Sunday, 21 December 2014

Review Round-up: 2014 Catch-up

I've not written anything on here in a long while since I've moved to Spain and missed a lot of movies. However on returning to the UK for Christmas I've been on a catch-up binge. Here's some brief thoughts on what I've seen.

'Lucy' - Dir. Luc Besson (15)

The last half-hour is probably a little too action-y - with a full-blown gunfight between an Asian criminal gang and French police which is a lot less fun than everything that precedes it - but Luc Besson's 'Lucy' is otherwise a terrifically paced and entertaining slice of brainless nonsense. In fact it's a rare thing in this age of overblown, bloated Hollywood fare: a zippy little 90 minute movie that manages to wrap up long before it's worn out its welcome. Scarlett Johansson makes a very strong case for that elusive Black Widow solo movie as she kicks the asses of all present as an American tourist who stumbles into the wrong place and winds up overdosing on a new drug that unlocks the untapped potential of the human brain, granting her powerful abilities but also making her seem cold, alien and inhuman. It's a bit like watching her character from Under the Skin parading around with superpowers, which is pretty great.

'The Boxtrolls' - Dir. Anthony Stacchi & Graham Annable (PG)

Not in the same league as 'Coraline' or 'ParaNorman' (the best animated film of this decade so far), but Laika's latest stop-frame animation is still very polished and endearing, with its heart very firmly in the right place. But intention isn't everything, of course, and a cross-dressing villain has perhaps rightly invited criticism that the film is transphobic, which I can't rebuff with any force even if my own view on it more closely aligns with this defense.

This is made all the more unfortunate by the way it undermines the film's great message of tolerance and not being afraid of those who are different from you. This is the studio that presented audiences with an openly gay high school jock character in 'ParaNorman' (revealed in a line which can be dismissed as throwaway, but is actually deeply embedded in that film's message) and 'The Boxtrolls' attempts to be similarly right-on as it tells another story where the great evil is basically intolerance which drives people to scapegoat those who are different to them as the cause of society's ills (something for which there is no shortage of real world parallels). Though as with the recent Batgirl comic controversy, it seems serious errors in judgement have been made here.

'Hercules' - Dir. Brett Ratner (12A)

Could have been fun. The Rock as Hercules! He throws a horse! But it's ultimately just very boring, especially as Brett Ratner's film half-heartedly tries to walk away from presenting Hercules as the literal son of Zeus with the apparent aim of grounding the stories and explaining away their fantastical elements as exaggeration. Yet it neither commits fully to playing it straight or to making a big, brash, campy film about a demigod, existing somewhere unsatisfying between those two points.

'Snowpiercer' - Dir. Bong Joon-ho (TBC)

The first half of 'Snowpiercer, 'The Host' and 'Mother' director Bong Joon-ho's maiden English-language effort, is one of the best things I've seen all year. Smart, funny, with inventive action set-pieces and an oddball sense of humour, the highlight being an inspired supporting turn from Tilda Swinton. However the second half of the film is one of the worst movies I've seen this year, from Ed Harris' 'Matrix Reloaded' style clunky, cod philosophy explanation of how his train-based society works to the film's spectacularly misjudged "I know what babies taste like" monologue (which star Chris Evans does his best to sell but it's not happening).

This isn't helped by a final scene which makes no sense (they get eaten by that polar bear, right?), following a truly superfluous action sequence which sees some sort of fancy dress party revellers attacking Song Kang-ho's character with seemingly no objective in sight. With a premise this convoluted and insane (the last surviving humans all live on a train around the world built conveniently by a mad industrialist before the apocalypse hit) the first half works because it seems self-aware and broadly satirical, but the more po-faced it becomes - the more melodramatic it gets - the harder it is to enjoy.

'Jodorowsky’s Dune' - Dir. Frank Pavich (TBC)

An entertaining if slightly shallow look at one of the great unmade movies, which doesn't lack charm and enthusiasm even if it principally consists of talking heads making grand ("it would have been better than 2001 and Star Wars") statements. Most frustrating the the continual insistence of all involved that this Dune adaptation would have been so powerful in terms of its ideological content that it would change humanity. Indeed Nicholas Winding Refn, of 'Drive' fame, suggests the reason this massively expensive, potentially 8-hour long arthouse film wasn't made by Hollywood studios was a fear of said epoch-bending ideas. Yet all we get in this doc, really, is a lot of (really awesome) concept art, with these nebulous 'ideas' never really explained. An enjoyable watch but I personally didn't fully buy into the cult of this unmade film, which would certainly have been interesting but, on this evidence, I'm not sure would have been good.

'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' - Dir. Jonathan Liebesman (12A)

Ugly, over-detailed CGI characters in a loud and cynical blockbuster re-working of a late-80s cartoon/toy nostalgia property featuring Megan Fox, brought to the screen by Michael Bay. This latest attempt to reboot the 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' for today's kids invites obvious comparison to the risible 'Transformers' franchise. It's not quite as bad as all that though and, with Bay only acting as a producer and Jonathan Liebesman directing, it never gets nearly as offensive. It doesn't quite have the leery male gaze to the same extent as 'Transformers' and thankfully ditches the broad racist caricatures and militaristic politics too, though if you want to go there it's probably guilty cultural appropriation perhaps inherent to the franchise.

So it isn't 'Transformers' level bad, but that's not to say it's good though or that it succeeds on any level. Like their robots in disguise counterparts, the turtle redesigns are overly busy and extremely unappealing and their voices never feel like they fit, whilst the usually excellent Tony Shalhoub is an odd choice to voice their sensei Splinter. Most puzzling is the wholesale lifting of plot points and sometimes specific action beats from 2012's 'The Amazing Spider-Man' (itself not a great movie). There's the convoluted way William Fichtner's villain, Fox's reporter and the turtles are all connected by coincidence, and more directly a scene on a rooftop in which the baddie is thwarted from releasing some chemical McGuffin into the city, ultimately climaxing in a television tower falling down.

'Interstellar' - Dir. Christopher Nolan (12A)

If something takes itself seriously enough people will take it seriously in return. That's what 'Interstellar', and the broader Christopher Nolan canon, has taught me based on the reactions of movie fans. Yes, this is cerebral sci-fi. Intelligent cinema. A thinking person's blockbuster. We know that because of the tone, the cinematography and the music. It screams "take me seriously!" Like 'Inception' and the Batman (sorry "Dark Knight") trilogy before it this is something silly dressed up so that people who take themselves very seriously can still enjoy it and not feel too juvenile. Like the bit in 'Batman Begins' where Michael Caine explains how he mail orders Batman's ears in bulk to avoid suspicion, 'Interstellar' follows the proud Nolanverse tradition of explaining and explaining and explaining everything presumably out of a paranoid, insecure fear that somebody in the audience might think the whole thing is stupid. "It's not stupid!", cries 'Interstellar', "it all makes sense! The robot explained how it all worked!"

'Interstellar' is the story of a small-town farmer who breaks into a military installation, is tasered and held prisoner and then refuses to answer any questions or co-operate at all and is then told "we can only answer your questions if you agree to fly this spaceship for us". Because that makes sense. Yes, Cooper (Mathew McConaughey) used to be a pilot before the film's post-apocalypse scenario occurred but that's still an enormous logical stretch. Not that it would matter most of the time: I enjoy films with wonkier premises and crazier logical leaps than that, but they don't tend to take themselves so seriously to such an oppressive degree. Similarly, and I'm going all-out spoilers here, we are asked to believe a man who regrets abandoning his daughter for decades will leave her on her deathbed without argument after about 2 minutes of conversation because she says "you shouldn't have to see this" and he's like "ok then, dying daughter" before rushing off to win Anne Hathaway in spite of the fact there was no romance plot between them in the entire movie. But her never-seen boyfriend has died off-camera so she's his by default now, I guess. Because movies. Oh and he also never asks about his son once when he gets back.

The music is always telling you how to feel in the most overbearing, melodramatic way possible and the dialogue explains everything to the point where there is little room for existential discussion a la '2001' (so much dialogue in the bookcase scene detailing where Cooper is, why he is there, what it means - Nolan would have just explained the obelisk and the bedroom scene at the end of Kubrick's masterpiece would have included a monologue). There's even a moment when you see a spaceship smash into a frozen cloud and before I could finish saying "frozen clouds are a cool idea" in my mind a character on-screen had said "frozen clouds". Again, there's a paranoia there about somebody not understanding exactly what that was and a terrified Nolan had to have somebody explain lest anyone have to think about it too long.

The space stuff is amazing, in terms of the scale of what is rendered on screen and the way it plays with the idea of what time relativity would mean for astronauts, which is pretty mind-blowing. I have no idea if it's accurate (I presume it is based on the latest knowledge of how these things work) but the depictions of a black hole and a wormhole, as well as the planets visited, are pure cinema. It's technically very well made, as you would expect, and as such is not a bad film or a bore even though it is overlong. There's a lot to like about it but not so much that I could ever hope to like it as much as it so transparently likes itself.

'Ida' - Dir. Pawel Pawlikowski (12A)

'Ida' is a European arthouse film du jour. To the extent where you'd only have to modify it very slightly to make it an amazing, pitch-perfect parody of what a festival favourite, black and white Polish film would be. It's 80 minutes long, supposedly, but it must be pulling some of that 'Interstellar' time relativity stuff because it's 80 minutes that feels like two hours. Everybody loves it though so I am probably missing something deep and profound. However I have decided - somewhat facetiously - that positive reviews by critics are akin to the oft-derided spin of estate agents, where "cosy" means "small".

In its round-up of the year's best movies, The Guardian wrote of it: "Pawlikowski never dwells on the social or political points: the aunt is a compromised Stalinist lawyer; Poland is in the grip of cold-war communism; and Ida herself is forced into existential self-doubt. Yet these things lie lightly over the film – nothing is hammered home, or pointed up."

To me this translates as "none of the interesting themes and historical, socio-political context are explored at all". Similarly the claim that the film is "so delicate you are afraid [it] will collapse in the first puff of wind" may mean "it's insubstantial and its premise is stretched thinly over the running time".

I have to admit, for me it's this year's example of that annual film that comes out that makes me feel like I just don't understand cinema - the film everybody else says is amazing and I can't see what they are talking about. It's not that I hated 'Ida' or found nothing of merit in it, just that it didn't personally speak to me or move me very much. I'll say this for it: I liked the off-centre framing of a lot of it, with the characters pushed to the margins. I also thought the idea (spoiler warning) of a nun having a few days of sex, booze and rock 'n roll before returning to the convent was potentially interesting. Is the idea that she is in a better place to make her vow now that she knows what she's giving up? Does that make her vow more meaningful than those of her fellow nuns who have never indulged? Interesting ideas and set at a fascinating time in Polish history, with the second world war and its atrocities a living memory and the socialist government in full swing - I just wish there was more to it.

'Boyhood' - Dir. Richard Linklater (15)

Richard Linklater's 'Boyhood' generated a lot of buzz due to the curiosity of its production: shot over 45 days spanning an eleven-year period, the film dramatises adolescence as we follow Mason (Ellar Coltrane) - who starts the film as a small boy of six and ends it a college student. Not only do we see the young actor who plays him go through physical changes almost from scene to scene, but naturally we also see those changes in the actors around him (like his parents played by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke). Being a sprawling epic about one boy's childhood there isn't really an overarching plot, but rather it's a series of small developments and micro-plots held together by an emphasis on character development. And it works really well.

As well as the thrill of seeing these characters age and change in such a unique way, the film presents a look at attitudes and lifestyle in Southern Texas - with events likes the invasion of Iraq and election of Barack Obama in the background, as well as obligatory changes to cell phones and video games - as the family move around the Lone Star State. If there's an ongoing plot it's in seeing Mason constantly pressured into not being himself by a succession of douchey stepdads, shortening his hair against his will and taking an interest in sports. You get a sense of what it must be like to be an introverted, creative kid in Linklater's home state and so, in some sense, this might even serve as a semi-biographical film about its director. Incidentally his daughter Lorelei plays Mason's older sister and she steals every scene she's in with natural screen presence.

Not just one of the best films I've seen in 2014, but a genuine contender for a place among the best of the decade so far.

'Two Days, One Night' - Dir. Luc Dardenne and Jean-Pierre Dardenne (15)

Subsisting on the sort of tight concept I tend to love, the Dardenne brother's latest stars the always-excellent Marion Cotillard as Sandra: a severely depressed woman who is ready to return to work only to discover that her colleagues have voted her out of a job. Having learnt they can manage without her on payroll, her bosses decide to cut costs by making staff choose between Sandra and their annual bonus payment. In her absence they overwhelmingly voted for the money, but when Sandra convinces them to recall another vote after the weekend she has the titular timeframe to convince each individual to back her over personal financial gain.

It's an interesting moral question which the film explores in all its complexity as Sandra visits each person in turn and makes the same basic argument with mixed results. Some are outright hostile, some can't look her in the eye, many are sympathetic but insist they need the money, whilst others agree to back her for reasons ranging from solidarity to shame. Perhaps the film treats an attempted suicide too casually and Sandra's apparent defeat of bed-ridden depression by the credits is a little too sudden, but this is a complex and original film which deserves to be seen. Especially as the Dardenne's again display an impressive knack for marrying social realism with something more hopeful and optimistic than that term usually suggests.

'Nightcrawler' - Dir. Dan Gilroy (15)

'Network' for the modern age, 'Nightcrawler' is a darkly comic and very disturbing thriller which casts Jake Gyllenhaal in a potentially career redefining role as Louis Bloom - a sociopath who, lacking in empathy or anything approaching a moral code, is perfectly suited to filming grisly accidents for an unscrupulous TV news network. Riz Ahmed is almost equally impressive as the glassy eyed, vulnerable young intern he manipulates and Rene Russo is perfectly cast as the news director he threatens and simultaneously covets - without hint of warmth or desire - as a sexual outlet. Bill Paxton also makes for an interesting foil as a cocky, alpha male rival in his quest for accident and murder footage, but there's no doubt this is Gyllenhaal's show.

It's pretty grim and though not physically violent (with one notable exception in the opening scene) Bloom is a menacing, unsettling presence who seems to threaten an aggressive outburst during every encounter. It speaks to writer-director Dan Gilroy's skill that he never releases that pressure valve. To allow that outburst would grant the character a level of interest in other people and a degree of emotion that he just doesn't have. Much scarier is how coldly and calculatedly he seems to regard everybody in his orbit. There's something of Patrick Bateman in him and maybe a slice of Travis Bickle too. The film itself invites that company not only with its lead character but with its complexity and quality.

'The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1' - Dir. Francis Lawrence (12A)

The theoretically difficult "part one" literary adaptation is by now almost its own sub-genre. As studios seek to eek every bit of profitable life out of popular franchises with limited lifespans (this is based on the third of a trilogy of books) conventional wisdom says the 'Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows Part One's of this world are all set-up and no pay-off - at their worst they could be considered extended trailers for their concluding sequel. However, as with the aforementioned penultimate Potter (the only other film of this trend I have personally seen), I found 'The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1' to benefit greatly from the sort of extended character development and patient build-up stuff this practice lends itself to, whatever its cynical intentions at boardroom level. What we have is a movie that doesn't have to hurtle along towards the action climax but which instead can spend a bit of time (like Potter) moping about in the woods and giving screentime (and still too little) to the film's incredible supporting cast.

Julianne Moore enters the series here, as the president of the rebel organisation that rescued Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss at the end of the second film, whilst Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Jeffrey Wright and Stanley Tucci make welcome returns in eye-catching character roles. As does the late Philip Seymour Hoffman who gives presence and integrity to an understated and uncharacteristically calm part as one of Moore's advisors. Then we have Natalie Dormer as a ridiculously cool propaganda filmmaker, with this year's best on-screen haircut. The weak links remain the two love interests: hunky bore-fest Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and wet-blanket bore-fest Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). Neither is the fault of the actor but rather the characters themselves, who are equally boring in the novels. (Sam Clafin's Finnick Odair is far more charismatic and interesting.)

It's not as exciting as the second movie or as focussed as the first, but this is the one where the hitherto wobbly political themes start to actually get interesting and take on added weight. In that sense it's the cleverest so far. It's also refreshing to get moving on the wider plot across Panem - outside of the titular games (this film has none) - which finally takes centre stage after being glimpsed at the margins of the previous films. All in all a satisfying run-up to the final chapter that even manages to craft a decent ending out of the arbitrary half-way point as hewn from the source novel.

'Gone Girl' - Dir. David Fincher (18)

It goes without saying that 'Gone Girl' is technically excellent, gripping, peerlessly made stuff. It's a Fincher movie, for God's sake. The guy knows his craft. The casting is excellent across the board, with some surprising choices (like Neil Patrick Harris as a slightly sinister stalker and Tyler Perry as a slick lawyer with a shit-eating grin). It's all top-level stuff. Only I really didn't like it very much. I've argued with people about whether or not it's outright misogynistic (there are a lot of good arguments that it is and a lot of strong evidence in that direction) but ultimately I come down on the side of this being a black-hearted film that just hates all humans equally. People suck and are bad for each other and are inclined to bring out the worst in each other, it seems to say.

Rosamund Pike's character - the "abducted" wife - is perhaps the most obviously 'evil', but Affleck's husband is almost equally manipulative and not somebody you'd ever want to meet or be friends with. Arguably the only two characters who aren't completely hateful are female, in the form of Affleck's sister (Carrie Coon) and Kim Dickens' detective. Yet these could easily be written off as "some of my best friends are women" plants to support Affleck's consistent mistrust and dislike of (most of) the women in his life (from his wife's mother to the shrill lady on the TV), seeing as they mostly ally with him throughout.

You can discuss the ins and outs of the film's sexual politics all day and never come to an agreement. I'll probably leave it at "they are troubling" for now and just say it wasn't ultimately my cup of tea. I've really grown to like Fincher's output in recent years as he moved away from what I considered the nihilism and nastiness of films like 'Seven' and 'Fight Club' towards films like 'Zodiac' and 'The Social Network' - which were equally grim, disturbing and dark but had more of a human dimension. For me 'Gone Girl' is a step back towards that older stuff. I know a lot of people would rate 'Seven' and 'Fight Club' as his best work, so maybe for those folks 'Gone Girl' is possibly a return to form. Personally, for all its technical prowess I found nothing to like here.

'Mr. Turner' - Dir. Mike Leigh (12A)

A lot to admire, not least of all Timothy Spall's deservedly lauded performance, but Mike Leigh's biopic of the late life and career of famed landscape painter William Turner left me oddly cold. There are plenty of interesting character moments and colourful period details and it's also a rare period piece that doesn't glamourise the past, painting London as very modern, lived-in place, but still (unlike the vast body of Leigh's work) didn't make me feel any way in particular. Perhaps that's born of a lack of investment in the subject matter, I don't know. It's possibly down to the fact that Turner, as portrayed by Spall, is a gruff, grunting, mumbling figure who often seems apathetic towards everything except boats and landscapes. There's something deeper going on with this man who denies the existence of his children and treats his housemaid so callously, but who is depicted as falling deeply in love in his twilight years and who weeps over the loss of his old dad. A nuanced, interesting character study, but lacking something I can't quite identify.

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