Stonehearst Asylum

Year: 2014
Director: Brad Anderson
Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Sir Ben Kingsley, Jim Sturgess, Michael Caine, David Thewlis
Written by Nick Deal

With an absolutely stellar British cast and a decidedly dark and psychologically thrilling aura, ‘Stonehearst Asylum’ was a film I was very excited to see. It had such a low-key cinema release that it wasn’t until I saw it on the shelves of my local DVD store that I finally managed to get around to watching it. As excited as I was for this adaptation of a short story by Edgar Allen Poe however, the reality of the situation was that I was left wanting a whole lot more, but not in a good way. 

The film follows a recently graduated medical student, Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess), who applies for a job at one of the country’s most infamous asylums for the clinically insane. Upon his arrival at Stonehearst, he meets the chief doctor, Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley), and his dogsbody, Mickey Finn (David Thewlis). After a tour of the building, Edward finds himself drawn towards a patient named Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale), and as he gets to know Eliza, Edward is sure that there is a secret she is hiding. Upon further investigation, Edward descends into the depths of the building, and finds a group of prisoners and their leader, Benjamin Salt (Michael Caine). As doubts are raised as to who is truly sane, Edward must work out who is telling the truth, and navigate his way through the secrets of Stonehearst Asylum.

Sounds like a good plot right? When I first saw the trailer, I immediately thought this was a British version of ‘Shutter Island’, which is one of my favourite films, (they even had Ben Kingsley playing the head doctor of a mental asylum for God’s sake). Yet whilst there are obvious similarities, the films could not be more different. So if you’re expecting something vaguely in the realms of ‘Shutter Island’, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed, which was my overriding emotion. The opening scene was fantastic and thought provoking, which owes much to the performance of Kate Beckinsale, but after that it became very messy. As a plot, I thought this film had undoubted potential. There was scope for in depth character exploration, plenty of twists and turns and a real up close and personal experience with the mentally deranged. Yet on every level, this film disappointed me. I wanted to be intrigued and shocked but I predicted the ending about twenty minutes in. There was very little character exploration, aside from with Silas Lamb, which annoyed me. Don’t get me wrong; there are plenty of examples of deranged and disturbed behaviour in every scene. I just didn’t get that sense of fear or shock from the characters that I wanted to. The tempo of the film as a whole also contributed to the underwhelming experience and at times it verged on boring, which is something I rarely say about a film. One aspect I did enjoy, however, was the costumes and set design. The Victorian, gothic setting was the perfect backdrop to this twisted tale, but these aspects were not enough to keep me interested.  

Whilst the cast-list was impressive, aside from Ben Kingsley I found even more disappointment in the acting performances. Michael Caine’s role was brief, but he was somewhat wooden and uninspiring. Jim Sturgess is an actor that annoys me anyway and he did nothing in the film to improve my opinion on him. As a main protagonist I found him really difficult to associate myself with or root for, to the extent that I really didn’t care what happened to him by the end. Kate Beckinsale was impressive and alluring to begin with, as I mentioned earlier, but as the film wore on she became less and less convincing. However, I would attribute that to her character rather then her performance; Eliza was a confusing and frustrating character who left a lot to be desired. David Thewlis is in the same boat as Beckinsale, initially impressive but rather annoying by the end. The only quality performance was that of Ben Kingsley, but you could argue that we’d expect nothing less from a man of his stature. An unnerving and chilling performance: a rare positive in an otherwise indistinguishable mess. 

Overall, ‘Stonehearst Asylum’ was a disappointing experience and a film I will not be revisiting. I might be guilty of being slightly harsh on the whole, as other people have viewed it quite favourably, but I’m afraid this just didn’t hit any of the right notes for me. I wanted to like this film, and considering the film’s genre, this should have been perfect for me, but this was such a missed opportunity.

Nick’s rating: 5.0 out of 10
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Black Sea

Year: 2014
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Starring: Jude Law, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn
Written by Chris Winterbottom

I approached Kevin Macdonald’s ‘Black Sea’ with an air of optimism. I am an admirer of his work, considering ‘Touching The Void’ to be a great documentary, and films such as ‘State Of Play’ and ‘The Last King Of Scotland’ showing his ability to build atmosphere and tell intriguing stories. ‘Black Sea’ though, is a much smaller venture than his previous work. 

The film centres on Jude Law’s character Robinson, as he organises a team of submarine experts in order to take a wealth of Nazi gold from another shipwrecked sub. The performances are terrific, even if Law’s accent is occasionally a bit wobbly. Law’s Robinson is a grouchy and bad tempered soul, and the actor does great work in producing a layered character, that otherwise could have been one dimensional. We root for this character, despite his obviously bullish edge, and it is clear that he is the alpha of the pack, regardless of the many pretenders trying to rule the seas.

Scoot McNairy does another dependable job as the wormy and conniving American, working for the financier of the whole project. It is a shame that McNairy is never given more to do in the films he has appeared in. In ‘Argo’, he was a negative influence, constantly bemoaning their chances of escape and in the underrated ‘Killing Them Softly’, he made a blink and you’ll miss it appearance. But he does good work in a role that is, for all intents and purposes, unlikeable.

For me though, the real star is Ben Mendelsohn, who delivers another pitch perfect performance as the psychopathic diver, Fraser. I have seen Mendelsohn in a number of roles in recent years, from ‘Animal Kingdom’, to his smaller role in ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, and he consistently delivers; especially when playing off-kilter characters. Despite his character’s marbles being so incredibly lost in the underwater wilderness, his character, by the end, seems like the most sane of them all. Thanks to writing that is whip-smart, and a terrific performance, it becomes baffling to see how each of the characters’ morals deteriorate in such a manner where the psycho becomes the reasonable one.

The film itself is well shot by cinematographer Christopher Ross, who makes the submarine feel uncomfortably claustrophobic. But this could also be down to the building tensions between the crew, which has been brilliantly handled by director Kevin Macdonald and writer Dennis Kelly. In fact, the oppressive atmosphere of the submarine stands as a representation of each characters’ personal problems; a metaphor which conveys each character desperately trying to escape their own personal demons.

The sequence where the characters are trying to transport the gold between submarines is both torrid and tense, further emphasising the work of the cinematographer; I actually felt the chill of the sea whilst they struggled with their hefty load. The film is entertaining and a good watch, but any thoughts that this could be up there with the greats are misplaced. The main poster for the film may try and emulate the one for Paul Greengrass’ ‘Captain Phillips’, but ‘Black Sea’ has neither the thematic exploration nor the depth of the aforementioned film, despite its familiar setting.

In the end, this is another good, solid addition into Macdonald’s filmography, but it is not the kind of film that deserves to win many awards (except for cinematography, perhaps). It’s a shame that there was such limited thematic exploration in the film, but it was nonetheless entertaining and gripping stuff.

Chris’ rating: 7.0 out of 10

Under The Skin

Year: 2014
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Starring: Scarlett Johansson
Written by Patrick Alexander

As far as conjecture goes, the weirdest assumption to me has always been that famous actors and actresses hate being put on a pedestal and worshipped as something other than human. “We’re just regular people” the famous ones always say. Yeah, right. Regular people don’t drive Lamborghinis and eat exclusively at five-star restaurants. So, when I recently read an article claiming that the 2014 science-fiction-horror film, ‘Under The Skin’, was focussed on de-eroticising Scarlett Johansson, I needed to see for myself. To say she is fully “de-eroticised” might be a stretch, but considering the weird realm that ‘Under The Skin’ lives within, it might not be that far off. To me, Scarlett is still a dime piece that I will probably continue to exalt, but it’s easy to understand how her participation matters in a flick that attempts to demystify the female body through aestheticism.

Director Jonathan Glazer, who debuted with ‘Sexy Beast’, actually developed ‘Under The Skin’ over ten years prior to finally settling on what we’ve got now. Glazer brings heavy tones of sub-realism and bland but engaging imagery to his picture, while nearly omitting dialogue altogether. ‘Under The Skin’ has the same futuristic, subtle horror vibe to it as you’ll find in ‘Ex Machina’, leaning more towards daunting than terrifying. It vacillates between chilling and flat-out weird at a moment’s notice, with a hysterical soundtrack that seems like a throwback to the classics of the horror genre.

What’s cool about ‘Under The Skin’ is that it takes an alien perspective on the human world. Disguised as a human female, Scarlett Johansson’s character is actually a strange extraterrestrial who drives around Scotland in a van, luring unsuspecting men into her vehicle. Using human sexuality to its own advantage, the alien seduces these ignoble men and leads them into a black abyss that drowns and kills them – a tactic relatively unused in the serial killer game right now. As Scarlett Johansson’s alien discovers the capabilities of a beautiful human female, the extraterrestrial being travels the country until eventually being outed as something abnormal by a rural logger.

Now the moment of truth, would any of you readers ACTUALLY like ‘Under The Skin’? In short, probably not. It’s pretty slow, outside of a few bursts of action, and plods along with minimal dialogue throughout. Honestly, it is a terribly difficult film to watch and be fully engaged in. You certainly wouldn’t call it a standard Friday evening picture, anyway. It’s just too far into the arthouse to be appreciated in the mainstream; being heavy on aestheticism while light on real drama doesn’t sell tickets like it used to. What ‘Under The Skin’ boils down to is a commentary on the power of the female body and its ability to be used destructively. Scary thought! Ultimately, though, you’ll find ‘Under The Skin’ to be highly abstract and rather acrimonious in its attempts to combine ominous revelations about what Scarlett Johansson’s alien is doing on Earth, and what pretending to be human does to her.

Patrick’s rating: 6.8 out of 10

Se7en

Year: 1995
Director: David Fincher
Starring: Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, Gwyneth Paltrow
Written by Chris Winterbottom
Edited by Nick Deal

I was first introduced to David Fincher’s ‘Se7en’ when I was about 14. To me, even at that age, I thought the film looked like an over the top horror film, with little to offer in terms of originality. The opening credits did little to persuade me; it looked like the start to a ‘Saw’ movie. In reality, what I found, even at this relatively young age, was an intense, gruesome, wholly atmospheric masterpiece that ranks amongst the greatest films ever made.

The story sees Brad Pitt’s character, Detective Mills, move into an ominously unnamed American city, conveniently at the time that a gruesome murder occurs. Alongside Morgan Freeman’s Detective Somerset, the unlikely duo embark on a hunt for a ruthless, unforgiving and calculating serial killer, as their own lives and morals are brought into question.

The performances on offer here are terrific, with Brad Pitt, who at the time was more a model than an actor, proving that he is one of the most charismatic screen performers out there. You’d be forgiven for thinking Brad Pitt is just a face, but with performances like this, and in features such as Fincher’s other masterpiece ‘Fight Club’, Pitt is actually one of the most versatile actors working in Hollywood. But it is Morgan Freeman who steals the show. Not long after his success in Frank Darabont’s classic ‘The Shawshank Redemption’, Freeman turns in another effortless, commanding performance. When people say that a particular actor has “graced the screen” it never really rings true. Yet in ‘Se7en’ I can think of no better phrase to describe Freeman’s performance. He provides levity in a film that is unbelievably gruesome and incredibly hard to watch in terms of graphic content.

Freeman and Pitt’s characters are two sides of the same coin; they are living at opposite ends of each other’s life. Somerset regularly tells anecdotes of what he used to be like before the world made him weary. Mills is an arrogant and naive cop who only has eyes for the top. There is a sense of narrative inevitability to these characters, with one trying to leave the misery of working and living the detective life and the other desperately trying to break into it. With multiple viewings, the story becomes even more tragic, knowing full well how it all will end.

Honourable mentions also go to Gwyneth Paltrow who does a great job with a role that, in all honesty, is rather unsubstantial. The unnamed city too, is another character in itself; constant rain and a gloomy and oppressive atmosphere produce a chilling backdrop to a horrific story. The film is as much about this city in general as it is about the murder spree. That said, the role of the serial killer at the heart of it all is performed to absolute perfection in this film. The performance is so unnerving and convincing that it will send a chill down your spine. However, their identity will have to remain a mystery here in case any of you haven’t seen it, as I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise.

Fincher also deserves credit for creating an atmosphere so full of tension you will spend the entire 127 minutes gritting your teeth as a result of the effect it has on your person. I often can’t wait to see movies of a similar ilk and yet on the whole, I am always left disappointed. Only Fincher’s other works, like the underrated ‘Zodiac’, can compete with this masterfully crafted thriller. If Hitchcock was possessed by Satan himself, he could not even dream of creating something as perversely brilliant as ‘Se7en’. You will love this film the first time round, but what will make you keep coming back to it is the profound moral ambiguity on show. In the words of the murderer himself, “only in a world this shitty can you call these people innocent”. It is a goose-bump inducing line that really raises the question: Are we really all innocent? Of course we aren’t, and Fincher does a masterful job at making the audience realise that the only separation between the ordinary and the insane is perspective. In this day and age, is this not a profound and timeless theme?

‘Se7en’ is a film I would personally describe as being close to faultless; it is a film only let down by some unintentionally hilarious gurning by Pitt in the closing stages of the film. But it cannot be disputed that Fincher has created a superb thriller that will stand the test of time. This isn’t just one of the best thrillers ever made. It is simply one of the best films ever made.

Chris’ rating: 9.5 out of 10
Nick’s rating: 9.2 out of 10

Ocean’s Thirteen

Year: 2007
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: George Clooney, Bernie Mac, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Elliot Gould, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, Carl Reiner, Andy Garcia, Al Pacino
Written by Andrew Garrison

Unlike ‘Ocean’s Twelve’, my expectations for this third offering were much lower. Although, seeing that Al Pacino was added to this already star-studded cast, I was hopeful that this final instalment in the franchise would prove a return to form. Sure enough, the film exceeded my hopes, as Al Pacino and Danny Ocean’s gang brought their A-game for one more movie. It was clever, funny, and enjoyable from start to finish.

After two major operations with his crew, life had settled down for Danny Ocean and his crew of elite criminal minds. However, their longtime friend Reuben is swindled out of a new hotel he was building with his partner Willy Banks (Pacino). Shortly afterwards Reuben suffers a heart attack and is bedridden. This double-crossing prompts Ocean and his crew to reunite and take down Willy Banks. Not only to ruin his future at his new casino, but also to steal what he values most in the world, his five diamond award.

There was very little to hate about this movie. It is a heist film in the end, so you know the basic point of the film is to pull off a grand heist. The most important thing was to add interesting characters to work with. The film for the most part followed what made the franchise successful all along. It was a vast improvement over ‘Ocean’s Twelve’ as it was more concise, had a better comedic element, and a better antagonist. Perhaps my biggest issue was the lack of Julia Roberts in the film. I understand that she was never the most vital character, but it would have been nice to see her finish off the trilogy with the rest of cast. I think the movie is well crafted, in some ways it has come full circle with this film, in a manner which I won’t explain because I wouldn’t want to spoil it for anyone.

The film has everything I liked from the last two movies. The great cast, good dialogue between characters, and first-class wit make this movie among the most entertaining in the series. Al Pacino was a great addition to the cast and it effectively cleans up the mistakes of the past movie.

This third film sends off the franchise in the right way. It uses the past two movies to its advantage and brings back as many characters from the films as possible. Al Pacino may have been the best villain of all the films, playing a cutthroat, big-time businessman with very clear motives – money and success. In the end, we get a film that may fall a touch short of the original remake of ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ back in 2001, but a great send off nonetheless.

Andrew’s rating: 8.5 out of 10

Sicario

Year: 2015
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro
Written by Jakob Lewis Barnes

In a year which, thus far, has seen plenty of films carrying a shit load of hype and expectations, only for most of them to severely underwhelm (‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ aside), it is refreshing that ‘Sicario’ heads into cinemas as a relative unknown. Only in the past couple of weeks has discussion of the latest offering from Denis Villeneuve reached the wider film community. And those discussions have been nothing but positive. Huge praise has been lavished upon Villeneuve by those who have managed to see ‘Sicario’, a film which has gone under the radar to become one of the most critically-acclaimed secrets of the year. I was ecstatic then, when I was reminded that months ago I had bagged myself a ticket to an advance screening of ‘Sicario’. I hadn’t been this excited for a trip to the cinema in months.

At the start of the film, we are informed that “sicario” means hitman in Mexico; this is not just an interesting factoid, this is a warning. We are instantly given a taste of what’s to come, as we meet Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), a by-the-book FBI agent who uncovers a brutal murder scene, and inadvertently gets the attention of some very powerful people. Kate, determined to find those responsible for the horrible crimes she witnesses, ends up in the middle of a vicious Cartel war which task force leader, Matt (Brolin), and the mysterious Alejandro (Del Toro) are determined to win by any means possible.

I had heard fantastic things about the acting in ‘Sicario’, with Emily Blunt’s name now seemingly in the hat for just about any lead female role on the back of this showing. She is undoubtedly the focal character here, but I think the descriptions of a “strong” female character are a little exaggerated, which must not be misconstrued as a criticism. Instead, I want to commend Blunt for a near perfect rendition of a fragile, rabbit-in-the-headlights protagonist, who desperately scrambles to adapt to the incomprehensible environment she has stepped into. Josh Brolin is an actor I’ve seen a lot of lately, and I’m happy for it. I enjoyed his performance in ‘No Country For Old Men’, but this was a very different role. He sheds any sense of a man on the run, and becomes an authoritative, clever hunter. But for me, the outstanding performance comes from Benicio del Toro who, again, is an actor I have never really paid much attention to until recently. His brooding, enigmatic portrayal of the deadly, roguish Alejandro is impeccable. He manages to expertly blend cool and composed with a terrifying, ruthless dark side; a role which may well be my favourite of the year so far.

If the acting displays were touching perfect, the direction by Villeneuve grabs perfect by the throat and makes it beg for mercy. I absolutely loved ‘Prisoners’, whilst I was frustrated by ‘Enemy’, but I think ‘Sicario’ is Villeneuve’s best work. He throws us in to an explosive start, and builds a tension from this moment which never ceases. I was constantly on edge, scouring the screen for where the next threat would appear from. You hear this said of a lot of films, but there was a real sense of a first person view, like I was in the film, bringing up the rear, gun at the ready. The musical score too, exacerbated the suspense and feeling of dread which came with each shuddering scene. If there is just one criticism I can throw out there, it’s that I couldn’t help but feel an underlying aimlessness to the plot at times. Sure, there is the Cartel targets to hunt down, and some kind of end game in sight for our three characters, but it almost felt as if that conclusion was relentlessly slipping away from us.

Until BANG! Is that conclusion enough for ya? I don’t know, maybe it should be another tick in the positive column that the ending reared its head rather abruptly. Either way, this is an action-packed, nerve-jangling experience, and one which I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying. The highest compliment I can offer ‘Sicario’ is that it reminded me a lot of my favourite episode of ‘True Detective’ (series 1, episode 4), where the shit really hits the fan. If you know which episode I’m talking about, you will already be booking your tickets to see this film. It’s time to believe the hype, for once.

Jakob’s rating: 8.6 out of 10

Everest

Year: 2015
Director: Baltasar Kormakur
Starring: Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, Keira Knightley, Jake Gyllenhaal
Written by Nick Deal

When I sat down in front of the huge IMAX screen at my local cinema, I prepared myself for what I thought was going to be an adrenaline-fuelled, disaster movie that would wow in the moment. I was not however, prepared for the lasting impression it would leave on me. The reality was, that I was more emotionally moved by ‘Everest’ than I have been for quite a while by a film, and in turn the film has earned itself the honour of being my second favourite film of the year so far.

I’ll begin by saying that this film is based on a true story, so if you want spoilers the internet is awash with them, but this review will stay spoiler-free. There are a vast amount of characters in this film, so bare with me as I run you through a quick explanation as to who the main people are. Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) is a professional mountaineer, running a successful business in which people pay him to be their guide as they attempt to scale the world’s tallest mountain. Rob leaves his native New Zealand and his pregnant wife Jan (Keira Knightley) behind for his annual expedition, alongside his latest party of high paying customers. Rather them than me! This year, Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin) and Doug Hansen (John Hawkes) are notable members of the party attempting to reach the summit. When they arrive at basecamp, however, they soon run into Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), a man who stole Rob’s idea to sell his guiding experience and knowledge of Mount Everest as a business. Whilst their methods of mountaineer guiding differ greatly, Rob and Scott must come together for the good of their respective groups as everyone is tested to the limits by one of the most unrelenting and unforgiving environments this planet has to offer.

I’ve only touched on the main characters there, and indeed there are as many as twenty that we are introduced to throughout the film that play a significant role of some description. Whilst the vast numbers of people on screen became indistinct at times (bearded men in coats, gloves, hats and goggles all tend to look very similar in this instance), it is the characters that make this film such a success. It’s a very character driven narrative, and whilst the film is slow to begin with, with countless introductions to various characters, I completely understand the necessity of such an approach. Without getting to know the people we are watching and being able to build bonds with them in the opening exchanges, we would simply be watching the struggle of a group of people we had no interest in. However, the way we get to know each character makes watching their physical and mental pain all the more heartbreaking to watch. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it really feels that we are watching people we know, and I think that’s what invoked such an emotional response from myself. Put this alongside the overriding sense of hopelessness and loneliness that is exhibited throughout and it’s a pretty desolate place on top of the world.

Whilst the character representation is key, another huge contributor to the success of this film is the absolutely stunning aesthetics that the film has to offer. Jaw-dropping landscapes in every scene never get boring, and there is a real sense of wonder amongst the fear and the horror. As a result, this feels more like you are part of an experience rather than simply watching a film, and with that in mind I must urge you to go and see this in 3D IMAX, instead of waiting to get it on DVD or via a dodgy website, because it simply won’t have the same effect. Director Baltasar Kormakur said he tried to shoot this film in a way that was as authentic as possible, with shooting taking place in various mountain regions across the globe, including Nepal itself, and whilst I’m not suggesting they scaled Mt. Everest or anything of that magnitude, you really sense an authenticity through the acting and the settings, to the extent that the dialogue sometimes became lost within the harsh environment. There are a few shots as well where it’s nigh impossible to make out what exactly is going on and who exactly is on screen, but that was part of the brilliance of the film. As I said earlier it feels more like an actual experience instead of the reality of this being a film you are watching whilst sat in your comfy cinema chair. It feels real, and that’s probably a big contributor to why I enjoyed it so much as well.

Acting wise, there are a few stand out performances. Jason Clarke is an actor that I’ve not really seen a lot of personally, but he is fantastic as one of our leading men, Rob Hall. His character conveys a vast array of emotions and I thought Clarke portrayed the role brilliantly. Keira Knightley also puts in a very impressive and emotional performance, and her New Zealand accent isn’t too shabby either. Josh Brolin too, was fantastic in a supporting role. Gyllenhaal is as enjoyable as ever, and though his role felt more cameo-esque than I would have personally liked, he shines in the times he’s there.

It takes a while for ‘Everest’ to find its feet, but when it does, it really is magnificent. The acting is superb, the dramatic tone is very intense, and as an experience it borders on overwhelming; it is a truly remarkable visual display. Despite everything positive I’ve said however, I don’t think it’s something I could watch again. Not because it’s too much, too boring or that it’s simply not any good. I just think that one viewing is enough, for me personally, and that any further viewings wouldn’t really give much more. If you do watch anything at the cinema over the next few weeks, though, I implore you to enjoy the journey to Nepal and all the wonder, despair and suffering that comes with a trip to the top of the world.

Nick’s rating: 8.7 out of 10

Child 44

Year: 2015
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Starring: Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, Joel Kinnaman
Written by Jakob Lewis Barnes

I always look forward to a Tom hardy project, and with a supporting cast brimming with talent, ‘Child 44’ really had my interest, early on at least. But as we began to learn more about the film, our hopes of another Hardy hit were fading. We even predicted a crash and burn in our preview. Upon release, any doubts we had were given credence by the quite frankly, shitty reviews ‘Child 44’ received. I mean, the film got totally battered by just about everyone. That was enough to put me off for a while, but now that I’ve let the dust settle, I decided to give it a go and see just why this film was universally hated.

Based on the (rather good) novel by Tom Rob Smith, ‘Child 44’ centres around Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy), who is taken in by the military as an orphan, and goes on to become a high ranking officer in Moscow. When he refuses to denounce his wife Raisa (Noomi Rapace) however, the pair are exiled to Volsk. Whilst there, Leo begins to unravel a series of child murders, and must quickly decide who he can and cannot trust to help him with his pursuit of the ghost-like killer.

From what I can gather, the main criticism of this film was the acting, which is hard to believe given the calibre of actors involved. The Russian accents though, are truly lamentable; the critics were right about that one. Tom Hardy is the main offender in that respect, and this is certainly far from his best acting display. In the early stages of the film, his character is really unconvincing and it is quite uncomfortable to watch, but as the film progresses, things do improve. Alongside him, Noomi Rapace fares considerably better, but again she is capable of much, much better. The only star who may actually have raised his reputation from this showing is Joel Kinnaman, whose performance as the detestable Vasili revealed a cruel, ruthless side to a man I would normally have perceived to be on the good side.

Aside from any acting frailties, I actually thought the film in general was rather thrilling and captivating. An Eastern European setting and military themes are not usually something I look for in a film, but throw in a serial killer and some mystery and I’m on board. Much of this praise is testament to the work of Tom Rob Smith, but the way this complicated and twisted narrative is applied to the big screen should be acknowledged. My only issue was that the story, at times, was a little bit long-winded and over examined; a 2 hours 20 minute run time is too long in my eyes, even for some of the better films out there. But, the way the film handled scenes of violence, and pulled the story out of slow moments with exciting developments, kept me sufficiently engaged all the way to the end. The climactic scene – a fight to the death between Hardy and Kinnaman – was brutal, and quite entertaining, but that should have been the end.

I am quite prone to defending films which get a bad press (I didn’t even mind ‘Fantastic Four’), but this is far from a half-hearted, superficial defiance. I really did enjoy this film much more than I expected, and in fact, the negative reception probably benefitted my viewing experience by lowering my expectations. There’s far worse things to worry about than a questionable Russian accent, so if you can look past that, ‘Child 44’ be a surprisingly thrilling watch.

Jakob’s rating: 7.1 out of 10

Blade Runner

Year: 1982
Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Daryl Hannah
Written by Jakob Lewis Barnes

I’ve had a rather enjoyable time over the past couple of weeks, as I explore some of the iconic films I have yet to see. Scorsese’s ‘Goodfellas’ was, rather aptly, good. The Coen Brothers’ ‘No Country For Old Men’ was even better. And Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ was phenomenal. Up next on my journey back and forth through cinematic history, was Ridley Scott’s ‘Blade Runner’; a film which is seemingly adored by film fans and critics alike. So, naturally, I was keen to find out why. And with a reboot in the pipeline, and Scott’s latest project, ‘The Martian’, landing soon, what better time to familiarise myself with one of his most coveted works.

At the time of release, the events of this film will have felt like a distant reality. But now, the year 2019 is frighteningly close, and the idea of a world with widespread artificial intelligence – called replicants in this instance – is not all that absurd anymore. As is always the case with mankind’s attempts at creating intelligent life however, the replicants have turn rogue, and after inflicting a massacre on a human colony, an order for their termination has been issued. When four of these man-made outlaws attempt to track down their creator on Earth, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is tasked with hunting down and eliminating them.

In a far cry from the charm and humour of Han Solo – one of my favourite film characters of all time – Harrison Ford came across as being rather stiff and inconsistent. There were moments where some emotion leaked into the performance, but on the whole, Ford’s Rick Deckard was as flat and robotic as the replicants he was chasing. Speaking of which, Rutger Hauer and Daryl Hannah brought a somewhat intriguing element to their roles, Roy and Pris. With their characters blurring the line between manufactured life forms and sentient beings, it was interesting to watch them try to strike a balance in that respect, and they did a pretty good job as the antagonists of the story, providing a steady, menacing presence throughout.

I imagine, back in 1982, this was a very exciting and innovative film. But in today’s cinematic climate, where we see robots and futuristic dystopias pretty much every month, ‘Blade Runner’ felt horribly dated. The tone of the film reminded me very much of ‘The Matrix’, a film which is part of an exclusive handful of films I have switched off before completion. I persevered with ‘Blade Runner’ because I had faith that all the praise the film garnered would come to fruition, at some point. Sadly, for me, the film never got going. Maybe it’s just me? I’m certainly in the minority in criticising this “classic”. But a slow opening failed to capture my attention sufficiently, and it was a losing battle from then on. The only redeeming feature, is the way the film is shot and composed, which was undeniably intelligent filmmaking. That said, you can film anything you want using clever techniques, but a cool camera angle can only do so much.

I know that so many people love this film, but that positive feeling is perplexing to me. ‘Blade Runner’ was guilty of spoiling a relatively interesting concept, creating a dull, stagnating progression through the narrative. At no point was I enthralled or gripped by the characters or what little action there was on offer. I was exceptionally disappointed with Ridley Scott’s supposed masterpiece and had it been another night, I may well have ended up switching it off, as much as that pains me. I think this is definitely a matter of personal taste and interest, but the only positive I can take from this experience is that I’ve ticked this one off the list, and I never need to watch it again.

Jakob’s rating: 3.5 out of 10

No Country For Old Men

Year: 2007
Director(s): Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones
Written by Jakob Lewis Barnes

Last week, I picked out six DVDs from my collection and made these films essential viewing over the next couple of weeks or so. These are films which just about everyone else seems to have watched before, and as I’ve mentioned in the past, I have a tendency to leave the “classics” on the shelf for a special occasion. I have already ticked off ‘Goodfellas’ and ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (which is now in my all time top 5), so now it was time to confess my cinematic sins again and confront ‘No Country For Old Men’. That said, with the film only set to reach its eighth birthday this year, I didn’t feel too guilty about missing it until now. I guess this is the epitome of a “modern classic”; a toddler when compared to the true greats of decades ago, yet one of the most critically-acclaimed films since the turn of the millennium. I have genuinely never heard a bad word said about ‘No Country For Old Men’, and with four academy awards to back up the hype, I expected great things.

One fateful day, Llewyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles across one hell of a crime scene, with a whole gang of Mexican dealers shot dead just a short car journey from his home. But whoever did this, forgot to take their $2 million bounty, and Llewyn is happy to take care of it for them. When he realises that people kinda want that money back, he forges an escape plan, stashing himself and the money in a motel room. But the man looking for him is no ordinary man, and not just because of his bizarre haircut. Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is a brutal and deranged man, who is ready to kill in a heartbeat, and you will find no remorse in this ruthless killer. A three way cat and mouse game ensues, with Anton bearing down on Llewyn and the money, and the local Sheriff, Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) desperately trying to get to him first and ensure his safety.

A trio of fantastic actors are all in fine form here, but it is Javier Bardem who leads the way. His manic portrayal of the murderous Chigurh is right up there with some of the best acting performances I’ve ever seen, and it really feels as though it is he who sets the pace of the whole film, pulling it whichever way he pleases. His stone-faced, cold-blooded approach to death and violence is quite terrifying, as is his unique choice of weaponry. From this display, it is clear to see why he got the nod as the Bond villain in ‘Skyfall’; plenty of the cruel and malevolent mannerisms he exhibits here certainly carry over into the role of Silva. Josh Brolin really grew into the role as the film progressed. I was initially somewhat against his character, and whilst he maintains an arrogant and rather naive air throughout, I found myself warming to his character and urging him on to safety. Rounding it off is Tommy Lee Jones, an actor I will always appreciate thanks to his work in the ‘Men In Black’ series. His Sheriff Bell is a straight-shooting, disgruntled old man, traits which have become quite synonymous with Jones. I just wish he had gotten more involved, but then I guess that’s the point of calling a film ‘No Country For Old Men’.

In typical Coen brothers fashion, the film is presented in a very dark and gritty manner, with no respite of the black comedy that you’d find in ‘Fargo’. It’s a storyline that we are all familiar with – bad guy loses money, doesn’t stop til he gets it back – but with the unique characterisation of Chigurh, and the attention to detail paid to weapons, clothing and setting, the Coen Brothers deliver a refreshing and innovative example of a previously overused narrative. This is thrilling and unpredictable, and though I feel like it may have lost its way for a short period half way through, I was sufficiently engaged to see it through to the powerful climax. After the dust settles, a poignant monologue from Tommy Lee Jones ends the film in poetic fashion; a clever piece of writing, no doubt, but a scene which leaves the narrative frustratingly unresolved.

With these classics I’ve lined up to watch, I feel as though I should be giving them all perfect marks, and that I’m committing some kind of high treason for any criticisms. There were aspects of ‘No Country For Old Men’ that I loved – the violence, the tension, the superb villain – but I was slightly let down by slow periods and a disappointing finish. Nevertheless, this is riveting stuff, a no holds barred, devilishly entertaining 2 hours of violence. I can see why people love this film so much, but I’m more inclined to say I really, really like it.

Jakob’s rating: 8.3 out of 10

Ocean’s Twelve

Year: 2004
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Bernie Mac, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Elliot Gould, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, Carl Reiner, Julia Roberts, Andy Garcia, Catherine Zeta-Jones
Written by Andrew Garrison

After ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ thrilled us all, my friends and I were very excited for this sequel. About ten of us got together and watched it in theatres with high hopes. ‘Ocean’s Twelve’ had its charms, and the amount of high-quality talent was evident throughout the movie, but ultimately this was a letdown when compared to its predecessor.

Terry Benedict, the owner of the casinos which the ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ crew broke into and stole a vast portion of his wealth from, now seeks his revenge on the group. He demands that the crew get together and give back his money, with interest. If they fail to comply, he will either kill them all, or simply make their lives an endless hell. With the heat still on for the group in America, they decide to travel to Europe and pull several high-end heists to save their skin.  

This film is far from a total disaster, but it certainly had its weak points. The biggest issue I had with the film was that it tried too hard to beat the original at its own game. Rather than creating something unique with the amazing talent they had at their disposal, they decided to travel down a familiar road. The details weren’t as important, the running jokes not nearly as crisp; it felt like they dumbed the movie down to attract a larger crowd of people. There were a few times, especially near the end where the humor even felt forced.

The first film tried to be somewhat believable, whereas this film just didn’t seem to care as much, with super-thieves and legendary crooks popping up throughout the film. Most disappointing though, was that the twists and turns never led to satisfying conclusions. In short, ‘Ocean’s Twelve’ was only a slightly different take on the original film. They changed the location, added a couple more eccentric characters, paid less attention to detail, and simplified the humor in areas. To me, the idea of these films was to have some fun with the heist framework and throw in some comedic effect, not to make a comedy that occasionally involved something of a heist.

The best things about the first film remained a part of the second film. The chemistry and dialogue between these characters was still rather crisp and the talent within the film still shines brightly, even with a more predictable script. I also like that there were consequences from the actions performed in the first film – that whilst they initially succeeded, the getaway was not as clean as they hoped. This allows us to see these characters when they are faced with a shocking and unprecedented dilemma. It also showcased the various ways these characters used their money. The comedy wasn’t always as effective this time around, but there was enough to keep you in a lighthearted mood throughout.

Ultimately, this movie falls well short of the 2001 remake. While it does lack that special magic which made the first film so great, there is enough to enjoy about the film that I can’t completely condemn it. The cast works well together once again and the heist, albeit a bit more over-the-top than before, was still fun. That whole Julia Roberts joke however, I found treacherous. In the end, this movie isn’t bad, but lacks the conviction and overall quality of the previous film. Thankfully, they wouldn’t end this franchise on such a low note. The number 13 is lucky for some, after all. 

Andrew’s rating: 6.5 out of 10

Ocean’s Eleven

Year: 2001
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Bernie Mac, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Elliot Gould, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, Carl Reiner, Andy Garcia
Written by Andrew Garrison

There are only a few movie-going events in my childhood which stand out far above the others. We have animated classics ‘Aladdin’ and ‘The Lion King’, and then in my teenage years there was ‘Ocean’s Eleven’. I had high hopes going into the theatre to see this movie for the first time back in 2001. The trailers and television spots showed this stellar ensemble cast, in a humorous, but clever heist movie. Seeing all these big name actors in one movie was certainly impressive and intriguing; I wondered how well so many big actors would work together. Thankfully, the movie surpassed my expectations. In fact, to this date there are only five movies that I’ve seen five times (or more) in theatres, and ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ happened to be the first.

The film is ultimately about an elaborate heist. Danny Ocean (George Clooney), a high-end thief, collector, and treasure-seeker gets released early from prison for good behaviour. Before being released though, he learns that his wife (Julia Roberts) has left him for another man. That man happens to be Terry Benedict, the owner of several exceptional hotels and casinos on the Las Vegas strip. Now, Ocean plans to get his old gang back together for one final heist to set themselves up for life. All the while, he is attempting to regain the love of his ex-wife and steal a significant portion of Benedict’s wealth in the process.

I love pretty much everything about this film. The acting is wonderful, by everyone involved, delivering subtle humour and unique personalities. With George Clooney at the heart of it all, the surrounding cast offer an excellent back and forth, bouncing off Clooney superbly. Sometimes when you have a movie with too many stars, they can clash and it ruins the film. Thankfully, for the most part in ‘Ocean’s Eleven’, the actors work together for the common cause of creating a great movie. The film is entertaining from start to finish with very little filler; despite a large cast, everyone has a role to play. The musical accompaniment, the story and the all important heist, are just more areas where I can’t help but heap praise.

If you are forcing me to pick holes in this film, then George Clooney is acting a lot like George Clooney. Danny Ocean is charismatic and clever, much like I imagine Clooney is in person. If you want, you can take some points off for lack of originality; the original starred the fabled Rat Pack with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Angie Dickinson. Personally, I actually find this remake to be the far superior film. That is rarely the case, but there’s a first time for everything I guess. The only other issue is that with a cast this big, it can be hard to give the characters sufficient depth. We get a glimpse of their personality and that is executed well enough, but the movie will not allow much deeper thought on its characters.

In the end, ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ proved to be just as funny, clever, and exciting as I hoped. It features a great ensemble cast which performs wonderfully together. With its dry humour, running jokes and attention to detail, it is one of those films where you could find something new every time you watch. This is one of my favourite movies of those created in the last couple of decades and actually, ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ may very well be among the finest heist films ever created and certainly the finest remake of one that I can think of.

OCEANS 11