Guardians of the Galaxy 2 – review

Film

If you like pina coladas, and getting caught in the rain… then you’ll have liked the first Guardians of the Galaxy. Which came out of leftfield at the time and was (yet another) risk for Marvel studios, banking on unknown characters that were not hugely connected to the existing Avengers universe.

And Chris Pratt, as a leading man, was also a gamble. A mostly funny, slightly tubby guy, not known as a big hunky heartthrob, suddenly turns up in an action film as… a big hunky heartthrob. Who would have thought? But, to be fair, Pratt was easy casting when you look at the other leaps of faith Marvel took. With characters that included a foul-mouthed raccoon, a tree that only says three words, a tough guy played by an ex-wrestler, and a purple bad guy that seemed to sit on a throne in space doing very little. (That’s Thanos by the way).

Anyway, the completely laboured point I’m trying to make is that, after Guardians became a huge – albeit unexpected – hit, a sequel was inevitable. It also turned out to be one of the funniest the studio had put out too, which gave the follow-up more license to play in the comedy sandpit.

Which, in a pleasing way, it really embraces. And in the same vein as Doctor Strange, this set of characters really helps expand the Marvel universe, adding more background to the Infinity Stones storyline and getting us, as an audience, thinking about space as a viable addition to the Marvel storytelling canvas. (Thor: Ragnarok, we’re looking at you.)

But that’s all strategic stuff.

In terms of Guardians alone and this film as a sequel, it picks up fairly soon after the first one, where the team have become somewhat of a unit for hire. We start with Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Drax (Dave Bautista), Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) fighting a giant monster, whilst Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) dances joyfully front and centre. It’s fun, playful, ridiculous and will put a silly smile on your face. Ok, we can rest easy. This sequel will be good.

Story wise, first time round the plot touched on Peter Quill’s heritage. But here it’s expanded as the main arc and centres around Kurt Russell’s character (yes, you read that right, Kurt Russell is in this) and his link to Quill.

However, this tale also gives more moments to the rest of the gang as well. And whilst they play much the same beats they did first time round, each becomes more well-rounded. We see Drax’s sensitive side and a sort of bonding between Gamora and Nebula (Karen Gillan), and Rocket and Yondu (Michael Rooker) get some rather unexpected scenes.

And then there’s Baby Groot.

Possibly the cutest thing in cinema since Toothless in How To Train Your Dragon. And the sheer inventiveness in terms of the ways they use this tinier, child-like version of Groot will warm your cockles. From his impossibly huge eyes – looking at you with wonder – to his infectious spirit, he lights up every scene he’s in. He’ll have you at the first ‘I am Groot.’

It’s also worth noting that most sequels cannot hold a candle to the original. This, however, might just be better. There, I said it. It’s funnier. It gives more of the characters more to do. The stakes are higher. It has Kurt Russell. It also has another famous movie star (don’t ruin it by looking it up if you don’t know, just go see it). And it’s really just a blast from start to finish.

Where it sits, in terms of the Marvel filmography, is hard to say. It has to be top five, definitely. Although, with the Thor: Ragnorok trailer looking pretty special, perhaps Marvel have found even more ways to delight us with their characters and their universe. By golly, DC have some catching up to do.

Joy: Lawrence adds strings to her bow

Film

Let’s say, in some other reality, Jennifer Lawrence hadn’t met David O. Russell and her career had (thus far) just been built upon an impressively gritty debut (Winter’s Bone) and a teen action franchise (Hunger Games), would we hold her in such high regard?

I rather doubt it. And this really isn’t a dig, but it’s fair to say her collaboration with writer-director David O. Russell over three films now (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle and now Joy) have hugely elevated her career – in terms of dramatic credentials – and evolved her talent as one of Hollywood’s top actresses.

One thing it’s worth noting is that she’s always been able to hold the screen well and could carry a film right from the start of her career but, each time she works with O. Russell, he pushes her further. She evolves and matures.

Joy-00028

Now it’s arguable that Silver Linings Playbook may be a more satisfying film for audiences, but in Joy she perhaps gives a more complete and complex performance. Oscar material some say it may be, but first and foremost we as the audience must connect with her character and journey. Which we do, of course.

When we meet Joy she’s a young girl with hopes and dreams who likes to make things. Flash forward and she’s a young mother looking after a demented father (Robert de Niro) who’s been booted out of his latest relationship and a cabaret singer ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez) who both end up living in her basement. Oh, and a mother (Virginia Madsen) who spends her time in bed endlessly watching soaps and no one appears to be doing much to hold the family together, except Joy. And so she’s lost her lust and vitality for life, scraping a living trying to make ends meet.

Then she has a dream and invents a mop. And we go from there.

joy-DF-11780R_rgb

On paper you might say this has quirky Wes Anderson written all over it. But David O. Russell tends to do things his own way and it’s almost always substance over style and character drives everything. And Joy is a character, that’s evident. She evolves in clear and distinct ways. From the moment she invents her Miracle Mop she’s focused and more driven. There’s an edge to her and she becomes more hardened and glassy-eyed each time she faces a new challenge, whether it’s from those closest to her putting her down in well-meaning but ultimately rather tactless ways, or those she meets in business who try and get one over on her and more often than not, emphatically fail.

And Lawrence gives her a wonderful texture and believability.

She’s always been good at delivering lines with gravitas for one so young, but she does make it look rather effortless at times, completely drawing us into her performance. The rest of the cast ain’t half bad too. If only De Niro stuck to these kinds of films from now we’d all be happier. For every Joy he does a Dirty Grandpa or some other type of drivel not worth his talent. But hey, he’s Robert de Niro, he can do what he likes.

joy-movie-image-7

Another David O. Russell alumni present is Bradley Cooper; more front and centre in Silver Linings Playbook here he has a smaller part, but makes an impact sharing a few rather touching scenes with Lawrence as the man who gives Joy her first big break on the QVC channel.

What’s notable about this film (in that it’s absent) is the complete lack of a romantic subplot or character with whom she ‘has to have’ steamy moments to keep the audience interested. As the film starts with the fact she’s divorced we get a flashback to their time together, but purely for character development as the story doesn’t linger there long. And rightly so, that’s not what’s being told and it would be distracting. Kudos to O. Russell for staying the course.

So what we have, at the end of it all, is quite an inspiring tale to keep pushing tenaciously for your dreams and to believe in yourself – held together masterfully by Jennifer Lawrence, who probably gets better every time I see her in a film (always a good sign).

Incidentally, not a bad way to see in gloomy January I’d say.

Joy-Film-Jennifer-Lawrence

Trailer park: Ultron, Tomorrowland, Crimson Peak and Aloha

Trailer park

To butcher Led Zeppelin lyrics a little, there’s a whole lotta love out there for a whole lotta films coming out in the next few months. Too many to go through in much depth, but here’s a few I’d like to briefly pick out for your consideration.

Avengers: Age of Ultron
Ok, not everyone is a fan of this current glut of superhero films, yet this one really does look impressive. And so it should, given the budget, cast and studio muscle. At one point or another it’s all going to implode, it has to. But for now, I’m on board.

Tomorrowland
This film started life as a theme park ride and whether it turns out to be a franchise behemoth a la Pirates of the Caribbean remains to be seen. What we do know is that Clooney is attached, and he rarely joins doomed projects, so it could be a blast.

Crimson Peak
It’s high time Guillermo del Toro got back to what he does best… inhibiting a niche genre perhaps only rivalled by Tim Burton. But where Burton comes at his stories from more of an oddball outsider perspective, del Toro opts for horror and macabre fantasy.

Aloha
Ah, the sweet and observant writer-director Cameron Crowe, who doesn’t love his films? His last beautiful little story was We Bought a Zoo in 2011, so he’s been out the game a while. This looks like a good return to form with a cracking cast to boot.

American Sniper: Cooper comes of age

Film

Bradley Cooper first broke out in The Hangover in 2009, followed by The A-Team a year later. So he’s into comedy, nothing heavy. Fair enough, he’s that kind of actor. Or so it would seem. Then, in 2012, he hit us with a double whammy, The Place Beyond the Pines and Silver Linings Playbook. Both fascinating, flawed and complex characters. And both critically acclaimed (and very human) dramas.

Two years after that he returned to comedy with another pair of hits, American Hustle and Guardians of the Galaxy, perhaps proving that, if he is going to do comedy it’s going to be worthy films, one where his character plays a pivotal – or at least vital and significant – part.

AMERICAN-SNIPER

So at this point he’s worked with David O. Russell (twice), and up-and-coming directors Derek Cianfrance and James Gunn. And in the process he’s been nominated for two Academy Awards. Not bad at all. But now, with American Sniper, it was time to step it up. With Clint Eastwood directing there was every chance he’d gain critical acclaim for his performance again (which he did, which another Oscar nomination).

Here he plays Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, with the film’s story based on Kyle’s book American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History. With 255 kills (160 officially confirmed ones) Kyle was the deadliest marksmen in U.S. military history (as you can tell from the book’s title).

American-Sniper_612x380

From his beginnings as a Texas rodeo rider, he’s sparked into life by 9/11 and the terror attack on the World Trade Centres and signs up to do his part. At this time he meets Taya (Sienna Miller) in a bar, the pair quickly marry up before Kyle heads off to war. Eastwood gives us just enough scenes to believe Chris and Taya’s bond and chemistry, because after that he’s off on the first of four tours hunting down bad guys.

Each of his excursions to face the enemy are up there with the most tense ones you’d care to name in The Hurt Locker. However, in contrast to Jeremy Renner’s tightly wound, volatile and abrasive IED disposal expert, Cooper’s marksman Kyle is calmness personified. Whether under fire or faced with a morally tricky situation, he reacts in a measured and calculated way. You’d expect nothing less from a sniper, but Cooper’s portrayal is understated and quite masterful. One you could watch time and again and see new things in the most nuanced of facial expressions. In general he gives little away, so you have to stay on a swivel to spot key tells.

546360b31225a2f9404eaec5_american-sniper

Eastwood has to take some of the credit. And it’s not a stretch to imagine that working with this legend of cinema has helped Cooper really up his game. Beneath the surface his Kyle is much more than just a Texan-boy-turned-soldier, he cares deeply about his fellow man, particularly his team, and he’s compassionate and considered yet implacable, guarded and resolute in his resolve to take the fight to the enemy. In short, he’s one driven sonnuva bitch.

And, like you’d expect, upon returning home from each tour, he’s removed from real life, disconnected to a degree, which doesn’t play well with his long suffering wife. Sienna Miller does admirably in a part which largely has her distraught on the phone as Kyle engages in yet another firefight without managing to end the call. And when he’s back on US soil she fares even less well, faced with a zombie of a husband who’s emotionally distant and simply cannot adjust to civilian life.

american-sniper-bradley-cooper-sienna-miller1

As a real life – and really very quite recent – tale, it’s a worthy one. It needed to be told. And Eastwood, Cooper and Miller give it warmth, humanity and believability. It’s tense where it should be tense and emotional where you’re expecting it to be. Yet it lacks something. Maybe spectacle… maybe it just needs to give us something we haven’t seen before. Maybe Kyle as a character is a little difficult for us to connect to. It’s hard to say for sure what the issue is.

That’s not to say it’s a bad film by any means. It’s good, great even… but maybe – with the many, many war films out there – great just isn’t enough to put it in the modern classics category. Compare it to say Zero Dark Thirty (another worthy tale which needed telling) and you’ll see what I mean. So, mixed feelings really. A good effort, but must try a little harder to reach cinematic greatness.

‘American’… what?!

My musings

I blame American Sniper. (Damn you Bradley Cooper.) Maybe this film was the final straw. To explain: over the last few years (or even the last few decades) there’s been a regular slew of films that start with the word ‘American’. Is it a sure fire way to gets bums (at least, American ones) on seats? Or does it simply sound cooler to have that word at the start of a film’s title? I mean, c’mon… French Sniper, British Sniper, German Sniper – they just don’t inspire, do they?

Maybe it’s just simpler.

American Sniper. You know what you’re going to get. Job done. Whatever the reason, here are my top 5 (in order) that proudly wear that word loud and proud for all to see.

american-beauty-digital-painting-gabriel-t-toro

Photo courtest of http://gabrielttoroart.com

1. American Beauty (1999)
The debut of Sam Mendes as a director and the introduction (largely) of Kevin Spacey to the moviegoing public. Getting close to two decades old, the film still stands up perfectly today and is immensely watchable. No scene is wasted, every line loaded with meaning. A modern classic which reminds us of all the beauty in the world.

2. American Psycho (2000)
Upon hearing the part of Patrick Bateman had gone to Ewan Mcgregor, Christian Bale allegedly called him and argued (convincingly) that he’d be better for the part. And he really was. Played as a dark comedy, the world was finally introduced to the twisted, mad intensity of the man that would be responsible (along with Nolan) for reinventing Batman.

3. American History X (1998)
Yet another introduction (in a way) to a manly, pumped up and thoroughly volatile Ed Norton. As a modern-day Lieutenant in a right wing neo-Nazi gang, the arc Norton’s character goes through is hugely affecting. A riveting and towering performance that commands your attention in a film which deals with some big and complex issues.

4. American Pie (1999)
I remember explaining this film to my parents. ‘Well, there’s a guy that has sex with an apple pie, it’s full of crude humour yet…. you have to watch it.’ They were skeptical, but watched anyway. My poor description failed to explain that it was a warm, incredibly well-observed, coming-of-age tale about four very likeable lads. Sadly, the magic was never captured again with the franchise that followed.

5. American Hustle (2013)
Bit of a guilty pleasure this one, featuring both Bale and Cooper (again). It will be interesting to see if this movie stands up over time. Ultimately it’s a fairly shallow tale, but a fabulously looking one with an impressive cast. Worth your time for Bale’s combover and beer belly and all the huge hair and power dresses. As well as Bale, both Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence were also on fine form.

americanhustle-bathroom

Guardians of the Galaxy: release your geek

Film

“Unruly geeks change the world” ― Alexandra Robbins, The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory and Why Outsiders Thrive After High School

In a world… That’s how those voiceover guys (and gals, occasionally) do it right? At least for the big blockbusters they tend to. Let’s start again, shall we?

In a world where big summer blockbusters dominate the box office throughout spring, summer and autumn; in a world where superheroes we’ve known for decades continually get rammed down our throat; in a world where studios get accused of playing it safe, trotting out sequel upon sequel… It’s so damn refreshing to see something different that’s been given a big budget, but also allowed the creative team behind it a lot of freedom to realise their vision.guardians-galaxy
Guardians of the Galaxy is doing great numbers at the box office. Audiences seem to be taking to it. Is it just the power of Marvel studios? Trot out any old half decent film and we’ll buy into it? I don’t think so. Modern audiences (especially comic books fans) are too savvy for that, their power to sway internet message forums is simply too strong.

To put it another way, Guardians is good. It’s entertaining, bright, breezy, moves along at a fair old pace but not an overwhelming one. Plot wise it’s solid. Not overly complicated, not too simple. And it’s funny, very funny.

Individual characters get some great lines, but when you team up this newly formed gang you don’t half get some zingers. Some of the best lines (or moments more accurately) come from a tree that can only say three words.Yondu-in-Guardians-of-the-Galaxy
The geeks shall inherit the earth. A phrase you’ve no doubt heard before. Well, with Marvel Studios and directors like Rian Johnson, Joss Whedon, J.J. Abrams, Guillermo del Toro and others, that happened a long time ago. Films like the Avengers gave us a team on earth. Some geeky (Bruce Banner), some cool (Tony Stark), all of them outsiders. And that’s probably a large part of why this film is doing well. It’s a ragtag bunch of outsiders. Loveable ones.

So where’s the next step after geeks inherit the earth? Space of course. If you’re not fully clued up on Guardians think of it this way: part Star Trek, part Galaxy Quest, part Star Wars. As a lead – the alpha male if you will – we have Chris Pratt, whose character is a kind of modern version of Han Solo, but a bit more of a goofball.

His performance really does drive the whole thing along. He’s practically in every scene and very compelling as a leading man. There’s no doubt he’ll be competing with Star Trek’s Chris Pine for future similar roles. God knows Hollywood is crying out for new leading men who are a bit different.
Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-Star-Lord-Gamora-kiss
There’s also Rocket, a raccoon like creature voiced by Bradley Cooper. We all know Cooper can do comedy but he works wonders with this character and gives him genuine depth and believability (as far as you can believe a machine-gun-wielding raccoon outlaw has depth).

Groot, the walking tree voiced by Vin Diesel, was one of the true surprises of the film, proving that you don’t need dialogue to have a profound impact. Then there’s Zoe Saldana’s Gamora. Switching from Avatar blue to racy space green she fitted nicely into this motley crew of galactic losers, sorry guardians. She even managed to maintain an effective bit of chemistry with Pratt’s Star-Lord. Will they? Won’t they?guardians-of-the-galaxy-rocket-raccoon-what-did-we-learn-from-the-guardians-of-the-galaxy-preview
Dave Bautista’s Drax the Destroyer made up the rest of the gang. Often acting as the dense one, taking comments as literally as you can for comic effect, his performance was, actually, surprisingly funny as a result. Not bad for a former wrestler. Where Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson leads, others will follow I suppose.

So, those geeks eh? Not content with inheriting earth, they’ve aimed their sights at space. Still, this is hardly news. Star Trek – one of the true original geek shows – has been doing this for years. Now that Marvel have got in on the act be prepared for more space adventures. Not just from them as a studio, but probably others too. I’m sure DC will eventually catch up with their roster of space heroes and villains.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But as far as stepping in a new direction goes, Marvel has laid down the gauntlet pretty smartly with this film… And it’s paid off. Hurrah to them. And hurrah to the geeks and outsiders. We salute you.

Now where did I leave my light saber?

American Hustle: another stone cold zinger from David O. Russell?

Film

Big hair, big actors, big performances and small dresses. That’s what you get from this latest offering by writer-director David O. Russell – the man behind award winning films, Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter.american-hustle

Set in the ’70s and loosely following the FBI Abscam operation, we start with our main character, conman Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), sporting a hairy paunch and possibly the best combover since Bill Murray in Kingpin.

He meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) and the pair fall for each other, becoming a successful con artist couple until getting busted by Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an FBI man trying to make a name for himself.PDC - Best Films - American Hustle DiMaso convinces the pair to set up various politicians, including Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), which then leads his operation onto bigger fish, namely mobsters.

There’s the setup. There’s a lot more but suffice to say that films featuring con artists often have numerous double crosses, shady backhanders and ambiguous motives galore. It’s essentially the director playing the three cups game with the audience. Just when you think you know which cup hides the plot twist, boom, deception!

That said, the con part of this film isn’t hugely tough to follow, the plot ticks along nicely. The whole Abscam thing almost more of a backdrop to allow O. Russell to showcase a host of interesting characters. In short, this is a character study.

Indeed, it’s a character driven movie with Irving front and centre as the driving force. Plaudits already seem to be going to Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence – the former Irving’s mistress the latter his unhinged wife, Rosalyn – yet it’s Bale who anchors the whole thingAmy-Adams -American-Hustle--02 with a commanding yet vulnerable performance; as a man who recognises his place in the criminal world and feels control gradually slipping from his grasp.

Amy Adams’ Sydney is partly responsible for Irving’s loss of control. Blaming him for getting her busted in the first place, she puts herself in the centre of a love triangle between Irving and Bradley Cooper’s DiMaso. Is she conning them both? Does she have genuine feelings for DiMaso? Huge credit to Adams for leading us down this sexy garden path with a fiercely seductive performance yet… she’s similar to Irving. The deeper she goes the more she feels things are spinning out of control.

Enter DiMaso. Cooper’s portrayal of an ambitious – and possibly quite naive – FBI man is yet another feather in O. Russell’s cap – and Cooper’s too. He charges about the place, manipulating Irving and Sydney, intimidating his boss (brilliantly played by Louis C.K.) yet he’s the same… never quite in control, mentally or emotionally.

And if we’re on the subject of emotional control, Jennifer Lawrence’s Rosalyn gives a masterclass in how to be an unmanageable wife. Jennifer-Lawrence -American-Hustle--04Furiously demanding Irving’s attention and love, setting fire to the science oven (microwaves were just coming out), getting him in trouble with the mob. Perhaps this is all summed up in one beautiful scene where she sings ‘Live and let die’ whilst furiously cleaning.

So… coming back to my title, is this a zinger? Well, mostly. It’s a great film, lots of fun. It doesn’t have the emotional wallop of The Fighter or the intricate nuances of Silver Linings Playbook, but there’s no doubt it will pick up a stack of awards. And it shows that, with O.Russell we’ve got a director who’s found his ’70s flair and shared the secret with his mad, bad cast. Groovy baby.

The Place Beyond The Pines…Schenectady

Film

130412CutdownPines_7474218When mentioning that I was going to see The Place Beyond the Pines I referred to it as ‘the latest Ryan Gosling movie’, which is fair, given the trailer. However, it’s not an out-and-out Gosling movie, not entirely. I’ll explain, but first, the setup.

Gosling plays Luke Glanton, a motorcyle stunt rider who works for a travelling fairground. We start with the obligatory ‘Gosling torso shot’, then the camera follows him in one long tracking shot from his trailer through the fairground into the main tent, he then climbs onto his bike. The shot pans up to his face. He’s cool, he’s moody, he’s a modern-day Steve McQueen – a promising start.

Luke then pays a visit to old flame Romina (Eva Mendes) and learns she has a son and he’s the father. He vows to stick around and provide for them. Beyond-The-Pines1However fairground work doesn’t pay well, so he strikes up a friendship with mechanic Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), who suggests he robs banks using his motorcycle skills to get away.

Needless to say he gets in over his head and crosses paths with rookie cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper).  The narrative then spins in another direction following Avery’s journey. Initially I thought the film was done with Glanton’s tale, however his character’s presence is felt throughout. As the trailer states, the film is ‘an exhilarating epic of fathers, sons and consequences’, which is apt. The film explores the legacy – for better or worse – that fathers leave behind for their sons and how it affects them.

After Avery’s tale, the film changes tack again, focusing on AJ (Emory Cohen) and Jason (Dane Dehaan), the sons of Cross and Glanton respectively. place-beyond-the-pines-bradley-cooperBoth young lads put in strong performances, the former reminded me of a young Tom Hardy – an intense screen presence. The latter, Dehaan, delivered another mature performance, following his strong turn in one of the most impressive, yet underrated films of 2012, Chronicle.

Gosling can confidently add The Place Beyond the Pines to his ever-growing list of classically cool characters. Cooper, too, can hold his head high. After an exemplary performance in Silver Linings Playbook, this may be a career-high.

In terms of script and direction, Derek Cianfrance has been quite clever. You’re likely to discover more depth and meaning with a second viewing. That’s not to say those things aren’t present first time round, it’s just that, with the plot switching focus roughly each act to new characters, you spend your first viewing working things out. A second viewing should allow you to sit back and soak up the experience more thoroughly.

emorycohendanedehaanIn terms of cinematography, it looked quite beautiful. The landscape in and around the town of Schenectady (which literally means ‘the place beyond the pines’) was incredibly green, lush and fertile. Scenes were filmed in a sort of watery light and dreamlike manner, with a lot of handheld camerawork. I suppose to bring a sense of realism.

Whatever the motives, overall The Place Beyond the Pines came across as a tender, heartfelt, beautiful-looking tale with real depth – one that will mature with repeat viewings. Cianfrance coaxed sterling performances from the cast – particularly Cooper and Dehaan – and, with this and Blue Valentine to his name, I’m excited to see what he does next.

Best twenty films of 2012

Best Of lists

It’s been an epic year for films across a variety of genres. This list reflects my taste in films so I hope you enjoy. Sorry Twilight, you didn’t make the cut!

  • Skyfall
    skyfall-craigStrangely there are people who don’t like this film and say it’s not classic Bond. I think it’s the closest to Fleming’s Bond since Connery. To celebrate 50 years of Bond, the dream team of Mendes, Craig, Bardem and Dench pulled out the stops to make this film truly special.
  • Argo
    Can’t believe people still give Affleck a hard time for his early career. How many decent films does he need to direct before people will admit he’s a real talent? First Gone Baby Gone and The Town and now this. A proper, intelligent thriller.
  • Moonrise Kingdom
    This film is a great companion piece for The Life Aquatic, my favourite from Wes Anderson. As always, a great cast: Bill Murray, Bruce Willis, Ed Norton. Although focus is on the two, young actors who confidently carry the story. A sweet and quirky tale.
  • Looper
    Rian Johnson and Gordon-Levitt are fast becoming a match made in heaven. First Brick and now this time-travelling sci-fi tale of assassins. This film had an interesting mix of futuristic and retro, plus it marked Gordon-Levitt out as a leading man in the making.
  • Silver Linings Playbook
    SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOKForget Hunger Games, this ranks as my favourite Jennifer Lawrence film, just edging Winter’s Bone. She has great chemistry with Bradley Cooper, both of them playing flawed characters in this acerbic, edgy and alternative type of rom-com. Highly recommended.
  • Chronicle
    Earlier this year this film was released and flew somewhat under the radar. Shown in found footage style, the best way to describe the first half is Jackass with telekinetic powers. It then goes darker as it builds to an epic finale. Thoroughly deserving of a place on this list.
  • Dark Knight Rises
    The final instalment of Christopher Nolan’s game-changing bat franchise. Tom Hardy as Bane, Anne Hathaway as Catwoman, Gordon-Levitt as Boy Wonder in the making. This was an emotional, visceral ending to the best set of Batman films of all time.
  • Avengers Assemble
    Despite my last comment regarding Batman, Marvel Studios has firmly staked its claim as the lighter, more upbeat side of the superhero world. Joss Whedon pulling off an incredible trick to balance a film with a host of big characters, letting them all shine equally.
  • Ted
    ted
    Macfarlane knows his comedy. This film was his vision and really paid off. From script and direction through to mo-cap acting, he was the driving force. Mila Kunis and Mark Wahlberg added their dramatic and comedy talent to make this one of the funniest films of the year.
  • Life of Pi  
    Ang Lee’s tale of a young boy shipwrecked at sea with a Bengal tiger called Richard Parker is a visual masterpiece. Taken from a Booker prize-winner novel, it makes you question the nature of belief and how you perceive the world. An uplifting and life-affirming tale.
  • The Raid: Redemption
    Combine the talents of a Welsh Director and up-and-coming action star in Iko Uwais and you get an unexpected, kick-ass treat. Introducing us to pencak silat, an Indonesian form of dance and self defence, it’s breathtaking to watch when used to beat up bad guys.
  • The Hobbit
    Peter Jackson has worked wonders yet again. The dwarves are great and Martin Freeman is the perfect Bilbo. His ‘riddles in the dark’ scene with Gollum is brilliantly scripted. If you’re even a fleeting fantasy fan you won’t want to miss this exhilarating tale.
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild
    beasts
    Critically well received, this fantasy film has drawn comparisons with Pan’s Labyrinth and is well worth seeing. It tells the tale of six-year-old girl Hushpuppy who, when looking after her ill and hot-tempered father, must learn the ways of courage and love.
  • Rust and Bone
    It’s no secret I’m a big fan of Marion Cotillard – there’s a permanent picture of her on my blog. Here she beautifully plays a killer whale trainer who forms an unlikely romance with a bouncer. Jacques Audiard directs this passionate and moving love story.
  • The Master
    Possibly a career-best film from Paul Thomas Anderson and performance from Joaquin Phoenix? Ultimately, this film is about the fascinating interplay between war veteran Freddie (Phoenix) and movement leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
  • Seven Psychopaths
    seven-psychopaths_07
    From the Director of darkly comic film In Bruges, this tale of kidnapped dogs and gangsters is hilariously scripted and brilliantly acted. With a cast including Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell, Colin Farrell and Woody Harrelson.
  • End of Watch
    Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena put in the hours with cops on the beat in South Central LA to form a real bond prior to filming. The results paid off, as this thriller cop movie has real believability and chemistry between the two leads.
  • Magic Mike
    Ladies of Tampa‘, croons Matthew McConaughey, before he smashes his guitar and strips in front of a horde of screaming ladies. This film, though, belongs to Channing Tatum. Before acting he was a stripper – this film gives an intriguing glimpse of life back stage in that world.
  • The Grey
    It’s Liam Neeson, he’s cold, he’s angry, wolves are trying to kill him. In a minute he’s going to get really mad – what’s not to like? This bleak adventure sees a bunch of oil workers stranded in the Alaskan wilderness after a plane crash – in the middle of a wolf kill zone.
  • 21 Jump Street
    21 jump street
    Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill team up in this cop buddy comedy remake. Tatum is – surprisingly – very funny, with great comic timing. Jokes are often set up and don’t pan out how you might expect, which is a good thing. Also, Johnny Depp has an outstanding cameo.

Silver Linings Playbook – smart, edgy rom-com

Film

Seems David O. Russell is on a bit of a roll. Following a six-year break after I ♥ Huckabees, the Writer/Director returned in 2010 with a film which bagged him an Oscar nomination for Best Director, critically-acclaimed boxing tale, The Fighter.

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOKHis latest effort, Silver Linings Playbook, is another triumph – dramatic, touching, funny and heart-warming. This is down to a smart script, assured direction and stand-out performances – particular from the two leads, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence.

What’s it all about?
Pat (Cooper) is a history teacher with bipolar disorder, recently released from mental hospital following a violent outburst upon catching his wife with another man.  Despite suffering mood swings and having to contend with a restraining order, he’s convinced he can win back his wife. Then Tiffany (Lawrence) enters his life, herself a recovering sex addict, a condition brought about following the death of her husband.

The two initially bond discussing the types of medication they’ve taken – then begin to form an unlikely friendship. Pat asks Tiffany to give his wife a letter, hoping something which explains he’s getting his life back on track will rekindle their marriage. Tiffany thinks he’s deluded but agrees to help, but only if Pat helps her practice for a dance competition. We all know where this is going right?

silver linings playbookA tale of two wounded souls
Whilst the story may be nothing new – with the exception of the bipolar aspect – this film lives or dies by its leads. Both Cooper and Lawrence deliver career-best performances. For Lawrence, that’s saying something. She’s already had an Oscar nomination for her performance as Ree Dolly in Winter’s Bone. Here, her latest offering looks likely to get another Best Actress nomination, possibly even a win.

Cooper was surprisingly impressive. All twitchy, unfocused energy with a blunt, direct nature and an imposing presence. You get the sense this is a guy capable of violent outbursts, but really trying his hardest to hold it all together. He also brings comic timing to the character, helping balance out the darker moments. Easily his best work to date. That said, his performance alone would not have lifted the film to the heights it achieved.

silver linings lawrenceLawrence the silver lining
The secret weapon of this film – or true silver lining if you like – was Tiffany. Once again, Lawrence showing the depth of her talent. She’s just astonishing. Obviously there’s a sizeable age gap (Lawrence was 21 during filming, Cooper 37), but she displays a maturity beyond her years – making the attraction between the two wounded souls of Tiffany and Pat wholly believable. She gives Tiffany a wildly unpredictable nature – often switching instantly between vulnerable, raw and conflicted, to steely, fiery and determined. This tends to break down Pat’s defences, leaving him utterly confused, poor chap.

Does this better her performance in Winter’s Bone? Perhaps not, but it more effectively displays her talents and range as an actress – marking her out as one to watch with great interest in the future.

Silver Linings Playbook De NiroDe Niro the dad
As a final note, it’s worth mentioning De Niro, playing Pat’s dad. Another flawed soul with a touch of OCD, cut from the same cloth as his son. It’s arguably his best performance in a long time.

In some of his more comedy-driven roles in the last few years he’s probably overplayed it, to a degree. Here he pitches it perfectly. David O. Russell really does seem to get the best out of the the actors at his disposal, even if he’s known for sometimes rubbing them up the wrong way.

To sum up, Silver Linings is a smart, quirky, dramatic rom-com that tackles some tough issues (marriage, mental health), however it’s buoyed up by a smart script and strong performances – with Lawrence showing that Winter’s Bone was just the start of her ascendancy.