’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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Under The Skin

I recently caught up with last year’s Under the Skin – it was heralded by many critics as one of the best films of the year, revolutionary, changing Scarlett Johansson’s role in cinema and science fiction. It’s the story of an alien in human guise (Scarlett Johansson), who drives around Glasgow in a white transit van, preying on young men by enticing them with the suggestion of sex before disposing of them, in a mystery house with magical qualities. Nothing is explained, there’s little dialogue, and what is really going on is never made clear.

Director Jonathan Glazer uses an almost guerrilla style of film making, with the scenes in which Johansson’s character drives around looking for her victims having a documentary like quality. In fact many of the ordinary people shown weren’t aware they were a part of the film until afterwards – perhaps a rather sad comment on lonely young men in Glasgow. It’s a piece of cinema that feels like an experience; storytelling is not what is key here – instead, the unnerving score from Mica Levi and the odd direction from Glazer combine to make something which feels more like an incredibly claustrophobic piece of art. Despite Johansson’s character being an alien it is her world view we share, as, thanks to Glazer’s careful direction, we see the world from an outside perspective, normal conversations and scenes unfolding before both us and this alien, that are unavoidably human.

This is certainly not a film that panders to its audience, and much is left unexplained and ambiguous. Whilst this is admirable and clearly key to the general feel of the film I’m not sure it’s a trait that’s enjoyable to watch. It’s unsettling, and made my skin crawl, surely the point, proving the effectiveness of the film. There are moments so raw that they are almost tender, and the vulnerability glows off the screen until you feel it within yourself as well.

The depiction of women in the film is interesting – arguably Johansson’s character is using the benefit of her beauty to control men, given tools of power in her looks. But still it feels exploitative and she continues to be controlled by men from afar, and is still in the position of a submissive woman in society. I think this is partly the point Glazer is attempting to make, and it is certainly one he does well.

At times it feels like an alien look at the world and yet it also feels like an intimate look at humanity. It’s intense and certainly gets under the skin – of those performing, of those creating and certainly of those watching.

Ex Machina

Directed by novelist and screen writer Alex Garland, Ex Machina raises questions about life, the rise of technology and what playing God can do to you. After Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) wins a staff lottery he gets the chance to spend the week in the company of his boss and expert hacker Nathan (Oscar Isaac), where he becomes part of an experiment. The pair attempt to test Ava (Alicia Vikander), a robot with artificial intelligence created by Nathan, through conversation, to see if she can pass for human. However who exactly is being tested soon becomes unclear, and throughout the film we see how the rise of artificial intelligence calls into question more about humanity itself.

This is a tense clever and incredibly close sci-fi thriller, where all of the action comes from the ethical issues raised, and the mood created by Garland’s stylish direction. Despite it being his debut, Garland doesn’t hold back, and it seems his years of scriptwriting allow him to understand the importance of the intricate relationship between screenplay and direction, of style and substance, something he balances perfectly throughout. The score perfectly plays on the increasingly creepy nature of the film as more about Nathan’s experiments are revealed, and we become more and more unsure about who to trust.

Vikander’s performance is a wonderful one, and although she’s technically playing the least human character of all, it is her who seems to display the most compassionately human characteristics of all. There is something very simple and beautiful about the scene in which she dresses herself, covering her intricate mechanical workings and mesh that make up her robot figure with a pretty dress and cardigan, until she looks almost completely human. Juxtaposed with Caleb’s confusion about his attraction to her and the strange jealousy emanating from Nathan about this, Garland manages to take pedestrian actions and explode them into something which asks all sorts of questions about what it means to be human.

Isaac is terrifyingly creepy as the genius who has a lot of personal issues but always keeps us on our toes, switching from chatty and engaging to a drunken angry mess in seconds. With a cast of essentially only three, the relationships and the dialogue are what make this film a great one, taking twists and turns constantly unexpected, with the audience never sure who to trust, just as good sci-fi should be.

As well as this, Garland’s script is not afraid to be funny, to laugh at the ludicrous situation it is showing us, with millionaires and robots and big fields and helicopters and luxurious wealth. And despite raising interesting questions, it never attempts to make a moral judgement.

For a directorial debut this is simply stunning, and the cast are all as excellent as each other. It’s creepy, intimate, and hugely enjoyable.

Taken 3

The third installment in the franchise which made Liam Neeson an action star and ‘particular set of skills’ a much loved phrase worldwide, Taken 3 returns to the life of Brian Mills (Neeson) and family. This time however, it is Brian who must take himself, when his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) is murdered and he is the prime suspect. He goes into hiding and attempts to beat the police to find out who is responsible for the murder of the woman he loves and clear his name.

When it gets to the third instalment of this franchise you begin to wonder what else can go wrong in this family’s lives. Apparently, the answer is a third film. With a loose script that is just simply quite boring, and action sequences cut to get a 12A rating and therefore the biggest audience possible, there’s not much going for this film. Neeson’s desperation at his ex-wife’s death and his moments of fatherly compassion are cringe inducing, and although his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) has improved on her performance since the first film, Neeson’s seems to have worsened.

The poor action sequences and the inconsistently written characters all mean that when watching, you simply don’t care. I didn’t care if Brian got locked up, or his ex-wife died, or someone else is behind the murder. The poor script means that it’s not a mystery I’m interested in seeing solved. Forest Whittaker gives a pretty average performance as another underwritten character, a police detective with a penchant for fiddling with various random things whilst he thinks, from elastic bands to chess pieces.

Co writer Luc Besson is known for helming the Cinéma du Look movement, where style presides over substance. But in Taken 3, neither of these things are present. The shaky hand held camera used in any action sequences made me feel nauseous and the performances leave a lot to be desired. Cinema can be many magical things, but Taken 3 only reinforces the sad reality that first and foremost for some it is a money making machine.

Taken 3? Take it away from me please.

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.

Maps to the Stars

David Cronenberg’s new film sees the interlocking and incestuous nature of Hollywood taken to a whole new level. The Weiss family have what might be seen as the typical Hollywood set up, with Cristina (Olivia Williams) managing the career of her child actor son Benjie, and her husband Stafford (John Cusack) working as psychotherapist to the stars. One of the stars he treats with his intense massage-come-therapy is Havanna Segrand (Julianne Moore), a Margo Channingesque character, unwilling to allow her career have its day and obsessed with playing her own mother, who she claims sexually abused her a child. This troubled relationship with her mother impinges on everyday life, not helped by her appointment of the Weiss family’s estranged daughter Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) who has just been released from a sanatorium, and has befriended driver and actor Jerome (Robert Pattinson) along the way. These sprawling lives in the dusty streets of Hollywood are in constant danger of colliding like tectonic plates, causing the foundations of acceptable behaviour to shake.

Julianne Moore’s portrayal of a damaged actor unhappy with her current career and susceptible to sudden and terrifying mood swings is jaw dropping. The intensity of the character coupled with her almost ferocious unhappiness leads to a cataclysmic explosion of character on the screen, and Moore absolutely embodies the vulgarness of Havanna. For an actor known for being so anti celebrity culture Moore seems to throw her heart and soul into this dark and twisted character.

Cronenberg’s direction is relentless and at times the film is actually hard to watch, such is his no holds barred approach. The film cleverly comments upon the way that Hollywood works without seeming hypocritical, and the actual incest within the film seems oddly commonplace in the world of botox and red carpets. The culture of therapy and special treatments exhibited in the film seems so spot on, and the balance of pretentiousness versus satire is a careful but exact one.

Throughout the whole of the film there is a very strong feeling of entrapment – trapped in the world of Hollywood, trapped in a family, trapped by a past. It’s stifling, and the hot air of Tinseltown makes the whole cinema feel like it too has been enveloped into that world. There are even moments of humour, mostly due to the absolute spot on nature of the satire in Bruce Wagner’s script – particularly so in a scene with a group of 13 year old actors describing anyone over the age of 23 ‘menopausal’.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the name of this film in particular. The interconnected nature of all of the characters is indeed reminiscent of a map of the night sky, where all of the tiny dots of light join up to make something bigger. This image in itself also links to the maps to the stars houses in Hollywood, with all of the celebrity names labelling different locations, these tiny dots of celebrity light joining together to make something bigger, in this case the concept of Hollywood itself, the very idea of fame and celebrity. This film manages to perfectly encapsulate these ideas.

A film about Hollywood seems like the perfect chance to mention the importance of film viewing experience. I saw Maps to the Stars in the Greenwich Picturehouse on a rainy Thursday afternoon.  When you walk into the lobby you can instantly tell that this is a group of cinemas that really love film. With big posters everywhere, little bits of merchandise (including a job application to be Havanna’s chore-whore) dotted around and friendly staff who seem genuinely interested in their jobs, I enjoyed the film infinitely more. Going to the cinema should be an experience, not just a social event or time filler. As the lights go down, and the screen widens and focuses, the anticipation mounts. That moment, as the trailers end, and the BBFC notice comes up on screen is heavy with possibility, the possibility of the film you are about to watch. In the Greenwich Picturehouse, I got that feeling. That’s what cinema should be.