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In the last (non-Rancho) post I made a com­mit­ment to get back in to reg­u­lar review­ing and to end my year-long sab­bat­ic­al. (For the reas­ons behind the hiatus, it is recom­men­ded that you have a quick read. Go on, I’ll wait here.) It has come as a bit of a sur­prise to me that I’ve actu­ally seen as much as I have over the last few months. It didn’t feel like it but — thanks to Radio New Zealand, FishHead and Rancho Notorious — fully 18 of the films cur­rently screen­ing around Wellington are films I can actu­ally have an opin­ion on.

Anyway, here goes, and I might as well start with the old­est first. Which, as it turns out, is also a con­tender for the worst film in this post.

St. Vincent movie posterI’ve nev­er man­aged to hide my dis­dain for Little Miss Sunshine, a film which is beloved by many and held up as an example of qual­ity screen­writ­ing to which we all should aspire. It is, in fact, garbage. A col­lec­tion of tics mas­quer­ad­ing as char­ac­ters stuck in a contrived-cute situ­ation in which life les­sons will be learned too eas­ily and happy end­ings will be unearned. Theodore Melfi’s debut fea­ture St. Vincent also falls into all these traps only deep­er. It also relies so heav­ily on the great Bill Murray that it man­ages to even bring him into disrepute.

Murray plays an out­wardly mis­an­throp­ic and cutely alco­hol­ic Brookly war vet­er­an (not a vet­er­an of the Brooklyn War, which isn’t actu­ally a thing — a former US sol­dier who fought in Vietnam, who lives in Brooklyn. Bear with me, I’ve been out of the game for a while) who finds him­self in need of funds and there­fore babysit­ting an also cute and lonely new arrival to the neigh­bour­hood (Jaeden Lieberher).

Everything about the plot is a clunk­ily man­u­fac­tured buildup to a sac­char­ine “Modern Day Saints” present­a­tion finale at the youngster’s Catholic high school. Not a moment of this film rings true and every emo­tion­al note it attempts falls flat.

Deepsea Challenge 3D posterDeepsea Challenge 3D is a National Geographic doc­u­ment­ary that wouldn’t see the light of a big screen here if it wasn’t about Wairarapa boy James Cameron’s under­wa­ter adven­tur­ing. Not unin­ter­est­ing (or undra­mat­ic for that mat­ter) but the telling is fairly straight up and down and there’s no get­ting away from the fact that the fur­ther down you go, the less there is to actu­ally see.

I’ve come to the real­isa­tion that Christopher Nolan is a fraud. There, I said it. When let loose out­side the super­hero fran­chise movies that made him such a bank­able dir­ect­or, he (occa­sion­ally with his broth­er Jonathan) writes puzzles not screen­plays, Gotchas not dénoue­ments. He loudly dis­dains the digit­al realm while rely­ing on the skills of digit­al effects artists to cre­ate the giant FX set pieces that his fans — and his budgets — demand. He also can’t shoot close quar­ters action, as I men­tioned here many years ago.

Interstellar movie posterLuckily, Interstellar his latest piece of multi-million dol­lar men­tal calis­then­ics — doesn’t have much in the way of fight­ing and bene­fits greatly through most of the first two thirds from a great setup setup and his eye for an arrest­ing image. A now totally rehab­il­it­ated Matthew McConaughey plays a former astro­naut and test pilot now farm­ing one the many American dust­bowls a near future of post-industrial blight and over-farming has caused.

The world is clearly going to hell in a hand­cart but the Nolans are only inter­ested in this as a way to get their cine­mat­ic Rubik’s Cube off the ground. Mysterious clues in his daughter’s bed­room lead McConaughey to a secret Nasa base where Michael Caine is pre­par­ing to shoot test tubes full of future humans through a black hole in order to pop­u­late one of sev­er­al pos­sible new plan­ets that have been dis­covered on the oth­er side. Publicity for Interstellar touted how cred­ible all the sci­ence was — how pos­sible it all is — but he is happy to throw that cred­ib­il­ity over­board when it suits him and the less said about Anne Hathaway’s depress­ing trans­form­a­tion from hard-ass chief sci­ent­ist to love-struck, self-deluded, sim­per­ing mess she becomes.

An extremely frus­trat­ing — and very long — watch. So long, in fact, that Nolan him­self has to bru­tally con­dense his third act in order that the audi­ence doesn’t have to come back the fol­low­ing night.

Hunger Games Mockingjay pt 1 posterThe cli­max of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay isn’t the fol­low­ing night but in November this year with Part 1 not much more than a place­hold­er, amp­li­fy­ing the stakes and sow­ing seeds of doubt in the audi­ence — doubt that vari­ous char­ac­ters are who they say they are, for a start, and doubt that the final instal­ment will actu­ally be worth it.

Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) has been res­cued from the games-dome she des­troyed in the pre­vi­ous epis­ode and is now a fully-fledged Mockingjay, a cru­cial pro­pa­ganda com­pon­ent in the guer­illa revolu­tion against moustache-twirling Donald Sutherland in the rap­idly decay­ing dec­ad­ent Capitol City. Poor old Peta (Josh Hutcherson), though, didn’t make it and has been enlis­ted — through the medi­um of a broken heart — as a pub­li­city pawn on the oth­er side. I actu­ally quite enjoyed this one as it was much more about the polit­ic­al intrigues than the silly games — much more up my alley.

Nightcrawler posterOver-hyped on arrival, like so much of 2014, Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler was a styl­ishly shot and bravely acted por­trait of mod­ern media in Los Angeles as it might have been a few years ago, when Gilroy pre­sum­ably wrote it. Jake Gyllenhaal plays an intense young man on the make — when we meet him he is steal­ing cop­per for scrap met­al — who dis­cov­ers that there is coin to be mined from record­ing the misery of the pub­lic and selling the res­ults to loc­al tele­vi­sion sta­tions des­per­ate for exclusives.

Nowadays, of course, that mater­i­al also finds its way to the web before the break­fast news but the milieu still seems apro­pos and Gyllenhaal grabs the oppor­tun­ity to play a Travis Bickle-type obsess­ive creep with both hands. He demon­strates great tech­nic­al dex­ter­ity but, again like so much of the rest of 2014, I nev­er felt that I was watch­ing an actu­al liv­ing, breath­ing, human being. The film also looks beau­ti­ful but Gilroy favours tour­ist LA land­marks to identi­fy his loc­a­tion rather than dig­ging a little deep­er to find less famil­i­ar views.

Nightcrawler works best as a satire of cor­por­ate and star­tup life rather than the media and there’s a lot in it to enjoy, not least the bril­liant Riz Ahmed (Four Lions) as Gyllenhaal’s des­per­ately naïve off­sider. What a star.

To be continued…