’71

’71 tells the story of a young British soldier (Jack O’ Connell), part of a platoon deployed to Belfast on an emergency basis. After a failed raid he gets stuck on the wrong side of enemy lines, and becomes stranded far from his company. During his night of trying to get home he becomes a symbol in a war he has no real part in, fighting against friend and foe in attempt to get home.

O’ Connell shines in this gritty and real look at the troubles in Northern Ireland from an outside perspective. His performance is a very natural one, which works perfectly in a film where the troubles themselves are the real scene stealer. It is a credit to Yann Demange’s direction that the main character manages to be bypassed, and we see him as the symbol in the fighting that he is, and yet we care no less about him as a character.

Despite the inevitable politics of a story like this it’s still an action thriller, and there are no shortage of moments to make you gasp in shock or recoil in fear, the unsteady nature of life in Northern Ireland at that time embedded on screen throughout.

O’Connell recently won the Rising Star Award BAFTA, voted for by the public and demonstrative perhaps of a change in the sea of public school boy’s role in modern cinema (something I am in no way complaining about however, hello Tom Hiddleston). As well as this, ’71 is a film that seems at first to be from a British perspective, but in reality says so much more about the lives of the Irish people living through the troubles in 1971.

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Foxcatcher

Heir to his family’s fortune John Du Pont (Steve Carrell) wants to use the ample money he has to create an environment where wrestlers, the stars of the sport he loves so much, can come and train. He secures Olympic gold medal winning Mike Shultz (Channing Tatum) as head trainer for the program he hopes will one day become the training ground for the Olympic wrestling team. Shultz leaves his training with his brother Dave (Ruffalo), and enters into a strangely intense friendship with the man who describes himself as his mentor and father figure, but who himself yearns for the approval of his distant mother (Vanessa Redgrave).

Director Bennett Miller is renowned for drawing career defining performances out of actors, from Jonah Hill in Moneyball to Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Capote. And indeed, it is the performances in Foxcatcher which seem to be gaining the most significant attention. Mark Ruffalo has long demonstrated he gives a good performance in everthing he is in, and Channing Tatum’s move away from romantic comedies to more serious character pieces (and also straight comedy as 21 Jump Street Showed) has in recent years made him an interesting casting choice, and this is certainly no end to that.

Carrell’s performance in Foxcatcher is a transformation. Inevitably when portraying someone that really existed and was in the public eye there is a sense of duty to capture a more personal element of them. Carrell is hardly recognisable in his dark portrayal of John Du Pont. Through prosthetics, make up, different skin tone, different face shape, Carrell not only looks the part but his entire demeanour is very different to that of the actor that many will recognise from Judd Apatow comedies and the US office. His entire way of holding himself, his entire celebrity identity disappears, no mean feat with a star of Carrell’s standing.

This is a film of immersive performances, something which only adds to the strange intensity which runs through its veins. The unsettling relationship between Mike Shultz and Du Pont is never overstated, never made explicit, but we still feel as though we are intruding on something incredibly intimate, almost to the point that you feel as though you want to leave the room, and leave them to it.  It’s a strange relationship to view in terms of wrestling, a sport not only viewed as very manly but which relies a lot on body contact. The film has an oddly muted feel. Everything is quiet, unsettling. You sense throughout that something is a bit off, but something unexplainable.

And although we are privy to the innermost aspects of Shultz and Du Pont, their character and their friendship, neither of them are people you necessarily want to spend time with. The most likable character is Mike’s brother Dave, whose care and devotion for his brother is, despite all the pent up emotion, the most heart-breaking part of the film.

I didn’t know anything about these real life events, or wrestling prior to seeing the film. Although, for me, this made following some of the wrestling matches a bit hard to follow, unsure who was winning when and what the rules are, I knew I had to take to care to stay out the way of spoilers. My top tip is you do the same.

The Theory of Everything

Following the story of acclaimed physicist Stephen Hawking from his days at Cambridge to the height of his fame, through his marriage and illness, The Theory of Everything stars Eddie Redmayne as Hawking, and Felicity Jones as his wife Jane.

It seems there is no end to the mileage that can be gotten out of Stephen Hawking’s life story. From the BBC drama starring Benedict Cumberbatch to numerous documentaries (including the one I wrote about previously here), he is a source of endless fascination to the British public. So what does this new film have to offer that the others don’t?

It’s an interesting look at a story that many Brits will know well – instead of focusing on Hawking’s scientific discoveries The Theory of Everything looks at everything Hawking achieved through the spectrum of marriage and from the perspective of his first wife, who fell in love with him during their time at university. It examines the struggle of the day to day life of living with someone with an illness – however, the film doesn’t quite brave sticking to this kind of narrative enough, which would have made the film a bit more interesting.

Redmayne’s performance is impeccable, and his embodying of disability as well as the essence of Hawking’s character is astonishing. Jones’s performance however is equally as good, and I hope that she isn’t overlooked when seen alongside Redmayne. At times it seems as though the performances are better than the film itself.

The narrative of the film follows so much of Hawking’s life, and tries to fit in so many aspects of Stephen and Jane’s time together that at times it can feel too sprawling – perhaps honing in on the development of the disease and the effect on romance would have been more poignant. There’s only so much that can be said of a life in one film, and I’m not sure this film quite managed to work out what it was trying to do.

A rose tinted view of a story that will warm the hearts of many, The Theory of Everything needs to do a bit more work on the sums behind its theory.

Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Michael Keaton stars as jaded actor Riggan Thomson, attempting to rejuvenate his career after his many years at the helm of a multimillion dollar Hollywood franchise. With a play he has adapted, directed and is starring in, Riggan has to keep his superhero alter ego in check, deal with king of the stage Mike (Ed Norton), attempt to reel in his just out of rehab daughter Sam (Emma Stone) and keep NY Times theatre critic (Lindsay Duncan) happy – and all before opening night.

In a world of cinema where Marvel rules the roost, constantly breaking box office records and being the key to all future Hollywood success for actors, Birdman very astutely comments on the power of franchise, whilst also being sympathetic to the plight of the actor’s ego. The cinematography is stunning and with one long tracking shot for the entirety of the film following Riggan and his surrounding cast during the previews, it seems like a metaphor for his career, winding and never ending, constantly following him everywhere he goes, much like the autograph hounds who seek him out wherever he may be. Antonio Sanchez’s score is subtle yet perfectly underpins the mood of every scene, before the audience is even truly aware of what that is. The percussion punctuates every mood, underlining but never overshadowing what is happening on screen.

Every cast member gives an outstanding performance managing to err on the side of funny but never too far that the serious stuff is made light of. This is particularly true of Ed Norton, as well as the fabulously cast Zach Galifianakis as the slightly camp producer, a nice change from his usual man baby with catchphrases. But it’s Michael Keaton himself who truly is the star of the show, with his conflicting moods, his anger, his fear all displayed wonderfully on the face that, rather ironically (or not as casting choices go) many know predominately from Tim Burton’s Batman.

It’s also incredibly self-aware, managing to be funny whilst also saying something very truthful about fame. What is real and what is not within the context of the film is ambiguous, so that you leave the film with more questions than answers. But, personally, I think that’s how it should be – film should make you think, not entirely sure of what you’re seeing or how it makes you feel. As well as being funny and clever, ridiculing the industry it is inevitably a part of, Birdman also has heart, one which at times skips a beat in shock, before returning to its soaring above the clouds.

It also, being a film about a play, manages to give a sense of what that means – of being on stage, waiting in the wings, the dressing rooms. This is no mean feat and for the ‘real’ feeling that you get from watching live actors perform right in front of you to be translated to the medium of film shows that director Alejandro González Iñárritu has done well.

Perhaps it feels unsure when to end, and the last half an hour is full of moments ripe for the credits to start rolling after, with each scene feeling like another addition to a pretty perfect film, but that only enhanced the story for me, of a career rolling on, unsure when quite to finish.

The Imitation Game

 “Sometimes it is the people that no one imagines anything of that do the things that no one can imagine.”

Benedict Cumberbatch shines in this biopic about the life of Alan Turing, the British genius who helped defeat Nazi Germany through his breaking of the enigma code. Helped by a group of the country’s top mathematicians, Turing must battle not only the enemy across the ocean but also the one society casts him as, due to his secret homosexuality and his inability to deal with those minds he views as inferior.

Films about this period of history often look back with nostalgia at the way the Brits rallied together, the triumph of beating the German rotters and end with a pat on the back for the Allies. But The Imitation Game, directed by Morten Tyldum and based on the book by Andrew Hodges, strikes a rather different chord.

Instead of being a film about British pride at winning the war, this film leaves a much sourer taste in the mouth – a feeling of shame at allowing Alan Turing and others like him to be forced to live their lives in secret as they did, a brave choice from a storytelling point of view and one that seems right for the story that is being told.

With a narrative that flits between three different times in Turing’s life – his school days, his time as a cryptanalyst at Bletchley Park and his arrest for indecency in the 1950s – the film manages not to be weighed down by the non-linear storytelling as The Railway Man did. Instead what we get is a comprehensive look at the life of a man sidelined by society for not being like everybody else. As well as Cumberbatch’s moving and transformative performance, Alex Lawther, portraying the young Turing, gives a beautiful performance, managing to emulate the elements of Cumberbatch’s performance perfectly.

However it is an impossibly British biopic, with a seemingly British approach to Turing’s homosexuality – although it is referenced throughout the film his real feelings are never talked about in a frank and honest way as one might hope. Keira Knightley does well with an underwritten role, one that The Guardian has referenced as historically innacurate in their Reel History series. But I can’t help but feel this is irrelevant. There are many details in the film which may not be completely true to form but the story of his life that is presented raises the most important points; Alan Turing helped save millions of lives during World War Two, in complete secret, and was rewarded by the British government with punishment and chemical castration. That is the important story being told here, rather than the ins and outs of who Turing did or didn’t know.

I saw this film at the Peckhamplex cinema, a wonderful independent cinema which shows a wide range of films at only a fiver a go. In these times of £20 3D cinema trips, head down to Peckham and show my new favourite cinema your support.