22 March 2013

Review: Oz the Great and Powerful

(Dir: Sam Raimi, 2013)

I'm curious as to how much a love of The Wizard of Oz affects enjoyment of Oz the Great and Powerful, or more specifically, how much a love of that original movie amplifies enjoyment of this new film. I don't have much of a history with The Wizard of Oz - I probably last properly saw it in my early teenage years and at this point remember very little aside from the key aspects that have seeped into cultural cognizance. It was a film I merely saw as a kid, not one I loved. Thus I approached this return to the magical world of Oz with little anticipation and no vested expectations. 

Set twenty years earlier, the story finds carnival magician Oscar Diggs, aka Oz (James Franco), caught in a hot air balloon over Kansas during a tornado. Somehow he is whisked to the magical world of Oz, which is stuck in the throes of an evil queen, yet the people await a prophecy to come true that will see a wizard named Oz one day arrive to save them - and maybe this is him? He meets three witches and reluctantly embarks on a "magical" journey. 

Franco is a confusing leading man here. On the one hand he has the classic look and charm you'd expect of a man from the early 1900's, mostly thanks to the smile he's not shy of flashing, yet there's something irritating about him amplified by an emptiness. This emptiness is perhaps inherent to the character's transient con man nature, but for a film like this it doesn't make for a very engaging lead to hang onto. Far better are the witches, or at least two thirds of them. Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams both seem perfectly suited to their characters. Williams' Glinda is a beautiful, loving, calm witch - the epitome of a good witch if you will and suitably enchanting. Weisz's Evanora is more complex and she seems to have more fun playing up the character. Then there's the third witch, Theodora, played by Mila Kunis who is not good here. I usually find Kunis a decent enough actress but here her performance is entirely one note and feels horribly stilted. Any attempts at emotion don't work and she just comes across like a pretty face with no depth, that is until the scenes that involve a lot more make-up which destroy her beauty and enhance the blankness of her acting. Considering she is arguably the most important witch here it's something of a problem.

A lot of effort has gone into creating the magical world of Oz and thanks to the wonders of digital technology it's far more detailed than previous visits. Thus we're inevitably presented with CGI overload and it's not a particularly enticing dish. There are too many times when actors look like they're standing in front of a green screen (was production rushed to meet the set release date?) and the whole world just generally feels fake rather than magical, not aided by the artificially bright sheen. The most effective uses of CGI come from the digital characters Finley, a flying monkey voiced by Zach Braff, and China Girl, a literal tiny girl made of china voiced by Joey King. Both have important supporting roles to play in the story and the advances in character animation ensure they work pleasingly. It seems a very obvious approach, but shooting the opening real world scenes in a traditional black and white 1.33:1 ratio before opening up to bright, colourful 2.35:1 once arriving in Oz proves very successful. These black and white scenes are actually some of the best in the entire film, mostly because they present an intriguing story and ground the film.

The thing to bear in mind is that Oz the Great and Powerful is a Disney family film, which although directed by Sam Raimi feels like it could be directed by anyone as the entirely predictable plot meanders on. That's not to say it's devoid of merit or totally unenjoyable - the final denouement is really well handled for example and I'm sure there are a plethora of satisfying links back to The Wizard of Oz. But for a film nearly entirely set in a colourful, magical world, it's disappointing that the best scenes are in the black and white real world. There are moments of mild humour which lighten things but the attempts at foreshadowing seem even too obvious for a family film. Weisz and Williams are the best things about Oz the Great and Powerful, everything else is merely just ok at best. 

16 March 2013

Review: Side Effects

(Dir: Steven Soderbergh, 2013)

It's disappointing to hear good, interesting directors decide they're giving up the trade. Such is the position of Steven Soderbergh, who having been in the business for over twenty years has decided to call it quits. What's most disheartening about such news is that he's a prolific, genuinely interesting director. Look at 2012 - we got Haywire, a slightly off-kilter action film with a debutante female lead (such is his style), and a film exploring the modern male condition and our current economic climate, filtered through the world of male strippers - Magic Mike. And not forgetting Contagion, the bio-med drama that appeared mere months before those in Autumn 2011. Prolific might be an understatement, yet all are at the very least good films. So here we are in early 2013 looking at what is purported to be his final feature, Side Effects.

As ever with Soderbergh's films it's a story with a certain amount of depth, appearing to be about Emily (Rooney Mara) and her tragic and debilitating fight with depression and the impact caused by profiteering drug companies and the doctors who, for whatever reason, prescribe these drugs. Or so it seems - there are a lot of different angles being played here.

As with Magic Mike, Side Effects has things to say about our current economic condition, for better or worse, as seen through the money drug companies have to play with and how they influence doctors, and even how important this can be to the doctors financially. Or via Emily's husband, played by Channing Tatum, who despite being convicted of insider trading is desperate to maintain a lifestyle they once had. One of the primary characters is psychologist Jonathan, played by Jude Law, who is left in a difficult position thanks to what he has prescribed. How much should he be to blame for what happens as a result? There's a great line in the film about how psychologists only have past behaviour to go on, but really how true an indicator can that actually be when thinking about someone with a challenged mental state? Makes you wonder if being someone who can prescribe drugs in a country so incensed to litigate is such a good idea.

Law isn't bad in the role. He's never been an amazing actor but he's likeable here if unremarkable. Fortunately he doesn't try for a dodgy accent again - bad memories of the last time he teamed with Soderbergh in Contagion! Mara on the other hand is extremely good, doing a great job of reminding us why she was Oscar nominated for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Her character seems lost at sea in a perpetual fog, desperately uncertain with what's going on in her life and how to maintain control. Again she's a compelling actress to watch, partly because there always seems to be something beneath the surface; she conveys an intriguing depth and is the best thing about the film. Most revealing is how she she makes a seasoned actress like Catherine Zeta Jones, who also appears as a psychologist, feel like such a bland actress comparatively despite being fine in her role.

Side Effects fits very nicely into Soderbergh's stark, clean, modern look and feel. Many of his recent films have taken on this appearance and there's something cooly satisfying about it. Yet again he makes great use of music with an interesting score - maybe it was the presence of Mara but a Trent Reznor / Atticus Ross score, à la The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, wouldn't have seemed out of place here. Side Effects is a very good thriller with an interesting story, no matter which level you look at it from. If this is to be Soderbergh's feature swansong then it's a decent way to go out, whilst inevitably leaving us to lament his decision. And I'm now highly intrigued about how interesting further team ups between Soderbergh and Mara could've been.

15 March 2013

Review: Maniac

(Dir: Franck Khalfoun, 2012)

If you're going to remake a horror film, tackling a lesser known effort from 1980 is a good approach to take. Of all the films I've seen that got caught up in the "video nasty" escapades of the eighties, Maniac always felt like the bleakest and grimiest. Perhaps a fair reflection of that point is how the film never legally made it onto UK shores until 2002, at which point it was a version cut by nearly a minute. Rather appropriately on a holiday to New York in late 2000, I was intrigued enough by Maniac's notoriety to buy a copy of the full uncut version on VHS. I never watched it more than a couple of times - it's one of those sorts of films after all - but it is perhaps one of the best examples of what a serial killer film should be. It's entirely uncompromising and unglamorous (despite a small glamour angle to the film), and exists perfectly in the darkly rotten underbelly of the Big Apple. The seedy side of New York was commonly on show in films of the seventies and eighties, but never has it looked less like a place you'd want to visit than in Maniac. If you take a step back and think about the reality of the subject matter for a moment - a weird, mentally disturbed man killing women to satisfy a strange urge that involves decorating mannequins in his apartment with their scalps - this is thoroughly horrible. Why is it we watch a plethora of films about serial killers and don't come out feeling dirty? This is where Maniac succeeds because if you take the screen out of the equation it's how you should feel; this is bleak and depressing stuff. Joe Spinell demands mention as the titular maniac Frank Zito, who horrifies and totally embodies the depth of the character in such a skin crawling manner that the film would be infinitely less effective without him.

So how do you positively approach a remake of a film like this? This new version of Maniac supplants the story to Los Angeles where young Frank (Elijah Wood) has taken over his mothers business restoring classic mannequins, but like the original, Frank is afflicted with the need to hunt, kill and scalp women. He meets French photographer Anna (Nora Arnezeder) who shares a love of mannequins which actually gives him some hope that normality is possible. So, the star of three of the biggest films of all time (Lord of the Rings) playing a deranged psycho - does it sound like it should work? Going in I had hope on the basis of his silently sadistic Kevin in Sin City, proof that he could pull this off. And he pretty much does. There's a desperation around him and a genuine seeming dementia. He may not be physically threatening but he plays the character as barely keeping himself together which makes him strangely compelling. As Anna is the only other character of note she ends up having the most physical screen time and Arnezeder makes her likeable, whilst it's difficult to chastise her for being blind to who Frank really is.

The most interesting decision taken by the filmmakers was to shoot the whole thing from a first person perspective - Frank's. Thus we get to see stalking of victims combined with heavy breathing, all the way up to the brutality of the atrocities committed. It's certainly not an original technique, but is perhaps lesser seen in films of this nature (found footage aside, which is a cheat of this) and so successfully puts the viewer uncomfortably in the perspective of the lead. It helps too that the film is really well shot. Yet the approach here isn't perfect - there are a couple of occasions when the camera pulls itself out of Frank's perspective to actually show him, which is totally jarring and unencessary, pulling the viewer out of the moment. Then there is an over reliance on Frank standing in front of mirrors or catching reflections of himself in windows or cars and so on, seemingly just to remind us that Elijah Wood is in the film. A far more effective approach would've been to cast an unknown and never properly show his face, making it all the more creepy, but of course commercial reasons have to take precedence sometimes. And I did appreciate the reflection intended to replicate the original's poster. There's a decent soundtrack in place too, with plenty of modern synthy electro that apes the eighties, much like Drive's soundtrack and like that movie it works well here, especially knowing the era the original is from.

Fortunately this new version of Maniac compares very favourably to the original. Arguably this is because of a decent production behind it and how the first person perspective shooting style really works. But what it lacks is that squalid, bleak, low budget feeling that gives the original such a powerful impact. Despite trying to put us in the position of a killer it still feels like a film so we're disconnected from what's taking place on screen, mostly because of the quality of the filming and the fact that we keep seeing Wood. This was good casting and a brave decision from him but he's not a patch on Spinell in the original, yet Wood arguably fits the look and feel of this new version better. Maniac isn't scary as it's not really that sort of film, not having much opportunity to build tension and unable to deliver jumps because of the visual perspective. Instead it unflinchingly delivers on the violence and gore front and I can see for some people it being too much, but the films not overflowing with it. I was mostly surprised at how watchable Maniac is and that it's a decent film. In fact it's probably the best horror film I've watched in a while, proving to be a worthwhile remake and offering an interesting alternative version of this story.

13 March 2013

Review: Parker

(Dir: Taylor Hackford, 2013)

No matter your thoughts on The Expendables (I personally enjoyed both films for what they are - read my review of the second one here), one of the best decisions Sylvester Stallone made was casting Jason Statham as the second lead. Statham was wise (or lucky?) enough to transcend his role of generic hardman in painfully average British gangster films like Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels to become a bonafide action star, cemented by his position alongside such totemic action stars in those two films. It's well deserved. Statham's films rarely exceed cliché or by the numbers storytelling, but they're always entertaining and that's usually solely down to the man himself. Look at films like Safe, The Mechanic or The Transporter for proof of that. If it ain't clear already I have more than a soft spot for The Stath!

Parker stays true to form, sitting smack bang in the middle of by the numbers filmmaking. The story concerns thief for hire Parker (Statham), who gets screwed over on a job by Melander (Michael Chiklis) and his crew, who think they've left him dead on the side of the road. But you don't double cross and kill The Stath that easily! With the help of real estate agent Leslie (Jennifer Lopez), he tracks them in Palm Beach and plans to exact revenge whilst they're carrying out a career defining heist. It's hardly an original plot but it drives a satisfying enough story forwards.

I always wonder what the lead characters actually look like on the page for a Statham film, because no matter how they're initially formed they invariably end up identical to what we've seen before on screen. Change his name, introduce a new villain and set it in a different location and the result is interchangeable. What always exists is a no nonsense hardman who will take a beating but deliver back just as hard, whilst possessing adequate guile and disarming charisma, but most importantly is driven by a strong moral compass. He may be a man who does bad things but he will live by a code that ensures people who do the right thing / don't screw him over are respected. This is the Statham character template. Arguably the key word there is charisma - he's an actor with very limited range but he's always likeable and highly watchable, not to mention funny too. You know what you're getting with The Stath and watching him take down a room of bad guys is a pleasure. As you would expect, all of the above is on display in Parker, much to its benefit.

The awkward aspect of Parker is Lopez. I don't think anyone could convincingly argue that she's a great actress, and she's ok here, but buying into her as a struggling average woman in a seemingly mundane job is a bit of a stretch. We haven't seen her on the screen so much these days but her glamorous real life persona really leaks in, forcing us to not believe this character. Likewise the name Leslie suits the character but not the actress pretending to be her. It's wrong to say this but she works better here purely as eye candy. More effective is Chiklis - after his stunning turn as Vik Mackey in the The Shield, a tv show totally worthy of your time if you like something with a bit of edge, he proved he has the presence to effectively play bad, but has hardly been seen on the big screen doing so. As such he's enjoyable to watch in this pretty standard role. The only other notable is Nick Nolte, who doesn't appear to be ageing too gracefully, looking bigger and sounding even more unintelligibly gruff (similar to how he appeared in Gangster Squad - read that review here). But at least he adds a little gravitas here.

Parker seems to have fallen victim to the same casual disinterest shown towards action movies this year, as commented on in my review of the poor A Good Day To Die Hard (read that here). Box office has been lower than Statham's average, but in the US it has at least made more than both Bullet To the Head and The Last Stand. It's not that it's any better or worse than those two films, as like them it's entertaining enough, presenting an unoffensively watchable action / heist caper. So why do people seem less interested in watching these action films? The Stath is his usual reliable self in a typical role for him, although not quite as exciting as the fun mania of the Crank films. Lopez's presence here is jarring if anything. If enjoyable mindless escapism is what you want, Parker will do you well, but don't expect anything you couldn't get in an average direct to DVD film (except The Stath of course!).

3 March 2013

Review: V/H/S

(Dir: Adam Wingard / David Bruckner / Ti West / Glenn McQuaid / Joe Swanberg / Radio Silence, 2012)

The concept of merging multiple short stories into one longer feature is nothing new to the horror genre, having been utilised liberally in the past for the likes of Tales From the Crypt, Creepshow and many more. It certainly adds some variety but having one or two bad stories will drag the whole endeavour down. So what happens when all but one of the stories are bad? This is the problem faced by V/H/S, a collection of five short horror stories stemming off a sixth framing device, all shot in the style of "found footage" and each coming from a different director.

So let's cut to the chase - why does V/H/S fail on almost every level? The stories, the characters and the deep vein of distasteful misogyny coursing through it all. Starting in reverse - horror hardly has a good rep in terms of gender equality. Films usually directed by men chiefly aimed at a male audience featuring liberal female nudity and a never-ending supply of weak willed victims. I know that's somewhat a generalisation but there's truth in there. In the case of V/H/S virtually all the male characters seem to be sex obsessed, seeing women as meat for their own fun and gratification. To some degree it's a feature of every story here leaving a very bad taste, especially when there is never any sort of satisfactory comeuppance à la I Spit On Your Grave. It's the nastiest aspect of this anthology.

Tying into this none of the characters are remotely interesting. In a short you have limited time to make an impact or opportunity to develop, but the dumb, boorish representation of the modern male here is plain depressing and unlikeable, whilst the female characters are just clichés. Unfortunately not even the individual stories can make up for this. Teens in the woods; house with a dead guy; someone who's not what they seem etc etc. It's all been done before, both scarier and much much better. That's not to say these stories are entirely devoid of any merit as a couple of fleeting good ideas do exist in there somewhere, but they easily get lost amidst the myriad bad aspects.

Except... after an hour and forty minutes or so we reach the final story (10/31/98) which delivers fifteen minutes of sweet relief - at last, a decent well executed story! This one may too lack originality but it understands the concept of build up and pay off, featuring some really neat little tricks when it does. All this is aided by characters who don't come across like dicks, which got me wondering - it's set on Halloween night in 1998 (random aside - that exact night I went to the cinema to see The Exorcist for the first time!) so has the twenty something male degenerated in the intervening fourteen / fifteen years? This film definitely suggests so and it makes you wonder if technology is to blame? Deep thinking aside, this final story actually offered a rush and brief moments of fear, all enhanced by the shooting style. 

And what of the shooting style? It mostly tries too hard, adding very little apart from in a few notable scenes, whilst bordering on unwatchable at times. I've said it before and I'll say it again - if you can't match the quality of [rec] when going "found footage" then give up. This basically applies to more than 80% of V/H/S - it's pretty much unscary, delivering only for gorehounds. The short format doesn't work for these stories so we end up in the disappointing scenario where a great director like Ti West, who beautifully handles tension in The Innkeepers and The House of the Devil (read my rather lengthy and gushing review of that latter film here), offering something that doesn't work because it lacks the time needed to play out. V/H/S has left me intrigued about Radio Silence, the four guys who directed and starred in the final segment (they prove to have great taste in music too, giving love to Asian Man Records in their short!), but the rest... I wish I could forget I watched. Don't waste your time too.