Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Haywire (2011)

Basically a Bourne-lite, except Jason Bourne is a woman and the reason she's on the run from spies and hitmen is even more convoluted*.

A fun action-thriller that really delivers on the action part of the equation, Haywire's got some great fight and chase scenes in particular. Soderbergh's direction creates a lot of extended medium shots of the action, giving a refreshing coherence that's becoming less common in these types of films. For once, thanks to the lack of constant cutting and ridiculous closeups, you can actually see what's going on in a fight: who's hitting who, where they're hitting them and, most importantly, who's actually winning.

There is, of course, another reason the action works so well. You'd be forgiven for not having any idea who Gina Carano, in the leading role, is but if there is one thing you should know about her, it's that this girl can fight, no question. She might not be the best actress, but to be fair she's not exactly working with the best script or narrative either. Carano delivers as the fighting heroine though, which is pretty much all Haywire requires of her.

The rest of the cast feel relatively underutilised, especially considering who some of them are. Ewan McGregor gets a significant amount of screentime, but the likes of Fassbender, Tatum and Banderas are only on screen when they absolutely have to. Even then it's often confusing as to who's who and why they are doing what they are. 

But none of that really matters. Once you've got the main characters nailed down (something that's actually cleverly pointed out to the audience early on) and established who the bad guy is, Haywire's just a beautifully shot collection of globe trotting and ass kicking. As I've already gushed over, the fighting is visceral and believable thanks to the shooting style, but the film's visually interesting in other a number of avenues: a quickly escalating chase sequence through the streets and rooftops of Dublin in particular looks fantastic.

You could watch Haywire with your brain set in high functioning, spy-thriller-untangling mode but it's much more enjoyable to just sit back and roll with it. You're much more likely to appreciate what actually makes it worth your time that way at least.

* I've only just thought of a more apt comparison, but it's 1am so forget rewriting that part. It's not so much a Bourne-lite, but a watchable alternative to Salt.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Hesher (2011)

Hesher is... an interesting film. Following TJ, a child whose mother recently died, and his unconventional friendship with the title character, Hesher reflects its main character in more ways than it intends.

I was recommended it after telling a mate how I was a fan of Joseph Gordon-Levitt (although I still can't believe he was the dweeby teenager from 3rd Rock From the Sun) and he's the thread that manages to tie together this rather schizophrenic picture. As Hesher, he's a man of unpredictable extremes; apathetic and removed from everything in one scene, to being set off by the smallest spark the next. He's a drifter with no sense of direction but some strange compulsion to both protect and terrify his newest friend.

Hesher, both the character and the film, seems like a patchwork cobbled together from pieces that don't quite match up. Most of the characters seem confused about where they are going and why, and generally not caring about what's going on around them. I was genuinely expecting a Fight Club or Sixth Sense style twist towards the end,  if only to explain why nobody seemed to give a damn about Hesher and all the trouble he had caused. Instead, I got one of the strangest end sequences I've watched in a while: involving a casket, a trolley and an emotional walk through traffic.

There isn't necessarily much of a plot either. Much like Hesher's drifter lifestyle, things tend to just happen, rather than any particular person driving it forward. Only one character actually has a goal where anything is actually done about it, and it's just a little sub-plot. Well, it would be if there was a mainplot.

It sounds like I think Hesher isn't worth your time, and it might not be. But if you're a fan of JGL, or Natalie Portman (who was a welcome surprise about 10 minutes in, I had no idea she was involved), it might be worth your time. JGL creates a persona that's both detestable and strangely endearing and is responsible for just about all of the gags in what's supposed to be a "dark humour" drama.

Hesher was never a great success. It didn't get a UK release at all and only took in about $300K after spending a budget of $7,000,000. Don't be too afraid to take a gamble on it, but definitely keep your expectations reasonably low going in.

PS: This was what sparked to conversation about Joseph Gordon-Levitt:

Monday, 4 June 2012

Kick-Ass (2010)

A superhero film that's devoid of any actual superpowers might seem a bit novel, but that's kind of indicative of how Kick-Ass relates to the genre as a whole. With Christoper Nolan's epic conclusion to his Batman trilogy edging closer from the horizon*, it's evident that comicbook films have been getting moodier, darker and grittier over the past decade. But Kick-Ass bucks the trend somewhat.

Stylish and brutal, the action focuses around the titular Kick-Ass, a niave teenager who buys a green diving suit and decides to become a vigilante, the batman-esque "Big Daddy" and his daughter-come-apprentice "Hit Girl". The trio attempt to combat a drug operation with a slick and stylised mixture of gunplay, fist fighting and elaborate knife throwing, making for some brilliant action sequences set to an equally energetic soundtrack.

Kick-Ass makes for a fun way to spend two hours if you want a superhero film that doesn't take itself too seriously at all. There's a certain novelty to 12 year old girl calling a flat full of drug dealers "cunts", shortly before putting the five of them into twenty different spots in the room; a novelty that you don't come across too often.

*Speaking of The Dark Knight Rises here's the latest trailer for it:
So stoked for this.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Avengers Prequels (2008-2011)

Over the past week or so I've managed to catch all of the prequels (if you can call them that) released to set up for The Avengers (aka Avengers Assemble in the UK thanks to copyright issues with the old, unrelated TV series with the same title). In other words, I haven't had a lot to do and I plan on seeing Avengers pretty soon so it made sense to utilise my extensive free time that way.

The series itself is very coherent. The universe that's created across five different films with four different directors and no repeat writers is so solid and self-referential that it's obviously a triumph of a great team pulling all the right strings in the background to keep this series consistent. With all the films working well as stand alone pieces, it would've been easy to just create five self-contained stories and have them all come together by co-incidence later on.

It's the little things that really put the polish on the series. For example, in Thor alone there are three standout moments that are easily missed unless you know what's going on: a reference to a scientist one of the main cast knows who was working with some interesting gamma radiation work (i.e. Bruce Banner of the Incredible Hulk), Hawkeye appears on screen for about a minute or two but is never named or given any real distinction other than the fact that he's the only military grunt with a bow instead of a gun and, when encountering some pretty impressive technology, one of the government agents asks if it belongs to Stark (Iron Man). Stark Industries, along with SHIELD is one of the major threads that runs through the entire series, providing technology and power to the "good guys" whenever it's needed. It might only be noticeable if you're looking for it, but you'll see the Stark Industries stamp on a lot of things throughout the series.

Individually, the films all work well alone. The weakest, or maybe just my personal least favourite is the Incredible Hulk (2008). But taken in the context of the terrible, terrible, just plain awful, film that came before it with the same hero (Hulk (2003)) , it's a masterpiece. Edward Norton makes for a good Bruce Banner and understandably gets a great deal more screentime that his green counterpart. Some of the scenes with the Hulk are visually interesting (and it doesn't take a genius to see the parallels that are drawn to the King Kong or Beauty and the Beast type stories of the misunderstood monster), but are ultimately quite boring due to his animalistic nature.

The Iron Man films are probably tied with Thor at the higher end of the scale. Iron Man 1+2 are not necessarily carried completely by Robert Downey Jr. but certainly wouldn't be the same with someone else filling the expertly tailored suits of Tony Stark. The first is the classic tale of redemption: apathetic man makes money without any real regard as to who is harmed in the process, suffers a great personal tragedy brought about ultimately by said lack of regard, becomes a good person and attempts to make right his wrongs. The second is a little weaker and follows a more generic good vs evil plot, but does introduce more elements to set up for The Avengers, most notably the inclusion of Scarlett Johansson's character who is more than she initially appears. The action takes a step up though. Chaos and quips fill the air as Stark takes on multiple enemies from glitzy location to glitzy location: from the racetrack of the Monaco Grand prix to the Stark Expo in metropolitan New York City.

Thor (2008) saw the introduction of probably the least well known of the Avengers team. A Norse god (although actually some sort of alien being from across the galaxy) cast down from his native Asgard to Earth and stripped of his powers, Thor must mature and learn what it means to be a real hero rather than a warmonger. Striking a fair balance between plot development and laughs, we follow Thor as he matures from a bloodthirsty anger fuelled young man into a proper leader with the help of an intelligent but often impressionable young scientist in the form of Jane. There is a very vague message about genocide and why it's wrong (shocker!), but most of the enjoyment of Thor comes from  the gags rather than the deep messages, as should be the case with any superhero movie really. I could have easily watched another hour of a Norse god attempting to adjust to small town life in New Mexico, with him smashing coffee cups and trying to find dogs to ride all over the place.

Captain America (2011) didn't really do anything for me. Maybe it's just because the character is obviously the fantasy of every generic nerdy kid who got picked on in highschool, but the whole thing feels very uninspired to me. It's not particularly bad, or particularly good. There was ample opportunity to make some really good satirical messages about American imperialism and the like, but with the nature of the Avengers series it pretty much had to be played straight. You end up with a righteous hero who can't really do any wrong from start to finish and comes across as very high and mighty.

The Avengers has managed to set itself up in very good standing with all these films, even the "worst" one is still enjoyable, and I just hope it can deliver. With plans already in motion to continue the series (filming for Iron Man 3 began this month in North Carolina, here's some photographic proof from the set) it's clear this cinematic universe isn't going anywhere any time soon. I just hope it can keep up with its own hype train.

Also, a bonus trailer I just saw and quite enjoyed. Some more Edward Norton in Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom:

Friday, 1 June 2012

Prometheus (2012)

I’ve been incredibly stoked for (what would become) Prometheus ever since the scant information about a potential Alien “reboot” was confirmed by Fox in 2009. It marks the return of visionary director Ridley Scott to the franchise. Scott, of course, is most famous for studying in Teesside but apparently also directed one or two pretty decent films. “Pretty decent” may be a little of an understatement, when you consider that his filmography contains names like Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982), Gladiator (2000) and Black Hawk Down (2001), to name just a few.
Prometheus takes us all the way back in the Alien timeline, and all the way back in humanity’s too. The titan Prometheus, of ancient Greek myth, brought technology and civilisation to man when he stole fire from the gods and placed it in the hands of mortals. As you can imagine, Prometheus the film deals largely with similar issues. Posing questions about what exactly constitutes a god and how we came to be, and if it really matters how, Prometheus has a lot of big ideas bubbling away beneath the Giger-influenced veneer.
Following that design, the production holds true to the original work very carefully. Scott knows how much regard many people hold his previous work in, and treads carefully to avoid as many toes as possible. Questions are answered, many are raised and some loose ends are tied up with a major one left dangling just enough to leave you wanting more.
The sets in particular are reminiscent of Alien. There is one reveal shot that fans of the original will instantly recognise, and it feels as if it’s just been cut and pasted from the 1979 production (bar one key detail missing), in the best way possible. You’ll know it when you see it.  It’s this dedication to crafting a film that while pretty much as sci-fi as you can get, ultimately feels real and tangible. Ridley Scott gives a masterclass in how to utilise physical sets and locations in the age of CGI and greenscreening in Prometheus. When you see the crew of the ship walking through the belly of some extra-terrestrial structure you can believe they are there because they are. Okay, the extra-terrestrial structure might actually be in a giant warehouse in Surrey, but it definitely exists.
Fans who are anticipating Alien: Part II may be left wanting a little bit however. Where Alien was a straight up horror film, Prometheus squarely straddles the line between action and horror. You still have a lot of unnerving and uncomfortable moments, spiced up with a couple of jump scares, but it lacks the visceral feeling of the hunt that the battle between Ripley and the monster instilled. So it should too. It’s a different type of film set in the same universe. If anything I’d say it was a more complex and intellectually engaging piece that tries to reach a different part of the psyche; Alien plays on the primal part of your brain that’s fundamentally scared of shadows in the dark out to eat you and Prometheus deals with bigger-picture thinking and the part of your brain that ponders life.
The difference is illustrated for all to see in the new main character found in Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw. Unlike Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley, Shaw is a scientist and brings along everything that entails. Rapace delivers a standout performance and gives the character a lot of depth. In a sense she’s struggling on many different fronts, whether it’s faith or the unfairness of life Rapace creates a charcter that’s it’s difficult not to sympathise with. She may have been a bit of a gamble to lead such a major film, having only worked on one major English production beforehand (Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows) but Scott saw the potential and the Swedish star shines bright here. Also to be commended are Rapace’s co-stars Charlize Theron and Michael Fassbender. Both performances gives us characters that can be very cold at times, but have clear reasons for such traits as the film goes on. They’re still both human though, in a way: Theron’s Vickers shows flickers of emotion through the icy shell at times, and Fassbender’s David has an almost childlike attitude towards the crew and the mission, probably due to not being an actual human.
Prometheus is very much an ensemble: bring the right pieces together (director, cast, studio, story etc.) and you get something very special. It brings the Alien franchise back to its roots both in terms of the narrative, but more importantly in terms of quality. Things got pretty shaky with Alien 3, and only snowballed downhill with Resurrection and the, frankly blasphemous, AvP franchise. But Prometheus reached out to a god of filmmaking and brought the light back to the flailing series. It’s an exercise in good quality sci-fi, and to be applauded by any fan of the original films.