Tuesday, 30 December 2014

The Top Ten of 2014


As 2014 rolls to a close, I've compiled the film releases which I believe to be the ten best that the year has offered. From big-hitting blockbusters to small-time indies, my list includes films which were released between January 1st through to December 31st. This means that films I have been fortunate enough to see this year but are due for a 2015 release (Inherent Vice, A Most Violent Year, Whiplash) can only be in contention in next year's list.

The films I have not yet seen, which will be ruled out as a consequence, include: Boyhood, Ida, Lucy, Pride, Two Days One Night and X-Men: Days of Future Past.

10. The Guest
2014 threw forward a number of relatively successful films drenched in old school elegance (Cold in July, The Two Faces of January) but it was The Guest – from director Adam Wingard – that impressed more than the rest. Former Downton Abbey resident Dan Stevens showcased his chops as a charismatic yet beguiling screen presence in this old school thriller which is surely destined for cult status.
9. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes


Rupert Wyatt may not have returned to direct the sequel to his resoundingly successful reinvention of the Apes franchise which arose three years previous, but under the direction of Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) and with the greatest WETA performances thus far – both Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell thankfully given top billing as Caesar and Koba –  Dawn... didn't propel the overarching plot forward as expected but focused on a crucial battle which left apes as the dominant species going into part three.

8. The LEGO Movie


It's doubtful whether anybody could have predicted the success of The LEGO Movie. Under the guide of duo Phil Lord and Christopher Miller – who, with sequel 22 Jump Street,  scored a cracking 2014 – the year's best kids film (with Paddington a close second) threw in everything it could muster and, somehow, it all proved pretty... well, awesome; if you're searching for a film to bring out your inner child, look no further.
7. The Wolf of Wall Street


Leo DiCaprio failed to win an Oscar once again for his brilliant portrayal of Jordan Belfort in Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street – a film which tracked the real-life story of a wealthy stock-broker's high life to his crime-corrupted dalliance with the FBI. Despite never reaching the heights of the filmmaker's efforts throughout the past decade (The Departed, or even Hugo), this black comedy remains thrillingly debauched throughout and is all the more impressive for it.
6. Gone Girl
David Fincher turned in another reliably twist-laden adult pulp thriller, this time taking the source material of author Gillian Flynn (on screenwriting duties also). If the film's plot concerning Ben Affleck's character Nick Dunne and the search for his missing wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike in one of the performances of the year) has escaped you since Gone Girl's release back in October, then a) where have you been?, and b) great going; there are some films which come along with the need to be simply seen with zero known. Gone Girl, for all of it's screwed-up intensity, is one of them.

5. Guardians of the Galaxy

Cinema audiences have such faith in Marvel, what with their past Avengers-shaped successes, that when Guardians of the Galaxy arrived in the summer based on a fresh group of oddball individuals – including a talking raccoon and walking tree, no less – it still managed to prove the commercial and critical success of the year.  Not bad going for a film whose downright brilliant opening credits sequence saw a sitcom supporting star (Parks and Recreation's Chris Pratt) jiving to Redbone's Come and Get Your Love in space.


4. Under the Skin

Scarlett Johansson, hidden in a brown fur coat and under a tousled mop of black hair, driving a van around Scotland while picking up the most unsuspecting of blokes was one hell of a cinematic hook. That Jonathan Glazer's – at times –  difficult film (based on Michael Faber's novel of the same name) benefits so gloriously from re-watch is a feat which would be scandalous to dismiss.


3. Interstellar
Up until Interstellar, many would have found it impossible to criticise the impressively illustrious career that British filmmaker Christopher Nolan has crafted for himself in such a short space of time. However, this space opus – which follows Matthew McConaughey's Cooper on a mission to discover new habitable planters – seemed to split audiences right down the middle. In a time of mindless blockbusters, Interstellar remains a lovingly cinematic adventure which is wormholes ahead of the competition.

2. Nightcrawler


The King of Comedy meets Drive by way of Network – but to say that Jake Gyllenhaal recalls characters like De Niro's Pupkin is to somewhat disservice what the actor brings to the table in Dan Gilroy's directorial debut. Gyllenhaal is Lou Bloom, a dementedly driven cameraman who scours the night for crime, in a film which will surely be drawn upon as the influence for many pretenders to come.

1. Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coen Brothers's foray into the folk music scene of early sixties Greenwich Village isn't so much a love letter than a pure exploration. Set to the backdrop of the titular Llewyn's muted exasperation at the failure of his singer-songwriting career (in what is sure to endure as a career-defining performance from Oscar Isaac), the brothers Coen once again effortlessly fuse all the required elements (cinematography, screenplay, not to mention a soundtrack to die for) in order to craft a film that would almost definitely be in a list compiling the best films of the past 15 years.

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Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Million Dollar Arm

PG, 2014, Directed by Craig Gillespie
Starring: Jon Hamm, Lake Bell, Suraj Sharma, Madhur Mittal, Alan Arkin


Jon Hamm continues an incredibly lingering transition to the big screen with Disney’s American hit MILLION DOLLAR ARM, part sports drama, part romance, part fish-out-of-water comedy which combines to make up what is essentially a biographical rags-to-riches tale.

Tracking the story of sports agent JB Bernstein (Hamm) and an innovative idea which takes him to India (via a path of self-enlightenment and Britain’s Got Talent), we are introduced to his tough-to-like cynic who, whilst residing in a pristine apartment decorated with a flash car on the drive, spends his days dating models, soullessly shunning hellos from Lake Bell’s kooky tenant, Brenda.
With this being Disney, there is a humanity hiding away under that surface. Hamm conveys it neatly, striding through the 124-minute running time with the sophisticated allure of an actor direct from Hollywood’s Golden Age; a real movie star. Akin to his Mad Men counterpart Don Draper, Bernstein is best utilised communicating for professional gain. Willing to go to uncharted lengths to revive his flagging career, and rather oddly inspired by a convenient bout of channel-hopping (Amanda Holden making her Disney debut…), he travels to India to find the ‘million dollar arm’ – a baseball pitcher to rival the best of them. Step forward two equally as impressive finds with varying techniques; Rinku and Dinesh (Life of Pi’s Suraj Sharma and Slumdog Millionaire’s Madhur Mittal, both holding their own).

A film of two parts, the film’s India-set scenes are a real delight with Hamm’s fish-out-of-water arc making him all raised eyes and exasperated glances – aided by Pitobash Tripathy’s true comedic knack as baseball fanatic Amit Rohan. Your laughter may just catch you off guard. Alan Arkin’s arrival as sports scout Ray Poitevint, a dynamite performance which completely steals the film from all, is balanced shrewdly, failing to throw the film wide and reintroducing him when repetition spills through the cracks.
Bernstein struggles to add ‘mentor’ to his capabilities once back in the States, and this paves the way for Lake Bell’s Brenda to complete his transition. Her character is adorable as hell and simply adds to the mixture pot of never-overwhelming sweetness. The friendship she develops with the two strangers in a strange land rings true, with Brenda becoming the mouthpiece for Rinku and Dinesh’s confidence issues. As the story propels forward, the main cast all click nicely into place offering the film its share of memorable moments (just try not to grin when Rinku and Dinesh catch Bernstein sneaking out of Brenda’s room the morning after the night before, each actor nailing what director Craig Gillespie asks of them).
Despite no uncertainty of the ultimate destination, MILLION DOLLAR ARM somehow keeps your attention held, providing a well-structured if overlong journey that has no right to be this charming. While not the home run Disney may have been aiming for, Gillespie’s film will fix a smile onto your face – and it will be worth a million dollars.

4/5

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Sin City: A Dame to Kill for

15, 2014, Directed by Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller
Starring: Josh Brolin, Eva Green, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Powers Boothe, Jessica Alba, Mickey Rourke

Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez’s long-awaited Sin City sequel, A Dame to Kill For, arrives on a nine year wave of expectation, ready to soak you up and hurl you around with such ferocity you’ll feel as if it’s been mere days since the original unleashed itself back in 2005.
Concocted of a series of short segments, one of which – Booze, Broads & Bullets –  was torn from Miller’s very own pages, here the writer and returning co-director Rodriguez have created two completely fresh escapades for these inhabitants to endure: The Long Bad Night, in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s smarmy gambler learns what it’s like to lose, and Nancy’s Last Dance, which features Jessica Alba’s stripper hell-bent on avenging a crucial death from the previous film. Everything is much the same, differences be damned: the ensemble remain largely intact (with notable additions and numerous brilliantly-conceived cameos), the disparate segments integrate in lean ways designed to not only emphasise the ‘sin’ in Basin City but to broaden this monochromatic universe presented with noir qualities which are rolled up into one giant graphic novel joint.
Mickey Rourke’s beast-like powerhouse Marv slams onto the screen in an opening sequence that will reintroduce and recalibrate. Moody voiceover dialogue is mumbled – part poetic, part mumbo-jumbo; almost immediately fans of the original can consider themselves reacquainted and new inductees welcomed. Gordon-Levitt’s venture into darkness serves as a refreshing addition to the film’s mix bag of characters, perhaps serving to reintroduce the villainous Senator Roark (Powers Boothe, one of a fair few 24 alumni getting their hands dirtier than ever) which segues nicely into our villainess of the piece, Ava Lord.
In Eva Green, Sin City 2 finds its subtitle. Appearing in Dwight’s story, a returning character here played by Josh Brolin rather than Clive Owen (this is set before the character’s facial reconstruction), her incredibly nude titular (stop your sniggering) dame to kill for manipulates everything within her sights and beyond; audiences may be privy to Ava Lord’s motives, yet her alluring screen presence threatens to lull you at every turn. Eva Green relishes every second and elevates this section into becoming the sequel’s high point.

It’s with Nancy Callahan’s tale that the steam shows signs of dissipating. Spending the majority of her scenes before it dancing even more provocatively than the last (you’ll lose count) all Alba’s revenge-seeker amounts to is the film’s weak link. Minus the ripeness of the original, a Sin City sequel was never going to blindside audiences with something authentic – if it ain’t broke, etc. With each foray into this murky underworld feeling more of a sideshow than the main attraction – a tantalising block off the wedge – you will pointedly be left feeling gluttonous for more. How sinful.
3.5/5

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Sunday, 27 July 2014

Venus In Fur

2014, 15, Directed by Roman Polanski
Starring: Matthieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner


Having not so much challenged than entertained audiences with play adaptation Carnage in 2010, capable filmmaker Roman Polanski - recently inducted into his eighties - treads familiar ground with Venus In Fur, a stage-for-screen re-telling of David Ives' play, which itself follows a playwright-turned-director in the process of auditioning actresses for the lead role in a new play based upon 1870 novella Venus In Furs by Leopoldo von Sacher-Masoch.

After a lengthy day turning down sub-par and prima donna actresses, enter Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner), a unique fast-talking female who shares fluent knowledge of every line in the play, as well as name with the lead character. Finally agreeing to audition her, Thomas (Matthieu Amalric) reads the role of masochistic character Henri, whilst Vanda slips effortlessly into her counterpart. Manipulation leads to domination in a two-hander set singularly in a dimly lit theatre, which goes some way to heightening Vanda's mysticism, Thomas' confusion and the two's sexual tension, rising with every passing second. 

Flitting between audition to analytical debate of the play's themes, the dialogue soon becomes concurrent with the situation, as Polanski employs the camera to do nothing but crawl around the two with a simultaneous dramatically-charged build up of unease, as gender dynamics - and as the audition progresses, roles - overwhelm the increasingly debauched situation (original author Masoch derived the term 'masochism').

For some, the material may not justify the structure, but Venus In Fur's entertainment - nowhere near as overt as seeing Foster, C. Reilly, Winslet and Waltz throw touchy put downs at one another for 90 minutes - stems from the overarching sense of dread, in itself not all too justifiable. Still, Amalric and Seigner dazzle like it's their last performance they'll give, which should provide recommendation enough to take a seat, drape yourself in the nearest blanket and witness an intriguing slice of French-language fun. 

3/5

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Sunday, 29 June 2014

22 Jump Street

2014, 15, Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
Starring: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Ice Cube


A sequel to 2010’s sleeper hit big-screen re-tooling of US teen drama 21 Jump Street (which made a star of Johnny Depp) was an inevitable notion. What wasn’t so inevitable was just how funny it would be. With an identical plot which pits Jenko and Schmidt as college students, undercover in order to investigate the dealing of deadly drug WhyPhy, this outing plays as a parody of itself, sending up the jackpot-minded, over-bloated idea of what sequels actually are to side-splitting degrees. The beauty lay in the fact 22 Jump Street is over-bloated in the one aspect all comedies aim to be, but rarely succeed in being – laughter. From the opening sequence which sees Messrs Hill and Tatum (the most effective on-screen partnership this side of the decade) attempt to infiltrate an Italian cartel, the two actors bounce around the screen with a camaraderie you just know extends beyond the screen, heightening the hilarity of the fractures which begin forming in their cop partnership (‘I think we should investigate other people’, deadpans Tatum to a morose Hill who wears the eyes of a long-suffering partner who has just heard the word ‘divorce’). 

Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, fresh from dealing out the two funniest films of the year (with this sitting alongside mega hit animation The LEGO Movie), simply appeals to precisely what cinemagoers yearn to see. Sending yourself up is a bankable win, but 22 Jump Street manages to remain leaps and bounds ahead of audiences – stick around for the genius end credits sequence which sees the duos dabble in a world of potential future instalments; a genuine treat for the majority, but a inconceivable nightmare for those who struggle to ride this bandwagon. 


4/5

 

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Saturday, 28 June 2014

Godzilla

2014, 12, Directed by Gareth Edwards
Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, Ken Watanabe  


When Gareth Edwards strolled onto the scene in 2010 with DIY indie masterpiece Monsters, ears were pricked as to what this new-found talent (previously a BBC cameraman) was to do next. In a superhero-gone-serious age of moodier landscapes where gritty realism is embraced over light-hearted entertainment, it comes as no surprise that the Warner Brother sharks circled the Edward's fresh blood as the man to reinvent the Godzilla franchise, locked away turgidly in a mammoth vault thanks to Roland Emmerich’s failure to do so back in ’98.


Whereas that attempt simply threw 'Zilla' into the mix of things in New York City, this attempt – in 3D IMAX, no less – fleshes out the origins akin to the Japanese Toho originals back in the 50s. Embracing the ancestry of their fear of crafting films explicitly to do with Hiroshima, by the time Godzilla – the baby of such fears – makes his appearance on screen (you’ll be waiting a while…), disappointment will most certainly not be the overriding feeling.

Beginning with a taut opener in which we see the destruction of a nuclear plant in Janjira, Japan, American plant supervisor Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) lives years in a reclusive manner attempting to uncover the real cause of the explosion, long since attributed to an earthquake. Assisted by his hesitant son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a US Navy bomb disposal officer living in San Francisco with wife Elizabeth Olsen and son, the two find themselves in the mixer of an awakening of a winged MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) – a creature which wreaks devastation upon the world, always conveniently in the places where our protagonist roams.


The visuals may be magnificent, the sound design thrillingly overwhelming and the intentions admirable, yet after a brilliantly-edited opening half an hour, you can sense the pressure getting to Edwards, the cinematography of the film appealing more than the actual events playing out on-screen (big up Seamus McGarvey). The monolithic one-note characters can be forgiven (Sally Hawkins as an exposition-spewing scientist whose name you’ll struggle to recall; Olsen criminally wasted as the doting wife rescuing the injured in a hospital whilst the apocalypse occurs around her) – after all, something has to give in a two-hour long film with a scope such as this. Much like Man of Steel’s disastrous final act, it’s in Godzilla’s substitution of emotion in favour of destruction - with every shot comprising of a city crumbling, building by building, and unknown masses of people meeting unseen grisly ends. Such problems lead to a desensitisation against what happens next, thus removing most of the tension and almost all of the engagement.

All Godzilla manages to amount to is an entertaining but criminally unchallenging way to spend a few hours – a squandered opportunity from a filmmaker whose early masterpiece could now be cited as sheer beginner’s luck.

3/5

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Thursday, 6 March 2014

300: Rise of an Empire

2014, 15, Directed by Noam Murro
Starring: Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Rodrigo Santoro, Lena Headey




‘Show them we chose to die on our feet rather than live on our knees!' bellows - no, not Gerard Butler - but Australian actor Sullivan Stapleton, taking lead role duties in 300: Rise of an Empire, a prequel-of-sorts to Zack Snyder’s 2006 mammoth cult hit, 300. Whilst the original focused on King Leonidas, his army of 300 Spartans and their part in the Battle of Thermopylae, the action here is transported to the seas with Stapleton starring as Themistocles, a Greek general who must lead a fleet against Persian forces. Stapleton - spotted in Animal Kingdom (2010) and The Hunter (2011) before making movements to Hollywood in Gangster Squad (2013) - makes an attempt to carve out a character amid the hordes of oiled-up extras befit with rippling torsos, but is met with fiercer opposition than simply the viewing audience; in Eva Green, we have the villainess of the piece, Artemsia - the vengeful, soulless leader of the Persian navy, a screen presence who quenches audience’s thirst for blood more readily than most. Teasing unpredictability with every movement, Rise of an Empire struggles to meet her standards.
Expanding upon the universe introduced by Snyder, director Noam Murro takes time to flesh out backstory (using Frank Miller’s unpublished graphic novel Xerxes as a basis) before ditching the prequel formula around the quarter-way mark, the remainder of the action running parallel to that of 300. Time enough for a strand or two about how Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) became the God-King we remember him to be, or how Themistocles sought the aid of the Spartans via Lena Headey’s returning yet criminally underused Queen Gorgo; if Butler’s presence is missed, it’s her shortage of presence that is felt.
Despite the unprecedented success of 300, some naysayers criticised the visuals and now with added 3D, the sense is heightened that somewhere nearby lurks a kid clutching a Playstation controller - for a film largely dependent on these impressive visuals to dazzle, it’s unfortunate the universe remains a strangely uninvolving vessel.

But there is no denying the film zips along at one hell of a pace with the well-choreographed action only dulling towards the end as the tempo-manipulation begins to irk (slow-mo conveniently deployed as weapon meets flesh, blood shooting out towards the screen by the bucketful). It's during these scenes that the obscured positives float freely to the surface: a pulsating soundtrack from Dutch composer Junkie XL ticks many right boxes, not to mention the impressive mixing of said score with the sound of sword-slicing; a memorable turn from rising star Jack O'Connell (of Skins fame) as young Greek warrior Calisto counters the more outlandish moments - the success of which solely relies on Eva Green, simply put, giving it hell.

...and yet, for a film depicting the Rise of an Empire, it all feels familiarly one-note.  

2/5

You can find my review of 300: Rise of an Empire on Film Juice

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