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Pre-Oscars catchup

‘The Big Short’ (dir. Adam McKay)

Very impressive ability to convey extremely complicated detail re-financial crisis in palatable, audience-friendly way. Really nailed that knack of not speaking down to the audience whilst not being impenetrable. Perhaps lacking in the bravura or edge of The Wolf of Wall Street. McKay’s comedy films have always had an unusual, weird kind of intelligence to them so it’s nice to see him pushing against the ceiling of his talents. Always good to see Christian Bale in non-grimdark mode.

‘Room’ (dir. Lenny Abrahamson)

I loved Brie Larson in the criminally under-seen Short Term 12 and I loved her even more in this. Same goes for Abrahamson who rolled out a gem with Frank and just builds on that promise. I haven’t read Emma Donoghue’s novel – by all accounts terrific – should have done that. It’s beautifully constructed, with a really stand-out score and a tremendous supporting cast. The central relationship between the boy and mother worked so well with Abrahamson handling the tricky subject matter with the same proficiency as he dealt with the mental health stuff in Frank.

‘Spotlight’ (dir. Tom McCarthy)

All the President’s Men and Zodiac quality procedural brilliance meets a fuckstorm of incredible character actor roles and worthy, provocative subject matter. Tom McCarthy drags me back to those happy days of The Wire Season V! The resurrection of Michael Keaton’s career is a joy to witness. Where were these parts ten or fifteen years ago?  Completely absorbing, completely satisfying to watch, actors bouncing around knowing knowing they’re doing their best work. Great.

I’ve seen all the Best Picture nominees now (except Brooklyn – out DVD 29/02). My loose favourites list goes something like Mad Max Fury Road, Spotlight, Bridge of Spies, The Martian, Room, The Revenant, The Big Short. It’s the best list of nominees since spring 2011, and to be honest I’d find any of those pictures a pretty worthy winner.

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January bits (so far)

‘The Hateful Eight’ (dir. Quentin Tarantino)

Reflections of Reservoir Dogs, but with the self-indulgence and period-fetish of his more recent work. People like to quibble about weak points in Tarantino’s canon, but I’ve yet to truly dislike any of his films after 8 features. Angst over the length was bowled away by the sheer quality of the craft and relish of the cast. He makes it look so easy.

‘Joy’ (dir. David O. Russell)

I’ve felt David O. Russell has been slowly disappearing up his own asshole with his last couple of features. I liked many things about Silver Lining’s Playbook and American Hustle, but there was a tinge of artifice and contrivance creeping into play that failed to satisfy quite like his more bitterly honest earlier stuff. Lawrence is excellent, albeit miscast – too youthful, the rest fails to really shift away from the sorts of problems the previous two pictures presented, but with an added identity crisis to boot. Is Joy a messy screwball relationship comedy or a drama of aspiration? I doubt even O.Russell knows.

‘The Revenant’ (dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu)

I find it hard to get excited about Iñárritu’s films, from the interesting but overrated Amores perros to the fun, frothy but really overrated Birdman. The Revenant had me from the start with its confidence, daring and beautiful, terrifying photography (Emmanuel Lubezki really is the master). DiCaprio deserves the awards simply for being such a trooper and diving into this shit so fearlessly. The audacity of Herzog with the beauty of Malick. I thought it was terrific.

‘Creed’ (dir. Ryan Coogler)

I remember thinking when Rocky Balboa came out in 2006 that it was probably the weightiest instalment since the original, but I’m thinking that honour now passes to this sequel-come-spin-off. I’m staggered by how satisfying it is and pretty much awed that such a fresh, character-centric story could pop up 40-years into a franchise. This isn’t just a good Rocky film but legitimately one of my favourite films of the season and well-deserving of all that praise/awards recognition floating around.

Other stuff:

*I‘ve blasted through all thirteen episodes of Marvel/Netflix’ impressive Jessica Jones, which held together better than the three other mixed-bag MCU shows. I liked much of last year’s Daredevil, but this is the first Marvel show I feel completely works as its own thing, with a steel spine and a really brilliant central character/performance bouncing off a truly intimidating threat. It’s so tight and focused. The feature film division and the other shows have a lot to learn from what they’ve done with this.

*I’ve read Stephen King’s 11/22/63 and Dan Hodges’ One Minute to Ten. Both were solid.

*I was quite sad about Alan Rickman and super sad about David Bowie. Apparently Celine Dion’s husband and thousands of other people died too but I didn’t give a shit about them so I’m generally fine with it.

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July

I watched some American films. Also, Penny Dreadful S03, Hannibal S03, True Detective S02, Marvel’s Agent Carter S01, Inside Amy Schumer S01 a load of old monster-of-the-week X-Files episodes + the first half of Netflix’ Wet Hot American Summer prequel series.

‘Ant-Man’ (dir. Peyton Reed)

Surprise surprise, after a year of expecting Marvel to finally shit the boat post-Edgar Wright they prove us all wrong by crushing it for about the five millionth time. After being underwhelmed by the messy Avengers: Age of Ultron, I never realised how much I needed a low-key MCU entry with middling scale and minor ambition beyond an intense desire to entertain. Rudd is such a likeable presence and never feels like he’s leading a cast with the pressures and responsibilities of a pricey Disney investment on the line. For the first time in years I was able to shift my thinking away from the baggage of the shared-universe concept and focus simply on the story and characters at hand.

‘Inside Out’ (dir. Pete Docter)

Many seem to believe Pixar are in the midst of some sort of dry spell, albeit a dry spell where no production gains less than decent reviews and $500m+ in receipts. It seems unfair to punish the studio for not producing outright masterpieces on every occasion, as if the excellent Monsters University not attaining the flawlessness of its predecessor is somehow sacrilege. I think Inside Out is probably their best work this decade and can stand proudly alongside Wall-E, Up, Ratatouille era. These guys make sophisticated, conceptually tricky ideas, ideas of immense complexity, not just glow but radiate off the screen. I’m in awe of how the Pixar team shape this stuff into funny, living audience-friendly product without sacrificing a shred of the artistry.

‘Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation’ (dir. Christopher McQuarrie)

Christopher McQuarrie is just a tremendous craftsman, delivering the best entry since the ‘96 De Palma picture. I like the standalone nature of these stories, the increasing bravery and ingenuity of Cruise in approaching these stunts and the total understanding of the tone required by Baldwin, Pegg etc. The Vienna opera house sequence is simply a great setpece, wonderfully conceived and beautifully executed by McQuarrie, Cruise and Rebecca Ferguson. Ghost Protocol was essentially the astounding Dubai sequence with a skeleton film wrapped around it. McQuarrie’s picture, by comparison, keeps throwing on the great moments and boundless energy making for yet another terrific summer action picture after the highs of Furious 7 and Mad Mad: Fury Road.

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‘Terminator Genisys’ (Alan Taylor, 2015)

Yeah, so this one stunk.

Genisys never justifies its own existence, failing to delve into the rich series mythology to find a story worth telling and instead opting to, effectively, follow T3’s lead in offering up another stale remake of T2: Judgment Day. If you’re going to extend the franchise beyond the definitive ending of James Cameron’s two pictures, at least bring something to warrant dragging out audiences for a fifth time. Fandom has no problem conjuring endless interesting stories in the Terminator-verse, so why do studios so consistently fail to capitalise on the possibilities available? Why does this sequel – with no shortage of talent behind and in front of the camera – mangle itself into circles and eventually disappear deep up its own asshole with thunderously boring setpieces, an atrocious third-act and little in the way of vision, purpose or direction. Why return to this set of characters again when there’s so much obvious fruit to be picked from elsewhere in a post-apocalyptic world? Why am I stuck watching yet another actor as John Connor going through the motions trying to stop the same shit in the same way against the same ‘new model threat’. A series with so much possibility is rendered tedious and unoriginal for the third consecutive film.

Rian Johnson’s Looper, a superior time-travel actioner with a fraction the budget of these ‘sequels’, is a more faithful Terminator follow-up than anything this mob has offered up in the last quarter-century.

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June stuff

‘Jurassic World’ (dir.Colin Trevorrow)

This theme park is negligently run, with seemingly no formal disaster policy or preparation, an incompetent staff and lax H&S. It’s populated by chronically stupid personnel with little to no sign of any regional Hispanic workers. Perhaps they realised it’s a death trap?

I mostly found the film a ball, more than a sniff of John Sayles bonkers ‘raptors with guns’ draft from 2005 and other development-process residuals fashioning an audience-pleasing retro feel quite unlike most of this summer’s output. It’s a Frankenstein’s monster of about twenty other films with an inexplicably Christmassy opening, multiple uses of John Williams’ themes and an endless succession of references to the original picture. Trevorrow might be pushing his luck with the more self-aware qualities, but it’s an enjoyable, dinosaur action picture that greatly improves on the two previous sequels. Messy, flawed but unashamedly dumbo monster fun.

If there’s one big miss, it just goes far to highlight how great Spielberg really is at this shit. He’s the grand master at pulling decent work from a supporting cast where Trevorrow falls headfirst at the character beats and chemistry, nailing the big awe and action technicals whilst showing a tin-ear for the cast fizz.

Other American shit I’ve watched:

‘It Follows’ (dir. David Robert Mitchell): Near perfect indie horror. Fascinating and terrifying ideas, strong young cast, amazing synth score. I loved this.

‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ (dir. George Miller): Best of 2015 thus far. Impeccable craft, ingenuity and entertainment value. Extraordinary performance from Theron, great practical vehicle stunts and refreshing gender politics.

‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ (dir. Joss Whedon): Feels like a step back down for MCU after the A++ of Winter Soldier and Guardians. Great characters and humour let down by a pedestrian ‘threat’ and excessive bloaty runtime.

‘Furious 7’ (dir. James Wan): A series operating at its absolute highest level for the third consecutive film. Wan persevered through the difficult production and has produced a ballsy, giant, enormously entertaining blockbuster.

‘John Wick’ (dir. Stahelski/Leitch): Keanu Reeves best, and possibly only, good work since the original Matrix. Extremely impressive choreography and world building for such a tight budget.

‘Insidious 3’ (dir. Leigh Whanell): An elegance and technique missing from most horror sequels, let alone round 3. Blumhouse Productions are doing a lot of solid work recently so I’m happy to continue engaging with their strange little astral-projection mythology.

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February

‘Kingsman: The Secret Service’ (Matthew Vaughn, 2015) 

Long may the Matthew Vaughn/Jane Goldman dreamteam continue, here to be as anarchic, provocative and shamelessly juvenile as they can get away with! It’s thirty minutes too long, the villain(s) never quite work and half the audience will be gone by the end, but it’s a funny, uninhibited picture with some audaciously batty sequences (Colin Firth church massacre!) and no seeming interest in courting the sort of broad audience required for further sequels. Vaughn seems incapable of taking filmmaking particularly seriously. He’s just pissing about. I like that. 

‘The Guest’ (Adam Wingard, 2014) 

I completely flipped out for Wingard’s last film You’re Next, so it’s great to see him build on that promise with another tight, genre-literate and unfailingly entertaining thriller. He’s one of those guys just waiting to hit the mainstream circuit and crush a bigger project. Dan Stevens was linked to Fox’s Escape from New York remake recently. Someone get Wingard on that job! He’s here with ultra-violence and black humour to save us from a generation of vanilla hackery! 

‘Jupiter Ascending’ (The Wachowski’s, 2015) 

Inconsistencies, faults and all, I’ve a lot of respect for what the Wachowski’s try to do with their work. There’s so much heart and such unabashed pursuit of their interests (exploration of identity/self-discovery/magpie-mythology /mad action), it’s hard to dislike them as filmmakers even as they wave goodbye to the latest chunk of studio money with an overbudgeted underpeformer whose failure was visible from years away. I really wish I liked Jupiter Ascending more than I do. Channing Tatum as a surfing wolf-merc, Sean Bean as a human/bee hybrid, nutty world building and bonkers design; it’s the stuff cult is made of (re: Chronicles of Riddick), inert storytelling and lack of momentum sadly holding an otherwise enthusiastically mad project back from triumph. They’ll come crawling back to the Matrix franchise in the end of course, in the way of a defeated army seeking refuge on familiar territory, but for now I suppose I can’t help but admire their steadfast refusal to play by the rules. 

‘Selma’ (Ava DuVernay, 2015) 

I watched Selma in the aftermath of the almighty stink kicked up by its general exclusion from awards season. There seems to be a wide critical incomprehension over how the likes of The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything slipped into so many categories at the expense of DuVernay’s movie, views I wholeheartedly agree with when it’s clearly a sharper, more relevant picture than those two dry, awards-friendly biopics. Through its exclusion, Selma provides a useful role in awards-season commentary, highlighting the ongoing diversity-issues at the Academy and their never-ending commitment to acknowledging ‘worthy’ prestige pictures and obviously awards-friendly performances over films with real grit and purpose. DuVernay’s picture is marvellous, its omission shining a bright spotlight on its qualities. David Oyelowo is unshowy, chameleonic and flat-out extraordinary as MLK, complimented every step by DuVernay’s assured, confident direction. There’re no sweeping cameras and big score, this is historic document pitched down at dirty, cheap street-level, crawling through the shit with the activists. Perhaps too raw for the Academy.

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January

 ‘Wild’ (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2015) 

Immediate flashbacks to Mia Wasikowska in Tracks about a year ago. Nick Hornby adapted this one, and its very much another performance vehicle with minimal thrills beyond Reese Witherspoon’s great central role and Laura Dern (flashbacky fun) – both deserving their Academy acknowledgment. Witherspoon’s having a killer year between this, Inherent Vice and the £££ of Gone Girl. Hooking up with a director as adept with actors as Vallée was a smart move, one hopefully to be repeated in the career of a slightly underrated performer guilty in the past of too regularly picking crap projects. 

‘The Double’ (Richard Ayoade, 2014)

I really fell for Richard Ayoade’s debut Submarine, so it’s frustrating that his follow-up is so flimsy on substance with humorous beats that just don’t hit their mark. There’s a relatively effective T.Gilliam feel to the office bureaucracy, production design is appropriately retro and the cast are game, but Ayoade’s tonal aim is off and the black comic edge + darker dramatic elements never quite align.

‘American Sniper’ (Clint Eastwood, 2015) 

Extraordinarily accomplished on a technical level, wonderfully acted and edited, somewhat troubling politically. Whilst never shying from the impact warfare has on its lead, Eastwood’s idolatry of Chris Kyle, dehumanisation of his Iraqi opponents, elimination of any content to challenge the consensus of those filling cinemas in the US and creepy, propagandist, flag-fetishising nonsense makes for an experience that frustrates as much as it entertains. There’s been a huge audience for this picture amongst the demographic flattered by its approach, a support I can’t really see crossing over into international markets less enamoured by red-state tunnel vision. The scene where Kyle and his wife watch the 9/11 attacks on television, the rage for REVENGE burning in his eyes = hilarity that should immediately discount Eastwood’s movie from any sort of awards contention.

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Films I have watched

‘A Theory of Everything’ (James Marsh, 2014)

I actually quite enjoy predictable biopic-by-rote; it’s just the sheen of prestige and efforts to clog up winter awards lists that grate me down. This sort of stuff plays well with the older audiences that make up voting blocks, it’s unchallenging and conventional and it’s consequently destined to land a raft of Academy Awards nominations however little or much it deserves them. As with The Imitation Game, strong performances buoy paint-by-numbers storytelling, the perception of ‘worthy’ material pushing otherwise unremarkable filmmaking into a brutal competition it’s not equipped to fight. Eddie Redmayne drools and gurns his way through a Stephen Hawking impression. Many will be impressed, and Redmayne gives it a good crack, but in Tom Cruise Rain Man style, it’s Felicity Jones who has the tougher part and gives the more striking performance. 

‘Birdman’ (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2014)

Iñárritu was always my least favourite of the Mexican Hollywood triumvirate; too self-consciously important, neither as gloatingly indulgent as Guillermo del Toro or as innovative and visually dextrous as Alfonso Cuarón. Well, consider this his coming-out party in the long-take pissing contest Cuarón’s been playing this last few years, a two-hour slam down of invisible cuts and uninterrupted pleasure, Iñárritu finally loosening the hell up and making a film with a lighter touch. For someone quite literally given a ‘Quentin Tarantino comeback’ in the late nineties, Michael Keaton jumps through the career-salvation window like a ravenous wolf, tearing into his best part in twenty-years with all that pent-up energy and manic charm that made him a star in the first place. Keaton’s moviestar baggage and middle-aged self-loathing makes this the ideal match of actor and material, as perfectly cast as Bill Murray in Lost in Translation and deserving of the big award denied that actor. 

‘The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies’ (Peter Jackson, 2014)

I actually like a lot of the crap Peter Jackson included – the elf/dwarf romance adds a human touch amongst CG landscapes, but let’s be honest, Jackson’s heart was never really in these films. Battle of the Five Armies is a fine, quite entertaining fantasy-action picture, but it’s burdened by the same conceptual faults as it’s two predecessors and never ascends to even the lower-tier of what the original Lord of the Rings trilogy achieved a decade earlier. The result is a misshapen bloater of an adaptation, doing much to thrill but never with any semblance of direction, succeeding under its narrow remit for Friday-night excitement but never, for a second, justifying the scope or runtime of this three-film trilogy.

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‘Inherent Vice’ (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014)

PT Anderson’s new movie isn’t out until the New Year so the usual flood of interviews, articles and TV ads have yet to move it onto my radar. I’ve read Thomas Pynchon’s novel, which I didn’t really click with, but the premature arrival of this adaptation courtesy of a surprise last-minute screening shifts it amongst 2014 concerns.

Anderson’s stage intro was predictably met by ecstatic applause, however for all the rapturous response, his Inherent Vice will likely have divided a room still acclimatising themselves to the esoteric gear shift taken with 2012’s The Master. Those expecting a Scorsese-light 70s burner a la Boogie Nights might have been disappointed, those amenable to the ongoing evolution of his free flowing style were frequently in hysterics, rolling with what is an often hilarious, strangely sweet natured and basically structureless picture that stumbles, drug-addled through its California beach setting toward the finish line. Pynchon’s novel took a similar approach, but without the opportunity to fall back on the rhythms of actor chemistry and visual comedy it struggled to maintain my interest as it ambled place to place. What felt on the page like a not entirely comfortable blend of detective potboiler and stoner romp has less of an identity crisis when filtered through the Anderson sensibility. Still less accessible than a There will be Blood, but very much assured of its identity and offering pleasures to those who acquiesce to the humour of PTA.

My big fear (nothing to do with awards, this is sooooooo not an Oscar film) is that the irreverence and throwaway built-for-cult-love design of the thing prevent proper appreciation of how insanely great Joaquin Phoenix is. He’s in every scene, all 2.5 hours of them, and it’s another full-bodied, beautifully inclusive performance. Beyond bonkers costume and hair design, Phoenix is hitting strikes each minute, balancing the broader slapstick moments with the almost imperceptible slurring, mumbling and stumbling that always feels organic to the character and never the affected tic of an actor at work. In a world without Philip Seymour Hoffman (surely Kinski to PTA Herzog?), Phoenix is a more than capable substitute-muse for mid-era Anderson.

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November thoughts

‘The Babadook’ (Jennifer Kent, 2014)

Occasionally a horror film emerges from outside of the studio system and revives your faith in the genre. This time it’s a tiny Australian picture; literate in its influences but veering away from self-awareness and irony. The Babadook features entirely fresh and threatening creature design but seems concerned more by its central relationships than cheap scares or unnecessary violence. Essie Davis is simply extraordinary (we’re talking Ellen Burstyn Exorcist levels here), commanding every scene of Kent’s own script and navigating a way through the path that merges breadline realism, mental health issues and the supernatural without ever swerving too far in any one direction. 

‘Nightcrawler’ (Dan Gilroy, 2014)

 The best ‘LA’ movie I’ve seen since Drive. Sharp satire, killer soundtrack and a striking, career-best performance from the increasingly impressive Gyllenhaal. Destined for future cult status, but probably too breezily stylish to make any impact for a few years. Lou Bloom is my new favourite sociopath.

 ‘Interstellar’ (Christopher Nolan, 2014)

IMAX is the only way to go. Nolan’s space epic has a lot of problems, not least a creaky first act that could’ve paradoxically done with both losing and gaining material, some inexcusable tonal shifts and a loss of focus leading to some iffy back-fourth editing uncharacteristic of the team that delivered a picture as tightly wound as Inception. As an exercise in sheer ambition, it’s worthy of all the plaudits thrown its way. The scale of the thing, the strength of some of the sequences once we’re off the Earth, the balance between human story and spectacle, the conceptual balls of the final act and Nolan’s skill at conveying extremely complicated concepts in an audience-friendly way. For audacity alone, flaws acknowledged, its one of the years most memorable and stands alongside AI, Sunshine, The Fountain, Cloud Atlas, Moon etc as one of the brave and bold of modern sci-fi.

‘The Imitation Game’ (Morten Tyldum, 2014) 

Never quite transcending its televisual feel, this paint-by-numbers Alan Turing biopic is nonetheless a handsome production that hopefully doesn’t find itself tainted (a la King’s Speech) by a major(ly undeserved) presence during awards season. Cumberbatch and Knightley are impressive, and Tyldum tells an important story with just the right mix of dewy-eyed admiration and hardheaded historical meat.

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