Monday, 26 January 2015


J.K. Simmons gives the performance of his life in Whiplash, sophomore director Damien Chazelle’s scorching jazz opus, fully justifying his recent win at the Golden Globes in the best supporting actor category and propelling himself, almost certainly, into pole position for the same award at next month’s Oscars. 

The ever superb Simmons has made a living out of portraying gruff autocrats and falls comfortably under the broad heading marked ‘That guy from that thing.’ His terrifying band conductor, Terence Fletcher, however, is infinitely more fascinating than almost every other character he has portrayed in a career taking in a diverse slate, from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy to the Jason Reitman-directed Juno

Fletcher, to put it bluntly, is a monster, an arrogant, vicious bully whose rein of terror over his in-house band at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory feels absolute. Wielding a volcanic temper and the ability to shatter the confidence of grown men, Fletcher’s ferocious conflict with jazz drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) catapults Chazelle’s astonishing psychological drama towards a breathless conclusion. 

In suppressing his fratty leanings, Teller plays his part with rare gusto, banishing the memories of that ropey fare (DivergentFootloose, 21 & OverThat Awkward Moment, to name a few) in which he has passed his time thus far. He possesses a fine ability to slide between personalities, gentle and polite in one moment, pushy and abrasive in the next. It is a gift which is tested in the extreme by Chazelle, who plunges his main character — a talented, but fragile, young musician — into the bear pit overseen by Simmons’s tyrant. 

Eager to please, Neiman is unprepared for what awaits him: a sustained mental assault offset, initially, by Fletcher’s obviously insincere pre-session pep talk. Intensely ambitious, the new recruit is, nevertheless, floored by the velocity of his notional mentor’s anger. Within minutes Neiman is a sobbing mess as Fletcher cruelly twists personal details offered in friendship only minutes before. 

‘Whiplash’ is also the title of Hank Levy’s standout composition — chosen for its maddening complexity — and this is a relevant link. Violent tension rips through Chazelle’s film as if it were a car wreck, inescapable and utterly destructive. Fletcher channels every sneering teacher you ever wanted to punch but couldn’t; Simmons basks in the glow of such a deliciously conceived villain. In one scene he drives three drumming hopefuls long into the night until they can match his tempo, unleashing upon them a torrent of world-beating verbal abuse targeting all minorities in the room: the Jews, the Irish, gay people. 

This poisonous atmosphere seeps into Neiman’s pores, corroding his kindly nature, the tentative romance with a nice girl and the relationship with his father (a solid Paul Reiser), at whose table he insults a gathering of friends in an unnecessarily snide dismantlement of small-town values. It even chisels away at the tower of fear upon which Fletcher stands to survey his meek charges. When the older man dares to consider a change of lead drummer, Neiman, fuelled by a desire that sees Teller subject himself to prolonged physical torture — equal parts perspiration and blood — explodes in a fraught five-minute sequence that takes in a blown tyre, a car crash and even a brawl. 

Chazelle has explored this musical milieu before with his somewhat abstract debut feature, the little-seen festival favourite Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, and it is clearly a world in which he is invested. Save for the veracity of an oft-repeated anecdote about Charlie Parker’s ascent to jazz immortality, his latest appears steeped, for the uninitiated anyway, in genre lore. The prophet of this unpredictable medium is the white-faced, black-clad, gimlet-eyed Simmons, who owns the film, even with Teller’s quite brilliant input. 

Fletcher is no mere cartoon, eventually displaying depths that do not quite tally with initial impressions. His tears at the death of a former protégé are sincere, so too is a friendly conversation with the small girl he encounters in a corridor. Later, as fate takes him in a new direction, he explains, with gentle clarity, that his job is not to patronise mediocrity but to spark greatness, by whatever means necessary. A wounded lion is still a lion, of course, and the show-stopping finale serves as a chilling reminder that those early eruptions simply covered darker elements. 

That finale is transformative; Neiman sheds potential for greatness. In doing so, Teller strains every muscle to convey something fleeting and largely indescribable. Sweat-drenched, alive with an urgency that only great films can induce, if Whiplash cannot be classed as a thriller, it is no less thrilling. 

An edited version of this article was first published here

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Testament of Youth

When Vera Brittain published Testament of Youth in 1933, she offered up an anthem for a shattered generation surrendered to the blasted heaths and sodden trenches of the Great War. Brittain’s memoirs of her experiences before, during and after that pointless exercise represented an intimate portrait of wartime Britain, the theme of forfeited innocence clearly never far from the surface. 

In the latest cinematic adaptation of that seminal work, director James Kent succeeds in conveying a slow burning but sumptuous film, intense and inherently, unavoidably heartbroken. Anchored by the wonderfully layered Alicia Vikander, drawing on those wells of emotional maturity that have defined her performances from Anna Karenina to A Royal Affair, Kent’s epic story of love and loss feels truly significant in its elegant conception. 

Opening on Armistice Day 1918, a clearly grief stricken Vera (Vikander) flashes back to the halcyon summer of 1914 in which she and her sensitive brother, Edward (Kingsman: The Secret Service star Taron Egerton), entertained his school friends, Victor — a gentle Colin Morgan — and Kit Harrington’s soulful Roland. The spiky, bookish Vera immediately falls for the latter, drawn in by his poetry and respect for her own dreams of a writing career, of an Oxford education. 

Given the prevailing era, the shadow of conflict rests in the background, its encroachment unnoticed at first in Vera’s verdant home patch of Buxton, Derbyshire, an achingly exquisite, occasionally desolate, setting which Kent and cinematographer Rob Hardy capture with a loving embrace. Not-so-distant horrors soon crowd in, however, and the Brittain homestead appears less relevant, polluted even, its gentility upended by cruel realities. 

This is not a tale of warfare. Kent focuses instead on the corrosive effect such bloodshed has on the ties that bind humankind together. Vera is not the sole victim here, yet a time of great change, be it social, global or sexual, unfolds through her mournful eyes. It takes shape with her entry into the austere all-female environs of Somerville College, Oxford; it forms around the dismantlement of class boundaries in the hell of shell-torn France, calcifying as newspapers publish nothing but lists of lost boys, rich and poor. Nothing will ever be the same again. Tellingly, the director opts to keep the mounting tragedies largely invisible, for it is the survivors who must pick up the pieces of destruction wrought by unseen and foreign violence, not the dead.

Vera volunteers for nursing duty, treating the wounded — both British compatriots and German prisoners — in the Western Front’s groaning charnel houses and these experiences seem to awaken the spirit of pacifism that would define her later existence. How could they not? Kent sinks his once handsome film into the mud of rain-washed barracks, the incessant grime creeping infesting each foul hut to carry away the broken souls within. 

Unsurprisingly, Vera, driven to seek solace away from the heartbreak of losing those most close to her, sees the creative spirit she shared with Roland condemned to a life before the sky darkened. Even their time together on home leave feels less hopeful, a stay of the inevitable. 

Soaking in this turmoil is Vikander, a strikingly accomplished young performer around whom the events roil and burst. Undeniably beautiful in a real-world sort of way, her mature, suppressed, unreadable features come to fill the screen, Kent’s camera lingering with a lazy handheld focus fuelled by intrigue more than anything else. With happiness stolen before it may be fully realised, hers is a presence to remind us that profound human suffering extends far beyond the field of battle.

The trio of male leads make the most of the space afforded them: Egerton is every inch the loyal sibling; Harrington carries off his anti-Jon Snow with a subtlety not always demanded by Game of Thrones. Armagh actor Morgan, meanwhile, delicately portrays a noble and good soul who would rather create a fictitious fiancée than pursue Vera, the shimmering object of his hesitant affections. Dominic West, too, excels, with limited opportunities, as the stoic patriarch who adores his children.

Ultimately, of course, this is Vikander’s show. Save for the irritating anti-war grandstanding in a somewhat exhausting finale, the Swedish actress, hiding any trace of her Nordic inflection, exhibits the kind of sober English tenacity that would steel many a weaker soul. 

An edited version of this article was first published here

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Taken 3

Of all the pitstops on Liam Neeson’s strange journey from intense, gravelly-voiced thesp to hulking action star, the Taken franchise is undoubtedly the most recognisable. Playing imposing former spy Bryan Mills, a man possessing a ‘very particular set of skills,’ Neeson’s physicality and po-faced embrace of the role have served as a compelling combination in the weirdly enduring series produced by Luc Besson and overseen by fellow French directors Pierre Morel and Olivier Megaton. 

Taken opened in 2008 to toxic reviews. Critical opprobrium later softened when audiences warmed to Mills’s diplomacy-free approach in rescuing his gormless daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace), from white slavery in the grimy Paris underbelly. Highly entertaining, if somewhat charmless, it wrought a loud Istanbul-set sequel fours years later, as inevitable as it was awful, Mills shooting every vengeful scumbag relation of the scumbag Albanian traffickers he’d smoked so mercilessly in France. 

It made money, however, lots of it, and thus, from the dregs of Taken 2, Fox has brewed up a third entry in a brazen money-making exercise that might shame even Peter Jackson. Fittingly, Megaton takes the reigns once more, infusing this picture with the delicate subtlety one would expect from a man responsible for The Transporter 3. 

Make no mistake, Taken 3 is a truly terrible film. Poorly directed, plagued by a rote plot and pedestrian action, the only distinctive trait is that it seems, remarkably, less enjoyable than its preceding instalment. At least one could catch a glimpse of the Bosphoros, or the elegance of the Blue Mosque, last time out. Now, in a move that suggests everyone making it was as bored as the audience is likely to be it, Mills’s latest donnybrook is set in his own backyard of Los Angeles: a desperately dull place by the looks of it, even with a cabal of lazily conceived Russian mobsters (led by Sam Spruell as the cartoonish villain) running amok. Indeed, in this soft-lit suburban jungle — think a less refined version of Michael Bay’s sun-dappled crassness — Neeson’s grizzled warrior buys stuffed toys for an adult daughter and attempts, half-heartedly, to woo Lenore (Famke Janssen), his ridiculously attractive ex-wife.

The excruciating first half hour crawls by during which Mills attempts to negotiate treacherous domestic ground, like handing out sage advice on purchasing puppies. In fairness, our hero appears to be enjoying the stunted normalcy as much as a trip to the dentist but when he is made a patsy for Lenore’s sudden murder, this being the universe of Taken, somebody is going to pay. The incredible truth is that from this point on, events taken a turn for the worse. Neeson is a working actor, there’s no shame in that, and his cheque was surely a hefty one, yet, at 62, the fighting days are clearly behind him. Shuffling around a completely uninteresting conspiracy, he looks knackered by the end, the shield of Megaton’s hyperactive editing arguably a contributor to that overall sense of fatigue. 

In the meantime, Grace — last seen, in this context anyway, merrily flinging live grenades around Turkish rooftops — must contend with her mother’s death, an oily step-father (Dougray Scott: obviously complicit) and the inconvenience of being plied with laxatives by her no-tactic-too-far patriarch. She has always played the distressed damsel with miserable enthusiasm, though her irritating character displays few signs of developing beyond that tired cliché. Of the other notable cast members, Oscar winner Forest Whitaker portrays the same perceptive cop he rolled out for both Phone Booth and The Last Stand.

Back when Neeson first growled that famous threat to ‘find’ and ‘kill’ the dirty scoundrels messing with his little princess, he did so in a gritty, hard-edged, 18-rated thriller. The same trope is embarrassingly aped here, more than once, with Mills now forced to trot out component parts of that iconic moment in a feature carrying a 12A certificate for maximum earning potential. Robbed of the impactful original’s visceral brute force, Neeson stars in little more than a dull, sterilised, child-friendly adventure movie. Late on, as he waterboards a hapless bad guy in the finest traditions of the CIA, pre-pubescent viewers are likely to recall more frightening examples of water usage in Frozen. Or in the bath. 

Feeling lightyears longer than its 109 minutes, Bryan Mills’s ill-advised anthology may, at last, run out of gas, sealed off once and for all by a dreary finale delivering all the emotional resonance of a Downton Abbey Christmas special. 

But hey, at least the opening titles are cool. 

An edited version of this article was first published here

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

The Theory of Everything

It will come as something of a relief to many that The Theory of Everything is not really interested in science. There are few blinding mathematical equations to contend with, no stylised renderings of cosmological diagrams. Mercifully, it is a film about a scientist, rather than his field. 

That scientist is a fairly famous one: Stephen Hawking, a man whose name has come to be intrinsically linked with high genius. In this beautifully realised biopic, the Cambridge professor recognisable by his unflinchingly confronted degenerative disability and iconic speech-generating device — not to mention A Brief History of Time, the seminal tome which launched him into the zeitgeist — is played with aplomb by a superlative Eddie Redmayne.

The physicist aspires to a ‘single elegant equation to explain everything’ throughout, yet director James Marsh (the maker of stellar documentaries Man on Wire and Project Nim, and the less satisfying Belfast-set IRA drama Shadow Dancer) balances the numbers with a challenging love story built around Hawking’s 30-year marriage to fellow Cambridge student Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones). As Hawking, Redmayne gives a performance as powerful as it is layered, his usual intensity offset greatly by a noble sense of light-hearted positivity. 

Opening in 1963, Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten depict Hawking as a PhD student of peerless ability. Redmayne, all raffish confidence and aloof brilliance, buys into it, exploring the character’s easy relationship with his own startling intelligence. Indeed, the earliest challenges for the cool, bespectacled Hawking are getting a date with the equally bright Wilde and settling on a thesis topic. 

In the austere surroundings of Trinity Hall, captured with sumptuous understatement by cinematographer Benoît Delhomme, Hawking engages with the full gamut of an Oxbridge existence: ale, intellectualism, coxing. So far so spiffing. In the wake of a nasty, palsy-induced fall, however, his charmed life is upended by the diagnosis that would come to define his public image. He is told that he suffers from motor neurone disease and has only two years to live. 

The subsequent picture extracts a great deal from the juxtaposition of his crippled form and soaring mental capacity, a challenging development faced, without self-pity or remorse, in partnership with Wilde’s great woman behind a great man. Redmayne’s presence is the tour de force here, of course, transforming from a sprightly imp — albeit one exhibiting subtle hints of encroaching deterioration, almost from the beginning — into a twisted, still and impassive shell. 

The actor’s physical evolution is extraordinary, neither impersonation nor insult. Crucially, Redmayne sends out intermittent flares of Hawking’s latent personality, his fixed grimace softened into a smile here, the flicker of an eyebrow there. It sits easily with Marsh’s mature direction, which is confident enough to cast as an icon a flawed man whose selfishness becomes increasingly prevalent as his isolation grows. 

Moments of real emotion persist in a marriage laced with frustrated ambitions, yet built on enduring love and, ironically, Redmayne dazzles to the point of dwarfing his own identity. Hawking remains a strangely unknowable figure, the things that make him tick lost beneath this wonderful piece of acting. Jones, on the other hand, enjoys few chances to show off. Her controlled display, therefore, is all the more inspiring for it. 

Jones's personal journey is a humbler one, perhaps, yet there is bravery also in standing next to Redmayne as he undergoes his metamorphosis. She changes also, though a thread of steely loyalty endures until Hawking’s condition, and his quiet defiance, pushes her to the edge. From pretty scholar to emotionally battered wife-cum-carer, Jones imbues Wilde with a knowing worldliness as fascinating as anything served up by her onscreen husband. 

It is in this two-handed dynamic that The Theory of Everything discovers a soul. Hawking’s quest to discern the source of existence takes a distant back seat while this marriage winds its way through three decades of intimate trials and triumphs. If this adaptation of Wilde’s frank memoirs feels occasionally uneven in the treatment of its subjects — his philandering is handled in a strange, almost sniggering manner; her potential infidelity is treated like the coming of an especially bleak rain cloud — there is more than enough heart to compensate. 

‘I have loved you. I did my best,’ whispers Wilde, as their union crumbles. Maybe Hawking’s answer was there all along. 

An edited version of this article was first published here

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

The 14 best films of 2014


From experimental filmmaking to the blockbuster fare of Marvel Studios, with a sprinkling of folk and a dash of eastern adrenaline, these were the 14 best films of 2014.

14. Locke

There is every chance that the average cinemagoer opted for more accessible diversions than Stephen Knight's ostensibly obscure Locke when searching the listings back in April. Watching Tom Hardy drive along the M1 in a BMW for 84 minutes is hardly a prospect holding mass appeal, but for those who did take that plunge, the rewards were all too obvious by the end. Experimental, fascinating, the story focuses, completely and exclusively, on construction overseer Ivan Locke, who leaves behind the biggest job of his career to deal with a personal matter that will destroy his comfortable life. 

Inexplicable Welsh accent notwithstanding, Hardy is a magnetic figure, a superlative talent capable of dwarfing those around him (see his recent demented schtick in Peaky Blinders). He is all there is to look at here and one is inevitably drawn deep inside his confidence while everything unravels around him in nail-biting, gut-wrenching real time. There will be many who chose not to waste their time getting into the car with Locke. What a pity.

13. Guardians of the Galaxy

It would not be inaccurate, or unfair, to point out James Gunn's mega-budget Marvel juggernaut checked all of the usual comic-book boxes when it skipped onto general release as the studio's summer tentpole. Big and bulky visuals, a kaleidoscopic palette, lots of explosions and enough CGI to satisfy James Cameron; this was a blockbuster, no doubt about it. How refreshing then to discover that Gunn had also conjured a swaggering action comedy as knowingly over the top as anything anchored in an era spawning that 'awesome mix' playlist so cherished by 'Star-Lord', Chris Pratt's slyly hilarious idiot-cum-crusader. 

A genuinely fantastic intergalactic odyssey built around the crackling chemistry shared between Pratt and his fellow reprobates, Guardians of the Galaxy's pedigree may present itself in the enormous final stanza but where this truly excelled is in the intertwined strength of those memorable lead players. This mixed bunch sealed the deal: Zoe Saldana's watchful assassin Gamora; humourless nutcase Drax (Dave Bautista); the digitally rendered tandem of Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel), spiky badasses with crap attitudes and arguably the best lines ("I am Groot" or otherwise). With such a solid base, the only direction was towards the stars. 

12. '71

Unusually for a filmmaker focusing on Northern Ireland's troubled history, Yann Demange seems to understand the waters in which he is swimming. Working from a script by Scottish playwright Gregory Burke (Black Watch). Demange is not alone in getting his head around the complex politico-religious fervour — both Steve McQueen and Paul Greengrass have touched on the Troubles with success — but with '71, the Paris-born director faces that era's darkest excesses head on, bending them into a picture of mesmerising proportions. It sees Jack O'Connell inhabit the skin of flinty squaddie Gary Hook, cut off from his unit in alien territory: west Belfast. 

At heart, '71 is a brilliant, coiled, pulsating thriller. In O'Connell it enjoys the perfect mix of raw talent and authentic hardscrabble survivability to suggest that this really is a callow lad, lost and alone in a deadly hornet's nest. 

11. The Wolf of Wall Street

In keeping with much of his back catalogue, Martin Scorsese’s scorching ode to unhinged hedonism is a kinetic blitzkrieg of razor-sharp dialogue, its true-story roots constituting a graphic tapestry of the financial sector's most horrifying clichés. In short, it's dazzlingAs the preening Wall Street wunderkind Jordan Belfort, Leonardo DiCaprio chews up every last piece of scenery. His subsequent Oscar nomination surely represented some kind of reward for the non-stop, hernia-inducing hysteria that punctuates much of the film and through a haze of expensive booze, copious barbiturates and no small number of beautiful women, financial corruption has never seemed so appealing, or energetic. 

At Belfort's right hand, however, Jonah Hill steals the show as demented douchebag sidekick Donnie, his unsettlingly bleached dental crowns glowing like nuclear rods. Everybody hates these trader dickheads, perhaps, but we sure can't take our eyes off them. 

10. Cold in July 

This adaptation of the 1989 novel by Joe R. Landsdale is a strange and mighty beast. Springing from a place somewhere between HBO's True Detective and David Cronenberg's twisted small-town noir A History of Violence, this jagged, clammy Southern Gothic features a trio of leads one would hardly expect to see crammed into the front of pickup truck seeking answers and vengeance in equal measure. 

When he discovers a night-time intruder in his home, quiet, lightly mulleted patriarch Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) kills the prowler, only to attract the ire of the dead man's father (Sam Shepard) with that single shot. Regular B-movie director Jim Mickle takes what might have been a predictable plot in a number of riveting directions before the end, aided in that task by the strutting Don Johnson as a flamboyant pig-rearing private detective. Episodic in nature but pulled off with cool dollops of style, a retro score and three charges of electrifying acting, Cold in July can feel awkward, though the end result is undeniably affecting. 

9. Out of the Furnace

muscular tale located deep in the rusting core of faded Pennsylvanian steel country, Scott Cooper's follow-up to the gorgeous Crazy Heart finds a glowering and tormented Christian Bale searching desperately for a brother lost to the grimy rural environs of the hillbilly bareknuckle circuit. With its verdant landscapes and blue-collar honesty, Out of the Furnace explicitly invokes The Deer Hunter, as proud men are jettisoned in that horrible hinterland between pointless war and industrial decrepitude. 

Yet this is no lazy riff on a stately progenitor. Cooper and Bale render a handsome picture, imprinted with a sad atmosphere best summed by the elegiac sounds of Pearl Jam's 'Release'. Eddie Vedder's sultry tones wash over the narrow Appalachian surroundings more than once. They seem as uplifting as this milieu is ever likely to be. 

8. The Guest 

Yes, that is the guy from Downton Abbey playing a vaguely psychotic Abercrombie model. Worry not, however, for this film, an arch, pulpy and whip-smart brew of genres, shares absolutely no DNA with ITV's endlessly silly romp. The Guest is, instead, an incredibly enjoyable and paranoid thriller, where the largely bonkers plot never once encroaches on director Adam Wingard's merciless sense of fun. 

Fusing a variety of familiar themes — warrior PTSD, government conspiracy and teenage angst (no, seriously) — with the synthy stylistic tropes of recent hits like Drive and Cold in July, what could have been an uneven mess is actually the year's most original guilty pleasure. Stevens, in particular, distinguishes himself as a leading man of significant presence. 

7. Dallas Buyers Club

The story of Texan rodeo rider Ron Woodroof's battle with both HIV and Big Pharma during the Eighties' AIDS crisis, Jean-Marc Vallée's film is, by turns, amusing and deeply moving, driven from beginning to end by an emaciated, Oscar-winning Matthew McConaughey in the lead role. Undoubtedly the apex of McConaughey's incredible career renaissance (the McConaissance?), his Woodroof is a complicated grifter of questionable morals and unpredictable motivations. Sniffing out a profitable business opportunity to import Mexican drugs, this unlikely saviour seems well formed in a modern age of the anti-hero.

Beyond McConaughey's layered characterisation, Jared Leto ably justifies his own Academy laurels as the suave, wonderfully androgynous transexual Rayon. It is a performance infused with rare class and quite stunning bravery, and one wholly typical of the Dallas Buyers Club's spare Texan charm. 

6. The Raid 2

The moment that The Raid exploded onto screens in 2012, delivering a gut-punch to Western action cinema's tired old fighter in the process, a sequel seemed inevitable. And so it proved as Welsh director Gareth Evans — a talent to watch — stripped his original down to its component parts before rebuilding and catapulting it onto a template as large, and as visceral, as anyone could have hoped. 

Centred on the humid Indonesian underworld, The Raid 2 sees the unstoppable SWAT cop, Rama (Iko Uwais), debriefed following the murderous events of the first movie and then dropped into an undercover role to tear down Jakarta's biggest mob boss. Realised, thrillingly, with gravity-defying martial arts, ambitious storytelling and a host of visual flourishes, this is mighty Asian cinema in its finest, purest form. 

5. Inside Llewyn Davis 

In spite of their previous Oscar success with No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers have never stood out as automatic fixtures on the Academy radar. While the brilliance of their work, rather than any cynically selected subject matter, has often won them recognition, it still appeared a snub to see Inside Llewyn Davis overlooked for the major honours at February's big awards. It was the Academy's loss. 

The Coens' work is an exquisite, reined-in paean to the folk scene of 1960s Greenwich Village, quietly bracing and free of the siblings' signature quirkiness. A tenderly elegiac story of loss and lucklessness, afforded room to grow, Llewyn Davis is girded by a filmmaking duo who are, quite simply, existing at the very pinnacle of their craft. Alongside that, the wonderful soundtrack is not simply an ancillary element, designed to squeeze out extra revenue once the credits, but a pulsing heartbeat in the chest of this melancholic and profoundly defining creation.

4. Gone Girl

In 2012, author Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl swept through the literary landscape, carrying with it a chilling account of marital collapse and psychological torture. Two years later, visionary auteur David Fincher adapted Flynn's novel to a masterful degree, wringing every last drop of tension from her dark story. Capable of mining even unthreatening subjects for sinister undertones — see his Facebook opus The Social Network, a movie fuelled in no small part, as in this instance, by Trent Reznor's remarkably ambient score — Fincher's picture exploits the bleakness of foreclosed, recession-hit Nowheresville, Missouri, to roll out a film as disturbing as it is beautiful. 

Did Ben Affleck's Nick murder his wife, Amy (a disturbed Rosamund Pike)? Is she really dead? Should these two even be together? The questions come thick and fast, the answers unfurling to reveal the monstrous central conceit. Intense and pervasive, Gone Girl was 2014's nastiest conundrum. 

3. 12 Years a Slave

Steve McQueen's Oscar-winning drama was no mere worthy period piece drenched in sumptuous colours, a stunning visual feast of sticky southern refinement in the hot box of Louisiana's cotton belt. No, the acclaimed filmmaker offered something far more profound, an unblinking view into the heart of darkness. This adaptation of Solomon Northup's 1853 memoir of his time in bondage, picks at the corners of white guilt; McQueen trained his artists's gaze, with furious elegance, on the vileness of slavery.

Boasting a thunderous Michael Fassbender as the grotesque master, Epps, and a similarly impressive Chiwetel Ejiofor as the eponymous chattel, 12 Years a Slave symbolises more than any ordinary depiction of America's original sin. It skewered the plantation, lighting it with a whiff of truth free from any ambiguity or filter of cultural mores. The result is an unyielding and urgent picture of rare power, unafraid to confront history's swelteringly violent reality. 

2. Boyhood

On the one hand, Boyhood is about nothing remarkable. It pushes no weighty message, there are few scenes of note. There is little, in a narrative sense at least, to set it apart from countless other family anthologies featuring modest budgets and recognisable indie stalwarts. To come at it from another angle, however, is to witness its greatness. Director Richard Linklater's coming-of-age epic is a story of childhood experienced, then lost, told mainly from the perspective of Mason Evans (Ellar Coltrane), an ethereal and precocious youngster of America's post-millennial age. 

What sets this apart from the genre, of course, is Linklater's visionary decision to construct his project over the course of 12 years. He captures his characters' natural ageing and maturation in the process, an approach which moves beyond gimmickry thanks to a subtle melding of time and plot. Shot through with authenticity, possessed of believably natural characters, Linklater's masterpiece is a towering tribute to cinema's singular power. 

1. Interstellar

A soaring space opera from writer-director Christopher Nolan, Interstellar blurred the lines between sci-fi and human drama, its vast canvas of dying planets seeking new horizons the thrilling converse of Alfonso Cuarón's claustrophobic, though equally magnificent Gravity

A tale from beyond the cosmos playing out through the prism of its director's signature spartan realism, this is a grand fable of love and legacies, apocalypse and genesis. With ideas as massive as those distant starscapes, there can be no doubting the scope of Nolan's boundless imagination. 

Thursday, 25 December 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

So that's it. Six films, a slew of awards, billions in takings; Peter Jackson's time in Middle Earth is finally at an end. Thirteen years after he first unleashed his peerless vision on the moviegoing public, this saga fades out with less of a fizz than the participants will have intended. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is a mighty offering, make no mistake but it is also, sadly, a profoundly flawed one. 

Given the considerable box-office performance of the previous two entries (An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug), Jackson’s narrative makes few allowances for those who might not be entirely au fait with the series as it stands. He plunges straight into the action, picking up from where left off as the terrifying dragon, Smaug — infused with the molten tones of Benedict Cumberbatch — turns the fetid Lake-town into cinders in retribution for being disturbed in his nearby gilded lair. As Bofur and friends scramble to escape the onslaught, only the stoic Bard (played with a degree of sub-Mortensen charisma by Luke Evans) chooses to challenge the beast. 

It is an opening as exciting as it is inaccessible and, in the wake of this flaming bonanza, the smaller moments of displaced people and broken lives come off as flat, ancillary even. The sense that these quieter instances are somehow getting in the way of the titular battle, is hard to shake. As the band of Dwarves led by Richard Armitage’s brooding Thorin resettle the great halls of a homeland once stolen by Smaug, the relative slightness of J.R.R. Tolkien’s elegant source novel — a publication barely exceeding 300 pages — appears more obvious than ever. 

Jackson, alongside co-screenwriters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo Del Toro, reaches deep into Tolkien’s additional notes and appendices to bulk up this tale, peppering the story with nods to his later (earlier?) troika that range from subtle to downright ham-fisted. For a man tied to Middle Earth in the minds of the post-millennial generation, Jackson’s enthusiasm would now seem to outweigh his material.

With the author’s masterful construction stretched to the point of becoming unrecognisable, Jackson possesses little choice but to concentrate his abilities on realising a face-off afforded only a passing mention by Tolkien. More than half of the unusually spare running time (144 minutes) is taken up with an encounter between factions which are, in a interesting departure from the good-versus-evil tropes otherwise inherent to this milieu, competing for territory and riches. 

The resulting donnybrook is a dazzling achievement of gorgeous visuals and technical prowess. Jackson has form here, of course, his fondness for staging enormous scenes encrusted with lovingly rendered imagery shows no sign of waning. Indeed, it remains a skill set far removed from the grimy gorefests of his early career. By the same token, however, familiarity may well breed fatigue and Five Armies presents nothing that fans of the Kiwi’s work — certainly as it extends to this genre — have not already witnessed. 

Vast armies clash (a bizarre, digital Billy Connolly commands his host of ornery Dwarves with raucous aplomb and a giant hammer; Lee Pace’s sinister Elf king, Thranduil, rides around on an elk), the camera swooping and veering between their rowdy lines. Hulking trolls, utilised as machines of war by the antagonistic Orcs, lay siege to a city in the shadow of Thorin’s Lonely Mountain. 

On automatic pilot Jackson may surpass most of his peers but the cold truth is that we have been here before. He can summon no instances to rival to the bravura barrel fight in The Desolation of Smaug and nor is the soaring, Oscar-winning, era-defining majesty of The Return of the King’s Pelennor Fields matched by any element in a picture now tagged as Middle Earth’s ‘defining chapter’. 

As the force of his colossal ambition overwhelms everything, Jackson sees his cast suffocate beneath that weight. In committing himself so comprehensively to the kind of breathtaking tableau that has defined both his Hobbit trilogy and the towering Lord of the Rings triple header, he essentially abandons rounded characterisation for glossy, CGI-fuelled spectacle. The Lord of the Rings, for all its marvels, was underpinned by the richly drawn fellowship in its midst and while The Hobbit’s Dwarven company exudes, at times, a similar spirit, it earns limited opportunities to complete its arc. A collection of choppy, poorly scripted subplots are passed off as adequate storytelling, a triumph of style over substance. 

Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellan) serves as weary expositor once more, though his explanations remain confusing even as he and the cameoing trio of Elrond (a sword-wielding Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and latter-day villain Saruman (Sir Christopher Lee, playing Sir Christopher Lee) explore the machinations of franchise scourge Sauron, along with the reasons for this large-scale attack upon the mountain by the "forces of darkness". Armitage descends into a greed-clouded madness only to clamber out, with puzzling swiftness, and lead his comrades into the breach. Meanwhile, the clunky romance between Kili (Aidan Turner) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) endures as this trilogy’s most gratuitous fabrication. 

Most regrettable of all, is the sidelining of a brilliant Martin Freeman, who disappears from view beneath the cacophonous din of full-scale conflict. This wonderfully grounded actor imbues his scenes with a humane maturity that staves off the encroaching melodrama and it is the heartbreaking corruption of Bilbo Baggins, the eponymous Hobbit — a shrewd, courageous operator and loyal observer — which forms so central a strand of the Tolkien mythology. Shamefully, his mounting obsession with the ring he found scrambling in the darkness of Gollum’s lair is left largely unattended until the end. These concluding references to later seminal events are neatly accomplished, perhaps, but Bilbo’s time in the spotlight ultimately feels like too little too late. 

Jackson is no ordinary filmmaker, this much is obvious. Melding a cheeky edge of schlocky grubbiness with that capacity for epic high fantasy, his time as the custodian of Tolkien’s precious legacy should be judged as nothing less than a glowing success. Yet, with this newest instalment, the once gushing river has finally run dry. Time to move on.