Trailer park: Spectre, Southpaw, Spooks

First things first, let’s get the big guns out of the way. As far as new trailers go, the latest Bond film gets top billing. There’s also one from Jake Gyllenhaal – who’s in a bit of a purple patch – and some spy thingy set in London and starring ‘fit Kit’ Harington (him off Game of Thrones).

Spectre
Bond is back baby, oh yes. Tying up the Skyfall and Quantum of Solace storylines nicely, this sees the return of his biggest foe, evil network SPECTRE. Mr White is back looking harrowed, Bond calm and collected, and, the thing that’s going to get most fanboys excited, Christoph Waltz as the big baddie. With Sam Mendes again directing and new additions Monica Bellucci and Lea Seydoux joining the cast expect another triumph.

Southpaw
My top film of last year was Nightcrawler, with Gyllenhaal putting in a phenomenally chameleonic performance. Physically he changes tack here to beef up for this tale of a boxer out to do right by his little girl and return to the ring. Interestingly, the UK’s very own Rita Ora plays a drug addict in it too.

Spooks: The Greater Good
It’s impossible to mention this film’s title without bringing to mind a certain scene in Hot Fuzz. That aside, it’s nice to see the Game of Thrones lot branch out. We’ve recently had Richard Madden (Rob Stark) in Cinderella, and now here’s Kit Harington (Jon Snow) tearing around London as an MI5 agent trying to uncover a conspiracy, doing what we can hope is a darn better job than Jack Bauer did in the last season of 24.

Ladies and fellas: Top 10 performances of 2014

Sometimes a film isn’t that great all the way through, but an individual performance stands out. Sometimes a film is carried along by that performance, by an actor knocking it out the park at the top of their game. And sometimes the film is great all the way through, but it goes up another level when buoyed by a stellar lead performance.

In 2014 there were a fair few of both of these. And in the interests of balance I’ve split them out into the fellas and the ladies. Where do you stand? Any missing you’d like to have seen?

THE LADIES
Rosamund Pike as Amy – Gone Girl
Scarlet Johansson as Laura – Under the Skin
Margot Robbie as Naomi Lapaglia – The Wolf of Wall Street
Jessica Chastain as Murph – Interstellar
Kiera Knightley as Joan Clarke – The Imitation Game

INTERSTELLAR

THE FELLAS
Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou Bloom – Nightcrawler
Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort – The Wolf of Wall Street
Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing – The Imitation Game
Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof – Dallas Buyers Club
Iko Uwais as Rama – The Raid 2

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Nightcrawler: the ultimate entrepreneur?

Dr. Robert Hare, one of the foremost researchers on sociopathy, believes that a sociopath is four times more likely to be at the top of the corporate ladder than in the janitor’s closet, due to the close match between the personality traits of sociopaths and the unusual demands of high-powered jobs.
M.E. Thomas, Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight

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Jake Gyllenhaal has had an interesting career so far. He’s made good choices and played interesting parts. But then, you could argue he started out in Donnie Darko, so he hit the ground running.

With Nightcrawler he’s gone up another level. Some critics have compared his performance to De Niro’s Travis Bickle. In terms of his character’s detachment from society it probably is on that level, but in other ways it’s far more compelling (and brought right up to date for modern-day society).

Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom who, when we first meet him, is a bit of a thief and a hustler. He is clearly a driven and articulate individual, but he has no purpose. Then one night he sees a car wreck on the highway and, as the police help the victim, he watches with fascination as a couple of guys race up in a van and film the whole thing. He’s instantly hooked and has found his calling.

Nightcrawler

Like all good predators they lure you into a false sense of security and allow you to get close, but by the time you realise what their game is it’s too late. This is when Lou is at his scariest. For the most part he seems normal, albeit a bit odd, until he needs something from you. He’ll then persuade, reason and negotiate until, when all else fails, he threatens. And he means it.

At one point he says ‘I like to think that when people meet me they’re having the worst day of their lives.’ This applies not only to victims of crime that he films, but almost anyone he meets. If you’ve just met Lou, your day is about to get a hell of a lot worse. This is none more evident than the manner in which he treats his assistant Rick (Riz Ahmed), who gets a seriously rough ride throughout, to put it mildly.

Writer and director Dan Gilroy (making his directorial debut) has, in Lou Bloom, created a chillingly realistic portrayal of a man that will do whatever it takes to achieve his goals. He spends much of his time talking about his company and business strategy, spouting corporate jargon as if he vehemently believes it.

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However, the situations in which he finds himself – in an effort to capture the perfect shot – are ludicrous and highly disturbing to anyone who has even a questionable moral compass and ounce of humanity. For Lou, he is a predator in the purest sense. Duran Duran’s Hungry Like The Wolf would be the perfect theme song to this film.

Indeed, Gyllenhaal’s attention to character detail is masterful – from his cautious, fight-or-flight body language as he approaches a crime scene to the way his eyes seem to get bigger and light up in the darkness of the LA night if he senses a story is at hand.

Nightcrawler is the sort of film you go into with little expectation. At times it’s horrific and thrilling, but most of all it’s captivating. Much like the car wrecks and violent crime that Lou films, we can’t take our eyes off him as a character.

You can see where the film is largely going, but the inexorable, creeping sense of dread that it instils in you on the journey is something from which you cannot escape. And nor do you want to, in a twisted sort of way.

End of Watch takes in-car banter to new level

End-of-watchIs David Ayer more of a writer than a director? His writing credits include U-571 (once described as the most historically inaccurate film of all time), Training Day (a career high), S.W.A.T. (enjoyable but unmemorable), Harsh Times (great performance by Christian Bale) and End of Watch (his best yet?).

It’s probably unfair to just say he’s a writer. As a director he began his career with Harsh Times, then followed up with Street Kings and now we have End of Watch. It’s clear he plays to his strengths. Many writers get told to write what they know. Ayer grew up in South Central Los Angeles and this comes through in his work. Many of his stories revolve around cops, gangsters, drugs and violence and are all well-observed with a distinctive look and feel.

Fate with a badge and gun

With his latest offering I found myself asking, is Ayer the master of in-car banter? Picking up where Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke left off in Training Day, we now have Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena as two street level LA cops, just trying to do their jobs and make it through the day.end-of-watch-jake-gyllenhaal-close-up Ayer gifts their characters with believable dialogue, which Pena and Gyllenhaal deliver effortlessly with easy chemistry. These guys are brothers in all but blood.

You could call this a buddy cop movie, but Lethal Weapon this aint. It’s a thriller, the tone is gritty, visceral and very real. The banter between the two leads serves to diffuse any tension that builds from a result of the job they do. It also contrasts nicely for the audience. We’re relaxed when the guys are riffing off each other in their patrol car, yet completely on edge when they’re answering 911 calls in gang-ridden neighbourhoods.

Found footage…again

Plot-wise, the film starts simply enough, as vehicle for us to become familiar with the lives of the two leads. They then fall foul of a gang that greenlights them for assassination. In terms of methods used, Ayer opted to tell this tale in ‘found footage’ style, with the two cops filming their everyday lives for a documentary. This largely works. You can willingly suspend disbelief, aside from the odd scene where even a hardened LA cop would put away the camera for his own safety.End-of-Watch_03 What doesn’t work so well is when the gangsters also seem to have cameras and be filming their activities. There’s a limit guys.

That said, it’s a minor point. Overall, this film lives or dies by its leads and it’s safe to say it’s alive and kicking. Prior to filming, Gyllenhaal and Pena spent months riding around LA with real cops and it shows. Their chemistry drives the film and gets under your skin – you really care about their fate and this builds throughout as the tension ramps up.

Does it beat Training Day?

As an overall experience I would say no. Not much will touch Denzel’s award-winning performance. However, in terms of chemistry between characters, it has to be up there. There was perhaps a worry Ayer was beginning to lose his way – as both writer and director – but this represents a huge return to form.

Indeed, award-winning film critic Roger Ebert gave this four out of four stars last year, naming it as his fourth best film of 2012. That should make it a must-see in anyone’s book.

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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
    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.

Dammit Christensen, you ruined Star Wars!

You know how these days Google predicts search terms as you type based on searches others have made? The reason I mention this is the other night Star Wars: Attack of the Clones was on TV. I found myself watching despite the fact that disappointment lurked around the corner.

I am, of course, talking about Hayden Christensen. Now this film was released in 2002 and I cannot believe that, despite the amount of time passing, Christensen’s performance still bothers me. Enough to motivate me to write this piece at least.

Straight after the film I fired up my laptop and began to type ‘Hayden Christensen c…’ and you know what Google predicts? (Get your minds out the gutter for a second.) As soon as you hit the last ‘c’ it gives you, ‘can’t act’, ‘career over’ and ‘criticism’. Seems I’m not alone in my assessment of his performance.

Lukesaberanh

Star Wars – the original trilogy – was massive, huge, so influential it became ingrained in modern culture and it’s stood the test of time and remained popular from the first film in the late ’70s to the present day. The world George Lucas created was captivating… the Force, the Jedi, the Sith – all of it so richly drawn out but – and this is a big but – above all, it was human.

The characters he created were human ones, they were flawed, they struggled and fought and loved and lost. For example: Luke to understand where he came from and what his power was; Leia, in part, the same; Han to get his rocks off with Leia and prove to himself he wasn’t as selfish as he first came across. And so on.

That is why if you’re going to do a bunch of new films it’s essential you cast Anakin Skywalker as well as you possibly can. All the background about separatists, the republic, the senate, political power plays – that’s all it is, background. These films have always been about the Jedi and the Force and the whole story arc (in this case) revolves around Anakin and his journey from light to dark. It’s what we all want to see and have paid our bucks for – everything else is window dressing, to a degree.

Anakin

So why couldn’t he deliver?

Now I know it’s easy to condemn and hard to create but honestly, how did Hayden Christensen get the part? He had been in precious little before Star Wars and his career after has been sparse to say the least. I know some say these films are career killers; for example in the Family Guy version Peter Griffin (playing Han Solo) introduces himself by saying ‘I’m Captain of the Millennium Falcon and the only actor whose career isn’t killed by this movie’.

I suppose this was more true of the original trilogy than these modern prequels, established actors like Ewan Mcgregor and Liam Neeson all fared well post-Star Wars, but then they didn’t have the heavy burden of being the lead. They propped him up as best they could, but it wasn’t enough. Not nearly enough.

Just to put things in perspective: I didn’t buy the way Christensen attempted to portray inner conflict as he wrestled between the two sides of the Force; I felt his delivery of dialogue was stilted and forced; I felt he lacked chemistry with Natalie Portman’s character; I didn’t like his stupid haircut; I didn’t like the fact that a number of his scenes had a homoerotic undercurrent, he had more chemistry with Ewan Mcgregor’s Obi-Wan for Christ’s sake.

To be serious for a second, one of the few scenes in which he actually convinced was his final battle with Kinobe on the river of lava. Much closer tonally to the original films… dark, brooding, dramatic and intense. In that respect maybe their bromance helped, ‘I loved you Anakin!’ (Ahem, like a brother.)

Who else?

It would be fascinating (or infuriating) to know which up-and-coming actors auditioned for the role at the time and were rejected. Given Attack of the Clones came out in 2002 guys breaking out then included: Jack Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko, 2001), James Franco (Spider-man, 2002), Christian Bale (American Psycho, 2000) and Ryan Phillippe (Way of the Gun, 2000).

Christian Bale wasn’t right as he was probably too old and just doesn’t seem the right fit, however there’s a few scenes in American Psycho that make you think maybe he could have done something pretty interesting with the role. Ryan Phillippe is similar in appearance to Christensen and showed great inner conflict in Way of the Gun with a surprising level of emotional depth. (Incidentally, it’s a great film and worth a watch if you get the chance.)

Then there’s Jake Gyllenhaal. He would have been a brave albeit unconventional fit – his creepy and tormented downward spiral in Donnie Darko showed he could have handled the character’s journey from light to dark. And James Franco may have been an interesting choice too, as he’s since showed in his career he likes to take on alternative types of roles, such as 127 Hours and Spring Breakers.

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In a galaxy far, far away

Anyway, none of this matters. We’re stuck with Christensen as Anakin – so as a rule of thumb, if you’re bored one day and fancy a Star Wars fix, one that has classic scenes, tension, dread, adventure, joy and wonder – stick with the originals. If you want glossy CGI action aimed at kids, Jar Jar sodding Binks refusing to shut up and Samuel L. Jackson flashing his purple light sabre around the place, go with the modern prequels.

But then, if you’re reading this blog you’re most likely film fans (you clever lot) and know this already. In fact, maybe I’m just taking this all too seriously and had better go watch the Family Guy version to lighten up. May the farce be with you.

PS Read my review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens here.
http://mikeysfilmreviews.com/2015/12/22/star-wars-the-force-awakens-review/