29 January 2014

Top of the Flops - Why did "The Lone Ranger" & "47 Ronin" fail?

According to Box-office statistics, 2013 was a pretty stellar year for the film industry, theatres tallying a record-breaking $10.8 billion in revenues. If 2014 were to repeat those numbers it’s unlikely many executives would be crying into their coffee. Yet despite the impressive overall grosses, the year vomited forward several ginormous flops, films with triple-figured budgets, unable to recoup basic production costs, much less turn a profit. The most noted example was Disney’s The Lone Ranger; star Johnny Depp blaming its failure on critics, as opposed to the hedonistic $225 million price tag and scrappy screenplay. However that’s only one of 2013’s colossal underperformers, the financially bloated like of 47 Ronin posting similarly dire returns. Why are these films failing? Is the market overly saturated? Is the buzz too sour? Or are they simply not good enough to get bums in seats?

When it comes to promotion and standing in the trades, both of the aforementioned pictures carried toxic reputations long before they opened. The Lone Ranger entered pre-production in 2011 but was temporarily cancelled in August of that year, with Disney uncertain about the escalating costs. Eventually the production was reignited, but the budget remained at a dizzying $225 million. Things weren't helped by the death of a crew member during principal photography – sullying its reputation prior to word breaking that the final cut wasn't up to snuff. 47 Ronin endured an even patchier road to multiplexes. The Samurai epic began shooting in 2011, but the budget quickly ran amok (final estimates put it at $175 million), debut director Carl Rinsch falling out of favour with his higher-ups speedily. Rinsch’s vision adhered to a more traditional oriental aesthetic, Universal growing antsy at his increasingly lavish expenditures, eventually locking him out of the edit in 2012 following extensive reshoots to try and bolster the film’s Western appeal. Adding to its woes were release postponements (the film was originally set for Christmas 2012, it arrived a full-year and one further delay later) and the fact much of its marketing relied on Keanu Reeves, an actor whose marquee value has waned considerably since the 2003 heyday of his “Matrix” sequels. Both flops suffered hard journeys to the screen, but is that enough to explain their lack of fiscal bounty?

Reviewers turned on both movies swiftly, The Lone Ranger accumulating a sorry 31% approval rating on critical aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, whilst 47 Ronin sunk even lower to 12%. The fact neither film is as terrible as those scores suggest seems irrelevant (The Lone Ranger is deeply flawed but offers some rousing action and 47 Ronin was one of last year’s prettiest tent-poles), but to what degree does such a media battering account for failure? Not much I reckon. If Rotten Tomatoes has any effect on Box-office it’s incredibly hard to detect, hefty derision didn’t stop other 2013 features like A Good Day to Die Hard and Identify Thief accumulating healthy totals. Audience polling grades actually suggest that the contingent who bothered to see The Lone Ranger and 47 Ronin quite liked them (they both racked up solid B+ Cinema Scores), so the subjective quality of the movies isn’t the issue. Viewers were clearly ready to reject both Ronin and Ranger before journalists had a chance to damn them – but why?

Maybe audiences are tired of Johnny Depp, and letting Keanu Reeves open a feature in 2013 could kindly be described as brave. It’s very possible that the spotty production histories of both films played into their negative performance, after all on-set deaths and multiple delays don’t often lead to masterpieces. Competition might’ve been too steep, 47 Ronin had to open mere days after juggernauts Frozen and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.  Or perhaps Depp was correct, and spiteful reviews are to blame for this clutch of box-office turkeys. Whatever the reason for this flock of blockbusting outcasts (I haven’t even touched on R.I.P.D or Pacific Rim in this article – although the latter did booming trade overseas) it’s clear that simply throwing money at a production is no guarantor of success, and that building a positive standing in the year advancing release is crucial. None of this seems like rocket science, and yet the studios continue to fall foul of such trappings. Audiences clearly (or at least think) they have a sixth sense when it comes to sniffing out damaged goods, handily disposing of anything that limps rather than strides its way onto our screens. In future Hollywood might want to apply more thought in promoting and producing its seasonal MVPs – instead of publically trying to spend their problems away. It would appear post-recession viewers aren't fans of executives dousing their rabid product with cash in the style of a capitalist antidote. Who knew?

An Article by Daniel Kelly, 2014

Originally published for The Boar 

26 January 2014

Movie Review: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit


Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit 
2014, 105mins, 12
Director: Kenneth Branagh 
Writer (s): David Koepp, Adam Cozad, Anthony Peckham, Tom Clancy (character)
Cast includes: Chris Pine, Keira Knightley, Kevin Costner, Kenneth Branagh 
UK Release Date: 24th January 2014

“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” might’ve been a vital actioner in 1993, but watching it through the prism of 21st century expectations renders it a deflating experience. The feature has a credible polish and its action sequences are often well edited (director Kenneth Branagh picking up where he left with 2011’s “Thor”) but there’s nothing in the plot to elevate it above a secondary Bond adventure from the Brosnan era. The usually charismatic Chris Pine is the fourth Hollywood A-lister to occupy this character’s skin, probably more of a comment on Ryan’s recurrent lack of franchise credibility than anything else. Paramount seem reluctant to let this Tom Clancy creation die – yet repeatedly muted audience enthusiasm suggests that’s the only fate he’s fit for – the tame “Shadow Recruit” unlikely to ignite Ryan’s damp stock any higher than prior and mostly forgotten adaptations.

Inspired by the war on terror, Jack Ryan (a stiff Chris Pine) enlisted in the Marines before being injured in the line of duty; leaving behind the legacy of a hero. Following rehabilitation Jack is assigned an undercover gig on Wall Street by the CIA, using financial patterns to help detect future terrorist activity. When he stumbles upon some unusual activity in the accounts of a firm run by Chevron (Kenneth Branagh), Jack is shipped off to Moscow in order to ascertain further insight. He almost immediately faces assassination, squirreling out of the predicament and into a ruthless field op, as it transpires the extent of Chevron’s misconduct far outstretches monetary maleficence. With America facing an incoming market crash at the Russian tycoon’s behest, Jack begins infiltrating the man’s inner circle, bemused girlfriend Cathy (Keira Knightley) and mentor Harper (Kevin Costner) also along for the ride.

What impresses about “Shadow Recruit” is the solidly executed action, most of which hangs together nicely. Branagh has clearly made an effort to up his game for this genre’s demands, using decent editorial technique and gritty hard-hitting to generate tension. The movie works better when the set-pieces unfurl on a smaller scale, as exhibited by a feisty bathroom brawl in the movie’s opening third, a well arranged and edgy cacophony of fisticuffs that recalls “Casino Royale” in the right ways. Nearly every other “big” moment centres around an automotive chase, all shot with energy and coherency, but lacking that extra layer of imagination or style that might pressure it toward greatness. There’s enough freneticism to accommodate moderate interest, but when the scope enlarges, Branagh tends to play the sequences safely. One only has to recall the inert finale of his otherwise effective “Thor” to draw a parallel. Next time, layering on the bombast with more confidence would be advisable.

The screenplay presents a functional but unspectacular narrative, and one governed by geo-political cruxes that went out of date twenty years ago. This is never more apparent than with Branagh’s villain; an opera cum art buff, governed by Cold War era patriotism. These are hackneyed choices, dating the picture’s sensibility and distancing it from the teen contingency paying to see this stuff. “Shadow Recruit” seems entirely constructed with these aged stereotypes at heart, rarely willing to engage with the rawer post 9/11 vibes upheld by the Bourne franchise (itself now 12 years old). This is a hero who first appeared some 30 years ago, and in 2014 he’s really beginning to creak.

The expository exchanges in the film are regularly embarrassing (somebody actually demands to have facts relayed to them “like an idiot”) but there exist isolated moments of joy. Knightley has more life in her than most contemporary genre squeezes, holding her own in a suspenseful dinnertime interaction with Branagh’s familiar but menacing nasty. Her relationship with Ryan also boasts a playful sincerity, the movie bringing them together swiftly and stabilising a warm core on which to hang the dramatics. It gives the feature a pleasantly unforced romantic component, built around cuddliness instead of steamy seduction.

“Shadow Recruit” is competent enough to amuse sporadically, but its unfashionable political awareness and distinctly 90s grasp of storytelling are a hindrance. The picture stumbled last week when it opened at the US Box-Office, leaving the likelihood of a direct sequel tarnished. Still, I’d bet good money that we’ll see the character resurface again in another ten years, probably as irrelevant and haggard as ever. Maybe then some brave artist will attempt to spruce the formula up – but on past form, I don’t hold much hope.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014

22 January 2014

Movie Review: Out of the Furnace



Out of the Furnace
2013, 116mins, 15
Director: Scott Cooper
Writer: Scott Cooper
Cast includes: Christian Bale, Zoe Saldana, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck
UK Release Date: 29th January 2014

The winter film-going season is generally considered flush with riches. On one side of the coin we have mammoth blockbusters like “The Hobbit” and “Frozen” – whilst those seeking prestige products can choose from a bevy of genuine awards contenders. However in the middle of these two privileged brackets exists a misfit strand of cinema – a group I like to label “Oscar Baiters”. Films that slip into this unfortunate grouping often have a celebrated cast, recognised director and strong marketing campaign, but when they open, we’re left with a feature more centred on picking up gongs than legitimately earning them. There’s nothing more depressing than a movie which apparently exists to collect statuettes, as opposed to telling a story with vigour or purpose. These films tend to open optimistically, but tepid box-office and bemused critics quickly decimate their odds of collating accolades, leaving them as wispy, fitfully worthy strays without a home. After all, if the Academy won’t have them, who will? “Out of the Furnace” is sadly such a work.

Following a preventable vehicular accident, Russell (Christian Bale) is sentenced to time in jail, leaving his ex-military brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) and heartbroken girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana) to fend for themselves in the economically deprived Rust-Belt. Upon release Russell attempts to atone for his sins – returning to work and accepting the distance instigated by Lena. However when Rodney vanishes following a reported stint in the bareknuckle boxing scene, Russell becomes determined to locate his sibling, his focus turning to hardened backwoods criminal Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson).

“Out of the Furnace” is directed by Scott Cooper, who in 2009 helped Jeff Bridges snag an academy award for the similarly unremarkable “Crazy Heart”. Cooper’s track record is the only justifiable reason I can fathom for the involvement of such a capable cast here, all presumably hoping the film-maker could repeat his previous trick for them. There’s power in the individual turns, Affleck and Harrelson finding windows of raw fury, but the characterisation is much too slight. Cooper deals largely in stock templates – broad illustrations of torture and angst – with little fresh or memorable pulsing beneath the surface. Bale retains his transformative thespian qualities, although his contribution feels more like an Oscar insurance policy for “American Hustle” than the passionate craft of an artist. The editing is strangely inert, leaving Cooper with no choice but to use his cast as the primary narrative catalyst, a challenge to which they rise nobly, even if the static screenplay leaves them hamstrung.

Social deprivation is captured sufficiently thanks to gruelling wide shots of dead industry, the Rust-Belt envisioned as a crime addled cesspool of immorality and hopelessness. Cooper’s intentions are clearly mapped out thanks to his confident photography, but his grasp of the story feels less assured. “Out of the Furnace” has impactful, singular moments at its disposal, but the over-arching drama is confused by the lack of feeling the writer senses in his creations. Everybody harbours surface-level shades of anguish and desperation, yet nothing seems like the product of a unique soul. These are mechanical characters designed to cast sprawling comment on economic tension and the nation’s abandonment of veterans, instead of representing three dimensional embodiments of such themes. Cooper can’t muster enough insight or honesty to render their traumas dramatically resonant. “Out of the Furnace” is hardly a horrible piece of work, but its inability to build industry momentum is thoroughly understandable.
A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014


19 January 2014

Movie Review: The Wolf of Wall Street


The Wolf of Wall Street 
2013, 179mins, 18
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: Terence Winter 
Cast includes: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey, Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler 
UK Release Date: 17th January 2013

Martin Scorsese is no stranger to the debauched annals of humanity, having essayed them across nearly four decades of sterling produce.  However the director rarely treats his findings with anything but utmost seriousness – leaving his work on the black but openly comedic “The Wolf of Wall Street” all the more distinctive. Liberally adapted from the memoirs of megalomaniacal shyster Jordan Belfort; “The Wolf of Wall Street” is an exhausting but impeccably structured odyssey of sin and moral degradation – charting the man’s meteoric rise and shameful fall with satirical purpose and unapologetic vulgarity.  During production of the feature Scorsese celebrated his 70th birthday; but with its MPAA-challenging penchant for violence, substance abuse and gratuitous sex, “The Wolf of Wall Street” could be passed off as the frenzied discharge of a much younger mind. What’s unmistakably “Scorsese” about the whole affair is the intelligent craftsmanship and virtuoso casting – talents not easily replicated outside of Hollywood’s most revered inner-circle.

After struggling to make his mark on Wall Street during the late 80s, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) seeks to satisfy his expansive monetary ambition by setting up his own Brokerage, Stratton Oakmont. Aided by Donny (Jonah Hill), Jordan revolutionises Wall-Street through unethical models of practise, making he and his employees very rich. Unburdened by monogamy or morality, Jordan binges on sex, drugs and delusion,  a cocktail that soon sets the FBI on his trail, determined to expose his repugnant disregard for the law. However Jordan is convinced that dollar equals power, and refuses to willingly accept such a defeatist fate.

“Wolf” marks the fifth collaboration between Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, and in regard to the actor’s work the results have never been so exciting or physically astute. Scorsese’s film makes a point of perching on the fence, observing the greed and excess with undiluted detail, leaving the passing of judgement to the audience. DiCaprio’s committed and charismatic turn makes that responsibility tougher to process, channelling Belfort’s tastelessness through an inherently likable prism. The performer takes on a plethora of responsibilities, effectively convincing as a man capable of charming his way into a nun’s panties – all the while kinetically indulging in an unstoppable array of dust snortin’, ass-smackin’ overkill. “Wolf” doesn't overtly call for a lot of hefty dramatic lifting, but the actor brings incredible nuance to a bevy of scenes – manipulating employees with rousing speeches and disavowing familial loyalty in pursuit of wealth. He’s a hateful screen creation – but DiCaprio has enough swag to render Belfort a magnetic presence. It’s just one example of the deliberately awkward questions the movie imposes upon its audience.

The supporting players connect exceptionally with the pantomime requirements of Scorsese’s vision, rattling around the central storyline with versatile recklessness. Jonah Hill continues to make a fine case for his future as a respected thespian – slipping comfortably beneath a rubbery exterior to bring Belfort’s deranged right-hand man vividly to life. He’s even more deplorable than Di Caprio –but Hill’s game work ensures he’s no less watchable. Women don’t have much of a part to play in this topsy-turvy universe, although the gorgeous Margot Robbie leaves a slinky impression as Belfort’s trophy wife.  The most accomplished contribution must go to Matthew McConaughey, who as Belfort’s mentor supplies as much life and meaning to the film in fifteen minutes as anybody else does in 179. His startling monologue primes “Wolf” thematically, realising a profession dominated by gross abundance, in which a morning wank supersedes the decimation of a client’s financial future. It’s a strong piece of writing, but McConaughey delivers it with the perfect amount of flippancy and smarm. It’s a concise embodiment of everything the greater whole seeks to achieve.

The movie is draining to behold. It lasts three hours yet never tires, viciously clubbing its audience repeatedly with a mobile mise en scene and thudding soundtrack. It’s reminiscent of Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” – using its frantic and bulging design to highlight the extent of Belfort’s hedonism. Scorsese never makes an exertive move to condemn the crimes enacted, but he does recreate them in stunningly inappropriate detail, the highlights including outrageous office celebrations and moments of heart-breaking neglect – Belfort dooming friends and kin alike due to his thirst for dominance. It must also be noted that Luhrmann’s “Gatsby” did not feature Nick Caraway publically masturbating on a Quaalude high – such is the delirious extent to which the film-maker stretches this deranged adaptation.

It’s miscreants like Belfort who are responsible for the crash of 2008, which I suppose provides “Wolf” with a superficial degree of topicality. However, I strongly suspect the film will mean more to future generations as a window into the 21st century perversion of the American Dream, detailing a set of individuals who make Gordon Gekko seem like Mother Teresa. It’s a broad and testing cinematic experience, but it boasts a dark knowingness and foul authenticity that consolidate it as a piece of genuine import. I expect audiences (like me) will sit back and absorb this triumphant work willingly – but what does that say about us? How are we better than the selfish consumers at the movie’s core? With his final shot depicting the disheveled public whom Belfort extorts, I’m confident they’re the riddles Scorsese wants answered.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2013

13 January 2014

Radio Danland still ago on RaW1251am

I almost definitely don’t provide enough linkage to the stuff I do with RaW1251am on the blog, so without further ado here’s some stuff I’ve recorded recently. It includes a ton of film and arts coverage, mostly in the company of my esteemed co-hosts Andrew Gaudion, Mike Perry and Joshua Glenn. The show below is the most recent edition of the Arts Show – which includes a preview of coming attractions at The Warwick Arts Centre – and more importantly for a general audience – highlights from the cinematic year 2013. I'll try to start uploading content more regularly in the future.

My Mixcloud - http://www.mixcloud.com/daniel-kelly3/

RaW1251am - http://www.radio.warwick.ac.uk/

3 January 2014

Movie Review: Lone Survivor



Lone Survivor 
2013, 121mins, 15
Director: Peter Berg
Writer (s): Peter Berg, Marcus Luttrell (memoir)
Cast includes: Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster, Eric Bana, Emile Hirsch 
UK Release Date: 31st January 2014

In 2012 director Peter Berg sloppily attempted to convert Hasbro’s “Battleship” into big-screen magic; the results less than stellar. Despite moments of film-making promise (the underrated Will Smith vehicle “Hancock” remains a highlight) Berg has largely struggled to ignite a full-blown triumph during his speckled career, a streak that continues with “Lone Survivor”. Based on a “true life” incident that occurred in 2005, “Lone Survivor” plays like a relentless love letter to the brave SEALs who undertook a cursed mission to extract a Taliban warlord, enduring an unending parade of pain and stress for their troubles. In the movie’s extensive combat sequences (which dominate the middle-act) we get an unabashed feel for the intensity and heat of war, Berg bringing flair, energy and threat to his bombastic fire-fights. However when “Lone Survivor” pulls out from the fracas, it reveals a saccharine and generically assembled snoozer; one that has no problems ramping the jingoism and cartoony xenophobia up to 11.

Fronted by Marcus (Mark Wahlberg) and Michael (Taylor Kitsch), SEAL Team 10 is dropped into a remote Afghan location, the aim to capture a Taliban leader hiding in the hills. The group is only four strong (Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster make up the numbers) but they have a thick bond and resourceful pool of talents, the very reasons why Commander Kristiansen (Eric Bana) suspects the job will run untroubled. However when their tech falters and locals uncover their location, SEAL Team 10 quickly come under insurgent assault, trapped in the wilderness, isolated from infrastructural support and with only each other to depend upon.

The script is based on memoirs compiled by Marcus Luttrell, the man who spearheaded Team 10’s stoic resistance, so I suppose there’s more than a kernel of truth to what’s depicted onscreen. The attention to militaristic detail is certainly cause for recognition, “Lone Survivor” manoeuvring its actors believably and with an ear for digestible Navy rhetoric, creating a dominant and unfaltering sheen of basic accuracy. The combat sequences are also suitably intense, balancing comprehensible camerawork (not always Berg’s strong suit) and aggressive audio design to expose the turbulence of modern engagement – the soundscape dominated by pulsating cracks of gunfire and fearful shrieks. Battle is grimy, bloody and defined by death, “Lone Survivor” articulating the facts with admirable levels of aesthetic fury.

However when Berg’s feature meanders from the ironic comforts of warfare, things get dicey. The opening credits roll alongside footage of the gruelling physical preparation SEALs undergo, and preceding the final scroll we are treated to a full-bodied photo montage of the story’s real heroes. In short, “Lone Survivor” is shot through and through with masturbatory flag-waving. This might be forgivable if the picture never threatened to alter its tone, but in one early and gamely acted scene it challenges the notion of the SEALs as selfless guardians of honour, before brashly and ill-advisably retreating. The screenplay seems at least half-heartedly aware of the ethical pressures field work can engender, but never finds a way to make them a pivotal cog in the greater whole. It’s disappointing to watch the film lightly graze a point of genuine interest, before forfeiting it in exchange for a supersized order of self-aggrandizing slop.

Despite a few (mostly Kathryn Bigelow helmed) exceptions, the war on terror has struggled to find its footing in Hollywood. Audiences haven’t hungered to see the conflict realised, leading to a slew of forgotten box-office rejects. “Lone Survivor” might appeal to America’s national pride more overtly than the competition, but it lacks a conscience. Where Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” painted the moral complexities of the situation with deft brush strokes, “Lone Survivor” just plasters Crayon over the nursery walls; Berg is unable to see much beyond the action-tastic merits and apple pie values exhibited by the scenario. This comes across in the faceless and uncomfortable rendition of the Taliban – haunting the edges of frames with merciless, snake-eyed intent. The SEALs themselves aren’t particularly well defined (although Wahlberg lends the lead some innate movie star gravitas), but that’s more the fault of one dimensional writing. No effort is made to envisage the enemy as anything other than dangerous devils. The finale sees Luttrell glean aid from a selection of brave locals (whose Taliban-defying exploits sound much richer than Luttrell’s military narrative), but even they are just obvious shades of wholesome, as opposed to their unsubtly black-hearted equivalents. “Lone Survivor” offers some respectably deployed thrills, but it has the global awareness of a 9-year old. For me, that’s a problem. 

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2013