1 April 2015

2015 - The First Quarter

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

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

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

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

15. Inherent Vice 

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

They get better. I promise.

14. The Gunman 

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

13. Project Almanac 

"Today is better the second time around"

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

12. Jupiter Ascending 

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

11. It Follows

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

10. Get Hard 

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

9. Focus

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

8. Selma 

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

7. The Voices

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

6. American Sniper 

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

5. 50 Shades of Grey

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

4. Patrick's Day 

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

3. Ex Machina 

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

2. Foxcatcher 

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

1. Whiplash

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

Okay, maybe they didn't get any better.

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

This has been very formal, hasn't it?

Daniel Kelly, 2015


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