‘American’… what?!

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.

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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.

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Birdman: Keaton’s sad sack soars and swoops

In the last fifteen or twenty years, which actor do you go to for deranged and unhinged? Nic Cage? Jack Nicholson maybe? Actors who were wild in their youth tend to mellow with age, or grow old disgracefully. In the case of Michael Keaton it’s been quite some time since he last danced with the devil in the pale moonlight, so it was high time he returned to cinema. Here he’s channelled his talent into creating a character that has to be on a par – in terms of being washed up and on the last roll of the dice career wise – with Mickey Rourke’s character in The Wrestler.

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And whilst the aforementioned film was on the serious and dramatic end of the scale, Birdman comes at things from a quirky yet melancholy point of view. Dark? Yes. Supremely odd? Check. But still a drama, with comedy elements aplenty, taking the time to explore some interesting themes along the way.

In terms of setup we start with Keaton’s Riggan Thomson (great name), a faded movie star, one famous for playing a superhero called Birdman. He yearns for recognition again and, perhaps even more than that, credibility and critical acclaim. In short, he longs to be taken seriously as an actor. And in the theatre he might just achieve that. However this is his last roll of the dice, as his lawyer and friend Jake (Zach Galafianakis) regularly tells him.

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To help his credibility he drafts in a proper theatre actor daaahling, in the form of Mike Shiner (Ed Norton), who then proceeds to steal his limelight on stage and seduce every nearby female he can. This begins to push his buttons – or at least twiddle Riggan’s sanity lever till the dial gets a bit loose.

As a result he is barely holding the play – and himself – together as they approach opening night, and to add to his woes he has: a daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), fresh out of rehab and with whom he is failing as a father; a highly strung actress girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough) using her sexuality as a weapon; another highly strung actress, Lesley (Naomi Watts) who craves a similar level of artistic accomplishment; plus theatre critic (Lindsay Duncan) out for his blood and determined to ruin the play.

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Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is a most interesting director. And a most interesting choice for this film. In the past he’s gives us Amores perros, 21 Grams, Babel and Biutiful. All pretty weighty tales. He tends to get drawn to exploring death and grief and how we deal with it.

With Birdman, whilst this is the first time he has tackled comedy, these morbid elements still get thrown into the mix. And as we know comedy and tragedy are often close bedfellows at the best of times. One treads a fine line alongside the other.

On the evidence of this film perhaps he should stick to this approach for the foreseeable future, as he has a knack for it. He also gives us a great sense of the mad, chaotic world of backstage. Indeed, behind the scenes of the theatre are a claustrophobic place, all cramped tunnels and confusing corridors. His camera often right on the shoulders of his cast, twisting and turning and swirling around them as the fight, argue, flirt and despair.

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You particularly get a sense of this from Riggan. As he moves through the back corridors of the theatre accosted and confronted by his team, we follow him closely. At the same time we’re subjected to a musical score that matches the madness, namely a lunatic on a drumkit. It’s entirely possible this isn’t the film’s score, but the soundtrack to Riggan’s unravelling mind. (Actually, that’s still a score, even if it is internalised to one character. See… the madness is affecting me!)

The way Riggan’s alter ego (or subconscious) is personified and harangues him throughout the film slightly puts you in mind of Tyler Durden in Fight Club. Yet here it’s more of a peripheral presence, as Riggan wrestles with the inviting notion of celebrity and recognition versus the tough and uncompromising road of critical acclaim.

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Whilst this is Keaton’s movie by some distance, the supporting cast steal every scene they get. Simply put, they all looked just plain up for it. Considering Inarritu’s past work it seems he’s been storing a world of mischief up his directorial sleeve. Ed Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone… They all get to shine in a scene or two and are all an utter delight. It seems Inarritu has been supping from the cup of quirk formerly held by Wes Anderson. So in that respect it’s refreshing to see another director flourish and take up the mantle. (After Grand Budapest Hotel I feel Anderson may have got a little too quirky for his own good.)

I went into this film with no expectation or knowledge of the plot. I’d not seen the trailer. I knew the cast, but not the fact it was this director. Going by the title you might expect some sort of comedy featuring a shabby superhero. You could call it that. You could. But it wouldn’t be accurate.

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You could say this film flies the flag for character driven pieces, whether that’s cinema or theatre, it favours people and emotions over spectacle and explosions. It takes a thinly veiled dig at blockbusters, but also against the rather ridiculous and overblown world of theatre. And it’s all the better for it.

This film is clearly one that critics will love (for those that haven’t reviewed it already) but, without going out on too much of a limb, it should also be one that audiences will love. And it will most likely be a slow burner as word of mouth spreads. This one will last, people will say. And, in that, Riggan (and Keaton) will be remembered.

Best twenty films of 2012

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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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.