Cake 2015 ***

cakeSince Friends made her a household-name, Jennifer Aniston deserves credit for alternating mainstream comedies (We’re The Millers, Horrible Bosses) with more ruminative indie dramas (The Good Girl). Daniel Barnz’s Cake finds her in top form as Claire, a woman suffering from chronic pain, and with a support group she resists with a Fight Club defiance.  Claire will not go quietly, and her constant addiction to medicine and her caustic observation of the world around her are well caught by Patrick Tobin’s screenplay. Whether cheekily attempting to smuggle drugs back from Mexico or scrabbling behind picture frames for hidden bottles of pills, Aniston makes Claire a three-dimension character; waking up in the middle of the night, racked with pain, Claire captures the voice of a large and unrecognised group of sufferers in modern society.

The Salvation 2014 ***

134f5-salvatation-poster-2-copy-copyIf you only see one Western featuring Eric Cantona, Douglas Henshaw, Mads Mikklelsen, and Eva Green as a murderous mute, The Salvation is likely to be the answer to your prayers. Mikklelsen plays a man who revenges his family’s killer, only to find himself alone in his battle against a larger, better equipped villain.  Kristain Levring’s western has a welcome dash of Leone, but has its own violent, remorseless energy, with Green magnetic as always amid plenty of quirky, offbeat incident.

Lost River 2015 ***

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Ryan Gosling’s much derided debut feature is a surprisingly vivid Detroit melodrama with magic realist leanings.  Despite colourless male leads, Christina Hendrix proves the most empathetic through-line as a young mother whose creepy bank manager (Ben Mendelsohn) inveigles her into a dark world of underground clubs, where Eva Mendes and her crew present stylised acts of mutilation art to a paying crowd.  Casting Barbara Steele instead of the intended target Karen Black in a maternal role pushes the genre a little further towards horror than required, and Matt Smith’s villain is pallid, but there’s something oddly compelling about Gosling’s thriller, from the opening image of a flaming, rider-less bicycle onwards.

The Duke of Burgundy 2015 ****

duke-of-burgundy-the-2014-004-sidse-babett-knudsen-chiara-danna-bicycyle-silhouette-1000x750Peter Strickland’s follow-up to the similarly cryptic Berbarian Sound Studio feels like a homage to 1970’s erotica, yet packs considerably more punch that the genre it takes its visual cues from- there’s little or no sex here, but the whole enterprise is drenched in a steamy, near fetid sense of anticipation. Chiara d’Anna and Sidse Babett Knudsen play two women locked in a sadomasochistic relationship, with only the appearance of a few confused neighbours and a comely bed-salesman to disturb the fun and games, which involves castigating each other for poorly folding underwear, locking each other up in wooden bedframes and being ‘human toilets’ for each other. Surreal touches, like the use of dummies to simulate extras, suggest a serious pastiche rather than a parody and point to non-literal meanings; The Duke of Burgundy’s title comes from a rare butterfly, never glimpsed in the film, and Strickland’s film is a rare erotic drama that sticks to its task with commendable brio.

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Foxcatcher 2014 ***

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Bennett Miller’s claustrophobic true story about athletics trainer John du Pont (Steve Carell) and his sinister input into the well-being of his charges is a cold, unlikable but intensely gripping drama. Channing Tatum sports some amusing late 80’s hairstyles as Mark Schwartz, a champion wrestler that Do Pont wants to prepare for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, but Mark’s brother David (Mark Ruffalo) has his suspicious about the millionaire’s methods. Tatum, Ruffalo and particularly Carell turn in darkly shaded performances, and the looming violence of the finale is handled in a calm and un-exploitative way. Carell is frequently off-screen for long periods of the film, but his physical transformation makes Do Pont into an unnerving and domineering creation.

Listen Up Phillip ***

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Films about writers are notoriously awful. Writer/director Alex Ross Perry deals himself a smart deck by making Phillip (Jason Schwarztman) a genuine anti-hero, heavily self-obsessed and with his judgement clouded by vanity. Phillip falls under the spell of Philip Roth-like writer Ike Zimmermann (Jonathan Pryce), who offers him the use of his summer-house, but strings are attached. Elizabeth Moss makes a strong impression as Phillip’s frustrated girlfriend Ashley, and the writer’s milieu is well caught from the start.  With Wes Anderson cornering the market in upscale feyness, Listen Up Phillip could well be a caustic update to Anderson’s Rushmore, with the knowingness reflected in the ingenuously 1970’s style cover art and credits featured here.

 

Stretch 2014 ***

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Patrick Wilson has been a strong leading man in two Insidious films; he’s also a safe-pair of hands when it comes to action, and kicks-ass as a limo-driver who finds himself tangling with LA lowlife, notably Chris Pine as a nude parachuting crime-boss,  James Badge Dale as a vicious drug dealer, and David Hasselhoff as a rather less attractive version of himself. Stretch is a good vehicle for Wilson, with Joe Carnahan showing the kind of style (as with Narc) and gift for tricky dialogue that makes his work worthwhile for those looking for some Tarantino-style wit. Ray Liotta, Ed Helms and Randy Couture are among a disparate cast.

 

Maps To The Stars 2014 ***

maps-to-the-starsDavid Cronenberg takes an agonized dump on his own doorstep with Maps To The Stars, a scabrous portrait of Hollywood vanity that pulls no punches. Julianne Moore plays Havana Segrand, an empty-headed but vicious actress who takes on an ambitious intern Agatha (Mia Wasikowska). Other plotlines given an equal balance involve Robert Pattinson as a limo-driver and Evan Bird as Benjie Weiss, a child-star with increasingly anti-social tendencies.  Cronenberg doesn’t spare a detail of Bruce Wagner’s abrasive script, from a tense scene of children playing with a loaded gun to the vivid sight of Moore on the toilet.  John Cusack and Olivia Williams also get some meaty drama as a self-help novelist and his wife. Maps to the Stars features some supernatural elements, but the real horror is very much in keeping with Cronenberg’s analytical view of the world as a diseased place. Carrie Fisher is among those contributing memorable vignettes, and Bird has an unnerving presence that’s right on point with the film’s otherworldly feel.

I Origins 2014 ***

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As well as featuring the most dramatic use of an elevator since Damien; Omen II, writer/director Mike Cahill’s science-fiction based drama sports an original idea of some potential.  Ian (Michael Pitt) falls for model Sofi (Astrid Berges Frisbey), but their relationship ends in a violent and unexpected death.  Lab assistant Karen (Brit Marling provides some solace, but Ian’s fascination with eyes as not only the gateway to the soul but a genetic fingerprint that supports notions of re-incarnation, and leads to a fascinating resolution in which Ian’s ideas of science and religion are repeatedly subverted. I Origins plays like a low-fi Twilight Zone episode with intellectual pretensions, and despite occasional gore, is a decidedly adult sci-fi thriller about belief

Manchester By The Sea ***

manchesterWriter/director Kenneth Lonergan’s absorbing drama has a chilly yet beautiful setting; it’s notable that none of the characters acknowledge how beautiful the town they inhabit is, their minds are clearly on other, more personal things. Casey Affleck plays Lee, a janitor who travels back to his hometown and reluctantly agrees to take charge of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) when his brother (Kyle Chandler) dies. Despite the billing for Michelle Williams, this is a guy-to-guy film, and the prominent emotion described is remorse; around the midpoint, a moment from Lee’s earlier life is clarified to sobering effect. Manchester By The Sea is long and involved, but for those willing to submit to the strong themes and power-house acting, albeit in a minor key, it provides a emotionally resonant slice of drama.