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Movie Review Catch Up – The Babadook, Nightcrawler & The Imitation Game

With December and Christmas bringing a sleigh-load of work with it (I realise this makes me sound like Santa Claus), I’ve not been able to get my thoughts down on some of the films I’ve seen. So here they are in one festive bundle.

The Babadook

The Babadook

A single mother, plagued by the violent death of her husband, battles with her son’s fear of a monster lurking in the house, but soon discovers a sinister presence all around her.

Being a well-known wimp when it comes to horror films, I was incredibly trepidatious about checking out Australian horror film The Babadook but it turned out to be one of the more enjoyable horror experiences I’ve had of recent years.

Rather than your common or garden jump scares that litter most modern horrors, The Babadook has a creeping sense of unease rooted in issues that many may find familiar, mixed with the supernatural and the uncanny. It’s this sense of familiarity that helps the film really get under your skin, and those who have children may well feel it hits close to home.

When stripped down there’s little here that hasn’t been done before (haunted house, possessed child, etc) and it does stray into cliche territory on occasion, but an interesting subtext surrounding depression and the brilliantly-designed Babadook monster itself help it to rise above any problems those cliches bring about.

It’s not going to reinvent the horror genre, but The Babadook is a rarity in that it actually has substance and something to say rather than just relying on trying to make your jump.

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

Nightcrawler

Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler

When Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), a driven man desperate for work, muscles into the world of L.A. crime journalism, he blurs the line between observer and participant to become the star of his own story.

One of the things that made David Fincher’s Gone Girl interesting was its commentary on today’s media, how it’s produced and how we consume it. However, as Gone Girl had that as something of a secondary message, it’s very much the central focus of Nightcrawler and it does it brilliantly.

In a way it’s the more serious, sinister side of Anchorman and the instant nature of 24-hour rolling news, as well as the competition between news agencies and channels. It’s a murky, morbid world, but one that we’re happy to lap up and exposes the voyeurs in many of us. It’s like slowing down in your car to get a peek at a nasty accident.

Smack bang at the centre of all this is Lou Bloom, played superbly by Jake Gyllenhaal. Lou is a clearly troubled fellow who lacks social skills, but his desire to do whatever it takes to get the right shot makes him dangerous. He’s an anti-hero of sorts and despite his major flaws, there is something sympathetic, almost admirable about the character and Gyllenhaal must take a massive amount of credit for that.

It’s not often that a film makes you appreciate such an awkward, unsettling character but Nightcrawler does just that. It’s also an interesting comment on modern news and society, and suggests that we’re just as much intrigued and fascinated by what Lou does as we are abhorred by it.

4 and a half pigeons

4.5/5 pigeons

The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game

English mathematician and logician, Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), helps crack the Enigma code during World War II.

It’s unfathomable to think what the world would have been like without Alan Turing, and yet many still don’t realise just how influential he was in ending World War II. However, what’s even less well known (and just as unfathomable) is the inhumane treatment of Turing at the hands of the UK government simply because he was gay.

The Imitation Game balances both these elements of Turing’s life and does an excellent job of hitting all the important points, which is perfect for those who have little knowledge of Turing. However, it takes very few risks and never goes into too much detail about either side of his life, which might not satisfy those wanting something a little meatier and in-depth.

What really elevates the film, though, is Benedict Cumberbatch’s brilliant performance as Alan Turing. His awkward, arrogant manner isn’t always likeable but is magnificently handled by Cumberbatch and those hailing it as a career-best performance wouldn’t be being too hyperbolic.

It does verge on the wrong side of sentimental at times, but this is more a celebration of Turing that plays to the masses rather than anything deeper and darker. If nothing else The Imitation Game will bring Turing’s story to those who weren’t previously aware of it and encourage them to dig deeper into one of the most important men of the 20th century.

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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Film Review: 12 Years a Slave

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living in America in the 1700s, is kidnapped and sold into slavery where he remains for 12 years. During his time he is tormented and tortured by slave owner Epps (Michael Fassbender) who also has an unhealthy obsession with Solomon’s fellow slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o).

Director Steve Mcqueen’s previous two features, Hunger and Shame, were intricate character examinations, delving into the human condition but from a very particular viewpoint.

However, with 12 Years a Slave McQueen tackles a much broader subject, that of slavery, and looks at it from a more expansive viewpoint. It’s still a character examination, and a deeply personal one at that, but this time around we’re shown a wider world and some of its more horrendous aspects.

And much of it truly is horrendous. McQueen takes an unflinching look at Northop’s story and has no qualms in presenting us with a piece of cinema that is genuinely uncomfortable and in many ways repulsive. On more than one occasion we’re shown the atrocities that Northop and his fellow slaves had to endure and we’re not spared any of the details.

McQueen has become known for his long takes and he uses them here to devastating effect. One scene in which we see Northup being hung whilst life blithely goes on around him lingers for what seems like an eternity. Similarly, when we see Patsey being sadistically whipped by Epps, every inch of your being screams for it to stop, but McQueen forces us to watch every last crippling lash. This does make for an incredibly difficult watch but is all the more powerful for it.

The performances are also hugely responsible in delivering the film’s message. Chiwetel Ejiofor is heartbreakingly genuine as Solomon as he wrestles with coming to terms with the fact he’s now a slave and may never see his family again. Another long take showing Solomon’s conflict in joining in singing ‘Roll Jordan, Roll’ with the other slaves is simply masterful. Michael Fassbender also gives yet another fine performance in his third collaboration with McQueen as the hateful slave owner Epps. In a similar way to Northup, Epps is conflicted, particularly when it comes to his feeling for Patsey and Fassbender is fantastic at showing this underlying vulnerability. Lupita Nyong’o, in her first film role, is a revelation as Patsey and seeing her subject to such abhorrent abuse is just crushing.

There are faults with the film, though, and blame must fall at the feet of McQueen and writer John Ridley. Solomon is kidnapped and sold into slavery very early on in the film which doesn’t really allow us to get a sense of his family life. His wife and children are afforded very little screentime and so we don’t really get much of a sense of Solomon as a family man and more importantly a free man. Also, there’s very little to indicate the passage of time throughout the film. Solomon was a slave for 12 years, but in the film it could just as easily have been 12 days. This doesn’t really help us get a sense of how long he was in slavery for and consequently lessens the impact when he finally regains his freedom.

It’s difficult to say 12 Years a Slave is a film one can enjoy. There’s plenty to admire and respect but it’s hard to glean much enjoyment from it. However, it’s an undeniably powerful piece of cinema and further proof that Steve McQueen is one of the most evocative directors working today.

Pros

  • Outstanding performances from Ejiofor, Fassbender and Nyong’o
  • Beautifully shot
  • Immensely powerful and heartwrenching

Cons

  • Not enough time spent with Solomon and his family in the outset
  • Little to indicate the passage of time, lessening the impact of just how long Solomon was away.

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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Film Review – The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and his band of merry dwarves, along with Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and wizard Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen) continue their quest to reclaim the dwarf homeland of Erebor from the clutches of the mighty dragon Smaug.

Stepping back into Middle Earth in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was like meeting an old friend after several years. However, just like bumping into an old chum, things often are never the same and you long for how they used to be. An Unexpected Journey was good but it definitely wasn’t to the standards we remembered from The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The good news is The Desolation of Smaug is a definite improvement over the first chapter, although there are still a few issues here and there.

One criticism of An Unexpected Journey was that it was too slow and plodding, particularly at the start. Well The Desolation of Smaug  has no such problem and jumps straight into the action, which is what you’d expect from the second part of a trilogy. This films also ramps up the threat level, which is another needed improvement over the first film. Here our heroes actually feel in danger whether from pursuing orcs or that scaly British dragon.

In terms of performances, everything is pretty much as before. Martin Freeman is still perfect as Bilbo, whilst the rest of the cast also perform admirably. This time around we do get a few new faces (and a voice) in Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel the elf, Luke Evans’ Bard and of course Smaug the dragon, voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch. Both Tauriel and Bard are interesting new additions and help to add depth to the overall story.

One issue that also cropped up in An Unexpected Journey is the use of CGI and how surprisingly poor it is. The Lord of the Rings trilogy tended to opt for more practical effects than CGI, but both Hobbit films thus far have significantly increased the amount of special effects and a lot of it looks rather cheap. Whether this is due to time or budget constraints is unclear, but the CGI often doesn’t blend well with its surroundings which does pull you out of the film. It should be noted, however, that Smaug himself, however, is superbly rendered and looks fantastic.

Is making The Hobbit into three films stretching the story too much? There is definitely an element of that, and certain sections of both films so far do feel overly long and drawn out. However, it’s still a pleasure to experience Middle Earth and if you’re a fan of the franchise then The Desolation of Smaug should keep you well entertained and eager for the final installment.

 Pros

  • Interesting new characters
  • Increased level of threat
  • Martin Freeman’s Bilbo
  • Smaug

Cons

  • Some dodgy CGI
  • Too drawn out at times

 

4 pigeons4/5 pigeons

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Film Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

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Following a huge explosion at a Starfleet building in London, James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto) and the rest of the Enterprise crew are tasked with brining the man responsible, one of their own agents, John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), to justice. However, Harrison is a much greater foe than they had first feared and threatens to bring Starfleet and the world to its knees.

If any franchise was in dire need of a reboot it was Star Trek. Beloved by many, it was starting to fade away and was on the verge of disappearing into deep space forever. 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis would be the last a lot of people would hear of it until J.J. Abrams made the franchise relevant again with 2009’s Star Trek. Now Star Trek is just as much a part of the fabric of sci-fi cinema as it once was and, whilst not without its flaws, Star Trek Into Darkness should see it stay that way for the time being.

Whilst there are still the customary money shot set pieces throughout, the film does feel a little more grounded. Despite zooming across the universe a fair few times, the story never really feels that far from home, which could, in part, be due to the obvious allegorical main plot centered around terrorism and the conflict between those who have a desire for true justice and those with an itchy, revenge-motivated trigger finger. The film is rarely short of excitement and the pacing is damn near perfect throughout, although a few too many action movie cliches and a slightly underwhelming climax is a little disappointing. Also, some of the characters’ motivations do feel a little flimsy and at times you might sometimes find yourself asking why everything is happening.

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With any reboot, it’s absolutely essential that much-loved characters are well represented and Star Trek Into Darkness takes the foundations built by its predecessor and builds on them. The relationship between Kirk and Spock is starting to feel much more developed and genuine, which is vital as neither character feels anywhere near as strong without the other. Bones (Karl Urban) feels like a an integral part of the crew and Scotty (Simon Pegg) has a significantly larger and more important role this time around. However, characters such as Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Sulu (John Cho) feel a little surplus to requirements despite efforts to find them something worthwhile to do. We also get introduced to new character Carol Marcus (Alice Eve), although it’s unclear exactly what narrative purpose she has whatsoever. Her inclusion feels nothing more than an excuse to shoehorn in a new character and provide a little more eye candy.

Then, of course, we get the new villain with his super evil name, John Harrison. Benedict Cumberbatch is suitably menacing as the one man wrecking machine, unsettling calm one minute and violently crazy the next. Despite Cumberbatch’s excellent showing, the character does feel a little underused. He seems to spend rather a long time about to do something rather than actually doing something, which does make it seem as if no-one is ever really in massive amounts of danger.

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Just like its predecessor, Star Trek Into Darkness (pretty sure there should be a colon in there somewhere) looks superb. From the Indian Jones inspired first scene on a distant planet to a futuristic London, everything looks rich, expansive and, more importantly, believable. Oh and there’s lens flare. Lots and lots of lens flare. So much so, in fact, that it is actually a little distracting at times.

With Abrams taking the helm of Star Wars Episode VII, his future with the Star Trek franchise is currently unclear. However, if he is to walk away from Kirk et al, then he has left it in good health. Star Trek Into Darkness is fast paced and fun, and if he can reinvigorate Star Wars in the same way he has with Star Trek, then it can only be good to have the two giants of sci-fi duking it out once more.

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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