Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Review: 50/50

Year: 2011
Director: Jonathan Levine
Screenplay: Will Reiser
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen and Anna Kendrick

Synopsis is here

There's always a chance that the something like 50/50 could have played out terribly. While I rather enjoyed Funny People I could easily see so many people viewing it as another typical Adam Sandler flick and avoid it like the plague. Sandler, Seth Rogan and Cancer? Not a what many are looking for in terms of films me thinks. While I did have a good time with that particular movie; the films humour being the most appealing to me, the characters were not as lucky. The film flip flopped in tone and there was an issue with length that should have been addressed.

50/50 has been labelled in certain areas as the "cancer comedy" in a similar, almost derogatory way that The Social Network was labelled "the facebook film". Such laziness explain the film in the most base manner and seem to actually do more to turn people off than get them to watch. It'll be a shame if people avoid 50/50 due to such simplistic descriptions (or a second appearance of Seth Rogan in a similar film) because the film's view of cancer is a sensitive one. It appears that a character (Rogan's) has a particularly vulgar attitude towards the whole thing and yet that ignoring his character arc due to taking everything he says at face value. A small but telling moment involving Rogan's Kyle says all you need to know abut his behaviour. While the role is slightly typecast, it is played out without some of the odd tonal shifts and expectations that some of the characters in Funny People. 50/50 works better as a comedy drama because it gets the balance right. When the film is funny (maybe save the trippy first chemo sequence) it's very funny. It notices the awkwardness of how we act  in certain situations and grounds the humour well. It doesn't "go dark" for the sake of it, instead finding laughs in the people we see.

The smaller moments stand out in 50/50 a lot more than some of the more grand ones. A sequence involving a revel in a relationship is played out for awkward laughs and it does work (as do the various pop culture references within the film) but doesn't hit the same heights as the more intimate moment involving a fellow cancer sufferer (Matt "Max Headroom" Frewer no doubt) and his wife sharing a small kiss. It's not much, but there's a sincerity within those moments that seems to stem from a true place. Writer Will Reiser (the true story the film is inspired by) has a screenplay which features such slight observations that if one wasn't paying attention you could miss how they build the story. The film shows illness as what can be, a state of humdrum and limbo. A short montage of people asking those typical, basic questions and tending to the topic on eggshells is captured in perfect awkwardness. An unfortunate side plot involving Bryce Dallas Howard's Rachael (who seems to be getting some bitchy roles as of late) and Levitt's Adam character works not because Rachael is pompous and self centred (although there's more than a hint that she could be) but because when it comes to those tough moments where her role has to make more of a stand than is usually asked for, her age, emotions and reluctance appear to stem more from the difficulty of the situation above all else.

That the film suffers from the character of Adam being a tad too "fine" with everything, is an unfortunate aspect. When Levitt has to show true anguish, he does so well but the character at times feels quite laid back and the film itself feels slightly disjointed. While of course learning that one has cancer could perhaps give such a feeling, the film sometimes has the effect of small vignette's than a whole. I must also state that the feel nearly wastes the brilliance of the likes of Phillip Baker Hall and Anjelica Huston who light the screen with their small but perfectly formed performances.

Hollywood is an industry that loves to concentrate on youth. It's no surprise that we get films that seem to connect with the main target audience are ones such as Twilight (topping the charts as we speak). 50/50 asks us to stop and look at the briefness of our own mortality even at such a young age. That the film manages to do this well and provide some solids laughs without being truly offensive is a plus.
  
 

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Review: Fast Five

Year: 2011
Director: Justin Lin
Screenplay: Chris Morgan
Starring: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Joanna Brewster, Dwayne Johnston

Synopsis is here

Regular readers can probably sense that  the fast and the furious films aren't really my thing despite being pretty much the exact demographic for them. I mean if I were a fan, I would have clearly reviewed the film in April when the film actually came out. Such is life. As it happens the film came out to more fanfare than I expected, making a scary amount of money and slapping smack bang in the middle of the list of highest worldwide grosses. Making over $600million, I was shocked that there were that many boy racers.

Interestingly enough, it's the lack of the street racing element that makes fast five somewhat worthwhile. The constant shoehorning of these guys in the same typical street racing situations was getting more than a little dry. Also screenwriter Chris Morgan (writer of the dubious 4th film) seems a lot more comfortable with the series somehow.The film still drops scriptwriting brain farts. An example being a female character falls several stories through a shanty town roof before brushing herself and claiming she's pregnant. Another is the easily swayed loyalties of characters at the drop of a dime for the service of pushing it's somewhat generic heist plot. However  with this said; the story is entertaining enough, the humour is also a touch better and this time round despite the superhero prowess of it's leads (seriously, only Batman could take Diesel's Dominic character) there is an emotional crux within the film.

Don't be expecting too much from this muscle bound, dumb Oceans 11 with cars though. I say there's emotion in the film but don't look for complexity (like anyone watching is looking for that). The film does enough to make some of these characters worth watching for it's 130 run time (far too long for a film so basic) but don't expect secondary characters to be worth a damn. Plus, if you've had an issue with the treatment of women in this franchise previously, then don't expect any turnaround changes. Although like the naff pop rap that comes with the movie, the extremities are toned down slightly.

Fast Five is once again WYSWYG although it seems that there's steadier footing. The performances are what they are (I don't think I'll ever get on with Paul Walker) and while the stunts defy logic they are do creating a certain amount of awe to proceedings. One must also note that the inclusion of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnston injects some much needed energy. It's a shame that his Tommy Lee Jones character is sidelined for the films duller, generic main villain. With this said, the fact that there's a Fast Six in production not only gives us hope of a larger role for him, but says everything it needs to about the franchise. Bloggers like me be damned, the boy racers will have their day once more.


Monday, 21 November 2011

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Review: Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest

Year: 2011
Director: Michael Rapaport
Starring: Q-Tip, Phife Dogg,  Ali Shaheed Muhammad

I can almost pinpoint the main moments when I became a hip-hop fan. It was 1995-1996. It was when Batman forever came out and I brought the soundtrack CD which featured Method Man's The Riddler. That period of time I remember owning Gangsters Paradise by Coolio. Skip forward two years and I was introduced to the Radio 1 Rap Show and Channel 4's late night "Flava" program by my mate Darren. It was around that time I asked my father to bring me back some CD's as he went to see his sister in America. One of the albums he brought back was People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. That's when I became A Tribe called Quest fan.

Maybe there was a sub-concious thing going on under the surface, but the purchase of that album clearly shaped my taste in the genre, perhaps more than I even know. Since then I've not only become a hip-hop fan, but a certain type of hip hop fan. East Coast rapper?  New York in particular? Concious lyrics? Good chance I'll want to listen to you. I've got Dre, Snoop and Tupac albums and while I have time for rap that gets a little "thuggish". However that certain brand of hip-hop, often misguidedly considered alternative or emo* is what often appears when I shuffle my tracks on my Ipod. Tribe didn't just subscribe to that brand, they damn near invented many aspects of it.

So now we come to Beats, Rhymes & Life (aptly named after the Tribes more sobering forth album), a rarity in music documentary in that a hip-hop group go under the microscope. Considering the turbulent and eclectic life of hip-hop as a whole; from it's D.I.Y grass-roots foundations as a genre, to the multi-million dollar business rap has become. I'm always a little shocked at the lack of films (documentaries especially) with hip hop at it's core. Nick Bloomfield's revealing Biggie and Tupac and the fun loving Scratch by Doug Pray are great entries, and many will mention Style Wars as part of the stable. Yet, the handful of known and unknown films out there don't compare to other genres especially when it comes to artists.

This is where Rapaport's film kicks in. Its energetic first act half starts with a title sequence that not only highlights the band and the vibrancy they brought, but reminds one of the same bold, colourful entrance that Spike Lee gave Do the Right Thing. The film then follows a quite typical music documentary narrative, which ebbs and flows much like so many of it's ilk. This doesn't stop the film (especially the first segments) from being informative, engaging and funny.

What makes the Tribe the perfect hip-hop candidate for a documentary is their personalities as a group and as individuals. We discover that Q-Tip is the creative force and while no one would like to say he's the leader, it is him that conveys the drive of the artist. Despite having a nickname "the abstract" Tip at times comes across as calculating and focused. Phife on the flip side is the the more raw of the two rappers, a diabetic sports fan who's addicted to sugar. The more outspoken and impulsive of the two, many of the taking heads reference his punchlines and lyrics throughout the movie. The very different voices of the duo is pointed out at one moment (Tip - Calm and collected lyricism, Phife - High pitched, rougher flow) and what is interesting is that their lyrical style also mirror their off-stage personalities.

It's no surprise that as the film moves on, Phife becomes the heart of the film, while Q-Tip slowly evolves into what could be the antagonist of the piece. The films first half with it's wit, charm and sheer abashed love of the music and what it brought to people and each other is soon lost to a more dramatic focus as the film settles on Phife's illness and the varying factors that lead to the groups split. It's no surprise that Q-Tip is angry at the movie, as while the film doesn't paint him as evil, it does do a good job of angling Tip as the biggest factor in the tribe becoming archipelagos. Jerobi, who left the group early and Ali the DJ sit awkwardly on the sidelines as the film tries to make us take sides between the ill Phife and the more driven Tip. It's in these moments that film doesn't work as well as it could as it becomes as fragmented as the group themselves.

The film works best as a celebration of not only the music but of the artists that Tribe help bring to the surface. Talk of the creation of People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm and The Low End Theory are highlights. There are talking heads of Common, Pete Rock, Beastie Boys and Pharrell (one of the most revealing in terms of a new generation artist talking about the old school) share small insightful moments. The films credits feature brief snippets of Mos Def and Talib Kweli and quite simply...they don't get enough to say.

This doesn't sway from Beats Rhymes & Life from being a ineffective movie. The concert footage is full of energy. The short history of the group and their childhood is milder than one would expect and this along with the the nature of the tribe and the image they portray is handled well by Rapaport. An actor by trade (True Romance, Special, Bamboozled), his first feature film is clearly a documentation of something he loves. His off screen voice can hardly contain the excitement.

Beats Rhymes and Life left me grinning although I wish Rapaport took a little more from Doug Pray's book and less from Joe Berlingers. A Tribe called quest are not Metallica and while the film doesn't have that Spinal Tap feel that Some kind of Monster has, it fares better when it concentrates on the love over the arguments. Q-Tip states early on that after the Rock the Bells tour, the only time the group will be back together is is they qualify for the Rock and Roll hall of fame. Beats, Rhymes & Life is at it's best when it showcases joy and creation of the music that will hopefully make that possible.

*Emo rap is a bullshit term to give hip-hop that isn't isn't ghetto or gangster. Why? Because before the now more common, mainstream view of hip-hop or rap as aggressive thuggery and the materialistic bling era. Hip-hop was music which at times often had a real voice and message, be it social, political or otherwise. The idea that anything that doesn't talk about "bitches" and "money" and all that other nonsense must be labelled (often somewhat negatively) degrades and sidelines what hip-hop was and can be about.


Thursday, 3 November 2011

Review: The Ward

Year: 2010 (U.K release 2011)
Director: John Carpenter
Screenplay: Michael Rasmussen, Shawn Rasmussen
Starring: Amber Heard, Lyndsy Fonseca, Danielle Panabaker

Synopsis is here

Note: Titles I mention in the last paragraph really give the game away with this feature. You've been warned.

In my opinion The Ward is a bland film film. Straight up. It is a rote and derivative piece that comes from a director who should know better but perhaps doesn't give a damn. It has one main objective; to scare, and it doesn't manage this in the slightest. As a horror film this is cardinal sin. Not only have we've seen this being done millions of times before, we've seen this being done miles better film-makers that haven't even been around the block as much as Carpenter. A young girl trapped in a mental hospital isn't a tough sell to a genre junkie but the distinct lack of tension and tone make this one to avoid.

To focus on what's good for a second, Carpenter's film looks slick enough. It's by no means an ugly feature (which strangely could be part of the problem) and is at times visually interesting in particular the use of light and steadycam shots. Also considering that found  footage is the biggest thing going right now, it's nice to see a film that tries to hit its marks with old school techniques. You get the feeling that The Ward has one eye in the past and wants to invoke the likes of Shock Corridor which isn't really a bad thing. Carpenter's film is distinctive as well because; despite casting some of the genre's most attractive stars, the film does not attempt to sexualise them in any way. The film wants us to look at the girls for who they are and not how they are represented in a Maxim cover.

The problem is that with John had done the bad thing and sexed up matters at least I'd have something to talk about. The cast play no-note characters and they play them pretty badly. We do not know why they are locked in the ward and the film doesn't do anything to try and make us care. As frustrating as it is to watch yet another hot girl get stabbed-athon, it's still something compared to here in which we see the right things done wrong. Amber Heard isn't the greatest actress in the world but she does have a certain amount of presence to her. The fact that the film plays down her sexuality and yet gives her nothing else to grasp onto irritates, as we could have really been on to something.

The film, despite it's setting is eerily lacking in tone. Something that Carpenter usually does pretty damn well. This is no music video hack using the horror film to grab that Hollywood ladder, Carpenter has always been great at layering the right atmosphere to films like this.However, the hospital locale is not used to it's full potential while the soundtrack could really do with the kind of minimalist score Carpenter is also famed for add this to the vapid characters and your in for a naff night of fright.

The whole thing is pretty generic. I only just watched it and already I'm forgetting what's happened in it. I say that, but the film reeks of other movies that do similar things better. Spoiler alerts abound when I say this but if you've seen Identity (2003) Shutter Island (2010) or Session 9 (2001) (amongst other titles) then The Ward only needs to be viewed if your a Carpenter completest.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Review: We Need to Talk about Kevin

Year: 2011
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Screenplay: Lynne Ramsay, Rory Stewart Kinnear
Starring: Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller


Synopsis is here

NOTE: My review is not explicit about major events in the film but there is enough written that might annoy. If you are sensitive about such matters, you may wish to watch the film first. In short, I dug this film.

The films most troubling moment comes at the end of the film. A gesture is made which asks the viewer "could you?" The gesture is so slight and unassuming and yet it displays details so much about the films central relationship. The same scene makes sure also carefully makes sure that one is left in the dark from other questions you might have answered, particularly the one we always ask when such tragedies occur.

Eschewing the episodic nature of the novel (Eva writes letters to her husband Franklin) We need to talk about Kevin comes across as part Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003) and Joshua (2007, George Ratliff) but doesn't lose any of the spirit of the book. While Ramsay's film seems to have softened Eva somewhat (this view may be very dependant on personal perspective) but the themes of nature versus nature and love unconditional still stand strong. Said themes lie upon the board acting shoulders of one Tilda Swinton, whose complex and problematic performance carries the weighty burdens of guilt and shame easily, along with the larger issues at hand.

Swinton, dominates the film with a towering performance that helps raise the questions both the book and the film ask.While film does take away some of the background of the book and gives us a more streamlined story (Eva's throwaway mentions of America's political landscape; for example, are stripped away) this doesn't make Swinton portrayal of Eva any less conflicting. Small scenes; such as the doctor asking Eva not to resist during childbirth, or one of the earliest moments of Eva living life to the full in a tomato throwing festival slowly build up the image of a woman who believes that motherhood was thrust upon her. Even Eva look (with no offense to the brilliant Swinton) is not one of a mother. Well, not one we usually prescribe to. The look that lingers on Swinton's face throughout is a mixture of doubt and fear. The book furthers the detail of the hesitations but Swinton's ability to carry a scene and Ramsay's simple yet sharply shot scenes help place the message in the forefront.

Swinton's features become even more haunting as you see her paired up with Ezar Miller who plays the titular Kevin. The similar look of the pair is spurred on by their personalities. Eva's inner reluctance is mirrored by the external acting out of Kevin. The relationship slowly becomes a battle of wills more than anything loving. As Kevin grows, he seemingly tests his mother. From his incessant screaming when in her arms (observe the silence when in his fathers), to the answering back, to the teenage aloofness he displays before the so called Thursday event. We question her issues, as only she that holds any fears or frets about Kevin and her selfishness is clearly evident. In the early stages everything done can be attributed to merely a child being a child. As the film continues one may ask is Kevin's behavior due to the coldness of his own mother? Is this attention seeking at it's most extreme?

Ramsay tackles the books obstacle of unreliable narrator with visual aplomb (Atonement's Seamus McGarvey as Cinematographer) and splintered narrative structure. Told in flashback; Eva is often introduced into scenes with obscured, out of focus shots that pulled into focus, highlighting the haze of memory. She is surrounded constantly by the bold uses of the cautionary colour of red. Blood? Danger? When we first meet Eva she's drenched in tomato clearly in love with the moment, later we see her washing and scraping red paint off her house. Interestingly enough both can be looked at the same way depending on how you feel on the situation.

A sparse score from Johnny Greenwood and a bout of sound design racks up the mood and tension with timebomb sounding sprinklers and teeth gritting scrubbing. The most telling use of sound is the awkward moment when Eva relieves the tension of a constantly screaming Kevin by standing next to construction work.

However, this is a film based mostly on performances. Swinton is in excellent form here. Eva is a selfish mother but one we still care for in a peculiar way. This is down to Swinton's ability to draw emotions from places that many wouldn't be able to. Her body language shows us a character battered by guilt. We grow frustrated by her impatience of her own child and yet as the film rolls to it's conclusion we still share empathy...to a point. Ramsey's film stands on a knifes edge when it comes to the blame game. Ezar Millar shines well here as Kevin and does well to hide the menace under a veneer of teen aloofness. The film isn't as ambiguous with his character as it could be (Millar often looks just a bit one note evil) but this doesn't exclude him from doing the part well enough. John C Riley settles into a role that reminds us how well he can do oblivious (see Magnolia), and what is it with him this year with films with missing hamsters?

We need to talk about Kevin is one of the highlights of the year for me. A tense psychological drama which drums up difficult questions we often find reluctant to answer. Is Kevin a monster? To many, he is. If we were to read the paper of a true event that takes place within the movie we would denounce Kevin very quickly. We would quickly shove pop psychology (see: this entire blog) into the situation and make ourselves feel better as we try and make the matter more digestible. We have to as the real reasons are far too horrible to even try and rationalise. This film toys with our simple notions and knocks the foundations enough to disturb.