Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Robin Wright, Sylvia Hoeks, Jared Leto
The last few years have seen a number of sequels to long dormant film series: Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Creed, Jurassic World. Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 is something quite different. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, was not a franchise movie. It was not even a box office success. Blade Runner is a cult classic which earned more mainstream recognition over a period of decades, thanks to various re-cuts and re-releases in the ancillary market (specifically the 1992 Director’s Cut and the 2004 Final Cut). While the film had a very cool neo-noir aesthetic and unique sound thanks to Vangelis’ score, the appeal of Blade Runner is largely the ideas it explores. All of this makes returning to the property 35 years down the track a far more interesting challenge than simply rebooting or reviving a proven franchise. Continue reading
1. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)
Thirty years on and Max is still king of the road. It is not often that you see an action movie at the pointy end of lists like this, but in 2015, at the ripe old age of seventy, George Miller took the world’s directors to school. Mad Max: Fury Road showed that a singular creative vision can elevate the action film to the level of art. Miller effectively tapped back into that part of his imagination where Max resides and delivered a visually stunning, kinetic action masterpiece. Tom Hardy steps into Mel Gibson’s shoes but Charlize Theron is the real star. Full review
2. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro G. Iñárritu)
It is exciting to see something you have never seen before, an entirely original cinematic vision. There is no other way to describe Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman. While much was made of its visual style, with the whole film appearing to be one continuous shot, Birdman is so much more than a single shot gimmick. Birdman has complete unity of form and vision. Every cinematic element, without fail, is consistent with Iñárritu’s vision and the thematic concerns of the film. The casting of Michael Keaton and subsequent critical acclaim for his performance also made for one of the stories of late 2014/early 2015. Full review
3. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Alfonso Gomez-Rejon)
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a special little movie, an indie which won over audiences on the festival circuit before getting a theatrical release. It is a coming-of-age story about an insecure high school senior, and aspiring filmmaker, whose mother insists that he befriend a girl from school who has been diagnosed with leukaemia. Genuinely funny without ever undermining the seriousness of its subject matter, touching and poignant without being schmaltzy or overly sentimental, the film is a beautifully affecting piece of cinema brimming with youthful creativity. Full review
4. Ex-Machina (Alex Garland)
The directorial debut from screenwriter Alex Garland, Ex Machina is great small science fiction. A young programmer is invited by his enigmatic boss to put a humanoid robot he has created through a Turing test, a series of interviews intended to determine whether she has achieved artificial intelligence. With only three real characters, Ex Machina is an impressively performed chamber piece which draws its drama out of conversations and dialogue. Shot on a modest budget, that money has clearly been spent in the right places because the visuals are outstanding, with the robot, Ava, being one of the year’s best CG achievements. Full review
5. The Martian (Ridley Scott)
After a pretty underwhelming last decade, Ridley Scott returned to form with The Martian. Following the fight to survive of a botanist left stranded on Mars, it is a different type of science fiction film, one that turns on the solving of problems and seeks to excite us more with its intellect and ideas than with explosions. Carried by the charismatic performance of Matt Damon, The Martian is enjoyable, irreverent and absorbing, a much lighter film than you might expect after reading the one line synopsis. It also features a great disco soundtrack. Full review
6. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams)
In the hands of a director, J.J. Abrams, who grew up with Star Wars and understood what the fans loved about it, The Force Awakens managed to recapture the look, feel and fun of the original trilogy. A transitionary film, it allowed us to catch up with beloved old characters while also introducing a collection of engaging new ones who will carry the franchise forward. Faced with almost impossible levels of expectation, to have people walking out of The Force Awakens not underwhelmed would have been a victory. That audiences have come out of not just satisfied but genuinely excited is a testament to how good it is. Full review
7. Creed (Ryan Coogler)
Sometimes a film gives you something you didn’t even know that you wanted. There were very few people openly hoping for a seventh Rocky movie, but writer-director Ryan Coogler’s Creed, functioning at the same time as a sequel and a remake, was the pleasant surprise of the year. The first Rocky film not written by Stallone, Creed offers a fresh take on the material, knowing when to lean into the cliché and when to turn it on its head. While Rocky himself is only a supporting character in this story, Sylvester Stallone delivers a career best performance. Full review
8. Inside Out (Pete Docter & Ronaldo Del Carmen)
Taking us inside the mind of an eleven year old girl with a cast of characters made up of anthropomorphised emotions, Inside Out arguably represents the zenith of Pixar’s bold originality. Co-directors Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen employ sophisticated visual metaphors to simply and effectively explain how memory, personality, subconscious and dreaming all work. Deceptively simple yet deeply profound, Inside Out is a beautiful film about growing up, farewelling the simplicity of childhood and learning to appreciate the full gamut of emotions that bring depth and texture to life. Full review
9. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Finally The Big Lebowski has a friend in the ‘stoner noir’ subgenre. Inherent Vice is the most flat out enjoyable of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films (a filmmaker whose work in the past I have tended to appreciate rather than enjoy). Set in early 1970s California and featuring some magnificent costumes, Inherent Vice is an aggressively, unapologetically confusing mystery which will require a second or third viewing to comprehend the ins and outs of its multiple narratives. But if you can embrace the confusion and go with the flow, it will only take one viewing to enjoy this humorous head-scratcher. Full review
10. Listen to Me Marlon (Stevan Riley)
Not the most high profile doco of the year, but it was the pick of them for mine. During his life Marlon Brando made hundreds of hours of audio recordings of himself: memos, memories and recollections, self-hypnosis tapes. Listen to Me Marlon uses these recordings to narrate a biographical documentary on the legendary actor. The result is practically a posthumous autobiography, an intimate exploration of a brilliant but tortured soul. Amusing, intriguing, sometimes funny and often quite sad, it is a unique documentary befitting a unique talent. Full review
The Next Best (alphabetical): ’71 (Yann Demange), Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg), The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum), A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor), Selma (Ava DuVernay), Trainwreck (Judd Apatow)
The Worst Movie of the Year:
The Interview (Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg)
If there was one winner out of the Sony hacking scandal it was this horrible film. Cyber terrorists demanding that Sony not release this comedy about an attempt to assassinate Kim Jong-un was a sure fire way of turning a film that would otherwise have shuffled quietly into obscurity into one of the must-sees of early 2015. Attention grabbing concept aside, The Interview did not warrant this spotlight.
Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Kristin Wiig, Aksel Hennie
In a long career that has had its share of hits and misses, Ridley Scott has managed to consistently make one great film per decade. In the 1970s it was Alien. In the 1980s it was Blade Runner. He showed he was more than just a great science fiction director with Thelma & Louise in the 1990s and the swords and sandals epic Gladiator in the 2000s. After a bit of a recent dry patch (Exodus: Gods and Kings, The Counsellor, Prometheus, Robin Hood), Scott has returned to form with a film which could well be his great offering of the 2010s, an adaptation of the Andy Weir novel, The Martian.
The Martian gets straight into it, establishing its scenario instantly. Botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is 18 sols, Mars days, into the Ares III research mission on Mars when an enormous storm hits, forcing his team’s immediate evacuation. Struck by debris and assumed dead, Watney is left behind. But he is not dead. And despite being stranded 55 million kilometres from home, he has no intention of dying. Continue reading
Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Ben Kingsley, Aaron Paul, John Turturro, Sigourney Weaver, Maria Valverde
The Biblical epic used to be a staple genre of Hollywood in the 1950s and 1960s, with films like The Ten Commandments and The Greatest Story Ever Told being amongst the biggest productions in Hollywood. Over the last fifty years, with the marketplace becoming increasingly secular, the Biblical film has largely disappeared from the mainstream. It is therefore a peculiarity that 2014 has seen not one but two major films based on Old Testament narratives, first Darren Aronofsky’s Noah and now Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings.
While timing dictates that there will be comparisons made between Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings, they are very different films. While Aronofsky’s film is very much a think piece, Scott’s is much more of a modern incarnation of the traditional Biblical epic – it is a big movie and all the main characters sport British accents. It has been 14 years since Scott breathed life into the swords-and-sandals epic with Gladiator, and Exodus: Gods and Kings employs a similar size and scale. The story of the son of Hebrew slaves raised as an Egyptian prince, who after a period of exile returns with the God of Israel behind him to free his people from 400 years of bondage provides opportunities for real spectacle with the various plagues, the cavalry’s pursuit of the Hebrews and the pièce de résistance, the parting of the Red Sea.
Christian Bale’s Moses is an interesting character. An intelligent and eloquent man, this Moses is not a spiritual man. As an Egyptian, he puts no stock in the advice of the mystics the Pharaoh consults. As a Hebrew, he is scolded by his wife for sowing seeds of doubt in their son’s mind. So when he encounters God at the burning bush, he must first confront the notion that there is a God before considering that God has a task for him. If Moses has faith in anything it is in his own abilities. As an experienced military general, he sets out to win his people’s freedom by training up their militia for guerrilla warfare, only to have God step in with a much faster and more drastic plan. As this plan escalates we see Moses becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the extent of the catastrophe. The question about Moses that isn’t quite answered, though, is what is his motivation? While he is shown to be a just man, he doesn’t have a particular devotion to the Hebrew people. Similarly, he is not presented as an obedient servant of God. We never really know why he is doing what he is doing, other than that is how the story goes.
Exodus: Gods and Kings has a peculiar relationship with the spiritual elements of the story, which is an odd statement to make about a Biblical film, but perhaps not surprising given the director’s agnosticism. The film toys with, without committing to, the idea that Moses’ interactions with God could be delusions. His first encounter with God, who is given the form of a mysterious 11 year old boy, occurs after he has been hit on the head and knocked unconscious during a landslide. Later we see him talking to God, and are then shown the point of view of other characters who see Moses seemingly in animated conversation with himself. This decision to give God the form of a child is also an interesting one. Obviously the booming voice from on high like in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments doesn’t cut the mustard anymore, but giving God the form of a child means that at those moments when God is shown to be angry and vengeful, it comes across as petulant. The film takes an awkward middle ground between embracing the idea that these events were miraculous and seeking to explain them as naturally occurring phenomena. There is no daily ultimatum to Rhamses to “Let my people go” between each plague. Instead the plagues are shown to be naturally escalating one to the next. The blood in the Nile kills all the fish and drives the frogs to the land, when the frogs die that brings the flies, the flies then bring the disease which kills the livestock and the boils which infect the people. Similarly, Moses plays no direct role in parting the Red Sea. Rather the water retreats as it would before a tsunami.
I don’t believe in criticising a film like this for deviating from its Biblical source material. As with any biographical or historical film, deviation in itself is not a problem if it has purpose. A filmmaker needs to be afforded some poetic license in their attempts to turn these well-known but often bare-bones stories into full and vibrant pieces of cinema. But the potentially lucrative Christian market at which this film is targeted can be a tough market to please. Noah was attacked earlier this year for deviating from the Biblical account even though it did so for a specific purpose, with Darren Aronofsky having a clear vision for that film and for the message that he was using the Noah narrative to communicate. Exodus: Gods and Kings, on the other hand, deviates seemingly without rhyme or reason and is sure to ruffle some feathers. This is indicative not of a Biblical accuracy problem, but of a basic story problem. It doesn’t seem to know what story it wants to tell.
There are numerous angles you can take in telling the story of Moses and the Exodus, but Exodus: Gods and Kings does not seem to have settled on any one particular approach. Four writers have been credited on the film – Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine and Steve Zaillian – and this might go some way to explaining this narrative uncertainty. The result is not really a story of faith nor is it a story of a people. It is not quite a story of Moses’ development into a leader. The closest it comes to a focus is in being a story of two brothers, Moses and Rhamses – an interpretation that takes on particular significance when we see the film is dedicated to Ridley Scott’s late brother Tony – but even then it doesn’t completely invest in this take on the story.
Ultimately, the key test that Exodus: Gods and Kings fails is the “why” question. If you are going to remake a movie or revisit a story, particularly a story that has been told and retold as many times as that of Moses and the Exodus, there should be a reason. There should be something new you want to say, a new idea, a new interpretation, a new point of emphasis. But as much as Scott’s film nails the big spectacle elements – the plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, even just the recreation of ancient Egypt are all top notch – it lacks a clear central message and ends up just being a bit of a mess.
Review by Duncan McLean
Have you seen Exodus: Gods and Kings? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.
Director: Baillie Walsh
Starring: The Fans, Bruce Springsteen, the E Street Band
While many rock stars over the year have had fanatical fans, very few have had a fan-base as devoted and loyal as that of Bruce Springsteen. One of the reasons that even after more than three decades of touring Bruce Springsteen and the E Street band are still one of the very best live acts in the world is the way that Springsteen connects with his audience. His fans both worship him and identify with him. For many millions of fans the music of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band is the soundtrack to their lives. His songs speak to the lives of ordinary, working class people and validate their experiences. I once heard Springsteen described as having written a song about every beer you ever drank. In Springsteen & I a young Asian woman talks about riding her bicycle to work at Jamba Juice early in the morning, listening to The Boss and being made to feel like through her labour she was “the backbone of America.”
Executive produced by Ridley Scott, Springsteen & I is effectively a fan-film. Fans were invited to record their own messages, memories and reflections. These submissions have been compiled together by director Baillie Walsh and punctuated with concert footage from different points in Springsteen’s long career.
Rather than any sort of narrative or career overview, this diverse fan base which crosses continents and generations gives us a series of very personal moments and encounters – whether the man who went to a concert dressed as Elvis in the hope of fulfilling a lifelong dream of singing with the Boss, the women who went with her “I’ll be your Courtney Cox” sign and got invited up to dance, the busker who saw him in the street and had an impromptu jam session, or the man dumped by his girlfriend the day before the concert who was invited up on stage for a hug. In a number of cases these stories are brought to life by the inclusion of archival footage from the relevant concert. Devoted fans tell us, in their own words, what Bruce Springsteen means to them. Some are funny, some are touching, some offer way too much information (one woman lost her virginity to ‘Thunder Road,’ another talks in detail about discovering her womanhood as an early teenager seeing Springsteen dance to the saxophone solo in ‘Jungleland’), but all are sincere.
The strength of Springsteen & I lies in its authenticity. With all of the films contributors having shot their own footage on devices of differing quality and with differing levels of thought and preparation given to what they would say and where they would say it, the end result is a film which is completely lacking in pretention. Walsh obviously recognised the importance of this authenticity so does minimal cleaning up of people’s recordings. This results in a bit of awkwardness, as we see people stopping and starting over, getting up to turn off or adjust the camera, and so on, but rather than being off-putting the lack of polish feels appropriate given Springsteen’s standing as a working class hero.
Springsteen & I gives us insight into fandom of an equally powerful but less extreme nature than we have seen in documentaries on Comicon or Trekkies. It also gives you some idea of the incredible pressure someone like Springsteen must be under with so many millions of people around the world having such a strong emotional investment in him and his music. Springsteen & I will be of interest not just to fans who can identify with the stories but also to anyone interested in trying to understand what the big deal is.
Rating – ★★★
Review by Duncan McLean