Release Date: November 25th, 2015 (US); January 29th, 2016 (UK)
Genre: Biography; Drama; History
Starring: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, Liev Schreiber
At the inception of Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight, The Boston Globe newspaper is in the process of appointing its new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). Despite this change, there remains a prevailing emphasis on ensuring the retention of local flavour. More than that actually; in upholding a local backbone prompted by the paper’s titular investigative team and its head man, Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton). The aforementioned Baron, blunt yet adept, arrives without any notion of hedonistic aplomb, a trait that reflects McCarthy’s exceptional outing as a whole.
Sometimes the film that resonates most is the one draped in assured, quality simplicity. Though some might disagree with the loftiness of my ranking, such simplicity is what endeared me so much to Stephen Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. And it’s a similar simple touch that paves the path for Spotlight, a film so rich and so thrilling. McCarthy directs with a stillness, allowing his actors to act and their words to burn into the audience’s psyche without distraction. This trust affords the Spotlight team — Baron, Robby, Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sasha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Ben Bradley Jr. (John Slattery), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), all real life journalists who, at the turn of the millennium, took the Catholic Church to task over child abuse allegations — a platform to build their case.
Often, the camera diverts our attention towards battered notepads and scribbling hands, distinguishing the individual personalities within the team: tougher to read, Rezendes jots down notes underneath a table while interviewing a victim whereas Pfeiffer writes in plain view, her inclinations clearer and her projection softer. The former is a bundle of journalistic energy, constantly on the move and posing point-counterpoints. Rezendes is immensely dedicated to his craft — they all are, refreshingly — but perhaps more so to aiding the course of justice. He and Robby discuss the need for leisure time and Robby points out Rezendes’ only leisure time is his daily jog to work.
These reporters are studious, careful. They take their time to iron every crease, collating date from victims, legal papers and even Globe archives. It’s true investigative journalism executed with thoroughness, so much so that we feel drawn into the process. The tone is almost anti-Sorkin: there’s an air of justifiable caution on display here that Sorkin’s TV journalism jaunt The Newsroom bypassed in favour of addictive urgency. Both methods work, but the slower approach suits Spotlight’s sensitive subject matter far more (it also implores you to listen, therefore stretches of dialogue are easier to follow than those penned by Sorkin).
McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer ground such a grand story in local truths — the religious corruption infects a familiar neighbourhood. In any other situation this sort of coincidence might feel contrived, but not here where the sheer breadth of wrongdoing is so painstakingly relayed. Locality doesn’t immunise the team from significant global events; it’s 2001 therefore 9/11 is unavoidable, especially since journalism is our vantage point, and the attack drives all resources away from the child abuse scandal. Gamesmanship between rival city papers further funds McCarthy’s realistic portrayal of the job. If those realities aren’t enough, the reporting process at least thrives on-screen. (Even the aesthetic fits the journalistic groove, tinged with a greyish palette that matches the occupational ambiguity. It feels like a newsroom; we even see a printing press in action.)
Much like The Big Short, which also follows a brand of unethical discovery, Spotlight pointedly plants its ballpoint on one side of the debate. “Knowledge is one thing. But faith, faith is another,” says Cardinal Law (Len Cariou), leader of the diocese, with more than a hint of guiltlessness. McCarthy and co. are not against Catholicism but rather the structural inadequacies of certain segments of the Church, and their evidence is inadmissible. The team announce their respective affiliations to the religion (very little), undermining accusations of bias and offering up a tiny slice of their otherwise unexplored personal lives. And that’s how it should be. After all, this is an investigation and investigations should, ideally, lack personality.
Forget stopping short at admonishing priests, lawyers are also targeted for their mistakes (Jamey Sheridan and Billy Crudup play immoral attorneys opposite Stanley Tucci’s more upstanding lawman). Nor does journalism itself receive a free pass. This is as much a celebration of the profession as anything else, but in order to celebrate there has to be a level of humility. We see political jousting both within the Globe offices and outwith, during which we learn of costly past mistakes. Ignorance is the main allegation and this honesty resonates, adding roundedness to these real life characters who are far from impervious to perfection.
Speaking of which, those in charge of casting ought to be acclaimed for amassing such terrific depth. Apart from a solitary outburst of pent-up rage from Rezendes, powerfully delivered by Ruffalo, the performances are universally restrained. They’re quietly indelible too: Schreiber displays an uncanny knack for convincing without extravagance while McAdams, nominated for an Oscar, bears a warmth free from condescension. Of everyone, Keaton is the one who oozes most occupational comfort (as he should, given he plays the group’s editor), his aura exceedingly knowledgeable.
For this to work, the Spotlight team have to purvey a sense of well-oiled camaraderie and they absolutely do. The same can be said for McCarthy’s film, though to speak of his work just in terms of proficiency would be demeaning. It is proficient; it’s also socially reflective and genuinely gripping. Holes are punched in great institutions with justification, but you won’t find any holes in the story. For all the right reasons, Spotlight may well make you fall in love with journalism.
The fact that Southpaw struggles to hurdle the proverbial style over substance dilemma is perhaps not particularly surprising given its director Antoine Fuqua recently doused the silver screen with The Equalizer and Olympus Has Fallen. Having said that, Fuqua was also the man behind Training Day back in 2001, and had he borrowed more of that movie’s mettle, the filmmaker might have been onto a winner with this otherwise fairly conventional sports drama.
“Billy Hope” is a classic boxing name, the sort given to someone destined to surmount typical obstacles. True to form, Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an underdog: orphaned at a young age, odds stacked against him from the get-go, we meet Hope right before he is about to box for the World Light Heavyweight Title in Madison Square Garden. He wins. And that’s fine; boxing movies tend to be underdog movies for a reason — in real life, the sport is all about rising above adversity and showing heart, so it is right cinema should reflect that.
But when dazzling shots of New York City find significant screen time, something feels off. Commercialism is in the air and it rears its rich head more often than it ought to. Sure, this idealist aura fits when Hope is champion and resultantly wrapped up in his material world — he and his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams), a fellow orphan, live in a plush home with their adolescent daughter — but as soon as the fighter loses everything, materiality should no longer be his goal. For a while, it isn’t.
After Hope’s victory, the film is dead-set on convincing us that boxers never truly win. From subtle hints at memory loss, to his wife’s misgivings about him competing again, to the actions of another title contender, the darker side of boxing is emphasised. Of course, tragedy is bound to strike and when it does it’s really quite heartbreakingly played by the people involved. Those who have seen the trailer will know what happens — I’ll avoid the particulars, though it is easy to work out. The abrupt nature of the tragedy suggests it is merely a narrative device designed to propel Hope’s story forward, and although there is truth to that line of thought, it does also introduce compelling themes such as fatherhood with greater heft.
The legal resolution to the tragedy is poorly realised; the consequences seem lazily construed (harsh punishments are dealt to innocent parties, whereas the guilty gang appear to get away scot-free). Left wallowing in despair, Hope turns again to boxing rather than his equally distraught daughter, and then to drink and violence when the fighting does not pan out. His once loyal promoter (50 Cent) drops him without any incline of regret because, after all, “it’s just business”. Here, Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter’s screenplay highlights the ruthless side of the sport, the corporate face that wholly goes against boxing’s brotherly backbone.
Gyllenhaal channels Anthony Quinn in Requiem for a Heavyweight, muttering and growling through helpings of dialogue. We watch him navigate home life with busted ribs and a busted face, and the actor sells the agony with so much realism you wonder whether he literally took a beating for his craft. The typical boxer stereotypes are enforced: Hope can’t really spell, nor is he a great public speaker outside the world of boxing, but at least we get a chance to see these anxieties play out. In truth he isn’t an especially well written character, erratic, for example, in moments of should-be clarity — an introductory conversation between he and maturing gym owner Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker) combusts out of nowhere.
I’m not entirely sure how Whitaker meant to portray Tick; he flirts between calm and crazed a little too enthusiastically. Oona Laurence ably pulls off Hope’s book smart daughter. She has lovely poise and avoids the potentially suffocating Grating Child Actor trap. This is the Gyllenhaal show though. He manages to terrify and reflect instability, yet still garner our complete sympathy. Indeed it is a transformative performance, but the muscular physicality is almost irrelevant. His heavy face, his anguished voice, his bowed eyes — these are the traits that actually engage us.
But as unoriginal training montages begin to arrive, coaxed on by Eminem, the overly produced aura makes a comeback. I think the film gets too caught up in reaching an idealistic end point: it needs to better separate the grit and the glam (it does for a while and works as a result), because the glam is poison and we do not want our reformed anti-hero seeking out poison. Million Dollar Baby is an example of a film that brilliantly subverts the recognisable model. Fuqua, it seems, can’t quite help chasing another false dream.
We do see an apt balance of grit and glam inside the ring. Fights are HBO presentations, and broadcasting mainstays Jim Lampley and Roy Jones, Jr. provide commentary. Wide shots positively feed the authentic televisual nature of the matches (as opposed to lingering on the boxers’ faces, common in Rocky and Raging Bull, those films likely limited by their technical capabilities). The fight choreography even evokes reality: head and body clinches are plentiful, and a blood-sweat concoction violently sprays at the behest of punches. One particularly intuitive camera movement vaults backwards over the top rope after a brutal uppercut.
Apart from that, there is nothing new going on here. Fuqua directs on familiar ground, navigating efficiently through the usual peaks and troughs before landing where all boxing movies land. His lead actor elevates the material, but even he needs more support from those around him (main villain Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez) is woefully wafer-thin). Southpaw was probably never going to be a true contender, but thanks to Jake Gyllenhaal, Billy Hope is at least somebody.
Starring: Rachel McAdams, Tim Robbins, Michael Peña
In the upcoming season of True Detective, Rachel McAdams will play a prickly, stoical police sheriff (or if you’re reading this after August she already has, and rather brilliantly too, right?!). That sounds like quite the departure from her character in The Lucky Ones — a soldier, tough without doubt, but whose veins pulse with good-natured naivety. Her volcanic charm is the type that could turn a long road trip into a really, really long road trip. Not here though. Not on McAdams’ watch.
She is Private first class Colee Dunn, joined on a cross country excursion by Sergeant first class Fred Cheaver (Tim Robbins) and Staff sergeant T.K. Poole (Michael Peña). The trio meet at JFK airport having just finished their respective tours of duty, and opt to collectively hire a car since flights home are in short supply. What follows is a familiar voyage down the road movie genre, with periodic stops at comedic junctions and soul searching stations.
What this is not, is a war movie. The film has been criticised for not sufficiently addressing the complex issues of battle — but it simply isn’t a war movie. Certainly, the three main characters with whom we spent time are soldiers on leave, but that doesn’t mean the film has to ruminate about the war they’re presently separated from. Colee and company discuss it, sure. They feel the weight of its heavy baggage at times. But hey, maybe they’re just people. Two normal guys and one normal girl, each trying to reacclimatise to the real world. Struggling, often comically, sometimes painfully.
T.K. is the brash macho-type who subdues authenticity. We first see him inside a tank spouting tasteless jibes about women, before debris from an explosion renders him impotent. His lack of functionality becomes a recurring joke that eventually finds resolution in the film’s worst scene — a poorly executed tornado forces Colee and T.K. into a claustrophobic drain pipe, and it’s really cringe-worthy. Peña undercuts most of the unlikeable traits often attributed to those “macho-types” by delivering a fairly nuanced performance. At one point his character awakens suddenly in the middle of the night, clearly still troubled by the blast, and can only mutter a, “You know… sorry,” when questioned by Colee.
She is the most engaging of the three. McAdams has real presence, lighting up the screen every time she appears. Colee is the buffer between humour and emotion, her wide-eyed lack of cynicism both refreshingly authentic and solemnly disheartening. “That girl’s living in a dream world,” T.K. asserts, and it’s true. She lugs around the guitar of her close friend Randy who died on duty, aiming to return the instrument to his family in Las Vegas. Though Colee has never met them, she is driven by the hope that they’ll let her stay. She exudes so much positivity that we start to buy into her crazy plan. It’s the potential prize at the end of the rainbow, a treasure that differs from the materialistic hoards prevalent in other road trip movies such as O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Rat Race.
Quite the opposite is Tim Robbins’ Fred, or Cheaver, since he is the elder statesman of the group. A modest guy looking to get away from active combat, Cheaver rolls into family despair near the beginning of the journey. He is definitely the unluckiest — though the other two aren’t exactly wearing rabbit’s feet — and Robbins succinctly captures this turmoil. There are similarities to be drawn with Sam Jaeger’s Take Me Home as far as character relationships go, where petty squabbles inevitably evolve into admiration and understanding.
That film’s aimless quality is also apparent — the men constantly say they “don’t have time” to indulge Colee’s sight-seeing desires, but they’re not actually going anywhere. In a way they have all the time in the world, but the guys are too obsessed with achieving an end goal that probably doesn’t actually exist. Though their plot construction could be questioned, director Neil Burger (Limitless, Divergent) and co-writer Dirk Wittenborn’s character creation is effective. Just like in the army, the trio grow to rely upon each other — monetarily, emotionally, and intellectually — a conclusion arrived at with sincerity.
To the film’s credit it doesn’t spend two hours achingly debating the woes war. However, it opts not to ignore the pitfalls either. America becomes part of a clinical world that the army-goers aren’t used to (“You’re at a disadvantage if you don’t master your computer skills”). Bystanders and acquaintances constantly thank them for their efforts abroad, but it’s all platitudinal. Yet it doesn’t feel like The Lucky Ones is trying to emulate the rich verve of something like a Sideways. When the movie threatens too much seriousness it quickly scrambles back under its light-hearted comfort blanket, embodied in a scene where life reflections are interrupted by a penis balloon joke.
Nibbles of narrative stupidity are glibly accepted as a given by the screenwriters. A customer service employee grants the group a car due to their army credentials, even though the only vehicle remaining belongs to the employee’s airport boss. Problems that arise often bear very simple solutions, these problems too easily erected in the first place (Cheaver’s son gets accepted into Stanford University but needs to cough up $20,000 in tuition fees). The film chooses to manoeuvre its way around simple answers through comedy: Randy’s guitar would solve Cheaver’s monetary problems, but Colee amusingly decides to cry rather than oblige.
Though the actual trip part of The Lucky Ones does run into a few roadblocks — it’s not as funny as it should be, nor as emotionally-involving — the characters behind the wheel are wholly accommodating. Besides, who doesn’t want to watch a movie where Rachel McAdams plays an impulsive Southerner with more charm in one glance than a machine gun has bullets?
Release Date: June 10th, 2011 (US); October 7th, 2011 (UK)
Genre: Comedy; Fantasy; Romance
Starring: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard
As images of modern Paris caressed by romanticising tones that blare heartily from a trumpet fade in and out of vision, we are made aware of perceived idealism and hereditary sentiment. The French capital has forever been associated with society’s most esteemed virtues; desires of art and literature and fashion and love, a variety of tropes that amalgamate together as one in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. You may find yourself all at sea, or at least caught by the tide as events unfold on screen if, like myself, you’re not a quintessential artiste, or a fashionista, or a literary encyclopaedia. Perhaps some form of salvage anchor exists for those who have experienced the aura of Paris. For this artless dodger though, Allen’s highly nuanced nostalgic whim certainly paints a beautiful picture, but ultimately fails to connect.
For Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), achieving success as a Hollywood screenwriter isn’t enough. He wishes to expand his artistic portfolio by penning a novel, but is unfortunately struggling to gather any inspiration. That’s where a wander to Paris offers respite, therefore off the back of a vacation funded by his wife Inez’s (Rachel McAdams) parents, Gil sees hope. Only, hope isn’t all he sees. Having escaped both the drones of an obnoxious family friend and his other half’s party manifesto, Gil finds himself slap-bang amongst the dazzling costumes and enigmatic personalities of an era he vociferously admires, the 1920s. It could be the wine, or perhaps Gil’s quest for inspiration has genuinely uncovered the Lost Generation.
Illuminated by quarantined nostalgia, Midnight in Paris firmly sinks its reels into a refined foundation. Gil champions the past, whereas others are either sceptical over his ambition or simply put-off by his tendency to reminisce. He lusts over the 1920s, wishing nature had granted him a spot at the dinner table of said time period. The main character in Gil’s novel works in a “nostalgia shop,” essentially reflecting the writer’s non-peripheral outlook on life. For 15 minutes, the presentation of a man who seemingly has everything going his way — affluence, a beautiful wife and a prosperous career — but remains unable to shake the cobwebs of a non-romantic reality, carries some weight.
Unfortunately the narrative somewhat spontaneously retreats a century backwards and kick-starts a conveyor belt of the intellectual. We meet Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Dalí and a whole host of other scholars, artists, and fanciful knick-knacks. As Gil interacts with his heroes the problem is never clearer: these people are his heroes, not the audience’s — that would be to assume all Woody Allen outings are observed by a precise denomination, a notion that’s simply untrue given Midnight in Paris made over $150 million at the box office. Traits that may be recognised by artistically knowledgeably viewers otherwise play unsuccessfully to puzzled minds. Perhaps this is not a fault on the filmmaker’s end and an issue that instead lies squarely with those, like myself, who are less well-versed in the lives of Hemingway and company. Not every film is shot through a universal lens. Sadly for us common folk, much of Midnight in Paris renders superfluous as more vague faces appear spouting diatribes that are relayed with concealed significance. The phrase “we should quit the idle chatter” reverberates without implementation.
Allen formulates a familiar whimsical tone that brims full of quirkiness. Abiding by this eccentric slant on proceedings, the highbrow collection of 1920s (and earlier) historical figures are all portrayed without too much sincerity. The actors take to the screen like a hungry herd of cattle, displaying enough scenery chewing to clear any field of its green sheen. Everyone seems to be having a blast and although the various classical persons fluctuate in terms of how decipherable they are, an infectious joviality often washes over proceedings. Tom Hiddleston couples with Alison Phil as F. Scott Fitzgerald and wife Zelda respectively, and both are undoubtedly enjoying playing dress-up; Phil in particular accentuates those vowels. Kathy Bates shows up as Gertrude Stein, delighting as ever on cue. Adrien Brody hams it up more than any other as Salvador Dalí in a truly humorous display that overrules any notion of personal ignorance.
The film plays up the juxtaposition of modern American consumerist Paris versus romantic Renaissance-laden Paris, a contradiction embodied emphatically by Gil and his wife Inez. Owen Wilson is very good as the inspiration deprived writer turned wide-eyed child in a candy store, whose dream to live in Paris is far from the mind of Rachel McAdams’ Inez. Inez is the typical tourist who sees Paris merely in its present day form as a temporary drop-out zone, and not for its natural inbuilt beauty — unlike her husband, she hates how the city looks in the rain. McAdams is fine in her role too, but struggles for breath at times given the nature of her one-dimensional character. The pair’s relationship is never really believable, a sentiment raised by Marion Cotillard’s Adriana in between escapades of Basil Exposition (“I dropped in from 2010″… “You DID?!”).
Shot by cinematographer Darius Khondji, the film basks in a wonderfully rich texture that is quite the opposite of the quaint plot which invariably ducks and dives. Too many on screen presences mean a few are lost in the shuffle; antiques dealer Gabrielle feels like a character without conviction, and Inez’s mother, other than manifesting as a dead ringer for Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine a decade on, has very little to do. After traipsing through party after party full of observant pundits you begin to wonder why nobody is picking up on Gil’s 21st century fashion sense.
Midnight in Paris’ admirable intentions are there for all to see, but perhaps only a few will fully comprehend. That is not to say the film is lacking in watchability, for a host of energetic performances alongside a narrative that accommodates more than a trace of intrigue through its humorous comparison in culture certainly offers delight in small doses.
Release Date: September 4th, 2013 (UK); November 8th, 2013 (US)
Genre: Comedy; Drama; Science-fiction
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy
It does not take long for Richard Curtis’ newest comedy About Time to have viewers grinning from ear-to-ear as any narrative inconsistencies take a back seat, allowing the film’s engaging characters to dominate the screen in a funny, genuine and well-meaning cinematic offering.
The writer and occasional director of romantic comedies such as Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually is no stranger to the genre, but here Curtis adds an extra dose of science-fiction to charge up proceedings. Domhnall Gleeson is Tim, an unpolished 21-year- old whose life takes an unexpected turn — literally — when his father tells him he can travel back in time. Gleeson’s relatively recent rise to prominence means his involvement here is fresh and feels organic, enabling the Irishman’s charm to resonate through both his awkwardness and authenticity.
Rachel McAdams endears as Gleeson’s other half Mary, and the two strike up an infectious dynamic immediately. It says a lot for both that their first scene together — which they spend shrouded in complete darkness — generates an instant connection. Bill Nighy is often the vessel through which emotion is emitted and the relationship he shares with his son Tim is utterly believable; a relationship that the film quite rightly depends on.
About Time is not without problems, although these inconveniences either subtly fix themselves or are quickly shielded by on-screen antics. The music intertwined throughout intentionally toys with the heartstrings (upbeat when happy, melancholic when sad) but nevertheless always finds an acceptable rhythm with events. The Groundhog Day-like premise is not original, but does not need to be when the focus is solely on the characters. Clichés are found wriggling around in various forms (“If we could travel back in time”), but unusually seem welcome.
Curtis ensures that the people depicted in About Time matter, creating a film which is lovable without being glamorous and one that always has its heart in the right place.
Guess what the next genre is? It is a mystery, isn’t it? No, it really is a mystery. Okay, enough of the shockingly bad jokes.
Not one of the more prominent genres, mystery tends to flirt around the edges of just about every other genre, without actually sticking out. However, there are a number of films which are defined by their mystery element. Personally, I am drawn towards films containing a mysterious element over most other types of films — mainly in the hope that such a film will keep me guessing all the way until the end.
Mystery films tend to be hit or miss — either the outcome of whatever mystery is going on is surprising or shocking or entertaining, or it is not. It will be to nobody’s surprise, then, that the five films on my list I consider to be five hits.
I have decided to change the format slightly from my previous Genre Toppers posts. The reasoning behind this is that I think reading large paragraphs over and over again can sometimes get a bit tedious, so hopefully this change will keep things more interesting. This newer format seems to work well with the mystery genre in particular, but who knows — I may use it again in the future.
From the acclaimed director David Fincher, Zodiac tells the story of one of San Francisco’s most notorious serial killers, known only as the Zodiac. Boasting a strong cast containing Robert Downey Jr, Jake Gyllenhaal and Mark Ruffalo, the film depicts the events surrounding the police investigation into the murders carried out during the 1960s and 1970s, and why the murders were occurring.
Where The Mystery Lies
Who is the serial killer known as the Zodiac, and what do the cryptic clues being sent to the police mean?
Three Top Five Clinching Reasons
Fincher’s target audience: Interestingly, Zodiac is David Fincher’s second-highest rated film on Rotten Tomatoes with 90% of critics enjoying it (second only to The Social Network at 96%), whereas it is Fincher’s lowest revenue-taking film, grabbing only (yeah, only) around $85 million worldwide. Why? Primarily because Fincher aimed the film towards a typically older audience, rather than playing up its slasher element and in turn appeasing only “16-year-old boys,” as Fincher put it.
Style and the 70s: Obviously I was not around in the late 1960s/early 1970s in order fully understand what those years were like, but Fincher certainly goes a long way to making sure Zodiac captures the tone and style of them. Everything from smoky newsrooms to wacky attires are in full display here, and although the film lasts over two and half hours, it is worth watching at that length just to enjoy the cinematography.
Delightful dialogue: The performances from the three leads in Zodiac are very convincing, and this is helped in no small part by the deliberate and encapsulating script the actors exchange between each other. Fincher has a knack for using excellent, well-crafted scripts (take Se7en and The Social Network as two prime examples) and Zodiac is no different. Gyllenhaal, Downey Jr and Ruffalo do the film and its words justice — in fact, the positive audience reaction combined with the lack of a well-rounded ending proves just how well the actors and writers have done to make the film so enjoyable.
A slick, stylish and slow burning mystery drama, Zodiac keeps audiences interested through its exceptionally well-strung dialogue and interesting performances.
Released in 2009 and directed, written and produced by Stuart Hazeldine, Exam takes place in an alternative history and is set almost entirely in one room where a group of eight very different people must use their initiative to gain the employment they each desperately desire.
Where The Mystery Lies
The eight candidates are given one piece of paper and are told that the exam only consists of one question… but what is that question, and what is the correct answer?
Three Top Five Clinching Reasons
Unknown cast: A problem a film can sometimes face when it boasts a worldwide star is that the audience do not believe that such a level of star can actually be the character they are portraying (particularly if the character is a normal, everyday person). Exam benefits from a relatively unknown cast — apart from Colin Salmon, although he does not appear very often throughout the film, making his character seem even more important and separate from the candidates. The candidates themselves each bring their own nuances to the table, coming across as genuine employment seekers and making the film much more believable and engrossing.
Simplicity is key: As you can probably gather from the synopsis above, the plot of Exam is very simple: eight candidates, one job, one question. That is it. Not only does this make the film easy to follow, it places more emphasis on the situation the characters find themselves in and adds focus to the characters themselves (in essence, this film is a character profile). The mystery is also heightened because it is not confusing — rather, it is intriguing.
Perfect pacing: Hazeldine ensures the film does not dwell on particular plot points, moving things along before they become stagnant, and coming back to events if need be. Again, this keeps the flow of the film just about right and ensures the audience’s attention is grasped and maintained. Also, the progression of the plot and the characters are both very well handled, generating more and more tension until the atmosphere becomes just about unbearable.
Exam is the perfect example of how to make a small, low budget film with a simple plot and still be able to keep it intriguing, leaving the audience on the edge of their seats.
Sherlock Holmes (2009)
Guy Ritchie helms this reboot of the Sherlock Holmes franchise, starring Robert Downey Jr as Holmes, Jude Law as Watson and Rachel McAdams as former adversary Irene Adler. The story follows Holmes and Watson as they attempt to uncover the perpetrator of a series of violent murders and prevent this perpetrator from taking over the British Empire.
Where The Mystery Lies
Holmes and Watson must decipher how their familiar foe plans to control the British Empire — but how has the murderer returned from his apparent execution?
Three Top Five Clinching Reasons
At home with Holmes: Robert Downey Jr plays an enormous part in how enjoyable this film is — his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes is one of wit, intelligence, controlled chaos and downright hilarity. We are all used to seeing Downey Jr in charismatic roles (as Iron Man, for example) and here he seems completely in his comfort zone, which shows by way of his mesmerising depiction of Holmes — rivalled only by Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal in the hit television series, Sherlock. But not all the praise must be solely heaped on Downey Jr, as Jude Law is very effective in working as a buffer for Holmes to play off of. Mark Strong is as menacing as always playing the villain of the piece and Rachel McAdams is delightful as Irene Adler.
Visually unique: The cinematographers and set designers deserve a vast amount of compliments for their old-fashioned-yet-energetic set pieces. It is a tremendous achievement in making London appear as it did back in the 19th century, but at the same time upholding a sense of freshness. Craftsmanship at its finest, if you ask me. Also, the slow motion fight sequences look effortlessly assembled and add an extra dimension to the film.
Action-packed: Guy Ritchie certainly does not hold back in terms of fight scenes (there are plenty) and explosions (they are in there too). At its simplest, Sherlock Holmes is an entertaining action film with plenty of well-choreographed physical encounters and a fast-moving plot which keeps the action going and prevents the film from losing its momentum. The action takes place everywhere too — from underground to occult chambers to the top of massive cranes.
Quick-witted, funny, sometimes silly, but always entertaining — Sherlock Holmes is just about everything you expect from a Robert Downey Jr-led film.
Shutter Island (2010)
Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, Shutter Island sees Martin Scorsese team up with Leonardo DiCaprio for the first time since The Departed in 2006, and the fourth time overall (soon to be a fifth, with The Wolf Of Wall Street hitting cinemas in late 2013). DiCaprio stars alongside Mark Ruffalo as two U.S. Marshals — Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule respectively — who attempt to uncover the mysterious happenings on Shutter Island.
Where The Mystery Lies
Daniels and Aule must find out the whereabouts of a missing patient, but what is the real reason they have been summoned to the island? (That is all you are getting, sorry!)
Three Top Five Clinching Reasons
Creating a separation: The chemistry between DiCaprio and Ruffalo is very underrated here, in my opinion. It is obvious that the two are outstanding actors, which is once again apparent in this film, but they also work exceedingly well together, in turn creating a sense of disconnect between themselves and the rest of the residents of Shutter Island. This is essential to the story, and thus the performances from both DiCaprio and Ruffalo (and also Ben Kingsley to be fair, who plays Dr. John Cawley) are a key part to the success of Shutter Island.
Shudder Island: There is an eerie and unnerving atmosphere generated throughout this film, and the creep factor increases as the film delves further and further into the mysterious happenings on the island. The film switches for brief moments to an almost comedic tone, but that tone is swept away by dread almost as soon as it begins. The unnerving atmosphere is aided, of course, by the sense that the two U.S. Marshals, although called to island by those on it, are alone and not wanted.
Musical mayhem: Another major player in the eerie atmosphere, the musical involvement in Shutter Island is as close to perfect as possible. From the foghorn sounding booming interludes throughout, to the seemingly out-of-place uplifting belts of opera (which completely add to the intentional confusion and lack of transparency during the film), the score is outrageous-yet-brilliant.
I am a big fan of when DiCaprio and Scorsese work together because they always deliver, and Shutter Island is no different — in fact, it is my personal favourite output produced by the combination of the two.
The Prestige (2006)
From the man who brought us The Dark Knight trilogy and Inception, comes The Prestige, starring Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale and Scarlett Johansson. Jackman and Bale play two previously partnering magicians who have turned fierce rivals after an accident split the pair up. It is the ultimate battle of wit and nerve as each magician aims to better the other by creating and performing the greatest illusion of all time.
Where The Mystery Lies
It is a film about magic, right? Well, not entirely. Although a mystery element does exists and runs throughout — just how did he do it? (Again, that is all you are getting — I really cannot give too much away here!)
Three Top Five Clinching Reasons
Coming full circle: It would be a crime for me to sit here and write about what happens during the climax, because it is masterfully accomplished on-screen in my eyes. Everything from the beginning through to the main act (pun sort of intended), to the dialogue during the film build up to a quite extraordinary revelation, and one which I got nowhere near figuring out. I do not want to overhype the ending so much so that it will be an inevitable let down no matter what, but trust me, it is very good and it perfectly polishes off the non-linear plot the film possesses.
Caring about characters: Nolan allows each character to breathe (much like he does in the majority of his other films) and this allows each actor — even those whose characters only play a minor role — to fully develop their role and ensure the audience can become emotionally invested in them. The dynamic between the two duelling magicians, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) is electric at times, and the lengths they go in order to get one up on each other become believable due to the hatred Jackman and Bale successfully generate. Less prominent characters such as Michael Caine’s stage engineer, John Cutter, and Rebecca Hall’s Sarah Borden, Alfred’s wife, add further layers to the main duo, whilst Scarlett Johnasson’s Olivia Wenscombe acts as a spanner in the works.
More than just magic: As I mentioned above, although The Prestige contains a lot of magic, that is not the primary focus of the film. For me, the primary focus is the tumultuous relationship between two men and all that their relationship embodies, in terms of trust (or lack thereof), deceit and jealousy. Using magic as a background their relationship and these characteristics bolsters the overall plot, but it is the three aforementioned factors which give The Prestige substance.
When talking about mystery the first destination is always magic, and The Prestige is Christopher Nolan’s way of pulling a rabbit out of the hat — just when you think he is being slightly over-ambitious, he absolutely nails it.
So there you have it, five excellent mystery films. Here are some honourable mentions:
Final Destination (2000) — Okay, this one is a bit of a cheat (pun intended). But in all seriousness, although Final Destination is technically a gross-out horror, it does have that mystery element to it ensuring that it does not just become a gore-fest. Which is basically does anyway. I tried.
Phone Booth (2002) — Similar to Exam in the sense that it is primarily set in one location, Phone Booth is intense and pacey, with a decent lead performance from Colin Farrell and an extra creepy voice-only performance from Kiefer Sutherland.
The Da Vinci Code (2006) — At approaching three hours long, The Da Vinci Code had a fair amount of people almost sleeping, but I enjoyed it quite a bit. Tom Hanks is a guy I could watch acting all day long.
A Perfect Getaway (2009) — This is about an hour of really disconcerting build-up surrounding three couples, one of which has a murderous streak. Then it goes a bit too action-like and loses some momentum. Regardless, a solid whodunit outing.
Devil (2010) — The mystery genre does tend to attract those single-location films, and we have another here, in Devil. Five people, one elevator and one devil… but who? A rare M. Night Shyamalan appearance in my blog.