A Most Violent Year – 6.5/10

A mostly dull film…

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The clamour for the upcoming Star Wars sequel has put the films of Oscar Isaac, David Oyelowo and the rest of the cast of The Force Awakens into sharp focus. A Most Violent Year contains both Isaac and Oyelowo and once again it is Isaac that takes all the plaudits.

Despite being around for years it wasn’t until 2013’s Inside LLewyn Davis that Isaac started to receive attention. Since then Isaac has wowed people with his stunning performance in Ex Machina as well as signing up for both the Star Wars and the X-Men franchise.

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Oscar Isaac sports this incredibly sharp coat throughout.

It is easy to see why Isaac is so in demand on the evidence of A Most Violent Year. Despite having valiant support from a better than usual Jessica Chastain and a solid David Oyelowo, it is Isaac that carries the film and makes it more than just a feature length Sopranos episode.

The problem with A Most Violent Year is the antagonist isn’t revealed until near the end of the film and so little has happened up until that point that the big reveal doesn’t really have much of an impact.

For Isaac completists (and you get the feeling it wont be long before such a thing exists) A Most Violent Year is worth watching for a good performance. For everyone else there are much better films available that cover similar subject matter.

Ex Machina – 8/10.

Ex Machina shows once again that a robot can either pass the ‘Turing Test’ or it can follow Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics… never both.

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Celebrated author and scriptwriter Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later) turns director in this straight forward sci-fi fable. If anyone had any doubts about Garland making the transition from writer to director, Ex Machina has emphatically allayed those fears. Ex Machina looks beautiful throughout and Garland brings the best out of a talented cast.

Domhnall Gleeson follows his excellent performance in Frank with another assured turn as ‘rat in a maze’ Caleb. Gleeson played a robot himself in Black Mirror, in a story not too dissimilar to this one. In truth, the plot behind Ex Machina is a familiar one, drawing from such commonly used sources as Frankenstein, Kubrick and even Terminator. Garland’s twisting and unpredictable script and an excellent score keeps things fresh however as well as the performance from the cast.

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Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson share a great chemistry

Alongside Gleeson is Oscar Isaac who is quickly becoming the next big thing and Isaac is masterful throughout Ex Machina. Gleeson and Isaac have a great chemistry, which bodes well for the upcoming Star Wars sequel in which they both star.

Rounding off the cast is Alicia Vikander as Ava – A heady mix of Hal: 9000 and Pris Stratton from Blade Runner. Vikander more than holds her own with Isaac and Gleeson with a vulnerable yet confident turn.

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Alicia Vikander ensures Ava will live long in the memory

Ex Machina is hardly original and even all the biblical imagery and symbolism is par for the course but when executed so brilliantly it hardly matters.

For every good movie about AI there are ten bad ones. Ex Machina is one of the best.

This Is England – 8.5/10

If Shane Meadows directorial breakthrough Dead Man’s Shoes was about loss of innocence, the follow up This Is England portrays what comes next…

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Set against the backdrop of the Falklands War during Thatcher’s Britain, This Is England is a coming of age tale of both a troubled boy named Shaun and the country as a whole. Meadows perfectly captures life as a 12 year old boy in a Northern town. No matter what the era or the place, there are always similarities to be drawn and recognized which is why films like Kes still resonant so strongly.

Meadows’ great strength as a director and story teller is to search for a certain romance in the terraced houses of Northern England. However, romance and beauty often go hand in hand with pain and anger and to show one without the other would be doing a great injustice to the Northern soul that Meadows so prides himself in portraying. Unlike the irrepressibly bleak Dead Man’s Shoes, This Is England is actually a warm and light hearted film for long stretches but it builds to a powerful and jarring conclusion that is uncomfortable to watch. This stark ending is in no way gratuitous though. In much the same way as the Star Wars films are revealed to be about Darth Vadar and not Luke Skywalker, This Is England is actually more about charismatic and violent gang leader Combo than main protagonist Shaun.

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Stephen Graham as evil but vulnerable Combo

Meadows not only has an eye for authenticity when choosing often inexperienced actors for his films, he also has a knack for getting the best out of his more established cast members. Paddy Considine’s performance in Dead Man’s Shoes was worthy of an Oscar nomination that of course never came. Surpassing even Considine’s master class though is Stephen Graham as the aforementioned Combo. It is a terrifying and visceral performance from Graham who perfectly captures the manipulative bully we have all encountered at some point in our life. His central speech about immigration is a thing of beauty and it is a brave move from Meadows to have such an articulate and on the face of it fairly logical argument about race coming out of the mouth of such a vile character.

It is so easy to make a film about racism and have the antagonist be an ignorant straw man who it is easy to hate. As shown with Ed Norton’s Derek Vinyard from American History X however an eloquent racist makes for a much more compelling story than a stupid one.

This Is England is an unflinching look into the life of millions of people across Great Britain. It is a love letter to the British Isles but also a warning sticker. Ultimately it is a film that hopes we can all do better.

Mockingjay Part 1 – 5.5/10

The modern phenomena in cinema for a film franchise to release a film every year has predictably led to some uninspiring sequels that exist only to make money and move the story along. Attack of the Clones, The Matrix Reloaded, a bunch of the Avengers films… they serve only as chapters in a longer story. It is a uninspired and cynical ploy and films such as The Empire Strikes Back, The Two Towers and even Die Hard 2 are examples that show that the middle instalment in a trilogy needn’t just be filler.

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Unfortunately Mockingjay Part 1 is definitely a sequel to forget. Without the plot device of the actual games themselves you are left with a weak dystopian teen drama. Even Jennifer Lawrence seems off her game and while it is nice to enjoy Phillip Seymour Hoffman one last time this film is hardly a fitting farewell for such a talented actor. To be honest nobody really comes out of this particularly well. Even new addition Julianne Moore fails to capture the imposing character from the source material.

Mockingjay part 1 is a film I can never imagine watching again and appears to be the start of what was a promising franchise fizzling out rather ending with a bang.

Vanishing on 7th Street – 0/10.

Terrible horror… Brilliant comedy.

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In a the flick of a finger most of the population of Detroit vanishes (hilariously leaving just their clothes behind) apart from Hayden ‘I ruined Star Wars’ Christensen, Thandie Newton, John Leguizamo and a generic plucky black kid with attitude yo. This rag tag group of terrible actors band together to sit in dark rooms and randomly start shouting things in the middle of conversations like ‘DON’T YOU GET IT?!’. They then start driving round in cars and letting the darkness (for this is what is out to get them obviously) trick them into thinking it is their loved ones calling for them. Over and over again it tricks them. From the baby in the pram under a street light in the middle of a dark street to the boys mother on the altar of a creepy candle lit church (because that is where people hang out to call to their relatives.) At one point the kid has an inner monologue unconvincingly repeating the words ‘I exist… I exist’ as if he believes someone will just stop the movie and put an end to all our suffering at any moment.
It is astonishing that Brad Anderson ( Session 9, The Machinist) squeezed out this little piece of excreta. If they had marketed this a straight up comedy and changed nothing I would have scored it at least 7/10 so it is worth watching for that reason alone.