Talking Movies

January 15, 2015

Wild

Cheryl Strayed hiked the Pacific Coast Trail solo in the mid-90s to find herself, now Reese Witherspoon hikes it cinematically in search of another Oscar.FOX_3558.psd

Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon), an ex-junkie recently divorced from patient husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski), sets out to walk from California to Washington State, a distance of over 1,000 miles – solo. As she walks she’s aided in her ambitious trek by friendly farmer Frank (W Earl Brown), helpful hiker Greg (Kevin Rankin), and unlikely named journalist Jimmy Carter (Mo McRae). But while other people can help with the logistics of hiking the PCT (her backpack is instantly nicknamed Monster by fellow hikers for its excessiveness), nobody can aid her when it comes to the inner emotional journey which takes up just as much screen-time, and is the reason for the PCT attempt: dealing with her grief over the early death from cancer of her mother Bobbi (Laura Dern), and her anger at her ne’er-do-well brother Leif (Keene McRae) not pulling his weight.

Wild is not a likeable film. When Strayed begins the trek; not having tested how heavy her backpack would be when full, not having practised setting up a tent, and not having checked what kind of fuel her portable stove takes; you can only flashback to the detestably naive protagonist of 2007’s Into the Wild. Witherspoon is transparently attempting to win an Oscar. You can almost see the calculations on the back of a napkin: true story, multiple nude scenes, hard drug use, a story of redemption – Bingo! Worse, you start to suspect from Nick Hornby’s script that wannabe writer Strayed did the trek purely to be able to write a confessional non-fiction book about doing the trek. The American wilderness seems to inspire cinematically a sort of drivelling poetical mash-up of Frederic Jackson Turner, Teddy Roosevelt, and Jack Kerouac.

Strayed writes mottoes from great writers in station-books, and Dallas Buyers Club Jean-Marc Vallee is reduced to having her accompanied by a highly symbolic CGI fox… Wild is uncomfortable viewing because, as college boys Josh (Will Cuddy), Rick (Leigh Parker), and Richie (Nick Eversman) note, Strayed is the ‘Queen of the PCT’ – people obsequiously make things easy for her, because she’s a woman – but she’s also constantly threatened with rape, especially by roving hunters TJ (Charles Baker) and Clint (JD Evermore). It’s also unrewarding, because Strayed’s reaction to grief is Jennifer Lawrence’s self-destructive spiral in Silver Linings Playbook. But we see it, and are then asked to give a Kerouacian mystical assent to sex addiction and heroin as being somehow positive because they led her to the Bridge of the Gods in Washington – and her perorating non-epiphany of an epiphany.

Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘El Condor Pasa’ is effectively used, the scenery is great, Dern is vivacious, and Strayed’s interior monologue is wise-cracking, but Wild while engaging lacks true heart.

3/5

January 12, 2015

Top 10 Films of 2014

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(10) X-Men: Days of Future Past

Bryan Singer triumphantly linked X-ensembles as Wolverine time-travelled from a Sentinels-devastated future to 1973 to prevent Mystique assassinating Bolivar Trask and being captured by Stryker. X-2 vim was displayed in Quicksilver’s mischievous Pentagon jail-break sequence, J-Law imbued Mystique with a new swagger as a deadly spy, and notions of time itself course-correcting any meddling fascinated. The pre-emptive villainy of Fassbender’s young Magneto seemed excessive, but it didn’t prevent this being superb.

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(9) The Guest

Dan Stevens was preposterously charismatic as demobbed soldier David who ‘helped’ the Peterson family with their problems while director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett riffed on Dominik Moll and Stephen King archetypes. Wingard edited with whoops, Stephen Moore’s synth combined genuine feeling with parody, ultraviolent solutions to Luke (Brendan Meyer) and Anna (Maika Monroe)’s problems were played deliriously deadpan, a military grudge-match was staged with flair: all resulted in a cinema of joyousness.

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(8) Mystery Road

Writer/director Ivan Sen’s measured procedural almost resembled an Australian Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Aaron Pedersen’s dogged Detective Jay Swan battled official indifference as well as suspicion from his own community as he investigated an Aboriginal teenager’s death. Strong support, from Tamsa Walton as his estranged wife and Hugo Weaving as a cop engaged in some dodgy dealings, kept things absorbing until a climactic and startlingly original gun-battle and a stunning final image.

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(7) In Order of Disappearance

Nils (Stellan Skarsgaard), snow-plougher and newly-minted citizen of the year, embarks on a killing spree when authorities deem his son’s murder an accident. Nils’ executions accidentally spark all-out war between the Serbian gang of demoralized Papa (Bruno Ganz) and the Norwegian gang of self-pitying and stressed-out vegan The Count (Pal Sverre Hagen). Punctuated by McDonaghian riffs on the welfare state and Kosovo provocations, this brutal fun led to a perfectly daft ending.

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(6) Frank

Director Lenny Abrahamson loosened up for Jon Ronson’s frequently hilarious tale of oddball musicians. Domhnall Gleeson’s Jon joined the band of benevolent melodist Frank (Michael Fassbender wearing a giant head) and scary obscurantist Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Great comedy was wrung from Jon viewing writing hit music as a means to fortune and glory, but then affecting drama when music was revealed as the only means by which damaged souls Frank and Clara could truly connect.

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(5) Begin Again

Once director John Carney delivered a feel-good movie as Mark Ruffalo’s desperate record executive took a chance on a guerilla recording approach when he discovered British troubadour Keira Knightley performing in a bar. The Ruffalo was on glorious shambling form, and was matched by an exuberant Knightley; who in many scenes seemed to be responding to comic ad-libbing by James Corden as her college friend. Carney was surprisingly subversively structurally, perfectly matched Gregg Alexander’s upbeat music to sunny NYC locations, and stunt-casted wonderfully with Maroon 5’s Adam Levine as Knightley’s sell-out ex.

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(4) Tom at the Farm

Xavier Dolan’s wondrously ambiguous thriller saw Tom (Dolan) bullied by his dead lover’s brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), into keeping Guillaume’s sexuality hidden from mother Agathe (Lise Roy); but exactly why Guillaume had elided Francis’ existence, and why Francis needed Tom to stay at the remote Quebec farm, remained murky. Dolan showed off subtly; the lurid colours getting brighter during an ever-darkening monologue in a bar; and flashily; expressionistly changing screen format during violent scenes; and deliriously; a transgressive tango on a nearly professional standard dance-floor unexpectedly hidden in a barn.

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(3) Gone Girl

David Fincher turned in a 2 ½ hour thriller so utterly absorbing it flew by. Ben Affleck’s everyman found himself accused of murdering his icy wife Rosamund Pike. Only twin sister and spiky voice of reason Carrie Coon stood by him as circumstantial evidence and media gaffes damned him. Fincher, particularly in parallel reactions to a TV interview, brought out black comedy that made this a satire on trial by media, while, from fever dreams of arresting beauty to grand guignol murder and business with a hammer, making this material his own.

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(2) Dallas Buyers Club

Quebecois director Jean-Marc Vallee drew incredibly committed performances from Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto in this harrowing drama. McConaughey wasted away before our eyes as Ron Woodroof, an archetypal good ole boy diagnosed with HIV, who reacted to his terminal diagnosis with total denial before smuggling drugs. Leto matched McConaughey’s transformation as transvestite Rayon, who sought oblivion in heroin, even as he helped Woodroof outwit the FDA via the titular group. This was an extremely moving film powered by Woodroof and Rayon’s friendship, beautifully played from initial loathing to brotherly love.

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(1) Boyhood

Director Richard Linklater’s dazzling technical achievement in pulling off a twelve-year shoot was equalled by the finished film’s great heart. The life of Mason Jr (Ellar Coltrane) from age six to eighteen in Texas with mother Patricia Arquette, sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), and weekend dad Mason Sr (Ethan Hawke) was followed in seamless transitions with teasing misdirection and subtle reveals. Child performances that began in comedy grew thru shocking scenes to encompass depth of feeling. Hawke gave a wonderful performance of serious comedy, Arquette grew older but not wiser, and Linklater was richly novelistic in revealing how surface facades belied the truth about characters and personality formation defied self-analysis. Watching Boyhood is to be wowed by life itself; your own nostalgia mixes with Mason Jr’s impressively realised youth.

November 25, 2014

Mockingjay – Part I

Jennifer Lawrence assumes her role as symbol of the revolution in the third instalment of The Hunger Games; which might be the best one yet.

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Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) is suffering from the experience of the Quarter Quell even more than the trauma of the original Hunger Games; hiding in tunnels, having panic attacks, and in total denial that her home, District 12, has been destroyed. Her rescuer Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has taken her to the underground bunker that houses the survivors of District 13’s destruction by the forces of the Capitol. He introduces her to President Coin (Julianne Moore), and, after, Katniss is allowed to see District 12 for herself, takes charge of turning Katniss into the Mockingjay – symbol of the Revolution. But it’s only after shooting a hysterically inept propaganda video that Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) makes a ‘Let Bartlett be Bartlett’ speech, and Katniss is allowed into combat; trailed by Plutarch’s recruit, film director Cressida (Natalie Dormer). Katniss’ raw reactions make her a weapon in a propaganda war, with President Snow (Donald Sutherland) taunting her with his own weapon – Peeta (Josh Hutcherson).

“Moves and countermoves,” as Donald Sutherland whispers, are the substance of this film; and it makes for an unusual and shadowy blockbuster. The characters in the Capitol are distanced from us: President Snow only appears 5 times, Peeta and Caesar (Stanley Tucci) are merely faces on giant television screens, other kidnapped victors are mentioned but not seen. The relationship of the air war of propaganda videos to the ground war of rebel action is shown by director Francis Lawrence utilising the ever-increasing budget to flesh out more and more of the geographical variety of the world of Panem. Loggers in District 7 rebelling against Snow’s increased quotas take up Katniss’ spontaneous rallying cry “If we burn, you burn with us” after her traumatic baptism of fire into the war in District 8. Rebels in District 5 turn Katniss’ folk-song, creatively edited by Plutarch, into a revolutionary marching song; like ‘John Brown’s Body’ morphing into the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’.

A long-take where Katniss walks down the ramp of a hovercraft which takes off to reveal the ruins behind her before we follow her as she walks into rubble exemplifies both Francis Lawrence’s masterful use of CGI and the exceptional sets. District 12 resembles Terminator 2’s skull-strewn future, a wave of humanity descending a spiral staircase in District 13 is rendered hypnotic, and Coin’s addresses to the populace in that bunker make you appreciate how poorly realised Zion was in the Matrix sequels. The decision to split Suzanne Collins’ novel in two is fully justified as Peter Craig (The Town) and Danny Strong (Recount, and also Jonathan from Buffy!) provide a screenplay that makes us fear anyone; including the ever stoic Gale (Liam Hemsworth); could die, ratchets up tensions for its suspenseful finale, and drops a truly creepy character detail during it to boot. Francis Lawrence rises to the challenge of creating a different type of Hunger Games movie, while Jennifer Lawrence retains Katniss’ fire while layering her with uncertainty.

Interstellar is the most intelligent blockbuster of 2014, but Mockingjay’s tactical battle might be the most interesting popcorn movie.

4/5

July 3, 2014

Trailer Talk: Part II

In another entry in this occasional series I round up some trailers for films opening in the next few months.

2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes was extremely successful commercially, but was a curiously mixed bag artistically. Rupert Wyatt’s direction was quite brilliant in some Hitchcockian flourishes and well-staged action sequences. But the script seemed barely written; with James Franco and Frieda Pinto playing ciphers. Andy Serkis (in motion-capture) returns as talking evolved ape leader Caesar. The world’s population having been devastated by the simian flu Caesar faces great hostility from belligerent human leader Gary Oldman, but an ally in Jason Clarke’s family man willing to talk peaceful co-existence. But peaceful co-existence don’t make for a high-stakes apocalyptic blockbuster! The focus of interest must be director Matt Reeves. Cloverfield combined spectacle with devastating emotional impact and his vampire remake Let Me In improved on the Scandinavian original. What will he fashion?

Dutch rock photographer Anton Corbijn’s third film as director seems closer in tone and look to his sophomore effort The American than stark debut Control, as he directs a John Le Carre spy thriller set in Germany. The adaptation of Le Carre’s novel comes from Lantana playwright and screenwriter Andrew Bovell which is almost as much an enticement as the stellar cast: Robin Wright, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final lead performance. The second coming of Robin Wright really is a phenomenon as worthy of attention as the McConnaissance, and this looks like another compelling performance. The late Hoffman meanwhile seems on fine form as the German spook harassing McAdams’ attorney: “I’m a lawyer” “You’re a social worker for terrorists”. Hopefully this will be better structured than the cavalier Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Yep, the teaser trailer for what will probably be one of the three biggest films of 2014 manages to not mention Katniss Everdeen, show Jennifer Lawrence’s face, or even acknowledge the existence of the previous two films. Intentionally, of course, as it’s a Capitol propaganda film with Donald Sutherland’s kindly old white-bearded President Snow sitting in a white room, flanked by Josh Hutcherson’s kidnapped Peeta, telling the people of Panem how good the Capitol is to them, and expressing bemusement as to why they would ever rebel against him. Arcade Fire’s chilling Soviet style Panem anthem has more or less for me become Donald Sutherland’s personal theme tune at this point, and it suits these words: “But if you resist the system, you starve yourself. If you fight against it, it is you who will bleed…” #OnePanem

June 19, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars

John Green’s best-selling ‘dying teenagers in love’ YA novel gets a cinematic adaptation so perfectly dreadful it will make you question the book’s stellar reputation.

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Our heroine Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) is dying of cancer. She is dragged by her mother Frannie (Laura Dern) to support meetings in a church basement, presided over by an Evangelical figure of fun who could’ve walked straight out of Fight Club. But one day Isaac (Nat Wolff), a sardonic teenager blinded in one eye by cancer, brings along to group his best friend Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), a cocky teenager who lost a leg to cancer. There is an instant spark of attraction between Hazel and Augustus, and soon she has him reading her favourite cancer novel An Imperial Affliction. Augustus pesters the exiled author Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe) until Van Houten’s helpful assistant Lidewij (Lotte Verbeek) invites them both to Amsterdam. But Hazel’s father Michael (Sam Trammell) urges Augustus not to push the physically frail Hazel…

The Fault in Our Stars is most interesting for its part in Shailene Woodley’s sustained campaign to become Jennifer Lawrence. J-Law was unconsciously unguarded in interviews, Woodley makes bizarre pronouncements. J-Law fronted The Hunger Games, Woodley (after consulting J-Law, she let everyone know) fronted Divergent. J-Law won an Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook, Woodley attempts a serious role with an ersatz J-Law performance. Woodley was terrific in The Descendants, but here she seems to vocally channel J-Law in scenes where she’s upset or excited. And then there’s Elgort… Elgort renders Augustus an arrogant water-polo player from The OC. One assumes that Augustus is intended to be more charming, perhaps closer to a Damon Salvatore; but even the swaggering Ian Somerhalder couldn’t rescue Augustus’ excruciatingly stilted dialogue. It genuinely shocks that (500) Days of Summer’s Scott Neustadter & Michael Weber adapted.

From the sub-Mametian insistence of the lovers on calling each other Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters, to Hazel Grace’s use of the word hamartia, to Augustus’ involved (and not particularly metaphorical) cigarette metaphor everything in this film feels painfully affected. I haven’t read the book, but I’m not sure these touches could’ve worked even in print; especially the excruciating moment when deeply inappropriate PDA in the Anne Frank House is applauded. Director Josh Boone’s autumnal palette complements the actual and soundalike Coldplay that soundtracks the relentlessly weepy forced march to the movie’s crux: like The Lovely Bones and The Da Vinci Code sex is everything – being in heaven, being God; not as good or important as having had sex. Dafoe’s mercifully abrasive cameo as the novelist telling them home-truths cannot shift these insufferable lovers’ minds onto more transcendent philosophical concerns.

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves that we encourage producers to make dross like this by going to bad movies, knowing they’re bad.

1/5

May 21, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past 3-D

Director Bryan Singer triumphantly returns to the franchise he launched in 2000 to link two ensembles together for one of the classic Claremont/Byrne comics stories.

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Professor X (Patrick Stewart) narrates a Terminator 2 cold open as dead bodies are piled amidst rubble while machines hunt down and kill mutants and humans. Can this war of extinction be won by changing the past? X, Magneto (Ian McKellen), Storm (Halle Berry), and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) travel to a Chinese monastery where mutants familiar [Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Colossus (Daniel Cudmore)] and strange [Blink (Fan BingBing), whose portal-creating power is visually intricate] are kept one step ahead of Sentinels by Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), who uses her powers to send the consciousness of Bishop (Omar Sy) back thru time. Defeating the Sentinels means preventing Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) assassinating Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) at the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, then being captured by Major Stryker (Josh Helman); actions which kick-start the program and see her DNA make the Sentinels unstoppable. Only Wolverine can physically survive the time-shift, but in 1973 he is reliant on the broken men Charles (James McAvoy) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult) patching up their differences with the imprisoned Erik (Michael Fassbender). But might the past be immutable?

The X-movies are a farrago of continuity, and this instalment ignores that (Wolverine has adamantium claws? Professor X has his own body?). It’s a sequel toFirst Class, with Charles and Erik rejoining battle for Mystique’s soul; as a wonderful exchange has it – “You got inside her head.” “That’s not my power, Charles.” The future, with Sentinels attacking like The Matrix’s squiddies, is mostly a glorified framing device; but its startling killing of characters in the prologue establishes the stakes. The past is a foreign country; where Singer displays X-2 vim. Beast acts as Q in freeing Erik, Wolverine gets two wonderful sight gags, and there’s a delightful nod to the parentage of Quicksilver (Evan Peters). The fast-talking Quicksilver’s mischievous liberation of Erik is the outstanding action sequence; it’s like watching Seth Cohen wielding superpowers. Erik’s curving of a bullet at the Paris summit is thrilling, as is the idea that time is course-correcting their meddling. But Page has precious little to do, and the great Fassbender is overshadowed by McAvoy and Jackman as they get all the best lines.

This lands somewhere around X-2 and First Class, but I preferred First Class because Erik was less muddled. The future comes into play in the finale, and Magneto battling future sentinels while Erik manipulates old sentinels is a brilliant cross-cutting of action sequences to interrogate character; questioning the ability of people to change even as the future characters hope their younger selves will change. Lawrence (more recognisable as Mystique than Rebecca Romijn ever was) is a world of swagger away from First Class; Mystique is a driven and accomplished spy. She wants to kill Bolivar for murdering her friends just like Erik wanted to vengefully kill Shaw. Charles once again is opposed to such motives. But in First Class Erik flung missiles back at people, here his villainy becomes incomprehensibly pre-emptive; as if the Singer special sequence where he retrieves his helmet unleashes a need for flair; the option of silent sabotage of the Sentinel programme doesn’t cut it, when you can (undoubtedly quite counter-productively) stage a stadium-sized spectacle of terrorism. But this is quibbling about what is only the third superb X-movie in the series: an intricate, thoughtful adventure in which Singer returns from the wilderness with surprising confidence.

The ending made me think of the Doctor’s emphatic lines at the end of Moffat’s Doctor Who Blitz story in 2005. And after suffering thru X-3 we surely all deserve that calibre of resolution.

4/5

January 28, 2014

2014: Hopes

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The Monuments Men

George Clooney stars, co-writes with Grant Heslov again, and directs what seems like a promising mash-up of The Train and Ocean’s 11, arriving sometime in February. Somewhat based on fact, a crack team of art experts and soldiers are assembled in the dying months of WWII to try and rescue priceless works of art from wanton destruction at the hands of nihilistic Nazis. The team includes regular Clooney cohort Matt Damon and the great Cate Blanchett, alongside the undoubtedly scene-stealing comedic duo of Bill Murray and John Goodman, and oddly Jean Dujardin. Can Clooney pull off a more serious art heist from Nazis caper? Fingers crossed he can.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson returns in March, apparently in thrall to Lubitsch and Lang. Edward Norton did so well in Moonrise Kingdom that he’s invited back alongside Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, and Owen Wilson. Newcomers are Ralph Fiennes, Saoirse Ronan, Jude Law, Mathieu Amalric, and F Murray Abraham. Fiennes is the legendary concierge of the titular hotel in inter-war Europe, where any gathering storms are ignored in favour of absurd murder plots, art thefts and family squabbles gone mad, as Fiennes gives his lobby-boy protégé an education in dealing with the upper classes which he’ll never forget; if they escape a sticky end long enough to remember.

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Veronica Mars

AW YEAH!! It was cancelled in 2007 but Kristen Bell’s iconic teen detective snoops again as creator Rob Thomas sends NYC legal eagle Veronica back to sunny Neptune to attend her high school reunion. Present and correct are friends Mac (Tina Majorino) and Wallace (Percy Daggs III), nemesis Madison (Amanda Noret), and frenemy Dick (Ryan Hansen). Dad Keith (Enrico Colantoni) remains a sage, warning against the obvious peril of insipid boyfriend Piz (Chris Lowell) being replaced in her affections by roguish ex Logan (Jason Dohring), who is once again accused of murder and asking for V’s help. Please let the sparks of ‘epic love’ spanning ‘decades and continents’ rekindle!

Frank

Lenny Abrahamson is the opposite of a Talking Movies favourite, but he’s teamed up with the favourite di tutti favourites Michael Fassbender. Thankfully Abrahamson’s miserabilist tendencies and agonising inertness have been put to one side for this rock-star comedy co-written by journalist Jon Ronson, a man with a verified eye for the absurd having written The Men Who Stare at Goats and The Psychopath Test. The original script loosely based on a cult English comic musician follows wannabe musician Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), who discovers he’s bitten off more than he can chew when he joins a pop band led by the enigmatic Frank (Fassbender) and his scary girlfriend Maggie Gyllenhaal.

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Literally everything I loved most about the original disappeared with the time-jump. So the major attraction of April’s sequel isn’t Robert Redford as a shady new SHIELD director, but Revenge’s icy heroine Emily VanCamp as the mysterious Agent 13. Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow regrettably take the place of Tommy Lee Jones and Hayley Atwell in support, but Anthony Mackie as sidekick Falcon is a major boon. The real worry is that directors Joe and Anthony Russo (You, Me and Dupree, yes, that’s right, that’s their resume) will be intimidated by their budget into endless CGI action and precious little else.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

I’m excited and nostalgic, because May 23rd sees the arrival of the X-3 we deserved, but never got. Bryan Singer returns to the franchise he launched for one of Claremont/Byrne’s most famous storylines. In a dystopian future, where mutantkind has been decimated by the Sentinels of Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage),Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) Wolverine (Hugh Jackman – this is a movie, not a comic, it’s all got to be about Wolverine!) is sent back into the past by Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) to alter history by rapprochement of their younger selves (James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender). Jennifer Lawrence co-stars, with every X-Men actor!

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22 Jump Street
A proper summer blockbuster release date of June 13th for this sequel recognises the hilarious success of the absurd original. Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) (or was it the other way round?) go undercover in college to crack another drug ring, and once again their fantastic bromance starts to crack under the strain. The original’s unwieldy team of writers and directors are back, as are Ice Cube, Nick Offerman, Rob Riggle and Dave Franco. Amber Stevens and Wyatt Russell are the college kids, but sadly Brie Larson is absent. Jonah Hill appears in full goth gear, which seems to suggest that the absurdity levels remain healthy.

The Trip to Italy

It’s not clear yet if we’ll get this as an abridged film or just be treated to the full version as 6 episodes on BBC 2. In either case Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon reunite to play heightened versions of themselves as they bicker their way around restaurants in Italy for the purposes of writing magazine reviews. 2010’s endearing roving sitcom The Trip, with its competitive Michael Caine impersonations was a joy, and director Michael Winterbottom takes the show on tour here. And no better man for the job, as this originated with their duelling Al Pacinos at the end of his A Cock and Bull Story.

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Magic in the Moonlight
Woody Allen’s latest should hit our screens around September. This time round the cottage industry is giving us a period romantic comedy, set in the south of France, which takes place in the 1920s and 1930s. The cast is as usual intimidating: Emma Stone, Colin Firth, Marcia Gay Harden, the imperious Eileen Atkins (one of the few actresses capable of domineering over Judi Dench), and Jacki Weaver. Will F Scott and his ilk make an appearance? Who knows! There are no details, just stills of open-top cars, drop waists, and cloche hats so this could be a close cousin of Sweet & Lowdown or Midnight in Paris.

Gone Girl

The start of October sees the great David Fincher return, with his first film in three years, and it’s another adaptation of a wildly successful crime novel. Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Rosamund Pike) are seemingly the perfect couple, but when she disappears suddenly on their 5th wedding anniversary, Nick becomes the prime suspect as he discovers his wife told friends she was scared of him. Could he have killed her? Or is the truth far more twisted? Gillian Flynn has adapted her own work, and, incredibly, penned an entirely new third act to keep everyone guessing. The unusually colourful supporting cast includes Neil Patrick Harris and Patrick Fugit.

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The Interview
The pitch is that an attractive talk show host and his producer unwittingly get caught up in an international assassination plot. So far so blah, if that was say Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson directed by Shawn Levy, except that the host is actually James Franco, the producer is Seth Rogen, the interview is in North Korea, and the awesome Lizzy Caplan is the rogue femme fatale CIA agent who drags them into all sorts of mischief. And it’s written and directed by Rogen and Evan Goldberg who distinguished themselves with 2013’s best comedy This is The End. This is very likely to mop up the non-Gone Girl audience.

Interstellar

Christopher Nolan tries to redeem himself after TDKR with a small personal project, taking the same release date as The Prestige did. Well, small, in that the WB needed Paramount to stump up some cash for it, and personal, in that Spielberg spent years developing it; albeit with the assistance of Jonathan Nolan. Scientists attempt to observe a wormhole into another dimension, and that’s about all we know, other than vague speculations about ecological crises. Matthew McConaughey 2.0 stars alongside Anne Hathaway, Casey Affleck, Matt Damon, John Lithgow, Jessica Chastain, and, yes, Michael Caine – who is now as essential a part of the signature as Bill Murray for Wes Anderson.

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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I

Jennifer Lawrence goes for third biggest hit at the North American box office for the third year in a row with her latest turn as rebel heroine Katniss Everdeen on November 21st. Having survived the Quarter Quell and the destruction of her District, she discovers President Snow has Peeta hostage, and that the rebellion has a leader, President Coin (Julianne Moore), ready to embark on a full-scale bloody war of rebellion against the Capitol. Recount writer (and Buffy shmuck) Danny Strong is the new screenwriter, and Elementary star Natalie Dormer joins the cast, but director Francis Lawrence remains in situ, with his considered visual style.

January 17, 2014

Top Performances of 2013

As the traditional complement to last week’s Top 10 Films, here are the Top Performances of 2013. The refusal to isolate single winners is deliberate; regard the highlighted names as the top of the class, and the runners up being right behind them, and the also placed just behind them. They’re all superb performances.

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Best Supporting Actress

Ellen Page (The East) Page is extremely menacing as the forceful Izzy, so enigmatic as to appear without moral limits, but almost mythological in her convictions and actions as lieutenant of eco-terrorists The East.

Jennifer Ehle (Zero Dark Thirty) Acting plaudits mysteriously went to Jessica Chastain’s petulant heroine, but it was Ehle’s humane turn as the wiser, more plausible agent that gave the film its emotional grounding.

Maggie Gyllenhaal (White House Down) Giving it EVERYTHING, she’s so ferociously committed, especially in scenes of betrayal and redemption, that her dignity makes all the nonsense around her plausible.

Runners Up:

Melanie Laurent (Now You See Me) To an extent Laurent is playing French Agent Mulder. She wants the criminals she’s hunting to employ real magicks – and her willingness stands in for the audience perfectly.

Elizabeth Debicki (Gatsby) Short-shrifted by Baz ,who deleted her final scene, the Aussie newcomer stood out as Jordan Baker, her drawling accent, flapper look, and careless air redeeming part of the film’s mess.

Lola Creton (Something in the Air) As the most sensible of all the young socialist revolutionaries we meet in early 1970s France she’s later sadly abandoned by the script, but has impressed enough to be missed…

Also Placed:

Rila Fukushima (Wolverine) As the petite samurai who teams up with Logan she’s instantly adorable as a warrior with a softer side.

Gal Gadot (Fast 6) Gadot is there for her looks, but she manages to inject an unexpected undercurrent of sadness to her part.

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Best Supporting Actor

James Franco (Spring Breakers) Franco’s turn as bling-adorned terrible rapper Alien, constantly muttering “for real” and “spring break forever”, was a terrific use of charisma to glamorise a seedy criminal.

Ben Kingsley (Iron Man 3) A Fassbendering Kingsley showed great range as he found very surprising comedy in The Mandarin, despite having a traumatising scene where he tested the President live on TV.

Sam Shepard (Mud) His mysterious neighbour was a tour de force as he brought to life a character who keeps to himself yet has acquired over his life insight, wisdom, and ruthlessness he employs to guard a select few.

Jacob Lofland (Mud) Neckbone rode a motorbike and pilot a motorboat but he was a contemporary Tom Sawyer and newcomer Lofland was wonderfully naturalistic as the more cautious of the two teenagers.

Runners Up:

Keith Carradine (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) Carradine puts his now considerable gravitas into his toughened by life mentor who has been hurt by his charges but is still deeply invested in assuring their happiness.

Rob Lowe (Behind the Candelabra) He was hysterically funny as a plastic surgeon whose eyes never seemed to quite fully open after a facelift and who seemed barely conscious at times as he pushed pills.

Samuel L Jackson (Django) An almost unrecognisable Jackson was sensational as the house slave Stephen, in the best acting performance he’s given in years he was racist beyond belief because it secured his status.

William H Macy (The Sessions) His priest was vital to the success of the film, as he counselled its crippled hero he mixed sincere but inept attempts at being matey with a forgiving theological approach.

Ben Foster (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) Foster gave an unshowy performance as the taciturn face of the law, but it was a performance that didn’t seek to conceal a far sweeter note than his usual hard man.

Also Placed:

Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty) Clarke was on fine form as the torturer par excellence who burns out from the job.

Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln) His radical abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens was a very funny slice of TLJ with extra intelligence.

David Schwimmer (The Iceman) He was unrecognisable as the inept Jewish mobster trying to pass himself off as being Italian.

Arnold Schwarzenegger (Escape Plan) Arnie freaked out – in German! I want to see newly cuddly Arnie speak German more often.

Jim Carrey (The Incredible Burt Wonderstone) Carrey is wonderfully callous and rude as an obnoxious David Blaine type.

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Best Actress

Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) Essaying a comic Blanche DuBois  she was able to shift from gorgeous and intelligent to haggard and schizophrenic within a scene by dint of sheer facial expressiveness. More extraordinarily she was also able to retain audience sympathy despite being vicious.

Brie Larson (Short Term 12) Larson is terrific as chief counsellor Grace, enigmatic even to her live-in boyfriend, she’s an unknowable figure who reveals little of herself for most of the film, and can switch from companionable and warm to commanding and cold in a second when needed.

Jennifer Lawrence (Catching Fire) Lawrence nuanced her formidable heroine with a healthy dose of PTSD and survivors’ guilt. Her sedition-inspiring reaction to seeing the family of her surrogate little sister, slain District 11 tribute Rue, was devastating and her final gesture in the Quarter Quell iconic.

Aubrey Plaza (Safety Not Guaranteed) Sullenness has never been so loveable. A sub-plot that’s dispensable puts a lot of pressure on a slight plot, and it’s hard to think anyone else could’ve pulled off this role. Plaza makes her intern both understandably saddened by her life and internally driven.

Runners Up:

Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha) Gerwig was wonderfully convincing as the immature but winning graduate who hasn’t been as successful as her peers and desperately bluffs while she flails about trying to be an adult.

Rooney Mara (Side Effects, Aint Them Bodies Saints) Mara’s patient was compelling thru all her medicated character changes, while her domesticated outlaw gave nuanced glimpses of savagery behind the facade.

Amy Adams (Man of Steel) Adams was a fantastic Lois, abrasive, charming, romantic, and finally cinematically we got a reporter who discovered Superman’s true identity by dogged investigating!

Also Placed:

Mary-Louise Parker (RED 2) Parker had a tricky role as the overtly unnecessary element in a spy caper but she managed to pull it off with some remarkable absurdist comic timing in many of her scenes.

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Best Actor

Matthew McConaughey (Mud) McConaughey confirmed his renaissance by deploying all his charm and naivety to dramatic import as the superstitious fugitive hiding out from the law and Texans, and bonding with Ellis, as, with irrepressible romanticism, he waited for his true love Juniper.

Michael Shannon (The Iceman) Shannon was chilling as the cold-blooded contract killer, not least as he displayed little conflict; a stunning scene in which he gave James Franco time to pray to God confirmed this; yet his love for his family kept you rooting for his Atlantic City property scheme to pay off.

Michael Douglas (Behind the Candelabra) Douglas gave his best sustained performance since Traffic in an uninhibited performance, unafraid to show the ‘vanity gone mad’ horrors of plastic surgery in practice, that created a character of insatiable appetites, misused talent, and confused religiosity.

Runners Up:

Casey Affleck (Aint Them Bodies Saints) Affleck was on fine form as an outlaw possessed of such romantic passion that his violent outbursts seemed less criminal than regrettably necessary to find true love.

Tye Sheridan (Mud) Sheridan gave a subtle turn as the teenager enduring the disintegrating marriage of his parents who reacted to the loss of his riverside life by appropriating Mud’s belief in everlasting love.

John Hawkes (The Sessions) Hawkes’ performance was showy in the sense that he physically discomforted himself to play the real-life polio victim and poet, but it only worked because he was so very funny.

Also Placed:

Robert Downey Jr (Iron Man 3) Sure he complicated Stark with some panic attacks but the real triumph was the envelope-pushing abrasiveness to a helpful kid that only Downey Jr could get away with.

Henry Cavill (Man of Steel) Goyer’s script too often merely sketched personalities but luckily once Cavill donned the suit he transformed vocally and grew into the role as a rather good Superman.

Leonardo DiCaprio (Gatsby) DiCaprio did his damndest to just ignore Baz’s shtick and play F Scott’s Gatsby, and if you’ve seen Revolutionary Road, you’ll know he can perform the novels, not bad scripts.

January 9, 2014

Top 10 Films of 2013

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(10) Fast and Furious 6

This falls short of its illustrious immediate predecessor, but director Justin Lin’s sign-off to the Vin Diesel franchise he invigorated retained its Ocean’s 11 with petrol-heads vibe. A spectacular action sequence with a tank on a freeway, a charismatic villain with an outrageously designed car, and an over-busy finale as outsize as the runway it took place on were all elevated by a pervasive air of sadness. Poor Han…

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(9) Catching Fire

Jennifer Lawrence nuanced her formidable Hunger Games heroine with PTSD as she fought a deadly PR battle with President Donald Sutherland and his lieutenant Philip Seymour Hoffman. Confidence oozed from this movie, a quality noticeable in its expanded ensemble. Director Francis Lawrence’s trademark held shots and action tracks created a more rounded universe with complex villains as well as tense CGI suspense sequences in which the geography of the action was always nicely legible.

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 (8) Short Term 12

Newcomer Destin Cretton helmed his own prize-winning script about twenty-something counsellors at a foster-care facility for at-risk teenagers to beautiful effect. Brie Larson is outstanding as the enigmatic lead counsellor Grace, but nuanced turns from Kaitlyn Dever as possible abuse victim Jayden, Keith Stanfield as suicidal rapper Marcus, and John Gallagher Jr as Grace’s long-suffering boyfriend all draw us into an unfamiliar world detailed with insight, humour, and a tempered optimism.

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(7) White House Down

Roland Emmerich’s nonsensical Die Hard movie joyously proclaimed its debt (the villain ‘discovered’ a connection between the hero and a female hostage), paid off every plant in sight from President Obama Jamie Foxx’s Lincoln fandom to what Channing Tatum’s daughter’s six weeks honing a skill for her talent show, featured an aggressive right-wing news anchor who wouldn’t stop crying, and forced a miscast Maggie Gyllenhaal to commit so ferociously she grounded the whole thing.

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(6) Now You See Me

This Ocean’s 11 with magicians romp was gloriously insouciant crowd-pleasing fun that never flagged, and flirted with cliché but avoided its embrace. Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco breezed thru flashily staged sequences of magical revenge against the 1% as their ‘Four Horsemen’ magicians caused chaos across America while being hunted by Mark Ruffalo (FBI/Scully) and Melanie Laurent (Interpol/Mulder) who began to wonder – can these be real magicks?

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(5) Frances Ha

Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach combined as writers to potent effect for a film in thrall to Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Its monochrome NYC looked incredible, the comedy was superb and clever, it used pop music to amazingly emotional effect, and it was based around an outstanding performance from Gerwig in a richly written part. From her money worries and anxieties at meeting richer people and more successful contemporaries, to her exaggerations about her success to hide embarrassment at her failures, to plain loopy decisions, this was a piercing, realistic insight into failure.

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(4) Blue Jasmine

Woody Allen mined a tragic vein as Cate Blanchett’s humbled socialite Jasmine stayed in San Francisco with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Jasmine tried to replace Ginger’s boyfriend Bobby Cannavale with Louis CK, and to replace her own dead tycoon husband (Alec Baldwin) with a widowed diplomat (Peter Sarsgaard). Two women’s romances and mental disintegration recalled Vicky Cristina Barcelona but this was far superior. Fantastic comedy from unsubtle suitors and Blanchett’s waspish tongue was combined with her extraordinary expressive portrayal of schizophrenic breaks from reality as she talked intimately to thin air, seeing people.

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(3) This is The End

Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg’s directorial debut in which Seth, James Franco, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson and Danny McBride attempted to wait out the apocalypse in a Hollywood mansion stuffed with drugs and no food was a largely unstructured ramble from one absurd set-up to the next profane bout of self-indulgence, and it was fantastic. Emma Watson’s extended axe-wielding cameo was spectacular, the theology of how to survive the end of days was ludicrous, and the use of music reduced me to helpless tears of laughter; especially the final two songs.

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(2) Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

Writer/director David Lowery’s stunning tale of young criminals in love in 1970s Texas played out like Badlands re-imagined by Jeff Nichols. Rigorously under-lit by Bradford Young its glorious darkness created a moody, romantic atmosphere in which the abiding passion of parted lovers Ruth (Rooney Mara) and Bob (Casey Affleck) assumed mythic proportions. Keith Carradine as Bob’s mentor and Ben Foster as the lawman Ruth once shot grounded this world, and Lowery built tension expertly around Bob’s escape from jail to Ruth to a suspenseful finale which ended with an image of savage grace.

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(1) Mud

Take Shelter director Jeff Nichols returned with an Arkansan tale indebted to Mark Twain as a modern Huck and Tom helped Matthew McConaughey’s titular fugitive. Teenager Tye Sheridan gave a subtle turn as Ellis, who reacted to his parents’ disintegrating marriage by bonding with Mud and his unquenchable belief in true love, despite mysterious neighbour Sam Shepard’s warning that Mud was a fool in waiting for unreliable Reese Witherspoon. DP Adam Stone imbued the Arkansan locations with a heavenly sheen, and, while Mud hiding out a river island living in a boat in a tree observing local superstitions gave rise to great comedy, there was also Twain’s darkness in blood feuds. Nichols’ third film was rich, absorbing, cautiously optimistic, and lit by a deep affection for his characters.

November 21, 2013

Catching Fire

Jennifer Lawrence teams up with director Francis Lawrence (no relation), and the result is a more thoughtful yet more expansive sequel to The Hunger Games.

rs_560x415-131115151540-1024.Donald-Sutherland-Jennifer-Lawrence.jl.111513_copyCatching Fire opens in a bleak Appalachian winter, with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and coal-mining boyfriend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) hunting turkey in the woods of District 12 of the dystopian post-USA nation Panem. But after The Hunger Games you can never really go home… as is insisted upon by various characters. Katniss and her little sister Prim are now living with their mother in The Victors’ Village, a mere 25 yards and a wall of emotional ice away from the boy she pretended to love in order to survive the Games, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), with their mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) just down the street. President Snow (Donald Sutherland in a greatly expanded role) threatens Everdeen to convince him, and thereby the outlying Districts, that her ‘suicidal love’ for Peeta was genuine and not an act of defiance against the Capitol; and so remove herself as a symbol of hope for an insurrectionist Mocking Jay movement fomenting rebellion against Snow’s rule…

Lawrence nuances her formidable heroine with a healthy dose of PTSD and survivors’ guilt. Her sedition-inspiring reaction to seeing the family of slain District 11 tribute Rue, who she tried to save in the Games, damns her further with Snow; who is advised by caustic veteran Games-maker Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to pitch Katniss back into battle in a Quarter Quell to destroy her status as rebel icon before killing her. And so Katniss and Peeta return to the Capitol as tributes, with mentors Haymitch and Effie (Elizabeth Banks, mining a new vein of comedy in her character’s transition from callousness to chumminess). Peeta once again manipulates TV host Caesar (Stanley Tucci) for public sympathy, and manages to parlay Katniss’ lethal practice display of archery into alliances with narcissistic combat expert Finnick (Sam Claflin),  and the tech wizards unkindly dubbed Nuts (Amanda Plummer) & Volts (Jeffrey Wright) by axe-wielding troublemaker Johanna (Jena Malone, channelling The L Word’s Katherine Moennig). Facing off against the Career Victors inside a jungle arena, they need all their collective skills to survive Plutarch’s constant spit-balls.

Simon Beaufoy and a pseudonymous Michael Arndt (both of whom I’ve ripped previously for cliché) provide a screenplay that beautifully kicks its characters into the second act and then has them desperately try to claw their way back to the first act. Catching Fire follows the broad outline of its predecessor – establish the universe, and then let the battle begin – but this is a more fully rounded universe which dexterously details the battle of wills between Katniss and Snow in the world’s deadliest PR campaign. Kudos must be given to director Francis Lawrence who tosses aside originating director Gary Ross’ inexpert shaky-cam and instead deploys his own preference for held shots and action tracks. A CGI heavy sequence with killer baboons genuinely unnerves, while the geography of the action is always legible; even though much of it occurs at night, as Lawrence strays into James Cameron Blue (TM) territory. Lawrence’s villains, as ever, are complex creations, who will repay repeat viewings, and Katniss’ rebellion viscerally threatens them. James Newton Howard admits defeat in creating an iconic theme though, instead utilising Arcade Fire’s chilling Panem Anthem…

Catching Fire unfurls at a measured pace because it is made with unmistakeable confidence, and its abrupt ending whets the appetite for the sequels.

4/5

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