X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

★★

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X-Men: Apocalypse PosterDirector: Bryan Singer

Release Date: May 18th, 2016 (UK); May 27th, 2016 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Fantasy

Starring: James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, Sophie Turner, Oscar Isaac

It’s fitting that X-Men: Apocalypse should arrive on the heels of Captain America: Civil War, though not for the most flattering reason. Since Marvel Studios launched its Cinematic Universe back in 2008, the studio has carved out quite the mountainous niche for itself. From Iron Man onwards, the films under the MCU banner have followed a fairly compact narrative structure: stories with potentially world-ending consequences told atop a spine of levity. Civil War is the clearest, most effective representation of that structure we’ve had thus far, its serious themes of accountability and government distrust lightened via bouts of humour. While other outings have had some success, the Russo brothers’ tonal balancing act in Civil War is as close to faultless as the MCU might ever see.

Back, then, to X-Men: Apocalypse, a feature that strives to have more in common with this Marvel prerogative than its own pre-established mantra. Bryan Singer’s film, penned by Simon Kinberg (they last worked together on Days of Future Past), is probably the funniest X-Men instalment to date, bearing a commendable number of snappy one-liners and some less commendable instances of accidental amusement. But elements of its story are also deeply serious and the filmmakers struggle to marry this seriousness with the humour, at times to the movie’s downfall. The issue is not that Singer and Kinberg want to make us laugh, it’s that the filmmakers’ deployment of humour is grossly misplaced. More on that later.

It’s pretty much your bog-standard superhero showdown: a big bad (En Sabah Nur, played by an Oscar Isaac struggling valiantly against the character’s broad strokes) rises from the dust and ruin of a fallen ancient empire to wreak havoc upon the 1980s, and it’s up to the good mutants (led by Charles Xavier, played by James McAvoy) to stop him. En route to worldwide recalibration — an odd sequence sees Nur decry the weakness of humankind and our technologies via television montage — the super-mutant recruits a handful of powerful followers, one of whom is Magneto (Michael Fassbender), plucked from a covert life in Poland with his wife and daughter. There are a bunch of others involved but that’s about the gist.

Unsurprisingly, most of the others are mutants and again we see a few treated unfairly, like freak attractions. We are introduced to Angel (Ben Hardy) in the midst of a one-sided cage fight and reintroduced to Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as his next opponent. Scott Summers’ (Tye Sheridan) unearthed Cyclops ability sets him apart in high school and primes him for bullying — lots of characters are either new or feel new because they haven’t had the chance to shine before, not that many get a chance to shine here. This demonisation of mutants, a class/race theme the X-Men series has sought to investigate more intensely in the past, is why Erik Lehnsherr wants to keep his true identity a secret from fellow co-workers and the authorities.

Lehnsherr is by far the most interesting character, not least because he’s the sort of intellectual powerhouse who can back up an Icarus and Daedalus reference (careful) with actual menace. While the excellent work carried out by the likes of Kinberg in previous outings has afforded Lehnsherr intrigue, it’s really Fassbender who has instilled authority and ethical contention into the character. A terrific moment in Apocalypse sees Lehnsherr have his peaceful family life unmasked through preventing the death of a co-worker, and Fassbender’s expression of subtle anguish as Lehnsherr realises his veiled existence is about to be torn apart is wonderfully judged. I won’t give anything else away about the catalyst that sends Lehnsherr over the edge other than noting its compelling moral dichotomy.

It’s fair to say this instalment is less concerned with class warfare undercurrents than before (Days of Future Past pitted human against mutant with more complex personal tension). Humour takes precedence in moments that otherwise would be weighty, most notably during a scene where Lehnsherr, Magneto tendencies in full flow, interrupts his own heartbreaking diatribe about loss and tragedy with a cheap made-for-laughs F-bomb. There are also unintentionally funny lines, such as Moira MacTaggert’s (Rose Byrne) revelation that Nur’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse might have fed religion and not vice versa (“The Bible got it from him”). Another hokily hilarious moment: an 80s hard rock guitar riff playing over a brooding shot of Nur.

Elsewhere we see a throughline about sacrificing oneself for the greater good, or bad. The film’s prologue — almost a National Treasure spin-off short — depicts the reinvigoration of an ageing Nur and those putting it all on the line to ensure his rebirth. Later, Charles offers himself up in a mental battle like any hero worth his or her weight in righteousness would do. Beneath these two opposing leaders are fractured souls: all four Horsemen are broken before teaming with Nur, for instance, while Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) feels the brunt of inner turmoil on the good side. Turner offers promise as the mind manipulator, a well-balanced mixture of Sansa Stark’s newfound steel and a teenager’s self-doubt, but the material doesn’t serve her well: “You’re not the biggest freak in the school now,” Grey laments to Summers as if reading from page one of How to Create School Stereotypes.

Summers fares little better, moping and angry in one scene then cockily orchestrating a mall trip the next. Their arc factors in burgeoning love, another trope explored under various guises with varying success. For Grey and Summers it’s about the immaturity of youth and finding common ground in how they are each unable to fully grasp their powers. Charles is whipped into an awkward frenzy when he reacquaints with Moira, she unaware of their previously held bond, he having erased it from her memory in First Class. The most effective relationship (or lack thereof), though, is also the most nuanced: shared by Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) and Hank (Nicholas Hoult), at least there is some historical clout behind it.

Newton Thomas Sigel delivers scintillating shots from above as nuclear rockets shoot skyward, images that brilliantly denote the scope of Nur’s plan. It’s a shame such scope falls by the wayside during a climactic battle scene that devolves into a disengaging CG stramash, something the MCU has also struggled with. It’s clear the filmmakers are visually better than their final act, especially when you factor in another superb Quicksilver (Evan Peters) sequence from earlier in the movie. Again it is one of the best scenes, vibrant and witty and full of style and flair. Peters’ version of the character is an alacritous gem, free of the cynicism incumbent upon other mutants who have spent so much time fighting wars. He really ought to be a banner act.

McAvoy’s hair is more glorious than ever in preparation for the balding we all know is coming, and that aesthetic prerequisite is indicative of the film in a general sense. There is a lot of surface promise going on, a bunch of mild chuckles and some solid acting endeavour, but when it comes down to thematic development there is a sense of inevitability. You can see how all the pieces are going to fit and that hasn’t always been the case with X-Men. I did find the two and a half hours enjoyable enough, but then this is a movie that had Oscar Isaac and Michael Fassbender standing next to one another reciting baloney, both limited by bad tone management. That’s almost unforgivable.

X-Men: Apocalypse - Rockets

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright: 20th Century Fox

Top 10 Performances of 2015 — Actor

A rubbish film can bear great performances, but a great film can’t really bear rubbish performances. The actor, in many ways, is the bread and butter of motion picture creation. It is his or her job to take the prescribed raw materials (a screenplay, a set, a prop) and recalibrate those errant parts through personal experience and analytical understanding into a final, visceral product that audiences can — hopefully — relate to or engage with.

2015 was another tiptop year on the acting front, across the board. Mainstream movies, under the radar indie flicks, big budget creations, genre pieces — you name it and there was at least one performance of note. Now that said year has ended and we are hammering down the motorway towards awards season, I think it is worth reflecting on some of those excellent portrayals.

These are my top ten male performances of 2015 (five leading and five supporting). If you so desire, you can check out my celebration of the work done by a few fantastic females here.

Leading Roles

5. Jake Gyllenhaal — Southpaw

A film and lead performance indicative (at least to an extent) of the first sentence in this feature, perennial powerhouse Jake Gyllenhaal elevates Antoine Fuqua’s riches-to-rags-to-riches boxing tale beyond convention. The actor has never really had a bad patch to bounce back from — unlike, say, Matthew McConaughey — but his work in recent years has been McConaissance-esque in quality. In Southpaw he plays a devastated boxer, matching a chiselled physique with a nuanced emotional exterior. It’s a shame his name has dropped out of the Oscar race, because this showing genuinely is a knockout.

Southpaw - Jake Gyllenhaal

4. Matt Damon — The Martian

It is always a pleasure to sit back and watch smart people do smart things, and Mark Watney fulfils that criteria. The Mars-stranded botanist was originally conceived on the pages of Andy Weir’s novel, and while books by nature offer readers a blank canvas to visualise content as they so please, it is tough to imagine anyone other than Matt Damon as Watney. He purveys a resilience that endears, a wit that encourages laughter, and an occasional serious streak that demands wholesale sympathy. Good thing too, given Damon spends the majority of the two and a half hours on-screen by himself.

The Martian - Matt Damon

3. Michael Fassbender — Steve Jobs

Giving a personal face to an Aaron Sorkin screenplay seems difficult enough, but turning the notoriously hard-headed Steve Jobs into someone we can somewhat relate to is something else entirely. Michael Fassbender does just that as a specific version of the Apple genius — the showman — taking us on a journey through three product launches and three personality evolutions. There is a magnetism to the way he interacts with those around him as well as an initial, purposeful iciness that naturally melts into generous acceptance. Between this and his headline role in Macbeth, Fassbender’s had a strong year.

Steve Jobs - Michael Fassbender

2. Eddie Redmayne – The Theory of Everything

Transformative performances are in vogue in the world of Eddie Redmayne and it’s clear to see why: he is very good at them. Redmayne is back among the awards chatter having opened 2016 as transgender pioneer Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl, but his early 2015 portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything is the superior of the two. The actor is exposed for all to see as the physicist, with very little to fall back on. His co-star Felicity Jones brings beautiful subtlety to Jane Hawking, the inverse of Redmayne’s painstakingly physical delivery. He won the Best Actor Oscar early in the year, and justifiably so.

The Theory of Everything - Eddie Redmayne

1. Oscar Isaac — A Most Violent Year

While Redmayne and co. celebrated the industry recognition afforded to them via golden statuette, Oscar Isaac found himself devoid of even an invite to acting table. Criminally overlooked as struggling businessman Abel Morales, in A Most Violent Year Isaac — and I mean this with absolute sincerity — nears an Al-Pacino-in-The-Godfather level of performance. J.C. Chandor’s script is cool and careful, affording Isaac a platform to excel from. Abel’s aura is built upon composure and a need to maintain moral correctness, but shots are occasionally fired and with real menace. Isaac ensures we never dislike him though, which is saying something given the murky presence of vehicle hijackings and loan sharks. It’s not a showy performance, simply an utterly engrossing one indicative of a genuine movie star.

A Most Violent Year - Oscar Isaac

Special Mention: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo — Foxcatcher

Major props ought to go to the trio at the forefront of Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, all three as worthy of a top five spot as any. Ruffalo reverberates with awkward allure, playing someone who is keenly aware that his younger sibling could be as talented a wrestler as he. As said sibling, Tatum infuses the nominal jock archetype with a sense of unyielding desperation and highly sought after humanity. And Carell swaps bumbling comedy for haunting creep, dressed in a prosthetic getup that disguises his usual cheeriness and instead promotes true horror.

Foxcatcher - Carell & Ruffalo

Supporting Roles

5. Oscar Isaac — Ex Machina

It has been a terrific year for Isaac — he’s also great in an underserved Star Wars: The Force Awakens role — one that got underway in Alex Garland’s mind-prodding Ex Machina. Like Foxcatcher, this is another outing bolstered by three capable performances (and, indeed, a whole lot more). Isaac juggles a host of familiar attributes, from a macho physicality to a technological savvy to a weariness brought on by wealth, and it is fitting therefore that we can never quite pinpoint his mindset at any given moment. The untamed beard helps too.

Ex Machina - Oscar Isaac

4. Emory Cohen — Brooklyn

You’ll do well to find a more charming male protagonist this year than Tony Fiorello. He is the ideal boyfriend, nurturing but not overly invasive, and never a sappy thanks to Emory Cohen. Aided by Nick Hornby’s wonderful screenplay, Cohen brings a commendable amiability (particularly commendable when you consider who he acts opposite — the interminably delightful Saoirse Ronan) and a retro flair akin to that of James Dean: the wavy hairdo, the cheeky grin, the enigmatic charisma. It’s all there.

Brooklyn - Emory Cohen & Saoirse Ronan

3. J.K. Simmons — Whiplash

There is very little else that can be said about J.K. Simmons’ Oscar-winning turn as a maniacal music teacher in Whiplash, but I’ll say some more anyway. Having carved out a career playing bit part supporting roles, it feels right the most critically acclaimed turn of the actor’s career is his meatiest supporting stance to date. As Terence Fletcher, Simmons strikes fear into not only the mind of Miles Teller but of viewers also, unleashing a poised (and then not-so-poised) ferocity conceived in a pair of all-knowing eyes. No rushing or dragging here.

Whiplash - J.K. Simmons

2. Benicio del Toro — Sicario

Mystery is the key to Benicio del Toro’s negotiation-avoiding brute. In my review of Sicario, I lauded his performance as follows: “Del Toro saunters on-screen parading a mystique that suggests he ain’t to be messed with. He folds his jacket even though it is already creased, a move that mirrors his make-up: externally unruffled but internally blazing. The actor has that grizzled veteran demeanour, his hitman reminiscent of Charles Bronson’s Harmonica in Once Upon a Time in the West.” That is to say, he’s quite good.

Sicario - Benicio del Toro

1. Mark Rylance — Bridge of Spies

Like the aforementioned J.K. Simmons, Mark Rylance has never really be one to court the cinematic limelight. He has primarily plied his trade in theatre, but there is nothing theatrical about his portrayal of potential Soviet spy Rudolph Abel in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. Precision is key; you can’t keep your eyes off Rylance because every inclination, every stutter, every action appears to have some sort of meaning. The chemistry he shares with Tom Hanks — another would-be worthy addition to any celebratory list — breeds authenticity across a companionship that might otherwise have felt cold. Full Marks.

Bridge of Spies - Mark Rylance

Images credit: Collider, Nerdist

Images copyright (©): A24Focus Features, Fox Searchlight Pictures, LionsgateSony Pictures Classics, TSG EntertainmentUniversal Pictures, Walt Disney Studios Motion PicturesThe Weinstein Company20th Century Fox

Ex Machina (2015)

★★★★

Ex Machina PosterDirector: Alex Garland

Release Date: January 21st, 2015 (UK); April 24th, 2015 (US)

Genre: Drama; Mystery; Science fiction

Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander

One moment programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is sitting at his desk, face illuminated by the glaring light of his work computer. The next he is strapped inside a helicopter, flying over an ice age and landing in Jurassic Park. The technological feat awaiting him would likely put dino DNA revitalisers to shame. If not, his target locale is certainly about to outmatch Isla Nublar on the ominous atmosphere front. See, Caleb has won the opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to spend a week working alongside his employer Nathan (Oscar Isaac) at the latter’s remote outpost.

Nathan is a sharp-minded billionaire, which is plain to see upon reaching his scientific base: polished surfaces, gleaming windows, furniture positioned perfectly. Mirrors are plentiful, perhaps incorporated to feed the CEO’s macho demeanour (physical exertion is a favourite), and conjure up artificial reflections of those looking into them — more on that shortly. As Nathan, Isaac evokes detachment yet somehow also total involvement; he is knowledgeable, not only scientifically, but anthropologically too. He pokes fun at Caleb while asking all of the right (leading) questions to support his manifesto — for one, he convinces the out-of-sync employee to sign an autocratic non-disclosure form.

At once a beer-guzzling waster who speaks in Ghostbusters gags when drunk and a piercing intellect who is hard to pin down, the character benefits from Isaacs’ mysterious approach. Caleb has been invited over to test Nathan’s newest creation: an android called Ava (Alicia Vikander). A near instant iciness develops between both guys, purposefully invoked by Nathan and anxiously accepted by Caleb, and it only gets worse as the experiment progresses. Test sessions between Caleb and Ava are signified by creepy, black title cards bred from the hard-edged Alien school of font. These interactions begin innocently enough, though the tables subtly turn when Ava asks her examiner about his love life (“Is your status single?”). Caleb giggles accordingly.

Vikander is brilliant — she moves with an odd mechanical smoothness, and glides with inhuman grace. Her tone is at once impersonal and enrapturing. Metaphorically speaking, her existence embodies humankind’s attraction towards technological achievement and how said attraction has been, and will continue to be, massively detrimental (atomic bombs are mentioned). Writer-director Alexander Garland uses Nathan as a centrepiece for humankind’s petulance: at one point Nathan informs us he made Ava simply because he could. It is also worth pointing out the excellent work of Gleeson, who juggles both the need to discover and the fear of causing a fuss with pristine awkwardness.

Caleb doesn’t know how to process his attraction, dismissing it as a false consequence of the preconditions set by Nathan. “This is your insecurity talking, this is not your intellect,” replies the CEO with a dose of glee. Whereas earlier test sessions between Caleb and Ava would show the former on the left and the latter on the right, cinematographer Rob Hardy flips the two in later sessions. All of a sudden, he is part-AI and she is part-human. The artificial textures are so genuine looking they incur an uncanny valley vibe — the skin, the limbs, and the eyes all seem real, but we know they aren’t. We see all of this through Caleb’s gaze and Caleb, unsurprisingly, is bewildered and amazed, his sanity in depletion.

Garland delivers an indie outing that looks more mature than the norm and one that seems to carry more purpose too. It shares the same tense underbelly as Kelly Reichardt’s Eco-thriller Night Moves, only Garland’s film doesn’t lose steam halfway through, tension superbly maintained at the expense of clear-cut characterisation. We never truly understand anybody’s motive — how much does Nathan actually know about Ava? How much does Ava actually know about the programme? The entire film is like a sinister, sublime chess match formulated entirely by Nathan, and Caleb is the piece being played.

Dewy, misty surroundings denote total seclusion. A haunting score heightens bouts of inevitable eeriness (inevitable, but terrifically construed), particularly during a spying session. Even sweeter musical inflections, like an Explosions in the Sky sounding addition, are laden with menace. Every so often blood red warning lights repaint the scientific centre as a doomed spaceship — Event Horizon springs to mind, or perhaps Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, another Garland-penned film. It looks and feels like proper science fiction: you don’t know what is around the corner, but you do know whatever it is will hold secrets primed to test your mind and probably freak you out.

Considering all I’ve written, you might see Ex Machina as an old school genre movie: dotted with expositional speeches that explore futuristic themes; plans smartly laid out and then executed; tension constantly simmering; characters attempting to outsmart each other. Even though it falters slightly at the very, very last hurdle — though one wonders where else the story could have conceivably gone — smart sci-fi is a treat, and this will test your brain in the most engaging manner.

Ex Machina - Isaac & Gleeson

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright: A24Universal Studios

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

★★★★★

Star Wars The Force Awakens PosterDirector: J.J. Abrams

Release Date: December 17th, 2015 (UK); December 18th, 2015 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Fantasy

Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver

If the mark of a great movie lies in its ability to permanently tattoo a grin across the face of its viewer, Star Wars: The Force Awakens might just be one of the best movies ever made. I couldn’t help but smile profusely throughout J.J. Abrams’ stunning series revitaliser, so much so that by the time the credits began to roll (following arguably the best closing shot the saga has produced to date) my jaw felt like it had been tagged by a fiery lightsaber.

We’re drafted straight into the chaos of war, and we see said chaos unfold from the perspective of both sides. Led by the evil Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), stormtroopers invade a small village looking for information on the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), and the one-sided battle that ensues relays a tangible energy missing from those ill-fated prequels. The scene shifts thereafter to Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger rappelling down an airy, desolate craft hoping to find extraneous junk she can later trade for food. Much like Skywalker in A New Hope, we meet Rey draped in white dusty robes — they’ve turned greyish — on a scorching desert planet (Jakku).

Conversely, Ren’s First Order starship is chrome-like and glossy. When we promptly cut back to the vessel it evokes a sense of austereness, of strictly implemented structure, as if fear has been drilled into the crew by Ren and like-minded baddie General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). By fervently switching between light and dark the film sets out its moral compass and highlights some truly wonderful sound design: the swoosh of lightsabers, the echoes of a vast ship. Ren is a terrific villain, full of dangerous complexity. Whereas Darth Vader would check his true emotion at the sliding door and favour an apathetic exterior, Adam Driver grants Ren an unpredictability that only serves to compound his menace.

Finn (John Boyega) is the link bad and good, having escaped the former only to find himself caught up in latter. We have moved away from the post-Cold War machine landscape into a more sinister, dehumanised age — stormtroopers are no longer artificial clones, but actual human beings, and Finn doesn’t want any part of the cruel conformity. He meets Rey on Jakku towards the beginning, at which point Abrams opts to stick with the pair, relying on their camaraderie and bustling chemistry. She is isolated yet wily and proficient; he functions through a humorous backbone likely installed as a defence mechanism against his shady past.

Ridley sparkles with vibrancy and Boyega is instantly likeable; together, they click into gear like a pristine Millennium Falcon. At times, you feel like you’re watching a buddy road trip venture, only here the sputtering cars have been replaced by sky-scoping jets. At one point both Rey and Finn repeat, “I can do this. I can do this,” perhaps speaking on behalf of their director who absolutely has ‘done it’. An information-touting droid named BB-8 trundles alongside the pair, spluttering hilarities. Oscar Isaac gushes charisma as Poe Dameron, premier fighter pilot for the self-descriptive Resistance, but he doesn’t feature nearly enough (nor does Gwendoline Christie’s First Order baddie Captain Phasma, who’ll likely see more screen time in the extended edition Blu-ray).

The Force Awakens wouldn’t be a proper franchise sequel without some crowd-pleasing throwback nods and while these moments are smirk-inducing for those in the know, they also bear just enough subtlety to avoid alienating those taking part for the first time. The snappy one-liners are genuinely funny and this shouldn’t be undervalued; indeed, the fact that many of the gags are rich in Star Wars mythology affords them greater validation. Marvel films, by comparison, employ a similar comedy format and although the jokes are often funny, they don’t quite have the same vitality.

A Kraken-esque battle scene inside a ship unfolds like something out of Doctor Who, only louder and bolder and much, much more expensive. Abrams’ film invokes the same melodramatic filling championed by the original trilogy: characters say mad things with a serious tone and pull it off. This is particularly true of Domhnall Gleeson, who offloads some terrific thespian yabber — 1977 wants its patter back — the best of which manifests during a maniacal speech straight out of Saruman’s playbook. But the outing is a playful fantasy at heart, a grandiose adventure, and everyone knows that. When some sentences creak, and some do, it’s just part of the charm.

That certainly doesn’t mean screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and J.J. Abrams (they redrafted an earlier Michael Arndt script) avoid hefty solemnity. There are instances of genuinely shocking gravitas, moments bolstered by Dan Mindel’s sweeping cinematography. The landscapes that unfold before our eyes feel authentic, primarily because they often are. Fight scenes boast substance too and the action is easy to comprehend, therefore the stakes are raised. John Williams’ score, as if it really needs saying, is as wondrous as ever.

Speaking of revamped classics, a few familiar faces join in on the fun. Harrison Ford’s grouchiness totally fits his older Han Solo, the rogue still fond of heart-warming cynicism. Carrie Fisher doesn’t have an awful lot to do as Leia, now a General, but her presence fuels the film’s emotional weight. Crucially, and this is true of the various other returnees, the duo serve the story: seeing our heroes back together in such a familiar environment is meaningful. It also ages the world in the best way possible — we know it is the same place as before, but we don’t know what fresh mysteries lie beyond the next star.

The beauty of The Force Awakens is that it addresses the nostalgic needs of the many while simultaneously ushering in a contemporary set of filmic variables ripe for fresh storytelling. It’s not just about waiting impatiently for the old guard to reappear; the new faces are a delight. I say four stars for a truly fantastic motion picture romp, and one more to J.J. Abrams for his frankly ballsy decision to take on the hopes of a cine-nation and successfully rekindle that highly sought after magic. We really appreciate it.

Star Wars The Force Awakens - Boyega & Ridley

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

All Eyes on The Force Awakens Cast in Official New Posters

Star Wars The Force Awakens Poster Rey

Star Wars The Force Awakens Poster Finn

Star Wars news klaxon! Those behind The Revenant’s marketing campaign recently stepped things up a notch with the release of two brand new, ominous character posters. Now 2015’s most anticipated movie, and The Revenant’s stiffest competitor this winter, is getting in on the artistic act.

Disney and Lucasfilm previously sent moviegoers the world over into a unified frenzy (or two) over a couple of exceedingly well-crafted trailers, and now the studio behemoths have opted to gift us a handful of superb character posters for The Force Awakens. The images don’t say much, a principle wholeheartedly in keeping with J.J. Abrams’ tight-lipped directorial approach thus far.

What we do know is this: the film is set around 30 years after Return of the Jedi and stars Daisy Ridley as Rey, a self-sustaining scavenger whose life takes an adventurous turn when John Boyega’s Finn shows up in stormtrooper gear — presumably he ain’t dressed up for Halloween. Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, Adam Driver, Lupita Nyong’o, and Andy Serkis join familiar faces Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill to form a seriously exciting cast.

Star Wars The Force Awakens Poster Kylo

Rey, Finn, Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Kylo Ren (Driver) all have solo head shots, though there is nothing as of yet for Isaac’s Poe Dameron or Gleeson’s General Hux. Isaac can at least rest easy in the knowledge that his character unequivocally has the best name. Luke Skywalker is once again conspicuous by his absence, having already missed out trailer-wise. Read into that what you will.

Intriguingly, each poster shows its respective character’s right eye being obstructed by a weapon, or a beam of light in Leia’s case. I’m mystified by the visual symmetry on offer though I’m sure its symbolism will wreak havoc upon the galaxy at some point. For now we can only mull over any underlying message and anticipate what could end being the biggest film of all time. Avatar might have the Na’vi, but it doesn’t have a Chewbacca.

Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens is out December 17th in the UK and December 18th in the US. My heart merrily bleeds for you America.

Star Wars The Force Awakens Poster Han

Star Wars The Force Awakens Poster Leia

Images credit: IMP Awards

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Inside Llewyn Davis (2014)

★★★★★

Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen

Release Date: January 10th, 2014 (US); January 24th, 2014 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Music

Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake

The bumbling Llewyn Davis sits opposite Bud Grossman, a music mogul the folk singer has literally gone lengths to meet. Grossman, perhaps out of good grace rather than expectation, whispers he wants to hear something from “Inside Llewyn Davis”. You can see the toil in Llewyn’s guitar strumming hands, the plight in his aching voice and the desperation in his knowing eyes. Knowing, because he’s seen failure before. Always. It’s a powerful moment in a bleakly rich tale about a music churner on the periphery of a scene ready to erupt. Although Llewyn is often the source of his own downfall and despite his tendency to be a bit of an asshole, you campaign dearly for him. Out of sympathy? Sure. But also because Oscar Isaac plays the bedraggled artist to an absolute tee. And if not that, then it’s the harmonious melodies and captivating words emanating from Llewyn’s mouth that seal your approval. The Coen’s are back, and Inside Llewyn Davis is a drowsy doozy.

It’s 1961. Layered with frost and shrouded in the icy breath of its residents, New York’s Greenwich Village is a hotbed for folk music. Llewyn Davis is part of the emerging scene; at least he aspires to be, but his newest album hasn’t sold and his partner-in-song recently committed suicide. Lower on luck than money — and he’s pretty damn tight on both — Llewyn plays intermittently at the Gaslight Cafe before scrounging a stranger’s couch for the night. When we first meet him, the folk singer laments lyrics that ring true alongside his sombre existence (“Hang me, oh hang me”). Soon after Llewyn finds himself beat up in a dank and saturated alleyway, a physical and painful embodiment of his musical struggles.

And it gets worse before it gets worse again. His friends, perhaps the only ones, are moderately successful and on the rise. John (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan) are a singing duo, often Llewyn’s haven both financially and in shelter. Only now Jean is pregnant and unsure of the father, effectively severing any amiable ties between herself and the unfortunate Llewyn. The Gorfien’s also boast a couch familiar to Llewyn. This very mundane-yet-collapsing existence is exceedingly prevalent for the Welsh-named man. It’s a Coen trademark, harking back to one of their recent outings, A Serious Man. Llewyn and Larry (the serious man) are dealt similar misfortunes in life — it wouldn’t come as a total surprise to discover the pair are related, they certainly share a kindred luckless spirit. Just like in A Serious Man, arguably even more so, you find yourself hampering alongside the lead fortune-insulator in an attempt to lighten the load.

Oscar Isaac is outstanding in the lead role. His portrayal of Llewyn Davis does not boast charisma, rather that trait flares from everyone else around him. Instead he is controlled, restrained, almost as if the next bout of bad news is a given at any moment. His inhibitions outside performing — Llewyn’s depth is less than the milk bowl he feeds his temporary cat with — are the reason for the folk singer’s lack of progression (“not a star”; “there’s no money there”). Isaac’s expertly lacking in grandiose performance is probably the reason he was wrongly snubbed by the Academy, when in reality this is certainly one of the best performances of the year.

It’s his lack of success that bolsters Llewyn’s admirability. Near the beginning of his torrid week, he mistakenly-yet-not-unexpectedly lets the Gorfien’s cat out. His subsequent adventures alongside the furry animal are telling, and often mirror Llewyn’s personal detriments. Suddenly, there arrives a point where you question Llewyn’s reasoning for still carrying the cat, but realise the answer is glaringly obvious: as it clambers on his chest in the underground, the cat represents Llewyn’s own conflicts. It’s his proverbial ‘chip on the shoulder’ if you like. Llewyn can’t seem to grasp the advancing folk culture, perhaps because his mind is cramped full of other problems which demand facilitating — he takes a fee rather than royalties on the comical song “Please Mr. Kennedy”, one that he detests but records at the mercy of instant cash. Often the cat escapes Llewyn’s person yet he always finds and reclaims it, indicating Llewyn’s unconscious inability to let go and develop his own self. The singer is hemmed in — not just by tight corridors — and seemingly the only means of escape is the sole entrance that takes him directly back to where he began.

In one of their heated debates, Llewyn labels Jean a “careerist” not realising the folk scene only offers success via the semi-corporate route she is traversing. “Please Mr. Kennedy” is an upbeat, topical space tune illustrating the rise of its vocalist, whereas Llewyn often finds his own passion in singing songs about death (“If I Had Wings”); songs that draw you in and sell your ears a piece of Llewyn’s heart, but songs that indiscriminately distance themselves from commercial flourishing. When Llewyn sings the film bursts into life, ironically a tantalising life that Llewyn himself can’t live, one he only provide. Another Coen collaboration with T-Bone Burnett sizzles up a wonderfully echoing and at times heart-wrenching soundtrack, one that hums alongside a smoky moodiness. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is the benchmark, and Inside Llewyn Davis just about reaches it.

Oscar Isaac’s tremendous rendition aside, the film is bolstered by an array of eccentric, humorous and penchant performances. Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan exude a genuine chemistry, one that is sort of awkward in the wake of Llewyn, just as it should be. Coen stalwart John Goodman is back and funnier than ever (“You throw yourself off the Brooklyn Bridge!”) as a loudmouth, jazz musician who derides folk music. Military man by day folk artist by night, Stark Sands provides an early measure of off-beat hilarity at the beginning of Llewyn’s dourness, a comical thread that is never lost on the Coen’s and therefore one that often successfully prevails over the textured malaise.

From the second Llewyn Davis enters the viewer’s presence to the moment the viewer’s presence leaves the cinema, you find it exceedingly difficult to believe in his music success story. It’s not that you don’t want too, far from it. Rather, the Coen brothers have meticulously mechanised an early 1960s folk scene that blends the unfortunate with a frustration, an atmosphere Oscar Isaac’s Llewyn Davis gloomily basks in.

At the end of a tediously long journey that eventually renders itself pointless, Llewyn’s questioning of a beat poet’s escapades is met with a staunch, “Long story”. In a way it’s fitting because that long story, encased in uncertainty, hapless luck, and banality, is Llewyn’s life in a nutshell.

Inside Llewyn Davis (Out January 24th, 2014)

The Coen brothers’ next offering, Inside Llewyn Davis, sees Oscar Isaac orienteering through the New York folk music scene in the frosty winter of 1961, faced with numerous obstacles preventing him from becoming the musician he aspires to be. Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake and Coen brothers’ favourite John Goodman are also involved in the drama led by the somewhat unfamiliar Isaac, who has fleeted around various projects in minor roles over the last few years (such as Robin Hood, Drive and The Bourne Legacy) and who has yet to find himself in that stand-out role which would propel his career to the next level.

Perhaps this is the role.

Carey Mulligan has been fairly busy over the last few years, also having appeared in Drive (albeit in a more prominent role than Isaac), having conjured up a critically acclaimed performance in Shame during the same year, and having recently starred opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in Baz Luhrmann’s take on The Great Gatsby. I would rather not give too much away (even though the trailer does to an extent), but Mulligan is set to portray a character unlike her those we normally see from her. The ever-so-popular Justin Timberlake has just released his third studio album and appears to be combining his musical tendencies with his acting ability in this music-driven drama. Although we do not know too much about his character in Inside Llewyn Davis, Timberlake has more than proven to be a charismatic screen presence in the past, and therefore should fit in aptly in this instance. John Goodman always has something enjoyable to offer in each film he is a part of, be it as the enigmatic “Big Dan” in O Brother, Where Art Though? or more recently, as Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers in Argo, and this time around appears to be no different.

“Hi, I’m here to audition for the lead role in Argo.”

Inside Llewyn Davis, scheduled for a nationwide release in the United States on December 20th, before an agonising months wait for us in the United Kingdom, was screened at the 66th annual Cannes Film Festival in France back in May, where it received mostly positive reviews from critics. The film is being heralded as one in a similar vein to O Brother, Where Art Thou?, staunchly comedic (true to the Coen legacy), yet respectful to the era it faithfully depicts, and melancholic by way of its musical demeanour. In fact, the soundtrack to the film is one influenced by the same man who worked on O Brother’s soundtrack, T-Bone Burnett, suggesting a similar tone to the one provided in the Coens’ 2000 comedy starring George Clooney. Mumford & Sons frontman (and Carey Mulligan’s husband) Marcus Mumford is even set to chip in with a number of songs. Music has always played a significant role in Coen films, therefore I have high expectations for the music set to be provided by Inside Llewyn Davis — it is a film galvanised by music, at the end of the day.

The Cannes Film Festival has been one which has produced many highs for the Coen brothers over the last twenty years, with eight Palme d’Or nominations attached to their films, one of which was a win (Barton Fink in 1991). Even though Inside Llewyn Davis did not win this year, that is not to say it is a step down for the Coens, but rather that the festival went for something different (a lot different, in actual fact — look up Blue Is the Warmest Colour). Inside Llewyn Davis is even being tipped as one to look out for when the awards season comes back around early next year, although this is hardly surprising considering the brother’s films tend to be in the mix as soon as they are released.

I have been looking forward to this one since it was announced months ago, even raving about it on Twitter a few times. Being a big fan of Joel and Ethan, it is always intriguing to follow the progress of their upcoming films, and all of the indications point towards Inside Llewyn Davis being another winner from the pair: set to offer up a rich, mesmeric, humorous tale surrounding a week in one man’s journey towards gaining recognition in the New York music scene.

Below is the most recent trailer for Inside Llewyn Davis. It is fairly lengthy at over two and a half minutes long, and it gives a little more away than I have done here — much like most film trailers these days (Fast & Furious 6 literally gave away the whole film in its trailer) — but it by no means spoils anything. If you want to know a little more and see the characters in action, have a watch.