Under The Shadow

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Iran / United Kingdom | Horror, Thriller | 30 September 2016 | Directed by Babak Anvari | Starring: Narges RashidiAvin ManshadiBobby Naderi

What could be more terrifying than residing in an apartment in post-revolutionary Tehran, where the risk of being possessed by a demonic spirit is as likely as being hit by a bomb? Babak Anvari decided to double-up on the terror for his directorial debut Under the Shadow by skilfully mixing haunted house horror with war-time drama, placing his events in Tehran during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. The conflict included a series of air raids and artillery attacks on major Iranian cities initiated by Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Air Force with the purpose of destroying the morale of the revolting Iranians – and we find our characters right in the middle of the chaos.

The result is a horror film with heft, where the characters struggle under the domineering shadows of war and systemic oppression, as well as fighting off an unwelcome ghost. Anvari portrays the realities of what innocent inhabitants of war-torn Middle Eastern cities go through, whilst the inclusion of fantastical horror elements amplifys the themes of perpetual dread, inescapable confinement and diminishing hope. Anvari also provides an entertaining ride for any cinema-goers that enjoy being scared out of their skin.

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We open with our main protagonist, Shideh, an aspiring female doctor who is particularly dispirited after being denied the right to resume her medical studies, owning to her past political activism, and her unhelpful doctor husband, can’t bring himself to understand his wife’s aspiration to forge a career for herself. When the news is revealed that the husband will be drafted and sent to the frontlines by the army, he promises Shideh and daughter Dorsa that everything will be fine and he will return to them unharmed; but as the audience we’re ironically thinking that he’s probably better off going to war than staying in this doomed apartment block.

So right from the get-go, we have been introduced to a set of circumstances and characters that are completely believable and engaging. Before any supernatural intervention, there is already a ‘bad feeling’ in this environment. The characters are at odds with their surroundings, they are angry and frightened, and these slow-building negativities and tensions will only grow as the events unfold – both literal and supernatural.

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Of course, after the husband departs, a missile hits their apartment building and while failing to explode, a neighbour dies of a heart attack. After the strike, The young Dorsa starts to behave rather erratically and begins to resent her mother, whilst developing a strange relationship with this unknown force, which Shideh shrugs off as being another imaginary friend phase. Though she learns from a superstitious neighbour that the cursed missile might have brought with it Djinn – malevolent Middle-Eastern spirits that travel on the wind.

Audiences have certainly grown used to the creepy child cliché over the years with films whether they have been actively possessed (Poltergeist, The Exorcist) or just truly evil (The Omen, Village of the Damned, Orphan) but that doesn’t make Under the Shadow any less terrifying. The film creates an interesting dynamic between the family and demonic spirit and the latter exerts its influence much more subtly than straight-up possession.

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The film and the spirit know that Dorsa is the perfect target for manipulation, but as the ominous tension rises even Shideh begins to doubt what is real and what is not, and she doesn’t know whether to believe she is being deceived by a poltergeist or simply losing her mind. Seeing as the audience witnesses the events largely from her perspective, we are then left with no characters that we can fully rely on to get us out of this nightmarish situation.

As the threat of air-strike also increases, and more families begin to leave the apartment block to escape the war-torn city, the stubborn Shideh refuses to leave her home, which makes her and Dorsa even more isolated and helpless. The main problem for the characters and the audience is that the supernatural force has no defining characteristics – it both possesses and impersonates, influences dreams and reality, presents itself in any form, and can strike at any moment – so there’s no point letting out a sigh of relief every time the sun rises! Anvari plays on the imaginary fears and anxieties that we have all have had in darks rooms or slightly ominous places; seeing things and hearing creeks and bumps in the night. The haunting is perpetual, the suspense is genuine and the jump scares are well thought out and deserved.

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Our female protagonists are not only dealing with the perpetual unease and domineering pressures of supernatural forces and literal bombings in Under the Shadow, but we are shown how Shideh, specifically, has to combat the general oppressiveness of a blatantly sexist society. At the beginning of the film, we see that both the patriarchal medical system and even Shideh’s husband present obstacles that prevent her from reaching her aspirations. Even when Shideh decides to take Dorsa and finally escape the haunted apartment, she is arrested for simply going outdoors without her chador. Amongst the extraordinary supernatural events, this moment is particularly hard-hitting, and it takes unsettling sights like this for the audience to learn that not only in this situation, but in general life, Shideh is confined, alone, and victimised by her society and can only have faith in her own determination and wit to succeed and survive.

Anvari delivers a horror adventure that will satisfy audiences that just want to be chilled and spooked and those that want a cleverly crafted story on top of that, with compelling characters and a thought-provoking social subtext ever present. In truth, I didn’t know that was what I wanted from this film, but it hindsight, it was completely refreshing to experience a horror film that had more than just scares. You come out of the cinema with more to think and talk about besides which bits made you jump. You find yourself being more frightened for your protagonists during those tense moments because you are invested in them and their stories, and not ready to laugh at the predictable fate of a disposable underwritten character. You don’t need millions of dollars and big monsters to make hair stand on end, just a well-thought out idea and an intelligent director at the helm and there you have it – a beautifully slow-burning horror grounded in an even more terrifying reality.

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Desierto

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Mexico | Thriller, Drama | Directed by Jonás Cuarón | Starring: Gael García Bernal, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Alondra Hidalgo, Diego Cataño, Marco Pérez


It could never have been predicted by writer-director Jonás Cuarón when he started work on Desierto years ago, but only three days after Donald Trump shockingly won the United States presidency, this could not have been a more opportune moment for the audience at Bath Film Festival 2016 to watch a racist vigilante gun down a group of helpless Mexicans trying to cross the US border.

There are all kinds of social implications that you can place on this film, especially with immigration being such a significant issue in the United States and around the world at the moment. Yet above all, I think Cuarón wants Desierto to be watched and enjoyed as a nail-biting cat-and-mouse thriller that will keep audiences on the edge of the seats for an hour and a half. After all, there is very little dialogue that calls attention to any wider issues, most of the characters are preoccupied with staying alive and there simply isn’t time for a monologue or discussion about the difficulties that Mexicans face in far-right America.

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The Mexican-American conflict simply offers an effective backdrop for a real-life horror story and the film itself doesn’t need any spelled-out social commentary to justify its motives. However, the film would have benefitted from a little more character construction in the first act. We are naturally aligned with the Mexican immigrants, but as soon as the action kicks off, we still don’t really know who these people are, what they’re relationships are with each other, why they are immigrating and what is at stake (apart from their lives of course). Therefore as each one if picked off by the sniper, it doesn’t hit as hard as it could, because we simply are not emotionally invested yet.

As humans we are sympathetic nonetheless, and as the immigrants scatter across the vast open desert in search of nonexistent cover from the hunter’s aim, we heart-wrenchingly wait for the next victim to be struck down by another decisive shot. For the hunter, it is like shooting a fish in a barrel, as the immigrants have both everywhere and nowhere to run. The events play out fairly predictably, following the format of the thrillers we are used to, like Alien or Predator, where the character pool is slowly whittled down one by one, leading towards a final showdown between our most durable protagonist and the all-powerful enemy.

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Gael García Bernal is the closest thing the audience has to a heroic character whose shoes they can jump into. We know that he has a family waiting for him in the States and it is clear that he is going to do whatever it takes to join them; but even he makes some contentious decisions in this frantic and relentless environment. With every move, you find yourself questioning – what would I do to get out of this seemingly hopeless situation? You’re reminded that these characters are just your average everyday people, none of whom are skilled in the act of survival or war. It’s a situation in which people are forced to show their true colours, and only the most cunning, fit and ruthless will be able survive. Desierto hints at some of these ideas but fails to follow through with them. Somewhere in here, there is a better film that could have been made, one with greater character development and story and consequentially greater meaning and purpose.

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Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s diabolical hunter is really the only character written with any colour – albeit monstrous colour. Morgan, who has had a sudden rise to fame as the brilliantly villainous Neagan in The Walking Dead, has to be careful he doesn’t fall into the murderous psychopath typecast, as he gives another terrifying yet humorous turn as the twisted antagonist here. Yet unlike the Walking Dead dictator, this character is more of a mad loner who seems to have been completely derailed by his incessant xenophobic urge to wipe out all non-Americans.

The hunter’s behaviour is obviously deplorable, but he is undoubtedly the most exciting character to watch and he has quite an amusing marital relationship with his pet dog, presented in stark contrast to the way he feels about the only other humans in the film. He exhibits a complete lack of empathy and hunts these defenceless immigrants as he would rabbits or deer; as if it’s another casual day at the office. We only ever witness the discourse between the hunter and his dog, so we never learn much more about this character, other than that he’s just an evil racist. We don’t know why his hatred has spiralled so far out of control, but maybe it’s this mystery and his blasé attitude that make him so scary. It is these kinds of psychopaths that are truly formidable in film, as the audience immediately knows that this character has no limits to how much damage they can deliver and it is clear that they will never be reasoned with.

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Cuarón does well to present the desert as being the ultimate force to be reckoned with. Unlike similar thrillers that usually take place in claustrophobic settings, where there is no escape for the victims, in Desierto, the immigrants have miles of desert to run off into, but if they are injured in anyway or get separated from the group they will be claimed by the desert itself. This idea comes to the fore when the remaining Mexicans decide that the only way to escape the desert in one piece is to bring down their pursuer and fight back. When the hunter and the hunted begin to reach level pegging, the battle becomes even more primal and the use of natural surroundings comes into play. As the cat-and-mouse chase reaches it’s climax, the desert becomes the true decider of who lives and who dies.

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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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