Release Date: December 23rd, 2015 (US); January 22nd, 2016 (UK)
Genre: Biography; Drama
Starring: Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt
The Big Short recalls the audacious actions of “a few outsiders and weirdos”, a group of like-minded money men who managed to accurately predict the 2008 global financial crash years in advance. Sure, it may not sound like the most enthralling venture, but it is. Adam McKay’s outing finds its footing somewhere between the maniacal antics of The Wolf of Wall Street and J.C. Chandor’s sobering Margin Call, lined with humour and born out of blood-boiling truth. Warning: it is a piece wholeheartedly set in its ways — if you are on the side of the bankers, this ain’t for you (nor, frankly, is decency).
Christian Bale plays Michael Burry, real life hedge fund supremo and heavy metal lover. Eccentric, his brain scorched by numbers and spreadsheets (the film is based on a book by Moneyball author Michael Lewis and it shows), Burry spots a flaw in the structure of the American housing market and, since nobody will take his findings seriously, he opts to invest in said market’s eventual collapse. “This is Wall Street Dr. Burry. If you offer us free money, we’re going to take it,” says one Goldman Sachs representative with glee in her heart and cash in her eyes.
Following an industry-driven family tragedy, Mark Baum has more emotional investment that anyone in Burry’s prediction. Coaxed on by a prowling vendetta against the world, Steve Carell is terrific in the role (there’s not a bum note generally, but Carell is the stand out). You really get the sense this is a guy who wholly detests the fraudulent system, and you feel a shared sense of injustice. However, Baum’s attempt to profit from the system’s downfall — and by proxy the plight of millions of innocent livelihoods — eats away at him, this internal struggle projected with weariness by Carell’s bruised eyes.
Ryan Gosling offers his two (million) cents as the sort of guy who practices catchy lines under his breath in preparation for important meetings — this sets up a hilarious money smelling quip. Gosling is financial trader Jared Vennett, a dick, but a dick with a point. Another Burry believer, he often breaks the fourth wall to explain what’s going on, funding his smarmy exterior in the process. The straight-to-camera dialogue works because the film is relentlessly preaching to us anyway. He and Baum work together but are opposing forces in personality terms: Baum amusingly no-sells Vennett’s macho demeanour while Vennett takes no notice, only interested in his rising bank balance.
Of the four headline names, Brad Pitt has the quietest role: Ben Rickert, having been chewed up and spat out by the banking industry, now abides by a pseudo-apocalyptic philosophy (“Seeds are gonna be the new currency”). Rickert is cajoled by understudies Charlie (John Magaro) and Jamie (Finn Whittrock) and subsequently returns to the field as their unshowy mentor, won over by Burry’s cataclysmic pattern. The presence of Pitt affords some weight to an arc that might have otherwise felt inconsequential given its unoriginal through line — it gets caught in the shadow of the other two, more prominent narrative strands.
McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph’s screenplay admirably juggles all of these hefty personalities, men collectively singing from the same ledger, without homogenising them. Nor does the script hold its protagonists to some sort of impenetrable moral standard — after all, irrespective of their true target, these guys are actively seeking to profit from the misfortune of both rich bankers and struggling Americans. McKay and Randolph frequently add layers to the plot, though when the film threatens to go beyond our intellectual comprehension it is saved by offbeat explanatory segments (chartered by the likes of Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez playing themselves).
It is abundantly clear who the villains are and the film knows that. But The Big Short also recognised the need to remind us of the primary culprits and does so by throwing around masses of Wall Street jargon, creating a divide between the folk who speak said language on a daily basis and everybody else. These are people who deviously undercut their customers and then guffaw about doing so in the safety of luxury afterwards — Max Greenfield and Billy Magnussen play the worst on-screen offenders, two mortgage brokers painted with broad strokes by necessity. They believe the joke is on everyone else when it’s obviously on them.
There are plenty of other jokes too, gags inspired by wit and executed with piercing zest (McKay and Randolph even manage to take a jab at artistic licence by openly owning up to small bouts of fabrication). This overarching smartness does alienate one small story section, namely the jarring appearance of a soon-to-be ailing homeowner. The film is too clever for something so blunt, especially given its tendency to avoid emotional manipulation elsewhere. You might argue the scene puts a face on the economic turmoil, but having lived through the crisis the audience will already be thoroughly aware of the consequences. It does at least serve up an eerie visual of a housing wasteland that evokes Chernobyl connotations.
Hank Corwin’s editing encourages a rampant effervescence that is more or less employed throughout; from an opening montage that outlines the inception of the disaster, to various images of music videos, celebrities, models, and cash spliced together — all symbols of corporate America, of the new American Dream sold by capitalism, a false dream. The choppiness can be a bit disorienting but it does induce urgency and even a degree of mess, fitting since it reflects the impending financial calamity.
As characters debate the legitimacy of Burry’s predictions the camera wanders freely between their faces, upholding both the kinetic energy of the fast-moving industry and said industry’s unpredictable nature. When all the desks have been cleared and all the cheques resentfully written, The Big Short unveils its prognosis: that those involved, the guilty bankers eventually given legal clearance, were either blindly stupid or corrupted by immorality. It is a sombre conclusion but one we always knew was coming. Having laughed a lot, you’ll leave angry — and you’re supposed to.
Release Date: December 6th, 2013 (US); January 29th, 2014 (UK)
Genre: Crime; Drama; Thriller
Starring: Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson
Scott Cooper’s film tells the story of two brothers left short-handed by the frankness of life, but more specifically it’s a look into the psyche of one sibling, Christian Bale’s Russell, emotionally shot and physically trapped. Out of the Furnace itself received a rough ride upon release. The cast, wasted, supersede the inefficiently constructed narrative, seemed to be the most common argument. It’s too slow, too poorly paced. Quite the opposite. The film is marvellously paced and the narrative is steeped in authentic poignancy. Sure the screenplay would benefit from a dose of balance, but Out of the Furnace is not a missed opportunity. It’s a really, really good piece of cinema.
A heart-on-sleeve type of guy, Russell Baze (Christian Bale) works three jobs. Aside from earning a meagre living at the nearby mill — the same one that has rendered his father incapacitated — Russell cares for his ailing dad whilst also attempting to keep his younger brother’s mind straight. Rodney is a solider whose deployments to Iraq are as scattered as the head on his shoulders. The brothers just about get by, but their lives are quickly shattered when a horrific accident suddenly opens demon-infested floodgates.
Realism seeps into every frame, every projected wooden crevice. We’re slap-bang in the centre of a hereditary coal and steel town, North Braddock, Pennsylvania and the camera rams this home. A huge factory is often shown looming in the background, the greyish smoke pillowing skyward a constant reminder of toxicity and waste. It hosts the eponymous furnace and endeavours to promote the air of struggle of its nearby citizens, but also their honest willingness to work. Already we’re drawn to Russell who embodies this mentality, a grafter by trade. Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography is musky — you’d be forgiven for any eye-rubbing to remove dust — and perfectly captures the mood of the town; filled with hard labourers and harder folk. It screams ‘get me out of here’.
Russell is a hearty soul, a trait that beams as he interacts with those close to him. Lena is his girlfriend at the beginning and their playfulness is infectious. Uncle Gerald, or ‘Red’, is another whom we watch engage positively with Russell. But it’s the latter’s relationship with his wayward brother Rodney that’s most genuine. They share an at times awkward yet always nurturing bond, one that is believable partly due to how Bale and Casey Affleck play it, but we’re also convinced by the harshness of reality and their subsequent eternal earnestness as a duo. Not much is going according to plan but these two remain decent guys with admirable qualities who are not impervious to the odd mistake. (Some mistakes very serious — Scott Cooper doesn’t shirk away from complexity).
Existing subserviently in manner but not meaning to this sibling relationships is Russell’s own personal battle with day-to-day existence. He’s mentally more mature than his brother; at one point it’s suggested that Rodney “might be safer over in Iraq” than wandering the chalky streets of North Braddock. The screenplay simmers patiently, as does Cooper’s precise direction, allowing us to connect with Russell and his unluckiness. But even as pillar after pillar collapses in the manual worker’s life, we’re afforded the chance to acknowledge the sincerity of each problem because they’re all completely applicable within the prevailing context.
In Russell, Cooper revives the teetering tragedy of Crazy Heart’s Otis Blake. In some ways the two mirror each other: in their jobs, slaving away without much financial reward; in their protectiveness, one for a son he never had and one for a brother he fears losing; in their mentality, both close to defeat yet deeply defiant and inspired by externalities. Out of the Furnace is the director’s second character study of two and is equally as effective as the first. The camera likes to linger on glances and facial expressions — not Russell’s exclusively — and so we’re able to feed off of each characters’ strained thoughts and the cast’s wholesome portrayals.
Christian Bale does for Casey Affleck here what Mark Wahlberg done for Bale in The Fighter. He underplays the performance, clearing room for Affleck’s hysterics. These range from anxiously proud to uncomfortably harrowing, but are consistently sterling. Bale’s is certainly the toughest role because restraint is absolutely key. He nails it. However, as Rodney, Affleck is stand out performer. Which is some feat considering the truly excellent efforts relayed by the remaining cast members. Woody Harrelson appears as Harlan DeGroat, an invasive and psychotic drug dealer whom Rodney owns money to. Harrelson’s recruitment is a great choice, his character a real baddie. A grizzled, rugged no good son of a bitch. Zoe Saldana, Forest Whitaker and Willem Dafoe complete the star-studded selection and the trio each donate valid performances.
If there is a fault to be picked and presented, it’s the unfortunate imbalance in narrative. The runtime is fine at almost two hours, but over half of that is enlisted as set up leaving only around 50 minutes for retaliation. The problem is not catastrophic — it likely would be in lesser hands — but it does dent an otherwise foolproof outing, incurring unevenness as opposed to equity. In an attempt to disguise the issue, we’re subject to interplayed cuts between scenes that actually do end up harmonising well together.
Out of the Furnace is another winning film from Scott Cooper. It’s worth pointing out the effective soundtrack that shifts between a Western twang and a mellow ambience, and one that is capped off by Pearl Jam’s Release. For that’s what the piece is all about, release. A very sombre picture with sporadic healing tendencies — though not enough — it is the recognisable mundaneness that really hits home.
On March 2nd the film industry will pay tribute to the greatest cinematic achievements of the past year. The best of the best. The cream of the crop. For the most part, anyway. The Academy Awards always generate a hefty amount of hype – with Harvey Weinstein on the prowl there’s no surprise there! – and perhaps more so this year than in the recent past given the relatively open landscape in just about all the heavy-hitting categories.
The Academy announced their nominations for each category earlier today, so let’s go through some of them and pick out a few potential winners.
I haven’t seen all of the films listed yet, which means a portion of the following bout of foreshadowing will be partly down to instinct and partly taking into consideration where the main bouts of buzz are landing. Heck, we can come back and amend stuff nearer the time… once I’ve consumed all the films. Ahem.
Dallas Buyers Club
12 Years a Slave
The Wolf of Wall Street
– What will win: 12 Years a Slave
– What I want to win: Undecided
– What should’ve been nominated: Blue is the Warmest Colour
– Who will win: Chiwetel Ejiofor
– Who I want to win: Leonardo DiCaprio
– Who should’ve been nominated: Tom Hanks
– Who will win: Cate Blanchett
– Who I want to win: Cate Blanchett
– Who should’ve been nominated: Adèle Exarchopoulos
Best Supporting Actor
– Who will win: Jared Leto
– Who I want to win: Barkhad Abdi
Best Supporting Actress
– Who will win: Jennifer Lawrence
– Who I want to win: Undecided
David O. Russell
– Who will win: Alfonso Cuarón
– Who I want to win: David O. Russell
Best Original Screenplay
Dallas Buyers Club
– What will win: American Hustle
– What I want to win: American Hustle
– What should’ve been nominated: Inside Llewyn Davis
Best Adapted Screenplay
12 Years a Slave
The Wolf of Wall Street
– What will win: 12 Years a Slave
– What I want to win: Undecided
Best Documentary Feature
The Act of Killing
Cutie and the Boxer
20 Feet From Stardom
– What will win: The Act of Killing
– What I want to win: The Act of Killing
– What should’ve been nominated: Blackfish
On an interesting side note, every year the Oscars devote a part of the ceremony to a certain theme. Last year for instance, a variety of musical numbers were unfurled on stage (remember Seth MacFarlane’s “Boob Song”?) paying tribute to film music.
This year the theme is ‘Movie Heroes’. That’s everyone from the normal person on the street, to the surgeon saving a life, to those larger-than-life superheroes we’ve come to know and love.
His film won Best Picture last year… I wonder if a certain newly appointed masked crusader will unveil his bat-wings this time around.
Release Date: December 20th, 2013 (US); January 1st, 2014 (UK)
Genre: Crime; Drama
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner
“Some of this actually happened.”
These are the first words you see on screen as American Hustle rolls along the runway in preparation for a turbulent take-off. The next thing, an obtuse, balding Christian Bale spends a good few minutes chained to mirror, meticulously attempting to glue hair to his head. And it’s brilliant. One minute the film is poking fun at itself, the next it’s indulging in extended Hollywood grooming. Whether or not you actually believe that any of what is to come actually happened is irrelevant. Batman is fat and bald. Only he’s not Batman, he’s the first of five characters who, placed in any other film, could easily be dismissed as unlovable. Yet these characters, these jaded and faulting human beings are the epitome of most things great in American Hustle — and trust me, most things are great.
After a string of loan scams gone right, con-man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) are caught cheque-handed by exuberant FBI Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Along with a reluctant Sydney, who is posing as a Brit with banking connections, Irving is manipulated into joining DiMaso in a plan to take down four potentially corrupt political figures, including the well-meaning New Jersey Mayor, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). If Irving does not oblige, he fears the loss of his adopted son from his marriage with an uncontrollable wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence).
First thing’s first: American Hustle serves up an abundance of heart to go along with bountiful amounts of razzmatazz and wild hair-pieces, and this is no small part down to David O. Russell’s focused direction, a direction particularly zoned in on his characters. Since making The Fighter in 2010, Russell has admitted that people are the most important elements of his films, that they infuse soul into his work, and this is certainly true here. At best the plot is slightly overloaded, but then it probably should be given the elaborate scam unfolding on screen. Russell deflects all attention away from these various narrative layers and strands though, and gives his characters the limelight. Unselfishly too — this character-based production style is something that doesn’t always necessarily invite directorial attention, rather the actors take most of the plaudits. However Russell’s passion for people, which is as much on display in both The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook as it is here, means he most likely doesn’t want all the plaudits no matter how much he deserves them.
It’s not often that a truly A-list cast amalgamates where each actor delivers a tip-top performance. Normally, either there’s not enough material to satisfy so many hungry egos, or a severe case of weary cheque-collecting goes on. This could not be further from the truth in American Hustle, as the five stars bring out the absolute best and most flamboyant in one another. As Irving Rosenfeld, Christian Bale is the centrepiece of events, the instigator of many of the crazy goings-on (whether he likes it or not). “He had this air about him.” Sydney is absolutely correct. At the beginning, you get the feeling Irving is growing tired of his surroundings, he’s let himself go but not so far as to come across as weak — what we see externally is carefully tended (the hair), what we don’t see is tucked away (the stomach). It’s not until the glamorous and vibrant Sydney Prosser glances over into his life that Irving experiences an ambience of regeneration. Adams embodies seduction; she mesmerises the viewer as much as she does Bale and it’s obvious her character Sydney (or is it Evelyn?) has had a lot of practice in hiding charmingly behind a veil of otherness.
Bradley Cooper, who put in a career-best performance in David O. Russell’s previous film, is astoundingly funny as Richie DiMaso. He has the 70s jumping off him: a curly perm, outlandish clothing and that wise-cracking demeanour, one which harks back to more serious crime outputs such as Goodfellas, and even Scarface. DiMaso manoeuvres in the opposite direction to that of Irving — he becomes too cocky, dragged into a world of madness. As American Hustle trumpets on, it becomes an electric game of one-upmanship between Irving, Sydney and DiMaso. Nobody really knows who is playing who. There’s an air of unpredictability about proceedings. All of this makes for more compelling viewing as the sentiment hanging-on-every-word becomes agreeably essential.
Irving’s estranged wife Rosalyn is another firecracker in this celebration of absurdity and Jennifer Lawrence throws herself at the character. She delivers many of the funniest lines very well (“Don’t put metal in the science oven”) yet still manages to evoke heartfelt sympathy. It’s clear Rosalyn is under appreciated, struggles with demons and craves some consistent attention from Irving, or anyone really. To be able to stand on, and subsequently pull off, both sides of fence — the staunchly comedic and starkly vulnerable — is a testament to Jennifer Lawrence’s ability as an actor and storyteller. Newcomer to the David O. Russell school of actors (perhaps the coolest club going in Hollywood) is Jeremy Renner, a welcome addition. As Mayor Polito, Renner is more likeable than ever in a very different role from those he has partaken in recently. His outrageous facial expressions during a sing-a-long with Bale is a standout moment.
Harking back to David O. Russell’s preferred filmmaking style, behind all of the madness, these characters still feel like real people (they listen to each other’s phone calls in the other room for heaven’s sake). None of them really want to be where they are. Perhaps they are wearily sucked in, or can’t seem to find a way out. Better lives, that’s all they’re after. They create attractively unattractive personas in order to acclimatise to the anarchy. Yet you still want to love them in the end. Unlike the plot, which arguably outstays its welcome, not one single character does.
The saying ‘never a dull moment’ has rarely been more fitting. Everything here is so over the top and brash. When names such as Carmine Polito and Victor Tellegio are sprayed around, it’s not hard to imagine the kind of entertainment on show. There absolutely is a sense of indulgence, but it’s more than simply self-indulgence, rather a communal kind between filmmaker and audience. A conversation about coriander and perfume smelling like “flowers, but with garbage” essentially sums up American Hustle: it sort of doesn’t make sense, but the circus-like pandemonium makes the film great because it allows people to thrive and evolve.
I left the cinema thinking American Hustle was a good film, and many hours later it is still growing on me. There is a good chance it will for a long time. It’s euphoria and desolation. Furious and funny. Organised chaos which descends (or ascends) into disorganised chaos. Somewhere along the way, Bradley Cooper, in his most vociferous New Yoik accent says, “You might even get sick of me!” He could be referring to the fabulous five on show (or six, if you include David O. Russell).
Guess what the next genre is? It is a mystery, isn’t it? No, it really is a mystery. Okay, enough of the shockingly bad jokes.
Not one of the more prominent genres, mystery tends to flirt around the edges of just about every other genre, without actually sticking out. However, there are a number of films which are defined by their mystery element. Personally, I am drawn towards films containing a mysterious element over most other types of films — mainly in the hope that such a film will keep me guessing all the way until the end.
Mystery films tend to be hit or miss — either the outcome of whatever mystery is going on is surprising or shocking or entertaining, or it is not. It will be to nobody’s surprise, then, that the five films on my list I consider to be five hits.
I have decided to change the format slightly from my previous Genre Toppers posts. The reasoning behind this is that I think reading large paragraphs over and over again can sometimes get a bit tedious, so hopefully this change will keep things more interesting. This newer format seems to work well with the mystery genre in particular, but who knows — I may use it again in the future.
From the acclaimed director David Fincher, Zodiac tells the story of one of San Francisco’s most notorious serial killers, known only as the Zodiac. Boasting a strong cast containing Robert Downey Jr, Jake Gyllenhaal and Mark Ruffalo, the film depicts the events surrounding the police investigation into the murders carried out during the 1960s and 1970s, and why the murders were occurring.
Where The Mystery Lies
Who is the serial killer known as the Zodiac, and what do the cryptic clues being sent to the police mean?
Three Top Five Clinching Reasons
Fincher’s target audience: Interestingly, Zodiac is David Fincher’s second-highest rated film on Rotten Tomatoes with 90% of critics enjoying it (second only to The Social Network at 96%), whereas it is Fincher’s lowest revenue-taking film, grabbing only (yeah, only) around $85 million worldwide. Why? Primarily because Fincher aimed the film towards a typically older audience, rather than playing up its slasher element and in turn appeasing only “16-year-old boys,” as Fincher put it.
Style and the 70s: Obviously I was not around in the late 1960s/early 1970s in order fully understand what those years were like, but Fincher certainly goes a long way to making sure Zodiac captures the tone and style of them. Everything from smoky newsrooms to wacky attires are in full display here, and although the film lasts over two and half hours, it is worth watching at that length just to enjoy the cinematography.
Delightful dialogue: The performances from the three leads in Zodiac are very convincing, and this is helped in no small part by the deliberate and encapsulating script the actors exchange between each other. Fincher has a knack for using excellent, well-crafted scripts (take Se7en and The Social Network as two prime examples) and Zodiac is no different. Gyllenhaal, Downey Jr and Ruffalo do the film and its words justice — in fact, the positive audience reaction combined with the lack of a well-rounded ending proves just how well the actors and writers have done to make the film so enjoyable.
A slick, stylish and slow burning mystery drama, Zodiac keeps audiences interested through its exceptionally well-strung dialogue and interesting performances.
Released in 2009 and directed, written and produced by Stuart Hazeldine, Exam takes place in an alternative history and is set almost entirely in one room where a group of eight very different people must use their initiative to gain the employment they each desperately desire.
Where The Mystery Lies
The eight candidates are given one piece of paper and are told that the exam only consists of one question… but what is that question, and what is the correct answer?
Three Top Five Clinching Reasons
Unknown cast: A problem a film can sometimes face when it boasts a worldwide star is that the audience do not believe that such a level of star can actually be the character they are portraying (particularly if the character is a normal, everyday person). Exam benefits from a relatively unknown cast — apart from Colin Salmon, although he does not appear very often throughout the film, making his character seem even more important and separate from the candidates. The candidates themselves each bring their own nuances to the table, coming across as genuine employment seekers and making the film much more believable and engrossing.
Simplicity is key: As you can probably gather from the synopsis above, the plot of Exam is very simple: eight candidates, one job, one question. That is it. Not only does this make the film easy to follow, it places more emphasis on the situation the characters find themselves in and adds focus to the characters themselves (in essence, this film is a character profile). The mystery is also heightened because it is not confusing — rather, it is intriguing.
Perfect pacing: Hazeldine ensures the film does not dwell on particular plot points, moving things along before they become stagnant, and coming back to events if need be. Again, this keeps the flow of the film just about right and ensures the audience’s attention is grasped and maintained. Also, the progression of the plot and the characters are both very well handled, generating more and more tension until the atmosphere becomes just about unbearable.
Exam is the perfect example of how to make a small, low budget film with a simple plot and still be able to keep it intriguing, leaving the audience on the edge of their seats.
Sherlock Holmes (2009)
Guy Ritchie helms this reboot of the Sherlock Holmes franchise, starring Robert Downey Jr as Holmes, Jude Law as Watson and Rachel McAdams as former adversary Irene Adler. The story follows Holmes and Watson as they attempt to uncover the perpetrator of a series of violent murders and prevent this perpetrator from taking over the British Empire.
Where The Mystery Lies
Holmes and Watson must decipher how their familiar foe plans to control the British Empire — but how has the murderer returned from his apparent execution?
Three Top Five Clinching Reasons
At home with Holmes: Robert Downey Jr plays an enormous part in how enjoyable this film is — his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes is one of wit, intelligence, controlled chaos and downright hilarity. We are all used to seeing Downey Jr in charismatic roles (as Iron Man, for example) and here he seems completely in his comfort zone, which shows by way of his mesmerising depiction of Holmes — rivalled only by Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal in the hit television series, Sherlock. But not all the praise must be solely heaped on Downey Jr, as Jude Law is very effective in working as a buffer for Holmes to play off of. Mark Strong is as menacing as always playing the villain of the piece and Rachel McAdams is delightful as Irene Adler.
Visually unique: The cinematographers and set designers deserve a vast amount of compliments for their old-fashioned-yet-energetic set pieces. It is a tremendous achievement in making London appear as it did back in the 19th century, but at the same time upholding a sense of freshness. Craftsmanship at its finest, if you ask me. Also, the slow motion fight sequences look effortlessly assembled and add an extra dimension to the film.
Action-packed: Guy Ritchie certainly does not hold back in terms of fight scenes (there are plenty) and explosions (they are in there too). At its simplest, Sherlock Holmes is an entertaining action film with plenty of well-choreographed physical encounters and a fast-moving plot which keeps the action going and prevents the film from losing its momentum. The action takes place everywhere too — from underground to occult chambers to the top of massive cranes.
Quick-witted, funny, sometimes silly, but always entertaining — Sherlock Holmes is just about everything you expect from a Robert Downey Jr-led film.
Shutter Island (2010)
Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, Shutter Island sees Martin Scorsese team up with Leonardo DiCaprio for the first time since The Departed in 2006, and the fourth time overall (soon to be a fifth, with The Wolf Of Wall Street hitting cinemas in late 2013). DiCaprio stars alongside Mark Ruffalo as two U.S. Marshals — Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule respectively — who attempt to uncover the mysterious happenings on Shutter Island.
Where The Mystery Lies
Daniels and Aule must find out the whereabouts of a missing patient, but what is the real reason they have been summoned to the island? (That is all you are getting, sorry!)
Three Top Five Clinching Reasons
Creating a separation: The chemistry between DiCaprio and Ruffalo is very underrated here, in my opinion. It is obvious that the two are outstanding actors, which is once again apparent in this film, but they also work exceedingly well together, in turn creating a sense of disconnect between themselves and the rest of the residents of Shutter Island. This is essential to the story, and thus the performances from both DiCaprio and Ruffalo (and also Ben Kingsley to be fair, who plays Dr. John Cawley) are a key part to the success of Shutter Island.
Shudder Island: There is an eerie and unnerving atmosphere generated throughout this film, and the creep factor increases as the film delves further and further into the mysterious happenings on the island. The film switches for brief moments to an almost comedic tone, but that tone is swept away by dread almost as soon as it begins. The unnerving atmosphere is aided, of course, by the sense that the two U.S. Marshals, although called to island by those on it, are alone and not wanted.
Musical mayhem: Another major player in the eerie atmosphere, the musical involvement in Shutter Island is as close to perfect as possible. From the foghorn sounding booming interludes throughout, to the seemingly out-of-place uplifting belts of opera (which completely add to the intentional confusion and lack of transparency during the film), the score is outrageous-yet-brilliant.
I am a big fan of when DiCaprio and Scorsese work together because they always deliver, and Shutter Island is no different — in fact, it is my personal favourite output produced by the combination of the two.
The Prestige (2006)
From the man who brought us The Dark Knight trilogy and Inception, comes The Prestige, starring Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale and Scarlett Johansson. Jackman and Bale play two previously partnering magicians who have turned fierce rivals after an accident split the pair up. It is the ultimate battle of wit and nerve as each magician aims to better the other by creating and performing the greatest illusion of all time.
Where The Mystery Lies
It is a film about magic, right? Well, not entirely. Although a mystery element does exists and runs throughout — just how did he do it? (Again, that is all you are getting — I really cannot give too much away here!)
Three Top Five Clinching Reasons
Coming full circle: It would be a crime for me to sit here and write about what happens during the climax, because it is masterfully accomplished on-screen in my eyes. Everything from the beginning through to the main act (pun sort of intended), to the dialogue during the film build up to a quite extraordinary revelation, and one which I got nowhere near figuring out. I do not want to overhype the ending so much so that it will be an inevitable let down no matter what, but trust me, it is very good and it perfectly polishes off the non-linear plot the film possesses.
Caring about characters: Nolan allows each character to breathe (much like he does in the majority of his other films) and this allows each actor — even those whose characters only play a minor role — to fully develop their role and ensure the audience can become emotionally invested in them. The dynamic between the two duelling magicians, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) is electric at times, and the lengths they go in order to get one up on each other become believable due to the hatred Jackman and Bale successfully generate. Less prominent characters such as Michael Caine’s stage engineer, John Cutter, and Rebecca Hall’s Sarah Borden, Alfred’s wife, add further layers to the main duo, whilst Scarlett Johnasson’s Olivia Wenscombe acts as a spanner in the works.
More than just magic: As I mentioned above, although The Prestige contains a lot of magic, that is not the primary focus of the film. For me, the primary focus is the tumultuous relationship between two men and all that their relationship embodies, in terms of trust (or lack thereof), deceit and jealousy. Using magic as a background their relationship and these characteristics bolsters the overall plot, but it is the three aforementioned factors which give The Prestige substance.
When talking about mystery the first destination is always magic, and The Prestige is Christopher Nolan’s way of pulling a rabbit out of the hat — just when you think he is being slightly over-ambitious, he absolutely nails it.
So there you have it, five excellent mystery films. Here are some honourable mentions:
Final Destination (2000) — Okay, this one is a bit of a cheat (pun intended). But in all seriousness, although Final Destination is technically a gross-out horror, it does have that mystery element to it ensuring that it does not just become a gore-fest. Which is basically does anyway. I tried.
Phone Booth (2002) — Similar to Exam in the sense that it is primarily set in one location, Phone Booth is intense and pacey, with a decent lead performance from Colin Farrell and an extra creepy voice-only performance from Kiefer Sutherland.
The Da Vinci Code (2006) — At approaching three hours long, The Da Vinci Code had a fair amount of people almost sleeping, but I enjoyed it quite a bit. Tom Hanks is a guy I could watch acting all day long.
A Perfect Getaway (2009) — This is about an hour of really disconcerting build-up surrounding three couples, one of which has a murderous streak. Then it goes a bit too action-like and loses some momentum. Regardless, a solid whodunit outing.
Devil (2010) — The mystery genre does tend to attract those single-location films, and we have another here, in Devil. Five people, one elevator and one devil… but who? A rare M. Night Shyamalan appearance in my blog.
Superhero films, much like any other genre, have been around for decades — dating back to around the Second World War and even further according to some accounts. However it has only really been since the turn of the 21st century that superhero films have found their place in the cinema, where they are now some of the most successful films ever made, both critically and commercially.
The following are five of my favourite superhero films, all of which, unsurprisingly, were produced in the last decade.
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Released in 2011 as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and one of the prequels to The Avengers, Captain America: The First Avenger stars Chris Evans as Steve Rodgers, a small man who is transformed into a super-soldier known as Captain America in order to aid the war effort (the film is set during the Second World War — which now has two mentions already in this post!). With the assistance of Hayley Atwell and Tommy Lee Jones, Captain America must prevent Hitler’s Head of Arms — played by Hugo Weaving — from acquiring unlimited energy to fuel masses of highly volatile weaponry.
Although not the most entertaining Avenger — we’ll see him later — Captain America, at least in my eyes, is the most interesting. Unlike the other films under the Marvel umbrella, Captain America: The First Avenger is set in the past which clearly gives it a distinction the other films do not have. Director Joe Johnston administers a much-needed injection of colour and vibrancy to the Captain America franchise, utilising the war setting magnificently, attaching emotion to the film and endowing depth to each individual character. As opposed to other superhero films, for example Thor, the plot is not cut-and-dry and the nostalgic setting combined with very worthy performances from the cast amounts to an entertaining film.
Captain America: The First Avenger is underrated in my opinion — there is enough action, depth and freshness for it to be placed up there among the best superhero films of recent years.
The Avengers (2012)
What is a best-of list without the biggest superhero film of all time? Having been brooding around and popping up throughout each of its predecessors, The Avengers finally hit screens in the summer of 2012 and blew every other superhero film out of the water financially. Directed by sci-fi mastermind Joss Whedon and stuffed full of all the usual Marvel superheroes (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Hulk and so on), The Avengers follows, well… the Avengers on their quest to stop the evil Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and his army of monsters from forcing the Earth under his control.
When I went to see this film, I experienced it in 3D and with moving chairs and all sorts. While the 3D was disappointing, the whole moving chairs phenomenon really added to what is a film full of massive set-pieces (New York, for one) and action sequences. Whereas Captain America beforehand was a little tentative in regards to action and more focused on the story of one man, The Avengers is all about running, jumping, flying, exploding, crashing, banging and comedy. Whedon prevails through the daunting task of getting all of the characters enough screen time to warrant their appearance in the film, as everyone from Iron Man to Phil Coulson to Black Widow plays an essential role. Collectively, the performances from the cast are humorous and serious when need-be (mainly humorous though), but the stand out actor in this film is Mark Ruffalo, who is outstanding and by far the best Hulk yet.
Overall, The Avengers amounts to just about everything you expect when you go to see a superhero film at the cinema. It is extremely fun.
After the publication of the comic and years of development issues, Watchmen finally graced cinema screens in 2009 under the guidance of Zack Snyder. Starring an ensemble cast consisting of the likes of Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley and Malin Akerman, the plot is set in an alternative Cold War timeline in 1985, where a group of retired vigilantes are the targets of a conspiracy in the United States, forcing them to band together one more time to uncover and expose the shifty goings-on.
Not long removed from his bloody, visual epic 300, Zack Snyder carries some familiar elements with him in the creation of Watchmen: it is one of the most violent films the superhero genre has seen (in that sense, it stays truer to the comic) and is also one of the most visually intriguing, feeling like you are genuinely watching a graphic novel play out on-screen. When it was released the film divided opinion among audiences, with some critics proclaiming that it is too close to the source material and thus the plot is too contrived and thus unable to breathe. Others appreciated the true nature of the film and that it did not shy away from the violence depicted in the graphic novel, which many superhero films tend to do in order to reach a wider audience (in terms of cinema, an 18 certificate alienates a large percentage of the potential audience a film may acquire had that film received a 15 rating). For me, having never read the Watchmen graphic novel, the film is a success and the characters — although blotchy in places — are encapsulating, particularly Rorschach who is portrayed sublimely by Jackie Earle Haley.
Visceral and ambitious, Watchmen successfully offers a different perspective on the superhero genre in the 21st century.
Iron Man (2008)
The first instalment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Iron Man, hit cinemas in 2008 to widespread critical acclaim. Directed by Jon Favreau and starring Robert Downey Jr as extravagant billionaire Tony Stark, the film follows Stark’s unavoidable creation and eventual utilisation of the Iron Man suit, along with his new-found philosophy to use the suit against evil.
Iron Man is as close to a perfect superhero film as you can get, without actually being perfect: a charismatic lead, a simple-yet-effective plot, a smart and witty script and entertaining action. Unfortunately its only downfall is a significant one — the villain. Jeff Bridges does a fine job as the sleazy, egotistical partner-turned-adversary to Iron Man, but the character itself is not very interesting and is flawed in places. Regardless, the focus of the film is on Robert Downey Jr and his portrayal of the title character. Downey delivers a cocky, effortless and witty performance, yet still provides enough humanity and emotion to make the audience sympathise with an otherwise pretty obnoxious billionaire. Supporting characters like Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Lt. Colonel James Rhodes (Terrence Howard) offer the extra support Stark requires in order to achieve the correct balance between overly brash, and sentimental. The two Iron Man sequels are not quite as good as their predecessor, but it would be a mean feat to achieve such status again.
The first offering from Marvel and by far the best, Iron Man almost has the correct concoction of elements to create the perfect superhero film.
The Dark Knight (2008)
Although I have The Dark Knight stated above as my favourite superhero film of all time, the trilogy as a whole should be at the summit. The only reason they are not is because this post would probably become a bit repetitive and boring. It would be like watching Saw 4 and then realising Saw 5 is on its way. So while much of the focus here will be on The Dark Knight, I am really including Batman Begins and The Dark Knights Rises as my top superhero films of all time too.
Directed by the majestic Christopher Nolan and released in 2008, The Dark Knight stars Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman and follows on from the events in Batman Begins. Wayne (as Batman), teaming with police lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman) and district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), take down an unrivalled number of criminals and bring them to justice. This causes The Joker (Heath Ledger) to devise a plot aiming to bring Gotham to its knees and reduce its heroes to nothing more than the level of The Joker himself.
I mentioned just a moment ago that Iron Man comes so close to being the perfect superhero film. For me, The Dark Knight fills that spot. Everything about this film hits the bullseye. From the dark, unnerving atmosphere to the themes embroidered into the plot to the incomparable performance from the late Heath Ledger as The Joker (a performance that earned him an Academy Award in 2009). Ledger’s Joker is unpredictable, viscous and intelligent, and is arguably the greatest villain of all time in a superhero film (you will get no argument from me though). Although Ledger steals the show, Christian Bale more than holds his own as Batman — cool and stylish on the outside, but unsure and under pressure on the inside. The two bounce off of each other with immaculate chemistry. The sheer volume of characters in the film has been questioned by viewers (such as the need for Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent), but for me every character plays an essential part to the story — incidentally, Maggie Gyllenhaal is far more suited to playing Rachel Dawes than Katie Holmes was in Batman Begins. Hans Zimmer once again provides the haunting soundtrack, which adds more substance to the already eerie atmosphere.
A film about values and hope, The Dark Knight is not just a great superhero film, it is an outstanding piece of cinema. The Dark Knight is the superhero film we needed, but probably not the superhero film we deserved. Sorry, I just could not help myself.
Okay, so now for a few honourable mentions. These films are great too:
Batman (1966) — A feature-length film inspired by the Batman television series, Batman: The Movie takes more of a comedy angle than a violent one, with Adam West and Burt Ward reprising their roles as Batman and Robin respectively. Comical, over-the-top fun.
The Incredibles (2004) — The only animated film on the list, The Incredibles achieved universal acclaim from critics and audiences alike after its release. An entertainment-fest about a family of superheroes out to save the world.
Kick-Ass (2010) — Right from the opening scene (poor kid) all the way to the closing dialogue, Kick-Ass is a hilarious superhero comedy for an older audience. Nicholas Cage is actually good in this film. Just about.
Thor (2011) — A few eyebrows may have been raised when the director of Hamlet and Henry V was announced as the man at the helm of the superhero film, Thor, but Kenneth Branagh answered any questions by providing a flashy, amusing and solid re-introduction to the Thor character.
X-Men: First Class (2011) — This was pretty close to getting into my top five. Not only is the film encapsulating, energetic and youthful, it is also extraordinarily performed — particularly James McAvoy as Professor X and Michael Fassbender as Magneto.