Review: Gold

In the gold rush of gold rush films, not every one will hit the jackpot

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Director Stephen Gaghan was probably trying to ride the McConaissance wave with his latest effort Gold, following the story of a near bankrupt mining company. Unfortunately Gaghan’s ship couldn’t hold against the relentless McConaughey’s performance, showing that one man can’t make a movie.

The star of Dallas Buyers Club and Interstellar looks unrecognisable initially, after a massive 20 kilo weight gain for the role of Kenny Wells. Portly and poor, this third generation prospector is desperately trying to keep his business afloat. So much so that he’s willing to risk everything for the chance to strike it lucky. Scraping together every last cent and even pawning his wife’s golden jewellery, he travels to Indonesia after a dream reveals where he must go. Wells meets with renowned geologist Micke Acosta (Edgar Ramirez) after arriving in the country in order to discuss a partnership in discovering and subsequently mining the gold. What follows is a gripping tale of corruption and the greed of man. Or at least it could have been.

What began on paper as a story with considerable financial and critical potential ends up lethargic, with messy narrative. It appears that Gaghan is unsure how he wanted to direct the film, as if he was attempting to complete a lego set without the instructions, having all the correct pieces but lacking the knowledge of how to assemble them. Instead of having a neatly constructed product to display with pride we have Gold, with its ugly structure, scenes that look entirely out of place and an irregular rhythm that hinders the viewer from being properly immersed. I feel as though there are other directors far better suited to tackle a film of this nature and it’s bitterly disappointing to see the initial promise go to waste.

Gaghan’s plight is not helped by the seemingly lifeless script written by Patrick Massett and John Zinman. As a result it’s hardly surprising that several performances, notably Edgar Ramirez’, fell way short. It must be made clear that this is not a judgment of individual ability, as those involved acted commendably given the quality of material. The film did feature a very light dusting of commendable displays though. In particular Toby Kebbell stood out with a wonderful yet disappointingly short stint as an FBI Detective. The Warcraft and Dead Man’s Shoes star has had several similar appearances recently begging the question why has he not been handed a leading role in years.

Although there is a quite considerable heap of negatives, a sprinkling of positives can be seen. Enough to sway a minor proportion of viewers perhaps, but look closer and you’ll see those positives don’t quite fit. They hint at another film — a better one.

Recently Hollywood has been awash with this type of rise and fall true story and as with any genre of films, not all will succeed in greatness. This is sadly the case with Gold, falling massively short of the competition. In the gold rush of gold rush films, not every one will hit the jackpot.

Review: Hacksaw Ridge

Hacksaw Ridge represents Mel Gibson’s triumphant return to directing after a decade away from the chair

Ten years after the release of the critically acclaimed Apocalypto, Mel Gibson reaffirms his position as a top director in explosive fashion with his latest picture, Hacksaw Ridge. Exploring the incredible true story of Desmond Doss, a self-proclaimed ‘conscientious collaborator’, as he wrestles with both his religious beliefs and his comrades, who view those beliefs as cowardice.

The title of the feature originates from an important tactical location, nicknamed Hacksaw Ridge during the Battle of Okinawa. This is where the majority of combat scenes take place. Before any action begins, we are informed of multiple failed attempts to take the ridge, each time getting pushed back by the relentless Japanese army. Captain Glover (Sam Worthington) regards Hacksaw as the key to winning the war: ‘We take Hacksaw, we get Okinawa. We get Okinawa, we take Japan.’

Interestingly, the tone shifts dramatically and instantaneously when they arrive on Okinawa. There are certain parallels that can be drawn between this and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. For instance both have two very distinct halves. The first, a pre war training segment where we see the protagonist battle with his will, and the second, with the characters thrown into the heart of battle. Gibson’s work however employs a melodramatic style throughout the film’s opening, presenting life as almost idyllic. An unfaltering love story hindered only by his veteran father, who drowns his sorrow in alcohol to the detriment of his family, played fantastically by Hugo Weaving.

On the topic of acting, there were a slew of surprisingly convincing performances. Andrew Garfield, in his second and his best religious lead of 2017, seems to have ditched the Spider-Man typecasting with this Oscar nominated display. By far the most unexpected revelation though was Vince Vaughn as the initially hostile but ultimately compassionate Sergeant Howell. Perhaps the most memorable scene involves Vaughn’s character assessing the new recruits at the barracks. Using the wit reminiscent of some of his previous comedic roles such as Wedding Crashers and Dodgeball, he attempts to break them down through well-aimed character abuse.

Several times throughout the film, Gibson, like in his other films, fetishises violence. Being by far the worst offender of his catalogue, once the war begins, the slaughter is never far behind. The camera always lingers just a moment too long on the destruction, sadistically teasing the audience, even the eruption of flames from the flamethrower is alluring. This exaggerated romanticism contradicts the anti-war message the film otherwise overwhelmingly attempts to convey.

Hacksaw Ridge adopts traits common to vintage war films juxtaposed with modern special effects for the gory detail. It ends by showing interviews from Doss and those he saved, a poignant reminder that this is a true story, and the atrocities we see on-screen affected real people who fought and lost their lives to protect ours.

Review: A Monster Calls

A powerful adaptation of Patrick Ness’s highly acclaimed novel

Our minds have the ability to create things of incredible beauty, encompassing a wide range of emotions. Unfortunately that ability is used far too often as an escape, to hide away from the real world. Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls is an emotionally stirring film about an all too familiar situation, one where cancer takes away our loved ones without a second thought.

What sets this film apart from others in the crowded coming-of-age genre is the extensive but not exhaustive use of fantastical elements and art. This is made obvious from the offset with a visually stunning opening credits sequence, reminiscent of Game of Thrones except including a breathtaking watercolour finish. The three tales told by The Monster during the film were similarly given the watercolour treatment and once again these segments seemed familiar, this time bearing close resemblance to ‘The Three Brothers’ story from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1. Placed equally through the film, the use of these distractions permit the story to not be too grounded in its dark themes and instead allow Conor, and by extension the audience, to escape into another world.

Collaborating once more with cinematographer Oscar Faura (The Impossible, The Imitation Game), director J.A.Bayona masterfully captures both the emotions of the characters and the massive scale of The Monster. In some of the most evocative scenes, the camera stays still. Keeping all aspects of the shot stationary besides the actors emphasises every word said and every change in facial expression. Consequently the feelings conveyed grow, and the bond created between characters appears stronger.

Throughout the film, Fernando Velazquez’ score often feels like another cast member. An ever-present entity whose role is to change sentiment to sound. There are two very distinct aspects to the score, separated by the two predominant moods, sadness and anger. For the sad scenes Velazquez opts for solo piano, and the result is wonderful in its simplicity yet powerful nonetheless. By contrast, the scenes where protagonist Conor’s anger is plainly visible, a rousing orchestra is used. At the climax of the film, as both emotions come together, so do the score elements complementing the on-screen action perfectly. The score is never underwhelming, nor is it ever overwhelming, it is precisely what it must be in that moment.

In a film where the small background details give major clues to the plot, it surprises me that one of the major characters, Toby Kebbell as Conor’s dad, seemed underdeveloped at best and unnecessary at worst. Although Kebbell’s acting was convincing and at times moving, his character’s storyline did not have as much purpose as others and seemed out of place. Perhaps additional scenes involving him were removed to reduce the run-time. The only other issues I found were incredibly minor. For example the 16mm film of King Kong threaded in the projector was colour, yet what we, and they saw was black and white. In addition towards the end of the film in the hospital empty coffee cups were used in place of full ones which, incredibly insignificant it may be, temporarily detracted from my immersion.

What makes A Monsters Calls such an impressive film is its capacity to be approachable regardless of age, situation or gender. At some point we all must learn to grieve, it’s an inescapable truth of life and one which Bayona illustrates candidly. The finale of the film is similarly inescapable, we know how the story must end, but it doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking when it does.

Review: Assassin’s Creed

Stick to the video games because the film is a disappointment

Assassin’s Creed is a perfect example of how a film with such potential can end up being such a disappointment. Based up on a video game series of the same name, it appears that the film’s creators misunderstood the nature of the games and neglected to include many key story elements that would have made for a more watertight screenplay. Instead what we have is the Swiss cheese of films, with so many gaping holes it’s surprising that it made it to the cinema.

Anyone unfamiliar with the games may find it difficult to grasp the story, and unless you take a notebook and pen to the theatre I doubt you ever will. The opening hour of the film tries to force so much information down your throat that it forgets to forge any meaningful character interaction. As a result of this, and to no fault of their own, the film features possibly the worst performances of Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. Fassbender’s most memorable line throughout the entire film across both of his characters is ‘I’m hungry’, which speaks volumes. The line is repeated several times in conceivably the most unengaging scene, although there is a lot of competition for that title.

There are a few positive aspects to Assassin’s Creed, but each of those are overshadowed by their poor implementation. For instance, the depiction of 15th Century Spain was truly beautiful. It is a shame however that we barely got to see it, and when we did it was during chaotic chase scenes with fast paced and blurry views of Seville. On the topic of chase scenes, there was a wonderfully choreographed chariot chase scene early on. Once again though it’s awe-inspiring impact wasn’t exploited, or even felt. This was due to the mystifying decision to include around 7 different camera angles of the action. The pièce de résistance of the scene, where Fassbender’s character leaps from one chariot to the other, would have been edge-of-seat excitement if shown in one continuous shot. After perhaps the 4th mid-air camera angle change though my discontent became almost palpable.

The most baffling part of the film, in my opinion, was the inclusion of Brendan Gleeson playing Fassbender’s character Callum Lynch’s father. He was likely added to the story in an attempt to give Lynch’s present day life some grounding but every scene featuring Gleeson’s character is redundant, often leading to more story confusion. The money used in hiring him could have been used more efficiently to create more animus based scenes or a another writer who could create a screenplay with more lively dialogue.

Director Justin Kurzel completely misses the point with Assassin’s Creed. The games aren’t about the story so much as the exploration. Where else can you climb the Dome of the Rock Mosque and look over 13th Century Jerusalem, or jump into a gondola and row through the canals of 15th Century Venice? And even when forced into combat, stealth is key. I’d rather have watched Fassbender hiding in a haystack for 5 minutes waiting for the optimal time to strike than the overly choreographed and repetitive fight scenes presented to me. Maybe if the time spent trying to create the basis for two more lacklustre films was put into making the initial film higher quality, there would actually be a sequel.

Review: Sky Ladder

Sky Ladder explores the creative process and difficulties of a true great in contemporary art

The art of Cai Guo-qiang is like a moment in time. A drop of creativity in the pool of conventionalism. Kevin MacDonald’s Sky Ladder explores the artistic process behind his work, the origins of his illustrious career, and the shackles of patriotic ‘collaboration’.

From humble beginnings in Zhangou, the historic origin of fireworks, Guo-qiang’s father, Cai Ruiqin, was a highly respected calligrapher. A craft allowing for little personal expression, he found solace in books, regularly spending entire weekly salaries acquiring them to the detriment of his family. ‘It’s my fortune’ he told his son, ‘and one day that will be yours, too’.

Sadly, that wasn’t to be, as a drastic new ideology was sweeping through China. Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution cleansed society of so-called bourgeois elements bleaching huge periods in history, paralysing the country politically and economically. A dangerous time for classical artists and musicians, Ruiqin was forced to burn his extensive collection of books and in turn watched his son’s future reduced to ash.

And it is from those very ashes that a phoenix rises, one symbolising the flourishing of art and culture through the 1980s, the true Cultural Revolution. A time for experimentation, to push the limits of what is possible. For Guo-qiang, this was gunpowder. To essentially destroy a classical portrait through controlled detonation and call it art, to call that moment art, was simply unheard of, yet his work established a niche in the contemporary art community launching him on a trajectory to international fame.

Little by little, a shift towards a capitalistic government is becoming evident. One that takes art in it’s purist form, strips away the passion and replaces it with fanfare and melodrama. There is no greater example in Guo-qiang’s life than his 2001 APEC Conference firework show. It was conceived as a cacophony of sight and sound, coupled with suggestive themes, his trademark. With potentially the most symbolic scene following, a meeting with government officials, we watch as an increasingly desperate Guo-qiang clings to his ideas with every aspect deemed against agenda. ‘The government is here to help you’ he’s told, ‘you just have to figure out something creative with all these chains on you’. Prevented from abandoning the project from latent patriotism, the resulting soulless display is a tragedy, both for himself and, through MacDonald’s candid filmmaking, the viewer.

When an artists achieves high popularity, the likes of Damien Hirst for example, they become a brand, a large cog in the capitalist machine – often losing sight of their original cause. This issue is presented matter-of-factly, illustrating MacDonald’s disdain for the current art environment. To avoid this fate, Guo-qiang works with the unknown. Those who create for passion and self-fulfilment, the foundations of greatness. His long-awaited dream, to connected Earth to the Universe through a ‘Sky Ladder’, has wrestled with the requirement of investment. A costly venture that has suffered multiple cancellations over two decades (due to issues with weather, and an unfortunate increase in security following 9/11 terror attacks), he plans one final attempt. This time not for the eyes of the world however, but for family and friends, especially dedicated to his almost 100 year old grandmother. The affair is a poignant reminder of the struggles faced by Chinese virtuosi, with work completed in secret to avoid interference from the government. After more delays due to bad weather, Guo-qiang seizes his opportunity and what follows is simply joyous, a euphoric spectacle as dream becomes reality. His masterpiece, realised.

Sky Ladder is akin to peering through the keyhole. A brief glimpse into an ordinary man with truly extraordinary ambitions. Driven not by money, but by an incessant need to provoke discussion, instil a sense of wonder and most of all, to make his family proud. An event almost lost to the ages, MacDonald’s documentary is an astonishing extension of Guo-qiang’s art, a profound experience and an honour to watch.

Review: Snowden

Snowden successfully brings forward the issue of personal sacrifice for a greater good

Oliver Stone may go down as the greatest historical documenter in cinema history. Most noted for his trilogies about the Vietnam War (Platoon, Born on the 4th of July, Heaven and Earth) and American Presidencies (JFK, Nixon, W.) respectively, Stone once again sets his sights on political controversy with his depiction of Edward Snowden’s incredible journey from soldier to whistleblower. A vital telling of a story that should be more widely recognised and understood, for the issues it tackles impact the very way we live our lives. Before viewing, one can predict Stone’s bias. A vocal defender of Julian Assange and Wikileaks, going so far as to visit him in the Ecuadorian embassy. Nevertheless, this is a thoroughly gripping film which flourishes with a fantastic performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the lead role.

Snowden begins where it ends, with a meeting between a couple of highly regarded journalists and a very nervous looking Edward Snowden, in a small hotel room in Hong Kong. There the optimal method to making the public aware of the NSA’s actions is debated, until a filmed interview is seen as the most desired option, alongside multiple online and printed articles. From here the story splits into three very different but equally engaging arcs.

The first of these details Snowden’s discovery and later use of multiple highly invasive government programs. This causes him to take increasingly drastic steps to protect his privacy such as taping his webcam in order to stop anyone unwanted from viewing. The second story arc centres around his turbulent relationship with girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) that suffers greatly the deeper the involvement with the NSA becomes. Lastly, the aftermath of the documents being passed onto the journalists, the affect it has on Snowden personally and the world as a whole.

Despite the deeply complex issues being dealt with, Stone assumes absolutely no knowledge allowing the most unenlightened to follow. Even people familiar with Snowden’s story will be horrified at the sheer extend the US government could access your data as demonstrated in this movie. Your text messages and emails, your family photos on your personal hard-drive, even your turned off laptop’s webcam. Nothing is safe from the prying eyes of those with seemingly limitless power. The age-old argument of ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ is often raised by those unopposed to government surveillance, with Snowden himself arguing that it ‘is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say’.

Coming 2 years after the release of the exemplary documentary Citizenfour, this movie could never match the immense tension or edge of seat drama of its predecessor. It does however, provide an unfaltering glimpse into the personal sacrifices made for the perceived greater good. With a spattering of recognisable faces in minor roles such as Scott Eastwood and Nicholas Cage, Snowden demands to be seen, if only to form an opinion of one of the most influential men of the 21st century, for better or worse.

Review: Bleed For This

A thrilling boxing biopic enhanced through Miles Teller’s fantastic performance

A measure of an exceptional actor is not only their ability to embrace the character mentally, but also physically. Sports movies especially demand an immense level of commitment to achieve the body to match the words. Miles Teller (Whiplash, The Spectacular Now) brings yet another stellar performance in the incredible true story of Vinny Pazienza’s rise to the top.

From the offset, this Italian-American Junior Welterweight boxer’s arrogance is evident, opting to spend his time gambling away money instead of completing vital pre-fight preparation. This carelessness forces him to desperate lengths in order to make weight and the dehydration he suffers ultimately becomes his downfall in the ring. After a series of embarrassing defeats, his father (Ciaran Hinds) hires the famed trainer of Mike Tyson, Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart), in an attempt to revitalise his career. In a move considered suicidal by the rest of Pazienza’s team, Rooney recommends a shift in division, up to the Junior Welterweight. Here Vinny thrives, no longer cutting corners to make weight and ultimately winning the title bout.

In typical Pazienza fashion, Vinny heads to a casino in order to celebrate his comeback victory, however a devastating head-on collision on the journey there cuts the festivities short. His spine may have been broken but his spirit most certainly isn’t as he immediately expresses the desire to get back into the ring as soon as possible. This lust to continue boxing is not shared by his team nor his family, who collectively become resigned to the seemingly obvious truth that the Pazmanian Devil’s career is over.

Upon leaving the hospital, Vinny’s head resembles scaffolding after receiving multiple screws to the skull. Although the device, named a Halo, has the potential for clear religious parallels, cinematographer Larkin Seiple purposely strays away from provoking such themes. Instead, his mother Louise (Katey Sagal) is the beacon of religion choosing to listen to her son’s fights in a nearby room filled with holy tokens rather than watch him get hurt.

Quickly becoming frustrated with his newfound immobility and reliance on others, Vinny begins to secretly train in the basement of their family home and soon after Rooney is persuaded against his better judgement to assist. Initially the training is strenuous with the bar being the extent of what Vinny can manage. One Rocky-esque training montage later though and his return to the ring seems more realistic. This does not go unnoticed, with his father Angelo quick to condemn their actions and refusing to become involved, not wishing to see his son further injured.

What follows is by no means groundbreaking, nor does it push the boundaries of the boxing genre forward, but is entirely captivating nevertheless. Director Ben Younger conveys the dogged determination and resilience of Pazienza’s journey brilliantly with highly commendable performances from Eckhart and Teller. The lack of emotional depth however is an ever-present one which, aside from making this picture a simple watch, hinders it from entering the domain of the boxing classic.