Saturday, 26 July 2014

Review of Hercules (2014)

Brett Ratner's Hercules opens ominously with a voiceover delivered by Ian McShane, in which he informs us that we "know nothing" (admittedly about the myth of Hercules). Immediately I was put at a sense of unease as this kind of address towards an audience more or less sums up the attitude of the blockbusters currently in our cinemas; ones which treat the audience as if they're idiots. Does this signal Hercules to be yet another dumb movie?

The answer is yes, but that's not as bad a thing as it could have been. Don't get me wrong; this film is dumb. It's also cheesy, predictable and formulaic to an almost unreasonable degree. Yet it embraces its inherent boneheaded-ness and whiteknuckle-ness head on, and despite not delivering the purported "truth" about Hercules (the end cheerfully asserts that the truth, whatever it is, doesn't matter), it nevertheless provides a diverting, relatively good-natured and rompy 98 minutes, and sets itself above the likes of Transformers and the similarly revisionist "I, Frankenstein" from earlier this year by not allowing itself to get bogged down. It's light, and zippy, and it works well.

The plot is a break from the usual Hercules myth, and comes after his 12 Challenges, which serve as the films' slightly irreverent prologue, and also set the tone. Shortly after, Hercules and his group are confronted by Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson) to help her father, King Cotys of Thrace (John Hurt doing what John Hurt does), to purge Thrace of some Centaurs (in one of the films' more subversive moments, the Centaurs are revealed to just be men on horses).

That's about it in terms of plot, aside from some requisite u-turns and double crosses and the like which I won't spoil, although you could probably guess. The most interesting fact of the film is, in fact, the presentation of Hercules himself. Instead of being the solitary demigod legend of yore, he is in fact the leader of a team, who does not necessarily possess superheroic powers and certainly plays up to his role of celebrity. As the film begins with his 12 Challenges over, we discover that he is a self-titled "mercenary", looking to get together some money and retire in solitude.

The inclusion of some kind of team for Hercules is an interesting point, and the film references the fact that without them, he would simple be dead. Comprising Tydeus (Aksel Hennie), Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø  Berdal), Iolaus (Reece Ritchie), Amphiaraus (Ian McShane) and Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), they are all saddled with the fact that they are playing second fiddle to the feature attraction, and yet all bring something small yet memorable to their role. Tydeus is reminiscent of the mute Viking warriors of legend; Atalanta has some memorably salty lines ("your tongue is as inadequate as your manhood"); Iolaus is Hercules's nephew, and a gifted storyteller; Amphiaraus converses with the Gods, and is convinced that his doom is imminent at every opportunity. Perhaps the only weak link is Autolycus; ironically, given the mythological origins of the film, his character is reduced to deus ex machina in the final act.

Yet we never forget who their leader is, and an enormous factor in the films' success is the star presence of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. After performing in the truly odious "Pain and Gain" from last year, it was a relief to see him working in more innocent fare. He carries that swagger, smile, and cocksure attitude that audiences tend to respond to, and I warmed to him myself as the film went on. His character, the eponymous Hercules, suffers from underwriting, and also is saddled with a slightly ham-fisted back story which is too neatly resolved. He goes from being the amoral "mercenary looking for gold" to suddenly developing a conscience when the film needs it, although these quibbles are somewhat stymied by the fact that Johnson convinces. He's the real deal. He brings the necessary muscle. The fact that the film is one big play on the nature of celebrity ("that might have been exagerrated a little", when a child expresses awe at fighting a boar for three days and three nights), is something he pulls off well.

There are little niggles here and there; one sequence involving the threat of decapitation goes on a touch too long and is far too distressing for a 12A rating (although the film is generally pushing the edges of this category anyway; it's rather bloodthirsty in places). There are some dodgy moments in Ryan Condal and Evan Spiliotopolous's script, based on Steve Moore's graphic novel, and some of the dialogue consists of the kind of plateaus I honestly thought had been phased out of modern moviemaking- "Fighting is the most important thing in battle; other than surviving". And as I have said, the film is so formulaic it resembles a join-the-dots book that's already been filled in by a toddler.

And yet, the battle sequences are memorable and don't ruin themselves with an overly frenetic editing style; things such as overhead shots and establishing shots keep us rooted in the here and now. Johnson is a captivating presence. The supporting cast excel. And it's got to the point now where I'd happily take a simpler plot over one that's needlessly complicated. The film looks good too; Dante Spinotti's cinematography has some keen composition, and some of the locations are memorable and exciting, overcoming their computer generated origins.

It doesn't add up to much, but there's just enough here to warrant a trip to the cinema. It's undemanding, unassuming, good ripping fun, and whilst it doesn't overcome its shortfalls, it sidesteps them with enough finesse to retain its dignity.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Review of Pudsey the Dog: The Movie (2014)

Pudsey the dog, for those who are unaware (such as me, for example), is a Border Collie, Bichon Frise, Chinese Crested powderpuff cross, as Wikipedia helpfully informs me. Certainly he's small, has a white coat, is kinda cute, and he won the TV show Britain's Got Talent because, I gather, he can get on his hind legs and turn around.

I say "I gather" because rather unhelpfully I have never watched Britain's Got Talent, and this display of craftsmanship is the only notable thing Pudsey does in the film, unless having a CGI jaw eerily tacked on so as to divulge in the audience the droll witticisms of David Walliams, who voices Pudsey, counts as a talent, which I don't think it does, since Pudsey and not Walliams won the show. Anyway, this is an admission of guilt; I am perhaps the least qualified person to review this film, knowing nothing about anything that helped spawned it, and not even being aware of Pudsey as a cultural phenomenon until I watched the trailer. If it makes you feel any better, from the title I expected this film to be about that yellow charity mascot. I watched this film because, simply, it was a hot summer's day and me and a friend ducked into the nearest available film. Mistress Fate, or The Gods, or perhaps some other deity dictated that it was going to be "Pudsey the Dog: The Movie" (as opposed to "Pudsey: The Movie", or even "Pudsey the Movie: The Dog").

I'm digressing here, I know, so let me cut straight to the cold hard facts; this is an abominable movie. It feels rushed, stale and derivative, the script hangs by a thread, the characters are barely formed, and some of the acting from the children is atrocious (I don't blame them; I imagine director Nick Moore's attention was on other things during filming, such as getting Pudsey to stay still when necessary, and hence the kids were overlooked).

There is no plot, merely a collection of scenes seemingly constructed around the lovable antics of Pudsey. Well, I say lovable, because I got the impression that was how he was meant to be taken, but in all honesty I couldn't find much to love about him. Indeed, after the opening scene where he trashes a film set and runs away (perhaps a metaphor for the making of this film...?), I found no real reason to root for Pudsey- to do so would be tantamount to endorsing wanton chaos and destruction.

As voiced by Walliams, the range of his interests runs from sausages to making loaded barbs, and uttering pointless observations regarding the current circumstances ("I tried to warn you!") despite the fact that nobody, literally not a single person in the entire world, can understand him, for he is burdened with the existence of a canine.

Oh, but how cruel I am being. This is a kids' film, after all, although I'm going to whisper to you the fact that none of the children in my screen laughed once. What I will say, instead, was that I approached this film in a mood of jollity and found it absolutely hilarious. Not because of any particular funny lines (Paul Rose's screenplay is the equivalent of a sneeze), or comic setups, but because the film is weird. Plain strange. Near-Lynchian, in places, in fact, and there's even some misguided subtext regarding eldest daughter Molly (Izzy Meikle-Small) of the family that Pudsey ends up with. Upon having moved to a farm and seeing a farmhand she's interested in, her first words are "that's a big cucumber".


A later moment comes when Molly tries her hand at milking the cows, with the farmhand's guidance, and a rather unlikely spurt of white milk lands right in her eye, to which she yells "that's gross!"

A hidden treatise on the pitfalls of early sexual maturity, or lazy physical comedy? I leave that entirely up to you to decide.

There's even some approximation of fun to be had with John Session's dastardly Mr Thorne, who plans to bulldoze down the house he literally just sold to the family (headed by Jess Hyne's matriarch Gail), and build a fancy shopping centre, or something, on top of it- that old pitfall. It's nearly worth the vacuous waste of 87 minutes just to hear him utter the line "you scared away my Faustus!", referring to his cat, who runs away after Pudsey terrifies him into submission and leaves her a broken cat.

(Sure, it was meant to be lighthearted comedic play on the old feud between cats and dogs, but I saw what you were doing Pudsey, you cad.)

Other noteworthy moments of bafflement come when Pudsey hallucinates a bunch of sausages dancing in a forest in a sequence reiminscent of Walerian Borowczyk's "The Beast", and the moment the film tactfully implies that the children's father died ("Do you even know how to fix a tyre?"- "Dad did.")

What am I doing? I cannot, and am not, recommending this film, because it's terrible. Sure, I laughed, but I entered it in a good mood and read things into it that likely no other audience member will. I found it strange, baffling and misguided in equal measure.

Don't watch it. But if you enjoyed reading this review, then you have some sense of the kind of fun I had with the film; that comes with the disclaimer that you now have no need to watch the film. Go and watch Boyhood, or literally anything else that has ever been made, instead.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Review of In The Company Of Men (1997)

“You know, if we were living in India your girl would be burned on a pyre for even thinking about what she did to you.”

This dialogue, spoken by Chad (Aaron Eckhart) to his colleague Howard (Matt Malloy), occurs about ten minutes into Neil Labute’s film “In The Company of Men”. Howard has just been jilted by his longterm lover, and feels sad and rejected. Chad, too, has had issues with women in his life lately, and is consoling him. This dialogue, on the surface, is sinister yet seems like the kind of thing men would say to one another in a quiet, private, shared moment.

But look closely, because it reveals clues to their characters which are at the core of this movie. It reveals their lack of respect for other cultures. It belies misogyny. And it is also Chad’s gambit, his attempt to bring Howard round to his scheme by which they emotionally cripple a woman for life, as revenge for the (supposed) evils that have been enacted on them.

As a gambit, it succeeds. This line, and many others spoken by Chad early on, wheedle Howard into submission, praying on his insecurities and reassuring him. Chad makes the fundamentally evil seem palatable, which is his greatest trick. Note how he tiptoes around what he is actually planning to do. It’s not “we are going to ruin this woman’s life for no real good reason”. It’s more “out comes the rug, and us pulling it hard”. Salesman tactics. Shop talk. Chad delivers his words like a pep talk, or perhaps even a sermon. Pitched as an attempt to restore dignity to Howard’s life.

It is fitting, of course, that Chad and Howard are corporate suits of the type found in American Psycho, which isn’t too far off being an adaptation of the themes Ellis was getting at, a couple of years before Mary Harron’s film came along. These are men living in a clean, sterile world. Their jobs don’t really matter, only that there are near-constant moments for dick-swinging and male bravado to take over- take the scene where Chad flicks through a company prospectus, pointing at the men and repeatedly saying “I hate that guy”. We get the impression that this world has created a culture of hostility; at one point a minor character, when asked why he hasn’t decided to date Christine, a deaf girl working in the company, his only response is “in a company like this, with these guys around?” We are firmly in a world where male bravado runs supreme.

Christine, played by Stacy Edwards, is the woman that the two men ultimately choose as their prey, so to speak, and the rest of the film details their attempts at unravelling her life, which is undermined only by their insecurity and their own, barely-formed feelings. As a screen presence, she’s perfect for this kind of material. She’s pretty, and endearing, and we sense her joy at the interest apparently being shown to her by these two men. The men, too, even concede that she’s a “nice” person, and in one awkward yet perfectly pitched scene Chad reveals that he could see himself married to her.

Yet feelings and emotions do not come easily to these men, and vast sequences go by where the two men talk about things without talking about the things they actually want to talk about. This is, I think, what the film is actually about; pent up male rage, stifled psychological states, and how our modern corporate culture has created that. One scene sees Chad lecturing Howard on their great plan while Howard awkwardly occupies a toilet cubicle. Chad doesn’t seem to care, and occasionally asks Howard why he’s taking so long. The fact that he might want some privacy simply does not occur to him.

Labute’s screenplay is an excellent one, with layered and textured dialogue which is never boring to listen to, and could have been written by Mamet. It fearlessly plumbs the male mind. It was made on what I gather is a minuscule budget, yet never shows it. The camerawork from Tony Hettinger is largely still, and flat, allowing us to see the faces and hear the words, limiting itself to a couple of pans- this could very easily be a play. The colour range is dull, to reflect the hellish conditions that have led to this brutal anomie.

But mainly, it’s the actors who bring this film alive. Eckhart’s performance is genuinely chilling, and he brings to life a character whom you are never sure quite when he is being honest. His words, his laughs, all appear natural yet in the context in which we know him we are unnerved by how much of a façade this seems to be. Malloy’s character on the other hand is the beta to Chad’s alpha, a nervous man always wringing his hands, sick of his nice-guy status. Both performances get under the skin of the characters, and both end up being equally dangerous in their own ways.

This is a fascinating that just stops short of being a perfect one. A couple of stylistic choices held me back; one shot lingers just a little too long over some “CAUTION” tape, and there’s a bizarre tribal score that is occasionally intrusive. The end scenes work, although they veer slightly too close to being undeservedly “neat”.

Yet these are small niggles. This is a truly disturbing film, which I recommend wholeheartedly with the caveat that you’ve probably never seen evil like this before; armed with suspenders, a nice shirt, and a false smile. It does a dangerous thing in allowing us to empathise with the characters so as to condone them. But crucially, it never lectures, and any open-minded audience member is treated to a film which respects your intelligence; I mean that as a very high compliment indeed.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Review of The Purge (2013)

I must make a confession, because it will underpin this entire review; the core concept of James DeMonaco's "The Purge" intrigued me from the moment I heard about it. I do not mean that as a comment on the credibility of the idea, nor is that my way of saying that I think it should be enforced, but I found the idea that a Government would make crime legal for one night a year interesting. I doubt it's the kind of thing that would ever really get pushed through in America, but if you take it for what I took it to be, a hidden statement on human nature, then it takes on an interesting element.

Human nature, too, is something inherently interesting to me, and hence I was pleasantly surprised when this film revealed itself to actually be about that. Sure, it markets itself as and has the trappings of a home-invasion horror film, but there is a kernel of human truth here. Take the scene where a man, having been let into the home of a well-to-do suburban family by their pacifist, idealist son, is wanted by a group of sinister killers waiting outside. The family flip-flop between options; let the man go, let him be killed, but be safe themselves? Or keep him safe, but put themselves in danger?

Sure, it's hardly the Stanford Prison Experiment, but the film nevertheless is actually about something. The worth of a human life.

It's about other things, too. It's about a whole mass of things, and there's enough material here for a good four movies, which is astonishing when you consider the 80-odd minute runtime. The film begins on an unexpected satirical note with the mentality that the purge is a new American tradition, for which people should be thankful.

Again, it's hardly Orwell, but I did appreciate it.

The film even, in the final five minutes, does a u-turn that you can kinda see coming, but certainly not the way it arrives, and arrives at that most tricky of subject matters; an (again satirical) expose of small-town thinking and mentality.

Once more, we're hardly dealing with Bunúel or Lynch here, but y'know, sometimes you just have to go with it.

I went with it. And I came away with a certain admiration for this film, which spreads itself so thin that at times it resembles a wafer. But it's a damn tasty wafer, perhaps with a crude representation of John Locke's "Two Treatises of Government" engraved on it, or something.

The technical stuff; acting wise, it's as good as it needs to be, and then a bit better. Ethan Hawke, as the salesman of security equipment for the purge, and the patriarch of a solid family unit, proves once more that Ethan Hawke can elevate any film into at the very least watchability. Lena Heady, as his wife, initially appears to be saddled with the role of unquestioning spouse, but comes into her own and develops a conscience as the film goes on. Rhys Wakefield as the well-educated, well-spoken "Polite Leader" of the gang breaking into Hawke's house, whilst essentially stealing Michael Pitt's turn as a similarly mannered psychopath in Michael Haneke's "Funny Games", nevertheless delivers the sinister chills.

It's also made with a slick, clean Hollywood professionalism, which makes for a visually uninspired but nevertheless better than functional look. Cinematographer Jacques Jouffret has given us a grey colour pallete, perhaps reflecting the overall morality of the movie (or maybe a stylistic choice) but he also has fun with the little flourishes, such as using a first person perspective from a creepy baby doll on wheels made by Max Burkholder's aforementioned pacifistic son. It's not going to kickstart a new cinematic movement, but it doesn't disgrace itself, sticks to what it knows, and plays to its strengths.

It tries, goddammit, and it's never less than an engaging, interesting, fun, weird, original, occasionally brutal, consistently inconsistent ride that's relatively unlike anything you've probably seen. If you can get over the trappings of the home-invasion thriller lying at the films centre, then this is an oddball piece of work which could have been annoying, but ends up being not quite fascinating, but certainly intriguing.

I'm going to call it a bits and pieces movie. It doesn't stick to one creed, and flits about like a child with ADHD. But, y'know, sometimes all you want is some bits and pieces, especially if they're some damn tasty bits and some really flavoursome, ephemeral pieces.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Review of Boyhood (2014)

I cannot recall a film being made which is more geared towards my generation. I am 18 years old. If it doesn't seem presumptuous to say so, this film was made for me. I went to see it with my girlfriend, who is also 18, and although we didn't grow up together we did grow up with the same things, the same music, TV shows, books, and videogames, and I'm fairly sure this film was made for her as well.

The plot is simple, and the manner of telling is ingenious. We follow a young boy called Mason from the age of 5 to 18, with the catch being that the film was made over 12 years, with a segment being shot once a year. Mason is played by Ellar Coltrane, and he was born on the 27th August, 1994. I was born on the 9th December, 1995. There's only a year and five month's difference there. He would only be in the year above me in school, if we were to have gone to the same school. I cannot review this film objectively, because to do so would divorce me personally from the subject matter. However what I can do is give a take on the film grounded in the kind of child it's about.

First and foremost; the film represents an enormous leap of faith on the film-makers, and Richard Linklater, who wrote and directed, in particular. So much could have gone wrong. What if an actor had died? What if Coltrane had decided he no longer wanted to be a part of the film? What if there had been a disagreement during the making as to how the film should turn out? Yet this leap of faith merely highlights how miraculous, and precious, this film is. It is a compassionate and dignified work which humbles the viewer.

A wonderful tracking shot occurs very early on. To the tune of Coldplay's "Yellow", a song I vividly remember as being one of the first songs on the radio that I recognised, we start with a close-up of Mason's face. Age 5, he has the look of a dreamer. We pull back, and see him lying on the grass, looking at the clouds. A conversation with his mother reveals him to be an inquisitive young boy who does his homework, but forgets to hand it in because the teacher didn't ask. Unsurprisingly, he has a habit of looking out the window during lessons.

Consider these scenes, for a moment. Think about how they were shot. In 2002, Linklater and company were embarking on an epic voyage. Surely there must have trepidation; these are the scenes which are going to open a film set on the very precipice of innumerable opportunities. Get them wrong, and perhaps they set up the film badly. Maybe they're in a tone different to the one that will eventually pan out.

That they set the tone perfectly, and the sheer wonder in the film-making doesn't let up for all 166 minutes, simply shows how sure a hand Linklater has over his material.

From here, we go on to find the core people in Mason's life. His mother, played by Patricia Arquette, is a divorcee looking after Mason and his sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director's own son). She's at once a caring, thoughtful woman and that very rarest of movie mothers that I cherish; a damn good one. Flawed, perhaps, and with a self-admitted penchant for choosing alcoholic men to be a part of her life, but one who cares deeply for her children.

Samantha is the opposite of Mason in the way that siblings often are opposites; she starts out the film as a bold and brash, precocious and deceitful child, and is the counter to Mason's thoughtful youngster (although she doesn't necessarily end that way). We get to meet her as she sings Britney Spears' "Oops I Did It Again" (another song I remember from my youth) much to Mason's quiet chagrin.

Then the film bursts outwards, in the way our lives expand as we get older and meet more people. Mason's father, divorced from Mom, played by Linklater regular Ethan Hawke, is in Alaska to begin with, although he later moves back to be a more active father in the upbringing of his children, and by the film's close is a regular player (for which I am thankful, because Ethan Hawke is a welcome presence in any movie).

What grabbed me most immediately was how real the film seemed. None of these characters were clichés or stock characters. The mother is well-drawn from the outset. The father evolves from the guilty dad trying to make amends for his absence early on into a loving, thoughtful father (although a very well-written scene implies that he wasn't ready to be a father when Mason was born, and perhaps he did the kinder thing by ducking out of responsibility for the first six years of Mason's life- he's certainly the kind of man who does better with older children).

There are, as I have mentioned, a slew of alcoholic men in Mom's life, and these are perhaps the only characters who seem to be two-dimensional. But sit and think about it; some people are just plain unlucky. Certainly, the men, when Mom met them, were genuine and nice people. Their alcoholism reveals itself slowly, and then suddenly, as one particular dinner table outburst involving the first husband, Professor Bill Welbrock (a memorably slimy and nasty Marco Perella) devastatingly details. Mom, simply, has bad luck with men. Sometimes life just works out like that.

Which is fitting, because this film is as honest as anything where life is concerned.

It is also worth a mention how funny the film can be, especially in the scenes with Ethan Hawke. He brings a genuine puppy-dog enthusiasm that is near-palpable, and frequently hysterical. Whether it's offering up pseudo-intellectual (yet utterly valuable) advice such as "life doesn't give you bumpers", or the cringe/funny moment where he's trying to give Samantha advice regarding contraception and boys, his presence is a beacon of light in the film. I also appreciated the pop-culture references; little things like the songs I've mentioned, along with the TV shows like Dragonball-Z and even the inclusion of the Nintendo Gameboy Advance SP were all staples of my own childhood. Linklater has purposely made the film with a time-capsule kind of element, relishing on the details which were new at the time but are now dated. I like that; the film acts as a paean about, an ode to, and a document of the times in which it was made, times in which I grew up and which are infinitely familiar, and yet this exacerbates the timeless quality of the writing and the characters.

The cinematography, by Lee Daniel and Shane F Kelly has a certain subdued, observant quality which suits the material to a T; we are simply presented the actors in a non-stylised, plainspoken way which doesn't intrude, and allows us to bask in the film.

Where the film is at its best, and luckiest, is in the casting of Ellar Coltrane as Mason. He starts the film as one of the most adorable children imaginable, and ends it as the kind of teenager I knew; the kind of teenager I was, and I suppose am. Throughout the film he carries this abashed, ineffable curiosity and wonder at everything he sees. He also turns out to be that very rarest of movie teenager, like Patrick Fugit's William Miller in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous, who isn't dumb. He's not sex obsessed, but rather just views sex as another part of growing up- which it is. He has his own ambitions. He's smart. He can be a bit lazy, but his focus is on the things he loves, which turns out to be photography and art. How special it is to find a teenager in a movie who has ambitions at all!

Yet this ambition is a quality shared by the film itself. It's 166 minutes long, and it's one of the shortest 166 minutes I've ever seen (Transformers 4, which is the same length, seemed twice as long). It doesn't waste a single one of those minutes. It touches upon many themes, such as religion, the Iraq war, the early-noughties political climate, popular culture of the time, the nature of family. It also understands the simple pleasures life can bring; the kind words of an acquaintance. A home-cooked meal. Summers spent in a swimming pool and a trampoline. Hell, even the how a bad haircut can be ruinous for a young person, especially in a school setting.

Oh, how I could go on. This is a film that contains multitudes, and is made with an abundance of spirit which cannot help but touch the viewer. I was touched, deeply. It represents an act of nobility on the part of Richard Linklater, who marks himself, along with his "Before" saga (which joins the same couple every nine years at different stages of their relationship), as a director immensely interested in the passing of time. As well as an immensely skilled director.

A personal note. I feel as though this is a film that I will take with me through the rest of my life. So many little touches encapsulate the first eighteen years of my existence. I cannot rate this film more, not just because of what it does, but because of what it means to me.

It ends with Mason finally at college. He has just had a tearful farewell to his mother, yet despite himself he is excited by the possibilities which lie before him. the life he can carve for himself.

In two months, I will be at university, the American equivalent of college. No doubt I will have a tearful farewell to my mother, and my father, which will also run alongside my excitement at the life I am about to live, a life I am about to carve for myself.

The final shot of this film is immaculate in its simplicity. Mason has made three friends on his first day of college, and has gone hiking with them. There is a girl he likes very much, and he is just sat next to her. We regard him, and her, looking about them, taking in their life, taking stock perhaps. They are on the verge of everything that is about to come, for them. The shot is just long enough to call attention to how long it is. Then we cut to black.

I can say what I want as objectively as I can about this film. But as someone who is going to experience their own hike of some description in the near future, all I will say is this; for circumstances as similar to mine, this film is a gift, to be cherished, and all I can say is to see it, see it now, allow yourself to become immersed in it, and come out the other side having seen one of the most humane and tender dramas, films, you could imagine.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Review of Transformers: Age of Extinction

Pure cinema is a concept, heralded by the old cinematic masters, which states the stripping back of film from plot, character and the like to the basics of vision and movement. There have been some utter masterpieces of so-called "pure cinema" over the years, from film-makers who break away from the usual rules of narrative cinema and let the feeling, mood and picture take over. For me, the purest example of pure cinema in recent years has come from Steve McQueen in his 2011 film "Shame" starring Michael Fassbender as a guilt-ridden sex addict. That film had vast stretches with no dialogue, and instead played the action off of Fassbender's face, his actions, and the cinematographic space around him. The result was a film which allowed a lucid insight into a self-imposed mental hell, as well as a film which knew how to describe, as opposed to explain, leaving an open-ended exercise where the audience is invited to empathise with how the characters feel, based on how the film has presented them.

This is going somewhere, I promise.

See, in my humble opinion, Michael Bay, the helmer of "Transformers 4: The Age of Extinction", has created an example of pure cinema.

Now I know what you're thinking. I've just described a concept of high-cinema, and here I am reviewing Transformers 4, the latest in a series of films hardly renowned for their nuance, clarity and depth. But let's look at the evidence; in a number of instances, Bay does away with plot, and thought, and allows images to play out onscreen. Further than this, there are perhaps up to twenty minute stretches where the film descends into complete, and utter chaos. Things hit things which hit other things which result in a tumultuous cataclysm of sparks, metal on metal, and fireball explosions. Wikipedia helpfully defines pure cinema as "minimizing story and plot, focussing instead on visual concerns by using close-ups, dolly shots, montage, lens distortions, and other cinematic techniques".

Well, at the very least, you can't argue with the first part of that description. There is a semblance of plot for about fifteen minutes; we are shown (not told; cinematic) the dinosaurs being wiped out by giant spaceships. Then we cut to the present day with the discovery of those spaceships. Then we are introduced to the protagonist, Cade Yeager (Mark Walhberg), and his 17 year old daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz). We are told basic and fundamental things about their characters; Cade is a right-wing, controlling father who constantly berates his daughter's short skirts and won't allow her to get a boyfriend (although she has one anyway, in the form of Jack Reynor's Shane Dyson). And Tessa worries about her father, who has a habit of forgetting meals and locking himself up in his huge shed full of gadgets and the like. He's an inventor, you see, and he plans to save his family from financial destitution by making money from junk.

Then, one day he discovers a Transformer, brings it to life and mends it (it's Optimus Prime, voiced by Peter Cullen). Then an anti-Transformer black-ops wing of the Government, headed by Kelsey Grammar's shady baddie, tracks down Optimus, threatens to kill Cade's entire family in a gruelling sequence entirely unsuitable for a kids' film, which this is. Then Optimus comes along, blows up some stuff, and the film ditches any semblance of character development (which was ropey to being with), and then the whole farrago descends into an incomprehensible orgy of stuff hitting other stuff and things going into other things and everything being very LOUD and EXPLODEY and EXCRUCIATING in that obnoxious way that Michael Bay has perfected.

So, yes, it is pure cinema. But it's awful pure cinema. And Transformers 4 is an awful film. What's most intriguing about it is how it turns the stuff that masterpieces are made from, and wastes it abundantly. I read that the budget for this film is £210 million, and all I can think is "what a waste". Say that money had been donated to charity, or given to someone like, say, Steve McQueen. He could make ten masterpieces with that money.

It's also awfully, awfully unpleasant, in a cumulative way that's hard to pinpoint in one particular aspect or another. Every character is either clichéd or horrible; Cade, as you might have gathered, is an unlikeable "Dirty Harry" stereotype who we are not invited to empathise with as much as we observe him, like just another special effect Bay plugs into his films like needles from that gross bit in the Matrix. There's also a dodgy business leader in the form of Stanley Tucci's Joshua Joyce. At one point, as a giant black hole/thing is sucking up various bits of Hong Kong, he looks straight into the void and screams "OH MY GODDD!!!" I fully understood how he felt. (also the dialogue is terrible, macho-comic book rubbish with utterings such as "my face is my warrant".)

And that's another thing; as well as making no sense, the action sequences are terrible by any usual criteria for action sequences. By this I mean, they go on for too long, and are only over when the Editors from Hell and their Overlord Bay deign them to be over. Now, I'm a sucker for moments where film-makers let rip and their vision is there on screen, for us to see. But Michael Bay isn't so much a director with vision as he is a shrewd finance manager, taking his £210 million and turning it into a huge profit (as I write, £750 million). The fact that a film that relishes upon terrorism and destruction and carnage, and is so full horrendously wonky sexual politics, and iffy stereotypes can gross as much as it has says something that I'll leave you to infer. (I wasn't joking about stereotypes by the way; the good Transformers "Autobots" comprise a Samurai, a mad war general and a Cockney geezer, voiced by Ken Watanabe, John Goodman and John DiMaggio).

I can't even quote Shakespeare's famous "tale, told by an idiot..." dialogue from Macbeth. Because this isn't a tale. It's a mess. An inchoate, distressing mess. It's an abhorrent, bloated, overlong and tedious mess. That it's being marketed as a kid's film troubles me; Fight Club isn't as nihilistic as this.

This is the kind of thing Nietzsche would watch and write a book about.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Review of The Long Way Down (2014)

Never have I seen a film with so much potential for human interest squander that potential so mercilessly and piteously. The core premise, that four people who separately decide to kill themselves on New Year’s Eve meet on the same rooftop and find the will to go on through each other, is both credible and interesting. They even fitted the film with a cast that could have pulled this off in their sleep; Pierce Brosnan, Imogen Poots, Toni Collette and Aaron Paul. The source material, Nick Hornby’s book of the same name, is a fine one, although not Hornby's best. What on earth went wrong?

The warning signs come early on, as we see disgraced TV presenter Martin Sharp (Brosnan) try to get his ladder up to the top of the building. He enters the lift, but the ladder won’t fit. He sighs, and takes it up the stairs. This sequence alone has so much potential; to be funny, to be disturbing, to be sad, but director Pascal Chaumeil shoots it in such a way that we are immediately detached from everything that’s going on. He goes wide, when a close-up would have been more impactful. This detachment lingers over the rest of the film like a ghost.

Once up on the roof, and traversing the gap to the end of the building, he falters. We focus on the “long way down”, which is fine in a superficial way, but for this scene to work, again, we need more focus on the actors, so that we can care. Soon, Maureen (Collette), is behind him. There is some weak comic dialogue between them. Soon, the other two of the group, a young runaway called Jess (Poots), and a pizza delivery boy called JJ (Paul) are there. The scene that follows, instead of exploring why people feel driven to suicide, squanders that potential and settles for being your standard "introduction to one-dimensional characters" lark. The scene culminates in the four of them making a pact not to kill each other before Valentine’s Day; the day with the second highest suicide rate, as Martin is quick to note. But why do we care?

Little lapses in the cinematic space-time continuum belie the overall cinematic cluelessness on display here. For example, Martin is the first person to exit the building, and we follow him sprinting down, yet when he gets to the street and is about to enter his car, Maureen is already there. Did she jump after all? 

Character motivations remain somewhat vague. Martin, for example, can seem like a reasonable man in one scene, and then explode with violence for no good reason in the next (see the scene where the four take a holiday, and Aaron Paul makes his big revelation). The most interesting aspect of the film, that Maureen has a disabled son at home, is glossed over and remains unexplored, except for hitting a few perfunctory notes that you could literally guess from me using the word "perfunctory notes". And the film-makers make a big error in leaving JJ’s individual story the most under-written one; Paul is the best actor here, but you wouldn’t know it. Too much time is spent on Poot’s irritating, disaffected posh-girl-with-attitude. The reason that Martin is a disgraced TV presenter (he had sex with a girl without realising she was underage) also remains unexplored. Jack Thorne’s screenplay is the equivalent of one big yawn.

Ultimately, it does just reek of squandered potential. Emphasis is placed in all the wrong places, and there is so little conviction from anyone involved. We are never really given a good reason for the quartet to actually spend any time together (this was done much better in the novel), and for that reason, the audience is never given a good reason to spend time around this quartet. It’s about as pleasant as kidney stones. 

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Review of Sexy Beast (2000)

Jonathan Glazer's "Sexy Beast" opens disarmingly as Ray Winstone's retired gangster Gary "Gal" Dove suns himself by his swimming pool in Spain, lamenting on the good life he has, before a boulder tumbles down a cliff, sails over his head and lands in the pool. Gary seems to look upon the fact that he's not dead as a further example of his extraordinary luck. These early scenes are important because they do two crucial things; they accurately set up Gary's character as someone living a life of luxury, and they also reinforce the off-kilter, weird tone that Glazer sticks with throughout. Cliché though it may be to say it, there can't be many gangsters film like this. It's one of a kind.

After this opening, we come to know a little bit more about Gal. He's living the high-life with his wife, DeeDee (Amanda Redman), herself a retired porn-star, and his friend Aitch (Cavan Kendall), and Aitch's wife Jackie (Julianne White). They are all happily married, and we discover what became one of my favourite aspects of the film; that the women in the film aren't the usual one-dimensional, mute, gangsters molls. They have their own personalities, and in a few key moments actually prove themselves to be stronger than the "hard" men they are married to. It was certainly refreshing to see DeeDee holding a shotgun (although why she holding it, and who she was aiming it at, if anyone, I will not say).

Once this idyll has been established, we find that Gal's opulent lifestyle is soon to come under threat by the imminent arrival of Don Logan (Ben Kingsley). This news scares Gal, and when Don Logan arrives we understand why. A fearsome, ferocious and foul-mouthed monster who comes very close to evil incarnate. I was reminded of Michael Gambon's turn as Albert Spica in Peter Greenaway's "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover", and they seem to occupy space the same way; by insulting it, swearing at it, and spewing out sexist diatribes. A lot has been written about how Kingsley is the last person you can see nailing this kind of role, yet the proof is there on screen; his presence is genuinely unsettling. He's also, crucially, not a man you can say "no" to, although that doesn't stop Gal when Don keeps asking him to come out of retirement for one last job.

Ah, you're thinking, this is one of those films where there is a "one last job", which will invariably go wrong, resulting perhaps in a shoot-out and a late in the day revelation or two. You're wrong. Admittedly it does, indeed, feature a retired gangster pulling one last job. But the film maybe spends 15 minutes on the minutiae of it, and doesn't seem to care about it too much, aside from what it can tell us about the characters. Or, namely Winstone's character. The only downside to Kingsley's performance is that it's the kind of turn that steals a film, when for me by far the most affecting character and performance is Gal himself. I was surprised at how invested I became in his fate by the end of the film. Again, I think this is because the film dodges clichés so mercilessly. Gal has a heart, and he's a genuinely loving person, displayed in his relationship with pool-boy Enrique (Álvaro Monje) and also his wife. He's a million miles removed from the dominating patriarch we expect from this kind of material. I grew very fond of him.

Glazer's direction also vastly helps the film. Coming from a background in commercials and music videos at the time, this is a heavily stylized film, and oddly beautiful. Using a 2.35:1 aspect ratio to spacious effect, the film disarms us with an inventive use of symmetry, space, and character placing. It's also a very, very sunny film, and even the scenes shot at night seem more brightly lit than the average gangster film (bar a few exceptions when Gal goes to do his job, and deals with Logan). It's a film that seems weirdly aware of itself, and the quixotic direction exacerbates the sense that things are not right, not what we've come to expect from this kind of thing. The dialogue, too, plays a part in this, with the kind of amusing and offbeat utterings such as "You're lovable. Big lovable bloke. Lovable lump. Lovable lummox." I was reminded, weirdly enough, of Dylan Thomas's writing. That's high praise indeed. 

Ultimately, though, as I often am with films, I was left with a remarkable attachment to the characters. How Glazer takes the usual composites of a run-of-the-mill gangster film and turns them into something weird, original, funny and with a palpable love for the Gal, DeeDee and the like is like watching a magician run a variation on a card-trick that you think you've seen before, only to realise that you haven't, and then be blown away. 

Review of Do The Right Thing (1989)

Might it seem like needless agitprop if I were to say that Spike Lee's 1989 masterpiece "Do The Right Thing" is an incendiary film? It's the only word that seems to fit. That, and "explosive". From the opening credits sequence where two young woman dance on an entirely red-lit street to Public Enemy's confrontational "Fight The Power" (a song which recurs throughout the film), to the finale in which race relations culminate in a literally scorching showdown, this was a word which constantly sprung to mind. This is a film that threatens to blow up, right in your face, from opening frame to last. It's exciting, funny, thrilling, a little scary, and never less than utterly compelling.

The plot is a loose, raggedy collection of snippets and vignettes centring around a group of people living in Brooklyn on the hottest day of the year. In places it resembles the film equivalent of an Ornette Coleman improvised jazz piece. We get to know a few familiar faces, such as Danny Aiello's "Sal", who owns a pizzeria, Ossie Davis' "Mayor", Giancarlo Esposito's "Buggin Out", and Lee's own "Mook" (a Lee trademark seems to be odd names, which I quite like. It's a further sign of his originality). Their relations are the core of this film, and in particular Sal's position as a white man (strictly speaking, Italian American) running a business in a predominantly black neighbourhood is the cause of some ire (to some, but by no means to all). When Buggin' walks into the pizzeria and asks why there are no pictures of "brothers" on the wall, only Italian Americans, Sal shoots back that it's his business, his ethnic heritage, and he'll do what he wants with the pictures on the wall. Lee details with equal ferocity both sides of the argument, and I understood where Sal was coming from, and where Buggin' was coming from.

To highlight this fraught state of affairs, Lee is careful to heavily underline the heat of the film, reflecting the political content. He shoots the film so we believe it; sweat, vests, melting ice-cubes, newspaper headlines, streets blurring like a desert mirage, parasols. See, it's incendiary. Lee creates such an immediate sense of place that from the very opening shot, we are hooked. We are there, and Lee has put us there.

His cinematic style reinforces this. As Roger Ebert once said, "[Lee] dances to his own music", and this is in evidence here with his method that is truly, only, his own, using a smorgasbord of techniques, such as tilts, zooms, fourth-wall breaking, moments where the camera resembles a tableaux, and other moments where the camera can't seem to contain itself. This film is wonderfully, thrillingly, alive. It's also populated with characters who are just that, larger than life, funny, and real. Exacerbated by the heat, the characters bounce about, shout and swear, and rub off on each other. Lee creates a friction that you know will only result in sparks later on.

Yet, to explain the technical merits of this film, and there are many, would only be doing half a job. Lee has made an inherently political film, about the state of race-relations in late 80's America, and to watch this film is to address that. Lee doesn't really give you much choice otherwise.

As an 18 year old, white, little-C conservative and big-L liberal living in the South of England, a place hardly known for its multiculturalism (UKIP are kinda popular here, although we do have some excellent Polish groceries), what I took from the film is this; harmony between races is a joint effort, and probably not something that can happen overnight. In fact, literally not overnight, which perhaps explains why Lee turns his "day-in-the-life" into a "day-and-morning-in-the-lifer" by the end. But it's not an impossible goal. The final scene of the film, where Mook and Sal, after arguing, convey a certain understated care for each other, is the biggest clue, and seems to indicate that whilst things can sometimes blow-up, it's all part of the ebb and flow of life and the journey towards assimilation of cultures.

Or maybe I've got it completely wrong. Maybe Lee is providing a depressing eulogy on the future of harmonious living. There's a telling shot near the close, as the whole neighbourhood descends into tumult, where Lee's character sits on a sidewalk, and simply looks tired. Being the director, you cannot overlook the significance of his moment. It could well be that instead of being hopeful, Lee is instead wistful, sad. Perhaps that's the overarching theme; that this situation is completely undesirable, exhausting, yet not going away.

It's certainly a film that can be argued over, and some people have even accused Lee himself of racism. I would disagree, although I would say that Lee is an angry film-maker, using that anger to direct a film that understands there are no easy answers. Yet his anger is justified, for me, because I do firmly believe that it is the right of every culture to have self-determination and representation in all media. I must thus confess to finding this film fascinating in a way that the best films are, because it showed me something I had never seen before, and something I may very well not see otherwise. It showed me a whole, living culture, a part of American history, and as a social document it allowed me to witness one of the most, well, incendiary situations in recent memory. Argue what you like about the film, but for me it highlights the greatest capacity that film has; education.

It helps, of course, that Lee proves himself an auteur with a style as distinctive as any of the greats I could name. The rest of his body of work lies before me like an adventure waiting to be had.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Review of Jersey Boys (2014)

"Everybody remembers it how they need to"

These words, uttered at the end of the Clint Eastwood's "Jersey Boys", by Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) of The Four Seasons, which also adorn the poster, are crucial to understanding it. This is not a gritty retelling of four boys from Jersey, and the film quickly assuages fears that it's going to be a cheap Scorsese knock-off (it gets the "funny how?" nod in early, and leaves it). Instead it's a soap-opera-lit, presumably historically bastardised, piece of sentiment. It does a wise thing and takes on the qualities of a Valli song itself; glitzy, breezy and good fun. And there's nothing wrong with that. It means the film isn't a paint-by-numbers piece of trash that's the inspirational movie of the week on some channel nobody watches. The film has energy, and the film feels alive.

This is mainly due to the casting. Eastwood has collated a group of young faces as the Four Seasons, and I recognised all of them to some degree; or rather, I recognised qualities in all of them. Piazza, for example, has that same cold aloofness that Robert Pattinson has, and it's used well in this film. Erich Bergen, as songwriter/pianist Bob Gaudio has the same reluctance and determination of a young Steve Buscemi. Michael Lomendi as Nick Massi, the bassist, has that same goofy charm of someone like Jason Sudeikis, that gifted comic actor, and these talents, too, are used well. And then there's John Lloyd Young, who is both the weak link in my theory, and the strong point of the film. He is like no other actor in particular; he is simply like Franki Valli, and we believe his renditions of those timeless songs.  

I was very surprised to learn that for a lot of the cast, this was their first major film (with a few forays into TV). Most of them (bar Piazza) have graduated from the stage musical, yet they all have memorable faces, and I can see this film as their springboard to other things. And then, of course, there's Christopher Walken as the gangster with a heart Gyp DeCarlo (look at how he cries at one of the early Four Seasons concerts), and he does that thing that Walken is very good at doing; being the centre of a scene, projecting quiet intensity and unpredictability, and lending a certain integrity to proceedings. His character is arguably made to be bigger than he needs to be, but I imagine Eastwood, looking at what he had to play with, felt compelled to put more of him in. I can understand that. God bless Christopher Walken. 

The film itself, as you might have gathered, is no masterpiece. But it doesn't need to be. "Everyone remembers it how they used to". I do, however, see the makings of a minor classic in here somewhere. The film hits the notes it amiably sets up so boldly and so perfectly that to criticise the film for being too neat would seem cruel. That's the point. It has its roots in that Tony-winning stage musical (which I have now made it an imperative to see), and that's the best frame of mind to view this film in. When the various characters break the fourth wall and address the camera, one could very well be infuriated... Or you could just have fun with it, and go with it. It befits the musical mentality.

The songs, of course, are what they are, and if you don't know what that is by now then perhaps this film isn't for you. Likewise, if you don't fall for the sweet charm of the Four Seasons songs, then this film isn't for you too. It relies on them, and they often provide the full-stop after moments of dialogue and action. 

I wonder what drew Eastwood to this material. As a biopic, it seems like an odd choice, but then after the "heavy" films he's been giving us lately, perhaps he felt as though something lighter was due. It's certainly good fun, and I can't criticise that. It does what it sets out to do and does it very well indeed. The screenplay by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, adapted from their own musical, is genuinely witty in places (the "Vivaldi" exchange was well done) and also actually takes the time to establish the characters as not just types but real people. Eastwood shoots the film in a rather conventional, non-prettyfied way, and that works too. We see what we need to see.

I can't, and won't, comment on the historical accuracy of this film (how could I?), but it certainly feels rather spruced up, tarted up and dolled up in the way biopics nowadays are. The ending, for example, reeks of the convenience of something like that infamous late-night phone-call scene in Frost/Nixon, which is the only scene that the writers conceded was pure invention (and also one of the best moments of the film). This is not a bad thing; in fact, it's just what this material needs.

My one complaint, and it's not necessarily a major one, is that the female roles in this film take a backseat often to the detriment of the overall story. I'm not going to harp on about how there should be more women in the film, or that the film is actually sexist (although some characters are sexist, particularly Tommy DeVito),  as the film is about four men and stays about those four men, but the plot strand concerning Valli's daughter Francine (Freya Tingly) could have done with a scene or two more, just to buff it out and give it extra weight. It feels unnecessarily brushed over, when I would have liked it to be slightly more expanded upon.

And I say that fully aware that this film is 134 minutes long. That length can seem awfully, awfully long, as it did with last year's bloated sack of excess "American Hustle", with which this film shares musical theatricality and little else. The fact that I could have done with this film being longer says, roughly, just how much I enjoyed it. I'm loathe to say this, but I had a superb night at the movies with this one... Oh, what a night.