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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.
The Judge (2014)
Clichéd, overly-sentimental and waaaay too long.
With its noble intentions and heartfelt effort, it's difficult to be critical of this family relationship drama. Focussing on a stubborn old Judge (Robert Duvall) who is alleged to have killed an ex-convict in a hit and run, and his estranged lawyer son (Robert Downey Jr) who is defending him in a small-town court, all the while trying to reconcile their broken relationship, I wanted to be swept up in it. But for all of the love and hard work poured into this motion picture from the director and his cast, The Judge just has too many drawbacks to look past. The score is manipulative rather than affecting, the cinematography is weirdly ostentatious when it should be subtle and the almost two and a half hour runtime is ludicrously unnecessary. Yet the major issues begin and end with the script. Mawkishly sentimental, over-burdened with clichés it can't transcend and dishing out more clunky dialogue than the high-calibre actors deserve, Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque's screenplay is not up to scratch for what should've been an Oscar contender. Take nothing away from the cast though, Robert Downey Jr nails his key dramatic scenes (although he relies on his trademark cocky charisma a tad too much in the opening 30 minutes), Robert Duvall is fearless in his portrayal of an aging man losing his faculties, and Vincent D'Onofrio demonstrates why he should be getting more big screen supporting work, with a nuanced take on Downey Jr's older brother who never got to leave town for bigger and better things. Unfortunately Vera Farmiga and Billy Bob Thornton as old flame and slick prosecutor respectively are inexcusably underused. A massive disappointment for a rare mainstream straight-up drama, the pedestrian screenplay ultimately derails proceedings.
Dracula Untold (2014)
Charmless, stupid and devoid of a heart.
The most recent in a long line of shiny, CGI-laden retellings of classic movie properties, this attempted franchise-starter is charmless, narratively stupid and devoid of a beating heart much like the eponymous vamp. Swapping the Gothic noir of the 1932 Universal original, the genuine horror of Hammer's 1958 redux and even the stylish chills of Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 incarnation, all for a medieval-meets-supernatural romp (sound like a popular TV show much?) Dracula Untold lacks any real bite. Debutant director Gary Shore shows his inexperience with hollow set pieces, a muddled tone and editing so quick and messy during the action sequences only a crack head would be able to see what's going on. Luke Evans admirably gives his all to inject life into his Dracula, now a tormented anti-hero, and Charles Dance is joyfully menacing as an ancient bloodsucker, yet the acting plaudits end here. The usually reliable Dominic Cooper completes an embarrassing 2014 (after the woeful Need for Speed flopped at the box office and Reasonable Doubt went straight to DVD) with his cringe-worthy turn as the antagonist, whilst Sarah Gadon is vapidly conventional as Dracula's nubile young wife. If things weren't bad enough, there's a slapdash epilogue that reeks of studio pressure to leave it open for a sequel. A stake in the heart would be preferable.
Gone Girl (2014)
Not classic Fincher, but still astounding.
David Fincher's resume is arguably one of the finest among those still working in Hollywood today. Se7en, Fight Club, The Social Network and Zodiac are all modern masterpieces; his latest, Gone Girl, is not in that league. Yet, like Panic Room, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, even second-tiered Fincher is fantastic. His direction here is more understated than usual, the Fincher trademarks sudden outbursts of violence, grimly lingering camera movements, misleading shots only becoming noticeable in the final act. He wisely allows Gillian Flynn's flip-flopping narrative enough room to breathe (Flynn's script changing direction from her own best selling novel which provides the source material), the multiple perspectives and hidden meanings ensuring you never know who to side with. It's not just plot twists and turns that keep you enthralled though, Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike are superb as the complicated married couple; their chemistry-turned- tension is scintillating. Affleck's career turnaround after three astonishing directorial efforts plus impressive performances in The Town and Argo is now complete, whilst this will hopefully be the role that finally propels Pike onto the A-list where she belongs. If there's a gripe to be had it's the final few minutes, with a downbeat and ambiguous finale not as satisfying as it could've been. But this is a minor quibble in what is otherwise a captivating, intriguing and beautifully complex motion picture.
The Boxtrolls (2014)
Animation is impressive, but the film is only intermittently entertaining.
Coming after their brilliant Coraline and fun filled ParaNorman, the latest Claymation flick from Laika Entertainment doesn't quite reach the heights of its ancestors. As always, the meticulous stop motion animation is wondrous to watch and, for the cineastes in the audience, appreciating the painstaking effort is a pleasure in its own right. Yet there's a spark missing from The Boxtrolls that stops it transitioning from appreciated art to an outright enjoyable movie. The story the harmless, underground-dwelling creatures of the title are being ruthlessly exterminated, causing the boy they raised from birth to stand up for them just doesn't have the legs necessary for a 90 minute outing, nor does it offer up enough laughs for what is meant to be a dark comedy. Another problem is that the preposterously stereotypical characters all act the exact way you would expect (Ben Kingsley's sneering, oily scoundrel Archibald Snatcher is particularly uninteresting), leaving no room for surprise or genuine affection. Hence all the heavy lifting is left to the superb stop motion animation, a few choice chase sequences and cheeky visual references; enough to keep you impressed but only intermittently entertained.
The Equalizer (2014)
Slow and clichéd, but with some fantastic action sequences.
Reteaming 13 years after their Oscar-winning Training Day, director Antoine Fuqua and star Denzel Washington deliver another guilty pleasure with this murky revenge flick. Washington plays Robert McCall, a man with a dark past trying to eke out a quiet life until he feels compelled to help a young prostitute (Chloe Grace Moretz truly horrible) who is beaten to a pulp by her Russian pimp. Trouble is this particular pimp is part of the Russian Mafia's American contingent, so a simple chat over coffee and cake won't do the trick. So after an excruciatingly slow opening 30 minutes, Washington is unleashed in a tense and ultimately bloody confrontation that results in the Russian mob sending over more minions (led by Marton Csokas' sinister sociopath) to be slaughtered in slow motion awesomeness. If the plot sounds a bit clichéd hooker with a heart of gold, evil Ruskis, one last job, ridiculously inept and indispensable henchmen that's because it is. Fuqua attempts to imbue his film with dramatic heft, yet he shouldn't have bothered. When delving into character motives, moral choices and grand, thought-provoking themes, the movie stutters and splutters; thankfully the numerous action sequences are of an extremely high calibre. The finale is especially epic, with Mauro Fiore's cinematography and Harry Gregson-Williams' score combining with Fuqua's flair behind the camera to dish out an appropriately hard core climax. More of a rainy-Sunday-arvo-on-the-couch type of film, but if you're a die-hard Denzel fan then you'll likely appreciate this on the big screen.
Intelligent, tense and superbly acted.
A tightly wound crime drama that oozes class, this Sydney-set motion picture follows on from These Final Hours and Predestination to continue the stellar run for Australian movies in 2014. With an intelligent and slow burning screenplay by Joel Edgerton, Felony deals with one morally murky question: what price should a good person pay for making one bad mistake? Those hoping for a whodunit will be disappointed; the tension is built through a very precise pace and layered character development rather than a complex plot or shock-factor twists and turns. That the characters are so intriguing and engrossing can be equally attributed to the splendid actors on show. Edgerton leads the way as the respected detective, family man and all round top bloke who is forced to deal with a personally complicated situation, and he delivers an almighty performance with nuance and gravitas. He's not the only one though: Jai Courtney takes a break from hard-arse supporting gigs (Jack Reacher, A Good Day to Die Hard) to bring heft and subtlety to his new cop on the block role, whilst veteran Tom Wilkinson relishes his chance to portray the experienced department head who has misplaced old-school values. A special mention also needs to go out to Bryony Marks, whose moody score is utterly sensational and brings emotion all on its own. Due to a limited release it's unlikely you will be able to catch this on the big screen, but to the top of you 'to see' DVD list this should go.
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014)
Unoriginal, but still fun.
It's hard to believe that Sin City was released nine years ago. A trailblazer in the gritty, shadowy and gleefully violent subgenre of comic book adaptations, Robert Rodriguez's imaginative take on Frank Miller's source material was astonishing, and a sequel was thoroughly deserved. Alas, A Dame to Kill For is about 5-6 years too late and what was once ground breaking and edgy is now standard and soft. Repetitive, uninventive and a tad stale in parts, this follow-up is essentially a carbon copy that can't reach the glorious heights of the original. Yet, if judged on its own, there's enough B-grade joy on offer to ensure it's a passable popcorn flick if you have a couple of hours to waste.
The noir-ish visuals are still beautifully gloomy although the increased injection of colour is to its detriment and the hyper-violence is fantastically excessive as expected. The cast are uniformly decent, with Eva Green particularly amazing as a scintillating femme fatale whilst Powers Boothe commands attention as the sneering, ferocious big bad and Mickey Rourke's Marv is again a darkly humorous highlight. Employing the same narrative formula of three separate stories rolled into one, the focus on Nancy's (Jessica Alba) revenge plot is misplaced and should have given way to Josh Brolin and Eva Green's dangerous liaison, which is criminally ended around the 70 minute mark. There is, however, a nice streak of pitch black comedy throughout the movie that lands a few nervous laughs, which Rodriguez/Miller deserve credit for. Inarguably a huge let down when placed by the side of its predecessor, but if pulpy, unhinged and stylishly gory flicks are your cup of tea, then this is worth a peek nevertheless.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)
Stupid and fun in equal measure.
Nowhere near as bad as the widespread panning it has received since its early August release in the States would suggest, this Michael Bay produced remake is equal measures stupid and fun. Lets get the major negatives out of the way first: the tone is muddled (it's unnecessarily dark in places), the Turtles are voiced by adults (and is overly gruff for Leo and Raph), the humour is hit and miss at best, and there are plot holes big enough to drive multiple Turtle-wagons through. Now for the good news. The action set pieces are crazily choreographed and full of energy, if a tad over-edited, and director Jonathan Liebesman unleashes his stylistic flair with aplomb. Whether you like the modernized, pumped-up look of the awesome foursome is a matter of personal taste (I'll give them a pass, just), however the special effects are fairly solid and they thankfully hold up in the frenetic fight scenes. Megan Fox does her best which, lets face it, isn't even as good as Meryl Streep's worse as tough journo April O'Neil, Will Arnett provides a few laughs as quirky sidekick Vernon Fenick and William Fichtner is always watchable when in wicked villain mode. Oh, and Shredder looks completely badass too. It's hard to recommend without some caveats, such as, lower your expectations way, way down, switch your brain off before viewing, and take an 8 year old whose own enthusiasm can rub off on you.
This year's Looper or Inception.
Twisty, turny and mind-bending, one viewing won't be enough for this time travelling head scratcher. Two plots one revolving around Ethan Hawke's temporal agent seeking to stop a terrorist, the other following the life of a precocious orphan who isn't quite like everybody else are intricately and intelligently woven together to not only build tension but to explore provocative themes to spoiler-y to mention here. In fact, Predestination is one of those movies its hard to say much of anything about. It's such a meticulously drip-fed thriller slowly and superbly unravelling as each and every minute of the runtime ticks on that the real joy here is unwrapping and grasping (or attempting to any rate) what it is you're actually witnessing. In his second collaboration with Aussie filmmakers the Spierig Brothers, Hawke is in career-best form as the veteran time traveller on the brink of burning out, whilst relative newcomer Sarah Snook (born and bred South Australian) is outstanding in a complex and demanding role that has rightly grabbed the attention of Hollywood. The Spierig's also demonstrate their diversity in both the writing and directing departments, going from the enjoyable but tonally lightweight splatter-fest Daybreakers to this altogether more mature, thematically heavy and narratively elaborate sci-fi saga that still manages to maintain a high excitement level. This year's Looper or Inception.