Jason Bourne Review

The belated Bourne sequel is an exciting romp, but it just doesn’t feel particularly necessary. Worth a watch, but don’t expect an equal to its hallowed forbears.

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Matt Damon and Julia Stiles. Copyright 2016 Universal Studios.

It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the original Bourne trilogy was revolutionary for its time. Their directors, Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass, pioneered a fierce new style of action filmmaking that left their rivals humiliated. In response, the Bond films would entirely reinvent themselves in a more realistic mould, while the phenomenon of shaky-cam would come to dominate much of the action genre. Now, nine years since our last proper Bourne film, does the return of Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass recapture that old magic?

In short, it’s a mixed bag. The lazily titled Jason Bourne delivers much of what fans have come to expect; action sequences, from sprawling set pieces to intimate fisticuffs, are executed with Greengrass’ trademark panache. An early scene of cat-and-mouse within an Athenian riot is an exhilarating highlight, as the mobile cinematography adds intensity without crossing into incoherence. Admittedly, the action follows many of the same beats as the original films, but there’s just enough innovation to keep things feeling fresh.

Furthermore, Matt Damon’s long-awaited return as the eponymous assassin is every bit a delight. With just a handful of lines, and lot more punches, Damon is able to communicate immense pathos and authority amidst the carnage. Despite the passage of time, seeing Jason Bourne on screen again just feels right. Of the rest of the cast, Vincent Cassel deserves particular mention as a brutal CIA “asset” on Bourne’s trial. It’s a familiar role for the series, but Cassel’s agent is given more exploration than we’ve seen from such a character in the past, putting him on a personal vendetta against our hero. It doesn’t always work, but he nevertheless provides one of Bourne’s more intriguing foils.

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Vincent Cassel as a vengeful CIA asset. Copyright 2016 Universal Studios.

Considering the satisfying conclusion to 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum, any direct sequel needed a strong story that feels worth telling. Unfortunately, Jason Bourne isn’t that. The fundamental issue if that the film’s plot is largely unable to justify its own existence. Bourne’s motivation for returning to the fray is flimsy, while his enemies are poorly drawn and are given too little time to establish themselves. Most of the script feels like a lightweight excuse to move Bourne from one foot-chase to another, meaning that the incessant combat never feels properly provoked. Meanwhile, the stakes are too contrived and personal to be believable. In this regard the story echoes last year’s Bond film, Spectre, delving into Bourne’s past in a way that feels more tacked on than absorbing. Perhaps such a shallow level of writing could be excused in a lesser action franchise, but the Bourne brand is so steeped in authenticity that this latest entry rings hollow in comparison.

Further adding to the script’s woes, Jason Bourne’s structure feels all too familiar. Much of the film’s supporting cast, including Tommy Lee Jones and Alicia Vikander, feel like pale regurgitations of what we’ve seen before, as does the movie’s central conflict. Our villain still takes the form of a crooked CIA chief, and the American intelligence service continues to spend more time cleaning up after itself than it does fighting actual bad guys.

Any real effort by Jason Bourne to distinguish itself feels mostly half-hearted; a subplot concerning online surveillance and a fictionalised social media platform attempts to place the film within a modern, post-Snowden context, but it’s an avenue that feels like an incongruous afterthought. At the film’s denouement, Bourne is more or less in the position that we found him, leaving the previous two hours as more of a trivial distraction than a meaningful progression.

As a piece of action packed entertainment, Jason Bourne succeeds tremendously. Where it fails, however, is as a satisfying new chapter in Bourne’s story. One is left with the impression that the script started with a number of disparate action sequences, and a threadbare plot was assembled later. Perhaps expectations were too high for the return of Bourne’s dream team – there’s plenty of thrills and enjoyment to be found within Jason Bourne, and Greengrass has done a competent enough job of delivering on cinematic spectacle. Nonetheless, I can’t escape a nagging disappointment that it isn’t accompanied by a story of palpable significance. It’s competent, but Bourne deserves better.

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Star Trek Beyond Review

Star Trek Beyond is a fun return to form for the crew of the Enterprise, capturing the old Trek spirit while boldly forging a path of its own. For long-term fans or otherwise, there’s plenty here to enjoy

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Copyright 2016 Paramount Studios.

Ever since its 2009 reboot, the Star Trek franchise has struggled to reconcile its roots with the expectations of a modern blockbuster. The original 1966 television series was, at its best, a fun and intelligent parable on the state of humanity, while the subsequent film series would combine this with a cinematic sense of spectacle. More recently, the efforts of JJ Abrams’ brought Star Trek kicking and screaming into the 21st century, but his two glossy undertakings left many fans feeling cold. Despite delivering on spectacle, Trek’s character-driven thoughtfulness was largely ejected in favour of a more contrived, Star Wars style adventure. Thankfully, with this year’s Beyond, director Justin Lin has produced a modern Star Trek worthy of the name.

Opening some time into the Enterprise’s five-year mission, Star Trek Beyond finds Captain James T Kirk (Chris Pine) caught in something of a rut. If the universe really is infinite, he ponders, then isn’t it futile to explore its vastness? Thus, we have our first sense that Beyond is treating its characters to some level of maturity and self-awareness, quite distinct from the stencilled caricatures found in the last two instalments. Indeed, it’s the characters and their enthusiastic interplay that provides the core of this film, dealing in equal parts humour and sentimentality that seldom feels overdone.

The script of Star Trek Beyond, co-penned by sci-fi aficionado Simon Pegg, is the first of the reboot entries to feel like bona-fide Star Trek. The colourful crew of the Enterprise find themselves trapped on a mysterious planet, at the behest of a vengeful villain, and must use all their wits to find a way home. It’s a premise that could just as easily have fit into a thirty-minute television slot, and this certainly helps to recapture a familiar Star Trek charm.

However, while playing homage to what has come before, Beyond is unafraid to blaze its own trail. The intensely derivative “fan-service” which plagued 2013’s Into Darkness thankfully takes a back seat, as Lin steers the franchise into fresh territory while retaining the spirit of the original form. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto remain excellent as Captain Kirk and Mr Spock, both of whom are developed with newfound complexity, while the rest of the familiar cast are given plenty to do. Unfortunately, the multitudinous talents of Idris Elba feel wasted on the film’s villain, Krall, an adequate yet underdeveloped rogue.

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Copyright 2016 Paramount Studios.

Action set-pieces are predictably spectacular, perhaps excessively so. The first act gives you little time to settle in before indulging in successive sequences of calamitous destruction, all of which are bracing and, at times, incoherent. The film’s pacing and narrative would likely have benefitted if one of these passages was deleted, and a little more time dedicated to those that remained.

Nevertheless, Beyond adopts a more confident stride as it slows down during the second act, allowing the characters and their predicament to come to the fore. Above all, there’s an overriding sense of fun to the proceedings, while still allowing time to reflect on weightier and more personal themes. The action and writing are never truly remarkable in their own right, but they nevertheless arrive as a part of a package that’s difficult not to appreciate.

If last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens was an enjoyable but risk-averse update to the Star Wars saga, then Star Trek Beyond similarly provides a satisfying interpretation of the Star Trek formula. It’s not quite among the best that Trek has to offer, nor does it particularly distinguish itself as a sci-fi adventure. What it is, however, is an exciting and worthwhile two hours that will reward fans and laymen alike.

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Love and Friendship Review

Exceptionally watchable, Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship is a stirringly funny testament to the cinematic potential of Jane Austen.

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Chloe Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale in Love and Friendship

There is a rich heritage of Jane Austen adaptations on the both the small and big screen; Emma, Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility have seen themselves pillaged time and time again by innumerable screenwriters and playwrights, sometimes with excellent results, others decidedly less so. Lady Susan, however, is one of Austen’s works that appears to have largely escaped popular adaptation. With 2016’s Love and Friendship, director Whit Stillman has made a valiant effort to redress that discrepancy.

Lady Susan was a complete novella that went unpublished in Austen’s lifetime, comprised of 41 letters apparently written by the titular character, describing her efforts to secure husbands for both herself and her eligible daughter. Stillman’s script for Love and Friendship has transformed this irregular structure into a more standard narrative, giving a new voice to the supporting cast of characters while maintaining the period dialogue. Lady Susan herself makes for a joyfully selfish and conniving protagonist, and is played highly effectively by Kate Beckinsale. She has a hilarious and almost robotic ability to manipulate those around her, simultaneously seductive and sympathetic, but always focussed on furthering her own ends.

Beckinsale is backed by an excellent supporting cast; whether their role is to haplessly fall for, or vehemently fight against, Lady Susan’s machinations, each character acts and reacts in a believable way. Both Chloe Sevigny and Stephen Fry fill smaller roles, providing additional star power without encroaching on Beckinsale’s central performance.

The script remains witty and fast moving throughout, resulting in a talky but eminently watchable product. The dialogue has an old-worldly charm that allows it to be as biting and macabre as may be possible within a U-certificate film, while the comic relief of Tom Bennett’s Sir James Martin is never overplayed. Laugh out loud moments were happily common, a testament to the longevity and relatability of Austen’s verse.

The production design and period costuming is similarly excellent, dressing the screen with lavish and somewhat pornographic detail, reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon or, more appropriately, the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice. Despite the film’s relatively limited budget, it never feels cheap or inauthentic. All this is framed within camera work that has a clear but un-showy sense of style, steering clear of the televisual realm that often curses such period adaptations.

Love and Friendship is, above all, a joy to watch. Kate Beckinsale delivers a believable and thoroughly enjoyable performance, portraying Lady Susan as a woman who is easily detestable but never dull. In addition, Stillman’s script retains the core of Austen’s writing while propelling the events along at brisk pace – it’s ninety-two-minute runtime provides plenty of breathing room for both the characters and their picturesque surroundings. With Love and Friendship, Whit Stillman has ejected life and humour into the period drama, providing an energising take on one of Austen’s lesser known works.

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High-Rise Review

Despite some great performances and an interesting visual style, a muddied narrative prevents High-Rise from reaching its full potential.

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A sort of Orwellian Nelson Mandela House. Copyright 2016 Studio Canal.

The latest film from director Ben Wheatley, High- Rise is a long awaited adaptation of JG Ballard’s 1975 novel of the same name, the story of a luxury apartment building and a violent descent into depravity. As the tower and its occupants become increasingly isolated from the outside world and their resources run low, the neighbours quickly turn upon each other for control of the building. For the inhabitants of the high-rise, the construction gradually takes over their existence, swallowing up their lives and their jobs in the outside world as they indulge in debauchery and horror within their own microcosm. Despite its dark tone, the plot has a whimsical, allegorical quality to it, musing upon the fragility of modern civilisation and the nature of human barbarity. It’s a premise that requires a measure of disbelief, but nevertheless provides an intriguing examination on the human condition.

Wheatley has made the interesting decision to set the film very specifically within mid-1970s Britain, appropriating the release period of the original novel. It provides for a stylish and somewhat nostalgic aesthetic; trousers are flared, wallpaper is garishly printed, and shades of brown are rampant. Indeed, the whole film is visually excellent, as the set design juxtaposes brutalist architecture against the disorder wrought by the tenants.

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Tom Hiddleston as Dr Robert Laing. Copyright 2016 Studio Canal.

The frame is also filled with some exceptional central performances. Tom Hiddleston stars as Dr Robert Laing, a stylish neurosurgeon and the latest arrival to the tower. Laing is an almost impenetrable character; his past is left purposely shrouded in mystery, whilst his motivations remain unclear as he adapts to the degrading world around him. Hiddleston commands this ambiguity well, providing a charismatic yet unsettling presence throughout. Opposite him is Jeremy Irons as the antagonistic Anthony Royal, the original architect of the building, who evinces similarly ambivalent intentions. He claims to have constructed his own self-contained civilisation as an “instrument of change”, but doesn’t seem clear as to what change he seeks.

Deserving of particular praise, however, is Luke Evans as Richard Wilder, a menacing figure who leads a campaign against the wealthy residents of the tower’s upper floors. Wilder is an evidently despicable character from his first entrance, becoming more so as the madness intensifies, but Evans’ passionate performance is captivating. Ironically, his uncontrolled anger feels like the sanest response of all within an insane world. The female roles are broadly given less to do, but Sienna Miller rounds off the lead performers as Charlotte Melville, a carefree party-goer with little caution for social norms or even the safety of her young son.

Where the film fails, then, is in its storytelling. Both the opening and concluding chapters of the narrative are well executed, providing an immersive picture of the film’s peculiar world. It is in bridging these two sequences that Wheatley loses his way. For much of the second act, the film appears so keen to show you what is happening, but never does much to explain why. We are presented, in vivid and unflinching terms, with the collapse of the building into a hysterical and nightmarish state, but the underlying causes and social divisions beneath this turmoil are never really explored. The result is a narrative that feels muddled and without proper premeditation, which left my eyes wandering towards my watch rather than glued to the screen. A series of shocking events take place, but it’s difficult to be invested when so little attention has been given to the set-up.

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A pause for reflection. Copyright 2016 Studio Canal.

With the central characters of the film being so well drawn, it feels odd that the world around them is little more than a sketch. The high-rise itself is a visually stunning backdrop, but the script could certainly have done more to define its own conflicts and give more focus to the narrative. A last minute reference to Margaret Thatcher reveals some of the original story’s satirical edge, but it’s too little, too late. Wheatley’s penchant for visual symbolism and montage undeniably bogs the film down, and a shorter runtime would have resulted in a more coherent final product.

Nevertheless, High-Rise is an interesting experience, particularly if you allow yourself to be immersed in its unique world. Perhaps lacking in focus, its performances and use of imagery will leave a lasting impression, giving you much to think about long after the film has ended; as is often the case with Wheatley, the film is multi-layered and repeat viewings will likely reveal further intricacies. On first impressions, however, High-Rise fails to entertain as much as it really should, and there’s a feeling that Ballard’s satire deserves a more thorough excavation. The opening narration of the film states that “for all its inconveniences, Laing was satisfied with life in the high-rise” – I felt inclined to agree.

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This review was also published in Exeposé, the independent student newspaper for Exeter University. It can be found here, along with my other work for the publication.

Deadpool Review

With a script that isn’t funny and action that fails to excite, Deadpool falls well short of expectations.

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Ryan Reynolds in costume as Deadpool. Copyright 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

There’s a peculiar self-confidence to Deadpool. It’s a feeling of assuredness, not only in the film’s eponymous hero, but permeating throughout the events on screen. For its entire duration, the script is all too eager to break the fourth wall, wink at the audience, and remind you just how clever it is. The jokes are crass and fly in your face without much subtlety, while references to pop culture and other comic book movies are incessant. It’s akin to an irritating friend, nudging you all the way through to make sure you’re getting his jokes. Despite all this, there really isn’t much in Deadpool to warrant  such self-assurance. Beneath a veneer of gimmicks, genital jokes, and non-linear sequencing, there exists a very average superhero film.

From debut director Tim Miller, Deadpool is a story of Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), a foul-mouthed former mercenary who dons a red suit and takes on an alter-ego following a medical procedure that leaves him horribly disfigured but enhanced with super-human abilities. Swearing revenge upon Ajax (Ed Skrein), the psychopathic mutant who ruined him, Deadpool pursues a bloody campaign to track down the villain and exact his bloody justice. If that story rings a surprisingly conventional tone, that’s because it is. Where Deadpool attempts to distinguish itself is with an adult sense of humour and a mocking, self-referential attitude towards comic book cinema.

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Ed Skrein as Ajax. Copyright 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

The problem is that Deadpool simply isn’t as funny as it thinks it is. The jokes arrive thick and fast, but more often than not they outstay their welcome or rely on a somewhat outdated knowledge of popular culture (a female with close-cropped hair is hilariously referred to as “Ripley, from Alien 3!”). Admittedly, such a sense of humour certainly has an audience, and my screening of the film wasn’t short of laughter. But for a script that seems so pleased with itself, much more should be expected.

Of course, Deadpool involves as much action as it does comedy, but in this regard the viewer is served the same unengaging, computerised spectacle that has become commonplace in the genre. The violence quotient has been substantially increased, but the total lack of excitement remains the same. In a film that takes such pleasure in mocking the tropes of superhero films, it is inexcusable for Deadpool to equally succumb to their failings. Miller’s pedestrian visual style simply has none of the distinction that his script requires, and the result is a conclusion that descends into protracted tedium rather than a triumphant finale.

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Even Deadpool himself was shocked by the quality of the script. Copyright 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Even if joy can be found in its humour, there’s little else in Deadpool to encourage repeat viewings. Ryan Reynolds may provide a convincingly charismatic performance, but he’s given little to work with next to a plot that’s barely there and a cast of one-note supporting characters. The action set pieces are unrelentingly dull, while Deadpool’s crude one-liners become an exhausting annoyance within an otherwise uninspired script. As Careless Whisper plays out and the credits roll, both comedy fans and action enthusiasts are likely to find themselves disappointed. I know I was.

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Oscars 2016 Recap – The Big Short Review

The Big Short provides a wry look at the financial crisis that’s both entertaining and educational.

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Christian Bale as socially awkward Michael Burry. Copyright 2015 Paramount Pictures.

With The Big Short, director Adam McKay’s heritage as a comedy helmsman is clear, never taking himself too seriously despite a thoroughly depressing subject. For a story that could have been enormously hard going, there’s a lightness of touch throughout that makes The Big Short a joy to watch, if a little hard to follow, complemented by an ensemble cast of heavyweight performers.

Documenting the run up to the 2007-2008 financial crisis, The Big Short is a fictionalised account of a few individuals who predicted the crash and sought to cash in on their foresight. The events are fast paced and wordy, with regular breaks in the fourth wall to ensure you’re keeping up with the jargon-heavy dialogue. Indeed, from the erratic cinematography to the constant cutaways, The Big Short walks the line between documentary and drama. There’s a sense of both Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job and Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street, admittedly with fewer orgies and more Collateralised Debt Obligations than the latter.

The Big Short is focussed around a small number of characters, with independent but inter-connected stories, and as such the central cast hold the film together. Both Steve Carell and Christian Bale are deserving of particular praise, playing outside of type in the film’s two most complex roles. They are supported by an effectively smug performance from Ryan Gosling, and Brad Pitt in what amounts to an extended but welcome cameo. As the film weaves between their individual narratives, no one outstays their welcome and the pacing maintains excitement in a topic that you may have otherwise dismissed as interminably dull.

What is never quite clear, however, is if these canny investors are more interested in making themselves rich or teaching a lesson to the corrupt system, and indeed the film itself doesn’t seem very sure if it wants to be a fun romp through a topical backdrop, or a damning indictment of capitalist greed. This results in a somewhat inconsistent tone and a sharp left turn in the film’s final moments, as everything becomes quite serious once the housing market tumbles. It’s a reflective denouement that feels necessary, but could have been handled in a more fitting manner.

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Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling. Copyright 2015 Paramount Pictures.

However, in dealing with these hugely complex issues, The Big Short doesn’t shy away from asking difficult questions. The picture takes a nuanced and surprisingly in-depth approach to the financial crisis, doing its best to explain the complexities in simple terms. It’s probably best to brush up on a basic overview of the real events if you want to come away with a full understanding of what happened, but the script makes a valiant effort to introduce beginners. Although McKay’s comedic style does much to elevate this heavy material to something highly watchable, the documentary-style footage can be distracting at times. His camera work is often reminiscent of TV comedies The Office or Parks and Recreation, incessantly zooming and dropping out of focus in a faux-amateur manner, which was usually more distracting than immersive.

Nevertheless, The Big Short is a film that’s much easier to like than it is to criticise. It points an accusing finger at the banking classes, and will leave you feeling rightly outraged at the greed and carelessness of a system that brought the world to its knees and got away with it. Underpinning all this are some excellent performances and a genuinely funny script. If you’ve ever found yourself wondering why the economy is in the state it is, or who was to blame, The Big Short is essential viewing. It’s fun, clever, and above all, important.

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Oscars 2016 Recap – Mad Max: Fury Road Review

Mad Max: Fury Road is a modern classic of the action genre. Unashamedly bombastic from beginning to end, George Miller effortlessly blends the old-school with the state-of-the-art.

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Tom Hardy as Max Rockatansky. Copyright 2015 Warner Bros. Ent.

The original Mad Max may have been released in 1979, but it was the 1981 sequel that rightfully secured its place as a pop culture phenomenon. Anyone familiar with Mad Max 2, or The Road Warrior as it is alternatively known, will remember the seminal, climactic chase involving an oil tanker and a bunch of leather-clad bastards in pursuit. If you’re wondering what Mad Max: Fury Road is like, it’s basically that, but extended over two hours.

And that’s a wonderful thing. Decades since the misjudged Mad Max 3: Beyond the Thunderdome, director George Miller has returned to the Australian action franchise that made his name, and he delivers with aplomb. Mel Gibson has been replaced by Tom Hardy as the eponymous Max, but the violent, visceral world around him remains unchanged. Set in a post-apocalyptic Australian desert, Fury Road tells a familiar tale of one man’s fight for survival and, eventually, redemption, in a world gone to hell. But this is really only half the story. Max may have his name in the title, but it’s Charlize Theron’s Furiosa who takes the front seat for much of the film, providing most of the substance both narratively and emotionally. Although Furiosa has a lot more to say and do than Hardy’s half-mute protagonist, it is to the latter’s credit that he provides a powerful screen presence despite his limited role. These two leads give effective, world-weary performances, saying as much in their actions as their words.

Ostensibly, Fury Road is composed of a single, extended car chase, with occasional lulls and highs in the action. But it is a mistake to consider the film in such simplified terms. Yes, the action rarely relents, and you’re likely to emerge exhausted when it’s all over, but there’s more going on behind the crashes and explosions. The main characters all feel refreshingly complex, despite their cartoonish exteriors; they give the impression of real and lived-in people, and there isn’t any need for clunky exposition to tell you. Fury Road is a visual experience, but this shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of development. The plot may be lightweight, but it serves the action and characters admirably. It’s an action film, first and foremost, but you don’t need to leave your brain at the door.

Essential to its success is the fact that Fury Road feels real. There is a constant sense of physicality throughout that allows you to connect with the events on screen. It’s an insane, exaggerated world, but the gritty façade keeps everything grounded and engaging. Certainly, it is a tribute to Miller’s talents that he was so seamlessly able to blend physical stunts with visual effects, with the film a sure shoe-in for awards recognition in this regard.

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Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa. Copyright 2015 Warner Bros. Ent.

It must come as something of a wake-up call to the Hollywood establishment that a 70-year old man,  whose most successful films include Babe and Happy Feet, was able to make the best action film of 2015. There is a palpable lack of complacency throughout the picture; an abundance of on-location shooting and intricate set design, practical stunts and effects, and human characters with motivations that feel believable and multi-faceted. You feel that there was a desire to do something different, as the frame rate purposefully stutters and the camera manoeuvres unconventionally through the action. Not all of these artistic flairs are necessarily successful, the colour palate is distractingly over-saturated, for example, but they all amount to a bolder and more interesting film than could have been.

Mad Max: Fury Road is, in a word, spectacular, and should be seen on the largest screen possible. Considering its lack of pretension as anything more than an action film, it was pleasing to a nomination for Best Picture at the Oscars this year. Considering the usual predictability of the awards, I would be more than happy to see it win, if anything for a little variety. Alas, such an outcome is unlikely, as the category is full of worthy and more conventional Oscar material. Fury Road’s most obvious talents lay in the technical realms, and this is where it should yield the most results.

The fourth Mad Max may not be the most thought provoking work of 2015, but it succeeds magnificently on its own terms and demonstrates the huge cinematic potential of the action genre. I would still rank it below its aged predecessor, Mad Max 2, which probably has greater depth despite its humble origins. However, this is a more than worthy sequel, invigorating a franchise most would have considered, at best, moribund. There’s still life in the old, mad dog yet, and I can’t wait to see more.

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Oscars 2016 Recap: Bridge of Spies Review

As part of my Oscars 2016 season, I’ll be reviewing some of the most popular nominees of 2015, weighing up their chances to win big at the awards this year. For the first entry, a review of Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies.

Bridge of Spies is a tense, captivating experience with a stellar lead cast and some beautiful set-pieces. Maybe Spielberg has set himself to autopilot, but he remains a master of suspense.

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Mark Rylance and Tom Hanks. Copyright 2015 Dreamworks II Distribution Co., LLC and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

The opening ten minutes or so of Bridge of Spies is undoubtedly its stand out sequence. Hardly a word is spoken as a group of FBI agents stalk their prey, Soviet Spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), moving through the crowded subways and peaceful parks of circa-1957 Brooklyn. Nothing on screen is obviously amiss, but there is a pervasive feeling of unease cutting through the atmosphere. It’s a scene that might feel inane in less competent hands, but the technical prowess of 69 year-old Steven Spielberg remains evident. Within the first few frames, it is clear that atmosphere serves as the key to this film; from the snowy back streets of East Berlin, to an air force base in Pakistan, Bridge of Spies feels authentic to its cold war backdrop, helping to create a thoroughly believable world.

The picture’s greatest strength however, is in its emphasis on character; there is little time spent on the technicalities of international espionage, or the American criminal justice system. Fundamentally, it’s a human tale, the story of individuals who are both out of place and out of depth in an unforgiving world. The cast is primarily held together by its two leads; Tom Hanks is excellent as James B Donovan, an insurance lawyer unexpectedly thrown into the world of espionage and international negotiations when he is called upon to defend an exposed Soviet spy. However, particular praise must go to Mark Rylance, who gives a sympathetic and understated portrayal of the accused spy, Rudolf Abel. It’s a performance that casually moves from vulnerability, to stoicism, to humour, and does so in a restrained, quiet manner, which has thankfully been recognised with a supporting actor nomination at the Academy Awards.

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Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel. Copyright 2015 Dreamworks II Distribution Co., LLC and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

The story revolves around the 1960 U2 crisis, blending real history with cinematic embellishments to heighten the stakes. It all makes for an enjoyable and rewarding cold-war thriller, although it’s difficult to shake a sense of rigidity in Spielberg’s style. As with much of the director’s work since the turn of the century, there appears to be an aversion to taking any real risks. Bridge of Spies won’t leave you guessing, and the film’s final few moments fall into by-the-numbers Spielbergian sentimentality. It’s beautifully shot, superbly-acted, and the story is competently told, but the opening sequence of the film promises a style that doesn’t quite deliver.

Bridge of Spies has been produced with a masterful level of craft. Spielberg and his collaborators, including usual cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and featuring the Coen Brothers on script-duty, have fashioned an entertaining and character-driven story. John Williams is notably missing from the roll-call, with Thomas Newman serving as an able replacement, but otherwise its business as usual for the aged auteur. When the credits roll, there simply isn’t much food for thought. The history is depicted semi-faithfully, while the final few sequences create a palpable air of tension, but it’s difficult to find yourself engaging on an emotional level. Despite its few nominations, Bridge of Spies is unlikely to make waves at the Oscars. Perhaps not Spielberg’s best, but for taut spy cinema done properly, look no further.

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