Thursday, 31 December 2015

The 15 best films of 2015


Be it raging hitmen, dystopian chaos or the rasp of a conductor's disapproval, 2015 featured some outstanding trips to the cinema. Here are the best ones. 

15. John Wick

Something of a surprise package, this ferocious debut from co-directors Chad Stehelski and David Leitch sees Keanu Reeves tearing his way through an army of evildoers, his eponymous avenging angel hunting those who killed his dog and stole his motor. The leading man remarkably casts aside that dross littering his résumé since the spectacular success of The Matrix

Uncompromising, unspeakably ruthless, Wick explodes from the frame, the roiling mass at the centre of a rippling and brilliant thriller. It eschews pulpy B-movie tropes for a gorgeous neon-drenched milieu that reaches visceral high watermarks once thought lost to mainstream American cinema. Possessed of near balletic gunplay and a current of savagery lingering beneath the sheen, this is a forceful precursor to an inevitable sequel. 

14. It Follows

In David Robert Mitchell’s steady grasp, It Follows is rendered a terrifying, relentless contemporary chiller, ripe with a sense of cool and a charge of intense foreboding that runs throughout its confidently glacial progress. As a band of terrified teenagers pass a hex between themselves via the sexual contact that they otherwise crave, the anonymous poltergeist-cum-demon-cum-angry-spirit hunting them could be forgotten in a less assured picture.

Driven by a curiously evocative electro score that recalls the synthy menace of John Carpenter’s finest work, this is gripping fare exploring surprisingly profound themes, skirting around convention without succumbing to it. If a filmmaker of Mitchell’s considerable stylistic talents can resist the allure of the mainstream, there should be many more scares in store. 

13. Selma

This handsome civil rights tale is far from a flawless product but its greatest strength rests in a comprehensive emotional resonance. Director Ava DuVernay underplays sensibly, allowing the subject matter to speak for itself and her portrait of a bleak time arouses horrified awe almost from the beginning. 

Tugging at the corners of modern civilisation’s guilt, DuVernay finds a noble avatar in the increasingly adaptable form of David Oyelowo. As Martin Luther King, he draws humanity, both real and inspiring, from a character most will only ever know by his deeds. This preacher-activist’s non-violent approach to demanding fairness made him no less a despised individual in the sneering, sweat-soaked, racist South, but Oyelowo, fascinatingly, adds a dash of cold-eyed political manoeuvring to King’s aspirations on the hallowed turf of the eponymous battle ground. 

12. Spectre

In following up his previous Bond outing, Skyfall, auteur-cum-big-budget-helmer Sam Mendes chooses a new tack. He shifted tone from the cold fury that marked his first film to a truly hot-blooded affair, one imbuing his leading man with humanity, myriad flaws and a significantly extended backstory that goes far beyond the largely ambiguous hints that have peppered Daniel Craig’s tenure until now. 

Spectre is no dour tragedy, of course, but Bond is a serious man for a serious world. As with the other post-Bourne instalments, he constitutes a coiled and dangerous creature, increasingly synonymous with the millennial strut that Craig, in all his silent, hard-drinking forcefulness, lends to a figure not quite up to speed with modernity. As a touchstone for an established franchise, his is a necessary presence in grounding the spectacular scenery and sleek, occasionally brutal action sequences. How Craig finally bows out next time round will be fascinating. 

11. A Most Violent Year

As with Margin Call and All is Lost, J.C. Chandor tells a big story from a position of intimacy in A Most Violent Year. His forbidding and artfully conceived tale plays out on a canvas grander than before, namely the feted, nebulous, arguably unattainable American Dream. This is what is at stake as Oscar Isaac’s hard-grafting immigrant tycoon Abel Morales wagers money and reputation to move up the social ladder before it is pulled from his grasp.

With a hypnotic Jessica Chastain by his side, Morales’s pursuit of elevation proved too slippery for the Academy. The film was snubbed in every major category for February’s Academy Awards, a baffling decision given its dark muscularity and unflappable pedigree. Chandor’s subtleties, his abundance of wintry greys, suggest that this is far from the conclusive masterpiece normally lauded by the establishment. It’s their loss.

10. Beasts of No Nation

Nobody should be put be put off by the small-screen origins of Cary Fukunaga’s drama, which debuted to a worldwide audience on Netflix (its principal distributor) in October. There is nothing inconsequential about this adaptation of the 2005 novel by Nigerian author Uzodinma Iweala, a beautifully realised portrait of chaos and lost innocence in one hellish corner of planet Earth. 

The movie centers on the travails of a young boy (Abraham Attah) who, in the midst of a civil conflict in an unnamed West African country, falls in with a battalion of zombified child soldiers led by Idris Elba’s Commandant. Fukunaga proves equally adept as writer, cinematographer and director, conjuring a brave, arresting, and ultimately haunting movie that does not shirk from the abject horrors of war. The cast, too, led by the charismatic Elba, excels in conveying the gamut of human frailties so inherent to the species. 

9. Brooklyn

Colm Tóibín’s acclaimed literary source material is brought to life by director John Crowley and the increasingly transcendent Saoirse Ronan. They elevate this elegant story of diaspora and nationhood to a level above the tweeness that can so often invade the annals of Irish America’s formative experiences. 

Shot through with restraint and a maturity belying potentially maudlin stylings, Brooklyn displays a rare ability to affect even the most hardened souls, its undercurrent of hope mixed with longing for home playing out through the experiences of callow Eilis Lacey (Ronan). Her search for a place to belong is the fuel of emigration itself, but Crowley crafts a narrative of such poise that this seems less like a teary melodrama than a deft commentary on the ties that bind us all together. 

8. Wild

In spite of her status as a staple of the gossip pages, Reese Witherspoon has always remained a gifted performer regardless of the genre — witty, passionate, engaging. That said, in Wild, Jean-Marc Vallée’s follow-up to Dallas Buyers Club, Witherspoon is pushed to the outer limits of her talent, both physically and emotionally. She emerges on the other side bloodied but unbowed, boasting a career-best portrayal of a person brought to the edge through the nudging of her own demons.

This adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir about her self-discovering quest along the mighty Pacific Crest Trail wields beautiful photography, breathtaking scenery and a sincerely affecting account of sturdy endurance in the wilderness. Yet, Witherspoon rises above it all, eliciting sympathy with a performance of stark honesty, equally startling and rewarding. 

7. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Art imitates reality as Michael Keaton strives for a career rebirth in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s powerhouse satire that mixes black comedy and surrealism to a heady degree. The deserved winner of this year’s Academy Award for Best Picture, Birdman’s strength lies in its relentlessness, its audacious mechanics never letting the audience settle into a groove. 

Keaton plays a faded star who craves professional respect via his self-directed Raymond Carver adaptation on the Broadway stage. Iñárritu chronicles every insecurity, every backstage clash, every slip into mediocrity with an unblinking focus on his star’s twitchy has-been. Filmed, save for a brief interlude, in one apparent take (it isn’t), this is a singular, important study of hubris run amok.  

6. Ex Machina

Screenwriter and novelist Alex Garland’s directing debut, Ex Machina, is a chilled exploration of the male-female dynamic, which unfolds through the prism of noirish sci-fi, all glistening surfaces and whirring smart technology. A sophisticated adult fable about three immature beings, Garland’s project channels Frankenstein in questioning the limits of mankind’s unending scientific evolution.

When programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins the chance to spend a week at the vast eco ranch of his boss, software magnate Nathan (Oscar Isaac — think Dan Bilzerian with a genius intellect), his task is to test the latter’s newest invention: a robot named Ava who bears the exquisite features and grace of Alicia Vikander. Caleb is on hand to carry out the Turing test on the humanoid, thus establishing the scale of her sentience. The resulting interplay between the leads is entirely unsettling, Nathan’s ulterior motives as obvious as Caleb’s hidden depths are unexpected. It is Vikander, however, who shines with an ethereal autonomy that bewitches and unnerves in equal measures. 

5. Sicario 

Emily Blunt may not be the first actress who springs to mind when imagining a dowdy FBI rescue specialist plagued by exhaustion and a pulseless love life, but in Sicario, Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s border-crossing thriller about the US's endless war on drugs, the usually radiant star is every inch the tiny cog within the clanking gears. Villeneuve, utilising a similar palette to his terrifically accomplished Prisoners, weaves a web of shadows and obscurity that never comes close to the straightforward conceit at the heart of that latter work. 

This is, instead, an infinitely more challenging picture. Featuring shifting realities, treacherous ethics and fluid allegiances, Sicario bursts with a dark, murky power both horrifying and chilling in its complexity. Such grey areas are best exemplified by Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin, twin totems of America’s grimier business who, with unblinking acceptance, embrace the necessity of their respective existences. 

4. The Martian

Ever the aesthete, Ridley Scott is no stranger to more intimate pieces, away from the blockbusting fare he is most famous for churning out. Matchstick Men, American Gangster and even, to a lesser degree, Alien were all films that relied on substance over spectacle. What a pleasant surprise, then, that Scott’s adaptation of The Martian, Andy Weir’s 2011 novel of the same name, should combine his fondness for human drama with the visual flair that has always defined him. 

Starring Matt Damon as the astronaut stranded on Mars, Scott’s latest sci-fi is a vibrant and moving epic that beats with a heart every bit as affecting as the vastness of its crimson landscapes. In the midst of his alien exile, Damon’s Mark Watney is a vessel for our own inherent tendency for survival and while it lacks the existential conflicts of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, The Martian — exhilarating, replete with significance and, crucially, very enjoyable — is no less soaring in its study of what mankind is apt to achieve. 

3. Foxcatcher 

In delving into the rather niche field of Olympic wrestling, stylish straddler of genres Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball) mines utterly exquisite contributions from a trio of actors one would not immediately throw together in pursuit of dramatic tension. A classic leading man (Channing Tatum), a comedian (Steve Carrell) and a chameleonic character actor (Mark Ruffalo) all merged to test each other in Miller’s true-crime take on the bizarre happenings at Foxcatcher Farm, the training base designed and funded by millionaire John du Pont. 

Given that competition rests at its core, Foxcatcher’s three pillars cannot be separated, with Tatum (as Olympic gold medallist Mark Schultz) genuinely remarkable, steeped in pathos. Carrell jettisons that patented likeable shiftiness for a brew of psychopathy and petulance, a gauche fabulist placing himself at the centre of a world in which he will never belong. Ruffalo, meanwhile, portrays Schultz’s older brother, Dave, who battles to protect his own sanity. The latter, in particular, brandishes a rare streak of subtle adaptability and alters his voice and posture, even his gait, in a depiction that hits multiple emotional notes.

2. Mad Max: Fury Road

For all the abundant qualities exhibited by George Miller’s original Mad Max trilogy, its status as a somewhat cult staple in the dystopian canon, not to mention a 30-year absence from the zeitgeist, afforded the franchise’s newest entry, Fury Road, a relatively low-key arrival on the big screen. 

That said, those intrigued by the continuing adventures of Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy, replacing Mel Gibson) were promptly rewarded by a glorious, swaggering and kinetic injection of purified adrenaline that banishes memories of the rubbish that grabs our money, offering only Vin Diesel in return. Miller’s resurrection of his iconic character may be deranged, but it is executed with such panache — blistering set pieces fill almost every frame — that the beauty in the chaos is its own reward. A reminder that blockbuster cinema is still able to captivate, Fury Road was the kind of rush that the medium requires to stay true to itself. 

1. Whiplash

On the face of it, an indie movie about jazz drumming at a haughty New York conservatoire does not immediately capture the imagination. In reality, however, sophomore director Damien Chazelle’s scorching psychological odyssey, Whiplash, fully justified the pre-release hype and firmly established itself as 2015’s best film. 

While Miles Teller brings his own shifty charisma to the screen as the young drummer with an ambitious streak that feels less admirable than it does distasteful, it is J.K. Simmons who dominates. Simmons was rightly awarded an Oscar for his portrayal of band conductor Terence Fletcher and it is a performance of monstrous proportions — white-faced, black-clad, gimlet-eyed. Channelling every sneering teacher you ever wanted to punch but couldn’t, Simmons’s ferocity courses throughout this astonishing picture, carrying it to a place both dark and unimagined. Simply magnificent. 

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Black Mass

James ‘Whitey’ Bulger is a bad guy. Murder, extortion, racketeering and 16 years on the lam (including 12 on the FBI’s Most Wanted list) all filled out a colourful, genuinely sinister career. 

Arrested in 2011, Bulger’s eventual incarceration brought to a conclusion the fugitive life of America’s most notorious modern-day gangster, a free-range scumbag now rotting in a Florida prison and destined to end his days away from the society for which he had such disdain. 

How he got to that point, however, is particularly remarkable considering his notorious and brazen predilection for chilling violence, his criminal streak as unmistakable as the South Boston brogue that rolled off his tongue. Bulger was in bed with the Feds, you see, a high-priced government informant whose activities were tolerated in exchange for the information he provided on the Cosa Nostra, an entity attracting far more attention than his own less glamorous Winter Hill Gang. 

With a State Senator for a brother and the FBI on a leash, Bulger considered himself untouchable. He wielded a reign of terror on his community that went largely unnoticed until the authorities and his associates finally cut him loose. 

Jack Nicholson famously portrayed a shadow of Bulger in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, and while his Francis Costello — cartoonish, raving mad, a bit charming — inspired a certain measure of reluctant sympathy, the real-life version was a drastically different beast. 

Featuring Johnny Depp on the finest form he has displayed in years, Black Mass, Scott Cooper’s muscular and occasionally grimy study of wickedness and corruption, wields a character whose profound flaws appear less watchable than they do morbidly fascinating. Gimlet eyes shining, flickering over their subjects as if they were prey caught in a snare, Depp’s performance brims with a menace leering enough to make skin crawl. 

Operating in a similar blue-collar milieu to that explored in his previous pictures, Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace, Cooper lays out the expected genre tropes early on with a coterie of tough characters populating an equally tough landscape, namely Boston’s jagged outer edges, a place steeped in proud working-class traditions. 

Discerning that Bulger’s progress was built on a forceful personality, Cooper fills the frame with his main player to an almost uncomfortable degree. Ever watchable, Depp struts his way through a performance as layered as it is chilling, one laced with a cruelty that stems from the kind of tragedy that can affect all of us, no matter how brash or fearsome. The early scenes involving his son, mother and politician brother (Benedict Cumberbatch) are surprisingly touching, brave depictions of a man who inflicted so much pain on others. 

Yet, as he sinks deeper into the mire of his criminal designs, even Bulger’s peers eventually cast their eyes about for alternatives and it is these men — Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons), Stephen Flemmi (Rory Cochrane) and Johnny Martorano (W. Earl Brown) — who contextualise the route that their former boss took to the top, via a series of intercut police interviews.

None of it would have been possible, of course, without the naive complicity of Joel Edgerton's preening FBI agent, John Connolly. A childhood friend of the Bulger siblings, Connolly exploited his ties to recruit Whitey, only to end up burned by the latter’s rampant villainy. Edgerton excels in a role engendering little sympathy; Connolly’s flakiness would betray lesser talents, though the Australian continues to define himself as a superlative character actor. Indeed, there is something faintly pathetic about his quest for acceptance in company he should no longer be keeping. 

Like the rest, he is torn down by Bulger’s machinations. Using the FBI as a shield for his nefarious activities and mostly ignoring the restrictions placed on him, there are few boundaries that he does not cross. Depp proves consistently hypnotic in a way that serves the understated tone Cooper strives to maintain. 

If anything, its understatement is Black Mass’s greatest fault. Aside from the specific instances of mayhem attributed to Bulger, his is an enterprise that is spoken about instead of witnessed. At no point does Whitey’s alleged empire chime with anything seen on screen. Instead, it is simply necessary to believe that this is an especially odious individual worthy of destruction. 

In one respect the director should be commended for eschewing the trap of aping every great gangster movie but the nasty intricacies of Bulger’s crimes — rather than the random collection of offences depicted here — mattered enough to US Attorney Fred Wyshak (an abrasive Corey Stoll), so why not to Cooper? 

The result is not insignificant. For all the ugliness peddled by Bulger, this is not a picture committed to filling out the details, nor is it a history lesson. Given its true-story nature, the oversight is unfortunate.

Be it a dalliance with the IRA (an accurate element, if a little uninteresting) or the cold, brutal execution of those who crossed him, the Bulger résumé was replete with myriad horrors. Quite what should be made of it all remains less clear than the power of the central turn. 

Friday, 16 October 2015


If only the most beloved stories are truly worthy of constant remodelling, then J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan must be regarded with particular fondness

Since the 1920s, Barrie’s seminal work of fiction — first play, then novel — has been adapted for the silver screen on no less than six occasions, with both animated and live-action versions bringing to fresh generations his elegant fable of lost boys, faraway lands and high adventure. 

As with any longstanding tale, Pan’s recent cinematic appearances represent something of a mixed bag. In 1991, Steven Spielberg gave the character (portrayed with a typical sense of fun by the late, great Robin Williams) stubble, a family and, worst of all, adult cares, in the bloated Hook. Laying its focus on Pan’s eponymous adversary (Dustin Hoffman), it was a film that did not lack for heart, though its saccharine execution offended the elegant Edwardian restraint that is as much a part of the story as the ability to fly or the sound of ticking clocks. 

Twelve years later, Australian director P.J. Hogan returned the narrative to its roots with the aptly titled Peter Pan, his underwhelming but faithfully realised movie succeeding in capturing the earthy source material. That it was forced to compete directly with the third entry in The Lord of the Rings trilogy seemed a cruel contrast between Tolkien’s thunderous epic and the humbler fantasies crafted by Barrie. 

Perhaps with these outings in mind, director Joe Wright’s take on the origins of the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up charts a course previously unexplored. The result, Pan, is as energetic and irreverent as its protagonist, girded by a sense of scale that will fulfil many a blockbuster requirement. Wright has long defined himself with a keen visual style across multiple genres; yet, what he has created here feels fantastical, a cornucopia of sleek CGI and innovation in the medium. 

While a plot that sags, alarmingly, in the middle third might otherwise hobble the picture, such is the breadth of Pan’s ambition that the optical delights drag this through its occasionally turgid narrative. 

Wright has much to utilise in the opening act, as infant Peter is deposited on the steps of the nunnery by his mother (Amanda Seyfried), whose parting gift is the pan pipe pendant so crucial to future events. Fast-forward a decade or so and Peter (Australian youngster Levi Miller) is a precocious tyke living in the twin shadows of the Blitz and convent superior Mother Barnabas, the latter as frightening as the former. Ignorant of his heritage, Peter is soon whisked away to Neverland by pirates seeking to fill the mines overseen by Hugh Jackman’s Blackbeard, a man with his eyes fixed firmly on defeating Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara) and her band of natives, guardians of an unlimited supply of magical, age-defeating fairy minerals.

In pulling this altogether, the director revels in a series of magnificent set pieces. From a buccaneers-versus-Spitfire dogfight over wartime London to the vast canyon of Blackbeard’s quarries — a mashup of Mad Max and Download, populated by a sea of slave children chanting, for no apparent reason, an especially anarchic version of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ — Pan compels, initially at least.

This may comes as no surprise, but the film’s strongest moments arrive when Jackman is front and centre. His Tudor-era tyrant does more than simply preen. Blackbeard is a layered, fascinating and unsettling fiend, well ensconced in his own madness; broken by his past deeds, he greedily seeks the means to live forever.

It is unfortunate, then, that Jackman is relegated to the role of pantomime villain, his own backstory abandoned right around the time Wright appears to lose his way. In one fell and hasty swoop, friendships are built, tested and mended, unlikely romances fostered and prophecies fulfilled. Before long, the end is in sight. 

Worst of all, the clumsy manner in which Pan shifts from something original to an expensive junior caper serves only to erode the aura of its central figure. Peter has always been a semi-ethereal entity, childlike and human, of course, but moulded by experiences apart from our own; he represents childhood as it aspires to endure. 

While Miller’s performance is hardly likely to ruin the illusion, to see Pan depicted as a social product of this world, rather than another, is to suffer regret, like seeing the boring truth behind the illusion. Instead of themes so subtly laid out by Barrie — parental abandonment, youth in revolt, the wonderful capabilities of unfettered imagination — Wright ultimately plumps for spectacle over spirit. 

As for the other lead roles, Mara once again imbues herself with the alluring grace that always renders her so fascinating an actress. Indeed, Tiger Lily deserves much more than feebly succumbing to the charms of James Hook (Garrett Hedlund), the film’s weakest element. He, too, is set up to be viewed in a different light, away from the increasingly cartoonish scoundrel of his earlier iterations. However, aside from the occasional wink and nod, there is no thread to guide his eventual evolution from loyal companion to arch menace. Normally a sturdy performer, Hedlund is left with little to do other than gurn his way through an undercooked character arc that merely requires him to speak in an irritating voice and exude an air floating somewhere between rakish and shifty.

Fortunately, though, Wright brings an energy to the art form that should not be ignored. For all the sogginess of its storytelling, Pan carries a frisson of excitement that will bypass only the most cynical observers. Playing on the first night of Cinemagic’s annual children's film festival — a recognition that those most susceptible to the Pan mythology are the people he most resembles — Neverland's potential to thrill is, even now, undeniable.

A version of this article was first published here.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials

It seems like only a year ago that The Maze Runner shuffled into the multiplexes wielding an interesting concept and a middling finished product. 

But it's true. Only a year ago, debut director Wes Ball dove headlong into the crowded waters of young-adult-literature adaptations and emerged with a green-lit sequel deal that signalled, rather accurately, the public's appetite for still more post-apocalypse teen thrillers.

In 12 months, then, Ball has managed to corral a meatier second instalment that chugs along with admirable confidence in its own limited ability. Removed from the claustrophobia of the eponymous maze, film two, The Scorch Trials, tackles infinitely broader themes: the survival of the species at the expense of the few; the expendability of the powerless; man's proclivity for conflict during times of peril. 

In spite of the expanded canvas and spirited performances, however, there is a distinct lack of originality here. With its predictable dialogue and a cornucopia of well-worn dystopian tropes, Ball's film will struggle to compel as much as it fails to appeal.

Proceedings pick up immediately from where The Maze Runner departed, the small band of capable teens – led by Dylan O'Brien's determined, if perpetually confused, Thomas – having been transported from their prison of the last movie to a fortress inhabited by a mysterious, well-equipped group purporting to oppose the evil WCKD corporation. That rescuer-in-chief Janson (Aiden Gillen, leering as usual) should have ulterior motives is obvious and before long Thomas is scrambling for freedom alongside his devoted fellow travellers.

Making few allowances for those who have neither read James Dashner's terribly serious literary series, nor seen the previous entry (in which the existence of more than one mighty labyrinth was finally revealed as being a significant plot point), The Scorch Trials pitches its young heroes into a breathless chase movie peppered with the occasional slice of visual artistry – the vastness of the wastes beyond civilisation, "the Scorch", is undeniably impressive – and a good deal of self-belief. 

The middle third, too, is solid, Ball creating genuine tension in the detritus of our fallen planet. Indeed, for a time, there exists potential for something beyond the rote conventions of the genre. Unfortunately, it doesn't last. Robbed of its strongest central element, namely the bio-mechanical purgatory that was the maze, this is a picture that swiftly runs out of steam. 

Latterly, Thomas and friends are sucked into a kind of Terminator-meets-The-Hunger-Games mishmash of familiar futuristic material. From the efforts of ghostly (but not really) resistance fighters the Right Arm, to the main character's inevitable renaissance as a revolutionary leader, the puzzling story never moves beyond a narrative that is still less exciting than all concerned appear to believe. The arrival of shadow-dwelling mutants, hiding in a set that the Walking Dead crew might consider luxurious, is little more than a tired nod to the zeitgeist, our cast's various frantic escapes from putrid clutches having been witnessed in every zombie movie ever made.

In spite of appearances by seasoned vets like Barry Pepper and Giancarlo Esposito, this is a film that rests on Thomas's skinny shoulders. Wielding enough charisma to pass as a leading man, O'Brien does a sound job conveying the gravity of his situation. 

Yet, late on, as events crumble around him into a haze of explosions and snooze-inducing action, one is left with the impression that O'Brien looks most perturbed by the fact that Thomas's fate, deferred until Dashner concludes the saga, should feel so predictable. 

Friday, 14 August 2015

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

Starring: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Deicki, Hugh Grant

Director: Guy Ritchie

Available on: Amazon Prime

When Guy Ritchie first announced himself to the movie-going public in 1998, he did so at the helm of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, a leering, grimy crime caper oozing with mischief and an innate sense of bobbing Cockney swagger. Part winking homage to the gangster genre’s lower end, part caustic comedy, Ritchie’s debut was an instant classic, its template refined  – though still in place – for 2000’s Snatch.

The latter might have attracted Brad Pitt to become part of an ensemble cast, but it promptly hid him behind bad dentures and an impenetrable Irish traveller argot. These were films working to Ritchie’s own rules, their cheekiness unchecked by the desires of the mass market.

Some subsequent missteps (Swept Away, Revolver) aside, the director’s talent was obvious. His two-film update of the Sherlock Holmes mythology carried more polish, a big-budget sheen and charismatic leads in Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law, but there was discernible grit there also, from its steampunk noir to the title character’s only slightly amusing psychological fragility. 

Four years on from when Holmes and Watson last bickered and brawled their way through A Game of Shadows, Ritchie finally returns with The Man from U.N.C.L.E.. While a feature update of the kitsch sixties television series is hardly something for which the public was pining, this feels far from a film without spirit or significance.

As sweet as a bag of candy floss, and just as substantial, U.N.C.L.E. is a terrifically entertaining spy romp which positively embraces its irreverent, eyebrow-cocking approach. This relatively low-key entry into the din of the summer movie market will attract less business than its bruising competitors, but the stage is set for a new franchise trading on the modern fondness for the Don Draper age.

The plot here is an unpretentious mix of sub-Bond globetrotting and Mission: Impossible’s derring-do. Enemy agents Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) are thrown together, across the Iron Curtain, to trace a missing nuclear scientist and prevent a worldwide apocalypse – courtesy of Elizabeth Debicki’s neo-fascist princess, Victoria Vinciguerra – in the process.

Sitting on the right side of satire, the mood is relatively breezy, the slick action sequences wielding a sense of frivolity that the director does well to keep in check. Mercifully, Ritchie has not forgotten how to strut and however shallow U.N.C.L.E. proves to be, it does not lack for stylish execution.  

As before, his strongest gambit is a masculine double header and the movie purrs when both Cavill and Hammer are sparking off each other, their mix of antagonism and scolding disapproval covering the same ground made so fertile by Holmes and Watson’s familiar partnership.   

As Cold War spies, this preposterously handsome duo are natural adversaries, yet they produce chemistry from their mismatch, Solo’s wry charm offset by Kuryakin’s stiffer Russian formality. That said, both switch characteristics with enough frequency that they move beyond stereotypes. The American, for all the sharpness of his charisma, exhibits a cold commitment to the mission, driven on by a backstory at odds with his polite personae and sartorial elegance. Equally, his KGB counterpart is smoother than initial impressions suggest.

Cavill’s confidence, in particular, represents a refreshing reminder of gifts tamped down by the chiselled-jaw heroism required to animate Superman. In fact, Solo has a faintly unsettling quality that Cavill is quick to manipulate, all passive aggression and latent danger. 

Beside him, Hammer goes some way to expunging The Lone Ranger from the collective memory with a layered performance that demands he be more than the straight man. Kuryakin, plagued by personal baggage, comes with a suppressed predisposition to violence that is only ever hinted at, yet Hammer – carrying, as he always does, the expression of someone who thinks before he speaks – paints him as something other than a blunt tool. Indeed, his interaction with the heroine of the piece, Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), skirts the edges of lust and attraction, playing off her stubbornness and his ordered sense of duty. 

Portraying the daughter of the aforementioned scientist, Vikander is unmissable. From Anna Karenina to Ex Machina, via A Royal Affair and A Testament of Youth, the Swedish actress has, until now, excelled in roles demanding furrowed brows and more than a dollop of sadness.

Ritchie allows her to cut loose here. As exquisite as ever, Vikander nevertheless gets to dance like an idiot, drink like a fish, trash a hotel room and scowl at female fashions, embracing the innuendo-heavy dialogue along the way. She also manages to pull off the prettiest hangover ever committed to the screen. Disdainful of the testosterone flowing around her, Gaby channels the cynical viewer who asks if all this silliness is really necessary.

Once the finely tailored villains prance into view, however, that quandary does loom rather large over U.N.C.L.E.’s latter half. Debicki serves as an effective ice maiden, but the reasons for her need to possess and distribute world-ending technology are never explored. Maybe she’s a disaffected Nazi, maybe she’s just a really horrible person; either way, the truth stays hidden.

Given that so much effort – including a thrilling final ten minutes – goes into foiling whatever plan she has hatched, it is a serious failing that so little attention is afforded to this strand of an otherwise straightforward narrative. 

Hope for some clarity arrives in the form of a sarcastic Hugh Grant (is there any other kind of Hugh Grant?), whose natty British naval spook spits out handy exposition to garnish his arsenal of light barbs. Unfortunately, even he seems unaware of what’s going on, concentrating instead on securing Her Majesty’s interests with a dash of his own machinations.

This would be hobbling if the rest of the film wasn’t such fun. In judging his tone so keenly, Ritchie has crafted a glossy franchise starter with foundations solid enough for any sequel to build upon. With the U.N.C.L.E. moniker finally introduced before the end, this is a spy ring worthy of at least one more mission.   

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Shooting for Socrates

In Northern Ireland’s sporting history, one moment stands out. 

As violence raged at home, Billy Bingham’s tight group of honest professionals set off for a World Cup. They withstood the sweltering cauldrons of a Latin summer and faced down a giant, emerging unscathed on the other side. For a small country, such feats were more than worthy of constant retellings.

Yes indeed, 1982 was glorious. Spain. Arconada. Armstrong. A 1-0 win and a place in the second round. But the story of that moment can wait.

What audiences must endure, instead, is James Erskine’s Shooting for Socrates, a chronicle of Mexico ’86, in which Northern Ireland scored two goals and earned a solitary point. That journey, seemingly, deserves a cinematic airing before the piffling exploits of four years prior. 

To describe Shooting for Socrates as ill conceived would be to undersell its profound shortcomings. Insipid and less an ode to the beauty of football than a wet Wednesday evening at the Ballymena Showgrounds, Erskine’s picture displays occasional flickers of a heart, only for such spirit to be consumed by a malaise touting itself as something approximating light entertainment. 

Both the director and co-screenwriter Marie Jones are not, it must be noted, wholly unfamiliar with their instant genre. Erskine’s One Night in Turin documented the epic battle between England and Germany at Italia ’90. Jones famously penned A Night in November, an extraordinary play capturing the organic nature of sport as a uniting force. Thus, it is all the more alarming that this latest trip into the milieu should be so abject. 

Of all the faults that run through Shooting for Socrates from beginning to end, however, its most severe failing is one of believability. Quite simply, and in spite of its much heralded local flavouring, not a moment feels real. 

That superficiality extends across both of the main storylines, the first of which revolves around mercurial youngster David Campbell (Nico Mirallegro), who is called up for the World Cup while still breaking into the first team at Nottingham Forest. What might have been a charming coming-of-age tale quickly becomes lost thanks to an uneven tone, drama, comedy and a dash of icky Norn Iron politics all jostling for position, largely without success. In spite of his own personal duel with that tricky Ulster accent, Mirallegro seems enthusiastic enough, yet his arc is so uninteresting, his character so artificial, that the significance of a debut against the mighty Brazilians — their titular captain included — delivers little by the end. 

Richard Dormer’s salt-of-the-earth docker, Arthur, fares just as badly. With the team’s myriad qualifiers and group games as a backdrop, Dormer attempts to steer his cheeky pre-pubescent son, Tommy (Art Parkinson), past the pitfalls of life using Greek philosophy and football as his primary tools. Dormer and his onscreen wife (a chirpy Bronagh Gallagher) are left to feed on scraps. Both are fine actors but there is little they can do to stem the tide of hollow dialogue and limited dramatic tension plodding about them. Even the Troubles get off lightly, appearing as inconvenient outbursts of casual rioting rather than a bitter civil war tearing society asunder. 

Only Conleth Hill, playing commentator Jackie Fullteron, emerges unscathed: wry, silver-tongued and bouffant. Hill’s class is obvious and next to him Gerard Jordan mines genuine laughs as loyal cameraman Albert Kirk. 

Sadly, when the focus moves from this pair, Shooting for Socrates dies under the weight of its own obvious limitations. At one stage, Arthur and Tommy cycle along a road in the Belfast docklands, the very post-1986 Hilton hotel and BT tower firmly located in the centre of the screen. The Mexican excursion itself is almost as genuine as the period setting, Bingham (John Hannah, speaking in a Scottish brogue throughout) bringing to the world’s mightiest sporting event 11 players, one assistant and an assortment of PE gear. 

Even the eponymous Socrates (Sergio Mur) is quickly forgotten. Viewed through crackling television images early on, with wide-eyed confusion, like some kind of chain-smoking, poetry-espousing alien, he is granted barely a moment in the flesh to reinforce the hype. As Brazil crush Northern Ireland in the least inspiring cinematic finale ever committed to film — a game recreated by the cast that looks more like a session of capable seven-aside than the real thing — our bearded genius is nowhere to be seen. 

As a helpful caption informs the audience more than once, Campbell’s family live in a mysterious country called ‘Southern Ireland’, a nation that allegedly contains Donegal, the island’s northernmost county. Where is this place? 

Perhaps Socrates can tell us. Does anyone know where he went?

A version of this article was first published here