22 April 2013

Review: Olympus Has Fallen

(Dir: Antoine Fuqua, 2013)

The most interesting thing about Olympus Has Fallen is how easy it makes it look for terrorists to take over the White House. As the chief villain Kang (Rick Yune) says, it took them only thirteen minutes to do so. Anyone remember that later season of 24 where a similar thing happened? In the case of Olympus Has Fallen it's a bunch of renegade North Koreans (or Democratic People's Republic of Korea as they insist on unironically being called), who we're to believe have the skill, ability and capacity to break into and overthrow one of the most protected places on Earth. Ok, let's set aside reality for a minute, I can suspend my disbelief, this is Hollywood. And if the President looked like Aaron Eckhart we'd all want to vote for him right?

Stepping into the John McClane role in what is essentially a direct retread of Die Hard is Gerard Butler. He's ex Secret Service, he once saved the President's life (see the first ten minutes of the film, just so we know) and he gets himself into the right place at the right time so he can fuck up Kang's shit (I can't remember if that's a direct quote or if I'm paraphrasing). Butler proves two things whilst threatening to jam a knife into a brain (another direct quote) - he can convincingly handle action scenes (he's quite fun to watch in that mode) and he's really really not a good actor. He helped make 300 thoroughly enjoyable, but can you name another film where his presence actually added to it? I'm struggling.

The script goes a long long way towards enhancing the woodeness of not only Butler's acting but the whole ensemble. This is the first film by the writers - here's hoping we don't get more. Eckhart probably took this role because he got to play president but he's relegated to the background and gets time to work on how to look pissed off whilst cable tied. He's proven in the past that he's a far better actor than this. Morgan Freeman fulfils what appears to be his sole purpose in films these days, to pop up for a bit and add a touch of gravitas. This is another easy paycheck for him, just like last week's Oblivion (read review). And what of Robert Forster's boorish general or Melissa Leo's Secretary of Defense? Nothing to see here other than cliché. Yune fulfils the villain role satisfactorily, with snarling menace and the requisite gleeful aplomb.

Most curious is how timely this American demonising of the North Koreans is both here and in the recent Red Dawn remake. This amounts to propaganda for brainwashing the masses; forget about the Middle East and the pesky Russians, no, this is the new enemy and they seem like commies, have nukes and hate the good ol' US of A. Recent real life tension between these countries is just damn fortunate timing. The US response apparently needs always be decisive and violent and in Olympus Has Fallen it's jarringly so, in a way that feels excessive probably to all but those with the deepest patriotism running through their veins. (Best not point out it's a Scot with a dodgy American accent who saves the day!).

If it wasn't already clear from my sardonic tone, Olympus Has Fallen is bad. The story is pure filtered cliché with a risible script and acting so wooden it gives off splinters. Gunfire and explosions alone do not a good film make. It's about the taking of a temple of pure Americanism so the jingoism is expected, but it's so heavy handed it never sits easy. As the film plays it totally straight it's impossible to watch and not constantly hear in your head "America, fuck yeah!!". If you like your films bad and littered with simple patriotic propaganda, Olympus Has Fallen may just be for you. I'm intrigued how White House Down will handle a similar story later this year with a domestic enemy - it can surely only be better.

21 April 2013

Review: Evil Dead

(Dir: Fede Alvarez, 2013)
In some respects The Evil Dead is the epitome of 1980's horror. It was a labour of love for director Sam Raimi, shot on a shoe string budget over an extended period of time, whilst having to make use of cheap and innovative homemade special effects. The whole endeavor struck the right balance of tension, shocks, gore and subtle humour. Inevitably it looks somewhat dated now but it hasn't lost any of its power. Evil Dead 2 seems to frequently be cited in somewhat more reverential breath, but it straddles that awkward line of trying to be a comedy horror and those are two concepts that rarely work in tandem. The sequel maybe comes closest to proving they can work, but the balance is less easy than in the original, which has the honour of being one of the key titles in the eighties video nasty furore. But can it be improved upon? 
The argument for remakes stands as follows - was the original poor but had a good idea in there somewhere? Can an intriguing and satisfyingly different take on the original story be offered? Answer yes to one or both and you may have justified the validity of producing a remake. With Evil Dead the first question is obviously null and void, but the second? Well, this is the big question for the 2013 version. Five friends go to a remote cabin in the woods to perform an intervention on the friend who's big on substance abuse. They discover the Necronomicon in a basement full of old witchery, some demons get summoned, there are possessions and... well, the story is much the same, following the same general formula and throwing in recognisable moments but in a slightly different manner. So is there a point?
One word - gore. Evil Dead 2013 takes The Evil Dead's violence and blood drenched mania and cranks it right up. This is a gorehounds dream. Gushing flumes of blood, dismemberment, self mutilation, nailguns and other similar implements for gouging, slicing and ripping all get their moment in the spotlight amongst the miasma of torn flesh. I can't think of any recent film to so gleefully revel in this. Notably all the special effects are claimed to be practical effects with no CGI used, which is a breathe of fresh air and a throwback to the spirit and feel of the original and its era (hell the original even employed stop motion effects). But as grim as it all sounds don't forget it's couched in the supernatural and slightly fantastical which happily ensures that tonally it never feels like it's veering into bleak, depressing "torture porn" territory.
Unfortunately gore is all the film appears to have going for it. Attempts at tension are less effective - it may not be entirely devoid of this, but it lacks the visionary ways the original plays with the isolation of the cabin or how creepy it feels when the camera takes on the persona of the evil watching through the windows. Some may argue differently about the tension, after all horror is truly subjective and I traditionally find it takes a lot to affect me, but it's worth mentioning that my viewing compatriot at times wondered why he was putting himself through this experience. A bigger issue is the cast and characters who are faceless and completely unmemorable, making rooting for their escape much harder. When you've got Bruce Campbell's Ash in the original series, who is one of the most memorable characters in horror, if you can't deliver anyone with even one tenth of his personality then what's the point? 
"What's the point?" pretty much sums up how I feel about Evil Dead. For director Fede Alvarez this also seems somewhat a labour of love and I suspect he had good intentions, but there's nothing about the actual story that improves on the original and it's biggest failing is absolutely the bland, boring casting. The over-the-top gore is expertly executed and fun to watch like it should be in a film like this, but if that's what Alvarez really wanted to deliver audiences then why not wrap it in something original? The recent remake of Maniac (read my review) effectively proved the point for offering an interesting different take on an existing story. Evil Dead 2013 shows that a lot more than copious buckets of blood are needed to justify a remake.

17 April 2013

Review: Oblivion

(Dir: Joseph Kosinski, 2013)

How easy is it to separate the real life of an actor from the characters we see them portray on screen? It's a particularly pertinent question when debating Tom Cruise and his frankly mental seeming personal life / "religious beliefs", or whatever fanciful term you put on it (providing it doesn't irk those excessively litigious types crying defamation). Should any of that matter and stop you from being excited about or watching his films? Personally I think no. Cruise is still one of the most engaging leading men in the business and that shows no signs of changing - just look at any of his recent work. He also signifies something very "Hollywood", which I mean in the positive terms of high quality, slick entertainment, which is always happily welcomed. And for someone who's been in the industry for over thirty years, see if you can actually even name five bad films he's been in.

So to his newest film, Oblivion. It's 2077 and Earth is decimated following an alien invasion seventy years earlier - mankind may have won but had to abandon the planet. Remnants of the invaders are still hidden and drones patrol protecting remaining tech. Jack (Cruise) is a drone repairman working with Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) who live in and operate out of a station above the clouds within their sector. But something crashes to Earth that leads Jack to challenge everything he knows and the effectiveness of his team.

The first point to make is how satisfying it is to see an original big budget sci-fi film, as they don't seem to come along too often these days. You may read in the credits that it's based on a graphic novel, but that's something director Joseph Kosinski created in order to get the film made. In the grand tradition of the best sci-fi Oblivion is a fantastic looking film. The barren, bleak Earth and the pointed remains of landmarks contrast perfectly with the slick, clean futuristic design of the drones, Jack's spaceship and the stunning living quarters above the clouds. It's something of a widescreen visual treat and the confident production design is convincing.

Cruise is, as you'd expect, his usual reliable self, offering nothing ground breaking or that particularly different. Sure Jack lacks the personality traits of an Ethan Hunt or Jack Reacher, but he's still an interesting lead and eminently watchable, despite the film at times veering into "Tom Cruise worship" territory. Riseborough is the next most prevalent person in Oblivion and she constantly leaves you wondering what's behind the clinical, steely veneer. Both Olga Kurylenko and Morgan Freeman pop up along the way but neither are particularly memorable.

More important in a film like this is how the story functions. The idea itself is excellent and in terms of delivery it's mostly successful, at times benefiting from an appealing sense of mystery. One of the big reveals feels like a massive facepalm moment, but it manages to bring it back round positively. There are still plotholes and a couple of lapses in science but these can be easy to forgive, although the film does end up showing too many flashbacks which only serve to distract from the more interesting scenes set in 2077. What however is entirely successful is the soundtrack by M83, which is the one element that makes Oblivion fly. Suitably electronic to have a futuristic feel that satisfyingly merges with the more composed elements of the score, it's constant rippling undercurrent feels like the glue that holds the film together. But this should come as no surprise considering Kosinski had Daft Punk score his last film TRON: Legacy, which quite frankly was a match made in heaven. Sometimes it's these smaller details that make all the difference.

Kosinski was the right director for Oblivion. He nails the look, sound and feel of it, whilst successfully shepherding an interesting story that delivers when required too. Cruise is Cruise and that of course is absolutely fine as he's always good to watch. Oblivion's a decent sci-fi film; it's not revolutionary but it's definitely a very entertaining two hours.

6 April 2013

Review: Spring Breakers

(Dir: Harmony Korine, 2012)

This was an experiment I was really keen to see. Take the guy who wrote Larry Clarke’s Kids, who’s known as an off-beat indie director famous for the likes of the trailer trash weird Gummo, and figure out how the hell he gets two ex-Disney tween stars, one whose star is definitely still riding high and whose last acting role was the more wholesome Monte Carlo, to star in his new film about taking spring break much too far? This is the director whose last “feature” was Trash Humpers for fuck’s sake. However he did it, kudos to Harmony Korine for making Spring Breakers work because he totally pulls it off.

Four girls are bored at college – Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson) and Cotty (Rachel Korine) are all on the wilder side, whilst Faith (Selena Gomez) is the religious, sensible seeming one – it’s spring break and they’re desperate to escape so do what they have to to head to Florida and join the masses partying it up. But not everything is perfect in the sunshine state as they’re forced into the debt of Alien (James Franco) from where things take a much darker turn.

First and foremost Spring Breakers looks fantastic. Korine is typically associated with a grainy, raw, visual aesthetic, something which has totally suited his work before, but we get a melding of different styles here, from handheld to the slicker. This fits the almost hallucinogenic nature of the story, showing everything descending into madness amidst the glow of neon. The camera is always moving, showing scenes from unusual angles and giving us little details, sometimes in an almost uncomfortably voyeuristic way. Many scenes feel like snippets, an expression of mood, a fleeting shot, all without being overly scripted. It's almost like Terrence Malick gone wild, and yes, I just compared Spring Breakers to the work of Malick! It’s worlds away from the oppressive delirium of the VHS shot Trash Humpers, yet still feels like we’re watching the same director at work.

Franco redeems himself for his recent less than satisfactory role in Oz the Great and Powerful (review here) by fully embracing the character of Alien. Dreaded up, grill in and tattooed everywhere, he convinces as a trying-too-hard-to-be-gangsta gangster, whilst at times oozes creepiness. His verbosity means he has most of the dialogue including the quality and already legendary “look at all my shit” speech. The girls are more freeform and seem to work as a unit, at times being indistinguishable, but the friendship here seems believable. Faith has more personality and Gomez plays her well with the innocence of grateful escapism from the things tying her down in the real world. The others, particularly Brit and Candy, may lack the innocence but equally crave the escape, however they also experience power, both through violence and exploiting their own sexuality, which seems to intoxicate them far more than the drink and drugs.

Spring Breakers would’ve been a less interesting film if it wasn’t Korine’s baby - his visual skills and the creative editing make all the difference. Yes the multitude of scenes showing the typical hedonistically hollow spring break bullshit wear thin quickly, but whenever the girls or Alien are on screen the film is truly alive. The casting works with Franco on top of his game, whilst Gomez, Hudgens and Benson should be applauded for being brave with their careers, especially in a film more concerned with feel and experience than convention. Amidst all this the score from Cliff Martinez and Skrillex helps set the mood perfectly. Spring Breakers isn’t a film for everyone, I can see it frustrating some and pissing off others. Yes it’s excessive but isn’t that the point? At least there are ideas in there beneath the breasts, bikinis and neon coated façade. But more importantly, it shows why Korine should work more regularly with a bigger production budget and have access to better equipment.

2 April 2013

Review: Trance

(Dir: Danny Boyle, 2013)

Danny Boyle may just be one of the most over-rated directors Britain has. Contentious statement, no? Well, the promise shown by Shallow Grave and Trainspotting has been left wanting in the intervening years, but despite being a competent and varied director, none of his films have lived up to the promise shown by those mid nineties films. There are of course flashes of brilliance in the likes of 28 Days Later and 127 Hours, but neither are perfect and do not get me started on how the average Slumdog Millionaire could be even remotely considered an Oscar worthy film. Saying all that my favourite work of his is Sunshine - yes it's a film that's generally dismissed but my fascination with it stems from the mood it creates, the ideas, the casting and many flashes of visual brilliance. In fact that's exactly where Boyle's strength lies - he's a great visual director but a pretty average storyteller, which is why his films don't usually live up to their potential.

Somewhat predictably Boyle's latest film Trance falls into that trap again. It's a film about art, thievery, memory, hypnosis and a handful of other things that might be too spoilerish to say. Centering on Simon (James McAvoy), an auctioneer who desperately needs to remember something very important that he's lost, he turns to hypnotist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) to help him remember, whilst slightly shady Franck (Vincent Cassell) is on hand to try and make things turn ugly. If only it was that straight forward though as Trance too readily twists and turns itself into all manner of unnecessarily complicated corners.

Films that play with the notion of reality and what exactly is memory have the potential to be really creative with their approach, just look at Memento or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as prime examples. Trance attempts to go down that route but ends up feeling lost when it gets there. Everything starts out linear with a very intriguing set up, but as we start prodding Simons' mind and clarity becomes clouded, the film falls into a stasis of intentional obfuscation. Of course none of this is too difficult to follow but it's just not particularly interesting, whilst there are far too many blandly repetitive scenes stuck in the same dull location doing essentially the same thing, boxing the film into a boring corner. By the time it exudes self proudness for the big reveal it just ends up feeling underwhelming leaving you to wish it'd just hurry up.

McAvoy does nothing notable with the lead role and he's not the most engaging actor, although he's marginally better than his irritating turn in the thoroughly average Welcome to the Punch, which has seen him leading two films in as many weeks. That's not to say he's bad in Trance, but there's nothing memorable about him and he hardly makes the role his own. Dawson fairs better as she has more personality, but her character feels like it's lacking something, similar to Cassell's who goes only a notch above one note villain. Regardless, Cassell is always an interesting actor to watch on screen. It's visually where the film succeeds, with decent camera work that at times bleeds between scenes in a satisfying way. This is what truly holds the film together rather than the acting or the story. The handful of brutal moments also aim to give the film a bit more impact, which is something it sorely needs.

The main problem with Trance is the story, which is not half as clever as it thinks it is. There's a fairly decent core of an idea buried somewhere deep inside but good luck trying to extract it from the pointlessly convoluted wrapping, which only serves to frustrate and at times bore. The grating way it teases and prods the audience like a child with a stick as it ever so slowly and generically reveals small details makes for a not particularly thrilling thriller. Giving more time and space to the art or crime angles rather than its hypnosis parlour tricks would've bolstered things and might've, for example, allowed an appreciation of how the Goya painting the film fixates on serves as a clever analogy to one key character. Without the acting to save it, Trance ironically ends up mostly forgettable and is further proof of how Boyle struggles as a storyteller.