Friday, 30 January 2015

A Most Violent Year (15)

Regular readers of these opinionated burblings will know that if there's one thing we like around here, it's a JC Chandor film.

First on the radar was Margin Call, a low-budget yet brilliant look at the financial crisis from within one bank that realised it was all about to go boobs up.

Then we had All Is Lost. About one man and a boat. Simple yet stunning, giving us one of Robert Redford's finest ever performances.

Sadly, all people heard was 'its one man on a boat' and ignored it. Still, their loss.

Now, we have another offering from one of the best writer-directors operating today.

And not a boat in sight.

For A Most Violent Year, Chandor takes us back to New York in 1981 - the violent year of the film's title when crime stats hit an all time high.

The story centres on Abel (a stunningly measured performance from Oscar Isaac), an immigrant businessman simply trying to earn an honest buck.

OK, it's honesty on his terms, but it's still honesty to him - even if his wife Anna (the brilliant Jessica Chastain) is the daughter of a Brooklyn hoodlum.

The problem is, others aren't so honest, so Abe finds himself having to fight battles on many fronts - with the District Attorney, the two-bit crooks who keep robbing him, his business rivals who keep buying the stolen goods - just to try and stay honest.

And as with Chandor's previous work, nothing here screams and shouts. It's all mid-paced, and apparently quite gentle.

But don't be fooled.

The tension almost ambles up to you, gripping you before you are even aware of it - and several times you'll find yourself holding your breath or having shuffled forward in your seat without even noticing.

That's not to say it's slow or one-paced. There are thrills and jumps to be had.

And even though you see them 'jumps' coming, you still jump.

There's action too, just maybe not the action you're used to. A foot race across a Manhattan bridge and a car chase with an oil truck might not sound edge-of-the-seat, but you haven't seen Chandor do them yet.

The film clearly owes a debt to the mob films of the period, and Scorsese's influence can be felt, but that's not a bad thing.

Chandor knows his genres, and what you get is a "period" piece that is brilliantly written and directed, with well-drawn characters you can relate to and believe in.

From the main characters (and a nod here has to go to Albert Brooks as the family lawyer) down to the incidental ones, everyone feels like they've got depth and purpose.

Hell, even the secretary working with David Oyelowo's DA makes her mark.

Essentially, this film has the lot.

It's a great, gripping, well told story with dialogue that rings true.

It's subtly filmed, with nothing being telegraphed or showboated, meaning the story can play out naturally.

And to top it all, Chandor again gets top performances from every member of the cast, right down to the children.

Sadly, the film has come out at a time when all the Oscar big-hitters are flying about, and so it will probably make little impact (Cineworld's list of available screenings has already shrunk) - but don't let that put you off.

If you want a film that will engage and grip you for two hours, make you jump and have your heart racing with a story that is believable and enjoyable, then this is where to throw your money.

Chandor is only going to get better, so get in now so you can claim you were there at the start.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Whiplash (15)

Awards season is a funny old time for the movies - everything seems to be a 'worthy' biopic about someone important or clever. Or both.

Or it's the oddball 'idea' films - like Boyhood, which sounded like a great idea til you sat down and watched it - that have got the panels all agog and excited.

Then there's that film about drumming.

Let's face it, you've heard about this one. You even thought it might be good, but then you went and watched Paddington again because it's that film about drumming.

And Whiplash is that film about drumming.

But it also isn't.

What it really is is a gripping, thrilling, intense psychological battle between a man who knows best and an underdog who thinks he knows better.

Think of it as Full Metal Jacket meets Rocky.

With drums.

And jazz.

In fact, this is a jazz film, pure and simple.

Not just in the sounds and noises that come crashing off the screen, but in the way it is shot and edited, with little flicks and tricks, fills and rolls popping up at the oddest moments.

You first notice it when Miles Teller's Andrew is ordering popcorn at the cinema, and once noticed it can't be un-noticed.

Instead it becomes a joy to see and look for as the passion and tension mounts.

Because if there's one thing this film has in spades is passion.

At the heart of everything is J K Simmons, playing a film villain so cruel and cold you can't help but like him.

It's a performance so note perfect that it's simply baffling that he's only up for supporting actor gongs - his presence fills every frame of this movie, even if he's not on screen.

And this is just one of the things that makes Whiplash just so damn good.

It looks great, it sounds great, the drumming is great - but without the performances to back it up, Whiplash would have dropped the beat.

But Simmons and Teller (the person who saw Two Night Stand never saw this in him) deliver with such intensity that everyone else fades into the background.

And it's not just Simmons' Fletcher who you hate - Teller's Andrew is equally loathsome.

And yet you are drawn to both of them, which is a measure of just how good both actors are.

In many ways Whiplash shouldn't work.

It's a bit quirky, a bit pretentious (it has a brief message to the music industry, you won't miss it), it has laughs - and while all that is going on it's putting you through the emotional wringer.

But there is so much heart and soul infused through this film, so much pure love for the subject matter and the characters, that the whole thing comes together so beautifully.

There are even laughs and chuckles to be had ("are you rushing or are you dragging?").

I won't lie, approaching this film I was conflicted.

On the one hand, the trailer was enough to get me excited - but, you know, it's about drumming. And I know drummers. They're not normal.

But then nor is Whiplash. And that's what makes it so damn great.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Wild (15)

I don't know what is is about films with a single lead character, but I have a real soft spot for them.

It probably started with 127 Hours (James Franco has never been as good since), then we had Gravity (Sandra Bullock is totes amazeballs), All Is Lost (the sublime Robert Redford) and then Locke (Tom Hardy, all alone and all brilliant) - all brilliant in their own way.

Now, we have Wild. Starring Reese Witherspoon.

And I won't deny, that was almost enough to put me off.

It's not that Ms Witherspoon isn't a good actress, she is, but nothing I've seen her in suggested she was capable of holding a film together on her own.

Especially a film that requires her to be toddling about in the wilderness on a "personal journey".

Be honest. This isn't grabbing you either, is it?

And then there's the start.

Utilising the same trope as American Sniper, we are dropped in part-way through the journey, and then we trek back to the start and join her life at the beginning.

But where as Sniper dropped the ball this early on, after watching Witherspoon scream expletives as her only pair of hiking boots disappear down the side of a sheer cliff you want to know what the hell she's doing there.

Fortunately director Jean-Marc Vallee knows how to keep us interested, so as we join Witherspoon on her journey, through flashback we find out how she ends up on the Pacific Crest Trail.

I'll grant you, it sounds like an Oscar-type film (and Reese is deservedly up for a Best Actress gong), personal journey, wilderness, an odd-looking fox, tents, caterpillars invading sleeping bags - it's all been done before.

But what makes Wild work so well is the heart and warmth that flows through each frame.

The tonal shifts between 'now' (relatively speaking, as the real Cheryl Strayed did this in 1995), and the emotionally darker events that led her here are clear and marked, yet handled well so as to help you engage with our heroine.

And the filming of the actual hike is simply beautiful.

From the squirm-inducing opening as she rips a toe nail off, to the deserts, snow-covered plains, forests and rivers that are crossed, you feel like you're there.

And it's not without it's dramatic tensions, either.

On at least two occasions, Witherspoon finds herself in potential peril - and where it would have been easy to gloss over this, Vallee allows fear to infuse proceedings.

And it's all handled brilliantly by Witherspoon.

She handles the froth and the much darker periods with equal aplomb, delivering a range hitherto unseen.

And there is froth. Let's make no bones about this, it's aiming for the heartstrings from the off - but Wild does so in such a way you just don't mind.

It's not perfect, far from it. It's not edgy, there are editing issues, the supporting cast are almost inconsequential and the CGI fox is nothing short of laughable.

But none of that detracts from the fact this is a film with its heart in the right place.

You care about the characters, you feel for what she has gone though (despite the fact she's not always been the best of people).

OK, yes, the ending is as about as saccharine as it's possible to be without inducing nausea - but by then you've enjoyed the ride so you can forgive anything because you're full of the warm and fuzzies.

Forgive anything but the fox. That can still sod off.

American Sniper (15)

War, huh? What is it good for?

Well, if nothing else, films detailing the horrors the men and women who sign up to fight. It's great for that.

And let's not forget, without war we wouldn't have some amazing films - Armadillo, Green Zone, The Hurt Locker, they've all dealt with the drama and politics brilliantly.

American Sniper, though?

Not so much.

Now, you've got to tread carefully here, because Sniper deals with an American hero.

Chris Kyle (played here by Bradley Cooper, nominated for Best Actor in this year's Oscars for this very role) is credited with 150 (or 160, according to the film) kills while on four tours of duty in Iraq.

He became known as Legend by his fellow soldiers, all of whom said they felt safer knowing he was looking out for them while they went about their duties.

So, they guy was good, and his is a story that warrants telling (and going by the opening weekend figures from America, people wanted it told).

It's just, well, it hasn't been told well.

It starts off brilliantly. Kyle is on a roof top, things happen, and he's faced with a decision none of us would want to make.

He's thinking, his heart is pounding, you're there with him on the edge of your seat, gripped...

His finger grips the trigger...

...and BOOM! We're flashed back to his childhood and start the journey of how he came to be on the roof.

And in that moment, all drama and tension is lost.

From there it's a slow slog back to to the start - and I mean slow. Thirty minutes in and it felt like an hour had passed.

By the time Kyle's grown up, shown his girlfriend to be unfaithful, met his wife (a brilliant portrayal by Sienna Miller) and been deployed, you've stopped giving a toss about any of it.

And that's the problem with the film.

Despite Cooper's fine performance (it's not Oscar worthy though), this is a one note film.

It's a rallying cry for the war on terror. Those nasty insurgents (or locals, as they like to be called) are after our brave boys and America's way of life, and the American Sniper is all that stands between us and them.

There's no balance here. No context. No questions asked.

Actually, there is some context - we get to watch 9/11 on CNN with Kyle and Taya, so we know why all this is happening.

Subtle it isn't.

But we know nothing of the the people he's fighting - in particular, nothing of the Iraqi sniper who becomes Kyle's nemesis.

We find out late on he's got a family and a child (hey, he's human too guys...), but by then you've lost the will to live and are just praying for it all to end.

We see how the war affects Kyle's relationship with Taya and his children. We get to see how he holds a baby doll (honestly, was a real child not available for this scene?). We get beaten over the head with the pro-conflict rhetoric.

We have to assume that Kyle did indeed chat to his wife while on rooftop sniper duty, given it's taken from his own book, but such scenes raise more questions than provide any answers or context.

And that's the theme all the way through. For a film based on a real man's life and account of his actions, it somehow fails to ring true.

Part of that is caused by the pace of the film, part of it by the detached approach Clint Eastwood has taken to his direction.

You don't warm to any of the characters, and everything just feels cold and slightly remote.

Which is odd given just how hot it is in Iraq.

And then, finally, we get to the final scenes.

Now, if - like me - you were unaware of Kyle's story, you won't know how this film ends. But if you can't guess from the way it's shot, from the leaden approach, the Hallmark-esque stylings, then you should just give up watching films.

You've clearly learnt nothing.

And this bit comes after a genuinely jaw-dropping piece of machismo filming that even Michael Bay would have thought twice about.

Now I know Clint is a Republican and pro-war and pro-guns, but even he must look back at it and think he over did it a tad.

In a way I'm glad I stayed til the end (the urge to walk out was over-whelming) because it's an important story and the guy certainly made his mark.

But the telling of his story deserved better than this.

It deserved heart, soul, real emotion. Instead it shot itself in the foot.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Foxcatcher (15)

A new Steve Carell film you say? About wrestling? With Channing Tatum? This sounds like it could be a laugh...



Quite right, I probably should have watched the trailer first. Ho hum.

For those like me who were only vaguely aware of the story behind Foxcatcher, it concerns two Olympic champion wrestling brothers (Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) and bonkers Millionaire John du Pont (Carell).

Sounds weird? Try watching it.

It's based on proper real events, when in 1987 du Pont decided to become the wrestling mentor to the American Olympic pool, starting with Mark Schultz (Tatum) and later his brother Dave (Ruffalo).

And because he had oodles of cash, no one thought this was a bad idea.

So first Mark and some faceless hopefuls are whisked off to Foxcatcher farm, and then later Dave is brought in to train them under du Pont's watchful eye.

Seriously, this is the plot. The fact it's based on real events just makes it weirder.

And weird this definitely is.

It essentially only has the three main stars in it. Vanessa Redgrave pops in as du Pont's mother, there are a few other people kicking about, but the film is only about the three men.

And it drags.

I mean looking at your watch within the first hour drags.

And it's so one-paced - to the point that if it slowed down it would actually stop. It just never gets out of first gear. Not even when the shocking thing happens (I can't say. Don't look it up unless you're not going to watch the film).

Despite this, the three leads put in the performances of their lives.

Carell is unrecognisable as the oddball with the dosh, while Tatum is a near-revelation as Mark Schultz. I mean sure, he can kind of act, but this well? Really?

Between the two stands Ruffalo with a performance so perfectly measured that the balance between the three is perfect.

So why the hell does the film feel so flat?

How can you be mesmerised by the performances in a film that you have to force yourself to watch?

And, while we're asking questions you won't want to answer, did they actually underplay just how nutso du Pont was?

Reading up on him afterwards (again, don't do this if you're planning on watching the film as it will spoil everything) he was a grade A member of the tin foil hat brigade.

Carell conveys the creepiness and weirdness well, but is seriously let down by the writing - because he could have done so much more.

And I say that fully appreciating just how good he is in this film.

Because - and I can't stress this enough - he is stunning. I've no idea if this is how the actual wrestling fancier walked and talked, and to be honest I don't care.

Carell so deserves that Oscar nomination.

We could even do with an award for Best Performance In A Worst Film.

The more I think about Foxcatcher, the less there is to think about.

There are no themes to explore, no subplot, no subtext (OK, there's the gay wrestling bit, but that's not 'sub' anything - it's laid bare, in almost every sense of the word).

This film is just telling the story.

That's it.

And somehow making the story dull.

No judgements are made, no one is painted as a bad guy or a good guy, they're just guys. Who wrestle well.

Which is a crying shame because, on further reading, there's one hell of a story to tell.

This is the very epitome of truth being stranger than the fiction that's been created.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Birdman (15)

The buzz about Birdman was flying high and ruffling feathers long before it landed in cinemas over here - but the question remained: Would it be the golden goose or an utter turkey?

OK, enough, I'll stop now.

But the point remains - can a film that whips up such hype ahead of release live up to perceived promises?

Boyhood, for example, didn't, instead making me wish the child star had gone off in a sulk three years into filming.

Birdman, on the other hand?


For a start, the Boyhood comparison is worth noting as both got the critics in a tiz with a "new" approach to filming.

Where Boyhood shot endless scenes over 12 years (WHY?????), Birdman took a different approach, trying to create a whole film out of a single take.

Or at least look like that was the case.

And it's this kind of arty approach that critics fawn over.

It kind of works too, in that the scenes don't feel drawn out and over-long. They are genuinely engaging.

This is mainly down to Michael Keaton, the star of the piece taking centre stage as Riggan, the former movie star now trying to make his name on Broadway.

It's here, though, that the film starts to fall down a smidge.

Focusing as it does on the staging of a play, you can't help but watch it and think constantly of Noises Off (Michael Frayn's play about what goes on backstage at a play).

It doesn't help that a lot of the dialogue actually sounds like it was written for a play - an not the dialogue that is meant to have been written for the play, but the other dialogue that was written for when the film was about the film and not the play.

Got that? Good.

And the film isn't totally sure what it's trying to say.

Essentially it's about Keaton's nervous breakdown as he struggles to break out from being known as the guy who made Birdman, but other ideas and tropes get slung in all over the place.

It's equally as much a satire about the trend of Hollywood stars taking to the stage, and how YouTube is now where fame is at, and the role of critics in theatreland, and the relationship between fathers and daughters and ex-wives...

Pick any one. You'll find there's something I've forgotten just behind it.

All of which adds up to a slightly muddied feel to what could have been a brutal black comedy.

And director Alejandro G. Inarritu (I can't be arsed finding the accents) clearly meant this film to feel this way, because if it's not the myriad messages and themes bombarding you, the whole thing is set to a weird off-kilter percussion beat that keeps you slightly unsettled.

Granted that doesn't sound like fun, but it's actually one of the most enjoyable bits of the film - especially when the drummer ambles into shot.

Despite all the negatives, though, this is not a bad film - even if it's not as great as many would have you believe.

Edward Norton puts in one of his finest performances, Naomi Watts remembers how to act, and Emma Stone and Zach Galifianakis are both as good as ever.

The film belongs to Keaton, though, and he is the reason the film is as good as it is.

He perfectly captures Riggan's stresses and fears, and makes you fall for and root for a man who is so self obsessed he's only now realising how much his daughter needs him (20 years too late, sure, but hey...).

It's slick and stylish, and Keaton shines, and it will hoover up awards - but Birdman is still style over substance.

It's looking for things to say rather than having a coherent message, and like Boyhood is too long for it's own good.

But, when all is said and done, it's great to see Keaton produce one of the finest performances of his career.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Into The Woods (PG)

Musicals are a funny thing in Hollywood - it matters not that millions flock to see them on stage annually, when the film is made no one is told there will be singing.

Having seen people walk out of Sweeney Todd I can sort of understand the thinking, but if you're under the impression people don't like musicals why the hell make one?

Or, if you do make one, why not tell people.

Sure, in America people probably know Into The Woods was a massive Broadway hit in the 80s, but on this side of the pond? Not so much.

And the trailer quite clearly doesn't provide any clues.

Which is a shame, because if I'd known it was a musical with the actual cast singing I'd have gone into this in a more upbeat mood instead of having the 'well, nothing else is available' cloud hanging over me.

As it was, I came out of the cinema in a better mood than when I went in.

Sure, it's not groundbreaking, edgy cinema - but it was still a lot of fun.

Mashing up every fairytale you can think of, Meryl Streep leads the all-star cast as Witch - a traditional evil crone out for revenge n that.

Elsewhere, we have James Corden and Emily Blunt as The Baker and his wife, Johnny Depp as Wolf, Chris Pine as one of two princes, the ever-wonderful Christine Baranski as Stepmother and a young actress just starting out in the world playing Jack's mother - one Tracey Ullman.

Keep an eye out for her, she could be quite a comedic find.

The story is quite straight forward - the bakers have to find four items to lift a curse, which was brought on by the theft of some beans, while Jack has to sell a cow but ends up finding giants while Rapunzel hangs about in a tower.

Oh, and Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) has to dally with Wolf while Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) trots off to the ball every night.

See? It all makes sense.

While the scenes play out exactly as you'd expect, Into The Woods at least feels more like a film than, say, Dreamgirls, which just felt like the stage show was lifted up and dropped onto a film set.

It's a lot darker than you'd expect from Disney - both tonally and in terms of lighting - but that actually makes the lighter moments shine more brightly.

But what makes this film is Stephen Sondheim.

Every song is part of the narrative, moving the story along at a jaunty pace with tunes that stick in your head.

There is dialogue, but don't go expecting lengthy speeches. In fact, the longest section of dialogue is about 15 minutes - and you do suddenly realise you haven't heard a song for a bit.

Having the actual cast sing the songs - mainly live, with only a smattering of lip syncing - is what tops the film off.

Kendrick, as we know, can sing (just go watch Pitch Perfect), but discovering Blunt and Streep can hold their own was quite a delight.

Could have lived without Corden wailing away, but hey - you can't have everything.

This is not a film that will change your life, or make you question deep philosophical quandaries - but what it will do is put a smile on your face.

At a time when the new year is looming ahead of you and the cinema is full of Oscar-worthy performances and Taken 3, this is a welcome release.

The perfect, feel-good, post-festive panto.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Big Hero 6 (PG)

"From the makers of Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen!" claimed the poster as I ambled into a preview screening of Big Hero 6.

Hurrah for them, I thought, doesn't mean it's actually any good...

But the trailer had contained a couple of chuckles, and although it didn't look like it was going to change the world it promised to be an entertaining way to kill 90 minutes.

Sadly it was the promise that was killed. The 90 minutes just dragged.

The story is a simple one - Hiro has lost both parents and is living with his brother Tadashi and their aunt at her cafe in Sanfransokyo (no, me neither).

In a bid to stop the child genius from wasting his time in robot fights, Tadashi takes Hiro to his lab where he discovers science and stuff (because apparently he didn't actually know what his brother did all day).

One thing leads to another, tragedy ensues, lots of people run around, friendships are made, things blow up and several other films are ripped off (or referenced, depending on your point of view).

At the centre of all this is Baymax - the big white puffball you'll have seen on the posters.

Invented by Tadashi as a medical assistant, Baymax is very much the star of the film.

Cute, odd-looking, funny - he's the stuff marketing men dream off and children will love. Which makes you wonder why they take so long to introduce him.

And that's just one of the problems with this film.

Baymax is the heart of the movie, something that is highlighted when he's not on the screen. He provides the warmth and the laughs.

And this film needs laughs.

From the outset (the opening 20 minutes are basically Up) we are told Hiro has lost both his parents, so death is thrown up there nice and early. Which is handy, as it's a recurring theme.

It's as if the makers looked at Bambi and went "pft, they only kill the mum..."

Sadly, death and destruction far outweigh the laughs. To the extent that at least one child was reduced to tears in the final third.

Which would be fine if this wasn't so clearly a children's film.

But the tone isn't even the worst of Big Hero 6's problems.

As well as ripping off Up, Contact and Stargate are thrown in the mix, along with a large slice of Iron Man 3, a cheeky Superman reference and a nod towards The Avengers.

Or G-Force. They couldn't really decide.

Oh, and Gravity. That's in there too.

Somewhere in the development process of this film, someone took the idea of a boy and his brother's robot and got chatting to a bloke in marketing.

And that's where it all went wrong.

What you get is a ton of different films, a super-hero group that aren't named 'til the end (once you've seen this you'll see why that's a problem) and a mashing-up of Japanese and American cultures which does neither any favours.

And then someone else said 'let's do it in 3D'.

So on top of everything else, you get at least three scenes that add nothing to the film but look pretty with the glasses on - but sadly bore the kids, if the shuffling around me was anything to go by.

Apart from all that, though, it's not bad.

I did genuinely laugh at least three times, and when I wasn't spotting film references (even Bullitt gets thrown in) it was quite enjoyable.

If you don't mind all the stuff about death and people dying that is.

Oh, before I forget, this film comes with a short film about a man and a woman and their relationship as told through the eyes of the man's dog.

If you ignore the issue of just taking dogs off the street without first checking if they've actually got an owner, and don't focus too much on all the things you really should never feed a dog, it's quite sweet.

Granted, it does feature a dog welfare message at the end, but blink and you'll miss it. Still, at least it didn't make anyone cry.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

The Theory Of Everything (12A)

And so, the new year is underway and as Michael Bay follows the money the worthy and important films are upon us as awards season looms.

This happens every year. You get a slew of quality films until the end of Feb, and then dross before the next big holiday looms.

Hollywood is nothing if not predictable.

And the first 'worthy' film out of the box this year is The Theory Of Everything, the tale of Stephen Hawking - based on his first wife Jane's book.

Which, it's fair to say, gives it an obvious slant.

For the two people left on earth who might not have heard of Prof Stephen Hawking, he wrote two books the re-defined how we think about the universe, time, space and black holes.

He also appeared in The Simpsons. And The Big Bang Theory.

What makes his achievements all the more incredible is that he has been living with Motor Neurone Disease (ALS if you're American) since the early 1960s - when he was told he had two years to live.

As lives go, it's a good one to capture on film.

And it's been captured well. Redmayne is superb as the Professor, his physical transformation over the course of the film being note perfect.

It probably helps that the Professor is such a loved figure around the world, so you feel you already know him as Redmayne first appears on screen.

And you love him throughout this film.

Likewise Felicity Jones as Jane. Granted you know nothing about her at the start, but through what is arguable a career-defining performance Jones brings to life the woman who was at Hawking's side for so many years.

It wasn't an easy life, and Jones is able to bring all of the conflicting emotions and feelings to the screen in such a way you really feel you have come to know and understand Jane.

It's the other characters that are a slight problem.

Stephen's friends and family are nothing more than passing background shapes, briefly brought to the front before being ushered back, and likewise his academic colleagues.

This is clearly a problem with the source material, as the film is taken from Jane's version of events - a point made starkly clear when Stephen's future second wife arrives on the scene.

And these aren't the only failings.

The score is bordering on the twee, there are some seriously clumsy 'this must be love' gazes and a semi-dream sequence towards the end is at best ill-judged.

But such niggles take nothing away from the film as a whole.

Thanks to the two central performances, you become wrapped up in the lives of two people who were - directly and indirectly - to change the way the world is thought of.

The journey from the 1960s - through diagnosis, discovery, children and fame - to the modern day is captivating and beautifully told.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Albums Of The Year 2014

Yeah, I know, this is a film blog - but we have to drive to the cinema you know, and you can't do that without a stereo.

And we have to have music on to write our finely-honed words too. And we walk places. Can't do that without an iPod.

So, what the hell. We're gonna get flack for our film choices this year I'm sure, so let's go the whole hog and have some abuse for our taste in music too...

As always, there were those who didn't quite make the cut, so when you've finished reading this also take the time to check out the latest albums from Linkin Park (going back to their roots a smidge) Slash (his finest guitar work since Appetite), Suzanne Vega (her best in years) and Robert Plant (he just keeps getting better).

You're welcomes.

10) Rise Against - The Black Market
With every album, this lot seem to just grow and grow, and with The Black Market their music became as focused as their message. As always, politics and the state of America are the common themes, but here they carry more punch and weight as the music is given an extra bit of polish.

9) Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers - Hypnotic Eye
Described by Mr Petty as probably their heaviest album, while it's all relative it's probably true. But with the heavier guitars and lyrics also comes a groove and a swagger not heard from this lot in some time. And Petty himself has never sounded better.

8) Against Me! - Transgender Dysphoria Blues
If you've taken the life-changing decision to stop being the man you were and start being the woman you knew you should be, you're going to have some tales to tell. And so it is with Laura Jane Grace. Having first faced the rest of the band, then the world, Laura and the gang have produced their finest - and most angry - album to date (and a concept one to boot). Full of passion and heart, it needs to be heard by everyone. And played loud.

7) Meg Myers - Make A Shadow EP
At some point, this woman is going to create a full album and promptly take over the world. In the meantime she continues with this, her second EP. And it's another blinder. Desire and Go will rip your head off, while Heart Heart Head will get stuck in your brain for months.

6) The Gaslight Anthem - Get Hurt
Finally strolling out from the shadow of their friend Bruce, Brian Fallon and friends took us all by surprise when Get Hurt hit our ears. The thinner sound of yore now replaced with a fuller sound with added soul and swing, Get Hurt proved there are many layers to the new heroes of New Jersey. Also needs to be played bloody loud.

5) Half moon Run - Dark Eyes
Released in their native Canada in 2012, then America last year, it has taken far too long for this little gem to wash up on these shores. With lilting harmonies and choruses so catchy they should come with a health warning, this bunch of folky popsters are nothing short of wonderful. They also took Hyde Park by storm last summer. Which was nice.

4) Kaiser Chiefs - Education, Education, Education And War
After bursting on the scene more years ago than I care to remember (or can be bothered to look up), this little band from Leeds seem to get a little bit lost around their third album. An interesting project where fans could pick any 10 tracks and make their own album also floundered (mainly because it was a bitch to actually find 10 you wanted). Then they come back with this. It's everything you've always loved about the Chiefs (big songs, huge choruses, a big grin on your face as you sing along) - with added oomph and pizazz. Welcome back boys.

3) Sinead O'Connor - I'm Not Bossy, I'm The Boss.
Sinead comes in for some flack now and then, and sure she can come out with some weird shit - but strip that away, and she's one of the finest songwriters kicking about today. Now, having grown up a bit musically and taking a new approach, she has produced possibly her finest album to date. At times haunting, always passionate and with choruses to kill for, I'm Not Boss will be in charge of your stereo for months.

2) Ricky Warwick - When Patsy Cline Was Crazy (And Guy Mitchell Sang The Blues)/Hearts On Trees
Once upon a time, Mr Warwick was the frontman for one of Britain's finest rock acts (The Almighty - go explore), then he went solo and proved himself to be an even better songwriter when handling an acoustic. Now, in between Black Star Riders albums, he has spent a short time coming up with not one but two brilliant albums. Not available to the public 'til next year (but Pledgemusic fans have it now), Ricky has recorded some of the finest rootsy rock songs you'll hear for a while. Patsy Cline will stick in your head, If You're Not Gonna Leave Me simply rocks, while Way Too Cold For Snow showcases just how gentle his voice can be. If the mainstream press aren't all over this next year, they're idiots.

1) Pink Floyd - The Endless River.
It was a toss-up between Ricky and Floyd for the top spot, and Gilmour's gang edged it by a nose for the simple reason this album simply shouldn't exist. The band are pretty much no more, people don't buy albums any more and they sure as hell don't buy concept albums that are nine tenths instrumental. So what do Pink Floyd do? Exactly. And it's beautiful. It's the chill-out album you've been waiting for. If this had been produced 40 years ago, it would be hailed a classic. And it deserves that title now, as it lives up to the legacy rather than pissing on the past.

Films Of The Year 2014

As 2015 gets underway with a slew of interesting films, what better time to look back at what 2014 had to offer?

Well, yes, last week probably, but tough - I was busy.

Busy catching up with the films that I'd missed, as you asked, which is just as well as it means the Top 10 we unveiled on the podcast has been ripped up and thrown away thanks to a couple of late entries.

It does mean that four of this year's Top 10 weren't actually reviewed in the normal way, but them's the breaks.

It also means that two other hotly anticipated flicks - Nightcrawler and Boyhood - were happily thrown on the 'ignore' pile. Providing an unusual sense of satisfaction in the process.

There were, of course, other films that came close to the Top 10, but sadly fell short - films like Captain America The Winter Soldier, X-Men: Days Of Future Past, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes and Blue Ruin all came within a gnat's kneecap of the final count.

But there's no prizes for second place (or first place come to that), so it's time to stop the waffle and start the countdown...

10) The Devil's Bargain
A low budget horror film that has still yet to find a general release (but is available online), The Devil's Bargain was the surprise package of the year. Evoking the 70s Hammer-era both in look and tone, impending Armageddon has never been so chilling. It also made me dig out an old Shooter Jennings album, which was nice.

9) Calvary
Never has the tale of a priest who's been told he's going to be shot been so much fun. Similar in tone to The Guard, but darker and slower-paced, Brendon Gleeson is again superb in the central role. He's not the only good performance, though, as everyone plays their part in making this an engrossing, gripping tale.

8) Guardians Of The Galaxy
Yes, I know many would have this higher up on their lists - and it would have been higher here, but for the other seven. Guardians is great though. Big, bold, brash and oodles of fun from the off, Chris Pratt and co deliver the surprise hit of the summer that leaves you with a big grin on your face. And singing If You Like Pina Coladas.

7) Locke
Sure, 90 minutes of a man driving to London doesn't exactly sound like fun - but it's Tom Hardy. And he's driving to be at the birth of a child he had with a one-night stand. And he's telling his wife on the way. While trying to co-ordinate a construction project. A project he's fired from while driving. It's compelling and gripping and you won't take your eyes off the screen for a second.

6) Paddington
This was higher up the list until a couple of late entries, but this is still the best family film of last year. It has jokes for the kids, jokes for the adults, a bear you've loved all your life, a bath ride down the stairs, a use for toothbrushes that will have you doubled-up with laughter... I could go on, but I'm just making myself want to go and watch it again.

5) The Babadook
Another, along with Locke, that got hoovered up at the end of the year, this low budget horror film will leave you sleeping with the light on. Eschewing the modern trend of 'quiet quiet quiet BANG', The Babadook (about a grief-stricken mother, her only child and a children's book) is genuinely proper scary. Five minutes from the end, I realised I hadn't moved for half an hour and had been holding my breath for at least five minutes. It's just brilliant.

4) The Grand Budapest Hotel
There are lots of reasons why this is so high up the list - first, it's brilliant. B, it's a film geek's wet dream with all the changing aspect ratios. Thirdly, Ralph Fiennes is simply hilarious. And that's not all. This is a film made with a lot of love, the jokes come thick and fast, it rips along at a frantic rate of knots and to top it all it became the number one film in the UK on word of mouth. It actually climbed the chart. And that just never happens.

3) The Imitation Game
Benedict Cumberbatch is on something of a roll at the moment, and here as the war hero Alan Turning he has pulled off one of his finest performances. Gripping, funny, exciting and with an ending that makes your furious (because you can't believe what happened to a man you've come to love and admire), this ought to be hoovering up awards for fun in the coming weeks and months.

2) '71
I actually saw this when it was out, but sadly never got the chance to write the review. Not that I'm sure I could have done this film justice. The tale of a soldier sent to Belfast during The Troubles who gets separated from his unit and has to find his way back to the barracks (crossing battle lines, hiding from everyone, running for his life and hiding from everyone else) left me breathless.

1) Pride
Another of the late arrivals, and I'm gutted I didn't get to see it sooner because I'd have had more time to watch it again and again. Telling the tale of a group of gay and lesbian friends who decided to raise money to support the striking miners in 1984, Pride has you grinning from the off and moist of eye on so many occasions the second half of the film was a tad blurry. Hilarious, moving, inspiring and with a crackin' soundtrack, this British gem has the lot and deserves to become an instant classic.

Boyhood (a moment, if you will...)

I know the rule at Unsalted Popcorn is to review the new films as soon as possible, and as soon after viewing as possible - but sometimes a film comes along that's worth breaking the rules for.

In attempting to put my films of the year together I've been catching up on the few that slipped through the net but that I really, really wanted to watch.

In the short list was Boyhood - described near-universally as simply breathtakingly brilliantly wonderful and accruing a score of 100 on Metacritic and 99 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes.

Now, contrary git that I am, as a rule of thumb I tend to walk away from such films. Everyone telling me I MUST see it makes me look the other way.

But something told me that Boyhood was actually one such film. For once, everyone else was probably right and I had to see it.

And I'm glad I did.

Because it's seriously tedious.

Directed by Richard Linklater (he of the stunning Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight films), the idea was to watch people growing up.

And by people, we're talking Mason (Ellar Coltrane), his sister Samantha (Linklater's real actual daughter Lorelei), mum (Patricia Arquette) and dad (Ethan Hawke).

The film was put together over a 12-year period, with filming taking place every year as lives went on, marriages crumbled, step-dads came and went, schools were changed etc and so on.

You get the idea.

Granted, on paper, this sounds like a great idea. In the same way waterproof phones that mean you can play Candy Crush in the shower sounds like a great idea.

But the reality is something else.

For a start, people don't really change that much year on year - so you need some clever device to labour the point that this is now another year.

Not for Linklater the clumsy, old-fashioned, on-screen captions. Oh no.

Far better to pointedly stare at some cultural reference, or shoe-horn in some clumsy dialogue to show where we're at in the film (you bought the house cheap because of a foreclosure you say?).

Essentially what we get are a series of close-ups of the latest gadgets, games consoles, mobile phones etc to show the passing of time.

And Linklater actually has to make such a point of staring at an iPod docking station, or an iPhone FaceTime chat, that the scene gets derailed.

And this happens every bloody year.

That's 12 times.

And then there's Mr Coltrane.

Granted, asking a child to hold a film together on his own is a tad tricky, so you can forgive the early years where he's almost invisible while life's dramas play out around him.

But as he gets older, his lack of charisma doesn't change. If anything it gets worse.

This isn't helped by the fact that NOTHING IS HAPPENING TO HIM.

And I can't stress that enough.

OK, sure, he moves home, survives an alcoholic step-father (something which could have been a dramatic high-point in the film but is treated with the same detachment as everything else), meets girls, discovers beer and so on - but that's just normal life.

And, in essence, normal life is quite dull.

We even get treated to Mason getting all "deep" and "philosophical" at a party during his teenage years.

Have you ever listened to teenagers when they talk like this?

It's something that should be allowed to happen quietly, without adult observation. That way they don't get reminded about it and we don't have to put up with it.

There's also the brilliant scene when Mason and friends go "camping". By that we mean break into a house under construction to drink and spend the night.

All good fun.

Hookers have been ordered too, we're told, but this would be too exciting so we don't get to see if this was a lie or not.

But what this scene shows is just how badly the film has been written, how clunky and un-lifelike the dialogue is.

What would have worked is if you'd just got the gang to improvise. Instead, it's scripted and directed and plays out like a bad school play.

And that's the film in a nutshell.

It's a collection of vignettes, loosely linked by having the same annoyingly tedious kid at the centre of it all, with no actual story to tie the whole thing together.

It's exactly the same as Mr Turner, only Mr Turner had the decency to be well filmed, well acted and funny.

Linklater has garnered praise over the years for his experimental style, for his ground-breaking approach to film-making (yes, I know he made School Of Rock, shush).

But with the Before trilogy, for example, he had characters you loved, he was telling a story, and you weren't trapped for 12 sodding years.

I understand critics go delirious over this, the idea was a great one. But it's no crime to admit it hasn't worked.

The point was made by Mark Kermode that Boyhood is as long as Transformers (and a Hobbit film), but it didn't feel like it.

He's right. It felt longer.

Transformers 4 was terrible, but at least it was so bad it made you laugh.

Boyhood just makes you want to scream.

And it opens with a sodding Coldplay song.