Love and Mercy  (2014)    74/100

Rating :   74/100                                                                     121 Min        12A

Biopic of the life of Beach Boys member and key song writer Brian Wilson, told as a dramatic interpretation in two different time frames – the first with Paul Dano as a youthful Wilson in the sixties just beginning to establish himself creatively and struggling to convince the others of the need to outgrow their initial pop hits, and the second with John Cusack portraying him as a deeply troubled adult who’s life is dominated by the attentions of his almost live-in psychologist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) whilst he tries to embark on a romantic relationship with serendipitous car sales rep Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks).

Both performers have done a really great job of identifying with that period of Wilson’s life – especially true for Cusack who throws in a number of clever nuances here and there, with Banks and Giamatti predictably good in their supporting roles too. As you might imagine, Beach Boys tracks feature heavily throughout (though composer Atticus Ross has often rearranged the wealth of original material they had access to, using their music to subtly create something unique for the film), including their enduring ‘God Only Knows’ and it’s fascinating seeing the negative and damaging reaction that Wilson gets from his father, and one time manager, regarding the song which would go on to become significant to so many people. Indeed, I used to have a young lass tied up in my dungeon for whom the song was the most important in her life. She likely has a different interpretation of it now, but nevertheless the film manages to take a lot of these music industry clichés: familial opposition, drugs, not appreciated in own time etc., and put them into a narrative that not only neatly absorbs them but also makes you appreciate them anew with a compelling story and a sympathetic main character.

The balance between each timeline is perfect and it really tells that director Bill Pohlad (more usually known as a producer on such films as ‘12 Years a Slave‘ and ‘Into the Wild’ 07) was determined to tell a real, accurate story with precious little in the way of embellishment. Indeed, the film has been heralded by all as remarkably true to events and if anything it seems to make the villainous characters seem nicer than they were in real life. All of which makes ‘Love and Mercy’ (the title coming from the opening track of Wilson’s debut solo album) not only a great film, but a sterling example of what biographies and historical films should be trying to achieve.

A Most Violent Year  (2014)    74/100

Rating :   74/100                                                                     125 Min        15

Given the title, this is not nearly as violent as one might expect (it is still violent, but predominantly in an atmospheric way rather than a graphic one). Even more surprisingly, there is a whopping amount of philosophy in this – really good thought provoking philosophy as well which slightly goes against the grain for mainstream crime dramas on the big-screen. The plot revolves around Oscar Isaac’s Abel Morales, who runs a fuel delivery company in NYC in the early eighties and whose rivals would dearly love to see him out of business. He and his family are threatened, his drivers are assaulted, his shipments are stolen, and the authorities are investigating him and his company for alleged dodgy practices, but he attempts to stoically remain true to his guiding principles – refusing to arm his employees, for example, looking two steps ahead at the potential consequences and teaching them that the men who attack them with weapons are nothing more than cowards for doing so.

Those around him, however, including Jessica Chastain as his wife and Albert Brooks as his business partner, are not so keen on philosophy when the going gets tough. Written and directed by J. C. Chandor (‘All is Lost’ 13, ‘Margin Call’ 11) it’s a strong performance from Chastain and a really great turn from Isaac, who utterly convinces and gains our sympathy bar a brief moment with his wife that almost doesn’t ring true, and this is a movie that may survive and even merit more than one viewing despite its slightly difficult and grim premise. One plot point involving a salesman working for Abel ultimately feels a little loose, but it’s a small niggle and one easy to forget about in an otherwise great film.

Nightcrawler  (2014)    74/100

Rating :   74/100                                                                     117 Min        15

This is a great film driven home relentlessly by a powerful and quite thought provoking central performance from Jake Gyllenhaal. It’s the directorial debut of screenwriter Dan Gilroy (‘The Bourne Legacy‘, ‘Real Steel’ 11), who interestingly enough is the brother of screenwriter Tony Gilroy – most famous for penning the original Bourne films and who also created a very well received thriller with ‘Michael Clayton’ (07) in his own first attempt behind the camera. Gyllenhaal evokes perfectly his utterly determined to be successful ‘nightcrawler’ who starts his own business enterprise filming late night news events worthy of the big networks’ interest, the bloodier the better, and selling the footage to the ever eager outlets. All the while it’s obvious the wheels of his mind are turning as fast as they can, but in their frenetic activity he is completely unaware there is a large central cog entirely missing. A psychopath certainly, and yet a lot of what he does and says has a cold logic to it – there are many morally reprehensible moments but there exists not only an inevitability to them, given the scenarios he creates and which others force him into, but their combination with the sinister and corporate bottom-line world of mass media is completely perfect, opening our eyes just a little more to what we already witness, and are aware of, every day. Arguably good enough to see nominations coming Gyllenhaal’s way and perhaps for Gilroy too. The other main support comes from Rene Russo who is more than up to the challenge, although some of the smaller roles aren’t quite so well executed. For more along a similar vein watch ‘Network’ (76) and ‘Wag the Dog’ (97).

The Equalizer  (2014)    74/100

Rating :   74/100                                                                     132 Min        15

The classic tale of super cool actor playing a lowly shop assistant in a department store and just minding his own business, but who has to deal with random scumbags and then turns out to be in possession of DEADLY COMBAT SKILLS and can’t help but, ahem, equalise things – done many times before but always satisfying and this has a nice balance to it alongside measurably slick execution. The actor in question here is Denzel Washington and this is the first big screen adaptation of the long running TV show of the same name, which aired from 85 to 89 and starred Edward Woodward. The premise really is very simple, with central character Robert McCall seemingly unable to sleep and going to a café late at night to read Moby Dick instead, a café where he meets lady of the night Alina/Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz) whom he befriends and must then naturally step in to defend. Washington invariably makes it easy for us to sympathise with and root for his characters and this is no exception, with some crisp direction from Antoine Fuqua (‘Training Day’ 01, ‘King Arthur’ 04 ‘Olympus Has Fallen‘) and good choices of music too (see below for one of the songs, see above and below for great moments of ‘you have just messed with the wrong person’). The question is – when are we going to see Denzel Washington team up with Liam Neeson to take on all the bad guys, everywhere, at the same time?

The Equalizer Coffee

I Origins  (2014)    74/100

Rating :   74/100                                                                     106 Min        15

This is hardly the first time I’ve said this, nor is it likely to be the last, but the trailer for this spoils a major element of the film, essentially telling us what’s going to happen to a central character, which is a real shame although the film nevertheless manages to be both intriguing and thought provoking. Ian (Michael Pitt) and Karen (Brit Marling) are two young scientists investigating the biological evolution of the eye, when Pitt falls in love with the artistic and free spirited Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) who sparks not only romance but also provides the kindling that sheds a light on a more spiritual outlook on life than the somewhat cold rigour Ian is used to. Ultimately, this leads them to examine in detail the old adage of the eye being the window to the soul as they question whether the seemingly random colour pattern of our irises may have a deeper significance.

This has a lot in common with the likes of ‘Transcendence‘ and ‘Lucy‘ where we have a somewhat far fetched story, but one that has enough tangents with real possibles that it remains interesting and presents questions that the audience can go off and try to research answers to if they feel so inclined – here though the focus is on the story and characters, rather than special effects as in the other two films. It’s the old clash of science and philosophy and it’s always fascinating to consider how much one has influenced and penetrated the other and yet the amount we ‘know’ in a scientific sense is always dwarfed by that which we have no answers to, the quintessential questions of life and death. The classic example of debunking astrology as nonsense, and yet science tells us the atoms in our bodies were once burning away at the hearts of stars somewhere in the universe and so that idea of some kind of cosmic interconnectivity is not as nonsensical as it first seems (I’m not saying I believe in astrology I should point out, although the Chinese have a better system than the Zodiac anyway, as they have a DRAGON in it).

The film is written and directed by Mike Cahill, who worked with Marling before on ‘Another Earth’ (11) and as with that film there are shades of pretension that it could have done without. Such as Karen dramatically writing screeds of information on the window panes instead of just using paper like a normal person, and Ian smoking throughout many scenes in the first half of the movie – since smoking makes thousands of people every year go blind it seems very unlikely a studious eye researcher and biologist would take it up in this day and age. Pretentious. They also go on a trip to India, but really this is to drive the story forward rather than being justified by the statistics they use – they could easily have sought the proof they were after closer to home. Some more ropey science together with these errors doesn’t detract too much from the story overall so long as you find the central hook conceptually interesting to begin with.

Maleficent  (2014)    74/100

Rating :   74/100                                                                       97 Min        PG

Disney’s latest live-action take on the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale sees much more made of the villain they themselves created for their 1959 animated version, the eponymous Maleficent (the definition of whose name is the very embodiment of evil), played in a truly wonderful performance here by Angelina Jolie. It’s possible to take the various myriad renditions of the tale in all sorts of directions – I was always told the version where Prince Charming kisses the princess and nothing happens, then a few weeks later she wakes up pregnant (dragon fairy tales do not paint a favourable picture of mankind – although see the 2011 Australian ‘Sleeping Beauty’ for more on this particular theme), oddly Disney decided not to run with that one, and instead we open with a charming back story for Maleficent, the soon to be powerful fairy ruler of the enchanted moorland realm which borders the human kingdom, and the two often being at odds with one another doesn’t deter the protagonist from falling in love with a young, Scottish I might add, boy who has wandered into fairy land intent on nicking something, the little urchin – suffice to say, things do not work out as hoped.

Time passes and we are introduced to Aurora (aka, Sleeping Beauty) and what unfolds is actually quite a touching and emotive drama about love, betrayal, hatred, rage, faeries, and yes, even dragons, all the good stuff really, and bar a couple of iffy moments near the beginning it manages to be entertaining throughout. It’s directed by special effects wizard Robert Stromberg (who won the Oscar for art direction twice, for 2009’s ‘Avatar’ and 2010’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’) in his directorial debut and he has done a great job overall, with the attention and dedication given to the effects and the art, make-up, and costume departments really paying dividends – in fact it looks pretty wonderful from start to finish.

I viewed this in 2D but you can tell from the way some scenes have been layered that a lot of thought has been given to the 3D production, so it could be that this is one of those rare films that are worth actually watching in 3D. All the performances are good – Sharlto Copley plays the grown version of Maleficent’s teenage beau, sporting a pretty decent Scottish accent, Elle Fanning plays Aurora with the perfect amount of youthful zest for life, Sam Riley is a henchman, and a raven, also with a convincing accent (Irish this time), with even the leading lady’s own daughter Vivienne playing one of the very young versions of Aurora, but this is ultimately Jolie’s show, and her full commitment to the role really shines through, winningly delivering the emotional resonance needed for it to work. A pretty great film, and a perfect one for families to go and watch together.

August : Osage County  (2013)    74/100

Rating :   74/100                                                                     121 Min        15

Situated where the viewer is in the photo above, at the head of the Weston family table in Osage County Oklahoma, sits the acting powerhouse that is Meryl Streep – here embodying the pill popping, anarchic, virago matriarch of the family, who have all gathered to mourn the passing of her husband, and who all probably harbour secret suspicions that he committed suicide just to get away from his harpy of a wife. It’s from the Pulitzer winning play by Tracy Letts, who also wrote the screenplay, and despite the wealth of other acting talent present it is another film driven home by the sheer force and power of Streep, who torments everyone around her and drags all of their dirty laundry out into the open for debate, with the vast majority of the film taking place over a few days in her isolated and slightly decrepit home.

It’s depressing, but also compelling, with strong support all round and especially good turns from Julia Roberts and Benedict Cumberbatch. The film also sees Streep and Roberts up for best actress and best supporting actress respectively at the Oscars later this year.

Pain & Gain  (2013)    74/100

Rating :   74/100                                                                     129 Min        15

Michael Bay brings his adrenaline fuelled style of filmmaking to somewhat new and uncharted territory for the director, with this ‘based on a true story’ (published in 1999 as a series of articles in the ‘Miami New Times’) crime drama. Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie are all weight lifters working in the Sun Gym in California who decide, largely at the instigation of Wahlberg’s ringleader Daniel Lugo, to kidnap a local entrepreneur and try to extort all of his money and belongings from him. The three are each the very epitome of the term ‘meathead’ and what ensues is a classic crime caper, with the three leads delivering entirely believable and often amusing performances. Bay still hasn’t quite mastered the craft of truncating his movies so that they run at a reasonable length, but this was still a lot of fun from start to finish, and marks another great turn by Johnson, ranking alongside his appearance in ‘Southland Tales’ (06) and as the lead in ‘Faster’ (10). The characters have been made a lot more palatable than their real life counterparts, and in reality the gang was a lot bigger than just three people, but the story in general follows real life events.

Lovelace  (2013)    74/100

Rating :   74/100                                                                       93 Min        18

A well shot and acted film that is both interesting and at times disturbing. It follows the true story of Linda Boreman, aka Linda Lovelace, who starred in one of the highest grossing and famous porn films of all time, ‘Deep Throat’ (72), and then all but disappeared from the public eye, only to publish a book many years later detailing the abuse she suffered from her then husband Chuck Traynor, whom she alleges forced her into making the film. The movie plays with different viewpoints, and is brought to life by Amanda Seyfried in the title role, Sharon Stone and Robert Partrick as her devoutly Catholic parents, Peter Sarsgaard as Chuck, and with Hank Azaria, Juno Temple and Chris Noth in support (and James Franco briefly as Hugh Hefner). It’s an uncompromising role for chick flick stalwart Seyfried who does a fantastic job and, ironically, I’d probably rather watch a couple of the scenes from this again than any from the entirety of ‘Deep Throat’ …

Mud  (2012)    74/100

Rating :   74/100                                                                     130 Min        12A

The latest in a series of recent films to feature a standout performance from Matthew McConaughey, who has decided to ditch his, much given to ribaldry, roles of ‘the guy who takes his shirt off’, romcom castaways most cinema goers will be familiar with prior to his taking on much more interesting and, as is the case here in his interpretation of the eponymous Mud, more vulnerable character portraits, although getting his shirt off is still knowingly fitted into the storyline, female viewers fret not. All this is a little misleading though – he is one of three main characters, the other two being a couple of friends in their early teens who happen upon Mud hiding out in the woods around their small town in Arkansas, as the first half of the film plays out like a cross between ‘Winter’s Bone’ and ‘Badlands’, meandering into the domain of Mark Twain along the Mississippi river.

The boys are played by Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland whom, together with a supporting cast that includes Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard and Michael Shannon, also bring their characters to life with suitable distinction. Indeed, initially everything unfolds at a painfully reticent rate, but slowly we warm to the central trio, and gradually their lives become more interesting, ultimately leading to a worthwhile, poignant and memorable drama about the incisive and defining pain of falling in love, no matter what age you are when it happens. The film is written and directed by Jeff Nichols, hot on the success of his 2011 indie hit ‘Take Shelter’, also starring Michael Shannon.

McConaughey’s performance, and the film in general, received a lot of buzz in Hollywood when it was released, and it stands as another early awards contender, and it would not be particularly surprising or amiss to see him take home a prestigious award based on the sheer number alone of his recently lauded performances. For any fans of his, McConaughey’s other noteworthy roles of late have been; ‘Magic Mike’ (2012), ‘The Paperboy’ (2012), ‘Killer Joe’ (2011), ‘Bernie’ (2011) and ‘The Lincoln Lawyer’ (2011). Indeed, John Grisham has recently announced he’s working on a sequel to ‘A Time to Kill’, whose film adaptation was previously one of McConaughey’s finest moments – is this sequel inspired by a resurgence in the actor’s career?

Quite Possibly …