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Jupiter Ascending (2015)
An ambitious mess.
This intergalactic epic is an ambitious muddle of extremes. On the one hand there's the splendid imagery, on the other hand there's everything else. But lets start on a positive note. Delayed from a mid 2014 release to allow the post-production team additional time on the copious computer effects, the extra effort was well worth it. From the strikingly grand space vistas to the awesomely conceived spaceships and otherworldly creatures, the film's visual design with 100% photo realistic CGI is intriguing, meticulous and overall spectacular. Unfortunately the plaudits end there. As was similar with their messy and pretentious Matrix sequels, writing/directing duo the Wachowski siblings bite off more narrative and deep significance than they can chew. Revolving around toilet-cleaning Russian immigrant Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), whose life changes after meeting hunky alien Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) and being told she owns the Earth (yep), the story is a complete and utter dud. Infusing the plot with a ridiculous amount of seriousness and gobbledegook, the Wachowskis get bogged down in trying to elevate their material from fun to meaningful, subsequently losing most of the fun in the process. Even the action sequences are bland compared to the usual Wachowski standard, with the finale particularly lacklustre and unimaginative. Tatum and Kunis are adequate in their starring roles, although his wounded warrior often enters hokey territory and her rags-to-riches family gal is a little too puppy-dog cute and helpless. Disappointingly, Eddie Redmayne's ludicrously exaggerated villain is unintentionally hilarious as he struggles, Austin Powers style, to CONTROL THE VOLUME OF HIS VOICE. Ultimately, Jupiter Ascending is a frustratingly underwhelming sci-fi yarn that fails to capitalize on its outstanding visuals.
The Interview (2014)
Amusing, but not hilarious.
With North Korean officials directly calling on Barack Obama to ban it, and the group behind the Sony hack announcing there would be "9/11 style attacks" on any cinema that showed it, publicity for this ostensibly controversial flick couldn't have been greater. That the final product can't live up to the hype is not overly surprising. The Interview is one of those comedies that is rarely dull and consistently amusing, yet struggles to generate any hearty laughs or memorable moments a priceless Eminem interview aside. After working together multiple times, writer-directors Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen, along with Rogen's on screen sparring partner James Franco, have developed a filmic shorthand together that yields both pros and cons. There's a natural bromantic chemistry between the two stars, whom can seemingly riff off each other as easily as they can breathe, but this familiarity has also started to breed an over-reliance on certain comedic beats. We get the obligatory scene(s) of Rogen's schlub flipping out, the employment of shock-value crude language to spark an otherwise flat gag, and more of the is-Franco-gay? meta humour that ran its course in This is the End. Despite its glaring issues, however, there's still a wild charm to the ambitiousness of it all that along with a comically violent action-packed finale keeps a smile on your face from start to finish. Would be even better with a beer or two under your belt though, so waiting for it on DVD is the way to go.
Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)
Brash, inventive and highly entertaining.
After successfully dipping his toe in mainstream-friendly fare with X-Men: First Class, exuberant filmmaker Matthew Vaughn returns to non-PC mode with a subversive and sardonic flick that does for the spy genre what Kick-Ass did for the superhero genre. Attempting to deliver a genuinely great espionage flick whilst simultaneously parodying the genre it belongs to, the key to victory for Kingsman is its impeccable balancing of tones. Although Vaughn's arrogant gusto displayed from the opening shot as we zoom up to an exploding Middle Eastern mansion is a major contributor to the high level of entertainment on offer, the praise must be shared with regular screen writing collaborator Jane Goldman. The pair not only dish up witty, foul-mouthed banter and regular, cheeky movie references, but they also unleash gleefully irreverent commentary on subjects ranging from Westboro Church-style religious extremism to the ridiculous behaviour of the one-percenters. Even the action is hilarious. Vaughn designs his set pieces with equal parts flair and brutality; the violence is cartoonish yet graphic, the choreography is over-the-top yet exhilarating and a church-set rampage is one of the most downright awesome action sequences of recent times. The contrasts don't stop there either. Colin Firth is calm, cool and collected as gentleman spy Harry Hart and Mark Strong is unflappably controlled as fellow agent Merlin, whilst at the other end of the spectrum British youngster Taron Egerton is brash and self-assured as Firth's apprentice Eggsy and Samuel L. Jackson is in colourful lampooning form as megalomaniac Valentine. There are a few flaws that will irk those who don't appreciate Vaughn's cocksure direction, but with such inventive ultra-violent action, a rip-roaring soundtrack and adult humour aplenty, Kingsman is a big-screen delight.
A chilling look into a murky relationship.
Bennett Miller's directorial career only consists of three feature films, yet his mark on Hollywood is already becoming indelible. His debut Capote saw Philip Seymour Hoffman garner a long-awaited Academy Award for his portrayal of the flamboyant artiste, then his follow-up Moneyball turned the sports flick on its head to deliver one of 2011's finest motion pictures. Now he's back with a dark and moody peek into the world of 1980's competitive wrestling, through the eyes of Olympic gold medal winner Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), his wrestling legend brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) and wealthy team sponsor John du Pont (Steve Carell). Much like Moneyball was a baseball movie that wasn't actually about baseball, however, Foxcatcher forgoes completely homing in on wrestling in favour of scrutinising the murky relationship between the bizarre du Pont and the tight-knit sporting brothers. It's a riveting and chilling, yet rather depressing story made even more unsettling with the knowledge it's based on true events that ends with an absolute gut-punch, but Miller's peculiar filmmaking style can be off-putting on occasion. Where the distinctive director masterfully excels once again though, is with the performances he generates from his cast. Looking, talking and moving differently to what we know, Tatum, Ruffalo and Carell expertly embody their individual roles to transcend the initial shock of their altered physical appearances, the latter two earning Oscar nominations in the process. If you're seeking fun at the cinemas then you might want to give this a miss, but if it's a (relatively) modern day Greek tragedy you are after, then Foxcatcher should be top of your list.
The Theory of Everything (2014)
Enchanting, intriguing and one of the year's best.
Despite being about uber-genius Stephen Hawking, there's nothing incredibly complex about this biopic; it's just a good ol' fashion relationship drama that concentrates on character and storytelling. That it does this so incredibly well, though, is why it is the first five star movie of 2015. With a life as amazing as Hawking's it would've been pretty easy to focus on either his scientific brilliance or his medical condition as the core story, however the film's success lies in its choice to primarily explore his partnership with wife Jane. Meeting before he is crippled with motor neuron disease and struggling together through the seemingly impossible, Stephen and Jane, as played by Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, are two of the most interesting lovers you will see on screen this year. In the early stages their chemistry is intoxicating their brainy youthfulness making for a tremendously sweet romance but as the years progress their bond simultaneously becomes trickier and more profound. Whilst his physical transformation throughout proceedings is astounding, there's more to Redmayne's Golden Globe-winning performance as the famed physicist. He brings a charm and sly wit to Hawking that makes him grounded, relatable and infinitely fascinating. Yet it wouldn't have mattered how good Redmayne was if Jones wasn't just as absorbing in the more emotionally complex, if less "flashy", role as Jane. She is deeply enthralling as a woman who balances love, family, personal growth and responsibility, despite continuously battling against the odds on all fronts. This really is the Redmayne-Jones show, and as wonderful as the score, cinematography and James Marsh's direction is, you get the feeling that with these two talented actors on centre stage this true life tale would be enchanting regardless of what occurred around them. A dramatic tour de force that is worthy of all the praise heaped upon it.
American Sniper (2014)
Gripping, gruelling and gritty.
After his film version of Jersey Boys failed to light the world on fire last year, Clint Eastwood has wasted very little time getting back on the horse. Based on the true story of Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in U.S. history, Eastwood's latest is flush with heart-stopping action, nail-biting tension and dread-building drama. Clint has always excelled in presenting the dark corners of humanity see Unforgiven, Changeling or Mystic River for proof but at 84 years of age, it's astounding how grittily authentic he can portray a modern war. His long- time director of photography, Tom Stern, must get a large portion of the praise; his atmospheric cinematography and bold camera movements are the driving force behind the unnerving suspense that underpins the entire movie. It's also cleverly edited, utilising jump cuts to take you from warzone to home front in a split second, emphasising the sharpness of Kyle's emotional frustration when not on the battlefield. Which leads to Kyle himself. An everyday Texan who enjoys rodeo, loves his country and happens to be a crack shot, Kyle is likable, grounded and just the right side of patriotic and macho, thanks to a mesmerising turn from Bradley Cooper. Deservingly amongst the awards chatter, Cooper demonstrates how wide-ranging his talent is by adding yet another stellar performance to his C.V, placing him in the very highest echelon of actors working today. A gruelling, raw and wholly compelling peek at a niche military job: American Sniper is this year's Hurt Locker.
Clever, enterprising and ambitious.
Going head to head with Boyhood for the Best Picture Oscar, this quirky meta-dramedy about a washed-up movie star attempting redemption on Broadway has generated much applause from critics around the world. It's not hard to see why, what with director Alejandro González Iñárritu's ambitious technical achievements, the razor sharp satirical screenplay and a bunch of soul-bearing performances. Presenting the story as one long continuous take, Iñárritu employs all the tricks of the trade in search of something unique and it largely pays off; his ever-flowing camera segues between scenes creating a dreamlike atmosphere. Finding where the shots have been joined, however, can at times distract from the emotional journey crafted by Iñárritu and his team of writers, in a script full of dark humour and irony. Unfortunately there's also a hint of pretension and self-satisfaction in Iñárritu's work intentional and otherwise that comes across as smug and, therefore, annoying. As Riggan Thomson, the former A-lister seeking professional rejuvenation on the stage, Michael Keaton gets a long- awaited opportunity to shine in a lead role and attacks it, for better and worse, with unbridled gusto. Ed Norton hogs the spotlight though, with a comedic turn as a supercilious stage actor looking for the "truth" in even the tiniest of things, whilst Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough and Amy Ryan round out the impressive cast. Birdman is clever, enterprising and admirably distinct, if occasionally laborious and inaccessible; it's not for everyone, but lovers of film and/or theatre should seek it out.
Taken 3 (2014)
OK, I'll admit it: I thoroughly enjoyed the first Taken. It was such a gleefully unremorseful B- grade action flick that, even after a terrible second instalment, a part of me held out hope that this threequel might just regain the franchise's glory. It doesn't, quite the opposite actually. This limp, unintentionally laughable cash-grab all but destroys any credibility or goodwill the original garnered, putting its hand up as an early contender for worst film of the year in the process. After opening with an agonisingly awkward stuffed-Panda gag, it continues downhill with each new scene offering up something fresh to deride. The violence is ludicrously non-existent, the car chases are so heavily edited it's difficult to actually follow what is happening, and the plot holes are so large you could fly a 747 through them: and that's just the broad strokes. There's also the horrendous dialogue, the woefully misjudged R&B soundtrack and the bored-looking Liam Neeson to contend with, not to mention a "twist" ending you could pick simply by reading the cast list. But the height of its awfulness? Going to great lengths to explain in flashback no less just how lethal the villain is, only to see him miss Neeson with three magazines worth of bullets. Despite having the drop on him. In a single room. It really is that bad.
The Imitation Game (2014)
A tense and intriguing period drama.
Based on the code-cracking exploits of genius Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) during WWII, this time-hopping period drama is calculating, meticulous and slow burning, resulting in an emotionally and narratively tense ride. Graham Moore's script is a delicate blend of thrills and kitchen-sink drama, delving into Turing's struggle with his unparalleled brilliance and social awkwardness, all while trying to decipher Germany's Enigma encryption. But Moore stumbles in the final 10 minutes with a strange coda that seems to focus on Turing's homosexuality, rather than the world-changing impact he seemingly had with his mechanical creations. Calling the shots on his debut English-language film, Norwegian director Morten Tyldum (Headhunters) generates a hard-to-place peculiarity with his shooting style, which emphasises the claustrophobia that was Turing's life. He is also assisted by Oscar Faura's superbly saturated cinematography and Maria Djurkovic's outstanding production design, however Alexandre Desplat's dull score is a notable weakness that adds very little. Led by another strong performance from Cumberbatch who I'm certain will win an Oscar or two throughout his career, but not for this the acting is first rate across the board; Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode and Mark Strong all bringing their A games. It has already received multiple Golden Globes noms (with Oscar recognition sure to follow) and unsurprisingly so. This is the sort of carefully executed motion picture about a complex real-life figure that is adored by critics and audiences alike.
Penguins of Madagascar (2014)
Light and breezy with consistent laughs.
2015 kicks off with a stupendously silly but mostly amusing animated film that is best enjoyed with easy-to-please toddlers chuckling by your side. After stealing the limelight in the Madagascar trilogy, the awesome foursome get their own adventure, complete with globetrotting hijinks, high-flying acrobatics and extravagant escapes. Filled to the brim with physical comedy and written quips (a string of celebrity themed puns are hilarious), this spin off adheres to the franchise's humour-formula of quantity over quality, but is so light in tone it's hard to begrudge it. The eponymous flightless seabirds Skipper, Kowalski, Rico and Private are as intrepid, idiotic and cuddly as ever, but are arguably better suited to stealing scenes at second fiddle rather than leading from the front for a whole movie. There's an underpinning message don't underestimate the little guy that permeates throughout the swift runtime, building up to a stock standard finale that skimps on laughs in favour of a moral payoff. Penguins lacks the adorability of Paddington, the exhilaration of Big Hero 6, or the intelligence of either, yet remains a decent option for families looking to waste a couple of hours during the school break.