“Black Mass”

Black Mass

ANY GOOD GANGSTER FLICK dares, if not exhorts, the audience to find something to admire in its subjects.

The characters may be charismatic, larger-than-life figures, or working-class overachievers who defy the disadvantages of their birth to accumulate staggering wealth and rise to positions of power they could never come to occupy through legal means. Or they’re Robin Hood types: class-war heroes who steal from the rich and powerful so they can fill the pockets of those in their communities (or at least appear to.) But while Scott Cooper’s Black Mass, about the Irish-American crime lord Whitey Bulger, is at times absorbing, it doesn’t quite convince anyone to care about its villainous protagonist.

In south Boston in the 1970s and 1980s, James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp), the leader of the Winter Hill Gang, gathers power, courtesy of an unholy alliance with the FBI and the political disregard of his brother, the Massachusetts State Senator Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch). FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), with whom the Bulger boys grew up, has given Whitey virtual immunity from prosecution in return for “intel” on the Italian mafia operating in the northern part of the city, a deal which permits him to operate unencumbered by the forces of the law. This, Whitey claims, does not mean he is an informant–“there’s informing and there’s informing,” he tells an associate–but what it does mean is that the bonds forged on the unforgiving streets of south Boston disregard obvious contradictions, such as those found in a triumvirate that includes a government agent, a politician and a trigger-happy gangster. It is these delicate relationships–in particular, the relationship between Whitey and Connolly–around which the film revolves. Intimacy, in fact, is a running theme. Closeness might suggest trust, but it also suggests danger–especially if you happen to be part of Whitey’s crew.

Of course, nothing is more befitting a gangster film than a tense exchange over a dinner table and Black Mass reworks Joe Pesci’s “Funny how?” scene from Goodfellas with some success. Black Mass borrows openly from other films in the genre and in this reuse of tried-and-tested tropes, scenes and settings–from The Godfather and The Departed among others–it at times becomes formulaic. But the principal failure of Black Mass is not that it is formulaic: it is that it takes no time at all either to develop Whitey’s inner world. It is frustrating that the writers do not even try to explain why Whitey is the way he is, and how it can be that two brothers can grow up to live such different lives. Consequently Whitey at times seems to be little more that a horror movie villain, an effect aggravated by Cooper’s tendency to luxuriate in the assorted stranglings and shootings conducted by the Winter Hill boys. Scant screen time is paid to creating the psychological complexity that makes gangsters such compelling characters, and for the better part of the film, Whitey does little except prowl around Southie with his thin hair combed back against his scalp and the collar of his leather jacket turned up against the wind. Interestingly, one of the best scenes of the film comes when Whitey dotes on his family in an early scene. Whitey, over dinner, marries the values of the gangster and the family man when he tells his young son, Douglas that “if nobody sees it, it didn’t happen.”

Much of what you think of Black Mass will depend on what you make of its high priest, the blue-eyed, thin-lipped Johnny Depp, but the film really belongs to Joel Edgerton, who turns in a first-rate performance as a man in denial that there is any conflict between his work for the FBI and his friendship with Whitey Bulger.

There are absorbing moments of drama in Black Mass, but they’re sporadic, and the result is an unsatisfying and episodic depiction of an interesting story.

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IT HAS BEEN THE enduring mission of man to try to conquer nature, and though the war, as it were, has been won, battles may still be lost.

Such was the case of the 1996 Mount Everest tragedy, which is the subject of Baltasar Kormakur’s film. Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) and rival guided climb operator Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) lead a group which includes veteran climbers, adrenaline junkies, a former mailman and a journalist to the summit of the highest mountain on Earth. Needless to say, it doesn’t quite go according to plan.

The signs, as they say, were all there. First, Hall’s colleague at Adventure Consultants gives a lengthy speech on the horrendous potential effects of climbing, including hallucinations and pulmonary edema (no prizes for guessing what happens later in the film). Then, the wife of experienced climber Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin) tells her daughter, “I think he’s scared.” Anatoli Boukreev, the film’s token gruff Russian, tells Fischer that “the last word belongs to the mountain.” Hall voices concern at the large number of people with the intention of climbing the mountain at the same time. And if of all that did not persuade you that the venture was doomed from the start, Weathers nearly falls off a makeshift bridge made out of a ladder early on in the ascent.

Naturally, the Himalayan vistas are gorgeous and the quasi-supernatural character of the mountain (“the mountain has its own weather”) is omnipresent. The main force in the story, however, is ego. It drives the refusal of the competing groups to ascend at different times and the conflict between Hall and Fischer; it’s the reason climbers insist on getting to the summit when the odds are stacked against them so heavily. You are hesitant to label those who lost their lives in ’96 as arrogant––and, of course, that does not make their untimely deaths any less tragic––but that is the most fitting description for a person who insists on continuing on to the summit when not only are they are not in a fit state to do so, but their stubbornness will put others in danger, too. It is this which to most people is the most interesting element of climbing: the psychology of the climber. What sort of person puts themselves through hell and risks life and limb to take on the world’s highest peaks? And what sort of person leaves their loved ones at home while they pursue ever more dangerous climbs?

Regrettably, Everest fails miserably in this area. That isn’t to say it doesn’t try––but it tries half-heartedly. Early on in the film the journalist Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly) asks his fellow climbers why, exactly, they climb, but the responses are superficial, and that’s the last we hear of the matter. If you wish to take a closer look into the psyche of these high-risk climbers, look no further than Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s excellent documentary, Meru.

Everest is, unfortunately, standard disaster movie fare. Despite an excellent cast and setting, it fails to hold your interest. It was a misstep not to take more time to explore the motivations and backgrounds of its principal characters, which might have elevated a solid but unremarkable film into something very good indeed.

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“Winter on Fire”

FOLLOWING IN THE FOOTSTEPS of Jehane Noujaim’s documentary on the Egyptian Crisis, The Square, comes Evgeny Afineevsky’s Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, a documentary on the 93 days of civil unrest in Kiev which began as peaceful student protests and became a violent revolution.

What struck me most about Winter on Fire was the way in which it captured the ability of ordinary people to mobilise and organise spontaneously and to fill the roles that best fit their skills. We see almost overnight the young people of Kiev erecting food trucks and clothes stalls and places from which to distribute flyers and pamphlets, and later we see the cab drivers form a sort of cavalry, the bravest (or most reckless) demonstrators go to the front line to spar with police and the most articulate and charismatic make speeches on microphones.

Winter on Fire didn’t quite hold my attention in the way The Square did, despite their similarities, and I suppose this might be because I knew what followed the Euromaidan (the Russian annexation of Crimea) and that diluted one of the film’s most powerful messages concerning the power of the people to force out a Government that no longer serves their interests. Winter on Fire fails to address this, relegating any information on the subsequent Crimea crisis and the thousands of lives lost to a line of text on a black screen at the very end. Compare this again with The Square, in which the Egyptian “revolution” also fails in the sense that the Muslim Brotherhood allies with its former enemies and installs Mohamed Morsi–who later went on to proclaim himself “pharoah”–as president. Unlike Winter on Fire, however, The Square ends on a positive note, with the intensely likeable Ahmed Hassan saying, with a smile, that he and his fellow revolutionaries will simply continue to remove leaders from power until the right one comes along. I appreciate that timing and other factors may not have permitted the inclusion of more footage in Winter on Fire, but to end the film in the way it was does leave you with the distinct impression that the 93 days of Euromaidan was all for nothing, or worse–that it inadvertently set the wheels in motion for a bloodier conflict and a new form of oppression far more brutal than the one against which the young people of Kiev were railing.

Where it is superior to The Square is in its depiction of its antagonists, the forces of the Government and particularly the thuggish agents provocateurs, the Tutushkiy. As the protesters rapidly mobilise, the forces of Yanukovych become increasingly more brutal, and become increasingly reliant on the Tutushkiy– mercenary members of the public–to do the things they, by law, cannot. And then there are the individuals within the police and military who seem to recognise the immorality of their actions and their common cause with the demonstrators but feel bound either by loyalty or sense of duty or lack of options to continue to beat and brutalise those on the other side, and Afineevsky portrays these people with some sympathy.

It seems a trivial point but I would rather those interviewed in the film explained the circumstances that led to Euromaidan than a monotone voiceover and computer graphics, computer graphics which, I think unnecessarily, also crop up several times throughout the film to illustrate the location of various places in central Kiev.

I enjoyed the film in any case, but if you want to see one film about revolution by the people on the ground then watch The Square.

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“13 Minutes”

13 Minutes

THERE WERE AT LEAST thirty attempts on Hitler’s life from 1933 until his death, the most well know of which was, Operation Valkyrie, which was popularised–and romanticised–by the 2008 film of the same name, starring Tom Cruise.

Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators were, initially, enthusiastic about Nazism and the colonisation of Poland, and only soured towards Hitler and his policies extremely late in the day, when the tide began to turn against the Third Reich. Historians agree that Stauffenberg and the majority of the others were aristocrats and social conservatives who approved of German domination of continental Europe, but wished an upper-class élite to be at its helm, not the leaders of the populist, working-class Nazi Party.

That was not the case for George Elser, around whom Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 13 Minutes revolves. Elser did not have the luxury of co-conspirators with military experience and intimate access to Hitler when he made his attempt on the Fuhrer’s life in 1939. And unlike Stauffenberg, whose actions can be said to be at least in part motivated out of selfish desire, Elser’s motives were practical and, Oliver Hirschbiegel asserts, highly moral.

In the opening scene of 13 Minutes, Georg Elser (Christian Friedel) looks disdainfully at a Nazi flag, having hidden several sticks of dynamite connected to a wooden timing device in the basement beneath a Munich bierkeller, in which Adolf Hitler is due to give a speech.

The assassination attempt is unsuccessful–the home-made bomb detonates, but misses Hitler by thirteen minutes–and Elser is caught attempting to cross the border into Switzerland. The attempt on Hitler’s life is traced to Elser, and the German security services in Berlin first question him, and then torture him, to try to have him reveal the identities of his co-conspirators. Elser insists that he acted alone.

The film is a character study of Georg Elser. Hirschbiegel and the scriptwriters, father and daughter team Fred and Léonie-Claire Breinersdorfer, punctuate–clumsily–sequences of torture with Elser’s former life in pre-Nazified Germany. In the cold and desaturated present, the Kripo thugs beat Elser bloody; in the glowing warmth of the past, he dances joyfully along the banks of Lake Konstanz. Elser is depicted as a charming and creative man content to enjoy the simpler pleasures that life affords and dismayed by the rise of the Nazis. There is a syrupy subplot involving Elser’s relationship with Elsa (Katharina Schuttler), a woman married to a predictably unsavoury and passionately pro-Nazi husband, which does nothing to strip the film of its already mawkish patina.13 Minutes

The film belongs to Friedel, who turns in a very good performance as Elser. And this is to his great credit, because the Elser of 13 Minutes is depicted in an almost impossibly positive light. He is charming and musical, principled and brave, and, to the amazement of the Nazi security officials (“half the roof has caved in!”), technically proficient enough to design one of the world’s first time-bombs to kill Adolf Hitler. His assorted dalliances and relationship with a married woman are justified by the appalling, drunken behaviour of her husband. Hirschbiegel misses few opportunities to train his camera on the concerned face of Elser every time there is mention of a Nazi atrocity. Elser good; Nazis bad, the film tells us. Well yes, but we do not need to be reminded of this at every opportunity.

Nevertheless there is something to enjoy in 13 Minutes, which tells a quite remarkable (and largely untold) story, if in a rather conventional way. It strikes me as an account that Germany recognises should have been told a long time ago, and a belated attempt to give Georg Elser the approbation he no doubt deserves. You feel that perhaps Hirschbiegel played it safe after the awful Diana, which is a crying shame because 13 Minutes notably lacks cinematic flair.  It is confidently made, but hardly subtle, and dripping in sentimentality.
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“What Happened, Miss Simone?”

Review: 'What Happened, Miss Simone?'

LIKE JIM MORRISON or Janis Joplin or Kurt Cobain, Nina Simone deserves to be talked about as one of the artists of the 20th Century who as nearly as possible changed the culture with her artistic talents and force of personality. And like Morrison and Joplin and Cobain and, I suspect, many other creative geniuses––and I use that word sparingly––who never left the dive-bars and entered the mainstream, Nina Simone often burned far too brightly.

The Netflix original, What Happened, Miss Simone?, directed by Liz Garbus, is an attempt to get at why, precisely, everything fell apart for this towering personality, whose music alternately broke hearts and inspired revolution. The film opens with a performance from a later stage in Nina Simone’s career––a jazz festival, in Switzerland, where Simone looks out at an expectant audience with a hard expression for what becomes an almost uncomfortable length of time before breaking into a broad smile. ‘I have decided,’ she says, ‘to do no more jazz festivals . . .’ It’s a clip that gives the viewer an early taste of Simone’s extraordinary magnetism, but also the complexity and inner conflict that so deeply affected her later in her career.

Even the songs from Simone’s body of work which were not explicitly provocative or subversive or political––for instance the civil rights anthem ‘Mississippi Goddam’––carried within their melodies or their lyrics or within Simone’s performance a defiance of, and desire to be free from, the prisons of race and gender and oppressive relationships.

Garbus tells Simone’s story from her childhood in an Alabama marked by severe racial tension, where she showed the work ethic, ambition and desire for freedom which were characteristic of her career. Simone, it becomes clear, placed a premium on freedom––what she defined as ‘living without fear’––and which she experienced only infrequently and usually on-stage, and as her story unravels it’s plain to see how many different forces were exerted on her from an early age all the way through to her death at the age of seventy. Even the songs from Simone’s body of work which were not explicitly provocative or subversive or political––for instance the civil rights anthem ‘Mississippi Goddam’––carried within their melodies or their lyrics or within Simone’s performance a defiance of, and desire to be free from, the prisons of race and gender and oppressive and unhealthy relationships.

The interviews with Simone’s longtime bandmate, Al Schackman––who Simone herself describes as an intensely ‘sensitive man’––are particularly touching and illuminating. Schackman remained one of the constants in the life of Simone, who she described as sharing a kind of symbiosis with her: he was able to adapt instantly when Simone changed key––as she did often and without warning––and there’s a clear suggestion that Schackman was in tune with her emotionally as well as musically. Fittingly, some of the best insights into Simone’s life and character come from him. He and another friend of Simone, the Dutch photographer Gerrit de Bruin, nearly as possible saved Simone’s life in the 1980s when her behaviour became increasingly erratic. (She was subsequently diagnosed as bipolar).

The interviews with Simone’s longtime bandmate, Al Schackman are particularly touching and illuminating. He was able to adapt instantly when Simone changed key and there’s a clear suggestion that Schackman was in tune with her emotionally as well as musically.

Like Mitch Winehouse in Asaf Kapadia’s excellent documentary, Amy, or the tabloid journalist Nick Pisa in Amanda Knox, Nina’s abusive husband Andrew Stroud emerges early on as the designated villain of the story. But while the charge levelled at Mitch Winehouse was neglect, and at Nick Pisa a sort of callous opportunism, the sins of Simone’s husband, as described in the documentary, seem infinitely more direct and deliberate. Simone described in one interview how, after being handed a slip of paper by a man at a nightclub, Stroud beat her ‘all the way home, up the stairs . . . I couldn’t open my eyes for two weeks.’ It is to the credit of Stroud that he agreed to appear at all in the documentary, which casts him as a cruel and manipulative man who wasted no time in taking over Simone’s career and whose sole intention was to make as much money as possible, even if that meant working his wife into the ground. But the lives of complex people are invariably complex themselves, and it is Simone herself who emerges in the latter part of the documentary as a ‘villain’ of sorts, abandoning her family for Liberia and then, upon her return, beating her daughter Lisa so badly that she contemplated suicide.

Lisa, for her part, neither condemns her mother completely nor exonerates her for her shortcomings, choosing instead to remember her in her totality. Garbus, too, tells Simone’s story without bias. The resultant picture which emerges of the woman dubbed the High Priestess of Soul is neither idealised nor degraded. Instead, it is a picture of a brilliant and complex woman with some very dark demons who it seems was never quite able to find the ‘freedom’ that she was seeking.

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‘Tale of Tales’

Tale of Tales

IN THE OPENING FIFTEEN minutes of Tale of Tales, a hunched old man in a black cloak tells a king (John C. Reilly) and a queen (Salma Hayek) that in order for the pair to conceive, they must kill a sea monster and have a virgin cook its heart. And without any further ado, the king straps on a steampunk diving suit and sets off to do just that.

This is the mad and fantastical sixteenth-century Italy of Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales, in which elements of the magical cannot be said to be purely incidental, but are opaque enough to reassure that this is a film not about monsters but about people. And–what’s more–there is a suggestion that Garrone is making clear his disdain for the sort of magical realism that excuses lazy writing.

The plot comprises three stories lifted from the tales of the Neapolitan poet Giambattista Basile about three Royal rulers. In the first, the Queen of Longtrellis (Hayek), who is unable to bear children, takes the advice of a necromancer in return for a child. The eccentric King of Highhills (Toby Jones) develops an unhealthy obsession with a flea and starts to neglect his loving and obedient daughter (Bebe Cave) in the second. Meanwhile, the womanising King of Strongcliff (Vincent Cassel) pursues a hideous old woman after hearing her singing in the street and mistaking her for a beautiful teenager.

Tale of Tales, then, revolves around institutions and power, and the mad delusions those things inspire. Garrone grants himself a great deal of artistic licence in his take on Basile—Basile wrote the earliest versions of Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty, and influenced both the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen—but he doesn’t quite pull it off. You wonder, as the film draws to its unsatisfying close, what its point was.

The film’s principal faults are its confused structure and Garrone’s failure to push forward with more forceful pacing during each individual story. It is just as each tale draws you in that Garrone chooses to shift the narrative to the next. It isn’t until at least the midway point that the three tales begin to gather traction (when they do the film improves immeasurably) but there is too little time left. A linear approach, in which the stories are told back-to-back, might have suited better.

Visually, however, Tale of Tales is striking. Its setting is surreal and sometimes sinister, partly derivative of—yet achieving more than—Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods while at the same time borrowing darker features from Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Set designer Dimitri Capuani and costume designer Massimo Cantini Parrini concoct some gorgeously ornate visuals to contrast in stark fashion with the grotesque elements of the film.

The film’s little humour comes almost entirely from the severity with which all mad matters are treated by its eccentric characters, beginning with the dutiful slaying of the sea monster.

The flea is delightfully revolting (and I say this as someone who sat, stoney-faced, through The Human Centipede and Antichrist). The scenes which Toby Jones shares with the flea are easily the film’s best, and Salma Hayek is excellent as a suitably lugubrious queen. John C. Reilly, however, is bizarrely cast as the king of the film’s opening.

These are fables for lovers of the macabre, and weird and wild antidotes to cleaner takes on similar material and the moralistic fairy tales of Disney. Nevertheless, Tale of Tales rarely surprises or jars or delights, and lurches from story to story in an apparently arbitrary way. It simply doesn’t quite work.

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“Mad Max: Fury Road”

'Mad Max: Fury Road'

IN A DIESEL-punk dystopian desert, white-faced ‘war boys’ huff spray paint and drive weaponised coupés, tankers and bikes across the wasteland as if the most savage travelling circus ever conceived is coming to town. It’s a Shangri-La for sociopaths and sadists, and a nightmare for everyone else, and it’s here, after three decades in development limbo, that George Miller sets the adrenaline-fuelled Mad Max: Fury Road.

After a short preamble running through the various events which led to the sorry state in which the world presently finds itself, Max looks over the dusty wasteland of what used to be Australia and then bites the head off a two-headed mutant lizard. Shortly after that he’s on the move with a convoy of weaponised cars and trucks in hot pursuit, and for the rest of the film’s two-hour running time, it hardly ever slows down. Fury Road is as crazy as its haunted, hallucinating hero.

Miller shows and doesn’t tell, and just what he shows is breathtaking. Miller resists the temptation to desaturate the colours of his universe as most dystopian films tend to do. Instead he oversaturates, turning the dusty, desert wasteland vibrant orange; at night it’s a rich mid-blue.

Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a tumour-ridden warlord who holds power over a small community by rationing water and repurposing Norse mythology (‘Ride with me eternal on the highways of Valhalla!’), dispatches his best driver, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) to Gas Town to bring back ‘guzzoline’, in this hellish world a rare commodity over which wars have been fought. But Furiosa has other plans, and soon she deviates from the route and heads for hostile territory. Among those in the automobile ‘armada’ Joe sends to bring back Furiosa is sick Nux (Nicholas Hoult), who has Max strapped to his car to supply him with fresh blood.

This insane arrangement is set up with next to no dialogue. Miller shows and doesn’t tell, and just what he shows is breathtaking. Miller resists the temptation to desaturate the colours of his universe as most dystopian films tend to do. Instead he oversaturates, turning the dusty, desert wasteland vibrant orange; at night it’s a rich mid-blue. A toxic sandstorm is an impossibly dazzling mixture of reds and oranges and bright-white lightning, and when Furiosa kills a bike-riding mook with a flare gun, the smoke seems to plume from the screen. All of this adds to an immersing, overwhelming, stimulating cinematic experience. For much of the film Miller and his director of photography John Seale take down the frame rate so that the film runs at a disorientating frenetic pace. Other times they crank it up so we can revel in colourful slow-motion explosions and grisly killings.

Tom Hardy in particular stands out because he spends the first act of the film largely unable to move and masked like he got too deep into the Bane role, but Charlize Theron is exceptional as the fierce, one-handed Furiosa, channelling Alien 3-era Ellen Ripley chic.

This sort of visual storytelling relies a good deal on the physical acting and non-verbal charisma of the main actors. Tom Hardy in particular stands out because he spends the first act of the film largely unable to move and masked like he got too deep into the Bane role, but Charlize Theron is exceptional as the fierce, one-handed Furiosa, channelling Alien 3-era Ellen Ripley chic. (It’s worth mentioning here that despite the film’s title, it’s Furiosa who provides the plot’s inciting incident and Furiosa who drives it afterwards. Max is more of a supporting protagonist). Nicholas Hoult serves up a solid performance as the brainwashed, drug-addled mook Nux (‘If I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die historic on the Fury Road!’) in what’s probably his most ambitious role to date and definitely the role that required the most makeup.

Mad Max: Fury Road is high-concept, low-budget, Aussie New Wave B-movie pumped full of ephedrine and steroids. Miller mixes souped-up murder-cars, flame-throwing electric guitars and pole-vaulting junkie mooks in a manic chase sequence set against a spectacular blood-orange backdrop. Add to that heady blend a lean script and a simple, linear plot and the result is deliriously entertaining cinema.

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“Ex Machina”

Ex Machina

THE CASUAL FILMGOER MAY never have heard of Alex Garland. If they have, they might see him—unfairly—as a sort of side-kick to Danny Boyle, Garland having written the scripts for 28 Days Later, The Beach (based on his novel) and Sunshine among countless other successful films. It is ironic, really, because Garland––novelist, screenwriter, producer, video game writer and now, director–is everywhere––provided you know where to look.

Whether his reputation for elusiveness, which followed the huge success of his zeitgeist book, The Beach, had any bearing on Garland’s decision to step behind the camera we can’t know, but what we do know from his directorial debut, the cerebral thriller Ex Machina, is that Mr. Garland’s talents extend far beyond the realms of pen and paper.

Caleb (Domhall Gleeson) is a programmer at the technology giant Blue Book, a search engine responsible for ninety percent of the world’s Internet traffic. In a company lottery, he wins the chance to spend a week at the sprawling estate of the reclusive Blue Book CEO and founder, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who wrote the search engine’s code when he was thirteen. Caleb discovers that his host doesn’t simply want to drink beer and talk coding: Nathan wants Caleb to conduct a face-to-face version of the Turing test—a test of whether an artificial being can show intelligent behaviour indistinguishable from that of a human—on his robotic creation, Ava (Alicia Vikander).

It is typical for something written by Garland to more about its characters and concepts than its plot. Ex Machina consists of a series of conversations—between Nathan and Caleb and between Caleb and Ava—for the best part of its running time, during which Caleb, as the vehicle for the viewer, tries to determine the motivations of both his drunken yet dauntingly intelligent host and his enchanting robotic test subject, and soon enough he comes to suspect that both may be misleading him.

Through these exchanges we come to know the characters, and though each conversation is revealing, the revelations are never disclosed in an obvious or heavy-handed way. The conversations are refreshingly intelligent; Garland has the trio freely discuss ideas and concepts without consideration for the viewer with no knowledge of that world. Every conversation is engaging—thrilling, even—and at the conclusion of the film there is the wholly satisfying feeling that no stone, so to speak, has been left unturned.Ex Machina

What makes Ex Machina more unsettling than other works of science fiction is its plausibility. It leads us to wonder: if we were to learn tomorrow that a reclusive Silicon Valley programmer had created something close to artificial intelligence, would we be so surprised?

Domhall Gleeson is ideally cast as Caleb, starstruck by the brilliance of his host, undeniably intelligent, but equally naive. Oscar Isaac, who is is fast becoming one of the best actors of his generation, turns in another excellent performance. It is Alicia Vikander, however, who really shines as an android on the very cusp of humanity. It is a role that necessitates a great deal of physical and verbal subtlety, but Vikander navigates this dramatic minefield imperiously.

To write much of the praise I have for this film would be to give too much away. What I can say is that this is a stylish and intelligent film with few flaws, and that Garland’s directorial career is off to an impressive start.

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“A Most Violent Year”

A Most Violent Year

ITS NAME ISN’T EXACTLY misleading, but if you went to see A Most Violent Year in the hope that you would see two hours and five minutes of violence, you might leave sorely disappointed. J.C. Chandor’s excellent period crime drama is a gripping and solemn account of an honourable man’s attempt to maintain his integrity against a backdrop of corruption and moral decay, and an exercise in subtlety and restraint.

The film concerns Abel Morales, played by Oscar Isaac, a fuel supplier and up-and-coming businessman who struggles to deal with the hijacking of a number of his trucks in the midst of a negotiation for a shipping terminal that would permit his operation to expand significantly. Abel’s enterprise isn’t entirely legal, strictly speaking, but neither are those of his competitors and in spite of the apparent contradition Abel sees himself as a decent man and benevolent employer determined to resist a seemingly inevitable descent into gangsterism. He learns, meanwhile, that his problems are not severe enough to merit the attention of the police department in New York City, where it is one of the most violent years on record. His underhand dealings, however, are.A Most Violent Year

The dramatic title of the film betrays its subtlety: throughout the film there is little violence but an unending sense of dread punctuated–to great effect–by brief action. Director J.C. Chandor, who also wrote the screenplay, prefers terse dialogue and veiled threats to shoot-outs and explosions; consequently when the action comes it comes loudly and it comes without warning: every gun-shot, or shattering window, or screeching of tyres is forceful and jarring.

The cinematography, courtesy of Bradford Young, depicts in gorgeous fashion a city in physical and moral decay. Alex Ebert lends low-boil tension with an understated synthesised soundtrack respectful of the film’s Eighties setting. But it is Chandor’s direction which is principal success in A Most Violent Year. He has rendered here a film that moves slowly enough to tease out the tangles of a complex narrative but never becomes dull. To say something is never dull, however, is not necessarily to say it is exciting, and what the film lacks is a little cinematic panache. The ending in particular is wholly underwhelming.

The film belongs to Oscar Isaac’s character, who wrestles with his responsibilities as a father and husband and employer, and all the while bustles about striking deals with loan sharks and police chiefs. But it also belongs in a large part to Jessica Chastain, who, in between lazy drags of a cigarette turns in a fine performance as Abel’s wife Anna, a sort of consigliere-meets-Lady Macbeth who is willing–and eager–to do the things her husband will not. Their white-hot exchanges in the immaculate rooms of the mansion that symbolises their success are the best scenes of the film.

A Most Violent Year is a strong entry in the filmographies of Isaac and Chastain, both of whom have established themselves indisputably as two of the best actors of their generation. It is also very weighty offering from director J.C. Chandor, who is marking himself to be an expert executor of truly gripping cinema.

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‘The Drop’

'The Drop'

APPARENTLY, THERE ARE bars in parts of Brooklyn that function as drop points for a given night’s mob money, which is bound to cause all sorts of problems for the poor souls who work there. In Michael R. Roskam’s lean and atmospheric thriller The Drop––based on Boston crime scribbler Dennis Lehane’s short story––those poor souls are owner Cousin Marv (James Gandolfini) and quiet bartender Bob (Tom Hardy), who complicates matters further when he decides to adopt a beaten, abandoned puppy previously owned by a drug-addled psychopath.

The story revolves almost exclusively around Bob Saginowski, a shy and soft-spoken man who seems a little on the slow side. Bob is tending bar with Cousin Marv when a couple of masked robbers take them for five grand one night; soon he’s an object of interest not only for the gang of greasy Chechen crooks who own the bar and the faux-affable detective investigating, but the junkie former owner of his scene-stealing pit bull, Rocco. There are early hints, however, that our humble hero might be more competent than he lets on. He gets to work on the disposal of a dismembered forearm like he’s done it ‘a thousand times before’, and Detective Torres (John Ortiz) notes with interest that he never takes communion. There’s one memorable shot in which Bob, his shoulders hunched, stands in a corridor under the red lights of the bar, and it does nothing if not suggest that there might be more to the man than meets the eye.

There’s one memorable shot in which Bob, his shoulders hunched, stands in a corridor under the red lights of the bar, and it does nothing if not suggest that there might be more to the man than meets the eye.

The Drop, despite having a few grisly moments, is more drama than thriller, and it burns away slowly. Roskam, who received an Oscar nod for Belgian crime flick Bullhead, puts character development and mood at the forefront of this film, which makes those infrequent moments of action all the more forceful. His direction is neat and technical, and he owes a lot to Lehane’s lean script, which rarely gives room for an unnecessary sentence. There is depth to The Drop, but the clues are subtle and easy to miss.

Roskam’s restrained direction and Lehane’s taut script are underpinned by excellent acting performances and a natural chemistry between Hardy and Gandolfini and Hardy and Noomi Rapace.

Roskam’s restrained direction and Lehane’s taut script are underpinned by excellent acting performances and a natural chemistry between Hardy and Gandolfini and Hardy and Noomi Rapace, who plays love interest Nadia. There’s a charmingly awkward exchange between Bob and Nadia while the former is out walking Rocco in a local park. ‘Where’s a pen when you need one?!’ he says uneasily, fumbling for something Nadia can use to write down her number. Gandolfini serves up a typically solid performance as a hot-headed bar owner dining out on a degree of local fame, while Matthias Schoenaerts, Roskam’s lead in Bullhead, is suitably swaggering and sinister as the dog-abusing junkie Eric Deeds.

The Drop is in many ways a simple film that rises above similar movies thanks to a taut script and a string of rich and complex performances. Gangsters and drug-addled killers always loom threateningly in the background, and though it feels thematically vague at times, its ending is its redemption. It’s a fitting final film for James Gandolfini, who died shortly after its completion.

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