Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl - Dir. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

Films with narcissistic central characters can be rewarding but are often difficult to get right (essentially asking the audience to take an interest in someone they don’t like). The likes of Greenberg or Listen Up Philip feature wholly toxic and self-centred characters; crucially however, we see how the other characters react to the narcissism and struggle to accept this selfish behaviour. Whereas these stories are being told from an objective point of view, the events of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl are being told from Greg’s point of view and so a wholly objective viewpoint is perhaps not appropriate. Greg’s subjective viewpoint however should reflect that he has lived through the events he is describing, that he has already learned the important life lessons that unfold on screen. We need to see the other characters’ reactions in order to understand what Greg’s narcissistic tendencies were previously preventing him from seeing. There needs to be something in either Greg’s narration or the way the other characters act around Greg to show that what Greg was perceiving and reacting to at the time, wasn’t indicative of what was actually happening.
The complete and utter failure to achieve this by writer Jesse Andrews and director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon means that the supposedly ‘real’ world that they’ve created for the film is nothing but a fantasy: a world where events occur and characters behave only in ways that benefit Greg (Thomas Mann); where every important life lesson comes with an sizeable portion of bullshit.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation - Dir. Christopher McQuarrie

This 5th entry in the Mission: Impossible series is a gloriously entertaining piece of intelligent filmmaking. Tom Cruise and his team know the formula for these movies inside and out, but crucially also know how they need to adapt to keep the films fresh and vibrant. The IMF has been shutdown by the CIA, but that isn’t enough to stop Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) from his latest mission. There’s a sinister organisation called The Syndicate, led by the menacing Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), causing havoc across the world but almost nobody believes they actually exist, especially not CIA director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin).

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Ant-Man - Dir. Peyton Reed

Astonishingly bland and about as edgy and adventurous as wearing odd socks, Ant-Man is a film sculpted by committee; an under loved cog in the money making behemoth that is the Marvel Cinematic Bubble.
Cat burglar Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is trying to keep on the straight and narrow after his recent release from prison. Unfortunately, retired scientist Dr Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) wants Scott to take on the role as the Ant-Man to help foil the dangerous plans of Pym’s former protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll).

Friday, 24 July 2015

Inside Out - Dir. Pete Docter

After a sequence of films that ranged from fine (Monsters University) to flawed (Brave) to abysmal (Cars 2), just hearing the premise for Pixar’s latest piqued my interest. Would it be a return to the form that produced one of the greatest triple runs in modern cinema (Wall-E, Up and Toy Story 3)? The answer is an emphatic yes, but to merely call Inside Out a return to form for Pixar is somewhat reductive as this latest adventure is arguably one of their finest films.
Set inside the mind of an eleven year old girl named Riley, Inside Out presents the five personified emotions that dictate her actions and feelings. After 11 joy-filled years in Minnesota, Riley moves with her parents to San Francisco, leaving all that she has known behind. Her emotions are presented with a situation they’ve never had to face before as Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) are cast adrift from Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Fear (Bill Hader) in an attempt to keep the very core of Riley’s identity from crumbling.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Jurassic World - Dir. Colin Trevorrow

Spoilers ahead. Seriously, nothing is left unspoiled.

Jurassic Park is a one trick dinosaur. Admittedly it’s a very good trick when done properly, but it’s a trick built primarily on spectacle and the awe of watching these extinct creatures on screen (strong characters will strengthen a film and ensure that it endures for generations); but once that raptor has bolted, any sequel has to find other ideas and elements to make up for that initial wow factor. That’s why Jurassic Park shouldn’t really have sequels (let alone be considered a franchise), much in the same way that Jaws shouldn’t have sequels; the illusion is ruined once you’ve seen what’s in the water. Most sequels stick to the notion that bigger must be better but only a few ever succeed.
Director (and one of the four credited writers) Colin Trevorrow makes a similar point early on in this belated third sequel to (or its only sequel in the minds of everyone involved). We’re back on Isla Nublar and a new park is up and running, but attendances are on the decline as the public are beginning to lose interest in traditional dinosaurs. To spark the collective interest, the park’s scientists have cooked up a new, genetically modified dinosaur called the Indominus Rex that is bigger, scarier and cooler than the rest; this of course means that it’s better. Any points that Trevorrow gets for ridiculing the nature of modern blockbusters and their bigger, louder and dumber sequels are taken away when he goes on to make a sequel that’s just bigger, louder and dumber than its predecessor.
That’s not the only case of Trevorrow trying to have his goat-bait and eat it. He makes a joke about product placement when a telecoms provider wants to sponsor the new attraction; except Verizon is a real company and so the joke is a genuine piece of product placement and there are plenty of other instances of product placement throughout the film. There’s also an overwhelming amount of nodding back to the original film, so much so that Trevorrow might as well be a novelty bobblehead on Spielberg’s dashboard. Jake Johnson wearing an original Jurassic Park t-shirt is by the far the most egregious example and his comment about how the original park was better makes no sense because he never visited it. This all forms part of an odd feeling that Trevorrow and co. aren’t even trying to make a film that’s better than the original. In fact, they’re making references and jokes about how they’re not trying to make a film that could be better than the original. I’m not saying that Jurassic World had to be better, but it would’ve been nice to see them at least try.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road - Dir. George Miller

After over a decade in development hell, George Miller has finally brought his vision of the Fury Road to the big screen in all of its exhilarating and rambunctious glory.
Imperator Furiosa leads a breakout from The Citadel and its leader Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) who sets out in pursuit with his army of War-Boys. On board Furiosa’s War Rig are the Five Wives, Immortan Joe’s most prized possessions whom he hopes will deliver him a worthy heir. Reckless War-Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult) is at the head of the chasing pack with a captive Max Rockatansky along for the ride.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Avengers: Age Of Ultron - Dir. Joss Whedon

Age of Ultron is a lot of movie (mostly in a good way), overstuffed with too much of everything. I’m not surprised that Joss Whedon is exhausted after making it, but it is to his credit that this latest Marvel behemoth doesn’t come crashing down like… well… like a giant flying thingymbob in the finale of a Marvel film.
After seemingly taking out the last remaining HYDRA hideout and retrieving Loki’s staff, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) attempt to use the power of the staff’s stone to unlock the secrets of artificial intelligence. Their experiments unwittingly lead to the creation of Ultron (voiced by James Spader) who believes that the fastest track to peace on Earth is to eliminate the Avengers.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Lucy - Dir. Luc Besson

“You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.”

A jolt of pure unbridled cinematic energy; Lucy is bold and vibrant and whilst it may not be smart, it most certainly is not dumb.

Friday, 17 April 2015

Sunshine - Dir. Danny Boyle

It’s been a few years since I last watched Danny Boyle’s blistering space drama and although the likes of Gravity and Interstellar have dazzled and amazed in that time, Sunshine really is the pick of the bunch and is still (probably) somewhat underrated.

Space Craft

The film still looks absolutely fantastic and has aged incredibly well, primarily because of an approach to the design that places functionality ahead of an overt style. Production designer Mark Tildesley and director of photography Alwin Küchler worked together to limit the use of reds, oranges and yellows in the design of the ship’s interior to deprive the viewer of those colours, so that the visual impact of the sun’s glow is amplified whenever it appears on screen. The design never draws attention away from the drama and feels like a natural progression from the technology of today, but it still feels somewhat futuristic. To add to this invisible design, the pair also built in enough lighting into the ship’s design to be able to shoot the film without additional lighting.
Similarly Boyle’s insistence on shooting as much of the film in a practical and physical way as possible, such as blasting Cliff Curtis with real dust (though it was actually a powder that is normally used in the making of Cornish pasties), has helped the film to remain fresh and vibrant. Use of CGI was limited to shots that couldn’t be done practically and enhancements of practical set ups. It’s hard to imagine that the film would have been made in the same manner (and for a similar budget) with the current advances in CGI technology, but I’m glad that it was made the way it was.

Crew Matters

The character work is incredibly detailed but also highly efficient. The leisurely opening introduces the characters in a natural way and creates a sense that these 8 people had travelled millions of miles across our solar system. There’s a diverse mix of people (reflecting the fact that in the future, it wouldn’t just be the USA who would be involved in the effort to save the sun) who each have a very specific role. Kaneda is pragmatic and assertive; you sense that he’s the captain before it’s ever established and like all good captains, he is willing to sacrifice himself for the mission. As the engineer, Mace ensures that the ship is in best shape to complete the mission but also keeps the rest of the crew focussed too; his prickly manner can make him seem emotionally detached, but he is the one who never loses sight of the mission. Corazon, the biologist, sits somewhere in between those two: very confident and focussed on her job and able to see the bigger picture but let down by her attachment to the oxygen garden.

Searle has to keep the crew in good physical and mental health, but there’s nobody keeping an eye on him as he becomes increasingly entranced by the sun’s shine. Icarus II’s pilot Cassie is the emotional heart of the crew, the one who is most in touch with her humanity. She holds on to her moral integrity and challenges the cold, hard logic of other crewmembers. As communications officer, Harvey spends a lot communicating with Earth and so he is inevitably the one who is most homesick and concerned with how he is going to get back to Earth, even before the ship has reached the sun. After failing to change the angle of the shields when Icarus II alters course, navigation officer Trey finds himself lost, filled with self-doubt and under pressure from his ruthless crewmates who view his failure as unacceptable.

Most fascinating of them all though is Capa; the man behind the bomb to save the world. He’s the most important person on the ship and perhaps knows it. He seems more detached from the rest of the crew, bar a close relationship with Cassie. In the conversation with Cassie after the oxygen garden is destroyed, Capa explains that he isn’t scared because he will now get the opportunity to potentially see the sun’s rebirth when the bomb goes off. He will get to see the one thing that he has spent his life studying. It’s a desire born out of a truth that Professor Brian Cox, who was the scientific advisor on the film before his ventures into television documentaries, explained at a Q&A screening [1]:
“The essence of science is an emotional reaction to nature, in the sense that you want to find out about it. So you have to notice there’s something beautiful there. When you’re young and you want to be a scientist, why do you want to do it? You don’t want to do it because you want sort of unpick it in this absolutely cold way; you’re emotionally overwhelmed by it.”
I studied cell biology at university and often marvelled at the elegance of nature as I learnt about the very building blocks of human beings; from the way DNA is transcribed and translated in the nucleus and ribosomes to the numerous regulatory cycles that keep our internal systems in check. Capa has probably spent most of his career studying the sun and The Big Bang, so to get a chance to see it for real is exciting for him. His motivation throughout the story is a mix of this personal desire as well as the larger desire to save Earth. It’s no mistake that we hear the extract of Cassie’s dialogue about the surface of the sun as Capa makes his final jump across to the payload section. It’s one of the emotional highpoints of the film, amplified by Cillian Murphy’s great performance, a reprise of John Murphy’s rousing theme (which replaced, for a while at least, Clint Mansell’s Lux Aeterna as the go to music for film trailers) and something as simple as muting Capa’s scream as he hurls himself out of the disintegrating ship. It’s a spine-tingling moment of cinema.

The End and The Beginning of All Things

The shift in tone for final 30 minutes is often criticised as the film’s major downfall; whilst the shift is initially jarring, its necessity becomes more and more apparent with every viewing. It represents Alex Garland and Danny Boyle's willingness to take the film's premise as far as they can, to ask what could happen in this specific situation. Pinbacker is essentially a spanner thrown into the works to disrupt the mission and create an element of doubt surrounding the success of the mission. Sure, the filmmakers could've thought of some technical malfunction that would have achieved a similar ratcheting of tension, but that’s been done plenty of times before. Instead, they create a character and a situation that are as thematically relevant as they are narratively relevant; a character and situation that are specific to a story about a crew approaching the source of all life in the universe.
Pinbacker views the sun as a god, a figure of divine providence with whom humanity should not interfere. As he approached the sun, he found God in its light and turned his back on the mission by sabotaging Icarus I and killing the crew. Similarly, he attempts to dispatch the crew of Icarus II to stop them from interfering in his dialogue with God and his goal to become the last man alive with God.

If Pinbacker represents a faith in god, then Capa represents a faith in science, reason and logic. At the film’s early turning point, the crew turn to the person most qualified to decide whether it is worth approaching Icarus I to see if their payload is usable. The crew place their faith in the power of science and logic to get them to the end of their mission. As the ship nears the sun however, many of the crew succumb to the irrationalities of humanity: Trey’s guilt overwhelms him, Corazon is too emotionally invested in her oxygen garden, Harvey’s homesickness clouds his judgment, Cassie’s can’t drop her morality and Searle yields to spirituality in the face of the sun (mirroring Pinbacker’s path to his enlightenment). Only Kaneda and Mace retain their rationality and both sacrifice themselves in order to see that Capa stays alive and can get his bomb to the launch site.
The finale is a not so subtle physical embodiment of the battle between science and religion: can Capa set of the bomb before Pinbacker can get to him? Science prevails as Capa succeeds and the bomb re-starts the sun. Faith in science will lead us to answers and a greater knowledge of our existence, the film is clear on that, but the true nature of those answers is left tantalisingly ambiguous. Garland is as atheistic as they come and in his interpretation (or original intention), Capa believes he is touching God; the awestruck look on his face signalling a loss of rationality when faced with something beyond his comprehension. In Garland’s mind though, it is not God that Capa sees, just something humanity has yet to discover. Boyle, who was raised a Catholic but no longer practices religion, describes himself as a “spiritual atheist” [2]; he’s more open to the idea that Capa might in fact find God at the surface of the sun. The difference in interpretation between Garland and Boyle has probably benefitted the film, offering the audience the opportunity to make up their own mind.

Personally, I see Capa reacting to something that he never thought he’d see, whether it’s God, a second big-bang or something completely inexplicable. When used right, ambiguity can enhance an ending and encourage the viewer to continue thinking about the film long after it has ended. With Sunshine, the ambiguity works incredibly well and brings a marvellous film to a satisfying end.

[1] - 'Sunshine' Q&A with Danny Boyle, Mark Kermode & Brian Cox - Winter Shuffle Festival, 2013

[2] - IGN Interview with Danny Boyle, 14th March 2007

Monday, 9 March 2015

Blackhat - Dir. Michael Mann

The Internet is a wonderful thing: it allows anyone access to a near infinite source of information and range of services from almost everywhere in the world; but as with all good things, it also provides criminals with a new avenue of illicit opportunities. Michael Mann has often focussed on the various players of the criminal game in his films, from the bank robbers of Heat and Public Enemies to the hitman of Collateral, so it’s perhaps not unexpected to see him tackle the world of cyber crime. With Blackhat he’s recognised that the Internet has changed the way the world operates but also how the fundamentals will never change.

Monday, 2 March 2015

It Follows - Dir. David Robert Mitchell

Horror has never been a consistently popular genre with the general public. In recent years however, multiplex audiences have been fed on a diet of cheap knockoffs that believe the best way to scare an audience is to unexpectedly make a lot of noise at random intervals across 85 minutes. Every now and again, a film is appointed as the saviour of the horror genre; a film that realises that true scares come from a connection to something relatable or human. It Follows arrives just a few months after the similarly hyped The Babadook; both films differ greatly, but both manage to take familiar tropes and ideas of the horror genre and twist and blend them into some fresh and distinctive.
Teenager Jay (Maika Monroe) is enjoying her life at school, with her friends and with her new boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary). After having sex with Hugh, Jay finds herself tied to a wheelchair with a panicked Hugh keeping lookout. Hugh has transferred a curse to Jay, a curse which manifests itself as a person slowly walking towards her. If it catches up with Jay, it will kill her and move back to the previous victim. Wherever Jay goes, it will follow and to make matters worse, it could take the form of any person at any time. The only way to get rid of it is to have sex with someone else; to pass it on as Hugh did to Jay.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Review - Better Call Saul: Episode 1.2 - Mijo

I think it’s fairly safe to say, even at this early stage, that this second episode of Better Call Saul will not go down as one of the best. It’s not a bad episode but merely a serviceable one in a show that’s still moving its pieces into place.

The episode kicks off with the recapping of last week’s denouement from Tuco’s perspective. We know that Tuco will become the crazed, hysterical drug dealer by the time Walter White enters his life, but here he is nowhere near that level of derangement. He’s still crazy, but just not batshit crazy. He seems to accept that his grandmother is in the wrong, albeit unaware of her accidental participation in Jimmy’s hare-brained scheme. He appears to be willing to speak with our skater knuckleheads right up to the point where one of them calls his grandmother a “crazy old biznatch”. Of course they don’t know that Tuco isn’t a shining example of mental stability, but we do.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Oscars 2015 - Final Predictions

My final predictions for tonight's ceremony

Some last minute predictions for tonight's Academy Awards. As per usual, some awards are all but sewn up whilst others are wide open.

Picks for Will Win and Could Win choices are based on all nominated films, Should Win choices are only based on the films I have seen and I will only pick a Not even nominated choice if I can think of a suitable one.

Brief list of films that I haven't seen: American Sniper, Wild, Still Alice, The Judge, Into The Woods, Mr Turner and (somehow?!?)  all of the nominees in the Best Foreign Film, Best Animated Film and Best Documentary categories.

Best Film

Will Win: Boyhood
Could Win: Birdman
Should Win: Boyhood
Not even nominated: Foxcatcher

Best Director

Will Win: Richard Linklater (Boyhood)
Could Win: Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Birdman)

Should Win: Richard Linklater (Boyhood)
Not even nominated: Damien Chazelle (Whiplash)

Best Actor

Will Win: Eddie Redmayne (The Theory Of Everything)
Could Win: Michael Keaton (Birdman)
Should Win: Eddie Redmayne (The Theory Of Everything)
Not even nominated: David Oyelowo (Selma)

Best Actress

Will Win: Julianne Moore (Still Alice)
Could Win: N/A
Should Win: Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl)
Not even nominated: Scarlett Johansson (Under The Skin)

Best Supporting Actor

Will Win: JK Simmons (Whiplash)
Could Win: N/A
Should Win: JK Simmons (Whiplash)
Not even nominated: Josh Brolin (Inherent Vice) / Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler)

Best Supporting Actress

Will Win: Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)
Could Win: N/A
Should Win: Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)
Not even nominated: Rene Russo (Nightcrawler)

Best Original Screenplay

Will Win: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Could Win: Birdman
Should Win: Foxcatcher
Not Even Nominated: Calvary

Best Adapted Screenplay

Will Win: The Imitation Game
Could Win: Whiplash
Should Win: Inherent Vice
Not even nominated: Gone Girl

Best Foreign Film

Will Win: Ida
Could Win: Leviathan
Should Win: N/A
Not even nominated: Two Days, One Night

Best Animated Film

Will Win: How To Train Your Dragon 2
Could Win: Big Hero 6
Should Win: N/A
Not even nominated: The LEGO Movie

Best Documentary Feature

Will Win: Citizenfour
Could Win: Virunga
Should Win: N/A
Not even nominated: N/A

Best Cinematography

Will Win: Birdman
Could Win: Ida
Should Win: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Not Even Nominated: Inherent Vice / Only Lovers Left Alive / Interstellar

Best Film Editing

Will Win: Boyhood

Could Win: Whiplash
Should Win: Boyhood & Whiplash (TIE)
Not even nominated: N/A

Best Production Design

Will Win: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Could Win: Into The Woods
Should Win: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Not even nominated: Only Lovers Left Alive / Inherent Vice

Best Costume Design

Will Win: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Could Win: Into The Woods
Should Win: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Not even nominated: Only Lovers Left Alive

Best Hair & Make-Up

Will Win: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Could Win: Guardians Of The Galaxy
Should Win: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Not even nominated: Only Lovers Left Alive

Best Original Score

Will Win: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Could Win: The Theory Of Everything
Should Win: Interstellar
Not even nominated: Under The Skin

Best Original Song

Will Win: Glory (Selma)

Could Win: Everything Is Awesome (The LEGO Movie)
Should Win: N/A
Not even nominated: N/A

Best Sound Editing

Will Win: American Sniper
Could Win: Interstellar
Should Win: N/A
Not even nominated: N/A

Best Sound Mixing

Will Win: American Sniper
Could Win: Whiplash
Should Win: Whiplash
Not even nominated:

Best Visual Effects

Will Win: Interstellar
Could Win: Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes
Should Win: Interstellar
Not even nominated: Godzilla

Best Documentary Short

Will Win: Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1
Could Win: Joanna
Should Win: N/A
Not even nominated: N/A

Best Animated Short

Will Win: Feast
Could Win: The Bigger Picture
Should Win: N/A
Not even nominated: N/A

Best Live Action Short

Will Win: The Phone Call
Could Win: Boogaloo And Graham
Should Win: N/A
Not even nominated: N/A

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Review - Better Call Saul: Episode 1.1 - Uno

Deconstructing Saul

Is it possible to strike televisual gold twice? Given Breaking Bad’s gradual transformation into a cultural behemoth, one could argue that even if Better Call Saul amounted to nothing more than (in this clumsy metaphor) a few bronze coins and a handful of bottlecaps, then that would be ok; just as long as it isn’t awful. Based on this opening episode, the future looks bright for everybody’s favourite shady criminal lawyer. This first episode works so well because it manages to establish the show’s relationship to its big brother whilst also breaking down the man we knew as Saul Goodman into the constituent Jimmy McGill sized parts.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service - Dir. Matthew Vaughn

Many people have proclaimed Kingsman: The Secret Service to be light hearted fun and have called out some of the more vociferous critics for taking the film too seriously. Yes, not every film has to be <insert obscure, black and white, foreign film here>, but a film that so trivially asks the audience to take pleasure from thousands of people killing each other needs to be taken seriously.

Council house teenager Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egerton) gets himself arrested after a dangerous joy ride across London. As a last resort, he calls in the favour given to him by a suave and sophisticated super spy Harry Hart (Colin Firth), who wants to help Eggsy after being partly responsible for the death of his father. Hart offers Eggsy the chance to become a member of Kingsman: an independent intelligence agency saving the world one courteous quip at a time.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Whiplash - Dir. Damien Chazelle

Damien Chazelle’s exhilarating new film has been riding a critical wave after premiering at Sundance (scooping up the festival’s grand jury and audience prizes on its way) and may just make it all the way to Oscar night. On the surface Whiplash may look like a jazz musical but in reality, it’s the most adrenaline fuelled roller-coaster since Gravity.

Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is an ambitious drummer at the prodigious Shaffer Conservatory music school who gets the opportunity to play in the lead jazz band, under the conductorship of Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Fletcher sees some talent in Andrew, but how far is Andrew willing to go to become the best.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) - Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu

Creating and expressing ambiguity in film is a complicated trick to perfect: how much can be left unresolved before that original intention for ambiguity becomes lost in disorganised tangle of themes and narrative threads. It’s exciting to see films that can be interpreted in different ways, but each interpretation needs to be clear and defendable. Unfortunately Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) doesn’t know what it wants to say (or fails to clearly express what it wants to say), despite all of the irrefutably enjoyable things about it. It’s so confused that it can’t even decide if it wants to use its poncey subtitle or not.