We continue onwards, with the next ten of my 2015 rankings. Note: this list and subsequent awards are based off Irish release dates.
One could not help but be intrigued by the premise and the production details of this, from Iranian-American director Ana Lily Amirpour, a vampire romance set in the most unlikely surrounds. The titular “Girl”, played with a rather creepy intensity at one moment, and a certain air of wistfulness at others, is brought to life by Sheila Vand. But in many ways, the film is dominated by the James Dean-esque Arash Mandi, a young actor who smoulders and poses as required, and makes the audience buy into a narrative that otherwise might have been rather difficult to buy into.
Because the film has its issues. The plot meanders around several supporting characters, and into numerous dead ends. The moments heavy on the “artsy” aspect are just unintelligible and confusing. The characters, not lacking for good performances, do lack a bit of substance. But the saving graces, most notably an incredible scene in the Girl’s bedroom set to White Lies’ “Death” are powerful when they come. But more than anything, it is Amirpour’s eye for details – like in a rendezvous scene outside a train line – that make this worth a look, a stunning example of the kind of possibilities for ambiance creation that exist with black and white filmmaking. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night could have been just another vampire story, or just another revenge tale. But it stands out far more as a twisted love story between two very different people, one that builds to an intriguing finale.
I really wanted to like Rogue Nation more than I did. It had been a while since I had caught up with Ethan Hunt and company, and settling into this fifth offering was easy enough. But once you got past that genuinely impressive opening stunt, the unfolding story proved pedestrian in many respects. The thrills and decent action beats are still there to be enjoyed, but they are now the only thing, more or less, and some of them are calling back to better moments earlier in the franchise. Rogue Nation, an overly-lengthy film with pretensions of being snazzier than it really is, is a clear sign that this franchise has entered the state of treading water.
A big part of the problem is the bloated supporting cast, from mainstays like Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames and Jeremy Renner, to new people like Rebecca Ferguson, who simply don’t gel, and can’t live up to the leading man, who is so used to Mission: Impossible at this point that it must be like putting on an old pair of shoes. With Sean Harris struggling as a by the books antagonist we have seen dozens of times recently enough, Rogue Nation thus has a deficit of decent performances, and some creative directing flourishes and an OK script just cannot hope to make up for that. In the end, Rogue Nation is perfectly watchable, but is the very definition of a “switch off your brain” movie, and does the long term health of the franchise no favours.
The revolution comes to an end in the clumsily titled finale to The Hunger Games saga, and after viewing it you certainly won’t feel like it is past time. Watching Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen has been mostly a delight, but these films have been on a downward trend the entire time, and Mockingjay – Part Two is the final limp dénouement. A schizophrenic story that jumps from Katniss’ revenge mission, political machination in Panem and an insipid love-plot makes things bad enough, but Mockingjay – Part Two adds on a lazy script that translates poorly from page to screen, a boatload of characters regrettably side-lined, some repetitive cinematography and a lengthy ending sequence that eventually undercuts much of what made The Hunger Games great in the first place.
For all that Lawrence, and to a slightly lesser extent, Josh Hutcherson, continue to bring the goods on the acting front, it’s hard to really get into this film properly. Despite a few well-executed action sequences, a zombie attack in a sewer in particular, the film never gets as up-tempo as it could have been, after much of the exposition was got out of the way in Part One. Themes of perception, truth and consequence in wartime abound and occasionally add some depth, but Mockingjay – Part Two feels like it is always struggling, with the purist approach to adapting the source material stifling what could have been a grand cinematic climax. Now and then you can see the kind of film it could have been, which makes the final effort all the more disappointing.
Alex Fegan’s follow-up to 2013’s The Irish Pub is a fairly simple recordation documentary, that aims to allow Ireland’s centenarian generation – over 3’000 of them exist at present, so the sampling here is actually rather small in comparison – the chance to talk about their extensive experiences on camera. Fegan stays out of proceedings and allows his static cinematography give the subjects all of the room they require. The result is an 81-minute journey through tales of joy, sadness, love and despair, with an ever present sense of “Irishness” embedded in every ribald joke and every reaction to the modern day state of things in the country they extend beyond in terms of age.
The problem is that Fegan doesn’t do all that much to truly challenge the audience in the course of the film, with his documentary being exactly what it says on the tin and little more. The topic at hand changes with alarming frequency, and one can detect a certain selective nature in the way that the candidates included on screen have been picked: they are a remarkably open-minded and tolerant bunch after all, and Fegan seems content with allowing them to display only the more positive traits. This doesn’t doom Older Than Ireland at all, but it does mean that it hasn’t a hope of entering the pantheon of more memorable documentaries, even recordation ones. Still, it is one that is worth watching, for the stories and the emotions that it will effortlessly manage to bring about in you.
This whole genre, whether it is live-action or animated, has gone beyond saturation at this point, and maybe that’s why I wasn’t able to enjoy Big Hero 6 as much as I could have, despite the avalanche of praise it received during its original release in the States. The film has plenty of good elements going for it, with its alarmingly pretty visuals (the blending of San Francisco and Tokyo is a true wonder), some decent action sequences, that pumping score and the stand-out character of Baymax, played with such aplomb by 30 Rock’s Scott Adsit, who really makes you fall in love with this inflated balloon robot. The interactions between Baymax and Hiro keep things ticking over, and provide some true stand-out moments in terms of the superhero genre and witty wordplay.
But the film is really relying on Baymax a lot to cover over its many and repeating problems, namely a plotline that is as formulaic as it can possibly be (lots you can easily predict ahead of time here), a very weak villain (more in terms of character than look), underused supporting characters (especially when they’re women) and a sense that there really isn’t anything all that noteworthy that Big Hero 6 wants to say or do to stand out from the competition. It’s the lack of care for the antagonist that’s probably the worst problem for me, so dependent is the genre on creating good bad guys if it wants to be successful, and there’s no amount of hijinks or clever dialogue for Baymax that can rectify that. Still, Big Hero 6 is worth seeing for the way it merges American and Japanese cultures together, and for the sheer vibrancy of its colours and set-pieces, that actually do stand out in the crowded field of CGI animation.
Mark Craig’s documentary is one of those really fascinating little niche subjects that form part of a greater whole: the much ignored lunar landing missions post Apollo 13, and the men who last walked on the surface of Earth’s satellite. Gene Cernan’s life story, from his service in World War Two, all the way through to the Apollo 17 mission and beyond, gives us a really neat glimpse into the life of an astronaut in that golden age of space travel. The training was hard, the danger was great, the intense commitment between fellow astronauts was self-evident and the damage to family units was potentially vast. Craig and Cernan pull few punches, showing the negative consequences to being an astronaut as well as the positive ones, with Cernan’s marriage problems to be particularly noted.
But you cannot help but still marvel at the positives, through the skilful curating of a wide amount of archival footage. To walk on the moon, that rarest of accomplishments in the history of exploration, is a majestical thing, but The Last Man On The Moon blends in the personal as well, in its focus on the relationship between Cernan and his daughter, whose name he wrote in moon dust as a sort of quasi-apology for their lack of time together back on Earth. The film does fall into the trap of becoming a bit hokey and overly-sentimental at times, and this can make certain sections a bit of a chore. But there is genuine emotion to be seen at so many moments, with one instance of Cernan observing the rusting wreck of the old Saturn launch site being particularly effective. In a time of diminishing status for NASA, this film comes as a potent reminder of what can be accomplished in pursuit of scientific exploration.
James Randi, the godfather of the sceptical community and a multi-decade long crusader against flim-flam artists, is well overdue for a documentary on his life and work, and I was delighted when An Honest Liar, from Tyler Meason and Justin Weinstein, was made available online. Tracking Randi’s career from his death-defying days as a professional escape artist and into his more well-known role as an exposer of mediums, mystics and spoon benders, the film is a decent account of Randi’s activities. You’ll never tire of seeing Randi tear down the miscreants using well-worn manipulative techniques for financial gain, not least the likes of Uri Gellar, who in interview segments shows himself as so far down the road that it is no longer clear if he actually believes the nonsense coming out of his mouth or not.
There is much worth to be found in its central thesis, which asks if even Randi could be fooled by someone trying to perpetrate an obvious falsehood. There is a bit of forced drama in all of that, and a sense that the directors are trying a bit too hard to craft a narrative, but it is still interesting. If the documentary has a really obvious flaw, it’s that it does little to really challenge the larger perception of Randi. An Honest Liar devotes only a little bit of time to potentially controversial incidents like “Project Alpha” or the “Carlos” character he helped create to fool gullible media people. This films audience will be Randi’s choir if we are all being honest, and they don’t need to be preached to. In the end, An Honest Liar shows that too many people are not only able to be fooled, but delight in it, growing angry when the obvious deception is called out. The war continues.
As much as I appreciate the immense past catalogue of Aardman, I have to say that I wasn’t familiar with the TV source material on this, and somewhat resisted the spur of the moment decision to view it propelled by my appreciative girlfriend. She has good taste. A weird mishmash of some of Aardman’s best kind of stuff and silent movie era slapstick, Shaun The Sheep merely requires you to relax into its premise of a sheep searching for its missing master in “the Big City”. After all, you could go loopy thinking too much about this seemingly super intelligent sheep trying to find its farmer. But maybe I’m reading too much into it. Better are themes of rural/urban divide, the vapidness of celebrity, and how to get old with dignity, wrapped around this very British style of comedy.
The plot is straight from “TV adapted for cinema 101”, and the tone is straight from “Kid’s stuff featuring jokes for adults 101” but you can look past that in favour of some of the whimsical fun on screen, as a herd of sheep try and blend in with human society, dodging a villainous animal catcher (mutterings voiced by Omid Djalli) all the while. And the claymation for which Aardman have become iconic is as detailed and fun to witness as ever, between the idyllic farm opening to the more complex interior of “the big city”. Full of pop culture references (the Hannibal Lector cat was my personal favourite) and really silly, stupid comedy besides, Shaun The Sheep won’t live long in the memory, or even be considered some of Aardman’s best work (that’s still Chicken Run, sorry Wallace and Gromit) but it is a decent, and somewhat unique in its silent nature, offering, one that can fill an hour and a half nicely.
Matthew Vaughn’s spy thriller/spy comedy/spy homage/spy something made some serious waves early in the year – a suitable riposte to 50 Shades Of Grey at any rate – but whether it was any good or not was another question entirely. The very basic plot features Taron Egerton as chav turned gentleman spy “Eggsy”, a decent central lead, with Colin Firth as his mentor, but the film really sparks to life whenever Samuel L. Jackson’s Richard Valentine is on the screen, a megalomaniacal villain that the film is keen to present as a direct link to the Blofeld-esque supervillains who used to dominate the genre. The action is frantic, bloody and entertaining, at least to a point: some sequences, like a “Freebird” backed melee in a church or a montage of exploding heads are well put together, but don’t mesh altogether brilliantly with the humorous tone.
And that’s Kingsman’s main problem really, one among many. It wants to be both in tribute to spy thrillers of the past and a mockery of them, and doesn’t walk the fine line as well as it could, being meta at every opportunity, as if the film is taking to itself more than the audience. Sure the script is funny throughout, but matched with the CGI blood, a certain aggrandisement of the “class warfare” concept and some fairly appalling treatment of female characters (that last scene, wow), Kingsman struggles to really be good enough to earn a place in the pantheon of the very genre it is attempting to re-invent. It’s still memorable of course, how could it not, and seems fully confident of what it is trying to portray, a production that neither cares about nor needs my criticism. Sequels are probably on the horizon, but I’d say there’s a fair chance of a Kick-Ass 2 level overload.
Amy Schumer’s much discussed comedy made a very late bow on this side of the pond, having garnered a great deal of praise stateside for its edgy gender-swapped take on the rather stale genre that it is the “romcom”, typically the bargain basement of Hollywood nowadays. And much of that praise is well-earned: while the comedy is often of the vulgar and profanity-spewing kind, it is rather funny, and the fairly despicable Amy character actually is somebody that you can really get behind. Right from the off, as a terrible father instils an aversion of monogamy into his two pre-pubescent daughters, to the depiction of the present day beer-swigging, man-using, drug-taking Amy, Trainwreck is at pains to cast itself as in your face and non-caring about appropriateness as possible. It helps that Schumer herself is great in the lead role, ably played off of by love interest Bill Hader.
But for all of its pretensions of being a huge spin on the romcom idea, subverting the genre and reinventing it, Trainwreck’s plot is that of the romcom, with all of the familiar “boy meets girl, love, problem, resolution” plot beats that you will be well familiar with. That it comes with layers of sex jokes and ballsy script writing doesn’t change that fundamental reality, and I felt weirdly let down by the pedestrian nature of Trainwreck’s narrative. But the important thing is that it makes you laugh, and while the over-saturation of adult material is self-defeating by the end, it is in the little things – the great celebrity roles, most notably Lebron James, are something that Trainwreck should receive particular kudos for – that Trainwreck really shines. Schumer is a great comedic talent, and I hope now will be able to carve a bigger niche for herself on the big screen.
Tomorrow, we continue on with #29-20.
(All images are copyright of Vice Films, Kino Lober, Paramount Pictures, Lionsgate, Snackbox Films, Walt Disney Studios. Motion Pictures, Mark Stewart Productions, Abramorama, StudioCanal, 20th Century Fox and Universal Pictures).