his metamorphosis. She changes also, though a thread of steely loyalty endures until Hawking’s condition, and his quiet defiance, pushes her to the edge. From pretty scholar to emotionally battered wife-cum-carer, Jones imbues Wilde with a knowing worldliness as fascinating as anything served up by her onscreen husband. 

It is in this two-handed dynamic that The Theory of Everything discovers a soul. Hawking’s quest to discern the source of existence takes a distant back seat while this marriage winds its way through three decades of intimate trials and triumphs. If this adaptation of Wilde’s frank memoirs feels occasionally uneven in the treatment of its subjects — his philandering is handled in a strange, almost sniggering manner; her potential infidelity is treated like the coming of an especially bleak rain cloud — there is more than enough heart to compensate. 

‘I have loved you. I did my best,’ whispers Wilde, as their union crumbles. Maybe Hawking’s answer was there all along. 

An edited version of this article was first published here