Hail, Caesar! (2016)

★★★★

Hail, Caesar! PosterDirectors: Joel and Ethan Coen

Release Date: February 5th, 2016 (US); March 4th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Comedy; Mystery

Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, Alden Ehrenreich

Hail, Caesar! might as well be a sequel to the Coen brothers’ early-90s writer’s block masterstroke, Barton Fink. The filmmaking duo are back on familiar turf, their gaze once again fixed upon their own industry, only this time it is an exploration of post-screenplay life. Set in 1951, a decade after Fink, we re-enter the mania of motion pictures during a time of internal and external struggle; as studios lose control within the self-contained confines of Hollywood, the real world is dealing with political crises and threats of nuclear decimation. Thankfully George Clooney, Channing Tatum and Scarlett Johansson are on hand to spread some joy.

Even those wary of their thematic craftsmanship or storytelling abilities must hold the Coen brothers’ world creation to the highest of standards. Here, the duo conceive Capitol Pictures (another Fink throwback) in all of its glory: bombastic sets tinged with old charm; backlots bearing their own gravitational pull that revolve around the movie star present — when interested parties hear Baird Whitlock (Clooney) will be starring in their feature, the reaction is an audible “oh my”. And office doors get in on the excess, wearing flashy, golden-chrome nameplates. Cinematographer Roger Deakins, fresh from stunning work in Sicario, shoots the grandiosity with skill and a sense of cosiness. It all just looks right.

The studio system is on its last reels and given the aforementioned extravagance, it is plain to see why. The social zeitgeist is one of populism, of westerns and biblical epics designed to quell the moviegoer’s fear of Communism and nuclear war if only for a few hours at a time. On a side note, Hail, Caesar! and Trumbo might make a worthwhile double-bill as here we are introduced, teasingly, to the Communist cause without ever delving far into its core. The Coens are interested in the production line, the behind-the-scenes craziness, of which there are many components — too many for such political allegiance to warrant thorough analysis.

Eddie Mannix is the common thread binding those components, superbly played by Josh Brolin (straddling the line between aloofness and competence). He is not a moral man, or so his cigarette-decrying priest would have him believe. He is a studio fixer, that is, a liaison between star and head financier. As the story progresses Mannix increasingly takes the form of a walking, talking manifestation of movies as life’s be all and end all, therefore false pretences must be upheld and personalities must be moulded to suit the needs of a fearful America. “The public loves you because they know how innocent you are,” Mannix informs Johansson’s DeeAnna Moran. She is pregnant and single, which is obviously a problem.

Less of a problem is the town’s new personality ready for shaping, that of proverbial cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich). He is an amiable up-and-comer who has plied his trade horse-riding and lasso-snapping, though the Capitol leaders wish to broaden his appeal. Of course, the kid has no experience in dramatic acting, especially not in delivering the mirthless chuckles and ruefulness ordered by his new, pompous director Lawrence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes in fine cameo form). Regardless, Hobie will be the next big thing because that’s what Mannix wants, and on the basis of his performance, Alden Ehrenreich will be too.

The movies we see in production adhere to a culture of emboldening, where lighting cues are so obviously artificial you cannot help but laugh when they announce themselves, and where acting is defined not by subtlety but by overemphasis. Clooney, playing the easily cajoled A-lister Baird Whitlock, is a master at such overemphasis: an early scene in which he is drugged by two plotting extras, the real life version of Pain and Panic from Hercules, ought to rouse significant amusement at the behest of his delayed water guzzling. It is a delay brought on by the actor’s strenuous effort to convey the hilarity of a joke, of course.

Whitlock spends the entirety of the film wearing the same gladiatorial costume and Clooney answers by sauntering like a Roman solider, sword a-swinging. We get those idiosyncratic moments, Coen watermarks, side quests not related to the central storyline but that are an absolute hoot to watch: two of the best in Hail, Caesar! involve a raucous religious rabble and an impromptu enunciation lesson. There is a sequence in the third act during which the piece knowingly gets ultra-meta: a late-night drive is montaged, scored by brass, Dutch angles invoked. It is like watching a movie within a movie about classic Hollywood movies.

Perhaps the need to accommodate as many kooky industry strands as possible means the film can’t be as richly textured as the Coens’ previous outings (although there are similarities with Barton Fink, deep thematic layering isn’t one). However, you are hoisted along with so much momentum by waves of nutty humour that it is almost impossible not to revel in it all. You find yourself gleefully anticipating the next big, showy scene, expecting it to topple the last in levels of arrant silliness — a high bar awaits tap dancing Tatum, though he sails through with flying colours.

Mannix spends time considering whether or not to ditch his Hollywood gig and assume an executive position at the aerospace organisation, Lockheed. A salesperson from the company occasionally appears, looking to coax Mannix into signing on the dotted line. “I’m sure the picture business is pretty damn interesting, but I’m sure it’s frivolous too,” the Lockheed man says. He’s right, in a wider world context, on both counts. Fortunately, thanks to movies like this and filmmakers such as the Coen brothers, that which is interesting far outweighs that which may be frivolous.

Hail Caesar - Channing Tatum

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures

Crash of the Titans: The Decline of the Actor

Stars - J Law 2

Following a dour weekend stateside for new film releases, that ever-intrusive question is banging around the cinemasphere again: What has happened to our movie stars? Now more than ever films are sold to audiences through an expertly crafted marketing gaze, and it seems the most effective marketing strategy for studios these days is to repeat that which was once successful.

Through no fault of their own, actors are no longer truly bankable; even the biggest and best have financial flops lingering in their back catalogues like an unwanted infection. The same could be said for directors, many of whom have helmed a financial disappointment. If you’re not Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese, chances are you’re not getting top billing on the poster. In fact hiring less well-known directors to oversee large productions is becoming an increasingly popular trend in Hollywood.

Instead, distributors are all wrapped up in promoting a marketable product these days. It’s partly why franchises are in vogue; they have a ready-made narrative structure in place and are therefore easier to sell. Skyfall currently flies the most successful British film ever made banner and, as good as his performance is in the film, chances are people didn’t scramble to their nearest cinema to catch a glimpse of Daniel Craig. They went for James Bond, the character, the familiar entity. Jennifer Lawrence is arguably the world’s most in demand actor, a reputation she has carved out for herself by being very good in two huge movie series (The Hunger Games and X-Men).

In the US, this past weekend saw name-value take another hit: Bradley Cooper and Sandra Bullock both had films released, and both films succumbed to poor box office returns. Cooper stars in Burnt, a culinary drama that took as little as $5 million, while Bullock’s vehicle is the political comedy Our Brand Is Crisis. The latter only managed to recoup $3.2 million of its $28 million budget. As those films struggled, grander ventures such as The Martian continued to reign supreme — thankfully, Ridley Scott’s sci-fi jaunt is one of the year’s best (another, in fairness, is franchise reboot Mad Max: Fury Road).

Stars - Sandra Bullock

While middle-of-the-road outings such as Burnt and Our Brand Is Crisis feel the weight of their franchise-less, big budget-less predicaments, the past 12 months have brought us this lot: Jurassic World, Fast & Furious 7, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Minions, four sequels (or prequel in the case of Minions) that greatly emphasised their pre-existing worlds during the sales pitch. Heck, Jurassic World went full throttle and unveiled distinctly recognisable posters to the world before incorporating an updated version of John Williams’ wonderful score in its trailer. Those movies, incidentally, are four of cinema’s largest ever grossers.

If the waning power of the actor wasn’t so explicitly obvious before, Suffragette may well have totally pulled the plug. Focus Features heavily promoted Meryl Streep’s involvement in the project alongside main players Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham Carter, even though the iconic actor only appears on screen for a handful of minutes. Presumably, the studio expected her name-value to grasp the consumer’s attention and subsequently increase viewership. Unfortunately, the film has only grossed $11.6 million up until now (it’s in its fourth week), $2.4 million short of its initial budget.

There are pros and cons to our present age of sequel-dom. On the one hand, we get to see exhilarating and smart blockbuster outings such as the aforementioned Mad Max: Fury Road and also Marvel’s Ant-Man, these films succeeding in spite of their pre-established identities. But we also have to sit through monstrosities such as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, a film that when issued back in 2009 arrived on the silver screen warmed by the security blanket of a guaranteed audience. A film, sadly, that hardly values quality.

There are exceptions to rule — some may call them diminishing lights amongst the bleak darkness — and one of those might be The Revenant. Granted the upcoming film will be riding the Oscar wave, particularly given its director Alejandro González Iñárritu is fresh off a golden statuette victory himself. But even films touched by the shiny sheen of an Academy Award nomination rarely yield monster returns — the 2015 crop harvested a circumstantially low intake — and it’s worth noting that these often host the flashiest names too. Steve Jobs, starring Michael Fassbender, is another potential awards-hauler performing poorly.

Stars - Leo DiCaprio

But back to The Revenant. There is an argument to be made that any financial success incurred by The Revenant will lie solely at the feet of its genuine A-list star, Leonardo DiCaprio. One of the last original flicks to make any real cash was Christopher Nolan’s Inception, also starring DiCaprio, though to claim that movie’s monetary success was exclusively down to said actor’s involvement would be a stretch. A genuine exception might be Spring Breakers, starring Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hugdens who, at the time, were Disney starlets. It made over $30 million on a $6 million budget.

A24 Films delivered Spring Breakers to audiences back in 2013 and since then the studio has prioritised freshness (though its movies don’t always boast big names). Its highest grossing picture thus far is Ex Machina, which featured relative newcomers Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, and Alicia Vikander. Conversely, Under the Skin starring Avenger Scarlett Johansson failed to regain even half of its initial outlay. American Hustle, of the non-A24 Films variety, done well at the box office under the guidance of a conglomeration of star power: Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, and Jeremy Renner were all involved.

Is it a good thing? Recent history suggests that the demise of the actor as a wholesale draw has meant most studios see the establishment of a brand as the only way forward. If true this approach cannot be healthy, as it would almost certainly encourage a lack of diversity in cinema (many will claim cinema is already lacking diversity). You might argue Gravity, starring Bullock and George Clooney, is an example of a film that was beefed up by its two major stars, but even that was marketed largely as an immersive and stunning cinematic experience. Clooney himself felt the brunt of ebbing clout when audiences opted not to see Tomorrowland: A World Beyond this past summer.

None of this should come as a surprise. The days of the star system are gone and in their place we have a society that subscribes to Netflix not to see a particular film, but because it’s Netflix. A Will Smith-led Bad Boys can no longer make over $140 million based solely on Will Smith’s appearance. The solution, if there is one, is an entirely different matter, though perhaps actors don’t need one. Perhaps studios and audiences just need to have more confidence in original movie-making.

Stars - Bradley Cooper

Images credit: Metro, Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros. Pictures, 20th Century Fox, The Weinstein Company

Clooney and the Coens, Together Again?

O Brother Where Art Thou - Clooney 2

According to Deadline, George Clooney is set to reteam with the Coen brothers on Suburbicon, a noir-drama penned by the sibling duo. It appears Clooney will be taking up the directorial reigns, the silver-haired silver screen star having already successfully overseen the making of other outings such as his beautifully crafted 2005 piece, Good Night, and Good Luck.

The screenplay has been languishing in the bowels of Hollywood, or Coen-wood, for at least a decade — Empire reported on Clooney’s potential involvement as far back as 10 years ago — but now the stars seem to have finally aligned for the trio. Clooney and the Coens have been working together since 2000 when the actor starred in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, an uproarious Depression Era take on Homer’s Odyssey. Only the Coen brothers could conceive a Depression Era take on Homer’s Odyssey. Their collaborative portfolio portfolio also includes Intolerably Cruelty (2003) and Burn After Reading (2008).

Clooney & Coens

Despite the lengthy waiting period, details remain fairly sketchy regarding Suburbicon’s plot, though I suspect it’ll have something to do with crazed unicorns wreaking havoc on a quiet suburban locale. Whatever the case may be, should Deadline’s report come to fruition Clooney will certainly be hoping for a more positive critical outcome than that fostered by his last directorial product, The Monuments Men.

Joel and Ethan will direct Clooney again in their latest upcoming venture Hail, Caesar! which is set for release early next year and could figure prominently throughout awards season. The film harkens back to 1950s Hollywood and will see Clooney star as big name actor Baird Whitlock who is kidnapped mid-production. Fixer Josh Brolin is the man called in to solve the should-be entertaining mystery. Scarlett Johansson, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, and Frances McDormand are among a host of other actors involved.

If the trailer is anything to go by Hail, Caesar! will be another gloriously shot brash comedy with sardonic skin. In other words, one you ought not to miss. Channing Tatum is playing an actor playing a sailor — look at that grin for goodness’ sake!

Hail Caesar - Channing Tatum

Images credit: Indiewire, Vanity Fair, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios Motion PicturesUniversal Studios

Tomorrowland: A World Beyond (2015)

★★★

Tomorrowland PosterDirector: Brad Bird

Release Date: May 22nd, 2015 (UK & US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Family

Starring: Britt Robertson, George Clooney, Raffey Cassidy

We shouldn’t be surprised that Tomorrowland is a giant bouncing ball of alacrity. From Brad Bird, director of The Incredibles (the hint is in the title), comes a film packed with a positive punch. “There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow,” we’re told at the very beginning via cheery song. Shortly thereafter, a young Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) engages in conversation with Tomorrowland overseer David Nix (Hugh Laurie). Nix asks about the practicality of Walker’s jet pack creation. Walker, wide-eyed and all, replies: “Can’t it just be fun?”

Though it may not have been sufficiently clear from Disney’s muddled marketing campaign — one possible factor in a disappointing opening weekend financially — this is a film about incentive and inspiration, enjoyment and energy. Whereas evasive trailers have partly sold the piece as a sci-fi escape and partly as a family drama, the movie itself is far from confused. Tomorrowland is bright, and it knows it.

Starring Britt Robertson as the self-prescribed ultra-optimist Casey Newton (probably related to Isaac), the story follows her eventful journey as she searches high and low for a mysterious place called Tomorrowland. Accompanying her are recruiter Athena (Raffey Cassidy) and the now older, world-weary Frank (George Clooney). Casey is the human embodiment of the film’s joyful prerogative. Her school teachers drawl on about end of world scenarios — spouting warnings on everything from nuclear Armageddon to environmental degradation — but all Casey wants to know is how to fix these problems.

Just as the camera struggles to go more than a minute without whizzing towards a Hall of Invention or something of similar ilk, Casey can’t spend any significant length of time without exuding eagerness. She would be the perfect citizen of Tomorrowland, where everything is so big and bold. In Mad Max: Fury Road — which shares the same sticking-by-one’s-convictions mantra — vehicles are bolted on top of other vehicles. Here, we see skyscrapers double up to create super skyscrapers. Bird spends a long time worldbuilding, striving to convey a sense of wondrous momentum from the off. It is probably too long, especially when we spend so little of the two hours actually in Tomorrowland.

Robertson is charming and consistently watchable as our central character. Quite brilliantly, she manages to be sprightly but not sickening. Unlike in the television series Under the Dome, this is a much more assured performance from the actor (admittedly, her character in the former offers little in the way of depth). Young newcomer Raffey Cassidy is a victim of the hyped up and overly long sugary beginning, her verbiage a tad too sentimental. The talented teen increases in charm as the film progresses though, to the point where the screen significantly benefits from her presence.

Damon Lindelof’s screenplay avoids the politics and greed normally rife in the world we know. This lack of cynicism is actually quite refreshing, and the film shouldn’t be kicked for carrying a hopeful message. It should be saluted, really, for moulding its message of hope into a pertinent discussion about the state of humankind. At one point Casey exclaims, “It’s hard to have ideas and easy to give up!”, a statement epitomised by the film itself. Tomorrowland is more than just a surface level blockbuster. At its core, it boasts a perceptive idea about how we, humanity, have accepted and monetised our demise. Bird and Lindelof should have mined this concept further, but its inclusion is evidence that their script isn’t naive, nor ill-judged.

However, it can’t quite dodge plot holes. Terminator-ish humanoid robots show up occasionally wearing goofy smiles (obviously) and guided by a view to kill, though it’s never really apparent why. The existence of the film’s grandiose, hidden cityscape is also somewhat puzzling. Sure, it looks great and has some cool gravity defying roads, but what exactly is it? And where did it come from? Rather than answering these questions, Bird and Lindelof seem to be more transfixed by their attempts to include as many cinematic references as possible.

And who can blame them? There are so many fun touchstones: Baymax bubble suits are worn with jet packs as a safety precaution; attire-wise, the futuristic land resembles The Hunger Games’ unconventional Capitol style; visually, moments of inter-dimensional travel momentarily resemble David Bowman’s cosmological pilgrimage in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey; and Charles Xavier’s Cerebro room gets an interactive Google Maps makeover. A Forbidden Planet-esque store that we enter midway through the piece is a treasure trove of movie geekdom.

Aside from his presence as part of an unnecessary narration tactic that materialises every so often, George Clooney is introduced to us with the sun beaming down behind him and illuminating half his face, probably because he is God. Frank has a grizzled beard and is a bit moody, but that’s as rebellious as it gets. He delivers a “son of a” but no “bitch”.

Frank’s downbeat personality is the story in a nutshell — someone once driven by promise who has presently accepted defeat, but can be saved. “Can’t you just be amazed and move on?” Frank muses when Casey persistently asks about his cool house gadgetry, and you sort of get the feeling that in lesser hands this would be the film speaking to its audience. Neither a baddie, nor a goody, Hugh Laurie’s David Nix is a misstep. The presidential figure is very thinly drawn, though the actor does deliver a really compelling speech towards the end summarising humanity’s passiveness.

Tomorrowland doesn’t throw the cat among the pigeons. The closest we get to edgy is a non-diegetic rock tune that accompanies Casey as she invades a NASA launch station while wearing a treasured NASA cap given to her by her NASA-employed father. The film tells the world that we have lost our way and that we can reclaim our rosy roots, but that we should strive to be even better than before. It is what it is and if you’re happy to spend a few hours riding a roller coaster of cerebral optimism, it is for you.

Tomorrowland - Hall of Invention

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Preview: The 2014 Cinematic Landscape

Who invited January over?

Yep, the most miserable month of year has reared its ugly head again. However for film fans (and let’s be honest, who isn’t?) the arrival of the dreaded January means two things: One, it’s awards season, so watch out for the heavy hitters making their way around cinemas, and two, it’s time to look forward to another calendar year choc-a-bloc with films ready to burst loose and onto our screens.

I guess we should start looking then…

(All release dates are subject to change, so don’t be booking your holidays around them. Because I know people do that. What? Just me?)

 

January

The Wolf of Wall Street – Director: Martin Scorsese, Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio

That’s right, having spent the best part of a decade working together, Scorsese and DiCaprio are remaining true to form and battering out another collaboration. This time Leonardo DiCaprio is Jordan Belfort, a New York stockbroker who got rich overnight in the late 1980s. The Wolf of Wall Street is based on a true story and by all accounts, it’s a pretty hectic tale. Jonah Hill and Matthew McConaughey are part of this brash comedy that apparently didn’t go down too well with a few elderly Academy members, as reports suggest Scorsese and the cast were severely heckled after a screening. Sounds like a lot of fun then! Out January 17th in the UK.

Inside Llewyn Davis – Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen, Starring: Oscar Isaac

From the outrageous to the harmonious, Joel and Ethan Coen have rustled up another helping of their highly sought-after Kool-Aid. Set around the wintry Greenwich Village folk scene in 1961, the film depicts a week in the life of Llewyn Davis, an aspiring musician out of luck. This has earned rave reviews on the festival circuit, and could springboard Oscar Isaac into Hollywood stardom. The Coen Brothers are often meticulous in their film-making – details matter as much as one-liners – and with T-Bone Burnett orchestrating the music production, Inside Llewyn Davis may well cause one or two Academy Award-shaped upsets come March. Out January 24th in the UK.

 

February

Dallas Buyers Club – Director: Jean-Marc Vallée, Starring: Matthew McConaughey

It’s only February and here we are looking at Matthew McConaughey’s second film on the list (and it won’t be his last)! The true renaissance man of cinema has knocked role after role out of the park in recent years, be it as a gritty lawyer in The Lincoln Lawyer, an eccentric stripper in Magic Mike or a pact-making fugitive in Mud, and this is shaping up to be another home run. After being diagnosed with AIDS, hustler Ron Woodroof sees life in a new light, shining brightly on giving back to those in need. Dallas Buyers Club has an air of Milk about it, which can only be a good thing. Also watch out for a supporting performance from Jared Leto that is generating quite a helping of Oscar buzz. Not bad for a singer. Out February 7th in the UK.

The Monuments Men – Director: George Clooney, Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon

Argo meets Inglorious Basterds. Now that doesn’t sound half-bad, does it? Only, replace stranded United States embassy staff with some art masterpieces, and Diane Kruger with Cate Blanchett, and you’ve got yourself George Clooney’s next directorial venture. It’s quite a change from running for president in The Ides of March, although some political elements look set to remain. Clooney and company are going to have to do exceedingly well to usurp Quentin Tarantino’s take on World War II, however with a cast including Bill Murray anything’s possible. Out February 21st in the UK.

 

March

The Grand Budapest Hotel – Director Wes Anderson, Starring: Just about everyone

Wes Anderson and that distinctive directorial style returns with a story about a heralded concierge, a young lobby boy and a stolen painting set in a hotel between World Wars. Anderson must have a phone book brimming with Hollywood stars, each of whom is in his debt. Or maybe he just makes interesting films (yep, probably this one). Bill Murray – hooray again – is joined by Saoirse Ronan, Jude Law, Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum and a whole host of other people you’d want to have round for dinner. There’s no doubt this’ll have laughs, but without the naive innocence on show in Moonrise Kingdom, will those laughs be enough to win over audiences? Maybe Anderson has another trick up his sleeve. Or in his hair. Out March 7th in the UK.

The Zero Theorem – Director: Terry Gilliam, Starring: Christophe Waltz

The man behind Monty Python has turned his head to existential science-fiction in this odd-sounding fantasy-drama. About a computer hacker’s search to uncover why and how human beings exist (he should check out The Meaning of Life, by the way), The Zero Theorem even tends towards comedy by the sounds of it. The hacker’s bosses, succinctly named the ‘Management’, strive to distract him by sending a lusty love interest to his place of work. This ‘Management’ lot obviously don’t understand the first rule of um, management – getting results. Surely Christophe Waltz (who plays our lead) won’t deliver results with his attention diverted elsewhere?! This could throw up anything really. Out March 14th in the UK.

 

April

The Double – Director: Richard Ayoade, Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Jesse Eisenberg

After his coming-of-age debut Submarine was well received by audiences and critics alike, the stone-faced Richard Ayoade has decided for his second film, to direct Jesse Eisenberg… twice. This peculiar outing about a man stalked by his doppelgänger won over viewers when it premièred at the Toronto International Film Festival, and then carried much momentum onto The Culture Show with Mark Kermode during its life at the BFI London Film Festival. Mia Wasikowska is included in the Jennifer Lawrence and Elizabeth Olsen future of cinema party, and if that’s not enough to clinch your attention, Eisenberg versus Eisenberg in a wit-off is something you have to see in 2014. Out April 4th in the UK.

Transcendence – Director: Wally Pfister, Starring: Johnny Depp

He’s the reason most Christopher Nolan films look as wholesome as they do, but now someone else has to do the same for Wally Pfister (good luck Jess Hall!). Transcendence is his first venture into the directorial chair, and therefore could go either way. Given the extraordinary standards set by his previous work though, don’t expect anything to be left to chance. This story of death, life, and uncompromising power has morality at its heart and a string of Nolan’s acting repertoire to provide the beat. Johnny Depp meets Morgan Freeman, Rebecca Hall and Cillian Murphy in what is quite simply a exceptional line-up. Out April 25 in the UK.

 

May

Frank – Director: Lenny Abrahamson, Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Michael Fassbender

Frank hasn’t been released anywhere yet, therefore we don’t know an awful lot about it. Abrahamson’s last film, What Richard Did, garnered positive reviews from critics, but doesn’t seem to share many similar characteristics with his upcoming piece. About a young musician looking for a break and finding solace in a mysterious, enigmatic band leader who invites him to join, Frank is described as a comedy, a drama and a mystery on IMDb (which is fitting really, because its content certainly is unknown for the most part). Domhnall Gleeson charmed 2013 and Michael Fassbender has developed a reputation greater than most, so we’re in good hands here. It’s also nice to see Scoot McNairy involved, who excelled in Gareth Edwards much talked about debut Monsters. Out May 9th in the UK.

Godzilla – Director: Gareth Edwards, Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen

Speaking of Gareth Edwards, his triumphant 2010 debut has landed him at the helm of the most anticipated blockbuster of the coming summer. Roland Emmerich butchered more than just the Japanese monster in his take on Godzilla fifteen years ago, he also tarnished the immediate legacy of the giant mutant lizard. It looks like Edwards is delving back into the franchise’s original backbone – the trials and tribulations of human nature and greed – which is a good idea in an era where blockbusters have to be intelligent, or its bust. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is a solid lead and Elizabeth Olsen has done a whole lot of right so far in her young career. It must be wary of high expectations, however those expectations are only lofty on the back of Edwards’ previous successes. Out May 16th in the UK.

 

June

22 Jump Street – Directors: Phil Lord and Chris Miller, Starring: Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill

After the surprising critical and commercial success of the first film, it’s time for Jump Street: The College Years. Undercover cops Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill are set to return and after their prior personal triumphs, the pair find themselves surrounded by fraternities and hipster clubs in college. Joint directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller have two highly marketable films out in 2014 – the first being The Lego Movie – but both have difficult obstacles to overcome. For 22 Jump Street it’s all about bettering the predecessor, and that will be a big ask. Out June 6th in the UK.

A Million Ways to Die in the West – Director: Seth MacFarlane, Starring: Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron

Ted worked out well for Seth MacFarlane, so why not turn his head towards the west? After losing the love of his life to cowardliness, a man finds bravery in the form a gunslinger’s wife, only now the gunslinger wants his wife back. This one sounds like referential humour in abundance. Expect many a cowboy gag and acoustic twang. MacFarlane does blunt comedy very well in animated form, and his cross-over into live action was a successful one. Only time will tell if he can strike an even better balance second time around. Out June 6th in the UK.

 

July

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – Director: Matt Reeves, Starring: Gary Oldman

Cloverfield director Matt Reeves tries his hand at an Apes sequel, and will do well to live up to standards set by the first. There’s no James Franco (he’s too busy doing weird indie stuff), nor does Freida Pinto return. However, Gary Oldman has been lined up to take the reins and there can be absolutely quarrels with that appointment. Set eight years after Rise of the Planet of the Apes, human survivors of the virus unleashed at the end of the first film bond together in a movement against Caesar’s growing forces. The Picasso of motion-capture acting, Andy Serkis, is back as Caesar in an outing that pertains to being far more action-packed than the first. Out July 17th in the UK.

Jupiter Ascending – Directors: Andy and Lana Wachowski, Starring: Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum

In what appears to be 2014’s Cloud Atlas (and hopefully not 2014’s After Earth) Jupiter Ascending will be strung together by mythology, scintillating visual landscapes and probably some croaky language not-of-this-earth. The human species has fallen mightily, and exists near foot of the evolutionary pyramid, where Mila Kunis cleans toilets for a living. Her unfulfilled existence is about to change however, as she is targeted for assassination by the threatened Queen of the Universe in an attempt to ensure her own longevity. You’ve got to hand it to the Wachowski’s: they’re not afraid to dream and do big. In the same vein as their previous films, this’ll likely split opinion. Out July 25th in the UK.

 

August

Guardians of the Galaxy – Director: James Gunn, Starring: Lee Pace, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Zoe Saldana

The Avengers’ cousin, this will be Marvel Cinematic Universe’s second offering of the year after Captain America: The Winter Solider, and the first in its own particular superhero story strand. A group of misfits including a warrior, a tree-human hybrid and a squirrel are recruited by a stranded pilot in space as he attempts to fend off a number of cosmic threats and ensure the galaxy’s survival. Guardians received an electric reception

Guardians received an electric reception at the 2013 San Diego Comic Con and there’s a large degree of buzz surrounding the film. With very little exposure in the run up to its release – unlike The Avengers which was preceded by feature-length films for each character – it may not make as big an impact as expected. Out August 1st in the UK.

Hercules: The Thracian Wars – Director: Brett Ratner, Starring: Dwayne Johnson

Much like the battle of White House destruction supremacy that played out in 2013, this year will have its own inter-Herculean duel as two re-imaginings of the Greek demigod come to fruition. The second and more anticipated of the two will be directed by Brett Ratner and will star the franchise re-energiser himself, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, alongside film veterans John Hurt and Ian McShane. Can The Rock layeth the Smacketh-down on both a monstrous warlord and a February release of the same name? Out August 8th in the UK.

 

September

Posh – Director: Lone Scherfig, Starring: Sam Claflin, Natalie Dormer

At the time of writing, September is looking pretty starved in the film front. It’s sandwiched amongst that awkward post-summer blockbuster, pre-awards season gap, when many people are heading back to work, school or uni. However Danish director Lone Scherfig has this upper-class thriller lined up to hopefully quench our end-of-holiday blues. Sam Claflin and Game of Thrones’ Natalie Dormer will star as new members of the Riot Club at Oxford University. With very little known about Posh, let’s place it somewhere between National Lampoon’s Animal House and Pathology for now. Out September 19th in the UK.

 

October

Gone Girl – Director: David Fincher, Starring: Rosamund Pike, Ben Affleck

David Fincher has accumulated quite the portfolio of films throughout his career, along with a fair few fans too, so it’ll be interesting to see how this seemingly more straight-forward narrative will go down. Based on a novel of the same name, Gone Girl sees conundrums take precedence as a woman disappears on the day of her wedding anniversary. Fincher doesn’t often disappoint his supporters, and the mystery-thriller element here should be enough for him to juggle with and embroider his own spin. Heck, he’s got Batman as his lead for goodness sake. Out October 3rd in the UK.

 

November

Interstellar – Director: Christopher Nolan, Starring: Anne Hathaway, Matthew McConaughey

In his first film since neatly wrapping up the trials and tribulations of Batman for a while (oh… right) Chris Nolan is taking to space for his next voyage. Hey look, Matthew McConaughey is back again! And this time Double-M is joined by Nolan archivees Anne Hathaway and Michael Caine, plus Jessica Chastain, in a sci-fi tale about discovering the bounds of life and surpassing the un-surpass-able. Ahem. Expect wormholes aplenty and probably even some dimension-hopping, time-travelly stuff too. Nolan hasn’t made a bad film in, well, ever, so Interstellar will open with very high expectations. Will it be stellar? Out November 7th in the UK.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 – Director: Francis Lawrence, Starring: Jennifer Lawrence

It’s becoming a late-November outing to be thankful for, but with two excellent predecessors, the less-well-regarded Mockingjay (Part 1, to ruffle even more feathers) has hype, expectations and box office records to live up to. Jennifer Lawrence will reclaim the bow for a third time as she helms the rebellion against President Snow and his viscous Capitol. Francis Lawrence infused Catching Fire with more politically current themes, and created an altogether bleaker but better film than first time around – and first time around was pretty damn good. Going by the material in the third book, Francis Lawrence has an even bigger task on his hands here. Part 1 is out November 21st in the UK, with Part 2 to follow a year later.

 

December

Dumb and Dumber To – Directors: Bobby and Peter Farrelly, Starring: Jim Carey, Jeff Daniels

Anchorman 2 by association, and we’re not off to a great start with the title. Much like the return of the Burgundy-brigade after nine years in December 2013, the dimwits are set to return in December 2014 after twenty years doing absolutely nothing. Not really, both Carey and Daniels are far bigger stars these days, raising the question: will it be harder for audiences to acclimatise to their characters’ now Hollywood stupidity? Fortunately, the Farrelly brothers are once again fronting up the sequel which does actually sound quite funny: the duo are on the hunt for a new kidney, so now is probably a good time to find that long-lost child. Out December 19th in the UK.

The Hobbit: There and Back Again – Director: Peter Jackson, Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen

And finally, we once again end the year at the end of the Hobbity adventure. Peter Jackson’s extended extension of J. R. R Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’ has improved with age, but will probably never please the hardcore Tolkienati. We’ve been there twice and it’s time to go back again as the world finds out the fate of Bilbo, Gandalf and their company of dwarfs, in their joust with Smaug. The amount of book pages remaining is wearing thin, so it’ll be interesting to see how Jackson expands this final instalment across almost three hours (which he’ll surely do). The Hobbit films haven’t really been a patch on The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but I’ll certainly miss Jackson’s endeavours into Middle Earth when the franchise finally nestles up. Out December 19th in the UK.

 

 

Some more potential hit or misses:

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (Kenneth Branagh): This year’s Jack Reacher, only Tom Cruise is younger and cooler. Out January.

Non-Stop (Jaume Collet-Serra): Taken on a Plane. Out February.

Nymphomaniac (Lars von Trier): Wherever von Trier goes controversy follows, and this has controversy smothered all over it. Along with a lot of other… stuff. Part I out February, Part II out March.

The Amazing Spiderman 2 (Marc Webb): Three and Four are already confirmed, and although the first regeneration was a success, counting chickens is a dangerous game. Out April.

Chef (Jon Favreau): Favreau’s Iron Man set a yet-to-be-reached bar for the franchise, and he’s back with RDJ in this tasty comedy. Out May.

The Fault in our Stars (Josh Boone): It’s probably time for a summer weep-fest. Out June.

Transformers 4 (Michael Bay): Let’s not even kid ourselves. Unfortunately, out July.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez): The next chapter in this graphic novel-driven saga. Out August.

Search Party (Scott Armstrong): Matthew Abbadon from LOST is in it. Out September.

The Maze Runner (Wes Ball): Brimming with youthful potential, will this be the next Hunger Games? Out October.

Horrible Bosses 2 (Sean Anders): The first was pretty average, but Christophe Waltz has been snapped up for this one. Out November.

Exodus (Ridley Scott): Scott’s movie-making binge continues with this account of Moses, played by Christian Bale. Out December.

 

What are you looking forward to seeing in 2014? Comment below!

Gravity (2D) (2013)

★★★

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Release Date: October 4th, 2013 (US); November 7th, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Science-fiction; Thriller

Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney

Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity has been lauded with praise from audiences and critics alike since its recent big screen release, being labelled groundbreaking, pioneering cinema. Emphatically described as immersive and emotive. Even breathtaking. Perhaps so much so that no space-set extravaganza will ever be the same again, purely because space on film in the future has a Gravity-esque brass ring to aspire to.

This abundance of praise, however, has been attributed primarily to Gravity in its 3D format (heck, even Mark Kermode thoroughly enjoyed this version). The jury is therefore still out on Gravity in its classic, run-of-the-mill 2D version. Does the trend-setting cinematography and floaty camera work succeed at all in two-dimensions? Is the film as engrossing and all-encompassing without the plethora of protruding debris and George Clooney-ness?

Quite simply, the answer to these questions is no. Not a resounding no, but a no nonetheless. And this flares up a number of issues, the most significant being whether or not Gravity in 3D is, more-so than any other three-dimensional film to date, essentially a theme park thrill ride in a cinema. Perhaps even — put in the plainest of terms — a gimmick. This is not necessarily a negative — film critic Danny Leigh on BBC’s Film 2013 mentioned that the film which Gravity reminded him most of was the Lumière Brothers’ L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (known in the UK as Train Pulling into a Station).

First shown in 1895, the film is a short 50-second piece depicting a steam train’s arrival at a bustling station. The first of its kind, the oncoming train apparently startled audience members and sent them fleeing in fear of the vehicle. The Lumière Brothers, themselves pioneers in the art of filmmaking, perceived cinema and the cinematic experience as a physical one, where audience members would be totally entranced and involved in what they were seeing. This was the birth of cinema and back then cinema was an out-of-body experience.

Fast-forward over a century and, by all accounts, this wholly enveloping feeling has returned as Gravity in 3D. But the same cannot be said for Gravity in 2D. The film sees Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone on her first space shuttle mission, partnering spacewalk veteran Matt Kowalski (Clooney) on his final mission (you can see where this one is going). After hearing news of a Russian satellite accident, the pair are bombarded with the resultant debris and metal, leaving them separated, low on oxygen and in desperate need of a safe return to Earth — to gravity.

Gravity (2D) looks stunning. The intricately manoeuvring astro-camera delicately shifts around the blackness, almost giving off the sense that the viewer is up there with the mission team (it probably does relay this sensation entirely, in 3D). The screen displays the magnificence of planet Earth in its fullest form and the film, as a purely flat visual output, looks simply awesome. So awesome that the philosophical Kowalski comments on the “beauty” a number of times.

Bullock is good as Dr. Stone, a woman who has recently lost her child and finds solace in the emptiness of space — an emptiness that no doubt has engulfed her for what feels like millennia, and that has left her devoid of any genuine happiness or enthusiasm for life. George Clooney does George Clooney very well, bursting with unbridled charisma and charm. The pair, and Bullock in particular, do genuinely come across as actors who have gone hell-for-leather and to ensure that there is a completely organic impression emitted from their space-set performances, an organic understanding that the film itself does incredibly well to generate (a generation likely far greater in 3D) as it was obviously unable to shoot on location.

Here is where Gravity (2D) returns from cloud nine to the bleak pavements of earth: the narrative is nothing more than just alright. Much of the film sees the astronauts glide around space for a period of time before colliding with a number of space stations and shuttles as they search for a route back to Earth. The novelty of watching these small, inconsequential beings wander at times aimlessly around the dark beyond wears off fairly early on, and unfortunately the dialogue is too commonplace and puffy to keep the audience attentive. There are bountiful amounts of clichés (“I’ve got a bad feeling about this”) and a number of deep-rooted conversations about existence and life (foetal position alert) recycled from sci-fi B-movies. The film is self-aware of this, and it would seem that the 3D version of Gravity does not need to worry about plot because the entrenching nature of proceedings means viewers are too busy being wowed by that new, exciting feeling of immersion in space alongside the characters.

Here lies the fundamental dispute that the 2D versus 3D debate boils down to: Gravity (2D) is a visually wonderful, but narratively generic drama about people in space trying to return home, whereas Gravity (3D) is a revolutionary experience in watching and becoming part of a film — it is pure cinema, the essence of what the Lumière Brothers envisioned all those years ago.

There is a moment towards the end of Gravity (2D) where the camera pans above a number of objects travelling very rapidly over the Earth. Even in two-dimensions this is a spine-tingling moment, and it evokes a final 15 minutes that is tense, goosebump-inducing and quite simply brilliant. These final moments probably equate to every moment in Gravity (3D). If that truly is the case, Alfonso Cuarón has done something pretty special indeed. The director has vehemently pushed for the film to be seen in all its three-dimensional glory, on the biggest screen, and it seems that is exactly how it should be seen.

I’m off to the IMAX.

CBF’s Genre Toppers: Comedy

After spending most of the day trying to fix my laptop (and succeeding, evidently) I think some laughs are in order. Therefore, it is time for five funny comedies! Everybody loves to laugh and there are not many better places to go than the cinema to be prompted in that direction. I have been a fan of comedy for as long as I can remember and the great thing about the genre is that it does not discriminate — everybody enjoys it.

Anyway, let the hilarity ensue!

Johnny English (2003)

I am okay with this.

Released in 2003 and directed by Peter Howitt, Johnny English stars the incomparable Rowan Atkinson as the title character and the only British spy left in action after an attack on MI5. English — confident, yet lacking in the intelligence department — is tasked with finding the perpetrator of the attack and recovering the stolen Crown Jewels, with assistance from the far more capable Interpol Agent Lorna Campbell (Natalie Imbruglia).

This is the one of the first comedy films that I can remember watching and laughing uncontrollably at throughout. Rowan Atkinson really is a comedic genius, with everything from his facial expressions to his timing absolutely spot on here. The film acts as a sort of parody of James Bond, and Atkinson is exceedingly good at making the audience root for a rather unintelligent, out-of-depth British spy. There are a few particularly funny scenes (the sewers), but in general the film is bursting with laughs. Natalie Imbruglia does a fairly good job at portraying English’s more sensible partner, although the apparent romance between the two is a little far-fetched (I guess that is comedy though, right?). John Malkovich hits just about all the right notes as the villain of the piece with his dodgy French accent (it only adds to the humour) and sublime hair.

Johnny English does not attempt to take itself too seriously and this works in its favour as the film delivers barrels of laughs and entertainment.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

“Come on! Bin bags make great clothes, we could sell millions of these!”

The first film to be nominated in all four acting categories at the Academy Awards since 1981, David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook stars Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper as recently widowed sex addict Tiffany Maxwell and bipolar Pat Solitano, respectively. After being released from a psychiatric ward, Pat’s primary aim is to reconcile with his ex-wife who wants nothing to do with him. Meanwhile, having just lost her husband Tiffany has her focus on an upcoming dance competition. After the two meet, they agree to help each other out with Tiffany ensuring Pat’s letters reach his ex-wife, as long as he partners Tiffany in her dance competition.

Well that was a long synopsis. The first thing to say here is Jennifer Lawrence is the greatest living being and Bradley Cooper have tremendous chemistry which more or less makes this film as good (and funny) as it is. They work so well together, in fact, that they are working together on another two future films, one of which David O. Russell is back directing. Lawrence is absolutely on fire at the moment (no pun intended) and can do wrong, and Cooper has put in a steady stream of really great performances in recent films such as, The Place Beyond the Pines and Limitless. It is no surprise, therefore, that the foundation of all things good about Silver Linings Playbook is in the dynamic between the duo. Combine that with a witty, energetic and sensitive script, along with magnificent supporting actors like Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver and you have a very funny but also very moving film.

Much has been said about this film’s careful depiction of mental illness and how positively it is put across on-screen, but purely in terms of comedy, Silver Linings Playbook is up there with the funniest films in recent years.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

“For the hundredth time, the camera’s this way!”

Next, we take a trip back to 1986 where Ferris Bueller’s Day Off has just graced cinemas around the world, garnering much critical acclaim. Matthew Broderick stars as Ferris Bueller, a teenager who decides to take a day off school (imagine that?) with his girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara) and best friend Cameron (Alan Ruck), where they go out and explore their freedom whilst simultaneously attempting to avoid the school principal in any way they can.

It took me a long time to get around to seeing this film, which is regrettable because it is one of the best feel-good comedies out there in my view. In terms of sheer laughs, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off probably is not the funniest on my list, but it certainly is the funnest. Be it the inventive ways the trio try to avoid the principal or the principal himself’s various ordeals throughout, this film grasps the ‘be positive’ attitude more than any other I have seen. Broderick, Sara and Ruck work well together in the three prominent roles, with Broderick keeping the audience on their toes as he breaks the fourth wall a number of times — this I thought was an interesting ploy used by director John Hughes and one which worked well. Jeffrey Jones is hilarious as the principal (or ‘Dean of Students’) and makes a more than adequate nemesis opposite the trio.

John Hughes has a brilliant knack for comedies and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is definitely one his more heartfelt, if not one of his funniest.

In Bruges (2008)

Directed by Martin McDonagh, In Bruges was released in cinemas back in 2008. It stars Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as two Irish hitmen who are relocated to Bruges, Belgium after a hit goes wrong. But what they believe to be another job turns out to be something else entirely.

“Man, you’re small.”

Since its release in 2008, In Bruges has gone on to claim cult status and is regarded as a classic by many. McDonagh’s brand of black comedy is in full force here, and both Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson deliver it with ease. The two leads are hilarious in their roles, playing off each other to great effect and both generating much empathy from the audience, particularly Farrell whose character, Ray, has played an accidental role in the murder of a child. McDonagh’s sense of direction comes through in abundance here, with each character playing an important part in the film and each scene executed with finesse. The Bruges setting is beautiful and greatly adds to the poetic nature of the script and the fairy tale aspect of the film. Although this is primarily a comedy, there are a few touching moments which take the film above and beyond the comedy genre. Ralph Fiennes and Clemence Poesy are both effective in, metaphorically, very different supporting roles — the former about order and conviction while the latter exudes freedom and new beginnings.

In his directorial debut, Martin McDonagh has created a gem in In Bruges: often hilarious and occasionally touching, this is a winner.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

O Brother, Where Art Thou? opened in cinemas in 2000 and is directed by the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan (although Ethan is uncredited). Set amid the Great Depression in 1930s America, it stars George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson as three convicts — Ulysses, Pete and Delmar, respectively — who escape capture in order to search for hidden treasure, whilst evading a lawman who is in pursuit.

“My ears are burning. Can anybody smell smoke?”

This is just fantastic. I first watched this in school (school finally comes up trumps) and have been a big fan ever since. The rural Mississippi setting creates a dusty, woody atmosphere (which is by no means a bad thing), shoving the three leads right into the heart of the hardships of the depression in 1930s America. With nothing but themselves and their brains — well, Ulysses’ brain — to keep them on the correct path, they must rely on trust and luck more than anything else. The Coen brothers, as I have mentioned in one of these blogs previously, have an exceptional eye for selecting locations to film and, more than any other film on this list, the dusty plains of rural Mississippi are unequivocally suited to the mood and script of O Brother, Where Art Thou? In terms of the script, it is witty, wacky and insightful and is delivered with nothing but enthusiasm by Clooney, Turturro and Nelson. Of course, I cannot forget about John Goodman, who is very funny playing the brash, obnoxious Bible salesman “Big Dan” Teague. There are plenty of laughs woven throughout the film and they all hit the mark without going overboard — this film is out there at times, but not too far out there. Finally, the soundtrack is rich and hugely satisfying, giving the film a nice twang.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? is another corker from the Coen brothers, full of quips and ambition. It is a triumph in filmmaking in my opinion.

 

Here are a few honourable mentions, films that I really like but not quite as much as the aforementioned five:

Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) — The original comedy road trip film, Planes, Train and Automobiles sees Steve Martin and John Candy unwittingly team up in order to find a way home for Thanksgiving, but not without a few mishaps on the way.

American Pie (1999) — The raucous teen comedy which paved the way for more like it, the original American Pie is by far the funniest and probably the least offensive. You do not need to be offensive to be funny, right?

Bruce Almighty (2003) — Jim Carrey is in full comedic flow (facial expressions and all) in Bruce Almighty as he portrays an unlucky guy who is given God’s job for a week. Chaos, commence.

Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004) — Alongside Johnny English, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story is one of my long-standing favourite comedy films, and it is still as funny now as it was back in 2004. Yes, it is still dodging those wrenches.

The Hangover (2009) — Hopefully Kermode won’t see this.

Which films make you laugh the most?