So I’ve been very busy of late and as a result my regular film reviews has fallen by the wayside a little bit. But of course, there’s always time for watching movies, and the past few weeks have been no exception. So here’s a quick review roundup of a few films that I’ve seen at the pictures recently.
World War II tank film Fury is grimy - both figuratively and literally. Not just in its ‘horrors of war’ scenes of graphic violence (the film opens with Brad Pitt knifing a Nazi in the eye!), but everything you see up on screen is equally muddy and filthy. The land is covered in smoke and rubble, the crew argue and push each other around and everyone constantly looks to be on the verge of tears.
For the most part, this is a realistic war movie. The year is 1944, and despite Allies forces methodically sweeping through Germany to end the war, there is still a significant Nazi resistance. Death is brutal and often very sudden, and there is a pervading sense of despair and pointlessness throughout – an interesting moment in time that the film chooses to explore.
Although Brad Pitt is billed as the lead (as a tank commander nicknamed ‘Wardaddy’), we are really following the viewpoint of the squad newbie Norman (played with the requisite naïve innocence by Logam Lerman), as he is thrown in as a replacement gunner with the rest of Wardaddy’s crew: a bible quoting Shia LaBeouf, an very Mexican Michael Pena and a scarily red-necked Jon Bernthal. Performances are good all round and despite some slighty underwritten characters and the fact these supposed ‘good guys’ don’t always act in the most morally upright manner, you genuinely start to root for this tight knit group.
Fury has a lot going for it: a great score with thrilling choral sections, some tense set pieces (including probably the most intense tank sequence you've ever seen on film), and great performances from all involved. It’s unfortunate then that the final act feels entirely different from what preceded it – a predictable and rather overly sensationalist climax that, while enjoyable in a throwaway action sort of way, feels at odds with much of the earlier tone and build-up. Still, if you like your macho war movies, Fury comes recommended.
The viewing experience of watching Australian independent horror film The Babadook was unfortunately tainted for me somewhat by having seen the trailer for it beforehand.
In the trailer, the film is presented as some slick Hollywood scary monster movie - it’s really not. In fact, The Babadook is actually more of a subtle and ambiguous character drama, one that examines a mother and son relationship pulled to breaking point as well as an exploration of loss, grief, denial and mental illness.
That’s another reason why generally I discourage the watching of trailers. A gross misrepresentation of a film can sour the viewing of it and I definitely think I would have appreciated it more had I gone to see this film without knowing (or seen) anything at all beforehand. Just thinking about the subtle details of the film afterwards (certain parts are very open to interpretation and things aren’t entirely spelled out for you come the conclusion) has made me increasingly appreciate its intricacy.
If you are expecting a straightforward movie for scares – this isn’t it – you should probably look elsewhere for that. The film’s strengths lie in other areas: the restrained build-up that takes its time in establishing the core mother/son relationship, the classical feel of the costumes and set design, great use of sound editing to apply and then abruptly cut the tension, and the claustrophobic sense of paranoia and losing one’s mind - something that many other horror films often try to convey but can’t quite manage it as effortlessly as this film.
When the titular horror does finally reveal itself, its somewhat vaudevillian appearance, whilst it is undoubtedly creepy, isn’t actually all that scary. The real terror is actually the constantly misbehaving kid, pushing and pulling his mother to breaking point - which is done so well you fully sympathise with her as she simultaneously both wants to hug him and wring his neck.
Essie’s Davis knockout performance is the true centrepiece of the movie and she seriously impresses in the lead role – you’ve never seen someone look so utterly exhausted throughout an entire film.
The Babadook is seriously impressive at times (considering the whole thing started out as a micro-budget crowd-funded venture!), but it still has its flaws. Scenes of ‘possession’ have been a tad overused in horror films recently and despite a healthy dose of ambiguity, the story’s overall trajectory is fairly predictable in terms of where it’s all heading - whilst mostly moving at a snail’s pace. A few more decent scares wouldn't have gone amiss either.
As supernatural scare movie – it doesn't quite work. As a psychological drama with creepy elements - it’s effective in getting under your skin and makes you piece together the clues for yourself afterwards. The design of that damn book is superb as well.
Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar has had its fair share of hype and haters, both before and after its release. But from its fantastic wide vistas (both on earth and in the far reaches of the galaxy), richly themed narrative (the motif of ‘time’ is obvious, but did you notice such details as the ship being shaped like a clock?), and the most humorous robot this side of Marvin from Hitchhiker’s Guide… – Interstellar impresses on many fronts.
The slow reveal at the beginning of the film (that barely hints at the near future setting where the world’s food reserves are running low) lends a mysterious nature to the story’s opening, and the sense of wonder, exploration and discovery experienced by the characters brilliantly matches our own as they blast off to seek a solution out in the great unknown.
Matthew McConaghauey is excellent as the man out of time, torn between being a frontiersman and a father (providing several tear-jerking moments), and the rest of the cast also give solid performances – especially his young daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy). Without giving away too much about the story, it's an ambitious visual spectacle that seeks to thrill audiences as well as question their notions of humanity. There are tense set pieces, ponderous monologues, mind-bending science-y bits, Michael Caine reciting Dylan Thomas… the list goes on.
If anything, Interstellar can be said to almost be too ambitious - trying to be too many things at once: the thrill ride of Gravity, the epic and hallucinogenic qualities of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the played-straight science occasionally jarring with the emotional family beats and abstract notions of ‘love conquering all’ (this was, after all, originally a Spielberg attached project). And that’s not even mentioning the rich discussions brought up of the moral conundrums that come with being responsible for saving the human race, experiencing the relativity of time, or how being human and all of its accompanying emotional traits can be considered both a strength and a weakness of the species. Interstellar is good at all these things without managing to be truly exceptional in any one area, despite the bloated running time.
Elsewhere the movie falters: plot twists being a little bit too expected, a hurried convenience of an ending that will split audiences down the middle, famous faces popping up in surprise roles being a little immersion-breaking, Hans Zimmer’s organ-heavy score - despite being truly inspired at times comes across as heavy handed in others (in one instance even going as far as drowning out some key dialogue).
Despite its various flaws however, the ambition and scope of Interstellar is almost enough to make it worth watching in and of itself. With the weight of expectation off the back of that almost universally lauded trilogy (about some guy who likes to dress up as a bat), Nolan always had a monumental struggle ahead of him. Whilst perhaps not quite managing to scale those heights of expectation, Interstellar is a cinematic experience that is highly recommended – despite being likely to cause many post viewing discussions and arguments.
And if you at least don't crack a smile at TARS’s deadpanning you are surely dead inside.
Last up is Nightcrawler – the story of an ambitious sociopath who finds himself entering into a career of chasing late night breaking news footage. Although the story concept itself is an interesting one, there aren’t too many surprises to be had (especially if you’ve seen the trailer) and despite the rather straightforward rags-to-riches progression through the plot touching on some dark territory, you get the feeling that it never quite fully immerses itself in the murk as it could have.
To be sure, there is plenty of commentary about the sensationalism and fabrication that takes place in the newsroom (extended scenes showing news items being manipulated and skewed are fascinating to watch) but it is occasionally played a little safe – one particular instance being one newsroom assistant always present in the editing suite acting as the conscience of the audience, continually piping up with: ‘come on guys, is this really morally and ethically ok?”
At the centre of it all though, is Jake Gyllenhaal’s character Lou Bloom – a masterpiece of a performance; one that despite being gaunt, bug-eyed, oily and affecting a weird cadence – is an utterly magnetic screen presence. A delicate balance of being a manipulative creep through his self-taught gift of gab, whilst simultaneously at times displaying an almost childlike wonder at his new found occupation. It’s an astonishing turn from Gyllenhaal - arguably it’s worth watching the film just for his character and performance alone!
Also excellent is Riz Ahmed as his ‘intern’, and although only appearing in a few scenes, Bill Paxton is similarly effective as a rival Nightcrawler.
Other points of note: there are lots of gorgeous dusk, night and twilight shots of LA. The music choices feel odd for the film, however. It makes sense in that the film plays out very much from Lou’s point of view (he is in every scene) and that the music reflects his feelings - the sense of adventure, trepidation and triumph he experiences - but personally I feel something a bit darker and edgier would have been more suitable.
Whilst Nightcrawler as a movie itself isn’t unmissable, Gyllenhall’s portrayal of the ambitious, manipulative and ever-haggling scumbag Lou Bloom gets my vote for best performance of the year so far. It’s got a sharp script, great dialogue and is darkly comic – check it out whilst you still can!
22nd November 2014