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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.
Bloated, exhausting and full of subpar CGI.
The Hobbit was already seen by most as the weaker, shallower series within the Middle Earth cinematic saga, and this underwhelming trilogy-closer does nothing to dispel that line of thought. Essentially the final act of the second instalment stretched out to feature length (giving further credence to those who argued a two-parter would've been more suitable), Peter Jackson's latest effort is one prolonged climax that will test the tolerance of even hard- core Tolkien fans. There are a few choice one-on-one fights that quicken the pulse, however for a film that relishes in grand-scale combat, it is disappointingly dull. Majority of its set pieces are muddled and repetitive, and, surprisingly for Jackson, the geography of the action is often confusing. Perhaps most shocking, however, are the subpar effects littered throughout be it the completely computer generated wide shots or the CGI-augmented warfare. Thank goodness for Martin Freeman though. His Bilbo Baggins remains the best thing in the LOTR prequels and every time he is on screen, which unfortunately isn't as regularly as in the first couple of outings, the movie gets instantly better. Richard Armitage also captivates as bullish Dwarf leader Thorin and Ian McKellan's Gandalf is as watchable as always, whilst Evangeline Lilly is a refreshing presence in the only notable female role. Condensed into an hour finale for Desolation of Smaug, the eponymous battle could have been an intense, breathless culmination to an entertaining series. As a standalone entry (even at a franchise-low 144 minutes), Battle of the Five Armies is saggy, exhausting and one of the biggest let downs of 2014.
Big Hero 6 (2014)
A non-stop joyride.
Sure to be the mega-hit of the holidays, Disney's futuristic tale ticks all of the right boxes: it's funny, smart, charming and exhilarating. Set in San Fransokyo a clever amalgamation of American and Oriental style we follow mourning teen-genius Hiro (Ryan Potter) as he bonds with his late brother's friends and scientific creation, Baymax. With an irresistibly huggable design, amusing voice (thanks to Scott Adsit) and delightful demeanour, Baymax provides the lion's share of laughs and, ultimately, is the star of the show. Not as memorable as the cuddly, inflatable robot, the humans are a mixed bag. Whilst lead protagonist Hiro and his brother Tadashi (the sort of older sibling we all want, voiced by Daniel Henney) are likable and fleshed out, their ragtag group of mates are cardboard cut-outs and the pair of scientists vying for Hiro's invention (awesomely conceived micro-bots) are clichéd and one-dimensional. But underdeveloped supporting players and it's somewhat generic ending are minor gripes, as Big Hero 6 segues from electrifying action sequences to hilarious comedic set-pieces, via the occasional touching moments, with absolute ease, resulting in a non-stop joyride. A wonderful Christmas treat from the Mouse House that'll be a smash with young'uns and, possibly even more, with their parents.
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.