Top 10 Films of 2014 (January-July)

Apart from serving as a stark and somewhat worrying reminder about university work that I’ve not yet completed but absolutely should have, August is also the last month of summer blockbuster season. I’ve no idea why that’s relevant. Here are my top 10 films of the calendar year thus far. UK release dates. It’s about a month late.

We all love lists though, so I hope you fine folks’ll forgive me.

10. X-Men: Days of Future Past

Bryan Singer guides the X-Men franchise back to form with a rip-roaring circus act made up of mind bending time travel, slow motion wall-running and Wolverine being Wolverine. Days of Future Past manages its cast supremely well – even the underused Evan Peters is magnetic. Though, not Magneto. He could be. That joke wasn’t even planned.

DoFP - McAvoy

9. Calvary

Brendan Gleeson both runs and steals the show as Father James Lavelle in a film that plays its cards from the get-go, before promoting a townsfolk guessing game as darkly entertaining and intriguing as any before. The screenplay evolves as characters unravel and, through Father James, we become an integral part of it all.

Calvary - Gleeson and Reilly

8. The Lego Movie

Everything is awesome! And hilarious. And energetic. And utterly batty. A flick that proudly flaunts something for everyone, The Lego Movie is non-stop from start until finish; the incessant stream of laughter that spills from our mouths makes it difficult to regain control of breathing. The film ain’t perfect but when things are this gleefully mental, it doesn’t need to be.

The Lego Movie - Icons

7. Locke

For 85 minutes we sit in a car with Tom Hardy and for 85 minutes Tom Hardy magnificently transforms into an ordinary guy bearing a portfolio of problems, each one weightier than the previous. Locke is a moment in time driven by authentic normality that’s incredibly hard to come by on film.

Locke - Hardy in Car

6. Edge of Tomorrow

Doug Liman’s sci-fi extravaganza is even more than that: it’s startlingly funny, unconditionally engaging and the only film I’ve seen twice at the cinema this year. Tom Cruise flips perception on its head, but Emily Blunt is the one who kicks most ass. Edge of Tomorrow is summer popcorn cinema done intelligently. The correct way.

Edge of Tomorrow - Blunt

5. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Hailed as more than simply one of Marvel’s superhero jaunts, The Winter Soldier captures a variety of interests. There’s both a political tinge and an espionage strand to go along with the familiar genre narrative, and these additions work. Chris Evans unveils his best performance as the Cap’n in a film that is considered by many to be the best Marvel output to date. Honestly.

Captain America The Winter Soldier - Captain

4. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn grabs the impressive progress made in Rise and swings to new, greater heights. The tone is more wrought and the outlook is increasingly bleak but, from acting to visuality, the execution is wholly sublime. To simplify Matt Reeves’ flick as the best looking film in a generation would be to do it a disservice. It is, but Dawn also boasts a fulfilling and rewarding foundation.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes - Caesar and Mate

3. Inside Llewyn Davis

From smoky bars to icy streets, there’s no escaping the genuine purity of the Coen brothers’ folk piece. Its screenplay is morbidly delightful, and Oscar Isaac is a walking manifestation of just that. Llewyn is a bit of an ass yet we root for him. Peculiarly, and perhaps it’s just me, despite his downtrodden unluckiness we want to be him. Then again, it might simply be the allure of this latest Coen tale.

Inside Llewyn Davis - Oscar Isaac Guitar

2. 12 Years a Slave

Formally recognised as 2013’s best film, 12 Years a Slave hit UK cinemas in January of this year. It’s inarguably the toughest piece on this particular list, and is certainly one of the most gruelling watches in recent memory. Not only is Steve McQueen’s retelling of the harrowing slave trade important, but it’s also incredibly well delivered. People should see this because it depicts a vile chapter that ought to be bookmarked as a warning to humanity.

12 Years a Slave - Ejiofor

1. Blue Ruin

Though it’s not as heavy as 12 Years a Slave, or as furnished as Inside Llewyn Davis, or as visually striking as Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Blue Ruin comes nail-bitingly close each time. This is simple storytelling relayed with a restrained confidence and wholesome purpose, and there’s even a tremendous lead performance from Macon Blair to cap it all off. It’s just brilliant.

Blue Ruin - Blair Distance

I’m off to read about the geopolitics of Hollywood.

Images credit: Collider

Images copyright (©): 20th Century Fox, Entertainment One, Warner Bros, A24, Walt Disney Studios, CBS Films

22 Jump Street (2014)

★★★

22 Jump Street PosterDirectors: Phil Lord & Christopher Miller

Release Date: June 6th, 2014 (UK); June 13th, 2014 (US)

Genre: Action; Comedy; Crime

Starring: Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill

As simply a comedy film, 22 Jump Street lands its fair share of guffaws. And this is primarily offspring of the humour genre: from acting upon the comedic strengths of its leading pair to unwaveringly owning up to sequel-dom, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s second trek down Jump Street fulfils many a Mark Kermode six laugh test. Yet, albeit competently amusing and even occasionally side-splitting, the outing ceases to be complete. Though the directors’ panache for funny bellows through, their film isn’t consistently hilarious. Not many are. Necessary then, is another anchor to steady the ship when proceedings aren’t quite as raucous; a sturdy narrative perhaps. Sadly, the one presented to us is rather flimsy when it comes to chapters that aren’t laden with jokes.

The final bell having rung on their undercover high school lives, Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) now find themselves caught up in a whole new world: college. Their location is the only difference though, given the partners are once again involved in a narcotics mystery. The new drug is called WHYPHY and has already seen to one student’s untimely demise. Whilst attempting to sideline nostalgic football dreams and romantic engagements, Schmidt and Jenko must also overcome any strains in their own relationship in order to solve the criminal dealings before things get any further out of hand.

Opting for humongous sign-waving as opposed to measly eye-winking, 22 Jump Street isn’t exactly flippant in self-referential deliberation. After an opening montage that takes us through the key scenes of its predecessor — Previously, on 21 Jump Street… — we soon find ourselves camped alongside Schmidt and Jenko in Nick Offerman’s office where Offerman’s Chief Deputy Hardy is openly counteracting the potential pitfalls of sequel syndrome by facing the fact head on. (“Do the same thing as last time, everyone’s happy.”) It’s back to the old headquarters for our two agents then, though the base has conveniently moved across the road. In the background preparations are under way for the construction of 23 Jump Street.

There aren’t any thoughtless attempts to evolve the Jump Street apple cart and the film vociferously makes us aware of that. Though in doing so, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s creation (or recreation) takes on a disguise of irony that is inherently funny. It uses this self-referential prerogative as a weapon, to cut through any sequel-related audience apprehensions and subsequently endear itself to us. We are constantly reminded that our expectations should be low, or at least no higher than last time around, for what’s about to come is a mirror image. The ruse works; we’re too busy laughing at the source’s jokes — driving through a cash machine — to fully consider the mechanics of the source itself. Essentially, by admitting the sequel is going to be much the same as the original, 22 Jump Street is a more engaging proposition because it serves and then effectively manipulates our preconceptions.

That’s just one running gag. The film motions forward in its prejudicial tirade by tapping into assumed college culture too. The volatile drug is aptly named WHYPHY, pronounced Wi-Fi, and it’s no coincidence that the side effects are a temporary buzz followed by likely danger. Notions surrounding internet addiction are vaguely pertinent but never wholly realised. We discover that the student majoring in art is unlikely to make any money when she graduates (who knew?) and there are also an obscene amount of “Bros” and “Dudes” verbally volleyed between the football players. College satire isn’t the film’s strongest comical outlet.

Indeed, the funniest moments throughout 22 Jump Street are delivered by the two leads. Both Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum are comfortable in their roles and the duo’s dynamic prevails as a result. It’s refreshing to see Hill continue along a path that he obviously loves navigating despite having tasted the golden allure of critical success. The peaks of his dramatic work — most of those roles are infused with humour anyway — would suggest that he’s probably a highly sought after fellow, but he seemingly still has much to offer in this genre.

Hill plays the socially awkward Schmidt across from Tatum’s Jenko, whose smarts are inversely proportional to his skill at football. The two funniest scenes involve each man without the other; it’s Schmidt’s slam poem versus Jenko’s slowly simmering realisation, and the difficulty in picking a winner is an indication of how funny both actors are in equal measure. Ice Cube, who returns as Captain Dickson, should also be noted for his hugely enjoyable turn as their always animated boss. Ride Along might have crashed and burned, but the man of many trades has shown he can be infectiously amusing when delivering superior material.

Unfortunately, the dramatic narrative between Schmidt and Jenko is a problem. Unlike the smart use of self-reference, there’s nothing shrewd about the less than budding brotherly developments between the two. Their collective arc is annoyingly mundane and, although this could be construed as another of the film’s this-is-a-sequel-so-don’t-expect-much contributions, it falls far short of the entertainment mark. The troll-like concept is funny in its manifestation as a running gag with frequent pit stops, but it fails to reward when blending into an overly schmaltzy and all too familiar story. In this instance there aren’t any jokes to veil Schmidt and Jenko’s generic bond and when attempted wisecracks are communicated, they fall on deaf ears. (The open investigation malarkey is a bit cringe-inducing due to its lack of invention and continued implementation.)

Two-hour-long gags aside, was it worth creating a sequel? I’d say so. Though not nearly as snappy or galvanising as The Lego Movie, Lord and Miller’s latest offering does trump their first visit to Jump Street. The deliberation now centres on where the franchise is headed next, if anywhere. It looks like the filmmakers have shot themselves in the foot regarding the prospect of a third film. (That sequel quip won’t work twice.) We’ll just have to wait and see.

There’s no uncertainty here. If this review of 22 Jump Street is at least moderately successful, I’ll consider writing another one. Fair warning: It’ll be exactly the same.

22 Jump Street - Hill, Tatum, Cube

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Columbia Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

The Lego Movie (2014)

★★★★

Directors: Phil Lord & Chris Miller

Release Date: February 7th, 2014 (US); February 14th, 2014

(UK) Genre: Animation; Action; Comedy

Starring: Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Morgan Freeman

“Everything is awesome!”

Everything is also chaotic, bonkers and pretty hilarious too. The Lego Movie doesn’t hold back. It cracks the obvious gags when they’re hovering around. There’s a lot of shouting, screeching and wailing, and that’s not just from the children watching in the same screening as you. Engines are set to full-throttle from the off and remain that way. What’s left then, is this gigantic ball of merriment that sees it origins in a whole host of previous box office-busting successes, but one that also conjures up a few smart quips of its own. Truly abiding by its ‘Universal’ rating, The Lego Movie builds on the colourfulness, catchy riffs and outright pandemonium aimed at the young’uns, and ends up also divulging a witty, often reminiscent backbone for the oldies. So yes, everything is awesome.

Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) is a middling construction worker who blends into his job and surrounding world as much as the next Lego figure. He abides by the bustling code of Lego life, a step-by-step process meticulously ticked off by everyone, a job designed to assist progress, and an anthem heralding President Business’s (Will Ferrell) seemingly glorious society. On the periphery though, there’s a menace, an evil at work. President Business has devious intentions, with sights set on using the ‘Kragle’ to glue the world motionless. Only the MasterBuilder can stop him, and maybe Emmet isn’t as ordinary as first perceived.

Unlike the mechanical and simple block-by-block creation style, The Lego Movie manages to deliver a well-rounded story with unimaginable scope. We’re bumbling around a fairly stagnant period of animation on the big screen, a time far removed from the Lion King’s and Shrek’s of cinema, films that combined humour and joy with underlying strands declaring positive living. The Lego Movie teeters on the verge of getting back there. For all its energetic prowess and funny moments, the film motions along a deeper, more satirical platform. One that denounces a lack of intuition and promotes difference. President Business — aptly named — embodies the proverbial symbol of power-hungry, corrupt domination. The addictive song “Everything is Awesome”, sung everyday all-day by the civilians of Bricksburg, is a means to an end for the evil overlord. It’s catchy for a reason, constructed by President Business to brainwash the masses. Yet there are those aware few fighting against the autocratic system, a misfit band of special, talented Lego warriors. This narrative works; it has meaning, evokes emotion and demands investment, even amongst all the surface madness and hilarity. The film trumpets variety against monotony and should be admired and applauded for doing so, perhaps even more so than for its many other accomplishments. Having said all that, it is interesting to consider how much authenticity this prevalent notion of non-corporate domination holds, when you take into account the film’s basis: a multinational, mega-encompassing, money-gorging branded toy.

Snappy comedy is one of the films main triumphs. A lot of the time you find yourself laughing not just on the back of current pop culture references (when Batman refers to Bruce Wayne as a “cool guy”), but also at the expense of historic political blunders — voting machines, for example. The gags are constant, relentless even, but their respective foundations are juggled around allowing a freshness to circulate throughout the film’s progression. On the odd occasion that a consistently fielded joke does become wearisome, writer and director duo Chris Miller and Phil Lord work hastily to replace staleness with another funny wisecrack, and very often that wisecrack is another jaw ache-er.

The dialogue is an audible sea of movie-innuendos, for the experienced and the novice. Aside from bountiful puns and hidden humours rewarded to tickle the quick-eyed (“Bob’s Kabob” is outstanding), we also get hilarious Star Wars absurdities and are showered with a number of popular superheroes — at one point proceedings take on a very Avengers’ Battle-of-New-York-like manifestation, with portals and whizzing machinery aplenty. Batman plays a significant role all through the film, and is probably the only running joke that slightly wears towards the end, which is a shame because Will Arnett does a tremendous job with the raspy Bat-voice, even if you’re throwing honey at the screen by the time the credits roll.

In fact, all of the voice-acting sounds terrific. Chris Pratt provides that exuberant bravado as Emmet, one that gradually pitches more assuredly as the film progresses. Emmet strikingly resembles another animated hero, Flick, both in characterisation and story arc. Similar to the A Bug’s Life protagonist, Emmet is an over-eager-yet-normal guy who possesses the willpower to do the extraordinary. Much like Flick, his apparently crazy, useless ideas are those that turn out to be crucial and imperative — the double-decker couch, for instance. On the contrary to Flick though, who was originally a spanner in the ant hole, Emmet tends to blend into his surroundings and therefore must ascend more than an echelon of innovation to save the day. Elizabeth Banks is zesty and strong as the voice of Wyldstyle, Emmet’s partner-in-heinous-prevention, a wickedness perfectly sounded loud and nastily by Will Ferrell as President Business. Liam Neeson is arguably the best of the lot though, his distinct raspiness toned down (or up) a tad to combat any Batman correlations. Neeson voices Bad Cop/Good Cop, but mainly Bad Cop, and provides a fair helping of humour as the Lego police officer carrying out President Business’s gluey work. A whole host of other names — from Morgan Freeman to Jonah Hill, and Channing Tatum to Cobie Smulders — add their choral airwaves to the very fun and easy-listening vocal front.

Visually, for the most part, the film succeeds too. It runs into a bit of a problem as events set sail across before diving under water. Up until this point, we’re fully engrossed in Lego-land where everything is constructed wonderfully of Lego pieces. The landscape accommodates those ever-noticeable spherical cogs, ready as always to ground an attached brick (a notion that goes over nobody’s head). Water, then, also runs and sprays as Lego parts, until the crew of saviours find themselves underneath the substance which then turns into a non-Lego, standard computer-animated sea. It’s a bit odd, and for a moment removes the viewer from the plastic world. In all fairness though, that’s nit-picking at its crudest and as a whole, the visual output explodes with colour, fluidity and life.

Based on a toy that encourages creativity and imagination, The Lego Movie upholds and listens to its own traditions rather than decimating them (à la the poor-tasting Transformers franchise). The film is controlled, uncontrolled chaos, a rapidly advancing and visually accomplished offering that sparks life into the animation genre. For over an hour and a half you won’t be able to keep the smile off your face, unless it’s to exhale another round of laughter.