Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Review: Captain America: Civil War

Year: 2016
Directors: The Russo Brothers
Screenplay:Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Starring: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Emily VanCamp, Tom Holland, Frank Grillo, William Hurt, Daniel Brühl.

Synopsis is here:

Let’s get this out of the way now. The comparisons of Marvel’s Civil War and Warner Brother’s Batman vs Superman were always going to be made from the moment they were announced. In the upcoming weeks there will be think pieces and hot takes galore about which of these films “won” based on box office takings and opening weekend reactions. I’m sure twitter arguments will be abound about which is the “better” film. Nature of the beast.

After leaving the early bank holiday screening of Captain America: Civil War, I found I had no qualm on my position on the matter. Quite simply, Marvel seems to understand its audience better. Bitter DC Fans can complain about critics being “paid off” all they want. Such talk is nonsense. Civil War isn’t the best Marvel film. Heck, I don't even think it’s the best Captain America flick. However, in terms of balancing it’s characters and telling an engaging story, Civil War wins the so called battle.

It certainly helps that we’ve now spent nearly a decade getting to know many of the characters that appear in this feature over the course of various entries. However, this alone highlights the assured vision that we watch on screen. Civil War doesn’t hold many surprises, but Marvel’s control of their brand, while dulling a certain sense of wonderment when watching a blockbuster (do we honestly think ANYONE is at risk here?), has created an established and expansive universe that understands and maintains its tone, and is clear with its character motivations. Both Civil War and Batman vs Superman talk about “who watches the watchmen” and collateral damage. Both only really use them as Macguffin’s for beating the hell out of one another. It is Civil War, however, that understands its character between the characters and its audience. The relationship built from the previous films, gives Civil War more grounding, and yet, when characters debate and argue, you do not feel lost in mindless manusha. A complaint found in Batman vs Superman was simply “why were they fighting?” Civil War never has the same issues. We see the differing ideologies and their clashes as clear as day. There’s no need for a longer cut or after the fact articles to gain understandings which should have clarity within the theatrical narrative.

This doesn’t stop Civil War from being a flawed piece. On the contrary. We are now at the point where these films merely press on with their stories, less like a grand adventure, but more like a cosplayed soap opera. Civil War gives us the truly tortured Tony Stark so clearly missing from the likes of Iron Man 3 (2012), as well as hinting on budding personal relationship which may or may not come to pass in future instalments. This is fine if there was a solid feeling of these ongoing journeys actually reaching a destination. Civil War, like so many Marvel movies, are good at hinting at more to come. Tom Holland’s sprightly performance whets the appetite for a new Spiderman film. We’re finally getting Robert Downley Jr’s Tony Stark pulling towards some new ground with the character. Scarlett Johansson’s work as Natasha/Black Widow keeps going under praised and I could easily sit through the adventures of many of the characters that appear. Especially the ones who are female or black.

Despite this, I’m also clambering for a sense of true closure, or at least a villain that can truly keep up with the multitude of running, jumping mega heroes. What plays out in Civil War is emotional and at times satisfying, but to only to a certain level. The Buck Rogers TV serial-like method of these films enables a feeling of being fed on a decent burger yet never feeling full. Notice I haven’t yet mentioned much of Steve Rogers (A still wonderfully stiff jawed Evans) himself? That’s because much like Superman, he’s been pushed to the side to accommodate everything else that needs to tie to brand Marvel. The main reason the Captain America movies appealed was because of Roger’s character. The man out of time. The hero who doesn’t like bullies. That strong moral belief. Such elements haven’t disappeared completely, but they have to make way for Ant-man, Black Panther, The Vision, Scarlet Witchthe list goes on.

The Russo’s however, provide a decent job of trying to balance all these strands out. No character feels as shoehorned in as the characters did Batman vs Superman. Marvel may hold a certain blue print that many of these films need to adhere to, but The Russo’s have shown how well they can operate around Marvel’s slightly restrictive template, but do so with yet another film filled with tightly executed action, solid character beats and a vibrant sense of tone. Despite holding a certain amount of fatigue with comic book films, Captain America: Civil War still brings enough sound, fury and vibrancy to remain an entertaining piece. I can’t say that this long running film series is delivering any real shocks as before and the idea that one of their films; Infinity Wars, sounds more like a sadistic promise now that we’ve seen the studios long term plans. Nevertheless, as an enjoyable (albeit overlong) piece of fluff,  Civil War more than delivers.


Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Review: Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice

Year: 2016
Director: Zack Synder
Screenplay: Chris Terrio, David S. Goyer
Starring: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, Gal Gadot

Synopsis is here:

The critics are wrong. They whine too much. They're far infatuated with what this pop culture brand used to be. Also, they don't remember how to have fun with the product. Boy oh boy is product the right word for this. The fanboys are wrong. At time of writing, I'm sure tons of comment boards will be aflame. Overwrought overreactions (with probable death threats) will be posted on sites and film forums. Trying to protect a film that will make millions no matter what. The brand will be saved from those nasty critics by the dollars of the TRUE fans. Boy oh boy is brand the right word for this film.

Let's try and be honest. Be it the negative reviews or the fanatics digging their heels, it doesn't matter because Batman vs Superman isn't really worth either. It highlights that Warner Bros and DC want to be the serious comic guys with the heavy issues, but does so at the expense of balance, storytelling and character development. This won't matter to the audience much. That’s not what they want to see. In the same way the Transformer franchise delivers robots smacking bolts out of each other, this delivers superheroes doing the same. It doesn't matter that Lois Lane does something incredibly stupid to maintain that there's an actual climax. It doesn't matter if the geography between Metropolis and Gotham exists in some kind of wormhole. Is a causal film goer or fan going to pick apart the fact that much of the film doesn't really seem to carry enough weight, from effects to character motivations? No, they will not. As long as the Batman and Superman are doing the man dance, little else matters.

This is unfortunate. For a viewer like myself, whose interest in Superheroes and the films they inhabit, waivers between intrigued casual fan to tired cynic, this film, which overzealous fanboys have crowned “only for the hard-core fandom” has decided to forget that it’s the broad audience that needs nourishing through these films, whether they like it or not. Batman vs Superman isn’t the worst superhero/comic book movie ever, but it is a comic book movie that could have been more than the sum of its parts.

I found myself once again sitting through a film which was exceedingly long, and yet has a narrative that never seems to progress. Characters make great exclamations, but actually say very little. Pieces of the puzzle get moved around, but never to build a fuller picture. It’s a film with weighty themes that do point towards a growing maturity towards the very ideals of heroism, and yet never does the film get to grips with what it’s trying to tackle. It can be argued because there’s some be fish to fry, but honestly, it could do with some decent work on the story’s connective tissue as opposed to setting up the next entry to its soon to be long running series. Claims of Iron Man (2010) doing the same is understandable, but it’s surprising what the charm of Robert Downey and Sam Rockwell can do. I will also say that the screenplay of that film doesn’t feel as patchy as this one, which has already had media outlets touting the 30 minutes extra left for the home video release.

Still, it’s not hard to be fascinated by the idea of Snyder continuing on the topics that raised eyebrows in Watchmen (2009). A modern world where idealism and heroism is dying and questioned. Cynicism bleeds through this film and to be honest, elements of it are somewhat refreshing. Even more so than Nolan’s own Dark Knight Series. Synder places these symbols in a world of black and white absolutes, Batman may be ok with picking up a gun. Superman questions the meaning of “goodness”. To even consider that world goes against what we think we know about these characters, yet still remains a compelling dynamic.

Other things frustrate. Lex Luthor for instance; a character who always seemed accustomed to acumen and preciseness, now feels likened more to a haphazard agent of chaos (similar to the Joker). Jesse Esseinberg’s coked up Trump Zuckerberg is entertainingly quirky performance, but the visual tics and manic energy do little to hide the fact that his plan to kill superman feels incoherent and unclear. We know the goal, but the reasoning never feels clear. Eisenberg always feels to be one second away from blurting out “everything burns”. Something that has never been his M.O. to my knowledge.

I also like the idea of a modern Superman, free from the shackles of Richard Donner and the cleanest cut Boy Scout image. But this figure is less tragic than just mopey. Heroism as a burden, unless it involves Lois Lane (A criminally underused Amy Adams). It's never engaging because Superman is never engaging. Neither by character or performance. Cavill’s stiff and dour Superman is combined with the angry and violent cynicism from Affleck’s impressive Wayne/Batman. The problem is in a film in which these two juggernauts are meant to clash, both heroes would happily jack the heroism thing in. There’s little to no conflict of points of view to really speak of. Just two miserable men being manipulated against each other. We don’t need wide eyed idealism, but Synder’s film has decided that neither character seems interested in nobility at all. This may not have been too much of an issue if the film settled on one of these characters. Because it doesn’t, we’re faced with overkill.

At least we’re given Batman’s origin story yet again, highlighting just how pushed to the side Superman often feels in a film which started out as a sequel to his own franchise. I have nothing but great things to say about Gal Gadot’s performance as Wonder Woman, but her subplot has little reason for being other than to wink at the hardcore fans. As does so many elements of the film (cameos, nods to future events, etc), which may have been better spent touching up the plot strands.
If there’s one thing that I cannot argue with, it’s Synder’s ability as a visual stylist and director of action. If the film's story felt as cohesive as the set pieces, I doubt we’d be obtaining the knee jerk early reviews we received. I can only imagine what the film looked like in the grandness of an IMAX screen. Watching Doomsday howling in front of the LexCorp sign is a simple yet effective visuals, as are the images of Superman hovering majestically in silhouette. It’s a shame, however, that more aspects don’t hold as much investment.

You don’t need to be paid by Marvel to see that so much of BVS is as unwieldly as its full title. Nor do you need a Zack Synder bias to feel that this is not the director’s greatest moment in terms of storytelling. There’s no anti-Warner Bros sentiment. If that’s the case, than why were Christopher Nolan’s Batman series so well received by critics? The reason why Marvel’s movies appear to be so much healthier (despite their own issues), is that the studio established a stronger structure to stand on.  Those claiming that its record breaking weekend defines this film as “good” should google just how often a film “breaks” a box office record these days.  I’d also like to see how they feel about Kim Kardashian. She too rakes in millions. Does that mean she should be adored with no questions asked? Same goes for Justin Bieber, Coldplay et al.

My personal view on Batman vs Superman is that it’s simply an overegged and overlong blockbuster. It contains some interesting ideas and some solid visuals, but no more. I came to this opinion a few days after my midnight screening of this feature. Others feel different. I won't be seeking them out with hate mail. I haven't got time. Some of us have lives to lead, Lives that don't need aggression about yet another entry in the long line of super operas. It may be interesting to see how the film frames itself in 2020 when even more of these suckers are released, but I’m not holding my breath in any way. Why should I? With Suicide Squad and Civil War are making their ways to cinemas soon, I’m finding it harder to find the time watching these things let alone arguing about them. Why fight in real life? Can’t we leave that to the Super heroes?

Thursday, 31 March 2016

Review: High-Rise

Year: 2016
Director: Ben Wheatley
Screenplay: Amy Jump
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes

Synopsis is here:

The blandly branded products that litter the flatly lit supermarket hint at Alex Cox's Repo Man (1984). The setting as well as the loss of mental faculties and civility hark back to Cronenberg's Shivers (1975). However, at the dark heart of Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise seems to nod more than once to The Shining (1980). It is much like Kubrick's adaptation in that it's an altered take on a well-known book. The isolated setting and claustrophobic feel also owe a lot to the auteur’s work. Only here, the ghosts in the machines and manic possession have little to do with the supernatural, they are man made.

Those who haven’t picked up J.G Ballard’s disconcerting novel, may find themselves at a loss to Wheatley’s new feature. A lurid tale of materialism gone mad, High-Rise follows Robert Laing, a grieving doctor who moves into a brand new, luxury High-Rise skyscraper with a broad band of professionals. Along with the other residents, he quickly becomes seduced in a world of all night parties, classist hierarchies and disintegrating social and moral etiquettes. The film is never truly explicit about why such a decent into madness would occur. Like all of Wheatley’s work, High-Rise slices at the specifics. Yet, like Ballard’s impish novel, it never feels hard to peer in-between the lines.

Those who know Ballard may feel that his caustic, matter of fact prose and eye for detail is lacking slightly. While kudos must be given to screenwriter; Amy Jump, for squeezing as much juice out of the orange as she can. There is, of course, as with so many novels, always text that can often help fill in the cracks and spike the imagination. Ballard’s canny way of getting his unhinged characters to justify the insanity as somewhat normal, is hard to replicate. It’s hard to imagine anyone being to get it right. Although I do feel that David Cronenberg, who dealt with Ballard with his adaptation Crash (1996), manages to capture the cynical, distancing tone and psychology of such characters a little better than Wheatley, whose High-Rise holds one or two elements within it not to have its viewer shirk with total despair despite its brutality.

That said, Wheatley along with his long time running cinematographer buddy Laurie Rose, not only capture the feel of the 70’s with flair, but capture the book images that I thought only resided within my head. The details in the design and setting along with the execution of certain sequences are near note perfect. The images linger long in the memory, as well as what they represent. Scenes such as the higher classes, debating with what to do with the rampant and primal filmmaker Richard Wilder (an excellent Luke Evans). Observing the richer types holding a high class party while having classical music covers of Abba tracks, nails the false belief that those at the top have over the bottom perfectly. That even popular culture must be "cultivated" correctly.

The decent into madness will lose some, but for me it was easy to tap into the film's observations on the culture of self. Looking at the behaviour in High Rise in both the film and book and watching at how politicians and celebrities act now feels even more relevant. Hell, watching High-Rise at times reminded me of the so called "film twitter" at its most anarchic and base. A struggle between basement feeding bloggers (hello) and the "real" writers who only ever deal in snark.

Even the high-rise itself; a grinning beast of architecture, is the perfect metaphor for how many view today. Fear of our neighbours, modest grievances being the worst things in the world (first world problems). Classism running wild. High-Rise features much of this, although it's easy to see how some viewers will still question the logic of the film, despite the fact that even the characters themselves detail that reasoning accounts to very little.

The film does what decent Sci-fi should do. It finds the human element or as the cynical architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) remarks the “missing” element. High-Rise suggests that if given a utopia, our baser urges will help clamber to destroy it. I adore the fact that the film retains the book’s 70's setting, along with a white, middle class population that still seeks to destroy itself. Not because I enjoy Caucasians tearing at each other, but because it highlights how easily the fear of the other is embraced. That if we're to have everything we ever wanted. We would still hunger. We would still rape. We would still destroy. All it takes is some decent time at the swimming pool.

Wheatley’s film is not only a return to form from his bizarre and distancing experiment A Field in England (2013), but it plays out as a cinematic representation of Marina Abramovic’s recent performance art, or even an update of Jane Elliott’s eye colour experiment. Ballard may still hold more acidity, however, Wheatley’s adaptation is brutal reminder of how our desires of materialistic and the carnal can reduce us to the simplistic and primal beasts we try and hide with our so called civility.

Review: 10 Cloverfield Lane

Year: 2016
Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Screenplay: Josh Campbell, Matthew Stucken and Damien Chazelle
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman

Synopsis is here:

What a strange beast this is! At first, 10 Cloverfield Lane is tense and taut thriller which coincidentally fits perfectly with the age of Trump. If spiritual predecessor Cloverfield (2007) already established the anxieties of a post 9/11 monster movie, 10 Cloverfield Lane provides us with an intriguing continuation of similar themes. As invasion of the ‘other’ be it otherworldly or otherwise will nearly always help breed paranoid human monsters created on home soil.

Annoyingly, in saying that alone, I may have given away too much. Then again, if 10 Cloverfield Lane wasn’t given the name that it has, then the film wouldn’t have already begun creating certain images in our head. The name alone gives a certain amount of expectation. We’re already on the front foot, with a film that could have easily been a clean and effective standalone thriller.

In fact, 10 Cloverfield Lane’s history reveals this to be true. Originating from a low fi spec script called “The Cellar”, it was only when the Bad Robot production team got involved, that the film became a new entry into a created mythology.

What’s created is a struggle of sorts. Most of the films run time is a sharp and enjoyable thriller which relies on two impressive performances from its leads. Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Michelle is resourceful and full of agency. Despite being kidnapped, never does the character feel like a victim. Winstead is a dab hand in these types of genre roles, and gives the character a hefty amount enthusiasm to make us care. We’re then given the formidable presence of John Goodman, with the kind of hulking, uneasy display that the actor can do in his sleep. Goodman’s Howard has an answer for everything, despite the fact you may not ever believe what he says. The fear of the character comes, not only from Goodman’s poker face, but from just how swiftly Howard swings into aggression, and the seeming falseness of his pleasantries. A man who consistently claims to his female captive that she’s safe, despite chaining her, drugging her, and posing threats of violence. Give him a fedora. He’d be a “nice guy”.

The struggle begins once the film breaks free of the claustrophobic world it has created. Dan Trachtenberg’s direction within the confines of the underground bunker is tight and precise. There’s nothing flashy and no shot feels wasted. The tension is more than palpable. Then the film’s final fifteen minutes occur, which “fit” when placed in consideration of the film that came before it, yet lack true definition and detail. It’s not that the film leaves us with questions, but more that it gives us bizarre ones which never felt the need to be posed.

This somewhat takes away from the many things 10 Cloverfield Lane does right. Its formidably oppressive antagonist coincidentally fits in with our fear, our neighbors era. Its heroine correctly shows us a strong female character without the stereotypes of a “strong female character”. The film is tense, well-staged and effectively paced. If the film’s climax doesn’t deter you, then you’re on to a winner.

Review: The Witch

Year: 2015 (U.K Threatical Release 2016)
Director: Robert Eggers
Screenplay: Robert Eggers
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson

Synopsis is here:

There’s not many horror films that trouble the mind like The Witch. In fact, I celebrate the sheer audacity of its execution as well as Eggers’ faith with the audience. Films like this are destined to be cult. This is not The Conjuring (2013) or Insidious (2010), which lean heavily on loud bangs and jump scares. The Witch is a film that is a triumph of tone. Establishing the same sense of dread that lies in films such as Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), The Devils (1971) and The Witchfinder General (1968). As we follow this excommunicated Puritan family forced into braving an unforgiving terrain with only the word of god by their side, we discover that what makes The Witch tick is the anxiety that stems from the character's suspicions.

Uncertainly is ensured as the fear, distrust and religion slowly bleed into each other. A child goes missing, crops wither, animals start playing up. Has God forsaken this family? Is it just dumb luck?  It becomes clear that the eldest child; Thomasin, is beginning to grow into womanhood. This alone causes serious issues between the family. Is it just budding sexuality through? Are we in the presence of Witches?

This unflinching portrayal of this disintegrating Puritan family unit lead by an immensely cagey performance by doe eyed Anya Taylor-Joy works simply because the cast is so committed to the situation. Eggers has stated that he was influenced by The Shining (1980) and that certainly shows, yet the disorientation and gradual shutting down of trust and mental defenses feel familiar to the likes of The Blair Witch Project (1999). Characters so devoted to their faith that it’s hard not to care for them when things go bump in the night.

The cast is helped on by assured direction from Eggers. Together with cinematographer Jarin Blaschke and composer Mark Korven, Eggers creates an environment in which a simple shot of a rabbit feels more discomforting than it should. A film made for a budget of $1 million dollars, the film constantly looks and feels like more money was placed in the kitty. The attention to detail is substantial.

The Witch could have possibly gone with being a little more ambiguous. While the film takes a slow ride towards its strange ending, it does reveal a tad too much of itself early on, minimising the curiosity somewhat. Meanwhile the film’s final moments to indulge more than some may need. This doesn’t stop the fact that The Witch is still rather bold in its execution. The film’s drained muddy colour palette and unsettling score do far more to unnerve than the latest “Lawton Bus” scares that will infiltrate in the next mainstream chiller.

I’m quite sure that despite raking in a decent box office take, The Witch probably spilt audiences 30/70 in terms of agreeable opinion. I do feel however that those in the favourable camp no doubt found The Witch to be a refreshing alternative horror which rewards followers who want to place a bit more thought in their horror films.