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With the Christmas holidays upon us, so too is an array of kiddie-friendly flicks, beginning with this very British adventure designed to adore the socks off kids and adults alike. Based on the immensely popular talking bear of the title, this modern update could have been saccharine, morally burdensome and unbearable for anyone older than 8. But in striking a fantastic balance between old-fashioned innocence and contemporary sensibilities, writer-director Paul King has dished up a motion picture that is fun, light-hearted and just plain sweet. He's helped by a game cast: be it the affable pair of Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins as Paddington's adopted guardians, the gleefully menacing Nicole Kidman as a malevolent taxidermist, or amusing old- timers Julie Walters and Jim Broadbent who light up the screen with their eclectic supporting characters. Yet nobody can outshine the cute little fur-ball at the centre of proceedings. Voiced by Ben Whishaw (after an 11th hour change from Colin Firth) and carefully crafted with CGI, ol' Paddy is utterly delightful and a wonderful companion for 95 minutes. There are flaws to be found and the laughs may not come thick and fast, but Paddington will melt the heart of even the toughest cynic.
Horrible Bosses 2 (2014)
A decent chuckler, but no more.
After collecting over $200m in worldwide box office receipts (from a budget of $35m), Horrible Bosses was a commercial home run, whilst garnering favourable reviews from critics to boot. Posting those numbers meant it was inevitable a sequel would be forthcoming, but is HB2 the fresh, well thought-out continuation that audiences are hoping for or just a carbon copy cash-grab? It's a bit of both. Swapping murder for kidnapping, and horrible bosses for horrible business partners, there are a few tweaks to the formula that open up doors to new laughs. Flipping Jennifer Aniston's sex addict (again stealing the limelight) from working against our hapless trio to helping them is one change that reaps big benefits, and a clever fantasy/reality double-sequence of the boys planning, then executing, their ambitious plan is hilarious. The numerous rehashed gags, however, are much more hit and miss. The odd recurring joke still hits the mark, but most have outlived their worth; Jamie Foxx's returning crime-adviser barely elicits a titter, whilst call-backs to specific dialogue ("50 states") and moments (dirty toothbrushes) from the original are dull and uninspired. The dynamic between the three protagonists hasn't changed a bit either, for better and for worse. Jason Bateman is still the most consistently humorous member of the bunch as straight-faced leader Nick, whilst Jason Sudeikis' man-child Kurt and Charlie Day's shrieking ball of paranoia, Dale, are sporadically funny in their own, over-the-top way, but can also grate on the nerves. Elsewhere there's Chris Pine having a blast sending up his pretty-boy persona, Christoph Waltz looking bored in a ludicrously one-dimensional role and Kevin Spacey hamming it up in an extended cameo as Nick's former boss. A decent switch-off-your-brain-and-relax type of flick, no more and only sometimes less.
Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)
Enjoyable old-school romp.
Epic dramas like Exodus are becoming increasingly rare these days. Sweeping vistas, massive man-made period sets, larger than life characters, gigantic sword-and-sandal battles, grand- scale storytelling; all without a sense of irony or modern sensibility. The cineaste side of me thoroughly appreciated it, the everyday moviegoer side of me not quite as much. Whilst the visuals are resplendent (as is the norm with a Ridley Scott film) and the decade-spanning story is skillfully sculpted to fill a lengthy runtime, there is a spark missing. Alberto Iglesias produces a stimulating, if not memorable, score and DP Dariusz Wolski's top-notch cinematography is complemented with some clever CGI, making it hard to pinpoint why Exodus isn't mind-blowing. It certainly isn't the fault of the two leads, as Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton, as the internally tormented Moses and the power-hungry Ramses respectively, are amazing. Perhaps it's the criminally underused supporting cast, with Ben Kingsley, John Turturro and, most noticeably, Sigourney Weaver getting very little to do other than fill the poster with their commercially attractive names. Or maybe it is the method in which they portray God (no description here to avoid spoilers), which comes off as awkward and a tad contrived. Or it could be that it's middle act centred on Moses' discovery of God and then the unleashing of the Ten Plagues feels and looks extremely similar to 2014's other biblical yarn, Noah. Despite it lacking that special something to elevate it to brilliance, Exodus is an enjoyable old-school romp that is ripe for the big screen.
Dark, eerie, enthralling and astonishing.
Telling the tale of an internet-educated entrepreneur looking to crack into the sordid business of late-night crime reporting, you've probably never seen anything like Nightcrawler before. Tackling both writing and directorial duties, Dan Gilroy constructs a world that is eerie yet exhilarating, seedy but tempting; presenting a side of Los Angeles rarely captured on celluloid. From the opening shot it's clear that formula and convention has been thrown out the window, Gilroy preferring to subvert expectation with morally dubious characters and an unsettling progression of events that is creepily plausible. When you think it will zig, it zags, and when you think it will zag, it throws up a middle finger to predictability with any number of gasp-inducing plot developments, leaving you clenching your armrest for majority of the runtime. Its success is also attributable to the astonishing central performance from Jake Gyllenhaal, who lost weight and changed the sound of his voice for the role. Gyllenhaal's Lou Bloom is an utterly enthralling character who teeters on a knife-edge of sanity; his all-smiles and wide-eyed disposition making the rage bubbling underneath the surface that much more unnerving. This is Gyllenhaal's show without question, however he's given solid support by Rene Russo and Riz Ahmed as a ferocious but failing station chief and Bloom's gentle- natured sidekick respectively. Mix in Robert Elswit's tremendously atmospheric night-time cinematography and James Newton Howard's pulsing score and you have one of the best motion pictures of 2014.
Not as good as the first two, but still decent.
As has become normal with Hollywood franchises adapted from a book series, the final Hunger Games novel has been split into two movies, thus the first half of Mockingjay has to deal with the usual pitfalls of part-one-itis. Considering their YA roots, the previous cinematic incarnations had wowed due to their success in delivering exhilarating action alongside, rather than in place of, narrative smarts and maturity. Unfortunately, with the bulk of the action seemingly saved for the second entry (out next November), Mockingjay Part 1 is all work and no play, making it slightly dull compared to the excellent pair of films it has followed. It's also tonally darker and dramatically heavier, with the story venturing into super- serious territory and focussing on themes of death, loss and guilt. Returning director Francis Lawrence has a firm grip on this world though and, together with cinematographer Jo Willems, continues to craft an interesting look and feel to PanAm both the gloriously pompous Capitol and the grubby, downtrodden districts aligning for an uprising. The whole cast is exceptional yet again: Jennifer Lawrence is a force to be reckoned with as the fiery Katniss, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Julianne Moore bring their usual gravitas as high- ranking members of the rebellion, Elizabeth Banks and Woody Harrelson draw out some humour among the grimness, and Josh Hutcherson makes the most of his relatively limited screen time as Capitol puppet Peeta. There's just not enough pulse-rising adventure to elevate this to the high standards already established in the series, an especially disappointing flaw when taking into account some of the awesome set pieces concocted in the preceding instalments. It's a shame it can't truly excel as its own movie, however Mockingjay Part 1 is still a solid flick that succeeds in tiding over fans until the big finale next year.
Let's Be Cops (2014)
Hit and miss, but likable.
When two slacker mates wear LAPD costumes to a party and are mistaken for the real thing, they decide to maintain the ruse to keep getting the attention and respect they have always wanted. It's a wonderfully simple premise that, although skimping on realism and cleverness, offers a gag rate that comes thick and fast. It's no surprise that this quantity over quality approach leads to many unfunny jokes and flat patches, however it also yields a bunch of hilarious moments thanks to the surprising chemistry between the cast members. With a comedic sensibility somewhere between Seth Rogen's shlubby-ness and Charlie Day's hyperactivity, Jake Johnson isn't to everyone's taste yet is pitch perfect as the extroverted loser who takes the deception to ridiculous (and highly illegal) lengths. Damon Wayans Jr. isn't anywhere near as impressive and an amusing impersonation of a psychopathic crim and subsequent drug trip aside generates very few laughs on his own, but as Johnson's more sensible partner in crime he stops the film from slipping into complete parody. It may not be an intelligent or mature comedy and it certainly doesn't deserve a viewing on the big screen, Let's Be Cops is nevertheless an amusing diversion that would go perfectly with beer and pizza in the comfort of your own home.
Bold, brainy and beautiful.
With a resume including Inception, The Prestige and The Dark Knight trilogy, base expectations for each new Christopher Nolan film are unsurprisingly high. With the promise of intergalactic exploration and time-and-space-bending action, expectations for the Interstellar are even higher. Alas, Nolan proves he's human after all with a movie that is merely great, rather than his usual standard of phenomenal. There is no doubting his ambition or limitless scope though, with a powerful father-daughter story spanning multiple galaxies, dimensions and time periods. The affecting yarn at its heart is paired with a sci-fi narrative that is deep and intelligent, but occasionally hard to swallow, particularly in the final act. That it's such an effective emotional ride can also be put down to the tour de force performance by Matthew McConaughey; his devoted father who leads the interstellar mission is inspiring, flawed, genuine and eminently watchable. Sitting shotgun in the spaceship, Anne Hathaway is solid, if not spectacular, as a focused and brash astronaut, whilst back on earth Jessica Chastain is superb as a world-class scientist and 13 year old Mackenzie Foy is gripping as McConaughey's plucky daughter. Unfortunately the supremely talented Casey Affleck is not given enough to do and the surprise arrival of an A-lister halfway through feels completely out of synch and, shockingly for Nolan, could even be considered as stunt casting. There's not much to write about the breathtaking visual splendour on offer, as words wouldn't be able to do it justice. Suffice to say Nolan has outdone himself when it comes to his eye for presentation, his employment of 70mm IMAX cameras amplifying the beauty and terror of outer space. Often awe-inspiring and enthralling but with the odd slow patch and narrative flaw across a bum-numbing 167 minutes Interstellar is bold, brainy and beautiful, yet not the modern masterpiece that it could have been.
John Wick (2014)
Enjoyably silly with style to spare.
In his first bona fide hit for quite some time, Keanu Reeves is an assassin on a warpath after Russian crims kill his puppy and steal his car. If that sounds a touch silly, that's because it is, but this movie whole-heartedly embraces its bonkers premise and revels in presenting a genre film with tongue firmly in cheek. Screenwriter Derek Kolstad builds a semi-fantastical world where hit men (and hitwomen of course) have their own underworld currency, a special hotel sanctuary with doctors on site and a nightclub where hired killers can unwind, and, obviously, a guild who ensures the assassin moral code is upheld. This endearing self- awareness ensures John Wick is amusingly engaging between the numerous action sequences, which are, surprisingly, of an extremely high calibre. A blend of the economic gun-fu from Equilibrium and the close quarters krav maga made popular in the Bourne trilogy, the expertly choreographed fight scenes (tacked on finale excluded) are frenetic, exhilarating and joyously violent. Reeves is clearly having a blast playing the revenge driven yet cool-as-a-cucumber protagonist, whilst the rest of the cast including Willem Dafoe, Adrianne Palicki, Michael Nyqvist and Alfie "Theon Greyjoy from GoT" Allen do what they can with shared screen time; Palicki's arrogant hired gun shining brightest. A B-grade flick wrapped in A-grade style, John Wick is exceptionally enjoyable.
Tense, entertaining and occasionally brilliant.
Following a tank crew on their trek through Germany, this WWII saga is a mixed bag; it has a list of flaws as long as a small novel, however it also has energy, intensity and acting prowess to burn. David Ayer (End of Watch, Street Kings, Sabotage) has always been a take-it-or- leave-it type of filmmaker that has split critical opinion, and his latest won't change minds on either side of the Ayer-fence. A mishmash tone that swings from earnest war drama to Hollywood action flick and a propensity to linger too long on certain scenes are the primary faults that stop this motion picture from soaring. Yet somehow it still comes out the other end as a largely entertaining and gripping film with glimpses of brilliance. There are two tank battle set pieces that are utterly enthralling and showcase Ayer's obvious skill for action, whilst Roman Vasyanov's magnificent cinematography all gloomy clouds and dirty, muddy realism brings a sombre atmosphere that lends the film an extra layer of gravitas. Ultimately, though, this a showcase for the ensemble cast to shine. Brad Pitt is commanding as the gruff and uncompromising tank leader who just wants to keep his men alive; Shia LeBeouf defies the Shia-haters with an impressive turn as Pitt's emotional right-hand man; Logan Lerman delivers the finest performance of his burgeoning career as the inexperienced newby; and Michael Pena and Jon Bernthal round out the gang solidly. Despite not being the Saving Private Ryan of 2014 it could have been, Fury remains a tense and occasionally fascinating cinematic experience.
A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014)
Above-average crime drama that deserves a big screen viewing.
Don't be fooled by the publicity this is not another Taken or Non-Stop where Liam Neeson goes around taking names and kicking arse. Well, there is a small amount of that here too, but where those other flicks revel in their bloodthirsty beat downs for action thrills, AWATT utilises it sparingly for impact in what is otherwise a serious drama. Exploring themes such as guilt, redemption and moral corruption, writer-director Scott Frank nails the perfect tone where the ludicrousness of Neeson's badass-ness is not lost to overwrought melodrama, yet where the heft of the subject matter is not underplayed. If only Frank could've tightened up the actual narrative involving Neeson's grizzled ex-cop tracking down two psychopathic murderers for a pair of drug dealers and this movie would have tipped over into four star territory, rather than just nudging it. It's also a shame that the best scene is the brilliantly atmospheric and gut- punching opening sequence, a combination of style, sound and tension that is never quite reached again, despite a solid penultimate climax featuring a well-staged shoot out. It may not completely light the world on fire, but this is an elevated crime drama that warrants a big screen viewing nevertheless.