Saturday, 28 February 2015

Movie Review: Zhong Kui: Snow Girl And The Dark Crystal (2015)

In my short time of compulsively watching as many films as I do, and even shorter time of reviewing them for public consumption, I feel I have covered a wide spectrum of films in that time that I have given a wide spectrum of reactions to. However, no matter what film I looked at, no matter how out-of-my-depth I may have been concerning the genre, country of origin or subject matter, I always prided myself on being able to articulate exactly why I felt the way I did about each one of them. Sure, I’ve had films that were difficult for me to pin down: Birdman took me a while to really collect my thoughts about, 12 Years A Slave had me hesitating because of peer pressure and how much the rest of the world seemed to love it and God’s Not Dead had to be severely edited from the reams of notes I wrote on it so as to not piss off every religious group under the sun, or rather out of paranoia that that would happen. Today, however, I think I have found a film to top them all in that regard. This is Zhong Kui: Snow Girl And The Dark Crystal.

The plot: Zhong Kui (Chen Kun) is a demon hunter under the tutelage of the deity Zhang Daoxian (Winston Chao). He is tasked by Zhang to steal the Dark Crystal, the receptacle for all the souls taken by demons, from Hell and the Demon King tasks Snow Girl (Li Bingbing) and a group of seductive female demons to get it back from the city of Hu where it is now being kept. As the two sides clash, an epic battle begins that will decide the fate of Earth, Heaven and Hell.

The first thing that comes to mind when bringing up this film, and indeed the first thing that most audience members will notice, is the CGI on display here. Put simply, it looks like it was all pulled straight out of sixth-generation games that should be on the PS3 or Xbox 360; it’s at that weird midway point where it looks fine, but it is still quite obviously CGI. Another midway point the CGI work exists in, at least when it comes to Zhong Kui’s demonic form is, one that has become the land most dare not tread: The midway point between realistic and fake that is the uncanny valley. The motion capture, particularly for the face, is unnerving like only uncanny valley dwellers can manage. Snow Girl’s demonic form has this but to a far lesser extent since the character design for her looks more humanoid than strictly human. Zhong Kui, on the other hand, looks like a more defined version of the Dark Prince from Prince Of Persia: The Two Thrones, right down to a remarkably similar looking weapon; it may look good in the game, but it looks surprisingly out of place in a live-action film.

This video game aesthetic extends beyond the effects and even gets into the action scenes as well: aside from one or two setpieces, the action beats are entirely done in CGI with a few real sets here and there. They are extremely lame as a result, all looking floaty and too overblown to really get invested in. The only time when I actually found myself properly getting into a fight scene was near the end when Zhang finally got a chance to fight that didn’t involve him poofing into clouds of gold dust the entire time. Unfortunately, that was only because the green screen work on him was hideous. I’ve ranted at length about bad screening before, with movies like The Legend Of Hercules and I, Frankenstein, but this doesn’t so much take the biscuit as much as it holds Arnott’s hostage for its recipes. Every shot with Winston Chao on-screen during that fight looks like the 21st century’s answer to the rear-projecting in Puma Man; seriously, it looks that bad. My jaw visibly dropped and hung low while watching this scene, easily the biggest reaction it managed to get out of me for its duration.

As a means of clawing my way out of the mire of negativity this film has thrown me into, I find myself looking back on the musical score with a lot of fondness. Composer Javier Navarrete, whom I mainly remember for creating the achingly beautiful music for Pan’s Labyrinth, brings some of his best for this film with a great mixture of soaring and delicate orchestration that add a lot of oomph to their accompanying scenes. This film’s main showcase for why this soundtrack is as good as it is is during the dancing sequence where Snow Girl and her troupe are performing; the instrumentation and rather angelic singing combine with the graceful movements of the dancers to create something genuinely beautiful to watch. However, this film is unfortunately another in a long list of lackluster films that Navarrete has worked on, continuing the tradition of his music being one of the best parts of their respective films, if not the best.

And now we reach the elephant in the room: Thanks to this film, Winter’s Tale has a competitor for the most incomprehensible film I’ve seen since I started criticizing films as much as I do these days. Not to say that this film is as pants-on-head stupid as Winter’s Tale was, but they both share a similar problem in that there is a rather large amount of the plot that isn’t explained properly. I mentioned how this film feels like it took a lot of inspiration from the video game medium and that extends to the basic plot, right down to the mentor heel-turn that has become a cliché for many, many years at this point. Although, to be fair, the scene detailing said heel-turn is one of the other big highlights for the film as Chao and Kun’s blocking make for a very engaging scene, even if the details surrounding it are embarrassingly disjointed. There is a very specific sensation to describe how the script for this comes across: it’s as if the six writers behind the script (too many cooks and all that) originally wrote it as a trilogy of films, then decided to condense it down to a single film by taking miscellaneous pages from all three and mashing them together, inexplicably ending on where the first film would have ended just in case. The biggest, or rather the most obvious, offender on these grounds is the romantic subplot between Zhong and Snow Girl. Their relationship is primarily developed through flashbacks that look like recaps of a previous non-existent film, leading to a lot of fruitless searching online for a predecessor film to this one, and even then the subplot as a whole takes a backseat to the aforementioned weaksauce action scenes. It’s less like a drive-by romance and more like a back-alley-stabbing romance, where there isn’t even a chance of seeing where it came from.

All in all… actually, I’m not even sure of how to sum this up. The action scenes are dull and crammed full of bizarre-looking CGI, the score is amazingly good, the acting is okay but nothing to write home about and the plot induces head-scratching that will draw blood before too long. This will probably go down as the film that was the most difficult for me to write a review for, seeing as how much I was racking my brain trying to articulate what I thought about this film; I found it that baffling. I’m ranking it lower than The Quarantine Hauntings, as although that film was crap, it was at least crap that I could follow without as much issue. However, it didn’t give me the rather crushing feeling of disappointment that I got from 50 Shades Of Grey, so it gets the spot just above that.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Movie Review: The Interview (2015)

Well, after the essay I wrote about Fifty Shades Of Fucked Up, I figured I’d follow it up with something a little easier to digest. So here I am talking about a film that nearly kinda maybe could have started a world war… possibly. Yeah, there’s a fair bit of background info to spool through before even getting into the film proper this time round. When you’re dealing with a film centered on the assassination of the leader of a foreign nation, it’d be a miracle if there wasn’t some form of backlash against the film but that’s just the start of it. Between North Korea’s UN ambassador declaring the film as “sponsoring terrorism” and “an act of war”, the hacking of Sony Entertainment’s networks by the Guardians of Peace and subsequent leaking of several films along with certain sensitive information, and the reaction to all this that nearly ended up with the film not being released at all, I don’t know whether to call this the greatest marketing ploy ever or an awesome attempt at creating a Homefront LARPing session. Of course, there’s also the possibility that all of this media furor surrounding the film could end up overshadowing it and creating a lot of build-up for what might be a so-so comedy. Only one way to find out: This is The Interview.

The plot: After discovering that Kim Jong-un (Randal Park) is a fan of their show, talk show host Dave Skylark (James Franco) and his best friend and producer Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogen) arrange for an exclusive interview with the notorious dictator. They are soon contacted by CIA agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan) and asked to assassinate Kim in order to install a new leader, as they are the only ones who can get close enough to him to do it.

There are a great many things that we do in the face of those we fear: Fight them head-on, try to bargain with them, cry like a child who just discovered Santa’s bloody corpse; take your pick. One of the bigger ones, especially in the world of entertainment, is to mock the ever-loving hell out of it. In the grand tradition of films like Team America: World Police, this is a film meant to grasp onto the fear that a lot of the Western world has for the man currently running North Korea and wring its collar for the comedy in its pockets. Early on, there’s a heavily tongue-in-cheek “interview” with Eminem coming out of the closet where Em explains that his homophobic, sexist, racist and otherwise non-PC lyrics were born out of a certain fear he had of those subjects. This sets the tone for the rest of the film, where the writers and actors have some fun poking the red hornet’s nest to bring a bit of levity to the situation while also bringing up some valid talking points… or, at least, that’s what it tries to do.

Sure, the film certainly has some pretty decent ideas, like satirizing the media bias the West has towards reporting North Korean news and occasional fabrication (Why we ever thought this was true is anyone's guess), the dictator still enjoying American entertainment despite ideological differences (There’s a reason Hitler and Chaplin had the same facial hair… and Chaplin had it first) and even bringing up that, because real world news can get that bleak and depressing at times, maybe there really is a need for tabloid celebrity news outlets for a bit of light entertainment. However, there is also the problem that the writing doesn’t really seem to know what it’s doing for the most part; it doesn’t have a firm enough grasp on what it brings up to really work with them properly. It may make fun of Western coverage of NK but, ultimately, it takes the safe route and sticks with the global impression that Kim is insane… which is actually a lot more boring than the alternative, where Kim is simply misunderstood and doing his best to fill his father’s shoes, despite being made leader at such a young age. However accurate that statement may be, I don’t know nor am I completely willing to test it, but then again this is a film where a talk show host sets out to kill a dictator; realism has already gone on vacation.

Speaking of said talk show host, regardless of whatever half-baked political messages are between the lines of the script, he is easily the biggest problem with this film. While Seth Rogen does very well as the straight man, James Franco gives Harvey Levin a run for his money on the obnoxious stakes. I do not, and doubt I ever will, understand the school of comedy that thinks that just being annoying in it of itself is hilarious and this film does nothing to change that stance. Dave Skylark is made up of a few running gags, none of which really land; The most egregious being that whenever he does something stupid (which is almost everything he does in this film), Rapoport and several other characters explain to him exactly why it was stupid. That, and the numerous pointless Lord of The Rings analogies. While the latter is just annoying, the former is another fixture on the trophy shelf of this film’s failings. For the majority of the film, Skylark is (rightly so) told off for being a complete moron, but then when the climax comes along the film does a complete 180 and almost everything he has been corrected on is proven right; if it’s a joke, it falls flatter than everything else; if it’s meant to prove a point, it is completely lost on me. Not quite as baffling (or as irritating) as the countless times that they point out when someone is “honey-potting” or “honey-dicking” someone else, but it’s still up there.

All in all, this is most certainly a case of the hype outweighing the end result. While the comedy has its moments, including a reference to Salo of all things, the soundtrack is decent with the inclusion of a damn good song from South Korean rapper Yoon Mi-Rae (that was apparently unlicensed; well done, boneheads) and there are definitely some neat ideas under the surface, the writing is way too muddled to really capitalize on any of it. It’s not terrible but it’s not all that great either; it’s a mess but it’s at least admirable that it tried a lot more than other comedies tend to do these days. It’s better than Mortdecai, as it feels like the filmmakers actually gave a damn here, but it underperforms next to Dumb And Dumber To, where the actors had better comedic timing and there was a moment of genuine cleverness at the end. As a means of checking out what the fuss has been about or if you’re really into Rogen or Franco’s other films, it’s worth a rental, but otherwise you wouldn’t be missing much by skipping this one.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Movie Review: Fifty Shades Of Grey (2015)

It seems like there’s a lot of need in the world of internet criticism to find the next Twilight; a romantic film or series of films that can capture the cynical zeitgeist and bring us so many reiterations of “This is so bad, it’s hilarious” that we inevitably grow tired of it in record time. We’ve had a couple of flashes in the pan in recent years, like The Host and a myriad of other YA adaptations, but nothing has really latched on with audiences yet or at least in the same way Twilight did. Well, when news that the most successful Twilight fanfiction of all time (no, seriously, that’s what it started out as) was getting a film adaptation, there was much frothing at the mouth that this might be just what the doctor ordered. But how does it actually turn out? This is Fifty Shades Of Grey.

The plot: Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), after interviewing him for her college newspaper, becomes infatuated with young multimillionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). As their relationship intensifies, Christian begins to reveal the darker sides of his personality as well as his sexuality, asking Anastasia to follow him down this path and become his submissive. Anastasia must decide if her love for Christian warrants her becoming what he wants of her, or if their relationship must end.

I am going to go the safe route and assume that the majority of my readers have enough going on in their lives to not have read the original book. As such, I will reserve my thoughts on adaptation for later on and instead focus as best I can on this film as it stands, and what better way to start than with our two leads Dakota and Jamie. Their apparent backstage dislike for each other has been highly publicized at this point, with numerous articles and interviews showing off just how awkward these two around each other in real life. It should come as no surprise then, given this information, that they have the on-screen chemistry of two pieces of A4 paper: The supposed sizzling romance between these two is non-existent and the fact that neither actor is capable of even… you know, acting like they can stand each other’s company is a big part of that. It doesn’t help that their relationship is classic drive-by “we need to set this up as quickly as possible” style of development, which makes Christian’s actions ring even more like those of a possessive stalker given how little time is given for actual attraction to occur on-screen. Of course, that’s not exactly difficult to do given how he is written in the first place, but we’ll get to that in due time.

So, the actors are no good at pretending to be into each other. But how are they on their own terms? Well, the acting is extremely weak for the most part overall, which I consider to be more of a fault of the script than the actors because they actually fulfill their roles well enough… it’s just that their roles are exceptionally poorly written. Anastasia is naïve to the point of acting like she is still in high school despite evidence to the contrary and Dakota plays her in just that way. Christian is supposed to be sexy but instead comes across as creepy a lot of the time and James does that remarkably well. The rest of the actors are pretty much just cyphers and aren’t even worth mentioning, all except for one: Jennifer Ehle, who plays Anastasia’s mother, is appalling in this movie. She’s given a lot of rather jocular lines, a big mistake considering she speaks them as if she is still learning how to speak fluent English and hasn’t gotten inflections down yet.

As much as it pains me to admit, some of the sex scenes here have a certain sensuality to them that helps the idea of BDSM that the story is centered around. However, this doesn’t mean that they come across as sexy in any way, shape or form. Now, rather than step into unknown territory and talk about BDSM as if I know thing one about it, I’ll instead stick to something that I and many other people who frequent the Internet are a little too familiar with: Porn. There’s a reason why porn plots are as weak as they are, and it isn’t just because the sex is the main focus and what leads into it doesn’t ultimately matter so why put effort into it? It’s also so that they can avoid putting any unneeded or potentially uncomfortable context to the sex scenes that could in any way hinder the enjoyment for the viewer, sticking solely to details that appeal specifically to certain fetishes. Put simply, it is designed to be consequence-free, something that’s a lot easier when you don’t give it any room in which to have consequences for all the horizontal jogging that goes on. Context is precisely why these sex scenes aren’t in the least bit erotic; in the lead-up to them, we see Christian being a controlling, abusive person who is solely out for his own satisfaction. I immediately feel bad for picking on The Wedding Ringer for similar reasons because at least there that was all in subtext that I had to read into. Here, it’s splayed out on the screen for all to see. A lot of other critics have unfavourably compared this to 2002’s Secretary and while I’d rather avoid that dead horse of an argument, I will say that one of the key reasons why that film worked where this one doesn’t is a brain-numbingly simple concept: Consent. Both parties in Secretary actively want the arrangement and both derive pleasure from what goes on. Here, Anastasia is pressured into agreeing to it because it’s the only way she can be with Christian, even if she doesn’t get enjoyment out of it on her own terms. As much bile has been thrown on Twilight over the last several years, at least both parties actually wanted to be together and weren’t being forced into it… for the most part, when Edward wasn’t distancing himself from Bella for no good reason but that’s a whole other story.

The soundtrack for this is actually really good and surprisingly classy, given the subject matter. We have a lot of smoky and seductive numbers, like Annie Lennox’s cover of I Put A Spell On You that opens the film and a slowed-down remix of Beyoncé’s Crazy In Love that I find myself liking better than the original, a feat considering I really like that song to begin with. We also have Ellie Goulding, Sia and The Weeknd throwing their vocal hats into the ring with songs that add to the sexual bewitchment theme of the soundtrack, along with the classic Frank Sinatra rendition of Witchcraft which is also the only song on the soundtrack that actually appeared in the novel. A wise move to stick with just that one, since I doubt that Kings Of Leon’s Sex On Fire would have worked as well in this rendition of the story.

Now for the “fun” part: How does this film compare to the original book? Well, given how so many films these days are adapted from other sources, I’ve made the conscious effort not to actively go out and read everything that the films I see are based on; I simply don’t have enough time for it. This is a big exception, however, as I was kind of curious about what all the fuss was about and thought this was the perfect excuse. Put simply, I now have a better understanding of the nature of BDSM having read through it. Oh, don’t get me wrong, the book also mangles what it actually is, even worse than the film does, but I can now properly visualize an experience that is painful but that also brings a certain level of enjoyment to it; my experience of reading the book in a nutshell. The prose is absolutely ludicrous, the sex scenes range from bland to the beast with a billion nopes and the sexual politics are positively infuriating; if it wasn’t making me slam my face into the book several times out of sheer frustration, it was making me laugh out of just how awful it was. Now, to the film’s credit, they made the wise decision to cut out a lot of the more aggravating parts of the source material: No rape scenes, no sex scenes involving bloodplay, no moments where Anastasia is needlessly antagonizing the known control freak, save for one instance. Not only that, the film managed to improve one particular scene from the book where Christian and Anastasia are discussing the dominant/submissive contract that Christian has drawn up; it got a couple of cheap laughs because sex is never not funny, but it showed Anastasia exerting a certain level of control in the relationship, an added (although kind of useless) line that helps Christian not look as much like a controlling prick and, overall, the execution of the scene is very well-handled considering the original had all this happen solely through email communique.

Unfortunately, they also made a rather misguided decision and cut out a lot of the funnier parts (intentional or otherwise) from the film as well. The original was filled with a lot of weird cutaway gags that feel reminiscent of something I’d see in anime involving her subconscious and ‘inner goddess’ doing weird symbolic things in Anastasia’s head, something that never ceased to make me giggle regardless of the context. There were also some sprinklings of self-awareness throughout that gave it the air that it was at least partially aware of how silly it was, making it come across more as an offbeat romantic comedy (at times) rather than a serious romantic drama. All of that is cut, leaving us with a film that is meant to be dark, sensual and something to be taken seriously… which never happens. What’s worse is that the few funny moments that are kept in, most of which are intentionally meant to be so, are delivered so straight-faced and stilted that they destroy whatever laughs can be gotten from, even when it isn’t intended; it’s like if someone made a dramatic remake of an Ed Wood movie. It’s that awkward that when the line of dialogue that gives the book/film its name happens, where Christian says that he’s “fifty shades of fucked up”, it’s even more jarring that it was even left in in the first place than it is in the actual book. Actually, because of how condensed the story is here as opposed to the book, a lot of the story feels jarring, most of all the ending which even in the original didn’t make much sense in terms of character action but here it is absolutely baffling and makes for one of the disjointed and rushed endings of the last few years.

I’ve seen quite a few names for directors who were also in line to helm this movie, like Breaking Dawn director Bill Condon and one of my favourite filmmakers Steven Soderbergh, and while I doubt Soderbergh would have done much better unless he just pulled a Kubrick in The Shining on this one, Bill Condon could have easily made this into a more faithful adaptation and kept it just as hilariously bad while leaving in only a few of the annoying moments. What this leaves us with is a bad film but not even one that’s bad in any of the fun ways; instead, one that’s bad in all the dull and disappointing ways. Yes, this film managed to make me disappointed about an adaptation of a book I don’t even legitimately like to begin with.

All in all… Jesus Christ, have I really written that much about this nothing of a movie? Okay, I’ll summarize as best I can: The acting is dull, the writing is stupid but not even laughably so, or at least enough to make sitting through it all worth it, the sex scenes are too clinical and riddled with bad lead-up to be titillating in any way and the story is only slightly less vexing than the original text. In the words of said original text, “That was about as emotionally enriching as cotton candy is nutritious.” It’s that rare kind of film that manages to be worse than the already awful text solely out of not being bad enough and going for mediocrity instead. It’s worse than The Quarantine Hauntings, as at least that film had potential to be legitimately good that it tried to capitalize on, but it’s only just better than The Wedding Ringer because this managed to make me laugh once or twice.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Movie Review: Wyrmwood: The Road Of The Dead (2015)

Whenever news hits that a new zombie film is getting released, the majority of audiences will no doubt be rolling their eyes at the mere idea of yet another look into the living dead to add to the pile. Sure, there are definite classics to come out of the genre like Night Of The Living Dead (either version written by Romero), 28 Days Later, the Evil Dead trilogy, Shaun Of The Dead, Braindead, Zombieland, the current phenomenon that is AMC’s The Walking Dead, not to mention my favourite movie of all time Planet Terror. However, with the genre now being more prevalent than ever, there is the unfortunate side-effect of over-saturation; it’s difficult to bring anything new to audiences after all that we've seen. Not only that, a lot of attempts to really push the boundaries of the genre like the gay necrophilic porno Otto, or Up With Dead People or the heavily misguided romantic comedy Warm Bodies, end up pretty badly. So, with all that said and done, how does this Australian-produced zombie film hold up? This is Wyrmwood: Road Of The Dead.

The plot: Barry (Jay Gallagher) is a mechanic whose life is shattered when the zombie apocalypse claims both his wife and daughter. When his sister Brooke (Bianca Bradey) is kidnapped by an insane doctor (Berryn Schwerdt) and his military bodyguards, Barry and two fellow survivors Benny (Leon Burchill) and Frank (Keith Agius) set out to get her back in their modded car that was bypasses now-useless regular fuel for a more alternative source: Zombie breath.

Yep, I think we’ve got our hook for individuality right there: Cars fueled on the breath of zombies. This film was grown out the directors’ love for Evil Dead, as well as how zombie films can be made on the cheap, and that kind of love is very evident as this is a film that feels like it was birthed from many drunken watchings of horror movie marathons. That said, though, this might be one of the least derivative-feeling zombie films I’ve seen in a long time. The film, creatively speaking, starts out with a fairly basic standing point of having zombies that breathe out methane, or meth-head zombies as I have taken to calling them. From there, the writers come up with some pretty neat ideas surrounding them, adding on to both the material they’ve “stolen from other films” (The director’s own words here) as well as the very Mad Max-esque emphasis on car culture: Explanations on fast zombies, night-time ferocity, the aforementioned zombie breath fueled car, not to mention… actually, this last one I won’t mention in full because it is well and truly something to experience for yourself. I’ll just put it like this: Something tells me that these guys have played a bit of Left 4 Dead. There’s also a certain deft hand at work here when it comes to a particular sticking point when it comes to most zombie films: The big question of why? Well, in this film, they hybridize the genre conventions of scientific explanations and metaphysical rationalizations when it comes to explaining how the plague started and how it works, which feels like a pretty decent bit of mutual ground concerning fans of the genre.

Now, with that said, the kitchen sink ingenuity on display here is both the film’s greatest feature and also its greatest flaw: Greatest feature, because this kind of batshit insanity is exactly what the doctor ordered when it comes to something to help it stand out from its competitors, not to mention the surprisingly good execution; greatest flaw, because it seems that the writers were too focused on creating concepts and not fleshing them out in-story. I was lucky enough to go to a screening where the filmmakers were giving a Q&A afterwards and, when fielding a question about the mystery display of awesome, they freely admitted that even they didn’t know how it was supposed to work in the film’s universe. Not only that, there are some moments in the film that feel like they are operating exclusively on Rule Of Cool, even considering the rest of the film. For example, there is a fist-fighting scene between Barry and one of the soldiers that exists solely to have a fight scene to the point where even the characters are admitting it. Then again, this is the film about meth-head zombie-fueled cars; sometimes, even I start to question whether some films need my brand of over-analysis.

This is a pretty fun roster of characters we have here. Barry may be a bit headstrong, considering his genre-dumb habit of hugging people when they are about to turn, but he knows the reality of the situation better than a lot of protagonists out there and thankfully avoids the “I don’t want to shoot him/her” cliché when someone else turns. Jay Gallagher also does an exceptional job channeling some Bruce Campbell B-grade cheese into the role that results in a pretty awesome lead that convinces without a single doubt that this is a guy who could get away with fist-fighting zombies. Benny is really good here as the comic relief, delivering his No Shit, Sherlock dialogue just right to get laughs out of some otherwise pretty tense situations. Frank gets a special commendation not only for adding some real Ocker to the mix but also for bringing us something that I didn’t even realize I needed to see until it happened: Ned Kelly zombie-fighting armour. As Aussie as bitching about boat people, this movie is! Brooke kinda-sorta falls into the damsel in distress role at first, but as the film progresses she comes into her own and kicks eight kinds of arse in the action scenes. But by far, the most captivating character in this film is the psycho doctor. Sure, Berryn Schwerdt may not be on screen for as much as I would have liked, but the man seems to have studied every creepy performance in every horror film ever made. This is the kind of performance only possible through either the kind of method acting that would give Mike Shiner a raging hard-on or the ingestion of every drug that could ever be conceived by carbon-based life; or possibly both, I’m not putting anything past this guy. His creepy yet frightened demeanor, his bondage-side manner, his love for disco music; every second the good doctor (yeah, he isn’t given an actual name; he’s just credited as The Doctor) is on screen is golden.

Even considering that this is a partially IndieGogo-funded film, shot over a three and a half year period, this is a really nice looking film. Zombie films are often made or broken by their effects, and this film’s emphasis on practical effects over CGI works a lot in its favour. The gore effects are very well-handled, making every head-shot and occasional head-splosion as gruesome as they need to be. Aside from the red stuff, the rest of the effects work is also well-done, with the make-up on the meth-heads as well as the visuals for their breath looking ugly in all the right ways. There's also a pretty awesome sequence where a guy is turned into a living matchstick The cinematography here suffers a bit from Stoned Gremlin Syndrome, given its fixation on close-ups, but this often works in the film’s favour and creates befitting tension in some scenes. But hey, even at its worse it’s still better than The Quarantine Hauntings given how I could actually see what the hell was going on.

All in all, this is an incredibly dumb movie but one that is fully aware and embraces how stupid it can get, resulting in a very goofy but very fun splatsticky ride. The acting is good, the characters are enjoyable, the effects show what can pulled off even with smaller budgets, the extremely offbeat sense of humour brings major laughs and the originality on display throughout is amazingly refreshing while still wearing a lot of its influences on its blood-soaked sleeves. It doesn’t at any point feel like it’s holding back on us, quite the opposite for the most part, so this goes higher on my list than The Theory Of Everything, but I still get a bit weepy thinking back on Julianne Moore in Still Alice every so often so it ranks just below that. It may come across as an insult when someone recommends a film as something to turn your brain off and just enjoy, but here that’s exactly what they were going for and they definitely succeeded. Director Kiah Roache-Turner made mention of some pretty glorious ideas concerning a possible sequel to this during the Q&A, leading me to say in no uncertain terms to “Make that fucking movie!” If the day comes when the meth-heads return to our screens, you better believe I’ll be right there when it happens.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Movie Review: Foxcatcher (2015)

I have a certain fascination with actors who are able to transform themselves for a role. Be it through method, heavy make-up work or however else, it’s very interesting seeing what an actor is willing to do for their craft. One of my personal favourite examples of this are Christian Bale in The Machinist and Batman Begins, where he turned himself into a real-life Billy Halleck and emaciated himself for the former and then bulked up to play Batman in the latter. As much as I would hate to be that man’s stomach during all that, I have to give credit where it’s due for pulling that off. I bring this all up because, given the majority of posters I saw of this movie before going to see it myself, this film seems to be banking on the transformative role Steve Carell has in it. One look at the barely-recognizable Carell and I can’t say I blame them. But did it pay off? This is Foxcatcher.

The plot: Olympian wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), down on his luck and jealous of his brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo)’s success, accepts an sponsorship offer from multimillionaire John Du Pont (Steve Carell) to join his wrestling team Foxcatcher. In the lead-up to the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Mark trains on Foxcatcher Farms, bonds with the rather eccentric Du Pont and before too long, Du Pont’s sinister side begins to show itself.
I’ll admit that I was reluctant about this one because I’ve seen comedic actors go outside of their comfort zones and find much derision; as much as I think The Number 23 is a decent movie, the fact that barely anyone else does pretty much ensures that Jim Carrey will never attempt something like that again. Now, as much as I would love to just come on here and scream “gimmick casting!” at the top of my lungs, or whatever the typing equivalent of that is, Carell is legitimately unsettling in this movie. He pulls a Robin Williams in Law & Order: SVU here with how well he plays against type, only he manages in a different way to Williams here. He doesn’t raise his voice so much, unlike Williams did in the most memorable scene of that episode, but instead he creates a similar feeling of dread around him through being softer and more quietly intimidating. This is made even more impressive considering, at least with how he’s written, Du Pont reminds me a lot of Mr. Burns. The way he uses other people’s success to fuel his own ego, having people forfeit in competitions against him to the same effect, right down to the shaky relationship with his mother; at a couple of points, I kept expecting him to release the hounds on Dave Schultz. However, he doesn’t descend into Burns-brand cartoonish supervillainy at any point, nor does he comes across as a caricature by any other means; Carell plays it dead straight and, through both his performance and rather alienating appearance due to the make-up work, he pulls it off.

Sure, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo are great here also, but make no mistake: This is Carell’s show and he’s making the most of it. That said, what makes this film work isn’t the actors on their own terms but rather their interactions with each other and the relationships between the characters. Mark and Dave’s relationship is remarkably well developed, getting across the animosity Mark feels for his brother as well as how much he genuinely cares about him at his core admirably. The scene where Mark loses one of his more important fights, showing his reaction to it and Dave’s attempts to console him afterwards, is easily one of the big highlights of the film dramatically speaking. Actually, if I can renege slightly on a prior statement, the other big highlight in my opinion is when Mark is seen literally beating himself up while looking in the mirror; I may rag heavily on 22 Jump Street, but Channing has come leaps and bounds when it comes to his acting in the last few years. It shows a lot in his relationship with John Du Pont as well, the other major relationship at work here. Du Pont treats Mark, basically, like his own personal golem: Puffing up his sense of self-importance and patriotism to fulfill Du Pont’s whims, solely to give Du Pont his own feeling of self-importance by proxy.

Now, with all this said and done, this movie really sounds like a great bit of crime drama. Unfortunately, one of its greatest strengths ends up being its greatest weakness. The plot has a very slow build-up to it, which admittedly works for this kind of story, but it keeps feeling like it’s going too slowly and too low-key to keep interest. There is a lot of tension that’s built during the running time but the space between the more intense moments are that down-tempo that all that build-up is sapped away before it can capitalize on any real kind of payoff. When a lot of the plot-important moments occur, like the finale and what results from it, instead of feeling like a heavy powder keg explosion from what precedes it, it’s more like a single heartbeat on an otherwise flatlining EKG; it gets back your interest in the proceedings, but only just.

All in all, this is a very well-written and acted movie with Steve Carell joining the great shortlist of comedic actors who can actually accomplish being in a more serious role. This is unfortunate, given how the film is mostly made up of scenes that played way too subtly to engage sandwiching a few really great moments. There are the trappings of a great movie in here, but as it stands it’s just okay. It’s better than The Gambler, since this has moments of genuine enjoyment that aren’t just out of clinical curiosity, but it ranks lower than Paper Planes since, as clichéd as the script for that was, it kept me properly engaged throughout. I’d recommend seeing it if only for Carell adding some range to his repertoire, but I can’t speak too highly on it overall.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Movie Review: The Gambler (2015)

Mark Wahlberg has always struck me as an actor who is extremely dependent on his directors, given how capable and incapable he can appear on screen. You give him M. Night Shyamalan and he’ll direct him to be so wooden that he makes the plastic plants he’s talking to look like the foliage in Creepshow. On the other end, hand him to someone like Michael Bay and he’ll get him to emphasize the inherent stupidity of his character and make him scary and funny in his own right. It’s a bit of a crapshoot, is what I’m saying. So, in the hands of Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes director Rupert Wyatt, what kind of Mark Wahlberg do we get here? This is The Gambler.

The plot: Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) is an English professor with a chronic gambling addiction who has to settle some debts with gambling den owner Lee (Alvin Ing) and loan shark Neville (Michael K. Williams). He goes through different avenues to try and pay it off, including borrowing even more money from his mother (Jessica Lange) and another loan shark (John Goodman), and gains the attention of his student Amy (Brie Larson) along the way, all while trying to repay his loans within the next 7 days lest he end up dead.

Thankfully, we don’t get the stiff and awkward Wahlberg this time around, to answer our opening question. Jim is characterized here as over-confident and clever while having a bit of an idiot streak, given his compulsive gambling, and Wahlberg conveys it well. He carries the stone-cold poker face during his scenes at the poker table but can dominate the room when he’s teaching at the college. Actually, his scenes in the classroom are his personal best in the film because not only does he have the most presence during these scenes but he also gets the best speeches for them as well. It’s kind of a thrill watching Jim essentially tear through Anti-Stratfordian belief and the elitism attached to it by pointing out the exceptional abilities of his own students, regardless of their socio-economic statuses. That said, he isn’t mollycoddling in how he does it as he believes that only those with abilities worthy of exception should even bother with such ventures, referring to his own middling success in novel-writing. His all-extremes view of the world show through in his approach to gambling and why he takes the risks that he does, making him the sort of layered character that I wish I saw more of in modern cinema. Yes, I know that this is a remake (Of a film I haven’t seen yet, hence why I’m refraining from any comparisons to it) but my point still stands.

I made brief mention of Wahlberg’s turn in Pain & Gain, and while he isn’t portraying that level of idiocy this time around he is still playing a character who makes dumb decisions at times. I bring this up because this portrayal is aided by the fact that, unlike far too many other films, the script is aware that Jim’s actions aren’t advisable and instead use that to build upon his character. Jim’s compulsive gambling isn’t portrayed in a very special episode way but rather as the actions of someone who with a legitimate problem that the film doesn’t make a sharpened point of lecturing him about. Jim is a person who doesn’t know when to hold ‘em or when to fold ‘em, but there is still a certain preternatural luck that surrounds his character. Throughout the film, there is a running motif of others trying to prevent Jim from making bad decisions “for his own protection”, but he refuses to listen and insists that he knows what he’s doing and how to get out of the debts he keep racking up. Maybe it’s down to some form of luck or his charisma, but he keeps managing to convince people to loan him money, be they less reputable characters or his own mother. Given his line of credit, in that he has none, that is an impressive feat given how seriously some of these people take such matters. There’s also some mentions of other forms of gambling that don’t involve money, like the risks taken in getting into professional sport or novel-writing, and the ideas presented are interesting but the film could have benefited from exploring those a bit more than the couple of scenes we actually get.

So, Wahlberg checks out, how are the rest of the cast? Mostly just okay, honestly. Brie Larson as Amy is good in her role with some decent chemistry with Wahlberg; Michael K. Williams works as the intimidating hustler and Alvin Ing does the minimum required of his typical lead gangster. The two main highlights in the cast are Jessica Lange as Jim’s mother and John Goodman as loan shark Frank. Jessica Lange interacts greatly with Wahlberg, not to mention doing one of the more aggressive bank transactions that I’ve seen. John Goodman, even with having his best moment spoiled by the trailer, makes for the only performance here that could (and sometimes does) surpass Wahlberg’s. The whole ‘fuck you’ speech from the trailer was what drew me to this film in the first place, but there’s a certain air to it that it gains within the context of the film, helped in no small part by Goodman’s low and dangerous tone.

All in all, this is an okay film. Wahlberg is saddled with a director capable of getting a good performance out of him, combined with an interestingly written character for him to portray, and the further writing and supporting cast all work as well. However, in terms of entertainment value, this works better as a film to be examined and dissected rather than something to be purely enjoyed. It’s better than Unbroken, as the writing is more uniform here and works better because of it, but it falls short of Foxcatcher, which had stronger overall performances from its cast. I don't like this strongly enough to give that big of a recommendation, but I don't object to seeing it in any way.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Movie Review: Selma (2015)

It forms a lump of coal in my stomach to admit this, but we live in a world where statements like this still need to be said: There are very few things in this world uglier than racism. The actions people will commit under the flag of protecting one’s own ethnicity against all others can enter into the truly stomach-churning and, while we have definitely made some progress beyond our past actions, such things are still an open wound for most nations if not all. However, it is a common thought in the creative world that our darkest moments can give birth to our brightest works of art. In the last few years, especially during Oscar season, we’ve gotten the lion’s share of film exploring racial themes: 12 Years A Slave, The Butler, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, not to mention the numerous war movies set in World War II like Fury and The Monuments Men; most of which are well-done or at the very least well-intentioned. Given how today’s film falls along similar lines, let’s see just how bright this turns out if at all; this is Selma.

The plot: Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) is an activist fighting for the right of African Americans to vote, setting up a march from the Alabama town of Selma to the state capital of Montgomery to further the cause. With Governor Wallace (Tim Roth) doing all he can to stop him, President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) being non-committal in helping him and racists threatening him, his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) and his children, King is determined to carry out his plan while still holding true to his stance of non-violence.

Dr. King might well be one of the charismatic leaders in American history, if not the world, so the actor chosen to play him would have to be able to imbue the role with the strength and presence needed to sell it. Enter David Oyelowo, who fills those shoes like they were tailored just for him. If I was to gauge my expectations of his performance on the last role I saw him in, which was as Louis Gaines in the well-acted but heavy-handed The Butler, I would have been gearing myself up for disappointment. However, when Oyelowo is giving his many speeches on screen, you easily buy that this is a man who could and did lead thousands of people on those marches. The film is, admittedly, hurt by the fact that the studios didn’t have the rights to any of Dr. King’s historical speeches, so unfortunately we don’t get to hear Oyelowo talking about his dreams. However, Ava DuVernay did a great job at crafting speeches for him that carry on with the soul of Dr. King’s originals and, while they may not be as stirring as the real thing, they are just that good that they don’t need to be. Hearing Oyelowo shouting to his audiences with the passion, intensity and emotional resonance that he does here, fulfilling his role as a preacher without being preachy, it lights that fire in the belly like only truly great orators can.

It doesn’t hurt that Oyelowo is assisted by a decent supporting cast. Tom Wilkinson, regardless of the historical discrepancies surrounding how he is written here, does well at portraying the political tightrope his character has to walk whilst having great on-screen chemistry with King. Carmen Ejogo is written as the supportive wife here, admittedly, but she handles her dialogue well in showing her support for King’s work but also her worry over the threats that are resulting from it. Tim Roth is seriously good in his role, perhaps a little too good as he creates a portrait of a properly despicable bigot that hides behind deflecting his responsibilities. He is a lot like Kevin Sorbo in God’s Not Dead in his ability to create disgust in the viewer, and I mean that as a compliment; as bad as that movie was, Kevin Sorbo did well with the strawman caricature he was given. It helps that Wallace isn’t written solely as a cardboard target and Roth never plays him as such, but that itself is both a good and a bad thing: good, because the role is made believable through both the dialogue he’s given and the performance he gives; bad, because the reason why the dialogue is believable is that it echoes a few too many sentiments that are still being said today. Nevertheless, he is a great antagonist here and the fact that all four of these actors are British isn’t even noticeable as they each have the convincing accents down pat. Of course, there’s also the rather uncomfortable feeling that comes with the mostly-black cast here; how often do we actually get to see this many black actors in a single movie nowadays?

Given how Brad Pitt is listed as an executive producer and Oprah Winfrey is part of the supporting cast, I was initially expecting this to descend into either soul-crushing but empty morbidity like 12 Years A Slave or heavy-handed mediocrity like The Butler. Thankfully, this is another one of those times where my pig-headed pessimism is proven wrong. The racial themes explored in the writing have an arc and purpose behind them aside from simply showing scenes of racist (and often self-destructive) behaviour. This is helped by the wise move to isolate the film’s plot to just one pivotal event, rather than trying to provide an overview of all of Martin Luther King’s actions which could have left the film feeling bloated and/or rushed. Instead, the film is given the opportunity to take its time, build up the sufficient pathos for the events that take place and, by film’s end, leave the audience on a satisfactory and triumphant note. The racist acts we see on screen, like the police brutality of the Bloody Monday march, are unpleasant to put it sickeningly mildly but they are at least leading to something and a very poignant something at that. Given the current racial and political climate, specifically in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting, this film’s message couldn’t have been better timed.

The soundtrack here fits perfectly with the action on screen, and you know it has to be good when this is one of the few reviews where I’m actually taking time out to mention it at all. While it does go for the Oscar-standard orchestral swells during some dramatic moments, the music mostly sticks to more folk and bluesy numbers that add greatly to both the setting and the tone of the film. And then there’s Glory by Common and John Legend, which not only highlights how timely this film’s release is but also multiplies the conquering tone of the story through Legend’s piano-driven instrumentation and Common’s socially conscious lyricism that he has built a very stable reputation for.

All in all, this isn’t simply a good film. Don’t get me wrong, it most certainly is a good film given its strong cast lead by a commanding David Oyelowo, powerful writing and great soundtrack, but this gives the feeling not just of quality but of actual importance. This isn’t a film along the lines of 12 Years where the bleak tone chokes the life out of what works about it; this has a more triumphant note, showing the actions of a man who wanted his people to be heard as equally as all others. It ranks higher than Still Alice, as the excellent lead performance here is bolstered by better writing, but it falls short of Wild, where the production took more risks and made for a more stimulating experience. This is a must-watch, no doubt about it.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Movie Review: Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)

‘Mark Millar’ and ‘movie adaptation’ have a very odd relationship with each other: While the films adapted from his work are mostly good, they take a lot of liberties with the source material. Kick-Ass, through its re-writing of Big Daddy's character, completely shifted the tone of the film and made it a lot less bleak which actually worked to the film’s benefit; Wanted, save for the main character’s abilities and backstory, has pretty much nothing else to do with the original book, a definite shame given its initial premise. Since Millar and director Matthew Vaughn struck gold before with Kick-Ass, it would make sense that he would also bring his book The Secret Service to the big screen. It doesn’t hurt that Vaughn was co-plotter on the original book as well. This is Kingsman: The Secret Service.

The plot: Out of respect for an agent that saved his life, Galahad (Colin Firth) enlists the agent’s son Eggsy (Taron Egerton) as a recruit in the super-spy organization Kingsman. As Eggsy goes through his training under the watchful eye of Merlin (Mark Strong), billionaire tech-whiz Mr. Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) sets a sinister plan in motion that he believes will save the world.

This is another case like Kick-Ass where Vaughn and Jane Goldman managed to isolate the best parts of the original comic, improve upon them and, in turn, surpass its source material. An interesting notion considering that, aside from having a couple of really good concepts, it is definitely one of Millar’s less engaging works. The writers took an idea at the core of the original, the idea of the James Bond brand of super spy and his place in the real world, and managed to inject some superb subtext into it that shows a lot of respect for its forebears. This film is a big sloppy kiss to the cheek of the genre, taking great jubilation out of sending up the more prevalent clichés of the genre. What makes this work even better is that it avoids the pitfall that a lot of other spoof-ish films fall into: Succumbing to the very clichés it’s making fun of. When this film makes fun of the trope of the villain explaining his plan to the hero as a means to gloat over his own ‘genius’, it follows through with it along with everything else it pokes fun at and practices the doctrine that it preaches. Beyond flexing its genre-savvy muscles, the writing also has no qualms with poking the hornet’s nest of modern-day politics, citing the usual cry of politicians only ever caring about re-election, as well as a not-so-subtle jab at the more hate-mongering religious groups out there through a fairly obvious Westboro Baptist proxy. I don’t know why, but those jokes still haven’t gotten old yet.

The cast here all do a fantastic job playing these very animated characters. Colin Firth oozes class from every pore with his portrayal of Galahad, spouting off his cheesy and serious line with equal Connery-brand confidence that sells them; I doubt anyone else could make a McDonald’s-based one-liner sound as good as he does here. Taron Egarton, despite Firth getting top billing for name recognition I'm assuming, has the kind of presence and charisma of a star in the making, playing Eggsy’s chav and posh sides with equal ease. Mark Strong is very engaging as the tough but well-meaning Merlin, keeping up the rest of the cast in terms of wit and badassery and on occasion surpassing them. Michael Caine, who could probably have played this role in his sleep and still made it work, does well in his authoritative role as Kingsman's leader Arthur. Hanna Alström, despite her relatively smaller role in this film, plays a large part in one of the funniest exchanges in the whole movie and why it worked as well as it did. Sofia Boutella, playing the villain's right-hand henchwoman Gazelle, pulls off the physicality of her role with ease and puts her previous experience as a dancer to surprisingly good effect in the fight scenes. Sophie Cookson, playing what could have easily devolved into a stock romantic interest with Roxy, holds her own amongst the others with spunk to spare. To round it off, Sam Jackson as Valentine lives up to one of the film’s quips about how the old Bond flicks were only ever as good as their villain with a certain nuance missing from a lot of antagonists in films of late, not to mention managing to make a very pronounced lisp not sound forced and work as part of the character.

Despite my discussion of the effort put into the writing and paying its respects to the spy films of old, this is still another example of Vaughn’s bombastic style: The main purpose of this is to let Rule Of Cool reign supreme. The film opens on a terrorist base being blown up to the opening riff from Dire Straits’ Money For Nothing with some pretty cheap CGI rubble forming the opening credits. It is here that the grinning started and it didn’t leave my face for the entirety of this film. From the bombastic fight scenes to the sly wit of the dialogue, this shows a pretty hefty triumph of style over substance. Not to say that this has no substance to it at all, as I dare say that the more dramatic moments are handled well by our cast; just that you can tell where the emphasis has been placed. The action scenes show the kind of over-the-top ultraviolence that Tarantino has wet dreams over, when he’s not indulging in his foot fetish porn that is, with a lot of flashy and pretty grisly brawling that makes great use of more athletic movements to create fights that are real spectacles to behold. The camera work and editing may be a bit too hectic for some viewers, but thankfully this film knows where and when to place its fight scenes and doesn’t blow its load too early at any point. When this film gets into its stride on the action, like in the church brawl or the massive fire fight at Valentine’s base, it’s an orgy of carnage candy. True, due to the nature of the story and the villain’s plan, some of the fight scenes have a pretty grim undertone to them, but it’s that overblown that it is easy to overlook if it becomes too uncomfortable. I mean, it’s rare that I can get this excited over a fireworks display, but when it happens like it does in this movie it’s hard to argue with.

All in all, this is an insanely fun watch. The characters are great, the acting stays on point, the fight scenes are outstanding and the writing wears a lot of its influences on its sleeve while doing its damnedest to make them proud as well as make them laugh no matter where they lie. Given how some of my favourite films of all time are very much style over substance, I loved seeing a film accomplish it with as much panache as it does here. Purely on its entertainment value, and how well it succeeded in its stylistic endeavors, this film managed to surpass Birdman on my list. I cannot recommend this movie enough for appreciators of great action mixed with a roguish sense of humour.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Movie Review: Mortdecai (2015)

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more versatile actor working today than Johnny Depp. Yeah, he’ll have a couple of auto-pilot roles like in The Tourist with Angelina Jolie, but when he’s on-point he can transform himself on screen: Jack Sparrow, Edward Scissorhands, Willy Wonka, Ed Wood, even Guy Lapointe; say what you will about the quality of the writing for each of these roles, and it is varied between them no doubt, but these alone show the kind of range that some actors would give all their Golden Globes to get. But even the best of actors can appear in duds; how does he follow up his spellbindingly bizarre performance as Lapointe in Tusk? Time to find out; this is Mortdecai.

The plot: Charlie Mortdecai (Johnny Depp) is a faux-aristocratic art dealer on the verge of bankruptcy. His friend Inspector Martland (Ewan McGregor), in exchange for continuing to turn a blind eye to his shadier dealings as well as help scrub his financial debt, enlists Mortdecai to help recover a Goya painting that was stolen from a restorer. With the help of his manservant Jock (Paul Bettany) and the ire of his wife Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow), he sets out to recover the painting, even if he may have his own plans for it.

Immediately upon seeing Johnny Depp’s performance in the trailer, one thing sprang to the mind: British store-brand Inspector Clouseau. Not even the real Clouseau at that, but rather the Steve Martin abomination claiming to be him. I went into this film with the preconception that we were going to see a lot of unfunny upward failing, and that is exactly what we get concerning his character. He’s meant to pull off a lot of mock charm, in that he isn’t actually as clever or useful as he thinks he is but he’s still charming in spite of it, or perhaps even because of it. Here though, fake or not, he has about as much charm and likability as a bowl of curdled milk. Not that the rest of the cast do much better, though. Gwyneth Paltrow and Ewan McGregor are just average in their roles, not doing a whole lot to stand out or engage; I will admit that McGregor does get a couple of funny quips here and there, which is far more than Depp is given in this movie, and he has the right delivery to make the little good material he gets count. The biggest offence in terms of the cast, even considering Johnny Depp’s rather woeful portrayal here, is Jeff Goldblum. Yeah, Jeff “Brundlefly” Goldblum is in this movie as American art dealer Milton Krampf and he is completely wasted here. None of his awkward deliveries or adorkable qualities are on display here and he manages all of one decent line in the whole running time. This is stunt casting if ever I saw it; big pile of shit, indeed.

Easily, the standout in the cast is Paul Bettany as Jock, who is pretty damn good here. He carries his role with some decent blunt delivery of his dialogue that adds on some laughs, nice chemistry with Depp that at least makes the obvious contrast work as well as can be expected, and his fight scenes may be short but fun all the same. Hell, at times it seems like his character is self-aware and knows how crap the movie he’s in is, like when he gets very visibly irritated at a running gag of Mortdecai of asking him “Will it be alright in the end?” numerous times throughout the film. When all of this adds up together, we get a character who should have been reserved for a better film. Actually, they wouldn’t even need to go that far; just change the framing so that the focus of the story is Jock as the main character instead. As it stands, however, he is the only character worth watching in this movie.

Rarely do I see/hear a writing that is this devoid of laughter. Then again, give a man a running gag about how bad the main character’s moustache looks and it’s unlikely that he can salvage it. Well, unless your name is Edgar Wright and even then I’d be skeptical until I saw it with my own eyes. Aside from the dumb running gags, this film tries its hardest to have some witty repartee between the characters but instead it comes across more like the personification of wit put out a restraining order on the cast and crew. When The Wedding Ringer is getting more laughs than your movie, there might be a few things you have to think over as a filmmaker. Not that the sucky writing is limited to just the dialogue, however, as the plot is plodding and never latches on to the audience, instead just pulls them along for the ride like a dog on its leash. It might have helped if every scene didn’t go by the numbers depending on which characters were on-screen, but then again that is a bit beyond this film. Oh, and as an added bonus, they somehow managed to get Mark Ronson, a serious musical heavyweight in my books, and make his music sound dull to the point where I physically can’t recall a single track. At least in other films, even those far worse than this, I was able to recollect some kind of rhythm from the soundtrack. Thankfully, the rest of the world is busy focusing on Uptown Funk to even pay any attention to his work here, so hopefully no-one will notice the weaksauce at play here.

All in all, this is a bad movie by all accounts but it’s bad in all of the boring ways, in that it isn’t even worth it for the crap factor. The only thing that makes this tepid display of humour-like run-off watchable is Paul Bettany, who at least gives us some consistent entertainment either through the action scenes or the dry delivery of his lines. Fortunately, he’ll get the chance to be in something of quality later this year as he’s going to be playing The Vision in Avengers: Age Of Ultron; there is some justice in this world. As for the movie, it’s better than The Quarantine Hauntings as this at least looks like a film, but it’s not as good as Dumb And Dumber To, which legitimately gave me more laughs. I almost want to recommend this just for Bettany, but he unfortunately isn’t enough to save this thing.

As always, feel free to leave a comment below with your own thoughts on the movie.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Movie Review: The Theory Of Everything (2015)

In my now-yearly tradition of spooling through the Oscar nominees as if I gave a pea or squib about what the Academy actually thinks, this one's inclusion let loose one of the frankly uglier stereotypes surrounding the Oscars from my mind. Essentially, the story goes that the Academy is far more favourable towards films that focus on illnesses that weaken the body or the mind; anything involving a wheelchair or mental abnormalities are shoe-ins. Whether this is accurate or not, the simple fact is that these stories do connect with people; we have a capacity for sympathy, despite what the world of bro-douche-comedies may want us to think, and these films do register more with us than others. Add to that how the subject is one of mankind's most unique scientific voices and then it hits harder. Is this just simple Oscar bait? Only one way to find out: This is The Theory Of Everything.

The plot: Following Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne)’s tenure at Cambridge University as he prepares his thesis on black holes, he meets his future wife Jane (Felicity Jones) at a party and the two hit it off. As Stephen is diagnosed with motor neuron disease and his body begins to weaken, Jane stands by his side and supports him in his effort to continue his study of the universe and how it all began.

As someone who frequents the world of internet snark about films, I have heard many a joke about comparing particularly wooden performances to Microsoft Sam. So, with that brand of cynicism coursing through my thoughts, I was initially skeptical about how exactly Eddie Redmayne would portray Hawking and how he would be written as a character. Bear in mind that I have yet to see the 2004 TV movie Hawking with Benedict Cumberbatch, so I don’t have any other portrayals to go on for this. However, within record time, Redmayne puts all of those thoughts to rest. The man does wonders in the role, pulling off the balance between his inner anguish over his debilitating illness and his famous dry sense of humour. Watching this, you could easily buy that this is the same man who had a cameo in a Monty Python live show to tell Brian Cox that he was overthinking the Universe Song. In the first act, Redmayne is pretty adorkable, channeling Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor by way of Hugh Grant. Actually, that feels somewhat lampshaded here given the surprising amount of Doctor Who references found here: From a sudden namedrop during a dinner party to the frequent mentions of time travel to showing Hawking at home going “Exterminate! Exterminate!”, whether the comparison was intended or not, it was kind of glorious to see on screen for a die-hard Whovian like myself.

As Hawking’s illness debilitates his body further and further, this could have very easily turned into pantomime given the boundless supply of Hawking parodies we’ve seen in the last several years. But Redmayne, with the help of some very humanizing dialogue, gives the role the dignity and heart that is required to sell it on screen. The biggest contributor to this in the writing department is the wise decision to keep Hawking’s sense of humour intact. Hawking is well known for not taking himself too seriously in the real world and is perfectly willing to take the piss out of himself, and the script here shows that well with quite a few good jokes and funny character moments that help add to the emotional drama of the proceedings. Just as an example of this, there is an exchange between Hawking and his roommate Brian that is, essentially, a joke about how Hawking’s ‘equipment’ works and how he is able to have children. Through the performances, the conversation stays on the side of jocular without descending into nastiness of tone or subject matter.

Now, to discuss Jane Hawking and it is here that the chinks in the production’s armour start to show themselves. Not to say that Felicity Jones is bad in her role, far from it, but rather this concerns how the script was adapted from Jane’s memoirs about her life with Stephen. This film has a feel that we are seeing Stephen through Jane’s eyes, both in and out of the film’s reality, which admittedly isn’t a bad thing. Rather, the issue I take with this are the moments that focus solely on her, specifically on her and her relationships in-story. Later on in the film, we meet Jonathon (Charlie Cox) and, while we do see a relationship grow between them, it feels like the writer Anthony McCarten is holding back. There are a lot of scenes concerning her and Jonathon that don’t firmly establish anything but just come across like McCarten is treating any possibility of an affair with kid gloves. Sure, this makes some level of sense considering we are, again, watching a film slanted towards her point of view, but that purported need to not commit to the juicier details of the relationship hurt this film somewhat. Maybe it was out of a want not to gain the ire of the real-life Hawkings, but it detracts from the film nonetheless. Hell, even Stephen’s relationship with his second wife, Elaine, is treated with a lot of Vaseline lens and kind of glossed over with only the bare minimum of details included. Now, this might not seem like that big an issue since this is a film focusing on Stephen Hawking… except, at least partially, it isn’t. It is being marketed, and written now that I think about it, with emphasis on the relationship between Stephen and Jane, and without proper inclusion of the less pleasant details, I can’t help but think that this isn’t being completely honest about its subject matter.

On a minor note, or relatively minor given what I’ve just mentioned, the visuals at work here could have used some work. There is a running motif throughout the film of winding back the clock, coinciding with Hawking’s own goal of learning what happened at the beginning of time, and for the most part it’s done okay. We see a lot of spinning and swirling images which add to it, and even some of the other shots look gorgeous like when Hawking looks at his fire through a hole in his jumper. However, it feels like more could have been done with the visuals, especially considering what we see the filmmakers are capable of doing. The winding clock imagery is still good, don’t get me wrong, but much like the focus on the relationships of the characters it feels like the filmmakers are restraining themselves.

All in all, this is a drama in the same vein of Still Alice where the main performance is what anchors the film, although this time around the writing also does well at complimenting the actors to breathe humour and heart into the production to give extra punch to the rather tragic story of one of our foremost scientists. Eddie Redmayne managed to negate all mockery that is come before him and deliver a portrayal of Hawking that is amazingly accurate to the man himself. Supported by a great cast and some eye-catching visuals, this is a very good watch even if it feels like it’s holding out on us at times. It’s better than American Sniper, as I definitely connected more with the main character here, but it falls short of Still Alice, where the more dramatic moments hit harder for me personally. This is worth checking out for Redmayne’s portrayal alone, but worth sticking around for the witty writing; it may be Oscar bait but that shouldn't detract from seeing it.