Monday, 23 December 2013

Leviathan (2012)

 Leviathan is a documentary film unlike many you'll see. There is no narration, no interviews or dialogue, no soundtrack and no text on screen. What you get is just 90 minutes of raw footage from a New England dragnet ship. Leviathan is a film that invites you to feel rather than think.

Born from the brains of two anthropologists, this art film come documentary was created by people who aren't fans of normal documentaries. Lucien Castaing-Taylor, who partnered with Verena Paravel to produce Leviathan, has said in the past how much he hates "being told what to think about something, I feel that I want to resist the authority of [a] documentarian" and as such set out to create something that doesn't tell you anything, it just shows you and lets you decide how you feel about that.

Castaing Taylor has said "Documentary claims to have this privileged purchase on a truthful version of reality but most documentaries' representation of the real is so attenuated and so discourse-based and language-based. We lie and we mystify ourselves with words. Words can only take us so far." So how do you get around the lies of language? Don't use it.

There isn't a word uttered in the entirety of Leviathan, at least not an intelligible one that matters. There are some shouts and grunts from the fisherman but they could be in any language and mean anything. It's not surprising that these film makers are anthropologists by trade; Leviathan comes off largely like a documentary about fisherman as if they were just another part of the environment, as if the filmakers were looking at humanity's role here from an outsider's persective.

The men and the ship themselves do just become part of the seascape on the same level as everything else. The hazy and trippy approach taken by Castaing-Taylor and Paravel paints a very primal picture. There are extremely long shots, often of things than many would deem pointless, taken from strange angles and focussing on unusual things. Leviathan is almost a gallery exhibition. There isn't a narrative thread running through the documentary. It's just a collection of striking images that are open to interpretation from the viewer.

And what striking images they are. Brtual and apocalyptic. A tale of blood and salt, bright lights and the black abyss; Leviathan is full of visceral and frenetic visuals. Cameras were strapped to anything that they could be: the boat, the nets, poles to be held overboard and even the fishermen themselves. Often shot from floor level or from below the waves, Leviathan could be seen, at times, to be a documentary on fishing through a fish eye lens.

The rivers of blood from beheading and gutting the fish, the churning black waves with white foam, the floodlights, the screeching gulls and the roars and crashes of the sea create a portrait of sound and fury on the water that will stay with any viewer for a long time, whether they enjoy the experience or not.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Blackfish (2013)


Gabriela Cowperthwaite's gripping documentary takes a harsh look at the impact that prolonged captivity has on both the killer whales of SeaWorld and the trainers who care for them.

Looking back over a number of decades, Blackfish tracks attacks on numerous SeaWorld trainers with a number of them resulting in the deaths of the trainers directly caused by the animals they cared for. But the blame is not laid at the feet of the people who spend every day with these majestic creatures.

SeaWorld itself is on trial in Blackfish. The company is accused of distorting information, evading animal care and capture laws and bare faced lying about scientifically proven information to both their own staff and the public. Many of the people interviewed in the film, all "former" trainers rather than any current ones, were ashamed to say how little they actually knew when training them. Killer whales don't live for around 25-35 years like they're told by their SeaWorld managers, they naturally live very similar lifespans to humans. And those curled dorsal fins, like the famous Tilikum has? Not a single documented case in the wild, but common enough in captivity to convince trainers that it happens to about 1 in 4 males.

The most emotional reactions that Cowperthwaite manages to elicit aren't about the physical health of the animals. Killer whales are incredibly intelligent animals and as a consequence have very powerful emotions. These incredibly social creatures who spend their entire lives with their families. One interviewee recalls capturing a whale calf and separating it from its family and describes it as the worst thing he's ever done or seen, despite being part of a number of violent revolutions in Central and South America.

Later there is a sequence dealing with removing a captive-born calf from his mother to ship him to another park. You might not believe that whales are all that intelligent, but when you hear the prolonged, desperate cries from a mother to a son that isn't there, you'll damn well believe that they can feel.

Emotional toll is present on most faces of most people seen here. The people who worked with the creatures have been lied to. They got into the job because they love animals so much, yet it's only through spending so much time in the system that constantly lied to them, and made them lie to the public, that they realised how much damage they really enabled.

It's an incredibly sad so much harm has come to both animal and man through places like SeaWorld. They can claim scientific research as much as they like, but seeing a huge, mystical beats performing like a dog before going to a small tank to cry, or the grieving families of a trainer who died at the hands of something they loved and you can see how wrong this whole thing is.

In the same way I'm glad animal circuses are (mostly) a thing of the past, Blackfish is a film that makes me hope my children will grow up in a world where attractions such as SeaWorld are a barbaric regret rather than a reality.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Prisoners (2013)

It seems like most things* that Hugh Jackman touches these days turns to gold (The Fountain, Les Miserables) . Now, Prisoners may be that little bit of gold atop the memorial  where your sense of happiness used to live, but it's gold nonetheless.

Prisoners is a crime mystery thriller following the abduction of two little girls. Going in knowing the premise of the film makes the opening that much harder tow watch. It's Thanksgiving and two families are celebrating together. Awful festive jumpers are out, someone's playing the trumpet badly but endearingly and the kids are playing outside. Then they're not. That's it. You don't see them disappear and it makes it feel all the more real, because to the families this sort of terrible thing happens to, that's how it feels. No dramatic chase, no breakneck soundtrack, just a hollow realisation that they're gone.

Jackman plays opposite Jake Gyllenhaal as they both try to solve the case. Jackman as the father of one of the girls who becomes increasingly frustrated with the police's efforts as time goes on and Gyllenhaal as Detective Loki leading the investigation. Together they raise one of the films main questions: how doe s man react? Does he follow his gut and emotion and take justice into his own hands, or does he try to act rational, logical and objective? Both are valid but open for criticism and these two bring a lot of credibility to either side.

Whichever side you come down on, it's one hell of a gruelling ride. Prisoners is two and a half hours long but it feels like it goes on for days. It'll take your heart and break it six ways from Sunday. There's a genuine sense of realism here that makes it all the more difficult to watch. I'm not a father, and I don't even have any young children in my life at all, but this just pulls on some instinct level fears that are hardwired into all of us; Prisoners might be a bit too much for the parents of young kids.

There are a few things that detract a little from the experience. Some things play out a little too much like the crime mystery template. There's one specific thing you'll see in the first act that is framed and lit perfectly then immediately deemed irrelevant. "I wonder if that will become important later on?" asked nobody in the audience with a shred of honesty.

Prisoners isn't the sort of thing you'll see on TV on a Sunday afternoon and watch on a whim in a few years time. You need to be able to sit down and say "Yes, I do want to subject myself to something beautifully made that'll smack my emotions around the room a bit for over two hours".

*(except X-Men. X-Men sucks)

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Pacific Rim (2013)

Because sometimes you just need to come home and see a robot suplex a sea dragon.

Guillermo del Toro directed Pan's Labyrinth, a film that whether you like it or you have to admit has one of the most inventive and creative fantasy world seen in film. In Pacific Rim, GdT explores a different kind of fantasy world. This time though, it's not a Spanish take on dark fairytales, but a Japanese-inspired monster-disaster movie.

Pacific Rim (which, as a side note, is a terrible, terrible name for the film) is set in a nearish future where Earth is being troubled by the occasional invasion from giant aliens. In a different twist though, they don't come from the skies but some weird dimensional rift that's appeared at the bottom of the ocean; they climb out and terrorise pretty much all the cities on the pacific coasts. Mankind, not to be outdone by some finheads, have banded together to build a series of huge robots to fight back and boom we have our film.

That's pretty much it. There isn't a whole lot of depth to this. It's pretty much a Western take on the classic Godzilla films, and that's great! Not everything has to have weaving and intricate plots that take any available turn to create the illusion of being creative. There is a valid point to be made in that there's too little time spent with each character, and they're really simple at that price. There's something like 8 main characters and it doesn't help that each robot has to be piloted by two "rangers" who all seem to get the same amount of attention meaning you don't really get one main character. You do get a little and complete story arc for each character though, and that plays into the film's main message.

It doesn't take a professor to figure out that the main message of Pacific Rim is that "We're all in this together". Despite being a war film, it's all about coming together to achieve things we couldn't individually, from the large scale co-operation between all nations to fight off the outer-space menace to the personal connection that develops between the two pilots at centre stage. We're all broken in little ways, but we can cover each others' backs.

But if you think that's all a bit soppy, Pacific Rim is still just simply fantastic fun. The film's a little long, but at least half of it is made up of actions scenes where it's literally just giant robots and alien monsters beating the shit out of each other in the sea, in the city and on the sea floor. It looks beautiful. Set mainly in-and-around future Hong Kong it's a got a real techno-grunge factor with neon lights and grease everywhere and it inexplicably seems to be always raining for some reason. It's slick, stylish and is just fucking awesome.

Guillermo del Toro knows that he's made a film about giant robots fighting giant aliens and that is all it was. He has essentially made that film that every eleven year old boy would have made had he been given a box full of sugary snacks and $190 million dollars.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Trance (2013)

Somewhere between Slumdog Millionaire and producing the fantastic opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympics Danny Boyle managed to squeeze in the production of Trance.  It might be a little apparent that his attention was a little divided, and by that I mean it's no Trainspotting, but it doesn't stop the film from being entertaining.

What we have in Trance is a psychological crime thriller (and depending on your thoughts on hypnotherapy, it might be a little sci-fi). After a robbery at an auction house goes off the rails and the painting goes missing, the inside man who last had his hands on in suffers a bout of amnesia. Looking to fill in the blanks the thieves call in the services of a hypnotherapist and set themselves down a road full of twists, turns, false memories and distorted reality.

Danny Boyle's created something that feels a lot like a more grounded version of Inception. Everything in the film is technically possible if you accept that unlikely things always happen in movies. You get similar dream-like atmosphere but with a lot less of the crazy action. The hypnosis factor draws you in and leaves you guessing at to exactly what's real, what's happening under the trance and what's a false memory. As the film progresses it might be a little too much for some, myself included, and you get to a point where you just throw your hands up and say "I'll just wait 'til the end to figure it out!". Even then there does remain a certain pleasure in just going along with the ride.

There might be a few too many twists and turns along the way, but it gives Boyle ample opportunity to mess with you in another way. From the get go it's never clear whose side you're supposed to be on exactly, and considering everyone in the main cast is some sort of criminal, it makes it easy for allegiances to slide from character to character throughout the film right up until the final conclusion.

Of course, credit for that doesn't just lie with the director though. While the cast might no be quite A list (yet), they give an A rate performance. James McAvoy is one of Britain's biggest upcoming stars at the moment, after making the jump from TV to big pictures in 2007 with Atonement, he's just gone from strength to strength (including what looks like a delightfully sleazy time in Filth). He's fantastic at both ends of the spectrum; at home as much as the snivelling coward as he is the vengeful psychopath he just has a knack for taking characters on a real journey and changing, for better or worse.

Backing McAvoy up are Rosario Dawson (Death Proof) and Vincent Cassel (Black Swan). Dawson takes the lead as the intelligent and scheming Elizabeth Lamb, the supposedly legitimate hypnotherapist enticed by the thought of a payday from the underworld and a break from the monotony of treating over-eaters and smokers every day. Then there's Cassel doing what he does best: being somehow suave and incredibly seedy at the same time as the French ringleader of the heist gone wrong.

The three of them together make for an interesting dance throughout the course of film, each taking centre stage for long enough to play with your head as to who should come out on top, who's in the right and who's actually telling the truth. Trance might not ever be near the top of Danny Boyle's biggest hits, but it'll put you under its spell for an hour and a half and not disappoint.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Orange Is The New Black (TV) (2013)

It is, unfortunately, still a thing to believe that women aren't funny. I'm not sure why this is, but you'll find no shortage of this sort of thing in the world of comedy, and especially so online. Just a quick google will take you straight to highly regarded publications pushing this sort of thing too.

Personally, I just don't get it. Some of my favourite sitcoms are focussed on and also produced by women. Tina Fey's 30 Rock is the only sitcom I've made the effort to watch from start to finish because it's that good, and Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope in Parks and Rec is a hilarious lead. Even as I'm writing this, I've got QI on in the background and Shappi Khorsandi is killing it.

So, on to Orange Is The New Black: a black-comedy/drama set in a women's prison. The (nearly) all female cast is just one of the risky things about OITNB. As outlined above, there's the whole "women aren't funny thing", which is bullshit, but there's the risk of not everyone getting black comedy and then there's the new Netflix model it was released on. OITNB is a Netflix original, a lot like the lauded House of Cards. It was released all at once, ready to be binged or enjoyed at your own leisure.

There were a couple of risks, and straight out the gate I'm not going to say it all completely paid off in droves. I did really enjoy this first series but there are some flaws.

First, the good: It works as a black comedy. As you can imagine, there's a lot of opportunity for darkly funny things to happen in prison. People go a bit stir crazy, some of them are there because they're already crazy and the rules from normal society just plain don't apply any more. The cast fill out the possibilities nicely. Segregated by race, the cliques cover a cross section of criminals. You've got your hillbilly meth head born again Christians, your Russian-headed kitchen crew, the current and former junkies and all the individual "unique" cases inbetween. At the centre of it all there's the fish out of water main character of Piper Chapman. A middle-class, college educated woman about to be married, she comes to prison woefully unprepared after being found guilty of carrying drug money across the border over a decade ago. Taylor Shilling takes on the naive and skittish role well and manages to embody some of the changes that anyone undoubtedly goes through with a stay in a correctional facility.

More good: OITNB works as a drama. The stories that some of these women (well, a few of them are better described as girls) have are genuinely touching and humanising. Either told through flashbacks to the outside world or through the rarer moment of vulnerable honesty between inmates, most of the major characters get fleshed out well enough that you can actually start to care about them, and more than how well they'll be able to set up the next punchline.

The struggle comes from lining up the balance of comedy and drama. As the series goes on it shifts away from the comedy quite heavily. It's a smart move in the end; it's a little difficult to go from a drug overdose to a toilet gag smoothly. But it does shift the tone of the show drastically. At the start OITNB is pretty much 50-50 humour and drama, but towards the end it's just pretty depressing and dark, with moments of levity rather than those of outright comedy. It's still compelling, but it just feels a little inconsistent.

I'd recommend Orange Is The Ne Black to anyone looking for something a little different from their TV entertainment, but it's not going to set the world alight like Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad. If anything it's worth checking out because there's at lest a handful of characters that real steal the show. The born again methhead with her cultist followers, and the formerly homeless, corn-rowed blonde girl with a throat tattoo and strange sense of honour are two particular standouts.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Amélie (2001)

A quick list of some things I like: critically acclaimed films, French women, quirky yet realistic characters.

A quick list of things I don't get: Amélie, the love for Amélie.

It should have been a perfect storm but I just didn't really enjoy Amélie at all. I finally got around to watching it after going through a "Movies like this" list for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which still sits on the throne of my favourite films, so I was expecting to fall in love.

Amélie just stinks to the high heavens of trying way too hard. It's charming, but it's too charming. It's quirky, but it's too quirky. It's whimsical, but it's too whimsical. The only grounding element in the film comes in the neuroses of Amélie herself: an introvert badly damaged by her incompetent parents who finds it hard to properly connect with others. But her broken social skillset is too little to stem the flow of tweeness flowing out of every other character and situation in the film. 

I'd be tempted to put it down to a simple difference of culture. Maybe it's just one of those French things that as an uncultured Englishman I'm never going to get? But I recently caught a few episodes of The Returned (a French mystery TV series) and that was beautifully bleak. As you might have already guessed from this review, I should have liked this. I tend to fall in love with the "manic pixie dream girl" characters despite how disgustingly unrealistic they are. Some of my favourite films are Garden State, Eternal Sunshine and Breakfast at Tiffany's (and that isn't easy for a straight, male twentysomething to admit) and was expecting Amélie to slot right in there in next to them but apparently I have a point where I draw the line and say "cut that quirky shit out, you're a grown woman for God's sake".

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Let The Right One In / Låt den rätte komma in (2008)

A fantasy story with vampires that doesn't make you want to cut yourself.

This 2008 Swedish language film came as part of the little wave of Scandinavian culture that got hijacked by the Anglo-sphere in the last few years. This, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Wallander and The Killing are all things that we've nicked and made, sometimes better and sometimes worse, our own versions of.

Let The Right One In (remade recently as Let Me In) bucks the trend of recent fantasy love story (looking at you Twilight) and doesn't take a glamorous brush and paint the undead as cool, moody and mysterious romantic beings. LTROI is pretty old school in it's approach to vampires, despite the two main characters being 12 year olds.

Oskar is a lonely kid living in a Swedish council estate (although it could double for any eastern bloc hellhole) jumping between his divorced parents and being bullied at school, when a mysterious family moves in next door. He and Eli, the new neighbour's daughter become friends despite their common awkwardness and start themselves off on a quirky little pre-teen love story that seems like a really messed up version of Moonrise Kingdom. Obviously things get a little complicated when secrets start to come out and the blood starts flowing.

This is a great film that pulls no punches. The violence is visceral and gory. The vampires are cursed with horrific lives, not blessed with superpowers and sparkles. The kids are awkward, and not in that cutesy hipster fashion but like properly awkward kids. To put it in a way that sounds really stupid: it's a vampire love-story that feels very grounded in reality.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Only God Forgives (2013)

Nicolas Winding Refn set the critics and the internet alight in 2011 with the Ryan Gosling led Drive. His artsy take on a crime film stood out against the rest of that year's major releases with it's incredibly slow and deliberate pace. It also stood out somewhat as Refn's most "mainstream" production, if not by much. Drive was slick artistic and reasonably accessible while keeping a tight hold of that arthouse feel. A hell of a lot of people were expecting Drive 2.0. Only God Forgives is not that.

Only God Forgives goes a bit further from the beaten track and is full on arthouse with symbolism and slow-burn intensity coming out the back end. It created a mixed reaction with critics, to put it lightly. During its trip to the world famous Cannes Film Festival it was walked out on and booed in some screenings and came out of other with top critics awarding it perfect scores. The graphic violence and cryptic approach to storytelling understandably splits reactions pretty much down the middle.

From the get-go, OGF sets out its stall a creeping and eerie dynamic. No punches are pulled as we're introduced to Ryan Gosling's Julian and his brother Billy, who are American-born gangsters working the streets of Bangkok fronting as a Muay Thai boxing club. Billy manages to befall a deserving but gruesome fate which brings the brothers' mother as well as a vengeful police lieutenant out of the woodwork and sets them all on a journey of revenge and retribution exploring the nature of sin and forgiveness.

If you're big on hard hitting and compelling dialogue, this film is not the one for you. In a trademark style, Refn's main character here barely speaks (in his 2009 picture Valhalla Rising, the main character doesn't speak at all). Gosling apparently racks up a total of 17 lines in the entirety of OGF. Most of the feeling in the film comes from the physical acting and the beautiful, beautiful use of lighting and set dressing. Not everyone can agree on whether the rest of the film was impressive, but I'd challenge anyone to come up with a good argument for how this films doesn't look good. Deep blacks, broken by soft hues of gold and deep reds, are interspersed with expertly placed neons that lend the entire production the feel of a dreamy acid trip in the seedy backstreets of Thailand.

Major criticisms come in the form of the characters. Many have said they don't feel like people  and just seem to represent "ideas" instead. And that's kind of exactly what makes the film a great watch. The three main characters, Julian, his mother and the lieutenant, are all pretty inhuman monsters to varying degrees. The lieutenant is a sin eater: he carries out harsh and brutal punishments on those who deserve it. This allows him to also be the agent of forgiveness. It might just be because I've been watching a lot of Breaking Bad, but just because someone is the main character doesn't mean they're the good guy, and just because the lieutenant is working against Gosling doesn't mean he's the bad guy.

Then you have Gosling. Julian is just completely messed up. There is a very overt Oedipal relationship between him and his mother, and it's clear it's just left him confused and belittled his entire life. This confusion and and inability to see the world in the simple black-and-white of the rest of the cast is why he's our main character.

I came because it was a Gosling (and Refn) movie, but I stayed because of Kristin Scott Thomas' Crystal. I haven't seen her in anything before, and truth be told I only knew she existed because of Jeremy Clarkson's obsession with her on Top Gear, but god damn does she steal the show here. It's a departure from her usual high-class and refined roles. She's a mafia take on Lady Macbeth, and it's brilliant.

Crystal is scary. Not in that "She's clearly a crazy psychopath" kind of way either. There's no sense that's she's crazy or just missing the empathy part of her brain, she's just plain cold and ruthless. There's no veneer, only straight up contempt, disgust and hate and Scott Thomas does it perfectly.

Only God Forgives is not going to make it on many "Best Films" list, but where it does it'll be pretty high up. I'm a sucker for good looking films and this is one of the best visual stories I've seen in a while. It's not Drive 2 by a long shot. It's a trippy, violent and unsettling film. One that I'm very pleased with.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

The Wire Season 1 (2002)

Quality TV in is fast becoming the most consumed and talked about artform of this decade. Game of Thrones is smashing records, both legal and nautical, every time it shows its face. Breaking Bad is ready to set the internet alight with its final eight episodes come the end of summer. Even the way TV is being made is changing, with Netflix getting in on the action with House of Cards and the latest season of Arrested Development. Both shows took the new approach of releasing all episodes at once for you to choose your own pace: watch one a week when you get time, one every night for a week or two, or do what I do and binge through them all in a weekend.

Even with the recent loss of the greatly talented James Gandolfini, you can see how quality programming has dug its feet in. This was a man who was in a film just last year that received five Oscar nominations (Zero Dark Thirty) among numerous massively successful films, but every single mention of him has forgone all them to describe him as "Sopranos star James Gandolfini".

It's, now "classic", shows like The Sopranos that today's TV owes its existence to. The early 2000s set the precedent, and 2002 gave us one of the most influential shows when HBO debuted The Wire.

The Wire, when boiled down to the bare minimum, is a cat-and-mouse drama set in the crime and drug riddled city of Baltimore. The extensive cast of characters come mostly from two sides: the cops and one of the city's many drug gangs. But to say it's a black and white, clear cut story of cops chasing robbers is a disservice to how grey The Wire gets. Nobody is a fully blown bad guy or good guy, but there are a few that are close to the extremes on both sides. Essentially, the people you end up rooting for aren't those on the right side of the law but the people who are trying to do the best for themselves and their friends given the restrictions of the world they inhabit.

Characterisation is where the show truly shines. It's a credit to the shows writers that the frankly huge cast (only a fraction of whom are in the artwork above) all seem to be developed at least to some degree of believability in just 13 episodes. So often in any medium, be it TV, film or books, you get characters who exist solely to perform one action that moves the plot forward. But here, even if that's the only reason a character exists, they're at least fleshed out to be interesting enough that you don't notice.

Apparently, my favourite from the roster is shared with President Obama himself in Omar Little. Imagine your typical gay, black drug dealer character  and Omar will subvert it. This is one scary motherfucker, and I don't mean that creepy type of scary that lazy writers will use to try and make a gay character scary. Omar literally gets people running from the streets  when he makes an appearance because they know that he, along with his trademark shotgun and whistled theme tune, has come to town to cause some bad shit for some unlucky people. Despite being an armed robber by trade he has a strict adherence to a code of honour and it's these sort of almost contradicting traits that make him one of the best characters to watch on screen.

Not only that, Omar has the best single line of the series, and Michael K Williams absolutely nails it.

The tradeoff of focussing so heavily on characters is pacing. You have to go all in with a show like The Wire because the payoff is great but you're going to be waiting a while to get there. This isn't Homeland where every episode has a 50% chance of having an "Oh holy shit!" moment; there's a handful in the season but they are so much more worth it. It's for this reason that I'd recommend the binge approach for this show. I watched all 13 episodes of the first series over the course of four nights (because I have no life) and even then I had to stop for a minute at least once per episode to remind myself who had done what and what had happened. Slow, steady pacing and a cast that'd fill a coach isn't a recipe that comes out best when cooked over 13 weeks.

If you haven't clicked on by this point: I really, really like The Wire and thank it for everything it's responsible for in the modern TV landscape. And if that's not enough for you the show even managed to get the famously sarcastic and pessimistic Charlie Brooker to just sit back and say "It is just fucking brilliant".

Sunday, 9 June 2013

V/H/S/2 (2013)

When you've essentially got five teams working on five different short films, it's easy to get stuff done fast. Thanks to this V/H/S/2, the sequel to my favourite horror of the past few years (V/H/S), is here less than a year after the original and it hasn't suffered too abdly for it.

These films are taking us back to an old style you don't see too often any more: the horror anthology. V/H/S/2 follows pretty much exactly the same format as the first: there's a central story about some people being duped into going to a house and finding a bunch of random ass VHS tapes (despite being set right now). They pop the tapes in and we get a bunch of short films breaking up the central story.

Again, the framing story is the weakest of the lot. It doesn't really need to be strong at all though, seeing as it just functions as an excuse to play a bunch of short found-footage type films. I will say though, in the first we were given a reason to believe the guys in the central story deserved to be in this fucked up situation, but in this one they just seem to be good people getting fucked with for no real reason.

As for the feature shorts, there's a range of quality.

The first ("Phase I Clinical Trials") is pretty much your standard ghost story and easily the most disappointing of the bunch. It's pretty well made, and there's an interesting backstory that's alluded to but otherwise it's just pretty standard and has really predictable jumpscares. Not to mention the instance of completely out of the blue gratuitous nudity. I mean, I'm an insane Game of Thrones fan, so gratuitous nudity isn't a problem for me, but in this it's comes out of the blue and for no real reason other than tits.

With the start of the second film ("A Ride in the Park") my stomach sank and my eyes rolled. I won't spoil what it is, but it's a monster invasion that's been done to undeath so much these past few years. Luckily for me, it continues past the point where you'd expect the run-of-the-mill version to and actually becomes a fresh, fun take on something quite tired.

"Safe Haven" in slot three is the highlight of V/H/S/2. If the first film didn't have Amateur Night, Safe Haven would be the highlight of the series so far. Gareth Evans, director of the massively acclaimed action film The Raid: Redemption, throws a news crew into a commune of an apocalyptic death cult during the climax of their doomsday prophecy. Things get very crazy very, very quickly. It just keeps escalating and getting more and more intense until it gets so messed up even some of the victims can't help but just laugh at the sheer ridiculous brilliance.

Coming in last is the very efficiently titled "Slumber Party Alien Abduction". Yeah, it pretty much does exactly what it says on the tin. It's a very 90s styled throwback that knows what it is and just decides to have a bit of fun with it.

Overall,  the film feels a lot less coherent than its predecessor. The first film was incredibly tight and despite having a handful of directors had very clear themes running throughout but the sequel just feels like a bunch of, seemingly random, short horror films from all over the genre. It's still a very good example of found-footage done right, but if you're left only able to see one for some bizarre reason, go for the first.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Side Effects (2013)

With a cold open of an apartment floor spattered with blood and deep red footprints, Side Effects  starts with the air of mystery and intrigue it keeps throughout. 

Without giving away too much, Side Effects revolves around a group of people, both patients and doctors, in the psychiatric world and the dangerous possibilities that foreseen or unforeseen side effects can bring about. This is a psychological thriller that deals in money, sex, lies and (pharmaceutical) drugs. Much like many police procedurals with which it shares its style, Side Effects hinges on that oh so ambiguous thing: the truth. When a course of anti-depressants leads to horrific consequences for Emily (Rooney Mara), her doctor (Jude Law) sets on to unravel the mystery of just what happened on a fateful night between her and her husband. More importantly, with his reputation and sense of justice on the line, he pursues why it happened.

The two leads (Mara and Law) elevate what could potentially have descended into one of those convoluted daytime TV movies. Jude Law gives his Dr Banks a pure heart and develops a truly compelling sense of righteousness that would leave only the most cynical not on his side, which makes some later developments for him all the more a difficult pill to swallow. On the flip side, Mara shows off her true range here. We've seen her as an everyday sort of girl in her bit part in The Social Network and the volatilely broken Lisbeth in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. In Side Effects she shows off a number of sides. From her all too believable state through the depression as a timid and injured soul to scenes where she is anything but (to say any more would give away too much), Mara is enthralling throughout.

Side Effects is quite a wild ride with twists and turns... once it gets going. For the first forty-ish minutes you're kind of left wondering where everything is going and although there are one or two interesting characters, they're not doing much, rather that things are just happening. Getting past that first act, something happens that makes you retro-actively appreciate everything that happened. It's a bit of a mis-step in that I would really have preferred to enjoy it as it was happening but being able to look back and think "Damn that was clever". As it stands, the first act is a lot more like looking at a sad painting instead of watching a film, which is great if you're into character studies like me, but it's not why a lot of people watch films. That said, do stick with it. If you like complicated mysteries that flip and flop and have people playing off each other in a vortex of angles, you'll love the last two thirds of Side Effects.

Gotta say though (ending spoilers) the ending is very much bittersweet... Actually no, it's just bitter. This character you've been rooting for pretty much the whole time pulls a massive dick move. I'm not saying it's not justified, but considering their motivations all the way through, the exact type of resolution seems particularly cruel.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)

Derek Cianfrance pulled no punches in his début film Blue Valentine and he shows no signs of slowing down with The Place Beyond The Pines. But where Blue Valentine focussed tightly on the two central characters falling in and out of love, the sense of scale has been ramped up taking The Place Beyond The Pines into grander territory.

Focussing on the lives of two fathers, the central conflict comes from people who are neither wholly good or wholly bad but the beautifully murky grey area of just trying to do what's best for their families. In the first two acts, of this film which is very clearly divided into three parts, focus on the trials of Luke and Avery. Luke (Ryan Gosling) is a motorcycle stunt rider who, upon returning to a town with his annually touring show, finds he has a child that he fathered the previous year and sets out to provide for him in the only way he can. His less than lawful profession sets him on a collision course with the incorruptible cop in Avery (Bradley Cooper) and worlds collide as the two men and their families struggle to come to terms with the consequences over the next two decades.

TPBTP is a long film, and it feels long too, but if you can invest yourself in it it pays off in spades. There are no heroes here, only people ruled by their emotions and their efforts to do what is right. Mistakes, guilt and lies echo through generations as the sins of the father are imprinted on those who are doomed to also suffer for them. You may find yourself a little lost at the end of the first act and wondering why any of the progression we get of Avery in the second chunk matters, but it all comes to fruition in the understated and powerful final half hour.

It will be a film that polarises audiences. Many will criticise its awkward pacing and overly lengthy run time. But for those who love characters who are fundamentally broken, especially those who have major identity issues with their somewhat broken homes, this film will resonate to the core. Personally, I saw a lot of powerful emotions reflected back at me that I've dealt with myself. Never to the degree shown here, but I'd argue that anyone who has an issue with a parent would struggle to empathise here.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)

There really isn't too much to say on Hansel and Gretel. It's a bit of fun and was never going to be a hit with the critics.

It bucks the trend set by gritty and dark fairytale films like Snow White and the Hunstman and Jack the Giant Slayer by not being super serious and revelling in how grim everything is. It could have benefited from going a bit further and edging into full on parody but it reigns it in every time things get a bit too much. Either way, this is a lot more Van Hellsing than any recent takes on fairytales we've had. There's ridiculous action sequences, people getting thrown about all over the place and not getting really hurt, weapons that have no place being in this time period and more blood than you can shake a vial of holy water at.

The sheer amount of blood is telling of another thing. Hansel and Gretel is a bit more "adult" than the vaguely child targeted film I expected. I say "adult" because I mean it's really juvenile, but there's a lot more swearing and blood and guts than I really anticipated going in and it all added to the feeling that this wasn't a serious movie and was all about having fun.

Hansel and Gretel was clearly an excuse to put two of Hollywood's beautiful people in tight leather and have them kick some arse and look good doing it (and holy shit, Gemma Arterton, wow). It's nothing more than that so just switch off your brain and enjoy it.

Mama (2013)

The last thing I've seen that Guillermo del Toro had to do with was Pan's Labyrinth so when I saw his name pop up on the intro to Mama, even only in a producing role, I got pretty stoked.

I went in knowing only two things: 1) that this was a pretty standard horror movie and 2) apparently this is what Jessica Chastain decided to follow up Zero Dark Thirty with and it seemed like a bit of a step down. It turns out, both of these assumptions are pretty true, but not in as a bad way, as I thought.

Mama is a pretty standard horror film. Two very young girls find themselves lost and alone in the woods after their family kind of breaks down. They're later found, five years later, having survived in the wilderness somehow. They're placed by social services with what's left of their family: their uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau a.k.a Jaime fucking Lannister) and his girlfriend Annabelle (Jessica Chastain). Only, they soon find out that whatever it was that was protecting the girls in the woods isn't quite ready to give up its motherhood just like that.

The film feels a lot like a good old fashioned, proper ghost story. It's as if someone took one of the better short stories from Are you Afraid of the Dark? and gave it some talent, a budget and a feature length timeslot. And if you had a decent childhood, you'll know that that's awesome.

There aren't really any gimmicks here. It's a ghost. No it doesn't exist through image taken of itself or it isn't some misunderstood benevolent spirit or there isn't actually a twists where it turns out to be aliens or a being from another dimension. There's no playing around with conventions of the genre to appear clever and, thank god, it's not a first person found-footage film. It's a fucking ghost story, what more does it need? Let's be honest here, ghosts are pretty damn scary all on their own. Even with a multitude of traditional scares and a not-exactly-groundbreaking plot, it's all done well and Mama is a good example of a simple horror story done well.

In no small part is the effect of the film down to the lead actors. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is the main supporting actor as Lucas and this guy is solid. I may be biased because I'm really into the whole redemption arc his character in Game of Thrones has going on right now, but this guy's gonna be a round for a while. He's had his foot in the door of English-language productions for a while now, but he's really turning the boot to crack it open now.

Jessica Chastain, fast becoming one of my favourite actresses, is centre stage and rightfully so as Annabelle. First off I've got to say I love the styling of her character. The goth-rock chic look she has going on is like Alice Glass of Crystal Castles, only she'd had a normal adolescence. T-shirts plastered with Fear and Loathing references and The Misfits logo, along with the short, sharply styled black hair and dark makeup give Chastian a remarkably different appearance to her CIA Maya of ZDT and she pulls of this massively different character just as well. Embodying both the audience's compassion for and frustration with these two troubled little girls, Chastain gives us a believably conflicted and empathetic performance with this punk turned mother.

These two are definitely a pair who've got a lot more to give, hopefully as good as what they have delivered so far. Not to mention that this was director Andrés Muschietti's first full length film so hopefully we'll see more from him.

Mama is a resoundingly solid horror film that demonstrates you don't always have to have a gimmick. As long as you've got good foundations and strong talent, you can scare the shit out of people with the simplest toolset you have.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Room 237

If you've either not seen The Shining or absolutely hate people who "read too much into things" (or both!) just stop reading now, you'll save yourself a lot of time.

Room 237 is a sort of documentary. I say "sort of " because the entire film is conjecture, theories and different readings all surrounding Stanley Kubrick's 1980 horror classic. It's essentially a collection of people who have very indepth pet theories about what they think The Shining is *really* all about.

Most of the theories do come across as a bit insane. One in particular uses the film as supposed evidence that Kubrick was slyly admitting that he was part of the faked moon landing videos. Eye rolls all around for that one. It might just be Stockholm Syndrome setting in after spending an hour and a while with these disembodied voices (this documentary is made up entirely of archive footage, footage from the film itself and a little original photography) but I found myself buying in to some of them towards the end. I'm not saying I do believe that Kubrick was making a criticism of the genocide of the Native Americans or that he was confronting the horrors of the holocaust via subtext, but I am saying there are a few little details that can only be explained by the fact that he was clearly trying to say something at least.

Attention to craft is something that runs through all the analysts and their theories. There is no doubt among anyone, be they academics, film scholars, or just general fans of movies, that Stanley Kubrick was a master of his craft and his attention to detail was bordering on the obsessive. If anything can be taken away from Room 237 it's just how far Kubrick went in producing the Shining, whether it's something little like the numerous middle fingers he gives Stephen King (author of the source material) or something subtler like the impossible geometry of the Overlook Hotel. (The impossible shape of the hotel has to be one of my favourite things about the film. Even if you don't consciously notice it, it subconsciously instils the idea with you that there is something just plain wrong with this place even if you don't know what it is. More on that here, and then here)

It feels a lot like something that you'd more usually find as an extra feature on a blu-ray release or something similar, but that's not to say Room 237 isn't an interesting watch. Don't go in expecting to be convinced of any great truth about the film or anything enlightening. This is just a handful of ideas that some people take away from what they saw. None of it's wrong and none of it's right, it's all just really interesting opinion.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Upstream Color (2013)

I don't really have any idea what the hell I just watched, to be honest with you.

Shane Carruth, of Primer fame, gives us his second and even more confusing film. Primer was a film about time travel that was so complicated that it became almost impossible to follow (seriously, if anyone can explain it to me without graphs or flowcharts they get a gold star) but at least you knew what it was that was confusing you (numerous alternate timelines and the jumps between). But with Upstream Color I'm not quite sure what it was that I didn't get.

I'd tell you what it's about but I'm still not quite so sure, so I'll just stick with Carruth's own description:
"Kris is derailed from her life when she is drugged by a small-time thief. But something bigger is going on. She is unknowingly drawn into the life cycle of a presence that permeates the microscopic world, moving to nematodes, plant life, livestock, and back again. Along the way, she finds another being—a familiar, who is equally consumed by the larger force. The two search urgently for a place of safety within each other as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of their wrecked lives."

It's all very abstract and tied up in underlying themes rather than than direct plot and action. There's a lot of subtext (in my opinion) about the ideas of how much control we have, and how much we think we have over our everyday lives. Things like outside influences operating on us without our knowledge or acknowledgement, and being scared of something but not knowing what it is you're scared of.

Fans of films like Terrence Malick's Tree of Life will find Upstream Color delightful I imagine. The film plays with high concepts that are never explicitly stated (in fact, little is actually stated at all, Upstream Color is light on dialogue) and there is a heavy emphasis on soft framed and subdued but beautiful shots.

If you were to compare films to visual art, films like Upstream Color falls into the same category as modern art. Historically, especially so before photography, painting and visual art had an emphasis on recreating things exactly as they looked. Painters like Da Vinci were able to craft beautiful works that were lifelike and coherent much like say... a Spielberg film. Then you get to more modern types of art where it's all about triggering emotion and ideas. We don't need to strive for photorealism all the time now we have cameras, and we don't always need things like traditional storytelling or being hit over the head with themes in film either. Both types of both things are great. Sit me down in front of Saving Private Ryan or the Mona Lisa and I'll follow you through the entire experience and say "Wow, that was fantastically done!" when I finish. Just the same way, sit me down in front of one of Damien Hirst's dead animals in formaldehyde or Upstream Color and I'll be all "I don't know exactly what this means, but I'm gonna have fun trying to figure it out!".

Upstream Color is an interesting experience, but don't expect to get too much out of it. This is a movie where you're really going to have to make up your own mind what you take away from it.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

The House I Live In (Documentary) (2012)

America is currently engaged in it's longest war to date. This isn't a war born of ideology. It's not a war being fought in a desert. There aren't any army troops even fighting in the war. Shit, the war isn't even in another country.

The "War on Drugs" was declared by President Richard Nixon over 40 years ago now and Eugene Jarecki's film aims to display how mismanaged, misdirected, ineffective and outright harmful the entire endeavour has been. It reports in the opening that there has been an estimate $1 TRILLION spent on the war and over 45m arrests made directly under War on Drugs legislation, yet drug use rates haven't dropped one bit and have in many cases actually increased.

Although the overall selection may be a bit biased in terms of Jarecki's message, the interviewees come from a wide range of people involved and affected by the war and present a number of arguments that show just how bad and ineffective the war has been. From prisoners to judges, police officers to low-level dealers and activists to TV writers (namely David Simon, journalist turned creator of The Wire) the perspectives come thick and fast and fill out the 108 minutes to the brim.

Born initially of hate and fear, the war has become one that's even colder than hatred. With the privatised prison system in the US, the massive amounts of prisoners, the monetary incentives for police to target drug users above everyone else and systemic discrimination against huge groups of people, it's a recipe for a war on the lower classes that just perpetuates such class traps and essentially locks out the lower classes from ever lifting themselves out of terrible circumstances. When there is absolutely no other opportunity to make money, when you literally cannot put food on the table for yourself and your family, it's understandable that anyone will turn to drugs whether it's dealing them to get by or just to take you away from the miserable existence that you're systematically trapped in for an hour or two.

It's not a war on drugs it's the war on these people, the innercity ghetto apparent blocks populated by the African American working class and the trailer parks populated by the so called "white trash", that's being waged. Issues such as the incredibly harsh sentences on cheaper but equally harmful drugs highlight this perfectly. Specifically, Jarecki makes a point to cover the disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine mandatory sentences. It was put into law that possession of crack (the cheaper, typically "poor" version of the drug) was to be handled with sentences literally 100x harsher than those of the powdered drug (which is needed to make crack, and is usually associated with wealthy types such as bankers and high level professionals).

The House I Live In takes you through a crash course of the history of drug laws in the US, and why and how they were enforced. It paints a picture of a situation that's been carried out, in truth, for over a century. It was an effort that went unchecked and felt no sympathy for the specific groups it was targeting, and they weren't being targeted for drugs but because of race and social class to begin with (hence the film's tagline: "The war on drugs has never been about drugs"). Drugs have always been the excuse, not the reason, to imprison, persecute and discriminate specific and ever-expanding groups of people.

It's no doubt that America has a serious problem with drugs like meth, cocaine, heroin crack and other destructive hard drugs. But the way the country has gone about tackling it is completely wrong from the top down. Instead of helping people with problems it is just simply rounding up anyone that it can and throwing away the key. Rehabilitation and proper education are left on the backburner and forgotten about. And that's disgusting.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Valhalla Rising (2009)

A trippy mix of religion, faith, paranoia and foreign lands. The patrons of new gods fight the embodiments of old, and the New World takes an opportunity to throw a few kicks in too.

I was prompted to see this after getting wildly excited over seeing the trailer for Nicolas Winding Refn's upcoming film Only God Forgives, his latest film since Drive, which I absolutely loved. I was told to check out both this and the Pusher Trilogy, something I'm sure I'll get around to eventually.

Anyway, Valhalla Rising. It's a much more esoteric movie than Drive and that's saying something. In the same way that if you went to see Drive expecting The Fast and the Furious with more Ryan Gosling, if you come to Valhalla Rising expecting a swashbuckling Viking hack-and-slash adventure you'll be sorely disappointed.

The plot, if you can call it that really, follows a mute warrior-slave known only as One Eye. He was at the mercy of a Celtic or possibly Nordic hill tribe who used him as a fighter in gambling and entertainment. Upon gaining his freedom he encounters a band of Christians setting off for Jerusalem to fight in one of the early crusades. Joining them, he sets off on journey to the Holy Lands that eventually leads them through Hell.

Valhalla Rising hints at many things and reveals few. Drawing on a wealth of cultures, particularly Celtic and Nordic mythology, certain things are alluded to. It's hard to ignore the similarities between this half sighted beastly warrior and the one-eyed battle god-king Odin from Viking mythology. Similarly it's hard to separate the visual stylings of the people the band encounters in wherever it is they end up from certain other "primitive" cultures; especially so if you believe the theories that the Vikings explored a lot more of the world than we thought.

The film leaves a lot open to interpretation, and it's going to come down to personal preference whether that's a good thing or not. Personally, I loved it. Lots of ambiguous storytelling techniques combined with some beautiful scenery (thank you, Scottish Highlands) create a powerful ethereal feeling, giving the entire film a dream like or illusion-like haze.

It's not a blockbuster. It's dreamy, unclear, hazy and features a lot of brutal violence. For once, as well, you get some sword-and-shield period fighting that doesn't involve a 10 minute sword fight just to resolve a dispute. The one thing that very much anchors Valhalla Rising in the real world is its portrayal of violence. Fights are over quickly. The injuries sustained are fatal and you know this for sure. It's not clean and it's not slick but it's impactful, you feel every hit, very much a metaphor for the film itself.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Sunshine Cleaning (2008)

There's good to be found in just about every situation. That's the sort of lesson films like Sunshine Cleaning are mean to teach you. It comes from the producers of Little Miss Sunshine, a film I haven't seen but am reliably informed has the same sort of themes.

Rose Lorkowski (Amy Adams), in an attempt to elevate herself from her house cleaning job, enlists the help of her bohemian, drifter sister Norah (Emily Blunt) to set up her own business: Sunshine Cleaning. The catch being that it is a very specialised business, electing to clean up crime scenes and other messy death sites, simply because the money's good and Rose needs it to get her son into a decent school.

With the help of an eccentric father (Alan Arkin) and new found friend in the business Winston (Clifton Collins Jr), a man with one arm, you have a traditional indie movie cast of broken or downtrodden but endearing. That's the stick here: Sunshine Cleaning isn't exactly an original film that's going to take anyone by surprise but it has a good heart. Adams and Blunt have great on screen chemistry and develop a relationship that feels like you are genuinely watching two sisters work through their issues with each other and the rest of their family as the movie goes on. Emily Blunt in particular is just perfect as Norah. She's the sort of "cool aunt" character that in reality is actually kind of a fuck up but you kind of love her for it in the whole Fight Club "she is free in all the ways you are not" kind of way. I love characters like that, both in real life and film. There's just something about people who are honest about what they are, even if it's a bit broken, that I can't help but admire.

Sunshine Cleaning was never going to be a massive box office smash or clean up at the Academy Awards. But if you like your comedy dramas to have a bit of a dark edge to the comedy and a lot of heart to the drama you couldn't really go wrong with a film like Sunshine Cleaning.

Star Trek (2009)

Star Trek. To boldy nerd out more than nerds have ever nerded before. What I mean, is Star Trek has always been too nerdy for me, a person who writes film reviews on the internet for neither money nor acclaim but for fun. That's how nerdy Star Trek is.

Or rather, how nerdy Star Trek was. The TV series, in its long life and many iterations, may have dabbled way too deeply in matters of philosophy and allegories of (at the time) modern day politics, but at its heart it's always been a show about a bunch of guys rocking around space blowing up bad guys. It was Lost creator (a description he can't seem to escape) J.J. Abrams' job to boil it back down to that for this next generation.

He does a pretty good job of it too. All the excess fluff that has always turned me away from the franchise seems to be gone. You don't need to know anything about Star trek to understand what's going on here one bit. If you're not a fan of sci-fi films you might lag a little behind at times, but you're not going to suffer because you've never heard of a Klingon or the Romulan Empire or you don't know what a Vulcan is.

If anything I can guess that you're better off with a basic or non-existent knowledge of the whole Trek-verse because it's very clearly flagged up in the script that this is set in an alternate universe or timeline or however you want to look at it. It's probably the only weak thing about the script: it's little immersion shattering when a conversation gets to its natural end and one party just has to pipe up and shoehorn in a "So, this thing happened that definitely shouldn't have happened *wink wink, nudge nudge* Right?". The rest of the script though? Pretty sharp, and there's one line in particular that features a brilliant pun which I can only imagine was supposed to be a middle finger to the studios for for making sure this had to be a 12A rated film. Spoilers: I literally burst out laughing at "Are you out of your Vulcan mind?!"line because I am a child and am very easily entertained by puns.

Having successfully identified what makes Star Trek work and getting rid of all the excess weight that the franchise has gained throughout its lifespan Abrams leaves a very solid and accessible sci-fi adventure to be accepted in the 21st century. The film's mix of action, humour and personal development (it's essentially an origin story for the entire crew) is pretty much a recipe for how to do a summer blockbuster well. It strikes a good balance between being too heavy handed with subtext and morals ala The Dark Knight Rises and not falling into the trap of being a montage of explosions and using hot women as set-dressing like whatever number Transformers film they're up to now.

It's an easy point to make that, as well as the direction, the cast is largely responsible for such a delicate balance being struck. I didn't specifically look up the cast beforehand and it turned the film into a series of "Oh it that guy/girl from [x]!" realisations. From known Cesc Fàbregas lookalike Zachary Quinto to the bottom half of Judge Dredd's face (Karl Urban) you're probably going to recognise someone here, but have no clue where you know them from. The most recognisable face, at least to British crowds, is probably Simon Pegg as the enthusiastic if slightly distracted Scotty, with exceptional praise reserved for his Scottish accent. It was almost enough to make me forget I was watching an expert zombie slayer pretending to be a guy in space.

Star Trek is not something to be missed out on simply because you think Star Trek is for nerds. Well, all scifi is for nerds to a degree, but that's because we've all got a bit of nerdiness inside us somewhere because, honestly, lasers and spaceships and shit are just objectively cool.

That's us non-nerds satisfied. I can't really help out hardcore Trekkies what with my not knowing much about the series, but here's a list of things I know about Star Trek by being a part of the pop culture generation:
  • Someone wearing a red shirt on a mission is shorthand for them being dying in the next five minutes.
  • One of the captains sleeps with "aliens" who are famously just normal women painted green.
  • "Live long and prosper"
  • That weird hand gesture thing.

And here's a list of some things that happen in Star Trek:
  • Someone wearing a red shirt on a mission is shorthand for them being dying in the next five minutes.
  • One of the captains sleeps with "aliens" who are famously just normal women painted green.
  • "Live long and prosper"
  • That weird hand gesture thing.

So there you go.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Scott Pilgrim vs The World (2010)

Numerous times across the internet, I've seen Scott Pilgrim vs The World touted as many things: an under-appreciated diamond, a future cult classic and the best comic book adaptation so far. Looking forward to something quite so lauded left me sorely disappointed.

The basic gist of it is that Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera), still reeling over his last girlfriend dumping him, meets the exciting Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and is whisked off his feet. Unluckily for Scott, Ramona has a chequered past in terms of her love life, and he must battle his way through seven evil exes to win the right to be with her (which, by the way, is a pretty messed up concept).

Director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) made a boatload of bad decisions. I haven't read the comic/graphic novel, because frankly they don't interest me, so he might be doing a very accurate portrayal but Michael Cera as Scott just doesn't work. The character is inherently unlikeable unless you essentially are him. He is awkward, completely socially inept, and devoid of any shred of confidence or self-respect. Yet somehow, he has apparently had a series of girls falling at his feet in his past in a manner that doesn't make sense given his self hating personality and also should probably have resulted in someone who doesn't think everyone hates them. His understanding of how the world works in regards to people and emotions is just crazily stunted.

It's symptomatic of the problem with the film as a whole though. The overwhelming problem is that it's just completely childish, in every bad sense of the word. Everything from the styling to the script (especially any dialogue involving Scott) just feels like it was thrown together by those emo kids you went to secondary school with who were obsessed with things being "totally random" and related everything to a videogame they had played. I understand that the videogame angle is the film's entire schtick, but it just just feels forced and doesn't gel at all with the Toronto setting. Many films do a contrast of crazy elements to those that are more mundane but Scott Pilgrim is no one of them.

Every character exists in a state that verges on the ridiculous, and their only purpose is to serve Scott in some way. Barring Scott's love interest, nobody seems to understand how actual people interact or how healthy relationships (of all kinds) seem to work. The most grounded and believable character is the one who occasionally wears goggles on her head for no reason and has a league of obsessed past lovers with videogame superpowers in tow. Read that sentence again for some perspective.

From its attitudes to women, relationships, violence and just generally everything, Scott Pilgrim vs The World creates a film that just doesn't work for someone like me. If you're into the whole hyper stylised approach with Michael Cera's typical awkward style of "humour" you'll probably be into SPvTW if you don't think about it too much. If I've learned anything from this it's that 1) Edgar Wright really needs the input of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost 2) great special effects can't save a film  3) Mary Elizabeth Winstead almost can.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Lauded as one of the most classic and influential films of cinema history, 2001 has a lot to live up to even 45 years after its release.

"Epic" is a world that's recently been co-opted by idiots on the internet to mean anything that's slightly better than good, but 2001 is epic in all of the word's true meaning. In scope, the films span's the entirety of human existence from a primate's first use of a tool (or rather, a weapon) through 4 million years of evolution (to the eponymous year, 2001) and depending on how you interpret it, another unspecified amount of time into the future.

2001 provides an interesting take on human evolution and implies some great influence from extraterrestrial life in our development. From the opening scenes right up until the end, alien life is presented in a much different way to a bunch of little green men running around with blasters. An imposing black monolith is all you're shown, but deft film making and fantastic use of music gives it a sense that the great dark object is something truly alien. It's not just operating on a different level of consciousness but on a different level of reality altogether.

Music is a powerful force throughout the film. At the time, taking such a dialogue-light and music heavy approach to sound was pretty unorthodox, and still would be now I suppose. The entire film is very artsy, due in no small part to the many extended musical sequences. Seriously, there's a number of occasions where the only sound will have been music or silence for the past 10 or 15 minutes. The first bit of, honestly very vacant, dialogue comes 25 minutes after the title card.

Very philosophical and open-ended, the film is pretty esoteric and will either be something you love, hate or just don't get at all. Even now it's impossible to not be appreciative of the quality of the special effects, but how they're used can certainly take us down some trippy avenues in the later parts of the film. During the last act, there's a clear point where you'd be forgiven for thinking you've been spiked with a hallucinogen. The most accurate way I can describe the closing 20 minutes is what I imagine a bad acid trip is like.

Polarising but interesting, 2001 is undoubtedly a landmark film. It's importance to the current shape of the cinema landscape might actually eclipse the enjoyment that a contemporary audience gets out of it, but that's because we've moved on so much since the sixties. 2001: A Space Odyssey is something that anyone who calls themself a film enthusiast needs to see, but if you're not really involved in the medium, you're probably best off giving it a miss.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Stranger Than Fiction (2006)

A film that can only be described in a way that sounds weird. Because it is. And that's exactly why I watched it.

Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is an uninteresting man, doing a job that makes people hate him. His life is completely insignificant and mundane. Until he is interrupted one morning by a voice in his head. The voice continues to narrate his day to day life with an incredible insight until the penny drops. Harold Crick is a character in a book being written by the owner of this voice (Emma Thompson).

It flirts with ideas about destiny and fate, but the real thing of value that Stranger Than Fiction explores is the worthwhileness of life. Harold lives a dull and boring life until his revelation, and it's only once he learns of his ultimate fate that he actually starts living rather than simply existing. He meets someone his total opposite in Ana (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a psuedo-anarchist baker who refuses to pay her taxes and embarks on an adventure than departs from his IRS tax-man cubicle.

What with being a film about writing and how stories "have" to progress to "work properly" it's interesting in that, because it's very self-aware, you never quite know where it's going. As someone who has a great appreciation for tragedies, it ultimately left me very satisfied, but not in the most predictable way and I love it for it.

I like Stranger Than Fiction because, in a way it reminds me of Eternal Sunshine in what it achieves. I've always known Will Ferrell was a great comedian and good at playing a fool in his comedies, but much like Jim Carrey in ES, I now know he can act properly. Stranger Than Fiction is a comedy, but it's more of an ironic comedy than a gag-a-minute affair like Anchorman. On a lesser note, Maggie Gyllenhaal reminds me of Kate Winslet in ES in that Stranger Than Fiction reminds me that she can really act too. I've had an argument with a friend over Gyllenhaal replacing Katie Holmes as Rachel in the latest Batman films: he argued it was a mistake because "Holmes is fitter" and I argued that Gyllenhaal is a much better actress, and now I've got something to cite to back up my claims because she's fantastic here.

A heartwarming comedy that took Will Ferrell's talents in a much different direction than usual and was made all the better for it. Some interesting writing that plays around with typical story telling and some brilliant casting makes for a film that's as contemplative as it is hilarious.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

The Hunger Games (2012)

Jennifer Lawrence made her mainstream breakthrough with The Hunger Games and all I can do is thank the film for it*. She had previously garnered critical acclaim for her performance in Winter's Bone, but ultimately it was The Hunger Games that brought her to the attention of the general movie-going public.

The Hunger Games follows the trials of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) as she and boy she knows make their way to and through the country's annual battle-royale style challenge. The pair live in a world where one country has been divided into twelve poor production districts that exist only to serve those in the wealthy capital. Every year, as a punishment for a failed revolution, the capital selects a young man and young woman from each district to fight it out in a battle to the death until only one remains.

The issues of the whole political structure of this world are kind of glossed over, but that's fine when you consider that 1) it's primarily an action/adventure film 2) it's a family film and 3) that's simply not what the film's about. There's a little mocking of the ridiculous ruling class in the styling (they look like Victorian aristocrats who got early access to an LSD stash) and they're generally held in contempt by everyone but themselves and that's enough for the political slant.

A real, positive message comes embodied in Katniss. For a nice change we have a female action star who provides a great role model for women. Although there are numerous examples of women being the lead in an action movie it often comes with a caveat: Haywire has Gina Carano as Jason Bourne in heels, Terminator 2 has the badass Linda Hamilton... who has to rely ultimately on Schwarzenegger to save the day and Salt features Angelina Jolie in a role that was intetionally written as gender-neutral and, I'm convinced, boring. Lawrence as Katniss strikes the careful balance though; she is both strong and feminine while being an active actor on the story and displaying typically masculine traits without losing said femininity. In one instance the plot forces her into the carer/mothering role but it's done out of compassion while still remaining a powerful force in the story. Thankfully, all the good work is preserved too, by the reluctance of the film-makers to try and establish Lawrence as a sex-symbol which, let's be honest, would not be difficult to do. Katniss spends a majority of her time grubby, bloody and practically dressed.

The Hunger Games takes quite a meandering road to reach the meat of the plot (the actual Games themselves) but once there it pulls no punches and delivers the entertaining and engaging spectacle that the hour previous was building up to. Having twenty-four contestants in the games themselves does water things down a little, and occasionally character's will pop up, make a point and then disappear back into the crowd or the brush, but ultimately the film is easy to follow and doesn't over complicate itself by doing too much world-building or going off on tangents.

One thing I will say though, and this might constitute spoilers, it really annoyed me that I thought I was going to get a clever play on "star crossed lovers" towards the end, but it just turns out that one scriptwriter doesn't know what that phrase actually means.

*If you haven't seen Silver Linings Playbook, do yourself a favour and check it out. I know, romcoms are usually terrible, but it's great and uplifting and JLaw kills it.

Bonus! Other (vaguely actiony) films with worthwhile female leads:
Alien (1979)
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (either 2011 or 2009)
Scream (1996)
The Descent (2005)
and on a less actiony note: Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Hard Candy (2005)

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Dredd (2012)

Dredd took after its title character a lot in 2012. It was a critically successful film that was part of a big trend (comic book films) that really got kind of ignored undeservedly. In a year filled already pretty filled out with The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, it's no surprise Dredd got a little overlooked.

It was an unfair fate though. Dredd is great fun, and most importantly it doesn't fuck about. I've never read a comic/graphic novel, but I do know they're often a lot darker or more "adult" than the films interpretations you get. Not Dredd. Taking the risk to embrace an 18 certificate (a move that usually means you'll take a punch right in the box office) pays off in spades.

With a brief intro we're introduced to the world of Dredd. It's post-apocalyptic. There was some sort of nuclear holocaust. Why? Doesn't matter. All you need to know is that now there's only one mega-city left on the planet. Crime is such an issue that the justice system doesn't really exist any more. The duties of the police as well as judge, jury and executioner have all been combined in the Justice Department's Judges. You mess up and one of these guys will be knocking down your door, determining your guilt and handing out your sentence then and there.

In his first real cinematic outing (we'll forget that Judge Dredd [1995] happened), the Judge (Karl Urban) is tasked with assessing the department's newest addition who is a mutant (nuclear holocaust, remember) whose only afflictions seem to be her psychic powers (Olivia Thirlby). The two turn up to a run of the mill triple homicide but find themselves engulfed by a drug baron's attempts to establish an empire. Ma-Ma (who fans of Game of Thrones will recognise as that magnificent bitch Cersei) is a formidable hooker turned violent psychopath drug lord and poses a significant threat not just to the cops but to the city as a whole with her potent new brand of drugs.

It's these drugs and the unrelenting violence that sell the film. This is an action film through and through. Dredd himself and the world he inhabits are set up to be some foreboding nightmarish warning about the police state and the effects it has on both the enforcers and the enforced, but you'll probably only think about that sort of stuff afterwards. For the 95 minutes you're watching Dredd, you're going to be pretty immersed in the breathtaking visuals. At one end there's the gritty, dirty and claustrophobic and visceral atmosphere generated by the explicit violence in the tight confines of the city's slums. And on the other, something you get less these days in action films: colour. The number of drug-induced hazes you go through in Dredd are simply breathtaking. Slow-motion, hyper saturated colour and mesmerising particles like water or blood droplets, or broken glass fill the screen to give the film a beautifully serene filter if only for a few seconds. They are transfixing.

Urban and Thirlby make a believable duo in this world of harsh crimes with even harsher policing. Urban makes a perfect Dredd: deadpan, uncompromising and harash. The lower half of his face never relents from the jaded grimace of which that internet-famous "Grumpy Cat" would be proud. Completing the good-cop harsh cop pairing, Thirlby is the much more empathetic idealist. Being able to see her entire face helps, but she exudes a genuine warmth even in the face of having to execute criminals in the street. She has to force herself to do it, where her partner has no qualms. In their sights, Lena Headey sells herself again as a hard woman no to be messed with (much in the vein of her roles in Game of Thrones and 300). The disfigured and dirty kingpin commands an army of thugs. Most of them are much larger than her physically, but even then there isn't really a question of why she's calling the shots. Cold and vicious, Headey's Ma-Ma is not one to be crossed.

Dredd manages to hit right in that sweet spot for action films. It's not completely mindless; there exists an element of subtext and a lot be thought about later on, but this in no way impinges on the action.

If you like things fuelled by violence and drugs you'll love Dredd.