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 My favourite sequence happens when Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) finally feels the effects of necking out of date Quaaludes and collapses, having the Herculean task of driving back to his house and confronting Donnie (Jonah Hill) ahead of him.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 Wolf of Wall Street

 
Not much rhymes with “wolf”. PUN ABANDONED.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2014)

So- first proper review of this year. Well, sort of. This review is as prompt as it could be as it only properly came out yesterday, but American readers may be left wondering why this is so late. Well, here in the UK, we’ve been worn down and beaten to a point where we’re used to getting screwed over for no particular reason, so we had to wait a few arbitrary weeks until the film reels were suitably rainproofed and finally shipped over.

“My name is Jordan Belfort. The year I turned 26, I made 49 million dollars, which really pissed me off because it was three shy of a million a week.”

The Wolf of Wall Street is based on the life and subsequent book of stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio). After a false start on Wall Street itself, with Belfort having the misfortune of becoming a broker during a market crash, we see Jordan try again. Belfort starts applying big city thinking to unlisted “penny stocks”, gets rich and starts his own company. Soon he’s assembled a selling team of basic crooks, including new friend Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) and they slowly build up an empire. However. the company starts getting the attention of the FBI and Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) in particular, who is intent on nailing Belfort and his shyster dealings. Okay, I realised it made it sound kind of standard, but it really isn’t. I’m underselling it. The Wolf of Wall Street is a tale of excess. Everything’s turned way up to the point where it actually becomes pretty exhausting. Money, sex, drugs, greed, corruption, addiction- these are all things that completely saturate the film. Jordan Belfort is a deeply unlikable man. He made his money, like many stockbrokers, by selling lies and half-truths to gullible people and conning them out of their savings.

DiCaprio is going to win that golden statue, I can just feel it. Jordan Belfort is not going to be the defining role for him, but he’s the latest in a long damn list of characters that Leo has completely owned. This is both his most over-the-top and nuanced performance so far. He’s dynamite and I won’t hear a bad word against him. Jonah Hill is also a strong contender for awards gold too. When I first saw him, sporting a ridiculous outfit and even more ridiculous false teeth, my heart sank, but he does an amazing job. I think he’s a really talented dramatic actor and deserves meatier roles like this one. Everyone’s good in this film. Belfort’s trophy wife Naomi (Margot Robbie) is fantastic. I can imagine a Skyler White type situation where stupid people hate her because she doesn’t buy into Belfort’s bullshit like they do, but it’s their loss. Matthew McConaughey turns up to corrupt a young Belfort straight out of the gate in a surreal lunch scene that ends up boiling down to chest thumping and humming along to a tune that probably doesn’t exist. Even though his appearance boils down to a McCameo, he makes a big impression. Same goes for the whole film. Every so often, another actor will enter the fray and adds their specific talents to the ensemble. Jean Dujardin shows up as a Swiss Banker! Hurray! The angry fella from The Walking Dead plays another muscled angry fella! Huzzah! Jon Favreau appears as a sleazy lawyer! Bonus! Rob Reiner plays Jordan’s Dad! Cripes! Joanna Lumley stars as a classy British aunt! Blimey! It’s a damn good cast.

So, OK. The big question hanging over all of this is: “Does this film glorify this scumbag’s lifestyle?”. There have been plenty of hand-wringing articles over this subject as well as news that in several screenings, bankers and Wall Street douchebags applauded scenes of debauchery and disgusting decadence. Well, the ultimate answer is YES (if you’re a fucking braindead moron). It’s a Scarface type of situation. How many times have you seen a poster of Tony Montana on some idiot’s wall? It’s a staple of student accommodation. I’m not saying liking Scarface is stupid, I’m saying that the appearance of Al Pacino’s mug on the back of their bedroom door is probably not the moral indictment of Montana’s greed and stupidity that the film is. People cling to the fact that Tony Montana managed to get the money, the drugs and the women he set out to get. They love the fact that he went out in an apparent blaze of glory. Same in this case. There are tons of superficial idiots out there who will see the vast amounts of money, women and drug-fuelled parties on display and aspire to Belfort’s lifestyle. The sad irony is that it’s a parody of that very attitude. As I said, everything is ramped up. Chest-beating masculinity, hyper-sexuality, insane greed, all of it. The film is basically a comedy, despite it containing some dark undercurrents. It’s laughing at Belfort and his crew. I’m sure you’ve heard of it by now, but there’s an insane physical comedy sequence where Belfort is off his head on banned sedatives, Quaaludes, which is one of the funniest things that I’ve seen in recent memory. It goes on for an incredibly long time and it’s played absolutely perfectly. The whole thing is practically a cartoon. That linked article earlier in the paragraph plays with the idea that Scorsese could have done more to make Belfort look like the villain. That’s dumb. We don’t need to see the results of people losing their savings, houses and livelihoods as the result of dickheads lying down the phone. The global recession was thanks to coked-up twats like Belfort playing with other peoples’ money like it was nothing. We’ve all fucking lived the consequences.

The film is certainly makes its position on the whole thing known. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t think Jordan’s a hero. There’s a bit early on where Jordan, fresh from his initial baptism of sleaze on Wall Street, lies his arse off about a shitty investment opportunity to some poor excited schmuck on speakerphone whilst the whole office giggles and high-fives each other. As he’s talking up the possible military applications of this new tech company Aerotyne we have a cutaway to a still of the company HQ which is basically a beaten up old shack in the middle of nowhere with a hand-painted sign.  You’ll laugh, but feel guilty for doing so.  My point is this- if you can watch that scene and not figure out that Belfort and his cohorts are the bad guys in all this, walk away. The film will do nothing for you. Screenwriter Terence Winter uses Belfort’s candidness and frequent pieces to camera to really make you hate the guy.  It’s not as if he was seduced into the business on the appearance that all is fine and dandy. He knows he’s bankrupting people to line his pockets, he knows it’s illegal as shit- he just couldn’t care less and actively enjoys it.

This whole story is in Scorsese’s wheelhouse. It’s Goodfellas but with a different morally bankrupt way to the top. Yeah, one could argue that he’s hardly stretching himself, but he’s Scorsese. He can do what he wants. The film is masterfully directed and the music choices are superb. The one criticism I had of it is that it felt too long.  After three hours of everything turned up to maximum, I felt like I’d been put through the wringer (although that may be the actual point). I felt the film was repeating itself at times with multiple scenes of parties and insane money spending, but that’s just me. All I know is that I was busting for a piss by the end of it.

“Let me tell you something. There’s no nobility in poverty. I’ve been a poor man, and I’ve been a rich man. And I choose rich every fucking time.”

I loved The Wolf of Wall Street. It’s films like this that remind me why I like films in the first place. Great cast, fantastic direction, brilliantly written- the list goes on. Like most sharp satires, it’s bound to be misunderstood by some. I suppose the basic message to it all is crime doesn’t pay. You just get incredibly rich, slip through the cracks in the legal system, stay rich and have one of the best living filmmakers direct the story of your life starring one of the best actors around, all of which will bolster your book sales. Yup, doesn’t pay in the slightest.