29 December 2014

The Top 10 Films of 2014

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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

23 December 2014

The Best Films of 2014: (20-11)

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Here we are, another year, another glut of cinema to celebrate. Below are the beginnings of my top 20, namely picks 20-11. The top 10 should follow in a matter of days. 

A quick note on a few movies not included on my list. No Marvel effort made the cut (although Guardians of the Galaxy and The Winter Soldier warranted consideration), and there were no spots for audience favourites like Wild, Interstellar, The Fault in Our Stars or Inside Llewyn Davis. Each has a many great attributes and warrants recommendation, but didn't excite or stimulate me to the top degree. 

I'm sure it would also be a source of great sorrow to the Dan of last year, that Horrible Bosses 2 wasn't quite up to the challenge of cracking the 20. It's a cruel world. 

Below are some honourable mentions (films that were really hard not to include), but other than that, let's get this questionable exercise in vanity on the road!


Honourable Mentions: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part 1, The Skeleton Twins, Nymphomaniac, ’71, Laggies


20. Oculus (Dir: Mike Flanagan)


Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook” was the consensus driven horror champion of 2014, but for me it represents only the second best housebound creeper determined by fraught familial history. Mike Flanagan’s haunted mirror movie rises well above its dubious concept, drawing on a deeply unsettling Karen Gillan and a strong editorial hand to make the most of its slight budget. It helps that the frights ere towards the genuinely horrific, complete with dab twists and a fundamentally uneasy fantasy element. An ending with the courage of its convictions seals the deal. 



19. 22 Jump Street (Dir: Lord & Miller)

Marginally inferior to its predecessor, “22 Jump Street” is both the first of two sequels on this list, and the first of two features helmed by Miller and Lord. Reteaming Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill for a metatextual punt at the uninspired nature of production line cinema, the film plays dumb with supreme intelligence, challenging convention with the vibrancy and off-colour tint you’d expect from the guys behind “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs”. The recent Sony crisis has suggested at a peculiar direction for a third instalment, so as a farewell to the traditional buddy-cop format “22 Jump Street” marks a slick, refreshingly self-aware embrace. 

18. Starred Up (Dir: David MacKenzie) 

David MacKenzie’s prison drama is a visceral and uncompromising experience, deliberately claustrophobic, with a powerhouse turn from up and comer of the year Jack O’Connell. The leading man oozes danger, a tenderer side slowly and organically exposed through Jonathan Asser’s heartfelt yet honest screenplay. Shot almost completely in a single location, the movie is all tight-angles and drained colours, bringing the walls ever closer as O’Connell’s troubled youth feels the strain of incarceration. Asser’s history as a prison counsellor shines through, never more so during the thought-provokingly authentic finale. 



17. The Guest (Dir: Adam Wingard)

Dan Stevens makes for a cracking anti-hero in Adam Wingard’s sublime B-movie, a crazed mishmash of “The Terminator” and “The Stepfather”. Unapologetically stripped right from the 80s, the film is a distinctive cocktail of comedy and thriller, complete with infectious genre tweaks. Stylistically impressive, and with a soundtrack to die for, the feature finds precisely the right pitch of black macabre as Steven’s titular interloper wrecks dark havoc. Being an obvious homage to the VHS-leaden era of schlock, “The Guest” might appeal more to cinephiles than traditional viewers, but for those who respect genre tradition it’s a rigorously paced treat. 

16. Locke (Dir: Steven Knight)

Despite its single location (a jeep on the motorway from Birmingham to London) Steven Knight’s drama is vivid and visually purposeful, relying on artful framing and intelligent editing instead of gimmicks to sustain a sense of aesthetic grandeur. Tom Hardy is the only face we see, giving a dependably human performance, but the voices which form the film’s soul on the other side of his phone are vocal tour de forces. “Locke” finds pathos and challenges in the deeply ordinary, coming across all the more powerfully as a consequence.  This is ambitious film-making masked under a veil of simplistic ingenuity. 

15. The Two Faces of January (Dir: Hossein Amini)

Hossein Amini’s Patricia Highsmith adaptation is like an immaculately fashioned piece of furniture, ruthlessly practical but with a sense of welcome artistry. Harking back to a Hitchcockian mode of storytelling, Amini’s film takes three interesting characters (illuminated by three solid performances) and pushes them through a suspenseful trek of Greece. The scenery is marvellous, but the plotting is even better, preferring low-key sequences of extreme tension over anything overwrought or sleazy. The film’s pleasures often reside in the unsaid, a strength fortified by stellar structure and eerie implication. Under-seen but very good. 

14. Under the Skin (Dir: Jonathan Glazer) 

Jonathan Glazer’s meditative sci-fi begins as a chiller, before unfolding into something much more profound. Shot with a cinema vérité glaze, the movie boasts commendable sensorial command, be it through the greying cinematography, shrill musical score or the ominous, tight close-ups on Scarlett Johansson’s extra-terrestrial huntress. Exhausting and not without moments that baffle, “Under the Skin” is every bit as exotic and seductive as its lead, who hypnotically moves from ice cold killer to victim. There have been numerous interpretations, but for me it’s a film about finding what makes us human, a nice, artsier companion piece to Johansson’s work in “Lucy”. 

13. Two Days, One Night (Dir: Dardenne Brothers)

The titular time-frame makes for a powerful ticking clock throughout the Dardenne brothers’ most recent work, in which Marion Cotillard’s working class mother must convince co-workers to help save her job. Devoid of schmaltz or manipulation, the film unfolds organically and with a sense of determined urgency, tackling issues including mental health, economic status and the modern boundaries of compassion. Like “Calvary”, the supporting characters work to accentuate (often harsh) truths of the human condition, with individual encounters ranging from the deeply touching to frighteningly confrontational. Cotillard is as usual, magnetic. 

12. Her (Dir: Spike Jonze) 

A victim of international release strategies (we didn’t get it until February), Spike Jonze’s “Her” has remained present throughout the year’s cinematic conversation. The high-concept at the heart of “Her” makes “Oculus” looks like a feat of impeccable logic, but the story of a man falling for his computer is enlightening, funny and tragic. Jonze avoids smashing the obvious points over our heads, instead fathoming a not so distant future of some considerable majesty for his sweet, believable cyber-romance to unfold within. Societal commentary takes a backseat to compelling drama, laced with the quirk and softness that comes so easily to Jonze’s creative vision. Likely to be recalled as generational touchstone of the tech-boom alongside “The Social Network”. 

11. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Dir: Matt Reeves)

The year’s top sequel and second best summer endeavour, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” proves that even with almost half a century in the tank, Pierre Boulle’s dystopic prophecy still has legs. Picking up ten years after 2011’s impressive “Rise”, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” parlays all of that movie’s strengths into a more substantive narrative, taking pleasure in the construction of a post-viral apocalypse and burgeoning simian community. Andy Serkis continues to demonstrate how empathetic and rich motion capture performance can be, Caesar again one of the year’s most invigorating characters. Released in July, the film’s plague-guided storyline and pervading aura of conflict received a boost from real world issues, but the material explored and technical audacity of the execution still far outweighed already high expectations. A third film is due in 2016, and if enacted with the thought and consideration of “Dawn”, could allow for the best trilogy Hollywood has produced post-“Toy Story”.


10 through 1 to follow shortly...


An article by Daniel Kelly, 2014 


21 December 2014

The Not So Good Movies Of 2014

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Creating lists upon year’s end is a guilty pleasure, and a wonderful opportunity to celebrate great work. Simultaneously, it provides the chance to reflect on the shonkier side of life, at times acting as an excuse for writers, cinephiles and joyless chancers to publically immolate the dregs. I’m not sure how to feel about this. I've made lists in the past, and have a deeply rooted faith in considered and thoughtful criticism, but what does a “worst of list” really offer? Not a whole heck of a lot. Why not celebrate the best twice as hard, as opposed to fixating equally on both sides of the qualitative spectrum.

As a result I've opted to create a Top 20 this year (I usually just got for 10), and am hoping to publish it shortly after Christmas. That way I can channel my efforts into enthusiastically spreading love and excitement, behaviour more befitting of the season.

Yet…

I still think it’s appropriate to sign-post some of my least favourite films. I don’t intend on undergoing a steadfast and precise evisceration, but each of the following left me deeply dissatisfied, and in a few cases angry. I’m confident that these five features deserve scorn, not simply because they’re bad, but rather manage to fuel negative cultural minutia whilst holding viewership in raw contempt. I believe they are objectively awful.

5. Sabotage (Dir: David Ayer)

I like David Ayer, so it was a relief he managed to squeeze “Fury” into theatres before the year’s end. A fairly average work, “Fury” at least helped detox the stench left over by his previous effort “Sabotage”.  Envisioned as part of the Arnie revival, the film unravels as a disinteresting mystery. It’s spottily written and riddled with weak characterisation, but that in itself isn’t enough to merit inclusion on this list. Boredom is bad, but unnecessary, jarring bursts of ultra-violence, macho posturing and casual sexism are worse. Now you have a movie that’s dull and offensive. Arnie’s other post-political credits include “The Expendables” sequels and 2013’s forgettable “The Last Stand”, but even amid such uninspired fare, “Sabotage” marks a low-point.

4. That Awkward Moment (Dir: Tom Gormicon)

Unfunny frat-centred humour meets the year’s least likable brood of reprobates. A winning cast are entirely squandered amid a rash of crude gags that might’ve seemed dated in a pre-“American Pie” world. It’s about a bunch of proto –Patrick Bateman types who decide to start fucking anything that moves, before miserably sinking into unconvincing relationships. The bro-talk isn’t authentic, and the narrative’s a chore. As bad as the title promises.

3. The Other Woman (Dir: Nick Cassavetes)

Imagine “That Awkward Moment”, except with shrill, annoying women in place of sloppy dudes. Why does that make it worse, you ask? Three reasons:




1. Despite the female tilt it commits to cheap, redundant misogyny.

2. It contains a Nicki Minaj Cameo. 

3. It seems to think a Nicki Minaj cameo is a good thing. 


2. The Pyramid (Dir: Gregory Levasseur)

The found footage genre has proven surprisingly resilient since its most recent revival in 2009 (courtesy of “Paranormal Activity”). “The Pyramid” might be bad enough to kill it again. The hokey high-concept raises high-brows, but the incompetent film-making encourages yawns, groans and refund mentality. A group of stock scientist types enter a cursed pyramid, only for a selection of incredibly unintimidating beasts to commence stalking them. A few set-pieces possess traces of invention, which only works to heighten the despair inflicted by shambolic execution. Ten years ago, people shat all over “Alien Vs. Predator”, a sci-fi reboot with an incredibly similar premise. “The Pyramid” leaves you yearning for that movie’s obtrusive cinematography and diluted thrills.

1. Tammy (Dir: Ben Falcone)

I don’t want to badmouth Melissa McCarthy. She takes enough of it, some centred on her personal appearance and gender; thoroughly unacceptable bases of abuse. But “Tammy” is the sort of insufferable, rambling, vanity project that makes toes curl. Stretched and with a penchant for the expressly dire, “Tammy” is a road movie in need of a stop sign. Directed by McCarthy’s husband (yeesh) the film acts as a celebration of the star, bringing all her worst instincts to bear on a plot that crumbles under the weight of its slim title. It doesn’t go anywhere, taking eons to do so, and forces irritating turns from McCarthy, Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates and a barely utilised Allison Janey. No amount of patience helps, eventually the toxic self-promotion and neglect for storytelling or COMEDY prevailing to enable a cocktail of excessive indulgence.





12 December 2014

2014's Best Posters

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 Marketing devices or not, each of these selections achieves the sort of clarity, beauty and intrigue that any successful movie requires. In this age of expanded commercial necessity and fandom, posters have become an integral part of the cinematic experience. As a result, I've finally decided to dedicate a spot to some of this year's future office-wall adorning triumphs . 

Most have been selected for their clarity, skillful simplicity or ambition, but others are works of pure aesthetic beauty. My picks are in no particular order. 






Dawn of the Planet of the Apes - 20th Century Fox

Blockbusting ambition meets a central image that's 
anything but disposable in this unique one-sheet for Matt Reeves' excellent sequel. 




















Men, Women & Children - Paramount 

Jason Reitman's ensemble drama was a frustrating misfire, but this beautifully designed one-sheet boasts all the vibrancy, subtly and cohesion the picture lacks. No moment in the film combines community and isolation so succinctly. 













The Guest - Picturehouse 

Everything from the tagline placement to the shadows on star Dan Steven's face honour the tone of Adam Wingard's blackly comic B-movie. The film-maker's cited The Terminator and The Stepfather as key influences. This artwork convinces as an amalgamation of those disparate entities. Very chilling and effortlessly cool. 













Oculus - Relativity Media 

Like a beautifully directed still, the use of space and framing accentuates the horror of the central image. This poster accepts the hokey premise, and decides to contort into something weird and otherworldly, much like the movie itself. 
















Nightcrawler - Open Road Films 

It blatantly looks like the cover of a pulpy, battered neo-noir novel. If you've seen Nightcrawler, you know that's a massive compliment. Props for preserving some mystery too. 















Birdman - Fox Searchlight 

This isn't the only great poster for Birdman, but it is my favourite. The contrast between grey and red catches the eye without trying too hard, and the image like the film is both mystifying and compelling. The dominance exuded by New York is also very deliberate, a restrained and artful suggestion of the city's role in the feature. 















Dracula Untold - Universal 

Atmospheric yet subdued, this poster explores the ideas and tropes associated with its titular character beautifully. Anybody who's seen the cheese-laden final product knows it to be a lie - but heck - it's a damn pretty porky.















The Two Faces of January - Studio Canal 

The Patricia Highsmith adaptation (that sadly nobody bothered watching) takes a decidedly old-school approach, replete with key placement for the stars and a killer use of sunglasses. Everything is shrouded in mystique, encouraging thoughts of shady espionage and femme fatales.  Like the film, it's reminiscent of classical Hollywood. 














Fury - Sony 

Wonderful integration of title into image, with  enough free space to posit serious questions. Nothing's definite, and yet, with Pitt's expression, the formidable gloominess and that tagline, we know exactly what to expect. 














 
The Babadook - IFC

The year's most enthusiastically received genre piece ramped up major hype on the back of posters like this. Again, subtly is key, only outlining the memorable villain against an intentionally faded background. What is the Babadook? We don't know, but it certainly means business. 















Under the Skin - Studio Canal 

Twinkling poster promises off-colour content, but doesn't touch on the horrors and complexity of Jonathan Glazer's movie.  Like Fury and Nightcrawler its imaginative demonstration of a starring presence immediately engages, but it's the vastness of space and kaleidoscopic asides that promise distinctive cinema. 









'71 - Studio Canal 

A stirring poster made all the more imposing by a viewing of the feature. The image captures the precise moment that O'Connell's protagonist gallops into his waking nightmare, a rifle shaft the only indication of what's ahead. The smoky colours promote a disorienting haze, a perfect summation of urban carnage in war-torn Belfast. 





An article by Daniel Kelly, 2014

8 December 2014

Review: Men, Women & Children (Jason Reitman, USA, 2014)

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C-

Men, Women & Children 
2014, 119mins, 15
Director: Jason Reitman 
Writer (s): Jason Reitman, Erin Cressida Wilson 
Cast includes: Ansel Elgort, Adam Sandler, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jennifer Garner, Judy Greer
UK Release Date: 5th December 2014

 Last year Henry Alex-Rubin directed the excitable ensemble drama “Disconnect”, an ambitious attempt to explore social minutia through a wired prism. Despite a familiar cast (Jason Bateman, Hope Davis & Andrea Riseborough) the film is still awaiting UK distribution, and looks increasingly unlikely to get it. Jason Reitman’s “Men, Women & Children” straddles similar ground, and despite a toxic festival run, is being rolled out wide. Proof then, that Hollywood is no meritocracy. “Disconnect” had its share of sensationalised plotting, but “Children” takes it to ridiculous lengths, boasting heightened drama governed by improbable logic and dicey characterisation. The difference is that Reitman is an established awards troubler, and the cast, including Adam Sandler, Judy Greer, Jennifer Garner and Ansel Elgort are confirmed A-listers. There are still relevant and powerful stories to be stripped from the essence of our digital double lives, but after 2010’s “The Social Network”, film-makers need to aim higher than this.

In a small Texan community, the possibility of cyberspace is having a vast effect. Don (Adam Sandler) and Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt) use it as a means of escaping their sexless bed. Failed actress Donna (Judy Greer) pimps images of her vacuous daughter online, hoping a controversial web presence will ensure stardom. Footballer Tim (Ansel Elgort) medicates his newfound emptiness with philosophy and videogames, bonding with Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), who is in turn ruthlessly policed by her mother (Jennifer Garner). Together these stories interweave and expose how we facilitate hidden desire, fading humanity and challenge identity perception through the callous dark of monitors.

After a string of celebrated successes (“Juno” and the cruelly underrated “Young Adult”), Reitman hit a roadblock last year with the unconvincing “Labour Day”, a trite domestic drama that warbled into farce. “Men, Women & Children” flaunts similar problems, many of which come down to the picture’s unpolished screenplay. Writer Erin Cressida Wilson and Reitman have fashioned a film dominated by farfetched humans, the dubious stitching provided by a silly voiceover (albeit gloriously delivered by Emma Thomson). Adopting philosophy courtesy of Carl Sagan, the feature is a melting pot of artifice, populated by personalities who don’t ring true. The worst offender is Jennifer Garner’s unmotivated cyber-phobe, preaching all manner of paranoid nonsense, without ever once having her fears ratified by drama. Her daughter, Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), takes the brunt of this onslaught, but the rest of the community are also subjected to irrational pamphlet-pushing. Watching the character helm a cringe-inducing internet awareness group (I assume membership has been dropping steadily since 2006) feels dishonest and dated, a lazy way for the film-makers to address the threat of online chicanery. This level of apathy carries through much of the film’s tech-oriented observation, only ever finding naturalism in the wider issues. Overseeing Sandler and DeWitt fool around on various hook-up sites to numb the pain of a deadening marriage is brutal, but watching them indirectly confront each other is compelling. The lengths to which Greer uses the internet for crude sprog-promotion is head-thumpingly stupid, but witnessing the actress tackle the repercussions of her behaviour is unsettling. “Men, Women & Children” doesn’t utilise its USP intelligently, but on a grounded plain, the performances and Reitman’s assured understanding of conflict prove satisfactory. Unfortunately the movie is mired in a laughable netherworld of twenty-first century bunkum, a universe it critically appears to misunderstand.

The calibre of acting isn’t egregious, even if some of the younger performers lose their battle with the suspect source. Ansel Elgort is flat and unappealing as a footballer in the throes of existential woe (a pity after his fine work in “The Fault in Our Stars”), forced through a rigmarole of underdeveloped parental panic and terminal loneliness. Reitman and Wilson attempt to channel his crisis through a stratum of video-game culture, failing in a bid for credibility. His IM conversations communicate the superficiality of online retreat, but don't integrate with the core issue meaningfully. None of it feels right; even the sight of Sandler (again proving he’s a sound dramatic presence) masturbating plays like a lie. And I’m willing to bet Adam Sandler has tossed -off before. Despite Reitman’s warm lighting, “Men, Women & Children” is a frosty and isolating endeavour, an unremarkable beast mistaking teen sexuality, adultery and Jennifer Garner as a Terminator for incisive commentary. It may mean well, but the film’s a dud. Find a way to see “Disconnect” instead. 

Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014

4 December 2014

Capsule Reviews: Horrible Bosses 2, Laggies, St. Vincent

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Horrible Bosses 2 (Sean Anders, USA, 2014)

Amusing but stretched sequel to the 2011 sleeper. Reuniting Bateman, Day and Sudeikis, the film now has the boys as incompetent entrepreneurs cheated by Christoph Waltz’s savvy megalomaniac. In response and as a means to repair their fresh financial predicament, they decide to kidnap Waltz’s Bret Easton Ellis –lite son (a game Chris Pine). Idiocy, misunderstanding and improvisation ensue.

“Horrible Bosses 2” opened softly last weekend, eradicating hopes of a trilogy. Probably not a bad thing. Sean Anders’ sequel is energetically directed, stumbling over the finish-line due to amiability and a few, really well placed belly laughs, but it never feels essential, or even necessary. The feature sets the tone early, re-establishing the three stooges chemistry between the stars (still strong), before eliciting early groans with wearisome gay panic and race gags. When the plot ignites the jokes sharpen, blessed with the infectious bickering of the leads, and forced but ebullient returns to the fold from Jamie Foxx, Kevin Spacey and Jennifer Aniston. The latter is in particularly vivacious form – surplus to the storytelling – but an anarchic joy to behold. The turn is more knowing and relaxed this time around, allowing the actress a freedom that loosens the character, eradicating some of the superficial contrivances that hampered her work in 2011. She’s not trying as hard, and subsequently seems more at home. Waltz and Pine are ample additions, but never threaten to overshadow the returning crowd.


Much like previous directorial foray (“That’s My Boy”) Anders displays comfortability with imaginative vulgarity, but also an indulgent hand in the edit. At nearly two hours “Horrible Bosses 2” lacks the immediacy and crackle of the initial picture, especially during the thinly penned finale. Earns its stripes on the back of crude, dirty giggles, but only fans of the original need apply. Even then, you should probably wait until it hits NetFlix. 

Grade - B-

Laggies (Lynn Shelton, USA, 2014)

Lynn Shelton’s indie is remarkably likable and quick-witted, but is most notable for drawing career best work from Keira Knightley. The British actress carries certain worthiness, but has always preferred portraying characters as opposed to people. In some of her work that approach has proven intelligent (the “Pirates” franchise and Jane Austen adaptations), but shorn her grounded dramatic oeuvre of tangible warmth (“Seeking a Friend for the End of the World”). “Laggies” presents her with a flawed character (a 30-year old besotted by arrested development) and allows the actress to exercise a range of beautifully articulated vulnerabilities, alongside a comic side rarely touched. 

It helps that the script courtesy of Andrea Seigel is so honest and concise. Siegel  has a believable knack for capturing adolescence, both in Megan’s mental state and amid the kids (headed by Chloe Grace Moretz) she begins hanging out with. “Laggies” avoids overblown drama or a romancing of teenage freedom, instead painting the process as one of liberation, maturation and naïve pain. “Laggies” also continues to prove one of contemporary Hollywood’s best rules; if you can have Sam Rockwell in your movie, put Sam Rockwell in your movie. 

Grade - B+

St. Vincent  (Theodore Melfi, USA, 2014)

Doggedly warm, but only a lick better than average. Murray develops his crotchety archetype into a very human form, upgrading some of Theodore Melfi’s melodramatic writing into justifiably heart-breaking material.  Melissa McCarthy redeems herself after the abysmal "Tammy", giving an understated and sensitive portrayal of a single mother, whilst Naomi Watts is bizarrely over the top as a European stripper.

“St. Vincent” is obvious to a fault, but it sidesteps the threat of potential cynicism and schmaltz.  Most of the credit should go to the cast, but I suppose Melfi deserves some measure of applause for restraint. He doesn't often move away from formula, but the finale aside, he never seems to be begging for tears or Oscars either. The film has a jovial honesty and moderate heart, even if both feel generic. 

Grade - B-

Reviews by Daniel Kelly, 2014

22 November 2014

Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part 1 (Francis Lawrence, USA, 2014)

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B+

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part 1
2014, 123mins, 12
Director: Francis Lawrence
Writer (s): Peter Craig, Danny Strong, Suzanne Collins 
Cast includes: Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Donald Sutherland, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Josh Hutcherson, Sam Claflin
UK Release Date: 21st November 2014 

It worked for Harry Potter and Twilight, so why not the continuing adventures of Katniss Everdeen? I'm of course alluding to the “Part 1” disclaimer that follows the title of the latest “Hunger Games” outing “Mockingjay”. It's become the done thing that the defining chapter in any popular adaptation should be divided into two, maybe to accommodate purists clamouring for unblemished reverence, but more likely as a means to ensure everybody involved makes an extra buck; except for the audience. By slicing the material with such obvious capitalist intent, movies suffering the symptom incur innate wrath from the consumer, decreasing their odds of making a favourable impression. Nobody likes to feel ripped-off, and this new Hollywood tactic carries a definite whiff of wheeler-dealer salesmanship. It's with some pleasure then that “Mockingjay: Part 1” actually provides a fulfilling cinematic experience, a slower feature than its immediate predecessor (and one would assume next year's continuation), but filled with intelligent ideas and action beats, that whilst sparse, form very real stakes. The political underbelly of author Suzanne Collin's universe is finally bearing narrative fruit, leading to a sobering but intense extension of her dystopian myth.

Every angel eventually falls, and no artist is immune to failure. Jennifer Lawrence (still aged a mere 24) has made a formidable ascension up the Hollywood ranks since her Oscar nominated work in 2010's “Winter's Bone”, rarely faltering en route to becoming a global superstar. For the first time since her debut on the world stage, Lawrence, this year, has communicated an unlikely aura of artifice. Her celebrity veneer has moved from courageously quirky into the realm of oppressively omnipotent, and her work in the otherwise competent “X-Men: Days of Future Past” ranked high amid that film's modest list of problems. Her heart wasn't in the sequel, and it showed in a drearily adequate performance. Thankfully with “Mockingjay” the actress is back to her best, delivering a turn replete with conviction, strength and empathy. Credit must go to the assorted screenwriters, but Lawrence embodies the vigour of a true revolutionary, unpolished but magnetic. It's sad that a film possessing a “strong female character” remains cause for celebration, but in the pantheon of family entertainment role-models come little better, or indeed more human. Every beat in the character's journey is etched with vulnerabilities, chinks in her otherwise kick-ass armour. Just because she cries, and frets for the safety of loved ones doesn't make Katniss weak, it simply renders her real. Very few studio tent-poles would permit their heroes instances of such ferocious despair, but it's these doubts that allow her triumphs to peak with grace. Lawrence is utterly convincing, heart-breaking when she needs to be, and rousing when the film demands it. The skill comes in seeing these separate faces mesh to form a tonally consistent whole, a grand feat of film-making.

The gender issue becomes even more pronounced with the arrival of Julianne Moore, portraying the rebellion’s leader, a clinical force of nature. She's another strong woman (intentionally dwarfing the great Philip Seymour Hoffman in their shared scenes), able to make decisions that others won't. Everything from Moore's intonation to her body language suggests a selfless inner-strength, an unwillingness to bow to pressure, realised through dryly recited speeches and unfaltering laurels. Narratively the figure is used as a glamorous prop, but Moore's turn packs weight. It's a promise there's more to come, and I'm damned intrigued to see what that is. The men on the other hand are softer, victims of rejection (Liam Hemsworth), torture (Josh Hutcherson's Peeta) and crucially fear (both Sam Claflin and in a later, pointed moment, Hoffman himself). These men need to be saved, and only the women of the world are fit to act. Heck, during a dependably well edited and scored sequence, a young girl risks her life to save a cat. It's improbable - even jarring on a storytelling front, a fake heightening of the stakes via an obvious plant and pay-off - but it does underline the movie's devotion to empowerment.

In a way reminiscent of “Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows: Part 1” tone, mood and implication override aggressive momentum, the script a hearty study in character. We have a variety of enjoyable roaming sequences, soaking up barbaric images of genocide (testing the limits of the PG-13 rating), indulging a reverse Riefenstahl subplot, in which the rebels stage a variety of propaganda shorts around Katniss and her increasing disdain for injustice. It's an indicator of the feature's mature ambitions, a delightful attempt to infuse the project with ideas that transcend the underlying but simplistic oppressed vs. oppressors mentality of the initial features. There's a social consciousness here that I greatly admired, an attempt to organically express the currency of images in war, the potential for manipulation even in the name of supposed “good”. It's not particularly complex, but it is present, and should inspire some thought and discussion amid younger generations. “The Hunger Games” has morphed from “Battle Royale” lite into something deeper, and more culturally pronounced. “Mockingjay” deftly explores the burdens media inflicts upon war, and the radical consequences irresponsible, unethical practice can usher. That's an invaluable message in my humble opinion.

 Francis Lawrence remains a good fit for the property, mapping out the universe authentically, and executing set-pieces with panache. He's no visionary, but he possesses a meticulous eye and a respect for character, something not always present in the work of his gloss-obsessed ilk. The climax, a stealth operation cut alongside a glorified conference call, shouldn't work, but it's an inspired feat of sound design, camera work and production detail. Lawrence finds so much truth with his close-ups, ensuring that a human face and a tangible emotion governs the wider spectacle of the action, which unfolds within a sterile, minimalist government facility. Film-making on a grand scale is not dependent on bombast. Artfully honed craft and believable feeling are often more rewarding. “Mockingjay: Part 1” contains each in spades.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014






18 November 2014

House-Keeping & All That Jazz

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A few small pieces of house-keeping. 

Firstly, an apology. Last month I confessed that output would slow for the next few months, and I wasn't wrong. For that, I'm sorry. Come December I will make a special effort to update the blog with loads of end of year goodies, and a ton of capsule (catch-up) reviews. 

Secondly, I actually received a response from Paramount concerning my piece on the release pattern for "The Gambler". I stand by the themes  of the article, even if it now transpires the UK will get the film in January after all. Official outlets like the IMDB, still have the picture pegged for May 2015, but the studio are saying otherwise. It's sweet news, and I thank them for their tweet-centric clarification. 

Thirdly, I should be uploading some regular audio content soon, as I've begun to regularly work with Blast106FM in the Greater Belfast area. It'll all be available here on the blog, I assure you. 

Last but not least, a recommendation for some other filmic listening. I'm a huge podcast enthusiast, and have recently been devouring episodes of the John August & Craig Mazin hosted podcast Scriptnotes, the ever listenable /FilmCast & Ian Loring and Mark Foster's rough and ready Dude & a Monkey. Each has a unique style and perspective, but all are awesome fodder for your inner cinephile. 

Just look for them on itunes. Whatever that is. 

Cheers guys,

Dan 

8 November 2014

The Curious Case of "The Gambler" - The Woes of Hollywood's International Release Strategy

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On Thursday a full trailer for Paramount's remake of The Gambler went live, following on from the potty-mouthed teaser. With a cast including Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Jessica Lange and Brie Larson, the film, like the original (which featured James Caan) has a high calibre cast, but more excitedly marks director Rupert Wyatt's first film since 2011's impressive Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Wyatt walked from the equally excellent sequel (this year's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) back in 2012, for reasons that were never entirely clear, lining up The Gambler as his next project. Despite reservations from original scribe James Toback, the film trundled into production late last year, and wrapped in the first quarter of 2014. Things went quiet for a few months, then came trailers, posters and crucially, release announcements. Like Wahlberg's Lone Survivor the film will undergo a small December exhibition (to qualify for awards consideration) before expanding on New Year's Day. All fine, and more than a little promising. As a fan of the creatives and marketing materials,I was eager to find out when UK audiences might sample the film, presuming that sometime around January/February was probable. The UK release calendar works a little differently than the US, in that we tend to get the big awards contenders a month or two after Christmas, as opposed to 6 weeks before. As a result, I was perfectly willing to accept that there might be some delay with The Gambler. It's an outsider, and Paramount will like any sensible studio, want the film to perform in a comfortable window, without having to worry about an assortment of higher profile pedigree horses. Heck, even March 2015 would be fairly pragmatic. This morning I flicked open the IMDB to confirm it's international release pattern, and was shocked. 1st May 2015. That's almost 5 whole months after it débuts in the States. A full 135 days by my calculation.  

It's not the first time I've been shocked by a delay between US and UK distribution. 20 years ago such protocol would be considered not only normal, but maybe even a little expedient. Travelling back to 1991 we find an almost identical case with Steven Spielberg's Hook, which opened in December of that year State-side, before being unveiled in the UK sometime around April '92. That was fine for then, but not for now. Bootlegs are a click away, no longer is the criminal hobbyist a dodgy bloke with a stack of scratchy VHS tapes, he's a consummate pro who rips, streams and shares punctually. I don't say that as a member of a digital generation which demands everything at its fingertips instantaneously, a hoard of ravenous culture-vultures who would download their breakfast if it meant staying in bed a bit longer, but instead with my (admittedly naïve) business head on. What sense is there in leaving The Gambler to sit around for 5 months, whilst in the meantime screeners and home entertainment releases (which I would conservatively estimate for April 2015, could be earlier though) provide international pirates with the chance to see the picture weeks before its theatrical bow. Not only that, but see it for free. Piracy is an issue in the industry, perhaps not to the degree some producers would have you believe, but it's definitely a coiled rattlesnake always willing to strike. Producer of The Expendables 3 Avi Lerner just days ago speculated the industry might crumble in five-years, citing the leak and subsequent failure of his macho threequel as evidence. He proposed the Stallone starring clunker lost some $250 million due to the picture showing up online three weeks before distribution. I'm not sure where he's pulled such a specific and gargantuan figure, and I think that film in particular had issues way before the piracy incident (it's a tired, low-standard rehash of a now soggy joke), but it's undeniable his production sacrificed some profit over the kerfuffle. Me, I'd guess more in the range of $60-70 million, but in fairness, much of that will have leaked from the potential opening weekend gross. We all know the bigger you bow, the longer you hold. So who knows, maybe old Avi's mystery digits aren't so far off the mark (they are). 

EXHIBIT A
Back to The Gambler. Budgetary details are slight, but the film's probably booking a production worth of around $30 million. Yeah, let's stick with my projection from here on in. It might not be exact, but I bet it's in that ballpark. So it's not a high-risk feature, but it's no slouch either, and will need to rake in around $80-90 million to get Paramount the pay-out it desires. When the film opens in January it'll probably perform solidly, doing battle with a few Oscar holdovers and horror sequels (Amityville Awakening opens simultaneously) neither of which should be discounted. Wahlberg's box-office reputation (credible but rarely exceptional) and the time of year (slooow) mean it's unlikely to clear $60 million domestic, unless it proves to be a real contender. Lone Survivor did a remarkable $125 million, but that's an exception not a rule, an Oscar wannabe driven by jingoism and action do-daring. It's a perfect film for a post-Holiday America, The Gambler- a morality thriller - isn't. Wahlberg has always been more of a local movie star, but the international grosses on his other recent efforts like Contraband, Pain & Gain and 2 Guns have still accounted for substantive percentages of overall earnings. Certainly without them, each title would have been relegated from modest success to tepid failure. And remember, Wahlberg is very much the selling point here, just look at the poster tagged EXHIBIT A. If The Gambler settles at around $50 million domestic (and that number will require passable word of mouth) then it's still got a ways to go before it hits the coveted $80 million, requiring about the same amount Wahlberg's last few films – excluding concept driven stuff like Transformers and even Ted - have averaged internationally ($30 million). This is all in my head, but it seems to me that Paramount need the foreign numbers, and yet, their release strategy belies an ignorance of that fact. Simply put, the gap between releases encourages piracy, and will negatively influence viewership. In an age where information can be shared and attained so fluidly, cinema must adapt, and this is one of the ways it can do so. A man called Charles once discussed “survival of the fittest”, a theory that suggested those who adjust and subsequently thrive in a habitat will victor, leaving the poor sods standing stagnant to suffer. Contemporary media is an ecosystem, and if film doesn't evolve, it'll go the way of the dodo. I'm not promising it'll happen in five years, but consequences ultimately have to be honoured. If Hollywood insists on continuing the practice of releasing movies eons after their American run, it's signing a death warrant. 

Director Rupert Wyatt in 2011. 
Piracy is clearly the buzzword, but we'll retire it for the next diatribe. The delay doesn't even make sense from a short-term viewpoint. I agree that the January/February slate in the UK is much more competitive than it's US counterpart, and consideration of such should be taken, but it's not like May is a bundle of laughs for a mid-range, adult-oriented thriller. The Gambler will open 7 days after Avengers: Age of Ultron assumes control of wallets worldwide, and in a month that also boasts Mad Max: Fury Road, Pitch Perfect 2, Tomorrowland and Insidious 3. Against that slew of competition I see little hope for Wyatt's venture. In 2012 Peter Berg  suggested Battleship failed on the back of The Avengers, the Marvel romp packing theatres for weeks before it slowed. If Berg was accurate (which, despite his film's faults, he probably was) then what hope doe The Gambler harbour against the sequel, which is shaping to be one of the most anticipated films of all time? I would posit, virtually none. There might be some consolation in the name of “counter-programming”, but that's like getting a medal for taking part. No, I suggest The Gambler would make as much, maybe even more, if  it undertook UK exhibition in Feb or March. That way, the piracy problem is also largely solved. There's that word again.  

Of late, some major tent-poles have been released internationally first. Avengers: Age of Ulton will rank among this select group's numbers (May 1st in the US), with several major Marvel endeavours having popularized the trend since 2008. The delay tends to range from 3-7 days, with studios citing the battle against INTERNATIONAL PIRACY (jeez) as central to their rational. So “shut-up” I hear , “you get the Avengers and we get Wahlberg, what's your fuggin' issue?”. Aside from the fact I'd prefer a Wahlberg vehicle any day of the week, it's the elapsed time that cuts deepest. You wait an extra 5 days. We have to twiddle thumbs for 5 months. In a world rife with war, disease and famine it would be irresponsible to label the action barbaric, but it's definitely anachronistic. Atop that, Paramount are certainly hampering their own business prospects, for a feature they at least have a modicum of faith in (it wouldn't be getting an awards qualifying run otherwise). It hearkens back to a different time, and a more patient generation. The folks who happily queued to see Hook have grown up,  replaced by young people who “WANT IT NOW!”. This generation will stream, torrent and rip to their heart's content, and worse still, forget about things in a heartbeat. In 5 months, with the Oscars done and the internet marketing campaign invisible, which of the UK's many teenage cinephiles will recall The Gambler? Fewer than identify with it now, certainly. It's also possible to argue that some of this crop won't pay for it anyway, Paramount simply resigning themselves to an inevitable loss. Maybe. But surely there's a better chance of catching a 21-year old couple on date night in February, than the same pair who have to weigh The Gambler against Age of Ultron in May. Sometimes the glass can be half full. 

The scattered release calendar remains perplexing, in a sense it always has been. But with The Gambler I see no logic, just a careless loss of money and unintentional promotion of piracy. Of course I'd selfishly like the film sooner, I really want to see it. But even from a cold entirely dispassionate perspective, the UK release of The Gambler feels destined to come up snake-eyes.



An article by Daniel Kelly, 2014