Monday, 25 February 2013

Blue Valentine (2010)

Blue Valentine is a tragically authentic love story told in two parts. The two focus points are on how Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cyndi (Michelle Williams) meet and fall in love and overcome problems and get married and have a happy ending... and then how a number of years later they are starting to think that maybe it was not meant to be, but they're so emotionally invested in each other and their young daughter that the turbulent seas of emotion just cannot be avoided.

Beautifully crafted by not only the director (Derek Cianfrance) but by the two leads, Blue Valentine isn't a film that will necessarily be enjoyed, especially with the way the sweetest moments come exactly alongside the most bitter, but it is something to behold. Gosling and Williams, with their improvised dialogue and genuine chemistry (both good and bad) touch on a very authentic tone that bleeds emotion out of the story that continues long after most cinematic romances end.

It might not leave you feeling as happy as a rom-com, but a film like Blue Valentine is so much more real, and with that comes a heartfelt tenderness of raw and real emotion that a plastic, gift wrapped comedy can never provide. Where happy-go-lucky films will give you a fake sadness just to contrast with the similarly plastic, manufactured highs Blue Valentine will dig you into a hole and snap the shovel in two before reminding you how good things were in the past before you ruined it all.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Killing Them Softly

Brad Pitt is a mob hitman on the trail of three small time criminals who saw an opportunity to rip off some big hitters and throw someone else under the bus for it.

Set in the backdrop of the late 2000s economic crash and also the 2008 presidential election, Killing Them Softly is as much about economic doctrine, unbridled capitalism, as it is about Brad Pitt being a smooth and almost reluctant killer. The message is hardly subtle either. The film opens with audio from a speech by Senator Barack Obama and closes with a conversation in a bar where two characters watch as he is announced President. Throughout, we see numerous TV sets, hear many radios, all with some politician talking about the state of the economy in America. Unlike Pitt's style of working in the film, to kill them softly, the "sub"-text here is delivered with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer crashing through your car window.

The rest of it though, is quite smooth and an easy ride. Everything about KTS, from Pitt's wardrobe to the cars to the soundtrack and everything give the film a hazy feel of a time long past, despite being set only a few years in the past. Things tend to linger and meander, making the film feel quite a bit long than its ~100minute runtime. It's a quality that leaves you with time to process things. In many other takes on this story, the hitman would be the embodiment of retribution, catching up to these guys who thought they could rip somebody off. But he's not a hero, he's a guy that kills for money, they're scumbag thieves and the guys paying the hitman don't even have the courtesy to get their hands even a little dirty and only appear via a messenger in the form of Richard Jenkins (who, after this and Cabin in the Woods, seems to be making a habit of visiting horrible cruelties on people in a very corporate and matter-of-fact manner). There aren't really any good guys in the film, just some who are slightly more charismatic, and at that is, at the least, interesting.

Killing Them Softly isn't something I'm going to rave about to anyone in the future. It's partly down to my biases in that I don't really like neo-noir type films (Drive notwithstanding), but I have a feeling those who do will enjoy it at least a little. I could've done with a little less explicitness with the comparison of criminal empires to the US economic system in 2008 (bankers were/are criminals, I get it), but otherwise it's a solid piece of work.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Vanilla Sky (2001)

If The Matrix was the digital sci-fi alternate reality film of the turn of the century, Vanilla Sky would be the slightly less impressive analogue version. Starring Tom Cruise opposite Penélope Cruz, Vanilla Sky takes on a lot of big, high concept ideas and achieves some of them pretty well and some less so.

To summarise what the film ultimately ends up being about would be pretty a pretty big spoiler, but to put it vaguely it presents us with a choice: is fake happiness better than real emotion? What if you don't even know it's fake? In the less successful philosophical avenues VS takes us down, you look into the life of a man who seemingly has it all, the wealth, the women, even the best friend, but is somehow empty inside when an accident and a rejection present him with something he cannot have.

Cruise stars alongside the other Cruz with the pair being joined by Cameron Diaz to form a confusing and passionate love triangle that is ultimately the undoing of the playboy-come-businessman as he descends into a dream like haze of reality and hallucination bleeding into one another. Cruise tends to come across well as the narcissistic, self-involved daddy's boy although most of that probably comes naturally with being Tom fucking Cruise. Cruz (who played the same role in the original Spanish version of the film Abre los ojos) plays one of her typical earlier Hollywood roles, in that she's the flirtatious and endearing dreamer. In one of the key scenes she steps out of the happy-go-lucky character in one of the more realistic reactions to a "hero" in a hollywood romantic relationship, but it is followed immediately in the next scene by a bit of character development that comes straight out of left field, but fear not, this is actually explained pretty well at the end.

Speaking of the end it's all a bit confused. The first third of the film sets up a nice bit of intrigue with prison cells, a psychologist and a mask. There are questions set up and the answers look like they'll really deliver. After this the film kind of goes off the rails a bit with the whole dream and/or mental illness concept; identities are switched up, things don't follow chronologically and things happen that just flat out don't make sense. It pretty much continues like this until the final 15-20 minutes of the film, where director Cameron Crowe seems to have painted himself into a corner. The finale of the film starts off with two characters literally stood in a moving lift with one explaining the plot to the other. It's a masterclass in how not to follow the film-maker's mantra of "Show don't tell". That said the emotional climax is pretty heavy and some harsh truths are brought to the forefront for both leads. I'm not quite sure the emotional impact outweighs the clunky approach, but it definitely compensates a great deal.

Vanilla Sky is a bit of a difficult one to rate. I enjoyed it towards the end, once things became more coherent again, but large periods of the film just felt like self indulgence on the part of the people making the film, as if they were making it for themselves and not the audience. When it's good it really is quite good, but the confusing bits are most likely to just leave you saying "Eh? What?" than the deep ponderings they were so clearly intended to induce.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Skyfall (2012)

Growing up on the Pierce Brosnan Bonds will do something to you. At the time lasers, and WWIII and invisible cars and faces encrusted with diamonds are all amazingly cool. The youre age reaches double digits and you start to realise that it's a bit too ridiculous and a bit too out there to be taken seriously. It's even more strikingly obvious that this sort of production had overstayed its welcome when you consider that Madonna sang the theme song for Die Another Day - in 2002. Thankfully, Daniel Craig and co came along and did the "in" thing for the 21st century and gave it a gritty reboot. Less gadgets, more pathos, and even without all the batshit crazy ideas, a lot more fun.

It seems Craig is set to cover most of Bond's career, from his first mission as 007 in Casino Royale to Skyfall where everyone is bleating on about how he's too old and this is a new world. There's a lot of talk about moving on from the "old times", with Q (now played by the youthful Ben Whishaw) pretty much explicitly saying that the times of exploding laser guided dart pens are long gone as he hands Bond a gun and a radio. It's no just thematic either, the Bond's villain is a ghost from MI6's past that has resurfaced to settle and old score. Javier Bardem is Silva, a calculating and charismatic antagonist that barely hides the cold maniac that hides beneath the smiley and polite veneer he puts on.

But plot's never been a strong point for the Bond franchise, even in its new timeline (I mean, does anyone both care and understand what happened in Quantum of Solace? It seems if you understood then you didn't care, and if you cared then you hadn't understood). Although the story's passable here and much an improvement on just about every Bond film plot ever, the real strengths come in characterisation and looking god damned fantastic.

The reboot series from Casino Royale onwards as much concerned with who Bond is as what Bond does. He's no longer a blank canvas who functions as a weapon to be deployed but we know a lot more about him. The whole arc with Vespa in CR and QoS gave us a man who can actually love as well as fuck, and Skyfall gives us a man with a past and story. Many would criticise this, giving the international man of mystery a background, but I much prefer a man with motivations than mystery. It's just a matter of preference really. The only issues I have with the way Bond's past was explained were (minor spoilers): 1) his name is really James Bond? Really? They let MI6 agents operate under their real names? 2) He is essentially Batman.

The Bond franchise's treatment of women has never exactly been progressive, I know, but I was fooled again by the marketing and disappointed by one aspect of the film. The film's only just come on sale on DVD/Bluray so of course there's been a marketing blitz. Everywhere you look there's a 10ft Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem or Bérénice Marlohe - wait, who? Yeah, Ms Marlohe is all over the advertising. I expected the typical Bond-girl fare where she was some version of the good girl who gets turned by the bad guy or vice versa where she's evil but sleeps with Bond and his penis makes her re-evaluate her life choices. But no, the woman who is on probably 1/4 of the advertising is in the film for about 15 minutes and is never mentioned again. I don't have any idea why they even put her on the pos-
 ...I may have figured it out. Damn.

Skyfall has more than just pretty women though, the whole film is a treat for the eyes. Nearly every scene has one shot that'll make you stop and just think "holy shit that's beautiful". Cold, sharp daytime shots contrast beautifully with the warm tones that envelop the night where Bond does much of his work. This is honestly the most beautiful film I've seen in years, and I saw Life of Pi last month. Skayfall's up for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography and in my eyes it's already won, even if the Academy does go the artsy route and pick Life of Pi over it. Without director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins, this could have been a solid, reasonably entertaining Bond film, but with them on board because an exciting and engaging work of beautiful visual art.

I'll leave it here with some of the best examples of aforementioned art:

 Every city needs to be neon blue at night.


God Damn. Wanna live in those highlands.

 Fuuuuck. Soooo good.

Encapsulating and almost dream-like. Fantastic.
I need a bar like this in my life.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

End Of Watch (2012)

End Of Watch is something you don't see too much of these days. It's a cop movie that's very much grounded in reality. Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña are Brian and Mike, two average LAPD cops who are assigned to a particularly crime ridden latin area of South Central LA. They aren't dirty cops who are willing to get their hands all sort of dirty to get the job done. They aren't two beat cops who take on the sort of job where after five minutes any real cop would call in the FBI. They most certainly aren't typical action heroes who gun down endless waves of street thugs while remaining untouched themselves. What they are is two regular cops who find themselves in a few extraordinary situations and react pretty much as you'd expect any normal person to do, and that's refreshing.

The way End of Watch is told is interesting. Brian is one of those cops who wants to move on to be a lawyer so is studying pre-law, and because of the strange way american further education works, he needs an art credit and decides to film his work. Outfitting the car, Brian and his partner Mike with a bunch of cameras gives the film a real sense of energy when the action kicks off and really does throw you into the middle of the chaos. The first person viewpoints and the dash cams and the pieces to camera give End of Watch the feel of those traffic cop shows you see on channels like Dave at 3am or on Bravo at any given time. If I could describe EoW in one sentence it'd be: Imagine the best episode of COPS you can and put it in the hands of a real film-maker.

Thankfully, the entire film isn't shown through Gyllenhaal's handicams, so this isn't another shaky-cam, found-footage film, but the use of first person really does give it that reality-documentary feel that grounds the film. In a one-two-punch style, the cinematography works hand in hand with the two leads to make the film feel real. Brian and Mike are proper,( generally) by the book cops. They might stray from procedure slightly from time to time, but they're not a pair of Dirty Harry's. We meet the two after they've been partners for years, so there's none of the usual "Oh they're such opposites! They'll have  to overcome their differences and learn to work together!" bullshit you get with this sort of story. These two guys are great friends and know how to do their job together. It's really sold in the banter the two share in the car, along with the more serious side dealing with their respective families (which, even when we meet them at the start, are pretty much one big family already).

I went into End of Watch expecting a stereotypical tale of two everyday LAPD cops taking on an entire drug cartel single  handedly and coming out on top completely unscathed. What I got was a visceral and grounded story about two best friends and colleagues who find themselves involved with some really heavy, but believable, events at work that escalates into a brilliant and emotional climax that'll leave you reeling.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

The Pirate Bay: Away From Keyboard (2013)

A documentary film about an internet piracy criminal trial was never going to be action packed, but as a documentary this works reasonably well. That said, it's really only worth investing your time in if you know some of the background to the trial, the website and the technology involved (basic stuff like what torrents are, how .torrent files work(ed), what the Pirate Bay actually hosts/hosted and what exactly is illegal to host and where).

It's a documentary that centres solely on the three men who founded TPB so a biased view is exactly what you should expect and is exactly what you get. Most of the film is made up of their testimonies in court, interviews with them, candid footage of them going about their business and interviews with other people involved in the trial (the majority of the people interview are on their side with one or two exceptions).

The film gives an insight into these three guys and how the trials in their native Sweden have impacted their lives. You come away with the impression that this isn't a group of people centred around an ideology of free exchange of culture or anything, for these guys it was mostly about creating the technology and being the biggest site, it was up to their audience what they did with it. One of the three, Peter Sunde, comes off as the only one of the trio with any interest in the politics behind the whole trial. Honestly the other two, Gottfrid Warg and Fredrik Neij, project the image of a pair of really talented IT professionals who got involved in something that was way out of their sphere of experience. Their reaction to the trial and a lot of the copyright claims comes off as childish and irrationally spontaneous. It's no surprise that they run off to Cambodia or Laos whenever the going gets tough, leaving the ideological Peter to fight the real battle that TPB represents.

TPB:AFK is by no means a riveting experience. It might be a useful insight into one side of a copyright debate that will change the future of how the internet landscape looks, but that doesn't mean it's fun or that anyone involved is particularly likeable.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Trick 'R Treat

It may be because I'm not as well versed in horror film history as many people seem to be, but I just don't get all the hype that this film received. Rotten Tomatoes averages out its critics' review at 85% (a really good score) and horror speciality websites across the internet gave it 5s and 10s. Often hailed as a tribute to classic horror films, it just comes across as cliched to me.

Like I said, it might be because I haven't invested myself in horror classics of the late 70s to the early 90s, but this feels less like a tribute and more just a succession of cliches, complete with predictable "twists", if they can even be called that at this stage.

Something that's less traditional about TrT is the way it's presented. It's not exactly one film, but an anthology of sorts. It's Halloween in Ohio and one town that really gets into the spirit of the holiday seems to attract spirits all its own in the holiday. The four interwoven stories that fill the hour and a half of TrT have some promising moments. If you can take anything from some of my previous reviews, especially the horror ones, it's that the way female characters are treated and written is something that interests me. Frankly, the only really interesting story in TrT is the one that deals with a group of young women all on the hunt for a date for a party they're headed to. The way this story plays with expectations was the only time that the film presented something actually original, and even this is something that's been done very similarly many times before.

If you're into classic horror films (say Nightmare on Elm Street, the original Friday the 13th, that sort of stuff) then you might enjoy Trick 'R Treat, but chances are if you've enjoyed anything that's been brought to the genre in the last ten years or so (V/H/S, Cabin in the Woods, Scream, Saw, American Psycho) you might just find Trick 'R Treat a little bit archaic.

Seven Psychopaths (2012)

(I actually like this poster better as a work of art, but it's actually a terrible advert for the film)

As Martin McDonagh's follow-up to In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths hits a lot of the same black-comedy style notes and takes a similar number of darkly emotional turns along the way.

It's a bit of a filmmaker's film. There's a lot of playing off crime and action movie clichés and the plot is literally about a Marty (Colin Farrell), a screenwriter who's struggling to write a script titled "Seven Psychopaths". They are literally writing the movie in the movie. The meat of it though lies in that, while struggling with the script, Marty inadvertently ends up involved in a friend's (Sam Rockwell) business venture. And when I say "business venture", I mean the business of kidnapping dogs in LA and returning them when a reward is offered. Of course, these dognapping psychopaths eventually run afoul of another psychopath when they steal the beloved shihtzu of a mafia boss (Woody Harrelson) and he ain't paying to get it back.

Packed with bloody punchlines and genuinely messed up people (who may or may not be psychopaths) the film finds a lot of its wit in the darker realms of comedy. It gets a little goofy at times but the performances really sell it: Sam Rockwell and Colin Farrell make a wonderful odd couple, with the former playing the manic go-getter and the latter filling the cynical, Irish writer who (stereotypically) has a drinking problem. With Christopher Walken by their side and a host side characters who only occasionally clock how crazy the main cast are, the ensemble works to hit every black beat at the heart of the film.

A tight script that ends with some emotional moments to back up the laughs, Seven Psychopaths doesn't quite feel as tight and neat as Mcdonagh's last foray onto the big screen but it most certainly works. In Bruges was a very tight story involving some three very well written characters. But Seven Psychopaths is more of a smorgasbord of interesting characters with a slightly less coherent reason for them all to run into each other, but it works well enough, especially in the context of the satirical points the movie makes about movie plots anyway.

You don't have to be a movie nerd to appreciate the hilarity of Psychopaths, but those who are will enjoy it that little bit more.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

It's probably an affront to my manhood how much I enjoyed Silver Linings Playbook, and that's coming from someone whose list of favourite films includes Eternal Sunshine, Garden State and Lost in Translation. I'm in pretty good company though, seeing as it's currently sat at 92% on (82% among top critics) and has eight Academy Awards nominations, one of which it could easily be in for.

The bulk of the film is standard rom-com fare, but it's done very, very well. The edge comes from director and screenwriter David O. Russell's willingness to play with touchy subjects like mental illness, family troubles and death to produce comedy. The film doesn't make light of those things, but accepts that funny things can happen in those situations, much like how 50/50 masterfully wove comedy into the touching story of a battle with cancer. The story revolves around two messed up people, who are surrounded by people who are just as messed up but in more socially acceptable ways.

Pat (Bradley Cooper) has recently been released after an 8 month stint in a psychiatric hospital following an incident involving his wife that resulted in a restraining order and the stay in the hospital. He is recovering and trying to "fix" himself for his wife when he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who herself has recently lost her husband, who he thinks can help him get his wife back.

Praise needs to go to the supporting cast, including Robert DeNiro as Pat's compassionate yet OCD riddled father, John Ortiz as Pat's friend who struggles through every day of his marriage and Chris Tucker as Pat's lovable but manic friend Danny, who he met in the hospital. But the real praise needs to be reserved for the two leads. Bradley Cooper does an outstanding job of giving life to Pat and portraying both sides of his bipolar disorder with tact and authenticity. The enthusiastic rambling and lack of a verbal filter in his ups and the anger  and restlessness in his downs are equally as touching and given their due attentions without defining the Pat simply as his illness. It's his passion for his new "silver linings" outlook and his determination to do right by the people he loves are what defines him. If there's anything that tops Bradley Cooper in this film, it's Jennifer Lawrence. Tiffany is for once, a more complex character for a rom-com. She's really messed up, thanks in no small part to how she lost her husband and her lack of support in dealing with it, but seems okay with this and accepts it as who she is. It's the confidence that comes from the self-awareness, with only a few lapses into vulnerability, that endears Tiffany to the audience. Jennifer Lawrence gives a frankly amazing performance in Silver Linings; with brilliant comedic timing, an ear for the perfect voice for the character and pure acting talent, Jennifer Lawrence seizes the title of best young actress in Hollywood with this film, for me at least. Personally, it's a two horse race between Lawrence and Chastain for Best Actress this year, but what do I know?

It might not be bouncing off or subverting all the usual tropes of the Rom Com genre, but Silver Linings, with its polished script, shining performances and sterling devotion to telling a genuine love story, delivers on all fronts.

Friday, 8 February 2013

Kill List (2011)

Just going to be honest and throw my hands up: I'm not sure I "got" Kill List.

It's very much an arthouse horror/thriller film. Jay is a former soldier, as are his wife and best friend-come-business-partner, and he's been out of work for nearly a year after something went horribly wrong on his last job in Kiev. His last job as a contract killer, that is.

Thrust back into the world of hired murder by money worries, his wife's nagging and his friend's encouragement to "get back on the horse", things start to get a little strange as the pair make their way through the list of targets. And don't you worry, you see every second of them making their way through the targets. Kill List is a violent film. It's few and relatively far between, but when the time for violence comes it comes with no apologies. There's one particular scene that hammers it home; we've been so conditioned by tv and film to expect a cutaway at certain moments of violence in film, to sanitise the experience and spare the viewer the real horror of it, that it comes as a real shock when the camera just keeps rolling. You'll definitely know which scene I mean when you see it.

Kill List doesn't answer a lot of the questions it sets up. Not exactly at least. There's a lot of puzzle pieces that you start to put together once you've stopped reeling from the strange turn of events in the closing act. The pieces don't form a complete picture but it's massively open to interpretation and that's a wonderful thing.

But regardless of whether I "got it" or not (I think I might do now that I've stewed over it for an hour or so), Kill List does a great job with atmosphere. Long exposition scenes at the start build up a brilliantly tangible sense of the secret lives of the new middle class as Jay's occupation and past is gradually revealed. A creeping sense of unease builds gradually through the film, from one or two "What the fuck was that about?" moments at the start to a succession of occult and strange happenings towards the end. The soundtrack and these moments of unease  work seamlessly together to build a brooding sense of increasing darkness as we venture down the rabbit hole of both Jay's messed up psyche and the seedy underworld of killing for unknown figures with unknown motivations, where the killers can be simple pawns or even bigger players than they realise.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

V/H/S (2012)

V/H/S sounds like something that's becoming all the more common these days: a found-footage horror film. Yes, one-hundred percent of the film comes from tapes that were made by people who had something horrible happen to them. Yes, there is a lot of shaky cam, and yes it is presented as a bunch of people going through these tapes as the frame of the story. But V/H/S just uses the idea of some guys looking through tapes to give you an anthology of a number of different short horror films. It's less a film and more a collection of these short films. They're all created by different crews and different directors so it's a real assortment meaning there's bound to be at least one film that even the most cynical horror fan can at least appreciate.

The plot's built around the idea that a bunch of awful guys who make money by filming, frankly, things that are clearly minor sexual assaults on women and selling them as weird porn voyeuristic. They're then offered by an unseen partner an opportunity to make some "real money" by continuing their scumbaggery by breaking into the house of an old man. Their mission is to retrieve an old VHS tape, and they'll "know it when they see it". The only trouble being, when they arrive at the house the old guy is dead in his chair and there are mounds of unlabelled VHS tapes littering the house, so obviously they have to watch them to find what they're looking for and BAM! we have our movie.

The tapes that they manage to get through, before whatever killed the dead guy gets to work on them too, are:

'Amateur Night'

Shot in a first-person, point-of-view style this is the story of three skeezy scumbags who conceal a hidden, yet somehow still HD, camera in a pair of glasses and go out on the town to pick up some girls. The aim is to take them back to their motel room and secretly film some amateur porn. Karma, and then some, comes around and bites the boys in the arse when one of the girls turns out to have a little more appetite than they anticipated.

If you don't mind bloody violence with sexual overtones (i.e. it's not "sexual-violence" but it is very violent and a lot of flesh on show), then this short should entertain. In keeping with the rest of the film the effects are slick while obviously low budget. Despite the main body of the short being done in am apparently seamless one take, the make up and effects are naturalisticly applied and it makes for a very visceral and genuinely frightening fate for these three scumbags.

'Second Honeymoon'

More traditionally shot for the found footage genre, this is the record a couple make of their second honeymoon. Complete with shots in the mirror to establish that yes, the people in the action were the ones who recorded it, it's quite standard in that way. The couple's encounter with a strange, possibly high young woman looking for a ride to nowhere in particular sets the two on edge. The tension is built beautifully in this short; once the sun goes down on the first night things get creepy real fast. Through a masterful use of ambient sound the amount of tension had my heart going 1 hundred miles an hour despite the fact that nothing completely horrific occurred. Once the real action begins it goes crazy for a short burst and culminates in an ending that I personally did not see coming, although I might just be simple.

'Tuesday the 17th'

Kids go on a camping trip in the woods, hoping to take drugs, have sex and film all these escapades. It's almost as if they want something to come and make them stars of a slasher flick, Cabin in the Woods style.

If you've ever watched the webseries Marble Hornets, this short makes use of a lot of the same techniques and style to create its suspense. Camera distortion caused by the villain plays a big part in crafting the "monster" of this short. Playing on the idea of only showing glimpses of the villain and never the full form, using the camera malfunctions allows it to be fully in frame but still largely unseen. Throw that up with the handheld camera and a lot of running through the woods and there's a general sense of unease about just what these kids are up against that only really works in short bouts of exposure, which is why it works so well here.

'The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger'

Paranormal Activity meets Skype. A woman and her long distance, doctor-in-training boyfriend have a series of recorded webchats that document her worries about her apartment being haunted. Some tense moments that aren't justly reward with real scares. The conclusion comes right out of left field. I don't mean that in the sense of "Wow! What a twist!" but more of an "Erm... okay?" sort of reaction.

The concept could have lead to something pretty great, but I'm pretty sure the director of this one thought he had to go with the off-the-wall and totally unsolicited twist just to differentiate it from something like Paranormal Activity. I'd say he was wrong to do so as well, some of the best results in film come from a new person echoing someone else's work and just doing a better job of it.


(Or what should be called 31/10/98, but whatever.)

The haunted house flick. A group of friends set off to a Halloween party at a house none of them have ever been to before. After arriving early to find nobody there, they go to have a look around and discover that maybe they've not gone to the right place after all. 

Nowhere near as out there as the others, but well executed nonetheless. the amount of effort obviously poured into the effects especially shines through. The house is constantly shifting, if only slightly, and perceptions are messed with the minute the gang step across the threshold. The story continues past the boundaries of the normal haunted house fare and rounds the film off with an ending that, while not totally unexpected, wasn't the sort I thought I was going to get.

The weakest part of V/H/S is easily the framing story. The reason we get to see all these shorts doesn't really matter, and although it is it's own little horror story spread across the gaps between tapes, I found myself just not caring what happened in it at all, I just wanted the next tape. It night be down to the characters being complete arseholes, but even then I should have at least been entertained by their ultimate fate but I just wasn't. This could've worked just as effectively if it was, say, some kids at a sleepover who found this really old box of tapes in the loft or something.

But regardless, the rest of the movie is fantastic. There really is something for everyone here. Each film fits into a "type" of horror movie, but that's not to say they're just paint-by-numbers pieces where you know exactly what's going to happen. One thing that seems to run through all the films is a refreshing take on who gets "punished" by the horror genre. Particularly in reference to women: in traditional horror films, the girl who is stereotyped as promiscuous, or "the slut", is killed just for being that, a fact that betrays the misogyny hidden in a lot of (particularly older) horror films. But here, women aren't punished for being sexualised or for being chaste. In fact it's usually (although there's a notable exception) those who try to exploit women sexually who get punished. Hell, in one film unwanted sexual contact prompts the victim to turn into a blood thirsty beast. That particular point may not be the best example, but on a whole the collection seems to have much more healthy attitudes to what is deserving of punishment by horror film staples (again, with that one notable exception) than most films in the genre.

Surprisingly too, the films all feel very coherent. They're all made by different directors, tackling different sub-genres but they all fit together in an eclectic sort of way.  Whoever was running the whole show (the credits list is quite difficult to decipher, with so many names) must have been very careful to let the directors have free reign over what it was they were making, but to keep it consistent with the whole feel of the production.

V/H/S is a great compilation piece. Although the found-footage genre of horror films is definitely starting to wear thin these days, the short bursts and different approaches to it make the film feel fresh throughout. Compilation movies can tend to go either way and either be very impressive or complete failures, much like Movie 43 is being tried as at the moment. V/H/S is certainly the former, and something any fan of horror should check out. If they have the stomach for a lot of gore. It's not excessive or gratuitous, but there is a lot of blood and guts.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Brick (2005)

Billed as a neo-noir film, but in reality it's just a noir film shot with a colour camera in a high school. Maybe that's enough to make it technically an evolution on the genre, but is certainly doesn't feel like it.

Brick is a weird one, in that the premise is essentially a parody but it's played completely straight and is meant to be taken as such. In one of his later years at highschool, Brendan gets a panicked phonecall from his recently ex girlfiend begging for his help. Soon after he finds her dead and vows to track down and punish those responsible. Cue Brendan delving deep into the underworld of the local drug scene, complete with an enigmatic bohemian-paris chic girl, a strange mastermind and the dumb muscle.

It follows all the noir genre mainstays. Brendan is a cold and calculating person who won't take no for an answer and is willing to get his hands dirty to find out who murdered his girl. He goes around the town, or rather, the school hitting up everyone he can for information, including the stereotypical burlesque imitator character, and even has his own police captain to throw his badge at in the form of the vice principal. The film's quite schizophrenic about how it handles being a murder-narcotic mystery set in a place where everyone is under eighteen. At one turn you've got people who are essentially children running around playing detective and not calling the cops when there are goddamn dead bodies all over the shop, which I can buy into if you play it completely straight (it's just a different backdrop for a classic story, gotcha!). But then you get jokes highlighting that the premise is crazy; instead of the genre mainstay of "You know what bar I'll be at" or "You know where my office is" you get a line about "You know what table I eat lunch at".  It's taking the piss out of itself, but only in tiny snippets amongst all the machismo and "grr we're being gritty" attitude, and it doesn't really mesh.

If you can buy into the premise and resist shouting "Why has nobody called the fucking police yet?!" every five minutes, Brick will deliver in spades. It's probably the best produced neo-noir film of the past few years, second only to Drive (which I actually liked).

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)

A film based off a gag advert that only appeared to fill space in a magazine back in 1997. That ad on the poster? It was actually in a paper, and they made a movie about it.

See, now I know that sounds a bit shit, to extrapolate a movie out of 5 lines of text in a 15 year old newspaper, but it's really not.

This isn't a sci-fi or time travel film really. The premise is that Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and another intern working at a magazine are taken on an assignment by  staff writer Jeff (Jake Johnson [Nick off of New Girl]) after he saw the ad in the paper. Their task is to find out just what kind of crazy this guy is and hopefully get an interesting article out of it. The trio set off to a seaside town and eventually track down Kenneth (Mark Duplass), who took out the ad. As they investigate, Darius becomes quite involved with Kenneth and his reasons for wanting to go back in time, and they start to doubt the extent of his insanity.

Make no mistake, Safety Not Guaranteed is your standard quirky comedy drama. It's a miracle that, with Jake Johnson already there, that Zooey Deschanel didn't come in and ruin the part of Darius, seeing as she's the postergirl for quirky indie-style films. Aubrey Plaza was a much better choice; she's got a subtle edge to her that makes Darius endearingly sweet while still capable of harsh wit. The sweetness works well in the developing relationship between her and the would-be time traveller and the wit bounces off Johnson's jaded older writer to create a hilarious back and forth dynamic between the two.

There's nothing incredibly deep about Safety Not Guaranteed, but it's a heartfelt comedy/drama with buckets of charm and great dialogue. I'd like to be able to say I didn't like how the ending went, if I'd written it the last five minutes would play out very differently, but I can't argue with the massive grin that I had spread across my face as the credits started to roll. If comparisons are worth anything, it's very similar to Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Contact (1997)

I'm sure it'll come as a great shock to anyone who knows me, but I am a massive nerd. Especially over space and astronomy. As such, Carl Sagan is one of those people who I look to as an example of the best humanity had to offer. A brilliant scientist and a brilliant man, Sagan devoted his life to both learning and teaching about the cosmos and dedicated a notable amount of his work to the idea of humanity's first contact with other intelligent life. In that thread he wrote a novel about our first encounter, and based on that, we got Contact.

This is proper sci-fi. None of that Star trek or Star Wars bollocks where it's just soap-operas-in-space or Tolkien-in-space; but fiction grounded in science that's thought provoking and not just a succession of action sequences. Contact takes on a lot in terms of its message. It's a film about science and religion at heart, and thankfully it's not science vs religion for once. Go to any corner of the internet, no matter what the supposed topic of discussion is, and spend enough time there and you'll find people branding themselves as atheists and trying to tear the religious peoples a new one because they're "illogical". But science and faith aren't completely incompatible, and it takes a writer and a director as nuanced and empathetic as Carl Sagan and Robert Zemeckis respectively to get it right.

It's refreshing, as somewhat of an agnostic myself, to see something that gets to the heart of what both science and religion are about: finding and discovering truth. The message advocated here is that an unwavering extremist belief in either way on the existence of a god or higher power is ultimately damaging.

Jodie Foster kills it as the lead character; Dr Ellie Arroway is the determined but often cast into the background scientist who discovers the first radio message originating from life outside our solar system. As time goes on and she and her team decode the message it becomes clear that they are on the verge of making first real contact with what could be an intelligent alien species.

Many slated the film claiming it lacks payoff in the final act of its 2h30 runtime, but these people obviously miss the message and don't appreciate the beauty and significance of the scene they got instead of the one they wanted. With a visually stunning and emotionally moving closing act, I think Contact pays off in a way that many science fiction films can only achieve if they use a round of explosions and crazy monsters, but none are necessary here.

Friday, 1 February 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

I've always commended Peter Jackson for managing to trim down the three massive novels of The Lord of the Rings down into nine hours (twelve if you watch the proper versions) without skimping out too much on the lore and backstory of Middle Earth.

But then he went and decided that The Hobbit, a 300 page book largely aimed at children (and for reference, the shortest of the thee LotR book was over 400 pages), needed to be made into three full films itself. The entire premise of the book is Bilbo Baggins, hobbit bachelor-come-adventurer, goes on a quest with a motley band of dwarves to fight a dragon and claim his ill-gotten treasure. Well, not to spoil it, but by the end of this first film they've just caught their first glimpse of the dragon's lair. And it's literally a point on the horizon at this moment.

Now to be fair, Jackson isn't just doing a word-for-word depiction of the book, largely because there wouldn't be enough words in the book to fill a trilogy. There is a lot of scene setting and world building coming from the various appendices from other books and I think some stuff from The Silmarillion, so there is some extra stuff that you don't get in The Hobbit, the book. Fans of the series will be able to piece together a lot of the dark shadows forming behind the curtains, setting the stage for the return of Sauron with the next generation of Bagginses.

That itself is the biggest problem the film has though. The Hobbit is, pretty much, a children's book. that is not a bad thing and it doesn't mean you can't make a movie for both adults and children from it. What it does mean is you have to make a choice about tone. You can go with the slapstick approach to violence and combat, or you can go for visceral and bloody fighting but you can't have bits of both and expect your film to feel coherent. You can have the dark and brooding menace of lingering shadows on the horizon and tales of kingdoms that have been wronged for generations and you can have jokes about how the fat dwarves love to eat, but you've got to strike an appropriate balance. The comic relief of Legolas and Gimli worked in the LotR trilogy because it was just that: comic relief between all the heavy stuff. In TH:AUJ it's kind of laid on a little too much and a little too thick.

I do hope that Jackson slightly readdresses this balance in favour of one way or the other for The Desolation of Smaug (which, by the way should be pronounced Smorg and not Smowg as this illiterate adaptation calls him) but it shouldn't take much. It's not offensively bad at all. If anything I just can't wait to see Benedict Cumberbatch playing a dragon.