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Youth

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A fragmented elegy to desire, sex, ageing, and death is an unexpected turn for Michael Caine, whose recent roles have mainly been in big budget Christopher Nolan films. Caine is a performer who’s never shied away from admitting that he’s taken a job purely for the pay cheque, but with Youth, he delivers a nuanced performance of quiet poignancy that’s marks some of the best work that he’s ever done.

The film tells the story of Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), a renowned composer enjoying his annual stay at a Swiss alpine hotel spa with his friend, esteemed film director, Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel). The men muse on the state of their urinary function, and make observations on other hotel guests, old flames, missed opportunities, their children’s troubles, and their careers. Fred’s daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz), wrestles with a failing marriage to Mick’s son, Julian (Ed Stoppard), while Fred forms a light friendship with fellow hotel guest, Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), an A-list actor preparing for his next role. Also in the mix is Mick’s most famous leading lady and muse, Brenda (Jane Fonda), who visits him at the hotel to discuss a new role and, in one incendiary sequence, delivers an evisceration of his career, legacy, and self-regard.

It’s a tough film to do justice in a review because it’s structured more as music than a straight narrative. Director Paolo Sorrentino’s (The Great Beauty, This Must Be The Place) light touches of eroticism, deeply wrought drama, and comic flourishes starkly juxtapose with inflections of soaring Fellini-esque imagery, thanks to Luca Bigazzi’s stunning lensing and a terrific orchestral score by David Lang. Youth functions effortlessly on a hypnotic ebb and flow, and climaxes in a final sequence that is resonant and moving. We watch films in the hope that we get to have experiences like this.

 
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Elstree 1976

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You might think that everything that could be said about the original Star Wars (or A New Hope if you’re, you know, one of those guys) has been said, but then along comes Jon Spira’s crowdfunded documentary Elstree 1976 to show you that you’re wrong.

Spira takes a boots-on-the-ground look at the classic film, eschewing the Hamill/Ford/Fisher triumvirate and instead tracking down a host of bit players to tell their story. The two biggest subjects at hand are Jeremy Bullock (Boba Fett) and David Prowse (Darth Vader – or at least his body) but the former X-Wing pilots, Stormtroopers and aliens Spira digs up are much more interesting. Certain elements of Star Wars lore are reaffirmed – pretty much everyone involved thought it was a kids’ film, and not a very promising one – but what really stands out is the picture of mid-‘70s British show business that Elstree 1976 builds up, populated with dancers, chancers, wannabe actors and near-miss pop stars.

At times, Elstree 1976 – named for the studio where much of the original Star Wars was shot – is a bittersweet affair: few of the subjects interviewed amounted to much in the entertainment world after their brief turns in Star Wars, and it’s only that film’s enduring cult that keeps them in the spotlight, albeit largely at fan conventions hawking their autographs and anecdotes. Still, all seem happy with their lot and eager to share their stories.

The casual viewer might be nonplussed by Elstree 1976, but Star Wars fans – and Lord knows there’s more than a few of them – should find plenty of value.

 
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The Revenant

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Obviously wanting to spread his cinematic wings after the largely interior Birdman, Mexican writer/director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, goes into the wild with The Revenant, shooting almost entirely on location, and dragging forth a visually stunning but gruesomely primal tale of survival and revenge that recalls masters like Sam Peckinpah, Walter Hill, Werner Herzog, and Terrence Malick. In this mini-epic of dirt, grit, and blood, beauty and horror bash against each other at will, and the human spirit is revealed in all of its nobility and brutality. And at its centre is a group of actors who literally go to the bottom of the well to deliver a collection of highly committed, deeply felt performances that go beyond mere acting and push into something else altogether.

Working with limited dialogue, Leonardo DiCaprio wholly inhabits the character of Hugh Glass, an experienced wilderness tracker working as guide to a bedraggled crew of fur trappers plying their trade in The Rockies in the 1820s. After being mauled by a bear (in a staggeringly rendered scene of protracted, horrific violence and physical violation rivalled only by Monica Bellucci’s desecration in Irreversible), the barely alive and practically mute Glass is then betrayed and left for dead by Tom Hardy’s trapper, John Fitzgerald, a revoltingly insensitive and avaricious misanthrope who rates as one of the most despicable villains to metaphorically twirl his moustache in years. His body battered and eviscerated, the determined and highly skilled Hugh Glass then begins a long and torturous journey back to what passes for civilisation, where he hopes to have a few angry words with the aforementioned John Fitzgerald…

As a technical achievement, The Revenant is a work of art beyond compare. The images conjured by cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, are painterly but horribly immediate, bathed in natural light and literally shimmering off the screen. The special effects are expertly woven through this visual tapestry, with the CGI blending in seamlessly with the natural surroundings, creating a sense of breathless realism. And while not previously a proponent of action cinema, Inarritu crafts a number of set pieces that will blow audiences back in their seats, with an early attack on the trappers by a Pawnee tribe rattling with a Saving Private Ryan-style mix of horror, confusion, and body-blasting violence. At 156 minutes, however, The Revenant is tough going, and screams out for a judicious edit. Hugh Glass’ journey is a long and painful one, and at times, the film mirrors that too intently, with this broken but dogged mountain man’s litany of hardships becoming almost unbearable to witness. When he climbs into a gutted horse carcass for warmth, the damage is near irreparable. But with that agony comes equal ecstasy: it might be an endurance test, but the rewards of The Revenant are plentiful. This is big, brave, and borderline deranged filmmaking, reaching with arms outstretched for the heavens while its boots are stuck in the mud and the muck.

 

 
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Sisters

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The hipsters got their party movie with The Great Gatsby, the kids got to drain the keg in Project X, and now the fortysomethings have their turn at the bar with the gut-busting Sisters, the new comedy vehicle for Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Walking the same raunch-plus-relatability-and-heart territory as Trainwreck and Bad Neighbours, this foul-mouthed thigh-slapper lets its gifted leading ladies off the leash, and offers new comic delights from both, as they effectively swap their traditional roles, with the usually buttoned-down Fey playing the wild child to Poehler’s peppy but uptight stiff.

When their parents (the impossibly handsome James Brolin and the utterly charming Dianne Wiest) sell their family home, sisters, Maura (Poehler) and Kate (Fey), decide to have one final blow-out, getting all of their high school friends and enemies (including John Leguizamo’s sleazy lech, and Maya Rudolph’s bitchy diva) back together for an age-defying smoke, snort, and guzzle fest. The party starts off slow, but eventually gets buckwild, allowing for dazzling comic interplay from regular collaborators, Poehler and Fey, who get their best big screen showcase here, riffing and improvising at will, as a host of comic scene stealers (most notably Poehler and Fey’s Saturday Night Live cast mate, Bobby Moynihan, and WWE superstar, John Cena) spins around them. Even Poehler’s standard love interest is given real comic life thanks to the funny and disarming everyman charm of Ike Barinholtz (The Mindy Project, Eastbound & Down).

Winningly and often filthily scripted by big screen debutante, Paula Pell (Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock), and zippily directed by Jason Moore (Pitch Perfect), the admittedly slight Sisters is a dirty delight, with Poehler and Fey proving that they can drop queef and taint jokes with just as much ribald precision as Amy Schumer or any of the other comic-crown-chasers out there. Fresh, funny, and heartfelt, Sisters makes up for what it lacks in plot with a rolling succession of tear-inducing jokes and a gaggle of hard-partying characters that you would actually want to buy a drink for.

 
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Fallout 4 (Game)

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I’m trudging through an irradiated swamp in the wasteland on the way to a community under attack by feral ghouls. My robot butler, Codsworth, chats amiably about nothing in particular as I make sure I’ve got enough ammo for the battle to come. I avoid the gigantic mosquitoes and ready my hunting rifle… when suddenly the heavens issue an almighty bang! A UFO, damaged and flaming, comes streaking out of the sky, flies over the swamp and crashes with a concussive thud nearby.

“You know, ma’am, I rather think we should investigate that,” Codsworth dryly observes. I walk over to the flaming wreckage. Nothing’s inside the craft but there’s blood, green in colour, leading in slimy streaks away from the crash site. I follow and eventually enter a cave. Inside is an alien, pissed off, who starts blasting at me, but I’m ready. I fire my rifle and explode his tumescent, extra-terrestrial head. Digging through his pockets I find a unique Alien Blaster. I add the weapon to my inventory and head back out into the wasteland.

Welcome to Fallout 4, Bethesda’s latest iteration in the beloved series about a post-apocalyptic, alternate reality earth. This time, the action takes places in what remains of Boston, in the year 2287, on a quest that is initially about finding your stolen son in a world gone mad. However, anyone who has ever played a Bethesda game, like Fallout 3 or Skyrim, will tell you the main story is largely a backdrop for the random encounters and strange journeys you embark upon in this massive, open-world action RPG.

When it comes to size and sheer volume of content, Fallout 4 does not disappoint. The game is huge. Even just playing the main story missions with no side quests would take a good few days of uninterrupted play, but when you factor in the various side quests and exploration, crafting options for DIY settlements (a new addition for this iteration) and just wandering about, getting lost and discovering things for the hell of it, Fallout 4 offers potentially hundreds of hours of play.

On the downside, the RPG elements have been stripped back and simplified this time around. This means that levelling up is less meaningful and, curiously, the emphasis of playstyle seems almost exclusively action-based, with most problems being solved via shooting. There’s nothing wrong with shooting in video games, mind you, but one of the exciting elements of Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas was you could quite often talk or use guile to extricate yourself from a sticky situation, lending more depth to the proceedings.

Presentation-wise there are also a few niggling problems. The graphics and environments are beautiful-looking, especially on high-end PCs, but the character models and facial animations are oddly stiff, heading into uncanny valley territory. This is a problem that is particularly noticeable in 2015, when Witcher 3 proved RPGs can be as beautiful as they are massive. It may seem like a surface-level problem, but it’s hard to emotionally connect to a character who looks like a slightly baffled mannequin.

Still, in terms of offering a persistent, strange and darkly humorous world, Fallout 4 is hard to beat. Exploring the ruined remains of a once proud and thriving society is always poignant and the level of immersion and intrigue is likely to keep you hooked for many dark days and radioactive nights.

 
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Minecraft: Story Mode (Game)

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Telltale Games are becoming the go-to company for expanding existing Intellectual Properties into satisfying, episodic narratives. The company has worked their magic on Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones and even lunatic loot-and-shoot FPS, Borderlands with the surprisingly satisfying Tales From The Borderlands.

So when the announcement was made that Telltale would be giving the treatment to Minecraft it was met more with curiosity than outright disbelief. Minecraft, for those of you over 35 and/or without children, is the procedurally generated crafting game, where players spend however long they want building, creating and existing in a deliberately retro looking, blocky environment. There is no story to speak of, nor are there goals or, ultimately, a point in the traditional sense of the word.

It’s a pretty steep task Telltale were handed, to turn this into an engaging multi-part adventure, but done it they have and the results are impressively solid but not spectacular. Using the same art style as Minecraft, Story Mode puts you in the shoes of Jesse. Jesse can either be a male avatar voiced by Patton Oswalt or a female avatar voiced by Catherine Taber. Jesse and his band of friends like to craft things (naturally) and after a brief introduction soon find themselves embroiled in an epic adventure where they must find The Order of the Stone – five legendary adventurers who had previously saved the Minecraft world from a threat that has now returned.

The positive aspects of Story Mode are the buoyant tone and the excellent voice talent on hand. Along with the Patton/Catherine lead, we have Brian Posehn, Martha Plimpton, Phil LaMarr, Paul Reubens and Corey Feldman (!) lending their distinctive voices to their likeable characters. Plus Billy West narrates the adventure, which is delightful.

On the downside, Minecraft: Story Mode lacks the essence of what makes other Telltale Games great: tough decisions. In Wolf Among Us, Walking Dead and Game of Thrones some of the choices you’re forced to make are literally painful and heart-wrenching. It would take a cold-hearted automaton not to shed at least a single glistening tear at the end of Walking Dead Season One.

By comparison, Story Mode’s choices are more of the ‘will I wear a funny hat’ or ‘should I pat my pet pig’ variety. This is certainly in keeping with the younger audience Minecraft is likely seeking, but it’s hard to become too emotionally invested when you know everything will probably work out okay regardless.

At time of writing this review three of the five episodes are out, and all are engaging, light entertainment. The script is brisk, the voice acting excellent and there are loads of cool little easter eggs and in-jokes for Minecraft devotees. The stakes are low but the joke count is high and ultimately Minecraft fans will likely embrace this more narrative driven addition to their sandbox.

 
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The Big Short

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The brilliance of The Big Short is that it doesn’t even pretend to be a story about good guys. Four market experts – brought to life by Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell and Brad Pitt – glean the volatility of the soon-to-be 2008 subprime mortgage crisis. Each decides to bet against the market in an effort to secure a hefty pay-packet after everything comes crashing down. When one of the main characters tells another that “they (the banks) got greedy, and I can profit off their stupidity,” the platitude perfectly sets the tone for the film. Like thematic predecessors such as Wall Street, The Big Short is all about greed and making money. The audience can easily get caught up in the characters’ collective drive to prevail, which both sadly and exquisitely mirrors the many hapless mortgage-brokers portrayed in The Big Short whom we are told to detest.

A fairly typical Hollywood indictment on all involved, the film is so cleverly executed that it manages to be a story where you root for its central characters’ success, in spite of the knowledge that they are part of the very fraught system that the film bemoans. A reflective and consistently entertaining treatise on the crisis, The Big Short is most interesting in the ways that it renders the intricate subject matter accessible. The normalcy of an early scene featuring two characters discovering crucial material in a lobby is shattered when one breaks the fourth-wall – a regular device throughout the film – and tells us that what we saw was a lie, just a convenient plot device to explain things more clearly.

Likewise, the characters do not shy away from discussing the complexities of the financial crisis ala Margin Call, which will please devotees in the field who appreciate more than simplistic explanations of the issues. Again, the fourth wall is broken in decisive and surprisingly expository ways, with celebrity chef, Anthony Bourdain, for instance, creating a meal and talking explanatory finance direct to camera, and Margot Robbie doing the same in a bathtub. These sequences aren’t trite or overused, and while not achieving the deliberately incongruous tone set by The Wolf Of Wall Street, as apparently intended, it does the trick, conveying more complex concepts than those featured in the likes of 99 Homes or Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.

The film, while excellent, does err in a few respects, most notably in Pitt’s casting. Inundated with analysts obsessed with making money off the ensuing crash, Pitt’s character, despite his complicity, appears to be the only one whose moral compass is fixed throughout. It’s not the only film where he has served as producer and cast himself, and as with 12 Years A Slave, Pitt plays an upstanding individual whose actions and morality contrast with all of the other characters. In The Big Short, this is not only more pronounced, but is also a distracting, inconsistent thread of the narrative. But despite its flaws, The Big Short is both an accomplished intellectual exercise and an accessible drama that will play well to a range of audiences. A refreshing and piercingly clever morality tale – whether you prefer the emotive, simplistic or in-depth depictions of what happened – the film hits its target.

 

 
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Mississippi Grind

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After standout performances in the Netflix series Bloodline and last year’s severely underrated Starred Up, Ben Mendelsohn is once again typecast as another menacing lowlife – but when the performances are this good, why would he want to play anything else?

Here Mendelsohn plays Gerry, a lowly real estate agent with a serious gambling problem. His continual “bad luck” and inability to call it quits has him facing a huge debt, not to mention it’s the reason his wife and daughter walked out.

In comes Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), a fast-talking drifter who loves darts, drinking and flirting with women. After bonding over bourbon and betting, the two men venture south towards New Orleans so Gerry try make them some serious money playing poker.

Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck both wrote and directed the film, and the art of their storytelling reflects that of a good poker player, in that the audience can never quite tell what they’re holding.

Is Curtis really who he says he is? Is he even real? Will they turn on one another? And just how far down this rabbit-hole can they both continue to fall before they turn it all around or completely lose it all? These questions sit with you during the entire film, as you wait for something either really good or really bad to happen to one of them. But as Curtis says to Gerry towards the end of the film, “This is how it had to end.”

Without giving away whether or not they win, lose or something else entirely happens, the ending is never quite what you think it is, which is very rare these days.

In a way it’s like a mature version of Rounders, in that the friendship between these two characters is what drives the film, but the real fun lies is spending time in the seedy bars, casinos and underground gambling dens. Perhaps this is why the life of a hustler has always been fascinating to watch, whether Matt Damon or Paul Newman, particularly when you know the anti-hero of the film isn’t likely to walk away when we all know they should.

Watching Mendelsohn compulsively gamble provides the ultimate character study, witnessing his initial relief and fuzzy joy of winning to the sickening shock of every loss. He delivers each of these emotions in spades (excuse the pun).

Similarly, Reynolds is in top-form here. He wears a little too much eyeliner but apart from that the costume team do a good job of making him believably scummy. Unfortunately Sienna Miller’s supporting role was subpar, not because she struggled but never had much to work with. And while Analeigh Tipton is usually intriguing, it’s still a tad creepy watching the fresh-faced girl from Crazy, Stupid Love linked romantically with a much older man like Mendelsohn.

Definitely worth a watch, if only for the stellar performances of the two leads and an incredible deep southern blues soundtrack.

 
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Momentum

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The aftermath of a bank robbery leads to several deaths and a thief with a mysterious past on the run from a suave assassin in this down and dirty action flick from director Stephen S. Campanelli. Olga Kurylenko (The Water Diviner) is Alex, the thief who witnesses the death of her friends at the hands of Mr Washington (James Purefoy). Sparking off a chase that sees her doggedly pursued across Cape Town, Alex ends up embroiled in a fight not only for her life, but the lives of the widow and son her friend has left behind.

Similar in scope and style to Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire which saw Gina Carano on the run from the government, Momentum lives up to its name by being filled with set piece after violent set piece. Keeping things bruisingly intimate, Campanelli uses numerus hand held cameras that get you up close and personal with stunts he’s set up. Backed up by a distinct lack of CGI, you’ll feel every punch that connects and a brutal car crash is liable to cause anxiety.

But it’s not just the stunts that entertain, with the film’s leads adding to the madness. Kurylenko throws herself into a part that refreshingly doesn’t rely on sex being her chief weapon in the fight for survival. Purefoy is clearly enjoying himself playing Mr Washington with a serenity so deep that it screams homicidal. As he locks horns with the steely jawed Kurylenko you can almost swear he’s falling in love with her as she shoots her way through his team.

As with all action films, a suspension of disbelief is required – a bomb going off in an airport at one stage is not enough to ground all flights apparently – but when Momentum gets going, there’s an entertaining time to be had trying to catch up.

 
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In Stereo

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When you have a romantic comedy on your hands, not only should it be both a comedy and romantic, you should be willing to cheer on the lead couple as they step closer towards coupledom. In Stereo’s lead couple have not only broken up by the time the beginning credits have unfurled, but they have also hopped straight into other relationships so fast you can hear the rebound from Mars.

David (Micah Hauptman), an affluent photographer, is with a destructive immature airhead who is sleeping with his best friend. Brenda (Beau Garrett) has a boyfriend who doesn’t excite her and an acting career that’s spiraling downwards. As a result of their poor life choices, they are vicious to everyone they know and, in the case of David, deliberately antagonise people to get a reaction. Following them both on the same day, the viewer is invited to cross their fingers that they get back together; if not for themselves then for the sake of the city that quakes with each dummy spit.

In Stereo makes the mistake in thinking these are complicated people with equally complicated lives. However, taken at face value, they just come across as mean-spirited and, at times, kind of spoilt. David harasses people so he can take their photo and giggles at the outcome, whilst Brenda’s career is failing because she refuses to take work. With TV shows like Aziz Ansari’s Master of None proving you can play in the tortured artist sandbox and still have something to say, there’s little room for protagonists like In Stereo’s where their self-destructive nature is presented as merely quirky.

Director Mel Rodriguez III provides slick visuals and an even slicker soundtrack, but it doesn’t hide the fact that the conclusion of In Stereo is that it’s really hard when two gorgeous women want you.