Monday, 28 April 2014

Noah: Bible Boating

Darren Aronofsky follows up Black Swan with what else but a massive Biblical fantasy epic. Because why the shit not, right?

You're probably familiar with the basics of the Noah story: dude gets a heads-up from the Almighty that the world is going to get a watery reboot because man is buggering everything up. God tells dude to build an old old wooden ship big enough to hold two of EVERY SPECIES OF ANIMAL ON THE PLANET to save them from his liquid genocide. Crazy people the world over think this actually happened.

Apparently Darren Aronofsky is not one of those people, as this film firmly embraces the magical, mystical, mythological elements of the story, introducing us to massive rock monsters (notably absent from all promotional material, presumably to keep the true wacky nature of the film from the lucrative christian audience), flaming swords, a glowing Adam and Eve and all kinds of outlandish fantasy imagery. And the film is all the better for it.

Aronofsky approaches these peculiar subjects with an admirably straight face, creating a moody, surprisingly dark and violent film amongst all the bizarre spectacle.

Rusty Crowes is excellent as Noah, embodying the grim determination, familial tenderness and existential confusion you would expect from a man who's in on God's apocalypse plan. He's ably supported by Jennifer Connelly as his stalwart wife - all poise and grace and reason and aging like a damn fine wine - and former Wallflowers Logan Lerman and Emma Watson - both doing arguably their best work and, in Lerman's case, being the best thing in the movie. Lerman plays Noah's hilariously named son, Ham, as a bundle of earnest befuddlement at the world and his father's heavenly mission, and his attempts to come to terms with their future, or lack of, is handled magnificently by the former Percy Jackson.

And people running through the woods shouting "HAM!" never gets old.

Ray Winstone and Anthony Hopkins crop up as a representative of man's punishable inhumanity and a genial Ben Kenobi-type Methuselah, respectively, and both are fine if familiar in their roles.

The whole bizarre thing is held together by Clint Mansell's propulsive and rousing score, teasing out emotion even when the characters become increasingly distant and lacking in empathy, and by Aronofsky's uncompromising visual style. He's not afraid to undercut a retelling of the creation myth with the entire history of evolution in fast-forward, and you have to admire the stones that takes.

The whole thing is probably about an hour too long and - Hopkins' mild comic relief aside - is relentlessly dour. But perhaps that's the only way to tell a story about God drowning the human race like an unwanted puppy in a sack.

Noah will probably sit most comfortably alongside The Fountain on the Aronofsky shelf. A spectacular, skilful, well acted bit of bizarre business which is more of a fascinating curiosity than a entertaining movie experience.

Oh, and some of the CGI animals look like shit.

But the Fallen Angel Rock Monsters are cool.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Divergent: Uninspired Churn-Up

Divergent stars indie teen pixie of the hour Shailene Woodley as some kind of rebellious dystopian future young adult trying to find her way in an oppressive orwellian societal regime.

Yeah, it's like that other movie series that everyone likes at the moment. You know, also adapted from a book series? You know the one. Bows and arrows. The Hobbit. Or something.

Anyway, I knew this film was trouble when it walked in, opening with a clumsy world-building voice over that explains in great detail how there's this knackered up city and it's divided into factions that do different jobs and you have to join one of them or become a homeless person or some shit but DON'T FUCKING ASK WHY BECAUSE IT'S NOT IMPORTANT IT DOESN'T HAVE TO MAKE SENSE

The factions are Amity - who are dead nice to everyone but are afraid of sharks, Dauntless - who are supposed to be like the army but are really just a pack of dildos free-running everywhere and dressing like extras from a Joel Schumacher movie, er... Abegnation - who do politics or something, Erudite - who are all smart and do the science and that, and Candour, who are insensitive gobshites.

So you can see how logical this system seems and how a whole society of people would perpetuate it without question.

When kids are 16 or something, they do an aptitude test in which the sorting hat tells them which house to go into. The most amazingly uncommon thing, apparently, is for someone to not have an aptitude for one single faction, but ALL OF THEM DIVERGENT ALARM DIVERGENT ALARM

It's quite telling that being a multi-faceted individual makes you a fucking dangerous anomaly in this world of wafer thin characterisation and motivational irrationality.

It's not that I hated this film, I just sort of resent the fact that it exists. I haven't read the books, but this film plays like an uninspired churn-up of Hunger Games, Potter, Orwell, Ender's Game and most other genre pieces you can think of. And the romance reminded me of the subplot in a dance movie where the leading lady falls for her grumpy dance teacher/partner.

There is a quite lovely zip lining sequence and an amusing running gag about shooting people, but that's pretty much all that's on offer. Woodley is perfectly watchable in the lead, but she will always suffer from the obvious comparison to a certain blonde lady with a bow and arrow. You know the one. Legolas. From out of The Hobbit films.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Dallas Buyers Club: The Magnificent Mr McGarnickle

Matthew McGarnickle looks set to win the Oscar for his portrayal of Ron Woodroof in this tale of aids, sexuality, capitalist medicine and muted redemption.

Ron is a drinking, drugging, humping, gambling electrician in the 80s, who finds himself diagnosed with this crazy new gay disease much to his homophobic dismay. 

He proceeds to do everything he can to grasp his last shreds of life, from stealing experimental drugs to smuggling illegal ones over the Mexican border. 

Many of the plot beats will seem familiar (Ron is ostracised by his redneck peers, homophobic graffiti sprayed on his house, Ron overcomes his own gay-bashing ways through his grudging relationship with fabulous transgender Rayon), but rarely will you see them attacked with such raw vigour as McGarnickle and director Jean-Marc VallĂ©e exhibit here. 

McGarnickle is astonishing. Attention-grabbing weight loss aside, he plays a reckless, selfish opportunist who confronts his mortality head on and refuses to be beaten down. It is a natural, un-showy turn that puts panto wigaramas like Christian Bale in American Hustle to shame. Does he deserve the Oscar? Well, I'm a DiCaprio loyalist and a Ejiofor lauder, so I couldn't possibly comment. And I haven't seen Nebraska. 

Jared Leto offers sterling support in a textbook straight-guy-plays-gay role, but this ain't The Birdcage, and Leto brings an all-important humanity to a character which could have tipped into shrill, camp parody in less sure hands. 

These visceral performances and an earthy, documentarian style couple to create a sense of authenticity often lacking in "worthy" drama, and the film strives for subtlety over sensation wherever possible. Questions may be raised regarding the message of a film about a homophobic straight man becoming "saviour of the gays", and there is a potential debate about how hard it might have been to cast a genuine transgender individual in Leto's role, but questions such as these are beyond the scope of the film itself.

Disregarding potential political connotations, what remains is a solid, earthy, convinving movie-of-the-week with an uncommonly superlative central performance. McConaughey is so good that I finally just googled how to actually spell his name, out of respect. 

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

American Hustle: Fancy Dress Party

American Hustle is the latest from the reputedly difficult-to-work-for David O. Russell. A reputation that can't be all that, since the cast is almost entirely made up of people who've been worked with him before. Maybe they're all masochists.

It's the story of a couple of small-time con artists who get busted by the FBI and forced into working an elaborate con for their captors. It's very loosely based on the Abscam operation, but is so upfront with it's inventive interpretation of reality that it opens with the legend "SOME OF THIS ACTUALLY HAPPENED", making any cries of historical inaccuracy entirely redundant. The script was originally called "American Bullshit", after all.

Unfortunately, the film is as slight and insubstantial as the flimsy outfits draped over leading ladies Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence. An entertaining, sometimes amusing, but overlong and uninspired grind through a standard con story with a few diversions and some astonishing fashions.

Christian Bale is up for a best actor Oscar for his turn as con artist Irving Rosenfeld, but it's difficult to see why. It's basically a pantomime performance. LOOK HE'S GOT A FAT BELLY HAHA AND A COMBOVER HAHA AND HE'S DOING A ROBERT DENIRO IMPRESSION HAHA and that's it. He never goes far from the ridiculous, even as Irving starts to develop a conscience and actual emotions.

Bradley Cooper fares a little better, tapping something frightening and pathetic in his driven Fed, but you'll still spend the whole time going HAHA HE HAS A PERM HAHA HE HAS ROLLERS IN HIS HAIR HAHA

The ladies are the real stars of the show, with Adams playing a seductress treading the thin line between skilled hustler and sufferer of multiple personality disorder, and Lawrence giving fantastic deluded foolishness as Irving's trophy wife/ward. These two are busy building actual characters while the boys are playing dress up. And they also look a lot better in the ludicrous '70s fashions, but that might be my male gaze talking.

There is solid support from Jeremy Renner (also burdened with HILARIOUS hair) and living legend Louis CK, who gets the best running joke of the film and apparently has a timeless look, because he's the only male on screen not wearing a stupid wig so we know it's the '70s.

Russell continues his unintrusive visuals from Silver Linings Playbook, allowing the lavish costumes and sets to bring the glamour and style to the screen. The actors undoubtedly had a whale of a time too, with everybody going slightly larger than life and a good deal of improvisation. It just doesn't quite click the way SLP or The Fighter did.

As a comedy, it's not that funny (wacky costumes, references to the "science oven" and Louis CK's unfinished story not withstanding), as a thriller it's not that exciting and as a drama, it doesn't really do much you wouldn't expect. It's entertaining enough, and features a wonderful period soundtrack, but a shorter runtime and a snappier pace would've made a world of difference.


Tuesday, 4 February 2014

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: Lord of the Wrongs

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is the latest squirt of milk to be squeezed from the Tolkien teat by Peter Jackson and his clan of creative kiwis. Unfortunately, the milk has long since curdled, leaving us with nearly three hours of tepid cheese.

The first instalment of the unfathomably expanded Hobbit trilogy was a bloated trudge through the once-wonderful Middle Earth, with occasional bright spots (Gollum, Martin Freeman, er...), but this sequel arrived in cinemas amidst claims of improvement on its disappointing predecessor.

Could this be a return to form for Jackson after the mis-steps of King Kong, The Lovely Bones and Hobbit 1?

It could've been, but it's not.

TH:TDOS (catchy acronym) is just as plodding and padded as the first instalment, the choice to inflate Tolkien's slender tome beyond its compact narrative backfiring spectacularly by making about half of the film irrelevant and uninvolving.

Remember the scenes in the LOTR trilogy when it cut back to the elves swanning around in their soft-focus nighties talking in slow-motion about immortality and stuff? To a lot of people, those scenes were toilet breaks, an opportunity to nip to the bog and know that you weren't going to miss anything vital.

At least half of the scenes in this film are like that.

Attempts to characterise the various faceless dwarves, feeble pseudo-romantic subplots and a tenuous attempt to tie events in to LOTR all just feel like distractions from what should be the main event: Bilbo. Having an adventure. Unfortunately there is a distinct lack of Hobbit in this Hobbit film.

But hey, Legolas is back, right? Everyone wanted that, right? If there was one thing I was unsatisfied about at the end of LOTR, it was that I didn't know enough about Legolas' Daddy issues and girl trouble.

Don't get me wrong, Evangeline Lilly is a lot of fun as Tauriel, and there is a certain amount of pleasure to be gleaned from watching an older, slower Orlando Bloom try to recapture his flaxen-locked youth, but it all just feels like pandering filler that any sensible editor wouldn't let past the splicer.

This is to say nothing of the typical inconsistencies brought about by prequelitis (Gandalf sees the eye of Sauron in this film, so why doesn't he recognise it immediately in Bag End in FOTR? Legolas never says "Oh, I met your Dad once." to Gimli? And don't tell me he forgot, he's a fucking Elf. And that bit with Gloin's locket-picture might be the only time I've shouted "OH FUCK OFF" at a Tolkien movie. OH LOOK LEGOLAS THINKS GIMLI IS UGLY BUT WE KNOW THEY BECOME FRIENDS IN THE FUTURE AREN'T WE A CLEVER AUDIENCE HAHAHAHAHA go fuck yourself

Anyway. The headline act for this film is surely Smaug the Massive Dragon Bastard, voiced and mocapped by Sherlock's Humperdink Bandersnatch, but Jackson fumbles this epic final showdown as well. Smaug is a vaguely impressive special effect bolstered by Bandersnatch's rumbling tones, but the final act is a repetitive run around in a murky cavern with some silly business with a giant golden dwarf.

This tonal peculiarity is fairly constant throughout the film, with Jackson struggling to combine the lighter adventure of The Hobbit source material with the gritty historical-fantasy epic scale he reached in the LOTR trilogy. Take, for instance, the much-lauded barrel escape sequence; Jackson bounces off from events in the novel into an action set-piece with all the physical logic of a Looney Tunes cartoon, then peppers it with decapitations and impalements. And if I want to see some terrible graphics bouncing down some river rapids, I'll go and play Toobin'.

The peculiar over-reliance on CGI also leaves a sour taste in the mouth. After the almost tangible Middle Earth introduced to us in the LOTR trilogy through practical effects, make up, locations, miniatures and CG, the world of The Hobbit seems somehow painted on. Barely a shot goes by without the spectral presence of digital imagery clouding the realism.

On the DVD extras of ROTK, Peter Jackson can be seen demanding Weta Digital re-animate a shot of a falling Hefalump because he feels the shot wouldn't be possible in reality. Where is that Peter Jackson now? The Hobbit is riddled with jarring, impossible shots that smash you in the face with the fact you're watching a film. I can't be the only one who thinks Peter Jackson has been killed and replaced, Paul McCartney style? Seriously, would the same film-maker who had the good sense to cut Tom Bombadil because he was silly and didn't serve the story feel that this movie simply couldn't do without an irrelevant opening visit to Beorn the Wacky Bearbloke's house?

The whole exercise smells of desperation, on the part of the studio and the artists involved. The Hobbit was never supposed to be a trilogy of three hour movies. It's possible that, when all three movies are released, someone will be able to cut a fairly decent two hour film from the best bits, but as of now we are two-thirds of the way through a thankless quest.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Lone Survivor: Will it be the Actor with his Name Above the Title?

Lone Survivor tells the story of a US Navy SEAL unit on a mission into Afghanistan that goes catastrophically tits-up. I'd tell you how many of them make it out alive, but I don't want to spoil it.

Presumably, the spoileriffic title is due to the fact that the film is "BASED ON A TRUE STORY", the details of which are probably out there in easily Googlable (coined it) locations, or in the written account of the mission laid down in book form by the guy who made it out alive.

The doomed SEAL team are ably portrayed by the bearded quartet of Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch, Taylor Kitsch and Marky Mark Wahlberg, all grizzled, buffed up and no doubt boot camped into authenticity in pre-production. They're all perfectly fine, though Wahlberg's Texan accent drifts in and out of the film like a leaf on the wind.


It could be suggested that this is Writer/Director Peter Berg's apology for  Battleship, both to audiences and the US Navy. His loveletter to the noble servicemen opens with actual footage of SEAL training drills and closes with a montage of photos and footage of the soldiers who didn't return set to Peter Gabriel singing Bowie's "Heroes". What happens in between is unfortunately little more subtle and little less sentimental.

The film could have been a compelling grunt's eye view of the complications of modern warfare - overbearing rules of engagement, reliance on technology, the intrusion and influence of the 24 hour news cycle - but Berg steams past these discussions in favour of creating a modern-day 300, where the SEALs fight to the last man in a flurry of slo-mo self-sacrifice and Greg Nicotero's Walking Dead squib-splats.

It becomes less a compelling film and more an extended commercial for the Navy, fully buying into the self-mythologising attitude of this elite group of soldiers; an attitude best illustrated by the bizarre initiation ceremony for a new recruit involving the dance routine from Napoleon Dynamite and a recitation of some inane pseudo poetry about how awesome "frog men" are. It's like a cross between a college fraternity and a rugby team, but with less fun and more guns.

Berg's style is unsure and unsteady, static dialogue scenes are frantically edited while battle fluctuates jarringly between the aforementioned sentimental slo-mo and Call of Duty run-and-gun POV. He lacks the courage of his convictions with regard to choices such as leaving the Afghan characters unsubtitled - keeping us as in the dark as to what's being said as the SEALs - only to subtitle ONE SCENE for no reason other than mistrust in his audience's ability to comprehend what's going on.

It's not all bad, though. The performances are solid (particularly the ever-reliable Foster), the locations are suitably rocky and foresty and only occasionally marred by shoddy CGI, some surprisingly sympathetic Afghan characters show up towards the end and the whole thing at least feels earnest in its celebration of its subjects. And there's a bit with a duck that made me laugh out loud.

In a culture so concerned about the glamourising of violence, what can be said about a movie which exists solely to lionise those that kill for a living? This film will probably satisfy war-fetishists and make servicemen and women proud, but it ultimately feels like Michael Bay directing a mid-budget Armed Forces advert.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street: Excessive Success

DiCaprio and Scorsese come out to play again, and TWOWS is another addition to the dinky director's long list of masterpieces. You're only supposed to have ONE masterpiece, Marty. Greedy.

The film tells the story of Jordan Belfort: Stockbroker as he works his way up the precariously balanced Wall Street ladder to success and excess. 

Many have accused the film of glamourising Belfort's selfish, superficial lifestyle, but I'm willing to bet that being an ultrarich dickbag is probably a pretty glamourous way of life. If the movie appears to have no conscience regarding the people Jordan fleeces and steps on on his way to the top, it is surely only because Jordan himself has none. 

Some of my favourite lead performances this awards season are unconscionable wangbrains (hey, Llewyn Davis) but Belfort is the king. Anybody looking for an indictment of the lifestyle in the film needs to look beyond the cars and the hookers and the expensive suits and simply see DiCaprio's barnstorming performance. 

Belfort is a man seduced by his own ego, a man who believes his own legend whole-heartedly, and the film presents us with an unflinching look at a roaring, maniacal man-child who is neither as smart as he thinks he is nor as evil as we'd like him to be. Belfort is a self-aggrandising chancer, and the movie allows DiCaprio to manifest that self-delusion in a hilariously unctuous, drug-frenzied performance which is possibly the actor's best. 

DiCaprio attacks each scene with a vigorous physicality which will surprise many, delivering coke fuelled speeches like a be-suited frat leader, body-popping like an over-confident uncle and, in the already legendary Quaalude binge setpiece, exhibiting the slapstick skills of a wreckhead Buster Keaton. 

Against the combined might of slavery and AIDS, DiCaprio will probably not win best actor at the Oscars, but he flipping well should. If only for the bit where he gets his foot stuck in the car door. 

DiCaprio is ably supported by Jonah Hill - providing a much more nuanced performance than his comedy gnashers and poolside masturbation might suggest - as a toady sidekick, Margot Robbie proves herself much more than a pretty face as Belfort's radiant but prickly lust-interest, Rob Reiner is amusingly irate as his long-suffering father, and there are amusing few-sceners from people like Matthew McGarnickle and Spike Jonze. 

Scorsese remains the most consistent movie maker of his, and perhaps any generation. While his peers retire to their vinyards, tread artistic water or sell their back catalogue to the mouse house, Scorsese is knocking out vital and varied cinema that most directors half his age couldn't conceive of. A freewheeling improvisational tone and a jukebox of 90s hits combine with the customary Scorsese visual panache to create a piece that can rest easy alongside Marty's best. 

It's three hours of frothy, garish nihilism devoid of any visible morality, and it is ceaselessly entertaining. Belfort learns no lessons and resolutely refuses to grow as a character, but maybe that's the point? Don't we live in a world where the money men are free to do whatever the hell they want and walk away with minimal or non-existent punishment?

This is a film about how greed, exploitation and self-obsession are the routes to power in western society. Belfort is a caricature of the 1%, having all the fun on the unseen, huddled masses' dime.

We don't see Belfort's victims on the screen because they're in the audience.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis: That's All Folk!

Inside Llewyn Davis may sound like a Welsh hairy-hand flick, but it is infact an American hairy-face flick. it's the story of a fetchingly bearded man wandering a frozen 1960s New York, trying to make his way in the folk music scene. He basically spends the whole film grouching around like a sourpuss hipster douche, chasing cats, mooching off his friends and annoying pretty much everyone. And he plays some songs.

And that's about it.

And it's flipping brilliant.

This is, in many ways, the Coen Brothers' spiritual sequel to "O Brother Where Art Thou?", a similarly meandering and seemingly futile oddysey punctuated with beautifully selected and performed folk music. There's a lot less gurning and falling over, though.

The titular Llewyn is a surly bundle of selfish frustration and is brought to vivid life by Oscar Isaac, who does the impossible by making this prick always watchable even when he's unlikable, and even winning our sympathy as we learn more about the hapless troubadour. It's great to see Isaac finally taking centre stage after Drive and best-thing-in-a-shit-film turns in Sucker Punch and Robin Hood. Remember Robin Hood? The Ridley Scott one? No? What was I talking about?

A host of quality actors drop in and out of Llewyn's ramble from coffeeshop to music studio to gutter and back, from Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake as long-suffering "friends", John Goodman as a grumpy jazz snob, the honey-monster looking bloke from Tron: Legacy and Neelix from out of Star Trek: Voyager. As you'd expect from the Coens, everyone is perfectly cast and even those with previous poor form raise their game accordingly.

A palpable atmosphere is concocted by flawless production design capturing period detail, washed out cinematography evoking the long, dark New York City winter of Llewyn's troubled soul and the smoky dives he sets up in. It's one of those films that looks Instagrammed. You can almost smell the coffee and knitwear.

And as for the music, the "Please Mr Kennedy" scene alone is the best depiction of musicians working since a Guy and a Girl sat down at a music shop piano in Once.

The film is probably best described as a black comedy,  as Llewyn stumbles through a series of unfortunate events (many of his own making) becoming increasingly disillusioned with his lot in life
and ever more cynical towards his musical calling, but the bleak and absurd laughs are always there to temper any sentimental drifts.

The tragi-comic tone of the film is perhaps best encapsulated in a seemingly simple visual gag revealing that Llewyn's attempts to stash a box of surplus copies of his LP under a table are being thwarted by somebody else's similar box already stashed there. Everybody's chasing their dreams, but not everyone's going to catch them.

This isn't the folk 8 Mile. But you might lose yourself in the music.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Skyfall: Bond Begins. Again.

(I just found this review. Must've been on my old phone when it got nicked. Better late than never.)

James Bond is the Don of secret agents. Actually, he's so fucking nails that he doesn't bother with the "secret" part, he just strides up to the bad guy, introduces himself using his REAL NAME, has a drink, punches the shit out of some incompetent douchebags, fucks the villain's girl and then blows up a building or summat. ON EVERY MISSION.

Yes, Bond is back and, thanks to Roger Deakins' painterly cinematography, he's better looking than ever. Sam Mendes has decided to honour the traditions of the franchise, whilst also attempting to delve a little deeper beneath the armour that Vesper stripped from wee Jimmy. For the most part, it works.

It's been well noted that, if Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace were Bond via Bourne, this is Bond via Batman, with Jimmy being revealed to have much in common with bereaved Bruce and Javier Bardem's Silva being more akin to Ledger's Joker in elaborately planned personal vendettas than your average world-dominatey Bond villain. This is no bad thing, and it's always fun to see Bond lose his cool, so the raised stakes and more intimate sense of threat brings an urgency we haven't seen since perhaps Licence to Kill.

Bardem has a whale with Silva, who could've easily been another relatively bland "Nega-Bond" character (a shadowy reflection of the spy in question, just like Red Grant, Scaramanga, Sean Bean and the rest of them), attacking everything with relish, reptilian menace and obsessive insanity. I think he's the first Bond antagonist in a while to appear genuinely, dangerously crazy and not just, y'know, a bit of an evil dick.

Daniel Craig is the boss of this film, of course, kicking arse and blowing shit up as he should, whilst also managing to humanise the ultra-spook more than any of the previous actors. Craig crumpling in pain during a rehabilitation workout is a long way from Connery humping a vibrating desk wearing only a towel.

The drawback comes in the shape of a final act which takes the story off on an unprecedented tangent, delving not into some underground lair, but into Bond's past and his increasingly freudian relationship with Judy Dench's M. Some may find this change of pace a breath of fresh air in the fusty annals of Bond tradition, focusing on character rather than armies of henchmen doing judo and firing lasers/harpoons at each other. Others might feel it a case of too much information. Do we really need to know about Bond's murky history? Isn't a non-specific origin an aid to his archetypal nature?

Others have claimed this as the "BEST BOND EVER" and stuff. It's not. It's definitely in the top five, though.