It's a he. I have a very cool poster of Alex in my room
He has the worst knowledge of pop culture I've ever seen in my entire life. He's also never heard of Trainspotting, Ab Fab, Woody Allen, err who else.. Brass Eye, Stanley Kubrick (!) and probably many more. He is British so it's really bizarre. Unsurprisingly he thinks inbetweeners is hilarious
The Hunger Games
Full disclosure: unlike an increasingly large proportion of the general population, I have not read Suzanne Collins’ trilogy of books. Before stepping in to the cinema I knew very little about The Hunger Games, besides the incredible amount of hype that surrounded it (enough to make any Disney executive green with envy) and the disparaging comparisons to Battle Royale some were making. I was a little worried that the adaptation may follow the trend laid out by Harry Potter and offer up a whistle-stop tour of favourite scenes to fans of the books while leaving an impenetrable story for the rest, but these fears were largely unfounded. The Hunger Games stands up well as a film in its own right, owed in part to the creative risks the director undertook (and was allowed to take) during conversion.
In the future, North America is a very different place. Following an unsuccessful uprising from 13 poor districts against the wealthy and controlling Capitol, the victors now exert their vengeance by the yearly ritualistic abduction and forced gladiatorial combat of their young. In an event known as the Reaping, children are selected by lottery and both a girl and a boy from each of 12 districts (a minor but infuriating oversight in the storytelling is the lack of explanation about the missing thirteenth district) are taken to the Capitol, trained for four days in survival and combat and dumped into a large wooded arena filled with television cameras to fight to the death in the titular “Hunger Games”. The film follows Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) through this process, one of the tributes from District 12 along with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). Generally, the story is well conveyed to those unfamiliar with the books; while viewers may not be aware of all the details a reader would, I felt a reasonable understanding at all times of what was occurring. Most importantly, I was in no doubt what the events meant to the characters going through them.
This was captured in part due to the impressive style of the film. Director Gary Ross clearly appreciates the differences in storytelling between cinema and literature, and by manipulating sound and camerawork provides a masterclass in utilising the strengths of a visual medium. As children are selected at the Reaping, the camera zooms in from behind to sit on their shoulder as their neighbours back away, amplifying the isolation. As Katniss appears on television for the first time, the sound fractures to reflect her nerves. It confidently expresses emotions of the scene in a manner unique to film, and shows that real thought has been paid to the adaptation. There is only one situation where the techniques do not satisfy. The filmmakers had something of a dilemma when shooting the action sequences; how do you make a critique on the glorifying of violence while not inadvertently glorifying the violence you show? In the end, the incredibly fast movements of the camera do help to emphasise the events, but also obscure the action to a frustrating extent. Combined with a distinct lack of blood to help the film achieve it’s 12A rating the action largely feels lightweight and insubstantial. In the training portion of the film the bloodless nature is not an issue, and without it’s jarring effect it’s a lot easier to get sucked into the story. In fact, it’s a little disconcerting when you start to question precisely what it is you’re enjoying.
And that is where The Hunger Games shines. People often decry Hollywood films as shallow, but that is not the case here. The film bubbles with subtext. It explores themes such as the rich-poor divide, the corruption of children and the increasing obsession with reality television. It forces you to reflect. Just as Battle Royale represents what Japan might have been, The Hunger Games explores what America might become.
The story is not flawlessly told. Peeta as a character is unfathomable, with no explanations given over seemingly contradictory actions. There is a wasted opportunity with the concept of sponsorship of combatants. Conversations early on make much of the idea and conjure imaginations of branding and heavily tipping the balance between contestants, but in the end fizzle out to nothing. The biggest issue though is the pacing. With 24 initial characters and no meaningful way of keeping track of who remains it is tricky to get a handle on how far through the games are, and a complete absence of increasing tension towards the end results in a very anti-climatic ending. While this would fit the survivalist ethos, the cutaways to television crews destroy the illusion. The point is repeatedly made that this is just a show, that the producers just want people to watch and they have the power to manipulate the arena. With the lack of tension a move described as the “finale” feels arbitrary. It’s understandable that the television presentation has to exist to provide information to the viewer, but the implications of showing it has to be reflected in the pacing for it to feel natural.
It also seems unfair that the film is only drawing comparisons with Battle Royale. The film is a veritable pastiche of other movies, and several points felt extremely familiar. The edges of the arena and omnipotent producer could have been cloned from The Truman Show. The television show format and dialogue justifying it to provide hope sounded oddly reminiscent of the Jason Statham B-movie Death Race. The frenetic visuals would have felt at home following Jason Bourne around, and even the distinctive clothing worn by residents of the Capitol felt like it could have been lifted straight from the set of Zoolander. Broken down into its constitutive elements, there’s not a whole lot that feels unique about The Hunger Games.
But that isn’t a criticism of the film. It exemplifies the noble tradition of artists, to steal and improve on many sources. It’s this principle that Quentin Tarantino has built a career on. It’s refreshing to have a blockbuster with both depth and a strong female lead (who, in an even rarer turn, isn’t defined purely by her gender). The Hunger Games manages to be both a fun action flick and a meaningful critique on society. Given the recent drought of cinema releases, it’s easily to recommend.
War Horse - A Film that disappointed me beyond imagination.
Ok, so I'm new to this reviewing thing but I thought I'd give it a whirl. I work in a cinema, so regularly I get to see new films that I wouldn't normally watch, and I like to think, though I could be wrong, that I can tell the good from the bad. War Horse, however, I did want to see. The First World War fascinates me, and the idea of a film which focuses on a different element of the war interested me greatly.
I at this point should probably make a confession: I haven't read the book. It's sitting on my bookshelf waiting to be read, but since watching the film I haven't had the heart to read it. Don't get me wrong, the film is beautiful, from the countryside to the trenches the way in which the film is shot is breathtaking at times. I, however, don't feel entirely qualified to talk about the visual side any more than that.
What disappointed me, however, was that it didn't feel real. The opening part of the film, was perfect. Other than the ploughing scene, which I felt was needlessly lengthy (let's face it, we knew he was going to finish ploughing it in the end, it needn't have gone on quite so long!) it seemed pretty perfect. However, as the war begins and our equine protagonist is shipped off as a 'war horse' the film goes entirely down hill for me. Everything from the gloss on the coat of the horse (which disappeared only in the final scenes) to the depiction of trench life felt staged, wrong, and unrealistic. I can't put my finger entirely on why. Perhaps due to its 12a rating the film wasn't gritty enough for my liking. Death, destruction, inhumanity, all things that are synonymous with the first world war were distinctly lacking. After watching the end credits and seeing a single word: 'Disney', I realised why.
For me, this is certainly a family film which hits just right if you're wanting glossy Hollywood warfare with a hint of sentimentality and glory. I just wanted a bit more of man's inhumanity to man and the reality of war.
Meh, Battle Royale is better.
Cabin in the Woods
A van crashes through the trees in the desolate backcountry of America. On board, a stock collection of archetypes: the jock, the dumb blonde, the comic-relief stoner. After meeting a creepy old man spouting proclamations of doom at a gas station, the gang head on to an isolated cabin in the woods. You think you know where this is going, right? At the same time a bizarre sitcom unfolds, set in a high-tech office where the banterous coworkers seem to have far more of a knowledge about the plot than the audience. As these two stories converge, you’re left with no idea about where the film is going to end up.
And that’s a pretty big problem in reviewing the film. A lot of the best moments come from the shock of the unexpected on the screen as the action deftly misdirects one way only to morph into something completely else. And the ride is certainly worth it. It’s not perfectly executed – on several occasions the story writes itself into corners with no satisfactory way out – but the sheer creativity it revels in is a joy to behold in a genre so often lacking originality. The trailer is a perfect taste of the themes of the film, with the clips shown teasing just enough to leave you with an idea of where you think it’s headed that will almost certainly prove to be wrong. With the pedigree of filmmakers though, that is only to be expected; the team of Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard have many years of experience in subverting genre expectations in projects such as Buffy, Firefly, Lost and Cloverfield.
It’s all too easy to easy to compare the film to Scream, as both offer interesting critiques on the genre. But to do so is to overlook the main weakness of Cabin in the Woods. In the early 90s the horror genre was in dire straights. Many thought it was finished, fit only for straight-to-video B-movies. Scream came out and tore those films apart, and in doing so earned millions of dollars and revitalised the genre. Since then the horror movie has been declared to be dead with depressing regularity. But horror never dies; it just finds a new hook. In the past decade that has been the torture porn of the Saw movies and the homemade feel of Paranormal Activity. When Scream 4 was released last year, this was a point it completely missed, and it consequently lacked all of its bite because of how dated and irrelevant the jokes were. And it’s a trap that Cabin in the Woods unfortunately falls into too. Every poster for the film shouts the phrase “game-changer”, and maybe ten years ago it would have been. But it’s not going to have any lasting effect on an industry that has already forgotten the tropes it’s parodying.
And that perhaps is the biggest tragedy of Cabin in the Woods. It’s an excellent film, and one I wouldn’t hesitate in recommending. But it feels like a throwback, rather than insightful commentary. So while it’s enjoyable, it’s no Scream.
I should really get back to doing this.
While I'm here, just wanted to share a fairly fun article by Peter Bradshaw on reviewing on a smartphone/iPhone (I assume this fits in better here than in the Chat thread? It is about reviews, after all - apologies if not ).
The Raid: Redemption
It’s sometimes difficult to remember that trailers are at their core simply marketing. It’s all too easy to get swept up in the hype they create. Sometimes, blame for the resulting disappointment rests on the audience who created expectations far exceeding anything the film could realistically aim for. Other times, the blame lies squarely with the marketers. When the only five funny jokes in the comedy were all in the trailer, it’s right for you to feel deceived. And when The Raid’s entire marketing strategy can be summed up by their teaser poster proclaiming “1 minute of romance, 100 minutes of non-stop carnage”, it’s not unreasonable for you to expect non-stop carnage for the almost all of the film. Which isn’t what you get.
Somewhere in production somebody decided that the film needed a plot. And that it needed to be the driving force of the film. But nobody decided to give it a good one. So, to summarise: Rama is the protagonist of the film and rookie member of a SWAT squad. He’s got a pregnant wife and a father. In his squad is Sergeant Jaka, a strict leader, and Lieutenant Wahyu, who is the most senior member even though he’s not in charge. You can tell he’s the most senior because he wears a polo shirt instead of the SWAT uniform. They have to go into a tower and evict the crimelord on the top floor, who has a private army and a whole heap of tenants motivated to fight for him. That is a great foil for an action film, and the first chunk of it delivers well. The initial infiltration is filled with a sense of foreboding, helped by some very immersive sound design that sucks you in. When the police are rumbled and the **** hits the fan, it gets even better. The opening gunfights are tense with the characters all feeling distinctly vulnerable, and the martial arts are truly spectacular. Choreographed to perfection, scene after scene has you marvelling at the creativity of the action and the energy of it. Unlike so many recent action films it’s very cleanly shot with the camera pulled back a reasonable distance and kept stable, allowing you to fully appreciate the spectacle you’re witnessing. The effect is breathtaking.
Then the brakes suddenly get applied and you have to wait until the director feels that enough plot has happened to justify punching and kicking again. Actors stand in a room and talk at each other. The story is ridiculous, the dialogue is poor and the actors were (quite rightly) chosen for their martial arts skills rather than their ability to deliver lines. The film gets boring, a word I never envisaged using for this review. And when the action starts up again, it’s tainted by the story. You realise that you’re supposed to be connecting about these characters, and caring about whether they live or die. And all you do care about is how that man was able to pull off that flip upside down and whether he’ll do it again.
The ending comes as a completely generic anti-climax that forgets the action for the story and sacrifices all of the elements that makes the film unique and enjoyable. Despite containing some of the best moments I’ve experienced in a cinema this year, it fails as a whole by focusing on a worthless plot. And it feels disingenuous that despite such emphasis on story in the film it’s ignored in the marketing. Instead, they want you to think about the amazing way a man can fly backwards and fling a man’s neck onto a broken doorframe. It’s a shame that the film you imagine from the trailer is such a different vision to the one the director holds.
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Here is a film which, on more than one count, shouts ‘independent feature’: a young, unknown, on-the-up director/writer; a young, unknown, on-the-up lead actor; an unusual, potentially sensitive story, and an unconventional way of telling it; a platform (and an award) at Sundance. And, of course, the fact that it is independently produced: so ambiguous is the actual label, now, that it is more common a practice to examine the style of filmmaking in making the judgement of whether or not to assign it to a given film. That has, perhaps, led to some form of erosion of the importance of the label: stripped of political significance, its artistic hallmarks have taken on the form more of a signal of preference than any aesthetic statement. It is almost fitting that a film that seems so deeply steeped in the independent tradition is essentially so more at a superficial level than a substantial one: while few would (and have) called Martha Marcy May Marlene a bad film, it is less than meets the eye.
Sean Durkin’s debut film centres on Martha, who is re-christened Marcy May by the leader of the cult she joins, and whom the film’s beginning finds escaping from it. Over the jangle of the non-linear storyline, we learn the outline of the story: Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), a young adult, is connected through friends to a cult group in the Catskill Mountains, which she joins. The charismatic, patriarchal, Illich-reading leader of the cult, Patrick (John Hawkes), decides that she looks like a Marcy May, and that that will now be her name; together with the other handful of members, she slips into a routine of work, rest and ritual designed to try and keep the group self-sustainable. Conflict simmers below the surface as some of the darker aspects of life in the isolated cult become apparent, but it takes a violent aberration to cause the link to snap: Martha runs away, traumatized – but not, as it turns out, quite intellectually disillusioned. Contacting her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), whom she has not seen or spoken to since she joined the group, Martha is taken in by the former and her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy); although she is elusive about her past and anything she is struggling with, they are willing at first to accommodate her. But she struggles to readjust to what might be considered a ‘normal’ lifestyle, and frustrates her hosts – though Lucy, blaming herself for Martha’s condition, is determined to bear it out – with her apparently unwittingly inappropriate antics; more disturbingly, there are shadows in the forest that lurk around the house, rising out of Martha’s past to haunt her present.
The film has received a notable amount of acclaim, with a good share directed at 23-year old debutant Elizabeth Olsen (the younger sister of celebrity twins Ashley and Mary-Kate). The role has earned her over 30 different award nominations and a good deal of critical acclaim, but one must wonder how far it is deserved: it may be the underwritten character – apart from the glimpses Durkin allows, and outside of the immediate experience of isolation and trauma, we know next to nothing about the central character – that renders Martha less than completely believable, but it follows that Olsen’s performance falls similarly short of entirely convincing. Somewhat less recognition was found, and perhaps more was deserved, by her co-star, John Hawkes. Shot to fame by his Oscar-nominated turn in 2010’s Winter’s Bone, Hawkes plays a character that impulsively takes centre stage whenever on screen, and fills it splendidly; oozing a very general kind of charisma but using specific nuances to great effect, Hawkes is surely one of the finest actors on the American independent circuit today.
If there is one reason to watch the film, however, it is the production value. Jody Lee Lipes’ cinematography makes striking use of light and shadow, complementing the film’s abstract undertones, while the angle he chooses for a scene in which Martha inadvertently wets her dress makes the shot memorable for more than content. Similarly striking is the editing by Zachary Stuart-Pontier, particularly with regards to the continuity of the film: Martha Marcy May Marlene skips back and forth distances in both time and place, and Stuart-Pontier’s intelligently welds together shots to make for smooth transitions where required. The latter in particular, though, would not have been possible without the careful attention that has obviously been put in how the film unfolds, and credit here must rightfully go to debutant director Sean Durkin, whose unravelling of the plot is at par with its visual mastery. This makes it all the more unfortunate that not as much acclaim can go to his screenwriting: the general idea behind the film is an intriguing one and well worthy of exploration, and some of the scenes depicting life in a cult are well enough written; it is in bringing a slice of the unusual to the more familiar ‘normal’ world where Durkin’s characterization and dialogues fall short, robbing the film of what should be its most effective pathos.
Well before it began, it was promised that 2012 would be a big year for films; in particular, for the often denounced summer blockbuster; in particular, for the often denounced superhero film genre. Much has changed in the last over the last couple of years, beginning with Christopher Nolan’s dramatic breakaway from the generic Batman (or, as some might argue, a move closer towards some of the better of the source material) and culminating in several films that have at worst received lukewarm critical response in addition to the usual commercial tons. And several of those films – Iron Man and its sequel, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America – have been leading up to this: Marvel’s star-studded ensemble project, The Avengers. And on the most immediate level, The Avengers fulfils what was promised: it is a massive film, with an (obviously) star-studded cast, the latest in effects technology, and a director hugely popular amongst that section of the targeted audience likely to be most interested in the film – the comic-book fans. On a similarly immediate level, it would appear to have delivered as well: critical reviews are for the most part positive, audience reviews are for the most part gushing, and the commercial revenues have been spectacular, with the film easily 2012’s most successful film so far in that regard (finishing ahead of The Hunger Games) and, in a turn that will make the release of another superhero film scheduled for release later this year all the more interesting, ahead of 2008’s The Dark Knight.
Backgrounds taken care of by the earlier (aforementioned) films, The Avengers cuts to the chase and gets off to a very quick beginning: S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is alerted about unusual behaviour observed in the Tesseract, a powerful alien energy source, and arrives at headquarters to investigate. Just as he arrives, however, the chaos begins, as Loki (Tim Hiddleston) – an Asgardian demi-god and brother of Thor – uses the energy of the Tesseract to transport himself to the human realm. A brief skirmish ensues, with Loki easily overpowering Fury and the guards, and casting his unearthly influence over agent Clint Barton (a.k.a. Hawkeye; Jeremy Renner) and scientist Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) before making a getaway. Realizing that Loki intends to facilitate a full-scale alien invasion of the earth, Fury begins to call together a team of extraordinary individuals to help protect it: Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) and Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), the last of whom is contacted by special agent Natasha Romanoff/The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). They are soon joined by Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who has arrived to check the misbehaviour of his younger brother – but when the volatile group fails to gel in time to prevent Loki from opening a portal for the alien army, they must come together quick enough to try and save the world.
Much has been made of director/screenwriter Josh Whedon’s balancing of screen-time for each of the superheroes, and it must be said that it is indeed impressive: it cannot have been easy to work with a number of such prominent presences – as difficult, perhaps, as Fury finds it to administrate The Avengers – and Robert Downey Jr. has admitted that initially, he pushed for Tony Stark to assume a lead role in the film. Instead, Whedon treads the more difficult route of trying to give each hero a relatively equal weight – ensuring that each is, in the words of Downey Jr., ‘just an arm of the octopus’. This works to an extent, and while there are relative discrepancies – Stark and Rogers, for instance, stand out much more than Thor – there is never the sense that the film revolves primarily around one character. Captain America, here displaced and confused, is more interesting a character than he is in his titular film, though Evans’ limitedness is still apparent. The friction between him and Tony Stark is also interesting in concept, but seems a little too quick off the mark, and might have been handled a little better. The most consistently convincing of the hero characters is Bruce Banner, whom Ruffalo plays excellently – the laid-back aspect seems to come to him naturally, as it did in The Kids are All Right, and his handling of the tortured, dangerous interior works well enough to justify the Hulk-hype within the story.
The pick of the acting, however, probably comes from Tim Hiddleston, who plays primary antagonist Loki with a charismatic flair that endears to no end. Indeed, when the film shows its clichéd underbelly, it seems that it is only Loki who stands above it all, quietly musing while the heroes engage in bickering that could not have been more obviously scripted, and breaking out of one particularly overused moment that might have ruined the film with chilling efficiency – to the extent, in fact, that it is almost Loki with whom the audience sometimes identifies more. The ‘goodies’ side of it is thus less impressive, with several key moments being underpinned by egoism designed to spark conflict by as boring as some of the lines that represent them. The stylistics are similarly inconsistent, with some interesting effects running into overload as the scale of the film tips up and over; much like the whole of the film itself, which, though starting out as an above average superhero flick, ends on a cringe-worthily self-indulging note.
Far too often, the sci-fi genre of filmmaking is associated more closely with the gimmicks and special-effects that enhance it rather than concepts and ideas that drive it. This has, ironically, resulted in a slew of sci-fi films driven more by gimmicks and SFX than concepts. But another line of sci-fi-antagonism is rooted in the perception of the genre as being driven by concepts that are essentially alien to the human condition; this shunts science-fiction into an isolated, supposedly inaccessible corner – a niche. While sci-fi can of course be complex in its reasoning, this latter branding of the genre is rather unfair (and harmful): there is little doubt in the very human core of the existentialist Blade Runner, for example, while some people seem to forget or ignore the sci-fi basis of accessible crowd-pleasers like Star Wars, Alien or Inception. One sci-fi film that garnered much critical acclaim for its balancing of the intellectual and emotional was Duncan Jones’ brilliant 2009 drama Moon. And one that piqued interest due to comparisons with the latter is Another Earth.
Perhaps a central basis of such comparison is the existentialist colouring that adorns the outer concepts of both: Another Earth revolves around the idea of a second inhabitable planet that mirrors our own, containing the same continents, cities – and people; the last is a motif whose implications are explored in the cloning aspect of Moon. The protagonist here is Rhoda (Brit Marling), a young woman traumatized by a moment of carelessness in which she inflicted irrevocable hurt on the family of John (William Mapother). When she learns about the mirrored earth – named, in a moment sharply satirical of human self-centredness, ‘Earth 2’ – it represents for her a chance to get away, into a world that might just be a bit different. But as she makes decisive moves to reconcile with her past, she realizes it represents an entirely different possibility as well.
It is a shame that Another Earth’s similarity to Moon ends at this general overlap of motif. Where Jones introduced his concept as a twist and took it expertly from there, the very element that should have propped up Another Earth seems from the off to be relegated to the background: even in her pursuit of the chance to travel to ‘Earth 2’, Marling’s Rhoda seems intent but somehow uninterested. Relegating news of ‘Earth 2’ to what seems like a cheap radio show was probably a mistake, as was portraying first-contact – so absorbing in the trailer, where we see only fragments of it – through the most derived emotions, destroying any realism in the moment. On a more positive note, the film does make use of fairly neat symbolism, with both Rhoda’s cleaning up of John’s house a pretty perfect reflection of a cry for catharsis, while the whole concept of ‘Earth 2’ rings of the possibility of redemption.
The fundamental contradiction that undoes Another Earth is that it places focus away from the main sci-fi concept and unto the central characters – presumably to emphasize that the core of the story is made up of human actions and emotions – but is then stylistically too ethereal. Both the shots and Marling are often too slow, stretching out reflectivity beyond what the scenes merit. Along with the lighting, this seems to give the film an air of weightlessness – in the sense that the gravity of the characters’ emotions and reactions are often lost; even the grittiest scenes, such as that showing Rhoda cleaning toilet cubicles at a school, seem more connected to the character’s psyche than the real world. This is also reflected in the film’s reliance on voiceovers: experts mull interesting questions, but, more concrete than the goings-on in the story, assume central focus when they appear – the film simply is not muscular enough for the audience to especially care.
A bit shaky if I do say so myself. I think I got the general message across, though...
Tyrannosaur (and Dog Altogether)
Almost without a doubt the most distinctively British sub-genre in modern cinema is the kitchen-sink drama – that brand of social realism which traditionally focuses on the Angry Young Man rebelling in some form against the squalid circumstances that ties him down. Although the movement began (or happened, per se) in and is largely associated with the 50’s and 60’s, there has always been a noticeable influence on many subsequent British films: Peter Cattaneo’s acclaimed 1997 film The Full Monty, for example, or even to an extent Danny Boyle’s 1996 adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting. More pertinently, there have been some filmmakers who have directly continued the tradition of kitchen-sink realism: the most obvious is Ken Loach, with films like 2002’s Sweet Sixteen, and who has just won the Jury Prize at Cannes this year for his upcoming film The Angels’ Share; the most memorable in recent years is probably Andrea Arnold’s critically lauded Fish Tank (2009), which made waves picking up a number of awards at both the BAFTA awards and the BIFAs. Two years on, a film grounded in the same tradition has gone some way to replicating the feat.
That film, Tyrannosaur, is Paddy Considine’s feature-length film directorial debut, and has quickly earned the Staffordshire-born actor a ‘big potential’ label. The 38-year old has in the past gained praise for his acting, most noticeably in Dead Man’s Shoes as well as turning up for more minor roles in films like Cinderella Man and Hot Fuzz, but in 2007 he chose to diversify, writing and directing the 26-minute long Dog Altogether. The film was a hit with critics, winning Best Short Film at both the BAFTA Awards and the BIFAs, as well as picking up the Silver Lion in the same category at Venice. Revolving around a middle-aged man called Joseph (Peter Mullan), the film chronicles episodes of violence that lead the protagonist to stumble upon possible redemption in the form of Anita (Olivia Colman). Tyrannosaur is an expansion of this short, replicating most of the scenes and retaining both lead actors (although Colman’s character was renamed called Hannah). Significantly, Tyrannosaur expands upon Hannah’s personal life, and adds to the mix an especially dark set of secrets that lends the film a startling moral complexity.
Tyrannosaur is primarily driven by its acting force, a fact which seems to have divided some (Kyle Smith, writing for the New York Post – ‘True, the stars are very good at what they do, but so what?’); however, it is to the film’s credit that even the harshest critics recognize this very positive aspect. Peter Mullan, barely recognizable as the same actor who played the flamboyantly low-key Mother Superior in Trainspotting, brings to the screen a raging intensity which consumes the character to points, at times, beyond usual realism – an intensity that epitomises, perhaps, the general thrust of the film. A more nuanced performance comes from his co-star, Olivia Colman, whose character’s duplicity is realized in the moderation and detail with which she conducts herself: in a role for which she has received widespread acclaim and awards, Colman is utterly believable. The supporting character most central to the plot is played by Eddie Marsan, who, as Hannah’s violently abusive husband, makes a case for his versatility (having been previously best known for a role of rather more levity in Sherlock Holmes).
Dog Altogether, on the other hand, revolves more around the idea: the acting is still good, but it plays almost like an early rehearsal session for Tyrannosaur (which in some respect it is); there far less room for Colman, and Paul Popplewell, who as an unlikeable neighbour in the feature film turns in a performance full of the same kind of violent energy as Mullan (and which is an embodiment of the film’s general mood), plays an entirely different character (in a way that gleams promise: Considine, in the ‘Making of Tyrannosaur’ booklet, notes his satisfaction at being able to give Popplewell a more extensive role) – most importantly, the angle including Marsan’s character is excluded. As such, Dog Altogether becomes a much more straightforward story of possible redemption: Tyrannosaur, on the other hand, is anything but. Considine notes how some people ‘were confused about feeling uplifted after such an experience’ – but there must be a contingent who did not feel that at all. The key is in the constant pull and push of the characters, an intricate process of attraction and repulsion. The characters themselves in the given storyline may not be completely believable in that there seems at certain points to be too much colliding at once, but the realism of Considine’s impressive debut is certainly well substantiated by this understanding and use of moral variability.
Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted
There’s an illustrated running joke amongst followers of mainstream animated film regarding the difference between the two major studios Pixar and Dreamworks: the former supposedly deals in innovative ideas and plotlines to supplement their visuals; the latter come up with ‘talking animals... (doing) things animals don’t normally do.’ Now, this may be somewhat crude and unfair on Dreamworks (credit where credit is due for Shrek and Kung Fu Panda, as well as some hand in the brilliant Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit) but it does neatly (and rather humorously) highlight the apparent discrepancy in the originality of ideas between the two. It all started so well, though – Dreamworks’ first feature film was Antz, which made waves back in 1998 and continues to enjoy a reputation of critical acclaim. On the directorial team with Tim Johnson at the time was Eric Darnell. Darnell’s next feature for Dreamworks would come a whole seven years later, well into the Dreamworks decline, when he teamed up with Tom McGrath to make the commercial hit Madagascar. Since then, Darnell has been working almost exclusively on the franchise, most recently making the third feature film of the series, Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted.
2005’s Madagascar introduced audiences to the cast of zoo-mates Alex the lion (Ben Stiller), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer), who along with a bunch of highly organized penguins find themselves marooned on the shore of Madagascar. It then drew upon concepts of inherent primitivism, a la Call of the Wild, in a way that might have been more interesting if it had less forced humour, and if the ending wasn’t quite so dismissive of what the rest of the film was built upon; this latter fact in particular gave the film an insubstantiality that, in a world recently awed by the likes of Finding Nemo, only served to cement Dreamworks’ faltering of reputation. The next two films weren’t set in Madagascar at all (though the titles of both 2008’s Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa and this most recent effort make the setting quite clear) but the brand remained – and so too, evidently, did the pitfalls.
In fact, they seem if anything to have amplified in Madagascar 3. It supposedly begins where the second film left off: with Alex and co still stranded and waiting in Africa, while the penguin crew rendezvous in Monte Carlo. Alex suddenly – a record he’s been keeping shows that it’s been a number of days already – decides that instead of waiting, they should go and find the penguins in Monte Carlo – and like that, without reference to any of the new characters of the second film, they find themselves on French shores. They have a plan – which of course falls apart at the off, and the rest of the film has them as fugitives making their way through Europe, away from Animal Control, headed by Francis Dubois (Frances McDormand), and passing as circus animals to use a travelling troupe as cover.
Their progress is swift – though not necessarily in the sense that it is engaging: one of the abiding criticisms of the film has been its pacing. One note on this is that it seems the symptom of an underwritten franchise: as a sequel, there is no introductory character development necessary; given the nature of the film, this leaves it open for the scriptwriters to fill their pages with plot. And the plot, as it were, is contrived and shoddily crafted into the film’s framework: it uses worn-out plot devices with cringe-worthy enthusiasm – the squabble in the casino, for instance – and seems never to slow down long enough to consider what is happening, only what is about to happen; the journey from Africa to Monte Carlo, for instance, is supposedly not worth fitting into the film. More than anything else, the film reeks of a cash-cow being whipped up from the dead and stuffed forcibly within limits decided by the studio rather than through any artistic negotiation: it is neither substantial nor well-styled. The only parts where the film experiments with watchability are where it takes in dollops of the abstract – a welcome departure from a realism that is clearly beyond it: DuBois’s first chase scene, for instance, where the grimly efficient female pursuer works better than in Terminator 3 – which is not really saying much – is momentarily pleasing, but also serves to highlight the redundancy of the half-hearted character background that precedes it (kudos, however, to Frances McDormand for pulling off the accent). The circus’ magnum opus is similarly built on style, and might pass for a decent music video. And there is the only part and character that really evokes anything: the background story of Vitaly the tiger (Bryan Cranston), which approaches European Magic Realism – perhaps inadvertently – and is probably the highest point of the film. As it is, that simply means it looks tragically out of place in the contrived muddle that is the rest of the film.
I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (2006)
Dir. Park Chan-wook | Starring Lim Soojung & Jung Jihoon (Rain)
I’m A Cyborg is an eccentric and offbeat romantic comedy, but is by no means a romantic comedy in the same way as any other film you've seen. The film follows Cha Young-goon (Lim), a factory-worker with acute schizophrenia who is admitted to a mental hospital because she believes she is a cyborg. Although it may seem hard to believe from the title and bizarre plot, I’m A Cyborg is a heart-warming and genuinely funny film.
I originally discovered this film late one night three or four years ago. Struck with insomnia, I turned on my TV and casually flipped through the channels until I landed on Film4. It happened to be during the Asian Cinema Season, and having never watched a Korean film before I decided to stay up and watch it; let me tell you, the dark circles and stern telling-off from my form teacher for falling asleep in registration the next morning were so worth it.
I’m A Cyborg sees the movie debut of massive Korean idol Jung Jihoon, better known mononymously by his stage name Rain. The general consensus in North American and British cinema is that singers in films are usually pretty terrible, but Rain plays the lead male role of Park Il-soon, an anti-social, schizophrenic kleptomaniac convinced he can steal people’s souls, with the believability and talent of a natural performer. Partway through the film, he even demonstrates his ability to yodel, which is a skill that I personally think should be made mandatory for all up and coming actors.
While Young-goon and Il-soon have the romantic and dramatic parts of the film covered, the other patients at the hospital really steal the show when it comes to comedy. Oh Dal-su plays Shin Duk-chun, one of my favourite supporting characters in the film. Duk-chun is a man who believes that he is the cause of everything wrong in the world, and is so humble that he walks backwards and bows constantly. He has some of the funniest lines in the entire film, at one point posing the important question: “Why can’t there be ping-pong where we only give?” I don’t know, Duk-chun, I don’t know. But I hope that one day we will find out.
Overall, I’m A Cyborg is a work of art. It’s completely different from Park’s other works; he made his name in the West as a horror director with the stunningly terrifying Vengeance trilogy. These films were dark, gritty and completely converse to I’m A Cyborg, which has a bright and garish setting. The film delivers some important messages on how we deal with issues from love to abandonment, and presents an interesting look at the world through the view of someone with a mental illness. I’m A Cyborg has been released on both DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK and can be found in the World Cinema section for under a tenner at HMV. And, if you still want more once you’ve watched the film, the music video for Rain’s ‘With U’ is even included as a bonus feature!
This summer has, by and large, been a disappointing one at the cinema. Christopher Nolan sacrificed depth and meaning for explosions and plot holes. Jason Bourne came back not with a bang but an odd sci-fi whimper. So thank goodness for Shadow Dancer, a film dripping with quality from every frame.
Set predominantly in 1990s Belfast, Shadow Dancer clearly stakes out its intentions from the opening. A young girl, Colette, is told by her father to go and buy him cigarettes. She passes off the job to her younger brother, so that she can focus on making necklaces. Few words are spoken, but tension is everywhere. You get a powerful sense of foreboding, of trouble right around the corner. Then the brother gets carried back in with a bullet in him.
The very next scene shows a now grown up Colette (Andrea Riseborough) dropping off a bomb in the London underground for the IRA. After her capture she is eventually turned by a weary MI5 officer (Clive Owen) and convinced to become an informant against her powerful family. Or has she? And if she has, will she get away with it?
Questions like this are at the heart of Shadow Dancer. It is above all a human drama, not concerned with the political machinations of the issues at play but the state of mind of its players. It is a true masterclass in the art of suspense, and populates its runtime with suspicion and bluffing in the place of gratuitous action. Unlike so many films it is not afraid of silence and uses it to dramatic effect, highlighting the many unspoken words flying through the air. The resulting atmosphere can be discomforting, and it leaves you unsure right through to the final frame.
While the direction from James Marsh (a name usually associated with documentaries, such as Project Nim and Man on Wire) is confident and well shot, the true quality lies in the action. Riseborough is a revelation, drawing the eye and expressing a whole range of emotions. Clive Owen gives a truly believable performance of a conflicted do-gooder, and Aidan Gillen, previously king of television on both sides of the Atlantic thanks to lengthy roles in shows such as The Wire, Identity and Game of Thrones, shows his considerable talent translates to films as well.
Shadow Dancer is not a blockbuster. It does not have a marketing budget larger than the GDP of Belgium. There is no CGI to be found. What it does have instead is a story that grips you and won’t let go, and characters that you find yourself invested in with ease. As a piece of pure interactive drama, Shadow Dancer offers a complete experience the likes of which haven’t been seen since 127 Hours.
This is too good. Loved the reviews!
I've reviewed Dredd and The Twilight Samurai - was wondering if I could get opinions?
The Bourne Legacy
The theatrical release poster for The Bourne Legacy is interesting in that unlike the posters for its predecessors in the series, the composition does not pointedly facilitate focus on the protagonist: instead of a clearly targeted or blown up image of Matt Damon, the new poster has the new star, Jeremy Renner, somewhere towards the bottom of the picture, against an alley wall, face turned down and half in shadows, while the background - a narrow strip of light where the alley opens up - dominates proceedings. The immediately noted possible implication is the reminder that this is a Bourne film without Jason Bourne: Renner's character, Aaron Cross, was written into the universe of the franchise to try and expand it and the themes it had set forth. But even on its own, it makes an intriguing statement of intentions: it has its subject either coming into the light or withdrawing into darkness, at once trapped in the structure and with a means of walking away from it; and in the composition is a startling departure from the light-darkness dichotomy it might easily have been. It is, on the whole, suggestive of a thoughtful, intricate, viscerally provocative film.
The Bourne Legacy is none of these things.
The primary position of the film in the franchise, perhaps, is that of a starting point of departure from the previous films: apart from the obvious exclusion of Jason Bourne (played in the opening trilogy by Matt Damon), the franchise saw an overhaul of its production team. The director of the second and third films, Paul Greengrass, left; with him went frequent collaborator Christopher Rouse, who had previously been responsible for the editing, and composer John Powell. The main thread of continuity behind the scenes, then, was given by the man they brought in to take over the director's reigns: Tony Gilroy had been a screenwriter for all of the films of the series (in collaboration in the first and third films), and resumed that role as well as his new one in The Bourne Legacy. Gilroy, whose directorial credits include Michael Clayton and Duplicity, said in an interview that one of the pre-conditions of his resumption was that 'Matt (Damon) was gone, Matt and Paul (Greengrass) were gone, there was no Jason Bourne'; the intention, clearly, was of a movie divergent from what had already been done if contextually still closely attached to it.
This spinoff, as it might therefore be assessed to be, begins with an extended montage that recaptures the events of The Bourne Ultimatum, with Jason Bourne arriving in New York and Pamela Landy setting out to expose the atrocities of Operation Blackbriar, and introduces to the audience Aaron Cross, a special agent on a programme similar to Blackbriar which uses chemical pills to enhance both the physical and mental aspects of its subjects. The Bourne issue explodes and sets off a series of drastic decisions that, predictably, pits Cross against the establishment. Where the script's parallels with the initial Bourne trilogy become fundamentally tenuous is at the structure of the characterization: Cross is in troubled waters, but he is never as existentially groping as Bourne - nor in any way that really stimulates the intellect. Bourne's blindness was one the audience shared, and thus an easy bridge for empathy: his drive in each film was towards truth, closure and redemption. Cross' gallop at self-preservation, removed as it is from the public touch by magic pills and a digression from Greengrass' more realistic take on action sequences, has less of a wider implication. Even at their adrenaline-focussed climaxes, Bourne plays at times almost like the Terminator with a heart; Cross is akin to James Bond without the suave.
Some have been celebrating the departure of the series from the cinéma vérité style of Greengrass - a way of filmmaking which, ironically, brought him most acclaim in his most critically successful works. Although not a staple of the mainstream, cinéma vérité seemed appropriate for the Bourne series because of the very points mentioned above: it accentuated the relationship between Bourne and the audience, giving his story an avenue towards a weightier purpose - of exploring how one might think or act when confronted with the sort of pathos embedded in the trilogy. Gilroy noted in an interview that the only real way to take the series forward, with the tentative conclusion of Bourne's story, was to 'sort of pull back the curtain and say there's a much bigger conspiracy'. What The Bourne Legacy does instead, both stylistically and viscerally, is to take a step back and let the obvious unfurl. With mysteries already revealed and questions largely answered, The Bourne Legacy finally becomes merely a playing field for a simplistic and ultimately uninteresting tussle between formulaic foes.
Skyfall plays a dangerous game. In its haste to separate itself from dismal previous 007 outing Quantum of Solace, it almost trips up in the frantic dash to past Bond glory; wound tightly in homages and in-jokes, Skyfall teeters, however briefly, on the brink of self-indulgence.
Thankfully, it never succumbs. Instead, what director Sam Mendes has presented us with is a real return to form for the Bond franchise; the in-jokes become gleeful nods to a brighter past, the homages a grounding sense that this is a true Bond film, but the script all the while reminding us of the fact that the franchise is still moving forward. Skyfall is the true partner to Casino Royale; Quantum of Solace now a forgettable blip on the superb legacy of Daniel Craig’s 007.
Without wanting to give too much away about the plot – and it’s a belter – suffice to say that Skyfall is a largely cohesive journey. Where Quantum of Solace became entangled in a messy affair of revenge and oil barons, failing mostly to stand on its own two feet, Skyfall has a clear-cut villain with a clear-cut motive. In the 50th anniversary of the franchise, Skyfall is leaps and bounds beyond its predecessor.
It’s befitting, then, that the parallels between Skyfall and Bond’s first silver screen outing, Dr No, are so striking – at least where the formula of the plot is concerned. The first half of the film takes the agent on an investigative mission, as with Dr No, as MI6 comes under attack and secret files on undercover agents are stolen. Also much in the same way as Dr No, we aren’t introduced to the film’s primary antagonist until quite late in the game, and even then we don’t get to see much of him.
Which is a shame, really, as Javier Bardem, for the limited amount of screentime he’s given, makes for one of the best Bond baddies in years. He’s the kind of guy who’d make a perfect Joker to follow-up (or even surpass) Heath Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight; something which should tell you plenty about his capability in the villain role. His motive works perfectly; I won’t divulge it, but it relates to M’s past in a way that even gives us [very] slight room to empathise with his cause.
Indeed, much of the film focuses on M, played again by Judi Dench (her seventh Bond film in the role) – or more specifically, M’s past. It’s an interesting move that finally allows Dench to give her character some development; previously, we’ve seen only a cold, detached M, albeit with a sense of humour. Skyfall gives us a much greater insight into the character, and in particular her affection for 007. Oh, and we’ll learn plenty about him, too. But I definitely won’t talk any more about that.
We also get Q back, in the form of a much younger than usual actor, Ben Whishaw. He’s a competent enough actor, but being the smarmy computer whizz is a likeable skit only for so long – about thirty seconds, to be precise, before you’re impatiently hoping for Bond to take him down a peg or two with a witty retort about being out in the field. Which, thankfully, he does. Take that, you bloody whippersnapper.
Skyfall ticks the globetrotting experience box within the first few frames, as we open with a chase through the streets of Turkey that ends with Bond doing his own ‘Skyfall’ into some water, which blends into one of the strangest title credits sequences in years. Not that it’s not enjoyable, though slightly hampered by that Adele song; an opinion which, of course, boils down to how much you like words that rhyme (sort of) with Skyfall.
Not forgetting its roots, however, Skyfall wisely chooses to place most of the action in Britain; both in London and remotely. It’s a brilliant choice by director Sam Mendes, with a sequence on the London Underground in particular highlighting just how close to home the Bond franchise remains. Of course, it’s all also fantastically shot, and Mendes paces the film superbly from start to finish so that we never feel too overwhelmed by action scenes, and nor do we grow too weary of slower talking points.
The emotional payoff of Skyfall will be ever greater if you’ve seen previous Bond flicks, as will the enjoyment of the various references and homages to previous outings. Luckily, none of these are a requirement to the enjoyment of the film; Skyfall blends espionage, action, thrills and fantastic performances – with a dash of character development and a sprinkling of humour for good measure – to stand effortlessly on its own two feet. And that’s a recipe you can really sink your teeth into…
Why has this slipped down to page four?!
Life of Pi
'I have a story that will make you believe in God.'
This is the promise upon which Yann Martel's 2001 novel Life of Pi, begins. 'I was sort of looking for a story, not only with a small 's' but sort of with a capital 'S' – something that would direct my life', said Martel in 2002, and whether or not the book literally met the lofty expectation it set itself, it was certainly a success by most other standards, shooting to the top of the bestseller charts and winning the author, amidst various raving reviews, the Man Booker Prize in the same year. Praised for its distinctive structure and Martel's vividly accomplished storytelling ability, the novel about a sixteen-year-old boy named Pi and his struggle to stay alive on a lifeboat adrift on the Pacific Ocean alongside an adult male Royal Bengal tiger takes the reader on an emotionally arduous journey before delivering an intellectual sucker-punch that gives the book its elevated status.
As is so often the case, its success as a book brought it into immediate consideration for film studios, and the first trappings of Life of Pi as a film project came as early as 2002, and a number of notable directors were thought to be attached to the project, including M Night Shyamalan (noted for his descent in just over ten years from The Sixth Sense to Avatar: The Last Airbender) and Alfonso Cuarón (the Mexican director of the highly acclaimed Y Tu Mama Tambien, Children of Men and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban). It remained, however, in the choppy waters of pre-development until 2009, when Ang Lee confirmed it as his next project. Lee, the Taiwanese-born American director who had shot to worldwide fame with 2000's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and previously drawn critical acclaim for his adaptations of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility (1995) and Annie Proulx's Brokeback Mountain (2005), in a 2009 interview with Digital Spy magazine admitted 'How exactly I'm going to do it, I don't know … A little boy adrift at sea with a tiger. It's a hard one to crack!'
He had also noted, however, in the same interview, 'I think I've cracked the structure of the movie and I'll figure out how to do it later.' Given the distinctive structure of the book, which weaves in between multiple layers of narration, perception and introspection - delivered in turns by an awed outsider (the writer) and an unreliably philosophical narrator (the protagonist) - this was an intriguing assertion, to say the least. Three years on, then, it was disappointing to find an adapted screenplay that seemed to want to solve the intricacies of its source by simply standing back from them. Martel's prose approaches a sort of structured magical realism, rolling around in the grime and brine at every opportunity while slowly raising the level of incredulity one might feel with twists of invention; Lee's film only swims in a sort of detached romanticism, letting go of the reigns of realism only far enough to provide for the reliability of the final twist - which is in essence missing the point of the book. There is here none of the psychological complexity of Martel's story, and nothing to inject the dream-like quality that the novel only ultimately turns out to be.
Instead, Lee's adaptation attempts to bring all the intrigue and wonder into the main body of the work - and to a small extent, it succeeds. The CGI used in the film has been praised as some of the best in cinema, with the film's lauders calling it 'a landmark of visual mastery' (Robert Ebert), 'a visual masterpiece' (Marjolaine Gout) and 'visually amazing' - the last compliment coming from Avatar director James Cameron, who also laid positive emphasis on the film's use of 3D, noting that 'Life of Pi breaks the paradigm that 3D has to be some big, action fantasy spectacle, superhero movie'. The accolades for the film's visual merits are certainly not unfounded: Lee takes sweeping views of larger-than-life natural wonder to a whole new level of spectacular, with gloriously juxtaposed sea and sky, and magnificently thunderous storms. Even more at the centre of what makes the film tick, though, are the animated animals, which grant the film its gentle beauty towards the beginning of the film and the little grit it maintains later on.
The spotlight is, of course, on the Royal Bengal tiger the young protagonist finds himself shipmates with for most of the film, but there is a period in the book where the lifeboat is also shelter to a zebra, a hyena and a female orang-utan. In the book, their tenure on the seas is a couple of days, and the importance of this period is of great important to the tone of the book; in the film, these animals become sidekicks that flit so quickly in and out of importance that by the time the importance of the scene becomes apparent, it is too late. And this, perhaps, is also one of the main issues with the film as a whole: it is too short, and not in a good way. Pacing is often a problem with adaptations of books in general, with much seeming to be all too absent from the screen version. Some professionals have noted that the very art of script adaption is based on deciding what to omit - but this doesn't mean a film cannot effectively incorporate the essence of a book. Lee thought he had 'cracked' the structure, but it's difficult not to think that the film would have benefited hugely from a slower, more meditative, more intellectual approach.
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