Brooklyn (2015)

2016 #63
John Crowley | 112 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK, Canada & Ireland / English | 12 / PG-13

BAFTABritish Academy Film Awards 2016
6 nominations — 1 win

Winner: Best British Film.
Nominated: Best Leading Actress (Saoirse Ronan), Best Supporting Actress (Julie Walters), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Hair.


BrooklynAdapted from Colm Tóibín’s award-winning 2009 novel by novelist-turned-screenwriter Nick Hornby and director John Crowley (Boy A, Is Anybody There?), Brooklyn is the story of Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), a young woman in 1950s Ireland who leaves behind her mother (Jane Brennan) and older sister (Fiona Glascott) for an exciting new life in New York. Lodging at the boarding house of Mrs Keogh (Julie Walters) with a gaggle of other girls and working in a glamorous department store, Eilis comes out of her shell, and falls for nice Italian-American lad Tony (Emory Cohen). When tragedy calls her back to Ireland, Eilis encounters nice Irish lad Jim (Domhnall Gleeson). Will she stick with her new life, or return home as a new woman?

That’s basically the plot of the whole film, bar the details; but the meat of Brooklyn is in the details, and knowing the shape of the story going in may even work to its benefit — it’s the kind of movie that might not look like it’s ‘about’ all that much. An easy point to pick on would be Eilis’ status as an immigrant, what with works of art about “the immigrant experience” being a definite Thing. There’s an element of that in the film, certainly, but I would say it’s not about anything so worthy-sounding. More, it’s a coming-of-age movie, about leaving home, spending time away, and then coming back to find home is different — not because it’s changed, but because you have. You don’t have to emigrate to understand that feeling — anyone who’s done something like go to uni will surely relate.

Guiding us through this, the film’s heart in every respect, is Saoirse Ronan’s leading performance. I will watch Ronan in essentially anything at this point, both because she seems to choose good material and because, even when she doesn’t, she’s great in it. This is probably her first really mature performance, convincing as a somewhat shy young woman who makes her way out into the world, in the process realising all the confidence she should have in herself. It’s the kind of character and performance that works by accumulation; it’s about the journey, not heavy-handed emoting in a scene or two.

As the family members left behind, Jane Brennan and Fiona Glascott get to give equally subtle performances, conveying reams of emotion in relatively few scenes and with their presence as much as their words. Similarly, Emory Cohen and Domhnall Gleeson might have been stranded with no dramatic meat playing Nice Guys, but they each find enough nuance to sustain their roles. It’s always nice to watch a movie that can tell a romantic story without needing to resort to melodramatic histrionics, and Eilis’ choice is all the trickier for the fact that neither reveals a Dark Side or anything so simple. It’s been noted before that Gleeson was in four of the big awards contenders last year, only picking up a few relatively minor nominations himself (at the Saturn Awards, British Independent Film Awards, and Irish Film and Television Awards), but those four roles display his range magnificently. “One to watch” may be an understatement.

John Crowley’s direction is largely unobtrusive, but that is a very different kettle of fish to lacking quality. The subtle changes in framing, lighting, and colour palette as the film moves through its locations and stages helps emphasise how Eilis is changing, and how the world changes in her perceptions, too. It makes the story’s times and places look beautiful without quite slipping into picture-postcard rose-tinted-memories territory.

Brooklyn is a deceptively simple film that might be easy to dismiss as a slight romantic drama with no real stakes, but I think that would be to do it a disservice. It is fairly subtle and largely gentle (the odd shocking development aside), but it amasses a wealth of feeling and personal development that builds, not to a crescendo, but to a point of emotional understanding.

4 out of 5

Brooklyn is available on Netflix UK as of yesterday.

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The Revenant (2015)

2016 #103
Alejandro G. Iñárritu | 156 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA, Hong Kong, Taiwan & Canada / English, Pawnee & French | 15 / R

Oscar statue2016 Academy Awards
12 nominations — 3 wins

Winner: Best Actor, Best Director, Best Cinematography.
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Film Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Production Design.

The Revenant is the Oscar-winning, acclaim-gathering story of Hugh Glass, the expert guide for a pelt-collecting group (is that what they are? Is that a thing?) in the Old West, who’s mauled by a bear to within an inch of his life. Eventually betrayed and left for dead by the members of the group who’d vowed to stay with him to the end, Glass somehow survives, and crawls across the wintery wilderness in search of his revenge! And it’s all the more remarkable for being based on a true story… though this retelling contains approximately as many “historical events that actually occurred” as does Game of Thrones.

The main talking point of The Revenant has been Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance, which finally bagged him an Oscar after four unsuccessful nominations (and I’m sure plenty of other roles that he thought might snag him some Academy recognition but didn’t). How much is it acting and how much was it just an endurance test that director Alejandro González Iñárritu subjected him to? Is there a difference? If you have to suffer for great art, Leo certainly did that. In some ways it’s testament to the Academy being able to look past delivery of dialogue as an indication of performance quality, because Glass doesn’t speak much — not when he’s in the company of others, and certainly not when he’s trying to get by on his lonesome, which he is for much of the film. Nonetheless, Leo conveys thoughts and emotions — which do go beyond, “I can’t believe Iñárritu is making me eat this raw liver” — effectively through expression and action.

In some respects it’s a shame the rest of the cast were consequently overshadowed — Leo may spend a huge chunk of the film on his own, but there are frequent cutaways to what everyone else is up to. Tom Hardy is the obvious standout as selfish bastard Fitzgerald, a perfectly detestable but completely believable villain — I’m not saying we’d all sink to his depths, but I’m not convinced most of us are above some of the choices he makes, either. Will Poulter steps outside the comedy roles he’s mostly taken since his Son of Rambow debut to give an effective turn as the group’s youngest, most conflicted member, while Domhnall Gleeson is commanding as the group’s leader. Gleeson was something of a lucky charm last awards season, appearing in no fewer than four Oscar-nominated films, including two that were up for Best Picture. Not only that, but look at his turn here (as an honourable, disaster-struck Captain) alongside his appearances in those other films (a small town nice guy in Brooklyn; an inexperienced evil military commander in Star Wars; a naive, selfish, sort-of-moral, easily-led programmer in Ex Machina) and you can see the kid’s got range.

Far from just an acting showcase, The Revenant is a film of thematic weight. In fact, it’s like an old-fashioned blockbuster — the kind of thing you’d’ve seen in the 1950s (epic revenge Western) or 1970s (bleak revenge Western) as among the year’s biggest movies — crossed with a slow-paced, scenery-loving, meditative arthouse piece. If it’s about anything (beyond, y’know, the plot), it’s surely about nature — both the amazing vastness of natural spaces, but also the brutality of survival. And not just humans, either, which is the go-to simplistic message (“isn’t nature good? aren’t humans bad?”) of such cod-thoughtful fare. Like the rest of nature, humanity is varied: there are some very harsh, cruel acts herein, but also acts of kindness — sometimes perpetrated by the same people.

The avoidance of pat depictions extends to its portrayal of Native Americans, too. They’re neither simplistic Evil Foreigners, nor a “we’re so sorry for how we’ve treated them before, they’re great really” apologia. Instead, they’re just as brutal and as human as the rest of us, and made up of varied groups who behave differently, or even slaughter among themselves. The main band of Indians we see do serve as the film’s villains (as if Fitzgerald wasn’t bad enough), a hunting party acting out an inverted Searchers as they hunt for a kidnapped daughter. In The Searchers the group hunting and killing in search of a girl are the heroes; here, they’re the villains. Makes you think, don’t it? I’m not accusing Iñárritu of casual racism — I imagine that’s exactly their point.

And speaking of Iñárritu, I wonder if this is his first genuine masterpiece. I didn’t care for 21 Grams or Babble, and Birdman was good but overrated. (In fairness, I’ve not seen Biutiful, which people seem to disregard nowadays, or Amores Perros, which is a rare foreign language film in the IMDb Top 250.) It seems like he was a nightmare during production — the budget was set at $60 million, but ultimately more than doubled to $135 million due to delays thanks to his production choices. In hindsight it looks like genius — “I knew it would be amazing so we kept going” — but if it had flopped, I’m sure an awful lot more would’ve been made of Inarritu’s excessively picky directorial style and fractious treatment of the crew, which apparently led Tom Hardy to try to strangle him…

At the Oscars, I was pulling for Roger Deakins to make it 13th time lucky, or for Mad Max to do a technical sweep and take cinematography with it (not undeservedly); but having now actually seen Lubezki’s work on The Revenant, it’s hard to deny it’s an immensely deserving winner. His mastery of all elements of the form is on regular display: the use of light (all natural!), perspective, lenses, focus; the single-shot techniques he and Iñárritu learnt for Birdman are put to superior use here, creating some stunning sequences (rather than taking over the entire movie). It looks incredible on Blu-ray, too — so detailed, crisp, epic. If anything was going to convince me 4K was an idea worth investing in, it’s material like this. (The cost of a new TV, new Blu-ray player, re-buying films, and the real estate needed in the lounge for a screen big enough to appreciate it puts the other half me off again.)

The film’s biggest flaw is that it goes on a bit too long in the middle. I’m not saying it needs to be a fast-paced thrill-ride, I just think it lingers a little longer than it needs to in places. Individual shots are beautiful, but the sheer volume of them stretches the centre part thin. There’s probably one too many action sequences where Indians attack and our hero has to escape, not least the one that ends in a too-obviously-CGI dive off a cliff. Equally, for every one of those there’s an incredible sequence, like the opening Indian attack. For a film that could easily be described as arthouse-y and thematically-driven, there are some truly stunning action scenes. The long middle means you couldn’t really call it “an action movie”, but focus on the first and last acts and it absolutely is.

I slipped in the word “masterpiece” a few paragraphs back, and I’d wager that’s what The Revenant is. It’s not perfect, and I don’t know that I’d say it’s the best film of last year either; but it is magnificently made, telling its story in a way only cinema can truly manage.

5 out of 5

The Revenant is out on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK as of yesterday.

It placed 4th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

aka Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens

2015 #191
J.J. Abrams | 135 mins | cinema (3D) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

Oscar statue2016 Academy Awards
5 nominations

Nominated: Best Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects.




Star Wars: The Force Awakens is not the best film of 2015. Not according to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, anyway, who didn’t see fit to nominate it for Best Picture at tomorrow’s Oscars. Many fans disagree, some vociferously, but was it really a surprise? The Force Awakens is a blockbuster entertainment of the kind the Academy rarely recognise. Okay, sci-fi actioner Mad Max: Fury Road is among this year’s nominees, but with its hyper-saturated cinematography and stylised editing, it is action-extravaganza as art-film, further evidenced by some people’s utter bafflement at how anyone can like a film so devoid of story or character. (It isn’t, of course — those people are wrong.)

I’m sure the makers of Star Wars can rest easy, though, what with it being the highest grossing film ever at the US box office (at $924m and counting, it’s the first movie to take over $800m, never mind $900m), and third-ever worldwide (behind only Titanic and Avatar, both of which had re-releases to compound their tallies). Its reception has been largely positive too, with many fans proclaiming it the third or fourth best Star Wars movie — which doesn’t sound so hot, but when two of those previous films are unimpeachable all-time favourites, being third is an achievement. There are many dissenting voices though, disappointed thanks to their perception that it’s just a rehash of A New Hope, and that it’s a movie short on original ideas but long on modern-blockbuster bluster and noise.

I think, at this point, one or two other people on the internet have written the odd word about The Force Awakens — you have to really go looking, but trust me, there are some articles out there. (Of course, by “one or two other people” I really mean “everybody else”, and by “the odd word” I mean “hundreds of thousands of millions of words”. And by “have” I mean “has”, for grammatical accuracy in this completely-revised sentence).

I too could talk about the likeable new heroes; the triumphant return of old favourites; the underuse of other old favourites; Daisy Ridley’s performance; John Boyega’s performance; the relationship between Rey and Finn; the relationship between Finn and Poe; the success of Kylo Ren and General Hux as villains (well, I thought they were good); the terrible CGI of Supreme Leader Snoke; the ridiculous overreaction to the alleged underuse of Captain Phasma; that awesome fight between the stormtrooper with that lightning stick thing and Finn with the lightsaber; the mystery of Rey’s parentage; the mystery of who Max von Sydow was meant to be (and if we’ll ever find out); some elaborate theory about why Ben wasn’t called Jacen (there must be one — elaborate theories that will never be canon are what fandoms are good for); the way it accurately emulates the classic trilogy’s tone; the way it’s basically a remake of A New Hope; the way it isn’t that much of a remake of A New Hope; why ring theory and parallelism makes all this OK anyway; all of its nods to the rest of the saga; that death scene; that ending; those voices in that vision; and the single greatest part of the entire movie: BB-8 giving a thumbs up.

But I won’t talk about any of that. Not now, anyway. Instead, for an angle of moderate uniqueness, I’ll talk about the five elements of the film that have been singled out for recognition by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Editing
J.J. Abrams seems to have tricked some people into thinking he’s a great director with The Force Awakens (rather than just a helmer of workmanlike adequacy (when he’s not indulging his lens flare obsession, at which point he’s not workmanlike but is inadequate)), and I think that’s partly because it’s quite classically made. Yeah, it’s in 3D, but the style of shots used and — of most relevance right now — the pace of the editing help it feel in line with the previous Star Wars movies. Some of the more outrageous shots (often during action sequences) stand out precisely because they’re outside this norm. Perhaps we take for granted that Abrams delivered a movie in keeping with the rest of the series, because that’s The Right Thing To Do, but that doesn’t mean he had to do it. And the transitional wipes are there too, of course.

Score
Ah, John Williams — 83 years old and still going strong. Or still going, at any rate. I’m not the most musically-minded viewer, unless something really stands out to me. I don’t remember anything in Williams’ Force Awakens score standing out. Not that there’s anything wrong with it per se, but I didn’t notice anything new that has the impact of The Imperial March or Duel of the Fates (for all of the prequels’ faults, they at least gave us that). In Oscar terms, it’s apparently not looking so hot for Williams either: his return to a galaxy far, far away is being trumped by Ennio Morricone’s return to the West.

Sound Mixing & Sound Editing
No one knows what the difference is between these two categories. I’m not even sure that people who work in the industry know. As a layperson, it’s also the kind of thing you tend to only notice when it’s been done badly. The Force Awakens’ sound was not bad. It all sounded suitably Star Wars-y, as far as I could tell. That’s about all I could say for it. It feels like these are categories that get won either, a) on a sweep, or b) on a whim, so who knows who’ll take them on the night?

Visual Effects
CGI is everywhere nowadays, and at the top end of the game it seems like it’s much-for-muchness in the photorealism department. So what dictates the best of the best, the most award-worthy? Well, innovations are still being made, they’re just less apparent in the end product, it would seem: reportedly there are a load of workflow-type innovations behind the scenes on Star Wars, which improved consistency, as well as some better ways of achieving things that were already achievable.

Nonetheless, for a franchise with which they have a long, close history, it’s understandable that ILM pulled out all their tricks here — fairly literally: they even used forced perspective to extend some sets, rather than the now-standard digital set extension (green screen + CG background). Most notably, a lot of BB-8 was done with working models and puppetry. Of course that’s still computer aided, be it with wire and rod removal or some bits of animation, but it still lends the droid greater presence and physicality. That kind of grounded, make-it-real mindset pervades — the effects team exercised “restraint […] applying the basic filmmaking lessons of the first trilogy,” according to this article from Thompson on Hollywood. Effects supervisor Roger Guyett says that attitude was about being “very specific about what the shot was about. And making it feel like you were photographing something that was happening.”

In terms of whether it will win or not, well, take your pick of the predictors. Some say Fury Road will sweep the technical categories, presumably in lieu of it winning any of the big-ticket prizes. Star Wars was the big winner at the Visual Effects Society awards though, which have predicted the Oscar on nine of the past 13 occasions. The times it’s failed have generally been prestige films that happen to have effects kicking blockbusters off their pedestal, like Hugo beating Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, or Interstellar beating Rise of the Planet of the Apes (the Academy clearly hates those damned dirty apes). With The Revenant taking secondary honours at VES, perhaps that’ll be an unlikely Oscar victor.

In truth, I don’t think any of those are the best things about The Force Awakens. What really works for it are the characters, the relationships, the pace of the story (rehashed or not), the overall tone. It was never going to get major awards in the categories that recognise those achievements (acting, writing, directing), and, frankly, those elements aren’t gone about in an awards-grabbing fashion anyway. In the name of blockbuster entertainment, however, they’re all highly accomplished.

With the good ship Star Wars relaunched under a sure hand and with a surfeit of familiarity to help steady the ride, hopefully future Episodes can really push the boat out.

5 out of 5

Star Wars: The Force Awakens placed 9th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

Ex Machina (2015)

2016 #26
Alex Garland | 108 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

BAFTABritish Academy Film Awards 2016
5 nominations

Nominated: Best British Film; Best Supporting Actress (Alicia Vikander); Best Original Screenplay; Best Special Visual Effects; Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer.

A British sci-fi movie from a first-time director will tomorrow take a place at the table (well, in the auditorium) alongside 2015’s biggest awards contenders, as it vies for multiple gongs at this year’s BAFTAs — and it stands a very plausible chance of walking away with several of them, too. I hope it does, because, after a year that brought us awards-quality sci-fi bombast (Mad Max, Star Wars), it’s fantastic that a small film about three people sat in rooms talking can stand toe-to-toe with them as one of the year’s best.

The increasingly ubiquitous (and deservedly so) Domhnall Gleeson stars as Caleb, a programmer at search engine giant Google Bluebook who wins a staff lottery to spend a week with the company’s reclusive founder, Nathan, played by the increasingly ubiquitous (and deservedly so) Oscar Isaac. However, on his arrival he learns he’s not just there to hang out: Nathan wants him to perform a Turing test on an AI he’s built. The point of the Turing test (as I’m sure you know) is for a human to interact with an AI but not realise it’s an AI, so Caleb’s surprised when said AI — Ava, played by the increasingly ubiquitous (and deservedly so) Alicia Vikander — comes in the form of a robot that’s obviously a robot. The real test is whether Caleb can know he’s talking to something non-human and still come to be convinced it’s human. As Caleb begins his interviews with Ava, it becomes apparent that there’s something else going on at this remote facility, where regular power cuts mean they’re all locked in…

As is probably clear, Ex Machina is a sci-fi movie of the thoughtful variety. It’s a film that considers ideas of artificial life, how we test it and what it means to create it, and only gradually builds in thriller elements that pay off in its final twenty-or-so minutes. In truth, it’s not the most thorough deconstruction of what it means to be human and whether artificial intelligence can have that right, but it does touch on these issues and, in so doing, leaves them open for the viewer to mull over for themselves, or debate with friends, or however else one likes to consider their movies post-viewing (like, I dunno, writing about them on the internet or something).

There are thematic similarities to Blade Runner, which (in case you’ve not seen it) also deals with the humanity or otherwise of man-made intelligence. Mulling on that comparison, I’m tempted to say Ex Machina is almost the inverse of Blade Runner, in this regard: Ridley Scott’s classic is ostensibly an SF-noir thriller (Harrison Ford is a cop hunting down some rogue robots), but by its end has revealed a considered exploration of what it means to be human, and whether these artificial creatures can lay claim to that. Conversely, Alex Garland’s film seems like it’s sitting us down to consider those same issues, but is actually laying the groundwork for revelations and twists that build to an edge-of-your-seat climax. I’m not saying one’s better than the other in this respect, just that they’re approaching the same topics almost from opposite ends.

Also like Blade Runner, Ex Machina is an exceptionally well made and performed film. Not in the same way as Blade Runner — it’s bright and clean and modern, in a Google-y, Apple-y kind of way — but to a similar level of internal consistency and accomplishment. Gleeson’s Caleb may seem a little plain, a blank page for the other characters to write on, but as his insecurities begin to come to the fore you realise that’s almost the point. Isaac is suitably overbearing as the alcohol-dependent genius behind Bluebook and Ava, an initially affable but quickly disquieting presence — he may be a threat, or may just be a bit odd. And his dance scene is surely one of 2015’s highlights (there’s an extended version hidden on the US Blu-ray, which is a treat). Garnering the most praise (and awards) is Alicia Vikander’s take on an AI. It’s a tricky role to tackle, because she’s not just a robot — that would defeat the point of Nathan’s exercise — but nor is she fully human. It’s a tightrope of a role, a fine line to walk, and Vikander negotiates it with aplomb. To say too much more would be to spoil it.

Aside from the acting, the film’s most striking element is surely the design of Ava. Her face and hands appear to be human, but everything else is robotic, and much of it transparent. This isn’t a case of slipping an actor into a suit painted with circuitboards — you can see the metal limbs and motors in her arms and legs, the metal spine in her back, the various computers or power sources or whatever glowing and spinning inside her. Occasionally she dresses in clothes and her workings are covered, but she spends most of the film with them on display. The CGI is literally flawless, which for a relatively-low-budget little British sci-fi-drama is all the more remarkable. I guess the visual effects awards are going to go to the big films, Star Wars or Mad Max or The Revenant (the bear seems to be very popular), but I do wonder if the work here is more deserving. You know how it must’ve been done — mo-cap suits and CGI — but there’s still a feeling of “how did they do that?”, because it’s so faultless. In fact, you don’t even wonder how they did it, because you just accept it; it’s only if you actively stop to consider it that you realise it’s physically impossible and must be CGI.

Those after a dissertation-like hard-science deconstruction of the meaning and possibilities of AI will likely find Ex Machina slightly lacking, as will anyone after the crash-bang thrills most mainstream sci-fi provides. Viewers prepared for a decently thought-provoking dramatic thriller about near-future tech, however, should be both engrossed, and grateful that movies like this are (for the time being) still getting made.

5 out of 5

The British Academy Film Awards are tomorrow night, televised on BBC One from 9pm.

Ex Machina placed 20th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

About Time (2013)

2015 #192
Richard Curtis | 123 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 12 / R

After Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) learns he can time travel back through his own life, his father (Bill Nighy) cautions him not to attempt anything too drastic — so he sets about finding love.

Ostensibly another of Curtis’ oh-so-British rom-coms, it plays that way for a while, but long before it’s done develops into something deeper: Tim gets the girl (Rachel McAdams), then learns about life, family, and what you might really want to do with such power.

About Time ultimately displays an emotional depth and maturity that marks it out from its science-fiction stablemates, and the rest of Curtis’ oeuvre too.

4 out of 5

Tomorrow: more time travel in my next 100 Favourites selection.