John Wick (Stahelski & Leitch, 2014)

What's it about? Soon after the death of his wife, the grieving John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is attacked in his home by a gang of intruders. But, wouldn't you know it, turns out Wick is a legendary assassin and he's coming out of retirement to exact his revenge. Uh-oh. People die.

Is it any good? Not sure how this ended up in cinemas as it's obviously a video game, with some bogus expository cut-scenes to break up the bodacious action as Neo...sorry...Wick fights through various levels before getting to the Boss fight. Someone will probably adapt it into a film.

Anything else I should know? The first-time directors are both renowned Hollywood stuntmen and their obvious insider know-how means the extended action sequences are splendidly choreographed as Neo...sorry...Wick kills a shed-load of bad-guys in ruthlessly efficient style. Here's a handy chart which records all Neo's...sorry...Wick's killcount. Now 50, Reeves, sporting a snappy suit and a trim beard, still cuts a pretty cool figure, except when he has to act, of course. Mercifully, the directors don't seem to concerned about that, or about plot or dialogue, so he's safe enough. Expect a franchise.

What does the Fonz think? Save point break.

The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum, 2014)

What's it about? The story of Alan Turing, the genius who helped crack the Nazi Enigma code during WWII, only to be persecuted in later years for his homosexuality.

Is it any good? The story is so good, you'd have to try hard to mess it up completely (although that didn't stop the makers of Engima back in 2001). Anyhow, this is a solidly assembled piece, relying heavily on an affecting performance by Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing to overcome a slightly clunky framing device and narration. It has drew criticism for playing around with hard facts, but screenwriter Graham Moore, who won a slightly surprising Best Adapted Screenplay for his work here, has argued that the film remains true to the overall story and character. I'm inclined to agree with that, but it's a pity the makers don't trust the audiences with a little more intelligence here - rather than find a way to make the work and breakthroughs of Turing (and his team) accessible, they simply present him as some sort of autistic Rainman type, unable to articulate his views to others. It does him and his methods a bit of a disservice and will no doubt leave some viewers a little frustrated at the dumbing-down of the science and work involved. In the end, it's unlikely to stick long in the memory as a film, but if it inspires folk to read a little more about the work and legacy of Turing, it's done some good.

Anything else I should know? Well, on that note, you can read all about the fact vs fiction of Turing's life and work here. You really should, you know.

I don't trust you. What do others think? It seems not everyone is happy that Turing - a mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, philosopher, widely considered to be the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence - ever turned his hand to science. If you're using a computer to read this, best be careful.

Maybe, but that sign doesn't look hand-written

What does the Fonz think? I give it 0111 out of 1010

Buy it on Amazon

DEF Triple Bill

Continuing the 2015 Alphabet Film Project with another post, this time brought to you by the number 3 and the letters D-E-F.

Previously on the Alphabet Film Project....


The original Django (Sergio Corbucci, 1966) has a great opening scene in which drifting gunslinger Django (a suitably flinty Franco Nero) determinedly drags a coffin behind him through the desert. Who is he? Where is he going? And who, or what, is in the damn coffin?

And so the scene is set for some bloody violence as he pitches up in a muddy town torn apart by fighting between two rival gangs and proceeds to rack up an pretty genocidal body count, which garnered the film a reputation as one of the most violent ever made. Nowadays, you'd see similar levels of violence down the local playground, but there's still an impressively grimy quality to the violence on show here and a couple of moments to make you wince. It's undoubtedly rough around the edges, but it all leads to a memorable ending as Django faces a shootout with the bad guys, but is unable to use his guns properly because of his broken hands (his mangled hands a reference to jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, who had a paralyzed hand). Fans of A Fistful of Dollars might note the similarities between the two films, which is not surprising, since the story goes that both Corbucci and Sergio Leone had seen Kurosawa's Yojimbo a few days apart and were inspired to make their own versions of the film. Although Leone's film was out first and is better, Django has proven equally influential, spawning over 30 sequels, although most of them are unofficial rip-offs which don't let the complete absence of the character Django in their plots stop them using his name in their titles. More recently, of course, Quentin Tarantino paid homage in his remake Django Unchained, which gives Nero a cameo and uses the same catchy theme tune. Worth a look.

How did the makers of Esio Trot (Dearbhla Walsh, 2014) manage to make a feature length film out of Roald Dahl's slim source novel? The answer, unfortunately, is by fleshing out the basic story with James Corden as a narrator striding the streets of London regaling us, and random passers-by, the story, like some sort of demented chugger. I don't know what Dahl would have made of Corden's cheeky chappy, man-of-the-people persona, but I suspect, nay hope, he would have dreamed up a deliciously macabre fate for the bloke. Anyhow, thankfully the makers also cast Dustin Hoffman and Judi Dench as the two shy elderly neighbours who fall in love, following a lot of tortoise related hijinks, which provides the heart of the film. They are so effortlessly lovely in the roles, it's easy to forget it's a story about two weird OAPs stalking each other. 

Ever have a bad birthday party? It can't have been worse than the one in the blackly comic Festen (Thomas Vinterberg, 1998), which sees a family gather for their father's 60th birthday, only for the eldest son to publicly accuse him of sexually abusing him as a child. Hardly laugh-a-minute stuff, but Vinterberg mines some dark humour from the uncomfortable material as he nods to class satires like Bunuel's The Exterminating Angel and Renoir's La Règle du jeu in the reactions of the various guests to the revelations. It's also notable for being the first film made under Dogme 95 rules, a style of film-making initiated by Vinterberg and fellow Danish director Lars von Trier which aimed to wrest back control of films from studios by eschewing special effects and technological tricks to focus on traditional values of story-telling. As such, the hand-held camera and gloomy, naturally lit interiors enhance the claustrophobic story and make it a film that's hard to warm to. But it's worth catching if you fancy getting out of your comfort zone.

That's all for today, folks, next time it's - can you guess? - G, H, I.

Oscar Catch-Up Double Bill

Another couple of films that showed up on Oscar night, which I finally I caught up with. Both worth a watch.

Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller, 2014) didn't convert any of its five Oscar nominations into wins, the voters presumably a little reluctant to fully endorse a chilly, queasy film about male insecurity and Greco-Roman wrestling. Based on a true story, it tells of how eccentric, reclusive billionaire John du Pont (Steve Carrell) invited Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) to set up a training camp on his estate, only for tensions to rise when Mark's more celebrated brother David (Mark Ruffalo) also joins the team. Events unfold with a deliberately slow pace, which will test the patience of some viewers, but it's worth sticking with, not least for the fine performances from the three leads. Carrell, nominated for Best Actor, is a long way from his usual comedy roles here, playing a sort of warped version of Michael Scott, The Office role that made his name. Here, du Pont is similarly a rather socially inept guy and wannabe mentor/father figure to 'his' team. The difference is there's few laughs here, with a distinct Dracula vibe creeping into his portrayal of a lonely recluse leeching on the red-blooded exploits of others. Tatum and Ruffalo are also excellent in a fraught relationship which recalls the fraternal tensions of another sports drama, Raging Bull. It does all move rather slowly, though - when it should be quickly forcing us into submission, it instead takes too long to tighten its grip and squeeze, meaning many will have tapped out before the end. Still, it's a fascinating story and an unusual sports drama to look out for.

Citizenfour (Laura Poitras, 2014) walked off with the Best Documentary Oscar, and no doubt the exact details of who voted for and against it recorded and stored for future blackmail purposes by shadowy government officials. It's a riveting account of how Poitras and journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill helped whistle-blower Edward Snowden break the story about invasive NSA surveillance techniques used by the US government to spy on its citizens. As an important tale of real-life espionage, it gains immediacy and tension from the fly-on-the-wall footage of the meetings with Snowden as he reveals his secrets and reacts to the political shit-storm he has created. That siad, it's not a film intended to gain much insight into Snowden's motivations or character - he never wanted to become the crux of the story - but there's glimpses of his inner turmoil at what he has unleashed which is fascinating to watch. Ultimately, the technical details of what he reveals may be lost on many viewers, but there's no doubting the overall conclusions about the ability of the US government to place everyone under surveillance via technology, which means a very real Big Brother exists in our increasingly 1984-esque world. Perhaps the scariest thing is that despite the revelations, we are now such slaves to technology that we won't stop using it, assuming that we aren't important enough for Big Brother to worry about. We have won the battle against ourselves, we love Big Brother. Not me, though, I'm safe because I've got my tin-foil hat on and I'm writing this from under a blanket.

Oscar Catch-Up Triple Bill

Behind the curve as always, but thought I better give a low-down on some of the Oscar-winners from last Sunday night. More to follow as soon as I get time to write the reviews.

Birdman (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2014) was the big winner on Oscar night, taking home four awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Set almost entirely in a Broadway theatre, it's about the struggles of an ageing movie star Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) to stage a 'meaningful' play, thereby atoning for the vacuous comic-book Birdman movies he made purely for the money in Hollywood. Naturally, the fact that Keaton once played Batman lends the film a distinct life-imitating-art edge as it gleefully pokes fun at the machinations of Hollywood and the up-their-own-arse actors who populate it. Keaton in particular is terrific as the star on the verge of a breakdown, with good support from Edward Norton as an obnoxious method actor and Naomi Watts as his put-upon girlfriend. In depicting Riggan's fragile mental state, there's also a playfully odd element to proceedings which lends the film a certain magical realism, right through to an ending which will no doubt baffle/delight in equal measures. The real achievement here, though, is that the film is seemingly filmed as one take. There are hidden edits to create that illusion, so it's not as amazing as Russian Ark, for example, but it's still a pretty impressive technical feat, with carefully choreographed action and several how-did-they-do-that moments, all of which resulted in a richly deserved Best Cinematography Oscar. It also won Best Original Screenplay, although it's not as original as some would have you believe. Woody Allen's Stardust Memories similarly ridiculed/celebrated actorly angst to better effect in the 1980s, whilst Robert Altman's The Player utilized long tracking shots and blurred lines between film and reality when it satirized the movie industry in the 1990s. In the end up, as good as Birdman is, it reminded me of one of those magicians producing birds from nowhere; entertaining and skilful work, with impressively tricksy presentation, but lacking a really long-lasting impact. That constant drumbeat soundtrack also gets annoying very quickly.

A pretty constant drumbeat also infuses Whiplash (Damien Chazelle, 2014), which snared the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for JK Simmon's ferocious performance as a tyrannical, bullying school band leader who terrorises a talented student (Miles Teller) into being the best he can be, but at the distinct risk of cracking up. This does a pretty good job of re-locating the keen-student/angry-mentor relationship more often seen in sports/war dramas to the world of jazz drumming; think of it as Drum Metal Jacket. It's true that beyond the confines of the drum kit, it's less successful, dabbling with a half-hearted romantic sub-plot and a little family drama, but the head-to-heads between the two leads is compelling stuff, with fully committed performances as it builds to an exciting drum solo climax. No, really, it does! Animal would approve.

Big Hero 6 won the Best Animated Picture Oscar and Disney's first real foray into the super-hero genre could well have given the 'real' Best Picture nominees a run for their money. But here's the thing - I kinda wish they had steered clear of the super-hero angle. Not because it isn't good - in fact, it's thoroughly enjoyable - but because the action sequences end up detracting somewhat from the emotional centre of the story about a young boy dealing with the death of a loved one. The first 40 minutes, which focus on science whiz-kid Hiro and his loss, are just terrific, moving and funny by turns, with some laugh-out-loud moments as his healthcare robot Baymax attempts to heal him. However, it then lets a masked villain Scooby-Doo plot take over as it evolves into a super-hero origin story, which means it loses sight a little of that central relationship, something that, say, The Iron Giant, to which this owes some debt, balanced to better effect. That said, Big Hero 6 has an ace up its sleeve in Baymax, a terrific creation, coming across as a benevolent HAL2000 in the body of a Michelin Man. Plus I shouldn't be so down on a film that both celebrates science and champions a can-do attitude. Not to mention the gloriously animated futuristic setting of San Fransokyo, a city which blends Eastern and Western influences to simply stunning effect. It's very good, I just can't help feeling it had greatness within its grasp, only to let it go by following the comic-book crowd. But look, don't mind me, Perhaps I just need a hug. Or a fist-bump. (Fad-da-la-la-da-la-la).