Tuesday 29 April 2014

Review: Transcendence

Year: 2014
Director: Wally Pfister  
Screenplay: Jack Paglen 
Starring: Johnny Depp, Morgan Freeman, Rebecca Hall, Kate Mara, Cillian Murphy, Cole Hauser, Paul Bettany

Synopsis is here

I squirmed uncomfortably through a lot of Transcendance. I was slightly shocked at just how soulless the film felt. It contains hefty themes of man vs machine, techno terrorism, environmentalism and man created reverence, yet administers them with the sternness of a strict schoolmarm. Far too often I found myself siding with either the humans or the computers and was willing the film to stop being so po-faced.

For many, their main concern with the film was it’s cumbersome science, which joylessly displays itself fully in the film’s third act. I’m less bothered by this. Mostly because most sci-fi heads enjoy similar tales which also hold bad disciplines. Nor for me the film’s dispassionate treatment of its characters was what irked me the most. The actors (with Depp as the prime target) have been attacked for sleepwalking through their performances, however, Jack Paglen’s script isn’t particularly concerned with investing the audience with any real reason to give concern. The threat of technology taking over the fleshbags is something that movies enjoy exploiting, yet Transcendance does very little in imposing any menace. 

Pfister does transfer his keen visual eye in his direction with sharp macro imagery of accumulating in droplets and contrasting them with the vast, detached open spaces we’ve witnessed in Christopher Nolan’s escapades. The crisp visuals, however, are perhaps at the detriment of the screenplay and performances. The image of computer circuitry trapped within a dream catcher is a provocative one, but feels weak when we combine with the distant performances and cumbersome screenplay. 

The fact is we’ve seen these themes work better in more substantial features. It’s hard not to look at Kate Mara’s Bree and be reminded of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s alt-rebel games maker; Allegra Geller, in David Cronenberg’s greasy Existenz (1999). The film's main conceit should of course prod viewers in the way of Frankenstein (1931), but Transcendance doesn’t even have the scenery chewing mania of Kenneth Branagh’s 1994’s adaptation let alone the clean and simple terror of James Whale’s original. Transcendence talks a good game about the god in the machine, but forgets that the enjoyment of these stories is the hysteria and emotional response we gain from the folly of man. Sure looks nice though. 

Tuesday 15 April 2014

Review: The Quiet Ones

Year: 2014
Director: John Progue
Screenplay: Craig Rosenberg, John Pogue, Oren Moverman, Tom de Ville
Starring: Jared Harris, Sam Claflin, Olivia Cooke, Erin Richards

Synopsis is here:

For the first time in a quite a while, I found myself watching a film at the cinema with someone else. Despite the fact I gave my companion ample time to get ready for an mid afternoon screening of The Quiet Ones, she still took forever to get to the cinema. Even though her schedule became clear for her to watch the movie. I write this for the simple fact that I found more dramatic tension in whether or not my friend could make the screening, than I did in The Quiet Ones.

The film is a rather typical horror which, like many of its fellow features, is very quick to tell you how inspired by true events it is. The Quiet Ones is also one of those films that are far more interested in its multitude of jump scares over any sort of sufficient feeling of dread. By the time the first jump came about, I knew I was going to be in for a rather tepid time.

Despite its large spooky house setting and tight close ups, The Quite Ones does very little to fill you with any lingering fear. The film swaps from old 70’s 16mm film format to more crisp modern cinematography often but does little to make such switches beneficial. The characters are frustratingly archetypical and spread far too thinly for the audience to give any worthwhile concern. Jared Harris and Olivia Cooke have a lot enthusiasm but are trapped within their roles of boring sceptic and possessed waif respectively. Harris’ Professor Coupland is more disheartening due to the plain ignorance of the character as the film goes on. The films stilted screenplay doesn’t help things, repetitively giving us bump in the night moments the character has to reject without conviction.

As a story about an English haunting, the theme of repression are bound, with Erin Richards’ tarty sex-pot pitting herself against the repressed Brunette rival in Cooke’s Jane Harper early on. Unfortunately Richards’ alluring outfits are more eye-catching than any of the dynamic that occurs throughout the film.  The British (and the film’s producers, Hammer) have a long standing tradition in providing chilling tales, but this ramshackle production would do better in staying silent.

Monday 14 April 2014

Review: Noah

Year: 2014
Director: Darren Aronosfsky 
Screenplay: Darren Aronofsky, Ari Handel
Starring: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Emma Watson, Anthony Hopkins, Logan Lerman

Synopsis is IN THE BIBLE

I found Noah to be a dreary experience. Many fellow writers managed to gain something out of its more unhinged qualities; I needed more than the films deranged tone to keep my interest levels up. I do not consider it bonkers because it’s a religious text. For instance, the screenplay wisely eliminates problematic elements such as Noah’s age (in the Bible he nears 1000 at time of death) to level things out slightly. The film however, suffers from a troublesome tone throughout which is always hard to ground. Noah as a whole feels fantasy-lite, almost placing it in the same realm as Aronofsky’s equally barmy, but far more entertaining Black Swan.

Aronofsky has stated that Russell Crowe was cast to give the film the type of grounding a film such as this sorely needs. Crowe struggles with this and not due to his talents. This is a screenplay that flies into full The Shining mode during the last act of the film. Aronofsky’s adaptation of the text is clearly written with the audience in mind. Here Noah’s inner conflict stems from how he interprets his Lord’s message. If God (named The Creator in the film) wishes to end the wicked world of Man, does that include Noah and his kin?  Like Aronofsky’s earlier works (Pi, Black Swan, Requim for a Dream) Noah is a film where the protagonist’s obsessions slowly get the better of them. It certainly fits into Aronofsky’s wheelhouse thematically. It is just far too tough to get past the film’s meandering pace, awkward time lapses and outlandish skylines. Along with its bizarre rock monster/Angels that feel like they’ve wandered off a Tolkin text.

Noah simply does not have what made The Passion of the Christ so strangely compelling. No matter how you feel about Mel Gibson and his project, his visualisation of the message (even if it’s just guilt tripping you into his faith) is stronger than what we see here. The visions expressed by the likes of Judas had more conviction and the films characters felt more authentic. To quote Kayne; I’m not here to convert atheists into believers. Nor am I siding with those with faith, looking for a fully accurate piece devoted to the original text. Noah shows its weaknesses however, not only by having Anthony Hopkins come across as an older version of Woody Harrelson character in 2012, or by the amusing miscasting of Ray Winstone. No, Noah feels it’s the right decision to under develop the role of Jennifer Connelly’s Naamah. Connelly’s soft, subtle performance is the kind of grounding Noah needs in spades. The film’s cautious view of such a character makes sure that Noah remains a cult drinking game footnote more than anything else.  

Wednesday 2 April 2014

Review: Captain America: The Winter Solider

Year: 2014
Directors: Anthony and Joe Russo
Screenplay: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Starring: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Emily VanCamp, Hayley Atwell, Robert Redford, and Samuel L. Jackson.

Synopsis is here 

I do say to myself that I’m tired of this current stream of comic book movies. I still find it astonishing how some of my friends keep themselves psyched for each upcoming entry. I guess they do well to avoid the teaser teaser trailers and constant click bait articles which break down said trailers shot by shot.  Of course you ignore these things as much as a mainstream film fan can, one can still suffer from comic book fatigue. Evidence can be found in the hammer headed -marketing campaign that The Amazing Spiderman 2 is leading.

I complain about these things and yet due to this blog, the current film environment and that fact that I'm full of self hatred, I find myself settling down with popcorn to watch these things. I have become more partial with the superheroes. I abstained from Thor: The Dark World, for no other reason than I'm not especially interested in that strand of the Avengers (Loki excluded). Yet I found myself hitting Captain America: The Winter Solider on the opening weekend. Reason being, I simply want to see what they do with Steve Rogers thread.

Captain America: TWS pleasantly reminds me why I find myself coming back to comic book franchises.  This is a solid extension of what has come before with its head firmly placed with where it wishes to go. The basics still remain; Roger's is still the slick haired, Boy Scout action man, whose heart is so securely in the right place, you'd need power tools to wrench it loose. Yet there's a stern sense of growth. Evans deals comfortably with Rogers as a man who is a step out of touch with the world, but with the willingness and ability to adapt.

Observing at how the screenplay deals with an extraordinary man thrust into a modernised cynical world, makes me consider just how crooked the likes of Man of Steel feels against this. True the Marvel studio has had time, but it only takes a few scenes to see the deftness of touch. One scene based inside Washington's Smithsonian Institution balances Rogers as the relic he was and the hero he is. It's executed with a grace that displays a sense of assurance the Russo brothers clearly have, considering these are directors whose recent history is been more successful with smaller screen comedies (Arrested Development, Community).

The film still suffers from conflict. The presence of Robert Redford, paranoid mood and knowing establishing shots of the Washington monument do suggest 70's thriller the film aims for, but once the action kicks in, the tone sometimes gets swallowed up by Marvel's action style. While we gain more physicallity than we've seen in previous entries, most of the action itself still feels pretty typical of what we know. Less Parallax View, more powerhouse punches, although it's hard to think of the target audience noticing.

Joe Johnson created a Captain America with a similar tradition to the likes of The Rocketeer (1991). The first film's buccaneering style and compositions feel more comfortable with the comic book source. It's difficult not to feel that that The Winter Solider does sometimes feel at odds despite its larger, more confident set pieces.

 The Winter Solider still maintains some neat touches. In a film that talks about the enemy within, it's interesting to see Rogers have a book on George Bush on his shelves. Early talk about R&B singer Marvin Gaye starts off as an amusing aside, but reminds us of the artist's socio political leanings as well as his death by the hand of his own father. Consider this when we discover the identity of The Winter Soldier.

The uncomfortable notion that no one can be trusted is becoming key to this incarnation of this Marvel universe. The Winter Solider toys with the strand as effectively as the other entries in the universe. Unlike Iron Man 3 however, there's less awkwardness in the carrying out of the theme, revelations feel less like pulled rugs, while red herring play out more than adequately. A small yet effective piece of editing seems to turn attention to a character that isn't surprising, but hints at a dormant conflict that would throw up interesting outcomes.

I found it hard not to think of more Paul Greengrass more than Alan J Pakula. Evans has the kind of conflict of interests that bother Matt Damon and while he takes on the unassuming role well, the superhero aspects make him a little less affecting than the likes Gene Hackman, Warren Beatty or Donald Sutherland. That said, these films have a different agenda than their influences, or fan canon for that matter. People like me need reasons to keep coming. If Marvel keep generating curiosities such as Captain America: TWS, I guess I'll keep spending.