Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Film reviews: Birdman, Taken 3, American Sniper, 20 Feet from Stardom

I treated myself to an Unlimited cinema ticket this month, so I've been to the cinema more times than usual. Here are my reviews of the films I've watched so far.


If there's a more original film out at the moment, I haven't seen it. Birdman is unlike any film I've seen before and I mean that in a good way. 

You're never quite sure where you are with it, as it slips between dream-like sequences (flying over and through the streets of New York) and claustrophic, intense scenes in the back-stage world of the theatre.

The previously underrated Michael Keaton is perfectly cast as Riggan Thompson, a faded Hollywood star of superhero films, who invests everything in a Broadway play.  Edward Norton is great as the cock-sure method actor who only shows doubts about his real life, and brings a bit of menace to the film. I don't know why but I always find him a bit scary.

The stunning cinematography and beautiful musical score are a sensory treat, and the ensemble cast including Emma Stone, Andrea Riseborough and Naomi Watts, are all excellent.  

I'm not sure I fully understood what was going on sometimes to be honest, but I liked that it was so different from the normal Hollywood film, and I was still thinking about it days afterwards.

Nominated for 9 Oscars, including Best Film, Best Actor (Michael Keaton) and Best Director.  

Taken 3

Everything you would expect is in the third installment of the Taken franchise. There are car chases, there are shoot-outs, there's Liam Neeson escaping from impossible situations and threatening to kill people in that low gravelly voice. It's all there, so if that's what you like then grab your popcorn and watch it.

It isn't as good as the first Taken film, but isn't as bad as Taken 2, which was diabolically bad.  Some of the dialogue is awful, the acting pretty corny at the beginning of the film, and the plot has more holes in it than a string vest, but if you enjoyed the first two Taken films, you'll enjoy this one.

After watching it I half-jokingly said on Twitter that if they make a fourth film it should be called Taken the Mickey because, try as I might, I just couldn't suspend my disbelief when 62-year-old Liam Neeson - bless him - was being chased through the streets of LA, running, climbing and jumping over walls. 

It's a successful formula and it sticks to it, but please, Liam, for the love of God, no more.

American Sniper

I made a snap decision to watch this at the cinema based purely on the fact it's directed by Clint Eastwood.  I've enjoyed many of the films he's directed in the past, so I reckoned I'd like this one and I did.  

I wasn't familiar with the story of the real-life Navy SEAL, Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper) whose autobiography the film is based on.  He is credited with being the most deadly sniper in the US forces, with at least 160 confirmed 'kills' during his four tours of Iraq, earning the nickname 'Legend'. 

Watching it purely as a action-packed war film I found it engrossing, nail-biting stuff which considering I don't usually enjoy war films was a surprise. There were a couple of times when the gung-ho patriotism and the simplistic reference for America's presence in Iraq jarred slightly, but I thought the human story of how the brutality of war and its psychological aftermath impacted on Kyle's family life and those of his brothers in arms quite moving.  

However, my enjoyment of the film leaves me feeling conflicted. In the days following, I read review after review criticising how it heightens prejudice towards the Middle East, and fails to address the political background to the US presence in Iraq, amongst other things. Kyle's success as a sniper also meant he became a poster boy for the gun lobby in America, and achieved something of a celebrity status when he returned home.

I'm left wondering why other films such as Platoon, The Hurt Locker, Full Metal Jacket, The Deerhunter, and Black Hawk Down didn't come in for the same kind of politically-based criticism, and I don't have any answers. 

Nominated for 6 Oscars, including Best Actor (Bradley Cooper), Best Film and Best Director.

20 Feet from Stardom

20 feet from stardom
This Oscar-nominated documentary is a fascinating look into the difference between being a successful 'background singer' and a fully fledged star, and both the frustrations and plaudits that come with it.

For some, like Darlene Love, they successfully made that short walk from the back to the foreground to become stars in their own right; but there were others like Merry Clayton who tried and failed to achieve the same success.

Lisa Fischer,  a powerhouse singer who features through the film, is considered by her peers to be 'the empress' of background singers.  Her vocal range and versatility means she's in demand from the likes The Rolling Stones, Sting and Tina Turner, but she seems to eschew stardom in favour of a more mellow life.  "I don't want to have to deal with being recognised in the street" she says, and appears to mean it.

20 Feet from Stardom has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and I really hope it wins. I watched it on Netflix and loved it. In fact I enjoyed it so much I watched it twice. 

Have you watched any of the films? What did you think? And which films do you recommend?