Birdman/ Into the Woods/ Wild

First up this month, Birdman (January 2), starring Michael Keaton as a washed-up former superhero attempting a Broadway comeback. There is a little addendum to title (‘The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance’) but let’s dispense with such tiresome titular affectations and focus on the story, which is thus: Riggan Thomson (Keaton, who, for anyone under 25 reading this, was Batman in Tim Burton’s 1989 film) is the down-on-his-luck, decaying former star of the popular ‘Birdman’ franchise. Decades after success has flown the coop, Riggan hatches a plan to reinvent his career by way of a Broadway rebranding, so he hires some actors (including a wonderfully loathsome Ed Norton) and sets about reclaiming some non-avian acclaim. There’s more to it, but I don’t want to make things hawkward by giving too much of the plot away. (That’s enough of the bird puns now – they’re getting owled.)

An excellent cast and stellar performances – particularly Keaton’s gravelly-voiced Birdman inner interjections – have earned Birdman well-deserved universal praise. And so it should – it’s a-viary good film (sorry).

Next up, Into the Woods (January 9) starring Meryl Streep as a wonderfully wicked witch (and they say Hollywood doesn’t have any good roles for woman over 50). The story – based on the Sondheim musical – is a sort of post-modern Grimm’s fairytale, populated with characters from assorted popular tales.

The action kicks off with the childless Baker and his wife (Gavin and Stacey’s James Cordon and Emily Blunt), who, in order to lift the infertility spell placed on them by witchy-poo (scene-stealing Streep), need to find the four ingredients that she needs for a special potion: Red Riding Hood’s (Lilla Crawford) red coat, Jack’s (he of Beanstalk fame) white cow, Rapunzel’s (Mackenzie Mauzy) gruaige, and Cinderella’s (Anna Kendrick) slipper. However, what begins as light-hearted musical eventually becomes an intelligent preponderance on the consequences of action and true cost of all those wishes.

Finally this month, Wild (January 16), which bears a synopsis as succinct as its title: a woman, Cheryl Strayed (played by an Oscar-tipped Reece Witherspoon) sets off on a solitary hike along more than 1000 miles (that’s over 1609.344 kms!) of the Pacific Crest Trail in an attempt to forget the pains of her past – divorce, death and drugs (the three Ds).

Based on Strayed’s autobiography, and adapted for screen by Nick Hornby (Fever Pitch), Wild is a Witherspoon’s second award-bait movie in as many months (The Good Life) and might just be the one to nab her another statuette – her second after 2005’s Best Actress win for Walk the Line. Witherspoon for the win!

(First published in GCN, January 15)



Black Sea/ The Grandmaster/ The Good Lie

I’ve never been a fan of Jude Law – sure, he was great in much-maligned Gattaca and The Talented Mr Ripley, but poor recent performances, coupled with an ever-receding hairline and off-screen shagnanigans, render him a rather unlikeable cove. 

Misgivings aside, Law manages a fine performance (not to mention a surprisingly convincing Scottish accent) in Black Sea (December 5). Law plays Captain Robinson, a submarine captain (apparently still a profession) who, along with his hand-picked crew of ragtag Scotchmen, decides to seek out some long-forgotten submerged Nazi gold. Unsurprisingly, dingy submarine conditions, gold-lust and rival treasure hunters all conspire to drive crew and captain apart. 

Can the crew get it together and raise all that Nazi gold, or will Captain Robinson have to give them Das Boot (sorry)? There’s only one way to find out. 

Next up this month, something a bit different: visually-sumptuous marital arts ass-kickery in the form of The Grandmaster (December 5), starring Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s Ziyi Zhang. 

The Grandmaster follows the real life story of Wing Chun grandmaster Ip Man (Leung) – the Man who taught the world’s most famous Kung Fu exponent, Bruce Lee, every kick he knew – beginning with his flight to Hong Kong after the second Sino Japanese war, and ending with the events leading up to his death in 1972. The movie simultaneously chronicles the end of an era in Chinese martial arts history that occurred in the immediate post-war period. 

Ponderous political plot points notwithstanding, the real reason to see The Grandmaster is the jaw-dropping fight scenes (choreographed by Crouching Tiger’s Yuen Woo-ping). I could watch Ziyi Zhang axe-kick all day. Don’t kung-fool yourself into overlooking this gem this month!

Finally this month, The Good Lie (December 12) a schmaltzy, Blindside-y – and damn it! – heartwarming tale, starring Reece Witherspoon, who must be relieved that she will never again be confused with Renee Zellweger since the latter’s recent real-life Face-Off remake. 

The story is thus: after 13 years in a Kenyan refugee camp, a trio of grown-up Sudanese orphans win a visa lottery which allows them to immigrate to the US. Jackpot! Once there, they meet Carrie (Witherspoon), a plucky job recruiter initially tasked with finding them jobs. Soon enough though, Carrie becomes a multi-purpose ambassador/cultural acclimatiser for the men, helping them navigate their new lives and escape the lingering horrors of their war-torn pasts. 

The Good Lie features excellent performances (two of three male leads fled conflict zones in real life) and a feel-good, Oscar-bait type of vibe.


Water for Elephants/ The Hangover 2/ X Men: First Class

Do you like circus-centric, romance movies full of poorly pachyderms? If so, you’re in luck because first up this month is stylish rom-com Water For Elephants (May 4).

Water for Elephants is the story of trainee vet Jacob (played Robert “Yes I’m in other films apart from Twilight” Pattinson) who meets and falls in love with Marlena (Reece “I’m surprisingly diverse” Witherspoon), star performer in the circus where he works.

Everything is all hearts and flowers and horse tranquilizers until Jacob realises that Marlene is his evil boss’ wife. Will love triumph? Or will R Patz’s expressionless face drive the audience out of the cinema before the movie reaches it’s climax? There’s only one way to find out!

Next up is The Hangover 2 (May 27). Was there really any need to make a sequel to The Hangover?

I mean, did the first film posit so many intriguing questions that it demanded exposition in the form of another movie?

Anyway, cinema-goers hoping to get their fix of the nerd, the ‘cool’ guy and the creepy sex-attacker-ish fat guy will be well satisfied as the gang once again embark on a night of drinking with hilarious consequences. Well, not hilarious exactly, more extremely repetitive as this film is basically the first one only set in Bangkok. Oh, and there’s a monkey instead of a tiger. And this time the nerd gets a facial tattoo instead of a cracked front tooth. Ingenious!

At least The Hangover 2 effectively replicates the experience of a real hang-over: it’s nauseating, faintly depressing and makes you question the elemental nature of human existence.

Finally this month is the cripplingly disappointing X Men: First Class (May 30), a prequel to the first three movies.

Set during the 1960s against the backdrop of the Cuban missile crisis and the civil rights movement, this is much of the same as before: mutants are persecuted and disdained but a small group nobly band together to save a world that utterly despises them.

Alas, First Class is no X1, X2 or even X3 (which I seem to be alone in considering the greatest of the three). Although the pedigree of the cast is excellent (Jennifer Lawrence, Calab Landry Jones, James McEvoy etc.,) they never seem to come together as a cohesive unit. And despite his acting skill, Michael Fassbender is no Ian McKellan – he conveys the anger of Magneto, but none of the nuance. As a result the film comes out totally…meh.

This is one of those movies that was so sagely-awaited and over-hyped before its release

Disappointment, thy name is X Men: First Class!