Friday 9 December 2016

Self Imposed Hiatus

Hey All.

This is just a note to say that while I've still been writing about and watching movies. My blog has become slightly unused. There are a few reasons behind this. I moved house, I took up photography, I was writing for online publication; The London Economic. However, the main reason was simply that I was falling behind with personal viewing and current releases.

This is likely to change come January when I get back on the horse and look towards filling the site with reviews and articles again.

Until then please enjoy another little passion project that has come about. My new film and media Podcast with my good friend Hugh K David. I introduce you to Hustler of Culture!

I will see you in January where I'll be ready to get my teeth into new releases again.

See you then.


Monday 8 August 2016

Review: Suicide Squad

Year: 2016
Director: David Ayer,
Screenplay: David Ayer
Starring: Will Smith, Jared Leto, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Jay Hernandez, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Ike Barinholtz, Scott Eastwood, Cara Delevingne.

Synopsis is here:

I left the screening of Suicide Squad, took a large breath and let out an almighty sigh. Is this what’s causing all the fracas? This humdrum blockbuster? I feel we as filmgoers need to get our priorities straight. This summer, I’ve watched fans claim critics gain payment for back Disney and Marvel. I’ve rolled my eyes at the number of hot takes asking why Ghostbusters (2016) became the most politicised movie of the summer, possibly the year. Now, I watch fans once again attack film critics about disliking a movie (again this started before they even saw it themselves) as if there’s some sort of evil conspiracy. Let’s be clear. There isn’t.

Amusingly, at the time of writing, news reports have announced that the Warner Brothers feature has made such a killing at the box office that it’s broke an August record.  So there’s really no need to pile on film reviewers because most people would rather listen to marketing anyway. Reviews for these movies “made for the fans” are not for fans to read. They’ve already paid for their midnight screening ticket. Therefore, what we see is a bunch of faceless fans attack and insult movie lovers because they do not agree with what’s been written. Because of this, the story becomes about the “fans” and not about the movie itself, which in turn gains an inflated sense of self because even bad news is good news.

Suicide Squad isn’t the worst movie I’ve seen, but it’s not worth remembering either. Again, like many mainstream movies of recent times, the get behind it is more about knowledge of the brand and good marketing than movie mechanics. This is a film with a mid-level video game plot, needless characters and little building of stakes or relationships. Half of the films interactions are quips, while much of the rest is plot exposition. It’s not a film that feels organic in how it’s narrative or characters come about. At times, it feels like a rough cut than a final draft of a film. However, it has Harley Quinn (a spunky Margot Robbie) so therefore you should like it.

This annoys me. Simply because there’s more than enough elements in Suicide Squad to be better than it was. So often the film reminded me of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel/Batman vs Superman, in that all three films are trying to remind viewers that they’re comic book movies and framing them as such. The way certain edits are slapped together wouldn’t feel too out of place in a three frame panel of a graphic novel. If I’m correct on this, then what Snyder, Ayer and the DC/Warner Brothers tribe are doing is really quite noble. The dark anti-hero angle matches up with the sombre take on these DC heroes and is a suitable contrast against the more colourful Marvel film. I enjoyed the visuals of the film (I never found them to be too dark) and I really liked the sly references to the likes of Watchmen as well as one or two of the films Easter eggs, which seem to be less shoehorned in than what we saw in Batman vs Superman (2016).

It’s important to realise however I felt this for the smaller “surprises” as opposed to the great, big whopping open air secret of Jared Leto’s Joker (the worst live action rendition in current record), or the extended cameo of a certain caped crusader whose distracting appearances seem to do little but highlight that we’re watching a DC/Warner film than anything else. It’s not impossible to cut both Batman and the Joker from Suicide Squad and miss very little, yet the marketing has done much to constantly notify people of their presence.

Instead what did get hacked to shreds is the film’s tone and pace, which ranges from shots that feel cut a fraction too short to the film’s actual (bobbins) plot and characters never really gelling the way they should. A frustration because Ayer gains some good performances from his cast. I’m reminded that while Will Smith never took up Tarantino's ask to be in Django Unchained (2012), he had the charisma to do in his sleep. Robbie’s spritely display as Harley Quinn again shows that this is an actress with presence. The character is a shot in the eye for decent gender politics, but I’m not looking for that in a film about these types of villainous anti-heroes. Robbie and Smith are bright sparks because they do a lot with so little and give the film some semblance of heart. Kudos should go to Viola Davis who should be given more to do as Amanda Waller, and Jai Courtney who from this performance as the stupidly named Captain Boomerang, should be seen in more comedic scumbag roles.

This leads us to the film’s comedy in general which is not only hit and miss (I did laugh more than the rest of the audience) but seems to be relatively unneeded. The rumours of the film firstly having a darker cut before being reined back in by the studios after the reaction to Batman vs Superman are key to the films misshapen tone. Do I need a film called Suicide Squad to make me chuckle like a Marvel film? Not necessarily. Jokes fly over the audience in a way that made me cry structure rather than with laughter. Then again, I’d rather The Joker not feel like he could easily turn up in the sequel to The Mask (1995). Again, when we consider the tone of the film, what is Leto’s character about? He’s not funny, but he’s also not that scary or sadistic. Sticking out like a sore thumb from a different movie. Moments like this happen once or twice with Suicide Squad.

I tried hard to like Suicide Squad, but it’s a film set up incorrectly for a range of bad reasons. It gives us truckloads of introductions, but because the DC universe seems to be set up more tail end first, it’s difficult to give a damn about these villains. It’s a film about violent anti-heroes but like Batman vs Superman, it knows that it can’t get “too dark”, so stumbles towards PG-13 while watching Deadpool live it up with the hack and slash. This is despite having a tone and premise which suggests otherwise. It is yet ANOTHER superhero movie with a rubbish, uninteresting villain and a city being destroyed by a blue twirling sky portal type thing. Is there a wholesale on these things?  

This is unfortunately what happens when you watch a studio try and play catch up. If fans want to attack critics for disliking the films they want to see, then fine. The fact is, it is all too easy to imagine a parallel universe in which Warner Brothers is setting up a Crisis on Infinite Earth two-parter, after Justice League 2 made over a billion at the Box Office. Marvel? Well, they didn’t get going after a badly judged Guardians of the Galaxy idea. It’s not a disliking of the premise or the comic book company, but the hesitant concern and meddling with the people making the films. The worse thing about watching a film like Suicide Squad is that for all the fans’ anger, the film does little to illustrate just why the source material is so loved. All that the Suicide Squad movie has done is remind me that the comics are probably more involving.

Wednesday 20 July 2016

Review: High-Rise

Year: 2016
Director: Ben Wheatley
Screenplay: Amy Jump
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes

Synopsis is here:

The blandly branded products that litter the flatly lit supermarket hint at Alex Cox's Repo Man (1984). The setting as well as the loss of mental faculties and civility hark back to Cronenberg's Shivers (1975). However, at the dark heart of Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise seems to nod more than once to The Shining (1980). It is much like Kubrick's adaptation in that it's an altered take on a well-known book. The isolated setting and claustrophobic feel also owe a lot to the auteur’s work. Only here, the ghosts in the machines and manic possession have little to do with the supernatural, they are man made.

Those who haven’t picked up J.G Ballard’s disconcerting novel, may find themselves at a loss to Wheatley’s new feature. A lurid tale of materialism gone mad, High-Rise follows Robert Laing, a grieving doctor who moves into a brand new, luxury High-Rise skyscraper with a broad band of professionals. Along with the other residents, he quickly becomes seduced in a world of all night parties, classist hierarchies and disintegrating social and moral etiquettes. The film is never truly explicit about why such a decent into madness would occur. Like all of Wheatley’s work, High-Rise slices at the specifics. Yet, like Ballard’s impish novel, it never feels hard to peer in-between the lines.

Those who know Ballard may feel that his caustic, matter of fact prose and eye for detail is lacking slightly. While kudos must be given to screenwriter; Amy Jump, for squeezing as much juice out of the orange as she can. There is, of course, as with so many novels, always text that can often help fill in the cracks and spike the imagination. Ballard’s canny way of getting his unhinged characters to justify the insanity as somewhat normal, is hard to replicate. It’s hard to imagine anyone being to get it right. Although I do feel that David Cronenberg, who dealt with Ballard with his adaptation Crash (1996), manages to capture the cynical, distancing tone and psychology of such characters a little better than Wheatley, whose High-Rise holds one or two elements within it not to have its viewer shirk with total despair despite its brutality.

That said, Wheatley along with his long time running cinematographer buddy Laurie Rose, not only capture the feel of the 70’s with flair, but capture the book images that I thought only resided within my head. The details in the design and setting along with the execution of certain sequences are near note perfect. The images linger long in the memory, as well as what they represent. Scenes such as the higher classes, debating with what to do with the rampant and primal filmmaker Richard Wilder (an excellent Luke Evans). Observing the richer types holding a high class party while having classical music covers of Abba tracks, nails the false belief that those at the top have over the bottom perfectly. That even popular culture must be "cultivated" correctly.

The decent into madness will lose some, but for me it was easy to tap into the film's observations on the culture of self. Looking at the behaviour in High Rise in both the film and book and watching at how politicians and celebrities act now feels even more relevant. Hell, watching High-Rise at times reminded me of the so-called "film twitter" at its most anarchic and base. A struggle between basement feeding bloggers (hello) and the "real" writers who only ever deal in snark.

Even the high-rise itself; a grinning beast of architecture, is the perfect metaphor for how many view today. Fear of our neighbours, modest grievances being the worst things in the world (first world problems). Classism running wild. High-Rise features much of this, although it's easy to see how some viewers will still question the logic of the film, despite the fact that even the characters themselves detail that reasoning accounts to very little.

The film does what decent Sci-fi should do. It finds the human element or as the cynical architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) remarks the “missing” element. High-Rise suggests that if given a utopia, our baser urges will help clamber to destroy it. I adore the fact that the film retains the book’s 70's setting, along with a white, middle-class population that still seeks to destroy itself. Not because I enjoy Caucasians tearing at each other, but because it highlights how easily the fear of the other is embraced. That if we're to have everything we ever wanted. We would still hunger. We would still rape. We would still destroy. All it takes is some decent time at the swimming pool.

Wheatley’s film is not only a return to form from his bizarre and distancing experiment A Field in England (2013), but it plays out as a cinematic representation of Marina Abramovic’s recent performance art, or even an update of Jane Elliott’s eye colour experiment. Ballard may still hold more acidity, however, Wheatley’s adaptation is a brutal reminder of how our desires of materialistic and the carnal can reduce us to the simplistic and primal beasts we try and hide with our so-called civility.

Monday 13 June 2016

Review: X-Men: Apocalypse

Year: 2016
Director: Bryan Singer
Screenplay: Simon Kinberg
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Evan Peters, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Olivia Munn, Lucas Till.

Synopsis is here:

Note: Contains Mild Spoilers (kinda)

It’s quite clear that I’ve not been prolific with my blog in recent weeks. Life can get in the way of things of course, as can my other hobbies and writings. However, one of the main reasons for my blogging neglect is the simple reason that I’ve not been interested in what has been released at the cinema. As I sat down to watch X-Men and found myself subjected to the high octane eye candy with its intent to melt my eyeballs with its explosions, I found myself thinking…”none of this is for me.”
I’m still (just) in the age range of the demographic that these films are trying to ensnare. I still have decent working knowledge of a lot of the movie universes which the studios are desperately trying to get me to re-enter. The reason I sat in my chair unimpressed with the twirling visuals that came to claim my pupils was quite simply the fact that X-Men Apocalypse, the way it uses film language and story structure, is simply for someone else.

From the views of my peers X-Men: Apocalypse falls into two camps: Terrible or Excellent. I’m not surprised that critics seemed to land on the former while fans leaned towards the latter. In fact much like Batman vs Superman, X-Men Apocalypse is less about being coherent or creating interesting stakes. As long as the films acknowledge fans with laborious pandering, then it’s fine. This is movies for some people now. Having the film recognise that it exists “for the fans” means it can disregard elements that are usually needed for those who haven’t been awaiting the next entry of the long running saga. Like Dawn of Justice, Apocalypse never feels like it’s telling the full story. But that’s unimportant because fans know everything anyway, so they can enjoy the “beta” version at the cinema, fill in the cracks and enjoy an “ultimate cut” or a “rouge cut” at a later date.
It looks like the X-Men, like the other comic book entries of this year (Deadpool aside), have now settled in. Settled down. The stakes are massive in that these heroes have to save the world. But don’t all these films do this now? Looking back at Ant-Man (2015), or even Iron Man (2008), these films were self-contained enough to keep the stakes interesting. Now. All these characters. These supposed grand stories feel more like lip service than anything else.

X-Men: Apocalypse has the same crowded character issue that has hobbled the likes of Age of Ultron (2015). We never learn much about the newcomers, while the old hands once again have their origins exploited as opposed to having their characters (or any new characters) grow or develop. The film spends most of its first act re-establishing Magneto as a villain, only for Micheal Fassbender to be wasted during the film’s climax. This doesn’t seem to matter. As long as he’s there. Hovering. Doing little else other than operating as the mutant version of the terraforming platform in Man of Steel (2013). The same goes for the film’s namesake. Apocalypse is considered a mutant of almost unmeasurable power, yet at no point do these powers ever feel as impressive or as dominant as they’re made out to be. Poor Oscar Isaac is little more than a heavily made up, yet utterly generic villain, who’s far from intimidating. The worst thing I found was just how little he differed from the Marvel’s cinematic universe’s Ultron. Although at least James Spader’s vocal performance had more cadence.

Like many recent franchises, X-Men has now reached a point in which, the films now bluster through to each plot point with little rhyme or reason. There’s no delicacy to the storytelling. Only an incessant charge towards another faux ending. In an age in which people go mad about spoilers, it’s unfortunate that the films that are given the larger market share have become even more predictable. Apocalypse nabs the villain’s aspirations of Age of Ultron and utilises a plan which is actioned in a similar way to Man of Steel. The heroes look to dispatch him in a way that isn’t too dissimilar from Tim Story’s version of Fantastic Four (2005). Everything feels too similar from something that was already seen before. The only real difference is that we have different heroes and villains. All that matters is that these heroes hit the same beats. An example of the film’s staleness? Look at the part Cerebro plays yet again.

Singer’s earlier X-Men works were praised for their simple but effective subtexts and relationships. Both X-men (2000) and X-2 (2003), enjoyed playing with allegories towards race, gender and identity politics. Such elements have fallen to the wayside. Why? To compete with the other comic book movies? Or is it just the fact that it quite simply doesn’t matter anymore. This film is so niche in who it caters for, that further X-Men features may not bother too much with any broader appeal. A shame, because it was this aspect which made the X-Men such an interesting choice for a mainstream blockbuster.

I must admit the film still holds are some highlights. Despite some distractingly grisly body horror, the film’s action hold a decent amount of scale. The Quicksilver sequence is yet again the film’s stand out moment. I’ll also say that both McAvoy and Fassbender are still quite watchable in their roles. Whereas Jennifer Lawrence seems quite bored with the whole affair, while some of the new blood are excruciatingly weak. Other performances (poor Olivia Munn) don’t even get a chance to show what they can really do with the material. Again, the film isn’t about any interesting insight, so some character merely stand around and look pretty.

My problem with X-Men Apocalypse is that it feels like just a set of dull set of individual sequences. A series of moments that never feel like a complete whole. The film has little need to implicate further meaning like in earlier entries. Now it has rehashed dialogue and tired gags to communicate to its audience. I will stress that this may only be me who thinks this. I don't say this as a defence to my negative view of the film. You as a reader can take or leave what I say. I mention this because the film sits with a 7.5 on IMDb. Not an easy feat. It's clear that it connects with people. But I'm not sure it's the film. I feel it's the source.

Note: Screenwriter Andrew Ellard deconstructs the film's weakneses in little more than a few tweets:

Review: The Nice Guys

Year: 2016
Director: Shane Black
Screenplay: Shane Black, Anthony Bagarozzi
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Russell Crowe, Angourie Rice

Synopsis is here:

There were times in The Other Guys were I laughed so hard that I embarrassed myself. Guffawed with such force, that I almost fell off my chair. This is not hyperbole. There were witnesses. I really enjoyed myself.

This is the Shane Black that I know and dig. Free from the restraints of franchise fare like Iron Man 3(2012). Yes, The Nice Guys doesn’t fall far from the hard boiled buddy comedy tree which Black himself has tendered for so long. But it’s absurd and convoluted noir plot, pitch black comedy and engaging performances is invigorating to watch.

If Inherent Vice (2014) was the modern riff of Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), then The Other Guys is Black’s darkly comic take on the likes of L.A. Confidential (1997). Here it’s the seedy L.A. Porn underworld taking over from the grubby mitts of mainstream Hollywood. It’s a perfect setting. If not just for pornography’s wish to be considered legitimate in the 70’s, but for the dubious amount of sleaze which unfortunately came with the territory. The film’s villains do obviously hark back to the same corrupt tribe which infiltrated Chinatown (1974), yet by setting it in the era of 70’s smut, the film feels like a fictional precursor to John Holmes involvement and demise with The Wonderland Murders.

The /Film Podcast’s Jeff Cannata was quick to aim a critical eye on the film’s apparent sexism. We see women used not only as sex objects but as furniture for obnoxious sex parties as well as MacGuffins. No doubt this is nasty work, but it also sneakily highlights the disposable nature we install onto so many sex workers. Despite this, it’s no surprise that the sharpest knife of the pack is neither Russell Crowe’s Jackson Healy (an updated Bud White) nor Ryan Gosling’s Holland March (a sly deconstruction of Gosling’s cool customer persona). The film’s smart cookie is March’s 13-year-old daughter; Holly (Angourie Rice), who acts as the film’s actual crime solver and the cohesive gel between both the central relationship between Healy and March and the very loose narrative. Black’s film doesn’t hold neat and tidy, inoffensive gender politics. However, Black gives his female characters a certain agency which larger films couldn’t even be bothered to define with any real clarity.

The Nice Guys isn’t particularly interested in being serious, in spite of its inherent cynicism. The film’s farcical set pieces, riotous reaction shots and playful deconstruction of its dirty detectives take the forefront over anything else. Gosling and Crowe have a great chemistry together and are both hilarious in their roles, with Gosling in particular shows a particular flair for visual comedy. The strength Black’s screenplays is often the comradery which grows between the main duo. Much like Black’s debut Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005). Here is no exception. Gosling’s scruffy loser trades off remarkably well with Crowe’s gruff, no-nonsense demeanour. These scuzzy deadbeats aren’t “Nice Guys” but it’s hard not to enjoy hanging around with them.

The films main mystery doesn’t hold up to any real scrutiny and the films plan to uncover the larger truth is beyond silly. Black keeps it together with film plays off at a great pace and seems to suggest that it’s within this inherent silliness that serious secrets may be hidden. If not, then unconventional partnerships could be effective.  Much like Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some (2016), The Nice Guys plays by its own set of rules, and does so with pulpy flair, sharp, knowing dialogue, and a dirty smile across its face. I’ll definitely see films this year which dictate their convolutions better, but I doubt I’ll have any that will make me laugh as hard as some of the “body disposal” I witness in The Nice Guys. That’s the thing, it’s a film which can make you laugh out loud at its grimness. A hard thing to do, but when executed well, it will have you pick yourself up from a dirty cinema floor.

Wednesday 4 May 2016

Review: Captain America: Civil War

Year: 2016
Directors: The Russo Brothers
Screenplay:Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Starring: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Emily VanCamp, Tom Holland, Frank Grillo, William Hurt, Daniel Brühl.

Synopsis is here:

Let’s get this out of the way now. The comparisons of Marvel’s Civil War and Warner Brother’s Batman vs Superman were always going to be made from the moment they were announced. In the upcoming weeks there will be think pieces and hot takes galore about which of these films “won” based on box office takings and opening weekend reactions. I’m sure twitter arguments will be abound about which is the “better” film. Nature of the beast.

After leaving the early bank holiday screening of Captain America: Civil War, I found I had no qualm on my position on the matter. Quite simply, Marvel seems to understand its audience better. Bitter DC Fans can complain about critics being “paid off” all they want. Such talk is nonsense. Civil War isn’t the best Marvel film. Heck, I don't even think it’s the best Captain America flick. However, in terms of balancing it’s characters and telling an engaging story, Civil War wins the so called battle.

It certainly helps that we’ve now spent nearly a decade getting to know many of the characters that appear in this feature over the course of various entries. However, this alone highlights the assured vision that we watch on screen. Civil War doesn’t hold many surprises, but Marvel’s control of their brand, while dulling a certain sense of wonderment when watching a blockbuster (do we honestly think ANYONE is at risk here?), has created an established and expansive universe that understands and maintains its tone, and is clear with its character motivations. Both Civil War and Batman vs Superman talk about “who watches the watchmen” and collateral damage. Both only really use them as Macguffin’s for beating the hell out of one another. It is Civil War, however, that understands its character between the characters and its audience. The relationship built from the previous films, gives Civil War more grounding, and yet, when characters debate and argue, you do not feel lost in mindless manusha. A complaint found in Batman vs Superman was simply “why were they fighting?” Civil War never has the same issues. We see the differing ideologies and their clashes as clear as day. There’s no need for a longer cut or after the fact articles to gain understandings which should have clarity within the theatrical narrative.

This doesn’t stop Civil War from being a flawed piece. On the contrary. We are now at the point where these films merely press on with their stories, less like a grand adventure, but more like a cosplayed soap opera. Civil War gives us the truly tortured Tony Stark so clearly missing from the likes of Iron Man 3 (2012), as well as hinting on budding personal relationship which may or may not come to pass in future instalments. This is fine if there was a solid feeling of these ongoing journeys actually reaching a destination. Civil War, like so many Marvel movies, are good at hinting at more to come. Tom Holland’s sprightly performance whets the appetite for a new Spiderman film. We’re finally getting Robert Downley Jr’s Tony Stark pulling towards some new ground with the character. Scarlett Johansson’s work as Natasha/Black Widow keeps going under praised and I could easily sit through the adventures of many of the characters that appear. Especially the ones who are female or black.

Despite this, I’m also clambering for a sense of true closure, or at least a villain that can truly keep up with the multitude of running, jumping mega heroes. What plays out in Civil War is emotional and at times satisfying, but to only to a certain level. The Buck Rogers TV serial-like method of these films enables a feeling of being fed on a decent burger yet never feeling full. Notice I haven’t yet mentioned much of Steve Rogers (A still wonderfully stiff jawed Evans) himself? That’s because much like Superman, he’s been pushed to the side to accommodate everything else that needs to tie to brand Marvel. The main reason the Captain America movies appealed was because of Roger’s character. The man out of time. The hero who doesn’t like bullies. That strong moral belief. Such elements haven’t disappeared completely, but they have to make way for Ant-man, Black Panther, The Vision, Scarlet Witchthe list goes on.

The Russo’s however, provide a decent job of trying to balance all these strands out. No character feels as shoehorned in as the characters did Batman vs Superman. Marvel may hold a certain blue print that many of these films need to adhere to, but The Russo’s have shown how well they can operate around Marvel’s slightly restrictive template, but do so with yet another film filled with tightly executed action, solid character beats and a vibrant sense of tone. Despite holding a certain amount of fatigue with comic book films, Captain America: Civil War still brings enough sound, fury and vibrancy to remain an entertaining piece. I can’t say that this long running film series is delivering any real shocks as before and the idea that one of their films; Infinity Wars, sounds more like a sadistic promise now that we’ve seen the studios long term plans. Nevertheless, as an enjoyable (albeit overlong) piece of fluff,  Civil War more than delivers.

Wednesday 13 April 2016

Review: Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice

Year: 2016
Director: Zack Synder
Screenplay: Chris Terrio, David S. Goyer
Starring: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, Gal Gadot

Synopsis is here:

The critics are wrong. They whine too much. They're far infatuated with what this pop culture brand used to be. Also, they don't remember how to have fun with the product. Boy oh boy is product the right word for this. The fanboys are wrong. At time of writing, I'm sure tons of comment boards will be aflame. Overwrought overreactions (with probable death threats) will be posted on sites and film forums. Trying to protect a film that will make millions no matter what. The brand will be saved from those nasty critics by the dollars of the TRUE fans. Boy oh boy is brand the right word for this film.

Let's try and be honest. Be it the negative reviews or the fanatics digging their heels, it doesn't matter because Batman vs Superman isn't really worth either. It highlights that Warner Bros and DC want to be the serious comic guys with the heavy issues, but does so at the expense of balance, storytelling and character development. This won't matter to the audience much. That’s not what they want to see. In the same way the Transformer franchise delivers robots smacking bolts out of each other, this delivers superheroes doing the same. It doesn't matter that Lois Lane does something incredibly stupid to maintain that there's an actual climax. It doesn't matter if the geography between Metropolis and Gotham exists in some kind of wormhole. Is a causal film goer or fan going to pick apart the fact that much of the film doesn't really seem to carry enough weight, from effects to character motivations? No, they will not. As long as the Batman and Superman are doing the man dance, little else matters.

This is unfortunate. For a viewer like myself, whose interest in Superheroes and the films they inhabit, waivers between intrigued casual fan to tired cynic, this film, which overzealous fanboys have crowned “only for the hard-core fandom” has decided to forget that it’s the broad audience that needs nourishing through these films, whether they like it or not. Batman vs Superman isn’t the worst superhero/comic book movie ever, but it is a comic book movie that could have been more than the sum of its parts.

I found myself once again sitting through a film which was exceedingly long, and yet has a narrative that never seems to progress. Characters make great exclamations, but actually say very little. Pieces of the puzzle get moved around, but never to build a fuller picture. It’s a film with weighty themes that do point towards a growing maturity towards the very ideals of heroism, and yet never does the film get to grips with what it’s trying to tackle. It can be argued because there’s some be fish to fry, but honestly, it could do with some decent work on the story’s connective tissue as opposed to setting up the next entry to its soon to be long running series. Claims of Iron Man (2010) doing the same is understandable, but it’s surprising what the charm of Robert Downey and Sam Rockwell can do. I will also say that the screenplay of that film doesn’t feel as patchy as this one, which has already had media outlets touting the 30 minutes extra left for the home video release.

Still, it’s not hard to be fascinated by the idea of Snyder continuing on the topics that raised eyebrows in Watchmen (2009). A modern world where idealism and heroism is dying and questioned. Cynicism bleeds through this film and to be honest, elements of it are somewhat refreshing. Even more so than Nolan’s own Dark Knight Series. Synder places these symbols in a world of black and white absolutes, Batman may be ok with picking up a gun. Superman questions the meaning of “goodness”. To even consider that world goes against what we think we know about these characters, yet still remains a compelling dynamic.

Other things frustrate. Lex Luthor for instance; a character who always seemed accustomed to acumen and preciseness, now feels likened more to a haphazard agent of chaos (similar to the Joker). Jesse Esseinberg’s coked up Trump Zuckerberg is entertainingly quirky performance, but the visual tics and manic energy do little to hide the fact that his plan to kill superman feels incoherent and unclear. We know the goal, but the reasoning never feels clear. Eisenberg always feels to be one second away from blurting out “everything burns”. Something that has never been his M.O. to my knowledge.

I also like the idea of a modern Superman, free from the shackles of Richard Donner and the cleanest cut Boy Scout image. But this figure is less tragic than just mopey. Heroism as a burden, unless it involves Lois Lane (A criminally underused Amy Adams). It's never engaging because Superman is never engaging. Neither by character or performance. Cavill’s stiff and dour Superman is combined with the angry and violent cynicism from Affleck’s impressive Wayne/Batman. The problem is in a film in which these two juggernauts are meant to clash, both heroes would happily jack the heroism thing in. There’s little to no conflict of points of view to really speak of. Just two miserable men being manipulated against each other. We don’t need wide eyed idealism, but Synder’s film has decided that neither character seems interested in nobility at all. This may not have been too much of an issue if the film settled on one of these characters. Because it doesn’t, we’re faced with overkill.

At least we’re given Batman’s origin story yet again, highlighting just how pushed to the side Superman often feels in a film which started out as a sequel to his own franchise. I have nothing but great things to say about Gal Gadot’s performance as Wonder Woman, but her subplot has little reason for being other than to wink at the hardcore fans. As does so many elements of the film (cameos, nods to future events, etc), which may have been better spent touching up the plot strands.
If there’s one thing that I cannot argue with, it’s Synder’s ability as a visual stylist and director of action. If the film's story felt as cohesive as the set pieces, I doubt we’d be obtaining the knee jerk early reviews we received. I can only imagine what the film looked like in the grandness of an IMAX screen. Watching Doomsday howling in front of the LexCorp sign is a simple yet effective visuals, as are the images of Superman hovering majestically in silhouette. It’s a shame, however, that more aspects don’t hold as much investment.

You don’t need to be paid by Marvel to see that so much of BVS is as unwieldly as its full title. Nor do you need a Zack Synder bias to feel that this is not the director’s greatest moment in terms of storytelling. There’s no anti-Warner Bros sentiment. If that’s the case, than why were Christopher Nolan’s Batman series so well received by critics? The reason why Marvel’s movies appear to be so much healthier (despite their own issues), is that the studio established a stronger structure to stand on.  Those claiming that its record breaking weekend defines this film as “good” should google just how often a film “breaks” a box office record these days.  I’d also like to see how they feel about Kim Kardashian. She too rakes in millions. Does that mean she should be adored with no questions asked? Same goes for Justin Bieber, Coldplay et al.

My personal view on Batman vs Superman is that it’s simply an overegged and overlong blockbuster. It contains some interesting ideas and some solid visuals, but no more. I came to this opinion a few days after my midnight screening of this feature. Others feel different. I won't be seeking them out with hate mail. I haven't got time. Some of us have lives to lead, Lives that don't need aggression about yet another entry in the long line of super operas. It may be interesting to see how the film frames itself in 2020 when even more of these suckers are released, but I’m not holding my breath in any way. Why should I? With Suicide Squad and Civil War are making their ways to cinemas soon, I’m finding it harder to find the time watching these things let alone arguing about them. Why fight in real life? Can’t we leave that to the Super heroes?

Thursday 31 March 2016

Review: 10 Cloverfield Lane

Year: 2016
Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Screenplay: Josh Campbell, Matthew Stucken and Damien Chazelle
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman

Synopsis is here:

What a strange beast this is! At first, 10 Cloverfield Lane is tense and taut thriller which coincidentally fits perfectly with the age of Trump. If spiritual predecessor Cloverfield (2007) already established the anxieties of a post 9/11 monster movie, 10 Cloverfield Lane provides us with an intriguing continuation of similar themes. As invasion of the ‘other’ be it otherworldly or otherwise will nearly always help breed paranoid human monsters created on home soil.

Annoyingly, in saying that alone, I may have given away too much. Then again, if 10 Cloverfield Lane wasn’t given the name that it has, then the film wouldn’t have already begun creating certain images in our head. The name alone gives a certain amount of expectation. We’re already on the front foot, with a film that could have easily been a clean and effective standalone thriller.

In fact, 10 Cloverfield Lane’s history reveals this to be true. Originating from a low fi spec script called “The Cellar”, it was only when the Bad Robot production team got involved, that the film became a new entry into a created mythology.

What’s created is a struggle of sorts. Most of the films run time is a sharp and enjoyable thriller which relies on two impressive performances from its leads. Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Michelle is resourceful and full of agency. Despite being kidnapped, never does the character feel like a victim. Winstead is a dab hand in these types of genre roles, and gives the character a hefty amount enthusiasm to make us care. We’re then given the formidable presence of John Goodman, with the kind of hulking, uneasy display that the actor can do in his sleep. Goodman’s Howard has an answer for everything, despite the fact you may not ever believe what he says. The fear of the character comes, not only from Goodman’s poker face, but from just how swiftly Howard swings into aggression, and the seeming falseness of his pleasantries. A man who consistently claims to his female captive that she’s safe, despite chaining her, drugging her, and posing threats of violence. Give him a fedora. He’d be a “nice guy”.

The struggle begins once the film breaks free of the claustrophobic world it has created. Dan Trachtenberg’s direction within the confines of the underground bunker is tight and precise. There’s nothing flashy and no shot feels wasted. The tension is more than palpable. Then the film’s final fifteen minutes occur, which “fit” when placed in consideration of the film that came before it, yet lack true definition and detail. It’s not that the film leaves us with questions, but more that it gives us bizarre ones which never felt the need to be posed.

This somewhat takes away from the many things 10 Cloverfield Lane does right. Its formidably oppressive antagonist coincidentally fits in with our fear, our neighbors era. Its heroine correctly shows us a strong female character without the stereotypes of a “strong female character”. The film is tense, well-staged and effectively paced. If the film’s climax doesn’t deter you, then you’re on to a winner.

Review: The Witch

Year: 2015 (U.K Threatical Release 2016)
Director: Robert Eggers
Screenplay: Robert Eggers
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson

Synopsis is here:

There’s not many horror films that trouble the mind like The Witch. In fact, I celebrate the sheer audacity of its execution as well as Eggers’ faith with the audience. Films like this are destined to be cult. This is not The Conjuring (2013) or Insidious (2010), which lean heavily on loud bangs and jump scares. The Witch is a film that is a triumph of tone. Establishing the same sense of dread that lies in films such as Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), The Devils (1971) and The Witchfinder General (1968). As we follow this excommunicated Puritan family forced into braving an unforgiving terrain with only the word of god by their side, we discover that what makes The Witch tick is the anxiety that stems from the character's suspicions.

Uncertainly is ensured as the fear, distrust and religion slowly bleed into each other. A child goes missing, crops wither, animals start playing up. Has God forsaken this family? Is it just dumb luck?  It becomes clear that the eldest child; Thomasin, is beginning to grow into womanhood. This alone causes serious issues between the family. Is it just budding sexuality through? Are we in the presence of Witches?

This unflinching portrayal of this disintegrating Puritan family unit lead by an immensely cagey performance by doe eyed Anya Taylor-Joy works simply because the cast is so committed to the situation. Eggers has stated that he was influenced by The Shining (1980) and that certainly shows, yet the disorientation and gradual shutting down of trust and mental defenses feel familiar to the likes of The Blair Witch Project (1999). Characters so devoted to their faith that it’s hard not to care for them when things go bump in the night.

The cast is helped on by assured direction from Eggers. Together with cinematographer Jarin Blaschke and composer Mark Korven, Eggers creates an environment in which a simple shot of a rabbit feels more discomforting than it should. A film made for a budget of $1 million dollars, the film constantly looks and feels like more money was placed in the kitty. The attention to detail is substantial.

The Witch could have possibly gone with being a little more ambiguous. While the film takes a slow ride towards its strange ending, it does reveal a tad too much of itself early on, minimising the curiosity somewhat. Meanwhile the film’s final moments to indulge more than some may need. This doesn’t stop the fact that The Witch is still rather bold in its execution. The film’s drained muddy colour palette and unsettling score do far more to unnerve than the latest “Lawton Bus” scares that will infiltrate in the next mainstream chiller.

I’m quite sure that despite raking in a decent box office take, The Witch probably spilt audiences 30/70 in terms of agreeable opinion. I do feel however that those in the favourable camp no doubt found The Witch to be a refreshing alternative horror which rewards followers who want to place a bit more thought in their horror films.

Wednesday 2 March 2016

Review: Dark Places

Year: 2015 (U.K DVD release 2016)
Director: Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Screenplay: Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Starring: Charlize Theron, Christina Hendricks, Nicholas Hoult, and Chloë Grace Moretz.

Gillian Flynn’s bestselling book; Gone Girl, features the now infamous cool girl speech, in which a character rants about a certain mode of femininity which they feel is prevalent in our culture. Type in Cool Girl speech into google, and you won’t only find the usual YouTube video clips of the cool girl scene, but also whole articles surrounding the moment. Whether or not you agree with the polemic is one thing, but the scene in the film (as well as the quote in the book), is an effective piece of writing. For some it brings around an element of truth. I know women who I feel possibly fit into the cool girl classification. Many of the articles were quick to dissect and/or debase the idea. It’s the type of titillating rant that could have men nodding or women scowling. The main thing is, it sparks a conversation.

I find it quite doubtful that Dark Places, based on another Flynn book, will do anything similar. Slipping out quietly on home release, the marketing blurbs on the Blu-ray cover, were quick to remind folk of the authorial connection. Unfortunately, Dark Places, unlike Gone Girl, holds little that would heat up the spare time at the water cooler.

Themes which cropped up in Gone Girl, also appear here. Class conflict, media manipulation, financial and marital strife. This is all wrapped up in a similar airport novel package. Jam packed with talk of Satanism, entitled amateur detectives and murder, which I’m quite sure this all sounds interesting on the page.

Director Gilles Paquet-Brenner decides that the best thing to do is play everything straight, creating a serviceable yet strangely bland affair equipped with a finale that only had me point out the ludicrous nature of it all as opposed to have it draw me in. On paper, both Gone Girl and Dark Places are potboilers you feel work on a heightened sense of delirium. This is something Fincher understands with his OTT presentation of Gone Girl. It’s a sandbox of absurdity. A hark back to the silly 90’s thrillers, but one with engaging slants on modern culture.  Dark Places may not be able to go whole hog on the macabre, but the film is so solemn, that it did little to get me caught up in the madness. Instead, I found myself counting the plot revelations, nodding at the workmanlike performances from the top tier cast and wondering if the early part of the score was influenced by the film Shallow Grave (1994).

 Dark Places may keep some late night enthusiasts and hardcore Flynn fans occupied, but for those who are interested in the type of themes that Dark Places glosses over, may I suggest the additive and compelling Making a Murderer (2015) via Netflix. A documentary which may be fact based, but is more engaging that this fiction. 

Sunday 21 February 2016

Review: Triple 9

Year: 2016
Director: John Hillcoat
Screenplay: Matt Cook
Starring: Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul, Clifton Collins, Jr., Norman Reedus, Teresa Palmer, Michael K. Williams, Gal Gadot, Woody Harrelson, Kate Winslet

Synopsis is here:

Triple 9 was unfortunate enough to catch the brunt of angry, entitled cinema goers when it was selected as February’s secret screenings. Some people in the audience decided that the film would be Deadpool despite the fact there was no evidence of this being the case. Ignorant tweets, walkouts and fantums ensued. Needless to say, secret screening does not mean advanced screening of the film you chose in your head.

It’s no surprise that a film like Triple 9 would be picked for such an event. John Hillcoat’s grimy thriller holds effective components and a substantial cast, yet appears in February with little fanfare. A film like Triple 9 can easily get lost when being released in at the same time as a film so aggressively marketed as Deadpool. So to see it come out a little earlier than stated would possibly allow some word of mouth to aid it.

One wonders if Triple 9 got a little boost from its secret screening. Did the word of mouth get any higher than “it was alright.”? Triple 9 has all the ingredients of being an exemplary heist movie, but it never quite gets there. Of course, watching a film like this has you recall the films of Michael Mann or relatively recent fare such as Ben Affleck’s The Town (2010). But while The Town pulsates with its meaty set pieces and the likes of Heat (1995) throbs with the beating hearts of the inner lives of the professionals, Triple 9 merely goes about its way. The film hints at a murky world of desperation, but does little in delving deeper. It’s setting of Atlanta, Georgia is perfect, as is the multi-ethnic cast, which suggests notions of class and racial strife.

Something seems to get lost in the edit. There seems to be more to this story that the theatrical cut is not telling us. Triple 9 starts out intriguingly with its opening detailing dirty Russian mobster money flowing through a dense metropolitan capital. The backstory we do get from certain characters looks to suggest compelling dynamics. There’s at least three separate collections of family ties that could be explored.

While Triple 9 slumps towards a relatively conventional and slightly rushed conclusion, John Hillcoat certainly makes sure that the cast and crew deliver from a cosmetic level. Cinematography from Nicolas Karakatsanis in drenched in dark covering shadows and warning sign reds. The film’s set pieces are effective in their execution and despite some clear trimming of their characters, the ample cast doesn't stumble. They play up to the sense of desperation the narrative tries to develop.
Triple 9 doesn’t deliver anything new or of substance, but John Hillcoat does provide an enjoyable heist feature that I would have happily sat through on a free secret screening.

Wednesday 17 February 2016

Review: The Revenant

Year: 2015 (U.K Release 2016)
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Screenplay: Mark L. Smith, Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter

Synopsis is here

If there’s one thing that The Revenant does well, it’s scream about how BIG it is. It wants people to know just how MASSIVE a movie it is. Just look at the scope, everyone! Look at the huge, vast plains that its characters trudge and crawl through. Observe the scale of the films set pieces! Feel how impressive it all is. The film and its creators are right. This is an admirably impressive piece from a technical viewpoint.

The Revenant also an unbelievably committed film. Most of the film's hype has been quick to note just how demanding principal photography was and just how dedicated the filmmaking became. A large scale production captured in freezing remote locations with short filming windows (Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki shot using natural light), the gruelling 9 month shoot was so challenging that crew members quit and producers were added to get everything back on track.
In watching the film, it’s clear that for all the struggle and strife, The Revenant looks the business. The actors are nearly shallowed completely by the surroundings and there is a true feeling of grandness to the imagery that is hard to dismiss.

When we take away the challenge of the shoot as well as the prettiness of the piece, The Revenant does very little to capture the soul. Its scant narrative leaves little to hold on to, yet its overlong running time seems to insist that the film has importance. The truth is The Revenant takes a long time to say very little. The film is impressive from a distance. Its bombastic sequences are definitely worth watching on the biggest screen possible, while the cast show full commitment at every turn.

However, in comparison to films such as Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) The Revenant lacks the chaotic constitution of man being lost to the all-encompassing power of nature. That's Herzog's area. Iñárritu is still all about the misery of it all than the absurdity. As with the likes of Biutiful (2010), The Revenant’s conventional revenge tale gets so wrapped in the pain of it all, that it becomes difficult to find compelling.  The Revenant just loves to yell about how painful the plight is.

The dedication from everyone involved is commendable, yet throughout the film feels uninvolving. Unfortunately, like Revolutionary Road (2008) this is one of those performances in Leo doesn’t want to be shown phoning it in. Far from it. The dial gets cranked up to eleven through every moment DiCaprio crawls, mumbles and grimaces. This is BIG acting, but it doesn’t distract you from the fact he’s laying it on quite thick. The fact that the elements made the performance a challenge, doesn’t mean that you must in turn love the display. Tom Hardy, as the film’s antagonist fairs better, with his bulging eyes and Jeff Bridges-like drawl. Both bring a certain intensity, but Hardy is given more to play with. A problem considering that this is a film built to show DiCaprio’s tactility.

We'd used to say a film would have every frame is like a painting. Now, the film, like The Revenant, they feel like HDR images. Despite the visceral "ugly" beauty of the visuals, the film seems stripped of the beastliness of its story. The Revenant lacks the transitional nature of a Western like Dead Man (1995) or the transgressive power of a revenge movie like Dead Man's Shoes (2004). The film’s final moments do little don’t reveal the pettiness of revenge, but instead left me feeling short changed. Looks and a contemptuous shoot make The Revenant and big screen curiosity, but don’t expect any devils in the details. This is a film in which everyone is screaming to hear their own echo.  

Review: Deadpool

Year: 2016
Director: Tim Miller
Screenplay: Paul Wernick, Rhett Reese
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, Ed Skrein, T. J. Miller, Gina Carano, Brianna Hildebrand Stefan Kapičić

Synopsis is here

Crazy, violent and crammed full of self-relevance and meta-humour, Deadpool, with its in your face snark and obnoxiousness, comes at the viewer as aggressively as its marketing. For the most part, it pulls its nonsense off with an entertainingly reckless abandon. It may not be Airplane! (1982), but looks to aim for the dizzying highs of The Zucker brothers joke ratios. Then again, noticing that Deadpool’s screenplay is credited to the writers of Zombieland (2009), you shouldn’t be surprised. If you happen to have a penchant for penis jokes, you’ll also be in good stead.

Deadpool’s love for smut, breaking the fourth wall and general piss-taking of the recent comic book genre is not only quite refreshing, but it papers over the fact that there’s little else in the film apart from this. While holding similar elements, it doesn’t push the bar of comic adaptations in the same way that Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s American Splendor (2003) manages. The latter movie shaped and warped art and life in a far more striking way. However, as a mainstream, superhero movie, Deadpool’s zaniness isn’t aiming for anything life affirming, and its fubar prat-falling helps distract from its tepid storytelling and blunt, uninspiring action.

Luke Owen’s recent article for Film School Rejects, touches on the idea that the film itself wants us to watch bad movies. Deadpool revels in snide side swipes of failed/poor comic book franchises (Green Lantern and X-Men Origins get a hefty brunt of the shade thrown). The main argument that Owen places across is that if you’ve not seen these poor cinematic entries, then Deadpool loses a certain amount of its edge. Others have noted that Deadpool does little to subvert comic book origin cliché and merely apes them. It is quite difficult not to be reminded visually/structurally of entries such as the sub-standard Spawn (1997) or non-comic book comic movie Darkman (1990) while watching Deadpool, among other films. It’s also difficult to ignore just how typical Deadpool is when the chimichangas aren’t being served.

Then again, Marvel Studios wishes you to read comics, watch T.V series and films in order for you to keep up with its chaotic timelines. Also, only now we’re getting into a position where new marvel characters won’t be set up with origin stories. The smirking, winking Deadpool clearly enjoys being part of that playground. It acknowledges its faults superficially, yet with a certain knowing charm. We are given nods to pop culture like Hello Kitty and The Matrix (1999) all the while bopping our heads to the specifically 80’s/90’s soundtrack, featuring the old school earworm Shoop by Salt n Pepa as well as Ruff Ryder favourite DMX’s X Gon Give It To Ya. Irony shouldn’t be lost on the fact that Wade/Deadpool is part of Team X in X-Men: Origins: Wolverine and is Weapon XI in that movie as well. It’s hard to see much of what it does as unintentional. There’s sometimes method to its madness.

It is hard to gain any sense of weight to Deadpool’s action sequences, which, despite their gore content, feel clunky more than anything else. Say what you like about Bryan Singer’s X-Men (Deadpool does often), but Singer at least gives us a memorable set piece in each film. Deadpool’s set pieces, merely mimics most of the comic book movies it parodies. Case in point, the film’s loud, crashing shipping yard climax, could easily feature in a number of previous Marvel films. As could the hum drum villains, although the opening credit sequence pretty slyly digs at Hollywood’s typical leanings when it comes to villainy.

Deadpool’s main strength is its cast chemistry and the rapid torrent of gags. Ryan Reynolds and Morena Baccarin are enjoyable together as is Reynolds and T.J Miller. The banter is juvenile and irrelevant, but the point of Deadpool seems to be that there’s little point other than juvenile irrelevance, something that does feel refreshing with the slightly disturbing knowledge of the sheer volume of upcoming comic book movies smacking our eyeballs. Deadpool’s fourth wall “knowledge” and childishness may not make it a superhero movie landmark, but it is a relatively amusing diversion.

Thursday 28 January 2016

Review: Room

Year: 2015 (U.K Threatical Release: 2016)
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Screenplay: Emma Donoghue
Starring: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, William H Macy

Synopsis is here:

Despite the film’s slow build, and it’s sometimes misguided moments of tone, Lenny Abrahamson’s adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s novel; Room, is an involving drama led brilliantly from the film’s main cast. To say too much about the plot, is to ruin things. The film’s marketing has already perhaps let in too much air. Although it would be difficult to sell Room without hinting at least some of its dark premise.

The film's bleak introduction is tough going. For some, it will be the very idea of what’s happening within the enclosed space. Despite being a work of fiction, Donoghue’s story was inspired by a very disturbing true story. One which may switch off one or two in the audience, but would surprise fans of Abrahamson’s previous works. For myself, I found the films first act difficult to get my teeth stuck into. Its situation is troubling, the cast brings forth the right chemistry, yet the stodginess of the piece (while seemingly intentional) becomes slightly overbearing.

Room becomes a far more engaging film after a pivotal event, to which we are suddenly pushed forward into a new range of dynamics. All from the viewpoint of a small child. There’s a slight echo of Terry Gilliam’s Tideland (2005), but while Abrahamson never delves into the recesses of a disturbed child as vibrantly as Gilliam, he maintains a similar innocence while keeping in place a wonderful eye for detail. Room is a film of close ups and reactions, both captured expertly by (cinematographer) Danny Cohen, who manages to display the disorientating effects of an encapsulated youth with a disturbing accuracy.

It is the leads who pull off the films real power. Brie Larson’s darting eyes and troubled glances are matched with the brevity of newcomer Jacob Tremblay. Neither performance is easy to pull off. Both are layered with emotional and give the film's extraordinary situation its pull, even if the catharsis isn’t as powerful as expected.

As an introduction to Abrahamson’s work, Room is far more accessible than the deeply affecting What Richard Did (2012), or his macabrely quirky Adam and Paul (2004). It still brings about some difficult watching and while it doesn’t home as hard as previous efforts (does the film need to lean on its score as hard as it does?), it’s certainly a solid piece of work from an upfront and ambitious director. It’ll be easy to see audience members ignore my heart of stone and flood a screening room in tears.  

Review: Youth

Year: 2015 (UK Theatrical release: 2016)
Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Screenplay: Paolo Sorrentino
Starring: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda.

Synopsis is here:

It's funny that amidst all the #Oscarsowhite nonsense, we have Michael Caine telling black actors and filmmakers to "be patient" when it comes to award nominations. Caine says this while promoting yet another film which once again highlights the first world problems of very wealthy white creatives. A film in which its director, Paulo Sorrentino, has already graced his presence with two years ago. Only this time we get more Paul Dano.

The rather gruff old man I sat next to in the screening picked up his stuff and left swiftly though the second act. A film about apathetic old men was just too much. Life's too short. At one point I too considered such an option. As a film, Youth isn’t a badly made piece. Its visual opulence is remarkable. The performances from all the cast hold sensitivity and humour. But I feel that I could have edited my review for Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty and would only have to change less than 100 words.

The second reason behind possibly leaving was that unlike its leads, I still, at this point, have my youth. I will wholeheartedly admit that what Sorrentino is aiming for, I may be too immature to fully appreciate. This doesn’t explain why The Great Beauty tickled the right spot. Maybe it’s because the texts are just so similar. There's little to be said here that wasn't said better in Sorrentino’s 2013 acclaimed feature. We go over the reminiscing, fear and lost loves of both Fred (Caine) and Micky (Harvey Keitel) as they grow old disgracefully during a holiday in the Swiss Alps. The feelings of desire and the wish for more time and energy witness are relatable to anyone who holds a close relationship with their parents/grandparents. Yes, we must embrace life, as to look back with regret is most disheartening. It’s not that what Sorrentino’s saying doesn’t hold a sense of truth. However, this was said with more bite two years ago. Toni Servillo wandering the ruins of Rome, looking back at his own feelings of unfulfilment within a city of such succulent culture gave an entertaining dynamic. Having Caine conduct music with cows wearing bells is cute, but doesn’t really do too much else.

Cute is what Youth often is. Having an aging Maradona reflect on when he had the world at his feet is a highlight. As is the film’s gorgeous compositions of the human body which range from the young and voluptuous to the aged and decaying. Sorrentino is quite skilled at conveying certain emotions and moods wordlessly.

It is difficult to believe a lot of Youth however. The narrative thread of Rachel Weisz’s character is weak on many accounts, not just for the bizarre meta reference of using Paloma Faith as a Homewrecker. Despite the amusing end gag at Miss Faith’s expense, the film often derails itself on such indulgent flights of fancy.

Should we have expected anything thing else from a film like Youth? Probably not. I do have to admit that the film is a bit of a let-down. While holding the same visual elegance of The Great Beauty, it lacks that film's sense of place. While lovely to look at, nothing really seems to stick. Although the screenplay tries incessantly to do so with its more obvious dialogue.

Amusingly, Fred states at one point that “Intellectuals have no taste.” Another cute moment in a film that could likely be highly acclaimed by intellectuals. My mind wandered back to the gruff man who exited early. I wonder if he left to watch a movie where robots fight aliens or something similar. That’s what I would have done.

Tuesday 19 January 2016

Review: Creed

Review: Creed
Year: 2015 (2016 UK Theatrical Release)
Director: Ryan Coogler
Screenplay: Ryan Coogler, Aaron Covington
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone. Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashād, Tony Bellew,  Graham McTavish.

Synopsis is here:

The bad news is that films like Creed, which has racked up a more than decent Box Office gross since opening on the 40th anniversary the original Rocky, again highlights that the cry for originality is only voiced by the minority. 2015’s top grossing hits have shown that despite the bleating, we’re pretty much through the looking glass. The good news however is that if such spin offs/sequels/reboots, etc., can be executed in the same manner of confidence that is exuded by Ryan Coogler in Creed, then the minority shouldn’t complain too much. Creed is a Rocky film through and through. Board because it has to be, sensitive when it needs to be, and bold because it’s expected. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree here, and despite there being the odd bruise from the drop, the results are still sweet enough.

With Creed, Coogler manages to transport the same feelings of candour and displacement felt in his first feature Fruitvale Station (2013), and tones down the anger and injustice. Here in Creed, similar issues and events are witnessed. Again, we have an angry young black kid who feels engaged by his surroundings and senses what he can be through application. Yet while Fruitvale Station was a dramatic re-enactment of an unjust and tragic event, Creed is infused with the kind of hope and spirit that only a fairy tale like Rocky could provide. Just knowing that the film lies in the same universe lets us know what we’re going to be in for. All the same Coogler is quick and wise to infuse Creed with smart updates. Tessa Thompson’s Bianca needs little coaxing out of a timid shell a la Adrian. The film’s first two fight sequence, set within a detention centre, dining halls and the back alleys of Tijuana, only highlights where the new fight for representation is occurring.

A potent blend of old and new, Creed is a fitting way to regenerate the franchise. As the renowned former heavyweight, Sylvester Stallone not only reminds us of how competent an actor is really can be (see also Cop Land, Rocky Balboa), with his sensitive seventh display of the down but never out Balboa. Jordan’s Creed is a perfect foil for the old hand. Jordan plays Creed with a brooding swagger and a magnetic presence. Watching the two bounce off one another and develop a credence for each other is genuinely entertaining to watch. The film is rounded off with solid support from the aforementioned Tessa Thompson as well as a welcoming appearance from Phylicia Rashād. Although her role sometimes feels a tad light.

What also feels a little featherweight, is the person who becomes the film's main antagonist; Pretty" Ricky Conlan played Anthony "Tony" Bellew. What Bellew has in physicality (he is a professional champion boxer) he lacks in the charisma. If there’s one thing that Creed really needs, it’s an Apollo.
Coolger does allow the spirit of the All American Champion hang over the film like a dense cloud. He frames the young Adonis shadow boxing against a projection of his father fighting Rocky. The first back and forth between Adonis and Rocky is tinged with the late boxer’s shadow. Even Adonis’ reasoning behind stepping into the ring is at complete odds with Apollo’s, yet it melds perfectly with why audiences loved Rocky. Even with heritage behind him, the fight for being personal identity stepping out of the crowd is just as strong with Adonis as with Balboa. Coolger exploits this element whenever he can, ensuring that once again a so called “urban” feature can feel universal.

When Creed updates, however, it really updates. The film's fights still have the “silly” knock around feel to them, but are made far more dynamic with Maryse Alberti’s wonderful one take photography. The fights are not realistic in the truest sense, but are brutally immersive in their own right. Coolger also shows his age (29) as well as his audience’s with visuals that seem to mimic that of EA’s Fight Night Series. If correct, Coolger shows that he’s not only smart with how he wishes to show black representation (highlighting Creed’s former work place is notable), but also showing new influences effectively. Too often films are criticised for feel too much like a video game. Coogler shows out to replicate such imagery, yet stay involved with the work.

It’s unfortunate that Creed stutters slightly as it hurtles towards its climax, the ease of how it’s conflicts are resolved, remind us just how simplistic the Rocky universe is. The film is clearly interested in continuing the franchise and sometimes gets a tad too carried away with such things. This doesn’t take away from the fact that when Creed hits right, it hits hard. The film holds blockbuster broadness, yet that doesn’t stop it from being a solid sports drama of its own accord. A durable spin off. With the sequel pencilled in for the near future, I’m happy to place originality to the side for this one.