31 December 2015

Favourite 5 films of 2015

When it comes to writing this annual summary of my year in film, I can only think to start by saying that it's been a weird year. Firstly, in my eyes it's been a far from strong year for film. Only three jumped out at me as saying "I must be on your year end list" - one of those, Whiplash, has been my favourite film of the year since I saw it in January. There has been very little else that has gotten me as remotely excited. That is one reason why this list has been pared down from my usual ten to just five favourites - in previous years there's always been a lot of internal debate as I try to whittle the list down to ten, but this year I couldn't even find ten films I wanted to include.

Secondly, as the numbers below attest, I have just not watched anywhere near as many films as in recent years. On the one hand I've had to become more selective about what I see - the film geek approach of watching as much as possible at the cinema had to go on hold as life got in the way this year (for the best). Whilst I also found that that something called "television" seriously affecting my time too.

As has been the case for some time now, the satisfaction derived from the long-form storytelling offered by a television series is becoming harder for film's more ephemeral self-contained stories to match, when they're intended to be enjoyed in a single sitting. With so much out there of such high quality, it can be hard to strike a suitable balance of film and TV viewing when you want to watch it all! Purely out of curiosity, I worked out that in 2015 I watched all of these drama and comedy shows, either in their entirety or at least half of (depending on whether a series traversed year's), and it was even more than I realised:

Agent Carter (S.1), Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D (S.2 half), The Americans (S.3 half), Arrow (S.3 half), Ballers (S.1), Better Call Saul (S.1 half), Between (S.1), The Blacklist (S.2 half), Bloodline (S.1), Brooklyn Nine-Nine (S.2), Catastrophe (S1-2), C.S.I (S.15), The Flash (S.1 half), Game of Thrones (S.5), Girls (S.4), Gotham (S.1), Hannibal (S.3), Murder In the First (S.1-2), The Newsroom (S.3), The 100 (S.1-2), Orange Is the New Black (S.1-3), Sens8 (S.1), Silicon Valley (S.2), The Strain (S.2), Suits (S.4), Supergirl (S.1 half), The Walking Dead (S.5 half, S.6 half), Wayward Pines (S.1), The West Wing (S.7), Zoo (S.1)

Moving back to film, the numbers are below, and everything I watched this year can be seen in order of viewing here: http://letterboxd.com/davidhunt14/list/2015-films-watched/

128 - total films watched (-42% YOY)
40 - films watched at cinema (-88% YOY)
63 - films released in 2015 watched
4 - films to be released in the UK in 2016 watched
0 - films watched more than once in 2015

And so, in alphabetical order, these are my favourite 5 films of 2015 (favourite does not objectively equate to being the best, rather these are the films I liked the most) based on a 2015 UK release date: 

Good Kill

War is hell. We've had that hammered into us by films for years. Good Kill is one of the first to represent that concept in the digital age, essentially - war is hell when conducted remotely from a container in the Nevada desert. Ethan Hawke is superb as the disaffected air force drone pilot spying on and bombing targets in the middle east from a dark, air conditioned cockpit in a box filled with computer terminals. It effectively shows the surgical precision and ruthlessness with which (potential) enemy combatants are taken down. But more than anything it amplifies the helplessness of watching from 30,000 feet up and thousands of miles away - is what you're doing right and are your actions justified? What happens when you can only watch as something bad repeatedly happens and the mission dictates doing nothing? And then you're expected to drive home and kiss your wife good night and be ok with your life. It's inevitably something we've never considered and the whole film is a sucker punch as you can't help but empathise with these characters. Good Kill is one of the most thought-provoking and affecting films of the year.

Jurassic World

The biggest films at the box office this year have been sequels - that was always an inevitability - but what is surprising is that the sequels no-one thought they wanted were by far the best. There was really no need to return to Isla Nublar and rehash the idea of dinosaurs in a theme park. The actual awe of seeing these amazing creatures in action was seemingly passé, and it has been fourteen years since the last film after all. But Jurassic World stomps over any doubts. We clearly really do want to see what happens when the park is open and watch these creatures run amok again. The effects are even more incredible and the film is rife with thrilling set pieces. Chris Pratt further cements his exceedingly likable leading man status, whilst Jessica Chastain provides fine stern fun. All the while the underlying story of us needing bigger and better entertainment is prescient if unsubtle. It seems that watching dinosaurs on screen is still incredibly fun, in what is surprisingly one of the most enjoyable films of the year.

Mad Max: Fury Road

If you had told me a year ago that one of the most batshit crazy films of 2015 would be a $150m plus key summer release from a major studio, I wouldn't have believed it. Mad Max: Fury Road is a film like no other from this year, and we should rejoice as studios just do not throw money at crazy ideas like this anymore. That it works should come as little surprise... George Miller, the original creator/director of the Mad Max series, is the man driving this film. Tom Hardy makes for an intriguing Max even when he is channeling Bane in the first half, whilst sneakily making Charlize Theron's Furiosa the actual lead was an inspired touch. But more than anything, it utterly convincingly makes the argument for practical effects over computer generated fakeness. In fact, by flipping the script so that CGI enhances the backgrounds rather than the action makes for a more visually arresting and enjoyable film. Kudos to all involved for making what is ostensibly a two hour car chase into one of the most exciting and unexpectedly great films of the year.


Spring is one of the most interesting horror films I saw in 2015. It lacked the technical skill or stylish visuals of other contenders such as It Follows or A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, but it succeeded thanks to heart and its sense of mystery. And like both of those films, it's actually pretty subtle as horror films go. The understated moodiness of warm Italian climes adds an alluring feel to the picture, as the mystery behind Nadia Hilker's Louise draws you in. The blossoming romance between her and Lou Taylor Pucci's Evan feels right and you can't help but root for it to work - something that you didn't imagine at the start of the film. As a low budget film there's certain aspects of the effects work that could've been improved but it works because of the ideas it has. Most satisfyingly of all, it completely pays off at the end, which is something most horror films struggle to do without following the tropes of the genre - with a better conclusion It Follows might have actually made this list. Spring may not be one of the best films of the year, but it was certainly one of the most impactful and for that reason it stayed with me.


My early front-runner for film of the year and it never fell behind. Whiplash is lean, focused and hits hard. There are really two elements that make this film work so successfully: the sparring between Miles Teller's student jazz drummer and his teacher J.K Simmons, and the music. The music is loud and in your face every time it kicks in and starts to swing, making it a character in its own right. But ultimately it comes down to Teller's drive to be the best at the expense of all relationships in his life, and how much abuse he's prepared to take from Simmons' revered mentor. And it is abuse. Simmons is on sparkling form, tossing out vicious barbs and take-downs at anyone not meeting his exceptionally exacting standards, but once you worry he's one note he offers a depth and pathos that catches you off guard. And then everything syncopates, leading to the type of crescendo that you wish more films had the skill to pull off, leaving you exhilarated. This is exemplary filmmaking.
[Read my full review here]

The also-ran:

For what it's worth, these are the small handful of films that were close to being good enough to appear on this list, but just quite weren't there for whatever reason:

Ant-Man - the best superhero film of the year because it plays like a heist movie. Excellent casting and plenty of fun (Marvel gets character introductions right!), but Jurassic World was just that bit more enjoyable.

It Follows - a fascinating plot and superb camera work that reminds how something as simple as clever, deliberate camera movement can create tension. Great score too, just a shame it didn't lead to a more satisfying conclusion. 

Kingsman: The Secret Service - tremendous fun thanks to Matthew Vaughn's proclivities to go over-the-top, alongside some great casting. But it didn't sustain the energy all the way to the end, and was marred by some unwarranted, brief sexism. 

Sicario - if the whole film was like the first half, this would definitely have been on the list above. An excellent hour of mystery, intrigue and thrills (the trip into Juárez is phenomenal filmmaking), but it loses steam in the second half ending up too anti-climatic. If it had kept this up all the way though... 

(And Birdman would've been on this list had I not seen it on it's limited London run at the end of December last year, prior to wide release on 1st January - hence it appears on my 2014 list).

28 December 2015

Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

(Dir: J.J. Abrams, 2015)

There's something fascinating, and quite bemusing, observing the excessive reverence heaped upon a cultural icon that many people are deeply passionate about, when it has no hold over you. It's not very often that a film of this ilk appears to suddenly take over all cultural dialogue, but December 2015 might as well be now known as "Star Wars December". The confusing media obsession in the run-up, the same question from every person at work - "when are you seeing it?", the over forty year old man sitting two seats down from you with his wife and child who fist pumps at every little moment that reminds him of his youth from the name and title song grandly launching to characters reappearing who have not been seen since 1983, the five star reviews that feel divorced from any rationality. It seems that almost everyone is slavishly in the grip of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and can it really just be because there are more sacred cows present than you can wave a lightsaber at?

If you've seen any of the previous films in the series then chances are at the very least you will enjoy The Force Awakens, unless you actively detest anything to do with Star Wars. This is a film that's very clearly designed to entertain and it definitely delivers on that front. It has a pace that means it doesn't linger too unnecessarily on any one moment, and the action scenes benefit from the processing power that visual effects teams have available now, offering up space fighting thrills that are as good as any we've seen elsewhere (or previously). And there's something enjoyable about the reprisal of one of cinema's more iconic characters after more than thirty years, but a lot of the film's issues stem from this very same place.

The Force Awakens suffers greatly from playing things far too safe. Throughout there's the sense that J.J. Abrams is being very cautious as he doesn't want to put a foot wrong, so any adventurousness is abandoned in favour of blatantly recycled story beats and more than one occurrence of contrived deus ex machina plotting to move the story along. It's understandable that he would want to avoid being as reviled as George Lucas became after the prequels (Episodes 1 - 3) and his tinkering with the original series (a separate, very interesting conversation could be had about the creator's prerogative to continue to play with their creations after presenting them to the public) - so why put yourself in the position of pissing these people off too whilst adding another film to this series? Yet the irony is, his revamp of Star Trek from 2009 does feel adventurous and is a hell of a lot of fun because he dares to play around with characters that people similarly love, and through this he makes an exciting film. If Abram's wasn't so reverent to Star Wars' past, perhaps certain elements of this film wouldn't feel so pedestrian or forced.

It is interesting to see the return of a handful of original cast members (surely the real reason for the overwhelming excitement surrounding the film), even if they are shoehorned in. It's hard not to enjoy Harrison Ford pulling off Han Solo's roguish charms again even when he frequently feels too old to be back in the saddle, whilst his interplay with Chewbacca continues to be one of the best bits of the series. Carrie Fisher's Leia brings very little to the party so it's pleasing we spend more time with Han and Chewie. But really the two leads are Daisy Ridley's Rey and John Bodega's Finn. Bodega fits in pretty convincingly and pulls off the American accent well. Ridley on the other hand is just really bad casting. To be fair to her she gives it her all, but she never feels right for the character, and that plummy, straight-out-of-drama-school posh British accent is so jarring and utterly wrong for the setting of the film that it constantly pulls you out of the film. Sure, the archetypal British accent works well for villains, such as Domhnall Gleeson having great fun going almost over-the-top as General Hux, but not for Rey. As for primary villain Ren (Adam Driver), he proves very menacing and suitably scary with his mask on (and is a highlight in these scenes), but once it's off he's like a little boy and the illusion shatters, particularly the first time, which is a shame.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens feels like it is part of the series and it is appreciably better than the prequels, which is the least that anyone hoped for. It's another entertaining slice of kid-friendly fun that, due to the tangible history accompanying it, offers that rare essence of cinema that we so infrequently experience now. But the way it steals far too obviously from the original films serves as a distraction and makes it all feel too hollow - maybe this makes it more recognisable and was required to set-up a couple of more interesting sequels? It's a shame J.J. Abrams isn't directing Episode VIII (Rian Johnson is definitely an interesting choice for this), as maybe we'd see him do the opposite of his Star Trek films and deliver a great second film. The Force Awakens is solid entertainment, but its mere existence seems to be the sole reason for the perplexing hyperbole surrounding it.

2 November 2015

Review: Spectre

(Dir: Sam Mendes, 2015)

In reinvigorating the series with a new actor taking over the mantle, the producers of the Bond series wisely decided to move away from the overtly fantastical elements that were starting to mire these films. At this point it was becoming en vogue to have an origins story for every hero / character of this ilk, whilst everyone was striving for a heightened sense of realism, not just in action but in tone and feel too. In response, Casino Royale took a story from Bond's past – a more intensely focused, less grandiose story – and made it (mostly) work as a more intense character study and psychological stand-off with Mads Mikkelsen's Le Chiffre. Consider the audience reengaged after the stupidity of surfing Arctic tidal waves and invisible Aston Martin's. Quantum of Solace then muddied the waters somewhat with a forced revenge story, uninspired action and a bland, unthreatening villain. Thank god then for the combination of Sam Mendes, Roger Deakins and Javier Bardem. Skyfall turned things around again thanks to excellent structuring, the psychological nuance of Bardem's superbly creepy performance, and the mastery of one of the best cinematographers working in the business today – the film was not only the best looking in the series, but one of the best of that year. So how do you follow all that up? With Sceptre the answer unfortunately seems to be an awkward melding of Bond lore, the Bond we've come to know over the past three films, and the parts of Bond we thought we'd put behind us.

Having worked so hard to establish a very specific identity for Daniel Craig's version of Bond, it's disappointing watching Spectre regress to the "lightweight", almost superhuman Bond of old. In the days of Roger Moore or Pierce Brosnan it would not have seemed out of place to have an overblown fight in a helicopter acrobatically twisting over a square filled with thousands of revelers below. Likewise, a descent down an Austrian mountainside in a fun but knowingly stupid manner doesn't sit quite right with what we've come to expect from the present iteration of the character. That older era of Bond film that many of us grew up with was imbued with a larger-than-life, almost cartoonish charm: for better or worse an evolution of the character that reflected our shifting entertainment expectations caused by the rise of the modern blockbuster. The tangible history these most recent films have endowed upon the character have humanised him - something Skyfall seemed at pains to do - making it so much more difficult to buy into the overtly audacious set pieces presented here. We've become invested in the man and now see him as just that, not some sort of super-man.

Understandably there's a reverence to Bond lore, but the approach taken with the villain - relying on a quintessential part of the character's history updated with a brand new back story to make sure it all fits together more cleanly - is another piece of Spectre that just doesn't sit right. It's intended to tie-up these four films with a neat bow, and obviously overarching stories regularly make-up part of a work with multiple entries in a defined universe, but it does seem that the producers had one eye too closely on what Marvel have been doing. Plus the reveal of this character feels as if it cheapens the previous films and their villains just a little (despite the clue being in the title). The funny thing is, Christoph Waltz possess a quality that makes him seem born to be a Bond villain, and yet he's not able to match up to two of the three most recent nemeses. Aside from his first scene in the film, which is played (and lit) fantastically, he's just a bland megalomaniac who merely espouses lots of exposition whilst lacking the requisite threat. Bardem exuded a creepy psychosexual menace, whilst there was always something sinister driving Mikkelsen (who the hell knows what was going on behind Mathieu Amalric's Dominic Greene!). With Waltz's character supposedly being the hook we've all been waiting for, having Bond merely play follow the breadcrumbs to this is extremely unedifying.

This sounds like an especially negative review, yet the film is still entertaining in that particular way that the series always has been. It's just a shame some pretty fundamental errors were made at a point when expectations have been raised so high thanks to what preceded it, giving the feeling it's regressed a couple of steps. One could also point out that the ultimate threat here is someone controlling all the surveillance - not that perilous, really; or that it lacks much good MI6 action - an obviously dumb plot twist feels like 24 cliché; whilst cities just seem weirdly deserted at night - that's noticeably jarring; or that the utterly utterly insipid theme song should have never been committed to tape - Skyfall was bad enough, what the hell were they thinking this time!? But you know, it's always a plus seeing Ralph Fiennes enjoying some screen-time, and the cinematography, whilst not up to Roger Deakins quality, is mostly pretty good (that long single take at the start is nice). The bottom line is, if you enjoy Bond films, Spectre should at the very least keep you entertained. If you loved Skyfall, make sure to keep your expectations in check.

16 October 2015

Review: Green Room

(Dir: Jeremy Saulnier, 2015)

Blue Ruin was up there with the best films I saw in 2014. It's a superior thriller that's not just tautly wound but superbly shot. By any level of rational thought you'd expect Jeremy Saulnier's follow up to be more of the same, but executed on a grander scale. Surprisingly with Green Room, the inverse is true. This is a survival film (or a siege film in some respect) that feels much more rough and ready, hardly original by any stretch of the imagination, but it's delivered with a savage aplomb that makes it hard not to enjoy, unless you're of a sensitive disposition. In order to best articulate why it is a good film, here are a number of reasons explaining why:

The catalyst for all this carnage is approached with a burst of chaos that explains why the situation is a total clusterfuck. The violence is sharply gruesome, and quite frankly, you want that layer of brutality in a film like this. The lead characters, forming this band are a likable ragtag of misfits and Anton Yelchin inhabits the role as band spokesperson and general lead nicely. Loud, aggressive music raging on in the background of a lot of scenes creates a very effective layer of menace that a score might not have otherwise afforded (it's very pleasing the more extreme side of the music was fully embraced and not toned down in order to make it more palatable for some). Macon Blair's was so good in Blue Ruin, that it's great to see him here too. Patrick Stewart running a far right klavern in the woods of the Pacific North West... obviously this is why a lot of people might choose to watch this film, and he's very believable in his rationalised ruthlessness. The way Dead Kennedy's Nazi Punks Fuck Off is (inevitably) included in the film is inspired.

In conclusion, Green Room is a good film. It doesn't offer anything revelatory, but you do get a fine example of what a film of this nature should be - it's skewed angle (punk band vs white supremacists) gives it personality, even if it's hard to care much beyond hoping someone makes it out alive. It's loud, it's savage, but Blue Ruin is definitely the better film (not that that really matters).

2 June 2015

Review: Exodus: Gods & Kings

(Dir: Ridley Scott, 2014)

If there's one thing we learnt from Darren Aronofsky's Noah (and I don't mean that he should stick to the challenging, creative type of film that's been his raison d'être so far), it's that biblical epics don't seem to work when run through the now standard, modern, fantasy mill. I guess it was too late for that lesson to be learnt by Exodus: Gods and Kings - Ridley Scott's stab at the story of Moses. Having spent a whole two and a half hours in it's company, like the aforementioned Noah, I'm really wishing I hadn't bothered.

The film falters thanks to it's belief that spectacle is everything. Now it's impossible to deny that Scott has a superb eye for the visual - that can be seen within just about every film he's made. And there's no shying away from the fact that Exodus: Gods and Kings looks stunning. As the camera moves over the under-construction Egyptian city of Memphis and the slave town of Pithom it's hard not to be awed, likewise when we see chariots racing across the barren lands and round mountain passes. It only falters visually with some of the water based effects work. But all this aside, the rest of the film feels hollow.

Christian Bale's casting as Moses still doesn't totally sit right. When taking on certain weighty aspects of the role he feels wrong, overplaying things and almost pulling you out of the film as you focus on the actor rather than the character. But on the other hand he remains an engaging watch. The same could be said of Joel Egerton's Rameses, except he doesn't get enough screen time. But the most interesting aspect of the film, essentially where it starts but mostly jettisons after thirty or so minutes, is the relationship between the two as their comfortable world of power is blown open. Thereafter their interactions are minimal and the dynamic and interplay between the pair lingers over the far less interesting remainder of the film.

Now of course it's all tied to the biblical story so opportunities to deviate are heresy (to some), but it felt like it was really going through the motions with the plagues bestowed upon the Egyptians, whilst building to a very anticlimactic parting of the red sea. The latter particularly plays out like some grandly epic event as Moses goes through the inevitable crisis of faith but it's all so very "so what?". You also have to wonder why such a good cast were recruited for such irrelevant roles. Did Sigourney Weaver and Aaron Paul have lots of dialogue left on the editing room floor? At least Ben Mendhelson gets to play out his standard creepy menace in an intriguingly different manner.

Ultimately a film like Exodus: Gods and Kings should live by the message and ideas it wants to convey, in a similar manner to the purpose of the original story. But, like Noah, it gets weighed down by spectacle and the occasional, protracted, awkwardly shoe-horned in proselyting. There's no meat in the epic grandiosity and the message side feels forced. At least with the modern fantasy films we've become used too there's a more natural synergy between the epic scale and the message. It feels like this got made solely to one up the likes of The Ten Commandments and create the most epic film of all time. I honestly can't see any other reason why Scott or Bale are involved, and even then that's a poor reason. Shame this doesn't even result in a half decent film.

1 June 2015

Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron

(Dir: Joss Whedon, 2015)

There was a point about an hour into Avengers: Age of Ultron where I got up and left my seat for five or so minutes. The duration was determined by the queue at the concession stand, which was slow moving. I was desperate for a drink, most likely thanks to the delicious cheeseburger, jalapeño poppers and strawberry milkshake that I rushed down for dinner a couple of hours earlier. It’s rare for me to briefly leave a film mid-way for any reason, but I needed that drink, and when I returned amidst a seemingly important scene of exposition with a familiar recurring face having finally popped-up, it was clear I was still missing nothing of consequence. That pretty much sums up Age of Ultron. And who gives a damn about my dinner, right? But I mention it because ordinarily any trip to the cinema is a highlight of my day, but this time the food beat it hands down and that was still only the second most exciting thing to happen that evening (the first being buying a copy of James Ellroy’s new book Perfidia – the man is my favourite author by many a mile and you will know him for writing the books L.A. Confidential and The Black Dahlia, which the films were based on). Age of Ultron is just that uninteresting, but here we go anyway...

Unfortunately this is where we’ve gotten too with the second wave of the Marvel universe. I’ve been very vocal in previous reviews about the noticeable decline in the quality of these films heralded by The Avengers. If that, in my eyes, was easily the weakest of the first wave, the trick has (unsurprisingly) been repeated with the second wave. Last time it felt jarring coming off of high quality films with rich character development and little concern for blowing shit up, to a CGI overloaded mêlée of characters just thrown together to see what inevitably happens without subtlety. This time round the teaming up of these individually interesting characters has just become predictably boring in almost every way. Which, coming off a run of lackluster character sequels, doesn’t hold much hope for what’s still to come.

Age of Ultron struggles primarily because it feels so uninspired. It’s content to just throw cgi at the wall, which at times looks utterly unconvincing, and is just more of the same old generic fighting and spectacle we’ve seen a million times now. It’s not thrilling. The conclusion is never in doubt so there’s a distinct lack of jeopardy. The piece lacks a convincing villain – Ultron is really just a confused-looking hunk of metal projecting the voice of Raymond Reddington. You can’t argue with James Spader’s solid vocal performance, and even some good moments of animation to match his face, but generally any time Ultron was talking I felt like I’d rather be watching The Blacklist. And when you compare him to Loki, who was absolutely the best bit of the first Avengers film, disappointing is the only word that comes to mind.

Wisely there's an attempt to give a couple of the "lesser" members of the team some backstory and attention, a definite failing of the previous films, but it never feels enough and I reiterate my point from three years ago that a Hawkeye / Black Widow origins film has so much potential. Alas Whedon and co clearly can't think what to do differently with their main female character other than shoehorn in an attempted, awkward romance. Apparently it's clear that the rest of team have had enough character attention in the past, so here they're left with little more than vacant soul searching and a touch of bickering as they take on their latest foe. Of course that allows for far more time to cut to the type of blandly generic, CGI heavy action that is so unedifying. Having watched the hugely superior Mad Max: Fury Road a few days beforehand, that point feels like it was driven home especially hard whilst sitting through Age of Ultron. There's just no real creativity. No passion. It's all so achingly formulaic that the whole endeavour just feels like a contractual obligation for Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Joss Whedon et al.

To some the following might sound like a reactionary statement, pissing on one of the golden calves of geekdom, but I cannot grasp why Joss Whedon is so continually venerated. Sure, Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are seminal pieces of television that understandably inspire a certain degree of worship, but that was more than a decade ago. A couple of average at best superhero films, a not-as-good-as-the-show filmic version of Firefly and a mostly uninteresting modern Shakespeare interpretation do not, in my opinion, give Whedon a pass as unimpeachable. The point is, both Avengers films could've been so much more in more capable hands. Look at what James Gunn did with a far more obtuse proposition in Guardians of the Galaxy. To end up with such an utterly boring film when Tony Stark, Thor and Captain America are three of your leads, proves the wrong person is in charge and highlights how blinded to reality those clinging to the past with desperate adoration really are.

Marvel appears to be rapidly forgetting the lessons learned from their first wave of films, and particularly Guardians of the Galaxy. It's the characters and a sense of personality that makes the difference, rather than just putting these heroes together and letting a computer vomit shockingly bland action sequences all over the screen. Based on the money these films rake in it's obvious Marvel are doing something very right, but I don't think it's too much to ask for a big budget superhero film to give some credence to artistry and creativity. Or hell, to even be remotely fun. Turns out Age of Ultron is the second worst film I've seen so far this year, which is something I did not see coming.

31 May 2015

Review: Whiplash

(Dir: Damien Chazelle, 2014)

Synopsis for a film that's going to greatly appeal to me - an intense drama about a jazz drummer's aspiration and fight to be one of the greats. I'll freely admit, Whiplash had me won over before I even saw it. But don't think for a minute that the excessive levels of anticipation brewing on my part clouded my judgement. You've heard the word on the street right? Everyone's saying it. This film has impact. It hits until you're left with hands bloodied from fraying wooden sticks. Pounding like sweat dripping from a body flaying itself to push harder, faster, more savagely, just to keep that double-time swing rhythm going. It's insistent. Impossible to ignore.

It's a character study meaning success hangs, mostly, on the two central performances. Miles Teller's Andrew is arguably a little bit one note, never really fleshed out beyond a little parental back story and a girl introduced to serve but one purpose. But it's that sustained desire to prove himself and be something incredible that pushes him and makes him interesting. To throw in anything else to bulk up his character might just feel too distracting. His relationship with J.K. Simmons' Fletcher is what this is really all about. The jazz heavyweight, the perfectionist, the dominator, the abuser. This is a man seemingly nonchalant about the destruction he leaves in his wake as students line-up for the rare chance to impress him, never knowing what they're really getting themselves in for but unable to find the will to leave either. It's a towering performance made all the better by fleeting moments of humanity which almost come as a curveball and test our sympathies. Simmons is superb and Teller is thoroughly convincing in his pursuit and particularly behind the kit.

But it's musically where everything ultimately coalesces. The focus is of course the drumming and what we see on screen is utterly impressive, but all of the music we hear is brash and sinuous, providing a cadence that flows at a satisfying pace. Without spoiling anything it builds to a crescendo that is gripping, logical and oh so utterly satisfying, whilst also proving that not every piece of music or film needs a coda. In many ways it's a slight film but the volatility bubbling underneath every time Simmons and Teller are on screen together, mixed with the sparklingly barbed dialogue, make it an electrifying experience. Whiplash is most definitely my tempo.

Review: John Wick

(Dir: Chad Stahelski, 2014)

For such a seemingly inconsequential film, since seeing John Wick a few weeks ago I've not been able to stop scratching the small itch that dictated it needed a review. Some films just do that to you. This was a film riding high on a sustained buzz in the run up to its release in the US last Autumn, which was hard to ignore. And from a UK distribution point they definitely screwed up by letting it vanish into a black hole for months - by the time it eventually came out here a bunch of people I knew had already watched it online, mistakenly believing it had been and gone at the cinema already. But that buzz continued upon its release here, and I've got mixed feelings about that. Perhaps that's why I was so compelled to write about it?

John Wick is not as good a film as all of that excitement makes out. It is a good action film and it is a hell of a lot of fun, but this disparity exists more because of what's not seen rather than what is. The whole way through there are intimations to Wick's past and why he is so feared, even by the boss of a Russian crime syndicate (Michael Nyqvist). It's clear that there is a very rich story to tell here but it's constantly skated over or left teased to allow for more action, which really starts to feel repetitious as the film progresses. The initial fifteen minute set-up of what sets Wick off is arguably the best bit of the film - as ridiculous as the premise sounds (man exacts copious amounts of revenge on the people who killed his dog), it's handled in such an interesting and heartfelt way you fully feel why he's suddenly reverted back to his old death-dealing ways. But this also means that after swathes of action we need more of this, rather than a non-stop cavalcade of shooting and fighting. It's hard not to be struck by the similarities to The Equalizer reimagining that came out last year, but that ultimately ends up being a better film because it takes time to regroup and reload, whereas John Wick lacks the inclination to really do so.

Keanu Reeves is perfectly cast as Wick - he has the physical presence and right look, as well as the action chops, but really he is so suited to this role because it requires him to wear a singular expression that works for him. That's not intended as a slight on the man's acting abilities because I am a fan of his, but he just carries the "I'm insanely pissed off and will wreak havoc on you" attitude so convincingly. An early phone call with Nyqvist's character exemplifies this perfectly (would that moment have worked so well with any other actor?), but when he does articulate why he is so hell bent on revenge it is exquisitely delivered. And then he kills some more bad guys. Nyqvist adds very little to the film unfortunately although his character's son, the catalyst for all this, is played in an effectively hateful way by Alfie Allen that means his comeuppance can't come soon enough. Whilst the array of recognisable faces that pop-up in fun supporting roles is a nice added bonus.

Recent news that a sequel will be forthcoming with Reeves reprising the role is good, as it feels like there's a lot more tell in this little world. But that's exactly the problem with John Wick, it's too content to constrain itself by going for all the action, rather than delivering on all the little teases to something better. The action is good, it's violent and bloody as it should be in a film like this, but all without offering anything we haven't seen before. We just need to see more of the man beneath. I hope that doesn't get forgotten next time.