Wednesday, 20 July 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 a 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.

Monday, 13 June 2016

Review: X-Men: Apocalypse

Year: 2016
Director: Bryan Singer
Screenplay: Simon Kinberg
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Evan Peters, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Olivia Munn, Lucas Till.

Synopsis is here:

Note: Contains Mild Spoilers (kinda)

It’s quite clear that I’ve not been prolific with my blog in recent weeks. Life can get in the way of things of course, as can my other hobbies and writings. However, one of the main reasons for my blogging neglect is the simple reason that I’ve not been interested in what has been released at the cinema. As I sat down to watch X-Men and found myself subjected to the high octane eye candy with its intent to melt my eyeballs with its explosions, I found myself thinking…”none of this is for me.”
I’m still (just) in the age range of the demographic that these films are trying to ensnare. I still have decent working knowledge of a lot of the movie universes which the studios are desperately trying to get me to re-enter. The reason I sat in my chair unimpressed with the twirling visuals that came to claim my pupils was quite simply the fact that X-Men Apocalypse, the way it uses film language and story structure, is simply for someone else.

From the views of my peers X-Men: Apocalypse falls into two camps: Terrible or Excellent. I’m not surprised that critics seemed to land on the former while fans leaned towards the latter. In fact much like Batman vs Superman, X-Men Apocalypse is less about being coherent or creating interesting stakes. As long as the films acknowledge fans with laborious pandering, then it’s fine. This is movies for some people now. Having the film recognise that it exists “for the fans” means it can disregard elements that are usually needed for those who haven’t been awaiting the next entry of the long running saga. Like Dawn of Justice, Apocalypse never feels like it’s telling the full story. But that’s unimportant because fans know everything anyway, so they can enjoy the “beta” version at the cinema, fill in the cracks and enjoy an “ultimate cut” or a “rouge cut” at a later date.
It looks like the X-Men, like the other comic book entries of this year (Deadpool aside), have now settled in. Settled down. The stakes are massive in that these heroes have to save the world. But don’t all these films do this now? Looking back at Ant-Man (2015), or even Iron Man (2008), these films were self-contained enough to keep the stakes interesting. Now. All these characters. These supposed grand stories feel more like lip service than anything else.

X-Men: Apocalypse has the same crowded character issue that has hobbled the likes of Age of Ultron (2015). We never learn much about the newcomers, while the old hands once again have their origins exploited as opposed to having their characters (or any new characters) grow or develop. The film spends most of its first act re-establishing Magneto as a villain, only for Micheal Fassbender to be wasted during the film’s climax. This doesn’t seem to matter. As long as he’s there. Hovering. Doing little else other than operating as the mutant version of the terraforming platform in Man of Steel (2013). The same goes for the film’s namesake. Apocalypse is considered a mutant of almost unmeasurable power, yet at no point do these powers ever feel as impressive or as dominant as they’re made out to be. Poor Oscar Isaac is little more than a heavily made up, yet utterly generic villain, who’s far from intimidating. The worst thing I found was just how little he differed from the Marvel’s cinematic universe’s Ultron. Although at least James Spader’s vocal performance had more cadence.

Like many recent franchises, X-Men has now reached a point in which, the films now bluster through to each plot point with little rhyme or reason. There’s no delicacy to the storytelling. Only an incessant charge towards another faux ending. In an age in which people go mad about spoilers, it’s unfortunate that the films that are given the larger market share have become even more predictable. Apocalypse nabs the villain’s aspirations of Age of Ultron and utilises a plan which is actioned in a similar way to Man of Steel. The heroes look to dispatch him in a way that isn’t too dissimilar from Tim Story’s version of Fantastic Four (2005). Everything feels too similar from something that was already seen before. The only real difference is that we have different heroes and villains. All that matters is that these heroes hit the same beats. An example of the film’s staleness? Look at the part Cerebro plays yet again.

Singer’s earlier X-Men works were praised for their simple but effective subtexts and relationships. Both X-men (2000) and X-2 (2003), enjoyed playing with allegories towards race, gender and identity politics. Such elements have fallen to the wayside. Why? To compete with the other comic book movies? Or is it just the fact that it quite simply doesn’t matter anymore. This film is so niche in who it caters for, that further X-Men features may not bother too much with any broader appeal. A shame, because it was this aspect which made the X-Men such an interesting choice for a mainstream blockbuster.

I must admit the film still holds are some highlights. Despite some distractingly grisly body horror, the film’s action hold a decent amount of scale. The Quicksilver sequence is yet again the film’s stand out moment. I’ll also say that both McAvoy and Fassbender are still quite watchable in their roles. Whereas Jennifer Lawrence seems quite bored with the whole affair, while some of the new blood are excruciatingly weak. Other performances (poor Olivia Munn) don’t even get a chance to show what they can really do with the material. Again, the film isn’t about any interesting insight, so some character merely stand around and look pretty.

My problem with X-Men Apocalypse is that it feels like just a set of dull set of individual sequences. A series of moments that never feel like a complete whole. The film has little need to implicate further meaning like in earlier entries. Now it has rehashed dialogue and tired gags to communicate to its audience. I will stress that this may only be me who thinks this. I don't say this as a defence to my negative view of the film. You as a reader can take or leave what I say. I mention this because the film sits with a 7.5 on IMDb. Not an easy feat. It's clear that it connects with people. But I'm not sure it's the film. I feel it's the source.

Note: Screenwriter Andrew Ellard deconstructs the film's weakneses in little more than a few tweets:

Review: The Nice Guys

Year: 2016
Director: Shane Black
Screenplay: Shane Black, Anthony Bagarozzi
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Russell Crowe, Angourie Rice

Synopsis is here:

There were times in The Other Guys were I laughed so hard that I embarrassed myself. Guffawed with such force, that I almost fell off my chair. This is not hyperbole. There were witnesses. I really enjoyed myself.

This is the Shane Black that I know and dig. Free from the restraints of franchise fare like Iron Man 3(2012). Yes, The Nice Guys doesn’t fall far from the hard boiled buddy comedy tree which Black himself has tendered for so long. But it’s absurd and convoluted noir plot, pitch black comedy and engaging performances is invigorating to watch.

If Inherent Vice (2014) was the modern riff of Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), then The Other Guys is Black’s darkly comic take on the likes of L.A. Confidential (1997). Here it’s the seedy L.A. Porn underworld taking over from the grubby mitts of mainstream Hollywood. It’s a perfect setting. If not just for pornography’s wish to be considered legitimate in the 70’s, but for the dubious amount of sleaze which unfortunately came with the territory. The film’s villains do obviously hark back to the same corrupt tribe which infiltrated Chinatown (1974), yet by setting it in the era of 70’s smut, the film feels like a fictional precursor to John Holmes involvement and demise with The Wonderland Murders.

The /Film Podcast’s Jeff Cannata was quick to aim a critical eye on the film’s apparent sexism. We see women used not only as sex objects but as furniture for obnoxious sex parties as well as MacGuffins. No doubt this is nasty work, but it also sneakily highlights the disposable nature we install onto so many sex workers. Despite this, it’s no surprise that the sharpest knife of the pack is neither Russell Crowe’s Jackson Healy (an updated Bud White) nor Ryan Gosling’s Holland March (a sly deconstruction of Gosling’s cool customer persona). The film’s smart cookie is March’s 13-year-old daughter; Holly (Angourie Rice), who acts as the film’s actual crime solver and the cohesive gel between both the central relationship between Healy and March and the very loose narrative. Black’s film doesn’t hold neat and tidy, inoffensive gender politics. However, Black gives his female characters a certain agency which larger films couldn’t even be bothered to define with any real clarity.

The Nice Guys isn’t particularly interested in being serious, in spite of its inherent cynicism. The film’s farcical set pieces, riotous reaction shots and playful deconstruction of its dirty detectives take the forefront over anything else. Gosling and Crowe have a great chemistry together and are both hilarious in their roles, with Gosling in particular shows a particular flair for visual comedy. The strength Black’s screenplays is often the comradery which grows between the main duo. Much like Black’s debut Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005). Here is no exception. Gosling’s scruffy loser trades off remarkably well with Crowe’s gruff, no-nonsense demeanour. These scuzzy deadbeats aren’t “Nice Guys” but it’s hard not to enjoy hanging around with them.

The films main mystery doesn’t hold up to any real scrutiny and the films plan to uncover the larger truth is beyond silly. Black keeps it together with film plays off at a great pace and seems to suggest that it’s within this inherent silliness that serious secrets may be hidden. If not, then unconventional partnerships could be effective.  Much like Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some (2016), The Nice Guys plays by its own set of rules, and does so with pulpy flair, sharp, knowing dialogue, and a dirty smile across its face. I’ll definitely see films this year which dictate their convolutions better, but I doubt I’ll have any that will make me laugh as hard as some of the “body disposal” I witness in The Nice Guys. That’s the thing, it’s a film which can make you laugh out loud at its grimness. A hard thing to do, but when executed well, it will have you pick yourself up from a dirty cinema floor.

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?