Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Review: Frances Ha

Year: 2013
Director:  Noah Baumbach
Screenplay: Noah Baumbach, Gerta Gerwig
Starring: Gerta Gerwig

Synopsis is here:

As a so called film fan; I don’t think I should say this, but Frances Ha is my first Noah Baumbach movie. I’ve wanted to dig into his filmography in the past but I simply haven’t found time to investigate yet another director who’s assesses the prickly lives of privileged middle class America. You must believe me on this, as for some reason or another, I find myself very attracted to this sub genre.

I found myself thinking about how crafty Frances Ha actually is in its execution. Like the works of Whit Stillman, Sophia Coppola, Lena Dunham and of course the mumblecore movement, Frances Ha is a film that delves into the habits of people that we honestly believe have little to worry about. An awkward and self involved twenty-something struggling to sustain a bohemian lifestyle within New York City. Frances comes from a decent family, is college educated and living in what is considered one of the greatest cities. Living in a state of arrested development with her best friend Sophie, Frances is quite happy with this idle way of life until of course, Sophie finds love.

Unlike Whit Stillman’s annoyingly condescending Damsels in Distress (also starring Gerwig), Frances draws us in because she thinks she knows it all. She pretends to those who listen and when she’s found out (quickly) she still holds enough charm to want you to just give her a hug. She balances precariously between irritatingly annoying and that best friend who never grew up but was always fun to be around. To some she may grate for the 90 minutes, but I loved Frances happy go lucky charm. It’s hard not to feel jealous of her care free spirit, although you want to shake her for not “growing up”.

This said, why should she grow up? Baumbach’s film wryly highlights the economic strain that is now beginning to press the moderately middle class as much as the poor. Frances may be scatty, but what we realise from her interactions with the people around her, even working hard in her creative outlet wouldn’t help things. Frances Ha is more of a character study than a political indictment, but knowing that Frances is coming of age defiantly in front of the sour faces of people that have very little to worry about, has a certain charm about it.

A playful homage to the French New Wave, Woody Allen’s Manhattan and the current America lo fi independents, Frances Ha’s look and feel (along with its casting) make sure it’s not as slick as Joe Swanberg’s sweet but knowing Drinking Buddies but holds a warmth and earnestly about its characters that many female lead movies sorely lack. Romance is hinted at but isn’t the be all and end all of Frances life. She’s just as gawky as the boys and while men come in and out of the frame of the story, they do not define the tale.

From a narrative standpoint, I fear those who need a more solid structure may be driven mad by Baumbach’s wandering plot. However France Ha is rich in other ways, such Sam Levy’s gorgeous black and white cinematography, which feels like the only way you could present a life like Miss Halladay. Meanwhile Gerwig performance improves upon her Hannah takes the stairs persona, giving us a much more rounded character from those we’ve seen from her before.

Frances not easy to like but has a persistence in her character that bites at the ankles like a terrier. This is a film fuelled on its distinctive sense of humour, its deceptively optimistic tone and a lead performance which has energy in spades. Frances Ha may be monochrome in conception, but like the lead character, it’s full of colour.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Review: A Hijacking

Year: 2013
Director: Tobias Lindholm
Screenplay: Tobias Lindholm
Starring: Søren Malling, Pilou Asbaek, Abdihakin Asgar

Synopsis is here

I must admit it’s a little unexpected to write about two Somalian hijacking films in the same year. It’s not really the type of subject you expect people to pull focus on. But it seems that 2013 quietly became the year of the pirates.*

Hollywood typically nabbed some top class British talent, a massive movie star and gave us the everyman over adversity narrative that the studios do so well. While Captain Phillips is the kind of physical, slap in the face affair you’d expect from its makers, A Hijacking is a more distilled creature that creeps up on a willing viewer. Like Chinese water torture, it’s a slow and quiet decent into various dimensions of torment. The film shows just how destabilising a long running hostage crisis could be. At first I questioned the need for title cards counting the days. Once we start to reach treble figures, it becomes near impossible to comprehend the pressure.

We see the complex strains of the shipping company’s relationships from the get go. The first scene captures the ships cook, Mikkel (Malling) already feeling the burden of being so far from his wife and child. He has to inform her that he’ll be away for a while longer. Meanwhile; miles away on land, the companies CEO; Peter (Asbaek), is on shaky ground conducting tough business affairs with an Asian office. It’s clear he can play hard ball, but possibly not as strongly as he hopes. Once hijacking occurs (off screen), the reason why become evident. It’s important to note that these opening moments are more economic and effective in their execution than the more perfunctory opening act of Captain Phillips. More already feels at stake.  

The strength of A Hijacking stems from how it deals with the politics of the situation. We observe tired men putting their bargaining expertises to the maximum. The crew struggle to keep on an even keel, while the kidnaper’s turn the screw with psychological war ware.   The translator and lead negotiator; Omar (Asgar), is an insidious beast, who claims he’s just as under the cosh as the shipmates, yet as the only portal their home life, his restrictions on the most basic of necessities become intolerable. There’s hardly any psychical violence and there doesn’t need to be, as the emotion of fear runs rife through the victims involved.

Back home; the clinical offices become secondary homesteads and pressure soon rises to boiling point. These sequences become vital as Peter tackles not only the worried families of those at sea, but the stern uncaring faces of those higher than him. As the situation drags on, both parties ask when things will be resolved, for two entirely different reasons. The film’s mean strength becomes a slight weakness as we’re forced to believe that Peter as a CEO is as caring about his crew as he is. Considering our real life political issues right now, one could feel that Peter’s unwavering stance could feel false. So much so it loses some of its complexity.

Never the less, A Hijacking wins us over with a succession of scenes that plough us through the wringer. The performances never miss a beat and the unpretentious direction only enhances the urgency and reality of the piece.  The film never loses its sombre tone and while quieter than Captain Phillips, A Hijacking holds scenes that penetrate the nerves like a slow acting poison. By the end of the film, we need little reminding that the scars still remain. When looking back at the films strongest scenes, it’s then we noticed just how distressing the filmmakers made singing happy birthday.  But that’s what makes A Hijakcing so effective. Without the Hollywood muscle and the Navy brawn, we get something a lot colder. The title sinisterly tells us that this isn’t just a physical undertaking, but an emotional one.

*Pirates that do not impersonate rock stars

Review: Oldboy

Year: 2013
Director: Spike Lee
Screenplay:  Mark Protosevich
Starring: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley, Samuel L Jackson

Synopsis is here:

If you type Oldboy into your favourite search engine, you should notice that the 2003 Korean thriller appears first, above this year’s remake. I say this now as it reminds me of one thing: Spike Lee hasn’t ruined Oldboy.  Has Matt Reeves ruined Let the Right One in? Has Gus Van Sant besmirched your memories of Psycho? No. They haven’t. If you think they have, then turn in your film fan card and give your original version DVD’s to someone else.

That said, while imitation is the highest form of flattery, such projects usually fail due to a misalignment of elements. The repeating of sequences may satisfy an audience who feel they’re above reading subtitles, yet these set pieces and narratives are regenerated without the reason why they were so beguiling in the first place. Often it’s something cultural that’s subtracted for the sake of boarding the perspective of the new viewers. Spike Lee’s Oldboy suffers because it’s full of such examples.

Unlike The Departed, Scorsese’s crime drama, which took the Hong Kong based Infernal Affairs and reformatted itself into a property that could stand on its own two feet, Oldboy merely eliminates the oddities of its Korean source material a simply movies the rest to American shores.  The Oldboy narrative is so peculiar and the original director so particular that a straight up reimagining just doesn’t cut it.

If we liken films to cooking, Lee’s has the basic recipe, but it’s possibly missing the unami paste that gives us a certain flavour. Maybe certain ingredients have been placed in the oven a tad too long (explaining Sharlto Copley’s over baked performance). Perhaps it forgets when the pot needs to simmer and when everything needs to be brought to the boil. This is a film which looks like it should taste the same, but will have you reaching for the seasoning. 

A scene we remember from the 2003 Oldboy has our lead protagonist devour a live octopus on screen as he wishes to eat something alive. After being locked up for 15 years, we are watching a character that is quite simply dead inside. He is consuming the creature for feeling. Fast forward ten years to the U.S counterpart. We have a moment in which Josh Brolin spies an Octopus briefly. We’ve suddenly shifted from an acute visual metaphor to a vague silly head nod. Now something which had significance is now rendered near meaningless.

Spike’s take on the originals infamous corridor sequence is one of the most striking moments of choreography of the year. It’s a solid piece of action filmmaking and yet still it misses the point. Instead of a character that is unsure of his capabilities, Brolin stomps on each stooge as if he was a superhero with little weakness. No weakness, no worry.

You shouldn’t really compare remakes to their original counterparts. However Lee’s Oldboy never strays too far from the original property, and when it does, it sways into the wrong direction. I can once again point you in the direction of Copley’s annoyingly distracting display, but here is also the matter of Elizabeth Olsen being left out to dry with the flatly portrayed character of Marie, as well as Brolin’s solid but overtly macho Joe Doucett who is set up as a raging animal from the start and little of the wounded beast which we remember Oh Dae-su.

You can sense that Spike is not that interested in the studio system. He’s avoided it for most of his career and Oldboy shows why. So many elements feel like studio influence as opposed to director’s choice. Take away a few Spike traits and Oldboy could have been filmed by anyone. There is little of Lee’s own persona or creativity to counterbalance the problems the translation brings, so the outcome feels like a mishandled exercise more than anything.

This American retelling loses much of the melodrama of the Korean film mostly because American retellings have little time for such things. Park Chan-Wook’s 2003 piece is a film that understands that stillness is as important as ferocity. It’s no surprise that when we look Park’s work in this year’s Stoker, it’s played with the same delicate touch. Spike's Oldboy is primal from the get go, but adds no layers to itself. Broiln is an animal that needs to be caged and that's it. There's little poetry to proceedings, the tragic nature of the outrageous twists is never really peeked at. Simply put: Oldboy is an opera that Spike tried to make a rap remix from.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Review: Black Nativity

Year: 2013
Director: Kasi Lemmons
Screenplay: Kasi Lemmons
Starring: Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Tyrese Gibson, Jennifer Hudson, Mary J. Blige, Jacob Latimore, Vondie Curtis-Hall, and Nas.

Despite what my family and friends may think, I am more interested in the voices of others than my own. So listening to the assorted mutters and murmurings of the other patrons of this screening was far more exciting, than me sprouting off any so called film "cred". I shuffled myself into the corner next to the nibbles and earwigged on the nearby conversations.

As the screening of the film was for the new family feature "Black Nativity" the conversations were of course on just where the "Black" movie went. It was invigorating to hear excited voices talk about the 90's boom where films with an Afro-centric cast were a lot easier to discover then now. Even Tyler Perry doesn't make British shores (despite decent minority presence and Perry making top dollar in his native land). It seems fairly obvious that there’s an audience that wish for more movies of this ilk, and while the likes of Blue Caprice, 12 Years a Slave and Fruitvale Station have started to make waves, it still seems to be a struggle to see Afro-centric films in lighter affair. 

Enter Black Nativity which despite dealing with quite typical themes of poverty, religious elders and run away baby daddies, tries to imbue festive cheer by taking the Langston Hughes play of the same name and re-envisioning the material as a modern hip-hop musical. The outcome is more than a little uneven.

Jacob Latimore plays Langston Cobbs (check the namesake), a young and rebellious teen whose mother (a spirited but stilted display from Jennifer Hudson) forces him to move from his (newly evicted) home in Baltimore to his estranged grandparents in Harlem, New York. Here he finds himself on a spiritual and emotional journey which helps him find not only a meaning of Christmas but family identity as well.

Black Nativity is a film which likes to think that meaning well will be enough for it to get by. Its mawkish screenplay and awkward editing, do a lot to hinder a film that wishes to place a fresh spin on a well worn narrative. The film often leaps haphazardly from sensitive moment to heavy handed, obvious message musical at the drop of the dime. You can’t dismiss the quality of the music production and the cast, but you can really raise an eyebrow to the often awkward tonal shifts and simplistic lyrics. One may also wonder why certain famous faces appear in the film.  The likes of Mary J Blige and Nas appear if only to try and engage a certain target audience. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if we got more from their performances, but their aural displays haven’t lost their shine.

The film is left up to the older guard to pick up the slack and Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett happily oblige. Both Whitaker and Bassett light up the humorous and dramatic scenes that they feature in and give the film the grounding and energy that Black Naivety sorely needs. This is much needed as Latimore (Vanishing on 7th Street) struggles to carry the film where it needs to go. His surliness feels more wooden than anything and the character himself is tough to love at the best of times.

That said, this is the point of Black Nativity. It reminds us that family is not just in name but in blood and while the character’s themes and turns are obvious and the film holds no real surprises, the story that surrounds it has enough small moments to connect with its target base. I also have to say that while the film didn’t stir me emotionally, it did direct me towards the works of Langston Hughes; the black writer whose works became an integral aspect of what was known as the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement which explored the lives of African Americans during the 1920’s. While Black Nativity doesn’t have the same sense of commune and spirit that those works brought to people. It clearly shows a wish to try and reach such a depth. It’s safe to say that a cynic like me may find Black Nativity a little hard to swallow, however I will not be surprised if many get caught up with the films music and message.  I do feel the film will keep the people talking. Hopefully such talk will get louder and more interesting productions will be brought to the foreground because of it. The film may rest on its good intentions, but in comparison to bigger films I’ve seen this year, at least it’s has them.

Review: Captain Phillips

Year: 2013
Director: Paul Greengrass
Screenplay: Billy Ray
Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Adbi, Faysal Ahmed

Synopsis is here

I’m still trying to figure out in my mind if Captain Phillips is a stunning film all together, or if the films climax is so strong that we forget that its first act feels quite plain. I considered the film that helped make Greengrass such a viable director in America; United 93 and found myself more engrossed with how that film looked at preparation and meditation. United 93 had a perfect balance of dread and procedural in its beginning, with its quiet moments betraying the impending chaos. Here Greengrass tries a similar thing but with less success to the tone. We see the films two captains going through their routines, blissfully unaware of how both will place each other through their paces. Phillips (an on form Hanks) and his wife (Catherine Keener in a small cameo) debate their son’s future before he sets off for his long haul. On the other side we find Adbuwali Muse (Adbi) lead a group of Somali pirates towards Phillips ship in search of ransom.

Greengrass’ ace in the hole, much like United 93 and Green Zone, is his ability to remind us that there are two sides to the story we’re watching. The time we spend with the pirates is vital, as we witness just what survival means to them. Unfortunately while the build up of character is needed for later on, there’s a distinct lack of urgency and blandness towards proceedings I cannot place my finger on. I can honestly say I can’t remember too much of the film before the clash of cultures.

Once Muse and Phillips meet, the screws begin to tighten. The idle chit chats and work grumblings that littered Phillips’ ship before are exchanged for frightened glances and hushed tones. The Pirates invade the ship both visually and orally. Their demands are yelled at a near unintelligible pitch and tensions accelerate to their peak because of this alone. The fear of their guns is obvious, but the combination of this along with the alien sound of another language being screamed constantly brings a worry we don’t often think about. Is someone demanding for you to do something or a commanding someone else to shoot you? This maybe based on a true story and yet I still found myself gripping my chair arms until my knuckles went white. I feel now it’s important for you to look at my profile picture as you will then realise the extremity of the tension.   
From that moment on, Greengrass’ powerful use of space takes hold. We alternate from tight claustrophobic close ups of desperate faces before switching to vast landscape views which show a lifeboat as a mere pin prick on an endless sea. Like Gravity; power of Captain Phillips comes from just how powerless the protagonists are rendered.  Both films are also superb at using tech to shove us within their characters headspaces. Twenty years ago, this film would seem an even more arduous task to comprehend. The work of Greengrass’ crew is overwhelmingly intricate, that I’m not surprised that more nauseous viewers avoided it due to seasickness. It’s that seamless.

The cast are equally unerring with Barkhad Adbi and Faysal Ahmed keeping up with the ever dutiful Hanks at every step. It’s important to remember that these are first-time performers and their ability to show the right amount of intensity and humanity should be well noted. We should not enjoy their acts, but the displays shown by the actors create an empathy that is difficult to attain.   

Like all filmed true stories, Captain Phillips clearly takes liberties. It’s amusing to see that Phillips does the same walkie talkie move I witnessed two days after when I watched Harrison Ford in Air Force One (if that was actaully done was it life imitating art?).  It’s also clear that the pirates run under certain archetypes. We have The Captain, the Kid, and the hot head all on show so it’s fair to say that there is a certain poetic licence in play. Yet while it’s based on true events, we’re supposed to gain the feel of what it’s like and not a full documentation. There are places to gain “more truth” I came for the film. And this is what Greengrass brings after a rather mundane beginning.

I watched this on the opening weekend of Catching Fire and the film has already seemingly dropped out of critical discourse, as is the way of many movies these days. Would people still be writing about Phillips if the beginning was stronger, or is this how we treat all films these days? That seems a shame if it’s the latter as Greengrass’ final stunning moments hit harder than many others films complete running times. That in itself is worth talking about alone. 

Friday, 29 November 2013

Article: Doing The Right Thing

I’m starting to hate open letters. I actually think there should be an open letter to everyone about open letters clearly stating that we don’t need any more open letters. Much like constant barrage of baby/engagement/wedding photos that litter my Facebook feed, it seems that now, an open letter must be posted on the internet to try and put a stop to a particular beef or irritation. I often have no problem with the intent of most of them. In fact; I’d probably back the topic that the writer is speaking out for. My issue is that the more you see these things, like an internet petition, they slowly become more trivial. Open letters have almost become memes. You can sense the groans as yet another ask for the school board/Tory MP/Miley Cyrus is retweeted through the internet’s many tubes to your eyeballs asking for the madness to stop.

This said I found myself alerted to an open letter that made its way on my twitter feed earlier this week. The letter is from Juan Luis Garcia, a freelance designer who writes (to influential Afro American filmmaker Spike Lee) that his initial poster work for the film remake Old Boy may have been stolen by an ad agency working on the project. Legal action has reared its head and it appears that Garcia has reached out to Spike as a fellow artist to see if he can intervene in any way. The letter talks about the money that the agency has allegedly not paid Garcia, but it seems quite clear that Garcia is asking Lee to use his influence as the director of the film to see if this can be settled in a civil and respectful way.

Lee (who  appears to be Brazil working on his latest project) had this to say:
It’s interesting to see that Spike has written the tweet in-between two celebratory communications for Thanksgiving. It’s almost as if he wished to call himself out on the irony. Then again Spike as a filmmaker and a personality, has never been one for tact.

Lee has never shied away from the controversial, yet his boldness both in-front and behind the camera has been important to so many film goers. It’s difficult to find black filmmakers or critics who have not been influenced by him. I remember gaining the only words of praise from a fellow student for a talk about him during my time at university and he became an inspiration since. Further insight in his work clearly shows just how many future stars benefited from working with him in the early days. Names like Wesley Snipes, Halle Berry, Samuel L Jackson and Laurence Fishburne may never have been known if not for Lee, who cast them in his early features. If Hollywood didn’t take a chance on you, then you got the feeling that Spike would. This includes the crew, who may not have been able to get a foot in the door in “white” Hollywood. 

For a director whose politics and confrontational style have often made him tough to embrace, one would have thought that Spike would have been less abrasive to something like this. The incident feels much like the problems that aroused with Lee when making Malcolm X. When the studios and bond company didn’t give him the money he asked for to complete the film, Spike had to inject his own cash and was able to get financial help from prominent members of the Afro-American community.

We should also consider Spike’s position before Old Boy, where work on the likes of Inside Man 2 were halted and Spike himself stated that he couldn’t get projects off the ground. Now with a film hitting theatres with talk of it being one of the least “Spike” movies in a long time and a Kickstarter project which brought many mixed feelings to proceedings, the fact that Spike’s own fierce independence has again been placed under the microscope makes the situation even more uncomfortable. This designer isn’t asking Spike himself for a handout, he’s chiefly asking for empathy.

I know young graphic designers and I’m currently in a position in which I work with one. It’s not pretty. In an age in which the audience will cheerfully download your film for nothing, studios are only chiefly interested in the next comic book cash cow and the idea of working for nothing/scraps in the media is becoming way too much of the norm, freelancers are doing what they can to stay afloat. Artistic and creative careers are still being seen as flights of fancy or “phases” despite the fact that our way of life has us engaging with them even more. If Garcia is merely a chancer, leaping on to a coat tails of a hotly debated film, then shame on him. However the question I would ask is why Old Boy? The film doesn’t look to be the runaway hit some are hoping it to be. It’s a violent and bloody remake of a superb yet cult Korean film. It’s hardly a film with deep pockets.

For me, the saddest thing comes from a brief exchange from a friend (and freelance writer) who reminded me of the one other thing that none of us really wanted to bring up: race.

If there’s one thing that ignorance thrives on, it’s moments like this; a chance to sink their teeth into a perceived flaw and show the world that we’re nowhere near evolving yet. The problem is Spike seems to be more than happy to throw a bone to his enemies. Spike once again viewed the moment as a confrontation as opposed to seeing this as a chance to help a fellow creative (or even consider this to be a great PR opportunity for Old Boy) Spike’s bluntness as done little to help anyone, even himself. Yet this is the same guy who sought an injunction for Spike T.V as it sounded too much like his moniker. This is the same Spike Lee who wrongly tweeted the address of an elderly couple, thinking it was the home of George “Trigger Happy” Zimmerman. It’s almost like he enjoys casting the first stone within his just patched up glass house. It seems clear to me that Spike can easily let these things roll of his back, yet it becomes a minefield for those who love his work. Spike is still the best known American black director and at a time were black characters in film are getting shat on by ignorance, it would be nice to have Spike tone down his “sharper” elements and remind us of the statesman he often can be. After the Django debacle (another Spike moment), the one thing I would love to see is sodality, because we damn well need it.  

This of course is in an ideal world; where freelancers don’t get screwed for their work, and if they do, the at least they can reach out to a director who will hear them out first as opposed to a 140 character cold shoulder. We can only dream. Unfortunately in reality I find myself yelling at yet another open letter and liking Spike Lee to how Chris Rock feels about Hip Hop. I love him but I’m tired of defending him.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Review: Mud

Year: 2012 (U.K Release Date 2013)
Director:  Jeff Nichols
Screenplay:  Jeff Nichols
Starring:  Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Sam Shepard, Reese Witherspoon.

Synopsis is here:

The man whose been known for learning on cheesy film posters continues his reinvention with yet another sun-kissed, deep fired southern performance. Matthew McConaughey used to be a named that would strike certain film fans with fear.  Whether McConaughey sacked his agent or just started rejecting the easier script, now, we have a leading man who isn’t afraid to take risks and skew with that honey smooth charm that he is known for.

McConaughey plays Mud; a mysterious drifter who befriends two young boys and drags them into the fractured world of adult relationships. Ellis (A sweet yet commanding display by Sheridan); the more dominant of the two boys, has had his life flitter around such troubled matters through his parents, but his wish to help the enigmatic Mud hurtles his transition to adulthood into overdrive.

Much like A Room for Romeo Brass (1999), we have two boys who encounter a man who appears to be locked in arrested development. As Mud resists confronting himself and his past which has finally caught up with him, the boys have their own ideals challenged because of it. Like Romeo Brass what makes the dynamic so engaging is how Nichols, like Meadows, develops this story and characters such a rich atmosphere. The cold overcast hues of Nichols’ Take Shelter have been replaced by golden hues. Mud’s tanned skin seems to match the background, becoming part of the backwater Arkansas’ setting. When Mud first appears, it’s if by magic, suddenly drifting into view, as if he’s always been there as part of the thrown out furniture. The more the boys learn, the more that Mud becomes a cautionary tale. Such broken hearted stories feel part and parcel of people’s lives in these parts.

Both Ellis and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are industrious and pure of heart protagonists who, like Moonrise Kingdom, are thrown into the messy and childish lives of adults. Mud shows them a well worn path and the two’s reactions against the tide are what makes the film worthwhile.  The plot is not as balanced as Take Shelter, and the sub-plots are a little undercooked. But Nichols draws wonderfully natural performances from his cast and enriches the drama with gorgeous cinematography to create a sensitive and good natured piece of American cinema that people still honestly believe doesn’t exist. More fool them. 

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Review: Blue Caprice

Year: 2013
Director: Alexandre Moors
Screenplay: R.F.I. Porto
Starring: Isaiah Washington, Tequan Richmond, Joey Lauren Adams, Tim Blake Nelson, Leo Fitzpatrick

Synopsis is here

It’s an obvious theme to draw on but identity rears its head so much in Black African-American lead movies. So many “black” films deal culturally who they are as people, who they wish to be and of course how White America often perceives them. What interests me about Blue Caprice is the true story of the DC snipers that inspired the movie. When the story first broke, the suspects of the crimes we considered to be white gunman, who were army trained. This alone touches on the depth our cultural perceptions. The idea that the gunmen could be black seemed almost alien to people.

For me such institutionalised thought makes crimes like the one dramatised in Blue Caprice all the more frightening. To think that only some people will commit certain transgression will only allow the evil to flow quicker and easier.  Alexandre Moors’ film toys with the audience with this information. Hearing of America “striking back” during the Iraq spew forth from old T.V sets. The murderous plan that slowly uncovers during the film is full of jihad-like talk and yet it feels more like convenience than a true “calling”. Even more concreted elements of the plan fall to the wayside once we begin to follow the titled Blue Caprice which prowls the Washington highways like a rusted monster. The car takes on a persona of its own with its ordinariness becoming the most remarkable and threatening thing about it.  When we watch, we consider Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976). In the same way we wouldn’t suspect the taxi to hide such malevolence, we wouldn’t think twice about the Caprice.

Blue Caprice may not be as potent as Taxi Driver, but the comparisons are still strong. Caprice shows us lonely, confused men, hurt by the women in their life.  We see a mother who selfishly care only for herself and another (unseen) ex-wife and mother who does what she can to keep her children away from their father. We have an unfortunate boy with no parental figure and a father who only seems to create misfortune, by the way of kidnappings and restraining orders.  These men with no outlets for their repression meet through an unexpected circumstance and begin a relationship forged on their hurt. They blow off stream with shooting practice and wrestling in the woods.

 At first we pity the films youth; Lee (Richmond), as he like so many young black men is left with little guidance from his own parentage. As John (Washington) enters his life, he also enters his mind. Clouding it like the overcast weather that inhabits Washington DC. John’s behaviour reeks of deception, he mutters about his old neighbourhood as ghosts who ousted him once his relationship ended yet flitters around Lee (and the frame) like a malevolent apparition. Speaking to his protégé with an eerily calm yet forceful tone. At first their conversations never sound dangerous. Like the Caprice there’s an anonymity about them that shades the villainy.

Blue Caprice constantly hides in the grey and the shade, chilling the bones with its quietly tense nature. It’s the flecks of blood that creep you out more than the full act. The killings are non-descript and never gratuitous, their victims just seem to disappear or drop down dead. The fear hangs in the air like a foul smell. Any sadness we felt about the plight of the two swiftly melts into horror and frustration. It sympathy was felt, it will definitely be lost by the final frame.

But that’s if we had any to begin with. Moors’ film may feel a little too “sundance-like” with his shallow depth of field shots and remind one of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant with much of its blocking of Lee. But from its opening it craftily foreshadows the characters demise with its Hitchcock like framing of characters behind gates and bars. The film's use of light and shadow often obscures the faces of the lead, particularly in the beginning. The film keeps us at distance. Already making sure these people remain “unknown” to us. The last line is a question posed to a person of authority and us ourselves. It burrows to a depth we need from such a drama.  Despite having some of the screenplay’s weakest dialogue, it is far more open ended than you think on first glance, but plays into so much of what I’ve mentioned. When the question is asked, we wonder too. Because we realise what identities broken or missing can cultivate.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Review: Gravity

Year: 2013
Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Screenplay: Alfonso Cuaron, Jonas Cuaron
Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris

Synopsis is here:

What I write here is information you can take or leave. My reviews are not so much about “telling people what to watch”: a belief which that many people feel about the idea of reviewing and criticism.  No, I write to merely state a personal view on whether or not a film works on me based on my own values, prejudices and otherwise. If one shares similar attitudes, enjoys and agrees with me, that’s the humble reward for my so called work.

I mention this because I know not everyone will feel like I did about Gravity, but that's fine. I’m so often on an island when it comes to my film taste I’ve set up my own coconut selling store.  But I’m still naive to think that honesty is key and I wholeheartedly believe that Gravity is one of the most moving and life-affirming films I have ever witnessed.  Beyond the films slight narrative and unsurprising plot elements is a film that is simply breathtaking in its execution.

Gravity not only squeezes tension out of each minute of its runtime, giving full weight to the hostile environment these characters inhabit and displaying their fragility, but the film, like others of Cuaron’s, grounds the film with a heart that pulsates it’s humanity on the screen. Cuaron notes his intentions with small visual cues (note the religious artefacts set up almost like a gag), but the ground work is done here by Sandra Bullock.  An actress whom I’ve never really given my full attention (although I love her work in Demolition Man), blind sides us with her powerfully expressive display. She has been formidable in her more expected roles, but here she has such forcefulness in her physical performance we realise that despite the thinness of character on the page, we understand her fears ad emotions by even just the slightness of gesture. Clooney’s work is mostly one of a voice of reason. Bullock not only does all the heavily lifting but does so with such astounding ease, it’s made me realise just how much I’ve been missing from her previous works.

With so many films asking inviting us to watch heroes save the world, what makes Gravity stand out is its wish to show somebody save themselves. The film roams in the same realms of the likes of Buried and Cast Away, but Gravity’s setting, performance and direction invigorates the dynamic. We see Earth, our planet; hovering in the distance in such a way that you feel you could reach out to it. Yet it’s clearly so far away that it seems to taunt our characters, mocking our frailty. When we see what may happen to Bullock’s Ryan, we get the very real feeling of the risks she must take and the enormous effort she will need in order to survive. I watched the film in 3D and marvelled at how the filmmakers use it to illustrate the depth and dimension of the infinite. This is the first time that I did not muck around with the glasses. I found myself too enthralled with the film and what I felt it was saying. Matt Zoller Seitz states the film evoked the imagery of The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), I was reminded of the imagery of Bergman with close up’s that staring into the void. Searching for meaning within a seemingly hopless existance I found myself so into the headspace of Ryan, I asked the same questions that she asks herself. Unlike many other films of its type I’m not looking at the mechanics, scientific inaccuracies aside, this feels organic. When films get like this, we been to fret for the character in a unique way. We don’t called the actors name, we call out for the character themselves. I muttered to myself at least three times.

This was the effect Gravity had on me. My popcorn sat uneaten and my fizzy pop was left, going flat.  I created new creases on the inside of my jeans at each new set piece.  There are moments of humour in Gravity but often I didn't laugh. I was trying to regulate my breathing. Terror has never been so alluring, so beautiful and yet by the end I found myself moved by the experience. Its technical prowess is there for all to see (many have asked how did they achieve what they did) but beyond that is a simply tale of morality that shook me to the core. This year has been a tough one for me and took these 90 minutes to reinstall a faith in me that has been missing for quite a while. We all find ourselves staring into the blackness, Gravity confronted our (read: my) fears in a way only a few other films have. As I said before, not everyone is going to feel the same way about Gravity and that’s fine. I fully get if you came here for a normal film review and came across ponderous nonsense. You can take or leave the information. I will say that after the film finished I walked home I did so in silence. I refrained from jamming my headphones in my ears. The heavens opened and I listened to the patter of the rain on the ground as I walked. During the 30 minute journey I didn't mind getting wet. I was just happy to be alive.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Review: Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters

Year: 2013
Director: Tommy Wirkola
Screenplay: Tommy Wirkola
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton, Peter Stromare, Famke Janssen

Synopsis is here:

Hansel and Gretel clearly wishes to be a cult comedy. The names Adam McKay and Will Farrell flitter up on the screen during the film’s opening credits, which play on an idea of fairy tale land newspapers. There’s a riff of Shrek in the air as you watch. This doesn't leave easily. Later on when Hansel narrowly avoids an oncoming arrow, we get a moment of bullet time. Shrek played with Matrix effects in what seems to be quite an age. Hansel and Gretel makes it feel like 2001 all over again.

That comes off a little harsh, considering the vast amount of films which have borrowed from the popular effect that The Matrix series help make popular. That said Hansel and Gretel wants to join in with some of the popularity made with po-faced fairy tale revamps such as Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), while trying to make sure that everyone’s forgotten that Terry Gilliam toyed with Grimm tales with mixed results in the tortured Miramax project The Brothers Grimm (2005).

Hansel and Gretel lacks the spiritedness that a director like Gilliam embraces wholeheartedly. His film may not work fully to certain viewers but many can take solace in the offbeat humour he tries to install within his piece as while of the ambition of a few of the ideas.  Tommy Wirkola’s H&G:WH is more about sexing everything up, as is the way with this cycle of fairy tales. See the aforementioned Snow White and the Huntsman.

The off pace Hansel and Gretel has no Monty Python gene and it shows, establishing itself with violence and swearing to try and endear itself to the dream audience of teenagers but perhaps lacking in the askew view that would give it a true cult feel. Yes this faux old timey period has makeshift tasers and defibrillators but these aren't felt has fun gags, more mediocre asides. Meanwhile the conceit of Hansel having diabetes feels more like a forced plot device than anything substantial. Then again that’s no more uncomfortable than Renner’s performance, with his Hansel feeling less like a womaniser, and more like a tepid, reconditioned version of his Hawkeye. Arteron also struggles with her Gretel despite having a lovely corset but little brassiness in her actual character. Although the screenplay is wise enough to make sure that she not just a sex pot with a crossbow that falls in love, but does little to truly highlight the attentiveness that makes her more emotionally in tune to her surroundings. No matter what Hansel mentions, I just didn't get the feeling.

But Hansel and Gretel isn’t about feelings, it’s about heads a popping. And the claret spills in a frustratingly messy style, doing little to show of the impressive monster design of the villains. The film holds a lot of practical effects, but still feels more like a retread of the early 2000’s. Watching this after a kinetic and pulpy found footage feature like Frankenstein’s Army (2013) is a shame, as this film pales in comparison. Then again the same goes for the films modern trappings that lack a decent subversive quality. The f-bombs and lame quips that litter the film can’t hold up to even the weakest parts of Hanna (2011) with revels in mucking around in the same ballpark with better effect.  But Hansel and Gretel is never completely sure of itself, as a fairy tale throwback, or a twisted genre jolly.  Peter Stromare stars in both this and The Brothers Grimm. He seems to be having more fun in 2005. 

Monday, 4 November 2013

Review: G.I. Joe: Retaliation

Year: 2013
Director: Jon M Chu
Screenplay: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Channing Tatum, Adrianne Palicki, Byung-hun Lee

Synopsis is here

What do you get if you mix the Director of a couple of Step Up movies with the writers of Zombieland? You get a tonally awkward and erratically plotted sequel to a silly but entertaining franchise. It’s clear that G.I. Joe Retaliation’s issues are not the complete fault of its writers and director. The film has obviously been tinkered with. The studio had held the film back for re-shoots (involving more Channing Tatum) and there is a longer cut available. That said without Stephen Sommers; Retaliation becomes an extremely po faced exercise which lacks the knowing silliness that Rise of the Cobra featured.    

Retaliation hops from place to place with of real sense of time, while introducing us to a glut of brand new, bland characters not worth writing in depth about. Not that a G.I Joe film is looking for poignancy, however it’s troubling that an actor like Dwayne Johnson has less moments of interest than Marlon Wayans. The reshot scenes that involve Johnson and Tatum are of no real importance. Then again nor is the major city that is destroyed in an instant. Even when Paris went the way of Team America in Rise of Cobra, there was at least a reference to what had took place. Then again it’s hard to argue with a film that feels that a woman dressing down to a bra and panties produces more harm to young minds than the amount of cannon fodder which bit the dust during each limp action sequence.     

It’s bizarre to think why the studio has such disregard for its franchise and it’s fans. Why chuck away half the characters and actors we got to know for little reason? Do people really deserve such forgetful action sequences? Why was the original tone for Rise of Cobra replaced with something more gung ho and hawkish? These questions will never be truly answered and only the most militant of fans will happily paper over the cracks with their own resolutions. I'm glad for them. Others on the other hand may find themselves more than a little confused.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Review: The Bay

Year: 2012
Director: Barry Levinson
Screenplay: Michael Wallach
Starring: Will Rogers, Kristen Connolly, Kether Donohue, Frank Deal, Stephen Nunken, Christopher Denham, Nansi Aluka

Synopsis is here

Look around hard enough and you’ll find critics who greatly admired The Bay. The Guardian’s David Cox wisely considered the feature a horror film for grown-ups. Behind the film’s found footage gimmick is a multifaceted piece which holds an honest focus on characters that more popular counterparts would use awkwardly against a typical, more cumbersome plot. Yet despite this; I found that thoughtful ideas aside, nothing in the film lingers. I appreciate the films intent, but nothing truly tantalises.

One of The Bay’s main problems is that Levinson (a veteran director who’s new to horror) strangely doesn't get to grips with the meat of the piece. An early scene which highlights a river attack (with the footage edited to look like it’s been damaged by water), is cut with such excellent timing that it raised my expectations for any further set pieces.  However such moments are place few and far between, much like the captured fleeting moments we see of a scared 15 year old on face time. The heavily saturated, mass footage slammed together with such a queasy rhythm it creates a beautifully pitched chaotic mosaic. Troubled gazes stare weakly into our own before being contrasted with a pretty mother with baby in tow, beaming broadly into a HD camera. The American flag blows proudly in the background as she and her family have no clue of the carnage that awaits.

But these moments just do not last. What does hang around is the slack jawed lead narration from Kether Donohue who seems uneasy with the large amount of the film she has to carry. Wallach’s script does little to help matters. The narration and dialogue feels forced and stilted and the weaker performers do little to elevate matters. The Bay has the same problem that flustered George A Romero’s Diary of the Dead (2005), with a script that stutters, starts, splutters and spoon feeds it’s more appealing ideas within aesthetic that is often more trouble than it’s worth. Visually The Bay could have benefited from using less of the found footage. The moments I mentioned above get lost inside a flatly captured world that really hurt the atmosphere.        

But of course that’s one of the biggest issues with found footage. It’s already tough to have a crew skilled enough to make something compelling out of footage meant to look like a compiled artefact. The Bay only hits those peaks once or twice. However as we see the found footage style seep into cinema more, the more it’s starting to feel like a crutch.The Bay; unlike more accomplished films of its ilk, has the found footage style feel like more of a distraction than anything. As the film goes on it feels less like a movie and more like a goof. Fear was the last thing on my mind. I found myself wondering if I've seen anyone do something similar with fewer gimmicks and more emphasis on adult terror. The name was Steven Soderbergh, the film was Contagion (2011).

Friday, 25 October 2013

Review: Last Passenger

Year: 2013
Director: Omid Nooshin
Screenplay: Andrew Love, Omid Nooshin, Kas Graham
Starring: Dougray Scott, Kara Tointon, David Schofield, Lindsay Duncan, Joshua Kaynama

Synopsis is here

My review for Last Passenger must be taken with a large pinch of salt. Understand that there is bias here, as the film was worked on by an ex work colleague and friend who is also an unfortunate Tottenham Hotspur fan. I will fully admit this because no matter how open minded and unbiased we claim to be, there are many aspects which, subconsciously or consciously, can dictate our view of a movie. You just have to look at the anonymous keyboard warriors who defend any negative reviews of Batman with death threats (without seeing the movie), or those who will always favour the original foreign movie over the remake etc. At least I’m honest enough to state my connection here, I’d rather you know. I'm only a movie blogger,  so it's not like you had any trust or faith my integrity anyway. Personally, I find it a miracle that a Spurs fan could work on a film. (I’m kidding Spurs fans. There’s a good chance he’ll read this).      

I did say to myself I wouldn't actually do a write up of Last Passenger due to my above statements. However, with this said, that would have been more likely if I didn't enjoy the film. As a piece of genre entertainment, Last Passenger comes through and does the job it’s meant to. Director Omid Nooshin directs a solid and engaging thriller which eschews some of the well worn plot aspects we’re used to. This is done by delivering economic scenes with effective use of reaction shots and chemistry to portray the fear and anxieties of our unfortunate travellers.

It helps that we’re given a solid screenplay. We enjoy these characters as they’re grounded, believable and well observed. The film travels at a brisk pace, yet we still manage to absorb a great amount of detail in each character. Uses of gesture and motif  are well utilised, while the main relationship between father and son works very well, managing to be affectionate without being saccharine.  Because of this the plot doesn't over elaborate the threat, but the stakes are heavily felt. 

The archetypes play well against each other. The weary but kind elderly lady, the uptight, first class seated twit, they club together and clash with a certain amount of weight to proceedings. I will say however that the females (particularly a game Kara Tointon) get a little lost in with all the testosterone being flung around, while the performance from Iddo Goldberg is amusing enough before becoming slightly grating. Still this is a strong cast of characters who solidity the idea that these are ordinary people in an extraordinary situation.

Last Passenger is something we don't get very often; a genre film that not only places its characters first. We care about them as they exasperate any idea they can to escape. While the motivation of the antagonist is the films weakest point, the film doesn't feel stupid and the building of the situation allows us to worry more about what’s in front of us as things become more desperate. Last Passenger clearly has the likes of Duel as an influence but holds a distinct British voice about it that feels authentic and different.
Now that you've read what I've written, you can still make up your own mind. You do not need to believe what I've put forth. There's been other films friends have worked on that I really disliked.  But as I said, I'm not too worried about how many feel about my integrity anyway.  The important thing if the film has any. It does.  

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Review: Filth

Year: 2013
Director: Jon S. Baird
Screenplay: Jon S. Baird
Starring: James McAvoy, Imogen Poots, Jamie Bell, Eddie Marsden, Joanne Froggart, Jim Broadbent, Shirley Henderson

Synopsis is here

It’s all falling apart. Trumbling inch by inch and you really don’t want to be around when it finally collapses. I’m not talking about Edinburgh where Filth is based. Although the picture director Jon S Baird paints, is no way a pretty one.

No the dilapidation that’s found in Filth resides in the mind of Bruce Robinson; the crafty yet crumbling anti-hero who inhabits this story. The film is Bad Lieutenant by the way of Fight Club, throwing us into the dark psyche of Bruce Robinson, a model cop if he wasn't so cracked. Crooked to the core and holding it together by the skin of his teeth, Robinson is on the case of murdered Japanese student, although Filth isn't interested in the outcome of that, as we are soon to find out. 

A film that’s unapologetic with the dark places it drags us to. I was in no way surprised when a couple walked out early. This is a grubby, sweaty yet darkly comic picture that's lead by a character as ugly as the picture of Dorian Gray. Trust me when I say that if you know and love cheerful chappy James McAvoy as Professor Xavier or the chipper lad from Starter for Ten, then you best leave now.   

McAvoy takes centre frame here, filling the screen with an ogre like ugliness and revelling in it Alex De Large style. The cinematography is so tightly framed around him at times; it doesn’t want you to escape his presence. It's not that Scotland is ugly, but McAvoy's Robinson seems to embraces any and all the horrible problems that haunt our northern neighbours. Racism, greed, sadism, homophobia, and excess, you name it. He embodies all the sociological problems that infect and devolve us. That despite this; he manages to ring out a small amount of pity out of all this sinful revelling, is astonishing. For the most part, Bruce is riding an overpowered rollercoaster of decadence, which is beginning to buckle as he slowly loses control.

If you expect Trainspotting, be warned. Both films may have the same voice, but the energy differs. There are seemingly more flights of fancy, more of an abstract nature and more abrasiveness with the film seeping into something like a horror film as it hurtles towards the films conclusion. But that's what Irvine Welsh’s source material seems to be good at, with Barid as writer/director tailoring the film to balance the rot with just enough pathos to stop you from becoming fully submerged in the quagmire. That said, as the film shifts from dark comedy to drama the film does start to stumble. Not very scene hits it's mark emotionally and it's clear some cinematic alterations almost softens the blow too much and the film almost loses it's bite at the end. But Filth keeps its eyes on the prize and stays on track remaining a darker than dark yet somewhat entertaining look at sin in the modern age.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Review: Blue Jasmine

Year: 2013
Director: Woody Allen
Screenplay: Woody Allen
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, Bobby Cannavale, Andrew Dice Clay, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg, Louis C.K.

Synopsis is here

The annual Woody Allen feature comes to us with a performance so strong it beggars belief. I don’t care for awards season, but for those out there who have stumbled upon this tiny blog who hold interest I will say this: Cate Blanchett should have 2013’s best actress all wrapped up. If someone else wins over Blanchett then I must congratulate them, as they've toppled a performance of some magnitude.

Blanchett’s Jasmine is a hurricane of destruction and delusion it is difficult look away from. It’s always exciting to someone take a film by the scuff of the neck and dictate things like a conductor. However I found Blanchett to be so strong, that even the other solid displays felt dwarfed.  Allen brings together a multi-faceted cast that engages well with the material. But Blanchett, she just blows them away.       

Blue Jasmine at heart is a tale about someone who can be happy with a little and someone who despairs despite once having a lot. Self absorbed and pretentious; Jasmine is a difficult character to feel for. Told in flashback, we find that Jasmine is held together by the riches of her husband.  Everything is about stature and branding. We notice she changed her name due to money. She looks down her nose at her sister and fiancé with the kind of condensation you only ever find from those who are far too privileged for their own good. There’s insidiousness in the way Jasmine feels the need to tell her sister that she can do better. At no point do we feel that what is said is done for the good of anything other than Jasmine’s self satisfaction. Little bothers her, because material keeps her warm at night. We also think it keeps her oblivious to important matters at hand.

When we find Jasmine in the present and uncover the reasons of why she’s visiting her sister, we notice just how fragile her ignorance and finance have made her. Jasmine is a fractured creature that would get on well with Penelope Cruz’s Maria, whose emotional imbalance heightened the tone of Allen’s Vicky Christina Barcelona. However while that film joyfully played with Latin melodrama, here we only have spite to comfort us.

As the film plays on, Blanchett’s pained performance breaks through so much of the films other segments. Blanchett switches from distant to destructive to switched on in a blink of an eye, and cuts through much of the humour (the support is engaging yet cartoony in characterisation) that tries to diffuse the drama. As the film continues on, we notice just how troubled Jasmine has become. I struggled with the films humour unlike the snorting and snarky audience I watched it with, who had no trouble. Jasmine isn’t pleasant, but it’s hard not to find pathos as Jasmine becomes more unhinged.

That said, Allen’s poor people are doing A-ok while rich people pay for their sins comes across a little false. Despite Allen’s provocative use of form (Jasmine is often bathed in golden hues, or blocked out of focus during certain plot turns ), he never takes his idea as far as he can. We have a conceit in which the high class wives of the financial elite have just as much to hide has their criminal husbands. Allen places a cynical turn on the phase “behind every good man is a good woman” but does little to convince us of his conviction. This loose, modern day telling of A Streetcar named desire squarely lands us amidst the spectre of the economic crash, but fizzles out without wanting to take a good clean stab at the issue. It’s too bad, as Blanchett is more than willing to make the effort.        

Monday, 21 October 2013

Review: The Kings of Summer

Year: 2013
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Screenplay: Chris Galletta
Starring: Nick Robinson, Nick Offerman, Alison Bree, Gabriel Basso, Moises Arias

Synopsis is here

 Big confession here: I’m not the biggest fan of Stand by Me. I’m truly sorry and I have no problem with whatever punishments lie in wait for me in cinematic hell. I know that’s where I’m going as I’m one of the 7 people that like Revolver. A lot. But for some reason Stand By me has never been the film that brings tears to my eyes or wistful memories of that blissful summer that no one had, yet all remember. Yet when it comes to coming of age films, give me something like Kings of Summer that apes Stand by Me, and you’ll find me lapping it up. I apologise. It’s a sickness.

Then again, The Kings of Summer wryly observes a childhood summer that I responded to a lot more, with more emphasis on that awkward alpha male fight that can happen within the family unit. The generation gap between father and son is well exploited within The Kings of Summer. Joe Toy (Nick Robinson) and his father Frank (an amusingly deadpan Nick Offerman) are at odds as there’s no buffer between them. His older sister (Alison Bree) has flown the coop, and with no mother, there’s just far too much testosterone within a small space.  It’s tough, it’s awkward and it’s so true what any young boys often feel towards their fathers; the strange belief that they have nothing in common with each other, yet consistently at odds because they’re so alike. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts deftly mines the humour of the situation perfectly. Having Joe reject the labour chores his father wants him to do, yet happily escaping to the woods to build a house with his friends to prove he’s a different man. Early on Joe considers his father as a lonely prick, but displays the same self-destructive tendencies as his father and fails to see the irony.

Bathed in golden Valencia-like photography, the film joyfully embraces quirky flights of fancy, with Wes Anderson like character interactions (disillusioning a bear to take it down!) and videogame blips appearing on the soundtrack. I guess one of the reasons I responded so much to Kings is because it holds such modern day mannerisms so well. The film happily melds a fresher look at nostalgia with more universal themes. Kings sometimes overdoes things with its use of slow motion feeling more like a needless tic than a useful enhancement towards the storytelling . The poetic licences also feels a tad strained. Ask yourself just how well you and a few friends could build a house at that age, with that amount of speed. Maybe there’s a slight hint of magic realism at play.

However Kings of the Summer does everything with an innocence and honesty not unlike the films that have come before it.  It doesn’t hit the heights of Draw Barrymore’s criminally under seen Whip It, nor is it as highly strung as Perks of a Wallflower. However it was hard for me not to finish Kings of Summer without a grin. Now out on home media after some terrible distribution issues on the cinema front. The Kings of Summers has a soul I would happily kill for as I try to get the cinematic gods to forgive me for my enjoyment of Guy Richie.  

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Review: Riddick

Review: Riddick
Year: 2013
Director: David Twohy
Screenplay: David Twohy
Starring: Vin Diesel, Katee Sackhoff

Synopsis is here

If there’s one thing I enjoy about Riddick, it’s that the character is a survivor.  The story of Vin saving his baby is an interesting one worth noting. With the rights in his power and his credit as producer, Vin now has the chance to slim down the bloated and dull elements that made Chronicles of Riddick such a misshapen beast. The character of Riddick fared better in Pitch Black, a solid Sci-Fi B movie that I found adequate, yet was embraced by many.

Making the third Riddick entry, a smaller scale picture is a decent idea. Yes, there may be less money involved, but in all honesty who really thought the character of Riddick would thrive in that more large scale environment?  Like Dredd, having Riddick exist to live out these smaller, more self contained adventures is a good way to go in a world where so many larger scale “epics” feel that they have to destroy a city to get viewers to care.

Some of the more needless mythology is stripped down in the beginning of this third adventure with most of what happened in the second film reduced to a near pointless cameo appearance. We’re given Riddick in a near desolate world, having to having to survive as well as he can off the land. A difficult task as most of what inhabits the land seems hell-bent on trying to kill him.  This is perhaps my favourite section of the film. To have our main character on his own for so long, with almost nobody to interact with, tackling the elements is quite a brave thing to do in this day and age. Riddick seems to hint that it’s a film that willing to take a few risks. Then the rest of the cast turn up.

The film’s tone shifts, but not for the better. The harsh environment moves to the background as a quite boring bunch of stock characters come forth and talk about things that aren’t particularly interesting, while Riddick employ a stalk and slash affair that does little to stand out (save one head splitting sequence). The films climax appears to be a throwback that may engage bigger Riddick fans than I, but by then I was too drained of interest from what had happened before. Oh and then there’s the whole sexism argument that’s cropped up.

Yes, there’s been talk of strong talk from British critics stating that the exchanges with Vin’s Riddick and Katee Sackhoff’s Dahl character reek of horrible, vulgar sexism. I don’t wish to dismiss this issue. I feel the issues that females have in media is bad enough, when we jump into sub-cultures such as Sci-Fi it often gets much worse.  However looking back at the film and listening to an interesting counter-point from a good and wise friend, I did wonder why it’s this film that appeared to be the straw that broke the camel’s back for the likes of Helen O’ Hara. I do believe she has a point that the writing of the Dahl shows a frustrating doe-eyed change that occurs with the film that feels tonally off (than again Sackhoff’s performance is surprisingly off key). Yet looking at the likes of better movies which work around the same pulp and are way more popular often don’t appear to gain as much scorn, particularly now.  Considering the likes of Escape from New York or even branching off to the works of Agento and De Palma (whose work is currently being strongly revised), Riddick seems to getting slammed a hell of a lot.

Not to say that the film is not at fault. Riddick at one point makes a comment that makes him sound more like an adolescent tweeter faceless lipping off to a feminist journo than a badass. But I found myself considering that the film is so bland that crappy sexual politics is the only thing that could spark any conversation of this film.

Despite holding a certain amount of B movie charm and Diesel obviously having a fondness for this project, I found that Riddick held such a lack of interest, that the talk surrounding the film was far more interesting than the film itself.  Do I find the gender issues problematic? Yes, but with that said I’d rather Hollywood get off its arse and create a Wonder Woman I’ll remember then helping Vin Diesel and David Twohy bring about a slightly offensive Riddick film that will most likely be forgotten. 

Review: Pain & Gain

Year: 2013
Director: Michael Bay
Screenplay: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Rebel Wilson, Tony Shalhoub, Ed Harris

Synopsis is here:

Based loosely on an even more insane true story, Pain & Gain finds Michael Bay at the height of his excesses. The film is homophobic, xenophobic and sleazy in all the ways we expect a Bay film to be. Yet as the film isn't aiming dubious messages at the world’s youth (see Transformers), the blow is softened somewhat. The nastiness of the story the film is based on is in fact perfect for a director like Bay who revels in the delinquency of it all. The film is full of discrepancies (composite characters, altered facts) but it doesn't seem to matter. In his own cartoony way, Bay has crafted a film that at its highest points satirises the desperation that infects some who chase the elusive American Dream. It’s Scarface by the way of The 3 Stooges.

Bay mines all the techniques that make many hate him, but his excessiveness only seems to aid the film. The forever roaming camera captures these exasperated characters in heavily saturated colours. The extreme close ups capture every ounce of sweat drenched anxiety that befouls these despicable creatures. The canted angles and hectic cross cutting only seem to serve the skewed views of these criminals.  Even the multiple voice over narration from nearly every character in the film, plays into the mania of it all. Like soulless vultures; the various voices (full of juxtaposition as opposed to what we’re seeing) highlight the hollowness of these people.

It’s easy to hate Pain & Gain because it captures the vapid nature of its characters acutely. Delving head first into the griminess of its story, the characters talk in infomercial platitudes. They take work out breaks when the grisly shit hits the fan. Bay throws this amped up aggression right in our faces and doesn't let, but I never found myself aligning myself with the characters. I felt there was more than enough distance for me to pity their ignorance and laugh at them then with them.

The films humour is often hit and miss, yet when the lurid nature of the piece hits the right spot, there is an amusement about it that will tickle a few. Bay still really needs to reign in his bizarre issues with homosexuals (there was no elements of this in the actual story), while his attitudes to race and females are still as crude as ever. However, I must maintain that some of this works towards the characters we are observing. To sanitize the nastiness of this story would be a disservice. Fact is, as grim as the tone of this movie may be; it’s still not as nasty as what actually happened.  That Bay manages to mine something “enjoyable” out of this, says more about me than anything, but there’s something in the blackness of it all that entertained me. I've said it before; you gotta laugh, or else you’ll cry.

Pain & Gain looks to attack the worse aspects of American materialism in plain sight. From the garish colours, and over indulgent direction (although Bay has eased up on his editing), to the arrogant, dunderhead performances (Johnson’s relapsed, meatheaded addict is a highlight) of the main cast. Everything plays into the sordid mentality of culture that’s able to cultivate sociopaths and all of this is wrapped within a high octane package that only Bay could deliver. I have to admit that after the 447 minutes of robot smashing that Bay gave us, Pain & Gain seems much more toned down and focused in its action. Again, nothing hits the peaks of some his earlier works, however compared to the fallen revenges of the dark of the moon, everything is little bit more engaging. I guess one of the reasons is that Bay isn't shilling this to adolescents.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Review: Insidious: Chapter 2

Review: Insidious: Chapter 2
Year: 2013
Director: James Wan
Screenplay: Leigh Warren
Starring: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Barabra Hershey

Synopsis is here:

My viewing relationship with James Wan (director) and Leigh Whannell (writer) isn’t a great one, but it’s not a terrible. Despite originally being a massive fan of Saw upon its release, the two have done little to wow me since their début. There’s no doubt that the relationship is a fruitful one. Between them; their films have made serious bank at the box office.  It also didn't surprise me that due to Wan’s ability to wrap action orientated shoots quickly, he’s taking on the next Fast and the Furious film in time for next year. I do hope however, that Wan gives us a stronger effort with that massively budgeted franchise than the limp wristed entry we’re given here. I found Insidious: Chapter 2 not only nonsensical (time travel? Honestly?), but it’s also tedious as a horror movie.

Critic Mark Kermode has noted that film’s like Insidious: Chapter 2 are horror films for people who dislike horror and I’m inclined to agree, to a point. Wan is clearly cine-literate and Chapter 2 borrows liberally from the likes of The Shining (1980), The Astronauts Wife (1999), The Entity (1982) and Poltergeist (1982) for many of its scenes but does so in such an obvious way that you feel that Wan is hedging bets that his audience doesn't know or no longer care about the films that he’s borrowing from.  Wan then strips each reference of the atmosphere that made the films what they were and instead fills very sequence with protracted BOO moments that annoy rather than unsettle.

It’s strange that one of the producers on this feature was Oren Peli; a man whose claim to fame was orchestrating the extremely popular Paranormal Activity, a film’s tension was provided by capturing those disturbing hours where seemingly nothing happens. Peli knew just how uneasy someone could feel due to the power of stillness. Insidious: Chapter 2 betrays this by manhandling the viewer whenever it can. The camera pans, scans and zooms to absolute distraction, while the films score and loud bangs invade your eardrums at very moment. It’s all more than a little too much.

This may not have been an issue if the characters and story we were observing were compelling. The films confounding screenplay is never particularly interesting when Wan actually utilises downtime. Not only happy to rip off nearly every cliché in the book, the films cardboard characters have to utter some extremely tin eared dialogue. A conundrum soon appears. We have a film that’s often too loud to get the best of out of it, yet when it actually quietens down...it’s not worth listening to.      

Going back to the idea established in the second paragraph, films like Insidious: Chapter 2 seem to be catering to a generation who believe that true horror is how high the popcorn flies. The worrying aspect is not that these people dislike horror, but that the factors behind what is considered a scary movie have shifted. With one of the current arguments about cinema being the “second screen experience” and whether or not there should be special requirements for those who can’t be torn away from their social networks. It is no surprise that we are given a film with no real narrative, but exists to make the viewer jump to attention every other minute?