30 March 2014

Movie Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier



Captain America: The Winter Soldier 
2014, 136 mins, 12
Director (s): Joe & Anthony Russo 
Writer (s): Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely 
Cast includes: Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Robert Redford, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders 
UK Release Date: 27th March 2014

2013 was another stellar year for Marvel at the box-office, continuing their presumed quest for domination of every entertainment platform known to man. Yet despite vast financial earnings, the studio laid a turd with last autumn’s “Thor: The Dark World”, an abysmal cartoon akin to an onerous toy commercial looped with satanic mercilessness. It was an uncomfortable sit, all noise and no finesse. Characterisation and plot haven’t always been the #1 priority at Marvel HQ, but the degree to which they were overlooked in favour of ear-splitting pizzazz reached a nadir with the Asgardian sequel. Thankfully “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” returns some stability to the brand, continuing on from the solid grounding of 2011’s “The First Avenger”. The original Cap adventure benefited from an immersive WW2 setting, and whilst “Winter Soldier” can’t quite hit the same escapist standard, it makes definite effort to engage with another period of American cinema. Gone is the triumphant flag-waving, leaving behind a cold, mistrusting tinge recalling the famed conspiracy output of the 70s. Of course no film under the Marvel banner is going to commit fully to the idea of genuine paranoia or have fits of anxious, interior delirium replace vats of explosive spectacle, but directors Joe and Anthony Russo at least safeguard a visual identity for the hero, ensuring that Cap’s attachment to period merely changes rather than disappears completely.

After a series of missions are compromised through the selective sharing of vital objectives, Captain America (Chris Evans) becomes concerned about the integrity of S.H.I.E.L.D. Voicing his troubles to Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) only leaves the Captain more uncertain, as he is exposed to the unsettling Operation Insight, designed to protect citizens by preventing crime before it unfurls. Discouraged by this apparent contradiction of Civil Liberty, both Fury and the Captain are quickly rendered fugitives, hunted by S.H.I.E.L.D on the grounds of treachery and deceit. Leading the charge is Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), a high-ranking government employee willing to use the mysterious and deadly Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) to achieve his nefarious aims.

Joe and Anthony Russo are known for their TV work and the average 2006 comedy “You, Me & Dupree”, making them unusual choices to tackle such a blockbusting behemoth. What surprises more is the competency with which they articulate the action and story, never becoming overwhelmed with the scope of the Marvel universe. They don’t necessarily imprint a distinct visual style on “The Winter Soldier” -in fact the photography by Opaloch is more or less indistinguishable from Seamus McGarvey’s work on “The Avengers” -but they maintain a slick veneer and keep the action beats coherent. In fact the conclusion of “The Winter Soldier” ranks among the better finales in the studio’s catalogue (traditionally a weak spot), serving up spectacle with refreshing slathers of humanity. This success largely rests on the hulking frame of Evans, who is once again a ball of earnest vulnerability, the actor able to access a deeper level of consciousness than most of his superhero cohorts. The audience cares for Captain America because he is sweet and sincere, an old-school hero with tangible vulnerabilities beneath his invincible shell. The Russo Brothers do well to keep his interior struggles front and centre, licking coats of capable CGI polish around a conflicted and engaging human core.

Captain America remains a fish out of water, but we start to feel him process modern America here, and what he finds isn’t always to his liking. “The Winter Soldier” has fun taking a bastion of purity and placing him within a cynical world, using an array of twisty plot contortions and slippery supporting characters to define the film’s paranoid aspirations. “The Winter Soldier” isn’t nearly as dark or thoughtful as the genre greats it gently acknowledges, but the film definitely grapples with ideas traditionally above its station, painting our America as one run by politicians who believe freedom is a luxury that slows the accumulation of power. It’s amusing to juxtapose the Nazi villains of the opening chapter with the suited and booted boardroom shysters here, embodied menacingly by a game Redford. Clearly screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely feel the contrast is pertinent, as the movie proceeds to open up glaring connections with Cap’s 1940s past to kitschy yet intelligent effect. It’s a pretty broad commentary, but any ambitious discourse in a blockbuster is discourse worth acknowledging.

Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johansson reprise their franchise duties in sprightly fashion, the latter particularly grateful that this particular entry requires her to do more than look sexy and mobile in a cat suit. Evans and Redford are the MVPs, although Anthony Mackie is proving to be a beneficial screen presence for any movie, bantering capably and mustering decent action credentials as The Falcon, a makeshift associate of The Captain. The Winter Soldier is more of a costume designer’s wet-dream than a genuine threat. He’s been armoured to within an inch of his life, but in reality the antagonistic hole is Redford’s to fill, his relaxed malice proving scarier than any assortment of carnage Stan’s jacked assassin incurs. During the finale Stan gets some room to exercise his dramatic chops, but he’s slammed off the screen by a committed Evans, who rams the movie’s dramatic intentions home with aplomb.

At 136 minute “The Winter Soldier” actually validates its runtime more credibly than most Marvel outings, spacing its set-pieces out with strategic candour, the slippery narrative helping to keep intrigue at a palpable dosage. Of course it helps that Evans is a hero worth rooting for (take that Thor) and the Russo Brothers aspire to do more than ignite a heap of digital dynamite. “The Winter Soldier” is a strong piece of escapism, with enough thematic nuance, cine-literacy and performative confidence to push toward the upper tier of Hollywood’s increasingly crammed superhero canon. 

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014

24 March 2014

Movie Review: Muppets Most Wanted



Muppets Most Wanted 
2014, 112mins, PG
Director: James Bobin 
Writer (S): Nicholas Stoller, James Bobin 
Cast includes: Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey, Ty Burrell, Salma Hayek, Tom Hiddleston, Christoph Waltz 
UK Release Date: 28th March 2014

It’s hard to recall many cinematic experiences as boundlessly euphoric as 2011’s “The Muppets”. Written by Jason Segel, the film was a loving rebirth for Jim Henson’s legendary entertainers, reprising their good-natured mania with a healthy helping of post-modern reflexivity. Audiences both new and old flocked to enjoy the feature, leading to “Muppets Most Wanted”, the second film in this invigorated strand and the eighth (!) to harbour Muppet branding. Director James Bobin returns to the furore, whilst Segel bows out, allowing new human performers like Ricky Gervais and Tina Fey to fill the void. “Most Wanted” preserves the high octane enthusiasm of the previous movie, without threatening the same levels of heart, hilarity or innovation. It’s an amusing sequel with a respectable roster of delightful moments at its disposal, but it’s a baggier less infectiously envisioned project than its practically perfect predecessor.

Picking up precisely where the last movie ended, “Most Wanted” finds Kermit and the gang hitting the road with suspicious new manager Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais). Badguy convinces the Muppets to head for Europe, selecting a variety of choice venues, promising sell-out crowds and critical adulation. However his real intentions are more sinister, teaming-up with criminal Kermit doppelganger Constantine to rob a series of landmark museums, shipping off Kermit to a Gulag in place of the amphibious thief. With the majority of Muppets oblivious to the switch, it takes a select band of renegades and two law enforcement officials (the human half played by Ty Burrell) to rescue Kermit and bring Constantine to justice.

The 2011 film picked up an Academy Award on the back of the sterling musical work by Bret McKenzie, and happily “Most Wanted” almost upholds the standard. The songs are a little more uneven this time around (the opening “We’re Doing a Sequel” feels old hat) and they certainly don’t compliment the emotional underpinnings as satisfactorily (it misses a “Are you a Man or a Muppet?” equivalent), but McKenzie’s riotous lyrics and whimsy still plant grins firmly on faces. The highlights are “The Big House” (which features a surprisingly competent vocal contribution from Fey) and “I’ll Get What You Want”, both designed to elicit toe-tapping and giggles. The songs act as a parallel to the movie itself; fun but less interested in proper characterisation and celebration than the previous endeavour, yet in a way that’s relieving. It’s a looser fitting musical arrangement befitting of a less disciplined final product.

The Muppets are always affable hosts, and the new characters (including the nefarious Constantine) are solid additions. Bobin’s direction is more confident both visually and editorially, flexing a heightened ambition for irreverent and layered sight gags. Aesthetically it’s an improvement with a grander sense of scale, but the new human faces can’t adequately replace Segel or co-star Amy Adams. Fey and Gervais have fun in hammy supporting parts, but the genial humanity of Segel and Adams is absent, particularly when the movie tries to register an emotional anchor. In the previous movie the romance between the pair, combined with the overtures of brotherhood (Walter plays a sizeable part here too) led to a simple but lovable centre. The best “Most Wanted” musters is a continuation of the Kermit/Piggy saga, and it’s not even the most interesting subplot this longstanding relationship has endured. The appearance of Celine Dion only adds insult to injury.

“The Muppets” adhered to the “one last show” trope, and consequently “Most Wanted” devotes itself to another Hollywood formula, the globe-trotting caper. Narratively it’s thinly scripted, but that’s to be expected. What infuriates more is the picture’s egregious length, almost hitting the troubling two hour mark. The climax is particularly over-stretched, the movie’s bubbly veneer having become somewhat exhausting, with no storytelling substance stepping in as compensation. The good humour, charming icons and jovial set-pieces are enough to buoy the majority of the picture, but “Most Wanted” stumbles during a generic ending and uninspired final number.

It all gets rather tiring by the finish, but “Most Wanted” has just enough zeal to make the experience worthwhile. Non-Muppet fanatics might want to wait for the feature’s Home Entertainment debut, but devotees will probably find the offering a delirious continuation. You certainly get ample doses of wit, celebrity self-deprecation and Kermit; which I’m led to believe are all that matter anyway. 

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014

10 March 2014

Movie Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel



The Grand Budapest Hotel 
2014, 99mins, 15
Director: Wes Anderson
Writer (S): Wes Anderson, Hugo Guinness, Stefan Zweig (inspired by)
Cast includes: Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Tony Revolori, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Bill Murray, Saoirse Ronan 
UK Release Date: 7th March 2014 

2012’s “Moonrise Kingdom” gave me hope that Wes Anderson had finally shaped his unique corner of American cinema into something universally agreeable. The film preserved the stylised artifice and editorial beats that define the author’s brand, but also brought a tender and honest coming of age story to a rewarding lather; peppered with stellar performances from a mixture of newbies and veterans. “Moonrise Kingdom” felt like something other than the noodling of a man-child with a penchant for art deco furnishing, and as a result was handily the film-maker’s most satisfying work to date. It’s a shame that “The Grand Budapest Hotel” should throw those less predisposed to Anderson’s quirks back in the deep-end, the movie far more committed to gimmicky visual quirks and jarring oddball behaviour than enriching character study or storytelling panache. It’s utter anti-plotting from start to finish, coated in a varnish that underlines Anderson’s cine-literacy at the expense of engaging narrative.

Set in the 1930s (but framed by a contemporary F. Murray Abraham narration) “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is a caper situated around the titular establishment. Seen through the eyes of lobby-boy Zero (Tony Revolori), Anderson’s picture focuses on randy chief concierge M.Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), a consummate professional with a vested interest in the carnal fulfilment of the hotel’s geriatric guests. When one of his elderly squeezes (an unrecognisable Tilda Swinton) dies, Gustave is left with a priceless painting, much to the chagrin of her menacing relative Dimitri (Adrien Brody). Dimitri quickly conspires to frame Gustave for murder, leaving Zero with the unenviable task of helping him escape prison and prove his innocence.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” is a feat of production design and technical ambition. There’s always been a hypnotic and otherworldly register to Anderson’s symmetrically arranged sets, but eye-candy isn’t adequate compensation for the deficient human component. Every frame is so precisely choreographed and meticulously envisioned that they become overrun by a mechanical sensibility, draining out any genuine threat of believable spontaneity. Yes, Anderson goes down some pretty weird paths (I did strangely appreciate the movie’s proclivity for dark, knife-oriented comedy), but every offbeat selection feels incredibly calculated, as if the film-maker accords individual bursts of whimsy more gravitas than purposeful storytelling. “Moonrise Kingdom” had a lovely dynamic at its core; a well rendered and gently detailed romance accentuated by the film-maker’s strange touch, as opposed to being continually frozen by it. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” comes off as a piece designed around its potential for the surreal, instead of allowing expressionistic flourishes to compliment a more traditional artistic agenda.

Ralph Fiennes stretches his sillier faculties enjoyably, but there’s nothing to digest aside from well-timed line readings. The characters in “The Grand Budapest Hotel” are shallow even by Anderson’s standards, costumed beautifully, but without soul or nourishing emotional contexts. The screenplay attempts to feed viewers the odd splash of exploitatively placed backstory to create the illusion of depth, but only the least demanding of consumers will be fooled. People may as well be puppets to Anderson, albeit of the most pristinely crafted and ornately envisaged sort. Everybody looks phenomenal and suitably displaced from reality, but in the end it feels like cameos are more important to this auteur than strong characterization. We identify on an immediate basis with Harvey Keitel, Saoirse Ronan, Bill Murray and Edward Norton because of who they are, not who they’re portraying. There’s a fleeting joy to be had seeing these talents presented in superficially creative ways, but the long-term response is one of despondency. These are exemplary performers, made to look striking by Anderson and his unending toy box, but never actually asked to do much in the way of acting.

Structurally the picture is wrapped within layers of narrative murk, like some sort of demented matryoshka doll incarnate. Anderson has always been fond of experimenting with the distance between narrator and interiority, but with “The Grand Budapest Hotel” the model displayed is distractingly perplexing. The film-maker plays with aspect ratio and stop-motion, which certainly immerses certain scenes in a picturesque flurry of energy, but when push comes to shove it really doesn’t mean much. I like pretty images as much as the next guy, even when they don’t succinctly merge with sterling screenwriting, but the extent of Anderson’s indulgence is just too intense to ignore. The kinetic compositions stutter and subtract from what little humanity is evident onscreen, reducing everything to style over substance. It’s a despairing critical cliché to wield, but with “The Grand Budapest Hotel” also an impossible truth to ignore.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014

9 March 2014

Radio Danland: Oscar Special!

On Friday I had the pleasure of collaborating with several like-minded film enthusiasts on RaW1251am, to host a massive 2-hour Oscar retrospective. Divided into two parts - here it is! It's a good listen, hope you enjoy!

CLOSE-UP/What the Film?/ Film Chit-Chat Oscar Collaboration Bonanza! - Part 1 by Daniel Kelly on Mixcloud

CLOSE-UP/What the Film?/ Film Chit-Chat Oscar Collaboration Bonanza! - Part 2 by Daniel Kelly on Mixcloud

These shows were originally recorded for RaW1251am on 7/03/14.

5 March 2014

Movie Review: Non-Stop


2014, 106mins, 12
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra 
Writer (s): John W. Richardson, Christopher Roach, Ryan Engle 
Cast includes: Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Scoot McNairy, Corey Stoll, Michelle Dockery 
UK Release Date: 28th February 2014 

I've met alcoholics from Ballymena, and they’re not traditionally the sort to come in handy during an international terrorist threat. They’re phenomenal at occupying an adjacent barstool and slurring an assortment of politically incorrect anecdotes; but resourceful men of action? Not really. Still, accepting one of these jovial inebriates as a hero is the least demanding act of suspension “Non-Stop” requests of its audience, the film barrelling from one outlandish scenario to the next. It’s a preposterous helping of genre cheese, but with Liam Neeson in the lead and energy levels cranked up to a roar, director Jaume Collet-Serra just about lurches proceedings over the finish line before the unending silliness becomes all-consuming.

Air Marshall Bill Marks (Liam Neeson) isn’t the loquacious type; in fact he’s struggling through his professional obligations in a booze hazed depression. Boarding a flight to London, Bill doesn't envisage anything too rigorous, but before long starts to receive ominous messages from an unknown passenger. Bill quickly alerts the crew and requests the help of conscientious cabin-buddy Jen (a crafty Julianne Moore) in trying to unearth the prankster’s identity, but things turn sour when the threat proves genuine. Bodies start amassing, the villain demanding $150 million to halt his massacring of the unwitting airline customers. What’s more, he’s framing Bill for the chaos, meaning that any co-operation from his superiors becomes increasingly hard to coerce.

“Non-Stop” marks the second collaboration between Neeson and Collet-Serra, their prior endeavour being 2011’s drab “Unknown”. “Non-Stop” has the advantage for two critical reasons; firstly that it takes itself much less seriously and secondly that the narrative cracks forward with such momentum it becomes unrewarding to overthink some of the movie’s glaring gaps in logic. It’s an utterly disposable thriller, but Collet-Serra proves adept at using the claustrophobic setting to unnerving effect and the script has enough probable red-herrings to keep its secrets guarded. Of course having Neeson in the mix helps inordinately, his cranky demeanour and bulk continuing to serve him well in the genre. Neeson has a genuine everyman quality, and underlines Bill’s vulnerabilities succinctly with his performance. He’s believable as a butt-kicker, but also identifiable as a human being. It’s this combination that keeps viewers onside, and which has presumably allowed his career to flourish of late.

The script is riddled with an uneven intelligence, but the atmosphere is tense and that’s what counts. It’s pleasurable to sit back and try to solve the mystery, which when revealed proves suitably contrived and unremarkable. With “Non-Stop” the journey trumps destination, it’s both slickly assembled and keenly aware of its own limits, letting the moments of intrigue and suspicion dominate the more traditional action-beats; at least until the bullet and knife addled finale. Collet-Serra can’t resist imbuing the feature’s final throws with generous lashings of Michael Bay inspired aesthetic, and I’m pretty sure the science of the situation doesn’t entirely stack-up. That being said, whilst the antagonistic face we’re eventually presented with might disappoint, his motivations are at least interesting to observe in a mainstream Hollywood product. From a character standpoint the unmasking rings hollow, but the broader contexts of his purpose at least attract some level of thought.

“Non-Stop” is a goofy nuts and bolts exercise, but it’s never boring. It knows Neeson is the trump card and plays him judiciously, slapping on question marks and upholding a frantic tonality for good measure. I’m the first to admit when something is junky, but for cheap thrills this enterprise is refreshingly aware and likably game.  

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014

3 March 2014

Box-Office Update: Neeson gives Christ a whoopin'

Back in 2008 a little film called “Taken” turned respected Irish actor Liam Neeson into a surprise action star, and almost 6-years later his credibility in the genre hasn’t much waned. His latest success, the airborne mystery “Non-Stop” topped the Box-Office with $30 million over the weekend. This places it behind 2012’s “Taken 2” (which totalled $50 million on its autumnal bow) but it’s still a big opening for this time of year. Clearly audiences want more of Neeson landing blows on bad guys, even if critics were sniffy. In fact Neeson is so beloved that this weekend he bested Christ himself, with the biblically oriented “Son of God” arriving in 2nd place, albeit posting a pretty respectable $26.5 million. The movie tracked well with Christian demographics before release, which coupled with weak reviews probably mean it’s very front-loaded. Still, while the numbers aren't godly, they hold up.

“LEGO” became the first movie to pass $200 million domestically in 3rd, taking its month total to $209 million. “The Monuments Men” (also in release for a month) continued to draw audience attention in a less spectacular fashion, accruing another $5 million in 4th. It’s banked $65 million domestically, which isn’t bad considering the negative buzz associated with the product. The badly received Kevin Costner actioner “3 Days to Kill” took $4.9 million on its second week, placing 5th. Even worse was last week’s uber-flop “Pompeii”, with has just $17 million in the bank. For most wide releases that number’s unflattering, but it’s especially troubling when considering the movie’s projected $100 million budget. 

 Box-Office – 2/03/14

1. Non-Stop - $30 Million 
2. Son of God - $26.5 Million 
3. The LEGO Movie - $21.5 Million 
4. The Monuments Men - $5 Million 
5. 3 Days to Kill - $4.9 Million 
6. RoboCop - $4.5 Million 
7. Pompeii - $4.3 Million 
8. Frozen - $3.6 Million 
9. About Last Night - $3.4 Million 
10. Ride Along - $3 Million 

An article by Daniel Kelly, 2014