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’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? 

Saturday 14 September 2013

Review: Drinking Buddies

Year: 2013
Director: Joe Swanberg
Screenplay: Joe Swanberg
Starring: Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingstone

Synopsis is here:

It would be easy to consider Drinking Buddies as “mumblecore getting an upgrade, but that would be a little bit of a lie. It’s been just over a decade since this wave of naturalistic, low-fi films first appeared with 2002’s noble but uneven Funny Ha Ha. However the sub-genre has been making leaps and jumps with every other entry, and much of the mumblecore crew have made themselves known names. Greta Gerwig looks set to be a generation’s indie queen. Mark Duplass has been making me guffaw in The League and Lena Dunham?  Well let’s just say Girls may become one of the most important female driven series of the tweenies (is that what we call this decade?)

That said, Drinking Buddies is a large jump from my previous viewings of Swanberg’s earlier work. While you’d be hard pressed to find a U.K copy of Kissing on the Mouth, with its rawer than butcher’s meat look at sex and relationships, Drinking Buddies has the kind of gloss that will make less adventurous film fans feel right at home. The film also features a cast that just wouldn't be seen in Swanberg’s earlier films. Credit should go to Swanberg’s prolific work and plaudits here, as now his work can commend stronger, more accomplished actors for his work (Gerwig aside of course).

The cleaner aesthetic and cast are certainly a shock for a viewer who knows Swanberg for his smaller works and not necessarily for the better. Thematically Drinking Buddies is still the kind of white first world problems I find myself oddly attached to (Yet, I’m cold to Richard Curtis...go figure), but the jump from the rugged, D.I.Y feel, to something more mainstream is a large jump and a jarring one. Not everyone will have this issue, but what excited me so often about the mumblecore movement was how the messiness of the characters lives seemed mirrored within the aesthetic. The upgrade in style does not mesh as well as before. It may just be me, but something feels missing from the piece and I really believe it’s this. Then again my favourites of the sub-genre (In Search of a Midnight Kiss, Medicine for Melancholy) have a keener visual eye than perhaps Swanberg, who appears focused on the improv work between the characters.

Like many of the mumblecore movies I’ve seen, I do enjoy how characters interact and develop. The female characters in particular. While the men are often the schluby, slacker types that we often find everywhere in romantic media these days (note the perfectly cast Jake Johnson from New Girl), the women hold a sense of control and emotion that I always find appealing. They’re smart but not always right, emotional but not needlessly hysterical. I find that if I take a dislike to girls like Olivia Wilde’s Kate (the best performance I’ve viewed from the actress), it’s never for long and it’s mostly because they truly have an amount of control that doesn’t feel held by what we expect a female character should do.  Swanberg’s choice on a heavily improvised screenplay is effective. Emotional moments turn on a sixpence, even if not as strong as previously seen.  

Drinking Buddies does work, despite the shellshock of its more commercial aspects. There’s no doubt that there is something taken away from before and that the same roughness that had me drawn to these kinds of films is missed. It’s clear from the films affectionate look at fragile foundations of bosom buddies, that this is not Swanberg “selling out” in the conventional sense. Yet give me a store brought video camera and a few actors that don’t nail there scenes as well as Anna Kendrick does, and I feel there would be something even stronger. 

Monday 2 September 2013

Review: Magic magic

Year: 2013
Director: Sebastián Silva
Screenplay: Sebastián Silva
Starring: Juno Temple, Emily Browning, Micheal Cera

Synopsis is here

A film that is destined to polarise the audience with its abstractness, Magic Magic is a film that will take people to the brink of irritation or sympathy but if it gets one thing right, it’s the fact that it doesn’t wait around for you to get your head around it.    

Set in Chile, Magic Magic is a thriller plays with cultural arrogance in the same vain as Repulsion or Frantic, yet seems influenced by the fractured psychology of Polanski’s most famous features also. Here we have a woman who is culturally and emotional isolated amongst a group of people too juvenile and ignorant fully understand what may be at play. The film can feel distant as there’s no sign posts telling you where to go, but even when the film treads on the line of obtuseness, the basic aspects of the narrative is simple enough to follow.  As a whole the film doesn’t pound its note as hard as Aronofsky (Black Swan) or hold the pomp of Von Trier (Melancholia), but it understand simple dreads and fragile emotions with an assured deftness of touch.

The island, in which the film is set, becomes the largest signifying aspect, morphing into a physical and emotional quarantine for the pale faced Alicia (a brilliant Juno Temple). One scene has Alicia out with her new found friends as they go cliff jumping. All except Alicia are able to jump in. She is quite literally unable to take her feet of the island, a place which has brought forth a huge amount of disconnection to her. Like Polanski at his best, the island slowly shapes itself into a prison.  Cinematographer Christopher Doyle takes centre stage here, capturing the off kilter mood with near perfect composition, and shooting the landscape in such a way that even nearby animals take on ominous presence with their gaze.

The films main strength is in how it maintains its tone throughout. The ambiguous nature of the film is kept in balance due to Temple’s fragile performance. It becomes apparent that the film subtly changes from a more conventional thriller with horror tropes into a subtle cry for help. We are once again seeing yet another “delicate woman in trouble” and Magic Magic doesn’t reach the same heights as the likes of Amer, Black Swan or Carrie But Temple keeps us engaged throughout. Having such strong casting in place, makes the “woman in peril” such a sticking point in cinema.

Cast-wise; it will very likely infuriate more casual viewers that the film cares little about the fact you may know these actors from Harry Potter, Superbad or otherwise. That said I'm not shocked to see Emily Browning in this considering her work in The Uninvited/Sucker Punch. Michael Cera does well with a one note performance.  

The pacing is a little wayward and the film doesn’t really push anything in the way of originality. However Magic Magic is a nightmare film which unsettles well as it toys with the lead’s fractured state. Magic Magic will only really turn on those with a particular taste for these things. The films conclusion can possibly leave you aggravated, but only if you don’t fall for Doyle’s beautiful camera work and Temple‘s display.

Review: The Canyons

Year: 2013
Director: Paul Schrader
Screenplay: Bret Easton Ellis
Starring: Lindsey Lohan, James Deen, Gus Van Sant (for some reason)

Synopsis is here:

Dull is not a word that I would use to describe, Paul Schrader, Bret Easton Ellis or Lindsey Lohan and yet The Canyons is a subpar piece that can only be summed up by that word. Ellis’ twitter spats; Lohan’s drug hell or Schrader’s upbringing would bring more interesting tales to our attention. What we have here is an over egged piece of softcore trash gussied up to try and be more interesting that it actually is. Don’t look at me as if I dislike trash. I remember recording Wild Things onto VHS tape. I was around when Sky Movies seemingly had all there shoddy thrillers before Channel 5 moved in. I’d be happy if The Canyons had a shred of the schlocky fun that some of those films had. Unfortunately it’s a turgid mess.

We open to a montage of disused cinemas, possibly alluding to the decline of cinema, perhaps it’s aiming at an ideal even loftier. It doesn’t matter as the film never really brings the point home. If The Caynons was able to transplant its love for architecture on to its characters, we’d have something tangible to grab on to. But what can we say about the people that we follow in this feature? Is there anything that they say or do that is worth our time? Ellis has often written about vapid, cynical people, but they've never been bland.

It’s easy to attack The Canyons for the sake of it, like so many people who do with popular celebrities that they claim to hate. But the film is truly a poorly constructed one, in a year where similarly sordid tales have been release with greater focus. I was not the biggest fan of Harmony Korine’s florescent nightmare; Spring Breakers, yet that film was at least well crafted in its execution of hedonistic emptiness. The Caynons makes even a basic shot reverse shot exchange feel like a chore.

The problem is; one can pick up on the films issues from the get go. With its limit budget, amateur actors and troubled lead actress, you get the feeling that pickups and reshoots would never be the order of the day. Far too often it feels like every shot taken is the first and only one. It certainly feels like the case with James Deen whose Bateman-lite character comes across as completely unthreatening. Deen’s enthusiasm does not match his talent and his graceless display seems to stem from a lack of direction more than anything else.  Compare Deen’s Christian to the disaffected gaze of Sacha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience and there’s a clear gulf in the quality.

But then again we’re dealing with a film in which Schrader, unlike Soderbergh, does little to play to the strengths of everyone involved. The juxtaposition of outrageousness and emptiness that looms over the work of Ellis is never utilised, while the voyeurism that litters Ellis’ works is also badly executed. But The Caynons is not really about that complexity. Its simplistic script is weak when compared to Ellis’ more popular long reads. Frustratingly, there’s nothing in the film that elevates it above its limitations.

You might have noticed I’ve said little about the films main draw, Lindsey Lohan. Mostly because there’s not that much to say. The actress has garnered praise elsewhere, but I found nothing of true interest in the role. Her face; now altered by surgery and caked with make-up captures the burnt out impression which her character needs for the role, but her actual performance gives very little. Much like the rest of the film, Schrader’s lack of control and Ellis’ poor script leave Lohan up the creek without a paddle.