6/10 Director: Ryan Gosling Cast: Iain De Caestecker, Christina Hendricks, Saoirse Ronan, Matt Smith
Directorial debut of Ryan Gosling, Lost River was originally titled ‘How to Catch A Monster’ before a first outing at Cannes in 2014 was received with untempered vilification. 10 months later and 10 minutes shorter it has re-emerged for nationwide release. The question remains: is it any good? Single mother Billy (Hendricks) lives with her two sons in a ghost town mirroring Detroit, desolate streets haunted by burning buildings and ruled by sociopathic hooligan Bully (Smith). Billy is struggling with mortgage repayments and in desperation accepts a job offered by Dave (Mendelsohn); bank manager by day, proprietor of a torture salon by night. Meanwhile, Bones, Billy’s eldest son, becomes convinced they are trapped in a spell – and it is up to him to break it.
The film is, essentially, a very long, beautiful, meaningless music video. While it achieves Gosling’s aim of portraying the American-Dream-turned-nightmare, it has no social commentary or insight to offer, making the portrayal a rather one-dimensional affair. Strong currents of David Lynch, Terrence Malik and Nicolas Winding Refn run through the film, to the extent that I begin internally debating where the line between influencing and copying is drawn. Although Lost River is at times self-indulgent and over-orchestrated, its saving grace can be found in its reflection of the struggle most of us will be familiar with; the internal fight between fear of the unknown and a longing for escape.
5/10 Director: Michael Cuesta Cast: Jeremy Renner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Oliver Platt, Michael Sheen
Kill the Messenger is an American crime thriller following the publication of, and aftermath caused by, a 3-part investigative series written for the San Jose Mercury News by journalist Gary Webb. The articles allege that the CIA was involved with the importation of cocaine into the USA, and that the profits were used to support the Nicaraguan Contra rebels. The expose is initially lauded but it doesn’t take long for the mainstream media to turn against Webb (Renner) and, with some help from the CIA, his work is discredited, his family threatened and his career ruined. The strength of the subject matter – a true story – isn’t quite enough to mask the feeling that Cuesta (whose credits unsurprisingly include Homeland and Dexter) was following ‘A Dummies Guide to Crime Films’ during shooting. Archive footage montages, string webs linking together evidence and a hushed meeting on a park bench – it’s all there. You can practically hear eyes rolling around the cinema when The Clash’s ‘Know Your Rights’ soundtracks the films climatic ‘little guy sticking it to the man’ sequence.
Despite slight redemption by what feels like real effort from Jeremy Renner and a solid supporting cast, giving the dark and tangled chain of events such formulaic Hollywod treatment is a total cop out. The story deserves a more complex and original treatment than it receives, and ultimately Kill the Messenger feels resoundingly like a wasted opportunity.
Director: Nathan Zellner Cast: Rinko Kikuchi, David Zellner, Nathan Zellner, Nobuyuki Katsube
Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi), an isolated Japanese ‘Office Lady’, finds a grainy VHS of 1996 Coen brothers hit Fargo, and becomes certain it is her destiny to find and retrieve the treasure depicted in the film. It’s based on the true story of Takako Konishi, who committed suicide in Detroit Fields in 2001. Takako’s story was largely misreported in the media, leading the Fargo rumour – that she had died searching for the hidden money – to grow, when actually it was a deliberate and unrelated choice, provoked by factors including job loss and heartbreak.
Kumiko is a powerfully desolate film, with Kumiko’s loneliness equally apparent whether in bustling Tokyo or the wastelands of Minneapolis. There are moments of genuine tenderness exhibited by the characters she meets along the way, including a quietly brilliant performance by David Zellner as a maladroit sheriff, trying his hardest to reach her as she wanders further into her own mind and an old lady (Shirley Vernard) who has the two best lines in the film: “Hardbacks are for showoffs” and “Solitude is just a fancy word for lonlieness.”. Aesthetically, Kumiko is a beautiful and haunting film, but somehow the real sentiment behind the story seems to have been lost, like Kumiko, to the snow fields.
10/10 Director: Damien Chazelle Cast: Miles Teller, J. K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist Chances are you’re aware of Whiplash, and not just in the neck injury sense. After claiming both the Audience and Grand Jury prizes at Sundance the buzz was noteworthy; a heft of well-deserved Golden Globe nominations raised it to frenetic. Precocious talent Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a jazz drummer studying at the Shaffer Conservatory, the ‘best music school in America’. One late night practice session leads to a somewhat unconventional audition for the school studio band, an outfit presided over by the masterful and sociopathic Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). What follows is an uncomfortable yet captivating examination of the cost of perfection; a cost that rises exponentially on collision with Teller’s untempered ambition. Simmons performance is faultless, his physiognomy by turns a landscape of volatility and then, suddenly, destitute of all emotion. Shot in just 19 days and only the second film from writer/director Chazelle, it is a remarkable feat. From the second those first slow, steady drumbeats reach your ears, the nervous anticipation begins to build. It will build and build until it devours you in a delirious, painful, satisfying climax. Satisfying enough that it caused the entire cinema of jaded, cynical Londoners surrounding me to break into a rampant bout of spontaneous applause as the credits rolled and they stumbled to their feet dazed, disconcerted and slightly overwhelmed.
8/10 Director: Morten Tyldum Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Charles Dance, Matthew Goode The Imitation Game tells the story of Alan Turing (Cumberbatch), the mathematician and cryptanalyst credited by Churchill as making ‘the single biggest contribution to Allied victory’ during the Second World War. Cumberbatch is magnificent in his portrayal of Turing and the plethora of well-justified Oscar buzz after a career affirming 2014. The supporting cast (Charles Dance, Matthew Goode, Keira Knightley) put in solid efforts and the original score by the award-scooping Alexandre Desplat adds to the films highbrow aspirations but functionally serves to smooth over the occasionally formulaic and clunky script. The Imitation Game fails to fully cover all its chosen topics (the war, the development of computer science, the repression of homosexuality), in particular the latter. Choosing not to show Turing with a male partner whilst ‘overplaying’ his relationship with colleague Joan Clarke (Knightley) is a result of a script feeling as old-fashioned as the year it was set. Despite these shortcomings, it has had a vital impact, both in engendering awareness of Turing and his astonishing body of work and provoking a long-overdue conversation about the persecution him and thousands of others faced, at the hands of the country he was instrumental in saving.
7/10 Director: Gary Shore Cast: Luke Evans, Dominic Cooper, Sarah Gadon, Charles Dance Much in keeping with the trend of the last decade to pump new life into old stories by going backwards in time and exploring their origins, Dracula Untold is the unfolding of a creation myth. We follow the journey of Vlad the Impaler (Luke Evans) through the eyes of his son Ingeras (Art Parkinson) starting with his tragic backstory before covering the love he carries for his family and people, and his determination to protect them from the advancing Turkish forces threatening to destroy them.
Director Gary Shore raises this above classic fantasy blockbuster fare with dramatic visual stylisation lending an air of melancholy sophistication, an effort somewhat countered by the appearance of Dominic Cooper as Mehmet coated in a TOWIE-level of fake tan. If further enticement is needed, Charles Dance features as ‘Master Vampire’, a cave dwelling immortal with a freaky tongue. It cannot be avoided as an absolute fact that Dracula Untold is non-stop ridiculous from beginning to end, a whirl of boobs and pecs and gory stabbings just about hanging together on the strings of a storyline. If you’re looking for historical accuracy or a structurally sound thought-provoking plot, leave now. If you’re looking for 92 minutes of pure nonsensical entertainment, I would advise you to stay.
9/10 Director: Elaine Constantine Cast: Josh Whitehouse, Elliot James Langridge, Antonia Thomas, Steve Coogan Northern Soul is a joyful and fierce adventure through the streets of adolescence in seventies Lancashire. We follow John (Elliot Langridge Brown) as he struggles against the conventions of a place he feels trapped by and a future he feels forced towards. As is often the case in your teenage years, a begrudging trip to a rather dodgy looking Youth Club changes everything. John discovers Northern Soul, Northern Soul discovers John, Steve Coogan cameos as a rogue teacher with questionable hair and some rose bushes get a pretty good whacking. Northern Soul as a movement spread across Northern England in the mid-1960s championing black American soul music, in particular lesser known releases which were often kept secret by the DJs that played them with ‘all-nighters’ at clubs like the Twisted Wheel and the Golden Torch gaining prominence.
Unlike other ‘coming-of-age’ films, Northern Soul is refreshing in its lack of willingness to follow a traditional story arc, and does a wonderful job of showing the reality of life in 1970’s working class Northern Britain without veering into either sensationalism or monotony. There are aspects of the story that feel underdeveloped – during the course of John’s burgeoning romance with Angela (Antonia Thomas), her status as one of the only mixed-race individuals in their community is mentioned only once, very briefly, but these feel like deliberate choices aimed at giving the characters depth without deviating from the central plot progression. As well as being a charming meander through drugs, dancing and endless profanities, Northern Soul is a tender and rich homage to a genre-defining movement.
8/10 Director: John Crowley Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters
We open in Enniscorthy, Ireland, where Eilis Lacey (Ronan) is ‘away to America’, a journey orchestrated by sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) enabling Eilis to do what she cannot and escape the limiting prospects of their hometown. Lonely and bewildered, Eilis struggles at first but with the comically dubious assistance of landlady Miss Kehoe (Walters on top matriarchal form) and her fellow boarders, she adapts. Then – as always -she meets a boy; Tony Fiorello is sweetly earnest and entirely besotted, and a tender courtship unfurls between them. When a tragic turn of events brings her back to Enniscorthy and a better version of everything she left, she is forced to choose between the life she always hoped she would have and the life she has created.
Adapted from Colm Tóibíns 2009 novel of the same name, Brooklyn was one of the biggest deals ever to emerge from Sundance, premiering a relative unheard of and emerging with a $9 million distribution deal. Ronans’ performance is captivating, bringing a complexity and depth to Eilis that the film could have sunk without, and the romance between her and Tony is solidly authentic yet impossibly fragile. Striking chords as both a coming-of-age story and an émigré journey, exploration of the relationship between sense of self and sense of place is where Brooklyn really hits home.