31 December 2013

Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

(Dir: Ben Stiller, 2013)

Comedic actors have a greater tendency than most to become tiresome when they play what is in essence the same role over and over. Take someone like Ben Stiller. In earlier films he was fun to watch but now his presence has become a reason to avoid a film. That is unless he steps a little out of the undemanding comfort zone to do something more interesting, which in comedic actor terms usually translates to dramatic. Let's call it doing a Truman Burbank, as Jim Carrey so superbly exemplified. Now that's not to say The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is any sort of stretch for Stiller, but it's a pleasing change of pace.

The character of Walter Mitty, a name synonymous with daydreaming since the original short story was published many many years ago, is a quiet, still man who is lost in the world. A man afraid to take what is in his grasp who instead finds satisfaction in daydreams where he can become the man he wants to be. Stiller, when not playing the fool, has the ability to exude an everyman quality that makes him both believable and likeable. But at the same time you know he is capable of taking those first steps to improving his life and when he does here it's so wholly satisfying that it warms the heart. The film is perhaps walking a dangerous line between seeming corny and inspiring and you're as liable to perceive it either way. But perhaps I could empathise.

This seizing of the day takes Walter to some cold but highly photogenic places, all of which inevitably look stunning and impart the sense of adventure. But there's also a clean aesthetic to the look of New York and a desire to capture the essence of film based photography and what Life magazine was about. The use of Life as the backbone for Walter's working existence and springboard for his adventure grounds everything with a feeling of purpose. It's a part of the historical cultural landscape after all. The film also benefits greatly from the romantic angle not being overplayed. Kristen Wiig's Cheryl is genuinely nice and the way the two engage continually feels sweet as everything is played at the pace of Walter's nervous uncertainty. It never oversteps.

The balance of drama to comedy is well judged too, with the laughs mostly stemming from the outlandish, effects heavy daydreams. Yet despite their over the top nature they're revealing enough to allow us to empathise. It's fair to say Stiller has done a decent job in the directors chair to make this all work. It's also the most I've enjoyed watching him on screen in quite some time - he just works as Walter. I liked The Secret Life of Walter Mitty a lot more than I was expecting. Perhaps it caught me at the right time but the inspirational nature of the story and the sweetness at it's core are quietly affecting if not occasionally rousing. At another time I might've been more dismissive, but there's something to it and that is easily embraceable.

30 December 2013

Short review: All Is Lost

(Dir: J.C. Chandor, 2013)

In the last twelve months there have been three films focusing on a single character stranded away from humanity. All Is Lost happens to be the best. Life of Pi bored with it's prolonged boy vs tiger nothingness and oppressive piety. Gravity managed to impart the sense of true isolation but in a scenario forever alien to anyone watching. Both relied on stunning visuals to tell and carry the story. All Is Lost feels rooted in a reality a long way from the fantastical and that makes it a more powerful watch. The man in this situation is more logical in his approach, maybe because he's better equipped, but he rarely shows fear or frustration and is able to improvise accordingly. This feels like a lesson in what you should do if ever lost out at sea.

Of course the real anchor is Robert Redford. He carries the film superbly in a near wordless role, dealing with the hand he's been dealt and coping as best he can. He's eminently watchable and helps ensure the film never drags or feels stretched out. The way it's shot enhances the feeling that this could happen to anybody and the storm scenes are gripping, edge of your seat stuff, whilst the loneliness and foolhardiness of heading out into the ocean alone ripples throughout, along with a sense of futility. The narrative never veers off course or gives cause to extrapolate on the man beyond what survival necessitates, meaning All Is Lost never loses itself or feels like it's overdoing things. This is a superbly crafted film that's a great watch from start to finish.

29 December 2013

Review: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

(Dir: Adam McKay, 2013)

Let's get this out of the way from the start - Anchorman is the most overrated comedy of the century so far. That's not to say I dislike it or don't find it funny, I'd describe it as fairly funny and reasonably entertaining. It's certainly not the exemplar of 21st century comedy that many hold it up to be and I find the praise lavishly laid at it's feet to be pretty inexplicable. This is one of the most subjective genres after all. When it comes to comedy Will Ferrell doesn't seem to have too many strings to his bow, like Ben Stiller, Jack Black or Adam Sandler. They each seem to have one character they play, just with a different name, set of clothes and scenario in each film. It's variations on a rigid theme and when those characters are only so-so from the get go, it's easy to tire of them very quickly. Ferrell's Ron Burgundy is very much cut of this cloth.

This style of comedic characterisation, playing the likes of Ron Burgundy as the dumb, brash, narcissistic buffoon, has been done so much better in the past. There's no subtlety to a character like this, everything is forced or shouted and exists only on the surface. If we want depth we should look elsewhere. If we want variety, well we have his news crew to provide that and they almost always outshine. Steve Carrell's Brick takes dumbness to a point of interesting, willful obfuscation and Paul Rudd's Brian Fantana may seem like a single-minded lothario, but Rudd is always able to exude charm in the characters he plays. David Kirchner's Champ Kind rarely works however, just seeming too awkward. Burgundy is easily over-shadowed in this company as he's just not that funny. In fact he's pretty tiresome, regardless of how many of his phrases have entered the modern lexicon.

The setting of the Anchorman films is a strength as the seventies newsroom offers up the potential for much interest, yet it never feels fully exploited. In the first film this leads to a slightly awkward misogynistic angle to the story, which fits into the context of the era and setting, but are we supposed to find some of this stuff funny or just pathetic? The sequel has moved on from this and instead throws up casual racism which sits really uneasily and the only explanation for this seems to be that Burgundy is just an idiot. This should've been excised as it has no place. But then so should've a lot of elements of the sequel as it more than outstays it's welcome. A meandering story is not helped by nonsense like the incredibly unfunny lighthouse sequence. In a film like this less would definitely have been more.

If the first Anchorman is an OK film, the sequel is decidedly average. There are far fewer actual funny moments and many more misses, whilst it just plods on for too long. Inevitably the side men shine again, as do the cameos, but Ron Burgundy remains a tired and uncreative character that never needed to be brought out of retirement. Admittedly I find Will Ferrell to be a mostly uninspired, generic comedian who is at his best in films like Stranger Than Fiction where there's a sense of thoughtful creativity. If you loved the first Anchorman chances are you'll like this one a lot too, probably just not as much though.

16 December 2013

Short review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

(Dir: Francis Lawrence, 2013)

It should come as no surprise that Catching Fire is a better film than the first Hunger Games. What is a surprise is that both of these films have been so damn entertaining. Where The Hunger Games succeeds over other teenage franchises is ideas - there is something going on here that's interesting and almost adult in nature. There's also a whole lot of world-building to be done in the great tradition of science fiction, which this seems to borderline be, and a central conceit that although essentially ripped off from the book / film Battle Royale, works by adding a different cultural spin that feels more relatable to modern times, even if that twist itself has been riffed on for many years. Catching Fire should be a better film as the hard-work establishing everything has been done, so a more developed story can now (in theory) be told.

Whereas in the first film the world-building and preparation was fascinating whilst the games themselves were a somewhat frustratingly drawn out toothless experience, Catching Fire ends up in the reverse position. The weak point of this film is the touring of the "special" couple and the flaccid romance between Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Gale (Liam Hemsworth), but it comes alive again as soon as the prospect of a new games is upon us with a focus on politics and who can or can't be trusted. These games are instantly more interesting with a better premise and a touch more menace, with foes who actually seem like they might be dangerous. Also helping greatly are Donald Sutherland's President Snow, who gets a decent amount of time to snarl, and Philip Seymour Hoffman proving why he is an asset to every film he appears in. Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson remain likeable even if Katniss' brooding negativity gets annoying. At least we continue to have a strong female lead and the romance side of things is downplayed in the second half.

Catching Fire offers another couple hours decent entertainment and like the first film, I'm left wanting to know where this is all going. It may end suddenly but it probably happens at about the right point, and at least the film gets better as it progresses. There really is a lot of story potential here, but having heard from multiple sources what a mess the final book is, perhaps it's right to not hold out any hope for the last two films being as enjoyable.

15 December 2013

Review: Oldboy

(Dir: Spike Lee, 2013)

Considering the reverence with which the original Oldboy is (justifiably) viewed, it'd be so very easy to get into a debate about the merits or otherwise of remaking foreign language films for Western audiences. But that's a tired debate. What is instead worth considering is when a genuinely creative and interesting director decides they want to take on a remake. That gives cause to pay attention and maybe expect a little more. Spike Lee may no longer be quite the visionary he was twenty or so years ago, but his presence always offered hope that Oldboy 2013 might have something to offer beyond tiresome retread. In fact this might've been a remake I'd have otherwise made no effort to watch had he not been involved.

On the one hand it's pleasing to say that Lee hasn't exactly screwed things up, but on the other, I can't see a single improvement in the vision he offers. The original Korean version is an unremittingly dark film, not just in the ideas it has, but in the execution. At times it feels like crawling along the floor of hell in a suffocating shroud of uncertainty. This is one of the appealing aspects of the film. Lee crafts a film that hints at darkness but it never feels insidious - perhaps that's one of the problems of a safe-seeming American setting compared to culturally alien climes. Josh Brolin's Joe is an extremely flawed man, someone needing redemption and direction, but his flaws are excessively hammered home. Brolin plays him well, but there's something almost too obvious about his character, almost as if he's written and played by numbers, a far far cry from Min-sik Choi's masterful performance. In fact the same rings true for almost all the characters. Elizabeth Olson, confident but dark past - perfunctory. Sharlto Copley, strange accent and near farcical awkwardness - a rote eccentricity. Samuel L. Jackson, mean son of a bitch with crazy hair - another variation of angry Jackson. Yet weirdly none detract. It's that kind of film.

In essence, almost everything from the original seems to be in place, but none of it works as well. Most notably the final denouement, which in the original is a savage multi-layered sucker-punch of epic proportions. Yet the remake decides to pare this down to not only be far less complicated and lose some of the point of it all, but when revealing the whole "process" makes far less sense due to too much reliance on chance. Not to mention that Copley's Adrian doesn't convince at all, a much lesser villain than Ji-tai Yu's Woo-jin Lee. For anyone who has seen the original none of this will generate the same reaction, but for those new to the story it will certainly have an impact. Again the same can be said when comparing the corridor fight sequence, one of the most iconic scenes from the original. There it's a realistically brutal and impressively staged fight in one continuous and beautifully tracked shot. This new version seems badly choreographed and lacking menace, like a dated action sequence. Symptomatic of the whole production really.

The remake of Oldboy could have honestly been made by anyone, with Lee failing to leave his fingerprints on it at all, which is a shame, but possibly the result of such strong source material. He seems to place more focus on why this is a flawed man who could be incarcerated for so long and lingers on his time there. Thus the quote "You can't find the right answer if you ask the wrong questions" seems apt. Yet it's a strangely enjoyable film despite it's numerous flaws and it's interesting to see how it has been reinterpreted to be American. This is a film probably best watched without any knowledge of the original, yet I would never ever recommend anyone watch this version first - to do so would be to rob them of one of the most jarring and darkly thought-provoking films of the century so far. Stick to the original, treat this as just a curiosity.

28 November 2013

Review: Blue Is the Warmest Colour

(Dir: Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013)

"Love is a disgusting thing." That line from a song feels very apt. (The feral Hyperventilationsystem by Daughters is the song, if you're interested.) Love excites and thrills. It sets the body and mind into nonsensical convulsions of blind devotion. It doesn't ask for much other than to be constantly fed. Love inevitably hurts. It frequently decimates the soul leaving a feeling of insatiable and unreciprocated longing. Love is a disgusting thing and not everyone wins. Blue Is the Warmest Colour is an effective reminder of all this.

It's the story of a life and an awakening there within. There's a certain youthful coyness and uncertainty to our protagonist Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos). She's seventeen and thinks she knows what she wants in life, until something very unexpected throws her into turmoil - Emma (Léa Seydoux). This is a voyage of self discovery for Adèle, something best summed up by the literal translation of the original French name for the film - La vie d'Adèle. This is her life before, during and after love, writ over three hours of screen time (even if the international title is more intriguingly evocative).

The love that exists between the two seems to be on very different plains, perhaps most evident at the dinners they attend at each others parents. One seems like a carefree acceptance of the bourgeoise and a freeness to challenge previously held tastes. The other has a sense of restrained normality befitting a family with a seventeen year old daughter, with discussions of boyfriends and the like. One suggests freedom, the other undiscovered secrets. Adèle acts almost subservient to Emma at times, something she seems content to do and is the only way in which she seems to know how to deal with her pseudo-intellectual and artistic friends. But there's always a sense of unease for her, like she knows she's inferior and will never fit. She never holds the power and so her position in this love is always a risk.

The only time there appears to be equality is sexually, something the film graphically explores. Although one would imagine to see Emma as the teacher that never appears so - this is how the pair seem to truly connect and feel alive together. This is how their love shows through rather than every day domestic life as there are no social or intellectual imbalances. But sex can never be a panacea expected to fill the missing gaps in a relationship; nor can it solve problems of loneliness and emptiness as Adèle discovers. And so love is a disgusting thing.

These scenes may seem needlessly graphic but they show the core of their passion for each other and provide true context. Everything hinges on the believability of their relationship and both leads totally sell it. Exarchopoulos in particular is excellent. The focus rests on her and she convinces equally well with a youthful naïvety and pained longing. Both should be commended for the braveness of their performances when showing the true intimacy of love - it takes a lot for an actor to bare themselves with another in such a nakedly raw way. The film is shot to feel real with the camera moving as if it were an actual observer. At times there's an awkward obsession with close-ups but this is tempered with the occasional piece of beautiful framing - a close-up of the pair kissing, with the sun blinding through the gap whenever they briefly pull away, comes to mind. 

Blue Is the Warmest Colour hits hard like love should. The story remains fascinating despite the length and it seems almost impossible to come out without the feeling that despite their wonder and thrill, relationships just frequently end up being shit. If you're not careful they screw you over and leave you writhing in a desolate emotional agony - at least that's how Adèle seems to feel, no matter whatever else she does in her life. It's not a film everyone will like but it's a great piece of storytelling with superb acting, worthy of winning the Palme d'Or in Cannes this year. Recommended.

22 November 2013

Short review: Gravity

(Dir: Alfonso Cuarón, 2013)

For a film with so many talking about it and so much written on it, there's surprisingly little to actually say about Gravity. It primarily works on a visceral level, pretty much on all levels - at times it feels like an emotional sucker-punch, particularly in the early scenes where Sandra Bullock's Dr. Stone realises her chance of clinging onto humanity is drifting away into the infinite nothingness. There's something of an elemental fear here, something which in reality none of us would ever experience, but the idea of it is pretty terrifying. This may sound like a spoiler but really it's the set up for the film and the trailer reveals as much, yet of course there is more to the story even if it feels like it's stretching itself far too thin as the film progresses, leading to a somewhat unsatisfying ending and moments of incredulity en route to this point.

But in a sense story isn't the point of the film - it's a hell of a visual and audio enhanced treat. What director Cuarón and Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki have done in terms of make us feel like we're in space floating above this planet, with a fluid constantly moving camera that rarely appears to cut away, is deeply engaging and involving. This enhances the isolation of being so far away from not only humanity but safety too. And of course the whole thing looks beautiful. The multi-directional sound only serves to enhance this, helping with the disorientation and suitably positioning the viewer in the astronauts shoes when required. It's true this should be seen on the biggest screen you can find; and if it's a big enough screen to be fully immersive then watch it in 3D.

Gravity is not a film without flaws but it's lean running time means it's shorn of excess which helps immeasurably, whilst Bullock is excellent and holds the film together. George Clooney should also get mention as the perfect actor to play an older, friendly but slightly cavalier astronaut on his final trip to space, adding a nice extra dimension. This is a thrilling, exceptionally well put together film that exemplifies what the cinema was built for.

30 October 2013

Review: Strange Days

(Dir: Kathryn Bigelow, 1995)

"The question is not whether you're paranoid... it's whether you're paranoid enough".

This quote feels like the credence of Strange Days, a film perpetually overlooked as a mid-nineties classic. It was released at a time of impending technological wonder and freak-out, alongside the likes of Hackers, The Net and Virtuosity, but whereas that trio of films veered towards trashy entertainment and a caution that the internet could not just ruin your life but unleash a digital serial-killing Russell Crowe, Strange Days has always felt like it's imbued with something more. A fear of something big impending. A fear of how our history is inescapable.

Forward looking by only five years, but still enough to earn the tag of near future sci-fi, it's primary plot driver concerns a technology capable of recording and fully playing back human experience. The SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device) is worn on a users head, usually concealed under a wig or hat, recording onto mini-disc like "clips" all the sensory elements of that moment's experience ready for playback. Be it running along a beach or committing an armed robbery, everything is experienced in full first person perspective, as if the viewer is living it.

The idea behind this tech is fascinating. Surely we all live in a world where we'd love to experience things as other people do, not just for the alternative viewpoint but to live vicariously; to do things you never could or never would. Imagine if memories were not a hazy thought when you close your eyes but something you can relive over and over. How would that mean you approach life? Does everything you record thus need to be special or would you feel like you don't need to create new memories because you can live forever in the ones you already have? At the very least this seems to be what's afflicting lead character Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) who can only hope to lose himself in these recorded memories of Faith (Juliette Lewis) as every attempt of winning her back from sleazily controlling Philo Grant (Michael Wincott) becomes increasingly detrimental to his health. Inevitably in this world the film has created, this tech is illegal.

From a societal standpoint, the setting of the film is critical. Set in the final days of the millenium as the clock is ready to tick over, there's a sense of fear and pending jubilation. The Los Angeles we see on film is ready to implode, with chaos seeming to rule on the streets, where violence eventually bleeds into ecstatic celebration. It's as if society can't believe it's actually survived this far and is still going, but the crossing of this threshold is the perfect time to reset the clock and wash away past transgressions. As it builds and eventually happens there's hope that it could be a genuine turning point, and the celebration we see on screen imbues this in us.

But can we really buy into the hope that things will change? The allusions to the Rodney King killing and the riotous incension of the public towards such tragic racism suggest that in this one city alone, there's a lot more to change than can be perpetuated by this one event. Everybody feels like they're on the edge and it could go either way. Technologically speaking there was always a fear of what 2K meant (the Millenium bug for example), but in Strange Days it's more in the vein of what are the implications of everything potentially being recorded in a way that's relivable? How does this technology empower a serial killer, or cause the police to react when they find out they've just been filmed crossing so far over the line that there's no way back? Sometimes technology is just a new way to make things worse. And yet eighteen years later we're now at a point where police are wearing cameras to put evidence beyond doubt, whilst people wear them for life logging. And what about Google Glass? It's taken time but this vision of the future is getting close, sensory recreation aside.

Fiennes holds everything together. Nero is an antihero, a black market dealer of clips, the magic man, the Santa Claus of the subconscious. He's a chancer who gets by abusing the good grace of his friend Mace (Angela Bassett) and forever living on the the edge of a beating or repossession of his life. Why should we care? His pathetic obsession with Faith, who clearly doesn't want him anymore, suggests this is probably the only true connection he's had with someone. Somewhere along the way he became damaged and his vivid reliving of memories show a world far away from the combustion that surrounds him. The well-weaved story by James Cameron throws him into a situation where it appears his world may crumble and we can but root for him as in reality he's just a misguided fool. Typical of Cameron, Mace is a strong female character who begrudgingly puts up with Nero's shit because she feels she owes him, whilst Lewis plays Faith in her usual manner of unrestrained intensity and sexuality. It's almost difficult to see why Nero's so ensnared by her. Philo by comparison just seems to care about power and so that means she is his, as Wincott's mellifluous purr make it difficult not to be entranced.

In recent years Kathryn Bigelow has been lauded for The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, but by Strange Days she was coming off the fantastic run of Near Dark, Blue Steel and Point Break, with this fitting neatly into the slightly edgy but always superbly executed and visualised style she had set out before her. The breathless first person perspective scenes are testament to that for instance. It's difficult to imagine how a different director might've handled this story because she provides the necessary balance between social commentary, thriller, darkness and dystopian cyberpunk. I don't think Cameron himself would've done a better job. Strange Days may not be a revolutionary film, but it offers a thrilling and intelligent incision into a society raw from it's recent history and a fear of a new technology that could possibly set them free. This sets Strange Days apart as a piece of high quality filmmaking that incredibly remains a truly under-appreciated nineties classic.

28 October 2013

Review: Machete Kills

(Dir: Robert Rodriguez, 2013)

The original concept of Machete is a stroke of genius. As a trailer in the middle of the Grindhouse experience, and playing before Planet Terror, it runs like a two minute comedy of everything you'd want to see in an excessive trashy B-movie, hitting the nail on the head perfectly. If it was real this film would be amazing! And then this short punchy idea was suddenly a 105 minute film, with a proper story and everything, and maybe for that reason it never felt like it quite lived up to its potential. The revenge theme in the original trailer fit right, but bringing in the weighty immigration theme, though real world important, seems almost too alienating from the trashy concept of it all. Yet the casting of a bunch of actors whom you wouldn't expect to see in a film like this was inspired, and there is plenty of throwback to the grindhouse era. As such Machete the film is never less than a fun watch, but it's difficult to wish the nature of the opening sequence or some of the more insane scenes, like the man himself jumping from a window using someone's unraveling intestines as a rope, permeated throughout much more of it. Both Planet Terror and Hobo With A Shotgun did a far better job with this aesthetic.

So did we need a sequel and does it redress the potential that's lacking? Well, arguably yes on both counts. Plenty of shitty films generate many sequels so whether we need one or not is a redundant point, but the fact we get more of the character Machete is only a good thing. The question of whether Machete Kills redresses the balance enough is a tough one though. This is a film with clear intentions to amp up the ridiculousness (obviously it's looking to take that interstellar with the repeatedly suggested third part), with a story that veers more into camp stupidity. If the original trailer suggested a certain grindhouse dirtiness that was mostly scrubbed away in the first film, we're in shiny clean territory now. Sure there's lots of over-the-top violence and excessive spurting and splattering of blood, but the overall tone feels like a late seventies Bond film gone awry, mostly due to the second half of the film and chief villain Voz (Mel Gibson), with his clichéd space obsessed megalomania. 

Gibson is an example of the crazy casting that Robert Rodriguez seems to be pulling off with these films, alongside the likes of Charlie Sheen playing the President and Antonio Banderas / Cuba Gooding Jr / Lady Ga Ga / Amber Heard / Vanessa Hudgens appearing in small random roles. Most of the cast from the first film reappear in some capacity (villains aside) and Danny Trejo continues to play Machete like the badass he is, but this time round you can really tell he's starting to look old. Yet too many of these characters don't add anything and feel pointless. What's the point of El/La Camaleón? That's a character with lots of focus because of an intriguing idea, but who never actually serves the story. Whilst both Mendez and Desdemona and her band of killer ladies appear to be pointless window dressing. Like last time round these are symptoms of an overlong film - kept to a lean 85-90 minutes Machete Kills would've had way more punch.

Machete Kills other big failing is the time it spends trying to set up the third film - sure that sounds like it'll be even more batshit crazy, but this film feels purely like a conduit to get to that point and so will struggle to stand on its own. All that said, Machete Kills still delivers on the fun, it's just way less grimy than it ought to be. At least Gibson manages to bring a touch of his patented crazy. Regardless, I'm glad there's someone making films like this and that they're getting released at the cinema, although judging by box office numbers how long that continues for will be interesting to see. Machete Kills isn't great and the first is better, but it's still damn enjoyable for what it is.

12 October 2013

Short review: Prisoners

(Dir: Denis Villeneuve, 2013)

Prisoners arrived on a wave of high hopes - a bleak looking story played out by decent actors with hints of Se7en and maybe something vaguely labyrinthine suggested. And of course a bunch of reviews happily placing it up there with the best of the year. So it's a shame the film doesn't quite live up to any of this promise. The initial staging is intriguing despite being entirely unoriginal, which leads to a long, excessively bloated character piece that only feels like it has any impetus in it's initial frenzy and as it builds to it's intriguing denouement. Speaking of David Fincher films I was reminded more of the procedural Zodiac (lead star aside) as it tries to tell a slow methodical story. Except the difference between Fincher and director Denis Villeneuve is massive - cutting 30-40 mins out of Prisoners would've helped the story immeasurably.

What Prisoners has on it's side is a handful of intriguing ideas, not least how far a parent would go to get their child back and the blind ignorance to actual evidence that leads to devastating decisions in the process of doing so. Once we get more answers things become interesting, but the Se7en comparison amounts to about one sequence (hell at times it's almost more reminiscent of Saw), yet it could've done with more of this, and it's a film that feels depressing not least because of the subject matter but also the snowbound Pennsylvania setting, but lacks any of the visual verve of the aforementioned film. Hugh Jackman plays a determined everyman well, he's good in this sort of role. However Jake Gyllenhaal's detective is the more interesting character, but a frustrating lack of real development or understanding about who he is when there's clearly more to him than generic cop really limits the role. It's tempting to praise Paul Dano but he usually plays awkward misfit well so it's hardly a stretch for him. Prisoners might've been a more impactful film if it was considerably shorter, but ultimately it's a pretty standard example of an abduction film that in reality doesn't maximise the potential of it's ideas.

11 October 2013

Review: Rush

(Dir: Ron Howard, 2013)

It's a curious thing that despite Formula One being such a huge global sport, it's one mostly ignored by the film industry. Most films dedicated to automotive love seem to be in the vein of The Fast and Furious franchise or the metal fetish of the likes of Gone In Sixty Seconds. Actual motor racing appears to be a secondary consideration compared to street racing, so you get the odd trashy attempt like Renny Harlin and Sylvester Stallone's Driven, or the inevitable NASCAR films like Talladega Nights and the mighty Days of Thunder. But when you consider this is a sport renowned for glamour that's fast, dangerous and potentially fiery, especially when shot or edited in the right way, the visual impact for storytelling is there. Hell, even Iron Man 2's Monaco segment was more thrilling than the likes of Driven. Fortunately Rush goes a long way towards justifying why there should be more.

Tackling the real life rivalry of James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Nikki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), Rush touches their early days in Formula 3 before both are jolted into the big league and the fastest cars in the world, tracking the 1975 and particularly 1976 seasons. This is a sport intensely rich with rivalries and to be at the top exudes the essence of power, far more so than most other sports. These are men in control of some of the most powerfully wild man-made beasts, capable of destroying their lives with just the one tiniest miscalculation or mistake. The psychology of what drives these men to walk this knife edge is fascinating.

Hunt is the cavalier playboy for whom life should just be a party, with his dashing good looks, blonde locks and acres of charm carrying him from woman to woman with wild abandon. The desire to drive and be the best fuels his desperate need to win, paralleling his legendary sexual prowess. These are the two things he's good at so these are the two things he fully embraces in life. Hemsworth is dripping with each of these characteristics - you can see why everyone would love him and wants to be around him and why women so easily fall into his arms. Maybe there's a little bit of latent Thor still in there? 

Lauda is the more interesting, studious, detail-oriented counterpoint to Hunt. A man obsessed with the minutiae of what it takes to win, calculating every single way to make his car the perfect machine. He's a man with something to prove. His relationship with Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara) is arguably his most curious characteristic, something he wants but struggles to balance with the risk of his job, so the eventual realisation of its importance is touching. Brühl is excellent, taking the awkward social aspects of the man and not making them a barrier to the intrigue surrounding him. And once covered with prosthetics he delivers a stoic heartfelt performance.

But where Rush really comes alive is in the visual department. It's a film that allows you to feel intimate with the drivers and their machines, with editing that cuts between pistons firing, engines sparking and rubber shimmering from the heat. A lot of the racing has the vague feel of being computer generated but that never detracts because it feels visceral. Although a tendency to descend into montage too regularly, something all racing films seem to do, feels like it limits the narrative, yet it still feels electric. This is aided by the music choices - always very much of the era and adding a little excitement and glamour to events. And I couldn't help but smile when a version of Steve Winwood's 'Gimme Some Lovin'' is used over a racing sequence - straight flashback to Days of Thunder!

Rush works thanks to the way it executes the racing scenes and brings the thrill of not just Formula One but motor racing as a whole onto the screen, coupled with the emotional intensity of two larger than life figures. The fact that this story is based on reality helps greatly so any thoughts of it veering into cliche are negated by the truth. By almost underplaying the inevitably fated moment of destruction and its aftermath in the latter part of the film, this actually creates a greater impact. It could be imagined that such a film is essentially costume drama for men, but putting aside the flame retardant overalls and helmets, Rush is a film that should appeal to anyone who likes gripping or superior storytelling, regardless of their thoughts on the sport, much in the way Senna expertly played out its heartbreaking story.

26 September 2013

Short Review: R.I.P.D.

(Dir: Robert Schwentke, 2013)

R.I.P.D. is a film without pretension, without belief that it's any other than generic and is just merely trying to be lighthearted entertainment. That's not such a bad thing and in essence it succeeds. It's so lean that it barely wastes time with any extraneous exposition, rapidly shooting us straight into the story of Ryan Reynold's shot-on-duty police officer who has been summoned to work for the Rest In Peace Dept - bringing back dead souls hiding out on Earth and partnering him with Jeff Bridges' old hand Sheriff. The film ain't rocket science and it has more than a strong sense of Men In Black about it, but like that film it is also based on an existing comic book and is gleefully over-the-top with its CGI monsters and end of the world destruction.

What does elevate the film is Bridges, who despite feeling like he's slumming it a bit puts in enough effort to be the best thing here. His Sheriff is resolutely a hard-assed cowboy who believes in what has to be done but only in his way, the rules be damned. Firmly sticking to this gives us some great one-liners and an interesting character. Ryan Reynolds on the other hand appears stuck in the sort of bland role that's dominated his career and Kevin Bacon is pure cartoon villain cliché. Which is actually a fairly apt description of the film as a whole. Still, the humour from Bridges character and the conceit of how Earth's residents actually see these dead police officers is enough to make it a more enjoyable than expected watch. The concept itself has lots of potential so it's a shame R.I.P.D. is such a by-the-numbers film with really average effects, but it is at least kinda fun if you're really not expecting much from it. 

25 September 2013

Short Review: The Great Beauty

(Dir: Paolo Sorrentino, 2013)

La Grande Bellezza is a beguiling film that pulls the viewer through a range of emotions on its continually intriguing journey of an aging writer (Toni Servillo) in Rome. Seemingly oblivious to the marching of time he spends his nights partying with friends as if he’s a third of his age, living a hedonistic lifestyle that appears fun but seems to hide a sense of loss that he feels deep within. He wants to be immersed with beauty, be it from the city he calls home and the flat overlooking the Coliseum, to romancing an aging stripper, yet all this seems like a crutch when he can never get back the one great beauty that existed and then eluded him in his youth. Something he only seems to realise now as time races up on him and those around him.

Rome is as much a character in the film, with plenty of lingering shots taking in its epic beauty but in perhaps not the most obvious places. It seems like the side that people residents who enjoy the city actually see. The fluid camera makes it feel like we’re moving around the city and getting lost in it ourselves, whilst every shot is framed to maximise the impact of its subjects. A similar effect comes from the broad range of musical styles employed on the soundtrack which ensure things never get boring. Servillo is excellent; instantly likeable and sympathetic as the madness of life progresses around him. Yet all the characters surrounding him are unique and intriguing on their own little ways too. Not only a film of total beauty but one that offers a full range of depth, life and comedy - La Grande Bellezza is fantastic and up there as one of the best films I’ve seen this year.

18 September 2013

Review: Insidious // Insidious: Chapter 2

(Dir: James Wan, 2011 // 2013)

Insidious is a superior modern horror film because it gets the basics right and adds its own satisfying twist. I wish more modern horror films could follow this simple rule. For a good proportion of the film it's very content to just slowly build tension and atmosphere, creating a haunted environment that's intriguing and unsettling. Where it goes in the final portion is where the film undoubtedly loses some people, but it's a fascinating direction that allows for more creativity and to amp things up, which is something needed in horror. Take The Conjuring, director James Wan's other recent ghost story; a decent film drenched in atmosphere, but it ends with a generic conclusion that makes you wish for more. Insidious by comparison feels like it's running with scissors, particularly as everything escalates.

But even more impactful is an understanding of technique. Surely the three best ways to create fear are sound design, editing and placing of the camera. The scares are well assembled in Insidious but the way the camera moves before this takes place is most curious. There are times it moves forwards but backs off a bit before going into a room where a noise was heard, hesitant in a way that the viewer will subconsciously pick up on. Or the way it just generally moves around, or observes, or approaches an ominous looking door or gets lost in the fog. It's carefully considered for the environment. 

The music is a joy. It hearkens back to the old days of strings in horror - Bernard Herrmann's classic shower scene motif in Psycho comes to mind. It's the atonal pulling and scraping and screeching that rips right into the viewer. At times it seems almost excessively baroque, such as when the name fills the screen in a classic steely red font with a stark background, yet the fact that it's always on the edge of pushing too far heightens the unease and messes with one of the viewers two key film-watching senses. Sinister, with it's throbbing noise based score, was the last horror to hugely impress me on this front, but both Insidious films do something truly fantastic in this area.

It's important to not forget that all of the above mentioned aspects are only enhanced by the characterisation. Insidious splits the core duo into the believer (Rose Byrne's Renai) and the skeptic (Patrick Wilson's Josh). Nothing original there, but they feel convincing and don't do the stupid things most people seem resigned to do in horror films. Josh's trait of avoiding confronting things feels very real for example. The benefit of having decent actors in these roles. We're also presented with the expert (Lin Shaye's Elise) and her two comedy sidekick's (writer Leigh Wannell's Specs and Angus Sampson's Tucker). By not being portrayed as a "kook" who communicates with the dead, Elise seems relatively normal and trustworthy, whilst Specs and Tucker offer brief seconds of respite that don't disrupt the tension so much as give you more characters to care about. The role of the children is well judged, with Dalton (Ty Simpkins) showing a credible insouciance until things really start to turn weird.

Chapter 2 picks things up right where the first film ends and aims to follow through with all of the above. It's great to have a story that follows on rather than awkwardly shoehorning in some randomness to make a sequel somehow work - after all the first film ends with an obvious sequel route. There's a lot of potential within this story but it feels like it's somehow squandered. The building of sustained tension is greatly diminished by the need to jump the story around all over the place. So we have flashbacks, new character Carl (Steve Coulter) who takes Specs and Tucker on a (relevant) side plot, and of course the main plot. This breaks the singular focus that works so well in the best horror films, so that when there are creepy scenes in the house you have to readjust after having come in from a different side of the story.

Further distraction comes from a need to try and explain everything rather than letting things lie so your imagination can do its worst. Most critical is towards the end where a lot of what happens in the first film is run through from a different perspective which really ruins the magic and mystery of it all. I suspect knowing this may really hurt future viewings and the level of creepiness. I get that Whannell thought he had a great idea that can interlink everything but it's really not needed in a film like this, unlike Saw for example (which he wrote and starred in) where doing so leads to a beautiful sting in the tail. After all, isn't the beauty of these haunted house and ghost stories the unknowingness of it all, and if it has to be explained it better be something pretty hideous? The same applies to the unnecessary flashbacks to Josh's youth which only serve the interlinking - but on the plus side these scenes do feature Jocelin Donahue, the lead in the superb The House of the Devil [gushing review here], a film the first Insidious very positively reminds me of. 

Issues with how the story is approached aside, Chapter 2 adheres to a lot of the tenets that worked first time round. The superb music creates a continual sense of unease whilst there's more of the same interesting camerawork. The character of Carl is an interesting addition despite only serving "the expert" role, and Wilson gets to play Josh in a different way this time, which is good for variety but is really just symptomatic of the story going down a far too generic route. And again we're back to the story, which is an issue when the bar has been set high and a mix and match of standard horror clichés just don't do it justice.

Chapter 2 does a lot right and is an enjoyable horror, but the pull away from single mindedness ensures it never matches the quality or scariness of Insidious, where atmosphere and a strong focus rule supreme. But then this is a horror sequel so the law of diminishing returns are most definitely in play. Hopefully Wan changes his mind about no longer directing horror and comes back for the third chapter - he has proven he is one of the most capable genre directors around and there is some potential fun to be had with a third film based on where they've ended things.

17 September 2013

Review: White House Down

(Dir: Roland Emmerich, 2013)

This is the year that Hollywood seems to be accepting the position of the USA in the world and that nowhere on its soil is ever going to be truly safe from terrorism; not even the sacred grounds of the White House. That's just the times - and so to White House Down, part two of this big realisation that teases us with bigger and better explosions and a different enemy. Part one arrived earlier in the year in the shape of Olympus Has Fallen, a dour and cruelly patriotic film that reveled in the blood of it's enemies through average action scenes and a terrible script and acting. It's the kind of film you can imagine being shown at military recruitment centres with the disclaimer - this is what is gonna happen if you don't sign up to fight to protect Merica. It's still one of the worst films I've seen this year. [Read my full review of it here]. 

White House Down attacks from a different angle and it has a better weapon - it's casting. Again this film is simply about terrorists wanting to take over the White House whilst a lone unwitting hero finds himself in the position where he must stop them and save the President. And it's the casting of these two key roles that make the difference. Channing Tatum's hero Cale, a bodyguard hoping to get into the secret service, is handy in a fight, has an easy nature that makes him perfect to root for and is easy on the eye in his suit and eventual obligatory McClane style white vest. We believe in him, we want him to succeed. Likewise Jamie Foxx's President Sawyer seems to have not let power go to his head and is likable too, but the key is when they're together, which takes us into quality buddy movie territory. They play off each other terrifically and this generates a much needed level of comedy, which also comes from forgetting some of the presidential deference that is rightly abandoned in this type of desperate situation - such as watching the President use a rocket launcher from a limo's window with wild abandon!

The rest of the casting pays off, with a host of recognisable faces popping up to add credibility to the myriad other politicians in the film. Maggie Gyllenhaal and Richard Jenkins are reliable and play their roles well, and it's great to see Lance Reddick pop up even if he does overplay his General a touch, whilst James Woods conforms to his usual type but dammit he's always good value. Most notable is the villainous side of things, where Jason Clarke has the right charisma to believe he's capable of leading a band of mercenaries and that he'll be determined and hard enough to succeed. And this is the key - we're talking a band of mercenaries, white power nuts and a hacker who want to take down the seat of power; Americans, not the North Koreans or some imagined Arab state. As such this is a far more interesting proposition that serves to highlight how there's now the need to look inwards, which is always potentially scarier. It also means there's less over-played patriotism because it doesn't quite turn into America crushing it's enemy. Kudos for that.

This year has been pretty weak on the action movie front, but White House Down steps up to the plate and satisfactorily fills this hole, playing the whole thing for maximum entertainment value with overblown explosions, crashing helicopters and the thrill of watching the President of the USA with a machine gun in his hand and a limo doing donuts on the White House lawn. Tatum has so much personality compared to Gerard Butler in Olympus Has Fallen, who is so wooden that he only comes alive with a knife in his hand. Again this is the John McClane school of hero - we like him, we believe he has it in him to win. Even more amazingly the film manages to not derail itself by mixing Cale's eleven year old daughter (Joey King) into proceedings, as she offers a well balanced counterpoint, even if they do seem to be overreaching with aspects of her characterisation.

Whilst watching White House Down I was struck by a realisation that I was enjoying it far too much - way more than I imagined in fact. Sure it's cheesy, unoriginal, too long, slow to actually get going and didn't need the final plot twists / action sequence, but it's the type of decent action film that Hollywood seems to be forgetting how to make, whilst proving that a quality buddy movie requires chemistry and some levity. And pitching it as a reminder that the greatest threat probably lies within rather than outside borders feels like a sensible direction, as well as dampening down the chest-beating patriotism. We certainly don't need two films with this identical plotting, but there's not a single reason to choose Olympus Has Fallen over the ridiculously fun White House Down.

18 August 2013

Review: The Lone Ranger

(Dir: Gore Verbinski, 2013)

It would be impossible to write a review of The Lone Ranger without making mention of the mauling its received in the media, as well as the ludicrous reactionary comments made by the filmmakers [here] in response to the dire box office performance. If ever it seemed like the media wanted a film to fail, this was it. The reasons behind this keen knife-sharpening are mystifying, yet it's an attitude that seems to permeate large swathes of the media, who seem to foam at the mouths in anticipation of failure. How many times this summer have we read excited stories about box office bombs - After Earth, Pacific Rim, The Hangover Part III etc, or about films expected to be bombs. The media seemed pretty determined to highlight the plethora of issues that World War Z had getting made and reacted in surprise when lo and behold it did decent business, because you know, a troubled shoot and reshoots automatically equate to a rubbish film (look at how Apocalypse Now, Jaws and The Shining turned out after all). Why this desire to revel in failure? Whilst writing this I came across a ridiculous "feature" on Yahoo! Australia [here] highlighting the biggest box office bombs of the year, including The Bling Ring - a film with a budget of $8m that has made just short of $6m at the box office. A small independent film that's not pretending to be anything more - one of the biggest box office bombs of the year huh Yahoo? Get a fucking grip.

So what of those comments by Jerry Bruckheimer, Gore Verbinski, Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer? It's understandable they're defensive about the film, they've put a huge amount of time and effort into making it, but their righteous statement of its quality and how it'll be perceived differently in time seem blind. More worrying is their outright laying the blame for its failure at the critics door. Firstly, are they deluded enough to believe that critics play such a pivotal role in the decision-making process today? Yes, last century the opinion of critics proved a true arbiter of influence, but times move on and the public now has access to all the information they might need wherever they are. They can know everything about a film, watch it's five different trailers ad infinitum, have seen every leaked on-set photo, as well as know what their friends think about it all with the click of a button. These comments willfully ignore the fact that the world has changed and there are now other factors at play in opinion-forming. And with marketing activity now regularly starting so far out from release, including the media's excessive coverage of such big releases, it's not hard to imagine a bit of fatigue from audiences when the film does eventually get released. This can only impact the immediacy one must feel to see a film.

But regardless of all that, The Lone Ranger is still fighting something of an uphill battle right from the get go. Disney's decision to invest a reported and not inconsiderable $215m in the film was one hell of a gamble. Western's seem to be one of the only remaining genre poisons at the box office now (although this summer also seems to sadly suggest original sci-fi too). Cowboys & Aliens didn't do well last year, barely scraping it's way to $100m, whilst True Grit produced an exceptional $171m, but of course that was a Coen Brothers film aimed squarely at adults with the benefit of Oscar and awards recognition. Both The Lone Ranger and Cowboys and Aliens were aimed a lot younger, a considerable struggle when today's younger generation have moved on a long way from Westerns (for better or worse), seeing them as "old" and second rate in terms of the high-tech action they're used too. Yet Disney clearly approached this with the logic that pirates used to be box office anathema and we of course know what happened when Johnny Depp donned a ton of make-up, put on a stupid accent and climbed aboard a galleon. Literal box office gold. Perhaps not unreasonable then to believe that he could make it happen again?

Except Depp is one of the primary failings of The Lone Ranger. He's not necessarily miscast, but his tendency to overplay these sorts of roles works against the character. It just feels like Depp pulling the same schtick yet again and it's frequently difficult to divorce the man wearing the make-up from the character, particularly when there's moments of cheeky comedy or a strange selfishness that feels like it's playing up to the camera. Tonto is the most interesting character here - he has a curious past and a massive weight on his shoulders, but we have to put up with the annoying Deppish character traits that obfuscate this until the plot demands its revelation later on. Hammer's character, the Lone Ranger John Reid himself, is paper-thin, but he perhaps doesn't need to offer anything more than a classic heroism and a rote desire for revenge. Hammer is well cast, exuding a dashing quality that feels very rooted in the type of heroism of stars from the thirties / fifties (depending which iteration of the source you want to consider), that also feels like a perfect fit for the era of the films setting.

The villain side of things offers a similar split. William Fichtner's Cavendish is grimy and cut from the right evil cloth for someone to whom life is cheap - a classic seeming Western villain if you will. On the other hand Tom Wilkinson's Cole, who is pulling the strings here, is a pure cliché of power and industrialisation obsession, but with a decent beard. Meanwhile James Badge Dale provides some decent support and Helen Bonham-Carter is solely here for a two scene cameo and to ape one of the crazier ideas in Planet Terror.

Yet the curious thing about The Lone Ranger is that it's more entertaining than any of this suggests it should be. The story is pretty standard fare but it tries to offer up something with a bit more meaning around Native American rights, although the way it deals with this is pretty ham-fisted and you still feel like it's all about the white man winning in the end. At least the fact it's pointing in this direction is a positive thing. Visually is where the film really excels. Much has been made about the cost being so high due to shooting on location and trying to minimise the amount of the film constructed in computers. This shows, which makes it more interesting and somewhat more exciting to watch. It genuinely does look fantastic, but surely that's the least we should expect from modern day big budget films set in scenic locations? It's rarely boring yet it still feels overlong and bloated and some trimming would've really helped, particularly cutting out the execrable and entirely unnecessary framing device.

The Lone Ranger is successful at offering generic big budget fun. It's certainly not the car crash the media has made it out to be (much like the awkwardly unnecessarily media hate John Carter received last year) but it is a film with many issues that hold it back, not least of which is Depp. This is just another in a recent long line of films where he's excessively made-up and annoyingly hams it up, to the point where you're watching the actor rather than the character. His status as an interesting actor is now a long long way behind him, as even recent films where he's not playing dress-up have been poor. The worst thing he can do for his career now is another Pirates of the Caribbean film. But if you can get past Depp you might just be able to enjoy some well staged big action scenes, amazing scenery and classic heroism.

8 August 2013

Review: Only God Forgives

(Dir: Nicolas Winding Refn, 2013)

Welcome to hell. That's seemingly what it feels like to enter Only God Forgives' Thai torture chamber. A harsh sounding intro perhaps, but an apt description of the seedy world we're thrust into from the start. This is not the "safe" world of Drive, as some might expect from a re-team of Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling. We're far from the familiarity of Los Angeles and the breathless romance of that film. This is an alien land. This is a form of purgatory.

Only God Forgives is the story of a man, Julian (Gosling), who knows he deserves to be stuck biding his time in this faceless, unglamorous, unfamiliar part of the world. His hands have had to do bad things and he wants rid of them. His mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives here and is a hellish force of nature. Playing against type Scott Thomas is fantastic, with a controlling vitriolic manner exuding from underneath a trashy blonde wig. Is she really the Devil; the one pulling Julian's strings; the one that he's been waiting here for? At heart he has a sense of honour, seen when he learns the reasons for his brother's death, but something seemingly unacceptable to the evil dripping from his mother. Revenge begets revenge.

But they are not alone - the death of Julian's brother sparks police officer Chang's (Vithaya Pansringarm) interest in them. A quiet but effectively lethal man. An avenging, wrathful God even, meting out punishment to sinners from the blade of his sword. Julian knows he deserves to suffer, he wants to be judged for his sins, he wants to feel the swathe of the sword, even if it means picking a fight with God to get his just punishment. He is a righteous man struggling as the Devil pulls at him. A man who wants to take a sword to the Devil but despises the ability of his hands to do so. This is the world Julian is lost in, perhaps forever.

The visual style of Only God Forgives offers a striking representation of damnation. Hues of red and darkness amidst beautifully framed and composed shots enhance the detachment of this place and make the scenes of brutal ultraviolence even less surprising. It's never short of stunning to look at. Meanwhile a score that from the start shudders under its immense weight of portent, enhanced with the rhythm and booming of Thai drumming, ensures a deep undercurrent of unease. Mix this with minimal amounts of dialogue and Chang's karaoke, which ratchets up the level of local weirdness, and the effect is overwhelming.

Darkness pervades Only God Forgives. It's a gripping descent into the fractured world of a man facing his demons and the empty possibility of salvation. Gosling is the perfect choice - a master of quiet, enigmatic moodiness, yet stylish and good looking enough for the films arty visual approach. It's beautiful to look at, but intentionally weird and obtuse enough to frustrate many. It's full of fascinating themes, which it tempers with a savage violence. This ain't Drive mark II. This ain't a light watch. This is all the better for not being either of those things. Only God Forgives is a superb spiral into hell.

6 August 2013

Review: The World's End

(Dir: Edgar Wright, 2013)

Is the reverence towards Edgar Wright justified? He stands in the intriguing position of being worshiped in geek circles, whilst being considered a writer / director worthy of affection by the mainstream media. The fact that his career is intrinsically linked to current filmic national treasures Simon Pegg and Nick Frost does him no harm. Spaced with its quirky late nineties / early noughties out-there-comedy says yes it is justified, as does the clever but not quite as amazing as some make out Shaun of the Dead. Scott Pilgrim vs the World certainly makes the case for yes, but Hot Fuzz has always been the weak link here, stretching a somewhat forced, thin idea far too far. That film could've been considered an anomaly, but the release of The World's End throws that theory up in the air.

The final part of the so-called "Cornetto trilogy", The World's End sees Pegg and Frost reuniting yet again, but this time in a slightly less buddy buddy manner. The film is about a gathering of former friends who have not seen each other since school days, returning to a home town they've almost all escaped from to complete a pub crawl that defeated them at age eighteen. But in typical Wright fashion all in Newton Haven is not as it seems.

As a set-up this falls on the unexciting side of adequate. The return to ones roots after many years apart always has the potential to be interesting, but to truly work it relies solely on decent characterisation, which unfortunately is something seriously lacking here. The cast of actors assembled is typically impressive, however when your group of friends consists of Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman and Eddie Marsan, it's criminal to under-use them. Marsan at least gets a couple of decent scenes, but generally they're all a bit bland and faceless. Frost's Andrew is the most well rounded character, a very satisfying change from both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz where he is the annoying / slightly lacking sidekick. We get more background and a sense of him being a decent man; someone worthy to root for whom for the most part makes logical sense as logic escapes their situation.

For a change Pegg plays a character, Gary King, who is the complete antithesis - an extremely unlikable and irritating character without a single redeeming quality. His arrogance, narcissism and childlike obsession with recreating what transpired twenty years ago is left unexplained. He hasn't changed in that time, but we don't know why he was like that to start with and why intervening life has done nothing to alter his path. This raging ego means he continues to not give a damn about his so called friends, who themselves remain sceptical about why they even listened to him again. They don't like him and there's clearly no way the audience can either, so how do we root for him or the group to succeed? Attack the Block, another British film with this exact primary failing, comes to mind - that's a film that's impossible to like to due to detestable characters you desperately want to see lose. Pegg plays King really well, embodying his chaos and arrogance, but that's meaningless when the character is awful. And within this, sight of the deeper questions of where life has or hasn't taken you whilst reimagining your childhood aspirations, is lost in a reminiscence of the joy of getting pissed with your mates.

The film does have some interesting visual ideas as it takes its turn into sci-fi weirdness, such as the strange blue light emitted from the towns residents when they're displeased, but it's pure Invasion of the Body Snatchers homage, just with a Stepford twist. It's a shame that there's nothing more original to this aspect of the story, as the pub crawl surface layer is desperately crying for a more interesting story beneath it. This is supposed to be a comedy but there's precious little to laugh at - a handful of mildly amusing chuckles do crop up, but there's nothing to elicit an actual proper laugh. The previous films in this "trilogy" offer many more occasions to laugh, as well as more enjoyable silliness.

The World's End is a thoroughly disappointing film. There is some potential somewhere in there, if not from the blandly unoriginal story and poor characterisation, then from the decent cast. But a chief protagonist who remains detestable for the duration of the film, alongside a lack of laughs or even any sense of fun, leave an unappetising experience. In fact it's a boring film that seems to drag on interminably, and Frost is the only one to escape positively. This is easily the worst film Wright has made. Considering the quality and enjoyability of Scott Pilgrim vs the World, hands down Wright's best film and the only one without his usual cast of friends, it's positive that his next project, Ant-Man, is likewise based on a comic, suggesting there's still something curious to come from him. The World's End doesn't make it easy, but for now at least I still believe in Wright.

10 July 2013

Review: Upstream Color

(Dir: Shane Carruth, 2013)

It's been nine years but the wait is finally over. Shane Carruth appeared out of nowhere to win the Grand Jury Prize at 2004's Sundance Film Festival for his mind-bending micro budget time travel movie Primer and then promptly vanished, as if he'd stepped into one of those machines hidden in a storage unit in some bland unidentifiable city. Primer's realist feel and well thought-out take on time travel has proven to be one of the most intriguing tales about the concept, requiring multiple viewings to even begin to make sense of what's happening. Then Carruth disappeared down a self-described rabbit hole as he tried to thrash out the intriguing sounding A Topiary, which unfortunately will never likely see the light of day. But true to form late last year it was announced out of nowhere that his second feature, Upstream Color, would shortly be upon us. Anticipation inevitably ran high.

Upstream Color is a film of shifting tone as it presents a certain cycle of existence. Starting out as a mysterious thriller with shades of early Cronenberg (think Shivers), Kris (Amy Seimetz) is kidnapped and infected with a parasite that leaves her compelled to do as instructed. After the ordeal her life is in turmoil but she meets Jeff (Shane Carruth) who's persistence and seeming kindred spiritedness leads to love, as the film shifts into gentler more romantic gears, but things never seem balanced as certain parts of their world start to make less and less sense. And what of the mysterious isolated pig farmer (Andrew Sensenig), who spends his time making albums of field recordings?

Like Primer, Upstream Color is a film that sits with you and plays with your brain. It's not something to be passively consumed and simply understood, with the underpinning layers and ideas crying out for repeated viewing and dissection. Where to even start? The film plays with the whole idea of existence alongside power and control. The characters are frequently compelled to act and behave in certain ways for reasons completely unbeknownst to them. There's a mysterious reason why they're being pulled like this that serves as a handy metaphor for all existence and all our experiences. Can we ever be sure why we do the things we do? There's a suggestion that a higher power might be at work, but not so much in the sense of a deity, but someone with a "playground" who is pushing and controlling life and everyone is but slave to this. Thus Kris and Jeff's meeting seems pre-determined. The recurrence of Henry David Thoreau's 1854 book, Walden; or, Life in the Woods implies that an observation of modern society and how we all fit together is at play here.

Then there's how the couple deal with a metaphorical loss and existential terror that profoundly affects them, pushing them together with a fear that their own existence is at threat. In "reality" it's a continuation of this cycle of life, but the event pushes them perhaps further than intended, awakening something. Intriguingly a merging of identities appears to take place as past experience and childhood's blur into one between the couple, with each claiming a remembered experience is theirs. Inevitably this leads to anger and confusion from the apparent memory loss - a result of parasitic invasion perhaps, but representative of the homogonisation of society and that no matter what we think, we're not really individual. Even so, transcendence is still always a possibility.

Visually I was instantly struck by a similarity to the work of Terrence Malick. The camera is fluid and there are many many close-ups in the film that linger on the minor details such as seemingly insignificant items or parts of the body, but this helps with creating a collage of mood and life, as if we're experiencing the film rather than being caught in a crystal clear linear narrative. As such dialogue is less prevalent which serves to enhance the "experience" aspect. It's a very striking and bold film, but still retains hints of Primer so it's clear it's same director at work. The score greatly enhances the film with moments of ethereal beauty or a droning hum that provides weight. Carruth composed an initial score whilst writing the film, which underlines its importance.

Upstream Color proves Carruth's status as one of the most intriguing auteur's in indie filmmaking and considering he wrote, directed, starred in, edited, scored, produced and acted as cinematographer, this is a film that is truly his vision and voice. Acting that feels down-played and a look and feel that recreates the essence of individual experience help accentuate the plethora of ideas deep within its pool, which phase from the abstract to less subtle. Like the most satisfying drink of water imaginable, rewatching will be difficult to resist as it holds much to uncover. And if it takes Carruth another nine years for his thrid film to appear, it'll be worth the wait.