Saturday, December 27, 2014

Lists - Top 10 Films of 2014

It's time again to look back over the year that was and chart the best films of the year.  2014 was another solid year with many contenders for a spot in the year end top 10. Due to my attendance at several film festivals some films make my list that have not yet had a wide release while others on several top 10 lists such as IDA and WE ARE THE BEST were on last years list. Lastly I did not catch SELMA or  INHERENT VICE both of which  ave early January releases and could have made my list.  Without further adieu here are the titles:

10.  Mr. Turner.

9. The Notorious Mr. Bout.

8.    What We Do In The Shadows.

7.  Leviathan.

6.  In The Crosswind.

5.  Boyhood.

4.   Calvary.    

3.  Force Majeure.                

2.  Under The Skin.

1.  Mommy

On the opposite side of the spectrum my worst three movies of the year were Among Ravens,  Impunity and  The Monuments Men.

Cheers and best to everyone for 2015!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Film Review - Mr. Turner

How are you faring Mr. Turner? This is the standard greeting in J.M.W. Turner's world where Lord Nelson's feats at the battle to Trafalgar are a current memory. The Mike Leigh film focuses on the last quarter of the painter's life. Turner is relatively well off, travels to locations all over Europe to find the settings for his paintings and is a leading figure at the Royal Academy of Arts.

The film opens with an exquisite shot of Turner out at a vast field in the Netherlands sketching a windmill. The camera locks in on two woman walking from left to right in the frame with the windmill above them then extends back to show Turner at a higher elevation working on his sketch. of the scene sets the tone for Turner's method of going to, on, in and amongst nature to create his art.

Director Mike Leigh creates a visually stimulating mid-nineteenth century world. The dirt roads, horse drawn carriages, buildings and especially the costume design team contribute to the production in bringing the viewer into the time period. Leigh keeps the camera fixed using wide angles whenever possible to demonstrate the full scope of the settings for Turner's landscapes and naval pieces.

Director of photography Dick Pope plays a major part in creating the world that appears on screen. Pope who has worked with Leigh on many occasions captures the rich array of colours that are prominent in Turner's paintings with his lens. He is especially good at showing several sunrises and sunsets driving home Turner's reverence for the star. In one scene Pope displays a giant valley with bright green mossy areas and a body of water at its base. The shot is astonishing and naturally the spot that after his hike into the area Turner decides to sit down to sketch. Pope's vision is fully displayed at a key moment in the production as Turner is taxied along the Thames as the Temeraire is tugged to it's final resting place inspiring the famous painting of the event.

Timothy Spall is fantastic in the title role of J.M.W.  Turner. Grunting is his main method of communication. Based on the length a pitch of the grunt something is pleasing or annoying to the Artist. His verbal utterances are a cross between an Orc and a large Bear. Spall is very physical in the scenes where he paints throwing everything from brushstrokes to fingers to spit at the canvas to create the pieces.

Paul Jesson who has worked with Spall and Leigh both before in Vera Drake. Turns in a strong performance as Turner's father William. He lives with his son, does all of the paint mixing, buying and canvas construction while Billy goes out on his travels. He is in poor physical heath specifically  his lungs but continues to do all that he can for his son to allow so him to focus on painting. He makes a matching pair with Dorothy Atkinson who plays Hanna Danby Turner's dutiful housekeeper. She is constantly bent over, has trouble walking features an extremely bad complexion that worsens as the film progresses. She is tends house and is always at the door to meet Turner when he returns from his trips. Marion Bailey another Leigh regular is memorable as Turner's companion Sophia Booth. Having already buried one husband when they first meet Sophia starts a relationship with Turner following the death of he second husband. She is usually ready to assist when Turner physically overexerts himself in the name of his art.

Mr. Turner is a well acted biopic that paints a vivid picture spanning parts of three decades. Leigh presents the elements of the art along with the effort required to get the picture. The film is beautifully shot and the reliance on natural sound serves the production well.  It is a film I can recommend.

*** 1/2 Out of 4.

Mr. Turner | Mike Leigh | UK | 2014 | 150 Minutes.

Tags: Biography, Painting, Nineteenth Century, Royal Academy, Romanticism, Landscapes, Watercolours, Maritime Scenes.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Film Review - The Gambler

Jim Bennett ( Mark Wahlberg) is an all or nothing guy. If you can't achieve genius at a task you should just give it up and forget it. Coming from a very well off family; his grandfather Ed (George Kennedy) started a successful and still striving Los Angles bank, Jim's goal is to get to zero and start over.

Bennett is an associate professor at a local University where he teaches English Lit 101. One of his students Amy Phillips (Brie Larson) has that potential to be genius.  Another Lamar (Anthony Kelley) a star basketball player that will go very high in the NBA draft and the rest in his estimation just filling seats for another credit on their ledger. Jim does not bring any conviction to his teaching. He sits amongst his students as he lectures when not confronting them with highly personal questions. It's this direct full on personality and desire to get to the ground that leads him to difficulty in the underground Los Angeles gambling dens.  

Directory Wyatt coming of blockbuster success with Rise of the Planet of the Apes has moved back to direct a character driven story in the vein of his 2008 film The Escapist. Wyatt presents a different L.A. in his film; private casino's up in the rolling hills, abandoned swimming pools in the pawnshop district through back entrances into Korean gambling halls and members sections in downtown steam rooms. There are no obligatory shots of Rodeo Drive, Capitol building or either of the Hollywood or Beverly Hills signs.

Writer William Monahan delivers another script full of rich expression and offbeat characters.  The film features two exceptional monologues. One by Bennett when he spells out his genius theory to his class working around the room challenging individuals until he gets to his Amy. The other by notorious money lender Frank (John Goodman) as he lays out the conditions of a potential loan and FU money philosophy to Jim when he comes looking for cash to pay off his debts.      

Cinematographer Greig Fraiser is instrumental in presenting Wyatt's grittier version of L.A. The film is shot in several dark settings. Fraiser uses outside light from a windows or other rooms to bring the figures on screen in into focus. He was also the co conspirator in Wyatt's determination to have no  palm tress in the film ofter resetting his lens to achieve the goal.

Mark Wahlberg delivers a top notch performance as Bennett leaving no grey areas in his characters soar or crash mentality. In one particular scene right after he pieces together the funds to makes it back to level he proceeds to sink slowly and steadily back into the hole $10,000 at a time is painful to watch. Wahlberg plays it well berating the dealers that look on him with sadness going out of their way to give him the option to stop.

Brie Larson does remarkably well with the supporting part of Amy. She does not have much dialogue but her facial and body expressions bring life to her role. She particularly shines in a scene where she walks across campus ear buds fixed in her own happy world listening to tunes. Her fresh young attitude plays well off of Wahlberg's  negative spiral into depression and self loathing.

The cast is rounded out with superior performances from the above mentioned Goodman plus Jessica Lange's turn as Bennett's up from the working class mother Roberta. Michael Kenneth Williams ( Omar from The Wire) as Neville one of the loan sharks that Bennett owes big and another Wire alum Domenick Lombardozzi as Frank's bodyguard.

The Gambler is a dialogue driven story that does not dishonour the 1974 James Caan version. The film has a strong cast and director Wyatt succeeds with his goal of presenting Los Angeles' dark alleys, basements, nooks and crannies. It's one of the rare studio driven character films that we only seem to get one or two of each year. It is a film that I strongly recommend.

*** 1/2 Out of 4.

The Gambler | Rupert Wyatt | U.S.A. | 2014 | 111 Minutes.

Tags; Drama, Gambling, Professor, Addiction, Loan Shark, Korea Town, English Lit, College Basketball,