Best of Year – Male Performance

Eddie-Redmayne-transformed-Stephen-Hawking-set-Theory-225x300It’s end of year round up time!

So, my starting point for the year round up is best male performance of 2015 (remembering it’s based on the release of films in Australia).

5. Michael Keaton: Birdman
4. Aleksey Serebryakov: Leviathan
3. Jake Gyllenhaal: Southpaw
2. Viggo Mortensen: Far From Men
1. Eddie Redmayne: The Theory of Everything

The number five spot could equally have been nabbed by Steve Carell in Foxcatcher or David Oyelowo (Selma) but Michael Keaton it is. Serebryakov and Mortensen both provided intense but quiet dignity to their respective films whilst Gyllenhaal was stunning in the melodrama that was Southpaw. 

But it was last year’s Oscar winner that carried the performance of the year for me – a second showing highlighted how extraordinary Eddie Redmayne was as Stephen Hawking. (Sadly, watching The Theory of Everything for a second time highlighted the film’s weaknesses.)

 

‘Joy’

Jennifer-Lawrence-Joy-Movie-PosterGreat story poorly told.

Based on the rags-to-riches life of entrepreneur Joy Mangano and a less-than-supportive family, director David O Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle) emphasises too often the bizarre and comedic rather than the undermining behaviour of father (an off-form Robert de Niro) and plain nasty stepsister.

Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle) as Joy gamely struggles with a film where the tone is all wrong.

Rating: 49%

‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’

star-wars-force-awakens-official-posterThe behemoth that is Star Wars was never particularly on my personal radar. Back in the early 80s, the original trilogy was ticked off in one sitting. The reboot trilogy? Nope.

Did catch up with them on Blu-Ray – and surprised at just how poorly made they were. Wooden acting, stilted dialogue and surprisingly poor special affects. Watched them in preparation for what is poised to be the most successful film in history (knocking Avatar off its number one perch).

And here’s the rub – Star Wars: The Force Awakens is good unadulterated entertainment! Sure, in spite of new characters, there’s a certain familiarity – or, more cynically, just a rehash of old stories – that makes the new simply derivative of the old. But it sort of doesn’t matter. There’s a sort of fuzzy warmth to it as a result – and add a great new heroine in Rey   (London-born newcomer Daisy Ridley) and the next trilogy is set for a stratospheric success.

Director J J Abrams has done it again. Having successfully rebooted Star Trek and produced the last two highly successful Mission Impossible films, he can now add Star Wars to his Midas list.

Rating: 66%

‘Mississippi Grind’

mississipigrindposterRaw, gritty indie film, Mississippi Grind has, at its core, a superb central performance by the highly underrated Australian, Ben Mendelsohn (The Dark Knight Rises, Killing Them Softly) – and who is more than ably supported by Ryan Reynolds (The Green Lantern, Buried).

Part road movie, part bromance, a story of obsession and addiction (gambling), it’s honest and slow-paced. Sadly, the ending is a popular cop-out and not the result the film needed, thus undermining everything that came before it.

Rating: 55%

‘Suffragette’

Main_1$_AW_[27598]_Suffragette_WEB[1]It’s all a little too composite to be a fully effective, compassionate film about an important piece of history – the suffragette movement in Britain pre-WWI and the fight for the right of women to vote .

In focussing on working-class laundry workers – and one in particular, Maud Watts (a slow burn of a performance by Carey Mulligan – An Education, Never Let Me Go) – Suffragette humanises the story and the impact the political struggle had on the ‘ordinary’ working woman.

But the script from Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady, Shame) misses a few too many beats for Suffragette to really hit home as a piece of historical political drama.

Rating: 57%

‘Amsterdam’ by Ian McEwan

amsterdamImmensely entertaining, Amsterdam is one of Ian McEwan’s more accessible books. It’s full of blustering bravado and, as the narrative twists and turns against the three generally unlikeable central characters, so the ebb and flow of empathy and sympathy shifts.

Clive Linley, Vernon Halliday and Julian Garmony: three 50-something men all relatively successful in their chosen field. Linley is an admired but conservative composer; Garmony, the Foreign Secretary with a groundswell of support for a challenge on the leadership of his political party. Vernon Halliday, meanwhile, is the latest editor of The Judge newspaper and charged with the responsibility of increasing its readership.

The thing they have in common is that all three were former lovers of Molly Lane. Only desirable, talented Molly is dead at the age of 46 from an unspecified, madness-inducing disease.

Linley and Halliday were long-time friends both before and since becoming involved with Molly. Both detest the politician. So when photographs come to light of a cross-dressing Home Secretary, Halliday recognises the perfect scoop for his beleaguered newspaper. Only Linley feels it’s unethical to use the images, images taken privately by Molly. Publication to him would be letting their recently deceased friend down.

So begins a relatively short novel (170 or so pages) that nevertheless takes on big themes. The consequence of action and the dilemma whereby a moral decision goes wrong is, as with many of McEwan’s other novels, present. But the level and depth of friendship and loyalty are questioned as selfishness, heartlessness and bloody-minded stubbornness also come into play.

Each of the three men sees themselves as a victim – and, at different times, they are. But they’re also each a perpetrator of a moral conundrum.

Along with its positioning and questioning, Amsterdam is, at times, funny. Clive Linley is incredibly pompous and out of tune (sic) with the world around him. Halliday is based on an amalgam of numerous high-profile editors of British newspapers such as The Times, The Telegraph and The Sun. And whilst it may not be McEwan’s best (Atonement, anyone?), it’s an immensely enjoyable read and which can be run off in a day or two.

In spite of five shortlist nominations, Amsterdam represents Ian McEwan’s only Man Booker Prize win, collecting the award in 1998 and beating out, among others, Beryl Bainbridge (Master Georgie) and Julian Barnes (England, England).

 

‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay II’

1444226756-movies-the-hunger-games-mockingjay-part-2-posterThankfully, this tetralogy is now consigned to history.

A strong launch back in 2012 with Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen has gradually become a diluted confusion of adventure and thrills along with social and sexual political messages.

The decision to split the final book into two was controversial enough – especially when Part I was little more than a series of inner-city and underground battles, all seemingly filmed in monotone greys.

And whilst Part II is a little better,  that’s not saying a great deal. And just how many endings can a film have? There were a couple of obvious spots to end the saga – but the film (and I therefore assume the book) just kept going on and on and on and on….

Rating: 39%

‘The Program’

lance armstrong 'the program' biopic movie posterAn extraordinary tale of lies, deception and systemic drug abuse in sport that allowed American cyclist Lance Armstrong rule his domain for years.

Like the film, Armstrong, clinically played by Ben Foster (Contraband, Kill Your Darlings) is cold and manipulative. And director Stephen Frears (The Queen, Philomena) perfectly  captures the drive and sheer competitiveness of the seven-times winner of the Tour de France.

But The Program left you wanting it to go that extra mile – to dig a little deeper into the sport itself and just why the now disgraced Armstrong managed to avoid exposure for so long.

Rating: 57%

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Sacred Hunger’ by Barry Unsworth

A007smallThis particular tome shared the 1992 Booker Prize with the somewhat better-known The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje – a novel that went on to be adapted for the silver screen, starred Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott-Thomas and Juliet Binoche and won nine 1997 Oscars, including best film.

Barry Unsworth’s superb novel, meanwhile, has been left languishing on the bookshelves, somewhat forgotten and undervalued. Sacred Hunger is no mean undertaking at nearly 700 pages. Yet it is worth every one of them.

A book of two parts – the first two taking place simultaneously in Liverpool and aboard the slave ship, the Liverpool Merchant, in 1752-1753: the second moves forward 12 years to the Florida swamps. A story of power, greed and arrogance on the one hand and human suffering on another, it can leave you, at times, quite breathless.

Having overextended himself by borrowing against his wealth from the sugar trade, William Kemp is now in serious debt. He turns to one of the most lucrative of all trades in the late 18th century – slavery and the transportation of men, women and children from the west African coast to the Indies and Americas. Commissioning the Liverpool Merchant in the hope of clearing those debts, Kemp sets in motion a series of events which lead to his early death, family bankruptcy and mutiny on the high seas.

Captained by the sadistic Thurso, the Liverpool Merchant heads for Africa and its promised wealth. His final passage, Thurso has an agenda of his own. On board is Kemp’s nephew, Matthew Paris, a man in disgrace having been imprisoned for publishing sacrilegious tracts. The inhumanity, brutality, hardships and privations on the ship are juxtaposed with the dandified life back in England as young Eramus Kemp woos Sarah Wolpert, the daughter of one of the wealthiest men in the north.

Twelve years later, the elder Kemp is dead, the Liverpool Merchant long lost and the rich and powerful Erasmus Kemp has cleared his father’s debts and risen to prominence in the world of trade. The scandal around his father’s death ensured the marriage between Erasmus and his beloved Sarah never came to fruition. A loveless marriage, but worth a small fortune, followed. And then comes news that the Liverpool Merchant was not lost at sea and a mixed community of black and white was living in the inaccessible Florida swamps…

Convinced his hated cousin had a part to play in the loss of the slave ship and the early death of Kemp senior, Erasmus Kemp sets off for the new English colony determined to gain justice.

Sacred Hunger is a complex, unsettling parable. From the off, the story is of the characters who make up the novel. Short narratives introduce dock workers, crew members, merchants, aristocrats et al. And this sets the tone – Sacred Hunger is essentially about its people and their position in place and time. It is they who drive the narrative and it is they to whom we relate (or not).

Pompous Erasmus Kemp has spent his life consumed by his own ghosts. His once proud cousin Matthew Paris discovers humility and sense of himself aboard the Liverpool Merchant. But we also meet any number of characters – pressganged crew members  Billy Blair, Michael Sullivan and slow-witted Daniel, the chameleon-like First Mate, Barton: English society members rehearsing Shakespeare’s The Tempest, including a reluctant Erasmus Kemp and the local pastor (how appropriate a choice of play that turns out to be!). And, on the enchanted island of their own, the isolated community include the likes of Kireku, Tabakali and a rejuvenated Paris.

Barry Unsworth writes of morality and moral choices. In the utopian society, Kireku demands a form of enslavement and financial gain in the same way the Governor of Florida talks of the native Creek Indian population: English colonial aspirations are readily mirrored in the anti-aristocratic Thurso’s smash and grab tactics on the African coast.

Sacred Hunger is a quietly devastating novel, laying bare man’s greed and inhumanity to one another at the prospect of making a quick buck or scoring an advantage.

“Nothing a man suffers will prevent him from inflicting suffering on others. Indeed, it will teach him the way”.

But Unsworth also explores the wealth of hope within humanity, in spite of the horrors contained within the telling of the story of the doomed Liverpool Merchant, its crew and ‘cargo’.

 

 

 

‘Phoenix’

PhoenixAt odds with herself and surrounds, concentration camp-survivor Nelly Lenz looks to find her husband in post-war Berlin whilst in reality searching for a sense of self.
A riveting central performance by Nina Hoss (A Most Wanted Man, Barbara) provides a deep sensitivity to this emotional thriller, lovingly handled by director Christian Petzold (Barbara, Yella).

Rating: 77%