Scenes of the Year 2014

Happy New Year all! Phew, thank Christ that’s over. Is it just me or was 2014 fucking rubbish in all sorts of ways? Anyway, time for the now yearly tradition of me picking my personal highlights of the cinematic year and forcing you to read them because you can be sure I’ll bring it up next time we go for coffee. As was the case last year, my scenes list isn’t the same as my “best of” list, despite there being a lot of overlap. I prefer talking about individual scenes as it can bring up some really interesting choices and allows me to include the most fascinating of beasts- the good scene in an otherwise average or bad film. As always, despite my best efforts, I didn’t see EVERY film to come out in 2014, so there may be some glaring omissions. Also, if you fancy checking out my full reviews of the films in the list, just click the title. Right- rambled long enough now. Here’s my goddamn list:

1) The Wolf of Wall Street – The ‘ludes kick in

 

The only good thing about the shitty January period of films in the UK is that we tend to get some of the great films that have been out in the U.S. for months. Case in point, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street which proved to be the one diamond in the deluge of shite released. I expect a Scorsese picture to be great, but what I wasn’t expecting was such a thick, satisfying slab of black humour. My favourite sequence happens when Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) finally feels the effects of necking out of date Quaaludes and collapses, having the Herculean task of driving back to his house and confronting Donnie (Jonah Hill) ahead of him. What follows is a drawn out and absurd sequence which is equal parts tragic as it is hilarious. DiCaprio also shows himself to be a great physical comedian, writhing and drooling his way home.

The absolute absurdity reaches a peak, however, when Jordan and Donnie fight, with Donnie picking an inopportune moment between phone beatings and cord stranglings to stuff his gullet with ham, causing him to choke. With his friend in peril, something rational finds its way through Belfort’s ball-tripping and he realises he’s got to save him. Struggling to his feet, Belfort takes a bump of energising coke, soundtracked by an old Popeye cartoon on TV and sets about saving Donnie. It’s bloody brilliant. When the film first came out, there were several pockets of hand-wringing muppets worried that the film glorified instead of condemned Jordan Belfort’s sleazy rise and fall. I don’t know how you can watch a scene like this one and not get at least a sense of what is being said. They’re selfish parodies of human beings at this point. Completely lost in a world of disgusting excess. It’s a total condemnation if ever I saw one.

 

2) The Lego Movie – “Spaceship!”

 

The Lego Movie is a joy. It’s a kids’ movie which is a giant advert for itself, but it manages to be a fast and witty experience with an infectious sense of fun. It has a great focus on characterisation and each of Emmett’s gang have their own motivations and personalities which is rare. Highlight of the film for me was the moment that astronaut Benny (Charlie Day) finally gets to build the spaceship he’s wanted to assemble all film. Our heroes have to make it back to stop President Business’ evil plan and only some kind of spacecraft will get them there in time. There’s something about the kinetic animation and manic Day screams of “Spaceship!” that really tickles me. Not much more to say, really. It’s a good scene and I dun giggled.

 

3) Captain America: The Winter Soldier – The SHIELD lift sequence

 

In what would surprisingly only turn out to be my second favourite Marvel film of the year, Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a fantastic rebuttal to people criticising all these “capeshit” films from being the same. I’ve often thought that the Captain America series is one of Marvel’s most experimental. The Thor films may be all fantastical in their settings but they’re pretty standard fantasy films. First Avenger gave us an earnest World War II superhero caper whereas Winter Soldier gives us a ’70s style paranoid spy thriller, complete with Robert Redford. They also seem to be using the Cap films to significantly push the shared universe forward and have big repercussions ripple through the rest of MCU. The underlying message of this one is “trust no-one”. No scene better encapsulates this more than the SHIELD lift sequence where Cap (Chris Evans) finds himself in a crowded lift full of enemy agents.

Whilst the punchy and kicky payoff is feckin’ sweet, it’s the slow build up to this one that makes it special. It’s Cap noticing a supposedly innocent guard nervously toying with the strap on his holster. It’s the building tension as more and more bruisers are picked up on each floor. The main thing that sells the scene for me is Cap calmly asking: “Before we get started, does anyone want to get out?” which is a perfect Captain America type line. The ensuing claustrophobic fight reminded me of a souped-up version of the similarly constrained Bond/Red Grant train carriage scrap in From Russia With Love which is a compliment in itself.

 

 

 4) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – Koba performs

 

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes disappointed me. It wasn’t bad, it just felt it was missing some key components like a compelling human cast. Undoubtably one of the highlights of the film was Tony Kebbell’s villainous ape Koba. Basic gist of this scene is that Koba’s sneaking around and comes across two twitchy human guards with guns. Instead of risking an attack, Koba turns up the cuteness dial and starts acting all chimplike, imitating what the men do and charming them. It’s only when the men are nice and distracted does Koba grab one of the rifles and blow them away. Having a deeply misanthropic character like Koba performing what basically amounts to ape blackface shows a level of imagination and intelligence lacking in the rest of the film’s undercooked script.

 

5) The Raid 2 – The car chase

 

As with the first one, I loved The Raid 2. No film series offers the same level of bone-crunching goodness that The Raid films do. Whilst featuring some fantastic choreography for normal scrapping, the moment that my jaw actually hung open for was the car chase which manages to be one of the most exciting action sequences in recent memory. Hero cop Rama (Iko Uwais) has been captured by some bad ‘uns. He wakes up and proceeds to go apeshit.

It’s the level of ingenuity that impresses me most. Some of the shots are amazing as we swoop in and out of cars involved in the chase. Best of all- it feels dangerous. I mean, when was the last time you were actually thrilled by an action sequence? Well, The Raid 2 did it for me. Both Gareth Evans and the Raid stunt team are at the top of their game right now. The very notion that this could be topped has me eager to see where they go from here, which apparently seems to be Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Can’t wait to see the stuff they do with lightsabers.

6) X-Men: Days of Future Past – The Quicksilver sequence

 

If ever there was a shoo-in for this particular list, it was this one. I enjoyed Days of Future Past a lot, but despite fierce competition from the ending, the Quicksilver sequence won out comfortably. Basic set-up is that Wolverine, Professor X et al need to bust Magneto out of his special plastic cell in the Pentagon. They enlist Evan Peters’ Quicksilver, a mutant with the power to move at incredible speeds, to help them. Quicksilver comes into his own when the gang are outnumbered and outgunned when the enter the kitchen. We see Quicksilver casually put his Walkman on and proceed to incapacitate every guard in a flash. Best part of this being that we experience it all through Quicksilver’s perception of time, so everything happens in balletic super slo-mo.

There are so many elements that make this work. The song choice of Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” is inspired. The little touches of humour with Quicksilver setting up guards to punch themselves in the face and such is great. The effects are astounding. We didn’t get to spend much time with Quicksilver in the film, but the most is made of him. I’ll be interested to see how Marvel Studios version of the character stacks up.

 

7) 22 Jump Street – The end credits

22 Jump Street is a sequel that mocks the very idea of sequels. Like the first one, it’s a genuinely funny film with some seriously clever stuff going on behind the scenes. Once 22 Jump Street wraps up, it answers the obligatory sequel question with a whole slew of movie posters and clips from fictional sequels. By Christ it’s funny. I won’t give away the various funny little bits because then I’d just be that guy who just retells jokes, but it’s great. Definitely make sure to take note of the various taglines though. Some serious punning power. What I love about it is that it’s kind of both a fuck you to the idea of franchises and kind of an acceptance of where this franchise is heading as well. 23 Jump Street has already been confirmed and if the Sony hacks (in both senses of the word) are anything to go by, a Jump Street//Men in Black crossover may happen. I wish I was fucking kidding.

8) Snowpiercer – Tunnel vision

 

I’m breaking the rules of my own list for this one.  Snowpiercer has endured a rocky road to get to audiences. It got a half-hearted theatrical release in the U.S. and there’s no goddamn sign of it in the UK, theatrical or home video, which is pathetic. It’s such a shitty situation as I really enjoyed Snowpiercer and feel like the more people see it, the more it will encourage a like of solid, but definitely oddball films. Basic premise is Bioshock on a train. The world has frozen over and the only life exists on a self-sustaining train that crosses the globe in an endless loop. The class divide is huge. The lower classes live in the scummy tail of the train whereas the uppers in the front carriages get to enjoy all manner of luxuries.

Sick of their treatment, the tail rises and a group of them, led by Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) leads the charge to push to the front. One of the best moments for me is after a few successes Curtis’ group come to a dead stop when they encounter a group of tooled-up soldiers brandishing vicious hatchets, easily trumping the crappy clubs our heroes carry. Informed by the raucous and unrecognisable Tilda Swinton that precisely 74% of them will die as punishment for their actions so far, the soldiers whip out their night vision goggles and ready their axes just in time for the train to go through a “fucking long” tunnel and plunge everyone into total darkness. It’s absolutely fantastic and hammers home the central theme of the haves vs the havenots. My favourite little bit is when the train passes by a crack of light in the tunnel and we see it shine on everything from the bloody carnage to the survivors’ faces. Brutal and beautiful. Brutaful.

 

9) Guardians of the Galaxy – “Come And Get Your Love”

 

Guardians of the Galaxy is my favourite film of the year, so chances were high that it’d appear in this list. Whist the Kyln prison escape scene is well orchestrated and executed, it’s the song and dance number we get with the title card that gets the mention. Why? Well, apart from being incredibly enjoyable and fun, it’s the film setting out its stall. The very opening scene is an emotional gutpunch as young Peter Quill attends his dying mother’s hospital bed. From there we have a bit of mystery as a masked man traverses some ruins until finally the mask is removed, headphones are placed on and Redbone’s funky-as-anything “Come and Get Your Love” is blasted. When the big gold titles come up above a tiny dancing Quill it’s a statement of purpose. The first few bits may have been tonally rocky, but that’s James Gunn’s name on screen- wild tonal shifts come with the territory. It’s unapologetically what it is and hooray for that. Best bit has to be Quill miming the words into the snapping jaws of a nasty looking alien held like a microphone.

 

 

10) Need for Speed – The Koenigsegg crash

 

I didn’t like Need for Speed very much. I think a lot of its throwback charms were lost on me amidst the clunky script and poor plotting. However, one thing that Need for Speed got completely right was its attitude towards stunts. Pretty much every car stunt is practical and it shows. One of the best sequences in the film is a race between three incredibly fast Koenigsegg Agera Rs. The film’s slimeball bastard Dino (Dominic Cooper) nudges the back of another and sends it skidding with it quickly gaining massive air and tumbling over a bridge in a huge ball of flames. It’s meant to be a devastating crash and thanks to the real stuntwork it looks and feels it too. In fact, all of the action scenes in Need for Speed could go on here, but this one wins because of its simplicity. I like the fact that there’s still spectacle in these kinds of things. Shame about the rest of the film, but the car stuff is brilliant.

EDIT: Balls. I found my notes and I forgot something which definitely deserves a place. Rather than removing an entry, I’ll add another because I’m a sexy writing maverick.

11) Begin Again – The imaginary orchestra

 

Begin Again is the sort of charming kind-of romcom that reminds me I don’t hate romantic comedies, I just hate the usual lazy shite that’s released posing as them. A true romcom can uplift and that’s exactly what Begin Again does. There are many great musical moments but the king of all is an early scene where drunk, down-on-his-luck music producer Dan (Mark Ruffalo) hears Keira Knightley’s Gretta sing for the first time at an open mic night. Dan immediately hears potential in the song and starts imagining what it would sound like if it was scored by an orchestra. We then see floating drumsticks and bows go to task and bring in the various instruments gradually until it all reaches a peak and slowly fades back to just Gretta’s performance complete with background chatter and bar noise. It’s Ruffalo that makes this one work so well. In hearing the song, Dan rediscovers an excitement about music and Ruffalo slowly getting to his feet and imagining the accompaniment before getting completely lost in it is joyful. Of course, it helps that the song “A Step You Can’t Take Back” is a lovely gentle track that works perfectly with Dan’s realisation.

So, that’s it for another year. 2015’s line-up is intimidatingly massive so I’ll see you on the other side.

 

The Lego Movie

 
Everything is awesome!
 

The Lego Movie (2014)

The Lego Movie is one of those concepts that sounds ludicrously shitty and calculated. It takes a well-loved toy with no proper story or defined characters of its own, makes a feature-length adventure packed with celebrity voices and promotes and merchandises the crap out of it and all its other product lines. However, the buzz on it has been overwhelmingly positive. Like, this thing is getting Pixar level scores. So, when given the opportunity to catch a preview screening, I jumped at the chance. Y’know what? It’s exactly as great as people have been saying.

“Come with me if you want to not die.”

The Lego Movie focuses on average construction worker Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt) who soon gets a break from his normal working life when he gets sucked in to a world of free creativity and prophecy when he stumbles across the fabled “Piece of Resistance”. He meets master builder Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) and supposedly wise wizard Vetruvius (Morgan Freeman) and the trio, along with the help of Batman (Will Arnett) endevour to stop Lord Business (Will Ferrell) using a deadly weapon called the “Kragle” on all of Legodom. That may sound insanely generic, but as the name “Lord Business” may indicate, it’s actually more of a sideways look at genre conventions. It’s smart as anything, but never tips the balance into winking at the audience every 5 seconds. The main plot draws deliberate parallels with something like The Matrix and it really works. All of the cast are great. Chris Pratt is mostly known for playing a wide-eyed puppy dog of a man and uses that to great effect as Emmet, Elizabeth Banks has fun as Wyldstyle, Morgan Freeman is predictably brilliant and Will Arnett makes a fantastic Batman. Comedic TV greats like Nick Offerman, Charlie Day and Alison Brie do fantastic jobs and there’s an inspired bit of casting in the form of Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill as Superman and Green Lantern. Will Ferrell and Liam Neeson are genuinely funny too. All of the cast give the film an infectious sense of energy and it’s nigh-on impossible not to feel part of the fun.

If you’ve been on the internet for more than a few days, you’ll have likely seen a stop-motion Lego video parodying a big film or set to a comedy routine. The Lego Movie, whilst not strictly stop motion, has clearly taken influences from these and makes the characters look solid and played with, which gives the whole thing a certain charm. Elements, like water, fire and smoke are all made from Lego pieces and it’s hard not to laugh along with the film. Instead of being a tiresome plug for yet another one of the company’s licensed toy lines, it’s a genuine thrill when recognisable characters from franchises like Star Wars, TMNT, Lord of the RingsThe Simpsons and even Speed Racer show up for a quick cameo role. Sure, it is promoting the various figures at the end of the day, but it’s so well done, you won’t care in the slightest.

The whole film is a love letter to Lego, as one may expect. However, it’s an intelligent take on how people actually play with the bricks. Emmet lives in a world literally built on instructions. Everything is exact and normalised. Wyldstyle shows up and we are plunged into a world of unfettered creativity featuring weird and wonderful characters and places made out of mismatched pieces. Lord Business intends to make sure that everything in uniform, but our heroic rebels are fighting against him and the suppression of imagination. I’m genuinely surprised that writer/directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller were allowed to do something this clever without corporate bigwigs stepping in and insisting it be dumbed down for the kiddies. The third act is especially brave, but works beautifully.

It’s tempting not to say it, because of the crappy pun lurking within, but there are no other words for it. The Lego Movie is an incredibly well-constructed film. The storytelling is spot-on. This may not seem like a huge revelation, but you’d be surprised at the number of films (not just kids’ movies) that fall foul of basic storytelling. We get to know the characters, their motivations and their personalities. They feel like living, breathing people despite being made out of plastic. The film is even confident enough to have fun with several things. Morgan Freeman’s casting as a wise man who actually isn’t that wise is a masterstroke. Will Arnett’s Batman contains several jabs at how dark and joyless the representation of the character has become. It completely nails what it wants to do and it’s a joyful experience.

If you’ve ever played a Lego videogame like Lego Star Wars, you’ll know how charming and winning the humour can be. Luckily, the movie also has these things in spades. The film is fast and funny throughout its runtime. Whilst some of the dialogue and jokes fall a little flat to adult ears, the kids in my screening loved them. Even when the film isn’t being particularly amusing speech-wise, the screen is packed with visual gags to keep you smiling. Tell you what, by the end, my face hurt from smiling so much. This is exactly how kids’ films should be. I walked out thoroughly entertained. As I left the screening, I noticed that all parents and children alike had the same expression on their faces to match my own. That’s when you know you’ve just seen something special.

I can’t think of much wrong with the film. The only reason that it doesn’t get a full five stars is that I could have done with the spoken gags be just a little funnier. Don’t get me wrong, there are some cracking jokes contained within, it’s just that it doesn’t quite reach the level of the all time classics like the Pixar back catalogue or some of the Dreamworks oeuvre. I was left wanting a bit more time with some of the recognisable characters, but will admit that may have over-egged the pudding. Here’s hoping some Marvel minifigures show up in the sequel.

“Batman, could you make one of these in orange?”

“I only work in black. And sometimes, very, very dark grey.”

Having said that, I truly believe that this film is this generation’s Toy Story. Whilst not as groundbreaking in terms of technology, it’s got the same quality and heartfelt goodness oozing through its pores. This isn’t just a glorified advert, it’s a refreshingly great film that happens to use an existing product as its medium. It’s a reflection of our pop-culture driven society and goes much deeper than you’d expect, going so far as to examine the whole concept of creativity, individuality and play. It’s so good, it makes me angry that more kiddie films aren’t like it as it completely shows up the inherent laziness and cynicism of the normal child-centric offerings. I can’t imagine many people walking out of The Lego Movie disappointed, even after all the insane hype and the glowing reviews, including this one. It didn’t need to be this good, as the Lego name and the blanket advertising would have ensured a healthy box office return, but I’m very glad it is.