21 December 2015

The Movies of 2015: Best to Worst

In the spirit of degrading standards - a pattern keenly felt in modern arts journalism - I've decided to present my end of year review as a long-form list. It features all 77 films released in 2015 I've seen to date (between 20-30 fewer than I normally manage), which sadly renders The Ridiculous 6 ineligible. It's hardly thoughtful criticism, but hopefully this hacky approach satiates both your curiosity and my narcissism.

 Obviously, my interests and time have been pretty distant from the blog of late, and to be honest, that's liable to continue for the foreseeable future. I'm having fun doing other stuff and pursuing new goals, but it's still a pleasure to come back and update the ol' lady every once in a while. Your readership is as always appreciated, and it's with utmost sincerity I wish you guys a Merry Christmas and a prosperous 2016.

 I'll try and do better than 7 posts next year. Promise.

2015 - Best to Worst

Steve Jobs

1. Steve Jobs - Impeccably structured, subtly directed, flawlessly performed and with a knack for twisting fabricated beats into moments of disarmingly poignant catharsis. World class drama. 

2. Whiplash 
3. Inside Out 
4. Brooklyn 
5. Mad Max: Fury Road 

6. The Gift - Excellent morality play that transcends its genre roots with a strong, simple message, well executed. Twists just enough to satisfy, without ever coming over as smug or inauthentic. The trio of performances (particularly Bateman) are complex, steering clear of base tropes to deliver something that if not sophisticated, comes loaded with meaning. 

The Lobster
7. The Lobster - The finish could use a little extra urgency, but for the most part The Lobster is a joy. Rife with simply conducted but intellectually pointed notions about the nature of and insistence on companionship in the 21st century, this distinctive drama is by turns funny, insightful and horrifying. There are some top quality turns from the eclectic cast too.

8. Spotlight 

Crimson Peak
9. Crimson Peak - Wedged firmly between the Gothic and something less salubrious, this ghostly yarn is trashy, fabulously ornate fun. Del Toro layers the film in beautifully constructed - and metaphorically ripe - detail, leaving his classy cast to engage with the material as they see fit. A big, theatrical spooker bound to please audiences seeking an upgrade from the usual seasonal (found footage) tripe. 

10. Me & Earl & The Dying Girl 
11. Amy
12. Straight Outta Compton 
13. The Martian 

14. Foxcatcher 
15. Carol 

John Wick One Sheet
16. John Wick - A real grower. A propulsive revenge narrative complete with terrific fight choreography and a leading man doing what he does best. Cinematic influences ranging from Dario Argento to Michael Winner crowd in pleasurably. 

17. Ex Machina 
18. Sicario 
19. The Big Short 

20. Unfriended - Wrote a piece on why I preferred it to It Follows here

21. Glassland 
22. Ant-Man 
23. Song of the Sea 
Jurassic World

24. Jurassic World 
25. Trainwreck  
26. Patrick's Day 
27. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation 
28. Man-Up 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens
29. Star Wars: The Force Awakens - Entertaining enough, but awfully, awfully familiar and highly mechanized. Can't imagine a 10 year-old on the planet who won't love it, mind. 

30. Krampus 
31. Bridge of Spies 
32. The Voices 
33. Macbeth 
34. Kingsman: The Secret Service 
35. Avengers: Age of Ultron 
36. Hot Girls Wanted 
37. Selma 
38. 50 Shades of Grey 
39. American Sniper 
40. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 
The Interview One Sheet

41. The Interview - Not even remotely deserving of the controversy it stirred. That it seems to have completely dissipated from the cultural discourse three months after being one of the hot-button topics in current affairs says a lot. It's more uneven than the best of Rogen & Goldberg's work, but a selection of inspired gags give it legs enough for a silly 110 minutes. The titular interview itself is played using some uproarious plant and pay-off material, and the cast - leaving aside a manic Franco - perform it all with refreshingly straight faces. Being a Rogen joint, the film's key dramatic quandaries stem from pedestrian bromances, but there are enough lashings of inspired goofiness to justify a viewing. That it ranks as technically history's most dangerous film (having been, even in hyperbolic terms, labelled an act of war) is ludicrous though. Unless you find dick jokes hazardous. 

42. The Overnight 
43. While We're Young 

44. Knock Knock - Enjoy, guys. 

45. The Visit - Structurally superb, but not very scary. It's a decided improvement over everything Shyamalan has done since The Village, and in fairness, it actually does some interesting things with found footage (legitimizes coverage, cinematic technique and the cut together footage), but not overly unsettling or innovative when it comes to frights. Would be a good, first horror outing for precocious young cinephiles, but otherwise a mild, mild recommend. 

46. Spectre - 00-Daddy Issues 

48.The Gallows 
49.Slow West 
50.The Gambler 
51.Get Hard 
52.Paper Towns 

Magic Mike XXL
53. Magic Mike XXLLikable enough, but in an almost two hour movie, there's like 15 minutes of actual dramatic conflict. Pretty much the antithesis of the original in that regard. Still, I respect its willingness to totally goof out, and venerate at the feet of feminine heterosexuality. That stuff was refreshing, even if it's as jumbled and incongruous as everything else. 

54. Run All Night 
55. It Follows 
56. Pan 
57. Cinderella 
58. Southpaw 

59. The Man from U.N.C.L.E - Like a dweeb who turns up at the party with trendy clothes, his hair stylishly coiffed and impeccably rehearsed conversation points, this film possesses everything needed to be cool, but somehow isn't. Maybe just maybe, our friend (and this film) is trying a little too hard. It's inoffensive and stylish, but the characters never gel, the action and plot are totally unmemorable and the tone's too flat to inspire proper revelry. 

60. Entourage 
61. Big Game

62. Maggie - There are some nice compositions here, but they often give way to a story and tone that's relentlessly one-note. Its gloomy, sepia soaked narrative has a wonderful concept at its core, but for me, the writing and direction aren't strong enough to evoke complete characters, driving conflict or a full world. 

Jupiter Ascending
63. The Intern 
64. Jupiter Ascending 
65. Hot Tub Time Machine 2 
66. Project Almanac 
67. Tomorrowland 

68. Black Mass - Depp's performance is worth the price of admission alone, but this is a biopic uninterested in compelling structure or concentrated characterization. It trundles along, sans momentum, only occasionally choking up a short (often violent) moment of excellence amid its beefy duration.  

69. Inherent Vice 
70. Everest 
71. San Andreas 
72. Fantastic 4 
73. The Gunman 

Terminator Genisys
74. Terminator Genisys - Feels like August 29th 1997 condensed into two horrible hours.

75. Child 44 
76. The Cobbler 
77. Taken .


13 July 2015

Screw Love, Nostalgia's the Drug


I’ve not always been hyper-supportive of the superhero revolution spurred on by the continued success of Marvel Studios. Whether it’s Iron Man in 2008, The Avengers in 2012 or last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy the studio have been at the forefront of almost a decade of summers, saturating the market with their brand of playful yet familiar blockbusters. This Friday they’ll unleash Ant Man on the global market and the word is, well, they’ve done it again. Good fun, nothing new, enjoy your two hours and don’t forget to buy a soda going in. I haven’t seen the movie, so can’t qualify that position with any genuine authority, but having sat through the entirety of Marvel’s back catalogue; such a consensus sounds believable. Ant Man will doubtlessly play well into August, make its production budget back several times over and arrive on Blu-Ray just in time to act as a prime stocking filler. That’s the way Marvel does things, and there’s no (at least fiscal) reason for them to alter it now.

Except this year, Marvel isn’t the summer’s hottest brand. Avengers: Age of Ultron performed in sync with expectation, but has now been comfortably overridden by Universal’s Jurassic World as the season’s mac-daddy. I recently had a conversation with a woman, in her 30s, who has a young son. I asked her why she’d taken him to see Jurassic World not once, but twice…

Her answer?

Witnessing her son gorge out on scaly, prehistoric eye-candy reminded her of seeing the original picture for the first time in 1993. The word she used? Nostalgia.

Nostalgia is the selling point of 2015. No doubt about it. It’s not Jurassic World that’s jeopardized Marvel’s stock, it is nostalgia. The whole planet is in an insane rush to re-experience their youth, and we should probably be more concerned about that than we currently are.

Let me be quite clear. I thoroughly enjoyed Jurassic World for the same reason as the woman in question. Objectively it’s a problematic movie. I’m a firm believer that people who pick logic holes in blockbusters rank pretty low on any intellectual food chain, but some of what Colin Trevorrow’s dinosaur thriller asks you to swallow is beyond outlandish. The entire inciting incident, in which a carnivorous hybrid breaks out of containment, is entirely predicated on the most ridiculous chain of cause and effect you’ll see on screen this year. A film definitely ranks as imperfect when its very storytelling motor can be called so effortlessly into question. And yet, I had a blast. From the start, right through to its breathtakingly silly finish. I’m not alone either.  To date Jurassic World has cleared $1.4 Billion worldwide, and will probably complete its run as one of the most successful, non-James Cameron directed movies of all time. People must be returning for rounds two and three with the beasties, and why not? It makes them feel good.

Or does it?

Because if it is nostalgia that’s driving the movie’s colossal presence, I’m not sure we should be indulging quite so ardently. Nostalgia used to be seen as a sort of illness, a longing for a better time, when things were, you know, how they were meant to be. It makes the future feel hopeless in comparison to an unblemished bygone era (and if Jurassic World is the embodiment of that era, unblemished is not the word), and stifles progress. A little nostalgia is no bad thing, it can be quite charming, and in the right moment (such as the recent passing of James Horner) even appropriate.  But as a means for driving the centre-pieces of mainstream, commercial culture, nostalgia is a radical stumbling block. How can we expect to define and create new experiences, when we’re slavishly fixated on reliving touchstones from ’77, ’93 and even in some cases (if you’re lucky enough to consider it part of your youth) ’03.  It won’t work.

Other films playing on that same sentiment this summer include the dismal Terminator Genisys (the worst in a storied franchise that like its star, has allowed nostalgia to become its ultimate foe) and Warner’s upcoming (and amusingly promoted) reboot of the Vacation franchise. Whether Vacation is any good is another matter (and I really hope it is), but there’s no doubt that in reanimating a brand so specifically entwined with the experience of growing-up in the 80s/90s, that the studio are fully committed to plugging the nostalgia angle. The theatrical trailer spends more time reliving scenes from the original series than it does emphasising some of the reboot’s more contemporary assets, including the presence of Charlie Day (genuine reason for excitement in any capacity) or even a schlong-tastic cameo from Chris Hemsworth (okay, the film-makers really celebrate Thor's dick). They believe you’ll want to watch Vacation because it’s symbolic of a better time, of a better cinematic experience. The final gag even relies on your awareness of a joke from a previous entry, a joke designed to scream “We’re doing it again, isn’t that glorious!”

A new (not fresh) Star Wars saga commences at the year’s end, and even the most conservative estimations have it making a credible stab at Avatar’s 6-year streak as the most commercially successful movie of all time.  I don’t know that’ll do that (breaking the $2 billion mark in and of itself seems a stretch), but I have no doubt Jedis will perform as they always have,  which is to say exceptionally well. And that’s regardless of quality.

So, what’s truly getting movie-goers into auditoriums come December?

I don’t think there are many of us who feel culturally a new Star Wars adventure is necessary, but most of us will journey to absorb the spectacle regardless. Because maybe, just maybe, it’ll all make us feel 8-years old again. We’ll exist in a mind-set where our juvenile metabolisms eradicate the need to be conscious of the calories in popcorn, in which a theme tune can rouse genuine ecstasy in the fibre of one’s being and where there is no Harrison Ford, just Han and Chewie. I imagine it’ll be a ton of fun.

But what’s the cost?

What feature won’t be seen as a consequence, just because it failed to incite some unspeakable fluffiness in your stomach? Will cinema remain rooted in a skillful regurgitation of a style that hasn’t felt dynamic since the 90s? And will we choose to consume it again and again, reminding ourselves, that film, just like everything else, isn’t what is used to be.

I don’t know. Nor do I pretend to. But as Jurassic World continues to chew through the globe’s wallets like a T-rex coming off a diet, you’ve really gotta wonder.


Ant Man, anyone?

An article by Daniel Kelly, 2015

23 June 2015

Review: Jurassic World (Colin Trevorrow, USA, 2015)



Homer: Well, he’s got all the money in the world, but there’s one thing he can’t buy.

Marge: What’s that?


Homer: A dinosaur.

Such was the thinking in 1992, when in its third season; The Simpsons aired the seminal episode Dog of Death. Dinosaurs were impressive; the pinnacle of the natural world and history’s combined spectacle, a money can’t buy thrill resigned to books, bones and stop-motion recreation. Then, a year later, came Jurassic Park. Steven Spielberg’s rousing adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel remains one of the dream-maker's finest , but at the time it was noted primarily as a groundbreaking technical achievement, presumed to be the closest we’d come to ever seeing living, breathing prehistoric specimens. Audiences packed theatres, box-office records were shattered and as one of the cinema’s most iconic floating banners correctly noted, dinosaurs again ruled the earth.  

Flash forward to a scene from the film’s third sequel Jurassic World. Two brothers, one a precocious dino nut, the other a surly teen, are granted a chance to see Tyrannosaurus Rex feed. In Jurassic Park, the Rex’s bow was governed by suspense and raw anticipation, an opportunity to see a photo-real super predator reward enough, never mind that she might massacre braying, unaware livestock in the process.  Of course, the monster failed to roll up for lunch then, leaving it with a nice hole to fill come dinner or decimation of the park’s infrastructure, our appetites impossibly whetted as a consequence.  In Jurassic World, the T-rex does appear, eliminating a goat amid a cavalcade of earth shattering roars. But we only glimpse the splattery fiesta. Instead director Colin Trevorrow's camera sticks with the moody adolescent, who receives a concerned call from Mom, turning away from the reptilian centre-piece to engage in bored conversation. You see, in 2015, dinosaurs, much like CGI creations, aren’t cool or remarkable. An unscheduled parental check-up is infinitely scarier.

It’s this notion that fuels Jurassic World, which unfurls in a fully operational embodiment of John Hammond’s dream , a functioning zoological wonderland. With T-Rex and company beginning to underwhelm, the corporate minds (depicted mainly by Bryce Dallas Howard’s uptight Claire) have decided to bring genetic engineering into the mix. Enter Indominus Rex, a lethal cocktail of Tyrannosaurus and a bunch of other Mesozoic meanies. The I-Rex is bigger, smarter and nastier than anything bred before it, so naturally escapes and initiates a rampage that none of the island’s contingency mechanisms are fit to halt. It’s a race against time to prevent the prehistoric equivalent of Einstein, Dwayne Johnson and Genghis Khan from reaching the park, where thousands of vulnerable tourists lie in wait. At the forefront of team human are Claire and the Owen (Chris Pratt playing a cuddlier, more GQ friendly version of the original’s Robert Muldoon), who may or may not have been a thing once, but are no longer, due to the moderately sexist implication that’s she’s the stick-up her arse Sally to his free-spirited Fred. As the I-rex cuts a swathe through people, foliage and other dinosaurs, drastic measures have to be considered, including the implementation of a secret military operation involving  Owen’s squad of unpredictable Raptors.

Dinosaurs may no longer amaze, but bonkers plotting always will.

Jurassic World is incredibly imperfect but seductively brash. Character arcs are soft, and occasionally preposterous. Various motivations are cloaked in a malaise of silly rationale (both the I-Rex’s existence and the initiative to use dinosaurs in war make no sense when approached with any degree of real-world logic). But the film does have ambition, and within the fabric of its own twisted, overblown schemata the sequel even posits some intelligent commentary. Culturally, Jurassic World is all about bigger not always being better, a cutting comment on corporate mentality, that like The Lego Movie, both has and ingests its cake. In harmony with the scaly antagonist, Jurassic World plays as both damning critique and crass celebration of cinema by committee, a billion dollar triumph of sensory overload designed to stun and sell, yet seemingly aware of its own cold, calculated reason for being. To quote another Spielbergian favourite, it’s either “very smart or very dumb”. 

World is built for fans, but trades on inside jokes instead of fender-bending nostalgia. Jurassic aficionados will spot nods to the original movies in every department, including but not limited to Michael Giacchino’s sprightly score, subsidiary props and in one particularly satisfying and late-coming case a substantive cameo from the star attraction of 1993. It also makes the dinosaurs feel big again, something that its predecessors (1997’s underrated The Lost World and 2001’s perfunctory Jurassic Park 3) struggled with. Trevorrow gets under his monsters, remembering to embrace their scale, confident enough in his FX team to prefer wide-shots over close-ups. The dinosaurs themselves, now almost totally digital, are impressively designed, but feel regrettably thinner than their 90s – animatronic - counterparts. Still, the action is confidently handled and executed with the sort of visceral impact which used to be reserved for proper PG-13 efforts. People bleed and scream when they’re attacked by marauding nasties, and the stomps bring with them a sense of genuine threat. There’s little to rival the 1993 picture’s legend (the roadside slaughter and raptors in the kitchen are insurmountable highlights), but a pair of grisly military skirmishes and the bananas finale get closer than expected.

The humans are less convincing, but the quality of performance keeps them watchable. Pratt’s reigned in compared to last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy and Bryce Dallas Howard doesn’t always skirt the line between stereotype and sista cleanly, but they’re both likable in their inherent being. Vincent d’Onofrio probably fares best as a man of war seeking to train a raptor-driven anti-terror cell (a concept flirted with rather than fully explore here, presumably fodder for future installments), confidently hitting comedic and villainous beats with strong force of personality. But this is still a dino's world, even if they don’t awe like it’s 1993. Trevorrow and his team have spared no expense, and just cause we've seen it all before, doesn't mean we can't enjoy it again.

(Note: At one point, the I-Rex is valued at $26 million, so even taking into account the inflation that’s occurred since 1992, Homer remains correct in his assumption that Kent Brockman can’t buy a dinosaur.)

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2015

13 May 2015

Review: Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, USA,/Aus, 2015)


Before embarking down “Fury Road” I tasked myself with revisiting the franchise's previous installments, starting with 1979's “Mad Max”. After 40 minutes I abandoned the project. Looking back at director George Miller's first foray into apocalyptic, Australian carnage, one sees a lot to admire, but little to captivate, the film harshly dated thanks to 35 years of genre evolution. I consider myself a lover of cinema spanning the breadth of history, but sometimes, you just gotta admit when a movie ain't playing. With its simplistic plotting, delayed emotional payload and interchangeable supporting thugs “Mad Max” is an antique rather than something with any pragmatic use in the current climate. Which makes “Mad Max: Fury Road” all the more exciting. A lean, demented journey, this fourth outing in the series might be the hippest film directed by an old guy since“The Wolf of Wall Street” (George Miller is now going on 70). It's a barmy but appreciatively forward thinking cocktail of grungy, sun-drenched mania, a molasses of new technology and character, all captured within a stripped down narrative aesthetic worthy of the original's B-movie persuasion.

The year is 2060 and the world is in pieces. Max (Tom Hardy) wanders a barren stretch of baked wilderness known as the Wasteland, haunted by the ghosts of his deceased family. After being captured by a race of mutants known as War Boys, Max bands up with Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a revolutionary seeking to free five captive women from the rule of the War Boys' leader Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Escaping in an armoured rig; Max, Furiosa and the wives propel toward the harmonious promise of a homeland untouched by death, pursued with relentless vigour by Joe and his army of savages.

Last year I criticised “Godzilla” for relegating its titular hero to the level of cameo player. “Mad Max: Fury Road” does much the same, but this time it's a move that empowers the material. Hardy grunts and carries himself with physical grace, but “Fury Road” belongs to its women, a cast of ladies diverse in age, but wholly capable of kicking butt. Back in 2011 the film actually had Furiosa as a subtitle, before ditching it in favour of the more commercial “Fury Road”. An understandable adjustment in a “Fast & Furious” marketplace, but Theron's liberator is profoundly more thrilling than any haggard, stretch of asphalt. The actress goes head to head with Hardy in the brooding stakes, but her character's motivations are richer (one of the movie's few overt failings is to colour Max's backstory with anything fresh), and her struggle to deliver the breeders to paradise more interesting. Whilst the action manages to blend hysteria with coherency, the women are what really set “Fury Road” apart. They're all (including the reappearance of Megatron's least favourite gal pal Rosie Huntington-Whiteley - actually putting her angelic countenance to fine use here) active, unique agents within the construct, Miller and his co-writers displaying nothing but eagerness to have them supersede Max at the movie's centre. Thematically “Fury Road” amounts to a loud rejection of Hollywood's traditional gender bias, and patriarchy itself, transforming its cast of wives from biological vessels of consumption (used for sex and reproduction) into formidable heroines. Superficially “Fury Road” has the wives respond to Furiosa's charge, muscling into a masculine territory with increased competency, but the feature also underlines the delicate beauty of female identity (as opposed to the rowdy din of man), casting its morally sound, beautifully presented wives as pillars of virtue, compassion and reason. No male presence in the feature displays the same rationality or decency, even Hardy.

The action is phenomenally well staged. It's exciting, daringly choreographed and filled with weight. Every crunch, scream and explosion registers with impact, the sort only balls out practical effects allow for. The opening, a manic chase through sandstorms and desert perhaps goes on for too long, but it sets a frenzied tone the picture honours diligently, and later beats are equally as bombastic, whilst anchored in a more obviously humanist agenda. Comics and videogames influence the distinctively graded frames and cacophonous set-pieces, filtered through a fearsome R-rated aesthetic. The movie isn't excessively violent, but fists land with WALLOPS and viscera spurts in big, dirty heaves. Miller isn't afraid to absorb the setting and hold on its organic composition, even the sandy dunes feel rich with texture, or point toward weird little touches outside of the central chase. There's no requirement for “Fury Road” to unfurl in a fully realised universe, but Miller provides us with one anyway. That's how seriously he's taking the journey, and indicative of how complete it feels.

It's an exhausting flick, but “Fury Road” is all about pleasure over punishment. The sensory overload - including a score courtesy of Junkie XL which sounds like a Chumbawamba cover via Trent Reznor - drains your reserves, providing a cathartic hit akin to a subversive Space Mountain. Maybe Miller would rebuke a reading of the film that delves too deeply into any perceived political subtext, so I'll leave you on a final thought. Maybe, one day, in an ideal world, this film with its complex heroines, progressive attitude and daring action will play like “Mad Max” circa 1979. Dated and routine.

Wouldn't that be just lovely?

Except, any movie where Charlize Theron triumphantly rips a baddie's face off is never going to feel routine. But you get the picture.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2015

9 May 2015

Angst through Sex & Skype - It Follows & Unfriended

Earlier this year It Follows opened to strong reviews and leggy box-office. 

Well, for a movie about a shape-shifting, killer STI that is.  

A sophomore venture for film-maker David Robert Mitchell, Follows commences with a sequence that establishes the piece's proclivity for eerie minimalism and celebratory nostalgia, using an unbroken 360 pan and the sort of retro-synth score propagated by last year's The Guest & 2011's Drive, to convey the aura of a creepy throwback interested in mystery and the awful potential in suburbia for suppressed horror. Unfortunately the feature doesn't evolve much beyond its inspired bow, elevating sub-text to flat text, failing to sketch more than one compelling character and succumbing to a monotonous middle act, all basked in the electronic rays of a score more interested in reference than the gestation of fear. Despite its ambition, and intermittently inspired framing, It Follows chalks up as a bore.

Last week saw the release of Unfriended in the UK, the latest horror picture from the Blumhouse (Paranormal Activity, Sinister) stable. Played entirely over the desktop of High-School senior Blaire (Shelley Hennig), the picture observes a Skype conversation between friends descend into a breeding ground for terror, the ghost of a suicidal buddy emerging to haunt the digital soiree. It's unapologetically high-concept, and at a lean, visceral 83 minutes Unfriended gets business done, fast. Thematically and aesthetically the film also feels like a step-forward for horror cinema, whilst It Follows plays like a - admittedly loving - regression. Don't get me wrong, Unfriended isn't a great movie, but it is a virtuosos experiment, and one that successfully excites and pokes the audience for the entirety of its refreshingly trim running.

The films are bound because they centre on adolescent experience. On the surface It Follows might appear the more universally resonant work, courting the primal emotions and guilt which surround teen sexuality, a narrative aspect that pre-dates cinema itself. On the other hand Unfriended engages with the Millenials' wired in approach to culture, society and information. The entire picture, including diegetic score and exposition feed through wi-fi, whilst allegiances and relationships are articulated using various private applications, helping our teens to hide from the all-encompassing Skype call at the movie's core. It's interesting even when compacted into such a languid sentence, but irrefutably these aspects mark Unfriended as a prospective time capsule. Relevant to a generation or three, but doomed to the recyclables as soon as the words Spotify, ichat and Skype no longer factor into daily discourse.

Except that's not the case at all.

With its rather sensationalist but unsettling depiction of bullying, Unfriended finds genuine moral weight, and plugs it into a visually exciting fright-machine that scares and provokes in equal measure. The human characters aren't individually complex, but these archetypes are sustainable over 83 minutes. In that time, screenwriter Nelson Greaves, uses broad but sufficiently vibrant strokes to set his cast apart from each other, to convince an audience that they interpret, feel and react to terror in different ways. The sullen, unmotivated teens at the heart of Mitchell's work bleed into one, a selection of deliberately pretty-downed and insular Midwestern grumps who - for me at least – fail to project tangible empathy. Mitchell plants all of his terror into concept, whilst Greaves splits it evenly between that and character. As a result, the latter film manages to evoke a humanist bent, and left me more satisfied.

One of the biggest problems with It Follows is its slavish obsession to genre work of the 70s. Mitchell (Aged around 40, youngish for a director but schooled in life) pumps in obvious visual cues to Halloween and Jaws, whilst drowning potentially tense moments in a retro score that sounds cool on an ipod, but swallows his movie whole. Mitchell favours a much slower-burn approach to his horror than Unfriended helmer Leo Gabriadze, yet rarely takes full advantage of his indulgent, softly lit compositions, generally because the music chokes them out. Gabriadze on the other hand ties contemporary manic teenage attitudes into the very aesthetic of his movie. The lead, Blaire, never takes time to moodily style her hair or fret, instead she leaps from one form of communication to the next and combats the deathly possibility of silence with an indie playlist. Unfriended never pauses for breath, it pulls deep at the start, then shoots for the finish line. The slick execution serves the guilt-laden drama brewing between its smarmy protagonists, as things ramp toward a rapid,visceral conclusion. Unfriended is a forward thinking horror effort, representative of Ritalin-prescribed kids more likely to have Nandos than 'Nam at the root of their subconscious. 

Even the fundamental tone of It Follows lags in comparison to Unfriended. Mitchell's work replicates the Michael Myers routine, the ambling, but unstoppable force that our heroes can't ever expect to defeat. It's still a chilling idea, but the execution owes such an obvious debt to the work of Carpenter or Bob Clark, that it becomes monotonous before the first hour clocks out. The monster appears and shuffles a bit, made more interesting in that only its designated victim can see it. This offers the picture a welcome lashing of paranoia, but even that's only good for one or two sequences, before fading in order for the sub-Halloween gumption to resume. Tedium sets in fast. On the other hand Unfriended totally embraces the possibility of the internet, tapping into the social-networking facade, and calling out the lack of accountability online presence promotes. The frights unfold like a gory, punchy game of spin the bottle, but the articulation of this lost generations' refusal to face reality, hiding behind screens, adds a serious dash of intelligence to the violence. Unfriended pivots around the tension of multiple mistruths, the erosion of true friendship and aversion to flesh on flesh sexuality in the 21st century. The suspense inherent to a band of liars, willing to do anything for their lives, is practically endless.

Both works are deserving of academic excavation and engagement, but only one stands out as multiplex hit worth inhaling. Unfriended, whilst never jeopardizing its conscience,provides a nastier more immersive narrative experience, as opposed to the clinical yet cold beauty that seems to be Mitchell's utmost concern. These are ideas movies, and for that alone deserve praise, but this writer would urge you to disregard critical consensus and view both pieces with an open mind. One's an art installation fronted by a cine-literate malcontent,  the other's a roller-coaster manned by a cyber psychologist.  I know for which I'd pay again.

An article by Daniel Kelly, 2015

1 May 2015

Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron (Joss Whedon, USA, 2015)


As the credits rolled at my screening of “Avengers: Age of Ultron” an odd mood set in. It's wasn't one of disdain, or even disappointment, but rather the sort of ceremonial resignation usually reserved for Christmas mass. Avenging wrought, we awaited an after credits titbit, our own slice of Gold, Myrrh and Frankincense. People hung by the door, shuffling - wanting to depart - but unable, lest they missed the sight of an evil dude fiddling with a regal looking glove for 12 seconds. It came. It went. We left.

Is this event cinema in 2015?

In fairness there's very little obviously wrong with “Age of Ultron”, but that doesn't necessarily make it right. The film, cut rigorously from the Marvel formula, boasts a tirelessly committed cast, but strangely never gears up to the giddy 11 which allowed its predecessor to bank a billion back in 2012. Perhaps it's simply fading novelty that disservices the picture, but that might be to undersell a more symptomatic problem. In contemporary cultural discourse superheroes are prime currency, yet no economy is invulnerable to depression. “Age of Ultron” won't be the film to sink the ship, but it might prove vital in pin-pointing the instant this industry started to sour. The stars are out, the budget's big and it certainly goes well with a diet coke. Still, one suspects that whilst the lights are on, Joss Whedon's not always home.

“Ultron” opens with a spectacular (albeit digitally stitched) one-take, a paean to the awe these characters instill. Since kicking off with “Iron Man” in 2008, this generation of Marvel has gone from strength to strength, building an admittedly impressive tradition of entertaining fare. It's the superb cast that have made this such a possibility. “Ultron” basks in the brilliance of its performers, and a take on the material that prioritises humanist concerns and levity over superficial brooding. The worst comic-book movies (I'm thinking “Daredevil” and “Ghost-Rider”) presume a level of sophistication because of how they're lit, or due to the fact the leading man elects to growl every syllable of dialogue; all the time dancing around a pre-pubescent conceptualisation of angst. Whedon takes very plain, very common motifs and executes them with sincerity and wit. It's been his bread and butter since “Buffy”, and he remains a consummate pro in the field. When “Ultron” works its because Whedon nurtures tender beats, particularly between Johansson's Black Widow and Ruffalo's (this time under-used) Hulk. Two of the franchise's more tortured and understated souls make for a well-matched romantic duet. It never becomes a suffocating facet of the whole, instead Whedon lets it breath nicely between action beats, ageing into future installments with all manner of emotional stakes still in play. This stuff works, and highlights what charms about Whedon's approach. On the other hand...

The ironic quips feel forced, and the action's unmemorable. The scale is never in question, but beyond the aforementioned opening it's hard to recall much of the robo-bashing that consumes the rest of the picture's budget. New characters float in and out (including a promising bow for the radiant Elizabeth Olsen), but a slavish adherence to in-house structure, and Whedon forcing himself to regurgitate the more superficial elements of his artistic identity (the dialogue is much too ripe in places) render the sequel a consumer good. As Ultron, a menacing but broadly motivated nasty, delivers his doomsday speech, all manner of blurry combat filling the periphery, it's almost impossible not to disengage. The film charges through the Marvel beat sheet, leaving enough plot in the air to rob us of total catharsis, with the promise of further carnage banked. We've been amused, even touched in places, but when push comes to shove, we end up were we always end up.

Waiting in a dimly lit auditorium for brief clues about future adventures.

“Age of Ultron” is the very embodiment of its villain. Cooked up on a whim, glaringly artificial, but with just enough smarts below the bonnet to push it above “Transformers”-esque guff. That'll probably be enough to ensure the sustainment of this team's popularity for now – but not forever.  

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2015

1 April 2015

2015 - The First Quarter

Look, I know I've been bad. It's just...other things have gotten in the way. What? You don't care. Okay, then. Here are my thoughts on the fifteen 2015 (unintentional) releases I've caught so far this year, in sumptuous, digestible little chunks.

UPDATE - The original list didn't include "The Gambler", because, well, "The Gambler" is precisely the sort of film one forgets 2 months after the fact. Here are a few words anyway.

"The Gambler" is the cinematic equivalent of a particularly eloquent and uninhibited drunk. Terrific fun to hang around with for 20 minutes - the conversation peppered with wild anecdotes and candid opines - but by 100 you just want him to shut the fuck up.

Mark Wahlberg is committed as Jim Bennett (surely one of 2015's least likable protagonists), but he can't salvage Monahan's over-reaching screenplay. It's plenty ambitious, but very few of the character dynamics spark, the cynical monologues tire and the ticking clock at the picture's centre seems as odds with the plotting. There's definite intellectual rigour being applied to what boils below the film's surface, it just disappoints that the narrative veneer should come up snake-eyes. Rupert Wyatt directs with a sound eye, although the intensity that spurred his Planet of the Apes gig from a few years back is conspicuous by its absence during the muddled second act. Interesting as it is to watch unfurl, "The Gambler" is ultimately a noble failure.

15. Inherent Vice 

"Paul Thomas Anderson is great. I found this insufferable." 

They get better. I promise.

14. The Gunman 

"Worth admission for the Hemingway-esque bull-goring that tails the picture. That's all you'll get for your admission though, unless you dig humanitarian appeal commercials with vanilla action beats."

13. Project Almanac 

"Today is better the second time around"

It's a nice tagline and promises much more than "Project Almanac" delivers. Under its clunky plotting, dull first act and woeful dialogue the film has admirable intentions, gifting unusually human nerds the ability to correct the personal errors of yore. The potential for bouncy fun is only fitfully embraced however, "Project Almanac" sinking into a mire of flimsy character beats and science stuff, none of which really pays off. The found footage aesthetic undermines the film further, its unnecessary presence only serving to emphasize the ramshackle story, and remind us that 2012's "Chronicle" was actually pretty intelligent. Proof that frenetic cinematography does not guarantee an exciting end product.

12. Jupiter Ascending 

  A plodding narrative and listless lead performances (it's the Tatum of "G.I Joe" here, not the charming "Jump Street" or nuanced "Foxcatcher" upgrades) render "Jupiter Ascending" a tough sit, despite some impressive razzle-dazzle and a messy but intelligent subtext concerning Western commerce. Eddie Redmayne rasps convincingly as the piece's methodical villain, but the sci-fi universe, whilst extensive, never thrills and Kunis proves a bland cipher for the audience. 

11. It Follows

Don't get the fuss here at all. Beautifully framed, but the nostalgia bating soundtrack suffocates the tension like a motherfucker, and the narrative formula is extraordinarily repetitive. Sub-text quickly become text, as the one dimensional characters are stalked by a sexually transmitted gribbly. Every single one of the whinging characters deserves what they get. Artful aesthetics do not compensate for onerous plotting and an empathy vacuum.

10. Get Hard 

Ferrell is consistently at his funniest when he's surrounded by some variant of unpredictability. Be it Adam McKay's irreverence behind the camera, Mark Wahlberg playing himself with hidden awareness or the jaunty oddness of a 70s San Diego, all the comic's finest moments have coincided with the possibility off weirdness beyond his own control. Here, debuting director Etan Cohen and Kevin Hart (affable but wholly regimented) just don't push him enough. It doesn't help that one or two sequences slump into bad-taste for stupidities sake (a particularly sour scene set in a gay-hot-spot jumps to mind) rather than upholding the standard of the picture's few memorable beats, which tend to enjoy ribbing the ignorance innate to white, upper middle-class buffoonery. A tolerance for rape jokes is also a must.

9. Focus

A way to spend 105 minutes. That much I guarantee.

8. Selma 

There are some great things about "Selma" (namely David Oyelowo's thunderous turn as Martin Luther King), but Ava DuVernay's film often comes across more like a thorough history tutorial than a drama, despite some lashings of truly sadistic, twisted violence. The director has a propensity to become lost in the art of her frame (the explosion at the start loses much of its power through an indulgent mosaic of slow-mo aftermath) and the real tension of King's home life receives second shrift to bitty arguments that consumed his activist group behind closed doors. There are moments of magic, - Oyelowo sermonizing, real-life footage of the "Selma" marches and anything involving Tom Wilkson's captivating LBJ - but otherwise it's a worthy yet dry stab at the material.

7. The Voices

Sincere black-comedy that nets some laughs and a few genuinely uncomfortable moments, but it's too dark and remote to have much potential beyond the fringes of cultdom. Reynolds is awesome at voicing deranged animals, but struggles to make the vulnerable psychopath at the picture's core real. It's an odd and subversive sit, recommended largely for a unique flavour as opposed to a satisfying aftertaste. 

6. American Sniper 

Best Eastwood joint since "Gran Torino", even if it comes off as "Hurt Locker" lite. There are umpteenth films that explore the horrors of war and its corrupting influence, and whilst "American Sniper" doesn't throw much new into the mix, it benefits from convicted execution, impressive cinematography/editing and an impeccable Cooper. He's nuanced even when the film isn't. Won't win any major awards in the coming weeks, but I don't begrudge it consideration.

5. 50 Shades of Grey

Here's a nice surprise. Adapted from a speciously popular property, Taylor-Johnson's feature melds enjoyable trash with affable goo rather well, resulting in a slight but lively erotic cocktail. Dakota Johnson juggles knowing comedy and actual vulnerability with critical precision, knowing when to play it straight, and when to succumb to the silliness. Dornan's a little less adept (though functional), but Taylor-Johnson's eye for big-screen artistry (some wonderfully framed shots here), Kelly Marcel's energetic screenplay and a good Elfman score given this genuine value. It's definitely schlock, but I gotta say, I had a fun time watching.

4. Patrick's Day 

Sweet when it needs to be, thought-provoking even when it doesn't, Terry McMahon's sophomore feature is a considered and human examination of a country in crisis and the struggles incurred by mental illness. Moe Dunford gives a breathtakingly genuine turn in the titular role. 

3. Ex Machina 

Big fan of the stylistic flourishes that run through Alex Garland's directorial bow, including a pulsing soundtrack, slick production design and hauntingly bare interiors. The plot forms an interesting network of ideas, even if it never connects them to the extent promised. The writer tackles some big questions, as Oscar Issac's bawdy Zuckerberg type runs Gleeson's naive programmer through a series of tests to determine if his newly fashioned AI has achieved full consciousness. Part mediation on creation, and more often than not a stripped down suspense piece, "Ex Machina" is ambitious and diverting, just not groundbreaking.

2. Foxcatcher 

Ultimately not the Awards contender some predicted after its debut at Cannes, but Miller's biographical study of three characters lacerated by a diseased variant of the American dream chills in all the right ways. Carell and Ruffalo are great, Tatum is outstanding. Defined by cold cinematography and smashing sound design, "Foxcatcher" adeptly underscores that the cinema of ideas can also be the cinema of excitement. 

1. Whiplash

Intense, mature and eminently watchable, this mediation on the demands of greatness and the sacrifices required to attain it, is bolstered by two stellar leading turns. Deserves the recognition and praise (including the Best Picture nom). Unlikely to have many cinema trips in 2015 that rank more memorably, and it's only mid-January.

Okay, maybe they didn't get any better.

Expect normal, more comprehensive,  service to resume around June.

This has been very formal, hasn't it?

Daniel Kelly, 2015

29 December 2014

The Top 10 Films of 2014

Below sit my favourite movies of 2014, ranging from 12-year passion projects to extravagant sci-fi blockbusters. Each of these movies are now available to rent or stream from the usual outlets, and are for the purposes of comprehending 2014, essential viewing!

Take care guys, and as always, a happy new year!

10. Life Itself ( Steve James)

Who loves a critic? The answer is more people than you’d think based on Steve James’ touching documentary. Chronicling the life of Roger Ebert (including access to the man in final days), James paints an honest portrait of a flawed but hugely magnetic individual. It’s quietly inspiring to see Ebert so jovial in the throes of extreme illness, surrounded by a loving family, but James’s doesn't romanticise the legend. He’s happy to illuminate Ebert’s alcoholism, egotism and ruthless ambition too, casting a slyly enjoyable light on Ebert’s unsettled relationship with “At the Movies” co-star Gene Siskel; watching the two bicker an effortless joy. James’ picture is a thorough and emotionally charged detour into the life of an unusual but deeply interesting soul, a force of nature who above all else, just really dug cinema.  

9. The Lego Movie (Lord & Miller)

Where to start with this one? One of the year’s least promising concepts becomes one of its finest films, thanks to the anarchic touch of Lord & Miller. “Frozen” may still have been playing on a perpetual loop on the minds of the globe’s children, but with its fascinating world-building (including ace 3D), dependably sharp sense of humour and potent deconstruction of consumerism and the hero’s journey, “The Lego Movie” is far the more memorable venture. The fear that Lord & Miller might sell out here is completely founded, you’re delusional if you think they don’t. But, it’s the film’s total admission of said fact, and subsequent attempt to use it for the fueling of absurd creative asides that makes the adventure deliriously good fun. 

8. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)

Not much left to say about this one. 2014’s big Oscar winner, “12 Years a Slave” is maybe the most beautifully composed feature on this list, every frame bleeding a melancholy beauty. Director Steve McQueen fully exploits his artistic background with some of the year’s most painterly cinematography, giving contemplative credence to the horrifying ordeal of the protagonist. The cast (including an impossibly still Chiwetel Ejiofor and  maddeningly savage Michael Fassender) immerse themselves believably into the bleak outline of McQueen’s world, and even if Brad Pitt in Jesus mode momentarily distracts, the rest of the film acts as a mature and necessary evocation of the era’s pain. 

7. Birdman (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu)

Technical virtuosity, engrossing drama and intelligent cultural commentary form a potent mix in "Birdman", which is consistently as thoughtful and relevant as it is blackly honest. Michael Keaton - a true national treasure - owns the titular part, presumably drawing from his own past to sketch a dynamic portrait of a man on the edge, pushed to breaking point by the universally desired pursuit of greatness. It's beautifully photographed, edited and scored, but even without the brave aesthetic facade, the film would still register as explosive. The supporting cast represent a rich pool of talent – Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Amy Ryan – and thankfully make good on their exceptional promise. It’s surprising the movie has been so warmly received by Hollywood; as director Inarritu doesn't seem much a fan of contemporary studio politics. 

6. Boyhood (Richard Linklater)

An ambitious experiment in endurance and continuity, Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” seems to be many people’s favourite of 2014. Whilst there were a few alternatives I preferred, there’s no denying that Linklater has concocted something captivating here, following the growth of Mason from the age of 6-18. Linklater tackles the highs and lows of youth with the precision of a documentarian, sustaining impressive causality and purpose in several performances (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette never better as Mason’s parents). Words like honesty and empathy are too handily tossed about in relation to Western cinema, but Linklater breeds the emotions with captivating earnestness, painting a picture not just of boyhood, but 21st century living itself. If pure identification’s the name of the game, “Boyhood” betters all else.

5. Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy)

America holds a mirror up to itself, and finds a fucking horrible image starring back in Dan Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler”. Jake Gyllenhaal thins down and creeps up as Lou Bloom, a young American desperate to make a professional marker in the world, led to believe that worth only comes with placement in the capitalist cog. Finding he has a knack for freelance crime photography, Lou begins to climb the ranks, pushing out competitors and manipulating peers in increasingly deranged ways. “Nightcrawler” is over the top, but that’s all part of its twisted appeal. There’s gore and dirge aplenty, but what really unsettles is watching Lou seduce everybody around him with each increased success, driven by mantras stripped straight from a self-help book. Gilroy sidesteps the difficulties of antagonist as protagonist by rendering Lou and his relationships so toxically captivating (Rene Russo excels as an initially reluctant willing victim), but props must really go to Gyllenhaal. He’s transformed, and utterly unforgettable.  A great bedfellow for Bay’s “Pain & Gain” or Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street”. 

4. Gone Girl (David Fincher)

The finest American film-maker of his generation strikes again in “Gone Girl”, a riveting and suitably complex adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s pulpy 2012 page-turner. Flynn herself does great work on writing duty, impressing with a focused and vitally un-precious attitude toward the source, but it’s really Fincher’s knack for detail and craft which elevate the picture to the rank of masterwork.  Everything from the deliberately sped-up opening credits, to the meta casting of stars Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck aids the film’s sense of pervading uneasiness, an internally authentic portrait of marriage fuelled by a ludicrously entertaining and twisty external mystery. To top it all off, Fincher reteams with musical maestro Atticus Ross to forge another searing musical score, and involves Neil Patrick Harris in a scene of sexual violence which might leave Paul Verhoeven shuddering. It’s often the little things that land hardest, something David Fincher well knows. 

3. The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese)

Draining, excessive and hugely debauched, but also incredibly rewarding, Scorsese’s mature, balanced and impeccably detailed “The Wolf of Wall Street” has already been much discussed. In the year since its release (January of 2014 in the UK, hence its inclusion here) the film has fuelled all manner of discussion. Is it exploitative? Ethically corrosive? Misogynistic? No, but it's also not not those things. One of the charms of Scorsese’s odyssey of Wall Street corruption is its confidence in never damning nor glorifying, the director simply telling a story with remarkable cinematic dexterity, asking you, the audience to decide, Maybe that’s why the picture incurred wrath from certain sections. I’d imagine it’s cavalcade of blow, breasts and morally duplicitous behaviour forced people to ask certain questions about themselves, and what they might do in one Jordan Belfort’s shoes. Maybe I’m being a tad presumptuous, but even without that faculty the film remains a wonderfully acted, vibrantly arranged splurge of sexy repugnance. 

2. Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman)

I quite enjoyed “Guardians of the Galaxy”, Marvel’s triumphant summer sci-fi actioner. But it has nothing on Doug Liman’s “Edge of Tomorrow”, which incidentally made some $350 million less worldwide.  Best expressed as “Groundhog Day” meets “Starship Troopers” at pitch level, Liman’s ingenious yarn forces an against type Tom Cruise to save humanity, starting at a level of gross incompetence. As Cruise wars against an alien menace - dying daily, only to be reborn with the chance to learn from the previous day’s mistake - one cannot help but assume it’s a metaphor for the actor’s famed work ethic. You do your job, and if you fail, you get up and do it again until it’s right. “Tomorrow” laces humour, genuinely invigorating action and practical FX into a thrilling blockbusting cocktail, one that embraces and challenges the notions of studio entertainment. It’s loud, repetitious and very aware, until the point where the formula exhausts, and it instead turns incredibly human, Cruise stepping out of his mechanized suit and into a world of purer dramatic possibility. As his mentor, Emily Blunt is a vulnerable ball-buster, but this is Cruise’s flick, the megastar relishing the chance to undergo an unusual but captivating arc. 

1. Calvary (John Michael McDonagh)

Brendan Gleeson has a nice supporting role in my number two film, but it’s in “Calvary” that he delivers the finest performance of the year. Representing an immense maturation from his enjoyable 2011 black-comedy “The Guard”, “Calvary” sees John Michael McDonagh retrace Christ's ascension of Calvary in rural Ireland, this time with Gleeson’s soulful priest hauling the metaphorical cross. After being told he has a week to live by an unknown, Gleeson tries to repair relationships with his troubled daughter and varied congregation, brought to life with cartoonish buoyancy by an assortment of gifted actors. Addressing ideas of national guilt, faith and the internal suffering each can spring, “Calvary” is every bit as powerful and more distinct in construction than McQueen’s “12 Year’s a Slave”. Punches are never pulled, because in the eyes of McDonagh, forgiveness is not something handed down lightly. If it were, what would be the point? 

An article by Daniel Kelly, 2014

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