Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Review)

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⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: J. J. Abrams
Starring: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Max Von Sydow
Certificate: 12A
Run Time: 135 mins

(POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD) 

‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ is the long anticipated 7th entry into the Star Wars canon and is a direct sequel to the original trilogy. At the helm is ‘Star Trek’ director J. J. Abrams who has a very good track record. Whilst the sequel trilogy may not have received particularly great reviews, the original trilogy did and as this is a direct sequel to ‘Return of the Jedi’, the expectations here are sky-high. ‘The Force Awakens’ includes a combination of the original cast but also features a new cast, particularly in the form of newcomers John Boyega and Daisy Ridley, who have barely a credit to their name. The film is projected to do extremely well at the box office and possibly become the highest grossing film of all time and sequels and spin-off’s are already in the pipeline. If ‘The Force Awakens’ fails, Disney will need to rework their plans for this lucrative franchise.

‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ is overall, a very good addition to the franchise and features many outstanding set-pieces and a formidable villain. It has an outstanding cast that have great chemistry, a blend of old and new cast members. The action sequences are enthralling and the  film has a ‘Laurence of Arabia’ / ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ vibe to it which really works. The film is however extremely silly in parts and does feel a little ‘Disney-fied’ in its execution which is a bit of a shame. The story is also a little derivative of ‘A New Hope’ and feels a little too safe, save for its daring and gripping ending. When the film works, it’s outstanding, but it has its fair share of silliness and is perhaps a little long in its middle section.

The opening hour or so and the ending of the film is superbly crafted. The film’s pacing is pretty good, save for an overlong middle section and the ending leaves many questions for the audience and should provide a good basis for the sequels. J. J. Abrams again proves that he is a master at composing action sequences – the effects here are generally superb and it all feels very reminiscent of the original trilogy.

The main asset ‘The Force Awakens’ boasts is its wonderfully realised characters despite the fact that they have been written into a safe and over simplistic story. In terms of the old cast, Harrison Ford is really at home here and puts in a good performance. Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia on the other hand simply looks as if she’s here for the money and her performance is quite uninspired. The new cast are absolutely outstanding and have a great chemistry together. Both John Boyega and Daisy Ridley are phenomenal here and have successfully completed the move to mainstream filmography. Oscar Isaac is solid here as Resistance X-Winger fighter pilot, Poe Dameron  but is woefully underused. Domhnall Gleeson, Andy Serkis play the supporting villains and are pretty solid but the pick of the cast is Adam Driver’s dangerous and unpredictable villain, Kylo-Ren. It is an outstanding piece of casting and he is perhaps one of the most memorable and formidable villains of the decade. He is developed extremely well and his tantrums are extremely effective into giving an insight into his personality. Driver deserves a lot of praise for his performance and it will be interesting to see where his character arc is developed in the sequels.

John Williams’ score is also a perfect blend of old themes and some new ones, particularly the themes for the new characters and at the end in a key sequence. The cinematography by Dan Mindel is solid and is very reminiscent of the original trilogy.

What’s particularly impressive about ‘The Force Awakens’ is its impressive and secretive marketing. The trailers didn’t reveal a lot of the film’s story and there are a lot of surprises to be had in store if you can avoid spoilers.

Overall, ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ is a very good basis for the future and is an impressive blend of old and new. At times the film is edge-on-the-seat exciting but it does unfortunately become very silly a little too frequently. Adam Driver’s portrayal of Kylo-Ren is fantastic and is one of the most interesting and unpredictable villain of recent years. Episode 8 will be directed by Rian Johnson who has previously directed 2012’s ‘Looper’ which was very well received and will be released in May 2017. Before that, a spin-off ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’ will be released in December 2016 and it will be directed by Gareth Edwards who directed 2014’s remake of ‘Godzilla’. J. J. Abrams has unfortunately stepped away from this franchise, perhaps a little too soon as he’s done a good job here and it is his best work yet. There is a lot of potential here for the future.

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

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The Good Dinosaur (Review)

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⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Peter Sohn
Starring: (voices of) Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Sam Elliott, Anna Paquin, A. J. Buckley, Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Steve Zahn
Certificate: PG
Run Time: 101 mins

‘The Good Dinosaur’ is the second of Pixar’s two offerings in 2015. ‘Inside Out’, released in the Summer (my review here) was hailed by many as a return to form by Pixar and there have been calls for it to feature on the Best Picture category in the upcoming Academy Awards. Personally, I don’t think they ever had a dip in quality between 2010 and 2015  apart from ‘Brave’ which I had my problems with. ‘The Good Dinosaur’ has had a very turbulent production and has been in the making for many years. Originally, it was to be directed by ‘Up’ co-director, Bob Peterson but then after he couldn’t find a way to crack the film’s third act, he was replaced by Peter Sohn. Peterson remains with just a writing credit. The film’s cast was also reworked in the transition between Peterson and Sohn and only Frances McDormand remains from the original cast which also included the likes of John Lithgow, Neil Patrick Harris and Bill Hader. The film was delayed by a year and a half, originally slotted in for a May 2014 release date and many employees of Pixar had been laid off due to the delay. Has this all paid off?

‘The Good Dinosaur’ is a decent film in its own right but by Pixar standards is one of their worst. It is a disjointed and manipulatively emotional film and its story is all over the place – the film hasn’t quite gelled together. Pixar famously boast that their story is their number-one priority but this is definitely not the case here. That said, the animation is breathtaking and there are many sweeping panoramic shots that are just stunning to behold. As a film in its own right, it’s still much better than many other animated films there are to offer, but it’s just disappointing that this film is not Pixar at its best – it definitely has the potential. There is also a lot of excessive biting and screaming from the characters in the film and it left me with a bit of a headache.

The story, whilst familiar, works at times but overall it feels incredibly disjointed. The whole concept of the asteroid missing Earth is genius and it’s just a shame that the story that follows ultimately can’t live up to this.  Dinosaurs are essentially the humans – evolved over many years and intelligent and social and humans are referred to as ‘critters’. The opening 20 minutes or so are classic Pixar – the introduction to protagonist, Arlo’s family are wonderful and it is established what constitutes a family. There is a very powerful sequence where Arlo’s father (wonderfully voiced with a James Earl Jones twang by Jeffrey Wright) takes his son up a mountain to chase the ‘critter’ who is eating their harvest.

However, the rest of the film is extremely disjointed and whilst individual sequences work in their own right, it doesn’t gel together and it all feels aggressively out-of-touch and strange. There is one scene that particularly comes to mind where Pixar use drug references and especially for a child audience feels very strangely placed. The film also can’t decide what it wants to be tonally.  At times, it feels like a film critiquing the environment and at other times feels like a Western. To be fair to Pixar, at least they’re trying to be different.

To Pixar’s credit, the animation is outstanding and is one of their best works. As mentioned, there are many stunning panoramic shots of Arlo’s environment and the attention to detail is mind-blowing. However, as critic Mark Kermode wrote in his review, if all you are looking at is the animation then there must be something seriously not right with the narrative and this is sadly the case. Even the score by Mychael Danna and his brother, Jeff Danna is all over the place.

It’s a real shame that ‘The Good Dinosaur’ isn’t able to match ‘Inside Out’ – it doesn’t even come close. It has gone through a very turbulent production which evidently shows in the finished film and it just all feels disjointed and tonally jumbled. Whilst it is still better than many other animation films, for Pixar, it is one of their very worst.

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

‘Sanjay’s Super Team’, the preceding short before the film is also a tonal jumble. Perhaps it has been released at the wrong time after a slew of superhero films, particularly ‘Big Hero 6’ which it feels extremely derivative of.

Bridge Of Spies (Review)

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⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Austin Stowell, Scott Shepherd, Jesse Plemons, Sebastian Koch 
Certificate: 12A
Run Time: 141 mins 

‘Bridge of Spies’ tells the true story of James B. Donovan, a  respected insurance lawyer who is entrusted with negotiating Francis Gary Powers, a spy whose plane was shot down over the Soviet Union and Frederic Pryor, a university student caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time for Rudolf Abel, a suspect Soviet spy who is in the hands of the United States at the height of the Cold War. The latest film directed by one of the masters, Steven Spielberg seems looks as if it’s business as usual for the maestro.  It certainly inspires confidence when you have a formula of Spielberg directing, Tom Hanks in the lead role, Mark Rylance in a supporting role, Janusz Kaminski as cinematographer and a Coen Brothers script which tells a true story.  This must be a surefire hit, right?

‘Bridge of Spies’ is usual business for Spielberg – it’s a very engaging story, has a great script and features a fantastic performance from Mark Rylance.  The problem with ‘Bridge of Spies’ however lies within its pacing – whilst its first hour is great, the second half changes tone and shifts down a notch and can’t quite match the compelling courtroom drama film that the first half of the film aspires to be. It’s also sadly the case that the trailer practically shows the entire film in a condensed format – if you’ve seen the trailer, then you’ll have virtually seen the film.

Flaws aside, the first half truly is wonderful. The film opens up with a series of scenes following Mark Rylance’s character, Rudolf Abel, who is suspected to be a Soviet spy that are so well realised and choreographed. Once arrested (and what sets the basis for the entire film), Spielberg makes the viewer question their morals as the Americans just want to say that Abel has been fairly represented in his trial whereas Donovan actively pursues to help redeem himself. “Everyone deserves a defense. Everyone matters,” Donovan argues.

Performances-wise, the film is very strong. Tom Hanks, although he won’t receive any Awards acclaim, does a good job here as James B. Donovan who wants to do his job seriously, or as Rylance’s character, Abel calls him “the standing man” who despite constantly being undermined by others always picks himself up and fights back. Mark Rylance is stunning here and surely is destined for contention in the Best Supporting Actor category in the upcoming Academy Awards. His mannerisms are perfect and the audience really feel for his character who he portrays as extremely intelligent but is still very human and empathetic. Perhaps it’s the omission of Rylance in the second half that forces the film to shift down a notch?

The second half of the film whilst still strong in its own right but is very different in tone to the courtroom drama that the film aspires to be in the first half. It deals with the exchange of the individuals concerned and there are many visceral sequences of the Berlin Wall being constructed and this is where Kaminski really gets to demonstrate his cinematography skills and a lot of greys and whites are used to showcase this. As a film in its own right, the second half of the film works but it just cannot stand up to such a wonderfully realised first act and this ultimately brings the film down as a whole.

It’s a real shame that the marketing for this film has tarnished it. It gives away virtually the entire film which is a real shame – of course the film is better than the trailer but it does leave a sour note. Furthermore, Thomas Newman, stepping in for Spielberg regular John Williams can’t even come close to emulating Williams’ genius and the score feels phoned-in.

Overall, ‘Bridge of Spies’ is another winner from Spielberg and  it is extremely engaging and a satisfying watch. Both Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance are excellent in this film, Rylance deserving of Awards attention. It’s just a shame that the film experiences a tonal shift mid-way through (although both halves work in their own right) and the trailer gives away virtually the entire film. In terms of the film’s Oscar prospects, it’s likely it will get some nominations but whether it wins anything is another story. I’d say that Rylance is probably the film’s biggest shot. But as a film in its own right and as a Steven Spielberg film, it’s business as usual.

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 (Review)

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⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Director: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland 
Certificate: 12A
Run Time: 137 mins

‘The Hunger Games’ series is extremely strong quality-wise and is easily the best teenage fiction series since ‘Harry Potter’. The first two films in particular were near-perfect and weaved in many social and political commentaries to elevate their quality. The third film, ‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1′ took a massive nose-dive for the series and all that audiences were left with was a film with build up but no satisfying action. Suzanne Collins’ third book, ‘Mockingjay’ is easily the weakest of the trilogy anyway so it’s understandable why it couldn’t match the first two. Many fans look forward to Part 2 which carries on from Part 1 and culminates into a very satisfying and intense final battle for the future of Panem.

‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2′ is a marked improvement on its predecessor and it very nearly scales the heights of the first two films in the series. It is a heartfelt and satisfying conclusion that makes Part 1 completely redundant and there are many social and political messages embedded throughout. At a time when ISIS terrorise the West, this film couldn’t come at a more ironic time and there are many uncomfortable similarities that both the fictional world created by Suzanne Collins and reality share which culminate in an even more heartfelt watch.

The acting remains as one of the series’ main strengths and Jennifer Lawrence nails the role of Katniss Everdeen again. Sitting most of Part 1 out, Josh Hutcherson has a welcome return and this is probably his most mature performance of the series. The other standouts here are Donald Sutherland who is on great form as Snow again and one of the final scenes of the film with him in it is outstandingly crafted – there isn’t anyone else who could have been as perfect a match as Sutherland is to the role. A lot of the cast are sidelined here unfortunately but the strength of these main performances, along with a sound Liam Hemsworth as Gale, keep the film in check.

The script and set designs are wonderfully crafted and extremely memorable. The battle sequences in particular are particularly well-staged and the film’s ending is very satisfying and rounds off the series nicely.  The score by James Newton Howard fits in well, but he hasn’t really recorded too much new material and instead has worked with what he has used before which is still serviceable.

It’s a welcome and unexpected relief that ‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2’ is a return to form for the franchise. It is able to restore the tone and excitement that the first two shared – it’s just a shame that last year’s prelude to this film had to be so dour. With the franchise being extremely profitable, this film will undoubtedly lead into spin-off’s in the future which hopefully will be of the same quality.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Black Mass (Review)

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⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Director: Scott Cooper
Starring: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemons, Peter Sarsgaard, Dakota Johnson, Corey Stoll, Rory Cochrane, David Harbour, Julianne Nicholson, Adam Scott, W. Earl Brown, Juno Temple
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 123 mins

‘Black Mass’ is the latest film by director Scott Cooper, who has two films to his name – the critically acclaimed ‘Crazy Heart’ which earned Jeff Bridges an Academy Award and ‘Out Of The Furnace’ which in my opinion, was an almost perfect film but received mixed reviews from critics. ‘Black Mass’ is a crime drama detailing the life of James ‘Whitey’ Bulger who went on the run for 16 years until he was finally caught in 2011 and sentenced to two life sentences plus five years for his crimes. He was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list during his time on the run. Now this sounds like a fantastic premise and a brilliant opportunity for Scott Cooper to expand on his very promising career. A virtually unrecognisable Johnny Depp plays Whitey Bulger donning slicked-back hair, ageing skin and sky blue eyes. The rest of the cast is a fantastic assembling which comprises of Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch and Kevin Bacon just to name a few. Critics have reacted positively to the film with Depp looking to receive a Best Actor nomination in the upcoming Academy Awards.

‘Black Mass’ is another winner from Scott Cooper – it features some fantastic performances with Johnny Depp in an outstanding turn as Bulger, the script is fantastic and draws heavy inspiration from classics such as ‘The Godfather’ and ‘Goodfellas’ and there are many outstanding sequences that have ‘quotable’ status. The pacing of the film is generally sound, but the film does choose to focus on some aspects of Bulger’s life that perhaps don’t warrant it and this is its main shortcoming. It’s not quite as good as Scott Cooper’s previous film, ‘Out Of The Furnace’ which was a little more subtle and atmospheric in its execution, but it’s still very impressive.

The acting is definitely one of the film’s main strengths –  Johnny Depp is outstanding as Whitey Bulger from his physical transformation to the uncanny mannerisms. He is a very mentally unstable character who eliminates anyone he doesn’t trust and this makes the audience very fearful of him. Depp deserves all the praise he is getting and hopefully he will garner Awards attention. The other standouts are Joel Edgerton as the corrupt John Connolly and his partner, David Harbour as John Morris and Rory Cochrane as one of Bulger’s cronies, Stephen Flemmi. Kevin Bacon and Dakota Johnson are sadly woefully underused. The weak link of the film is Benedict Cumberbatch as Bulger’s brother, William who is the Massachusetts State Senate President. Cumberbatch couldn’t be more different than Johnny Depp in his appearance and his American accent is very poor – Guy Pearce who was originally slated for the role would have been a much better choice.

The film features many outstanding sequences and quotable lines despite obviously being inspired by the great gangster films. The film is at its strongest towards the 2/3 mark where Bulger and Flemmi dine with Connolly and Morris to which Bulger takes a liking to the steak. What follows from a casual conversation quickly tonally shifts into a scene of sheer fear. It’s a wonderful scene and really showcases just how nasty Bulger’s character can be. It doesn’t stop there – shortly afterwards there is another scene hot-on-the-heels of the ‘steak’ scene where Bulger has another extremely uncomfortable moment with Connolly’s wife played by Julianne Nicholson which again is terrifying yet wonderfully acted. This is the film’s main strength – there are so many outstanding sequences where Depp commands and manipulates other characters. The ending for the film is wonderfully executed and this is where the film is highest in tension and its conclusion is very satisfying.

The score by Tom Holkenborg (also known under the pseudonym, ‘Junkie XL’) is sound. It does fill a little ‘over-mixed’ in parts but mostly fits and the last half an hour or so of the film’s score is fantastic. The cinematography is pretty effective as well and Boston looks quite authentic.

The film does skirt along at times and the pacing is  uneven at times. It rushes through Bulger’s relationship with his wife, Lindsey Cyr who has perhaps two scenes before Bulger’s personal life hits rock bottom when his son develops Reye syndrome and dies. The audience are meant to feel for these characters despite not being fully developed. This is also true of the beginning of the film – it dives straight in when a flashback of Bulger’s time at Alcatraz would have been much more effective and would have set the scene a little more.

Another problem the film has is that the stakes are never quite high enough. Despite Bulger constantly bumping off different characters and getting deeper and deeper into the crime underworld, the audience never quite feel immersed into this world except for the ‘steak’ scene where Depp turns his performance up to 11 and is extremely terrifying. This could be perhaps due to Cooper’s direction  as he no experience in the crime drama genre as evident by the film’s inspiration from cinema’s great gangster films.

Ultimately, ‘Black Mass’ is a very good effort by all involved – it’s just a shame it couldn’t have just upped the stakes a little more and it would have been perfect. Johnny Depp is outstanding as Bulger and deserves all the praise he is getting and the film features many memorable sequences and is very quotable. Cooper further cements himself as one of the best directors working at the moment and ‘Black Mass’ showcases his talent to a more mainstream audience. This film also proves that he has a knack for assembling a fantastic cast as evident with ‘Out of the Furnace’ and ‘Crazy Heart’.  It’s one of the best gangster films of recent years – with a couple of changes, this could be near-perfect.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Steve Jobs (Review)

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⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Danny Boyle
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Katherine Waterston, Michael Stuhlbarg
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 122 mins 

“What do you do?” Steve Wozniak questions Steve Jobs on his role that he plays in Apple. “Musicians play their instruments. I play the orchestra,” Steve Jobs wittily replies, cementing why his input was so paramount in the rise of Apple. ‘Steve Jobs’ is an adaptation of Walter Isaacson’s biography of the late Steve Jobs penned by Aaron Sorkin behind Academy Award hits such as ‘The Social Network’ and ‘Moneyball’. Sorkin is a literary genius when it comes to script writing and his scripts generally tend to be very snappy and to the point yet have a degree of wit to them. The script contains three scenes, just before new product launches and is a character study into Jobs and his fellow colleagues. The development of ‘Steve Jobs’ has been turbulent – originally destined to be in the hands of director David Fincher who is the man behind ‘The Social Network’, this project would have suited him to a tee. However his demands were unreasonable. He said he would only direct the film if Christian Bale would play Jobs, but Bale didn’t want to. This would have been a fascinating collaboration. Later, Danny Boyle was announced as the director with Leonardo Di Caprio slotted to play Jobs who then dropped out and Michael Fassbender replaced him. On paper, perhaps not as good of a combination of Boyle and Fassbender compared to Fincher and Bale but worthy replacements nonetheless. ‘Steve Jobs’ has received critical acclaim in its release (although it has tanked in the US) with many stating that it is one of Boyle’s best films.

‘Steve Jobs’ is a fascinating film with a mostly outstanding script and some brilliant performances, but it is also deeply flawed. The film lacks a sense of direction due to a limited story and it gets a little tedious at times as it doesn’t quite have enough material to sustain its two hour run time. The film also feels jarringly disjointed and it doesn’t feel like a Danny Boyle film, save until the last five minutes. It almost feels as if he is trying to emulate David Fincher’s, ‘The Social Network’ but it hardly ever propels itself to its heights. Instead, ‘Steve Jobs’ feels as if it’s a nervous mix between ‘The Social Network’ and last year’s ‘Birdman’.  The whole tone of the film feels odd and jumbled and Boyle gives the impression that he is  a very indecisive director who doesn’t know what he’s doing at times. However its flaws aside, when the film finds its feet, it’s excellent and there are a couple of breathtaking sequences and the film boasts some incredible performances from Michael Fassbender, Jeff Daniels and Michael Stuhlbarg.

Fassbender is Academy Award worthy in the titular role and he plays Jobs very convincingly. Especially in the third act, he looks strikingly resemblant to Jobs and throughout the entire film, Fassbender emulates Jobs’ mannerisms to perfection – it’s a wonderful performance. Jeff Daniels is also wonderful as  John Sculley, who was the CEO of Apple from 1983 to 1993. Daniels and Fassbender exchange a heartbreaking scene where Jobs is fired and this is where the film reaches it peak. It’s easily one of the best acted scenes of the year. Michael Stuhlbarg is also excellent here as Andy Hertzfeld, a member of the original Mac team. Seth Rogen would seem like a perfect match for Steve Wozniak and whilst his performance is sound, he isn’t given much to do which is a shame. Kate Winslet is plain awful as Joanna Hoffman, Jobs’ confidant and her accent keeps slipping and sliding from full-on American to Eastern European (her character is Polish, but her accent doesn’t sound Polish one bit). She is the weak cast member here and puts a real downer on the film. I’m shocked she is receiving critical acclaim – what can other critics see that I can’t?

Aaron Sorkin’s script is outstanding albeit a little tedious at times in its narrative. The first act is 5-star material, but the other two acts fluctuate in the murky waters of the thin narrative. His script feels as if it’s a play and the film bears parallels to ‘Birdman’ in its live performance feel which is a great opportunity to showcase the strong acting. It’s just a shame Sorkin can’t quite match the second and third acts to the first, but it’s still very strong when it’s not at its peak. Daniel Pemberton’s score is extremely effective and is a career best for him – it really gels with the film and the cinematography by Alwin H. Küchler is solid.

It’s a real shame that ‘Steve Jobs’ isn’t as good as it should have been. Whilst it boasts many strong aspects such as its performances and script, the storyline is just too thin to sustain the film’s 2 hour run time and the film just ends up feeling rather tedious at times. Danny Boyle, although successful in certain aspects, isn’t a perfect match to the material and a Fincher-Bale pairing would have been so much better. ‘Steve Jobs’ looks pretty strong in its Awards prospects – it will almost certainly receive nominations for Fassbender, Sorkin and Best Picture. Perhaps Jeff Daniels for Best Supporting Actor as well. But I struggle to think what else it justifies to earn. Despite its strengths, it’s a deeply flawed film and the film is extremely haphazard in its direction. But when it finds its feet, it’s excellent.

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

 

Spectre (Review)

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Director: Sam Mendes
Starring: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, Andrew Scott, Monica Bellucci, Ralph Fiennes 
Certificate: 12A
Run Time: 148 mins 

Daniel Craig is a fantastic James Bond and all of his films (‘Casino Royale’, ‘Quantum of Solace’ and ‘Skyfall’) so far have been top-notch. ‘Skyfall’ was particularly well-recieved by critics and audiences alike (in my opinion, a little overrated) so it is a tall order for ‘Spectre’ to replicate this success. The same crew remain from ‘Skyfall’ with the exception of Hoyte van Hoytema taking the reins as cinematographer from veteran Roger Deakins. Sam Mendes returns to direct, although he was unsure to begin with and here he has a lot more creative control due to the success of ‘Skyfall’ so he has a choice. Rehash ‘Skyfall’ by cranking everything up to eleven or take a risk and do something completely different? Mendes has assembled a very impressive cast list here with Christoph Waltz playing the antagonist, Franz Oberhauser (or someone else…?), Dave Bautista playing the henchman, Mr Hinx and Andrew Scott playing a mysterious character who Bond names ‘C’ who plans to get rid of the Double-0 program. With a cast this good and a reliable crew, surely this is a recipe for success…

‘Spectre’ is an extremely different film to ‘Skyfall’ – it’s very dark and has some excellent action sequences but it’s also a lot more playful in tone and harkens back to the days of Sean Connery and Roger Moore. The performances are excellent and the locations and cinematography are mesmerising. ‘Spectre’ is not without its flaws – it has a slow middle section in its lengthy 148 minute run time and the ending is extremely predictable. It’s refreshing to see that Mendes hasn’t just tried to rehash ‘Skyfall’ – one can tell that both cast and crew have complete trust in him and everyone has settled into their roles which makes for a very entertaining and thrilling film.

One of the best aspects of the film is its performances. Daniel Craig is again, excellent and really owns the role. Ralph Fiennes is a much more forceful and witty M than Judi Dench and has made the role his own as does Naomie Harris as Moneypenny. Ben Whishaw gives a fantastic performance here in an expanded role and is easily Desmond Llewelyn’s equal – his interpretation of Q is witty and nerdy and the chemistry he has with the rest of the cast is top notch. The cars and gadgets he bestows to Bond are a guilty pleasure and are put to good use. The Bond girls this time are played by Léa Seydoux and Monica Bellucci, the latter being wasted in a small role. Seydoux is solid but unfortunately does resort to becoming a damsel-in-distress in the film’s climax. The villain played by Christoph Waltz is fantastic and Waltz is incredibly charismatic and calm. The black cloud covering his face until the big reveal is executed flawlessly and makes him a dangerous and menacing character. The torture sequence is especially well played and provides an entertaining throwback to the traps that villains set Bond in the days of Sean Connery and Roger Moore. Dave Bautista plays perhaps the most memorable henchman since ‘Jaws’ in ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ and ‘Moonraker’ and Andrew Scott is again, solid in a fairly minor role.

The locations, although not particularly original as they have all been used before, are beautifully realised and Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography is outstanding – the film fluctuates in its colour from the dark black of Rome and London to the pure white of Austria and the desert in Morocco. Like with the playful tone of the film, the locations are reminiscent of the older Bond films and despite not being original, on the strength of the cinematography are excellent. Van Hoytema’s sterling work continues in the film’s action sequences with a thrilling car chase in Rome to a helicopter fight in the film’s opening sequence of Mexico which Van Hoytema uses a tracking shot for the first half of the sequence which really absorbs the audience into the film.

Thomas Newman’s score is solid – he reuses a lot of themes from ‘Skyfall’ but there’s enough new material here to differentiate the two soundtracks. Whilst Sam Smith’s theme song is annoying and uninspired, it works really well in the film as Newman chooses to revisit it several times in the film. The title sequence for the song is innovative and connects Daniel Craig’s last three outings to ‘Spectre’.

Where the film stumbles is in its pacing – 148 minutes in itself is a lengthy run time and whilst I never found myself bored, there is a 20 minute section in the middle that loses a bit of steam and there is perhaps a bit too much exposition from the characters in parts. The opening sequence, despite being innovative is extremely implausible and silly in places The ending is also woefully predictable but this can be forgiven as it’s still extremely entertaining and satisfying.

Ultimately, ‘Spectre’ is an excellent addition to the Daniel Craig canon and Mendes and his crew are able to expand but at the same time make ‘Spectre’ stand on its own feet from ‘Skyfall’ with its dark yet playful tone. The performances are excellent here with Waltz, Whishaw and Bautista being the standouts who provide memorable performances. It looks very unlikely that Sam Mendes will return to direct ‘Bond 25’ which is a shame but it will be interesting to see how other established directors can lend their creative eye to the Bond series and further develop it. As for Daniel Craig, he’s not contractually obliged to come back for a 5th film but from a story point of view, it would seem silly not to. If Craig does walk, he can hold his head high knowing that he’s done an excellent job with the series and he will be the most consistent actor the series has had to date. ‘Casino Royale’ and ‘Quantum of Solace’ (the latter woefully underrated) are the best in his collection, but ‘Spectre’ is a hair better than ‘Skyfall’ from a creative point of view and performance-wise, although Javier Bardem’s flamboyant and menacing villain was also top-notch.

An excellent film and it will be another tall order for the as-yet-untitled 25th instalment to match or exceed Daniel Craig’s work for the series. It’s just a shame that reviews have been mixed in the USA which has left a bit of a sour taste.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Sicario (Review)

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Daniel Kaluuya, Victor Garber, Jon Bernthal, Maximiliano Hernández 
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 121 mins 

Denis Villeneuve is an extremely talented director who received recognition for 2011’s, ‘Incendies’ and then hit the big leagues with 2013’s masterpiece that was ‘Prisoners’. ‘Sicario’ (which is slang for ‘hitman’ in Mexican) deals with the subject of the Mexican Cartel and the FBI’s bid to tackle an escalating drug war. The film follows an FBI agent, Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) who is sent to help but is constantly kept in the dark of what their purpose and goals really are. The film hit the big leagues when it competed at the Cannes Film Festival for the coveted Palme d’Or Award and critically has elevated Villeneuve’s status as a film director. With Villeneuve set to direct the upcoming sequel to ‘Blade Runner’, it is crucial that this film resonates with audiences to prove that he will do an admirable job with a sequel to a film that is so highly regarded.

‘Sicario’ is a near-perfect film that features some heart pounding action sequences and excellent performances, most notably from Benicio Del Toro who delivers a career-best performance and hopefully will attract attention in Awards Season. Villeneuve’s direction is superb and he has created a very gloomy, dark film that is extremely intense. It’s not quite as good as ‘Prisoners’ as it doesn’t have the same emotional punch and the ending is also a little muddled but in its own right is superbly crafted and paints a very bleak picture of Mexico as a country.

The story is gripping and features many twists and turns, particularly with the shady characters that are Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and his even more suspicious partner, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) who the audience are kept in the dark of what his true intentions are right until the very end. The film is told from Kate’s point of view which is excellent as we feel her frustration when she isn’t clear on what is happening and really helps to elevate the storytelling. However, the ending of the film shifts focus to a different character (no spoilers) and the film’s ending is extremely satisfying and morally conflicting but it does mean that the film ends up being a little disjointed in its ending as we have followed Kate’s perspective for so long and it is a bit of a shame to lose that feeling of ‘being in the dark’. As an ending in its own right, it’s still extremely satisfying.

The performances in the film are top-notch particularly as mentioned from Benicio Del Toro who plays his part of the shady operative, Alejandro, to a tee. He delivers an extremely cold performance and steals the show – this is his film through and through. Emily Blunt is very good in the main role and is very easy to empathise with her character’s situation but for some reason, I couldn’t help but think that Rooney Mara would be better suited to the role. Josh Brolin is also very good here as is the rest of the supporting cast.

The film contains some exhilarating action sequences to its merit, the highlight being what is possibly the one of the most intense traffic jams in cinematic history and very creative use of night vision for an action sequence set underground.

‘Sicario’ demonstrates another masterful pairing between Villeneuve and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson  and acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins, who is still yet to win an Academy Award. Jóhannsson’s score is stunning and not only fits the film but also works as a soundtrack in its own right. The cinematography is also very fitting, but I don’t think this film will earn Deakins the Oscar as there’s better competition this year.

Overall, ‘Sicario’ is another hit for Villeneuve and he will hopefully be better recognised from more mainstream audiences. He is one of the best directors working today and is extremely consistent with the quality of his films. Although this doesn’t quite have the emotional punch that made ‘Prisoners’ a masterpiece, ‘Sicario’ boasts some excellent performances with a scene-stealing Benicio Del Toro and some stunning action sequences. I am confident that Villeneuve is the right person for the sequel to ‘Blade Runner’ and he will hopefully create something extremely original and thought-provoking. Between now and then, he still has one more film slated to prove himself currently titled, ‘Story Of Your Life’ which will be released next year which is a sci-fi film – a good indication of what the ‘Blade Runner’ sequel will turn out to be. ‘Sicario’ is a very impressive film and is one of the best films of the year.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Macbeth (Review)

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Justin Kurzel
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, Sean Harris, Jack Reynor, Elizabeth Debicki, David Thewlis 
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 113 mins 

Aussie director Justin Kurzel is the latest individual to bring a new version of what is one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays to the big screen, however it is not just any adaptation. Kurzel’s adaptation has impressed many and was selected to compete at the Cannes Film Festival where it received a very strong reception. The film boasts a very strong cast with Michael Fassbender in the lead and Marion Cotillard as his ill-fated wife and both look likely to receive nominations in the upcoming Awards season. The fact that the film was picked up by the Weinstein Company to distribute is very promising and with their track record, it only strengthens the film’s Awards prospects.

‘Macbeth’ is a perfect film – it’s visually stunning, well-paced and boasts several incredible performances but the film’s perfection is completely undone with Kurzel’s decision to stick with Shakespearean language. I realise that I might not appreciate Shakespeare’s works as some others but the old English is hard to understand (particularly in gruff Scottish accents!) and the lengthy speeches and soliloquies bored me. If the script had a bit of an upgrade in language, I would without doubt be giving this film 5 stars, but it’s just too big an issue to ignore. Kurzel is able to put a personal stamp on the material by adapting the play into a war film – the battle sequences are very reminiscent of the ‘300’ films with plenty of slo-mo and they are heart-pounding to watch.

The set pieces are visceral, visually stunning and match the time period perfectly, particularly the opening battle sequence and Dunsinane. All this is achieved by Adam Arkapaw’s perfect cinematography which in my opinion is the best cinematography I have seen in a film in a couple of years – it’s stunning and the battle sequences in particular are exhilarating. Arkapaw manages to perfectly capture Scotland and includes many sweeping landscape shots which are breathtaking and perfectly lit. Arkapaw is a talent to watch. Another talented individual is Jed Kurzel’s (brother of director Justin Kurzel) exhilarating and emotional score for the film which compliments the scenes perfectly – the soundtrack also stands extremely strong in its own right and is one of my favourite scores of the year so far.

The performances in the film are Oscar material and Michael Fassbender is mesmerising as the titular character. He brings a lot of gravitas to the role and is the best performance of the film. Marion Cotillard plays his wife, Lady Macbeth and she also puts in a very strong performance who tempts Macbeth but unfortunately her French accent does come through a little bit. Her final scene at the end, where she is driven insane is incredibly performed and devastating. The supporting cast is made up of Paddy Considine, Sean Harris, Jack Reynor, Elizabeth Debicki and David Thewlis and all put in strong performances as well, particularly Sean Harris as Macduff who has an incredible scene towards the end of the film, learning of his wife and children’s death and he has an emotional breakdown – it’s simply amazing to watch.

Overall, Justin Kurzel and his talented crew have wonderfully realised ‘Macbeth’ and the film is visually stunning and features terrific performances. It’s just a real shame he decided to stick with Shakespearean English which I had a tough time watching and I just couldn’t enjoy the film as much as I wanted to because of this. As mentioned, I do acknowledge that I don’t appreciate Shakespearean language as some others might but as a personal review, I just couldn’t enjoy the film because of this and had a really tough time in places watching it. From my perspective, what ‘Macbeth’ does prove is that Kurzel is a talent to watch and with his magnificent visuals, he should be a very good match for the upcoming ‘Assassin’s Creed’ adaptation.

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Sam Smith – ‘Writing’s On The Wall’ (Review)

⭐⭐ (Poor)

I realise that this isn’t a film review but seeing as the James Bond song is always a big spectacle, why not review it?

Coming off Adele’s Oscar-winning theme for ‘Skyfall’, writing a Bond song was always going to be a heavy challenge. After months of denying rumours, it was finally announced on 8th September that Sam Smith would be taking the helm of penning the song for the upcoming James Bond film, ‘Spectre’. The single was released on 25th September and the video shortly after. It has received mixed reviews and comparisons have been unfavourably made against it sounding very similar to Michael Jackson’s, ‘Earth Song’.

Sadly, ‘Writing’s on the Wall’ is an uninspired and poorly written effort by Smith and the claims that the song sounds very reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s, ‘Earth Song’ are true. It bears many resemblances to the Grammy-nominated hit and the lyrics are extremely poor, particularly the cringe-inducing first lines – “I’ve been here before but always hit the floor” which corroborate the claim that Smith made when he boasted of how easy the task was and how he wrote the song in 20 minutes. Smith seems to think that covering up the stodgy lyrics with an orchestral piece will mask the lyrics which for the most part it does but the piece never comes to a satisfying climax and ends abruptly.

I had a bad feeling that the song wouldn’t be any good which has turned out to be true but what really angers me is how the verses copy the rhythm of ‘Earth Song’. After listening to ‘Writing’s on the Wall’, I was inspired to listen to ‘Earth Song’ and had a much more entertaining time listening to that.

The video fares slightly better – it’s quite a thoughtful and well edited video and dodgy lyrics aside, I could actually almost connect with the song with the events happening on-screen, James Bond with the new Bond girls played by Léa Seydoux and Monica Bellucci.

Overall, a real shame with what Sam Smith has churned out and perhaps if he had spent longer than 20 minutes writing the song, it would have fared better. The lyrics are cringe-worthy and uninspired but the orchestral piece isn’t too bad, as is the video. However the glaring resemblances to Michael Jackson’s, ‘Earth Song’ are unforgivable. Here’s hoping this isn’t a bad omen for the film itself.

‘Spectre’ will be released in cinemas nationwide on 26th October.

⭐⭐ (Poor)