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.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Game of Thrones (Season 2)

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Just go through my review of the previous season and replace any instance of "first" with "second".

Seriously, it continues as it set off and I can't heap any more praise on it. It reached greatness in its first season and didn't compromise the second time around. It feels slightly more disjointed seeing as the closest thing we had to a "main character" is no longer around, but it's still very coherent and easy to follow despite being overly complex.

Plus, the third season has just started and oh my god it's still amazing.

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