Before mentioning anything else about The Assassin, the first full film in seven years from Chinese director Hsiao-Hsien Hou, I have to admit that I was completely baffled throughout most of the film. Having very, very little familiarity with the wuxia genre, the opaque plot flew, for the most part, over my head. Yet, somewhat bizarrely, this barely impacted on my enjoyment of the piece, which is so stunningly beautiful that it can never be boring, instead delivering its audience into a state of serenity, occasionally violently broken by a wonderfully staged fight sequence. As a purely visual experience, there is very little out there that can match it, and this praise is only vaguely tempered by the difficulties I had with the story. (more…)
Ben Foster, in films like The Messenger and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, has proven himself to be a highly capable supporting actor, underutilised in the variety of sub-par genre pieces that he’s been a part of. In Stephen Frears’ new film, an examination of the lie at the heart of the life of Lance Armstrong, Foster finally shows the world exactly what he can do if given the right character. He’s mesmerizingly good as the disgraced cyclist, indistinguishable in mannerisms from his real-life counterpart, elevating what is otherwise a relatively mediocre, sometimes even boring, biopic. Frears found great success two years ago with his lovely true-life tale Philomena, but The Program struggles to achieve any real narrative lift, mired in frequent press conference scenes and not actually contributing much to the ongoing debate. (more…)
Even the actors who set out to tell the story of prolific screenwriter and former Communist Dalton Trumbo weren’t entirely aware of the scope of his story when they signed on to the project. Blacklisted for his beliefs and forced to churn out schlocky scripts under a series of pseudonyms to keep his family fed, he eventually won two Academy Awards he couldn’t collect until the mid ‘70s. His family business—Trumbo’s wife and three children all play key roles in transporting illicit scripts under cover of night—is highly reminiscent of Cranston’s most notorious role on Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad, and the zippy pacing and editing liken the film to recent gangster dramas more than the typical biopic. Ultimately, the film’s smooth blend of ‘50s and modern sensibilities keep Trumbo both relevant and unfashionably (in the best possible sense) fun.
Rather than try to tackle the decades of history leading up to the British government’s granting of limited voting rights for women in 1918, Suffragette collages a particularly tumultuous eighteen-month period of violence and retaliation in a real and present way. Avoiding broad strokes, director Sarah Gavron and writer Abi Morgan paint each character with detailed grit and infectious idealism, and the prestigious cast, gravitating around an excellent lead performance by the quietly brilliant Carey Mulligan, lends each historical event an uncanny familiarity. The film sells a world-gone-by while also tapping into the never-more-relevant zeitgeist of radical feminism, reminding audiences that the work towards equality is far from done.
Following the recent and harrowing real-life cases of the Fritzel family and the Ariel Castro kidnappings, long-term false imprisonments have burned themselves into the public consciousness. One of the best things to be said about Room, an adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s 2010 bestseller (scripted by Donoghue herself), is that instead of concerning itself with the gruesome details of suffering in such an environment, it focuses on the bravery and self-imposed routines used by the victims to survive. Room is full of such understated examples of tastefulness; nothing we can work out for ourselves is explained to us, and the focus on characters over explicit traumas was absolutely the right call. Unfortunately, it’s also a film prone to self-sabotage, which lets down one of the year’s most powerful premises. (more…)
There is very little in mainstream western literature with such a streak of nihilism as Macbeth. The lead character is an irredeemable monster, created by his overly ambitious schemer of a wife, and the legacy he leaves is of a barren, wasted Scotland. The kingship Malcolm (Jack Reynor), son of the murdered Duncan (David Thewlis), inherits is hardly desirable, and that is never felt more keenly than in the final act of this new adaptation. As Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) and Macduff (Sean Harris) fight to decide the future of their homeland, it becomes clear that whoever wins will govern not a nation, but an extension of Hell itself. (more…)
The Walk opens on Joseph-Gordon Levitt, standing atop the Statue of Liberty, breaking the fourth wall, and speaking in a committed but honestly rather silly French accent. That this tone carries through the entire film and, for the most part, works is both surprising and impressive, and a pleasing return to purely enjoyable, family-friendly fare for the legendary Robert Zemeckis after Flight. Only his second live action film since 2000’s Cast Away, the director of Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Forrest Gump proves that he’s lost none of his flair for breathtaking visual trickery combined with zippy, engaging stories, even if The Walk doesn’t come close to touching those classics. (more…)
99 Homes is not your typical heartstrings-tugging movie that usually pops up around Oscar season. Yet no scene this year has had quite the emotional impact on me as the eviction of a confused old man from his foreclosed upon house. As he desperately and muddledly tries to explain the mortgage he and his wife took out just before the 2008 financial crisis, the heart-wrenching human impact of the irresponsibility of the world’s banks becomes astoundingly clear, cementing 99 Homes as one of 2015’s must-see films. By a long way the most high-profile film yet from writer/director Ramin Bahrani, it marks him out as someone to watch very closely in the future. (more…)
There are no real victories in Sicario, Denis Villeneuve’s terrifying, captivating, and utterly brilliant War on Drugs tale. Towards the end of the film, we see a series of events that most other films would take as crowning moments of success and glory. Instead, once it’s all over, all we and the characters feel is scared and a bit sick. Playing more like a war movie than a conventional cops vs gangs piece, Sicario makes some bold, but not browbeating, statements about America’s position as World Police, whilst simultaneously easily being the tensest movie of the year. It’s the best work yet by Enemy and Prisoners director Villeneuve, who will next take on the Blade Runner sequel, aided by a great quartet of lead actors and staggeringly good work by master cinematographer Roger Deakins. (more…)
The short but incredibly vibrant life of James Dean has received its fair share of attention since he died at the age of just 24. It’s natural that Hollywood would find him so fascinating, someone who simultaneously represented and reacted against superstardom, and was then tragically killed before he could fully decide on either direction. Anton Corbijn’s new take focuses less on Dean himself than his friend-for-a-month, Dennis Stock, the Life Magazine photographer who shot the iconic Times Square image. Whilst this makes sense, especially given that Corbijn is still more famous as a photographer than a director, and avoids criticisms of following an overly-familiar story, Dane DeHaan’s version of the troubled star makes you wish that he had taken the lead. (more…)