After crafting two of the finest films of modern mainstream cinema - in Juno and Up In the Air - it seemed like Jason Reitman would go on to enjoy a legendary and iconic career in Hollywood. Whilst this is still entirely possible, the young director seems to have taken a series of mis-steps in recent years and, in his latest feature, lost all confidence in his own voice.
Men, Women & Children is a sad ensemble movie which feels like an attempt to ape the great Paul Thomas Anderson and Todd Solondz. Sadly Reitman has not chiseled something as fantastic or unique as Magnolia or Happiness here - the result is, instead, closer to "Beige" or "Apathy".
The interconnected storylines are linked by a voice-over from Emma Thompson (who is so stunted by her own annunciation she peculiarly pronounces the word "Whale" so as to begin with a hard "H"). Whilst superficially instantly reminiscent of the under-rated Stranger than Fiction (which Thompson also narrates), her purpose soon becomes clear - there is a small section of society who finds nothing funnier than posh English folk swearing. If you delight in such people using the word "jizz" then belly laughs are headed your way. If not, you may be perplexed at the Received Pronunciation accent guiding you through a very American film as much as the borderline-inconsequential nature of the words which haphazardly fall from Thompson's mouth.
In the movie's world we're introduced to a host of modern characters who lead very different existences to the ones we are used to seeing on screen - protagonists who spend much of their own lives with faces buried in their own screens. Seldom do the electric shadows of cinema portray humans who spend as much of their lives on phones or computers as we do in reality. The reasons for this are plentiful but, for the most part, it boils down to the simple fact that its not usually very interesting or stimulating for audiences to observe.
We meet Don and Helen Truby (Adam Sandler and Rosemaire DeWitt) - a middle aged couple who have fallen out of passion, if not love. They sit wordless beside each other in bed, playing on electronic devices. Is technology a symptom or cause of their apathy toward life?
Either way, the couple both look once more towards technology to inject their lives with new energy and to meet new people - are they truly looking to fulfill their lust or are they searching for something deeper, more profound; a real connection in a place in which it could never exist? Sadly Reitman never really answers these questions over the film and instead shows the disintegration of a relationship rather than the cause or effect. Instead of satirising the internet as one may expect, or our dependence on it for false human companionship, the director prefers to just show a series of events which don't so much conclude but simply happen.
We also meet Patricia Beltmeyer (Jennifer Garner) as a very strict mother who monitors her daughter's use of the internet at all times. She is hawk-eyed and diligent and manages her daughter's accounts with precision, dictating who she can talk to or not, whilst keeping a running tab on every site she visits. Except, of course, when the script necessitates that she doesn't. Its a thankless task for Garner and another story arc which ends with a shrug of the shoulders - is Reitman suggesting that adults should stay off the internet entirely and leave it to the kids? He doesn't bother to spell this out nor use subtext to guide us - again we witness a series of events which just happen to happen.
We also meet Hannah Clint (Olivia Crocicchia) - a young woman who is pushed into the seedier side of internet modelling by her over enthusiastic mother (Judy Greer) - and a student obsessed with game playing online (Ansel Egort). The plotlines, it could be said, are loosely connected - if one were to be generous, it is possible to see how this draws parallels to life online.
But again, we're not sure why these stories exist or what they're trying to say. Perhaps this is the point - perhaps Reitman has purposefully made a vapid, baggy movie which nauseates more than it nourishes to mirror the medium it is satirising? Or, more than likely, perhaps Reitman has took a strange mis-step on his career path?
Like an afternoon spent scrolling through Buzzfeed, Men, Women & Children leaves the audience with little to show for two hours staring at the screen and an empty feeling inside too. There's got to be better ways to spend our time than this?
Frank is a movie of extravagant beauty and intricate sadness. A sentimental tune, a human fable of creativity and destruction - it is a film which is experienced, lived in for 94 minutes, rather than simply watched.
Loosely inspired by Jon Ronson's time as Frank Sidebottom's keyboard player, the story arc takes place inside a head we don't get to see - concealed by an oversized papier mache mask and woozy dreams of creating music of enchanting exquisiteness, chances to peer into the mind of the title character are few and far between.
Jon (Domhall Gleeson) finds himself a member of the Soronprfbs almost by accident and, upon introduction to the group's charismatic frontman, believes himself to be in the presence of a genius of sorts.
Frank (Michael Fassbender), a commanding figure, spends his days pursuing the creation of perfect, transcendental music. He pushes himself, and his band of disciples, as far as physically, emotionally and spiritually possible in his pursuit - but at what cost? As Icarus aspires to the sun, what will Frank's impossible dreams cost him and those close to him?
Lenny Abrahamson's dark and brooding feature flits between tones to winning effect. We experience the euphoria of the highs - the jubilation which flows from the energy of the band connecting metaphysically during performances, rapturous alchemy spilling from their instruments. Yet, it is the impossible, bittersweet lows which truly stick with the viewer like the world's most painful, and painfully catchy, tune.
Fassbender, as Frank, breaks before our eyes like a shattered vinyl record - the shards of what once appeared the perfect whole fragmented into unsalvable scraps. It is an unflinching performance in an unflinching, uncomfortable movie which calls to mind The Devil and Daniel Johnston on numerous occasions. A perfectly chiseled movie about mental illness and the madness of dreams and passions pushed too far, Abrahamson's eerie, intense and striking Frank is one of the most unforgettable films of the year.
Not necessarily on a traditionally emotive level, but certainly we squirm and cringe as John McClane is brutalised in the most inhumane fashion over the course of two and a quarter hours.
Whilst its impossible to know what being shot by a laser beam feels like, we all understand how it feels to bang our heads and stand on something sharp. So, as we see McClane's bare feet torn to shred by glass shards and heads bounced off of blunt objects, we grimace and flinch and react on a guttural level. This is empathy through pain; a perfect example of how to build audience connections in action movies (something rare in the age of CGI, rapid cuts and explosions-for-explosions sake blockbusters).
Die Hard is a rare movie which can show violence at its most graphic, disturbing and realistic yet also induce waves of laughter from its audience too - John McTiernan's film truly is a Christmas miracle.
Bruce Willis, in his most iconic role to date, portrays McClane as a leering alpha male who charms us with his wit - whilst he navigates a plethora of incredibly dangerous scenarios we begin to understand that the only thing quicker than his brain and his physical dexterity is his mouth.
McClane's situation is a peculiar one - a trip to meet his estranged wife on the night before Christmas finds the off duty police officer trapped in the Nakatomi Plaza as a host of terrorists take over the building and hold hostage several employees of the corporation. As the police and FBI continually bungle their negotiations, McClane finds himself caught up in a game of cat and mouse with a dozen terrorists as he attempts to secure his own freedom and that of the innocent victims caught in the web. But, as smart as McClane undoubtedly is, has he met his match in the form of sociopathic terrorist leader Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman)?
From a simple set-up - terrorists chase a hero around a large building, both sides try and annihilate the other - Die Hard blooms into a perfectly structured, unbearably tense piece of art which represents the pinnacle of 1980s Hollywood action cinema. One perfectly staged set piece follows another - how can McClane escape the air vent? How does he survive Gruber pointing a gun straight at him? We marvel as we watch McTiernan reveal the answers to us in a profoundly episodic fashion and feel euphoric when the answers are presented to us. Willis' performance is undoubtedly one of the most physically taxing imaginable, but it is the combination of brain and brawn which truly gets the audience on his side.
Beautifully shot, featuring lush and crisp cinematography from Jan De Bont, Die Hard is also peerlessly inventive on a technical level too. Michael Kamen's ominous score combines classic Hollywood studio techniques with modern tropes too - Ode to Joy recurs as an orchestral leitmotif and often finds itself perversely mutated with a bravura minor key rendition of Winter Wonderland; the result is as unsettling as it is astonishingly original. The soundtrack permeates dread and accompanies the stunning visuals with incredible synchronicity and helps transcend the movie from simply a blockbuster into a classic example of cinema.
Late in the film, a slow motion fall from a roof-top takes on an grandiose, operatic level of opulence and it is clear to see that this film is not simply about explosions, wise-cracks or "might makes right" bravado.
True, we have seen each of these things but what we have also witnessed is absolute "pure" cinema - the unique powers of the medium have been utilised to create a perfect example cinema at its finest. Its a movie as spectacle, and a film which makes us think and, equally, feel. McTiernan has captured the very essence of cinema and, it is fair to say, Bruce Willis has given him the ultimate leading man. Yippee Kay-aye indeed.
Santa Claus needs help - it would seem that the Christmas spirit isn't as rife as it once was. We've become too jaded, too cynical to see the magic of the Yuletide season. We don't believe like we once did and Saint Nick needs our faith to make his sleigh fly once more.
Yet, if there's one film that can really inspire goodwill to all men and seasonal glee, a movie which can really power the Claus-o-meter, it is Elf; a picture which became and instant staple of Christmas tradition. No holiday festivities would now be complete without stockings, a warm fireplace and Buddy the Elf asking: "What's your favourite colour?"
Will Ferrell, in a career-best performance, stars as Buddy - a human raised as an Elf in the North Pole. He towers over his peers and struggles with the ways of elf-dom; the intricacies of assembling Etch-A-Sketches belies the fact that, perhaps, he doesn't belong.
The joy of Elf is presented to us as the ultimate culture clash - a dispirited New York, decked out in ostentatious dressing (a celebration as much to capitalism as to Christmas), comes face-to-face with a joyous, earnest force of nature in the ever cheerful Buddy. His father, a dour James Caan, is perplexed by Buddy's unrelenting enthusiasm and considers him mentally ill, his happiness an affliction which can be cured - yet, as is often the case, perhaps it is the unusual outsider we can all learn a lesson from.
Elf shows us how love, and belief, will always triumph over cynicism and apathy.
Buddy, and his enthusiasm for spreading cheer, touch those around him as his splendorous happiness proves contagious - Jovie (a charming Zooey Deschanel), finds herself oddly wooed by an adult male who dines almost exclusively on sugar and dresses in elf-costumes at all times. Buddy, however, only sees the best in the world and in the people he meets - and it is when life is reflected through Buddy's eyes that Jovie finds happiness in her heart; his felicity inspires those around him to feel the same too. Buddy provides the single spark New York needs to set itself ablaze with Festive cheer.
A triumph of good-nature, Jon Favreau's movie is a masterpiece of seasonal film-making. Laugh out loud funny and muffled-tear touching too, Elf is a Christmas gift which keeps on giving.
Nativity! is a film which should fail on almost every level.
The children who star don't display prodigious levels of talent - in fact, they're rambunctous and amateurish in the way that children generally are. As they prepare for their school nativity play, a production they have been told will be witnessed by Hollywood executives and which gives the film both its title and purpose, it is clear to see that none of the children are exactly professionals.
There is, however, a certain charm in the youngsters' off-key caterwauling - a charge which certainly cannot be levelled at everyone in the movie.
Mr Poppy, a class-room assistant as portrayed by Marc Wootton, is decidely intolerable. Rather than warming the cockles of those who watch him with his overtly wacky antics, Poppy inspires feelings of decidely un-seasonal hatred. He's loud and brash, rude too, and inspires children to misbehave in the name of "fun" - its an attitude which ultimately shows a lack of respect to the kids he works with.
A supposedly "likable" character, it is impossible not to view this idiot man-child without clenched fists and escalating graphic daydreams of physical vengeance. This is a character we're supposed to root for but, instead, inspires vitriolic rage.
Strangely, the only thing that stops an adult audience from becoming Scrooges, from allowing their inner Grinch to rain down porous scorn on the movie, is the addition to the cast of Mr Maddens: a cantankerous, curmudgeon of a teacher.
Amongst the schmaltz and contrived wackiness is a beating heart encapsulated by a sublime Martin Freeman. Never before has one actor done so much to salvage one film as he does here. As Mr Maddens, Freeman is brittle and alone; his fear and sadness is often misunderstood as uptight sobriety.
Yet, Mr Maddens is seen to care more for his class-room full of misfits and oddballs than anyone else and does so in a manner as tender and touching as one could imagine.
As the classroom practise scenes from their upcoming nativity, a squabble breaks out between two of the students. Rather than encouraging anarchy a la Mr Poppy, Maddens does something rare: he treats the child with respect and, in doing so, Nativity! too treats its audience with a quiet dignity too:
"People think you're a bad lad, and maybe you're not, but the more bad things you do, people have you marked down as that," Maddens sternly tells one child who has been labelled a trouble maker.
"You've got real talent and you let yourself down by being silly. There's only so many conversations l can have with you. Only so many times l can tell you off, do you understand? You don't want to be told off by me. lt's boring. l hate doing it. lt's really boring for me as well."
The scene is rare and unspeakably beautiful. In an instant, Freeman's character becomes one of cinema's great teachers - not just to the children in his classroom, but to the adults watching the film too.
If Mr Poppy is a human cartoon, then Freeman's Mr Maddens is simply a human - a very real, defeated, sad and lonely human. We empathise with his sorrow as he struggles through Christmas with a pained yearning for a love who is miles away, perhaps never to return.
Yet, it is Maddens' pathos-filled life of teaching self-improvement, self-confidence and self-worth to a classroom full of children which really tugs at the heart-strings.
Santa may come but once a year and receive all the glory but Nativity! shows us that real heroes can be those who look after our children all year round and inspire in them a sense of belonging, a sense of wonder. There's real warmth in how Maddens selflessly dedicates himself to his children - its a miracle not just for Christmas day but for life.