Bone Tomahawk (2016)

★★★★★

Bone Tomahawk PosterDirector: S. Craig Zahler

Release Date: October 23rd, 2015 (US); February 19th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Adventure; Drama; Horror

Starring: Kurt Russell, Matthew Fox, Patrick Wilson, Richard Jenkins

Bone Tomahawk is an audible treat. Not since Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio has a movie sounded so raw and striking (Sicario might warrant a shout, in fairness). During the opening segment here, in which a pair of drifters execute a travelling party before stumbling upon an eerie burial ground, we learn about the 16 major veins that exist inside the human neck. “And you have to cut through ’em all,” claims scavenger Buddy (Sid Haig). David Arquette’s Purvis obliges and we hear every squeak, twist, and snap as he does so. It is cringe-inducing for all the right reasons and the perfect introduction to S. Craig Zahler’s unforgiving picture, a western thoroughly bludgeoned by despair and horror.

Sometime thereafter, Purvis turns up looking a bit worse for wear in Bright Hope, a small town with a population of 268 according to its welcome signpost. He runs into sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell) and earns a bullet in the leg, the first of many indications that Hunt favours blunt practicality over weak-mindedness. And so begins the sequence of events which send the sheriff, his well-meaning deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins), the egotistical John Brooder (Matthew Fox), and local foreman Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson) on a mission to rescue the latter’s kidnapped wife, Samantha (Lili Simmons).

Foreshadowing and foreboding are wilfully employed by Zahler — replacing what could have been a more natural music-driven score, the howls of wolves (or worse) ominously serenade events early on and then manifest in threatening form later. It’s the ambiance of the west, or at least this incarnation of the west. “Oh boy, that smells good now that I know it’s not supposed to be tea,” Chicory muses, referring to corn chowder but also reflecting the film’s underbelly. See, though there are plenty of traditional western strands at play — the gruff sheriff who commands authority, the isolated community tormented by threat, plenty of horses — Bone Tomahawk sets its stall out with a difference.

Slowly paced scenes reflect the slower time period, when face-to-face interactions dominated and long distance journeys relied on animal willpower. Russell taps into this considered approach, employing words with authority; patience really is a virtue and in Hunt’s presence you get the sense patience will be rewarded. Comparisons with The Hateful Eight’s John Ruth are inevitable, though the pair have less in common than you might think. Composure, for one: Hunt’s detective-esque apprehension of Purvis is the product of gradual interrogation, whereas Ruth’s treatment of Daisy Domergue is often abrasive and erratic. It is a testament to the actor that he has managed to create such varied yet equally compelling characters from two very similar seeds.

The version of the 1890s we see on-screen is one characterised by manual labour. O’Dwyer is a worker, though his involvement in the job has been tempered by a nasty leg injury that continues to plague him during the group’s arduous trek. Wilson does his utmost to sell his character’s ongoing pain in a performance that values physicality over emotional depth, though that is not to say O’Dwyer is a bland protagonist. Quite the opposite, in fact: the persistence of his injury only serves to bolster his heroic tendencies, to the point that we believe in him as a viable saviour and not just a tag-along husband.

Such ponderous momentum affords these characters natural breathing space, and Fox’s Brooder benefits too. Brooder is perhaps the most intriguing of the main quartet, certainly the most mysterious — the camera often shows him isolated from his fellow pack. One moment he inspires anti-heroic Han Solo connotations, the next plain ignorance, and then there’s his penchant for wry humour: “I’ll probably beat you to the draw,” Brooder boasts before amusingly justifying said boast. This is the best Matthew Fox has been in years. It is also one of Richard Jenkins’ most endearing showings, a real triumph given the overarching strand of impersonal cruelty.

Zahler’s film takes up a somewhat conventional western face for much of its running time, though said face is masked by an uneasy mist. It would be best to avoid specific details, but I will note that proceedings take a turn for the sickeningly gory and genuinely unsettling. This genre mishmash works because terror and anxiety have always been woven into the genre. The mishmash refrains from stopping at abject fear too. This is also a film about how men are impacted by separation (O’Dwyer’s wife is missing, Hunt’s is worried at home, and Chicory’s deceased). As the group traverse further from civilisation and closer to potential doom, the score unveils a pained melancholy, manifesting almost as a sort of death soliloquy.

On a technical front, Bone Tomahawk is infallible. I’ve already lauded the sound quality and the production team maintain a similar level of excellence in their set creation and landscape scouting. It feels like the end of the 19th century; that retro gunslinging allure in full effect. We ride across mossy vistas and tiptoe through ghost valleys that bear some resemblance to those in The Return of the King. Presumably working with a low budget, those behind the lens have smartly utilised nature’s virtues and rustled up quite the canvass for exploration, fusing the harsh brutalities of No Country For Old Men with the pilgrimage proclivities of Slow West.

All of the elements are furnished to oaky perfection but you could remove the lot — the charcoal landscapes, the wooden interiors, the deceptive humour — to leave just the four central characters, and you would still have something well worth two hours of your time. These marauders are wacky and layered. Zahler sticks to his guns even after the craziness takes off, winningly heralding the richness of his protagonists over shock value. A late, brief exchange between sheriff and deputy recalls the film’s intimate, considered mantra. In one moment, Bone Tomahawk cements its status as a future classic.

Bone Tomahawk - Russell, Fox, Jenkins, Wilson

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): RLJ Entertainment

Oscars 2016 — Final Predictions

Oscars 2016

Another year, another highfalutin awards season (we love it really) culminating in an Academy Awards ceremony blighted by controversy. Despite the perceived change in acceptance and diversity — 2015 welcomed same-sex marriage legalisation, for instance — Hollywood, it seems, is struggling to keep up. Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs declared a plan to usher in urgent change, though chances are the Oscars’ lack of diversity is a consequence of a grander Hollywood problem as opposed to the definitive headache.

I digress. We have what we have and, in fairness, this year’s nominee crop is a good one. On a personal level, I enjoyed all of the films up for Best Picture, some pretty significantly. The women are top of the acting class having smashed their male counterparts to performing pieces, and in a Streep-less year too. Only one of the five directors up for a statuette has been nominated before, and Rocky Balboa’s back after a 40-year break. Alright, let’s get on with it.

I’ve watched more of the crop than ever before this time around, but as circumstance would have it I still have a few blind spots. The categories below the break host films I haven’t seen for various reasons (mainly the UK release schedule — disappointingly, many of the foreign language nominees are not yet out over here), however I’ve still made a prediction in those categories, for the sake of completion if nothing else.

Click links for reviews.

 

Best Picture

The Big Short

Bridge of Spies

Brooklyn

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

Room

Spotlight

— Will win: The Revenant

— Should win: Mad Max: Fury Road

— Should’ve been nominated: Girlhood, SicarioStraight Outta Compton

The Revenant, Spotlight and The Big Short have been jostling for the number one spot throughout this awards season, with each film taking home at least one main prize (critics have favoured Spotlight and producers The Big Short). The Revenant, meanwhile, seems to have cleared the pack following its victories at the Golden Globes and BAFTAs, though this one could still go any way. It should go to either Mad Max: Fury Road for its sublime achievement against all odds, or to Room for its sheer emotional devastation.

 

Best Director

Lenny Abrahamson (Room)

Alejandro González Iñárritu (The Revenant)

Tom McCarthy (Spotlight)

Adam McKay (The Big Short)

George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road)

— Will win: Alejandro González Iñárritu (The Revenant)

— Should win: George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road)

— Should’ve been nominated: Steven Spielberg (Bridge of Spies)

Iñárritu has all of the momentum as well the admiration of the Academy, who rewarded him last year with Best Director and Picture wins over Richard Linklater and Boyhood (grrr). And with no clear, solitary challenger, it looks like a similar scenario will play out again this year. George Miller could be in the running though, and he should be given his stunning all-round effort on Mad Max: Fury Road. The Aussie has a significantly better chance of winning in this category than the one above.

 

Best Actor

Bryan Cranston (Trumbo)

Matt Damon (The Martian)

Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant)

Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs)

Eddie Redmayne (The Danish Girl)

— Will win: Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant)

— Should win: Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant)

— Should’ve been nominated: Jacob Tremblay (Room)Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton)

Okay. It is not his best performance; there are times it mightn’t even be a performance. He should have won for one of The Aviator, Django Unchained or The Wolf of Wall Street. And sure, the end-of-days narrative peddled throughout his campaign has jumped from barely-worth-considering to head-rollingly-cliché. But of the five fighting for Best Actor, nobody is better than Leonardo DiCaprio. Fassbender comes close as Steve Jobs, but that’s it. The Academy will see this as righting a wrong — it’s DiCaprio’s year.

 

Best Actress

Cate Blanchett (Carol)

Brie Larson (Room)

Jennifer Lawrence (Joy)

Charlotte Rampling (45 Years)

Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn)

— Will win: Brie Larson (Room)

— Should win: Brie Larson (Room)

— Should’ve been nominated: Emily Blunt (Sicario)

Jennifer Lawrence elevates Joy far beyond the limits set by its messy underbelly, and Blanchett and Rampling both offer subtle, powerful performances. But this one, rightly, will go to either Brie Larson or Saoirse Ronan. It’ll almost certainly be the former given her numerous wins on the circuit — Larson’s showing in Room is probably the best of the year, pained and hopeful in equal measure — though a victory for the wonderful-in-Brooklyn Ronan would be just as pleasing.

 

Best Supporting Actor

Christian Bale (The Big Short)

Tom Hardy (The Revenant)

Mark Ruffalo (Spotlight)

Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies)

Sylvester Stallone (Creed)

— Will win: Sylvester Stallone (Creed)

— Should win: Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies)

— Should’ve been nominated: Benicio Del Toro (Sicario)

Though Rylance entered the season as the likely winner here, Stallone seems to have gained increasing momentum since his win at the Golden Globes. I think Tom Hardy’s performance has been undervalued, and Ruffalo too is terrific in Spotlight. Come to think of it, this is probably a stronger category than it has perhaps been given credit for. The award could go to Stallone or Rylance. I’d be happy with either.

 

Best Supporting Actress

Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight)

Rooney Mara (Carol)

Rachel McAdams (Spotlight)

Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl)

Kate Winslet (Steve Jobs)

— Will win: Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl)

— Should win: Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight)

— Should’ve been nominated: Fiona Glascott (Brooklyn)

Competitiveness is key in the Best Supporting Actress section, arguably the toughest of the bunch to call. Jennifer Jason Leigh is a massive outsider here despite her maniacal excellence in The Hateful Eight, and McAdams’ chances are even lower (though she is great too). Winslet is back in the race following her BAFTA win and her grounded performance in Steve Jobs would be worthy most other years. Rooney Mara is the lead in Carol, she’s in the wrong category. I’ll go for Vikander, who steals the show in The Danish Girl.

 

Best Adapted Screenplay

The Big Short (Adam McKay, Charles Randolph)

Brooklyn (Nick Hornby)

Carol (Phyllis Nagy)

The Martian (Drew Goddard)

Room (Emma Donoghue)

— Will win: The Big Short (Adam McKay, Charles Randolph)

— Should win: Room (Emma Donoghue)

— Should’ve been nominated: Steve Jobs (Aaron Sorkin)

When I sat down to watch Room, one of the last things on my mind was Emma Donoghue’s screenplay. Not because I expected little from the novelist-turned-screenwriter, but because the buzz surrounding the film had mainly been for its two central performances and Lenny Abrahamson’s deft direction. But Donoghue’s adaptation of her own work is careful and stunning, truly. The Big Short will probably win here given its wit and snap (some very good wit and snap too), but it’d be nice to see Donoghue take the trophy.

 

Best Original Screenplay

Bridge of Spies (Matt Charman, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen)

Ex Machina (Alex Garland)

Inside Out (Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley, Ronnie del Carmen)

Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, Josh Singer)

Straight Outta Compton (Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff, S. Leigh Savidge, Alan Wenkus)

— Will win: Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, Josh Singer)

— Should win: Ex Machina (Alex Garland)

— Should’ve been nominated: The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino)

Any of the above could conceivably win with justification: the Coens’ sly influence over Bridge of Spies is noticeable and welcome; Inside Out thrives upon words carefully constructed and beautifully relayed; McCarthy and Singer’s steely determination to shine a light upon good reporting works because their script allows it; and the seemingly written-by-committee Straight Outta Compton fizzes with authenticity. But I’m rooting for Alex Garland’s Ex Machina screenplay, a smashingly construed, tense, and insightful piece of writing.

 

Best Documentary — Feature

Amy

Cartel Land

The Look of Silence

What Happened, Miss Simone?

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom

— Will win: The Look of Silence

— Should win: The Look of Silence

— Should’ve been nominated: N/A

Joshua Oppenheimer’s shocking Act of Killing should have won in 2014. Amy and Cartel Land are probably the more obvious choices facing the Academy, but I’m going to put my (perhaps misguided) faith in voters to pick Oppenheimer’s Act of Killing follow-up, the less striking but still wholly compelling and defiantly brave Look of Silence.

 

Best Cinematography

Carol

The Hateful Eight

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant

Sicario

— Will win: The Revenant

— Should win: Sicario

— Should’ve been nominated: Slow West

Roger Deakins is long overdue Oscar-shaped recognition having received 13 nominations with no return, and Sicario should be the conduit for that eventuality. This is another strong category; any of the five could win with justification — Robert Richardson captures the claustrophobic egomania of Minnie’s Haberdashery, John Seale the muscular aplomb of a post-apocalyptic desert-scape, and Ed Lachman the crackling romance of 1950s New York. Emmanuel Lubezki looks destined to claim the award for the third year running though, which would be a cinematography record.

 

Best Visual Effects

Ex Machina

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

— Will win: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

— Should win: Mad Max: Fury Road

— Should’ve been nominated: The Walk

Much has been made of George Miller’s desire to be as practical on set as possible, and when the result is as good as Mad Max: Fury Road, that desire ought to be rewarded. A word too for the visual effects team on Ex Machina, whose budget would have been significantly lower than those of their category compatriots, yet whose end product is futuristic, uncanny, and effortlessly employed.

 

Best Film Editing

The Big Short

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant

Spotlight

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

— Will win: The Big Short

— Should win: Spotlight

— Should’ve been nominated: Straight Outta Compton

Mark Kermode talks about the key to a great editing job being its undetectability. You should be so wrapped up in the content that cuts should play naturally, and to an extent that is a fair assessment. I would challenge his assertion when it comes to The Big Short though, a film which is so furiously edited by Hank Corwin you are supposed to take notice (this rapidness fits the crazed culture of Wall Street). Having said that, I’m pulling for Tom McArdle’s considered work in Spotlight.

 

Best Production Design

Bridge of Spies

The Danish Girl

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

— Will win: Mad Max: Fury Road

— Should win: Bridge of Spies

— Should’ve been nominated: The Hateful Eight

One of the most endearing and successful things about Bridge of Spies is how the film pits an internally bubbling United States against an externally fractured East Germany. Much of that has to do with the Cold War climate drawn up by the production design team: you feel the domestic, retro anxieties of the US, and then you really feel the frostiness of Germany. Plus, Mark Rylance tinkering with magnificently integrated espionage devices? Come on.

 

Best Costume Design

Carol

Cinderella

The Danish Girl

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant

— Will win: Carol

— Should win: Carol

— Should’ve been nominated: Crimson Peak

Sandy Powell is up against herself here, though her chances for Carol probably carry more weight than her chances for Cinderella. Unlike the production design in The Danish Girl, the film’s costume design is interminably fitting: at times bombastic, at times reserved, always representative of the time period. Having said that, I really like Powell’s work in Carol and Jenny Beavan’s efforts in Mad Max: Fury Road, so a win for either of those would suit me.

 

Best Original Score

Bridge of Spies

Carol

The Hateful Eight

Sicario

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

— Will win: The Hateful Eight

— Should win: Bridge of Spies

— Should’ve been nominated: Macbeth

Since it’s his first western score since the 1980s (not to mention the first original score in a Tarantino flick), chances are Ennio Morricone will take home the bacon here. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s piercing, unsettling Sicario sound is a real masterstroke and would justify a win, though my favourite of the five is Thomas Newman’s score for Bridge of Spies. It flirts tremendously between Saving Private Ryan’s brassy grandness and a number of beautiful, touching piano melodies.

 

Best Original Song

“Earned It” (Fifty Shades of Grey)

“Manta Ray” (Racing Extinction)

“Simple Song #3” (Youth)

“Til It Happens to You” (The Hunting Ground)

“Writing’s on the Wall” (Spectre)

— Will win: “Til It Happens to You” (The Hunting Ground)

— Should win: “Manta Ray” (Racing Extinction)

— Should’ve been nominated: N/A

I quite like “Manta Ray”, but y’know, it’s Gaga and the Oscars.

 

Best Sound Editing

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

Sicario

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

— Will win: Sicario

— Should win: Sicario

— Should’ve been nominated: Everest

As mentioned above, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score in Sicario is a beauty, though it is complemented and enhanced by some gritty, punchy sound editing (I’m reliably informed editing refers to the seeking out or creation of various sound recordings, such as gunfire or general dialogue, whereas mixing involves finding the correct combination of all sound elements within a film).

 

Best Sound Mixing

Bridge of Spies

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

— Will win: Mad Max: Fury Road

— Should win: Bridge of Spies

— Should’ve been nominated: Sicario

I’m surprised Sicario hasn’t been nominated again in this category. Given mixing incorporates all sound elements, I feel compelled to root for Bridge of Spies.

 


 

Best Animated Feature Film

Anomalisa

Boy & the World

Inside Out

Shaun the Sheep Movie

When Marnie Was There

— Will win: Inside Out

 

Best Foreign Language Film

A War (Denmark)

Embrace of the Serpent (Columbia)

Mustang (France)

Son of Saul (Hungary)

Theeb (Jordan)

— Will win: Son of Saul (Hungary)

 

Best Documentary — Short Subject

A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness

Body Team 12

Chau, Beyond the Lines

Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah

Last Day of Freedom

— Will win: Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah

 

Best Live Action Short Film

Ave Maria

Day One

Everything Will Be Okay

Shok

Stutterer

— Will win: Day One

 

Best Animated Short Film

Bear Story

Prologue

Sanjay’s Super Team

We Can’t Live Without Cosmos

World of Tomorrow

— Will win: World of Tomorrow

 

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant

— Will win: Mad Max: Fury Road

 

Oscars 2016 - Best Picture

Images credit: ScreenScoopVariety

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

Top 10 Films of 2015

2015 then. How best to sum the year up? Jurassic World chomped its way through the global box office with enough bite to break the Marvel mould (defeating those pesky Avengers in the process). Jurassic World was also part of a popular franchise revitalisation scheme, one that included fellow big hitters Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The latter, of course, is currently challenging Avatar for the highest-grossing movie of all time crown.

Heroines took centre stage: the battle-hardened Furiosa; the admirably persistent Kate Macer; the multi-skilled Rey; the emotionally resilient Riley. Critics hailed everything from smart sci-fi to nifty nostalgia while maintaining a sense of analytical balance by dealing stinging verbal blows to the likes of Entourage (full disclosure: I still haven’t seen it). Adam Sandler evaded baying cinema audiences though, opting instead to take his claptrap to Netflix’s smaller screen.

But there was plenty of good stuff too. Lots. So much, in fact, that gems such as It Follows, A Most Violent Year, Carol, Spectre, Macbeth, Ant-Man, and Whiplash haven’t even made it onto my list of top films. Cinema, as is always the case, is ending the year in pretty good hands. Here are 10 reasons why.

10. Brooklyn

Sentimental love stories are a tough thing to get right. You can overdo the romance and end up with a gallon of unappetising sap, or you might underserve the tender connection and leave audiences cold. John Crowley avoids both traps and instead tells an immigrant tale that blossoms with the aid of a genuine, lovely screenplay. Saoirse Ronan unveils a career-best performance as an Irish lass caught up in a turnstile of emotion; she is helped through the barrier by Emory Cohen, oozing 1950s appeal, and a poignantly plagued Fiona Glascott.

Brooklyn - Saoirse Ronan

9. Ex Machina

Alex Garland, whose screenwriting portfolio includes Danny Boyle’s sci-fi masterstroke Sunshine, paves his own directorial path with another, smaller science fiction spectacle. The scale might have changed but, like Sunshine, Ex Machina thrives on simmering tension and ambiguous characterisation. Domhnall Gleeson plays an employee who’s afforded the opportunity to spend a week with his innovative boss, Oscar Isaac. The catch? Alicia Vikander’s uncannily human-like android. It is a glossily realised melting pot of intellect and deception.

Ex Machina - Isaac & Gleeson

8. Sicario

Emily Blunt takes the lead as a gutsy FBI agent in Denis Villeneuve’s latest English-language film. Those that preceded — Enemy and Prisoners — focused on weighty themes and this is no different: Juárez, Mexico is the volatile setting and drug cartels are the violent subject. Roger Deakins’ cinematography transports us to a place we’d rather not be, juxtaposing coarse imagery with oddly beautiful landscapes. There’s also one of the scenes of the year: a traffic jam imbued with unadulterated anxiety. The ensuing beads of sweat could fill a river basin.

Sicario - Emily Blunt

7. Inside Out

Pete Docter heads up an instant Pixar classic, another one of those ‘for all the family’ rarities. Inside Out has that vital energy and colourful exuberance youngsters cherish, but its beauty lies in its multi-collaborative screenplay that sends adults on a moving analytical journey. It examines social growth, mental strength (or lack thereof) and even the importance of parenthood. Admirably, the piece never shirks away from tough subject matters which means the rewards are plentiful.

Inside Out - Emotions

6. Girlhood

From one human drama to another, Girlhood follows the exploits of a teenager flirting on the fringes of adult life. A sister at heart to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, Céline Sciamma’s touching tale tackles everything from commercial idealism, to economic division, to the richness of human interaction. Newcomer Karidja Touré is exceptional as the adolescent at the centre of proceedings, matching innocence to dissent with a natural flair beyond her years of experience.

Girlhood - Cast

5. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The Force Awakens was either doomed to fail or destined to thrive. Either way, J.J. Abrams had an enormous task on his hands: without relying too heavily on fan service, the former Lost aficionado had to reclaim the magic of the original trilogy while also paving the way for future intergalactic adventures. We should hardly have worried given Abrams’ reboot track record (see Star Trek). His film is packed full of affecting nostalgia and is arguably the funniest instalment to date. Perhaps most importantly, the Class of Episode VII are as fresh and exciting here as their iconic ancestors were back then.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens - Kylo Ren

4. Foxcatcher

Laughs aren’t quite as forthcoming in Foxcatcher, Bennett Miller’s tragic sports-drama based on true events. It follows the Olympic-driven efforts of amateur wresting siblings Mark and Dave Schultz, played by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo respectively, and their increasingly noxious relationship with trainer John du Pont. Steve Carell has the showiest role as du Pont, both terrifying and disturbing, however all three actors are equally effective. It is not an easy film to sit through, but it is a tremendously well-constructed piece of macabre cinema.

Foxcatcher - Carell and Tatum

3. Bridge of Spies

Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks team up for a fourth feature outing, their latest effort an absorbing masterclass in classic filmmaking. Set at the height of the Cold War — Janusz Kamiński’s cinematography is crisp throughout, especially when we reach Germany — it sees Hanks in his typical everyman getup as a principled lawyer out to defend a potential Soviet spy. Mark Rylance’s grounded mannerisms humanise a would-be enemy (there are no real enemies on display, only opposing pawns) while Thomas Newman’s exquisite score mixes patriotic brass with a touching piano melody.

Bridge of Spies - Tom Hanks & Mark Rylance

2. The Martian

Being stranded on Mars for close to a thousand Sols eventually proved to be quite the grating experience for Mark Watney (Matt Damon), but spending a couple of hours at the cinema with the botanist was a complete joy. Ridley Scott brings more than just visual spectacle to screenwriter Drew Goddard’s fantastically witty take on Red Planet isolation. Damon is very funny throughout, and his moments of emotional weakness are wonderfully played too. The Martian must also boast the most impressive cast of 2015.

The Martian - Matt Damon

1. Mad Max: Fury Road

George Miller borrows from his own barnstorming back catalogue in order to rewrite the rules of action. Working within a genre that seemed destined to bow before digital effects for the foreseeable future, the director shot most of Fury Road using practical stunts and real life locales. Tom Hardy excels as Max, but the true lead is Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, a rampant survivor hell-bent on outmuscling tyranny and redressing social equality (yes, really). If any film managed to tap into the year’s cultural zeitgeist, it was this — and with absolute style.

Mad Max: Fury Road - Hardy and Theron

Images credit: Collider

Images copyright (©): A24Fox Searchlight Pictures, Universal Studios, Lionsgate, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Pyramide Distribution, Sony Pictures Classics, 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros. Pictures

Bridge of Spies (2015)

★★★★★

Bridge of Spies PosterDirector: Steven Spielberg

Release Date: October 16th, 2015 (US); November 27th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Drama; History

Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance

Silence dominates the opening moments of Bridge of Spies. Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is the target, tailed by a swarm of men wearing fedoras. The possible KGB operative remains stony-faced — his dirty nails suggesting foul play — as he retrieves a silver coin which, after much tinkering and magnifying, opens to reveal a tiny folded message. It’s the late-1950s and the Cold War is at its peak. The US is feeling the after-effects of the Rosenbergs. McCarthyism is rife. Trials and conspiracies dominate the landscape. Director Steven Spielberg even insists upon showing us the construction of the Berlin Wall and the ensuing chaos in Germany. It’s that kind of movie.

Back in the US, a country scarred mentally rather than physically by rising tensions, we meet lawyer James Donovan. Donovan is clearly a smart man, and we don’t simply know this because he’s being played by Tom Hanks; we also see him outwit a fellow professional during a metaphor-heavy conversation about bowling pins and tornadoes. He has a way with words, and reverberates a diplomacy that wholly fits his occupation. For this reason Donovan ends up defending Abel in court, a job his superior suggests will be straightforward given guilt is unequivocal. Simply put, “It’s a patriotic duty”. “Everyone will hate me, but at least I’ll lose”, quips Donovan. It’s also that kind of movie.

See, Donovan is a beacon of ethical clarity in a murky world, and that’s why we endorse him with so much fondness. He relentlessly holds injustice to account in the name of his client despite the subsequent threat faced by himself and his family. It is right to defend a potentially wrong man, but is it feasible to do so under such conditions? Perhaps not, yet the upstanding advocate defends anyway. On the topic of family, Spielberg’s admiration and respect for children once again shines through during a talk between Donovan and his son — the latter, though young, hurdles naivety by understanding war is a possibility, and has intelligently worked out the potential radius of an atom bomb in preparation.

Bridge of Spies isn’t a boots-on-the-ground war film though. Rather, it is one that pits apparently important men around tables as they discuss the probability of battle without ever having to actively engage themselves. If anything, events on screen are propelled by a “war of information,” and we get lots of just that via high-stakes-cum-low-key rounds of dialogue. Donovan is at the centre of it all and often finds himself in no man’s land, devoid of support. He faces a grouchy judge in his quest for fairness, and a grouchy US too: locals stare at him with contempt when they realise he is the one defending the Soviet and Donovan unjustly becomes a rash on the domestic landscape.

That’s not how we see it though. Hanks offers more than just A-list reliability; he negotiates political wrinkles and unfair judgement with everyman aplomb. When two Americans face prosecution and trade deals are optioned, Hanks irons out any narrative complications with charm and a coherent tongue. There is nobody better at playing this type of role. On the opposing side, Mark Rylance affords Abel true mystery. The uncouth detachment that the infiltrator purveys could just be an act — he is a foreign agent, after all. But there is a constant kindness to Abel’s words, embodied by his “standing man” speech that reveals itself to be a masterclass in subtlety, beautifully delivered by Rylance.

A rustic production design blankets the movie in a 50s sheen. People use typewriters, wear grey trench coats, and smoke cigars. Yet there is an unavoidable modern truth at the fore too. “This Russian spy came here to threaten our way of life,” barks one particularly cheesed off American lawman, a statement that could easily be reshaped and applied to the climate of cultural blame within which we currently reside. Matt Charman and the Coen brothers’ screenwriting examines what borders mean in conjunction with matters of law (and, by proxy, matters of humanity). This forms another sturdy basis from which we can empathise with the characters on screen (Donovan, for instance, believes Abel has the right to a proper trial even though he isn’t an American citizen).

Spielberg harks back to Road to Perdition with his use of heavy rainfall, dripping umbrellas, and general murkiness. But also, oddly, bouts of light humour and fleeting courtroom trips recall Rob Reiner’s A Few Good Men. The Coen brothers’ screenplay inflections are those moments of dry comedy, generously spread throughout to loosen the dramatic belt while still giving room to the film’s weighty subject matter. Upon arrival in Germany for tetchy negotiations, Donovan takes up residence in a dingy apartment as his partners, conveniently unable to assist on the ground, are cosied up in the local Hilton hotel.

The gags are a treat, but the imminent possibility of peril seldom retreats. In fact, it grows stronger when we reach East Berlin; a shot from inside a train passing over the Berlin Wall highlights the difference between the fairly controlled west and the decimated east, forming a potential ‘before’ and ‘after’ picture for Donovan should he slip up and fuel the war bid. It is not as tense as, say, Sicario, but the threat of war does teeter on a knife edge and you can just about see each sway amongst the chilly mist.

Thomas Newman contributes a beautiful score that inspires and haunts as it reflects the changing landscapes: homely US, arctic Germany. In typical Spielbergian fashion, Newman’s score also tugs at our heartstrings, either through its grandiose scope (Saving Private Ryan occasionally springs to mind) or, as is the case towards the film’s conclusion, a simple piano melody. It almost goes without saying in 2015 but Spielberg himself is on fine form as he juggles a whole host of characters — Amy Ryan, Jesse Plemons, Sebastian Koch, and many more ably support — and a potentially tricky script with sure-fire handiness.

It’s not excessively complex filmmaking, nor is it in any way underfed. There is a clear start point, a clear end point (a lovely one at that), and an admirable confidence in the material. Bridge of Spies is a wonderful, eloquent piece of cinema, delivered by a directorial giant unafraid to promote the practice of principles, and actors who clearly cherish the process. It’s the kind of film that makes going to the pictures worthwhile. It’s that kind of movie.

Bridge of Spies - Tom Hanks

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 20th Century Fox

Sicario (2015)

★★★★

Sicario PosterDirector: Denis Villeneuve

Release Date: October 2nd, 2015 (US); October 8th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Action; Crime; Drama

Starring: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin

For Denis Villeneuve, Sicario marks something of a departure from Enemy’s odd intricacies and the personal anguish of Prisoners. It has more in common with the latter — a nasty streak and a bleak underbelly — but Villeneuve’s third English-language outing is a different beast entirely. It’s a very cold film. There is so much bloodshed that you almost become impervious to feeling, though attempts to humanise its various players are admirable and fairly successful. Sicario’s concerns are wrapped up in the (under)world of grisly cartels, and in how the war on drugs has fostered moral imprecision, even on the ‘good side’.

FBI agent Kate Macer (a brilliant Emily Blunt) is part of that good side, and one of only a few individuals whose outlook relays consistent righteousness. We realise instantly that Kate is both strong and capable, yet not at all infallible. Nobody is for that matter — when her team finds a myriad of deceased bodies plastered behind the walls of a house, physical and mental repulsion take over (there’s a lot of vomiting). This discovery triggers an IED explosion that kills two agents, setting in motion a covert investigation into some serious criminal wrongdoing. Kate, driven by a need for revenge, volunteers for the job.

She has to navigate a landscape dominated by important-looking men wearing suits and asking personal questions (“Do you have a husband?”). Josh Brolin’s Matt Garver is one of those men, an advisor-cum-field officer whose macho posture is supported by a spine of arrogance — for some reason he wears sandals during mission briefs. Garver leads the field operation, batting back Kate’s inquisitive questions with vague swings; you get the sense his unwillingness to reveal all has less to do with bureaucracy infecting law than it does pomposity.

Pitting Kate in amongst cowboys and sheriffs and gruff Texans with gristly beards seems to be Villeneuve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s way of acknowledging reality while also challenging the effectiveness of a masculine culture. While most of the men — not all, Kate’s partner Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya) is similarly noble, though he too is portrayed as an outsider — are energised by the presence of their egos, Kate, indiscreet and somewhat inexperienced, is our key moral fibre. It’s through her gaze that we peer into an immoral world, and it increasingly feels like only her actions can reshape said immorality.

Sicario is clear in its admission that nothing is clear. People are neither good nor bad (in fairness some are quite bad) but instead exist somewhere along an ethical spectrum. A Mexican cop whom we visit throughout the film is shown interacting with his family, particularly his football-loving son. Joe Walker’s editing — which cuts from the search operation to the officer’s modest home — implicates the cop in some form of corruption, yet his family-conscious roots are never invalidated. The vast majority of people on-screen are treated as human beings, a trait often missing in films that depict warring factions (see American Sniper).

If government agencies and drug cartels are the factions at war, Juárez, Mexico is the battlefield. The city is introduced as a final level boss: maze-like, audibly inscribed with tales of dread, bookended by a pulsating score. It’s the urban equivalent of Everest’s Death Zone — the longer you stay, the more likely you are to die. Perennial, and future, Oscar nominee Roger Deakins often gives scenes time to breath, funding the perception of encroaching danger. Civic infection has wreaked havoc upon the people of Juárez, so much so that civilian life is now inseparable from criminal activity. Just ask Silvio, the aforementioned policeman.

Early on, we take a drive through the cartel capital in a stretch of truly exceptional filmmaking. It’s tense, eerily subdued. It makes you feel ill, and its conclusion ushers forth one of the most anxiety-ridden traffic jams in silver screen history. Following the film’s incredible opening third (which is ostensibly a 40-minute horrorfest) the pulse inevitable drops. What follows isn’t quite as interesting; it’s the downtime between assignments, where Kate and co. swan around bars and stare diligently at maps, invoked to add character depth.

One of those characters is Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro), the titular sicario. 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. Gillick says very little, affording extra reverence to the few words he does speak: “You’re asking me how a watch works. For now, let’s just keep an eye on the time”. Or, in layman’s terms, conquering a complicated cartel network is inescapably complex.

Lines are blurred and identities masked in Sicario’s post-9/11 society. This is Zero Dark Thirty with a narcotic skin. There is a wonderful sequence that precedes the final act (at which point the tension re-escalates): darkened human silhouettes descend into the black abyss below a brooding, orange-tinted skyscape. It’s a sublimely serene moment in a film otherwise dominated by impending threat. The serenity, like life in Juárez, is short-lived.

Sicario - Emily Blunt

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Lionsgate