First Look

Spotlight, Early Review – Doggedly authentic

Spotlight

Spotlight’s most obvious ‘eureka moment’ scene does not arrive, as in so many journalist procedurals, after a long night of drinking and piecing things together with clippings and red string. Nor is there some sort of secret source who demands a dangerously mysterious meet-up after dark. Instead, three reporters look through a series of public domain files, during work hours, and discover a pattern that has to be confirmed via the use of an Excel spreadsheet. It’s this stubborn commitment to authenticity that makes Spotlight such a distinct Oscar-friendly true story film, the lack of embellishment on an already fascinating story both one of its most commendable virtues and a contributor to its main weakness. Justice is done to this important tale, at the occasional expense of conventional dramatics, in an unshowy and sharply subversive Best Picture frontrunner.  (more…)

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Carol, Early Review – The Year’s Best Love Story

(L-R) KYLE CHANDLER and CATE BLANCHETT star in CAROL

With gorgeous craftsmanship, an insightful slow-burn of a love story, and inspired casting, director Todd Haynes and writer Phyllis Nagy have achieved the rarest of things, an adaptation of a classic novel that surpasses its source, itself now a classic staple of feminist and lesbian literature. Written in the early ‘50s under a pseudonym, The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith was revolutionary in that it never presented homosexuality as something to be psychologised. Whilst Todd Haynes’ Carol is deprived of that vital context, it’s more emotionally involving than the book, distilling the essence of the story into a film so rich and sumptuous that the atmosphere and tensions are practically tangible. Incredibly, this is the first film script by Phyllis Nagy, a piece of writing with the assured confidence and skill of a veteran, delivered by the immensely powerful duo of Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.  (more…)

The Lady in the Van, Early Review – Transient in Transit

THE LADY IN THE VAN

‘I’m not a carer, I do not care’, rants Alex Jennings’ Alan Bennett at a social worker assigned to look in on the odd woman currently residing in a van in his driveway. Obviously, this is a delusion – The Lady in the Van is all about caring. After all, how else could Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith) survive for 15 years on one street without ever once sleeping in a real bed? Whether they’re motivated by goodwill, paid to care, see a good story in helping her, or are simply driven by the guilt that infects the London middle class, the instinct to care is at the heart of this story, keeping it warmly watchable despite its harsher or more misjudged moments.  (more…)

Brooklyn, Early Review – Home is Where the Hearts are

Brooklyn

2015 seems to be the year of the ‘50s New York department store on film. Two of the biggest players in the lead up to this year’s Oscars, Brooklyn and Carol, centre around a young woman in the mid-20th Century finding love whilst working behind a counter in a fancy shop for wealthy East Coasters. Whilst, of these films, Carol is the true masterpiece, singing the praises of Brooklyn is all too easy as well. John Crowley and Nick Hornby have adapted the lovely novel by Colm Toibin and crafted one of the best crowdpleasers of the awards season, featuring a spate of brilliant performances as well as two believable and touching romances.  (more…)

Black Mass, Early Review – Boston Illegal

Black Mass

Three films into his career, Scott Cooper appears to have found a rhythm that suits him. Both Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace were un-flourishy showcases of the remarkable talents of his actors, and his latest effort Black Mass follows the same pattern, whilst being a lot more entertaining than either of its predecessors. Crazy Heart won Jeff Bridges a long-overdue Oscar, Furnace was further proof of Casey Affleck’s considerable abilities, and now Black Mass is a high-profile comeback for Johnny Depp. After over a decade of playing Jack Sparrow and other characters with the exact same quirks, Depp’s performance as notorious Boston gangster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger proves that he can still be award-winningly good.  (more…)

A Bigger Splash, Early Review – Fiennesest Hour

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In the Q+A after the London Film Festival screening of A Bigger Splash, director Luca Guadagnino said that to make a film about holidays that didn’t feature much nudity would be dishonest. To his credit, A Bigger Splash is a very naked film, but, more importantly, is also incredibly honest. A four-hander of simmering tensions, the entire lead quartet of actors imbue their characters with rich and real inner lives. It doesn’t hurt that two of these actors are the magisterial Ralph Fiennes and Tilda Swinton, giving top-drawer performances. Matthias Schoenarts and Dakota Johnson, two of the hottest properties in Hollywood at the moment, round out the four, and whilst they can’t match their more experienced co-stars, they’re still scorchingly good, and the entire four generates incredible chemistry.  (more…)

The Assassin, Early Review – Truly Beguiling

Assassin

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…)

Trumbo, Early Review – Unfashionably Fun

Trumbo

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.

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Suffragette, Early Review – The Past Made Prescient

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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.

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Room, Early Review – The Whole World in his Shed

Room

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…)