Monday, 27 April 2015

Review: John Wick

Year: 2015
Directors: Chad Stahelski, David Leitch
Screenplay: Derek Kolstad 
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Adrianne Palicki, Bridget Moynahan, Dean Winters, Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, Willem Dafoe.

Synopsis is here:

There's a character profile poster of the titular John Wick, which has his tie fashioned as a fuse set alight. The tag line reads: Don't set him off. It's a piece of marketing that is as direct as the film its advertising. It's as lean as they come and that's why it works. It's a poster that doesn't complicate things. Neither does the film itself. John Wick is quick with establishing the stakes, but never clouds them with needless padding. Mr Wick has lost his car. He has lost his dog (a symbol of a greater loss). He demands satisfaction.

John Wick is the kind of genre film that assholes like me keep claiming aren’t being made anymore. Yet its type of film we can only think of someone like Keanu Reeves still being capable of making. Pulling punches is not in its dictionary. It hits quickly and hard. I fell in love with John Wick not only because of its physicality and practical effects, but because it creates an intricate universe with economy and sharpness. We’re quickly informed of the informal details before our lead character is wound up and let loose.

Despite being fully loaded with an armory's worth of cliché, John Wick is an action film that its own sense of style and attitude throughout. It’s a bold mixture of hard boiled noir and bloody nosed revenge flick. Its vivid cinematography (often punctuated with flashes of primary colours) gives it a feel reminiscent of a video game or a comic book you may have experienced, but holds a set design that seems to have one foot planted firmly in the past. That would help to explain the character’s strict adherence to a mysterious assassin’s code. These killers are paid in doubloon like coins, they order their messy clean ups as “reservations”. Their natural ground (where no business is allowed) has the semblance of a speakeasy. The film pilfers an assorted mixture of crime motifs and ideas. From muscle cars to codes of honour and whisks them into a heady mix.

John Wick could have easily been an ugly mess. However the film's directors; Chad Stahelski and David Leitch (uncredited) have laser focus in this debut. The film doesn’t hold a trace of fat, with its creators not only trimming the film to keep up its pace, but also to add the right amount of intrigue to the material. In the same way that the makers know when to cut and edit the brutally tactile choreography, they also know where to shave off flabby elements of plot. No one outstays their welcome, while the well pick cast know how to get the most out of very little.

Speaking of which. The film is definitely Keanu’s. Forever the straight man, Reeves has been mocked as a non-actor throughout his career. Range has never been his gift. But I can’t doubt or deny his on screen presence when it comes to action. His grim visage was never built for multi-faceted dramas. But here he excels. Reacting to those around him like a tightly wound coil. It’s in John Wick you realise just how well Reeves has played the straight man. Particularly now with many of the new generation of movie stars looking increasingly more bland with each announced reboot/remake. Reeve’s has never been one for dramatic depth. Yet, as Wick he still manages to show the determination and focus which made him so engaging in the likes of Speed (1994), Point Break (1991), and The Matrix (1999).

That’s what makes John Wick so engaging. Everyone is working to their strengths. Keanu Reeves is still an actor that looks like he can take henchmen down comfortably. The directors come from the stunt world, therefore keep their sights set on the elements that they work well in. The film is well cast and the "timeless" world that they're allowed to play in, is wonderfully distinct.  It’s an action film that won me over with its boldness and knowing how to play with the tropes. Here’s hoping this lean, mean outlook to action films gives these filmmakers a nice full fat directional career. 

Sunday, 26 April 2015

DVD Review: The Duke of Burgundy

Year: 2014 (DVD Release Date: 2015)
Director: Peter Strickland
Screenplay: Peter Strickland
Starring: Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D'Anna

It’s funny to see The Duke of Burgundy released now as the budding blossoms of Spring begin to bloom. The film, set over the brisker seasons, is saturated in rich autumnal tones, appears to use the chilled temperatures to hide the warmth the film creates. With the likes of Fifty Shades of Grey (opened during the chilly month of February) using a damp, overcast Vancouver, Washington as its setting, both films appear to slyly hint that while there may be no heat outside, things are definitely heated in the respective bedrooms of each films couples.

This is a slightly tawdry way to describe both films. Yet whereas Fifty Shades would wear such a tag as badge of honour, stifling giggles as it describes sexual relationships. The Duke of Burgundy, while described as “preposterous” by its own director, Peter Strickland, understands the nature of its sexual games at a far more substantial level. Fifty Shades may have captured the box office, using its sex as titillation. It is The Duke of Burgundy, which ensnares the imagination. The film's sexual sequences not only understand that less is more. The film as a whole, understands its themes far more than E. L James’ material. Both highlight dominance and submission as the main erotic practices of one particular partner. Only The Duke of Burgundy truly grasps just how tough the rigors are if trust and understanding are not involved.

That may not be what Fifty Shades was aiming for, but I’m not surprised that people have come towards The Duke of Burgundy with more favour. With no authoritarians to get in the way of the film's creation, director Peter Strickland (Berberian Sound Studio) is free to roam within the sensual landscape of his central characters and their eroticism.  

The film; a loving homage to the soft-core euro erotica of the 60’s and 70’s details the relationship and rituals of Cynthia (Chiara D'Anna) and Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna). The couple are entomology students whose love for butterflies and insects is only bettered by their affection for each other. Each day they embark on a D/s routine that slowly erodes the couple relationship as one partner’s sexual mores become more obsessive.

Amusingly, the bare bones of the film aren’t too dissimilar from Fifty Shades. However Strickland’s skillful direction, makes exemplary use of form. Consider the fact that despite being a homage to soft-core, there’s no nudity. We see no men, yet this does not distract or deter the narrative in any way. The film's luscious visuals and high quality sound work, capture the sexual texture more than the typical, vanilla happenings which occur within the so called Red Room of Pain. Strickland’s film has a wonderful understanding of anticipation. The removal of stockings and tightness of pencil skirts do more to entice than flesh.

Beyond that, The Duke of Burgundy is a film that relies on convincing performances. Both Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D'Anna are note perfect in their portrayal of a loving relationship coming under conflict due to wariness and obsessives. Although both play their parts straight, there’s clear allowance for subtle humour throughout. Even easy gags, such as the comfortably of sitting on someone’s face, are smartly delivered. Mostly due to the couples, quiet unflinching expression. Although I’m not sure if people will react as rambunctiously as I did when it came to the films (offscreen) urination sequence.

What both Kundsen and D’Anna mostly exude, however, is heart. The warmth of their relationship is tenderly observed, whereas in Fifty Shades, sometimes remained as cold as its overcast location.  It’s no surprise that the front cover for The Duke of Burgandy’s DVD mimics the most iconic image of Bergman’s Persona (1966).  It is indeed the dovetailing synchronicity of two people in love that we are meant to observe here. How often do we watch films of romance and find them lacking in such aspects? The Duke of Burgundy may lose some when it delves into the abstract (apart from the obvious metaphor, one may wonder about the butterflies). However, unlike Berberian Sound Studio, Strickland’s piece stays relatively sound from a narrative perspective. While retaining the auteurist tics (such as his analogue love of sound and looping of recurring events) that punctuate his filmmaking.

In the world of sexual melodramas, the almighty dollar is king. It’s difficult to see fans of Fifty Shades jumping their cruise ship to navigate choppier waters. However who may have found the antics of Grey and Steele lacking somewhat, may find something a touch more scintillating with Cynthia and Evelyn. With this couple's ability to read each other’s face, there’s very little need for a non-disclosure agreement.   

THE LOST INTERVIEWS - House of Flying Daggers - 23.4.15

itunes pic
In the final 'lost interview' from last year, Tony talks to writer & vlogger Tom East about his favourite film, House of Flying Daggers...

from Black Hole Cinema

Friday, 24 April 2015

Review: Ex Machina

Year: 2015
Director: Alex Garland
Screenplay: Alex Garland
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac

Synopsis is here

I’m currently reading Dataclysm, an irreverent view of data dating, social science and human behaviour by Christian Rudder, one of the founders of OK Cupid. The book is a sharp and witty insight into how social networks, search engines and the internet are quickly revealing more about ourselves and our urges than we would like to think. Unfortunately, I saw Ex-Machina while I started reading Dataclysm and I found myself more than slightly unnerved.

Ex-Machina holds two moments for me, which not only feel eerily plausible, but frighteningly close. One conversation is between Nathan (Issac) and Caleb (Gleeson) in which we discover how the female A.I. obtains her knowledge. The other is a grander reveal within the plot, which is almost brushed away like a small aside, yet had me wonder why certain, powerful companies have now poured vast amounts of cash into drones and robots. Ex-Machina doesn’t expand too far from an episode of Black Mirror, however the film’s three central leads, and Garland’s evocative screenplay engages with our anxieties with conversations and mind games in a way that feels fresh as well as frightening. 

Garland’s directional debut, reminiscent of Frankenstein, is a remarkable clash of contrasts. It’s deliberately paced yet we always get the feeling we’re hurtling towards something. Its cinematographer Rob Hardy shoots the film with impressive wide angles, and yet the films isolated locations and limited cast, give a grim sense of claustrophobia, much like The Shining (1980). The film lingers on the form and physique of the female Machina, Ava (Vikander) which it wants us to admire, yet the male characters Nathan and Caleb indulge in profound conversations which not only progress the screenplay organically but hint at the ugliness of human nature. This constant disharmony, which appears in so much great sci-fi, is what drew me into the film.   

The film’s leaning on the male gaze, as observed by some female writers, while feeling problematic to some, actually felt to me as an accurate portrayal of the shallowness of human beings and the ease of how their emotions can be manipulated. Also the lead female character, clearly inhabits the most agency. Garland’s film delivers us an A.I. that not only holds our knowledge but may also make better use of our mistakes and flaws. The most fascinating thing about the film however is how the combination of Vikander’s elegant performance and the great use of the film's premise, like Under the Skin (2014), has the audience question both gender politics and human connection in a deeply absorbing way. From a surface view, the treatment of female characters within the film can be seen as deplorable, and yet that is only if you consider the female characters to be “human”. If the film hits you in the right spot, you go with your gut. I do not mean this as a criticism of female writers who find some of the film's sequences problematic. However, I must stress at, not only the motivations behind the more sinister characters in the movie, but also how well the mechanisms work within the story. Even I felt perturbed by some of the aspects I witnessed in the film. I feel this is because I felt for Ava.

Dominic Gleeson and Oscar Issac create the kind of combative foil you would expect from a feature like this. Issac embraces his inner Victor Frankenstein with added boozing, gym visits and creepy dancing. It is a completely bombastic turn around from his performance in A Most Violent Year (2014). Gleeson brings his likable charm to the table. Caleb’s pining for Ava is believable and his paranoia towards his situation is palatable. Watching the three characters trade blows against each other strangely reminded me of Richard Linklater’s Tape (2001), but the resonance I felt between them was far more effective here than anything I found in films such as Her (2014) or A.I (2001).   

Ex-Machina does what good sci-fi should, which is, despite the more fantastical elements we may witness within the narrative, it never loses touch of the human element. My knowledge of the singularity may be a little light, but I found ideas the film poses to be well presented, while the way the story uses those ideas to toy with its characters and the audience to be thoroughly invigorating. Garland’s debut directional feature stride into those darker areas of our grey matter with the sort of confidence that I wish the likes of Transcendence (2014) could attain. Let’s hope Garland can continue making his science fiction so good that it continues creeps me out when I read my non-fiction.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Review: The Avengers: Age of Ultron

Year: 2015
Director: Joss Whedon
Screenplay: Joss Whedon
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Hayley Atwell, Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgård, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson.

Synopsis is here:

I found Age of Ultron to be a bit of an oddity. It’s a film in which, like a Chris Nolan feature, piles on a heavy amount of exposition and characters explaining themselves in the simplest of terms. Yet when watching the likes of Inception (2010) or The Dark Knight Rises (2012), I always find myself quite satisfied with those film’s final acts. I found myself befuddled by the last third of Age of Ultron. Near the very Tony Stark devises an improvised plan to save the world, and the other Avengers comply and react accordingly. Yet once our heroes put the plan into action, I can’t say I was able to follow it.

It’s difficult to explain. I “got” what was happening in the overall sense. However, I found myself staring at the screen glassy eyed through most of the film's finale. Then again, I felt that for much of the films slightly clunky action set pieces. I never fully got with the rhythm of the film. Joss does well to balance Age of Ultron as much as he can. This is no simple task. Whedon does manage to inform the movie with a decent sense of scale (it certainly feels bulkier and more substantial than the other Phase Two features). However, the vast array of characters and the tricky issue of what to do with them all, is starting to show. I’m not surprised the film concludes in the way it does.

All this makes it sounds like I sat in the cinema with a permanent grimace on my face. Far from it. Age of Ultron excels in its character beats and developments. Whedon’s screenplay gives the likes of Thor permission become more ponderous and investigative. Hawkeye is allowed to become the human heart at the center of the team. An unlikely romance blossoms between characters and it’s not only the most remarkable element, but also the sweetest. I’m not surprised that Whedon’s character beats are the most effective aspects of the film. As someone who limited their consumption of film’s buzz and marketing to only the trailers, it didn’t shock me in the slightest that the quieter, less excitable scenes, are the ones I was drawn to.

Whedon’s sense of humour has not succumbed to the same fatigue I’ve had for superhero movies as whole (thanks constant hype!). The screenplay's punchlines and witticisms push the film along at a lively pace. Whedon also gets the best out of the cast. Both returning and newcomers. Elizabeth Oslon (Scarlet Witch) and Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Quicksilver) gives far more ample performances than they did in Godzilla (2014). Original heroes Pine, Downley Jr and Ruffalo, all come out the blocks fighting. Johansson, Hemsworth and Renner have the chance to show the most growth and do so with gusto. James Spader gives a delightfully quirky performance as Ultron, the A.I. with a god complex. As with Avengers Assemble (2012), Marvel’s most entertaining villains appear to be saved for this sector of its cinematic universe.

It’s a shame that the film’s narrative buckles under the sheer weight of everyone involved. I’ve not mentioned all the returning supporting cast, new characters and other characters who’ve appeared in other Marvel films and are returning. Everyone is fighting for space and it shows. Two major plot revelations occur and did little to elevate the heartbeat. It doesn’t help that every blog and film site did their best to eliminate any element of surprise. However, there’s just not enough time for everyone to breathe. I’m sure there’s a few comic fans who are happy to see everyone stuffed into the films 141 minutes. But I did find myself contemplating how well established, some characters were compared to others. After reading just how hard Whedon worked in the cutting of the film to give it a sense of order, you realise just how well he’s done to keep all the plates spinning.

Yep. It still sounds like I have too many misgivings. But honestly, watching Iron Man don hulkbusting amour and go toe to toe with the green giant is a huge bunch of fun. As is the musings of Ultron in general. There’s still much to unpack in Age of Ultron. It does seem that I’ll be leaving that to the hardcore fanboy audience. Age of Ultron didn’t leave me with an immediate wish to watch it again like the first film. But I did leave with enough of a smile on my face. 

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

EPISODE 25 - Child 44, The Last Five Years, Woman in Gold - 22.4.15

itunes pic
Dan Taylor hosts and is joined by guest Leslie Byron Pitt to talk the new trailers of Star Wars: The Force Awakens & Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, the UK Box Office Top Ten, and give their thoughts on the weeks new movies including: Tom Hardy's dark drama CHILD 44... Anna Kendrick in THE LAST FIVE YEARS... And finally WOMAN IN GOLD, which teams Helen Mirren & Ryan Reynolds...

from Black Hole Cinema

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Article: Double No Seven: Ruminations on a Black Bond

By Leslie Byron Pitt

One of the most recent things that’s irked me has been the needless chatter about a Black James Bond. When the ramblings of Idris Alba being considered as a possible contender for Bond when Daniel Craig hung up his Walther PP7, I pretty much ignored them. As I do with so many film rumours these days. There’s never any groundings in such talk. When I used to podcast with My friend Iain, we drastically altered our “News” section as we began to find populist film sites and blogs to become cluttered with obnoxious clickbait. Whatever people thought of our Cast, we quickly realised didn’t really wish to be a part of the rumour circle jerk. We found ourselves trying to dig for more interesting conversation pieces. The black Bond Idea had me burrowing once again. Searching for film talk that’s I would find far more interesting.

Despite quieting down slightly, I found that, once again the maddening talk and so called “controversy” bubbling to the surface. Former Bond star Roger Moore had himself branded as racist when voicing his views. While Yaphet Kotto, previously a Bond Villian (and still the only black one) was suddenly found back in the news when asked how he felt about the matter

I dread to read what the comments are like on these type of articles. When a precious 50 year old franchise appears to be threatened by the horrible cloud of multi-culturalism, suddenly allow seemingly normal minded people spew their inner Alf Garnett all over their keyboards. Despite this, I too have reservations about the idea of a Black James Bond. Of course, it’s not out of any bizarre patriotic pride (for the most part). So even though Mr Alba has quelled the fire by taking his name out of the hat. I still feel I must stand up and lip off about this subject. Because the internet.


Part of the reason, I don’t wish for a Black Bond is down to the aforementioned comment threads. I find it astonishing just how quickly things like this can turn the country into a Springfield-like mob mentality. These days, when something doesn’t go our way, no matter what it may be, people sprint to the internet to inform others that such and such is not going their way. Like a huge global interconnected network mother, the internet merrily facilitates our nonsense. I mean, hey, look at what I’m doing now.

I was previously working in Customer Service, and the angry customers first port of call was to inform me that they will be “spreading their complaint on the internet” in order to get what they want. Even if it was their fault. The same thing occurs now in the media that we consume. Not in the now quint way in which we observed Trekkies write in on mass to save the ailing show. But in a childish, petty way as they feel that creatives only allowed to listen to the audiences entitled ass.

Although the mission statement has been altered somewhat, the Daniel Craig is not Bond site still remains. It has now achieved the original boycott plans, but remains a vivid testament to how we as viewers over react when threatened with change.

If we’re not organising virtual sit-ins and expecting them to go viral. Look at how we insult people who do not agree with us:

This “debate” over the UKIP manifesto continued with Mr Bunker (Yeah, we get the reference) claiming that his first response was not racist and continuing to ask about whether the entire manifesto was read. Unfortunately the insipid way this gentleman launched into infantile conflict first as opposed to engaging cultural journalist Musa Okwonga like a grown adult, not only obviously negates further response, but speaks volumes of how many look at not just the political process. This type of juvenile outburst happens a thousand times a day to so many people, famous or otherwise. It suggests to me one thing: If this is the maturity that we look at political discourse, imagine the intelligent discussion we’d have about a Black Bond. As stated before, I dread to read the comment boards.

As much as Mr Elba would get many women drooling, Britain as a whole doesn’t appear to be mature enough to deal with even the idea of a Black Bond. I still live in a world in which black men are considered thugs and criminals by proxy in real life. Britain still sells middle class white period drama as it screws its face at post colonialism and multi-culturalism. It was only in the 60’s that landlords only had No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish signs. Just look at how the media now use Katie Hopkins as a conduit for foreign policy. Labelling immigrants as vermin and not giving a toss if they die. I mean, that’s basically what Bond does anyway, but can you imagine idea of having a Black British characterisation of this? Many can. For completely the wrong reasons. 

I don’t honestly think such long standing British franchise where man fights for Queen and Country can have a Black Lead fit in snugly. I’m sure the BBC still gains complaints when they dare try and arrange EastEnders to appear more like the how the East End actually looks.

The Culture

As we’re talking about the British audience and their culture. Do I, as a young black individual need to see a black male playing the blunt killing instrument that Bond is? Do I need that prickly feeling that occurs when the audience agree that's all we, as black males, can be?  This same audience that takes Al Murrays Landlord a tad too seriously? It's hard to see a something like a Black Bond when we live in a country who’s far too quick to bemoan the volume of foreign players in its Top football league and not consider the structurally weak coaching system in place when its national team suffers. At its best, British culture and entertainment and our processing of it, provokes, challenges and triumphs. At its worst, it struggles to connect the dots.

I say this because slapping in a Black Bond is the kind of annoying liberal quick fix that agitates feelings rather than provide any real progression. For instance; I'm never really surprised that these kind of conversations constantly circle around what a white audience thinks, rather than a black one. A white audience who is very quick to inform black people how to feel about racial issues. Once again, consider social media and those lovely comment pages. Yes, Black actors get asked about Bond, and who would say no to wanting to play 007? It makes for a nice soundbite and of course an actor has got to eat so they would be delighted to be offered a multi film deal such as that one. 

Me as a viewer, however, has always been ok with a White Bond, as have my parents who introduced me to the film series. My Dad’s favourite is Thunderball. He is incorrect. That aside, neither parents have ever been clamouring for a drastic change in the character. The argument, of course, is that a Black Bond would be for a younger culture. However, I personally find that ever since my first Bond movie at the cinema (Goldeneye), I’ve always found it amusing that Bond is a relic of sorts. A Black Bond is the type of sexy upgrade that negates the history of the character, which includes the books and their liberal sprinkling of racism. I don’t really want that forgotten. In fact I’d rather it be remembered so we as a culture can come to terms with just how tolerant Britain actually is.

Badass Digest writer Phil Noble Jr rightly reminds us that: “Bond was a power fantasy for an empire in decline.” I’m actually quite happy to agree with him there. I was never surprised when the likes of Jason Bourne, had the men behind Bond pull up their bootstraps and look into make the series tick again. Yet even in Skyfall, the most recent entry, the film, while very enjoyable, still had to battle against the traditional aspects that make Bond what he is. Even in Goldeneye, M was considering him a dinosaur. I’m not sure we need to see a black actor mixed up in this particular tar pit.

Let’s not forget that a Black Bond doesn’t just mean a change of colour, it also means that there would most likely be an alteration of culture as well. Changes that would provide some fascinating dynamics, but would mostly cause more problems than anything else. The overwhelming whiteness of those behind the camera. An audience, who was ready to contemplate mob rule over a BLONDE Bond. The economical hedge bets by nervous execs if such changes were to occur. It seems like a needless headache.

Of course, all this pondering means nothing to a large grasp of an audience who would possibly respond with a nonchalant shrug before a loud groaning of “IT’S ONLY A MOVIE!” And yes that would be the nicest response. Yet it’s the jumbo geeks and uber fans that will moan louder and become more disruptive with it. Is there any point of trying to place any action towards this kind of conversation, when studios are still struggling with minorities within other genres and roles? Should a studio such as Sony, whose had far more troublesome worries in recent times, fight a consistently unsatisfied audience over another controversy?   

I mean, who does this choice honestly serve? The idea of a Black Bond doesn't excite me as a Black British viewer as much a new circle of black directors. A Black Bond or five BAME writers allowed to create new exciting scripts? Give me a couple more black producers who can get projects off the ground. These things are far more important to me as a viewer. It’s better to hold wealth than to be rich. A Black Bond could possibly give us a spot of richness. The things I have just mentioned would head us towards wealth.

A Future?

Of course, if we really need more ethnic minorities playing in this universe, would it kill the studios to have a Felix Leiter spin off? I’d happily buy tickets to an espionage thriller with Jeffrey Wright as the lead. It could be stylish, possibly more cerebral and could play well as not only an unconventional choice, but as an original product based only slightly on existing material.

The annoying thing about Bond, with the rights being owned by Sony, we face a bigger problem than Race. We see Bonds British culture in its cast and crew and location of Pinewood. Yet profits flow back to the U.S. Think about that. How British are these films anymore in the most basic sense?  Before we start mucking around with race, it would be nice for Britian to look towards gaining a decent sense of film culture (not dominated by Hollywood) and a fully functioning film industry in Britain which doesn’t live so precariously via tenuous links once more. With the lower budget British gangster film doing well for British film (which happily displays a solid sense of diversity) wouldn’t it be nice if a forward thinking bright sparks could look towards building similar models before evolving the system? I may be a ridiculous idealist, but imagine if we were able to grow such models. In my rose tinted vision, we wouldn’t need to bother the Sony behemoth, because we could have something else to look forward to. If however, we actually do achieve the right amount of harmony to have a Black Bond, with a well written new history and an open minded audience...Chiwetel Ejiofor?

Monday, 20 April 2015

Review: Child 44

Director: Daniel Espinosa
Screenplay: Richard Price
Starring: Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Noomi Rapace, Joel Kinnaman, Paddy Considine, Jason Clarke, Vincent Cassel

Synopsis is here:

I often find myself getting into conversations of adaptation, with a good friend of mine whose and avid consumer of books and film. Our talks usually debate about how a film can keep hold of the book's spirit. It can never be the book. It’s not that medium, nor should it aspire to be. Not every element can make the translation. Filmmakers must traipse through the difficult task of pruning and trimming in order to gain the right fruits for the film to bear. Child 44 is a film in which clearly somebody wanted all the fruits to grow. Due to this there’s far much to pick. It is then when we yield rotten berries.

A telling review of the novel by Angus Macqueen, hints the story’s commercial aspirations, but also describes the writer Tom Rob Smith’s desire to encompass so much of Stalin’s Russia into the fiction, that it becomes difficult to take the book too seriously. While I cannot fully pass judgement on the novel. I can say that it’s hard not to feel similarly about the film.

Child 44 is quite simply a thriller that doesn’t thrill. It alludes to richness by placing forth a multitude of sub-plots, but does little to give them decent resolutions. It suggests relationships with depth, but does little to build on them. The film suffers from the same irritation that comes with Michael Bay’s Transformer Movies, in which length is believed to be a decent substitute for scale. The film's setting and historical background should provide intrigue. Yet this is clouded by drab conversations in dubious faux Russian accents and multiple scenes which grind the pace of the film to halt. Moments which should be revelations, never build to the vital discoveries the film purports them to be. This is mainly because the film never allows such moments to breathe. The elements of the overstuffed narrative come across just as cumbersome as the films clunky action set pieces. The film’s climax ends up in a muddy quagmire, which amused me, as this is how I felt about the piece in general.

Directed by Daniel Espinosa (Easy Money) is more than capable of crafting taut, commercial thrillers. Safe House (2012) is a solid example of that. Here, however, his talents seemed bogged down by a predictable screenplay (a rare misfire from scribe Richard Price), which holds a truckload of moving parts. Despite the valiant efforts of its brooding cast, so many of the film's characters feel on the periphery of the narrative. There’s a nagging feeling that one or two players had more moments left on the cutting room floor. Then again, this could have made Child 44 possibly longer. Which for myself, could have been more torture than being sent to a gulag. A contrived line? Perhaps. But no more than what Child 44 deserves. For the same price of a ticket, you could purchase Fritz Lang’s excellent M (1931) on Blu Ray, which not only deals with similar issues better, but is nearly 30 minutes shorter. The value of economy, eh? 

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Review: Furious 7

Year: 2015
Director: James Wan
Screenplay: Chris Morgan 
Starring: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Chris Bridges, Kurt Russell, Jason Statham

Synopsis is here

Note: Review features a spoiler for the 6th entry of the series.

My review starts with the end of the film. Furious 7 completes with an ensemble moment, before delivering a simple metaphor. One that can be observed as Christian symbolism due to its overtones. It’s also an ending which remarks on a real life tragedy and its relationship to fiction. We consider the Fast and Furious series to be one that lacks subtly. Yet here its final moments become a quiet gesture that marks an end of an era. Both of the films and reality. Is it easy to suggest that the actors we’re watching are merely acting?

Not since Gladiator (2000) have I felt so aware of an actor’s death in a movie. More talented performers than Paul Walker have passed on. Yet to me, their final films have never felt as painfully self-reflexive. There’s no surprise that Furious 7’s final moments finish with such an affecting tribute to Walker. 

Then again, as the Fast and Furious films have grown, they've always been highly aware of themselves as well as their audience. The films evolved, the audience grew, and so did the diversity of both product and consumer.   The film's large opening box office may have had one or two morbidly fascinated viewers, but in the grand scheme of things, this has been a series that has catered to its audience in a way the likes of The Expendables (2010) have struggled with from the first film. Both franchises are inherently silly, yet Fast’s candour sets it apart.

As the Fast films have worn on, they have of course, became more comic book-like in their nature. They’ve also picked up the motifs of 80's actioners. We only have to witness Dwayne Johnson picking up a drone mini gun in Furious 7 to notice this. However, the Fast series (in particular 7) have dealt with coming to terms with the finite aspect of life with slightly more poignancy than say Marvel. Some of this has occurred via cosmic calamity, but also via its plotting. The death of Han for instance. 

An on screen death after the credits roll, of the previous film, suddenly becomes more than a plot device. A fatalistic cloud hangs over Furious 7.  Not just because of Walker's death. The film itself has his character Brian, struggling with the rigours of family life and misses “the bullets”. He finds it hard to settle. This is also part of the reasoning behind his move away from FBI agent to career criminal from the first film onwards. His love of the rush. Furious 7 has lots of nonsense going on throughout it. A hodgepodge mixture of a revenge flick, heist caper and erratic foreign policy, with some cyber espionage thrown in. The one through line that seems to stick (when the film has time to go back to it) is the wish to regain a sense of normality. We see Michelle Rodriguez’s Letty suffering from the same sort of flittering PSTD symptoms that got Iron Man in a funk and wishes to reclaim her sense of self. Vin Diesel’s Dom endeavours to help her recover throughout. These smaller character beats often play off as corny (Morgan’s script is a cornucopia of cheddar) but give the film a relative sense of weight and balance. 

Softer stuff aside, Furious 7 brings out all the action tropes it can, as the filmmakers clearly know why your butt is on the seat. The streams of obvious expository dialogue. The facial closes ups and musical stings that are held for a timing that often feel more comedic than dramatic. Furious 7 is the HAL 9000 of absurd action films. It's fully self-aware. 

But it's earned the right to be. It's a film in which its action sequences are not only insanely constructed and controlled, but feel far removed from what we expect. Mission Impossible: 4 scaled Dubai skyscrapers, so Furious 7 smash into Abu Dhabi landmarks... three times. Iron Man 3 enjoyed drone warfare, but in the bland eighties stalwart: the docks. Furious feels it’s to use the whole of LA. The film also appears to reference the Italian Job (1969), in a way that only they could.

Screenwriter Chris Morgan, Director James Wan and the stunt crew have really outdone themselves in terms of the sheer scale of the action. Wan; whose always been more known for his lower budget shock fair, balances the various amounts of set pieces like this isn’t his first rodeo. Showing clear growth in his setups since the likes of Death Sentence (2007).

As mentioned, most of the film’s plot is bobbins. From Tyrese's awkward comic relief, to Dwayne Johnson cracking arm casts with his muscles. At one point Kurt Russell, winks directly at the camera to remind you that he knows what type of film he is in. The film labels Jason Statham’s character a “ghost”, to hilariously ensure they don't have to explain how he pops up into the thick of the action without a thorough explanation. Consider this with the fact that the films McGuffin, is a Dark Knight-lite device which allows all smartphones to be hacked into as remote GPS’ for whoever operates it. Statham’s enters scenes as if he already owns what he’s chasing. 

That said, Furious 7 likes to show that it is fun bobbins that is smart at being dumb. It also likes to see who’s keeping up with what. The Row Three Superticket podcast was quick to pick up on the scantily clad women who take up less about two minutes of screen time, but say very little to the five lead females who all have their own (thinly spread) sense of purpose throughout. This mainstay aspect of the series is not the most welcome, and yet it’s clearly the one that is becoming more minimalized as the series moves on. 

Due to the Fast series not being based on any previous materials other than themselves, the series has slowly become a driving force for diversity.  The fact is Furious 7 understands its intent and audience. It cottoned on to diversity years ago and now feels like a trailblazer while the likes of Sony during their hack and Deadline articles have been sneering their noses at the idea of BAME characters going above the imaginary station these people believe exist. While buffoonery and dubious gender politics still exist within the framework. Furious 7 actually handles mixed race relationships with a commanding force. The series has clearly become all the better for it. Its box office numbers are fascinating. Not just because they’re large, but because of whose going and why. For a dumb film, it’s brilliant at pushing the boundaries that smarter films don’t.   

Furious 7 knows for a fact that I'll never buy it (or any of the other entries) for keeps, yet the films stupid jokes, kinetic action and united colours of Benetton casting still serve up a deliriously absurd time at the cinema in a way other films failed. It's a film is smart enough to know how dumb it is. For that I raise a glass to Mr Walker, Mr Diesel and the others for their "one last ride". 

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Review: While We’re Young

Year: 2014 (U.K release 2015)
Director: Noah Baumbach
Screenplay: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried.

Synopsis is here:

There’s a sequence in While We're Young, which cemented my indifference for the movie quite early on. Cornelia (Naomi Watts) decides to go with her newly found young friend Darby (Amanda Seyfried) to Hip Hop dance class. Of course, this is a chance for us to laugh at a forty plus year old Watts, struggle to get to grips with the urban beats placed in front of her. My ire was found in the choice of song: Hit 'em Up by 2Pac. In this tale of white privileged New Yorkers, why has writer/director Noah Baumbach picked one of the most infamous west coast rap songs, which verbally attacks one of New York’s most iconic rappers?

Is Baumbach mocking the cultural appropriation which appears to be widespread throughout certain areas of America? Then the likes of Lena Dunham or the Portlandia guys are currently killing this right now. Is he remarking on the idea of cultural piracy in the same way that Adam Driver does in the film, in which all pop culture once released can be pre-packaged and re-issued under the ironic guise of one’s own idea? Then it’s irritatingly smug. Especially with a Beastie Boy (Adam Horovitz) in the cast. Either way, Baumbach’s oh-so-cynical film feels forced. Its U.K release coincides with the release of racial melting pot Furious 7 (2015), and unintentionally seems to suggest “don’t worry about all the money Universal have made with their little car movie, these rich, white problems are so much more important.

I’m not usually so cold with a film such as this, but Baumbach’s commentary on the film's cultural hipsters, snarkily stealing, then reconstructing material to create some sort of faux truth, annoyed me. Mostly because I found myself picking at the films own references and feeling they’ve been witnessed in more piercing films. From the Woody Allen posturing (himself a deft craftsman at reshaping homage) to The Graduate (1967) motif ending. The film feels unearned in its entirety. It misses the exuberance and vulnerability I found depicted in his previous feature; Frances Ha (2013), yet holds a triteness that the film itself is trying to rally against.

The film does look to want to make a serious point of child-free couples who are happy without children, as well as the fleeting beauty and impudence of youth that is lost upon the couples we observe. Despite the films more serious aspects of the predictable plot strolling in late. As Stiller and Watts’ Josh and Cornelia find themselves hurtling towards middle age, the film does hold some wry remarks about growing old, losing that youthful hunger and finding one’s self within adult life, something that we all will face in our own time.

However, maybe because I’m seeing far too much of this in real time with all the Timehop’s on my social network feeds. Perhaps the fact that I rewatched the far more affecting Synecdoche, New York (2008) recently, hampered my ability to connect with the film on its own terms. I can’t, however, shake off the feeling that those tugging feelings of regret have been far more memorable than here, in which we rewatch an admittedly on form Stiller, do the on-edge and self-absorbed shtick once more, albeit in a more mature form. Growing up is hard to do. 

THE LOST INTERVIEWS - Street Fighter - 9.4.15

itunes pic

In another 'lost interview' from last year, Tony talks to best mate & writer Lee Chrimes about his favourite film, Street Fighter...

from Black Hole Cinema


Sunday, 5 April 2015

Review: Starry Eyes

Year: 2014 (U.K Release 2015)
Director: Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer
Screenplay: Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer
Starring: Alex Essoe, Amanda Fuller, Noah Segan

Synopsis is here:

It’s no surprise that that producers of The Innkeepers also had a hand in the terrifically nasty Starry Eyes. This film not only has Pat Healy (Cheap Thrills) in a comical yet slightly leery, small role. It also has a similar deliberate pace to it. Along with the likes of The House of the Devil (2009), Resolution (2012) and It Follows (2015) – three films which also take their time with their thrills - Starry Eyes enjoys hanging out with its characters. Peeling back the amour of who we watch, leaving only their exposed areas. It adds itself to the growing list of recent horror films that want to attach ourselves to the vulnerability of the people we see. Not to say we haven’t seen this in horror before, but the likes of the aforementioned films have clearly strived to make the lives of their characters more prominent.

The film’s wish to give its characters and story some consideration, poses advantages and disadvantages to the piece as a whole. We’re more poised with empathy for Sarah (Essoe), the demure yet determined young actress, once the carnage starts. Yet we have to contend with the fact that her friends are arseholes. Sarah story is compelling in its own indie movie way. However, so much of this is due to Alex Essoe‘s well balanced and powerful physical performance. If this doesn’t connect with a more impatient viewer, I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t wait until the end.

This is not to say that the clues aren’t there. We see the subtle anguish and detachment that escalates after her fated audition with a faded yet infamous production company. Tensions between Sarah are illustrated by her frustrations of failed auditions, her dead-end fast food job and bitchy friends. As the tensions rise, we notice that Sarah is really quite fragile. Once the claws of the cult begin to dig their fingers in, her stability, both mentally and physically, begins to disintegrate.  Kölsch and Widmyer use effective dream sequences to exhibit her frailty, including a devastatingly simple “missing dialogue” set piece which reminded me of the creepiest moments of Nintendo’s Eternal Darkness.

What I really enjoyed about Starry Eyes, is how it becomes a sly dig at the disintegration of independent filmmaking and comment on the murkiness of Hollywood ambition and desire of fame. The films under lit cinematography of an overcast L.A only helps to highlight the gloomy state that inhabits Sarah and her ambitious young friends, who always chat about their movie, but seemingly get nothing done. It is only the old hands who succeed in the fame game as the youthful are eaten alive.

As the film pushes on, Starry Eyes appears to be influenced by the likes of Kill List (2011), capturing the same tone of despair felt by the despondent characters featured in Ben Wheatley’s brutal thriller. Starry Eye’s climax also holds similar aspects to Wheatley’s film thematically, with the film playing out a comparable fatalistic conclusion for those desires for material wealth. Yet it seems clear to me that the filmmakers most far reaching and explicit influences are that of Brian Yuzna’s Society (1989) and Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession (1981), with Alex Essoe’s appearance and features bearing more than a small resemblance. An eye colour change near the film's end really feels like a tip off.

While Starry Eyes isn’t as deranged as Zulawski’s unhinged offering, it does have a fun time hanging near the same ballpark. As Essoe clings to her slipping sanity, I became more drawn to her performance. Once the film raises the stakes, and turns the volume up on the body horror, I found myself more involved with the film and with what Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer were doing with it. I will say that it takes a while to get where it’s going, but any film that would make an interesting (yet depraved) double bill with David Cronenberg’s Map to the Stars (2014) is a winner in my book. A nefarious entry for the corrupt little bastard in all of us.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

THE LOST INTERVIEWS - Dawn of the Dead - 2.4.15

itunes pic

In another 'lost interview' from last year, Tony talks to writer & film fan Ian Austin about his favourite film, Dawn of the Dead...

from Black Hole Cinema