The Girl With All The Gifts

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United Kingdom | 23 September 2016 | Directed by Colm McCarthy | Starring: Sennia Nanua, Gemma Arterton, Glenn Close, Paddy Considine, Fisayo Akinade


Don’t be put off by the newest addition to post-apocalyptic canon. Colm McCarthy’s The Girl with All the Gifts is a true British film, meaning it comes with a rejuvenating degree of grit, innovative wit and indie melancholia that can be enjoyed by more than just those who revel in the mindless head-popping of Hollywood zombie flicks. Mike Carey’s screenplay adaptation of his novel of the same name, adds a twist to the usual survival drama, with a conflicted young protagonist undergoing a journey of self-discovery in a society being recycled.

The film begins in a secure bunker come prison, in which the military are holding mysterious child inmates who spend most of their time fastened to wheelchairs. The children are treated like animals by a squadron of pitiless guards until they are wheeled into a classroom to be taught by a contrastingly affectionate teacher, Helen Justineau, played by Gemma Arterton. We quickly realise that one girl, Melanie, played by the astonishing newcomer Sennia Nanua, is noticeably more attentive, intelligent and essentially ‘gifted’ than the other children, despite all possessing a defining hostile trait.

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This opening bunker act is particularly brilliant, as until the base is finally breached by the inevitable zombie attack, the audience is never exposed to or even informed about the outside world. Like the children, who clearly know nothing else but this grey, windowless environment (apart from what they learn in Justineau’s story-time), we are literally kept in the dark – until all hell breaks loose.

Melanie’s first view of the outside world is a blood-drenched battle between military and feral infected hoards, which are more related to the terrifying athletic zombies of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later as opposed to the stumbling undead of Romero fame. It’s unfortunate that the intriguing bunker section which echoes works like The Handmaid’s Tale and Children of Men does not last longer, as post zombie attack, the film quickly resorts to the pattern of most dystopian road movies.

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We are left with a mismatch group including Melanie, Justineau, a handful of soldiers led by pragmatic yet crestfallen sergeant Eddie Parks (Paddy Considine) and the heartless head scientist, Dr. Caroline Caldwell, who wants to sacrifice Melanie to develop a cure against whatever has zombified society. Caldwell, excellently portrayed by the formidable Glenn Close, unabashedly shares her motives to the rest of the group and never sees the child as anything other than a potential cure for humanity.

This lends an interesting facet to the story, in that Caldwell’s desire to kill Melanie positions her as a villain, yet ironically her motives are legitimate and her insensitive, scientific approach is really just an unrelenting determination to save mankind. Whereas Justineau’s affection for Melanie and her recognition of her as a human rather than a specimen, whilst gracious and well-intentioned, is ultimately counter-productive towards serving the greater good. Nonetheless, we undoubtedly sympathise with Melanie and want her to survive no matter what, despite her troubling position within the group. 

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Caldwell presumes that saving humanity goes without saying and that she almost has a implicit duty to provide a solution if she can. Yet the ultimate issue becomes whether humanity is even worth saving, if there is a more powerful species in question that is more adapted to the new world. Every member of the group is clinging on to a past life that was better than their current state, and they want to return to a state of normality. Yet Melanie never knew the world pre-apocalypse, and everything that the rest of the group perceives as destroyed, bleak or threatening; Melanie sees as new, exciting and fully at her disposal.

Accompanied by a mesmerising score from Cristobal Tapia de Veer, we experience a transforming London through Melanie’s eyes. With the urban ruins overcome with moss and vine, slowly burying the memory of what was once the earth’s centre, we see nature reclaiming its planet and resetting civilisation and the evolutionary process, a concept we are much more accustomed to seeing within the Planet of the Apes series. It is less a story about the end of the world than it is about the beginning of a new one.

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What is slightly unsatisfying about The Girl with All the Gifts is that Carey’s story is very similar to that of the beautifully cinematic post-apocalyptic video game The Last of Us, which centres on a single girl, Ellie, who is immune to a worldwide fungal infection that has effectively turned everyone into zombies. Like Melanie, Ellie must ultimately be sacrificed in order for humans to have their only chance at developing a cure, in what is arguably a more dramatic and emotional story with a powerful finale, which The Girl with All the Gifts definitely falls short on. Essentially the game’s enduring popularity within the zombie genre makes The Girl with All the Gifts slightly less original than critics are giving it credit for. Yet moviegoers, who will never come across The Last of Us, will enjoy this refreshingly intelligent and stylish addition to the zombie phenomenon, which should not be avoided because of its overcrowded, clichéd and generally low-brow subject matter.

The Clan / El Clan

Bath Film Festival 2016 – Preview

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Crime/Thriller | Argentina | 2016 | 108 mins | 15 | Directed by: Pablo Trapero | Starring: Guillermo Francella, Peter Lanzani, Lili Popovich, Gastón Cocchiarale, Giselle Motta, Antonia Bengoechea | Produced by: Pedro Almodóvar, Agustín Almodóvar, Hugo Sigman, Esther García, Matías Mosteirín, Axel Kuschevatzky


From an outsider’s perspective, Arquímedes Puccio would have seemed like the conservative and obsessively tidy father of any other middle-class, church-going family in the traditional suburb of San Isidro. Yet behind closed doors, this supposedly pious patriarch, along with his wife and five children, orchestrated the brutal kidnappings of several wealthy neighbours to extort sizeable ransoms from their relatives.

One of the Argentina’s most notorious criminal cases is being brought back into the public eye as acclaimed Argentine auteur Pablo Trapero (Carancho, White Elephant) and the production outfit behind Damián Szifron’s Wild Tales, tells the sensational story of ‘The Clan’, from the point of view of the perpetrators, whose crimes were so surprising and upsetting that many locals refused to believe any of it was true.

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These events transpired in the years following the end of the ‘Dirty War’, a period of state terrorism in Argentina throughout the 1970s and 80s, during which kidnapping, torture and murder were frequent occurrences in every community. The dictatorship led by Jorge Rafael Videla saw the ‘disappearances’ of an estimated 30,000 dissidents as right-wing death squads hunted down anyone posing a political threat. After the fall of the military junta, former state intelligence worker Puccio, played in the film by local star Guillermo Francella, continued to use his abduction skills to earn him some extra cash during the early days of a democracy that he was convinced wouldn’t last.

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You may recognise Francella from the Oscar-winning crime thriller, The Secret in Their Eyes, but he’s known chiefly as a comic actor in Argentina, purposely cast in The Clan to subvert expectations as a shark-eyed psychopath. The actor even lived in the same area as the Puccio family and often saw them in the neighbourhood. Francella is joined by newcomer Peter Lanzini, who plays Alejandro, the eldest Puccio son and a local celebrity, who assists in identifying targets for his father despite his promising rugby career.

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Director Pablo Trapero was only a boy when he witnessed the news coverage of the Puccio’s crimes and has been determined to revisit the story ever since. However, gaining the necessary information proved difficult. Two of the surviving members of the Puccio family still own the same house, yet deny being Puccios at all, having changed their names. Instead, Trapero reached out to the victims’ families, Alejandro’s team-mates and lawyers offering case files and recordings of the calls with ransom demands. The director was terrified about the responses of the victims’ families to the film, yet they were actually delighted as they felt it gave the victims the justice they deserved.

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Following in the successful footsteps of Wild Tales (which previewed at BFF 2014), the story that rattled a nation has grabbed the public’s attention once again. In the film’s opening weekend, 53% of Argentinians who went to the cinema saw The Clan, meaning it achieved the strongest ever opening for an Argentine film with half a million admissions in four days, before heading to the world stage at the Venice and Toronto film festivals.

Trapero suggests that The Clan may have enabled a national catharsis, giving audiences an opportunity to finally reflect on past tragedies. Yet, in recent years, Argentina was shaken by the mysterious death of a prosecutor who had accused the then-president of covering up a 1994 terrorist attack; and a scandal over the country’s spy agency has revealed that some agents from the ‘Dirty War’ are still linked to the intelligence services, indicating that a sense of hidden horrors still reverberates through Argentine society today.

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‘The Clan’/’El Clan’ will be screened at the Chapel Arts Centre as part of Bath Film Festival 2016 on Sunday 6 November, 8.10pm. For more information visit http://www.bathfilmfestival.org.uk

Forever Pure

Bath Film Festival 2016 – Preview

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Documentary | Israel | 2016 | 85 mins | Directed by: Maya Zinshtein | Produced by: Maya Zinshtein, Geoff Arbourne, John Battsek, Nicole Stott | Cinematography: Sergei Freedman, Yaniv Linton, Ross McDonnell | Editors: Justine Wright, Noam Amit


When investigative journalist Maya Zinshtein was asked to film a short segment about the arrival of two Chechen players at the infamous Israeli football team Beiter Jerusalem F.C., she had no idea of the uncontrollable chaos that would ensue within the team and throughout society as a whole.

Israel’s most popular and controversial football club was established in 1936 as part of a nationalist Israeli movement and, to this day, politics and ideology take precedence over football itself. Beitar has always been a powerful symbol and vocal platform for the city’s right-wing Jews, and although there are foreign players in the side, it still remains the only Premier League club to have never signed an Arab.

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Zinshtein begins documenting the team during the 2012-13 season, after its Russian billionaire owner Arcadi Gaydamak decides to unexpectedly sign 19-year-old defender Dzhabrail Kadiyev and 23-year-old striker Zaur Sadayev, following a harmless friendly in Chechnya. Although not Arabs, the new players are devout Muslims, which consequently enrages the clubs extremist faction known as ‘La Familia’. The nationalist group took over the eastern bleachers in Beitar’s Teddy Stadium in 2005, and despite providing players with plenty of love, the fans often incurred penalties for the team because of their bad behaviour. They have become notorious for vehement chants that insult Arab players and even proudly boast being ‘the most racist team in the country’. What the unwelcome arrival of the Chechens manages to worryingly expose, is that this inherent racism is not only limited to a few zealots in the eastern terrace.

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‘Forever Pure’ reveals the way in which politicians have exploited the club’s immensely loyal fan base to springboard their campaigns, and it is the returned support of these political figures that legitimises the racism in the stadium and allows it to thrive. While laundering money in Israel, after organising arms trafficking during the Angolan Civil War in the 90s, owner Gaydamak ran for mayor of Jerusalem in 2008, and openly financed La Familia to increase his chances. However, he wasn’t as lucky as some of his predecessors, only achieving 3.6% of the vote. Is it possible that the inflammatory acquisition of the Chechens was perhaps an act of revenge for the betrayal of the Jewish public?

After producing the revealing 2010 documentary, Thieves By Law, which charted the rise of Russian organised crime in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union, Zinshtien sticks to similarly unsavoury subject matter with her directorial debut. When she realised the potential of the Beitar story, she decided to capture the events in their entirety. Amazingly, the director was granted access to all the parties involved, in a threatening, male-dominated environment in which she was a complete stranger.

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The film world premiered in competition at the Jerusalem Film Festival and won the awards of Best Documentary and Best Editing. It also screened at TIFF, and as it travels the world it will surely become a major talking point for cinema audiences. It’s message will be particularly important following the news that FIFA disbanded its anti-racism taskforce this September, declaring that it had “completely fulfilled its temporary mission”. However, as ludicrous as this may seem, ‘Forever Pure’ uncovers some fundamental social issues that unfortunately extend beyond the boundaries of the footballing world.

‘Forever Pure’ will be screened at the Chapel Arts Centre as part of Bath Film Festival 2016 on Sunday 6 November, 6:00pm. For more info visit http://www.bathfilmfestival.org.uk

 

Steve Jobs

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United States | 13 November 2015 | Directed by Danny Boyle | Starring: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg, Katherine Waterston


So it’s now that time of year, with the Awards season looming, that all the Oscar bait starts to appear, including the traditional biographical portrait of an inspirational figure. Last year, there was The Theory of EverythingSelma, Unbroken, The Imitation Game and American Sniper, all of which were victorious or were nominated at all the top awards ceremonies. In the past few decades, we’ve seen films like Lincoln, The King’s Speech, The Blind Side, The Queen, The Aviator, JFK and Ghandi receive the highest acclaim, yet ultimately these films are celebrated the year they are released and are quickly forgotten.

When it comes to the awards themselves these films are essentially praised on a political basis for their earnest subject matter, rather than being judged on how visually stimulating, emotionally engaging and downright entertaining they are. The biopics of last year touched on sentimental subjects, which would inevitably pull on the heartstrings of the film industry voters, yet I was relieved to see the masterpiece of magical realism, Birdman, win the big prize.

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This year, Steve Jobs is the biopic big-hitter, which will likely be nominated along with the other biographical contenders Trumbo, The Danish Girl, Joy and Black Mass. As one may guess from the blatant title, Director Danny Boyle’s latest film recounts the successes and failures of the co-creator of Apple, who pioneered a technological revolution a series of computers and devices that now dictate our everyday lives.

Aaron Sorkin would probably scream if he knew I had placed his film in the same boat as some of the biopics previously mentioned, because the script, structure and general aesthetic of the film seem to be purposely unconventional and adventurous. Steve Jobs is far from your average cradle-to-grave story, as instead of summing up the Apple founder’s career, we only witness three key moments in his and the company’s history, resulting in a film that consists of only three scenes or ‘acts’ if you will.

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The entire film was indeed written, rehearsed and performed like a stage play with the focus being on the constant succession of conveniently queued conversations between Jobs and the usual suspects of the Apple dynasty. Each act is set during the stressful minutes before the launch of the newest product: the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT in 1988, and the iMac in 1998, where previously repressed truths and anxieties are brought to the fore causing many clashes of brainy heads.

On each occasion, Steve falls in to conflict with his puppet engineer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) who’s doing the best job he can; Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) who is fighting Jobs for overall power; co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) seeking recognition for the original Apple team; his neglected daughter Lisa and her mother Chrisaan (Katherine Waterston) seeking financial aid and a caring father, and his ‘work wife’ Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) who is desperately attempting to control the chaos and keep the insolent Jobs in check.

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To recreate the tone and feeling of the separate eras, Danny Boyle impressively constructed the film in three different formats: 16mm, 35mm and digital, each with their own specific lighting, production design and the way they were shot, visually enhances the progression of Jobs and the company from its manic and rebellious beginning to its sleek and controlled conclusion.

Each act is effectively a duplicate of itself, as whilst the characters’ relationships and the levels of power have slightly altered every time, the audience essentially enters the same tedious merry-go-round of one-on-one battles, with characters taking very predictable turns to have another yell at Jobs. Thankfully, owing to the delightfully comic and gripping verbal gymnastics that Sorkin provided in the script and the impassioned acting that does them justice, we can get through without dozing off.

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What is perhaps even more unconventional than the film’s structure, is the negative light in which Jobs is displayed. Just like Jesse Eisenberg’s unbearably cocky Mark Zuckerberg in Sorkin’s previous tech-nerd biopic The Social Network, Steve Jobs is utterly unlikeable from start to finish. From the way he bullies Hertzfeld and rejects Wozniak, to how he completely denies paternity of Lisa and reluctantly gives assistance to the poverty-striken Chrisaan after her desperate pleads for Steve to recognise and support his daughter. From the first act, there is not one good attribute to draw from this obnoxious, arrogant, condescending and inherently cold character. In each squabble, you find yourself always rooting for Jobs’ opponent, as the way he treats people would suggest he has some kind of social or mental issues.

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Beneath the vulgar behaviour, it really is hard to find any of the genius that we are supposedly watching this film in order to witness. You start to realise the truth that the real brains behind the computers were people like Wozniak and Hertzfeld. The only thing Jobs was a nerd for was marketing and design. He knew how to make thinks look nice and simple to use, which crucially is all the average consumer is really interested in. He was able to rein in the tech wizs when they got to carried away with making super computers that the average person would never understand. At one point, Wozniak does question Jobs’ significance, to which Jobs answers: “Musicians play their instruments. I play the orchestra.” Essentially, Jobs’ genius was in the way he could make anyone do what he wanted just by the eloquence of his tongue. He may have not been the leader that everyone liked, but without him Apple would have gone nowhere.

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The defining moments of Steve Jobs are the relentless arguments, choreographed here like action sequences constantly building on top of each other, leading to the big crescendo that is the product launch – which Sorkin and Boyle divisively don’t show a second of. There is a real sense that we are witnessing a more truthful ‘behind-the-scenes’ depiction of what the real Jobs was like – something closer to a maniacal, oppressive dictator rather than the inspiring, lovable Godlike genius we are used to seeing on stage and screen. Sorkin has undoubtedly embellished some of Jobs’ characteristics, not to mention the turn of events, but he, along with Michael Fassbender’s outstanding embodiment, has constructed a central figure that is refreshing and unpredictable – so frustrating to watch, but at the same time undeniably enjoyable.

The problem with the character is that he is wholly unsympathetic. We are supposed to pity Jobs when we flashback to when Sculley and the board unanimously give him the sack, as the rain chucks down outside. Yet we’ve been given no reason up to this point, to be on his side. Similarly in the 1998 act, where Jobs has exhibited the same amount of repulsive behaviour as he did back in 1984, suddenly he has a sentimental moment with a certain character where he shows a shred of humanity and compassion, a tenth of what any real person would give in that situation,   and it’s as if all his previous actions have been completely vindicated. Boyle then stages an overly epic and glorifying ending sequence where Jobs goes on stage with the grand clamour of The Maccabees’ ‘Grew Up At Midnight’ in the background. The audience, along with this other character, are meant to look on in awe at our so called ‘hero’ in what is a complete abomination of an ending.

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There has been some outrage from various people involved with Apple who have argued Steve Jobs takes too much dramatic license and completely abandons the truth in favour of fictionalised and exaggerated events, which it totally does and Sorkin has owned up to, explaining that entertainment is always prioritised over accuracy. The monster Sorkin has created is indeed entertaining, but at the same time, I can’t help but think if you have to fictionalise and exaggerate the material as much as Sorkin has to make it interesting, what is left? Is there anything tangible or truly enlightening about Jobs that the audience can take away from this?

It may be cynical to suggest that Steve Jobs is simply Oscar bait. It was undeniably a satisfying cinema experience with a few great Sorkin-penned quotes to take home and some memorable performances from Fassbender and surprisingly Seth Rogen, who is superb at playing the serious guy for once. Yet the more I think about the reason this film was made, the more I feel like Steve Jobs’s name was just picked out of a hat – just like the self-wringing mop inventor’s name probably was for David O’ Russell’s next movie Joy. Who could Sorkin be writing about next… Bill Gates? Larry Page? Hewlett and Packard?

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Jobs was an influential megalomaniac whose success is worthy of praise and character worthy of study and I appreciate the fact that the film (like the man himself) was risky, confident and innovative, but despite trying to desperately avoid being a tiresome, predictably glorifying biopic, it seems that this was exactly what the film was always destined to be. What it comes down to is that fact that I just didn’t care. I cared about Solomon Northup’s escape to freedom in 12 Years A Slave, I cared about Aron Ralston’s escape from between a rock and a hard place in 127 Hours, I cared about the success of Jackie Robinson in 42 and I may have even cared about Benjamin Mee’s impulse to buy a zoo in We Bought A Zoo, more than I care about Steve Jobs. There are thousands of more interesting and engaging stories out there, true and fictional, in finished forms and purely notional, eagerly waiting to be shown on the big screen and geniuses like Boyle, Sorkin and Fassbender could be telling them.

Spectre

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United Kingdom | 26 October 2015 | Directed by Sam Mendes | Starring: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Lea Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, Monica Bellucci, Andrew Scott, Rory Kinnear


The amount of hype and expectation around the James Bond franchise has reached monumental proportions. After saying goodbye to the Pierce Brosnon days with the completely daft and inept Die Another Day, the Daniel Craig Bond started afresh, presenting a darker, more psychological take on Britain’s top secret agent. Casino Royale disposed of the sheer silliness of Brosnon’s invisible cars, ice palaces and tsunami-surfing and saved the genre, going back to basics whilst also introducing 007 to 21st century cinema.

We begin the Craig revival by witnessing Bond bagging his first kills, finding (and losing) his first love, becoming a heartbroken stone-cold killer in Quantum of Solace and then progressing through to Skyfall where he’s a hopeless, emotionally battered agent on his last legs who needs some dusting off before he can return to the action. 007 has developed into the humanised, emphatic character that everyone wanted and it is the first collection of Bond films where the increasingly personal plot-lines continue from one film to the next. In this latest instalment, Vesper Lynd’s betrayal and death is still haunting Bond and the demise of Judi Dench’s M has had a critical effect on the political position of the MI6. These are just some of the running plot threads that you will see coalesce in Spectre.

Sam Mendes, like Casino Royale‘s Martin Campbell had a perfect opportunity to make his mark on the series with Skyfall, as he followed a relative flop in the franchise. Quantum of Solace was ‘fine’ – despite continuing to play with Bond’s tender emotions it lacked the substance and grandeur of its predecessor and through its urge to create mammoth action sequences reverted to some of the silly habits of the Brosnon era. Craig is so dark and cold here that he transforms into a one-dimensional killing machine, fighting a dreary villain, in a film that is utterly forgettable.

Forgetting Quantum is exactly what Mendes did by continuing the stylish work Casino Royale started, but also upping the stakes – making Bond and MI6 the targets and molding Skyfall into a gritty, cat-and-mouse revenge thriller. With his Bond debut becoming such a triumph, the easiest and safest approach would have been to make the same film again. Though it was more than obvious that no one would accept a slightly disappointing follow-up, so Mendes riskily decided to make Spectre a completely different film and blew expectations out of the water.

Daniel Craig stars as James Bond in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Columbia Pictures/EON Productions’ action adventure SPECTRE.

The film opens rather lavishly in Mexico City for the Dia de los Muertos festival, where Bond attempts to assassinate a target amongst thousands of costumed civilians. Mendes must have taken a note from the Birdman book, because the scene begins with a beautifully captivating 5-minute long tracking shot, which from the get-go establishes the degree of confidence that the crew have approached this movie with. One gargantuan action sequence later, we are subject to Sam Smith’s pleasant yet comparatively underwhelming Writing’s On The Wall, which I’m afraid can’t compete with Adele’s epic Skyfall title track or Chris Cornell’s vibrant You Know My Name sequence.

The story continues straight on from Skyfall, with Bond taking a secret assignment-beyond-the-grave from Judi Dench’s M, forcing him to go rogue around the world and subsequently discover a mysterious criminal organisation run by the enigmatic Franz Oberhauser, played by Academy Award-winning villian Christoph Waltz. Meanwhile, the MI6 (who have had an increased focus in the Craig films with Ben Whishaw’s Q, Naomi Harris’s Moneypenny and now Ralph Fiennes’s M being promoted to main character status) is under severe pressure from the government that feels the organisation cannot be trusted with upholding national security following Silva’s escape, his attack on the HQ and murder of M. Opposing the MI6, is the new CNS run by the annoyingly arrogant ‘C’, played by Andrew Scott, whose controversial plan for mass surveillance is gradually accepted by the global community as a succession of terrorist attacks begin to randomly hit major cities.

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This issue feels very appropriate in the context of our digital age. The argument for global surveillance is posed against the use of supposedly increasingly ineffective and obsolete 00 operatives in the field like Bond, and it is C’s plan to effectively take over control of national security from the diminishing MI6. M delivers the argument that expert agents like Bond are the only people qualified to physically and emotionally make a kill, as opposed to the emotionally detached killers behind keyboards with their drones doing the dirty work thousands of miles away.

It’s a refreshing, relatable and ultimately believable plot line compared to the absurd ideas of global domination that feature in earlier films. However, the subject of surveillance unfortunately gets sidelined as Bond learns that the force working against him, much like Silva’s previously, is more to do with a personal vendetta spawning from the depths of his past. What continues from this is a cohesion and conclusion of the events in Casino Royale and Skyfall as well as a revisitation to even more historic Bond plot lines, so that Spectre is set up as a kind of grand denouement for the franchise. The concept does work and I can see what Mendes was trying to do, yet a part of me wishes he hadn’t gone so far.

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What is enjoyable about Mendes’ return to historic Bond is that the style and atmosphere of Spectre feels similar to that of a classic Bond film of the Roger Moore and Sean Connery years. The only downfall of the otherwise spectacular Skyfall was that it strayed too far from the 007 formula, in the same way that Christopher Nolan completely revamped Batman with the progressively moody Dark Knight trilogy.  At the end of the day, Skyfall wasn’t really a Bond film and this is what Spectre tries to amend.

From the extreme globe-trotting to the old and wacky (yet still simple and logical) gadgets, from the elaborate bases filled with anonymous henchmen and a silent-but-deadly tough guy to the jaw-dropping and ultimately memorable action set pieces, Spectre is the most nostalgic, eye-catching and fun-filled Bond film we’ve seen in long time. I found myself smiling throughout and even laughing, mostly at Ben Whishaw’s brilliantly lovable Q and of course Bond’s witty pre and post-kill quips.

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Of course every moment constantly borders on being a cliché and unfortunately, in the attempt to reanimate memories of earlier Bonds, some seem reminiscent of the Austin Powers films (in the conference scene, pictured above, I couldn’t help but think Oberhauser would pull a lever and a subordinate would go flying into a pool full of sharks with laser beams attached to there heads). This aside, some of the throwbacks seemed too identical to classic moments they were referencing like the use of the ejector seat and the train fight sequence with Hinx that seems to be the amalgamation of two previous train fights from The Spy Who Loved Me and From Russia With Love.

There are dozens of other more subtle nods to earlier works such as Craig’s Day of the Dead costume being similar to former villain Baron Samedi’s attire in Live and Let Die and the final scene in MI6 harks back to Scaramanga’s mirror maze in The Man with the Golden Gun. These references aren’t really obtrusive and are really just treats for the Bond geeks, but they do show the extent to which Mendes is desperately attempting to drown us with nostalgia. Despite being perfectly thrilling, even the mountain chase sequence and both helicopter sequences could be seen as rather regurgitated when linked to similar scenes in For Your Eyes Only, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Goldeneye. Again, these scenes are very enjoyable but will never be as memorable as the highly original and extensive parkour chase that opens Casino Royale. I’d be happier if Mendes simply took inspiration from these classic Bond moments to create something original, rather than forming a montage of replicated ‘best bits’. I believe he succeeded in doing so with Oberhauser’s uber cool crater base and the torture machine, which was obviously recalling a similar situation from Goldfinger, but at the same time was completely different and utterly gruelling – in a good way.

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Spectre fundamentally uses all the Bond clichés we know and love and it is great to see a film embrace the legacy of its twenty-three predecessors – at times Spectre just goes a step too far with some of the allusions. Equally, in some instances, the film doesn’t go quite far enough on the retro scale, as I thought that Hinx, played by Dave Bautista, despite possessing one of the coolest and scariest entrances of any Bond character, ultimately fails to live up to his potential after this. Although our ex-WWE superstar puts in a dedicated shift physically, he lacks the charisma or any defining characteristic to allow him entry into the Henchman Hall of Fame along with the likes of Jaws, Oddjob and Xenia Onatopp. One can debate all night whether Mendes doesn’t go far enough or doesn’t know when to stop, but what is for certain is that this director is obviously a true fan of the franchise and knows what it takes to make an iconic Bond film. No one could have predicted this level of historical throwback, so there’s no point debating if it’s right or wrong, just sit back an enjoy this classic of all classics.

Though just to continue with the nit-picking a bit longer, there are certain scenes, locations and characters that I believe deserved more screen time than others. For example, I was rather excited when I heard that Monica Bellucci (whom was destined to be a Bond girl after her super sexy role in the Matrix trilogy) was finally selected and broke conventions by being Bond’s oldest love interest; only to be subsequently devastated when I realised she would only be on screen for about 3 minutes. Belluci’s potential was completely wasted as she is used just to completely fall for Bond and then be discarded like so many before her.

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Luckily, we have Lea Seydoux, playing the contrastingly stronger, more independent and heroic Madeleine Swann. Much like the increasingly influential and action-savvy Moneypenny, she doesn’t fall for Bond’s tricks and presents a character who has more emotional depth and significance than your average ‘Bond Girl’, and crucially isn’t just there to be eye candy. With the fiery attitude of Eva Green, she resists Bond for some time, but ultimately succumbs to his charms, yet equally so does he to hers.

Similar to Bellucci, I feel that the talents of Christoph Waltz were also somewhat wasted as the villain time was instead allotted to the comparatively banal Andrew Scott. Apart from a silhouetted early appearance, like Javier Bardem, Waltz’s character isn’t fully introduced until over half way through the film and even though he inevitably delivers an enjoyable performance, I was definitely left wanting more. The same goes for his character’s brilliant crater lair, which evoked the designs of previous villainous bases, yet so much time was given to globe-trotting elsewhere that it feels like this location also isn’t allowed to reach its full potential. Essentially, Mendes has had to cram a 5-hour film in to 2.5 hours and therefore several of the action sequences, characters, locations and plot lines have been given priority over others that are more expendable, resulting in an end product that could have been a lot tighter.

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After leaving the BFI IMAX, I was mostly overwhelmed with joy, owing to the sheer spectacle and entertainment that Spectre provided but after some quiet reflection I began wishing that some of the smaller details to do with plot and style were given more thought. Though if the immediate reaction was that Spectre was an exceptional cinematic experience that provided immense pleasure and resuscitated the Bond-lover within me, then why be fussed with all the rest. I have heard plenty of bad reviews, labelling the action scenes as boring and slating the film for not being as good as Skyfall; but when all is said and done, I am completely perplexed that anyone can sit and watch that captivating opening scene and the dozen action scenes that relentlessly follow, the stunning cinematography throughout, the glorious locations and brilliant dialogue from an incredible ensemble led by the greatest Bond we’ve ever had – and not be entertained.

The previous Craig films dealt with the spy’s origins, his first kill, his first love, his ageing, his mummy issues. In Spectre, James Bond has developed in to the fully-fledged secret agent who is ready to take on any mission. Although the ending of Spectre presents a clean conclusion to the Craig era, making way for someone else to take the reigns, from a character’s perspective, Bond is now psychologically stronger than ever and with a fresh, solid MI6 team around him – surely this isn’t the end but rather – the beginning. Changing the star at this point would mean highly dangerous changes across the board, thematically and in terms of story. So surely from a filmmaking and box office perspective, the invincible Craig-Mendes formula is an absolute no-brainer. Then you have to think – simply how do you follow Spectre?

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Quantum of Solace failed so fantastically because it was trying to recreate Bourne rather than Bond, and although the exceptional Skyfall rectified the mistakes and healed the wounds, we were still in danger of being dragged down a path that was too gritty and too humourless. Spectre has pumped fun, energy and pure Bondness back into the franchise, not trying to bombard us with an overly complex or emotional story, but one that aims to entertain the audience with every shot. Whilst continuing to modernise the Bond universe with an increasingly humanised central figure, Mendes brings back all the tropes and themes of old, giving us a perfect mix of contemporary and classic and reminding us of why we all fell in love with 007 in the first place.

Legend

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United Kingdom | 9 September 2015 | Directed by Brian Helgeland | Starring: Tom Hardy, Emily Browning, David Thewlis, Taron Egerton, Paul Bettany, Colin Morgan, Christopher Eccleston, Chazz Palminteri


With the releases of Child 44 and Mad Max: Fury Road earlier this year, it seems Tom Hardy’s face has been perpetually displayed on every billboard, double-decker bus and of course every cinema screen across the UK in 2015 (he even had time to feature as a singing taxi driver in London Road). If you haven’t seen enough of him already, you’ll be able to watch Hardy double-time in the new gangster flick Legend, in which he stars as the notorious Ronnie and Reggie Kray, the iconic kingpins of organised crime in 1960s London.

In Child 44, we had to watch Hardy speak with a dubious Russian accent and in Mad Max, he scooped up a rather comfy action role in which he barely speaks at all. So when I heard he had signed up to play not one but two of the world’s most renowned criminals, I instantly knew we would be seeing Hardy pushed to his limits and delivering a career-defining performance(s). Anyone who enjoyed the brooding, erratic tough guys that made him famous (think Lawless, Warrior or Martina Cole’s The Take) will know that Hardy was made to play the Krays; and his portrayal of the psychotic Ronnie is specifically reminiscent of his spectacular performance in Nicholas Winding Refn’s Bronson as “Britain’s most violent prisoner”.

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This all came to be when Brian Helgeland, the Oscar-winning writer of L.A. Confidential and Mystic River, who had planned for two separate actors to play the Krays, called up Hardy to take on Reggie. Yet when the two met to discuss the role, Hardy was more excited about the prospect of portraying the more troubled Ronnie. The actor made Helgeland an offer he couldn’t refuse: “If you give me Ronnie, I’ll give you Reggie.” Thus, the double act was formed, and although it isn’t the first time we’ve seen this happen (recently Armie Hammer in The Social Network, Sam Rockwell in Moon, Jesse Eisenberg in The Double and Jake Gyllenhaal in Enemy) this is the first time that I’ve seen it used in this way and work so effectively.

Whereas Eisenberg, Gyllenhaal and Rockwell were playing either doppelgängers or clones, Hardy is playing two completely unique and conflicting characters – Reggie, the smooth-talking, cheeky chappie who swaggers around town taking care of business and picking up girls; and Ronnie, an unhinged, gurning hulk whose single-minded pursuit for power and passion for violence is detrimental to his brother’s calculated control of the city. It is brilliant to see an actor have so much chemistry with himself, and although the process must have required Hardy acting to thin air and some tedious editing, the interaction between the twins is seamless. In fact, as the film progresses Ronnie and Reggie become their own separate entities and you completely forget they are being played by the same person.

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Telling the Kray story was always going to be a tricky subject for Brian Helgeland to tackle, as although the Krays are often thought of as celebrity figures who led glamorous lives and presented themselves with a likeable charm, at the end of the day they were first rate criminals. Underneath the club-casino owner facade, the Twins were running an international drug trafficking network and secret orgies and paedophile rings which attracted a host of well-known celebrities and politicians as well as being involved in several protection rackets, armed robberies, extortion and arson attacks. This empire was upheld by the brothers’ gang ‘The Firm’, who enforced their influence through intimidation, torture and murder.

Therefore, Helgeland was constantly towing the line between presenting the Krays as heroes or villains, a concept we are more than accustomed to on today’s screens with the likes of Scarface, American Psycho and The Wolf of Wall Street. All these movies have despicable lead characters who perform unspeakable crimes, yet just like the Legend duo, although we consciously condemn their behaviour, the film glorifies them in such a way that we cannot help but support their motives, admire their charismatic personalities and be thoroughly entertained by their presence on screen.

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Although Hardy’s performances are highly captivating and an utter joy to watch, I don’t think there’s an Oscar in sight only because at times his depiction of Ronnie seems like a caricature and consequently makes Reggie seem too straight and narrow. The film starts with Ron getting bailed out of a mental hospital, which initially makes it hard to take him seriously, but even more so when it appears that every line the writers have given him is a gag. There is no doubt that this is a funny movie, which I don’t think anyone was expecting.

As the film progresses, the dark, emotional themes start to settle in, but the first half is dominated by comedy, bordering on farce. The moment when the brothers are preparing for a bust-up in a bar and Ronnie is lamenting the fact that the rival gang haven’t brought any guns to make it a “proper Western shoot-out”, seems like scenario stolen from a Guy Ritchie film. For the most part the comedy seems to work as it gives the gritty depiction of gangster life a light-hearted, amusing edge. Yet crucially it takes the place of realism, and leaves you wondering how things really went down and if Ronnie was really this loopy?

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Though despite being the clown of the film, Ronnie is also the monster and you can’t help but clench those butt-cheeks every time he appears on screen. As Hardy channels his inner Bronson, Ronnie’s unpredictable, violent nature creates an aura of perpetual tension that certainly rivals the terrifying performances of Joe Pesci in Goodfellas and Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver.

Although being classically British subject matter, there is a cartoonish, American feel to Legend,  and this is precisely what Helgeland has brought to the film, a director who was heavily influenced by his childhood favourites Casino, Mean Streets and Goodfellas. All these films focus on the flashy, glamorous side of American crime and Helgeland intentionally created Legend with this aesthetic to capture the vibrant, luxurious feel of London in the swinging sixties and give his glitzy gangsters a suitable playground to run riot in. The end product is a setting that looks more like Las Vegas than the rundown East end we’re used to seeing in films like Hyena, The Long Good Friday and Harry Brown; but essentially it makes the film gorgeous to look at and is completely appropriate to the overall tone.

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The glittering set and extravagant performances make for a highly artificial version of the real events, yet it is clear that Helgeland wasn’t setting out to make your run-of-the-mill, matter-of-fact biopic. Everything is here to entertain the audience and transport them to a ghastly yet tantalising world that they would otherwise never explore, where rules and ethics are constantly broken in the name of violence and debauchery.

Though Legend is certainly not all fun and games as the true story at the heart of this film is actually rather bleak and tragic. The action is shown to us through the eyes of Frances Shea, the doomed wife of Reggie Kray, who begins the film as a bubbly, fresh-faced young girl who is naively hypnotised by Reggie’s charms and then as she falls deeper into the pits of the Kray’s crime kingdom becomes progressively worn down by the day-to-day horrors of Reggie’s real life. There is little known about the real Frances Shea, yet Helgeland’s decision to base the story from her perspective was a perfect one, allowing us to distance ourselves from the Kray brothers and make our own judgements. Besides, who in the audience would be able to survive an entire film in Ronnie’s mind?

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Discounting her cringeworthy retrospective voiceover – which in an attempt to provide exposition and some philosophical insight, nearly ruins the film – Emily Browning gives a superb performance as Reggie’s helpless other other-half. Her innocence and purity provides the audience with something to align with and relate to; a isolated moral centre in a world full of murdering maniacs and the film’s only entirely sympathetic character. We begin by encouraging Reggie’s and her cute, blossoming romance, but soon enough, we are begging her to escape at all costs.

Like Frances, the audience is fooled by the alluring Reggie and put off by the unstable Ron, but as certain events unfold, the tables are completely turned when Ron begins to show a bit of empathy and Reggie starts to adopt more psychopathic traits. The main conflict of Legend develops from the juxtaposition of the composed businessman Reggie and his completely inept fame-hungry brother, who juggle the power of London’s underworld between them. As soon as Reggie has to spend some time in the can, Ron runs The Firm straight into the ground. Yet despite their shambolic partnership, what Frances and the audience begin to understand is that no matter what happens, the Krays’ brotherly bond will never be broken and fatally Reggie can never get rid of the thorn in his side.

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If Legend is criticised for aggrandising the image of the Krays, then the film’s final act will definitely put them in their place. If anything remains wholly real in the film, its that there are consequences for your actions. In too many American gangster flicks you see dozens of men gunned down without even a whiff of the cops showing up. In low-key London, were gun culture is comparatively non-existent, it only takes one murder to bring a mobster crashing down (That’s not to say there isn’t a ton of brutal violence in this film) For all the engaging bravado and hilarious gags, we begin to see what the twins really are bit by bit, nevertheless, it is still difficult to not be on the Krays’ side even in the final moments of their free lives.

So if you want a heavy investigation and evaluation of who the Krays were – this won’t be it – then again, I don’t think that kind of film would be half as entertaining as Legend is. Helgeland wasn’t trying to recreate the true story of the twins, mainly because there isn’t one. Every one in London has something to say about the Krays and both brothers’ present day identities have been formed from network of twisted tales, rumours and gossip. They have become an integral, albeit rather scandalous, part of the city’s folklore and they will remain mythical figures because that is how people enjoy interpreting them. The fatal flaw of the Krays was that they wanted to be the most powerful and famous men in London in a profession that demands secrecy, though ironically, this highly absurd yet entertaining film, further engraves their names into the history books and, as the title suggests, gives the legends the limelight they always craved.

We Are Blood

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United States | 20 August 2015 | Directed by Ty Evans | Starring: Paul Rodriguez, Jordan Maxham, Chris Colburn, Clint Walker, Tiago Lemos, Moose De Los Reyes, Chase Webb, Clive Dixon and Jamie Thomas


Arguably the first watchable skateboarding movie ever, We Are Blood, held its UK premiere at the Prince Charles Cinema in London this week and it didn’t disappoint the packed auditorium of skaters hyped up on free Mountain Dew. Courtesy of Brain Farm, the production company that brought you the Travis Rice snowboarding epics That’s It, That’s All (2008) and The Art of Flight (2011), comes a film which has entered the big leagues of extreme sports blockbusters and put skateboarding back on the map.

My only previous experience of skateboarding on screen was the odd YouTube clip and the low budget skate videos made in the late 90’s that my friend used to watch, which would follow skaters through a fisheye lens to a generic hip-hop beat and were mind-numbingly repetitive. So it was particularly refreshing to see a 21st-century take on the skating scene captured with all the most progressive filming techniques and technology.

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The Director is Ty Evans who has been at the forefront of skate ‘video’-making for decades and it seems now that he’s joined Curt Morgan at Brain Farm, he finally has the budget and the resources to make an actual film that the whole world can appreciate. Shot in 4K Ultra HD with Dolby Atmos surround sound and packed full of high-end Steadicam and stunning slow motion and aerial shots, the final product is something to be marvelled at. The audience is offered the same kind of visual experience that we are used to seeing with snowboarding films, so it is great to see skateboarding given the same treatment.

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The narrative follows Paul Rodriguez and his brotherhood of pro-skaters on a road trip across the United States with extra excursions to Spain, Brazil, China and Dubai. Each location offers completely new and tantalising opportunities for skating, from the run-down construction sites and deserted parks of the Mid-west, to the sculpture-filled plazas of Barcelona, to the spanking new urban playgrounds of the monolithic Abu Dhabi. These cities showcase the real beauty of skateboarding – that everything and anything around us can be skated. A normal pedestrian wouldn’t think twice about the concrete ledge outside their office building, but for skaters it becomes a stage for their next challenging trick.

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The other aspect of skateboarding that We Are Blood celebrates is the universality of the sport, how you can travel to any street corner in any city across the globe and without knowing the native language connect with like-minded people through skating. The same can be said for many other activities, plus P-Rod and co. are skating celebrities being followed by movie cameras so they are bound to draw crowds where ever they are – but its a nice sentiment. If anything, the most interesting part of this experiment is when the group go to China, a place where most people hadn’t even seen a skateboard before and were completely awestruck by what the skaters could do.

The film definitely tries too hard to be inspirational. The auditorium was in fits of laughter as the opening credits showed some young rebels breaking through fences and waxing steps in gratuitous slow-mo, followed by shots of silhouetted skaters holding up their boards to the sky in unison. Then there was the staged car accident followed by P-rod’s cringeworthy statement ‘we have to skate, it’s in our blood, it’s in our DNA’. Too often do we hear P-Rod recounting these empty clichés that you’ve heard time and time again (The film actually follows the exact same mantra as the The Art of Flight – ‘it’s not the destination, it’s the journey along the way that counts’) and I think the general consensus of the room was ‘cut the bulls**t, lets see some skating’. Though despite all the cheesy filler, the overall message, which P-Rod explains whilst signing autographs, is essentially a meaningful one – that anyone can and should skate, regardless of age, body type or social background, and anyone can become a star if they set their mind to it.

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The mockery soon subsided when the skating began. We Are Blood delivers an absolute torrent of tricks from all the different skaters in the crew. I soon understood that the skating I was witnessing was of the highest calibre, with cheers erupting around the cinema as each ridiculous trick was landed. I simply couldn’t believe what these guys were accomplishing with a plank of wood and a set of wheels. There is an action-packed montage dedicated to each city, which I initially feared would become repetitive, but with the range of skaters and skating locations within the cities and the tunes constantly banging, the audience is definitely kept on their toes.

One thought I had whilst watching these thrilling, seemingly faultless trick montages, was Do these guys ever fall? When ever I had visited a skate park before, 95% of trick attempts seemed to end in failure. So was this film misleading viewers with these perfect landing records? My question was answered with an extreme montage of bails, which was 5 minutes of the film which I wish I could erase from my memory. A few falls sprinkled throughout would have been fine for the sake of reality, but that onslaught of twisted ankles, bashed knees, grazed elbows and busted crotches will stop anyone from ever picking up a skateboard again.

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Apart from the bail montage, the film paints a rather glamorous portrait of the skateboarding world. There is a constant buzz throughout the film as you skip from one location to the next. Though some might say the jumps are too frequent. Just as soon as you are introduced to an interesting place and a new set of people, like the independently built Skatopia in Ohio or the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, it’s suddenly time to move on.

Some locations and individual skaters should have been given more screen time, for the expense of the less interesting Dubai section, which was more a tourist commercial than anything else. As cool as some of the tricks were here, like Clint Walker skating down the roof of a sports arena, it was more enjoyable seeing the skaters in their hometowns, showing us the spots they grew up skating rather than advertising Dubaian sky-diving and camel-riding or skating around on a skyscraper helipad (cool in theory, lame in practice).

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I am sure some skaters will prefer the conventional skate footage videos to this mainstream blockbuster, but I believe We Are Blood holds up as an insightful and engaging love letter to the sport. The question is, will the general public choose to watch this over other sports documentaries, or is it just for the skaters? There isn’t any kind of dramatic narrative that will draw people in, and in comparison to other extreme sports like skiing or rock climbing, it never feels like there is that much at stake. The positive atmosphere created by the tight knit group of characters is a fun place to be for two hours, but there isn’t any danger or conflict to get viewers on the edge of their seats. Essentially, Ty Evans has created a beautifully shot, stimulating movie that the skateboarding community will be able to relate to and enjoy, and it perfectly presents that same community to the rest of the world in a way film has never done before.

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Furious 7

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United States | 3 April 2015 | Directed by James Wan | Starring: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Jason Statham, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordan Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Kurt Russell, Nathalie Emmanuel, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson


Wait… They’ve made 7 of these movies? That’s right, earlier this month Universal Pictures released the seventh instalment of their gas-guzzling, guns-blazing, booty-twerking movie franchise that has surprisingly taken the box office by storm. Furious 7 currently stands at 4th position in the all-time highest grossing film chart, reaching the $1 billion milestone faster than both Avatar and The Avengers.

This rapid success is rather staggering for a film series that, by comparison, has existed fairly below the radar since its debut 14 years ago (none of the previous films make it into the Top 50 highest-grossers). The Fast and Furious films have never showcased the big A-list names that the Marvel movies boast and there isn’t any kind of clear ongoing storyline which hooks one film to the next (apart from a genius post-credit appearance from Jason Statham in F&F 6). Essentially, you go see a Furious movie to mindlessly munch on popcorn and stare at two hours of cars revving, racing, skidding, jumping, crashing, exploding and anything else you can possibly imagine. Perfectly standard entertainment to have on the tele in the background after a long hard day at the office when the last thing you want is a heavy psychological drama.

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I have had the pleasure of seeing all but two of the Furious films in the cinema, appearing to be reluctantly dragged by friends on each occasion yet secretly enjoying the action-packed mayhem. Every time, I can’t help but laugh at the cheesy cliches and questionable acting, tear the nonsensical plot to shreds and plead for Vin Diesel to be given subtitles. Yet amongst the mockery is a satisfaction for how the franchise embraces its B-movie influences and never takes itself too seriously. The fun-loving family of characters, the well-executed action scenes, ultimately make this movie watchable, unlike Transformers, Battleship or anything from Sly Stallone’s recent work. Don’t get me wrong, the line between these movies is thin, but of all the trash that occupies cinema screens these days, the Furious films are the only ones I wouldn’t vaporise out of existence had I the power (ok, maybe I’d vaporise Tokyo Drift).

Beautiful cars surrounded by bullets and explosions galore – these movies are all about boys and their toys. The fun that Vin Diesel and co. get up to in these vehicles is what dreams were made of playing with Hot-wheels as a kid. When it comes to racing, car-chasing, jumps and stunts, these films are right on the money. Sure it has a disjointed story and a cringeworthy script; but you just have to accept that you’re here for the action, sit back and have fun.

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Yet, besides the inherent flaws that we’ve already excused, the latest film reveals some common problems that all action franchises seem to adopt sooner or later. It’s the general habit of film series’ to attempt to constantly top themselves, to provide people with a spectacle that was even bigger and better (and faster and furiouser) than its predecessor, when really all they need is more of the same.

A long time ago, these relatively low budget films were all about street racing and a well-timed handbrake turn or drift was more than enough to get our hearts pounding. By the seventh film, our characters are now involved in the war on terrorism and have to drive their cars out of planes and parachute into the action or stage an elaborate escape by jumping from one Dubaian skyscraper to another (I know it’s hard to imagine – it’s because it’s completely ridiculous).

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Obviously the films take pride in being over-the-top, but someone needs to draw the line at some point. Furious 7 barrels down the same road that so many other franchises have paved in the past, adding more enemies and more explosions as their budgets get bigger. In Die Hard, John McClane prevents a small group of criminals performing a heist in an LA skyscraper and by Live Free or Die Hard our favourite beat cop is flying cars into helicopters and balancing on top of a harrier jet. One of the best things about The Matrix is watching the ‘fish-out-of-water’ Neo adapting to his new existence and learning to dodge the odd punch from one of three agents. In the sequels, he is an indestructible CGI superhero who can fly, stop any bullet mid-air and beat up never-ending supply of Agent Smiths. Even the magnificent Bond is impeachable. Although he performs lots of farcical stunts that everyone enjoys, when I watched Pierce Brosnan kite-surfing a tsunami wave on a sheet of metal in Die Another Day, even as an 11-year-old boy, I was disappointed. The film had already been turning the franchise farcical with the new sci-fi gadgets; thankfully the Daniel Craig films have been stripped down and reality has been restored.  *Digression over*

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This film, however, has lost all sense of reality. Furious 7 becomes so focused on ‘wowing’ audiences that it starts abandoning what the franchise actually stood for in the first place. In the beginning of the film, Toretto takes Letty to the spectacular desert drag-race Mecca, Race Wars (which featured in the first Furious) uttering the line ‘We’re home’, only to stay there for five minutes and never race again for the rest of the film. For the remaining 2 hours, the characters become tangled in a counter-terrorism storyline that may well have been found in the Mission Impossible garbage can, requiring the characters to still be in their cars, but with the priorities massively altered – from stealing VCRs to fighting spaceship drones.

One might argue that the film is more exciting with the stakes raised and upped ante, but ultimately there is just too much going on. There is one edge-of-your-seat moment when Paul Walker has to run up the side of a bus before it plummets off a cliff, but the rest of the action sequences are either too chaotic or too unbelievable to fully appreciate.

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In many ways this film feels like a finale, with the uneven timelines satisfyingly coming together and the team having to face their most furious enemy yet in the form Jason Statham – one of the greatest action heroes of modern times. We finally find out what Tokyo Drift was good for, as the film continues on from the third film’s cliffhanger when Vin Diesel returns to race the film’s main character Lucas Black (Sean Boswell), before the end credits. The whole timeline shift starts when Sung Kang’s character Han is killed in Tokyo Drift only to appear again in the fourth film, which suggests the events in Tokyo take place in the future.

By Fast & Furious 6, we have caught up with the future and we see Han killed again, post-credits, and this time we see his killer, Deckard Shaw, played by Jason Statham (who’s the vengeful brother of Luke Evans’ defeated villain, Owen Shaw). So in Furious 7, we witness the brief chat that Toretto and Black have in Tokyo regarding the death of Han, and there we go – the timeline is complete. Though be aware, this is no Tarantino timeline manipulation, in fact, it’s not very elaborate at all. Tokyo Drift could just not exist and the story would still make sense; Han could die at the end of 6 and Toretto could just chat to any old extra in 7, and the two hours of Boswell/Bow Wow nonsense could be scrapped.

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The addition of Jason Statham, however, is genius, and his appearance after the Furious 6 credits would have had fans already saving the date for the next film. Watching Britain’s finest on-screen fighter match up against wrestling legend, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson is an absolute treat (official WWF moves do occur). Unfortunately, Stath’s brilliance causes The Rock to be hospitalised for nearly the entire movie, before he bursts out of his plaster casts for one last hurrah. Really there’s just too many characters and there’s no place for Agent Hobbs in the storyline, which is perhaps why he is bedridden by the screenwriters until they need him; but it’s a shame, because The Rock is awesome.

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One significant event, which I believe has contributed to the film’s success (though I’m sure no one wished it to happen) was the death of Paul Walker half way through the production of the film. The film was put on hold for the cast and crew to grieve and for the writers to come up with a way of finishing the story without one of the lead characters. Killing off the character would have been distasteful, so instead they did what no other film has done before. They continued filming as they would have done, using voice clips and cut scenes from previous footage as well as bringing in Paul’s lookalike brothers Caleb and Cody and putting his CGI-generated face on their bodies. It works remarkably. There is a point in the film where Paul starts getting noticeably less screen time, spending most of his time in the background and not saying an awful lot. There’s also a rather awkwardly shot fight scene where objects and shadows are used to cover which ever brother’s face. Though for the most part it is pretty effective, and if you were watching without the knowledge of Paul’s death, you probably wouldn’t notice a difference.

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I was impressed with how the Furious team not only decided to carry on shooting with a fake Paul but to still have him in the thick of the action, and admittedly it was one of the reasons I was so intrigued to see the film. My only knowledge of a film that has tried this in the past is Gladiator, when the great Oliver Reed died half way through production, and Ridley Scott had to abruptly kill him off superimposing his image on to a double. Similar but much less advanced than the technology used for Paul.

Then there’s the tribute ending – when Dominic Toretto says goodbye to Brian O’Connor in this odd meta moment where really it’s Vin Diesel saying goodbye to Paul Walker. I’ve heard that many people cried during this goodbye moment; I can confirm I did not, as like the thousands of other strangers who die in car accidents everyday, it is tragic to hear, but ultimately we carry on with life. Though this moment and the tribute montage that follows were definitely touching, and I understand why people felt a connection with Paul because they watched and enjoyed him on screen for so many years. I think it is something that only the Furious franchise, with its family vibe, could do and felt it should do for its fans.

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This whole situation undoubtedly generated mass interest in the film, like when an work of art goes up in value once its artists dies, and I believe this is one of the reasons it sits so highly in the box office charts neighboured by films which are arguably better. Similar to how The Dark Knight is not one of the best films ever made, but it is conceived that way by many, owing to the hype surrounding Heath Ledger’s final career-defining role.

The goodbye ending also contributes to the film feeling like a finale, and in my opinion it seems like the right time to end the series with its most frequently occurring star now gone. Nonetheless, Universal will undoubtedly make more (in fact, Fast and Furious 8 is already in the pipeline) because at the end of the day its all about money, and this one made more than the first 5 movies combined. However, by no means does that make it the best of the franchise. There is still fun to be had, yet comparatively I believe it is one of weakest of the bunch, simply because of the crazy road it is taking the franchise down. I can’t fathom the level of lunacy Furious 8 will have to reach to top the events of 7. Sadly, I think they’ll manage it, pushing the franchise further towards chaotic Michael Bay blockbuster territory and leaving behind the days of straightforward B-movie racing.

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Foxcatcher

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United States | 17 January 2015 | Directed by Bennett Miller | Starring: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Vanessa Redgrave, Sienna Miller


When visiting the cinema, I am a firm believer that one should enter knowing as little as possible about the film they are going to see. I rely on a few ratings from reliable sources, avoid the increasingly lengthy, spoiler-filled trailers of the modern day and try and watch the film before the rest of the world. Therefore, I went into Foxcatcher with the basic knowledge that it was a film about Olympic wrestling and judging by the posters, starred Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo and a 60-year-old newcomer. I was, however, more prepared than a friend of mine, who thought it was a movie about the WWE. Surprisingly, this level of ignorance is highly recommended when watching Foxcatcher, as any detailed knowledge of the true story it is based on will completely ruin the shock factor and perpetual tension this film thrives on. That doesn’t mean you should stop reading, it just means don’t look up the character’s life histories on Wikipedia. This review will be as ambiguous as the film itself.

Foxcatcher tells the autobiographical tale of the US pro-wrestlers Mark and Dave Schultz, who were both World and Olympic Champions during the 80’s, and it turns out that the old newcomer was actually The 40-Year-Old Virgin himself, Steve Carell (8 hours of make-up later) who plays John Du Pont, one of the richest men in America at the time. The film begins in gloomy Oklahoma, where a brutish Channing Tatum, playing the younger of the brothers, Mark, delivers what is meant to be an inspiring speech at a school assembly but is actually surprisingly monotone and implicitly dispirited for someone who has supposedly just been crowned one of the greatest wrestlers in the world.

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We begin to see how inessential Mark’s recent gold medal is to his overall happiness. He is an unexpressive, unsatisfied loner; seemingly the opposite of his amicable older brother Dave. Every time Mark Ruffalo’s character enters a scene, with a distinctive swagger that suggests he would have been perfectly cast for a role in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, he brings a sense of warmth and assurance to the painfully awkward atmosphere that drags throughout the film. When we first witness the brothers together, they are shuffling around and hugging each other as a part of a gentle wrestling warm-up and it is one of many examples where Director Bennett Miller allows a scene to speak volumes without the characters uttering a word. The audience becomes instantly aware of the brothers intimate and seemingly imperishable bond, which seems to be more father-son than brother-to-brother, with the grounded, self-confident Dave constantly tending to the wounded puppy that is Mark.

Although the siblings share such a strong relationship, there is a sense that Mark has grown up in his older brother’s shadow and that he must make it on his own to become truly fulfilled. That’s when he is offered the seemingly dreamlike opportunity to train under wrestling coach, John Du Pont, for an extortionate salary. So Mark embarks on this adventure, meeting the enigmatic Du Pont in the trophy room of his gigantic mansion in rural Pennsylvania.

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At this point I was expecting a grand entrance from a heroic leader who was going to transform the disheartened Mark into an accomplished Champion in true inspiring sports movie style. My mind raced back to images of Norman Dale from Hoosiers, Herb Brooks from Miracle and Herman Boone from Remember the Titans; though my mind was sorely mistaken. John Du Pont was not like any of those men, nor is Foxcatcher like any sports movie ever made.

John Du Pont is no coach, rather a mysterious multi-millionaire who decides he’s going to invest in the US Wrestling team as another hobby to go alongside stamp-collecting and bird-watching. Du Pont is the portrait of a reclusive, vain and paranoid megalomaniac who believes that he can get what ever he wants with his unlimited cash. When we first meet Steve Carell’s character, with his beaklike nose, pale skin and hunchbacked physique, his stilted speech and hauntingly vacant stare, it is instantly apparent that there is something unusual about the old man.

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With the exceptional make-up, Carell is completely unrecognisable, which works perfectly in presenting the illusion that this fictional character is totally real. Despite Du Pont’s awkward nature, Mark settles down on the vast estate, which is slightly reminiscent of the set of The Shining, an environment that is unnervingly quiet and remote. Much like Jack Nicholson’s character, the entrepreneur’s anxieties and delusions start to gradually unveil as time passes through his obnoxious invocations of American patriotism, his hedonistic use of drugs, his self-nicknaming, his worrying attraction to firearms, his puzzling resentment for his mother and generally being really creepy. Blinded by the bountiful opportunity in front of him, the grateful Mark submits to Du Pont’s order like a loyal lap dog and, like everyone else, simply smiles and nods whenever his boss does something out of the ordinary.

Then to my slight reservation, the film begins to skip large blocks of time, during which Mark and Du Pont  develop a strange connection as they delve deep into a hazy world of self-indulgence, laziness and isolation. At the end of the binge, Mark has been quenched of all his athletic potential and drive and as one would expect he begins to resent Du Ponts’s suffocating control and his snappy, unjustified temper when he doesn’t get exactly what he wants.

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Having lost faith in his wrestling puppet, Du Pont manages to persuade brother Dave to move to the estate and coach the Foxcatcher team, discarding Mark like a old Action Man toy and replacing him with a shinier, more expensive G.I Joe. With him, Dave brings enormous clarity and relief to what has become a troublingly reticent and ambiguous state of affairs. Dave, who is the divine essence of normality in the film, fights to bring his brother back from the darkness, whilst Du Pont becomes even more unhinged. It gets to the point that Du Pont’s lingering presence in scenes becomes completely unsettling and everything he does and says is unbearably awkward and cringe-worthy.

So does the guy who will always be remembered as Anchorman‘s lovable doofus Brick Tamland and who managed to convert The Office‘s cringe-machine David Brent in to an American sitcom legend, truly live up to this serious role? Frankly, I don’t think anyone could have done it better. Carell succeeded at making his character so repulsive that he was apparently alienated from the entire cast and crew. He barely interacted with co-stars Ruffalo and Tatum off-set, which undoubtedly added to the tension when the cameras were rolling. Besides the astounding make-up, it is clear that Carell completely transformed himself into this deeply unsavoury character and definitely deserves his Oscar nomination, although he is a clear outsider probably owing to the villainous nature of the character. However, when Carell is involved, a film is never short of humour and there are many occasions when Du Pont’s awkward delusions are simply hilarious to watch; for example, when the he attempts to demonstrate a few of his personal wrestling moves to the Pro’s and when he asks his ‘new best-friend’ Mark to refer to him as ‘Eagle’; the actors involved must have found it difficult not to crack up.

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Mark Ruffalo is a joy to watch, perfectly embodying the benevolent spirit of the salt-of-the-earth Dave, and 21 Jump Street’s Channing Tatum also surprises audiences in his most demanding role yet. Tatum will be gutted to be the only major role not to be nominated as he delivers an exceptionally heartfelt performance. Although portraying a rather deadpan Neanderthal, it is amazing to see how Tatum presents the restrained nature of Mark’s boiling emotional strain and the stirring outbursts that occur when things become too hard to handle. All three stars form a triangular relationship full of suppressed thoughts and emotions that drives the film restlessly along in a stranglehold before its shattering climax.

The only annoying aspect of story are the previously mentioned time-hops that leave the audience a bit too unaware of what is going on. As there is absolutely no chance of Channing Tatum breaking into a soliloquy and confessing all, the viewer is kept in the dark. This ambiguity was most definitely intended and works well for building tension, but will undoubtedly leave audiences a bit puzzled concerning the actual events that transpired.

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What we don’t have in words from the character’s mouths, we have in the film’s underlying commentary on the society and the American Dream. John Du Pont embodies everything that is wrong with privileged wealth, being the temptation and abuse of power that no other can contest. John Du Pont’s investment with wrestling seems awkwardly forced, in order to gain some sort of love, recognition and companionship that his money has never been able to provide. It is suggested that the blue-collared society that Dave and Mark represent is one that Du Pont is attracted to having been confined to his noticeably unsatisfying high-born upbringing. Stories of his disapproving mother, played by Vanessa Redgrave, paying the groundskeeper’s son to be friends with John when he was a child, offers insight into and a slight sense of sympathy for an extremely tormented soul.

The most devastating factor is the effect of Du Pont’s control; because he is funding the lives of everyone involved, it somehow makes him immune to criticism. There is a brilliantly invigorating scene were Dave is told in an interview to explain how influential his ‘mentor’ John has been, and the wrestler simple can’t say the words, owing to his concealed disdain for his sponsor. It becomes clear to the audience and to the characters that Du Pont is mad, but frustratingly no one addresses the problem owing to the sheer power the ‘golden eagle’ possesses.

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There is no doubt that Foxcatcher is an unpleasant film to watch. You’ll be writhing in your seat as the tension builds and it is a fairly arduous ordeal to go through; though ultimately this has a similar appeal to that of a horror film. It won’t be a particularly enjoyable journey, but you’ll be glad you went on it. Most of the time, it will feel like nothing is happening, but that is the genius nature of Bennett Miller’s insidious story-telling and Dan Futterman & E. Mark Fyre’s furiously concentrated script, as the underlying tension eats away at you like no other film in recent memory. Foxcatcher is certainly one of the best films of the past year yet unfortunately it’s disturbing elements will stay with you long after the credits roll, not helped by the countless Underground poster adverts with Steve Carell’s spine-shivering stare following you wherever you go.

Jimi: All Is By My Side

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United Kingdom/Ireland | 24 October 2014 | Written and Directed by John Ridley | Starring: André Benjamin, Imogen Poots, Hayley Atwell, Ruth Negga, Burn Gorman.


With the huge successes of Ray in 2004, Walk the Line in 2005, the recent release of Get on Up and the dozens of music biopics already in the pre-production stages; it seems there is an irresistible urge for film studios to cash in on the legacy of some of music’s biggest icons. Although these icons are usually superbly impersonated, the films themselves begin to resemble one another as they trace the familiar arc of the rise and fall of a great artist’s life. However, unlike the ‘cradle to grave’ stories chronicled in the Ray Charles, Johnny Cash and James Brown biopics, independently produced Jimi: All is By My Side concentrations solely on the events of 1966, when James Marshall Hendrix was transformed from an aimless session guitarist playing New York bars into an electrifying frontman at the height of the blues-rock scene of Swinging London.

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It all started six years ago when Academy Award-winning 12 Years a Slave writer John Ridley was searching for Hendrix rarities on YouTube. Listening to one busted studio take after another, he came upon “one of the most emotive, powerful pieces I’d ever heard. . . The title of the song was ‘Sending My Love to Linda.’ I was like, ‘Who is Linda? And why is he writing this song?” It turned out to be Linda Keith, the then-girlfriend of Keith Richards who introduced Hendrix to the London music scene and to his new manager Chas Chandler (plus LSD), as well as developing his iconic style.

Ridley began to understand how much Linda (played by Imogen Poots) and Kathy Etchingham (Hayley Atwell), the long-term girlfriend whose part in their tempestuous relationship provided inspiration for several Hendrix classics, had an effect on the guitarist’s development and their influence became central to the story. The women play their characters fantastically and it is a joy to watch the charming and proper Poots mentor the mild-mannered shy Hendrix, whist the contrastingly fiery and volatile Atwell appeals to the guitarist’s energetic on-stage persona.

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Ridley goes some way to suggest that it was the people surrounding Hendrix who nurtured and shaped the rock icon he became, however, the ideal casting of André Benjamin keeps the rockstar at the film’s magnetic core. Over the past decade, Benjamin, better known as André 3000 (the other half of hip-hop duo Outkast) has been working on his own personal transformation from rapper to actor, playing various supporting roles in films like Be Cool, Semi-Pro and Four Brothers. Though by taking on the demanding role of Hendrix, Benjamin has finally proven he can be taken seriously.

Ridley noticed that with Outkast, Benjamin demonstrated immense onstage flamboyance while still remaining fundamentally introverted; a clear quality that the rapper shared with Hendrix. Benjamin studied all the available footage to perfect the incendiary performer’s silky voice; he worked tirelessly to learn to play the guitar left-handed, with his teeth and behind his back in true Hendrix fashion; and despite his striking facial resemblance to the rock icon, Benjamin was required to lose 20 pounds off his already slender frame. All the hard work certainly paid off, as watching this is like seeing Hendrix in the flesh. Benjamin has got the rockstar down to a tee, from his appearance to his mumbling mannerisms. For all the film’s flaws, André is certainly not one of them.

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So what about those flaws? Perhaps the most disappointing aspects of the film is that it contains none of Hendrix’s original music, so unfortunately for the diehard Jimi fans, you won’t be hearing “Purple Haze”, “Hey Joe”, “Voodoo Child” or any other Hendrix hits that remain ’60s counterculture signifiers more than four decades after his death. For years, the Hendrix estate has refused the rights to the legendary music to filmmakers, which put most of them off the idea of making a Hendrix biopic. Except for Ridley, who decided he didn’t need the songs to tell the story and that this would be a more illuminating biopic about the man behind the music.

However, this brings us to further flaws, as Ridley’s attempt to paint a honest image of the rockstar falls just short of turning him into a narcissistic psychopath. The moment where Hendrix repeatedly beats Kathy with a pay-phone receiver is utterly shocking, not only in its brutality, but the entire act seems totally out of tune with the character’s overtly easy-going nature. The episode has also been fiercely denied by the real Kathy Etchingham, who claimed Hendrix had been an inherently gentle man and nothing of that kind ever took place. Sure, he had been selfish at times, but this sudden violent outbreak seems like it was placed there to simply create drama in an otherwise uncertain plot. Even if there was some truth to the domestic violence, by including it and presenting it in this way, Ridley immediately degrades an otherwise likeable and well-acted hero. Ridley may have been aiming to subvert the mythologizing tendencies of the biopic genre; however, the audience watches a Hendrix film expecting to be attracted to and inspired by the rock icon not alienated by him.

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In fairness, a story-teller is inclined to look for some kind of darkness to make a narrative interesting, but unfortunately the film falls short on the inspiration front also. Although there are some triumphant moments, namely Hendrix’s upstaging of Eric Clapton at a Cream gig and the sublime, amped-up rendition of the Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, the audience never sees a full development of Hendrix’s inventive songwriting abilities. Linda Keith raves about him from the word go, but the film fails to offer any depth in to why and how he made it from slumming it in New York to rocking out on the world’s biggest stages.

This brings us back to the absence of Hendrix music, as one can see how it would be a challenge to present Hendrix’s genius songwriting without his actual songs. As a substitute, session guitarist  Waddy Wachtel, drummer Kenny Aronoff and bassist Lee Sklar produced some original music replicating the sound of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, inspired by unrecorded tracks and general Jimi-jamming; which is fine, but the absence of the iconic riffs is noticeable and frustrating. Although it was the early stages of Hendrix’s career, the likes of “Foxy Lady”, “Can You See Me”, “The Wind Cries Mary” and “Purple Haze” all featured on the setlist at the Monterey festival where Jimi performs at the end of the film. So the seminal songs were indeed in the slipstream, just unfortunately they couldn’t be touched by Ridley and his crew. The Clapton upstaging and the Beatles cover are the two most entertaining episodes of the film, but there is nothing surrounding these moments that suggest that this is one of the greatest musical minds that ever lived.

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There are a lot of great things to take from this film, specifically the intriguing character relationships and some compelling dialogue with the odd bit of humour, all mixed into woozy jump-cut visuals which gives the film a hallucinogenic feel, certainly appropriate to the time period. However, overall André Benjamin’s efforts have been wasted here. Fingers-crossed that by the time a director with a different vision manages to secure the rights for the Hendrix songs, Benjamin isn’t too old to reprise his role, as despite the short-comings of the character Ridley has given him, there still is no one more ideal to play the mighty Hendrix. Despite his ambitious and admirable attempts to break the conventions of the genre, it seems that Ridley doesn’t really know what story he wants to tell or how he wants to portray its hero, and without the music, any Hendrix story is going to suffer.