Sunday, 25 January 2015

War Under The Scope

Award season is known to bring the drama. That hard hitting, nail biting kind of thrill that comes with great performances, masterful writing, and a handy director. And one topic that appears constantly is the war film. Consider, in the last few years, Kathryn Bigelow's films The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty and their award successes. And this year, Clint Eastwood has turned his hand to the Academy's favourite genre. This is American Sniper.

Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is a wannabe cowboy with a cheating girlfriend and very few prospects. But after the 1998 attacks on US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, he signs up for the Navy SEAL program, during which he meets Taya (Sienna Miller). After excelling as a sniper in training, Kyle soon finds himself deployed to Iraq after the 9/11 attacks and his wedding to Taya. Slowly but surely, he racks up kills to make himself one of the most legendary marksmen on the planet, but also one of the most wanted. A brutal terrorist known as The Butcher is attacking and dismembering the Iraqi innocents who assist the US military in any way and it becomes Kyle's mission to take him out.

Camouflage that even works indoors. 

With three Academy Award nominations in a row, Bradley Cooper is at his finest yet here. After brilliant performances in both Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, Cooper takes on the challenge of portraying a man both loved and hated by many*, the most deadly sniper in the US who also suffered with PTSD. He is almost unrecognisable as Kyle, stuttering his way through conversation and having beefed up tremendous amounts of body mass for the role. There is subtlety and conviction to Cooper's performance and it carries the film almost single handedly. Wonderfully supported by Miller and the rest of the cast, American Sniper is filled with thrilling acting throughout.

'What do you mean they cancelled Firefly?!'

Clint Eastwood had a busy 2014 with Jersey Boys under his belt as well, but American Sniper is a roaring success. Rattling on with a killer pace, its representation of war is unrelenting and brutal. Bullets hit hard on all sides, bodies drop quickly, the is no over played, heart-felt farewell scenes. Whilst the film is not without its flaws (one scene where a death is rather dramatised is particularly forced and jarring with the rest of the film's pace), it is a suspenseful and tense thriller that deserves more of the praise and less of the controversy surrounding it.

It is no Hurt Locker, Full Metal Jacket, or Saving Private Ryan, but its vision of war and the traumas and mental strain it produces are both touching and unsettling.

Best Bit? Kyle is pinned down on a roof with an enemy sniper aimed at him whilst The Butcher closes in with a drill on a child's knee. Tense stuff.

*Author Disclaimer: This is a blog interested in reviewing films on the film's merit. Criticism of Chris Kyle as a real man are, to me, a different subject. Entering the film with no prior knowledge of him is how my review is written. To me, this film is more than a representation of an American 'hero', it is a representation of war and the psychological damages that come with it. 

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Pastel Colours and Murder

Many directors have a distinct style. Many of you will remember the review on Baz Luhrman's The Great Gatsby on this blog, and how it claimed the film was dripping with the director's unique visual aesthetic, for example. Well today we look at another director with a very clear set of stylistic trademarks in his telling of the story of a man telling the story of how he heard a story from a man. This is The Grand Budapest Hotel.

The Author, a man whose words have meant the world to some, wants to now tell us, the audience, how he came across those words. Flashback. A younger author (Jude Law) is suffering from a very real - cough - disorder and resorts to staying in The Grand Budapest Hotel, a run-down shell of its previous majesty. Whilst there, he meets Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the owner of the hotel, who offers to tell The Author his story. Flashback again, to 1932, where a teenage Zero (Tony Revolori) is the new lobby boy for the hotel under the watchful eye of concierge, M. Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes). When a client of the hotel, and a close acquaintance of Gustave, Madame C.V.D.u.T (Tilda Swinton) dies, the pair of hotel workers are thrown into a battle of greed and selfishness with her son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) and along their adventure they meet all sorts of personalities like an army inspector, an artistically gifted criminal, and a concierge that can get you anything from (in the forms of Edward Norton, Harvey Keitel, and Bill Murray respectively).

'Uh, just checking the wall was safe...'

With a cast so numerous in stars that hold Oscar statues or nominations (including a nigh invisible cameo from Jean Dujardin), it is difficult to imagine anything less than top level performances from all the cast, and The Grand Budapest Hotel does not disappoint. First and foremost is the absolutely fantastic Ralph Fiennes. His perfect combination of charm, bluntness, and crisp diction (not to mention his campness) are a delight to behold. A man so wonderful, he can make the biggest brutes in prison his assistants. Along with rookie Tony Revolori, the pair keep the film rattling on at a frightful fun pace, visiting prisons, mountains, strange cult-like churches all whilst on the run from wicked Adrien Brody and terrifying Willem Dafoe.

Zero was feeling a bit boxed in.

But as is the case with all Wes Anderson's films, it is the production, the beauty with which the film is crafted that stands out. The pastel colours and symmetrical images create a dreamlike landscape which you will wish you would be absorbed into. If life were as wonderful as The Grand Budapest Hotel makes it seem, we would live in a wonderland of pinks and baby blues. Coupled together with a touching and hilarious screenplay, Anderson uses all the possibilities that the medium offers him to make his story as engaging as it can be. Colour, aspect ratios, camera positioning, and sound are just a few of the elements that Anderson uses as part of his playground.

Easily one of the finest and most entertaining 100 minutes of 2014.* A treat for any viewer, old or young, for academia of for leisure. Rest assured, The Grand Budapest Hotel is art.

Best Bit? The film is so packed with 'best bits' that is nigh impossible to chose. I'll leave you to make your own mind up.

*So good, it promoted this blogger to buy his first ever Blu-Ray. 

Monday, 19 January 2015

Computers Won The War

The biopic. The film that dramatically portrays the life of a true person. This stage of fame is only reached by the truly revolutionary. From Johnny Cash to the Queen to Jesus, those figures who influence our world are almost doomed to be immortalised in film; better hope the film that does it is not a flop! This is the story of a man whose great successes were secrets until after long after his death - Alan Turing. This is The Imitation Game.

War in Europe has broken out for a second time. The Germans communicate through coded messages, encrypted by an Enigma machine. The machine is programmed daily to a different setting making it nigh on impossible to crack the messages. One secret team are hired by MI6, and other military personnel to attempt to beat the Enigma, and amongst that team is Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) who believes that the way to beat a machine, is with a machine. As the war death toll mounts, the Germans March forward, and the war seems never ending, the pressure mounts on the Enigma team, Beat the Enigma, end the war.

'Pass me an Alan key'

With a character who, in a simple description, would sound so close in personality to Sherlock (egotistical, incredibly intelligent, slightly autistic, closet homosexual), it would not be an unfair assumption to think that even Benedict Cumberbatch might struggle to bring originality to Turing and separate himself from his most famous role. However, these doubts are misplaced as Cumberbatch is completely absorbed by his performance of Turing. Together with a Keira Knightley at her best and a powerful supporting ensemble, The Imitation Game hosts some of the finest acting of the year. The cast all provide genuine and moving performances that depict some of Britain's brightest minds in a dark era of history, telling the tale of the men (and woman) that helped to win the war.

The team were having a cracking time.

With a emotionally driven screenplay, The Imitation Game tugs at many heartstrings but ultimately it is a story of hope, a story of success, and a story of the brilliance of humankind. But it is more than this. The film is a thriller through and through which rattles along at a captivating pace, adding puzzle to puzzle with a constant clock to beat in a life-or-death war setting. Morten Tyldum's direction with Graham Moore's screenplay is a match made in heaven and with such a strong cast, The Imitation Game moves from success to success. Whilst those who are more aware of the historical scenarios surrounding Turing's solving of the Enigma Code may find issues with the accuracy and some moments feel a bit forced to emphasise a point (the realisation that there will be decisions on who to save is an example of this), but the film's merits well outweigh its flaws.

A moving picture that tells the stories of one of the most important discoveries in military history. Captivating from start to finish (though sometimes a bit muddled in its presentation), The Imitation Game is a must see.

Best Bit? When the team find the link they need to decrypt the code, anyone who does not have a shiver down their spine as they put into the machine is possibly soulless.