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Some thoughts…

‘Gone Girl’ (David Fincher, 2014) 

David Fincher is as good as the material he’s given. Luckily Gillian Flynn’s novel is super-junk, great trash storytelling. Like Steven Spielberg over the past twenty years, mid-era Fincher has gathered a tight little band of collaborators. There’s been a new Fincher on display since The Social Network, stylistically restrained and content to allow the scripts do the talking, directorial tics taking a backseat to elegant composition, good actors and that same backing band to provide those tight cuts, clean shots and textured soundscape. What should be a minor-entry in the canon, a bill-paying studio job between the real work (a la Dragon Tattoo), is elevated to high-sleaze pop art of the most satisfying breed. The cast are sprinters at the start of a hundred-metre race, wound up and ready to go, each fighting to outdo the next as Fincher chases them with bullets from his starting gun. Stupendously, gloriously pleasurable stuff.

I’ve also watched some other random shit, some of which I’ll babble about more at the end of the year:

A Walk Among the Tombstones was another notch on the bedpost of Liam Neeson’s post-Taken career shift of which I’m such an enthusiastic supporter. Completely forgettable autumnal nonsense, but Scott Frank’s a decent enough filmmaker and just about keeps it from drifting into dodgy DTV territory.

Bad Neighbours was a sorta funny, watchable, throwaway frat comedy. I’m sure it played well to the friday-night crowds over the summer with a short runtime, adequate set-up and likeable leads. It’s hard to get overly excited about this kind of thing. Laughed a few times.

Frank was a terrific treatise on the intersection between mental illness and the creative process with an unbearably sad Jon Ronson script. Fassbender and the full fake band are great and hilarious. Domhnall Gleeson finally rises up to the lofty standards of his father.

Of Gleeson Snr, Calvary is likely a top-five finisher when I compile my favourites of the year. John Michael McDonagh’s film about the last week in the life of a priest in an Irish coastal village is small, but almost perfectly formed and hasn’t left my thoughts since.

I also re-watched most of The Descendants the other night which remains an impressive, emotional entry for Alexander Payne with the best performance George Clooney’s likely to give. Love that Hawaiian scenery.

Oh, and the announcement of Twin Peaks returning for that long-awaited third series in 2016 is pretty much the highlight of my autumn.

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‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ (James Gunn, 2014)

Marvel Studios are taking the piss. They’re drunk on their own confidence after a riotously successful 6-year stretch, ramming out A-grade entertainment in a fully integrated world whilst their competitors fail to keep pace. Who would’ve thought a decade ago that either Guardians or April’s fantastic Captain America sequel would bulldoze the increasingly shabby Spider-Man franchise? Who could’ve predicted a Superman reboot could conceivably open to weaker reviews and lower box office than a Marvel sequel starring a lower-tier character? Whilst DC struggle to mount a Wonder Woman project, Marvel pump out workmanlike Thor pictures every other year. The world’s gone mad.

Guardians might feel less mythic and grand than the Star Wars sequel we’ll see next Christmas, but make no mistake, James Gunn has shot the best space adventure Disney’ll put out this side of the inevitable Guardians II. The thing moves breezily, no fat or time to pause as the ensemble are thrown together within fifteen minutes, zipping straight into an irresistible mix of snappy action, sharp banter and machine-gun raccoon. There’s an alternate universe where Lucasfilm released a Han Solo spin-off project in the late seventies that played a bit like this with Chewbacca, bounty hunters and a crew of fellow space pirates bombing around the galaxy to a pop music soundscape. Parks & Recreation’s Chris Pratt has the most watchable swagger this side of Tony Stark, rolling around this vibrant, colourful feature like a fresh moviestar braced to make an impact. The Jurassic World team are ridiculously lucky to have pinned him down just as his profile explodes. 

 

Vin Diesel plays a talking tree for fucks sake. How did they expect me not to go for that?

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‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ (Matt Reeves, 2014)

A very comfortable progression from the 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes, itself a thoroughly enjoyable and adult sci-fi picture. It’s to the credit of Fox Studios that they’re trusting enough to allow Matt Reeves to turn out a picture of this breed, one which builds on the strongest features of Rupert Wyatt’s film by playing the anti-blockbuster card, acknowledging that the best elements of part 1 were the human-free sections of mo-cap monkey and gearing the film heavily toward more time spent with the beautifully-realised ape characters. It’s quite a turn-around for the studio, once notorious for unwelcome interference, now seemingly content for the creatives to play. Both Apes and X-Men titles are back from the brink this last couple of years and finally fulfilling their promise.

The performance capture technology, for all its great use in earlier works (including the first film),  feels as though it’s realising its potential on this project. Reeves shoots a lot of the ape material on exterior locations out in the San Francisco forests, giving an earthy, lived-in feel that the digital characters slip seamlessly into. Unlike say, Avatar, where there felt a visible clash in styles between the fully animated jungle environments and the live-action sets, Dawn does a near-flawless job of integrating its CG characters into the real-world setting, believably interacting with both forest and human co-leads alike.

There’s a neatly uncomplicated ‘clash of the civilisations’ thing running through the picture, rammed with the sort of on-the-nose social comment that worked so well for the original franchise. It’s always a surprise when mega-budget features grapple, successfully, with tough ideas – especially ones without tidy or typically happy conclusions. The performances feel so complete and the storytelling so sharp that it’s an absolute pleasure to be guided into that level of engagement and the endless possibilities ahead for future stories in this world.

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Recent viewings

‘All is Lost’ (JC Chandor, 2013) 

Seems Redford subscribes to the old view that age is no barrier to the continued success of a true movie star. He’s not headed to the retirement home yet (Expendables IV anyone?!), bouncing together a lead villain role in the biggest Marvel comics movie of the year with this aquatic survival thriller that seems, on retrospect, an unusual omission from the Oscar-babble that I’d normally expect to surround such a role. I admire the unapologetic directness of Chandor’s film. Whereas Gravity, for all its greatness and plaudits, drew some criticism for the backstory of its central character, Redford here is a total enigma, reacting with mesmerising purpose to the unfolding events but acting with nobody to zip off and with only his silent, unknown thoughts for company. It’s strong work.

‘Boyhood’ (Richard Linklater, 2014) 

Any filmmaker with a series as special as Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight need never worry for devoted fans. Nothing else I saw last year quite hit on a personal level like those draining hundred minutes spent with Hawke & Delpy on the Greek coast. My reverence for those films aside; I’m stumped if I’ll ever see Linklater make another film quite like this. Boyhood is extraordinary, a total marvel of a creation that’s achingly sad, funny, fascinating and strikes twelve years of nostalgia buttons without abusing the unique opportunity its multi-year production offers. It’d be easy to ride out the ‘gimmick’, losing an audience in the sounds and smells of their own past decade, but Linklater doesn’t do that, there’s a through-line here that would’ve worked even if shot conventionally with older actors taking over in increments. I’m in love with every aspect of this film and intend to rave about its qualities a great deal more as we move toward awards season. 

‘The Libertines: There Are No Innocent Bystanders’ (Roger Sargent, 2011) 

I finally caught the band at their big Hyde Park gig earlier this month after almost ten years of support, so now’s probably as good a time as any to have watched Sargent’s documentary. I’ve admired his work with the band in Libertines: Bound Together, as thorough a photographic testimony of the period as one could ever require. Sargent does a fine job of covering the events surrounding their brief 2010 reunion and festival slot, nicely mixing historical record with live performance pieces. To my delight, the strong pre-Up The Bracket demo period isn’t neglected by the film soundtrack.

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TV and shit what I have been watching

Parks & Recreation ended its penultimate series at pretty much the same standard as the previous five – almost unheard of for a long-running comedy. I noticed whilst watching earlier seasons that former The Simpsons showrunner Mike Scully is on the writing staff, a show whose successful first decade is well-aped by Parks character-first approach, world-building and loveable ensemble. For all the great material put out on BBC and Channel 4, I’m convinced shunning the 20+episode season writing-room approach in favour of six 25-minute chunks is a great failing of British sitcoms. 

Louie is unstoppable in its fourth series, pure auteur-art that drifts further from the mainstream (or any attempt to milk jokes) with each episode. I’m still bitter I missed getting live tickets for Louis CK’s London gigs last year. 

Game of Thrones. I’m up-to-date having blitzed three seasons over Easter. I wish I’d watched those first thirty episodes before visiting the Northern Irish Causeway Coast last autumn, the various locales lost on me at the time. Even as a non-reader of the novels, its apparent HBO have stumbled upon the preferable method of adapting this type of story, my prayers for a glorious eight-season run of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower more likely by the day Thrones maintains its success. 

Hannibal proved its worth in a triumphant second year, learning from the mistakes of the imperfect premiere season and finding focus with its (flexible) backstory to the Thomas Harris’ novels. It’s going to be interesting watching the gang segue into that timeframe over the next year or so, whether they’re comfortable to deviate radically from canon or whether we’ll see relatively straight adaptations of Red Dragon & Silence of the Lambs. With this cast and creative team I’m convinced it’ll wind up as the definitive screen telling of those stories.

Fargo had me from the first episode, but the surprise reveal mid-series of its status as a sequel rather than a loose remake to the Coen Brothers classic tipped it over into perhaps my favourite new show of the year after True Detective. The cast roll with the black, off-kilter Coeny tone and the possibilities are endless for further stories in this strange little universe. Here’s waiting for the 2015 greenlight!

24: Live Another Day, half way through the reduced run, is a nice little nostalgia trip to early-era Bauer, with hilarious London setting and Stephen Fry as Prime Minister. In lieu of a feature film, it’s a fine way to send off the character on a high after a disastrous final three years on the original run.

 Marvel’s Agents of Shield was something of an endurance challenge for the first thirteen of fourteen episodes; an easy hit that never quite struck the target. Post-Captain America: The Winter Soldier though, gears have just started to whir, previously facile characters springing to life and a largely unsuccessful show starting to discover itself as a complimentary piece to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’ll probably continue watching it next year. 

Mad Men is done with the first block of its two-part seventh series and they’re pulling back to the strengths of the first three years with the microscope on Don Draper and the wider cast in the periphery. All things end, but it’ll be especially sad to see a show as fresh, engaged and consistent as Mad Men finish up the sixties.

Filmy things

Exhibition (dir. Joanna Hogg). I’ve enjoyed all three of Hogg’s films, however Exhibition feels like she’s stretching her legs, balancing the love for middle-class angst with some daringly experimental and creative touches in sound design and interior exploration. The staid, static approach worked perfectly for her earlier dramas, but this feels like an important development in style, opening up all sorts of possibilities for where she could head next. 

Short Term 12 (dir. Destin Daniel Cretton) is almost perfect but would be too humble to admit it. A drama set in a facility for disturbed teenagers should be tough material, but the film is warm-hearted to its core. Cretton, through beautifully understated writing and direction understands that there’s nothing more interesting then real life. 

Godzilla (dir. Gareth Edwards). Summer 2014 is on fire with a weird consistency rate and most of the big releases hitting their mark. Surely this would’ve been the sort of project you would’ve earmarked for failure, but Edwards’ has delivered a picture with superhuman levels of patience, holding off the big payoffs for the final act whilst teasing and charming the audience through the opening ninety. It’s a real craftsman’s blockbuster, strangely old-fashioned in an industry that thrives on cheap thrills and instant gratification. 

X-Men: Days of Future Past (dir. Bryan Singer) is the third decent X-Men picture on the go, a feat I would’ve thought impossible during the dark five-year patch at the end of last decade. Fox have pulled it around, got their house in order, and are again delivering big budget superhero cinema of a very good, if unremarkable, quality. There’s been a little chat about how Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence were dragged back kicking & screaming on their trilogy contracts, careers having blossomed since signing for First Class, so its little surprise they seem less enthused then the old-hands from the 2000 and 2003 pictures. Stewart & McKellen seem to be enjoying themselves after a lengthy absence; Bryan Singer weeping for joy behind the camera that X-Men is back to save him from the wilderness. 

Edge of Tomorrow (dir. Doug Liman) has no right to work as well as it does. Liman’s been producing unmitigated shit for years and the marketing campaign has been sloppy and unappealing, yet the film works on its own terms, it’s funny as hell, it mines the well-worn Groundhog Day concept, and it deserves to be the hit it likely won’t be. A lot of that rests with Cruise, who gets a worse press than he deserves for a guy who’s spent thirty years performing to a high standard in these sorts of movies, always ready to prove his detractors wrong following the distracting intrusion of his personal life.

The Kings of Summer (dir. Jordan Vogt-Roberts) fulfilled my greedy periodic desire for indie coming-of-agers, that most attractive of genre, with some impressive performances from the young cast and an appealing, adventurous story in which the three leads abandon their shitty parents to live in a self-constructed house in the woods. Apparently the director might be making a Metal Gear Solid video game feature next. I guess in Hollywood, anyone’s corruptible…

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‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2’ (Marc Webb, 2014)

I didn’t just dislike Marc Webb’s first Amazing Spider-Man picture but actively protested against its very existence. Even without those inevitable comparisons to Sam Raimi’s trilogy and the commercial imperative that lead so quickly to Sony’s greenlight, it’s a drab, colourless failure with nothing to bring to an audience now familiar with a higher class of comicbook feature. Webb, a minor talent at best, opted for a pale imitation of Raimi’s superior efforts over any sort of fresh take on the character. The result was perhaps the worst superhero film since Fox fluffed Fantastic Four.

This sequel is a small step up, if perverse curiosity and bafflement can be considered an improvement on active hatred. Not to unfairly malign fans but it feels like it’s probably a fair adaptation of a comicbook enjoyed by pre-teens, a pre-X-Men 90s comic picture, sort of the Batman Forever of Spider-Man movies. Forever, a fair comparison if ever there was one, felt similarly messy with superfluous subplots and garish design – maintaining a tenuous enough link to better films to avoid full alienation (and hey, the Bat at least indulges my vigilante power fantasies!), but bloated, openly stupid and seemingly courting the sort of mockery that’ll come from producing such a dim-witted, muddled sequel. I’m already looking back more fondly on Raimi’s third Spidey!

Webb never really figures out what he’s doing in this world, what it is that appeals to him about these characters and why we want to spend further time watching this iteration of the character. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone try hard, but they’re working with sub-Nicholas Sparks material, their innate charm and likeability barely holding the thing together whilst the army of credited screenwriters fail to dish up much worth sticking about for. More annoying still are the Marvel Studios-aping attempts to craft some sort of larger universe for Garfield’s hero, with a thunderously awful ‘wider mythology’ falling into place, soon to be complimented by a number of further sequels and unwarranted spin-offs. The prospect of being bombarded with the bloody things for the next decade is as unappealing as Marvel’s efforts are welcome; the perfect shitty counterpoint to Kevin Feige’s masterful handling of those properties over at Disney/Marvel.

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‘Noah’ (Darren Aronofsky, 2014)

I’m liable to have no small amount of goodwill toward any filmmaker with a striking vision across their body of work, not least a director as deranged and visually inventive as Darren Aronofsky. His last release, the ever-divisive Black Swan, didn’t so much teeter on the ropes of melodrama, but leapt face-first into the ring in the manner, perhaps, of Mickey Rourke’s washed-up fighter Randy ‘The Ram’ in its more naturalistic sister-film The Wrestler

Noah finds a middle ground between these two approaches, as substantial and believable as the latter whilst offering more of the manic, creative energy of the wonderfully nutty Swan. Aronofsky grounds his story in fantastical myth, a pre-history of the Earth where the colour schemes of the sky to the creatures that stalk the forests have as much in common with Avatar as they do any do any realistic account of early Man. The world is a polluted, industrial, carnivorous mess with the cleansing power of the flood destined to promise electric cars, renewable energy and radical, Aronofsky-strength veganism.

Even divorced from common interpretations (though I can’t pretend to much theological literacy), Aronofsky finds great thematic weight in this story, not just in his environmental arguments but in the complexity of the decisions placed in the hands of these people, the challenging (but never deliberately provocative) moral choices that present themselves, and the descent into fanaticism on part of Russell Crowe’s lead. This is Crowe’s first truly great central role since Master and Commander, shaking off a decade of patchiness to tear into a proper, meaty old leading mans part with actual screen presence and a whole world of bottled emotion inside.

This is important work for both actor and director; an ambitious project that takes a fascinating perspective on a universal story, showing its continued relevance through the most creative of adaptations. The scale makes me pine for Aronofsky’s abandoned big-budget production of The Fountain that died weeks before shooting a decade ago. I wouldn’t trade the scaled-back 2006 version for the world, but the vastness of Noah brings back memories of that cursed effort and hopes that it’s not too long before he gifts us with a seventh feature.

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Spring Sequels: ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ (The Russo Brothers, 2014)/‘The Raid II’ (Gareth Evans, 2014)

Captain America: The First Avenger was B-grade Marvel; breezily enjoyable nonsense with chronic third-act issues, effectively a two-hour prologue paving the way toward the main event of 2012’s Avengers. I’m enjoying this post-Avengers ‘Phase II’ so far. Marvel finally seems comfortable embracing the potential of these worlds, super-producer Kevin Feige signing off on radical film-to-film, franchise-to-franchise divergences. 

Captain America: The Winter Soldier, with effortless ease, slips into the realm of the action thriller, lifting the series up to the stature of the successes of the first and third Iron Man films whilst building on and complementing the Avengers pictures that, for now, remain destined to be the spine of the Marvel cinematic universe. There’s a moral complexity here leagues ahead of anything attempted since the game kicked off six summers ago, certainly the comedic Iron Man or glossy hero buffet of The Avengers never dipped into such murky territory. That it’s been achieved with a lower-tier character who never really came to life until the crossover picture is as surprising as it is welcome, directors Joe & Anthony Russo avoiding sloppy jingoism and nailing a mix of propulsive, fluid action with unexpectedly prescient political comment. Chuck in Robert Redford, Samuel L Jackson and (the in-form) Scarlett Johansson and you’ve got a winner, an inordinately satisfying one at that.

My effusive praise of The Raid hasn’t dimmed over the last two years. It’s one of the great modern action spectaculars, a balletic dance of fighting mayhem. The Raid II widens the scope beyond the sustained corridor punch-ups of the first, laying on a series of extraordinary and flawlessly executed setpieces across a broader canvass. It’s to director Gareth Evans credit that he avoids a straight rehash of the first, spreading the action over a whole city and widening the scope to craft his own crime saga, punctuated by occasional bursts of star Iko Uwais’ incredible Pencak Silat martial arts. 

Watching again with the packed audience that brought so much to the experience of viewing the original, The Raid II was a blast – Evans’ innate understanding of how to choreograph and edit fight sequences makes up for the occasional narrative drag of his ambitiously lengthy runtime. Best is a car chase through the streets of Jakarta where Uwais battles hoards of combatants in, around and on top of a vehicle as it hurtles through the streets. The practical stuntwork, unflinching violence and manic confidence – leagues ahead of the competition.

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Spring Catch-up

The Lego Movie (dir. Phil Lord & Chris Miller) is a complete triumph; a wholly satisfying adventure equal parts charming, inventive and hilarious. Lord & Miller are now three-for-three with their directing credits, taking a potentially dubious premise and crafting a pitch-perfect family comedy. It’s awesome.

300: Rise of an Empire (dir. Noam Murro) seemed to satisfy my audience, stylishly violent, unashamedly stupid and a fair pre/side/sequel to Zack Snyder’s homoerotic masterpiece. My biggest gripe, to repeat this summer with the next Sin City, is that so much time has elapsed between entries that any initial enthusiasm for a return to these worlds has pretty much collapsed. There’s a narrow window of opportunity for this sort of follow-up, a window that’s long since slammed shut. Travel back in time to about 2009 with Rise of an Empire and maybe I’d be more interested.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (dir. Wes Anderson) is another small triumph of uncompromising and unapologetic individuality, beautifully crafted in Wes Anderson’s customary style, clipped dialogue and expert-timing from the ensemble. If you’re not on board the train after eight films, it’ll likely never happen, but I continue to find no small amount of joy in each minor treat dished up by Anderson and his collaborators.

Non Stop (dir. Jaume Collet-Serra), a breezy, enjoyably dim-witted Liam Neeson thriller that probably marks the trashy highpoint of his recent action romps, or at least the first since Taken to roll with the inherent dumbness of its concept and fashion it into a watchable piece of American cheese. I was reminded a little of a mid-series episode of 24.

Under the Skin (dir. Jonathan Glazer) suggests that all the recent superlatives thrown at Scarlett Johansson following Spike Jonze’s Her be reinforced and electrified in her role as ‘nameless man-harvesting alien discovering soul’. Glazer’s film seems to be splitting people into two camps, but for my money it’s a fascinating watch, and probably the most striking and instantly memorable out-of-competition feature I’ve seen this spring. It really is every bit as terrific as all those critical raves suggest, stunning to look at, gripping and unsettling of mood, ambient electronic crackling buzzing and whirring over the horrific imagery. I’m in love.

The Zero Theorem (dir. Terry Gilliam) is no miraculous return-to-form for Gilliam after a shaky decade, but it’s nice to see him in playful mood, running wild with the cheapo set and costume design, blessed with a sporting lead in Christoph Waltz and tinkering around some interesting ideas again. It’s a mess, never finding the central thrust to make the satire gel, but I’m happier spending ninety disappointing minutes with Gilliam than whole lifetimes with lesser filmmakers.

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‘Her’ (Spike Jonze, 2013)

Spike Jonze’s directing efforts are all the more cherished for their infrequency. As with fellow ’99 club members David Fincher and P.T Anderson (an immeasurably important group to my teenage self), Jonze recognises that less is more and a scarcity of directing credits keeps the work fresh and the fans hungry. Incidentally, it’s the same ‘produce less, make sure it’s damn good’ logic employed by tour-heavy, album-light soundtrack providers Arcade Fire.

Her is a solo-Jonze script job, still rolling on the energy, influence and metaphysical ponderings of his Charlie Kaufman collaborations but perhaps less esoteric, certainly a world away from the near-impenetrable (but oh so great) Synecdoche, New York. Unlike Kaufman, who appealed exclusively to the art crowd once freed from the restrictions of pooled creativity, Jonze has a legitimate awards-hitter here with Megan Ellison’s money greasing the way to a Best Picture nomination. For an offbeat sci-fi romance, on the outer fringes of mainstream, that’s an impressive feat.

There’s a lot of Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind here, the melancholia of softcore indie rubbing against big name cast and colourful visuals, a frightening earnest heart on full display as off-putting to some as it is alluring to others. Joaquin Phoenix is always great, but its Scarlett Johansson that kills here, complimenting Phoenix’s lead perfectly whilst advancing the concept of a VO performance further than any animated competitor or mo-cap monster. Freed from the physical body, this is the best work of Johansson’s career, a breakthrough well deserved of a performer underrated by her critics, always chasing the ghost of the other miraculous Hollywood romance which kicked her into stardom, 2003’s Lost in Translation. That films writer/director, Sofia Coppola (interestingly, Jonze’s ex-wife) saw her career splutter out somewhat after its release. Let’s pray a similar curse doesn’t befall Jonze…

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