The Lego Movie

legomoviefivestars

The Lego Movie is the first CGI-animated film set in the beloved, blocky world inhabited by little yellow figurines and tells the story of how The Special, Emmet (Chris Pratt), came to free all the Lego worlds from the tyranny of President Business (Will Ferrell).

Emmet is a rule-abiding citizen who listens to the one popular song, ‘Everything is Awesome’, and hasn’t had an original thought in his life (bar a double-decker couch, which everyone agrees is the worst idea ever). Emmet doesn’t have any friends since, although being a perfectly nice guy, he lacks any personality. He leads a lonely, ordinary life until he runs into Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) who thinks, due to a misunderstanding, that he is The Special mentioned in the prophecy of Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman). He will have to fight against and take down the evil President Business and his sidekick Good Cop/Bad Cop (Liam Neeson).

When you think The Lego Movie, your first thought might not necessarily be excitement. Sure, the toy will probably bring back fond childhood memories, but the idea of using the little yellow figures and their world for the setting of a film appears ludicrous – even if stranger concepts have made it to the silver screen. The Lego Movie however not only succeeds, it outdoes pretty much every other animated film in the process.

The film is aware of what it is at all times, and the writers have clearly taken great pleasure in not only the self-deprecating humour but also grabbed the chance to parody everything from Hello Kitty to Abraham Lincoln to Star Wars. The voice actors read like a who’s who of celebrities who have knack for not taking themselves too seriously: the Green Lantern is voiced by Jonah Hill and Superman by Channing Tatum. Nick Offerman voices Craggy, while Cobie Smulders does Wonder Woman. For some jokes, the producers went all out: C-3PO is voiced by the original actor, Anthony Daniels, as is Lando, which sees Billy Dee Williams reprise his iconic role. Shaquille O’Neal meanwhile simply voices himself.

None of this distracts from the brilliance of The Lego Movie‘s main cast: Chris Pratt, the friendly, moustached receptionist from Her excels. Morgan Freeman channels his inner god from Bruce Almighty as a Gandalf-like wizard and Elizabeth Banks tones the Effie Trinket craziness down several notches to star as lovable wannabe rebel Wyldstyle. Her boyfriend, Bruce Wayne’s alter ego, is voiced brilliantly, since very reminiscent of Christian Bale, by Will Arnett. Alison Brie is fantastically annoying as Uni-Kitty. Will Ferrell delivers a very strong performance as President Business, especially following the twist at the end. The true star of the film however is Liam Neeson, who switches between Good Cop and Bad Cop with such ease and funny excellence, it makes you sad that he so often wastes his talent on largely plotless action thrillers.

The jokes, nods and references to other films are almost too many and delivered so quick wittedly that it can be hard to keep track of all of them – a fact which proves The Lego Movie to be one that recommends itself for several viewings. Whether it’s Batman declaring that “I only work in black. And sometimes, very, very dark gray.” or Abraham Lincoln leaving the assembly because ” A house divided against itself… would be way better than here.” , it’s quote upon quote of brilliant writing. There’s even a great Night Valian moment when President Business is announcing on his broadcast to “take extra care to follow the instructions or you’ll be put to sleep, and don’t forget Taco Tuesday’s coming next week.”

The Verdict

The Lego Movie is a film for children aged 5 to 99, and will entertain you with jokes, lovable characters, truly gorgeous animation and a twist at the end that will break your heart (in a good way). Do yourself a favour and rush to the cinema as soon as you can to indulge in what will quite possibly remain the best animation of the season – it’s certainly put the bar almost unattainably high for others.

Dallas Buyers Club

dallasbuyersclubfourstars

Dallas Buyers Club tells the extraodinary and true tale of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a Texan hustler who lives fast and appears to be doomed to die young when one of his countless, condomless escapades results in an infection with HIV. Woodroof isn’t a nice or relatable man by a long shot: he cons people out of money and uses it to pay for alcohol, cocaine and girls. He is also, largely due to the reality of his sociocultural circumstances, a massive homophobe.

When he is diagnosed with AIDS and told that he only has thirty days left to live, he first goes through the familiar stages of denial and anger. It is the third stage, bargaining, that becomes the most intriguing, and the driving force for the rest of Woodroof’s life. He soon learns that the FDA hasn’t approved many of the drugs available to HIV patients abroad and that, in fact, the drugs given to him at the hospital have only made his situation more dire. Being the hustler that he is, he makes a business deal with a doctor in Mexico to smuggle back pills and sell them to other patients. Because selling non-approved drugs is illegal, he creates the Dallas Buyers Club with the help of his transgender business partner Rayon (Jared Leto). This cunning trick allows them to sell montly memberships and provide the drugs for free. Of course, neither the FDA nor big pharma nor the hospital doctors are too happy about this and keep throwing stones in their way.

McConaughey delivers what will surely turn out to be a career-defining performance as a scaringly emaciated yet emotionally ablaze character who goes from homophobic rodeo cowboy to business yuppie. Indeed, more than his business acumen, Woodroof’s transformation from homophobe to humanitarian makes for an intriguing plot. This metamorphosis culminates when Ron and Rayon run into one of his old acquaintances at the supermarket: when his friend refuses to “shake a faggot’s hand”, Ron wrestles him down and forces him to do just that. To the film’s credit, it however refrains from pretending that Ron’s change of heart is anything but a selfish one: it wouldn’t have ever occurred hadn’t his suffering overlapped with theirs.

Jared Leto’s performance as Rayon is compelling and crushingly authentic. But – and it’s a big but – you also can’t help but wonder whether there wasn’t any transgender actor who could have done a better job. It’s impressive that the make-up budget was a mere $250, but for a film in which its characters fight so hard against social stigma it’s incredibly sad that the director Jean-Marc Vallée and his producers fell short of using such a perfect opportunity to fight a stigma themselves. This matter, sadly, distracts greatly from Leto’s acting, but perhaps it’s asking too much of Hollywood (although it really isn’t).

There is a subtle but important juxtaposition between Leto and McConaughey’s characters: the former is driven by a desperation to not die, while the latter is driven by his rage to live. Rayon hides the fear behind flamboyance, Ron makes no attempt to hide his anger at the disease, the FDA and the hospital staff – but in the end, they both are the same: they want to live. Indeed, neither McConaughey nor Leto ever play people who are ill, they play people who have an insatiable hunger for life. The sadness lies in the audience’s knowledge that their wish won’t be granted.

The rest of the cast is, unfortunately, almost entirely forgettable because the script doesn’t give them much character depth. Denis O’Hare does his best to portray a nemesis as a doctor who believes he is helping patients but has become corrupted by the lies of big pharma. Jennifer Garner’s character might have been meant as the audience’s point-of-view as she goes from critical doctor to supporting Ron’s quest to import non-approved drugs, but she disappears almost entirely under McConaughey’s tour-de-force every time she is on screen.

The Verdict

Dallas Buyers Club might not make you cry (although Rayon’s death will definitely bring you very close to tears), but you won’t walk out with a smile on your face either. As life-affirming as it is, and despite some comical moments (notably when Ron dresses up as a priest to smuggle drugs across the Mexican-American border) it is, and throughout the film always stays, a tragedy. Vallée’s direction is remarkably held-back and almost plain, allowing McConaughey to dominate the screen and carry the film with the performance of a life-time.

Her

herfivestars

Her stars Joaquin Phoenix with a tour-de-force performance in what is not only Spike Jonze’s most accomplished work since 2002’s Adaptation. but his greatest masterpiece yet. Set in the near-future (it looks like it would be sometime in the 2020s, although it is never fully established), Her tells the story of Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), who is battling his melancholia and trying to gain the strength to sign his divorce papers from the love of his life, Catherine (Rooney Mara). One day after work – he pens letters on behalf of other people – he walks past an advert for OS¹, the world’s first operating system with an artificial intelligence. Intrigued, Theodore buys it and soon finds himself confronted with the voice of a female AI, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), who understands him like nobody has in a long time. He falls in love with her – and she with him.

Theodore is a reclusive romantic at heart (illustrated beautifully through his passion for his work), and spurred on by his best friend Amy (Amy Adams) pursues his feelings for the new woman in his life. The initial sadness here stems from the fact that the audience knows that Samantha is only a rebound, and that it can’t end well. The film’s merit lies in having you clueless all the way to the end about how their relationship will fall apart.

Make no mistake: Her isn’t a love story. Her isn’t even about how techology influences human life. Catherine is the only person in the film who doesn’t understand Theodore’s love for an AI – keeping in tune with her character as symbolising not only Theodore’s past but that of an outdated mindset (which, intriguingly, is the audience’s present). In fact, when talking to the receptionist at his workplace, Paul (Chris Pratt), Theodore’s mention that Samantha is an OS doesn’t even get as much as the bat of an eyelid by Paul or his girlfriend. You can’t help but feel that this acceptance is a succinct metaphor for society’s current battle to accept homosexuality and non-cisgender identities. In the future, we’ve overcome that pitiful state: love is love, period.

Visually whimsical and, thankfully, very held back on futuristic landscapes, Her lives off of the dialogue between Theodore and Samantha. Indeed, she never takes a physical form – strangely, as you might argue, since such a feat would be technologically trivial, and so surely a very conscious choice by Jonze. It’s a great choice at that, since you are forced to put yourself into their minds, this third space beyond the screen that only really exist between him and her. This feeling is not only reinforced by blacking out the screen completely when they first have sex with each other, but also through a rather creepy but powerful scene when Samantha has a girl act as her surrogate so that she and Theodore can be physically intimate.

Phoenix delivers a heart-crushing performance as he goes from depressed loner to crazily in love to lost soul. Jonze manages to constantly wrap you in a sense of melancholia even in the film’s happier moments, as the world continuously breaks down around and inside Theodore. Scarlett Johansson carries much of the film merely with her voice as she discovers her identity and grows with and eventually beyond Theodore. Chris Pratt is poignantly held back in his portrayal of Paul, while Amy Adams’ plays the understanding friend with the beautiful restraint that’s needed to leave the screen to Phoenix and Johansson.

Her might be set in the future and feature an AI, but it is ultimately a powerful, honest look at human relationships, particularly of love and the end of it. We fake things – like Samantha fakes sighing when talking to Theodore – and we let ourselves get carried away by the bubble we create around ourselves and fill with little truths. We laugh, we love, we cry – and in the end it doesn’t so much matter who caused those emotions, the important thing is that we felt them at all.

The Verdict

Her would have “only” received a rating of 4.5 stars, but as the movie fades out, Theodore breathes in and sighs – a minute and wonderful detail that elevates Jonze’s latest film to perfection. This is one not to miss, despite its depiction of a future in which horrible moustaches are en vogue.

Cuban Fury

cubanfurythreepointfivestars

At first look, Cuban Fury appears like one of those guilty pleasures that doesn’t need much justification beyond the fact that it’ll make audiences laugh. But, in what isn’t entirely unsurprising for a comedy starring Nick Frost, there is a lot more to like.

The movie tells the story of Bruce Garrett (Nick Frost), a lathe designer who was a gifted salsa dancer as a child but gave up on his dream when he was beaten to a pulp by bullies on his way to the UK National Salsa Championship. Although he enjoys technical drawing, he is a man without confidence and joy, a lack of spirit that is only made worse by the constant bullying coming his way courtesy of work colleague and alpha male Drew (Chris O’Dowd). When new boss Julia (Rashida Jones) arrives from the US and reveals that she loves salsa, Bruce’s heart skips a beat. He decides to go back to his old dance teacher Ron Parfait (Ian McShane) to freshen up on his moves so he can win Julia over with his passion. Drew, ever the restrained gentleman, meanwhile proudly proclaims he will do everything in his power to sleep with her.

There isn’t much more of a plot to the film, and that is perfectly fine because it lives off of its silly slapstick humour and the cast’s willingness to make fools out of themselves. Cuban Fury certainly lacks some of the craziness of Frost’s work with Simon Pegg, but it has just as much charm. In case you are wondering (and of course you are): yes, Simon Pegg does have a cameo appearance, and it’ll make you laugh out loud because it makes an absurd moment even stranger.

One of the film’s best features is that Bruce Garrett isn’t simply the chubby loser who has to convince his love interest that he’s a better man than the misogynist liar she’s currently hanging out with; it is, in fact, clear from the onset that Julia has taken a liking to him (even if he, in his lack of confidence, can’t see it). Refreshingly, and contrary to stereotypical rom-coms, the supporting cast receives great treatment, too. While Olivia Colman does a good job of the sort-of-alcoholic sister Sam, the true star is Kayvan Novak as over-the-top flamboyant Bejan, a fellow salsa dancer who befriends Bruce. You could even go as far as claiming that Novak steals the scene each moment that he is on screen, whether he is talking about throwing a grenade into some “bitches” at the club, or casually mentioning that he has to leave for his ball-wax appointment.

Frost and O’Dowd play well off of each other, but it is in the climactic dance-off on the roof that they both come into their own and deliver the fight that may just be the reason for the film’s Cuban Fury title. “What happens at lunch stays at lunch” they proclaim before proceeding to show off their dance skills to each other in increasingly ridiculous moves all the way to backflips. If you want absurdly silly, this is it.

Frost and O’Dowd both impress, unsurprisingly, with their comedic timing, and it is always fun to see lovable nerd Roy (O’Dowd’s career-making role in the televisio sitcom The IT Crowd) playing a sleazy low-life. The film may stick closely to that of an underdog story, but it is nice to see that Cuban Fury isn’t simply a love story. In fact, it isn’t actually one at all: it’s really about a man finding the confidence to pursue his dreams and stand up to his bullies.

Frost’s first solo outing is a feel-good comedy and a true pleasure to watch. The cast shines and, although it starts off slow, the dialogue gets funnier as the movie progresses. Kayvan Novak’s Bejan needs a spin-off, and it wouldn’t be entirely disastrous if Nick Frost made more movies without Simon Pegg. Cuban Fury is an endearing British comedy – not the best one ever made, but certainly a solid attempt.

12 Years a Slave

12yearsaslavetwopointfivestars

Based on the eponymous memoir, 12 Years a Slave stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, a free black man kidnapped into slavery to work on Southern plantation farms in antebellum America. Living happily with his wife and children in New York, Solomon is a gifted violin player, and gets tricked into following two men to Washington DC: they hire him as a musician for their circus, but after the shows are all done, get him drunk and sell him off to illegal slave traders. Solomon is shipped to New Orleans under horrific circumstances (one of the other slaves is killed by the captain when he tries to protect a slave woman from being raped), and meets his buyer (Paul Giamatti) who quickly organises an auction to make a profit off of his newest batch of slaves.

Solomon is bought by Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), and taken to his farm where he almost immediately makes an enemy of overseer Tibeats (Paul Dano) by showing off his engineering skills to Ford and gaining the latter’s approval. Although Ford is, as far as a slave owner goes, a decent man, he can’t protect Solomon from Tibeats and so sells him on to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Epps prides himself on breaking people, and has severe anger management issues. Solomon eventually manages to earn some money with his violin playing, but when he gives it to fellow, white, slave Armsby (Garret Dillahunt), he uses it to buy his own freedom and disappears without ever fulfilling his promise to contact Solomon’s family so that they could send his papers proving he is a free man. And so it is only after twelve years when Solomon meets Bass (Brad Pitt), a Canadian profoundly and openly opposed to slavery, that he sees his chance to escape.

12 Years a Slave is a quintessentially American film about the country’s greatest sin. Using their god-given right to own their fellow men as property to do with as they please, the traders and plantation owners are the worst of humanity but also victims of their time. On the one hand, Ford treats his slaves with respect (he even gives Solomon a violin) and on the other hand, Epps tortures them emotionally and physically with a deeply sadistic pleasure. They both quote from the bible constantly, and yet one’s darkness is far greater than the other’s.

The problem with 12 Years a Slave is that it is a quintessentially American film. It is hard to digest the truths of the film – well-known as they are – and care much for the slaves, because the feeling of guilt is missing. It isn’t entirely clear whether that’s due to the non-American viewpoint or because the script doesn’t actually make any efforts to have you empathise with Solomon. There is a whole lot of telling, and not much showing: about the only thing you do see is a good amount of violence, but that alone doesn’t really get you emotionally involved. Solomon never really seems all that bothered that he is a slave now, choosing rather to accept his fate. Although he states early on that he doesn’t just want to survive, he spends the decade doing just that – and even shouting at a woman who’s crying at the loss of her children. If he has chosen to suppress his emotions it is never made clear what drove him to that decision.

Intriguingly, Solomon himself isn’t entirely a good man: when told to punish a fellow slave woman because she ran away to get some soap, he takes the whip and doesn’t show much emotion while she’s screaming at the pole. Maybe Chiwetel Ejiofor’s flat performance is at fault here more than the script, or maybe it’s both; not much is done with his willingness to be evil himself in either case.

12 Years a Slave is filled with average performances, some disappointing ones and only really one outstanding tour-de-force. Benedict Cumberbatch disappoints (it’s mainly his horrific attempt at a Southern accent), Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodard and Garret Dillahunt don’t get enough screentime to shine, Lupita Nyong’o does a decent job of a stereotypical character and Paul Dano isn’t given enough character depth to deliver a truly compelling performance. Michael Fassbender, however, excels in his portrayal of plantation owner Epps and portrays the emotional spectrum of god-fearing man to perverted sadist to self-obsessed lover with such bravura it feels like he is the true star of the film. It’s a testament to Fassbender’s skills, but it’s also proof that the script is very conflicted: surely we should emptathise with the slaves and not be intrigued by the anti-hero. Perhaps it would have been better if Solomon had been played by someone who could match Fassbender’s emotional range instead of Chiwetel Ejiofor.

When watching 12 Years a Slave, you can’t help but feel that many of the movie’s accolades are based entirely on the fact that it is an American film about an American subject made for American audiences. Cinema specific to a country’s history isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but in this particular case it is done badly because it fails to bridge the gap to foreign audiences. Is it a must-see? No. As hard as McQueen has tried to deliver a masterpiece, he has created a cinematographically stunning but badly written film – nevermind the fact that he fails entirely to convey the passage of time, and if it weren’t for the title the entire story might as well have taken place over the course of six months.

I, Frankenstein

ifrankenstein

threepointfivestars

I, Frankenstein doesn’t necessarily look like a film you could particularly enjoy. The trailer is somewhat silly with its gargoyles and demons fighting each other, and Frankstein’s monster (Aaron Eckhart) bang in the middle of it. That is, perhaps unsurprisingly, roughly also the entire film’s story – which is perfectly okay.

Based on the eponymous graphic novel by Kevin Grevioux, I, Frankenstein opens in 1795, as the monster is burying Victor Frankenstein and gets attacked by demons. Taken to the sacred ground of a cathedral in an unnamed city, he is informed by the gargoyle queen Leonore (Miranda Otto) that there is a war waging between good versus evil across the world. Their order is the side of light, while prince Naberius’ army is the darkness. Naberius wants to capture Adam, as the monster is now called, to figure out how to raise thousands of corpses from the dead and have them taken over by demons. Two hundred years later, in the present day, Naberius has hired a scientist (Yvonne Strahovski) to help him on his quest. She is, of course, completely unaware of what is really going on and thinks she is on her way to cure death and help humanity. She quickly joins Adam once she figures out the truth.

The film’s merit isn’t the plot, but if you manage to suspend any disbelief (gargoyles fighting demons is a strange concept to get to grips with at first) you are in for truly epic popcorn cinema. The hand-to-hand combat scenes are beautifully choreographed and a wonderful pleasure to watch. When demons get killed, they go up in flames – and there is a lot of beautifully animated fire in the film. In short, I, Frankenstein is visually stunning, and a good reason to watch it on the big screen instead of grabbing it on DVD or even BluRay. This is a movie clearly made for the cinema, not for a television.

Aaron Eckhart plays Frankenstein’s monster perfectly – the quiet anger, the self-hatred, the loneliness and the aversion to trust other beings. Miranda Otto, perhaps best known as Eowyn from The Lord of the Rings trilogy, manages to swing so easily from emotion to cold-hearted warrior queen it is a delight to watch her. Yvonne Strahovski, who showed off her skills as the serial killer Hannah McKay on Dexter, sadly disappoints as the naive scientist, but also doesn’t get much from the script to use her full potential. The most praise however has to go to Bill Nighy, who is known more for his comedies than for playing villains. His dark prince Naberius is the epitomy of evil: he is ruthless, has no morality and is obsessed with ruling all of humanity. To watch Nighy jump from pretend-Mr-Nice-CEO to murdering demon alone gets this film an additional star.

If I, Frankenstein’s visual world looks familiar, it’s because it is very reminiscent of the Underworld franchise, which was also written by Kevin Grevioux. Whether such consistency across universes is a good or a bad thing might be a matter of personal taste, but the atmosphere created definitely works in both.

The film leaves enough of an open end to allow a sequel. That wouldn’t be a bad thing, if they kept the same cast and combat choreographers. At an hour and a half, the film is over too quickly and feels very short with its quick cuts and fast action scenes – but its short running time also stops it from dragging out a plot that’s barely existent. I, Frankenstein knows what it is and makes no effort to be a serious film. If you like the good-vs-evil fantasy genre with a bit of a silly twist, then you will love I, Frankenstein. Don’t miss it.

Robocop

robocop

nostar

Robocop, the remake of the eponymous 1987 cult film starring Peter Weller, is a mostly plotless, if visually almost decent, snoozefest. Set in the near future of 2028, it presents us with a dystopian world in which highly efficient robots, all built by the same multinational, Omnicorp, are keeping the streets outside America safe, but the Dreyfus Act stops the company from putting robots on US soil where crime is rampant.

Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson), a right-wing TV anchor, narrates the story’s framework through his show The Novak Element – an obvious and cheap shot at The Bill O’Reilly Factor on FOX News so much so it doesn’t deserve to be called satire. Novak constantly and openly manipulates the truth to fit his narrative but keeps failing and eventually simply descends into swearing.

Omnicorp is desperate to enter the lucrative market of America and put more merchandise on the street, but needs a product to sway the public’s opinion. Enter Detective Alex Murphy, who gets blown to pieces by Detroit’s most dangerous druglord. The head of Omnicorp, Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) and his PR manager (Jay Baruchel) talk wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) into letting them rebuild him as a robot with a human mind that the American people can rally behind.

Although Dr Norton (Gary Oldman) rewires Alex’s brain so the computer controls him and not the other way around, Alex – very predictably – almost immediately overrides the system and puts himself back in control. How he did it is a throwaway ‘I don’t have a clue’ line uttered by the doctor. Alex tracks down and kills his murderer within the space of five minutes (talk about “most dangerous druglord”) and then (in a twist so boring it’s hard not to fall asleep) realises that Sellars wasn’t the nice man he pretended to be.

That’s the entire film, right there, and it’s very hard to find any redeeming features. The plot is full of holes – Dr Norton and his assistant constantly talk about Alex’s heart rate, but when we see him without the suit it turns out he doesn’t actually have a heart anymore. The violence is bloodless and the effects look so much like a shoot-em-up computer game that you wish you had a controller to put some more action into those scenes.

It is actually sad to see Gary Oldman, Samuel L. Jackson and Abbie Cornish waste their time trying to pull out something of a script that really has no depth. It’s not entirely clear why anyone thought Jay Baruchel was a good casting choice, but he also doesn’t get any decent lines or character depth to maybe show some potential. Michael Keaton does his best, but the moments when he could have shined as the villain are all compressed into his final scene and that’s a very short one. Joel Kinnaman’s flat performance as the titular Robocop is entirely forgettable, which is actually not even the script’s fault.

The problem with Robocop isn’t that it’s a remake. The problem with Robocop is that it is a really bad film. The prescience of the original is entirely lost, because it’s almost two decades later and neither writer David Self nor director José Padilha bothered to really update the themes to the current climate. You could easily blame this on the fact that the film was watered down to a PG13 / 12A. You shouldn’t, because a lack of blood isn’t the film’s problem. The lack of a villain and the lack of a plot are.

Robocop starts off slowly, and then doesn’t gain momentum for its entire two-hour run. Where the trailer promised quick cuts and action, the movie has neither. The CGI is mostly nice to look at (although you can clearly see in which shots they saved money) but making everything look shiny and new doesn’t qualify as good – remake or not. There is a hint of an interesting question early on when they show the effects of replacing Alex’s body with a robot: are we just the thoughts in our brain or is the perception of ourselves based on our bodies? Unfortunately, that question vanishes as quickly from the screen as does the will to live from Gary Oldman’s eyes.

Robocop could have been a poignant analysis of today’s technologies and its political and moral implications. It could have been a great psychological drama about human consciousness. It could have been a violent action film with a lot of bloodshed. Really, it could have been all those things at once, but it is none of them.

In short, Robocop is already the frontrunner for the most predictable, least original film of the decade. If it will be remembered at all, it’ll simply be for how abysmal it was. Save your money, save your time and go see Inside Llewyn Davis or The Wolf of Wall Street instead.

Inside Llewyn Davis

insidellewyndavisfivestars

Inside Llewyn Davis follows one week in 1961 in the life of Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac). Davis is an out-of-luck folk singer who sleeps on friends’ couches, has a manager who doesn’t actually do much promoting, and struggles by with gigs at a local bar, where he can’t however step out of the shadow of his two friends Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan). He is haunted by his past of being part of a double-act that enjoyed some success until his parter (Marcus Mumford) committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington bridge, and he has completely lost his way in life as well as creatively. Whether he has always been unsociable and easily irritated is never explained.

Llewyn Davis is, as Jean tells him in the film, “an asshole”. He doesn’t care for much apart from his music, and he doesn’t seem to believe much in that either, despite having a lot of talent. He takes a liking to a cat for a while, but eventually abandons her. He gets Jean pregnant and then asks her husband Jim for money so he can pay for the abortion, all while, of course, not telling him who the woman is. In short, Davis is not, by any measure, a good man, and yet you can’t help but empathise with him. That’s a tribute to the ingenuity of the Coen brothers who have written and directed a melancholic masterpiece with Inside Llewyn Davis.

The film is, surprisingly, devoid of a traditional soundtrack: the only time you hear music is when characters are actually singing. The soundtrack is beautiful, and to the credit of all the actors, they actually sing themselves – and, importantly, can sing. That’s less surprising for Justin Timberlake, but all the more surprising for Adam Driver, who plays wannabe cowboy Al Cody, and is probably best known for playing Adam on Girls. The underlying silence intensifies the claustrophobia that hangs over every dialogue: it is obvious throughout the entire film that all the characters are stuck and won’t be able to grow before the end. The tragedy and irony lies in Llewyn Davis being the only one to recognise his impuissance, with everyone around him blaming their own powerlessness on him.

Inside Llewyn Davis is a masterful black comedy that will make you sadder every time you laugh at one of the absurd moments Davis encounters. Indeed, the laughter is a release for the crushing reality of the film, and even the film’s funniest moment, Llewyn’s, Jim’s and Al’s recording of the incredibly silly “Please, Mr Kennedy” song, is overshadowed by the fact that Llewyn plans on using his commission to pay for Jim’s wife’s abortion.

Oscar Isaac plays Llewyn Davis wonderfully, and captures so much sorrow in his portrayal and voice he steals every scene, including the ones opposite John Goodman. To see Carey Mulligan play an angry, self-obsessed woman is truly refreshing and definitely an asset to her filmography. Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver remain, unfortunately, underused but portray their respective characters with ease. In the end, however, all the actors are almost secondary to the atmosphere Inside Llewyn Davis creates – underlined by the fact that the film is essentially plotless and rather a snapshot of these lives.

Although “Llewyn” is consistently, and irritatingly, pronounced incorrectly by everyone, you can forgive them because there’s an incredibly funny rant about Welsh rarebit between Llewyn and Roland Turner (John Goodman) to make up for it.

In summary, at every one of its 104 minutes, the film is a character study that breaks your heart and never tries to put the pieces back together. When you leave the cinema, you’ll carry with you a sense of unease and hopelessness that makes Inside Llewyn Davis one of those rare gems that won’t let go of you for a long time.

The Wolf of Wall Street

wolfofwallstreetfourstars

Inspired by a true story (yes, another one), The Wolf of Wall Street shows the rise and fall of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio). Arriving on Wall Street a naive but ambitious young man, Belfort joins an established company where his boss Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) immediately advises him to jerk off at least twice a day and do cocaine. The goal is to not feel any stress and to stay focused on taking rich people’s money away. The company promptly fails on Black Monday shortly afterwards.

Unemployed, Belfort takes a job with a penny stock dealer and thanks to his unique, aggressive pitching style he quickly makes a small fortune that he uses to hire Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), a salesman living in the same building as Belfort and his wife, and start his own company, Stratton Oakmont Inc. He hires his friends, most of them drug dealers, and trains them to pump and dump stock onto unsuspecting customers.

The scam is successful, and after Forbes features Belfort and Stratton Oakmont in an article that dubs him “the wolf of Wall Street” (you can read the original article here), hundreds of young hopeful stockbrokers are knocking on his door to get hired. Everything seems to be going well for the fraudsters, but behind the scenes FBI Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) has already started investigating the seemingly reputable company.

The Wolf of Wall Street is a tale of wonderfully disgusting debauchery, a highly cynical celebration of villainy and a black comedy that perverts every last vice into a virtue. The film lacks any subtlety and that’s what makes it work so well: it’s a freak show of depraved people that have tricked their way into so much money they lost all their morals and arrived at a stage where they literally don’t know what to do with all their wealth anymore. At one moment, Belfort just throws money into the bin, and another time he pays a female member of staff to have all her hair shaved off in front of everyone.

Scorsese is subversive in his portrayal of money’s corrupting effects on the people surrounding Jordan and Donnie. While we do get to see a woman smiling through her tears of humiliation as her hair is shaven off, she is drowned out visually and aurally by the half-naked men and women dancing around her and Jordan Belfort howling on stage (yes, he had a stage built in the office).

The true achievement of The Wolf of Wall Street lies in the way the humour makes you overlook most of the corruption, it makes you laugh at the midget-throwing, the gay orgy organised by Belfort’s butler, the arrogance of taping money to a woman’s breasts to smuggle it into Switzerland. And then, when you come out of the film it hits you all at once at how truly horrible you should really feel about yourself for laughing at all of those things. Above all, you’ll feel especially bad for vaguely hoping that the FBI won’t catch Belfort.

At three hours and a very accomplished script, The Wolf of Wall Street is undeniably Scorsese’s latest magnum opus, but it is also proof that DiCaprio’s greatest talent might be in comedy. When Jordan Belfort is pumped so full of drugs he cannot move his legs anymore and resorts to crawling downstairs and into his car by imitating the movements of his baby, you’ll find yourself with tears running down your face. To say that Jonah Hill is a revelation after what is mostly a string of mediocre comedies in his career would be an understatement, for he plays the greedy, drug-addicted best friend so exquisitely he almost steals the show from DiCaprio.

The Wolf of Wall Street flies by, especially for a three hour movie, and with one scene more outrageous than the last, it feels more like ninety minutes. The year is young, but this could well be the comedy of the year. It definitely is an instant classic either way.

The Railway Man

therailwaymanfourpointfivestars

Joining the avalanche of “based on a true story” films that have been hitting our screens lately, The Railway Man is a World War II movie with a difference: you don’t ever actually see any battles nor is it a love story as such. In fact, the love story that the film does contain is misleading, although that doesn’t diminish the performance of Nicole Kidman as the inquisitive, loving wife. Although the first third of the film largely concentrates on Lomax (Colin Firth) meeting Patti on a train he wasn’t planning to be on, then tracking her down by figuring out which train she would have needed to take to get to where her journey was continuing (he really loves trains and train schedules), their first date and the wedding, it quickly transpires that it is essentially just a plot device to drive the actual story.

Told from a 1980 framework, the movie shows both the experiences of a young Lieutenant Lomax (Jeremy Irvine) surrendering with his troop and being tortured as a slave in 1942 and the traumatic effects this experience has had on his life in the ‘present day’. The opening scene has us find an old Lomax (Colin Firth) on the floor, reciting a poem that turns into a touchstone over the course of the film as he recites it at various moments, sometimes more, sometimes less violent, but always emotionally tense.

As his wife pushes Lomax’s best friend Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård) into telling her what happened in 1942 – Lomax was caught using a radio and brutally tortured for weeks – Finlay eventually discovers that Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada), the man responsible for the torture, is still alive and working as a guide on the old site now turned into a museum. Through dramatic action, Finlay convinces Lomax to travel to Burma and confront his past. What he finds there and how it changes both him and Nagase is so crushingly human you’ll wish more stories were like this.

Colin Firth may have won an Academy Award for his portrayal as King George VI in The King’s Speeech, but it is here, in The Railway Man as a soldier, where he truly shines and delivers a tour de force performance that will leave you with goosebumps throughout and quite a while after the film. Stellan Skarsgård plays the torn friend so convincingly you could be forgiven for forgetting he ever was other characters, and Tanroh Ishida is a revelation with his cold-blooded, calm yet sadistic portrayal of the young Nagase.

It is a slow film, based largely on dialogue and carefully designed scenery and while violence is shown, it is never one that the audience would be unfamiliar with from other war movies or news broadcasts. This is easily one of the film’s greatest merits as it could have so easily descended into gore. In fact, The Railway Man is technically flawless. Jumping in between present day and past continuously, it’s only the shots of Lomax and his wife that are medium close-ups — and often they are wide shots, too, much like the rest of the film. The director, Jonathan Teplitzky, does give us some multi-layer shots but they are only used to symbolize the emotional and rational chaos that is going inside of old Lomax’s mind. The largest part of the film is shot in wide-angle, which creates two important effects: for one, the audience always stays slightly removed from the events that are being told — it functions as a sign of respect rather than an emotional distance — and secondly, it intensifies the feeling that Lomax is being crushed by his surroundings as they tower over him and he only occupies a small part of the screen. If you have ever watched BBC’s noir crime drama Luther, you’ll be more than familiar with that technique.

Ultimately, The Railway Man is an epic tale of forgiveness. It might look like a tale of revenge in the trailer, and it might even feel that way for much of the film, but it is not. In fact, even though he comes close to getting revenge, it is always clear that he does not actually want it and is really seeking something else.

The Railway Man is a masterpiece, and one of the greatest war movies you will ever see. Clocking in at 116 minutes, it’ll keep you at the edge of your seat the entire way through.