Directed by Brian Koppelman & David Levien • Written by Brian Koppelman
With Michael Douglas, Susan Sarandon, Jesse Eisenberg, Mary-Louise Parker, Imogen Poots, Jenna Fischer and Danny DeVito
Halfway into his sixth decade, the sight of Michael Douglas returning to the role of a lothario feels like some kind of comeback. In his most prominent parts, he’s played self-consumed characters in love with money and sex; Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, Wall Street – all strongly flavoured films centering on themes of addiction to danger and excess. Indeed, Douglas’s real life woes of sex addiction add a dark credence to this role of Ben Kalmen, a man who when we meet him, is battling to be his younger self in a world that refuses to accommodate his ways.
Co-directed by Brian Koppelman and David Levien (Koppelman wrote the script) – the film provokes dividing thoughts on our outlook on ageing and maturity. It is an intimate story that questions our idea of how a man in his 60’s should behave – on one hand, we’re willing Douglas’s character to defy age and live his life to the fullest, yet his selfish ways have distracted him to the point of damaging his most meaningful relationships… not to mention his career.
The framing of his character is established in a six years earlier scene, as Douglas consults with a doctor about a health irregularity. It’s this event that flicks a switch in his attitude, sparking an anxiety that births both denial and excess. Douglas is excellent, playing the conflict of his character with a degree of understanding worn across his famous face. In crucial scenes, a simmering Imogen Poots is a tantalising bait for Douglas’s ill-discipline, while Jenna Fischer emits warmth through a curtain of tough love in the role of his disappointed daughter.
Despite strong writing by Brian Koppelman and a notable supporting cast, Solitary Man is largely considered as incidental. It can’t help but meander, at times, yet it remains a solid drama with some real world connotations and Douglas is perfectly placed in a role that evokes ghosts of his past.
Directed by Pablo Larraín • Written by Noah Oppenheim
With Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup and John Hurt
Told largely from the perspective of the person closest to one of the most shocking events in post-war American history, Chilean director Pablo Larraín directs Natalie Portman in the title role of Jackie Kennedy, covering occurrences directly before, during and after JFK’s assassination in Dallas, Texas.
In taking the challenge of depicting a world-famous public figure, Portman demonstrates what a gusty actress she is. Undeterred by the inevitable scrutiny, she captures a combination of vulnerability and strength in the way she movingly expresses the mood and essence of a woman whose entire world is violently uprooted. While Portman’s face is more sculpted than that of the real Jackie, the style, elegance, bravery and soul of a woman surrounded by extremities are laid bare for us to see.
The reactions of those immediately surrounding her are often surprising – the political scurrying to realign office teeters precariously on the brink of disrespect. With Jackie Kennedy present, shocked to her core and still covered in the blood of her assassinated husband, hands shake and half-smiles of congratulation are exchanged, as aboard Air Force One, Lyndon B. Johnson is sworn in as the new President of the United States. It makes for a surreal scene, demonstrating the unparalleled nature of high political life – for a brief moment, an unfeeling peek behind the curtain at a position where human sentiment is a secondary priority to the imperatives of the political system.
The non-linear approach to the storytelling takes its foundations from the first interview Jackie did with a ‘Life’ magazine journalist (Billy Crudup), mere days after the assassination. The tragedy is juxtaposed with a TV broadcast of Jackie’s famous White House tour – the privilidge of her glamorous surroundings, so empty in the face of personal loss, highlighting the meaninglessness of possesions.
In Mica Levi’s hypnotic musical accompaniment, we feel the sound of a mournful awakening – something almost alien as the turmoil of Jackie is emphasised by a grey cloud of sadness etched on the face of each person she encounters.
Supported by accurate production and art design, Pablo Larraín’s film captures the essential flavour of the time, with Portman’s striking performance given further credence by Peter Sarsgaard’s fine portral of Bobby Kennedy and a warm-hearted Greta Gerwig as Nancy Tuckerman, a senior figure in the Kennedy administration.
A study on raw grief and a reflection on one’s purpose in the world in the aftermath of tragedy, the film seeks to show hope in shared scenes between Portman and John Hurt, whose own recent passing imbues a feeling of poignancy which deepens the meaning and resonance of their screen time – glimmers of light through a thick encompassing fog of despair.
Directed by David Mackenzie • Written by Taylor Sheridan
With Ben Foster, Chris Pine, Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham
A collaboration between Starred Up director David Mackenze and Sicario writer, Taylor Sheridan, Hell or High Water is a riveting heist thriller centering on two bank-robbing brothers (Ben Foster & Chris Pine), who after the death of their mother, turn to crime in a bid to save their family ranch, all the while pursued by a retiring Texas ranger (Jeff Bridges) and his good-humoured partner (Gil Birmingham).
With two Oscar-worthy performances to its name, Mackenzie creates a genuine moment in cinema – a modern-day western that aches for the glory days of yesteryear, bloody-minded in its determination to stamp an old school sensibility on present times. The days when outlaws and thieves had a 50/50 chance of escaping the law, before security cameras and traceable banknotes. The romance of the Old West, still visible in the skies and across the beauty of the landscape, forever tarnished by technology, globalisation and banks.
Tonally akin to the Coen’s No Country for Old Men, with a bit of True Grit for good measure, the film is home to two career-best performances from Ben Foster and Chris Pine, playing desperate men fighting a financial system designed to make them poor. In no small way, the overarching villains of Hell of High Water are the financial institutions, hardwired to systematically rob the people of their livelihoods. It’s part of what makes this enthralling thriller an emotionally complex study on brotherhood and family obligations.
As the one-last-job lawman, Jeff Bridges is captivating to watch, as he teases on the borders of racial banter with Gil Birmingham, who gives every bit as good as he gets. It’s a beautiful script that bolsters a memorable screen partnership of unspoken respect, deep beneath the surface of their playful lack of it.
While the busy soundtrack could be considered distracting, an intermittent smattering of whiskey-stained rock songs befit a modern western rebirth – a world in which cars and casinos have replaced horses and saloons. Hailed by many as a revitalisation, Hell or High Water strongly makes its mark, boasting all the genre character of a classic western while offering resonant observations on past and present. An absolute must-see.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve • Written by Eric Heisserer
With Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker
There’s a mournful nature to much of Denis Villeneuve’s work, which is forefront in the tone of Arrival, an intelligent science-fiction drama-thriller based on the short story, Story of Your Life by Ted Chaing. Adapted by screenwriter Eric Heisserer, the film stars Amy Adams as Louise Banks, a linguistics egghead called upon to help establish lines of communication with a mysterious alien spacecraft, one of twelve that have appeared in various locations around the globe.
The antithesis of b-movie entertainment like Independence Day, Villeneuve’s film is a complex, thought-provoking exploration of ideas around our understanding of communication. I have deep reservoirs of respect for movies that invite the audience to be challenged and involved on a higher level than the movie itself; Kubrick’s 2001, Nolan’s Interstellar – cinematic gifts that keep giving, no matter how many times we see them. Arrival is such a film, one in which breathtaking spectacle is second to the strength of the stimulating ideas that course through its veins.
As she did so strikingly in Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, Amy Adams captures an acute sense of longing, fighting an inner turmoil that regularly interrupts her daily life. It’s a graceful performance of bottled anguish that is mirrored by the stern, grey tones of the overall piece, giving the film a deep breath of human intimacy, as it alternates and intersperses things that are both grounded and grandiose. She’s joined by an uncommonly kindly Jeremy Renner, playing a theoretical physicist, working alongside her to unravel the alien language.
While rich with existential ambition, this is a story that simultaneously asks its audience to think inwardly. The global reaction to the arrival of aliens is another fascinating dimesion, working as a fulcrum for much of the inherent tension brought about by widespread panic and our natural fear of the unknown.
The initial sight of the monolithic alien craft hovering motionless over the landscape is an awe-inspiring one, yet also one that mixes feelings of dread and intrigue, surrounded by tanks, jets and military hardware. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s suggestive score deepens the mood, cleverly attuning itself as a haunting representation of a muffled alien language.
While there’s a coldness to the overall experience, don’t let yourself hold that against it. Arrival isn’t the kind of blockbuster entertainment that it was mis-marketed as, it’s much more than that – a deft film of subliminal hope and positivity, mounted on a multiplex canvas that reminds us how meaningful a trip to the cinema can be. Find a like-minded friend, and it’s one that begs to be discussed and explored over drinks, long after hours.
Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber • Written by Ike Barinholtz, David Stasson & Rawsom Marshall Thurber
With Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jason Bateman, Aaron Paul, Amy Ryan and Danielle Nicolet
His first feature since the amusing road comedy, We’re the Millers, Rawson Marshall Thurber is back with a bang, co-writing and directing Kevin Hart and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson in Central Intelligence, a hyperbolic action-comedy buddy caper with a slight whiff of Twins about it.
The ever excitable Hart plays Calvin Joyner, a successful but uninspired Boston accountant (his job matters later). In his college glory days, Calvin was the man. Nicknamed ‘The Golden Jet’ for his athletic prowess, he was voted ‘the guy most likely to succeed’. Conversely, Bob Stone (Johnson) was an overweight kid – a regular victim of malicious school bullies. Shortly before a ‘Class of 1996’ reunion, Joyner receives a Facebook friend invitation from Stone and the pair arrange to meet. Of course, there’s more to Bob Stone than meets the eye…though perhaps that isn’t the best cliché to apply to a physical specimen as impressive as Dwayne Johnson.
For a film that has about as much originality as a slice of bread, Central Intelligence is blessed with the presence of Johnson and Hart, who turn what could’ve been a procession of tired jokes into a good-natured piece of knock-about fun. At times, Hart’s coltish schtick is overindulged, with some of his scenes overextended to seemingly show off his talent. These moments damage the pace and rhythm of the edit, indeed, with a hefty-feeling running-time of 107-mins, it’s easy to spot moments that might have been trimmed.
Aside from an array of entertaining action sequences, there are colourful supporting characters, most prominently, a spiteful Jason Bateman, who almost does an Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross, coming close to stealing the entire film with a relatively small amount of screen time.
Though it’s 15-mins too long and has a repetitive plot that’s more exhausting than intriguing, ultimately, Central Intelligence is a warm-hearted teddy bear of a movie – its positive message skilfully sentimental in a way that isn’t leaden or mawkish. Much of that can be attributed to Dwayne Johnson’s undeniable affability, with his beaming smile and real-life enthusiasm seeping from every pore, imbuing a worn formula with an endearing spirit.
Directed by Jim Hosking • Written by Jim Hosking & Toby Harvard
With Michael St. Michaels, Sky Elobar and Elizabeth De Razzo
Jim Hosking’s The Greasy Strangler is like one of David Lynch’s more surreal nightmares – a bizarre cross between Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste and The League of Gentleman,designed to pique disgust levels and turn stomachs. Though billed as a horror-comedy, it’s actually far less of a laugh-scare balancing act than that, working as straight-up gross-out material with an unrelenting barrage of strangeness.
Michael St. Michaels and Sky Elobar are father and son, both attracted to Janet, a woman they meet whilst doing the rounds as street guides to old disco haunts in Los Angeles. So begins a rivalry to win her affections. Also, there’s a bloke dripping in grease stalking the streets at night, strangling random people for no apparent reason.
With notable production credits behind it (Elijah Wood and Ben Wheatley) Hosking appears to be targeting niche status with a sustained level of weirdness loaded into every frame. The chuckles (if you can find them) come mainly from scenes in which characters repeat the same things over and over – laughs by way of exasperation, if you like. Then there’s the gross-out reaction, which, depending on how sheltered you’ve been, could play as the best-worst thing you’ve seen in a while, or simply the worst full stop.
What can’t be denied is the level of commitment/lack of embarrassment demonstrated by all the principal players. Whether it’s simulating cunnilingus on a greasy grapefruit or walking around bollock-naked with prosthetic penis’on full show for the majority of the running time, Michael St. Michael and Sky Elobar wholly immerse themselves in the goo of a script that asks them to humiliate themselves at nearly every turn.
More eye-openly revolting than outright funny, The Greasy Strangler’s cult aspirations might be a little over prescribed, but that shouldn’t take away from being able to admire the downright fearlessness of its existence, which doesn’t spare your feelings for a fleeting second, and does so with a symmetrically unsemytrical electronic soundtrack. Be warned – it’s likely to put you off frying bacon or sausages…ever again.
Directed by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore • Written by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore
With Mila Kunis, Kathryn Hahn, Kristen Bell, Christina Applegate, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Annie Mumolo and Jay Hernandez
The writing-directing duo of Jon Lucas and Scott Moore re-team for their second feature together, Bad Moms, a larger than life US comedy about an overburdened, under-appreciated ‘mom’, Amy (Mila Kunis), struggling to live up to the model of the perfect mother and housewife. Try as she might, her ruined kids accuse her of hating them, while her slacker husband prefers the company of online porn. After a dramatic blow out at a prissy school PTA meeting, Amy gets drunk in a bar with Carla (Kathyrn Hahn) and Kiki (Kristen Bell) – together they trash a supermarket, agreeing to rebel and enjoy some freedom.
After a breezy introduction and a few early laughs, Lucas & Moore establish an adolescent tone somewhere between The Hangover and Bridesmaids, as dick jokes abound. So at home in the acerbic world of Seth MacFarlane, Mila Kunis is a competent lead, though she surrenders all the funniest lines to Kathryn Hahn, whose aggressive, straight-talking acid tongue comes at us like a cross between Caitlyn Jenner and Samantha from Sex and the City.
After around 40-mins, the central joke begins to dissolve as the movie creaks towards its final act, by which point it opts to ditch any early glimmers of subversion in favour of becoming a hackneyed regurgitation of formulaic production line comedies. While the co-penned script has a smattering of laughs and the talented cast make a decent fist of it, the underlying narrartive grows ever more tedious as the running time clocks up.